This weekend I decided to set off from my front door to let Super Wife have a much deserved lie in.
In actual fact it made no difference to her because our little bundle of joy woke up less than joyful a few minutes before I left the house at about 5:15am. Laden with only a small rucksack containing two bottles of water, a towel and a banana; and with a camera, a phone, my maps and another water bottle in my coat pockets; I trundled down Luton Road in brisk early morning air and lamp light towards Station Road. Along the way I took a sip of the water from my pocket, keen to keep completely on top of my hydration this week.
At the end of Station Road where it turns around a corner and becomes Great Northern Road, there are a couple of footpaths at the foot of the Blows Downs in Dunstable. When I was a pupil at Priory Middle School in Britain Street in the early nineties, Mr Miller would march a troop of us up to these paths for cross country circuits and proceed to growl at us for dawdling along those muddy tracks in his slightly nasal gravelly tones. One of the paths goes immediately left along the new busway, the other straight on towards Downside. This morning’s training route took me straight ahead and so off I ambled, into the darkness, along a very muddy path.
It was as I was approaching Half Moon Lane on my right hand side, the glow of the street lamp blinding me; that I realised that somewhere between my front door and this point, I had lost the first of my four double sided maps. I had separated it from the others and placed it in my left pocket with the water bottle and can only surmise that having taken the bottle out for a swig of water, I had dragged the map out with it. I apologise profusely to all and sundry for my absent minded littering, but at the time my mind was less concerned with that issue and more concerned with berating my own stupidity. There weren’t enough curse words in the dictionary to describe how much of an eejit I was feeling, but I gave it a good go! Suddenly aware that I looked like a muddy, rambling, wild man with Tourette’s, lurking at the end of a respectable residential street, I struck out to my left along the track that runs in the general direction of Hatters Way.
The track there runs parallel to the bus-way for a good distance, slowly angling closer to it until you may as well be walking on the laid path of the bus-way itself. It then turns slightly right and up a few undulating hillocks that pass a hill that as kids we called “the Bulldog” I suppose because it sort of resembles one... I’m not sure to be honest. I remember many a middle school holiday spent playing elaborate games of it in the woodlands round there with Ian Knock and Luke Blackburn, or practising improvised karate moves or running round in camo gear with BB guns with Terry Clough. Complete tearaways but great fun! Today the path was a mixture of mud and chalk; the going wasn’t too bad but it was still by moonlight. Across a field following what appeared to be the footpath but resulting in a fence at the end of it where some woodland began; so downhill to what was definitely a footpath. Or at least I knew there definitely was one under the foot of water that entirely engulfed it shimmering in the darkness. Straight through that - no fancy pants-ing it this morning – until I could see the roundabout at the end of Hatters Way and began the ascent uphill.
This was where my memory skills were really tested. My recollection from the map was that the path I needed – as there were several – was the one that headed almost perfectly south, uphill towards Caddington; the idea being that I didn’t want to emerge from the fields too early at Chaul End Lane but a lot later at Folly Lane, near the village green at Caddington. I managed to find the most likely culprit and made good headway along it through some woodland and along a few field edges until I reached Caddington Golf Course. I vaguely remembered that at this point my route was supposed to take a sudden right turn. The waymark post seemed to be directing me through the stile in the hedgerow and further south and in the first emerging light of morning there seemed to be a path my side of the hedge running right along the field... so I took that one. About a few hundred metres up this “path” I realised it wasn’t a path at all but simply the edge of the ploughed field. Splattered in mud up to the thighs I never the less continued to the end of the field and emerged through the hedgerow onto a wide track almost 6 inches deep in what I can only describe as silt (later, when I got home, I would discover that if I had simply gone through the hedgerow where the waymark post was, I would have been directed right and would have walked along a far better path that ran almost parallel the entire distance. Ho hum!).
Starting to worry that I was now entirely lost I climbed a nearby mound of grass, next to some heavy plant equipment owned by Magees, got my compass out, looked at the map that I did have and decided I needed to head southeast. So back down the mound, jumping over the rubble strewn ditch, though the silt track past the land moving equipment and gated enclosure, jumping a small stream onto, what I now know to be Caddington Golf Course. Having walked east for less than 20 metres I then came across the waymark post for the path I was supposed to be on, so having wasted the best part of 15 minutes I was now back on course.
Off I trundled across a track in a south easterly direction and then along a small stream, or the like, across the golf course, then fields until I finally emerged, caked in mud but massively relieved, in Folly Lane. A nice old bloke confirmed where I was with a chuckle and so, with morning light now fully upon me, I strolled down towards Luton Road and The Chequers pub in Caddington.
At this point realised that although I may have finally found myself “out of the woods” in a physical sense, I was far from “out of the woods” in the sense of the old adage. I had never really spent any great time in Caddington before. Sure, I knew where it was in relation to all the other towns around it, and I’d driven along Luton Road hundreds of times going from Dunstable to Luton or vice versa, but I don’t know any of the other street names and I don’t know where the schools are. What I did know is that the path I wanted started at a road or close called Five Oaks.
My first attempt to find it took me in a circle around Hyde Road and back onto Luton Road where I had started. I then asked a nice man with an incredibly small dog if he knew where it was. He said that he didn’t but then seemed to direct me back down Hyde Road with instructions to “go through the garages as there might be a footpath there.” Being a cynic, I essentially waited for him to walk out of eye-line and then started walking across the green to try the next road along. I then bumped into another old man who told me if I was headed towards Slip End my best bet was Heathfield Path, which – you’ve guessed it – was down Hyde Road on the right hand side. He basically walked with me to the path with a newspaper under his arm, chatting away to me about the charity walk I was training for and the fact that his granddaughters husband cycled that same route from John O’Groats to Lands End a few years back. Wishing me well and shaking my hand, we parted ways at Heathfield Path.
Now, I wasn’t to know this, but once I gone down this path and reached a road, I should have turned left down that road as in fact, that was Five Oaks and at the end of Five Oaks there was a footpath that would have taken me between Caddington Village School Juniors and the School for Early Learners, past Heath Wood and then South-east past Woodside Home Park, along Grove Road until I reached the cross roads in the middle of Slip End.
But I didn’t turn left... oh no... no map you see.
I went straight over the road, then alongside Caddington Village School Juniors, then across several open fields, following the footpath and the south-easterly direction of the compass, through Woodside, across Woodside Road and then onto Markyate Road. At this point another kindly gent pulling out of his driveway pointed out that if I were to turn left I would get to Slip End crossroads and if I turned right I'd hit the A5. I had essentially emerged parallel to my planned route but about 500 metres south west of it... not too bad considering I had no map. In fact I was now dead opposite the footpath that I would have taken on my planned route heading towards the outskirts of Pepperstock and Limekiln Plantation so I decided to crack on from where I was rather than head off course just to go to the crossroads for nostalgic reasons (some of my family hail from Slip End and I got married at the little church there).
So I rambled on, along a mud and stone path to the Limekiln Plantation, which is essentially a large bit of woodland, and then spun sharply southwest at the very end of Half Moon Lane in Pepperstock, along a wide dirt track. Before long I came across the Delta Force paintballing centre, which I had no idea was there, but which looked very cool indeed. Despite the fact that it was still early I could hear the repetitive popping of paintball guns so I can only assume that some people like there simulated warfare for breakfast.
I should say at this point that I am trying very hard not to become a whinging blogger, but...
Can someone tell me if there is a reason why a lot of our footpaths and bridleways are absolutely littered with broken bricks? I can understand the idea of hardcore being laid to reinforce what would otherwise be a mud slide but I’m actually talking about three quarters of a brick sticking out the ground here. It’s a bloody nightmare to walk on unless you’re constantly looking at your feet and where’s the fun in that I ask you? Rant over.
At the bottom of the track and the subsequent road I came to the familiar sight of the A5 and the footbridge over to the new build houses at Markyate.
I felt like a proper hobo soul as I slowly trudged along the High Street of Markyate, past the beautiful old shop front of Prudens, Master Bakers, with mud caked up my jeans to my crotch, steam coming from my jacket caused by my body heat in the cold morning air, and with condensation literally dripping from my moustache and beard. By this point I had covered just over 8 miles.
I felt like the part of the old Hovis advert that the director wouldn’t want you to see. A part that was always left artfully out of shot, and the thought of it made me smile. The sight of this smiling mud yeti noticeably caused a terribly middle class, middle aged lady to jump into her sporty MG a little faster than I suspect she had initially intended, managing to just shut the driver’s door as I thundered past in my boots. I turned uphill at Cavendish Road and then right onto the footpath past a school and a couple of football pitches.
As I trekked across the fields leaving the sleepy village of Markyate behind me and drawing ever closer to the village of Kensworth, my energy levels began to flag a bit and I started doing something that has become an ever increasing feature of my walks of late... singing to myself.
I'm not talking about a little murmuring hum or low level whispered few bars as I meandered onwards.
This was more of a full on, barrel-chested, unashamedly loud, rendition that would have made any Welsh Male Voice Chorister proud in terms of sheer projection, if not musicality.
The problem is...
I’ve clearly been spending a lot of time entertaining my one year old daughter, as today’s Big Dave’s jukebox selection was one of the tunes from The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland. So there I was, a hulk of sweaty, steaming, beardy bloke; trudging through an open muddy field, singing “together, forever, come rain or shine...” on repeat, which I have a deep, underlying suspicion is a song sung by a little fluffy red monster to his best friend, who is incidentally a blanket. I also strongly suspect that I may have been grinning inanely whilst swinging my head and arms about like a muppet... in more ways than one.
Second moan of this blog... farmers who decide to block footpaths officially marked on ordnance survey maps with either electric fencing that extends too far, clearly intentionally positioned debris, or copious keep out signs that are designed to confuse the walker and obscure the useful signs that actually aid in them keeping to the correct access. I came across such area just before Kensworth. I can tell you that after walking all four sides of a large paddock, being watched intently by the equine residents therein, before returning to my waymarked entry point, re-checking my map only to discover that I was right the first time... I was ready to head-butt the first person in a body-warmer, jodhpurs and willies that I had seen. I instead, swore profusely as I followed a muddy field edge through a gap in a hedge onto Lynch Hill.
Then it was up Common Road through Kensworth itself, experiencing a similar feeling to Markyate, as I smiled and “good morning-ed” each villager that I passed with vastly varied responses.
Then I struck out north on a footpath that lay between Spratts Lane to the east and Hollicks Lane to the west. Down and up a vale of sorts towards Church End, which in the bright sunshine of the morning, hazed slightly with the last remnants of the morning mist, looked magnificent.
I emerged onto the last part of Hollicks Lane by a very pretty little church. Just before I got to the church I turned west along yet more field edges, past some woodland and then, out of nowhere, there was Kensworth Quarry!
At the risk of confirming my complete buffoon status, I had no idea there was a whacking great quarry there. I have walked across Dunstable Golf Course and the Dunstable Downs countless times, have driven down Spratts and Hollicks Lanes to Church End on numerous occasions. I used to hang out down Mentmore Park when I was in upper school with Katie, Lara, Skye, Bush, Meg, Carrie and the rest of the gang... less than 50 metres away! Yet, I never knew it was there. It’s not just there... it’s mahoosive!
From there it was steeply downhill down some man made steps running along the fenceline of the quarry, through some trees and then slowly uphill touching the edge of Slough Wood (where I stopped to refill my water bottle and inhale a banana).
Then the footpath moved close to Isle of Wight Lane and across another lane leading to the entrance of the quarry; through another patch of woodland and then onto Whipsnade Road at the top of Dunstable Downs. It was at this point I realised that I was at the top of a footpath that used to form part of the cross country course from my Queensbury School days which instantly brought memories flooding back of racing my old school mate Daniel Fox down a gravel track towards the top of Canesworde Road at the far end of that path.
Feeling far less energetic today at this point then I did as a gangly fifteen year old, I walked along the now familiar laid track along the top of the Dunstable Downs in the lovely sunshine, starting to regret having started out with two t-shirts, a hoody and an overcoat on. I could see the Regiment Fitness crew and their class out again doing their stuff to my left near the Hut and there were dozens of people out walking their dogs and kids trying to fly their kites on a near wind-free morning. It was a very cheerful stroll to the Five Knolls and then down to West Street and onto the Green Lanes.
I was sorely tempted to spin off from the footpath towards Spinney Crescent as I had done last week and I had one eye on the time as I had my mum looking after Niamh for me so I could get out and train. I resisted the urge, however, spurned on by the sunshine and a desire to add at least another mile to the tally if I could.
So I carried on along the Lanes, past Weatherby and the end of the Beecroft Estate, until I reached a big sign marking the Totternhoe Knolls and Lanes.
If I’d had more time (and another banana) I would’ve been tempted to crack on to the Knolls themselves but instead I turned my sights northeast and across a field and then diagonally slightly further east to the point where the track heads towards the back of the now ill-fated Brewers Hill Middle School.
I followed the field along to the end of Frenchs Avenue and then followed the (not so) new cycle track past Dunstable Town FC’s Creasey Park and onto Brewers Hill Road. From there, for anyone who doesn’t know, it’s a short stroll up to Ashcroft, across Westfield Road and down to my mum’s place on Loring Road.
I was pretty over-heated by the time I got there, which was sometime between 12:15 and 12:30, but I was relatively pleased with this 16.6 mile training walk. If I had been on the actual End to End walk I would have had another 9 or so daylight/walking hours, which would have meant I could have stopped for a hearty lunch and a few hours rest before carrying on for another couple of hours to do the other 5.4 miles required before setting up camp for the night.
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