The United Kingdom: Once, Twice, Again.

Christmas comes but once a year and seems to last for 6 to 8 weeks. Advertising campaigns insist we must continue to spend money we don’t have on things we don’t need. Won’t somebody please think of the shareholders. Is it really Christmas if you haven’t heard Mariah Carey at least once a day for 24 days? I long for it to end. I can’t hang my excitement on the Christmas tree like everyone else. I need something with meaning. The winter solstice is real. It happened, once in the past, for the very first time, and also every year since. Measurable. Visible. Real. There’s a message in the shortest day too. The light will return. I haven’t decided whether being ill for half of the festive period has been a blessing or something else. I skip out on family events, social ones that I actually want to attend too. I rest. The liquids, that have filled the cavity where my brain should be, dry out. The cough I’ve been holding on to for two months finally eases. I’m clear enough for New Year’s Eve. Another date that’s always meant more to me than some dead carpenter’s made up birthday. My friends gather, wearing ridiculous costumes as is tradition. We drink and see off 2022 together. We start 2023 together too. There is no where I would rather be. Full of cocktails and topping up on big beers our conversation touches on the past. Highs and lows. The highs aren’t even a question. 2022 was the best year of my life. I walked the length of New Zealand. I got a girlfriend. I started a new job. The low? It had to end. Something has to come after. For how many years has my resolution been to do better? I don’t know. How can I do better than what’s just gone? I don’t know.

I’ve started scanning maps again. Looking for ways to go from here to there or there and back again. Long distance paths cut across Hampshire. The Wayfarers Walk comes in from Berkshire. The Clarendon Way comes in from Wiltshire. The South Downs Way rises in Winchester and runs out to East Sussex. There are more, many more. They’re not serviced in any comparable way to those of New Zealand. There are route markers and there is often a path. Anything else is asking for too much. For me, for now, I think that’s enough. I can get from my front door to most of the surrounding towns via one route or another. On Boxing Day I pushed myself harder than I probably should have. Jumping in the van with my parents and riding out to Kingsclere. The Wayfarers Walk will carry me home. I head off while they’re still booting up. A walk for them isn’t enough for me. I skirt the village, cross the gallops and head up towards the Downs. A fast moving falcon explodes from one of the hedgerows. Tail feathers fanned out like fingers. And gone. Across the open fields kites whistle. Hidden away, pheasants cluck. The unmistakable roar of traffic from the nearby roads. The wide open sky slowly fills with clouds. I make my way on to the Wayfarers Walk proper. Weaving back and forth across farmland. In a barren yellow field I stop often to watch the kites. They rise in twos and threes, circle and land. I count up to 10 raptors. Over my shoulder; the shimmer of a ribbon tail, a paper kite catching the wind.

The field beyond a farm holds surprises. A toilet and a water tap. For public use. For free, on a walking trail. Unexpected. A campsite lies beyond. A field with another toilet. A few caravans and camper vans. No tents at this time of year. I make a note to remember this for the future. In case I come back, to walk the Wayfarers from start to finish. I’d like to think I will. Through one of the coppiced avenues of beech trees I follow a carpet of black and brown leaves. A desire line heads off to the fence. In a field full of cows are the remains of a burial mound. Earthworks of some kind. Perhaps the ruins of a settlement. There is no information board, no car park, no visitor centre. A barbed wire fence is all that stops me from stepping in to the past. The fence does its job, this time. I return to the path. Ominous gloves rest on trail markers and tree branches. Bright shards of plastic stand out against the natural shades of leaf rot and mud. Through patches of limited civilisation, farm houses and cottages, I pass family groups out for their own Boxing Day walk. Dogs run across fields off lead. Otherwise, the outdoors remains blissfully quiet. I gain on Basingstoke. I pass over the West Country train line. In the empty field on the far side my boots expand with mud. The clay sticks and weighs heavy. An absolute slog in to the village of Deane. I pause to check one of the stately homes on the map. Oakley Hall. I’ve actually been there, inside. More than half a life time ago now. I cut back towards home. Around the edge of Oakley, crossing the site of the old Roman road that once ran from the capital to Winchester. Two straight lines stretch out in either direction. I need to come back with more light. When I venture out again I make my way back to the edge of town. I find a sign advising of a bronze age burial mound. A ring of trees mark the perimeter. There’s nothing else here. A few paths cut across the open land. Clouds of pigeons rise off the farm fields on the edge of town. Spooked by something. I’ve heard rumours of a sparrow hawk in these edge lands. Over one field the plastic frame of a kestrel hovers on a string, if it’s supposed to stop the pigeons it’s no substitute for the real thing.

I go again. Overdressed. Waiting all day for a break in the rain. It comes 10 minutes after I head out. I’m no good at staying in. I wasn’t meant to be kept indoors. I don’t think any of us were. It’s easy though, not leaving. I walk almost a straight line. Mirroring the motorway from one end of town to the other. I don’t often come this way. It’s too far. It isn’t. I arrive at the duck ponds of Black Dam. The water low and clear. I once tried to walk on the surface of the pond, thinking the algae was that soft rubber surface they put around playground swings. After they stopped using tarmac. I haven’t been here in a long time. The mute swans still show the grey of their youth. I don’t stop. Crabtree plantation could give me a hill but I have to turn around at some point. Why not now? I cross the base of the hill, over the A30 and towards the Lime Pits. We used to come here as children too. Blowing bubbles out of the climbing frame train’s chimney. We got older and the reputation changed. Everyone knows it’s a notorious dogging hotspot. One car idles in the car park. I keep walking, looking for a way through on the other side. I know it’s here. A trail through the mud, over the only river that flows out of town. The concrete slab bridge is high and dry. I’ve seen trout in the waters here. Not today. I cross the fen, the peat bog, the wasteland. The canal ran here before my time. The waterway filled now. The land around compacted down. Moss grows in place of grass. I head back, around town. Through the business park of abandoned buildings. Yellow lights burn behind windows on a handful of floors. Not as empty as I thought. Wind pushes and pulls across the station approach. I’m not leaving. Not today. I’m going home. Back along the regular walked path. Past gangs of youths in black coats,  their fake smoke scented with strawberry. Soft lights of Christmas trees still glow through windows. A few more days and they’ll be gone. Leaving the harsh blue of the TV. The rain starts up again as I close in. I’m glad to be over dressed.

I came up with a gift for Rachael. A map of the Ridgeway. We’ve talked, once, twice, again about breaking the old way into sections and going for a walk. This year I tell myself, and now I’ve told her. This year we’ll actually do it. I buy myself my own belated Christmas gift too. An annual subscription to OS Maps. Easier to pour over a map when it fits in the palm of my hand. I buy a paper copy of Basingstoke too. When it arrives I realise it’s not quite fit for purpose. Really I need two, so I can pin East and West on my wall. I haven’t set resolutions this year. I want to keep walking. I like the idea of exploring more of my own back yard. I don’t have the mountains. I can’t stand, jaw on the floor, staring out at ridiculous vistas. I do have the quiet ruins of ancient civilisations. We’ve been here for a long time. I pin up the East side of the map. The side with home on it. I commit to a plan of sorts. Highlight the routes I’ve walked. Plotting other escapes. Going from home and getting back however I can. If only I could rely on the public transport system. If not a train, maybe a bus? It’s something anyway. A way to keep moving. A way to at least try and maintain something that resemble the fitness of a man who once walked the length of a country. A year is a long time and it’s getting further away. At some point soon I won’t be looking back, thinking “this time last year”. Time to start looking forward again.

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