Archive for April, 2012

A god awful mistake

Walking from coast to coast is something that I have been looking forward to for some time now. For years me and my friends have sat down the pub, slightly drunk, with the promises of “Yeah, yeah, definitely next year”. Next year comes and goes and the same promise is made again in the hopes that next year nothing will get in the way of our plans.

Well finally the year has arrived where the organisation has been put in place early, the time has been booked off work and nothing is set to get in our way. We are going. The trains tickets are bought and paid for, the campsites are booked, I’ve bought and read the guide book and now there is nothing else to do but get up on the day in question, stop talking about it and do it.

One thing that has never had to be postponed, however, is the annual pilgrimage to Cambridge beer festival. Every year myself and a few others get up early to battle the public transport system of Great Britain so that we can arrive at opening time to get the most out of our initial outlay in transport fees. Every year we drink probably a little bit more than we should and then we get the last bus home, taking with us out souvenir pint glasses to add to the ever growing collection.

I’m sure you can see where this is going. Sitting in the pub the other day we were talking about the forthcoming walk, I was explaining where it was, how far, and from where to where, all the usual things that people ask. And then Darren say it. “So your not going to be around for Cambridge beer festival then?” As he says it the words hit me and I realised my terrible mistake. I was the one who was organising the trip so I proposed the dates and nobody objected so that’s what I went with. It’s too late to change it now, like I said the tickets are bought and the campsites are booked. There is nothing I can do about it now. I need to make better use of my calendar, scratch that, I need to start making use of my calendar.

Jonny, my walking partner in this expedition, was there at the time and he seemed to have a “oh well, that’s a bit of a shame” sort of attitude. I  really want to go though. I have’t missed it since I started going, so now there is going to be a hole in my glass collection. Not good. Anyone who was there when Darren revealed my error will know that it was more than a week ago. I am only writing this now because I have only just checked the dates on the beer festivals website, living in ignorant hope that the dates were later than usual. They are not.

To make things worse there are a number of smaller beer festivals in the area this in the next few weeks. All of them lie on the same weekends that I have tickets For the Camden Crawl and The Great Escape in Brighton. I had hoped to go to these instead. No such luck there either. I’m not really crying myself to sleep over this in the way that all of the above makes it sound. I’m just disappointed really. I’ll just have to accept that my pint glass collection won’t grow quite so much this year.

A step too far

(I apologise for the lack of pictures in this post. I’ll try and crowbar some in from Google later)

In a few weeks time I’m going to be going to Cumbria with my friend Jonny to attempt, and hopefully complete, the coast-to-coast walk as the guide book written by Alfred Wainwright set out. Anyone who has heard about the details of this walk will testify that it is not a stroll down a country lane on a bright Sunday afternoon. In light of this I thought it would be best if I were to get a bit of training in.

It started off earlier in the week when I thought to myself that a walk was probably a good idea. However every day the weather report looked ominous, and so every day I put it off ’til the next. Until on Monday I thought “stuff this! It’s going to rain every day until we go at this rate, I’ll just have to get a bit wet and in any case, a little water never hurt anyone”. So I set off.

It has been said by wiser men than me that if you are walking you should have a goal because walking without a goal is aimless and with no aims no success can be recognised, and, if you don’t succeed in what you are doing then what is the point in doing it? With this in mind and it recently being international record shop day I set my sights on David’s Record Shop in Letchworth town centre and at quarter to ten I set off.

I knew at the get-go that this was going to be a long one. For one thing looking at the map and realising I was going to have to as near as damn it cross an entire ordinance survey map AND get back again before it got dark. Another little thing that shouldn’t make any difference is that I don’t even live in the same county as Letchworth. This mental barrier seams to make a place feel so much further away than a place truly is, I mean Manchester and Lancaster truly are a great distance from one another and they are both in Lancashire.

I left town by my usual path going though the moors. It was quite quiet for that time of day, usually I would have crossed paths with many a dog walker from the nearby villages but not today. Maybe it was the unusual quietness of that morning that bought out the mutjack that ran in front of my path, and then stood paralysed on the spot, watching me the entire time as I walked past from the relative safety of the dense tree line.

As I was making for a different target to my usual walk I decided to veer off  at an early point and had more as the crow flies. This was my first mistake of the day. I was still within a few miles of home and I found myself in a strange predicament in my head. I found myself, so close to home and yet not knowing which path to take. There was a part of me which instinctively went to turn around and reach for the map in my bag, but this was stopped very quickly by the part of me which said that I should know where I am going. It sat on my left shoulder like the personified cartoon devil in cartoons, it sat there mocking me, “WHAT! Don’t you know where you are? You idiot. All those times we’ve driven past here.  Didn’t you pay attention?” Logic stepped back in. “Lets be sensible about this, we don’t want to end up going down a dead end track now do we?”. As good was about to prevail over evil I walked around a corner and into the next village. There, waiting at the bus stop was an elderly lady at a bus stop, waiting for a bus (I assume she was waiting for a bus that is although quite what else you would wait for at a bus stop is beyond me). Then the devil did mock hard and in front of the old lady I decided to save face and made a snap decision, which promptly landed my walking down the side of a busy road with no path or grassy verges for safety. Perhaps my real first mistake was actually not consulting the map rather than choosing a path I did not know, either way it was a mistake, and a lesson to be learned. Always check your map when you are unsure kids!

Dodging the traffic I quickly made my way down the road to where I had planned to cross the road before I left home that morning. Taking the path on the left I then crossed a field, went down a lane,  detoured around a footpath that was overgrown and then crossed the A6. I could keep on describing briefly my route, however it is tedious for me to write and no doubt for you to read, nearly as tedious as the rain which set in soon after the A6, so I shall move on to Letchworth itself.

I looked at my phone as I approached Letchworth town centre. It was nearing three o’clock. A quick bit of maths told me that if I did not turn around very soon then I would not make it home before night fell. This is something, he thought of which I did not relish, so I picked up the pace. Fumbling with my phone in the rain, my touch screen went mad and  started typing words which seemed more like Basque than English. Sheltering under a nearby canopy and retyped in Google Maps asking for directions to David’s record shop. It took but a moment for it to return a map of Letchworth town centre with two dots on it. Two dots so close together it was hard to distinguish them as the separate entities that were myself and my destination. I turned around and there was David’s record shop. The voice inside started mocking again. I had no time to listen though. Time was pressing on and I needed to start making my way back. I moved without further thought into the shop and quickly had a browse round. A few things caught my eye but my thrifty nature whittled down my selection to two albums; one by Smoke fairies and the other by Laura Marling. I payed for the music and left.

I left the shop quickly and started making my way down the road which I had first mad my way into town. Then I saw it out of the corner of my eye: Subway! My stomach made an instant growl, a knee jerk reaction as if it too had seen the fast  food sandwich shop, sent here from the gods. I thought about if for about half a second and then made my way inside.

One “foot-long-chicken-pizziola-with-double-cheese-on-hearty-Italian” and about 15 minutes later, I finally actually set off back home, just as the rain started again. I take a slight detour that I hadn’t noticed on the way into town which saved me about a minute. And this was basically my thought process all the way back. Constantly looking at the map trying to find a shorter alternative to get me home that little bit quicker. I can already hear the lectures that I’m going to get from my parents and I know that no one wants that so I push on.

Around Hitchen I check the time on my phone. “3% battery life remaining. Please connect charger”. Great! I was in the middle of a field. Where was I going to get a charger from. Thank you very much android. I wouldn’t have been as annoyed it’s just I only took it off of the charger about ten minutes before I left, earlier that morning. I knew exactly what it was though. I was using a tracking app to see how far and how fast I was walking, seeing how close I was to being ready for the northern hills I was training for. The trouble is the damn GPS it uses devours the battery. Not much I can do. If I try to make a hone call that will surely kill the last of the battery before the call goes through, ditto texts. I thought the best I could do would be to leave it. At least it would tell me the time for a bit longer before it died completely. Final battery failure occurred at around half past four, many many miles still to cover.

It was around about the time of final battery failure that the weather turned again. I knew that from my outbound walk that this was about the most remote part of the walk (putting this into prospective this is the home counties, not far outer reaches of Scotland, so perhaps remote is the wrong word, but it’s the best I can up with, lets just say that its a few miles from anywhere significant). So with no technology, no company, no contact with the rest of the world and the rain starting again I again made a concerted effort to carry on, setting my sights on the county line. At least then I’d be in the right county. The border came and went. If it wasn’t marked on the map I wouldn’t have know I had crossed it. What was for me a significant mile stone in reaching the county I call home in the driving rain, was not even celebrated in a little “Welcome to Bedfordshire” sign. Not that I supposed that there would be on the these days well under used footpaths of anywhere that isn’t a national park.

Soon I had made it back to the part of the countryside that I often walked in, or at least, I could see it. I was on the top of a hill by a small industrial area looking down on a valley which I walked through often. This is a view I haven’t seen before. I see this valley often, but always from the other side. My target is obvious, a huge water tower on the top of the hill which always marks my way home. The rain had let off to a mild drizzle which I was grateful for. I wasn’t at all feeling cold, damp, wet, miserable. All those things you expect someone to talk about after a day of walking for mile after mile in the English countryside. My boots had kept my feet dry, my jumper had done the same for my top half and got only knows how but my jeans had seen me though the worst of it too! Until now.

I had looked at the map and elected a slightly different route back which I thought would save me some time. The skies still bright despite their clouds hiding all signs of blue I was beginning to think I could actually make it back before night fell. Walking through a small spinney, which plainly doesn’t see much in the way of people walking though I disturbed several spiders webs which attached themselves to be and I startled a couple of pigeons. Coming out the other side I expected to find a field with a gangway in the crops for me to pass though. What lie before me was a golden sea of oilseed rape, and through it, the tiniest rivern of unplaneted land which was barely wide enough for a mouse to pass. You couldn’t say that the path was not there, there was an instinctive line though which you could follow, but it was not wide enough for a person to pass. Not thinking much of it at the time I waded through. The problem is now not that it was raining. The problem was that it had raining. All of the plants were soaked themselves and after about thirty seconds of being in the field, so was I. My jeans soaked it all up like a sponge. What’s worse is that not only was it wet but it was cold and wet, and the wind was starting to pick up too. I wasted no time getting out of this field. The following field had a path around its edge, giving me some time to dry off, just a little. My legs warmed up the water that was in my jeans and things seemed a little better. That was until another field which was almost identical. I sighed, and now at a slightly low ebb, I went though, the field  quickly returning my legs the the cold that they were before. I was put in mind of some basic survival tips that I was told, about how even in the summer you should never jump in a river because of the extreme cold that they can be.

The last of the challenging parts of the walk over, I knew all of the paths from now on. I was well and truly back on familiar grounds, literally. Just one last obstacle to overcome. The cold. I had expected to warm up again like I did the first time, however the wind was that much stronger, my clothes were that much wetter, and I was that much more tired.  I just felt cold. I was concious that I was taking smaller strides than I was before and I knew that I was getting really tired. Not that ooo-I’m-a-bit-sleepy sort of tired, the proper I’ve-ran-out-of-energy sort of tired. Every step became harder to take, even though I was now on nice flat ground with and end goal in sight to lead my way home. I started playing a game of “How long will it take to find my body if I collapse here”, realising that the answer to that was too long and all things considered I wasn’t planning on an early death just yet, I shuffled my way up the last hill.

I finally made it home about 10 minutes before it got dark. My parents had tried to ring me but with my battery dead they had got worried, especially as it was raining, so they had been out driving around looking for me. Now I feel bad. “You should have left a plan of where you were going”, they said, I know I should, now I feel really bad because they were driving all over the place, not knowing which direction to look. I explained the situation with my battery. “You could have called on a payphone”. I didn’t even think of that. Payphones to me are an obscurity of a previous generation, something I hadn’t even considered, despite walking past several of them. “Oh, and your dinner’s getting cold”. Great, and they had made dinner as well. And just to top it off when I took my boots off there was a nice big blister on the side of each heal.

OK, positives. What I am going to take from this is first of all that just because it is not the lake district or the highlands of Scotland, it doesn’t mean I can go out for a walk as long as that with just a map and a bottle of water. All that they said when training for D of E wasn’t just for insurance purposes and the over used “what if ” situation that ignorant youth assumes will never arrive. As a subsection to this thought there is a reason why they said to not to where jeans, “because you will get soaking wet and its not nice” they will say. The youthful I-can-do-anything-me teenager is then only reminded of when he stood in a puddle in the town centre, where there are many buildings to block the wind, and plenty of phone signal to call for help if required. No, from now on I shall make sure I have gaiters on for anything that isn’t bone dry weather, and as soon as I can afford it, some trousers that are going to repel water at least marginly better than sponge.

Secondly. My phone is getting an upgrade. I have already ordered a replacement battery with nearly three times the amp/hours. This should see me through a single day, no matter how far I go. Also it means that I will have my current battery as an emergency spare which I can take as an.. er.. an emergency spare. It’s worth pointing out that I am also looking into some solar panel chargers for the coast-to-coast walk. On these long treks there may not be a plug at the end of the night. Indeed I know this will be true on several nights and with the phone taking GPS readings all the time I don’t want to have to use the emergency battery if I can help it.

Thirdly, it may sound obvious and you will have been told this by every responsible adult from as long as you have been old enough to go out by yourself. Leave a route plan of at least your rough heading. I realised in the final few hours of my walk that I was genuinely out of energy and if it was much colder things could have gotten serious. As an aside to this when planning your route that you will tell to someone else, make sure you see how long it is. Make sure that the route is do-able in the time you have and is within your capabilities. My route stretched me slightly too far and it was touch and go as to whether I’d make it before the dark fell and I’d have to concede defeat and call a taxi, now there is something I really don’t want to have to do, for my prides sake. I don’t like the little voice inside that mocks me. I need to make sure I beat it every time.

I’m not sure exactly how far the walk took me. I know it was 21 miles when the phone died, along with its tracking app, looking at the map I would say it was at least another 10 miles back home. That is a long way but the Cumbrian hills are a lot steeper and it’s not much more than some of the longest legs on out walk is going to be anyway. I need to get back out there and train a bit more yet. Just as soon as the blisters have gone down a bit, that is!

EDIT: and another thing, always have 40p for a phone box!