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.