Suddenly, there has been nowhere to go. This prompts the question, why do we usually go anywhere at all?
At the same time, our immediate surroundings have newly revealed themselves. I live in Southwell in Nottinghamshire and am normally tempted to head for the more obvious spectacle of the Peak District. But for two months now I have simply walked or cycled in my own vicinity.
It turns out to be a secret area of unnamed hills, fragmentary forest, rough pasture for sheep and horse-rearing. The crops of mainly early wheat sustain the sweeps of varying green. Previously unsuspected routes take me along paths that thread the edge of fields and narrow strips of woodland, recalling the shape of the landscape before enclosure. They take me past cottages of warm rose-coloured brick, bearing curiously Roman-looking lattice-type frieze beneath their eaves. They traverse occasional holloways and numerous wooden bridges over the deep-sunken streams (“dumbles”) that are saturated with the blossom of stunted trees and offer hidden tunnels for the passage of wildlife.
One imagines quarter-staff tussles taking place on their precarious slats, in this borderland between north and south, once contested between the Crown, the Church and outlaw bands struggling to retain guild fraternity in the greenwood.
Thus, I discover that my immediate region of pylons and wind-turbines is also a mythical heart of England, bearing traces of an inheritance in which legend and history, conquest and resistance are as entangled as the foliage. I lose count of the number of ancient oak trees: mighty or stunted, lone-standing or concealed. I am lost in the enigma of their symbolism.
To me a walk that follows ancient paths and maps is wilder than a trek into the wilderness, because it is also a psychogeographic exploration: a traversing of the ways in which nature can come to expression through human wanderings. And always, of course, one is sure that the path one has not taken conceals the deeper mystery one was supposed to have discovered.
So what are these wanderings for? The first thing human beings did was to unnecessarily walk right round the world. Our movement has always been in excess of purpose and my local rambles reveal an older mode of globalisation.
Walking traces a satisfactory circle of outgoing and return to home. It opens out the domestic to the strange while reclaiming the wild to oneself and to meaning. But it also heads in straight lines to various goals which were already sacred or thereby become so.
In this way every walk is a pilgrimage. It is not empty travel to just anywhere. Yet it is more than a beating of the local bounds. The gate, the bridge, the tree or the distant spire all orient our steps beyond even the universal to our ultimate source to which we will one day return. Only then will our walk prove to have been purely circular. But one has to stay local to see this.
(Photo: John Milbank)
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