A discovery made whilst walking along the Pilgrim’s Way, a re-appreciation of the in-between, and lessons for how to deal with the oddity of pandemic-skewed time.
by Julia Lasica
Abruptly, for about ten seconds, we lost sight of the path we were meant to be following. It had taken us from Southwark Cathedral to Bermondsey, on through the southern suburbs of London and out along the banks of the Thames. In its entire length, it was the Pilgrim’s Way: my companion and I had been walking along a section of it, hoping to reach Dartford before dark and to continue on to Otford the next day. But, as it guided us over the Dartford marshes and brought us up to the walled edge of an industrial complex, our final destination for that day, it vanished.
We stumbled over our feet, confused. The path had disappeared into a tangle of dirt and grass as we came to the end of the wetlands, and there was no clear way with which to cross over into the area of scrap yards and recycling centres ahead. For a few moments, as we searched about for the path’s continuation, we lingered. On one side, darkness seeped out over the low, boggy land; on the other, the shouting of workers and the sounds of reversing trucks dumping their loads on to the ground rose up into the air. We stood in the middle, lit up by the blue lights of the complex ahead, our feet still sinking slightly into the wetness of the marshy earth.
Soon enough, we relocated the path. It picked up again as a slab of pavement, making a way for us through the walls and into the network of industry beyond. We continued our walk, following the Pilgrim’s Way that night and the next day, passing into more and more rural landscapes, exchanging inner-city high streets for country lanes, suburban roads for tracks through autumn woods. The pace of our journey was quick: we mentally ticked off villages and place names as we passed them, measuring the distance we had covered, how many miles we had left, whether we would make it before sunset. We pressed on, eager to complete the first section of the pilgrimage route.
But there were momentary lulls in the rush of our journey. Every now and then, I would register with surprise the same pause I had felt back in Dartford, between the marsh and the industrial park. I felt it as we walked into an underpass beneath the M25. Beyond and behind lay expanses of green farmland; above, endless streams of cars sped across the tarmac. But inside the hollow structure, the outside world was muffled: we quietly took in the imaginings of graffiti artists, their bright colours, words, symbols, and marks spilling across the grey walls. I felt it too as we walked into the footpaths which thread secret ways between terraced houses, gardens, and private bits of land. Standing on tiptoes, we could see people working and resting on this side and that. In-between the hum of their busy, productive lives, the footpath hid us away in anonymity and seclusion amid hanging ivy and ever-green branches.
As the walk continued, I began to actively enjoy passing through those in-betweens. It was a different type of ‘in-between’ to that which I was used to in my daily life: there was no awkwardness attached to it, no fear of being caught out and unable to fit in. Instead, this in-between offered a sense of perspective. Looking to my left and right, I could see different rhythms of life, different ways to live. I was surrounded by contrast and liveliness. But it wasn’t overwhelming: instead, the secret space of the in-between encapsulated me, offering a quiet space to think and compare, guarded from the pressures of life by the simple barrier of the fence.
It was a surprising experience. The state of being ‘in-between’ has never been particularly enjoyable, something which the past year has done more than throw into sharp relief. In-between lockdowns, in-between past freedom and the much-awaited liberation of the future, in-between being a child and an adult: it isn’t a state which has carried associations of quiet reflection for me, but rather of frustration at the frozen world around me. Even before this current crisis, it was a mode of being to be tolerated at best and preferably only fleetingly occupied.
Yet, as I walked along those alleys and boundaries, I paced out and reshaped my understanding of the ‘in-between’. Houses and rivers, gardens and sports fields, were replaced with the preceding pre-covid years and the oncoming post-pandemic time: I peered into the past, comparing it to my vision of the future, thinking about what I had learned and which challenges still lay ahead. Through the external landscape of the walk, I began to see the vantage point which I occupied. I was in a place for pausing and collecting myself, a place for growing and contemplation. These spots of reflective in-betweenness weren’t just found between reeds and concrete walls but also here, now, in the timeline of our disrupted lives.
Walking into Otford at the end of that long weekend, I had learned several things. First and foremost, I came to understand that covering 60km without any prior training in two days was no mean feat: perhaps it would have been a good idea to break in my brand-new walking boots before setting off on the journey. But I also carried away a quieter lesson, one which I would return to and mull over in the difficult moments which inevitably arose throughout the course of the following, pandemic-ridden months. An appreciation for the in-between rose from out of that pilgrimage, an appreciation for the pocket of suspended time we find ourselves in now: here, there is space enough to reflect away from the rush of normal life, and to prepare for the future which lies just around the corner.