PLANETBUILDING BLUES: The Latest Adventure

I couldn’t remember a worse start to a New Year. January had begun so well with an offer to work on Mars! This was from meeting an old terraforming contact the month before and the project was about that: making Mars habitable for man. The organisation interested were in Berlin with contacts with ESA (European Space Agency.) Brilliant! Or so it seemed but there was the major hurdle of a quote.

Then days after that I got the news an old schoolfriend was dying of terminal spinal cancer.

The quote wasn’t the only problem with Mars. Skype refused to work and that couldn’t have impressed German thoroughness. They had Skype and there was a communication problem anyway with only one of their 2 emails working: the one in a secretary’s flat.

The quote was sent in and nothing was heard. So I had to persist to learn that they’d found someone locally for the project that could have got my planetbuilding going again. Not only was it a lousy result but I could learn nothing from this, because the reason might have been Skype rather than the quote.

At least I could now take action regarding visiting my friend if he was up for it and flashed off an email to that effect.

3 hours later his wife told me he’d died.

The next morning I took a walk after dropping the kids off at school to clear my head knowing that there was a School Escort coffee morning at the end of the walk for refreshment and maybe an opportunity – within reason – to unburden some of my blues.

Even that went wrong. The date had been moved forward and news hadn’t got to me. A staff member of the establishment hosting it told me “it’s not our fault.” By then I couldn’t give a 4x.

All this before the end of January.

 

It was the year of the Olympics. Could something be done to equal this black month with an Olympic related triumph? Not driving a car – a surprising number of male SF fans don’t – I was used to walking and liked it. Back in the early 90’s I’d organised sponsored walks on a small scale. The first being a trek up a Roman road from Silchester to London. There was also a Roman road running out of London past where I’d lived when a child, in the general direction of the south coast. Maybe I could make my Olympic effort by walking that.

I contacted a woman who’d been the Community Officer for Rowner and had officially become a ‘Gosport Hero’ (or Heroine rather) as a reward for her efforts. We’d worked together on carnivals and meetings and she’d become a good friend. Who better for inspiration and ideas?

The two that came up were year related: 2012 images of the walk or local schoolchildren producing 2012 rudimentary planet Earths. The 1st I dismissed as impractical. The 2nd I’d had some related experience in and we produced circulars about it for the schools.

We got no response and I resigned myself to digitising photographs. A multiyear project but I enjoyed it.

Spring came and became early wet summer. And with that came a possibity of achieving that decisive success I’d been looking for. I had an NHS checkup that left me thinking. There was the usual warning about alcohol but also good news. My cholesterol level was very healthy. I seemed to be healthy enough in fact for the nurse to dismiss my concern about abdominal fat building up around organs there. At the end of the checkup I felt it was worth asking a question because I’d get an objective answer. The answer to my question was;- I was in “pretty good” shape given that I was a 62 year old.

How long would that last though? The older one got the more one heard about what could go wrong with one – January was an example – and all the time it was getting marginally more likely.  Also I still boozed and enjoyed it. Although I seemed to be exerting more control than my reprobate SF friends I was never going to shun their company on account of health. That meant I ought to be making more effort with exercise.

In otherwords;- ‘use it or lose it.’

The best way of using it was walking down my childhood Roman road. I went to the Gosport office of my local newspaper. They had been good at covering my planetbuilding activities and I regarded the press as allies, so I asked the boyish journalist there whether it was newsworthy for a 62 year old to walk from London to Chichester? (Especially with the Olympics coming up.) That was where the Roman road – Stane Street – led. The answer there was “Yes, but it helps if it’s a sponsored walk.” I told the journalist I’d take a minimum of one photograph per mile as proof.

There was still time. As Richard Branson put it on a book title: ‘Screw it. Let’s do it.’

Just after leaving the newspaper branch office I ran into a friend on Gosport council who told me the charity to go for was the Mayor’s charity because that would get the attention of the press. Maybe I should have done but I wanted to give the Special Needs School I worked with first refusal. My loyalties lay in that direction. Then again I had no idea if my idea was practical and needed to probe the Head Teacher on that. I was pleased about the Mayors charity.  An excellent alternative if the school didn’t work out.  It ensured the walk was on.

Jackie my heroine friend warned me to start the walk not later than the 21st July because the news would be full of the Olympics after that. The 21st was the first day of the summer holidays. There was still time.

The Head Teacher of Heathfield Special School gave me a positive response. Before long though it became clear they would be tied up with the end of summer term and the academic year, so I would have to go it alone.

As far as mapwork was concerned it was already organised. One of my ideas of fun was to scrutinise Ordnance Survey maps with the dedication of an expedition leader or a general planning a campaign. Here’s what I decided on:-

  • Total distance of walk: 65 miles from London Bridge – where Stane Street started out from the old ‘Londinium’ city – to Chichester Cathedral. Cathedral slightly further than the last mile but good for a landmark. I’ve regarded anything under 20 miles a day as cruising but that was 20 years ago and I’m ‘marching’ for 5 days with backpack taking photographs. 65 miles over 5 days averages out at 13 miles a day. Hmm…not a picnic but doable. Let’s hope.
  • Buy a new pair of boots.
  • Keep the backpack though it’s seen better days in Australia and the Far East. Pack it with 6 changes of clothes, washing stuff, maps, diary, paperback and pocket alarm clock but no tent and not even any water. Liquid’s heavy too, I’d had a few warning back twinges and warnings about backs on a Council one day handling course. One solution was to buy a more back friendly backpack but another was travelling light and I was spending enough on this trip. There were enough places to buy liquid along the route in the event of thirsty weather apart from the Downs.
  • 20th July: Take what I need for the walk on the early afternoon school run on the last day of term. Immediately after dropping the kids off get free buses as far towards London as possible. I have over 60’s free bus pass. Use trains if running out of time. Stay with one of my friends in London. London chosen over Chichester for start because I wasn’t confident that I wouldn’t give in and use public transport in London if I left that for the destination.
  • 21st: Get to London Bridge preferably early by tube. Follow Stane Street – most of it a recognisable straight main road through Elephant and Castle, Kennington, Clapham, Balham, Tooting, Colliers Wood and Morden. At Morden – 10 miles out – decide whether to continue through Cheam and Nonsuch Park to Ewell station 4 miles further or take tube to friend in London.
    Hazards: Pollution. Traffic;- can be tiring walking with it there all the time and don’t forget all those side streets one has to cross. Pickpockets and even mugging. The last is unlikely but not unknown in London so can’t actually be ruled out.
    Solutions: Handkerchief over wallet must work for I’d never had my pocket picked. Take breaks when I feel like it and/or drink often – though not alcohol – if I’m sweating. An early sign of dehydration is drowsiness and I’d been mugged once in Johannesburg when half asleep so I was sure that staying alert would not only help with traffic but fend off potential trouble. Plenty of cafe’s and even pubs in London would help there.
  • 22nd: Trains needed above or below ground to get to where I left off yesterday quickly in the morning. That’s the significance of Morden underground terminus and Ewell station. Cheam and Nonsuch Park a walk down memory lane yesterday or today. Stane Street disappears around Ewell but is marked crossing Epsom Golf Course, but I suspect that’s private. Detour south to racecourse looks like going uphill and down again so it’s the town itself. A long uphill lane after that links up with Stane Street which becomes a woodland track crossing M25 and going all the way to the Dorking Gap. Should emerge from the woods by Box Hill.
    Objective: Dorking. 15 miles from Morden. Take train to London and friends.
    Hazards: Less than the 21st what with leaving London and less roads. Even the hills don’t look steep as I’m crossing the dip slope of the North Downs rather than the scarp. Getting lost in the woods near the Dorking Gap possible though.
  • 23rd: Take especially early train to Dorking as 23rd is longest section of walk, 17.5 miles. Stane Street disappears around Dorking, reappears further south in a muddle of lanes near Leith Hill. South of that it’s a main road heading South by South West across the Weald to the Travelodge where I stay the night. The exception being the centre third where the main road leaves Roman road forming a long detour around country lanes and footpaths which should be a welcome break from main road which rejoins Roman road further south.
    Hazards: Likely to be the toughest section because most of it’s main roads. I don’t like walking main roads and on Google Earth Ground Level the roads in this region look narrow for A roads, busy, without pavements or much in the way of verges. Traffic a real hazard here. One advantage though is that Roman roads have few if any bends. Then there’s landowners: Surrey stockbroker belt types and affluent ones south of Surrey could block footpaths diverting one on to main roads.
    Solutions: keep hydrated to stay alert with traffic especially as long distance might limit time for breaks. Good mapwork necessary for alternatives to possible hostile landowners, and for progress south from Dorking where there’s no obvious route.
  • 24th: Stane Street continues as main road all the way to South Downs through Billingshurst, Pulborough and Coldwaltham. Well almost. Main road bypasses Billingshurst and the last few miles or so are country lanes. Objective: Bignor, villlage at foot of the South Downs where I was to book a B & B. Distance: something like 12 miles.
    Hazards: although it’s main road again not only is the distance shorter but 3 towns/villages should mean more pavements.
  • 25th: Up and over the South Downs where Stane Street angles West by South West becoming a track on the dip slope to where it becomes a main road again not far from Chichester, 10 miles from Bignor. Objective: Chichester Cathedral.
    Hazards: Very steep hill (4 arrows!) up scarp slope (escarpment) of South Downs. That’s likely to scare off traffic though and road is a minor lane anyway, wooded too, which might be an advantage in extreme weather. Nowhere for liquid replenishment on South Downs but Chichester’s outskirts aren’t too far and should provide pavements again along main road as I approach journey’s end.

Yes. This was what I was good at. Mapwork and organising adventurous journeys. Where I felt completely in control planning a decisive success.

Anyone could join me – more than one of my walks 20 years ago was a glorified pub crawl – provided they were prepared to walk a minimum of 1 mile and have a minimum of 1 sponsor. Simple. At the community centre there was even talk of naval personnel joining me. I could find myself leading a whole platoon!

Shame my expertise or confidence had problems with other things like Health and Safety.

I was reminded of Health and Safety when I was told I had to get a statement absolving me of responsibility should anything happen. An embarrassing thing to ask friends to sign and anyone else prepared to join me. Being a legal statement I also had to obtain the right wording for it.

Thinking of it now I’m reminded of Monty Pythons ‘Search for the Holy Grail’ in which romantic ideals or whatever inspires one to adventure are derailed farcically by modern values. Take:-

  “The Lady of the Lake, her arm clad in the purest shimmering samite, held aloft Excalibur from the water signifying by divine providence that I, Arthur, was to carry Excalibur. That is why I’m your King.”

  “Listen. Strange women lying in ponds handing out swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony.”

  “Be quiet!”

  “You can’t expect to wield supreme executive power just ’cause some watery tart threw a sword at you!”

  “Shut up!”

  “I mean, if I went around saying I was an Emperor because some moistened bint had lobbed a scimitar at me, they’d put me away!”

The Lady of the Lake and King Arthur didn’t have to cope with risk assessments. Maybe a sponsored walk is the 21st century equivalent of a quest in the Dark Ages but maybe it had already been consigned to the 20th rather than the 21st , because Health and Safety affects any adventurous enterprise like a debilitating virus!

I found myself wasting a week trying to get rid of a problem I despised that didn’t exist 20 years ago that I was stuck with, by being passed from one earful of deceitful drivel to another. Nobody wanted to know. The key people were always somewhere else. The key person was out of the office that morning. Some department would phone me back. I only got what I wanted by more Monty Python: a John Cleese style rant about “WHEN I reach the next MIRAGE on the DESERT horizon WHAT (pray) guarantee will I have that this QUEST for the HOLY DOCUMENT will be at an end?”

Maybe they should put me away like King Arthur. It was a wasted effort, for the the key naval person had moved and a stalwart who’d accompanied me 20 years ago had had a stroke. I found no other Knights of the Round Table.

I like a blitzkreig approach to planning when I’m knowledgable about everything or have the right support.  I didn’t have enough of either here so I preferred to line things up as early as possible like an airliner captain on a smooth approach to landing, to allow time for delays and unexpected problems. Health and Safety was bad enough but then there were charity websites.

I’d no experience of them. So I had an uneasy hope that they would be as trouble free as possible: a recipe for disaster in the commercial world and the one I got involved with was being run in a commercial way. There were a lot of charming conversations adding up to nothing; because I was led to believe that the only small problem was getting the correct name of a parents association and it was the school that was being unreasonable. One trait found in the commercial world is the source of the trouble making out another party to be unreasonable. I finally lost it when the manager attempted cheerfully to get me to ditch the school and find another charity a week from the event!

That was before I found out that the school had been told to pay a registration fee and sign up for a blog: 2 other aspects of the commercial world are:- 1. What you need to know is the last thing you find out about. When it’s too late. 2. You will very likely be made to feel naïve. I should have checked about any fees.

By the time I ditched the idea of charity websites I was having more luck elsewhere anyway, having distributed sponsor forms to 2 banks, Gosport Discovery Centre, Rowner community and medical centres, my friend on Gosport Council, and a taxi company.

Myself at K. T. 1

Rowner Community Centre got a photograph of me in the Australian outback looking like Indiana Jones and put that in reception with a write up and the title: Rowner Hero. Now that was more like it! Particularly as I was firing myself up for the challenge with the film ‘Gladiator’ since it was a Roman road I was walking. There was an evening of roistering with my SF friends during which I got a generous amount of money out of them while toasting them with “strength and honour!” Also “what we do in this life echoes in eternity.” despite the only female member of the group saying she couldn’t think of anyone less like Russell Crowe.

What the hell. The alcohol helped me reason that okay;- so what if it was male machismo? Why be ashamed of that when harnessing it for something useful? Rather than boasting about cars or women. The film itself was about people being killed for sport which was certainly horrific, but it was so well done that other aspects of it inspired me. Adventures and journeys inspired me and I’d journeyed through adversity before on foreign fields. In some ways it had given me a certain tough independence of spirit. One could fight fate and adversity rather than people.

The following evening I had a farewell meal out with an old friend who’d lived across the road from me when we were young. She now lived not far from the school, was a music teacher herself and married with children who’d become students, but we still met up for an evening meal once in awhile. It was she who’d asked me to set up a blog about the walk.

We had kept in touch in this way and I told her how things were going. Booking the Travelodge had been impossible online but a guy with an Irish accent in a call centre saved the situation. I’d told him so. The bed and breakfast people in Bignor had asked for a cheque to be posted to them: an intriguing departure from the norm hinting at a different way of life. For awhile friends in London had seemed indisposed including one guy whose place had been colonised by builders. Anything to do with property is death to any other enterprise. However 2 places offered help: an invalid in Stanmore right out on the north west edge of London could put me up for the first night; then the 2nd and 3rd would be with friends in Perivale, west London. The Cathedral had also been contacted and had welcomed me, urging contact with their local paper and sending me a voucher for free tea and cakes: a quaint and comforting gesture of goodwill. I heard nothing though from their local paper.

That was the remaining problem: the press. The boy journalist in Gosport had said he’d contact the Head of the School – who’d agreed – and myself for a pre walk interview. I’d heard nothing and when I kept phoning him not only was there no response but no answerphone. Not only might he miss news that way but it dawned on me with under a week to go that nothing had been arranged, including anything after I got to Chichester.  Maybe he’d given up on me because I hadn’t got a link to a charity website, something he was keen on.

I was leaving it late but on the day I was to go up to London I tried outflanking the problem by phoning the Portsmouth office of the local newspaper and managed to get through to the editors desk or department. A fellow there who wasn’t the editor but who was interested arranged with me that when I’d get within striking distance of the Cathedral I was to phone them and they’d send a journalist with a photographer – or at least someone with a camera – to meet me at the Cathedral. A direct phone line was also arranged. I was still on track for success.

The last day of term was a pretty good day in fact with another incredible piece of good luck. We were taking the kids home from school when my driver got a call notifying him of a surprise mission: one of the people running the taxi firm wanted him to pick up some pies from a place in Tooting, London, of all places! The guy ordering this was in a flap about nearly forgetting a lady’s birthday, pies being the only dead cert for her and the party, and Tooting being the best place given the nature of the pie. Talk about totally improbable! Tooting was right on the route, well within range of where I wanted to get to and it all added up to a free lift! Even using the free bus pass would take longer.

I was driven through the Gosport peninsula in a dreamlike state. I could hardly believe it was happening until we were well into the South Downs. It was like throwing a double six at the start of one of those old dice board games; one where you usually need a six to get started. The sun was shining, the weather report was good, and I was well on the way to adventure.

© D Angus 09 12

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