Wednesday, 23 April 2014

The Willful Walks of Russell C.J Duffy - Book 2 - A Peasant Fláneur (Chapter 1)


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"Nothing had ever obliged him to do anything. He had spent his childhood alone. He never joined any group. He never pursued a course of study. He never belonged to a crowd. The circumstances of his life were marked by that strange but rather common phenomenon – perhaps, in fact, it’s true for all lives – of being tailored to the image and likeness of his instincts, which tended towards inertia and withdrawal".
.Fernando Pessoa


Sometimes you don't need an alarm. Sometimes sleep evades you even when you wish it wouldn't. Easter Sunday 2014 was like that. I woke at four, looked at my watch, tugged the duvet up around my ears and tried to get back to sleep. Half an hour or so later I got up. It may be spring but it was still chilly. Thinking maybe some internal alarm had triggered I tested my sugar. 4.5. Your average non-diabetic's blood sugar levels sit around 5.5, mine was a little low. I took five 'glugs' of Lucozade and then returned to bed. Half an hour later I got up.

The day outside was still to break. It had that mixed grey quality, you know when the sun streaks the horizon in shades of charcoal. I decided maybe I should go for a walk. I had already bought my kids six small Easter eggs. Not the boxed variety but those Cadbury ones that come wrapped in coloured foil. I had a small, rectangular box into which I stuck, padding the thing out with tissue, the six chocolate eggs. Mum was sleeping. I could hear a string of Z's buzzing. Leaving the lights off and as naked as the day I was born I padded into her dinning room, slid her cabinet drawer open and took out one of her little William Morris note card things. I wrote six names on the envelope and then wrote the same names along with a little message inside the card.

To Emily, Ria, Jamie, Charlotte, Grace and Brett.  Love from the Easter Bunny.

That should do the trick.

Vanity overrode hygiene. I washed my hair in the kitchen sink using a small plastic cup. Towel dried my hair and then pulled on the same clothes, underpants and socks I wore the day before. I let myself out the back door and walked toward Grove Woods.

The sun was gaining strength now. Ebony tendrils were retreating from licks of pink and orange and red. The walk from Mum's bungalow to what remains of a once tiny woods takes about ten minutes. I did it in seven. I was eager, excited even, by the thought of walking the six miles back to what once was my home. My house still but no longer my home but where two of my children live.

Rayleigh is an old town. Nowadays there are thousands living where once there were hundreds. The town only had something like 12 hundred people prior to 1900. It was the arrival of the trains that saw what was once a one horse village blossom into the place it now is. Mum's bungalow sits only a short distance from Eastwood but also Hockley Woods. It was there I was headed. 

Fields at dawn are a mystery shrouded in mist. I feel heroic as stomp long. I feel like a Zen monk metaphorically walking the tenfold path. Polite society lies sleeping, waking, dreaming, making love, planning the day, preparing for church, whatever. The air is fresh. It is still cold but I feel warm and incredibly alive at this point. There is no one else around. Just me, the breeze and the birds.

Crows gather. In the fields they walk in that oddly upright, beak bobbing way. The look like priests, priests of an arcane faith. They caw their warning at the sight of me. Black wings beat an elegant retreat but only as far as the hedgerows. There they watch, imperial and impervious. Regal guardians of another realm, an alternate yet concurrent world existing within our own. A thought maybe or perhaps a memory.

I clamber over tiny hillocks, tackle sleeping brooks and walk on as the light grows and shifts its sky tones into one pale blue.

I wonder as I walk who before me, from the near to the distant past walked these ways? Romans? Anglo Saxons? Young farmers answering Lord Kitchener's call? These fields are not so different to the hell holes of the Somme even if a generations lost youth are not buried here. How many dead have died at war? How many more will die in pointless conflict? Defending ones home from the threat of unwanted invasion is one thing but so often governments chase the foe to foreign shores were they, we, have no right to be and then for another set of young men to die or be maimed.

“Does it matter?--losing your legs?...
For people will always be kind,
And you need not show that you mind
When the others come in after football
To gobble their muffins and eggs.

Does it matter?--losing your sight?...
There's such splendid work for the blind;
And people will always be kind,
As you sit on the terrace remembering
And turning your face to the light.

Do they matter?--those dreams from the pit?...
You can drink and forget and be glad,
And people won't say that you're mad;
For they'll know that you've fought for your country,
And no one will worry a bit.”  ― Siegfried SassoonThe War Poems


That is the one thing we seem good at... war. Christ, we even sells arms to those who shortly after we declare the enemy.

Rayleigh. Raege. Leah. It's meaning now cloudy but thought to be - female roe deer stream.  It has a poetry about it. A sort of Treebeardishness in its rolling summary. Modern English is the world's first language but sometimes its old tongue's poetry gets lost. 

Henry VIII is thought to have hunted deer here  Nearby Rayleigh Lodge is said to have housed his royal frame. There is what remains of a castle some miles distant. There is no visible sign of its presence any  more just the mound it stood upon. The stones that used to make up the structure were removed years past when Richard II gave permission to recycle them.

I walk the slight incline alone. Before me, dark and impenetrable, holding the dark comfort of night within its confines, is the outer edge of Hockley Woods. A little gap gives reluctant entry. I look to left then right and then march in.

Hockley Woods. An ancient name dating back to medieval times. the woods though are far older, perhaps as old as 10,000. Once, centuries past, this area, all 130 hectares of it, would have been one connected forest that covered much of Briton. It is still the largest, continuous native woodland. Epping may be bigger but it has a series of roads cutting through and, according to East End legend, many a corpse buried within its earth.

There a a host of wood banks criss-crossing the woods. These date back to the middle ages where they were used to prevent grazing animals wandering but also to act as territorial markers that showed where one owners land ended and another's began.

There are no manors here anymore but still plenty of farms.

Whatever your thoughts on faith or religion, if like me you have no need of a great creator but still recognise that we are but a small part in a far bigger something then you too would realise and accept the only church you need, elemental perhaps, earthy for sure, is a woodland. It is here that you come alive and yet, conversely, it is here were you fail in perceived significance into what you really are - a part of the universe. It is here where you realise that there is a judgement of trees more solemn than saints

"You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars. You have a right to be here."

Very right in fact and being here now, as the woods come alive, as small things, furtive and uncertain of my presence, a hundred eyes all on me, watch my passing through, the most natural of things. The crow calls out a warning. It too is an elemental, almost Pagan sound. Black as midnight - bright as noonlight. It is a thing of savage beauty but also of sharp intellect for crows, of the Corvine family, are intelligent creatures.  The bark of the trees is a highway for the small. Insects race uncaring of my footfall up and down the various species. There is a judgement of trees more sacred than that of saints. I like it here.

"All the principles of heaven and earth are living inside you. Life itself is truth, and this will never change. Everything in heaven and earth breathes. Breath is the thread that ties creation together."Morihei Ueshiba

In being here now, in these bark skinned woods, I could be anywhere on earth. Yes, I am English and yes, I am proud of the place I call home,proud of its natural beauty if not its politics but being born here or anywhere else for that matter does not define me. I could just as easily be me in Utah, Uganda or the Ukraine. These woods return me to what in reality I am..another human being and one of mother earths children. It is a splendid feeling.

I exit the woods near to where my wife and family live. It feels odd being back here again after so a long a break. I feel like a sneak thief.


Having left the box of Easter eggs sitting on the front door step I leave the house that once was home, my home of thirty years, behind me. The sun is out. It is 7.45. The day is bright but fresh. I know that the Sunday bus is due at 8.03

I stand waiting blowing on my hands which feel cold even if I don't. A lady, about seventy I would guess, walks up to me smiling. She too is about to catch the bus. We chat about various bits and pieces. She lives down the road I used to. She asks me why I am up so early and so I explain. She nods her understanding as i explain and then reciprocates by telling me of herself. She is a retired care worker who, having recently lost her son at only forty, continues to work. 'It takes my mind off things and besides, I love what I do.' I can only imagine what it must be like to lose a child. It seems wrong somehow. Surely the parent should go first.

When the bus arrives we clamber on board sitting next to each other, speaking of this and that. She gets off before me. We smile and wave knowing it is highly likely our chance meeting will ever be repeated.

Buses, as they age, take on the character of something from a work of fiction. It is the way they clatter and hiss as they motor along. Buses, like trains, reveal a journey in frames. The windows shape the world outside in convenient rectangles so that the outside is trapped like art if only for a moment.

I disembark at the hospital. It is only a short walk from there to Chalkwell. It is there that my instinct tells me this walk really begins.

When I first started my walks way back in 2009 it was due in part to the break down of my marriage. I, with accustomed self obsession, got pretty much everything wrong. I behaved appallingly. I deserve all I got. The walks were a way of connecting with myself, my roots and whatever erroneous spirituality I could find. The fact is it was love I had lost and that was something far to rare, far too precious to play hard ball with. I see that now. Now I would dearly like to love someone again. Not just so that I am loved in return, although that would be welcome, but more for the fact of indulging someone, caring and spoiling another, making them tea or coffee, buttered crumpets or toast, massaging their feet, holding their hand (hopefully they'll have two!) and chatting about the stuff lovers and companions do. One day maybe, someday soon.

From the east of the estuary where the salty sea meets the sweet taste of fresh water is Southend-on-Sea. It is some six miles from my families home and about the same from where i now live with both old home and new residence being set at a similar distance apart. Southend blends into Westcliff which in turn merges with Chalkwell.

I look down and across to where the silvery grey green sea river flows. Wide and flat it lays with tiny boats bobbing cork like as white gulls shriek and glide on the pale skyline.

There are something like 9,000 people living here. Not many you may think but bear in mind that Chalkwell, like Westcliff, rightly or wrongly, have been subsumed into the larger town of Southend whose name itself reveals its true, and relatively new, origins. Southend's name comes from it lying at the south end of that old village of Prittiwell.  There 160,000 people living in that old east end holiday haunt.I make my way to the Southend seafront then walk away from the town to where I remember the Crowstone rises. 

The Crowstone is one of many London Stones that marks the boundary of the Thames. Would you believe that in order to fund his insane Third Crusade, Richard Ist, the Lionheart, sold his rights of owner ship of the Thames to the City who in turn charged people a fee for fishing it? This London Stone, the Crowston, indicates where the City of London's rights cease, where the Thames effectively goes from fresh to salt water, where river meets the sea,

My memory plays trick on me. Ii thought this monument was large, certainly bigger than it is. I remembered it being the size of Cleopatra's Needle that adorns the Embankment in London but like all men's takes on size it is a lot smaller than they make it out to be. It is erect but small - the story of my life. 

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia
Standing here now at the mouth of the Thames Estuary I realise that this is where my journey lies. I am to follow the Thames from here at the coast to where it rolls deep dark and often dangerous into the North Sea to some 200 miles distant where it begins as a thin trickle in Gloucestershire. I shall pass through many of England's counties including Essex, Kent, The City of London, Surrey (the wealthiest county in England), Buckinghamshire, Berkshire, Oxfordshire, Wiltshire (where Stonehenge is) and into Gloucestershire. It is a long and curving route and goodness only knows how long it will take. Hey ho.. 







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Russell Cuts the Corn From The Brewers Whiskers.

2 comments:

LeeKwo said...

A great read Russell and a very clear insight into the life and times of the writer/We have no woods here or anywhere near just scrappy parched corpse of gumtrees and a footfall of crackling branches and leaves/The odd fox some magpies and possums of course but no history no castle only Deakin University which makes our suburb a University Suburb/I explored foests in Denmark when I was there especially Roskilde and spent many a pleasant mornings walking across the ploughed fields full of blue flintstone my pipe sending up clouds of smoke/I could have moved there and lived out my days but then I was 23 and had no thoughts of where I might settle/You text stirs up memories outside the technological world and this is inspiring we need walks in the [bark skinned woods]We here are a mottley crew of foreigners and I wish I had the history of England to delve into/Fine writing my friend/Regards and affection Lee Kwo/

LeeKwo said...

Love the eye/