Days 6 & 7 of Walking Out of the World, in which our intrepid pilgrim joins Year 9 bunking off from school in royal Berkshire and is greeted on the road again by White Van Man.
(Previous post: Day 5 Oxford to Abingdon)
As it was a clear night and I was a bit merry after the evening pub stop, I did not put the tent up last night, but found a small park and wrapped the tent around my sleeping bag as a bivouac to keep off the morning dew. I set off early, after a blessedly swan free slumber and walked half a mile, only to remember that the Thames Path that I was following was on the opposite bank to the town.
So I had to retrace my steps to Abingdon bridge, which was an opportunity to stock up with food and drinks from a small grocery shop, which was just as well because I couldn’t easily calculate the miles to the next town because of all the meanders in the Thames. It is something to take into account when opting for a river-walk: the winding bankside route almost doubles the walking distance.
After those first days of walking in the rain, the second leg of this journey now faced the challenge of hot weather, which in England is humid, and more so when walking alongside a river. For two days I trudged alongside the Thames, stopping for rests occasionally. All was reeds and menacing swans or cows blocking the path, and transport planes circling on their bumps-and-rollers circuits around RAF Benson. Years ago I had gone there for a few days as an airframe technician on a trip away from my home RAF base, to help repair a crash-landed Canberra bomber. Now I was just a part of the riverside wildlife. I camped overnight somewhere with noisy water rats on the south side of Wallingford bridge, heading to Goring (map).
As I lay in the tent I wondered if I would make it all the way to Compostela. The heat and humidity and the continuing struggle with the weight of a two kilo staff was taking its toll and I hadn’t even got within sight of London yet.
Day 7 From somewhere near Wallingford to a night under a motorway bridge near Maidenhead
Next day it was more of the same: miles of Thames walking. Hot and humid weather and by mid-afternoon, I made a decision to miss the long meander of the Thames around Henley. I would leave the Thames Walk, cutting off a long loop in the river and walk through the urban centre of Reading instead (map), and take a look at the old site of Reading Abbey before heading straight down the A4 to Maidenhead.
The pilgrim bourdon gained some attention from three school kids in the centre of the green park in the old abbey grounds. They gestured at me. Possibly in a rude way. A boy and two girls. As a seasoned teacher, I clocked them straight away as Year 9 kids bunking off. It was too early for school to finish. Probably sneaked off at lunch time and never went back.
“Are you a wizard?” asked the boy with half his white shirt front untucked, blowing cigarette smoke out together with the question. One of the girls snorted and giggled. The knot of her school tie was slung carelessly halfway down her blouse, like a dishevelled airline steward with ankle socks. Her face was daubed with cherry red lipstick. She was absent-mindedly lighting matches and throwing them in the grass at her feet.
“No, I’m not Harry Potter’s grandad: I’m a pilgrim,” I said, immediately realising by their blank expressions that I might as well have said I’m Vlad the Impaler.
“What’s one of them?” demanded an overweight girl with straggly pigtails, while trying to snatch the cigarette from the boy.
Luckily, I had years of experience of teaching Year 9 so I can explain things in a clear and simple way, at once appropriate for their age and understanding and appealing to their natural curiosity and sense of wonder at the world around them. You must – of course – begin by assuming a low level of general knowledge. A person less acquainted with the way non-linear learners struggle to assimilate an oppressive post-enlightenment rational-based, and largely left-brain pedagogical construction of reality might easily fall into the trap of blinding them with jargon.
To begin by asking how much Chaucer they had read – and playfully quote a few lines of drawling Middle English from the Prologue – would be a hopeless start. No, anyone with long experience of these matters knows the Year 9 history curriculum includes a good little basic section on religious life before the Reformation. With colour pictures of pilgrims in Merrie England! But the good educator also knows that keywords often haven’t been grasped, so knows when to move swiftly on after blank looks upon the term “pilgrim” and instead reach for more basic linguistic building blocks.
“Well, you know how people sometimes go on long walks…” I began. (You see how I avoided technical vocabulary there?) “And occasionally very long walks… Even all the way to Spain…”
“Why?” interrupted Cherry Lipstick, “You mean walking the dog out? So it can have a shit?”
“Ermmm… Yes, some people might take a dog with them. Yes, but…”
“What’s happened to your dog then?” demanded Half Untucked. “You lost it? Or did you brain it with your wizard stick?”
Cherry Lipstick was hysterical at this. Half Untucked looked pleased with himself. Straggly Pigtails peered at me through smudged glasses, so I couldn’t see her eyes; like a sort of female version of Piggy in Golding’s classic story of schoolboys turning savage on a desert island. She asked, “Where have you come from?”
At last a sensible question. I could make some progress with this. I seized the opportunity to deliver an explanation of pilgrimage that would be suited to a Year 9 audience. One of my lessons had been judged ‘Outstanding’ in 2005 during an Ofsted inspection at the Archbishop’s School in Canterbury. “It was the way you brought the whole lesson down to their level,” the inspector told me. I had actually just read two chapters from a Roald Dahl story, using silly voices for different characters; but – what the heck? – having some retired teacher who has lost touch with present reality in the classroom, and needs to supplement their pension, come and give you a pat on the back and tick all the Ofsted boxes is always welcome. But I digress.
“I came from Worcester,” I said. “I began… at a big church where a vicar – which is a sort of wizard but without the hat – said some good things to me to help me set off on my walk, and I’m going on foot all the way to, um… To another big church in Spain, where… Where another vicar will say ‘Well done and thank for coming all the way here.’ And I’ll get a piece of paper that says I’ve done it. And I can see you’re looking slightly puzzled but… Well, hey: I’ll meet all sorts of interesting people on the way… Like you!”
“Walk to Spain! How can you walk through the sea anyway?” asked Half Untucked. “You’re a loony. Are you a terrorist ?”
This wasn’t going as well as my usual delivery to a Year 9 class, but as an inspirational Ofsted outstanding-rated professional I could still turn this around. I was suddenly inspired!
“This very park was the site of Reading Abbey, destroyed by Henry VIII’s vandals in the Reformation.” I waved my arms around me in a theatrical gesture, pointing with the bourdon, like one of those charismatic cultural national treasures, making a twelve-episode TV documentary series, Great Unknown Pilgrim Routes of England…
“You know at one time, this park where we stand now was a place filled with… Wizards in long black hoodies…” (Cue choir singing slow plainsong dirge in bass tones: “Kyrie Eleison...”) “All this park would have been a big church full of monks swinging thuribles… Erm, a sort of smoking silver handbag thing on a chain that smelled nice, and…”
“Monkey, monkey, monkey!” Cherry Lipstick began leaping in a circle, around the smouldering cigarette-end thrown down in the patchy grass.
The others took up the chant and joined the war dance. The abbey grounds witnessed the horrible living embodiment of Lord of the Flies. If I stayed a moment longer I could suffer the fate of the good and wise Piggy and be bludgeoned to death by Year 9 with my own bourdon.
I raised my arm weakly to wave farewell and walked away swiftly but not fast enough to trigger a chase. Yes, it would have been a mistake to have started with Chaucer. I walked out of the park through the impressive medieval gateway – all that remains of Reading Abbey – the rest now being just a patch of grass for Year 9 to hide while bunking off and stub out their cigarettes. Henry VIII has a lot to answer for.
I paused to ask a lady with a small growling dog to take my photo by the gate. The dog bared its teeth as I gave my phone to the lady and it let out an aggressive continuous yapping and began to froth. Mrs Dog-Lady struggled, with the mutt’s lead in one hand and the phone-camera in the other. I tried to smile for the camera for nearly a whole minute and as soon as I stopped smiling she took the photo, lost her grasp of the dog’s lead and he immediately rushed for my trousers. I resisted any defensive reflex action involving the bourdon, realising this was the second incident in Reading abbey within half an hour that could have turned into a potential police matter.
“He doesn’t like your big stick,” she said. “Are you from the army?”
I decided further explanations were futile in this godforsaken place. I hadn’t expected the Reading Inquisition. A few yards away from the abbey gate, in the shopping centre, I found a fish & chip shop and bought a big portion of chips and a Cornish pastie. There was nowhere to sit down and eat. I thought it unwise to return to the abbey grounds. I shuddered at the vision of Year 9 spit-roasting a tramp over a pyre of blazing park benches.
I made a fast exit from Reading, eating chips and I walked straight down the main A4 road towards Maidenhead feeling disappointed and defeated by the brief return to the world of people. Another White Van Man drove past me making a one-fingered salute and shouting something unintelligible. Is it the bourdon? A two-metre phallic symbol with knobs on: guaranteed to evoke a Pavlovian reaction in White Van Man? Have any scientific studies ever been done on this?
Like all long journeys – pilgrimage or otherwise – nostalgia for the early part of the trip set in. I now wished I was back on the Gloucestershire Way in the rain. Even walking through the grotty wet blanket of Witney was better than this! Berkshire was pure savagery.
Ralph wept for the end of innocence, the darkness of man’s heart, and the fall through the air of a true, wise friend called Piggy.
I walked late into the night, rejoined the river Thames at Maidenhead bridge, walked a short distance further and slept under the New Thames Bridge where the M4 motorway crosses the Thames (map), waking up next morning not much rested, due to the noise of motorway traffic above me echoing through the metal girders. The next main town would be royal Windsor.