Permaculture Magazine, January 2009

Here is an article we wrote recently, published in Permaculture Magazine, January 2009.

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permaculture-magazine-article-1It’s a curious thrill to hear someone shout: “Help yourself to anything lads, I’ll be back in 2 hours”. The door slams, and you’re left standing there, keys in hand, entrusted with someone else’s home.

But odder still is when kindness like this becomes almost commonplace, and you find yourself getting used to it.

Setting out to walk, we had no knowledge of any such a seam of welcome. Our hopes were to find the biggest forest in England, and get lost in its darkness. We hadn’t realized we could sing together in public, or that traditional songs, like ‘Lish young buy-a-broom’ or ‘Oats and Beans’, could open so many fine doors. We just wanted to go walking, neither turning homewards, nor dwelling on dreams of  destination.

It took months to sever our habitual ties. Preparation was like taking several journeys, homely lanes leading off into ever more strange mountainous vistas. Imagination, our guidebook, posited dragons after every horizon.

When our packing, stitching, weighing and stretching finally stagnated to a static point of unreadiness, the wind took us.

abbotsbury-chapel-editIt was September the eleventh, and a fine afternoon.

We headed out of Kent into the setting sun, toward the unknown coasts, downs, moors and riversides of Albion. We had a one-page road map, and no money (not to impose deliberate hardship, but because every penny had been spent on boots, bags and waterproofs). Some of these lacks we soon remedied, and others we maintained.

People constantly professed amazement that we carried no tents; but let us say now, it is truly by preference that we sleep under strung-up ponchos. Why walk somewhere beautiful, and spend all night hidden beneath four nylon walls?

Isolation from the world was a hope that was quickly and happily dashed. South England is crowded. Every ‘place’ is about seven miles apart from the next, a landscape formed by the convenience of horse travel. We’d delve into pitch-black woodlands, for a place to sleep, and be woken in the morning by a train screaming past, just 50 yards away, to be followed by a series of dogs and their curious walkers.

Being map-less was not a direct route to great wild spaces, but rather to busy and littered cul-de-sacs. So mama universe gave us a map. permaculture-merge-1It was a gift crucial to accept, because doing so forced us to replace our preconceptions of what we ‘should’ do, and instead flow with the prompts that were arising. Taking the map was an agreement to trade our rigid, self-imposed idea of artlessness, for a richer and more vital form of spontaneity.

And a map gave us the hawk-eyed pleasure of playing with the secrets of tomorrow. We were able to avoid roads, find water, swiftly enter and escape built-up areas. The map seemed to let the journey carry us to the places it required.

Another key lesson was learned about Abundance. We’ve never really grasped the SAS paradigm, of battling nature for survival. We didn’t want to panic, maim and bludgeon a bloody trail back to base-camp, we weren’t at war, and the land was neither hostile nor unforgiving. South England is a kind place, good for life, with nothing (except ticks) to fear in the long grass. And having left home in the bosom of Autumn, there was wild food aplenty to sustain our exertions. Apples, blackcurrants, pears, puffballs, ceps, chestnuts, chickweed, kelp, mallow and brassicas all popped up to say “hello”. We learned to ask politely, to say thank-you, and to enjoy such hearty fare. Our gastro-aspirations were generally limited to one-pot stews, on wood fire, or raw handfuls of whatever was going.

Ed in his New Forest home.

Ed in his New Forest home.

But autumn turned to winter; we found grazing grew thinner in the frozen months. Traditional nomadic cultures tend to preserve and store during the fat months, to maintain life in the leaner times. Having no clear sight of our own traditional nomadic prerogatives, we had to find what we could, buy the rest, and keep going. But we are certain that only our lack of skill prevented us from living entirely off the land. Our ancestors managed to do this – each of us alive is evidence of this.

Two years previously, walking the Pilgrim’s Way from Winchester to Canterbury, the massive scope of our outdoor ignorance had been revealed to us. We got soaked, blistered, and we didn’t know which plants could be eaten or used for healing.

But this was exactly what was needed. Being eaten from stomach to thigh by autumnal mosquitoes was kind teaching, of plantain’s soothing balm, and of yarrow’s mending powers.


And we needed to suffer the weather, to learn how to live within it. We duly overheated, got cold, got soaked by sweating inside our protective layers, then froze again. The rain came sideways into our shelters, and the cold rose nightly upwards through our sheepskin waistcoat/mats.We woke to find our sleeping bags frozen stiff and iced over. But more than any worst-case scenario, it is the fear of wet and cold that proves disempowering. We watched with great joy the early rising sun steaming moisture from our clothes and bedding. There is great confidence to be gained from these cycles, from knowing the same sky that soaks you, will soon dry you.

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How ways and understandings get lost, is also forgotten. We surmise that ‘something happened’ before our births, that turned the ‘venerable elder’ into the ‘untrustworthy old bugger’. And so the passage of knowledge was broken, and we lost our way in the outdoor world.

These skills, as they slowly returned, felt like allies walking alongside us. Recognizing the trees, the trails, and the herbs of the way, was a reassuringly constant companionship, full of conversation and kindness. It felt like friends we had always known, but never met, were watching every footstep.

Another new companion of great note was met in Cornwall. We’d finally got fully comfortable with the systems of water, shelter, food and warmth, when along stepped a fellow who had a donkey and cart.

Travelling with animals was something we greatly wanted to learn about. An agreement was made, training was followed by testing, and then we found ourselves on the Cornish lanes with Dominingo the donkey as our new pack-friend. This was a stunning experience. People would chase us down lanes with flasks of soup, greengrocers would hustle us to provide ripe veg for Domingo’s tea, and our busking hat would half-fill before it left our heads. We learned to watch Dominingo’s ears, which would wiggle 10 minutes before we heard anyone approach.

Ed with Dominingo

Ed with Dominingo

But donkey travel forced us onto roadside verges, where safe fresh nightly grazing could be found. He was scared of the woods (panthers and lions), and he was fearful of water, (crocodiles and hippos). He could climb no stiles, and on the Cornish peninsula, that left only roads. Here Dominingo was most able, being shod, having previously walked from Cornwall to Scotland three times. He would swerve wildly around drain covers, which was hairy, but when a huge HGV rushed past at 70 mph, he didn’t bat an eyelid.

Finally, the aspect of our journey that we call the most miraculous and surprising, was singing. It is hard to speak of this; if we could describe the songs we sung, we probably wouldn’t sing them. We learned, and were given, many traditional songs of Britain, and we gave them back in accapella harmonies.  We had long sung together for good health and pleasure, but never as a defined performance. We first busked in Rye, and were chuffed to win gold and compliments.

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A singsong in Winchester

This developed onward, and we found ourselves invited to sing in schools, toddlers’ groups, for birthdays, weddings, even funerals. Somehow, songs had shops emptying, cars stop on roads, OAPs dancing in great stamping rings, and gangs of city youths silencing one another to better follow the story.

We are convinced that harmony, tonal and melodic, is good nutrition for the singer and the world. It felt most natural to sing the songs that were born in the land we walked upon.

Song, seemed to create a channel as it flowed outward, which made it possible for people to approach us. In the silence after songs, we were offered accommodation, in tin-sheds, boats, caravans, washing rooms, tipis, spare-rooms, barns, gardens, yurts, skittle-alleys etc. A highlight of this was singing in a home for dementia sufferers, in the New Forest, when the vacant audience suddenly started tapping their feet, dancing along, beating cymbals and drums to the songs.

the-way-unfolding-editWalking and singing were twin staffs of our journey, giving our nine months walking the cohesion, balance, and income it needed to continue. The mantra of song kept us grinning between the forks of lightning, when blown two steps sideways for each one onward, in a tornado on the South downs by Brighton. Songs brought food to the table, made for kind meetings, and lined up ale on the bar. And in the mornings that followed, it was songs that could cleanse our throbbing neurones.

Britain’s absurd generosity has been a mighty boon, but also constantly challenging, forcing us to be responsible for our work, to be aware of the social contract we meet and change.

This burst of doomed prose therefore bears witness to the hot golden heart of Albion, to the living systems of hospitality and unity that newsreel cynicism told us never even existed.

Kindness, even to scruffy bearded wandering singers, is real, is merry, we are intensely grateful. And this kindness is found everywhere, is for everyone, is sufficient, and is home.