Day 27: Gongoozling
Long Marston to Knowle. 22.5 miles. Miles to date: 420.5.
Today was fast forward. A means to an end. The impatient LeJoger’s dream: a series of near-as-damnit straight lines. First from Long Marston to joyous Stratford-Upon-Avon, Shakespeare’s theme-town. Then onto the Great British canal network – the Stratford-Upon-Avon Canal – then king of them all, The Grand Union, to my stopping point for the night, a rocking rainy canalside inn a few miles outside Birmingham. And while it may have been straightforward walking, my end-of-walk pint feels well deserved.
I started bright and early, waving goodbye to mum and dad who’ve ferried me to start points over the last couple of days, and been there with home-cooked food and sandwiches. (Thanks also to Elaine who lent us her Chipping Campden home for two nights).
Within minutes I’d picked up the Stratford Greenway - a five-mile stretch of disused railway on what was once the Honeybourne Line, part of the Oxford, Worcester and Wolverhampton Railway that linked the Midlands to the south west. It made for swift walking.
Mum and dad.
The Stratford Greenway: fast walking, if you like that kind of thing.
For the first hour I was the only person around. Then cyclists, joggers and dog walkers started busying the trail.
The cyclists and dog walkers were friendly enough, but uncannily - after yesterday’s parade of 400 hellos - today’s runners weren’t in the mood for greetings. Smiles were ignored, 'mornings' fell on deaf ears. I wasn’t too bothered, but it begged a few questions. Was I – horror! – inside the city limits, breaking Rule #1 of English conversation that says a smile to a stranger is acceptable - maybe even expected - when walking in the countryside. But it is absolutely not acceptable in a town or city.
But it wasn’t that. On either side of the greenway were miles of... green.
I ended up concluding that runners from these parts just aren’t that friendly. Maybe they’d overdone it on friday night with one too many Shakespeare plays or something.
The unanswered hello does, however, present a quandary for the ignorer. Aware of their exposed grump, do they bounce back by offering a late reply? Perhaps after the walker has passed? Or do they suffer in silence, aware that their unwillingness to show a little humanity has been rumbled publicly – albeit in front of a stranger they'll never see again? Do they keep on running or walking, thinking nothing of the non-exchange of pleasantries? More likely they simply think What’s that hairy hobo with the big backpack smiling inanely at me for?
Heron on the short stretch of the River Avon I walked along.
After a few miles of being ignored by joggers I entered Stratford-Upon-Avon, which was a booster shot of energy, colour and noise, qualities not found in abundance on the Cotswold Way,
I had been to Stratford before. I was 17-years-old and my drama class was dragged up the M40 for an obligatory play at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre.
As I wandered the humming streets I wracked my brain to recall what play it was and got nowhere. Then I remembered: the minibus had parked up and we’d been given a couple of hours to look round the town before reuniting at the theatre. It didn’t take more than ten minutes to choose an appropriately under-the-radar watering hole, where we settled in for the afternoon.
The strange thing about the trip was that when we reconvened at the minibus to drive home there were no recriminations – or even any questions – from the teacher who'd arranged the trip. Just amicable chit chat as we journeyed back. Which probably should have struck me as odder than it did at the time. He’d effectively withdrawn us from school and driven us 180 miles to spend an afternoon in the pub.
The only explanation I ever came up with was that the teacher in question had also failed to attend the play.
He was a man who understood the young male mind. Had he, I wonder, foresaw what his class would do, and subsequently arranged an itinerary of own own to fill the afternoon? A mistress, perhaps, or - more likely - am equally conspicuous half day in his own pub, wiling away the hours he would normally have spent teaching?
Either way, it was a win on all fronts. The Globe sold a dozen tickets. The pub sold more than a few dozen pints. Pupils and teacher got a day off. And no one had their day ruined with three hours of Shakespeare.
The Royal Shakespeare Theatre: I thought I had been there. But on balance, I probably hadn't.
I spent an idle half hour trying to trace our old watering hole, without success. So instead I ambled down to the waterfront, where buskers were playing, thesp-types were setting up portable stages, tour boats were filling up at the stone quay, and tourists of all nationalities were feeding the ducks.
The Bard was everywhere. There were statues, paintings, street names, seats and a seemingly endless number of tour guides who had, I assume, answered a job ad saying something like: RESTING ACTORS WANTED: MUST HAVE SILLY BEARD AND LOUD VOICE.
While the waterfront had a relaxed industriousness about it, the pedestrianised town centre was more chaotic than a Shakespearian farce.
Throngs of tourists were taking gigabytes worth of selfies in front of anything Shakespeare, or, failing that, anything remotely English – telephone kiosks, postboxes, tudor houses, tour guides with booming voices and any retailer that was shamelessly getting in on the act, including - bizarrely - a Peter Rabbit shop, which did not, I assume, let it be known that Beatrix Potter had made her home 400 miles up the M6.
As I watched the unbridled appetite for all things English I started wondering whether if Brexit collapses and the UK's economy folds, our best bet would be to surrender ourselves wholly to tourism.
Forget science, engineering, tech. Instead Britain should repurpose itself as a large living museum, like North Devon's Clovelly, but on a national scale. The next generation would be trained not as programmers or astrophysicists or opinion pollsters but as tour guides with silly beards, as nick-nack sellers and Peter Rabbit lookalikes. History would become the only A-level that mattered, with international elements of the curriculum binned in favour of modules on Jane Austen, Capability Brown and the screen work of John Nettles.
Or maybe not.
Either way, as a tourist Stratford-Upon-Avon was great fun, and I'm likely to retain clearer memories of it this time around than on my last (non) visit two-and-a-bit decades back.
This was a lovely idea. To celebrate the international nature of the town, Warwickshire County Council invited other councils - and countries - to donate a heritage street lamp to light a small part of Waterside. So there's lamps given by, for example, Brighton and Hove, Brugges and Leeds. But the best was this beautiful lamp donated by the State of Israel. The ass is the character Bottom from A Midsummer Night's Dream.
Stratford's main drag: mobbed with tourists, and people dressed as Shakespeare.
It was impossible not to love this dog's ambition.
Stratford-Upon-Avon was where I joined the canal.
Before my walk into Bath a week back I’m not sure I would have opted to walk canals for three days.
But I liked following the canal that day. I liked the constant engagement. I liked the boats - each with its own unique personality. I liked the characters on the boats - the middle class Pinot drinkers; the hippies; the stag do’s.
I also liked the built environment: the bridges, locks, canalside cottages. I liked the fact there was always something happening: a gate being opened, a swan leading cygnets, a heron in the reeds.
But most of all I liked being part of this shadowy back-garden transport network that is vast but - in relative terms - barely used.
There is a word for people like me, it turns out – people who enjoy watching the activities on UK Canals. They are known as Gongoozlers. Kind of like trainspotters, but who prefer life in the watery slow lane – and who don't wear macs.
Of course there's a more pragmatic reason for the LeJoger to love canals. It is that they offer some of the quickest routes from A to B.
In that respect they are the walking equivalent of the motorway. You can get up a good speed – and keep it up. There are even regular refreshment stops in the form of canalside pubs.
Stretches of today, particularly on the Stratford-Upon-Avon stretch of the canal, were gorgeous.
Despite the heavy skies, life was good on the canal.
Willows wept, lilies studded banks yellow, and ducks and geese trailed their young around. The canal cut through farmland that would, you could tell, have been a pain to walk. And every few minutes there was a new bridge, cottage or narrow boat to keep the senses gently tickled.
There were landmarks too. The longest canal aqueduct in England at Edstone. And shortly after a plaque celebrating the Southern Stratford Canal – the first restored canal in the UK.
Which is not to say that when my stopping point for the night came into sight I wasn't relieved. 21 miles on towpaths takes its toll on the feet.
But as I rounded the bend there was music in the air: a pianist and club singer entertaining a packed beer garden.
Turns out it was the annual summer party at Knowle's Innkeepers Lodge, sponsored by Pimms.
Knackered, I ordered a glass, took off my boots and did what I’d been wanting to do all day: watch the canal boats without having to plough on forward.
It was intoxicatingly relaxing for all of five minutes.
The in true British summer style, the heavens opened, and the garden party - pimms, sunglasses, BBQ and all - was forced to relocate inside.
Waymark at the junction of the Stratford-Upon-Avon and Grand Union canals.
The Grand Union Canal. It didn't have the same countryside charms as the Stratford-Upon-Avon canal, but it was still perfectly pleasant.
Next: Day 28 – Knowle to Nechells (Star City, Birmingham).
Previous: Day 26 – Stanton to Long Marston.