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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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17 A small queue has formed outside the tiny fish and chip shop. The people in the queue have the look of regular fast food eaters. Pallid skin lacking tone and vitality or maybe they have just not yet shed their sallow winter shell. Sadly the fish and chips are greasy and unappetising. Bad food is such a disappointment when you walk. Hunger is a constant companion and meals anticipated greatly. “I feel grumbly” I say “let’s go back to the room”. We amble back from the town square and make ourselves busy washing and drying all our clothes. Our bathroom has a heater and there we hang everything. We have only two changes of clothes. Any that do not dry we will hang from our packs tomorrow to flap in the wind as we walk.

Day 12 Hatherleigh to Oldsborough

Bright and crisp is the new day. During night it snowed and hailed and the earth is frosted and gleams crystalline in the sunlight. Off up the hill out of Hatherleigh, the first of many long Devon hills. “Oh look Philip, the hilltops are white with snow.” I breathe deeply of the cold air and the walking is joy but soon low grey-green clouds swing in and the soft snow flutters to our feet. From the hilltops we view the perfection of Devonshire countryside. Deep rooted villages of no fixed grid pattern reflect the early morning light and are surrounded by spreading green farms of irregularly hedged fields, some of freshly turned earth and others a dazzling green. The hills rise and fall in all directions and many bristle with large numbers trees or smaller groves that are just beginning to show a smattering of green on bare branches. Amid this scene, life goes on routinely but we are just passers by.

We are the watchers.

All around us across the countryside people are busy with their lives, sitting down to eat a meal, talking and laughing or fighting and crying. They are working, sleeping or learning and their world may be full of love and happiness, sadness and tragedy or just be day to day boring. The history of days past is beneath our feet and nature wraps the world in its beauty and wonder for nature knows all the days of change. Life is in layers and we skirt its edges. The world passes by in slow motion and with our feet always meeting the path we are more part of the land than we have ever been before. Our bodies are beginning to tune to its rhythm and our eyes absorb all of its beauty. Life is so real, more real than I can remember. The intensity of history and nature alerts us to our own mortality and we look on the world as though this may be our last sight of it.

As we look in on snatches of life around us Philip jokingly reprimands me for musing on the lives of those we meet or see, creating scenarios and stories about them. “You’re doing it again” he laughs. “Keeps you amused”, I retort. This becomes a game with us and we follow on from each other enlarging and widening the stories.

–  –  –

At the crossroads of many lanes we stop at a whitewashed stone cottage and Philip knocks on the door to ask for water. A fine gentlemanly farmer with silver hair and a smile crinkled face answers the door and soon we are sitting by his fire sipping tea and eating from a tin of ‘special’ chocolate biscuits. We chat about days long gone and the state of farming today. He tells us why we are having such unseasonable weather, “Have ye seen the blackthorn flowering? It be in the hedges with white flowers?” he asks “if it flowers afore April then there be cold cold days, and that be what we are havin’ now, beint it”. It seems that every flower, tree and place in England has a story or myth attached to it, some more than one. Blackthorn (Sloe) is held sacred by the fairies. The Luantishees are the Blackthorn fairies who guard the trees. I would expect that the fairies would be pleased to frolic amongst the early flowers.

..... we are on our way again, out into the cold air and feet on the lane once more. We see how everywhere the white blossoms of the blackthorn bush fill and crowd the hedges nodding open invitation to the icy winds.

Evening finds us at Oldsborough at the Lakes Fishing Retreat. Brian and Wendy make us very welcome and Wendy cooks a beautiful meal. Such a change to have fresh vegetables and food that has not been fried as seems the pattern of pub food. They are very proud of their property which is full of wildlife and two lakes - hence ‘the fishing retreat’.

I stretch my legs down beneath the weighty covers into the warm bed, ah comfort. The bathroom is littered with ‘do not’ signs. Who has done all these dreadful things to warrant so many signs? I wonder what tomorrow will bring. I am falling in love with walking and being so much part of the world rather than wandering automatically back and forth through my daily rut with every moment busy to breaking point.

–  –  –

Wendy, smelling of bacon breakfasts, meets us on the stairs. Oh well, another English breakfast, I feel we are keeping the pork industry liquid. I console myself that the food will remain in my stomach for some time and give me extra energy.

–  –  –

The pain in my leg has now completely disappeared and the bruise has faded to a yellow blur. Glad tidings!

The path is easy to follow, initially, but following the obvious does not always lead you right. Soon we are lost and in a bluebell wood. We stand and look about. The nodding blue heads laugh little laughs as the wind rattles them. Philip checks the compass and as we know by now, it never lies and it points its certain hand down a more than steep hill through some dense woodland. So down we slide holding the firm young trunks for support. We find our way to a little bridge which is being made slip proof by a husband and wife team. They are busy nailing chicken wire to the boards. We chat and find out he is the man who wrote the guide for this path. Guess he has a lot of interest in it and he is doing a very good job.

A metal and glass phone box stands rather inharmoniously on the rise of a small hill.

“Better ring Peter and Maureen and let them know we are coming” Philip says. Peter and Maureen are old friends and once neighbours who live in Rumwell, just outside Taunton where Philip and I lived with our children for three years in the early 80’s. Maureen answers. “Really, you are walking from Lands End to John o’Groats. Really.....? “ They are pleased we are coming their way. “Well, that is sorted” Philip says.

The hills seem mostly up and we walk what must be the longest and steepest climb so far to Poughill, but what a view. Maybe this is the highest village in Devon? I think it must be. The countryside is an illustration from a children’s book, pure colour and fantasy, and the hilltops of Dartmoor are still iced with snow. How can it be so perfect when it is so cold? This small village and parish of Poughill with its tiny steep and winding lanes was certainly not built with the car in mind. In years long gone it would have been a hilly walk to the ancient market town of Crediton, some 7 miles away. This is an olden village and was mentioned in the Doomsday book as Pochehille, assumed to be derived from “the hill of a man called Pog”. Isn’t that great? No tourists here, no locals seem to be moving about either. Time stretches and pulls us backwards. I don’t think things have changed much.

Striding on we meet Cadleigh, an ordinary village of plain houses that, like many of the villages we have passed through, has front doors opening straight out onto the street. The pub is old but looks drab. The big north wind whooshes us from its grip straight through its low front door. A small group of people are clustered around the bar. “It’s not open, but come in anyway” is their cheery welcome. We are there 10 minutes and we are organised.

They get us a drink and organise B & B for us at ‘Maggies’. John, the loudest of the group, picks up his guitar and in a voice mellow like maple syrup, sings Irish ballads and American country. We lean back, warm, rosy hued and full of enjoyment. At opening time the pub fills with a jolly, noisy crowd who buzz around our table and assail us with bright repartee. What fun this is. Robin is the landlord, his rather handsome son, Patrick 20 chats with us about his overseas travels. Charlotte is behind the bar and Terese, the lady who organised the B & B, watches quietly from a corner of the room. In a village like this we would have expected a cold reception, a ‘locals only’ attitude, but we couldn’t have been more wrong. After we eat and share our experiences with half of the pub, everyone wants to give us a lift to Maggie’s. The cheery journalist with the quick wit says he would drive us, but his car is too small and anyway he has 2 broken ribs and he doesn’t know where to go. Eventually after much tooing and froing and many farewell kisses, Charlotte loads us into her station wagon and drives us to the lovely 16th century Devon farmhouse where we spend the night. We had a great night with these wonderful friendly pub people.

We began this journey as an adventure, perhaps even an escape but we are discovering a real world. We are finding acceptance and great hospitality in those we meet. We are finding joy in each other and loving the great beauty of Britain. A calmness has settled upon us.

The farm is wonderful with thick stone walls and vast high ceilinged rooms. Maggie, who tags “an’ that” onto every three words she says, makes us warmly welcome. We sit with her and her ancient mother before a huge fire, roaring and crackling from a large inglenook fireplace. Her mother I determine is near a century in age. She struggles to put her bony arm into the sleeve of her cardigan but Maggie is too busy with the stream of friendly words coming from her mouth to notice her mother’s difficulty and so I lean over and assist. She thanks me with a toothless grin. We say “goodnight” and then it’s up to a big comfy bed you could lose yourself in. Fortunately I don’t lose Philip and we snuggle down in the warm to sleep. A wonderful day!!!

Day 14 Cadleigh to Culmstock

Two weeks on the road and still going!

Maggie drives us back to the Cadleigh Arms and we move on from our last footsteps of yesterday. From Cadleigh’s high hill the road drops steeply into the valley and the tourists’ dream village of Bickleigh spreads out along the banks of the fast flowing River Exe. For memories sake (we visited here with our children many years ago) we share a pot of tea by the window of the pub next to ‘The Bridge over Troubled Waters’ (said to have inspired Paul Simon) - Bickleigh Bridge Weir - and then take up the road again. “Are you walking far” queries the barman, eyeing our large packs. “Only to John o’Groats” is Philip’s reply. He nearly keels over. I don’t think he believes it initially.

The road leads us over many more of Devon’s high hills before we reach Uffculme and the River Culme.

The morning is sunny and still but as we encounter the path by the River Culm which will lead us along its meandering line to Culmstock, grey clouds again blot the sun killing shadows. The sullied sky soon begins hammering us with lashing rain and 21 biting hail. Oh, it is so cold. As I raise my head and blink to see through the trickles of water that run down over my eyes, I think how enjoyable this walk would be on a sunny day. It’s that fickle English Spring again. The River Culm, a shadowy steel grey, rushes along, winding and turning amid the green green fields and lovely old trees. Looking at the lay of the land I think that it could flood here at times. We cross many footbridges as the path moves from side to side of the river, following the main branch and leading us away from being trapped in the almost islands that form amongst the snaking tributaries of the river. But it is raining with a wild wrath and so I bend my head again and concentrate on avoiding the worst of the mud.

The intensity of the rain obliterates the countryside leading to confusion and we leave the river too early and have to walk along lanes to Culmstock. An old wiry bodied and brown faced man with a collie at his heels walks towards us. He stops, oblivious to the rain, to pass the time. “Where ya be gwain?” he asks. We tell him of our journey. “Ah, that be good, Culmstock be only a mile or two down yon lane”. Then he moves on unmindful of the road beyond his local domain. John o’Groats is not in his vocabulary nor in his world.

I wonder what it would be like to live a life so tightly bound by your community as to never venture from it. Philip looks at me, shakes his head and gives a small laugh.

Everywhere is the sound of rushing water. There must be large drains beneath the road. It is much further than we think to Culmstock but like all roads, this one has an end, before branching off on other adventures and its end is the old worlde village of Culmstock. We find the pub by the bridge where we hope for a warm bed but they no longer do B & B. So on through the softly treed churchyard to the other village pub, The Illminster Stage. This Inn was built in the 17th century as a coaching stop or stage. It retains many of the old features that give the building its distinctive and friendly atmosphere. The landlord Peter spies us through the paned window. He opens the door. “Come in out of the cold, it’s a bastard of a day, unseasonable to say the least”, he says. His wife Jenny bustles off to make us tea and toasted hot cross buns. It’s Easter time. The pub is fully booked but Peter and Jenny chat in the kitchen and decide they will put a sofa bed in the office for us. They sit with us and chat while we slowly thaw. Peter is very interested in our journey and we swap stories. He tells us of two elderly ladies who are also prospective ‘end to enders’ and passed by the pub earlier in the day. It seems they are ill-prepared and are wearing rain sodden soft canvas shoes and raincoats. He doesn’t think they will make it very far. The wetness leaves our clothes and the tiredness leaves our bones. Peter ushers us through a low door up a tiny and narrow flight of steps. “Use our bath” he says “it’s in there and the office is in here. Once in the office Philip turns to me with a grin and says “bet you are glad we don’t have to camp tonight”. The only positive thing about the inclement weather is that I have not had to sleep on the cold ground too often, as yet, that is.

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