As before, we set off in silence. But the street wasn’t silent. Metal clanged, hammer falls shot from scaffold boards. Men in boots and hard hats to-ed and fro-ed from doorway to truck. Perhaps the earlier sun brought with it earlier people. Not long risen, its cotton-yellow light hovered about us. Flaked paintwork stuck sharply out on the facades of aged buildings and the scent of fresh sawn wood rode the morning air.
We made our way under the red bricks of Fish Market arches, towards the outer harbour and Sunny Sands. The arches are part of the harbour viaduct, and have stood there since 1843. Back then the harbour was a busy gateway to Europe, with many passengers and much freight passing through. That morning, we were the only ones there. It was silent but for our footfall as we passed.
While our bodies moved freely, our words did not. In our shared silence there is often an unease at first. We are not used to it, and want to fill it with something – usually words, no matter how trivial. But we did not fill it. Instead, we faced the silence we made which, as John Cage observes, was really no silence at all. And into it, step by step, we went on.
Skirting the harbour eastward, we passed a group of men. They spoke together in French. Perhaps they worked at sea. On the horizon it is often possible to see the French coastline from where we were. As the crow flies it’s barely forty miles away. But there was no sign of it that day. We followed some steep steps up the cliff from the harbour, those French voices slowly lost to distance.
Higher up, the wind had some force. It tore at the surf and brought its rhythmic crash to our ears. Still, the tide was low. Boats in the harbour leant on their keels and Sunny Sands was paper-flat, scattered with walkers and dogs. At rest in the spindled hedges were sparrows. On the teasel, wind-shook, another small bird sat – just a silhouette. From its tiny beak came a spill of tones that moments later were returned in kind across the wind and tumbling seas.
Our uneasy un-silence grew more easy as we went. Through our quiet, the space usually taken by words was left clear. And in that clear space we met what was concrete: our breathing bodies, and the moving world of feather, metal, wheel, and wing, that holds them. Our attentions shifted. We no longer felt the absense of words, but the presence of ourselves as bodies in a shared world. In that shift the wordlessness that stranded us from each other, that felt so uneasy, could become a place in which we stood (and walked) together more fully.
In this way we went on, together in the wordless space we created. The night before our walk it had rained heavily. At Copt Point we found the path ahead too thick with mud and so turned back. Instead we climbed up to the Martello Tower just above us. Built in 1806, it is one of seventy-four that were constructed along the Kent and East Sussex coastline to defend against offshore invasion. Today its great round walls stand empty, a common passing place for walkers and their dogs. From where it sits high on the hill, you can see the harbour in the east right round to the tip of Dover in the west.
Looping back through Varne Place we broke our silence amid the houses to read two short poems, woven through with chatter from a lively bunch of sparrows. One poem spoke to our prior experience at the muddy impasse:
Wrong turnings, doubling back, pauses and digressions, all contribute to the dislocation of a persistent self-interest.
There seemed to be parallels between these words and my own experience of walking in this volunteered silence. Walking is an outward act – of moving through a landscape. But it can also be an inner act – of moving the attention from the mental world into the physical world. And when the latter occurs, that shift in attention, a shift also takes place in our mode of being.
The walk almost at an end, we found ourselves on the cliffs above the harbour. Steep steps took us down below the terraced roofline of The Stade, where one home’s back window hung open to the fresh morning air. The smell of bacon sarnies flowed out from it – a household preparing for the day. In the stillness, everything was in motion. In the silence, we walked more fully together. Back at last where we began, we felt ready to warm ourselves with food and tea.
If you would like to join us for a silent morning walk, please do come along. It’s entirely free, and we’d love to see you there. The next one is on Friday 3rd March. We meet in the foyer of Folkestone Quarterhouse at 8.30am. Walks last for one hour and end back where they begin. Dogs and children are welcome. You can find out more at https://www.quarterhouse.co.uk/whats-on/in-praise-of-walking