Trail Communities

It’s not the beer or the blisters, or even the rain that I remember most fondly from the 287 miles of the Pennine way. And it’s not the views, which were better entertainment than anything I’ve seen on TV. No, the thing I loved most were the conversations with strangers along the way.

I’m quite shy and wish I was better at talking to strangers. But when you meet someone on a quiet path through bleak moorland, there are obvious things to ask: where they’ve set out from, are they walking the whole trail, are the conditions ahead any good? Sometimes you’ll stop for a couple of minutes; if you’re going the same way, you might fall into step for a time. The Pennine way is a community, a network of meetings and messages stretching up the spine of England.

The first people we’d met, just out of Edale, had done the walk years before. Amazingly, they’d only seen 20 minutes of rain – which means I think they missed some of the essential experiences of the walk. It’s quite something to be soaked to the skin and know that I’d rather be tramping up that mountain than sitting dry in an office.

Some of the stopping points pass on the news of the day to everyone who passes. At a chuck wagon on the roof of the moors, we heard about someone who’d done a thirty mile stint that day; and about the Australian ahead of us. We finally met her at the end of an uphill slog out of Hebden Bridge’s valley, where she was sheltering in a bus stop. We spent the day walking together, chatting about life and the how we’d come to be walking. She’d chucked her job in favour of a series of adventures – after the trail would be a marathon in Iceland. We parted in the drizzle at the edge of a reservoir.

I’ve never been good at pub chat, but the Pennine Way is the banter equivalent of a stroll to the shops. The Tan Hill Inn, (the highest pub in the country), is like an inn from a fantasy novel. Over the evening, the entire dining room here merged into a single conversation between the different tables. We heard about the person walking North-South, forced to fill a carrier bag of snow, having run out of water on the first section. A couple had stopped in for a drink and ended up booking their wedding reception there.

In my metropolitan bubble, everyone I know voted the same way in the referendum. While politics didn’t come up that often, we learned that a walker we met a few days running had worked for a pro-Brexit think tank. But disagreements could be left aside. We met them at one pub that didn’t understand hospitality, refusing to sell our companion food since they’d arrived four minutes after the kitchen closed. We offered them our starters, sharing food with someone we might have found ourselves arguing with if we’d encountered them on social media.

The finest place was the last stop on the way. When I first booked the Hiker’s Way, I wasn’t sure I’d like it. On the phone, they didn’t sound best-pleased about having to cater for a vegan. But when we arrived we were welcomed with a cup of tea, our boots taken away to be cleaned.

The Hiker’s rest is different from the other stops as most people stay two nights, breaking up the final twenty-six mile section. On your first night, there’s a new-pupil feeling, with the returning guests seeming more established and experienced. The following night you’re the experienced one. And there were stories at the bar – about the lengths some hikers to go to reduce weight, about swimming the channel, and about the spine race, which takes place on the Pennine Way in Winter.

The guesthouses have their own communities too – if a walker is a bit of a handful then the message will go up the line ahead of them, letting other owners know that they might need their best diplomatic skills for this one.

Whenever I passed houses for sale, I’d dream of buying them, spending my days watching the world pass by, trying to stop walkers for a cup of tea. I’d see ruins and feel sure that I could patch them up, given time. The path took us through a garden where a man handed us freshly-fallen apples from his pocket, the most delicious fruit I’ve tasted. Another farm offered a shed of supplies, and a kettle for tea. In the guestbook, walkers told how their walk had been saved by this intervention. They even had a shower, which might not have been hotel standards but I could imagine some for whom this was a lifeline.

There are the guest books too. We followed the stories of some of the people who’d strode ahead of is, like Emily who was walking from Lizard Point to John O’Groats. It was only the third night’s conversation when we learned it was not her first time walking the length of the country. We saw traces of people we knew in the message books in the bothies. Reading the tales of winter journeys made us grateful for the wet but warm weather we grappled with.

Wainwright loathed the Pennine way so much he offered a pint to anyone who completed it, at great expense to him and later to his estate. The prize is still there, taken over by a local brewery, who also hand out certificates. I bet that brewery makes their money back with the additional pints that follow the free one. And the final book, full of the statements of the other walkers – looking back we could find some of these other companions, from the hitch-hiker we’d collected near the start through to people we’d met ages before. And we added our own entries.

Even though thousands upon thousands of people have walked the Pennine Way, it is still alive with stories, and you can’t walk the route without adding your own.

Winter Walks

In the city, you can’t ignore the pandemic: covered faces, the rash of notices, people keeping their distance from each other. On my way out of Brighton, I even saw a masked statue (and I was disappointed that it had left its nose uncovered).

But out on the Downs ,it eases a little. Even if the conversation circles around the pandemic, and you’re still keeping a distance from your sole legally-permitted companion, life feels a little freer. It was cold on Saturday, but it felt good to be out.

Katharine and I had planned to walk to Ditchling Beacon. The route to the Beacon itself was muddy. While I enjoyed the slog, Katharine was not in the mood for half a mile of slippy, sticky mud. (Did you know that one book on Sussex Dialect lists 62 words that each describes a different texture of mud?). Instead we turned back and headed into a valley I’d not been through before, although I’d crossed it many times.

I’ve been enjoying Katherine May’s book Wintering, the perfect thing to be reading at the start of a bleak year:

Plants and animals don’t fight the winter; they don’t pretend it’s not happening and attempt to carry on living the same lives that they lived in the summer. They prepare. They adapt. They perform extraordinary acts of metamorphosis to get them through. Winter is a time of withdrawing from the world, maximising scant resources, carrying out acts of brutal efficiency and vanishing from sight; but that’s where the transformation occurs. Winter is not the death of the life cycle, but its crucible.

I love a good winter walk. The lack of leaves and the cold air gave everything clarity. The light has a different quality, the light diffused differently by the sun being lower in the sky.

Here is another truth about wintering: you’ll find wisdom in your winter, and once it’s over, it’s your responsibility to pass it on. And in return, it’s our responsibility to listen to those who have wintered before us. It’s an exchange of gifts in which nobody loses out.

from Wintering by Katherine May

We made our way to the Chattri. As it has been though much of the crisis, it was busier than usual. We stopped here for lunch then headed back into town before the rain settled in.

Review: The Book of Trespass

I had to get the Book of Trespass after reading a promotional interview with author Nick Hayes. It was fascinating and I was almost frustrated at how many other subjects it made me want to read about, such as the Harrying of the North or the King of the Gypsies.

The book is a history of trespass in the UK, along with Hayes’ accounts of his own incursions. Private land is something taken for granted in this country; so much so that, as Hayes describes, being told we’re trespassing has a near-magical effect, a speech act producing physical responses in the listener. By tracing out the history of land, Hayes shows us that this ownership is an invention. This history of property is embedded so deeply in our language that it is almost invisible. Hayes explains that that the word ‘forest’ derived from the latin word ‘foris’ meaning outside, alluding to how the forests were royal hunting grounds, outside the normal law of the land.

I’m not sure how well the accounts of trespassing sat with the scholarship. It felt, a little, like the book was trying to fit into the “man-has-an-adventure” genre. It’s not to say that the personal accounts weren’t fascinating, just that it felt like two books running alongside each other.

The book shows how many of the ills of the world are played out in the land, particularly in English land. While some on the right are trying to make the connection between British manor houses and slavery controversial, Hayes shows clearly that ownership of British land is still defined by the atrocities committed years ago. We are told that the crimes and lawbreaking of the past should be forgotten, while upholding the law in the present day; told that an arbitrary removal of this current property is an injustice. Looked at from one angle, this becomes odd and arbitrary. Why should land obtained by past theft be sacrosanct now?

While Hayes can see the importance of laws like the right to roam, he points out that such things also reinforce the idea that there is a set of land rightfully lost to us. Having read this book, it’s hard to see how Britain can really be a democracy when its property laws are so unfair; but the book also opens up possibilities.

One of the characters in the book is Richard Drax, MP for South Dorset since 2010. Drax owns over 13,000 acres of land in Dorset, among other holdings. Drax has strongly dismissed any criticism of his family and his fortune being linked to the slave trade.

You will have seen Drax’s estate if you’ve driven along the A31. It has one of the longest brick walls in Europe, and includes the striking stag gate. In 2013, Drax voted to increase curbs on immigration, saying “I believe, as do many of my constituents, that this country is full

As Hayes says (p371), “If England is full, it is full of space. And the walls that hide that”

A Visit to the Plague Village

I didn’t do a lot of travelling this year, but one place I stayed was totally on-brand for 2020: Eyam, the plague village. I picked this as an overnight stop on the White to Dark Trail, and only later remembered why the village was famous.

In 1665, some flea-infested cloth arrived in the town and people began to get sick. Precautions were taken, such as moving church services outdoors, and making families bury their own dead – which puts the current situation into a bleak sort of perspective. Eventually Eyam put itself into quarantine and local merchants delivered supplies to marked rocks. Holes had been made in these rocks and filled with vinegar to disinfect the money left in payment. The plague lasted over 14 months killing more than half the villagers.

The plague is marked by an annual event, but the 2020 Plague Sunday ceremonies were cancelled due to covid. We passed through the village the following month. Eyam is scenic, and the history makes it a popular stop for coach tours. It’s fair to say that Eyam has made the best of their connection to the plague history. The village is filed with weirdly jaunty signs describing the horrors that happened there. Ironically, Covid meant that the plague museum was shut.

Death Stranding

Last weekend, I finished playing Death Stranding. It’s a strange game, and sometimes frustrating – not least for the ending: 40 hours of play was rewarded with hours of cut scenes to explain the plot. Still, now I’ve completed the main story, I can focus on the bits I like – making deliveries and connecting preppers to the chiral network.

Death Stranding is a game about deliveries, about taking parcels between isolated people who are unable to leave their homes. Yes, for a game released in November 2019, just before the first confirmed case of coronavirus, it’s weirdly prescient. During March, I actually spent time in the real world dropping off food and medication to people who were shielding.

My biggest frustration was with how the game shifted genre. I wanted to play a game about building and connecting, and resented being forced to pick up guns to fight people and bosses. I was at my happiest making long, lonely hikes across mountains. One of the big criticisms I’ve seen of this game is that it is simply a ‘walking simulator’. I cannot underplay how wonderful I found the portrayal of walking. It felt very close to my personal experience of hiking over rough terrain and picking the best route.

The other great thing about the game was its asynchronous multiplayer elements. You can use infrastructure created by other players and are rewarded when they use elements that you have created. I’m not quite sure how it works, but it’s fun and effective. I do wonder how this will work as the game ages. Will these connections decay as players move away and, eventually, the servers are switched off? This would be a tragedy.

One surprising thing was how traumatic some of the game’s themes were, featuring bereavement, miscarriage and mourning. It wasn’t exploitative, but it can’t be easy for everyone to deal with. In addition, after Anita Sarkeesian’s excellent work on Tropes in Gaming, it was disappointing to see a female characters made sexually vulnerable to add jeopardy.

But the game sticks with me. As I played, I found myself thinking about incomplete deliveries the morning after a session. I felt acutely the incompetence when I arrived at one destination to realise that I’d left the cargo behind.

I’ve had a week off the game, but I’m planning to return to the world of Death Stranding. I may have completed the main story, but the game allows you to continue making deliveries and building infrastructure. I’m looking forward to heading back into the mountains and visiting some of the places I missed first time round.

A Mysterious Tile, in the Wrong Place

Image from Wikipedia


The phase turned up on mysterious tiles placed in American cities in the 80s and 90s. Nobody is entirely certain where they came from. I’m sure I remember seeing some in New York, when I was living near Manhattan in 1999. That’s not impossible as some Toynbee tiles were placed in New York, but I didn’t have a digital camera back then to record the odd things I saw.

The Toynbee tiles are discussed in books like The Mysterium and were featured in Atlas Obscura. Both of these sources dig into the origin of the message, with its references to 2001 and, possibly, Ray Bradbury’s story The Toynbee Convector (some of the later tiles also contained anti-semitic paranoia). The 2011 documentary Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles came up with an explanation of how they were placed, using a car with a hole in the passenger-side floor.

The Atlas Obscura story is a great summary of what is known, as well as more recent appearances of these tiles, in the middle of the last decade. It’s a fascinating story, and you can imagine how surprised to see one of these tiles in Sussex, on my last walk before lockdown 1. This was on the road from Firle Beacon down toward the village:

I wondered what this was doing so far from home. It seems to read “D_ B____ says fish will fall from sky”, which I guess means it was a promotion for the Mysterium book. Good to see that it is still around, ready to confuse passing hikers.

Video Games vs Reality

I used to have a friend that loved getting high and playing video games. They were obsessed with 1993’s Doom, an early first-person shooter which had relentless waves of enemies and an odd ‘forced 3D’.

Sometimes, you’d be in a place with them and they would compare it to a Doom level. It always felt jarring – I understood that the impression was vivid to them, but it didn’t translate to other people. When I was in the Louvre, I was amazed by the art, not how easily I could imagine a Cyberdemon appearing from around the corner.

Last month, I was climbing a hill in Shropshire, walking over scrub common-land, with clouds drawing down closer. There was no real path so I had to pick the best route. As I climbed, I looked up to see some ruined buildings emerged in the shadows ahead of me.

And I couldn’t help but feeling like I was in the game Death Stranding.

I played a lot of Doom and Quake back in the nineties, but I’d never had such a strong feeling of deja-vu about a game before. It’s something to do with how sophisticated these games have become. When I’m walking through the landscape in Death Stranding, it feels so similar to keeping my balance when I’m walking on steep hills. And the distance between reality and graphics is diminishing, particularly on misty days.

A week ago, I spent an entire day playing The Last of Us Part 2 (hey, it’s a pandemic). When I went out to the supermarket afterwards, my movements felt videogame-like, my vision when I turned like the in-game camera. When I picked things up to put them in my pocket, I felt the same satisfying click as that game provided.

I’d like to argue that this is more remarkable than simply seeing long corridors and hidden corners as dangerous; but I reckon I was unfair to this friend. They’d just engaged with games more intently than I had.

A 23-minute pilgrimage

A few weeks ago I was emailed the following instructions:

You are invited to make a Pilgrimage on 12/11/20.
To where and what is up to you.
Choose a place or let one choose you.
Make the pilgrimage only 23 minutes long.
At the end of your Pilgrimage, create a small ritual of completion.
Film a 23 second video sharing whatever feels right.
Post it online at 7.23pm.
Best of luck. xx

The route I chose for my pilgrimage was along the Hove Promenade. It was not exactly 23 minutes, but it was near enough. As I walked, I recalled the CERN pilgrimage from Easter 2019. I carried some of my pilgrimage relics with me, including cards from the tarot deck designed for the trip.

In her book on Banaras, Diana Eck writes about how “The symbol that condenses the whole into the part is common in the Hindu world”. One of the holiest pilgrimages in Hinduism is to visit the Char Dhams, a trip to four sacred sites in the different corners of India. According to some, the same benefits can be attained through a certain 5-day pilgrimage on the Panchakroshi Road, which encircles Kashi. The same pilgrimage in different places, at different scales. In a similar way, I wanted my 23-minute pilgrimage to condense that longer pilgrimage from last year.

So many memories returned on my walk. Sika Deer. Delaying to eat food before heading to the ferry. The Bricklayer running the Pilgrim Opera rehearsals. The machines at the CERN museum – and the world’s first web server. The Lion’s valiant work to stitch the dress for the ritual. Getting a group of pilgrims lost in Switzerland looking for the restaurant.

I ended my pilgrimage on a manhole cover, the very same one from Mathew Street in Liverpool. Like the single electron travelling back and forth in time through our universe, this manhole exists in many places simultaneously. This manhole in Hove is now connected to a strand of the inter-stellar Ley line.

A River Walk (Lewes to Peacehaven)

I’m not a huge fan of riverside hikes. I hate how a long stretch of walking beside a meandering river covers so little distance. Despite that, when some friends suggested a walk along the Ouse I decided to join them.

I took my first trip on a train since March. The train station was strange and oppressive, and also very quiet. We set out for the Ouse via the ruins of Lewes Priory.

We’d started out early, but the heat was already brutal. I kept slathering on the suncream and went through my drinks faster than planned (last night I ordered a couple more aluminium bottles ready for future hikes this summer). Waterbirds darted about and, on the opposite bank were a menacing line of cows, the young ones sheltering in their parent’s shadows.

The landscape south of Lewes is beautiful, with views of Firle Beacon, Mount Caburn and Lewes castle. And, while the river was taking long loops it didn’t feel too irritating. As Frankie pointed out, it meant our view of the scenery kept changing. The route was more interesting than the equivalent section of the South Downs Way, where you have the same ridge of the hill ahead of you for hours.

We did walk a tiny section of the South Downs way when we met it at the Southease swing-bridge. We walked from one side of the bridge to the other than back to continue our journey along the Ouse’s west bank.

On the east side of the river, we found a short trail of muddy hoof prints.

We couldn’t follow the banks of the Ouse the whole way, since private property forced us inland near Piddinghoe. Instead we had to follow a fast stretch of road with little pavement – but at least it gave us some shade.

The river was very low and, in the end, only one of us took a dip. I sat on a bench and enjoyed the view of Itford Hill.

For some miles, we’d seen thick smoke rising from Newhaven. At Piddinghoe we encountered a couple of walkers who’d left the town for the day to avoid this cloud. When the wind changed for a time we could see and smell the smoke, so we decided to change our plan of heading to Newhaven and strike out south-west for Peacehaven.

There was a path clearly marked on the OS map, so we took that for it. I learned a useful lesson: just because a path is clearly marked, it doesn’t make it easy to navigate. This one was thick with brambles, some of which drew blood from Frankie’s legs. The branches were also thick with fruit, which I guess is a fair exchange, and Frankie emerged with an armful of forage. The hedge beside us was also full of butterflies.

The difficult part of the route did not last too long, but it was definitely one of those neglected paths which seem to have been actively made unwelcoming. The footpath was actually blocked at one point by a low fence.

But we did have some great views on our way to Peacehaven’s Centenary Park, from where we headed to the the meridien marker before taking an Uber home. It was a good day out, and walks in company are generally much more fun that solitiary ones – I even learned about how PCR testing works. And I managed to add another 10 meters towards my re-walking of the South Downs Way.

Hiking the South Downs Way 1: Belle Tout Lighthouse to Alfriston

After very little recent hiking (my last proper walk was June 20th), it was good to get out again. Even on the day itself, it was hard to leave the safety of my nest, but worth it once I was out. I’m hoping to walk the whole of the South Downs Way in August/September, so this 9 mile section was a good start.

Obviously, the Belle Tout lighthouse is not a traditional starting point for the South Downs Way. Katharine thought the trail started from Beachy Head, and I thought she wanted to keep the distance down. Either way, we will have to come back and do that missing three mile section. It’s an opportunity for me to walk the Jevington route, the alternative path for cyclists.

The weather was pretty much perfect for hiking – sunny but breezy, not too hot. My fitness wasn’t so good – I had to rest a few times when climbing the seven sisters. I’ve also developed a bad back during lockdown, and fell over when I slipped on one of the downhill sections.

But the white cliffs were stunning and we even had a flyby from a couple of spitfires, which performed acrobatics above Beachy Head.

At the end of the Seven Sisters was Cuckmere Haven. I recently read about how the valley was once filled with defences to resist the planned German invasion. From there we walked through Friston Forest through to Litlington, where Katharine spotted a turn I blithely missed. From there, we strolled the meadows leading to Alfriston, where we had lunch before heading home.

But, before leaving Alfriston, we popped into Much Ado Books. My first trip to an actual bookshop in months, but they made the whole thing friendly rather than weird. I ended up buying a couple of books, one on foraging, and one I couldn’t resist for the title, The Museum of Whales You Will Never See: And Other Excursions to Iceland’s Most Unusual Museums. I’ve been buying from that virtual bookshop recently, and I’d forgotten the joys of a proper bookshop.

The bookshop was giving out vintage postcards with all purchases, so I now have a lovely postcard of Budapest to send to someone. Also, usefully, there was a chart to help you see which authors are the same size as you.

After weeks without a proper hike, it was good to get out again. Katharine had been feeling the same frustrations as me about walking alone. We talked about old friends, future plans and our fears. The best conversations happen when hiking. Next up, we need to book in the Winchester leg.