All right. Now we’re getting somewhere.
We’d done the Hike twice. We were winners. This was a thing now, it was gaining prestige, in our minds, anyway. If we mentioned it to people, they were interested. Some people even wanted to join us. It wasn’t just a fluke now, it was a thing we did. We went hiking and we damn well smashed it.
Well, as much as someone going for a very long walk could smash it.
So where next? Not a bad question. Pleased you asked. We knew Crowthorne to Windsor again was out, that was done. The world was our hiking oyster.
As far as I was concerned, as long as I could get a lift there, and either a train or lift back, I was happy. I’m adventurous, but this is a one day Hike. Be reasonable. (I’m sure there’s a Bilbo Baggins analogy in there somewhere, but I’m not quite warmed up yet.)
When we talked about where we would first walk, John had considered Silchester. My awareness of Silchester was that it had something vaguely Roman about it, and apparently was around the same distance as Windsor, just the other way.
Plus it’d involve involve going down this road. Which is surely a very British equivalent of a Highway to Hell.
It’d do. I mean, the rest of us weren’t gonna plan it like John did, and we didn’t have any better ideas. Hell, I’d conspired with him for the first two hikes, looking over scores of plotted google maps routes, but even I knew my role in this was mainly as an enabler. End of the day, we wanted to walk somewhere, John had an opinion as to where. It might not have the majesty of cresting the top of the Long Walk, but then neither did a lot of places. We didn’t know what it’d bring.
Silchester it was.
The difference was, despite the above sentiments, this one would involve some degree of heavy planning. Hours were spent passing links to routes back and forth over email whittling the route down, almost sculpting it. It was fun yet perplexing: a medley of satellite photos, OS maps, and walkers guides. This would take us through three counties. It was all getting a bit full on. Mad props to John for sticking with it, but he got there.
My one sticking point was John’s appreciation (or lack thereof) of my own timekeeping. I remember one day getting a series of emails from him while I was having a busy day at work and was unable to look at the messages, let alone reply. It was basically this:
- Email 1: Mate, what do you think of this stretch of the route? Too tricky?
- Email 2: Do you think you could check for me?
- Email 3: Or what about this way?
- Email 4: You live closer to the bit I’m worried about than I do, think you can check it out?
- Email 5: … I’ll ask my dad to check it out.
- Email 6: My dad says he’ll look at the weekend.
So intense email exchanges took place, and we went through the same rig morale as Hike II, trying to agree on a date. Getting everyone together was a chore, Mat’s ever-present social life (he was engaged now) making the rest of us seem like hermits. Dates were debated, the Hike was moved back and a compromise for all parties was reached.
I was reminded – yet again – this very evening of my own personal compromise. My mother-in-law, who oddly reads these posts despite the fact she’s never read anything else I’ve written, has gone to great pains to remind me that I missed my nephew Joey’s second birthday party because the Hike fell on this date, dear Reader. I can only hope he’s forgiven me.
Then, at the eleventh hour, comes an unfortunate turn for Mat that somehow provides us with enough of an in-joke to fuel a ten hour hike.
None of us remember Mat having asthma before; including Rob, who plays hockey with him. We are a bit suspicious that it’s wedmin related (apparently that’s a word) but Mat’s wedding is a big deal – they’re a hell of a couple – and if he can’t make it, he can’t make it. Our silver lining is that this gifts us a long running joke about asthma. Sorry Mat. We mock you because we love you. Begrudgingly, we proceed without our medic which was probably unwise.
(Mild disclaimer: If you or a loved one has been seriously affected by asthma, I mean no offence. The humour found on the Hike is forged from exhaustion, lads bants, delirium and a bit of alcohol. I don’t desire to lose my asthmatic audience.)
Okay. You know what’s coming: date, line up, etc. Don’t worry, I’ll deliver, but before I do, I need to get sort of vaguely serious for a minute and discuss the following. Bear with me, because it’s actually quite interesting:
The Psychology of a Hike.
Ooh, look at that. Bold text. Must be important.
Thing is, it is. When you’re planning and sorting something like this, where your attention to detail actually means the difference between getting somewhere and not – and potentially letting your friends down in the process – it means something. It’s almost like a team sport. It has relevance. It’s not just a stupid walk.
Put it like this: I’ve never been much of a sportsman, or an athlete. In the last few years I’ve done a lot of running, but that’s by the by. If I had one thing I excel at, it’s being too stupid to quit something. It doesn’t matter if you’re good at it or not. The important thing is you care enough to finish it. It’s how I’ve written books, when I know scores of people who’ve given it a crack but not bothered finishing. The same could be said for these lads. There is a real, significant sense of achievement in finishing a Hike. You can’t stop.
That’s not to say this profound feeling is there immediately. Far from it. In fact, for me the start is deeply anticlimactic. You spend all these weeks planning, then it’s the equivalent of “Let’s Hike!” And suddenly you cut to walking on a path, not far from home, thinking, ‘shit, I’ve another eight hours of this. It’s literally just walking,’ with little to discuss with these people you’ve known your entire life, struggling to decide whether to broach conversation along the lines of “how’s you then?” or discussing where you’re going to walk.
Anyway, I needed to share this now, because if there’s one Hike that requires this kind of understanding it’s this one. We were going to go cross country, over fields and scrub lands. Possibly trespassing. There would be blisters. Asthma jokes would only get us so far.
Hike III: March 19th, 2016. Attendees – John, Alan, Rob, me, and two new recruits: Grier Higgins – a mate of John’s, American, this is the first time I’ve met him, oh my god is he tall – and Clyde Baehr.
Clyde and I attended Brunel University together. Of all my uni crew he’s the one I’ve stayed in touch with the most, which is strange given we didn’t live together or really do the same course, just some classes together. Still, things like that happen. It helps he’s based in London and he helped me get my job at the BBC, which I’ll always be grateful for. He’s a bit of a wrong’un, but I don’t judge.
Now I don’t know if this happens to other people, but when I got to know Clyde, he reminded me of John quite a lot. It’s handy having duplicate friends, because if you misplace one then you have a spare. The mistake I made was introducing them on my stag. Uh oh. Still, it’s exciting, cross pollinating friendship groups.
So now we had this even more depraved John 2.0 with us, afflicted with all sorts of hipster tendencies (sorry Clyde but it’s true. You can argue against the hipster point when we next go to a gig in Shoreditch while drinking g&t’s and you can eat gluten free pizza. Still love you though.)
Anyway, these hipster tendencies may or may not have affected his choice of footwear and led to him being Hike III’s choice of victim, following in Pete and John’s footsteps from hikes I and II. We’ll get to that.
So we set off from Crowthorne, this time heading in the opposite direction of hikes I and II, in the direction of Sandhurst through Wellington College. John, Clyde and Grier seem slightly worse for wear; they all stayed at John’s parents the night before, and I suspect were up late, probably drinking. Walking/trespassing through the grounds has always been a pastime of ours, which are stunning with their enormous classically designed buildings funded by generations of Old Money.
From there, we quickly segue into Ambarrow woods, crossing the railway line – which in itself feels like another Stand by Me reference, although fortunately none of us were foolish enough to get chased by the train. Alan lingers on the tracks a bit too long for my tastes and I insist he gets his arse moving having being conditioned by years of safety adverts but that’s about it.
(Incidentally, this area of these woods is the setting for my short story Sodor & Gomorrah, which was published in the horror anthology Twisted50. Just putting that out there.)
Ambarrow woods was a favourite haunt of our childhood and teenage years. It’s very steep and brings out our mature side, especially when we find this:
The path then leads to Moor Green, where we’re beset upon by scores and scores of midgies (sic) and mosquitoes. “What do they eat when they can’t find Hobbit?” I cry, thus resurrecting the LotR references with grace and skill.
It’s not long after this that the “If I take one more step…” Rings reference comes into play, and suddenly we’re well off the beaten track. We wander along the river until the path ends, crossing the road, and have to climb over the collapsed fence of this vacant construction site that’s muddy as anything. I nearly lose a walking boot leaping across an epic puddle but we make it through, all the while the group debate a serious question:
Whenever you go on an adult website, there’s always ads for bored housewives looking to hook up… Why are they always from Frome?
I can’t say I’d noticed it, myself, but the lads are pretty determined this is a thing. To the extent that we’re now convinced if you ever hear anyone say they’re going to Frome, you have every right to be suspicious of them.
Documentaries in Frome. Heh. Still makes me smile. Lads.
Our wilderness hiking only goes so far until we reach the Tally Ho at Eversley. Good pub. First time we’ve stopped on one part way on a hike. They serve a beer called the Twyford Tipple. I didn’t realise I was famous enough to have a beer named after me. More people must have read my breakthrough sleeper hit YA book Aurora than I thought. (When I say sleeper, I mean self published with one modest Facebook post and a tweet by way of publicity. And when I say hit, I make about 24p every other month.)
Anyway, we quickly realise that they serve their beer – both pints and halves – in those dimpled tankards, and they’re identical in every way except size. This gives us an idea, Lord of the Rings related, naturally, involving people of significantly different heights. It involves Grier.
About Grier’s height…
You’ve gotta understand, Grier is really, really tall. I’m over 6 foot and this guy just peers down at me. John claims Grier is 6 foot 10, which is nuts. He also claims Grier flew over here from Germany to do the Hike with us, which is even more nuts. Our first international member. He quickly takes a shine to us – and vice versa – but he does think we’re a bunch of lunatics.
Especially when we explain that by switching the half and full pints of beers using the magic of film, we could do a Lord of the Rings-esque perspective thing so Grier – man – could pass me – Hobbit – a drink.
It comes in pints, after all.
After several attempts, this pitiful clip was the entire fruit of our success.
Pints swiftly drunk, we’re eager to get off again. We’re not making the time we really hoped, and there’s many miles left to go.
We enter Hampshire, and the Silchester Hike takes on a different look, becoming distinctive for mostly being very flat, and we pass through or along many fields and paddocks where we were unsure whether we were really allowed to be walking there, which was exciting. We made friends too:
Some of the animal interactions we were exposed to were slightly less endearing:
Then we saw this:
Pretty grim, right? It was literally just a red skeleton with a head. We thought it was a fox at first until we noticed the hooves. Sinister.
We wondered what might have picked it clean like this until we hear the shrill cry of red kites above; scores of them.
I love red kites. There’s loads in Maidenhead. I think it’s the fact they’re actual birds of prey, in Berkshire, of all places. There’s a whole story about how they were reintroduced after being hunted to extinction in Britain, but they’re flourishing now. I keep expecting to take the sight for granted, but like a big kid, the novelty has never worn off. Fortunately for me, most of the rest of this crew live in London, so they’re equally awed.
I halfheartedly mention that the eagles are coming, but everyone’s pretty sick of the Rings shtick including myself, so I give it a rest. I’m only doing it to annoy John.
And so we walk…
… and walk…
… and walk.
Another pub for food – The Bull at Riseley – where Grier experiences his first hunter’s chicken and we generally stop for too long, and then we end up walking along these country roads, above, which are exactly the sort of roads you tend to get run down and left for dead if you’re on foot, but we’ve got a bottle of pre-mixed gin and tonic with us, so our spirits are kept up (no pun intended.)
There’s a rather unsettling ten minutes where – while walking down one of these lanes – we end up passing a lot of travelers with assorted horses and cart-related paraphernalia. From the dirty looks we get, we suddenly remember we’re not bad-ass at all, have no fighting skills whatsoever beyond my boxercise classes, and have no energy at all should we need to run off. Not to mention our asthma.
It’s shortly after this that a strange sort of desperation takes hold. The light starts to fail, and we’re walking on long, deserted pathways. We’re starting to get very tired. The Hike claims its sacrifice in Clyde, who starts to fall behind but refuses to quit, no matter how bad his feet are. Our pace suffers, and we’re basically racing the sunset now.
It’s that hike-psychology thing again. We love and hate the walk, we’re desperate to finish it, yet we want it to be epic and worthy and long at the same time.
There’s a brief interlude where we cross possibly the most desolate field known to mankind:
Seriously, look at that. Isn’t it bleak?
It’s scattered with some vegetables, and John realises they’re turnips.
What can you even do with turnips, we wonder?
“Boil ’em, mash ’em, stick ’em in a stew,” I answer, before I even realise it’s slipped out. Fortunately this one gets a laugh and I feel pretty triumphant.
We reach the outskirts of Silchester as the sun sets, where we befriend some alpacas (standard) and cross a rather sinister church yard. Some random bloke walking his dog explains to us that the ground in the graveyard is uneven owing to all the bodies buried on top of one another, slowly compressing as they decompose, only to have more bodies buried on top of them.
Still, it’s not long until we arrive at the Hike’s end. Our destination is The Calleva Arms, and we arrive in darkness, broken and exhausted. We take some halfhearted selfies –
– This is mostly just Grier taunting us that none of us can reach the camera –
and immediately work our way through a whole bunch of beer. Our shoes and socks come off, which is a delight for one and all. We observe what remains of Clyde’s feet:
– the big red splodge at the back is his blood, I don’t think the red dots are –
and Rob defiantly brings out his asthma inhaler and places it on the table, concluding ten hours of on-off asthma jokes. Rob’s revelation that he is also an asthmatic to me is like that bit at the end of Return of the King, at the Grey Havens, where Gandalf reveals he had the third elvish ring all along. What a hero.
Not long after we begin our return journey, which involves a cab to the train station, a train to Reading, and from there we part ways, each having different places to get home to (Lads, I’ve just remembered we’ll have to do this again on Hike V, what a ballache.)
This Hike was epic. Last time I made the Led Zeppelin comparison and it fits here too – this was the countrified (folk?) experience where we tried something new. It involved mad planning and was quite tense in the end trying to get there before darkness made the route impossible, but we did it. Already we had plans for the next one. We weren’t sure where it’d be, but we had a few ideas.
We were pretty sure it wouldn’t involve walking in Frome, though.
POST EDIT: Since reading this, John dropped me a line to inform me that Clyde’s feet have made a full recovery. They have, however, required some attention: