#150 Camelot and the waste land
First published July 12, 2017
REVIEW: Walking to Camelot: A Pilgrimage through the Heart of Rural England
by John A. Cherrington
Vancouver: Figure 1 Publishing, 2016.
$22.95 / 978-1-927958-62-9
Reviewed by John Gellard
John Cherrrington takes a 365-mile hike through southern England on public footpaths.
In an interview with his publisher, Cherrington reflected on his effective MO: “When I travel I always carry a bottle of water, a notebook, a camera, and a miniature recording device so I can record glimpses of life along the way. I don’t necessarily record any conversations unless the other party is willing.”
“Walking Macmillan, I learned to master and endure varying forms of weather, fatigue, and foot damage. I also discovered how easy it can be to walk beyond the wardrobe door of C.S. Lewis to the land of Narnia and experience a wholly different world than that encountered by car.
Reviewer John Gellard contrasts the pastoral landscape of rural England, where public access to land is fiercely protected by ancient custom, with the hydro developments in rural B.C., where crown land is merely a disposable backdrop for government or corporate profit. – Ed.
“The bull follows Karl around the tree, crashing against the trunk again, but as he does so, Karl gets in one good thwack on the bull’s nose…”
Does Karl escape from the bull, or is he impaled by this 2,000 pounds of snorting anger? Karl escapes.
To find out how, read Chapter 8 of John Cherrington’s Walking to Camelot, the riveting story of a 365-mile hike through southern England.
John is “an out of shape solicitor,” aged 54, from British Columbia’s Fraser Valley. His companion, Karl, is an athletic 74 year-old ex-bantamweight pugilist and logger of Dutch descent (“wooden shoes, wooden head, wouldn’t listen”) who likes his Guinness and did half the 29-day hike with a sprained ankle.
The Macmillan Way is a series of public footpaths (Don’t call them “trails”) through the heart of rural England starting in Boston, Lincolnshire, near “The Wash,” from the Fens east and south to the pastoral Midlands, over the Cotswolds and down through the chalk hills of Hardy’s Dorset to the English Channel. Its 290 miles are part of a 140,000-mile network of public footpaths spreading “like veins of a body” across fields and forests and tiny rustic villages.
A guidebook, The Macmillan Way by Peter Titchmarsh (2001), gives directions and maps and suggestions for accommodation so that you can call ahead and reserve. There is no need to camp.
Walking to Camelot, however, is not a guidebook. It is a work of art – a richly varied verbal tapestry making intriguing patterns out of many brilliant narrative threads — the motif of ever-changing landscapes from the dismal Fens to the gentrified limestone Cotswolds, the amusing Fawlty Towers B & B experiences, the straying where the guidebook misleads, the occasional clash between Arcadian countryside and frenetic urban life, the encounters with eccentric individuals like the oldster who insists on being buried with his dog rather than with his wife, the worrying story of Tiffany the rape victim, the historical figures of Boadicea and King Arthur, the literary allusions to The Wind in the Willows (1908) and the Hardy novels, the old buildings and startling ancient artefacts, the quaint rural customs of unknown origin, the political tension between landowners and “The Ramblers,” and, certainly not least, the lyrical tributes to a richly alive countryside loved and nurtured by the English.
Let’s look at a few of the highlights, then, and see if we B.C. settlers can draw some useful conclusions.
The ever-changing landscape dominates this hike. The beginning is ominous. Our travellers are hit with bone-chilling rain squalls from the North Sea. “The Fens are a wild lonely place … the great flat monotony … melancholia and self-murder and heavy drinking … and sudden acts of violence.”
The author alludes here to Graham Swift’s Waterland (1983), but I’m reminded of Stephen Leacock’s satirical ghost story “Buggam Grange.”
Contrast this with “the magnificent Cotswolds, a magical honeycomb of hidden valleys, softly rounded hills and quiet refined villages,” a quick two hour commute to London, or with Warwickshire’s Shakespeare country: “[A]head of us a flock of sheep is herded by an English collie along the path. A tall elm tree stands as sentinel. The eye is entranced by endless slanting fields beyond.”
Near the end of the hike: “From the high point I marvel at the Dorset Downs and picturesque patchwork fields … the curves so graceful, the fields tidy and neat, the villages all quiet and ordered, with no sprawl.”
It’s a jolt when the walk meets the motorways. “We leave the copse via a kissing gate and stand on an overpass staring down at the twelve lanes of the frenetic M1 … I cannot relate to this motorway scene — it must be in some twilight zone — and I hustle in panic to reach a spinney on the far side.”
Question: How did all those footpaths get there in the first place? Isn’t it generous of landowners to allow ramblers to walk across their land? Don’t you believe it! The footpaths got there because of the eternal vigilance of the common people who demanded the “right to roam” on common land increasingly privatized since the Enclosure Movement 400 years ago.
Today “The Ramblers” spearhead the battle. They recently won a case against Nicholas van Hoogstraten who called The Ramblers “scum of the earth,” and added, “This is my land and I’ll do what I want with it.”
Wrong answer, sir!
Madonna owns 1,130 acres in Wiltshire where she shoots birds and threatens to shoot trespassers. The court ordered her to allow public paths on 130 acres. So, you see, the fight against privatization of the commons is constant.
But the Enclosure Movement is but an instant in 2,000 years of history. The book is full of fascinating vignettes from the distant past.
The tiny county of Rutland is where the Celtic warrior queen Boadicea rebelled against the Romans in 61 AD. She was publicly flogged and her two daughters were raped by the Roman soldiers.
Boadicea got her revenge by raising an army of 100,000 and burning London.
Cadbury Castle is the mythical Camelot, the court of King Arthur who defended western England against the Saxon invaders in the fifth century.
The connection between Camelot and the Cerne Abbas Giant, a 180-foot statue with a forty-foot erect penis, is uncertain, but the Giant survived efforts by the Puritans and the Victorians to demolish it.
The people defended it. Celtic fertility rites survive to this day in Dorset.
Yes, the reader will be captivated by the tales in Walking to Camelot and by the adventures of our courageous protagonists. Lost on the muddy paths, they are chased by Highland cattle. One B & B is a noisy brothel. They have a pleasant encounter with gypsies. They stray into a gothic celebration and are rushed out because they are thought to be “coppers.” They are charmed by the kindness of the people they meet, like the two ladies who tend to Karl’s sprained ankle. They find fellowship and good food in the village pubs.
What lessons can we British Columbians take from Walking to Camelot?
Charrington mentions the “Golden Country” in Orwell’s 1984 — the life-affirming bucolic refuge from the soulless city. Here in B.C., we settlers were handed a “Golden Country” by Indigenous people who had looked after it for millennia and created from it what Franz Boas identified as material cultures of global importance.
And what have we done with it in 150 years? How have we interpreted the same raw material? Shamefully, we are destroying it as we turn the land into a commodity. We have barely moved beyond a frontier mentality. We’re closing the forests to wanderers as we clear-cut the trees. We’re blasting mountains with open-pit mining, spewing toxic waste into rivers and lakes.
We’re damming pastoral river valleys, creating sterile reservoirs such as Williston Lake, flooded by W.A.C. Bennett dam in 1968.
At Williston Lake, Hydro couldn’t even be bothered to cut down the forest on the land it flooded. For decades, trees erupted to the surface like rockets and presented a hazard to boaters.
And now BC Hydro has embarked, with your money and mine, on a new short-sighted abomination at Site C on the Peace.
We need to wake up. We need to defend what we have.
Here is an inspiring image from the book: Rutland Water reservoir in the East Midlands flooded a wetland recently.
Was a sterile mess created with unstable banks that will slough for decades if not centuries, like those on BC Hydro’s desecrations of the Peace and Columbia Rivers?
No. The new five-square mile “lake” is a refuge for twenty thousand breeding birds. People gather there for the Golden Country experience.
So, please, British Columbians, be inspired by Walking to Camelot, and let’s “get ourselves back to the Garden.”
“It is solved by walking.”
Royalties from the sale of John Cherrington’s book in the UK are donated to Macmillan Cancer Support.
John Gellard spent his childhood in England and Trinidad, donated his adolescence to an English boarding school, earned an MA in Philosophy from the University of Western Ontario, and taught English and Drama in London, Ontario, for seven years. In 1973, he arrived in the West Kootenay where he felled and peeled pine logs on his “wild land” property and built a log cabin. Gravitating to the city, he taught drama for thirty years at Vancouver Technical Secondary School and Kitsilano Secondary. He still helps run writing workshops for students, notably (since 1993) an annual overnight retreat on Gambier Island. His articles have appeared in the Globe and Mail and the Watershed Sentinel. He takes an active interest in environmental issues and travels extensively in B.C. He lives among friends in Kitsilano and on Hornby Island, has two grown sons, and retired from teaching English and Writing at Kitsilano Secondary School after being named Canada’s “Best High School Teacher” in a Maclean’s poll in August 2005.
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