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Through rain and then light rain we drove for an hour, arriving at Woolstone in the Vale of the White Horse at around half past eleven in the morning. We parked and had a coffee at the White Horse pub before heading out of the village in a south westerly direction, through fields and over stiles, while we chatted about how flat Oxfordshire was, and how unnerved we were by the sound of gunshots in the distance.

Andrew grew up in Keswick in the Lake District, but didn’t stick around for long after leaving school, and has since lived in cities including Edinburgh, London, and Bristol where he now lives with his wife, Katie, and (I think) one cat, though the cat (or non-cat) didn’t come up in conversation.

We traversed balding fields whose straw-like stumps and the occasional de-kernelled corncob gave away their erstwhile purpose. As we crossed a boundary road into a field edged by a narrow wood, four deer emerged, racing across the green, stopping to have a look back at us before disappearing over the horizon, never to be seen again. We both enjoyed the experience via the cameras on our phones. As we circumnavigated the pasture we stopped to eat one of Andrew’s chicken thighs – I was expecting Morrison’s rotisserie, but he had roasted them himself, with chilli sauce between the skin and the meat. As we tucked in I spotted the source of the gunshots high on the brow of Woolstone Hill to the south. I asked Andrew whether he thought we were in the cross-hairs yet and we picked up the pace.

We passed through a few fields with horses in and I repeated what Derek had told me on the Pennine Way this summer – just let them know you’re there and that you’re not a threat. I did this by talking to each horse as if I were negotiating with a gunman in a holdup situation, ‘IT’S ALRIGHT. IT’S OKAY. I AM NOT A THREAT TO YOU. WE’RE JUST PASSING THROUGH. EVERYBODY BE COOL’ etc until the horse eventually realised I was not bringing it any food and turned away with a blast of nostril air and a casual saunter back to where it had been standing when we arrived. Its favourite part of the field, I suppose.

At Compton Beauchamp – which I suggested may be pronounced ‘Beecham’ like the 1990s Oxford United footballer, Joey Beauchamp, whom had stuck in my memory as being the player that was sold to West Ham United, only to never kick a ball competitively before being sold on to Swindon, and then back to Oxford before the season was out (It turned out his love for his home county prevented him from making a go of it anywhere else).

We followed the D’Arcy Dalton Way, a 66 mile trail named after D’Arcy Dalton, an ardent 1920’s rambler responsible for preserving many rights of way in Oxfordshire, through more corn fields and pastures until we arrived at a crossing with The Ridgeway. We were one hour into our walk and this crossing point marked the centre of the figure eight route that I had plotted on the map, and the location at which we must decide whether to continue on our designated route or to snip off half of it and take a left turn towards Wayland’s Smithy and White Horse Hill. We’d had some rain in our faces but had been largely sheltered as we passed through small fields lined by hedges and farm buildings, and so the weather hadn’t been a problem. We’d navigated some very muddy corners of fields and spent a few minutes watching a Red Kite holding its position on the updraft. It was five past one, an hour since we had left, and Andrew estimated another three hours walking, assuming each quarter of the figure eight represented a quarter of the overall distance walked. He wouldn’t be too far out, by the end of the day, as it happened. He expressed concern over finishing our walk in the dark, and I mentioned that I had my headtorch with me (pure coincidence, I had left it in my bag by mistake) but that I didn’t think we’d need it as we would doubtless motor through the two sections of the walk that took us along the Ridgeway National Trail as they were on flat gravel paths. Turning left at this point felt a bit like heading back, and we had only been walking for an hour, so I suggested we push on and do the whole route. Besides, I hadn’t yet told him my story about the time I silenced the entire studios on my foundation course with my story about three things that are true about all men. Fifteen years later I’ve learnt that they aren’t universally true anyway, and that all I was doing was passing on an ignorant man’s so-called wisdom. Either way, the content is way too graphic to report here. I hadn’t planned to bring it up, but the conversation went down the route of being of a certain age and understanding what’s appropriate.

Up to this point, discussion had centred around us both having moved away from the north, and how that affected our relationships with our family and friends. We also covered more directly personal subjects, to do with home life and work, and a little bit about art.

The second quarter of our figure eight walk began with us chewing up The Ridgeway, its gravel path disappearing beneath us as we raced towards our left turn into more open country. We talked about our formative years, and the events or feelings that had led each of us to leave our homelands in search of something else, but as the whistling wind blasted us with sideways rain our words were getting lost in the chill December air. We donned our gloves, hats, and hoods, and nipped into Hailey Wood. The coppiced trees of Hailey and Middle Woods broke up the wind and for a short while we walked in silence before conversation turned to parenting, and the current issues in my own home, where I lived in perfect harmony with my wife for fifteen years before we gained two flatmates, now aged six and four. As we reached the centre of the woods it appeared we were on a grand avenue, in one direction the gap between the trees stretched as far as we could see, and in the other; Ashdown House. One of the many reminders of the enormous privilege that surrounds us when we walk through the county of Oxfordshire. Humbly, we shuffled on through the wood and out the other side, where we ate a chocolate and coconut flapjack each, and followed a path leading up to Weathercock Hill, Here we re-joined our route, having sliced off probably half a mile of it by going through the woods. We were now in the middle of an enormous expanse of open farmland – the floor was lined with seedlings of who knows what. It looked grassy, but Andrew wasn’t convinced. The path was faint, and as our boots gathered cakes of earth – the extra weight around my boots took me back to cutting across farmers’ fields on the way home from middle school in the late 80s – we wondered how much it cost the farmer to have this right of way running through his livelihood. A small portion of his income, we decided, but enough that he knows exactly how much. We were approaching the centre of the figure eight from the other side, and we discussed the age difference between ourselves and our younger course-mates (hence the discussion that led to what’s appropriate subject matter when some coursemates are close to half your age. We never mentioned the age difference between us and our older course-mates. Perhaps a signifier of how less age seems to matter, the more of it you have behind you. Andrew celebrated a late emergence of thicker chest hair than before, only to then lament it’s almost instant greying. Comes to us all, I suppose.

At the edge of the field we laughed at the nonsense of it all as we banged the mud from our boots and I took paracetamol and ibuprofen together, for fear of the niggle in my hip developing into genuine pain.

We turned right, along the gravel path of the Ridgeway National Trail once more, and were immediately upon Wayland’s Smithy, the ancient long-barrow associated with Wayland, god of the forge. I told Andrew about the Amesbury Archer, a Neolithic man buried with more grave goods than any of his contemporaries, and with metals yet to be discovered in British archeology. The man had travelled from the Swiss alps to Stonehenge, where he will have arrived with precious metals the like of which had never been seen and also, perhaps, the knowledge with which to remove these metals from stone. Magic. He had a withered thigh bone, and would have walked with a limp. Jump forward a few thousand years and in all of the Western European pre-christian religions the god of the forge, the smith-god, walks with a limp. It seems obvious to me that the Amesbury Archer was this god – he was certainly buried as a god – perhaps even worshipped in his own lifetime as one. It’s one of my favourite stories, and I was glad to share it with Andrew, along with my idea for an art project based around this man being the nearest thing that I – an atheist with the name Smith – have to a god in my life!

Moving on, we re-joined the path and saw White Horse Hill ahead of us. Somewhere on the other side of it we would see the white horse that had motivated Andrew’s choice of location, and that spurred us on. We decided not to stop and heat up the Moroccan Lentil soup that I had carried all day, and instead we ate chocolate as we walked.

Once on top of the hill we remarked on the enormous earthworks that surrounded us – they turned out to be Uffington Castle, an Iron Age Hillfort – before moving on, eager to discover the day’s main event.

We arrived at the Uffington White Horse from above, and its shape was revealed, piecemeal, as we topped the hill and descended around it – I stepped onto it at one point, and was overcome with guilt, so jumped off again, leaving evidence of my trespass in the form of white footprints in the grass for a few yards.

Around here we talked only about the landscape. The manicured base of the valley, the uniform gulleys running down the side of the hill – Giant’s Stair, as it is known – that we couldn’t imagine having been formed by nature alone, and Dragon’s Hill, the natural mound with its top cut off and, if you believe the legend, site of Saint George’s most famous deed.

From here it was a slippery walk back down to the valley below – overtaking a couple with their big dog and their tiny baby – where we met the road back into Woolstone and The White Horse pub, who were no longer serving food. We had snacked our way through an eleven mile walk and I, for one, was starving. Snickers, Scampi Fries (golden rule: if you see them, buy them), and a pint of coke had to suffice. I had carried my soup, stove, and gas, for nothing, thought he weather hadn’t really allowed for an opportunity to stop and sit, so for that all is forgiven. It was daylight when we reached the pub though, I think that’s worth noting. I took care of my calorie deficiency once home and showered, as I reflected on the first of what I hope will become many Walks with Other Artists.

STATISTICS

Distance walked : 11.1mi

Duration : 3h 48m 38s

Total Ascent : 1128ft

Total Descent : 1124ft

Average Speed : 2.9mph

Max Elevation : 850ft / 259.1m

Min Elevation : 323ft / 98.5m


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Having ruled out Wales on account of it being ‘an arse to get to from Bath’ Andrew told me he had ‘always wanted to have a look at one of those chalk horses,’ adding, ‘it’s bang before Chrimbo but how does December 18th sound?’

18th was fine by me.

Andrew then suggested that I partake in his latest project, a series in which he reads to a sitter a section from their favourite childhood book. I was happy to oblige – I’d seen his first few takes with family members and was thrilled to be asked. The resulting work – a head and shoulders shot of the sitter, with the sound removed, reacting to Andrew’s reading – is a sort of animated portraiture, intimate and warm, that I had been unable to take my eyes off when he showed them at our MA group critique a month or so earlier. I do not, however, have a favourite childhood book, or at least I can’t remember one, but I did read JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye twice back to back when I was around 17, so I chose that along with the Uffington White Horse – the Neolithic, stylised one – and downloaded the ViewRanger app to plot a route.

The route would also take in the Neolithic long-barrow, Wayland’s Smithy. On the morning of the walk, however;

The weather looked appalling, and for a moment my inner voice, the one that allows me to bale at the emergence of even the slightest of doubts over my experience being anything short of perfect, looked like it might win the day. I texted Andrew with my concerns but he suggested coming over anyway, for the filmed reading, and taking another look at the weather mid-morning, in the hope that the forecast would improve. I remembered that our route would be a figure eight, and so could be chopped in half to make a smaller route if the weather proved as joyless as the iPhone app implied.

At some point in the previous week, Andrew had read The Catcher in the Rye in its entirety, and had chosen to read me the last thirty pages or so, in which the main character, Holden Caulfield, visits a mentor-like figure, Mr Antolini.

As Andrew was reading Holden’s description of Mr Antolini I remembered fondly the way Holden talks about people, and events in his life. I had never forgotten that everyone is ‘crazy’, or ‘damn near’, or how he refers to people – ‘Old Phoebe’, ‘Old Stradlater’. For a while I wrote my own diary in that style; ‘Damn near broke my leg when old Matt, the crazy bastard, skated a little too close today’.

Holden is an inveterate exaggerator; there are hints that Mr Antolini’s marriage is a sham, and that he is in some way attracted to Holden – not least when Holden wakes in the night to find Mr Antolini sitting by the sofa, stroking his head, at which point Holden makes his excuses and leaves. The killer passage, for me, was when Mr. Antolini got to the heart of his point about education, when he said,

“If you go along with it […] it’ll begin to give you an idea what size mind you have […] After a while, you’ll have an idea what kind of thoughts your particular size mind should be wearing. For one thing, it may save you an extraordinary amount of time trying on ideas that don’t suit you, aren’t becoming to you” 

That hit home, as I‘ve come to realise that I could have used that advice, but instead my focus at the time of reading the novel was Holden’s distaste for the rest of humanity. I was too busy being jealous of the amount of girls this so-called misfit had in his life to take stock of the advice that Holden was receiving.

The experience of being read to was a pleasant one. Words like generous and warmth come to mind. I wouldn’t think just any old text would work, but that Andrew reads from the sitters’ favourite novel enriches the experience immeasurably. I will be interested to see the end result.

TO COME: Walks with other artists, Andrew Brooks part 2: The Walk.


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Origins

I have a 28-year history with the Pennine Way, the UKs oldest and toughest National Trail. In the summer of 1990 my dad and I walked the last sixty miles of it, over four days, from Hadrian’s Wall to Kirk Yetholm. In the summer of 2007, my friend Derek and I walked the southern half of it – we had intended to walk its entire length, but I picked up an injury and we withdrew at the half way point. In the summer of 2017, Facebook reminded me of this aborted attempt, and I speculatively asked Derek whether he felt we would ever have another go at it, now that we each have young families and proper jobs (okay, it’s just him with the proper job, but the family part is true). A few days later, and after much WhatsApping between me and Derek, me and my wife, Derek and his partner, Derek and my wife, me and Derek’s partner, and all four of us together plus my mum, we managed to get our heads around the logistics of it all and a date was set for mine and Derek’s second attempt at the Pennine Way.

This blog is not designed to tell the story of our walk, but it is appropriate to set the scene. We completed the walk in seventeen days, and the sense of achievement I have felt – which took perhaps weeks to settle in – has been incredible. It is equalled only by the pride I take in my transformation from doorbell-dodging, phone-non-answering, street-blanking recluse to artist talk-giving, performance poetry reading, undergraduate lecture-giving pot-bellied bloke that sits on his sofa writing this today. It was that good. I think about it every day. The Pennine Way, not the other stuff. Well, apart from the pot-belly.

I saw, in my walk, the potential for some kind of artistic endeavour to take place. and so I announced myself as the Pennine Way’s Unsolicited Artist in Residence, and hoped something would emerge.


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