Overnight in Reading, I woke a few times. It had taken an age to sleep, poking my head out of the tent at every noise. Despite this, I felt refreshed and ready at 6am, bent and cursed Ben’s pop-up shelter into its circular sheath, and washed a handful of nuts and raisins down with some of the water, chilled overnight in the cloudless skies. The weather, for the whole of this trip, was incredible. Not one drop or threat of rain, and pleasant sunshine during the day, never getting too hot. Even in summertime, eight days of unbroken good weather is a blessing on our Isle, and I may have taken it for granted.
My legs felt fine, this being an odd numbered day, and I was surprised to find myself get deeper into Reading again. It’s a vast town, not without its merits. Passing a huge Dutch barge, I noticed a couple of dogs on deck, spinning and yapping in anticipation of their morning constitutional. Soon enough, their master appeared, and steadied himself down the gangplank after them. I guessed his age at over sixty; his nose was spread Picasso-like over his face. His white beard was tinged orange on the chin in testament to his natural colouring and yellow under his nose, giving the lie to his smoking habit. He explained how he couldn’t get benefits living on the barge with his “lady companion”, despite his lack of mobility after years on building sites. He alluded to some bare-knuckle career. He carelessly picked up the shit his dogs deposited, in a single Tesco’s plastic bag and wasn’t offended when I turned down the offer of a handshake when we left one another, a half mile along the path. We were still in town, and here we saw this pen, guarded from afar by her cob. Rather nice, but a swan is a swan, and if we were allowed to eat them, she’d have the decency to nest somewhere else.
As it was, I was hungry. Mostly I didn’t eat during the day whilst walking, and finding myself in a 24 hour supermarket at just after 7, I got some fruit juice and a packaged pasta meal. I wish I could say that I sat serenely, considering the journey I’d taken so far. That I thought more about Naked Heart Foundation, and understood the good hand I’ve been dealt in this life. In fact, I ate it without thought, quickly. Merely fuel, merely walking. First ambition, get out of the city.
It wasn’t long. The river bends dishearteningly along this stretch, without a chance to cut corners. Whilst not in pain, I was aware of distance. This served to spur me ever onwards, keep me going, but also made me wonder what I was doing. Temptation to jump on a train never pressed more than my desire to complete the task, but at times I wasn’t happy with what I was doing. I met another camping walker, just collapsing his home for the night. He was walking in the other direction, but my mood was such that I exchanged only a few sentences before trudging on.
Another lock, another happy, relaxed lock-keeper who pointed me in the right direction. The realisation that I was back in Oxfordshire itched at my mental discomfort, and I was getting ready to call my brother and take a rest day. Lower Shiplake has a pub called The Baskerville Arms. I prayed that I could sit there for a while, even though it was no way near midday. It was open. They served coffee and croissants. A sign on the bar noted that a jug of tap water would incur a 50p charge, donated directly to Water Aid. This combination of news shined on my mood, and my filthy humour lifted. I sat in their lovely garden, didn’t complain when the croissant arrived after I’d already finished the coffee, rather I was effusive in my gratitude when they bought me a fresh cup, gratis. I got up after an hour in the sun, relaxed and happy.
I walked past this charming miniature railway in some well-heeled chap’s gardens, which an hour or so earlier I would have dismissed as the folly of some rich idiot.
However, I was rather taken with it, and was tempted to jump his fence and beg for a circuit on the unseen locomotive. Striding on I met fellow walkers, exchanged words and started to get the sense that London was close; that I was at least in the commuter belt. I was on the left (north) bank, and looking across the water could see the development of a multi-multi-million pound residence. At first I thought the boathouse was the house (again), seemingly big enough to house a family of 5. Despite having an unbroken view of the opposite bank for many hundred’s of metres, I didn’t spy the vast main place. I tried to take a panoramic picture of it, but sadly didn’t stitch it well enough. Apart from being massive, it was served by a driveway cut through the hill behind, and bridged by epic blocks of granite, the keystone as large as anything found in Stonehenge. I distinctly recall surmising it to be the fantasy of an oligarch or software millionaire. Good work.
It took a fair few minutes to pass the place, through fields of sheep and welcoming the peeling skin on my nose as a symbol that I might be getting a tan. Before I knew it, I had reached Henley on Thames and was mysteriously drawn to The Angel pub on the bridge. Last time I visited this establishment I rather overdid things prior to a wedding, and it was mere sentimentality that took me inside. The stunning Heineken kept me there. After two drafts I failed to cross the bridge (again, the signposting of the path failed me. Certainly not the beer.) I once more found myself off-route, and eventually on another A road. At Mill End I called my brother, who picked me up 30 minutes later.
The bosom of my family was everything. Adam and his wife live in Cookham Dean with their two kids, Chloe and Charlie and occasionally entertained by Harry the dog.
I bathed and ate, and fooled around outside, before retiring to a double bed with perfect crisps sheets. I’m pretty sure I passed out smiling.