In 1979, a group of friends and colleagues, Jan and Dad among them, celebrated the light night of the summer solstice by convening on the evening of 21 June at the Motte and Bailey pub in the pretty Hertfordshire village of Pirton. They then walked the two miles across fields to Shillington, returning several pints later in the dark (possibly in more senses than one). Over succeeding years, the one-room, two-cask Musgrove Arms in Shillington offered welcome and sustenance – in the form of Abbot, IPA and pickled eggs – to swelling numbers of annual ‘walkers’. Partners and friends periodically joined in, and the longest-day walk developed its own mythology, fed by anecdotes of ill-fated camping endeavours, gun-toting farmers and expeditions to retrieve sozzled members of the party from ditches miles back with a fading torch.
Later on, the walking became a bigger part of the event, and individual friends started planning alternative routes for the group through the Herts and Beds countryside, sometimes covering 12 or 15 miles between pubs. The original band of colleagues had scattered to other jobs and locations so it became an annual reunion, and when the 21st fell on a weekday, people would take leave and make a day of it.
When they’d had 31 years to get the hang of it, I decided it was time to tag along. I realised within half a mile that I may have waited about a decade too long, as the youngest of the original crew are in their sixties and the pace has slowed to an amicable amble. Extremely enjoyable, but not much preparation for Machu Picchu later this year…
But I soon realised it didn’t matter a hoot. More talking the walk than the reverse (with the exception of a few turbo-charged front-runners), but while the conversation’s good, who cares?! Not to mention the dear old English countryside, still doing its thing… Poppies abloom by the field-full, plumy stands of wheat turning from green to gold, birds trilling and butterflies flitting.
Sadly my brother couldn’t walk it at all, being on crutches with tendonitis, but that marred events for the rest of us less than it might have, since a) he carries it off with more panache than most could muster, b) he was with us at start, lunch and finish, and c) he drove us all to the initial rendezvous and back from the final pub. It also gave me more time with my sister-in-lawlessness, alongside an assortment of half-remembered legends of my childhood and adolescence, many of them 30 years on offering a remarkable collective advertisement for the joys of retirement with health, humour, energy, creativity and a community of good friends.
…Making it essentially a one-day master class, since that is more or less what I’m rehearsing over my seven months of hedonism, of course.