How did Alan get up this tree?
Was something chasing him?
If so, did he escape in time?
Or did he just eat a weird mushroom and think he was a bear?
All this and more will be answered in the latest instalment of The Walking Idiots!
Plus you’ll see lots of these handsome devils.
Disclaimer: this hike was technically another mini hike for Rob’s birthday, but ended up only being about three miles shorter than a full blown hike, so it doesn’t seem quite right to give this a point five status. Conversely, our next hike will be the momentous Hike Ten, and for a number like that it probably should be more than a local walk with the core crew, as nice as it was.
Hike X. Ooo. Makes you shiver.
Anyway, last year’s mini hike for Rob’s birthday was a big hit all round. Remember, he’s afflicted with a late December birthday, the poor sod, so no one is up for much, and this was karma’s way of making it up to him.
Meanwhile, a bunch of us had been reading up on local history and it seemed apt to investigate some of these sites in person. I’ll get to them as we go but the sort of things we’re talking about here include the Devil’s Highway, Caesar’s Camp, Ambarrow Hill (complete with allegedly and mysteriously murdered family) and the infamous Broadmoor hospital, of which Rob and I had both read a book of its fascinating history. The cool thing about this was it gave us landmarks to visit and made Mat’s route collation using plotaroute.com (if I keep namedropping them we’ll get sponsorship for sure) exceptionally easy.
Route here, in case you’re interested.
Rob sends out the hike signal (i.e. sets up a WhatsApp group and asks his dad and brother if they want to come) and our team is assembled. Alex and Steve, two of Rob’s close mates who were on the mini hike last year both opt out, some nonsense involving having small children or a very pregnant wife dragged out as an excuse. Whatevs, boys.
Morale is given a swift kick to the nuts when the Hike-mastermind himself tells us he won’t be able to make it, and we’re all left picturing a hiking world without John.
We each went to a dark place.
The morning of the mini hike dawns on us and we convene at the Golden Retriever pub (or “The Dog,” as my mother in law calls it, bless ‘er.) The Golden Retriever sits between Crowthorne and Bracknell and is very nice but also wasn’t open and therefore utterly failed to deliver breakfast, so that’s that.
The absence of breakfast is more than made up for by the fact that waiting for us is none other than John himself, who’d managed to pull off getting to us on the caveat that he leaves one of his kids with his parents in Crowthorne, therefore leaving his wife slightly less outnumbered than usual on one of these hikes. John’s parents, we love you.
(We also love Mat’s new remote-operated selfie stick which took this photo. Between this and plotaroute, technology is gradually making our various hike responsibilities redundant. All we need is some random AI program to write these and I can take a break, too.)
Anyway, here we have Mat Gunyon, Big Al Feltz, Jim Golding, Alan O’Connell, birthday boy Rob Golding, some imbecile, Handsome John Duckitt, and joining us for the first time, Rob’s brother Sam Golding.
Departing the Retriever, we enter Bracknell Forest (home to local institution Muzzy’s Kebab Van) and ascend the hill towards Caesar’s Camp…
… which we miss. So much for local history.
Knowing John will be sorely disappointed by our early blunder, Mat cracks open his home made bottle of Whisky Mac for us all to share. This has become a hike staple and should quickly undo any prospective sponsorship from anyone with sense.
In case you’re wondering, according to Matthew, you need the following for one of your own:
- One part Scottish blended whisky
- One part stones ginger wine
- Orange peel
- A squeeze of juice from the orange
Serve chilled, or in our case, from a plastic bottle.
There you have it. A Whisky Mat, if you will.
We follow the hill through the woods and John tries his best to point out interesting historical sights where they appear:
… such as that, um, hill? Stone? Tree? Whatever it was, I’m sure it was fascinating.
(I blame the Golding brothers. They were trying to sell me the virtues of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom when I’m a Raiders/Last Crusade man through and through.)
We leave the woods via an underpass and pause for some obligatory poses, because this is what men in groups do when they see graffiti.
Bringing the flava.
From here, our route leads us around the back of Broadmoor Hospital, giving us a glimpse of the still-being-refurbished buildings. Broadmoor was established in 1863 as a criminal lunatic asylum and is now a high-security psychiatric hospital. It’s held patients such as Peter Sutcliffe, Ronnie Cray, Edward Oxford (Queen Victoria’s would-be assassin) and Charles Bronson. There’s a whole fascinating debate around whether the criminally insane should be in hospital or prison, but when we were kids it was just this massive, creepy looking place on the hill that housed some notorious criminals.
All of us on that hike have memories of the Broadmoor siren, (which sounded like an air raid siren but was actually installed in the 1950’s) being tested every Monday morning at 10am. Growing up in Crowthorne, I remember two breakouts, one of which I was determined to catch the escapee by leaving my bike on the pavement to block their way. I was seven, by the way, not in my twenties or anything.
It’s still a little bit creepy.
We progress through Broadmoor woods and see sights of varying historical significance.
Alan and I were unimpressed and confused by this…
… and this was just downright unpleasant.
There’s a brief segue past Edgbarrow Secondary School, last seen in Hike VIII and almost unrecognisable from when we used to go there, before we start to approach Ambarrow woods.
Rob “makes” me stop for a photo at the train crossing (now closed) as it’s a location in my first published short story, and apparently the only thing of mine anyone’s read other than these posts:
As you can tell, I was clearly coerced.
The upshot of the crossing being shut – other than me not having a panic attack about having to get Alan across the tracks, liability that he is – is that the Victorian railway bridge is open for the first time in living memory.
Here’s two photos from it. One’s a bit arty, the other a gratuitous group shot with some leg provided by Alan.
The two facets of Instagram, if you will.
From here we tackle Ambarrow woods and hill. The hill has been covered years back in Hike 3 but fortunately for you, dear reader, I didn’t discuss it in sufficient detail so can elaborate further here:
Step one: ascend the hill.
Manly competitiveness kicks in, at least between myself and Alan as we rush up. Big Al in comparison practically floats up, as expected.
Step two: silliness on hill.
Ambarrow has/had a rope swing at the top of the hill which was the source of many teenage misadventures. Yours truly fell off it at least twenty years ago and managed to lose a patch of skin on my arm that’s never quite been able to tan like the rest of said limb.
The swing itself has seen better days since.
The hill silliness is completed by – surprise – Alan, who tries to climb the tree with the rope swing on. Rob captures the moment, and I decide to go a behind the scenes shot, revealing to you all how we Walking Idiots make the magic happen.
And there you go. ‘Twas no bear or mushroom that drove Alan to climb, only his own inner demons, and maybe a little Whisky Mac.
Oh yeah and Mat and I didn’t help matters. I was determined to reach the rope swing and he lifted me because he’s really strong and likes doing stupid things like this too.
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.
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?