Of cabbages and kings'...sport, Part II

Trip Start May 27, 2009
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Trip End Jun 17, 2009


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Flag of United Kingdom  , England,
Sunday, June 28, 2009

Martyn had promised that we would sleep well, and we did. By the time we got down to the breakfast table and fortified ourselves with a Full English breakfast of bacon, sausage, eggs, tomatoes, and mushrooms (Claire) and toast and tea (me), we were ready for a good hike. Our only requirements were that we wouldn't have to get into the car, that we might be able to stop at a pub for lunch, and that we would spend the better part of the day walking.

Martyn was the perfect person to design our walk. He's been riding his horses over this territory for many years, and he knows the landscape like the hunt master he is (more on that and our late-night discussion of fox hunting later). Claire wrote down the directions he gave us which he complemented by lending us his ordnance survey map #117. We set out just after 10 a.m..

Our walk would take us over private roads and public footpaths, through narrow lanes, and verdant farmland, into historic pubs and Gothic churches. We walked for ten miles, but it seemed as if we had travelled back through centuries.

We'd no sooner crossed the road outside the Wooden Cabbage's driveway, when we found ourselves walking in a narrow lane through a thick patch of flowers from the family Umbelliferae. They could have been any of a number of similar plants from hogweed to hemlock, all of them with an "umbel" or cluster of whitish flowers, so I won't hazard a guess which they were, but they made a bright tunnel of the path and we were enchanted by it. (In West Marin, the hemlock is in full bloom as I write this, and seeing it takes me back to this English hike in an instant.) Buttercups were everywhere.

The path opened up onto a tiny church yard. Martyn had recommended that we go inside the church; it's the one he and Susie attend, I think, so we pulled open the door and found this lovely quiet place. While I'm not normally a church-goer, I always get religion when I'm on vacation. The parish church of East Chelborough was no exception. I prayed for all of you. The light filtered in through tall side windows and shone through the round window high above the altar where a chandelier, almost exactly like the one over my dining room table, hung.

I could have stayed a while longer, but Claire was anxious to see where our path would lead us. The joy of this walk for me was that we had long stretches where we felt we were the only people for miles around, and then we'd round a bend and find...a pub!...or a stately home!...or an idyllic village.

Melbury Osmond was one of those idyllic villages. Every house was made of stone, every stone house had a garden, and every garden was in full bloom. I think we became intoxicated by the quaintness of it all (remember that less than 24 hours before we'd been dodging busses in Hackney), and we found ourselves confused about which way to go.

Enter: kindly elderly man smoking a pipe in his rose garden. Without removing the pipe, he set us off on the right course again.

We saw a few more classic types when we stopped for lunch at the historic 16th century Acorn Inn in Evershot. Thomas Hardy called this pub The Sow and Acorn in Tess of the d'Urbervilles. It was almost 2 o'clock when we arrived, but there were still a few people having lunch. Red-and-white checked cloths topped by white linen squares covered the tables. Glasses tinkled. Conversation (with English accents) bubbled. Our lunch was expensive but tasty, delivered to us by a young woman who was ready for her shift to end. Martyn had once owned this pub, and before we left, we discovered a photo of him on the wall in the back room where we whispered to his picture that the service was prickly...our only complaint of the day.

And on we went.

Whether we hadn't been paying close enough attention or whether Martyn's directions had gotten less explicit for the last portion of our walk, we somehow got lost again, this time in a flock of sheep grazing somewhere between the directions about a cattle grid and those about an abandoned stable near a farm. I began looking for landmarks (as if I'd remember them later) and checking the sky, thinking how glad I was that it was midsummer north of the 54th parallel, and that we had umpteen hours of daylight still left. Claire was unsuccessfully trying to get iPhone reception so she could check our Sat Nav location.

And then what should appear but a man. Actually two men. And a Land Rover full of barking dogs.

Once again we depended upon the kindness of strangers to help us find our way. Later Claire and I would admit to each other that we'd each had a moment of panic, but neither of us let it show at the time. Despite my newly stiff upper lip, the thought crossed my mind that we had survived London's East End, the haunts of Jack the Ripper, only to lose our lives among the buttercups and Holsteins on a public footpath in the heart of Devon. I conveyed all of this to Claire when we were curled up with a glass of wine at the Wooden Cabbage that evening. "You've read too many murder mysteries, Mom," she said.

Later, when we told Martyn about the men, he asked if one was short and round and friendly and if one was tall and wearing red suspenders. He'd described our men exactly, the gamekeepers, as it turned out, on the estate where we'd been hiking.

Still, we were relieved when we got oriented again and saw a familiar little path marker: "Landowners welcome caring hikers" and an arrow pointing the way.

There's more to tell, as there always is, but I'll leave you with just this: Somehow, some day set out on a walk like this, if you haven't already. You won't regret it.

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