Sunday, 4 December 2016

A and E and Peterborough

Today has been ludicrously hard, largely because, at 11pm yesterday, I was rushed into hospital on account of my left leg swelling up to twice the size of the other one and being covered in nasty blisters. There aren't that many headlines to the story; the doctor who told me to go wouldn't send an ambulance, so my land lady texted me a list of local taxi companies, none of whom could take me in. It was genuinely awful. There are no words to describe how helpless it feels to be in that situation with no transport and an increasing level of panic. I had no idea what was going on. I just knew I wanted medical assistance. In the end, my landlady drove me there in an act of absolute generosity.

The triage nurse was surly and didn't really look at the wound, so I was relegated to the back of the queue and only seen by a doctor at 2am. The doctor was astonished and had to get a second opinion which didn't shed a great deal of light on the situation. The second doctor didn't think the rash was related to the fall, and assumes I've walked over some poison ivy or some such. He lanced one of the boils with a pair of scissors and prescribed me some antibiotics, which I'm not sure have done anything but make me feel sick. At the end of day four, I've another blister and the leg is still enormous. I just need to get through two more days and then I can curl up in a little ball and sleep! 

So I took a taxi back to Fotheringhay, which is one of the darkest villages I've ever visited at night, and got about four hours' sleep, which is nowhere near enough.

After a lovely breakfast in the B and B, I took myself to the site of the old castle in Fotheringhay, which, of course, is where Mary Queen of Scots was beheaded and Richard III was born. It's right by the Nene, but these days it's nothing but a mound. There are all sorts of stories about Queen Elizabeth tearing the place down in an attempt to leave no trace of the horrifying order she'd given. I've also read that Mary's son, James I, had the place torn down, but the truth seems to be a great deal less interesting. Probably because it felt like a tainted spot, it simply fell into disrepair and locals went in and nicked the stone. They say most of Oundle is built from the stone of the castle and that the Talbot Hotel has the castle's staircase (which is rumoured to be haunted by Mary herself.)

Frost was glinting magically on the castle mound, and, as I walked out of the village, the sun was shimmering on the stained glass windows of the church. It's been a beautiful day with non-stop, stunning wintry sunlight.

I took the road to Nassingham where I met Peter and Beth from NMPAT who have commissioned this whole project. It was so lovely to see them trudging along the road. Their presence meant I had lovely people to talk to all day, and, in the case of Beth, someone to mother me a little and check I was okay! She carried my rucksack all day as well, which was an act of extreme generosity. It made all the difference. Before lunch I came closer than I've ever been to throwing in the towel. We walked across one field, which was such heavy-going that I started to lose all hope.

One of the wonderful aspects of having Peter about was that he took charge of navigation, which meant I didn't have to think, or keep checking my phone.

The first lovely moment was in Wansford-in-England, where the three of us officially passed into Cambridgeshire. It was rather nice to be doing so with two fellow Northamptonians. Wansford is a lovely town with a stunning 16th Century, many-arched bridge which takes travellers across the Nene flood plain. And why Wansford-in-England? Well, the story goes that a local dim wit fell asleep on a bale of hay, and when he awoke, the hay-bale was floating down the river Nene. Much disorientated, he shouted at someone on the bank: "where are we good Sir?" "Wansford" "Wansford... in England?" asked the dim wit... and the name was born.

We stood on the bridge for sometime, looking back towards Northamptonshire. I was taking photographs into the sun, and everything took on a wonderful 1970s back-lit quality!

Crossing the A1, a few minutes later was also something of a key moment. We did so at a fabulous Art Deco building which featured in my A1 film, when it was derelict and covered in graffiti. I remember the building from my childhood when it was a Happy Eater but these days it seems to be the home of an architect company, which feels appropriate, despite my having a sneaky desire to see it as a truck stop again. I love atmospheric truck stops.

Under the A1 was a murky wonderland where shafts of light burst through the concrete struts of the bridge and dance on the brown surface of the water.

In these parts, the fields are full of teasels. Thousands of them. When the sun lights them up from behind, they look absolutely beautiful.

Just before lunch we stumbled up to the first station on the Nene Valley Railway. It's called Wansford, but is actually nearer to Stibbington. It was a much-welcome break. The station has the most charming little old-school cafe which is run by old rail enthusiasts. It's such a nice place to sit and have a cup of tea and a sandwich.

They were running the "Santa Express" today, so there were loads of highly excitable children rushing about. We got to watch the train leaving the station. I recorded it because I want to feature a musical representation within my work. The rest of our walk to Peterborough was punctuated with the sounds of steam and distant whistles. Periodically, a train would rattle past us. The carriages are plainly French because they're adorned with French words.

The sun started kicking out the most beautiful light from about 2 pm and I'm thrilled to report that I saw my first Oxbow lake in the middle of a field! A-level geography instantly kicked in and I got pathetically excited!

We walked along the calm river for a long time, as the sun started glowing orange in the sky and then again reflected on the surface of the river. Barges would occasionally drift past us, creating v's of shimmering ripples on the river in their wake. Someone was whistling very happily on one of the boats. It was a lovey sound.

We passed a dog wearing a muzzle and a yellow jacket at one point, which had the words "dog in rehab" written on it.

The sun melted into a glorious sunset which kept appearing behind the trees. My legs gave way. The walk into Peterborough seemed endless and by the time I'd got to my hotel, I couldn't even climb the stairs. Now I know what it feels like to be old!!

Saturday, 3 December 2016

Day three... and the accident

Well, without question, today was tough. My task was to walk from Stanwick to Fortheringhay, and I completely underestimated the river meanders, and, well, pretty much everything else. But I made it.

I'm sitting by a lovely open fire in the Falcon Inn. It is toasty warm and entirely empty and silent, so my eyes keep closing. The charming bar lady has just put extra logs on the fire and is under strict instructions to wake me up if I nod off before the chef arrives at six. 

I woke up surprisingly refreshed at Chris' B and B. Bizarrely, the words "Jodrell Bank" were, once again, the first to go through my head. Is anyone familiar with Jodrell Bank? Is anything strange going on there at the moment?

Chris served me a wonderful cooked breakfast, and cheered me up no end by telling me my old school isn't actually in special measures. A relief.

My walk began alongside a dual carriageway as I inched myself back to the river. The Nene Way instantly did one of its special tricks and vanished up a hill towards a village I had no interest in visiting. The signs for the walk had also been uprooted so I was trying to line up my map of the Nene Way with my phone's GPS and failing miserably. The Nene Way is woefully under-signposted in these parts and to add a whole new aspect of frustration, all sorts of other public footpaths ARE indicated with generic green signs, which include some for the Nene Way itself. It's ludicrously confusing and highly frustrating.

I decided to follow the Nene Way into the village of Woodford, fancying a trip up there, having read up about the fascinating church. On my way up to the village, as so often happens, the path passed through a farm yard. I think farmers move the signs to dissuade walkers from passing through their land. A generic green footpath sign, just before the farmyard, sent me over a stile into a field which didn't seem to have an exit.

As I walked up to it, I could see a group of men of varying ages all wearing wellies and carrying guns, standing in the farm yard. I went as near to them as the field would allow, and asked if they could indicate where the path to Woodford was. One of them pointed back at the farmyard and said "we get a few walkers coming through there. I'd hop over the fence if I were you and head in that direction."

A small crowd of them gathered and watched as I climbed the fence like an old man because I was so stiff. What I wasn't expecting was for the top rung of the fence to be rotten and give way just as I put all my strength on it. I tumbled six feet onto my back, fortunately slightly cushioned by my rucksack, which only has soft things inside, but I caught the back of my shin and ankle on another one of the fence rungs and have bruised myself so badly that I'm scared of waking up and putting pressure on it. I was also really shocked. The men looked at me worriedly and asked if I was okay. I stood up and nodded. "I don't know about the path to Woodford" one said, "we might have to get you the ambulance there..." I hobbled off pretending to laugh out of embarrassment. I later discovered that my trousers had split on all seams around the gusset. Brilliant, but when you're as exhausted as me, dignity is merely a concept.

I limped up to Woodford and visited the church, where there's a mummified heart in a glass recess in one of the pillars which they think belonged to a crusader. Creepy.

There's also a very curious framed photo in the corner of the church where children are encouraged to play. The photo shows a ghost... apparently; a blurry, kneeling figure at the alter, which I assume was a cleaner the vicar didn't notice when he took the long-exposure picture!

I heading back to the Nene and stood staring into a weir for some time. It was at that moment that I realised the musky perfume smell I kept experiencing yesterday is actually the smell of Nene water rushing over an underwater ledge. There will be a scientific reason for the smell, but its intoxicating and beautiful... and I would wear it if it could be bottled. What would we call it? "Nene Foam" "Murky Waters"?

There are an astounding number of red kites in these parts, which appear to have a very distinctive call. The sound of swans flying is even weirder! It sounds like the noise your heart sometimes makes in your ears. A rushing, 1980s synth-drum noise not far from the sound they used on Pigeon Street, but subtler!

I diverted into Islip, having run out of water, but discovered the only shop there is a curiously bustling hair salon, so I went in and asked the girl behind the counter if she'd fill me up. As it were...

These walks are always lovely until lunch time, when there's a sudden panic about reaching the destination before it gets dark. It's like a sort of lottery. A race with the inevitability of nature. Will I end this walk on main roads because I can't walk along a muddy river bank at night?

And at lunch today, I was only about a third of my way to Fotheringhay. The weather did its best to gee me up. I was walking through a beautiful water meadow and the sun suddenly came out, making the straw-coloured reeds light up. I was revelling in the moment and then I tripped over a huge dead, semi-eaten fish, which I assume had been dropped there by a big old bird.

So I made a decision to walk the five miles to Oundle along a (relatively direct) local road, which seemed to last an eternity. I got faster and faster, determined to make Oundle before sunset, with Nathan telling me that I was "just over half way" to Fotheringhay! I'm afraid I had underestimated the distance between Oundle and Fotheringhay as well.

I was thirsty. None of the villages I passed through has a shop. Well, one does, in Aldwinkle, but it required customers to ring a doorbell, which was unanswered. My feet trudged along. I sent shirty texts to Nathan. It was horrifying. I found a pub and the lady behind the counter filled up my bottle. I took two Nurofen and took off like a rocket.

I made Oundle very quickly. Upping my average mph from just below three to just over four. (I have an app: today I've walked 23 miles and burned off 3000 calories...)

Oundle is a wonderfully familiar little town. We used to go there to take part in the annual music festival. I always got beaten by a girl whose mother was on first name terms with the judges.

It smelt of wood smoke, and, as I entered the town I could hear a distant rugby match on the breeze. Arriving was a massive weight off my mind.

I walked through the town centre and was thrilled to find a Christmas Fair. The atmosphere was wonderful. I had a rush of happiness and bought myself a tiny bauble, which I doubt will find its way back to London! I bought a needle and thread from the knitting shop and the lady gave me a home-made jam tart which made me feel hugely emotional.

As I left the shop, the Nassington brass band struck up, playing a medley of carols which made me feel so happy. What an astounding sonic experience for a man writing a composition - particularly as I already know a brass band will be part of the performer lineup. I have decided to keep the band from appearing in the piece until the section pertaining to Oundle. So if you find yourself listening and waiting for the brass band, you'll know why.

The four miles from Oundle to Fotheringhay lasted an eternity. My legs seized up and my metal state collapsed.

The only thing I could think to do was play ABBA on my iPhone. I listened to a lovely selection of songs and cried my way through all of them. I cried because I couldn't believe that the music from a single band could have had such long-lasting (life-long, in fact) importance. I cried because Frida has such a lovely voice. I cried because I was in pain. And I cried because I was lonely. And at the end of all that I felt much better! It's ludicrous: nothing prepares you for the physical and mental trauma you go through on one of these endurance missions. Plainly, on a normal day, I wouldn't cry at the thought of the beauty of Frida's voice, but when you're trudging along a road or a river bank, all bets are off!

Tonight I watch Strictly whilst sewing up my trousers!

Friday, 2 December 2016

Odyssey day 2

I woke up this morning feeling a level of stiffness hitherto unimagined. I felt like someone had put me on a rack and broken every bone. It didn't help that my body had had such a violent reaction the night before. I actually hallucinated my way through the night. Under the sheets I sweated like a pig. Above them I shivered. So strange.

The breakfast at the Premier Inn was amongst the worst I've ever experienced. There was some sort of bubble and squeak which had a cube of potato in it so hard I couldn't cut it with a knife. It was like a block of wood. The vegetarian sausages were dollops. No form. Like a sort of badly-cooked nut roast.

I limped my way out of the hotel at about 9.30am, and, as I walked, the legs loosened off a little. The first village I passed through is called Cogenhoe. Despite its spelling, locals call the place Cookna. That's England for you! It's a long, thin, unremarkable place which sits on a ridge over-looking the Nene Valley.

There's a long walk back down the valley to the river itself, which, at this point along its length, is full of canal barges. The river splits, creating a series of little islands, many of which are lined with tiny huts which people obviously use as somewhat crude summer houses. People decorate these prefab homes with art work and flowers. There's an air of the bohemians down there, merged with a serious dollop of white trash, which reminded me of the charming canal and garden network on the outskirts of Amiens in France.

I walked along the river for much of the morning as it meandered its way through the plain. The weather was okay. A bit over cast, but the clouds were white rather than grey. The countryside in this part of Northamptonshire is not hugely beautiful. It doesn't have the undulating charm of the west of the county. Perhaps, as a result, everything feels a little less cared-for. Mosquitoes hover in great numbers over the locks. In some of the little woods between the footpath and the river there are large piles of rubbish which people have fly-tipped over the years. In one field I found the corpses of two rabbits! In another, an old parachute next to a sofa!

The Nene Way becomes a nonsense when it takes walkers on a two mile diversion away from the river, up a steep hill on the other side of the valley, and through the village of Earls Barton, with its charming Norman church. I understand why towns and villages along the river's length might want to lobby to have a long distance walk pass through, but the walk up to Earls Barton is exhausting, and features a horrible ten-minute period when you're forced to walk on the verge of a busy road. To get there you also have to cross the A45 trunk road over a horrible bridge which has views over fields of rubbish and, today, a smashed-up car by the side of the road which the police haven't yet taken away.

And aside from the church, Earls Barton's only claim to fame is that it was the home of the shoe factory at the centre of the Kinky Boots story, which, I should add, has subsequently closed down. Liza Minelli often asks the question "what happens after happily ever after?" And the answer in this case is bankruptcy. It's also a horribly noisy place at the moment. The roads are being resurfaced.

I was so relieved to be back by the river, not least because I came across a group of very friendly horses grazing on the tow path, all of whom wanted to be stroked.

Between Earls Barton and Great Doddington lies the beautiful Hardwater Mill, where I sat for some time listening to a pumping device which gave off a brilliantly repetitive rhythm which is sure to find its way into the final piece.

The Nene Way takes you back up the steep hill to the village of Great Doddington, which is a little more charming than Earls Barton. A house was being re-thatched on the outskirts. A more rural idyllic scene it would have been hard to find. From the village, the views over the misty Nene Valley are superb. Everything seemed to be cloaked in a vale of lilac. The gravel pit lakes littered along the side of the river were all reflecting the light grey sky. I got so engrossed in them that I tripped over and landed in a pile of mud.

I kept walking through spiders webs on this part of the journey. I felt myself constantly pulling itchy strands of web from my face.

There was a most welcome sight on the horizon for what seemed an age. The enormous Whitworth's Factory in Wellingborough is very much a landmark from my childhood. The Embankment in Wellingborough used to flood all the time but the factory kept on banging and crashing...

The Nene Way doesn't really feel like a path that people "do." It's not exactly the Pennine Way. In fact, I haven't passed a single walker today except the odd person with a dog on the outskirts of towns.

The river is, however, completely flat and calm. It really doesn't seem to be moving. Bridges, trees and swans are all perfectly reflected in the water below.

I stopped for a bag of crisps and a banana on the embankment in Wellingborough and I was attacked by one of the local swans who plainly wanted me to feed him. I subsequently discovered that quite a lot of people go down to the embankment specifically to feed the swans, which behave a little like dogs round there, brushing their heads against people's legs seductively until they're fed, at which point they wag their tales contentedly. Bit weird. I sent a photo to Fiona who hates swans and she said it was making her panic.

On the flood plains on the outskirts of Wellingborough, I crossed a little bridge and was horrified to discover part of it has fallen into the river below. Had I been walking that section in fog or low light, or even if I'd not been looking at my feet, I would almost certainly have fallen through.

I realised, as I tramped over the flood plain today that this walk would have been impossible in the rain. I wouldn't have got through the fields. It would have been utterly miserable. Considering the month we're in, I have been so so lucky with the weather.

The journey east from Wellingborough seemed to last an age, with no little villages to pop into and vast areas of scrubland. I went underneath railway viaduct where I disturbed a giant bird of prey, which flew out towards the Nene, causing a tide of smaller birds to promptly fly at high speed in the other direction! It was probably a buzzard.

Further on, the Nene Way crosses over the Ditchford Road, which, for me, is always laced with sadness. When I was very young, we used to go walking down there, and, I remember, on one occasion, getting chatting to a group of travellers who were living in caravans by the side of the road. They had lovely dachshund dogs, which is how, I think, the conversation struck up.

A few weeks later we read in the papers that the charming travellers, and their lovely dogs had all been shot dead. The crime has never been solved.

It was around this time that I caught my first glimpse of the steeple of Higham church. It seemed an impossible way away, but I knew it could only get closer. Higham was, of course, where I grew up.

Another little cluster of barge boats were moored to a meander just east of Ditchford Road. A man had lit a giant bonfire and was shovelling things onto it with a tractor. The flames were shooting up into the sky. I stood, entranced, the other side of the river until the man shouted, in an oh-so-familiar accent, "here mate, if you're looking for the footpath, you need to goo to the top of the hill." And yes, he said "goo". That's what they say round here.

I kept smelling a very musky perfume for the next few miles, which rather freaked me out. I wondered at one point if it meant I was about to have a seizure!

Seeing the words "Higham Ferrers wildlife trust nature reserve" on a wooden gate post made my heart leap, and sure enough, within minutes I was on the giant pedestrian bridge which stretches over the Nene, the Higham bypass and a series of lakes which were created when the Nene was diverted to build the bypass.

I stood for a while at the bridge at the bottom of Wharf Road. I remember it as a lovely arched Victorian brick built bridge, which stretched over the Nene in the position where it used to flow. I remember the bridge being demolished and replaced by a rather unimpressive, low-level wooden thing. They built that at the same time as they built the enormous pedestrian bridge. I didn't like it then, and I wasn't at all surprised to learn that the wooden bridge has been replaced by something equally flimflam - this time in metal. The Victorian bridge survived 100 years and had to be pulled down brick by brick, and the wooden replacement lasted no more than 20.

I walked up Wharf Road and saw someone wearing my old school's uniform, which hasn't altered. I understand the school is now in special measures. Very sad.

The "Garden Field" where we used to have a dusty allotment, is now a housing estate. In fact, housing estates have cropped up everywhere in the town, to the extent that if you dropped me in one of them I wouldn't be able to find my way out again. The population of the town has almost doubled and there's even a new junior school to meet demand.

I walked past the old house. Arriving in Higham via anything other than car felt really weird. Not being able to jump in a car and go home was even weirder.

I walked out of Higham as darkness fell and a few drops of rain danced in the air. I stumbled along the A45 whilst bright car headlamps created crazy optical illusions of dancing shadows in the road.

My lodgings tonight are between Stanwick and Higham at Chris Twell's B and B. Chris was my junior school teacher and musical guru. She put a 'cello in my hand for the first time, taught me to read music and encouraged me to sing. She also runs an amazing goats' farm, where they make multi-award-winning cheeses. It feels deeply appropriate for me to be staying in her Nene Valley Farm, as part of this odyssey.

We ate takeaway food from Raunds at her kitchen table and caught up on mutual friends. Too many people were either dead or gravely ill for my liking. But that's what happens as you get older.

I'm now snuggled up in bed. Lovely and warm.

Thursday, 1 December 2016

First day on the Nene

So it would appear that I've walked about thirty miles today, all the way from Daventry to Great Billing. The day started in London, way before dawn. We drove up the M1 as the sun rose. A giant orange football in the sky made the frost in the fields shimmer like dragon fly wings and the trees glow like fire.

A few miles up the M1, we entered a bank of cloud and it was like twilight. Hugely surreal so soon after dawn.

The River Nene starts in a charming little village called Badby, and that's also where the Nene Walk starts. The river itself is 100 miles long, but the walk twists and turns its way through pretty much every village and town along the river's edge, so ends up a full twenty miles longer... which is something we felt intensely today. Having ascertained that it was four miles from Badby to Weedon Bec, we were astounded to find ourselves walking for an hour and STILL having four miles to walk! The official signposts along the path's length are not always as clear as they could be. I got lost several times in very muddy fields, and had at least two complete melt downs! Being lost is a horrible feeling, especially when your mobile phone runs out of battery!

The walk diverts itself from the river fairly regularly, so a walker will only catch up with the Nene occasionally. I rather liked this fact. It was like seeing the child of an old friend. I kept wanting to say "my how you've grown..." Like all good children, the river learns the value of silence as it grows up. It starts as a noisy babbling brook before becoming an angry adolescent, throwing itself against stones and rocks, before calming down. By the time the river reaches Northampton, it's a fully navigable adult, which silently meanders its way through the flat Northamptonshire fields towards the sea!

The wildlife one seems along the length of the walk is quite amazing. Periodically we'd see the yellow and red flash of a woodpecker, or the somewhat awkward silhouette of a heron.

Frost remained on the ground through much of the day. Puddles were entirely iced over, and some of the freshly ploughed fields looked like snow-covered mountains in Nevada.

Some of the villages we passed through are stunningly beautiful. Most are full of ancient orange ironstone buildings which are scattered eccentrically along High Streets. The air was rich which woodsmoke.

Nathan was a regular feature of the day. He walked several stages of the route with me but got incredibly ill, so started driving ahead and meeting me in various towns along the route with cans of coke and treats. Seeing his little face every four or five miles was a joyous lift. Heaven knows how I'll deal with things without him tomorrow. It will be a lonely experience I should think.

I suspect we saw a group of people waiting to collect the spoils of some sort of shooting party. They were all dressed in country tweeds and facing a hedge, equally spaced. Some were holding little flags. After we'd passed, we heard a blast of gunfire and all the birds in the vicinity appeared to fly away in panic over our heads.

The BBC filmed us at the start of the adventure and then caught up with us again at Weedon Bec, like a pair of old friends. They found it amusing that I wasn't wearing a coat, but I assure you that I was sweating through much of my journey! When we did our little interview, the BBC man, wearing a big coat, a scarf and gloves, said "you're making me look like a wuss. You look like you're about to get on a tube in Islington!" I think there's an assumption that Londoners are far less hardy than they actually are! We put up with all sorts of rubbish!

The Nene Way also takes you along sections of the Grand Union Canal, which rises above the flat West Northamptonshire plain like Scalextric! It's a wonderfully peaceful spot, but it shares a very slim piece of land in the region of Watford Gap with the West Coast Mainline. Periodically, the serene, icy silence was shattered by the whooshing sound of a train.

So many of the sights and sounds around these parts remind me of my upbringing further along the Nene in Higham Ferrers. At one stage, we passed a rubbish heap crowned with a pair of caravans. It was like going down the old railway track in Rushden all over again!

I crossed over the A5 road at a point where it looks like something from the American mid-west. A little truck stop. A few tatty road signs. Some ancient telegraph poles... The works!

My first blisters arrived about eight miles in. Now I have a footload. I also smell. Who cares?!

The weather was stunning all day. Blue skies. Bright sun. Almost impossibly long shadows. At times I felt jubilant just to be alive and experiencing such beauty!

The sun melted into a crimson roar at about 3.45pm. You don't get much sun for your buck at this time of year. I was in Kislingbury at the time. I had no idea what was going on until I saw the church tower glowing red.

The following hour was incredibly magical, as I tramped across fields in blue half light. Scarecrows jumped out of the haze, and, at one point, I walked along a beautiful, ornate stone wall, maybe ten feet high, separating two fields. An elaborate doorway in the middle of it, offered nothing but the experience of venturing into the next field.

Later still, I walked through a set of stables, where a horse stood under a bare electric light by a hay bale. It was all a rather creepy version of Edward Hopper!

Crows hopped about and cawed!

I arrived on the outskirts of Northampton after dark and was forced to walk through Storton's Pits in the pitch black, which is a wetland area where the bulrushes are twelve feet high. It was terrifying!

Beyond this area, a darkened pathway runs along the side of the Nene all the way to Beckett's Park. Lots of bicyclists razz along, their lights reflected in the water like phosphorescence, and, for some reason, I passed a number of people speaking Polish. Probably the only people aside from me who were silly enough to walk along it after dark. The river drifts silently like liquid lead.

Nathan walked up from Beckett's Park to meet me and I heard his familiar cough in the darkness. My heart leapt for joy.

We ate bananas on a darkened bench in Beckett's Park, before he vanished to the hotel in Billing and I limped my way the last two hours. Those two hours were largely awful. I sat for some time under the A45 underpass listening to the ba-dum of cars hitting a manhole cover on the road overhead. I was even inspired to write a little melody further down the river by an impressive weir.

Then it turned gruesome. My legs fell apart. I could barely put one in front of the other. I had a little cry to cheer myself up and then sang ABBA songs at the top of my voice.

When I got back to the Premier Inn, we had an awful incident in the bar, which meant tea was pizza in the room. I can't be bothered to write about it. Suffice to say it's the second time I've had a dreadful time with the food people at the Premier Inn, Billing Aquadrome. I shall never stay here again, and nor should anyone reading this.

Debbie and Tash came to see us in the hotel room this evening. How lovely was that? It was like old times. This composition has been commissioned by the Northampton music school. How appropriate that I should spend the night hanging out with my old mates from there.

My body is a mess and my subconscious, unable to fathom what the hell is going on, is offering me flu-like symptoms! Joy!

Day rating: exquisite.

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Waterloo sunset

I have woken up for three days now with the words "Jodrell Bank" floating about in my head. I don't know what that's all about. Until I did a Google search, I had no idea that Jodrell Bank is a giant telescope. Even if I knew that fact in my subconscious, why would it be fighting to make its way into my conscious thoughts? It's all very odd. I went to school with a girl called Jodrell Banks (I didn't.)

I have felt all day today that I'm about to fall off the edge of a cliff. This walk, which starts tomorrow at 9am, seems an increasingly bizarre prospect, the nearer it gets. I keep asking myself why I'm doing it and not coming up with a better example than that it's simply a life experience. And I suppose that's why we all go on holiday and such. I'm just not sure I'm physically, or mentally ready for the challenge. I don't think I've dealt very well with the year in general to be quite honest, so I guess I might as well try to buck the trend and end the year with a success!

I went into London to meet a lovely lady from the Arts Council this morning and then took myself down the South Bank where Nathan is working at the moment. We had lunch at Wagamama and then went up into the gods of the building to the office where he's working with Philip, one of our best men at the wedding.

I love the Southbank. The building is such a wonderful example of brutalist architecture and there's always something going on. Nathan introduced me to a little upstairs bar which members of the public can visit during the day to sit and work. It's a gloriously calm spot. Utterly silent to the extent that people walking through are forced to whisper.

Walking across Waterloo Bridge was a glorious experience. A haze was coming off the River Thames and the sun was low in the sky, tuning Hungerford Bridge, Westminster and the buildings of Vauxhall into layers of silhouettes which went from dark brown to pigeon grey.

I came home to pack my tiny rucksack, trying to work out what it is I really need and what I can get away with leaving at home. I read an article today which suggested that Kate Bush has praised Theresa May. The news made me feel a bit ill. This is Theresa May who is "putting her faith in God to guide us through Brexit." Just what you want in a prime minister. There is a huge amount of fear in the Arts community about the meaning of Brexit for us. The European Union is directly responsible for a huge amount of money going into British Arts, and no one in central government has made a single pledge about how a post-Brexit Arts scene in the UK might look. Maybe Kate Bush is angling for a dame-hood? It's about time...

Tuesday, 29 November 2016


Today's been one of those days which I will be glad to see the back of. Everything seemed to be stalling before it had begun, and I had a list of things to do which seemed to be about a mile long.

At lunchtime, just as we were about to set off for Brent Cross to buy a load of stuff for my ludicrous walk, which starts on Thursday (weather forecast suddenly awful!), I went into my wardrobe, looking for a pair of arch supports to put into my trainers. It was at that moment that I realised my clothes had been eviscerated by moths. Nathan is so diligent about the little critters in his part of the bedroom, but because I don't tend to wear wool, I'd assumed that moths wouldn't want to eat anything of mine. Turns out my clothes are utterly scrumptious, particularly the jacket I got married in and the ludicrously expensive coat I bought a the beginning of the year to wear to the premiere of Beyond The Fence, both of which now have holes in them. I know they're just things, and that anything that reminds me of Beyond The Fence probably deserves to become moth-eaten and ragged, but it made me feel a little upset. The wedding suit particularly...

We've fumigated everything, thrown much away and taken the very special things to the dry cleaners. I guess all things must fade away at some point: memories, photographs, little nicknacks, people... it simply makes me want to live a little more in the present.

Speaking of which, I drove to Milton Keynes tonight to assist on another quiz. It was a very charming occasion. The client was the Mind charity, who seem like a genuinely lovely bunch. We sat down with a group of them for some food and I was hugely taken with them all. The technician for the evening spoke with a familiar accent and I asked if he was from Northampton, which he was. He looked about my age, so I asked him which school he'd gone to, and he answered Roade, which is where Fiona and a whole heap of other people I know went. He was in the year above Fiona, and knew her very well. He was a drummer and they'd been in the same production of Godspell alongside Zara Nunn, who now writes musicals, Sam Jane, whom I lived with when I first moved to London, and Helen Whitehurst who used to lead the Northamptonshire Youth Orchestra. It was a bizarre encounter. Often when you meet those sorts of people there's a lot of uncomfortable moments when everyone pretends to "vaguely know" the person in question, but he seemed to know them all really well, and it was lovely to fill him in on how they're all doing. He asked if Fiona was still playing and nearly fell of his seat when I told him she was touring with Placebo!

When I emerged from the hotel, the entire car park was covered in thick frost, and I had to sit in the car for five minutes with the heating on to clear the windscreen. The first frost of the year... what a time to decide to walk the length of the Nene!!

Monday, 28 November 2016

Swimming gala

I've been using Head and Shoulder shampoo of late.

You: Head and Shoulders? I didn't know you had dandruff...

Me: I don't. It was the first bottle I picked up from the shelf.

It's just as well I don't have dandruff and wasn't looking for a remedy because if you look on the small print on the back of the bottle it says it defines dandruff as "visible flakes from a distance of 2 feet." Surely a good wash with any shampoo would get rid of such enormous flakes of dandruff?

So, in fact, that ancient advertising campaign should have been...

You: Head and Shoulders, I didn't know you had dandruf

Me: Stand a little closer and you'll think you're at Slava's-freakin'-Snowshow.
I went to Aylesbury yesterday to watch my god son and his sister swimming in a local swimming club gala. It was such a lovely afternoon, which started at Raily and Iain's house with a lunch, which Iain tried to sell as a "savoury porridge." It sounded revolting, and for some reason made me think of snails but it actually tasted delicious. Meriel was there briefly with her girlfriend Elizabeth, and they swore blind that there's a more cheffy and appetising word for a savoury porridge. I wracked my brains to think of that silly-voiced woman in Masterchef who talks about jous, foams and soils, but couldn't bring a term to the front of my mind. If anyone reading this goes out to fancy restaurants, feel free to suggest a term, made up or otherwise.

The gala was great fun. People race, not in their age groups, but according to their personal best times, and there's a brilliant electronic board which displays the names of the swimmers, their lanes and the split times. The interesting aspect of racing against your ability is that you get a massive mix of ages in any single race. Swimming is one of those sports where you tend to plateau young, so nothing is predictable. Will (11) was racing a 50 year old, who only just beat him. We had a good laugh at the damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don't aspect of the scenario. If the 50 year old beats the 11 year old, everyone calls him mean. And if he loses everyone takes the Mick!

Medals are awarded by age however, so it can take a while to work out if your God son has won! Little Jeannie (6) was doing her first ever competitive race and the poor lamb got disqualified. She came last but the other girls in the race were two years older than her, so she'd have won a gold by default, but the disqualification meant she couldn't have a medal which seemed a little unfair, but I rather like that they're sticklers for the rules.

Anyway, Aylesbury has a wonderful swimming complex. There's a whole network of pools, many of which are interlinked, including one circular pool where the current sweeps people on a watery journey around a very camp palm tree. If people were in little boats, it would be a ride at Disney Land!