This week’s episode is filled with sunshine, the scent of resin, and the soporific call of pigeon and dove as we explore a little further afield. A visit to Dad on the north Norfolk coast means a change in landscape. Find out why, even though I love walking, I am often very reluctant to talk about it with other walkers!
14th March, Monday
Penny and I walk through a soft chilled landscape.
The canal is dark and glassy.
A small patch of mist boils and parts
As Cyril emerges, stately and silent.
He eyes me as he glides slowly passed
Breasting the Arthurian waters."
Old Corsican Pines at Wells-Next-The-Sea beach
Marram Grass on the dunes at Wells-Next-The-Sea beach
Two of the famous beach huts on Wells beach
The pine woods by the sea
One of the many inviting paths that flow like rivers through this wood
For information about the beach and woods at Wells-next-the-Sea (audio soundscapes were recorded there: 17.03.2022) you will find this website helpful: The Wells Guide.
In this episode I read the poem ‘March: Pooley Country Park’ by Vanessa Thomas from the wonderful The Mindful Narrowboat vlog. You can listen to Vanessa recite it and watch her creating her beautiful nature journal here: #93 The 8 Things I Brought to My Tiny Home! | Simplifying My Life
More information about Nighttime on Still Waters
You can find more information and photographs about the podcasts and life aboard the Erica on our website at noswpod.com. It will also allow you to become more a part of the podcast and you can leave comments, offer suggestions, and reviews. You can even, if you want, leave me a voice mail by clicking on the microphone icon.
In the intro and the outro, Saint-Saen's The Swan is performed by Karr and Bernstein (1961) and available on CC at archive.org.
Two-stroke narrowboat engine recorded by 'James2nd' on the River Weaver, Cheshire. Uploaded to Freesound.org on 23rd June 2018. Creative Commons Licence.
Piano and keyboard interludes composed and performed by Helen Ingram.
All other audio recorded on site.
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A walk. It could be any walk, but this one is here.
Far from the familiar landscape of my small world, the beaten down reed patches on the canal banksides where the ducks clamber in and out. The straggly clump of grass halfway up the brickwork of bridge 55. The plink of water dripping from moss into the greeny-brown waters below. And the elder with its leaves just unfurling beside the towpath gate. Or the stubborn dandelion tucked beside the budding lilac. And the powdery star-fields of damson blossom the scent the air with summer wine.
This time, it is this walk. A walk that is light with the susurration of wind among the pine tops and soporific pigeon sighs, and the ocean sounding on the harbour bar far out to sea. And the jagged tufts of marram grass, thin green spears of unvanquishable resilience and life, crowning the sculpted dunes the colour of summer barley fields and wheat.
An anarchic rainbow of beach huts, standing on stilts, on sugary drifts sands. Dogs chase balls and excite the tumble-weeds of dried sea wash balls, left by whelks, and broken razor shells.
And a sky the blue of cornflower, gentian soft, harebell, forget-me-not, eyebright blue, rich as borage and bugloss. A Krøyer blue. An impossible blue. But there it is and I am standing under it, flooded by its light.
Darts of tern and gull dervish white in squealing, whirling turns; throating the voices of the dead souls lost at sea, marine dark and five fathoms deep... or perhaps... perhaps, Prufrock and Donne really have 'heard the mermaids sing, each to each.'
And afar off, barnacle geese call out their reply and two mallards doze on the harbour wall.
Later, a couple will drink coffee. He will complete a Wordle on his phone. She will look out of the window. Their black Labrador, with worried eyes will eye the pocket of my coat half in anticipation, half in expectation. The man will tell the woman the answer and they will then talk about words. Their slipperiness, their weights of meaning.
"Why must it be written that way?"
"Why does it have to be spelt this way and not that?"
I love that!!
Discovering again the alchemy and artifice of language.
But that will all happen later and this is now... and the Corsican pines stand tall and sweep the skies. Their trunks catching the warm sunshine as it filters through the whispering canopy. Sometimes in winter or on a summer's evening, the low sun will catch the trunks and branches so that they glow warm, vermilion and burgundy; and the sharp, clean, tang of resin hangs sleepily in the air. That is when this place becomes truly magical. Or, it could be a day like today, when the sun is up, the season's wheel has turned and the sap is rising.
For now, at this point, on this walk, now it is a special time. A time when the horizon recedes and I am at the centre of the universe under a sky of impossible blue and a choir of pigeon and terns angelling the banishment of night's chill shadows.
A walk - it could be any walk, but this time it is this one and we are here at the place where the soul can find a space to breathe deeply and free once again.
Mum and Dad taught me to walk. I don’t just mean the mechanics of putting one foot in front of the other. Nor do I mean, how to pace the miles, to read a map, or lead myself off a mountain in the dark or mist. They taught me the most important skill I’ve ever learnt. They taught me how to stop.
I was reminded of it again, the other week. Just down the towpath from here is a field of ewes with their new lambs. I caught movement in the hedge that runs beside the towpath and field. Even though the wind was gusty and devilish, a figure was standing, in amongst the bushes, lost in thought and the stillness of the moment. Bobble-hat and thick coat done up against the cold, she apologised, embarrassed, smiling in the way that you do when your face is not quite sure what to do. I was more conscious that I was a lone male - not even really wearing anything close to walking attire and didn't want to alarm her. I kept my distance. She pointed to the lambs frisky and milky on the sodden green meadow. "I just wanted to watch them," she says, "There was a rabbit there too. It came right out and was with the lambs. It wasn't scared." How do you tell a stranger that this is nothing to apologise for, that there is nothing to be embarrassed about? To stand by a field and be lost in the worlds that you find there. The field that hides the treasure of great price - new life bouncing on a stormy day. I move on. Too quickly, but it is her secret treasure to relish and absorb. Later I turn the corner and furtively look back. I'd not planned to go much further and was on the point of turning back. She is still there. I can just make out the colour of her bobble hat. I decide to change my plans and carry on. I don't want to alarm or disturb what she has found. It's the stopping that makes the difference.
As a family, we would go out each week for a walk. They were times when my imagination could breathe deeply. Each gulp of fresh air only entered my lungs via my own internal world. Each step was an active engagement of the imagination. Walking was an exercise in imagination as much as it was a physical one. The little internal worlds which I had conjured from the pictures in my story books and encyclopaedias were given wings… no, they were realised. Woods were populated with Robin and his merry men. Old footpaths and greenways, were the terrain of Hereward the Wake, the chalky rise of Chiltern hills, were transformed into a landscape of knights and the shadowy forms of druidic runes.
Max Weber may have described Entzauberung, modernity’s process of disenchantment, but to me, the world WAS enchanting. It was a place suffused and blazing with glory, and beauty, and wonder. And I knew that the compass needle of my life was sure and true when I re-discovered that wonder.
I see today families walking my gentle fields; a striding crocodile line of Gore-Tex and spangled in hi-tech mountain survival gear. And I am so SO heartened that the world still has its lovers. However, I do not remember our outings like that. I have vivid, bracken scented pictures of us as a family unit, straggled across the country in a loose, easy net; each walking our own paths. My sister in her world of gymkhanas and rosettes and ponies (and later of aeroplanes and cloud banks and ailerons), mum crouched beside a little tangle of plants, her botanising bag (an old gasmask case) beside her on the ground and, on her lap, her open, weather-beaten copy of Keble Martin (1486 species illustrated, its cover assures us). Dad would be elsewhere, striding into view towards mum, camera and tripod out, ready to photograph her new find. Looking back, my memories suggest that we not so much walked, but swarmed the land. Like a human herd of cows, we spread out and foraged the misty fields and scrubby hills. True, we had a start and a defined destination, but it was never about the miles we trod, or the names of the places visited, it was about being there – wherever ‘there’ at the time was, and seeing, smelling, experiencing what was ‘there’ and around the corner there was always another ‘there’. A plant for mum, a butterfly or grass for dad’s camera, or an ancient withered tree which whispered tales of highwaymen and heroes. Walks were defined by flowers found, butterflies spotted, bird songs recognised and stories enacted.
As a 13 year old, I had yet to learn these lessons. The constant stops fired an irritation in me that smouldered on rage, at times. As soon as we started, we stopped again. Hours seemed to whirl by that made my legs ache and stomach growl and impatience rise. For me, the walk was all about the finishing; about getting back home; closing the front door on the world and teatime. If it was winter, we would eat in the sitting room. The cold dark world tapped and rattled against the window casements, safely banished behind the curtains, and the gas fire glowed red. There would be toast and tangy sticks of celery (dipped in a little pile of salt) and hot drop scones, perhaps even some ‘church windows’ cake, but always mum’s Victoria sponge with homemade jam. And around us was spread a carpet of open books. Dad would sit in the big, threadbare, old armchair and guffaw at his book or read something out to us all and Wendy and I would listen with half-open ears and drop toast crumbs into the creases of our books – and outside, would be the wind in the trees. If it was summer, we would eat in the dining room while the Top Twenty finished and Sing Something Simple began on the radio and the sun slanted through the french-windows tracing the patterns of the cherry tree on the table cloth and the dogs snored on the lawn. And there would be little glass dishes of cucumber and tomato soaked in vinegar with which to make our sandwiches.
Perhaps real lessons, the important ones, are like seeds; they need to be sown unbidden into the soil and there to lie dormant, even for a while to die. For there was a stretch of time, I resented the stopping. I was impatient to get on, to move, to cover the land, to finish the course. I had yet to learn what it was to ‘walk’. I had yet to learn that if one stops anywhere, in a forest, on a beach, on a city street, and look, a whole hidden universe would be revealed and that universe would fill me with such questions and captivate me. And it is that lesson which I now treasure the most. It is the stopping, the small details that flood my stillness; the tiny snail on a new bud, the globe of dew on a blade of morning grass, the minute spider tracing its thread through the air. It is these things that make the walk and continually draw me to the next one. It is the stopping that feeds my soul.
That is why I like walking. But it is also why I rarely mention it as one of my loves as it invariably attracts questions such as 'how far?' 'What's the longest walk you've done?' 'Have you done the such and such way or path?' And I have to point the next corner in the lane and say, 'oh just over there.'
'It's not far' I lie, because I know that is what they'll think. Because I can never really explain how far I have really gone.
Really, it's just a walk. It could be any walk, and, I mean, it could just be ANY walk, but today it is this one...