Olly Mann has embraced country living, but leading the charge of the village ramblers himself might prove to be several steps too far.
Have you ever wanted to help someone, but reluctantly concluded your good intentions are outweighed by a crippling lack of ability? I’m imagining an occasion such as when an elderly lady is struggling to shove her shopping trolley in an overhead locker, but you know if you help her out, you’d dislocate your shoulder. So you stay guiltily silent.
Or perhaps a Japanese tourist approaches you for directions: he’s desperately trying to deduce how to cycle from Holborn to Cornwall. You don’t have the linguistic chops to inform him the two destinations are entirely uncommutable, so you run away. That sort of thing. I’m currently in that kind of pickle.
"The equestrian lifestyle holds about as much interest to me as enduring an all-day marathon of Keeping Up With the Kardashians."
It began three years ago, when we moved to the country. I say “country”; our property has views of a field in both directions, so it feels deceptively rural. In reality, it’s a precarious remnant of green-belt protectionism—one box-tick away from becoming a sprawling suburban housing estate. But while planning laws continue to safeguard an aesthetic agricultural buffer around the city perimeter, it certainly feels like the country.
There were two reasons we came here: one, we could afford a three-bedroom house (trading up a two-bed flat in London); and two, my partner wanted to lease a horse nearby. For the record, the equestrian lifestyle holds about as much interest to me as enduring an all-day marathon of Keeping Up With the Kardashians, but the unspoken deal was sweet: “Allow me to lease a horse, Olly Mann, and I shall bear you a child.” And I really wanted a baby.
So we left the cultural comforts of Zone 2 and became residents of a picturesque Hertfordshire village, where there’s nowhere to buy a pint of milk on a Sunday, but there are no less than four churches. There’s also an accompanying parish newsletter, featuring scintillating updates on the availability of allotment spaces, the takings of the bring-and-buy sale, and what the WI have been up to (as far as I can tell, taking the longest possible time to organise a Christmas trip to see Jersey Boys). Page one contains a diary of forthcoming events—baby yoga, pensioner bingo and, on the first Sunday of each month, the “village walk”.
Organised rambling, unlike horse-riding, appeals to me. I need to do more exercise, I enjoy exploring local woodlands and byways, and I like meeting different generations in a godless setting. So one Sunday I chanced my arm and joined the group, and was delighted to discover an amenable collection of 20 or so fellow villagers of different ages and abilities, united under the competent leadership of a retiree called John.
John is the kind of man you’d trust to get you out of a burning building and back to the pub for lunchtime. He appears to know all routes around the village off by heart, but probably just follows his internal compass: despite his advancing years, he retains a Baden-Powellesque instinct for orientation. He can effortlessly ad-lib an optimum route, taking in the seasonal flora and fauna, and avoiding muddy footpaths. It’s hard to imagine the village walk without John.
"Had satnav not been invented, I'd probably never have left the house in my adult life."
So last month’s parish newsletter came as a bombshell. The headline: John is leaving the village. “The tradition of the Village Walk was begun at least 35 years ago by the Village Society,” he wrote. “But the tradition will end if a volunteer does not take over from me.”
Suddenly, a dilemma! On the one hand, I felt compelled to throw my hat into the ring: I’m a passionate advocate of the walks and (after three years of residency) the village, I’m exactly the right kind of age (35) to make both old and young participants feel welcome. Also, I well understand that, as the village fills up with commuting ex-Londoners like me, this is precisely the sort of activity that should be retained. But, but… I’m chronically, debilitatingly dyspraxic.
It’s not that I have no sense of direction—it’s worse than that. I typically head in the diametrically opposite direction than I intend to, unless guided point-by-point by satellite. Had satnav not been invented, I’d probably never have left the house in my adult life. So the idea of leading a group of ramblers is utterly terrifying.
I could learn a handful of routes by committing landmarks to memory, but what if I encountered a fallen tree across a footpath, or a road closed by a water leak? I’d end up leading a group of senior citizens and their grandchildren to their watery graves.
So I’ve remained silent, and I’m relying on someone else to step forward and keep this endearing tradition alive. I feel ashamed: what if nobody takes the initiative? The monthly walk will be consigned to history, along with at least two of the village’s pubs, which have been turned into residences for urbanite émigrés. But I also feel relieved: this way, no innocent ramblers will die before their time.
Sometimes, you just have to stay quiet.