The Thames Path, Day 3

A few days before I set off, my friend Louise asked a pertinent question. Princess that she is, Louise phrased it thus,

“Luke, what are you going to do about…..well…..?”

“Shitting?” I responded, purely to shock.

“No, I presumed you had thought about that. But what about keeping clean?”

I had visions of bathing at the side of the river with the Dead Sea soap recently gifted to me, a mid-distance distraction in a Constable painting. By the time I crawled into my sleeping bag, exhausted but buoyant on the airbed, at the end of day two, I could feel a salty sheen all over my body. This clearly isn’t a dating profile. When I awoke on Saturday, the shower beckoned.  I sudded and scrubbed with vigour and delight.

Suitably refreshed with ablutions and breakfast, Bella dropped me back to the previous evening’s pick up point, and the day spread before me. Although I was more limber than the day before, I decided that I was going to take it extra steady. I had covered about 45 miles in the previous two days and felt a trek of less than 10 to Abingdon would suffice. Also, Saturday mornings on 5Live are fantastic, so I resolved to stop for an hour and take in Fighting Talk in the sun. Ah, the sun. Not only had I experienced no rain, I was in the midst of the most balmy spring time (during the day). I like to think I am a person that keeps his chin up, literally, to see what is happening in the world, but the volcano meant that my head was often tilted towards the cloudless sky, trying to drink in this possibly unique view.

It was a pleasure to be back in the fields proper, after the flirtation with urban sprawl and there were noticeably more walkers – beautiful weekend, just outside the city. After a mere hour and a half, I found a bench table and sat down, topless (it how my pale belly rolls), and listened to the radio for an hour. I ate nuts and dried fruit, drained my water and felt the old, familiar granite-like ease in my joints as I got up.

Incredibly, I reached Abingdon just over half an hour later, so decided to go to the pub; this was a Saturday, you have to understand that, and Citeh were playing at Old Trafford. A good bunch at the Nag’s Head was excellent company for the match, although 3 pints was a little ambitious. And whilst my throat was lubricated, my joints were still stubbornly stiff.

After a slow couple of hours I arrived in Long Wittenham, home of another shitty Greene King pub, The Barley Mow. This was the first place that scribbled parts of Jerome K Jerome’s 3 Men In A Boat on the beams, but not the last. The problem with tied boozers on the scale of the Greene King stable is the atmosphere utterly devoid of individual soul. That and the fact that they are bending landlords over the bar and the daisy chain finishes with you, the customer paying over the odds for a lack of choice and bland food.

There’s a beautiful campsite behind the pub, run by the welcoming Lizzie Gower; I showered, had a very quick snack and fell asleep looking out over the river, as Chavori, a narrowboat I recognised from Oxford, drifted past.

The Thames Path, Day 2

Of all the slightly odd and new experiences I had during my saunter, none comes close to my alarm call after my first night under canvas. I employ no poetic license – I was woken by the stereo of a woodpecker pecking and a barn owl hooting.

It’s a truism that the day after an unfit individual exercises, said idiot will ache a little. Whilst listening to the news that Nick Clegg is the new Cheryl Cole and that big metal birds were to give way entirely to the feathered variety for the next couple of days at least, I broke camp shuffling and groaning as I bent. The first instance of talking to myself was at 6.12am that Friday morning. My words were, “I’ll be alright, just as soon as I get going.” I am 37 in August.

I was half-right. I did upgrade from pigeon steps to stiff strides and in the early morning I saw the barn owl. I should mention that whilst my dawn chorus was stunning in the first instance, it was followed shortly after by the inelegance of swans. When not at rest on the water, swans firstly take off in an ungainly 3 beat of their webbed feet cracking the surface tension and wing tips slapping, before somehow getting airborne and then wheezing like bust bagpipes on every down stroke of their inefficient wings. How they have become with synonymous with grace because of their time on the water alone does a disservice to other fowl, perhaps not as pretty, but infinitely more attractive in the air. I like a Canada goose, personally. A final musing on swans – outside of towns, they are the only water bird to approach people for food. We need to predate them once more, to restore the fear they should feel for all humans, not just the Queen. I guess this makes me a republican of sorts, albeit via rarely held ideals.

My legs loosened and I pushed on in the bright sunshine, the sky unscarred by vapour trails. Feeble jokes were exchanged with other walkers (them: “Moving house?!” in reference to my pack; me: “Not long to London now, is it?” a line which succeeds in the tricky task of being both weak and boastful), and I lay down to enjoy the day by the river. I passed out for an hour. The joyful simplicity was broken on getting back up, as I flashed forward once more to my 83 year old arthritic self.

The path veered from the river, and I found myself going through fields and fields of sheep. I can handle sheep, although those orange flies that feast on their droppings disturb me. In the second or third field, I overtook a couple out on a ramble (amateurs!) and set about putting distance between us as motivation to keep going. I stopped briefly by a ewe that didn’t trot away from me as they usually do. Sadly, afterbirth hung from the back of her and she stood locked, staring at her stillborn lamb. I checked several gates after this gruesome discovery to look for a farmer without luck.

The Thames Path is, for the most part, well signed, although the discs are small and can be missed. Inevitably I got lost for a second time. I headed back to the river once I’d realised my mistake (or the mistake of Oxon Council), clambering over barbed wire fences and thankfully snagging only my trousers. I felt sure I’d hook up my scrotum on one, but I got away with it. I saw my first industry on the river, a crayfisherman hauling his traps and re-baiting them.

I still wasn’t on track though, and reaching the path again required more fence-hopping and trudging over private land. Exhausted, I stopped for a quick bite in The Swan, Eynsham.  A good landlord, excellent food, the polar opposite to the experience of the previous evening. Getting going was again a trial, and by the time I’d reached Godstow Lock, I gratefully accepted a lift from a stag group, spread over two 68’ foot narrowboats. Whilst I appreciated the beer, I couldn’t get on with the misogyny and alarming racism, so disembarked at the next lock. By now, on the outskirts of Oxford, I was worrying about my bed for the night. I sent a text to a friend who lives there, but after no reply turned my phone off to save battery.

Getting through Oxford was pleasant. The river passes some amazing architecture and in the early evening boating crews exert themselves, whilst no doubt reciting Latin and solving Fermat’s last theorem. Young and with their brilliant lives ahead of them. I was having a dark day.

Regardless, I continued. My head was clouded with thoughts of where to pitch for the night, and in West Oxford my reverie was broken by five young teenagers with a Staffie, one of whom got in my face, pushed his tongue into his bottom lip, and slapping the protrusion declared me “SPECIAL!!”. The way I was walking, he had a fair point, and it actually lightened my mood. The town gave way to fields, fields with cows and their young, but I grew a pair, you’ll be pleased to hear. On and on, lost in thought. Another couple of miles, and I found a spot by the river that created a natural barricade against night time bovine intrusion. I pitched, turned on the radio and twisted a rollie into shape. I clicked my phone into life and had a message from Bella, my Oxford resident yogi friend.

We spoke and arranged for her and Manu, her equally bendy man, to come and pick me up. I greatly looked forward to a night on an airbed. It took until past dusk, and the flashing of my torch, for us to find one another. Although separated by the river, there was a bridge nearby which I finally located. The picture below was taken the next morning. The horror.

No matter, they had wheels and collected me. After the initial shock that I somehow had the biomechanics more usually associated with a long term resident of Sunny Glades Nursing Home, they sat me down and over a glass of wine and doorstop cheese sarnies, we had a long overdue catch-up.

That airbed was spectacular.

This is the Foundation I supported by doing this walk. Please be generous.

The Thames Path, Day 1

Privately, I fantasised about having a liaison, but didn’t expect to fall in love. I hoped for clear skies, but was blessed with faultless azure heavens, polished by ash. I certainly expected to talk to myself once or twice, but not like a demented marine.

In mid-December 2009, I was made redundant from my sales job. Whilst not unexpected, it left me in a state of flux, and I resolved to make some tentative enquiries prior to Christmas, with the intention of hitting the employment campaign trail hard in the New Year. Naively perhaps, I felt sure that there was an information sales job out there for me. “Felt sure” could be read as “utterly dreaded”. So I returned to the bosom of my family and friends in Gloucestershire, and sat about in pubs, barfly that I am. As usual, there was the conversational mix of bragging and piss take, football and New Year’s plans. The issue of my lack of employment came up more than once, and in a conversation with Steve, a friend who’d flown in from Sri Lanka for the season, I idly proposed that I may walk back to London. Then the snow came, and I returned to the big city to continue my search for The Gainful, swerving the walk.

A few weeks later, I was back in the Shire for Easter, spending time at the smallholding where my good friend Miles lives in rural idyll. A goat shares a field with some sheep, ducks and chickens present eggs and a solitary sow awaits her big day – she’s going to drop piglets, not a visit to the abattoir. Her two friends have gone that way. The weather, you may recall, was glorious as Easter weekend so often is. I’d reached a point where moving back to the country was a real possibility, but felt I needed just a few more days to think about it. A seed that I’d planted but neglected to water for some months, germinated and after I’d mentioned this Thames Path walk twice more in the setting of ale houses, I had to do it. Rather like saying “Candyman” three times.

So it was that I spent the next week or so sort of planning. I looked at the Thames Path website, but not fully enough to realise they suggest doing no more than 13 miles a day, and to take time off en route. I walked around London a little – 6 miles, 12 miles and 13 miles. I overpacked my rucksack, including both my mobile and my radio, two things I’d originally decided to leave behind. I decided I’d be as well to do this for charity, and selected Naked Heart Foundation, set up the Just Giving page and pestered in cyberspace. Can you tell how half-arsed I went at this? Time would show me.

The big day arrived, and my mother dropped me off in Cricklade on the 15th April. I chose this Wiltshire town as it looked a wide enough part of the river from Google Earth. Stopping in the Tourist Information, I discovered the location of the path, and with a wave and a chuckle, strode out with pack and tent strapped to my back. On reaching the river, I set off in the direction I felt must be correct. My feeling was confirmed once I’d established that I should be following the direction of the flow. Now you should realise quite how ridiculous this little wander was.

It was much as you’d expect – rolling fields, swans (more about them later), bridges and the very occasional other walker. At one stage I had to get all Ray Mears and build a branch crossing over a ditch, which I re-traversed within a minute. I discovered I was actually in someone’s garden and I’d strayed from the path for the first, and certainly not the last, time. Before I reached Lechlade, where the river widens to the extent it can handle boats, there was an unpleasant diversion along the A361. When the path rediscovered the fields and river, my path was blocked.

You hear things about these beasts, and I was sure they’d be spooked by my tent. I re-routed around this field, and got my first sight of some narrow boats. I love these vessels, and one day I am certain to live in one – just need a job, of course.

Once I’d rested up in Lechlade, I pushed on through the flora and fowl, iridescent mallards proud in the spring and made it to my first boozer, The Swan at Radcot. They were enamoured with their new television, busy breaking the first rule of TV in pubs. They were in a position to be forgiven though – all planes in the UK and Europe were grounded because of Iceland. Not been a good couple of years for them, has it? However, the beer was good, the staff friendly – it took me 2 pints before I could face more walking. We looked at an old framed map, and my suggestion that I could make Oxford by the end of the following day provoked laughter that followed me back to the path. At this stage I was over 16 miles for the day, and felt like I could extend myself by another 2, maybe 3. I ended up doing about 4 or 5 more. I had a half in The Trout at Tadpole Bridge (dreadful posh place – had the sort of welcome one would expect if you walked into a stranger’s house on Christmas Day and pissed on their kid’s presents) and then did another mile or so, before I pitched on the side of the path. I listened to the three party leaders bore Alastair Stewart into high-pitched frustration and fell asleep.

Serebistya (The Kitten) Has Had A Stroke Of Misfortune

My sweet Serek (the contraction of her name, almost all Russians do this), has not acclimatised to Copenhagen well. For one reason. In Kiev, she was in a sealed flat, an indoor cat. In Copenhagen, she lives on the second floor of an apartment with open windows. I am assured by the just as lovely Sub that she is nursing only wounded pride and a broken leg, which is healing in a splinter. On top of that, I’m raising money for playgrounds in deepest Russia, gissa a quid