Last summer Tim and I did something different. We went walking along part the Ridgeway, Britain's oldest road, that runs through central southern England, through the wooded hills and valleys of the Chilterns to the north Wessex Downs, rich in wildlife found in chalk grassland habitats, and down into the World Heritage Site of Avebury. The Ridgeway follows an ancient route over the high ground used since prehistoric times by travellers, herdsmen and soldiers. Close by in the wide rolling landscape are many archaeological treasures: Neolithic and Bronze Age barrows, Iron Age forts, examples of ancient strip farming and the figures of white horses cut into the chalk. It is a landscape alive with the past, a feast of prehistory, Albion at its most monumental.
But this was no ordinary hike. We chose to walk and live 'in community', sharing route and food with a small band of people, mainly rough camping together along the way. We had met the organiser, Graham Joyce, some years ago at a Work That Reconnects training with Joanna Macy. In 2008 Graham organised the 'Awakening Albion'1 walk across England from Cornwall to East Anglia along the Michael and Mary ley lines to celebrate the land and walk in community2. It took seven weeks. Some of the people involved met again for this shorter walk. We were the 'unknowns'.
Arriving by train in Wiltshire in the Vale of the White Horse, where we were to begin our journey, we could only take what we could carry there and that had to include tent, sleeping bag and mat. By necessity, we had to live simply. Each day we walked, sometimes in community, sometimes alone, but always high up in a landscape offering wonderful panoramic perspectives. Graham, an archeologist by training, taught us the subtle details of prehistoric forms, of barrow and dyke, and to see traces of ancient humanity's agriculture, still evident on the chalky hills.
The group itself was rich with experience: there were artists, musicians, bushcrafters, herbalists, a teacher, a yurtmaker, yoga practitioners, permaculturists, long distance walkers... The camp evolved its own rhythm as we walked the hills and valleys each day and we learnt to care for each other, everyone generous with the daily tasks. The warmth of this temporary community was intoxicating. No egos jostled for space, each allowing the others to be nurtured and thrive. I know, it sounds idyllic, and for those brief nine days it was ... and we all laughed more than we had for years
The walk culminated in the ancient landscape of Avebury, having walked at least 10 miles a day, sometimes more, in circuitous routes to get there, and camping in eccentric places (with prearranged permission from the landowners). By then we had entered a state of deep landscape immersion, sensitive to the native plants and creatures, alive to the changes of each hill and valley, and with a feeling of wellbeing that is hard to explain. Walking, or tramping, had become our meditation.
Our bodies sunk into an awareness that was deeply peaceful. Phillip O'Connor, an articulate vagrant, describes this as an "incomparable feeling ... as though one were a prayer winding along a road ..." He found that during long periods of tramping a deep mental rhythm, 'poetic in effects', began to dominate all his perceptions. "All hard nodules of concepts are softly coaxed into disbursing their cherished contents ... One's 'identify-sense' becomes 'diffused into the landscape'..."3 Linear time became irrelevant. We felt immersed in deep time, long, slow and luxuriantly smooth. Avebury itself came alive to me as Graham led us through the ancient turning of the seasons symbolically, the wheel of the year our ancestors so revered that they built great monuments to mark and celebrate this circular time and the miracle of birth, life and death.
I learned so many things in that week: to love the Downland landscape even more deeply and to understand it through protracted observation; to appreciate the meditative quality of walking and the aliveness it brings to my desk-bound body; to relish the warmth and humour of community, how gentle and generous people can be and how we all yearn for this intimacy in our lives; and to feel a connection to our ancient past. All this with consuming little and without travelling far...
The turning of our culture from destructive over-consumption to living within our limits can seem impossible whilst we are trapped in the hubbub of normal life, yet I saw in those few days how the future could be. It may seem like a romantic idyll, but it gave me an insight that has left me with an inner fire as hot as the rocket stove we cooked on.
2 For more such walks, contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
3 Symbolic Landscape, Paul Devereux, Gothic Image Publications, 1992, p38-39
Awakening Albion - From Cornwall to East Anglia, Walking Together as a Mindful Community - the story of the Albion walk is available in Green Shopping. RRP £18.00 (UK only). OFFER £14.00 p&p free in the UK.