Category Archives: Long-distance footpath

Belly to the Earth

Inspired by my recent wild-camping experiences on the Wessex Ridgeway, I consider how can we live a more soulful, sustainable life.

Wild camping on the Wessex Ridgeway

How can we live a more soulful, sustainable life? This is perhaps the most important question to address in the present age. Certainly, it is one that I find myself dwelling upon – an undertow to my days as I get caught up in the endless (and often vexating and trivial) ‘to do’ list of life. It is so easy to become enmired in Maya, or Samsara – the illusion of the world, and forget why we are really here. I see this ‘illusion’ not as some do: a world of matter to be rejected, denying corporeality, the body, and this good Earth — but as the surface of things. To be fully alive is to live deeply and fully – to be awake in the moment, to be present in one’s body, in one’s life. To revel in the bountiful sensorium of it all, its vivid, messy actuality. To be grounded and real. And by doing so, tapping into the ‘immanent moment’ (as I termed it in one of my poetry collections) and to realise how every embodied experience on this Earth has many levels, and can be an opportunity to awaken consciousness – to pierce beyond the veil of things (like the Arthurian fool-knight, Perceval/Parsifal, who ‘pierces the veil’ with his pure heart and cleansed perceptions and achieves the Holy Grail). To see things as they truly are: ‘infinite’, as Blake puts it, exhorting a cleansing of the doors of perception. Or as William Stafford expresses it in his poem, ‘Bi-focal’:

So, the world happens twice—
once what we see it as;
second it legends itself
deep, the way it is.

Sometimes we have to go down into the mud to see the stars, and so it was the week I spent walking the Wessex Ridgeway, a 127 mile long-distance footpath, which runs from Marlborough in Wiltshire to Lyme Regis on the Dorset coast. As this runs by my back-door I’ve been considering walking it for a while — it sat there expectantly, like a dog with a lead in its mouth, ready for walkies. I liked the idea of walking to the sea from my doorstep – and after the most challenging academic year in living memory I, like Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, heard the call of the ‘Grey Havens’. I wanted to change my skyline. The clean line of the chalk downs of Wiltshire are soothing, but there is nothing like seeing the horizon where the sea meets the sky to get a perspective on things. And so, with a full pack on my back, I set off. Carrying one’s home on one’s back certainly makes one feel snail-like, and that was pretty much the pace at times — especially on the uphill sections (which in Dorset were quite frequent). Yet slowing down, and noticing the details is part of the experience of exploring the world at walking pace

Resting my poor old pinkies

The highlight of my week of walking was the day I woke up at dawn in a peaceful flower meadow, and walked all day to finally arrive (with a lot of huffing and puffing up its steep flanks) to a spectacular hillfort, where I also wild-camped, watching the sunset as I savoured my simple but satisfying camp meal.  Although I was at one of the highest spots on the south coast, there was not a breath of wind. It was pleasantly mild, and I had the most peaceful night’s sleep, feeling like a king to be sleeping in such a place by myself.  That night I had a vivid dream, which was sufficiently stirring to wake me up and make me write it down. I dreamt of being part of an Iron Age tribe, no doubt influenced by sleeping in a hillfort (before turning in, I walked the impressive ramparts with their commanding view, and got a strong sense of what it must have felt like to have dwelled there, to call such a place ‘home’, and to wish to defend it – and your loved ones within – to your dying breath). Faced with the prospect of moving yet again (such is the life of the modern academic), thoughts of home have been at the forefront of my mind. And, having been carrying my humble little home all week, it was perhaps not surprising that my vision upon the hill related to notions of home, community, and belonging. The details of it seem less relevant than the messages I received from it, which I summarise below.

  • The importance of community – a reciprocal ‘ecosystem’, an entangled, resilient, co-supportive network.
  • The importance of leadership – of stepping into your power, drawing upon the authority of experience and self-reflexive insight. Creating and guiding, not controlling and censuring. This could manifest, for example, by running a space for the sharing of wisdom and mutual empowerment.
  • The importance of embodied ‘beingness’ – listening to the body, listening to the earth. Rejoicing in tactile, sensual, human touch.
  • The importance of living an ethical life, and showing the courage of one’s convictions – of ‘stepping up’, of speaking truth to power. Of being unafraid of being seen, heard, known for what one believes, what one knows is a ‘core truth’ – beyond the playacting, and posturing of much of modern life, the neurotic concern for status, approval, and ‘fitting in’.
  • The importance of place – of being ‘rooted’ in where you live, making a commitment to your community and digging in. Of belonging. And this is the essence of my phrase, ‘belly to the earth’ – an act of vulnerability and connection. Are you able to live somewhere so intimately, so lightly, that it is as though you are literally sleeping on the ground like a small child laying on Mother Earth? (try it – lay down on the grass, and feel the earth beneath you as you breathe upon it: simultaneously held and holding).
Sunrise on the hill-fort

I awoke at dawn, and with a precious mug of tea (the last of my water) watched the full orb of the sun break free of its pall of cloud. Feeling shiveringly alive, I quickly struck camp and set off on my way, keen to not forget my dream on the hill. How to manifest it felt less important at that moment than bringing it down from the heights and sharing it. Perhaps it will inspire you to consider how you can live with your ‘belly to the earth’?

Kevan Manwaring, 11th July 2021

Spirits of Place

I have been mapping place through poetry, fiction, and non-fiction for as long as I have been writing

I enjoy finding wildlife corridors of creative connection in my neck of the woods and beyond, for by knowing the land with our feet we come to know ourselves.

For as long as I have been writing I have exploring spirits of place. Recently, when preparing for a talk about my latest ‘deep mapping’ (The Herepath Project: a Wiltshire songline, Freebooter Press, 2020), I realised that genius loci have been something of an obsession of mine. My restless peregrinations – exploring Britain and beyond on foot, two wheels, and in my research – have been the inspiring companion to my journey by pen. My first published poem was one celebrating the Northamptonshire ‘peasant poet’, John Clare (in Stealing Ivy: Northampton Poets, 1992); and my first novel dramatised a thousand years of my old home town from the perspective of a tree (The Ghost Tree, unpublished).

When I moved to Bath in Somerset I won the annual Bard of Bath competition with my long poem, Spring Fall: the story of Sulis and Bladud of Bath, which celebrated the rich mythscape of that remarkable city.

The winner of the Bardic Chair of Bath, 1998

Subsequent poetry collections have also charted place through a collection of paeans, and poetic ‘snapshots’: Remembrance Days; A Pennyworth of Elevation; Gramarye; Waking the Night; Green Fire; Thirteen Treasures; Lost Border; Pen Mine… I have found that a poem written in situ can capture the totality of the experience far more effectively than a photograph, and, along with sketching, is my way of tuning into the spirit of place. Often I have performed these poems ‘back’ to the site that inspired them – a form of animistic reciprocity: a way of expressing gratitude. One poetry commissioned poetry sequence, Dragon Dance: a praise song to Albion, ambitiously evoked the spirit of place as it manifested in each of the nations that comprise this ‘cluster of rocks’, the British Isles: Cornwall, England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland (adopting a geographical, not political, stance, and celebrating the wonderful distinctiveness of each of these neighbours, ‘thrown together by fate’). Conceiving the genius loci of these five nations as mighty goddesses, I have performed the respective sequence in each, as well has as having it performed chorally at Stonehenge in a private access ceremony.

In prose I have mapped the British Isles in fiction (The Long Woman; The Knowing), in folk tale (Oxfordshire Folk Tales; Northamptonshire Folk Tales; Ballad Tales), and in creative non-fiction (Turning the Wheel: seasonal Britain on two wheels; Lost Islands: inventing Avalon, destroying Eden).

In numerous creative writing workshops I have helped my students explore and celebrate their relationship to their environment too – in ‘Creative Writing and the Environment’ at Envolve, Bath (which led to Writing the Land: an anthology of natural words); ‘Wild Writing’ at Hawkwood College; ‘Writing the Seasons’ at Delapre Abbey, Northampton; and modules for the University of Leicester and the University of Winchester. I have hosted many ‘open mic’ events where I have created a platform for writers to share their words – often with a seasonal or local focus.

As a writing professional I have won several site-specific commissions, such as ‘Marginalia’, which explored the graffiti culture of the Cultural Quarter of Leicester; or ‘Well Heeled’, which celebrated the shoe industry of Market Harborough. I started a monthly feature for the Cotswold Life magazine, ‘Cotswold Ways’ – researching and writing 30 literary walks; I then went on to create ‘Rural Rides’ for Derbyshire Life, exploring the Peak District on two wheels; and most recently I have been contributing blogs to a website about Stonehenge, here in Wiltshire where I now reside.

For the London Magazine, I wrote about my ‘songwalking’, which I started doing while trekking the West Highland Way. And in my academic work I have authored articles for peer-reviewed journals on my experiential research.

Last year I created and inaugurated a new long-distance pilgrimage route, the ‘King Arthur Way‘, a 153-mile footpath from Tintagel in Cornwall to Glastonbury Tor, Somerset. I have made a website for it, which charts the route in detail.

No doubt my ‘field research’ will yield further foragings. This creative mapping is something I am fascinated by, for our relationship to place is fundamental to the well-being of ourselves, our communities, and our planet.

Kevan Manwaring by Jay Ramsay, Sheepscombe, Gloucestershire

Kevan Manwaring, 2nd February, 2021

Road Ballad of a Vagabond King

Road Ballad of a Vagabond King

sleeping_king_1 David Wood art

Sleeping King, David Wood FFI: http://davidwoodart.com/

Arthur stretched out

his scratched and golden limbs,

matted head of wheat

pillowed upon the Polden Hills,

the Levels below

a damp cloak steaming.

Leaking boots drain into the Sedgemoor.

Fallen rain runs down the rhynes

of his ribs.

Cattle habitually give him

a lockdown haircut.

A king on the road,

footsore and boneweary,

long has he journeyed

the obscure ways of myths,

the hollow lanes of legend,

wearing the oak-leaf crown of his belief –

a fool on the wend,

stepping out of the way

of drivers rushing nowhere.

He has slept in the bleak leeward

of niches facing down

the grey gauntleted

fist of Tintagel,

the fastness of the forest perilous,

the moon-furnished margins of the Tamar.

St Bridget’s Well is off limits,

only bus stops and church porches

offer shelter to the vagabond king.

Lonely as a bedraggled buzzard

sitting on a stump in drizzle,

eyes in the back of his head,

a shiver of feathers

his rain dance.

He lugs his broken

kingdom on his back,

hoping somewhere he will

be able to unroll it and

raise it again.

Grey and hard are the roads,

his blister-scalloped feet prefer the verge,

the scratch choir of birdsong from

the eavesdropping hedgerows

to the rumble and hiss of passing machines.

He avoids the drilling gaze of curious drivers,

except to acknowledge when one acknowledges him

for stepping in – hedge backwards amid the nettles.

Sometimes, he sings as he goes

or walks for hours in brooding

silence. On greener byways,

sun-buntinged, river-garlanded,

a friendly stranger

receives a smile, a blessing, or

cheerful greeting. For we

are all on our way –

moving inexorably in one direction,

the universal terminus.

What we do with each step,

each moment, is the constant

fork in the path we should

ponder and savour, delaying

the need to be anywhere

else but here.

 

Inspired by walking the King Arthur Way 

Copyright (c) Kevan Manwaring 2020

Awakening the King

Walking the King Arthur Way

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Completing the King Arthur Way – made it to Glastonbury Tor, July 2020

In 2017 I conceived of a long-distance trail connecting Tintagel in Cornwall (conception place of King Arthur Pendragon, according to legend) with Glastonbury in Somerset (site of Arthur and Guinevere’s ‘graves’, and the Isle of Avalon to some). I intended it as a pilgrimage route, enabling walkers to experience the Arthurian legend in an embodied way, while at the same time reflecting upon, and possibly awakening, their own inner sovereignty – whether king, queen, or other noble archetype. In a world which suffers from many bad leaders, I saw it as a way of empowering positive leadership qualities in oneself. However esoteric or optimistic those goals may seem, I have actualised elements of that in the creation and completion of the King Arthur Way: in its initial vision, research, planning, and instigation. By physically walking the route – with a full forty pound pack, semi-wild-camping along the way – I have led by example. Literally, walked my talk. I know now it can be done. We’re not talking the north-west passage here, of course, but it good to check whether a route is not only viable, but enjoyable – with clearly-marked and passable footpaths, stimulatingly varied terrain, interesting landmarks, fascinating folklore and local history, and practical infrastructure (shops, pubs, campsites, transport links). As with any worthwhile project there was fine-tuning needed. In my first reconnaissance of the Cornish section of the route in late summer 2017, I discovered that trying to include too much was too ambitious. Then I walked from the north to the south coast of Cornwall, covering 60 miles. I found it a slog, with a lot of road-walking and miserable weather. So, I recalibrated the route, generally heading upcountry, in a north-easterly direction – this I found to be ‘easier’ (still an effort, with a full pack, especially on a hot day). I made good progress until a day of relentless rain and hard-walking (roads, urban areas, and the suitably-named Granite Way) gave me a badly-blistered foot. Fortunately, a friend lived nearby and so I appealed to her hospitality and allowed myself a rest day. I hobbled about, and realised trying to complete the rest of the route would be unrealistic. I was faced with a choice: I could abort, and complete it another time; soldier on; or compromise with a shorter version of the route – taking a train between Crediton and Taunton where I had been unable to book a campsite (many had closed for good, or were only taking caravans and motorhomes). I opted for the latter. The prospect of 3 more days wild camping without hot shower, or even a pub to hole up in did not appeal in my weakened state – so skipping those sections was a good idea. Also I booked a lovely airbnb for one night, which was a wonderful halfway ‘treat’. This was, after all, meant to be my holiday – not a SAS training ordeal. Having already walked 60 miles of (an early version of) the route in 2017, plus another 60 ‘extension’ (from my home, near Marlborough to Glastonbury) in June this year, I more than covered the ‘missing’ 40 miles and then some: by the end of the walk I completed 110 miles of the route – with the 2 other sections (60+60), 230 miles, a folkloric wildlife corridor connecting Tintagel to my home in Wiltshire.

There were, as on any long-distance walks, days of real challenge and days of reward. I am still recovering and processing my experience, but some of the highlights include:

  • Waking up on the coast overlooking Tintagel.
  • Stumbling upon the ancient rock-cut mazes in Rocky Valley.
  • St Nectan’s Glen.
  • Brent Tor.
  • Wild-swimming in the Tamar, Dart, and Shilley Pool.
  • Castle Drogo.
  • Burrow Mump.
  • Walking to Glastonbury across the Somerset Levels.

I intend to write up the route with accompanying notes, which I may make available as a paperback or pdf download (or both), but for now I have charted the route, so that others may also walk the King Arthur Way if they wish.

KING ARTHUR WAY

Section 1: Tintagel to Wilsey Down (13.66 miles)

https://gb.mapometer.com/walking/route_5116595

Section 2: Wilsey Down to Greystone Bridge (17.07 miles)

https://gb.mapometer.com/walking/route_5116617

Section 3: Greystone Bridge to Lydford (12.96 miles)

https://gb.mapometer.com/walking/route_5116626

Section 4: Lydford to South Zeal (13.04 miles)

https://gb.mapometer.com/walking/route_5116634

Section 5: South Zeal to Crockernwell (12.46 miles)

https://gb.mapometer.com/walking/route_5116643

Section 6: Crockernwell to Sandford (11.87 miles)

https://gb.mapometer.com/walking/route_5116651

Section 7: Sandford to Bickleigh (14.13 miles)

https://gb.mapometer.com/walking/route_5116698

Section 8: Bickleigh to Sampford Peverell (11.91 miles)

https://gb.mapometer.com/walking/route_5116704

Section 9: Sampford Peverell to Taunton (17.36 miles)

https://gb.mapometer.com/walking/route_5116715

Section 10: Taunton to Meare Green*  (8.15 miles)

https://gb.mapometer.com/walking/route_5116658

Section 11: Meare Green to High Ham (10 miles)

https://gb.mapometer.com/walking/route_5116663

Section 12: High Ham to Glastonbury (10.87 miles)

https://gb.mapometer.com/walking/route_5116669

Section 13 *alternative across Blackdown Hills, avoiding Taunton  (18.97 miles)

https://gb.mapometer.com/walking/route_5116718

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The start of the King Arthur Way:  Tintagel – with the stunning new footbridge,                          K. Manwaring July 2020

Happy Walking!

Kevan

PS this walk was intended as a group pilgrimage this year, but Covid-19 put paid to that – however, I may lead one in the future if there is sufficient interest.

 

King Arthur Way Copyright © Kevan Manwaring 17 July 2020

The Moon as Muse

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I have long been fascinated by the moon. It has inspired many poems by writers over the centuries, and looking back through my own work, I realise I have written a fair few myself…

Here’s one I wrote during a long walk – the West Highland Way – after a particularly memorable wild camping pitch.

 

Full Moon, Bridge of Orchy
All is still
after a twenty miles of rain
as fierce as the Battle of Ardrigh
falling like swords into a lochan.

The seething shadows
making it impossible to linger.
Up here, the air bites you.

But on arrival, the errant sun
breaks the spell like a knight
making a dramatic entrance.

A dizzying stillness after a day’s march,
an ale in the bar, afterglow of achievement,
ramblers’ banter, measuring our folly
in tall tales, modest boasts, blisters.

Wild pitch by the knuckle of bridge.
Making my way on the Way.

Here I make stance,
a road-weary drover,
numb limbs cooling like cattle
cropping the sward.

The river sings its perpetual song –
a complex skein of sound.
Countless rivulets negotiate
the tongue of rock,
the sounding chamber of these hills,
the twin peaks of bard-praised Beinn Dorain
and Beinn an Dòthaidh.

A cry of nature in the crease of the night.

The July moon illumines
a Samuel Palmer landscape.
Peace, deep as peat,
settles.

 

From The Immanent Moment by Kevan Manwaring from Awen

Pen Mine

FRONT COVER NEW 3 DEC 18

In the long hot summer of 2018 I decided to walk along the Pennine Way, a 253 mile (or more depending on optional routes and distances to and from accommodation) national trail that follows the spine of England from its Black Country sacrum and coccyx in the Derbyshire Peak District to the axis and atlas of Northumberland and the Scottish Borders. It had become a custom of mine to undertake a long walk at the end of the academic year as a way to unwind. This year it was needed more than ever after a particular intensive trimester involving the completion and submission of my PhD thesis. I also wished to undergo a kind of cultural ‘detox’ – from social media, from the news, from mad dog presidents, the World Cup, and the omnishambles of Brexit. The world was too noisy. I wanted to turn down the volume.  Walking for days on end, mainly solo (albeit for a couple of pleasant days when a dear friend joined me), I find de-stressing and immensely rewarding. After a few days I can hear myself think again. Ideas start to bubble up, unbidden. Although I did not set off (this time) hoping for inspiration, inspiration came nevertheless. Days of profound silence (or at least peacefulness) allows one to hear the quieter voices that are often drowned out by the white noise of modern existence.

It was while hiking from Haworth to Ickornshaw on the fifth day of my holiday that such an idea came to me: ‘to write [initially] 9 pieces exploring my core beliefs, using the visceral experience of walking the spine of England to tap into the bedrock of my belief’, as I put it in my little notebook. These ‘pieces’ were to be ‘…philosophical enquiries, each framed by my day’s walk’, but critically, ‘drawing upon my own ideas, not the digested opinions of other authors, other books’. I did so much of that, I opined, in my academic life (the almost neurotic referencing and justifying, the pedantic splitting of hairs and compulsive couching of terms – dutifully citing everyone else’s opinion except your own) it would be liberating to tune into what I think, what I believe.

 I am a great fan of the literary essay and deeply admire the mastery of Montaigne, Sebald and Solnit (to name three favourites), but I did not want this to be a performance of erudition, a showcase of my reading, of my learning to date (however useful such a process can be). I wanted to adopt a more embodied, intuitive approach, drawing upon what insights I could glean during my day’s hike, from what I felt as much as what I thought. The nearest practice that I have personal knowledge of is that of the ‘Earth Walk’, when one asks a question, then meditates upon that while walking in silence, senses open, hyper-alert to what answers nature may provide.  My approach would be simply to hold the chosen theme of the day lightly in my head and heart as I wandered along, while not allowing it to block out anything else. It would be a porous field of awareness, allowing the texture of the day to flow through it – and ‘snagging’ anything that seemed relevant, that could add to my deeper understanding of the chosen theme. It is so easy to drop down into an almost animal state when walking – it is trance-inducing, and one becomes hypnotized by the movement, by making progress, by achieving the next goal. One’s level of awareness narrows to the quotidian and visceral:  immediate dis/comfort; heat or cold; wet or dryness; hunger and thirst; fatigue and rest; motion and stillness. I wanted, in this practice, to focalise my experience – not let the days slip by, trudging along like some mindless walking machine. And so, excited by the idea, I quickly thought of nine potential themes, which I added to when I let go of my desire to punish the toponym (‘pen … nine’) so literally. I wrote up my insights at the end of the day, and I have tried to resist anything but essential editing, transcribing them here from my notebook. They capture the way the thoughts tumbled out on the day, ‘line-fresh’. They became my daily haul and however modest they may be – some may feel my micro-essais merely state the obvious; others may find them niggling or even intensely disagreeable – they nonetheless represent a fair cross-section of my core values as felt and believed in that summer of burning moors and blue skies – a vertebrae of beliefs upon which I fall or stand, an itinerant soul making his way across this wild, roaming, irreplaceable Earth.

Copyright © Kevan Manwaring 2018

Order a print copy from Lulu for only £5 today:

http://www.lulu.com/shop/kevan-manwaring/pen-mine/paperback/product-23897436.html

Diary of a Viva Ninja: Day 4

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Staying the distance. Me on High Cup Nick, on the Pennine Way. July 2018

Undertaking a PhD is a long-haul and to complete the 3-4 years of research one of the key qualities you need is stamina: staying power; tenacity – call it what you like. As long as it gets the job done. I’ve honed my stamina through by running and long-distance walking – because both of these requires tremendous mental (as well as physical) stamina. Each summer I’ve walked a long distance path, starting in 2014 with Hadrian’s Wall (84 miles) and increasing the distance each year: 2015: West Highland Way (96 miles); 2016: Offa’s Dyke (177 ml); 2017: Southern Upland Way (212 ml); and this year, the Pennine Way (255 miles). Even those these are my vacations (designed for R&R!) and, coming at the end of term, a form of ‘academic detox’ (post-exam marking period etc), each time I’ve tried to push myself a little bit further. This last one in particular, falling as it did straight after I submitted my 80,000 word Thesis (plus 75,000 word Appendices) ended up being not just ‘the Great Escape’ (by that point, after months of intense effort I really needed to cut loose) but also a kind of extended metaphor of the PhD journey. This was not something I thought about a lot until the final day, but the trek did seem to neatly break down into my four year experience, with each fifty miles representing a year and its landmarks: Year 1 – research, 1st draft; Year 2 – more research, 2nd draft; Year 3 – consolidation of research, 3rd draft; Year 4 – commentary and editing. But the ‘crunch’ time came, appropriately on the last day of my walk when I had to walk 26 miles, over 7 peaks straddling the English-Scottish border, with a full forty pound pack. I worked towards this – (extending the daily distance, resting, planning, etc), and by that point, I was ready to really push myself, as I didn’t have to hold anything back. There were about a dozen of us roughly walking the whole route over the same 2-3 week period, but everyone else broke the last day, by either having the guest house pick them up and drop them back the next morning, or by staying over in one of the two mountain huts. But I decided to go for it. It is interesting to push oneself now and then, to see what you can accomplish, and to see how you can cope. What was really resonant about this last day was – I saw it as a micro-metaphor for the Viva. By Byrness, the penultimate stop on the way, it really feels liked you’ve pretty much nailed the walk – a bit like the feeling of submission – but oh no, the big push is yet to come. I awoke at 4am in my tiny bivvy-shelter and was on my way by 5am. I saw the sunrise as I breached the brow of Byrness Knowe; and by 9am I had reached Ravens Knowe – which had spectacular views over the Scottish Borders. Riding on adrenalin I pushed myself to reach the summit (highest point of the walk) by 11am – 13 miles I had broken the back of the walk, and uncannily at the very moment I reached Windy Ridge I received an email notification telling me my thesis had been sent to the examiners (the Doctoral College take a while to process things, and it was huge relief to know it had been sent off). Reaching that summit felt like the day of the viva itself – a massive effort to prepare, to reach it; and then the almost vertiginous feeling of achieving it. I savoured the well-earned view as I ate my sandwiches and sipped some precious water. But then, critically, there was still an exhausting 12.5 miles to go, over several more peaks, with blistered feet and aching limbs – and this I saw as a sobering metaphor for: revisions (minor or major). It was a visceral, embodied way of preparing myself mentally for that extra effort. It is incautious to assume the Viva will be the end: it may just be the ‘beginning of the end’. That is the key thing to bear in mind. The Viva is ‘Windy Ridge’ (13 miles in); not Kirk Yetholm (the end of the 250+ miles of the Pennine Way). That’s the critical difference. Basically, don’t peak too soon. Save something in reserve for that final effort, if it is required (to undertake major or minor revisions, etc). Those last 12.5 miles were a real challenge as fatigue kicked in (cumulative, from 17 days of serious hiking), the temperature increased, water ran low, and blisters go worse. But I did it. Walking into Kirk Yetholm, to be greeted (unexpectedly) by the cheers of my fellow walkers sitting outside the Borders Hotel, was one of the most satisfying things I’ve ever done. I had accomplished what I had set out to do – by sheer determination and grit. Thousands of people finish the Pennine Way every year (although only a fraction do it all in one go), and many achieve their doctorates too – but this was my accomplishment, my day. And it had taught me a valuable lesson about ‘keeping something in reserve’ for that post-Viva final push, just in case it is needed. By succeeding in completing that last epic day I felt encouraged that, if it came down to it, I would be mentally prepared for whatever the examiners decide. They may say: ‘Congratulations! You have reached the finishing line!’ or they may say: ‘You have passed! But … you have another three or six months of effort still to do!’ Of course there could be other outcomes too. But walking a long-distance route in extreme conditions (a heatwave in my case, with fires on the moors, etc) inculcates resilience, and I will be ready.

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The Democracy of Water

Walking the Isis Way
(5-7 May 2018)

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Sun- and water-worshippers by the Isis, Port Meadow, Oxford, 6 May 2018

Over the May ‘bank holiday’ weekend (a funny way to mark a very special time of year – Beltane or International Workers’ Day are far more meaningful) blessed by glorious weather (for once!) I walked a 50 mile section of the Thames Path, a national long-distance footpath. Earlier in the year, when it had still felt chilly, I had run to the source from my house – a brisk, muddy ten miles – where a stone in a sleepy meadow near Kemble marks the official beginning of the 2nd longest river in England. It is rather shy to begin with, and doesn’t show its face until a field or two away. By the time it intersects its first road, it is a mere gleam in the grass, pristine as a May morning. It seems delicate, vulnerable, like any young soul – but it tentatively makes it way in the world, growing more confident with each winding mile, nurtured by supportive brooks and underlying acquifers, and in its hesitant movements it is as beautiful as a foal. Reeds flow like a mane beneath its transparent veil. It is hard to imagine this pellucid stream grows up to become TS Eliot’s ‘strong brown god’ but a great destiny awaits it – monarchs and bards will grace its currents, commerce and history will crowd its banks.

 

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The mighty Thames begins. Kevan Manwaring, Early Spring 2018

 

 

I walked this first section, to Cricklade, with a poet friend of mine, Brendan Georgeson, a couple of years ago. And then I walked the next section, from Cricklade to Lechlade, with my partner, the folksinger Chantelle Smith, in the early Spring – when it was still a bit nippy and dreary. Still, a lovely pub lunch awaited us, which made it all worthwhile.

And so to this early May weekend – with temperatures reaching the hottest on record – I set off for a solo three-day trek, picking up where I left off, from charming The Riverside Inn, Lechlade, and making my way to Dorchester-on-Thames, a sweaty forty-five plus river miles later. Although the Thames Path continues all the way to the Big Smoke, officially ending at the Thames Barrier, I was most interested in this section, the bulk of the Upper Thames, which technically terminates at Goring and Streatley, but I had walked into that area in 2004, when traversing the Ridgeway. And I had my sights set on the prominent and well-loved landmarks of Sinodun Hills, aka Wittenham Clumps, aka Mother Dunch’s Buttocks, as an end-point. Immortalised by the landscape painter, Paul Nash, who painted them obsessively, I had been drawn to them for years and finally visited them while researching folk tales of the county (Oxfordshire Folk Tales, The History Press, 2011).  They once were claimed by Berkshire (hence another one of their saucy epithets, the ‘Berkshire Bubs’), but for the purposes of this trip, I was claiming them as my place of psychogeographical pilgrimage.

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Wittenham Clumps sketch in watercolour, ink & chalk, Paul Nash (1912)

Also, the idea of walking the Isis rather than the Thames, appealed to my mythopoeiac sensibilities – reclaiming the name from its contemporary negative connotations (it belonged to an Egyptian goddess long before silly men got hold of it), this is the traditional name of the river until it reaches Dorchester-on-Thames (where it is conjoined by the river Thame), only then is it truly the Thames. Interestingly, its Celtic name was Tamesis (‘darkly flowing one’), which is uncannily like a compound of ‘Thames’ and ‘Isis’. To the Celts every body of water, spring, well, pool, lake and river, was a potential gateway to the Otherworld and many had a resident spirit to which offerings were made. In Bath, where I used to live, the goddess of the springs, Sulis, was worshipped. Even the conquering Romans acknowledged her, shrewdly assimilating the local cult by rebranding her ‘Sulis-Minerva’, and naming the city Aquae Sulis. Around Bath flows the river Avon, not the Avon of Stratford fame, but this is a common river name, derived from ‘Afon’, a Brythonic word for water. I suspect the locals were reluctant to reveal the name of the goddess, although we know of Sabrina (Severn), Belisima (Ribble), and of course the Thames (Tamesis), to name a few. Note they are all female. It is so telling that a feminine river is turned into a man: Old Father Thames. His statue (a hefty patriarch by Raffaelle Monti) once adorned the source, but was moved to St John’s Lock in the mid-70s after vandalism. It is an impressive sculpture, but I can’t help feeling it should be in Dorchester, and the Upper Thames should be graced with a monument to Isis (or Tamesis). After all, it has its own distinct geology and ‘feel’, as distinct from the Middle (London Borough) and Lower (downriver and estuary) Thames.

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 Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe, Edouard Manet (1863)

Walking the river in solitude and peacefulness for three days I became intensely physical aware of the shape of the river, its sinuous meanderings, which it was hard not to see as feminine curves. The slow, breathy rhythm of my effort became a kind of extended foreplay, as I traced the hypnotic dance of Isis – mesmerised by her soothing song and constant flow. For much of the time I was in a non-verbal, liminal space. Thoughts were softened into impressions. I was reading the river in an embodied way, beyond language, beyond even conscious thought. The heat, light and near silence worked its spell. The scintillation of the sunlight upon the shifting surface intimated at unfathomable mysteries. Waterfowl, water- and river-bank users, the passing detail of a house, a moored vessel, a tree, or a bridge, occasionally arrested my attention – but all seemed like part of the river’s dream. It was easy to see why so many great literary classics have been borne by its waters: News from Nowhere, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Peter Pan, The Wind in the Willows, Three Men in a Boat, Heart of Darkness…Ironically, I hardly wrote a thing. What inspiration the river gave me I carried away in my soul and soles. I taught me some valuable wisdom: surrender; grace; quietude and solitude; patience; effort and reward; flow, guidance and release. All seem blindingly obvious, but mean little without an embodied, visceral experience to hard-wire them into the body-mind.

 

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Bathers at Asnieres, George Seurat (1884)

 

Yet the egalitarian gifts of the river await all – and one need only spend some time on its banks, or in its water, to receive its gifts. A real highlight of the whole weekend was the wild-swimming. On the first day I went for a sneaky dip in the middle of nowhere and it felt almost illicit (but certainly most welcome after a hot day’s hike); but on the second I arrived at Port Meadow, on the edge of Oxford, to discover a kind of free festival of the river taking place. Crowds of water-worshippers had descended along the banks equipped with picnics, BBQs, inflatables, books, sound systems, and high spirits. It was like walking into an updated French Impressionist masterpiece: the sublime languor of Seurat’s Bathers at Asnieres, the bold sensuality of Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe, the crowdedness of Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party.

 

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Luncheon of the Boating Party, Pierre Auguste Renoir (1881)

The atmosphere could have been overwhelming after two days of near solitude, but the prevailing energy was of sheer delight. One could almost hear a collective whoop of joy at the final unequivocal arrival of summer. There seemed to be a competition to display as much flesh as possible. Bright young things flung themselves with giddy abandon into the awaiting embrace of the Isis. The pool by Fiddler’s Island was especially popular, with teenagers lining up on the bridge to dare each other into increasingly wild dives and hysterics. Passing by much of these antics, I finally acquiesced to the irresistible tide of hedonism and, stripping down to my shorts, plunged in. Emerging from the refreshing coolness to bathe my beaded limbs in the strength of the sun, I savoured the endorphin glow – feeling wonderfully alive and thoroughly blessed by the Isis. All can enjoy the democracy of water.

 

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Bathers at Fiddler’s Island, K. Manwaring, 6 May 2018

‘A River Runs Through It’: my 4 page Thames Path feature appears in the summer issue of Cotswold Life. available from newsstands across the region now, or direct from the website:

http://www.cotswoldlife.co.uk/home

For information on the Thames Path national trail visit:

https://www.nationaltrail.co.uk/thames-path

 

 

Hitting the Wall

 

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Sometimes you need a little help to make it through …

Anyone who has ever undertaken something difficult will know that there often comes a time when you really feel like you can’t go on. You’ve given it your best. You’ve done all the right things.

And you’ve got nothing left.

You hope you’ve reached the brow of the hill (one that has been one hell of a slog to get up), and can coast for a while – perhaps even race down to the finish line, euphoric at your accomplishment. But then, looming before you, is another summit, another hurdle, another bloody hoop to jump through. Obstacles bar your way, obstructing your line of desire – that wished-for completion — or maybe it’s just the realization of the sheer distance left to go, the gulf between your vision and the reality.

These reality checks, if they’ve been brought to your attention by allies (those with critical, constructive perspective, but ultimately rooting for you — rather than envious threshold guardians acting out their own issues) can be an essential part of the process.

Yet they’re still a pain in the arse.

Sometimes these critical slam-downs can even be devastating – completely knocking the wind from your sails, your confidence; your belief in your vision or craft; even your whole identity. If you’re feeling low anyway then the effect can be irredeemably crushing with sometimes catastrophic consequences. As this scenario is all too common in academe, there is major student support in place at universities these days – Wellbeing Services offering counselling and advice. Safety nets, tea and sympathy. I can sympathise as this week I experienced just this level of ‘knockback’ – I don’t want to go into the gory details, but suffice to say it was gutting. I was down and seriously considering some extreme options (in terms of my current PhD project). Things looked pretty bleak at the beginning of the week.

But a couple of things really helped me.

The first was running. Any physical exercise would be good – especially the cardio-vascular kind, as raising a sweat releases endorphins and blasts out any negativity. I found this to be exactly the case when I did a long training run – afterwards I felt in a far better place. More resilient, more able to cope with the ‘bad news’. Able to roll with the punch and come out fighting. Time and time again I’ve experienced the well-being effects of running, cycling or a good hike. And within these, if you’re undertaking a physical challenge like a half-marathon – then sooner or later you encounter ‘the wall’, as it’s referred to, familiar with marathon-runners all over the world. This is the moment when your body starts to shut down – you’re exhausted – and you really have to dig deep to keep going, sometimes running, cycling, hiking, etc, through the pain. I had to do just this mid-week, on my 13.5 mile training run. Those last 5 miles were tough, but I paused, refuelled, and girded my loins. It really all comes down to attitude, to mental stamina. Getting your head around what it is you’re facing, and soldiering on.

At the beginning of the week I was overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task ahead of me and I was pretty much ready to throw in the towel. Then I stepped back from it – went for the run – and looked at it all again.

What really helped me to ‘reframe’ the seemingly insurmountable challenge was talking about it – with my partner and with my supervisor.

After a thorough session at the end of the week with my supervisor I was willing to accept that I just have to knuckle down and get it finished. That the project wasn’t dead in the water – in fact, it is on track, and this ‘big push’ is merely the expected final stage, one that makes the difference between something being good and being excellent. I could accept the way my craft is now, or, keep going, and attempt to raise it to the next level.

To work through ‘the wall’. This is where the long-distance running has really helped me in facing this test of stamina and will. I will dig deep and I will keep going, and I will finish this thing.

Anything worth achieving is down to the difficulty involved. If it was easy, then accomplishing it would mean little (although of course we all have our own mountains to climb, and what is a minor hurdle for one person is a massive achievement for someone else). I have set myself a tough challenge – a creative and intellectual one – and I only have myself to blame! But while my heart and mind is set on this quest, then I shall endeavour to see it through properly to the end.

Whether I succeed or fail I shall at least I know that I gave it my very best shot, and didn’t give up at this critical stage.

Adjust your mental furniture and it’s amazing what you can achieve: you can even walk through walls.

 

 

 

 

Walking with a King

It is a dream I have…

(Merlin, Excalibur, Boorman, 1981)

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Tintagel at dusk, K. Manwaring, 1 September 2017

I have just returned from undertaking a 60-odd mile walk in Cornwall on the trail of King Arthur. As I sit here nursing my blisters and aching bones (carrying a full pack – camping along the way – can be punishing) I reflect upon why I embarked upon such an apparently foolhardy quest… At times it certainly felt so as I traipsed along B-roads in the rain, facing oncoming traffic when I was left with no other choice than to take the metalled backlanes. I experienced the worst rain ever on one of my long distance walks – beating even the Highlands – a day of perpetual heavy deluge that left everything soaked and my spirits sapped. And I had to negotiate the ridiculous fastnesses of large estates with ‘private roads’ which on the OS map look just like farm tracks (in Scotland the access laws are far more lenient).

Yet despite all of that there were breaks in the cloud – glorious mornings overlooking dramatic coves, the light sublime on silver and pewter seas, sun-dappled hollow lanes and secret paths, charming villages and harbours, and of course the legend-soaked landmarks. And yet even that may not have warranted such exertion – I had visited most of the ‘Arthur’ sites before (Tintagel; Castle Dore; Tristan stone) and there are certainly easier ways of getting to them, but that would have been missing the point – for my intent was to create a kind of ‘pilgrimage’ route. And as any pilgrim knows, the greater the effort, the greater the effect – the epiphany is direct relation to the ardour of the journey. To rock up on an air-con coach to a site, alight, take a few selfies, buy a bit of tourist tat, shove an ice-cream in your face and wobble on board again – bucket list item ticked, but not truly seen, heard, felt or savoured – is not the same experience as someone who has arrived at the site either on foot, on push-bike or on horse-back. Yes, there’s a place for all kinds of visitor – not everyone is mobile and these places are for all (as long as the tourism doesn’t destroy them).

But I know which one I prefer.

As an example, I have visited Avebury stone circle many times, but the instance that was most impactful was when I had walked there over 4 days along the Ridgeway – arriving with something analogous to the consciousness of a Neolithic pilgrim. The effect was euphoric (I’m sure those who have undertaken the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu feel the same). So, I’ve visited most of the sites on this trip recently (some this year) but this was qualitatively different. I was going it alone, under my own steam, working out the route as I went (rather than following an established trail). I like the creative challenge of finding links between places. There is a narrative there in the landscape waiting for us to notice it.

Yet, why King Arthur?

I was obsessed with all things Arthurian in my early twenties – and that compelled to go on pilgrimage to Glastonbury and other sites associated with his legend. And in my early thirties I co-created and performed in a 2 hour show called ‘Arthur’s Dream’ with Fire Springs. And in my early forties I wrote my Arthurian novel, a dystopian vision of an alternative Britain (This Fearful Tempest). But these waves of Arthurian fever are often followed by Arthurian fatigue. My reference books lay on their shelves neglected.

And now … all of that seems so remote, belonging to a more innocent time (remember the ‘New Age’ and the optimism that built up towards the Millennium?). Now we live in times which are far more overtly cynical, dangerous and wilfully antagonistic to intellectual discourse, liberal values, religious and ethnic tolerance, gender equality and human rights. Don’t we have a duty to engage with that, rather than running off physically or mentally, creating castles in the air, losing ourselves in fantasy or the nostalgia of the past? Perhaps, but burn out reduces the capacity to be effective in any capacity, so breaks, holidays, retreats, etc, are essential. Also, we are most effective when using our strengths and talents – in my case, and in the case of many of my friends, that’s creatively. The ‘war’ we’re embroiled – whether we like it or not – is a war of ideas that takes place in hearts and minds. That is where toxic or beneficial concepts flower or whither, take root, prosper or die.

Ideas, as they say, are bullet-proof.

One idea that has survived the centuries is that of Camelot (e.g. JFK’s use of it in the early 60s). I am not personally interested in whether King Arthur actually existed or not – trying to prove that he was this or that person, lived here or there … I think that’s missing the point.  If a 6th Century battle-chief existed called ‘Arthur’ (Arturo, Artus …) then he would have been a very different leader than the one rendered in the courtly romances, as would have been his ‘knights’. The Arthur of the early Celtic tales gives us a glimmer, perhaps – he’s far less sympathetic (Trystan and Isseult), more pro-active (The Spoils of Annwn), and often deep in gore (The Celtic Triads). Lorna Smithers listing of his ‘war-crimes’ (see her provocative poem, ‘Wanted’, on her blog Signposts in the Mists) is a sobering counter-spell to the Medieval glamour which has lingered ever since, the fairy dust that will not fade – but is perhaps one extreme of a spectrum, with the numerous awful movie versions at the other end (John Boorman’s Excalibur being the shining exception) ‘truth’ being somewhere in the middle.

Yet there is an Arthur for all of us – he is a malleable construct that changes through the decades. He epitomized one thing for the Victorians (the noble cuckold; the tragic martyr torn between lofty ideals and earthly desires, skeletons in the cupboard and Christian imperialism); another for the Post-War generation (a dream of unity, however flawed); another for the Counter-Culture (Merlin as the original Gandalf; Mordred as the rebellious anti-hero); another for the New Age (feminist revisionist treatments reappraising the role of women in the Arthuriad and problematizing the patriarchal hierarchy of it all). Arthur ‘exists’ as a cultural meme, as a literary figure, as an ideal – and it is the latter that most engages me at present.

For despite his questionable reputation and historical status, Arthur represents the archetype of Kingship. And we are living in an age suffering from the Shadow of that – we suffer under the yoke of so many bad leaders. I am not a Royalist, but I am no anarchist either. We need good leadership now more than ever – both from within and without. It would be naive to assume that if we just ‘sorted ourselves out’ the world would be okay – but it’s a place to start from. Self-actualisation can happen in many ways. Healthy communities are naturally ennobling and mutually empowering, so the process can begin on your doorstep.

But sometimes we need a more intense experience to ‘shift’ things.

My hope in creating a modern pilgrimage route (and this is only the very earliest stages of  long-term project) is that it could be used for rites-of-passage (for all  genders and ages), for leadership training, for the continuation of a living oral tradition (storytelling, poetry and singing along the route), the cultivation of art trails, the promoting of local businesses, rural regeneration, and so forth. Such an endeavour will only come about through collaboration, community involvement, fundraising and sponsorship. To accomplish such a dream will require inspired leadership. But for now – I’ve had the vision, taken the first step (in fact quite a few) and I’ve had a taste of what it feels like to walk along the mythways of Arthur.

 

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Coast to Coast: walking from North to South Cornwall. The view near Polperro, 5 September 2017

 

Copyright © Kevan Manwaring 7 September 2017