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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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Quietly and in a pensive mood we leave the small green field by a gate in the hedge and step straight onto a narrow lane. A long day ahead to reach Alton where hopefully there will be a warm bed and a deep hot bath. We climb the easy slopes of hills covered in gently moving fields of wheat and tall bright gold rape flowers. Our path is the narrow strip edge between crops and hedges. Hunger pangs call a halt and we sit by the golden rape flowers on a wooden stile and eat breakfast. We are both feeling very tired and the days of walking are beginning to take their toll. Philip jokes “my feet feel like mashed potato, if it wasn’t for my boots they would be spread all over the ground” There are some days we feel as though we can take on the world and win and others when a bumble bee is too strong an adversary.

11.00am finds us at Utoexter where we have breakfast again. I think I am getting rather tired of bacon and eggs but I am just so hungry all the time. I must be eating three or four times my normal food intake and still I am losing weight. The walk out of Utoexter is lengthy and dreary as we are walking by a road before heading off into the countryside again. Our limbs soon loosen and our feet begin to eat up the miles. Seems to take an hour or two of walking each day before we limber up and relax into our stride.

Alton, the home of an enormous theme park, is an unexpected pleasure. No indication of the theme park, it must be hidden in the tree shrouded valleys beyond the town, and Alton is a hilltop village which has retained its character. This is a credit to planning.

The Wild Duck Inn, on the village edge, is a welcome sight and yes there is a quite enormous bath of a size that is no longer made. I fill it almost to the brim and pepper the steaming water with mineral salts from a container on its rim. The water turns soft green and my naked body relaxes and revives as I sink gratefully into its depths. It is true that I am beginning to enjoy the camping but I love the B & B’s, each one is so different.

When our stomachs growl for dinner we walk through the forest, downhill on a tiny path to The Talbot Inn. It is a gracious place for the ravenous to dine and the food is truly excellent. This night has a velvet softness which is new to our journey and as we carefully make our way back up the hill through dark woods over slippery stones we hope our washing will be dry. It waits, draped over the big old radiators in our room. Such are the preoccupations of the mind on a walk like this. It is the small things, the basics. Our world is each other and what is on our backs. We have far more comfort though than the early pilgrims who probably walked some of the same routes.

53 Day 38 Alton to Cheddleton

Philip stands in front of the mirror crumpled and rosy from sleep. He leans forward and draws the heavy velvet curtains back from the window to reveal panes framing brilliant blue sky. It is a glorious day! Soft golden sunshine beams from azure skies dressing the newly burst blossoms and spring green leaves with honeyed light. You can almost smell the honey and hear the bees.

Washing is all dry. There will be no socks flapping from our packs today.

We leave the Wild Duck Inn and walk down the hill then follow the River Churnet to a soft under foot path which leads us to Dimmings Dale. Here we wander by tall trees of holly, rowan and birch in dappled sunshine through soft glades and shaded nooks. For some moments sadness mists our magic when we see that onto a tree down in Dimmings Dale someone has nailed a wreath for a young man who died in a war many years gone but in life loved to wander in these woods. “Gone, but not forgotten”. The love must have been deep for fresh wreaths to be hung so long since the war. On these paths he walked, happy in the sunlight. I sigh. The shadows flit, I imagine his form against the backdrop of the woods, then the sun, rising over the hills, shafts long through the trees and he is gone.

Hours of walking through lovely woods along good clear tracks. Every now and then where the trees thin we glimpse the hills and farms beyond. We are quite high and have been climbing steadily for some time when we reach a forestry gate. A narrow lane beyond it winds steeply up and down the hill between the thickly forested slopes. Which way? Up or down? We have strayed from our path too enchanted by our surroundings to pay heed to the map. So we walk up the lane and come to a cottage. The door is open and an old man sits at a wooden table. I call through the door asking for directions to Kingsley Holt. He gives them but they are unintelligible and very lengthy. Maybe he is senile or maybe he has always been like this, inbred, untouched by education and the world beyond his village. We smile at him and he smiles back. Confusion fogs our thoughts but luckily meet a sign which points up the hill clearly saying “Kingsley Holt”.

This is our direction.

At the top of the hill we come to a village of mixed architecture, old and new. A man is fixing is roof. Philip asks for water “Excuse me mate, would you be able to fill these for us” holding up our water bottles. “Hey up, no problem lad” he calls back in a strong northern accent “Would ee like cup of tar before goin’on”. The tea comes with very large portions of cake. We chat with them for a while, general chat, the weather, our journey and things like that. I am very interested as they do not say “the” the whole time.

We pick up the trail again behind the undistinguished looking village chapel and descend from high hedged fields abruptly into the exceptionally narrow Churnet Valley. Across Cherry Eye Bridge with its Gothic Arch (named for the inflamed eyes - caused by airborne industrial dust - of the workmen who years ago toiled here). We keep our eyes 54 open for water voles but none show their faces. This beautiful area of rolling hilly landscapes with steep wooded banks is Consall Nature Park with the emphasis on conservation. Consall Forge, once the site of a water powered ironworks brings interest to the great and peaceful beauty of water and woodland. Every turn is an oil painting the light and reflections playing in tune to create a small time warp of history. The Black Lion pub is closed but is so picturesque perched on higher ground beside where the river and the canal part and the railway line squeezes through. This must once have been a thriving area and the pub would have rumbled with rough voices and thirsty gulps.

Ahead, before Oakmeadow Ford Lock, where the Caldon Canal joins the River Churnet for a short stretch, a stone bridge links the sides of the canal. Atop this we perch ourselves to eat our dinner whilst watching a deftly and brightly painted barge negotiate the lock. Philip is completely fascinated with the lock mechanisms and their origins. Woods of soft leafy trees overhang the canal and bright clusters of flowers stray from their edges. Birds dart and insects buzz. And the brightly painted barge drifts by.

Further along in the canalside pub at Cheddleton Philip has a glass of ale and we listen to the amicable banter of the pub patrons. There is so much laughter and joviality in the pubs we visit and the people seem to converse in a universal language reserved for the pub.

Nothing deep and meaningful, just ribbing, whimsical or comical tales and lots of laughter. It seems woes are left at the door.

The campsite is only a few hundred yards walk and again the standard is very high.

Our tent neighbour gets us some fish and chips when he goes to pick his wife up and another day over we once again slide into sleep.

–  –  –

After a stormy night of unsettled sleep we are back on the canal to Leek. It is a short, easy walk and we arrive to the bustle and business of Saturday morning shoppers. Our first objective is to find a cafe. There we meet another of the kind souls who helps guide our journey. We begin to chat to a man sitting at the next table. He is a local pub owner named Peter who keeps company with us through the streets of Leek and helps us find the guides and maps we need to begin the Pennine Way. The day is quickly disappearing so we bid our friend farewell and hurry to buy provisions. To find our way out of town, we follow a handwritten map (drawn by the girl in the bookshop) to a disused railway path which leads us past a beautiful lake, Rudyard Reservoir (inspired Rudyard Kipling’s parents in their choice of name for their son) to Rushton.

The lake is really a reservoir constructed in 1831 to supply the Caldon Canal. But here is another type of scenery, more Australian than anything we have seen. Maybe it is the day that leads us to this conclusion for it is summer skies with soft sunlight surrounding the wooded shores. Legs dangling over the edge, we sit on the bank of the lake to eat our morning tea, eyes dazzled by the dancing reflections of the sunlight on the water. I have forgotten already that it is a weekend day, we lose track, and there are 55 quite a few people out enjoying the sunshine. A brightly painted miniature steam train chuffs up and down its tiny tracks along the shore of the lake. This makes me think about the reasons we began this trek. One of Philip’s favourite quips of late had been “we’ve got to step out of the railway tracks”. Our life was good but approaching (or reaching!) middle age brings its gremlins and one of them is the fear of never again doing anything exciting. And so began the pattern of thought that led us to this road, maybe the first of many. We all have a fear of coming to our end and saying “where did the years go”. That is a terrifying thought.

“When shall completeness round time’s incompleteness Fulfilling joy, fulfilling pain?

Lo while we ask, life rolleth on in fleetness To finished loss or finished gain”....CR The warm sun burns into our backs and we begin to feel sleepy. It is a struggle to drag ourselves away from this warm corner out of the wind and soon we are back on the trail and then up through some fields. In the near distance is Rushton. The Fox Inn is a mile or two walk from the trail and we can see the beginning of the path snaking up a steep hill atop of which perches a lovely old church. A wooden railing aids us in the steep climb and then the walk to the Fox Inn seems interminable. As Tolkien said “the road goes ever onward, down from the door where it began.....” and so we tread its weary way and hope our bed for the night is comfortable and the food is good. I can’t wait to get this pack off my back.

Day 40 Rushton to Sutton

This is an amazing experience. We are sitting in a car, it is unbelievable to see the countryside whizzing by at such a rate. The Landlord of the Fox Inn is driving us back to Rushton to where we left our last footprints on yesterday’s trail. No sooner has the car turned the corner leaving us on a track when Philip looks down at his chest. There the map case and compass normally hang, but......nothing. “Where’s the map case” Philip says with startled eyes. Well, there aren’t many places to look. “Humph!” he says. I place my bottom on the grassy verge by the track next to our packs and Philip goes back to the road and puts his thumb out. I forage in the pack for food and prepare for a long wait. 15 minutes and he is back. He says a car stopped and picked him up almost immediately and then the driver, a youngish fellow with a friendly aspect, drove him to the Fox Inn and said he would wait and drive him back. Philip found the map and map case and was soon at my side. What a good deed which has saved us much frustration and time. The map case was in our room.

The Gritstone Trail was created by Cheshire County Council. It leaves Rushton and runs northwards for 19 miles following the westerly ridges of the Pennines to Lyme Park.

These ridges are formed of angular sandstones or “grits”. The rock was laid down under water, over 250 million years ago.

56 We find the Gritstone Trail by the canal behind a pub and set off on a wonderful journey.

What glorious countryside. As we climb out of the verdant Dane Valley into the green, slightly wilder hills with rushing rivers all around the surroundings have a wonderfully fresh feel. Birds and tiny animals everywhere but not a human to be seen. The walking is not easy, the hills have steep gradients and there is some mud too. Here the leaves of Spring have still not completely unfurled, it seems we are winning the race with Spring at the moment. We dally here and there in the rustic land, gently wild with green fields bitten short by rabbits and sheep. The occasional tumbling stones of a now ruined cottage add to the charm. Every where I look I see scenes worthy of an artist’s brush. Would that I were one. These hills are the Minns and the panorama from their high level bare tops is magnificent over the flat plain of Cheshire with the Cloud and Mow Cop rising dark and mysterious at its fringe.

The lambing season is well under way and the baby lambs are so tiny. Fluffy cream with tiny black feet they loll in the sunshine or curl amid the roots of a tree, impervious to our passing.

No person have we met all day until after climbing a lane over the steep hills of Dark Peak we hear a roaring sound. We have only just finished changing into our shorts and admiring the magnificent vista when a red tractor roars around the corner and proceeds along the ridgeway. It is followed by a long procession of brightly coloured tractors of varying age and condition. Each tractor is piled high with happy folk and dogs. They wave and laugh as they pass. We wait until they have all gone before setting off again but when we reach the highest part of the ridge we can see them in the distance ahead, all angle parked in a long line like the tail of a bright kite fallen on the hilltop. Small clusters of people, like angular black ants dot the green grass.

When we meet with them they are a jolly lot. Tractors’ day out. A bit of a spin over the hills and then, of course, down to the pub for a pint. They are very interested in our journey and delight in telling one of their number what we are doing. They call him over and openly relish his crestfallen expression when they compare our walk to his planned tractor ride from Liverpool to Whitby. Poor man, I wonder if he will still do it. It will be great fun.

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