Studland and back: a very long walk

 

 

In lieu of next week’s three day jaunt along the Thames, I decide a spot of preparation might be in order and head off to Studland for a leisurely walk. I begin at the church where I was once married in another era; partly because parking’s free and partly to visit my old mucker who passes his time there. On the way back from depositing some cyclamens, and offering a nod and wink to the many others I know here from the old days, I stop to talk with a Dutch lady whose arms are full of trailing hops. She’s going to dry them and decorate her furniture apparently; and she’s thrilled about English hedgerows. There is certainly a proliferation of hops this year – maybe something to do with our glorious summer weather which continues today.

Considering I spent quite a few of my formative years in this village, today brings several surprises. On my way to the beach, I notice a path, in the wrong direction, signposted to a previously unheard of Fort Henry. I double back to investigate and find this porker sunbathing at the back of the aptly named Pig on the Beach restaurant.

 Fort Henry is a piece of WW2 history being a bunker built early on when Studland Beach was deemed to be a prime location for a possible landing by the enemy. The beach was subsequently used for practice for the D-Day landings, and in 1943 Churchill, Eisenhower, Montgomery, Mountbatten and King George IV, amongst other top brass, came here to view the next part of my walk. Unfortunately, six tanks sank with the loss of crew members from which a lesson was learned: only launch your tanks in shallow water.

 

 

 

Children being back in the classroom, and parents being back at work, the beach today is empty apart from those accompanied by pre-school small people and those who, thankfully, have relieved themselves of holiday-type relatives. And the scenery changes constantly with the light.

Time is passing and with it, the opportunity for a picnic. I stop awhile to eat my prawn and cottage cheese sandwich at a point which I think is free of naturists. This part of the sweep has been set aside for those who wish to lose their clothing for as long as I can remember. However, there are one or two stragglers who have gone off piste. In general, I don’t mind. However, there are always those who to like exhibit themselves. A large naked man decides to walk across the beach in my path. He is so fat that I doubt whether he’s seen his willy for several years. He is, nonetheless, intent on me viewing his protuberance. The thing I detest the most is when they play volleyball. All that flopping around puts one off lunch. It’s not cricket. Well, no, it’s volleyball.

I round the headland and set off into Shell Bay. The tide has receded considerably and the insistent sunshine creates wonderful colours on the water.

 

 

Here’s the starting point for the South West Coastal Path: 90 odd miles to Minehead but a lot of uphill stuff. Anyway, who wants to go to Minehead? Me, I’m crossing the road.

 

 

It’s a different kettle of fish on the other side of the peninsula. I think I forgot to say that I’m following the second walk in my new book of Dorset walks. So far, I’ve stuck to the plan but it all goes a bit pear-shaped from now on as I move into Bramble Bush Bay.

 

 

 

 

For a start, the tide is ridiculously low which means I can access places I’ve never seen before on foot. Further, there are far more birds here so it takes me ages to progress as I keep stopping to enjoy these parts of Poole Harbour that have previously been out of bounds.

I assume this very low-flying plane is about to drop a bunch of SBS types into the sea. But I’ve got more interesting things to look at.

 

 

 

 

 

It’s all too wonderful and there’s no-one else here except me. I disregard the book which tells me I should’ve moved inland some time ago. The opportunity to walk around all these headlands is too tempting: what luck to have such a tide on such a glorious day. Had it been overcast, I might’ve felt a little threatened by the solitude but today, all these inlets remind me of the reconstruction of Poole Harbour in the Bronze Age which one can see in the local museum. Nothing much can have changed in all these lonely eons.

Eventually, I run out of beach and accessible ways so I find a path back through Godlingston Heath. It feels old. Hardy’s Egdon Heath is a composite according to some theorists. Conversely, Studland or Godlingston Heath is THE place. It feels a tiny bit desolate and I can’t find an easy way back. When you’re a little bit lost, the best thing to do is to think about the wine you’re going to drink later and the food you’re going to cook: Spaghetti Bolognaise.

And while this is happening, you can look back at where you’ve been and look at The Agglestone which you didn’t mean to go to. And I know I keep harping on but you can also think how lucky you are to be alive and mobile.

 

 

When I finally got off that wretched heath, and stumbled down a path unfit for human transportation, I met a very nice dog. Then I met his owners. Having finally lost the grasp of the new map book, I enquired as to whether this was the path to Studland. ‘Yes’, said Tom, ‘but don’t go to the Bankes Arms: just had the worse food ever’. ‘Oh’, says I, for no apparent reason; ‘I was married from there in 1975’. ‘Well’, he replied. ‘I think they’ve just served the last of your wedding breakfast’.

 

 

 

 

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Cowgrove and back

The beginning of September and the promise of an Indian summer. It’s a gloriously warm and sunny morning over at Eye Bridge in the hidden world of Cowgrove. The lack of depth to the water in the River Stour attests to the wonderful weather of the last few months and on this, the last day of the holidays for small people, the selected few are making the most of it all before the classroom entraps them once more.

 

 The hedgerows, however, warn of another impending season. For the last two years, it’s been difficult to find a potential harvest of sloes. Conversely, blackberries have been early and plentiful and have already been harvested for the Christmas brandy and gin which is filling my cupboards. Folk keep quiet as to the whereabouts of sloes. Some even forage now in the belief that freezing them will replicate the first frost. I don’t think it works like that: they’re promising but not yet ripe.

And yet more signs of autumn as I progress along the river path. Those flowers are the offspring of water mint. Perhaps I should’ve mentioned that this is the first walk since my birthday for which, amongst many other thoughtful gifts, I was thrilled to receive an i-spy wild flowers book. This bloom doesn’t quite equate with the picture in the book but the leaves were clearly scented with mint. Plus, I get fifteen points for spotting it.

It’s odd – I’ve had many subsequent conversations about i-spy books with friends, some of whom know what I’m talking about but many regarding me as if senility has set in. Way back in time, there used to be a newspaper called The News Chronicle in which one could locate Big Chief I-Spy (with, in those days, a capital I). He lived in a wigwam amongst the printed pages and would send you a certificate proclaiming you a redskin if you managed to complete one of his books. Can’t imagine why it died out.

Anyway, along with the i-spy book, someone else gave me a book of walks in Dorset, and this is the first I’m undertaking. Whilst I’m not in the least ungrateful, my walk seems to involve a lot of multi-tasking. I’ve left the binoculars behind but I’m still juggling with the camera, notebook and pen, i-spy book and the  book of walks and maps. All of this means I can’t take my new birthday handbag for an outing as it’s insufficiently spacious to contain the usual contents, plus all this new paraphernalia. For that, I would need the type of bag that Ernest was left in at Victoria Station. And speaking of the so-called ‘new walks’, well, sadly, the book’s already a bit out of date. I’m supposed to pass through the allotments at the point illustrated in this photo. I stop to demand information from Richard and Helen who would’ve been quite content with a passing ‘hello’. Apparently, the allotments were purchased two years ago with a view to constructing 210 new homes and a restaurant on this des res. You can see how far they’ve got. A new plot of allotments has been provided ‘over there’ they say vaguely. They don’t care about the affordable homes but they’re cross about the waste of land.

 

 

 

 

The next thing I know, I’ve hit blooming Wimborne. The town won the national prize six years ago. They must have some pretty stiff competition because it’s looking absolutely lovely. I venture into a local hostelry and demand a tuna mayo sandwich (without butter) to take away and carry along the given route for about ten yards. The problem is that my book of walks insists I visit the Minster. Well, I don’t want to as I inform the woman in the Tourist Information joint who, viewing me as some eccentric and confused old person,  sets me back on track.

I wander through this lovely town and catch a glimpse of the river before walking up this street and down another only to arrive at the main bridge. I don’t do bridges so I hover around for a while in the hope that someone will come along who I can attach myself to. No-one arrives and eventually, seeing someone crossing in the opposite direction, I bravely cross, all the while clinging to the handrail and talking to myself.

After this, according to the book, I have to look for a cut that’s named Lake Gates. There’s no sign but I find my way and stroll through an estate of bungalows; all of which are immaculately kept and totally soulless to the point of dispiriting. Nonetheless, despite the missing way markers that the book promised, I eventually find myself above the Stour which is full of autumnal berries, grown-up lambs and a view of the habitude of the rich and famous.

I stop here to wander down the hill and look at the fish and the solitary water lily. You might have to click on the pictures to get a better view. By now, it’s even hotter and all is well with the world with a tuna mayo sandwich (no butter) as I sit on the river bank enjoying a solitary picnic. Chloe, one of those indiscriminate black floppy dogs, arrives to investigate, Then Chloe’s mum follows and we pass some time congratulating ourselves on the weather, general well-being and the unspoken smugness of living in Dorset. I could sit here forever quite happily but I don’t seem to be near anywhere so, with some sense of irritation, I press on.

 

Down this lane.

 

 

 

 

Through this underpass

 

 

And eventually I arrive on the road to Merley where, unexpectedly, and totally without context, I come across this beautiful effigy of St Christopher. Well, he’s the patron saint of travellers and I must continue this increasingly tiresome path to the spirituality of the A31, according to the book.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’d like to say that I completed the walk as given in the book. Truth be told, I didn’t. I couldn’t locate the final way marker. However, on my alternative route back to the car, I spotted hops growing up a telegraph pole, a little egret sunning itself in the Stour and the replacement allotments. Wonderful. This is England.

 

 

 

 

Success at The Willows

‘What are we doing up here Ratty?’ asked Mole

‘Celebrating her victory over the council after a six week campaign to get the bottle box emptied’, explained the Rat

‘People Power’, exclaimed Badger

‘Six weeks!’ shouted Toad. ‘That box must’ve been pretty full. What did she do with all the leftover bottles?’

‘Chucked them in the neighbours’ gardens don’t you know, answered Ratty

 

A journey down Wharton Road

Our journey today is not too long but challenging nonetheless. We leave number four at a sensible hour, heading in the direction of St Timothy’s Park. One of us is travelling by scuttlebug and it’s not me. Neither am I the one sporting a star-covered straw hat. Wharton Road, along which we’re travelling, is, according to the estate agents, situated in Bromley North Village. Despite the proliferation of friendly old-fashioned pubs and a large number of Victorian homes with tiny, but surprisingly energetic cottage gardens, it’s an optimistic nomenclature being, as it is, part of Greater London. I wonder where lesser London lays. Woking, perhaps? Anywhere in possession of trees within a short train journey? In Wharton Road, ninety-six of the 149 residences are terraced and half of them are owned by folk of the highest social grade which says something about what you can get for your money in the twenty-first century if you have to live within reach of the capital.

The weather, and we’re English so must mention meteorological conditions, is difficult. It’s thirty- something. We’ve lost count and inclination. For a start, we have to close every window, which is all of them, before we can leave in case of burglars. Anyone could prop a ladder against the front of the house says the daughter to the mother who leaves her back door open in Dorset. By mistake. It’s what you do when you get a bit old. I’ll just pop to Tesco. There might not be much left when I return. The wood on my garden gate has contracted so much that bits fall off when you try to shut it. It would be easy for someone to get in. Mind you, they’d have to be a bit desperate to rob my house. In Wharton Road, the majority of crimes, according to the census, are violent and/or sexual. What’s going on behind those wisteria and newly painted rose-covered entrances? Nothing on television tonight. And it’s so hot.

Those not leaving their terraced homes in Wharton Road today have their front and back doors wide open in the optimistic hope that a careless breeze might pass through. Folk are talking about the summer of ‘76. Last week, towards the end of the World Cup, everyone had gone back a decade: it’s coming home. He’s coming home. Here comes trouble. Those with me today weren’t even thought about in those long-passed days. I may as well be speaking of the Battle of Hastings. She’s already told me I have the wrong sun cream – factor 50, baby version. Apparently, it doesn’t work. You have to have one with five stars. They count stars now, mum. It’ll be something else next week I say like an old person who’s, yet again, made an incorrect purchase. Yesterday, I was in trouble for fiddling with my bag at Charing Cross. Are you oblivious, she asked? To what, I replied? Mum, they’re evacuating the station. It could be terrorists. Oh.

I dawdle along the pavement, overcome by the heat which is sweating off my factor 50, only to turn and discover I’m being chased by Jack Nicholson on his baby tricycle. He’s not yet two but has the eyes of a demon this afternoon: GRANDMA! Help, I cry, sidestepping the inevitable. Monkeys, he shouts with glee. It’s bloody Bromley – there are no monkeys. But, it transpires, monkeys are present in Wharton Road. Who knew? The flocks of luminous green parakeets overhead are sufficiently surreal to draw my never-bored attention, but here are see-no, hear-no and – most importantly – speak-no primates outside the social housing block into which Jack Nicholson runs, joyfully abandoning his transport; stone monkeys ornamenting what’s left of a sun-dried garden. A tattooed female terrorist, not from social class AB, and thus minus a degree or professional qualification, emerges and does a passable impersonation of Catherine Tate: you’re not going to believe this, she says without invitation or contextualisation, but my daughter had a scuttlebug seven years ago. And? We don’t say. We smile innocuously. No, we’re not looking for trouble.

Jack Nicholson, having forgotten the scuttlebug, is about to run across the road, just on the bend where the suburban cars scream round the corner. Hold grandma’s hand, I say, assuming the unidentifiable third person’s identity. Paaak, he shouts. Paaak. It’s mini-speak for park. I knew that. The scuttlebug is reclaimed but where is St Timothy’s that gives its name to the park and the mews? A place of prayer within spitting distance is St Johns. And what is a mews? Actually, it’s the site of a former row of stables that have been converted. When their house was built in 1869, much of the land adjoining Wharton Road on the side away from the town centre still comprised farms, parkland, private estates and suchlike so it’s perfectly reasonable to assume there were stables here in the distant past. Meanwhile, Timothy is the patron saint of stomach and intestinal disorders about which, as one who has been hospitalised twice with diverticular disease, have little positive to offer. Perhaps the person who built the new properties suffered too. No wonder it’s gone. The scuttlebug driver has little interest in the fact that Bromley North was bombed with a degree of efficiency during WW2. Who knows what the target was or why? It seems that the churches caught the flak: all that was left of the parish church after 16 April, 1941, was the tower but there are no records showing that Timothy’s ever existed.

In the paaak, some bigger boys, possibly around ten or eleven years old, are hanging around on their bikes; two on one side of the fence, one on the other. Very small boys are always interested in bigger boys, especially those with bigger bikes and the scuttlebug is once again temporarily abandoned whilst its straw-hatted driver makes a formal inspection of the bicycle on our side of the fence. I’m a little anxious: you never know how bigger boys will react, especially in front of their mates. This one is fine and smiles thinly. In any case, an ice-cream van arrives which is all that matters. The same one as we saw at Kelsey Park the other day. Is there only one ice-cream purveyor in Kent? Its alerting ring-tone is the introductory music from Match of the Day… da,da,da,da,da-da,da,dad-da… The cyclists rush home for money and our man who, to my knowledge, has already consumed two lollies this afternoon, heads for the slide.

When his desire for park-life has been sated, we head on back to number 4. Crossing the road is as equally dangerous as it was on the way: when you’re nearly two, everything has to be accomplished in a hurry which is not that different as when one is seventy-two or eighty-two when time is running out. Or thirty-two when there’s too much to fit into a single day in an orderly manner. Suddenly, one of the few advantages of being in one’s sixties becomes clear: work is behind you and old age has yet to be faced. It’s surely the only decade where you can go at your own pace. Tricky in Greater London where the world is in a rush and everyone thinks you’re pretty fit because you do a lot of walking, but, thankfully, not my world. Our boy has landed on the right side of Wharton Road and, full of excitable beans, escapes back into the social housing complex where he makes an investigatory foray into an uninviting alley. His mother rescues him from who-knows-what and we journey home.

But who is waiting there? Not daddy who’s still trapped in the melee of London town. Maybe the ghost of Arthur Webb who once resided in their house when it was his home. I am drawn to Arthur because he shares a surname with my mother’s adoptive parents. On closer examination, it transpires that an Arthur Webb who lived in these environs was sufficiently famous to be known as a bit of a techie in the 1920s. In particular, Arthur was the sidekick of William Willis who perfected the art of transferring photographic images onto glass. For this, he received a medal that was donated to Arthur and subsequently to the Webb family. I have no means of knowing whether it was the same Arthur who lived at number four but wouldn’t that be apposite given that the scuttlebug’s father is a tech journalist? Life is a circle but that’s too philosophical or flippant for our boy. He needs a bath and we need a glass of wine.

 

Great Stones Way: the end of it all

Friday: Old Sarum

  Considering its relatively close proximity to my home, I’ve never been to Old Sarum before. And having made that confession, here’s another: we don’t walk The Great Stones Way to Old Sarum. With a collective age of 179 years, thirty plus miles, several evenings of relaxing red wine behind us and collective exhaustion we drive to the joint. We are so familiar with these smoke-ridden hills and the ubiquitous Alton Barnes white horse that they seem part of our make-up as we head towards the end of this exhilarating trip. Actually, regarding those last two, one dominates the other this morning. Apparently, it’s possible to still see the white horse from Old Sarum but the war games are obviously reaching a climax today as the smoke seems thicker than ever before. In other directions, however, the views are perfect.

 We look down onto the cathedral of nearby Salisbury with some detectable wistfulness on the parts of B and Pathfinder Powell. ‘You don’t want to go down there, do you?’ I ask cautiously. ‘Because I’m not’, I add as an afterthought. And, let’s face it, few venture into Salisbury these days. Sorry Salisbury because you’ve got a wonderful museum … ‘oh you and your conspiracy theories’, the pathfinder admonishes me. Hutton doesn’t have a clue what we’re talking about. He’s a big fan of Salisbury, going so far as to have a Nelly Erichsen illustration of the High Street Gate as the frontispiece in Highways and Byways in Wiltshire. ‘Just concentrate on where we are now’, I suggest.

Hutton brightens up considerably at the prospect: he’s got eleven pages on Old Sarum in you know where. Briefly, there may have been an iron-age hill fort here around 400BCE and subsequent Roman occupation both within and without the ramparts with three Roman roads converging to the east. William the Conqueror turned up and built a motte and bailey and the original cathedral was constructed after 1075 before being moved to its current site a couple of hundred years later. That’s about all you need to know really as the place was abandoned and most of the stonework removed. Naturally, Hutton is appalled by the despoliation and drones on and on about the accomplices of vandalism, ending rather piously with his opinion that ‘their excuse is I suppose that they know not what they do’. Hmmm. I think you’ve stolen that line, Edward.

  We abandon him and pay our £5.20 each to English Heritage to get in. To be fair, most of it – the best bits – are free but we are tourists as well as walkers and we want to have a look at the ruins and the more up to date information. Further, there’s a gift shop. There haven’t been many of those on this holiday and B and the pathfinder immediately stock up on jam, honey and sack-loads of ye olde Saxon fudge. I purchase a wooden ruler with all the kings and queens of England illustrated thereon for my daughter. She’s thirty seven. Further, this photo was taken elsewhere but I like it.

 Some of the high-spots are rather too high for B and I but Pathfinder Powell bravely plots a course along the ramparts and later all around the lower external rings. She has no fear of heights and takes great pleasure in spitting on unsuspecting cows below. Mostly, we have the wide green expanse to ourselves; apart from a few dog walkers, one of whom we accost for the final photograph. It’s not until we sit down for the last picnic, that the place is invaded once more by the French: hordes of loud students with a worrying lack of supervision. It’s of no consequence. We lay back enjoying the sunshine once more. It’s been a truly lovely holiday.

 

Great Stones Way. Day 5: Casterley Camp to Netheravon

Back on track – so to speak, as largely we’re on tank tracks- we begin again at Casterley Camp, a Neolithic hill fort on the perimeter of Salisbury Plain. I was looking forward to this bit: I like a decent hill fort for grounding oneself in the past. That was before I engaged with a spot of early morning reading courtesy of the Guardian to accompany my Weetabix. The unnamed author took this walk a couple of years back to mark the inauguration of the Great Stones Way. Strangely, Friends of the Ridgeway decided that this stretch was to be the first official part of the Way: strangely, because there’s not a stone in sight. Not many folk in sight either. The Guardian writer remarked that he only saw one other person and she had found her car surrounded by police who said she couldn’t possibly be a walker because of the absence of an accompanying dog. To be fair, both the map and the instruction book make quite the thing of close to hand areas marked DANGER in bright red, but, hey – I spend every Tuesday evening listening to the army blowing up Bindon Abbey. It’s just war games.

 Hutton is about as handy as a chocolate tea-pot, making no mention whatsoever of Casterley. Given his one paltry sentence regarding Barbary, I’m of the view he didn’t do hills. I am anxious. Arriving at Casterley, which is on top of the world in the middle of nowhere, smoke is already in evidence and the nearest red flag is about two feet from our car. A solitary woman with some sound recording equipment claims to be present in order to hear the vibrations of the flag in the gale that’s currently blowing. It seems a lonely sort of spot to record the noises of a flag but B is in a vaguely similar line of work and believes it to be perfectly normal. There’s a random portaloo to hand and, having had three cups of coffee whilst waiting for those two to secrete extra rations about their bodies earlier, I feel the necessity to take advantage. I open the door, take a half-second inspection and, concluding that at least three regiments of tank types have been this way previously, decide a couple of polythene wrapped hay bales offer a cleaner option. ‘You have to pay to go in there’, shouts the woman who is pretending to be a sound recordist. We smile pleasantly. Well, they do: I mouth some whispered obscenity that I hope will spoil her allegedly recorded day out.

 There doesn’t appear to be much of the hill fort left and all the stones have probably been blown into kingdom come as opposed to kingdom past. Within fifteen minutes we lose our way. That would be the way that we MUST follow; no deviations allowed on this route. I hide my tears and knock back the Rescue Remedy when the others aren’t looking. Bang, Bang. The smoke is getting nearer and thicker. Those two think it’s all terribly jolly and point out an interesting tumulus which has just been destroyed after 5000 years of existence. Bits of cow parts float by on the wind. The army has us surrounded in three directions, whilst from the left comes the reports of the local civilian shooting school. Udders to the right, udders to the left. Bang, bloody bang.

 Those two may be trying to appear calm but we get down into the valley in record time. Naturally, we end up in the wrong place and are temporarily lost. I have another quick ‘Paula’ whilst they peruse various maps and Pathfinder Powell discovers a way over the A345 and down into a dingley dell where one of the River Avons is waiting delightfully for us. This is the Salisbury Avon.

 Stopping only for a quick game of Pooh Sticks, we arrive in Miss Marple country: East Chisenbury. Hutton wasn’t here either: he goes so far to say of the place, ‘I marked it not’. Poor show, Edward. You missed a trick. The map informs of a priory which we duly find by means of asking a servant painting one of the many rose-encrusted thatched cottages. He points us in the direction he claims to take frequently on his way to see my lady. Wandering through a wrought iron garden gate, past the massive edifice, we discover that the South Glamorgan Hardy Perennial Society have dropped in on the first call of their weekend away from the slag heaps. Wait, weren’t those pigeons up on Barbary Castle last Sunday from South Glamorgan? Wales must be shut.

 B locates the owner who graciously says three more [plebs] won’t be a problem so we gate-crash their tour of the outstanding gardens. It’s charming and there have only been three murders this morning. All the Miss Marples are out and about pretending to look at the flowers whilst eyeing up potential suspects and listening to other folk’s conversations.

 

 After, we walk along a few more lanes and arrive at Enford. Hutton thinks Enford, which used to be called Avonford, to be a remarkable place. Largely, he informs us, this is because the Norman church was virtually destroyed in 1817 by lightning and, following its reconstruction, some other unnamed catastrophe took place necessitating further restoration in 1892. Doesn’t seem a very lucky place but they’ve mown the grass for us so we sit down for our picnic near a pile of stones. Despite all the historical changes, these particular stones have been in their current position since 1007. How do they know that? Following lunch, whilst B and I are laying on our backs, soaking up the sun, two men arrive and ask if we’re quite well or should they go back for their spades? Time to look a bit more active. We set off for our final destination – Netheravon.

 We wander once more through ye olde England which is full of yet more thatched roofs distinguishable from each other by various birds and animals moulded from the leftover straw and numerous signs proclaiming no MOD vehicles. There’s not a soul in sight apart from Inspector Barnaby desperately seeking suspects. Troy – tell him they’re all in East Chisenbury. We’re unable to help as we have to cross the River Avon for the fourteenth time today. Arriving in a field where I find myself temporarily exhausted, and where B takes a very nice photo (note Pathfinder Powell sitting behind me still looking at the bloody map). We note that the path which we’re to follow next, according to both the map and the guide book, doesn’t exist in reality.

  Fake news. B and the pathfinder press on, wading through thigh high grass. I meander after them looking at butterflies and suchlike until I’m awoken from my rural solitude and soliloquy by notification of a disaster: no! Don’t say Enford Church has fallen down again. It’s worse – there are two signs proclaiming ‘out of bounds’. Pathfinder Powell is a stickler for rules and has found us an alternative route which will only take us an extra three miles back across the river. She’s out-voted and we proceed with caution, wary of lurking fisher folk and mutant herons.

 In Netheravon there is a poster reminding us that hare-coursing is illegal. It’s not the first we’ve seen on the Great Stones Way but Netheravon has form (see what I did there?). In 1829, when researching his book Rural Rides, William Cobbett enjoyed disposing of ‘an acre of hares’ in Netheravon. Call it social history if you will. Hutton calls it a place of considerable beauty. I call it not very quiet. Outside McColl’s, where the particular ice-creams that B and the pathfinder require on their non-Slimming World diet are unavailable, a woman shouts across the road to another: ‘OI! OI! YOU HAVING TWINS THEN?’ ‘NO‘, shouts fat woman, ‘I’M JUST BIG’. ‘YOU SEEN BARNABY?’ shouts the first one. ‘NO’, answers the other, ‘I’M JUST BIG’. My theory is that because there are so many bangs emanating from the nearby plain, everyone shouts as a matter of course. Hare course.

And back at Casterley Camp to collect car number one we are stopped by a pleasant soldier with an Iraqi tan who enquires as to whether we’re ‘just dropping off?’ The place is afire; I’m not hanging around and B and Pathfinder Powell have an assignation in the Devizes branch of Morrison’s. I’ve got a bit of empathy with Hutton. In the 1899 Hansard, it’s possible to find a brief, unanswered question relating to the ‘purchase’ of Salisbury Plain by her majesty’s government in the name of the War Office. How they bought an area of Wiltshire covering 300 square miles is one of life’s mysteries. Folk like Hutton probably didn’t query such things, let alone venture on government property. Little changes.

 

Great Stones Way: Day 4

Bath

All this walking malarkey, along with two of us sleeping badly in foreign beds, has finally caught up and we decide on a day of rest. We will be tourists at another World Heritage site – Aquae Sulis.

There are a number of benefits to this decision, not least amongst them that we can discard the plastic lunch boxes. It’s a day free of cottage cheese that separates itself on route into lumps of polystyrene packaging floating in suspect fluids. No more leftover cold curried chicken or Slimming World dressing-soaked salad. No watching those two digging into ham-filled doorsteps and chunky kit-kats with slabs of Kendal mint cake to help down their lashings of ginger beer. And as there’s none of that nonsense, there are, by default, no spine-bending rucksacks. Further, there’s no need for Hutton to attend proceedings as Bath falls outside his remit.

Someone that isn’t me drives us to Bathampton Mill where we wait in anticipation on the jetty for the 12.10 ferry into town. It never arrives – apparently it’s broken down. ‘What’s that?’ a man from Paris asks me pointing at the weir. ‘It’s a weir’, I say. ‘Where is the ship?’ says the man from France. ‘Who can say’, I reply. A boat full of Germans arrives at 12.25 and we embark to search for seats. Quite a crowd disembarked at Bathampton, believing themselves to have arrived at a place of significance. Logically, this means that there should be a few spare seats but the Germans, devoid of towels, have shuftied along the benches leaving no room for the nasty Brexiteers. It’s tricky but we accomplish the feat by sitting on two different levels. I go downstairs where someone has made the mistake of standing up. Silently, I slither into his seat.

This is by far the best way to journey into Bath – calmly gliding along the Avon with no thought of traffic congestion or parking problems in the city. A large grey heron stands serenely in the waterside foliage. Camera at the ready, I tap Herr Mann, sitting next to me, on the shoulder with a view to sharing the experience. ‘Sorry’, says he. I tap him again. ‘Sorry’, he repeats. He’s got the hang of English culture – apologise before anything has happened. ‘Look’, I say as our boat glides past. Just in time to get the photo. But Frau Mann interrupts. ‘Is it real?’ she asks. No it’s a plastic one I don’t say. You’re too late, he says. But I’m not. Just got it in time. Well, except that there’s no card in the camera. I don’t realise this until the evening having happily snapped my way round Bath. Pointlessly.

We disembark at Pultney Bridge and fall into Ponte Vecchio, a handy Italian restaurant that celebrates Bath’s effort at emulating a Florentine shop-covered bridge. We are allowed to sit on the terrace and drink long glasses of blushing rose wine whilst overlooking the river. Another luncheon party arrives followed by an animated man in a green check shirt who, without introduction or contextualisation, recounts a story concerning a juggling feat he performed on the weir 25 years ago, along with an unfathomable account of Robert Maxwell’s coffin. We assume him to be the restaurateur, especially when he asks us how far we’ve come. However, he turns out to be with the other party. He is loud and boring and needy of attention. No matter, the lunch, seafood in tomato sauce on pasta, is splendid.

 Subsequently, having had the foresight to book online, we bypass the hordes in the abbey square and join the hordes inside the Roman Baths replete with our audio aids, voiced over by that much-loved Brit, Bill Bryson. I haven’t been here for years. Half of it hasn’t changed. Since the Romans. The other half has been brought up to date in décor and display but the audio aid is overwhelming and is quickly abandoned. Next year, even more of it will be opened up to the public in a sort of interactive way. Swimming and suchlike perhaps. (Photo courtesy of Pathfinder Powell)

A brief look around the shops. Those two want to go into Milletts. I don’t so I rest awhile on a handy fishing chair that’s being advertised on the pavement, passing the time thinking of excuses to recount if a Milletts type emerges to ask what I’m doing. I recall a long-ago shopping trip to Bath with Barbara which seemed to be full of incidents. One of those inconsequential days in which nothing of particular importance occurs, yet one that will always be remembered: passing each other on the escalator in Debenhams like something from that old, old joke about the Pope’s haircut; me persuading her to purchase an extraordinarily expensive lemon skirt from an exclusive boutique which, to my knowledge, she never wore; attempting to board the two-carriage train home that was full of Bristol Rovers’ supporters trying to stop the Bath Rugby folk from boarding; a man wearing a small Box hedge on his head. Happy days. B and the pathfinder come back out into the open and pretend they’re nothing to do with me on my reminiscent recalling fishing chair. Then, the boat back to Bathampton. Not an otter or a woodpecker in sight but it’s calm and peaceful and it was a good rest day.