Wanting an early start, I walked down the empty Midsummer Boulevard to get the first X5 bus to Buckingham at 5.50. The heatwave seemed to have broken, the air an aspic gray.
The bus was quite full of long-haul travellers headed for Oxford and early-shift workers. As we sped along the A421 I realised that I had left my map in the hotel. It would have been perfectly possible to buy a return ticket and go back, but to do so would have seemed somehow… ignoble. I resolved to find one in Buckingham. The bus set me down outside Tesco, where I had finished the last leg. The supermarket was open 24 hours, and I bought supplies for the day. No maps on offer however. Ditto the Total garage. Tesco’s own garage had maps – it even had the orange Explorer maps that I use – just not the one I needed. So I headed into town to wait for WHSmiths to open, a 90-minute wait, watching the town come to life in a gray drizzle – beginning to feel a Conanic ‘gigantic melancholy’.
However, by 8.35 and I had the right map in my hand. Back-up plans involving the library (open at 9.30, would definitely have maps but may have applied strict copyright laws and forbidden photocopying) and the University bookshop (open a 10 and would have been the last resort) were not required. A Subway was open too, so I treated myself to a coffee and set off through parks by the Great Ouse.
Soon the Bernwood Jubileee Way took me beyond the A421 to countryside. In contrast to last week’s sunny walking,the grey wet landscape was cheerless, like Conan’s Cimmeria, as he describes it in The Phoenix on the Sword: ‘A gloomier land never existed on earth. It is all of hills, heavily wooded…Clouds hang always among those hills; the skies are nearly always gray…There is little mirth in that land.’
The fields were lush and wet with rain, so that walking through them gave my legs a cold shower and turned me into a seed-bearer.
Soon my boots were filled with water and I squished the rest of the day (although the boots themselves are waterproof, I’m guessing the socks drew moisture in from my sopping trousers.)
A bit of the dismantled railway line and some road walking took me towards the Padbury Brook. Part of the path crossed a field waist-deep in plants – don’t know what they are, but the flower-heads looked as if they will flower soon – future walkers will be wading through a pink sea, buzzing with bees.
I got lost on the brook and had to navigate my way back on to the route. Moral: it’s never the compass or map that’s wrong, it’s always you.
Fed up now of walking along soaking, vague pathways and roads with cars regularly swishing past, I was contemplating finding a rural bus and giving up. A disused railway came as my salvation. The stretch of the Oxford-Bletchley line still has tracks, albeit broken and grown through with foxgloves and saplings, and isn’t an official cycleway or any kind of leisure amenity. Walking along it seems neither forbidden nor compulsory. I followed it for around 2.5 miles to Winslow, enjoying its overgrown hidden world, like a ruined future or a branch line for ghost trains.
It was brightening up now, so much so that I was able to shed layers of clothing. I walked through Winslow and on to Swanbourne, where I stopped for a drink in The Betsey Wynne. This new pub, built by the Swanbourne Estate and named after a famous diarist of the Napoleonic era, was very pleasant – somehow combining a Milton-Keynes-style spacious anonymity with a rural feel. I wished I had got there early enough to sample their locally-produced food, having lived on oat bars for 10 miles.
And we were back to ‘summer classic’, with blue skies and white clouds as I walked on to Stewkley and Soulbury, approaching places dimly recalled from childhood holidays. The countryside resembled that I walked through last week, perhaps because I had resumed the walk too quickly, so that ‘they’ had not had time to assemble any new. “Do not make too much haste on one’s road” says Chilon of Sparta, wisely in my view.
The going was easier now, through green lanes and open fields. The hedges were lush and overgrown, so one never quite knew what a new stile would reveal.
Not much more to say – I was aching from the long walk (GPS clocked over 24 miles, mostly done with sodden feet) and marched through the last few miles of summer fields largely oblivious.
On the final bit of road towards Linslade, I found this drinking fountain, on a stretch of road now fit only for cars, built for Victoria’s Jubilee and restored for Elizabeth’s in 1977. Instead of water it offered me this ‘vomiting lion’ motif.
Limped into Linslade. It was too late to go to Conan’s realm of Leighton Buzzard, so I found the station; chatted about I-Spy with the ticket guy (I now wear the badge); got back to MK and walked up the Boulevard. Decided to eat at Wetherspoons as I didn’t think I’d have the energy to come out again once I reached the hotel. I love this building: newly built, like a giant car showroom, but with corners of wood-panelling like a screensaver of pubbishness. The Atlantis flyer had been replaced with one for an Independence Day beer due to go on sale the next day, July 4th. I put on headphones and listened to Astral Weeks, a favourite summer album, blocking out the soundtrack of the bar. My other senses heightened, I noticed how two separate lone men were muttering to themselves, checked I wasn’t doing the same (maybe mouthing Van’s lines about ‘the viaducts of your dreams’), smelled delicious roll-up smoke drifting in from the bright terrace, tasted the clear brown depths of beer while the young couple next to me drank champagne. As the Buddhists at the nearby Peace Pagoda may do on occasion, I radiated waves of love and compassion outwards in ever-increasing circles, across the MK street grid, the Buckinghamshire fields and the sunken lands where made-up adventures happen.