Tuesday, 21 July 2015

The end of Oxford and me?

I cycled down to Oxford last Saturday to give a tour to some youngsters. I was not looking forward to it particularly. Youngsters know very little and therefore cannot easily relate to what they are seeing or what I am saying. They are generally much more interested in their friends, in eating and the odd passing distraction (a rising bollard, a descending bollard, a trashed student, a shop, etc).

My negativity was reinforced as I approached a renowned tourist focus - the Martyr’s Memorial. I could see a long line of white coaches with colourful streams of youngsters pouring forth and surging towards the city centre. They had damned up at the pedestrian crossing at the mouth of Beaumont Street no doubt in a deliberate attempt to block my path to the cycle stands. Nonetheless, I ploughed my way through and on towards the Playhouse where five of us badged guides were due to meet our hoard of 100 sixteen-year-olds from somewhere or other. The two coaches arrived disgorging their youthful cargo onto opposite sides of the roads. Bringing 100 independent bodies together in one place on what seemed to be Oxford’s busiest day was no mean feat, but we did it somehow and left it to the helpers to divide them into five groups and to distribute food bags (yep, they often bring their own). This took some time, in fact it nibbled almost half-an-hour off a tour duration of just one and half hours!

At last we were off with our separate groups all converging on New College where Harry Potter awaited. Threading ourselves through an over laden Broad Street was not easy. Mostly the pavements were blocked by large groups where the leader was often indistinguishable from the led and the street itself was chock-a-block with more conga-like groups, also threading. There was some easing around the Sheldonian, but the exit was blocked by a brilliant young woman who had the brilliant idea of addressing her crowd from the steps – brilliant.

I think it was about then, or maybe when a sub-group of my group announced a growing need for the toilet, that I decided that this was not what I wanted to do with my life; no more than I desired to contribute in any way to attracting yet more youngsters to visit Oxford. Enough was enough. So I smiled vaguely, turned on my heel and walked quickly back to my bicycle and pedalled off to my comfortable little flat high above the Woodstock Road and well away from the maddening crowd.
Not really. I persevered and, with the possible exception of two Spanish lads who probably could not understand a word that I was saying and were distracting two Spanish girls who could, they were a nice enough bunch. I can still remember the smile of delight as a pretty Italian girl first saw the Holm oak tree in New’s cloister (it’s the tree beneath which Harry Potter’s enemy...ah you don’t need to know that). Some of them even asked questions. I gave them the best time that I could – and allowed them a toilet visit as well.

Next day I led a literature tour and this healed the wounds. The invasive tides had ebbed; Sundays are usually quieter in Oxford. My group consisted of adults, all of whom had made a conscious choice to take the tour and had paid for it. Most of them knew of the authors that I talked about. They chipped in, asked questions, corrected me at times, laughed when they were supposed to, and were even mildly interested in where the Potter locations were. Someone bought one of my books, and I enjoyed the tour as much as they did – I think.

Isn’t Oxford a wonderful place? Yes it is, but its capacity to absorb ever increasing numbers of visitors has its limits.

By the way, these are not my photos. They were taken by a Spanish visistor during one of my tours. I thought that they were rather good. 

Monday, 13 July 2015

Permissive Paths: No Dogging

You might guess from the title that I have been walking lately. Yes, just returned from trudging along the first section of the South-West Coastal Path from Minehead to Westward Ho! The exclamation mark belongs to the Ho by the way. Odd name for a place, though there is a town in Canada called Saint-Louis-du-Ha! Ha! with two: show offs. But they can’t beat this: our exclaimed village is named after a novel, a book written in 1855 by Charles Kingsley. It’s true, the book came first!

I walked about ninety miles over five days hefting a backpack containing amongst other essentials:  my one-man tent, my sleeping bag and mattress roll, plus my Kindle. Doesn’t sound far I know, but miles are not a suitable measure when traversing the North Devon coastline where there is a lot of fairly gruelling uphill and scrabbling downhill. Actually, I cheated at the end. Booked into a B&B in Barnstaple on my last walking day, dumped my backpack there and walked the path to Westward Ho! - naked. Not really naked of course, but I did feel almost naked without the hefty backpack and wearing my sandals rather that boots. That aside, I slept out every night, mostly wild camping. The weather was very changeable for the first three days – storms and showers - and too hot on the last two: hikers are rarely happy with the weather.

My worst night was at Lynmouth. The weather was quite nice as I limped slowly through the little town towards the ocean. There I found a narrow strip of grass between the low sea wall and high wooded cliff. I ignored the dog walkers as I pitched my little tent, just as they carefully ignored me. Once camped I stepped out for a clean up (don’t ask), some beer and food. As I left my second pub I met a torrent of rain so heavy that I had to dash into another for shelter and more beer. At last the rain abated and I took a muddy walk past the harbour, where the boats were being thrown around by an angry sea, to my camping site. Then, after a worried look at the large waves rolling towards my flimsy home, I squeezed into my little tent just as the rain started again – lashings of it. Inside I recalled the 1952 deluge that killed over thirty people Lynmouth. I thought of the cliff above me and the waves just below me. I didn’t sleep much.

Things were a little better in the morning. I packed away the wet tent, had a hot chocolate with crumpets in a cafe and, fully recharged, carried on walking.

So why do we do these strange things? The countryside was beautiful, a beauty that can barely be glimpsed from a motorcar. I was immersed. The ups and downs of good and bad weather brought sympathetic mood swings, and the upswings were much higher than the down swings. And, even though the rugged grandeur of the coastal route presents challenges to people with vertigo (like me), the rewards are sweet. Edging around a promontory to be suddenly presented with a panoramic view of the coast ahead, of a beach below or the unexpected view of a shimmering white Devon village – these things outweigh the discomfort, the fear and the pain. And then there’s the people that you meet along the way: strangers, yet drawn together by a shared adventure. And all that aside, there is the sheer escapism of an untimetabled trek; the escape from routine, from the Internet, from the clutter of familiar things and places, and the promise of a joyful return to same.

Does any of this explain the title of this blog? Permissive pathways are those routes that the owner allows hikers to use, but are not public rights of way. In fact, I didn’t actually see a “no dogging” sign, just “no dogs”. However, I did see one stating “no naturist activities” and my mind boggled. Was this code for no dogging? In my youth there was a degree of titillation available from pictures of naturists playing games: volleyball was popular I seem to recall. Was this innocent pursuit one of the banned naturist activities, I wondered. Or was it merely being naked that offended? Anyway, I kept my clothes on: the straps of a heavy backpack would certainly have dug well into my naked skin and my tan would be so patchy. Besides, there was the danger of ticks attaching themselves to vulnerable parts of the body.