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On the March in England

MAGGIE THATCHER's England is on the march. The country is sweltering under temperatures rivaling those of the record-breaking heat-wave year of 1976. The peak of the summer holiday season is approaching.

Yet a visitor's first impression is of great activity. Traffic is bumper to bumper even in once-bucolic villages. Most roads seem in the process of rebuilding. New houses are going up, and cathedrals and other national treasures are being restored. New railways are being opened, as are new or newly renovated stations. Fortunately, the House of Windsor is numerous enough to keep the burden of all those ribbon-cuttings from falling too heavily on any one pair of royal shoulders.

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England today seems a place, in short, where a lot of Progress seems to be going on. I know this because I, too, have been on the march in England, enjoying a ``walking holiday.''

Our itinerary took us into Thomas Hardy country. We took just a nick out of Dorset, where we visited his thatched-cottage birthplace a few miles outside of Dorchester. Yet in another sense, the spirit of his novels was with us all over the West Country.

Put aside for a moment whatever misgivings you may have about Hardy's grimly deterministic world view; the overwhelming impression I have of his novels is of an England on the march in another sense. His characters are forever trudging here, trudging there. They encounter one another outside little map-speck villages, reached by roads barely recognizable as such. These threads woven together made a social fabric in danger of being blown away by the roaring engines of Victorian industrialization, just as the delicate traceries of a spider's web are in danger of a new householder's new broom.

In ``The Return of the Native'' Hardy describes a ``faint foot-track'' running along a certain ridge: ``Those who knew it well called it a path; and, while a mere visitor would have passed it unnoticed even by day, the regular haunters of the heath were at no loss for it at midnight. ... To a walker practised in such places a difference between impact on maiden herbage, and on the crippled stalks of a slight footway, is perceptible through the thickest boot or shoe.''

Ah, but such subtleties can be beyond the American traveler accustomed to having all roads marked and numbered and identified by points of the compass.

At one point I was on the edge of the little town of Lynton, on the north Devon coast, seeking a footpath to a well-known abbey a few miles away. I had found my way to a juncture with the (unmarked) station road, and my next landmark was something called the Old Dairy. Seeing no signs at all, I was sorely tempted to trek back to my hotel for tea.

But as I stood there puzzling I heard a faint sound of mooing. The dairy, evidently, was ``ancient'' old, rather than ``former'' old, as I'd thought. I followed the mooing, found the coastal path, and soon was heroically high above the blue waters of the Bristol Channel. How often in this busy world can we find our way by following the mooing of cows?

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Another walk, from the village of North Wootton near Glastonbury in Somerset, reminded us of another lesson of the road: how places can mean what we choose to make them mean.

``What is that over there? Some sort of prehistoric monument?'' one of our group asked. A shape like a fat spike was visible in the distance through the haze. It was Glastonbury Tor, the ``mountain'' crowned with the ruined tower of the monastery of St. Michael. According to our guidebook, the area is ``agreeably dominated'' by views of the Tor.

We hadn't noticed it before because we had forgotten to look for it. But those caught up in Glastonbury's Arthurian tradition might have every reason to let the Tor be a major landmark. A local folklore booklet reports the legend that one Melwas, ``king of the Summer Land,'' abducted Guinevere from King Arthur and carried her off to the ``Isle of Glass'' (Yniswitrin, or Glastonbury) until Gildas the Wise made peace between the kings and got Guinevere returned to Arthur. The booklet goes on to say that the archaeological discovery of remains of a meat-eating community on the Tor ``suggests that there may be some substance in the tradition,'' and amiably adds, ``The summit might have been an excellent place in which to hold a distinguished hostage.''

Well, why not believe in such a tale, and let a sense of the romance of Avalon lighten one's step along the dusty paths of summer?

Distance is relative, and the treks that took Hardy's ramblers all day can be covered in a few minutes by today's automobiles. One would not resist such progress. But there is an absolute value to the distances we conquer with our own feet.

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