The Walking Idiots: Part Thirteen – Gorillas in the Mist

Our spirits lifted from the success of our loop around the Marlow/Maidenhead area, the Idiots resolved to squeeze in an extra hike before the end of the year. We don’t tend to do them later than November because daylight becomes a factor, and your choices are then either to hike in the dark or shorten the route, and really, if you can’t take pictures, and if it’s under twenty miles, what’s the point?

This time we opted to return to Kent where John lives, and we quickly decided that a walk along the estuary and coastal paths would be a good choice for a couple of reasons; firstly, it’s stunning, as the pictures you’ll see will illustrate, and secondly, because for the most part it involves a lot less planning and checking the route than usual. I adored the Marlow hike, but I did spend large portions of it comparing the plotted route with my run tracker making sure we were where we were meant to be.

Less of that this time around.

The inevitable WhatsApp group was set up, and people added to it, a mix of Hike 12 participants and invitees, as well as a smattering of John’s friends from Kent, who were all local and had absolutely no reason not to make it (as far as I was aware, anyway). In the end, Max was the only one from the Kent crew to turn up, but Max was a great success in Hike 12 so we were delighted to have him back. For my part, I was lucky because I was able to introduce Will to the group (he’s my comic artist friend). My cousin Richard asked me if he could join, to which the answer was a resounding yes. (Okay, Mum’s cousin, so technically first cousin, once removed, according to google. I doubt there’s a greeting card for that, which I feel is a shame.)

Some of our non-Kent crew couldn’t make the journey; Mat in particular felt it would be a bit rude to come when his son had been born a week earlier, which we reluctantly accepted. Freddie is probably very capable, but maybe give him a few weeks before he’s left to his own devices.

The Friday before the hike, the majority of the non-Kent attendees descend and meet John and Max in The Man of Kent, a charming pub with the most amazing range of beers, wonderfully curated by the landlady, Heather. Despite our attempts to stop drinking and leave early, we somehow failed at both, extricating ourselves after midnight. (Even my own valiant attempt to get us out was dismissed when the notion of a final half was suggested by Heather and immediately embraced… by me.)

These are the faces of no regrets.

The next morning there are plenty of comments about how the pub was both a great idea and a terrible decision. The feeling was made worse by the fact that owing to our schedule, we don’t have time for our customary fry up.

The Travelodge contingent get to the station for the 7:20 train to Sittingbourne, but we notice that John, Alan and Max are nowhere to be seen. Held up by life logistics, they miss the train, and Rob, Will, Clyde and I board it, facing a reminder of our slowly advancing age when we notice how many people on it are most definitely on their way home after what look like eventful nights out. (The outfits, the smell, and the large number of people trying to curl up into something resembling the foetal position give it away.)

Twenty minutes later we arrive at Sittingbourne, which is… I mean, it’s got… okay, apparently it has a nice steam railway. Maybe it’s for the best that the town is veiled in fog.

It’s like it was trying to warn us.

The most eventful part of our brief exploration was when Rob and I help up an older gentleman who fell in the road. We leave him to his shufflings and grumblings, his only discernible sounds were swear words.

The upside, for us four at least, is that while we’re waiting for the others we’re able to grab our Wetherspoons breakfast after all. Richard joins us when we reach the pub and is introduced to everyone. It’s not much later that the others arrive and we set off.

Calling anything in Sittingbourne “hope” really smacks of optimism to me.

Here we go: Clyde, Alan, Max, me, John, Richard and Will, with Rob behind the camera.

We navigate the town for a few minutes, cruelly denying Alan the chance to get a McDonald’s breakfast (okay, he denied himself, for the good of the group) and a short wander through some industrial lands gets us to the start of our footpath that leads us to the estuary.

The estuary footpath was fascinating; a mix of overgrown greenery and industrial equipment, both working and in disrepair. The whole thing was smothered in fog, with dew making the numerous spiderwebs glisten.

Oh yeah and this weird fog made everything an odd shade of silver that gave everything a delightfully melancholy vibe. More on that soon.

More than once did a member of the group look down at the mud flats, revealed by the withdrawn tide and muse aloud, “I wonder how many bodies are buried down there.”

Especially when they list body parts on the signs. I mean, really…

We tweaked the route in planning in order to avoid more of the town and get on the river pathway sooner. This was great in theory but it did seem a little questionable when it came to crossing the river via the bridge. Will in particular expressed doubts about the logic of our route when the footpath seemingly forced us to double back on ourselves.

All part of the plan, Will. Honest.

From here, we walked through the fog along the estuary footpath for hours. And by hours I mean about ninety minutes. Time seemed to move differently. There’s something about being surrounded by impenetrable fog that messes with one’s perception of time. Comparisons were made to Silent Hill, Seventh Seal, the Green Knight, and old, badly rendered video games where you could only see a few feet ahead of you. At points some of the crew further ahead or behind would disappear into the fog, and when that happened I was pretty convinced that they had never existed. No one did. Several existential crises took place.

Not gonna lie, it was bloody great.

If you’ll allow me a brief aside (you will, it’s my blog,) the thing in retrospect about this path was that we saw maybe half a dozen people over this stretch of path. It’s not especially accessible, and really, there’s no need for the path to exist. It doesn’t really connect that many useful places. And yet it does. I love that they (whoever they are) decided to make, not to mention maintain, a path along it. They didn’t need to. But they did. There’s something to be said for that.

As we walk, Max points out the amazing things we should be able to see, except we can’t, because fog. Finally, one thing presents itself to us…

I’ll quote Rob: “Old wreck, of a wartime minesweepers at Elmley Ferry on the banks of The Swale. Elmley Ferry was one of three ferry crossings that used to provide a service over to the Isle of Sheppey. All three crossings stopped operating many years ago. It was at the Elmley Ferry where James II was arrested by fishermen in 1688 when he was trying to flee England. Knowledge is power.”

Perhaps more importantly, it was a decaying ruin. You know what that means, don’t you?

Yeah. Alan had to climb it.

Rob and I climbed down to the boat too, the path being exceptionally treacherous. As soon as Richard saw Alan pose, he said, “Oh, you’re the one from the WhatsApp group photo,” because we used the picture of Alan poised on top of the burnt out car from Hike 12. We’re setting a new precedent in hike lore now, where Alan has to clamber atop dead vehicles. Or trees. Most things.

John may or may not be urinating here.

A while later, having passed a boat yard (barely visible), sheep and ponies, we decide to stop for a moment. We were hoping to stop sooner, but the pub in question at Teynham had yet to open (it was only 11:30 by this point) so the smartest thing to do at the time was to keep moving.

Clyde tried establishing conversation, but didn’t know what to say to ewe.

Seemingly unprompted, Alan whips out quite a nice bottle of Shiraz, John sources a nice block of cheese and a sausage, and a very sophisticated picnic emerges.

Which was all very nice.

The sun finally reveals itself and all of a sudden we’re in what feels like a summer’s day. The change is almost abrupt. If it wasn’t for the promise of eventually reaching a pub we may have stayed for longer…

… except apparently we’ve stopped in the middle of the nursery of baby spiders, because we all seem to have tiny arachnids crawling up our necks. The grass is practically covered in webs. Lovely. Even writing this I still feel them on me. Probably time I washed.

Resuming, we delight in being able to finally see across the river, and we’re treated to views all the way to the Isle of Sheppy.

So basically like before, but blue and with depth perception.

Proving we’re not the only people in existence, someone finally passes us on the path and Max does a double take when he realises it’s his old maths teacher. Presumably he’s been lost in the mist for years, and we didn’t dare to disturb him.

More importantly, we saw our future selves. Sadly we received no stock tips or ledgers, did nothing to collapse the space/time continuum or create a paradox. We look well though.

We carry on, the path weaving around the line of the estuary as we start heading inland to Faversham.

Where there’s boats. Boats and money.

The sun is a welcome change from the mist, and the view remains a welcome sight, but it’s warm now, and after about three hours of walking, the need to get to a pub is strong.

To pass the time (and because we love doing this) half of us long time stalwarts end up doing a deep dive analysis of the hikes where we try to name them, the others saying they can never remember which hike is which based on numbers alone. (I only manage because I blog them, I guess). If there’s one thing more self indulgent than talking about these hikes, it’s talking about these hikes while on a hike. We apologise to Max for this massive level of in-jokery that he’s broadly not privy to, but he just laughs, saying he loves anything at this level of nerdiness, so feeling supported, we cracked on.

Trying not to take it personally, our first choice of pub in Oare, The Three Mariners, is closed, so we stop at The Castle, a pretty decent spot with a nice beer garden and welcoming staff.

… aaaand beer.

Everyone’s moods improve vastly as we take a few moments to change socks, sort feet and drink. Rob goes out of his way to buy a Red Bull just to troll Clyde, I replace my inexplicably wet socks, and Alan decides the best way to waterproof his feet is to wear dog poo bags between his socks and boots. Sounds daft, actually worked. I’m pretty sure the bags were clean, too.

We drink up and leave, aware that staying put would be all too easy. We’re meeting James at the next pub and we’re already running behind. I know he doesn’t mind waiting (he has a book and beer) but I don’t want to leave him too long, because ten miles three pints deep is quite the challenge.

Fortunately for us, the walk between the two pubs is mercifully short, only about half an hour through some uninspiring housing estates, before we reach Faversham, where we meet James at the Bear Inn. He’s very pleased to see us.

This is closest we’ve come to a pub crawl. Dangerous. Beers courtesy of Richard, our enabler.

The Bear is a delight; a historic pub just off Faversham’s market square, we sat in a wood panelled booth under oak beams enjoying decent beer. Along with the Bell in Waltham St Lawrence from our last hike, this was right up there with pubs we were sorry to leave.

I chose this image to illustrate the majesty of the Bear, as well as our exceptional willpower required to leave it.

Now, Faversham is stunning. We all loved it. Historic buildings, cobbled streets, quirky shops, what’s not to love? It felt a bit weird to suddenly be back amongst civilisation, and we all felt like the numerous people around us hadn’t earned their beers like we had (chances are most people had driven there, can you imagine?) We marched out of there with pride in our step and a smile on our face…

As demonstrated here…

… which would’ve been great, except as soon as we left, we found a church.

We had to check this out.
And this.
Not to mention these.

Yeah, we ground to a halt. In our defence, if you’ve ever read any of these things before you’ll know it’s standard practice for us to stop at churches and graveyards. I’m pretty sure it’s in the manifesto.

Think we couldn’t go any slower? Think again. We went in, had a chat with the clergy, had a bit on an explore.

Alan found God.
This made John’s day.
And this tickled my inner goth.

Okay, that additional delay out the way, now we’re leaving!

FYI I forgot to pause the run tracker and now it looks like I drew Mr Messy.

Nothing can possibly delay us now, and after a false start we’re definitely off again. Right?


We reach Standard Quay, made up of old buildings selling copious antiques, especially tools. Many of the crew fall in love. We tarry for another short while, before finally gathering ourselves and setting off.

Our path leads us out through an eccentric boatyard…

“Eccentric.” Try f***ing nuts.

Although it has its charms.

If you like industrial junk. Which we do.

From here our path follows the river for a while before going cross country through farm lands. We enjoyed the salt flats, but the change in landscape is welcomed. It also helped that we were approaching the golden hour, my favourite time of day where the light lends everything a special significance and I can let the pictures do the talking.

John may or may not be urinating here, too.
The knowing smile is because I know I don’t have to write much here.
I’ve shared enough pictures here but I really like this one so you’re getting it too.
And this. On with the narrative!

Finally, with the sun setting, we can see the sea.

Max was very brave balancing and didn’t ask anyone to hold his hand.

We march along the sea walls, but it’s not long before several of us hop over the wall and head down to the water. The tide is far out, which is a shame as I’d packed a towel and everything.

Of course Alan gave it a go though.

Having reached the sea at the twenty mile mark, we mistakenly believe we’ve finished, but there’s a way to go til we reach the pub, so we walk along the beach for a further three miles while the sun sets behind us.

Except for those of us with special foot protectors or dog poo bags, the feet are starting to ache now, and I feel every stone I stand on. We opt to take footpaths over beach where we can, until finally in the last of the twilight, we reach our end point, The Old Neptune, a pub whose beer garden is literally on the beach.

Richard kindly took the victory photo so Rob could share in the moment.

A few generous rounds are purchased as we recall hikes past, both the highs and the lows.

John’s blurry face party trick baffled Will.

After that, James departs to try and avoid a messy train journey home, and we head into Whitstable to search for well earned food.

That, or we’re still walking through the mist of the estuary path, and everything I’ve written since is a mirage-like hallucination. I do hope it’s the former.

Oh no.

The Walking Idiots: Part Twelve

New recruits, same Idiots.

As much as we’d wished otherwise, our last hike wasn’t the best. Lockdown had capped our numbers and reduced the range of where we could go. The booking of pubs created a constant sense of awareness of pace, and the weather… well, it wasn’t as wet as we feared but between it and some pretty old boots it was enough to create sore feet, and sore feet do not make for happy Idiots. We needed our hike mojo back.

So it was perhaps forgivable to view this next one with some sense of trepidation. We went through the motions of creating a new WhatsApp group and adding prospective invitees to it, some of whom were returning familiar faces who we’d been unable to hike with for two years at this point. Others were new recruits, willing and eager. There were some who wanted to attend but were for various reasons regretfully had to pull out. And there were some who just left the WhatsApp group without a word.

I won’t say who they are, but they’re as dead to us as this very dead bird of prey John made us take a picture of. He loves dead things. Don’t know why.

I may have made my, um, reservations about walking around the Crowthorne/Sandhurst area known to the boys and this was taken into account with the route. Basically, based on my whinging about nothing being local to me Mat decided to plot an absolute beauty of a route around Marlow. We opted to keep it circular, which isn’t our preference, just until things get truly back to normal (or as close as they can get) but it did the business, taking into account loads of the highlights Jen and I have discovered in the area since taking up lockdown walks like the rest of the nation.

We’ll overlook the fact that John has to drive from Kent to get to us as this totally undermines my grievance.

The route as ever is gently tweaked and amended but it doesn’t need much work. John suggests changing the route to remove Hambledon so we could walk along the river. This is rejected given that Hambledon is a a gorgeous old rustic village used as a filming location in almost everything and a nice part of the world. Bear that in mind for later.

Beyond that, the only task left to do is book the pubs, which as mentioned above remains a Covid annoyance. The England match happening on the evening adds another thing to manage in terms of finishing on time, but it can’t be helped. This is all very much first world problems by this point.

The last source of frustration was the forecast. You’d think in July the thing to worry about would be the sun, right?

Wrong. Seriously, based on the icon, 42% chance of what? All weather? This is arse covering of the highest order, surely.

The hike grows ever closer and travel arrangements are made. It’s all coming together nicely, although we do have a couple of last minute drop outs. The trains are hellish for Clyde to get to the start on time so he crashes at mine the night before.

I get why Jen wanted him to take the sofa as the spare bed’s a bugger to sort out but I’m not sure why I had to sleep on it too…

After a hideous night’s sleep (in separate beds) Clyde and I arrive in Marlow. Arran, who was my housemate in uni, is waiting for us. I’ve been wanting Arran to join us for ages so I’m really pleased to see him. Henry, who worked with John a while ago arrives soon after and we introduce ourselves. Hike veteran Pete arrives shortly after that and the pubs opens to let us in for breakfast. It’s not long before John and Alan rock up and the group orders various fried goods and the conversational tone plummets to its usual depths. It would be uncouth of me to say what about but I’ll never look at a bic razor in the same way again.

Once we’ve finished breakfast, which Pete kindly buys (we owe you, Pete) some additional last minute supplies are purchased, including some swanky cheese which Henry buys from a swanky pop up market stall outside the pub. The rest of our attendees have turned up by this point so we make introductions, (Mat and Swatty arrive along with hike virgins Max and Wynand) get the obligatory start of hike photo, set our paedo-meters and head off.

We’ll be your hosts for today. Alan, Mat, John, Henry, Clyde, Arran, me, Pete, Max, Swatty and Wynand. You’ll notice Rob’s missing: don’t fret, he’ll meet us halfway. You’ll know when he arrives because the photos will get a lot better.

Our route starts by taking us immediately over Marlow Bridge, a suspension bridge built in the 1830’s that’s a Grade I listed building and with its perilously close iron traffic control measures is the scourge of all drivers in the area.

Very soon after we leave the road for a public footpath that takes us across a field and towards Bisham Woods that looms above us.

Pictured: woods, looming.

It’s not long before we realise that our map should be leading us straight on towards the hills via a tunnel that runs under the road ahead, but our route is veering right with no tunnel in sight, just more hedge. Fortunately we spot a jogger running parallel to us who vanished into the bushes, and adjust our route to match hers.

I miss this because I’m busy taking a walking selfie. Seriously, Nicholas…

As if by magic a gap in the hedgerow appears and we found ourselves in the creepy, ominous tunnel that we tried to find years ago back in Hike IV. We love a creepy tunnel, so it’s a bit of a treat.

At the end of the tunnel was a plaque showing that Theresa May opened it, with a dog poo bag on top. Nothing but the best in Marlow.

We enter Bisham woods which almost immediately takes the form of seemingly never-ending steep hills, some of which are made of wet chalk. Little do we know that uphill will be a feature of this hike. This will make up for all those missed leg days, won’t it?

After what seems like an age we leave the woods (with little photographic evidence) and emerge into a series of fields and woods. We notice it’s exceptionally muggy, but are consoled by the beauty that surrounds us…

… affectionate horses…
… this snail, gracefully climbing a tree…
… the sunlight gently illuminating the canopy of leaves high above…

Oh yeah, and this very dead burnt out car.

Honestly, you knew in your heart Alan was going to climb it, didn’t you?

In his new role in health and safety Arran can’t quite get behind this, but like others in the team he cracks open a hip flask to put his worries to one side and we enjoy the spectacle.

To be fair there was a few other dead things and dilapidated buildings along the way that I could’ve included in addition to the aforementioned May/poo bag combo, but it would’ve lessened the impact of the VW voted most likely to fail its MOT. It’s not like we don’t have photos of them all. John really likes making us get photos of dead things. He also collects pictures of condom machines in pub toilets, the weirder the better. Don’t ask.

From here on for a little while we swap out woodlands for fields:

Soon after the route tells us we need to take the public footpath through Temple golf course, and we do so, our group disturbing what seems like the only two golfers on the entire course, although they seem happy enough to let us pass. We climb the discrete footpath onwards.

“It’s fine, this’ll definitely be the last of the hills…”

Shortly after we enter the grounds of the Berkshire College of Agriculture, where the sun finally comes out and we take that selfie from the start of this post.

That’s more like it.

Everyone is quick to put their sunglasses on, which seems like a really great idea until we enter some dark woods. When we emerge on the other side the sun’s gone in. It’s still muggy, which the shades do nothing whatsoever to help with, but at least we look cool now.

Coming out the other side of BCA we ascend and then descend Ashley Hill, with half our number getting a bit lost on the ascent and needing to go off route to catch up. In their (our, I was one of them) defence, there’s lots of paths and it’s hard to tell one from another. This happens again after we regroup but with a bit of trial and error we find our way onwards.

At the bottom of Ashley Hill we cross the A4 and are dismayed to see that plotaroute has done us dirty as the public footpath through the farm we need to take doesn’t exist. Fortunately I know of another one but it adds a fair few minutes finding it and then looping back to where we should be.

The footpath is round the back of the Bell and Bottle pub, and given that we’re meeting Rob at the Old Bell and we know he’s anxious about missing us, Mat does the only sensible thing and sends him a picture of the Bell and Bottle, telling him we’re there and trusting that Rob will assume the worst. This gets the desired response and we let him off the hook; we’re not monsters, after all.

The farmland route takes us on to Littlewick Green, a stunning little village built around a cricket green, seemingly hidden from the world and the progress of time. It charms everyone as we wander through, quite grateful for a brief change of scenery.

Let’s make this clear: you will never be able to afford to live here, ever.

We find a well, so Alan does the only sensible thing and climbs in it. We also pass Redroofs school (one of them, at least) and the home of Ivor Novello, famed composer and entertainer. This is quite exciting until we realise the person to have most won the award named after him is Gary Barlow, and we depart the village, suddenly feeling unclean.

Alan by a well. You’ll definitely never see that again.

Minutes later we’re back onto the farmlands, where our path takes us directly across the field in one of those footpaths you know is a massive source of frustration to the farmer.

Between the steep uphills, the route confusion on Ashley Hill, and the lack of entrance into the farmlands we’ve fallen quite behind so we endeavour to pick up the pace. Normally it wouldn’t be an issue but our pub booking is due to start imminently and after nearly four hours of walking we’ve all got a thirst on.

Onwards for beer!

The problem is the wheat fields are really quite beautiful, stretching off in every direction almost as far as the eye can see. We even almost have a North by Northwest moment because of the nearby Waltham airfield.

Does that make the pub our McGuffin?

Getting to the far end of the field we cross the railway bridge and continue down the country lane which is a firm favourite of MAMILs all over Berkshire before entering Shottesbrooke Park, the stunning parklands of a sixteenth century Tudor mansion.

It’s all right, let’s not go crazy.

I lead the way with Wynand as we reach the church next to the mansion.

The real treat though is the passage between the church and the walled garden of what may have once been a monastery:

I’m waiting for this to get big on Instagram.

Everyone loves this (especially John, and I think Alan is tempted to paint it) and I take no joy in driving everyone on in a passive aggressive way for fear of losing our pub slot (bloody Covid). Fortunately for me I shared the route with my local guitar group and Nick from the class has decided to join us at the Bell, and he’s just arrived there. He calls and I get him to claim our tables, abating my anxiety. We leave Shottesbrooke, Swatty asking us detailed questions about hike rankings and how many need to be attended to get on the leaderboard (this stuff matters, ask any one of us.)

Minutes later we enter Waltham St Lawrence, where Rob is waiting for us by the church next to the pub. We are of course delighted to see him, as he represents a symbol of hope for us all, even the guys who’ve not met him before.

Also we notice the horse car park built into the roundabout, which quite frankly inspired.

The Bell Inn of Waltham St Lawrence is a fifteenth century (not fourteenth, apparently the sign is wrong) wood panelled pub. This alone would make us inclined to like it. They serve a good range of beers and decent food.

I sneakily took this as we passed through to get to the beer garden. Oh baby.

Nick is waiting for us in the garden. We settle in and order drinks and start the standard hike break routine, namely making old man noises as we sit down, changing our socks, and sorting out foot tape if necessary. Beers turn up quickly and when we ask for water the staff offer to fill up all our water bottles, making the Bell shoot right up there with the very best of pubs we’ve visited on hikes. They even did some quick maths to help our tired brains split the bill fairly.

… what the hell. We got a second round in. We’re having a blast. Blame Nick.
I’m mostly sure John brought the talcum powder with him. I certainly don’t remember seeing it on the menu.

Swatty sagely observes a large number of attendees checking in with their respective other halves which earns some rather self conscious laughter all around. The second pints being ordered as well as some food does rather impact our pace, but we’ve walked for over ten miles by this point and are enjoying ourselves far too much to leave.

This is us dragging ourselves away. I think we’d happily have stayed there.

Finally we depart, briefly allowing a diversion into the church next door to appreciate the stunning Yew Tree in the church yard.

Basically an Ent.

Our route takes us back into farmland, and we have to follow the public footpath right through the centre of the farm, which must be even more inconvenient for farmers than those paths that run through their fields. We know we’ve got to pick up the pace but we are two beers deep so really our speed is unchanged, possibly slower. I get a buzz as I learn Max is a Silmarillion fan and we lose a couple of miles geeking out over the Istari, Maiar and other niche corners of Middle Earth.

It’s not long after this that the farmland ends and we reach Castle Royle golf course, where a long, narrow public footpath runs through the course. The path is framed with dense bushes on either side and nettles have spilled out onto the route. There’s lots of awkward lunging and twisting to avoid the worst of them, and Arran voices his regret about succumbing to peer pressure and changing into shorts at the start of the hike.

We enter Knowl Hill which is, yes, another hill. It’s gruelling, and much like Bisham Woods our priorities are adjusted so no photos are taken for some time. Swatty and I are busily chatting away and wonder aloud why we’re out of breath until John points out that we’re the only ones chatting in earshot, everyone else is focusing on the task at hand.

Knowl Hill eventually becomes Crazies Hill, which is great if you like hills. (We’re cooling on them by this point.) We pass Rebecca’s Well, a Grade II listed Well house built around 1870.
The inscription on the well reads, “Rebeka and the Servants of Abraham at the well of Nahor. And the servants ran to meet her and said let I pray thee drink a little water of thy pitcher.” I know this because I lifted it straight from Rob’s Facebook post about it, so it must be true.

Clearly this was the hike where Alan was about (don’t say it) well being.

Next to the well sits a house with a garden railway that gets Rob all a-flutter but it’s in some degree of disuse and the foliage is too dense to get pictures. Proceeding through the hamlet of Crazies Hill with their seriously nice houses we take a footpath that leads to a very green series of corridors. A drone flies overhead and we pass a field of alpacas (or funny looking dogs, as Alan may have once referred to them).

It’s around here that we take a brief break to stop by Henry’s step brothers’ house, where we have been offered a quick refreshment. They’re very courteous with their food and drink but we are so sweaty and horrible by this point that some of us feel a little uncomfortable stinking up their beautiful garden. If you’ll allow me a second Tolkien reference it’s not dissimilar to the dwarves rocking up at Rivendell. Fortunately there is someone there who does her best to make us feel at home.

This is Molly, our new favourite hike dog (tied with BoyBoy.) Also a bit of a hussy.

Molly took a particular shine to Pete and Alan, or at least liked their smell the most. Henry’s step brother’s garden was a thing of beauty but I didn’t feel it was fair to take a photo of their garden, even if it was for illustrative purposes, so here’s another Molly picture.

She’s a nice lady.
Also here’s us stinking up their lawn. Bet your family wouldn’t have us over.

Mindful of the time (god knows how late we are at this point) we resume. That same drone from earlier sees us off and I’m told it was Henry’s step brother’s. Sadly it didn’t get any pictures which would’ve been amazing. Our next pub is The Flower Pot at Aston, near Remenham, but they aren’t bothered about bookings so there’s no urgency there other than for those who want to get back for the football or have rotten journeys home.

Rob insisted on getting a picture of this sign, too. So mature.
John also wanted a picture of this dragonfly, presumably because it was dead.

It’s not long after this we enter Remenham, more specifically the stunning Culham Court estate, which includes an excellently maintained parkland, herd of white deer, a chapel/mausoleum, ha-ha, follys and a mansion. (We’ve covered this on the Hike IV post on this site. Alternatively for a more factually accurate – but less entertaining account – wiki Urs Schwarzenbach if you’re interested; there’s serious money at play here. Also VAT fraud and art trafficking.)

Perhaps most remarkable of all, to a few of us at least, is that coming up the hill is Grant White and his wife. Grant was in our (Mat, Alan, John and my) year at school, and we’ve known him for over thirty years. We’re quite surprised to see him, for some of the group it’s been an incredibly long time. Quite randomly while chatting to us he gets a text from Charlie, who was also in our year at school, and all this coincidence unsettles us, so we wish him well and crack on.

Also we wanted more beer.
Pleased we got Rob back. I like this photo of the rear guard a lot. Also: we finally got to go downhill!

We collect ourselves for the last push before the Flower Pot. Rob and I nip up the hill to get a picture of the chapel, while John and Max conduct some guerrilla repairs on his boot.

A different sort of classy.

A short while later we arrive at The Flower Pot, a pub which blew our minds back in Hike IV for its impressive display of taxidermied animals, rustic setting, massive pumpkins on the benches (in autumn) and warm customer service. Presumably they’d got wind of how much we loved The Bell and took offence, because we got a warmer reception from the dead animals than the staff this time around. The pub wasn’t especially busy and while we might be a bit gross after eight hours of walking we’re very polite, so the experience rather confounded us. Max kindly bought the round when the staff offered no help in terms of splitting the bill.

Even though most of us ordered lager, all we could taste was bitter.

It’s at this time that we decide to amend our route for the last stretch. We’ve about five miles left and feet are starting to get sore. We’re sick of hills (how is a circular walk almost entirely uphill? It’s like an Escher painting!) so Hambledon’s cut and a more direct river route added in its place. Turns out John’s suggestion was right after all.

We set off on our final stretch along the river, passing through Medmenham, Hurley, Temple and Bisham. Fuelled by a sense of finality, and a desire for football, rest, or curry, we soldier on, with gaps forming amongst us owing to pace.

There was lots of this. Refreshingly flat.

A section of us pause on Hurley bridge. Henry catches us up and asks us to wait for the stragglers, which we agree to. We don’t mind, the bridge is beautiful and we’re feeling pretty good.

When the others catch us up, Clyde informs us that John proposed a shortcut to help them gain ground (basically a straight line cutting out the bends along the river the footpath would take). This was great in principle except this short cut went from moist, to boggy, to full blown marshland. Also apparently John led from the back so he could judge what route he could take from their mistakes. I think this was an excellent strategy. Clyde told me all this in confidence so obviously don’t tell anyone.

The remaining miles are your standard issue Berkshire riverside fare:

By which I mean totally stunning.

Upon reaching Marlow we regroup in the park next to the river where someone has thoughtfully set up this finish line for us all.

No idea why they branded it as a triathlon though. Still, the thought counts.

We give ourselves our congratulatory pats on backs and the bulk of the group disbands to travel to London, Rochester or home to catch the start of the football. Our remnants go for curry, which is worth it because a) excellent curry, b) the staff are appalled by the state of John’s boot. They seat us outside so we can’t stink up the joint and that’s fine by us.

Working on reduced brain power we struggle to read the menu but our real challenge comes when we try and work out how to get us all home in two cars, which is sort of pathetic really.

Look, you’d struggle too if you’d burnt 1,800 calories walking for 9.5 hours and drunk at least five pints.

And that, Dear Reader, is how you finish a twenty five mile hike. With beer, curry, good friends, and the sense of self delusion that you definitely don’t have any blisters. Oh, and England won 4-0.

Until next time.

The Walking Idiots: Part Eleven

… in what is hopefully the last hike the Idiots have to do in lockdown, where we experience our highest casualty rate ever with not one, but two instances of Pete’s Law, being enacted. Who did the hike gods bring to ruin and who was spared? Lay on, gentle Reader, and find out.

I don’t think I need to explain in too much detail that the last year has well and truly managed everyone’s expectations in every way, including hiking. By this point the mythical, glorious days of hikes in other counties with large groups of friends old and new, casually dropping into pubs along the way, and remarking upon the start points, so many miles away from us were long gone. Now, as you know from the last few posts, it was all about circular hikes in the local area, BYO beers, and limited numbers. The core crew from school made five, and John had promised that Ross – last seen all the way back in Hike 1 – would attend completing the allowed six.

We knew that the end of lockdown (whatever that will look like) was on the horizon, but getting a date that suits everyone can be such a pain that we decided to lock in and get one done while we could. We discussed the route as we always do – this one went through about a dozen permutations – but really it was only ever going to be routes around Crowthorne or Sandhurst, and these were definitely getting very familiar. Still, the lads did their best and found a few areas new to us, including the land around a certain manor I will mention later.

In all honesty though it didn’t matter; it was a day out together, hopefully with some pub stops thrown in. It sounded like a good idea.

Well, it did, until the forecast revealed itself.

You can tell if it’s a bad forecast when my dad – who rarely uses his phone – goes out of his way to ominously text me. Fine. Thanks Dad.

I’ll get her something. Chill. God.

To say we become somewhat interested with the grim forecast is probably downplaying it. I know I refreshed the BBC weather app so many times it started to think I lived in Sandhurst. But still, hope remained. (I would say estel, but that would betray how much of a certain Tolkien podcast I’ve been listening to in lockdown, and no one needs to know that right now.)

Then, on Friday, finally, it seems to lighten a little. Could it be…? Was change coming? We continue to keep a vigil.

The morning of the hike we awaken to find that the app’s forecast has changed once more. It’s still going to fling it down, but only until about 10am, then 40mph winds will replace them. We can work with that. (“The winds will dry us out,” we joke.)

We head down to our starting point. The WhatsApp group gets a message from John: “Do we have the route anywhere? Do we even have it finalised?!” Oh yeah. That. We’ll work it out later. We’re working without a finished script, but that’s okay, it worked out fine for Quantum of Solace and the Hobbit movies, right?

We meet outside Greggs. Once upon a time it would’ve been a pub breakfast, but we work with what we’ve got. To our dismay, Alan has cut his hair, (he changes his look every hike, it’s how we’re able to tell which one we’re on from the photographs alone) and we’re all a bit annoyed because he’s once again the most handsome of us all. I think to myself I’ll get revenge on him later and not buy him a Chelsea bun if the opportunity arises, but for now, we walk.

You’ll note Ross made it. He’s clad in John’s dad’s waterproof. As mentioned above, we’ve not seen Ross since the ill-fated Hike 1 (check out the post about it HERE if you’ve not seen that. It’s a disaster. The post about it’s not much better.)

Speaking of John’s dad, he dropped our leader off, said hello to everyone and remarked on Alan’s shorts, mentioning an anecdote about when he once wore shorts that were too short on a boat he accidentally exposed himself to a stranger (you can see where his son gets it from, right?)

We set off in heavy rain, telling ourselves it won’t last. It’s still pretty grim. Oh well. We pass some sewage works that make it especially scenic. After the that, the first few miles are pleasant enough but pretty uneventful. Everyone catches up but mostly it’s about enduring the rain, which slowly starts to ease off as the morning passes. At one point we pause next to a field near Minley Manor (filming location for the second Jurassic World film, Stardust and Enola Holmes) where there’s a large black bull, which reminds me of a scene from Withnail & I. (I’ve gone heavy on the film references, my apologies. Best get used to it, I think it’s likely there’ll be more.) We watch in mild confusion as Ross shakes copious amounts of sand from one boot.

“We’ve gone on holiday by mistake!”

We carry on, through various woods and along some main-ish roads round Hawley. I lurk at the back of the group with Ross, testing the depths of my banter, but against him I am a rank amateur. Still, it’s good to catch up. I’ve not seen him since a weekend where John coerced us into doing a terrible job trying to paint his boat. At least he likes a Tolkien quote, and “Looks like meat’s back on the menu, boys,” becomes the unofficial motto for this hike, at least between us.

We also practiced the cold, dead stare of a serial killer. Y’know, for work zoom calls and such.

We regroup when we find ourselves on a curious iron bridge that seems to go… nowhere.

Seriously, check this thing out. Located in the midst of the wilderness (as wild as you get in Surrey, anyway), it’s a metal terror straight out of a David Lynch nightmare.

So of course, we loved it.

You can almost taste our delight.

Naturally we postulated it’s the sort of place where one would enter one of the doors underneath it only to emerge from the other like that magic trick from The Prestige, but probably covered in blood, having somehow lost years of your life. There’s even white rabbit graffiti all around to make it even more ominous. Turns out Rob discovered it was a filming location for Detective Pikachu, which on reflection really brings the horror home.

John, shortly before entering the Dark Place.

Our morbid curiosity sated, we leave the bridge of horror behind, shortly after that we pass a beautiful avenue which of course we don’t walk down.

Would’ve been nice though!

Shortly afterwards, Ross mentions that his knees are giving him some absolute grief, and he leaves as we enter some rhododendron-filled woods which remind me of our childhood in Crowthorne. Off to get a cab, he agrees to meet us at the pub but won’t continue the rest of the hike after. That’s right guys, as promised, we enacted Pete’s Law, the Walking Idiots rule that if someone is unable to continue a hike due to ill health, they depart rather than struggle on. As promised in the tantalising introduction, this is the first of two instances, a first for our hikes. Who of the remaining crew would fall foul of it, though?

Unaware that this fate hangs over another of our members, we descend deeper into the woods in Elvetham…

… which turned into a swamp.

Gorgeous as it is, the swamp blocks our path to rejoining Ross, and with no wizened old Jedi master to guide us through it, we take a detour around.

Rob and I pause when we see a warning that no one should linger too long in this swamp….

Picked clean. Creepy.

And we regroup with the others, where Alan proves his strength is not linked to his hair, Solomon-style, and lifts an enormous heavy metal thing, the showoff.


Back on track, from there we pass along a series of fields. By this point the rain has stopped but the wind has started, so that’s fun. There’s a lot of yellow in the field, which I assume is mustard.

Spot the Idiot.

Getting that selfie at the start of this post, we soon emerge from the fields and find some farmhouses.

Also: Twitter headquarters. Hilarious.

Soon after we reach a golf course, where I fail to get a picture of the sign which really lays it on thick about how dangerous flying golf balls are, a bit like the polo sign in Windsor for Hike 1.

Finally we reach the Cricketers, where poor Ross has been waiting for us for what seems like ages. We share a pint with him, and when we head off, we say our farewells to him. Good to have Ross along again, we’ll probably see him on Hike XXII.

Not seen: actual cricketers, because it was bloody miserable out.

While we stop for our midday beer, we all kick off our boots, replace tape, change socks.

You don’t need to see Mat’s feet, but I took the picture so I’ll use it for illustrative purposes.

I realise Alan has a mat in his bag to rest his feet on when they’re drying, which is quite frankly genius. My own feet, which were rather exposed to the elements owing to a rather large hole in my boot, look like the faces of bodies scooped out of the river, wet, clammy, pale and swollen.

Speaking of swoll (hear me out), John’s been working out and we’re a bit jealous of him (as you can tell by now, we’re a friendship group fuelled mostly by jealousy and resentment).

When we realise we’ve forgotten to get a picture of us leaving the Cricketers for this very blog, rather than walk back the hundred or so metres to get one, we jokingly suggest Rob use photoshop to capture it, saving us the effort. As lads banter tends to, this escalates, until the only inevitable conclusion is instead to get a picture of the five of us in a human pyramid, propped up by John’s non-unimpressive guns. We all take to this idea, Mat in particular. He’s a big lad, and to use a Dirty Dancing metaphor (why not) he’s always been a Patrick and never a Jennifer. He rightly insists on going on the top, like the angel on a Christmas tree, and who are we to deny him the time of his life?

This is as close to a Beatles album cover as I’m ever going to get.

As ever with Hartney Witney, John and Alan return to One Stop, source of their university summer holiday employment and spiritual Mecca. It’s the location of many a rose-tinted tale, as the rest of us have frequently enjoyed hearing about their out of hours drinking on the shop’s flat roof like something out of Kevin Smith’s Clerks, or how the shop withstood a siege of travellers like something out of Assault on Precinct 13.

Sadly it’s a Tesco Express now so the experience is somewhat lessened, but Al gets some Heineken to commemorate the experience. While this emotional pilgrimage is being completed, Mat, Rob and I are eyeballing the baker’s shop window. The Chelsea buns look exceptional, so in a move of uncharacteristic generosity, I decide to buy the three of us one each. They’re bloody brilliant.

Moments later, John emerges from dead Onestop Tesco, sees us tucking in, and immediately asks “Where’s mine?” Fair enough, one more is bought.

Shortly after that, Alan appears with his beer. Sadly the bakery has run out of Chelsea buns by this point, but I give him the choice of anything else and he picks a lemon turnover which stops any tears. We depart, leaving the rather upmarket Hartney Witney high street and returning to the wilderness soon after.

Rob asks us to stop so he can change his footwear, although he only changed his socks a short while ago in the pub. None of us knew what this meant at the time until it was too late.

He’s happier here, bless ‘im.

From here the landscape changes into gorse and heather, quite a change from the farmlands and river we’ve been used to so far. We take time to inadvertently startle a heron.

Fly, my pretty.

Soon after that, we emerge on a curious, long driveway.

Oh, hello…

I realise with a sense of delight (I don’t follow the route plotting as closely as my far more involved collaborators) that we’re on the approach to Bramshill House, which I’ve been looking forward to seeing for quite some time.


Bramshill House is allegedly one of the most haunted buildings in Britain. It comes complete with fourteen ghosts, including a ‘Green Man’ who apparently drowned in a lake, and the ghost of a bride who hid herself in a cupboard on her wedding night in an ill-fated game of hide and seek, but who was not found until fifty years later, or so the story goes. There’s loads more, scroll down to the Legends section of the wiki page and take a look. I also like the knight in armour, the Grey Lady, and the ghost of a child who tries to hold visitor’s hands.

The manor is presently for sale, a steal for only £10 million, so start saving, everyone.

Sadly the house, which later became a police training centre, was locked up and not open to the pub, which is a real shame as we would’ve loved to have gone in and bust us some ghosts.

Who ya gonna call?
Yeah… that says “the stroked cat is meek.” Not exactly Winter is Coming, is it?

We leave, and moments later a rather threatening black land rover appears at the gate, apparently from nowhere, clearly having gotten wind of our threatening presence. Like a kraken returning to the blackness, the land rover vanishes, having dismissed us as a threat. We don’t care either way. By this point, we’re each picturing ourselves as drunken lords of this abandoned mansion, followed around by a patient and long suffering latina maid who tolerates our alcoholic rantings and occasional pukings, affectionately referred to in her broken English as ‘mouth sorrys’ (You had to be there.)

Soon after, we find ourselves on a long, grinding hill that goes through the hamlet of Bramshill. Yeah, Bramshill had an actual hill, and it’s a bastard. Who knew?

The legs are beginning to suffer a little, and some of our number decide to have a little stretch which gives me the chance to get this satisfyingly symmetrical picture.

Stretchy time.

For one of our crew, their time on this hike is numbered.

We reach the Tally Ho in Eversley, last seen in Hike 3, where to our dismay but not surprise Rob announces that he cannot continue, and has also enacted Pete’s Law. That’s right, reader, Rob was our second hike casualty. Holly comes to get him, greets us by giving us a gesture that I assume means staking a vampire, and then there were four.

Okay, Rob took this earlier but I just like this picture, so you’ll have to accept the manipulation of continuity.

We continue. We sorely miss our companion, and our feet are tired. At least the weather is finally pleasant, and the landscape is very familiar, having trekked along this route several times in the past.

We see this, which we know in our hearts would have made Rob snigger.

Eventually we emerge from the peaceful farmlands that we crossed years ago in the opposite direction when we walked from Crowthorne to Silchester, arriving in Little Sandhurst. This return to society is an unpleasant surprise, as without the tranquil countryside to distract us, we’re (or at least I’m) suddenly aware of how sore our feet are. We shuffle on and up, until we reach our end point, the Bird in Hand.

We finished, but we weren’t the people we were at the start.

It’s pretty hard to objectively review any pub in lockdown, given it’s a lot of sitting outside and tolerating the weather, but the Bird in Hand did okay. When the staff came over to ask us what we wanted to drink, we all ordered a beer, except for Mat, who felt he should head back to his family as the hike had taken longer than planned owing to some confusing extra mileage which had appeared along the way (the joys of improvising the route). He declined, saying “I’ve got an uber coming in fifteen minutes so you probably won’t have time.” “I’ll take that bet,” The bar staff replied confidently, and shot off to get our drinks.

Okay, so they had run out of the beer Mat ordered, but they told him super quick and got him something else instead, and he managed to power through it in around eight minutes. It was impressive work.

Not long after that, John and I both order scampi and chips (my personal favourite pub grub), Alan dips a chip in beer which would’ve made me spittake if I’d been drinking, and we reflect on the day while we wait for our lifts (John’s dad and Jen, respectively) to arrive. It wasn’t the greatest hike by a long shot: we’ve pretty much rinsed the area; the route didn’t have too much going for it; the weather wasn’t great; and we lost a third of our contingency, the highest on any hike so far.

But it’s a day out with this lot, and you can’t easily beat that.

Rob, this is still your finest work.

The Walking Idiots: Part Ten

…in which a lot of things happen in what I thought would be quite an uneventful walk.

Planning grief:

Some time in September I asked the lads whether anyone fancied a hike. Crowthorne to Windsor, I suggested, which was a firm favourite and starts where most of us have access to. I even chose a date that fortunately everyone could make. Everyone said yes and we all looked forward to the day.

All that was that, right?

Course not. If you’ve read at least one of these things you’ll know it was never going to be that easy.

I’ll keep this brief because it’ll sound like bitching, no one really comes out of it that well, and most importantly the hike that came of it is far more entertaining than this nonsense.

  • Concerns were raised about getting back from Windsor in a Covid world where people have vulnerable families, etc.
  • Crowthorne to Windsor and back was floated, much to mine and Rob’s dismay.
  • Arguing followed about where the hell to walk.
  • I proposed a circular route
  • The route was rejected but the circular idea embraced
  • Mat created a circular route round Bagshot, Lightwater, Frimley and Sandhurst. Everyone approves.
  • In the week before the hike, John flags that his foot and leg hurts and that he’s worried he won’t be well enough to do it in time and asks if we push back a week.
  • Other members of the crew can’t do that date and John, for the first time ever, is out.

The day itself:

I rock up opposite the Prince in Crowthorne (to be seen later, don’t hold your breath, it’s not that exciting) and soon enough we get confirmation that this is going to be an odd hike when a clean shaven Alan appears, with Mat and Rob soon behind, having made an earlier pit stop at Rackstraws.

Yes, that Rackstraws, the bastion of disappointment from Hike 8.

Anyway, it turns out Alan tried shaving using his webcam rather than a mirror, hadn’t taken into account the lag, or something like that, had an incident and the whole thing had to go. It’s an unsettling moment because our whole crew has been with beard to some extent for years now, but it seems to have paid off because it gave him a vague Daniel Day-Lewis in Last of the Mohecans vibe and more importantly seemed to have given him a newfound sense of wisdom, we learned later. Off we go.

Hike 10, 10th October 2020

Your select committee for the day (rule of six rather knackering the sprawling mob we try to invite) comprised of me, Rob Golding, Mat Gunyon and Alan O’Connell.

Almost immediately we arrive in Swinley Forest. This has been a feature in most of our hikes in the last year, and if I’m being honest I’m a little tired of it but Mat’s route plotted a pretty good way around it, including walking the entire edge of Caesar’s Camp which was really good, following lots of high, thin trails.

We also saw this pretty mysterious tree, climbed numerous steep hills, saw a significant amount of cyclists in Lycra and plenty of joggers. We also briefly helped a group of walkers find their missing dog who we’d seen earlier. By helped, I mean we stood around and looked uncertain until we heard someone yell that it had turned up.

However my favourite bit of the forest is the fact that Mat kindly included a detour for my benefit down a stretch of path dubbed Diagon Alley, named after some film series that had some scenes filmed there.

Not sure what the films were. Not Lord of the Rings, for once.

We also found some cool logs, which prompted some physical displays:

Oh yeah, and this pipe, which is some sort of metaphor for either this year or the logic behind our government’s advice:

It’s not too long after this that we emerge from the woods into the outskirts of Bagshot, and we find ourselves at St Anne’s church. This is a good thing because churches are a massive staple on hikes alongside graveyards, random cows and blisters.

Sadly there’s no graveyard but at least the church is impressive (circa 1900) and even vaguely educational. Alan notices significant lightning protection running down from the tower (even had little lightning bolt symbols on the wiring) and we finally confirmed why you get Yew Trees in churches (it’s because Yew trees are poisonous and this put farmers off allowing their animals to graze on church lands. Boom. Now you know.)

A few minutes later we find the local parish hall, which sounds pretty boring but actually looks pretty great:

Even with two Idiots next to it and a host of cleaning supplies in the window it’s very visually satisfying. Alan gives us an account of brickwork and Fleming bonding (I think this is what this is, I stole this from Rob’s caption on his Facebook picture) and properly educated, we proceed to look down our noses at any new builds we see for the rest of the day. Kids today know nothing about bricks, I tell you.

Not long after that we see our first snatches of autumnal colour, which I’m a total sucker for:

And just when you think things can’t get any more exciting, we reach the M3.

I mean, look how much fun we’re having here.

The footbridge leads us to Lightwater Country Park and onwards, up Curley Hill, which is even steeper than Swinley Forest and is completely worth it because of the viewpoint at the top.

There’s another photo of this with us in but I think Rob’s picture here is really nice so you’re getting this instead. The cool thing about the view point was you could sort of see a summary of everything we’d done so far behind us – the M3, St Anne’s church, Swinley Forest – and if you turned ninety degrees you could just about make out the buildings of London on the horizon.

All this was explained to us by a nice gentleman in a shirt, purple jumper and jeans. He had no bag and no dog, appeared as if from nowhere to point out all the sights to us, and the vanished as soon as he’d done so.

Alan puts it better:

Smartly groomed and dressed as if for work, completely out of place deep in the forest. No bag, no dog, no trace. I was looking out across the landscape. Curly Hill is great. It was about half way in and we could see all the landmarks we had past, like St. Anne’s Church. I was looking at this city in the distance, a question in my mind, ‘is that London?’

I turned around, and there he was. As if from nowhere. He knew everything. Every landmark across the land, everything about us, where we’d come from, where we were going. He knew all of history and all of time itself. I turned back to the view and wondered quietly to myself… should I ask him? I bet he knows. Should I ask him the meaning of life? Should I? Do I even want to know?

I turned back and he was gone. I looked down hill, checking every path, every route up to this point. Surely he would be easy to spot, dressed in that bright purple jumper. He was gone. Just disappeared, as quickly as he had appeared. No sound, nor trace, even the memory feels fragmented, broken. A residue from an immaterial realm, accidently breached.

As Rob succinctly put it, “If he’s not in the photo I took of him, I’m out.”

Anyway, he’s there on the left, so he’s at least a hard light hologram.

Viewpoint completed we descend back into the woods where we found a cool trench with, um, decorative nails.


Sadly all this woodland can’t last forever and we shortly reach Heatherside, which is pleasant enough as a suburb but hardly worthy of many precious lines in my blog.

Or so we thought until we turned a corner and came upon this little avenue, beautifully positioned between the houses:

The sight was incredibly calming, kind of inspiring and made us all smile like idiots for no particular reason.

If you were to look this up online I’m sure you’d find plenty of interesting history about it, but fortunately we didn’t need to check, because Alan knew already! He reliably informed us that this Avenue was planted by King Beef Wellington III in the 1800’s for his daughter, Wellingtonia. Done.

It’s not long after this that we arrive at our first pub stop of the day, The Whearsheaf in Heatherside.

Sadly Covid restrictions meant we were not easily able to linger inside the pub and get the photos this place deserves, so you might want to give it a google. It’s brilliant: designed by two interior designers in the 1970’s, the pub’s interior is basically Mad Men meets Clockwork Orange (minus the sex crime) or a mini Barbican Centre. The bar staff were lovely too and knew more than we thought they would about its history. While we drank our beer and charged our phones, Alan quizzed us on why one particular tile on the roof was out of place which is more entertaining than it sounds, honest.

As accomplished at drinking as we are, we’re also disciplined hikers, and we depart, entering more woodland, this time the woods next to Pine Ridge golf club, where Rob got married.

Unfortunately our progress grinds almost a complete halt as soon as we enter the woods when we notice a very nervous dog by himself. He runs back and forth for a while before vanishing out of the woods, towards the (quite busy) road we had just crossed. His owners soon follow with their other dog, looking a bit distraught. The dog (Beau) is nowhere to be seen.

Being decent, conscientious sorts, we decide to help find him. Before I run off, stalking the mean streets of Frimley, I hear Alan, strangely sage-like, ask Beau’s owner if the dog had just gone home. His suggestion is dismissed.

Roughly ten minutes later (probably less) I get a call from Rob to say that they’d learnt that Alan was indeed right: Beau had gone home. I return to the others, the dog and owners long gone, with nothing to show for my experience other than some crazy strawberry bootlace-style patterns on my walking app.

Ah well.

Not long after that, some very small child yells something that sounded racist at Alan (probably wasn’t) and we see a bizarre natural phenomenon:

I should really ask my brother about this, he knows about plants.

From there we proceed to Frith Hill, and things start getting curious.

Like, ‘don’t touch suspicious objects’ curious.

The first signs something interesting is afoot are huge palettes of fake snow, followed shortly by what look like filming trucks (Rob’s guess.) We keep walking, and through the trees we can just make out a patch of white.

This, followed by huge filming cranes and security barriers pretty much confirm we’re near a film set. Amazing!

Amber zone/danger zone. Close enough.

Oh yeah. Definitely nothing to see here.

We happen upon a security guard who’s having a thrilling day sat in his car, but seems to perk up a bit when we get talking to him. He won’t tell us what they’re filming, mentions that entering the set would be trespassing on MOD land and would incur a £1,000 fine (“Is it worth a grand?” Alan asks, and is crushed when it doesn’t illicit a response) but if we keep going and head right up the track we might be able to have a look around.

The track is the wrong way, but there’s no way we’re not going to do that!

We head up, the white through the trees growing…

We sneak in, oddly wary, afraid security will bust us or some army soldier will shoot at us. We’re in full ninja mode as we reach the edge of the set, the feeling a bit like approaching a very modest Narnia.

Our curiosity sated, we return to the path and walk a little further up to find that lo and behold, there’s a whole other snow covered section right next to the track, no sneaking required.

Immediately, our inner Instagram models take over:

As we leave, we see a family having a lovely time on the set before they’re promptly told off by security. We head back, our pace having taken a well-earned kicking. As we return to our path, Rob does some crafty research and learns we’ve just discovered a filming location for the second series of The Witcher, which is soon confirmed by a random family we meet. Rob messages his wife, Holly, who has quite a strong fondness of its star, Henry Cavill. Her response is… enthusiastic.

The final site we encounter in Frith Hill is some seemingly random stepping stones, which we suspect have links to the army barracks that stood here and their parade grounds.

Naturally we had to do something like this with them.

Between the (attempted) dog rescue, the film set not-really-break-in and the stone posing we’re well behind time so we crack on, finally leaving the woods, wandering down a few streets and dropping down onto the canal path, where there’s some cool graffiti.

Nothing to see here, move along.

The canal path is rather nice but not as nice as the houses that are next to it, complete with gorgeous, multi level landscapes gardens, tube slides and kayaks. When these blogs start earning me sick money I might get one of them.

Not too long after that we reach our next pub stop. We could stop at the Kings Arms but decide that since we’ve been there twice and both times it’s been thoroughly good-not-great, we risk going to the Rose and Thistle, which has been closed every time we’ve attempted to drink there in the past.


We enjoy pint no. 2, while Rob hastily re-tapes his feet. They’ve been giving him grief for a while, and he’s not finding it funny anymore.

The Rose and Thistle is nice enough, and the staff are very clear about what you can do in terms of distancing and whatnot, but we basically chill for a bit, drink, and leave.

We resume, crossing the railway line and following the canal path through Frimley and Blackwater. Rob experiences his own Dark Night of the Soul when he realises a) he’s in a lot of pain and b) he’s within walking distance of home, but he bears down and sticks with us as we enter a series of fields near Sandhurst.

Then it starts to rain. Hard.

We cower under trees for cover with some new friends:

Mat and Rob have already got their waterproofs on and Alan didn’t bring any. I whip mine out, feeling sympathy for Alan, only to realise in my haste I packed my 6 year old nephew’s waterproof and not my own.

What. A. Tit.

I fashion it into a makeshift cape, which I genuinely believe helped keep me dry, although the others just think I’m a moron. The rain continues to wax and wane in its intensity, and the only respite from it we find is in a 5 month old puppy who’s on a walk with his owners and delights in running at us at every chance he gets. He especially liked trying to bite Mat’s bum, which is obviously very entertaining.

This was the only picture I could get of her where she’s not a blur.

The rain lets up as we reach Sandhurst and given the state of Rob’s feet (Alan also has discomfort in an intimate spot) we decide the best option is to find the most direct route possible. This takes us through some very smart estates, and as we lose the light, we blast out the 1980’s Transformers’ soundtrack in an attempt to keep spirits high.

We succeed, and not long after, Crowthorne high street comes into view. We make a beeline for the Prince, bidding farewell to Mat halfway up, as he’s parked his car nearby. Our remaining number arrive in the Prince and once I finally figure out their confusing and contradictory instructions for ordering drinks (really not impressed guys) we settle into a well earned victory pint. It’s not long after that that Jen arrives to join us. Holly collects Rob not long after that and he staggers off like John Wayne with ten ingrowing toenails, and Alan and I knock back a couple more beers. Phew.

Out of sheer coincidence, Facebook told me I posted this two years ago to the day. In the absence of a final victory pint picture, I thought this was rather fitting:

Cheers, hobbits.

The Walking Idiots: The Lockdown Diaries

This one wasn’t going to be a blog post.

Under normal circumstances it wouldn’t be. But owing to a) the world shaking, sort-of apocalypse massively disrupting the plans of everyone in the country and b) the fact Alan insisted it would irritate John, things changed.

In an alternate, non-Covid reality, by now you would’ve read the blog post for Hike 10 (or ‘X’) of the Walking Idiots. We were intending to – and one day will – hike from Guildford to Merstham/Redhill, continuing our installments along the Pilgrim’s Way, where hopefully I can get my ridiculous Pilgrim’s Passport finally stamped. (This is a super niche in-joke linked to the last blog post, and even then, only one I expect about four people to get it, so don’t let it put you off.)

Anyway, as you all know, circumstances changed beyond anyone’s control and instead we found ourselves unable to deliver our much-needed amble. Needless to say, everyone was disappointed/annoyed/peeved/crushed, but it couldn’t be helped. 

Not that we let this stop us entirely. Some of our number met when the lockdown rules were first eased, but only in the permitted groups of two. John, in particular, managed to meet with several of the crew over a long weekend and enjoyed a range of walks around Berkshire and Surrey. Reflecting that each hike reflected the personality of the person he went with, he summarised the experiences accordingly:

1) A tour around the deeper reaches of the forest, searching out the homes of sexual predators and discovering lost, dark, secret things amongst the silent trees. (This was with Ross, of Hike 1 infamy, channeling a sort of Twin Peaks-esque vibe I’ll never be interesting enough to imitate.)

(Pictured: a lost, dark, secret thing, and the home of Pizza Express Woking branch’s most famous guest.)

2) A well planned, orderly stroll around a very English countryside. High-brow and pleasant, with unexpected twists and turns. Too many hobbit jokes to count. (Yours truly, obviously, although I’m certainly not high-brow.)

(Class act, mine.)

3) Familiar, comforting route liberally scattered with perverse, disgusting jokes. (Rob) Note, no pictures as they were too busy laughing.

4) Lost, filthy and bloodied after about 15 minutes, went nowhere in particular. (Alan) Note, again no pictures as they were too busy getting lost.

For what it’s worth, Rob and I also caught up, and managed a little 10km walk around Warfield and Frost Folly Park. The route covered the area we drive through on the way to visit my in-laws, and I’ve been convinced for years that there was a good walk there. Nice to be proven right. 

Anyway, fun as these are, the real reason I’m sharing (primarily) John’s adventures is because when the opportunity came to put in a walk with the crew, he couldn’t make it. This is pretty unthinkable: every hike and mini-hike to date has included or been organised by John. A hike without John is like the Beatles without John, or the Apostles without John, or the Terminator franchise without John (take that, Dark Fate.) It makes you wonder: if John isn’t present, can it even count as a Hike?

(The answer is yes, but only if I’m there to blog it, FYI.)

From a selfish perspective, John also often sends me notes of the events within a hike, which often form the spine of these blog posts. I’m operating without a net here, people, although this was so much shorter than our usual walks, what could possibly go wrong?

In terms of planning, not much. Since lockdown began, Jen and I have been smashing out long walks in our local area (Maidenhead) and have bought several books of routes to help us out.

(Like this sexy beast)

I appreciate everyone’s just trying to get by at the moment, and I’m sorry for anyone who’s suffered during the crisis, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say there’s been several perks to lockdown, and getting out and exploring has definitely been one of them. Between this and a few OS sites, that’s how I was able to “plan” my super organised mini hike with John. I basically had very little to do with it. One of the books had a route which started and ended in Crowthorne, and as a convenient location for everyone, it seemed like a natural choice.

I did think the route looked a little short for us, so I spliced in another few kilometres from another route that overlapped with our one. 

We agreed to meet near the starting point, deciding that Heathlake Park would probably be the best place to leave our cars.

Heathlake Park is a huge chunk of nostalgia for me. My family and I used to walk round it almost weekly, and when I told my family I was heading there, my brother even wanted photos sent through (I FaceTimed him too, just for good measure.)

It’s quite nice, really. Just very odd coming back. 

Anyway, I soon met up with Alan who was chilling with this gull.

Rob and then Mat soon joined us, we took a couple of obligatory start of hike pics, started the run tracker app, and set off.

The funny thing about this walk was we’ve done plenty of hikes that start in Crowthorne, but with the exception of our mini hike at Christmas, we tend to head out and leave it behind like Frodo leaving the Shire. This one spent a considerable portion of it within Crowthorne itself, and we soon found whole chunks of routes we’d not encountered before, despite all growing up there.

The spliced-on start of our route took us through somewhere called the Gorrick Plantation, which is basically a series of woods which most of us didn’t even know existed. Despite the lack of familiarity with the route, I was suddenly sixteen years old again as the very Crowthorne-like sights and smells of woodland consisting almost entirely of pine trees and rhododendrons surrounded us. 

Like a map reading genius, I’d planned our way to meet exactly where the ‘official’ walk was meant to start, and we soon arrived at our proper arrival point. Other than Alan picking up one of those pieces of plastic that holds beer cans together causing me to swoon a little, and some very nice houses tucked along the way, there’s probably not too much to say about this extra 3km triangular warm up route.

Completing this additional mini loop, (the pre-amble, you might call it if you were feeling especially witty) we reach St Sebastian’s Hall, home to many of Rob’s teenage parties, grab the obligatory selfie, and start the actual route.

(Pictured: Rob, grabbing his selfie.)

Hilariously, at the point where the book advised us to cross the Bracknell Road, it described this as “leaving behind the cacophony of Crowthorne.” Anyone who’s ever visited Crowthorne will know that cacophonous is not a term one would ever really associate with the place, so we draw the conclusion that the author of our guidebook must be some sort of monk, or is possibly part bat.

Regardless of his or her origins, leaving behind the cacophony of Crowthorne, we enter Swinley Forest. We have a bit of a history of not always going the right way here, having missed Caesar’s Camp in the past. I was determined (or maybe just anxious) to avoid that this time, and stuck closely to the book’s instructions. 

That being said, we did pause to get in the odd picture or two. If we made an album of this walk, this would definitely be the cover:

We did find ourselves missing John though. Here’s the four of us gazing in the direction of Kent, silently sending him love:

It was funny really, with John. Wherever we went, we felt he was with us. We saw his image in the strangest of places:

Like that guy who saw Jesus in a slice of toast. Except with us it was with underpass graffiti. But you get the idea.

Finally, we make it to Caesar’s Camp. I for one am rather pleased: we’ve somehow never been able to include it in previous hikes in the area, and we made it just by me following various squiggly lines in the book.

It should be noted here that I have a terrible sense of direction, so this was a big deal for me. Usually it’s all John and Mat’s doing. (Although I often handed the book to Mat and asked where he thought we should go, to be fair.)

Anyway, as you can see from this fancy pano shot, Caesar’s Camp is very nice. It is, in short, an Iron Age hill fort, and from its elevated position, the whole place does have an historic, almost otherworldly feeling about it. 

Which we mostly appreciated by taking photos of, and then having lunch. Lunch of course consisted of the standard packed lunches that have become synonymous with these hikes, although Mat forgot his Cornish pasty, remembered it when his wife called him to remind him, went back for it, and ultimately left it on the passenger seat of his car, where I like to think it was kept warm in the same way you keep things warm in the oven at a low heat. Whilst consuming what food (and beer) we had, we covered a deep range of topics, including depression, capitalism, and the evolving nature of the films in the Fast and Furious series.

Also, Alan took a chunk of photos in addition to the rest of us, which I’ve distributed liberally amongst the assorted pictures in this blog, again showing how our roles are ever-changing. Never stop learning, people.

Or climbing trees. You’re never too old to climb a tree.

It’s not long after leaving Caesar’s Camp that we once again find ourselves on the outskirts of Crowthorne and Bracknell. Crossing a particularly unpleasant B-Road, we carry on, walking past the pub the Golden Retriever. We’re tempted to stop for our first post-lockdown pint here, but we’ve literally just had one (or two) and 3/4 of us are driving, so we make a grown up decision and opt against it. Alan merrily cracks open can no. 6 and off we go.

It’s not long after here that we walk past the Downshire Golf Club – where I had enough golf lessons twenty years ago to make me vaguely proficient at crazy golf/Top Golf – and reach Easthampstead Park.

Easthampsted used to be a part of Windsor Forest, and the lands have a history associated with royal hunting stretching back to the fourteenth century. Nowadays, its stunning Victorian mansion is a conference centre/wedding venue, which I got married in. 

It was the second most beautiful thing there, that day. (Boom. That should score me some points.) 

Our nostalgic reminiscing is abruptly cut short while we’re taking photographs of the building. There’s a guy on a crane platform halfway up the historic front of the building spraying it down. We watch with confusion as he starts yelling at us, imploring us not to take any pictures. 

“Don’t worry, you look great!” Alan tells him. It takes us a while to realise this guy’s not joking, as he insists not only do we stop taking photos – of him, not the building – but also that we delete any we’ve taken. He probably doesn’t realise that any photos we have will show him at best as a cluster of grey pixels, given how tiny he appears. It’s only after we head on that Mat concludes it’s probably something to do with the man’s lackadaisical adherence to health and safety guidelines, as he lists off at least half a dozen violations. 

Anyway, his partner/colleague approaches us, informing us that we can’t continue along the way we need to go in the book as the route is closed for maintenance. This at first appears like a bit of a setback, as without sticking to the route we might find ourselves well and truly stuck. Said partner – who’s far nicer than the spraying bloke – suggests we head along Easthampstead Park’s majestic driveway until we reach some black sign posts which should take us where we need to go. We heed her advice and head on. 

This provided some entertainment on the way.

Following the black signs we enter what feels like a very private road that only has a few posh houses (that slowly evolve into farmland with lots of knackered cars) and a smattering of fields:

We caught sight of some Red Kites duelling in the air, which was of course a bit of a treat.

Leaving this rather pleasant detour, we found ourselves emerging onto Old Wokingham Road. For years I’ve driven down Old Wokingham Road on our way to Bracknell wondering where this private Road led, so imagine my surprise when I finally realise where we are.

Our route from here involves crossing some public footpaths through fields in various states of disuse:

(With more photography from Alan.)

It was around this point I started to notice that the route was a bit longer than anticipated. I check the route and realise it was a 12km walk, not 10. With the extra 3 at the start, this was shaping up a little.

Crossing a few more fields (one potentially owned by a notorious traveller) we reach Honey Hill, where we’re only five minutes walk from our respective vehicles.

It’s here we make a very important decision: pub.

We’re only ten minutes’ walk from the Crooked Billet, and no one particularly wants to part ways without a final drink, with drivers opting for half pints and/or soft drinks. Alan, who’s not driving but has run out of cans, of course treats himself to a pint, and why not.

(Note that Nick from my guitar class recognised the Crooked Billet from the first photo alone, which is very impressive.)

The Crooked Billet is great. Pre-apocalypse it would’ve been a dream, but even now it was just what we needed. The staff handled us all very well, with table service and other measures. Would recommend.

Leaving the pub, we walk past the house of a guy we knew from school. It’s front is gated, it’s an enormous place, and the rumours back in the day were that his dad was a Columbian druglord (even though they were Portugese) or something like that. All I remembered was that I went there once to buy a Nokia 7110 phone off him when I was in sixth form. It had a snap open cover but like those phones in the Matrix, and sixteen year old Nick was a huge Matrix fan. The phone broke, by the way. There’s seventy quid I never saw again.

Getting to the end of Honey Hill, I realise the Crooked Billet was only about a twenty minute walk from where I grew up. Why didn’t we go there in our younger days? I chalk it up to hindsight and mistaken priorities as a youth.

We head back to the cars, having sent poor John more than enough pictures of us in the pub. Soon after I get a message from Jen, who’s survived a day at Legoland with our (very excited) nephew. She’s questioning why she didn’t bring cans of premix, which in retrospect probably would’ve been a great idea.

I check my run tracker app as our group part ways. 17.24km. Not too bad for a little walk.

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 (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:


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.