It has been well over a year since the last blog post on 100 Years Walking, but I can assure you that plenty of walking has been done in that time. I’ve had to find new routes: lockdown meant that the canal towpath was blocked off in places, as a courtesy to those living in narrowboats, who did not want a stream of people walking, jogging and cycling past their windows all day long. So I’ve been exploring other footpaths and enjoying seeing how much beauty there is on our doorstep.
Yet at times, the last 6 months have felt restricting and frustrating: a season of limited horizons and thwarted plans. So when Action Challenge emailed to say they were planning a covid-secure 50km event in the Chilterns, I signed up almost immediately. I was excited at the thought of a long day’s walk which I didn’t have to plan: a walk through beautiful scenery in an area I barely knew. Caralyn was unable to join me so I would have to walk alone, but the lure of new paths was too strong to resist.
When the day came, my excitement and sense of adventure had somehow transformed into nausea and anxiety. An unspoken, half-hoped wish that the event would be cancelled remained unfulfilled. The organisers had thought of every last detail to make it safe and had been given the go-ahead. We would have to wear face-coverings in many areas of the route, use frequent hand sanitiser, keep a 2 m distance, avoid walking in groups and all food and drink would be served, rather than a help-yourself system.
I had planned and packed meticulously, but that morning, the temperature suddenly dropped to a “feel” of 2 degrees. I had to add in a last-minute hat and gloves, while knowing I would quickly overheat later, so couldn’t afford to take, and then carry, a fleece. There was an hour’s wait before my start time of 8 am. Usually at these events, there is a warmish marquee to sit in but because of the covid rules, the only option was outside on well-spaced plastic chairs. It felt like a very long, cold and miserable hour. The only warmth to be had came from a cup of tea, the smile of the person serving it and spending a few minutes in the portaloos, which retained the heat quite nicely.
The route was a figure of eight, starting, returning and ending at the Henley showground. Setting off, I was keen to be able to set my own pace and not get caught in a crowd, so I pushed ahead quite fast. Some early hills highlighted my main problem: I could speed along on the flat, when I would do a lot of overtaking, but then would struggle up the hills and be overtaken by those same people. Back on the flat I would overtake them again, and so on. I got into this pattern with two particular people: a man who I labelled “Mr Tchaikovsky” because his number was 1812, and a woman, whose number tag bore the name “Jane K”. After a few miles of overtaking and being overtaken, “Jane K” and I started talking at a stile, and eventually decided to walk together. This turned out to be a really good development as there is nothing like an interesting conversation to make the kilometres melt away, and Jane was a lovely person to talk with. She was also very gracious as my speed and energy deteriorated as the day wore on, while hers seemed to go from strength to strength. There were some absolutely awful hills, which I could only do in short bursts, and I think Jane could have done the whole event a lot faster if she had not stayed with me.
The Chiltern scenery was stunning in the late September sunshine: acres of green and gold in every direction. Big blue skies were dotted with red kites, spinning and soaring over the fields below. The path took us through shady pine forests, ploughed fields, quintessential English villages and two long stretches alongside the Thames, where we saw mansions, temples, bell towers, ancient churches, weirs, bridges, locks and no end of water birds. If I had not been walking my absolute fastest with a pole attached to each hand, I would have taken photos. Fortunately Jane took some and so here are a few of hers, to give you an idea. (Thanks Jane!)
On the final stretch of river walking, we came across a field of white deer. I suddenly remembered how Caralyn and I had come across these same deer, right at the end of the Thames Path Challenge. Back then, it was night. with a silvery mist hanging low over the river – and the sight of the deer was surreal. In fact I had wondered if they were white deer, or whether it was an optical illusion in the moonlight, or a reflection of my befuddled and exhausted state of mind. This time, seeing the deer was both validating (they were white deer!) and also cheering, as I knew the end would soon be in sight.
We finished in a respectable 9 hours 21 minutes, including breaks. Although this event took every bit of strength and energy I had, it fulfilled my needs for adventure, new paths and new experiences.
Well, at least for a while.