My third night’s sleep was restless; the self-inflating mat had sprung a leak and the frost on the grass and mist on the river bore witness to the chill that had hung. The inside of my tent looked damp, but the condensation had in fact frozen. I’d woken at 4am and listened to the radio for a while, before drifting off and having a vivid dream about crashing my Fiat Panda from years ago, in slow motion. I’m sure someone can provide a Freudian explanation.
Up at 6.30am, and on my way by 7am. The geese, ducks and chickens ensured that my departure failed to go unnoticed, apologies to the residents of the tents either side of mine and the static and moving caravans behind. The mist was beautiful. After a couple of hours I was stumbling past Shillingford, and I stopped for coffee. I wasn’t best pleased with the realisation that the pain of day 2 was back, intensified even. Stopping for any moment, a quick rollie or just to look at the view, was a disaster. Joints seized, muscles froze and the wincing involved in getting going must have looked amusing. Kneading my legs and rubbing the base of my back offered a little relief, but mostly chanting the mantra “Suck it up, Luke” for the first half mile or so after getting going was my only was of dealing with it. Dark thoughts crept in around the edges. However, and I’m not someone I would ever describe as ‘determined’, it mostly served merely to focus me on continuing. Plodding, plodding, plodding. I crossed the river in Wallingford, where I was welcomed by friendly brothers running the Gatehouse. I drained a can of Coke with them, and was informed that Reading was 15 miles by road. Undoubtedly more direct than the course of the river, I decided against phoning my own brother and accepting his offer of a bed for the night. I’d do another 10 miles, slowly, and pitch somewhere short of the town. There was this curiosity in the pub.
Much of the next few miles were a blur. Certainly I walked through the empty, pristine playing fields of a prep school, and there was an osteopath advertising services from his home, but only on weekdays, and with prior appointment. The weather continued in perfection, but the path strayed from the river. Walking along main roads was no way to lighten the mood. Therefore I was pleased when it turned left back to the right bank (or south bank, as it is called in London), and even happier when I spied a pub. Suffice to say that The Beetle & Wedge is staffed entirely by sour-faced shits who’d be better off working on whatever helpline the terminally optimistic and happy turn to when the joy is just too much. Happily, once I was sat outside I got talking to four older walkers. Rather sensibly, they were doing the length of the path on weekends over 2 years. Whilst I was jealous of them at the time, I’m pleased I’ve done it in slightly less time.
The pain was bad. Taking another wrong turn was worse. This was the worst wrong turn of the entire odyssey. Yes, odyssey. Epically, disastrously off course. Approximately 8 miles of A roads, hills, nowhere to pee, garage attendants giving false hope and dusty, noisy trucks. By the time I found the river again, at Pangbourne, I deserved a pint of Guinness. Another pub called The Swan, another pub graffiti’d with Jerome K. Jerome quotes. A mighty fine pint though, which steeled me ever onwards. Although still sore, I’d found myself almost meditative.
I arrived at one more lock, where a cycling couple held a gate open for me, the bloke recognising my pain with a friendly chuckle. Reading was a further three miles. I called my brother, and was disappointed to learn that both he and his wife had had a drink. Without thinking, I got up and walked. Walked, walked, walked. More roads, and then down to the river and into glorious West Reading, where the alcopop drinking teens may or may not have been from the myriad travellers’ sites. As in Oxford, they had comments to make, notably a sincere sounding threat to throw me in the river. What more motivation could I possibly need? I walked until dusk had fallen closer to night, and at about 9pm, two hours later I pitched in a park on the river – on the left bank were houses with boathouses larger than anything I can ever hope to own, whilst on my side the weekend’s rubbish served as an ominous warning that this might not be a quiet and calm night of rest.