It’s as inevitable as it is ironic: since embarking on a PhD research project looking at, amongst related themes, walking and landscape phenomenology, I’ve spent more time reading and writing about walking than engaging in the act of walking itself. There’s been times when I’ve been worried I’ve my priorities all wrong but returning to academia after a break of thirteen years was always going to take its toll and November and December seem to be the best months to hibernate behind a laptop and a girt, humungous pile of books.
But the project has legs, literally and metaphorically. In June I’ll be back on the Camino(s) and in August I plan to walk the first half of Hungary’s Blue Trail; before then I intend to walk to the 100 km to school (aka Exeter University) because I’m tired of making the journey by car. All well and good but for a while there’s been something troubling me about this modus perambulare: the linear walk.
Not that there’s anything intrinsically wrong in walking the line. We might think of it as a phenomenological transect, an arbitrary but systematic sampling of the landscape which, in the case of the Camino Francés, leads us over mountains and Meseta, through cities and suburbs and pitches us into the thick of the pilgrim experience: we have the human, the physical and the spiritual, all rolled into one.
But it struck me, crossing the Meseta and gazing lovingly at the Cordillera Cantábrica, some 100 km to the north, that walking the line has its limitations. The trajectory of the path dictates and dominates, the hiker becomes its passive victim; we see only what it wants us to see, and from its perspective.
But the circle serves us little better, nor the figure of eight. If I walk the perimeter(s) I never get close to the centre; the path keeps us at a distance – never the twain shall meet. True, there’s a greater variety of perspective but the hub remains infuriatingly elusive and all the while I want to get intimate: up close and personal.
So in between walking the lines I’m going to move in ever-decreasing circles – in spirals, to be precise; starting on the outside and moving inwards until I reach – or rather, until I want or I’m ready to reach – the centre. The plan is to experiment by applying the theory to the market towns of Somerset and Dorset: their innards and outskirts; their good, their good, their bad and their downright ugly – because, surprise, surprise, not all is bucolically rosy amongst the rolling pastures and quaint quarters of Wessex.
Moving inwards, not just literally but metaphorically, too. An exploration of internal and emotional geographies, landscapes of the mind and the soul. Trying to work out where and when this infatuation with the Wessex landscape began where it might eventually take me. What happens when, like a lover, I get to know it too well; when we begin to bore one another and spend more and more time apart. When we finally come to blows and one of us packs our bags and walks away. And where better to start than the place I now call home: the cathedral city of Wells.