On the White Horses Walk
Anyone who has ever been anywhere in the English countryside will recognize the signs. They’re everywhere along the sides of roads, pointing off into fields, through hedges, into woodland. And anyone who has ever seen any of these signs can’t help but wonder–where does that path go? I want to follow it.
At least, that’s the way I’ve always felt.
So. I screwed my courage to the sticking place and did something I’d discussed with my way-cool sister Susan on a number of occasions: upon finding that John Jones, the lead singer of Oysterband and an avid walker, was beginning his week-long White Horses Walk, from Goring (near Oxford), to the Village Pump Folk Festival in Westbury on the Monday of my adventure…I showed up. And joined.
There were twenty-two in all who huddled under the awning at
Pierreponts Cafe just before noon. The rain at least had slowed by then to a dreary sort of drizzle, and all of us had on rain gear of some sort or another. I had spent the hour before meeting up scouring all of Goring for a rain hat, to no avail; what I should have been looking for, had I been in the know, were a pair of gaiters. The group though–most of whom knew each other from previous walks or Oysterband gigs–were in good spirits. A group photo to mark the beginning…and we were off.
We left Goring on the Thames Path, leaving the road and walking in a dripping tunnel walled on one side by back gardens and on the other by steep ways down to the river. At this point there was much murmured conversation, and the group hung together. Eventually we reached some open fields along the river; with the wet summer, and indeed the wet morning, the path was muddy and we frequently found ourselves squelching through puddles. Off to our right, a train passed every so often. The group began to spread out. The nature of the public footpaths in England dictates that walkers cross from one farmer’s field to another’s, and are trusted to shut gates after them; it was near some such gates that I fell in with Steve and Lesley. She told me of all the wonderful walks one can do around York, where she lived; he explained–at my urging, though I was given to understand that he usually
needed very little urging–how polyethylene glycol was used in preserving wooden artifacts from underwater archaeology. I knew some of this, and I think was able to ask questions which weren’t too inane…but then it struck me: I was walking across the English countryside having a lesson in the use of chemicals in archaeological preservation. How absolutely cool is that?
Through South and North Stoke we trekked, walking through a churchyard, coming out on roads behind houses, passing a pub (The Perch and Pike) which looked inviting in the drizzle. More fields, but then those gave way to woodland, and in Mongewell, we crossed a busy road, picked up Emma, and headed back into
the trees. Now it was uphill, towards the part of the Ridgeway that hugged Grim’s Dyke. The trees formed a tunnel, the path itself was worn into the turf in such a way that we had to either straddle it or put one foot directly in front of the other. Fortunately, up here, the path itself was much drier, though the trees still dripped steadily. This was perhaps the most difficult part of the walk, climbing. To the left and right we could see the fields stretching away, and it was easy to recognize this raised ground as the ancient boundary it was. By now there was very little conversation: we all seemed somehow centered–something I’ve noticed happens on long-distance bike rides as well. John Jones, our fearless leader, passed along the line a couple of times, checking with his loyal troops to make sure we were all right. At one point, on a long climb through a leafy avenue,
someone–I’m not sure who–went on ahead to get footage of us trudging ever upwards. We passed through kissing gates and over stiles. We all got stung by nettles. We came back down into a village, then found a place where the footpath disappeared into a giant thicket. Someone asked who brought the machetes. They wouldn’t let me bring mine on the plane, I said. We plunged through and found ourselves in the muckiest patch of the afternoon, then crossed a field where the grain was slightly higher than my knee. Eventually we hit the A road going into Nettlebed, and trudged the last mile or so single-file on the verge. My feet told me it was a relief to finally cross the road into the front lot of the Nettlebed Village Club, home of the Nettlebed Folk Club, and the gig venue for John Jones & the Reluctant Ramblers that evening (more on that later); but at the same time, I was rather sad that the day’s walk was done. Everyone else would continue on in the morning, but this was my only day. I had completed the twelve miles, but now I wanted more.
I’ve learned my lesson. Gaiters. We all trooped into the White Hart Inn, next to the Village Club, for a pint and dinner before the show…and I was mud from the insteps to my knees. People who knew how this was done, such as the other Anne and her husband Paul, slipped off their walking gear to reveal perfectly clean clothing underneath; they then pulled clean shoes from their backpacks, and voila! All set. The restaurant was lovely. I kept trying to pretend it was someone else leaving those giant gobs of mud everywhere.
Walking, drinks, dinner, talk, a fantastic show. The walkers were leaving from the same place in Goring Tuesday morning, to head in the opposite direction, and because of my poor logistical planning, I couldn’t go with them. So I went down to see them off: Steve, Steve, Lesley, Lesley, Claire, Jane, Alison, Al, Benji, Tim, Lauren, Kay, Tom, Colin, and so many others, led off to find the first of the White Horses by the intrepid John Jones. I promised them all, and I promised myself: I will be back next year.