Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Where do you go when you ain’t got no map? The Beacon! That’s where! – 10th May 2014 – To Ivinghoe Beacon and back... via Whipsnade and Dagnall

After a couple of weeks of only doing evening weights sessions at home and shorter walks, I was tearing my hair out to get back out on the streets, footpaths and hills. Who would have thought it eh?
My flabby old self actually wanting to get out and do some exercise! But there it is. After a weekend off for the brother-in-law’s wedding and the next long weekend spent laid up in bed with flu like symptoms, it was time to drag myself out of bed at 4:25am, get talced and vaselined up, don the Macmillan green t-shirt, pull on the Sealskinz and the battered hiking boots, and get out there and put in the hard miles.
I left in the darkness and a haze of fine rain, waved off by Super Wife, who, despite being on an extremely tight budget at present, had still managed to rustle me up two bananas and a couple of raisin and hazelnut Jordans Fruesli bars.
We had experienced a bit of a technical malfunction in the Redmond house the night before as the printer had run out of ink. Let me explain... I still hadn’t managed to pick up an Ordnance Survey map of the local area – sums me up really. Hundreds of training miles. Tens of weekends. And I hadn’t bothered to order an OS Explorer for about a fiver online in the past four months. As a result, every long walk at the weekend, the night before we go through the process of measuring it out on Mapometer, printing off multiple small maps and then encasing them in plastic wallet and sellotape tombs ready for the next days folly. That’s right... that’s how we roll on a Friday night!
As a result of the car engine exploding on us about a month back I’m not able to drive out to Wendover or further afield and start the walk as I need to leave from home and return to hom on foot (via the old Smotherington’s house to collect the sprog). So, a lot of the old maps we had produced in the early days of this training regime (you know waaaaaaaay back in late January 2014) are pretty useless and the most recent routes get a bit boring if you always go exactly the same way.
Faced with this conundrum I resolved to go back to the beginning... the first training route that I had undertaken, in the company of my other brother-in-law Kevin – a 10-11 mile trek from Dunstable to Ivinghoe Beacon via Whipsnade and Dagnall – and back again. But this time starting from my house at the other end of Dunstable and going back there via my mum’s. When I first attempted the route with Kev I remember setting off from the Beacon at around 6-6:30am and staggering, half dead, into Lorna’s Mum and Dad’s in Meadway at about 2 or 3pm. Not only that but Kev and I were walking around half crippled for a good couple of days afterwards. Now I was setting off to do over twice the same journey and worrying that it would be long enough to be a “proper” training walk!
I rambled off down Luton Road, past the Market Cross, under the Duck Bridge, past the Black Cat Cafe, across the road and along the old brick wall that runs beside the cemetery of the historic and quite beautiful Priory Church.
There was barely a soul around as I strolled across the main crossroads in the centre of Dunstable – a strange experience for anyone born a short distance from the regular grind of engines and smell of exhaust that this section of the A5 tends to embody.
Then I trundled up West Street, past the Police Station, the surgery, the funeral directors, the Pheasant public house and the cemetery. By this time the rain was really starting to kick in and strangely – the first aches in the muscles began to emerge. That’s what you get for a couple of weekends off!
Further up West Street, passing Chiltern Road, Drovers Way, the Meadway shops and then... there it was... the foot of the Dunstable Downs winding up hill from the road, green and grey in the slating drizzle... that’s when the real walk began.
I stormed up the hill, panting like an asthmatic with a forty a day habit (but not stopping... never stopping) and then strode out across the laid path that runs along the spine of the Dunstable Downs in the now driving precipitation to the big Glass Hut.
From there it was a brisk amble along the slope of Bison Hill.
As I wandered along I could see on the horizon the unassuming mound of my halfway destination.
Having crossed Bison Hill, and spinning a left at the small car park at its far end, I traipsed along the narrow stony trail that leads towards Whipsnade and without even knowing it started singing to myself – yet again. Today’s eclectic selection... “Take That First Step” from The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland – oh yes! A personal favourite and accompanied with a little muppet dance at various points along the way. Thankfully... I was alone.
I paused to take a picture of the trail at the point that it widened just before Dell Farm and tweeted my customary “Good Morning” message before squeezing through the stile at the end of the bridleway an into the field which usually contains my old mate the randy bull. Again my luck was in... the field was absent the randy bull, just a herd of rather confused sheep.
From there it was through the Tree Cathedral and across the Whipsnade Common to the path that leads to the perimeter fence of Whipsnade Zoo.  The rain still lashed down but I was comfortable, my feet were bone dry (thank you Sealskinz, you little beauties) and the walking was good. The slight aches that had surfaced really early on in this walk had completely subsided and I tucked into my first Fruesli bar without missing a step.
As I trudged slightly up hill along that perimeter fence I suddenly became aware that I was not alone. I confess I had been largely looking down at the stones and broken bricks in the track in front of me as I had been walking but as I looked up and turned my head I came face to face with a wallaby or a kangaroo! I couldn’t tell you which – I’m no bloody Richard Attenborough – but I let out a girly high pitch squeal that would have rivalled any teenage girl in the country and stumbled backwards. My marsupial acquaintance bolted a few metres away from me at the sound of a fat man scrabbling in the rocks, before turning back to watch me with great interest as I slowly removed my camera from my pocket, placed it through the gap in the wire fencing and took his picture.
The weather was atrocious but my mood was now bright and breezy as I pretty much skipped off up the track, giddy as a schoolboy, lifted by my early morning encounter with a creature somewhat more exotic than the usual bolshy squirrel.
I wandered across the Whipsnade Golf Course which was surprisingly populated with golfers compared to my previous forays onto these greens – surprising in light of the weather up until that point. The rain had now stopped, the sun was starting to emerge and things were warming up, but these colourful jumpered, tassled shoe wearing nutters with their electronically powered trolleys weren’t to know that when they set off this morning for a cheeky 18. As I walked through an avenue of trees that separate two fairways I had my second cause to act like a complete whoopsy... a golf ball came slamming into a tree only a foot or two away to my right about two or three feet above me! It sounded like a bloody gunshot and I basically jumped to my left in alarm, lost my footing and took a pretty hefty drop to my knee. As I thudded to the ground I swear I heard laughing coming from behind me but as I clambered back to my feet and spun round to face my would-be assassin all I could make out was an old man with his gloved hand raised apologetically. After my heart rate had finally calmed down – which incidentally occurred only once I had crossed the entire course – I rationalised that it would have taken a pretty nifty golfer to intentionally aim for me on the move from about 150 yards away.
After that it was downhill along the massively overgrown and somewhat hazardous path down the edge of Dagnall Wood and then onto the equally, if not more so, overgrown footpath that runs from Dagnall Wood down to the primary school.
I know that I am fast becoming a grumpy old man, but I was furious by the time I made the school, primarily because I was quite literally drenched from the waist down. Not wet. Not soaked. Nay! Nay! I literally looked like I had just waded out of a swimming pool and onto the road. I remind you that by this time it was actually quite sunny. Who knew that the white flowered weeds that hindered my progress would carry such an abundance of H2O.
I shuffled along the road like a child who had just had an unfortunate accident, nodding at a couple of old ladies who glanced at me accusingly as they passed me at the roundabout, and looking lustily at the Red Lion, wishing opening time was about four hours earlier than it was.
The one good thing about walking in the rain is that the fields, trees and flowers look amazing when the sun makes an appearance. The colours just shine. As I rambled across the green in Dagnall where the village signpost stands central amid a blanket of golden buttercups I thought to myself, walking along in jeans stuck to your legs isn’t so bad – it’s almost worth it in fact – for scenes like these.
The sky was still pretty grey as I trundled along the gravel of Hogs Hall Lane – a monotonous, uncomfortable ascent towards the Hall itself. I had only ever travelled along this route in the other direction and strangely it had never struck me as being a descent, but it’s amazing how much more you appreciate a slope when you’re having to carry your lardy arse up it!
I then proceeded to climb the footpath that runs along a large paddock which leads to a farm yard and eventually to the woods and the Steps of Dooma moniker I have afforded them as I have yet to get up them without having to stop and catch my breath. I must have been breathing quite heavily as it was, because as I plodded up the edge of the paddocks I caused a host of sheep and lambs to start running away from me and back into the far smaller paddock closer to the gated yard. And then, emerging suddenly from the tree line to my right, a stream of deer, probably alarmed by the movement of the sheep, bolted across my path about 70 metres ahead, at least 40 head. It was one of the most amazing, and amazingly self-consciousness inducing, sights I have ever seen.  I spent half my time fumbling for my camera and the other half stressing that an angry farmer would materialise accusing me of worrying his herd.
The Steps of Doom were not as ominous going down them, although I did still have to watch that I didn’t tumble down them all as the rain had made each wooden strut treacherous and the protrusion of the wood from the rest of the earth had quite an impact on the soles of the feet. By the time I had pressed on through the woodland at their feet and into the open fields that lead towards Ivinghoe Beacon I was in serious need of a handful of extra strength Ibruprofen (or vitamin I as I have now started calling them) and a banana – not to mention a transfer of water from the reserves in my pack to the smaller bottle in my pocket. I’m so glad that I have invested in a pair of Camelbaks for the actual trek itself – much, much easier!
Having reached the Beacon it seemed only proper that I climb it!
This is fast becoming a tradition and to be fair, although I no longer find it very challenging, I do find it immensely rewarding.
Being able to stare out across the horizon and see the entire range of Bison Hill, the Dunstable Downs and the Five Knolls, and know that you had walked across it all and more in just the last couple of hours gives you a real boost – and you very nearly forget in that split second that you need to walk it all over again right now!
So... having restocked with tablets, water and a banana I was off again descending the chalky path of the Beacon to retrace the last 10 miles or so of my journey.
Back across the fields and back through the woodlands, a verdant pallete mixed with golds, a bruised sky littered with beautiful powder clouds.
Then... the Steps of Doom.
I actually psyched myself up for these bad boys.
I was actually talking to myself out loud on the approach – which is itself a steady incline.
I powered up that hill – but alas only three quarters of the way before stopping to catch my breath.
If that was all I had to do... I could probably do it, but your mind starts to talk you out of it when your most of the way up and the incline suddenly steepens. It reminds you that there are still 10 miles to go and you stop. One day I will conquer those poxy steps... but today it wasn’t to be.
From the top of the steps it was past the crazy geese and paranoid sheep before heading downhill along the edge of the grazing field.
Then back down the grey gravel track. I was glad of the steady descent but spent most of my time watching my feet attempting to avoid slamming any sizeable stones into my mid-heel area and causing the sort of all encompassing blister that I had suffered on the last journey along this route. Being a rotund and hefty fella I am not exactly fleet of foot and I do tend to stomp my heels down firmly on each step as I go downhill. I’ve been training myself to use the Pacerpoles to assist me in this aspect but I’m not quite there yet with them to want to take them out on a 20 mile hike – perhaps next week. As a result of being so thunderous and cumbersome on a descent I have started to almost jig as I walk, a sort of bounce, that takes some of the impact off my knees, hips and heels. Today, however, I was singing and humming the Dropkick Murphy’s classic I’m Shipping Up To Boston which I had been using in the edit for the training video I had posted a few days earlier. Again I was glad to be completely alone as I would have been mortified to have been seen essentially jigging down a track “diddly-deeing” as I went!
I rocketed through Dagnall at an impressive rate and cut back through the overgrown footpath up to Dagnall Wood, which graciously left me reasonably dry upon my exit on this particular occasion - then I was up the road and through the stile by the house that leads to the bottom of Dagnall Wood. I managed to get up that hill in one continuous effort despite the ground being nothing but sludge at various points and emerging victorious back onto the Golf Course.
I managed to avoid an assassination attempt this time around although I noted that by this time the course was positively crowded! I received a few discerning looks as my hulking, steaming mass plodded past them in heavy boots, over their fairways and felt like green and onto the path that circumvents the animal park. I seemed to spend an age walking that fence line.
I then came out onto the Whipsnade Common into bright sunshine, the clouds starting to reduce in number and in opaqueness, the puddles glinting in its rays.
From there it was through the Tree Cathedral. Some old chap and his dog were sitting on my usual bench, but I wasn’t feeling particularly tired so I just trundled on towards the randy bulls field receiving a good morning wave from the old fella as I did so.
The walk back up the bridleway towards Bison Hill wasn’t as pleasant as on the way there – which makes no logical sense as it’s the same track! But for some reason it seemed far more stony and painful the second time around. I was distracted for most of this stretch though by the sound of a tannoy system announcing feeding times at the zoo and the regular sound of a toot from the miniature steam railway – I need to get my Niamh up to Whipsnade as soon as I can – she’d love it!
I paused on Bison Hill to take a few pictures of the fantastic view there – the storm clouds were still loitering, threatening to soil what was otherwise now quite a sunny morning – but it was beautiful to behold.
Looking out again to the horizon I could see Ivinghoe Beacon sticking out above the surrounding fields and again I felt a great sense of pride that a couple of hours earlier I had been stood on top of that summit – popping pills and piling on the calories!
Soon enough Bison Hill was behind me and I was on the path that runs along the spine of the Dunstable Downs. The Regiment Fitness van was parked in its usual position but I couldn’t see the customary swarm of people breathlessly working out in its proximity –  I must have just missed them.
I did stop to take a picture of the big iron sculpture though. Anyone who knows me will attest to the fact that I am a massive art fan – love it – can’t get enough of it – but am I the only one that just doesn’t get this piece? It has a prime position on Dunstable Downs – surely some sort of giant stag or red kite or the like would have been better – akin to the Kelpies, the two giant horse sculptures, up in Scotland. All I can make out is a sort of angular car grill – and I’m sure that’s not what the artist was going for.
From there it was across the Five Knolls in some incredible cross winds! Now I’m a unit – I know that. And I’m not exactly light! But I could barely walk in a straight-ish line as I made my way along the path and I’m sure some of my super-light female cousins would have been blown away completely! (You know who you are ladies! Dannii I’m looking at you in particular!)
Once I’d managed to get over the Knolls then it was a simple matter of following the fence line back down hill to the road, skirting along West Street, down Drovers Way, up Pascomb Road and onto my Mum’s – where sweet tea and a darling daughter were to be found.
By the time I had made it back to my house with the buggy, the baby, some washing and some supplies in tow I had done about 22 miles.
I had done just over 20 miles in just under 7 hours when I arrived at my mum's, which was double the mileage that I had done in a longer time at the end of January.
More importantly, I wasn’t in bits. Sure – I ached a bit; but within a couple of hours I could have easily done another four or five miles and by the next morning I could have done it all again. So things are progressing quite nicely. Which is good; because soon – 47 days to be precise – I’ll need to get up and do it all over again 50 days on the bounce!

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