Wychwood Forest to Oxford

Day 4 of Walking Out of the World: a two thousand kilometer 86-day pilgrimage to Compostela on foot across England and France to the north west corner of Spain.

(Previous post: Day 3 Wycke Rissington to Wychwood Forest)

Waking up, striking camp and getting on the road nice and early is so much easier when fleeing a haunted forest. The rain had returned and nothing works quicker to overcome ghostly nocturnal visitations than a damp dose of wet English weather and trudging through Leafield, Oxfordshire on a damp Monday morning. (map)

There was the choice of a footpath or a tarmac road to Crawley and then on to Witney. I consulted with a man walking a dog and he said the footpath was fine. We chatted briefly about where I had come from and it was he who told me about the haunted forest legend. (Except he couldn’t quite explain the legend and it seemed very complicated. It did not include Rupert Bear.) I took his advice and ended up bogged down in a sticky muddy footpath that only joined the tarmac road anyway, after a mile. Never follow the route directions of a man who can’t explain a haunted forest in everyday terms.

The rain got heavier and I trudged on towards Witney. Because I had bedded down early the previous day, while there was still some daylight left, I read a couple of chapters of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the book I had brought with me for this Worcester to London stage of the pilgrimage, to be replaced with something more Camino orientated before setting off again from London towards France.

If you want some light reading in your rucsack on a walking trip, always take a Corgi paperback: 200 grams exactly. But ZAAMM is not light reading in any other sense. Written by Robert Pirsig in 1974 it became an unlikely world-wide success. I saw it in a bestseller display in Blackwell’s bookshop in Oxford and was intrigued by the title, the clever cover design with the spanner morphing into a lotus plant, and the back cover blurb: “This book will change the way you think and feel about your life.” I was quite sure it would not, but I wanted to see how such an outrageous claim could be justified, so I bought it. Then, the Corgi paperback copy sold for 95 pence. In those days students were given grants, so you could waste all the money you liked on books that were not going to change the way you think and feel about your life, and at the end of the term there was still cash in your student bank account for cycling holidays!

This book did change the way I think and feel about my life. It was 95 pence well spent: “The real University is nothing less than the continuing body of reason itself.” I still don’t know what that means but I only paid 95 pence for the idea.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to do a book review here. I’ve seen people praise it in impressive words but I’ve never read a comprehensible review of it. Just take my word for it, read it. Most people don’t. I recommended it to my A-level students when I was teaching. I recommended it to my fellow monks when I was monking. I once said to my professor of philosophy in the Pontifical Beda College in Rome that he should put half a dozen copies in the college library if he wanted his students to really understand the difference between Plato and Aristotle and why the world is so screwed up. But he didn’t listen either. So I kind of know you’ll never read it, but that’s OK because I’ve read it for you and it will helps us with the trials and tribulations of pilgrimage. Trust me. Here’s Pirsig on country roads, and all he says applies to pilgrimage:

“The main skill is to keep from getting lost. Since the roads are used only by local people who know them by sight nobody complains if the junctions aren’t posted. And often they aren’t. When they are it’s usually a small sign hiding unobtrusively in the weeds and that’s all. County-road-sign makers seldom tell you twice. If you miss that sign in the weeds that’s your problem, not theirs. Moreover, you discover that the highway maps are often inaccurate about county roads. And from time to time you find your “county road” takes you onto a two-rutter and then a single rutter and then into a pasture and stops, or else it takes you into some farmer’s backyard.”

And he’s also good on some of the mental struggles: the will to get somewhere. Now I’m trudging through Witney in the rain, stopping for breakfast in a steamed up cafe. I eat a full fried breakfast and drink two pint mugs of tea, adding to the great warm steaming dampness. A contrast with the cold dampness outside, seen through the condensation-soaked windows of the cafe. Two truck drivers look at me curiously. Is there steam rising from my sopping wet Irish tweed hat? Do they know I spent the night in a haunted forest? Does it show?

Once outside again, nourished but not spiritually, I carry on out of steaming Witney. I won’t tell you any more about Witney. If you won’t read the books I recommend, why bother describing Witney? Indeed why? They make blankets there. I wonder if they ever get them to dry out?

People of Witney on a typical Monday. Do they all make blankets?
(picture: Witney Gazette)

I carry on walking on tarmac roads now, for it is too wet to follow muddy footpath routes. I follow a south easterly road through Margery Cross. Why was Margery Cross? (…the usual trivial thoughts to keep up spirits, walking in the rain).

So, to the real point I want to make about Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in this conversation that I am having with you in the rain, on this virtual pilgrimage to Compostela. His narrative hangs on a motorcycle journey – the classic American road genre – in which he switches from descriptions of the technical points of motorcycle touring and the features of the landscape, to what is going on in his deeper thoughts – shared in conversation with the reader – which is the pursuit of “the mother of all things,” the concept of Quality (Arête to the Greeks), which he explains in a concrete way that at times seems within your grasp, before it slips away again and you don’t really know if you really got it, but you know you came so damned close that you felt the entire point of human existence was nearly in your grasp! And then it slipped away and you know it never will be in your grasp because reason is never enough.

Which is a bit like God.

Witney to Oxford: this is what Ordnance Survey maps looked like in 1898

And now the last few miles to Oxford are going to be good because I am soaked to the skin and there was no point putting on waterproof trousers because they are now filled with water and roughly rubbing my knees and the water is dripping off the brim of my Irish tweed hat onto my cold nose, and the wet bourdon is running with water down my right hand and down the sleeve of my raised right arm, from the sopping wet prayer rope that has turned into a dark green woollen snake wrapped around my Moses staff in the wet desert of Oxfordshire, and the last miles to Oxford are going to be good because I’ll stay at the YHA hostel and get my first shower since leaving Worcester.

So, four pages into his book Pirsig explains his narrative technique to the reader. “What I would like to do is use the time that is coming now to talk about some things that have come to mind. We’re in such a hurry most of the time we never get much chance to talk. The result is a kind of endless day-to-day shallowness, a monotony that leaves a person wondering years later where all the time went and sorry that it’s all gone.”

And I finally reach the river Thames – also called the Isis in Oxford – and I cross over the swing bridge at Pinkhill Lock (map) and the lock-keeper is wearing oilskins and a sou’wester in his lock-keeper’s hut, looking like an advertisement for Fishermen’s Friend throat pastilles.

I put down my rucsack, and I pull out a waterproof document pack, unzip it and present him with my credencial. “Can you stamp my pilgrim passport please?”

“Where’s your boat? he asks.

“I haven’t got a boat,” I reply. “I will be getting my boat to Dieppe in ten days time but I have to walk to Newhaven first. I’m a pilgrim. I need to have stamps in my passport and so far all I got in four days is a written note from Tewkesbury and a tourist office sticker from Winchcombe.”

“I could stamp it with a mooring licence if you want.” He looks doubtfully down at the dismal stamp-deprived credencial. Finally he pulls a rubber stamp out of the drawer and opens the tin lid of the inking pad. “But a mooring licence is only valid on a proper Thames boat permit sheet.”

“That’s OK, please stamp it!” I tell him. “The Compostela pilgrim office won’t question my lack of a Thames boat permit. Or indeed the lack of a boat.”

The stamp finally falls on the credencial, and he presents the document to me, looking very wise and eternal, like the ferryman seeing me across the river Styx. I thank him profusely. He marvels at the incomprehensible exuberance that a meaningless stamp on his credencial brings to a Compostela pilgrim. Thus today I become the only pilgrim to Compostela with a Thames mooring licence stamped in my passport: “VISITORS LICENCE PINKHILL LOCK. The above launch is licensed to moor on the Thames for the period stated. Issuing officer, V.C.Brown.”

After this stunning Camino credencial success I continue down the road to Botley village and into the busy wet streets of Oxford where I find the YHA hostel next to the railway station (map), with a welcome hot shower, radiators to dry my clothes, and a comfortable bed for the night with no Witney blankets, but a duvet and matching pillows in crisp blue linen covers. And resting on the clean blue pillowcase is the old purple Corgi paperback which I bought for 95 pence in Blackwell’s bookshop – just a quarter of a mile from this hostel – half a lifetime ago. In the light of the bedside lamp I re-read the passage which I was trying to remember earlier in the rain, which explains the narrative technique. How I want to do things on this pilgrimage, how I want to share the conversation on the walk:

“What is in mind is a sort of Chautauqua… that’s the only name I can think of for it… like the traveling tent-show Chautauquas that used to move across America, an old-time series of popular talks intended to edify and entertain, improve the mind and bring culture and enlightenment to the ears and thoughts of the hearer. The Chautauquas were pushed aside by faster-paced radio, movies and TV, and it seems to me the change was not entirely an improvement. Perhaps because of these changes the stream of national consciousness moves faster now, and is broader, but it seems to run less deep. The old channels cannot contain it and in its search for new ones there seems to be growing havoc and destruction along its banks. In this Chautauqua I would like not to cut any new channels of consciousness but simply dig deeper into old ones that have become silted in with the debris of thoughts grown stale and platitudes too often repeated.”

I lay the paperback copy of Pirsig’s book on the bedside table and I turn out the light. Tomorrow I shall try the Dominican friary for a proper pilgrim stamp in my credencial then walk out of Oxford and along the Thames towards London. I shall stop on the outskirts of the city at Littlemore, and pray in the oratory of the great Oxford priest and cardinal, John Henry Newman.

The dreaming spires of Oxford