06 December 2005

The West Country Walking Society

The first Sunday of the month means it's time for the West Country Walking Society to convene in an arbitrarily selected field of mud and tramp around with purpose and élan until the cows come home or the sun goes down, and sometimes, if our planning has gone awry or Danny's GPS tracker has run out of batteries, considerably later than that.

His GPS fetish notwithstanding, all credit to Danny for founding the WCWS, which has now been in operation for most of 2005. When he was still living in London, we regularly got together for informal walks across town or along the towpaths of the Grand Union Canal, but when he moved to Bristol earlier this year, he decided that it was time we walkers had a proper organisation and structure. All very English of him, but if I point that out to him, he merely looks at me blankly, as if to say, “You’re being American again, aren’t you?”

Because of the limited daylight available this time of year, December's trek had to be cut considerably shorter than our normal 10-12 miles, but the prospect of walking a mere 6 or 7 miles had the gratifying side effect of inducing Danny's partner Bella to join us for the first time in several months. A university lecturer in ancient history, Bella has been crying off because she allegedly had to work on her weighty treatise concerning the interaction between Christians and pagans in (I believe I have this right) the 4th Century Byzantine Empire, but it's equally possible she was catching up on taped episodes of I'm A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here (itself a form of history, you could argue). Although Bella invariably complains about how far we're walking and how it would be more sensible to situate our walks in town where there are nice shops and cafés to stop into, she does it so good-naturedly that she's an invaluable addition to our little company whenever she does turn up.

Danny, despite being happily partnered with Bella, is her virtual antithesis when it comes to his walking Weltanschauung: with him in charge, we be doing forced marches across trackless moors into the teeth of howling blizzards during which he would periodically exclaim, "This little breeze is rather bracing, don't you think?" Danny is a biochemist by training, a journalist and author by trade. His favourite beat is the world of animal rights or the contravention thereof. The English snap up copies of any newspaper promising to expose cruelty to animals, so Danny's forever flying off cover anything from the Canadian seal hunt to rumours that some Bulgarian peasant has been cross with his billygoat.

At present, though, Danny is basking in the glow of having received a large advance for his new book which, he likes to point out, he wrote in six weeks whereas Bella's is likely to take two years or more. He also likes to send us exultant emails every time the rights are sold in another country, for which we could gladly throttle him. Well, not really, but I did resort at one point to saying, "But those (Finland and Holland, I think) aren't proper countries."

This month’s walk takes us to the wilds of Wiltshire, specifically to the tiny village of Avebury, which sits in the middle of a famous (so famous, in fact, that I’ve never heard of it) prehistoric stone circle. What's a stone circle, you ask? Well, I'm afraid it's fairly self-explanatory: a bunch of rather large stones arranged, for no apparent purpose, by prehistoric people who evidently had nothing better to do with their time, in a great circle. I'm told there are nearly a thousand such circles in Britain, making it all the more remarkable that I’ve never stumbled across any of them before.

Except the most famous of them all, Stonehenge, which is about 20 miles south of Avebury, and, because of its grand scale, the mystery of how the stones got piled on top of each other, and the special regard in which it's held by hippies and druids, has a cachet all its own. The Avebury stones are small potatoes by comparison, though supposedly the second most important circle of its kind. If you want to see some more of them, try here.

Personally, I found the village of Avebury to be more picturesque than the old boulders. Even if most of it's only been around for a few centuries, it possesses almost unbearable amounts of what Wesley described to his wife as "OWC" (Old World Charm). It's also a bit spooky, especially when the rooks silhouetted in the barren December trees set in to croaking and cawing as the sun slips beneath the horizon.

It was about this time that Danny disappeared. Eventually I spotted him skulking along the base of the 17th century barn disabling the rat traps that had been laid out by the National Trust. "Just pretend you don't know him," advised Richard, a former journalist who’d traded in his high-flying City beat for a West Country life as a rare book trader and professional poker player. No such discouraging words were to be heard from Shely, a public relations whiz who, if anything, surpasses Danny in her zeal for saving the earth's precious fuzzy-wuzzies.

Although Richard had earlier suggested that the point of our get-togethers wasn't so much walking as "a chance to watch Danny and Larry argue," our journey up to this point had been unusually sedate. But now things kicked off, with a heated dispute over the morality of poisoning or otherwise killing rats as opposed to letting them run wild and free. "Obviously you never lived in the country," I told Danny, "or you'd know the kind of damage they can do to a building. Why, left unchecked they'd eat the thatched roof off this barn in no time."

"There's nothing wrong with rats, they're lovely creatures," he insisted, sounding not entirely convincing, especially when I asked if he would mind if they lived in his kitchen cupboards or came crawling into bed with him. "And anyway, there are more humane ways of dealing with them. Cats, for example..."

"Oh yes, it's much more humane to be ripped to shreds by some vicious cat than to take a little drink of poison and drift off to rat la-la land." "Cats are not that vicious," he insisted, "and besides, it's natural." "And how are cats natural and humans unnatural?" I demanded. This is the sort of dispute that goes on all the time between us, so I'll spare you the details except to note that when Danny went off on a tangent about regulating rat populations, again by "natural" means, Wesley chimed in with, "There was this fellow called Hitler who had some interesting ideas about regulating populations..."

With that we adjourned to the pub, also dating from the 17th century and sporting a lovely thatched roof that luckily hadn't yet been eaten by the rampant rats of Avebury. A fire flickered rather than roared in the fireplace, and the Christmas tree was artificial instead of natural (now there's a cause Danny could be getting exercised about), but apart from that everything was nearly as perfect as could be. By the time we went our separate ways to Bristol, Bath, Bournemouth and London, the temperature had dropped into the 30s and we had decided to conduct our next walk in Salisbury, where, as Bella had pointed out, there are lots of nice shops and cafés to stop into.

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