Great Bedwyn to Hungerford: 6 miles, 29 December 2015
Frank is due tomorrow but on this most glorious of mornings there are a lot of people out and about on the canal. Due to early morning showers, the towpath is treacherous: in some places, the attempt to remain upright is painful as neither foot seems to want to remain in close proximity to the other. The water in the canal is especially high and the path has disappeared to leave a slippery incline just inches from the edge.
Most of the folk on the first stretch are fishermen who kindly offer warnings regarding the dangers of walking the walk. Some are actually fishing; others stand around in groups.
‘Is it an event,’ I enquire?
‘No, it’s just a good spot for fishing’.
‘Can you eat the fish?’
‘Not unless you’re desperate’. You’d have to be. That water looks really murky. I stumble on wondering whether it’s time I owned some sort of walking aid.
If there’s one thing you can depend upon along the canal, it’s dogs. The ones that introduce themselves today are variously named Sprouts, Roxy, Truffle, Rosie and Bullseye but there are others who don’t stop to speak. Although there are quite a few Labradors around this morning, many of the canal canines appear to be related to Sooty. Heading towards Little Bedwyn, I spy a black and white head looking out from the slats of a wooden gate. Whilst trying to organise my dying camera, Sprouts – for it is he – gives a warning bark before an invisible hand grabs the head from the gate.
A young man, busy doing something or other with a hammer, some nails and a wooden frame, advises me that Sprouts is an excellent guard dog. Sprouts ignores him and squeezes out between the gate slats. He sniffs me in a not unfriendly manner and accepts a few strokes of the head.
‘He’s not like that with most people’ comments the owner. Most people don’t smell of all the dogs on the canal I think but don’t say.
A couple of miles further along, Bullseye is sitting down guarding the prow of his barge. He appears to be tied up and I wonder whether he’ll be friendly. However, as I arrive, Bullseye, who has clearly been involved in some sort of Indian rope trick, rushes down the plank to greet me. Fortunately, he offers felicitations sufficient for me to attempt a photo. Just as I take the snap, I notice Bill Sykes smoking a roll up out of a window further down the barge. He’s looking at me in a way that demands an explanation. For breathing, possibly.
‘I’m taking photos of canal dogs this morning’, I say, showing him my camera by way of evidence.
‘Did he smile’, Bill demands gruffly? Through a grimy window, I notice Nancy and a selection of Fagin’s lads quivering within. Much later, when Jeff asks whether I’ve seen many water gypsies, an image of Bullseye’s family will flash into my head and I will feel guilty and a tiny bit afraid.
Here are some other canal dogs
Approaching Hungerford Marsh at a steady pace, I reach Cobblers Lock and, from a distance, see what must have once been the lock keeper’s cottage. It looks idyllic but, once opposite, I find it to be in a dreadful state of disrepair. It’s been stripped out and I wonder whether somebody is rebuilding it as another loved and lovely home.
Not too far away, on the same side of the canal, is a brand new house: huge, white and totally lacking in charm. I didn’t take a photo seeing no need to but I wish I had. I’d already heard rumours of a new marina and hotel in the area and shortly after leaving Cobblers Lock, a passing dog walker told me that the owners of the cottage had sold the land to a developer and built the ugly new house with the proceeds. I don’t really have a view either way, and I guess a marina for twenty boats will bring money to the area if it ever happens.
The rest of the walk into Hungerford is delightful. The canal is virtually straight as it passes through Freeman’s Marsh which is protected meadowland of special scientific interest. In the near distance, I see the church tower and the beginnings of Hungerford but before that Jeff is waiting.
Jeff says the best people on the canal are the fishermen who are, he claims, the only people that don’t talk to strangers. Well, plenty of fisherfolk have been kind enough to speak to me, especially to warn me of the lethal state of the towpath this morning. In any case, Jeff never stops talking or catching fish – tiny roach. Jeff’s been married twice but he thinks he’s allergic to it. He wants to know what I’m up to and I make the mistake of mentioning the canal trust. Jeff’s been in correspondence with the trust for many years, man and boy. I feel obliged to ask why. It seems that the main problem is boats that overstay their welcome. On further investigation, I determine that this means any boat that’s moored anywhere on the canal where people need to fish. Jeff can quote all the relevant regulations and does just this when he finds out I know nothing about anything. Jeff tells me where he lives – Thatcham – and asks whether I’ll be travelling that way at any time in his remaining lifetime. Jeff asks if I know where I’ll be going for coffee in Hungerford but just as he’s about to make a plan of sorts, a stranger stops to ask an important question about roach. Jeff seems cross at this interruption but I take the opportunity to run away.
In Hungerford, in a muddy state of disorder, I peer into a tempting vintage shop and see Lottie in her cage. ‘Oh, why is Lottie in a cage’, I demand passionately? But I already know the answer – so that she’s not kidnapped and forced to live a life on the canal as the sex slave of Bullseye. Lottie’s owner, probably in an attempt to rid her shop of a filthy old woman pronto, releases Lottie from the cage in order that a photo can be taken. Lottie is naturally ecstatic and jumps all over me gratefully taking in all the smells of all the dogs she will never meet.
Once I’ve partaken of an organic hot dog at the John of Gaunt, discovered that the Kennet and Avon Canal Trust joint will not open this side of Easter and ascertained that there are no trains due to return me to my car at Great Bedwyn, I’ve exhausted all that Hungerford has to offer. I enter a handy florist’s and ask whether such a thing as a taxi rank exists. Unexpectedly, the florist informs me that the rank is right outside the shop. Joy is short-lived:
‘Don’t expect a taxi along any time soon’, says the florist pleasantly. ‘In fact, don’t expect a taxi at all’. I am pointed in the direction of the telephone number of a taxi company on a map of Hungerford which is almost as big as Hungerford itself. I call the number but am directed to a voice mail service. I suppose they’re still on Christmas holidays. Just then, a people carrier arrives driven by Mike who has nothing to do with the missing taxi service. I happily pay him a suitable fee to take me to my car in the flooded, pot-holed area next to the canal bridge at Great Bedwyn.
‘Don’t go in’, I say, ‘it’s full of pot-holes’. Mike ignores me and turns in.
‘Bloody hell’, he exclaims in surprise, ‘it’s full of flooded pot-holes. Do you want a card’, he asks? Too true my good man. You’re exactly the sort of person an independent traveller needs at the end of the year.
And now for something different: the view from the bridge at Hungerford looking west where the next part of my walk along the Kennet and Avon will begin. Watch this space.