Jack’s commands assault my ears but my back refuses to bend any further. If I squat, I get the “That’s it!” approval but then I can’t move forward. I decide to just go for it.
“You’re way too high!”
A sharp tingle runs down my spine followed by a thump that culminates in my boots. I was way too high.
It’s been a sedentary month since Jack and I returned from our brilliant Brecon Beacons trip on behalf of Inntravel and more than 18 years since we last went walking in Britain with nothing more than an OS map and an idea of a route. The day promised no rain and a good chance of sunny spells as the afternoon wore on; the best forecast in two weeks or more and all the excuse we needed to stretch our legs. We had already used the public footpath that begins at the entrance to the farm, walking south west over three fields to the local village for its fête but we had not, as yet, followed it eastwards where we knew it reached the River Tone and hooked up with the West Dean Way which would take us north towards the local pub for lunch.
Setting out was very strange, as we crossed tree large fields belonging to the farm we lived on. More often than not, there was no waymark, no clear path through the long grasses and quagmire, and we were walking directly alongside farm buildings and through fields grazed by sheep and horses. We reached the final gate on our landlord’s farm which would take us briefly into trees to cross a small stream, to find that the gate was knotted with string – the sort of string that it’s really difficult to undo. As Jack grappled with the unruly knot, it started to rain.
“Hurry up! We can shelter under the trees!”
Jack stepped aside with a sharp look and a muttered expletive. I managed to undo the knot just as the rain stopped. Sigh.
While crossing through the yard of the neighbouring farm, we were stopped in our tracks by a flock of sheep being herded into a pen right beside us, with not enough space to accommodate the sheep and ourselves. We pressed tight against a barn door and squeezed past the last sheep to where the farmer was holding the gate open for us.
“Sorry,” we muttered.
“No problem at all,” he beamed, pointing us in the right direction for the next gate.
In all the years we have been walking all over Europe, paths have never felt more like trespassing; yet they’re not, they’re public footpaths.
One of the things that will be very familiar to every UK walker except me, is the astonishing variety and fiendish complexity of gate fastenings to be found in the countryside. Enjoying his superiority, having spent his childhood summers on the farm of his auntie’s farm in Dumfries & Galloway, Jack stands back at every gate and challenges me to open it. I push, lift, click, pull and grunt, sometimes successfully, many times not so much. Occasionally I just stand and stare, baffled, until Jack (rather smugly I feel) easily opens the gate. Navigating our way through thick, cloying mud; soaking wet long grass and multiple gate fastenings worthy of inclusion in The Crystal Maze, we find ourselves standing in front of the offending electric wire which runs right around the field we’re supposed to be crossing. I manage to get under it without mishap, only to discover it’s not the right way and we have to retrace steps. That’s when I fail to get low enough.
Multiple nettle stings and bramble scratches later, with feet sodden, we arrive at our destination only to realise I haven’t brought a face covering. Although it’s no longer a legal requirement, the landlady prefers her customers to wear one so, rather than risk being refused entry, we decide not to bother with the last quarter mile to the pub and to do a circuit instead, heading home across the Combe Downs. Walking along a level track, I suddenly find my feet tied together as the eye of one boot hooks itself into the fabric of the other, and over I go, a severe cramp sending pain shooting through my calf as I hit the ground.
I’ve hiked up and down mountains and sheer cliffs in Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Slovenia and Spain with no problems at all. I do a 12km circuit around the Devon and Somerset countryside and manage to get myself scratched, stung and shocked while limping home with a swollen and scraped knee and nursing a battered shoulder and sore calf. I can see I’m going to have to go into serious training to go walking in Britain.
And those boots have gone into the bin.