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Archive for May, 2008

We started the day in the AromA Cafe, a bright, modern, angular place very different from the slightly ramshackle and homely Cheshire Ice Cream Farm where we kicked off last week. The guy behind the counter had a luxuriant blond Van Dyke, like a young Custer or Rupert of of Hentzau; I didn’t know whether to pay him or challenge him to a duel. My chai latte was sickly and nice, probably as good as you’ll get outside of a battered tin cup in a KL market; Jen‘s toast was disappointingly fancy.

aroma

We realised that the building used to be the Lamb, a vast and decaying pub we stayed in some years ago. A coaching house with a long history, its current fate is to be transmuted into apartments and this breezy cafe. Emerging, I noticed that there’s a Costa in the same block, and several other cafes within eyeshot: for a moment Nantwich seemed like a brick heart pumping coffee. Perhaps a resurrected Hogarth could etch a Caffeine Boulevard to accompany his Beer Street (below) and Gin Lane – a slightly manic thoroughfare awash with febrile energy, citizens racing wide-eyed in a thousand futile directions; a street now running through every town centre in the land.

hogarth

I set off, past the church (coffee available) and out, quickly finding a footpath between houses and a school that took me to a wooded nature reserve.

I saw no other walkers for the next six hours. Often I found myself in lush meadows, seemingly undisturbed, surrounded by woodland.

Never far from roads and farms, I seemed to be on a forgotten trail, finding things like this sculpture-like dead tree with just miles of breeze and sun for company.

I stopped for a drink at Wybunbury, a pleasant-looking village whose church is split, with the (new) church at one end and the (old) tower at the other. In between is the Swan, a Robinson’s pub. I scanned the pumps, calculating ABV, time of day, temperature, distance remaining, likelihood of further pub stops, novelty value of trying new beer, poetics of the names, appeal of the different styles (etc) with the quick reptile mind of a professional gambler. This moment of supercomputing led me to order a pint of ‘Dizzy Blond’, from the blond barmaid – post-feminist irony saw us through this moment of potential difficulty. It was a nice pint, in a ‘like lager but don’t worry, it’s real ale’ kind of way.

I moved on through more lush meadows. Falling blossom filled the air. It was pleasant. I don’t know if there’s a God, but my speck of consciousness felt in tune with a beneficent reality for some moments.

As I’ve said before, Cheshire are good at signing, and the cheerful little yellow arrows can usually be spotted on the far side of fields, even with my 2D eyes (and with many other yellow dots around, buttercups and dandelions.)

However, on less frequented routes, the indifference or hostility of landowners can make navigation difficult. In this case, the yellow arrows had disappeared from some stiles; electric cattle wires cut across the route; unmarked paths led to fields of frisky bullocks. I lost patience when an electric wire sliced across a the top of a stile – let’s just say I adjusted the arrangement.

(I do realise that these wires aren’t deadly. When I was nine or ten, we had a farm holiday in Gloucestershire. The only other child was a girl called either Nicola or Tania Cream (one of the few people who can play the ‘What’s your pornstar name?‘ game and arrive at a less raunchy-sounding one.) We ran around the farm, climbed haystacks, chased sheep and dared each other to hold the wires. As I remember it’s not much worse than licking the terminals of small battery… I also know, despite being a total townie, that bullocks aren’t fanatical death-machines, but in my old age a field full of curious, large young creatures running towards me is a bit much.)

Some woodland cooled me down in every sense. End-of-season ramsoms and bluebells populated the shade. After a while I crossed the M6 on a bridlepath, enjoying the strangeness of encountering the motorway I’ve been on dozens, maybe hundreds of times from a new angle.

Jennie was waiting for me in Keele. We had to get going quite quickly, so a proper look at Keele will have to wait for next time – which will probably be late June or early July.

So I’ve finally got on to a different map, into a different county that I know little of: ‘the creative county’ according to some roadsigns. OK then: create me, baby…

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After the (non) camping debacle, I’ve decided to resume the walk from an earlier point, abandoning North Shropshire in favour of a route through Cheshire into Staffs. The ‘blue remembered hills’ will have to remain as mere memories, the spur down to Whitchurch written off as a dead end, Shropshire conceded as an unassailable Eastern Front (the overextended supply lines, the beastly winters, the fierce partisans attacking without warning and melting into the tree line…)

For the first time I had lifts at either end and some company during breaks, thanks to Jennie. I picked the Cheshire Ice Cream Farm as the ‘restore point’, thinking that a second breakfast would be a good way to start. This second visit was very enjoyable, eating a crisp bacon sandwich surrounded by cyclists bringing a blizzard of logos.

And then walking again, along lush green lanes towards Beeston Castle.

green

castle

After a brief pitstop with Jen, I headed down the hill towards the canal. For a few hundred yards I walked along the A49 (actually going north, thanks to the vagaries of navigation) – a road we have driven countless times, where I once received a job offer. Perhaps this revised route is truer to the spirit of the walk: treading the lines of travel made many times at speed in cars and trains.

The Beeston Castle Hotel was just open, so I nipped in for a half, finding it a pleasant place with a proper public bar.

canal

Then I was back on the Shropshire Union Canal heading for Nantwich. This section travels through some lush countryside – today, lined with the white may blossom and cow parsley, it was a it like walking through clouds.

white

The canal weaves in and out of the A51. At one point a desire path led up a bank towards a Texaco garage – just the kind of place I needed last month on the way to Whitchurch, aka the Place of Dead Roads.

desire

Stopped for a drink at the Barbridge Inn. I nearly shunned this place, with its Carling umbrellas and plastic treehouse, but it was quite nice. Jennie photographed me hiding from the Vitamin D, and I photographed myself in a blank sign / glue art exhibit.

me

sign

glue

(Another pub nearby was advertising a band called Beardsmith, which I imagined as a sort of British, greasier version of ZZ Top – but it’s actually the family name of a group with no facial hair to speak of.)

Then more quiet miles to Nantwich.

blue

I was sorry to leave the canal, but glad to end up back on the public transport grid, ready for future trips, glad to see Jennie in our blue car. Interwoven journeys.

dandelions

I saw a lot of dandelions today. At home I battle these plants with various ecocidal (and ineffectual) devices. I wonder why we don’t welcome them, the way the Japanese welcome the annual blazing wave of cherry blossom sweeping their islands: welcome the brightness of the flowers, the fantastic structure of the seedheads, the bounty of the edible leaves and roots, the inspiring example of their persistence and hardiness.

All photos from this stretch

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We planned to camp in Shropshire last night; I would have been walking on from Whitchurch today. I found a promising looking site on a Shropshire tourism web page, and rang the number given there to make arrangements a week or so ago. The conversation was fairly normal, with a few nonsequiturs which I ignored (something about them not having hubcaps…)

We went to the location given on the website, discussed on the phone and confirmed on Google maps and… nothing. The farm exists, with the right name, but no campsite and no people around.

So we came home.

Theories:
1. Despite all the evidence I somehow messed up and went to the wrong place;
2. The campsite closed some time ago, the website hasn’t been updated, and I was speaking to someone with dementia;
3. As above, but (like a character in Hilary Mantel’s Beyond Black) I was speaking to a deceased person.

I’ve decided to restart the route from an earlier point, avoiding Shropshire altogether, lest this strange county of nonexistent things proves to be a malign fairyland where centuries pass in days, devils transform the landscape overnight, and the answer to a riddle spoken on the road brings a dire transforming fate.

My reading of Shropshire Folk-Lore by Charlotte Sophia Burne suggests that the uncanny may be hard to avoid in these parts – someone once saw a huge funeral procession, rushing through ‘the hollow of the road’ on the Long Mynd, and the thought-forms of animals (such as ‘the know of a dog’ seen by a young girl in her yard) roam the villages. ‘Theers al’lay summat to be sid about theer’, always something to be seen: Shropshire dialect in Burne’s book resembling that of H.P. Lovecraft’s Vermont backwoodsmen: The Dunwich Horror replaying in an SY postcode.

I’ll head for the calmer spaces of Staffordshire, where the constant hum of the M6 keeps the supernatural at bay. And stick to Caravan and Camping Club approved campsites…

devil

Rambling in Shropshire, not for the fainthearted.

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Untouched

Managed to fit in two unexpected walks on Monday evening:

1. Lancaster Station to Lancaster & Morecambe College. 40 minutes including getting lost – finding myself too far along the river – heading back towards the town – past a closed bridge then over a rather graceful modern one, along a cycle path and then a main road – marching in fearsome heat, but gratified to be moving faster than the traffic, and saving the public purse a £5 taxi fare.
2. LMC to Station – 25 minutes – straight to the nice bridge – river silver, air cooler – better route over hill by castle – looking back along the river as I rushed along, at fields river and roofs, an English scene, reminding me for some reason of Pistol in Henry V: ‘To England will I steal, and there I’ll steal’. (But I didn’t nick anything – in fact I saved the taxpayer another fiver – like Gordon Brown in reverse.)

Another time I might try getting the train to Morecambe and walking back – the map makes it look as if a cycle path will take me virtually door to door.

Spring visibly exploding all around – ‘The force that through the green fuse drives the flower’ unusually forceful this time around – described by John Hee in a bittersweet post.

‘All this useless beauty’ leaves me curiously untouched – travelling green blossom lanes with a disconnected gaze – perhaps it’s my age, a sense of impending ecological doom, fear of insupportable losses or accidental consumption of a drink spiked with black ice-liquid from the night side of the moon. Or random acedie, compounded with pollen.

Hopefully a weekend under canvas in the Venus Flytrap will help me reconnect, let go of stuff beyond my reach, get back in the groove.

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Actually experiencing a walk – being in nature, seeing spectacular scenery, exercising – these things are all very well, but what really matters is having the right kit. I’m sure you’re wondering what kind of gear I wear for this epic journey. Wonder no more…

Boot-wise, I have a pair of Berghaus Explorer V, bought shortly before the start of the journey. (I note that they’re for ‘Performance Trekking’ – a hybrid of performance art and walking – perfect!) I’m hoping to stick to these throughout so that they become part of the record of my travels. This pair came in fetching black and grey, giving them a kind of Goth/industrial look that helps me fool myself that I’m still one of the cool kids. I had a pair of Karrimor KSB prior to these, which lasted over 10 years. They never fully recovered from a walk across the sands to Lindisfarne, made at the end of St Cuthbert’s Way on the day of Princess Diana’s funeral. (KSB owners please note: prolonged exposure to seawater at times of extreme national mourning may be detrimental to the fabric.) However both they and I kept going for a few more years, and I finally abandoned them in a bin at the back of the Old Inn, Gairloch, in about 2005. Not quite a Viking funeral, but not a bad place to end up…
oldinn

Pretty much everything else I wear is from the Paramo range. Alta jacket, Cascada trousers and gaiters are my basic equipment, for most seasons of the year, low-level or high. I am a fan of Paramo – simply because I always feel comfortable in their stuff. I have walked all day in driving rain and remained dry and comfortable, while my membrane-shielded companions (unable to wean themselves from GoreTex and the like) have been soggy and miserable. The articulated designs mean that when I clamber up a steep bit the clothes aren’t dragging anywhere – I feel like a playful animal, secure in its own pelt. And there’s no flapping of stiff, sail-like material in the wind.

Some of my mates mock me for having a ‘heavy’ coat – so much so that I once took one of those hanging scale things with a hook on it along on a trip to the lakes, to prove that my coat weighed the same as the fleece-and-waterproof ensembles of my companions. You would think I was wearing a Victorian diving suit to hear them go on – and, yes, there are lighter waterproofs available. However the Paramo coats have been designed lighter since my first one, and based on experience I wear my stuff in all kinds of weathers and seldom feel the need to change or put layers on and off.

paramo ho

‘…and I’ll fight anyone who says this coat looks ‘heavy”

Perhaps, like Pringles, Paramo clothes contain an evil addictive substance. I would certainly like to have more – the shirts, fleeces and cargo trousers all look great – and, with their various roomy pockets, may help me achieve my ambition of being able to buy a dozen paperbacks and a couple of rare hardbacks in the dealers’ room at a science fiction convention and carry them all without needing to be encumbered with a bag of any kind (or alert Jennie to my profligacy). And I’m sure my journey towards Brighton will be enhanced by even more comfortable, breathable clothing (in black)…

All that remains is for them to bring out a workwear range and I will be able to close the gaps and be 100% Paramo, 24/7. Please consider a reversible Parameter tie as a fixture on my wish list.

The fact that we get Paramo and other outdoor stuff from an exceptionally nice shop helps keep the addiction going. Whalley Warm and Dry (WWD) is always a pleasure to visit – the staff are knowledgeable and enthusiastic, and it’s always friendly, with cups of tea offered and no sense that bizarre questions are unwelcome. I see they do online too – though online customers probably don’t get the cup of tea (?)

A couple of years ago we bought a tent from WWD (the Wynnster Venus in Furs model, now discontinued) – hopefully having its first outing next week – when it will be a sort of basecamp for my further travels through Shropshire. More then. Meanwhile, stay breathable…

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Desire paths

‘Desire paths’ – what a great concept! As well as being a two-word poem, it is a term from landscape architecture describing the paths people actually want to take to get somewhere, which often differ from those that have been planned and built. The Flickr photo pool dedicated to the phenomenon has many examples – paths worn in grass by the people’s footfall, holes in fences removing unwanted interruptions to the desired route, springboards to unsanctioned vistas.

maghull

An example from Maghull. The mighty engine of walkers’ desire has made a space in the fence and flattened the spikes. A scramble up the bank creates a logical route up on to a main road. Once there, you’ll be lucky to see ‘herds of wildebeest sweeping across the plain’, but a Matalan outlet and Vue Cinema are in easy reach…

Maybe all journeys are like this. I haven’t read it yet, but a book called Paths of Desire: The Passions of a Suburban Gardener broadens the ‘desire path’ metaphor beyond its technical meaning: ‘how people actually move from place to place, whether in physical space or emotionally and psychically.’

Maybe all our significant journeys are on desire paths, with occasional detours into the wheel-ruts and bowling-alley gutters of official routes.

One thing I’ve noticed on my walk: sometimes a path is defined by the wispiest shadows, the faintest signs of tread – one feels like a pioneering Western tracker spotting ‘sign’ and hunting… something.

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