Looking For A Proper Lane To Ramble Along: The Excursionist IV

[Me rambling in Dorset. Deep in thought.]

Finding places to ramble (walk) in England is something even a guy like me can do.  That is unless I’m going to wear my clean hiking boots.  Who wants to track mud into our host’s home?  And, it is the mud season here.  I haven’t seen any snow since we left Rainbow Lake, sometime in late January.  (There is a God.)  Now, if I had a proper pair of Wellies, which I don’t, mud would not represent a problem.

But here I am searching for a paved lane or byway to stroll on a Sunday afternoon.  That brings up a new problem.  Avoiding the possibility of being an accident statistic.

“TWO ELDERLY YANKS FORCED INTO THORNY HEDGEROW ALONG NARROW DORSET LANE.

LOCAL HEDGEHOG FRIGHTENED!”

Let me say in my defense, there is NO shoulder along these rural lanes…or are they byways?

I found one that had a perfect tree in the perfect place with perfect hedgerows.  It was very narrow, so I only used it as a photo-op.  We didn’t walk far.  Once the photo was done, we turned back and walked along a more traveled road.  The cars rushed by and pinned us against the hedges.  Which lane to walk? They drive on the left so we walk…on the right? On the left?

But, no problem.  That’s what English rambling is all about.

When the soil begins to dry from the spring rains, we shall be taking to the off-road footpaths.

Then I will be in my blissful space.  Then I will walk along paths that others have walked for 10,000 years.

I’m not the only one who likes to ramble.

 

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Reflections in a Sad Eye

NightPub

The last bus stopped running an hour ago.  The publican has rung the bell in the nearby pub, calling out “Time gentlemen, please.” The night‘s action is most definitely over out here in the ‘burbs of London. The streets may be quiet and the locals are at home…but it’s still light out!

It’s only a bit after 10:00 pm.  In truth, the nearest pub will be remain open until midnight so it’s not entirely an empty neighborhood.

Meanwhile, the late flights from Capetown, Rio, New York and Paris are approaching touchdown…their wheels are lowered and they are slowly approaching the runway about 255 feet above my head.

Yes, my head that has been hit with a massive case of hay fever or some sort of allergy since I walked through customs a few hours.  I can’t use my handkerchief any more; it needs to hang out to dry.  I’m down to using a roll of toilet paper to stifle my sneezes.  Even the woman tending bar at the pub noticed my agony and offered her own personal pills she claimed worked for her hay fever.

I tend not to take pills from people I never me before.

The flight from Shannon was only about an hour.  The “food” was a box of crackers, some cheese, a small chocolate bar, some vegetable pate, small can of tonic, and a glass of water.  All for €7.50.  Aer Lingus must be in financial trouble.

We’re in the very B&B we used in 2012. It was cheap, near the airport and provided a free shuttle to the terminals.

I doubt we’ll travel this cheap again.

The room’s light was dingy, quite brothel-like.  There was no shower curtain and only one towel each.

I’m writing this with my iMac Air and using it like it’s supposed to be used…on my lap.  But I have a bad back and I’m leaning against a pillow that is, if I’m lucky, two inches thick.

I’m a hugger.  I don’t know, maybe my mother took my teddy away too soon, but I need something to wrap my arms around.  I’m going to be forced to use my neck cushion.  The kind of thing that looks good in the W.H. Smith store but is difficult to pack…like a football.  People  sleep with them on planes and trains.  Mine’s blue in case you’re interested.

I’m not very happy right now.

This was meant to be a reflection of a wonderful trip.  But, as usual with me, it’s bittersweet.

We said good-bye to Brian on Sunday.  Ireland seemed to be a little emptier without his companionship, wit, charm and sense of amazement at what he saw and what we shared.  I’m quite proud of myself for planning a trip that included a medieval banquet, being on his own in a few pubs in Cashel, and climbing to the battlements of our ancestral castle in County Tipperary.

Thinking back on the entire trip, I can recall some awesome sights and some frustrating moments.  I’ve looked down haunted wells where a violated youth was thrown.  I’ve seen the withered hand of a saint who founded the Abbey that later became Ely Cathedral.  We’ve rubbed fingers with mummies in a crypt in Dublin, threw a pence into the Liffey from Ha’Penny Bridge.

Up in County Sligo, at a cemetery in Enniscrone, I stood at the grave of Tom and Kate Egan who once served me tea from water that had been boiling all day over a peat fire.

That was over thirty years ago.

I’ve looked out over the fields my people plowed and had their cattle graze for decades.

Stone walls don’t change much in human life times. The hedges grow for centuries. The rains fall and the people keep smiling.

In England, our friends edge toward retirement and think thoughts about where it would be a nice place to live.

To me, I couldn’t think of any place more in tune with the beats of my heart and yearnings of my soul than England or the west of Ireland.

Being of Irish background, I thought of what it would be like to live there.  My body is pulled two ways.  My blood says to go back to the soil that first made you who you are…melancholy and love of the written word are my genetic markers.

But, I’m happiest when I’m walking.  And, there is no place with footpaths that lead to all my dreamscapes than England.

If you drive six miles through Wiltshire, Somerset or Dorset and not pass a dozen “public footpath” signs, then you have a bad case of tunnel vision.

My adventure is over and I’m a sadder man because of it.  In the coming weeks, I will sit and tell funny stories of our trip, but deep within me, I’ll long for the footpath.  I’ll long for the place when the biggest decision I need to make is which direction to walk.

Yes, the Adirondacks have hundreds of miles of trails and I live in the center of it all, but somehow it lacks the ancient history and mythic lore that stirs my soul as I stand inside a stone circle that was constructed before the Great Pyramids.

I am cursed with restlessness.

But the posts will go on. I’ve not shown you things or told you stories of many things.  Some will keep you awake at night. Some will make you smile and some will make you cry.

If I can do all these things…I’ve succeeded in what a writer most wants.  Getting people to read.

Right now? I’m going to shut the dingy overhead light off and switch on my Barnes & Nobel reading lamp.  I’m working my way through Dickens at the moment.

Its title is very appropriate:

“Great Expectations”.

GardenHeathrow

 

[This post is written in England but it will be posted from Penn Station when we get back. This hotel wants £4.00 for Wi-Fi. I have never paid for that service before and I’m not going to start now.]

 

Passports 13: Getting a Leg Up–An Introduction to the Footpath Stiles of England

Footpaths are as common in England as salt grains on a Big Mac.  (I’m not sure that metaphor works here, but I’ve been wanting to use it for decades.)  Unlike the States, the lines between private property and the pubic right-of-way are a bit foggy, like the desolate and lonely landscapes of Dartmoor and the Yorkshire Dales.  But, it’s not a free-for-all, by any means.  There are rules.

First, there is the obvious and gentle–always latch the gate you pass through.  That way, the sheep, cows and goats stay where they belong.  However, in Devon, that hypothesis doesn’t apply.  The sheep, ponies and cows are often found in the middle of the roads, causing you to slow down from 20 mph to 4 mph.  (An aside: Boy, are those sheep looking fat!  I wondered if it was the 345 lbs of heather and grass they chew 24/7 or because of all that wool?  I know when I wear my wool trousers, my butt looks fat, so maybe that’s it.

Another rule is to make haste when crossing a field that has been signed: Bull Present In Next Pasture.  When I’m in that situation, I do the only correct thing–I send my wife ahead when she has her bright red Helly Hansen parka on.

If you’re with your dog, King, there is a sign that carries a severe warning: Dogs Found Worrying Sheep Will Be Shot! This is for real and it’s happened.  Nuff said.

Onto the stiles.  Sooner or later, you have to cross from one field to the next.  The cattle gates are often locked so a stile is provided.  This is usually made of wood, but stone stiles are not uncommon.  Their design is simple and functional.

First there is the single-step stile.  [See example shown below]  It’s very simple to navigate.  Just get a leg up and over.  If it’s mossy or wet (it usually is–it never stops raining in England), then take extra care.  Otherwise, you’ll end up in a sordid and fetid mix of mud and cow dung.  That stuff will really do a number on your $400.00 Burbury jacket.  If there’s a rock hidden in the muck and you lose your footing, expect to spend at least two hours in a coma.

 

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If you have a particularly high gate to cross, there may be a double-step stile.  [See below]  Stone stiles are simply rock versions of the above.  You’ll have to imagine what these look like because I can’t locate the photos in my picture file.  These, again, if slippery, can make an omlette out of your kneecap.

 

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But the coolest stile by far, is the famous “Kissing Gate”.  These are designed to allow only the first person to pass through (or rather around) a swinging gate.  The first person, once through, waits for the next person–and before person number 2 can get through, person 1 must kiss them.  This works really, really well if you’re walking with Miss Ohio or the Prom Queen.  But, if you’re with your mother-in-law, brother, father, mother, sister or a blind date from hell, things can get dicey.

Behold, the Kissing Gate!

Kissing Gate

There has been some talk among the modernists who think that these gates are a tad too quaint for the 21st century.  I say: Let them stay.

If, by any misinformed action, the kissing gates are removed, I predict that the birth rate of England will see a significant decline.

Passports 8: Losing My Way Near Shaftsbury

All of you know Shaftesbury, in Dorset.  In the town center, just off High Street is Gold Hill.  This is arguably one of the most photographed views in England.  It’s on all the England calendars, Beautiful Britain books and travel brochures.  It was featured in the movie “Far From the Madding Crowd”, when Terrance Stamp (young and dashing in his red officers tunic) rode down Gold Hill, passing a drop-dead beautiful Julie Christie (but galloping full speed into her heart.)  I don’t know whether she was more stunning in “Madding Crowd” or as Lara, in “Dr. Zhivago”.  I mean, those locks of hair the color of chestnuts (a dark blonde) that cascaded over her shoulders.  Her lips? Forget about it.  Full and sensual with a hint of a pout.

But I digress.

My wife and I decided to do our first longish walk near Shaftesbury.  I paid 3 pounds 60 pence for a thin guide to local walks.  The maps were hand drawn and the directions had passages like “the minor road near Ludwell”.  Minor road?  The booklet also said that they, the authors, thought it would be impossible to get lost with this guide.

Wait till they hear from my lawyer.

We drove out toward Ludwell but couldn’t find the “minor road” so I stopped at a pub to ask directions.  (Yes, I, a man, stopped for directions).  The bartender looked, from the back, like a guy dressed in a bizarre wig for Halloween.  She turned around and I saw that it was her real hair, dyed the color of…of a mix of purple, pink, red, orange and toxic neon maroon.  But, she gave me perfect directions to the parking area where we would start our walk. This is in contrast with the bartender/server, back in Shaftesbury where we had lunch.  She was a sweet and heartbreakingly beautiful blonde.  The only problem was that bartender didn’t know the name of the street that her pub was on…or how to get to the A30, which was only yards away.

So, we start our hike into a place called Ashcombe Park.  Ashcombe House, was once the home of Madonna when she was married to Guy Ritchie (he still lives there).  The countryside was beautiful and fragrant.  I stopped to touch a Queen Anne’s Lace flower and I brushed against a small thorn.  It pricked my thumb which began to throb and itch.  Some small amount of toxic substance was telling me: Don’t Touch The Flowers.  When I looked at the tiny thorn, I recalled Early Madonna and the perfectly conical, and razor tipped “bra” that she wore.  I got the message big time.  You can look but you can’t touch.

Part way along the walk, I walked past a tree that had been sawed.  I backed up to get a look at the tree rings.  I love counting tree rings and I do so whenever I can.  I made a rough estimate that the tree was about 150 years old.  I tried to put a little green leaf on the rings that would mark the time of WWII.  How many young men, field hands and farmers’ sons and husbands and lovers walked past that tree?  The tree was a mere sapling in the year 1860 +/- , which was about 25 years after Queen Victoria ascended the throne.

History was staring at me from the flat surface of a sawn tree.  Like the dates on a tombstone, each ring marked an event in the life of the people who walked that little vale in Ashcombe Park.

The guidebook mentioned going through several “kissing gates” but they were nowhere to be found.  I noticed new fencing along the pastures.  Again, the guidebook failed us.  We took the wrong turn, sort of, and began a long slog to the top of the hill where the car park was located.  The walk was said to be 4.5 miles, but I calculated that we did over 5 miles by the time we saw the adorable little Fiat sitting near a pasture and near a small but growing herd of cows.  I hoped they didn’t think I was there to milk them.  But they looked at me with those big, vacant bovine eyes.  I recalled my grandmother’s cow and the name she gave it.  I said: “Not now, Nellie.”

I would bet my last quid that phrase wasn’t heard too often in the fields and copses, when brave young soldiers walked home through the fields.  Or when a farmer’s son, finished his chores and skipped along the hedgerow to meet his girl.

His girl, Nellie.

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The valley of Ashcombe Park, Dorset.

 

 

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The wavy grey line to the left of center marks the 1940’s.  The center, the 1860’s.

 

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Shaftsbury in the distance.

 

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Gold Hill, Shaftsbury.

An American in Dorset (an excerpt)

Preface

As I understand it, I am not allowed to donate blood.  I have the British Government to partly thank for this dilemma.  It so happens that I resided in Great Britain during the years when Mad Cow Disease was in its very early stages.  I say, “partly thank” because even though MCD began to develop in their herds on their watch, no one forced me to eat a Steak and Kidney Pie every other night in the corner of a cozy pub, over the course of a year.

That part was my uninformed choice.

The incubation period of Mad Cow Disease seems to be measured in decades, so if I had contracted it in the mid-1980s, any aberrant behavior on my part would have manifested itself by now. (There goes something else I can’t blame for my odd personality disorders of late.)

Anyway, I can’t give blood.

~~~~

I didn’t go to England on a dare.  I didn’t go on a whim, or to escape a vengeful husband or boyfriend, to evade charges of mail fraud in Utah, to finish my thesis on John Keats or to search for that mythical British bar-wench who still remembered what a low cut serving blouse was for (although I admit I was somewhat curious about that last one).

I went because it was the only way, I thought at the time, to keep my sanity from slipping away from me and allowing me to fall into a dark place.  The root causes that led me to England happened years earlier.

~~~~

I had been teaching in public schools for seven years followed by another three at a private school in New England.

During my time in the public school, I often felt humiliated, oppressed and undervalued on an almost daily basis.  To be sure, this is and was an old complaint among educators.

My story does not begin when I entered a classroom for the first time.  If it were only that simple, I would have little to tell.  My tale begins this way:

I was on my way to class one afternoon. The late bell had already sounded.  I was tardy for my own class because I had felt the need to slip down to the “teachers lounge” for a cup of tea.  This “lounge” was actually a section in the basement of the boiler room of a building erected in 1908.  The few times I had sat at the faculty worktable to have a tea, I could hear the flush of every toilet in the building as the water gushed through the pipes over my head.  This building, I should mention, was designated for the ninth grade only.  Just outside my classroom window was a new $10,000,000 facility for grades ten through twelve.  I climbed the five flights of stairs to get to my room.  On the way, just outside my door I ran into a student who belonged at his desk in my class.  He already had several clashes with the law and his dislike of me was palpable.  I touched his elbow and said, “let’s go”.

At that point he jumped me and began swinging.  I crashed against the lockers and kept my head turned away as he swung at me to avoid having my glasses smashed into my eyes.  We banged against one wall of lockers and he swung me across the hall.  We both collided against another set of metal doors.  A guidance counselor leapt from his hallway desk (we were short on offices) and pulled him off me.  Ten seconds later I was standing in front of my class; they were clueless as to what had happened, and I tried to appear “normal”.  I leaned against my file cabinet and looked down at my hands shake like one stricken with palsy.

I decided to file charges for assault.  I felt strongly that teachers needed protections and it was up to me to send a strong message.  This was the only way I could do it.

The Principal declined to support me.  The teachers union turned their back on me.  In the end I went to the Magistrate alone.  I recall sitting in my car in the parking area of the courthouse listening to Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” and agonizing over what I was about to do.  This kid was already neck deep in trouble with the school.  Was I saving and serving my profession or was I burying this boy further into adolescent hell?

I settled out of court.

On another occasion, I was sitting on the stage of the school theater.  I was in charge of a study hall that contained about eighty-five students, mostly ninth and tenth graders.  I glanced out at the group and noticed a male student with his back turned to me and leaning toward the floor.  About five minutes before the bell rang to end the class, another boy came up to me and whispered, “He has it in his sock.”

I headed the offending student off at the door.

“Would you come with me for a moment?” I asked.

I led him to the Vice Principals office located down the hall.  We stood before his desk and I explained what happened.

“Well let’s see what’s in your sock,” the Administrator said.

Out came several items of drug paraphernalia, a pipe, some papers and a baggie of what I suspected was weed.

My job being done, I returned to my classroom.  I had a free period.  As soon as I sat down, I heard the yelling and running.

“Get him!” screamed the Vice Principal.

I stepped out of my room only to catch a glimpse of the student running past me and toward the stairwell. He descended two stairs at a time.  He reached the ground floor porch before I did, but I was in time to see him throw several items into the field near the school.

It was over in a minute.  The student was led away and I spent the rest of my free period poking through the brush.  I found the pipe and bag of “weed”.

My class schedule went something like this: I had five classes of ninth grade Earth and Space Science.  Each class had about thirty students.  Consequently I would find myself teaching the same topics, repeatedly, to about one hundred and fifty kids. There were no lab facilities at all.  I had to meet my classes in different locations for a few years.  In some of these old and creaky rooms I would hear my own voice bounce back at me from the rear wall.  I did not like the echo I heard.  I bored myself and could not help but wonder what these kids thought of me.  I should say in all fairness that the school district was recovering from a devastating flood in 1972 and class sessions had to be arranged according to what buildings were repaired and which ones were destined to be leveled.

What I had come to feel as a growing irrelevancy of my professional life hit me hard one fine day.  To earn a few extra bucks I signed on to do “homebound” teaching a state mandated system set up to instruct students who couldn’t be physically in the classroom for one reason or another.  One afternoon, I was at the home of a sixteen-year-old girl.  Her mother was puttering in the kitchen.  I sat at the girl’s desk in her bedroom and was in the process of teaching her about the formation of clouds as a function of condensation.

This girl was about five months pregnant.  She probably would not be finishing school.

She sat and listened quietly.  She was a nice girl, very polite and attentive.  I stopped midway through my fascinating description of cloud formation and drank some water.  During this short break, I asked myself about the quality of this girl’s future and, more to the point, what the hell clouds had to do with anything relevant at this point in her young life.

She earned an “A” for simply not putting a carving knife into my chest.

So, that is where I found my emotional self in the late 1970’s.

~~~~

I drove an orange MG Midget at the time.  My mind and hair should have been blowing free and easy to the disco rhymes of ABBA pulsating from an 8-Track player bolted securely below my dashboard.   As the useless sense of my life grew within me, I began to dread the long drive to the school from the farmhouse where I lived.  I needed to leave the house about 6 AM.  The number of the mornings began increasing when I stopped listening to the radio.  Instead I would pull off to the side of the road at 7 AM to weep hot and painful tears.  The fear in me was growing and spreading like a tumor of the soul.

I wasn’t afraid of the kids.  Most of them liked me.  That’s not what made me cry at dawn.  Instead, I was terrified by a life that seemed to trail off somewhere into future time ending on a hill near a tree in a pasture, or an empty seat at a honky-tonk bar at 4 PM, or later against a rusty concrete bridge abutment.

What took me from that place, wiping away my tears in an orange MG Midget to a teacher’s desk in Dorset, England several years later?  That’s the story I wish to tell.Image

 

 

Available in Kindle form from Amazon.

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