As per usual, though our Cotswold walk is long over, we’re still processing our experiences and likely will be for months, perhaps even years, after the fact. We’ve come to recognize that there are the immediate experiences and learnings in life (and on long walks!) and then there are those that emerge over time. Some of the things we expected to encounter on our 160 km walk (and did) were the different human cultures and different plants, birds, and other animals, as well as some history, ecology and geology. When being outside all day it was also inevitable that we came into contact with the prevailing British weather patterns – from the tops of our heads to the soles of our feet! While we expected rain, and there was quite a bit in the beginning, we did not expect the several hailstorms that blew through. Though other walkers were seeking shelter and unhappy, we were dressed so as to be warm and dry regardless and revelled in the beauty of these storms. We really do love trips that are filled to the brim with the unexpected!
One of the first unexpecteds was finding Robert Macfarlane’s book, The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, in one of the increasingly rare, and sparsely stocked, airport bookstores – this one in Gatwick. It felt so serendipitous to encounter a book on walking just as we were setting out on one. Judy ended up reading it every night before bed and finished it when we arrived at the end of the walk in Bath. She was always sharing excerpts from it before sleep and has recommended it widely since our return. There were suspenseful chapters that had her on the edge of her seat, extensive recountings of other writers experiences of walking, interweavings of historical paths, and even some stories of pathways on water!
Our adventures really began on Jersey Isle (in the English Channel) where we spent time with a childhood friend of Nicky’s, and his lovely partner and two daughters. We were surprised to become almost immediately immersed in a sort of experiential history lesson, learning that Jersey is a Crown dependency. This matters – to Jersey-ites and many others – because it means the island has certain independencies and sovereignties. It has its own financial and legal system. While the currency looks similar to England’s, it turns out that whether the Queen on the bills is wearing – or not wearing — a crown has some significance. Jersey never swore allegiance as part of Great Britain but has an independent relationship with the Monarchy. Or something like that!
The layers of history were evident everywhere. For an island only nine miles long and five miles wide, its story is complex. We visited one of a number of Neolithic sites, the largest, La Hougue Bie, a passage chamber and ceremonial site, was surmounted by two chapels, and sat adjacent to a German military bunker from the WWII occupation. Former bunkers could be found all over the island and currently might be public washrooms, serve as walls, or become a museum, as had this one. Though neither of us are history buffs, we felt it would be difficult to live in Jersey and not recognize the elements that have come together that make it the unique place it is today. In fact, each morning over breakfast the view from the backyard was of a medieval castle! It seemed like it would be almost impossible to forget or ignore history when it was so evident everywhere around you.
Not only were we surrounded by unique history and culture, but we also found ourselves entering an uncommon natural world. When our attention was drawn to the robins in the backyard, we couldn’t see them. We were expecting the large form of the American robin, but it turns out that the European robin is quite distinct and they are barely related. The similarities lie mostly in the red breast they share, but when you are looking for a BIG bird, the smaller, almost finch size, just didn’t initially register.
We had a brief natural world reminder of our time walking the Camino when we encountered some scotch broom, a favorite plant of Judy’s mom, along a walk on the north shore of Jersey. We hadn’t expected there to be commonalities on this British trip, as the climate and landscape were quite different from where we were walking in Spain four years ago — but there were some notable ones. While Spain was blanketed in scotch broom while we were there, most of the bright yellow flowers on the shrubs we saw on this trip belonged to gorse. A VERY different plant, as gorse has big, sharp spines. Towards the end of a short walk along the north coast of Jersey, Judy tipped a bit to the left going down some stairs and scratched herself along the bordering gorse. It drew some blood, but we’re used to having to tithe for some wilderness experiences, so didn’t think much about it. We washed it down when we got back home. Days later, when we were walking the Cotswolds, she noticed a spot that was inflamed and seemed a bit infected. We washed it again and put on some antibiotic ointment and a bandaid to protect it from her pole strap, but it didn’t go away. Nicky poked around with our first aid kit needle and tweezers, but nothing revealed itself. More days later – now almost ten – there still seemed to be something wrong, as it was still puffy and seemed to have a hard core. Nicky applied the needle again and Judy was squeezing to try to see if anything was really in there when a half inch long, wicked looking black thorn popped straight up and out, nearly launching itself at Nicky’s nearby eye. Apparently Judy had brought a reminder of the Jersey gorse bushes to the Cotswolds – and no wonder it was still sore! So we now know that while the scotch broom is benign, and has no thorns, its relative the gorse is a plant to keep your tender parts away from!
As we left Jersey we found ourselves realizing that we were even a little unclear about what the difference was between Great Britain (the landmass), the British Isles (there are apparently over 6000 of them off the northwestern corner of mainland Europe with Great Britain being the largest and including Ireland, the Isle of Man, The Isles of Scilly, the Channel Islands), and the United Kingdom (UK — a political union between England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland). We became aware of our confusion when we realized that we were often referring to Great Britain when locals w ere speaking of the UK and we blithely thought we were speaking of relatively the same thing! Well, no, of course not.
In case, like us, you could use a little reminder of the differences, here’s a quick summary:
The UK (short for the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland) — a sovereign state that includes England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Great Britain – an island situated off the northwest coast of Europe, and also a political entity consisting of three countries: England, Scotland, and Wales.
British Isles – a collection of over 6,000 islands, of which Great Britain is the largest
England – a country (but not a sovereign state) within the UK.
The presence of mud illustrates a surprising difference between the Cotswolds walk and the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage trail we followed four years ago. We were expecting something resembling the well-trodden, sometimes rocky, usually dry paths of the Camino, but instead sometimes found ourselves navigating across fields inches deep in mud, on paths through vast blossoming canola fields, or clambering over, around, or navigating through an astonishing range of gates with latches, as well as stiles and “squeeze gates”, often accompanied by a changing variety of sheep, cows, and their fresh and dried manure. For a while we were calling Judy the cow whisperer as she was being followed by a succession of cows as we passed through the different fields. And Nicky was once face-to-face with a curious and persistent horse.
As we progressed along the Cotswolds Way we encountered expanses of gorse again, sometimes alternating with deep sticky mud. The two elements came together into a real life adventure challenge activity! The task was to find our way along a very narrow path that was 6 inches deep in mud for as far as the eye could see, and bordered so closely by a gorse forest that it couldn’t be walked around or avoided. It was almost impossible to use our poles (which saved us many times over on this walk) because this put our hands right in line with the gorse. We had to balance and waddle and protect ourselves from scratching and thorns for what ended up being only about a ½ km (but sure seemed like more).
And who knew that there were so many kinds of black birds – not just the crows, ravens, and starlings we have at home. There is actually one called a Blackbird that has a beautiful song, not at all like the croaks and caws of the corvids we were acquainted with. Once we figured out who was being so musical we better understood why Paul McCartney might have crafted his song about a “Blackbird singing in the dead of night”. We also had the contrast between the squawk of pheasants (which we rarely saw), and the complex flight song of the inconspicuously marked, sparrow-like, ground-nesting skylark. The male’s astonishing aerial displays reminded us of the woodcock from home. While the cuckoo’s call accompanied us along the Camino, the skylark led the way on the Cotswolds.
We felt deep joy while experiencing the individual beeches and the beech woodlands of the Cotswolds, underlain with carpets of bluebells and wild garlic, present at this time of year. In one sense it was so sad to have this contrast between the unhealthy beeches of the northeastern US, inflicted with a beech bark disease, and these unique healthy stands of trees. We first noticed individual copper or purple beeches standing out against the green of the fields we were crossing. Later we found ourselves in ethereal forests made up mostly of beeches with the early spring green of their leaves highlighted by rain and mists, with occasional breakthroughs of the sun. The smooth silvery grey bark looks like skin and each tree has a unique presence. Some resembled like elephant legs while others had what looked like faces where (perhaps) branches had once been, but had healed over. Nicky found herself quite drawn to some individual trees and would take time off the trail to just be with them.
Upon returning home, Nicky has continued to feel deep callings to go for long walks, identifying some of the reasons why she enjoys long distance walking so much. We do typically both spend a lot of time outside but it’s in short jaunts. We go out to do some gardening and then we come in to do some online work. We go out to look at the eagles soaring overhead and then we come in to make lunch. We go out to walk Shanti and then we come in to vacuum or read. One might think the pull towards long walks is because of the exercise – and she does find pleasure at being physically tired by the end of day, as well as having uninterrupted time immersed in the natural world. But the continuous time outside is not so much a physical, but a mind/spiritual thing. Nicky feels that on these walks her mind is free to go anywhere or nowhere for hours on end, without interruption, and this is a rare experience in day-to-day life.
One of Judy’s “returning home” reflections actually came through a Facebook post about Deep Ecology with a Satish Kumar video embedded in it. There was an instantaneous connection for her with the beech tree experiences and her somewhat lapsed awareness of the intrinsic worth of all beings. She has been reflecting on how even a deeply held value can become lost in the background of daily life and then an experience (such as a long walk that has her outside all day long for 11 consecutive days) can cause it to be alive again and in the foreground. It’s truly surprising how we can begin to take what we know for granted, or lose sight of it – particularly in this case as Deep Ecology was the basis of Nicky’s PhD work, long long ago.
Being outside all day is amazing. But being inside at night (as is often the case for long walks when one isn’t camping) meant we didn’t know what phase the moon was in. In another similarity with walking the Camino, we were so tired from our daily walking that we were asleep before the moon even rose into the night sky. The unexpected bit about this is that it never occurred to us that we’d miss the moon every night because of our early-to-bed times, or that doing so would have such an impact on us, as we are generally just naturally aware of the phase of the moon. Until we were without this sense of the passage of time, we weren’t conscious of the importance of this rhythm in our lives. (Or more accurately, we did know, but were reminded by this experience!)
Please tune in to Part Two, where we further reflect on time from the perspective of ancient stone circles, reconnection with old friends, old memories, and the formation of new ones, and more thoughts on music, art, and architecture engendered by our wanderings.