The weather overnight from Valentine’s Day had been atrocious; howling gales and constant rain, reports of trees dropping left, right and centre... on top of that it had been an extremely stressful week with me having medical treatment on Wednesday (and still feeling the residual effects) and Lorna and I getting the news that we would have to move house about a month before Big Dave’s Little Stroll begins... amongst a couple of other personal trials and tribulations.
I don’t want to turn you, the valued readers of my blog, into my unpaid therapy so in summary... I was well on the way to telling this week to “do one.”
Another thing you need to know about me is that my biggest supporter/cheerleader in this endeavour (the end to end charity walk) has always been Lorna, my wife. That said, she can also be my biggest obstacle to positive thinking towards my training, purely out of concern for my safety.
This morning was particularly difficult to elicit from her the proper encouragement required. Having looked out of the window in the pitch black at 4:45 am, and having also looked at the weather forecast on the BBC for the area, it is fair to say that she was less than keen on me going out on this training walk. Once I had togged up, gone outside to inspect the weather first-hand (from our driveway) and returned to report that it “wasn’t that bad” (a small fib at that time in fact); Lorna was fantastic. She leapt into action, filled me with porridge and drove me to my start point at Warden Hill in Luton at silly o’clock. She is an absolute star.
The start of the walk was a bit hairy, mainly because it was pitch black, with several fallen trees along the way... but also because I had never walked this way before. I started, as I've said already, at Warden Hill in Luton, travelling north between the grounds of the Cardinal Newman School and a golf course (name unknown) before turning left through the woodland by Drays Ditches to the A6. This stretch is short and easy enough to traverse, but with gale force winds shaking every tree that I passed, I spent the best part of this section staring up with what little night vision I had at these possible villains, rather than down at the mud and puddles which I was actually traipsing through.
Once across the A6 it was west again up Great Bramingham Lane to the Keech Hospice, at which point I got thoroughly lost for about 5 minutes.
Still pitch black save for the accusing glare of a security light, I finally worked out that the contractors laying the new car park had put a ruddy great curb across where the Icknield Way footpath should have been. Obviously, the car park is very important... don’t get me wrong... but it’s a bugger when you’re trying to find the signpost for a trail that is technically no longer there.
Mystery solved, I then trudged north through a couple of farmer’s fields (on the footpath, naturally) for about a mile, before I came to the beautiful village of Streatley, where I emerged by the village pond, much to the utter bemusement of a herd of sheep who were laying by a hedgerow sheltering from the fierce wind.
I then rambled through Streatley, along the Icknield Way Trail which took me through a pretty churchyard and then sharply east towards the A6 once again.
I inwardly rejoiced when I realised that my route was not going to take me along the A6, as it had appeared from my map, but alongside some allotments and up along a ridge with mature trees and a fantastic view of the surrounding landscape.
It was incredibly cold by this time, but daylight was now fully upon me and the varying colours of the woodland were truly amazing to behold. I paused there for a few minutes to enjoy the view, downed some water and quite literally inhaled a banana and a muesli bar. Then I followed the ridge line in the direction of the Sharpenhoe Clappers.
It was at this stage, I had to climb over my first proper tree trunk of the day (the first of three), which at my size is no small task, but having done so with alarming ease I continued north onto the Sharpenhoe Clappers.
For those of you who aren’t from Bedfordshire (and probably for a fair few of you that are... including me!)... “Reputedly haunted, Sharpenhoe Clappers is a classic chalk escarpment and part of the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
It is crowned with traces of an Iron Age hill-fort and an impressive beech wood.”
Although they were indeed beautiful, they were also incredibly exposed, especially at the point where the route turned sharply west towards Sharpenhoe Road, so I didn't hang about!
The walk then took me through a large area of grassland and some more woodland.
As I walked through the woodland I came across an incredibly well-built shelter made of branches that I would have been immensely proud of if I had made it with my friends in the woods by Spinney Crescent when I was a kid, but that I strongly suspect it was more likely made by a Bear Grylls fanatic... without a girlfriend... not under the age of 40.
After the woods I trudged around the edges of more farmers’ fields, but in mud like glue which tried to pull my boots off at every step. Despite this, I had found this training walk relatively easy going compared to my recent excursions and at this point, my feet, my legs, my breathing... everything was sweet as a nut. More on that later.
Having crossed the Harlington Road, I struck out across another area of undulating grassland and then turned south along a gravel track towards Upper Sundon. One thing that really struck me about this area was the level of fly tipping that had been going on. The paddock before the track was more like a tip than a field and it was a bit of a shock to the system after weeks of walking through splendid British countryside.
Upper Sundon itself was very pleasant. It was welcome relief to be off of the uphill gravel and broken brick track and onto a level surface for a while. Unfortunately, it was about this time that I started to get quite severe cramps in my upper abdomen and, strangely, in the underside of my jaw, both of which were growing in intensity. Nevertheless, I carried on through Upper Sundon and onto another gravel track heading towards the roaring M1. I walked across one bridge over the railway lines quickly followed by another bridge over the M1 itself, then under the shadow of the behemoth that is the Sundon Substation, across several muddy field footpaths (which marked the return of the glue-like mud) for about three quarters of a mile, before reaching Fancott.
I then turned west up Sundon Road until I got to the next section of the Icknield Way Trail where I had to pull up for a while as I was in an excruciating level of pain from the cramping in my abdomen and jaw.
Obviously, I had maintained my water and glucose levels throughout the walk and I had quite literally inhaled two bananas. The going had been relatively easy and I’d only covered about 9 miles by this point, so physically I wasn’t having any of the usual difficulties that start to emerge around 16 miles or so. All the same, I was now in significant pain, especially from the underside of my jaw. I decided I’d do another mile or so and then reassess whether to continue today. On the walk itself I knew I wouldn’t have this luxury and the idea of stopping before my planned target of about 16.5 miles was eating at me, but I was also acutely aware that this was only a training walk and that I had been unwell this week. I resolved that it would be better to cut this particular walk short than risk doing myself some damage.
So I set off across another muddy field footpath in a southerly direction following the markers for the Icknield Way Trail and then turned sharply west, as that was what my map had shown and the way-marks bore it out. The only problem was the next way-mark post was telling me to head in a different direction to that implied by the map. After much consideration I decided to follow the clear arrow of the way-mark post along the field’s edge and over a small plank across a ditch into another field, also way-marked (but this time with no directional arrow). There appeared to be two rather puddled and muddied paths running in opposite directions around this field’s edge and up to the brow of a hill. I chose the one to the west, as I knew this was the general direction that I was supposed to be headed at this point, and began the trudge up hill.
That turned out to be a fundamentally bad decision.
The going was unbelievably tough and soon I was up to mid-calve in my old friend the glue-like mud, every step taking the effort of ten normal steps and threatening to take my boot as payment for the surrender of my foot. By the time I made it the corner of this field I was in incredible pain with the cramping and, more importantly, it was glaringly apparent that I was now headed in the wrong direction. I spotted a way-marked post one field over so, being careful to hug the hedgerow of that field, I struck out towards it and followed the footpath it signified (not the Icknield Way Trail incidentally). That footpath emerged into a residential street in what turned out to be south Toddington. If not for the wrong turn, I should have emerged somewhere much further south on Dunstable Road before continuing down a footpath to Wingfield.
In reality I walked along several of the roads of this residential area until I reached Dunstable Road, and then I walked for a short while down Dunstable Road itself, until, having spotted a bus stop along the way with a bus due to arrive in only 10 minutes, I decided that enough was enough for today, sat down and, wincing heavily, began to massage my jaw.
By this time I had walked about 11 miles thanks to my detour and about 3-4 of those had been in no small amount of agony. Thoroughly disappointed with my pansy behaviour, I sat and stared into the distance... until I was engaged in a conversation by a little old lady and her daughter. Seeing me sitting there with mud caked up my legs and a hefty pair of boots on, looking disheartened, this lovely woman started asking me all about my walking, the expedition and the charities that I was raising money for, which, for those 8 or so minutes, lifted my spirits quite considerably.
I bussed as far as the top of Houghton Road in Dunstable and then trundled the last half a mile or so to my mum’s house on the Beecroft Estate for a much needed rest (and to pick up my beautiful daughter Niamhy and take her home). With some sweet tea inside me things didn't seem quite so bad and my mind immediately started to plot the next training walk possibility.
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