The Walk2012 route has remained pretty stable over the last year or so but regular readers will know that I have had some reservations about certain stages of it. For ages we were struggling in Dorset, trying to find a way around Poole and Bournemouth that didn’t involve walking for miles and miles across flat sand with monotonous (if colourful) cliff to the left and monotonous flat sea to the right, followed by a thrilling walk along a 60mph road dodging caravan-swinging BMW estates. I worked out an alternative route which I tried back in August that succeeded to some extend but mostly replaced one straight line walk with another along a disused (and irritatingly for me disapparating) railway line! With the help of @stourvalewalker I think we’ve cracked it properly, and next bank holiday Felix and I will be testing it out.
This bank holiday / royal wedding weekend we tested out another bit – from Winchester to Guildford. I was in particularly grumpy form when I did this stretch last August, feeling a bit lonely and sorry for myself in the rain. There was a particularly worrying bit of road to walk along which I hoped we would be able to avoid, and I had a miserable time in Alresford, home of the campsite that doesn’t allow tents, and the B&Bs that were closed because the owners were on holiday!
But this time would be different. This time I was going to wild camp even in there was a free hotel with a waterbed and choice of masseuse. This time I had a secret weapon:
Felix is a brilliant walking partner and we have always had a great time walking together, keeping each other amused with random banter and general good cheer. It seems whenever one of us is feeling down, the other one is chirpy and so we bump along nicely in a fantasy world where all the creatures talk and all the pubs sell pie.
The route we took is essentially St Swithun’s Way – 34 miles between Winchester and Farnham – with a few diversions along the Itchen Way which replace narrow pavement-free roads with gorgeous water meadows and river scenes. From Farnham we followed the North Downs Way as far as Guildford, about 10 or so miles.
We started on Friday lunchtime, marching through a Winchester wedding street party to the Cathedral where St Swithun’s Way begins, and then marching back through the same party a few minutes later when the walk officially commenced. Getting out of Winchester is fairly straightforward and does come with the bonus of following Nun’s stream out past the old gate and into the countryside.
The flowers were out in abundance – Bluebells still doing well, and complemented with Stitchwort, Buttercups, Speedwell, Ground Ivy, and further east Lily of the Valley. Several trees were blossoming too – mostly Hawthorn and Horse Chestnut, but the odd fruit tree, and a truly stunning Rhododendron on the Surrey border a few miles west of Farnham.
And then there were all the rapeseed oil fields crayoning in the countryside with their preposterous yellow – such a powerful feature of the walk at this time of year. They overwhelm the eyes and mind and it is easy to overlook the fields of beans in flower with their more subtle and fragrant flowers.
Wildlife fans were well catered for too – we saw numerous rabbits, a couple of foxes, a huge and gorgeous Roe deer gracefully bounding away from us, and many fish in the clear bright waters of the Itchen. Probably though the stars were the birds. A couple of owls had Felix gleefully covering me in a tangle of cables as she set about turning out tent into a recording studio in the pitch black of the night, and several cuckoos had her pointing microphones at the treetops to the amusement of occasional passing dog-walkers. Ducks were saved from interviews and busily went about rearing their oh so sweet babies while hungry swans looked on with envy and impatience from their nests.
This stage of the Walk2012 route more than any other takes us through farming land and as well as the glorious crop fields we encountered loads of sheep with their young lambs looking plump and full of beans:
…and several herds of young cattle who are far more lively and curious than you might expect. These were the true target of Felix’s affections this weekend, and she interviewed several:
The cattle could not get enough of Felix as you can see from the video below. If only the great Johnny Morris were alive I’m sure he’d do a fantastic voiceover with the bickering beasts vying for Felix’s attention!
Wild camping then? Easy-peasy. The first night we found ourselves in Bishop Sutton where the locals of The Ship were incredibly welcoming and not only suggested a good spot, but also gave us the phone number of the owner, and offered us a place in their garden if all else failed. As it happened we were fine and spent the night on a meadow by the side of the Itchen, albeit a sleepless one covered in cables listening to owls and thunder. Our heartfelt thanks go to Steve (and Roni his lovely long-haired German Shepherd), Mel and the other couple in the bar (ex Ordnance Survey folk) who’s names I didn’t catch. Steve bought us both a beer for our efforts, and then it turned out he’d run a marathon a few hours earlier …around a 400m track, as you do! The OS couple were recovering from organising the village street party and so for all these folk to make us welcome and listen to me bang on about Walk2012 was extremely generous and rather humbling. If only all villages were this welcoming!
The second night we slept in a copse just outside Bentley. This felt a bit truer to the “wild” bit of wild camping as we were fairly remote – ok, that’s b*llocks, we were about 100m from the A31 so not remote at all, but we were at least properly in countryside! One cup of Mulligatawny soup later and we slept like logs – a badger could have knocked on the door asking for an interview and I don’t think Felix would have stirred that night!
It is fair to say that by the time we reached Bentley I thought Felix was broken. We had done a long day of walking and her feet were causing all kinds of pain and so it was a relief to find a good spot to camp. The following day was due to be another longish walk and I was preparing to cut it short at Farnham having completed St Swithun’s Way.
I hadn’t banked on Felix’s amazing powers of recovery or the incredible restorative powers of the full brunch at The Mulberry in Farnham, a cracking little bar/restaurant/inn with the train station to the right, and the North Downs Way to the left. Needless to say, Felix turned left.
When I walked this part of the route with my friend Debbie last year we got horribly lost in the billionaire housing estates of Compton. Whether it is for the benefit of the walkers or the residents I don’t know, but the waymarking has massively improved and it is simply impossible to get lost which makes for a more relaxing walk.
The NDW has a totally different feel to St Swithun’s Way – it’s hard to define, there are a few more hills, a few less fields, a few more trees perhaps. I think the land has been left alone a bit more perhaps, and I think generally we were higher up but there’s no science behind this, just a feeling. It is also more straightforward – pretty much get on the path and walk east until you get to your destination or the end of the route so me 153 miles away in Canterbury.
It was my turn to spit and moan about my feet on this walk. The ball and big toe of my left foot were giving me grief every time I put my foot down, as was the outside of my right foot. It makes for miserable walking and I’m sorry to say pretty miserable company for Felix! She was brilliant at keeping me distracted and apart from both pitching into a bit of a decline when the stupid pink map let us down on the very edge of Guildford (stick with orange Explorer folks!) we limped into Guildford station in good spirits and good time to catch a train home.
The following day (Monday) I went into town and had a lovely time talking to a man with a foot scanner about my pain and what he can do about it. This will be the subject of a future blog!
So to conclude – Winchester to Guildford is definitely part of the Walk2012 route – we have dodged some nasty road, added some beautiful water meadows, and found the friendliest village in the UK! Not bad for one weekend eh?