Looking now at the map I may actually have slept in Lincolnshire, I had no idea and cared even less: just after dawn the rain had eased off, my primary preoccupation was with stuffing my wringing wet gear into my rucksack and yomping into Sutton Bridge as fast as my blisters would let me, in the hope of breakfast.
Once back on the sea wall I discovered my feet were not the limiting factor. This section hadn’t been mown, the vegetation was thigh high and absolutely soaking.
It wasn’t long before my forebodings of another problem I might have on this hike were confirmed. By now my waterproof jacket and overtrousers had done over two thousand miles of rough hill trails, and many other shorter foul weather adventures in between. In terms of actually keeping me dry they were both a little past their use-by date.
The sky grew darker and darker. The rain returned. It seemed like hours before I reached the River Nene and turned inland, my back to the Wash. My next salt water would be the Irish Sea, but there’d be plenty more water of other kinds before that.
All in all Sutton Bridge is quite an interesting place, but it was teeming with rain and I was cold. I hadn’t brought a stove as it was midsummer, of course, so I wouldn’t need hot drinks. The high street was dismal; closed shops, boarded up shops, a mysterious shop with a broken window held together with packing tape, then finally a modern library and community centre. Sometimes these places have hot drinks, I thought, and at least I might be able to charge my phone. I slopped in, damp, aromatic and suitably apologetic to the two charming volunteer librarians who were so taken aback by my bedraggled state they gave me a big mug of staff coffee, bless their kind hearts. ‘I can’t believe’, I moaned, ‘that there’s nowhere in this town to get a bite to eat’. ‘Oh, you’ve walked right past the sandwich shop, it’s the little place with the taped-up window.’
I’ve rarely seen a less prepossessing catering outlet but when I bravely ventured in it was an absolute oasis, owned, appropriately enough, by a kind but querulous Egyptian. While serving me a perfect mug of hot tea with a generous and inexpensive bacon bap he regaled me with complaints about how disappointing Britain had become. When he came here with his British wife it had been a land of hope and opportunity, he’d built up a chain of successful bakeries of which this was the last still open, I think he was just working out the lease.
Now he wanted to retire anywhere else in Europe, somewhere warm where they could buy a big villa with a swimming pool, ‘wouldn’t you like that more than this?’ he enquired urgently, gesturing out of his broken, streaming window at the vape shop over the potholed road. I contemplated the pools of water forming around my feet. I was wet through. Suddenly national pride surged in my breast – I must defend my country against such calumnies. ‘Actually,’ I said, ‘I’m not that big on swimming’. ‘Pah. I’d even go back to Egypt now’. I didn’t like to ask how he’d get on selling bacon baps in Cairo.
Refreshed and full of righteous pride in my country’s infrastructure I strode down the road to the South Holland Main Drain, the acme and apotheosis of an extensive and ingenious land drainage system dating back to Roman times although, come to think of it, I suppose an Egyptian could claim they were doing this stuff even earlier with the Nile. Anyway, this is essentially a big canal and more to the point it runs east-west and has a public footpath on one bank. Because I live in a country where things are properly maintained, the Drain had recently been dredged. All over the public footpath.
Despite the rain I was in a good mood; I’d had hot food and even better I was due to sleep indoors that night. I fell to reflecting on what was to become another theme of the walk, on top of bad feet and bad weather — what a wonderful country I live in. I’d barely started my adventure but had already encountered ancient churches, mighty sea defences, entrepreneurial pubs, shops and cafés, quirky but reliable ferries, well-managed nature reserves, a royal park, a community library, a power station, lighthouses, quiet lanes, busy roads, bridges, harbours and a tattoo parlour. Above all I’d been on a network of reasonably well-maintained and accessible Public Footpaths with gates, signs, waymarks and their very own lines of red dashes on my phone.
What a heritage, what a country. And what better way to appreciate it than to blunder through the whole accumulation, the whole palimpsest of it all, on foot, rather than whizzing in a sealed vehicle from highlight to highlight. There would be times on this hike when I’d be completely speechless at the bounty of my inheritance, staggered by a small, ancient gate, blown away by a culvert under a railway put there at great expense just for me. There’d be other times I was speechless for other reasons. On this section, for example, by the sudden revelation that Peonies are a commercial crop.
There was nobody out picking the thousands of blooms, probably because so many had been ruined by the rain, a bit of a disaster for the farmer I should think but a boon for me as I was able to sneak into a (probably Polish) peony pickers’ portaloo.
Anyway, for the rest of the day I basically walked along muddy dykes and drains in the rain, trying to see the good and wonderful in it all and with my phone battery running low. In the late afternoon, just as it was about to conk out, I noticed there was a village about a mile off my route and randomly struck off towards it in the desperate hope it might have a shop or pub. I had a fifty percent chance when I came to the road, left or right. By some instinct I turned correctly and in short order came to a miraculous sign that said ‘Open All Day’.
A pub, a pub, and a great pub too with the stove going and fabulous Bateman’s on pump and a landlady who told me not to bother with the vegetarian shepherd’s pie as it was ‘rubbish, not food for real people, I just put it on cos you have to’. A proper pub, as pubs used to be, the truly wonderful Plough at Holbeach St John’s, please support them in the very unlikely event you’re ever anywhere near them. Obediently I had the chicken and leek pie and the ginger pud, they were both absolutely wonderful, I still remember them with affection and gratitude a year later. A proper pub, what a wonderful country, etc. As I relished my early dinner some real live Hell’s Angels came in, they swore almost as much for fun as I then started doing once I was back out in the wet fens and trying to locate one of England’s more unlikely AirBnBs.
The map I’d carefully screenshot was rubbish and there was no phone signal. I left the main road at a derelict-looking cottage and walked for ages along tiny lanes. I turned back in despair. I sat on the verge and swore mightily out loud, in the irrational hope the host might hear me. I was alone in the fens, exhausted. It was still raining. Finally I trudged back to the main road and steeled myself to knock at the cottage. ‘At least the Hell’s Angels aren’t at home’, I thought, ‘they’re all in the pub’. There was an extended drawing of bolts and clanking of chains, over one of which finally peered an elderly and not entirely friendly face. It was a real ‘hikers will be shot, survivors will be shot again’ moment.
‘I’m really very sorry to bother you, erm, you see, I’m a bit lost, sorry, there’s no phone signal so I can’t ask anybody else, I’m really sorry, I don’t suppose you happen to know, sorry, well, you see, there’s supposed to be, somewhere round here, sorry, it sounds unlikely I know, sorry, one of those what they call AirBnBs…’ My burbling was interrupted by a friendly chortle and a jerked thumb. ‘Next door, mate’.
The AirBnB phenomenon has been rather contaminated by commerce; many rural listings are simply expensive holiday homes and cities like Cambridge are now full of ‘Buy-to-AirBnBs’ – second homes converted into essentially self-service budget hotels. Nonetheless, if you search around the app, especially in out-of-the-way places and at the less pricey end, it is still possible to find the authentic AirBnB experience of staying in someone’s actual home, interacting with them and learning a little about their life.
James’s AirBnB at Holbeach Drove is a haven for anyone seeking reasonably-priced accommodation in the heart of the fens. Friendly and thoughtful, he clocked my condition and immediately put the heating on so I could dry my gear. His listing clearly states he doesn’t do breakfast but, on hearing I hadn’t shopped since Hunstanton, he kindly left out some bread and spread for me to make toast. He’s put a lot of effort into his guest room, the private bathroom is large and has an actual bath, perfect for muddy hikers’ laundry. He works hard and long hours, leaving you to your own devices in his home which did have something of a transitional feel to it. A family had clearly left the nest, perhaps a partner too, one way or another, I didn’t like to ask. I hope everything works out well for this nice, quiet man.
I awoke well-rested and dry in a real bed, the rain had eased off and soon there’d be shops and even a Wetherspoons in Spalding, horticultural capital of the fens. All I had to do was find the River Welland and walk up it into town. The first part of this task was to wiggle, weave and wander my way through the Whaplodes, where everyone was very friendly, in fact just past Whaplode Drove an old chap even offered me a gargantuan cabbage from his garden, honestly, it was huge and not really the ideal backpacker’s snack. ‘I’ve got a few spare’, he said, indicating about forty more. What is it with growing cabbages that so delightfully liberates elderly men from the shackles of common sense?
At the River Welland I had a friendly chat with an elderly angler, and then made the serious mistake of taking his advice on which side of the river to walk along. Never take hiking advice from someone who fishes, the most sedentary of country sports. The only sections of the bank I chose that weren’t virtually overgrown with exhausting thigh-high grass were those occupied by family groups of feisty and rather agitated cattle, including enormous and terrifying bulls.
Meanwhile I could clearly see that on the opposite bank of the wide and unbridged river the entirely cow-free path had recently been mown for walkers.
Entering Spalding I was amazed by the number of East European voices I suddenly heard along the river bank, they were fishing, and all the way into the town centre. I was then delayed by an old lady who’d fallen over, there was an alarming amount of blood, people were fiddle-faddling about and calling ambulances. I donated my biggest and best plaster from my first aid kit to her gashed thumb, and mopped the blood, which had all in fact come from that one small wound, off her arms with the last of my hand sanitiser while she chatted happily. Before the paramedics arrived I then scarpered to Wetherspoons, not wanting to answer questions about my first aid training.
Pondering my itinerary over my mixed grill I realised I had no chance whatsoever of making the day’s planned distance. For some reason with a slip of the mouse I’d assigned myself an insane 49 km! In one day! Thank goodness, it turned out I’d then planned only 23 km for the following day, so it would even out, but even so it was a heart-stopping error given the state of my feet.
By the River Glen under a darkling sky and in the middle of nowhere I encountered two more East Europeans, one tall, blond and unwell-looking, the other short, dark and unwell-looking, both carrying cans of strong drink. ‘We look place for fish’, they explained, unsurprisingly. I then had literally to escape through a hedge from some very alarming and much too attentive free-range cattle, again with calves and a large bull. This emergency manouvre then involved leaping across a completely derelict bridge over a ditch of unknown depth and pushing through tall nettles onto a main road.
As I was then lost, I had to resort to scampering illegitimately up a private track through bulb fields to reach a vital footbridge, clearly shown on the OS map, over the deep and otherwise impassable South Forty Foot Drain. I’d seen this bridge featured on several hiking websites as the only escape route for walkers westwards from the fens into the Wolds.
Imagine my dismay at finding the vital narrow footbridge had been not only chained up but blocked with a pallet by its incredibly unhelpful and antisocial owners! Going back and around would have added about four miles to a long day. I had to risk my life clambering around outside the barrier, hanging my body and rucksack terrifyingly over the opaque and possibly bottomless water, no doubt infested with man-eating Zander. I would have used some choice language too but I was being watched with amusement by a jolly lady who lived in the Forty Foot Farm house on the far side, a bizarrely isolated homestead even by Lincolnshire standards. ‘No idea why they’ve done that, not my fault. They’ve gone and blocked the next bridge up too’. ‘Gits.’
It had started intermittently to rain again and I was exhausted. After all the day’s excitements it was a relief further along Morton Drove to spot a small wood full of fly-tipping that would conceal me from the track. On the far side was a wet patch of thistles and nettles, heaving with horseflies, mosquitoes, spiders, ants, slugs and moths. A perfect bivy, I set up camp and ate my reduced item sarnies from Spalding Boots. For some reason their dominant flavour seemed to be insect repellent which I suppose was appropriate for sandwiches from a chemist. An email from my partner telling me she’d just had to remove her first tick of the year greatly cheered me up, as I lay alone in a benighted swamp teeming with assorted invertebrates.
I’ve often found that the more unlikely the campsite the better the night, and this was no exception, I kept dry and slept well with only the soothing sounds of the countryside – a little shooting, a little shouting and a couple of souped-up cars racing up the track at an unholy hour. Soon after I got going, though, the rain returned, heavy and implacable; I could see from the sky that it was set in for the morning. It made taking photos difficult as I was relying on my phone for navigation so couldn’t let it get soaked. I already had a problem in this department as the OS Map I’d carefully downloaded in Spalding Wetherspoons refused to display, leaving me only with OsmAnd which shows tracks but not rights of way.
Hence early on I got horrendously lost in a massive and obviously very private wood that was beautifully managed as a nature reserve with nest boxes everywhere, in fact I saw an actual Tawny Owl flying low out of a hawthorn in front of me, in broad daylight. The track I followed into it petered out and I’d still be going round in circles in there now if I hadn’t hoicked everything out of my rucksack in the rain to find my emergency compass; it was ridiculously confusing.
Escaping from the wood I scuttled furtively across some very manicured and expensively fenced farmland, disturbing a large herd of beautiful Fallow Deer which I suspect were there for more than just decoration. Living in the countryside myself I understand farmers’ frustration at finding lost walkers on their land, but then there’s a big difference between walkers just out for a day who can pick and choose their paths and genuine travellers, trying to progress across the landscape on a long expedition in a particular direction.
I’m not sure how far I’d go in asserting my ancient rights to access the land (it would probably depend on how big the farmer was) but I do feel some slack should be cut for those who are legitimately journeying on foot, rather than just stretching their legs, not least because there’s very few of us, so our impact is rather small, and we tend to be very well-behaved. Nonetheless, as Robert Twigger repeatedly observes in his book Walking the Great North Line, middle class guilt at trespassing dies hard and I was glad finally to find a narrow lane at the top of a long, gradual and very wet ascent into, as I now realised, the Lincolnshire Wolds.
There followed rather a lot of road walking, which I came to quite like in the end as the intermittent alternatives were either soaking wet waist-high oilseed rape or clay so sticky that after a few steps my feet felt as if they were stuck in bowling balls.
The stone churches in these parts are fabulous but I was so wet and fed up I couldn’t much be bothered with them, although I did nip into St Andrew’s at Irnham, the original home of the Luttrell Psalter. Admittedly though this was only to get a brief respite from the rain and cheekily to top my phone up with power of the holy spirit ( I put a quid in the box). I’d consumed nothing but tap water and a couple of nutty bars since waking up at five, so by the time I got to Boothby Pagnell around one o’clock I was running on empty.
By the road I saw what looked like a village hall with a coffee machine visible in one window, and had a snoop around – sometimes community centres sell refreshments. It was in fact a private workplace but thanks to my advanced skills in looking pathetic a very nice and friendly agronomist called Helen gave me a life saving mug of coffee and some of the cookies she was just putting out for her farmer clients, who were on a training course in the adjacent seminar room. Probably a training course in grant applications, judging by the Range Rovers in the car park. Anyway, thank you Helen. If I typed up everything interesting I learnt from chatting to people on this hike this blog would go on for ever.
Thank goodness at Old Sommerby there was a ‘family food’ pub, the only disadvantage of which was the music – I had to sit through the appalling “I Will Leave a Light On” man, whose trite mawkish caterwauling is right up there with “I Would Do Anything for Love” and “I Drove All Night – Is that Alright?” in my pantheon of most pathetic male vocals ever recorded.
The food wasn’t great either; my Pepper Jack Steak Sub was a bog-standard half baguette with a few shards of gristly meat and meagre onions covered in what looked like dirt-freckled snot. I ordered ‘curly fries’ too, because I was on holiday; they tasted like sunburnt Pringles. I was so wet and cold and so glad of anything above air temperature to eat that I enthused wildly over this mediocre fodder, telling the staff it was, yeah, like, the best lunch ever, lovely. They were wreathed in smiles, everyone was happy, and thus doth our spiral of dishonest dietary degradation ever tighten. Once I got to Grantham, I decided, I might as well go for broke and have a doner kebab for tea.
Grantham is big indeed but not baffling as I’d been there before on my recce, staying at the excellent Red House BnB in which for tonight the lovely Amy had let me book her charming little single room at an advantageous rate. Not only was I looking forward to that luxury, but through an cunning bit of planning my route into town took me right past Wetherspoons. Well, when I say ‘past’, I mean ‘into’. Through extraordinary serendipity they had, at £1.99 a pint, a completely delicious porter from the local Newby Wyke Brewery. It was called Dark Squall.
It was so great to be indoors that I only ventured a couple of blocks to the nearest kebab shop before hunkering down for the night, having first been initiated by Amy into the high-tech mysteries of the electronic shower control panel. They have everything in Grantham, you know. I’d survived some long days and some pretty marginal nights. My feet were bad but still moving. I’d seen a lot and learnt a lot and I was barely a quarter of the way along the Cosmic Solstice Rebirth Pilgrimage.
Over Amy’s excellent hot breakfast I met a woman from the Channel Islands who shared lots of interesting information about that singular archipelago, but that was by the by, I had to get going, buy yet more blister plasters, buy yet more food and find my way in yet more rain out of town to the canal, the beginning of which is completely obscure and which I might never have located had I not checked it out six months previously.
Outside the Isaac Newton Shopping Mall (I kid you not) I fell in with an energetic chap walking to work. Past the canal, he said, mind if I walk with you? I was all set to pump him for interesting information about Grantham, but all he wanted to do was tell me about his childhood holidays in Norfolk! He was a fast walker and I couldn’t keep up on my sore feet, I had to shake his hand and let him go unburdened of all his Blakeney tales.
Once I got to the canal I was viciously attacked by a misbegotten Pug. ‘Sorry mate, it’s the red jacket, ‘e thinks you’re a postie’. I’d had no trouble with this jacket anywhere in the nice, safe Scottish Highlands but in the hazardous English Lowlands it was proving a liability.
It was lucky that Pug hadn’t followed me into the Mucky Duck at Woolsthorpe Wharf, into which I weakly strayed for mood-lifting scotch and hot soup (very nice too). The only other customers were three rotund gentlemen discussing foxhunting and farm diversification, wearing bright red waistcoats.
Finally after several more hours of rain I was faced with a tricky choice. Did I virtuously continue along the canal around a long bend, visiting the historic disused Bottesford Wharf, or did I cut the corner along a public footpath to Redmile where the map showed a pub.
OK, it wasn’t that tricky a choice, and the Windmill at Redmile is a truly wonderful pub, exactly as all canal pubs used to be with a warm fire, a friendly landlady and excellent ales at only £3.30 a pint, and not in a chain pub either. On any one of those grounds I could have lingered in there for a very long time.
Redmile, by the way, is in Leicestershire, so here this episode rightly ends, warm and a little tiddly. In real life things aren’t so tidy; all too often there’s a couple more hours of wet hiking and a complete inability to find a sensible place to sleep. Eventually a small patch of soaking long grass a few yards from the towpath seems the only respite. The rain continues through the night. One wakes every half an hour, cold and in deep discomfort, wondering whether one might imminently be needing a life jacket as the adjacent canal brims over.
Still, at least I had a top quality supper and, in other news, I may have been at this point actually in Nottinghamshire. Once again, though, I fear I couldn’t have cared less where I was, although I did retain a certain interest in why and for how much longer.