Walking with Monique, September 12th 2013: Beacons

Note: I think what I am trying to articulate below, not very rigorously, is something about the significance and vulnerability of the unseen gesture – the ‘beacon’ that burns without necessarily being registered by another. This method of thinking-walking is about letting an idea emerge, feeling it on one’s skin, under one’s skin and through the experience of the route. The pursuit of the idea might be continued in other ways, and probably should be.


Monique Besten invited people to walk with her symbolically over her journey from Amsterdam to the Nomadic Village, 2013 in France. Each chose a day and gave her something to walk with. I left it a little late, but Christian French was kindly willing to share his day.

Monique’s account of the day can be found here:

a soft armour: Day 29

We took ‘beacons’ as a theme, partly inspired by the ‘beacons’ I carried for the Sideways festival.

My route on Sept 12 linked three non-existent beacons.

1)      Exeter Guildhall, the site of a Jubilee Beacon in 2012

2)      Beacon Heath, formerly site of a beacon, possibly as far back as Roman times.

3)      Killerton Estate, the site of a Jubilee Beacon in 2012

Beacon 1

The Beacon here seems to have been symbolic, rather than functional. It was, the guide tells me, a small beacon on the balcony, that could be seen from across the road, ‘or from the air – a little calor gas thing’. He shows me around – the cells, the hall, the glass cases filled with silver. It strikes me that many things here have something of the same symbolic, gestural nature. I am shown a hat which stands in for a hat which stands in for a hat that belonged to Henry VII, but is too delicate and threadbare for ceremonial occasions. The hat (twice removed) is sometimes brought out for functions, and I suppose it stands in (thrice removed) for the head of the monarch, and so for Royal approval.

As I walk along Sidwell Street, I am thinking about beacons and whether they need to be seen or not. I pass a poster on a church wall, showing a map of the UK with blazing lights scattered over it like sunflowers. The poster reads: ‘Let His light shine all over this land’. I remember a childhood hymn, bidding us to ‘shine with a clear, clear light. Like a little candle burning in the night’. Then I think about the idea of ‘hiding your light under a bushel’. This is supposed to be a bad thing:

‘No man, when he hath lighted a candle, covereth it with a vessel, or putteth it under a bed; but setteth it on a candlestick, that they which enter in may see the light.

For nothing is secret, that shall not be made manifest.’ Luke 16-17, King James version.

Perhaps I am too romantic about beautiful, wasteful gestures, but there seems to me something lovely about the light that is unseen, and is not made manifest.

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Beacon 2

Beacon Heath is mainly houses these days. Monique texts me: ‘I am walking to le puy en valey today, guided by mountaintops. Eating grapes and wild blackberries and other fruits. The season of abundance.’ I eat some sandwiches in a playing field, having texted her that there are no beacons and no heath.

But what is less obvious is that there are green paths leading out from the estate, up onto the hill beyond. However, when I start along these paths, they seem to me more like back alleys, remote, but still belonging to the urban estate. Here, the back of my neck prickles and I keep turning around. I am frustrated with myself. I know Monique would not hesitate to walk along these paths, but such instincts have served me well in the past, and I cannot do it.

Instead, I decide to keep to lanes, no matter how small. I walk up Cheynegate Lane, which is remote enough, enclosed with green and leading steeply uphill. At the top, I am rewarded with a view out to the estuary and the sea beyond.

At the end of the lane, gaining courage, I have resolved to take a footpath, this time a ‘proper country one’. However, it is blocked and overgrown. I set off along the edge of the field. Half way down, I find a gate into the old path. It has not been used for a long time, except by some farm vehicle. It is deeply rutted, muddy despite the dry summer, and hidden by bushes. If I twist my ankle, no one will find me (though I do have a phone). My phone, then, would play the role of a beacon – this time a beacon I would most certainly hope would send its light, its sound, its message clearly across space to someone who would come to find me.

The second beacon then, is one that protects, that speaks with urgency and must be seen.

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Beacon 3

I am now elated. It is rare for me to walk in the country alone and now I am truly beyond the city. I walk through Poltimore and along the lanes to Killerton.

The hedges supply me with blackberries, which I eat gratefully, as I am thirsty. I pass a house which has quails’ eggs for sale at the gate, and I take some, paying my £1.50 into the slot. A car stops, with a family inside and they offer to give me a lift up to the estate, ‘It’s a long walk on a hot day’. I refuse, but their kindness is cheering.

The last mile seems long, and it has indeed become a hot day. The last beacon, then, is the one that you walk towards. Here, the knoll of trees that I know lies behind Killerton House, a place I have visited many times before, though never on foot.

It is strange to arrive here, only to stop for a drink, then turn away again and make my way to the bus stop. I turn and look back. An old man is making his way across the field, towards the house. He looks around as I take a photograph, but he is almost lost in all that green.

I have nothing very interesting to say about this arrival. It was a conservative destination. The cup of tea is pleasant.


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(Beacon 4)

The last beacon is the one you light for someone else, a gesture.

Monique is making a beacon from materials found on the road. I make one, too.

Mine is a tiny beacon, made from a blown quail’s egg, holding a cut-down birthday cake candle and strung on a twist of silver wire. I hang it in the window for an instant. An almost, but not-quite-invisible beacon. It blinks out into the night, for Monique, who cannot see it from France. Which takes me back to Beacon 1.

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