Day 22: Marathon
Old Sodbury to Stroud. 26.7 miles. Miles to date: 342.2.
Over the past few days I've been staying with friends and family. First Mark and Sarah in Keynsham. Now my sister and family in Stroud. It's been a welcome break from B&Bs, with company for the first time on my trip, and good food. It's also given me the opportunity to leave heavier stuff from my pack behind while I complete LeJog legs taking advantage of public transport and/or lifts (thanks Rich!).
When I arrived at my sister's on Sunday night after my exasperating and soggy day on the Monarch's Way, she looked at my sodden, weary form and asked if I was enjoying the walk so far.
"Enjoying it?" I replied, "As in, having fun?"
"Yes. Isn't that why you're doing it?"
Which was a big question for a man who simply wanted a bath.
The thing is, when walkers say they like walking, they don't really mean that.
If they just liked walking they could get their kicks spending six hours on a treadmill. Or wandering round the kitchen.
It's not the walking itself they enjoy; it's walking to and through places. The scenery is as important as the walk.
Nor will any scenery do. I don't want to spend six hours walking round a car park, or an army firing range, or the Somerset Levels.
So when walkers say their passion is walking, what they actually mean, I think, is that they like exploring beautiful and/or interesting places on foot. Which is an entirely different thing.
In that respect it's virtually impossible for the LeJoger to enjoy their whole walk. The inevitable challenges of poor weather and physical hardships aside, there's no way you can cross Britain taking in beautiful and/or interesting scenery every step of the way. For each Hartland Quay there is a Bridgwater. For every roll along the Quantocks, there is arable penance to pay.
So on balance, yes, I was enjoying my long walk, but all day, every day? No chance. Anyone who could endure a day of being stung, chased, getting soaked, getting electric shocks and getting humiliated by farmers would be an odd kind of walker. Or a battery farmed chicken.
Nor can enjoyment be the only measure of LeJog. If I'd wanted ten weeks of fun I'd have booked into a series of five star hotels in beautiful places and enjoyed honeypot scenery on circular walks followed by lengthy banquets of Dominos Pizza and Carva - with accordion performances by Phil Cunningham, of course.
But is LeJog fascinating Yes. Eye-opening? Yes. Perennially engaging? For sure. LeJog was never meant to be a holiday.
And today was certainly not that. It was, instead, a day of three firsts. My first 26+ miler. My first full day north of London (and St Albans). And the first day during which it rained every soggy, cold and windy step of the way. But until the very end I didn't much care. For I was flying through the Cotswolds.
(Incidentally, the last time I walked 26 miles - this time with Rebecca - it also rained every step of the way. We were walking for a charity event and when we finally reached our endpoint, and a promised 'winners' celebratory picnic', we discovered that everyone else had finished about five hours before us. Some entrants had voluntarily run the whole thing. Our 'celebratory picnic' consisted of a few Pringle crumbs and potato salad leftovers (which is to say mayonnaise).)
The day started at Old Sodbury, drizzle already in the air, where I kept my vow to stick with the Cotswold Way come what may. It was to prove a good choice. The path is so well maintained and used that there was never a danger of getting lost. And despite the rain, there was lots to enjoy: big, green visits; patchwork fields; acres of woodland; and enough chocolate box villages to satisfy Willy Wonka's packaging department.
Saint John the Baptist Church, Old Sodbury.
Remains of an Iron Age hill fort above Little Sodbury.
Lovely little hillside folly near Horton. It has been converted to house barn owls and swallows, which swooped around it with energy undamped.
Approaching Hawkesbury Upton, trails in the track: a two-seat buggy being pushed, mile after mile, by a mum with two kids and as many dogs. I had no idea where she was heading, but it was no weather for walking.
A few minutes later an American lost on the escarpment, poncho flapping wild. Did I know the way to Bath? And was there any sign of the rain easing?
Soon after the Way reached the 100ft Lord Robert Somerset Monument, a beacon on the horizon for miles around. By this stage the rain had intensified and it was hard to hear over the wind. It was a surprise, therefore, to find the front door open with a sign welcoming visitors. I made my way up the dizzying stone steps, wind channeling eddies through paneless windows that twisted and turned in the black funnelled inside. The view was great, but I wasn't hanging about.
Lord Robert Somerset Monument.
The wind was blasting through the grilled windows of the Monument.
View from the top.
Wotton-under-Edge had been my goal for the day. A respectable 16 or so miles. I settled into the Royal Oak Inn, grateful to be out of the rain, and ordered tea, sandwich and chips. Some pubs get sniffy about wet walkers. Not the Royal Oak. With time on my side and energy replenished I decided to push on. If I could do two days in one I would get a rest day in Stroud. If it meant getting soaked I didn't much care. So I pulled my wet waterproofs back on, sealed up my phone and camera, and continued my journey north, updated goal Stroud.
There was some lovely scenery on today's walk, with plenty of paths through deciduous woods. It was becoming increasingly squelchy underfoot though.
A wet Wotton-under-Edge high street.
From this point, the weather - already pretty grim - deteriorated for good. The temperature dropped further, backed by a persistent wind. And the rain, now torrential, fought through the last barriers put up by my boots and waterpoofs. It didn't help that the remainder of the day was spent on the exposed Cotswold ridge between Dursley and Stroud – wind blasting over the plain below and hitting the wooded slopes, which now had the feel of rainforests – at full force. I kept warm by keeping moving, but I was losing feeling in my hands - I hadn't thought about bringing gloves on a summer's walk. The few walkers I met - clad, sensibly, in head-to-toe waterproofs - looked on in bemused concern at this LeJogger in his shorts and lightweight waterproof, hood down (I hate hoods).
In hindsight they were right to do so. By the time I descended wind-lashed Selsely Common (mile 26) into Stroud (the wrong part of Stroud - I lost the Cotswold Way at the last minute), my fingers were so numb I couldn't dial Rich's number into my phone to tell him my location. Nor could I afford to faff: I knew exposing my phone to the elements for more than a few moments was a risk I couldn't take. I walked until I found a pub - my last hope - which was closed on a Monday night. So, out of choices, I fumbled by the side of the road, swearing at my useless fingers, rush-hour cars streaming by, and finally managed, with both hands, to dial the number home.
Ten minutes later I was rescued.
Twenty minutes later I was thawing under a hot shower.
It had been a marathon slog through the elements. But I had made progress. More importantly, I have earned my rest day.
Den. Even inside there it was raining.
Walker's nightmare: narrow mud-channel through sodden waist-high crops.
Wall plaque in Dursely commemorating the life of Mikael Pedersen, inventor of the Pedersen bicycle. His tale was one of rags to riches, and back to rags again, but among certain cyclists his name - and unique bike - has not been forgotten.
I couldn't work out what this crazy waymark was, or why it had been erected in the middle of nowhere. But it was cool nevertheless.
This was the last picture I took before I packed up my camera to keep it dry. The weather was horrible.
Next: Day 23 – Stroud to Birdlip.
Previous: Day 21 – Bath to Old Sodbury.