In harvest-time, harvest-folk, servants and all, should make, all together, good cheer in the hall; And fill out the black bowl of blythe to their song, O! let them be merry all harvest-time long.
It is August. Here in England our feathered migrant visitors are fidgety. Resident counterparts, their summer moult almost complete, are beginning to feed fervently, preparing for leaner times. The summer sun has begun to retreat. Nights are growing colder.
As the early morning sunshine grows ever weaker, mists hang in hollows on the fields outside the village. Dew glistens on gossamer webs along hedgerows, and cooling breezes now carry ethereal seeds of thistledown and willowherb. From high in the canopy of those sycamores at the foot of my garden the first tired leaves are breaking free, tracing a helical descent onto the lawn.
As it is with our visiting warblers, chiffchaffs and others, it’s at this time of the year that I too begin to grow restless as a sense of wanderlust begins to enter my marrow and permeate my blood. As days grow shorter and leaves turn from green to gold I find myself staring longingly out of the window, through the trees and to the fields beyond.
It’s around this time that I begin to mentally prepare for a pilgrimage, one I’ve conducted countless times before.
September blow soft ’til fruit be in loft.Thomas Tusser’s Farming Calendar
My epic trek has traditionally begun on the twenty-third day of September. By this time, moisture-laden air will hang around tree trunks, and toadstools will be magically appearing in ever-growing numbers, pushing through thickening leaf litter.
It is on that day that my predecessor began his own heroic quest, and it’s in his footsteps that I’ll be tracing my own journey.
I’ll begin in the early evening and follow a well-trodden route, one that’ll initially take me westwards, downhill from the sleepy village and onto the neighbouring farmland.
As always, on day one I’ll travel the open shire-road, and from there onto ‘green hill country’, south then south-east to where, amidst a stand of birch trees I’ll have supper.
My repast complete, I’ll set off once more, walking only a few more miles before spending my first night under the stars, in a patch of fir-wood by a stream.
By this time I’ll have travelled about fifteen miles.
Over the ensuing days I’ll continue eastwards, traversing inhospitable marsh, dense, primitive woodland, and wide, open barrow downs. By carefully and meticulously following the route of the one who first travelled this path with his small fellowship, I’ll reach the village of Bree on the twenty-ninth day of September. There I’ll spend the night at the inn, which goes by the name of ‘The Prancing Pony‘.
As you’re no doubt now aware, my ‘pilgrimage’ – undertaken many times before – is one conducted through the pages of a book, and will take me to Middle Earth. The book is one about which the Sunday Times once said:
The English-speaking world is divided into those who have read The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit and those who are going to read them.
My own book is, of course ‘The Lord of the Rings‘.
I’ll commence my ‘journey’ in the late September evening, just as Frodo had done.
‘Well, now we’re off at last!’ said Frodo. They shouldered their packs and took up their sticks, and walked round the corner to the west side of Bag End. ‘Good-bye!’ said Frodo, looking at the dark blank windows. He waved his hand, and then turned and (following Bilbo, if he had known it) hurried after Peregrin down the garden-path. They jumped over the low place in the hedge at the bottom and took to the fields, passing into the darkness like a rustle in the grasses.
No shapeless, wide-brimmed hat, voluminous backpack nor stout, iron-shod stave will be necessary. I will, however, furnish myself with an Atlas of fifty-one beautifully-drawn maps which chart Frodo’s odyssey.
So equipped, I will navigate my own armchair-bound quest from Bag End’s round front door to the smoke-clad summit of Mount Doom – and home again.
The maps have been lovingly produced by Tolkein enthusiast, Barbara Strachey. Collectively they follow the route taken by the hobbit, Frodo, and other key characters. Each map faithfully draws on Tolkein’s original maps, augmenting them further to reflect the clear and detailed descriptions in the Books’ text.
Extensive notes accompany each map, explaining special points of interest, and adding text references where necessary.
So then, sometime in the evening on the twenty-third of next month I’ll be in my fireside chair. The Lord of the Rings will be on my lap, Barbara Strachey’s wonderful book close to hand. There’ll no doubt be a large, steaming mug of tea within reach, too.
There, seated comfortably, I’ll begin my journey yet again. Meanwhile outside, September winds may indeed ‘blow soft‘, bringing down more of the sycamore’s leaves in a spiralling cascade onto my garden.