03 July 2008

Day 18 - Company, hippies and a merry meeting

Street to Chilcompton - 7/6/08

Today was easily the best day of my journey so far. There are three reasons for this. First and foremost, today I've been joined by my Dad who has bravely donned the boots and provided me with some exceedingly welcome company for the day. Secondly, I've been able to sling my leaden pack into the boot of the car for the day, which means that I've had an entire day without the weighty bugger trying to drill me into the pavement with every step. Last, but by no means least, my good friends Rob and Vicky have come to visit, which means that I've had a welcoming party eagerly awaiting my arrival at the site this evening.

With the situation as it was, I would probably have enjoyed any route (even the Exe Valley Way - maybe) and whilst our chosen path was pretty road heavy, it proved pleasant enough.

The day began in the same layby where my bedraggled self had been rescued yesterday. Something of an inauspicious start perhaps, but it actually worked out rather well. Had I continued last night to the campsite where we were scheduled to meet, this morning would have involved a couple of miles backtracking to return to the route. As it was, my Dad and myself were ideally positioned to catch a short bridle way and join the lane that cuts around the back of Street and in the process save ourselves a mile or two of hiking.

Having effectively by-passed Street, our trail next took us to the hippy commune of Glastonbury. It really is quite a fascinating place and not just because of the imposing Glastonbury Tor that dominates the skyline. I would hazard a guess that the High Street has remained largely unchanged since the 60's and certainly the profusion of alternative style shops made a pleasant change from the carbon copy town centres in most places. I will say one thing for Glastonbury; it makes a fine coffee and flapjack (well the cafe we stopped at certainly did). Just the thing to get the weary walker back on the road.

And back on the road we duly went. In fact, after consulting the map over coffee we decided to bite the bullet and take the main road between Glastonbury and Wells. While A-roads are not particularly walker friendly (the high volume of traffic is usually a good reason for avoiding them), in this case, avoiding the A road would have meant twice as long spent on B roads. With friends awaiting me at my destination we decided to opt for the more direct approach. Fantastically, this particular road came complete with a handy pavement for almost the entire way, which turned a potentially unpleasant hour into something much more tolerable. It was still noisy, which made conversation a tad tricky, but at least we didn't have to spend our time dodging the traffic.

Wells is yet another place I'd never been to, though it seems like somewhere that would be nice to re-visit when I'm not heading North. The town (or rather city) certainly seemed to be bustling with other folks taking in the sights. We, however, contented ourselves with a pasty stop in the grounds of the impressive Wells Cathedral. There's something about the architecture of Cathedrals that never fails to move me. It's fascinating to think of the skill and dedication that went into the mammoth task of constructing these vast edifices. Sadly, today there was no time for leisurely exploration and having consumed our well earned pasties, it was time for the last push to Chilcompton.

Having spent the majority of the day on the flat, the road out of Wells played a particularly mean trick, by winding steadily but consistently uphill. This went on for mile after mile and I was increasingly grateful to be without my pack, which would have turned this final stretch into a real test of endurance. This was certainly the case for my Dad who, lacking feet toughened by 200 miles of pounding, managed to rub himself a fine blister before the road finally levelled off. Needless to say we were both exceedingly relieved when the camp site finally came into view and we could finally kick off the boots and reflect on a great days rambling.

30 June 2008

Day 17 - Stings, Mumps and a blocked Drain

Taunton to Street - 6/6/08

I really needed the extra day off in Taunton yesterday. I woke up stiff as the proverbial board and exceedingly glad not to have to don the boots and hit the road. This morning I was still somewhat tender but certainly far better than I had been and given that today was yet another arduous day, I would have struggled without a rest. Special mention must go to everyone at the Heathercroft B&B in Taunton for their unending sympathy, help and support. If you ever pass through Taunton they are well worth a visit.

I'm spending tonight with my parents who are coming down to see how I'm getting on and give a bit of a boost to my spirits after the ordeal the other day. This has the added bonus that today I was only walking with half a pack, having left my camping gear at the B&B for collection by my folks this afternoon. Even half empty however, the pack was still a considerable weight and still, somehow, managed to chafe my shoulders at the end of the day.

In a mirror of my journey from Tiverton, my walk today began along the side of the Taunton to Bridgewater canal. I guess its down to Taunton being a fairly large town, but the early scenery along the canal was considerably more industrial than it had been in previous days. I shouldn't complain really; everytime I go off road I wish I was back in civilisation and everytime I'm in a town I wish I was out of it again. No pleasing some folks I suppose. In any case, the factories and offices soon gave way to trees and fields, which made the stroll along the towpath much more pleasant.

Given my previous experience when leaving canals, I was a touch apprehensive as I finally veered off the towpath and joined the banks of the River Tone. On the positive side, it was nowhere near as overgrown as it could have been, but it was sufficiently nettle filled to provide a tricky route finding challenge. In a rather curious oversight, my walking trousers, whilst lightweight and exceedingly comfortable, are clearly not nettle proof. As I am similarly lacking in "nettle proofing", the only options for traversing fields of these prickly little buggers are either to use my trekking poles to gingerly pick out a path or don the gortex and barge right through.

After a mile or so of option one I lost patience and despite scorching weather, I pulled on my waterproof trousers, gave up following the path of least resistance and stomped in a straight line between stiles. Whilst this helped the stress levels no end, by the time I finally rejoined the road, I was absolutely drenched and exceedingly grateful to be back on asphalt (never thought I'd say that!!).

Call me a sucker for punishment, but shortly after joining the road I took a momentary deviation in order to crawl up the side of a ferociously steep little hill. This was not a random attack of masochism but rather an opportunity to explore the ruined abbey on Burrow Mump. It's a little like a smaller, less touristy version of Glastonbury Tor, though even at its more modest height the views over the surrounding Somerset levels are superb. It certainly proved an excellent spot for me to sit and have a bite to eat and generally try to recover from my trek along the river.

Alas, my trials were not over for the day. Kings Sedgemoor Drain is one of the largest of many many drainage channels criss-crossing the fields of the Somerset levels. Essentially, it is a dead straight river into which many of the smaller channels flow. This means that any walk along the bank involves the crossing of at least a dozen smaller streams; a challenge made much simpler by the provision of bridges. However, when I came to use said bridges they were either completely obscured by shrubberies or collapsed.

This was annoying enough in itself, but when combined with chest high undergrowth (I'm 6 feet 4 by the way) covering the fields in between, it turned this section into a complete nightmare. It took me almost an hour to cover a mile and a half of riverbank and by the time I reached the road I had well and truly had enough of waterways for one day.

I therefore decided to signal my folks for a roadside pick-up (a luxury I would have been keen to use a dozen times over by now). This does mean that I'll be starting my walk tomorrow from a layby rather than my campsite, as intended but at this point I'm finding it difficult to care. So long as I begin tomorrow where I left off today it doesn't really matter and this way I get to spend another hour or so with my folks. After two weeks on my lonesome, it's well worth a longer day tomorrow.

Day 15 Canals, ex-canals and the difference thereof

Tiverton to Taunton - 4/6/08

Wow!! Today was quite a trial. I knew I would have to dig deep on this little escapade of mine, but I thought that it would be towards the end rather than two weeks in. I kind of knew that today was going to be a tough one just on distance alone (my guide book claims 24 miles and I believe it!!) but things just sort of fell apart as the day wore on.

To make matters worse, a glance at the map suggests that despite the distance, today should have been easy, given that it follows the course of an (ex) canal and is hence flat. It just goes to show how deceiving maps can be.

Nevertheless the day began promisingly enough. Freshly rested from my day off in Tiverton (nice little town by the way), after a quick plod through the streets I joined the start of the canal that would be my companion throughout the day. I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed the first few hours, strolling along the towpath. The weather was good (for a change), the path was clear and level and the scenery was very pleasant. After so many days on the lanes, following the waterway and getting to see a little wildlife was very pleasant (I lost count of the number of tiny Cygnets and Ducklings that I spotted).

The surprising quantity of wildlife (including an Adder sunning itself on the towpath!!) is no doubt down to the equally surprising lack of boat traffic on the canal. Surprising that is until you consult the map and discover that after winding its way around contours for a dozen or so miles, the canal ends unceremoniously in the middle of nowhere. What you have therefore is, in effect, not a canal but a twelve mile long pond. This lack of boat movement and the absence of any current has had a surprising side-effect, in that, for the last 4 or 5 miles this is quite easily the clearest canal I have ever seen. It sounds a little odd, but I was genuinely taken aback by this. Usually, most of British Waterways are murky brown at best, so to find one absolutely crystal clear came as something of a shock. Given the heat of the day, I was increasingly tempted to drop the pack and go for a dip.

I decided to press on, which was fine right up until the point where the canal abruptly ended and thereafter the day descended into misery. My guidebook quite innocently states that after the canal has come to an end, you should simply follow the course of the abandoned canal, essentially, all the way to Taunton. I'm not sure when the book was written but if anyone is planning to follow the same course as I have, let me give you some advice. "Don't!" I've had some pretty overgrown paths in the last couple of weeks, but trying to walk along sections of the old canal is like trying to walk through a particularly dense hedge. I can only surmise that nobody has attempted this part of the route for a while and certainly not with a bulky pack. I literally had to turn my trekking poles into makeshift machetes and hack a path through the foliage. On such a long day, this was exhausting and after a couple of miles I was physically drained and actually dreading the remaining 10 miles or so into Taunton.

At my lowest ebb (shortly after leaning against a fence to catch my breath only to find it electrified), I tried to call my folks to get a few words of encouragement and a general pick-me-up. Even this was denied however thanks to the complete lack of signal on the phone. A few miles further on I did eventually get through, though at this point I was feeling pretty sorry for myself. A conversation with my Mum later, I was feeling slightly better, though I still had a few miles to go before I could finally stop. To help matters, my left leg (that had been playing up on the way into Tiverton) had flared up again and was now causing me real problems. It was this that clinched the decision to abandon the slog along the canal at the next road that I came to, and wind my way into Taunton along the lanes. While this turned out to be less than direct, at least I didn't have to fight for every step.

By the time I hobbled into Taunton some 11 (!) hours after setting off from Tiverton, I was pretty much on my knees. I've decided to take an unscheduled day off tomorrow as, currently, I can barely bend my left leg without considerable pain, which doesn't really lend itself to long distance walking.

Fortunately the B&B that I am staying at can accommodate me for the extra day and the lady who runs the place couldn't be nicer or more sympathetic to my bedraggled condition. I've been given the en-suite room with an exceedingly inviting double bed, despite only asking for the standard single room. That little act of kindness is already helping to make me feel better, which after the day I've had, is well overdue.