03 April 2006

The Thatched Roof Charnel House

Sunday marked the first meeting of the West Country Walking Society since just before Christmas. For some reason, the remaining members couldn't get it together to carry on without me, but now that all the harbingers of a lovely English spring are in the air (they certainly weren't on the ground where we were), we gathered our forces together again for an heroic trudge across the Wiltshire countryside.

Two of our regular members cried off, Bella because she's in the final throes of rewriting her book about the various things pagans and Christians were getting up to in the early days of the Byzantine Empire, and Wesley because, well, who knows? You'll have to ask him. Nonetheless, the rest of us carried on bravely.

I got the train up to Bristol on Saturday night, immediately after suffering through Fulham's humiliation at the hands (well, mostly feet, actually) of Portsmouth. It was my third or fourth time in Bristol, and I still can't get a handle on the place. It seems pleasant enough, in a provincial sort of way. But not so provincial that it doesn't have its own identity, and that's what I have trouble defining. For now I'll have to settle on: If London is New York, Bristol is Portland. Whether Oregon or Maine, I'm not sure.

Early the next morning (but not as early as we were supposed to, for which Danny tried to blame me, even though I was sitting there, dressed, packed, having eaten breakfast and completely ready to go when he finally dragged himself out of bed) we set off to pick up Richard in Bath. Danny decided to take what looked like a shortcut, and then spent a good few minutes cursing the local council for hiding the road signs in places where he couldn't be expected to see them. Richard, genial as always, didn't seem to mind being kept waiting, though he brightened noticeably at the realisation that Danny and I were squabbling over who was at fault for our late departure, and amused himself for the next 20 miles or so gently goading us into renewed hostilities.

By now we were driving through such picturesque countryside that it would have seemed churlish to go on sniping at each other. The sun was even making a valiant effort to break through the billowing and sometimes bilious clouds that had been periodically been spitting and splashing rain across our windscreen. As we wound our way into yet another impossibly exquisite village, where every cottage and shop was topped with an impeccably kept thatched roof, Danny enthused, "Just imagine what this must have been like 200 year years ago!"

"If you'd lived here 200 years ago," said Richard, "you'd have had little sanitation and practically no access to medical care. People would have died like like flies, especially children, from what we'd consider minor ailments today. A case of appendicitis would have meant lying there writhing in agony for days until you mercifully slipped into a coma and died. It may look idyllically rural to you today, but this place would have been a charnel house!"

Well, thank you for putting things in their proper perspective, Richard, we didn't say, mainly because it was so hilarious and probably true. By then we'd reached our rendezvous point in almost-but-not-quite-twee Wootton Rivers, and there was Shely waiting for us, as she usually has to do. The hints of sunshine that had been toying with us had well and truly vanished by now, replaced by a steady windblown rain - more or less what you'd expect for a convocation of the West Country Walking Society, especially during England's "worst drought in decades."

Undaunted, we all piled back into Danny's car to drive to our starting point some 12 miles up the Kennet and Avon Canal. It rained all the way there, it was still raining when we got out of the car. Danny stood there having a tea break in the rain, claiming that the delay was necessary to "set the GPS" which he always carries on these treks so that he can tell us where we must have lost the trail.

Then we made our way down to the canal, which was when it really started raining. The wind shifted and began blowing sheets of rain horizontally, fortunately coming at us from behind rather than in our faces. Still, it wasn't too bad, nothing you wouldn't expect in a typical English spring during a drought year.

Danny and I, though we often argue, are in complete agreement about this drought nonsense; in our opinion, the only problem is incompetence and corruption on the part of the privatised water companies. Richard, however, had bought the media line hook, line and sinker. "It will take weeks, even months of rainfall to replenish ground water levels," as though he were a BBC newsreader. "Well, Richard," I said, "perhaps all this water that's lying around on top of the ground and turning this path into a muddy quagmire ought to percolate down under the ground and do some replenishing." "Larry," Richard said gently, "fuck off."

The rain let up after the first hour or two, shortly after we'd had our lunch huddled under a concrete bridge, but the towpath along the canal remained waterlogged and, if anything, got muddier as we went along. Mile after mile, it was more like ice skating than walking as we tried desperately to maintain our balance. It was inevitable that one of us was going to fall down and be given an involuntary mud bath. I voted for Shely, since she'd taken a spill the previous day out in Exmoor (yes, the drought has hit hard there, too), and so her trousers were already covered in mud anyway. But no, as you might have guessed, it had to be me, but on the bright side, most of the mud stayed on my jeans and waterproof jacket. Better yet, I didn't slide into the canal, whose roiling brown waters looked distinctly uninviting.

After eight miles or so, a pub appeared on the canal bank, where previously there had been only manure-laden fields and an occasional forest. A sign at the door said, "Walkers and Hikers, Please Remove Your Muddy Boots and Gear Before Entering." Since removing all my muddy gear would have left me feeling distinctly chilly, I sat at one of the outside tables while Danny went inside to be insulted by the barmaid (for some reason this happens to him rather often in these bucolic settings). The sun was out now, and it was almost rather pleasant, apart from the wind, which was strong enough to blow empty glasses off the table. Two miles further along, a combined consultation with Shely's map and Danny's GPS showed us that we could walk the final couple miles on surface roads, so leaving the mudpath behind, we went cross country past quite a few more thatched roof charnel houses and heartening fields of daffodils. The hedgerows kept the wind off us for the most part, and barely a car or two passed us.

I took pictures of a fantastic Hansel and Gretel cottage nestled in the wood alongside the canal, and of the multicoloured boats anchored at various spots, but apparently Blogger will no longer let us post pictures here, so you'll have to use your imagination. I also have pictures of a herd of Belted Galloways, apparently a rare breed of cattle, though it's entirely possible Richard was making this up, of a daffodil-surrounded signpost marking the way to Wootton Rivers and Clench Common, and a poster advertising a concert by the "Cheddar Male Voice Choir" and the "Core-Us" Ladies Choir.

Just like that, and almost too soon, we were back in Wootton Rivers, where for some reason the pub was closed. We drove to nearby Pewsey ("I don't think I could live in a place called Pewsey, no matter how much you paid me," opined Danny), and called in at the Royal Oak, a cute little place no more than a couple centuries old and furnished a bit like your gran's house. However, it was also the headquarters of the Pewsey Vale Rugby Football Club, and a sign outside announced that it was "Twinned with The Peaks Bar, Castro Street, San Francisco."

That seemed a bit bizarre, as I told Richard, since I was pretty sure that The Peaks was a gay bar, and somehow I doubted the Pewsey Royal Oak was. And unless the Pewsey Vale gay scene dresses itself in severely ungay mufti, it wasn't. My confusion was explained today when I realised that I had been thinking of the Twin Peaks, aka "The Glass Coffin" (because of its large picture windows and the fact that it caters to older men), whereas The Peaks is over the hill, still on Castro Street, but in largely nongay Noe Valley.

Never mind, then. We settled in for an hour or two of after-walk drinks. I pushed the boat out and had two large lemonade and limes, which were excellently made, I must say, and Danny dropped me at the train station in Bath where I waited a mere 17 minutes for the "high speed express" to London. I should have known something was amiss when the announcer kept dropping in that reference to "high speed," words I'd seldom if ever heard applied to any enterprise related to British Rail (or whatever they're calling it this year).

And I was right; our "high speed" train somehow managed to get stuck behind something or someone travelling at a noticeably low speed, and we went crawling into first Swindon and then Chippenham. Still, I was back in London well before midnight, and the central heating in my flat was working like a charm to drive off the spring chill which by now had grown distinctly wintry. Leaving London is nice, but coming back is even nicer.

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