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9th May 2000
It looked like being nice weather again. The day before I'd gone off for the day with friends in their car down to the beach at Wembury near Plymouth and it had been sunny and beautiful and I had wanted to stay there rather than return to gloomy old Bristol. My reoccurring daydreams of one day buying a camper van and traveling or maybe just walking about with a tent on my back returned.
Last year some time I had really started to get into the idea of going walkabout and had bought a small camping stove and army mess tins and a new cheap lightweight dome tent to go with the all weather sleeping bag and other bits and pieces I already had. I'd tested out the stove one sunny day last year out on the patio in the back garden. A bit of Flora margarine, a chopped onion and a tin of baked beans all heated in a mess tin together with some bread and butter and all without having to resort to going back into the kitchen once, confirmed that it was quite up to the job of dealing with my style of survival rations. I had even tried packing my rucksack once with everything I thought I would need for a few days out in the 'wilderness'. Keeping things to what I thought was a minimum but which included a large bottle of water and half a dozen tins of beans I found to my horror that I could hardly lift it, let alone actually move about with it. Since then it has all sat unused in a cupboard awaiting the right time, the right weather, and more crucially, the right frame of mind.
Just exactly what the right frame of mind was I'm not sure. Perhaps a combination of forgetfulness about how heavy the bag would be and just pure craziness to think that it would just be an enjoyable, relaxing, gentle stroll through the countryside, but whatever, the idea of actually finally doing it had grown during the morning. I knew I would need to try the idea out on some relatively gentle route to start with, so long ago I had decided that the first walk I would try would be along a bit of the Kennet and Avon walkway. I'd bought a marvelous book, 'The Kennet And Avon Walk' by Ray Quinlan, which showed that it was quite possible to walk from Bristol to London on footpaths and towpaths that follow the route of the River Avon and then the canal. I'd studied the sections of the book which referred to the local bits of the route I was already somewhat familiar with, from Conham to Saltford, and had concluded that it would make an ideal companion and guide for however far I would manage to go even if it meant I would have to read it backwards because I was going the 'wrong way'.
I gradually assembled all the things I thought I would need in my kitchen. Rucksack, Maltesers, stove, Maltesers, cutlery, sleeping bag, Maltesers, coat, spare socks, spare T-shirt, spare Maltesers, tins of food, coffee, milk, sugar, water, and more Maltesers! I eventually found a place for it all in my bulging rucksack. With all the pockets on my combat trousers also full and bulging, I was ready and prepared to do the 'lift'. The rucksack with my coat slung underneath was incredibly heavy but I managed to get it on my back without too much trouble by cheating and first resting it on the kitchen work top and then sort of walking into the straps!
By two forty five I was stood outside my front door, leaning down with some difficulty, trying to turn the key in the deadlock at the same time as keeping my balance and making sure I could straighten back up. A few moments later I was heading off up the road with the occasional bounce in my step trying to make adjustments to the rucksack straps that were already biting painfully into my shoulders. There seemed to be different adjustable straps all over the place but adjusting all of those that seemed relevant I was unable to decrease the pain I was in. The only thing that seemed to help just a little was the waist belt. By bending double so the weight of the bag was temporarily supported by my back I found I could hitch the belt under the buckle of my trouser belt, and if I then pulled all the straps as tight as I could, when I stood up straight again a lot of the weight was taken off my shoulders. The only trouble with this was that it pulled my trousers up so high that the trouser legs ended half way up my calves. I must have looked a little strange because as I carried on over the main road and down some side streets heading for my shortcut secret footpath to the river, everyone I passed, car drivers included, did a double take when they saw me.
I soon reached the little known footpath and sliver of unspoiled countryside that separates the houses and leads down to the main road at Hanham. I was already in need of a drink and sweating profusely but was determined to carry on without taking a break so soon. I negotiated the main road and cut across between the houses before disappearing down the footpath to Conham that follows the course of a small stream down to the Avon. It wasn't long before I was following the familiar route out past the Ariel rowing club shed and Beese's Tea Gardens, enjoying the beauty of the relatively unspoiled countryside. Unspoiled save for the huge ugly green pipe mounted on massive rollers, presumably to allow for expansion, that emerges at one point from the undergrowth not far from a graffiti covered concrete retaining wall. Perhaps a small price to pay all things considered. As always it was a delight to think that such scenery could survive despite its proximity to the very heart of Bristol. Only three or so miles away was all the sterile concrete, traffic and fumes of the narrow minded, shortsighted city centre redevelopment. Despite my heavy load, in keeping with previous walks along this way, I passed under the new tall ring road bridge and reached the Old Lock and Weir pub about an hour and a half after having left home. I was in desperate need of a drink and walked straight into the bar, carefully ducking my head and the rucksack beneath the low doorways. The barman perhaps mistaking me for someone else seemed to want to sell me a pint of Blackthorn cider. I was too thirsty to try something I don't normally have and knew that if I had anything alcoholic at this point I would probably end up asleep in the next field so I ordered up a pint of orange squash with plenty of ice. I wandered back outside with my drink and found an empty table in the cool green shade of a tree overlooking the river and almost completely submerged weir. A short struggle saw the rucksack slip from my back and go crunching to the floor. Feeling rather self conscious with the back of my sweat soaked T-shirt now visible, I propped the rucksack against the end of the table with great care so as to make sure the table didn't collapse under the weight! I was very hot and didn't feel well at all and was quite happy to sit there cooling off, nursing my condensation covered pint glass for as long as I could make it last.
After about an hour or so I had sufficiently recovered enough to consider setting off again. Picking my rucksack up I paused briefly to allow a small girl playing behind me to move out of the danger zone before swinging it up and round onto my back. As the straps once more dug into my painful shoulders and with a backward glance just to make sure I hadn't accidentally caught the little girl up in a loose strap and had her on my back too, I stumbled slowly away. Past the Chequers Inn and along the concrete riverbank path next to the car park, I headed for the style with its worn smooth wooden rails that lead into the lush grass field. Climbing over the style with the weight I was carrying wasn't easy and at one point, with an unfamiliar centre of gravity, I teetered precariously not knowing which side of the style I would end up and indeed which way up! Luckily I retained control and with a thud and a great shock to my knees I landed on my feet on the grass. The path beyond unofficially splits into two and although I would normally walk the right hand path that followed the meander of the river, I knew the less used left hand one was a more direct route. Under the circumstances that was what I needed so I bore left.
Skirting the edge of the flood plane field with the dense lush woodland covering the hill to my left, I headed off toward the monstrously ugly electricity pylons that arrogantly marched across the land and sky ahead.
As I passed under the great cables I was, as always, rather surprised that I could detect nothing of the great voltages and strong magnetic fields hanging just overhead.
The last time I had been through this way the field had been occupied by a herd of young bulls that had sadly been scared of me and had run away as I approached saying hello and asking how they were doing. It was because of them my freezer was full of boxes of buy one get one free Sainsburys meat free burgers. This time there was no sign of them. There was however something strange in the distance near the fence of the next field. The path I was on lead straight towards it, so fixing my eyes on what ever it was I marched on across the grass. Although still a long way off I gradually became aware that it was looking back at me. Oh dear! Thankfully half hidden by the grass and roll of the field it became obvious that the old man was putting his trousers back on. It was a jolly fine, hot, sunny day but it really didn't seem quite right somehow. As I got closer his awkward body language and the fact that he decided just then to walk over and inspect the river made me suspect he wasn't simply enjoying sitting in the sun. Making sure I was in charge of the situation as I passed by him, in my best business like voice I said good afternoon, as he stood with his scrawny white back to me looking intently at the river. He awkwardly replied something, as stumbling over the deep muddy cow footprints I marched quickly on, leaving him to . . . his own devices!
The next field spread out in front of me. A carpet of lush green almost completely covered by the vibrant yellow of the buttercups. It was dazzling in the sunlight and like a character from the Wizard of Oz, I followed the yellow trail as it meandered along next to the river. I was soon approaching the hedge that marked the gateless boundary with the next field, and had found the herd of bulls. They were all stood together in the heavy, wet, churned up mud that lay in the opening through which I had to pass. I wasn't in the least bit worried because of my memories of my previous meetings with them and how timid they had been, but it did cross my mind that they had grown up quite a bit. As I drew nearer it very soon became clear that they had also grown rather more confident, and rather than run as I made towards them, this time they simply turned and stared at me. I tried to start up a friendly conversation but they weren't having any of it and one or two actually turned and took a step towards me. They had me rattled. I had no choice but to pick my way through them so I started trying to make what I imagined were intimidating, farmer like 'go on then' noises as I struggled through the mud. I can only assume they all misheard me or thought I was saying come on, because rather than run away, they seemed to congregate around me, with indignant expressions and body language that said 'who do you think you're talking to?'. Yes. I was scared now. Clapping my hands, and the unexpected flailing of limbs that accompanied my tripping over a furrow because I was no longer watching where I was placing my feet, seemed to confuse them a little and in that moment I was through! I think I was actually running at this point but because of the weight of my rucksack, much to my disappointment and concern, all that developed in my legs was a brisk walk. About the same speed that the herd was following me! In desperation I took a mental note of the shortest route to the riverbank and rehearsed in my mind how I would struggle out of my rucksack under water. With much awkward looking over my shoulder past the rucksack, it was with great relief that I began to draw away from the herd. As if congratulating myself on having survived an encounter with the beasts of the wilderness, I gave another round of applause just to make sure they didn't sneak up behind me. There are times when a rucksack would benefit from having wing mirrors. I walked on and passed a shorts and T-shirt runner who came bounding down over a hill. I said hello and thought to warn him of the antagonized herd waiting around the next bend, but then thought if he likes running so much he'll get his chance.
I climbed the relatively new style and crossed the stone bridge near a desirably isolated and somewhat run down cottage with its strange side window conversion that presumably afforded the occupants a tremendous view of the entire valley through which I had just walked. Over another style into the next field that, prone to flooding and visible from the road to Keynsham, is always a guide as to how much rain has recently fallen. A luscious green it was thankfully all above water and I easily made good progress.
Out from behind a bush appeared a dog. Dogs can be unpredictable when off their leash, out in the fields, when suddenly coming upon a stranger, but this one turned out to be friendly enough. I don't know what sort it was but somewhere in its genes there was the pointer about it. It stopped ahead of its owners immediately it spotted me, and with a backward glance to check its masters were taking notice, it raised a front paw slightly and assumed the classic pointer stance to warn them of my presence. They gave it some words of reassurance that its duty was done and it happily bounced and wagged about me as I smoothed its coat and rubbed its ears. I offered to take it and give it a good walk but understandably they wanted to keep it. Another dog shortly after was perhaps more of a worry to its owners, and therefore to me, because upon seeing me they held on to the stick they had been throwing and tried to preoccupy the dog by waving it about as I approached. I made some wise crack about how glad I was they were doing it lest the dog should mistake my tall wiry body for a stick. We all laughed as I passed by and then the man called back jovialy, 'You are a stick!'. I don't know what he meant. Ducking a ripple of paranoia, I didn't think he was being unkind so I chose to think he had read too many Enid Blyton books and that being a stick wasn't half bad. I happily walked on, hoping that I was sweating off some of my recent slight weight gain and that I would become even more like a stick.
The sickly sweet smell drifting on the air demanded I notice the old Frys chocolate factory in case the huge ugly structure commanding the whole of the opposite bank had been missed! Shortly after, a strange new elaborate cross between a garden gate and a turn style marked the paths exit from the field.
At Keynsham lock three kids were lined up in trainers and shorts nervously hanging on to the wrong side of the A4175 bridge railings, trying to pluck up the courage to jump into the murky waters some fifteen feet below. I've never had the courage to do anything like it, having been brainwashed in childhood of the dangers of hidden weed beds just below the surface of all water, waiting to grab your legs and keep you under forever. I stopped to watch and it was only a short wait before . . . splosh! The first one had gone, feet first and under. It seemed like a much longer, breathless wait before at last he reappeared to pull himself triumphantly out on the bank. Peer pressure at full force, one by one the others followed, the deliberate accuracy of their descent to the exact same spot in the water perhaps betraying their fear of hidden weed beds. I felt obliged to congratulate each on their achievement as they excitedly ran back to their pile of clothes. I passed under the bridge and walked on, over the road that led to the Lock Keeper pub, and up to the style on the other side. With aching knees I negotiated the style and walked down the track that lead past the fenced off Keynsham Marina with its expensive motor boats squeezed in between the numerous residential narrow boats. Perched on scant supports, a small, metal lattice footbridge with no visible warnings of any weight restrictions, bounced worryingly above the water as I lumbered across it. The path carried on, hemmed in between the river and the fence. Pushing through the new undergrowth and nettles, I suddenly emerged onto a narrow pothole covered lane. It lead down past some wooden river front houses, over a cattle grid, across the field and up to the expensive walled house in the distance. Unfortunately my suddenly popping out like that seemed to have an unnerving effect on the dog a lady was walking a little way ahead. The dog duly warned its mistress of the danger of a stranger's presence, but embarrassingly by running away down the track whining, with its tail between its legs! She called it back and explained to me there was nothing to worry about. The way the dog was cowering behind her legs and ran away in the opposite direction when I tried to say hello to it, funnily enough I wasn't the least bit worried. I left her counseling her dog's neurosis and headed quickly away toward the little family drama that was being played out at the cattle grid. The man on my side of the cattle grid seemed idly bemused as he watched the woman, who I presume was his wife, console the perhaps ten year old girl who had just crashed her push bike on the other side. A younger girl on a smaller bike a little way off was struggling to catch up. The ten year old obviously wasn't hurt but was crying perhaps more with embarrassment than anything else. Trust me to come along at just the wrong moment and be an audience to her increased embarrassment. As she hid her tear stained face in the woman's shoulder I quipped to the man that I had come along just at the wrong time. He didn't seem to understand or perhaps care, so I walked past him and over the cattle grid and slipped past the woman and girl as if I hadn't noticed them. The younger girl peddling furiously wobbled past me on the track. I took to the grass and returned to the riverbank briefly looking behind to see the mans reaction as the younger girl caught them up and promptly crashed her bike and burst into tears at the woman's feet. I didn't see him move.
On past the boat works where boats were littered all around and a huge crane sat armed with enormous strops waiting to lift boats from the water. A style to a green field of grass, another to a brown ploughed field and yet another into a field of sheep. The noisy young lambs were already looking quite well grown and were definitely quite wooly, although judging by the awful condition of their mothers coats it seemed quite likely they were destined to be someone's dinner rather than nurtured for their wool. I've never experienced any aggression directed at me from a sheep, although I hasten to add I've never spent much time with any, and even though they are of course much less of a threat, with memories of the bulls fresh in my mind I decided to give them a little more respect and distance than usual. Thankfully true to form, rather sheepishly they all ran away as I approached. I was soon out of their field and into the next. I slowed my pace as I passed the unmoving, prone figure of a man on the bank of the river but soon speeded up again stepping in time to his contented snoring. I crossed the wooden foot bridge to the footpath junction where I was more used to turning left and climbing the steps up the wooded bank to join the Bristol to Bath cycle path for the long haul back home. This time I turned right and followed the path through a magical strange cloud of snow like blossom gently drifting on the breeze from a nearby tree, and under the cycle path bridge. Since my route up to this point was quite familiar, having walked it several times in the previous year in sun, rain and snow, I had already decided long before, this was an appropriate point to have a rest. Beneath the bridge in the cool of the shadows I dropped my sweat soaked rucksack to the floor, propped it against the bridge wall and collapsed to the floor to use it as a backrest. I slowly began to cool off as I sipped my bottled water and relaxed with a cigarette. The sun was still clear in the sky, making even more brilliant the new growth greens of the hedgerows, trees and farmers crop in the field on the other side of the river. The full brown river rolled ceaselessly by as pigeons cooed and flapped in mating ritual in the girders above. I closed my eyes against the brightness to savor the sounds engulfing me. All around was bird song. In the distance the baaing of the lambs, quacking of ducks, the gruff grunt of a swan, the hint of voices from the cycle path above and somehow loud above it all, the silence. The silence . . . and the motorbike! It got louder and louder and very loud indeed with its missing exhaust, as it came into view and pulled up on the opposite bank in the farmers field. The young rider pulled off his helmet, grotesquely cleared his throat and spat the contents at the floor. I stared my best disapproving, fixed stare. He noticed me and soon put his helmet back on and pointed the number plate-less bike up the hill towards the cycle track. With a huge amount of throttle and matching noise it lurched up the slope but only got a few feet before with a sickening clunk it came to a halt and with a splutter the engine stalled. With some muffled cursing he obviously managed to put the slack drive chain back on the rear sprocket and he was soon restarted in a roar and having another go at the slope. The noise of the engine died again and out of site behind some bushes I could hear more muffled cursing. Shortly after the engine noise restarted he reappeared, this time coming down the slope. Just short of the river he turned a wide U turn and set off back up, but this time to my complete disgust all over the farmers crops in the middle of the field. Although long out of sight, the noise of the bike was audible somewhere in the distance and I imagined him terrorising poor cyclists and walkers all along the cycle track. Incredibly, a short while later, the noise got louder again and the bike reappeared in another field on the other side of the cycle track. The natural peace and quiet for miles around was selfishly destroyed as he made his way along the far river bank and once more out of sight but still all too audible.
No longer relaxed I stood up stretching my legs and cold, wet, aching back and prepared to load up and carry on. I quickly studied my book to see what it had to say about the apparently slightly complicated and less pleasant bit of walk I would soon encounter. With the details more or less straight in my mind I buttoned the handy sized book back into my combat trouser leg pocket. As I did so, far off in the distance, to my delight I could hear, mixed in with the revving of the bike, much shouting and I imagined that some farmer was perhaps giving chase. All strapped up and weighted down I set off along the path in the direction of the revving and shouting, hoping to catch a glimpse of justice done. As the path wound its way around the next meander what I soon saw at the top of a field on the opposite bank was what appeared to be a farmer shouting instructions at his son who was practicing his off road motorbike skills. I still didn't think it was right though.
The path followed the riverbank at the edge of the field until at some point it turned away from the water and lead directly towards the main A431 road. I climbed the style and squeezed through between the parked vans and cars of the customers of the Swan pub, which was on the opposite side of the road. I turned right and headed off up the pavement, but it became narrower near the entrance to the mill buildings, and non existent a little way ahead, so I soon crossed over between the fast moving traffic to the path on the other side. Past a fascinating old timber and corrugated iron church constructed on barely visible brick arch foundations, I followed the course of the road for quite a distance. After the peace and quiet of the riverside walk, this bit was really most unpleasant with speeding traffic of all sorts roaring only inches by. The hedgerow overhanging the pavement had clearly not been trimmed for a long time, and in places it was so dense that it was necessary to almost walk in the road rather than be able to just push branches out of the way. Most drivers seemed to be aware and gave a wide berth as they sped by, but others came very close. It was a little nerve wracking and the prospect of being hit from behind by some large speeding vehicle, driven by someone not concentrating, seemed very real. Once again a set of rear view mirrors on the rucksack seemed a good idea, although the right hand one would probably have been knocked off here! I was eager to leave the road and return to the fields. Too eager. With some difficulty I crossed the road and went through the gateless entrance to a lush, grass, green field that I thought was my way. Completely enclosed by the river, hedges and a house, it was clear I had further to go along the road. Once more checking my book, it was obvious I had to go much further up the road, so once again taking my life in my legs I manage to cross back over to the narrow pavement. At last there was a style with a sign indicating the footpath, just before the road disappeared around a sweeping bend, so once again I had to run the gauntlet of the racetrack, praying that nothing would appear from around the corner too fast. I made it and was soon over the style and more than happy to comply with the sign that had been put there, demanding I keep to the footpath across the middle of the field.
Hidden from the noise of the traffic behind thick hedges, I followed the worn depression in the grass, away from the road and over the small footbridge into the next field. Soon on the other side of the field, I was climbing the wooden rail next to someone's garage, that seemed to have a dirty rag as a garage door, and made my way along the track past the old dilapidated buildings. It seemed strange that some of them had escaped the relentless, clean lined conversion and modernisation of most of the others. I crossed the open convergence of tracks and roads and passed the imposing gates of the Kelston brass mill building with its stern 'Private' signs, and bore left to follow the narrow road that passed in front of the row of cottages. Hidden off the beaten track, life here seemed to be at a different pace and have echoes of safer times gone by. Many of the cottages had their doors left wide open and unattended. A group of ducks was milling about in front, perhaps waiting for a scattered meal. I climbed a well signposted style and set off across the grass and down the slope, back towards the river. The sound of a weir roared ever closer as the smell of steak drifted on the imperceptible breeze. With a scattering of small boats, there to my right was the weir, the lock and on the opposite bank, the Jolly Sailor pub with its busy hustle and bustle of a warm sunny evening. There was no immediate way across and I had no great desire to become one of the throng so I continued on my way, along my deserted bank, mindful of the time and the sinking sun. I was now thinking of somewhere to stop the night, in earnest. I knew from the maps and descriptions in my trusty book that I wasn't very many miles from Bath and that much of the way would not readily lend itself to safely hiding a tent. I followed the path parallel to the expensive looking river front properties on the other bank, smiling the occasional greeting to passing boats and canoes. I overtook an old sail boat crewed by three generations of excited boys, who seemed determined not to use an engine no matter how gentle the breeze. To their glee the sail rippled just a little as I passed, but I think it may have been due to the wake in the air the bulk of my rucksack and my urgent passing made. One brown field showed signs of having been recently dug over and rolled flat and may have done me, but it was a little too overlooked by the houses for my liking. Over a style and into the next crop planted field. As the river eased gently around its meander, the path I was on suddenly split into two, around a clump of long grass and nettles, and then rejoined into one several metres ahead. The least worn path that was next to the riverbank passed a small, flat, grassed area that extended right up to the bank. The bank itself, on closer inspection, was in just this one spot a brick built wall, which dropped some three feet to the wide expanse of water. Surrounded by tall nettles and grass, with the cover of trees to my left, with the opposite bank all bushes and trees and with only one house visible on a hill a little way off in the distance on the opposite bank, it seemed perfect to me. It was about seven thirty as I dropped my rucksack to the floor and sat on the grass with my thighs on the flat brickwork and my feet dangling over the water with the golden orb of the sun directly in front of me descending imperceptibly into the trees. I relaxed and drank water and smoked cigarettes. I didn't feel hungry and was just happy to sit for ages watching the boats go by and enjoying being settled. My dangling feet were aching and I was drenched in sweat but it felt OK.
The gentle trembling of my exertion eventually subsided and the sweat began to cool and I began to think about food. Perhaps not so much because I was actually hungry but more because I wanted to prove to myself that I could actually make an acceptable meal with what I had brought. I relocated all the things I had in my rucksack and pulled out my army mess tin and clipped together travelers cutlery. I self consciously set up my small gas stove on the brickwork, as bemused boat owners droned by, and placed a tin of economy baked beans in readiness next to it. From the Tupperware box I had packed it in, to stop it all being squashed, I pulled out one of the freezer bag wrapped piles, of now thawed bread. I removed a couple of slices, which still felt really quite fresh, and set about 'buttering' them from the small round lidded Tupperware container I had filled with Flora margarine. I was all set for a hot survival supper of bread and butter and hot baked beans and . . . .oh no! I couldn't believe it! I had forgotten a tin opener! Of all things, I had been stupid enough to actually forget the one thing that no one actually ever forgets because it is so often forgotten! I had to laugh. In desperation I carefully examined my three-piece camping cutlery clip but couldn't see how a fork, a spoon, or even a round tipped knife with a built in bottle opener could help. Luckily I had, as an afterthought more to personal safety than anything else, packed my sharp pointed lock knife. It is perhaps embarrassing to admit, that being one of my favorites, I've seen the film 'Easyrider' too many times. It's the one where at some point a couple of Harley chop riding bikers meet up with a lovable rogue played by Jack Nicholson and end up camping out together. At some point in the middle of the night while asleep they are set upon by a group of brainless yokels and the Nicholson character is beaten to death in his bedroll. Having already lived out other parts of the film, I was determined THAT part would remain a fiction to me. Also having already experienced being beaten up by brainless thugs, once too often , I was quite prepared to make use of my 'nuclear deterrent' if the situation demanded it.
I unfolded the lock knife and carefully but forcefully plunged the sharp point into the top of the can. It went in like a sharp knife through a tin can! Actually, with the tin planted firmly on the top of the brick wall and with a determined sawing action, I was remarkably successful and I was soon emptying the contents into the mess tin and licking the sauce from the knife blade. Ha . . . who needs a tin opener. I lit the hissing stove and in what seemed like no time at all I was sat, legs dangling, spooning steaming hot beans into my mouth and mopping up sauce with the bread and butter. I was feeling very pleased with myself and economy baked beans have rarely tasted so good. Washing up the messy mess tin was a bit of a problem because I decided I couldn't safely reach the river water without the likelihood of a swim, however there was enough long, damp grass around, for a good handful and a vigorous wiping to see the job adequately done.
With the film in mind I was loathed to attract too much attention and waited until it was getting quite dark and the river traffic had dried up, before unpacking my tent. I'd only ever put it up as a test once before in my kitchen, being a self standing dome type, so it was a little slow going and at one point it almost ended up floating down the river and over the weir, but eventually I succeeded, even though one of the brand new rubber peg rings typically broke almost immediately. I stowed all my gear inside and decided to congratulate myself with a mug of hot sweet coffee . . . because I could. Despite the amount of sweat my body had lost during the day, I wasn't particularly thirsty and made a note that the huge heavy bottle of water I was carrying was probably unnecessary. I half filled my big enameled mug, perched directly on top of the adjustable arms of the stove, and munched my way through a 'fun pack' of Maltesers as the water quickly approached the boil. I added some coffee and sugar from more round Tupperware containers and poured in some milk from the plastic screw top pint I was also carrying. I supped a wonderful steaming mug of coffee as bats swooped about me and the ghostly silhouette of a lone swan glided silently by in the silky smooth black of the river. Hello mate. Beneath my feet the reflection of a classic, quarter-phase man in the moon smiled up from the water. Hidden fish made darting ripples around the reeds. The occasional plop of a bigger fish jumping out of the water casting silvery ripples and startling the trio of floating ducks. Strange wailing of unknown animals echoed from over the fields. In the distance an occasional train rushed on to who cares where. A nearby moorhen or a coot startled me with a sudden unexpected hoot. To both left and right along the river the sounds of drunken revelry at more than one pubs beer garden, but far enough away to be ignored. But even here I couldn't escape the frequent rude intrusions from over the water hidden behind the trees, some DJ beat master who knows what in the house music, booming out from the oversized car speakers of the mindless young 'cruisers' speeding along the lanes. Sounds of the wilderness!
By about ten thirty the cool moist air had increased my overall dampness and I was feeling VERY tired so with a final look about me at the dark, and a hushed listen for the hordes of brainless yokels I was convinced were somewhere roaming the fields, I somewhat nervously retired to my tent.
I'd forgotten to unpack my miniature torch and just couldn't make out in the dark which bit of my rucksack I was foraging in, so despite the danger, I had to continue rummaging while holding my flaming Zippo lighter, trying to keep it as far away from the nylon rucksack and roof and walls of the tent as possible. At last, without becoming hot and homeless, I managed to find it and set about unrolling my sleeping bag in its dim light and getting the mess I was in, sorted out. The ground I was on, although soft, wasn't quite as flat as it had appeared so I had to place the sleeping bag at a bit of an angle to stop myself rolling down a slope, but there was plenty of room in the tent so that wasn't a problem. At last I was all sorted and with my knife and torch within easy reach I clambered out of my damp, sweaty combat trousers, but left on my socks and T-shirt as protection from any night chill. I had decided that even though I may have to wake and do battle with the hoards in the night, looking as disheveled as I did, no trousers could only aid me in frightening them off! I piled up my coat as a pillow and tried to lie down. Something wasn't right. I couldn't believe it. I was longer than the tent . . . well almost. I ended up having to adjust my position so my head was right in one corner and my feet up against the fabric of the tent in the other. It would do. I snuggled down warm into my sleeping bag and, deliberately ignoring all the strange noises about me, was soon asleep. I was also soon awake adding trousers to my pillow . . . and asleep . . . and awake overheating and so it went on until I was woken completely by the incredibly loud noise at four thirty. I didn't know birds could be so loud. With such a cacophony of chattering and twittering and cawing and screeching any further sleep was quite impossible. While going through the contortions required to pull my creased, cold, wet trousers back on, my head touched the inner lining of the tent and I was doused in a light shower of water. Everything was wet or damp. Huge amounts of condensation or dew had formed on everything, everywhere. Where my feet had been pushed up against the wall of the tent, the sleeping bag was soaking. I couldn't have been any wetter if it had poured with rain. I pulled on my boots, unzipped the tent and met the day. It was cool and damp and misty and cloudy and NOISY! The noise that was made by two aerobatic crows chasing off the huge pterodactyl like shape of a complaining heron was unsettling.
I breakfasted on another good mug of coffee, cigarettes and more Maltesers and slowly eased into facing up to enduring more miles of pain. I tried to shake off as much dew as I could from the tent but it and my sleeping bag were eventually all put away soaking wet. By seven o'clock I was about ready to leave, but first I had to collect my little rubbish heap. I picked up the upturned empty bean tin only to drop it again in surprise at finding a colony of hundreds of ants had moved in over night and were all stuck to the sauce. I did my best at evicting them but some must have been casualties of my combat booted, space saving, flattening stamps. With all my rubbish stowed away and my rucksack back on, with a glance or two behind to make sure I'd left nothing and no sign I'd been there, I was gone.
The 'round the wrong way' book instructions seemed a little complicated at first sight, but with the maps upside down, put into practice it was pretty much spot on. A quick jaunt to the end of the field, which was much closer than I had realised, climb the slope to the cycle path, cross the bridge, back down off the cycle path, across the Bird In The Hand pub car park, round the front of the pub and down the road behind following sign posts to the river. The road lead through a green open space with car parking and picnic tables and, despite the great temptation, I decided I had no need at that time for the public toilet block that stood open, deserted and inviting. Past a few rows of houses and then ducking down a small lane, next to a garden of ducks sharing a meal with a squirrel, there already was Kelston lock. It was quite attractive there with boats and a large pub, but I confess all I really noticed was the only other person who was about there at the time, and he was quite obviously, even from a distance, a weirdo on a bike! I really was not in the mood to have to deal with one, but if one is about I usually have to, and low and behold he came cycling over, all scruffy on his girls small wheeled bike with his bedding on a rack on the back, mumbling something about more boats for sale down here. A statement or a question I wasn't sure so I simply said I wasn't from around there. He cycled up the track a short distance and then returned announcing, perhaps trying to be helpful, Bath is five miles. I thanked him and told him I knew and quickly climbed over the steep concrete footbridge that stopped him with his bike from easily following.
As I approached some old wooden decking, a brown mother duck and her enormous brood of perhaps ten or more speckled fluffy ducklings all gently eased into the water for safety, squeakily reassuring themselves.
The path wound its way into a small short grass and mud field in which several old and dilapidated vehicles and caravans were parked. It was obviously some sort of traveler's camp. To my left on the riverbank a circle of wicker armchairs was curiously arranged around a table and a fishing rod and real lay on the ground nearby. In the warm, sunny weather we had been having of late it seemed a splendidly luxurious way to be fishing, but I seriously doubted that whoever it was had bought a fishing license or indeed whether it was in fact the fishing season since in all the miles I had walked unusually I hadn't seen a single fisherman. There was no sign of life from any of the vehicles that were there but some of the doors and windows were open giving a glimpse into the living conditions of the hidden occupants. Filthy squalor! And yet, amongst it all there was a well cared for, brightly painted, round topped, traditional wooden horse drawn caravan, a prop immediately fit for use in any film. Nearby stood sorrowfully tied to a wooden stake was a beautiful big boned horse with enormous hair covered hooves. It was obviously well cared for too, but as I passed silently through the camp I could see no food or water within reach and it did look really rather bored.
The narrowing path, all mud underfoot, wove its way through dense green undergrowth with occasional cleared fisherman's spots on the riverbank marked by numbers nailed to trees. Eventually the undergrowth fell away as I crossed a small bridge over Corston Brook and entered a farmer's field and it was replaced by a crop of at least three feet high yellow flowers of some sort, stretching far off into the distance. On the right hand side the field was bounded by the raised bank of the railway line and from time to time a train would speed along with its morning rush hour commuters. As I walked on, the roll of the land made it look as though the trains were ships, floating along on the top of a gently shimmering yellow sea. High on the hill to my left just visible was the unfamiliar side of the Kelston Park house.
Once again the meander of the river and its accompanying path brought me to a bridge carrying the cycle path. A stone slab beneath seemed to afford a good sitting place and although I hadn't been walking for very long I already needed a rest and was again so hot that I wanted to take my coat off and secure it to my rucksack. I spread my coat over the mud-dust covered slab and sat down on it relaxing with a cigarette, hidden away from view. Over the river on the steep grass and tree covered slope of the hill that led up to Kelston house I watched a golden brown pheasant contrasted against the green. It seemed absurdly confident and was even letting out an enormous squawk from time to time as it picked its way slowly up the hill to eventually disappear into the undergrowth. Before I had finished my cigarette something else came into view on the same slope. A man pushing a mountain bike had somehow left the hedged and fenced confines of the cycle track and was awkwardly and laboriously trying to climb the very steep hill. I don't know what he was up to. He may have been poaching or perhaps he was on his way to work in the house on the hill or maybe he was intending to launch himself down on his bike once he got to the top for the thrill, but whichever, I soon had my painful load back on my shoulders and was gone.
I don't remember what the crop was in the next fields, perhaps the same as the previous one, but I didn't notice because the path had changed somewhat. The calf tall grass either side of the narrow foot warn depression was covered in dew and in no time at all, my trouser legs, socks and boots were cold and absolutely soaking wet. As wet as if I had walked through the river. That wasn't why I missed the view though. As I walked through this grass, it also seemed to have become a little gravely and crunch, crunch, crunchy under foot. As I glanced down I realised the path was covered in different types of snails and slugs, not gravel. For the next couple of miles all I saw was the floor as I tried so hard not to leave a passing trail of death in my wake but there were so many of them it really was inevitable. All I could do was think 'sorry' and carry on . . . crunch, crunch, crunch!
As I followed the path, skirting the edge of the crops, it seemed to lead straight under a wire fence that had been placed around some industrial looking building. Despite my reluctance, following the lead of whoever had gone before, I followed a new path that had been beaten through the crops. Passing close to the building I joined the track that led away from it and followed it, squelching up to the Bath stone, A4 road bridge and the painfully steep and rough hewn steps that lead up to the road. I crossed the bridge, passed the big new Boathouse pub and continued on over the wide entrance to the huge car park that signs indicated was part of the Bath park and ride scheme. I followed the A4 road with its fuming rush hour traffic and drivers, well away from the river for several hundred unpleasant meters until a road sign next to a junction on the other side indicated I should cross over and follow it, to rejoin the route of the riverside cycle path. It took quite a time waiting for a sufficient gap in both flows of traffic for me to safely lumber across, but eventually I was safely squelching, dripping and sweating up the quiet residential back streets, scaring small children as they quickly clambered into the back seats of cars, with their mothers impatiently waiting to drive the school run. I passed sprawling factories and ugly industrial units and a crane precariously lifting rusting, flat-bottomed, steel barges onto huge flat bed trucks before I could once more join a waterside path. A precious artery into the heart of the city, it wound its way past houses and factories and parks, with walkers and cyclists of every type passing each other at various speeds in both directions. The ground was hard or concrete under foot and my feet, legs and back were aching terribly but I was determined to reach the centre of Bath and the end of this part of the walk before having earned a rest. Gritting my teeth I had my head down and was not at all interested in the ugly buildings, offices and warehouses that lined the route. A huge Sainsburys came into view on the right hand bank with a bridge carrying shoppers overhead and all around was litter and till receipts and . . . . an empty sleeping bag and blankets! The prospect of perhaps later miscalculating my walk and being so exhausted as to end up sleeping in such a place filled me with horror. I struggled on.
All of a sudden and quite unexpectedly the footpath kinked left and up and ended, thrusting me rudely into the heavy choking traffic. Dodging between cars and passing the railway station I tried to ablib the route I should take rather than look at my book and I got it all wrong. I was feeling absolutely exhausted, hurting all over, in need of a drink and was not having a good time at all, having to intermittently dawdle behind slow walking sightseers or run for my life across busy roads. As if to rub my nose in temptation I walked past the bus station from where I knew a single bus could see me at home, dry and asleep on my couch within about an hour or so for only a few pounds. I headed for the riverside park and park benches that I knew I would find at Pultney Weir, to take stock, rest, look at my book and decide what I would do.
By nine fifteen I was sat cooling off on a bench with my rucksack sat next to me, sipping water and smoking cigarettes. My aching, sopping feet were outstretched in front of me and I was looking very much the worse for wear with white sweaty salt stains all over my black T-shirt. I idly watched the cormorant and ducks and seagulls bobbing in the foam covered water below, just along from the weir. The book was quite clear about where to go once you reach the rail station and I knew exactly where I had gone wrong. I looked to see what it had to say about the next bit of the walk.
"Bradford-On-Avon to Bath ; If you were to be swished away to the proverbial desert island and the interviewer allowed you to take only one section of the K&A Walk with you, this would have to be it . . . . These ten miles, between Bradford and Bath, make wonderful walking." Damn. Typical. The decision wouldn't have been so hard if the next bit was really grotty. I read more. I looked at pictures. I studied maps. I agonised. Could I live with myself if I caved in now when I hadn't even hardly started? Would I ever forgive myself? Hell yes! Painful, cold, wet feet in second hand combat boots with soles that don't really bend can be really persuasive. The experience so far, mainly due to the weight of my rucksack, had been mostly an excruciating test of endurance as opposed to an enjoyable walk. I had been practicing of late trying to get out of the lifelong habit of doing things I don't really want to do in exchange for giving myself permission to do whatever it may be I actually want. I wanted to get the bus home and sit about all lazy with my feet up, with cups of coffee and remote controls. With only a little guilt and regret, permission was granted and I had made up my mind I was getting the bus home . . . . whenever it was I was able to actually move and stand up!
As I sprawled there smoking yet another roll up and unusually giving myself permission not to move as passers by had to walk around my outstretched legs, from the arch beneath the nearby bridge appeared an uncollared skinny black mongrel dog followed by a couple of what I would describe as 'itinerants' or 'travelers' or perhaps 'new age hippies'. Most city dwellers these days are familiar with the stereotype. Homeless without a job. Often drug addicts and or mentally disturbed. Dirty and unkempt in ill fitting clothes and half laced, second hand combat boots. Tattooed and or pierced. An uncontrolled pet dog. Begging or busking or just sitting around on the floor in intimidating groups drinking from cans. I have always considered their way of life so alien to me that they worry me and I will normally give such people a wide berth and refuse any begging approach. These two examples of the stereotype, a man and a girl, came straight over and asked if I could spare a roll up. I hesitated but something about their manner made me say OK. After all, I was soon going home and had supplies at home so why not? As they sat on the path in front of me rolling their cigarettes and the dog ran off to chase a squirrel up a tree we began to chat. It very soon became clear why their manner had seemed unusual to me. I was one of them! They told me they were living rough and had just walked into Bath from Bristol overnight. I told them more or less what I was doing and how I had just decided to give up and go home but I admit I didn't let on that I owned my own house and had a cheque card and sum of money in my pocket. To anyone looking at the state of me there on that bench it would have seemed most unlikely so I'm sure they suspected nothing. I told them how my rucksack was too heavy, with the tent and all, and marveled that almost all their worldly goods were in the small half empty bag the man was carrying. They had very little, whatever was in there, but bizarrely he did admit to having a mobile phone and charger so that he could keep in touch with some far off daughter. He commented dismissively that the winters were tough but the understatement was clear. I guess he was quite young but he looked older and he admitted to having a drug problem although the younger girl's obvious love for him and her threats seemed to be keeping him in check. He had been everywhere and seen and done it all so it seemed, from Northern Ireland to Amsterdam. I admitted to never having been to either and he tried to persuade me to write down the address of someone he knew in Amsterdam that could sort me out with a squat to stay in if I went there. I politely insisted I never would. Apparently it was 'dole eve' which wasn't a bad day and tomorrow was 'dole day' and that was always better. I loosely explained I had gone a little crazy after years of working and had a small pension and claimed nothing and asked how it was they could live on benefits and travel as they did. They did explain but I didn't really understand apart from how they would beg and busk playing a penny whistle or an Irish drum the name of which I forget and which they didn't seem to have with them anyway. A suited man walking over the bridge with change jangling in his jacket pocket ominously drew the girls attention so I joked that the she couldn't have my change because it was my bus fare home. That was fully accepted. The dog rejoined us as worried looking people approached looking down their noses at us. The dog barked and growled and scared them but the man called her to his side, commanded her to lie down which she did immediately, and called out an apology and reassurance to the people. It suddenly seemed crystal clear that sleeping rough, with the fields full of hordes of brainless yokels, a dog like that was an absolute necessity. They suggested I should join them and go for a coffee at a nearby soup kitchen, but I felt that was getting in over my head so I explained, as soon as I could move I was off to the bus station. I encouraged more cigarette rolling and suggested that since I was going home, if they wanted them, they could have some tins of food. They understandably didn't seem over keen on tins of economy spaghetti and baked beans but the girl seemed eager to see what I possessed in my rucksack and I was selfishly eager to lighten my load so I started taking some things out. I joked how silly I had been to forget a tin opener so the man in great detail helpfully explained how rubbing a tin on a rock for a while will wear away the metal enough to release the contents. The girl asked if I had any bread, as if she were a junkie desperate for a fix, but I disappointed her and refused since the bread was well buried beneath everything else and I didn't want to have to unpack it all. I had to pull out my flattened rubbish from the night before to get to my tins and I carelessly dropped it on the grass behind the bench, making a brief comment about being a litterlout. As the girl and I continued rifling through the pockets on the sides of my rucksack, without a word the man got up and walked over, picked up the rubbish I had dropped and walked the several metres to a park rubbish bin and dropped it in before returning to sit on the path. The girl eventually stuffed a couple of my tins into her shoulder bag but seemed fascinated by the fact that I had some margarine. I didn't protest as she couldn't resist pulling off the Tupperware top and scooping some out with her hand. She greedily licked her fingers as she struggled to replace the top with her other hand. I thought it sad but she seemed delighted and full of happiness. I couldn't resist pulling out my fun bags of Maltesers and tossed a couple to each of them and a couple extra to the man with instructions they were for the dog. There was no argument and the dog had her share taken gently from his fingers one by one but I don't think she tasted a single one as they were excitedly swallowed straight down all tale a wagging. More people walked by looking disapprovingly or pretending we weren't there as we compared tattoos and the man proudly stripped off his shirt to show me the shoulder to shoulder work of art adorning his back that had 'so far' only cost eighty pounds. I saw it all in a new light and understood his pride when I considered he really was carrying all his worldly goods on his back. An elderly, open minded, well spoken lady walking some big strange expensive pedigree dog surprisingly seemed eager to talk as 'our' dog had a growl. She was keen to make use of the opportunity and asked the girl to try and say hello to her dog since it was not good with strangers and was clearly absolutely terrified. The girl cheerfully complied but her attempts almost resulted in the old woman falling into the river as she struggled with the cowering, pulling, retreating wreck. With cheerful words she was soon dragged away by her fleeing pet. As we sat and looked at the weir I drew their attention to the half submerged cormorant in the water that had decided to try and get airborne. In a flurry of splashes and a great flapping of wings it had started its take off run across the water. I jokingly cheered it on saying 'come on, come on, you can make it', but just in front of us it decided to give up and characteristically sank back into the water half submerged. I knew how it felt. I announced I was going to get my bus, stiffly stood up, put on my rucksack which didn't feel any lighter and bade my farewells and take cares. As I climbed the steps to the road and started over the bridge with a backward glance I saw the couple and their dog were presumably heading for the soup kitchen.
Despite whatever flaws they had, and ending up with such a lifestyle I am sure they had many, I couldn't help but think that they had been some of the most genuine people I had met in a very long time. I couldn't imagine how it was possible for anyone to live like that and had to admire that they were at the very least surviving. Given whatever circumstances would lead me to be in the same position I am sure I could not survive for long. The brief encounter made a deep impression on me.
The bus station was busy. I had only half an hour to wait for my bus but some of that time was tense as I tried to avoid eye contact with the dirty, wandering weirdo, with no shoes! At one point someone moved unexpectedly and he obviously saw me watching him but a quick putting on of dark sunglasses seemed to keep him away. This one needed some care in the community badly. I don't know what he was asking for but he would go from bus to bus and have a prolonged conversation with each driver. He over did it on one and it was embarrassing to see him bodily pushed from the bus by the enraged driver shouting 'get off MY bus!' The driver was so flustered he leapt back into his seat and started to reverse the half full bus away from the terminus straight back towards another unseen one stopped behind. Much blowing of horns narrowly averted a much-witnessed disaster.
By eleven twenty I was on my bus and for the paltry sum of a few pounds was whisked all the way effortlessly back to Kingswood. A short, painful, attention-drawing walk with my rucksack through the shopping crowds and I was back home and feet up, lazing on my settee by twelve thirty.
It was good to be back under my own roof. It seemed like I'd been gone for a long time.
A very long time . . . 'almost' a whole day!!!!!
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