It’s a while since I arrived in Reading at the end of the first half of my walk from Bath to Greenwich. Life has been busy, so it’s been hard to find a clear day for walking. But last week that day arrived, and I set off on the first cheaper train to Reading, ready for day 1 of the Thames part of the walk.
I was so pleased to be there again. I walked from Reading to Marlow, around 20 miles all told (including the extra bit where I lost the path for a mile or so).
Walking this (river) stretch felt very different from the canal towpath. As rivers do, it meandered and twisted, and perspectives were ever-changing and often confusing. But the path was well-marked, and my guide book informative, accurate and helpful, despite being an edition from 2001.
I had been reading Robert Macfarlane’s book The Old Ways recently, and a sentence that hooked me when I read it kept reverberating as I walked – something about the act of walking being an exploration of the mind. That may or may not be what he actually wrote (I can’t find the sentence now), but it’s certainly how I understood it. And that felt very true for me on this walk.
If you’re looking for a description of the walk itself, you’ll need to wait a bit, because this account is more an account of my journey of the mind.
For much of the walk I was reflecting on privilege and inequality – here and now, in this country. It has been much on my mind since the budget earlier this month, which seemed to me to be nakedly about rewarding the Tories’ friends who had elected them, and (yet again) punishing the already under-privileged.
My mind was particularly on the children at some of the schools I have worked with whose parents simply can’t afford to feed and clothe them adequately, who will now be further punished as a result of petty and punitive benefit cuts. I was thinking about how much further the effects of this will reverberate throughout their lives, through impacts to their education, their health (both physical and mental), their confidence, their sense of their ability to change and influence their lives.
The walk took me through the grounds of two (expensive) private schools with river frontage, where confident young people were rowing on the river using their schools’ boats and coaches and grounds. And I realised I was becoming more and more angry. Not because I begrudge them what they have – it’s always good to see young people who are happy and confident and active. No: because of what those other children don’t have and probably never will have.
The schools I visit with hardly any outdoor space, and little money to take their pupils out on visits that their parents certainly couldn’t afford to pay for. The public leisure centres closing down because local councils can no longer afford to maintain and run them. The charges for using public leisure facilities going up and up, beyond the means of parents on low incomes and/or benefits to afford them.
Then the path took me away from the river through the grounds of a very grand 18th century mansion (Culham Court), surrounded by a beautiful flower meadow. Another gate, and the path moved on through the deer garden belonging to the house, where sheep and deer grazed peacefully. The land seemed to go on endlessly. I wondered about the wealth needed to first build and now own such a place. Of course the answer to the first question was obvious – slavery. The website I find (Royal Berkshire History) skirts around that uncomfortable fact by simply saying that the man who had it built ‘owed his fortune to his marriage to an Antiguan sugar heiress’. No mention of slavery – there rarely is, nor of the people who actually built the house, nor the people who work(ed) the land. This version of history is the one written from the perspective of owners not of toilers.
As the path rejoined the river I calmed down and let go of my growing sadness. I walked on, and came to Hurley (not far from Marlow). There was a huge caravan camping park there, separated from the riverfront only by a broad strip of grassland, perfect for picnicking and lazing by the river. Punctuated by huge green rubbish bins. And a sign put up by the owners saying that picnickers would be charged £3. Per person.
As I said, last week’s walk was for me about wealth and poverty, the haves and the have-nots.
Fortunately along the way there was plenty else to soothe the mind, as an antidote to all that: