Kathryn Harries - Soprano

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Footpaths - an endangered species

I got up at 5.45am, shuffled all my bags to the front door, stripped the bed, tidied up, had a cup of tea and left my very nice flat in Leeds for the last time. Lorna brought the Jag right to the front door of the apartment building to save me a hernia and as soon as we’d loaded up, we were away and on to the M1.
I fell asleep yet again; poor Lorna drove all the way to Nottingham with me huffling, snuffling and swaying beside her. We negotiated the Ring Road without mishap and she deposited me back at the spot at which I finished last night.
Lorna went pavement hunting for me as I made for the main road to Melton Mowbray. By the time I reached the roundabout where I turned onto the A606 I was seriously overheating. The sun was ferociously hot in spite of the early hour so I dragged off my fleece, tied it around my waist and followed the pavement – a welcome surprise – to a garage where Lorna was waiting. I had coffee and sandwiches for breakfast – not necessarily the healthiest way to start the day – and minus the fleece, and drinking water like it was going out of fashion, I carried on along the main road.
It was noisy and tiring; but when the pavement turned into grass verges that hadn’t seen a mower for several years, walking became annoyingly awkward. I had to switch from one side of the road to the other, time after time, to negotiate these bloody verges and wondered for the umpteenth time why footpaths are an endangered species.
Eventually I regained pavements, but only briefly, and then it was fluorescent tabard on and into fast, unyielding traffic. Hopping out of the way whenever I thought my number was up slowed me down considerably – and did nothing for my temper – but eventually I made it safely back onto a stretch of tarmac pavement and could relax my hawk-like vigilance. There’s nothing better designed to stop you blinking than walking into really fast and aggressive traffic. Every moment demands full attention or you die; simple really.
As I approached the top of a fairly steep hill, I suddenly encountered a tall young bearded man who began to applaud me enthusiastically and unexpectedly. He had a toddler in a pushchair with him and after a moment’s wondering what the hell was going on, I realised it was Ashley Holland, the fine British baritone.
Johnny Graham Hall had told Ashley that I would be walking that route today and Ashley very sweetly turned out with 17 month old Ewan to spur me on.
We bade each other goodbye after a ten minute chat, much to Ewan’s undisguised relief, and I took advantage of the ladies facilities at the garden centre beside which we’d been talking. Ewan’s relief paled into insignificance compared with mine.
Then onwards under the blazing sun, past neat houses with colourful gardens and serried ranks of bins waiting to be dragged back to their household stations after emptying.
I ran out of water – and had no idea where Lorna was. I rang her and got the voice mail because the mobile phone signals were patchy and shortly after she phoned back and said she was a few miles further ahead and would drive back.
Fifteen minutes later, refreshed and clutching yet another bottle of Buxton Water in my hot sweaty paw, I marched at full pelt along the A606 through a couple of villages and began the ascent of Great Broughton Hill.
Time was not on my side at this point because I was due to record an interview for Rutland Radio in Oakham at 1.15pm and I didn’t want to be late.
I pressed on, dodging juggernaut after juggernaut and throwing myself into nasty scratchy hedges every time anything large thundered past. It became very clear that to proceed any further on the road would render my children motherless, so I did a lightning dash across the road, climbed a rusty gate and trespassed my way through a field that followed the direction of the hill. It was rutted and steep but safe; but was there a way out? No.
I shimmied through a tunnel of nettles and brambles, climbed under, then over, two scrappy fences, negotiated a ditch and rather more solid fence and then fought my way into the next field through more nettles and brambles. Uncomfortable, yes, but mercifully not fatal.
There was no way out of the field that I could see, so I climbed another rusty gate back on to the road and started toiling up the tarmac ready to leap into the lowering hawthorn hedge at every moment.
As I sweated past a lay by on the opposite side of the road, I called ‘hi’ to a burly chap standing beside his truck and who was looking at me somewhat quizzically. ‘Are you the footpath lady?’ he called; ‘I thought you might be the footpath lady what with your fluorescent tabard and your map,’ he cried. Ah! The farmer across whose land I had just trespassed. ‘No,’ I shouted back, ‘I’m walking to London and I’m really sorry if I’ve offended you by trespassing on your land. I just wanted to reach London alive and not in a wooden box.’
That seemed to satisfy him and with a final few words of warning about the next killer bend, he leapt joyously into his truck and drove off in a cloud of exhaust fumes.
Were there actually footpaths there, I wondered? The footpath lady in these parts must be quite a formidable character if the reaction of this particular farmer was anything to go by. Go girl!
Time was now getting short and no sign of Lorna so I called her on her mobile and suggested she might like to fetch me asap if I was to get to Oakham in time for my interview.
She picked me up about half a mile further on at a crossroads and we drove into Oakham and parked near the Radio Station. I of course was by now an indescribably grubby mess covered in goose grass, dust and scratches from the morning’s walking. And to make matters worse, I was in my shorts – a sight which was enough to make strong men faint.
So I stripped off swiftly, put on some trousers and a clean shirt, dragged a brush through my hair and, having pointlessly thrown some lipstick at my chapped lips, made my way out of the car park and to Rutland Radio.
What a delightful bunch of people; I was welcomed into the handsome house that serves as the premises of Rutland Radio, given a cup of tea and unstinted use of the facilities, before being ushered into a studio to record an interview with Graham.
Graham was one of the original team which founded Rutland Radio in 1998 and he was great; full of enthusiasm about the walk, the concert at Oakham school tomorrow, meeting Bernard Cribbins and life in general. They really were like a large, energetic and very happy family, all crowded together and getting on with whatever jobs needed to be done with endless humour, patience and expertise.
Graham asked all the right questions and I cudgelled my brain into providing the right answers. The interview was to go out later in the afternoon and our hope was that we might drum up some more audience for the Friday concert. Fingers crossed.
Graham recommended the White Horse next door for lunch and while I was sipping my pint of Guinness, Diana and Lorna joined me and I treated them to a jolly good meal. The landlord seemed interested in hearing about the walk – well, he didn’t glaze over for at least five minutes – and he most kindly knocked a few quid off the final bill as a donation to the cause. What a lovely man.
Facilities were taken advantage of by us all and then we drove back to the crossroads above Great Broughton Hill and Diana and I set off together as if no time had elapsed since the parting of the ways by the Severn Bridge.
Diana’s blister had healed nicely and she was off like a bloody rocket – I could hardly keep up with her!
The day was still sunny and hot but a cooling breeze had sprung up obligingly and the walking was very pleasant. We went immediately onto minor roads and away from the A606. What a contrast to the death-defying morning. Occasional cars slowly and politely wove their way past us and we had a chance to catch up on walk news and family doings. I cheerfully handed all responsibility for our route back to Diana; she’s a damn good map reader and it was a chance for my navigational nerve centres to shut down for a well-earned rest.
We decided to go off road into Melton Mowbray and I phoned Lorna to say we’d see her somewhere in town. The paths were brilliantly well-marked and for the first few fields it was clear that the farmer and footpath lady were close chums. The paths were wide, easy to walk on and even I couldn’t get lost on them.
The same could not be said of the next few fields; the footpath lady and farmer were evidently in dispute about the state of the paths if the notices on several successive stiles were anything to go by. The paths were absolutely appalling. Nettles, brambles, waist high grasses hiding trappy holes and ruts, and the paths were frequently completely obliterated by crops. We had to lift and hurl our legs over the giant tussocks, churning up clouds of bright yellow pollen until we looked like a couple of jaundice victims reeling out of an isolation hospital.
Eventually, we made it onto better ground and walked through a housing estate wafting pollen with every step. A few turns to left and right and we were back on the old A606 once more and heading into town.
All the leg-hurling had led to an urgent need for a pee so, having spotted a suitable pub, we legged it across the road and entered a parallel universe…
The pub was festooned with England flags and the place was full of hoards of men, women and children wreathed in smoke and hollering happily at each other. The din was incredible so no one noticed two middle-aged ladies in shorts surreptitiously weaving their dusty way to the Ladies. The teenage girls in the loo who were painting each other’s faces red and white barely tossed a disdainful glance in our direction and as I sat in solitude in my cubicle, the strains of God Save the Queen filtered through the walls in an eerie and unnervingly out of tune rumble.
We slipped out of the pub as unnoticed as we slipped in; everyone’s attention was on the big screen and the battle of Titans that was shortly to begin.
Melton was like a ghost town; it took no great leap of the imagination to envisage tumbleweed bouncing down the main street and Clint Eastwood riding solitarily into the square with his hat pulled low over his eyes…
WH Smith was open but empty and we bought an OS map in record time from extremely helpful staff.
Lorna was parked in a car park somewhere near by and we told her our route out of town and asked for some more water supplies to see us through to the end of the day’s walking.
Twenty minutes later Lorna finally tracked us down on the main road out of Melton and while we walked the last couple of hours, she took the Jag to Stretton to offload all my gear at Johnny and Helen Graham Hall’s home, which was where we were staying for several days.
Diana and I wended our way briefly across country and onto tiny lanes which looked really quiet on the map but weren’t. Huge blue lorries appeared one after the other and obliged us to stand on the banks out of their bulky way. Eventually things quietened down and we could walk side by side again admiring the lovely views and the translucent quality of the evening light.
We had more than a few anxious moments wondering if we’d missed our turning – one path to Oakham after another beckoned seductively to our right and the dog-eared road map I was using was all but useless. But we were on the right road and ended the day at Whissendine where we met Lorna. I walked 25 miles today and Diana walked a very creditable 13 blister free miles in great style.
Lorna drove us to Stretton where, after a rapid bath, we all ate wonderfully well, courtesy of super cooks Johnny and Helen. Glorious roast chicken and astoundingly gorgeous roast vegetables went down a treat; at least walking long distances gives you the perfect reason for eating shed-loads. It’s going to be so depressing to go back to worrying about how many calories sneak their way down my throat when I get home.
Johnny, Helen and I went into Oakham after dinner to rehearse for tomorrow’s concert. Diana stayed behind and Lorna, who was looking absolutely shattered, went off to the GH’s terrific neighbours, Helen and Dom, who were putting her up most generously for five days.
Oakham school is beautiful; and the chapel is lovely to look at and a delight to sing in. Peter Davis, the director of music was ready to rehearse and he turned out to be one of the best pianists and accompanists we had ever worked with. Sorry – stuff these prepositions. I know I shouldn’t end the sentence with them but I sound like a pretentious prat when I manoeuvre round and round them.
Rita Cullis was there and as my first job in opera was as a Flower Maiden in Parsifal at WNO with her in 1983, there were lots of hugs and girlish cries of joy…
She sings like a goddess and somehow we managed to rehearse pretty well everything including the famous trio from Rosenkavalier. What a staggering piece of musical genius it is. So, no pressure at all to turn in a superlative performance tomorrow.
Back to Stretton and bed after several generous glasses of Graham Hall rosé.
The GH household is grand; they have a lovely big family house and 10 acres of land. Johnny is completely outnumbered by the females of the family who are as follows: Helen (wife and international soprano); Emily (13 yr old very beautiful daughter); Katie (15 yr old very beautiful daughter who sings like a future star); three lady canines; a young lady feline; at least one lady equine; several lady leporines (rabbits to you and me). Then we have the males: Johnny (husband, father and international tenor); Norman and James (geldings – male horses who’ve had their bits removed); and a solitary ginger cat, all of whom fight their manly corners with great strength and energy. Not a lot of success, but plenty of energy.
Diana and I were sharing a bedroom and had no difficulty falling fast asleep within minutes of our heads touching the pillows. Lots of sun, fresh air and exercise are conducive to a really good night’s sleep. The copious amounts of wine had nothing to do with it – really, ociffer.


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