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.