Last Wednesday (29th August) I had a wet walk along the Colne Valley Path from Staines – which had a nice looking market the afternoon I was there and food smells which made me hungry.
I found the river – Thames – and Lammas Park where I sheltered from a downpour and ate lunch standing up under the overhang of a shed covered in cobwebs. Then I walked across Staines Moor: an unexpectedly peaceful strip of land sandwiched between the M25 and – give or take a reservoir or two – Heathrow Airport. At least it was visually peaceful with the meandering river and grassy moor dotted with indolent ponies and ancient ant hills.
The path under Junction 14 was depressing with no saving graces other than the fact that you don’t have to cross twenty lanes of traffic. A man was sat in the shadows, mentally ill or broke or just sheltering from the rain.
It got worse past the motel and trading estate which seemed misnamed. The lorry drivers weren’t trading – at any rate they probably weren’t making lots of money from whatever went on in the anonymous hangars.
The strip of reclaimed-from-rubbish-dump woodland did nothing to lift my spirits. It felt like a place to inexpertly bury a body or catch a would-be immigrant, frozen in ice, fallen from the lowered undercarriage of a jumbo jet.
The strange thing is I was a long way from a bad mood when I started out. But my nerves were a fair way to being shredded by the time I got to Horton whose intimations of a more peaceful ruralism – the church tower and the blue plaque to John Milton just seemed to add a layer of cruelty to a permanent present tension.
I gawped at some old houses and fine coaching inns at Colnbrook. One of them, the Ostrich, lays claim to a ghost story of the Sweeney Todd genre. The place felt haunted enough to me; but not by anything supernatural.
I followed the brook out of town and just before crossing a busy road I was accosted by a group of lads with dogs. They called me “a fucking tramp.”
I took that to be a badge of honour. They would have, I reflected, been called much worse in their time and would be again. I’d seen their future through the train window at Feltham. It wasn’t orange.
Just past Thorney a gate blocked the footpath which – though marked on the OS map – apparently no longer led past old gravel scrapes and a weir to Fray’s Island and Mabey’s Meadow Nature Reserve. But by now I expected nothing more. I didn’t even register disappointment. I thought of Richard Mabey’s classic The Unofficial Countryside. He’d found inspiration in nature’s recolonization of what duller pilgrims call edgelands – the shrieking, fly-tipped, shit-spattered, apocalypse-belt of gravel scrapes and car-breakers yards that fan out from the built environment like oil slicks from an abandoned rig. Watching rare birds on the sewage tanks he found an antidote to the workday blues.
But the drifts of Himalayan balsam – even the scraggy pony in its comedy suit of burrs – stubbornly refused to lift my mood. I followed Beeches Way in to West Drayton completely forgetting my strange find the week before at the edge of a green carpet of seaweed on the North Kent coast.