The Walking Idiots, Part Nine and a Bit

How did Alan get up this tree?

Was something chasing him?

If so, did he escape in time?

Or did he just eat a weird mushroom and think he was a bear?

All this and more will be answered in the latest instalment of The Walking Idiots!

Plus you’ll see lots of these handsome devils.

Disclaimer: this hike was technically another mini hike for Rob’s birthday, but ended up only being about three miles shorter than a full blown hike, so it doesn’t seem quite right to give this a point five status. Conversely, our next hike will be the momentous Hike Ten, and for a number like that it probably should be more than a local walk with the core crew, as nice as it was.

Hike X. Ooo. Makes you shiver.

Anyway, last year’s mini hike for Rob’s birthday was a big hit all round. Remember, he’s afflicted with a late December birthday, the poor sod, so no one is up for much, and this was karma’s way of making it up to him.

Meanwhile, a bunch of us had been reading up on local history and it seemed apt to investigate some of these sites in person. I’ll get to them as we go but the sort of things we’re talking about here include the Devil’s Highway, Caesar’s Camp, Ambarrow Hill (complete with allegedly and mysteriously murdered family) and the infamous Broadmoor hospital, of which Rob and I had both read a book of its fascinating history. The cool thing about this was it gave us landmarks to visit and made Mat’s route collation using plotaroute.com (if I keep namedropping them we’ll get sponsorship for sure) exceptionally easy.

Route here, in case you’re interested.

Rob sends out the hike signal (i.e. sets up a WhatsApp group and asks his dad and brother if they want to come) and our team is assembled. Alex and Steve, two of Rob’s close mates who were on the mini hike last year both opt out, some nonsense involving having small children or a very pregnant wife dragged out as an excuse. Whatevs, boys.

Morale is given a swift kick to the nuts when the Hike-mastermind himself tells us he won’t be able to make it, and we’re all left picturing a hiking world without John.

We each went to a dark place.

The morning of the mini hike dawns on us and we convene at the Golden Retriever pub (or “The Dog,” as my mother in law calls it, bless ‘er.) The Golden Retriever sits between Crowthorne and Bracknell and is very nice but also wasn’t open and therefore utterly failed to deliver breakfast, so that’s that.

The absence of breakfast is more than made up for by the fact that waiting for us is none other than John himself, who’d managed to pull off getting to us on the caveat that he leaves one of his kids with his parents in Crowthorne, therefore leaving his wife slightly less outnumbered than usual on one of these hikes. John’s parents, we love you.

(We also love Mat’s new remote-operated selfie stick which took this photo. Between this and plotaroute, technology is gradually making our various hike responsibilities redundant. All we need is some random AI program to write these and I can take a break, too.)

Anyway, here we have Mat Gunyon, Big Al Feltz, Jim Golding, Alan O’Connell, birthday boy Rob Golding, some imbecile, Handsome John Duckitt, and joining us for the first time, Rob’s brother Sam Golding.

Departing the Retriever, we enter Bracknell Forest (home to local institution Muzzy’s Kebab Van) and ascend the hill towards Caesar’s Camp…

… which we miss. So much for local history.

Knowing John will be sorely disappointed by our early blunder, Mat cracks open his home made bottle of Whisky Mac for us all to share. This has become a hike staple and should quickly undo any prospective sponsorship from anyone with sense.

In case you’re wondering, according to Matthew, you need the following for one of your own:

  • One part Scottish blended whisky
  • One part stones ginger wine
  • Orange peel
  • A squeeze of juice from the orange

Serve chilled, or in our case, from a plastic bottle.

There you have it. A Whisky Mat, if you will.

We follow the hill through the woods and John tries his best to point out interesting historical sights where they appear:

… such as that, um, hill? Stone? Tree? Whatever it was, I’m sure it was fascinating.

(I blame the Golding brothers. They were trying to sell me the virtues of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom when I’m a Raiders/Last Crusade man through and through.)

We leave the woods via an underpass and pause for some obligatory poses, because this is what men in groups do when they see graffiti.

Bringing the flava.

From here, our route leads us around the back of Broadmoor Hospital, giving us a glimpse of the still-being-refurbished buildings. Broadmoor was established in 1863 as a criminal lunatic asylum and is now a high-security psychiatric hospital. It’s held patients such as Peter Sutcliffe, Ronnie Cray, Edward Oxford (Queen Victoria’s would-be assassin) and Charles Bronson. There’s a whole fascinating debate around whether the criminally insane should be in hospital or prison, but when we were kids it was just this massive, creepy looking place on the hill that housed some notorious criminals.

All of us on that hike have memories of the Broadmoor siren, (which sounded like an air raid siren but was actually installed in the 1950’s) being tested every Monday morning at 10am. Growing up in Crowthorne, I remember two breakouts, one of which I was determined to catch the escapee by leaving my bike on the pavement to block their way. I was seven, by the way, not in my twenties or anything.

It’s still a little bit creepy.

We progress through Broadmoor woods and see sights of varying historical significance.

Alan and I were unimpressed and confused by this…

… and this was just downright unpleasant.

There’s a brief segue past Edgbarrow Secondary School, last seen in Hike VIII and almost unrecognisable from when we used to go there, before we start to approach Ambarrow woods.

Rob “makes” me stop for a photo at the train crossing (now closed) as it’s a location in my first published short story, and apparently the only thing of mine anyone’s read other than these posts:

As you can tell, I was clearly coerced.

The upshot of the crossing being shut – other than me not having a panic attack about having to get Alan across the tracks, liability that he is – is that the Victorian railway bridge is open for the first time in living memory.

Here’s two photos from it. One’s a bit arty, the other a gratuitous group shot with some leg provided by Alan.

The two facets of Instagram, if you will.

From here we tackle Ambarrow woods and hill. The hill has been covered years back in Hike 3 but fortunately for you, dear reader, I didn’t discuss it in sufficient detail so can elaborate further here:

Step one: ascend the hill.

Manly competitiveness kicks in, at least between myself and Alan as we rush up. Big Al in comparison practically floats up, as expected.

Step two: silliness on hill.

Ambarrow has/had a rope swing at the top of the hill which was the source of many teenage misadventures. Yours truly fell off it at least twenty years ago and managed to lose a patch of skin on my arm that’s never quite been able to tan like the rest of said limb.

The swing itself has seen better days since.

The hill silliness is completed by – surprise – Alan, who tries to climb the tree with the rope swing on. Rob captures the moment, and I decide to go a behind the scenes shot, revealing to you all how we Walking Idiots make the magic happen.

And there you go. ‘Twas no bear or mushroom that drove Alan to climb, only his own inner demons, and maybe a little Whisky Mac.

Oh yeah and Mat and I didn’t help matters. I was determined to reach the rope swing and he lifted me because he’s really strong and likes doing stupid things like this too.

More failure.

Great time for John to be FaceTiming the family, this.

Step 3: go down the hill.

That was uneventful so I won’t include any photos. We did meet a nice dog on the way but he wouldn’t agree to any pictures.

Reaching the base of Ambarrow Hill and crossing the car park, Jim and Sam leave us. They’ve done an honourable stretch and they’d better watch themselves as we know they’re capable of doing these things now (especially with Jim last year) so we’re gonna expect them back.

At the start of this post I alluded to sinister goings on at Ambarrow Hill, but it didn’t quite fit with all the shenanigans mentioned above. The rumour John had heard was that there was an unidentified family found hanging from the trees in the 1950’s. The family is allegedly buried in St. John’s churchyard. They say you can hear the sound of children laughing there at night sometimes.

Yeah. Creepy.

If anyone with any Crowthorne knowledge has heard this tale or any other stories about Ambarrow Hill, let me know, just maybe in daytime okay?

Anyway, two men lighter, we crack on, revisiting a little of the route of our third Hike (to Silchester from Crowthorne) until we reach Finchampstead.

The light’s brilliant for photos but to be honest, at this point we’re starting to need a pub.

Fortunately one is close at hand, The Queen’s Oak of Finchampstead, and we’re able to stop for a cheeky pint and recharge our batteries (mine literal rather than metaphorical because as with all hikes, I’m recording this on Mapmyrun, because data.)

This last picture needs no explanation and I’m not going to give one as I need a break from writing about Alan.

My second favourite sight on a hike after a pub is a church with a graveyard, and fortunately for us there was one next to the pub. Result!

This hike was clearly offering an embarrassment of riches.

Also, I’ve never seen a tombstone like this before. If anyone knows what it’s meant to represent (I assume military officer?) do let me know.

After that, things start to get muddy.

… and silly. Again.

Ah well. We needed tiring out.

Then there’s a bunch of this:

… a bit of this:

… and some of this:

The cross country ambling takes a good couple of hours, but fortunately for us time flies by as several of our members enter an intense debate over what would be a more preferable, um, companion: a mermaid with top half woman, bottom half fish, or top half fish, bottom half woman. I’ll be curious to see whether Disney take any of the merits of the latter option on board for the live action remake.

Salvation from this nonsense – and loads of mud- is at hand as we reach our second pub stop, The White Lion in Yateley. It’s a very nice pub but given that by this point we’re a bunch of sweaty messes, rather than savour the ambience (and make the clientele savour our ambience) we decide to sit outside.

There’s a delightful father-in-law/son-in-law stand-off between Big Al and Mat as to who gets to buy the beers, but for the sake of egos I won’t say who won out. You probably know anyway if you look deep enough into your soul.

With twilight approaching we brave the last stretch, through Yateley Common. According to my local guru (Rob) “[it’s] mainly open heathland with areas of open heather, gorse, birch and oak. Gravel pits that are now ponds, a cemetery, and probably lots of dogging.”

Not pictured: dogging.

There was also a rather quaint fairy garden some locals had set up in the woods, which I gather is a preferred fly tipping sight for some of Rob’s more charming neighbours, so that’s nice, I guess.

We turn a corner and all of a sudden we’re at the end of Rob’s road, which is a quite amazing really. It’s almost like it was planned.

Waiting to collect Mat and Big Al is Mat’s wife and mother-in-law (two separate people, obviously) as well as his daughter, little Ellie, who rather cheekily stole my birthday. I guess we can share.

Farewell hugs are exchanged as Big Al and Mat are escorted away, leaving me, John, Alan and Rob to enjoy beers and an impressive spread courtesy of Holly, Rob’s wife. Later, we’re joined by others including my wife, Jen, Sam, and Rob’s parents, who tell me they’re big fans of this blog, so a big shout out goes out to them. Holly goes onto braid Alan’s hair, but seeing as this is meant to be a blog about hiking, I’ll leave that for now.

Here’s a photo of us winning at the end. It’s always nice to end on one of those, isn’t it?

The Walking Idiots, Part 9

When we were teenagers, my mate John Duckitt had the foolish notion that we could walk (we didn’t think of it as hiking back then, we lived in Berkshire, for goodness sake) from Crowthorne, the village we were from, to Windsor, a distance of approximately 20 miles and further than any of us had every considered walking on foot. For various reasons this never happened, but in our early thirties, where we were all far too busy with lives and jobs and families and never saw one another as much as we should, the idea started to appeal. Especially when the idea of pub stops was thrown in.

The hike was a great success (well, we got to Windsor, so mission accomplished) and we repeated the route before trying other hikes to places such as Silchester, Henley and Farnham. We’ve managed eight of these in total, with an ever expanding list of attendees as our enthusiasm (or passive-aggressive nagging depending on how you see things) has persuaded others to join our group.

We have merchandise and everything now, thanks Rob.

A little while ago we tried our first hike in Kent (mostly because John lives there now) and it was deemed a great success, so we thought another was due. The Pilgrims Way seemed like a fascinating and worthwhile opportunity for Hike IX, although obviously far too long for a single hike, so we chose a stretch from Lenham to Canterbury (we’re sort of starting at the end) which looked like it would make for a pretty good walk.

In hikes gone by we (John, Mat Gunyon, Rob Golding and myself)) would have spent weeks emailing links of routes to one another, probably in work time, fixated on the best way to get there. That all changed when Mat found plotaroute, which basically did all that for us, finding the best footpaths and so on. (There are probably other services out there, but this is the one we use). To be fair, it’s probably best we found something to help us, seeing as in hikes gone by we’ve found ourselves getting stuck crossing private land, walking along main roads or considering wading across rivers, so really it’s just preventing us coming to grief.

Not that Alan cares. He’s just happy to be outside.

Anyway, our route was decided, the date set (you kind of have to treat these things like a stag do or wedding and really limit the choices of dates to the attendees or nothing gets chosen) and we drum up interest over our WhatsApp group. As with every hike, we attract a good number of people who haven’t really thought this through, and as the day draws closer and the weather forecast grows progressively bleaker, people start to drop out.

 
Bunch of fair weather dropouts. They probably would’ve died anyway.

Our numbers reduced to fourteen (which is still pretty good) and various repeat dropout offenders blackballed – promising to come on a hike is not the same as attending a hike – we make our respective ways to Kent, some of us the night before.

Alan, Jack and Henry had a particularly unfortunate incident where, having returned from the pub, they realised the key cards they had been given for their hostel didn’t work, and neither did any of the contact numbers they were given. I’m not entirely sure of the details of how they got in, and if I did it probably wouldn’t be best repeated here, but I gather it involved scaffolding, a twig, a letter box, some light breaking and entering, and upon entry, whisky and Lucozade. All I do know for sure is that none of them got much sleep.

The morning of the hike came around and our elite group converged on the Dog and Bear in Lenham. In a move of organisational inspiration, John had informed them of our arrival the week before and placed our orders, meaning we were all treated to full English breakfasts upon arrival, like kings.

I quite liked the Dog and Bear. The food was good and it had an unusually well documented bias concerning non-locals, which, as a League of Gentlemen fan, tickled me.

Insert: “are you local?” joke here.

Twelve breakfasts inhaled, our final attendees Paul and Aleks (both new additions) arrive from London, having gotten up hideously early that morning. Some of the team pop down the road to the little Co-op to grab their lunch, and foot tape and powder is applied by those who are prepared to take no chances.

Goodness knows what any Lenham locals thought of this, especially when Pete cracks open his home brewed beer before 8am. (It’s tradition.)

We pause for our obligatory start of hike group photo, set our various runtrackers (which of course we don’t refer to as paedo-meters, for that would be most insensitive) and off we go.

 

(Attendees: Mat Gunyon, Grier Higgins, me, James Winfield, Aleks Mladenovic, Alan O’Connell, John Duckitt, Pete Lewis, Big Al Feltz, Ben Holton, Jack Adams, Henry Jeffries, Paul Sifter. Rob took the photo, hence why he’s not in it. Most of the other photos are his, FYI.)

So normally on a hike you have to leave it a good few hours before the weird bits start, often brought on by exhaustion and mild delirium. We’ve found abandoned churches, experienced profound, other-worldly sunsets, and one time found a woman in a bath along the riverside. Nothing quite so strange happened here, but as soon as we got to the end of the path, we reached a field which seemed to have more in common with quicksand than anything else.

We power through, but it’s tough going, our boots almost magnetically attracting enough mud that our legs feel twice as heavy as usual.

This is actually footage, not a photo. We’re actually that slow.

Reaching the other end of the field we’re treated to The Cross at Lenham, first cut into the Downs in 1921 as a memorial to those who died in the Great War.

Our mood is sobered somewhat by the rain, which doesn’t exactly fling it down, but stops Kent looking less like the Garden of England and, well, the Garden of England if it was drizzling a lot.

About ninety minutes into the hike I get a notification from my news app to say that someone has broken the record for completing the marathon in under two hours. The distance is comparable to what we’re intending to do today (a little longer, in fact), but if we want to achieve it in a similar time, we’d better get to Canterbury in half an hour.

I think we knew that wasn’t going to happen from the start though.

Around 11:30 we reach our first designated pub stop, the Flying Horse. This is probably a wonderful pub but I can’t give you a comprehensive review on the grounds that it was shut. Clearly the daytime alcoholics of the village of Boughton Aluph have to do their morning drinking somewhere else. John tried calling the landlord but to little avail. We decide to crack on, the (admittedly slim) silver lining of cutting out a pub stop being that we have been given an hour back of our walk. (Well, except for James who had always planned leaving at this point, knowing he probably wouldn’t be able to hack the whole thing.)

Moving on, we leave the village and return into the countryside.

We pass a church, and I remember that as part of the hike prep, I had purchased something called a Pilgrims Passport which as far as I could tell is a throwback to the Olde Days where pilgrims would carry something similar to seek food and shelter and (hopefully) put vagrants off kicking the stuffing out of them. In modern terms it’ll probably achieve none of these, but it does apparently get you some discounts along the way.

It only cost £2, but I’m gonna get my money’s worth from it.

The church is locked, and slightly peeved, I leave, resolving to get it stamped at the next church. There’s a silver lining though:

The Church is pretty stunning, if you like that sort of thing

… and I still can’t get over the Vicar’s name. Funny on multiple levels. Take your time, I’ll wait.

Shortly after this we cross another field and climb a hill of some significance. I say climb because it really did seem that steep.

Paul bounds ahead, disappearing upwards and out of sight. We follow, ascending for about ten or fifteen minutes (I think, it’s hard to tell when you’re marching up something like this.) About halfway up, me, Pete and Big Al hear a blood curdling cry like Arnie calling out the Predator, and realise Paul must have reached the top. Clearly John recruited a lunatic for this hike.

Eventually we all reach the top and people decide to reward themselves with snacks. Mostly this consists of whisky but John brings out a rather nice block of cheese, which I must say I wasn’t expecting.

You can decide for yourselves whether this is the sort of thing seasoned athletes do when they need to refuel.

We progress, walking through rather beautiful forest (Rob says it looked like something from Prince of Thieves, I was picturing the ending of Fellowship of the Ring) walking along the hill’s peak. With the exception of some enormous mushrooms, there’s not too much to report here. Alan poked one despite everyone telling him not to, but Big Al, ever responsible, had brought along some hand sanitiser, which spared Alan an unpleasant fate should he scratch an orifice and die. If anyone could, it’d be Alan.

There’s a fleeting glimpse of Canterbury cathedral on the horizon as pointed out by a very nice church group we crossed paths with and who did a lovely job of masking their revulsion of us, but given the leaden sky it mostly seemed like a dark blob in the distance. More importantly, Rob was unable to take a photo of it, and given that’s the only reason anyone reads my hike ramblings, we’ll move on.

Around 25 kilometres (15 miles in old money) we realise we’ve still not made it to a pub stop. And by realise, I mean it’s all anyone’s really talking about until we notice we’ve been walking along a very nice wall for a long time.

John points out that the house behind the wall is owned by the founder of IG Index, which raises everyone’s expectations of what lies behind it enormously. When the wall briefly dips into an iron fence, we are suitably impressed with the sight.

You know you own an impressive property when it a) has the keep of a Norman Castle as an extension, and b) has its own Wikipedia page.

Following the wall around leads us into the really rather stunning village of Chilham, as well as the gates of Chilham Castle. I think it’s fair to say I’ll never be able to afford to live here, but it’s nice to stop by.

And here, 16 miles in, we reach our first pub stop.

The White Horse is one of those lovely country pubs you’d only find in Britain. The building dates back to the 14th century, it has a good range of beers, the door is opened by a rope you have to pull, and the staff were perfectly happy to let thirteen sweaty, soggy idiots eat their packed lunches in the beer garden.

Wins all round.

Much banter is shared with all sorts of things mentioned that I wouldn’t dare to include in this post (there’s a rule about lads in groups bringing out the worst in each other, isn’t there?) but we’re very sensible and decide to keep it at one pint or we’ll never get going again. Alan in particular takes umbrage to this notion, but you can’t please everyone.

He was a bit thirsty.

Also, we learned that Aleks really needs to start cleaning his flask better, as it’d turned his whisky black. He didn’t drink much more after realising this.

Foot tape and powder reapplied, we resume our march. I notice a church through the beer garden and try and get my pilgrims passport stamped there too, but they’re shut as well, dammit.

We’ve made such good time (owing, for once, to our limited alcohol intake) that we decide to deviate and follow our route along the river.

The rain has patiently waited while we had our break, and merrily starts up again as soon as we resume. We cope in our own ways. John, for instance stole one of his daughter’s princess-looking hairbands to keep his hair out of his eyes, and looked lovely. You’ll just have to picture it though, as no evidence exists that this happened. But it did. Instead, here’s some pictures of some of the rest of us enduring.

Still better than your weekend though. Unless you’re Clyde, who bailed on the hike to attend a lecture by Martin Scorsese, which is about the same.

We get a little confused by our route as we’ve decided to deviate from our intended way to go by the river (mix it up a bit) and there’s a point where Mat has to actually make sure we’re going the right way.

I mean, we knew we weren’t going backwards, but that’s about it.

Our direction is confirmed (there’s a left hand turning we need to stay on top of) and with Pete’s noxious wind providing all the motivation we need to not sit still, we’re on our way.

We pass through this amazing red field on the way. We came this close to convincing Rob it was a coleslaw field, but he saw through it.

Finally reaching the river, we cross paths with scores of sheep, some of whom seem more frustrated than others.

It’s around this time that two things become apparent. 1) It’s finally stopped raining, thank god, and 2), Jack’s pace has slowed to a near halt. This basically means we stop every mile or so to let the poor guy catch us up, but with Canterbury nearing and Jack’s discomfort becoming apparent, we decide it’s time to help him out.

It’s worth remembering Jack was one of the three that was locked out of the hostel, and who replaced a significant part of his sleep with whisky, so he has an excuse.

This broadly consists of yours truly (with help from Rob, then Mat) grabbing an arm around our shoulders each and marching him the last mile into Canterbury City Centre.

We pass this awesome graffiti under a riverside bridge though.

It’s been a good few years since I’ve been to Canterbury and the timber frames buildings and cobbled streets have a delightful charm, especially as the sun sets and the promise of an old pub is imminent.

Our progress is halted only when John spots a hobbit hole themed house to let in the window of an estate agents (reports afterwards from the boys inform me that in my excitement I slung poor Jack off me like a kid dropping his backpack having got home from school) but it provides only a fleeting distraction and we’re soon at our journeys end.
There’s a few moments of confusion when we realise we’re short a member, as Ben has disappeared, perhaps unsettled by his return to civilisation. He hadn’t realised that our pace had dropped so much, and marched on, presumably guessing the rest of us were only a few steps behind him. Which really is a far more reasonable assumption than the reality that we were stood peering into the window of an estate agents’, but there you go.

Our arrival at The Old Buttermarket, a beautiful five hundred year old pub, is as euphoric as you’d expect, with lots of cheers, clinking of glasses, and manly, knowing looks. This euphoric feeling is pretty standard issue for our hikes and one of the many reasons we do them.

(Light disclaimer that this excludes our first hike in Kent, where I drunk enough to fall asleep in Pizza Express. On Rob.)

Sitting for the first time in hours, by the way, is a wonderful and novel experience, as represented in this picture.

Although according to my wife, who is a primary school teacher, this level of standing at a time is a daily occurrence, so I’ve nothing to complain about.

After a few drinks Paul and Aleks depart, having to return to London, and we’re sad to see two of our newest additions leave. They’re definitely welcome to come again.

Our evening progresses from there, with Mat, Rob and Big Al making it part of Hike Constitution that from now on we eat where we finish unless there’s an outstanding reason why that doesn’t work. The Old Buttermarket does some pretty good pub grub, and we’re not fussy by this point. The waitress who takes our order has an outstanding memory as eleven meals are ordered, and the pub is very decent to put up with our generally unkempt and, shall we say, aromatic nature.

The evening comes to its inevitable end quite early as everyone is pretty beat, and we go our respective ways, over half of us to the comforts of the Premier Inn or hostel (fortunately they could get in it this time). There are various messages exchanged over our WhatsApp group congratulating ourselves on our day, and several photos of bloodied feet, which probably aren’t the best photo to end this post on.

That’s better.

So in conclusion, the Pilgrims’ Way, and Kent in general, is excellent to hike. But we knew that from the start. It’s why we’re coming back to do more of it. My one request for next time, is can I get my bloody pilgrims passport stamped somewhere please?

The Walking Idiots, Part 8

Eight?! How the hell have we managed eight of these things? It’s clearly one of the great mysteries, akin to dark matter; how those little silica pouches keep new things fresh; and why they keep rebooting Robin Hood.

In our case it’s just this for 8-10 hours, for God’s sake.

So Crowthorne to Farnham was, as regular readers may remember, the original plan for Hike VI. It didn’t happen due to various factors but after Kent for VII we felt Farnham was a good next target. Coming in at 20 miles it’s one of the shortest hikes we’ve had, and given some of the longer ones, there was an appetite from some of the crew to make the next one a little more manageable. (Not Alan. If Alan has his way they’d all be 40 miles long with 2 pints at each pub.)

The Farnham route was a nice little tribute to hike regular Mat, who is both from Crowthorne (like the rest of the core crew, although the term ‘core’ is debatable and now expanding) and got married at Farnham castle, so it seemed like a fun thing to do.

The planning for this one was (fortunately for readers and myself, who has to turn the planning of a long walk into something stimulating) incredibly easy. Mat found this thing called PlotARoute which, um, plots a route, and basically took all the nightmarish stress of planning (which John totally loves emailing about) away from us. No idea if subsequent ambles will be so easy, but this was a doddle. The biggest challenge seemed to be where to have (first) breakfast, as nowhere seemed to be able to fit us all, or was open at 8 in the morning.

As ever, we cast the net of invitees wide and despite some heavy faffing from people who were definitely-gonna-come-but-not-on-this-one-but-definitely-the-next, managed to snag all the regulars, a few returning faces, and some new additions in the form of three of Alan’s friends, Tristram, Jack and Julius.

Mat hits on the idea of emailing a cafe in Crowthorne that has fed us on some of the early hikes (even signed it courtesy of the Walking Idiots, which I loved) and they were up for making us baguettes, but in the end it was agreed that we’d meet in Crowthorne, walk a mile or two to Sandhurst, and eat at Rackstraws, a Beefeater.

There’s a bit of a running joke with Rackstraws, in as much as Mat has suggested it as a breakfast location on numerous instances (not the Kent hike, as far as I remember) yet somehow we’ve never eaten there. No one knows quite why he loves it so.

I even made a meme about it.

Anyway, Rackstraws it is, and then only 18 miles to Farnham.

Plans progress as per usual (mostly John messaging some of us and nagging us to create chatter on the WhatsApp group) and the hike sneaks closer and without incident. Yours truly is briefly concerned when I’m ill for the first time in a long time (both ends) and takes a couple of days off work, feeling pretty pathetic and worried I’ll not be able to make it. I eat masses of spinach and oranges in an ill-conceived attempt to bounce back, but mostly the rest fixes me. It was nice to get vaguely threatening messages from Rob and John, both saying “you cannot be ill.”

Still, we wouldn’t have got this pic if I had bitched out. It’s nice to be wanted.

On the eve of the hike the various parties make their way closer to Crowthorne. Alan’s friends get an Airbnb, Clyde crashes at mine, and John has a hideously depressing train journey apparently caused by some genius with a flag. John’s reaction is suitably appropriate and not at all over dramatic:

How can there not be a f**king buffet car on this train? What is this, the GuLAG?

The morning of the hike, we all rock up for 8ish, Jen dropping Clyde and I off, stopping long enough to get a wave from Mat and Alan, and some friendly abuse from John (“I thought that looked like Ridley parking!”) Enough man hugs are given to make the beach scene in Top Gun seem whatever the opposite of homoerotic is, and we’re off!

Hike 8: 30th March 2019

Crap, sorry, I got confused, here we are:

Attendees: from l-r: Dave Moverley, Tristram Pettit, Chris Swatridge, Julius de Seporhino (I’ve got surname envy now), John Duckitt, Pete Lewis, Alan O’Connell, Jack Adams, me, Clyde Baehr, Clyde’s Tesco bag full of alcohol which he managed to carry for the full day, although it did get progressively lighter, Mat Gunyon, Tom White, Big Al Feltz. Rob, as ever, was on camera duty.

Not only was Rob doing his photography bit, but he was very excited that the point where we took the photo, in the Morgan Rec (walking past a tree that Swatty was responsible for planting – he was getting his nature lessons in early) was also where most of the Crowthorne alumni played street hockey as youths. Rob and Mat went on to be in a team for a good long while since (Rob still plays.)

It makes for a nice flashback but we’re quickly made aware that we’re getting a little emotional over what is essentially a large square of concrete, no matter how much we try and make it seem like something from Fresh Prince meets One Tree Hill, and this means nothing to at least nine of our number.

Unfortunately for them, the nostalgia trip/self indulgence only deepens as within five minutes our route leads us to Edgbarrow school, which the same five of us attended.

Hogwarts it ain’t.

Note Alan’s short-shorts, quickly becoming a hike staple, the tease.

The five of us posing here at the school entrance is a bit of a vanity exercise but who cares. There’s plans for a twenty year reunion this year, which should be… interesting.

John mentioned later how when we were taking photos at Edgbarrow, he was expecting there to be most of the group there, but instead we were stood looking at a crowd of bemused faces. There were scarcely a third of us had any connection to Crowthorne at all, and that’s great, because it’s changed into something else entirely now. Anyway.

We walk through the school grounds, eerily silent on a Saturday morning, five of us breathing in the heady nostalgia, the other nine hoping they won’t land on the sex offenders register, until we reach our first obstacle, a locked gate, that prevents us entering Wildmoor Heath, our intended route. (Rob later referred to this incident as gate-gate.)

Much bickering ensues (John assures me he told Mat about this in advance but his concerns were not acknowledged) until we hear a clang, and look up to see Big Al climbing over the gate, like Spider Man, if Spider Man was a grandfather.

The team follows him gracefully –

– and to celebrate this hurdle, Pete cracks open his first beer of the day. At this point it’s 8:24am. The day shows promise.

From here we proceed to Wildmoor Heath, which is a rather nice set of woods out the back of Edgbarrow that I somehow don’t remember despite having gone to the school for seven years.

(Insert Dead marshes gag here. I didn’t have the nerve to go full Frodo and fall in face first. John probably would’ve made it happen if I’d started to make the joke.)

Our route takes us through the Heath and woods towards Rackstraws, where everyone’s starting to get pretty hungry. Mat informs me that when some of the lads met for a drink the night before, Tristram asked him whether Alan had always been so… Alan, seeing as Mat had known him from school days, which tickled me.

I mean, yeah, pretty much.

We arrived at Rackstraws ready to ruin fourteen enormous breakfasts and are promptly turned away. We hadn’t booked (didn’t think we’d need to) and they’re apparently expecting a wedding party for breakfast. We remark that we’d be done quickly but it’s still a no-go. Several of our number pick up on the fact that the place is pretty much empty, and how many people are they expecting for this wedding group, but whatever. Plan B.

Plan B involves some more wandering (getting hangry by this point) through some woods and meadows until we reach the colossal Tesco that dominates the outskirts of Camberley. We proceed to their canteen area and for half an hour lose all sense of hike wilderness romanticism as we sit and eat fried breakfasts on plastic trays while wearing hike boots like utter bellends.

You can practically taste the enthusiasm.

(To be fair, it was a pretty good breakfast, all told.)

(Think Mat liked it. Or is that Daniel Craig?)

Speaking of Mat, with the day warming up he decides to follow in Alan’s example and switches to shorts, too. Cleverly, he’s got some of those trousers with detachable lower legs so with a few zips pulled his gams are out.

I forgot Mat has a dodgy knee, and with the trouser leg gone I can see his knee brace, which is some heavy tech, full of metal.

I can only assume he can do this like Christian Bale in The Dark Knight Rises:

It’s somewhere around this point Tom starts making calls trying to secure a booking for tomorrow (Mother’s Day), either for his mum or wife, I’m pretty sure they’re separate people.

I reached out to Tom for an official line on when/how/where this booking might have happened, but he was unavailable for comment. I can’t only conclude a) he doesn’t check Facebook often, b) he doesn’t want Mrs White to see how lax his booking skills were or c) he was busy directing trains or whatever it is he does.

The breakfast setting may be pretty awful but it does the business and we’re done in minutes. Seems to take longer to get served than to eat.

From here we resume our meanderings, following a route that’s not massively dissimilar to Rob’s birthday hike along the Blackwater.

Fuelled by carbohydrates and dead meat, Pete and John take off at a thunderous pace, managing to get so far ahead that they climb the stairs away from the main road and cross the bridge before the rest of us have even reached the stairs.

(At least they’re happy.)

To be fair, Dave and Swatty look happy enough, too. Must be Dave’s fancy new stick.

Eventually leaving the road, Swatty and Alan bond over different types of grass (more interesting than it sounds) and various nature lectures ensue.

They look content, don’t they?

There’s an interesting few sights like bridges with cool light patterns reflected on the ceiling and things like that which pop up but nothing else too noteworthy

Oh, and Dave’s Stevie Wonder impression.

Our first choice for a pub, The Rose and Thistle is shut, and deciding to take it on the chin rather than build up a complex about places rejecting us as if we were that sadistic biker gang from Mad Max (dibs on being the Toecutter) we opt for our second choice, which is the The Kings Head, just down the road.

The Kings Head is fine, it’s that Harvester I covered on Hike 7.5. I can’t really be bothered to say much about it so I’ll just leave Rob’s pic here and we’ll move on:

Oh, also proof it’s at least nice outside:

Everyone seems significantly cheerier for a pint, so with our morale boosted we head off, (Rob’s in shorts now, too, Alan’s set the trend) once again following Rob’s birthday hike route, which is a cracking route and looks different as we’re doing it in reverse.

It’s not too long after that when we reach our second pub, The Swan.

While the others are giggling about goodness knows what and making me experience whole new levels of FOMO, Dave and I chat with Alan’s mates, our new additions.

I found out later it was one of Clyde’s horror stories from his misspent youth. Their faces say it all:

We take the opportunity to scoff down lunch with pint 2 (official, it’s several more for a few of our number) and then head off. Clyde and I nip to the loo before joining the others and on the way back I clock this ridiculously cute puppy I’d seen earlier but not had the chance to introduce myself to. It’s one of those tiny ones who’s scared of everyone until it sniffs them and then it’s immediately your best friend.

This is great until we realise that everyone’s left without us, and I wonder how far ahead they’ve got until we look up and over the river next to the pub.

There they are. Despairing at us. Joke’s on them though, they don’t have puppy bite marks puncturing their hands and arms like Clyde and I did.

Anyway, we catch up and manage to pose like idiots on the bridge in the process.

It’s not long after this Rob decides we need a morale boost and sticks his immaculately curated Hike playlist on and I catch Big Al whistling along to Sound & Vision from Bowie’s seminal album Low, which brings me no end of happiness.

Then we pass this piece of Instagram bait, which me, Clyde and Rob all photograph:

#nofilter

From here things get a little more interesting as we leave both the river and road and head into logging woodland which isn’t as steep as it looks

Okay, maybe it was a bit

And from here we join a former, now disused railway line. Guess who liked that?

To be fair, the whole thing was pretty good, the arrow straight route giving me Dark Tower vibes (path of the beam) which I can’t share with anyone cos none of the crew have read it and I refuse to bring up the abomination of a movie.

Leaving the railway line it’s not long until we get to our penultimate pub, The White Hart in Tongham.

The White Hart is a perfectly fine pub, not the best of the day, beer range about acceptable. Points to note:

  • Rob throwing some serious shade in this photo, although it’s mostly because his hay fever kicked in with a vengeance. I doubt he can even see in this pic.
  • Sickeningly cute dog scrounging for food.
  • (Off camera) Like an escapee from the gulag, Clyde drinks cold lentil soup from a can because he needs to balance his diet out somehow and it’s hard for him otherwise. Not even the dog wanted to touch that.

Cute, but not BoyBoy from Hike 7.

Something like urgency strikes us and John’s inner fuhrer wakes up for the first time in this hike. We set off, noticing for the first time people struggling. It seems to be Alan’s new recruits, although as we learn later Jack seems to be the primary casualty. This leads to plenty of reminiscing of our gross feet from past hikes. Clyde’s were especially pus-filled in walks of yore, almost like a spirit level.

Still, from here the hike picks up as we head further into more rural areas.

Rob gets this gem, as what I’m starting to refer to a certain time of day as the Instagram Hour nears.

Also this horse had great hair.

Not long after this we briefly rejoin civilisation to cross the sliproad onto the Hogs Back, which is both treacherous and daft, and I gather from the lads that Big Al had his own Gandalf/you shall not pass moment where he basically commanded traffic to stop. Wish I’d seen that.

Back in the wild, interesting things (and some less interesting) happen.

(That’s probably less, but still funny.)

We find this creepy little bunker (Alan wanted to move in)

Weird tree stuff

Some abandoned dwelling

… and this sexy sunset.

This whole stretch was brilliant. The area is called Moor Park House. Rob ended up doing some pretty good research, post hike:

That area is Moor Park House (which we didn’t see). It was a bit of a health retreat and Darwin spent some time there.

In the area is a cave, with a natural spring inside. It used to be occupied by a white witch called The Mother Ludlum. She would lend out cooking utensils to people, coz no Tupperware back then.

It gets better:

There are a few legends, and you can find them online if you search.

She once lent an iron cauldron to the devil who ran off with it. He jumped 3 times, and where he landed he made 3 hills around surrey. She got the cauldron back and hid it in a local church so the devil could not get it again. It’s still there.

Note to self: research weird historical quirks before a hike where possible.

Turns out there were various pillboxes and anti tank pyramids (dubbed ‘dragons teeth’) along the river (the River Wey, in case you were wondering) which were installed in case the nazis snuck in and wanted to make their way to London. Credit again to Rob.

Our brief excursion into witches, beautiful skies and anti-nazi preparations winds down as we reach a tunnel that smells oddly of baby powder.

Apparently the house next to it blocked the tunnel once and it led to riots. I can only assume the baby powder aroma is a weird manifestation of a curse from the locals.

Slowly our team assembles our the far side, ready for our final push:

(Rob captioned this pic “Big Al 4eva” which I think is legit. You can also see Jack heroically soldiering on. Also Clyde looking like a rockstar.)

We convene next to a pub we don’t have time to stop in next to a roundabout. On the far side we glimpse a rather strange sight:

It’s like if the Weeping Angels were exhibitionists. Who actually buys this stuff?

Our final push takes us up the hill to Farnham Castle. Dave kindly donates his apparently technically advanced walking stick to Jack to see him through, and we climb a deceptively steep avenue of trees to the castle.

Probably the most masculine photo you’ll see today. Especially of Swatty.

The castle proved… elusive to capture…

… but whatever. It’s there somewhere and none of us are too fussed because once everyone’s caught up (and Alan’s made a further dent in his bottle of whisky) we make our way down the road to our final stop, The Nelson’s Arms in Farnham.

Nailed it.

The Nelson’s Arms was an absolute highpoint, and not just because we had finished this absurd walk. It’s got low ceilings, beams, leaded lights, all that great rustic stuff, plus lots of interesting beers.

I mean, it’s all about the beer really, isn’t it?

And pointless model boats too, naturally.

Conversation takes on all sorts of twists and turns. The high point for anyone who’s followed these posts before was stated by Clyde who in the wake of Rob’s perpetual sneezing, weighed up what wins in the hay fever versus asthma debate. It probably didn’t help that Rob spilled Clyde’s drink as he managed to sneeze while setting it down, but to be fair to Rob that wasn’t the worst sneezing related incident he’d had that week, as his bathroom would apparently attest, but I can’t go into detail on the blog owing to matters of good taste.

As ever, members of our party slowly leave, with the remaining crew of eight determined to go off and find food which we bloody well deserved. The hike turned out to be a great success, but my god is Farnham an utter bitch to get back from if you live in Berkshire, London or Kent. Ah well.

Bring on Hike 9.

The Walking Idiots: The Point Five Hikes

Not every hike is a Hike. Sometimes they’re just a long walk. Over the years there have been several attempts to get hikes going that have ended in failure, and several which were never intended to be more than they were.

Some of these ambles are note-worthy (to us, at least,) so John and I thought we’d share details of these in case you find them interesting, or, more honestly, just for the sake of blog completion. It’s quite a good exercise for me though: at the time of writing we’re gearing up for Hike VIII, and it’s good to stretch out the creative muscles in advance. There’s an unusual weight of expectation that I’ll document these things now, but I can’t complain seeing as I love writing about them.

Quick thing: John tends to send me loads of details for these blog posts, but seeing as I didn’t even go on two of them (Hikes 0.5 and 6.5, respectively), I thought I’d just get him to tell them rather than extensively paraphrase them. Some parts of the blog feel practically ghost written by him anyway, makes sense to give him credit for once.

I hope you welcome the change in narrator, but hopefully not too much: this is pretty much my only contribution to the Hikes other than crap Lord of the Rings jokes, so I don’t want to be out of a job.

Final point: the last of the four walks we’re going to cover is the most recent (December ’18) and has both the photos and a smattering of the frequent attendees you know and love/tolerate so well, plus a few new faces. So if you can’t bear the historic stuff or if you’re someone who joined Rob’s birthday Hike and want to read about it, skip to part 4.

(Featuring these sexy deviants.)

Hike 0.5 (John)

Our long standing readers of the Walking Idiots will be familiar with how the hikes began, but for those more recent joiners amongst you, here is the story for your benefit. Many years ago, when we were still at school, I was waiting by the door of the Waterloo Hotel bar, where there was an OS Map of the local area. I happened to notice that it was possible to walk from Crowthorne to Windsor through the forest without crossing many more than a handful of roads along the way. This was discussed on and off over the years, until over a decade later we found ourselves stood in front of that map once again, about to embark on what was to become known as Hike I.

We were so innocent back then.

What is not well known even amongst the hiking regulars, is that Hike I was merely the first successful attempt at this route. Prior to this, there had been an unsuccessful attempt at the route. This has become known in Hike Lore (there is such a thing for us enthusiasts, sadly) as Hike 0.5 and this is the story of that doomed expedition into the depths of the Home Counties.

It was one of the long, slow summers of the university holidays. Nobody can remember exactly which one, but as one very much resembled another, it doesn’t so much matter for our purposes. The time was marked by late mornings and late nights, punctuated with periods of menial shift work and frequent bouts of drunkenness. The day in question was one of the latter incidents of drunkenness, following one of the former uneventful shifts behind the counter of a grocery store. Alan and I were rewarding ourselves with a cold beer in the afternoon sun. We were, to be fair, rewarding ourselves very much in the same way that you might reward a child with chocolate for finishing their dinner; that is that we were rewarding ourselves for completing a task of no great effort that had to be done anyway. The conversation turned to the subject of the Crowthorne to Windsor hike. It was quite a popular subject of pub conversation at the time, but it never amounted to anything other than vague plans and platitudes. This time though, the planets aligned. Alan and I have been friends since we were 4 years old and over that time, a pattern of behaviour has emerged. One of us will suggest that we do something very stupid. Then the other will convince the first that it is a great idea and unless there is a neutral third party to pour cold water on the venture, the stupid idea will be made flesh.

10 minutes after the subject of the hike had been raised, we were on the road to Windsor. Unlike later hikes, there was no planning and no equipment. We hadn’t brought boots, a map, a compass, food, water or anything that you might expect for a journey like this. We didn’t really know the route beyond a cursory look at the Waterloo Hotel’s map, we were setting off late in the day and we hadn’t considered how we would get back. The only thing of any value we had was a duty free pack of several hundred cigarettes. As we were leaving Crowthorne, a strong desire to stop smoking gripped Alan (a desire that has never troubled him since, as far as I can tell). We decided it would be best if we got rid of the cigarettes. But how to dispose of so much tobacco? A unlikely solution presented itself. A short way down the road there was a building site. In the building site, there was a small cabin for the workmen, so Alan decided to throw the cigarettes on top of the cabin. There was a logic behind this decision, but it escapes me.

We left Crowthorne following the route of Hikes 1 and 2. Once you are beyond the edge of the town, you reach Swinley Forest- a sometime hunting ground for the monarchs, now a commercial timberland. It is quite an easy place to get lost in, as it is criss-crossed with logging tracks, connected at large multi-armed junctions. And get lost we did. Those of you familiar with the geography of East Berkshire will know that Windsor is approximately northeast of Crowthorne. Unfortunately, we had taken a wrong turn and a junction and were now heading due east. Of course, we didn’t know this because we had no compass and no real idea of what to expect anyway. As the light stated to fade, we asked passers-by how to get to Windsor from where we were. Their confused reactions should have given the game away, but we weren’t able to understand their directions because we erroneously thought we were somewhere near Ascot. For the record, we were a very long way from Ascot.

We pushed ahead until the paths ran out. We left the paths and struggled through the undergrowth. Unexpectedly, we popped out into a beautiful glade, full of ancient ash trees and waist high grass, the sunlight green through the leaves. We sat down, a bottle of cheap Scotch materialised from Alan’s shoulder bag and all was well. We stayed for a short while before continuing on. Beyond the edge of the glade we found a field populated with sheep, and beyond that a church steeple. Ascot, surely! However, there is a catch. Judging by the amount of barbed wire and number of CCTV cameras, whoever owns that field does not want us venturing into it. Our suspicions are only further heightened by the prominent “Keep Out” sign.

I can’t now remember who suggested we make a run for it to the church, but needless to say that once the idea had been proposed, there was no turning back. Crouched over like soldiers under fire, we vaulted the barbed wire fence and part-ran, part-stumbled across the field. I paused briefly and turned to look along the full length of the field. The reason for level of security became apparently. We’re not in a field, we’re in someone’s garden. Someone very rich and important, by the looking of the palatial mansion staring back at me. We were later to discover that this is Prince Andrew’s official resident and we were technically in violation of Terrorism Act by being there. We doubled our pace. Our lungs were bursting, we think we hear the sounds of dogs barking and retired SAS security guards in the distance. We tripled our pace. Finally, we reached the wall of the churchyard. It was thick with nettles and brambles, but we ploughed through oblivious to the pain in our panic. We made it! Unfortunately, the sign at the church gate informed us that we are in Bagshot, not Ascot. It’s getting dark and we’re hungry, thirsty and dejected. We grab fish and chips, a few beers and hail a taxi home.

Coincidentally, the taxi dropped us back just by the building site where Alan threw his cigarettes on the roof of the hut earlier in the day. Alan’s tobacco abstinence has ended, apparently (it never really began, he kept a couple of packs back and by then he’d smoked them) and now he wanted them back. Our ‘stupid idea’ dynamic provided a solution- Alan would climb on to the roof of the hut and I would keep watch. It went pretty well initially, until the sleeping builder in the hut awoke. Not for the first time that day, we found ourselves sprinting from danger, this time down the backroads of suburban Crowthorne. We got the cigarettes at least. And that was the end of Hike 0.5.

Hike 2.5 (Me)

Thanks John. Nice try guys, your effort was decent but not the success you envisaged. (I’ll try not to sound too smug seeing as I didn’t attend it.) As for the blog itself, once again a valiant effort but it’s missing something. As much as I would love to claim that missing ingredient is my own unique touch, I think it’s clear that it’s the absence of Rob’s photos that we feel.

Anyway, back to it. The next point five/mini/half hike was one John and I attempted solo; not to exclude anyone, I hasten to add, but because it went through London and few of our brethren were based there (more are, now. We’ve expanded, and not just in waist size.)

The idea for this was simple yet satisfying and this will probably be the quickest of the four walks you’ll read about. For this one, we wanted to see how many bridges in London we could cross in one walk, estimating that it would take us a period of approximately three hours.

Whoomp. There it is.

Our time limitation was imposed because neither of us had enough annual leave remaining to do this in the day, so we chose to convene after work, in trainers rather than boots.

There was a mild caveat in place that this did not cover every bridge in London. It turns out that’s a bit insane, and outside of central London there would be long, bridge-less stretches.

The resultant journey was one of the most satisfying walks I’ve had through our nation’s capital, but I wouldn’t exactly describe it as Hike-like. We stopped in no pubs for fear of losing momentum, not to mention light. It’s fascinating walking through London over a long distance and seeing it change around you.

Also, as the lack of photos can attest, this was before I got a phone with a half decent camera, and I didn’t have Instagram either, so no pictures were taken. Because, of course, if you can’t share these things on social media, can you really prove they ever happened? Can you?

(In my defence, back then I had no idea I’d be blogging these things, so it didn’t strike me to get all the pictures.)

(Also, again, no Rob, so no photos.)

Our amble ended in an Indian restaurant near Westminster. Eating there was completely unplanned, but it fit the bill simple because it served food. We were starving.

The restaurant was almost entirely empty and had that weird air of unused potential that empty restaurants have, not to mention that dimly lit glow that so many Indian restaurants have. We ate like kings, ordering far too much food and eating it all. It was brilliant.

The experiment resolved and a success, we waddled/limped our separate ways and off home, with the odd awareness that we’d be back in the office the next day.

Literal footnote: trainers are not a good substitute for hiking boots. Just putting that out there.

 

Hike 6.5 (John)

I unexpectedly arrived in Crowthorne with my two eldest children, in an attempt to quarantine them from my snotty youngest for a weekend. I’d already called ahead to organize a mini-Hike, but Alan was the only one able to heed the call at short notice. By the time that Hike 6.5 was conceived, we were old hands and capable of throwing something like this together on a whim. We had settled on a route of Crowthorne to Hartley Whitney, for two reasons. Firstly it followed the Three Castles Way and should be reasonably well signposted. Secondly, the One Stop in Hartley Whitney held a special place in Alan and mine’s hearts. As employees of the greater One Stop Group around the time of Hike 0.5, we had spent a summer being ferried from Crowthorne to the Hartley Whitney store to cover a staff shortage caused by a mass firing for theft (not exactly master criminals, they’d just been putting the cash from the till in their pockets rather than the safe). The company had paid us double time for our troubles and made it fairly clear that we managed to get through the day without stealing anything, we could consider ourselves star employees. Thus followed 6 weeks of sunbathing, drinking beer and eating ice cream on the roof of the shop in the hottest summer on record. It’s still the best job I’ve never had.

We set off after lunch and headed straight to Wellington woods to make the first leg to Sandhurst. Turns out that Wellington College, the custodians of the wood,  have drastically improved security since our last visit there and we found large parts of the woods now inaccessible (eagle eyed readers will recall that we had similar issues in Hike 3). We eventually found a way around and wandered down to Little Sandhurst. Our first checkpoint was the Fox & Hounds pub, possibly the worst pub on Earth, but one that I have a huge amount of misplaced affection for. The beers are warm, flat and meager in selection; the floor is sticky; the windows dusty and dark; the locals are unfriendly and the bar staff unfriendlier. Perfection, in a word. When we got there, though, it was obvious that the creatively destructive forces of capitalism had been at work and The World’s Worst Pub is now destined to become ‘luxury’ flats. It’s a particularly ignoble end to such an establishment, but also part of a trend that we’ve observed throughout of hikes.

We briefly mourned the passing of the Fox & Hounds and went to a nicer pub around the corner instead, The Bird in Hand. We did get a bit lost first, which is noteworthy in such a small village. We drank our beers quickly and whilst I was waiting for Alan to finish in the bathroom, I spent a few happy minutes reading the ‘barred’ list on the pub. Having been barred from The Crowthorne Inn on the eve of Hike 6, I feel a deep affinity with all those barred from pubs. I like to think that we are a romantic band of gold-hearted misfits, living on the fringes of society with no want for its stifling conventions. I was pleased to see just how many people had joined our exclusive little club courtesy of The Bird In Hand.

After the pub, our route followed Hike 3 for the most part, until we crossed the Blackwater River and headed south. We leapt across streams, scrambled through hedgerows and waded through waist height grass until we came upon the village of Eversley Cross. The village is noteworthy for having an unnecessarily large number of pubs and we thought it would be a shame if we didn’t pay them a visit. Prudently, we limited ourselves to only two pubs- The Chequers Inn and The Frog And Wicket, which are conveniently next to each other. We ticked them off in rapid succession and resumed our journey out into the woods west of the village.

We wandered through the woods for some time, briefly considering running for a while (I am glad we didn’t, Alan is in phenomenal shape and I could never be accused of that). We found a dead slow worm, which made us happy like 8 year olds again.

We poked it with a stick and everything.

Then burst burst out of the woods to find ourselves in… Eversley Cross. Again. Turns out we’d walked in a big loop. Pretty embarrassing.

We try again and this time we arrive on the far side of the wood and by the house of Charles Kingsley, author of the Water Babies. Here’s what Wikipedia has to say on the book, if you’re not familiar with it:

The book was extremely popular in England, and was a mainstay of British children’s literature for many decades, but eventually fell out of favour in part due to its prejudices (common at the time) against Irish, Jews, Catholics, Americans, and the poor.

Which I don’t remember from school at all. Another childhood memory shattered, we continued up the hill towards Bramley’s Plantation (N.B. no connection with the fantasy writer Christopher Bramley). The plantation is a large impersonal commercial timberland, like many of the remaining forests in the area. We chose walking sticks for ourselves. I chose poorly and was rewarded with a splinter in my hand. We got lost for a third time (I’ll spare you the details, you’re getting the picture by now) but eventually found ourselves on the outskirts of Hartley Whitney. We walked into town and paused for a photograph outside of OneStop –

– before finishing up at the Waggon (sic) and Horses pub where you used to drink after our shifts at the grocery store. And that was that.

Hike 7.5 AKA Rob’s Birthday Hike (Me)

This last one is just great, and could be a post unto itself.

Rob, designated Hike photographer and Walking Idiots veteran is blighted by that relatively uncommon affliction: having a birthday in the gap between Christmas and New Years.

Think about it: combined birthday/Christmas presents (or residual presents that didn’t make the Christmas list), no birthday to break up the year before Christmas comes, it must be torture.

Stay strong, Rob.

He decided not to let this disability ruin his life, however, and thought that seeing as most people would be free on the day, it would be perfect for a mini-Hike. He proposed this idea to the group having planned the route, sent invites, the whole lot. All we had to do was turn up. (I don’t think John knew what to do with himself if I’m being honest.)

Rob also used the hike as an opportunity to recruit some new blood, hitting up his group of friends, who so far have resisted the sultry allure of our silly walks. From his pool of contacts he managed to secure Steve and Alex, as well as his dad, Jim. Jim, as it turns out, is a seasoned hiker and has walked so far and documented it so well it makes our ventures look like a walk to the shops written up on a post-it.

The plan was simple yet inspired: from Rob’s house, he, Jim, Steve, Alex and I would walk to the local station (Blackwater) and catch a train up the line to the start of our route. Steve kindly bought the tickets, and we got on, meeting Mat, Big Al, John and Alan on the train, the others having boarded from Crowthorne and Wokingham.

We alight (great word, rarely use it) at North Camp, make our way to the river, and our journey began.

(Included this pic at the start but it’s worth repeating. We’ve definitely got a defined colour scheme going on.)

The bulk of our journey took us along the Blackwater river, and it meant lots of pictures like this:

Ah, it’s nice to be able to dilute this with pictures again.

We did come across a slight detour

… and I took particular umbridge to the spelling of “opposite”, but what can you do.

We stop at one of the main features of this walk, which depending on who you ask from our crew, was either an aqueduct or a viaduct:

and press on to reach our first pub stop, the Kings Head. The Kings Head is a Harvester, which is a chain that pops up from time on our hikes, but mostly just when we can’t find anywhere better, and our thirst is too great. It’s fine (and to be fair, not really intended as a pub, is it?) but the interior and range of beers seems to be identical in each one we find. Ah well. Beer’s good, quit griping Nick.

I mean, none of these lot seem unhappy, do they?

Incidentally, Harvester seemed to be celebrating another birthday on our arrival: J2O.

As you do. I have no opinion either way on the stuff, at least it’s not Red Bull. We drink up and crack on.

We follow Rob’s path over a bridge –

– pictured, along with evidence of how outstanding Alan’s hair game is at present. He’s like Jon Snow –

and follow a route along the main road. John at one point declares he’s found a better way, but we ain’t listening and he’s forced to catch us up, and I try my best to get an action pic of him running in slow mo.

Best I could find, made me laugh for some reason.

It’s not long after this that we reach our second pub, The Kingfisher on the Quays (which we chose to pronounce as written. I bet you read it as Kways too, didn’t you?)

This is a fun place for a cheeky pint, based on the waterfront, described by google as “Spacious, lakeside pub with eclectic decor, for cask ales, an international menu and outside tables.” Accurate enough.

We pause on the threshold for John to stare dramatically into the middle distance

and pop inside, finding literally the last table in the place that could seat our crew.

and it’s all very nice and social. I think Alex bought the round here, further proving that Rob’s additions are both charming and affluent.

Pint two well and truly sunk, we return to it (Hike tip: never have more than one pint in a pub, you’ll never leave.) We return to a riverside route, and settle into a nice, chilled amble where everyone finds themselves deep in conversation:

Conversation and selfies, that is. Mat’s just great. Look at me getting all sentimental.

Alex and Steve pause to admire Jim’s relentless pace. He’s giving Big Al a run for his money:

Meanwhile Mat pauses to top up the Blackwater:

and soon enough we re-emerge back in society, near Blackwater station. Our hike is concluded, and Rob proposes that we head back to his for food but a hike has to end in a pub (as Alan strongly attests) so we head to the only local we can find: Mr Bumble.

Mr Bumble is definitely something. It’s probably looking forward to Y2K, but any other criticism is probably unfair. They were incredibly welcoming to us, and the beer wasn’t bad.

That being said, they say a picture says a thousand words, in which case Alex’s expression tells you everything you need to know.

Also note my t-shirt. Crushing it.

Once we polish our drinks off we head back to Rob’s, where his straight talking wife/chef extraordinaire Holly has prepared a significant amount of food for us. Wives and family members join as the evening progresses, until eventually we adjourn to The Prince, the usual watering hole for Rob’s birthday and generally regarded as the best pub in Crowthorne (which is like claiming to be the world’s tallest dwarf.) As pubs go it’s fine, but it’s tarnished with teenage memories and manages to do something that feels uniquely Crowthorne, which is present men in tracksuits somehow looking down their nose at me. Screw ’em. They’re jealous that they don’t blog booze fuelled hikes.

Regardless of its clientele, the evening, and the hike in general was a great success. More birthday hikes please, Rob.

Hike 8 drops 30th March. Get on it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Look who’s Tolkien (or, the stuff you missed from The Lord of the Rings if you only watched the films.)

Confession: I’m an unapologetic Tolkien fan. This will get geeky.

(This outfit choice was not accidental.)

That’s an understatement. The man basically shaped modern fantasy and literature as we know it and he did so in the interest of linguistics and mythology, rather than in the name of sounding smart, proving a point, building a franchise, or anything else. It’s easy to call people heroes, legends, etc but I think I count him as a personal hero and inspiration.

(This will come as no surprise to anyone who’s read my blog before. Or has met me.)

I read The Lord of the Rings around the time the films came out, starting them in 2001, shortly before the first film was released, then taking a two year hiatus and furiously trying to finish them before the third film came out. I loved them, but as I always find to be the case, although the books are longer, more detailed and more immersive, as the years go by the films tend to overwrite the books in terms of your memory, especially if you have the tendency to rewatch then with the frequency I have done.

(Same goes for Harry Potter: I only remember a few differences between the books and films now, mostly that Percy Weasley was a bigger deal in the books, Kreacher the house elf was excellent in book 7, and that in the fifth book Harry is really angry all the time and shouts in CAPITAL LETTERS.)

So last year I was proofing and editing my second novel in my All Worlds Unseen fantasy series (a saga I hope owes no obvious debt to Tolkien but I suspect owes several unconscious ones), and I wanted to have something to read that I was familiar with, so I could divert the bulk of my limited grey matter into the editing process. I’m not gonna lie, it was mainly an excuse.

(These books may or may not be available to buy, by the way. There’s a shop page on this site. Just saying.)

So I start the re-read and around this time, my mate James and I start talking about it and he mentions that he’s never read them, and buys a copy, and we start a book club of two, sharing where we are over WhatsApps, mostly during our commute. Turns out he reads unsettlingly quickly, which does me no favours as I’ve decided to download the LotR wiki app in order to look up things in Middle Earth which I am unfamiliar with (don’t ask. I’m not sorry I did it.)

The app was great but probably a step too far. I’m pretty familiar with the world, having also read The Hobbit, The Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales, Children of Hurin and Tales of the Perilous Realm.

That’s all though.

Anyway, the reason I downloaded the app is the reason I’ve written this, and I suppose the reason you’re reading it. Because there’s lots going on in these books that the films miss out. I don’t blame them; some of the stuff omitted is great, some odd, and some is just not really needed for the film. I believe Jackson, Walsh and Boyens ethos in adapting the novel, which I completely understand and respect, was that if it wasn’t essential to the plot of Frodo and the Ring, then was it really needed? If that’s correct and I didn’t make it up, then fair play.

So for reasons that are – I’m pretty confident to say – rather geeky, I started documenting these differences. Not obsessively, I hasten to add, but just where whole scenes were removed or changed a lot. It’s not intended to be definitive, more of an aide memoir, and because it was interesting rather than because I thought “Hey, I could blog the crap out of this!”

The first book, Fellowship, I found to be the most different from the films, because I suppose the story only really gets going halfway through.

The results I think are quite interesting. It was nice having James on hand to read with, as he definitely fits that layperson balance that stopped me disappearing any further into nerdvana (not a word).

I should probably add that my observations are in no way intended to criticise Tolkien’s work. The man is one of the greatest writers of all time (you’ve said that already Nick, get on with it) and his influence on fantasy and storytelling in general can’t be measured, at least not by plebs like me. This is more like a stuff I found interesting or funny list.

Clear? Good.

The Fellowship of the Ring:

(I got Carrie to help me with the photos for the individual book sections to keep this visually stimulating. She was a bit of a diva about it if I’m being honest.)

Also, the copy of Fellowship I own is so old it had these in them:

(Fingers crossed for the clock radio!)

So, I’m not gonna lie. The start of Fellowship is a hard read. The book opens with a ridiculously long and detailed history on hobbit geneology, including notes such as how they evolved, are one of three similar species, how their society works, and so on. As someone familiar with hobbits I can comfortably say I didn’t need to read this and found it tough to get through. I wonder how people found it when the book was first released. Their only exposure to hobbits at this point would have been The Hobbit alone, whereas hobbits are now as big a part of pop culture as elves, dwarves and dragons. I’m not gonna say much more than that because it was a bit of a slog, but you can’t deny the man knew what he was writing about.

The next change that surprised me was that there are seventeen years between Bilbo leaving and Gandalf twigging that the ring is The Ring. In the films it’s practically overnight. Clearly book Gandalf smoked more of the halfling’s leaf than film Gandalf. This makes Frodo fifty by the time he starts his quest. I know Elijah Wood doesn’t really age, but that’s still pushing it.

(Hmm. Maybe not.)

When Frodo is told of what he must do, in the films he’s off pretty much then and there. In the book, he arranges a quiet withdrawal from the Shire so no one suspects what he’s doing. This includes putting Bag End on the market and it takes a while to sell. For some reason this cracks me up. It’s just so Very British.

Turns out Merry wasn’t even part of the original crew of hobbits, Fatty Bolger is. What a name! Fatty stays behind in Frodo’s new (non Bag End, outside of Hobbiton) property. I think that was probably for the best.

Farmer Maggot is actually a pretty decent bloke who does everything he can to stop the boys from getting caught by the black riders. (As opposed to a walking pitchfork in the film.)

There’s a whole section where the four hobbits, before meeting Aragorn, get set upon by something called Barrow Wights while crossing the woods. They’re grim ghost things with no apparent link to the Nazgul but nearly end Frodo and co. before they even get to Rivendell.

(This would take like an hour of screen time if it happened in one of the Hobbit movies.)

Speaking of omissions, a really big one is in the first half of the first book, and you can see why:

Tom Bombadil.

Tom. Effing. Bombadil and his fit wife. Worth a google if you’ve not heard of him before. He’s like a sort of immortal Hobbit (but not a hobbit) that might be older than Sauron and has no interest in the Ring. Later, the council discuss if they could hide the Ring somewhere and Bombadil is mentioned, to which Gandalf says that he’d only forget he had it.

There’s an amazing article that theorises dark things about old Tom that my mate John (him from the hike posts) sent me. You can read it here (it’s probably better than this post, so enjoy.)

Tom Bombadil. You can see why they cut him out.

Interestingly in the films they give some of his lines to Treebeard, because a walking tree-man is less weird than Bombadil. Go figure.

A character who probably shouldn’t have been cut out is Glorfindel, the most slighted character ever. Glorfindel is partially responsible for saving Frodo after he’s stabbed on Weathertop (he puts Frodo on his horse, whereas in the film Arwen has this role and rides with him) and later is suggested by Elrond to be the ninth member of the fellowship instead of Pippin. Gandalf rejects the notion saying that Glorfindel is too strong and stealth is better. Maybe they should have substituted him for Boromir considering how things panned out.

Anyway, you can see why they upped Arwen’s role for the film; she doesn’t really get a look in in the books, and Eowyn aside, it’s a bit of a sausage fest.

Still, bit harsh cutting him out of the movie to the extent he’s basically an extra. I thought he was cool.

Bill the Pony is mostly cut from the film, too. He’s great. Bill is rescued from some odious bloke in Bree and he and Sam have a really sweet bond. Bill is sent back when they get to Moria which is probably a good thing.

(Says on this card here Bill cannot have attachments. I suppose when you’ve got hair like his your life is just wall to wall action.)

The rest of the changes to Fellowship made by the films are slightly more cosmetic:

We learn that Gollum had been caught by Gandalf and Aragorn and got free before being caught by the Enemy and doing that whole “Shire!… Baggins!” bit. I can only assume talking about Gollum is less interesting than actually seeing Gollum, so they held back until Two Towers to introduce him properly.

We see that Frodo owning the ring kinda gives him super senses. It’s never really explicitly hammered home or made into a plot point, but it’s interesting.

Sam as servant and the class system is very much intact in the book, and refreshingly absent from the film. The other three hobbits are good friends, but Sam is clearly their servant, to begin with at least. Sign of the times, innit.

Boromir had no intention on seeing the journey through, he was heading to Gondor and escorting the others. Which kinda makes sense.

It takes them two weeks to cross Moria! That must have been depressing.

Speaking of, before they enter the mines they’re set upon by wargs, those mean wolf things. Obviously the wargs receive a sound thrashing.

At the base of those immense statues of the kings on the river after Lorien we get our first description of Aragorn seemingly all kingly. (Taller, more fair, imposing, etc.) Aragorn seems able to switch to king mode several times in the book, which is a useful skill. Frodo does something similar using the Ring to intimidate Gollum, where he becomes “terrible.” Really nice idea but presumably quite hard to capture on film.

As they go along the river there’s a section where they hide from the orcs in their boats. At this point there’s a bloody great winged nazgul which Legolas snipers with the new bow he got from Galadriel. This is pretty much our first indication that Legolas is basically superpowered.

This one tickled me: you know when Frodo flees Boromir and runs up that hill and has a vision of Sauron? I thought that was Ring induced. Turns out that the hill, Amon Hen, is psychic. Or something. A psychic Hill. I dunno.

(Interestingly, Sauron could have seen Frodo here, but I think Gandalf might have blocked him. We don’t learn this until later but Gandalf the White basically has a long distance psychic scrap with Sauron at this point.)

Oh yeah, Boromir doesn’t even die in Fellowship.

The Two Towers:

As mentioned above, Fellowship is the most different from the films, but I’ve started so I’m committed. Also, some of these differences are either fascinating or entertaining.

First up, Aragorn does his kingly bit with Eomer too. It’s not that remarkable, but like Frodo doing his ring-timidation on Gollum, hard to capture on film. Handy skill though: someone gives you grief, king mode: activated. They shit themselves. Boom.

Fun fact: Sauron only wants black horses in tribute from the people of Rohan. Cliche or racist? You decide. He’s like Christian Bale in Batman Begins asking if everything comes in black.

Merry and Pippin deciding to have a snack rather than escape the Rohan/Orc massacre was a detail I presume wouldn’t work so well on film, either. But they do.

Upon Gandalf’s return as The White, he guesses that Sauron has assumed they’d take the Ring to Gondor and reveal some Uber warrior who would take him on. This is a great idea, mostly because it’s entertaining (if Michael Bay directed the films he’d probably make the decision to, ahem, correct the narrative in this way) but also because it sheds light on how Sauron thinks people think. This does however explain why Minas Tirith is utterly boned, because Sauron throws wave after wave of orcs at it in anticipation of this happening. The mug.

Gandalf’s block of exposition when he comes back as the white is long but fascinating: remember he falls fighting the Balrog and winds up somewhere deep under the earth? Well, there’s a bit about the subterranean creatures that have tunnelled under the earth and are older than Sauron which is great.

(I tried finding an image to illustrate this. Rather disappointingly this is the top result for “Gandalf underground.”)

He also mentions tackling with Sauron to make sure he didn’t see too much of Frodo, presumably at Amon Hen, which I alluded to above. I love those behind the scenes details.

Oh, and he carries poems for the lads (Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli) from Galadriel which hint at the Dead army. He was dressed in his white robes by Galadriel in Lorien, which means if the films had been 100% accurate we would’ve seen naked amnesiac Gandalf riding a giant eagle around Middle Earth. I’m sure McKellen would’ve been up for it.

Helm’s Deep is very different from book to film in terms of motivation. In the film they take everyone there to shelter them. Aragorn is lost and makes his way back in the nick of time. Epic battle ensues, and we get Gimli saying “You’ll have to toss me!” Great stuff.

In the book it’s more like: lets go to war! Oops, too many orcs. Let’s wait here instead. And then they retreat back to the Deep for the excellent siege sequence.

Speaking of Helm’s Deep, Gimli’s rant about the caves being such a place of beauty and making a pact with Legolas to go back there together is lovely. It really cements their friendship. Legolas agrees on the condition that Gimli visits some stunning forests with him. I’d be up for this trip too, but sadly I’m not a denizen of Middle Earth.

I like the idea Gimli gets wounded in the battle and goes for a little wander in the caves while the fighting concludes. Passes the time.

As discussed above, Frodo makes himself terrible using the Ring to cower Gollum. The inference is he’s sort of tapping into the Ring somehow and channeling it. I think he’s white and glowing like the nazgul as seen through the Ring. I’d like to have seen that.

Skipping ahead a little, Sam seeing oliphaunts is great, too: “Wow! Amazing! Well, if that’s over, I’ll have a bit of sleep.” (I think that last sentence is an actual quote rather than paraphrase.)

There’s a sad bit where Gollum watches Frodo and Sam sleep on the pass and you realise there are times when he’s so close to being saved. I think this one is the closest, but his obsession gets the better of him.

The whole Shelob bit is done in Two Towers, too, rather than Return of the King. They pack quite a bit in, but you can see why it was changed for the film – it’s a lot of content for one film, and once Sam rescues Frodo they basically spend most of the third book walking across Mordor. (Fortunately they don’t do the whole “Faramir is tempted by the Ring” bit in the book, which I understand why they did this in the film, but it holds the pace up.)

The Return of the King:

I’m on a roll now. The changes to Return of the King (which on most days narrowly pips Fellowship as my favourite of the three) are fascinating.

It’s worth pointing out at least the fact that Saruman does not die at Isengard. That’s important for later.

There’s a lot of stuff with Pippin wandering Gondor. Presumably Tolkien thought it was important and wanted to show it off, so he used Pip as the device to do that. Minas Tirith is cool; all white marble and dusty, noble history. Tolkien’s writing is on fire here, and you totally get nostalgia for a place that never existed. Isn’t that one of the best feelings in the world? What, you don’t get that? (I bet you do.)

Merry waken by Gimli: “There are caves, Merry, caves of wonder! Shall we visit them Legolas, do you think?” Legolas: “There’s no time!”

.. Gimli and those bloody caves.

So there’s a lot of extra characters who are crucial to the war – the Dunedain (Aragorn’s people. That’s right, a small army of Aragorns.) Prince Imrahil, Elrond’s sons, etc. They all seem incredibly noble and powerful and it’s refreshing to see Middle Earth so well populated, but I’m assuming they were cut from the films like Glorfindel was for brevity and also to make the odds of success slimmer? (The Prince in particular is cool. He’s Faramir’s uncle and does all sort of awesome things. It’s weird now, knowing he’s cut as he seems pretty essential when you read the book – a bit like Eomer – but clearly not that important as his absence doesn’t leave a void in the films.)

In the books they make it clear that the Nazgul slowly faded from sight under the corrupting influence of the Ring back when they were Kings of Men (note that the Ring makes people invisible too, interesting link.) This takes an interesting turn in the Battle of Pellinor Fields when the witch king draws his hood and reveals a crown sort of… floating above… no head.

(I literally can’t believe this exists on google. Kudos to someone called Melissa Hitchcock for taking the trouble.)

Another interesting omission that admittedly isn’t totally key to the plot is the wild men who live in the hills along the path between Rohan and Gondor. They’re a nice touch, assisting the Riders on their way, but I guess they’re not central to that whole Frodo and the Ring plot, so ditch ‘em.

After Pellinor Fields I think Merry has PTSD. It’s not explicit but he’s barely able to function for a while, poor guy. To be fair, he has seen some shit by this point. Merry misses the final battle in the book because of his injuries.

The retaliatory attack on Mordor actually feels really well planned. In the film it’s more like “here we are! Don’t look at Frodo, nothing to see there, look how bright and shiny we are!” In the book it’s a proper march, some men even drop out due to fear, etc etc.

Back to Frodo and Sam, the latter is tempted by the Ring to put it on and challenge Sauron. I’d quite like to see that, although I don’t think it’d go well for Master Gamgee.

Later, Sam is frozen by the watchers, the stone observers at Mimas Morgol. They’re sort of alluded to in the film when Frodo is caught staring at them and Sam/Gollum have to drag him away, but that’s it. In the book they totally freeze Sam and he struggles to get past them.

(The upshot, FYI, of putting Shelob at the end of book 2 is it totally sets Sam up to go it alone in book 3.)

That weird Frodo commands Gollum thing happens again, a bit like Aragorn’s “king mode” but more supernatural. It doesn’t last. This time he’s a figure in white. It’s rife for speculation – is he angelic? Is this like Sauron’s fair vision of himself? I’m sure theorists of the day had a great time.

(I should probably point out here that even in the book, the “I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you” moment totally gets me.)

My emotions. Every damn time.

Basically all the hobbits nearly die. Frodo and Sam are laid up for a long time post Ring destruction (and actually their trek across Mordor is EPIC. It takes them ages) so their recovery time if anything feels deserved and necessary. Merry nearly dies back when he stabbed the Witch King. And Pippin, we learn later, was nearly killed in the final battle. Fun times.

In ceremonies and the like, people like Aragorn wear these expensive stones on their foreheads. I’m pleased this was cut or at least adapted into crowns and the like for the film. Not to my tastes.

So basically 2/3 of the way through the book Sauron is destroyed. Including appendices and maps, it’s more like half way through. I don’t mind because I love hanging out in this world, but it does make you wonder what the hell is going to happen with the remaining chunk o’ book in your hands. The pace falls off a bit. Not unlike the start of the first book. Also, all the endings the film gets so flamed for seems justified here, because they really scale it back in comparison in the adaptation.

So what’s in all the endings you ask? Good question.

Things cut from film include meeting ragged beggar version of Saruman on the road, and the Council of the White (Galadriel, Elrond and Gandalf) having a late night chat psychically without saying a word. Doesn’t Really lens itself well to cinema.

The other big thing is The Scouring of the Shire. Most LotR fans know about this, but in short the Hobbits return home and the Shire has been invaded by various thug-like men who actually answer to Saruman. The Shire is an oppressed, less pleasant place to be, some trees have been cut down, etc etc. (I think it’s meant to acknowledge the fact even the Shire is not exempt from the reach of war.) Obviously this then prompts out now battle hardened Hobbits to lead the liberation, which they do spectacularly well, having survived orcs, nazgul, sieges, the scourge of the Ring, and so on. These punks don’t stand a chance. Frodo organises and coordinates the battle but won’t fight, refusing to ever wield a blade again after his experiences. The Hobbits win, and Saruman is killed on the doorstep of Bag End by (as in the film) Wormtongue.

It’s not the high point of Saruman’s life, let’s face it.

Lots of rebuilding and post battle stuff follows. It’s worth noting that Galadriel’s gift to Sam at Lorien is a box of seeds, not rope like in the film (he gets rope too, but asks some other elves for it). These seeds are essential for rebuilding the Shire.

The rest of the book plays out like the film, although obviously in more detail. You learn about Sam’s children and how Aragorn ensures no men enter the Shire again, and whenever he visits he waits outside the Shire borders. (He’s a good’un, is Aragorn.)

The last difference I wanted to mention is a bit of a downer, sorry about that. In the films you know Frodo isn’t quite right after getting back and never really adjusts to Shire life. In the book you definitely get more detail. He’s plagued by reoccurring wounds and malaise.

“It is gone for ever,” he is heard saying one night in his sleep during a fever dream, “and now all is dark and empty.” I think this could be the saddest thing I’ve ever heard.

His departure still gets me, too. The idea that to save something, often one has to give it up is really sad.

The others are fine, they get married and have kids and become literally the most important people in the Shire, with titles like Master and Mayor and have direct access to the King. And that’s fine cos they deserve it.

But you don’t really realise how ruined poor Frodo is. There’s a timeline in the appendixes which lists what happens post-Rings, and there’s a point where three events back to back are just “Frodo is taken ill from X wound.” It’s so harsh.

Think about it. You have:

  • The poisoned wound from the Witch King
  • His poisoning from Shelob (which he pretty much walks off in the film once he comes around.)
  • Losing a finger to Gollum.
  • And that’s before we even come on to the irreparable trauma of being the ring bearer.

No wonder he leaves, poor guy.

So that’s my summary of content omitted from the LotR films. I didn’t write it to be definitive, there’s probably lists out there far more comprehensive, but it struck me as entertaining and hopefully you’ve found it interesting.

FYI, I’m not doing this for the Hobbit. That’s pretty much the opposite of this. Seriously guys, I love these films, but less is more.

The Walking Idiots, Part 7

On 20th October 2018 a group of men walked 25 miles from Rochester to Tonbridge. Their motives shrouded in mystery (even from themselves), they made their way in secrecy, telling no one except their friends, family or anyone else who crossed their path, whether they wanted to hear or not.

So pretty much everyone.

That’s right, we’re at it again, this time in Kent.

Regular readers (take a bow, both of you) will know that for the past few years some of my closest friends and I have made the frequent mistake of walking inadvisably long distances, often while consuming alcoholic beverages and generally letting the tone of conversation reach something akin to rock bottom in terms of smut and good taste.

Turns out it works just as well in Kent as it does in Berkshire.

We knew that for Hike number seven we would need to give Kent a go, simply because John (Hike instigator and general route plotter) has lived there for several years and having three small children he can’t easily just nip out for the day and pop back with a hangover and ruined stumps where his feet used to be. No worries. Nice to have a change of scenery.

It did however change a bit of the planning, at least at first. The usual Hike Strategy Planning group (read: WhatsApp group where John gives us options until we feel pressured enough to respond) didn’t have the same initial input when it came to choosing a route, 3/4 of us knowing next to nothing about the area. John resolved this in the way only he can, by taking his maps to his local (The Man of Kent – apparently if I confuse this with the Kentish Man I’ll be burned at the stake) and hashing the details out with his local mates.

Here we go. In years to come it will be thought of like this:

Anyway, John and the Men of Kent (awful band name, bet there’s a band really called that though, and if so I bet they play at real ale festivals and the like) cobble together our prospective route, almost certainly not undermined by the consumption of beer.

Meanwhile, we crack on with the rest of the planning, namely adding anyone we think might be interested onto an ever-expanding WhatsApp group which creates an insane amount of chatter. God forbid you find yourself in a meeting or drive somewhere, for the next time you check your phone you risk coming back to 50+ messages. I’m sure hikers in the Olde Days didn’t have to go through this nonsense.

One of the logistical headaches with planning an event like this tends to be confirming a date, given how busy everyone’s lives are, and we took the democratic option of setting up a google doodle to see who could do when. Thus is it written that all hikes that will ever be will have a doodle, for it is the only way to make a decision when you deal with 10+ people.

The date is agreed: 20th October (although I already told you that, so I’m not sure why the dramatic colon was required.) It costs us a couple of prospective attendees, primarily Swatty, our resident go-to expert in all things nature, and Dave, who soldiers on no matter how grim the circumstances, but it serves the majority so we take the hit and crack on.

John passes the proposed route on to Mat, Rob and I to finesse with him. I can only assume at this point his Kent planning crew (Brad, Russell and Callum) had had enough of looking at maps. There’s a moment of doubt from me when I plot the route into google and am told that Walking this distance is only 14 miles, which is basically a brief stroll.

John assures me it’s not but it creates a seed of uncertainty that leads to reassessing the route, complicated by the fact John has informed us he needs to be home early from this one to put the kids to bed. Fortunately for all of us, John’s able to extend his time out and we restore the hike to its true intended length, which clocks in well over twenty miles.

(The red bit)

Then things start getting interesting. The length of the walk starts to put off some of the Hike Virgins we’ve recruited, and over the course of a week we lose about half of our promised attendees. Most of these are John’s friends that I’m sure are very nice but we’ve never met, so it’s hard to express the sympathy he’s looking for when we get these messages saying “We’ve Lost Russell!!!” when our instinct is to reply “Oh no!!!! …. who’s Russell?”

Things go from inconvenient to downright scary with we learn that Grier, who joined us on our third Hike and was flying all the way from LA to join us, had been in a not-insignificant car crash.

Nice weather for it though.

Fortunately Grier was fine and was able to join. We should perhaps take a moment to appreciate the lengths this man will go to in order to attend these things. Double man points are awarded when we realise he took an eleven hour flight to reach us the day before the hike.

Then (and this one was mildly exacerbating) John’s youngest daughter Lila came up in a load of spots which led him to conclude she may have chicken pox. John was concerned he would have to drop out of the hike, which would rather hamper our progress considering he’s the only one who really knows what he’s doing, the rest of us just pretend. A flurry of links to various maps and routes follow.

But no. False alarm. Crisis averted. I shouldn’t have been worried though, the signs that this hike was happening were all around us:

Well yes I am, thanks for asking, London Storage Vaults.

The day before the hike comes and the advance party makes its way down. Rob, Alan and I drive down, successfully risking a post-rush hour M25 and meet Clyde and Grier at John’s. Jessica, John’s wife, kindly assures us he would’ve been able to come even if Lila had had chicken pox (“It’s not like he would’ve been any help”) and we set about preparing for the next day, which means mixing negronis and gin and tonics in plastic bottles that were (on reflection) probably far too strong for this sort of outing.

Also: Alan discovered Playdough.

The next morning the various members of our party convene at the Wetherspoons in Rochester (still the best place we can think of for breakfast) and with fry ups consumed and foot tape applied, we boldly set off into the Kentish wilderness. We’re an attendee short as Brad (one of John’s Men of Kent) fails to materialise without a call or text. Mat expresses some dismay at me ordering a veggie breakfast but with the exception of the veggie sausages being exceptionally dry it’s pretty damn good.

Hike 7: 20th October, 2018.

Attendees: from l-r: Big Al Feltz, Pete Lewis, Chris Hutchfield, John Duckitt, Mat Gunyon, me, Grier Higgins, Clyde Baehr, Alan O’Connell, Ben Holton and (not pictured) Rob Golding, photographer at law.

We make our way through Rochester’s historic town centre, which is stunning, especially with no one around at 8 in the morning.

But it seems too peaceful. Why’s it so quiet? Then it dawns on Clyde: “It’s because no one is using the WhatsApp group!” The group breathes a collective sigh of relief. Makes sense with us being here and all. Nice little bonus, that.

From the town we pass by the cathedral and up around the castle.

Look at Rob with his sexy photos.

We walk along the Medway along various roads and paths, taking in the morning air

(It’s actually cold. I’m not just being well gangsta)

until we reach our first stop, under the motorway bridge.

Fancy, innit?

Also pictured: Clyde’s backside.

Appreciating this rather significant architectural feat (bridge, not Baehr-derrière) we crack on, into the hikes first experience of countryside that day.

We walk along a stunning levy that lines the river, oddly stalked by a heron who continually kept stopping just ahead of us, only to fly off every time we caught up, seemingly irked that we were on his turf.

(I would’ve included the heron but I couldn’t get its signature on the release form.)

It was around this time that members of the group deemed it a good idea to start drinking. (It’s about 8:30 by this point).

Look at them. Caught in the act. Damn their lovable faces.

The justification amongst some of our members is that their bags are weighed down by the drinks, and they serve to lighten the load. Pete in particular has brought his home brew in glass bottles, which shows initiative yet isn’t exactly practical. Good beer though.

The views from the levy weren’t too shabby either.

We follow the river along the levy for a while, and with the exception of Alan’s feet getting wet (spoiler: he pulls through) and the views making a favourable impression, not too much happens.

A short while later we find a new housing development called Peter’s Village. I let the gentle wave of dismay wash over me at seeing yet another seemingly identical development like those all over the country subtly rub out the countryside. Fortunately Kent has countryside in spades, but I still don’t like it.

We make our way through the estate and along a road that leads into our first cross country route. With the hills towering over us we see three riders on horseback in the distance descending. Ben shouts “Injuns!” which they either take in good spirits, or most likely just don’t hear.

This image is the best we could manage. (The riders are literally on the horizon.) It’s not bad but here’s a picture of us leaving the path and disappearing into the wilderness that’s far better for good measure:

From here there’s ample walking through semi rural, semi industrial land. Kent seems to have a lot of it! We managed to pass fields of solar panels, a monastery, sewage works (my phone tried to autocorrect that to “Sewage World” which is a worrying concept) and several farms in quick succession. There’s a long stretch where we don’t see a soul for ages, and then a father and son pass us on a quad bike, which was a bit odd.

Here’s some photographic evidence because otherwise people don’t seem to enjoy the blog:

(Grier asked if the sewage works were a mushy pea refinery which is just the best thing ever, frankly.)

And here’s a photo of me, Clyde and Mat smiling. Presumably at this point we’d made a start on the whisky/gin or said something disgusting:

Its around this point we add a new dimension to our hikes. As a motivational aid, Rob purchased a rather snazzy speaker which clips into his bag. He and I had spent the better part of a week discreetly adding tunes to a Hike playlist, trying to find a mix of motivational hits (the Rocky theme tune, Danger Zone by Kenny Loggins) song’s about walking (Zeppelin’s legendary Ramble On, Go Your Own Way by Fleetwood Mac) and then songs which either reflect us or our legion of in-jokes (Blister in the Sun by Violent Femmes to homage our ruined feet, Enya for reasons we are unsure of but over an overly developed long running joke has led us to believe that all of John’s children were conceived to Orinoco Flow.)

Unfortunately some the quality of some of the in-joke songs leaves a bit to be desired, as this brief exchange between Clyde and Rob will attest:

Clyde: “Is this Simply Red?”

Rob: “Yes!”

Clyde’s response was not suitable for publication.

Anyway, motivation provided with a song in our ears and our hearts, we crack on, until we reach Aylesford.

Aylesford is a bit nice.

We make our way halfway across the bridge before briefly pausing. We’re making good time, and the Chequers Inn (the black and white building in the first picture) looks a bit nice. And is open.

Ever the benevolent dictator, John heroically runs back to see if they’re open (it’s barely noon by this point. I know: at this rate you’ll be reading this post for the next week) while we wait on the bridge. We wait for long enough for someone to ask whether we’ll know if they’re open or not. I reply saying presumably we’ll see John in the beer garden, and as if by request, we see John appear in the beer garden and give us a wave like when Where’s Wally used to reveal himself. (Too niche a reference? Possibly.)

Anyway, the Chequers Inn is a great pub. Beers? Yep, good range. Historic? Grade II listed building from 1511, sucker. Character?

It’s got this guy, Boy Boy, so yes.

Boy Boy seems to take a shine to us, Alan in particular, although we can’t convince him to join us. He’s a busy boy (Boy) with customers to entertain and table legs to sniff.

We leave the Chequers, briefly appreciating the local names of houses

– Alan trolling Aylesford there – and leave the rather scenic village behind.

We pass round the back of a monastery

And then our route takes a turn for the uneventful as we cross the motorway (not literally running in front of traffic, just so you know) and follow some roads on our way to East Malling. Rob briefly makes us hang around for a bit to watch a train pass which is about as exciting as it sounds. Some of the team – myself included – were unable to buy lunch beforehand so we swing by the local One Stop to pick something up.

Bit of a mistake this. I struggled to articulate why I took such a dislike to this particular establishment so I asked Rob what he disliked about it. His response?

“Everything. The people. The layout. The lack of space. The useless guy behind the till. The fact they also tried to cram a post office in there too.”

Can’t fault that. For my part I can’t work out if everyone in there were channelling The League of Gentlemen or whether there was a carbon monoxide leak.

John and Alan, former One Stop employees in another life, probably think this is slander. Here’s them looking proud of their roots in a past wander:

After a bit more ambling –

– and some juvenile humour – we reach East Malling, where we stop at our second pub (which feels very soon after our first pub stop) and eat our lunch.

The King and Queen has good beers and a nice vibe. We didn’t get too invested, not just because of the absence of Boy Boy but also because we sat outside and scoffed our packed lunches with a cheeky pint. Our lunch preparations were perhaps not as well considered as they should have been, as John took to hacking up the lump of cheese he had brought with Alan’s significantly large hunting life. There was also an awkward bit where Clyde, Alan and myself stood outside the loo for the better part of ten minutes until I realised the door was just stiff and not locked, but I don’t feel we can hold the good staff of the King and Queen responsible for either of them.

As we get through lunch Brad finally arrives. As mentioned earlier, Brad was meant to have joined us from the start but… beer, apparently. Our numbers augmented, we head on as John is impatient to keep the pace going and not fall behind our agreed checkpoints (Yep, we had checkpoints. This rather strict form of managing the team may have been what led to some of the lads shouting orders at him in German. I can only speculate.)

This happened too. I can’t find anywhere to fit it in, but Rob really wanted a pic of this so indulge him:

Brad is not the only person to join us part way through. James (who joined us for the last hike) is now a Kent local but doubted whether he’d manage the whole thing. Wanting to finish the hike (it’s the best bit) and a fan of lie ins, he opted to meet us at our next pub stop. In principle this is fine, if we’re keeping to time. We’re not really, so several messages from me are sent over the next hour or so saying we’ll be there in half an hour. Rinse repeat.

I do get some endearing replies like “I got here early as I didn’t want to miss you lot. Three pints deep. Might be drunk when you arrive.”

Our route then takes us through some forest land, which is a welcome change.

Including this tree which I think I last saw in Sleepy Hollow.

We then find some vineyards:

(Complete with a posing Alan)

And then pass through a small village which was obsessed with creative ways of addressing dog fouling:

Seriously. There were loads of ones like this.

We reach a mill pond on Love Lane where everyone is momentarily depressed that it wasn’t a pub stop, although the floating duck house does open the door for some jokes about MPs and their expenses:

Deciding the time was right for a brief morale boost, I reveal my now- standard Lord of the Rings hike prank on John, which this time takes the form of this rather ridiculous t-shirt I found online.

To be fair, I did warn him back in January.

This comes in handy when, a short while later we pass through the church graveyard at Nettlestead and find our only way through is down a steep and short hill where I try to recreate the shot of the hobbits hiding from the black rider. Also by this point I had been wearing my hoodie for around six hours of walking in the sun and there’s only so far you can stretch a joke before you start wondering why you’re doing it.

Clyde remained unimpressed by this.

Anyway, once we’ve descended the hill round the back of the graveyard we cross the railway line where some of us responsibly pause to grab a quick photo

And then some of our number decide to stretch out a little.

Don’t try this without an adult present, kids.

Despite pausing to stretch out, time is against us, and Herr Duckitt orders the troops to move on.

From the railway line to the Boathouse pub in Yalding we proceed along a really calm and beautiful stretch of river that seemed to work its charm on all of us. We’re at least fifteen miles into the walk by now and it’s showing a little, but the serenity of the countryside seems to undo the damage.

Or the negronis. It might have been the negronis.

(Clyde decided to channel the style of JJ Abrams for this pic.)

The stretch of river leads us to the lock before the Boathouse where James has almost certainly finished his third pint by now. I pause to grab this picture, which nicely highlights Grier’s height, which I haven’t discussed on this hike yet because he’s more than just a tall guy:

– I like it. Makes me feel hobbit sized –

and finally we reach the Boathouse, our last pub stop before our journeys end.

The Boathouse is a rather modern establishment on the river at Yalding. I’m not sure how much of a fan of it’d be in winter but in the very last of the summer sun it’s a delight.

Anyway, James joins and we’re very pleased to see him. Turns out we were as worse for wear as each other by this point.

Although we gain an extra member, Brad departs, having places to be. His parting gift was to expand on the German orders schtick we had been doing with John for the past few hours. As it turns out, Brad speaks perfect German so under John’s orders he barks at us to hurry our lazy selves up and get to Tonbridge (it’s less polite than that.) Unfortunately the volume Brad communicates this instruction to us in attracts the attention of some local lads who glare daggers at him, clearly still holding a grudge older than they are.

(Not picture: Brad or Boathouse fascists.)

We head off with our new addition for the final stretch.

The next nine miles are long, as fast paced as we can manage, and both beautiful and intense.

We’re racing against the sunset now, which isn’t the worst thing in the world but it is a bit of a bugger hiking in the dark. The fifteen miles already walked are taking their toll, as is the slowly accumulated effects of the day’s drinking.

Still, there’s some good things to see:

A hobbit hole (how could I resist?)

Random footbridges

And a Girl in the bath. (No, we don’t know why, either. By this point this could have been a shared group hallucination.)

According to John we reached a fork in the road and one of them was full of brambles. He said it was that way and asked Grier to push on through. He couldn’t and he’s still complaining about it apparently.

Alan and I didn’t care. We were utterly winning at life. Just look at us.

The upside of the sun setting is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the sunset, and boy did this one deliver:

I suppose this was probably the profound moment we experience in the last stretch of all our hikes. Previous hikes have included deer running across our path, discovering abandoned churches and so on, and the rather impressive Big Sky shamelessly instagrammed before you probably fits the bill here.

Also possibly the greatest hike photo you’ve ever seen was taken:

Take a moment. Worth it.

Unfortunately around this point the combination of negroni and other accumulated booze teams up with exhaustion on us. And by us I know I mean at least me. Whether the rest of our crew were affected is hard to tell because from here it got really dark

(Picture this but without the yellow bit. Or hope.)

Rob and John notice a WW2 era pillbox. Foolishly going closer to investigate ( they’ve seen horror films, they must have known this was idiotic) Rob switches on the light on his phone and shines it through, spying a pile of blankets, a sleeping bag…

… and a pair of eyes staring back at him.

They swiftly rejoin the group.

From here on we basically plough on in single file, but every 20 yards someone would discreetly break ranks to relieve themselves and rejoin near the back, meaning the whole line sort of revolved people around. It’s hard to articulate how this looked but for sone reason it sort of summons to mind an image of classic 90’s videogame Lemmings, if the lemmings in question had bladders.

It’s hard to accurately summarise this period of the hike, mostly because each of us was experiencing their own personal hell/purgatory/mild discomfort with the exception of Big Al who doesn’t feel any of these things and could probably hike 50 miles in a day if the rest of us weren’t there to slow him down.

Two incidents however do nicely articulate the experience of walking The Long Dark (discreet Tolkien reference there):

Here’s Pete to really lower the tone:

So the reason I was powering ahead after the naked chick in Bath part was because I was absolutely dying for a dump. Not because I was full of boundless energy but because you May recall there were zero facilities beyond this point.

I thought I might be able to make it to Tonbridge but about three miles from the end it became clear that this was wishful thinking.

So allow me to set the scene: picture a harvested field to the right of the path (this was well into the part on the north bank) and a row of trees 50m or so ahead perpendicular to the river.

I inform Chris that d(ump) day is upon us and so adjust my direction of travel by 45 degrees such that I end up by the trees at the edge of the field and Chris went on and waited on the path.

So I proceed to befoul the field and then, much relieved, walk back to the path whereby I loudly proclaim my satisfaction with the aforementioned events. It’s pretty dark by this time so I can’t see Chris wildly gesticulating.

Turns out I had loudly proclaimed what a great dump I’d just had right next to the people camping by the river!”

Wow. Thanks Pete. If I ever get a regular publication I’m making sure you get a sidebar. Astonishing effort.

Another way of expressing our trek into darkness can be articulated through this brief exchange between John and Ben. Ben, for the record, was our Hike Virgin (as far as I can tell he is a dad from John’s daughter’s school that he somehow talked into coming on the hike, the rube.) The exchange went something like this:

John: “Hey Ben, how are you getting on?”

Ben (muttered): “This is such bullshit.”

Can’t fault that.

Eventually our riverside route becomes slowly urbanised until it gives way to Tonbridge. We gather ourselves briefly before pressing on, and as if by design (it wasn’t, I checked with John) our riverside walk metamorphosis into an actual pub. The Graze kitchen and bar. Our end point!

There’s a charming moment where, at the tiny group of stairs we declare a roll call as each of us make our way up (this sounds like a Mat initiative to me) and there we indulge in some well deserved but probably by this time utterly superfluous beers. There’s a point where a waiter brings a round out on a tray, which makes me feel like we’re a group of utter heroes.

General silliness like this follows:

And apparently a very nice lady who is also the editor of Kent Life Magazine gives me her business card having engaged Rob and John in conversation, intrigued with what would convince a group such as us to pursue such a hobby and interested in the blog you are presently reading. Over the next fortnight I proceed to write up our account of the hike, torn between an accurate account of what happened (complete with anecdotes such as Pete’s contribution) versus something that might actually see print.

I’d like to think that the above is worthy of publication, given that it’s about the account of a group of lifelong friends doing something most people wouldn’t face, but I also know it features these walking idiots:

The same idiots who – our hike concluded – gradually part ways as the evening wears on. Some of us make our way to the nearest Pizza Express, which was great, but I don’t think I need to blog about that, do you? For my part, I fell asleep on Rob on the taxi ride back to the hotel, offer Clyde the spare bed and wake up in bed next to Rob. Ah well. I could do worse.

Over the next week the hike seems to stay with us. Various WhatsApp groups buzz and messages are exchanged as if the group are reluctant to part ways. We plot Hike VIII in less than a week (Crowthorne to Farnham in case you’re interested) which is testimony to the fact we’re just eager to get back on and do the next hike, when our feet grow back, at least.

On the approach to Halloween I decide on a final Lord of the Rings prank/hike homage and carve this thing:

So yeah. Hike in Kent? Smashed it mate.

Cog

So I’ve posted this particular short story in places before – it’s one of the first short stories I wrote, and I’m very fond of it, – but I’m delighted that I now have a cover for this, courtesy of the very talented Jon MacCaull, so I’m sharing it here, too. Thanks Jon, if we ever meet, the beer is on me.

cog_cover

 

Once there was a city of steel and glass.

In the city, lived a man called Cog. Cog was not a happy man, nor was he unhappy. He was not remarkable, or especially clever. Neither was he handsome, ugly, or unfortunate.

He just was.

Cog’s life was not interesting. In fact, it was dull enough that he lived his life in a perpetual daze. When he forgot to pay attention, strange things happened. He would pause for no reason on the threshold when he moved from one room to another; he would walk into walls without either realising it, or feeling pain. And for reasons that totally escaped him, when his toaster released the bread, it did so with a ‘pinging’ noise he could not explain.

Cog would often dream, but his dreams were as mundane as his life. They gave him a feeling that he had repeated them a thousand times over. Sometimes, but not often, he would do things that did not make any sense; he would run into a lamppost and keep running, not getting anywhere. Sometimes he would dream of falling. These dreams gave him headaches, and he tried not to think about them.

Every day, Cog got up, left his little apartment, and went to work. He took the same route, on the same train with the same faceless commuters, and always arrived at work at the same time.

Cog’s job was dull. His office comprised of row upon row of cubicles with ‘head top’ inhabitants. Although there was no noticeable smell, Cog imagined the air was stale and stagnant. It was so dull that in all honesty he was not sure exactly what he did. He knew no one at work, nor had any desire to. He did not care for his boss. While he did not dislike him, neither was his mind filled with fond memories when he thought of him. Like Cog, he just was.

For this reason, neither Cog, nor his boss had any friends, nor did they seek them out, having never considered having any in the first place.

If he had to name one, Cog’s best friend at work would be the man who sat in the booth next to his. He couldn’t remember his name, let alone assign it to a face, but once he asked him a question, only to be answered by a pale, bony arm reaching around the divider to point at a sign on Cog’s wall that read: Do not disturb your colleagues. Log a call.

Cog’s routine was rarely interrupted, least of all by himself. A rogue thought of barely noticeable mention concerned a door near his desk. He had never seen anyone use it, and his desire to leave through it was certainly new to him. Trying the handle, he was surprised when the words “The door is locked” materialised in his mind. For a moment he could’ve sworn they were written in the air in front of him.

*

One day, on a day like any other, Cog came home from work. He arrived at precisely 5:43, two minutes earlier than usual and therefore a cause for a celebration he would never indulge in, and set about his usual routine. He showered, ate, and watched TV.

Then, for the first time he could remember, something unusual happened.

He saw the glint of a reflection on his television screen. Perhaps human in form, perhaps walking, but certainly – behind him. Cog sank into his chair not knowing what to do; he had no experience of this. He got up, and warily moved towards the kitchen. He peeked round the door, expecting the worst.

In the kitchen, busy rearranging and organising items was another man. He looked just like Cog. He was, in fact, another Cog, for all intents and purposes. Slightly better dressed, a little more composed, but the same man nonetheless. He looked up from his rearranging.

“Hello,” said Cog, unsure what the correct protocol was in these situations.

“Hello,” replied the other Cog, with a smile.

Cog was quite taken aback, but did not want to seem impolite. “What are you doing?” he asked the other Cog, whom he decided to refer to as Cog 2 for the sake of simplicity.

“I’m moving things,” said Cog 2, lifting a microwave from the counter and stacking it near the door.

“Oh,” replied Cog, feeling quite unsatisfied with the answer. “Why?”

“Well,” said Cog 2, lifting a box and stacking it on top of the microwave, “There’s a key on top of that cupboard, and I need to get it.”

“Is there?” asked Cog, unaware there ever had been. He had lived in his apartment for as long as he could remember and never knew this. “Why do you need the key?”

“So I can get to Level 2,” replied Cog 2, looking a little confused at the question.

Cog shared his confusion, although for a totally different reason. He felt a little unnerved by this other Cog, and wondered whether he should ask him what he was doing in his house. It seemed the thing to do. However, another question came to his lips instead.

“What’s Level 2?” he asked, thinking maybe it was a club of some kind, although why he would go to a club was beyond him.

“Level 2’s next,” Cog 2 replied. “It’s where I need to go. Don’t you need to go there too?”

Cog considered. He didn’t know what Level 2 was, but somewhere in the depths of his memory, it seemed to ring a bell. A small bell, muted and rang underwater, but a bell nonetheless.

“You can come with me if you want,” offered Cog 2. “They’ll just assume you’re another player.”

Cog thanked him for the offer, but politely declined. Cog 2 frowned slightly, clearly not expecting this answer, but shrugged and smiled once again.

“Are you going to be long?” asked Cog.

“Just ‘til I get the key, then I have to find a door for it,” replied Cog 2.

Cog pondered, something he seldom did as his routine was always set out for him. He considered asking Cog 2 to leave, but had a feeling he wasn’t going to do any harm. In truth, he had always wanted to rearrange the kitchen, watching him do it felt right, but had never got round to it.

Instead, Cog told him it was okay to stay the night if he wanted, and went back to watching TV. He watched his programmes as he always did, but couldn’t help but feel troubled. He went to sleep with the sound of Cog 2 moving boxes in the kitchen.

*

The next morning, Cog went about his regular routine. He showered, shaved (ten perfect strokes with a razor, as usual) and grabbed some breakfast. He approached the kitchen to find Cog 2 making toast, stopping on the threshold as he always did and pausing for a moment. His brow furrowed. He did not like doing that in front of others, not that he knew anyone else. Cog 2 offered him a slice of toast, which he accepted wordlessly.

“That bugs me too,” Cog 2 said.

“What’s that?” Cog asked, mouth full of toast.

“The loading time between rooms,” he answered. “Guess it’s one of those things.”

“What’s a loading time?”

“You know, the time it takes for a room to generate when you enter it. So the frames don’t overlap.”

Cog stared at him blankly.

“What,” Cog 2 scoffed, playfully, “You didn’t think it was just you?”

“I dunno,” replied Cog, not really sure what was going on. “I thought it was some kinda condition.”

“Yeah it’s a condition,” Cog 2 smiled, “A condition of this world.”

“So you have it too?”

“Everyone does,” Cog 2 paused, looking concerned. “Well, every character. Your lack of knowledge is quite worrying.”

Cog found himself becoming uncomfortable, and changed the subject. “Did you find the key?”

“Bring on Level 2,” Cog 2 said, holding up a particularly unremarkable key and grinning. “I’ll be looking for the door today.”

“Where is it?”

“I dunno. I’ll just try doors around ‘til it fits. There’ll be clues.”

“I’m pretty sure you’re not allowed to do that,” said Cog, warily.

“Nah,” said Cog 2, dismissively, “There’s no one to bother. No one lives in Level 1.” He paused. “Well, except you. Which is weird, to be quite honest.”

Cog was, as what was becoming usual for him, quite bemused. This was ridiculous. He had neighbours. This was the city. It’s not like every house here was empty. He decided to tell Cog 2 this.

“This is the city, it’s not like every house here is empty.”

“Actually, it’s exactly that,” Cog 2 corrected. “Or not even hollow in the first place. Facades, like a movie lot.”

Cog pondered. The truth was, he had never been into any other place except work or his home in a long time. He suddenly wondered where he got his food from. It didn’t seem too much of a stretch to warrant that this was true.

“Consider this,” Cog 2 added, taking the concept one step further, “What if everyone out there, all the other flat, faceless people you’ve never spoken to and don’t seem real to you, are just that. Not real.”

Cog didn’t know what to say. He expressed this by blinking and looking gormless.

“Come on,” said Cog 2, “Involuntary movements you can’t control. A perfect routine. Menu screens that appear before your eyes when you select a train ticket? Loading times between rooms?”

The final slice of toast popped out the toaster with its customary cartoon ‘ping.’

“That?” he finished, his voice rising a little.

“I’m going to work,” Cog said, and went to work.

*

Cog did as he said. He went to work.

He was cross. Being cross was a strange emotion for him, as he couldn’t remember feeling it before. Who was this guy to come and tell him what was what? He didn’t even know who Cog 2 was; even his name was made up. That annoyed Cog as well. As it turns out, most things on that journey annoyed Cog.

He was irritated at how the train was exactly on time, which made Cog 2 right. He was vexed at how no other commuters would even look at each other, but would be fully aware of where they were. Again, he saw Cog 2’s smug, but admittedly handsome face grinning. He walked into one, who neither flinched, nor reacted, nor apologised, nor got angry. It was as if Cog had simply walked into a wall made of human.

That was it. Cog did something he had never done before: he pushed the man he bumped into, hard.

He was thunderstruck. The poor man had never done anything to deserve being treated like that. Cog had become the epitome of everything he hated. He started to apologise, expecting people to stare and condemn him.

Except they didn’t. Even the man he pushed just carried on with his day, completely unawares. Cog followed after him.

“Excuse me,” he asked, nervously.

The man said nothing, he didn’t even acknowledge he was there.

Cog overtook him, blocking his way. The man stepped round him without seeing him.

“I wanted to apologise for my behaviour…”

The man continued walking. Again Cog ran up to him.

“Lovely weather we’re having,” the man said, with all the conviction of a telephone queuing system. He walked off.

“Huh,” said Cog, to nobody in particular.

*

Soon after, Cog sat on the train and stared out the window at the streets below. He was afraid to even look at anyone, as he was starting to suspect that they were all living cardboard cut outs.

He watched a man running past others in the street, slam into a lamppost at full speed, then, without apparently feeling a thing, continue to run down the road. He blinked. This was a little odd.

A few minutes later he saw a car drive down the road and stop suddenly. The car appeared to sink a foot or so into the road as if the tarmac was quicksand. The cars behind honked at the inconvenience.

Cog didn’t know what was weirder; what was happening, the fact that no one seemed to react to it, or that he was only noticing these things now.

*

Needless to say, Cog’s day at work was far from productive. From his booth, he kept staring over at the locked door, until finally he wandered over. No one paid him any attention. They wouldn’t, he was only Cog.

Cog tried the door, only this time it was different. He could clearly see the words “The door is locked” written in the air.

He gasped. The other things he had witnessed were weird, but this was amazing! This could very well prove Cog 2 right, and it didn’t annoy Cog one bit.

He ran over to his colleague in the booth next to him to show him what he saw. As he started to speak, his colleagues’ arm wrapped round the booth and pointed to the sign that read, “Log a call.”

“It’s nothing to do with work,” Cog said, a pleased look plastered over his face.

His colleague didn’t reply, just stayed hunched over his desk, his face and body obscured by the cubicle.

“Get up, I want to show you something cool.”

His colleague’s arm again wrapped round the wall and pointed to the sign, with no more insistence than last time.

“Come on,” Cog said, his patience starting to wear thin. He stepped into the booth.

Cog stopped. While he had always been able to see the arm and his back, the rest of the man was just… hollow. He stepped round him to get a better look at his face, and recoiled in horror when he realised he did not have one. There was only a blank space where a face should have been.

Cog 2’s words came back to him: that no one else was real, that he was living in a façade. That no one else was real. Suddenly, Cog felt very lonely, and very frightened. He had that feeling when you realise you’re alone when you thought you had others with you, which was well justified. He ran out the office and headed for the only other person he knew was real.

*

Cog threw the door to his apartment open with a bang, scaring what can only be described as the crap out of Cog 2. He looked rather distressed, and Cog 2 decided to tell him so.

“You look rather distressed,” he said.

“They’re not real,” gasped Cog, quite clearly out of breath. “None of them!”

“Well that’s true, but –”

“No, you don’t understand, they’re really not real!”

Cog 2 could see how exasperated Cog was, so he humoured him.

“How do you –”

“I punched three businessmen, pushed a pensioner and stole a kids’ skateboard!” Cog blurted, “And it doesn’t matter, because not one of them was a real person!”

“Well, that’s –”

“I uppercutted my boss!” Cog finished.

“Are you quite done?” Cog 2 asked.

Fortunately, Cog was. There were only so many pointless expressions a person could provide at one time to prove the same point, and it turned out five was his limit. They sat in silence for a short while. Finally, Cog spoke.

“Am I real?” he asked.

Cog 2 didn’t really look sure how to answer, then smiled, and said, “As real as I am.”

“And how real is that?”

“I dunno, as real as you I guess.”

It was now Cog’s turn to smile, although he did not know why. “So, none of this is.”

“Pretty much.”

“Well, that sucks.”

Cog 2 agreed. It did suck.

Cog’s smile seemed to sink into his throat as if swallowed by accident. He needed some air. Reeling out of the flat, Cog 2 in tow, Cog tumbled up the stairs to the roof. They stood on the rooftop and watched the fake sun set over the fake city.

Cog looked at the sky. It was a mix of blues, pinks and gold as the sun descended towards the horizon. He saw faults in the sky, as if it was split somehow. The colours rippled and surged unnaturally, as if two images were overlapping and fighting for dominance. “We’re not meant to spend too much time here,” Cog 2 warned.

Although no tears came, Cog felt like crying. “There’s a crack in the sky,” he said, his voice hardly a whisper.

“It’s out of synch with the refresh rate,” Cog 2 explained. “It creates screen tearing.”

“It’s like the apocalypse.”

“Only today,” Cog 2 said, reassuringly. “Tomorrow it’ll be fine.”

“Tomorrow, it’ll be as flawed as it always was,” Cog managed. “Only they’ll have covered it up.”

He stepped forwards, closer to the edge. Cog 2 swallowed, looking noticeably more worried. They were at least thirty storeys high.

“Is it just the one life?” Cog asked.

“What?”

“Well, if we’re not hollow, and we’re meant to do things here, then I’m guessing there are rules to this sort of thing.”

“It’s in every creature’s instincts to preserve its own life,” Cog 2 warned.

“Every living creature,” corrected Cog. “Is that us?”

Cog 2 mulled the question over, then, “I don’t know how many and you don’t want to test it, but we respawn.”

“What’s that even mean, respawn?” Cog laughed, a little hysterically. “I’m not a goddamn tadpole!”

“Why don’t you come down from there,” suggested Cog 2, “And we can go find Level 2.”

Cog smiled at his double. Then he stepped onto the edge of the rooftop and jumped off.

*

Cog awoke. Well, awoke was inaccurate. He had not been sleeping. Nor was he lying in his bed, or anywhere else for that matter. He was standing in the middle of his apartment without a scratch on him.

“How was that?” he heard. He turned. Cog 2 was with him.

“That was weird.”

“You’re telling me. After you jumped I came down here. I figured this is where you would respawn. You just kinda… faded in. Creepy.”

Cog shuddered. Although he felt fine physically, he knew, somehow, in the darkest recesses of his mind, that somewhere another Cog was still falling, and would never hit the ground. It was like he had died, and a part of him was not coming back.

“I didn’t forget anything,” he told Cog 2. “The glitches, the menu screens, the whole lot. I thought I would forget, but I didn’t. Is that how you knew? Did you die and remember it too?”

“Yeah,” the other man said. “I think we should’ve played to the end but were forgotten somehow. Maybe this is what happens when people lose interest before they complete it.”

Cog nodded, realising something. “Well, there’s nothing to stop us from completing it ourselves. It’d be more fun than staying around here.”

“That’s why I was looking for the key,” Cog 2 admitted. “I figure I may as well enjoy my unreality. We just have to find a lock.”

“Way ahead of you,” grinned Cog, remembering the locked door in his office. “So what’s at Level 2?”

“No idea,” admitted Cog 2. “Although if you reach Level 7 I’ve heard you can get a flying car.”

“A flying car? What the hell kind of genre is this anyway?”

“I’m going with… neo noir. That’s a genre, isn’t it?”

*

Soon after, the two Cogs left the apartment. They reached Cog’s work in no time and tried the key. Naturally, it fit, and the door to Level 2 swung open, opening a world of possibility they could not begin to comprehend.

And for all they knew, the world behind them stopped existing the second they stepped through, ready to manifest again when it was needed.