Kathryn Harries - Soprano

Saturday, June 24, 2006

The road goes ever on and on...

Saturday June 24th
After a day at home unpacking and doing piles of accumulated washing, I set off for the Coliseum at 7.30pm. It felt quite bizarre.
Diana and I walked yesterday morning along Newlands Corner up to St Martha’s and back to Newlands Corner. It was a beautiful day, the air was clear as crystal and the views incomparable. And I felt for the first time in six weeks just a little tired.
It proved to me that long distance walking is all about one’s mindset and it’s as much a question of outlook as it is fitness.
Anyway, I parked in Barnes near Jill Phillip’s home and took the train to Waterloo. I was wearing my black best trousers, my Opera Walk T shirt under my Trinity Star Fleece and my walking socks and trainers. I felt a bit of a twit.
Walking across the smart new footbridge to Charing Cross, I reflected how quickly things that one looks forward to become the present and in no time at all, the past.
I sat on a low wall outside the stage door of the Coli and chatted to Lucy and Rob who are wigs and make-up at ENO. They have both looked after me when I’ve sung at the Coli and they’re both brilliant people. The very people for whom I walked, talked and sang.
And now, there was just one more bit of talking to do.
David Dyer from the chorus (who was also responsible for the marvellous musical send-off they gave me) let me into the building and as I was a wee bit early, he led me upstairs to the Ladies Chorus Room where an end of Ariodante party was in full swing.
I had a great welcome from the girls and a very nice cup of tea and piece of home made cake.
The end of the opera was approaching and David took me down to Prompt Corner where I waited and listened.
The stage manager, Nicole, with whom I’d worked a couple of times, told me the order of events and Bob Holland, the young and very tall Company Manager waited beside me till the opera came to a close.
The thunderous applause that erupted marked the end of this particular run of Handel’s Ariodante and one by one, the brilliant cast took well-deserved curtain calls before stepping back into line.
The conductor went on and then there were two company calls; a mike was handed to soprano Rebecca Evans by one of the actors and she stepped forward to speak. The hush was immediate; she announced that ‘someone very special’ was there, told them I’d walked over 600 miles for the Ben Funds and urged them to give me a great Coli welcome.
They did; and I didn’t have to sing a single note! I bowed, feeling a bit of a pillock standing there in my walking clothes.
Rebecca handed me the mike and I made a short speech to the audience, some of it from lines I’d prepared earlier –another Blue Peterish moment – and some of it off the top of my head as usual.
I made them laugh a couple of times and tried to get my message across. The Ben Funds need MORE MONEY.
Bidding them all safe home, I joined the magnificent cast and conductor for one more bow before the curtain came in. I was very nearly at the end of my adventure, but not quite.
Loretta Tomasi who had so kindly organised my send-off six weeks earlier, sponsored a little party in the American Bar downstairs. People came, stayed awhile before heading home and I had a chance to chat to some of my dearest friends and supporters.
Jill Phillips, Pam Potter and Peter Knight were there; Johnny had organised the company box for them and they adored the performance. And Naomi Hyamson, my one and only pupil was there with three friends. Naomi is a sub-editor on The Times and she not only managed to get a mention about me when I left, she was determined to get a mention in the diary the following Tuesday (which indeed she did).
I had a quiet chat with Rebecca Law who had worked so hard to get us publicity for the Walk. She’d tried and tried but the media basically weren’t interested because I hadn’t been attacked by a alien or dragged a broken leg along behind me whilst battling a terminal illness. A great pity but the way of the world. She’s a clever girl and will go far in her future career as a journalist. Thank you too to Gina Rozner who introduced us to her in the first place and worked on our behalf for much reduced fees.
Lorna had brought some T shirts into the bar and seeing people drifting away empty-handed, I leapt onto a chair, whistled for silence and announced; ‘no one leaves without buying a T shirt.’ So pretty well everyone bought a T shirt and a least another £100 went into the kitty. I should have tried that tactic after concerts!
We gave a T shirt each to the three bar staff as a thank you for staying late and then Johnny arrived having sung Don Basilio in Marriage of Figaro at the ROH. He sweetly presented Lorna and me with gifts to mark the end of the Opera Walk – Lorna had champagne and I had another wonderful selection of foot remedies. Brilliant.
Thank you, Lorna, for all you’ve done during the Walk and all the best for the future. And well done Johnny – you’ve been absolutely brilliant.
Jill, Pam and Peter had arrived by taxi and just before 11.15pm, as the bar was about to close, the four of us slowly climbed the stairs to the street and waited a matter of moments until the car drew up. We got in and laughed all the way home to Barnes….God knows what the driver thought.
I stayed with Jill for the night and we reminisced about the Long Walk for Speakability over cups of hot chocolate in the kitchen; we remembered all the fun we’d had walking and driving the length of Great Britain five years ago. Jill is another total star though she sadly couldn’t nanny me on this occasion; when I said I thought I still had another walk in me, although she rolled her eyes, she didn’t say NO!
As I drifted off to sleep a succession of memories played on my inner eye;
the glorious countryside, the skylarks singing above rippling grasslands, walking with soaking feet beside canals and laughing my socks off with Diana; Hilary and Annabel sliding down that muddy Herefordshire bridlepath and Carolyn, Julia and I having an absolute ball up north; the plaintive bleating of fat lambs and the expression on the face of the cow that charged us; nettle stings and struggling against the gale as Will, Sharon, Diana and I crossed the Severn Bridge; rain, rain and more rain; and then sweltering, sticky heat bouncing off the melting tarmac; Carol, Pam, Peter and Lucy selling T shirts and CDs at Coverwood; riding across the beautiful Rutland landscape past the golden glow of Clipsham quarry; that crazy hare racing along the road in front of me; all the people, particularly my dear friends, who helped me with yet another of my mad schemes; and the music – always the music. So, 642.9 miles behind me and a head full of memories to last me until…


The road goes ever on and on, down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the road has gone and I must follow if I can.
Pursuing it with eager feet until it joins some larger way, where many
paths and errands meet.
And whither then, I cannot say.

(Tolkein; Lord of the Rings; and the words Toria and Will had inscribed on the silver hip flask they gave me for my 50th birthday and before the Long Walk in 2001. My greatest achievement? No contest – my children win hands down.)



Thursday, June 22, 2006

Still standing

The last day – apart from walking into the Coliseum on Saturday evening, that is.
I awoke at 5.30am with the trio from Cosi going round and round in my head. We sang it last night and every time I briefly surfaced from sleep, Mozart’s music was echoing through my mind.
I might have gone back to sleep but the day was beckoning so I leapt out of bed (well, sort of) dressed and got the lap-top up and running.
I dashed off a few e-mails and then compiled a huge list of people whom Lorna will be thanking and updating when we get home.
We loaded up the Jag for the last time, said goodbye to Murray and Joan and drove away from one of the loveliest houses and most delightful families I have ever had the pleasure of visiting.
We reached the southern entrance of Trent Park reasonably quickly; there was a short hold-up on the M25 but nothing of much consequence. We pulled into the car park and I put a couple of bottles of water into my rucksack; we’d agreed that nannying me through London was a pointless exercise so Lorna was going to spend the morning at her sister’s home nearby.
The sky was overcast and threatening rain so I wore my grey waterproof and baseball cap. Inevitably they kept the rain away and before too long I was wet through with perspiration because of the heat. Sod’s law. Again.
I set off just before 9.30am and walked southwards past Cockfosters tube station before consulting the A to Z.
Sharon rang and asked me if Diana and I wanted supper: a resounding yes!
Then I headed west for a bit before turning south through East Barnet, Friern Barnet, Muswell Hill and finally to Highgate where I was meeting Diana.
My God North London is hilly; I had no idea how up and down it was. And they’re bloody big hills too. I kept my waterproof on because I couldn’t be bothered to carry it and for some strange reason people kept out of my way as I raced along.
I kept in touch with Mum and Dad who were terribly worried that I’d get mugged; if they’d only seen me they’d have realised at a glance that no one would bother me at all. Quite the contrary. Who on earth in their right mind would try to mug a large, middle-aged, sweaty Betty walking at four miles an hour and with an expression that bordered on alarming?
Diana phoned to say she’d parked her car at Raynes Park and was on the train with her son Richard; poor boy sprained his ankle badly a couple of weeks ago and was feeling pretty cheesed off about it.
I marched up and down hill like the flaming Duke of York; it was so HOT!
Johnny rang and we had a long chat about tidying up the project and how things were going to work on Saturday evening.
Diana and I aimed to meet at Highgate tube station at about 11.30am; I was still tramping up and down like a lunatic when she phoned to say she’d arrived. I told her I was racing up Muswell Hill road and not far away and within ten minutes, she was there in front of me, grinning widely at my dishevelled appearance.
We walked downhill into a coffee shop and she kindly bought me a caramel shortbread and diet coke. The one cancels out the other in my mind whatever they say at Weight Watchers.
I took off my clobber and caught sight of myself in a mirror. No wonder no one came near me; I really looked barking mad. My hair was all over the shop like I’d had a severe electric shock and my T shirt was drenched with sweat. Soooooo attractive.
I suppose it wasn’t surprising; when I looked at my GPS watch I realised I’d covered 8 miles in two hours whilst wearing far too much clothing.
Diana and I left the café and walked slowly down the hill towards central London. We nipped off to the left so she could show me her daughter Helen’s flat and then we walked at a sensibly steady pace down and down and down. London was spread out before us and St Paul’s looked close enough to touch.
Of course it wasn’t, but with some nifty map-reading we negotiated Archway, Kentish Town and Camden Town in short order, and before we knew it were standing in front of the immensely tall Post Office Tower.
While we were taking pictures at Archway, a very drunken elderly man, wearing faded denims and sporting long flowing white hair and a bushy white beard, reeled towards us. He looked like Dumbledore or Gandalf walking in a high wind on Marlborough Downs!
As soon as he spotted we were taking photos, he lurched to a wavering standstill. Slurring that he ‘didn’t want to intrude’ he stood gently rocking back and forth until we were finished. What remarkably good manners.
The crowds increased in number the closer we got to our destination and walking down Tottenham Court Road and Charing Cross Road was all ducking, diving and dodging.
We turned into St Martin’s Lane and suddenly, there before us, was the London Coliseum. It was nearly six weeks since we’d walked away from it and now the adventure was all but finished. My last 14 miles.
We walked thoughtfully up to and into the foyer and, lo and behold, there were Johnny, Jill and Lynne who is Front of House Manager.
Hugs all round with the security staff beaming at us in smiling confusion and then into the Café Nero next door for sandwiches and coffee.
While we sat chatting and munching, Lorna phoned to say she was parked in St Martin’s Lane so we suggested she come and join us. This she did but declined to eat or drink anything as there wasn’t a great deal of time left on the meter.
We said our farewells to Johnny and Jill before driving out of London along the Thames, through Putney and finally to Raynes Park; my last journey in the Jag which had been so generously donated to us for the duration of the Walk by Guy Salmon of Thames Ditton. Our most grateful thanks to David Edwards.
At the station car park, we offloaded all my belongings and bunged them into the Mazda. Then, after more hugs and thanks, Diana and I were waving Lorna goodbye and on our way down the A3 towards the Surrey Hills.
It was strange but lovely to be home; the garden looked fantastic and the house was still standing – always a plus.
After dumping my cases, bags, music, computer and odds and sods in my tiny office we had a cup of tea with Mum and Dad. Angie and Sue’s foot massager, Jill’s picnic table and the remaining case of Buxton Water went in the garage.
And then Diana and I went for a walk. On the hill, with no nasty cars and lorries and a beautiful view all the way down to the South Downs to end our stroll. What a glorious country this is.
Sharon and Will cooked us the best bangers and mash we’d ever tasted and we sank two bottles of very good champagne without any difficulty at all.
We all fell asleep watching a very earnest programme on the box about Pluto not being a planet and then one by one we went up the wooden hill to bed ever so slightly the worse for wear…

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

A snooze, a sing and a rant

A no walking day so I could get on with the programme and rehearse for the evening concert during the afternoon.
I was down for breakfast by nine and walked into a hive of industry in the kitchen. Joan was already preparing the meal for the evening with the help of Murray and her wonder-woman Rose. It was perfectly clear that this was not the first time they had entertained a very large number of people to dinner as the preparations were as smoothly oiled as a military machine. Actually, probably rather better…
Lorna joined us and after breakfast she and I accompanied Murray to the greenhouses where we picked tiny runner beans that would serve as a garnish on each dinner plate.
The garden was glorious in the summer sunshine and the long views in every direction were staggeringly beautiful. Serge Hill springs from the ground as if Nature had planted it there and it perfectly compliments and enhances the surrounding landscape. Many alterations have been made over the centuries but there is no disharmony in the whole. With tranquillity and grace it sits benignly regarding the world around it.
I returned to my room and typed out the programme that had been agreed on at breakfast; as usual I had too much music for the allotted time, so I asked Joan and Murray for their opinions and they made the final decision on what would be performed. As well as being extremely well-educated musically, as instrumentalists themselves they knew precisely what would go down well with their audience of invited guests.
The first of the artists to arrive was our brilliant accompanist, Gill Ford. She’d come straight to Serge Hill from Eton, where she teaches piano a day each week and she joined us for lunch outside. The table was tucked into a shady corner out of the stiff breeze and Kate and her husband, entrepreneur David Docherty were at the table as were Ibby, daughter of Elizabeth, the youngest of Joan and Murray’s six children, and Polly and Flora, Kate and David’s young daughters. The girls were all to be waitresses serving canapés to the guests as they arrived between 7.00 and 7.30pm.
After lunch, while Lorna put donation forms into concert shells, I rehearsed with Gill in the music room. We whipped through what I was singing in no time, so Gill went for a stroll in the gardens whilst I found my way to Kate’s office where David printed out seventy-five programmes for me. He’s a power house of achievement; as well as having had an extraordinary career in TV, he is a successful author and is now exercising his considerable entrepreneurial skills in the open market.
Downstairs the activity was fast and furious; Rose and Frances, Kate’s wonder-woman, were in full swing and three of their grandchildren, Holly, Hayley and Michael were poised to help. Joan and Elizabeth were at the table with Lorna, preparing strawberries for dessert. I was finished for the time being so went upstairs for a 40 minute pre-concert snooze.
Around 5pm, Nick Folwell and Sue Bickley arrived and we rehearsed the ensembles; Jill Phillips was later than she intended because of confusion over the directions she’d been given by Lorna – but after a cup of tea (the Great British Cure-all) she recovered and set to gathering information about the artists she would be introducing.
There was no sign of Adrian Thompson and as six o’clock came and went we became a little apprehensive – the M25 is notoriously bad in the rush hour –what a misnomer that is; who on earth is rushing anywhere?
To everyone’s relief, he arrived safe and sound at 6.40pm and after running through his arias with Gill, he joined Nick in the ‘boys’ dressing room to change while the ‘girls’ used my bedroom to get ready.
There was lots of gossip, giggling and catching up with news as we plastered on the Polyfilla and made ourselves presentable.
Guests began arriving at 7pm and we could hear the low murmur of voices as the assembly in the hall grew larger and more convivial.
The concert began just before 7.45pm and lasted until just after 9pm. Spot on, if I say so myself. The audience was most appreciative, though I suspect some were deafened in the comparatively small space. I know for a fact that one gentleman turned his hearing aid off during the singing and turned it on again when Jill was reading. This she did with her usual aplomb and from the adjoining smoking room, where we awaited our turn like patients waiting for the dentist, we could hear the audience laughing as she gave her two very funny readings.
We all sang rather well – and the ensembles were really very good. Murray thanked us at the end and said the concert had been like having their Desert Island Discs without the bother of having to be either castaway on a desert island or castaway at BBC Broadcasting House. The guests were told to check the seating plan and make their way to their allotted seats as dinner would shortly be served. While they found their places, I seized the opportunity to tidy up the music room, gathering together all the concert shells and donation forms that were lying on the seats or on the floor before going into the hall to join Murray and his guests for dinner. There were tables in the dining room, hall and sitting room and Rose, Frances and their grandchildren had lit the candles five minutes before the concert ended. Everything looked perfect and the meal was superb. Polly, Flora and Ibby, their duties done, appeared and disappeared like Titania’s fairies in Midsummer Night’s Dream. And it was midsummer; the evening was still light and a soft, a luminescent glow lay over the garden and fields beyond. The deep gold of the grazing Jersey cattle across the ha-ha melted into the deeper green of the trees behind and in the distance, tiny pinpricks of light dotted the landscape like a carpet of fairy dust.
Back inside the house, the air was alive with chatter and laughter. I sat beside Murray and had most interesting and lively conversations with two of his long-standing friends.
Murray was a most eminent QC and highly regarded judge. Although retired, he has lost none of his brilliance and quickness (and wicked sense of humour) and I’m very, very glad that I never had to appear before him on the wrong side of the law. Justice would have always been well-served, but with his upright, impressive build and keen perception, he must have frightened the life out of any wrong-doer. What an incentive to be law-abiding.
And Joan is equally impressive; Kate told me a little about her and how, with six children in as many years, she ran Serge Hill like a general as well as supporting Murray in his career and involving herself in a colossal number of other activities, many of them charitable.
People like these should run the country; then we wouldn’t be in the bloody awful state we’re in now. One of the great pleasures of walking long distances is that you’re too tired to bother with newspapers and TV. It’s a great relief not to know what ghastliness is going on in the world, because most of the dreadful things we hear about on a daily basis are things we can do nothing about. So we constantly exist in a state of depression and stress, and feel powerless to change the way things are. And that, I suspect, is what politicians and media tycoons around the world intend; by keeping everyone permanently fearful about the next potential disaster (be it bird flu, asteroids, or foreign dictators) and by whittling quietly away at our little freedoms, they gain more and more control over us. We are now living Orwell’s 1984; there has been a sea-change and it’s not for the better.
Off the soap-box and back to the wonderful evening at Serge Hill; I met many charming and generous people who promised to support the Opera Walk and it was a marvellous way to bring the musical part of the Walk to a close.
One by one the musicians departed and as the audience drifted away – many of them clutching the CDs they’d bought from Lorna – peace fell over the house and we whispered our goodnights before making our various ways to bed. One more day to go. How extraordinary.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Walk before you can run

As all the Graham Halls had to leave the house by 8am, Lorna and I agreed last night that I’d phone her at seven to waken her and we’d load up the Jag at 7.30am.
She was bang on time and after emptying everything out of the car, we repacked before saying our goodbyes and thank yous.
The traffic on the A1 was moving freely and in no time at all I fell fast asleep. I was woken some time later by Lorna’s voice; ‘which junction was it?’ I forced my eyes open just in time to see Junction 7 coming up; ‘it was Junction 8 – go off here!’
So, off we went round the roundabout and back on the A1 going north. It wasn’t many miles before Junction 8, where we exited safely before pulling up in the lay by where I finished last evening.
We looked at the map – we were both working off the same one today which made life a lot easier. Agreeing to meet the other side of Stevenage, we parted company and I made for the giant roundabout which I had to negotiate before I could follow the A602 into town.
Several mad dashes later I was on my way along cycle tracks cum footpaths all the way into and through Stevenage. I was truly astonished that the provision for pedestrians was so fantastic and I fair raced through Stevenage and out the other side.
Picking up the B road to Knebworth I phoned Toria in Oz and had a five minute chat. It was so lovely to hear her voice and it made me realise how much I’ve missed her over the past two and a half years.
Knebworth came and went and, spotting a Tesco supermarket on the right hand side of the road, I decided to nip in and see if they had a café and facilities. Lorna drove past me with a toot and continued past Tesco and across the next roundabout. As I also needed more water, I phoned her double quick and asked her to come back and meet me in the supermarket car park.
There wasn’t a café but there were facilities, and by the time I came out into the car park Lorna was there with a bottle of water at the ready.
Another look at the map and we agreed to meet at Cole Green, which was a good six or seven miles further on. I took two bottles of water as the day was very warm indeed and I do drink an enormous amount when I’m walking. And this, of course, is why I’m constantly on the look out for facilities.
I’d seen a sign in Knebworth saying that London was 27 miles away and it gave me a jolt; the end was in sight and today would be the last full day’s walking on the Opera Walk.
What surprised me about the whole day from here on was the countryside through which I walked. I meandered down narrow, sandy lanes between high hedges and felt that I could have been in the wilds of Pembrokeshire rather than a day’s hike from London. Motorists were polite and the day had a charmed feel about it. The air was warm and pleasant and the bird song was spectacular. I was in seventh heaven and this proved to be one of the best day’s walking during the entire journey.
My map was not really adequate for the task but I guessed my way successfully by a series of footpaths through fields and woodlands until, to my great surprise, I stumbled upon Lorna at Cole Green.
The Jag was parked on the grass in the shade of a huge horse chestnut in full, glorious leaf; she kindly set out the folding chair and I finished the pasta salad I’d started yesterday, had a refreshing cup of tea, sighed a lot at all the beauty before me and then continued onward.
Our next meeting was to be Cuffley and the distance some seven miles or so. As I walked through Letty Green, I suddenly stopped and then walked forward as quietly as I could. On the bank to my right and completely unaware of my presence, was grazing the tiniest rabbit I’ve ever seen. I watched, spellbound. Gradually, it became conscious of the weight of my attention and its black, perfectly round shiny eyes grew larger and larger. In a trice it bounded away into the adjacent garden, its tiny tail bobbing white and fluffy as a puff of cloud.
Shortly after, I met a lady on an incredibly pretty odd-coloured horse and, as I was walking faster than they were, the horse was slightly spooked. I slowed so that we could pass the time of day and when I admired the horse, the rider said that she’d seen him in a field some years before and simply had to have him. And there they were having a great time together and horse and rider looked as though they were meant for each other. Love at first sight.
As I talked to Gill Cribbins on the mobile, I cut across a village green, onto a road heading south and unwittingly walked exactly the route I should have chosen had I had those wits about me.
We had a longish chat and when she asked where I was I had to admit I wasn’t entirely sure. Gill knows the area and fired a few names at me; I hadn’t a clue so when a car driver appeared whom I could ask, I said I’d phone her later and asked him where I was.
All credit to him, he didn’t bat an eyelash! I was precisely where I’d hoped I was and, thanks to him, I was able to cut another several miles off my walk to Cuffley. The angels up there must be sending people my way whenever I need them because they turn up time after time and save me miles.
So I battled my way to Newgate Street on a narrow country road that was evidently a tea time rat run, bore right down Carbone Hill on his instructions, and tried not to get killed by the speeding, unyielding traffic.
As he’d said, there was a well-marked path on the other side of the road that went directly to Cuffley Station and, having sprinted across in the few seconds when cars and lorries weren’t batting past, I gratefully followed the path which led me out of woodland, past neat and tidy houses to the main road. Turning right, and away from the station, I walked up through town, debated which way to go at a T junction, opted to go leftwards and as I marched along the pavement I rang Lorna to see where she was. I’d run out of water and needed supplies – and according to my map, I was about to negotiate an innocuous road that passed under the M25 and that would then take me slightly westwards to the A1005 at Botany Bay.
Lorna was a couple of miles behind me and off the route I planned to take, so as I carried on walking she set off to find me. This she did within ten minutes and after I’d replenished my water supplies, I asked her to scout my proposed route and let me know what it was like.
Off she drove, up the hill and out of sight. Looking at my map, I reckoned that the turning I wanted was at the top of the hill and when I got there, not having heard a dicky bird from my scout I gave her a ring and asked if I was correct. Indeed I was and Lorna advised me that the innocuous road was actually rather dangerous and fast and there were no pavements at all. Grass verges, yes, but no proper footpath.
I dragged on my tabard once again and marched head on into the speeding cars and lorries. It was actually very dangerous but as it was now late in the day – gone 4.30pm – I needed to take the most direct route possible if I was to have a day off walking tomorrow. So I grinned and lumped it.
Lorna and I met in a precariously narrow lay-by just after I went under the motorway – which was, as usual, chock-a-block with traffic and at a virtual standstill.
We agreed that as it was 4.45pm and we didn’t want to be late arriving at Serge Hill, home of Sir Murray Stuart-Smith and his family, she would estimate how long the journey would take us if I stopped as planned at six. I would walk for as long as I could but stop in order to arrive at our hosts by 7.30pm in time for dinner at 8.
And that was the last I heard from her until 6.15pm.
I walked on up the hill and then right handed onto a road with a narrow pavement. What a relief it was to be able to stop hopping on and off the grass verge every five seconds. I had a brief chat with Mum and Dad followed by an abortive attempt to cut a corner off my route by taking a footpath. Two charming ladies suggested that the road would be a better option so I duly back-tracked and as I reached the T-junction at Botany Bay I had my first and totally thrilling view of London.
It was a clear day and I could see for miles and miles; I was pretty high up above Enfield Chase and I cursed the fact that I’d left my camera in the car so as to walk faster without encumbrances.
After a few moments of feeling really quite stunned by the sudden and unexpected sight of my destination, I pulled myself together and went eastwards along the A1005. I looked in vain for a path that would cut across Enfield Chase and was obliged to walk two sides of a triangle to reach the entrance to Trent Park which was almost due south of Botany Bay.
Having heard nothing for ages from Lorna, I tried to phone her and realised to my horror that my mobile’s battery was almost dead. As I pondered what to do, it bleeped and I picked up a text message from her: ‘Where are you? We mustn’t be late for Sir Murray’. I texted back as fast as I could and told her where I was and asked her to pick me up at the northern entrance to Trent Park. No reply. And now I was at the entrance and not sure what to do. So I texted again, fearful that the phone would give out at any minute. No reply.
Just as I was beginning to wonder what the hell to do, she texted me again saying Sir Murray wasn’t bothered about the time of our arrival and she was staying where she was at Cockfosters.
I couldn’t respond – my phone had quietly given up the ghost.
So, having walked 25 miles already, I ran the last mile – except for the uphill bit, I have to be honest – all the way through the park and to the southern entrance where Lorna was waiting. Hmmm.
We drove up the A111, joined the M25 going east and following the superb directions Sir Murray had given us, we reached Serge Hill by 7.20pm.
Sir Murray and his wife, Joan, met us in their driveway and helped us carry our belongings to our bedrooms.
I was deeply aware of how frightfully sweaty and horrible I looked after my run and it was a truly surreal experience to be shown into a bedroom that was fit for a king. It was breathtakingly lovely.
I showered and Lorna bathed hurriedly before joining Murray, Joan and their daughter Kate for dinner at the kitchen table. Murray and Joan had kindly offered not only to put us up for two nights but to host a soiree in their music room. More than sixty people had been invited and they’d spent the day moving masses of furniture out of the house and into a barn so that chairs could be set out ready for the concert tomorrow evening.
How wonderfully generous they are to show support for the Opera Walk by turning their beautiful house upside down and laying on not only a concert, but also dinner for seventy afterwards. I was hugely impressed by both Murray and Joan; they are the most admirable people who, after lifetimes of colossal achievement, showed us unstinting generosity and kindness.
And this is what had been one of the chief joys of the Opera Walk; meeting the most fantastic people. Some have been old friends and others, hopefully, will be new ones. But it is very humbling to know that these dear and special ladies and gentlemen have made it possible for me to realise the idea that became the Opera Walk.
After a much-appreciated dinner, Lorna went to her room whilst Kate took me to her part of the house to connect my lap-top to their broadband. We had a great chat as I floundered my way to success and actually managed to make the connection. I learned that this too was a three generation household like mine – the house was bigger by far, but the pleasure and joy we each derived from living with our parents and children was equal.
Maybe it’s an unusual arrangement – and maybe for many people it would be disastrous. But it’s not, I’m happy to say, for either my family or for hers.
She showed me how to find my way back to my bedroom – I could have done with a map – and after brushing my teeth, I fell into bed, turned out the light and dreamed of tomorrow.

Monday, June 19, 2006

A terrible visitation

Well, the beginning of the final week. I can’t believe how quickly the time has passed and how this project will soon be history. Carpe diem.
We don’t know what’s around life’s corner – though in my case, it’s likely to be a large lorry – and we must all make the most of the time we’ve got.
Today was Johnny’s first night of the Marriage of Figaro at Covent Garden; you’d never have known because life went on as normal at Rookery Farm and he made no singerish song and dance about it at all.
Helen was working at the Almeida again rehearsing a Michael Nyman piece. It opens in about three weeks and sounds very interesting.
The girls were off to school and Lorna and I planned to set off around nine and head down the A1 to Great Barford. While I was in the bedroom doing my feet, I heard sirens and hooting and wondered if there’d been an accident. When Lorna arrived and we drove out of Rookery Farm, it only took a glance at the A1 to see that there’d been a major shunt somewhere further along and we’d best take another route. We drove to Oakham and then onto the A1 at Stamford avoiding both the accident and its consequences and reached the lay-by where Diana and I had finished the night before.
Lorna was on excellent form and we agreed that she should meet me the other side of Great Barford and generally keep close for the day. I planned to spend most of the time on main roads which always made life an awful lot simpler for both of us. The weather today was good for walking; warm and dry, with quite a lot of high cloud and a light breeze and I set off, minus my rucksack, and quickly settled into a loping rhythm along the road.
Almost immediately a large hare dashed out from the field on my right and in its bewilderment ran ahead of me along the central white line. I was on the phone to Gill Cribbins at the time and she had a blow by blow account of its progress. I feared for its life as the road carried a good deal of heavy traffic and when a large tractor pulling a trailer passed me going towards Great Barford I thought the hare’s number was up.
Had it been a rabbit, maybe the farmer would have accelerated and finished the job, but hares were evidently different. The tractor driver slowed and kept behind the hare which was ducking and diving in terror until it eventually took a mammoth leap into the grass on the left of the road and disappeared. And that was after a good quarter of a mile of dicing with death. What a relief – for me, for Gill – and I dare say, for the hare.
I reached Great Barford in what seemed no time at all and as I approached the main road that passes through the village a very eccentrically dressed gentleman doffed his hat to me and smilingly said, ‘good morning.’ I couldn’t doff my baseball cap because my hands were full of water bottles, my camera and map. But I returned his greeting with a big smile and thought how good manners do make life so much pleasanter.
Dodging the constant stream of cars and lorries on the main road, I walked out of the village, over a very pretty bridge that reminded me of the narrow bridge at Betchworth in Surrey. Lorna was waiting on the other side, tucked neatly into a gateway and she handed me a Kit Kat to see me through the next few miles. We agreed to meet in Moggerhanger – what a fearful name and I hope it had nothing to do with unspeakable things being done to innocent Moggies.
As I walked, I admired the wild flowers in the verges and hedgerows; bright, brave poppies danced in the corn fields and everywhere looked fresh and full of promise.
My need for the loo came upon me like a terrible visitation and as I was walking through the suburbs of Blunham, there was no way I could nip behind a convenient hedge or into a handy field. It’s bloody difficult walking with crossed legs and I was within an inch of disgracing myself when I spotted Harpers Children's Nursery. I crossed the road, rang the bell, put them in the picture and, bless them a million times, they let me in and allowed me to use their Ladies. That really was a close call and I’m beginning to think that incontinence pads might be a very good thing should I ever wish to long-distance walk again.
Thank you, thank you, thank you, Harpers Nursery. You saved me from a horrible and very messy fate.
I took a right turn to Moggerhanger and followed the road without paying much attention. Because I was on the phone, I missed a crucial turning and as has happened time and again, someone popped up out of nowhere and put me on the right path. This time it was a charming older lady on a ladder who was clipping her hedge.
So, I blithely followed her instructions, admiring the largely flat countryside as I walked, and arrived at one of the worst B roads I’ve ever had the misfortune to encounter on foot – in my entire life.
How I didn’t get thoroughly squashed I’ll never know. I shouted and cursed my way into Moggerhanger like a certifiable lunatic.
It wasn’t a route Lorna would have scouted because she expected me to arrive on minor roads; it was entirely my own stupid fault and I was very lucky indeed to live to fight another day.
It was now very definitely an urban landscape but I could still detect ‘eau de vache’ in the air; I think some muck spreading had been going on quite recently and the warm air was redolent of cow. And I have to add that the smell of cows is one that I find very warm and comforting – except when they’re threatening to kill me.
Lorna and I found each other and after exchanging an empty bottle of Buxton Water for a full one, we agreed to meet three miles further on at Northill.
Lorna had much more joie de vivre today so hopefully the comparatively restful weekend did her good.
Out of Moggerhanger and on the road to Northill I passed a huge field full of onions that were being turned over by a tractor. I wondered whether it was a restful or stressful way to pass the time. The onions lay in neat, straight lines ready to be picked up and transported to their future and the air was heavy with their pungent scent.
I didn’t stop in Northill because I wanted to make as many miles as possible before lunch so I met Lorna in Ickwell where I sat down for ten minutes, ate some lunch, made a continuous stream of phone calls before levering myself out of the folding chair and carrying on.
Ickwell was yet another really pretty village and on one side of the green there stood a very tall pole with a small crown on the top. A maypole I presumed – something I don’t recall having seen on any of my wanderings to date.
While Lorna went back to Northill to have some lunch in a pub, I walked on to Old Warden; it was absolutely fantastic. One wonderful thatched house after another. And the red brick houses had a mellowness about them that was sadly lacking in places like Irthlingborough. I suppose it all boils down to money in the end…
As I consulted my map, I was reminded of a conversation I had with Diana on Saturday; she told me about the lady who decided after the Second World War that it would be a really good idea to create a London street map. So she walked every single London street, charting every one as she went, and it became known as the A to Z. She died not so long ago at a very advanced age – all that walking I expect. What a marvellous idea and what a splendid character to bring the idea so practically to life.
Another piece of interesting information; there are apparently mistakes in the real A to Z so that if anyone produces an unauthorised map by copying the original, the manufacturers of the original will know straight away and deal with the offenders in the time honoured fashion.
Bloody nuisance if the deliberate mistake happens to be just the street you were looking for.
I passed Shuttleworth College with its multitude of tall towers; on a triangle of grass by the entrance were two posters: one was for a concert featuring Abba, Elton John and Queen and the other was for a concert billed as the original Flying Proms featuring the Guildford Philharmonic Orchestra with spectacular flying displays. An interesting concept…
There were several thatched cottages which had roofs that were configured like quizzical eyebrows over the bedroom windows and a couple of lychgate like constructions containing ancient pumps. One had a tiled roof and the other was very neatly thatched but I have no idea whether or not they still function.
The gardens I passed were immaculate; and as the road had recently been resurfaced, all the traffic passed by extremely sedately. Not because they didn’t want to kill the nasty pedestrian – they didn’t want to scratch their paintwork.
Even in this village there were England flags on display and I pondered on the pros and cons of such an exhibition. Some people find it alarmingly jingoistic while others think it’s an encouraging sign of unity amongst the population. I stayed firmly on my comfortable fence and came to no decision at all.
I walked through Shefford and went adrift when I turned right at the High Street. A very helpful and genial builders’ merchant put me right and it actually was a blessing in disguise because he told me how to get to the A600 by the shortest route. He was spot on and saved me several miles.
I walked at a good clip and must have looked seriously strange because two men I passed and to whom I said ‘good afternoon’ actually shied away from me making gurgling noises and with terror in their eyes.
So I can surely say to my Mum and Dad, who worry incessantly about my safety, that when I’m walking long-distance people scatter at my approach.
I strode womanfully past Henlow Greyhound Stadium and wondered whether any of Gill Cribbins’ greyhounds had ever run here. And then I spotted Lorna by a parade of shops and stopped for some pasta salad. She gave me a lovely cup of tea which revived me very nicely and after ten minutes maximum I was on my way once more – this time to Hitchin in Hertfordshire.
Hitchen was four and a half miles further on and my plan to reach Codicote was fading fast as it was now getting on for 5pm.
A striped school tie lay on the pavement in front of me and, though I ignored it at first, my conscience got the better of me and I went back, picked it up and tied it around a nearby lamppost as if tying it around someone’s neck. I debated whether to do a Windsor knot but decided that would be a step too far.
Pressing on with my head down, I forgot to look at my surroundings. When I did, I was very surprised to see that although I was walking beside the painfully noisy A600, on either side were great corn fields rippling into the distance and elegant, ancient houses dotted here and there.
My left leg was giving me a bit of gyp because I tweaked a muscle in my thigh riding on Saturday evening. When I consulted my GPS watch I could see that my average speed was under my usual 3.5 to 3.6 and I was sitting at 3.3 miles an hour. Not bad, but not especially good.
And then the urgent need for facilities came upon me once again like a Biblical curse and to my amazement, no sooner had I had that very thought, than a pub called the Angel’s Reply arose before me. How very apt and how extraordinarily fortuitous.
Five minutes later and feeling very much better, as I crossed a side road I stepped in front of a car bearing the number plate ENO---. It missed and I resolved to take more care.
I walked into Hitchen and was diverted by lack of pavement into the old town away from the A602. What an unexpectedly pretty place, full of interesting shops and intriguing nooks and crannies. I guessed my way through the streets, up a steep hill and by some miracle arrived bang on the road I wanted.
It was evidently going to be pavements most of the way from now on so I agreed with Lorna over the phone that I’d meet her near Great Wymondley which would place us close to the A1 for the journey home.
She, poor soul, got there ages before me and then, for some inexplicable reason, instead of waiting for me went the wrong way down the A 602 and got stuck in a colossal traffic jam. When I phoned to say I was close to Little Wymondley she was miles away, so I said I’d just keep on walking until she caught me up. And I must say I was secretly pleased because it meant that when she did find me, I was almost on top of Junction 8 of the A1. A total distance of 25 miles and an excellent position to start again tomorrow.
A slightly frazzled Lorna picked me up at 7pm and we made very good time back to Stretton, arriving as we did, an hour later. Helen’s Mum cooked us a most delicious dinner and afterwards, as both Johnny and Helen were going to be late home, we said our goodnights and went to bed.

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.
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.