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.”
“You can’t expect to wield supreme executive power just ’cause some watery tart threw a sword at you!”
“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.
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
21st July 2012
I was awake and it was daylight; rather than night. I was on a friend’s sofa but usually wake up during the night anyway, going to bed earlier than many people.
After a night not spent in your own bed it takes time to work out where your stuff is. Time to fumble for my clock.
A quarter past 5! I’d hoped I’d get up early and this was ¾ of an hour before I’d set the alarm. No point in trying to sleep then for if I succeeded I wouldn’t feel like getting up and could screw things up.
My friend was a member of a group I’d organised sponsored walks for 20 years ago. Quietly I had a shower, got my gear together then looked in on him. He wasn’t awake. I crept out of his flat.
I know how hard it can be rise early but if one wakes early on a summers day dawn and can get up it’s worth doing so to relish how beautiful a sunny morning can be then. The brilliant sunlight warms your cold body in a comforting way rather than with the serious heat of later in the day. The air’s fresh in an undisturbed way, with a hint of the scent of trees and green growing things around one, in a way that it can’t be later. Above all there’s the lack of humdrum sounds and movement; there’s even a sense that the psychic presence of others is absent. A parallel virgin world made for you and the few who are able to rise early, in which the millions normally around one just aren’t there, just somewhere else, which is spiritually true since they’re asleep.
That was how it was as I walked from my friend’s block of suburban flats to the nearby bus stop. One of the few was there, a coloured guy with a mobile phone, but there was enough room in this world for both of us. Nothing else around otherwise apart from the odd now and then car which seemed to emphasize the emptiness of the tree lined road; oh and birds in the trees and squirrels like the ones I’d seen from my friend’s window.
A bus came. An underground link to the centre of London was about a mile from here. It had been hard to reach here yesterday from Tooting when I tried my free bus pass. I’d coincided with rush hour and eventually had to take the tube; but it was going to be easy to get in with the lack of traffic and the underground if I needed it, despite being on the north west edge of London.
London Bridge! There it was, the start of my latest bid for victory! (strength and honour, strength and honour) What better place to start a trek across southern England? For it was the only bridge across the river and the gateway to the south when London was called Londinium.
What a sight too at twenty past eight on a Saturday morning. Just like at Stanmore there was hardly anyone around under a sky as blue as Heaven. Instead of the clutter of traffic and people one expects I could only spot one lone WPC guarding the whole expanse of the bridge, otherwise empty. Unreal, almost like a huge stark stage set with the great gleaming spire of the Shard Tower on the south bank like an abstract stage design, maybe with an unseen audience waiting for my epic effort.
The guy I spoke to in The News had asked me for photos of myself in prominent places such as London Bridge; so the first thing to do was ask that policewoman for this. Hang on though; walking on to the bridge I’d just spotted another one – Tower Bridge – almost silhouetted against the eastern morning light with the interlocking rings of the Olympic Symbol hanging from it. Irresistible for a photograph so I crossed over to take it. By the time I’d finished that and got back she’d walked off to the north bank, but there was a policeman coming up to take her place.
“Excuse me; I’m doing a sponsored walk, could you please take a photo of me on this bridge?”
“Er..well, if you don’t mind I’d rather not. Sometimes people try to sue for camera damage.”
“What kind of a world are we living in?”
We commiserated on this. Believe it or not people had tried to feign camera damage and sue him 4 times! I felt that legal excesses like this were worthy of jeering contempt, even if we had already become a society of scheming self seeking nit picking cowards. It’s unwise to overdo this in the presence of constabulary though and I felt his comment “I feel your pain” should be taken as a cue to move on, even if he didn’t mean it that way.
Luckily there was usually the odd soul in sight wandering towards the bridge. So after not a long wait in a spectacular place I got a lady to do the honours; with the Shard Tower in the background. It looked as iconic to 21st century Londinium as the Colosseum was to ancient Rome.
I started walking with a sense of real freedom. Down past London Bridge Station and the base of the Shard Tower. Down the road and off to the right was a gym for celebrities near Borough tube station. I knew that because Darth Vader of all people ran it and I’d met him! Or rather, the actor who’d played Darth Vader. He liked my photos. Let’s hope ‘The Force’ was with me this time. Onward down the road passing the British School of Osteopathy on the left which I’d visited with an Osteopath friend in Reading, having lived over a surgery of them. Beyond the buildings ahead was another 21st century skyscraper at Elephant and Castle looking like a outsize example of a technical drawing I’d worked on at school. Rather than take a photo of it I decided to have breakfast.
I waited until I got to the Elephant and Castle road junction but it was in shadow there. I took a shot but realised my attempt to limit photography to one a mile or not much over that was losing me good images, so from now on I would become more or less camera happy.
Speaking of which there were some interesting domed play structures in a childrens playground and sculptures that looked like a gathering of puffballs in a park. I never knew any green space existed at Elephant and Castle and after capturing these features digitally was able to extend this safari down through Kennington to the Oval through another park where I could walk parallel to Stane Street. Near the end of that was an Olympic sculpture titled “GIFTS FROM THE OLYMPIC GODS: SHOT PUT” complete with sculpted broken paving. There’d been warnings about the effect of the Olympics on London but I’d discovered a new danger: shot puts twice the height of a man being hurled from a great height. I’ve just read there’s a giant javelin in another London park. That’s what the sculptures were supposed to warn about anyway.
It was just across the road from the Oval tube station with the Oval cricket ground itself visible beyond as a fortress of brick and mortar. The Northern Underground line followed the old Stane Street all the way to Morden, revealing it was under the road with a chain of grey modernistic stations built in the 1920’s and 30’s. Useful for a record. I could hardly be accused of making numerous one stop train journeys ascending through each station to photograph it.
By that time there was more traffic and after a stretch of that I was feeling the first signs of physical discomfort as I ascended a slope to Clapham. There was a pub with tables and chairs outside just before Clapham North tube station. 4 miles from the bridge. Good place for a break. It seemed deserted apart from the barmaid who became interested in my adventure so we got chatting. She was coloured, curvaceous, young and from Birmingham. She’d studied fashion there and had come to London because there was nothing fashion-wise in Birmingham. Now she was doing PR work and adding to her income by working here. We thought it was fun for me to photograph her at the bar but I felt it was intrusive to ask for an email so I gave her a card saying if she wanted a copy she could always contact me. She seemed enthusiastic but I also felt it wouldn’t happen. It didn’t matter. I was sitting outside in the sun and this was a pleasant life I was leading.
A man approached me and started a conversation. This became a ploy for a handout. Feeling mellowed out I didn’t mind much and flatly offered him a pound. He looked as though he wasn’t satisfied but caught the look in my eye, thinking better of it. Just before there was a surprise appearance of the manager and the man was moved on.
It reminded me of the downside of life here but a mile up the road was another opportunity to relax: Clapham Common. Another long stroll through green pastures parallel to Stane Streeet. It was a late Saturday morning of sunshine and clouds bringing Londoners out on to the common’s green expanses. Some relaxing, some at play with group games, frisbees and in one place loud music. I like lying on summer grass and had a nap in a quieter place as I often do in my home at midday. Further on there was a pond with fishermen and birds. I made the most of Clapham Common for there were no green spaces for the next 4 miles.
After stopping just in time for a honking SUV swinging across my path I left the Clapham Common and decided to stop at a cramped but trendy fruit bar for liquid refreshment. I should have been more alert with that SUV and this would help. There was a conversation with the owner about emergency vehicles while I consumed a mango juice. It must be especially stressful being an emergency vehicle driver in London, I thought, as one whooped and screamed past while I was there. Stane Street in London was often full of traffic, true of the city generally. The owner agreed and said the siren got worse when they got held up in traffic, a pain if you owned a place on that road. What was I doing by the way? Oh walking from here to Chichester and I had to keep my liquid intake healthy to stay alert. The guy next to me laughed and the manager caught the sense of humour: an epic pub crawl across the South East! Their reaction though when I mentioned the possibility of mugging indicated that I was over-reacting. Good.
I entered Balham, similar to Tooting further on but more stylish with trees relieving its inner suburb-scape. An uneventful walk took place through it to Tooting.
My driver and I had got to the land of Tooting yesterday afternoon via the Kingston bypass. Stane Street was a long narrow gut of a road there, devoid of trees, full of traffic and teeming masses. And it was raining so it reminded me a bit of Blade Runner minus the huge buildings and aerial advertising. Instead we were hemmed in by all sorts of architectural tat. The pie shop was a hole in the wall a short way down a side street.
It was similar to what I remember from when my parents acquired a car and we went through these parts up to London. I remember it before then in fact for Tooting has 2 undergound stations and the name struck me as silly, humorous, but possibly accurate: it seemed to sum up an over-bustle of activity and sound there that wasn’t necessary. Still does I guess.
Now though it had become really ethnic with multiracial throngs of people. An old style grocers with a big and brilliant range of fruit greeted me near the first underground station, along with banners on lamp-posts: ‘Welcome to Tooting.’ Venturing on I saw that one of the more archaic buildings had become the ‘Khalsa Centre Tooting Gurudwara’ complete with big prints of Indian temples including the one at Amritsar I believe. The architecture was just right for a profusion of small shops selling what looked like stuff from just about anywhere in the galaxy. Welcome to multicultural Britain.
Never dull either. Outside a corner loan shop – judging by larger than life yellow signs – a police car with screaming siren tried to slip between 2 buses and got stuck behind a protruding car, while another car tried to edge into this from a side street past the loan shop. I can’t imagine a worse place to try to drive through in a hurry but the siren’s only solution was to go ballistic which sounded – for want of a better description – like a Martian having a fit. Nothing else for it until the car was able to edge past the obstruction. I photographed the scene calling it ‘Tooting Chaos.’
Finally I came upon a sight which may or may not have summed up life here, but where the title of my photo had just got to be ‘It’s tough on the streets!’ A unwanted grubby teddy bear had come to a sad end propping up the side of a litter bin with its head, along with the bin bags on the other side. ‘I’ve been around the galaxy and seen a lot of strange things’ but I’ve never seen a teddy bear with such an appearance of being down and out. Its bowed but standing stance seemed to declare ‘lost me ‘ome, got absolutely rat arsed ‘ammered in the gutter ‘cos nobody loves me, drunk all my dosh, all ‘ope too, and ah fink ah’m gonna throw up! (Judging by the posture.) Comical but tragi comic! I felt sorry I didn’t live nearby so I could clean him up and give him a home again, be it mine or one with a child or two in it. Surely some child could badger a parent into doing that. (Mummy Daddy pleeease I wanna drunken teddy!) I really felt for that bear. Rejection brings out the worst in me too.
A downward slope brought me to a bridge and I was able to say goodbye to Tooting: a realm verging on chaos and devoid of any trees, or any sign of nature in fact, cluttered with commercial bric a brac and the crush of humanity from just about anywhere, but I’d had no problem there, apart from tragic teddy bears. Tooting had soul. Against my better judgment I liked it.
Then I walked into Collier’s Wood which was more of a wasteland. A mauve and blue colour schemed off licence had thriving weeds growing with the flowers in its upper windowboxes. Down the road Stane Street disappeared at a big fork. This Roman road wouldn’t be reappearing until beyond Morden. Beyond the fork was a derelict grey office block. I hadn’t seen such monumental desolation since Detroit. The wasteland continued with tarmac and cars, massive chain stores and pylons. They ought to give me a clue and I consulted the map. Hmm..some help but it was easy to get lost here.
I found what I wanted more by luck than management. The River Wandle. More of a stream at this point than a river. There was likely to be a footpath along it leading to Morden and there was. A themed pub marked the entrance to this greener refreshing stretch. Complete with a preserved mill water wheel; totally at odds with with the dead zone from its future a stone’s throw away! I wandered off down the tree lined path.
On and on. But the stream was running the right way for where I should be headed. I wasn’t bothered anyway because I hadn’t expected such peace and quiet within London; eventually reaching a point where I couldn’t see any buildings, just trees and tall grass.
Then I came to a railway crossing, a single track railway line that I saw from my map was a line coming down from Wimbledon, so I was able to pinpoint where I was. The blue crossing signs though read ‘Tramway’ so this had been converted into a rapid light transport line. A tram coming down the track confirmed it.
On the other side was Morden Hall Park. The river became braided so the park was one of water meadow lawns under welcoming trees with bridges over small rivers and streams wandering here and there. I saw a father giving his toddler paddling lessons in one of them, shallow and clear. There was the old pile of Morden Hall too and another water wheel. Upstream from here is a place called Carshalton with large ponds by a narrow main road and a park like this one but smaller. My father used to work there as an architect.
I walked through an organic fair by some outbuildings to a park entrance in a wall along its southern border. Morden itself was on the other side. It was an outpost of my childhood world and a gateway to travel. The southern terminus of the Northern underground line was there. When I was an infant and many aspects of my world were like that of another planet just being explored I was mightily impressed by this terminus. I mean; it was this huge place with 2 tunnel mouths like eye sockets or even nostrils out of which these giant red clattering mega-monster worms emerged! And you actually got into them? Brilliant! And on top of that were taken by them back into those tunnels again! A small impressionable boy’s monster adventure for real or what?
Morden was the beginning of outer London suburb: a region of predominantly 1930’s housing estates that extended around the inner suburbs of London like a growth ring on a tree. One could see the sort of house spawned in this period stretching up the main road from the centre of town. Mostly semi detached, often with circular bay windows and mock Tudor influence, along with bigger gardens and more foliage than the cramped Victorian dwellings which were mostly further into London.
Morden itself was dominated though by its civic centre, which (I’ve just checked) was built during my final childhood years in Cheam: a massive curved block pocked by small square windows in the brickwork at either end and black squares of panelling between the tiers of windows on both sides. It had gone cloudy and there was a dark cloud gathering over this building with a rent leading straight down to it.. Time to photograph it towering over everything squatting beneath, giving Morden a curiously bleak feeling. There was something vaguely Orwellian about the way this building was situated and the cloud enhanced this feeling on the photograph. It would have made a passable Ministry of Plenty.
Or maybe it was something to do with the name Morden, which as a boy I’d felt was ever so slightly sinister. Funny how it wound up being similar to Mordor. Also remember the smooth sinister Mr. Morden on Bablyon 5.
It was only early afternoon but my friends wanted me with them in west London by 6 and the next station was 4 miles further on. Stations rather than bus stops were necessary for a quick start in the morning and I’d make slow progress taking photographs between here and there, especially as my childhood haunts were included in that distance. So I decided not to take the risk of being late and settled for the minimum first day objective of Morden. Rather than take the tube though there was a station on the south side of Morden which would be a small gain. This turned out to have a big Islamic centre right next to it. A prayer tower overlooked the platform.
My friends lived in Perivale, in a quiet backstreet crescent in one of those 1930’s housing estates around that outer tree ring of London development. They’d managed to buy a semi detached block and knocked the internal walls through to make 2 homes into one. I’d warned them that I was likely to be manky and in need a shower because of my hiking so that was the first priority. It was another reason to book accommodation south of London rather than lugging a tent.
Afterwards I found Gerry working at a table in their small back garden.
“What do you want to drink?”
“Beer!” I announced decisively, as you would after a long hike. There was enough alcohol here to float a pub; with wines and spirits anyway.
Gerry wanted me to help him which I was happy and honoured to do. He ran a satellite company and wanted to run a talk and a few graphs by me he was preparing for the British Interplanetary Society. I loved getting involved in anything to do with space. A beer never went down so well as when relaxing after a physical task achieved too; so relaxing under the influence while discussing stuff I was keen on was a pretty good way to end a day as the sun set I thought.
And it got better. Gerry suggested that I give a talk on my planets to the British Interplanetary Society and would help with contacts there. Excellent development! It could be a way to really reverse what had happened in January. What with the walk in progress and now this I was really going places now.
My friends had admired my work and were truly good to me. There was wine and a great meal prepared by Gerry’s Sri Lankan wife Mali and their son Alan. By then I’d been introduced to a Russian girl. My friends worked a lot with the Russians and often went there. I should have talked more to the girl – who was somewhat quiet – and in future will make more of an effort. Maybe though my powers of focusing were relaxed by the alcohol after the days challenges and successes; and by entertaining them with tales of my adventure and listening to Gerry who usually held forth a lot. He was a fan of the Roman Empire and had framed 2 aerial views of Rome as it was, one being over the dining table; so a toast or two to ‘strength and honour’ was okay here. His son though – who was at University in London – appreciated my tale of the Tooting teddy.
One other plus I remembered before I went to bed. I was going to be here for tomorrow night as well so that meant I wouldn’t have to lug my backpack on the walk tomorrow. That would make the increase in distance of 15 miles instead of 10 – half as much again – much easier.
© D Angus 09 12
I didn’t have a particularly good journey down to Morden. Like yesterday I awoke and arose really early, creeping out of the house as quietly as possible into the dawn sunlight. Perhaps I kept waking up early because of the excitement of the walk.
There was a stroll through deserted suburban streets and across a park to the underground station, which was overground here. It was closed. I’d simply got up too early! Had to hang around with a few other mad early risers. Never mind, it was another beautiful morning and the wait wasn’t too long.
Then when we were on the train and on our way I thought I’d take a shortcut through the railway and tube network, which became a delay of nearly half an hour between trains: a cold wait because the low angled sun could reach the opposite platform but not the one I was on. The weather report was good so I’d left my pullover behind with the backpack.
At Wimbledon I found there was no train going to Morden so I took a bus.
Never mind again though. A bus through London early on a Sunday morning is not much slower than a train and I soon found that the bus stop I wanted in Morden was close to the station I left from yesterday. So all I had was the minor chore of repeating yesterday’s walk by something like 100 feet and I was in virgin territory.
Then it was pleasant. Morden is bracketed by parks: Morden Hall park to the north and another to the south where the main road straightened out beside it into Stane Street. I’d never actually been into this southern park and instead of being flat like Morden Hall park it was on a low hill. I wandered up it through morning meadows past dark clumps of trees. Morden civic centre was the obvious landmark to the north but far beyond that one could see the Shard Tower and other London landmarks on the horizon. There was cloud above but that was thin and would soon dissipate like sleep does slowly but surely on a Sunday morning. It was a Sunday morning; so that early morning parallel Universe world feeling was lasting longer, and was only inhabited right now by a few dog walkers in the park and myself. No backpack all the way to Dorking either. Freedom.
I rejoined the road by a brook and found a forgotten childhood memory. Just the way the road looked and the houses by it. It hadn’t changed much since I’d seen it now and then ages ago on a bus with my Mum and Dad, and later in the car. I’ve thought that memories are like fossils in the strata of time; laid down and outcropping in areas one has lived in or seen, like the Dinosaur bearing Lower Cretaceous strata on the Isle of Wight. Well now I felt on the edge of a major geological field much older than that in my past. Coal Age? Cambrian? Welcome to the Early Life Age.
There was another hill and I expected more memories; but the strata seemed to disappear. The hill seemed longer and higher than it should be somehow and the shops around the crossroads on top looked more like a Chicago suburb than south London.
The other side I recognised immediately: that dip in the road, a minor valley in fact since there was a brook at the bottom of it; with that low office block and shops on the left. The opposite hill with those trees, the edge of North Cheam itself. A hospital should be up the slope to the right with my old home not far beyond that. The memory deposits were patchy: the library was still there going down on the left but seemed on the opposite side of that side street, the hospital itself had gone and was now a hospice and that old white house the doctors lived in opposite with that lovely big back lawn had been wiped out.
The main geological field was at the top of that hill. The shopping area on both sides of the road was still there. Staines Avenue on the left leading down to the schools I used to go to. Langley Avenue further along on the right. God the sharp angle of that small building on the corner of the avenue had that feel of childhood sensation. That cafe on the opposite corner had gone though; where the Teddy Boys gathered and one of them had taught me how to play pinball, despite my parents warning me not to go in there. I saw a cafe across Stane Street and needed breakfast but I couldn’t stop now!
Langley Avenue was a road of ad hoc residential architecture but verdant now as the trees were bigger, rising up a gentle right hand bend. My childhood home should be a stones throw up on the right. According to Google Earth it still seemed to be standing, despite all the building around it. There were some new houses on the left too. I had a memory of a Roman Catholic School on the right but that had gone or been converted, there was a biggish building there.
There it was! That quirky semi detached house appearing just after that bungalow. The sycamore trees in front had been replaced by a car and the honeysuckle pergola had gone but the house itself was still standing. Along with the old garage! Still standing 50 years on despite what’s become known as ‘garden grabbing:’ selling back gardens for mini housing estates. 2 cul de sacs on both sides and their houses had linked up behind on what was our back garden in a kind of developers frozen pincer movement. The long back gardens with the sand pit, tortoises and raspberries in ours and the bungalow’s back garden with the pile of soot I’d covered myself in had gone, my Early Life strata submerged under Upper Mundania strata, but the semi detached and the bungalow in front of me still seemed to be holding out. In all my travels I’d never come across the same type of semi detached as my first home; so this scene seemed to sum up my life somehow: eccentric values resisting the force of monetary change most people follow.
It was like time travel. I could imagine my earlier self in that front garden meeting my present self on the other side of the old front gate. There’d be so much to tell him about the future and I might try to explain some of it something like: I didn’t become a professor of palaeontology but I’ve worked on Lower Cretaceous Earth, kind of, making a model of it which will be on television on the Isle of Wight where Dinosaurs will be found. I know, where we’ve been on holiday! How did I know what it looked like? It’s a long story. Anyway I’ve worked on other models with the BBC! I’ve worked on other planets too like Mars, flown around this planet, worked on many parts of it one way or another, and had many adventures across Africa, America and Australia, which is where Uncle Alan and family moved to. That’s if you follow a career in Art. Why Art? I know your interests are in the sciences but your talents are in Art, Geography and English. Here’s a warning though: the worst challenge of this life is making money so you should do what you’re talented at and you may have to chose between an adventurous life after Art School and no marriage and children, or a steady job. Maybe mapmaking school or journalism would be better paid and still interesting. Our family? We’ll move to Berkshire, then Mum & Dad will move much later to Cornwall joining Catherine there who will get married and have a son and they’ll live to a ripe old age. But I live in Gosport near Portsmouth, on my own but have friends, still go to parties and even work with children. I take them to school and back which is like having a family without them telling you what to do, going to school without staying there, and being on holiday. Not bad eh? (laughter) And what will happen elsewhere? There won’t be another world war with atom bombs but there’ll be many smaller ones. Later on there’ll be many more people and saving animals and scenery will be a problem. There’ll be more roads and cars and they’ll be better shaped and all colours of the rainbow. There’ll be machines called computers in our homes, more of them than there are televisions now and you’ll be able to do many things on them. You’ll be able to walk around with little telephones too. Our interests? It will be discovered that Dinosaurs died out not because they were stupid but because a comet hit the Earth. We’ll see a comet hitting Jupiter and causing explosions the size of Earth and some people will realise that a comet or asteroid could finish mankind off too. Man will land on the Moon in 1969 but won’t go elsewhere, probably not in our lifetime. However robot spacecraft or satellites will explore the solar system finding no jungles on Venus but a hellish desert, no canals or Martians on Mars but giant volcanoes and canyons instead, more volcanoes on a moon of Jupiter and geysers and subterranean oceans on icy moons. Some scientists think there’s life there because crabs and giant worms will be found around volcanoes at the bottom of our oceans. Best of all planets will be found orbiting other stars. No aliens or bug eyed monsters found in my future though. So far.
If the present occupants had been around maybe I could have explained that I lived here and possibly gained access, but it was still a dead quiet Sunday morning. So I took the photographic record my sister asked for, remembering that the upstairs window was our bedroom window, took a last look at an old neighbours house opposite ours where I’d discovered SF magazines, took a last look up the avenue, verdant with trees bigger than when we were here, and walked back to the main road.
The cafe was modern with a flatscreen TV, the owners looked oriental. I had some much needed coffee and fried breakfast.
Time to walk down the gentle slope of Staines Avenue and survey the rest of the field of memories: the 1930’s housing estate with the roads named after Lower Thames Valley towns and the schools I went to. A decrepit block of mock Tudor flats on the left was the home of one of my schoolfriends. Otherwise the architecture of semi detached housing was the same as where my friends Gerry and Mali lived. More friends had lived down Marlow Drive and Egham crescent to the right.
At the bottom was Henley Avenue. The morning was turning into a brilliantly sunny one by now bringing some of the people who lived here now out of their houses. Multicultural people. Actors change but the stage hadn’t much.
Down at the end of Henley Avenue was the home of my childhood sweetheart on Gander Green Lane. Then again another girlfriend had lived on the other side of Henley Avenue up a small slope on Molesey Drive to the right. I was doing surprisingly well in that department then.
There was St. Oswalds church at the crossroads where Molesey Drive levelled out at a crossroads. More a nondescript chapel than a church it had some real memory fossils: those elocution lessons that ensured I got home just after an SF TV series every time, never mind there would be many more. Admiring the way the girls across the aisle were dressed at those Sunday morning services while trying not to giggle out loud at the jokes my mates were making. Drawing sputniks with them during Sunday school. Confusing the Sunday school teacher utterly by asking him if there were Dinosaurs in Heaven? Maybe he should have remembered that bit in the Bible about ‘In my father’s house there are many mansions.’
The infants school down on the left was hidden by a fence. Memories of that place included kind old Miss Gregory with the funny voice who might have sparked off my career in relief models when she gave me a Readers Digest atlas as a parting gift. I know I liked the colourful relief models displayed there.
On the other hand there was the Headmistress: a dragon of a woman who didn’t like boys and who had a lesbian relationship with the Vice Head.
The Headmaster of the junior school made up for that. Bald headed and almost simian in appearance he was an intelligent man who played classical music at morning assembly and collected Stone Age flint tools. I think he was intrigued by me. I responded by showing him some stones I’d stolen from the flats on Staines Avenue thinking they were fossils, but he declared them to be coral. Then there was that time when he asked assembly if anyone knew what the music was and my proud reply was ‘The Lone Ranger!’ as I was a fan of black and white westerns. His sentiment of ‘nice try David’ took the sting out of being bested by the class knowall who knew it was The William Tell Overture.
A short walk downhill, turn right along Kingston Avenue and there was the junior school on the left, not hidden at all. The boys toilets had been turned into a school extension but the playground and small field beyond where we used to play football was still there. So was the main feature of the school: the glass fronted assembly hall.
Opposite was the alley we scarpered up to play hide and seek or simulated gang warfare during lunchtime in groups of not less than 2 or more than 3, it was decreed by the Head. The alley led to others running through half the estate.
As I said though I was a fan of those old black and white TV westerns, there were so many of them then. So with my imagination – always powerful but never more so than in childhood – it was easy to turn those houses into boulders, my home into a ranch and the shopping centre on the main road into a wild west town. That’s how my childhood patch of 2/3rds of a mile from home to school became the land of Rin Tin Tin, Champion the Wonder Horse, Roy Rogers, Hopalong Cassidy, Gene Autry and of course “HI HO SILVER!” Well it seemed bigger then because I was smaller.
Mum and Dad gave in and gave me a toy six gun with silver bullets, so they said. Though somehow I also became a Red Indian with a tepee in the back garden and even a squaw (sister.)
Much later in life I was destined to see the real thing, including a few of the locations for those westerns.
The deeper geographical and architectural feeling I had for the area though was one of being connected to the rest of them at school by going there daily but destined for different things maybe, living across that long straight main road in a different kind of house, almost favoured because I was living on the highest ground.
Back on the main road I’d forgotten how it kept rising in a gradual but continuous incline. Maybe that’s why I was amazed to see a distant but huge spike lined up with the northward direction of Stane Street when I looked back. God that’s actually the Shard Tower! Logical though. Roman roads are straight and this one started at that tower, 1,016 feet high I could still see it 12 and a half miles out.
The memory field fossils were getting patchy. The triangular gabled building which had been a newsagents I recognised, though it was now inhabited by accountants. The tailor up the road on the right had gone. I was rarely bored as a child but that tailor did it every time. Apart from the irritation of my mother fussing and fiddling with clothes on me every time we went there, the fag of having to take them off and put them on again. I could only survive by achieving total brain wipe out, which didn’t help co-operation with her I suppose. I didn’t miss it. I did miss the cinema on the left though, Saturday morning club and those old Flash Gordon movies where the scenery looked suspiciously like that of The Lone Ranger, plus seeing Kilimanjaro on that huge screen and wondering if I would ever go there? I did. I missed the timber yard on the right where Dad used to buy stuff but have just found it with Google. That restaurant somewhere beyond the cinema had gone though. The one where the waitresses said I had better table manners than some of the businessmen while my sister was hurling food around.
I reached North Cheam crossroads. Some of the architecture I didn’t recognise, some I did. Nonsuch Park was just up the road. Or so I thought. I’d also forgotten about the incline which just continued.
Beyond North Cheam crossroads it really was garden suburb. Big detached houses with plenty of greenery. I took a photo of a seat on the other side of the road where there was a backdrop of nothing but willow trees. I thought I’d reached the park when I reached a strip of sapling woodland through which a path wound alongside the road. I realised I did this as a child but it went on for much longer than I remembered. At last the trees became bigger and there was an opening into the park itself.
Nonsuch Park was big. It looked big to us as children and it looked the same way now. There were fields of grass then – some of it uncut – and plenty of trees. The map showed a pond big enough to be a small lake too, which I don’t remember actually seeing. Now the park seemed just as big but the trees had grown obscuring the views and the mown grass was restricted to swathes for the public to walk along. They were out there too. A couple with a pram in a meadow reminded me of an impressionist painting and the weather was right for the same thing. Nonsuch Park was lush and drowsy with the late morning heat of high summer. It was easy to lose ones sense of direction here but the old grand house poking though the range of trees in a corner of the park could still be seen. Along with the families, old couples and dog handlers. London had woken up and was enjoying a summer Sunday.
London was actually just back up the road from the park. When I lived in Cheam I lived in Surrey, but Surrey had since retreated to Nonsuch Park. It’s border was now on the park’s northern edge and I’d made the first stage of leaving London for greener pastures. There were a few more stages to go.
There was still Nonsuch Palace. A Tudor Palace. My junior school headmaster had played a part in unearthing it. I couldn’t find it though and gave up following a tree lined drive leading more or less in the right direction. No wonder that trip I went on with school friends to catch tadpoles from the far corner of the park seemed such a major safari.
Then it was suburb again and roads now busy with traffic. It was outer edge ribbon development suburb though, through the Surrey satellite towns of Ewell and Epsom. Ewell had retained the feel of a village with sunlit struck gravestones in the churchyard. Epsom had always been more of a town with a hemmed in high street and ornate clock tower at its end. It seemed unchanged since I had lived in Cheam.
Just off the town centre though I found a duck pond and park. Happily my route lay through that as I started uphill toward the North Downs. Along a road on the other side there was another lily covered pond with a seat by it where I could take a break and check the map. I learned on this hike to make use of a seat and appreciate it whenever civic altruism provided it.
By now though I was encountering the ‘stockbroker belt.’ A road towards Epsom Golf Course marked as a suburban street on the map was a ‘PRIVATE ROAD. Residents only’ according to the sign at its entrance. A neighbourhood watch notice under that reinforced the unwelcome. Further along there was more of this. I found the road leading uphill which would rejoin Stane Street but another side street on that reminded me of the same thing. This was verging on being irritating. It was as though the people who lived here felt guilty about something within those verdant green vistas of immaculate lawns and manicured hedges. It seemed I was making my way round the edge of an upmarket ghetto clustered by the golf course. Just as well I hadn’t tried crossing that! Why didn’t they go the whole hog with another notice stating HUMAN RACE KEEP OUT? It was the opposite extreme from the clutter of Tooting where welcome banners festooned its main road.
It was a long slog up the uphill lane but it was into country, past a long flint wall on the left, a sign I was heading into chalk downland. I began to see horses in the fields and Epsom racecourse was on the other side of the golf course so there were signs like ‘Racehorses crossing.’ It wasn’t the only form of racing around. The Olympics were beginning and the local club was out in strength. Hurtling down the lane in were tightly packed bunches of guys on racing bicycles competing in olympic style. This was a hazard I hadn’t thought of. An accident involving this sort of thing probably wouldn’t finish me off like a car would but it would be bad enough and in one sense this hazard was worse. It was easy to hear vehicles coming, but not bicycles. I kept my eyes peeled and got a good photograph.
One couldn’t be too careful. After awhile there was only the odd straggler. Then nothing. The T junction was in sight where Stane Street – now another lane instead of a main road – crossed the lane I was on. I’d made it to the top of the slope. I was on the right side of the lane and paused for breath at the junction.
A indignant squeal one of those hurtling cyclists right in front of me a “f*****g idiot!” As he shot past and was gone! I felt I’d been stung by a garden pest I should have had the sense to avoid! It took time to reconcile myself to what had happened but it could have been a lot worse. Insults aside I’d been warned about being on the right side of a road on blind bends by my driver, it didn’t register that being on the right side of a road meeting a T junction under a hedge might as well be one and I’d thought all those cyclists had gone. Maybe the experience would put me on my mettle tomorrow when there be more main roads.
Fortunately I was now going through country perfect to chill out in. Pyschologically anyway. I’d joined Stane Street just before a crossroads where it turned into a trackway on the other side and there was no traffic at all. Just a tree shaded stroll through woods with occasional views to the north, through mile after mile of rising country to the Dorking gap. No backpack meant it was the most relaxing part of the 65 mile walk.
I say psychologically chilling out because the weather report at Gerry’s had forecast a heatwave with London going through 30 degrees centigrade and it already felt that way where I was. I refused to call anything hot under 30 degrees because of my experience with tropical countries but once it reached that…okay that’s quite definitely hot! 5 degrees cooler could still be uncomfortable to walk in with a backpack. Although I was free of that I was glad to have those trees.
A roaring hum of traffic became obvious ahead. That must be the M25. No problem. A bridge took me high over this tension ridden canyon of traffic slicing up into the downs. Another stage reached in leaving London.
There was the occasional lane crossing the track. The map showed that a ‘B’ road was ahead too. ‘B’ roads are death traps if you’re on foot. They’re country lanes converted into an attempt at a main road with a similar density of traffic. Unlike main roads where one can see further and there’s usually some sort of verge ‘B’ roads often have none and are full of blind bends. I worked my way up one near Winchester once like infantry did in Normandy during World War 2: look carefully for a recess of hedgerow out of the line of fire or some other cover, make sure the coast is clear, a quick dash there, look again for the next refuge revealed by that minimal progress, keep moving like that.
This one was only to be crossed though and when I got there I could see a large building a short way up the hill. It looked the sort of place where I might be able to get a drink. It turned out to be a golf club with a sports shop. Not being exclusive the staff were friendly enough and I was able to get ‘Lucozade Sport!’ Just the job for someone with a physical challenge to meet and a real life saver in the heat. I relaxed with it while there was the sound of social chatter from the club terrace above and the sight of the golf course receding up the next hill into the heat haze like some strange stylised park.
Not far beyond that the view of the golf course and any other sort of view vanished and I was in woodland. Now and then I came across mudbaths left over from the wet weather and had done since the crossroads. They were limited in extent so all it took was a short pause for deliberation and one easily bypass them. Much later it occurred to me though that if the weather had been typical of what turned out to be the wettest summer in 100 years they would have been more of a problem.
Despite being on porous chalk. I was now on the North Downs. Chalk dated from the late Cretaceous when for some reason unknown the worlds sea levels rose by 300 metres. If such a thing happened now the whole of the Midlands and Southern England would be gone apart from the moors of Devon and Cornwall. It took millions of years though back then, restricting the freedom of Dinosaurs but expanding that for marine saurians such as the insanely long necked Elasmosaurus and the Mosasaurs, the closest thing to giant sea serpents ever to inhabit this planet.
Chalk formation needed that kind of time; for a museum curator asked me to imagine how long it would take for a swimming pool to congeal and become solid if flour was steadily sprinkled into it, so I could get the feel of the process.
Now the formation of the Alps had warped land far to the north of that range so the chalk had risen into the vast hump of an anticline while eroding away on the inside, forming the steep southern slopes of the North Downs. The North and South Downs marked the edges of the anticline.
I came to a kink where there was a twisted crossroads of tracks. There I met a couple who’d relied on internet instructions and were way off course. After setting them right I carried on and soon had proof that my mapreading was up to par.
There was a steep slope and there was a view of the verdant Dorking Gap off to the right where the River Mole had eroded clean through the chalk hills. I continued down the track that had become a semi gully and then I was back on a minor road that I knew would come out at a pub come hotel.
It was a huge place and popular. Eventually I tried an entrance but was confronted by an old guy dressed up in a uniform like a penguin. There was about to be a marriage and I thought I was going to be barred but he only wanted to point out cheerfully that there was a bar I could use near the other entrance. After happily obliging and wandering through there to the rear I came across a swimming pool full of people, mostly children it seemed. Sometimes I feel children have more innate sense than adults do. It looked so obvious that under all this blue sky and heat it was the only cool place to be. A bar and a cold lager or 2 wouldn’t be a bad 2nd though and after establishing that nobody minded my appearance – everywhere looked spotless – I was able to find the bar and chat with the barman about my adventure.
I left as the wedding arrived. The main road had a pavement and there was a wine farm on the other side receding up to the hills. Some time ago I’d wondered if global warming was going to bring the climate of the Loire valley up to Southern England. Later I heard that some scientists held that view and now it really seemed to be happening what with the sight of that farm in this kind of weather!
A short way from there was a roundabout with directions to a trading estate neatly laid out under some pines and before long I was at the station at Dorking. Although I was going back to London tonight I’d reached what I felt was its outermost limit. A final childhood memory was Box Hill. Where the chalk escarpment did a sudden right angled turn into the gap, hence the name. When we had a car my family would occasionally bring me out here and we’d climb it. The chalk scar where we’d gone up was now hidden by trees and the whole hill was a wooded mass, but it was the southern outpost of the memories I’d been walking through.
© D. Angus 11 12
The Longest Day part 1
Dorking. More or less the same time in the morning as the time I’d got to London Bridge. It had been a smooth ride down and I was on time for the longest day of the hike.
Trouble was, it was too early for the shops to be open for coffee and breakfast; and the only problem with the trip down had been trying out a coffee with a fancy name at Clapham Junction. My ignorance had led me into buying a uniquely favoured Italian cold coffee! Not what I wanted early in the morning. Never mind, there should be the right kind of place open on the southern edge of Dorking once I’d found my way through it.
Dorking was a hard town to get out of to the south on foot. Stane Street was absent in this area and there was no obvious alternative route but a plethora of places.
To begin with it was fun working through this with an OS map. Up a backstreet to another with a school on one side and high privet hedges on the other. Up past the school to a steep path past allotments up a hill to where another path meets the one I was on, on the edge of a wood. Head in a southerly direction through that pausing for a conversation with a lady out walking her dog at the back of some back gardens. Emerge from the wood with a morning view southwards into the Weald, down into a cul de sac past some firewood; odd to see that on this sunny soon to be hot morning. Lose the cul de sac by walking through another wood by a main road, come out at another cul de sac in a downmarket housing estate, go through that crossing a green and along a road until I can lose the housing estate by taking a subway under the main road to the edge of a playing field. Turn right along that and follow the path which eventually joins the main road then turn left at a roundabout into North Holmwood.
This was the southern edge of Dorking. It looked reasonably built up on the map and I hoped to find the right kind of place open there, but all I found was a sub post office where all I could buy were cold drinks for the day ahead and a Mars bar or 2. There was a seat for a break where the road veered to the right and a footpath kept on going across a green to a church. I headed into the woods beyond.
The woods of Holmwood went a long way to the south. If I walked through them down a track almost parallel but angled towards a main road I had to cross there was less chance of having to make my way along that road. Very nice walk too. I love the way sunlight highlights foliage throwing some of it into sharp shadow and other parts into glittering green detail. I felt privileged to be alive to see it. All was going according to plan.
Except that the noise of traffic to the right was growing louder and I felt that to be a bit early. Then I came out into a street with small houses, with the main road beyond. Better check the map.
I’d taken the wrong path across a clearing and this path angled into the main road at half the distance I was aiming for. Oh well, I had a long way to go and rather than lose time getting back on track I had to keep going.
I might as well cross this road – which was a dual carriageway – now rather than risk not being able to get across later, then hope the going isn’t difficult on the other side. There was a big yard there and then a house with a woman in the front garden. I had a conversation with her about the weather. The heat was building up. What with all the previous wet weather we seemed to be going from the ridiculous to the sublime.
The going was difficult after that though. There was no pavement after the house. Time to put my high visibility yellow school escort jacket on while draping it across my backpack to the rear. My driver had advised me to wear this on main roads with no pavements and I’d be doing this whenever I encountered these conditions. There was a verge but now and then trees would encroach to the roadside and I had to time it carefully getting past them. This landscaped fast road seemed to be populated by those drivers who’d had pretensions of making it to Le Mans and had failed, so they were working out their pretensions on this road by treating it as a racetrack. I really felt as though I didn’t belong here. As usual when one hopes the distance isn’t too far it seems to be and it was a pain working my way up this road’s car swept expanses hoping to spot the country lanes I wanted, instead of more main road with those who were driving to impress.
One break from this though was a small stone monument surrounding by iron railings set back from the road. In memory of ‘a gallant gentleman and fine sportsman who perished in the Lusitania.’ So this was erected in World War 1 ‘on his favourite road’ it seems, ‘by a few of his British coaching friends and admirers.’ Not short of money to erect this presumably. It indicated long standing money in this area. His favourite road must have been a lot different when he was around but it was still a main road. Probably with more of that delightful woodland I’d walked through. They were welcome to the present version of this road.
At last. I’d reached the village of Holmwood itself and I could see a rambling building that looked like a pub. I’d known some to be open early enough to serve that coffee I needed, and maybe breakfast too! Oh no, just as I got close I realised from the signs that it was some sort of antiques centre. Great. I could have done with life saving coffee and also a loo by now, instead of which I’d got Crap in the Attic.
At least I was off that road. I wandered through Holmwood and past another church into a labyrinth of country lanes, a great improvement. It was the muddled patchwork of small fields and woods seamed with lanes below Leith Hill in which the course of Stane Street reappears. There was a junction where I thought I’d risk taking a lane bearing left rather than check the map because I thought I’d just relax for awhile and let these lanes take me where they would. The one I’d chosen took me down to a farm while I thought I’d just take the next on the right; but the only way out of the farm was in the worst direction: back towards that thrum of failed Le Mans drivers. Shit I could see them flashing by at the end of this lane! I was back on that main road again.
Luckily I’d no sooner started along it than I found a lane veering off it again. One could see it was a remnant of the old main road that guy on the Lusitania had liked. It soon led to country lanes again.
This time I checked the map more and made easy progress down narrow lanes where any car was a rarity and where woodland trees and field furrows cast patterns of shadow and texture on golden masses of wheat motionless in the summer heat. This was more like what I wanted to ramble through.
There was a junction of 5 lanes in a wood with a house there. The name ‘Gingerbread House’ came to mind; maybe because the walls were the same colour as the wheat in every field here. The map showed me that the lane past it on the left was what I wanted.
Then I noticed a sign, small but unmistakeable and not so old as to be unreadable. That lane was barred by the same message as those guarding the Surrey stockbrokers at Epsom.
The house took on a sinister air. What was it guarding? A neo Nazi organisation, secret germ warfare establishment, or merely some dubious character with loads of money? Hadn’t Pinochet found refuge in Surrey or somewhere near this part of the world? I could take a chance and pretend I hadn’t seen the notice but CCTV was probably trained on me as I was thinking about it. Also I remembered a TV documentary about an old rambling route. The presenter and camera crew had persisted in these circumstances only to encounter landowners about as intelligent as those small vicious dogs I used to enrage by existing when I was doing home shopping. The frumpy woman in particular just kept barking “GET OFF OUR LAND!” and should have been entered for Crufts.
The thought of that on its own was enough to put me off and I resigned myself to a broken dog leg south to another main road I’d been trying to avoid.
As for it being a longer route to a loo;- when the going gets tough the tough get going.
I held off joining the next main road by taking a footpath just short of it, which led past what looked like a huge wooded back garden, landscaped under the trees. Beyond that was a wheat field I made my way through; through those field patterns of green furrows and blocks of shadow thrown by a neighbouring wood.
At the top of a slope was nothing further, but a track leading down a hill to the main road, with a view of the country I had to cross to the south fading into the summer heat.
The other way was Leith Hill. More a forested ridge from this point than a hill, though it was actually the highest point in south east England, just under 1,000 feet. A local 18th century eccentric erected a gothic tower on top – which I could make out – in an attempt to make it over 1,000 feet.
Leith Hill was actually part of a zigzag broken escarpment within the escarpment of chalk downs, running from here down past Hindhead and Haslemere. It was within or south of the North downs because there was older rock here being exposed and worn away on the Wealden anticline, like a lower layer of skin exposed on a blister after the outer skin has gone. All this is Lower Greensand geology eroded down to Wealden Clay. In terms of time that meant Mid to Lower Cretaceous: 90 to about 130 million years ago. The further south I was walking the less marine the strata became because there was more land here in the Lower Cretaceous. It meant that I was entering Dinosaur country, in a manner of speaking. From here to the South Downs I would be walking where double decker bus sized Iguanodons had strode and the odd saloon car sized armoured Polacanthus. If I’d had a similar view south then I might spot the long upright neck of a Brachiosaurus from afar, while being more concerned about gangs of ‘Raptors’ or the occasional Neovenator or Baryonyx: Giant two legged nightmares with teeth.
I knew they were here then because Wealden Clay outcrops on the Isle of Wight coast where it’s washed away by storms coming up the Channel exposing these Dinosaurs. Nearly all the ones I’ve just mentioned have been found there, though the Velociraptors were represented by Eotyrannus which was a similar animal, although it was the ancestor of Tyrannosaurus. Baryonyx was found in a Surrey clay pit. I’ve found fossil scales of a man sized fish on the Isle of Wight though and apparently the same scales were found in a Baryonyx stomach. So back then I might have been competing with this 30 foot long carnivorous Dinosaur for it! It seems that Baryonyx could have flipped that type of fish out of primeval rivers Grizzly style with its foot long claws.
I’ve worked out that proportionately the height of an average adult to an average infant is comparable to that of the height of a Dinosaur slightly smaller than Iguanodon is to us adults. Maybe that’s an unflattering comparison but when I was an infant I did wonder what the world looked like from the height of those giant ‘grownups?’ I bear this in mind sometimes when I’m working with children.
Enough contemplation. Back to the unloved hum of traffic and the tension of minding it on a main road. I came across another irritating sign: ‘no turning.’ A prominent travel writer found the same sign at driveway entrances near Oxford and marvelled at the petty nature of landowners there; going to the trouble of erecting that in order to forbid some lost soul in their car trying to improve their situation. Maybe in a thousand years cars turning on driveway entrances are a worse erosive force than that which carved out the Weald, but in the time one owns a property? The odd scrape with a rake for exercise every few years surely?
Luckily the stretch of main road I’d resigned myself to – and it felt narrow enough to be a ‘B’ road – didn’t last too long before it joined Stane Street. With some regret I looked up the lane I should have come out on, but at least I was now on my Roman road which meant fewer bends. Vision could still be restricted a bit by the terrain which while not exactly hilly was steadily undulating and would continue to be so across the Weald. Now I had to cover a similar distance to the main road I’d just walked down, to the village of Ockley.
Roll on the pub! I’d found on Google Earth that there was one at Ockley’s northern edge. By now I was in sore need of everything it could offer.
My first sighting of this public house was its silhouette for the building was at the top of a rise with the sun behind it. Two Victorian street lights by the car park before the pub looked surreal in the glare. At the entrance there was another forbidding notice about being correctly dressed but I hoped that was a thing of the past. Adjusting my eyes to the gloom within I could make out the barman and about one customer. “First thing I need is a pint of lager” I declared “but the first thing I need before that is the loo.” No problem. The barman directed me in a friendly manner to the back of the pub.
What a relief.
When I came back the man had gone and the lady of the house was there. Before long she was conferring with another woman over some paperwork but not before she’d gleaned what I was about with some interest, plied me with beer, brunch and coffee. I learned that nobody took any notice of the correct clothing notice at the entrance. It was just a relic of days gone by.
‘The Kings Arms’ (the pub) had had a bad review in Google but I also learned in Google that it was under new management. It looked as though I’d encountered the new management improving things, for I got all I wanted there and things became easier for some distance after this place.
Ockley didn’t seem to have a village centre but was strung out down Stane Street. This worked in my favour because there was a pavement for a long way. The pub and beer garden near the other end looked absolutely beautiful and it would have become a pub crawl had the distance on that day been shorter but no, I still had a long way to go and I’d not long been out of a pub. I reached the end of Ockley and pavement and the hot open road stretched before me again.
After about the same distance from joining Stane Street near Leith Hill to Ockley the main road bent left into a detour to the east around a hillier area. Stane Street became lanes, straightened out again through what might be private property, then lost itself in footpaths and fields until it became a main road again. Then it was a final long trek down that road.
After Stane Street became a more relaxed lane it wound up a hill through a tree tunnel. If I turned left at the top I could rejoin it where it became straight again. A short way uphill to the right though was the next pub I was making for. It wasn’t just for liquid refreshment. Finding my way across country to where Stane Street became a main road again was an interesting problem and I felt it always paid to ask the locals wherever one was in the world. Where better to do that in England than a pub?
Oakwoodhill was where I was at and the pub was nice. So was the barmaid. In chatting to her and a local or two I learned that they were sure I could walk down Stane Street where it straightened out again, but they didn’t know about what was south of there. It was so pleasant relaxing at that pub. The barmaid’s mother turned up and both women wore shorts which I confess I’m partial to. They were entertained by my adventure and we drank outside in front, where Union Jacks hung up on the pub for the Olympics overlooked tables on a lawn shaded from the sun by umbrellas. Children played around us. A guy came up and offered me a huge bottle of coke. To begin with I politely turned him down because of the weight of it; but later – being probably mellowed out with drink – I took it on board. I’d taken care to have more orange juices with lots of ice rather than lager; but they were adding up and it was getting late so I should move on.
© D Angus 12 12
The Longest Day part 2
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
24th July 2012
I treated myself to a lie in until near 9 o clock. By then I was ready for a short stroll to the Little Chef for breakfast.
The interior had a curiously dilapidated air and there didn’t seem to be any customers. It was because they were closing down and today was their last day! I was told this by a staff member about to lose her job but who took good care of me with a good fry up. One of the treats of hiking is not worrying about gorging and quaffing stuff that’s supposed to be unhealthy without exercise when one can burn it off on the road, ‘specially when one thinks of a day like yesterday. All depends on lifestyle anyway. Piece of luck though me being at this Little Chef today rather than tomorrow.
I felt as though my body had maintained a skeleton crew working through the night to prepare me for today’s hike. Now I should just about be up for it. It should be easier than yesterday anyway although at first sight it looked the opposite for it was main road nearly all the way! It looked worse than it was though for 4 reasons:
The distance was something like 12 miles. About 2 thirds of yesterday. Less actually, because of those landowner diversions.
One good thing about main roads is that it’s harder to be diverted from them.
Another was that mapreading would be easier. Something I would find boring on a normal hike but after yesterday that would be welcome. The main road was Stane Street all the way apart from the last few miles.
There were 3 small towns or large villages on this road. That meant more chance of pavements and places for liquid replenishment. Yesterday I’d crossed a desert in that respect between Oakwoodhill and here. That coke they gave me at the pub had proved crucial.
There was a problem though. My mobile phone told me it was on it’s last legs when I got back to the room (it really picks its moments!) which gave me the morale building feeling that I’d been daft enough to forget the recharging equipment. The travelodge staff found stuff that would do the job and I’d like to make it clear at this point that I heartily recommend Travelodge staff! The ones at the place I was at anyway, which makes the odds good enough to take a bet on the others I feel.
Then I thought I hadn’t turned the connection on. Later I found I had and I’d turned it off instead. After correcting that a buildup of boredom with daytime television and running out of time prompted me to take a chance and leave with a mobile phone that assured me of ‘limited’ service. I’ve been accused of being impractical. I try to be thorough but there’s always that maddening something. I hoped that wouldn’t rob me of decisive success this time when the time was right to contact the press.
There was no pavement south of the Travelodge. For a mere mile. Then I was at a roundabout with a heraldic sign proclaiming the first of those 3 places I was to hike through: Billingshurst. The main road went into a bypass here but the Roman road just kept right on as they often do, through the centre of this place.
Billingshurst was a lively little town with shops that enabled one to replenish supplies and a nicely placed bench on an embankment above the road, where one could have a break for a drink and a map check.
Then there was another roundabout on the other side of Billingshurst where the bypassing main road joined Stane Street again.
After that it looked like the road was losing its pavement and becoming dangerous again with walls of foliage hemming one into an incline of killer traffic. Instead of ending though the pavement went into a hedge and continued up the other side of it. It was a cool sensation wandering along what looked like a woodland path with the illusion only spoilt by the occasional truck thundering by feet from me on the other side of the hedge. As well as that traffic noise of course. Still, if only more of this road was designed like this.
After it had ascended the incline the path emerged to become roadside pavement again and just continued; until it came to the village of Adversane, complete with villlage green and lovely looking pub on the other side of that.
The Blacksmiths Arms was a quarter of the way towards Pulborough. I took shelter from the buildup of another hot day in its shadowy interior. The barmaid was a school leaver about to go into teaching. Very interested in my job with Special Needs children. I took care never to divulge any personal information but still might have given her enough for a career adjustment. Meanwhile along with a meal I had what had become my most frequent drink for this walk: orange juice with lots of ice, the cubes of which I would swallow when they became small enough. Well it was one way of keeping cool and another way of avoiding dehydration.
There was no pavement after the Blacksmiths Arms.
Before long though there was. For a short distance before ending again.
Not far after that though there was another. Intermittent pavements. I see. Fair enough.
This one though just kept on. And on. And on. Past fields, farms, woods, houses, down tree lined vistas of road. All the way to Codmore Hill and beyond. That was as good as Pulborough for Codmore Hill was just north of there. There were more places to buy drinks too. The weather was the same as yesterday: too much of a good thing; but I hadn’t expected there to be this much pavement. Compared to yesterday this was a piece of cake.
Codmore Hill itself – which I’d been warned about – left me with the feeling ‘was that it?’ Granted it was a hill but it seemed hardly more so than those I’d crossed yesterday flattening myself into hedges rather than strolling down this pavement.
I crossed a bridge over the first railway I’d seen since Dorking. Soon after that a heraldic sign announced I was about to enter Pulborough.
Pulborough had a lovely church but that was up a steep incline so I didn’t visit. The town lay lengthwise along a river and I crossed one end of it. Maybe that was why I didn’t see much in the way of places that were to my mind people friendly; like shops selling drinks, snacks to eat and pubs of course. Instead there were estate agents which to my mind weren’t.
The river on the other side of Pulborough was a fully fledged one and it had a huge catchment area. The stream I’d crossed at the foot of the tree tunnel hill before the Oakwoodhill pub, the brown offering I’d been misled to, also the stream crossed by the bridge I’d sat on before that final long haul down Stane Street yesterday: that was all the same stream which grew into this river, with the help of some others.
From the bridge over it one could see the South Downs again. These hills were more of a long ridge cresting the horizon now, like a huge static ocean wave heaving up before breaking on to a beach.
There was a floodplain beyond the bridge which meant level going. There was less traffic. Pulborough was a main road junction so that must be the reason. It turned out there was a pavement or footpath by the road all the way to Coldwaltham too. There was even something of an avenue of trees along this road. Trees were much sought after to avoid the heat. It all should have meant easier going but for some perverse reason I felt my strength flagging. Maybe it was blisters. They were beginning to make themselves felt. I’d expected their appearance earlier but those new boots I’d bought were good ones and the blisters had held off until now.
Coldwaltham – the third village/town – was ahead. A pub was marked there on the map and that would be most welcome on the fourth day of my march. It was the third hot one and the first day in London hadn’t been much cooler. The distance from Pulborough to Coldwaltham was much shorter than from Billingshurst to Pulborough but it seemed to take a long time to get to Coldwaltham.
Eventually I was there but it seemed to take a long time to get to the pub. At last! There was its sign. But it turned out to be the sign for Coldwaltham itself! Instead of being on the edge of town like Billingshurst and Pulborough this sign was placed well within Coldwaltham for some perverse reason.
I never found the pub. Checking Google recently I found it tucked down a side street. I never found any kind of shop either. Just plenty of properties amidst the village greenery which although well kept were not actually picturesque. It looked as though I’d wound up in 2nd home zone land; hobbling my way along the length of an architectural version of a manicured corpse. It was a village or small town only in name. There was hardly anyone around either. Coldwaltham was dead. There was another lovely church though.
On a hill beyond was a view of the South Downs. Much closer now. A rampart of hills I would cross tomorrow. The southern edge of the Wealden anticline.
Further on the main road curved to the left and I carried on into country lanes again. Always a real relief from a main road. People quietly fishing by a network of ponds on the left seemed to sum it all up. The lanes led into a landscape of idyllic fields and hills past a signpost that hadn’t changed since World War 2. Then up a tree shaded hill past tennis courts with people playing tennis in this paradise. It looked as though I’d entered the ‘sceptred isle’ version of England that people imagine should exist. The idealised England sought after by foreign tourists such as Americans. It was all real enough here. No wonder this was part of a national park, although I’d crossed its border back at Pulborough.
The hill was actually the edge of a terrace of land at the foot of the downs. A lower level of strata but more recent than everything back to Leith Hill. I was coming up out of Dinosaur country.
The paradise feeling continued past a gate between a hedge and garage which gave a glimpse of dazzling gardens beyond. HG Wells once wrote a short story about a door in a wall that led into another world of endless gardens and parks that left one with a sense of longing. That’s what it reminded me of.
I’d reached the edge of the village of West Burton. An unremarkable name but what a visual treat of a village! Maybe there was no village shop commerce here either but historic architectural gems were tucked away amidst variegated greenery. Roadside borders of flowers such as roses and geraniums, grass too as neat as newly mown lawns. A privet hedge sculpted intensely enough to look solid. West Burton was in fact half village half garden. Maybe it was getting towards that world HG Wells imagined. The grass invited me to just sit for awhile in all this beauty, but I couldn’t stay long. I was due at my bed and breakfast and although I had just one more mile to go I wasn’t there yet.
A track off to the right beyond a hedge with distant poplars formed the border of West Burton and the lane wandered on parallel to the South Downs. Only a few fields away now. Its scarp slope walling in the southern horizon, clothed in woods hazy with the summer sunshine, contrasting with the fields of golden wheat ripe for harvesting before it.
My feet were sore but I knew – rambling through this countryside – why I wanted to have the freedom to ramble for as long as possible. It wasn’t just keeping fit. It was getting out there and really seeing what sort of world we exist in, exploring it, experiencing it. Experiencing the adventure of wandering through a land such as this, or foreign parts strange enough to be other worlds, along with the challenges of what I’d been through, never being sure of what one will discover, the pleasures along with the perils, while having time to take memorable photos of the whole thing. Being an incurable fantasist I’d always wanted to be physically up for a Lord of the Rings type trek, or any good journey in an SF novel, in the unlikely event of the occasion calling for it. Rather than the usual mundane dash from A to B in motorised comfort that walls one off from sensation and experience. Besides I was also into geology and the natural world generally and would have loved fieldwork had I been able to go professional.
The roads I’d rambled along had left the course of the Roman road around Pulborough. Now it had altered course more towards the west, only existing as a dotted line on the map through fields and across lanes before slanting up the scarp slope of the downs near the lane I was to ascend tomorrow. There was more though: a Roman villa marked on the map just outside the village of Bignor.
My bed and breakfast was there and – I’d been told – was by the Roman villa.
I reached the track to the villa heading the other way from the Downs. The villa had just closed: the consequences of starting late from the Travelodge.
Beyond that on the villa side was a vineyard. Talk about Roman influence. No house though. The edge of Bignor could be seen not far away though with a prominent house. Try that one.
Success. Stane House. That’s what I was looking for. They’d named it after the Roman road. Victorian in vintage but not ostentatiously so. I knocked at the door and just stood there, not minding waiting, just content that another days hike was at an end.
Eventually the door was opened. The lady opening it told me it was the first time anyone had knocked at the front of the house. I briefly filled her in about the adventure I was attempting by way of explanation.
They took me through the house which looked of average size from the front but went back a long way. The couple here were old but I’ve never seen such healthy looking old people. Would I like a bath – I’m sorry we don’t have a shower – or be shown around? A bath would be just fine! Normally I shower but I prefer a bath by way of relaxation if I’ve had a day of hard graft.
Up a flight of stairs at the back of the house was my room with en suite bathroom. Everything there – including the brass bed – was in Victorian style. Beautifully maintained. Later I realised that was true of the rest of the house I saw. A sash window offered a view looking back towards the Roman villa over the sunlight vineyard and the lane I’d made my way down.
Some time later I got out of the bath, into clean clothes, and went downstairs. Nobody around. I emerged into the garden. Nobody there either. There was that Marie Celeste feeling. It was a good time to explore.
Initially the garden seemed to run along the side of the house in small straight paths between rectangular walled flowerbeds. I think there was a water tank too.
The more I explored though the more I wondered how far this garden extended? There was a lawn beyond to the edge of a generous sized pond backed into masses of garden foliage and subtropical plants. At the back of that on a higher level was another lawn. Everything picked out in that quality of light I love: the overwhelming amount of sunlit detail, of foliage of all sorts. Like a never never land made up of organic glittering green jewellery where it’s impossible not to feel at peace. No wonder the couple here looked healthy.
Wandering back down the side of the house there was sudden mutual surprise when I passed an open window. The man of the house was there with a computer: a surprise in this place in itself.
We chatted and the lady made me tea. Though I complimented them on their garden I can’t remember if they said they maintained it all themselves. They had the occasional event at their local church when – from their description – they’d tried to insert a jungle into the church. Eventually a combination of British apathy and the odd killjoy killed off this enterprise, which I would like to have seen.
A photo was taken of me in that garden with the South Downs as a backdrop for the journalist who wanted photos of me in memorable places.
Would I like to be driven to a pub in a neighbouring village? They were driving off to see friends and could drop me there, but I would have to walk back though. Thanking them I declined the offer. Chances are the pub and village would have been lovely, together with the evening stroll of a mile or two through this countryside, but although it might have been laziness after walking 12 miles there was the logic of not bothering to go out for a drink when I was high already. I guess I’m no alcoholic.
What time would I like breakfast in the morning? My indecision on that led to an offer of 9 which I accepted. Maybe it should have been 8 but the dice was rolled.
They left and I did what I preferred to the pub: savour that garden. After all, pubs were part of my normal life but this kind of garden wasn’t. I explored further. There was a pergola leading to the lawns. That and the only side of the house I hadn’t seen was festooned in greenery and flowers, along with Union Jack bunting down the side of the house to celebrate the Olympics. All bathed in soft evening light. Anyway I took a nice photo of horses grazing blissfully in this light beyond the garden, in fields going back towards the South Downs ¼ of a mile away. Something for the children at the school perhaps. Then I read my paperback sitting in a garden chair.
As long ago as when I was a teenager I felt it was a privilege to be British after all when the weather was like this in summer and there were these long sunlit evenings flooding the landscape with golden light. Indeed there’s hardly any land like this on Earth. The only place in the northern hemisphere outside Western Europe with this combination of climate and length of summer day is around Vancouver, Canada. Even there the scenery is different. As for the southern hemisphere there’s no land at all at comparable latitudes, apart from Tierra del Fuego. One day I really must make a planet where what I was seeing is the rule.
Maybe this kind of environment was why the couple here wanted a cheque instead of online payment: they’d made a marvellous job of living in a different time zone. The computer was just about their only concession along with their website. Otherwise this house and garden were not of this frenetic world as I know it: just on the other side of the South Downs, so close now.
I retired to my room and sumptuous bed. The TV was one other concession. I surfed that as the sun went down.
© D Angus 01 13
The final day
How was I going to get up the hill with the breakfast they were giving me? It was enormous! I wasn’t going to waste any of it though.
Despite the lateness in starting I thought I’d trudge back up the lane to check opening times at the entrance to the track leading up to the Roman Villa. Not ’till 10 am. Today was only 10 miles but I just couldn’t really wait that long.
I set off through the rest of the village of Bignor. Just about as good as West Burton and half village half garden again. This time there was a ditch which was only a foot wide slot set into the impeccably neat grass of the village green. It looked more like an irrigation canal actually.
The start of Bignor Hill up to the top of the South Downs was a short field’s length away from the village. A final pause to look at the cultivation patterns in the sunlit wheat. Then up into where trees shaded the lane and the world seemed to tilt upwards.
Steep it certainly was and it was another hot halcyon day like the last 3, so I was wearing shorts today because this was the least populated section of the walk, short of Chichester anyway. Previously I’d been wearing jeans and the sweat had been pouring off me. I not only had shorts on now though but the lane was a tree tunnel too, up through a dense wood so I got plenty of shade. Trees had become much sought after on this walk for that reason. Also specially designed blister patches I’d bought were taking care of most of their soreness. Lanes seemed not quite as hard underfoot as main roads though that could have been psychological. As for vehicles they were rare, looked lost and couldn’t move quickly. One could hear them coming a long way off anyway.
After long enough looking at the lane in front of my feet and not the hill I was climbing up I had a break. About half way up I sat on a log and chatted with another hiker on his way down the hill. The only hiker I’d seen on the whole journey come to think of it. I’d nearly reached the South Downs way so I was coming into that kind of country now. We weren’t far from a gap in the hills and he was on his way to a town there.
I emerged from the woods, the gradient was levelling out and I was on top of the South Downs! Normally one would be looking for spectacular views back across the Weald but the first sight that struck me was the other way. The ridgeline of the downs was in the form of a hill to the east. A huge dome of wheatfield like the top of a head with a crew cut. The South Downs way cut through that like a parting, complete with fleas toiling up it. Oh they’re people! It gave one a new perspective on the scale of man in landscape, even on this crowded island called England.
There were beautiful views northwards too of course and of course I just had to take photos of everything.
I drank a bottle of Lucozade I’d actually carted all the way from Dorking, saving it for this moment. It was my way of celebrating making it this far and now it was going to be downhill all the way. Vintage Lucozade seemed a bit like warm champagne.
The Roman road was supposed to become evident around here stretching in a dead straight path across the South Downs until it joined a main road again and straightened that out all the way into Chichester. Before I could reach it though I had to negotiate a rats nest of paths which were ways mown through grass and trees. A beacon on top of where the escarpment edged north helped me navigate, and help a woman find the way to a farm along the route her son was at.
I was on top of a grassy dike. Wait a minute. It was a straight dike and going in the right direction. This was it! This was the Roman road, Stane Street in its purest form. That road which had been the straight main road leading into London I’d known as a boy, wondering where it went the other way? That road which had become a track through the North Downs woods, disappearing under Dorking to re-appear as a main road again across the Weald. It was finally under my feet as the real article. The original rubble foundation of a main road laid down in a civilization existing 2,000 years ago was separated from my feet by a blanket of grass; nothing else.
Well. I finally knew where it went and what shape it took.
And this dike was an even better walk than the North Downs. The grass was softer on my feet for one thing. The dike that was the road angled across the Downs in a gradient that was generally gently downhill; through grassy glens and trees to a great slope of grassland with views far reaching enough for the land to dissolve into the sky! That might be the Isle of Wight on the horizon about to float off into the blue. As for the sea to the south it was hard to make it out properly. The Sussex summer haze had had several days to build up here.
I could just make out something unusual far away on the coastal plain but dead ahead in line with the dike. Spikey? Pale grey stone. Almost like a rough diamond. That had to be the spire of Chichester Cathedral so journey’s end was actually in sight! Much too far away though for me to phone the journalists to come and meet me though. I told them I’d do that when I first saw the spire.
In between and much closer was an expanse of poppy hued red on a hill beyond a large wood I had to go through. Couldn’t be a field of them could it?
A photo would be good here. If only that sheep on the Roman road dike would move from grazing that spot with its bum in the air. The sheep doing the moony was oblivious to its indecency though and wouldn’t be moving anytime soon, so I gave up and took the photo anyway.
Sheep were everywhere on the Downs. I saw a whole convention of them sitting neatly within the confines of a shady patch provided by the tree they were under.
There were more hikers too. Two of them made for a farm downhill to the left. Some sort of hiking centre which that woman back on the hill was looking for.
Horse riders too. 2 of them passed me on the final approach to the wood.
I got a photo of another in the wood. Along with people out for a stroll along the network of tracks and paths there, pausing to catch their breath by a signpost, disappearing into the distance. The Roman road just kept on going, its dike swamped by vegetation but one was still at a higher level than the ground to the side. After vistas of woodland beyond tree trunks, sunlit and shadowy foliage, the wood felt as though it was more of a forest in size, but after a mile I came to a road. I’ve just measured the distance on Google.
No traffic on the road. Straight across that and over a bank was my old friend the Roman road again, in the form of a track on a dike leading through a thicket of a wood.
Much smaller than the last wood though. Open fields again. I was on the edge of that red field and it was indeed a great big field of poppies! Like something misplaced from The Wizard of Oz. The photo I took was one of my more unusual ones on this walk.
Unfortunately the Roman road had diminished into a path on the edge of this field and ended half way along it. An open gate and more wild flowers beckoned me into a walk that ended with me having to go down and back most of a field for the privilege of being on a main road again.
Some way after that it straightened into the Roman road and I crossed under a pylon line towards the stark edge of a new housing estate on top of the slope beyond. I was just to the north of Boxgrove, where early Stone Age tools had been found. There was a lot on this side of Chichester: what with Boxgrove, the site of Tangmere Airfield of Battle of Britain fame and Goodwood. I was closing in on the final approach to the old city and beyond the estate I came upon a pub. Perfectly placed for a pint and lunch.
I had much to celebrate. I’d come 60 miles accomplishing nearly all I’d set out to do and was now less than 5 miles from the centre of Chichester. Within striking distance of a Roman triumph and one last push would do it!
There was a quiet spacious beer garden to the rear. I was ready to continue and this was ideal for a mobile phone call to the press. I’d taken care to get a direct line to the editors office from the guy I’d liaised with on the day I left for London. That would neatly avoid getting snarled up in an automated phone system which had done its best to lose me, as is their wont.
Unfortunately though I’d overlooked making a note of his name and couldn’t remember it. An embarrassing error and I hoped he had things prepared.
I hoped it would be him picking up the phone but it was another fellow who seemed confused when I told him there wasn’t much time because my mobile was on its last legs but I was the 62 year old who’d contacted the editors office just before walking from London to Chichester and was nearly there. Not a good sign but he said he’d tell the others.
Courage. Also time I was moving out. I was behind schedule really.
Just before I did so my mobile phone rang and it was a well spoken girl from the same office. Something about her cheerfulness smacked of insincerity though and it got much worse:-
Chichester was not in their area so they weren’t really interested.
“But it’s all arranged!” Frantically I explained what the arrangement was and how it had come about while being aware that I was working against the clock. (Why didn’t these people TELL each other anything?)
“Oh. What’s his name?”
She would have to go for that! Frantically I clutched at a straw mentioning a name I thought might be close.
That only made things worse; the only Steven she knew worked for the paper covering Chichester and I hadn’t heard anything from them so I had to waste more time explaining that! The co-operation I’d had in previous years from the press had led me to completely underestimate how bad they’d become this time.
The phone started to break up missing words randomly but still picking up the odd sentence. I’d forgotten if I’d explained this urgency to her in the panic but the guy I’d initially spoken to should have anyway.
“It is a bad line isn’t it?”
“THAT’S BECAUSE” my mobile was on it’s last legs.
“What?” It was seriously breaking up now. I got the message across on the 3rd attempt.
“What proof have you got?”
Oh GOD! Think! I’d planned for that! What was it? Photographs 1 a mile! I started trying to explain that while about one in 4 of my words was getting through. Then I had a brainwave. “I took over 300 of them!”
That sentence got through. So did hers. “Oh that’s interesting.”………………………………………………..
That was the last communication. The mobile was dead.
Well. Thanks for nothing. Hope you find your boyfriend with somebody else.
With those thoughts I left the pub and got going. Maybe I was making the wrong choice but trying to phone the editors office from the pub would have meant their automated phone system which was another nightmare I couldn’t face. And I was late anyway.
My local community had called me a hero. Many must be more deserving of that title, braving things I would bottle out of. Nevertheless I had a statement to make on behalf of them:
I do not believe a female of this sort should be allowed access to any man attempting to achieve anything worthwhile.
Or for that matter, any woman.
I passed a housing estate cul-de-sac and reached a church, probably Saxon. 2 old ladies were approaching the entrance and I gained some succour from a conversation with them which was far nicer than what had just happened.
It had hit me where it hurt. I thought one perk of being a hero might be love, support or interest from the fairer sex. To be perfectly honest it would be fantastic now to have the love of my life waiting at home or the cathedral for me, or going some of the distance with me, or an erotic experience after this trek of the sort Michael Palin encountered as Sir Galahad in Monty Python’s Quest For The Holy Grail. Castle Anthrax. Where the girls were far too young for me and had an unfortunate lack of skill in naming things, but the idea was what I would have appreciated: lovely ladies waiting for a knight (or minor hero to bathe) to liven up their lonely life “bathing…dressing…undressing…making exciting underwear.” That last bit appealed to my sense of humour especially. Poor chaste Michael Palin was just coming round to the idea when the other knights were thoughtless enough to rescue him.
Fat chance of that but I’d still settle for some attention however limited. Or what happens in ‘Hollywood’ when the hero’s in trouble at the last hurdle: a lady behaving like a heroine.
Instead of any of that though this …. wonder? …. had just wasted what was left of my mobile phone power by trashing the media part of this enterprise thereby wiping out £100’s we might have got for the school, while making me feel it was my fault. I was the fool it was fun to get rid of. She’d even managed – by last second interest – to leave me with that sick sense of lingering hope combined with the feeling they weren’t going to show up anyway. Nice one! A true artiste.
I must be near Goodwood airfield. A light plane soared overhead. I should be seeing the Cathedral spire soon and I could really do with that uplifting sight right now.
What had happened must be the one thing I couldn’t cope with for there was no one at home for me either but I accepted that. I was more than able to go it alone, to see what I was capable of on my own, let alone the reasons I’ve given earlier for doing this. One could still get so much out of life in this way doing what one was good at while helping others. Where’s the problem?
The final part of any long hike though can be the toughest psychologically and what you really don’t need is a shambles like this snatched from the jaws of victory on this stretch
I was passing a crematorium. A reminder of a future I couldn’t escape from that I didn’t need at any time, but especially right now.
Okay so I’d finally been unable to avoid the title of idiot being bestowed upon me by forgetting that journalist’s name and not managing to look after my mobile phone. Maybe it had something to do with organising this on my own while dealing with the paralysis of health and safety, a charity website and press that was worse than useless, being mucked around by landowners on the toughest day and still walking 65 miles anyway when I’m 62! (Fer Chrissake gimme a break!)
I was approaching a notice. It was the city boundary. Where the hell was that spire though?
It was the ‘positive’ manner of her voice that I found hard to take. One hears similar voices in marketing and advertising, where positive thinking – if it can be called thinking – is not about achieving or doing things but about what you appear to be. And if one appears to be the bright cheerful positive sort one can do no wrong, so anyone daring not to fit in must be negative and therefore wrong by definition.
There was the spire! But it still looked a long way off and I felt the damage was done. Maybe because of what had happened or because my feet were getting sore again I was moving too slowly and I was late. Chances are if the journalists had shown up and found me not there they would have left again.
Maybe I was being unfair on her. The editor – whom I’d never managed to speak to – was supposed to control things and he had a name which didn’t inspire my confidence. I’d known 3 people with the same name in my life and 2 of them had been screwups. Think I’ve just found a 3rd.
I passed builders renovating a house that seemed to be cracking apart. Struck a chord in these circumstances.
Why not fall back on that male resort of getting drunk when things go wrong like my friend the Tooting Teddy? I felt rebellious against … well everything really. If despite my best efforts I was just irrelevant why bother with anything apart from my creature comforts? Turning up pissed at a Cathedral had a certain style in these circumstances and I started to keep my eye open for a pub. I’d have a pint at each one I found.
I think the pub I found was beyond a monument in a park. That pint I had there went down well. I left looking for more.
There was a clock above a street corner with the time coming up to 10 to 4. Beyond that there seemed to be no more pubs but that might have been because down the street I was heading I could see bunting hanging above, like it was up there to celebrate a hero who hadn’t arrived. As I got there people were going about their business as normal, almost as though they’d given up waiting.
The spire was in full view now and close enough for me not to want to stop anymore. Nearly there.
I wound my way through tourists past the bulk of Chichester Cathedral to the West Entrance at the other end, which is where I’d been asked to appear. The thing that should inspire awe when one is in the presence of Cathedrals – apart from their soaring ornate structures – is a sense of what the surrounding architecture was like when they were built. Nothing was approaching the same scale and much of that was mud and thatch. It’s a window on to the way people felt and thought then, how important Christianity was at that time.
A pair of doorkeepers were there and I tried to explain who I was. They’d been expecting “a pilgrim” but he should have come earlier. Pilgrim was not exactly what I had in mind when I undertook this venture but it was an understandable definition of what I’d done coming from devout Christians. After all I was now at a centre of Christianity.
“Well, I’ve walked 65 miles from London Bridge.” That was good enough for them, but I suddenly became aware I was wearing shorts and asked them if that was not suitable clothing for the Cathedral? It soon became clear that they just didn’t care about that as I was promptly ushered inside, led to a chair near the entrance and sat down.
Had the press shown up? They hadn’t seen anyone. I actually felt relieved. At least the press hadn’t turned up and gone away again on top of what had happened. Had I contacted their local paper? I hadn’t heard anything. Their response to that was a remarkably un-Christian rolling of the eyes, which gave a clue as to the calibre of their local press too.
A gaggle of mini skirted teenage girls showed up at the entrance jabbering away like a flock of starlings on speed. They were probably all high on some teeny bop alcohol pop which is probably why the doorkeepers wouldn’t allow them in. It occurs to me now though that they were the same vintage as those Castle Anthrax maidens and although they were far too young for me it was as though the doorkeepers had been my moral guardians in the same way as those knights were with Sir Galahad.
It could have been that they didn’t want the girls competing – verbally – with the lady I’d been told would see me. From the shadowy expanse of the Cathedral came a melodious woman’s voice reciting The Lords Prayer; which took me back to my junior school where we recited that in assembly.
She wasn’t young but had that ageless quality I’d seen in the couple with the paradise garden on the other side of the hills I’d crossed today. Dressed in purple robes if my memory’s correct though I’ve just checked Google images and they only seem to show blue robes for the Cathedral. Either way she was resplendent in those robes and a lady priest is an unusual sight so I rose from my chair out of respect; but the response to that was a wail from her and murmurs of concern from the doorkeepers. They didn’t want me taxing myself further after walking all the way here from London. To my surprise the respect seemed to be coming the other way from them to me.
For a while we conversed on that spot. The doorkeepers and I had been talking about the afterlife and the consensus amongst them now that she was here was death being ‘the great adventure.’ I can’t say I was wildly excited by that, preferring to concentrate on the adventures of life for which there was rarely enough time. Was there an afterlife? What would I know? I’d like to think so and believed there was some evidence for it from near death experiences; but I didn’t think it was conclusive. I had discussed this with a Jewish friend and we’d come to the conclusion that being adamant about there being nothing afterwards was – in its own way – as dogmatic as being adamant that there was. One thing I could be sure of: it was best to do something worthwhile with this life, or enjoy as much of it as possible – the two could be compatible – or be good more often than not, regardless of the final answer because that would count either way.
She took me to the refectory, off to the side of the main Cathedral down a cloistered walk past semi abstract sculptures of dignitaries on a lawn. She called them statues.
I’d had my differences with organised religion. The easy relationship with Christianity in childhood (where you could always wind them up with sputniks and Dinosaurs anyway) had deteriorated through the next 20 years when the freedom one sought then was apparently opposed by repressive morality. Things reached an all time low by the time I’d returned from South Africa where I’d experienced the excesses of the Dutch Reformed Church. Then there was a long mellowing out process through 13 years with an eccentric Catholic landlady who persisted in writing to the Pope advising him in favour of birth control! Rumour had it they were praying for her. How could one help that affecting one favourably?
Now it seemed I was being honoured in historic surroundings by a lady of religion in robes. A Lay Preacher I later learned. Well, I should accept this for what it was and let its magic work on me. It was certainly undeniable that these people had a real sense of occasion lacking elsewhere; and if it wasn’t right for ‘Gladiator’ it would have been appreciated by the the Knights Of The Round Table. It was time for a reconciliation with Christianity.
They even had beer in the refectory but I chose what had become my main drink for the …pilgrimage? Why not? Orange juice with lots of ice.
She was reproachful though about me turning up an hour late when she was about to go off duty. My reply was one of being demotivated by the press but she was right. I realised I’d forgotten I’d told these people I should be showing up earlier because of my preoccupation with the press. I’d treated Chichester Cathedral as a good landmark to aim for on the map, almost a military objective in fact. All well and good for the mechanics of a successful march. Not so hot if it led to neglect of the culture here.
We chatted about my job and the children short of personal details that is. When I told her I also constructed or created the odd planet she became surprisingly enthusiastic and insisted that I should try to contact Professor Brian Cox.
I became thankful I hadn’t found more than one pub and turned up pissed at a Cathedral after all. It was the right time and place to consider a moral and the right one for me was;- “thou shalt not feel sorry for thyself.” I’d been guilty of that often enough in my life.
It was all over now for better or worse and the anticlimax was setting in as I hobbled my way from Chichester Cathedral to the station in the grimy late afternoon heat.
One thing I should have discussed with the Cathedral staff was how I admired God’s sense of humour. Honestly. I mean, first of all arrange a record wet summer where people are warning me about being drowned if I dare walk anywhere. Then stick a pocket heatwave into precisely the time I do it. Not one drop of rain had fallen on me in 5 days of hiking 65 miles! As a result of going from the ridiculous to the sublime I had the opposite problem from drowning: dehydration. So my progress had become a trail of quaffing not just lagers and orange juice where I swallowed every ice cube because it could still become liquid, but other fruit juices, Lucozade, Cokes, Red Bulls, anything I could lay my hands on that was drinkable in fact; along with a trail of barmaids chatted up at various oases I’d sought refuge in. Now if that was a joke on me I’ve got to say it had real style.
All I wanted to do now though was get home, get a bath, get a big takeaway and enough beer, get drunk and go to bed.
The train suffered from what one of my old school PE masters called ‘Feebleitis:’ pausing at anything like a station between here and Portsmouth harbour as though it had some ailment and methodically checking out every stretch of cutting to see what was the most boring bit it could stop in.
I became aware of a persistent concerned mumbling coming from somewhere within rows of seats facing me, accompanied by the occasional movement of sheets of paper. It was a mobile phone user and he looked the part: lean but bald 30 something with trendy sunglasses. Mobile phone users on trains have a bad name but I’ve known worse things and any trace of irritation on my part was replaced by intrigue when I could make out the odd word or sentence and became actual sympathy when I was able to make sense of what he was concerned about.
It revolved around a mortgage (I’d better refrain from comment) which involved not only the man but his ‘partner.’ Apparently someone had missed the entry he’d made to that end on the form or pack of them which he was referring to now. (riffle riffle flip flip.) There were unfortunate financial consequences involved which explained his concern. Apart from this there was the bloody hassle of having to go through all this (flip flip flip) while maintaining a diplomatic manner. Apparently he had a real problem too with the person on the other end of the phone (flip flip riffle) in the sense of getting their head around the ‘issue.’
Why should anyone be obliged to go through this. Where one seemed to be up against a status quo of professional incompetence dedicated to making life more difficult? Especially when one thinks of how hard it can be to become employed? Was it not enough staff? The obsession with downsizing seemed to have been going on ever since I’d returned from Africa 30 years ago.
Why was there a waste of resources towards this end? Not only the time of those concerned but the volume of paperwork involved. Was this one reason we were presiding over the biggest mass extinction since the Dinosaurs checked out? How many trees and rare species had been destroyed towards this end? Why did some organisations produce so many forms that were largely ignored anyway? Haven’t these people heard of global warming?
I could be wrong of course. Species might not be destroyed by this or climate altered, the paper might be recycled for one thing, but I return to my original question. Why should there be this persistent unnecessary waste of time which could have been used for some useful work, paying attention to one’s children or enjoying oneself? Added up this sort of thing was taking up too much of people’s lifespans which compared to geological time were microscopic. This sort of situation was likely to happen with any mortgage negotiation at any time but was repeated across more than one profession and it wasn’t all involving paperwork. This man’s immediate problem was nothing like mine with the press though I was glad I wasn’t in his shoes, but our basic situations were not a million miles apart. Both of us were being mucked around by professions letting one down. Both of us had to ‘help us to help you’ by devoting unpaid time and energy to ensuring there was no room for misunderstanding, or less room at least. The penalty of depending upon them at all could be no press showing up or loss of money. And of course ‘it’s not our fault,’ a phrase I’ve heard more than once in our legalistic culture. All you need to do too, is be human and make one mistake when you’re trying to do someone else’s job for nothing and that’s all it takes. I’d made 2 with my mobile phone and forgetting a name.
His mobile phone was better than mine. I don’t remember the mumbling ending before we reached Portsmouth harbour.
© D Angus 02 13
“It was a physical triumph and a media disaster.”
That was what I told the head of the literary group I belonged to the evening after I’d got home, got a bath, got a big takeaway and enough beer, got drunk and gone to bed. She’d wanted to know if I’d made it?
We were in Gosport Discovery Centre where we were entertaining whatever populace cared to show up by reading some of our creative writing and displaying relevant images. It had been planned and rehearsed for a long time and one of my most spectacular photographs – dawn framed by coconut palms at Dar Es Salaam – was displayed across one of the biggest walls there.
I’d made a solo effort there last year involving the first section of my African expedition. Normally the same part of the centre would have been used, but refurbishments replacing carpets had removed the optical equipment shoehorning the event into a conference room. Where a truncated audience had to book and half of them had trouble in seeing the images. Oh and the first casualty to miss the last place booked was the person I wanted to show up the most: my friend the lady who was the heroine of Gosport. Then there were no more evenings for me though I could have entertained Gosport with the whole of Africa.
A classic case of what could have been a clear success neatly compromised by crap that seemed to have been arranged just for yours truly. An objective of the walk had been the breaking of this pattern.
Instead of which a triumph that should have been decisive was equalised by an unprecedented dire performance on the part of the press. A whole new can of worms. Nothing had changed.
A colleague on the Council was sympathetically scathing when I told him what had happened with the press just short of Chichester. “Not what you want to hear when you’ve walked 60 miles.” Quite. As for proof: “What about the blisters on your feet?” Now there was a good answer I’d overlooked in the panic.
By luck I happened to collar the journalist in Gosport who’d told me the enterprise had been newsworthy. There was no apology for lack of contact or interviews before the walk or not even having an answerphone, but he did say it was still newsworthy so if I could email him a few favourite images and a summary of the walk it would be covered by the local press after all. I was left feeling we might be able to salvage the situation after all.
I had a few days rest then a mutual school friend of my old friend who’d died of cancer in January visited me. After some time together he left just before another old friend arrived to take me on another journey with my backpack seeing friends generally, though there was less walking involved this time because I used my over 60’s bus pass: to Basingstoke, Faringdon and Bletchley.
I’d shot my bolt as far as the Olympics was concerned and it wasn’t the result I’d aimed for. So I’d lost interest in the games, but the news was full of it which continued until Bletchley where they were Babylon 5 fans. I became aware that the UK was doing surprisingly well. Heartening.
When I got back I felt that I could finally truly relax. No such luck. There was a message waiting for me to contact the community centre to arrange a leaflet delivery job around the estate which involved a lot of walking. I was getting a lot of exercise on this summer holiday. Speaking of which I’d bought a pedometer and used that on the job. I’d have to do 3 jobs like that to get an idea of how far I’d walk on this kind of task but the calculation showed something like 30 miles. I’d done many jobs like this over the years which must have helped me on the London to Chichester hike.
By the time I finished that I was half way though the holidays, the rest of which was spent truly relaxing: lie ins, computer games, boozing, barbecues and friends.
One thing I tried was an email with a weblink to a Brian Cox website, as the Lay Preacher urged. I had little faith in contact because he must be busy and I got an email back to that effect; but it was one of those things one must try.
When Autumn term started I was in the community centre when a girl there decided to look online for my delayed article on the walk in the local paper. She couldn’t find it. It seemed as if they weren’t satisfied with what they’d achieved and wanted to take the shambles further. As I’m writing this I’ve just checked again: no article. I’ve heard nothing from the press.
Overwork? Undermanning? Nah. Just lousy behaviour.
I rounded up the money I’d made. The taxi firm and one of the banks had lost their sponsor forms but there was something from the others. Eventually I found I’d gained £220 for the school. An amount slightly more than the sums gained on the walks I’d organised 20 years ago.
The Head Teacher was delighted and organised an assembly where she described my exploit as “amazing.” It was a fun event a bit like a television interview with candles on the table between us giving it a surreal touch. The children and teachers were seated on 3 sides listening attentively.
There was a screen where some of my images were being shown and the first one was of the Olympic symbol on Tower Bridge. Then there was that one of me on London Bridge with the Shard Tower.
“What time were you getting up in the morning?” was one of the first questions.
“On that morning I was on the bridge by twenty past eight.”
“Twenty past eight!” The Head Teacher then regaled the school with how she couldn’t arise anything like as early during the holidays, striking a chord with children who had trouble in getting up perhaps. Well maybe she couldn’t; but I felt I wouldn’t have been as capable of getting up early had I been running a Special Needs School.
The ‘interview’ also ranged over the distance and time taken, with points of interest highlighted by other images of;- a grocers in Tooting for I felt the drunken teddy to be not suitable for the school image, the Shard Tower from Cheam, the North Downs track, the main road south of Dorking and the one I’d tried to avoid, one of the pubs, those horses at Bignor, the South Downs and Chichester Cathedral.
The magic moment for me though was when the image came up of my first sighting of the South Downs near the Travelodge, like a range of mountains seen from a desert. The camera had actually picked out sunrays glaring down from above emphasing the heat.
“Is that a desert?” piped up a small boy’s voice from our audience.
“It felt like a desert!” was my hearty response.
So. Okay, maybe someone should tell him there are no deserts in England but that boy was right on the button with getting the message I wanted to convey with that photograph.
Well played sir;-)
Chosen children put the candles out at the end of assembly.
Sometime later a teacher handed me a padded envelope. It contained thank you cards made by one of the classes of children. If ever there was a case of ‘it’s the thought that counts’ that had to be it! So sweet and so comical. She could tell it went straight to my heart. And so I put about a dozen folded coloured pieces of card bearing enthusiastic looking scribblings on to my bookcase. Some of the thank you’s were legible but I treasured them all. They went into storage at Christmas but I didn’t throw them out.
I tried to get my first ‘blog’ going. The trouble with a new enterprise is finding new ways in which things can go wrong. Something one hopes not to learn when one’s over 60. To be put off doing anything new by this though is to surrender to old age.
Even by my standards of misadventure this one turned out to be a Lulu. I was aiming for something like the end of October for completion of my account of my epic trek. It’s now March.
The first free blog website had an editing system that was so bad it upset a friend running a computer business and we decided to abandon it. The 2nd went through all the motions but failed to deliver and the friend who’d recommended that (also in computers) was always going to be available on Wednesday week. I was helped by the invalid I’d stayed with in Stanmore to master a third to the point of daring to write something. Just before the computer power supply broke down. Fixing that involved more crap flying between the guy who fixed it and me because of a wrong number I should have spotted on a business card. Then last but not least were some viruses in human form – somewhere out there – who persisted in bombarding me with phishing emails until they’d managed to send 1,000 American Express phishing emails from my computer; necessitating maximum disruption reinstalling everything, with my favourite bits of computer not working or working as well as they did. (OH PHISH OFF!)
Anyway now it can finally be told!
I was wrong about ‘nothing had changed.’ It’s a fact that I definitely did it and a Special Needs school has benefited by it. This has led to some admiration – among others – by people I know in the medical profession, which is good news for my state of health. It also means I should be able to do it yearly to maintain health, raise money with sponsored walks and carry on being a hero. It’s my ambition to be like Gandalf: to look and be bloody ancient but still capable of hacking it across the Misty Mountains with my trusty staff at 2 miles an hour.
Future ideas for sponsored walks? A walk back to London in 2014 where there’ll be a World SF convention. There’s the South Downs Way. There’s a ‘Wayfarers Walk’ which is some medieval relic involving the reward of half a pint in Winchester; the course of that though looks as though it was plotted by somebody on a damn sight more than half a pint! Later and further afield there’s another Roman road up through the Cotswolds, Offas Dyke, Pennine Way, Scotland. Maybe even walk abroad if I last long enough.
The plan for this year though is a circle walk involving Youth Hostels: across to the Isle of Wight, along it’s length, up to and across the New Forest to Southampton, down the coastal Solent path to a caravan site the driver who took me to London lives at, up to Fareham where my music teacher friend is, then finally along Portsdown Hill. I’m having a break from sponsored walks because this isn’t strictly a walk. I’ll take transport down to the Dinosaur Isle museum where I have a contact and a model, then after Portsdown Hill I’m taking the bus back home again.
Also on a positive note one can learn from hindsight:
- My biggest fault was not considering local radio and contacting them. How I didn’t think of it I’ll never know for I’d had fun discussing what I was about not only with a Reading radio station but with ones in Southampton and Portsmouth. Local radio would have been ideal for a sponsored walk. Had I done that I could have outflanked the whole problem with the local press.
- Speaking of which I’ll take care next time to find out if the same staff are employed, especially the editor. If they are I won’t work with them because I can’t trust them to take any interest or – worse than that – do what they say they can do. Someone who does that is a liability at best, can ruin an otherwise well planned project at worst.
- I depended on Ordnance Survey maps too much. They can still be very useful but one should take care they are up to date. Google Maps should be included when planning the next operation. Google Maps showed that landowners on the Sussex border had indeed got rid the footpaths leaving one with no option but that main road; unless one used the network of lanes immediately to the west. As for Google Earth that showed not only my old place and how hazardous a main road could be but also – I found – showed telltale tracks that might have allowed me to find my way across country after all.
- I learned from my friend in Health and Safety that there’s no such thing as the document I was after. One of the things I dread about an issue like this is it being so hard to obtain the truth and so easy to have the ground cut from under your feet. I could be flippant and say one thing to try next time would be the Spanish Inquisition but an easier way would be to rely on him because the secret of success can be having friends who are in the know. He advises a tailor made document which in my case would have included main roads. He also thinks I should contact the Ramblers Association on this subject.
- It might be better to try the Spanish Inquisition or a Perry Mason cross examination if I deal with charity websites, especially regarding cost: “And do you, or do you not, slip in charges and conditions without informing the relevant people beforehand thereby wilfully endangering human life or at any rate, benevolent projects? I must remind you that you are under oath to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you God.”
- Set aside a notepad or sheet of paper next time to carry with me. Then write names on it: such as the name of the parents association and the name of any journalists contacted. I found names after I returned that I should have taken with me. Write down names and contact details of anything and anybody involved with the next walk.
- Charge up the bloody mobile phone before starting the adventure. Take recharging equipment too so it’s got no excuse.
- If it looks as though a problem could develop into trouble work out an emergency plan in time. If I’d taken care to say I’d taken 300 photos immediately I started that fatal conversation in Boxgrove rather than just before the mobile cut out it might have saved the situation with the press.
Learn from one’s mistakes while being happy one got most of it right. It’s all one can do.
© D Angus 02 13