17 Jun 2021

James Davies: The Edge of the Orison 2

On July 20th 1841 the poet John Clare decided to ‘escape’ the asylum in The High Beech in Epping Forest, Essex, where he was interned, some 100 or so miles away from his beloved home in the village of Northborough, just outside of Peterborough and go home. He trudged the distance without food or money, sleeping rough – it took him four days. His journey is detailed in his diary Journey out of Essex. In 2000 Iain Sinclair also walked Clare’s route – with some minor changes – documenting it in his excellent book The Edge of the Orison – the phrase ‘The Edge of the Orison’ is taken from Clare’s writings. The diary below records a similar walk that I took with my friend Paul Tuffin between 19-23 October 2019.

 

Day one (Shenfield to Welwyn Garden City) 19/10/19
Saturday. The day is good to wake up to.

Last night I travelled down to London (and then onto Shenfield) from Manchester on the Virgin train, excited about the trip. It’s important to take a good yet easy read on these trains, a novel maybe (I usually take a couple for insurance, depending on what mood I’m in). Rocked to sleep by the speed and the heat in the carriage, the journey can be long if you’ve taken the wrong book. My bag is full – a trip in the winter and I’ve packed everything, for every possible outcome – hence I only have space for one thin book. I’ve taken the essays of Thoreau. Wrong choice. The first Civil Disobedience is ploddy to my ears, a historical document. Maybe it’s the train and the anticipation of the beer in Shenfield. For the first time ever I’ve downloaded a podcast: a six-part play about the KLF called How to Burn a Million Quid. So I listen to that instead. It’s funny and quaint, fitting for the trip, working at a meta-level with KLF’s connection to Sinclair (through his friendship with Bill Drummond) and their fondness for psychogeography. Mise en abyme, ‘ghosts’ as Sinclair says.

After walking from Euston to Euston Square I board the Hammersmith line to Liverpool Street and cram in a bit more of the KLF play. I’m conscious how everyone on trains is always plugged into their phone in one way or another, and don’t want to slip into that pattern – I hope it’s just because I’m not keen on the Thoreau. At Liverpool Street I see that there’s an early train to Shenfield, which I run for, jump on. Then I tune back into How to Burn a Million Quid for another twenty minutes.

At Paul’s the beers are drunk and there’s the mandatory banter about how we’ve bitten off more mileage than we can chew. We take it easy on the boozing and set the alarms for 6.30.

As I said, the Saturday is good to wake up to since the journey has already started to take shape. It’s bright and crisp also. We begin the walk. Our packs seem too heavy considering the distance.

From Paul’s flat it’s maybe three quarters of a mile down to Shenfield train station. Every step counts towards the experience but also adds to the potential chance of failure. One or two false steps on today’s journey and we’ll add two or three miles, and that may be bad for morale.
We’re bound for Loughton via Stratford on the Central line. In Loughton a sign says one and a half miles to High Beech where Clare’s asylum was. That of course is where the real walk begins. Spirits are high, but even on the first day – a short one at twenty miles or so – the journey seems daunting.

High Beech, part of Epping Forest, is full of joggers and is a small wood nowadays. All of a sudden we’re in Enfield, where Clare made his wrong turning. We look out of place with our huge packs. It’s hot and we take off our jumpers. I’m wearing a football top – great for walking. Paul is surprisingly wearing a clubbing T-shirt, that Liesbeth has bought him, and looks somewhere between John McVie on the back cover of Rumours and Fat Boy Slim ‘giving it’.

We take the London Loop path, west through Enfield. By twelve o’clock we’re only just out of Enfield. The first miles are some of the hardest on the walk. You need to get them out of the way, build up stamina and momentum. Concrete is also a hard way to begin a journey. We wait till we’re just outside of Enfield to have lunch, near some posh riding school. We read JC’s London versus Epping Forest and Woodland Walk, both written while at High Beech. We march through Goff’s Oak and Bayford, renaming it Jeepland. Why have three vehicles when you can have six? After powering on we’re eight miles away from Welwyn Garden City – our first resting place. Clare made it to Stevenage on the first day but that looked too much for us. We stop six miles or so outside of WGC near Hertingfordsbury. There’s a pub there. Paul’s not keen on the twenty or so people dressed up as gamekeepers at the bar. He wants to sit in the garden away from them. He goes out. I order the drinks.

Further north than anticipated, we hit WGC at the top. It’s something like 6.30 and WGC feels big. Turns out Paul used to live in Welwyn Garden City for six months for a short period when he was moving out of St Albans, before he moved to Shenfield. Endless concrete, no people to be seen, all the roads look the same. Roundabout after roundabout we get to has signs in all directions town centre – all signs for cars. Lots of cycle lanes – none of them used. WGC would be entirely depressing if we were here under other circumstances. But the day has been magnificent and the kiddyland architecture of the Premier Inn – our stop for the night – is highly appealing to tired legs. Entering the place the receptionist grins and continues to do so throughout our conversation – Steve Coogan got it exactly right in Alan Partridge. She tells us that we can eat at the Beefeater next door at 8.30. We’ve arrived at 7.45. That’s fine. I get some drinks from the tank over the road whilst Paul caresses his feet in our crib. After our beers in our room we walk to the Beefeater, a little tired but nothing more. It’s rammed. The whole of WGC has driven here for their Saturday night out. Couples dressed up too much, in their forties and fifties, old folks looking for ‘affordable luxury’. We munch and drink then go back to our rooms, watch the football. We need to be up again at 6.30.

 

Day Two (Welwyn Garden City to Potton) 20/10/19
Day two starts in glorious concrete again. Welwyn Garden City is quieter than ever at 8 o’clock. Nobody is out – no joggers, no dogs. We walk the couple of miles back up north and then onto the pretty villages outside. First Trewin, then Bull’s Head where ‘This Sunday Chunk serves ________ of the day on the carvery’. I have only vague memories of the villages beyond – Datchworth, Hooks Cross, Walkern, Hickman’s Hill, Bygrave, Ashwell, Dunton, Sutton – all very pretty.

Starting behind Chunk’s pub there are lots of paths that channel along the back of houses, each decorated with surveillance cameras and seven-foot wooden fences that block out the owners’ view of the fields.

It’s in the village of Walkern where we stop for lunch. Walking up the road traffic is stuck in jam. It’s a two lane road but cars are parked choc-a-bloc on either side turning it into a one laner; cars are going in both directions. Through it’s open window, a Ford Escort blares Led Zeppelin Three to our delight. And as the jam’s so long we hear almost the whole of Immigrant Song as we walk up the road to a shop. There’s a playground in Walkern where we eat and patch up our wounds. Skin’s starting to shift now and rub. Red Bull gets bought, Lucozade and chocolate.

With sugar and taurine charging our blood we cross the Old North Road, a patch where it’s reasonably quiet and where there is pavement access to Huntingdon Racecourse, located in Brampton. There are various ways through this area and we go for the one that looks the nicest, but inevitably the path’s not there. Has the racetrack removed it? Bumbling at five in the evening is draining but there’s something wonderfully apocalyptic about the quiet lushness of the empty racecourse.

Around Baldock we pass by a model aircraft club. They fly their planes one at a time on a big strip that runs parallel to the A505. We cross the main road on a footbridge and read Clare poems on the other side.

Near Ashwell we walk across the trainline into a tilled field that has no obvious footpath, full of small potatoes all going to waste. And then cut west to Dunton (a drag on an endless path) followed by further road walking, which goes on and on in the dark. Shattered close to Potton, where Clare stopped but found no rest, we enter a wood on the outskirts. It feels like the woods in Twin Peaks – our headlamps and breath in the dark create Lynchian light. Finally, we arrive in Potton; we’re in The Coach House. A nice old hotel and pub. Paul tends to his wounds in the room and soaks his feet in cold water. It was about thirty-two miles today. I go down to the pub for a pint. After that we’re off to the Ek Raj. The food is good and we sink two bottles of white wine like it was water.

 

Day three (Potton to Woodswalton) 21/10/19
Breakfast is included in this place. We’re glad to get out of our room – it smells like a football changing room. The hotel plays Fleetwood Mac and it reminds Paul of listening to Tango in the Night with his parents. We’re keen to get going but the food takes a while to come. Today is Potton to Sawtry. We go back to our room, take a shower, pop ibuprofen, bandage up. Our feet are now starting to ache. Two more hard days, yet also two days left to savour.

First up is the Everton Road and then towards two fantastic paths: a roman road and The Ouse Valley Way. The roman road leads to St Neots. Huge flat fields, like God’s rug has been tossed from the sky. Sometimes they’re filled with turnips, other times just mud; this is the chief landscape of the trip. Amazing empty spaces, reminiscent of the big beach spaces in Ulverston.

St Neots is our lunch-stop today on another huge twenty-eight mile walk. At St Neots we’ll have covered eleven miles by 12 pm. That leaves a lot to do. In the run up to St Neots, with rain threatening, we cross Abbotsley Golf Course – happily abandoned, resembling the landscape for Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker. We get to St Neots for twelve-ish. The outskirts are grim. In the middle of town the buildings have the feel of Cambridge, but a Cambridge that’s seen better days. It’s the shops – their chain shop signs are so ugly. I go to look for food that isn’t houmus and bread again, resulting in us spending too long on our lunchbreak. Once more we paste our feet with blister plasters. Some hobbling now. We’ve got Deep Heat on too for good measure. It’s 1 o’clock and we set off in search of the Great Ouse Way. Seventeen miles to go until Sawtry.

Google maps, which I keep checking for distances, sets a pace of three miles an hour. If we manage that pace we’ll get to The Elephant and Castle pub in Sawtry before eight. I march down the river Ouse. Paul jogs behind, reckons he can’t walk that fast as he’s got a shorter stride. His navigation has been brilliant – never a wrong turn which has been a lifesaver and suddenly it feels like Sawtry’s not too far away. We’re quieter now with eight miles to go. The weekend’s main topics of JC, Iain Sinclair, Philip K. Dick and climate change wait for tomorrow again. It’s getting dark and I’m concerned about the pub. Is it in Sawtry? Sawtry is tiny. Maybe it’s just around Sawtry. We look up our records from Booking.com. It is in Sawtry according to the booking but when we look it up on Google maps it turns out it’s in Woodswalton, which is closer than Sawtry but going pretty much east instead of going north; that’ll add to our journey tomorrow. Nevertheless, these last bits are easier now that we know tonight’s terminus is closer (because of the change of destination) and also because of the ever approaching promise of food.

The pub sends Paul a text to say that tonight they can provide us with Chinese food but we’ll need to arrive before nine – curious. I call ahead to see what it could mean. The lady on the phone has a foreign accent and I assume that she’s Chinese. Maybe the pub is also a Chinese restaurant? When Paul went to use the toilet in Walkern’s boozer it turned out it had been converted into a Chinese restaurant, it’s a small trend round the UK, so maybe the Elephant and Castle is the same. She will send us a jpeg menu to his phone and we can call back and order; if we’re not there by nine they will heat it up for us. Ok. Sounds fine. The menu comes through. Minimal swanky feel to it. Six dishes. None of them vegetarian. I phone to ask if any of the dishes can be made as vegetarian. ‘Can they?’ I hear her ask the chef. After some negotiation it turns out they can. I order Paul a chicken chow mein and also two vegetable dishes to share: a pad chai and a satay, as well as some vegetable spring rolls to start.

With our headlamps on we walk a quiet road for the final two miles, occasionally jumping into the verge as a juggernaut passes. We arrive at The Elephant and Castle in good time for food, about eight. The landlady, it turns out, is Romanian and so is her husband, the chef. They’re trying out a new Chinese menu to entice people from the villages around. Our heads aren’t really straight enough to take in that notion. They’re very nice and friendly and we’re shown to our room, which is out the back in the carpark – portable sheds made to look like chalets. We take wine and beer from the bar, and the food will be brought to us after it is cooked. When it comes, our food is presented to us in brown takeaway bags containing aluminium trays, with throwaway chops-sticks and napkins. First out is the veggie spring rolls – they’re lamb. Paul’s chicken chow mein is chicken but the dish is not chow mein – just chicken and noodles. The vegetable pad chai and satay are identical sauces. It all comes with boil in the bag rice. The pad chai and satay food tastes fishy, literally. We deduce that maybe the chef used pre-made prawn pad chai and took out the prawns. We’re too tired to care though, pick out bits and leave most of it.

 

Day Four (Woodswalton to Helpston) 22/10/19
When we wake up in the morning and leave, we see that there are around ten chalets in the carpark. Workmen in hi-vis jackets come out of them as if it’s their accommodation. It’s strange to see in a little picturesque village. This set up has the feel of the plant nursery in Clacton where Paul and me worked one summer, where they’d bus in workers and pay them poor wages, cash in hand.

Throughout the morning we had talked ourselves out of doing the last day. Our feet are full of popped blisters and there is still twenty-six miles to go. At the same time we know it is just twenty-six miles left out of one hundred or so; it would be wrong not to complete. After all Clare did it sleeping rough, eating grass and with broken shoes. Spirits in some ways are not as high as previous days but we’ll be ok once we get going. The views are so good as soon as we hit the fields. One foot at a time, across tilled grainy mud to begin with. One mile at a time – ‘One foot goes down, one foot in front of the other. Keep it simple’ as Karl Hyde sings in Holding the Moth, a tune about another twelve hour movement experience – nightclubbing.

After these fields we walk through Fen Land until Sawtry. Just past Sawtry at Moorhouse will be lunch and after that fourteen miles to go. Just grit our teeth, drink the Red Bull, the Lucozade and pop the ibuprofen. We go past many big grand farmhouses all of which look like perfect sets for the family hatred-themed film Festen.

We’re close to Moorhouse. I’m marching on. I’m concerned that if we go too slowly we might just give up. Paul is desperately hungry, or maybe just out of energy, and, with confused exhaustion, accidentally takes us into Folksworth (the wrong way) for a mile. We do a mile lap of a field in order to get back on track. Each step really hurts and we never seem to be getting any closer. There’s a feeling like hallucinating to the walking now, the obvious cliché is ‘like sleepwalking’.

We stop in a farmer’s field just before Moorhouse. Have lunch and take stock. It’s too hot for late October. The food does us some good. Paul has got his orientation back. We take some pictures, then walk through pumpkin fields; a crop grown solely to be used as lanterns it looks like. There’s a shop at this farm. Cars drive in with their kids for half-term amusement.

Leaving the pumpkin farm and shop we head towards the A1 – The Great North Road that Clare took. Paul shows me the path on the map where we’ll cross the road – a tiny dotted line across the motorway. Ok. There are no footbridges on the map anywhere else, no tunnels; the roads which fork off are turnings for trucks to drop off their loot, not for pedestrians. The path towards the motorway runs out and we walk parallel to the A1, trespassing through the monoculture, towards the tiny dotted footpath; fields roped off by electric fences.

And after a while there it is, the gate and a metal pole says FOOTPATH, exactly as the map said. But it’s not really a path in the sense that it can be walked, just an arrow. You’d need to sprint across the motorway and dodge cars like a superhero. Do we cross the A1 by sprinting and taking our chances? It’s a relentless three-lane carriage-way on both sides with a fence in the middle, and a ditch in the middle of that fence. We’d have to figure out a time to sprint, when there’s a minor gap in the traffic – that may be possible. After sprinting we’d need to jump the fence in the middle (as stepping over it would end in us being splattered all over the road). We contemplate crossing. Even if we did get to middle we’d have to then wait again until there was some sort of break in traffic for a second time (there is no obvious break in traffic ever, just some patches less busy than others). It’s a death wish. Too dangerous. We reject it.

Now we need to think, and it’s hard as we’re lightheaded from our travails. Trying to solve the problem I recall that Clare got picked up in Werrington, a nearby village to Northborough. We’re ending up in Helpston (his childhood home), three miles from Northborough, and if we could get a lift across the road to Upton we would share parallels with this part of his journey. So we decide it’s time to play our clinamen and try and get a taxi from a pub we’ve spotted on the map, a mile up the A1 in Sibson. Clinamen – the term that the Oulipo use for a deliberate fault in a writing system, used in order to make the project magic. It’s similar to the principals of the Japanese philosophy of wabi sabi which believes that imperfection is essential for mindful, pure thinking. We can get a taxi across the 50 metres of the A1 to Upton. After picking us up at Sibson the taxi will have to go some two-three miles west and then some two-three miles east just to make the short journey of 50 metres that we want to go north, just over the road.

We carry on parallel to the A1 on the edge of the field. Paul is not keen on busting into the pub’s garden through a hedgerow so we go onto the hard shoulder of the A1, and walk next to the road just behind the barrier, through nettles – minor stings to stay away from juggernauts. The Sibson Inn Hotel, which from a distance looks shutdown, is open! We go in for a coke and a Guinness and ring our taxi. It’ll come at 4.30 to take us to Upton – four miles away from Helpston. It’s in our reach now.

It feels strange being in a car after all the walking. We drive supersonic. Looking out at the signs I notice that the driver has gone past the sign for Upton. We query him. He’s on his way to Ufford. What are the chances of two villages beginning with ‘U’ being so close together? We turn back. We are on the Helpston Road and seem to be driving ever closer to Helspton so we ask him to turf us out lest we arrive in Helpston by car. The road is quiet. We ask a jogger where Upton is and he motions us back down the road, ‘left at the junction’. The sun is resplendent in full glory. It is bliss. We are four miles away, and feeling the connection with Clare and what he stands for, stronger and stronger.

It’s east through some farms until we get to Clare’s beloved Simon and Oxey Woods. I’ve got the shivers from dehydration and exhaustion. We’ve both got blisters, me especially at the heels where I’m bleeding, but at this stage it’ll be best just to get there and sort ourselves out. Then suddenly we’re on Heath Road – the heath the subject of so many of his poems! And suddenly there’s Clare’s childhood cottage where he use to hide poems written on butter wrappers in the cracks in the walls so his parents wouldn’t find them! Then there’s The Bluebell where he used to work and drink! It’s our final stop.

We get our keys for the room. It’s camomile tea and hot chocolate first. We slowly take off our wet boots and socks and plasters that have become part of our skin. I go to the shower first. The water’s good but burns at my heels. I’m still shivering. I need to wear my woolly hat and coat to stay warm.

Paul gets showered and then we go to the bar. To celebrate, we take a Trelawny beer and also the most expensive brandy they have. A guy at the bar wants company and is interested in our yarn; he’s a landscape gardener. It’s nice to finish our trip in this way by telling our tale. So far, whenever asked about what we’re doing we’ve lied or just said ‘going for a walk’ – too complicated to explain. These people in the pub stand in Clare’s shadows, doing his former professions: one a student barmaid, the other a gardener. We’re the only people eating in the pub. We play Yatze and Boggle and drink two or three more drinks (Paul moves onto dark rum and coke). Time for sleep now. We take a final rum and a brandy back to our room and listen to Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time on Middlemarch. After twenty minutes or so we’re both fast conked.

 

Day Five (Helpton to Manchester/Shenfield via Peterborough) 23/10/19
I’m restless from about five o’clock in the morning and awake. Itchy and stinging feet are keeping me from slumber. I read the news on my phone to pass the time – so horrible. Its style and some of the stories it covers are so perverse. Must avoid it. It takes a long while for eight o’clock to come. We go for breakfast in The Bluebell. We have about two hours before the bus comes for Peterborough. After we sort out our stuff in our rooms we go to Clare House. It’s shut, and we knew that, but I suggest we go and see the statue. As we are ‘breaking in’, through an unlocked gate into the garden, from behind there is a ‘can I help you?’ It’s Janet and she’s come in today to bake for the weekend. She’ll show us through to the garden. Her husband Dave is there too and he tells us about the Clare festival and takes our photo next to the sculpture of Clare – the five-foot fiddler, lover of animals and the land. In the remaining twenty minutes we go his grave and see the Clare monument at the crossroads.

The bus arrives and moves along fast until the outskirts of Peterborough, where it staggers on into the bus station. There are two hours to kill before we go to the archives in Peterborough Central Library and we decide to go to the pictures and see Joker with Joaquin Phoenix.

Then it’s onto the archives. I’m dead beat and not taking much in, apart from the aura of seeing Clare’s original manuscripts. Clare’s writing is neat but hard to read. Paul seems to be reading with more consideration. I requested about fifteen poems including my favourites Sonnet Sequence (Fox and Badger) and Double Sonnet (The Marten), which have incredible monosyllabic, polysyndetic voltas. It’s more than fantastic to see them in the flesh.

After being in the archive for about an hour we go for our respective trains, me back to Manchester and Paul back to Shenfield. I finish off the final parts of the KLF play on the train. The trip feels like it ends after the podcast’s outro music. Taking my earphones out I’ve arrived at Stockport station, no longer in Clare’s place or time.

 

 

James Davies’ latest books are the minimalist sequence Forty-Four Poems and a Volta from Red Ceilings Press and the short story The Ten Superstrata of Stockport J. Middleton from Ma Bibliothque – a translation of the first page of Philip K. Dick’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. Currently the editor of if p then q, he also edited Matchbox and co-organised The Other Room reading series. His Carcanet book stack is a list of minimalist walking performances. Find out more at www.jamesdaviespoetry.com

 

4 Feb 2012

The Shield and the Muse

2.
From Parker’s price guide for new and used cars
to ritual or not so ritual decapitation
is a hop and a click, a crick, is a frozen shoulder –
screen set back at an angle, the workbench
higher, you’re alarmed to say, ergonomically
speaking, than good or lawful. But anyway
it hurts. Yes it hurts. What you have in mind
is love, though, not murder. Certainly you’d be advised
to follow those tendrils out through the backdrop –
mackerel clouds deploying as the dawn comes up
(no end to that flummery). As long as you’re online
you can’t be, that’s how old-fashioned the set-up is
in this place. Forget regrets, flowers crushed
on the altar, a scent of somebody lying close,
their breath on the back of your hand – all of this
dissolves at the first touch, like knowledge. Is knowledge.

From SHIELD (Parthian 2010)

4 Feb 2012

The Warrior Considers The Real

There was a certain amount of muck and gore:
the lawn’s still heavy with it in the early morning.
La madrugada – it sounds like a cross
between a profane canticle and a woman walking
slowly, very slowly to her last tryst
with someone she couldn’t quite save, though she tried, she tried…
I doubt if my neighbour knew when he spread the grass
and clipped… Happily, the sun mops it dry
occasionally and he lays his towel out like a flag of leisure,
as if there was nothing missing. Reality
is like that, it doesn’t carry very far.
It isn’t too much reality we can’t bear,
but too little too soon. Some animal’s been at the binbags
again – tins, bacon-rinds: everything turns to mess
in a trice. Which is why we honour the mistaken
no less than the ones who never aspired in the first place.

From SHIELD (Parthian 2010)

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