30th May 2009 ENGLAND
The kindness of strangers
I wake up surrounded by boxes, stacked up chairs and stacked up tables, it takes a moment to figure out where it is I am… on a floor in the backroom of a Pub… the Six Ashes… four walls, a ceiling and on the far side of the room the Gents, a loo and a sink. I lay in my sleeping bag a little longer with hands behind head… thoughts of yesterday, the people and angels I had met. In my rucksack I still have the brown paper bag given to me by Ruth from the Whitburn café in the small town of Bridgnorth and in my belly the steak and chips from last night. None of the above is taken for granted, I feel a huge amount of gratitude for all that has been given… never again will I allow people to tell me that “People don’t care anymore”.
Ten minutes later I climb out of my sleeping bag and get dressed and like most days, that is no easy thing, the legs don’t wanna play ball (it takes a good hour of walking before they are up for kicking stones, never mind a ball). I repack my bag, wash my face, refill the water bottle. David the manager of the Six Ashes had told me to let myself out in the morning “Make sure the door locks behind you”. “Will do”. Less than a hundred yards up the road I turn around and head back to the pub to double check the door did lock, I push and pull against the door, yeah, its locked, before letting go of the handle I close my eyes and say a thank you to David, to bricks and mortar, to running water and brown paper bags.
The day in front of me is made a little easier, knowing that I have a place to stay the night… this evening I will be in Birmingham, in the home of David and Patricia.
Today, again the walking is slow… hmm… in my head I was thinking the last couple of days of being in a lower gear would have sorted things out, but it hasn’t, if anything I have dropped another gear. The body aches, more so the legs. Looking at the map and using thumb prints and fingers I do a few calculations, I figure if I continue to drop a gear every three days, I will come to a standstill seven and a half maybe eight and three quarter miles short of the finishing post (…that being the church that I was baptised in, on the south coast… in the small town of Christchurch)… well that’s just dandy !
A good few hours into the walk I come across an old wooden gate set back from the road, I walk up to it, climb over, dig out the brown paper bag I was given yesterday, inside I see three wrapped up tinfoil bundles, two look to be sandwiches, the third possibly a cake. I take one of the sandwiches and unwrap it… ham and tomatoes, I again say thank you to the three angels I had met yesterday. The brown paper bag goes back into my bag, something for later. I sit on the ground leaning up against a fencepost, in front of me a field of wheat and in the distance a field of barley…how can I tell the field in the distance is barley (other than pretending again to be a farmer), a field of barley is a lighter green than wheat plus from a distance a field of barley has a hazy look about it, due to the longer bristles on the kernels. In front of me are two of the basic ingredients for what has been a mainstay of our diet for thousands of years… bread (wheat) and beer (barley)… the brewing of beer is thought to go back 5000 years and the baking of bread twice that 10,000 years... yeah, and the sandwich as we know it today, goes back a little over 250 years, thought to have been the invention of John Montagu the 4th Earl of Sandwich (a small town in Kent).
I think the first step when wanting to create a better world, starts in the knowing that goodness is real… and it is, we see it in the innocence of young children, and as they grow, that good within them is nurtured (or at least it should be) by their parents, the wider family, teachers and by the society they grow up in… what’s that phrase ‘It takes a village to raise a child’… that is the first step, the knowing and understanding of what ‘good’ is. The next step, is to have the desire to act upon that understanding … and in this muddled up world, that is not always easy… if the definition of ‘good’ is to put the other person first, then the definition of what is ‘not good’ is to put myself first before others… sadly, that is many times the easier thing to do … to put others first takes empathy, a degree of determination, responsibility, the respect for others, I guess above all self-discipline… in the doing of what we know to be right / to be good. These first two steps, the knowing the ‘good’ and the desire to do the ‘good’ don’t really add up to much at all, not really… they exist in the invisible world of thought and intention… if you see an old man in the closed down market kicking up the papers and you kind of know he would appreciate a cup of tea, and suddenly you have the desire to buy him one… Only you don’t, because the café you stepped into was too busy and you’re not wanting to hang around… what good is that to the old man with his worn-out shoes. To bring that goodness into this physical (visible) world we need to follow up on those first two steps by taking a third step and that is to do the ‘good’… buy the tea… hold out a hand… or if need be, just sit and listen to the guy… to do that, can make a world of difference. The kindness of strangers is what will help to create a world that we all want… a world that is good.
I use the fencepost to pull myself back up onto my feet, pick up my bag and climb, stumble back over the gate… “How many roads indeed”. That’s me back on a country road, heading east, the sky a little overcast but dry, the bright lights of Birmingham still a good five, six hours away. I see a stone up front, I adjust my step, kick the stone and it’s a perfect strike, it has good distance, bounces well, right down the middle of the lane, yeah, I’m happy with that… and on the very last bounce, for reasons I don’t understand the stone takes a sharp left turn and is lost in the long grass, game over… didn’t want to play kicking stones anyway.
I do what I can to stay away from the main roads, picking up the quieter lanes, even if it does make the day that little bit longer. Sometimes I have little choice but to stick with the bigger roads, but that’s ok, even these roads are not so busy. Not sure why but my thoughts jump from the map that I have in hand to the map that is inside my head… to what it is I’m doing after this walk… I have committed myself to three years at Oatridge College… ‘Countryside Management’… crumbs, what’s that all about. Close to thirty years ago I crashed out of school with nothing at all… not one exam under by belt… and here I am now, thinking I have it in me to write proper essays and reports (with references), hit deadlines and sit timed tests and exams. All of that is pretty much everything that I am not…oh boy, and there’s me thinking walking the length of these islands without a penny in my pocket would be tough, in comparison this is a walk in the park. I guess this going back to college stuff is to put right the crashing out of school stuff, if that makes any sense.
Time I got up out of this chair, I need to be on the other side of this window, I clear the table, and again say thank you to Peter. The great city of Birmingham awaits, and it is an incredible city, a diverse city of industry and people. Birmingham and the smaller towns that surround it, such as Dudley, Walsall, Halesowen and others, are also known as ‘The Black Country’… it is said there are a thousand and one trades in this area. The name ‘The Black Country’ has been used since the middle of the 18 hundreds, due to the thousands of factories, workshops and foundries pushing out pollution of one kind or another, in 1862 the area was famously described as being black by day and red by night... a much cleaner city today, A proud, and at the same time I think a humble city, that has been overlooked by many who live on these islands.
I turn up at Davids and Patricia's front door close to five o’clock, David’s son Jonathan answers the door, the kettle is switched on… a really nice welcome. The four of us sit around the kitchen table with tea in hand, Patricia (the mum), Jonathan (the son) Katrina (the daughter) and me, David is not yet home. After the tea I am told to grab a shower and to bring down all my washing, an hour later we are all again sat around the kitchen table, David is back. I’m wearing a tracksuit that Jonathan had dug out for me, the washing machine is on, and dinner is on the go, then served, eaten, table cleared, another tea made, all the while stories being told. I was made to feel very much at home. That night laying in a bed of clean sheets (…the last time I had slept in a proper bed was in Bala, five days ago I think), I again think about the kindness of strangers… and the good in this muddled up world. Each generation trying to do the good, to make things better for those that come after them… a story without end… how good is that… the job of creating a better world is never ending… and that is how it should be… an adventure that never finishes… would we want it any other way.