Powysian walking #2

Walking Dorset’s Purbeck Hills was a commonplace activity for the Powys family, just part of the ordinary daily routines for those who lived in that part of the countryside and their visitors. Powys essays and diaries are filled with reminiscences of recreational jaunts over fields to the cliffs, following narrow fox-paths over dewy meadows in the mornings, the soaring flights of sea-birds that greeted them; the nights they would climb hills to make a moonlight vigil over a frosty landscape.

For anyone who’s walked the coastal paths between Lulworth Cove and Weymouth, or taken any of the routes inland across the ridges of hills into East Chaldon, there’s something’s remarkable missing from these accounts. Many of these ancient pathways are vertiginous, and to follow any of them for any real distance takes a monstrous effort. At any time of the year there will be lean athletic types jogging their way from one peak to the next, sometimes squaddies set a yomping challenge – but for the average walker it can be brutal. Summer or winter the challenge is the same. 

There’s nothing disingenuous about the family accounts of epic walks over the Purbecks, not an iota of false modesty. John Cowper Powys was open about his dislike for the attitudes among competitive, health-fad walkers of the 1920s and 30s. The point is that John and his brothers and sisters were perhaps a different physical breed to ourselves, more accepting of physical discomfort, more weather-stained, more robust. We’re used to easy comforts and instant treats, a modern ability to avoid the petty inconveniences of the material world. The resilience to the Purbecks – something earthy, salt-crusted and blistered – is translated, I think, into John’s writing, and into a simple principle that Powys readers know very well. Substantial effort, even angst, is repaid by what’s seen and experienced over the course of the journey.

A New Year

Tuesday 1 January 1935 (written while living in the top floor of a house on Dorchester’s High Street):

“Up at 8. Lit fires took tea to the T.T. Found her in splendid Good Spirits telling of how she put head out of window and saw…young people in evening dress & heard them bid each other Happy New Year in such crystal-clear voices…And she came & opened the Attic window so that I could hear the Fordington Bells that except for Maiden Castle thrill me most of all things in this town. And so I heard them, ringing wild & free out of the darkness…At 4.30 the Black & I got his licence at the Post Office & set out to within half a mile of Maiden Castle. We both walked on air – we were both so thrilled. Why does Maiden Castle thrill me so?”

[From Petrushka and the Dancer: The Diaries of John Cowper Powys 1929-1939]