The towpath of desolation

After walking 35 miles on the Sandstone Trail (which you can read about here), all I wanted to do afterwards was lie down, take the weight off my aching limbs and sleep for a couple of days. Unfortunately this didn’t fit with our training strategy. The goal for the weekend was 60 miles, so the alarm went off at 5.45 the next morning.

Having somehow crawled out of bed and got dressed, I relied on gravity to draw me downstairs towards the kitchen. Caralyn and I had a quick breakfast of porridge and bananas, drank tea, packed food, filled our hydration packs and stumbled out of the door onto the streets of Crewe. It was first light and all was grey and silent. We were stiff and everything ached so walking another 25 miles was the last thing we felt like doing. Off we hobbled into Nantwich, where we joined the Shropshire Union canal which we would follow all the way to Chester.

I have lived near canals for many years and I usually really like walking along towpaths. They’re almost always flat and easy, with no significant hills. There will be beautiful wild flowers and interesting birds, from swans and geese to kingfishers, herons and cormorants. You’ll see boats of all kinds, from traditional narrowboats to kayaks, and the boaters themselves are usually a cheerful bunch.

Our walk to Chester had many of these elements. Wild flowers? Yes. We saw primroses, hawthorn blossom , cowslips, marsh marigolds, celandines, speedwell, wild garlic, anemones, buttercups and daisies. Friendly boaters? Definitely. As it was the morning of the London Marathon, there was a lot of banter from passing narrowboats. “Oi! Have you two got lost?”, “Shouldn’t you be in London?” etc. This led to conversations about what we were doing and why. Several people were incredulous that we’d walked the Sandstone Trail in a day, while others hadn’t even heard of it.

So far so good, but our walk differed from my mental canal blueprint in one important respect: the towpath. When you hear the word “towpath”, what image comes to mind? Here’s what I think of: the towpath along the Grand Union canal near my house:

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Note the flat, almost-paved path. Not much of a camber. Nice and dry. You could walk quite briskly along this couldn’t you? You could walk side-by-side with your friend and chat as you walked. Unfortunately the towpath we were now traipsing along did not look like this at all.

There were miles and miles of rough, grassy ground with a camber so steep and irregular that every single footstep was a different height and angle from its predecessor. It was like being on a cross-trainer designed by evil sadists. We had to look at the ground to stop ourselves stumbling and it just went on and on and on. Add to this a bitter head-wind and the fact that we had to go in single file as it was so narrow – well, I’m sure you can imagine how whiny and self-pitying we became.

The worst bit was just before we got to Chester. Like lost souls in the desert longing for an oasis, we vainly labelled every church spire, every bridge as a possible sign that Chester was just around the corner, only to find ourselves STILL in the middle of nowhere. Then, finally, just when we thought we couldn’t go any further, the towpath magically became flat and walkable, there were houses and roads and families out for a Sunday stroll. We were there!  Encouraged, we picked up the pace and marched past converted mills and factories, soaring chimneys, a strikingly decorated water tower and no end of restaurants and bars, finally arriving at Chester station where we collapsed in a heap at Costa.

If you watch the Tour de France, you will know that each team has a sub-team of dedicated “soigneurs” whose role is to feed, clothe, massage and escort the cyclists. Well, Caralyn and I  had our own team of soigneurs over the weekend: her amazing friends. Their support was wide-ranging, encompassing lifts to and from the Sandstone trail, cheery texts, wine, an apple pie, Sunday lunch and, for that final hedonistic touch, the use of a private sauna/steam room, complete with fluffy towels and robes.

So there we sat and steamed, inspecting our feet for blisters and peeling soggy strips of Rock tape from our legs. Relieved to have achieved our goal of 60 miles in one weekend but wondering how we would achieve the next goal of 62 miles in one day.

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