I leave the Hermitage after a good hearty vegan breakfast which I can barely finish; I wonder if there are others out there who really are not ready to eat until several hours into the day. I have always been this way as my father will attest, since I was small when he would get up to make my breakfast before school and I would never want to eat that early.
In this stage of bed and breakfasts most nights I am struggling with the needing to be up, eat, and leave routine when I actually need to be stationary for longer, time to write. I muse as I walk along the canal path of a place offering hospitality that didn’t follow the traditional B&B format, where you could pay for a 24hour stay and one meal; I wonder if that would take off?
My walk today starts with me going back into the town of Market Drayton for a second look to see if I haven’t been too harsh in my evening’s reflections of its dying state. I am even more shocked to see that more than half of the shops are closed down and boarded up. The people are either old women doing their daily shop or young unemployed men. There is an air of everything not being quite real about the place. It is so sad; the buildings, though shabby and uncared for, are beautiful, the streets and alleys interesting, inviting you to take a look down them, the church, St Mary’s, large, squat and imposing on a higher piece of land. The tourist booklet says the market used to take place there when all the folk from the far flung outlying villages walked or rode in to church on Sunday they would take the opportunity of bringing things with them to trade, but the clergy took a dislike to this people’s being more concerned with their survival than with God and banned the trading in the church grounds in the 13th century.
The market moved to where the streets converged and where you can still see the buttercross, a covered open sided colonnaded stone structure erected in the eighteenth century for market traders on the site of the original market cross. Alongside this is a pre 16th century fire Tudor building, looking quite faded now beside the newer post fire buildings.
This is a market town with a wide hinterland, yet it is dying, though I am told by tourist brochures Wednesday is still market day and that it is thriving. Many of the pubs mentioned in a 1976 history of the town are now closed and boarded up. The guide talks about how many more pubs it used to have and how it will be OK as now Market Drayton will redefine itself as a dormitory town and here I realize is where the mistake was made. I think of pattern language, and of how this should be a happy town; and realize that there is one very important ingredient to a successful town: empowered inhabitants with a sense of purpose towards which they can work and with which they can identify.
I imagine that generations of workers, on farms, on canals, on railways, have engendered people who are so used to taking orders that they have lost any sense of personal enterprise. It feels as if there is a whole stage needed before folk like these, with everything going for them, will take the initiative of working together and creating a new purpose for Market Drayton, that of reexamining their lives, their identities, noticing the yoke of having a master is off, and choosing to follow their own dreams.
I leave the town on the tow path, planning to leave it later where it is in a narrow woods covered cutting and where I know from previous experience the path will be muddy and potentially dangerous; canals have no sides to stop you from falling in them if you slip. For the first 2 miles though it is pleasant, there are plenty of boaters moving up and down between here and Tyrley lock and it is sunny. Then I reach the bridge where I can come off and follow a tiny back road; I see an elderly couple with backpacks continuing along the tow path and walk on a while thinking maybe it is OK after all. I walk faster than they and very soon they stop to let me pass; I stop too and ask if they know about the way ahead. Almost impossible they say; they are turning off at the next bridge. I walk back to the back road; I have learnt about how flip flops fare in mud and I have no desire to repeat the experience!
I follow the quiet road until I reach the village of Cheswardine, where I stop at the Fox & Hounds for lunch. There has been nothing between here and Market Drayton and for as far as I can see; the OS map for this region shows field after field stretching for miles, hardly any habitations, or settlements, no natural woodland, just plantations and private land; farmers or landowners.
It is impossible for me to comprehend as I walk the land how we can think we don’t have enough land to feed our populace. It might be more accurate to say that we don’t have enough free land; we have plenty of land; it simply isn’t distributed very well. The farms I pass are by and large not well kept, they sport barns made of cheap building materials; functional but ugly. How would it be if people only owned the amount of land and buildings they could afford to take really good loving care of; and the rest were redistributed amongst those who would want to care for land if only they could have access to it. How would it be if instead of struggling and working hard farmers gave up trying to make money but instead were simply satisfied with earning a simple living and shared their land with those who would choose this lifestyle if they could. I have the sense that folk would have a lot more fun together and be far more productive if this became the norm. I think back to the Ashton Hayes village shop and the £10 shares; how simple it would be to redistribute our land in this way if we abandoned our sense of private ownership of more than we needed and started to share. With one acre capable of feeding 7 people it would not be hard to calculate.
In the pub it is interesting that there are more women than men here, and it is not about drinking, but for me a chance to write for a while, a family to eat, and for the pair of young mums a chance to discuss the schooling of one of their sons, who the other seems to teach or have some degree of responsibility for at the school. The mum wants to take her son out, he is having a hard time from the other children, a tantrum throwing girl in particular; the teacher is trying to persuade her not to, suggests he might have a hard time anywhere.
“He has neat handwriting for a boy” is one of the factors she cites in her arguments.
I know very little about the new government scheme of allowing free schools to start up independent of the state system but I for one would welcome the opportunity to find ways of working towards a very different system to the one we currently have, one where children’s natural inclinations would be fostered, and a broad range of skills shared; creative, practical, useful.
I look out of the window and see that the heavens have opened; I am grateful I am not on a slippery canal path.
The walk to Newport along a quiet back road is accomplished in pouring persistent rain and I am soon sodden; my waterproofs gave up being waterproof a while back and I have not yet found a shop selling a re waxing product. Fortunately it is just a shower, albeit a long and heavy one, and the sun comes out with a couple of miles to go and dries me back out again. The road fares less well, it has no cambre for the water to drain off, and even it did there are no drains or drainage ditches for it to drain into. It rains for no more than 2 hours but the rough uneven surface of the road is soon apparent and puddle ridden, with fast flowing rivulets, centimetres deep, running down each side of it.
I remember the bad flooding of recent years and I recall my lovely guide in Leyland, Christine Kirk, kicking the leaves and accumulated debris away from a swiftly blocking drain as we walked in the rain last week, and watching the backed up liberated water run to freedom. Christine told me then about length men, whose responsibility it was to take care of a stretch of road in their locality, she doesn’t know how long a length was, but I remember thinking what a good idea it was and wonder now if our flooding would have been as bad if people were more aware of how things worked, noticing when things are in need of attention, noticing what happens to the earth in certain places when it rains, when a river rises, when fallen leaves have started to make lovely fresh compost at the side of the road, and responding appropriately.
Just as weeds are simply plants growing where they are not appreciated or understood, mud on the side of a road is compost being wasted, excess ground water on the road wasted garden watering supplies, and all a symptom of our collective unawareness of our surroundings, the disease caused by having become too comfortable; so that for us water comes out of taps and not the sky, and when it does it’s a disaster in the making.
I reach Newport and curl up in a ball and fall asleep in my little room at the Newport Arms; my shoulders ache, and I am suddenly aware of the discomforts of my journey that were invisible to me whilst collecting stories. I am aware of missing my “sangha” as Buddhists describe the keeping of good company. Life is defined for me by the people I meet, I am sensitive to mood, and feel challenged at being amongst those for whom life in the twenty first century is what it is and who don’t appear to be interested in changing.
Later I seek food and discover the pub are not serving food tonight; it is pigeon club night! Apparently they are host to a great many local clubs, which is kinda nice, I think. Already there are locals gathering and there is a sense of community amongst them and the pub staff. There are some things that perhaps don’t need to change; these folk are happy and would certainly look out for one another.
I go to the Mischa restaurant next door and am served good freshly cooked food in pleasant contemporary surroundings by a happy smiling waitress who clearly loves her job. The Eagles are playing some of my favourite songs in the background and I relax; it’s been a wet lonely day but now the sky is blue and I have a refuge for the night.
“Life in the fast lane would surely make you lose your mind” the Eagles remind me in the background.