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.
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…
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..
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:
- 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.
- Out the back were scores of enormous pumpkins and other oversized veg, for no reason that we could discern.
- 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.
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.
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?