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«il to 27th June 1998 88 days i The planning stage of this journey encompassed a period of 12 months. Fitness We set ourselves a fitness program to ...»

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A 5.00am start and the world holds a supernatural stillness. Everyone is still asleep and you have only birds and rabbits for company. We cross high above the motorway from ridge to ridge by the farm bridge, once concrete but now growing a fine mat of green grass on the soil and dung deposited by plodding cows. When we reach Barrat’s farm we are confronted by a most disgusting field of mud puddles mixed black-green with dung like an oily slick on the surface. Nothing for it, we just wade through and pass the barn where a wee caramel coloured calf coughs pitifully, his tongue popping out with each hollow hack. The weather is misty with a cold wind and low cloud. Earth and sky meet without touching. We are so cold. My fingers ache with it. Where is a glove shop?

The Way takes us on past a crowd of old stone houses to Church End and then to Shustoke Reservoir. The reservoir sits high above us behind the trees to our left as we tramp a narrow track between it and a wire fence guarding the railway line. Tiny flowers dot the pathside and we meet no-one. I wonder where all the people are in this heavily populated heart of England. Probably at work!!!

The day plods on, uneventful until we reach Foul End. As we approach we debate the origins of the unusual name and we decide someone had once met a particularly grisly and foul end here. It transpires that it was once a rubbish dump. Ah well, some things are very simple. Philip knocks on the door of the ‘oh so charming’ Orchard Cottage to ask for water. George is in his garage and asks us in for coffee - what a delightful man, slight and bespectacled with a wide grin, and his wife Jill, quiet and welcoming. The time passes so quickly when you meet with friendship in such an open and pleasurable way. The coffee and biscuits are good but we settle into their company as though we have been friends for a lifetime. George has a keen interest in birds of prey, antique books and art.

George and Jill love walking in the Lakes District. When we leave we realise we have spent hours talking. Well met friends, we will hopefully meet again.

We walk on into the afternoon of another of these precious days. Our destination is a campsite at the Kingsbury Water Park. Apparently this Water Park was a quarry but now is a recreation area of pools and lakes amid woodland, a refuge and breeding ground for abundant wildlife. Very civilised and well frequented by local families.

The day has turned pure spring and is perfect for camping.

–  –  –

Look above and be thankful, the sky is again blue and the sun shines on us as we sit in our corner of the caravan park and eat our breakfast of hot milky coffee and peanut butter rolls. (Yes, we eat a lot of peanut butter - thank goodness for peanut butter, tasty and lots of protein.) ……. During the night we were awoken by a couple in the caravan opposite us.

They were screaming and abusing each other but now all is quiet and we are the first up.

Anger is such a waste of time, all that negative energy spilling out into the air tarnishing its purity.

Now it seems we are very efficient at packing up. Philip turns his head and says over his shoulder “we are a team”. I smile. I am very happy with life at the moment, grateful for the liberty to explore the world. After checking the map it is an easy walk along well marked paths to the Birmingham and Fazeley Canal tow path with which we keep company for the first few miles of our day. The Bridges along this canal are named rather than numbered as is the normal practice. The Drayton Footbridge is a gothic structure and has spiral stairways in its supporting towers. It is such peaceful walking by the calm water, dark and glossy like polished obsidian, with its deep reflections of sky, tree and slowly moving clouds. The canal draws us northwards in a perfect line.

A short cut then into Drayton Bassat. Yes the sun, albeit a wintry lemon sun, is shining so we decide to christen our shorts. Living so much out in the world, no longer sheltered by the privacy of walls emboldens one. You almost feel invisible among strangers. So, we simply stop on the roadside by a hedge opposite houses and change into shorts. Are there prying eyes, we don’t know and don’t care. We move on and leave them behind.

Feeling in a holiday mood because of our shorts we hasten now along lanes to a farm where we sit and boil up our water for tea and eat chocolate. The ritual of tea is an important one. It makes restful space in our day.

The journey to Lichfield is taking longer than we expect as we lose the path and wander about a wood. The compass once again shows us the direction and we follow a well trodden bridleway overhung with foliage until we pick up the Way again. Lichfield is a city of spires. The Ladies of the Vale, the three tall spires of Lichfield Cathedral lead the traveller from afar. After so long in open country we enter the city of Lichfield, the first area of major civilisation since Bath and the last until Edinburgh. This city is small and is a surprise for us as we think of this as a major industrial area where the cities should smoke, rumble and fume. Indeed it is a charming and genteel place. As we approach the Cathedral we are delighted by the architecture. The Cathedral Close here is the most complete in England and the Cathedral dates from the twelfth century. It is Britain’s smallest and took 150 years to complete. The style appears darkly Gothic, its soft sandstone darkened over time by the pollutants from the old Black Country industries north of Birmingham. I turn away from it to the handsome mansions that skirt the close. In the Cathedral Square everyone is busy tidying up after a Fair. We ask the

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Now we sit in a well furnished room in this delightful terrace house and from our window we look out onto the massive cathedral, frightening in its enormity and the dramatic and sometimes dark turn of its stonework. To me a place to put fear and awe into the community, not love and fellowship, for I see no welcome in its colossal structure.

Tomorrow we leave the Heart of England Way and the Midlands for the Staffordshire Way and the North of England. Sleep tight, I wonder if the Cathedral bells will chime all night (I believe that there are 10 of them!!). Sleep is instant for my body grasps it hungrily.

Day 35 Lichfield to Cannock Chase

Today, before leaving Lichfield, we need to buy a book on the Staffordshire Way. After a good night in spite of the chiming of the bells - yes, they chimed every 15 minutes, we go in search of a such a book. I think it will be easy but it is not and takes much time before we find the book we want. The sequence is north to south but that doesn’t matter we will just have to read it backwards, we are anxious to get on our way.

We head off from Lichfield and its frowning Gothic Cathedral and are very quickly in the countryside again. We walk on but both feel a bit discouraged and rather tired.

Cannock Chase soon comes into view and after a looking at Castle ring, the Iron Age Fort by the carpark, we enter the woods. Cannock Chase, originally part of Cannock Forest, now covers 26 miles and is an area of remarkable natural beauty. Here again is another landscape. The change is marked for gone are the soft pastoral fields of rural England and ahead is a wilder, untamed landscape.

The Way climbs to a plateau of heathland, a remnant of the ancient Cannock Forest where Henry II hunted. Fallow and red deer still roam the forest and we hope we will meet some.

Red squirrels also still live in this area, one of the few populations left in southern England. The forest diminished during the 16th and 17th centuries as bark was needed to tan leather for shoemakers and charcoal required to fire furnaces. It is a sad reflection of the progression of mankind but of course man’s time on earth is short and few of us think beyond our own lifespan. It is worth considering that three and a half million people live within 20 miles of this forest but we have not yet seen one of them in it. We breathe deeply of the cool fresh air and look about us. The huge forest spreads for miles over the hills. Light and shadow play with the colours and spaces between the trees and today we hope we remain gloriously alone.

49 We are still tired and so stop early at the Cannock Chase campsite. A small campsite of uneven green ground set amongst the trees, so we perch our tent on a small area of high ground in case it rains. The hour is not much past the time for afternoon tea but too tired to care we slide into our sleeping bags without even having a shower. No dinner as we stopped in a pub and ate a huge lunch. Rain begins to beat its regular music on the tent and it is set to rain all night. I love the sound of rain so close to my head when I am here all snug with Philip curled up in our sleeping bags. Good night or should I say “afternoon” world.

Day 36 Cannock Chase to Abbots Bromley

The speeding hot droplets of the shower feel good on my back and I am loath to move back into the cold air of the shower room. The thought of drying myself with my less than adequate camp chamois (it is not much bigger than a dish cloth) does nothing to encourage haste. Small pleasures are relished in the seconds they consume.

Philip is waiting when I return to the campsite as today will be another early start - the Glacial Boulder and the crossways of the Heart of England Way and the Staffordshire Way awaits our anxious feet.

The forest is light and airy in the early morning and windswept showers race down on us from the scudding clouds. Waterproofs on again. I hold back as long as I can before putting them on as they are hot and uncomfortable. Philip’s problem with his rear end has not reappeared. His body has adapted I suppose.

The walking is splendid and the air so fresh and spiced with the scent of pine. Breakfast of sardine rolls (a welcome change from peanut butter) and milky coffee is on a pile of logs listening to the music of the birds and throaty warble of the frogs. We are starving and enjoy our break after treading sandy tracks through Scots Pines for some hours in the luminous light of this new day.

The Glacial Boulder is a big disappointment. I suppose I expected something huge and imposing but it is just a largish boulder mounted on concrete set amid a small grassy area. I am taller than it, I expected to look up at it with wonder. The Glacial Boulder came to Cannock chase in the ice age from south west Scotland. That is a long journey for a rock. We stop for a photo then turn our backs on the Heart of England Way and follow the rustic Staffs Way sign into wilder country of hills and moors. The thwack of the wind in our faces slows progress but the rain has dissipated into the watery light. Derbyshire ahead.

Heathland of heather, bracken and wavy haired grasses roll away before us and forests loom darkly on the hilltops. Here is a drama we have not yet encountered and our pace quickens in excitement. Wild valleys by tumbling, dancing streams and large patches of woodland. We cross a railway line and pull up a steep hill through a deciduous woodland.

50 This is Kitbag Hill. At the top was a camp for young airmen preparing to fly to war. The plaque by the path tells us this.

I glance around aware of the rustling shadows of those now dead. Muddy footprints, cheerful jibing, fear and hope bringing loud laughter and muffled talk. Up this hill they trudged, the young airmen. For many of them it would be their last hill before meeting their fiery fate in the skies above Germany. I hope their spirits fly free. History is short as well as long and it is always edged with tragedy. And we would do well to remember that history is ahead of us as well as behind us.

We are sad to leave the quiet beauty of Cannock Chase and sadder still that we have not sighted any of the famous deer who make it their home. Ahead though awaits another treat, more easy walking along the tow path of the Trent and Mersey Canal. What beauty, a wonderful three miles of softness and light, gentle reflections on secret waters.

The trees and foliage at the side of the canal are bursting with spring and squirrels play tag in the exciting game of mating. Warblers sit in the alder trees and we see a kingfisher and some moorhens. Away down the hill are gentle fields and woods carpeted with bluebells, daisies and brilliant golden dandelions. Breathe deeply of this joy, this new life and sing its song, for this is truly living. How can I ever go back to the towers of concrete and fields of asphalt?

Abbots Bromley is a village of fine houses where every year on a Monday in September at 8am the villagers don horns and perform the Horn Dance outside the vicarage. The deermen carry the horns on their shoulders and are accompanied by a Fool, a Hobby Horse, Maid Marian and a Bowman. Wouldn’t mind seeing that, crazy people, what fun. The six sets of horns that are used in the dance have been carbon dated to around the time of the Norman conquest.

No accommodation available. In this part of the country they are apt to simply not feel like guests. So says the local shopkeeper. So we walk along lanes and ask a farmer for permission to camp. “Any field where there are no sheep and leave no mess” is his reply, before closing the door in our faces. We have walked 17miles today and tiredness is complete. I am becoming accustomed to the load on my back but my body is slight and my pack is heavy. Sometimes now at night when we lie down we get terrible leg cramps and spasms in our legs and feet. The spasms give an involuntary jolt to your whole body and keep you from sleep until exhaustion wins and thankfully carries us to the void that exists somewhere between dusk and first light.

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