Get lost: A one-step guide to travel

In Travel, Writing on April 19, 2012 at 4:53 pm
Founder's Hall, Royal Holloway, University of ...

Founder's Hall, Royal Holloway, Egham.

At the front edge of one summer, as an uncharacteristic heat settled in over Surrey’s A30, I hatched an ambitious plan. I cracked my window to let the mossy smell of drying English ground creep across my desk, I pushed aside the heaps of paper and notes that had gathered during the long semester, and I scrawled a basic map. At the bottom was the college’s Founder’s Hall and the A30 — my home base, my starting point; at the top, a shape like a lollipop to represent Windsor Castle and the straight, three mile road that leads to it from the south; and between, a wide-open space marked only by the dotted blue lines of my notebook and a series of lightly sketched landmarks, representing the vast expanse of Windsor Great Park. The plan was simple: I would cross the park and walk those five miles – or seven, or nine (nothing on my map was to scale) – until I reached the castle.

I added a few vague boundaries to the map and set out with nothing but that folded sheet of paper in my pocket. Through the southeast gate I went, and started at an easy pace down the wide, tree-lined path. I was used to running along this forested corridor, but I had always stayed between the road and the pointed arms of Virginia Water, the sprawling lake that dominates the southern edge. This time, I would strike clear across the King’s five-thousand acre hunting ground, and I wouldn’t stop until I had found the other side.

The Valley Gardens, Windsor Great Park The vie...

The Valley Gardens, Windsor Great Park

I suppose my first mistake was staying south of the water. I had never seen much more than the edge of the lake, at a point where it reaches its first bend and disappears into a line of trees, so I had always assumed that the way north was clear from there. When I learned I was wrong, and when the water instead continually bent out before me, forcing me to trace its southern undulations again and again, I took it in stride.  I walked among the towering oaks cut with surreal ribbons of sunlight and tried to think of how old they might be. Had they been there when the fortress at Windsor was first built? Were these same trees here when Henry III stalked his game? Had he tripped over their roots and twisted his ankles on the uneven ground? That would make it almost 800 years, I thought, and at such timescales I couldn’t grouse much about a few minutes wasted on a detour. I kept walking.

It took me over an hour to come clear of the lake and finally start on my way north, or what I thought was north – but again I was deceived. I hadn’t correctly remembered the shape of Virginia Water, and what in my head had been fat and ovate like an egg turned out to be long and jagged like the shell of a fallen tree. Without knowing it I had gone east, and by three in the afternoon, roughly three hours from when I began, I came to a tall hedge of rhododendrons and a placard welcoming me to the Valley Gardens.

Deutsch: Windsor Great Park, The Long Walk Eng...

Windsor Great Park, The Long Walk

I had to sit.  I started to wish I’d brought a real map, or at least a snack or a bottle of water, and I almost felt my adventurous spirit beginning to wane. That’s when a boy – I don’t know how old, maybe eight or ten– burst from the rhododendron not twenty feet up the path, darted across the trail, and dove with a rustle into the dense hedge on the opposite side.

“Michael!” a girl called from somewhere in the bush.  “Edward!”

As soon as she said the name, a second boy appeared and sprang across the road, causing the older, more genteel garden-walkers to shake their heads. The boy was gone before any proper reprimands could be launched. Moments later, Michael and Edward’s sister appeared (she must have been their sister, I decided, recognizing from experience her look of sisterly blood-lust) and followed them both into the hedge.

Somewhat shaken from my torpor, I got up and started walking again. Blindly, I followed the hedge maze through thickets and rose patches, down wide green slopes and up gazebo-capped hills. After a time the maze emptied out onto a narrow lane that ran, trapped between two tall fences, behind a line of houses. The lane opened onto a straight path edged with short-trimmed green – an empty polo ground – and this, in turn, joined the long, continuous bend of a country road.

Windsor Castle at sunset as viewed from the Lo...

Windsor Castle at sunset

The sun started going down, the color drained from the sky and took with it the day’s last comfort: warmth. By the time I found my way out –at which point I didn’t care where I went, as long as there was a street, with a sign, and cars that were going somewhere – it was already dark. To this day I don’t know where that was, only that I was beyond the boundaries of my useless map and completely lost. When I first asked the way back to Royal Holloway College, to Egham, the man I asked couldn’t even tell me the direction, and this I found particularly discouraging.

But little by little I found my way. After an hour or so down a deep-troughed road I found a tavern and got pointed the way to Englefield Green. In Englefield I was shown that St. Jude’s Road would take me to Egham hill, and from there I knew I could follow the hill back to the college.

It goes without saying that I never made it to the castle that day, and I saw nothing of the Long Road or Snow Hill, but by the time I got back to my flat and squeezed shut the window to keep out the frigid air, it didn’t seem to matter much. I collapsed on my bed and fell immediately, deeply, and unshakably to sleep.

When I woke up, deep into the morning of the next day, I knew the excursion had gone better than I had planned. Maybe I hadn’t shuffled through a stuffy tour of the castle, and maybe I hadn’t walked the Thames in Windsor or checked off a list of important landmarks. I did all that eventually — but in the meantime I’d seen much more, and I hadn’t needed a tour guide or Rick Steves or even a map to get me there.

Now whenever I find myself someplace new I throw out the map right from the start. Then I dive headlong into the hedge and get myself good and lost.

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  1. Maybe you woke up to annoying banging on your window? tehe. Nice flashback to the UK days! Good job, Gooood job!

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