Journey

Summer 2013: The first three weeks…

The first few weeks…

We aim our first busk for Street town. Passing through Millbank school, we see pupils learning equestrian disciplines, which drills home Britain’s ever-present class divisions. The right-of-way is named ‘Gypsy Lane’, and though many decades have passed since nomadic English Romany were killed in WW1, or forced into houses, we catch traditional guarded looks from sharp-suited staff. Only the muddy gardeners grin and wave.

Street town is famously home of Clarks shoes, where coachloads of visitors browse the factory-outlet for cheap footwear. We’re reminded of Universal Records’ name for their main music market: ‘The Passive Massive’, and we decide to wake the shoe-minded-many with some good old bangers (songs not sausages).

But barely three numbers we release, before burly security approach. Though we offer our shonky business cards, and a spruce resumé of our great aims, they grin and shift us. Onto high streets we go, amongst the Army boys waging their latest recruitment campaign, called “Step Up” – like a garage band or aerobics class. This coincides with huge redundancies from the armed forces, and we wonder if the discarded old soldiers were proving insufficiently compliant, or too loyal to regiment over government. But today’s tattooed bruisers refuse to discuss such salient points, and appear to dislike traditional songs. Luckily, their full expression is curtailed by PR disciplines, and their flung threats fall flimsy-flat, while our anti-war classics are bold and bumptious.

If you’re looking for the private, I know where he is, he’s hanging on the old barbed wire

But Street high street is a main road, and we soon fade, our voices thin against the roar of bus-engines and the buzz of phone-chat. As ever, the few deep listeners make it all worthwhile, and their gold buys us good bread and butter. We leave with our winnings for Glastonbury.

On the glass isle, bottles are filled with a pink cocktail of water from the Red and White springs. The red is incredibly iron-rich, and tastes of blood.

Ed and Holly, Glasto Tor

On Glastonbury Tor we nap and dream. With evening, in a nearby field, we cook nettle soup, and sleep tarpless in long grass, confident that skies will hold clear.

Waking dry, we soon move on. Past beautiful farm projects, full of yurts and eco-builds, we stamp heavily.

Leaf house, Paddington Farm

Backpacks in sunshine are already irksome, but short of a large cash investment, or a revolutionary new approach, involving a single sheet of tarpaulin as both cloak and tent, we can only lump it. I blame the battery packs, but with our OS maps stashed on clever-telephones, maintaining power supplies is more important than ever. We just can’t rely on pubs and churches…

Sorrows Away

We cross the Somerset levels toward Wells. Gentle bicyclists we cheer, and roaring 4x4s we dodge. Cars are clearly the main blight on our British landscape, encouraging the ‘instant destination’ mindset at the cost of every other living creature’s benefit. We hope we’re alive when they are no longer an option.

Rainfall cuts such ponderings short. Thunder approaches from the south, so we tog into wool shirts, and raise umbrellas. This journey marks the experimental debut of our “no-goretex” technique. We trust the old fabrics will prove sufficient.

We help matters by hiding in a poly-tunnel full of ripe strawberries. To avoid excessive sweet temptation, we soon leave for an empty shed. As rain softens, we stride out again, and for the next few hours deal directly with the mild downpour. Wool allows vapours to pass through it, and is exothermic, giving out heat when wet. This means that rain never penetrates our natural aura of warm wetness, and we remain comfortable, and dry off from within. It feels much better than locking ourselves in expensive sweaty plastic sacks.

We find a majestic soaring Beech copse, and dive in seeking sleep space, but find floor is over-brambled.

Park Wood, Wells

Stumbling over the slashed tent of a former long-term resident, and their mountain of bin-bags and plastic bottles, is more dampening than the rain. People of Britain, if you run away to the wood, cook on a fire, and gather water – a cattle trough was barely 50 metres away – and burn your rubbish.

Anyway, we hit Wells, and peek about. The Bishop’s palace is our first sight, an awesomely defendable construction, built not to protect the town against invaders, but to safeguard the bishop from hungry townsfolk.

Bishops Palace

The moat is vast and green, full of swans and cygnets. It’s almost possible to wear National Trust spectacles, and see this solely as a beautiful icon of heritage. But it also remains a monument to power, and to holy greed, lest we forget…

Wandering about in Wells, we find little open in way of independent organic eateries. We’re doubtfully eyeing the co-op, when along stamps a chap in multi-toned tweeds. Passing school-children whisper his name like a charm, as he comments brightly on our dog’s differently coloured eyes.

‘Like David Bowie?’ I guess.

‘Like Alexander the Great,’ he corrects me.

The official Fool of Glastonbury, he donates us a tasty trout supper and an ode to badgers, which we eat and recite on the steps of a backstreet cocktail bar.

‘When musicians come to town …’ the Fool says knowingly.

Sovay by A Walk Around Britain

Tor Hill, Wells

Next morning, after sleep and breakfast on a windswept hill, we return to Wells town, to find the market being constructed by men in even bigger boots than ours. We sing in the ‘Penniless Porch’, a stone nook built for alms-collecting by Thomas Beckynton, the town’s fifteenth-century redesigner. Soon we are rich, and so accept an invitation for lunch. We’re very glad when our benefactor promises to locate and remove the Beech grove rubbish dump.

We listen to the bell-ringing on the Cathedral green, and a friendly coach-driver explains to us how trumpet holes, and the choirboy amplification tubes, were built into the face of this awesome stone building, to make the entire Cathedral a musical instrument.

Wells Cathedral

Then we pop to the Bishop’s Palace, to sing for visitors. It’s a hot day, and we’re tempted to bathe in the well after which this small city was named. But due to lead mining in the Mendips, these out-spinning 140 gallons per second, once the main drinking supply for Wells, are now deemed undrinkable. It makes us think, if fracking happens, even the deepest of British drinking waters will become likewise poisoned.

St Andrews Well, the well of Wells

We recently set up a small charitable trust, aiming to raise awareness about drinkable natural water sources in Britain, by testing and mapping accessible wells and springs. We add to our charitable goals the accumulation of before/after evidence, to help prove the irredeemably detrimental effect caused by fracking on ancient drinking water sources. Not even the Romans managed such a deep and foolish destruction of our land’s natural wealth, we lament. We are both firm anti-frackers, and wish that the Prince of Wales would buy all fracking licenses, and compost them.

Away from such thoughts the Fool guides us, like a motley mirage, to the as-yet-unopened Garden of Contemplation, where a buried wheel is inscribed with Machado’s classic poem on walking:

Wanderer, we have no road, we make the road by walking

It’s a fine metaphysical concept, but we suppose the poet had little experience of British footpaths, where the road is made by drovers, bards and pilgrims of ten thousand years past.

Outside the garden sit three pensioners in dazzling white. Though tired, we must sing our very best, so we choose Sorrows Away, a spell of the South Downs.

Sorrows Away by A Walk Around Britain

Now time passes over more cheerful today,
Since we learned a new act to drive sorrows away …
Well I may not be rich, and I may not be poor,
But I’m as happy as those that have thousands or more …

They give their blessing, and our work in Wells is done.

Next, we cross the wild-flowered Mendip hills, through the ‘Split-Rock’ quarry of Milton Hill, and over  Arthur’s point, where midges spoil our plans to camp.

Split Rock, near Arthur's point

He head downhill for Wookey-Hole, where till recently, the sixteenth-century paper-mill produced vellum, cotton paper made from rags. This paper was used in the American civil war to make dollars, as well as many legal documents in British history. Each drying turret, we learn, was given a lady’s name by the workers. But now it’s all closed, and turned into a pirate-themed crazy golf course, with no tenable link to local history whatsoever…

Paper mill, Wookey

A kind stranger from the social club leads us to secret caves, in which evidence of early Palaeolithic human settlement has been found. A fire-pit and woodpile await us there, so following ancient traditions, we make ourselves at home.

cave holly

Cave will

Ivy curtain, secret cave

While underground, we also make up some silly songs:

Elephants at Ease by A Walk Around Britain

Above Ebbor Gorge, we meet our partners, and rest to celebrate Ed’s birthday.

Ebbor Gorge Deerleap

Lamb and ale are our nourishment..

Ed Will drinky

And a shepherd’s hut on the Mendip hillside, stood under a beautiful split Ash tree, is our hotel of choice.

Sleep shack

Split Ash

Behold the Vale

The Banks of Claudy

Through Priddy village, and her burned down hurdle shack, on the through the mineries and the fair lady well, we head toward Radstock.

The sad remnants of Priddy hurdle stall, destroyed by arson

Fair Lady Well, Priddy

Radstock, from the map, looks like a busk. But when we get there, we can’t find the centre, just a sprawling co-op. “This is it” a street cleaner explains, shrugging.

Radatock vista

We are intent on Bath, the city of waters, which we know remains thriving. We first come to the stone farming village of Wellow. Driveways of Range Rovers and a boarded-up horse trough demark the shift from agriculture to ‘professionalism’.

Kings of Wellow church

No one knows where to find the holy well of St Julian, patron saint of wandering singers, for which Wellow was once famed. Legends speak of this well’s ‘fair white maiden’, apparently keen to nourish worthy travellers.

Will and Ed on the road to Farrington Gurney

The flowing source is eventually located, hidden in dense undergrowth, and both Ed and I savour a sacred sip while keeping lookout for the maiden.

Take waters freely

The maiden remains coy, so we pass back through the village, skirting the landlord’s thunderous retirement party, to climb the clay track toward Wellow long barrow. Here, in the weighty silence of this Neolithic tomb/calendar/shelter, we sing Claudy Banks, an ancient British song of a home-bound sailor who tests his waiting lover.

Claudy Wellow by A Walk Around Britain

Wellow long barrow

As I rode out one evening, all in the month of May,
Down by the banks of Claudy I carelessly did stray,
There I beheld a fair maid, in sorrow did complain,
Lamenting of her own true love, who had crossed the raging main.

Sleeping in the barrow that night feels like lying in a fast river, and the next day we’re bleary. As we stumble for the cycle-track to Bath, a hobbling old woman with thick facial hair shouts hoarsely after us: ‘Your dog’ll get shot if you go that way.’ We do our best to smile politely, but softly scowl beneath our masks.

Alas! We forget that well-maidens often come in disguise, to test travellers’ integrity. And on this occasion, we have clearly paid insufficient respect, for reaching Bath, we experience the most violent purges of our lives. Such is our sickness, I fear we’ve returned cholera to Britain. We call our womenfolk, and recuperate, with vows to act more nobly next time…

Lizzie, seamstress of Bath, sings “Bold Grenadier” by A Walk Around Britain

Busking in Bath

Sundown Sorrel

 

 

The next 3 weeks writ-up are coming very soon…

The Parting…

The Parting, June 2013…

We were uneasy achieving leaving. A quick shove of socks and sleeping bag into backpacks, and a waxing of the good old boots, was not it. Turmoil begat reinvention, and our made-up destinations were reformed accordingly.

Will, Holly and Ed 2013

Why such turmoil? Why such reinvention? Was it not all so simple? Alas, it was not. Here is why:

Our great walking singing project was the strange fruit of youthful enthusiasms. From our accidental discovery, while walking in 2006, that we could sing folk songs together, our playing at the minstrel-game has evolved with sharp judders. Perhaps our development appeared smooth from a distance…possibly we cast this illusion for our own sanity…but close-up it’s been a progress of tumbling disintegrations, an expansion by earthquakes.

 

Much has changed since we started musical rambling. We are no longer the fresh-faced youths of seven years past, and cannot so easily laugh at hardship, our curious co-conspirator, or shake off her friendly sting with beer and harmonies.

Nor do we remain ambition-free, as carefree fools wandering with adventures fluttering on the wind. Today we see golden threads running far into the future, and share visions of helping this land and her peoples’ lot, visions we dearly wish made real. Our new appreciation of this land, her diversity culture and bounty, has led to a corresponding growth of responsibility. Britannia needs protecting, for the children we pass her to. She needs to be held more kindly, if we are not to be the cursed generation who let her rot.

And perhaps most of all, we are no longer single lads, abroad and roaming. Today we leave our women and young families at home. They understand our need to walk and sing, and trust the necessary power of such symbol-work. But love has blessed us with softer hopes, and we harbour dreams of harbours, of timber shacks, spring-water and vegetables.

To cart or not to cart...

Success in our earlier walks, or flirtation with its knife-edge, tattooed us with the algebra of manifestation. Because things happened, we believed we could make more. Confidence in the tides was currently ours. Following the project’s brief catapulting to F-grade celebrity, when we appeared in Vogue, enjoyed a Radio 4 show, featured in the Guardian, the Telegraph, on World Service Radio and BBC1, the mysteries of such realms shrunk.

Vogue Magazine - Will, Ed and Holly

But our new rise was not all smooth and easy. It invited edgier elements to our small candle, which brought us deep damage – a record contract offer from Universal Records, which misdirected us for many months. The brotherly executive nearly persuaded us to take the money, and sell them everything, all our words, photos and songs, past and future, to the biggest music corporation in the world. They made it sound so innocent and clean, we almost became a trad Robson and Jerome, funny folk puppets for the industry to dress up and string along. The mask of freedom we’d been borrowing, we nearly gave away to the great machine. This experience left us heavily distrustful of commerce as a partner to folk-song, a scar that remains bloody beneath the apparent healing. We still owe the lawyers three grand…

Yet our modern-most journey needed new-pressed intentions, and we must now pluck  mild fruit from the branches we follow. Without justifying these journeys to our families, we will not be able to continue. So our latest walk is a roll of the dice, an attempt to mature previous dreams into something more solid. We believe it possible, in theory, to not return from a journey empty-pocketed and broken, needing months of rest. But making a profit from our essentially charitable work, we still suspect is vaguely evil. Reconciling these contrary beliefs has been an interesting goal. Can we go walking for three months, and return home with gold for our womenfolk? Can we open great barred doors, using keys of song?

So far, the answer is a resounding yes and no.

Leaving Ed’s rented shack in Somerset, we were already tired out, having misled ourselves to build a ridiculous handcart, with which to transport our heaviest dreams of overpacked comfort.

The forgotten handcart...

Sheepskins, axes, leather-tools, iron pans…we attempted a nomadic set-off with sufficient support to allow families to join in.

Our new handcart....

Like the Romany, but without the encumbrance of road-bound horses, we dreamt of endless wandering comfort.

But the handcart was a mere distraction and delay, soon to be replaced by backpacks and minimal possessions. These in turn were pared down, until we’d reached a new nadir of ‘things’. Anything we’d not use daily was abolished. The confusing new element was our intent to share our journey further than ever, making daily videos and recordings. So a tripod, microphones and battery-packs became our novel burden. In truth, we had little idea how to use such equipment, but we were convinced we could swiftly learn.

So off we jumped, half heavy and half light, into the early British summer, hoping both for invisibility and great revelation.

Big Hawthorn

Down deep-rutted tracks, past cancerous cows grazing grass fertilised with unsellable milk-solids, we walked. Towering hemlock barred our way, which we respectfully parted with new-cut hazel wands. Hogweed bulbs were plentiful, and plucked for cooking in butter and salt. Nettles remained unflowering, and were grasped with mettle for tea and blood-cleansing luncheons.

Plant photo

Through the aching sunshine we soon reached Compton Dundon, where the Yew is older than Christianity. It’s the most vibrantly youthful ancient tree I have ever seen, with limbs smooth as a Grecian youth. And it is chatty, promising us a combination of safety and greatness for the journey ahead.

Yew

Yew and Ed

From here, we avoided rumbling farm-trucks, first shaking emptily, then thudding full with mown grass, and chatted but briefly with laddered thatchers mending accountants’ cottages. We even skirted the famed hillfort which swells bosomlike from the plains. Instead, we visited a terrible pub, drunk a bad beer, and felt silly for doing so.
But that was fine, we were learning, and aware of our poor decisions. We were on track, and allowed the energy of disappointment to fuel our advance.

a burdock leaf sun shade

Ascending pine planted hills, beautiful in their rare asymmetry, we tried to find our first night’s hideout in woods full of shotgun shells. But the midges sent us onward to cedar alleyways, and grateful we were, for a field overlooking Glastonbury Tor awaited us, and hares ran rings around us, and on our small fire we cooked our happy supper. Out at last, amongst the good life of Britain, we were…

 

Cedar row

Ed Tor looks

The First Three Weeks can be read here: http://awalkaroundbritain.com/journey/journal/summer-2013-the-first-three-weeks/