… in what is hopefully the last hike the Idiots have to do in lockdown, where we experience our highest casualty rate ever with not one, but two instances of Pete’s Law, being enacted. Who did the hike gods bring to ruin and who was spared? Lay on, gentle Reader, and find out.
I don’t think I need to explain in too much detail that the last year has well and truly managed everyone’s expectations in every way, including hiking. By this point the mythical, glorious days of hikes in other counties with large groups of friends old and new, casually dropping into pubs along the way, and remarking upon the start points, so many miles away from us were long gone. Now, as you know from the last few posts, it was all about circular hikes in the local area, BYO beers, and limited numbers. The core crew from school made five, and John had promised that Ross – last seen all the way back in Hike 1 – would attend completing the allowed six.
We knew that the end of lockdown (whatever that will look like) was on the horizon, but getting a date that suits everyone can be such a pain that we decided to lock in and get one done while we could. We discussed the route as we always do – this one went through about a dozen permutations – but really it was only ever going to be routes around Crowthorne or Sandhurst, and these were definitely getting very familiar. Still, the lads did their best and found a few areas new to us, including the land around a certain manor I will mention later.
In all honesty though it didn’t matter; it was a day out together, hopefully with some pub stops thrown in. It sounded like a good idea.
Well, it did, until the forecast revealed itself.
You can tell if it’s a bad forecast when my dad – who rarely uses his phone – goes out of his way to ominously text me. Fine. Thanks Dad.
To say we become somewhat interested with the grim forecast is probably downplaying it. I know I refreshed the BBC weather app so many times it started to think I lived in Sandhurst. But still, hope remained. (I would say estel, but that would betray how much of a certain Tolkien podcast I’ve been listening to in lockdown, and no one needs to know that right now.)
Then, on Friday, finally, it seems to lighten a little. Could it be…? Was change coming? We continue to keep a vigil.
The morning of the hike we awaken to find that the app’s forecast has changed once more. It’s still going to fling it down, but only until about 10am, then 40mph winds will replace them. We can work with that. (“The winds will dry us out,” we joke.)
We head down to our starting point. The WhatsApp group gets a message from John: “Do we have the route anywhere? Do we even have it finalised?!” Oh yeah. That. We’ll work it out later. We’re working without a finished script, but that’s okay, it worked out fine for Quantum of Solace and the Hobbit movies, right?
We meet outside Greggs. Once upon a time it would’ve been a pub breakfast, but we work with what we’ve got. To our dismay, Alan has cut his hair, (he changes his look every hike, it’s how we’re able to tell which one we’re on from the photographs alone) and we’re all a bit annoyed because he’s once again the most handsome of us all. I think to myself I’ll get revenge on him later and not buy him a Chelsea bun if the opportunity arises, but for now, we walk.
You’ll note Ross made it. He’s clad in John’s dad’s waterproof. As mentioned above, we’ve not seen Ross since the ill-fated Hike 1 (check out the post about it HERE if you’ve not seen that. It’s a disaster. The post about it’s not much better.)
Speaking of John’s dad, he dropped our leader off, said hello to everyone and remarked on Alan’s shorts, mentioning an anecdote about when he once wore shorts that were too short on a boat he accidentally exposed himself to a stranger (you can see where his son gets it from, right?)
We set off in heavy rain, telling ourselves it won’t last. It’s still pretty grim. Oh well. We pass some sewage works that make it especially scenic. After the that, the first few miles are pleasant enough but pretty uneventful. Everyone catches up but mostly it’s about enduring the rain, which slowly starts to ease off as the morning passes. At one point we pause next to a field near Minley Manor (filming location for the second Jurassic World film, Stardust and Enola Holmes) where there’s a large black bull, which reminds me of a scene from Withnail & I. (I’ve gone heavy on the film references, my apologies. Best get used to it, I think it’s likely there’ll be more.) We watch in mild confusion as Ross shakes copious amounts of sand from one boot.
We carry on, through various woods and along some main-ish roads round Hawley. I lurk at the back of the group with Ross, testing the depths of my banter, but against him I am a rank amateur. Still, it’s good to catch up. I’ve not seen him since a weekend where John coerced us into doing a terrible job trying to paint his boat. At least he likes a Tolkien quote, and “Looks like meat’s back on the menu, boys,” becomes the unofficial motto for this hike, at least between us.
We regroup when we find ourselves on a curious iron bridge that seems to go… nowhere.
Seriously, check this thing out. Located in the midst of the wilderness (as wild as you get in Surrey, anyway), it’s a metal terror straight out of a David Lynch nightmare.
So of course, we loved it.
Naturally we postulated it’s the sort of place where one would enter one of the doors underneath it only to emerge from the other like that magic trick from The Prestige, but probably covered in blood, having somehow lost years of your life. There’s even white rabbit graffiti all around to make it even more ominous. Turns out Rob discovered it was a filming location for Detective Pikachu, which on reflection really brings the horror home.
Our morbid curiosity sated, we leave the bridge of horror behind, shortly after that we pass a beautiful avenue which of course we don’t walk down.
Shortly afterwards, Ross mentions that his knees are giving him some absolute grief, and he leaves as we enter some rhododendron-filled woods which remind me of our childhood in Crowthorne. Off to get a cab, he agrees to meet us at the pub but won’t continue the rest of the hike after. That’s right guys, as promised, we enacted Pete’s Law, the Walking Idiots rule that if someone is unable to continue a hike due to ill health, they depart rather than struggle on. As promised in the tantalising introduction, this is the first of two instances, a first for our hikes. Who of the remaining crew would fall foul of it, though?
Unaware that this fate hangs over another of our members, we descend deeper into the woods in Elvetham…
Gorgeous as it is, the swamp blocks our path to rejoining Ross, and with no wizened old Jedi master to guide us through it, we take a detour around.
Rob and I pause when we see a warning that no one should linger too long in this swamp….
And we regroup with the others, where Alan proves his strength is not linked to his hair, Solomon-style, and lifts an enormous heavy metal thing, the showoff.
Back on track, from there we pass along a series of fields. By this point the rain has stopped but the wind has started, so that’s fun. There’s a lot of yellow in the field, which I assume is mustard.
Getting that selfie at the start of this post, we soon emerge from the fields and find some farmhouses.
Soon after we reach a golf course, where I fail to get a picture of the sign which really lays it on thick about how dangerous flying golf balls are, a bit like the polo sign in Windsor for Hike 1.
Finally we reach the Cricketers, where poor Ross has been waiting for us for what seems like ages. We share a pint with him, and when we head off, we say our farewells to him. Good to have Ross along again, we’ll probably see him on Hike XXII.
While we stop for our midday beer, we all kick off our boots, replace tape, change socks.
I realise Alan has a mat in his bag to rest his feet on when they’re drying, which is quite frankly genius. My own feet, which were rather exposed to the elements owing to a rather large hole in my boot, look like the faces of bodies scooped out of the river, wet, clammy, pale and swollen.
Speaking of swoll (hear me out), John’s been working out and we’re a bit jealous of him (as you can tell by now, we’re a friendship group fuelled mostly by jealousy and resentment).
When we realise we’ve forgotten to get a picture of us leaving the Cricketers for this very blog, rather than walk back the hundred or so metres to get one, we jokingly suggest Rob use photoshop to capture it, saving us the effort. As lads banter tends to, this escalates, until the only inevitable conclusion is instead to get a picture of the five of us in a human pyramid, propped up by John’s non-unimpressive guns. We all take to this idea, Mat in particular. He’s a big lad, and to use a Dirty Dancing metaphor (why not) he’s always been a Patrick and never a Jennifer. He rightly insists on going on the top, like the angel on a Christmas tree, and who are we to deny him the time of his life?
As ever with Hartney Witney, John and Alan return to One Stop, source of their university summer holiday employment and spiritual Mecca. It’s the location of many a rose-tinted tale, as the rest of us have frequently enjoyed hearing about their out of hours drinking on the shop’s flat roof like something out of Kevin Smith’s Clerks, or how the shop withstood a siege of travellers like something out of Assault on Precinct 13.
Sadly it’s a Tesco Express now so the experience is somewhat lessened, but Al gets some Heineken to commemorate the experience. While this emotional pilgrimage is being completed, Mat, Rob and I are eyeballing the baker’s shop window. The Chelsea buns look exceptional, so in a move of uncharacteristic generosity, I decide to buy the three of us one each. They’re bloody brilliant.
Moments later, John emerges from
dead Onestop Tesco, sees us tucking in, and immediately asks “Where’s mine?” Fair enough, one more is bought.
Shortly after that, Alan appears with his beer. Sadly the bakery has run out of Chelsea buns by this point, but I give him the choice of anything else and he picks a lemon turnover which stops any tears. We depart, leaving the rather upmarket Hartney Witney high street and returning to the wilderness soon after.
Rob asks us to stop so he can change his footwear, although he only changed his socks a short while ago in the pub. None of us knew what this meant at the time until it was too late.
From here the landscape changes into gorse and heather, quite a change from the farmlands and river we’ve been used to so far. We take time to inadvertently startle a heron.
Soon after that, we emerge on a curious, long driveway.
I realise with a sense of delight (I don’t follow the route plotting as closely as my far more involved collaborators) that we’re on the approach to Bramshill House, which I’ve been looking forward to seeing for quite some time.
Bramshill House is allegedly one of the most haunted buildings in Britain. It comes complete with fourteen ghosts, including a ‘Green Man’ who apparently drowned in a lake, and the ghost of a bride who hid herself in a cupboard on her wedding night in an ill-fated game of hide and seek, but who was not found until fifty years later, or so the story goes. There’s loads more, scroll down to the Legends section of the wiki page and take a look. I also like the knight in armour, the Grey Lady, and the ghost of a child who tries to hold visitor’s hands.
The manor is presently for sale, a steal for only £10 million, so start saving, everyone.
Sadly the house, which later became a police training centre, was locked up and not open to the pub, which is a real shame as we would’ve loved to have gone in and bust us some ghosts.
We leave, and moments later a rather threatening black land rover appears at the gate, apparently from nowhere, clearly having gotten wind of our threatening presence. Like a kraken returning to the blackness, the land rover vanishes, having dismissed us as a threat. We don’t care either way. By this point, we’re each picturing ourselves as drunken lords of this abandoned mansion, followed around by a patient and long suffering latina maid who tolerates our alcoholic rantings and occasional pukings, affectionately referred to in her broken English as ‘mouth sorrys’ (You had to be there.)
Soon after, we find ourselves on a long, grinding hill that goes through the hamlet of Bramshill. Yeah, Bramshill had an actual hill, and it’s a bastard. Who knew?
The legs are beginning to suffer a little, and some of our number decide to have a little stretch which gives me the chance to get this satisfyingly symmetrical picture.
For one of our crew, their time on this hike is numbered.
We reach the Tally Ho in Eversley, last seen in Hike 3, where to our dismay but not surprise Rob announces that he cannot continue, and has also enacted Pete’s Law. That’s right, reader, Rob was our second hike casualty. Holly comes to get him, greets us by giving us a gesture that I assume means staking a vampire, and then there were four.
We continue. We sorely miss our companion, and our feet are tired. At least the weather is finally pleasant, and the landscape is very familiar, having trekked along this route several times in the past.
Eventually we emerge from the peaceful farmlands that we crossed years ago in the opposite direction when we walked from Crowthorne to Silchester, arriving in Little Sandhurst. This return to society is an unpleasant surprise, as without the tranquil countryside to distract us, we’re (or at least I’m) suddenly aware of how sore our feet are. We shuffle on and up, until we reach our end point, the Bird in Hand.
It’s pretty hard to objectively review any pub in lockdown, given it’s a lot of sitting outside and tolerating the weather, but the Bird in Hand did okay. When the staff came over to ask us what we wanted to drink, we all ordered a beer, except for Mat, who felt he should head back to his family as the hike had taken longer than planned owing to some confusing extra mileage which had appeared along the way (the joys of improvising the route). He declined, saying “I’ve got an uber coming in fifteen minutes so you probably won’t have time.” “I’ll take that bet,” The bar staff replied confidently, and shot off to get our drinks.
Okay, so they had run out of the beer Mat ordered, but they told him super quick and got him something else instead, and he managed to power through it in around eight minutes. It was impressive work.
Not long after that, John and I both order scampi and chips (my personal favourite pub grub), Alan dips a chip in beer which would’ve made me spittake if I’d been drinking, and we reflect on the day while we wait for our lifts (John’s dad and Jen, respectively) to arrive. It wasn’t the greatest hike by a long shot: we’ve pretty much rinsed the area; the route didn’t have too much going for it; the weather wasn’t great; and we lost a third of our contingency, the highest on any hike so far.
But it’s a day out with this lot, and you can’t easily beat that.