Peril at Pearl Farm

With three 100k events looming, there’s serious training to be done. So, last weekend Caralyn and I retraced our footsteps from 2014 and walked the Sandstone trail and the Chester/Crewe towpath: 60 miles in two days (or 120,000 steps, according to the pedometer). This is not something I would recommend to the general public but I can, at least, affirm that it is possible. Last year we got lost on the Sandstone Trail. This was partly down to poor signage but also because our concentration was interrupted by some menacing long-horned cattle. As the sun went down we traipsed round and round, trapped in a never-ending series of fields, until we finally flung ourselves under electric fences and found an alternative route back. This year we were determined to avoid making the same mistake. This year we would walk every step of the Sandstone Trail. This year we would not be defeated by mere cattle. This year we would be victorious. It all started off well. The route took us through forests…

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…along lanes and up and down wooded hills.

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and it was very well signposted. So far so good.

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We remembered that the point of signage confusion had been around 27 miles into the walk, when the path reaches what the guidebook describes as “undulating pasture”. So as we hit the undulating pasture, we were ready. We had the guidebook. We had our phones fully charged so we could use the GPS. We had nerves of steel ready to face whatever bovine menace might stand in our way.

Caralyn - and the undulating pasture (which doesn't look very undulating if you ask me)

Caralyn – and the undulating pasture (which doesn’t look very undulating if you ask me)

We entered the field where the long-horned cattle had been last year. Hoorah – not a cow to be seen! Just an empty field! We trotted across confidently, determined to find the right onward path. Indeed, there, at the end of the field, we could see a most welcome yellow “Sandstone Trail” sign. To my dismay, it pointed to the centre of a field full of bullocks. Fortunately the bullocks were grazing and didn’t seem too interested in us. Even so, I wasn’t taking any chances. I couldn’t see why we had to walk into the middle of the field so I walked as close to the perimeter fence as it was possible to walk without getting snagged on the barbed wire. (I had already had a bad snagging incident while escaping from a horse about half an hour earlier so I knew the perils of climbing barbed wire fences while wearing lycra). The bullocks carried on grazing, my heartbeat gradually slowed and we were soon out of the field and heading towards “Pearl Farm”. This was great! We had avoided getting lost and we’d survived the cow fields. I relaxed a little.

On arriving at the farm, the path led to a barricade of fences and we hit a dead end. Ahead, on the other side of the barricade, we could see the path going off to the left but the only way to reach it was to turn right and find an alternative route through the deserted farmyard. When I say “deserted”, it was certainly devoid of people. However there were barns on all sides of the yard and these barns were crammed full of mooing cattle. The cattle were separated from us by a mere bale or two of hay. All eyes were on us. All moos were towards us. We walked past at a brisk pace – though Caralyn was enchanted by some calves nestling in the hay and she would have stayed for a while if I’d let her.

Once we had run the cow-barn-gauntlet, we discovered that the only way to turn left and rejoin the trail was to climb over a fence into a paddock. In the paddock was the friskiest, most excitable pony I have ever seen. It was a very pretty pony but, nonetheless, it was very agitated. Now both of us were on edge: Caralyn is quite relaxed when it comes to cows but she is not a fan of horses and, as mentioned above, we had already had one equine encounter that day. In moments, the pony had shepherded us into a corner of the field. Every time we tried to move, it jumped in the air like an ungainly gazelle, whinnied and shook its mane. There were some holly branches on the ground which I suggested using as protection but Caralyn thought the farmer might not take too kindly to this. Very, very slowly, we inched towards the nearest fence, Caralyn trying to placate and calm the pony while I tried to find the least barbed bit of barbed wire to climb over. At last we escaped. Surely it had to get easier? Even if we were now faced with mud, mud and more mud?

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No sooner had our feet hit the mud/manure when we saw a shrieking, hissing pair of geese heading our way. They blocked the path, making all sorts of hysterical noises (louder than the ones I made when I saw the bullocks). With great speed we climbed yet another two barbed wire fences to escape them. Leaving cows, pony and geese behind, we thought our woes must be over. But no. The path led to another paddock, this time home to a large black and pink pig. Enough was enough. Neither of us wanted to endure a pig. (Caralyn once worked as a vet’s assistant and she has a range of unpleasant memories involving angry pigs, thermometers and rear ends). We climbed more fences and avoided the pig, only to find the final animal hurdle: a field absolutely crammed with sheep and newborn lambs: maybe around two hundred of them. This wasn’t exactly scary – just hard going as we had to walk really slowly so as not to upset the ewes or threaten the lambs.

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It was with enormous relief that we finally left Pearl Farm and joined the towpath at the charmingly named Willeymore Lock. There were just a few more miles to go as the skies darkened. Finally, after twelve hours of walking,  animal-dodging and fence-climbing, we reached the end of the Trail at Whitchurch.

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If only that were the end of it. The next day, at 7am, we set off to walk along the Towpath of Desolation, from Chester to Crewe. We were sleepy, our legs ached, our toes hurt – but as the industrial landscape unfolded before our eyes, we could relax in the knowledge that there would be no cows, no ponies, no geese, no pigs and no sheep. Just 25 miles of towpath followed by bacon sandwiches in honour of our piggy friend.

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