Deviations, Boundaries, Prohibitions, (revised)

  1. In the end I went back a long way, realising how much my walks and walking have been influenced by prohibitions. My mother used to tell the story of how when I was three, I took my little sister Judy out of the house one Sunday morning when our parents were still in bed, how they panicked when they realised we weren’t in the house, I was pushing her in her pram round the streets of Preston.

2. Long walks as a boy with a disobedient labrador when we lived by the mill in Amesbury. There are farmers and gamekeepers about. You can’t pass unobserved when there’s a big dog thrashing about and the pheasants raise the alarm.

3. in Rome, in 1980, we found ourselves locked out of the botanical gardens. Terror and kidnap had stiffened the defences of the villas out along the Appian Way, but at that time the public realm was poorly defended and it was easy to climb in, on a sunday when the gardens were officially closed. As we walked along a broad avenue through a wilderness of luxurious neglect a voice called out something in Italian that we couldn’t understand, then repeated it in German and finally, in English: be careful of the toads! (At that time in various wild places we met the perfect German, they’d always got there just before us.) And toads were crawling everywhere.

4. The countryside around Fiesole outside Florence is also heavy with prohibitions. A grove of olive trees surrounded by a six foot high wall with four feet of wire mesh fence on top of it. The gardens of the Villa Medici which we had hoped to visit were so well walled in that you get not a glimpse of its famous terraces. Lanes lined with high walls and fences so it feels like you’re in a railway cutting. Who are rich Italians – and no doubt plenty of foreigners – so scared of? But when we came to the ancient cathedral at the foot of the hills which is now part of some European university the caretaker spied us through his peep hole popped out with his bunch of keys to see what we wanted and let us in with a show of privilege and conspiracy. Because it felt as if rules were being broken we gave him a tip.

5. Travel is all about negotiating various permissions and exclusions. (The word passport means open door, pass through the door.) You have to pay to go into the Boboli gardens in Florence, but it’s free for EU citizens over the age of 65 (and for residents of Florence.) That was the only occasion in my life when I’ve been asked if I’m european, which I foolishly thought was odd until I realised that I could be american – I could be american!! And that’s when I realised I’d lost my passport. Once we were in and longing to sit down, every lawn and bank of grass had a keep off sign in several languages and there were no benches. But when you go up the hill, away from the palace, benches appear and the signs disappear, and the whole spirit of the place is transformed by people sitting about. We seem to move from an aristocratic estate where we are only tolerated if we stay on our feet and mind our place to a people’s park. But it took some finding, and we were weary. If you’re used to English landscaping the contradictory combination of wide open vistas and dark paths through bosky wilderness takes some negotiating. I’m surprised none of the guide books tell you any of this. It’s surely more important to the tired traveller than some fanciful idealisation of ‘the best pizza’ or ‘the most delicious ice cream’.

6. At Peniarth-uchaf   it’s the public footpath that draws us in. The Ordnance Survey map charts our little freedoms with green lines which often cut through private estates. Sometimes I can’t quite believe this entitlement and still feel like a trespasser even though the path very rarely goes up to the big house itself but slips past stables and barns and off into the woods. The miracle of Peniarth is that the squire – not sure what word you’ld use for an invisible Welsh land owner – lets us stray from the path. He doesn’t actually say, you are welcome to come into this garden, and he doesn’t say behave yourself when you are in the garden, he simply asks that we shut and bolt the door when we leave, as if to emphasise ours and the garden’s exclusion. And then at the end he puts ‘thankyou’, which is nice. Actually, you couldn’t bolt the door because it had dropped on its hinges, but I managed to prop it up a bit and leave it in a temporarily better state than when I found it.

Several years later I think that the notice is intended for guests at the holiday homes on the estate, not for stray vagabonds…   People thought that Wordsworth was quite the vagabond. Until the late eighteenth century nice people only walked within the grounds of an estate; he was one of the first to take to the hills.

7. In the middle of wild swampland where the trees are intertwined in an inextricable thicket, there is a plain with very green vegetation which attracts the eye by reason of its fertility; no obstacle impedes the walker. Not a particle of the soil is left fallow; here the earth bears fruit trees, there grape vines cover the ground or are trained on high trellises. In this place cultivation rivals nature; what the latter has forgotten the former brings forth…. this is an image of Paradise; it makes one think already of heaven. William of Malmesbury

How striking is ‘no obstacle impedes the walker’. We take the lack of impediments for granted, and almost always when people go walking they do the South West Coastal Path,  Offa’s Dike, the Pennine Way, paths well sign-posted and managed,  nice new oaken stiles, no barbed wire to struggle over or under, no bramble tangles, the bracken strimmed, the App that tells you how far to the next cup of tea.

An anonymous late 16th century writer quoted in Strong’s A Celebration of Gardens describes the paths of a country house garden as ‘as pleasant to walk on as a seashore when the tide is out’. We take ease of walking for granted. Then, the experience had a rarity which is invoked by the image of a relatively scarce natural feature: smooth (or maybe gently rippled) sand swept clean twice a day by the tide, that marginal state between the land and the sea.

Raving on his return to Britain about the delights of Guiana Sir Walter Raleigh claimed that he ‘never saw a more beautiful country… the river winding into diverse branches, the plains adjoining without bush or stubble, all fair green grass, the ground of hard sand, easy to march on either for horse or foot… the birds towards evening singing from every tree, with a thousand tunes; cranes and herons of white, crimson and carnation perching on the riverside; the air fresh with a gentle easterly wind; and every stone that we picked up promised either gold or silver by his complexion.’ Here the experience of hard sand is more credible than the promise of gold or silver.

If you’ve ever walked over a tussocky Scottish bog, as in the approach to some of the remote mountains in the far north west of Scotland, and then got back to the road, you can enjoy the sudden sensation of easy walking, not having to look where you put your feet, the smoothness of it.

On the park-like landscape of Arizona, managed through fire by the native peoples, Captain Clarence Dutton of the U.S, Geological Survey wrote in 1882: ‘the trees are large and noble in aspect and stand widely apart, …. Instead of dense thickets where we are shut in by impenetrable foliage, we can look far beyond and see the tree trunks vanishing away like an infinite colonnade. The ground is unobstructed and inviting. There is a constant succession of parks and glades – dreamy avenues of grass and flowers winding between sylvan walls, or spreading broad, open meadows….’ quoted in ‘World Fire’ by Stephen Pyne, p 285.

The federal authorities soon imposed a regime of strict conservation, and the old way of life disappeared, along with the native people. The recent devastating fires in California a Oregon are in part a consequence.

8. The word ‘pilgrim’ comes from ‘peregrinus’, as in peregrination, wandering about, and the root meaning of that is foreigner or exile.  The walker is not at home. This distinguishes real walks from taking the dog out for a pee. But especially in remote places, walkers look for homes, the cottage on the edge of the woods, the ruin which asks to be restored, the garden you could release from weeds. The sense of exile, which is heightened by a little trespassing, and by walking alone, makes images of home more poignant. .

9. On my walk from Cornwall to Scotland in 1972 I avoided farms when I could, behaving like a trespasser even though I was almost always on public rights of way, listening for dogs, cursing fences, skirting woods, striking the pose of the dispossessed, finding safety in invisibility. Often I didn’t camp till sunset and was on my way again soon after sunrise.

10.  One of the best places to experience a delightful transition from security to insecurity, from crowds to solitude, is the Giant’s Causeway. A path continues along the coast after the most famous, tightly geometric rock formations, running roughly on an even contour half way between the sea and the cliff top. After about half a mile you come to quite an elaborate fence blocking the way and signs warning that the path is dangerous after that point because of landslides. But the most difficult bit is climbing over the fence. The path itself is subject to erosion, but is no more dangerous than many mountain walks. No doubt there are occasionally rockfalls but most of the slippage is mud on the steep slopes after heavy rain, and there’s a bit of a scramble at the end as the path goes back up to rejoin the track along the cliff top. As well as peace and beauty this little expedition brings the joy of disobedience.

11. The hills around our gite at la Montagne, a hamlet in the Büech region of France are free from overt prohibitions. There are inaccessible limestone cliffs, and strange barren slopes of sticky marl, and in places tangled shrubs, for although still in department of the Hautes-Alpes we are at the edge of the Mediterranean garrigue, but there are none of the signs which in some areas constantly remind us of what we already know: that almost all of our continent is private property. And there is no clear division between proper tarmac roads with their legally binding signs and commandments and rough, stony tracks. Are we still on a public highway? Is it safe to carry on driving over ruts and sharp stones? No signs to say what kind of traffic is permissible, unlike England where a public footpath has an identity different from that of a bridleway, for the bridle of a horse; where distinctions are made between pedestrians, horses, mountain bikes, 4 wheel drives; or parts of the Alps where the road ends with a locked gate to which only locals have the key. (what a feeling of freedom when you walk past the gate, and leave behind the motorised tourists!) But around la Montagne thanks to subsidised electricity the local farmers use electric fences to control their sheep and goats. Some are not active, but some are, though they look rusty and neglected. Just too high to step over comfortably, too low to crawl under easily. And I hate the violent thrill of an electric shock. So some pasture and meadows were not easily accessible.

10. In the Peloponnese ( in the Peloponnese 3, Vaidenitsa) sheep and goats have the freedom of the hills, and so do we, although there are lots of William of Glastonbury’s ‘impenetrable thickets’. Botanists enjoy this freedom but wish the herbivores had less of it. As you leave the coast you leave outspoken private property and guard dogs. On minor roads the skin of tarmac is often flayed. More so than in the Büech, it is often not clear that you are leaving behind the security of a public road for a rough track leading maybe to an empty monastery, which could eventually become an overgrown footpath zig-zagging down into a gorge. (I read in that little book on the Peloponnese that the insurance on hired cars is often not valid on dirt roads. But is there in Greece a clear distinction between dirt and tarmac?)

11. In Corsica I walked above our campsite in the mountains, through a wood of theatrical old Corsican pines, a local variant of Pinus nigra, where leathery Helleborus corsicus survived the intense heat, and came up to a ridge from where I could see my way back to the campsite, barely half a mile away. From a distance the hillside appeared quite open, but in the end I had to crawl under the maquis, learning how a small mammal could easily run where I struggled to move at all. Over and through were impossible, the only way was the narrow band of air between stony ground and almost horizontal branches. If I did it again I would wear a helmet and kneepads, like a miner.

12. Dense, thorny scrub whether on mediterranean hillsides or the cornish coast is inviting from a distance. You can’t believe that you can’t walk there. Smooth greens and gentle slopes. I’ve often looked for routes up from Vault beach at Lamledra, but always when you go closer you find barbed entanglements of brambles, knee high hedgehogs of thick gorse, it really is impenetrable. Camouflage camouflaged.

13. Scrambling down over scree in the Alps you learn which plants to trust. Alnus viridis, green alder, grows on slopes which are subject to rock fall and avalanche. Its branches are almost prostrate, they allow snow to sweep over them; catch hold of them and they will hold you like a rope or a rail. What you remember afterwards is not the view but the sensation of rock and branch, the flexible strength of the alder, its firm handholds making up for no firm footholds, and the way your body is stretched as you swing and slither down. And how grateful your feet and legs are when you eventually get back to an even path.

14. In the Gasterntal I came to a full stop.


to be continued. See at a full stop in the Gasterntal

This entry was posted in mountains, flowers, landscapes, my life, walks and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Deviations, Boundaries, Prohibitions, (revised)

  1. mtrustram says:

    I like the new structure in Deviations.

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