Pathlands by Peter Owen Jones – An extract
Walk 16 – The Hoo Peninsula, Kent: Everyone’s gone to the moon
Gingerly I cut back through a carpet of sea purslane and jumped a couple of small creeks, making my way towards the fence and the fields, not seeing that the widest of the ditches lay just in front of the sea bank. It was full of black timbers, the bones of a long-abandoned boat that had fallen to pieces over time, as the highest of tide came and rearranged the litter and gently pulled the deck from the hull, dismantling the carcass bit by bit until its original form was rendered unimaginable. This is part of the work of storms, part of the work of winter and the wind – to destroy, to clear all that went before, to create a clean space for new life, new shapes and new melodies of colours.
A kind soul had placed one of the timbers from the broken boat over the creek; it was thin and slippery, but it worked. I loved the land just behind the marsh, it was more of a flat wide drove with various pools and the odd leafless hawthorn tree, a place for voles and grass snakes and a wide enough hunting ground for barn owls and a pair of kestrels that took off, heading for some large sycamores standing at the end of the field. Hawthorn trees often stand alone in the wildest of places; I have seen single trees in the middle of miles of moor and growing alone on the sides of mountains. They are both robust and delicate, and they are heavy with folklore symbolising fertility and purity, but more than that they broker enchantment, undoing reality, decorum and balance. Hawthorn trees flower in May but each tree has a slightly different coloured blossom, running through the spectrum from pure white extending in various shades to a deep red. It is the sight, and the also the scent, of these trees flowering in May that has commandeered the whole month to be named after it: May blossom smells thick and oily, a combination of almonds and petrol, and many country people still consider it unlucky to bring these flowers into the home because their scent is not that dissimilar to that of the dead.
Moving upriver, the breathing flow of the Thames narrows and the marsh gives out into flat fields which extend northwards, holding a few lonely trees and a scattering of grey sheep grazing behind mended fences. The path then enters a small copse where it becomes a flowing stream, the water draining off the even hill that leads down to the marsh from the south. It was too deep to walk and it was difficult finding a way through the closely planted young trees on either side of it. Perched on top of the hill sits a very bereft and austere-looking farmhouse. Nothing on the Isle of Grain feels isolated but the farmhouse somehow lacked any kind of tenderness; it was as if no one had laughed out loud there for a long time. The bulrushes in one of the larger pools spoke a very different language. Some were rupturing their seeds, turning their sleek brown heads into an ochre down. Each bulrush head produces around 220,000 seeds and the plants are a wild superfood. The young shoots can be eaten either raw or stir-fried and are delicious. Pancakes can be made from the pollen of the flowers and the root tubers contain ten times more starch than potatoes, but also a great deal more gluten than wheat.
There is another long narrow field that heads south and up towards Coombe House the grass here was wet and heavy. I could see the sky darkening in the west, promising another bucket of rain. Rather than following the road the path runs through a small spinney opposite Coombe House – or at least I thought it did. I was doubling back when a young man with curly brown hair appeared in the driveway of the house. He smiled and wished me a Happy New Year and looked up at the sky and asked me how far I was going. I reckoned it was a couple more miles.
More than any other season, winter takes you into a solitary room and, if I am brave enough to follow it, to the empty lands of desolation; it is the most profoundly alien of all the seasons, the most unknown and the least visited. Our natural reaction to winter is usually to try and brighten it up with tinsel and talk of spring, but the older I become, the more inclined I am to let it work its deep emotional magic of clearing and resolving. Winter is the healer of the deepest wounds. So when the young man asked me how far I was going, I really had no idea; I was in the solitary room far away from tinsel and all talk of spring.
Peter Owen Jones is an author, television presenter, and Anglican clergyman. He began his working life as a farm labourer in SE England and then ran a mobile disco before moving to London where he worked his way up in advertising to the post of creative director. He was ordained in the late 80s. After working as a parish priest for several years he presented various acclaimed BBC TV series, including ‘Extreme Pilgrim’, ‘Around the World in 80 Faiths’ and ‘How To Live A Simple Life’. Since then he has contributed walks to the Sunday Times, and is also the author of many books including ‘Letters From An Extreme Pilgrim’.