Tuesday, 13 August 2019

Double L


Over on the far left of the West Midlands Railway map, there's a line which goes nowhere near the West Midlands.  A thin pink line travels between Shrewsbury and Hereford.  It's a Transport for Wales service, travelling from the coast of the country, dipping into the border counties of England, then finishing up in the big cities to the south of Wales.  It's a long, slow route.  By the time the train pulls into Craven Arms, it's already three hours distant from its start in Holyhead, and it'll be another three hours before it reaches Swansea. 

I decided that, as I was in Hereford, I'd take out the bottom couple of stations from the map, the ones that would be hardest to visit in a day from Merseyside.  Even then, I'd have to visit the towns then return to the trains, rather than walk between them.  While there is a long-distance trail connecting Leominster and Ludlow, it's a wavy, meandering route, diverting to take in small villages and picturesque points, and turning a twelve mile "as the crows fly" walk into something more like sixteen or seventeen.  Alternatively, I could've walked along the side of the A49 that travels between the towns, but honestly, where's the fun in that?


Instead I jumped off the train at Leominster with an hour to look round before the next train onwards.  Of course, the first thing to make clear is that even though it's spelled Leominster it's actually pronounced Lemster.  This is a trick to root out strangers to the town.  Once they are discovered, they're tied to a block of concrete and thrown in the river Lugg to drown.

This is a joke.  I'm only saying it because something about Leominster rubbed me up the wrong way.  It was probably the fault of the woman who nearly ran me over in the station forecourt. 


I was walking on that clearly delineated, raised footpath across the car park, when a driver backed her car out of a space with such speed and vigour she shot onto the pavement and forced me to stop.  Then she merrily drove away without a moment's consideration.  I don't suppose I need to tell you she was driving the smallest possible hatchback, a tiny flea speck of a car that could've done a three point turn on a copy of the Daily Mail without creasing the edges, but there you go.


I recovered what dignity still remained after I'd yelped like a Yorkshire Terrier in full view of passers by and took my sign picture, then followed the road into town.  It was a grubby, uncared for thoroughfare.  The buildings were mismatched, the paint peeled.  Big houses had multiple doorbells for the many tiny homes within.  At the entrance to a side road, two men with tattoo'd necks had parked their car on the double yellows and let their cigarette hands trail out the window.


So yes, Leominster wasn't showing me its best face.  The areas round railway stations are rarely charming; they're often strips of takeaways, B&Bs, bedsits.  I hadn't expected it in a quiet Herefordshire market town.


I reached the town centre, a knot of closely tied streets, and ended up in narrow pedestrianised roads.  They opened up briefly into a nice little market square before closing up again.


Things were a bit better here, more cared for and more exclusive.  There were antique shops and cafes and people busily shopping, but there were still a fair few arseholes around.  The family that barged me into the gutter, refusing to concede an inch of pavement.  The retirees sat outside a pub who literally pointed and laughed at my shorts.  (And I have good legs!).  By the time I reached the long strip of the High Street I was soured on the place, even though it was objectively fine.


That's a proper Georgian High Street: wide, dignified, appealing.  I wandered down to the bottom, past more junk shops and a pub advertising music from "Dangerous Dave" (Dog friendly - owners on a lead!).  It was hard for me to really hate a place that had its own Barometer Shop.


On my way back up, though, I encountered a "survival" shop.  It sold itself as a place for hardy travellers, but there was an excess of soldier equipment and camouflage: it all looked a bit "prepper" to me.  Since I'd already passed a shop selling army surplus and military regalia, plus the Leominster Gun Shop with a window of stuffed rabbits (presumably just prior to getting their heads blown off), I added it to my "this town is weird" prejudice and walked down a back road to the churchyard.


It opened out into an expanse of green parkland overlooked by Grange Court, a charming half-timbered building now turned into a community and visitor centre.  It peered out over the beautifully maintained gardens - a sign in an empty shop had informed me that Leominster in Bloom Welcomes the Heart of England In Bloom Judges so they were clearly on their best behaviour - and the quiet grass.  It was a mellow Saturday afternoon stroll.  Two teenagers sat on a bench were making it even more mellow; as I walked past I got a distinctly herbal scent that explained their giggling.  Time to head back to the station, I thought. 


On a bin by the station there was a single pair of glasses.  By this point I simply shrugged and thought "fair enough".


As you can imagine, my expectations for Ludlow were now at rock bottom.  And Ludlow didn't help itself with its railway station.  All day I'd been travelling between charming Victorian GWR relics; even at Malvern Link, the old station house sat alongside the new one.  Ludlow demolished its station in the Sixties.  In 2002 a ticket building was opened.  It looks like this.


Hang on, let me just check that's the right file, and I haven't accidentally uploaded a picture of a bus station toilet in Loughborough. 


No, that's correct.  The historic town of Ludlow has this redbrick monstrosity as its main railway station.  There's even a plaque on the side, commemorating its opening and who designed it, which is like punching yourself in the face then using your blood to sign your name across your forehead.

I walked down the back of a Tesco superstore, past an Aldi and a barber called "Mark the Nutty Barber" (am I the only person who doesn't want a wild and crazy guy cutting my hair?  I want someone quiet and trustworthy, not an improv group) and soon I was in the centre of town.


This was Leominster done right.  The Georgian and Victorian homes were well-maintained and clean.  I immediately felt more relaxed and calm.


Ludlow, it turned out, was a thoroughly nice town to visit.  This was clearly a popular opinion, as the streets were rammed with day trippers, but you could see why.  There's been a settlement here for a thousand years, since the castle was constructed to keep an eye on those pesky Welsh types, and the centre still follows the medieval street patterns with plenty of historic buildings. 


I turned away from the centre for the time being and walked down the sloping Broad Street, where a woman was calling her husband a "wally" for thinking there were two separate Costas next to one another rather than one large knock through.  There was something delightful about a Brummie saying "wally", the way the word sounded heavy in her mouth, the fact that she was saying a word I hadn't heard in thirty years since I graduated to far more profane alternatives.


I passed the Conservative Club and ended up at the Broad Gate, Ludlow's only remaining gate.  Calling it the Broad Gate made you wonder about the other ones, because this could only let one car through at a time with barely any room for a pedestrian either side.  Beyond was a row of charming little cottages sloping down to the river.  I could see down shaded alleyways to thick, lovingly tended back gardens.  They looked adorable, though I should imagine the constant stream of tourists walking past your front window gets tiresome, and one house had tucked a laminated sign into a plant pot, hinting at a darkness for the row:

Will the disgusting individual who leaves their
bagged dog waste in this planter stop this immediately.

This has become a regular occurence and is revolting.
You clearly think it is someone else's duty to clean up for you!
It is NOT.

I sympathised - people chucking bags of dog muck all over the place is a curse of modern society - but there was still part of me that was amused by the buttoned-up rage beneath those few lines.  They were fuming.  


At the bottom of the hill was the Ludford Bridge over the river Teme, an ancient monument that's been there for six hundred years.  I ducked into one of the pedestrian passing places above the water and paused for a moment.


I felt relaxed.  Calm.  I watched the river for a while, the churning over the rocks, the plants dangling in the water.  Let my mind drift.  Then I turned and trekked back up Broad Street.


I ducked down a side street to vary my route, its houses leaning in on one another, walls at strange angles and curves, then turned up Mill Street.  Tiny boutique shops were tucked in under the old buildings.  There was a menswear shop that had a nice looking display, but I suspected if I wandered in it'd be like a low budget remake of Pretty Woman with me as a hairier Julia Roberts.  Instead I went somewhere much more my mark.


The Blue Boar was coming to the end of its lunch service and I was able to find a quiet corner to drink my pint and take a breather.  Not for long.  Suddenly the bench seat opposite me filled with a bunch of braying Londoners, out for a weekend away, talking about how you didn't get pubs like this in the capital "because they've all been replaced by wine bars", although he mentioned one in Parson's Green that was tucked away and "not many people knew about it."  They drank lager (the men) and gin and tonics (the women) and they called across to another couple who came in after them and demanded they sat on the end.  They were really annoying.  When they started debating the value of PDF as a format - the men; the women were looking at their phones - I downed my pint and left.  I guessed the Mercedes outside was theirs, and considered dragging the clasp of my backpack down the side of it to leave a nice mark.


Now I'd reached the Market Square, in full Saturday swing, and I pushed my way through the crowds.  To one side, the Assembly Rooms were swathed in scaffolding as they underwent refurbishment (part funded by the European Regional Development Fund, so you'll be unsurprised to learn they voted Leave round here), while an angelic war memorial took up the other side.  St Laurence's Church, so dominant from other parts of town, could barely be seen here, so it was a surprise when I spotted it down a side alley.


I looped my way back to the railway station, stopping on route to buy a sandwich.  There were plenty of tea rooms to pick from but I felt self-conscious - not quite up to par.  I liked Ludlow, and it was easily the better place to visit, but deep down I suspect I belong in Leominster.  That's self-esteem for you.


Sunday, 11 August 2019

Spa Day


I'd only been walking through Great Malvern for a couple of minutes, but it felt... different.  I followed the imaginatively named Avenue Road and tried to work out what it was.  Finally it hit me.  I wasn't in England any more.  I was in Europe.


The trees were tall evergreens, pointed and shady.  The roads curved gently, lined with regal looking villas set back into the hillside.  In the distance, high grassy peaks broke the horizon.  Squint a bit and you could be in Germany, or Switzerland.

This is, of course, because Malvern is a spa town, so it's natural that the architects and planners looked to the Continent when it was laid out.  Malvern water has been famous for centuries, but it wasn't until the 18th century that it became fashionable, and the town really took off as a place to be in the Victorian era, with the Queen herself reportedly carrying a bottle everywhere she went.  There were dozens of hotels and boarding houses in the town, with Great Malvern at the centre of the industry.


It felt clean and healthy.  Something in the air.  I could believe you'd come to Malvern from a grime-choked industrial city and feel better immediately.  The railway brought both those looking for restorative cures and day trippers keen to experience the restorative water.


I turned north at the crossroads that marked the centre and walked past the beauty salons and hairdressers and coffee shops that make up the commerce in a well-to-do town.  It was resolutely middle-class, moneyed but subtly so; there wouldn't be sports cars, just SUVs and silent hybrids.  A woman carrying a basket walked past the Great Malvern Hotel wearing a mix of beiges and blues; she could've come from any decade in the last hundred years, stylish but discreet, beyond fashion.  There was, of course, a Waitrose, plus furniture stores full of nick-nacks and a bridal shop.  Even the Indian restaurant was called Flute rather than something a bit more genuinely subcontinental.


At a pedestrian crossing, a couple of dads with their four kids were milling about waiting for the lights to change.  An elderly woman with a shopping basket approached them and said, firmly but politely, "if you move to the back of the pavement, there will be room for me to pass."  Then she raised an arm and herded them against the wall.  Once they were in place, she smiled and walked on.  The two men looked at one another, a little baffled, a little confused, wondering what had just happened.  She'd not said "excuse me" or anything, just instructed and corralled.  That's being properly posh.  You're absolutely certain that everyone else is there to do as you want them to.


The road I was on was cut into the hillside, with homes above and below me.  To the left, they showed me their best side, as the houses aimed windows and gardens at the view.  On the right, they were much meaner, as I got the practical backs and dark walls and garages.


A lot of the houses were now nursing homes.  I imagined it would be a lovely, peaceful place to retire to, but I wouldn't fancy trudging up and down the hills with arthritic knees.  I was headed for the town's other station, Malvern Link, which sounds like a terrible modern day name like "Parkway" or "Interchange", but is actually considerably older and named after the nearby Link Common.


I trudged across the grass.  It was very early on a Saturday morning, barely ten o'clock, so I had the common to myself.  I had of course planned on visiting the day before, after Colwall, but had been too tired.  I was glad now.  On a sunny Friday evening there would've been people all over the grass, picnickers, footballers, sunbathers.  Now it was just me and my thoughts.


On the other side, by the road, I found a drinking fountain.  Until a few years ago, you could buy Malvern Water in any shop in Britain; it was owned by Coca-Cola and was a common brand.  Unfortunately, in the 2000s, a drought dried out the source and the water had to be filtered.  This meant it was no longer mineral water, but was instead spring water; a subtle but telling difference.  Not long after Coca-Cola closed down the bottling plant entirely.  There's still a plant producing artisan water for sale, but as you can imagine, it's on a much smaller scale.  This drinking fountain looked like my best chance to actually taste the waters.


Fortunately, unlike the one at Eastnor, this tap was in full working order.  I took a mouthful and then topped up my water bottle.  It tasted of... water.  It's probably corporation pop, rather than the more exclusive spring water, but it was still refreshing after the stroll across the common in the morning sun.  I thanked the British Women's Temperance Association for installing it.  I might disagree with their cause - quite vociferously - but I liked their generosity.


A dart across the road and I reached Malvern Link station.  The old station house had been sold off as a private residence, and the new building was more or less a waiting room with a ticket office wedged in it; clean, efficient, but hardly inspiring.


I took the obligatory sign picture then wandered down to the platform.


It turned out I'd just missed the next train back to Hereford, and the next one wasn't for nearly an hour.  There was, however, a Great Western Railway train to Great Malvern a few minutes later.  I boarded the starkly modern Class 800, painted in that beautiful version of British Racing Green GWR use, and took a seat in a kind of dove grey coloured space ship.


I had two reasons for returning to Great Malvern station.  Firstly, it gave me something to do rather than loiter on a platform.  Secondly, it was a really nice station.


It had clearly been built by the Victorians with the aim of impressing those out-of-town travellers, and so it had a subtle grandeur with delightful little touches.  The columns supporting the roof, for example, were decorated with ironwork leaves and flowers at their top.  It wasn't perfect - the station clock wasn't working, which really grates when it's as prominent and attractive as that one - but it was a charming small town halt.


On top of that, it had a proper station cafe, tucked inside the main building.  I went in and ordered a cup of tea and sat in a corner.  It was exactly as station cafes should be - a moment of calm.  I was sat underneath a big picture of Celia Johnson - because everyone who runs a buffet thinks they're in Brief Encounter - and sipped my tea and waited for my train.  Take a spa day to Malvern.  It'll do you good.


Thursday, 8 August 2019

Over The Hills And Far Away


I wasn't entirely sure Ledbury was a real place.

There was something about the name.  Ledbury.  It sounds too quintessentially English, too clichéd.  Ledbury is a place a Penelope Keith sitcom would be set.  Ledbury is a place Steed and Mrs Peel would motor round the village green.  Ledbury is morris dancers and may poles and pubs.

Having visited it, I'm still not sure it's a real place.


For starters, this is the sign on the platform.  The Ledbury Poetry Festival is the biggest in Britain and the station had a permanent memorial to it.  Two, actually, as on the opposite, westbound platform a slab of tree trunk had been moulded into a chair shape.  This was, a nearby plaque told me, The Poetry Chair, and it invited me to sit a while, compose a poem and stick it in the box underneath.  I considered pausing and writing an ode to the scattered packet of Skittles at the bottom of the footbridge (But how can I/Taste the rainbow/when it is torn apart?) but I didn't have time.

 
Instead I headed out into the car park.  Ledbury is at a spot where the single track railway briefly becomes double, meaning that trains are timed to pass through at the same time; it meant there were a lot of people milling about, picking up loved ones, people I didn't particularly want to see me fannying around beneath a signpost.


I headed south into the town centre.  At first it was pretty standard, large grand villas overlooking the main road, bus stops, small terraced homes.  After the brute of a Tesco Ledbury developed an unmistakable charm.  This was a proper, pretty market town, still well preserved and thriving.


Old whitewashed buildings, their fronts curved with age, housed bakeries and chippies, cafes and ironmongers.  The awning across a butcher's window boasted they were the Heart of England Supreme Champions while the former Woolworth's had been transformed into Well Worth It! in exactly the same font and stocking more or less the same stuff.


It really was that clichéd English town I'd imagined it to be, except real.  It had everything.  Working clock tower, central market square, a stout town hall.  At one point I rounded a corner and got a look up an side street and saw this view...


...and I genuinely said "oh come on!" out loud to myself.  I'm surprised the place isn't constantly closed off so that filmmakers can film an Austen or a Dickens or a Brontë.  Alison Steadman should be permanently based in the town with a variety of bonnets, ready to leap into action at a moment's notice.  (Actually the most famous actress resident in the town is Elizabeth Hurley, who lives in a mansion to the south, and I think we've all agreed we really don't want to see Liz acting again, thanks very much).


I turned off the main street, passing a large, still open police station with a series of houses in its grounds for the constables, and then crossed over to a small side path.  I was going off road.  My next station, Colwall, was a ten mile walk away cross country.


Straight away I was presented with a curiosity; a set of steps that doubled as a stream.  It had been dry the previous few days, so this wasn't rain run off.  It was a steep set of steps with water gushing down one side, over each tread and down into a culvert at the bottom.  I clambered up them, walked a bit further, then clambered up another set of steps.  Then another.  The rise out of Ledbury was steep and sudden.  I was on the fringes of the Malvern Hills and they were clearly testing me out for the real climbs.  By the time I reached the top I was already sweating through my undershirt to the shirt outside.  (The idea was the undershirt would soak up the worst of the perspiration and leave me looking fresh to passers by.  This was, it turned out, a fantasy).


At least it was cool in the woods, immediately shaded from the sun by thick trees.  I rose higher and higher, passing dog walkers taking the far gentler cross paths, until it suddenly opened out into a meadow.  There's always something arresting about the burst of sun and greenery when you leave a wood.  Like you've walked out into freedom.


I briefly passed through spinneys, a single rope swing idly moving in the breeze, then I was heading downhill again, across another long open expanse of grassland.  In the distance I could see the ridge of the Malverns proper, a raised blue spine I'd be travelling along later.


I was passed by a teenage boy, all in black, shouting into his earpods and blithely ignoring me.  Out here in the countryside he looked incredibly out of place, which I'm sure was his intention.  He vanished into the woods behind me as I reached a yellow field of wheat.  Scurrying around on the road ahead was a flock of pheasants, young looking, just a blob of fat belly with a head precariously poking out the top on a too-narrow neck.  They ran about wildly when they saw me coming, darting all over the mud path and disappearing into the undergrowth.  Centuries of careful breeding had knocked all the brains and common sense out of them, and I was practically in their midst before one of the birds remembered they could actually fly and lead the rest off into the air.


There were still stragglers, the dopiest of the lot, who looked shocked as I approached, dithered, and finally legged it into a hedge.  Frankly some of them deserved to end up as a Sunday roast.


A quiet football field signalled I'd reached the edge of Eastnor, a little village gathered round a green.  It wasn't quite as peaceful as it should be - the village school was being refurbished in the holidays, with the workmen carving the stone walls and carrying timber out of the building - but there was a charming church and flower-covered cottages.


I walked across the grass to see what the little building at its centre was.  There was a small water fountain, with a trough and a carved piece of spiritual art: If any man thirst let him come unto me and drink.  I'd only had a couple of gulps from my water bottle, but I gave the tap a push to see if I could fill it up to the top.  It didn't work.  So much for divine intervention.


On the edge of the village is Eastnor Castle, now advertised as a wedding venue but also a stately home and deer park.  There was a banner hanging outside advertising Lakefest, a music festival featuring the Kaiser Chiefs, James and the Happy Mondays and therefore specifically targeted at sad old ex-indie idiots like myself.  I was mildly annoyed that it was the following weekend so I'd miss it.  I was even more annoyed when I approached the stile for the next stage of my walk and found a sign had been posted on it.

The Deer Park is CLOSED
to all visitors
due to an event taking place.
Thank you for your co-operation.
The park will re-open on Saturday 17th August.

I was furious.  Absolutely livid.  I'd been following a long distance path, the Geopark Way, and it was clearly marked on the Ordnance Survey map.  It hadn't occurred to me that the route would be closed so that Bez would have a place to set up his toilet tent.  Worse, this was the bit of the walk I'd been especially looking forward to as it took me across the Eastnor Deer Park.  Had I quietly entertained fantasies of being surrounded by affectionate deer, perhaps feeding from my hand, making me a beardy Snow White?  I hadn't not had these thoughts.

In that moment I decided it would be best for the entire nation if private land ownership was banned and all property belonged to the people.  Open the closed paths!  Liberate the countryside!  Did the Kinder Scout trespassers die in vain?  I scrawled Viva la revolución! across Eastnor Castle's sign and set fire to the Lakefest banner as a protest against Ricky Wilson, both for his participation in the capitalist destruction of our nation and also his decision to lose all that weight when he clearly looked better before.


With no hint of an alternative route, and the nearby bus stop informing me that due to reductions in central government funding... service 388 will no longer operate and serve this stop after 30th August 2014, I took to the road.  It would add a couple of extra miles to my walk and it was a lot less interesting.  I trudged along the verge, miserable and disappointed.  I'd come all the way to Herefordshire with ambitions of a long, scenic country hike.  Ducking into hedges to avoid Ford Focuses and stepping over the crushed corpses of pheasants, hedgehogs and rabbits hadn't been on the list.


Being herded off my main route also dialed up the anxiety.  Things weren't going to plan, and that is always a bad thing for me.  I was miles from home and having to wing a new route.  The Ordnance Survey app on my phone was a great help, but the mobile signal was spotty, and when I'd downloaded the map to its memory I hadn't thought to include this alternative route.  I knew that there was another long distance path, the Three Choirs Way, which went north-south and which collided with the Geopark Way.  I'd hoped to reach it later but I guessed it would spur off this road somewhere.


That sign was a shock, because I hadn't realised I'd crossed the county line.  A little check of the map when I got home revealed they were cheating - the sign was technically still in Herefordshire - but it was still a reminder of how far I'd walked.  It was lunchtime now but I wasn't hungry.  I'd had a big breakfast and the anxiety of the new route had gripped my stomach and knocked any hunger out of it.  The only way I knew it was noon was the hot, hot sun.


I passed a Private Property - Keep Out sign that informed me that despite walking two miles I was still close to Eastnor Castle land (seriously: eat the rich) and a laminated poster informing me that I had sadly missed the return of the Sealed Knot Society to Ledbury.  Civil War recreations are just below having a fag with Nigel Farage and abusing foreigners on the list of Brexity activities I never want to get close to so I breathed a sigh of relief I'd left the town behind and turned onto the Three Choirs Way and the true Malvern Hills.


If I'd been able to walk through the Deer Park I'd have gently risen up to the top of the Malvern ridge.  It would have been a slow rise over country that would have taken me to the top.  This route, however, went straight up from the level road.  I was suddenly thrust onto a high steep path I hadn't planned on taking.  It was open and exposed, made of hard earth, and I baked.  My shirt was literally sodden now.  I paused now and then to try and pull some of the worst excesses off my forehead before they dripped down my glasses or into my eyes.  It was steep, and hard, and I was tired.  I paused for another drink of water.  I'd been rationing it, but I was aware that the flask was now only about half full.  And I was thirsty. 

At least I had a moment of mobile signal.  The Ordnance Survey app really is brilliant, and I highly recommend it.  I was able to spot that my intended route, to the top of the hill, was off to the right somewhere.  Up another steep climb.  I sighed and took it, then, at the top, where a single cottage sat waiting for murderers to recreate Straw Dogs, I branched off into the woods.


I was surprised to see the main route for vehicles had flooded.  The dark forest must have stopped it from drying up.  It was clearly a regular occurrence, as a footpath had been carved into the side of the roadway.


It continued like that for a long way.  Any time the road levelled, the water from the hills had flowed down and filled it, turning it into a mucky trench.  I darted around, crossing over and back, jumping even though I was too tired to jump.

This was starting to feel like a mistake.  I realised I should've done more long distance walking before I decided to walk ten hilly miles.  I'm forty-two.  I can't just do this any more.  Darker thoughts also started to spin round my head.  The realisation that nobody knew where I was.  That my nearest friend was a hundred miles away.  That a slip and fall would leave me stranded.  That I was only halfway to the next station, and there was no alternative other than pushing on.


I took a wrong turn.  I don't know when, or how, but when I looked at my phone again, I realised I was on a side path, well away from the main route.  I'd walk the Malvern Hills that day, but at no point would I reach the top of them; instead I remained stuck on the edge, thick woodlands stopping me from getting near the summit.  I never once got a view because of the trees all around me.  I drained some more of my water ration.  The bottle was getting worryingly light.

I was now feeling a little dizzy; the heat and the lack of water were starting to get to me.  Whenever I get hot and sweaty and weak like that I get flashbacks to being eleven.  Our whole year was being punished by the PE teacher for some infraction and we were made to stand outside, in the sun, instead of having a lesson.  I remember a blackness creeping in at the edge of my vision, like a closedown dot, and the next thing I knew I was somehow on the floor.  I'd passed out, which was good news for the rest of the year because the PE teacher panicked and sent them all in the changing rooms quick in case they all flaked out as well.  (My parents were absolutely livid when they found out that night - my mum was all for storming the school, and my dad, who was not a violent man, was very close to going down and punching him - but I persuaded them not to prolong my embarrassment.  Today we'd have probably got a nice little apology and maybe a bit of compo, but this was the Eighties). 

It was a one off, a series of circumstances, but it stayed in my head as a thing that could happen if I got overheated.  And here I was, my shirt a sopping rag, alone and weak. 

I turned up a steep hill, ridiculously steep, almost vertical.  I had to stop halfway up to breathe.  I reached the top and there was a choice of paths so I pulled out my phone again.  And realised I'd come the wrong way.  I didn't need to climb that slope at all.  I should've turned left.

I collapsed on the grass and let out a sob.  (Though I didn't know it, I sat in a big load of mud, and would have a brown-smeared arse for the rest of the day).  I didn't want to be here any more.  I didn't want to do this any more.  I'd had enough.  I drank the last two mouthfuls of water and realised that was the lot.  I wanted to lay down and sleep.  And I was still terribly aware that even when I got out of these woods, I still had miles more to go.  I was about two thirds of the way there.

After a while, I picked myself up.  I staggered back down the steep hill, praying I wouldn't slip and tumble to the bottom and have to lie there with a broken ankle, and took the correct route.

And something wonderful happened.  The trees began to thin.  The waterlogged path became dry again.  Small houses appeared, silent and empty, but a sign that I was reaching civilisation again.  Then there was a road.


A road meant people.  I followed it round what seemed like a million bends until suddenly I reached the tiny tourist spot at British Camp.  There was a car park, and a hotel, and, most blessed of all, a small hut selling drinks and snacks.  Even though I was rasping with thirst, I queued politely, because I was extremely well brought up, and I bought an orange juice and a bottle of water and an ice cream. 


Note that the orange juice is half-empty.  I'd guzzled at it before I thought to take a photo.  I must've looked a real sight, with my sodden shirt and my red face and my scratched and muddied legs under dirty shorts.  I really didn't care.

The ice cream and the juice gave me the lift I needed.  I felt a lot more positive all of a sudden.  I also knew that I was now back on track.  I could return to the route I'd planned for myself on my computer.  The anxieties began to drift away.


By the time I was crossing the fields to Evendine they'd almost completely vanished.  I was still tired - every stile caused an "ooh" noise that I recognised as sounding almost exactly like the sound Olivia Colman made when she got up onstage at the Oscars (yet another sign that I have watched that video way too many times) - but now at least I knew I was on the final stretch.  I didn't have much hope of making my train, but that was ok.  There was one every hour.  It'd be fine.  I'd just sit on the platform at Colwall and recover.


Evendine was a snug cluster of cottages threaded along a single road, some of them thatched, some of them half-timbered, all of them lovely.  The Malt House put the usual country fare to shame.  I was used to a box of eggs by the side of the road, maybe the odd jam, but at the Malt House they had an entire shop of drinks and cards:


I will admit, a bit of me was furious at finding a wide range of liquids on sale - where were you an hour ago? - but I popped £3.50 in the honesty box and took a small bottle of apple and mango and one of apple and ginger.  I drank them later at my hotel and they were a little sharp, but very tasty.


Then it was another walk across fields, though now it was populated and I didn't have it to myself.  There was a middle-aged man who walked a few paces ahead of me for a while, until I hung back deliberately to get some distance between us (he later turned up at the station after me, so I'm not sure where he went inbetween).  A couple of ladies walked excitable collies, one of them moaning when their dog went to the toilet; I'm pretty sure if I hadn't been there to shame her she'd have left it and not bothered with the poo bag.  I walked under the railway and into a cul-de-sac where a miserable looking teen sat on the pavement and contemplated the absolute misery of existing.


This was a newer part of Colwell, a very recent looking development, with the houses still having a vague air of showhome.  There was a gloriously crappy playground that the builders had clearly been forced to pay for under duress.  It consisted of two benches and a slide and they really should have replaced the No Dogs Allowed signs with Will This Do?  I followed the main road into the quiet village centre, a strip of shops and amenities that felt more suburban than rural.


I almost cheered when I saw the arrow pointing to the station.  I ignored the call of the beer garden at the Colwall Park Hotel and staggered down to the single platform of Colwall station.  There was no proper sign on the outside so I grabbed a shot with the first sign I saw then collapsed on a bench.


Please note the comedy effect excessive sweat has on my hair. 

After a while, I took a look at the next train indicator.  It turned out my train to Great Malvern had been cancelled.  It was a sign.  I took the next train back to Hereford, where I walked to my Travelodge and had a very long, very cold shower to wash the day away.  Walking can be fun.  Getting home is always better.