Today I am channelling Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Walking is good for seeming not to think, but thinking deeply at the same time. Even though I love to walk alone, I do not want to be ‘tranquil at the bottom of the abyss’ as he put it.
When he was young Rousseau read a lot of escapist romantic adventure stories which he said gave him bizarre and romantic notions of human life, which later experience and reflection were never able to cure him of. I wonder if this is all that happens; my imagination runs riot at the slightest excuse and something else (over there) always seems more interesting than this (right here).
I wanted to get back to nature, since that seemed most likely to lead me to the potential of inner calm. I looked up ‘wild Norfolk’ and of course there isn’t any, apart from the occasional bit of coastline that we can’t interfere with and some scraps of ancient woodland. I think I would have to go a very long way to find anything truly wild. Not that it is necessary if wildlife is what you truly want to see – you could, after all, just pay close attention to the ants on the pavement and the spiders under the skirting. I decided to stay fairly local, so went on a trip to Ashwellthorpe to see the pocket of ancient woodland run by the Woodland Trust. It wasn’t easy to find the access point, as there is no designated parking in the village – but a small public footpath is signed from a spot fairly close to an empty mini-market with some parking spaces. The footpath runs through a meadow, which was golden with tall grasses and the hum of insects, and then a tunnel of branches leads you down steps made of roots into the woodland itself. The first thing I saw was notices telling me that the wood is afflicted with the disease that is killing ash trees throughout the country – chalara. Maybe that explains why I did not see a single soul for my entire walk. I didn’t see any particular signs of dieback, but I wouldn’t know what to look for, so I just enjoyed my ignorance. I saw several species of butterflies that might be common in England but not in my everyday experience. I took my time to enjoy the sensation of being alone, listening to the birdsong and the breeze rustling the leaves. I couldn’t hear cars; that was the greatest pleasure, which is ironic, since i drove my car to get there.
I had driven through Mulbarton on the way – it has a really pretty village green, so i decided to have a closer look on my way home. Also I used to know someone who lived there; the man who taught me how to be a teacher. I found him in the graveyard, under his headstone. The inscription was absolutely right – Enthusiastic Teacher, Author, Geographer and Traveller. Lovely man, overspilling his enthusiasm on a daily basis and living his life to the full. He loved trains and he lived in the old train station, with a whole room devoted to a working model railway (so he told me). I looked among the other gravestones and I realised that the stories here had more power than any religious experience or communing with nature. Am I just sentimental? I was genuinely touched by the headstone to the child called Hope, ‘born sleeping’, by the grave with a football signed ‘missing you always’, by the weathered headstone for Skoyles Puxley, by the small plaque to ‘simply the best daddy’ that had been blown onto the grassy walkway with no way of telling who it belonged to, and by the grave for Sean, covered with the dead remnants of a huge number of wreaths, with labels still attached – much loved, but it seems no-one had been back since the funeral. I wanted to know how much a mother was affected by the death of her daughter – two gravestones close together, the mother dying a year after the daughter. Was that the worst year of her life?
I kept feeling that I should have gone to somewhere by the sea, but I had avoided it because of the likelihood of Sunday crowds in nice weather. Since I had time to spare, I drove to a watery location on the Broads rather than heading to the coast. I chose Horning because I had memories of it from the river, back in the days of sailing holidays. It was scenic but that was all.
It appears I can’t get uplifted by anything if I go looking for it. I avoided people, but it was people who spoke to me in the end.
The butterflies are small white, peacock, meadow brown and comma – I only know that because I looked them up.