09 December 2007

Return Of The West Country Walking Society

Foul weather? What foul weather? It looked grim when we left London, and looked even grimmer when Danny phoned just as were coming up on Reading to tell us that it was simply bucketing down out west and that we'd better abandon plans to trek across some sodden stretch of the Cotswolds in favour of having a wander around some picturesque market town like Bradford-on-Avon.

Only trouble was, Richard had already set out to the rendezvous point at Haresfield Beacon, some 50 miles in the other direction, and for reasons unbeknownst to us, wasn't answering his phone. "I've half a mind to let him sit up there in the rain by himself," groused Danny, but in the end, of course, we all agreed we couldn't abandon our comrade and altered course back toward Haresfield.

After a hair (and hare)-raising careen over a one-lane mountain track on which Danny had assured us "nutters in SUVs are always trying to kill horse riders" (we were, as it happens, in an American SUV, but saw no horsemen or horsewomen to target), we pulled into a car park at the top of a vast expanse looking somewhat like the picture above. Almost instantaneously, the rain stopped, and within an hour the sun had appeared (as in the picture above).

Richard was there, blithely unaware that his phone was switched off, and Danny and Bella pulled in moments later. Longtime WCWS stalwart Shely was regrettably absent, having relocated from Poole to her native land, the Isle of Man, which was not quite so easy a commute. The weather having now turned for the better, against most predictions and all common sense (it's a weekend, we're out in the country miles from anywhere, of course rain is the logical outcome), there was nothing to do but set off along the escarpment in the direction of the troublingly named village of Painswick.

Having only heard Danny speak of it and not having seen it on the map, I naturally assumed that it was spelled Payneswick or Paineswick, and innocently asked if Thomas Paine had once lived there (not such an extreme assumption, as one of our previous walks, back when we were more of a South Downs Walking Society, had taken us to Lewes, which actually was the old firebrand's original home town). But no, Danny took, erm, pains to point out, it was actually a wick (archaic term for village or town) of pain that we were headed for.

You certainly would have thought so from Bella's reaction. She's not too keen on these Sunday walks, and often only comes along out of loyalty to Danny (her partner) and the rest of us in the WCWS. Not without reason, she has come to suspect Danny of fudging the distance and arduousness of our planned journeys to make them appear shorter and more appealing, and regularly peppers him with questions aimed at elucidating the true extent of the challenge facing us.

Danny, on the other hand, is a past master of feigned innocence (he is a journalist, after all) and replies to all her queries with a wounded expression and some version of "How could you doubt me?" or "Why on earth would I want to lead you astray?" In order to pull this off, he also has to exude unwavering confidence that the route he has chosen/is choosing is the correct one, something which, when following rural English footpaths, even Daniel Boone himself could not always be sure of.

As it happened, this particular path was not well signposted, and Danny's much-vaunted GPS was not being too helpful either. A bit of a row, thankfully good-natured, ensued when I asked him why he refused to carry his GPS in London, where its ability to identify street names and landmarks would make it actually useful. He insisted that he had no need of it in London, because he knew his way there, to which I replied, "Well, it certainly would have helped last Monday when we were lost in the City and trying to find Liverpool Street Station." "We weren't lost," he contended, "we just didn't know which street would get us to Liverpool Street." "Isn't that more or less the definition of lost?" I countered, and so on and so forth.

Ropey GPS or not, we eventually wound our way down several muddy hills into the picturesque (and not, as it emerged, especially painful) village of Painswick. We had an excellent lunch in a pub dating from 1545, seated by a window looking out onto the street and a similarly ancient graveyard. At one point, and sadly I have no photograph to prove this, I noticed a flash of colour out of the corner of my eye and looked up to see Santa Claus riding by in a horsecart laden with presents. It happened so fast that I didn't even have time to alert my companions, so naturally none of them believed me. But you do, dear readers, don't you?

Before heading back to our seemingly faraway car park, we had just enough time to stroll around the village, uncovering such Hogsmeadian gems as The March Hare and The Fiery Beacon before taking what Danny and his GPS assured us would be a "short cut." With the weather looking to take a turn for the grim, and evening quickly descending (it gets dark at 4 in the afternoon at this time of year), it was nervous going for a while, especially when we were faced with a choice between a busy highway with no footpath or shoulders and plunging into a dim and dismal wood.

We chose the wood, and as it turned out, Danny and his GPS had not steered us wrong, for we emerged out of it and into the car park just as rain began to fall for the first time since we'd set out. Wes, Richard and Danny stood about drinking tea under the overhanging tailgate of Wes's SUV, and then we all climbed into our respective vehicles and set off for London, Bristol and Bath. An excellent outing, all round, and the only other thing I want to mention is the place names we passed along the way, which practically read like poetry (or a Monty Python sketch) in themselves.

Examples: Ampney Crucis, Duntisbourne Leer, Lower Chedworth, Ready Token, Cricklade, Daglingworth, Brimpsfield, Birdlip, Nailsworth, Nympsfield, Owlpen, Moreton Valence, Quedgely, Dursley, Dowdeswell, Tuffley and... Well, the list is thousands long. You get the picture.

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