I continued on my sideways jaunt eastwards through Worcestershire into Warwickshire. I moved out of apple orchards into pastures and arable fields, most of which were planted with some form of winter grain (I’m afraid I don’t know enough to distinguish between winter wheat and barley in the three-inch stage of growth) or a type of mustard/cabbage relative (again, I could tell it was a brassica but that’s about it). Although the rain had stopped, the soil was heavy clay and made for some very sticky walking, particularly when the path took me right across the middle of someone’s field, as it did numerous times in this section.
Before I got to the fields, however, I had to pass through the city of Worcester itself. It is not the loveliest of English cities, but I had some shopping to do — new maps, in particular — and it sufficed for that, and the early-morning view across the Severn was lovely.
Then I went past the railway station and headed pretty much due east along a series of condominium complexes being built, car sellers of one sort or another, strip malls, and all the usual paraphernalia of a modern city between the centre and the outlying suburbs.
Unlike most Canadian cities, however, the ring road around Worcester bounded the urban sprawl very neatly. So neatly, in fact, it took me over an hour of detours to find a way across it — and that was before I even reached the motorway! Eventually I found a bicycle crossing that took me across the dual carriageway and, via a footbridge, over the motorway.
I contemplated the motorway for a few moments, thinking that it was otherwise all I had ever seen of Worcestershire — it’s the main road north from London to Birmingham, the way we go when we go to North Wales by bus or by car — was happy to be afoot on a gorgeous morning, especially with the suburbs of Worcester behind me, pattered down the rest of the arch of the footbridge, and landed with a view smack into the middle of a ploughed field with little specks of new growth and no evident sign of the footpath.
While I may not be a farmer — yet — I think common decency, and the Countryside Code, suggests that one try not to walk straight through the middle of a crop. However, the rights of way are just that, rights of way. I contemplated the field for some time, considering this. It was a long and narrow field, and I was looking across the narrow middle of it; going around would have taken ages, and probably trampled a fair amount of the edges anyway. But on the other hand it was very muddy and heavy soil. And going around would be trespassing, whereas crossing the middle was the rightful footpath.
After a bit I realised there was a single line of footprints following the line of the path, so I reshouldered my pack and set off as literally in the footsteps as I could. This was not very, as the man — I’m guessing from their size and stride — had a longer stride than me, and also I did slide around a bit on the furrows.
This happened a few times that morning before I reached some lanes and could knock the worst of the mud off my shoes. The day passed in a mixture of lanes, fields, and pastureland, rolling countryside that was very much like a Constable landscape. The wind was rather strong, but it was sunny and quite warm, and beautiful clear autumnal light. And I had the not inconsiderable joys of the villages and towns I passed to keep my spirits up.
Bredicot. Tibberton. White Ladies Aston. Crowle Green. Himbleton. — These were on the map, a few miles away from my route, some of them visible down gentle valleys or the tops of gentle hills. Upper Wolverton, Peopleton, Naunton Beauchamp.
And then — well, and then there were the towns directly on my route, which sound straight out of a P.G. Wodehouse novel: Broughton Hackett has a pleasing ring, but has nothing on its neighbouring village of Upton Snodsbury, or the one a mile or so away called North Piddle, or the pair of Grafton Flyford (which I didn’t pass through) and Flyford Flavell. I’m sure Market Snodsbury is a town in a Wodehouse novel — it’s the one where Bertie Wooster gets his friend Guppy drunk before the prize-giving ceremony.
North Piddle, for some reason, isn’t in any of the books I’ve read — although as he wrote somewhere over one hundred, if I recall correctly, I may just not have found it yet — although it does have the distinction of being perhaps the most awesomely peculiar place name I walked through, at least according to my friends I canvassed on Facebook. There doesn’t seem to be a South Piddle (or any other directional one), but the local stream — which I crossed — is the Piddle, which really tickled me. It’s a piddly little stream! Well, except in spate.
I was disappointed to e able to find postcards only in (and for) Flyford Flavell, but I bought a bottle of cold water — it was a sunny hot day — and had a nice conversation with the woman running the store there. I set out happily for the last couple of miles to my destination for the night, the Bull’s Head Inn in Inkberrow. (This is where Shakespeare starts to come in, as the two inns in Inkberrow, confusingly called the Old Bull and the Bull’s Head, are both Tudor-era buildings where he might conceivably have stayed if he ever had business that took him west of Stratford. The suggestion is that he’d have had to go to Worcester to get a special marriage license from the bishop when he married Anne Hathaway, but I do wonder if he would have been staying at inns at eighteen … though his father was well-off at that period, so you never know. So many mysteries in the life of the Bard!)
It was a beautiful afternoon. I left Flyford Flavell as the school children were being dropped off, and followed behind a mother and her son walking home to Kington, the next village between Flyford Flavell and Inkberrow. As you can imagine from a footpath used by mothers taking their children to and from school, the path was clear and unambiguous and well-kept, and I thought that it would be about an hour before I got to Inkberrow. I was planning on having a bit of an explore in the town, and congratulated myself on deciding to stay there (rather than Flyford Flavell itself) for the night.
I’m sure you can guess where this is going. I skirted the edge of Kington, through a field full of strange mounds and hollows. They’re marked as “earthworks” on the Ordnance Survey maps, with no explanations; as this was someone’s private land, there were naturally no explanations there, either, just another small mystery and a couple of horses.
I went across a small stream in spate on a footbridge, and started to run into problems.
At first I thought it was just that the farmer had recently ploughed his field — something I’d already experienced that day — and so the footpath was lost. Following my earlier success, I followed what seemed to be a trail of footprints (something difficult to distinguish, as the farmer had driven sheep along the same route recently as well), and then ended up at a corner of the field with no stile, no gate, and a highway on the other side of the hedgerow.
At this point I realised I’d misread what side of the field boundary I was supposed to be on (something unfortunately easy on occasion, especially if near a crease in the map), and so was trying to get out of the wrong field. However, the actual gate through was back down the other end of the field in a mire, and, as I said, the field on the other side of the hedge was newly ploughed and obviously extremely muddy and lacking in footpath. So, since whoever I was following had clearly managed it, I took off my backpack and wormed my way through a wide section of barbed wire fencing and then through some hawthorns, blackthorns, and brambles, trying not to arrive too precipitously on the highway proper.
Breath caught and clothing rearranged, I was pleased to discover a paved footpath on the other side of the road — something some (though, alas, only some) of the A-series of highways has in England, for which I was always grateful, since they don’t have shoulders — and carried along in slightly more subdued but nevertheless still optimistic spirits for Inkberrow. It was two miles by the A-road and the village approach, or three and a half fields along the Millennium Trail.
The stile off the highway down to the footpath was in slightly poor repair, but the stairs down the bank were fine. The field was newly ploughed again, so the fact that there were only a handful of footprints along the route of the path didn’t bother me. I strode along the first field and a half, thinking happily that Inkberrow was just over the next ridge.
Then I came to the stile through the hedge, leading to a footbridge across a narrow stream, and the last two fields. These took me well over an hour to traverse.
I literally had to cut my way through the tangle in order to get across the bridge. The only reason I did so, rather than, say, go back to the highway, was that — well, in short, that I was stubborn. Whoever I was following had made it through — I could see the signs of someone else forcing a passage — I was almost two fields in, and I’d been able to see that the highway shoulder path didn’t keep on the whole way. And it was two fields this way versus retracing my steps and then another two miles along the road.
You know, I walk about two miles an hour. It would have been quicker to go to the highway and walk along the road. Instead I cut my way through the brambles, and the hawthorns, and the roses (seriously!), got across the bridge, and then got lost following sheep and deer trails through rankly overgrown pastures replete with nettles.
I have no idea if I actually followed any part of the Millennium Trail between that footbridge and the pub. I reckon that all the fields belonged to one farmer who doesn’t like ramblers, though I have to say, if he (I’m using the pronoun in the general sense) dislikes people wandering across his property so much, surely it would be better to have a clearly demarcated path rather than forcing them to wander around half your fields in order to find the way out? Other places who clearly didn’t want trespassers had little signs saying things like “please stay on the marked footpath” or, failing confidence in the general law-abidingness of ramblers, put up a line of electric fencing between the footpath and the rest of the field.
Instead, I can safely say that the parish of Inkberrow has the very worst footpaths in the whole of England, or at least those thousand-odd kilometres of it I personally have traversed. I have yet to write to the authorities to tell them so — that part of Worcestershire, unlike neighbouring Warwickshire, not having helpful little “contact us” details on their footpath signs — but it’s true.*
But I did arrive at the pub at last, and decided a beer next to the fire was well-earned.
Next time: Shakespeare’s country!
*I would like to say I have written to the Wirral tourism board to tell them they had the best signposting in all of England, and got a very nice letter back from them, too. I’ve been trying not to focus on the negatives, you see.