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.

 

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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.

tumblr_mq7qifs4vv1san7deo1_500

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.

a322_bagshot_-_geograph_-_126214

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.

long-walk

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.

hobbits

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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The Top 250

It’s nothing dodgy, honest. If you think it is, you probably watch too much Californication.

I love films. Always have. I did a film degree, and an MA in screenwriting, so it’s probably obvious. My first job was in a cinema.

So my New Year’s resolution for 2016 was to watch the top 250 films of all time as chosen by IMDb. I like a challenge, and ‘forcing’ myself to watch all of these was a bit of a challenge, simply because some of these were a bit worthy (read: Oscar-bait), and it can be hard to catch up on movies just because, well, life, really. When you have a busy job, and a family to see, and try to write a lot, and go running, and sometimes travel, catching up on movies can be tough.

It’s not tough. It’s the easiest thing in the world.

Two things to bear in mind – 1) I wasn’t gonna watch the films I’d already seen, which was about 175 of them. Yeah, okay, that’s only 75 films in a year, but that’s still an ask! 2) the IMDb list is live, so I went old school and printed it off. This made it ridiculously satisfying, because I could literally tick the films off that I’d watched and start filling in the gaps.

So here’s what I learned. I’m not going to list all the films I watched – go check out the list here if you want an idea of what it looks like – it won’t be exactly the same because, as I said above, it’s live, but you get the idea. Anyway, some (not all) of my conclusions below:

  • I never gave Studio Ghibli films a chance before. I think it’s because I’m not nuts about Manga (aside from obvious hits like Akira, Ghost in the Shell and Perfect Blue). I’m an idiot. They’re folks tales. They’re Disneys. I’m going to see as many as I can now. Personal favourites were My Neighbour Totoro and Princess Mononoke.
  • Charlie Chaplin was a rather clever man.
  • Les Diaboliques is the greatest Hitchcock film Alfred Hitchcock never made, and proof old movies can scare the piss out of you.
  • Also, turns out there were lots of good Hitchcocks I never saw.
  • Some of these movies were really, really long. I’m looking at you, Das Boot, Fanny and Alexander, and Underground.
  • Witness for the Prosecution was a bit too good. But it’s a Billy Wilder, so…
  • Akira Kurosawa. The sole reason to get a free BFI player account for a month.
  • If any other Bollywood films are as good as 3 Idiots, I’ll give more of them a try.
  • Hachi: A Dog’s Tale does not play fair. At all. I didn’t realise my body could hold that many tears.
  • More people need to see The Wages of Fear.
  • How did I not know about It Happened One Night?!
  • I didn’t really care for The Battle of Algiers as much as I probably should have, sorry.
  • I was pleased to see James Stewart was in a lot of these films. Good.
  • Westerns are a bit underrated in the 21st century.
  • Between Netflix, Amazon, Now TV, YouTube, and the generosity of work colleagues and friends, it’s actually quite easy to see the bulk of these for free.

Next (2017) I’m doing the Rotten Tomatoes top 100. I’ve only 18 on there I haven’t seen. I may need to supplement it with another list…