The long and winding road

13th January 2006 at 00:00
Among the heaps of books at home, which sometimes threaten to make the place uninhabitable, are some by something of a star of the 60s and 70s, John Hillaby. Hillaby was a journalist and long-distance walker. For a while, his walks made it into television. That most intimate of media opened up the gentle delights of a sharp and well-informed mind ruminating on the sights of footpath and byway.

My favourite among Hillaby's books is his Journey through Britain.

Published in 1968, it tells the story of the then 50-year-old Hillaby's 1,100 mile walk from Lands End to John O'Groats in 55 days. In a few telling sentences near the beginning Hillaby says: "To see the best of what's left I knew I should have to set off pretty soon. Long-distance walkers are becoming rare. You can regard what follows as the lay of one of the last."

Were John Hillaby still with us - he died in 1996 at the age of 79 - he would have lived to see his sad prediction proven spectacularly wrong.

I thought of him on a day near the summer solstice, walking through a meadow in Somerset. The grasses were high and peppered with eyebright and daisy and clover and frothy cow parsley. Marked by a line of brilliant chrome yellow flags, a stream ran among it all. Setting off this abundant life and colour was deep woodland; dark, ancient oaks covering the gentle hills, with a fringe of foxglove at the margin.

This was the tail-end of one of the long-distance paths that now criss-cross this beautiful land. It is more beautiful since Hillaby's long walks; not less. Many's the field now allowed to bloom as meadowland, when, 40 years ago, weedkiller on every farm and roadside threatened to make the country a desert. Hillaby was driven off the cliffs of North Cornwall by farmers who insisted there was no coastal path, and had to venture a perilous crossing of the fogbound centre of Dartmoor as a result. I have walked most of that 600-mile national trail from Minehead to Poole without anything but a courteous word and good signposts. It's true that you meet few long-distance walkers who could hold a candle to Hillaby - we saw not a soul for three days on the Wessex Ridgeway where the glorious meadows were - but at least nothing stands in their way.

Close to the winter solstice, Hillaby came again to mind on the oldest track in these islands, the main Ridgeway path leading eastwards from Avebury. We began in the centre of the most magical place I know, the Avebury stone circle. Then up onto the December - bare back of the Marlborough Downs, burial mounds on every side. On to Barbury Castle, a hill fort which some say is Mount Badon where King Arthur fought his last battle with the Saxons. On again, until after a couple of days of brisk walking we came to the most evocative signature of our past, the White Horse cut into the chalk at Uffington.

This is our version of the Aboriginal "Dreaming". Hillaby wrote of the constant march of ideas and emotions through the "skull cinema", matching the pace of his footfall.

Our landscape is the creation of our people. The health of the one is not a bad indication of the intelligent engagement of the other. I could tot up a seemingly endless list of changes over the last half-century which have had an impact on our environment. It would include the end of the industrial age; the banishment of smoky factory and slag heap. It would include globalisation of the market for food and the gradual shrinking back of intensive agriculture. It would include a growing awareness of the toxicity of fertilisers and weedkillers which were once used with reckless abandon.

It would include more leisure and sport, and the use of the countryside for recreation.

Ecological or historical, I think John Hillaby would be pleased with the consciousness of today. Children at primary school do projects on "minibeasts", rather than ploughing through the Observer's Book of Insects as I did, and the result is a greater sensitivity to the natural world; something they can build on. They do local history projects, instead of learning the kings and queens of England, and the result is curiosity about what lies immediately around them, rather than abstractions like politics and the constitution. Who is to say which is "right". But a sense of wonder about the day-to-day must be the more precious accompaniment through life.

Whether it be through education which teaches children to concentrate on the here and now, or the multitude of gardening programmes which do much the same for adults, the result seems to be a focus on the details of life.

In the end, all landscape is detail. The downland owes its character to the standing stones, tumuli and clumps of trees our forbears carefully placed upon it. If England looks good, it is because lifelong learning has made its people keenly aware of how to make it so.

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