Returning myself after 32 years, I walked some of the same ways I had done whilst there on a painting holiday (which also turned into walking) at 17. And this time although still spellbound in a romantic homage to Hardy, I was captivated as if for the first time by the wonderful stiles and walls, and naturally, the crooked ways that lead to and away from them.
A gatepost graced a field entrance, crescent-shaped with its straight edge facing inwards, a slim half moon facing away from the gate. I approached it from a roadway wrapped in a tunnel of dark ivy, so that the gateway opened like a window onto light, framing the steep rise of a pale green field.
Such structures sprung up at me all over the fields where I walked. A chink in a high hedge or dry stone wall invites walkers with ingenious system of slate slabs sidelong. There are steep two-sided staircases; a kissing gate squeezed under a holly tree in the nook of a wall; slate cattle grids at a churchyard entrance. And all the slate seems silk-edged and petrol-sheened with long use by hands and feet and weather. All has been built and maintained for human thoroughfare, on foot. And it all seems like art to me.
Across open fields, the paths marked on the map often seeemd invisible. I was guided only by a chink in the hedge opposite, or by the suggestion of a darker green meandering line teased in the grass by repeated footfall, or simply by an instinct as to where the ‘desire line’ lay. This sense of the persistence of walkers, and the marks they make in the land has long fascinated me and I think I may have learnt it from early readings of Hardy’s novels.
A re-reading of The Return of the Native, my A-level text, had me following characters across the huge imperturbable face of Egdon Heath, in daylight and darkness, in confidence and fear. Eustacia Vye, the discontented dark witch-beauty, is practised in her footcraft, finding paths which are, ‘an infinitely small parting in the shaggy locks of the Heath’. Hardy shows us how the regular ‘haunters’ of the Heath feel their way in the dark: ‘The whole secret of following these incipient paths, when there was not light enough in the atmosphere to show a turnpike-road, lay in the development of the sense of touch in the feet, which comes with years of night rambling in little-trodden spots. To a walker practised in such places a difference between impact on maiden herbage, and on the crippled stalks of a slight footway, is perceptible through the thickest boot or shoe.’
For me, this ‘going back’ has been a pilgrimage of happy rediscovery rather than of penance – a rediscovery both of a place where I found new things outside and inside myself and of the literature of Thomas Hardy. It has brought with it a finer appreciation of how walking made him both the man and the writer that he was, and how he influenced my own walking and writing.