Wednesday, 28 March 2012

From March

The hot weather continues; not a drop of rain since leaving London. The fields of Cambridgeshire, immense and silent in the sunshine, are becoming ominously dry. Many townsfolk, especially the young, are capering about half naked, unable to believe their good luck, so there is a good deal of very white flesh on view, some of it startlingly tattooed. The farmers, however, are getting worried as the drought threatens their crops.

This morning, on the road from Chatteris, I stopped outside the farm of J. Everitt & Sons, where a grand sign with the royal coat of arms indicated that they are "By appointment to Her Majesty the Queen, supplier of hay, straw, horse feeds and bedding". Mr Everitt chatted and I for a while about this and that, and he then offered me some advice: if you get blisters, he said, you know what to do about them? I told him that I was well stocked with Compeed and other assorted plasters. "Them's no good" he asserted, "you need meths". Methylated spirits, I asked. "Yes, just dab it on and they will disappear before your eyes". Remembering that meths were once used for heating lamps, asked him rather facetiously whether I should ignite it after application. "Of course not", he said rather gruffly, "and don't drink it either".

Luckily I haven't had any blisters since setting out, but I must confess that the big toe on my right foot has caused me problems. It wasn't in very good condition when I started, but by the time I reached Harlow it was getting quite painful, and starting to resemble -- in colour, not smell I hasten to add -- a red Leicester cheese. By the time I stumbled into Ely, it had evolved into something closer to a dollop of summer pudding, and was aching dreadfully. By good fortune I found a clinic where the kindly and efficient doctor prescribed some powerful antibiotics. As I left the surgery, I collected the pills from the dispensary and asked the pretty receptionist how much I owed her for the medicine. Nothing at all, she smiled brilliantly. Really? And why is that, I asked? She leaned forward over the counter and whispered confidentially "because of your age". I have nothing but complete admiration for the NHS.

Walking along, one passes occasional notices tacked to trees, fences and posts, often appealing for the return of missing pets. One such notice, near Saffron Walden, carried a picture of a West Highland terrier called Harry. The accompanying text stated that the author's wife had gone out shopping and when she had returned home she found the house had been burgled. The thieves had taken their little dog too.

Today, just outside the town of March, I came across a little roadside memorial to a 27 year-old lad who had been killed at that very spot last November. There was a picture of him, and a short poem which went:

"On a silent night,
When thoughts are few,
We close our eyes
And think of you.
A silent night,
A silent tear,
A silent wish
That you were here."

I wonder who wrote that...

Monday, 26 March 2012

From Ely

Today has been is a welcome day of rest in Ely, and a chance for me to visit the top of the cathedral's octagon tower. From there, one can see the quiet sunlit countryside all the way back to Cambridge from where I walked yesterday. It looks peaceful, well-ordered and charming.

The mornings these days are often foggy; yesterday I set off alongside the A14 in a grey mist in search of the river Cam. The amount of debris by the main roads, presumably thrown from passing cars, is astonishing; in the space of half an hour I saw a boxing glove (blue, left hand), an almost brand new hand saw, a pair of leather high-heeled boots (black, female) and, believe it or not, a kitchen sink. By time I found the tow path by river at the village of Milton, the sun was up, and it was a warm day's walking along the Fen Rivers Way for lunch at the curiously named "Five Miles from Anywhere" pub. From there, a footpath cuts inland, and parallels the Great Ouse river as far as Ely. When the cathedral finally comes into view as one follows the winding flood bank there is a sense of relief; it seems one is at last approaching one's destination. But it proves to be an optical illusion, and an hour later, still plodding along, it doesn't seem to be much closer. Eighteen miles in one day is, I have discovered, quite tiring. Still, the clamber to the top of the octagon tower, built of massive oak beams nearly 800 years ago, helps put everything into clearer perspective.

Friday, 23 March 2012

From Linton, Cambridgeshire

This is truly Mediterranean weather: clear blue skies, warm sunshine, only a slight breeze. Walking is getting to be very hot work. Yesterday, in the pretty market town of Saffron Walden, I decided to lighten my load by giving what I thought were items of unnecessary extra clothing from my back pack to a charity shop. The lady at the British Heart Foundation was certainly grateful, but looked at me a little suspiciously. I now realize that with grainy stubble on my face (I am not carrying shaving equipment) I am beginning to look more like a vagrant than a donor.

Earlier in the day, near the village of Quendon, I came across a small roadside sign reading: "Dick's Wood. Dick Barratt died 5th March 2009 aged 78. He lived in these woods for 42 years. Long may he be remembered". I asked about Dick Barratt in Saffron Walden, and learned that he had indeed lived in the woods, not far from the road, under a tarpaulin sheet for more than four decades. Apparently, every December he was invited into the houses of local people in Quendon for Christmas dinner and a bath. The rest of the year he lived entirely in the woodland, which is now named after him. As people roar by at very high speed in powerful cars -- chucking their litter into the hedgerows as they pass -- I find the tale of a man who lived quietly all alone in the woods strangely impressive.

Tomorrow I shall follow an old Roman road from Linton to Cambridge, and the next day I continue on to Ely. If the weather stays like this, I shall soon be burned to a crisp.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

From Bishop's Stortford

One of the supporters who generously donated to this walk, Eric Lanning, died yesterday morning. He was 98, and a close friend from my long-ago Chislehurst days. My heart goes out to John and Lindy, who have lost their brave, humorous and devoted father; he was also a wonderful raconteur.

This made for a quiet and reflective morning's walk along the banks of the River Stort, nine miles in peaceful sunshine. If it hadn't been for aircraft droning overhead on their way to Stanstead Airport, I could have been in remote rural England instead of just beyond the boundaries of London.

Towards the end of today's journey, I caught up with an elderly gentleman, well wrapped in his overcoat and woollen cap, walking even more slowly than me. We fell into conversation. He told me that he was now 85, had never married, had never once left the British Isles, had never even bothered to get a passport. He said he was perfectly happy, had no regrets, and kept a bright and optimistic outlook on life. He also said he was in excellent health. When I asked him what the secret to all this success was, he replied "Walking, of course". Thus we wandered on together, until we reached Bishop's Stortford.

Monday, 19 March 2012

A note from Epping

A little weary, but fortunately none the worse for wear, I have reached Epping, a small town in the middle of what was once a great and ancient forest. The map shows this isn't very far from London, but I have breached the M25 motorway, and feel that I am now on my way. The first day was largely spent walking northwards along the Lee Valley tow path. At the start of the journey I was so very glad to be seen off by my oldest and closest friend, Roger Watson, and his wife Deb who kindly drove me to Mile End Road, under which the Lee passes. Also bidding me farewell in the bright early spring sunshine were Diana Hogg and Nigel Benn, who had come all the way to London from Devon, and Zeny Gatenby, a dear friend from the Philippines. It was a lovely send-off, though once I was on my way I was suddenly conscious of absolute solitude, with my back-pack digging into my shoulders, swans and row boats on the river, and the long walk ahead. After a first night in Enfield in the home of a kind and generous distant relative, Judy Perryman, I resumed my journey this morning, walking initially to Waltham Abbey where I paused for a while in the church in which King Harold (killed by a Norman arrow in the eye at Hastings in 1066) is said to have been buried. After sitting for while in the quiet shadows, contemplating the folly of life, I fell into conversation with one of the church volunteers. She informed me that she was a widow, but had recently decided to remarry. She then added that she was almost 70: "A new bride, but an old broad!" -- a remark which kept me smiling all the way to Epping. But now, it's pub time.

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Well, the walk starts tomorrow

With just 24 hours to go before I set off from Mile End, I must thank most sincerely everyone who thus far has donated to the cause, sent warm words of encouragement and support, and generally tried to persuade me that the venture is worthwhile. Today, as I gingerly weigh my loaded backpack and stare at the leaden skies over London, I must admit to feeling a little apprehensive, like a little boy facing a stiff entrance exam to a school for which he almost certainly isn't qualified. Nevertheless, I will give the walk my best shot. The next few days will probably be quite revealing, perhaps even painful.
However it turns out, I shall report here from time to time along the way.
Thank you all again.