Tuesday 20 January 2009

In pursuit of the Cotswold Way

Outside the Electric Theatre we were fascinated to see an "honesty box" Apparently all you had to do to reserve tickets for "Mama Mia" was to put your name and number on a card and place it in the box. Now surely, any less than honest avid "Abba" fans, desperate to get a seat would remove all but their own cards? Or is that just me and my suspicious mind? Was this place really as delightfully quaint as it appeared to be? "Why yes indeed" was the reply from an early morning shopper scurrying down the hill towards a High Street of shops, which we discovered later, to be a wonderful blast of a nostalgic 5o's past. "I moved here from Oxford over 20 years ago and have never looked back" she cried, as she went on her way.
Wotton-under-Edge...doesn't it just conjur up images of a sleepy little town of higgledy piggledy narrow lanes tucked under a blanket of rolling Cotswold hills? Well, that's exactly what it was. Jill was dreaming, scheming, plotting and planning (nothing new there then) as she peered intently through the estate agents window, until I pointed out that she really couldn't swap her Pennyslvania farm house with acres of land for the same price as a shoebox in the Cotswolds. Hopes and dreams dashed, and after a quick visit to a "real" Post Office (i.e. one that wasn't at the back of a Co-Op) we reluctantly set off up and over "the edge" in pursuit of the "Cotswold Way"
Wotton had started out as in Saxon times as "Wudu tun" (The farm in the wood) the "under edge" being added later around 14c to accentuate its position below the Cotswold edge. The snippet of historical fact that interested me the most was the story of Isaac Pitman, a local Wesleyan teacher. upon gaining his first post in Humberside he was desperate to return to his western routes, and who could blame him? On his way back home he happened to meet a C of E chap, who somehow persuaded him to "convert" to the "other side". Well, you can imagine, he wasn't exactly welcomed back into the bosom of the Wesleyan Chapel. Hunted out of town in disgrace, he was to have the last short word on this story. Determined to stay in his home town, he set up a rival C of E School and invented a shorthand system for his pupils. Yes indeed, here we were at the birthplace of "Sir Isaac Pitmen" inventor of Phonography.
We hadn't got very far when the threatenly grey skies decided to make our day's walk just a tad more uncomfortable. We had no choice but to "abort" the way in favour of the road. Passing by what was originally called "Soppa Burgh" conjured up thoughts of some cosmic Saxon stroking a crystal ball, muttering quietly "Many years from now, this place will become an area of outstanding beauty and therefore shall be attractively renamed Old and Chipping Sodbury"
We scurried on with a lunch appointment to keep with friends and family, up from Salisbury and down from Surrey. We ploughed on through the wind and the rain until it was with some welcome relief we saw a familiar car, on the horizon, that could whisk us away. Well, ok, so we cheated and skipped a mile of walking, but the thought of that warm dry pub was ooh just so tempting.
With three long tables pushed together the walking party swelled to seven. Soon we were tucking into delicious pub grub. With one eye on the gloomy weather through the steamy windows, we took a vote on shortening the next stretch to a 5 miler. Maps were scoured and cars were driven to the finishing line at Littleton.
And so, it was a happy band of Pilgrims that left the pub, consisting of me, Jill, husband (mine) Keith, friends Jane and Lynn, Lynns Sister, and Jane's Dad... and then the sky finally decided to brighten up our route and so there we were, finally! posing for photographs along the "Cotswold Way" It was muddy, wet, but worth it. One day, I thought, I'll come back and do this "Way" good and proper. With today's good company it was but a 5 mile hop, skip and a muddy jump to Littleton. It had been brief, but I would be back (with Jane next time) to pick up where we left off.

Friday 28 November 2008

Long lost cousins and new found friends. Gloucester to Wotton

I'm sitting on a railway station, got a ticket for my destination, and I can't stop singing quietly to myself as the train speeds it's way to Newport, South Wales.
I had four reasons to be cheerful, firstly was the thought that my B & B hopping days were nearly over. From here on I had friends in Salisbury, Devon, and a cottage in Cornwall with family and friends for the final week. Secondly, sister Jill was also on her way to Newport, via Pennsylvania USA, with an en route stop off at Welshpool, Wales. I imagined she'd be on her train right now, probably polishing her halo, having done the "neicely" duties of a visit to a 91 year old Auntie Edna. Thirdly I'd be met at Newport by a long lost cousin (not seen for 40 years) and last but not least, tomorrow, I'd be walking with some V.I.P's from "Natural England" who'd been supporting this mad venture of mine.
And as I write, I'm wishing that that particular tomorrow was not so far in the distant past. The reality is, I'm not now on that train, but sitting in front of a fire on a cold winters night in November with another Christmas, without Sophie, looming ahead. And so, this has all but ceased to be a blog, and more a way of finishing a journal.
Flashing back to August, after meeting up with a very sprightly cousin Michael, who certainly didn't look the 40 years older he was, and having enjoyed an excellent evening of good food, wine and hospitality, the next day, with perfect timing I meet my new found friends on Gloucester Station . Stella, a big cheese in the WHI initiative, having been there at it's inception. Fiona and Moira who deal with publicity and advertising, and Mitch, "Pedometer man" which as I found out later, was more than just handing out little gadgets. There's a whole lot of research going into it all, which is all fine and dandy to hear about, until numbers and statistics come into the equation, and my eyes start to glaze over.
Firstly, after initial introductions, the important questions were discussed. To buy or not to buy? Lunch that is, and who was going to map read. On the second issue I gratefully accepted that they, the locals, could lead the way. Fortunate as they were to work in the lovely town of Cheltenham they were also pretty familiar with the less desirable Gloucester.
Mitch route marched us out of town before I had chance to view it's more attractive side (if it had one) and before too long we were heading up the hill towards Robinswood Hill where on a clear day you could see as far as the Bristol suspension bridge. Considering what a popular place it must be, the choice of paths to get there was very confusing. Being a man, Mitch couldn't possibly ask for directions, but we girls could, and somehow or other we made our way to the top, where we paused for photo's. Me in my "whiter than white" T shirt. (and isn't it amazing what a hot wash can do!)
After some deliberation, we decided on the route to Stonehouse where we would have to eventually part company. I looked nostalgically towards Painswick in the distance, but sadly it wasn't on this year's path, and besides that blue cup" (pub) on the map, in another direction, looked like the ideal lunch stop. To sit in the midday sunshine in a quaint little pub in a hamlet in the Cotswold countryside was something to look forward to. Or it could have been. "Closed due to unforeseen circumstances" was the hurriedly scribbled note on the firmly shut door. Whatever their circumstances were, ours were, two packed lunches between four people. But here's the interesting fact,one always packs more food for a "packed lunch" than one would normally eat at lunchtime. And so there was food a plenty. Sitting in the sunshine on a bench outside the deserted pub we metaphorically shared our loaves and fishes.
Mitch marched us on our way towards Stonehouse. An ideal second refreshment break yes? No. It didn't materialise as the sort of quaint town where there would be a "Ye oldie tea shop" to bid our fond farewells over a cuppa, as it turned out to be unfortunately more Calcutta than Cotswold, with a plethora of curry houses lining the High street. Perhaps it was just as well we didn't stop as I'd arranged to meet cousin Michael in Wotton under Edge, and estimated getting there at 5pm . With promises to keep in touch and perhaps to join Mitch on his next "challenge" (climbing Everest) I finally picked up "The Cotswold Way" retracing the steps of last years trek...
5pm came and went. Michael was there, I wasn't. Not wanting to keep him waiting I put a spurt on and puffed and panted my way through the woods on a part of the "Cotswold's Way" I'd merely strolled through last year. Staggering upon Michael outside a most delightfully tempting (open for business) pub. It was however, all temptations considered, a long way back to Wales.

Friday 10 October 2008

The unexpected assault course- Tewkesbury to Gloucester

Glenda was inside Tesco's buying sandwiches for lunch, I was outside waiting to meet the next WHI group and Beverley had run off with the proprietor of the B & B.
A fast mover, I hasten to add, she was after my rucksack, not the man, and was back in a flash to join the rest of the party. Rushing to keep this 10 am appointment I'd left my bag behind. As Dennis & Annie had driven all the way from Leominster with two of their walkers, Jason and Carl, to walk part of the way down the river with us, I didn't want to be late.
After I'd got over the shock of B & G wanting to join in again this year after they'd endured the arduous assault course that was the Pennine Way last year, they then preceded to lay down the conditions. "No hills, no scrambling over rocks, refreshments en route, toilet facilities,nearer to home, and definitely no more than 15 miles, oh, and for one day only. Ok, can you organize that?" I most certainly could. Today's walk was one I'd been looking forward to. Rated as one of the five best walk of travel writer Mark Moxon's L.E. to J.O.G. trip ticked all the boxes. And this was how I "sold" it. "A pleasant meander along the banks of the river Severn, with the opportunity for frequent liquid refreshments at any one (or three) of the delightful riverside pubs. The added bonus being, we were unlikely to get lost"
And all was well, for the first few miles. The six of us set off downstream at a cracking pace, none more cracking than Jason and Carl. Charging ahead of us, theirs was a real WHI success story. When Annie first encouraged them to walk, they could barely complete a mile in 40 minutes. In less than two hours we'd clocked up 5 miles and were enjoying a picnic lunch in the sunshine.
Soon it was time for us to bid fond farewells, and move on to find one of those delightful pubs Mark waxed lyrically about. Well, we found one and yes, the setting was ideal, the pub less so. Never the less, surprisingly good coffee was served with a smile, and as we contentedly sipped and sat at a wooden bench by the river, we eyed up the route ahead and encountered a problem. Where exactly was the route ahead?
When the only way forward seemed to be ploughing through the undergrowth and scrambling up the bank to avoid falling in the river, I sensed dissent among the ranks. Hearing mutterings from behind of "This is worse than last years climb up Stoodley Pike" we reached the mutual decision to backtrack to the pub, whereupon in full embarrassing view of the pub clientele we spotted the sign which would continue our journey on the "Severn Way"
I'd like to say, it got better, but by courtesy of Gloucestershire C.C. who'd decided to put maintaining public rights of ways at the bottom of their "To Do" pile, we encountered our old friends, the nettle family.
So what with that, the mud, and thoughts of a long drive home ahead of us, we settled on the minor road option for the final few drizzly miles into Gloucester.

Saturday 4 October 2008

A hole in my shoe- Worcester to Tewkesbury

That's me, on the right, riding the crest of a "Severn Bore" wave. Not bad for a novice, if I do say so myself!

I lie, of course. But I was interested in finding out about the phenomenon of the "Severn Bore" and would I actually see it? On the internet was a mind boggling amount of information about precise times, dates, places, statistics and an awful lot of charts. It was all getting far too technical and I sensed I was entering "serious anorak" territory. Time to switch off, but not before ascertaining that I wasn't in the right part of the river to view a sighting anyway.

And so onto today's real, but slightly less exciting adventure.

There was no denying it, I could feel pavement through my sock, and on investigation there was a sizeable hole in my shoe. Well, all things considered, they'd lasted me well to get this far,and just as well I was in a town with a "Miletts". Half an hour later, I was bouncing down the High Street the proud owner of a replica pair of new boots. Somehow or other they bounced me in the direction of the Cathedral. As if by perfect timing I arrived during a morning rehearsal. Lighting a candle, I sat back in the pew, closed my eyes, and let the wonderful sounds wash over me.It was so incredibly moving, I really wanted to stay forever (or at least until I was thrown out) but I had to go. Another day, and another rendezvous. Today I was meeting friends from home at Upton-upon-Severn, or that was the plan.

I got there, Beverley and Glenda didn't. Caught up in traffic on the motorway, they were hours behind schedule, giving me time to check out Upton and bus timetables. Tomorrow, Sunday, we needed to get back from Gloucester to Tewkesbury. (buses ran every day-except Sunday) Oh dear!

I dawdled along the river, stopping to buy an Ice Cream. It was a lovely sunny day, and the weekend crowds were making the most of it. What a shame B & G hadn't got here to enjoy it.

Or, perhaps not. The wide path slowly dwindled down to a narrow unkempt one. That I could cope with. A couple came walking up. Stopping for a chat, their parting shot of "watch out for some nettles further along the way" proved to be the understatement of the year. 1/2 mile of waist high nettles is not "some nettles"

I pulled up my socks, pulled down my shorts to try and cover any inch of exposed flesh, raised my arms high up above my head and waded through. It hardly made any difference, the little b.....s managed to find a way. In what seemed like an eternity I finally saw an end in sight, and hoped that was the worst of it. I needed to warn the obliviously happy pair, who were by now making their way out of Tewkesbury. "Are you wearing long trousers?" "Don't be ridiculous, it's a lovely sunny day, why?" Well, fortunately for them, that was the rest of the walk into Tewkesbury was nettle free. Feeling quite brave and macho I proudly displayed my battle scars, which resembled the crater like surface of a very fiery red moon. Ever the prepared girl guide she once was, Glenda whipped out her travelling medicine cabinet and put out the fire.

As we passed by, I looked longingly and nostalgically at the "Tudor House Hotel" Although they must have been ravished by last year's floods, they were up and open for business, but unfortunately not for us. As in Worcester, in desperation, I booked a "cheap" triple room in a Guest House. In my experience, cheap does not necessarily mean poor standard, and it wasn't really that bad (for one night only) Put it this way, we were as cosy as the three bears, but there definitely wasn't room for Goldilocks.

Friday 3 October 2008

A warm welcome to Worcester

"Cashier number one please"
9.00 am, and I was first in line at the Post Office in Stourport upon Severn. I hadn't realised getting my "walking passport" stamped would be such a trial. "I'm not signing and stamping anything unless I know what it is" cashier number one retorted, flicking the passport from side to side, suspiciously. "Ere, Shirl, ever seen one of these?" Cashier number two (Shirl) heaved herself slowly of her stool and lumbered over to take a peek. "No, can't say I have" Meanwhile, an impatient queue started to form behind me, because as we all know, there are only ever two post office windows open at any time. I started again "I'm walking from..." Eventually she reluctantly signed, stamped and I went on my way.
Either it was the weather or the early start, I don't know, but I seemed to whizz alongside the river, and still have time for two pub stops along the way. And there's nothing quite like sitting by the river with an ice cold drink, on a sunny day.
I was looking forward to meeting Peter, his wife, Marguerite, walk leaders from the "Pitchcroft Pacers" in Worcester and Elinor, from Droitwich. But try as I might, I couldn't help conjuring up images of little men in farmers smocks trekking round the racecourse, with pitchforks for walking sticks.
We met, as planned at the "Sabrina Bridge" so called, as she is the Goddess of water. But not without a detour. The effects of last years floods meant I had to leave the riverside and the prospect of gawping at the houses on "millionaires row" for a much less attractive route down the main road into town. But what a warm welcome I received when I got there from the three of them. Why, Elinor had even brought me a present!
We all walked up to the Pump House together for a welcoming cup of tea, where we met and chatted with the young girl from the press, before posing for photo's outside.
Later when Peter and Marguerite dropped me off at the dubious looking B & B, I kind of regretted not taking them up on the offer of a drive out to the Malvern Hills and a bed for the night. But it was too late to run after them, and shout "I'm a tired traveller, get me out of here!"

Sunday 28 September 2008

The golden age of steam - Pattingham to Bewdley

Penkridge, Pattingham and Bewdley, all places I'd wanted to re-visit. Not just because they were nice places to stay, but more so because of the people I met there. Then, strangely enough, when it came to it, I didn't want to go back to Penkridge library, or the farmhouse B & B in Pattingham, because somehow I knew it wouldn't be the same. There was, however, one person I'd already planned to meet, and that was Adele in Bewdley. We'd exchanged phone numbers last year, but losing the phone, meant losing her number. Meeting in "The Pack Horse" Pub last year we'd shared histories over a glass or two and vowed to keep in touch. But perhaps it was just as well we were not destined to meet up.
The phone rang "Hello! Peter here! I've arranged for the press photographer to meet us at the Pump House at 3pm, is that ok?" I gulped, and quickly set the calculator whirring in my head. Bewdley to Worcester, 20 miles at approx. 3 miles an hour, with extra time for brief stops and getting lost, meant leaving at 7.30 am. "Fine" I said, breezily, "I'll see you there!"
Oh, it was so hot, sticky and unbearably humid today, I couldn't wait to get down to the river. To spur myself on, I earmarked a "blue cup" on the map, to treat myself to a large orange juice with plenty of ice, and what passed the time was meeting a retired policeman, full of local knowledge and stories of last year's floods. In the pub garden, it was hard to believe a year ago I'd have been 3 foot under water.
Was it the heat and fatigue that had made me imagine the haunting distance sounds of a steam train? Or was it all the nostalgic thoughts of yesterday? No, as I reached the river, there up above was the "Severn Valley Railway" chugging back and forth between Ardley and Bewdley. I had to take a look, not least because there might be the prospect of an Ice Cream. Sadly, it was already getting late and the shop was closed. As the last train to Bewdley pulled up to the platform, it was calling out to me "Come on Carol, you're tired, hungry, and it's only 5 miles, I'll get you there in a jiffy"
Now, can you imagine the powers of restraint I needed not to jump on board?