A bumpy day

I couldn’t let my shoe disaster stop me in my tracks. I now had a new pair of shoes, and it was time to finish the last bit of track from Bardney to Lincoln. I started where I so often started this week – at Lincoln bus station.

I caught the bus from Hartsholme, where I was camping (about 4 kilometres south of Lincoln) into the city, leaving myself enough time to have breakfast at the bus station. There is nothing I like better in the whole world than a delicious cheap greasy spoon kind of breakfast, and they are always to be found near a bus station. I followed the recommendation of the lady from yesterday and went to the cafe in the market place. Not feeling in the mood for questionable sausages, I opted for the vegetarian, which comes with all the most delicious parts of a breakfast: beans, toast, egg, mushrooms. Yum! The exception to this was the tomato, which was of the tinned variety, and managed to make everything it touched completely bland. I carefully ate around it and as I was almost finished demolishing my plate a woman thrust her face into mine.

“Glad you found it!” she said.

A bright green scarf and a purple shirt, hair like a silver halo and bright red lipstick. It was the lady from yesterday! The one who’d recommended the cafe! “It’s good isn’t it? So glad you found it!” and she bustled on out the door before I had a chance to reply.

She was right, though. She was glad I found it, and so was I.

I caught the bus to Bardney and arrived too early to pop into the pub, alas. Even the award-winning butcher wasn’t open yet, double alas. There was nothing further to do but walk. Walk, walk, walk.

Different regions of the UK offer different types of walking – Lincolnshire is mostly flat, with the gentle rolling hills, lots of fields, and some tracks. Different seasons will also have different perks and disadvantages. Most of my walking through late September has been through beet fields, with some beans and even corn. But as the season progresses, mostly what I’m encountering is empty fields, recently harvested, and newly ploughed. Walking through one of these fields is a bit like walking through a desert. It’s hard going, all the same colour, the path isn’t clear and you’re not really sure you’re going in the right direction – even with a GPS and OS map. I had the feeling, for several kilometres outside of Bardney, that the local farmers weren’t interested in keeping the paths clear – but perhaps I’m doing them a disservice. Keeping a path clear through a field is easy when there are crops to mark the edges, but not so easy when you’re tearing the whole thing up with a tractor.

At one point I was standing at the corner of a field. I could tell from my map, and a distant gap in the hedge, that my path lay directly across this field. But it was covered in what looked to me like young plants. Was I supposed to damage this seedlings in order to preserve the ancient law of public right of way? It seemed a bit mean. As I was prevaricating, a man on the road called out to me.

“It’s all right, mate,” he said. “Just go through. You can see the gate near the house up there. That’s it!”

“But do I just go through this field?” I said.

He couldn’t hear me properly, so he crossed the road and came into the field to talk to me.

“Just through there, mate,” he said again, pointing.

“Are you sure?” I said. “Are these crops or just weeds?”

“Oh!” he said, stepping back a bit. “I thought you was a fella. I’m sorry.” He seemed horrified.

“No, no,” I said. “It’s okay. It’s my hat. Everyone thinks I’m a bloke in this hat. Are you sure it’s okay to walk across here?”

He assured me it was, waving me on my way, and he went back to the road and his own way.

I really don’t know if the field was simply full of very orderly weeds, or if it was a crop field. I made my way across it, crunching young green leaves under my boots. The smell coming up was not of earth, which I rarely smell here, although I smell it often in the Croatian countryside, but rather cabbage. Perhaps it was a cabbage field. Popping out in between some of these leaves were curious looking mushrooms, rocket shaped and slimy, with blue spots. They looked like they could kill you if you brushed against them, or even looked at them funny.

England is covered in what are known as public rights of way, and they are largely what I have been using to walk across Lincolnshire. It’s a wonderful tradition and it allows walkers to wander all over this country. Land owners are obliged to keep rights of way visible and unobstructed, and mostly they do. But sometimes they do so with the least grace possible. I once had to pass through a farm in Wales which basically directed all the waste from the site onto the path; wading through a cesspool is not exactly free and unobstructed passage, but that’s what they did. Shortly after passing through the cabbage field, I came to a kissing gate, letting onto what was effectively someone’s front yard. I guess the owner didn’t love the idea of perfect strangers traipsing across their land. In order to clear the kissing gate I had to climb over an electric fence – which was actually hooked onto the kissing gate. Another electric fence protected the other side of the yard. I climbed over each of these very gingerly indeed.

Walking is a mostly lonely pursuit, and at times it can even be dull. There are breathtaking vistas, of course, and interesting encounters with locals and other walkers. But I’m not climbing mountains here. I’m not facing sudden ravines, or getting into situations where I might have to cut a limb off. My biggest danger is stepping in a cow poo.

Or encountering cows.

Another kissing gate. Another field. Another sign saying, beware of cows, stick to path. And there they were. 15 cows in my path. The other 15 gathered around the gate at the other end. The gate I was aiming for.

I wish cows would stay off the path.

The last time I had encountered cows I was pretty scared. But that time, I was in a large field, with trees, and a wooden gate, and a steep hill that I was pretty certain that I could run up faster than a cow could. But this time, when I stepped into that field, I had 100 metres to get to my gate and 30 cows in a straight line between me and it. To the right, a ditch and a barbed fence. It wasn’t a case of ‘straight on or perish’. It was more like ‘straight on AND perish’.

I think I must have already been in the field and walking along before I realised how acute my danger was. Just keep going, I thought, and as I kept on going, cows ran up behind me between me and the way I’d come. I kept going along the dyke heading straight as I could for the gate, but cows kept pressing in closer around me. I stepped down into the ditch, and I think it was then that I realised that this was a serious, a very serious dangerous situation. Surrounding nervous me, were nervous cows. On my right side was barbed wire and a dense thicket that I had no chance of getting through or over. A very young cow, frisky and swishing her tail, galloped – mother fucking galloped – onto the dyke and stopped just a metre from me. It took all the muscle control I had not to shit myself. For the first time on this trip, I was actually terrified.

“Just keep walking,” I said to myself, over and over, covering that interminable distance as quickly and calmly as I could. Near the gate, the rest of the cows glared at me, but stampeded away from me as I approached. Still, I could feel the other cows behind me as I struggled with the latch of the gate. “Come on, come on, come on,” I said. My hands were shaking and I couldn’t get the latch up properly. “Slow down,” I thought. “More haste, less speed, remember?” It seemed to work. I wriggled the latch up, opened the gate and shut it behind me. 30 disgruntled cows looked back at me.

There was a bridge on the other side of this field, and I crossed it and stood in the next paddock before I let myself feel a moment of ease. Not for the first time I thought, who would voluntarily put themselves in this situation? Like in a rodeo or Pampolona. And then I remembered that I was here voluntarily, and that I love it.

And why not love it? Immediately after recovering from my cow encounter, I was in a field with the ruins of an abbey. I think it was called Bardham, but my notes are a little unintelligible at this point. I walked around and took dozens of photos. One of the signs said ‘be careful of earthworks’. At the abbey I’d seen the day before, a sign had said that ‘earthworks’ is the word for all the bumps in the ground that could be old walls, or cellars, or windows, or nurseries, or halls, or music rooms, or chapels or anything else you care to imagine. All those things that once were, and are no longer, and we call them ‘earthworks’. A room where someone was born. The hall where hundreds of monks ate their basic meals. The earth which holds their old old bones. The ground all around us is bumpy with half-remembered walls and forgotten lives and we walk it easily. Imagine one day your own home, the physical elements gone, only an inexact topography to show where your house was, where you once swam in your pool. A crazy impenetrable bush that is all that remains of your prize-winning azaleas. Curious bones, picked up by the roots of a linden, which will be young still when you die, and which, when aliens inspect them, they will find are the bones of old Nancy, your border collie. Not that they will ever know her name, or yours.

We are so insignificant. We will be lucky if we even leave one tiny bump in the ground, one tiny gravestone that lasts a hundred years.

I made it to Lincoln. I made it to my camp. I made it to the pub and had a couple of pints.

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Nat Newman

Nat Newman is an award-winning writer of short stories, content, podcasts, feature articles, drunk text messages and, soon, a novella.

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