So this was how it was going to go: Culham to Reading, staying overnight in Wallingford. Two days along England’s alimentary canal. Two days running with Eliot’s ‘strong brown god’. Two days of summer dancing.
Culham station was a void. A four-quarters emptiness. Once part of a working network, it now obeyed a dead logic. It was out on its own, unmoored. Nothing moved. Nobody waited. Nobody got off but us. The pub next-door offered bed and breakfast, but who for? For a time we walked in hot circles, trying to find our way out of the station’s magnetic circle. Eventually we walked up and out, into the thick-phallus shadows of Didcot power station, a henge at the centre of the day’s circuit. From the crest of the station’s well we passed along a trunk road, heavy with willowherb and knapweed, down to the Thames and a different emptiness.
We find the river at Culham Lock. This is the heat of the day, the meadows either side of the river parched golden, exhaling hot, dusty breath. The memory holds little; the legs a little more: river and sky, sky and river; golden meadows, golden wheat. Chin-high avenues of teasel, dense thickets of nettles, parsley and hemlock. Distance is measured as time, the sameness of the stretching land refusing purchase. Distance is measured in kite-territories, the birds appearing from tree-crowns, breaking the skin of heat and silence with piercing whistles. Where are we? There is the occasional massive house, set so far back across bright lawns that all scale is lost. Old, monstrous capital: absurd and grotesque. Nothing moves. At Clifton Hampden we enter the second dead pub of the day. This one at least has an attendant. We’re told it’s only open for bed and breakfast. For who? Back at the river, we stand on the Gothic pile of George Gilbert Scott’s bridge. A pike hangs in the river’s breeze. This is England.
We reach Wallingford just after 7. Walled-town-by-the-old-way. History trapped in flood-marked stone. A Waitrose. A fist of pubs: beards, whey-necks, ink. Our pub rooms could be anywhere. Above the bed: “Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass…It’s about learning to dance in the rain.” We join the necks chasing the blackout deep into the early-hours. This too is England.
Rain falls during the night.
The pub sign croaks in the breeze.
We dream of fireworks.
Sunday is ablaze. Wet stone wields blade-light. Figures from the night before hog the supermarket aisles. An improvised church atrium teems, snug between two buildings. Coffee shops. What did we do before coffee? Wallingford tilts riverwards: we obey the close shuffle – back to the water, back to the humming golden welcome of the riparian wilderness. The first five miles are slow. The river widens almost imperceptibly. We pass a knot of islands, wade through stands of geese and goose shit; pass beneath a vast railway bridge, where the brickwork swirls as if turned in a kiln; on an outer buttress, a necklaced ash stump looks for all the world like a beheaded, supplicant Queen. The day becomes a beautiful blur; a river-lit shambles of quiet joy. At Moulsford we feed a hissing swan; at Goring & Streatley we feed ourselves; at Pangbourne we’re surrounded by multitudes, spread out under the sky; beyond Pangbourne we’re alone again, alone with the steady pulse of the water, the steady pulse of the blood.
Then came England.
We were pushed for time. At Purley the path left the water, winding through the hollow roads of a riverside newbuild. On the map, Tilehurst station was within touching distance, but we overshot, decided to push into Reading – one last hurtle, a flushing of the system. But somehow, map-blind, we’d badly miscalculated, setting our sights on Reading West, not Reading Central. The hurtle became a headlong rush. Onward, onward, along the Oxford Road, England roaring in our ears: this is where all the people were, the emptiness of the preceding 24-hours came to this: this tumult, this dreamtime of abundance: a church of the holy brethren, doors open to the street; a minister, gagging on tongues, proclaiming god to the skies, the windows liquid in the heat of it; CHICKEN; a standing wreck of a pub-cum-church pulsing with afrobeat; small brown parcels for money; sunken-eyes at above-shop windows, thrown open, all thrown open, pouring music into the street; POLSKI SKLEP; the ridiculous fleshy over-exuberance of fruit stalls; Bengali tailors; MAMA AFRICA; sandalled feet; heat, heat, heat. Pushing, rushing, thighs burning, the blood thundering, wanting to scream to the heavens: England, this is England, this is ENGLAND.