Tuesday, 6 December 2016

I did it!

I'm currently on a high speed train which is hurtling its way through the misty fields and towns between Peterborough and London. It feels very odd to be being carried by something. I've become so accustomed to only being able to move as fast as my feet will take me, that this final part of my adventure feels ludicrously decadent.

I look like a tramp. I became very conscious of this fact when, getting on the train, I found myself surrounded by besuited city slickers. The bottoms of my trousers are caked in mud, and there's a split in the crotch as big as a tea cup!

The day started very early. I fell into a sort of soft hibernation at about 8pm last night in my haunted room in Wisbech, but kept waking up in a panic because I thought my toenails were falling off. I actually still think they might. There's a chronic amount of bruising going on. It's going to take a few days for me to work out if my body has taken any semi-permanent knocks as a result of this folly! I drifted in and out of consciousness until about 11pm. I remember hearing a group of Eastern European young people shouting at each other in the street outside. It wasn't the aggressive type of shouting you get with gangs of home-grown youths, it was all very good natured, but it did give credence to the theory that there are a lot of migrant workers in Wisbech. That they were communicating in English is absolutely indicative of the fact that they're here to fit in. Within a generation, that entire influx of Eastern Europeans will have been invisibly absorbed into the fabric of our society. I guarantee it. I'm sure their children will be card-carrying, nouveau-riche Brits with fabulous cut-glass accents (and wide Slavic faces!)

I left the hotel at 8am and was greeted by thick, somewhat Dickensian mist. Wisbech is full of churches which chime, and, at 8 they all started ringing their bells. There's even a little carillon which strikes up on the hour, every hour. I couldn't recognise the tune (which was being played in a somewhat arrhythmic manner) but the overall effect - particularly in the mist - was magical. Tintinnabulation.

Walking along the Nene out of Wisbech was thrilling. I passed one or two little ports where cargo boats were being unloaded by cranes. The clattering and chattering echoed into a sort of dome of sound under the canopy of mist.

Periodically a gun, or bird scarer would sound to my left, and then immediately, as an echo, on the right hand side of the river. I tried whistling and the same thing happened. Those fens have bizarre acoustics.
It was very difficult to make anything out in the general haze. I could see the river, which was a gruel-like colour, but things on the other bank were decidedly murky and impressionistic. It was almost like being in a little bubble. I felt very safe, oddly.

The weirdest experience was crossing underneath a set of pylons which were stretched over the river. You realise what a proper racket those things make when you're standing directly underneath. Tick ticker ticker tick, ticker ticker ticker tick. Frighteningly high levels of power. I completely understand why anyone would want to avoid living anywhere near one. You can literally smell the electricity. Fishing is banned in a largish radius from the pylons. One assumes that's because, in the past, some poor fisherman threw his line out into a river and caught it on the power lines overhead. I shudder. It's those 1970s public information films with the kites all over again!

For a while, the sun threatened to burn through, and, for about ten minutes, the sky directly above me was blue, whilst everything around me remained shrouded in mist.

At one point I got into a terrible panic. The river was flowing backwards! A group of birds were happily allowing the current to suck them inland. I suddenly wondered whether, in the confusion of leaving Wisbech in the mist, I'd started to walk back to Peterborough! It was with great relief that I realised that this is exactly what has to happen in the tidal section of a river. The tide comes in, the river flows backwards...

I walked for about two miles through long grass which was soaking wet and made my shoes almost unwearable. I could feel my feet squelching and slipping about within the trainers and called Nathan, feeling utterly inconsolable. Fortunately, moments later, the path became a road, and I could enjoy the walk again. "Enjoy" is perhaps an exaggeration. "Endure".

It was, however, on this road, that a car pulled up behind me, stopped and flashed its headlights. I turned around and to my great relief and joy, realised it was my parents. My Mum got out of the car and flung her arms around me and, at that moment, I knew the end was in sight and that everything was going to be okay. Seeing them was like having oxygen pumped into my body.

My Dad drove the car on to Sutton Bridge, (where he parked outside a burned-out hotel) whilst my Mum joined me in walking into the village. I was able to blurt out all sorts of stories and half stories about my adventure to that point. Just talking was a privilege. At Sutton Bridge, the parents went to find coffee, whilst I trudged on, crossing the river at the (surely) iconic swing bridge.

The last leg of my epic journey was a four-mile trek along the East side of the river, which, by this stage, was glowing white. Fronds of mist were hovering over it, but a watery sun was finally burning through.

Shaun from the BBC caught up with me at this point, and did some filming of me trudging, limping and crawling along the last couple of miles. Okay, so I didn't crawl, but I'd definitely developed a limp! The parents rejoined us and my dad became film crew, driving Shaun's car whilst Shaun sat in an open boot filming! My dad, the dolly grip!

And then suddenly we were there. The Nene Way ends (or starts) at a pair of light houses very close to where the estuary flows out into the sea, which, today, was entirely white. The sky was white. The river was white. The sea was white. So, there was simply a misty void marking what I'd come all that way to find. I rather liked this fact. Beyond that white square was someone else's nirvana: a port hole to a whole new world which it wasn't my job to explore.

I walked beyond the Nene Way on my own, out into the marshes, and, as far as I could along a ridge heading towards the sea itself. There was a moment, however, when the path ran out and I knew my walk was over. I stumbled down a little hill and stood, for a moment, at the river's edge, staring out to sea.

The river was putting on a dazzling display. It had become a shimmering blend of white and silver. The water was flowing back out to sea, but a coastal breeze was pushing half of the ripples in the opposite direction, creating a criss-cross pattern on the surface. It was mesmeric.

And, just like that, my adventure was over. I was an ordinary person again. I walked back to the parents and Shaun, and my Mum presented me with a little medal she'd had engraved with the words "I walked the Nene". I was touched beyond words.

We drove back to Peterborough, had some grub in the station and, well, that was that...

If you asked me what this journey has given me, apart from inspiration for a musical composition and the obvious sense of achievement which comes from walking 112 miles in five days, it's that it's given me my senses back. That sounds so peculiar doesn't it? As Londoners we spend so long blocking out noises, smells and unpleasant sights that we never end up truly experiencing our city. We get from A to B as quickly as we can, blocking out the journey with iPhones, newspapers and iPods. We never look up at the architecture above us. We never stop to think what China Town actually smells like.

My senses were all I had to entertain me on this trip. I couldn't switch the telly on when I got bored, or endlessly check emails. I had to notice and I had to feel. And that is a very special gift to rediscover.

On the tube home, a busker made me cry simply by playing the harmonica. I hate the harmonica. Or at least I used to. But he was playing it as a melodic instrument with a huge amount of vibrato - kind of Ronnie Hazelhurst style, but with guts. Larry Adler. Old school. Wistful. Stunning. He was playing Claire de Lune. His eyes were closed and the music was surging through his body. His soul had climbed into the music and he was oblivious to everything around him. I think the fact that he was young and black made the whole experience just that little bit more unexpected. I emptied my pockets into his bag and should have gone back to give him my number, but I was so keen to get home. Again, rushing from A to B... I hope I don't slip too quickly back into that angry world. A river doesn't rush. A river doesn't have anything to prove. It just is.

I hope I'm able to do the Nene, and the Northamptonshire music school proud.

1 comment:

  1. wonderful blog , wonderful journey , and wonderful videos of your adventure , what an achievement, well done , and congratulations ,