13 March 2008

Boots, Blisters And A Wayward Pint

Hullo again folks.

First off apologies for the absence of posts for the last few weeks, especially given that I promised to up date you with random nonsense on a regular basis. In my defence I've been pretty busy recently and when trying to decide between actually getting some sleep and updating my ramblings, poor old Mr Blog is inevitably going to end up with a bad case of negligence. On the plus side, by August you're all going to be pretty sick of reading about my exploits so consider this somewhat disjointed blogging phase my way of easing you in. You're Welcome.

So I've been busy then have I? Easy thing to say I suppose and certainly the best excuse I can come up with after a long day at work. Nonetheless it's actually a pretty accurate description of the last few weeks of my life, though when trying to work a full time job and prepare for a three month mammoth trek (sadly without the mammoths) I should probably expect to be a little busy. To make matters even more complicated for myself I've spent the last couple of weekends moving out of my awesome little country retreat and back to the comfort of home. I'm a bit sad to be leaving the place, but it's been a great little pad for the last 6 months and if I'm going to save a few more pennies before the summer I really can't be affording to pay half my salary in rent every month. Despite the move, route planning, birthday celebrations (yes I'm talking about you Gaz) and general weekend jobs, I've still managed to find a bit of time to get out into the countryside and break in my fancy new boots.

Most of you I'm sure have at some point purchased or had purchased for them a new pair of shoes. You will know full well then that breaking-in the aforementioned footwear is not a task to be relished and in my opinion is one of the best arguments against shoe shopping besides its overwhelming tedium (sorry girls but its true). Walking boots being generally studier than your average pair of trainers require considerably more miles of tramping before they mould themselves to the shape of your feet. My boots in particular seem to have taken this period of shape transition as a personal affront to their dignity and as a form of protest have taken it upon themselves to shred my feet to buggery. Next time I plan to walk this sort of distance I think I'll get myself a pair of flip flops!!

Despite the blisters, I've managed to get through my first proper practice weekend relatively unscathed. Those of you who expected my lack of any apparent sense of direction to be an issue (and I would count myself within that group) will be disappointed to hear that the OS maps appear to be fairly idiot proof and apart from a short detour at one point I found my way without major incident. This was probably somewhat aided by the fact that I decided for my first practice weekend I'd stick to one of the way marked national trails and given that I live in Stafford, the Staffordshire Way seemed to be the obvious choice. Also, as my End to End walk in the summer will be taking in much of the Staffordshire Way on its journey through the Midlands I already had the maps tucked away in my collection.

The plan for the day was a trek of roughly 14 miles from the outskirts of Uttoxeter across country to the residence of Lord Lichfield at Shugborough. I must admit I was a little nervous at first as my folks dropped me off in the suburbs of Uttoxeter. All I had was a couple of bottles of water, a bundle of tracker bars (see my Tracker Tracker) and my map and whilst this was hardly going to be a trek through the Sahara or Amazon rainforest, I've not really had to rely on my own map reading before and I didn't really want to end the day in Plymouth. After crossing the first few fields and stiles my worries had pretty much disappeared, the Staffordshire Way is fantastically well way marked (at least the bits I've walked thus far have been) and seeing that marker on the gate you think the map is pointing you towards is a huge confidence booster to the rookie navigator. The majority of the first half of this walk is across farmland, following hedgerows and field boundaries as it winds its way slowly south towards the village of Abbots Bromley. The views can't honestly be described as spectacular, but to someone who works in an industrial estate, the wild hedgerows and deserted woodlands were pretty enough and served as a good reminder that there is still a lot of green places in this country if you get off the beaten track.

Unfortunately the one downside of spending a morning rambling across fields and over stiles is that by the time I arrived in the village of Abbots Bromley for a spot of lunch I looked less like an adventurous hiker and more like the local vagrant. Of course I then compounded my outcast status by entering the first pub I came to and being confronted by room full of happy families, smartly attired and enjoying a well deserved weekend lunch out. It was a little bit like you see in the westerns where a stranger enters the saloon and the conversation in the room dies as all eyes are turned towards the door. Of course the conversation soon started up again as I took a seat at the only single table in the place though now I felt certain it was mostly centred around the filthy hobo who had wandered into their midst and interrupted their lovely meal. I obviously took the English response to this situation and pretended like nothing was amiss, though this was made somewhat harder moments later when I took off my coat and flung my freshly purchased pint off the table and all over the floor. Once again the room went silent and I could feel the stares boring into the back of my head as I dabbed pathetically at the spillage with my elaborately folded napkin. The rest of my 'meal' was spent screwing my toes into the floor and trying to set a new record for the fastest consumption of a toasted sandwich.

Understandably I rejoined the trail with something of a relief after lunch and was happy to leave Abbots Bromley behind me which was something of a shame, as the village itself is exceedingly photogenic and I would have enjoyed exploring the place a little more extensively. But for now that would have to wait till I passed this way again in the summer I still had quite a way to go before I could stop for the day. The afternoon was a continuation of the farmland theme from the morning though it was broken up somewhat a couple of miles south of Abbots Bromley by Blithfield Reservoir where I spent a few minutes watching the windsurfers whizzing across the water when they weren’t busy falling off. After that, it was back to the fields and stiles and I found myself drifting off into a happy little walking trance only to find myself leaping twelve feet into the air seconds later as a loud explosion erupted from the middle of the field. Apparently the farmers of the Staffordshire have decided that the traditional scarecrows of the past no longer cut the mustard and have instead decided to fire off air cannons at random intervals to scare off the birds and give heart attacks to random passers by.

Fortunately I soon left the exploding farmland behind and joined the towpath of the Trent & Mersey Canal on the outskirts of Rugely. As I trundled along the towpath my map now largely redundant, I wondered why it is that the elaborately decorated and clearly well loved narrow boats were almost always tied up next to a rusting hulk in serious need of some TLC. Is it to make their own boats look better by comparison or do they hope to inspire the run down boats to turn over a new leaf and re-enter the 'civilised' world. I thought briefly of my incident at the pub at lunchtime and found myself quietly rooting for the rusty tub rather than its decadent neighbour. By this point the sun was starting to get quite low in the sky and whilst it wasn't dark yet I reckoned in another hour or so it would be. I had no intention of getting caught out in the dark and whilst I knew I was on the final straight I wasn't really sure how far down the towpath my destination lay. So I put my head down, ignored the growing pain in my feet and upped the pace. Of course having done this within twenty minutes I was crossing the bridge over the canal and into the grounds of shugborough and I couldn't help but feel my redoubled efforts a bit pointless. Ah well the important thing was that I had made it, and what’s more I had enjoyed it. This is just as well really as I've certainly got a lot more days like this one to come and without the luxury of a proper bed at the end of them, but its best to start easy and work up to that I reckon.

I also reckon that I've rambled on for far too long now and that you're probably getting a bit bored of reading by now so I'll be merciful and wind things up. Rest assured that once I'm on the road for real and writing my blog entry’s by torchlight in my tent they will be somewhat shorter and probably even less coherent if that’s possible. I'll be back with more ramblings in the next couple of weeks where I'll talk about my visit to the Outdoors Show at the NEC and a variety of other assorted nonsense

Until next time folks.