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.