Across Country

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In my last few days of wayfaring, I have been straddling the borders: of England and Wales, of ending and beginning, of immersion in the landscape and transit through it.

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Just before the end of my journey, and the train journey home on which I am currently hurtling through England, I was fortunate enough to make the transition of speed up a gear with the help of a Fell Pony called Robbie, who hailed from Cumbria where my journey began, and his keeper Erica, who kindly offered to take me around part of the new Blakeney Greenway in the Forest of Dean as her back stepper.

This fulfilled a long-held dream since the first time I visited the area some years back, and noticed a little wooden sign with a horse and carriage on it, in the forest. Some research led me to a wonderfully helpful lady called Lesley, who collected me in her sports car worthy of Toad of Toad Hall, and dropped me off in the forest to explore this network of routes that Erica and a group of determined forest dwellers have spent years establishing.

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Sarah back stepping

I did get a little lost on my first day on foot, and when back stepping (standing at the back of the carriage to give balance) I asked Erica how she got to know all of the paths in the forest so well. “By getting lost”, she said. She was most often on horseback, and if she thought she was lost, she loosened the reins and let the horse use its homing instinct.

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When most people step onto a train, their journey is just beginning. For me, the opposite is true. That moment at Cheltenham Spa station marked my journey’s end. The final step of my slow and steady plod that has become the rhythm of my days has taken me onto a Cross Country train bound for Home, thanks to their sponsoring my faster journeys on this Wayfaring Summer.

I am an unwieldy traveller with my walking stick and varied baggage. There is no overhead compartment that is the right shape for my mixed emotions. I make my way to First Class, as the staff have been generous to let me in on previous journeys. A First Class passenger looks me up and down. A bit of feral has crept into his ordered life. It makes him uncomfortable, and he asks the train manager to ask me to leave. This is the first unkindness I have experienced in two months, and it touches me deeply.

As I travel across country, the deep yellow corn fields flash past the window, punctuated by fern banks, red brick buildings, and distant church spires. It feels like a summary; the attention deficit version of a long and detailed story my feet have been writing.

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I have just spied Birmingham. It seems unfathomably large. My concept of size has been measured in oaks for too long to take this in, so I let it slide past outside the window. In the thick of it now. Brightly coloured cargo containers, which have travelled many more miles than I ever will. Small ancient brick houses dwarfed by glass and steel. Into the dark underbelly of Birmingham New Street Station. Bing bong….a list of destinations, options, sandwiches. I sit tight, knowing only that I am going home.

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A range of human emotions can happen on a train journey, and yet trains have an unspoken code of anonymity. I sit close to strangers and hear their conversations, whether I want to or not. If only they could hear what is going through my mind. Their spectres are framed by the window as I attempt to take in the landscape.

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I am travelling in a straighter line than my senses know how to process. To me it seems like a  series of missed turns and missed opportunities. One direction – forwards. A field full of black cows – like paper cuts on a green ground. I reach for my camera, but the scene has gone. I must get used to this. I am not going There; I am going Home. Talking to the train manager, whose terrain this route is, I discover that even on this kind of journey, one can learn to sense the landscape. He says he can tell where he is by the way that the carriage sways, even from a windowless compartment.

Going Home. But where is Home now? Where do you call Home when you have been making so many places home, one step at a time. When each night, you have broken bread with a particular piece of this earth? When there are so many pieces of me hanging on branches, floating on feathers and settled on the beds of peaty rivers and beside the hearths of friends old and new? How will it be to return to a place as a different person? Will it feel old and stuck, or heart-warmingly familiar?

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This one and only time, the journey is not the destination. The journey is a vessel of uncertainties that can only be resolved upon arriving. Is there any other form of transport so full of whispered questions, love, sadness, and anticipation? I wonder if Cross Country trains know just how much they transport across country, the emotional weight they carry? Whether they do or not, I am grateful to them for carrying mine this summer.

And I am grateful beyond words to all my travel companions – you readers of this blog. For all your comments and words of support. For all your twitterings that joined the birdsong in the morning. For allowing your hearts and eyes to see and feel the REAL and wonderful world that is still out there, if we just give it the space and time to breathe, and our utmost attention.

My journeying will not end. It could not. It is in the core of me. These words shall remain here for you to chew over slowly, for the next few months at least. Meanwhile, my life, my journeying and my tales shall continue – albeit less frequently – on my personal blog: www.journeysinbetween.wordpress.com and my twitterings: @journeysinbtwn. There shall soon also be a gem of a podcast on the Penguin website – a lovely conversation between Robert Macfarlane and I recorded in a den in the woods at Wandleberry, where his own journey on foot began. Look out for it in my twitterings.

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As if to remind me that this will never end, a wonderful word play sits next to me on the last leg of my train journey, fascinated by my unusual luggage. We talk at length about journeying, and then she introduces herself. Hazel Macfarlane. Hazel, like my walking stick. Macfarlane, like the man who made the words that started the journey in the first place.

Until our ways meet again, fare well Wayfarers all!

A Harvest from the Ever Turning

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As the wheels of time roll on, we all turn the matter that we gather into the matter that we are. So it is wise to gather well.

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What have I learned from all this? What will I take away? To be frank, I have not learned much I did not already know. But when it comes to the nature of ourselves, and of others, nor do any of us. We just chip away at the disbelief until the underneath is exposed long enough to remember what we always thought was true.

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A journey – Life being the greatest of them all – takes you through cycles of daybreak to day’s end. It takes you through landscapes, through textures, through processes. Kindness is offered. We learn much about our natures through how we receive it. We meet people, and they stay in our hearts and minds bound up with the landscape and the resonance of their story. Problems are encountered, and how we deal with them determines how many more cycles it will take for us to learn that lesson.

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There is a pulsing silken thread that weaves and wefts the fragments of our lives together. With it all we build a house for ourselves. One that is ever changing – with new material being brought in, and that which no longer serves us well, being cast out. It is strong, variegated, fragile, and beautiful as a wasps’ nest.

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On this journey I have had many teachers. Too many to name them all, and some impossible to name. But a few that are burning brightly from my adventures of late:

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From the landlady of The Northmore Arms in Dartmoor, I learned to accept kindness when it is offered. I had gone off onto Dartmoor intending to bivvi, almost desperate to sleep outside as so much hospitality had been offered which often meant I was indoors or in a tent. I had gone there to write my blog, and left in the dark & drizzle, having been offered her spare room. A little way down the road, I realised that to accept is as much a part of kindness as to give, so I turned on my heel. She cooked me some supper.

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From Fergus ‘the Forager’ Drennan, I learned how joyful someone’s character can be when they spend their lives outside, learning from and eating of what nature has to offer. I learned to make paper out of mushrooms and to not be afraid to try.

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Ronnie Aaronson, a natural beekeeper, reaffirmed my instinct to trust what comes into your path, by offering me her mill-house as a base in Devon without knowing me. Such a place of transformation as a mill is a fitting abode for a wise woman who talks to her bees and plays the flute to her willows, which are transformed into wood chip to warm her in the winter. And a fitting place for me to come back to as I turned several cycles up in Dartmoor.

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Meeting Rima Staines, I was reminded that the best stories are true, and that healing can come if we are patient and trust that it will.

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As I watched a slug, making my way up a hill to the place overlooking the Wye Valley where I would spend my final night, I truly appreciated what it is to cross terrain fully, with senses opened wide.

 

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I have had the good fortune to have two full months, two moon cycles, dedicated to listening to the spoked voice over and over and over again. I finally came to understand the engraving in my wedding ring: TRAUST (Icelandic ~ trust/solidity). Trust, full trust, will give rise to an indomitable solidity of spirit, even while material existence seems anything but.

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If there is one thing I ask of you, dear readers, it is to give yourselves the space to wander. It is not as hard as it seems. Once you are doing it you will wonder why you do not do it more often. Do not have a plan. It will be alright. It will be much more than alright. Life is no more linear than the branches of a tree. It is so much more interesting than that. It will be magical.

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Wood & Wabe

My Stick

I am nearing the end of my journey on foot. My walking stick began its journey at Sprint Mill in Cumbria as a length of seasoned hazel awaiting transformation into a tool handle. But I found it there, standing in the corner, and its fate took a different course. It was not only my trusty travel companion; it became my journey. It has gathered marks, etchings, miniature paintings, letter carving, embroidery and my very own bragazzi – the smoothing of miles walked and my skin, sweat and oils making day long contact with the wood.

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This past few days have been full of friends, family and children. I finally managed to leave Devon – not a little reluctantly – but the destination was kind. I was to record a conversation between myself and Robert MacFarlane over in Cambridgeshire. We both felt it the most natural thing to go for a walk. So we did, with his babe in arms; stopping to record a short podcast in a den built by children, and for Robert to carve his own mark in my walking stick.

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While in the area, I took the opportunity to pay a visit to my friends Greg and Ayako who my husband and I last visited a year ago, en route back from Zanzibar. That time, we had with us a large carved wooden lintel given to us as a wedding gift by our friend and master wood carver, Fundi Humudi, who some years ago we helped to transform his sawdusty workshop into a space that enabled his work to shine. It was more than we could carry, so they had kept it for us all this time.

Now, however, they are about to move house, and asked if I could take it. A carved wooden lintel is not your average wayfarer kit, although those who know me will know that it is exactly the kind of thing I’d pick up along the way. Not knowing precisely how it would work out, I left into the fen drizzle with this unlikely package, sure that it would at least make a good story.

My next stop was to visit family, in the rolling flinty Chiltern Hills. My aunt and uncle were exhibiting their wares at a craft fare, and their daughter Holly and her man had decided I needed feeding up. So I indulged in two baths and three big meals in a twenty four hour period!

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Holly and I took a walk together, with the dog, as we have done intermittently throughout our lives. If there is any one path I have walked repeatedly over many years, through my own and nature’s seasons, it is this one. I have childhood memories of picking sloes for gin, and there they were again, full in their blue blooming.

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And on to Stonor craft fair, near Henley, where some Wayfarer magic was wrought. I finally met swill basket maker Owen Jones, who lives and works in the Lake District. I had been told about him by several different people when I was walking up there, but never got the chance to meet him. Here he was in a field in the south of England, at the same craft fair at which my aunt and uncle were exhibiting.

He remembered my cousin Holly playing at his stall as a child, and I think I remember it too. We shared words and mint tea made with his Kelly Kettle, fed by oak shavings from his basket making. And he agreed to take my wooden lintel back to Cumbria! If I’d had all my gear with me I might have squeezed in his van too, but more woody adventures awaited in the Forest of Dean.

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My aunty, a general creative genius and embroiderer, bedecked my walking stick with the gold threaded “bottom rung” of her Tree of Life, that she had created to go on a technicolored dreamcoat.

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My uncle – a letter carver – drew a bit of a crowd (not least my own family) as he carved my walking stick, starting only with a W but looking for something a little more…

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And finally he came upon it: WABE from Lewis Caroll’s Jabberwocky. For my journey, which has a long way before, and a long way behind.

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Twas bryllyg, and ye slythy toves
Did gyre and gymble in ye wabe:
All mimsy were ye borogoves;
And ye mome raths outgrabe.

Pieces of a Walk in Late Summer

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    Source: Blakeney Greenway, Forest of Dean

Brewing Umber

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I feel as if a new colour has been made. With her earthy autumnal reds and my mossy greens, mixed with the liquid light of this Dartmoor summer, cooked for some days over a wood stove and dusted with Perseids, we now clutch in the creased life tracks of our palms a translucent backlit umber – much like the colour of the bracing peaty river in which we bathed before parting ways.

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The greatest miracle of this journey began more than two weeks ago. It was the longest, deepest and widest path I have trodden, and yet few footsteps were taken. It has shaped my paths since, and will ring throughout my lifetime. The pattering footsteps of two people meant to meet, yet dancing through and past each other, have echoed for many many years in an empty chamber in our hearts, waiting for the day when we could sit in it together and drink a never ending cup of tea.

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Artist Rima Staines and I share a part of our paths that was full of extremes. We were once, in different chapters if our lives, with the same man. That is now an old story for both of us. My relationship with him was full of a darkness and a light that was never allowed to be reconciled. For those of us who feel intensely the tides and trembles of existence, it is a rare joy to meet another who knows it. And, in the alchemy of Rima and I meeting, a new and different colour was made. Like a dark rain cloud meeting the sun, a rainbow emerges from the union.

She invited me for tea as The Wayfarer. Upon reading my blog more closely, pennies started dropping from the ceiling and threads stitched themselves through the patches lying around the room. She realised who I was. A woman from her past, not yet met. She invited me for tea again, as me. The teapot is still not empty, and the tea is not cold. We have only just begun.

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I camped in the overflow of an arboretum along the track from her cottage. First one night, then two, then three. We walked. We talked more. We danced. And we laughed. My, how we laughed! By the time I left, the grass under my tent had started to yellow.

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I ventured out onto the moor for more adventures and experienced the warm Devon welcomings. But Rima and her lovely man were going to a festival I know to tell a Lithuanian folk tale, and sell Rima’s just-beyond-this-worldly paintings. They wanted the story recording and there happened to be a Sarah shaped hole in the back of their van. So what was I to do?

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Pin myself between Arctic bell tents, boxes full of Rima’s wonderful paintings, accordions, and LOTS of food of course! All of a sudden, we shared Hampshire mists and cider and fireside song and workshops on making paper from mushrooms. Another county, yes, but more precisely, another world. One where I would wake to find a stag mask hanging in the trees next to my lantern.

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Brewed Umber. A shadow that has been processed and warmed to form a golden unstoppable flow. That is the colour we have made. That is the colour of our friendship. And that is what she carved and painted into my walking stick. Me, the wayfarer, carrying my burden, supported infinitely by a walking stick inside a walking stick, tracing a blood-earthline through a double treed forest into our friendship. The path to the other half of the story is this way.

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The Pitch of the Landscape

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As I walked down the lanes, through the wooded bridleways along the streams and up the tracks, towards the open expanse of Dartmoor, I passed ancient hamlets of cob and thatch.

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As I rounded the bend, I smelled it first – the freshly laid scent of dried water reed. A roof in mid rethatch. As I took pictures I noticed the thatcher in his Landrover, stirring from a lunchtime nap. Soon enough Malcolm and I were up on the roof.

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He had learned the art from his brother, and when he began thatching in the 1960s, the wheat straw was grown locally and he made the hazel spars by hand in the evening. Nowadays the thatch used is water reed from Turkey and the spars are made in Poland. Here he explains how that came to pass.

I have recently been reading Roger Deakin’s ‘Wildwood’, in which he explained that the old timber framed houses in Suffolk like his own, all had proportions that were directly determined by the sizes of the trees around them. I resonated with this idea of the home being a direct extension of the landscape it resides in, but had never considered it may also affect the pitch of the roof.

I find it so fascinating to talk to people who really know their craft. And when it is a craft that depends on natural materials, they know so much about the changing landscape by extension. There is a beauty in the repetitive nature of a task well done. It reminded me something the French potter said at Potfest: “The matter in your hands connects with the matter in you”.

The Personalities of the Path

The other day, a kind reader of this blog sent me a lovely quote. It reminded her of what I am doing. It reminded me of the myriad miracles I pass every day, and the many different personalities of the paths I travel.

“People usually consider walking on water or in thin air a miracle. But I think the real miracle is not to walk either on water or in thin air, but to walk on earth. Every day we are engaged in a miracle which we don’t even recognize: a blue sky, white clouds, green leaves, the black, curious eyes of a child — our own two eyes. All is a miracle.” ― Thich Nhat Hanh

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The Ripening Fruits of My Journey

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One might think, when moving mainly on foot, that the leaf turnings and the fruit ripenings and the seed formings would somehow happen at a similar pace to my own slow transformation. Or at least that my noticing of it would be a gradual process of ever so subtle increments. But as I have fared these many Devon ways, it has struck me so suddenly how the summer has turned.

The coolness in the air is immediately noticeable of course, as it has prompted my need to wear all that I am carrying, and affects where and how well I sleep. But different hedges are at different stages in their journey – a small difference in altitude or proximity to a river determining if the blackberries are indeed black, or still decidedly green.

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It is an exciting time to be walking, as I begin to hear whispers of the busyness of autumn coming, and the harvesting of the metaphorical and real fruits of this journey. Now that the summer has given way, each new day is a retelling of a growingly familiar tale.

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And in their gardens and their allotments, the people who live in houses are busy too, picking and tending to their fruits, and sometimes leaving them out for me to find on my way, in exchange for a penny or two.

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In the orchards, the apple trees are busy yielding their answers to the Wassailing prayers, that will keep me and these good folk of Devon in fruit, juice, and cider for the coming months.

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A Town Day & what is ‘essential’

I am always impressed by people who busk with a harp. But children busking with a harp is truly heroic. And the end goal of their efforts commands immense respect – watch the video very carefully!

I came across these two lovely lads, while spending a day in the wonderfully eclectic town of Totnes with my mother, and a dear old friend with whom, once upon a time, I climbed up to Annapurna base camp in Nepal, and had not seen much of since. How fitting to reunite on another journey on foot, all these years later.

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We spent a meandering few hours wandering the streets and looking for refinements to my kit for the next leg of my journey – a frying pan, a grill and a lovely little lantern, which I found huddled in a higgledy piggledy shop (my favourite kind) that had a bit of anything old and beautiful.

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I must admit, though I have refined my kit to what I actually need, there are still some things that feel are ‘essential’ in a different way, and candle light is one of them. I read in Roger Deakin’s ‘Wildwood’ the other day a quote about candle light illuminating the darkness and electric light killing it. The darkness in Devon is something I wish to embrace totally, so candle light is therefore part of my ‘essential kit’, whether journeying or staying put.

I have been fortunate so far, in each region I have journeyed, to be offered a ‘base camp’ in some form. In Devon, a lady I didn’t know before has so kindly offered for me to base myself in her converted granary. This connection came through somebody else I met in Cumbria, who had read my blog and we happened also to meet me because she decided to visit Sprint Mill, which the blog described, while I was there.

In Devon I shall likely be walking more often with my large backpack, from A to B, than I was in Cumbria, where I would leave it at the bottom of a mountain and go on day walks. For the curious among you, on these day walks I found that my essential items comprised: a notebook, a pen, some nuts and dried fruit, some dried meat (very good walking energy), my iPad for taking photos and videos and posting blogs when I found network at the top of a mountain, a map, and some water. That is what I need. No more, no less.

Between the bright fields and the dark hedges

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Walking in Devon is, like life itself, much about weaving through the shadow and the light – bounding through sun scorched fields and ducking into the emerald dappled holloways. I arrived at dusk, and what struck me most is the intensity of the darkness. The absence of a moon made darker still by the high hedgerows, cradling you in your way, or hemming you in – whichever sentiment your perception gives way to. It is the antithesis of walking in Iceland, where the vistas are vast and trees are close to non-existent.

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The hedgerows are so tall and present and full of life, that my first thought as I sat in the crackling black, was that non-human life in Devon took place more in the vertical than in the horizontal. There is a whole universe to be relearned in the leaves, the tendrils, the seed heads and the rosing hips. And in all the creatures that live on, under, through and between them. There are scurryings in the understorey, and flutterings in the upper levels. As I walked down a lane with my mother, I felt honoured to witness the moment when a leaf dried like an umbilical cord, then after weeks of photosynthesis, fell to its destiny.

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The hedge is a many storeyed library of life, and it is impossible not to wish to read of its books. It feels an offence to the creativity and abundance of the hedge then, to begin to come across a majority which have been crudely subjected to a strimmer as the summer plods on. Apparently the farmers must keep their hedges in check to keep the car channels open, otherwise the council will do it for them and present them with a bill. The ancient, skilled and time consuming art of hedge laying seems to have largely been lost.

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With my mother I passed old barns and derelict mills and followed a nide of pheasant hens up a hill into a wood where stood the ruined castle of Berry Pomeroy.

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Down the hill again we passed an apple tree dripping with temptation. And, parked up beside a stream, a bow top wagon with a letter box – a suggestion of a rarity: that this traveller has been allowed to stay awhile, before wending its way again between the bright fields and the dark hedges.

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Sarah Thomas is Penguin's Wayfarer and she'll be walking and writing for us all summer. Follow her journey here!

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