Up until now I’ve been trudging around over the hills, through the fields and along the vales of the local countryside – and there is a fair bit of that to choose from around here thankfully – but it is going to be equally important for me to get a bit of long distance pavement and road walking in. The first 80 or so miles of Big Dave’s Little Stroll will be on an A-road that runs from John O’Groats to Inverness, most of which will involve leaping onto the verge to avoid getting squashed by the traffic as there isn’t a decent path. Walking on solid tarmac for any lengthy duration is a very different prospect to hill walking. The advantage is that the path is usually pretty level and obviously easy to follow, but the disadvantages are that it is extremely tough on your feet – think blister central – and on your joints.
I left the house at 5:30am - kissing Super Wife goodbye (who had woke me up a half hour earlier with tea, water, Juice Plus tablets and hot muesli – thanks Lorna) – and wandered down Luton Road, around the back of Sainsburys, past the DW Fitness Gym, across the busway and up Court Drive to the series of bus stops there. My plan was to catch the number 34 Centrebus to St Albans and then walk back – simples.
Whilst waiting for the bus to arrive at 6:15 I decided to take a picture of the Gary Cooper across the way, through the cold and fog of the morning. I tweeted using my phone, posting the picture and asking if it was too early for a pint. I’m starting to get to grips with Twitter now and it’s a great way of letting those who are interested know that I’m actually out and about training. All of a sudden, a mildly aggressive woman, clutching some car keys and looking at me like I had just urinated into the face of a beloved family pet, approached me demanding to know why I was taking pictures of her! Trying to hide my amusement, I listened to her ranting for a few moments during which I managed to ascertain that she had been sat in a car parked in what I can only assume to be some sort of taxi bay with a parking restriction and had thought I was there to dob her in, or something along those lines. After pointing out to her that I was stood there in jeans, a couple of hoodies, with a small backpack and a pair of massive muddy hiking boots on; explaining to her that I was out on some training for a charity walk and had taken a picture of the Gary Cooper pub to post on the internet; and trying with every fibre of my being to try to not sound condescending as I asked her whether I looked like a parking inspector; this lady seemed to grudgingly accept that I wasn’t the parking mafia’s most covert operative ever and walked off, informing me with some venom that she was only there to collect her husband.
Stay classy Dunstable... stay classy.
I caught the number 34, sat very comfortably on a near empty bus right next to a radiator, relaxing and staring blankly out into the white fog as we trundled along through Dunstable, Markyate, Flamstead and Redbourn, then hopping off at the top of Catherine Street in St Albans. It wasn’t as foggy in the city centre but it was definitely still a bit chilly.
I set off down St Peter’s Street towards my chambers, past the Magistrates Court where I spend a fair amount of my time, and slightly down hill towards the Clock Tower.
I could see the top of St Albans Cathedral, golden in the morning light, sticking up from the rooftops of St Albans and paused to take a couple of pictures. There was hardly anyone around despite the fact that it was now 7am, with only a crew of scaffolders whistling away merrily and a few early morning gents out walking their small but beardy terriers.
Turning right and north up Verulam Road, past the Royal British Legion, over the roundabout and onto Redbourn Road – which I discovered is a damn sight longer than it appears when you’re nipping along it in the morning dangerously close to the legal speed limit.
It is also immediately apparent that quite a few other drivers believe the limit to be about 80 mph on the straights as they shot past within a metre of the kerb.
Some fantastic houses down that road though! If I ever end up in a career that actually pays well I’ll be snapping up one of those.
Onwards up Redbourn Road, passing the old run down pub at the end of Punch Bowl Lane – which incidentally looks like it’s finally being done up – and ever onwards down the tarmac trail over the River Ver, past the Chequers Pub and over the roundabout into Redbourn.
I’ve only ever hurtled through Redbourn on an early nineties, high emission, barely still mobile bus. Some of my ancestors hailed from the village, the Deamers, but that was over a century ago. Basically, I’ve never really bothered to go exploring in that direction, despite living my whole life just down the road.
Wandering down the High Street and then onto Dunstable Road, I must say, Redbourn looks very nice indeed.
Quiet. Old. Big houses. Local shops. Quaint fire station.
It’s like stumbling across a real life Pontypandy.
I managed to attract some dodgy side glances from the older generation as I trundled along which initially unnerved me... then I realised I’d started singing to myself at a volume just under a normal talking voice. Cringe factor – high. The Long and Winding Road of all things... a McCartney Beatles classic. Realisation having now having occurred... did I stop? Did I hell. With a mental shrug of the shoulders I strolled out of Redbourn having entered into a particularly Lutonian rendition of the second verse.
From there it was further north, but downhill, past the Hertfordshire County Showground to junction 9 of the M1.
I managed to pretty much inhale a banana on the move as I went. I had to get my jog on to avoid getting flattened by a motorway maintenance lorry on the slip road to the M1, but it wasn’t long before I was back to cruising along in plod gear past the Harvester at Flamstead on the A5 towards Dunstable.
It was around this point that, having just past the now dilapidated Chequers Pub at the foot of Chequers Hill at about 7 miles into the walk, I started to become aware of the wear and tear on my feet. 7 miles into one of my usual training walks is barely the warm up, but today, although all other aspects of my body were still firing on all cylinders, the balls of both feet were starting to swell. It was also at about this point that the weather started to hot up – beautiful and sunny, but not so comfortable when you’re wearing a hooded fleece, over another hooded jumper, over a t-shirt tucked into your jeans. I wasn’t going to stop for a break yet though, or even a bag reshuffle as I was moving along at a steady rhythm and I wanted to reach at least Kensworth before stopping for a break. I downed a few super strength Ibuprofen, and carried on plodding, squinting into the sun.
I past the pink facade of the strippers pub on the A5 at about 9:30am – it used to be called the Waggon & Horses when I worked the pubs, but I think it’s now called Junction 9. As a kid I remember my dad taking us to the Waggon & Horses when it was still just a regular pub – if I remember rightly it had a pretty decent play area behind it and some rabbits and other small animals in hutches – a fantastic place for the grown-ups to have a pint in the sun whilst their Fanta-ed up kids played outdoors. Now it’s a strange little place where women strip down to nothing for the princely sum of a £1 coin being put into a pint glass by whoever happens to be around. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not judging! I put a few £1 coins into those glasses many moons ago... but it’s funny how a place can change so radically.
From there it was onwards past Markyate and across the A5 via a painted subway to a lovely little building at Church End.
Then left along the A5 towards Kensworth, past Cell Park, a fantastic historic house set in 70 odd acres, which I have always loved and dreamt about owning – and which is conveniently now on the market for just over 4 million pounds sterling. I may just have to put in an offer...
Past the Packhorse at the foot of Lynch Hill and the various caravan sites that lay along this stretch of road – I had planned to stop here to have another banana, refill my water bottle and take my fleece hoody off – but for some inexplicable reason I didn’t and just kept on plodding on in the direction of Manshead School on the outskirts of Dunstable.
I past Turnpike Farm, which is a beautiful little farmhouse with a selection of outbuildings and pretty trees, right next to some lovely open fields running up the hill towards Caddington.
Unfortunately, it is also right next to the A5, which as I was finding out first hand, was a polluted, grimey, gritty place to be – especially in the warm weather.
Not much further along I reached the edge of Dunstable, where they are currently building a ream of new houses right next to a brand spanking new Holiday Inn.
A little further still and I was at the flats at the top of Southwood Road in Downside – which is where I lived until I was about 6 years old, albeit in the taller blocks of flats further down the road towards the Blows Downs. The flats at the top of the road looked pretty good, all done up in there green and yellow cladding shimmering in the sun. It was here that I finally stopped at a bus stop (useful seat for resting your pack on) so that I could finally take my now sweat drenched fleece hoody off and re-jig my pack about.
I downed about a litre of water, inhaled a banana in less than 20 seconds and made a couple of calls – one to my good friend Alex, toiling away in chambers and valiantly resisting the urge to run to the nearest beer garden in this beautiful weather, and the other to Lorna, who I knew was likely to still be at my sister in laws with Niamh only a few streets away. As luck would have it she was nearly done there so I hobbled over to Graphic Close to meet her – the blood now rushing back into my feet and making me realise that I was probably going to lose my first toe-nail to the cause.
From Graphic Close I strolled beside Super Wife pushing Niamh in her stroller, chatting away to each other as we went down High Street South, then up Great Northern Road, past Sainsburys up Luton Road and down the back streets to home. All in all, I’d done about 15 miles since I had set off that morning – so nothing too strenuous – but a valuable foot toughening exercise nonetheless.
As fate would have it, I ended up having to walk another 1.5 mile round trip later that evening due to the fact that the boys (our dogs) had run out of food and the baby needed some more supplies from Sainsburys. As we are currently without a car (battery issues today... don't ask), that meant carrying a 15kg sack of kibble on my shoulder for three quarters of a mile home – which can’t hurt as a bit of additional training!
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