There is an invisible way. A path less trodden.
Not the path of the righteous, but a way of perceiving direction that leads to treasure, to unexpected beauty and secret pleasures.
I like to walk alone. On days when I’m not called to work, there is particular joy in escape. I pack food and drink, a knife, a book, rarely, a camera, and drive somewhere promising. An old wood, a set of hills far from towns, a series of meanders, somewhere I have read about, it doesn’t matter.
What matters most is the mind I take with me.
I get out of the car, put my boots on and look for the most promising direction. A gleam of sun might draw me, a group of trees, a gap in a hedge. It could be one of millions of clues, but, in the moment, there is usually something that pulls.
Last Thursday, we walked: from Combe, near Wotton-under-Edge, up and into Warren Wood, along Blackquarries Hill, into Ash Wood, followed the line of the hills, then cut down through Tyley Long Wood, then back along the plateau and sharply down, through a long abandoned farm and back to the car.
Written differently, the same journey:
The footpath led directly up and, as I was conscious of limited sun, followed it. We reached a road, but a group of trees, choked with creepers, showed a glimpse of a field shimmering brightly green. We struck upwards, her hand was snagged with briars. I put the skin to my lips. We vaulted the barbed wire and were met by a field of feed-grass that fell away to a view west towards Wales. We saw the old Severn bridge, the Black Mountains. The sun was fierce in her waning. The sky was cornflower blue. The hill led us up and back onto the road, which we followed.
Soon, a wood began to cover the slope below us. A gap in the dry-stone wall invited, we acquiesced. Strange ruins of Cotswold limestone lay beneath ashes and stands of beech. Pheasants clattered out from the undergrowth, then scurried away, heads down. Empty booze bottles, a dismembered t.v., a pair of boots, a single potato- signs of occasional purpose. We abandoned the path as it became water-logged and climbed up, then out into the fringe of a failed corn field. Buzzards mewed overhead. Following the line of the crop led to a stile, then to another field. More pheasants. A cabbage field where even more pheasants fled, one just out of my grasp. A cage of young partridge. The line of the hill ran eastward, but a gate showed a wider, deeper view and we vaulted around it.
Before us, the Severn estuary snaked below the Forest of Dean, the towers of Avonmouth blurred into Oz. The blaze of ash and beech embers drew us lower, we followed the edge of Ash Wood. A spring welled up from the side of the hill, easily forded by walking the boulders that stood alongside. We leapt between clods of turf across a swathe of mud, then took our rest on an outcrop of rough grass just at the fringe of the wood. We drank all the mulled wine from the Thermos in one sitting.
We were shown an enchanted vision of the world.
A narrow channel of vistas and diminishing perspective- visible only from here- ran out north west across the Cotswold valleys, out across the Severn towards Herefordshire and the Marches, the mountains misty at the horizon. Saving one white cottage, there was no other sign of mankind.
Drunk with fortune and fondness, warmed with wine, we delved straight down through the steep-sloped woods. We forded the stream by edging across strong, pliant boughs of hazel coppice.
The sun was failing, igniting the colours of beech leaves at the fringe of Golden Knoll Wood. We went upwards amongst sheep and rising terraces of hillside until we reached the summit, the opposite side of the valley. An executive helicopter passed close overhead as I planted a foot deep into cow shit. I would not trade my place.
At the last, a sudden, skipping descent and cautious approach toward a farmhouse. My boot crackled the electric fence. No dog. No people and, as we emerged into the courtyard, it was clear the farmhouse was long-ruined. We walked inside. An door-less pantry, a crate of empty milk bottles mottled with an even, thick film of dust. Upstairs, armchairs and a sofa watching a bare wall of brick, decades without an incumbent. The glass-less windows held a view of our journey, the valley framed and lent an air of solitude. As we left, we peered into what was once a kitchen, Corona orange juice bottles extant only barely within memory, dozens of empty pickling jars. There were other, darker places, unlit corridors leading to dank, airless spaces we daren’t even look at.
We left, crossed the bottom of the valley and found the car.
We were charmed in the rain in Wotton-under-Edge, drank gladly in The Star, returned to the city.
The way found us, we let it and were led.
I like to walk alone, but now, when she will come with me, I choose not to.