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Pathlands: 21 tranquil walks among the villages of Britain

Martyn Halsall

Pathlands: 21 tranquil walks among the villages of Britain

Peter Owen Jones

Rider, 268pp

A HEAVENLY message, and memories of an African confirmation service became 'mindful' as I read these two deeply rewarding books about the spirituality of walking. The message came from an aircraft 30,000-plus feet above Indonesia, from a friend travelling to a 'walking holiday' in Australia. Most of the congregation at the 'stick church' in the Namibian bush walked there, some for two days. For one person walking was a tourist option; for others a hard-won necessity. These books remind us that, whatever our reason for walking, it can be faithfully enhanced. In Britain, where Peter Owen Jones follows 21 'pathlands', walking forms part of the paradoxically titled 'leisure industry'. Up to eight million people opt to go walking any weekend. He estimates there are some 300 marked 'ways' alone, many based on old pilgrim routes stretching hundreds of miles. There are an estimated 140,000 miles of pathways in England and Wales alone. Nevertheless, it is not always easy to experience the sort of 'tranquil walks' Owen Jones explores. To reach some Lake District peaks at popular times means queuing along hikers' motorways. Returning, you find it is easier to buy an anorak in Keswick than a Bible, or a pint of milk. These books are worth reading together for both similarities, and contrasts. Both authors are 'walkerpriests', living near the South Downs; passionate and knowledgeable about birds, solo walkers by preference, and wary of the lengthening shadow destructive humanity is casting on its more ancient habitat. There similarities end. Adam Ford categorises his walks by type; night walks, walking to work, pilgrimage; walking in Australia. Owen Jones follows specific, deeply rural routes, with accompanying maps and minute, often poetic observations. Ford cites more specific spiritual references, usually Christian but drawing also on Hindu and Buddhist insights. Owen Jones leaves the reader-walker to their own conclusions. Through both books runs a strong thread of pilgrimage; of walking into unknown places so that they might reveal themselves, and why they continue to contain the magnet of mystery. 'Britain' is an ambitious subtitle for Owen Jones' anthology. Only one of his walks crosses the border into Southern Scotland, and only two wander into Wales. The vast majority lie south of a line from the Bristol Channel to The Wash. The traditional tramping grounds of the North remain untrodden. He appears to have started walking as therapy for ill-health, and a fracturing marriage; whatever his motives, he shares generously with what he found. It is not until almost the end of the book that he comes close to defining 'pathlands', and it is unsurprising that he finds along them both elements of mysticism and isolation. Around Castle Acre, in Norfolk: 'I was back in the pathlands on the barely walked trails. Here I am not walking through the land - I am led into it: the call in the distance and the still worlds of detail.' Such detail is often conjured through a poetic phrase all the more telling as Owen Jones does not affect an overtly lyrical writing style, but incorporates into his work much natural poetry found in the land, like examples from Britain's estimated 1,000 native mosses: fallacious beard-moss, and blushing bossmoss among them. He sniffs the 'French sweat' of wild garlic; treads a hollow way that held 'nothing other than the intentions of foxes', and enjoys decoding a butterfly's wings 'marked with an indecipherable code of splashes, half-moons, outlines and dots'. He wears extensive learning with the grace of a summer anorak, but without the anoraks' pretensions. The average mature oak produces 250,000 leaves, he tells us; the first weather forecast was published in Australia in 1877. He reveals the origin of the phrase 'swan song', and remains open to continuing mysteries, like where Britain's 100 million birds roost each evening.