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.