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Archive for April 21st, 2008

tree

This has been the only leg so far that has felt like an endurance test. A persistent soaking rain has made it heavy going. I’m writing this at Whitchurch Station, amazed that it has only taken a morning to get there – it felt like a wet lifetime in wet lanes.
Breakfast at the Egerton Arms comprised cereal boxes in the room. I realised this morning that there was no bowl or spoon, and no staff in the building to ask for such things. I briefly considered improvising with a teacup and a penknife, but decided just to take the Nutrigrain bar and head off.

I started on the A41, watched by a large bull (reminding me of the Alan Garner book I had finished last night, where the Bull was a kind of pagan god.) By road the journey to Whitchurch is only 10 miles, but life as a pedestrian on a red road isn’t much fun, so I headed into the woods. The path skirts Broxton Hall, and stumbling on temple in the bluebell woods was a promising start.

Bickerton Hill, a National Trust woodland, was the highlight of the day, and the climb to its fortified top worthwhile for the views, even in the wet and grey.
bickerton
Down from the hill, the Sandstone Trail passed through a field with what I think was another bull in it (no udders, on his own – I’m sure a non-townie would immediately recognise what I saw as something innocuous, like a sheep, but I didn’t want to take any chances).

The road was drifting towards the A41, and I thought I’d see what the roundabout (junction with the Malpas Road) offered. There might have been a garage, or even (in my hopeful imagination) a Little Chef… No such luck – just a closed down pub. So much for my theory that all crossroads are hives of commerce. Beginning to feel that a cereal bar and water aren’t sufficient rations…
market

I did another short stretch on the A41, but decided to head back onto paths. Watching people whizzing past, dry and warm, with unlimited access to hot beverages, was becoming annoying, even when people honked and waved encouragingly at the eccentric character on the verge (perhaps thinking it would bring them luck, like a blessing from a naked fakir). The Sandstone Trail is well-signed and well-stiled, and normally I would enjoy following it, but after a while the slogs through muddy fields and tummocky grass became a bit much, and I went back on to tarmac.

signs

Eventually I was back on the A41 again, weary now, pack like a stone, caffeine withdrawal making the wet world seem like some strange unwelcome invention, every word an elaborate curse. And then it was over. The station has no facilities of every kind – it makes Ormskirk Station look like St Pancras – so I’m typing this to pass the time. I’m looking forward to an hour at Crewe, when hot food and drink may be a possibility…

Still, it may have been hard, but I’ve reached Shropshire and a good starting point for a future journey towards Wolves. Hopefully in the dry.

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I left Chester along the Shropshire Union Canal, on a dry, grey and intermittently windy morning. Canals can be surprising varied, and this is an interesting one, where each bridge creates its own little environment, and strange junk punctuates the long miles.


canal


junk


A long stretch of barges made the canal into a kind of watery street, the watercraft and sometimes elaborate moorings an unbroken row of colourful, individualist residences. One or two were burning aromatic logs against the chill; one was on the move, its drivers (?) looking cheerful with mugs of tea. (Note to self: buy Camelbak and fill with fine Assam…)


After a few miles, a watery silhouette of Beeston Castle could be seen over crow stubble fields.


I turned off the canal at Crows Nest Bridge, and walked on roads for a while until I came to Cheshire Ice cream farm. Let me just say that this place is great – as a walker I was given a discount in the tea room, with an offer of free refills for my teapot. I had a nice piece of cake and the rest of the food looked good too.

Many of the other customers were cyclists, streamlined in lycra, every piece of apparel designed to reduce wind resistance. Compared to these, I felt clumpy and flappy, like some eccentric fellow wearing a special apparatus to increase wind resistance, perhaps for a bet. The cyclists looked like a different species, elongated and elegant, like elves or aliens from a low-gravity planet. However, unlike Tolkein’s elves or Bradbury’s Martians, the cyclists are bedecked with logos – perhaps corporate sponsorship is the price they have to pay to visit our lumpen world.


From the farm I headed towards the hills south of Beeston and Peckforton castles. So far the journey has been pretty flat, partly because of the landscape and partly because of my reliance on disused railways and canal paths. This tumbled landscape came as a bit of a shock…



Around 2 I reached the Pheasant, a food-oriented pub overlooking the Cheshire Plain, the kind of place where you can query the provenance of the truffle oil and not be openly mocked. Finally I had my Chester-brewed beer, this time something called ‘Thirst Quencher’ which sounded less walk-derailing than yesterday’s ‘Devastation’.

Feeling slightly waney in the aspic afternoon, I headed onwards. The path skirted wooded hills in a series of curves.


curves


I came down to the A553, left it for a while to cross pathless fields rather than risk the traffic, and reached my stopping point, the Egerton Arms. Not a bad place to end up, one of the large roadhouse type pubs that adorn the old lorry routes.

I explored the crossroads. A good place to bury a vampire I believe, or meet the devil. I did neither, but did meet the proprietor of the a garage-cum-bakery, a good example of roadside enterprise, but unfortunately not open early enough tomorrow for me to get supplies there.

Had some very good fish and chips, a pint of Jennings, and went to bed.

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Awake early having slept since 8pm, having had strange dreams perhaps caused by reading Alan Garner’s Thursbitch, a powerful novel of overlapping time, set in Cheshire, deep in the language, mythology and geology of the place. Morning reading somewhat lighter – ‘At Your Leisure with Premier Inn’, a free magazine left in the room. Although produced ‘In association with the Daily Mail’, it doesn’t focus exclusively on the interests of Mail readers (‘The Dover Premier Inn is a great place to relax and thrash yourself into a moral panic about immigration…’) but does offer a copywriter’s view of Britain, divided into tourist zones where ‘whichever attraction you choose, there’s always a Premier Inn close by’. Written for people in the (to me inconceivable) position of entertaining children as well as themselves, it’s full of hyped up, accelerated statements: ‘For the ultimate North West experience check out some of these great attractions: Belle Vue Greyhound Stadium…’

In this scheme, the North West is a place to ‘Do something different’, whereas the Midlands promises ‘Novel ideas for great days out’, (‘novel’ referencing the literary connections, ‘the fascinating worlds of Robin Hood and William Shakespeare, Ivanhoe and DH Lawrence’. The phrase ‘walk back through fossilised time’ brings me back to Alan Garner territory, and the track of today’s walk…

twirl

First in the pub as soon as it opens, that’s my policy – in this case 8am for breakfast in the Twirl of Hay. The plan is to stoke up on the all-you-can-eat options, enough to avoid the necessity of a lunch stop, but not so much that I become an immobilised Mr Creosote figure. It’s a friendly place and the breakfast is nice. I enjoyed sitting there as people drifted in. Background music started with a Kraftwerk track, but sadly strayed from a promising krautrock theme into more easy-listening territory. I ate porridge and looked at the motley walls of reclaimed brick, traces of paint and staining indicating the diverse origins of each brick, wondering idly if events of the past might be imprinted on objects in the environment, as suggested in numerous ghost stories such as Nigel Kneale’s The Stone Tape. If so, what happens when the bricks are dispersed – the outhouse wall that witnessed a fevered betrayal now divided between new-build replicas of converted barns, strategically-sited copies of olde worlde pubs, commuter-belt garden walls? Is the recorded experience replicated in all of them? Does each new construction become a massive cutup text of hauntings, or do they all blend into a supernatural emulsion?

If ghostly consciousnesses linger here, I hope they enjoy the endless music (‘Just like Starting Over’), the workaholic wifi breakfast emails, the alcoholic afternoon chasers, the daily dust settling on dried flowers, the slowly evaporating condiments…

vinegar

But don’t be put off by my entropic whimsy. This breakfast gets 4 stars, the staff are great, all is forgiven on the Fayre front. I’m stoked up, like James Bond ready to ski away from Blofeld’s mountain headquarters. Hang on, that makes me George Lazenby – oh well…

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