The Way. The ins and outs.

The day of departure arrived. It felt somewhat strange. I can only describe it as the feeling you get on your first day at school – a slight vulnerability perhaps. Wariness of the unknown. Knowing you’ve had so much time thinking about this one thing, going through it all in your mind and then all of a sudden, it’s here.

I was dropped off at the start and after some quick goodbyes (cliché but I hate long goodbyes) I was off. Being nervous, and wary of water being an issue, I drank a fair old bit of the stuff at home and in the car, and the first three miles resulted in four stops to answer the call of nature.

The backpack felt heavy, but comfortable. The early morning weather was perfect, and I was striding out gallantly. I started off counting how many people I met, but lost count during day two. The people I did stop and chat to were friendly as expected. Over the four days I met with people inspired as well as repulsed with my walk. The thought of walking four marathons on the bounce was enough to make people conclude I was nuts. I met people like me walking the whole thing, but in smaller sections, as well as two guys who were wild camping also. It made me sad to think that whilst they had each other, I had no one who would be up for joining me on my walk. Doing it solo was probably more from circumstance rather than choice. The unexpected feeling of loneliness followed me for two days. I was expecting to feel completely at home, alone on the trail, and pleased to be with my thoughts and nature, which I was, but there was this niggling feeling of loneliness. I found myself thinking about long-term loneliness, and to people who are lonely every day, and thinking about the future a lot. For someone who enjoys their own company a fair bit, being permanently alone would be sad on one major front. Who would I share my stories with of adventures such as this? After two days, these thoughts subsided as, I assume, I was feeling more positive and determined to reach the end. Also, luckily, as evenings in my camp were the obviously more lonely experiences, I had packed my wind-up radio so had a few stations to keep me company.

I passed many landmarks, through many picturesque villages, saw some unbelievable views and experienced human kindness – complete strangers stopping for a chat, offering to fill up my water bottle. The lady and her daughter who showed me the way out of Wooton-under-Edge. The couple on Coaley Peak who were out looking at wildflowers, who I was convinced were an old married couple, but weren’t. It turned out they have been best friends since school in the 1950s. There was the moment I passed through part of Stroud, which was by far the largest town the path goes through until Bath, and feeling as if everything was so loud and busy. It had been two days of relative silence up to that point.

The walk was packed with simple pleasures, which is what I hoped for. After three days of rambling in moderately warm weather, I found a sunken lane with a waterfall coming off the fields above it. It was 6.30pm, no one was around, so I took off my t-shirt and doused myself under it for a minute or two, feeling completely alive and refreshed. I then spent that evening sleeping in a graveyard. It was the only time I had to use my tarp as rain was forecast to be moving in. I awoke at 3am to the sound of rain falling heavily on the roof of my shelter. I smugly fell back to sleep knowing I had made the right choice and was as dry as a Pharaoh’s sock. An hour later, after a weird dream in which I had gotten up and was back out walking, I decided to lie there for a bit going through in my head the order in which I needed to do everything in order to stay dry. It was a bit cramped inside the shelter, but I managed it very successfully and was on the trail by 5.15am, with a long day ahead of me, some 28 miles to cover to get me to Bath.

Later that morning, I really felt I was making progress when the path became an old road called Bath Road. I was getting somewhere. My feet were now as wet as an otter’s pocket thanks to a previously undiscovered hole in both boots.

At one point I could glimpse a large town away to the right. “It must be Bath!”, thought I. It wasn’t. Bath finally came into view shortly after skirting around Bath racecourse, which is high up on a hill. Feeling quite chipper about the whole thing, having walked 98 miles, I decided to run the last bit into Bath. There was a quite sad and moving moment when I realised I was passing through the last gate of the whole way. Leaving the last field, before I re-entered urbanised life. I turned round and took one last look and said my farewells. Not ten paces into Bath and I was met by two blokes with thick south western accents, who asked me where I’d been, for how far and how long. Then while their dog, unbeknownst to them, relieved itself of its dinner behind them, they told me I could get a bus to Bath Abbey a hundred yards away. I didn’t. I carried on, full of self-congratulatory platitudes – I had made it. Three miles to go. The easy bit. Then I remembered. In conversations with other ultra runners, the ‘final, killer hill’ in Bath came up a few times. I assumed I’d already done it. But there it was. A 45 degree street. It made me incredibly grumpy and really took the shine off the finish. It was seemingly the final test. I grumbled and swore under my breath but quite literally avoided the path of least resistance, knowing that as little as an hour later, the knowledge of doing that would bits me in the arse.

102 miles of self-discovery, reflection and learning, confirming to myself that I’m going in the right direction, though it may be in the other direction to everyone else. I would rather be out there now, doing these kind of things while I can, so when I’m too old to do them, I can look back at it all, content that I did it when I could and lived fully when I was able. Too many people I know who are far too young to be wasting their precious time here on earth, by doing such boring things. Youth is definitely wasted on the young.

I will sign off with a quote that I saw on a dedicated bench along the way. It went something like this:

“A society grows when old people plant trees whose shade they will never sit in.”

The Way. Kit and other bits.

This is the second part of my account of my solo trip of the Cotswold Way a couple of months ago. In the last article I discussed the patchwork quilt of events and ambitions that led to walking it. Well worth a read if you have nothing better to do with your day. In this instalment I will be talking about the preparation stage in the weeks and days (and hours) leading up to it.

Firstly though, I need to cover an important aspect of the walk. I mentioned at the end of the last article about how I was going to let it change me, and how I almost felt it was going to be a personal pilgrimage in a way, like the Camino (which has been on my mind for four years – nearly the same time as the Cotswold Way). It’s an often overused cliché, usually found in tourist tat shops on fridge magnets, but for me the whole thing was about the journey, not the destination. I wasn’t hoping to find God or anything like that, I was just hoping to find something either within me or along the way in the experiences I would go through. I had also decided the smartphone, which I’m convinced is making me more stupid, was to remain switched off in my bag, only to be used in the evenings for my I’m-not-dead call home.

I thought I would replace the habitual phone-checking during the day by taking a book of poetry with me in the hope of learning some new poems and becoming more cultured. Laughable if you know me. My idea of culture is as bad as Del Boy’s French. There are many villages around where I live where the village telephone boxes have been converted into second-hand book libraries. In the two weeks leading up to the off, I visited a few but didn’t find much beyond Mills and Boon and Jeffrey Archer. Luckily, we also have a plethora of charity shops, one of which has a huge basement full of books and vinyl and I emerged with a book of the collected works of John Masefield. Ten years ago in a converted headmaster’s house somewhere in Cheshire, I found a Masefield book and loved it. Luckily, huge excerpts of this same work were in my new-found book.

Another masterstroke was to take my small wind-up radio. It proved to be great company at night and prevented the temptation to peek at the phone. As it transpired, the radio was an inspired choice, especially after the first and second days. I suppose it’s age or maybe that I was looking for company, but I chose radio stations with no music, just chatter. Make of that what you will.

Planning the walk was really enjoyable. I always revel in the planning of things, taking bits apart and putting them all back together again, and examining scenarios and what-ifs. When I was planning the Cotswold Way ultra run in 2019, I bought a really good guide book that covered the route from both directions and, to my map-loving delight, a separate booklet containing the complete route in Ordnance Survey 1:25000 scale. Be still, my weird, cartographic-obsessed, slightly black heart. I used this book along with a GPS route-planning app to split the 102 miles into four days, each finishing at reasonable points where I would be able to feasibly set up my wild camp. This equated to roughly a marathon every day. Well, two were slightly less, two were more. It became apparent that the early stages were the toughest as they contained the most elevation. From 50-odd miles in, it got a little friendlier.

In terms of kit, I had to carry everything I needed, but only the essentials. Three days before I left, I got all that i needed out and it covered the kitchen table and the chairs as well as a good chunk of the floor. It all had to fit in my 66-litre backpack. It didn’t. So I had to drop some bits. It still didn’t. So I had to get ruthless. I had planned to take my digital SLR camera so I could take photos without using my phone. In the interests of weight and space, out it went. It was for the best though, as walking in excess of 25 miles a day, there was an aspect of speed at play, so stopping every few minutes to take photos as well as carrying the bloody thing around my neck, would have made each day seem like forever. Also by the wayside fell some campsite luxuries like a pillow, flip flops, and an inflatable sleeping mat. It just meant I would have to improvise for the pillow and make sure I set myself up.on soft grass. In terms of shelter, I opted to take my basha (tarp) and a sleeping bag, with ground sheet. My one man tent would have been light enough, but would have taken up lots of room in the backpack. Another casualty in the not-so-ruthless first stage of cutting kit back was the poles that I use to support the basha. I would just have to lassoo it between two trees and go with it.

I aimed to carry all of my food for the four days, and as much water as I could at any one time. Food was mainly boil in the bag meals so I could use the same water multiple times in case finding it became difficult. As this was the end of June, I was sure to get some hot days so would need to prioritise hydration. As it worked out, cemeteries became my best friend for their water taps.

Footwear-wise, I went with my lightweight leather (but not waterproof) military boots. I don’t have walking boots any more and find these more than suitable. My other military boots are Gore-tex but are heavy, and cumbersome after a while. I had two sets of clothes and planned to operate a dry kit-wet kit routine of it poured it down, as well as taking spares. The spares took up too much room, so had to go, leaving me with just one spare of everything. I contemplated dropping this, but it wouldn’t have been worth the gamble – I had to change clothes after day two. Some things, I have learned, are essential.

All in, the bag weighed in the low twenties (kgs), and in theory, it would get lighter and lighter as the days went by.

So there it was. All packed and ready to roll. Would the six Ps come back and haunt me? PPP=PPP. Piss Poor Preparation = Piss Poor Performance. I sincerely hoped not.