Notes on overnight walk around Salisbury Plain

On the night of September 26/27 my friend John Clark and I walked 30 miles to raise money for two refugee charities. More information on the walk, including a radio interview I did with BBC Wiltshire radio, can be found here:

These are my notes of the experience:

John and I leave by the garden gate; it is after 8pm, and dark. At Twickenham, England is playing Wales.

The moon is bright. No breeze – the leaves on the ash trees and the pale apples hanging in the hedgerow trees quite still. Bats flit.

We walk west out of the village, across stubble fields, turn south and follow the old Roman road which takes us to the edge of the Plain and then up over the top and onto the plateau.

Up up.

Blocks of wood and game cover as we level off, and another stubble field, flat and wide enough to land a plane on.

On the top it is quiet. We reach the ridgeway and turn right, following it in the direction of Warminster. A gentle breeze blowing from the south west feels warm. We walk into pockets of cold air. The ridgeway running pale in the moonlight, our footsteps sounding on the rough track. To our right Pewsey Vale, its villages lit up, its inhabitants – men, women and children – watching the game. To our left, the Plain – its surface the colour of washed out ink, the trees navy blue, the sky graphite with hints of turquoise and apricot in the east.

By Urchfont vedette the wind has picked up, and halyard on the MoD flag pole claps against the wood. It sounds like we are aboard a ship.

No one up here. Tall maize in a field. Lights shining at us far across the Plain. Is that a road, or do the lights mark a perimeter fence? Is it Bulford Camp?

The idea that we have stepped out of our world and into another, a place which takes place in parallel, but empty and elevated. A deserted and dark landscape running in secret above earth. Are we trespassing? What shall we find up here?

Night territory. A spectrum of colour from plain silver to blue black.

The moon so bright the stars are diminished.

At five miles we stop and eat nuts and drink. Murray Mints, water. The wind has got colder. I put on another layer. I will be a little cold for the rest of the walk, but it keeps me moving.

Walking and talking. Talking. This is the most sociable of experiences. How would it feel alone?

How would it feel to be a refugee, walking with young children, carrying awkward pieces of luggage?Wearing the wrong shoes. Hungry. Unsure what tomorrow holds. Our walk is nothing because we walk voluntarily, we do not walk in fear.

The hours slip away and are forgotten. It is 11, it is 12.30, it is 2. We are in the Scottish borders, looking over a sheep valley. We are in Spain, following the high road to Santiago. We are talking about our families, we are talking about politics. We look down upon the earth, from which we have just departed and to which we will shortly return to. We are masters of the quiet, dark landscape. We remember our loved ones, warm in their beds, and we walk on, moving further away.

Twice I hear a noise behind us and turn to see the empty track, the night sky, the full moon. Nothing.

At 15 miles we pause, rest for a while, drink and eat, and turn to retrace our steps.

The lights of Westbury, the red beacon on the chimney above the old cement works.

At mile 20, we share a miniature of whisky. It is a relief to sit down on the ground.

It is nearly four. We puzzle over stars, and land lights. A yellow planet looks like a hovering helicopter. Or is it a light on a tall mast? No, it is a planet, which glows a little yellow, a little red.

The last five miles are the hardest. My right hip aches. My legs a little rubbery, someone has roughed up the track since we walked out, and strewn it with loose rock which I now feel uncomfortably through the soles of my boots.

Just before dawn the wind gets up. I am ready for daylight, hungry for it. I have drunk too much night, stared at too many stars. Time to see. The light coming on very slowly – leaking in over the eastern edge. It is dark, there is fabric to it. This is because there is light in some of the sky but not all of it – the top is brightening and the lower half and the space in which we move is still night and our tired eyes are confused and don’t know where to look. Down to our left the Vale full of white mist, the tops of trees showing above it, like they have been drowned in flood water. A bank of cloud in front of us as solid and marked as hillside.
“Is that the side of the Plain?”
“No, it’s cloud.”

It is light and we are off the ridgeway and back onto stubble field, coming off the Plain. We have marched our way through the corridor of night and we have found our way back to the light. Home. New colours – browns and greens and yellows, like food. It is cold. In the light I feel more tired and dirtier. It’s time for a bath.

Outside the village, a white barn owl flies on towards us.

Through the garden gate and it is as if we have only just left. But a whole night has been got through, walked through.

Breakfast: 2 x fried eggs, bacon, toast and marmalade, coffee. John falling sleep between mouthfuls.

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