With ducks (and herons) aplenty again, I was chauffeured to the start at Heronsfield in the pouring rain, walked about ten steps and stopped to change shoes. The emergency pair being less painful, I eventually got into something resembling a rythym, counting down the number of bridges I had to pass under until I was through Solihull and into the part of Birmingham I needed. It took two and half hours to get from Bridge 70 at Heronsfield to no. 84. Turns out I really needed number 85, but armed with my Brummie A-Z with a route highlighted by my wonderful sister-in-law Jo, I decided to get a different look at the world after over two days on the canal.
My pace slowing like a man tied to a bungee getting ever closer to point that he gets yanked back, I struggled my way through Birmingham, which to a Suffolk boy who’s just spent two days on a flat canal tow path, is surprisingly hilly. I walked past Edgbaston cricket ground and there were signs everywhere for the hospital. Soonish I was at the hospital complex, but it took another ten minutes to find the main entrance.
I plonked myself down, only to be invited up to the third floor where RCDM lives. For once, my dislike of lifts seemed less intense than the prospect of three flights of steps. Me and my welcome party (wife, mother-in-law and daughter) were treated brilliantly by Dee Binnion and WO2 Eddie Cochrane from the Marines. They will look after all the money that has been pledged by pupils, staff, friends and family and make sure it all goes towards helping those servicemen and women who have suffered a huge trauma get back into society. WO Cochrane also gave me some tips on how to treat my feet and legs (ice bath for me later) and presented me with a lovely plaque as a thank you.
I have a few thank yous of my own. For the messsages of support that kept me going when I was starting to get a bit fed up, the generous donations that have made it a very worthwhile enterprise and to my awesome travelling support team (see above) who have made it a far less daunting experience than it would have been alone. Not only that, but super sister-in-law number two organised a surprise massage for me. Boy, has that helped. If you’re ever in Birmingham, I really recommend it.
Another long day on the Grand Union Canal. Towards the end, as I rounded another sweeping bend, surrounded by very pretty hedges, reeds, bracken and the like, approaching a mother duck guarding her ducklings on the tow path before they all decide to totter in, I began to wonder if I wasn’t suffering from deja vu as I’d had the exact same experience countless times over the last two days. Was I making any progress or just walking the same bit of canal over and over again, like a painful Groundhog day? I didn’t even get much of a change of view as I went through Leamington Spa and Warwick.
There isn’t much to be added about a day that just seemed like a long procession of very similar paths. There were, however, a couple of lovely stops for refreshment and two impressive runs of locks, but the one at Hatton, as tea time approached going uphill for a couple of miles, was not anything I appreciated. I could feel my legs starting to stiffen up as the day wore on, so much so, that for the last few hours I couldn’t risk stopping at all, as I could sense I would never get going again if I did.
Still, as I reached the aptly-named Heronfield (never seen so many) just to the east of Knowle as the sun began to set, about 30 miles on the tow path from Braunston, I was pretty chuffed to know that I don’t have to go that far again. I only have about half that distance to go to reach the Queen Elisabeth Hospital. Unfortunately, some of that is by the canal and those ducks again. There are a few new blisters, but nothing a plaster or two won’t sort out.
After wending my way northwards from the city centre of Milton Keynes via a lovely little stream (in what other UK city can you walk from the centre to the outskirts completely through parkland?), I met up with the Canal. This was the easiest bit of walking of the trip; good, flat and pretty paths with no need to stop to consult a map - apart from when the canal disappears twice through a tunnel. I’d wrongly assumed there would be a tow path in these tunnels otherwise how would the earliest boats have been pulled through by horses? It turns out that the men would lie down on the roof of the boat and ‘leg’ it through by walking on the tunnel’s walls. I learnt something new today! I stopped beside one of these tunnels in Stoke Bruene for a relaxing late lunch - my only real stop other than the occasional foot maintenance.
My main motivators were the mile markers showing how far it was to Braunston - my planned destination for the day. When I reached one saying 16 miles, I told myself that this was only two trips around the ‘ressie’ (Alton Water Reservoir), a method used by Mr Rennison and Mr Herbert when they did on their Land’s End to John O’Groats cycle ride. By the time I had just one ‘ressie’ to go, I daren’t stop for anything. If I did, I was sure that my legs would tighten up and that would be me down for the day. When my 11-hour walk (minus lunch) ended at 9.30pm, I sat down in a pub called the Admiral Nelson (for a glass of sparkling water, of course). If it hadn’t been for my wife being there to help me into the car, I’d probably still be there.
I should be able to get fairly near to Birmingham on Friday. If I can have another day like yesterday, the end will be in sight.
After taking ages over breakfast, partly my fault (I was famished) and partly my daughter’s inability to ever be full (how much can a one year old eat?), I didn’t get around to beginning the arduous task of the day – putting my boots on – very quickly! I’m glad no one captured the abject wincing that accompanied that on camera. Eventually, I did what I should have done in the first place and just rammed them on.
They weren’t on for long. I whipped them off the moment I reached the lush grass tracks of the Greensand Ridge path and went barefoot. While this has done little for the cleanliness of my soles, it did wonders for my feet. With nothing to rub up against, the blisters on my toes were far less painful and although I couldn’t really go at top speed, carefully picking where I placed my feet, it was an incredibly relaxing experience.
Bedfordshire is surprisingly beautiful. The Greensand Ridge zigzags it’s way through some stunning countryside and pretty market towns. Ampthill even had the bunting out, although, it transpires that this was not in anticipation of my arrival. For someone actually trying to get somewhere (rather than being there to simply admire the scenery) a more direct path might have been more practical, but I would come back and do the whole trail in a heartbeat. Not this summer though!
With my boots back on, I made my way to Milton Keynes. What a strange place - I liked it just because it is so unlike towns that grow organically. Finally, I saw the Grand Union Canal as I staggered towards my B&B for the night. I think there are only 82 miles left. All being well, I should be able to do that in three days.
I don’t know if ‘epic walk’ accurately describes today’s efforts. If you can have an ‘epic hobble’, it might be more accurate. Coming down the stairs at the B&B this morning it was impossible not to notice the rather unappealing trail of gunk I’d left behind from my festering toes. My wife informed me that I was going to the pharmacy. The pharmacist informed me I was going to the doctor. The doctor informed me that only a madman would continue walking. My wife informed the doctor he was dealing with a madman, so, armed with tablets to deal with the infection that has got in through the broken blisters and a wonderfully powerful painkiller I started off from where I’d left off on Monday at a pace not unlike that of those huge strong men trying to pull an articulated truck. I definitely had the same crimson facial expression.
My medical to-ing and fro-ing meant I didn’t get started until 12.35. This was worsened by the fact I was starting from miles further back than I expected to be (between Ashwell and Royston rather than Baldock). I soon had to stop and cut off the toes of my old boots with a penknife (I took my feet out of them first). This eased the pain a bit, and it wasn’t too long before I was back at where I had hoped to start the day. It wasn’t the prettiest of routes, going through some fairly unremarkable towns; Stotford, Clifton and Shefford. I finally made it onto the John Bunyan Trail which was wending its way through some lovely military-owned woodland. Here I was evidently spotted checking the map on my iPad – when I emerged from the woods, I was met by a jeep-full of army personnel who said they’d had reports of a man dressed in black acting suspiciously with an unknown device. It took me longer than it should have done to convince them I was not some ne’er-do-well, even though the reason for the walk is emblazoned on the black T-shirt. In fact, I was beginning to suspect it might be a prank organised by the School CCF. Mr Donaldson sprang to mind as the most likely to be able to pull such a thing off!
That encounter brought an end to the day. I am now well behind my perhaps overly optimistic plans. Tomorrow I will make sure that nothing can stop me making it to Milton Keynes and the Grand Union Canal. Unless, of course, I have another run in with the army security patrol.
This was the hardest day so far and I didn’t quite make it as far as I’d hoped. My pace had already slowed along the ancient Icknield Way as I plodded through Cambridgeshire, Essex and Hertfordshire’s seemingly endless arable fields. Some of the long, straight paths and roads cutting through vast fields reminded me of the American Midwest. When I finally stumbled upon some human activity at around 6pm, I took the chance to get an espresso fix. I really shouldn’t have sat down. My legs completely seized up and once I finally got my socks off , I discovered a huge blood blister on my little toe. It looked a bit like frostbite. I wrapped it up the best I could, but I’ll try to get some extra help for it in the morning, I’m now worried that I might not make it to Birmingham on Friday. I will try to make up the time tomorrow, feet and blisters permitting. It was supposed to be the last day before I hit the Grand Union Canal in Milton Keynes, but the planned route was initially about the same length as today’s, and has been lengthened by the slightly premature end to proceedings today. Still, I don’t want to whinge.
I had two delightful moments today. My wife and daughter were at the B&B. It tough being without them the night before. On the way there, just as I was about to start walking down the busy and pathless A1017 a van driver stopped and asked me if I needed a lift. When I explained that it wasn’t the done thing on a sponsored walk, he asked what it was for, then reached into his glove box, pulled out some change and told me to add it to the cause. Let’s hope I meet some more people like that over the next few days.
The Chapel Choir of the Royal Hospital School is very proud to be invited to sing at the opening of the Invictus Games on Thursday 11 September.
Over 400 competitors from 14 nations will take part in the Invictus Games, an international sporting event for wounded, injured and sick Servicemen and women. Teams will come from the armed forces of nations that have served alongside each other. The Games will use the power of sport to inspire recovery, support rehabilitation, and generate a wider understanding and respect of those who serve their country.
The event, which is championed by Prince Harry, will be a celebration of resilience and passion. The Games will shine a spotlight on Armed Forces personnel and veterans who have put their lives on the line for their country demonstrating how they and their families are valued, respected and supported. For competitors, it will offer a memorable, inspiring and energising experience in their journey of recovery.
The Choir will sing at a Drumhead Service at Lee Valley Athletics Centre before the competition begins.