St James’ Way 4: in my end is my beginning

Alresford to Winchester, 25 July 2015

St James’ Way 1: Ultreya

St James’ Way 2: the way of the sluggard is blocked with thorns

St James’ Way 3: the rain it raineth

I promised myself that if it was raining I’d take the bus. It wasn’t. I walked. It hurt.

It was a fantastically beautiful walk. I’m glad I did it. I just would have liked my right leg not to be hurting.

I joined the Itchen to the south of Alresford, first crossing the Watercress Line and walking around the bottom edge of the town. The hotel, and the church of St John the Baptist at which I stopped on my way out of town, were bustling with wedding preparations. As good a day as any to get married, St James, pilgrim through this barren land. And the weather turned out nice for them. I passed the bride’s parents and the wedding dress as I was going down to check out, and wished them well.

Waymark on the wall of St John the Baptist church, Alresford

Waymark on the wall of St John the Baptist church, Alresford

Out past the watercress beds, everything very fresh and green after the day before. My leg hurt a lot while walking, but more when I stopped. I joined St Swithun’s Way; it had been St Swithun’s day only last week, and whatever the weather had done then, it clearly wasn’t going to keep it up for forty days. Crossing the main road, and off down a lane into Ovington. I met a confused and frightened sheep coming the other way, herded accidentally by a confused and unwilling cyclist. I could only hope he managed to overtake it before they reached the main road.

My father had recommended the Bush at Ovington, but at that hour in the morning it was closed. I turned right instead and crossed half-way over the Itchen. The path continued down a narrow strip of land in the middle of the stream. It was delightful: the water ran fast and shallow over a pale bed, and speckled fish basked in the sun, twitching their fins gently to stay where they wanted to be.

After a little while another footbridge took me across to the far bank of the river, and I walked on up to the road in Itchen Stoke. Here, my father had told me, I should look out for the Angry Red Eye of the Almighty. ‘Is that a Jowittism?’ I asked.

‘Sort of,’ he told me. ‘It was some neighbour, I believe, but it got taken up in the family.’

The Angry Red Eye of the Almighty

The Angry Red Eye of the Almighty

But what is the Angry Red Eye of the Almighty? Having looked at the thing, I’m still not entirely sure, but I can see exactly what that neighbour meant. It’s a lump of red glass caught in the pierced opening – not even a window – at the top of the west end of the church of St Mary. This is another one that’s under the protection of the Historic Churches Preservation Trust, and it’s well worth their attention; it’s an unlikely homage to Sainte-Chapelle in the middle of the Hampshire countryside. The original may have been Louis IX’s over-the-top reliquary, but St Mary’s, Itchen Stoke, has evangelical antecedents as well, and there are no pictures in the magnificent stained glass.

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The east end of St Mary’s, Itchen Stoke

Next I crossed back over the river, through some very boggy fields and past some farm buildings (some converted to offices and studios, some still apparently used for their original purpose), heading west all the while. I stopped at the top of a very steep slope to eat some of my brioche rolls, spreadable cheese and chocolates, and then headed on across a golf course. Then I had to get down again, to the level of the river, following a lane. My leg complained. Still, I was in a better mood than the previous day, as evidenced by the fact that I looked into the church at Itchen Abbas.

The next item on the list was my grandparents’ grave at Martyr Worthy. Blessed are the peacemakers: they met working for the local branch of the League of Nations. I promised not to light a candle for them at the cathedral; my grandfather in particular didn’t go in for popery.

My grandparents' grave: Blessed are the peacemakers

My grandparents’ grave: Blessed are the peacemakers

The other Worthys lie west of the motorway, and the Itchen splits itself off into a tangle of little streams. I followed both, or all, of them south, into the suburbs of Winchester, and finally into Winchester itself. I passed the pub, the King Alfred, where I was booked in to stay that night. I hadn’t realised, when I’d made the reservation, that it was the birthplace of Friends of King Alfred Buses, another significant presence in my life. Should I go in and drop off my rucksack? No, of course not. I pressed on to the cathedral.

Now, when you’re walking the Camino de Santiago, every bar, hostel and church will have a sello, or rubber stamp, and the prudent pilgrim will collect at least one every day. It’s like collecting stamps in your passport to heaven. Anyone who has got this far in this account of this walk will not be surprised to hear that I didn’t collect any along St James’ Way.

But Winchester cathedral has a sello. Or so I was assured by the guidebook, before I threw it away in disgust at its sopping unreadability. I asked at the desk. No, they couldn’t find it, but the vergers had one in their vestry. I should go in and look around, and see if I could find a verger.

I did that, wandering around and finding a more or less acceptable balance between the plaints of my knee, the desire to get my money’s worth from my free entry, and the bliss of having finally got here, to a holy place. When I got tired of that I found a verger.

‘It’s a good day to arrive,’ he said. ‘St James’ Day.’

I didn’t say, well, yes, I knew that. I asked him to stamp my map, which he did, along with a passport for the Pilgrims’ Way, which I may complete some day.

Afterwards, I hobbled outside to buy an ice-cream and people-watch in the sunshine on the green until it was time for Evensong. I’d made it: foul weather and dodgy knees had failed to daunt my spirit; it was St James’ Day, and I was back in the city of my birth on the eve of my thirtieth birthday. As overambitious plans go, this one had gone rather well.

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St James’ Way 3: the rain it raineth

Basingstoke to New Alresford, 24 July 2015

St James’ Way 1: Ultreya

St James’ Way 2: the way of the sluggard is blocked with thorns

I ate breakfast at a café on a trading estate on the way out of Basingstoke for half the price of the hotel one. Then I retraced my steps of the day before. It wasn’t nearly so soul-destroying as it might have been, because it wasn’t the same day and it wasn’t due to a mistake. It was just part of the plan; I knew I was going to have to anyway. I rejoined the route back in Worting. The path climbed steeply away from the main road and took me across another annoying brambly field – the more so because it turned out that I didn’t actually need to go through the brambles – and over the railway. I got slightly lost in a residential area and finally found my way onto the route of a Roman road, with a field on one side, and what I described in my diary as ‘boring houses’ on the other. (‘They’re all homes, Dorothy,’ someone told my grandmother, when she was being snobbish.) Kind ladies with dogs redirected me when I got confused.

It had been drizzling all morning. Now it started raining properly. The route led me into beech woods, where tree roots bulged up in the chalky path. I saw glimpses of brightness through the gloomy trees, and almost thought the sun had come out, but it was just stubble of wheat fields throwing white-gold up towards the grey sky. I came out of the woods, through a farmyard, and back onto the road.

The next challenge was crossing the A30 – confusing and terrifying, like getting from the bottom right hand corner of a letter X to the top left hand corner, if the letter were made of a major road. I walked through more woods, crossed a bridge over the M3 and proceeded up a conference centre’s service road in ever-heavier rain. My mother texted me to see if I had any ideas about songs we might sing at my birthday party, so she could write the music out for the band. I started making a mental list. At the next pub, I told myself, I’d get my notebook out and write them down. The thought sustained me through a tedious stretch of road walking.

The church at Dummer, as seen from the hospitable lychgate

The church at Dummer, as seen from the hospitable lychgate

The next pub was in Dummer, and was not yet open. A couple of squares of chocolate in the comparative shelter of the church lychgate had to suffice. I pushed on towards Preston Candover down a concrete path between wheatfields – meeting, as one of them remarked, far more people in the rain than were to be seen out in the sun the previous day. It was another four miles, and it was really, really raining now. I retained enough sense of my purpose to look into a disused church and admire the floor tiles, but my interest was ebbing.

Floor tiles at the disused church of St Mary the Virgin, Preston Candover

Floor tiles at the disused church of St Mary the Virgin, Preston Candover

On the bright side, the Preston Candover pub was open. Even better, it had started serving lunch about ten minutes before I got there. Spanish menu; Aussie barmaid. Clientele: wellingtons, gin and tonic, and spaniels. Grilled mackerel, new potatoes, fennel and watercress salad, pistachio sponge sundae. It was expensive for a pub lunch, and more than I’d meant to spend, but well worth it both for the food and the chance to sit inside and drip gently.

Sadly, I couldn’t sit inside all day. I set off again. Wetter and wetter and wetter. One utterly obnoxious field that left my boots caked three inches thick, a hole in the hedge that ripped my rucksack cover off, mud mud mud. The great thing about being out in weather that no sane person would be out in is that you can scream as loud as you like without fear of people hearing. So I did. Too much road walking. I decided that I was too wet to care about the 12th century church of St James at Upper Wield, and stomp stomp stomped along the Oxdrove Way, which goes on for ever. FOR EVER. Four miles, apparently. Anyway, when I finally got out at Old Alresford I’d had enough. I abandoned the guidebook, which should have been a huge mistake. Certainly it meant that I had to follow the main road into Alresford, which was slightly terrifying in the gathering gloom and the pouring rain.

I’d booked to stay in the Swan Hotel, which had seemed to my teenage self to be the height of luxury when my godfather had held a birthday party there about twelve years previously. Fortunately, it wasn’t so luxurious that I got kicked out for being soaked to the skin. In fact, it was a perfectly standard country coaching inn. I couldn’t help but feel that the kitschy red paint and monochrome photo wallpaper décor was a mistake in a country coaching inn with exposed beams, but I wasn’t going to complain. There was a bath.

When I’d had a bath (I couldn’t possibly get any wetter, this was at least warm, and when I’d finished washing myself I washed my socks in it) and dried off, I took myself, my diary and my map down to the bar, and ordered a pint and a burger. Then I phoned my father, and discussed party logistics and how to get from Alresford to Winchester, assuming that I could actually walk the next day.

My father is very good at maps, and spent most of his early life in Winchester and its surroundings. He found his own Ordnance Survey Winchester, New Alresford and East Meon, and we worked out a sensible route that would take me past my grandparents’ grave, and also the Angry Red Eye of the Almighty. And you’ll just have to wait until next time to find out what that is.

St James’ Way 2: the way of the sluggard is blocked with thorns

Little London to Basingstoke, 23 July 2015

St James’ Way 1: Ultreya

In further evidence in support of the theory that Giorgia is actually an angel, she also washes horrible sweaty pilgrim clothes. She brought them back along with the breakfast. I took my time repacking and adjusting my rucksack, brushing away further flakes of the decaying lining, pulling almost everything almost as tight as it would go, and finally left at about a quarter to ten.

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The first patch of nettles came about a quarter of a mile in. Had I but known it was the first patch, rather than the only patch. This was supposed to be the easy stage, the lazy six miles to let myself recover a bit. Well, the route itself was easy, but the paths in two places were so overgrown and scratchy that my legs became a criss-cross of scratches.

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After the first patch of nettles I’d thought it wasn’t worth zipping the legs back onto my trousers, and yet I kept coming across more and more impassable paths through which I had to force my way, beating aside brambles and nettles and all sorts. Not to mention the plants that propagate their seed by means of adhesion. One of my socks ended up so thick with grass seeds that you could have toasted it, spread it with jam and eaten it for breakfast.

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One of the day’s more passable stretches

Along those six miles, I saw: yellow-and-black striped caterpillars; several ladybirds; the remains of a priory church, still a church through the sheer pig-headedness of the parishioners over several centuries. I saw a golf course. In fact, I saw far too much of the golf course and its hawthorny hedge, through which the footpath was supposed to run, and didn’t. I saw a field of poppies apparently grown as a crop – far too much of that field, too. The drying seed-heads of the poppies were viciously abrasive on my poor scratched legs. I ended up scrambling over a hedge (a very solid hedge, it was) to get out of that damn poppy field, and bought a very satisfying hot dog and coffee from convenient burger van in the layby on the other side. I crossed the road to proceed down a ridiculous nettly path alongside a potato field. At points I had to walk on the potatoes.

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Priory Church, Pamber End

After that I had a respite from brambles and nettles, and walked down a pleasant, leafy path towards Worting. Reaching the village, I left the route and walked east into Basingstoke.

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Proper Doctor Who alien planet landscape below the golf course

I ate at the drive-thru Costa at Basingstoke Leisure Park. I didn’t drive through it, or even walk through it; I sat down at a real live table. It made a change from my room in the Premier Inn. There is nothing like the actual hard reality of pilgrimage for dispelling any romantic notions one might have about pilgrimage. You live and walk in the real world, and the road shows you everything. Including Basingstoke Leisure Park.

But I had a bath. I washed my clothes and dried them on the heated towel rail. Spiritual enlightenment is one thing, but on the physical plane the one thing that you need to make a pilgrim really, really happy is a heated towel rail.

I’d meant to go straight to bed, but biology had other ideas (living and walking in the real world, remember?), and I had to cross the Leisure Park and a roundabout to a service station to buy tampons. I picked up a vastly reduced box of All Gold at the same time – by no means the most efficient way of carrying or consuming chocolate on the road, but I wasn’t going to argue with a quid. I had another bath and went to bed.

It took me ages to get to sleep. There was a noisy generator or something right outside my window, which I therefore couldn’t open, so was hot. So I watched a programme about Paula Radcliffe and dropped off eventually. It only occurred to me the next morning that I could have asked to change my room.

St James’ Way 1: Ultreya

Reading to Little London, 21-22 July 2015

I’m a bit prone to overambitious plans, grand symbolic gestures, and knowing that something is a bad idea and doing it anyway. Whan that Aprille, with his shores soote, and so on, remarks Chaucer, than longen folk to goon on pilgrimages. I think in my case it may have been seeing Chaucer quoted all over the internet on the first day of April last year. That and being about to turn thirty. Being about to turn thirty the day after St James’ day. I had a week’s annual leave booked immediately before my birthday. I had a booklet published by the Confraternity of Saint James describing a walk from Reading to Southampton. I had expansive plans for a birthday party just outside Winchester, my birthplace. It was all too beautiful not to try.

The celebrations began with a team meeting, where a colleague presented me with a beautiful – and completely impractical – bunch of flowers. I’d tried to hint, a few days before, that flowers would not be entirely the sort of luggage I needed to be carrying, but of course I couldn’t make it clear without implying that I was expecting flowers. Flowers always happen, but they’re meant to be a huge surprise. I resigned myself to the flowers.

It was my last day in work before my birthday; another colleague’s birthday was the day before mine; it merited a celebration. We went to the pub for lunch. After a leisurely afternoon back in the office, I hauled myself and my rucksack and my bunch of flowers off to Paddington, and ended up on a hushed commuter train heading westwards.

Reading, a town that I usually like, felt vaguely unsatisfactory. First I discovered that my faithful rucksack, which had served two caminos and six months of hauling washing to the launderette, had succumbed to old age and was shedding flakes of its waterproof lining all over its contents. Then I managed to get my room key card stuck in the door, and so had to stand fuming in the passage until the owner turned up to program a new one for me. The establishment was hardly the Ritz in the first place, and the corridor was perhaps the least glamorous part of it. I wouldn’t have spent five minutes standing there by choice, let alone forty. And I was paying sixty quid a night for this. Having at last been provided with a new key card, I set out into town.

I used to know two people who lived in Reading – at least, I used to know two people well enough to drag them out for a drink at short notice. One of them had moved to Bath, and the other was busy. Given the key card inconvenience this was just as well, but it all contributed to the slight sense of anticlimax. It was just me and St James, then. Fortunately I’d been to Reading before, with the Confraternity of St James, and I knew where to find him. He’s on the gatehouse and in the Roman Catholic church, and in the ruins of the abbey. I stomped down to the abbey and slid the flowers under the fence. St James could have them, and maybe they’d cheer somebody up in the morning. Moored at the bank of the River Kennet was a narrowboat named Ultreya. This was a very good sign: ‘Ultreia!’ is a greeting used by pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago.

Ultreya

Ultreya

I found a Tesco and stocked up on provisions: brioche rolls, Laughing Cow spreadable cheese, and apples. I’d crossed Spain on a similar diet, and I was only walking four days this time. Then I started looking for somewhere to eat that evening. This was where having to fend for myself became particularly significant. Had I been with a companion I’d have probably traipsed all around Reading trying to find the perfect place and rejecting all sorts of entirely plausible eateries until they got fed up and dragged me through the nearest door with a menu nailed up next it. I could feel myself trying to do that, and as my blood sugar got lower and lower I got pickier and pickier. Perhaps I should go to Wetherspoons, but ugh, it’s a pub, and probably full of horrible men, and really I should seek out one of the pubs that my friend recommended me even though he didn’t mention food in the context, and how could I even think of going to a boring chain Italian restaurant. As it was, I dragged myself through the door of the boring Italian chain restaurant, ordered myself some olives and pasta, and got myself fed. Oddly enough, my mood improved vastly after that, and I went back to my bed and slept well, waking once, briefly, at the sound of a clock striking four in the morning.

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Stick and boots

Breakfast the next morning was in La Baguette, the greasy spoon café to which the B&B was attached. It was entirely acceptable, and provided ample opportunity for people-watching as beaucoup de monde came in to get their cappuccinos, tuna melts and so forth. I found myself less fed up with Reading. It was a bright morning. I set off with some fuss around what the hell do I do with my camera and what the hell has Tony done with this rucksack and what the hell have I put in this rucksack. Tony had expanded everything to its fullest extent, and it took me nineteen miles to work out that I needed to de-expand it again. It made for a painful first day on the road.

St James RC church, Reading, in the morning sun

St James RC church, Reading, in the morning sun

That aside, the first section particularly was a joy, walking alongside the river Kennett and the Kennett & Avon canal, watching dragonflies and butterflies flittering around the plants on the bank, looking at the backs of houses whose gardens tumbled down towards the water, dipping my fingers in for benediction where I could safely get close enough. Wide green meadows; two flocks of geese, neither aggressive; a shoal of tiny little fish swirling endlessly around a shallow backwater.

Geese in the meadow

Geese in the meadow

Leaving the river, the route becomes less obvious, and having the OS maps with me was occasionally essential and occasionally confusing. The first challenge was making my way around three sides of a lake on a path not even marked on the map, and wondering whether a half timber-framed, half cream-painted house was the ‘white house’ or the ‘timber-framed’ house mentioned in the guide. Up the first hill – nothing spectacular, but Cambridge had spoiled me for gradients – past the entrance of the police training college, and up towards Home Farm (one of thousands, no doubt) for the first disastrously misleading direction. I ended up going through the farm and along a charming but unnecessary gravelled track, where I ate my lunch under an oak tree, and finally conceded that I’d gone wrong when I emerged onto the road. No harm done, though; it just meant some extra road-walking, and I picked up the route again in Sulhamstead Abbots.

Ladybird on a young oak tree

Ladybird on a young oak tree

I followed it into Burghfield Common without difficulty and bought an ice cream in the post-office-cum-shop. I sat outside the Methodist church to eat it; I’m sure the Methodists wouldn’t mind. I hope they didn’t mind the sticky patch where the last bit fell of the stick before I could eat it. I minded dropping it, but there we go. Through the Common itself and up a wooded path. I met very few people on the road – there were a number of runners and anglers and cyclists on the way out of Reading, but after that I would not have run out of fingers. The ramblers’ association scout on the road to Sulhamstead Abbots, the dogwalker – that was about it. I stopped for a pint of orange juice and lemonade at the Horse and Groom in Mortimer, where the barmaid was very impressed and very kind. I sat out in the beer garden, saving a parasol from blowing away, until the rain started, at which point I left the parasol to its fate and moved inside again.

Crossing into Hampshire

Crossing into Hampshire

Mortimer was the place where I’d originally intended to stop, and I was hurting now. The bad days are always those which have you walking further than you wanted to because there’s no accommodation available sooner. I sulked my way towards Silchester, crossed from Berkshire into Hampshire, and found, in a very proper silver birch copse, tiny sweet-sharp wild raspberries. Then I spent far too long walking around the perimeter of a field trying to work out what the guide meant by the ‘top left corner’ and why it didn’t mention the kissing gate, which, it turned out after I’d gone a long way the wrong way in both directions, I should have gone through in the first place.

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Wild raspberries

After that I was in no mood to turn aside to examine the Roman amphitheatre. I did look into the church, where the organist was practising the Entry of the Queen of Sheba and Jerusalem. Wedding season. I hoped that he would practise quite a bit more, assuming that the wedding was on Saturday. Advised by the guidebook, I duly admired the wall paintings, but was really not in a good mood, and declined to follow the diversions around the Roman remains. At this point it was five miles to go until Little London and bed. The one great advantage of having had to book accommodation in advance was knowing that at least I had somewhere to sleep. Perhaps, I thought, it would even have a bath. But really, the main thing was being able to stop.

Round an interminable wood with a substation in the middle of it, along some more fields and out into the churchyard of St James, Bramley, which I would probably have been able to look inside had I been half an hour earlier and not in great pain. The backs of my knees were particularly painful. I spent some time lying on my back in a field, which was nice, but didn’t get me any nearer being able to stop. I struggled through the next four fields, being baaed at madly by the sheep in the last two, along a lane, over an agonising stile, and out into the road in Little London opposite the Primitive Methodist chapel – as was – now my home for the night. The Methodists had, unwittingly, been providing me with hospitality all the way.

This chapel had become Chapel House Bend and Breakfast, run by Giorgia Aitken, who I am pretty sure is actually an angel. Certainly the place was heaven. I hadn’t quite gone so far as to wish I was dead on the way there, but I’d come close. Giorgia poured me apple juice, showed me the shower (no bath, but it was wonderful in every other way) and brought me dinner. A smoked salmon and salad starter; pasta with leeks and ham; rhubarb crumble. Sublime, and she only charged me a tenner on top of the B&B rate. A quiet, exhausted evening – drinking Pukka ‘detox’ tea because there was some in the kitchen and it reminded me of a pilgrim friend, reading Sherlock Holmes – left deliciously to myself. An early night; a heavenly soft bed.

Inside 'The Chapel'

Inside ‘The Chapel’