This was meant to be a writing blog. Actually, it wasn’t really meant to be a blog, just a website used to host links to all the things I’ve written and make me look clever. Turns out if you only write something once a year, the site gets stale really quickly.
But it was meant to be about writing. Then I wrote a post about watching the top 250 films of all time, and I really enjoyed it. So it got me thinking, which is always dangerous. Because there’s other things in my life worth writing about, it turns out, and as this is my no fear year – I’ve played guitar in front of an audience and done a somersault into a foam pit, both firsts – I might as well blog with fearless abandon.
So, in June me and about 5-10 others (numbers TBC dependent on expected drop out rates) are going on a hike. It’s our fifth one. It sounds unremarkable, and probably is, except it’s not, to us. These things have taken a profound, almost pilgrimage-like relevance in our lives, where the key players are overwhelmed by an almost crippling sense of FOMO if they are somehow unable to attend.
I should explain.
I’m in my early-to-mid thirties (I’m rounding down, generously.) I come from a small town called Crowthorne, which is broadly unremarkable, known only for it’s proximity to Broadmoor Hospital, which houses some of the country’s most notorious killers. It’s an odd location for somewhere so middle class and unassuming. There wasn’t much to do there, growing up. (Actually, there doesn’t seem to be much to do there as an adult, from the times I’ve been back.) My friends and I are becoming married off, some have kids, and we’re scattered around the south of England. We don’t see each other much.
Except with the hikes.
So that, in my mind, at least, is one of the most important things. But that’s not why it started. The reason why it started is John’s fault.
I think John Duckitt has been my friend longer than anyone else. He’s one of the smartest and most single-minded people I know. Basically, if he wants to do something, it’ll happen. This hasn’t always made for successful anecdotes (although they’re almost always interesting) but- in my case at least – success consists of repeatedly insisting we do something, until it happens, mostly because I’m too worn down to bother coming up with arguments not to do them. I probably need this sort of pushing, to be honest. Unless it involved going somewhere we weren’t supposed to, or drinking something we shouldn’t, in quantities that are ill-advised.
Anyway, John had this long-standing theory as a teenager that we could walk from Crowthorne to Windsor. Which was absurd. That was like, a whole other town away (or several towns). Why would you want to do that, man? The answer, simple enough, was because we could. Except we never tried it as teenagers. I think it was one of those ideas that sounded great and feasible and everything else when you’re 17 and at a house party and full of interesting concoctions of chemicals (drunk or inhaled, you choose) but in the light of day, not so much. You also have to remember this was around 1999 – 2001, when the internet was not the user-friendly device of convenience it is now. This would have involved looking at actual maps made of paper. And planning. We did not really want to do that when there were pubs to go to and girls to meet. (These points in themselves are both ironic: I could never get served, looking about 12 until I was 23, and we were pretty hopeless with girls.)
Idea shelved. Cut to 15 years later.
To my shame, I don’t remember what prompted us to actually do the hike almost a decade and half later. We discussed it a few times and it seemed like a good idea. I think we were curious to see whether we could actually do it. So John did what he always does when he wants me to do something. He nagged. And insisted, and pleaded. (Actually, it didn’t take too much effort. I was curious, and I love walking. And I’d just got into running and wanted to see how fit I really was when I wasn’t doing a brief 5K run.) It was on.
Hike I: 17th May, 2014. Attendees – John, Pete Lewis, Ross Williams, me. (You’d better get used to this format, I’m using it for the next 4.)
Results? Pretty effin’ disastrous. Well. Sort of. A glorious mess.
We leave the Waterloo Hotel; old favourite watering hole, now somewhere the management seem to strongly discourage anyone who’s not a guest from staying in to visit. Or at least from recent experiences. English breakfast. Good to go.
Mild Edit: John has since reminded me since posting this that the Waterloo has a map of the area, which prompted him to reinstate the oft mooted Hike plan. It also gives me an opportunity to share one of the only two photos of this damned expedition.
We walk through Crowthorne itself which changed in the way every hometown changes when you leave it. More hairdressers and nail places. Modern (anonymous) buildings. Up through Broadmoor, through the old sponsored walk route we used to take every year – and isn’t that a flashback – and through the woods not far from the Lookout (sort of commercialised woods that are great for family walks). I’m a big film fan, and with the four of us together it’s rather Stand By Me.
(Brief disclaimer: I say this about the 4 of us, but I don’t really know Pete and Ross. They’re both John’s mates but very nice. Pete is John’s best mate and his kind of brother – John’s an only child, I think Pete is too, but their parents are best friends and they’re the same age. Ross, on the other hand, is pretty nuts. John’s best story about him is one time they went for a drive in the dark, parked in a car park which was a notorious dogging site, waiting for someone to arrive, and upon someone parking up, promptly flung his headlights on and chased them down the road. Bonkers.)
Anyway, part way through the walk, I have my first hike realisation, one which stays with me for this and the next three.
Hikes are perfect for Lord of the Rings references. And doesn’t John just hate them.
So that was a nice moment. The Tolkien-esque revelation is however rather thrown by the fact that our route requires crossing the A322, a 4 lane A-road with blind corners and cars coming away from the M3 with a speed that could turn you into a red smudge. The fact that there’s a crossing connecting the Lookout to the woods over the road is, to me, absurd. But there is, and it’s the only way to go.
We walked over this. Why.
Counter argument: no one dies. Success.
Except the cracks are starting to show. Ross starts to mention that there’s somewhere he needs to be – it involves a lady, and some epic unconsummated romance. Basically, he’s realised that this walk is taking longer than he thought and he wants to go have sex. Fair play, except we’ve a while to go. Ross cuts and runs. A shame, we were enjoying our terrible Christopher Walken impressions, but good for him. They’re married now. Aw.
Around the point of Ross’s Revelation (TM) we have a general mood check – Pete’s feeling pretty drained already, and my feet are sore. We stop for snacks – I’ve pinched a load of those Graze Boxes from my wife which I’m promptly mocked about – and then I realise that I probably wore the wrong footwear.
The back of my socks are soaked in blood. Fortunately it’s mine, or there’d be explaining to do, but still. It’s a warm day, but that doesn’t excuse the fact I’m wearing canvas trainers – basically plimsoles – with trainer socks. They’re rubbing and bleeding something fierce. I end up tucking my trousers into the back of the shoes hoping this will fix matters. Oh well. Only 10 miles to go.
Ross goes, calling a cab around the start of Virginia Water. By this point we’ve survived walking through Ascot – I hate Ascot; it’s posh and full of toffs and has no personality whatsoever – but from here on in, it’s all good.
Virginia Water is gorgeous. Google it if you’ve not been there before. Or just go visit it, actually. It’s the perfect combination of woods, gardens, lake and grounds, and connects to Windsor Great Park, our end point. The remaining three of us stop for food, and Pete mentions that he’s really, really struggling.
Plus there are other risks:
We go slow, crossing into the Great Park, climbing the back of the hill that’s peaked with the Copper Horse, and the immense and staggering view of The Long Walk – an arrow straight line through the Great Park, leading to Windsor Castle – is revealed to us. After 6 or 7 hours of almost non-stop walking, it’s a sight to behold.
Seriously. Look at that.
Pete’s on the edge now. He can barely walk. We take it slow, although John’s brother-like relationship is showing through in all it’s integrity (“He’s always been like this,” he moaned). We take our shoes off, walking along the immaculate, velvet-like green grass of the Great Park, which helps, although mostly for me and the bloody stumps that used to be my feet. I suggest to Pete replenishing his electrolytes, and he accepts the nachos from my Graze Box – who’s laughing now, bitch? – licking the salt from the tiny yellow triangles.
Anyway, two hours later (it’s an hour walk, tops, but we’re a state) and we reach the very end of the Long Walk, where immediately next to the great gates of the Walk/Windsor Castle, lies the pub, The Two Brewers.
I swear, I have never been so pleased to arrive anywhere in my whole life. Especially a pub.
Our request is simple: 3 beers, 3 pints of water, 3 bags of pork scratchings, please. And we absolutely demolish them with the quiet satisfaction of three people who have endured something epic together.
Like these gents.
Anyway, that should be that, but there’s one small point I need to add. NB, John and I don’t come off too well, complaining about Pete for a while, wondering why he made such a meal of the last two hours.
Yeah, turns out, we learn a while later, the guy had bowl cancer. Actual cancer. He beat it, because he’s a winner, the sort of guy who can hike 18 miles with cancer doing god knows what to his insides and actually live to tell the tale, and good for him. What an absolute titan of a man.
Retelling this point is a bit odd, really. My friends and I have a sort of dark sense of humour, but even for us, saying “this hike was so bad it gave Pete cancer” sort of pushes it. Maybe I should’ve ended on the hobbits reference.
But that was our First Great Hike. Like the first season of a TV show, it had teething problems. The route wasn’t great, but it had it’s moments. Continuing the TV metaphor, John and I were the only returning cast. It wasn’t until Hike II that Mat, Rob, and Alan joined, becoming well placed series regulars, and the Hike (capital ‘H’ now, John’s phone’s autocorrect has insisted on it’s gravitas) became what it was.
Catch you for Hike II.