The Walking Idiots, Part 7

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

So pretty much everyone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(The red bit)

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

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

Nice weather for it though.

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

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

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

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

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

Also: Alan discovered Playdough.

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

Hike 7: 20th October, 2018.

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

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

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

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

Look at Rob with his sexy photos.

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

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

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

Fancy, innit?

Also pictured: Clyde’s backside.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clyde: “Is this Simply Red?”

Rob: “Yes!”

Clyde’s response was not suitable for publication.

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

Aylesford is a bit nice.

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

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

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

It’s got this guy, Boy Boy, so yes.

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

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

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

We pass round the back of a monastery

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

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

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

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

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

After a bit more ambling –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We then find some vineyards:

(Complete with a posing Alan)

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

Seriously. There were loads of ones like this.

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

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

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

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

Clyde remained unimpressed by this.

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

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

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

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

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

Or the negronis. It might have been the negronis.

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

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

– I like it. Makes me feel hobbit sized –

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

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

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

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

(Not picture: Brad or Boathouse fascists.)

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

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

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

Still, there’s some good things to see:

A hobbit hole (how could I resist?)

Random footbridges

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take a moment. Worth it.

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

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

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

… and a pair of eyes staring back at him.

They swiftly rejoin the group.

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

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

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

Here’s Pete to really lower the tone:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can’t fault that.

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

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

General silliness like this follows:

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

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

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

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

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

So yeah. Hike in Kent? Smashed it mate.

Cog

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

cog_cover

 

Once there was a city of steel and glass.

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

He just was.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

“That bugs me too,” Cog 2 said.

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

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

“What’s a loading time?”

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

Cog stared at him blankly.

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

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

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

“So you have it too?”

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

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

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

“Where is it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

Cog did as he said. He went to work.

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

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

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

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

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

“Excuse me,” he asked, nervously.

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

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

“I wanted to apologise for my behaviour…”

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

“You look rather distressed,” he said.

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

“Well that’s true, but –”

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

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

“How do you –”

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

“Well, that’s –”

“I uppercutted my boss!” Cog finished.

“Are you quite done?” Cog 2 asked.

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

“Am I real?” he asked.

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

“And how real is that?”

“I dunno, as real as you I guess.”

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

“Pretty much.”

“Well, that sucks.”

Cog 2 agreed. It did suck.

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

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

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

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

“It’s like the apocalypse.”

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

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

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

“Is it just the one life?” Cog asked.

“What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

“That was weird.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

The Walking Idiots, Part 6

So our last walk was epic, right? No beating that. We didn’t even try this time. We’ll beat it one day, but we needed a fun (read: not 30 mile) one to unwind a little, get some new additions, that sort of thing.

Basically, we wanted to hang out, have a wander and find some pubs. Mission accomplished.

Windsor King and Castle

To be fair, we could’ve stayed in this pub all day and saved ourselves some walking.

The Farnham route:

(Oh yeah, so I might do some segments with titles. Just to mix it up a bit. I may ditch this by the time the Hike starts. You’ll have to wait and see. I bet the anticipation will drive you nuts.)

So almost immediately after Hike V, Rob sends us a suggestion for the next Hike, which is a 20 mile route from Sandhurst to Farnham. I suspect he did this as a preemptive strike to avoid another mega-hike (Hike V being a significant 29 miles).

Unlike John, Rob has no desire to max these things out. Personally, I tend to side with John in terms of testing ourselves, but I also really want Rob to come on them, and as he’s been with us since (more or less) the start it’d be a shame to lose him.

Moreover, Rob’s the Hike’s photographer; around 80% of the pictures in this blog are his. People really love the pictures. The most frequent compliment I get about the Hike posts is how much they love the pictures. Which is great. What they’re saying is they’d just be happy with the Facebook photo album.

The (slightly) depressing thing about this notion is that the Hike posts are probably more popular than the books I’ve written. My family and extended family are certainly more prepared to read them. So, by extension, I think this means that people would prefer to look at some of my friend’s photos than read my writing.

Well, that’s wonderful.

floor junk

I can see why. Some of these pictures are really profound.

The Lynchpin:

Planning goes well. There’s very little need to work on the route, Rob’s done a good job. It’ll take us to Farnham castle, which is where Mat got married the previous year. Most of the core crew went to this, so it’ll be a nice experience. Attendance is looking high as we sell it to even more people. It’s got interesting quirks like a disused railway (wonder why Rob liked that) which make it look quite special. It’s such low maintenance (especially compared to the last Hike, which was really not intended to be walked by sensible people) that we almost neglect to plan it beyond Rob’s initial outline. Perhaps that’s why it didn’t work out.

Because a week or two before the Hike, Mat lets us know there’s a chance he won’t be able to make it as he’s completing on buying his house around the week after the Hike. The situation worsens as he mentions he slipped a disk in his back. There’s something about having a hot water bottle on his lap while at work, which people probably don’t do for fun. They might. I doubt it.

Then the inevitable happens and Mat confirms he can’t make it. This creates a minor avalanche of drop outs, as Swotty (who admittedly told us before Mat that he couldn’t make it so he’s off the hook), Tom, Tom, Dave and (perhaps worst of all) Big Al all follow suit. Traitors, one and all.

Upon this tidal wave of dissent, Mat referred to himself as the Lynchpin to the Hike Planning Committee (read: WhatsApp group.) One of the two definitions of lynchpin is “a pin passed through the end of an axle to keep a wheel in position.”

So, this:

lynchpin

I can only assume this is what Mat was referring to. It looks like 2/3 of the Deathly Hallows to me. I may have to purchase one of these for the next time he can’t attend, although I’m sure once his child is born it’ll be much easier for us to get him to come on these jaunts of ours. (If this was a text message, I’d add one of those winking face emojis to show Mat this is just hilarious bants/sarcasm and not a dig.)

So we lose a few people. The other effect this has is that this rather puts John’s plans in jeopardy. John tends to have to carefully negotiate sign off from his wife in order to attend. (Hi Jessica. Don’t act like you don’t read these cos I know you do) To be fair, they’ve got two children under five, and another on the way, permission is kinda mandatory. With this one, John’s attendance was based on the fact that Jessica and the girls would be in the area and would have company in a Hike Widows and Orphans group. Unfortunately the bulk of these people were Mat’s friends’ wives, which rather depleted that supply.

The result was that now Jessica would be stuck in Farnham with the girls for hours. Not great. There’s flip all to do in Farnham.

So we adjust the plan. Windsor seems to become the sensible end point for the Hike now, as there’s plenty for John’s kids to do. It also means Jen (my wife) and our nephew Joey can meet them too, as they’d be local. Me, John and Rob briefly discuss a few alternatives, such as hiking from Farnham to Windsor – which would be great but an absolute killer – or redoing Crowthorne to Windsor. I take a particular dislike to this, which I’ll admit I’m a bit ashamed about, being so difficult, but Rob, bless him, suggests a circular walk starting and ending in Windsor.

Rob, you utter genius.

IMG_5194

I mean, look at him. Even when he’s uncertain as to why I’m getting a selfie with him, he’s quite the specimen.

Planning:

There’s quite a lot of meat to this route, and John plots it all in about a half hour with only minor suggestions from myself added. There is mild uncertainty when google maps suggests we take the ferry along a stretch of the river once we reach a certain bridge – it actually seems to suggest we jump off  the bridge and onto the ferry –  but (don’t say we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it, Nick, you’re a better writer than that) we’d worry about that later.

(Is there a term for when a metaphor is literally the phrase you should use? Do cooks experience this when too many of them work on a broth? I wonder.)

Basically, we cobbled it all together pretty well given the circumstances. It would do in a pinch.

The days before the Hike creep up and we start our usual preparations, i.e. insisting that everyone is actually coming, making sure people have boots (you’d be surprised), and so on. New recruit Chris texts John with concerns that he’s not going to be able to manage the whole thing, and would we mind if he dropped out halfway through? John assures him he’ll be fine, although Chris remains doubtful.

My friend James joins the Hike team for the first time after years of me badgering him to do so, so I make sure he arrives at mine the day before, as he probably won’t get up in time otherwise. He’s had the year from hell so in my mind I think getting him to come on this will be generally good for his well being, because who doesn’t like an exceedingly long walk and some incredibly smutty conversation?

Bootgate:

All seems to be going well until John somehow manages to leave his boots in Rochester the night before. (What the hell, John?) This throws his entire world into turmoil – do we have spares, should we put off the start of the hike until the shops open and he can buy a new pair? –  and is only resolved when his dad selflessly goes to retrieve said boots from his house for him. John has driven all the way from Rochester in Kent after a week from work and has had to wrangle his kids into coming, so there is some sympathy for his plight here. However, bear in mind that this involves driving from Crowthorne to Rochester and back. 73 miles each way, or so google maps tells me, or: pretty much a full circuit of the M25. I think my Dad would just lend me a pair of boots and a thick pair of socks, and he’s an entirely reasonable human being. (Hi Dad. I finally mentioned you in a post. I’ll try and write your allotment into a future one, probably using a Tolkien analogy.)

Later that evening, I receive a cryptic message from John telling me that he and Brian got banned from the Crow, one of three pubs in Crowthorne. Naturally this piques my interest. Here’s John’s rather unique appraisal of what happened:

Brian and I met in Windsor the night before the hike and thought it would be best if we sank a couple of beers. As it got late, we decided to take a cab to Crowthorne and perhaps drop in somewhere to get one for the road. First, we stopped at The Prince. Sadly, it had stopped serving, but we were told that The Crow might still be open.

After decades of living in and visiting Crowthorne, I don’t think I’ve been in The Crow more than 2 or 3 times, but I decide to give it a shot anyway. Any port in a storm. We arrive at the Crow. Outside, I meet Zimbabwe Ross, who I haven’t seen for years, and whose name I’m not entirely sure is even Ross. No matter, we spend a few minutes summing up the last 15 years. Once we’re done, I stick my head through the door to see if they’re still open. I am accosted by a shrill, excitable young woman who I am shortly to learn is the land lady’s daughter. I ask if the pub is open. “NO WE’RE CLOSED!!” comes the reply. I protest. There’s a man being served at the bar by a woman who I am shortly to learn is the landlady. “NO, WE’RE CLOSED!!!!!!!!” is the response. At that point, I’m ok to cut my losses and leave.

Zimbabwe Ross is not so easily deterred, however. “Could they just stop and get a Coke” he pleads on our behalf. The shrill, excitable young woman mishears him. “ARE YOU TRYING TO BUY COCAINE?!?!???!!!!” she inquires. I decide that a dash of humor will defuse the situation and tell her that I’m happy to take whatever she’s prepared to sell me. I am wrong. This does not defuse the situation at all.

“MUM, THEY’RE TRYING TO BUY DRUGS!!!!!!!!!!” she cries in an ear splitting crescendo. The aforementioned woman from behind the bar storms to the door. She glares at me and opens her mouth like she’s about to say something awful to the no-doubt drug crazed degenerate who’s harassing her daughter. Instead, her face twists into a picture of hate as she slams the door and locks it shut.

I have been barred from The Crow. I’ve never been barred from a pub before. The closest I’ve come is when Nick got us thrown out of a steakhouse in Mayfair (ask Nick!). I’m not sure how I feel about this. The Crow is hardly a reputable establishment, so I’m not sure whether this is a mark of shame or a badge of honor. In any event, Brian and I slink into the night, consoled only by the bottle of brandy and the bottle of whiskey we had in our bags. I silently make a promise to myself never to allow my 2 or 3 visits to The Crow turn into a 3 or 4 visits again.

Thanks John. Concerning the Mayfair steakhouse incident, I’ll never tell.

Breakfast:

The next morning we arrive at Windsor around 8. There’s been some dramas getting a cab for the lads (as in, they couldn’t get one), so Rob drives, which is pretty good of him.

We arrange to meet at the King and Castle in Windsor, which is this huge Wetherspoons opposite the castle.

For the first time ever at this time in the morning, I’m able to eat a fry up (I’m slightly hanging, which seems to make me more receptive to greasy food) and we sit in an empty pub destroying our assorted breakfasts. Well, except for James, who’s feeling peaky from some undisclosed bug and probably shouldn’t be here but he is because of my passive/aggressive manipulations. Chris, who is a classy sort of gent, opts for eggs royale, and is suitably roasted for it. (I did the same on Rob’s stag, so I share his pain.)

Not being able to consume gluten, but in need of sustenance having been at a gig the night before, and only getting about 4 hours sleep, Clyde adopts a hobbit principle and double breakfasts, with two plates delivered to the table. There’s a lot of baked beans on display here.

secondbreakfast

Boom. Not even 9am and we’re Tolkiening.

Brief aside re: the King and Castle. Rob and I come here a lot when we meet in Windsor as the food is cheap. It’s enormous. Labyrinthine, even.

I don’t know what your stance is on Wetherspoons, being all commercial and everything. The range of beers is definitely improving. I’m all for small businesses, which Wetherspoons is not, and is probably killing, so I know they are probably viewed as the enemy by some, but at least they tend to keep old buildings intact when they buy them. And as pubs! It’s pretty depressing walking into some glorious old structure only to find it’s a Tesco.

Anyway, surely the best fact about them is the fact (and you might know this already) that they have a bespoke carpet made for each pub they own, allegedly intended to reflect the personality of the pub. It’s true. Grace from work told me.

This one seems to just be orange squiggles, so I’m not sure what this is meant to say.

I digress. Food consumed, we prepare to leave. There’s a weird five minutes where we all sit in a semi food coma/hangover and watch John tape his feet up. This is then followed by several of our number reaping devastation on the plumbing (we’re boys, ew, etc.), followed by plenty of jokes about John’s Imodium habit (good band name, that), an observation akin to the Human Centipede about how a row of people can prevent unwanted bowel movements (I think if I say brown thumbs that’s enough to convey the tone), and a surreal moment where Clyde and Chris (redeeming his eggs royale) remind us that we’ve taken long enough fannying around getting ready that the bar is now open (they’ve bought drinks already, god help us) so finally we leave.

Hike 6:  23rd September, 2017.

hke5crewshot

Attendees: from l-r: James Winfield, me, Chris Hutchfield, Clyde Baehr, John Duckitt, Pete Lewis, Brian O’Sullivan, Rob Golding, and (not pictured but there’ll be plenty more of him) Alan O’Connell, who kindly offered to take this shot of the crew and allow Rob to feature in the picture. Much like Rob, Alan is also too handsome for conventional photography, so perhaps I should limit the photos of him after all.

(Brief note – long time readers – both of you – may recognise Pete as Pete from our first Hike, aka Pete who really struggled and we gave a hard time to not knowing he had bowel cancer. He’s better now, thank god.)

So, posing for the obligatory Hike Crew shot (at the top, not this one, obviously,) we… are.. off!

… straight to M&S

where everyone buys their lunch. Clyde looks for more premixed drinks, as he’d apparently drank his on the way down, which is astonishing really. Clearly seeing LCD Soundsystem the night before has changed him.

Equipped in boots and backpacks we’re a bit out of place in somewhere as nice as M&S, and Alan remarks that he’d like to retire there. In Marks & Spencer’s.

M&S

Didn’t really need a photo, but Rob took one, and you lot seem to love them, so there you go. I hope you’re bloody happy.

Okay, now we’re off!

Our route starts along Eton bridge, and we walk along the river to Home Park.

crims

We’ll walk where we want, bitches.

There’s a point where we think we know where we’re going – we need to cross the bridge and road and go down the other side of the river – but fortunately for us, two older lady hikers walk by and demonstrate the route on their iPad.

We’d have done the same thing but our iPad budget went on Imodium, foot tape, and the contents of our hip flasks. (Brian hilariously brought a thermos flask for his whisky, not a hip flask. Don’t ask me why.)

alshipflask

In Alan’s case, hip flask means plastic bottle of whisky. We’ve had this conversation before. Here he is trying to force it on James. Or something.

(Oh, by the way, Jessica’s comment on this picture on Facebook is as follows: Simone’s new word is “whiskey” after she found this empty bottle in John’s bag. She then said “what a shame” that it was empty. She’s her father’s daughter, for sure.)

We progress along the river for a good hour or two, along parts of Windsor which, for the most part aren’t that familiar. There’s a spot in Datchet where we once left John passed out, years ago, after he’d drank too much on a boat trip. That’s a nice memory. Probably less so for him.

As if he remembers it.

The land is all quite similar but it’s very pleasant. We notice quite quickly there’s a significant variance in pace between the group, as Pete, Chris and John rocket ahead, while Clyde, Brian and James adopt a more relaxed pace.

As Head of Morale, I move between both groups effortlessly. Or: I start with the guys at the front, then gradually slow down. It actually works out pretty well as it gives Clyde and I a chance to discuss the new Twin Peaks (“We’re not going to talk about Judi”), and a good music natter, which is always important, especially when it’s with Clyde. I don’t know anyone who has a better opinion on music than him. (Except possibly my brother.)

Around midday, we stop at our first pub. I say pub, it’s a Harvester. We don’t care, pub’s a pub really.

alanharvester

Alan gets it.

The staff are poised and eager to serve, (a little too much for my liking, TBH.) although this generally refers to people coming to eat, and not us lot just wanting a pint.

There’s some good banter as we sit around outside. Some is not suitable for print. There’s discussion about the concept of drinking one’s self sober (I’ve only ever done this once in my life), although apparently this is news to some people.

Then, seemingly from nowhere, James pipes up: “If you drink yourself sober, you’re good to drive, right?” Cue laughs from the group.

I think this is the first joke James has made since his wife left him a year ago, and thus proof of the healing power of The Hike.

Pints completed, we crack on. The next part of the Hike was an amendment I suggested to the route to go along Runnymede (where I proposed to my wife, although I didn’t suggest this because of that, FYI.)

For the first time that day, our route leaves the river, and we head across a field/meadow into the National Trust woods there.

As we make our way to the woods, we see these:

chairs

Bit of a dubious angle – they’re chairs, cast in iron, in the middle of the field.

So we do what any self respecting Hike group with a camera would do.

usinchairs

Alan wryly remarks to me, “This is like that film you sometimes refer to,” but of course I play it cool and don’t reveal what’s going on inside:

myfirstmeme

Then possibly one of the most British/Middle class things I can think of happens and an older gentleman ambles over to inform us that these chairs “might be an installation,” which I guess is code for “get the hell off of them, you shits.” Then he adds, “If you actually read the leaflet, you will see you are not supposed to sit on them.”

Given that nothing is written on the chairs, and there was no sign or barriers, and they’re made of iron and pretty much impossible to destroy of deface, I think our thuglife aspersions can be forgiven, personally. Also, what bloody leaflets?  

IMG_5242

(Comedy gold from Pete, there.)

Anyway, our council resolved, we enter the woods and walk up a stone path to the JFK memorial. We briefly acknowledge his greatness

jfk

– I think someone referred to him as a baller –

And we crack on. Our route then leads us down to the Magna Carta monument,

downhill

– – cheeky downhill action shot –

with Rob leading the way, mostly to get shots like the one above. He decides to climb over a fence to get into the Magna Carta area, rather than walking round, because why do anything easy –

IMG_5161

(Look at him lurking, all seedy, like a man who derives gratification from the historic signing locations of famous treaties being signed, clearly)


– so we follow suit, then stand around and discuss that for a bit. And by discuss, I mean Alan tries to climb it. I don’t have a photo of this because I don’t want him to get arrested by the National Trust police.

Our route then takes a steep turn uphill, which is quite bracing after the pretty chilled out river route.

We bump into two women walking a veritable legion of rescue dogs, each one of them (dogs, that is) taking quite a dislike to us and shattering the relative calm until we’re out of sight.

We finish our ascent and, a few minutes walk from the top, reach the Air Force Memorial.

All our lads bants and general banality and disgusting attitudes dissipate immediately as we enter a vast, achingly silent building made of white stone which has the names of the 20,456 men and women of the RAF whose bodies were never recovered in the Second World War carved onto its walls. I don’t know for sure whether all these names were listed on the walls, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they were.

IMG_5167.JPG
It felt a bit odd taking photos in there, but I couldn’t help but take one or two just because the place was so stunning.

Stepping out of the memorial was a little odd, like waking, and we proceed through the McMansions of Coopers Hill to our second pub stop, the Fox and Hounds.

The Fox and Hounds is a bit nice. A bit posh for the likes of us, who are distinctively sweaty considering the rather subtle heat that’s snuck up on us. (There’s definitely discussion about back sweat and backpacks on our approach.) But it serves beer and of course they don’t refuse to serve us so we sit outside and enjoy a pint.

The banter takes a turn for the exceptionally disgusting – what else do you think will happen when you get me, Rob, Clyde and John together? – but I can’t post any of it here due to matters of taste, decency, and the fact I’ve either forgotten or repressed most of it.

There’s also an entertaining moment where Clyde shares with me that he’s worried his toenails are too long and might drop off with all the mileage and briefly tries to borrow John’s scissors to give them a trim knowing full well John would not want his scissors used in such a fashion. He is unsuccessful in his attempt which is probably a good thing considering it’s not the best thing to watch while having a drink.

Beers consumed, we enter the next stretch of our journey.

horsethroughtrees

There’s something about Windsor Great Park. It’s got such a distinctive feel to it, it’s quite unique.

Brian decides to celebrate the uniqueness of the Great Park by opening a rather gentlemanly (and perhaps impractical for a Hike) box of cigars, which some of our team decide to partake in. This causes them to linger behind to get their smoke on and generally embrace the existence of an old English gent.

IMG_5241
Meanwhile, Alan and Chris decide to march on, blissfully unaware that they have a) left the rest of us behind, and b) are going the wrong way. Chris’s fears about not finishing seem to have vanished, which is grand. He’d been leading us the whole way.

This leaves me, Rob, Clyde and James stood in the middle, unsure what to do. Clyde and I decide the best course of action is to polish off the hip flask of damson gin kindly supplied and made by James-from-my-guitar-class free of charge.

A few phone calls and a five minute walk later, the crew are reunited and my hip flask is dry. We resume the correct route (it’s actually a loop we added to create some length for the Hike – we’ll be heading back this way later) and encounter something called Cow Pond


Not pictured: actual cows, presumably hiding underwater.

Our route resumes along the much more conventional Virginia Water, which is a bit odd for me to hike around, to be honest, considering I have wandered round it with family in my youth and even recently with my in-laws, my nephew, and the dogs, none of whom are built for hikes of significance.


But whatever. It’s got this huge, f**k-off massive totem pole so it’s cool by me.

We take a moment to mourn our missing colleagues who were unable to make this Hike. It’s going pretty well and we would have liked them to be there. “Shame about the back asthma,” Alan remarks. I don’t know who this is in reference to, obviously.

The route then leads us to the ruins of Leptis Magna, which in short is a collection of stones from a historical Libyan city which were relocated in the 19th century to their new home in Surrey because that’s what we did back then, apparently.

It is actually pretty cool, and rather furthers the old English gent vibe Brian engineered, seeing as people back in, um, old times had a fixation with creating fake ruins for their manor grounds. Just check out Stowe Landscape Gardens (my favourite Trust property) if you don’t believe me – the owners booted the servants from their village on the grounds to create some phoney ruins to entertain their guests.

Rich people, am I right?

The walk then goes past a waterfall, or – and how middle class is this – the Virginia Water cascade. Like seriously. What’s wrong with calling it a waterfall? It reminds me of when supermarkets started insisting on adding unnecessary adjectives to food. You know, “Specialty emmental cheese and honey roast cured Wiltshire ham in a toasted brioche bun.”

You mean a cheese ‘n’ ham toasty, mate, yeah?

cascade

It is quite a nice cascade though, even with us in front of it.

That concluded the Virginia Water leg of our journey. It was now time to stop at a pub and collect ourselves for the last stretch.

The Belvedere Arms provides the final pub stop before we tackle the last leg of the journey. The sun’s setting and the late afternoon is proving glorious. Everyone’s in a pretty good place (normally we’re dying a little at the penultimate pub stop) but I decide a morale boost is in order, because as Head of Morale I take my responsibilities very seriously and it’s important to antagonise your friends from time to time.

As we’re preparing to leave, I put my bag on the table next to John, and tell him I need some help carrying something, because, well…

ring1

ring3

… it’s just such a weight to carry.

Yeah, I may have bought a replica of the One Ring online. Because…

1wsrfc

(I bet Rob really regrets helping me come up with memes now.)

Anyway, John treats this with good humour

ring2

(This picture made Jen go “Aw”)

But won’t wear it for long, lest it corrupt him.

johnring

Thuglife

And so with morale (sort of) boosted, we return to the Great Park for the final stretch.

As we re-enter the Great Park, we pass by familiar settings, such as the Polo Grounds we saw in the first Hike. Under the setting sun, the area is incredibly quiet, and almost otherworldly after the relative hustle and bustle of Virginia Water.

We spot this on the far recesses of one of the fields, which is just really creepy

caravan

Look at this caravan trying to sneak up on us. It’s crap at hiding behind trees. Make an effort!

We realise several of our party have fallen behind, and pause for a moment near the Equestrian statue (not the Copper Horse, FYI, we’ll get there soon)

eqwood

While waiting around, we realise the woods behind it are pretty impressive too, but then another realisation dawns on us: we’re losing light.

Normally this isn’t a big deal, but in the Great Park, there’s the risk of them closing the gates, which would rather significantly shaft our prospects of completing the Hike the way we intended. Phone calls are hastily made to hurry the rest of the boys the f*ck along.

Efforts redoubled, we start our approach to the famed Copper Horse.

fromtheback

I love this stretch here. It’s the most immaculate grass carpet, with woods on either side, and the Copper Horse up ahead.

We reach the Copper Horse soon after, the point where the end becomes finally in sight, as per Hikes 1 and 2. From here we can see the Long Walk, Windsor Castle, and next to it lies the Two Brewers, our finish point.

copperhorsepov

A hike first, we see two soldiers sat at the bottom of the Horse on some of the huge flagstones there. We watch as other soldiers run up to them, their breathing haggard from having presumably ran all the way up the long walk. The waiting soldiers acknowledge their comrades with a curt “Good. Now run back and shower.”

As you do.

We start our descent, the four of us at the back looking like a crap Beatles

Descent start

(dibs on not being Ringo)

and along the legendary Long Walk. There’s barriers up for a stretch of it as the next day is the Windsor Great Park Half Marathon, which I ran last year and was a beast.

Speaking of beasts…

ruttingbeast1

There are more deer in the Great Park as we walk down than I’ve ever seen before. Scores of them. It’s rutting season (I think) and the stags watch us with a keen fixation, clearly wary of our undeniable, pure masculinity.

James is starting to struggle at this point, but he refuses to quit, honourably bringing up the rear. It’s my fault he’s on this ridiculous walk, so I decide to keep him company for the last stretch. That being said, if the stags go for us I’ll probably leave him for dead, offering him as a sacrifice to the great beasts of the Great Park.

stag

I mean, look at this guy. You just don’t mess.

As we progress down the Long Walk, we encounter something pretty awesome.

The stags bellow, crying out on both sides of our path. It’s a guttural, intimidating bellow, something I’ve never heard before, probably the most impressive thing on the Hike today…

… until the deer on our left decide to run across the path in front of us to the other side. Dozens of them move, creating a pounding, whistling sound as they shoot from one side to the other.

We’re amazed and delighted. It’s that profound, last stretch of the Hike moment, akin to the silver-skied sunset in Remenham in Hike IV, or the (admittedly far earlier on) abandoned church of Arborfield in Hike V. Things like this are the reason we do these silly walks. Well, that and the pub stops.

finaltrek

Aw, feelings.

Energy levels by this point are slightly mixed, but we decide it’s best to finish as a team. Unfortunately, Pete and Chris haven’t got the memo, and with no phone signal, John decides to use his newly developed running skills to catch them up and tell them to wait. He’s successful, but after having walked 20 miles, now completely knackered.

Still, we regroup, and finish as one, more or less. Chris, who was anxious about managing the walk not 24 hours ago (and could have done this much quicker without the rest of us, probably) finishes first with Pete. As we stop for our well-deserved victory beer at the Two Brewers, Pete remarks that compared to his last Hike, “It’s much easier to do when you don’t have cancer.”

done!

Can’t fault that logic.

We take a moment to reflect on our Hike. It wasn’t what we intended it to be, but it was definitely enjoyable. Maybe not the one we deserved, but the one we needed right now, if I’m going to get all Dark Knight on you. Our new additions not only survived, but flourished.

Our celebrations are well-deserved but short – John and I have our respective others and little people to think of, and by this point we are significantly later than our incredibly optimistic predictions foretold. We risk being put on the naughty step. At least they’re in Nandos.

We opt for halves over pints, and John makes his first Lord of the Rings pun in probably ever.

halfmeme

No more memes from me today, promise.

 

The Walking Idiots, Part 5

“I was thinking,” John tells me over WhatsApp which is apparently his primary form of communication these days, although it’s definitely mine, too, “are you going to write a Hike V preface on your blog? I feel like we’ve lost momentum. We need something to motivate the troops.”

That’s great, John. Let me just cobble a post together for you so other people will briefly talk about it on another WhatsApp group. Far be it from me to write about something creative and fresh, like The Transients, my intended upcoming novel about commuting, broken up into short chunks the length of a train journey and published a post at a time on my blog. Oh no, I wouldn’t want to do that. Blog posts on demand it is!

(… Actually, I’m really struggling to start that. Turns out although I’ve got a hook, I’ve not got a plot. Might need a little more planning there. Fine. I’ll give the blog a look. Any excuse.)

Okay, so we go on long walks, blah blah. You know the rest, and if you don’t a) where have you been, b) me and a bunch of my good mates do 20 mile+ hikes and somehow I find these profound and amusing enough to write about. There. You’re up to speed. Oh, and people who never read anything I write (like my mother in law) actually read them. 

What you probably didn’t know is on this Hike, we got lost a few times, tied our route in knots, encountered a derelict church, exhausted ourselves so much it started getting a bit emotional…

… oh yeah and we met this guy. I’ll introduce him in a minute. 

So you probably gathered but I never got round to publishing anything pre-Hike. I probably could have, simply because of all the planning involved in this one. 

Planning.” 

So, looking back on it, perhaps Henley to Silchester is one of those routes that perhaps shouldn’t be walked. I don’t think you’d find it recommended anywhere. The reason we wanted to do it was because we had done Crowthorne to Windsor (twice), Crowthorne to Silchester, and Windsor to Henley. Henley to Silchester seemed to close that particular loop. The fourth side of the square and all that. 

Spoilers seeing as this is taken from my app:

Epicness abound. 

Except there’s no obvious route to take. Or at least not one which is consistent the whole way through. Whichever way you look, you’re going to have to consider walking through towns, walking along or crossing A-Roads or motorways, some light to moderate trespassing, and inventive ways of crossing rivers. There’s parts within the route that make for brilliant walks, but as a whole it’s a bit of a mess. But that’s okay. We like a challenge. 
So, in the knowledge that planning this one is going to involve quite a lot of effort – more say than just following a river, which was a lot of Hike IV – John tells us (me, Mat and Rob, the so-called Hike Strategy Planning Committee) that he’s not planning this bitch of a thing alone, and we’ll have to all chip in and at the very least share the blame when it goes wrong. 
So we divvy the route out. I get the start, needing to determine whether we walk from Henley to Shiplake, or Henley to Wargrave. My wife and I head down there one weekend and walk to Shiplake and we give the route two thumbs up. 
… except the lads promptly veto that because there’s no way of crossing the river at Shiplake, which would mean walking to Sonning, which is nice, but then to Woodley, which is a bit naff as hikes go. They’d rather take Wargrave, which would add a few miles to the route and doesn’t seem to be particularly scenic. 
I get passive aggressive and say that whatever they want to do is fine by me, but Shiplake really was interesting and would be a good start to the route, if only we could find a way to cross the river. 

(Look, I don’t know whether you find this stuff interesting or not. I do. It’s a big part of the Hike, planning them. If this is too much, just skip ahead to the Hobbit gif I’ve planted. You’ll know it when you see it.)

After exhaustively looking at maps, we realise there are several marinas and boating/yachting clubs around where we need to cross. I use valuable work time blasting off emails and making calls, trying to appeal to their better nature to see if any of them would be prepared to ferry us across the dozen or so metre-wide stretch of river. It’d be cool, right? Despite the fact that I offered to promote them on this blog if they took pity on our group of pilgrims, no one engaged in the slightest. Can’t see why. 

Finally we reach a compromise in routes: we walk to Shiplake, get the train to Wargrave. It takes 3 minutes. Can’t be more than a mile. There’s a whole load of questioning as to whether this is right for a Hike – are we cheating, does this count as wimping out – but we decide this Hike’s gonna be 26 miles, we’re happy to do the other 25 on foot. We feel our integrity is unscathed. 
There were two more stretches we needed to plan in advance: a stretch of the River Loddon that would be far more pleasant than walking through Shinfield, (Mat had that one) and the last stretch after the penultimate pub on our journey, which was basically just a mass of fields. (This was for me and John to sort.) I’ll get to them. 

Anyway, while all this is going on, we’re trying to drum up attendance. At one point it looks like we might have as many as 15 people, and amazingly outside of our core crew, (me, John, Rob, Mat and Alan) there seems to be someone from every previous Hike coming. Good times. 
… which don’t last. The dropout rate gains momentum, and after lots of back and forth, plus some really unique excuses (kudos to colleague and friend Matt Bolton for at one point dropping out because he had to house sit his mother in law’s anxious cat while she went on holiday to Portugal), we find we drop to ten. Ten’s good. We can work with that. 

All the while, John’s sharing with us his various aches and pains, which ebb and flow in intensity as the Hike approaches. His knee’s buggered. Then it’s his foot. Then he gets a cold. He worries about his ability to be able to finish and tells us if he falls behind we’ll have to impose a Pete’s Law (remember that, readers?) on him. 
My compassion extends to dubbing this condition hikepochondria and we move on. Because there’s nothing that’s going to stop us from the following…


Hike 5: 3rd June, 2017. 


Attendees: from l-r: Dave Moverley, Tom White, Chris “Swatty” Swatridge, Mat Gunyon, Alan “Big Al” Feltz, Alan O’Connell, me, John Duckitt, Mike Blacker and (not pictured because he’s our photographer and too handsome for conventional photography) Rob Golding. 

So I leave the guys to get a cab at obscene o’clock (approx 6:15) to Henley. Apparently the cabbie cannae understand quite why anyone would get a cab at that hour to do a walk. I asked Rob for his experience of this as I wasn’t present, and I received the following:

Well, the taxi firmed called me the eve before just to confirm is was 6.15 AM and not PM. 

So i spoke to the cabbie that morning and they thought it was strange at their office that we would want a taxi at that time and not be going to an airport! So he was like, what are you doing?

So i said we was hiking, and he was like ‘what, like over mountains?’.

YES BRUV OVER ACTUAL MOUNTAINS IN BERKSHIRE.”

Rob Golding, ladies and gentlemen. 

Cabbie curiosity sated, most of the crew arrive in good time at the Catherine Wheel pub – one of those Wetherspoons that somehow retains the integrity of the original building despite somehow being a Wetherspoons – and do their standard pre- Hike fry up. I gather from John that everyone ordered the large fry up and this made Mat very happy and this in no way surprises me. Apparently the large breakfast is just called a Large Breakfast on the menu, which is rather brilliant. Tom and I join separately, being based locally. I love me a fry up but not at 7 in the morning. Instead I scrounge a lift in from Mrs Twyford. We have our three year old nephew to stay the night before, so he’s in the car too, coerced into getting up and out at such an ungodly hour by being under the pretense he’s joining me on Nick’s Big Walk. I bail out when we arrive at Henley and leave my wife to Joey’s wrath when he realises he’s not joining his favourite uncle on what turns out to be a twelve hour hike. Sorry pal. Maybe next time. 

Man hugs of greeting exchanged, we set off, making a brief pass by the Angel, where our last hike concluded – 


– pics or it didn’t happen! –

… and make our way along the river Thames. It’s early in the day and gorgeous, the river path including a sort of decked mezzanine that extends along the weir before leading to a few miles of river trail. 
We pause briefly to admire a miniature railway that appears to have been permanently installed in some millionaire’s garden, and soon after reach Shiplake station, which, only having one platform, could almost be a miniature railway itself. 

We wait half an hour or so for the train, John and I increasingly aware of what effect stopping so early into the Hike might have, while Mike applies suncream, which appears to be a ritual he adheres to every time we pause. Given his UV aversion there’s a chance he’s part vampire, or perhaps a distant relation of Andy Warhol. We all watch in uncomprehending curiosity as Rob (train enthusiast) and Tom (manages several miles of train line) bond over some pretty niche information concerning all train-related concerns. Everyone’s gotta have a hobby. 

(I should also mention that by this point Tom has also shared with the group that he and his wife are expecting a baby. This is obviously lovely news, and also proof that our hikes are so awesome that one only has to start walking and it can lead to pregnancy.)

Train arrives, we hop on and narrowly avoid the auspicious eye of a ticket collector, hopping off and, having saved ourselves £2.40 each, feel smug for two, maybe three minutes until we realise the next part of our route has been closed and is sealed off with a fence from a construction company. Fine. Maps consulted and verified by smartphones, route amended, we crack on. You’re going to see a lot of this as the process starts becoming more organic…

The route takes us through farmland covered with miles of polytunnels (is that a thing) and involves some mild route checking before we arrive in Twyford, which creates the opportunity for many hilarious jokes as it’s obviously my surname, although the jokes seem to consist of me standing in front of things that say Twyford. Perhaps we’re not the comedians we think we are, so we continue…


– this photo did surprisingly well on Facebook – 

… and pass a model shop for what is clearly a high end clientele, as some of the dollhouse safe valued in the thousands of pounds. Suck it, Sylvanian Families. 


Seriously, would you let your kids near this anyway, even if it didn’t cost you £4,000?!


Best not get me started on this, either. 

Passing through Twyford and through some woods, we reach a pub and road we probably shouldn’t have, and realise we might have taken a wrong turning, and are forced to loop round under a railway bridge we had passed earlier. 

Forgive another mapmyrun screen grab but this is pretty funny: 


… pretty sure hike routes shouldn’t have knots in them. Like a god damn Bermuda Triangle. 

The upshot is, while obsessing over maps, Swatty shares with us ample lessons regarding nature. These anecdotes will promptly be disseminated over the course of the blog. The first of these concerned dragonflies, as he pointed out some pretty stunning damsel flies at the river where we turned back.  

Swatty says: “Dragonfly larvae are basically f**king monsters. Put them in a jar and they’ll eat one another for sure.”

Damn. Cheers Swatty. We’ll have more from him later. 

We crack on, eventually reaching Dinton Pastures, which is/was home of school trips from decades earlier and walks with my family. It’s rather nice. We notice Tom has brought a rather posh wood handled umbrella with him but no food. This prompts mockery. Mike at this point mentions his feet are starting to tang, and that he might not stick this one out. We manage to retain him by finding some pretty bitching graffiti and doing whatever middle class lads do when they’re given the opportunity:


I like to think John dresses like this when he does any light interior decorating. 

Or maybe Mike just stuck around because it was the middle of nowhere and the pub we were intending on stopping in is near to Winnersh Triangle station. In reflection it was probably the latter, no matter how impressive John’s gang signs were. 

(My personal favourite moment was when John explained to Rob that the shape of his fingers in the above sign literally spelled the word ‘blood’, prompting Rob to utter a very genuine and unaffected “Oh that is sick.” Bless.)

Soon after we arrive at our first pub, The George at Winnersh Triangle. The beer range is acceptable (just) and the decor good – nice beer garden by the river, which is where we park up – but Tom is rather taken aback by £5.07 per pint outside of London (what are they gaining from that extra 7p?) and I’m appalled by a playlist that included Celina Dion’s Think Twice.  Is that ever acceptable in a pub?

We consume our beer – 


– It comes in pints, as always –

And Rob takes quite the shine to the above pictured pint glass (his, not mine, although they are the same) while we wolf our food down and implement running repairs. This consists of the application of talcum powder to mostly feet (I can’t confirm that one of either Swatty or Tom applied some somewhere to avoid chafing. Nor can I confirm that – should this have happened – he (Swatty or Tom) then expressed alarm when opening his fly when what he initially thought was smoke came out.)

John’s new hiking obsession is foot tape, and we watch in fascination as he applies enough of the stuff to the base of his feet that they are now effectively now sandals. Rob and some of the others follow suit. 

It’s around this point that Mike confirms that he’s not going to continue and is going to leave us here. He expresses some confusion as to why we would do this to ourselves but we’re a bunch of masochists and functional alcoholics so don’t really understand what he’s getting at – 


(There’s no merit to me sharing this photo really, I just like it and it fits in with the timeline and booze point.)

(Found some merit: Mat seems to be the king of hip flasks. Each had something special inside as well as its own history. Quite impressive, but he clearly knows it: those hip flasks gave him the courage to rock the backwards baseball cap.)

(Sorry, final brackets for now as I know I’m making English teachers nauseous but concerning hip flasks, this was a bit of a thing this time around. Even I got involved, purchasing my very own Batman flask – in black with symbol, obviously – loaded with sloe gin. Points for Alan, who brought one of those little clear plastic bottles, approx 330ml, full of whisky. It previously housed some sort of peach water, and I like to think that like bourbon barrels imported from America where the wood is infused with their own unique properties, this plastic bottle leant his whisky something special. Anyway, back to us getting over Mike’s departure…)

… and so we crack on, undeterred by our loss of one. I find the silver lining that we’re now down to nine, and a certain other Fellowship that walked a long distance were made up of nine, (might have made that observation on a previous post) and that now Rob’s changed his t shirt from a grey to a white one he’s now Rob the White and no longer Rob the Grey, but John tells me I’m on my last warning and threatens to throw me onto the M4. As if he could take me. 

We spot some Red Kites. Fun fact: their Latin name is Milvus Milvus. I think that was a Swattyism, although it could be one of Mat’s. 

Not long after this, we find the tunnel, which no self respecting individual would enter. 


It’s HR Geiger meets 1970’s road design. We enter it, obviously. Even stop for a photo or two:



(The second is me getting a shot of Rob photographing us. Told you he was too handsome for conventional photos. Bit artsy, that.)

What’s really odd, which I’m hoping you can see from the pictures, is presumably decades of heavy traffic have squashed the tunnel into a sort of oval shape. Always a nice thing to realise as you’re walking through it. 

It’s not long after this that I realise that Rob (who I’m walking behind) has a curious addition on his bag…


Yep. He stole that pint glass. What a felon. To be fair, he did say he liked it. 

Our path continues along some nice countrified fields, along which we’re gently serenaded by the M4 as we walk, slightly undermining the country vibe. This passes as we reach another farm, this one full of cows, which has some sort of massive generator which ironically sounds like a giant robo-cow. 

When we reach Arborfield, the team pauses for the obligatory map check and hip flask swig. I notice what appears to be a graveyard and go in for a closer look. Rob realises it contains a ruined church and before you know it, the whole crew are wandering round this silent, abandoned church that’s mostly collapsed and is being slowly consumed by nature and is easily one of my favourite parts of this walk. 

Indulge me a sec, because this is worth it:


So this was once a church…

This is the bit where you start wondering if it’s a trap. 


Okay, photos done for now. The green glow is genuine. Isn’t that cool?


One more. That’s it for church. You get the point. Otherworldly. 

We leave the church (finally) and get back to more fields. Swatty takes the opportunity to pull up some Himalayan balsam, which is a non-native, invasive species, apparently. “Funny looking rhubarb,” Alan observes. 

The route leads to some incredibly long grass, which in turn leads to this rather amusing image:

(“Where do you think you dropped your keys?”)

This then escalates to walking through pretty dense stinging nettles with most of the team wearing shorts (not this guy!) Worth mentioning that although Alan’s shorts were indeed very short (and rather form fitting, ladies. Just observations from some of the group there) he is immune to most bites, stings and abrasions. Possibly fireproof, too. 

Swatty pulls out a bit more Himalayan not-rhubarb, and when I mention a recent article about the ecological benefits to hunting grey squirrels for the benefit of the red squirrel population, Swatty sagely concludes his nature class with this statement: “Conservation is all about working out what to kill next.

I swear that man is a philosopher. 

We emerge from the grass and nettles to Gunyon’s Loop, the part of the route Mat worked out for us which we duly named in his honour. It’s a pretty ingenious path, all along the River Loddon, that effectively cuts Shinfield out of the walk…

… except it’s private land. And closed. 

Balls

We lose ten minutes or so looking over the maps and trying to find an alternative. Our planning is briefly interrupted by a car of rocket scientists yelling “Gay!” at us which brings big laughs, mostly because a) their insults clearly haven’t progressed since 1995, and b) I think times have moved on enough that simply observing someone’s sexuality shouldn’t really be an insult. Maybe they were declaring theirs?

Regardless, we find an alternate route and discover a benefit: there’s an extra pub stop thrown in. We reach it within moments: The Magpie and Parrot. 

Just to make this clear: this pub is brilliant. I can’t quite articulate how much we enjoyed this place. 


I think this picture does a pretty good job though. 

What’s that behind Alan? Yep, it’s the bear from the start of the post! That’s just the start of it though. It seemed less like a pub and more like we were just having a drink in someone’s lounge. Drinking in the beer garden? Like just being in someone’s garden, funnily enough. The fact that the beers were sold in cans and poured into pint glasses only reinforced the image. Then there’s the sign on the door saying no mobiles, an armchair reserved for one of the dogs, a stuffed bird in a glass cage, boxed toy cars on top of wood beams and shall I once again mention there’s a bear in the corner dressed like a bellhop?

So yeah. Magpie and Parrot. Would recommend. 

The ladies who run it were very curious about our Hike, too. I think they were fans. I should send them this blog post, really. 

Reluctantly polishing off our beers, we get back on our way, walking through Shinfield, getting a bit lost, seeing this guy once we get off the road – 


– as you do –

… and enter more fields. Here’s Alan in one of them, shortly after we passed a wedding at a rather posh venue called Mill House: 


Classic Alan. 

A short while later we find ourselves walking through a proper, wooded glade. It’s a lovely, tranquil place, and bringing up the rear, John and I are deep in some grown up conversation. 

It’s at this point that Alan turns around at throws his bag at us, and makes a sound like an explosion. It must be a satchel bomb. He promptly points his index fingers at us and starts firing. 

See, most people at this point would wonder what the hell he’s doing and tell him to grow up. But we’ve seen that gunfight in Spaced, the one that explains the unwritten rule all men must abide by. And we’re lads. We’ve had a drink. And before we know it, we’ve been blown up. 

John notices Alan’s gun fingers slightly later than me. John flanks right, I go left. He makes it to tree cover and gets a few shots off at Alan, who stumbles. He returns fire and John goes down. 

I pick myself up when I hear John’s cries. (I had my guts blown out but needs must.) He’s crawled to the tree, rest his back against it and takes the photo of his daughter out. He tells me she was born during his tour and he would see her for the first time when he was back, tell my wife I love her yadder yadder. Then he looks to the sky and mutters something about it being cold. I cradle his head in my hands and tell him not to die on me, you son of a bitch. Then Alan kills us. 

It’s around this point we look up. The group’s moved on and some are watching us from a distance, suitably confused. 


What a bunch of numpties. 

As he gets up, John’s hikepochondria plays up and he fears the battle did his knee in. We hope he’s wrong. 

Rejoining the others, we check the team’s morale. By the point we’ve been walking for 8 or 9 hours, and everyone’s starting to tire (aside from Big Al of course, who transcends physical fitness.) We crack on to our penultimate pub, the Elm Tree. 

At the Elm Tree – nice range of beers, bit posh, a creamy pale ale that tastes a bit like drinking ice cream – we take stock of the team with a well deserved beer. We’ve walked maybe 23 miles by this point, but still have around 6 to go. Dave, who proved his mettle on the last Hike has reached the point where he’s looking at Uber’s to get to Silchester. We need a morale boost. 

Fortunately I’ve got one ready. Returning readers might have noticed a reduced volume of Lord of the Rings puns. Fret not, I’ve been saving them up. 

See, I knew extended quotes and puns weren’t enough for the hikes. On Hike IV I discreetly dressed like Bilbo Baggins and took maps of Middle Earth. I had to up my game and get creative. 


Yep. I made us hobbit feet. 

I only felt inclined to do it for the core crew (me, John, Rob, Mat and Alan) and yes, Alan’s feet are brown, but so is he and I wanted to be sensitive. I discreetly start playing the Rings theme tune on my phone, and John for a minute thinks he can hear it in his head. It’s an oddly emotional moment. 

(Brief aside, I found the link for how to make these feet here. It’s a good little guide. What it doesn’t tell you is they’re much easier to make if you have a) my sister-in-law, Georgia Tubb, on hand as a one woman factory line, drawing on the templates and cutting them out, and b) wine. Wine really helped. 


This was how I spent my bank holiday week at my parents. Notice the wine glass. 

Oh yeah, final note on the feet: it says to buy a hairpiece for the hair. No chance. Oddly I found this at the Range in Reading for 75p…


What the hell is it? I hear you ask. I think it’s meant to be part of a Chewbacca costume. If so, it’s shite, but I can’t deny it was useful for my rather specific purpose.)

Anyway, the feet are a huge success and I’m incredibly pleased with myself. Before we crack on, we look at the route. This was the last part of the route that we looked at as a group. Mat pushes that we should probably abandon this route and go straight along the Devil’s Highway to Silchester. The team are really struggling, and given that our plan was just to walk through some fields for six miles Mat probably makes the right call here. 

Oh yeah, and six miles to go on top of the twenty three we’d done already = twenty nine. We’d only planned twenty six. Eep. 

Before we depart the Elm Tree I nip to the loo. I neglect to remove the hobbit customisation given the amount of Velcro stuck on and just wear them in. 
A bloke around my age who looks thoroughly drunk is stood at the urinal next to me. He glances down, at my feet, fortunately not anything else. 

“What are… they?” he asks, his voice menacingly slow with the deliberation of someone well and truly pissed. 

“They’re hobbit feet,” I reply playfully, adding, “Figure it’s self explanatory.” Note to self: never say anything to people while your genitals are out. 

“No…” he says. A long pause. “It’s not.”

Oh shit have I misjudged my audience. 

I start explaining, throwing in about the Hike. “Where are you walking?” he asks, although I’ve told him once. 

“Silchester.”

“Why… why don’t you get a cab there?”

Um. 

“What are you doing when you get there?” he asks, and I notice his lack of comprehension is beginning to frustrate him. We’re already at a pub, he can’t understand why we’re walking to another pub. 

It’s at around this point I cut my losses and just go. As we hobbits have been told in the past, all we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us, and talking to drunk blokes in pub loos is not the best decision to make. 

Off we go, chortling at this road, because we are clearly still twelve:

We make our way towards the Devil’s Highway and everyone quickly realises their energy levels leave a lot to be desired. I give us another quick morale boost by looking for motivational music on my phone, which results in a singalong to Kenny Loggins’ excellent Danger Zone but I only find that and the Rocky theme tune (Gonna Fly Now, not Eye of the Tiger, obviously) but turns out the latter is rather repetitive once you get past the first two minutes. 

Then it starts to rain. Great. 

At this point we’re at our most tested. We’re shattered, some of us a little injured. The remaining hobbit feet don’t endure. Dave – who it should be said is a trooper and does Wolf Runs and hikes up Snowden and things like that – has reached the point where he literally cannot stop walking because if he does, he’s done, but his pace is suffering so he enters this pattern of bringing up the rear, we stop, he passes us by, then we catch and overtake him. Rinse repeat for six miles. 


Zoom zoom. 

Turns out John’s injury from our gunfight was his hikepochondria (if I keep saying it you’ll buy into it being a word) but an unexpected casualty from said fracas is Alan, who’s busted his ankle. Haven’t seen Alan injured before. It’s unsettling watching him power through. 

Oh, Big Al’s fine though. Obviously. He’s even got his waterproof on. 

We enter a vaguely morose pattern where our only option is to grit our teeth and carry on – even if we called a cab they wouldn’t know where to collect us from, we’re in the middle of flipping nowhere – so that’s exactly what we do. 


I think this shot sums it all up: check out Alan and John nursing those hip flasks. Even Mat’s port went, and I think most people tend to turn that down. And oh yeah, look! Tom’s umbrella! Doesn’t he look smug!

Ahem. We clear the highway. Our group’s quite spaced out both mentally and in relation to one another, but we regroup walking through a field we crossed st the end of Hike III, which had a smattering of turnips in last time. (Remember that and my hilarious Rings pun? No?) Anyway, it’s changed now. 


#nofilter

We regroup for one final selfie (apologies for the framing, for some reason it wouldn’t let me save it, so it’s a screen shot.) Worth taking a moment to really let the look of desperation – but never defeat – in our eyes sink in. 


Oh and how about them forced smiles?

On reflection I’m not sure how we got Dave to stop to take the photo given his perpetual momentum. Maybe he’s moving really, really slowly. 

Also worth noting Rob made it into this shot. See, by this point every rule and trend of the Hike is out. We’re operating without a net, people. That’s what happens when your app dutifully informs you you’ve been walking for twelve f**king hours. 

It’s not long after this that our destination comes into view. The Calleva Arms itself, end point of this one and Hike III. We’ve never been so relieved to see a pub, and we’re Brits, so you know that means something. 

Quite charmingly, Mat, Swatty and Tom’s wives had driven out to greet the men folk, and kindly get a couple of snaps of us. 


Yep. We made it. 


This is great and all but by this point we would really rather be in the pub itself getting on that victory pint. So we do exactly that. 

We knew in advance that the pub’s kitchen would be closed so our expectations are managed, but the staff (knowing what we’ve endured and the $$$ it’ll bring in if they feed us) agree to keep the kitchen open, which makes me so happy I could cry. 

Mat leans on unstable table and it jerks suddenly, toppling his beer. “I walked thirty miles for that beer,” he says, heartbroken. He gets another because he bloody deserves it. 

I promptly destroy a large plate of ham, egg and chips, the salad from Rob’s burger, Mat’s leftover chicken wings, and two bowls of fancy chips for the table. Seriously. Big Al and Hannah saw it. 

Calleva Arms, we bloody love you. May your beers always be diverse and hipster skewed, and may your food forever stay warm without the assistance of heat lamps. 

Ah yeah, and just as I feel myself start to crash a little, perhaps feeling deflated, I receive the following image from a friend at work that cheered me up no end. 

Just to confirm, Rob, we are legit beasts. Expect a WhatsApp group of this name to be formed when prepping Hike VI. 

Inevitably the evening passes and people declare they need to get going. Hugs are shared and emotions suppressed because we’re British men, obviously, but anyone can see it’s actually quite moving, the parting of the ways. 

(Oh yeah, Tom and his wife gave me a lift the whole way home. Bless ’em.)

It’s only much later we learn of the events of London Bridge, with the terror attack that happened there that evening. It’s obviously pretty sobering, and hammers home how important it is to spend your time with people you care about. 

A while ago, when Hike V first came up I asked John what he thought of Hike V, and in advance of the walk, sent me this, which I think is interesting:

Hikes 1, 2 and 4 all have the same feel about them because of the places they go through. All those towns are civilized and quietly prosperous (or extravagantly prosperous in some cases). All the ‘countryside’ is basically controlled and shaped to give wealthy London commuters the sense that they are somewhere rural, but without any of the inconveniences, like everything being covered in animal shit. Hike 3 was properly rural. People who live in that area don’t commute to London, they farm stuff. You remember when we asked in Riseley where the nearest grocery store was and they said it was 5 miles away? That would never happen in Windsor, Maidenhead or Henley. I mean, you’re never more than 5 miles from a Laura Ashley, never mind a grocery store. Hike V starts in the rich man’s pretend countryside and moves into the real countryside. And for that reason, I think it will be the best Hike and the one that links all the others together.

Speaking of, here’s our four routes, combined:


According to google, this is 75.4 miles, but seeing as we did the first route twice it’s more like 94.5. 

(Holy shit, John if you’re reading this – and I know you are – we’re only six miles shy of the one hundred mile mark…)

It’s hard to explain why we do this. If you’ve read so far maybe you can see it for yourself, maybe not. I like to think it’s something to do with pushing ourselves to achieve things we didn’t think we could. Maybe it’s done in the name of friendship. I like to think so. We’re in a very changeable world and it’s nice to have something that’s safe (although perhaps not safe in terms of the state of our feet) and consistent. 

Maybe it’s none of these things and we’re a bunch of walking idiots. Perhaps this makes no more sense than hitting your hand repeatedly with a hammer, then proclaiming it feels good now that you’ve stopped.

… but I like to think we’re a bit smarter than that. 

Deleted scenes, Alternate takes

Turns out sustaining a blog is actually pretty hard. I mean, you’ve got to work to keep that momentum going. I probably made a mistake blasting through the Hike posts, but I was on a roll, dammit. 

See, I’m all about writing, but there’s this dirty underside of writing (not rewriting, I count that as writing as should anyone) which is the consideration of marketing, promoting and selling your work. Most writers trying to get out there don’t have agents, who presumably do a lot of that stuff for them. I don’t have one, and it’s a pain because it doesn’t come naturally to me, and I’d much rather be writing, y’know, a story, than trying to work out what hashtags are going to attract the most readers. Ah well. Is what it is. 

Anyway, I’d forgotten that in searching for content to blog about, I have tonnes of short stories. Some are pretty good too, maybe worth sharing. In the meantime, I want to share the following; it’s an alternate opening to my young adult novel, Aurora, the first book in the All Worlds Unseen series I’ve been writing for a long time. I’ve managed to write four books in the series, I’m just taking my time getting them right (and bribing proof readers.) Link here, shamelessly. 

So the reason this opening wasn’t used in the edition I released was because of the wolf references, which for those of you who have read the novel, are used in the opening for another character. Basically I didn’t want to create confusion between two wolves. The book’s not about that. Shame, because I really like this opening, but the upshot is I get to share this now. Silver lining. 

Here you go…


Prologue

Three Years Ago

The Old Wolf was dying…

 

… that much he was sure of, he realised as he clutched his bloodied and makeshift tourniquet to his stomach.

He was miles from home, with no way to warn the others. His tribe, his family.

Pride be damned, there would be no way to call for help.

He was dead, his mind realised it, but his body had yet to acknowledge the fact as it stumbled on through the snow.

Concentration broken, he had lost his shape, and regaining the Wolf now – his best chance of defence – was beyond him. He would die in the shape of a man.

It used to be so easy.

He didn’t mind dying. He was an old wolf, and the best Avalites never outstay their welcome. But the risk that hung over his tribe, the anger it posed to the world, that twisted his gut like a knife.

Rory, you’re too young to lead, lad, I’m sorry. But Bjorn, the realisation struck him, he’s a good man, noble, but too headstrong and warlike. He’ll play right into their hands, and will never see it coming. You might as well just hand Tundra over to them now.

It was the betrayal that had done it; a wound made in the conventional way, caused by man, not Riftrot.

He should have seen it coming. The signs had been there for years. The writer had warned him – and he should know – but the wolf had dismissed the warnings as part of his feud, even when he’d taken in the writer’s companion in secret.

She would be okay, of that he had no doubt. She had fire in her; a hate that burned for all the wrongs that she had endured, all that she had lost.

She would live, for the girl.

The girl. The old wolf hadn’t thought of her in months, yet he felt remorse for them both. He hoped she would stay hidden and safe. He had to hope, because there was nothing he could do for them now.

He had been wrong. He had been wrong about everything, and now he was going to die.

A grim laugh escaped his lips, bubbling blood and spit.

We mocked them for their obsession with the City, the divides and rifts their lust caused, how desperate they were to even know its name.

But how are we any better? Us with our incomplete mythology, clinging to legends we treat like fact. We hunt because we should, but we don’t know what they truly are, or why it’s down to us to do so.

The old wolf would never find out, now.

Something stirred. Black on black moved against the line of trees, where the snow didn’t reach and all was shadow, and he knew what it was at once.

His wound might be treatable, maybe, but they would stop him getting help in time. The two together would be his death.

It was so quiet. Their kind of quiet.

So be it. Wound or not, in combat with the Umbra, that was a warrior’s death. They would not take him easily, wolf shape be damned.

The shapes were growing closer now, black forms obscuring the white perfection of unbroken snow. There were more than he would have liked, and he realised even this was deliberate.

Damn them.

He drew his knife, cleared his mind, and smiled.

 

The Walking Idiots, Part 4

Here we go. This is a big one.

Let’s start how the last one ended, exhaustion, excessive planning, and Led Zeppelin metaphors.

This is our Led Zep IV. If you know your Zeppelin, you know that’s a big deal.

Brief recap:

Hike III was epic, grueling, exhausting, and long. And a lot of fun. We started to plan Hike IV. Our first instinct was simply to combine the Windsor/Crowthorne and Crowthorne/Silchester routes. It’d be about 40 miles, give or take.

Ha. You know, when I write this down, I realise how stupid that sounds.

To be honest, John and I were game. I think Alan would be, because Alan has no fear and basically is up for anything, provided he remembers to turn up. He’s the Tom Bombadil of, well, my life. I know Rob definitely wasn’t up for it, because he’s not a complete idiot. The absolutely radio silence on our Whatsapp group when we asked if people fancied it spoke volumes.

Plan B then.

I don’t remember where Windsor to Henley came from, but I bloody loved it. Good route, good places to wander. I actually knew a bunch of it really well, and I think John knew that. (I’ve done a lot of half marathons in this area and they seem to tie together nicely.) Not that it required much planning anyway. It’s pretty explanatory, you’ll see.

Main thing now was recruitment. It was quickly becoming apparent that a hike is as dependent on the attendees as the route. We had been lucky so far; we had loved every single person who had been on our hikes. Each person who had come with us on this weird experience of endurance and camaraderie had brought something new and different to our group, even if it was mostly just a range of depraved humour.

Fortunately for us, between Hike III and this one, Mat had both had his stag, and got married. His school friends (me, John, Alan and Rob) had the opportunity to meet some of his new friends, and we hit it off with them pretty well.

More importantly, did John ever treat this as a recruitment session. Check out this handsome crew:

Actually, this helps the next bit…

Hike 4: 5th November, 2016. Attendees:  (from L-R) Me, Alan O’Connell, Mat Gunyon, John Duckitt, Dave Moverley, “Big Al” Feltz, Chris “Swotty” Swotridge, and the beautiful Rob Golding.

So: Windsor to Henley. Easy. Almost too easy.

Well, easy when you zoom out, anyway.

I decided – and thank God I did this, because looking at previous posts, this was getting tedious – that if I was gonna continue with the Lord of the Rings puns, I had to be smarter. Institutionalise it, if you like. Any idiot can quote stuff, and to be honest, our new recruits were a bunch of normals – ish – and I didn’t want them thinking I was some sort of weirdo. I’d made a good impression on these lads on Mat’s stag, and didn’t really want to lose that now.

All you need to know, at this point, is that I had made some plans, and they were equally hilarious and annoying. I suppose I could just ditch the whole thing, but I’ve gone too far too drop it now. I could always switch it for another fantasy series that involves gratuitous nudity and swearing I suppose…

Nah.

Ahem. Hobbit pranks planned. To follow. All you need to know right now is that (from the first photo) I had my choice of clothing mocked as soon as I arrived in the cafe – what’s wrong with wearing a blazer to a hike? – and John informs me they also had their best Hike breakfast to date. I don’t know because I scored a lift from Jen, and this is great although it means getting there slightly later.

It’s all part of the plan.

So. We set off. For a change, no one has a hangover. A mild divergent at the route’s start to head towards the Two Brewers, to link this to Hikes I and II:

Hahahaha: Big Al, Swotty, and Dave have no idea of the misery that awaits them. The fools.

We got a bit lost around Eton but we regain our route nice and quickly. There’s an amusing and surprisingly unexpected moment where Swotty – Mat’s best man, nature expert and all round great bloke – decides to part ways from the group to discreetly take a dump. We don’t judge, and we shouldn’t, especially John. Every time John and I go on a stag do, he has such a significant and crippling phobia of unexpected bowel movements that the man pops Immodium like Smarties. Can’t be healthy. One time he nipped to the loo, missed all of paintballing, we saw him again on the Sunday. This may be an exaggeration.

Anyway. Walk walk walk. We go past Dorney Lake, which is cool in an Olympic way. I’ve run round it a few times but damn is it a killer. Mat and I have a great catch up. Up to Brunel Bridge, which is a real feat of engineering. Rob, who as mentioned two posts previously is a massive train fan, is clearly aroused by this (the bridge and it’s railway-related connotations, not Mat and I catching up, although that’s pretty hot too). Who can blame him.

We walk up and along the Thames at Maidenhead, past Boulter’s Lock, which is a favourite spot of mine in the summer, with a gorgeous lock and a weird selection of caged guinea pigs for no reason I can discern, until the path leads upriver towards the houses along the river. We all spend about £10 million buying our dream houses in our minds, and I hold back like someone on a gong-related challenge, knowing that the equivalent of Wayne Manor is coming, and if there’s one thing that challenges my loyalty to Tolkien, it’s Batman:


Apologies for the rightmove screengrab, but look at that. The most insane thing? The ad is for an apartment within the building. It’s not even for the whole place, and it’s still in the millions.

Anyway, we carry on, passing the grounds of Cliveden on the other side of the river. You can’t see Cliveden Manor itself from our side, just the boathouse, which is bigger than most people’s houses, but who cares, it’s the National Trust, they’re great, and that’s that.

We crack on, eventually reaching Cookham, which apparently floods a hell of a lot, according to the various meter sticks and other flood related paraphernalia. Not to mention the one time Jen and I took a walk through it at Christmas and watched a car that wasn’t a 4×4 try and pass through the main road, only to be quickly submerged by an onset of flood water.

We pause for a moment to have a prolonged argument about whether to go to the Chequers pub, and decide against it in the end.

There’s a mild degree of uncertainty about where we should next go – we have an inkling, but if we go the wrong way it’ll add a few hours which we really don’t want, this is going to be about 24 miles, after all – so I decided to engineer matters so that John can ask me for the map, and of course I oblige…

Hehehehe. What? It’s important to know one’s proximity to the Misty Mountains.

Look at John. That, right there, is the expression of a dear friend looking off into the middle distance and trying to summon the will not to murder me. Also, that compass was such a weight to carry.

I take a moment to correct some graffiti..

**Your.**

You know, I’m not the guy who goes around correcting facebook grammar, but it does irk me. Tell me again how you’re “loosing your mind.”

We walk along the river at Cookham and segue up and along Winter Hill, pausing to pose like idiots under a railway bridge…

(Cracking job, Swotty)

… and ascend Winter Hill, which has some wonderful views of the surrounding countryside. Rather than share these, though, I’ll just show another picture of us being morons:

I love Winter Hill. I find it frustrating though, because unless you approach it from the base at Cookham, it’s almost impossible to find. I think it moves all the time, which makes it a very inconsiderate hill.

As we begin our descent, I find a big stick, and – getting a certain image up on my phone – illustrate to John why I’m dressed like I am today, completing my Hobbit-prank.

To be fair, it’s not actually that different from what I usually wear.

Once everyone’s got over this and come to the conclusion that I’m either a) a comedy genius, or b) a bit disturbed, we make it down the far side of Winter Hill, where we’re slightly uncertain of what to do next. We can either continue along the main road, which is straight and uneventful and maybe 20 minutes to Marlow, or go slightly out of our way and try finding a tunnel that run under the raised main road over the other side of the field.

A random woman out for a walk overhears our debate and advises against it, and the group consent is just to crack on, mostly because we don’t want to journey to be any longer, but the walk along the road is really pretty boring and John and I start showing signs of an irrational dislike to her because of it.

Okay, we probably missed out on nothing but some people cottaging (not dogging, I googled the difference, forever besmirching my search history) or some junkies, but I can dream.

We cross Marlow Bridge, which is a rather gorgeous feat of engineering, and stop for a pint and some lunch, knowing we’ve not got long before we need to crack on.

We look pretty normal in this photo…

… less so in this one, where we were trying to undo the suffering on our feet. For some reason our feet were taking a real beating already, and Alan decided to try applying talc to his feet. I don’t know if he was successful. Maybe it was foot cocaine.

A short while later, we resume our march, this time heading out along the river towards Hurley, where Mat has spent many a holiday camping with his family.

We lose the first person from the group since Ross left us in Hike I to go get some action: Chris is going out in (I think) Bournemouth that night, and has to make tracks. We’re sorry to see him go but have nothing but respect for his ambition: the thought of having to wear smart shoes and go clubbing the same day as a hike makes me pale.

Alan and I briefly consider trying to recruit a replacement:

but when we tell our nominee where we’re going, they say we’ve goat to be joking, and we leave them be.

(That was awful. I’m really, really sorry.)

(… although if I’m so sorry, why did I just laugh out loud?)

We briefly encounter an ice cream boat past Hurley, which is exactly what it sounds like (as in ice cream van, not a boat made of ice cream) and then things start getting quite… long as we follow the river along to Medmenham. We cross field, after field, after field. It’s here that we start to feel the strain of the distance, and all that hike psychology business I told you about in Hike III comes into play.

Rob despairingly asks whether we’re nearly there yet. Feeling playful, we to tell him that when we reach the Flower Pot Inn at Remenham (approx. 18 miles in), we’ll be about halfway, which is huge lie. Here was his reaction:

Har har har, look at him suffer. And look at us laugh. Bad friends.

We soldier on, the hike taking its toll on our feet and sanity in general.

Yep. That’s John chasing sheep.

As we approached Remenham, we started to notice some strange things. I was familiar with this route from the Bisham Half Marathon, but hadn’t had time to stop and take it in.

We spot some sort of strange and massive grey stone sculpture that looks like a cross between stacked pieces of Stone Henge and Tetris blocks, and no one knows what it is. Further on, there’s some sort of church at either Remenham or Medmenham, and it’s bizarrely placed at the peak of the hill we’re walking along, just like the sculpture. You can’t really see it below (top right), because as the sun was beginning to set, the sky took on this absolutely stunning silverish sheen that lent everything this sort of profound air and a feeling I can’t quite articulate.

We got a little touchy feely here.

Unfortunately all this profound bollocks was quickly interrupted when we realised we would have to quite gracelessly climb through a fence to continue. Our legs are shot by this point, our bags are heavy, and this is the last thing we want to do.

Taking pictures of the others struggling was pretty good, though.

We continue along into Aston, passing more insanely expensive-looking millionaire’s houses, meet a few pheasants and partridge just hanging out, mostly perched on walls…

– Better than roadkill, anyway –

… and finally reach our last stop before Henley, the Flower Pot Inn.

 

Now, we probably shouldn’t have stopped here, because this is actually very close to Henley itself, and it threatened to diminish our sense of victory at the end,  not to mention the fact that once we’d sat down and got a beer, getting up again was a challenge.

But I’m really pleased we did, and here’s four reasons why:

  1. Beer.
  2. The Flower Pot is just amazing. It’s a rustic, countrified pub, and when you go into the main seating area, the walls are covered with scores of framed or mounted animals and fish. Sounds grim, is grim, is also fascinating.
  3. Out the back were scores of enormous pumpkins and other oversized veg, for no reason that we could discern.
  4. We got to ask what the deal was with that weird Tetris block/Stone Henge looking thing..

So I ask the bar staff if they know anything about the sculpture thing, and he calls over an older member of staff who tells me this:

The Deal with the Sculpture on the Hill:

So apparently there’s this Swiss banker – possibly a prince or banker – who owns a lot of land in the Remenham area. He’s ludicrously rich. We passed his house on the way to the Flower Pot.

It’s alright.

He’s so rich, he built mausoleum connected to that church specifically so he can be buried in it when he dies. He built the sculpture too, simply because he can, as far as we can tell.

Now. He’s also involved in the art trade. Or perhaps that should be art smuggling trade. He happens to have a piece of art in his possession which disappeared from its rightful owners when the Nazis did all their looting and what have you, never to be seen again. It doesn’t appear that he intended to return this to the rightful owners. You’ve got to wonder how the hell he even acquired it, but I suppose that’s the point.

So. Apparently the authorities get wind of this, and when he sets down in his private jet, or helicopter, or whatever, he’s picked up by them immediately.

I genuinely don’t know if this story is true or not. Maybe the staff were misinformed, maybe they were playing with me, but I love it anyway.

So we drink up, dust ourselves off, and assess how we’re doing. Rob’s feet have gone x-rated, and Dave’s pretty exhausted – he could nearly be Hike IV’s sacrifice, but the man refuses to quit. I like that. So off we go, the sun setting as we go.

Not too shabby.

I could share more, but you get the point. Actually, no, one more:

I instagrammed the shit out of that sunset.

But despite the view, we’re all struggling. I know I’ve said this on previous hikes, but this one’s different. Normally it’s one or two people struggling, this time, it’s almost every one of us. I mean, personally I feel okay compared to some of the guys, I’d say I’m doing the best, or at least that’s what I’m thinking, until I look at Big Al, who’s basically skipping along like a mountain goat.

Big Al is Mat’s father-in-law. Needless to say, he’s got a few years on the rest of us, and he’s putting us to shame. Turns out he’s been in training walking through Windsor Great Park. I think it paid off. I genuinely think he could’ve done another hike the next day.

Turns out after 20 miles, walking downhill is really painful.

Anyway, the descent through Remenham gets us to Henley, and we reach the bridge leading to the pub. We stop for one final photo…

(I’m sorry I ruined this photo, but, y’know. Shire. Baggins.)

… and go to the pub. We lick our wounds, compare experiences, and watch our postures collectively start to slump.

Hannah, Mat’s wife (or Big Al’s daughter, you choose) rocks up to see what remains of the men in her life, and takes this photo before we all lose the will to live.

Winners.

After a few pints, we start to disband. It’s Guy Fawkes night, and I’m meant to be at a firework display with my wife, her sister, and my nephew, back in Maidenhead. I literally run to Henley station, legs screaming, which was interesting to say the least. I think without the beer it would’ve been more of a hobble. It may have contributed to how I felt the next day.

But we were all in agreement: this was a massive success. It took us all quite a while to recover – except Big Al, of course, who was fine – but each one of us is returning for Hike V.

So, in conclusion: massive walk. Fresh air. Sense of achievement. Good company. Filthy humour. Beer.

Come on, doesn’t this slightly make you want to join us on Hike V?

The Walking Idiots, Part 3

All right. Now we’re getting somewhere.

We’d done the Hike twice. We were winners. This was a thing now, it was gaining prestige, in our minds, anyway. If we mentioned it to people, they were interested. Some people even wanted to join us. It wasn’t just a fluke now, it was a thing we did. We went hiking and we damn well smashed it.

Well, as much as someone going for a very long walk could smash it.

So where next? Not a bad question. Pleased you asked. We knew Crowthorne to Windsor again was out, that was done. The world was our hiking oyster.

As far as I was concerned, as long as I could get a lift there, and either a train or lift back, I was happy. I’m adventurous, but this is a one day Hike.  Be reasonable. (I’m sure there’s a Bilbo Baggins analogy in there somewhere, but I’m not quite warmed up yet.)

When we talked about where we would first walk, John had considered Silchester. My awareness of Silchester was that it had something vaguely Roman about it, and apparently was around the same distance as Windsor, just the other way.

Plus it’d involve involve going down this road. Which is surely a very British equivalent of a Highway to Hell.

It’d do. I mean, the rest of us weren’t gonna plan it like John did, and we didn’t have any better ideas. Hell, I’d conspired with him for the first two hikes, looking over scores of plotted google maps routes, but even I knew my role in this was mainly as an enabler. End of the day, we wanted to walk somewhere, John had an opinion as to where. It might not have the majesty of cresting the top of the Long Walk, but then neither did a lot of places. We didn’t know what it’d bring. 

Silchester it was.

The difference was, despite the above sentiments, this one would involve some degree of heavy planning. Hours were spent passing links to routes back and forth over email whittling the route down, almost sculpting it. It was fun yet perplexing: a medley of satellite photos, OS maps, and walkers guides. This would take us through three counties. It was all getting a bit full on. Mad props to John for sticking with it, but he got there.

My one sticking point was John’s appreciation (or lack thereof) of my own timekeeping. I remember one day getting a series of emails from him while I was having a busy day at work and was unable to  look at the messages, let alone reply. It was basically this:

  • Email 1: Mate, what do you think of this stretch of the route? Too tricky?
  • Email 2: Do you think you could check for me?
  • Email 3: Or what about this way?
  • Email 4: You live closer to the bit I’m worried about than I do, think you can check it out?
  • Email 5: … I’ll ask my dad to check it out.
  • Email 6: My dad says he’ll look at the weekend.

So intense email exchanges took place, and we went through the same rig morale as Hike II, trying to agree on a date. Getting everyone together was a chore, Mat’s ever-present social life (he was engaged now) making the rest of us seem like hermits. Dates were debated, the Hike was moved back and a compromise for all parties was reached.

I was reminded – yet again – this very evening of my own personal compromise. My mother-in-law, who oddly reads these posts despite the fact she’s never read anything else I’ve written, has gone to great pains to remind me that I missed my nephew Joey’s second birthday party because the Hike fell on this date, dear Reader. I can only hope he’s forgiven me.


Yeah, we cool brah. 

Then, at the eleventh hour, comes an unfortunate turn for Mat that somehow provides us with enough of an in-joke to fuel a ten hour hike.

Asthma.

None of us remember Mat having asthma before; including Rob, who plays hockey with him. We are a bit suspicious that it’s wedmin related (apparently that’s a word) but Mat’s wedding is a big deal  – they’re a hell of a couple – and if he can’t make it, he can’t make it. Our silver lining is that this gifts us a long running joke about asthma. Sorry Mat. We mock you because we love you. Begrudgingly,  we proceed without our medic which was probably unwise.

(Mild disclaimer: If you or a loved one has been seriously affected by asthma, I mean no offence. The humour found on the Hike is forged from exhaustion, lads bants, delirium and a bit of alcohol. I don’t desire to lose my asthmatic audience.)

Okay. You know what’s coming: date, line up, etc. Don’t worry, I’ll deliver, but before I do, I need to get sort of vaguely serious for a minute and discuss the following. Bear with me, because it’s actually quite interesting:

The Psychology of a Hike.

Ooh, look at that. Bold text. Must be important.

Thing is, it is. When you’re planning and sorting something like this, where your attention to detail actually means the difference between getting somewhere and not – and potentially letting your friends down in the process – it means something. It’s almost like a team sport. It has relevance. It’s not just a stupid walk.

Put it like this: I’ve never been much of a sportsman, or an athlete. In the last few years I’ve done a lot of running, but that’s by the by. If I had one thing I excel at, it’s being too stupid to quit something. It doesn’t matter if you’re good at it or not. The important thing is you care enough to finish it. It’s how I’ve written books, when I know scores of people who’ve given it a crack but not bothered finishing. The same could be said for these lads. There is a real, significant sense of achievement in finishing a Hike. You can’t stop.

That’s not to say this profound feeling is there immediately. Far from it. In fact, for me the start is deeply anticlimactic. You spend all these weeks planning, then it’s the equivalent of “Let’s Hike!” And suddenly you cut to walking on a path, not far from home, thinking, ‘shit, I’ve another eight hours of this. It’s literally just walking,’ with little to discuss with these people you’ve known your entire life, struggling to decide whether to broach conversation along the lines of “how’s you then?” or discussing where you’re going to walk.

Anyway, I needed to share this now, because if there’s one Hike that requires this kind of understanding it’s this one. We were going to go cross country, over fields and scrub lands. Possibly trespassing. There would be blisters. Asthma jokes would only get us so far.

And so:

Hike III: March 19th, 2016. Attendees – John, Alan, Rob, me, and two new recruits: Grier Higgins – a mate of John’s, American, this is the first time I’ve met him, oh my god is he tall – and Clyde Baehr.

Concerning Clyde:

Clyde and I attended Brunel University together. Of all my uni crew he’s the one I’ve stayed in touch with the most, which is strange given we didn’t live together or really do the same course, just some classes together. Still, things like that happen. It helps he’s based in London and he helped me get my job at the BBC, which I’ll always be grateful for. He’s a bit of a wrong’un, but I don’t judge.

Now I don’t know if this happens to other people, but when I got to know Clyde, he reminded me of John quite a lot. It’s handy having duplicate friends, because if you misplace one then you have a spare. The mistake I made was introducing them on my stag. Uh oh. Still, it’s exciting, cross pollinating friendship groups.

So now we had this even more depraved John 2.0 with us, afflicted with all sorts of hipster tendencies (sorry Clyde but it’s true. You can argue against the hipster point when we next go to a gig in Shoreditch while drinking g&t’s and you can eat gluten free pizza. Still love you though.)


I’m no better. This is me drinking a g&t with my house rabbit on a lead. Don’t act like you’re not jealous. If I had to hashtag this image, I think only #winning would suffice.

Anyway, these hipster tendencies may or may not have affected his choice of footwear and led to him being Hike III’s choice of victim, following in Pete and John’s footsteps from hikes I and II. We’ll get to that.

So we set off from Crowthorne, this time heading in the opposite direction of hikes I and II, in the direction of Sandhurst through Wellington College. John, Clyde and Grier seem slightly worse for wear; they all stayed at John’s parents the night before, and I suspect were up late, probably drinking. Walking/trespassing through the grounds has always been a pastime of ours, which are stunning with their enormous classically designed buildings funded by generations of Old Money.

Cha-ching.

From there, we quickly segue into Ambarrow woods, crossing the railway line – which in itself feels like another Stand by Me reference, although fortunately none of us were foolish enough to get chased by the train. Alan lingers on the tracks a bit too long for my tastes and I insist he gets his arse moving having being conditioned by years of safety adverts but that’s about it.

(Incidentally, this area of these woods is the setting for my short story Sodor & Gomorrah, which was published in the horror anthology Twisted50. Just putting that out there.)

Ambarrow woods was a favourite haunt of our childhood and teenage years. It’s very steep and brings out our mature side, especially when we find this:


Between the five of us we have a combined age of around 160, but whatever. You’d do it too.

The path then leads to Moor Green, where we’re beset upon by scores and scores of midgies (sic) and mosquitoes. “What do they eat when they can’t find Hobbit?” I cry, thus resurrecting the LotR references with grace and skill. 

It’s not long after this that the “If I take one more step…” Rings reference comes into play, and suddenly we’re well off the beaten track. We wander along the river until the path ends, crossing the road, and have to climb over the collapsed fence of this vacant construction site that’s muddy as anything. I nearly lose a walking boot leaping across an epic puddle but we make it through, all the while the group debate a serious question:

Whenever you go on an adult website, there’s always ads for bored housewives looking to hook up… Why are they always from Frome?

I can’t say I’d noticed it, myself, but the lads are pretty determined this is a thing. To the extent that we’re now convinced if you ever hear anyone say they’re going to Frome, you have every right to be suspicious of them.

Documentaries in Frome. Heh. Still makes me smile. Lads. 

Our wilderness hiking only goes so far until we reach the Tally Ho at Eversley. Good pub. First time we’ve stopped on one part way on a hike. They serve a beer called the Twyford Tipple. I didn’t realise I was famous enough to have a beer named after me. More people must have read my breakthrough sleeper hit YA book Aurora than I thought. (When I say sleeper, I mean self published with one modest Facebook post and a tweet by way of publicity. And when I say hit, I make about 24p every other month.)

Anyway, we quickly realise that they serve their beer – both pints and halves – in those dimpled tankards, and they’re identical in every way except size. This gives us an idea, Lord of the Rings related, naturally, involving people of significantly different heights. It involves Grier.

About Grier’s height…

You’ve gotta understand, Grier is really, really tall. I’m over 6 foot and this guy just peers down at me. John claims Grier is 6 foot 10, which is nuts. He also claims Grier flew over here from Germany to do the Hike with us, which is even more nuts. Our first international member. He quickly takes a shine to us – and vice versa – but he does think we’re a bunch of lunatics.

Especially when we explain that by switching the half and full pints of beers using the magic of film, we could do a Lord of the Rings-esque perspective thing so Grier – man – could pass me – Hobbit – a drink.

It comes in pints, after all. 

After several attempts, this pitiful clip was the entire fruit of our success.

​​

​Pathetic.

Pints swiftly drunk, we’re eager to get off again. We’re not making the time we really hoped, and there’s many miles left to go.

We enter Hampshire, and the Silchester Hike takes on a different look, becoming distinctive for mostly being very flat, and we pass through or along many fields and paddocks where we were unsure whether we were really allowed to be walking there, which was exciting. We made friends too:


Pictured: one noble beast. Also: a horse.

Some of the animal interactions we were exposed to were slightly less endearing:

 

What.

Then we saw this:

Pretty grim, right? It was literally just a red skeleton with a head. We thought it was a fox at first until we noticed the hooves. Sinister.

We wondered what might have picked it clean like this until we hear the shrill cry of red kites above; scores of them.

I love red kites. There’s loads in Maidenhead. I think it’s the fact they’re actual birds of prey, in Berkshire, of all places. There’s a whole story about how they were reintroduced after being hunted to extinction in Britain, but they’re flourishing now. I keep expecting to take the sight for granted, but like a big kid, the novelty has never worn off. Fortunately for me, most of the rest of this crew  live in London, so they’re equally awed.

I halfheartedly mention that the eagles are coming, but everyone’s pretty sick of the Rings shtick including myself, so I give it a rest. I’m only doing it to annoy John.

And so we walk…

… and walk…

… and walk.

Another pub for food – The Bull at Riseley – where Grier experiences his first hunter’s chicken and we generally stop for too long, and then we end up walking along these country roads, above, which are exactly the sort of roads you tend to get run down and left for dead if you’re on foot, but we’ve got a bottle of pre-mixed gin and tonic with us, so our spirits are kept up (no pun intended.)

There’s a rather unsettling ten minutes where – while walking down one of these lanes – we end up passing a lot of travelers with assorted horses and cart-related paraphernalia. From the dirty looks we get, we suddenly remember we’re not bad-ass at all, have no fighting skills whatsoever beyond my boxercise classes, and have no energy at all should we need to run off. Not to mention our asthma.

It’s shortly after this that a strange sort of desperation takes hold. The light starts to fail, and we’re walking on long, deserted pathways. We’re starting to get very tired. The Hike claims its sacrifice in Clyde, who starts to fall behind but refuses to quit, no matter how bad his feet are. Our pace suffers, and we’re basically racing the sunset now.

It’s that hike-psychology thing again. We love and hate the walk, we’re desperate to finish it, yet we want it to be epic and worthy and long at the same time.

There’s a brief interlude where we cross possibly the most desolate field known to mankind:

Seriously, look at that. Isn’t it bleak?

It’s scattered with some vegetables, and John realises they’re turnips.


Pictured: John with turnip.

What can you even do with turnips, we wonder?

“Boil ’em, mash ’em, stick ’em in a stew,” I answer, before I even realise it’s slipped out. Fortunately this one gets a laugh and I feel pretty triumphant.

We reach the outskirts of Silchester as the sun sets, where we befriend some alpacas (standard) and cross a rather sinister church yard. Some random bloke walking his dog explains to us that the ground in the graveyard is uneven owing to all the bodies buried on top of one another, slowly compressing as they decompose, only to have more bodies buried on top of them.

Cheery.

Still, it’s not long until we arrive at the Hike’s end. Our destination is The Calleva Arms, and we arrive in darkness, broken and exhausted. We take some halfhearted selfies –

– This is mostly just Grier taunting us that none of us can reach the camera –

and immediately work our way through a whole bunch of beer. Our shoes and socks come off, which is a delight for one and all. We observe what remains of Clyde’s feet:

– the big red splodge at the back is his blood, I don’t think the red dots are –

and Rob defiantly brings out his asthma inhaler and places it on the table, concluding ten hours of on-off asthma jokes. Rob’s revelation that he is also an asthmatic to me is like that bit at the end of Return of the King, at the Grey Havens, where Gandalf reveals he had the third elvish ring all along. What a hero.

Not long after we begin our return journey, which involves a cab to the train station, a train to Reading, and from there we part ways, each having different places to get home to (Lads, I’ve just remembered we’ll have to do this again on Hike V, what a ballache.)

This Hike was epic. Last time I made the Led Zeppelin comparison and it fits here too – this was the countrified (folk?) experience where we tried something new. It involved mad planning and was quite tense in the end trying to get there before darkness made the route impossible, but we did it. Already we had plans for the next one. We weren’t sure where it’d be, but we had a few ideas. 

We were pretty sure it wouldn’t involve walking in Frome, though. 

POST EDIT: Since reading this, John dropped me a line to inform me that Clyde’s feet have made a full recovery. They have, however, required some attention:


Heh. 

The Walking Idiots, Part 2

One of, if not the advantage of doing a 20ish mile hike is the bragging rights. It is, however, a mixed bag in terms of the responses you get. For every “Mate, that sounds great, I’d love to try that,” there’s at least one “Why?” Or “You didn’t even do it for charity? Sounds like a waste.”

Oh well. Some people get it, some don’t.

copper-horse-triumph

(These winners do. This is how we got there. Bear with. It might take a while, but we’ll get there. It’s mostly worth it.)

(… Okay, I’ve mostly put this image up so it becomes the thumbnail when shared on social media. The next image is rather shite for said purposes. Not like these handsome devils.)

The important thing is that – for us at least – was that some of the right people got it.

Hike I was a success, or at least that’s what we told everyone.

However, we knew we wanted to do it again, but better. Little things. Not getting lost at the start would be nice. Not having to run over a busy A Road I feel would be a perk. No bleeding feet, cheers. If we could not have a member of the crew flee us at the earliest opportunity to get laid I feel this would be an advantage. And best not bring up that detail about one of us having cancer.

So the two lessons that came out of Hike I were these: 1) Bring good footwear. Seriously. Anyone joins us wearing trainers, we turn that fool around. 2) We instigated something called Pete’s Law (TM) which basically stated if you have a medical condition that might inhibit you doing something like this, it’s best you don’t come. Turns out these hikes are kinda gruelling, we’ve a limited window of time to do them in, and if you can’t complete it, how the hell are you gonna get back?

No man left behind, my arse.

So with these two detailed points set in stone, we recruited for Hike II. The first point of order was who would come. John and I were in, obviously, but poor Pete was unavailable because of chemo, and Ross was AWOL.

Fortunately for us, our new recruits were more than welcome additions, and some of my best mates. In fact, several of them had taken great offence at the fact we’d done this Hike without them – hadn’t even considered inviting them, even. Whoops. At least they’re still not bitter about it. Still, this at least justified that Stand By Me feeling I got in Hike I – I’d been friends with this lot half my life. And so…

Hike II: 28th February, 2015. Attendees – John, Rob Golding, Mat Gunyon, Alan O’Connell, and me.

This was a chance for Alan and Mat, who were upset not to be included in the last Hike, to get to do it, too. Alan could have come, but managed not to show up. This is a very Alan thing to do. Rob, on the other hand, expressed no remorse about missing Hike I, and just wanted to go for a walk. Pretty reasonable.

Prep: walking boots, sucker. No problems there, Sports Direct did very well out of us there. A mild spike in Karrimor sales (mostly the same brown pair) was detected in the Berkshire and London area. Great.

Pete’s Law? Nah mate. All good to go.

Date?

Ah.

See, it was a little tricky last time, but pretty amenable. We had underestimated one problem: Mat.

I’ve always known Mat Gunyon to be a pretty sociable bloke, but I had no idea how much until we tried pinning him down for a date to do the Hike. I think we even initially discussed doing this one at the end of 2014, but we couldn’t get a date agreed until Feb ’15. (An example of how busy he gets – and the slightly questionable reasons as to why he’s unavailable – can be found in the planning of Hike V. “How you fixed for weekends in April, Mat?” “Can’t do it mate.” “You what?” “Can’t do it?” “Nah mate. My birthday is the first weekend, Grand National is the second, then it’s Easter.” … right.) I say most of this in jest, Mat. And with love. Honest. I will, however address your availability in Hike III.

Anyway, we got a date in the end and we’re good to go.

Then John starts worrying about the weather.

It was February, remember, and an 8 hour walk in the pouring rain is about as much fun as amateur genital surgery. We keep a hawk-like eye on the reports, the date growing closer and closer, until this happens, with only a few days to go:


If you’re struggling to make this out, the blue is not the coast, it’s the land around where we’re meant to be walking. And is predicted rain. Lots of rain. The red line is our route, in a tiny, dry nook of sun.

Clearly, some higher power has acknowledged the importance of the Hike. It wants us to complete it. You know, like how Frodo was meant to have the Ring, according to Gandalf. (That’s right, the Tolkien references are back. Remember, these are crucial to the Hike, if only for the sole reason they annoy the living piss out of John. I’ve gone too far to stop now.)

So we set off. Delayed start – the Waterloo Hotel had closed by this point, so we have breakfast in a cafe in Crowthorne High Street, but it only had one hot plate, so it takes an absolute effin’ age, and we’re all getting antsy to set off. Food done, we go.

This time, we had duties assigned – John was our leader and navigator; Mat our medic, complete with first aid kit, (as if we’d even need that); Rob, as someone who films investitures and other such things, our photographer; I was in charge of, um, morale (God knows why); and Alan? Alan was not given a task, because most of the time he is a danger to himself and others, and is best given the least amount of responsibility possible. One time we all went out on the river in a nice, quaint English boat trip, and he nearly crashed the goddamn boat. We don’t know how. We suspect he was also savagely hungover on the day of the Hike, but didn’t tell anyone because he was worried John would tell him off. This is also a very Alan thing.

So you’re probably thinking, Dear Reader, that this is the same route again – Crowthorne to Windsor –  what’s the point, and what’s the point in reading this, unless I’ve given you a bribe, or you’re related to me in some way and feel obligated to read this. So what was different?

Well, for one thing, this:

bridge-selfie

That’s right, we had a selfie stick. This Hike was so 2015. You can see that Rob (front centre, the one who’d be referred to as the pretty one if we were a boyband, which we totally could be) was already embracing his documenting duties to the fullest. This is us posing on a bridge over the A322, the road we nearly killed ourselves crossing last time. Yes, there’s a bridge. No, we didn’t plan it last time. Yes, we ran out in front of traffic for nothing.

Ah well, live and learn.

So we set off up Devil’s Highway, through the Lookout again, and across the above mentioned bridge. We bump into some hikers who we share our exploits with and they express the opinion that a 20 mile hike in a day is perhaps not a reasonable idea. We laugh and part ways, realising that we do not like other walkers very much at all, judgmental bastards.

Crossing the bridge, we suddenly find ourselves stressing because the next part of our hike – we’ve now deviated from the previous route quite a bit – involves entering Swinley Forest near Martin’s Heron. Except there’s a chance it’s private land, is all fenced off, and if we don’t find an entrance into these woods, we either have to back track, undoing all our good work, or walk along the aforementioned A Road of Death until we find a way in.

Fortunately for us, we find an entrance, and enter a portion of woods that are somehow not far from where we grew up and spent many hours walking, yet have somehow never actually been in before. At least the hikes are educational, I suppose.

Anyway, we keep walking. While we do this, I should share that the other great change, which is sort of fortunate (for us) and unfortunate (for literally anyone else, including our wives/girlfriends) is that when we get together, some of the most ridiculous, inane, and filthiest lads chat comes out. Banter, innit. Lads lads lads. Except we’re not very good at being lads, in the traditional sense. We’re all nice boys.

Example 1: “We should have got a pedometer for this walk.” “A what?” “You know, a pedometer. To track our steps.” “A paedo-meter?” “Yes. Exactly that.” “Nick, you work for a major broadcaster, I’m sure you’re adept at knowing about sex offenders.” Oh Lordy.

Example 2: According to Rob, John and me, literally the funniest word in the English language, is chincocks. That’s right. Chincocks. It’s exactly what it sounds like. It’s completely puerile. And hilarious. I know. It’s like we’re twelve.

Childish banter aside, we pass through Swinley Forest and cross a remarkable, semi-derelict bridge that goes over a train line. It looks like a relic of a bygone age, and Rob in particular – who is a train enthusiast, but don’t hold that against him, he seems like a normal – is enthralled. Then someone makes another dick joke and we’re off again.

Things take a turn for the worse when we’re passing through what appears to be some sort of private care home or hospital (we weren’t sure, thought it might be some sort of mental hospital but didn’t want to stick around to ask questions in case we were caught trespassing and were forced to turn around). John’s knee goes. Our leader, the main motivational driving force, was going to fall behind. We knew we would have to invoke Pete’s Law. Okay, it’s not life threatening, but it’s pretty hard going for him.

There’s only one problem – he’s the only one who knows the rest of the way. I might have done a version of this route before, but I’m a Twyford, and our sense of direction is shocking, and no one else has studied the maps enough to know the correct way.

Fortunately for us, Mat comes to the rescue. That first aid kit I was mocking, just a few paragraphs ago? Comes in pretty bloody handy, as he straps up John’s knee like improv medical treatment straight out of a Mad Max film. John’s good to go again, for the time being, at least.

The route continues, and we enter Windsor Great Park, the last run of our journey. John spends an absolute fortune for a coffee at Blacknest Gate, but it’s caffeine and we can’t fault wanting it. We’re slower, but not as bad we were with Pete, but John’s knee is degrading and making everything seem heroic, epic, and pathetic at once. We stop for a brief moment to watch enormous hares running on a nearby field, and when I see how John’s struggling, my mind starts to realise a Lord of the Rings joke that’ll really piss him off.

We approach the Copper Horse again, this time terrified that the gates just before it will be locked (we’re losing light now) and Mat and I are seriously considering throwing John over the gate if no other solution presents itself.

We make our way up the hill, John limping something fierce. We pause to take the selfie at the top of this post, and then John says he can’t get down the hill. Mat and I take an arm each and carry him down.

Bless.

Okay, it wasn’t all selfless, because partway down, I quote “Come on Mr Frodo, I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you!”

And that’s why Samwise Gamgee is the true hero of the Lord of the Rings. I always tear up at that bit.

Anyway, this is not well received, but he’s limping and holding on for dear life, so it’s listen to my nonsense or make his own bloody way downhill. He takes option A.

After that, it’s actually pretty much plain sailing getting to the end of the Long Walk, and once more to the Two Brewers. Unlike last time, however, the pub is bloody heaving and it’s freezing cold, so we defiantly drink our beers with as much pride as we can muster, before realising we’re starting to freeze to death, and sod off to another pub in Windsor where we continue to drink more and complain about the state of our feet. I’m going to illustrate this with two images, both taken outside the Two Brewers:

brewers

Not pictured: John’s knee, because it had actually fallen off.

I also manage to drop in, while buying a beer “It comes in pints,” so my Hobbit quoting is well sated. Here’s how smug I looked when I came up with this genius quip:

special-needs-victory-pint

(Saving this photo on my laptop, I labelled this “Special Needs Victory Pint.” I slay me.)

Despite this, the juvenile humour is pretty much spent, mostly because we’ve spent the better part of 8 hours in one another’s company, and have run out of things to say. It’s okay to admit this; we’re all secure enough in our friendship to know when we’re sick of the sight of one another.

So that was Hike II: the one where it all came together. John says it’s the Led Zepellin 2 of hikes, because it’s more organised and distinctive, but every Zep fan worth his salt knows Zep 1 was still a pretty military organisation. If the metaphor continues, we’ll only have 6 hikes in total before we disappear up our arses and eventually one of us dies. Dark times.

I’m writing about Hike III next. You can’t stop me. The good news is it’s a different route, no Windsor this time, so it’ll actually be different. Promise.

I can’t guarantee the humour will be more grown up, though.

The Walking Idiots, Part 1

This was meant to be a writing blog. Actually, it wasn’t really meant to be a blog, just a website used to host links to all the things I’ve written and make me look clever. Turns out if you only write something once a year, the site gets stale really quickly.

But it was meant to be about writing. Then I wrote a post about watching the top 250 films of all time, and I really enjoyed it. So it got me thinking, which is always dangerous. Because there’s other things in my life worth writing about, it turns out, and as this is my no fear year – I’ve played guitar in front of an audience and done a somersault into a foam pit, both firsts – I might as well blog with fearless abandon.

So, in June me and about 5-10 others (numbers TBC dependent on expected drop out rates) are going on a hike. It’s our fifth one. It sounds unremarkable, and probably is, except it’s not, to us. These things have taken a profound, almost pilgrimage-like relevance in our lives, where the key players are overwhelmed by an almost crippling sense of FOMO if they are somehow unable to attend.

I should explain.

I’m in my early-to-mid thirties (I’m rounding down, generously.) I come from a small town called Crowthorne, which is broadly unremarkable, known only for it’s proximity to Broadmoor Hospital, which houses some of the country’s most notorious killers. It’s an odd location for somewhere so middle class and unassuming. There wasn’t much to do there, growing up. (Actually, there doesn’t seem to be much to do there as an adult, from the times I’ve been back.) My friends and I are becoming married off, some have kids, and we’re scattered around the south of England. We don’t see each other much.

Except with the hikes.

So that, in my mind, at least, is one of the most important things. But that’s not why it started. The reason why it started is John’s fault.

I think John Duckitt has been my friend longer than anyone else. He’s one of the smartest and most single-minded people I know. Basically, if he wants to do something, it’ll happen. This hasn’t always made for successful anecdotes (although they’re almost always interesting) but- in my case at least – success consists of repeatedly insisting we do something, until it happens, mostly because I’m too worn down to bother coming up with arguments not to do them. I probably need this sort of pushing, to be honest. Unless it involved going somewhere we weren’t supposed to, or drinking something we shouldn’t, in quantities that are ill-advised.

Anyway, John had this long-standing theory as a teenager that we could walk from Crowthorne to Windsor. Which was absurd. That was like, a whole other town away (or several towns). Why would you want to do that, man? The answer, simple enough, was because we could. Except we never tried it as teenagers. I think it was one of those ideas that sounded great and feasible and everything else when you’re 17 and at a house party and full of interesting concoctions of chemicals (drunk or inhaled, you choose) but in the light of day, not so much. You also have to remember this was around 1999 – 2001, when the internet was not the user-friendly device of convenience it is now. This would have involved looking at actual maps made of paper. And planning. We did not really want to do that when there were pubs to go to and girls to meet. (These points in themselves are both ironic: I could never get served, looking about 12 until I was 23, and we were pretty hopeless with girls.)

Idea shelved. Cut to 15 years later.

To my shame, I don’t remember what prompted us to actually do the hike almost a decade and half later. We discussed it a few times and it seemed like a good idea. I think we were curious to see whether we could actually do it. So John did what he always does when he wants me to do something. He nagged. And insisted, and pleaded. (Actually, it didn’t take too much effort. I was curious, and I love walking. And I’d just got into running and wanted to see how fit I really was when I wasn’t doing a brief 5K run.) It was on.

Hike I: 17th May, 2014. Attendees – John, Pete Lewis, Ross Williams, me. (You’d better get used to this format, I’m using it for the next 4.)

Results? Pretty effin’ disastrous. Well. Sort of. A glorious mess.

We leave the Waterloo Hotel; old favourite watering hole, now somewhere the management seem to strongly discourage anyone who’s not a guest from staying in to visit. Or at least from recent experiences. English breakfast. Good to go.

Mild Edit: John has since reminded me since posting this that the Waterloo has a map of the area, which prompted him to reinstate the oft mooted Hike plan. It also gives me an opportunity to share one of the only two photos of this damned expedition. 


Look at those naive bastards. Eyes full of hope. They have no idea of the horrors to come. (I’m the one in the grey shirt who apparently doesn’t know how to wear a backpack.)

We walk through Crowthorne itself which changed in the way every hometown changes when you leave it. More hairdressers and nail places. Modern (anonymous) buildings. Up through Broadmoor, through the old sponsored walk route we used to take every year – and isn’t that a flashback – and through the woods not far from the Lookout (sort of commercialised woods that are great for family walks). I’m a big film fan, and with the four of us together it’s rather Stand By Me.

(Brief disclaimer: I say this about the 4 of us, but I don’t really know Pete and Ross. They’re both John’s mates but very nice. Pete is John’s best mate and his kind of brother – John’s an only child, I think Pete is too, but their parents are best friends and they’re the same age. Ross, on the other hand, is pretty nuts. John’s best story about him is one time they went for a drive in the dark, parked in a car park which was a notorious dogging site, waiting for someone to arrive, and upon someone parking up, promptly flung his headlights on and chased them down the road. Bonkers.)

Anyway, part way through the walk, I have my first hike realisation, one which stays with me for this and the next three.

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Hikes are perfect for Lord of the Rings references. And doesn’t John just hate them.

So that was a nice moment. The Tolkien-esque revelation is however rather thrown by the fact that our route requires crossing the A322, a 4 lane A-road with blind corners and cars coming away from the M3 with a speed that could turn you into a red smudge. The fact that there’s a crossing connecting the Lookout to the woods over the road is, to me, absurd. But there is, and it’s the only way to go.

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We walked over this. Why.

Counter argument: no one dies. Success.

Except the cracks are starting to show. Ross starts to mention that there’s somewhere he needs to be – it involves a lady, and some epic unconsummated romance. Basically, he’s realised that this walk is taking longer than he thought and he wants to go have sex. Fair play, except we’ve a while to go. Ross cuts and runs. A shame, we were enjoying our terrible Christopher Walken impressions, but good for him. They’re married now. Aw.

Around the point of Ross’s Revelation (TM) we have a general mood check – Pete’s feeling pretty drained already, and my feet are sore. We stop for snacks – I’ve pinched a load of those Graze Boxes from my wife which I’m promptly mocked about – and then I realise that I probably wore the wrong footwear.

The back of my socks are soaked in blood. Fortunately it’s mine, or there’d be explaining to do, but still. It’s a warm day, but that doesn’t excuse the fact I’m wearing canvas trainers – basically plimsoles – with trainer socks. They’re rubbing and bleeding something fierce. I end up tucking my trousers into the back of the shoes hoping this will fix matters. Oh well. Only 10 miles to go.

Ross goes, calling a cab around the start of Virginia Water. By this point we’ve survived walking through Ascot – I hate Ascot; it’s posh and full of toffs and has no personality whatsoever – but from here on in, it’s all good.

Virginia Water is gorgeous. Google it if you’ve not been there before. Or just go visit it, actually. It’s the perfect combination of woods, gardens, lake and grounds, and connects to Windsor Great Park, our end point. The remaining three of us stop for food, and Pete mentions that he’s really, really struggling.

Plus there are other risks:


We go slow, crossing into the Great Park, climbing the back of the hill that’s peaked with the Copper Horse, and the immense and staggering view of The Long Walk – an arrow straight line through the Great Park, leading to Windsor Castle – is revealed to us. After 6 or 7 hours of almost non-stop walking, it’s a sight to behold.

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Seriously. Look at that.

Pete’s on the edge now. He can barely walk. We take it slow, although John’s brother-like relationship is showing through in all it’s integrity (“He’s always been like this,” he moaned). We take our shoes off, walking along the immaculate, velvet-like green grass of the Great Park, which helps, although mostly for me and the bloody stumps that used to be my feet. I suggest to Pete replenishing his electrolytes, and he accepts the nachos from my Graze Box – who’s laughing now, bitch? – licking the salt from the tiny yellow triangles.

Anyway, two hours later (it’s an hour walk, tops, but we’re a state) and we reach the very end of the Long Walk, where immediately next to the great gates of the Walk/Windsor Castle, lies the pub, The Two Brewers.

I swear, I have never been so pleased to arrive anywhere in my whole life. Especially a pub.

Our request is simple: 3 beers, 3 pints of water, 3 bags of pork scratchings, please. And we absolutely demolish them with the quiet satisfaction of three people who have endured something epic together.

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Like these gents.

Anyway, that should be that, but there’s one small point I need to add. NB, John and I don’t come off too well, complaining about Pete for a while, wondering why he made such a meal of the last two hours.

Yeah, turns out, we learn a while later, the guy had bowl cancer. Actual cancer. He beat it, because he’s a winner, the sort of guy who can hike 18 miles with cancer doing god knows what to his insides and actually live to tell the tale, and good for him. What an absolute titan of a man.

Retelling this point is a bit odd, really. My friends and I have a sort of dark sense of humour, but even for us, saying “this hike was so bad it gave Pete cancer” sort of pushes it. Maybe I should’ve ended on the hobbits reference.

But that was our First Great Hike. Like the first season of a TV show, it had teething problems. The route wasn’t great, but it had it’s moments. Continuing the TV metaphor, John and I were the only returning cast. It wasn’t until Hike II that Mat, Rob, and Alan joined, becoming well placed series regulars, and the Hike (capital ‘H’ now, John’s phone’s autocorrect has insisted on it’s gravitas) became what it was.

Catch you for Hike II.

The Recessionists

So this is pretty exciting.

We’re making a comic. I say we. I mean I’m writing, and Will Chetwynd is doing everything else. It’s fair to say I’ve got the far easier end of the deal. But I’m better at social media, so I get to brag about it.

We’ve collaborated once before: the Norm’s Attempt comic/short located elsewhere on this site is by him, too. But this one is far more exciting, because a) it isn’t a story of mine retrofitted into a comic, and b) this one is far more collaborative. First time around, Will just said, “Give me a script, and if it’s good, I’ll draw it.” Now, he wants to input. I’m hoping this means it’s because he likes the idea and wants to see it succeed, and not a poor reflection on the Norm tale…

Anyway, here’s the pitch for our next thing, is called, as you might have guessed, The Recessionists. It tells the tale of an alternate London – one where the London Riots never ended, and the police and government were forced to surrender it to gang control. In this city lives retired former supervillain Theo Deviant, and he is bored. With the financial centre in the City of London – run by the shadowy figure, the Lord Mayor – still continuing to operate and trade, undeterred by the gangs and unregulated by the government, not to mention the gang control, this isn’t the anarchy he pictured.

Deviant decides enough is enough. Before the riots, one man would have been able to stop this; London’s own hero, the enigmatic Patrolman. There’s one problem: Deviant killed his long-time nemesis on the eve of the riots, thus enabling them to happen. It’s up to him to train a new Patrolman to wrestle the city back from the forces that have laid claim to it.

It won’t be easy. London is very different now. The city has been carved up, and the police have withdrawn, sealing off the infamous M25 motorway, creating a walled ring around the city. Violence between the gangs is still rife, and even the Black Cabs of London are armoured, and may very well skin you if you don’t pay your fare.

If Deviant is going to pull this off – train a new Patrolman and save London – it’s going to be no mean feat. Not that this will put him off; he’s a supervillain after all. It’s probably for the best though – the people who remain in London are not inclined to heroics, and standing up to the gangs and the government influence does not lead to a long life expectancy. It’s going to take a villain to do a hero’s job.

The below pages are a pretty good preview of how this is going to go. Enjoy. I’m hoping I get more to share soon.

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