August 31st, 2013
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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!
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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!