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.

Reverb day 8: strivings and blessings

The Chapel, Little London

The Chapel, Little London: an unexpected blessing thoroughly deserved

While alchemy is the active process of creating something of value, serendipity is the passive path to finding an unexpected treasure.

Looking back through 2015, what did you diligently try to create?

What great thing did you just happen to find?

I am usually very wary of the ‘pulled myself up by my bootstraps’ school of thought. I know damn well that I’m very fortunate, very blessed, that good things are showered upon me a long way out of proportion to my own deserving or hard work.

Having said that, I do feel that I’ve put a lot of work in this year, and I can trace most of the things with which I’m most pleased back to months or years of sustained effort. Everything I talked about yesterday, for a start. And plenty of more tangible achievements, too. For example: in September I wandered into a charity shop in Bury St Edmunds and bought a copy of Michael Aaron’s Adult Piano Course. I’m up to page 36 now, and can play Drink to me only with thine eyes more or less accurately; I’m getting on far better with teaching myself than I’d have believed possible. And that’s partly because of hard work between September and here, and partly because of hard work going back to when I was 8 and started cello lessons.

And having said that, I can think of at least a few wonderful things that just happened. Discovering Rhiannon Giddens at Cambridge Folk Festival. An experience that I can perhaps best describe by saying that it was like finding out that a friend was a long-lost brother. There are the things I found by keeping my eyes open: the swing in the giant birdcage outside King’s Cross station, the swan giving her cygnets a ride down the Cam on her back. As recently as yesterday, walking home along the river bank, seeing a succession of anglers with their rods and their boxes and there, between two of them, a heron, watching and waiting for the fish, closer than I’d ever seen one before.

Sometimes it’s been a combination of the two: an exquisite confection of a blessing on top of the cake of effort. I’m thinking now of the first day of my birthday walk. I’d gone nineteen miles, crossed the county boundary from Berkshire into Hampshire. My rucksack wasn’t quite adjusted properly, and my knee was protesting ever louder, and I got lost in the world’s most confusing field, and… I’m going to write all this up properly, but let me just say for the moment that it was not a good day.

I was hot, cross, exhausted and in pain by the time I reached my accommodation for the night, The Chapel at Little London. I can’t begin to put into words the welcome I received there. I knew that my hostess was going to cook me a meal; I didn’t realise that it would be three delicious courses. I can’t explain to someone who hasn’t done a long distance walk how wonderful it is to have somebody take your clothes away and wash them for you. I needn’t, perhaps, say how very comforting is a capacious sofa and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, or how blissful it is to lay down one’s exhausted body between cool white sheets.

And this, perhaps, typifies all the treasure of 2015: I’d walked nineteen miles, and I deserved that stay; but I know all the same that I was so very fortunate for it to have happened to me the way it did. Things can be even better than we imagine.