Back downhill past the turning I’d come out of from the tree tunnel was the turning where Stane Street straightened out again. My heart sank when I saw it. It looked like the entrance to a private estate: far too manicured with that low ornamental wall and mown grass beyond not to have one of those bloody notices. However, although there was a notice about CCTV I couldn’t find a thing about it being a private road or not being allowed in. Local information was accurate as usual. Cautiously I proceeded.
I walked down a straight drive flanked by short grass and trees dappling the sunlight. It had that frisson of adventure in the sense of its silence and artificiality hiding unseen hazards, like ‘you are being watched’ by that CCTV. Reminded me in fact of ‘Secret Army:’ which begins and ends with views down dead straight tree lined roads and canals, presumably used by the resistance in getting allied airmen out of occupied Europe.
The straight route I was trying to follow to get to the South Downs altered its nature at a farm and became more of a track; like this Roman road was on the northern slopes of the North Downs. Down a dip and up the other side was another farm. Much later I found on the map that I’d crossed into Sussex here. I was aware that the exposed Roman road ended here.
I could see the gap in the buildings that I thought should lead to a footpath hooking round the back of the farm, but as I was making my way towards that a young man walked a fine brown horse through the gap and came towards me. I explained what I was about. Which way was I going? South by south west I pointed over his shoulder. He pointed more or less back over my shoulder and said the way I wanted was over one of the two farm gates I could just see. Due east: that was what concerned me, but he was advising me with the carefree assurance one felt obliged to trust. Whether I was going to do so or not I’d better go in that direction to be able to think for myself again.
When I got to the gates I decided against trusting him. The one he wanted me to take was on the left which seemed to be the start of a track that just carried on to the east, judging by the map I’d been reading. If I climbed over the one on the right it might be possible to infiltrate through to the south. The map had shown more footpaths that way.
There was a field of pasture land beyond the gate I’d chosen. Not a big field and there was nothing in it like cattle. There was a continuous affair running along its hedges though that I mistook for a leftover from some sort of festivity at first, until I realised it was a never ending cable sheathed in pale plastic insulation. Only one place I’d seen anything like that before: the London Underground. High voltage stuff! Maybe the plastic would protect me but I wasn’t sure so I certainly wasn’t going to risk finding out. I walked around the field checking for a gate or gap but the only chance I found still faced east.
It was where the cable went into a solid looking construction as I remember it, probably wooden. At first sight this way looked impassable for there was a mass of stinging nettles and brambles on the other side. However, I remembered an alleged tactic used by infantry: the one about a soldier falling on barbed wire and others going over him thereby dealing with that obstacle. I could do the same thing with my backpack.
It was an easy climb on to the construction which provided a solid base for the start of this operation. I dropped the backpack on the vegetation beyond and it was working, the pack was heavy enough to flatten it. I won’t say progress was easy but it was effective and I was able to crush a path through the rough patch and jump a ditch. There was the track beyond that I suspected the young man wanted me to take, but it was heading south.
Until it suddenly turned east again. It was actually a sort of T junction but turning right to the west went into the only mudbath I was to see on this journey that seemed practically impassable. This quagmire was at the entrance to a field. I sat on a bank under a small tree to look at the map but I found it hard to hear myself think as a massive tractor came up the track from the east, followed by the smallest I’d seen, a kind of box on tracks with a youngster inside. As I dealt with the distraction of smiling at this peculiar procession they went through the mudbath into the field. I tried to study the map while the noise they were making never quite went away.
In front of me was a tongue of woodland coming up from a shallow valley. There should be a footpath through that down to a farm in the valley, or near there. That would have been the answer for me but I could see no footpath and the distraction was growing noisier. They were coming back again!
Again I was obliged to smile as big tractor and baby tractor repeated what appeared to be the ridiculous duty of ploughing through the mess at the field entrance and worsening it before passing me. Maybe the son was in the baby tractor and was being taught how to do this. Maybe I was losing my grip what with this and the residue of alcohol from the pub but I reasoned that if I’d have stopped them for information I probably couldn’t have trusted them, like that fellow at the farm. Also the field was not only hard to get into but it might have no exit and it was a much bigger field than the last one – with wire fences in it – so the waste of time would be critical. Unwillingly I headed east again.
For a long way it seemed. There was a farm cum vetinary establishment I passed, the opulence of which I resented. I felt that psychological games were being played with me.
At last! A track to the south. Relieved I plunged down that.
Then just as I was really gaining distance that way it suddenly went east again!
Worse than that was the steadily growing hum of traffic. I was going to wind up on that bloody main road detouring round this area! I reached a beautifully made bridge over an unattractive patch of stream. Its waters were dead still and looked higher than natural under those tree branches. Its brown colour gave a clue to the name of the creek I’d wound up at. Feeling the call of nature I unzipped my jeans and added to its liquid volume from the bridge. Then I sat there and consulted the map.
I was appalled by what it told me. I didn’t blame the people at the Oakwoodhill pub for lack of knowledge. They’d done their best for me and that coke they’d given me was going to be a lifesaver now. No it was those landowners again. My progress had been bent back 120 degrees from the direction I wanted, not only all the way to that main road but half way up the detour! I really had been manoeuvered into disaster for it was by now late in the afternoon and I was miles off course with a long way to go. The alternative I should have taken at that farm where the trouble began – going north a short way up its entrance road to link up with lanes leading down to the south and Stane Street – would take too long to reach now because of the time; besides which I couldn’t trust myself if I ran into that character at the farm. Either way the situation regarding distance to be covered was now much worse and I was getting tired but the most direct route was down that main road. There was a hopeless feeling of despair creeping up on me.
Only one thing for it.
Anger, rage, fury. It gets a bad press and understandably so. Socially it can be frightening and dangerous. I felt it was a kind of emotional plutonium: difficult to know what to do with it once one had it. However it had it’s uses. It could be a dangerous resource by its hard to control nature but in the battles I’d fought in my life I’d learned it would give me that emergency reserve of raw energy needed to pull one through a crisis. So I harangued myself sergeant major style – or centurion perhaps – with the following:
Right. Now listen up. You went through a Boer war style siege in Capetown (minus the bullets) holding out successfully for work there, which enabled you to cross the whole of Africa! You won a showdown in El Paso against Greyhound in the best tradition of the wild west! You’ve been told by an ex sergeant of the British Army that you frightened him into paying money he owed you when even the accountant was done for £197! (I still have trouble in believing that one.) You’ve seen death in The Great Martian War and still met the worst deadline in a thousand years! You’ve fought and won battles of the spirit on 4 continents and even on other worlds (after a fashion) so with that regimental history are you going to let yourself be defeated by a bunch of overprivileged landowner tossers when a school of unfortunate kids is depending on you? NO! Because you’ve got the experience and the BALLS to see this through! You’re walking a Roman road so you’re in the Roman Army now! So forget politically correct conventional wisdom and anyone caught using that word ‘inappropriate’ will get a gladius where the sun doesn’t shine, now MARCH! This time it’s WAR!
I guess it used to be known as ‘fighting spirit.’
And so I hit that road in a black storm of furious resolve which seemed to darken the brilliance of this hot blue day. I needed it because this ‘A’ road should have been classed as a ‘B’ for bastard road. Not wide like it should be. The odd blind bend of course. Little if any room for manoeuvre on its edges without flattening oneself into greenery as everything on wheels swept past, creating that sound of traffic I hated by now: a boring moronic symphony for the humdrum at heart that rose and fell but never finished. Never allowing one to relax.
Well I knew that sheer aggression would keep me alert and get me through this. Hanging on to just enough sense of self preservation not to play chicken with oncoming trucks I had less respect for anything smaller. I’d heard it all before from some drivers; about how anyone who didn’t drive must have something wrong with them and about how their vehicle was bigger and better than others etc. I could see that type on that road now as I battled my way down it. Well suppose you get out of your SUV or BMW or high octane mobile, Mr Mouth and Trousers, so I can include you on my friendly death march. Then we’ll sort out the men from the motormouths, health and safety wallahs, legal beagles, status seekers, corporate creeps, bonus buggers and property pests! It’s not going to happen though because none of you wankerheads could make it out of Dorking let alone get this far!
Property. That was the main problem though. Not cars.
Just when I thought I’d seen and heard it all. All the ways that property and its related activities dominated and interfered with life in the UK. Not just the obvious things like mortgages and estate agents but work-shy maintenance companies expecting to be treated as a cause for charity, developers smothering countryside with deserts of twee amenity lacking architecture, cowboy builders, refurbishments driving neighbours nuts, DIY neighbours drilling though your wall when you’re trying to conduct business. Which reminds me: last but not least the infestation of TV by property programmes starring the problems of Mr. & Mrs. Dimmo, whose budget could set up the odd third world country. Yes there really are programmes now where you can literally watch paint dry! It’s symptomatic of the mania this country has with property.
And now there was yet another variation: footpaths reconfigured by sociopathic landowners to get rid of anyone not fitting into their petty empires of negative influence.
That dead tree overlooking this car culture bob-sleigh run would do for the photographic record. As well as not causing an accident I had to attend to this every mile too. From here to the Travelodge.
‘We’ve all gotta have somewhere to live.’ Yeah well the same applies to France where a tax on property price increases leads to more affordable housing, Germany where one can rent a place twice as good as here for a third of the price and Holland where property prices fell year after year and nobody worried the way they do here. Even China was aware of the problems of a housing bubble. How could one imagine that here?
Above all though it was the colossal spirit crushing sums of money involved; ratcheting up the pressure to make ends meet and work all hours while never having time to appreciate life. It wasn’t just the cost of buying a house either but what had happened to the banks in 2008. A crisis brought about by unmanageable debt. Most of that involved mortgages, starting with US sub-prime mortgages. Result? The kind of recession not seen since the 1930’s and an ongoing financial situation still not under control.
I’d reached a particularly vicious roundabout holding me up with a blind bend on the right, a vortex of traffic otherwise. Eventually I made it to the other side. The good news was that it was most of the way towards Stane Street.
I started to appreciate the staggering scale of the financial crisis when I learned that the Hadron Collider experiment at Cerne cost a fraction of the £34 billion given to Northern Rock building society in 2007, which was nothing but a minor fraction of what was to come! Further research along these lines led to an unbelievable conclusion. If a comparable amount of finance to that ‘loaned’ to the banks had been invested in aerospace development this country alone could be colonising half the solar system! A contact in Astrium had told me the technology was there to be developed. A new British empire Dan Dare style for real!
It would not only be fairer though but more realistic to imagine that sort of money divided and ‘loaned’ to something like 10 areas of scientific research and worthy causes. That would still be enough for spectacular results in each, including space exploration. What about fusion and solar power? Nanotechnology? Education? And while we’re on the subject – and why not? – researching autism?
I’d made it to the Roman road! Not far down it I came to a bridge over a stream and sat on the parapet for a drink and a look at the map. Although this road was longer it was straighter and there was even a lull in traffic at this point. Half the battle was won, or more like a third distance wise. I’d forgotten about the ‘strength and honour’ bit but needed that now because it was getting to the stage where it was an effort of will to keep going. Just a straight slugging match of endurance now between me and fate down that road.
Onward on the march of heat and sweat ridden endurance down the Roman road, maybe in the same spirit as the Roman legions 2,000 years ago.
In my warlike state I’d also considered what I might encounter at the Travelodge. I’m a believer in Sods Law so I’d already worked out a likely conversation between me and the company clone who’d try to tell me I was arriving too late. Fine I’ll sleep on the grass outside then it’s a warm enough night – I’m afraid we can’t allow that sir – what are you going to do about it? – Call the police sir – okay do it then and that way I’ll get a cell for the night – you’re not serious sir? – Do It!
I was most likely over-reacting for although shadows were lengthening the sun was still not close to the horizon.
Maybe it was a similar story with cars. After all most people drive these days, most of them having to cut down on journey time because of having to work all hours to pay the mortgage. I was being unfair on these victims of circumstance.
What the hell? I’d have to be a little crazy to walk 65 miles in the 21st century anyway.
Maybe I was being unjust to some landowners too, to the point of bigotry. Well tough. Having just had a bellyful today of being mucked around by the landowning classes to the point where the walk had been jeopardised I would ask any of them reading this to just bear with me on this occasion.
Speaking of which: just when one thinks one’s seen it all………Somewhere on this road two landowners had tried to claim the utmost by planting 2 hedges of their trees or whatever on opposite sides of the road inches from it. Yep. On both sides of the road on the crest of a hill! A well organised death trap is just what you need when you’re played out in every sense of the word. Calmly I assessed the situation, moved quickly when the time was right, flattened myself up the left hand side of the road. Took the hill. Got back smartly when the time was right to the right side at the top. And soldiered on.
At some point there was a break from little or no verge and pretentious landowner driveways with CCTV cameras. There was an attractive looking greensward and the road was strangely less than busy again. It was the way Sods Law worked. The traffic seemed to build up when hedges or walls of trees were inches from the road. I stopped and checked the map because there was a sign for a golf course and there had been a map symbol for that one on the North Downs where I’d bought that Lucozade.
I could find no symbol, nor anything else of use. I had no idea how far down that road I was. The grass invited me to lay down but I daren’t do that. It was getting to the stage where it was an effort of will to put one foot in front of the other. Had to move on. I knew how to fight this battle: just imagine you’re hiking to eternity and simply won’t give up until you give up the ghost. That way any progress is a nice surprise.
Onward. Onward to glory. Or maybe that great lunatic asylum in the sky.
It wasn’t property as a concept or a principle I was against. ‘All property is theft’ is like the statement ‘money is the root of all evil.’ Somehow I just couldn’t accept that. No it was the way both had been developed or used.
Wasn’t I a hypocrite when the reason I was able to improve my place, have time to do my own thing, travel to other continents and even organise this walk was because I’d sold my parents bungalow after they’d died? This was a compelling argument but I’d worked out a defence: I achieved the same lifestyle through my own efforts once and if royalties had been organised the same way here as they are in Europe it would have been sustainable. Selling the bungalow after Mum and Dad died reminded me a of sight I’d seen on the Serengeti plain: vultures covering a Wildebeest carcass. Not that I felt too guilty because Mum and Dad would have wanted the best for me. No prizes though for guessing which way of gaining wealth I preferred. Given a choice. Just for the record.
I’d reached unusually flat ground where the road stretched ahead for a depressing distance. After awhile though I noticed an unusual movement repeating itself at random intervals just before the vanishing point of the road. Could that be a junction?
There was a place on the map called Five Oaks where another main road met this Roman road, with another road junction just to the north. If that was a junction ahead could that be it? Five Oaks looked insignificant; but it was insignificant in the same way that places like El Alamein and Waterloo were. Sometimes geography determines that decisive battles are won or lost at such railway halts or villages. The significance of Five Oaks was the Travelodge being about a mile south of there. Get to Five Oaks and the battle’s won.
There was a sign………..Five Oaks! I’d made it! Nothing but a huddle of houses and a small trading estate. I passed the second junction.
The view suddenly opened up to the right as if in reward for my effort: a panorama of distant hills of a slightly deeper blue than the glare of the sky. Those long level ridge lines; that’s the South Downs! It was like one of those films where someone sees a mountain range from a desert and exclaims:- “There! You see! We really can make it!”
That wasn’t all. Down the road in the far distance was a red square on a pole. Could that be the Little Chef logo? There was a Little Chef at the Travelodge so journey’s end could be in sight.
There was even enough space for a conversation. By now there was a pavement and an old man came up it wheeling a racing bike. He looked like I felt. The weather had brought him out but he’d had enough and was heading home, about a mile back where I’d hiked. The view and having made it this far made me throw caution to the winds so I regaled him not only with my adventures but with the news that I’d pissed in Shit Creek and given one of those landowner CCTV’s a sign that Churchill was fond of. (And I do hope you record that for training purposes!)
It was The Little Chef! Now for the moment of truth regarding the Travlelodge. I should be okay regarding lateness but one never knew one’s bad luck during adventures like this. I shambled into the first entrance but there was no Travelodge in view. Must be on the other side of The Little Chef. Not a problem. On the other side I could see it but I also found myself mingling into what looked like a lager lout convention: huge bare chested blokes with tattoos lugging cold packs of alcoholic cans out of car boots and into the building. Any of them looked as though they could have blown me away like a feather, but they were so polite. It was weird actually just how polite they were, which went completely against their appearance.
The fellow on reception was polite too: a young man with a foreign accent who proved himself to be no company clone. He gave me a painless registration process and the keys to my room. The lager louts meanwhile diminished in number and were soon to disappear. Quietly. Weird indeed! One can experience strange things when one’s knackered.
My room was cheap and cheerful. Laboriously I ran the bath and got out of my clothes.
At last! A relaxing hot bath and I eased myself in. Aaaaaahh……….
Where’s the soap?
Laboriously I reversed the process that had got me into the bath just far enough not to be arrested through lack of clothing; then went back to reception.
This worked in my favour. The young fellow with the foreign accent opened up a store and I got 2 small shampoo containers unclaimed by previous customers; along with a domino sized bar of soap.
“If there’s any other problem you need help with just let me know sir.”
“Yeees. You’re quite good at that aren’t you?”
He chuckled at that. We parted on good terms.
Back in my room I found another domino sized bar of soap.
Aaaaaahh… a 2nd time. I stayed in that bath until I felt capable of getting to bed. Maybe I was in such a state those lager louts had been polite to me because I looked like the old man I’d met on the road, or at death’s door.
I had no alcohol or even any food to speak of but I just wasn’t hungry. No really. My body seemed to be telling me that I’d pushed myself to the limit, so what it really needed now was to lie still in comfort for long enough so it could prepare me for the morrow, which should be easier. As long as I had water I could relax in bed surfing TV with the remote until I became drowsy. That was all the luxury I needed. Forget about anything else.
©D Angus 12 12