One of the things I've missed most about England has been my monthly outings with the West Country Walking Society, and yesterday all six of us were reunited for the first time since last summer, meeting up in a car park in Shaftesbury, Wiltshire, and setting off on a meandering odyssey that took us over hill and dale (following a lengthy ridgetop discussion and a subsequent visit to the internet, I FINALLY - after a lifetime of wondering, learned what a "dale" is), past hundreds of hopelessly beautiful stone cottages and English country gardens, through some stone gateways and tunnels that looked as though they had been there since, well, the Stone Age, past a number of markers and walls with mysterious Latin engravings, including one milepost pointing the way to Sarum, which I momentarily mistook for someplace or someone out of Tolkien until I remembered that it was the original name for the settlement that eventually grew into the town of Salisbury.
Which probably explains why I kept thinking I heard people talking about "Mordor" when in fact it turned out to be Wardour, as in the ruined castle pictured above. It suddenly appeared on the horizon at about five miles into our walk, and loomed larger and larger as the trail wound its way down into the valley until we were face to face with its rather spooky remains. The illusion was slightly dented, however, when we rounded the bend and discovered a large car park packed with tourists and their squalling offspring, many of them clutching wooden swords or bows and arrows (the castle was used a backdrop in Robin Hood, Prince Of Thieves and apparently does a brisk business in associated memorabilia).
We'd been looking forward to exploring the ruins, but that was before we discovered it a) was already crawling with visitors; and b) cost £3.40 ($6.80) to enter. So we had a picnic on the front lawn instead and discussed cricket and motor racing, each of which had one adherent among us and varying degrees of ignorance or disinterest among the rest. Several miles later and a potentially perilous trek through a field clogged with cows and the attendant cow muck, we arrived at the Royal Oak pub in the village of Swallowcliffe, where I kept trying to initiate a conversation about chavs and Richard kept - to my bewilderment - shushing me, until I realized the group at the next table were prime specimens - albeit rather well-dressed ones - of the genre.
Our next animal adventure came when a troupe of enormous and very muscular horses surrounded us demanding tribute. Bella passed out carrots, but there weren't nearly enough to go round, and things looked as though they could get ugly, especially with Richard warning that, "At any moment they could decide to take a huge bite out of you." But we escaped over the fence and carried on, Bella's whingeing ("Wouldn't it be much more pleasant and sensible just to drive to somewhere nice and have a picnic?"), back to our starting point near Shaftesbury, arriving eight hours and 13 1/2 miles after we'd started out.
It was a quintessentially English day out, and one of the highlights of my trip. Today I'm sitting under more traditionally gloomy skies (yesterday featured loads of sunshine and almost American-style summer temperatures) here in Bristol, and tomorrow I'll be on my way back to New York. It's also worth noting that yesterdays 13 1/2 miles was the farthest I've done since last year's foot operation, and I did it virtually without pain, so that was a hopeful sign. Today, if Danny gets his journalism work (he writes for one of the national dailies) done, we're off to either the Wye Valley or South Wales. If not, I'll be knocking around the house and looking at the internet, in other words, just like home. Either way, a fine day, and a fine way to conclude my first English holiday as a born-again American.