Monday, 17 March 2014

Taking Niamhy out for a long stroll in her stroller – 16th March 2014 – From my own front door in East Dunstable to that very same door – via Houghton Regis, Chalk Hill, Sewell, Dunstable, Luton and then Dunstable again!

When I woke up yesterday morning I had no intention of going anywhere. I could hear my Niamh downstairs playing with mummy; I was incredibly snug wrapped in my duvet and there was a steaming hot cup of tea waiting for me on the chest of drawers beside my head. Super wife had to catch her bus to work at about half nine and the plan was to spend the day entertaining Niamhy at home with the usual toys and animated films.

But then I saw what a cracking morning it was... and all of a sudden the idea of spending the day inside didn’t seem right. Better to spend the hours in the sunshine and fresh air with the little one and get some extra training miles in to boot. So getting ready at rocket speed, strapping on the hiking boots and packing supplies into a bag for the little one, we strapped Niamh into her buggy and set off to walk Lorna to the bus stop.
Having waved our goodbyes on the Luton Road, leaving Super Wife outside of the newsagents waiting for her bus at about 9:15am, we turned left at the Ewe & Lamb heading towards Katherine Drive down Woodford Road. I noticed the urban garden that the local residents have created in the verge in front of the arcade of shops on Katherine Drive – very impressive indeed – a fantastic idea to make something quite banal into something useful and beautiful.
From there we coasted down Duncombe Drive, turned right down Hadrian Avenue and then left onto Poynters Road. Then over the roundabout which is just past the first signpost announcing our entry into Houghton Regis (strangely not the only one), and then along Park Road, pausing only to give Niamh one of her biscuits.
For anyone who has been following my blog, it will be no surprise that I started singing as I went along the tree-lined Park Road, but to be fair to me, it was intentional. By the time we made it to the Chequers Pub on the roundabout with East End I had covered my entire repertoire of children’s songs, from the classic “The Wheels on the Bus” to the seminal work that is “Old McDonald,” much to the cooing approval of my lovely daughter who seemed to be very much enjoying the show. We had also past a second sign announcing our entry into Houghton Regis, about quarter of a mile after we thought that we already had.
From the Chequers roundabout we walked along East End and The Green, pausing to take in the beautiful view of the green as we did.
Houghton Regis gets a lot of bad press, but it really is a fantastic place when the sun is out. Lovely old buildings, a cracking open green, a lovely church and some great pubs – what’s not to like. The estates are no different to estates anywhere else in the county and most have gardens attached which, when compared to central London estates, can’t be all bad.

At the junction of the Kings Arms and the All Saints Parish Church we turned north-west up and down Bedford Road until we reached the entrance to the Blue Waters Woodland. We paused there for a banana and some water... and a nappy change – oh joy of joys!
The paths through the Blue Waters Woodland were in great shape and it was reasonably easy-going until we came across a whacking great felled tree trunk crossing the way. So I had to lift Niamh in her buggy, laden with bags, to chest height whilst I straddled this trunk, so that we could make ground. It wasn’t to be the last time I’d have to lift that buggy!
Once we had followed the laid path for a fair distance the route then head out across a field edge towards Chalk Hill and the A5. I hadn’t anticipated that this would present any problem as, with the weather we have been having the last couple of days, the ground had been pretty much baked solid up to that point. Unfortunately, this particular field was sodden and muddy – that gluey type mud that keeps plaguing me – so I was left with two choices turn back or pick up the buggy and carry it the 200-300 metres through the mud. I had received a text from my sister to say that she and my nephew Nox would be out Gruffalo hunting near Sewell that morning and we had arranged to cross paths – so... up went the buggy again to chest height whilst I staggered through the mud trying to maintain balance as I went. I hadn’t really been physically exerted all morning thus far, but that little cardio cum weights session definitely left me out of puff!
Back on firm ground at the other side we followed a narrow dirt track along the side of some houses and then onto a road (having first lifted Niamh and the buggy over the narrow stile that blocked our path). The road was a narrow lane which steeply rose uphill alongside Watling Street (the A5) – but the path took us up a series of steep wooden steps cut into the verge, which required yet more buggy lifting.
We emerged onto Watling Street opposite the White Lion Pub at Chalk Hill, walked up the road to Sewell Lane and then followed that all the way to Sewell itself, pausing only to give directions to Manor Farm to a bloke driving an Astra and to allow a riding school party of at least 8 horses to cross our path at its entrance.
Sewell itself is a lovely hamlet, consisting of a series of amazing rural houses which must each cost an absolute fortune in this day and age, but all of which are well worth the money.
An old lady tending her flower boxes wished me good morning as we past her, beaming a smile at Niamhy. I had a moment of realisation as we strolled away from this nice old lady up the lane, that, here I was, a big sweaty bloke in big muddy boots, pushing a darling little girl along in a small pink buggy. The handles are too short for me so I was slightly hunched over using my knuckles to push and steer this thing and I must have resembled a gorilla pushing a toy pushchair for comedy effect. Ah well, I thought, it was a lovely day.
Through the power of BBM I had ascertained that my sister and nephew were somewhere to the right of the bridge at the end of the lane, but having rambled about for nearly quarter of a mile on the track, then the cycle path and then the track again I gave up trying to find them and instead stopped by a beautifully carved and painted sign near the footbridge to feed Niamhy and wait for them to pass us on their return journey. Niamh, who had been asleep for much of Sewell Lane, shielded from the sun under a pink and white knitted blanket hanging from the buggy itself, woke up truly delighted by the sight of the woodlands and a few ladies riding horse in front of her – she was quite literally giggling to herself as she tucked into her cheese sandwich quarters.
She was even happier when Auntie Michelle and cousin Nox appeared over the brow of the hill!
We walked together along the Sewell Cutting towards Frenchs Avenue, chatting away as Nox pretended to be the Sandman and Niamhy giggled manically.
At the end of the Sewell Cutting the cycle path continues past the newer houses that were built where Peppercorn Park once lay on the left and where the training pitches and Dunstable Town Football Ground sit to the right. 
From there we strolled up Brewers Hill Road, crossing into Ashcroft, past the shops and church on Westfield Road, turning left at our mum’s house on Loring Road and down to Maidenbower Avenue.
Then it was over Chiltern Road, along Victoria Street, past the cadets building, over Union Street and into my sister’s place in Princes Street, where we stopped for a cup of sweet tea for me and some sandwiches for Niamh. We probably stayed about half an hour, leaving at about 12:30. 
We waved goodbye to Auntie Michelle and walked down Union Street to High Street North, emerging opposite the Wheatsheaf and Ashton Middle School. I stopped briefly on Dog Kennel Lane to take a picture of the old grammar school which now runs the risk of being a school no more.
Whilst I stopped to take that picture, an incredibly game squirrel, who obviously shared her love of cheese sandwiches, came within about a foot of Niamh, who herself became completely entranced by it - then looked up at me as if to ask me what was going on – and then started squealing away, giggling and grinning at me like she’d just seen a leprechaun.
We had walked about 7 miles by this time and although I hadn’t really thought about it, I had been pushing the buggy slightly hunched the entire distance. Despite that I wasn’t experiencing any pain – the toe suffering from "loss of nail" issues felt no better or worse than it had at the start of the walk – and so, when faced with the decision of whether to head straight home from the exit of the busway path by DW Fitness (or even by McDonalds on Luton Road) or to keep on walking, I opted to keep on walking. Niamh was having a great time and was shaded from the sun, I wasn’t hurting yet; why not walk to Luton and visit mummy?
As we did pass McDonalds at about 1-1:30 on a lovely Sunday afternoon, I was astonished by how many people had descended on the place! The car park was rammed! Now I'm not that keen on McDonalds anymore - I haven't been for a few years now - but in the heat the air hung heavy with the scent of Big Macs and Quarter-Pounders with Cheese and for a moment I almost forgot my aversion to those famous golden arches!
The Blows Downs looked magnificent in the bright sunshine, a million miles away from how they looked in the early morning wet and mud when I had walked along them a couple of weeks ago. There were loads of cyclists taking the opportunity to get out in the splendid weather – although I noticed that a great many of them were actually walking beside their bikes rather than coasting along on them.
I paused on the bridge over the start of Hatters Way near Skimpot Lane to take a picture and fill up with water – Niamhy was a bit restless but then I cottoned on to the fact that she was after a biscuit and all was well again in the world.
As I trundled along the busway path, watching Niamhs little pink shoes flicking about happily as we went, I couldn’t help but get the song Happy by Pharrell stuck in my head. I had seen a fantastic video put together by the Museum Makers of Lutonians dancing and miming along to the song the night before and that was all I could think of, so I’m afraid by the time had walked over the M1 bridge, and had gotten as far as our beloved Kenilworth Road I had been singing Happy, out loud and on repeat, for at least 15 minutes.

By the time we had passed the home of the Hatters, Niamh was fast asleep, zonked out and shaded by her blanket. As I approached the big roundabout where Hatters Way, Telford Way, Stuart Street and Dunstable Road meet I realised two things. Firstly, despite the extensive work that had been done to build this new busway, no one had thought it was a wise idea to join this path with any of the other footbridges going over the roads I have just mentioned in the direction of town – which meant my route was now being dictated to run to the back end of the Galaxy Centre on New Bedford Road. Secondly, although Niamh was well shaded, I was not. As such I was now turning a nice shade of lobster!

St George’s Square, between the Galaxy Centre and the Mall, was buzzing with people out enjoying the sun and the St Patrick’s Day Festival (although St Pat’s isn’t actually until tomorrow). I stopped for some more water and a picture, before heading up in the lift to the shopping level of the Mall.
The Mall itself was packed! Loads of new shops, compared to the last time I was in there. Loads of people bristling around - and all this on a Sunday afternoon. What is more, nobody, it would seem, is willing to move out of your way when you’re walking with a buggy. In fact, I don’t know whether it was the heat, frustration or tiredness kicking in, but if the fella who dawdled in front of me for an inexplicably long time had swung his coke bottle any further back from his body as he walked and had actually made contact with the baby in her buggy rather than coming within centimetres of doing so, I would have punched him in the face.  I know that statement is not big and it’s not clever, but in the spirit of keeping this blog as honest as it can be, it was an incontrovertible fact!

We called in on Super Wife who was manning the tills in Topshop. Niamh was still fast asleep regrettably, but I was very happy to see Lorna who provided words of support and a replenished bottle of water.

From there we continued our walk through the Mall, past a group of dancers with a sizeable crowd around them, then out onto Market Hill where the Irish were out in force, with reels blasting out from a stage erected just down from the Crown Court and the flags flying high.

I couldn’t help but pause and soak it all in. The call of the black stuff was intense and immense, but somehow I managed to resist it and set off in the direction of the Town Hall, past the old ABC Cinema where I used to work as an usher.
I’m still sad when I think about the fact that this historic building is now just an empty shell. I have so many great memories of that place and the great friends I had working there. For years after finishing there I would accidentally say "any of the blue seats" to the dogs out walking, rather than sit!

We walked up George Street past the Town Hall and up onto Stuart Street. Then over the footbridge above the roundabout and down onto Dunstable Road and into Bury Park – with it’s market stalls spread out into the pavement and the lowering sun catching all the colours of the shop signs that line the much improved road.

I stopped at the bottom of Beech Hill to take some water and offer some to Niamh who had just woken up. I took a picture of the mosque there – which looked amazing in the bright sunshine with its reddish brick minaret piercing the azure sky. As a teenager I had often walked back to Dunstable along this road returning from late night work industrial cleaning in T&D Automotive in Kimpton Road. That spray plant doesn’t exist anymore – it was levelled to make way for a new Hilton Hotel near the Airport Parkway rail station. I can’t say that I’ll miss it much – evoking memories of calloused hands, rubber dust in every crevices and solvent burns – but the group of lads that I worked with there were top notch. I used to use the mosque as a marker on my way home – mosque – PC World – Hospital – Tescos – Wickes – Winston Churchill – Chiltern Road – Home. Thankfully home now came before Wickes on that old route and so although there were still a couple more miles to go, it felt like we were nearly there – which was handy as my feet were starting to form blisters on blisters!
I plied Niamh with biscuits as she started to become restless and picked up the pace, trucking along up Beech Hill, past PC World, then Luton Old Boys Club, under the M1 motorway bridge and past the L & D Hospital. I had considered stopping in at the hospital to call in on my mum, but sensing that Niamh was probably getting to the end of her day out, we trundled along towards Dunstable without stopping for anything more than another swig of water.
We crossed over towards Tesco opposite the Halfway House at the top of Poynters Road, and sailed down Luton Road towards the Ewe & Lamb. It was just past the Ewe & Lamb, and only a few minutes from home, that I spotted that my little darling daughter had managed to kick off one of her new shoes (that were not cheap!) somewhere in the last ten minutes. With an audible cry of despair and no small amount of pained effort, I spun on my heel and retraced our steps in search of the offending piece of footwear. That little ruby shoe was indeed recovered... just on the pavement by the little park near Tescos. I confiscated Niamh’s other shoe, put them both in my bag and set off with grim determination for home.
Ten minutes or so later, there we were, back in Western Way. Niamh was all smiles at the sight of her daddy emerging from the back of the buggy and her two favourite hounds appearing out of the front door to greet her.
Yesterday’s stroll with Niamhy had been about 17 and a bit miles of mainly pavement walking, starting at 9:15am and ending at 4pm with a few breaks for water, sweet tea, bananas and nappy changes. Not too bad considering that I’d managed to clock up 15 miles (and then a further 1.5 miles) of pavement walking only two days before.
Training is definitely building nicely.

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