I've just started reading Patrick Leigh Fermor's A Time of Gifts, and though I'm only a few pages in, already I'm gripped. It's rightly seen as a classic piece of travel literature, detailing a young man's journey by foot to Istanbul (then, still, Constantinople) along the Rhine, just at the moment that Hitler came to power. Scary. Not dissimilar in style to Laurie Lee, but far less schmaltzy, it's beautifully written and speaks of an era that is long past.
Journeys are very much on my mind as we've not long been back from a 42 mile walk - a pilgrimage I suppose - along the Ridgeway to Avebury for the Summer Solstice (readers of the Telling the Bees blog will know that this is an annual trip for me, though this is the first time I've done it all on foot).
In retrospect it was a rewarding, even transforming experience, though at the time it was gruelling and challenging and more than once I cursed my folly in saying yes to this stupid adventure. We do a lot of walking, but usually of ten miles or less and with day packs, not full camping provisions. My legs aren't as lithe as the last time I made the journey back in my twenties, and even though my walking boots are so broken in they're almost broken out, I got some spectacular blisters.
The group was made up of old friends from road-protesting days, and new friends from previous Solstices. We all met up at Goring station and set off from there. Other friends occasionally turned up and walked bits of the journey with us.
Some travelled lighter than others - fine when the weather was good, but a bit drafty when wet.
We took instruments, a proper troupe of travelling minstrels, so there was time for a little music along the way.
We walked fifteen miles on the first day, seventeen on the second, and by the time we made camp I was in a kind of delirium of fatigue. I can't remember the last time I felt so tired.
Oddly I awoke on day three full of energy, and leapt up the hill past Barbury Castle like a gazelle. An easy five miles took us to Avebury, or at least to the spot in the Avebury environs where we go for Solstice. We felt triumphant.
It rained heavily on Solstice eve, but we retreated to our tents and caught some kip. The night was damp, cloudy, but free of rain, and there was much music-making around the fire. It was a night of perranzabulations, just as it should be.
Sunrise was grey and in spite of some promising lightening of the clouds, we didn't see the sun. Not that it matters. It's keeping the vigil that counts. And there was more music. And chocolate, courtesy of Graham Harvey (who took many of these photos.)
We crashed out shortly after sunrise, in what you can see was a rather damp tent!
We woke mid-morning by which point the sun was shining and a stiff wind was blowing up from the southwest. There was time for a short excursion to the upper world...
Graham, who is looking ever more the sage Druid, got out his bullroarer and let it thunder in the wind.
And we climbed up to the hill to look out on what is an extraordinary, and to me very sacred, landscape. It felt like we'd done solstice well.
The hardest bit with any journey, actually, is the coming back. And though I've been writing an exciting new course module on 'Festivals in Religion and Culture', for the Religious Studies department up at Oxford Brookes University, it's been hard work, for my heart is still up on the Downs, watching hares dart across the fields to the ever-present sound of skylarks.
Which is why I might just go and lose myself in another ten pages of Fermor's wonderful book...