It all began in a graveyard.
(Which is a pretty good opening line, you have to admit.)
I had decided to walk to town instead of taking the bus yesterday afternoon. After dodging cars and buses and men who were muttering to themselves (is this a thing in England? because it’s weird), I spotted a shortcut next to an old church that looked like it was going the direction I wanted to be heading. I ducked into the little alley and emerged in an old, old, old graveyard. And just like that, all the sounds of the city disappeared, and I could hear birds singing.
It was like magic.
I could see a small tree beside one of the graves. It was curved at the trunk, so the branches reached out to cover the grave, like a protective embrace. Of course I immediately was thinking of all sorts of stories for this tree and the grave.
I walked out of the graveyard and into the little park, which is what I’d been looking for. But the park was swallowed in city noises, and though there were pretty corners it just wasn’t peaceful. I realized I miss the fields and trees and silence of Georgia.
So I decided I’d had enough of the city. It was time to catch a train.
Today I set out to Mortimer, a small town about ten minutes out of Reading. From there I’d heard you can take a pretty awesome country road to some old Roman ruins (including an little amphitheater), which was pretty appealing. I went to the train station at about noon and got my ticket.
As I was preparing to get my ticket, a guy about my age approached me and said he was trying to get to some city and was two pounds short the ticket cost (showed me his money), and he had to get there. Could I spare some change, any change? I considered for a second, because I wasn’t sure if I was being scammed and he was going to like grab my wallet as soon as I pulled it out and then apparate away. But there were three things in his favor: 1) I’m pretty sure most people don’t pin me as American until I speak, which meant he wasn’t trying to take advantage of me because I was a tourist, 2) He seemed pretty desperate, 3) I am a sucker and probably would have given him money anyway. So yeah, I paid him and he was super grateful. I thought this might be my climax of my day, but I was wrong.
Resuming the Tale:
I arrived in the Mortimer station, and was a little dismayed that not only was there no clearly marked trail waiting for me (which I’d expected to find from some blog entries online), but the town itself was a little over a mile away. I decided to try to go to town and then locate the trail from there, and set off. It wasn’t a bad walk–mostly uphill, with a lot of fast cars zooming by, but there was a pretty church and fields.
I got to the town and had just located a map of the trails (which I took a picture of) when the temperature dropped about ten degrees, the sun disappeared and it began raining ice. I got under a tree and stashed my camera quickly. The sun had been getting low, I thought, and I wanted to get back to the train station, so I figured I’d head back to the station, study the map and try again another day. But after about two minutes of walking, the ice stopped, the sun came out, and it got warm again. I hesitated, checked my watch–it was about 2:00–and decided to go ahead and attempt to at least find the beginning of the trail.
I walked for a long time in the direction I thought the map had indicated. Eventually I found a footpath, which lead me through some fields and then dropped me randomly in a little neighborhood. I traced my steps back, and decided that it was probably time to make my way to the station, as the sun really was getting low and I didn’t want to walk in the dark.
So I trekked back, enjoying the evening light and the fields and trying to tune out the noisy cars with my iPod. At last I was to the station… only to find out the ticket office was closed. Only to find the ticket office closed at 1 PM on weekdays, to be exact.
This was something I had not anticipated.
I looked around for a self-serve, but could find nothing. I hadn’t even thought to buy a return ticket because I assumed I could just by it from this end. I’m not sure why I thought that, because now that I think about it I’ve always bought both tickets on my way out in previous trips abroad. But I am an ignorant American, and this was my first trip by train on my own.
I texted Hilary (the hero of our tale), a fellow study abroad student from the US, and told her I thought I might have stranded myself. I was thinking I might call on my dad’s UK friend, but of course I didn’t have his number on me. I also considered about trying to get on the train and praying no one asked for my ticket, since it was such a short ride, but aside from the twenty pound fine I might get I didn’t think I could face the humiliation of being a Rule Breaker. However, Hilary immediately rushed to the rescue. She had a class until six, but we agreed that she could take the train out with two return tickets, and then we’d head back to Reading together.
I had about two and a half hours to kill. I considered going to a church that wasn’t far off and seeing if I could sneak in, but I decided I needed tea rather badly and I was too shy to see if the church was locked anyway. So back to town it was.
Fast forward about a half hour, and I am standing before a pub I’d passed about four times already that day. I put my hand on the door-handle and suddenly had a moment of revelation: The only people I had seen in or around the pub all day were men. I hesitated. Was this some sort of men-only pub? Was it an unspoken rule that women were not allowed? It was called The Horse & Groom. Did that mean male grooms only? Men and horses?
I considered walking further into town, but the way I’d been already hadn’t had any other places to sit and rest. I was tired and cold and afraid of losing my nerve. There was no way I could last two hours sitting in the freezing cold (with intermittent sputters of rain/ice) without possibly freezing to death or making my mother very cross.
“So what if it’s a pub just for men?” I thought to myself. “This is a new age! Women can go wherever they want! Poo on them and their groom-ness!” Actually, my thoughts were more like, “Stop being an idiot, Alyssa, and just go in. Oh my gosh it’s like I have to deal with a tiny girl all the time!”
So I steeled myself and bravely marched inside. Sure enough, there was a group of middle-aged men around the bar. They had been talking but they stopped and stared at me as I approached. I made eye contact with the owner of the place–a nice looking man with glasses–opened my mouth… And immediately forgot what to say. I stammered, “Um, can I, like… sit somewhere? Or something?” He gave me a kind look like, “Aww the poor lost American girl.” Then he told me to make myself comfortable. I crawled to a tiny table in the corner with my tail between my legs.
After trying to muster my dignity by taking out a novel and my purse, I approached the bar again and asked for some tea. He very kindly brewed me a little pot. I settled down and read for the next two hours, eavesdropping occasionally on the various middle-aged men who came and went. They talked about football and complained about Reading and swapped stories about their tractors. Some of them brought their sheep dogs in (including this one beauty, all black with brown feet, whose head came to above my waist and who let me touch his head in greeting before returning to his owner (who was on crutches)). It was quite comfortable–except for my nagging doubt that I wasn’t supposed to be there. I felt several of them eye me like I was an oddity. However, I had no where else to go, and the owner obviously didn’t mind. I would have been happy to talk to some of them, but I was far too shy and rapidly getting more exhausted.
I got a text from Hilary saying she was out of class and running back to her room for money. I paid for my tea and set out for the station. It was quite dark now, with no street lights on the roads. There was pretty constant traffic, which was good because the sidewalk was pitch black and about as even as Virginia roads (that is, not even at all). Very beautiful. When there was a gap in cars, the sky lit up with stars. I passed several people along the way (several of whom had the sense to be carrying a flashlight), which made me feel fairly safe.
I got back to the train station, settled in a doorway where the building would block the harsh wind and read for about an hour while I waited for Hilary (who had to get her money, catch a bus, buy tickets, and catch the train, which ran every half hour). Needless to say, by the time she arrived I was half frozen, but eternally grateful to be rescued. We caught the train back (they didn’t check our tickets, curse them), and I grabbed dinner at the station, and then we hopped on a bus (amid more ice-rain and another merciless wind) and finally, finally got back to our hall. I went to wash my hands in the cold water faucet (because they were blue and I was afraid of shocking them with the hot water), and the frigid water was pleasantly warm, which is probably a sign that my fingers will fall off tonight.
So! A fun misadventure. I am quite ready not to move for a long time. But I do want to find that trail, so maybe I will go back… with a return ticket.