from PN Review, January-February 2017
ONE HUNDRED AND SEVENTY-FIVE years ago, John Clare, residing at Matthew Allen's High Beach Private Asylum in Epping Forest, decided to go home. 'Felt very melancholy', he wrote, two days before. 'Fell in with some gypsies, one of whom offered to assist in my escape from the madhouse'. Two days later, he was off.
His route, via the Great North Road, was around eighty miles. I thought this doable. First I Googled walking directions from each place he had remembered to the next. Then I bought a pair of Skechers, with Memory Foam feet. I took a spare T-shirt, a spare pair of socks, a rollable raincoat, a hat, the Penguin Clare, a notebook and pen, and my iPod Fitness app, to measure each damned step along the way. John C had old boots, and nothing else. I also had a bank account.
His own account is unfailingly practical: the state of his feet and his boots, the direction he was going, the people he met, and the search for food and a place to sleep were all that concerned him. There is little creative in a desperate pedestrian. And so it proved. The place of his homes, Helpston and Northborough, I know and love. If madness was missing, I felt still that I held his hand all the way, but that we did not talk about Life. Sometimes, that is Poetry.
Day 1 by the app: 48,477 steps, 7 hours & 20 minutes, 26.88 miles. High Beach Asylum to the Baker Arms at Bayford. The wall of Matthew Allen's Asylum, now a private home, has a blue plaque: John Clare the Famous Poet lived here 1837-1841. It was exactly 12:00, and my first Clare-town was Enfield. He missed his way early, and so did I: 'till I passed the "Labour-in-vain" public house, where a person who came out of the door told me the way' (JC); till I asked three youths wheeling a great black pram with silver fittings, ponderous as a coffin, down South Ordnance Road (JG). There were several Enfields: a Chase, a Town, a Highway, an Island Village, a Lock and a Wash. I asked for the Town. In half an hour I was in Silver Street, putting three pages of Google directions in my bag and taking out the next.
To Stevenage. My Google map informed me this would take seven hours and twenty-nine minutes. It was already three o'clock. For JC, this part of the journey was either too easy, or not worthy of memory: 'Steering ahead, meeting no enemy and fearing none, I reached Stevenage', via the Great York Road. This torrent of cars, unending and unfriendly, is denied the walker now. The famous, straight road that JC knew would take him nearly home, once leafy and deserted, was now a roaring speedway. I am sure the absence of memory along these twenty miles was prompted by the absence of his greatest care: that he was going the wrong way. He was set for all. I was lost within a mile.
I stopped at a Turkish garage, where four large men in white shirts held their smartphones at various angles, and directed me back to the Civic Centre in Silver Street. I passed through a mileage of Garden Centres, padding like a Hobbit in the land of Men, past giant fibreglass strawberries with cafés inside, towering kangaroos, bunnies and immense, high fences draped with rampant climbers, enormously vigorous. I then passed a house called Claregate.
The sky was darkling. I asked three women, orange in the sunset, if there was anywhere nearby to stay. They told me there was somewhere that would 'make yer eyes water'; but that down Carbone Hill, and through Newgate Street, there was, also, on the right, the Baker Arms, at Bayford, which did rooms.
Two children behind the bar gave me my keys. The room was vast, and had a bath. I stood at the sash window, which I threw wide open, and looked into the quiet darkness of the village street. Unfortuunately, I had forgotten to find its name. I think I was in Hertfordshire.
Day 2 by the app: 66,706 steps, 9 hours & 44 minutes, 34.80 miles. The Baker Arms to the Rose & Crown at Baldock. I strod out early. But quite the wrong way. The street that passed in front of my window was Ashdene Road, which I began the day by searching for two miles away. The frustration and anger visited on a pedestrian by going out of his way is crushing; with John C, it was an obsession. At Stevenage (his first night) he 'lay down with my head towards the north, to show myself the steering point in the morning'.
But Nature is a balm. The bright, sunny morning, leading me by dug stubble-fields and whispering greeneries, through Broad Green to St Mary's Lane, quickly restored me to everything. At a farm gate, I decided to open, in the random manner of a bibliomantic, my Penguin Clare. I see the sky / Smile on the meanest spot / Giving to all that creep or walk or flye / A calm and cordial lot.
At Hertford I picked an acorn from a tree and put it in my pack. At Datchworth I drank two bottles of water. At Stevenage I hurried through. Leaving the town I saw, on a hot, wide pavement, a small orange lying in my way. I looked at it. What, I asked myself, would John Clare do? Naturally, I ate it. At Back Lane high trees turned the way into a narrow and wet darkness redolent of dew and liquid foliage. Google told me I was about to enter Damask Green Road. I thought it would be laced with emerald lawns and bushes, breathing a green intoxication from fields made of bolts of cloth laid on the land. Then I got lost. It remains a fair thought sewn upon a landscape. In fact, it contained the Cricketers Arms, where I asked the way to Clothall Road.
Here, two people involved with a concrete-mixer told me that only Baldock could possibly accommodate me. I hurried down the main road into town, facing the terrible onslaught of rush hour. I leapt from tussock to weed on the roadside as cars driven with furious intent lifted my bag off my back each second in their slipstream. I longed for 1841.
It was Baldock Rock weekend. I took a room at the Rose & Crown; small, shabby, and directly above the main door and the street. 'I hope', said the landlady, 'you're not thinking of getting any sleep.' But even the Heavy Metal Holiday below could not keep me awake.
Day 3 by the app: 60,664 steps, 8 hours & 52 minutes, 32.06 miles. The Rose & Crown at Baldock to St Neots. 'I left my lodging by the way I got in, and thanked God for His kindness in procuring it. For anything in a famine is better than nothing, and any place that giveth the weary rest is a blessing.'
After two false starts I was determined to do right this morning. It was drizzling softly. I immediately asked a man with a dog about the way to Claybush Road. His directions were impeccable. I strod on, while the rain thinned in a glitter of air, along a beautiful, waving road, to Ashwell. Here, a child asked me, 'Why are you walking?' If he had had a shilling, John Clare would surely have ridden. To do this journey free of care was to do it for John C, this time without pain. Soon, however, I told myself, I would eat grass, as he did, just to see.
At the junction of Cambridge Road, I was seized by the fancy that I was being followed by a very tall and thin cow. I hardly dared turn around. I knew there was not a real cow behind me, but I could hear the vision, which was alarming. As I continued not to look, its features fell into more and more detail; flat, small ears, an elongated snout, large, mournful green eyes, sunken shoulders, and legs long as stilts. Whatever it was, it was not The Muse.
I reached Sutton, where churchfolk with armfuls of flowers directed me onto a public footpath through Pegnut Woods. It was wet and beautiful, with little bridges over twiddling streams, grass steaming in the sun, and jewelled insects zooming strangely high in the trees.
In Potton, John C called at a house to ask for a light for his pipe. I sat on a bench and ate an apple, and drank a quantity of chocolate milk.
After another brief shower of rain, I strod on. By now, John C's legs were 'knocked up', and he was 'hopping with a crippled foot; for the gravel had got into my old shoes, one of which had now nearly lost the sole'. I bounced out of town in my Skechers.
From Potton to St Neots, I had printed my Google directions backwards. The resulting confusion was beyond all proportion. I asked directions from every person I came across. At Cinques Road I went two miles down a hill to find a signpost that said Potton was very near. I trudged back up: I had walked past a large fingerpost that said 'St Neots 4'.
It was something of a slog. After passing the only thing of interest—a large plantation of elder trees that moaned like widows at a graveside—I entered the annoying suburb of Eynsford, which was very long, in more light drizzle. And then St Neots, where, at the Nags Head, I found a room. Here, John C sat down to rest on a flint heap, where he was told by 'a gypsy girl' to put something in his hat to keep the crown up, or he would be noticed.
Back in my room at the Nags Head, and quite unnoticed, I took another pop at bibliomancy, with my Penguin. Youth has no fear of ill by no cloudy days annoyed / But the old man's all hath fled and his hopes have met their doom.
I slept the sleep of the Just.
Day 4 by the app: 62,875 steps, 9 hours & 20 minutes, 32.85 miles. St Neots to Stilton. I strod on towards the Great North Road, as directed by Google, where I was forced to take an alternative footpath to its certain death. It was Google's only mistake. This turned into a very Heaven, all the way to Buckden. Late poppies and birdsong wibbled on all sides. The trees, brighter than bright in the sun, gleamed along the edges of amber fields, like living, silver creatures lined up to watch the tractors putter back and forth, ploughing and turning the earth to chocolate. Here, I thought, of all places, I must pause.
I determined to do two things in this little Paradise: to eat grass, and to find a line in my Penguin that made me weep. To John C, grass tasted 'something like bread', and did him good. I had no need of goodness, and it tasted to me like a pale cloud of beanpod. Standing in the sun, I then wept over That happy sky with here and there / A little cloud that would express / By the slow motions that they wear / They live with peace and quietness / I think so as I see them glide / Thoughts earthly tumults can't destroy / So calm, so soft, so smooth, they ride / I'm sure their errands must be joy ...
Buckden was rather grand, but very noisy. The A1 thundered by, a never-ending river of appal. From here, John C went 'a length of road', and so did I, via Huntingdon Station, and the Stukeleys. I stopped at a garage and ate three jam doughnuts. I then entered the mystery that is Ermine Street.
This was the old Great York Road, running parallel (and very near to) the A1. To walk on it was to be in constant fear of being mown down, though it was quite empty. The rushing of cars and trucks so close, so continuous, made me turn and look behind a hundred times, where there was nothing. The way was hung with apple trees and blackberry bushes that would have delighted John C, who had, by here, resorted to 'chewing tobacco all day, and eat it when I had done'. It was his lowest point, and his feet were bleeding.
I came to the Stilton Cheese, and stayed. Hereabouts, John C laid down on a gravel causeway, and thought he was a goner. When he rose, and took a direction to Peterborough, he was filled with purpose.
Which would be me, tomorrow.
Day 5 by the app: 38,766 steps, 6 hours & 49 minutes, 18.87 miles. Stilton to Northborough, and John Clare's cottage. I strod on down the A15 in splendid style, imagining, stupidly, that the path would penetrate the suburbs and deliver me to the city centre. It did not. I retreated to the cycle and pedestrian network that makes of parts of Peterborough a strange and stranded quietness, where businesses are silently busy amongst trees, and cyclists swish back and forth alone.
Suddenly, I started to limp.
At the city centre, I sat on a bench next to a man with a Pomeranian on a string. The dog stared at me doggedly. I hurried down Lincoln Road, and continued to Walton, where the blister on my right little toe burst in a moment of tiny pain. I passed Walton, and headed for Werrington. Here, while making for The Beehive, John C was accosted by a woman he thought forward, drunk or mad, who had leapt out of a passing cart. It was his second wife, Patty. 'I got in, and was soon at Northborough.'
I passed through a deserted park, and came to Werrington. I did not take the bus. And I was glad, for the last 3.6 miles (Google: one hour and ten minutes) were an English delight. The cycle path to Peakirk was dappled with sunshine through woffling leaves. The lime-green trees, shoulder to-shoulder along the way, flickered light at me with delicious calm. I began to feel proud. I entered Foxcovert Lane, which featured a mighty iron railway-crossing bridge, atop which I stood for a few minutes, and looked out over the fields and rooftops that a twenty-first-century John C would have called home. Glinton spire, so beloved of him, rose occasionally at my left.
Peakirk was quiet as a Monday church, and lit with honey sunlight. I went on, over a little bridge, and glimpsed a spire ahead: Northborough, at last. I stopped for a final random Penguin. The heavens are wrath - the thunder's rattling peal / Rolls like a vast volcano in the sky / Yet nothing starts the apathy I feel / Nor chills with fear eternal destiny ...
The church spire turned out to be Deeping St James Priory, and straight ahead. I took a left turn and entered Northborough to the sound of lawnmowers. I opened the gate at John Clare's cottage, and went to touch the front wall. A woman came out, and invited me in for tea. I sat in John Clare's chimney-nook and had my photo taken. Then I hobbled down Church Street, past the graves of his children, and sat in the garden of The Pack Horse, drinking Guinness, and waiting for my lift.
Upon their great returns, great travellers find change and sadness, hand in hand with discontent, and the paler versions of their expectations.
'So here I am hopeless at home.'—John Clare, July 1841.
We walk on dreams, and into reality.
Total by the app: 145 miles.
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About the Author
John Gallas is a New Zealand poet with eleven volumes out with Carcanet Press and three with Cold Hub (NZ). The Little Sublime Comedy will be published by Carcanet in June 2017. He is the 2016 St Magnus Festival poet.
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