Kathryn Harries - Soprano

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Close en-cow-nters. Sorry.

Having planned to get up early, early came and went and we didn’t.
A late evening and far too much good wine rendered us incapable of getting up before 8am and as Diana was going home this evening she wanted to say goodbye to Helen and Johnny in person and thank them for all their fantastic hospitality.
They’re amazing, those two, because whatever happens they take it in their combined stride, deal with it, and move on seamlessly. They remind me of swans gliding nobly on the surface of the water but paddling like hell underneath.
We ate our breakfast on the terrace in the pallid warmth of the early morning sunshine and before long first Helen and then Johnny, looking frightfully fetching in his bath robe and furry boots, joined us at the table. We spent the best part of an hour chatting and having a bloody good laugh which set us up for the day.
Then it really was time to go; we’d already loaded up the Mazda with Diana’s things and what we both needed for the day’s walking, so it was a quick hug and farewell and we were back on the road.
We drove down an empty A1 and then cut across on the A605 to reach Great Addington. Diana was justifiably concerned that there was nowhere to park except on the narrow street. However, by a lucky stroke of good fortune, we spotted a village hall complete with car park. Diana pulled in, I leapt out and asked the young lady who’d just emerged from the hall if we might park there for the day – and she most obligingly said yes. Diana could now enjoy the day without wondering whether or not her car had been shunted into a hedge or stone wall.
We togged up and walked out of the car park. I had to walk past the church for about fifty yards to the spot where I’d finished last night, turn round and walk back to the car park again. I’m nothing if not pedantic about these matters and the joy of my GPS watch is that all my moves are recorded for posterity – pace, distance and time walking. I’ll have a good look one day when I understand how the blasted thing works!
We left Great Addington, walked through Little Addington, (which was – little that is) and on to the strangely named Irthlingborough.
I can’t imagine that people who live there are strangers to jokes about aliens and earthlings, but it was new to us and we damn well made the most of it. We giggled our way round the outskirts of the town and I swear to God we passed someone coming the other way across a bridge who looked exactly like an alien from Star Trek. He was small, whitely bald, and very peculiar looking altogether. Sadly, we giggled even more and were desperately un-PC.
We stopped on yet another handy grassy bank and consulted the map; it was also a good excuse for sitting down for five minutes.
I was tired to begin with today; probably not enough sleep and too much wine were the reasons, so I’ll have to increase the one and limit the other from tonight. That’ll be right!
We skirted the town centre, lamenting the fact that we had now walked out of the beautiful stone villages and into rather brash red brick terraces and modern housing estates.
We stayed on the main A6 and crossed the river; hanging over the railings, we looked down on a scene that can’t have changed greatly over the last hundred years. Cattle grazed languidly in the water meadows and fishermen cast their lines into the slowly moving streams.
We’d long since passed Kettering to the west – I bought a very large tent there in 1979 – and were now east of Wellingborough. The A6 became a dual carriageway without a footpath so we were obliged to sample the delights of Higham Ferrers. It looked a mixture of housing with some lovely old buildings and some less lovely new ones.
We did another lightning dash across the A6 like a couple of suicidal lemmings and once again entered another universe.
The road we took to Newton Bromswold was empty and astonishingly rural. Diana opened her mouth to say ‘isn’t this a lovely quiet road,’ just as the first large lorry came belting towards us. And like buses, the lorries came in bunches. One after another from God knows where. Then nothing for at least ten minutes until, with weird synchronicity, we encountered two adult cyclists, one of whom had a small child on the back at exactly the same time an extraordinarily large lorry lurched round a bend. An aerial view would have been amazing and very frightening. Diana and I threw ourselves into the hedge and flattened ourselves as much as two middle-aged ladies humanly can do, the cyclists wobbled past in total unawareness of the disaster that was unfolding and the lorry driver dragged the wheel of the titanic monster sufficiently to the right to avoid killing any of us. It was a seriously close shave.
Then the road was completely empty for ten minutes.
Although the land was rural and peaceful our tummies were grumbling so the road seemed boring and endless. Walkers are like farmers; always complaining about the prevailing conditions.
We turned right at a T-junction and upped the pace until we saw a very welcome sign announcing that the Swan was 200 metres away, down a narrow lane off the main road and that it served excellent food.
If we’d upped the pace before, we now broke into what was practically a run. 2pm was upon us and I think we’d have cried if we’d been told that they’d just stopped serving.
All was well and we had an excellent lunch in friendly surroundings. I wasn’t wearing shorts so could relax, content in the knowledge that no one would have heart failure on that account. Facilities were duly visited and we walked straight out of the Swan onto a fabulously wide, grassy bridleway.
It was like a motorway compared with most off-road paths and we luxuriated in the ease of walking on a firm but springy surface.
We made incredibly good time – almost as good as walking on tarmac or pavements – and before we knew it were passing Riseley and approaching an airfield.
I had another ‘famous last words’ moment whilst walking a particularly empty stretch of bridlepath; I was obliged by my mutinous insides to find my way into a discreet ditch and do what I had to do. We’d seen no one on foot since the beginning of the day – and I mean no one at all – and I was quietly confident that I’d be able to achieve my aim and join Diana with no one any the wiser. Wrong again. As I crouched in the ditch, Diana’s voice wafted over on the still air; ‘There’s someone coming.’ I was out of the ditch in a trice – up the bank and onto the path just as a gentleman strode purposefully towards me. There was no doubt he knew precisely what I’d been up to in the ditch, but he was in too much of a hurry to even smirk. ‘Afternoon,’ he nodded and sped on his way. And then we saw no one on foot for the rest of the day…
The airfield loomed before us and we had to walk around it rather than across it because it was still active. The going was variable with easy grass paths alternating with more awkward stubble underfoot. We walked around the edges of field after field and the aerodrome seemed to get no nearer; a horse rider unwittingly showed us the way through a badly signed farmyard in which was parked an American car with the alarming number plate 5 GUN. We hurried through keeping a very low profile.
Gradually the airfield grew closer and by degrees we wended our way to the north and east of it until it was behind us.
The countryside seemed strange to me because wherever you looked there were vast corn fields, very few buildings and the general impression was of emptiness. Considering how close we were to London it had a surreal quality.
We stopped in a little village to look at the map and sat on a plastic box full of grit. How are the mighty fallen. Five minutes’ break, and levering ourselves off the box with reluctance we tottered stiffly out of the village; the riding yesterday had certainly stretched my muscles and they were making themselves uncomfortably known.
Meandering down the lane, we turned right onto a very open road with land stretching flatly either side of us. After a mile or so, we came upon a track to our left and followed the path’s circuitous route towards a distant church tower.
After passing by a container yard that threatened trespassers with all sorts of terrible fates, we had a short bit of road before turning right onto a very overgrown footpath. Diana saved the day by more expert map-reading and we bore left uphill to the church tower, past it and then right onto another path which was overgrown with corn. We followed the path through a hedge and across a wobbly plank into another field and oriented ourselves by following a stream that was clearly marked on the map.
In the corner of the next stubbly field two mallards shot up from under our feet like a pair of Harrier jump jets, and as we passed a farm a German Shepherd barked and barked and barked and barked…until we were miles away. Evidently he was the 6 o’clock doggy town crier and his self-appointed task was to relay the news of our passing to all points of the compass.
As the barking faded from our ears, we clambered into a field and stopped dead in our tracks. Bloody hell, another sodding great bull. This one was as black as night and he stood alone like a statue to the far left of us.
His calves and wives were much more skittish and galloped over with gay abandon to investigate the two idiots who’d strayed into their pasture. That was fine until the chief Mummy Cow decided that we were potential child murderers and she’d better take action. She charged straight at us with death writ large across her face.
Diana and I hopped up and down and shouted loudly while waving our caps in the air. Golly, we were really fierce.
She stopped a few feet away from us and stared at us unblinkingly. There was NO fear in her expression and that, I have to tell you, is actually quite unnerving because, as a rule, animals don’t like to look humans straight in the eye.
Not a year goes by without someone being killed on a footpath by a cow protecting her calf, so we backed up towards the stile, fully aware of how dangerous the situation was, and leapt into the next field as fast as we could.
Where there were more cows. Bugger, bugger, bugger.
These cows, however, were happy cows that simply carried on grazing and it wasn’t until we reached the end of the field that we spotted a very large black cow with very large pale horns standing in the shade of a tree with two calves at her not inconsiderable feet. She didn’t look like an entirely happy cow to us, so we tiptoed past as inoffensively as we could.
Without warning, a rusty red fox appeared right in front of us; he looked as startled as we were and after a long hard stare, he ran towards the big black cow. Not a good move as moves go, because as he paused to check us out again, she lowered her head and went for him. He was offski like a rocket and who could blame him. We certainly had every sympathy.
Our joint blood pressure went off the scale when we climbed into the next field and saw before us yet more huge cows to the right of the narrow footpath and two very new calves actually on the narrow footpath. We looked at them, they looked at us and a situation started to develop.
Deciding that discretion was the better part of valour, we lowered ourselves to the ground and slid in turn under a barbed wire fence into the adjoining field. We felt like a couple of Territorial Reservists on manoeuvres – well, rather more like a couple of prats – but we lived to fight another day and that was most definitely the MAIN THING.
We passed a fat, elderly golden Labrador who tried to see us off before giving up on grounds of obesity and advanced age before reaching a road which took us through Wilden and into confusion. The footpath by the Butterfly Farm we couldn’t find – it seemed to have gone out of business – was unaccountably missing. We backtracked, which is always tedious at the end of a long day and followed another path that led across fields to yet another road. Turning right, we phoned Lorna and said, ‘Come and get us.’
Which she did, and acting upon a text I’d sent her first thing this morning, she came armed with teabags, hot water and Kit Kats. Perfect.
Then back to Great Addington where Diana’s car sat in solitary splendour in a corner of the village hall car park.
We transferred various bits and pieces from one car to another before saying goodbye with huge hugs and many thanks.
Lorna and I drove away as Diana prepared to drive home to Hampshire. What a trooper (she’ll be cross I wrote that, but it’s true).
We had so many laughs, quite often bordering on hysterics and such great conversation during our time together it was an absolute tonic. Who in God’s name wants earnest and depressed all the time.
NOT ME!
Back at Stretton Helen and Johnny had bought in a Chinese take-away which was my thank you to them for having me. It was mega-delicious and the food and wine had the usual soporific effect after 21.25 miles and it wasn’t long before I said goodnight and went to bed. It seemed funny to think that Diana was still in her car somewhere out there heading for home. And that, I’m afraid, was my final conscious thought. Blessed oblivion.

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