The Pilgrimage

Ambit walk to Oxford day 5 - Charlbury to Oxford

It's been a funny old walk.
The original reason for doing the work and making Ambit I talked about here. In that post I wrote about isolation and using walking as a metaphor for that in my art practice. But as I got into this walk I realised that for me the isolation I experience when walking is a very different thing from the isolation one can experience in society. Walking in isolation is generally a lovely thing, not a sad thing at all.

I also wrote about walking as pilgrimage, mainly because I have for a few years been inspired by Will and Ed who started A Walk Around Britain and British Pilgrimage which was founded by Will. However, I hadn't really expected for this walk to become a pilgrimage, but a pilgrimage it turned out to be.

The walk was to connect my studio/home near Solihull with the exhibition space in Oxford. I toyed for a long time with the notion of walking to Oxford along the canal via Banbury; the canal passes less than a mile from my front door and it would be a very easy route. I'd already walked the canal from Solihull to Stratford-on-Avon, some of which was really beautiful (I saw an otter!). But generally, canals are too full of people and I prefer to walk on my own, so I took the trackways across country instead.

This route happened to pass through two villages where I lived as a child (Lower Quinton and Charlbury) and by places that had all sorts of familial significance for me, places of childhood picnics, adventures, pony and bike rides and many, many memories. As each day came and went I found myself thinking many times about my eldest sister, who died when I was in my late thirties. I have never stopped missing her in all the years that have passed, in some ways I think I miss her more as the years go by.

Sharon and I did not get on that greatly when we were children, I inadvertently gave her paroxysms of agony with my 'weirdness,' and was on strict orders not to speak when we were in the company of her friends. But, she taught me, as probably all older siblings do, so much. Sharon was the wilderness lover when we were children, whereas I was the sit indoors, bookish type. She was an adventurer, a 'tomboy,' where I was a girly girl, afraid of almost everything. But she must have inspired my great love of the outdoors and nature, for every time I saw some wildlife on the walk I thought of her. So many of the places I walked through reminded me of things she had told me about (Lark Stoke) or introduced me to (birdwatching), or shared a passion for (old churches and history). It felt like she was walking with me along so much of that route. I am astounded how deeply she sits in me, how much she taught me.

So, I caught the bus to Charlbury from Chipping Norton really early in the morning. Everything was swathed in mist, trees and cottages came looming up out of the whiteness and glowed with the gold of early sun.

The bus dropped me off at Five Ways in Charlbury and I thought about Sharon and when she took me to see red squirrels in the trees near that crossing point.
I walked along the road to the lane that went up past our old house and thought about Sharon and I walking to school together.
I started walking down Back Lane, a place she and I visited and played in for years. I thought about a sponsored walk she had done down it to the village of Stonesfield, a walk I was following again today.
I walked along the lane and saw a cobweb shimmering with morning dew and thought about how she taught me to capture frosted cobwebs on curved twigs and how we would compete to keep them intact the longest as we walked to school.
I walked along the lane and remembered the time she showed me a long-tailed tit's nest, a perfectly spherical miracle of twigs and moss and feathers.
I stopped in the lane to listen to skylarks and the tears came.
I howled.
I yelled and groaned and cried; a loud, unexpected, up-welling of grief I didn't know I had. It seemed like all these years I had kept this bowl of tears tucked under my rib-cage somewhere; this unacknowledged agony of missing her.

At last, when I began to come back to myself, I bent forward and let my tears fall down into the dark brown mud of the path. Holy water on holy ground.

After that I walked on to Woodstock along an actual Roman road, my eyes scanning the ground, hopelessly really, for some long forgotten coin or bit of pot. (Sharon once found a Roman lamp in the field behind our house. And a flint arrowhead). The walk to Woodstock was beautiful, with blazing sun and a dance of raptors and then there was a mad dash into Oxford and stress and craziness but that is all for another post on another day.


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