Saturday, May 09, 2009

The oldest Road -- 9

When Frodo and his companions returned home after their epic journey to Mordor, they found things changed. In their absence, Saruman had idustrialized the Shire -- in effect, if you will, constructed a Didcot Power Station where before was untrammeled nature. As the adventurers gazed toward Hobbiton --
...the great chimney rose up before them; and as they drew near the old village across the water, through rows of new mean houses along each side of the road, they saw the new mill in all its frowning and dirty ugliness: a great brick building staddling the stream, which it fouled with a steaming and stinking outflow. All along the Bywater Road every tree had been felled.
Tolkien paints an bleak picture of technology run amok, and by implication the future that awaits us all if we allow ourselve to drift into a disenchanted world.

But our walk along the Ridgeway was a source of hope and encouragement. In 90 miles of walking we saw not a single thing that offended the eye -- with the exception of the Didcot Power Station off in the distance. Rural parts of the walk were delightfully protected from one-off houses. The villages and towns had no strip development, no commercial clutter; each village had a storybook quality, each town a surprising grace and dignity. (Click pic to enlarge.) Yes, it was true that village and town drew electrical power from Didcot, but the conduits were hidden, the environment unblemished. This much was clear; the British have been remarkably successful -- by U. S. standrads -- in preventing the urban from spilling into the countryside. You can see it strikingly on the 1:25,000 maps: Towns are built up densely to a sharply defined border, then nothing. A single step takes you from town to unspoiled countryside, and the web of public footpaths that allows access to the countryside is -- for an American -- astounding. I am sure there are parts of Britain that look like Saruman's baliwick, but we saw none of it on our walk.

Upon arriving home, Frodo and his friends drive away the usurpers and scour the Shire of Saruman's excesses, planting trees and tearing down the technological excrescences. We could do the same if we had the will. In the meantime, we can sing with Frodo his final song:
Still round the corner there may wait
A new road or a secret gate;
And though I oft have passed them by,
A day will come at last when I
Shall take the hidden paths that run
West of the Moon, East of the Sun.