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Walker’s Rests

November 4, 2010

Some of the best memories of my vagabonding walks have been at the resting spots, the places where I might halt for refreshment, or just to admire the view and to rest.

All such stops are memorable in different ways and hundreds come to mind as I think back. They do not necessarily have to be spectacular, offering wide views across miles of countryside. They can be exactly the opposite; the banks of the hollow way where I huddled down under the trees to drink tea with the pouring rain dripping on to my waterproofs, or the bench on a village green where I paused to watch the world go by. The promenade of a seaside resort, or the hidden alleyways of town and city. The mountain summits speak for themselves in my memories as places to linger.

A Devon Hollow Way

Walking is, obviously, not an end in itself. You walk in order to get to places, joyful though the journey might be in itself. But the halts along the way are an essential part of the experience. Not just as places to consume food and drink but as rests, spaces where body and mind may be refreshed. The break from the walk, for me, is often an opportunity to think, or sometimes not to think – just to be.

If solitary roaming is a kind of moving meditation, then these pauses are moments for reflection, time off from the hurried and harrying world that is life in this twenty-first century. To lie on your back and gaze at the sky can bring true peace, free of intruding conversations and the ill-thought out actions of others – which is why it is hard to do on group walks. Such moments are not a luxury in life but a positive necessity. On a clear day, resting on the great slope of a mountain, or the green turf of downland, you can almost feel the rotation of the earth, as though time itself doesn’t exist and there really is just you and the universe.

In his mystical book The Story of My Heart, Richard Jefferies discovers the depths of such moments:

There were grass-grown tumuli on the hills to which of old I used to walk, sit down at the foot of one of them, and think. Some warrior had been interred there in the ante-historic times. The sun of the summer morning shone on the dome of sward, and the air came softly up from the wheat below, the tips of the grasses swayed as it passed sighing faintly, it ceased, and the bees hummed by to the thyme and heathbells. I became absorbed in the glory of the day, the sunshine, the sweet air, the yellowing corn turning from its sappy green to summer’s noon of gold, the lark’s song like a waterfall in the sky.

The Downs near Arundel

Jefferies identifies with the man buried in the tumulus, someone who would have known that same scene two millennia before, and realises that time and eternity are imposed concepts that have little to do with the feelings that people get when they let themselves absorb the reality of the earth. “Eternity is now!” Jefferies remarks. There is, he suggests, no separation from the past. The truth of the world is continuous and all around.

I have felt similar feelings when alone and in the hills. The dramas of the world, its conflicts and wars, its terrors and unhappiness, have faded away – at least in my mind – in the times I have rested, pleasantly tired from a walk, in the lonely places.

And the thought has often occurred to me that if everyone in the world could find such ease, then the conflicts, the wars, and the lack of happiness might be expelled from the human psyche forever. The greatest moments of peace of mind I have ever known have been in these interludes during my many walks.  Some of the resting spots are heart places to me, locations I can journey to in my mind during the frustrating times of modern living, and see and feel and hear and absorb the sounds of the quieter world around.

Summit of Helm Crag

These heart places are diverse kinds of landscape. There is the bench at the top of Arundel Park arrived at by a walk up a gentle slope, where I have so often rested and soaked up the peace of the downlands and the wide views over the valley of the Arun and the flooded bowl of Amberley Wild Brooks.

There is a tiny waterfall near Ballachulish, where on a sunny day in early May I lay back on a boulder, my feet being soaked by water which just a little while before had been snow on the slopes of Beinn a’ Fheiter. There is an old tree in the woodlands of Hole Common, near Lyme Regis, where I have halted for lunch on numerous occasions, watching the deer if I have been early enough in the day.

Near to the Black Lochs of Argyll is a ruined dwelling, below a precariously perched boulder, where I have paused in sunshine and in storm. Then there is the quiet resting spot on the shores of Loch Lochy where I drummed up refreshing tea on a still autumn evening, listening to the bellowing of the stags on the hillside above.

These are just a few of the heart places that have lived in mind since I first discovered them. There are many more. Places I will return to again and again, whether on real physical expeditions, or just on journeys in my thoughts and dreams. These are the unexpected riches of the vagrom life.

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