Lichfield to Uttoxeter. 20.5 miles. Miles to date: 477.3.
The market town of Uttoxeter was my goal for today. Uttoxeter is known for its races, for manufacturing expensive JCBs and as a B&B stopover for Alton Towers thrillseekers
It has also been immortalised in Rod Liddle’s The long, long road to Uttoxeter – a short story in which a man ends up with a severed arm.
Though my arm’s still with me – just – today felt like a very long road to Uttoxeter, and one that included the worst walking of my LeJog to date. For much of it walking was the wrong word. Hacking would be more appropriate, one slow, tiresome step at a time.
If there is a strand of silver in the mighty cloud hanging over the day it's that you can't cultivate the Peaks of Derbyshire and the Pennines – where I'm heading over the next weeks – with fields of wheat and oil seed rape. And though I'm no fan of peat hags and cottongrass, I like them a hell of a lot more than I do nettles.
Spot the path: Oh no, it's not there. Again.
Things started off fine.
We took a brief tour of Lichfield. It’s a small city but there’s lots to see, including its three-spired medieval cathedral and streets full of attractive buidlings.
Lichfield also has a few famous alumni: Samuel Johnson was born here and Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of young Charles came to live here, to invent, think, write and somehow find time to father 14 children.
Samuel (Dr) Johnson, thinking deeply about what comes after aardvark, and the cathedral.
More interesting was the grizzly parade of plaques in the market place remembering local people who died for their faith: Thomas Hayward, John Goreway and Joyce Lewis (burned at the stake) on one plaque, and Edward Wightman - the last person in England to be killed the same way - on another.
It is likely these executions help explain the fourth plaque, one to Quaker founder and pacifist George Fox, who, the plaque reads, "stood without shoes on a market day in this Market Place and denounced the City of Lichfield".
Then we set off north.
It wasn’t scintillating walking, but there was plenty to engage: crossing the West Coast mainline – busy with Virgin Pendolinos; a short stretch on the Trent & Mersey Canal – equally busy with narrowboats; past the Armitage Shanks factory where Great British toilets are still being made 200 years after the company's inception; and over the River Trent - an important milestone on my walk as it divides the north from the south of England.
On then to the tiny village of Mavesyn Ridware with its ancient church and, up the road in Hill Ridware, a village pub where the landlord was kind enough to let us eat the generous picnic Polly had made us on their tables – as long as we bought a pint (which wasn't a hard deal to swallow).
After lunch I said my farewells and set off alone again on the trail.
Lovely old woods at Slaish.
The Trent & Mersey Canal.
The Armitage Shanks factory at Armitage. Had a yard full off loos.
Big milestone: Crossing the River Trent. The Trent has historically marked the boundary between northern and southern England. On the north side the temperature dropped by eight degrees. (Joke).
Me crossing the Trent. Shortly after the picture was taken I had to put on another couple of layers. (Joke). The growing clump of grey hairs are directly related to this walk.
David (far right), my walking companion for the last two days; me; and Polly, maker of fine food.
Within a couple of miles the familiar frustrations of tackling footpaths in arable farmland reasserted themselves, only today they were magnified. The crops were that bit higher – some up to my neck – the fields that bit bigger (this is fertile land, producing big yields and big profits), and nettles that much nettlier. And while unlike on some days - like on my battle through the Somerset Levels - it was clear that other walkers had struggled through before me, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was fighting a losing battle against all things green.
It doesn’t help that I get bad hayfever. I'd worried about sneezing fits and streaming eyes before I set off on my journey. (I even thought about postponing the trip because of them). Turned out my worries were well founded, as my eyes wept, my legs puffed and sneezes came one after another after another after another. Whenever I made my way into civilisation I got alarmed looks from the locals: the wild red-eyed man from the croplands was making his way into the village again, stealing their Fanta Orange and jellybeans while spraying snot all over their manicured lawns. In more arcane times they might have had me burned at the stake.
Rare example of how a farmer can (and should) maintain public rights of way.
Much more common example of a field where the farmer is showing their contempt for walkers and the law.
Rugely power station. It once burned coal. It doesn't any more. It will be blown up shortly.
This is HS2 territory. All day we were crossing fields, woods and villages that will have a high speed rail line running through them in a decade's time.
Then came the bull.
I’ve had to develop a thick skin in my interactions with cows during this walk or I’d still be stuck in Somerset. But this was a small field with a big, shifty looking bull, and the only way across it was… across it. Creeping round the edge wan't going to work.
I tried everything to find a solution. I clocked up something close to an additional mile-and-a-half wandering around fields looking for an alternative route to the lane beyond.
Then I looked for gaps in the hawthorn hedge that would have allowed me into the bull's field at a safe distance. But these were fine hedges; old, deep and wide, with thorns tough enough to keep bulls interred. A human stood no chance. I was penned too.
I considered retreat – but that would add too many extra miles to an already long day. It was coming up to 5pm, the shadows lengthening, and I had nine miles (and counting) left to go. Above me the sun was burning away the last clouds and, without any wind it was getting sticky and hot. I sat by the stile eyeing the lane I needed to be on just 100 maddening yards away, cursing the farmer who had chosen this field for this bull, heart sinking as I realised I was out of options.
It was then that I noticed the green lane: half a mile to the west, and offering potential transit to an alternative route north on the Staffordshire Way – a long distance path that I assumed would be more established than my path-through-bull-field cut de sac.
The green lanes are marked on the OS map as normal lanes - but they rarely go anywhere, and often appear between, and inside, field boundaries. They were once drove roads, or cart tracks, that long-gone authorities decided were not worthy of tarmac and which were subsequently surrendered to nature. They can be magical places, as I’ve found a few times on my walk, most notably on Day 16, coming down from the Quantocks.
But this one, when I reached it, turned out to be something else – a moat of thorny greenery that in another era might have surrounded a hidden castle holding a sleeping maiden.
I found a gap in the hedging and let myself into the overgrown green lane. In the shade of tangled oaks and beeches high above was a second canopy of blackthorn, hawthorn and elder, all vying for space and filling it. Below that canopy was a thicket of ground-level brambles and nettles that plunged down to a notched gully 20 foot deep. A stream drifted along the bottom, air around it still, languid and thick. This was a lane that time had forgotten, an animal sanctuary now; signs of badgers, rat runs, unseen crows calling to each other high above. It was no place for a walker.
Getting to the other side and out took the best part of 40 minutes, hacking a slow, painful path through layers of stingy, scratchy canopies underfoot and overhead. I’ve no idea how many times I was stung but in the end my focus was not on that: it was simply on getting out again.
I did it eventually, with a punctured thumb and bloody knee. I threw my pack over the barbed wire fencing into the wheat field alongside, then hurdled the fence. Ten minutes later I was on the Staffordshire Way,
The green 'lane'. My home for 40 miserable minutes. If, like the A-Team, I am ever wanted for a crime I did not commit, I will return here with a tent and a few tins of beans and occasionally venture out to do good deeds for people. No one will ever find me.
Joy! Another pathless field to cross.
Farmers in these parts have a subtle way of letting you know you are not welcome.
Two foxes! SHOOT THEM! SHOOT THE GODDAMN FOXES! AND THE BADGERS! AND THE MOLES! SHOOT EVERYTHING THAT MOVES EXCEPT THE COWS AND SHEEP! Ahem. Sorry, don't know where that came from.
The pretty village of Abbots Bromley. It is the location of an interesting annual ceremony involving deer horns that I was looking forward to learning more about, but by the time I got here (I had expected that to be for lunch at 2pm, it turned out to be just after 5) all I wanted to do was down a pint of lemonade and get moving on.
I’d love to say it was plain sailing from the moment I joined the Staffordshire Way – a new long distance path for me. But it wasn't. Maybe I’m a few weeks too late, with crops just too high to make walking these paths enjoyable. But in some of the fields every step was a battle, and after a while that wears you down.
Sometimes LeJog feels like falling for the class hottie way back in school and sending her a valentine’s card year after year after year, your card never reciprocated, as she gets engaged, married, has kids, settles down, moves overseas, divorces, meets someone else (not you) – and so on until you die alone in an old folk's home on February 13th 2078 while penning another – and final – unrequited love letter.
You raise your hopes at each new field, only to have them dashed with yet more barley crops. You finally battle out of the barley only to be confronted by a large BULL IN FIELD sign. You reach the other side of the bull field in one piece to find the stile missing and the gap in the hedge woven close by sturdy hawthorn. Walkers are, by and large, optimistic creatures – they think the shower will probably pass, that the clouds will likely lift, and that the scenery must improve. But LeJog has a habit of giving that optimism regular slapdowns. Of asking, time and again, Did you really expect this to be fun?!
And all the time the hours are passing, and the heat’s building, and your eyes are hurting and you haven't seen a single solitary walker – not one – to have a friendly liferaft of a chat with for days. Instead the only signs of humanity come from signs that read ‘KEEP OUT’ and ‘YOU ARE BEING WATCHED’ and ‘BULL IN FIELD” and you end up feeling lousy and deflated and so, so tired, like you haven't slept properly in weeks. Then you look down at your mobile, with the critical map on it, and see the warning that reads: BATTERY POWER 5%. Which feels like a few per cent more than you yourself have got left.
In the end I abandoned farm paths for country lanes to complete the last three miles to Uttoxoeter,
The revised route may have been longer, but I’d lost all patience with the Staffordshire Way, and all faith in farmers’ maintaining our legal rights of way.
At eight o'clock I limped, sneezing, legs itching, into Uttoxeter, where I’ve got a room in what I assume is the ‘budget Alton Towers’ sector of local accommodation, with a bathroom that requires you to have Mr Tickle-style arms to have a shower.
Not that I care. The room has a bed and is two minutes limp from a 'Spoons (as I think people say).
Rarely have I noticed or welcomed more the kindness of strangers – the young guy running my B&B who gave a warmer welcome than he had any right to to a red-eyed LeJoger who said he'd arrive at five - and the Wetherspoons waitress who offered to move my camera, laptop, rucksack and assorted other stuff from the balcony to get me a more stable wifi signal downstairs.
These small gestures take on such importance when you've been battered all day long by the trail.
Now all I can think about is sleep.
Then I’ll get up and do it all over again.
A single charge of my iPhone gives me around ten hours worth of battery to power my OS maps App. Today's walk was dragging on so long that I needed to perform an emergency power-up in an overgrown meadow.
The big, big relief of getting into Uttoxeter.
A first for me: a novel shower design where the water controls are on the outside of the cubicle. This meant if you wanted a little more hot water you either needed someone in there with you, or you needed to open the door, flood the bathroom, mess around with the heating controls then return to the cubicle to carry on showering. I'd love to see this on Dragon's Den.
Next: Day 31 – Uttoxeter to Thorpe.
Previous: Day 29 – Nechells (Star City, Birmingham) to Lichfield.