I could’ve done with a friend today. Or a dog. I walk the best part of six miles and never see a soul. Tell a lie: at one point, near nowhere, I see a chap on a bicycle. I’m busy trying to negotiate a gateway of cow poo at the time so don’t have the wherewithal to accost him. In any case, he either doesn’t see me or, alternatively, he’s spotted the hat which could explain why he’s going like the clappers along the edge of the field. I truly am Norma-no-Mates for at least two hours which makes me question the reason for walking alone in the country. Well, the reason is that no-one who’s free to accompany me will do so because they say it’s always too far. But, in the absence of a companion, and after planning tomorrow’s dinner menu, what I’m debating with myself has something to do with ‘place’.
Clearly, I have a constant desire to be outside, ‘in the air’ as grown-ups used to say when they didn’t want you indoors. And certainly I don’t mind going with me, myself and I on these expeditions. But I don’t crave constant solitude: it’s the little chats with strangers along the way that make the thing meaningful. Fossils and flints hold little sway for your narrator: discovering an interesting nugget of information from another person’s life is what inspires me to write my traveller’s logs. The photographs are by way of a contextual backdrop or an aide memoire if you like.
This morning, I head off inland to an old favourite – Badbury Rings, with a view to walking the paths behind this Iron Age hill fort that I haven’t previously traversed. Badbury Rings is the 5th in a chain of six earthworks. For the more spiritually minded, there’s a world of esotericism to be explored in the notion of links between these named sites and others such as the geomantic (and close at hand) Knowlton Church and rings which are not in the ‘official’ chain. I’m not immune to such things. I’ve dabbled in the not-so-distant past. More prosaically, many of the routes I follow are the leftovers of five Roman roads that formed an important junction outside the rings and today’s walk commences on one such old straight track that eventually embraces the Ackling Dyke. So when I say, ‘I never see a soul’, I like to think I’m amongst them.
I purposely skirt the Rings: like the chocolate caramel, I’m leaving them for last. I have to earn them by traipsing along slippery tracks that have no chance of defrosting in the foreseeable future. Had I known that the man with a dog coming in the opposite direction would be the last human being I’d see for some time, I might’ve have waylaid him. But I don’t.
I have two maps both of which I’m following the wrong way. By this, I mean I can’t usefully relate to the accompanying written instructions and as I’m in open, unmarked countryside, there’s no useful landmarks which is why I called this weasel ‘nothing to see’. There’s plenty to see in terms of open countryside and all sorts of hints that this was once an important landscape. One of my maps, which is honest enough to admit is has no sense of scale, promises two stars on Kingdown: different symbols to our beloved Ordnance Survey but I suspect they may be tumuli.
And, all of a sudden, there they are: dutifully protected by a circle of wooden markers in the middle of otherwise organised agriculture. At this point, I’m on The Hardy Way. Never heard of it and when I look it up later, I find it starts at Chesil Beach and ends five minutes away at Portland. In between, having taken the scenic route, it ambles through most of north Dorset and south Wiltshire which I feel is stretching a point or two.
Finally, I arrive at Sterley Bushes which is the mediaeval name for The Oaks; a plantation of seven hundred years old trees that have been allowed to naturally rot in order that rare beetles and fungi can prosper. In the old days, I’ve been up here on the winter solstice and hugged a tree or three whilst ancient men told even older tales in the oral story telling tradition. That’s all dead and gone now as are they to be replaced by the despicable National Trust – an organisation whose very name comprises an hideous and confusing lie.
I emerge, much later than anticipated, back on the Rings. In the summer these grasslands will be covered in thirty two varieties of wild orchid and even though there’s no colour today, I feel at ease and thankful.
After my solitary walk, I drive back into Wimborne and visit not only my favourite shop in that town, but possibly the nicest retail joint in Dorset, with the most gentle proprietor one could meet. After careful deliberation, I choose a gift for my London type friends. As ever, Alan takes a year and a day to dress the present during which time we catch up on our emotions.
The last time I saw him, just before Christmas, we were both attending a funeral the following day and we exchange thoughts. And Alan tells me how he used to be a famous costumier. I never knew this. He’d just signed a contract to do Madonna’s dresses for the film of Evita when, the following day, he had a massive heart attack. He left that life and opened his delightful shop in Wimborne. ‘I wanted to be a world away’, he says. I tell him about my walk and he laughs at me having no-one to talk with. But I don’t because I’ve just had the most interesting conversation with someone I thought I knew.