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A Very Pagan Walk And The Unavoidable Interface Between Walking And Writing
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August is summer’s scruffy late life child, the month when the countryside, having discarded its belt in some random ditch in late July, stops making even the most perfunctory effort to tuck its shirt into its trousers. It’s a time of year I have come to associate strongly with the beautiful misfit county of Herefordshire, because - purely by chance - it’s often been a time that I’ve ended up walking there, but also because Herefordshire holds the dying days of summer kindly, as if mindful not to crush them in the way other counties with more calloused unforgiving hands often do. There is something about Herefordshire’s apple green Pagan softness that is perfectly suited to August. The case was very much the same last week when I embarked on a nine mile walk centred around the village of Kilpeck. Overwhelming sleepy green all around me. Footpaths eaten by nettles and towering corn. Branches hanging over garden walls, weighed low with tempting russets. Not another walker to be seen. I did think I spotted a couple advancing towards me at one point but then realised it was just these two donkeys, one of which gave me perhaps the most crushing side eye I’ve received since the time in 1999 that I was invited to a party in the London fashion industry by mistake.
Kilpeck is best known for its uniquely wonderful church, astonishingly well preserved since the 12th Century, which boasts several unusual and attractive corbels: structurally useful pieces of stone which often take the form of a face. Apparently some of the originals were considered improper by a Victorian lady who lived in the village and, getting carried away with the architectural cancel culture of the time, had them removed, but one Sheela Na Gig somehow escaped her censorship. Perhaps she thought it was just someone having a nice rest on top of a mollusc?
I also like what I assume is the Kilpeck Sheela Na Gig’s pet cat. who has a demented yet wry look that is probably the inevitable result of staying close by her side and enduring nine centuries of her exhibitionism.
As I admired both, I was reminded of my friend Matt’s former girlfriend Julie, who for many years misheard the bit in PJ Harvey’s song ‘Sheela Na Gig’ which goes “Sheela Na Gig, Sheela Na Gig/You exhibitionist!” as “Sheela Na Gig, Sheela Na Gig/You act suspiciously!” We and many of Julie’s other friends were tickled when Julie revealed this to us, but we had not considered that perhaps, prior to hearing the song, she had visited The Church Of St Mary And St David in Kilpeck, in which case her mistake would have been more understandable, since the Sheela Na Gig there and the Sheela Na Gig’s unhinged pet cat do indeed seem to be acting suspiciously. Certainly more suspiciously than this dog and hare who reside just around the corner and resemble the family-friendly stars of a little-known medieval production by the makers of Wallace and Gromit.
On closer inspection, the hare did look a bit troubled. Perhaps it was because its gaze was directly trained on the real deceased member of its kind I found decomposing in the field directly behind the churchyard. I did photograph the dead hare, but I won’t add it here, as there doesn’t seem much point, and I doubt it would prove to be a successful paywall bait for potential paying subscribers. If you would like to see it, just close your eyes and imagine a normal hare, but looking much dustier than normal hares and slightly like somebody has released a bung on its underside, and no longer possessing a full face.
There’s also the remains of a Norman motte and bailey castle next to the churchyard, with what I convinced myself was a strong Pagan energy and commanding views over a decent portion of Wales. Here’s a picture of it from below. I’ve framed the shot so you can’t see the lady to my left with a fancy camera who at the time was shouting to her bored-looking husband, “ROGER! Don’t piss off over there. Come and look at the corbels.” You can, however, see a pigeon, who is about to land on the gravestone of someone called Ann who died in 1913 and was married to someone called George.
As I watched this I had an idea for a short story called The Pigeon Of Kilpeck, about a man called George who is reincarnated as a wood pigeon and painfully misses his wife, who unfortunately didn’t get reincarnated as anything so he believes. I didn’t permit myself to get any further with it than that because I already have too many short stories in my head right now.
There have been a few big turning points in my writing life: being permitted in 1996 by a famous music publication to write reviews as an ill-educated member of the Nearly Northern underclass, quitting a mildly prestigious contracted job at a newspaper in 2000, quitting journalism altogether in 2015, deciding to finally write the books I really wanted to write and crowdfund them via a niche independent publisher a couple of years later. But arguably the most significant of all was the moment around the end of the first decade of this century when, after a few years of vague slothfulness, I started to walk a lot again. As soon as I did, my writing slowly began to open up and acquire more colour and depth, and - perhaps more to the point - become an infinitely more mystical and exciting process for me.
How could it not, when I walked a few miles from my front door and found stuff like this?
Admittedly, I’m a quite specific case, in that I write a lot about rural life and you can’t write well about rural life without putting yourself smack bang in it, preferably on foot, but I feel pretty sure that all books would be at least twice as good if they were written entirely during long walks anywhere. When you boil it right down, my books are essentially me trying to trap and bottle all the thoughts I’ve had on long walks then smash them into a real breathing version of the abstract shape they’ve already started to take in my head during those walks. Story or plot ideas that happen when you’re walking are a better version of story or plot ideas you have in the middle of the night, or while you’re a bit tipsy. Similarly, you think, “Oh yes, this is GOLD” at the time. The difference is that later you tend not to look back and think, “That’s actually a bit crap.” I often walk for the pure pleasure of walking, though, and I’m not always looking for inspiration when I do it. But still it inevitably arrives. In the distance here on the left, for example, you’ll see Orcop Hill, which is a few miles from Kilpeck, much much taller than it looks in a photograph, and garnished with a stand of trees that survey the landscape like a gang of haughty dragons on an old shelf. “I need to go and climb that and write a story about it!” I thought.
It was a muggy day - as it somehow always is when I walk in Herefordshire - and I reached the top of Orcop in a clammy-shirted, dehydrated state. It was then, looking towards the north-eastern shoulder of the Brecon Beacons above Hay-on-Wye, that I remembered that the ghost story writer MR James - whose name is not pronounced “Mister James”, as some assume - had beaten me to it by 98 years. His 1925 story A View From A Hill, about a pair of haunted binoculars, was directly inspired by the summit of Orcop, back when it was more commonly known as Cole’s Tump. In a letter to a friend a few years earlier, James remarked on the ancient dark flavour to the area around Kilpeck and Orcop that he had perceived and called it “a very rum place that needs careful handling”.
I still remember the first time I read A View From A Hill, via a James anthology on audiobook, and the powerful effect it had on me: I was on a walk in Suffolk at the time, in summer 2010. “I would love to see some hills, one day, somehow,” I thought, being a more timid walker at the time, and living in one of the flattest parts of the UK. I didn’t quite cotton to the fact that it was all very simple: you just look at a map, pick out a hill, drive to it, and start walking. You don’t even need Apple Pay on your phone.
Of course sometimes you also get lost on walks, especially in a quiet place like Herefordshire. You realise that you’ve totally left any rumour of a footpath behind and you’re standing in a sloping field, next to an empty can of universal tractor transmission oil. But that can be useful too, and not as boring as you once might have presumed. You write the phrase ‘Excellence In Lubricants’ in your notebook, thinking what a good title it would be for a chapter or story. Then a few minutes later you see a barn with some cool brickwork that you wouldn’t have seen if you hadn’t got lost.
Not far from Orcop Hill, at Wormelow, is one of Britain’s most unlikely museums, dedicated to the French-born undercover agent Violette Szabo, who was executed by the Nazis during World War II. It belongs to Rosemary Rigby, who has lived in it since 1963, and became interested in Szabo when she realised the house had once belonged to Szabo’s aunt and uncle, and that Szabo spent many happy days there.
Here is Violette - who was described as “a dark-haired slip of mischief” by her fellow cryptographer (and, later, scriptwriter of the film Peeping Tom) Leo Marks - recovering from an ankle injury sustained in a parachute jump.
Sadly, the museum is only open on Wednesdays, so I wasn’t able to go inside, but, having read about Szabo before the walk, I began to think a lot about the heroic sacrifice of her life - the detail, for example, that she managed to casually give birth to a daughter between working for the Women’s Land Army and learning weaponry and cryptography and playing a significant part in sabotaging German communication lines during the Normandy Landings - and by extension about other female secret agents I had been reading about, such as Nancy Wake, often known as ‘The White Mouse’, who, having been found tangled in the branches of a tree by the leader of the French resistance and told “I hope all the trees bear such beautiful fruit this year” replied “Cut the bullshit and get me out of this tree.” Soon, in my mind, like the orchards beneath Orcop Hill on the Mynde Estate, a new many-branched novel began to offer fruit: a tale set in and around Kilpeck which hopped between Victorian times, the building of the church in the 12th Century, and a community of lady resistance fighters sequestered in a quiet cottage under a hill. I became so wrapped up in it that I almost missed this impressive group of windfall sheep who had recently dropped from a tree to the left of the footpath.
And this excellent secret door in a wall, which to me resembled one of the many magical doors that walking, once again, was opening in my mind: the ones that make you see the grand interconnected scheme of everything, or make you think you see it, which is just as good, really, when you are in the moment, and just as useful, creatively.
For example, this drawing of the holy water stoup in Kilpeck church by John Piper that I’d earlier found in the 1955 Shell Guide To Herefordshire.
And the fact that Piper was an official war artist during WWII who discovered the beauty in bombed-out buildings but who also had a particular love of Herefordshire, and painted Orcop Hill. And the fact that I had been listening to recordings of ordinary rural dwellers’ recollections of the Second World War in the car earlier, via Joanna Bourke’s phenomenal Eyewitness 1900-1949 audiobook. And the fact that, as I was thinking about it all, I walked through this scene, which could easily have been a painting by a 1940s modernist.
And - though this a bit of a stretch - the two photos I had just found at my mum and dad’s house of my great grandma Ethel, long before and long after the war, and my imaginings of all that happened to her between them and my subsequent imaginings of her actually being an undercover agent, working for the SOE with Nancy Wake and Violet Szabo.
I was quite overwhelmed with it all by the end, intersecting lines forming in my brain enriched by the lush Herefordshire countryside, and that familiar need to somehow trap it all, and get it down on paper, coupled with the knowledge that the pure act of no longer being in motion would bleach the magic, but none of it making me any less excited, or any less thirsty to create stories, and fully thread the threads in my mind. Even a bedraggling detour through a cornfield and a dozen or so nettle stings after another footpath vanished couldn’t dampen my spirits as I approached the end of the walk.
But I had a problem: I’ve already started another novel, which is already close to fully formed in my head. I’m also effectively halfway through writing a new book of short stories. Then there’s the novel I’ve just finished, which I still have to edit. I don’t have room for another book in my life right now. Yet this one - like so many others I’ve conceived on long walks - seems like it would be so much fun to write.
So what do I do? Work even harder? Clone myself?
Or maybe I should just stop walking, and stop all these ideas flooding in?
Of course, I would never do that. I might have an overactive imagination, but I’m not crazy.