Monday, 28 April 2014

Trundling along on paths that aren’t supposed to be there... and getting right royally lost! – 21st April 2014 – via Lewsey Farm, Houghton Regis, Dunstable, Chalk Hill, Sewell, Totternhoe, Dunstable Downs, Kensworth Quarry... then Colin’s and Home

This weekend was a non-walking one despite only having about 8 weekends left to train. Why you may ask? Have I lost motivation? Have I suffered an injury? Am I just a lazy git? Well, for two reasons – firstly, I had the wedding of my brother-in-law to attend on the Saturday and, secondly, Sunday was dominated by very unwell Super Wife who needed looking after. So rather than let my blog fall silent for a couple of weeks, here is a write up of last week’s trials and tribulations.
This was my second walk in three days and I decided I wouldn’t set out until 6am instead of 5am. It’s an extra hour in bed but to be honest I may go back to setting out that little bit earlier. For some reason I find it easier to get a good number of miles under my belt before it gets light. On this particular morning I’d demolished my bowl of muesli in about 5 seconds flat. Muesli consumption has started to wear thin - it basically tastes like cardboard once you’ve been eating it for four months solid - but as eating it has, together with other changes, has resulted in four stones of lost weight in about 12 weeks... muesli it is. We were running low in terms of fruit at the house so I could only load my rucksack with about 4 litres of water and had to go without my usual bananas. So having pulled on the bright orange MS Society t-shirt and taken the obligatory photograph, I was off into the chill of the morning, this time turning left up Ridgeway Avenue.
I followed Ridgeway all the way around to Wilbury Drive turning left past what used to be Mill Vale Middle School. I say “used to be” because it seems to have been rebranded as one of the “Barnfield” academies or colleges. Certain things are always destined to change or develop and that is just the nature of things. Maybe it’s just me, but it seems a shame that as things move forward we can’t retain some history along the way. I mean, would it have not been possible to have left the school as Mill Vale (“a Barnfield academy” or the like)? Ah well... maybe I’m just getting old.
It was a nippy morning and one not short of mist, making me quite pleased that I had opted to wear a jumper, t-shirt and coat combo. I turned right down Poynters Road towards Leagrave High Street. This stretch is usually pretty grey with a constant stream of traffic roaring along it, but in the quiet morning light it looked like a serene pastel painting - the pavement flanked with the rich, verdant greens and soft, powdery pinks of the trees.
As I walked up Leagrave High Street I realised that the old Halyard High School across the road was no longer Halyard. No doubt, it hasn’t been Halyard for a while. Now the school is still there... but it is now Barnfield West Academy.  Got to love the pervasiveness of that Barnfield brand!
It was incredibly hushed as I walked down towards Lewsey Farm. The only sounds were of the padding of my boots against paving slabs, of my jean legs brushing against each other, the water bottle in my coat pocket swishing and the occasional passing car. I paused on the corner of Pastures Way to take a picture of the blanket of mist across the open fields and tweet a good morning.
I then turned left at the motorway bridge just before you get to Leagrave Primary School (surprisingly not yet “Barnfield” Primary School), up a footpath that runs along the length of the M1. It was along this stretch that I encountered my first signs of life, a stream of dog walkers. Now it’s a sad reflection of modern life living on an estate but you just don’t get the same level of “hello” and “good morning” greetings that you do out in the villages – especially if you’re a big lump like me. Sure you get the occasional “alright” or nod from other lumps but that’s about it.
I turned left down Kestrel Way, moving west and away from the roar of the M1, back towards Pastures Way. As I wandered down the cycle path there I noticed that the houses on my right were ultra modern and relatively new. Behind them were open fields and what must have been a splendid view of the countryside before they were built. The houses on the left were sizeable and well maintained, and I wondered how annoyed the owners of those properties must have been when the picture postcard view from their front windows was obscured by Lego houses with flat grey brushed steel doors.
From the roundabout, I turned north along a stretch of road which I’m sure used to be used by the night bus from Luton, but which is now obscured by a gate and a significant amount of debris. Once at the end of that stretch of Pastures Way tarmac track I was into Houghton Regis. I turned west from the end of Parkside Drive along the footpath that runs through the park and along the edges of Conway Close, Fensome Drive, Bridgeman Drive, Stubbs Close and across Windsor Drive.
At the risk of sounding entirely stupid on this blog for the countless time, I had never realised that there is a river or stream that runs across Houghton Regis.
As I walked along the footpath from Windsor Drive, across Park Road to the end of Redhouse Court, I was essentially enjoying a bit of a woodland, riverside stroll, which was a welcome surprise.
There is something rather rejuvenating about the sound of running water as you walk – rejuvenating and whistle-inducing it would seem. Only a few Irish drinking songs later and I was staring out across the common in the centre of Houghton Regis, as I trundled past the gates of Houghton Hall.
I feel it important at this stage to stress that usually my map reading skills are impeccable... no honestly they are... seriously... don’t laugh... they are!
On this particular occasion, I managed to follow a well laid, tarmac trail - right there - on the ground – that I could see with my own two eyes. On the map there was only a single footpath marked heading west of Houghton Hall before turning south-west. Unfortunately, having followed this trail for about a quarter mile, I emerged onto Porz Avenue in the heart of the Woodside Industrial Estate. I should have come out onto the busway just north of Crabtree Way in Dunstable!
Lost... and less than a mile away from my own front door.




So I plodded along through the Woodside Industrial Estate, along Porz Avenue and Arenson Way, around the gigantic Superdrug depot until I finally came up the footpath by DW Fitness on the edge of the White Lion Retail Park.
I’ve discovered that when you get lost, even when you now know where you are and it’s still early on in the walk, it leaves you feeling very tired all of a sudden. Knowing that it’s going to take about another mile of walking to get back on track just seems to have such a draining effect on your positive mental state that you start to feel... well... bloody knackered to be frank!
So spinning on my heels, I set off back up the cycle path and back towards Houghton Regis; but not before I had squeezed through the ridiculous gate that the council have installed all along this public right of way. I say the “ridiculous” gate because that’s what it is. Presumably installed to prevent vehicles such as road bikes and trials bikes from tearing up the cycle path, the only prevention they provide is to stop pushchairs and prams from passing, wider wheelchairs, mobility scooters or in fact any man with a 52” inch chest or wider who stands above 6ft tall. Perversely, motorbikes of all descriptions can get onto the cycle path quite easily by travelling up the Dog Kennel Lane or from tearing across various fields or paddocks. Town planning at it’s highest.
I followed the path from the edge of the bus way until it emerges onto High Street North opposite the council offices, passing as I did the sound of nail guns firing repeatedly amidst the tinny sound of a portable radio where the pallet repairers had made an early start on a Saturday morning.
I turned right at the council offices down to the junction of Brewers Hill Road and Houghton Road, where the Bird in Hand stands next to the new Incuba building on the corner, and then I turned right again down Houghton Road.
As I ambled down the Houghton Road into Houghton Regis, I past the All Saints Academy (Northfields in my teenage years) and then Douglas Crescent, which is where we will soon be moving to. In another strange coincidence, the house we’re moving to is quite literally four doors down from the first house in which I had ever lived. October 1982 and my parents and I spent the first couple of months of my life living with my Uncle Bob and my Auntie Lynn.
Once down the lengthy Houghton Road and High Street of Houghton Regis, I turned left at the Kings Arms, north up Bedford Road.
From there it was left into the Nature Reserve just past the Old Red Lion.
Last time I had taken this route I had been pushing a small pink pushchair across the stones, carried over the fallen trees and across the muddy ploughed fields.
Today I needed only to carry myself – but the fallen trees were still there to be traversed, about a month on.
Once across the open fields and past the water works, I scrambled along a narrow dirt track beside the back fences of the properties of Chalk Hill on one side and a fairly steep and thorny drop on the other.
Then it was a short climb up some wooden steps in the tree lined bank of the A5, before emerging opposite the White Lion public house.
From there the route took me up the long tarmac road towards Sewell.
By now the weather had started to warm up a touch, the sun was out and the going was slightly more difficult – but purely because of some slightly stiffened muscles rather than the lay of the land.
The view either side of Sewell Lane is simply stunning – picturesque farmhouses, picket fences and stone walls, cobbled courtyards and rustic outbuildings, weeping willows hanging over a well kept waterway.
At the top of Sewell Lane, the track leads under a wooden foot bridge and onto the Green Lanes. I paused to take on some water and to stretch out my calves only to be joined at the fence line by a couple of horses.
I could tell that one particular nag had his eye on the contents of my rucksack... of course he wasn’t to know that being quite famished myself I would have gladly ransacked his nosebag given half the chance!
I then set off along the Green Lanes that run for just under a mile towards Totternhoe Lime and Stone Quarry which I think closed down around 2005.
As I walked along the Green Lanes towards it the heat from the sun was becoming quite intense. I’m sure if you had been stood stock still it was probably still a bit fresh out, but on the move in multiple layers it was getting a bit uncomfortable.
I considered stopping to take my coat off and somehow stuff it into my pack, but as I hit the harsh uphill gravel track by the edge of the quarry I found some momentum. So instead of stopping I just trundled on up the track.
The gravel soon turned to grass and dirt, the up hills giving my legs a chance to transfer the work more onto the quads, giving my calves a chance to rest up a bit and proving the old adage to be true – a change is as good as a rest. The looming silhouette of Half Mile Hill appeared upon the horizon and before I knew it I was stood at the foot of that dome shaped footpath ready to start its ascent.
The one thing I am starting to notice is that hills on which I’ve struggled in the past are starting to pose no real problem for me know. Sure, I’m still tired. My feet still hurt at the end of the walks, my muscles still ache – but I don’t need to stop and catch my breath as I power up a hill any more – I tend to get up there in one continuous effort.
In fact Half Mile Hill didn’t even leave me particularly out of puff.
I just focussed on a lady and her dog about 50 metres ahead of me and maintained that distance. It was a pleasant stroll over the hill, down the other side and on to the hedgerow lined grass tracks that led you towards Dunstable.
Super Wife text me as I walked down the Green Lanes towards West Street and the foot of the Dunstable Downs, to let me know that she was setting off from home with Niamh in the buggy to go to her brother, Colin’s, house up by Oldhill. It was about 9:30am and I had hoped to meet them all there by about midday. With about 7-8 miles left to go, I realised I need to pick up the pace.
Now... for the purpose of balance I need to mention another dog incident that occurred as I walked down the Green Lanes. Last week I had a right moan about a little Westie called Trixie who decided that I was looking quite tasty early Saturday morning - only two days before this particular walk. On the Bank Holiday Monday morning (this walk I'm writing about now) I was followed by a young Labrador Rottweiler cross and a slightly older Staff with a pink collar for about half a mile of the lanes. What happened was that I had walked about 30 metres ahead of two ladies walking their dogs, who despite wearing jogging gear weren’t actually jogging. We had then managed to maintain pretty much the same pace, that 30 metres apart, for about half mile. The two ladies were perfectly pleasant and had said hi when I initially past them. So were their dogs. The staff walked beside me for a bit but would come back to her owner straight away when called and she would place her on her lead whenever another dog came into view walking from the other direction. I forget the staffy’s name. Bonso, the rotty-lab cross however, was full of beans and was largely walking just ahead of me most of the way, or beside me, but completely ignored his owner when she called. As I got closer to West Street both the dogs fell back from me quite a distance and shortly after that I came across a man walking two dogs on leads. A beagle of some description I think and then some sort of cross border terrier. Both were on leads; neither had muzzles.
Now the reason mention this is because my new buddy Bonso came trotting past me, tail wagging, in the direction of the two dogs on leads when their owner - a quite tall, doughy looking fella, with a side parting and thick rimmed glasses – started going into meltdown. “Please! Please!” he said. “This one is very aggressive with other dogs!” and he motioned to the cross border terrier who by now was just a flurry of sandy, spinning fluff dangling from the end of a leash – all teeth and fur. Bonso, not particularly bothered by the sudden savagery of his tiny opponent, stood about two feet away with his head tilted to one side, tail still wagging, whilst his hapless owner called out his name in a sugary sweet voice, still some 20 metres behind me.
Initially, I felt quite sorry for the bloke. I thought to myself that he had his dogs on leads and he had attempted to warn the other dog owner to keep their dog back. Bonso, whilst quite adorable, was clearly not well trained enough yet to have off lead – he wasn’t responding to his name whatsoever. Then I thought... hang about... you know you’ve got a dangerous dog on the end of that lead that’s going to attack if it comes near any other dogs... and you’re walking it in a public place... in fact a track which is laden with people walking dogs all day every day. Shouldn’t your dog be muzzled mate? In truth, both owners were to blame for the melee, but it’s interesting to me how everyone seems to turn a blind eye to their own little darlings failings (or indeed their own) when it come to walking pets.
Anyway, from West Street it was up the sweeping slope, past the endurance race apparatus, to the top of the Five Knolls - slightly out of breath by the top, but certainly nothing severe – before pootling along the track along the spine of the Dunstable Downs in the opposite direction to that travelled so many times thus far.
It was a beautiful day; the sun was now out in full force and I was glugging down water from an emptied 2 litre Sprite bottle like no man’s business.
I walked almost as far as The Hut v.2.0 (the Chiltern Gateway Centre) before chipping across the car park and the surprisingly busy Whipsnade Road to the footpath that leads down towards Kensworth Quarry - the very footpath that used to form part of our cross country torture as high school students all those years ago.
I followed that footpath around to the southeast, crossing the road that leads to the gates of the quarry and onto the footpath that runs parallel with Isle of Wight Lane.
From there I rambled down the dirt track in the bright sunshine past Slough Wood and sharply down hill past the open fields to the woodland that sits at the foot of the quarry fenceline.
I wandered up the steady incline of the track through the woods, past the strange little brick built outbuilding that lies there seemingly without a purpose.
From there it was up the incredibly steep and sizeable wooden steps that climb the hillside up the side of the quarry. No picture can do those steps justice... because once you have bested the steps themselves there is still another stretch of steep inclined dirt track above them until you reach the stile at the top.
I was quite proud of myself as I powered up the entire hillside in one go at a steady pace, placing my hands on each of my thighs and pretty much using the combined forced of my legs and arms to push my way up those steps and beyond. I was breathing very heavily by the top but I wasn’t stopping. As my luck would have it there was an elderly couple stood against the fence line at the top with a plum view of this sweaty, wheezy, tramp staggering towards them – witness to my lack of grace or fitness. “Those steps are a bit steep aren’t they” said the elderly gent chirpily. “Just a bit” I managed to rasp out in response.
That said, I have also discovered something else about myself. I no longer stop. I’m tired. I’m out of breath. I need water. I don’t stop. I simply make it to the top of the hill, and keep walking along the flat at a slower speed, taking on water as I go and allowing my breathing to gently go back to normal – but I don’t stop. It’s the little victories that count... and for me that is one of them.
I have also discovered something else this week. Walking along the perimeter of a quarry, in the baking sun, without any shade, in sub standard boots and on dirt tracks that have no give and are full of stones an rock hard tyre treads... is not the one.
It felt as if I was walking forever as I slowly limped my way around the edges of this mahoosive crater and what is more every time I glanced down at my map I was astounded by how little ground I had actually covered.
That said the view from the end of the quarry in the bright sun is phenomenal. It looks like something out of a Star Wars movie... you half expect some sort of racing pod to come scuttling past at any moment.
I followed the quarry around but only as far as the far corner of Mentmore Park where I decided to break out across the playing fields in the direction of Mentmore Crescent. I swear that they have moved the location of the kids playground on that park but maybe I’m getting senile in my old age. I could have sworn it was closer to the bend in Mentmore Cresent and closer to the Downs rather than further from the road and closer to Lowther where it sits now.
My arrival on the edge of civilisation was met by a small white dog, a Bichon Frise I think, named Buster coming full pelt towards me and barking like crazy. I would love to be able to say melodramatically that I was overcome with flashbacks of Trixie and feelings of dread, but in reality this dog seemed perfectly friendly although a little confused by the sudden appearance of this Wildman from the tree-line wearing a bright orange t-shirt. His owners, a lovely couple, who wished me a good morning from quite a distance away, seemed to be walking about four little white dogs all scuttling along in a happy little pack.
I emerged on the tarmac of Mentmore Crescent, wandered down to Lowther Road, turned left down to the bottom of Oldhill where the Glider proudly sits, before turning right up Oldhill itself in the direction of High Street South. My legs were aching a fair bit and my clothes were absolutely drenched in sweat as I plodded at a pretty lazy pace along the pavements towards Index Drive and Graphic Close.
I could see Super Wife outside my brother-in-law’s house as I meandered up the road towards it. I was looking forward to a nice hot sweet tea and a cuddle from my little monkey face (that’s my daughter Niamh... not a nick name for my wife!).
I was delighted to see an old friend of mine from back in the day, Rob Morris, as I stood at the front door getting my pack and coat off. I had to apologise for general demeanour, sweaty hand and probable aromatic quality as I shook his hand and we caught up a bit. It turned out that Rob only lives a couple of doors down from Cols – small world eh? He was very complimentary about the walk – too much so if you ask me – especially in light of the fact that this man ran the London Marathon for charity only a year or so ago... something I could never do! He was also very kind about the standard of my blog - which was very reassuring as you do tend to worry that you're just aimlessly rambling on (no pun intended!). Even Niamhy braved the sweaty MS Society t-shirt to give me a cuddle and come and say hello to daddy’s friend, although surprisingly overcome with her first bout of shyness much to my amusement.
Having talked his ear off for a good 10 minutes or so I said goodbye and went inside to get cleaned up and down some sweet tea. Then after spending a good half hour chatting to Colin and Cheryl, we set off back across Dunstable to our end of town with me firmly on buggy pushing duty while Niamhy chirped along happily en route.
All in all not a bad mornings walking – just over 19 miles in just over 6 hours.
That said, as I didn’t get out walking this weekend I’ve only got another 7 weekends available for long walks and at least one of those is going to be taken up with a house move – busy, busy, busy!

Can you spare a few quid in support of the MS Society, Macmillan Cancer Support and Help for Heroes?

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