I remember studying Charles Lamb’s “Essays of Elia” and William Hazlitt’s essays for A Level; I loved them all, but especially Hazlitt’s piece on walking. It struck a chord back then and just the other day, as well: “One of the pleasantest things in the world is going a journey; but I like to do it myself. I can enjoy society in a room; but out of doors, nature is company for me. I am then never less alone than when alone…” So, “dear readers”, as Mr. Lamb used to write, here follows an essay on the joys of a solitary ramble around Stroud. Don’t get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoy walking and thinking at two and a half miles an hour with friends and family, but sometimes it’s a joy to do it like Greta Garbo, but with the script of Hazlitt.
So let’s hear from the man himself again, for one last time: “Give me the clear blue sky over my head, and the green turf beneath my feet…Instead of an awkward silence, broken by attempts at wit or dull common-places, mine is that undisturbed silence of the heart which alone is perfect eloquence”.
With this in mind and a welcome day off, I walked down Rodborough Hill and into town. It was a Tuesday, but memories of the 1831Captain Swing Riots passed through my mind: “No work today, boys, it’s Rising Monday!” The pre-industrial tradition of Saint Monday floated around my head too, when handloom weavers and so on would take the day off if they fancied it; a pastime destroyed by the tyranny of the factory clock and hooter. But hey ho, in these days of the post-industrial service economy, I had Tuesday off and was free. A walk beckoned, but first I had to deal with William Blake’s “mind-forg’d manacles”, or rather what we today call, a list of things to do.
Now there’s another way to look at lists rather than through the Blakean trope, and that’s the Sergeant Pepper Day in a Life style: a sort of stream of consciousness Zen type thing, but with a periodic break with pen and paper to maintain a list of musings, events and reflections - the sort of thing that can be done only on one’s own. And having serendipitously read Katie Kitamura’s thesis the weekend before in the Guardian, as to why lists are a raging against the dying of the light: “…as long as we’re making lists…we’re keeping faith with some idea of perpetuity”, what chance did I stand?
Whatever. Off we jolly well go. I walked down the Slad Road, past the tumbling stream, an old mill or two, Uplands Post Office at Springfield House, and then turned right into Libby’s Drive. I bumped into Tony, who suggested I call in to see his wares at “Trainspotters”, but couldn’t find the right warehouse, so hearing the sound of saw and hammer, wandered into an old mill for directions. “No speak English,” said the carpenter, but I managed to locate Tony’s bazaar (“I am setting up a series of Love Walks, some of your group might want to join us…walks for single people”) before turning up a lovely old footpath, past the evocatively named “Dyer’s Mead”.
This footpath felt venerable and worthy of veneration: telegram boys in the Great War; cloth mill workers; handloom weavers; medieval peasants; stone age itinerants – who knows in whose footsteps I trod that day, on that worn down, polished-stone pathway. But the crumbling dry stone walls, all dripping with moss, did not prepare me for the shock of the signpost, with news of the threatened development of Baxter’s Field, just down below Summer Street.
Oh Cider. Oh Rosie. O tempora. O mores.
I walked a few metres along Summer Street, before finding the footpaths that took me up to Bisley Old Road, turnpiked Bisley Road and thence Stroud Cemetery. These secluded footpath-thoroughfares are a treasure: Troy Town wooded nooks and crannies, rus in urbe brick and stone, chickens and woodland. They lead past streets with names like Belmont Road and Mount Pleasant, past whistling builders playing out the Ford Madox Ford painting of “Work”. This walk to top of the town Stroud in February sunshine, with its Five Valley cyclorama and River Severn panorama, has that unique and distinctive charm of the mill town in the Cotswolds vibe that makes Stroud Stroud.
I walked through the Cemetery, past the unnamed pauper burial area, past Great War gravestones, past crocuses and snowdrops, down through the gate and left towards Horns Farm. Here the walk takes you right, into the woods, past an old quarry and where, on this cloudless late February morning, wild garlic was just beginning to show. I sat down on a wall eating a cheese and onion sandwich, the ground dry as a bone above the spring line, but below, one could hear the characteristically talkative Five Valley trickle.
The walk then takes you up the hill and into shadow, and on this late winter day, across the frost’s Plimsoll Line, and into the land of frozen water. The arc of this walk then takes you back towards Stroud; glance to your right and hold the old workhouse in your thoughts, as you take in the beauty of the landscape. When the Poor Law Amendment Act was brought in in 1834, the driving force was to make conditions inside the workhouses worse than the worst paid job outside, and to prevent poor relief occurring outside the workhouses. Think of that as you enjoy the wide sweep of the expansive view; workhouses were often designed to prevent inmates having any view of the outside world at all, in the attempt to criminalise and punish poverty.
The mind can turn in on itself when it has no window on the world, but when out walking, the mind can wander creatively, therapeutically and laterally - when you don’t have to continually look at directions, instructions or a map: the “skull cinema”, as John Hillaby once put it. This Zen-like mindfulness and absence of adult cares are some of the joys of solitary walking; I’d reached Claypits Lane without realising it: another wonderful name derived from the fundamentals of the landscape.
I turned around to see a pale moon rising above the equally appropriately named “The Heavens”, before dropping down the hill to reach the main road and the “Shop’N Drive”. It all started to go wrong here: garages and cars and a text from my daughter saying she needed to borrow money; but a glance up towards Butterow and a sight of the Primitive Methodist Chapel and nearby toll house sent the mind off again, away from the petty mundane material concerns of the here and now. Farewell mind –forg’d manacles and hello Hazlitt.
I reflected on the significance and meaning of it all as I walked the canal towpath. What could be the synopsis of the wonders of this day’s solitary walking? What Twitter style summary could I write about all the variegated events, thoughts, events, observations and reflections involved in this individual ramble?
You Never Walk Alone.