Sunday, 6 January 2008

Peeling off the layers

There was not a single moment when we felt “our walk starts here”; more a slow moving through layers of association.

We closed our front door and said goodbye to the porter. But the first three miles were a stroll through London streets wholly familiar to us. Not until Chelsea Bridge did we move beyond range of our usual meanderings, and still we could recall the layout of Battersea Park from out Thames Path trip.

Beyond the park we were in unknown lands and not entirely sure if this was the south London of knives and gun crime. We needed the pages of the A-Z to pick our way through. But the natives were friendly; New Year’s Day and the world was smiling at strangers to wish them well.

At Purley, of course, the memories multiplied. In the house where David grew up and where we lived for many months between travels, we were at home again. We laid the table without needing to search through drawers and we snuggled into the boys’ old beds in the attic, like children. Chatting with Ann the next morning we might simply have been calling in for lunch.

Between Purley and our friends’ home in Chipstead, and out through Chaldon and Merstham, we described a looping route away from roads through ancient downlands and commons. We chose the route because we could – because we know the area intimately. Every bend and hedge called up memories. The golf course where David scavenged lost balls. Kenley Aerodrome, site of roller-blading and walks with our dog Jack. The field where we launched rockets with Shaun and Michelle; the slope that Owen and Bryn raced down. A drink at The Fox recalled Boxing Day rendez-vous. The path where bees burrowed into the earth on a summer walk with Kathryn and Dylan. The pub where we had lunch with Sal and Abdul.

Leaving Chipstead was hard. We had told Charlie and Amelia that they might join us for a few days in France. But how much does a five-year-old grasp of a long walk and a year’s absence?

As we went to the front door, there was Charlie in boots, jacket and a backpack with his torch and hat inside, holding short sticks and convinced he was coming with us. It was painful to make him turn back and to pretend that four months will be a short time before we see them again.

And now we’re on the North Downs Way, once again on tracks that we have walked before, though less often. Box Hill, where we stop to sponsor a kissing gate in the boundary fence the National Trust plan to build, is familiar to David from childhood – a memento of all our walks together.

Yet all the time we’ve been aware that a train station is just down the road which could have us back in our flat in an hour. Yet we resist the pull of home.

After Farnham we will at last be on paths new to us, where our forward image of each day will be drawn from the map only. But as long as we are in England there will be the comfort of knowing what a B and B is like and what a pub lunch might offer.

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