Wandering, wondering, wonder – a day with a steeplejack

Sometimes I have no sense of time. Even when I know I have a 30km hike ahead of me. Perhaps especially then. A hiker, you know, should get up early and smash out 15kms before the sun rises. Or something.

But I really love breakfast. If you let me tell you all about how much I love breakfast, you might be afraid I’ll never stop. On this day, one of my last in Lincoln, I fancied a nice hot cooked English breakfast. Realistically, I always fancy a nice hot cooked English breakfast. The campsite cafe didn’t open until 9am, so I got up kind of late-ish and pottered around until 8:55am. I was right there at the door when they opened. So I could have a nice hot cooked English breakfast. Even though I knew I had a big day of walking, and a late breakfast meant a late start.

Anyway, I ordered it, and it was delicious and I ate everything on my plate and all of the toast and drank all of the tea and at the end I was so full I could barely stand, let alone pick up my backpack. The waitress asked me how it was.

“I ate too much and now I want to throw up,” I said. She paused. I paused. “That’s a compliment,” I said.

Rather than backtracking into Lincoln, I mapped out a way to rejoin the Viking Way just south of the city, a walk of about 5km to get on to the path from the campsite. This avoided roads to a large extent, following a creek behind people’s houses, and which joined the River Witham. As I walked, I passed a few people walking their dogs – or rather, letting their dogs run on the path while they followed slowly behind, occasionally calling out to them. The creek was fairly clean with nary an abandoned trolley in sight. Water birds – okay, mostly ducks – made it their home and they seemed pleased. And why not? It was a quiet morning, crisp but sunny, and city life was so far away.

And yet, it’s not so far away. The people of England are so lucky. Here I was in a sizable town and walking along a very rural pathway by a river. I could, instead, be on a bus in traffic, passing Morrisons after Tescos after Currys along the main road. And yet, this path is here, right here! Available for anyone to use! No matter where you are in the UK you’re never very far from the countryside, if you just take a moment to go off the main road. Just a little way in the distance I could see Lincoln Cathedral atop its hill.

I was still more or less in the metropolitan area when, rounding a corner, I espied on the opposite bank a group of young men fishing. It looked like a nice way to spend the day. I kept turning around to look at them as I walked on. Who were they? Didn’t they have jobs? Or school? Did their friends envy their day off? I wondered what I looked like to them, a small figure with a big bag striding along the opposite bank. Did they think I looked like I was enjoying a nice day off? A few days previous, when I’d walked into Woodhall Spa, I’d crossed a golf course, not once but several times. Each time, there was a sign letting me know which direction to look before crossing, so I didn’t get hit in the face by a golf ball. As a result, I wound up thinking quite a lot about golf – certainly more than I usually would. Here were groups of perfectly ordinary men, walking around with large bags of sticks, and using those sticks to whack small balls up a long lawn. Bizarre. And then I remembered that I was a 57 kilogram woman carrying a 15 kilogram bag around England. Everyone has their reason for doing their crazy thing.

Today’s walk was going to involve something I hadn’t encountered in a while – a hill! As I had learned, Lincolnshire is the flattest county in England. But running due south through the landscape is the Lincoln Cliff, a Jurassic escarpment atop which I would be walking. I followed a path up behind a school as it gradually but stiffly climbed the cliff face and then – there I was! Out to my right was the whole broad expanse of the Lincolnshire plain, stretching on to the horizon. To my left, the hilltop countryside.

2015-09-24 14.16.54

My whole walk for the day was more or less along this cliff edge, so I had nothing but nice views to look forward to. As I deftly stepped around a cow pat I once again thought about how lucky the British are. Just a few minutes ago I was in Lincoln, in a city, or at least on its outskirts. And now I was most definitely in the countryside with a village every few miles. Would I swim across the channel to get here? No. But this is a marvellous country and the British are mean to be jealous of it.

My thoughts were interrupted by a young man who came running down the hill past me. I paused – I like an excuse to pause – to watch him. He was running. I mean, he was on a run, for fitness or health or whatever. But this was a pretty steep hill and he had a pretty charming running style. He flapped his arms like a great bird, as if he were being attacked by bees. Maybe he was. But he didn’t call out, so I don’t know.

In my anxiety to get to breakfast, I hadn’t bothered to refill my water bladder from the previous day. And probably from the previous night’s cooking, too. To be honest, I rarely drink more than half a litre on the trail, no matter how long or difficult it is. But the steep ascent had meant that I’d had a few sips of water before lunch (very out of the ordinary!) and I was starting to feel nervous about how long my water would last. What if this was just one of those days when I was insanely thirsty? You never know! It could happen! The next village I would encounter was Waddington, and as I entered its trim streets and passed its neat lawns I kept a keen lookout for garden taps.

There were no garden taps.

Really. I looked in every yard and garden that I passed and no garden tap was to be found. Are the people of Britain nervous about hikers stealing their water? Or was it just Waddington that would not water its wanderers?

No matter. Soon I approached the church, with a churchyard, and if there’s one thing I know from the German hiker it’s that churches always have garden taps. How else can you put a nice vase of flowers on nan’s grave? And yet, I circumnavigated the Waddington church and didn’t see a tap anywhere. I have become quite brave on the trail in regard to churches, and so I thought I’d try my luck inside. I pushed open the door and walked in.

A hive of activity greeted me. People putting up banners, people re-arranging chairs. They were preparing, it turned out, for some sort of fair on the weekend. The reverend (I think that’s what Anglican priests are called?) saw me and came over.

“Can I help you?” she said. She was wearing a floral priest thingy. That thing that priests wear beneath their collars. Let’s just call it a shirt. It was floral. (As an aside, in looking up what that thing might be called I found this great article on women’s clergywear. You’re welcome.)

I explained to the vicar/priest person that I was in need of water and did she have a garden tap I could use.

“Oh no. We don’t have a garden tap anymore. Too many problems with vandalism.” She took me through the back of the church and into a kitchen, and as we walked I wondered what forms British garden tap vandalism took.

She left me in the kitchen to fill up my CamelPak and returned to the church; she was obviously a very busy woman. I unscrewed the lid of my bladder and put it under a tap in one of the sinks. I turned on the tap. Nothing happened. Perhaps this tap wasn’t working. I moved to the next sink. Tried the tap. Same nothing. By this stage I couldn’t believe my luck. Not only had I not seen a single garden tap, I hadn’t seen a single person watering their garden, or even IN their garden who could, through simple charity, give me some fucking water. This is never an issue for me. Fucking water. No wonder I hate it and never drink it. And now here I was in a church, in a church kitchen! and there was no tap in the churchyard, and not a tap that worked in the church.

Water, frankly, is bullshit.

So my thoughts ran. I went back out to the church to find out what I was doing wrong. Was there a magic button? Did the taps know that I was an atheist? Were they paying me back for having free tea at the Cathedral? I loitered in a prominent position until the rector/vicar/reverend mother/floral lady, who was talking to a parishioner, noticed me.

“Get what you need?” she said.

“No. The tap. There’s no water,” I said.

“Ah!” the parishioner said. “The builders! They’ve turned the water off again.”

And lo, there was building work going on next door and lo there was no water for lividlili to be had at the church.

Between them, the vicar/reverend/pastor and the parishioner decided that I should go to the cafe in the village, just behind the churchyard. I didn’t like this idea. Asking someone with a hose, who is watering their roses, to fill your water bottle is one thing. But walking into a cafe and asking the staff to do the same is a whole other thing.

“Um,” I said. But when a reverend person speaks, people listen. Off I went to the cafe behind the churchyard.

My stomach was a knot of nerves as I stood in front of the door. I could just fake it, say I’d been and just carry on. The vicar/pastor would never know, right? But the water situation had become rather large in my head, and by now I was genuinely worried that I could run out of water. If I’d taken just a minute to be rational I would have know that that would never happen. I can walk for ten hours uphill with a hangover and not need water. But who can compete with irrationality? I summoned up my meagre nerves and went into the cafe.

As suspected, my asking for my water bladder to be filled was a great inconvenience. I couldn’t go behind the counter myself, because of hygiene requirements, I suppose. I could see the waitress and the chef in the back struggling with how to get the lid off, how to bend the bladder so that it actually fills and doesn’t just glug water everywhere (it’s like a balloon and kind of hard to fill). I had told the waitress, just a litre! But the struggle was real. She had to fill a jug and ask the chef to hold the bladder while she slowly poured the jug of water into the opening. Discomfited? Boy, was I!

I thanked her profusely and left in a hurry. Back at the church, I asked them to thank the waitress, or pray for her, or “whatever it is you do” and then I got the hell out of Waddington.

What are they, the little things that run into the bushes when I stomp by? I never see them, not a leg, not a feather. Perhaps they’re fairies, or little birds, or little people, or little toads? I can’t even guess.

I passed through several more villages, about which I would write more if I hadn’t already banged on long enough. At Coleby, I thought I’d pop into the church and have a look around – it’s what you do on the trail. The door was closed, but as I was about to push it open a tall, handsome young man suddenly appeared. He held the enormous wooden door ajar for me. I stepped inside. He went out. There was another man inside, obviously also about to depart.

“You want to have a look around love?” he said.

“Yeah,” I said.

He went over to the door and yelled after the young man that he’d just wait around until I was done.

“Are you working?” I said.

“Yeah, we’re just knocking off for the day.”

I looked at his shirt. “And what does a Steeplejack do?” I asked, reading his job title.

He laughed. “Oh we look after all the churches in the county,” he said. “And have done for centuries.”

His name was Richard, and I assume that he himself had not looked after the churches for centuries. Although who knows what magical powers a steeplejack possesses? Richard the Steeplejack was not what I expected at all. He made a few comments about how religion was designed to control people. I said something about my thoughts from the day, that British people are so lucky to have so much beautiful countryside. “Yes, I know,” he said. “No wonder people want to come here.” Oh no, I thought and prepared myself for what was coming.

It didn’t come.

Richard began to talk passionately about how British people were being so ungenerous. “Of course people want to come here,” he said. “They will always go where the jobs are. It’s what people have always done. And if there are jobs for them, they should come!” He told me how he and his wife had taken in a young woman – I can’t remember of what nationality, Ukrainian, or Bulgarian – because her husband was abusive and she had nowhere else to go. “What sort of people would we be, if we didn’t look after her?”

What sort of people, indeed.

I’m writing this post almost two months after I did this walk, and a lot of things have happened both in my life and in the world. People have died, as they always do, people have cried, as they always will. People say that there’s a new threat in the world, but there isn’t. There are always the same threats – unkindness, selfishness and intolerance. Most people in this world just want to live in it, without constant fear of dying horribly in it. Most people in this world are generous – they will find you water when you need it and shelter you when you’re afraid. They will seek out opportunities to spend a peaceful day by the riverside fishing, or walking their dog, or running down a hill for the sheer unbridled energetic BANG of it. I wander around the countryside being cranky about small things, getting in a panic over irrational things, and always always always finding incredible people who tell me their stories. I’m grasping. There’s a point here, if only I could find it. Perhaps it’s simply: never underestimate anyone. Everyone has a story. Listen, and you might be surprised. I always always am.

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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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