Category Archives: Long-distance footpath

Sounding the Rift

The Agency of Place in Fantasy Fiction

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Hadrian’s Wall, Kevan Manwaring 2014

In classic Fantasy novels places often seem like characters in their own right – think of the grotesque decrepitude of Gormenghast; the prelapsarian loveliness of Lothlorien and the Industrial nightmare of Mordor; the donnish eccentricity of Narnia; the heterogeneous archipelago of EarthSea; the Mooreefoccian Jordan College and the rugged fastness of the Svalbard Peninsula in His Dark Materials; the chrono-labyrinths of Ryhope Wood; the TARDIS-house of Little, Big . Agency in Place has be there from the earliest forays into Fantasy, in the monstrous uncivilisation that threatens Babylon in Gilgamesh, in the drear fen of Beowulf and the doom-laden fells of Gawain and the Green Knight. And it is to be found in modern cartographies of such liminal zones, in, for example, Anthony Nanson’s Deep Time (a helter skelter through the epochs hidden within a rainforest) and Tom and Nimue Brown’s Hopeless, Maine (an island in limbo from which no one can ever leave).

In my contemporary fantasy novel The Knowing setting plays a key role. In some ways the narrative emerged as a conversation between places: between the Scottish Lowlands and the Southern Appalachians primarily, but also between cities (Asheville and Glasgow), between the rural and urban, the wild and the tamed, as well as between worlds: the worlds of the Sidhe and the human – the Silver and the Iron, as one of my favourite characters puts it. Sideway Branelly is a Wayfarer, a trader between the worlds with an uncanny ability to find the hollers and low roads that link them. Although freer than many characters he is associated with the location in my novel I am most proud of and intrigued by: The Rift. This is an ever-widening gulf between the worlds …. a chancy No Man’s Land caused by the Sundering – a catastrophic sealing of the Borders between the worlds. This ultimate Debatable Land was part inspired by the psychogeography of the Scottish Borders – its long, bloody history of Border Reivers, blackmail, skirmishes, land grabs, cannibals, and uncanny goings on – and by Hadrian’s Wall, which I walked the 84 mile length of in 2014 with my partner folksinger Chantelle Smith*. The latter is an impressive if ultimately futile feat of engineering and hubris which seems eerily resonant – following the dramatic line of crags that rise between Newcastle and Carlisle, a natural line of defense augmented by mile-castles, vallum (parallel ditches), auxillary towns, and a twelve foot high wall, the Wall seems, in its derelict state (masonry stolen for local buildings) particularly Ozymandian. If it was designed to keep the ‘other’ out (i.e. the wild Pictish tribes to the north – the ‘Kong’ of our Skull Island) it failed – but it is possible it was used to control trade as much as anything, and demarcate the northernmost extremity of the Roman Empire (when the Antonine Wall was abandoned farther north). It was clearly a power statement saying, among others things: look what the might of the Roman Empire can achieve; and, the savage north is ungovernable and thus economically useless. What we cannot control we disown, casting out beyond the pale of our ‘civilisation’. Of course, the Picts might have seen it conversely – that the Wall marked the end of freedom, and the beginning of control. What makes Hadrian’s Wall more than just some impressive military archaeology is the glimpse it affords us into the beliefs and lifestyles of those that worked and lived upon it – the temples to Mithras; the shrines to other, obscurer deities (such as Mars-Nodentis, or the Cucullati); the graffiti from bored, homesick Centurions; the bath-houses, store-rooms, stables, barracks; the service towns that grew up on its flanks; the whole economy the presence of Rome created. Walking the Wall gave me a lot of the time to ponder on the creative tensions of such a place. And the museums my partner insisted we visited all helped to enrich my imagination.

Day 4 - Sycamore Gap to Holmhead (12)

Sycamore Gap, Kevan Manwaring 2014

The one place that particularly fired my imagination though was a natural wonder – an amazingly situated sycamore tree whose roots grew on both sides. Made famous by its appearance in various films (e.g. Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves), it inspired a poem (‘Sycamore Gap’) and the idea of a Rift Oak, which grows between the worlds, demarcating the edges of both – the ultimate border oak. I liked the idea of the natural subverting man-made borders. Of course, birds of prey, foxes, badger, deer, mice… all ignore the wall. Nature cocks a snook at man. And what if I had a character like that – who broke the rules? Who crossed a Border that was meant to be sealed? Who smuggled things – contraband, journals, people – across. And so Sideways Brannelly was born. I needed someone who would smuggle something pivotal out of the Silver, back to the Iron. And Brannelly, a reluctant hero (driven mainly by a desire for personal gain, petty revenge, and a contrarian mindset) got the job. And the Rift was forged – in the Sundering of worlds, a cataclysmic plot event which now seems eerily prescient. The Knowing’s  first draft was written against the backdrop of the first Scottish national referendum in 2014 (my initial field visits haunted by a countryside divided into ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ flags, banners and signs) – little did I know then there would be (most likely) a sequel to that, Brexit (Theresa May announcing the date of the triggering of Article 50 on the day my ebook was released), and Trump’s victory, isolationism, ‘Muslim ban’ and Mexican Border wall plans (America as Skull Island). Not that I equate a bid for Scottish independence with Brexit or Trump – this time I think it is an entirely sane and justified thing to do – but they are all taking place in the same increasingly sundered world. The European refugee crisis that has played out in the last couple of years is real humanitarian disaster, but in some small way, the ‘backstory’ of my novel seems to echo it, with what befalls the victims of the Sundering in my story-world – as Ironbloods and Silver find themselves trapped on the wrong side of the Rift. The results of this schism has turned this fault-line between the worlds into an increasingly perilous terroir – a chancy wasteland where a chancer like Brannelly can flourish … if he chooses to.

SIDEWAYS BRANNELLY

Sideways Brannelly’s bone-pipe – his favourite way of pondering. K. Manwaring 2017

The Knowing – A Fantasy is published as an eBook by Goldendark on 20th March and is available on Amazon Kindle

*Last year I walked another border – Offa’s Dyke, a long-distance footpath which runs 177 miles, the length of Wales from the north coast at Prestatyn to the Wye (another hubristic gesture, this time by the 8th Century King of Mercia, Offa). And this year I intend to walk the Southern Uplands Way (212). I must have Borders in my blood…

Writing The Knowing

Practice-based r

 

esearch in the creation of a novel

 

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A writer’s retreat. View across Gairloch Bay, Wester Ross. K. Manwaring 2016

 

In the creation of my contemporary fantasy novel, The Knowing, the main focus of my Creative Writing PhD at the University of Leicester, I have undertaken extensive experiential research as part of the practice-based research of writing the novel itself. It has to be emphasised that the writing of the novel is the research, for it is as much a scrutinization of the creative process as a dramatisation of that process through the characters, setting and plot.  The PhD began as an examination of the ‘Longing, Liminality and Transgression in the Folk Traditions of the Scottish Lowlands and Southern Appalachians’ (as my initial research question framed), at least when it became ‘conscious’ – in September 2014  when I began my part-time research degree – yet creative aquifers had been at work long before that.

I have long been interested in the folklore, tales and songs of the Scottish Borders, but things crystallized the day that Janey McEttrick, my main protagonist, walked into my head with her mane of red hair, steel-string guitar and second sight. She wanted her story told, and she wouldn’t let me go until I told it. She’s the kind of woman that you simply cannot turn down. And, besides, I fancied spending time in her company, having been hanging out with an Edwardian aviator and the lost of history for over a decade (in the writing of my 5-volume series, The Windsmith Elegy). I felt the need for a change of register, to write something set (mostly) in the present day, and from a different perspective – looking back at the Old World from the perspective of the New.

A Scottish-Native American folksinger, hanging out near Asheville, North Carolina, Janey’s story dramatizes the diasporic translocation I was interested in. Descended (on her mother’s side) from a long line of singer-seers, she epitomizes the cross-fertilisation that took place when waves of Scottish and Scots-Irish migrants upped sticks – through force or choice – and undertook the perilous crossing to the Americas, settling all the way from the taiga of Canada to the swamps of the South, but in particular, in the Appalachians where the mountainous terrain made them feel at home. They brought their songs and tales and folklore with them, in many instances preserving and customizing in fascinating ways. When I heard how Elizabethan ballads were discovered being sung by the early song collectors I was intrigued, and wondered what else might be preserved in these polders – what traces of the Old World could be found in the New? How had they adapted and mutated? And how the so-called Celtic Fringes had extended their borders into the West – to the point that the plaid of the clans became the classic checked shirt of the cowboy, and in a million other peculiar ways Celticity reinvents itself, a restless global meme: a way of seeing and a way of being that transcends genealogy.

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The grave of Robert Kirk, the Fairy Minister, Aberfoyle, K. Manwaring 2014

I have found the most effective way to bring alive the world of my characters is to have analogous experiences. If I cannot go to the actual place where they lived, then I will go to somewhere equivalent and equally as evocative – for it is always in the telling detail, discovered beneath one’s feet, that the location comes alive. And often by walking in the footsteps of your characters – real or imaginary – you gain an insight into them. So I opt for a ‘method-writing’ form of approach, especially as I want to be able channel the voices of my characters (mainly Robert Kirk and 9 generations of McEttrick Women) as convincingly as possible. Note I didn’t say authentically – for authenticity in prose is as much a performance as anything. For genuine authenticity one would only be able to write about oneself, one’s limited world – resulting in mere solipsism – whileas a novelist, with sufficient empathy, research and skill, can and should write about lives for beyond his or her own. To undertake such a creative challenge requires requires an almost fanatical obsession with research. A PhD, in particular, requires nothing less. It is the ultimate anorak. And in the journey of the research one is engaged in a continual feedback loop – gauging one’s ideas against what one finds, discusses, is challenged by, and practices.

And so off I set on my quest, following my wandering star …  Here is a summary of my practice-based research to date:

  • In August 2014, hearing the call of the Borders, I decided to walk Hadrian’s Wall –an 84 mile long path from Newcastle to Carlisle, following the line of the Roman Empire’s northernmost border – with my partner, Chantelle Smith.
  • From here we headed farther north, to the coast of Wester Ross – to a croft I have returned to again and again as a place of inspiration.
  • Heading south I visited key sites associated with the Border Ballads, Thomas the Rhymer, Tam Lin and Tam o’Shanter, as well as climbing Schiehallion, the ‘fairy mountain’ in the Cairngorms.
  • In 2015 I walked the West Highland Way solo, a 100 mile long distance footpath from the Lowlands to the Highlands, camping along the way, and climbing Ben Nevis (4000ft).
  • From these trips emerged my collection of poetry, Lost Border (Chrysalis 2015), which I performed at the Cheltenham Poetry Festival 2016 with Chantelle.
  • In 2015 I also became a Postgraduate Fellow in North American Studies, based at the Eccles Centre, the British Library. This year long fellowship enabled me to undertake research in that amazing research library.
  • I also received a Postgraduate Fund which enabled me to spend time at the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, Cecil Sharp House, Camden – as I delved into the archives, researching the field trips undertaken by Cecil Sharp and Maud Karpeles to Southern Appalachia, 1915-1918.
  • This was augmented by a field trip to North Carolina in late summer 2015, made possible by the generosity and hospitality of my American friend, Debbi McInteer. I joined her and her family on a road trip from Jamestown RI, to Asheville, NC, visiting key locations associated both with Cecil and Maud, and my fictional characters. I got to experience the fabulous music and meet some descendants of tradition-bearer Jane Hicks Gentry and the Ward Family.
  • While in the States I ran a workshop based upon the folkloric motifs of Thomas the Rhymer and Tam Lin (‘The Wheel of Transformation’); try out some wild-writing; and co-host the ‘Crossways Medicine Show’ – a social gathering and sharing of cultural songlines.
  • Out my research into the Scottish Borders, I developed a ballad and tale show with my partner, called ‘The Bonnie Road’ which we performed in 2015 in various venues.
  • I was granted the fantastic opportunity to spend a month at Hawthornden Castle International Writers Retreat in late 2015. Here, in the home of the poet William Drummond, I wrote the second draft of my novel (160,000 words).
  • While at the castle I made several forays into Edinburgh to visit the fabulous archives at the National Library of Scotland and the University of Edinburgh. In their Special Collections I was able to see first-hand the surviving manuscripts and notebooks of Robert Kirk, the 17th Century Presbyterian Minister, and author of the monograph, The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies (a key character in my novel).
  • In 2016 I instigated, commissioned and edited Ballad Tales: an anthology of British ballads retold, to be published by The History Press, June 2017. This features 19 retellings of traditional ballads, pushing the envelope of genre and gender, setting and sexual politics.
  • My practice-based research really began when I first started performing ‘Thomas the Rhymer’ in my early 20s, and visited the Eildon Hills, wild-camping upon them in the hope of inspiration or encounter!
  • And my connection with Kirk began in earnest when i created and performed a monologue in character, with Fire Springs, for ‘Voices of the Past’, Bath Literature Festival 2002.
  • Finally, I really felt I could not write a novel about a musician unless I had some first-hand experience to draw upon, and so my practice-based research has also involved learning the guitar and plunging into ballad-singing. I certainly have found the latter to be something I enjoy both in isolation (e.g. while walking the long-distance footpaths such as Offa’s Dyke) and amongst friends (starting ‘Sunday Song’ with Nimue Brown as a place to share in an informal way). And studying the former has certainly given me more of an insight and appreciation of songcraft.
  • Other activities have included: presenting papers at conferences on aspects of my research; writing a blog (Bardic Academic: crossing the creative/critical divide); tweeting; undertaking commissions which allow me to explore the creative/critical voice in my writing (eg Marginalia; Houdinis of Bewilderland) and entering competitions, eg The Re-imagined Book, winner of the AHRC 10 Essay Prize.

And, until it is all complete, the journey continues…

 

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Field Research. On the road to Applecross, looking towards Skye, K. Manwaring, 2016

 

 

 

 

Ballads Across Borders

Off by yourself you could sing those songs to bring yourself back.

Gary Snyder, ‘Good, Wild, Sacred’

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Offa’s Dyke Path, descending southwards from the Jubilee Tower, 1821 ft (555 m) .                   K. Manwaring 2016

Inspired by my experience of walking the West Highland Way last year, when I found myself bursting spontaneously into song (see ‘Let the Mountain Sing its Own Song’, The London Magazine, Oct/Nov 2015) I decided to pack in my mental rucksack some ballads to warble as I hiked the Offa’s Dyke Path from north to south earlier this month (6-16 July). I chose a different ballad for each day of the walk, creating ‘A Walker’s Songbook’, which I printed off to help me learn the lyrics on the hoof. Every morning in my tent over porridge and a cuppa I would cram the lyrics into my skull, and then off I’d set, sticking in hand and song in my heart.

I felt very much like a pilgrim – a bit crazy and off the beaten track of reality. I was delighted to discover in Thoreau’s iconic essay on walking (slipped in with my other essentials) that the word ‘Sauntering’ is derived “from idle people who roved about the country, in the Middle Ages, and asked charity, under pretense [sic] of going a al Sainte Terre’, to the Holy Land. Apparently children used to call out, ‘There goes a Sainte-Terrer!’ a Saunterer, a Holy-Lander. Thoreau notes that some derive the word from ‘sans terre’, without land or home, ‘which, therefore, in the good sense, will mean, having no particular home, but equally at home everywhere.’ This, Thoreau suggests, is the secret of successful sauntering, something I bore in mind as I wended my way southwards. Inspired by my experience of walking the West Highland Way last year, when I found myself bursting spontaneously into song (see ‘Let the Mountain Sing its Own Song’, The London Magazine, Oct/Nov 2015) I decided to pack in my mental rucksack some ballads to warble as I hiked the Offa’s Dyke Path from north to south earlier this month (6-16 July). I chose a different ballad for each day of the walk, creating ‘A Walker’s Songbook’, which I printed off to help me learn the lyrics on the hoof. Every morning in my tent over porridge and a cuppa I would cram the lyrics into my skull, and then off I’d set, sticking in hand and song in my heart.

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Halfway from nowhere. K. Manwaring 2016

Some of the songs I selected explored and expressed issues to do with land rights and freedom of access, rites of roaming, if you will. This was inspired, in part, by the show ‘Three Acres and a Cow: A History of Land Rights and Protest in Folk Song and Story’, by Robin Gray and friends, which I saw in Stroud, in June. That came with its own songbook and, in the spirit of the ‘creative commons’ philosophy of the show (which encourages other productions through its online wiki), I cannibalised some of it.

My first day was spent singing the Sydney Carter classic, ‘John Ball’, about the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. This was inspired by Ball’s motto: ‘When Adam delved and Eva span, who then was the gentleman?’ There was no hierarchy or class system in Eden, between humans, at least. Indeed, there seemed to be ‘democracy for all beings’ – human and animal living in harmonious equality. ‘John Ball’ is a great song to sing at the break of day striding out into the world, making one feel as though it is possible to sing creation into existence. As the Venerable Bede says of the poet Caedmon: ‘Sing me Frumsceaft’. The parable is worth relating here in full:

One evening when Caedmon was feasting with his friends he saw the harp being passed towards him around the hearthfire and, feeling shy about his lack of skill in singing, he gave some excuse about having to look after the animals and slipped away. Out there in the barn he fell asleep, and in his dream an Angel came to him and said, “Caedmon, sing something.” He answered and said, “I cannot sing so I left the feasting and came here because I could not.” He who spoke to him again said, “Nevertheless, you can sing to me.” He said, “What shall I sing?” He said, “Sing me the Creation.”

(cited in Sing Me The Creation, Paul Matthews, Hawthorn 1994)

In a way, this mirrors my own experience. Told as a young man I was ‘tone deaf’ and discouraged by my peers at the time, I gave up trying to be musical for many years, until recently when I’ve started to learn the guitar and joined a community choir. I found it a lot easier to sing in a crowd and this bolstered my bruised confidence. However, it’s still hard to sing in front of people. Away in the middle of nowhere, it’s a different matter. I can sing my heart out from the hilltops. And here I was, away from the circle of community like Caedmon, walking the Offa’s Dyke and finding my voice amongst the animals … and over the next few days I had several profound non-anthropocentric encounters which affirmed something ‘Caedmon-ish’ was happening.

On the third day, I sang ‘Brimbledon Fair’ as I hiked from The Griffin Inn where I’d camped back to the acorns (the white acorns which delineated the national trail). I had to pass through a field of cows, frisky young bulls, who rushed over to me, looking like they were intent on stampeding me to death. Quickly, I turned on them and increased the volume of my voice. My singing seemed to stop them dead in their tracks. They huddled around, placid, curious, spellbound. I sang them ‘John Ball’ too, changing the lyric to ‘John Bull’. When I finished they followed me to the edge of the field. I crossed the stile and they lined up at the five-bar gate, watching expectantly, as though waiting for an encore.

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‘Sing John Bull…’ Animal magic on the Offa’s Dyke, K. Manwaring 2016

Another day, setting off after a wet and windy night from a wild-pitch (and a bracing strip-shower by a cold tap) I sang Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’ as I passed through a flock of black-fleeced sheep. On the Dyke you pass hundreds if not thousands of sheep, and you get used to them panicking as soon as they see you, as though they’ve never seen a human being before – even though their field is on a national trail. They always bolt. But not the ewe and her lambs before me on the path. Mothers with their lambs are especially skittish, but not these three. They seemed to listen even closer as I sang ‘And was the Holy Lamb of God/on England’s pleasant pastures seen?’ The ewe came up to me and sniffed me hands. One of the lambs let me give it a scratch behind the ear and run my hands through its soft fleece. They were not afraid.

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‘And was the Holy Lamb of God on England’s pleasant pastures seen?’ The music-appreciating ewe and her lambs. K. Manwaring, 2016

Was something Orphic going on? Who knows, but it would appear not to be a unique phenomenon, as Gary Snyder points out in The Practice of the Wild: ‘All the little critters creep in close to listen when human beings are in a good mood and willing to play some tunes.’ However it worked, I continued my ‘talking across the species boundaries’, as he put it, in intuitive, unexpected ways.

Another day, I came across a rabbit by the side of the path. I was still and as non-threatening as possible. It gave me an inquisitive glance, then carried on nibbling not a yard from me. A shrew I nearly trod upon reacted in the same way, its tiny pip eye clearly registering no threat. I sang to a donkey that insisted on blocking my way; to a trio of ducks who invaded my tent every half an hour in the hope of crumbs; to horses and their foals; and to the skylarks trilling above the meadows and the birds of prey circling and swooping over the rocks and roots.

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Mind your step! Esglwseg Crags, a friable path on the Offa’s Dyke, K. Manwaring 2016

 

All the while I walked the Offa’s Dyke Path, which at one time delineated the border between England and Wales. Now it wove back and forth like a slippery caduceus. The songs carried me over the border, connecting me with other cultures, countries, or times; and they carried me over the border of species too, and seemed to facilitate inter-species communication. It was a sole/soulful way to travel. As Gary Snyder says: ‘Our ‘soul’ is the dream of the other’. It extends the borders of the self until it connects with all of creation.

On a practical level, the songs I sang really helped to keep me going: they kept my morale up and put a spring in my step. Whenever I sang a song with gusto, fatigue was forgotten, my feet took care of themselves and the miles melted away.WP_20160708_17_00_48_Pro

And it was empowering to sing songs of protest, of commoners’ rights, of victories won by the people (e.g. the Countryside and Right of Way ‘CRoW’ act, which the mass trespass on Kinder Scout and the campaigning by the Ramblers’ Association and others finally achieved in 2000 for England and Wales). Could the sharing of ballads be used to help heal division across wounded communities? We need to hear one another’s songs. Listen and share. Nothing breaks down barriers better than a good singalong. If there is an organisation like Médecins Sans Frontières (one of many reasons why the great humanitarian nation of France deserves our respect and support in its difficult time) then why not Songs Sans Frontières? Perhaps there are initiatives out there of a similar spirit already doing good work – if so, I salute them.

The healing or the re-enchanting of the land by song has been happening for a long time.

In Australia, the Songlines demarcating the Dreamtime windings of the Rainbow Serpent, tribal territories, hunting grounds, springs, sacred lands and so forth were and are maintained by Aboriginal elders singing their linear narratives while on ‘walkabout’.

By repurposing Offa’s geomorphic act of hubris as a songline for the Welsh/English border, it can be turned from a military power statement to a conduit of harmony between cultures, communities, and even species.

One day I would love there to be a ‘Mabinogion Way’, connecting all the associated sites across Wales (perhaps along four ‘branches’), enabling one to cross Cambria reciting the tales and poems of its ‘national’ cycle (as conjured into being by Lady Charlotte Guest); but for now, I had cobbled together my own psychomythic songline – the Animals of Albion Amble perhaps.

As if to confirm this, on the last day, when I concluded my walk on the Wye Bridge, Monmouth (having walked the final section to Chepstow several years ago), foot-sore but satisfied with my partner, the folk-singer, Chantelle Smith (who had joined me for the last two days, augmenting my modest repertoire with her extensive song-bag and beautiful voice), I cast into the turbid waters of the Wye a stone I had picked up from Prestatyn beach, at the start of the Offa’s Dyke Path. The noise of passing cars and my partner’s somewhat debilitated state (understandable after thirty plus hard miles in two days…) threatened to diminish what should have felt like a euphoric moment – the goal of eleven days achieved – but then, just as we turned to leave, I noticed a ring of ripples where I had cast my stone. In a flash of sunlight, the most gigantic salmon I’d ever seen leapt out of the water a good three feet, flipping over like Tom Daly in mid-dive, before plunging once more into its liquid mystery.

The Salmon of Llyn Llwyd or not, it felt as though my effort had been acknowledged. That my ‘song line’ was complete.

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Perfect pitch at Pampwnton, K. Manwaring 2016

A Walker’s Songbook compiled by Kevan Manwaring

Day 1. John Ball (Sydney Carter)

Day 2. The Manchester Rambler (Ewan MacColl)

Day 3. Brimbledon Fair, or Young Ramble Away

Day 4. The Wild Rover

Day 5. Jerusalem (William Blake)

Day 6. The Lincolnshire Poacher

Day 7. Spencer the Rover

Day 8. Carrick Fergus

Day 9. John Barleycorn

Day 10. Caledonia (Dougie Maclean)

Day 11. Crazy Man Michael (Thompson/Swarbrick)

 

 

Thank you to the songwriters, the Offa’s Dyke Association for maintaining the path, to the animals, the nice campsite owners, and to my intrepid partner and fellow songwalker Chantelle.

 

 

 

 

 

Walking an Imaginary Line

Boundary: imaginary line between two nations, separating the imaginary rights of one from the imaginary rights of the other.

The Devil’s Dictionary, Ambrose Bierce

 

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Offa’s Dyke Path, K. Manwaring 2016

I decided to go for a walk. To mark the end of the academic year and the start of my summer holidays and as a kind of detox from teaching, technology and the ‘unbearable shiteness of being’ (in 21st Century little Britain), I have, over the last three years, cultivated the habit of going for a long distance walk.  In 2014 it was Hadrian’s Wall (84 miles); last year the West Highland Way (96 miles); and this year, to go one better, I decided to tackle the Offa’s Dyke Path (177 miles, or 168 or 182, depending on which sign you read!). I was drawn to this route for a number of reasons: I’m fascinated by borders and how cultures cross-fertilise across them; I was going to be in the north, giving a paper at a conference at Lancaster University (on ‘Loving the Alien’), so could travel from there to the start (or, for many, the end) of the walk in Prestatyn; and also I liked the idea of walking homewards, towards Gloucestershire, and being joined by my partner for the last couple of days at Hay-on-Wye. Also, in the light of the EU Referendum the notion of borders (and the fallacy of trying to keep the ‘other’ out) seemed very resonant. And so I packed my rucksack and off I loped.

When I would create myself, I seek the darkest woods.

Henry David Thoreau

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Go south, young-ish man! 

Offa’s Dyke is an earthwork consisting of a ditch (up to six feet deep) and a rampart (up to twenty five feet high) stretching from north to south, from the Irish Sea to the Severn Estuary. It was constructed around 757-796 CE at the instigation (and probably brute force) of Offa, an 8th Century Mercian king, of whom it was said approximately a century afterwards:

There was in Mercia in fairly recent times a certain vigorous king called Offa who terrified all the neighbouring kings and provinces around him, and who had a great dyke built between Wales and Mercia from sea to sea. (from Bishop Asser’s Life of King Alfred of Wessex,  893 CE)

Giraldus Cambrensis (Gerald of Wales), somewhat later (1145-1223) said of him: ‘King Offa shut the Welsh off from the English with his long dyke on the frontier’. Offa feels like a very topical figure, a Johnsonish, Faragesque, or Trumpist Cnut-type, trying to shut out the inevitable tide of alterity. If the dyke was designed to ‘shut the Welsh off’, it an ironic and ultimately futile endeavour. The Welsh, the Waleas, the ‘strangers’, were the original British, and it was the latest wave of incomers, the Saxons, who were evicting them from their own land. The other was scapegoated, seen as the root of all evil. Plus ça change. Whether the dyke was intended to be defensive (although it was lined by a palisade and the rampart on the English side gave them some advantage, to defend 177 miles of line 24/7 for years seems an unrealistic proposition in what would have been a very underpopulated Britain at the time); designed to control trade; a power statement, or, more likely, a bit of all three, nobody knows for certain. The fact that it often follows the ridge of high places, giving it maximum visibility to the west, suggest it was designed partly to be seen by the surly Welsh as a constant reminder of Mercia’s might. One idea, however, suggests Offa simply took the line of least resistance and augmented existing earthworks, joining up the many hill-forts, and possibly existing routes, along the way. Certainly walking it over 11 days what really came across to me was how it made travel between such sites swifter and more discreet, for it allows you to move across high country without being seen, if you follow the ditch (although today that would be almost impossible unless you wanted to run the gauntlet of miles of nettles and thistles and brambles, for much of it is overgrown). Though it might have originally demarcated the line between England and Wales, now Offa’s Dyke weaves back and forth between the countries somewhat slyly. It slips between worlds. Without knowing it sometimes, you’ve crossed the border. It is only when you come to a gate or sign do you find out which country or county you are in. For much of the route it feels like a place between worlds and outside time. I often walked for hours without seeing a soul. Most hikers traverse the ODP from south to north. I met only one other hiker going southwards. I often seemed to walking faster than most I met, so I would have overtaken any going in my direction at some point. When walking the West Highland Way last year, and Hadrian’s Wall the year before that, you kept overlapping fellow hikers, or vice versa. Some become familiar figures on the trail over several days. But that didn’t happen this time, and that was fine with me as I enjoyed the solitude. After a year of teaching and being responsible for several groups of students, it was soothing to be in a non-verbal, non-technological space. One focused on the daily goal – the next campsite –and core needs – water, food, shelter, warmth, safety. One’s daily effort was reciprocated by the view achieved, the progress made. Life becomes simpler, less cluttered, more focused. Going south. One foot step after another. Breath and sweat. The wind and rain. Sunlight and birdsong. As Gary Snyder said (I took his classic work, The Practice of the Wild, with me, so apologies if I cite him a lot):

The wilderness pilgrim’s step-by-step breath-by-breath walk up a trail, into those snowfields, carrying all on the back, is so ancient a set of gestures as to bring a profound sense of body-mind joy.

I have to ‘fess up at this point, I didn’t lug all of my campsite with me as I saw some poor souls doing, but used local taxi firms to take my main enormous rucksack from pitch to pitch, leaving me with a 25 litre daysac to carry, more than adequate for me needs. I took this approach last year (although then I was able to use a single firm which covered the whole trail) and it makes such a qualitative difference. Instead of it being a masochistic slog, one can actually enjoy the walk. A member of staff at Mellington Hall said ‘That’s cheating!’ but I disagree – there is no rule saying you have to take your house with you like a human snail when walking a long-distance footpath. I was walking the trail, the same as everyone else. Just using my smarts, is all. As Thoreau said:

The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think is right.
On the Duty of Civil Disobedience.

For me it’s about savouring each step, standing and staring now and then, enjoying the view, a pause for a cuppa, to feel the sun on your face, or savour the peace and solitude, not proving anything to anyone else. Some seem to tackle it like a race – I met one man doing it in 10 days – but I wasn’t doing it to break any records. If I made the campsite at a decent time of day, e.g. 4-or-5-ish, then that allowed me time to set up, for my usually wet tent to dry out, to have a shower, fix some food, write some journal, read a little, before nodding off ridiculously early. When one camps one usually starts to synchronise with the rhythm of nature, going to sleep when it gets dark and waking up at dawn. It’s hard to do otherwise, especially after a long and tiring day’s walk. I slept like a log every night.

Pick up your stick, put on your hat, and strike out with a pilgrim heart from your front door. Kevan Manwaring

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A 161 miles later… Finishing the walk on Wye Bridge, Monmouth (I’d done the final section between there & Chepstow before). But there’s more to share before then! Photograph by Chantelle Smith, 2016.

 

In my next blog I write about the ballads I sung every day along the Offa’s Dyke Path…