Monday, 5 December 2016

Nearly nearly there!!

I fell asleep at 9pm last night after the X Factor results and before I'm A Celebrity. I actually voted for the first time in my life. For Saara Aalto, whom I've watched keenly since she first opened her mouth on the show. Whatever you think of the X Factor, there's absolutely no denying that girl's talent!

I literally slept through, with the television on all night. I vaguely remember waking up and noticing some kind of politics show on the telly. I think Ed Balls was being interviewed. I had no idea whether it was early morning or late night, and couldn't even remember what day it was.

I woke up again to Piers Morgan's face, which was quite a shock. It was 6.30am, so I'd managed to sleep for the best part of ten hours.

I think the antibiotics must have kicked in because I felt a million times better than I had the night before when I couldn't even climb the stairs to my room!

I left the hotel at 8am, as an orange sun rose above Peterborough. There was a wonderful coating of frost on the ground and mist hovered above the fields like fronds of smoke. As I continued with my journey, the mist started pouring over the banks of the river and onto the water where it sat like dry ice. I felt like a Kate Bush video had been transported to the river for my exclusive enjoyment. My shadow was thirty metres long at one point.

The river seemed to glow like tin foil. The words "Just Be. Feel Free" had been graffitied onto a concrete bridge. It felt like a really wonderful motto for the day. The j of "just" was backwards. I liked that!

The view became so intensely beautiful at one point that I started to cry. Two chimneys were spewing brown smoke into the mist which was lit up on the river by the sun like a million dancing flakes of gold. A goods train trundled its way in silhouette across the horizon. It's very rare for a view to be so beautiful that I'm affected on a raw, emotional level. Perhaps morning people reading this blog will be saying "that happens every morning round my way..."

Later on, a pair of geese flew over my head. They were honking at each other as they flew. I imagined the conversation they were having: "Are you okay?" "Yes, mate" "Are we nearly there?"

Very few people were out and about. A guy cycled past at one moment, and a woman jogger, but the slightly bizarre sight was a woman in a covered golf caddy!

For much of my journey along the misty river, there was a smell of smoky bacon in the air. Suddenly I understood what Topsy off of "Topsy and Tim's Foggy Day" meant when she said the air smelt of... something like bacon or mackerel!

Later on my journey I happened upon two lovely gentlemen who were official swan counters. They've been tasked with trying ascertain whether this year's breeding season has been a successful one. Sadly, their initial research seems to suggest that it hasn't.

There's a pub on a particularly bleak part of the river called Dog In a Doublet, which I think is a pretty cool name. As I walked into Whittlesey, two military jets were practising manoeuvres in the sky, and making a terrible, yet hugely exciting racket!

I went to buy chocolate in a garage in the town and explained I was walking to Wisbech. The woman behind the counter looked astounded: "You surely don't expect to be able to get there today?" My heart sank.

The part of Whittlesey which the Nene Way takes a walker through is fairly horrific. It seems to be one long road filled with modern, rather boxy, totally- uninspiring houses. At one point I came across a pub. "Hurrah" I thought, "they can fill my water bottle" but the pub was boarded over. A big sign outside claimed "restaurant now open." Irony! It was even more of a shame when I realised the pub was called "The Straw Bear", obviously named after the local folk tradition, where someone runs through the streets dressed entirely in a costume made of corn.

On the outskirts of the town, I passed a man who was pushing a petrol-powered lawn mower down the main road. The lawn mower was blowing smoke all over the place. As I passed, he looked over at me: "I'm not really crazy!"

Walking down a country lane I stumbled upon a group of lads wearing orange vests with the words "community pay back" written on them. It shouldn't have freaked me out. It did.

A woman passed me with her dogs, "where are you going, Coates?" She asked. I thought "Coates" was a local term of endearment, like "mi duck" in Higham. It was only later on that I realised there was a little village down the track called Coates!

For the next six miles, I walked through the mysteriously named Nene Washes. It's an area I wouldn't want to visit again. The winter sunshine had melted the frost, and because I was walking on grass, my feet instantly became sopping wet.




There is a single, entirely straight path on a bank above the washes. On the left hand side is a little stream or fenland drain called Moreton's Leam. Like the path, it is entirely straight, and, to make matters worse, the scenery barely changes for that entire section of the journey. To the left, fields and fields of entirely flat wetlands. This the right, farmers field. A light mist. A powder blue sky. The occasional flash of a bird scarer. Rows of trees in the distance lining roads or little rivers. Lots of herons. The occasional buzzard. An owl. Here and there, a farm house, miles off the track.




It was a bleak and uncomfortable sort of place. Walking along the track creates an overwhelming sense of vulnerability. Those drains criss-crossing the wetlands are exactly the sorts of places where people dump bodies. Occasionally I'd stumble upon something discarded. An old blanket. A Wellington boot. A child's bike...




I passed about three people in six miles and assumed every one of them was up to no good! In these parts, I'm sure everyone is suspicious of each other. The phrase which kept popping into my head was "this is a local place for local people." There be inbreeding out on them there wetlands...




More than anything, there's something very odd about knowing you're walking below sea level. All the fields were marshy, despite there having been very little rain recently. I kept wondering what I'd do if I found the path inundated. I couldn't possibly turn around... not after 6 miles...



A whole flock of sheep decided to run away from me at the exact pace and same direction as I was walking. The rigmarole lasted an hour. I hate sheep. I'm a card-carrying veggie, but those creatures are way too stupid not to be turned into meat. The way they just look at you... and then shit... still looking at you.




Everything echoes in the fens. I could hear factories rattling and crashing miles away. At least I assume that's what the sound was!




Walking a monotonous path like that becomes a full-on battle with one's mind. I was bored stupid and kept having to think of things to occupy my brain as I trudged on and on. I suddenly realised I'd started counting my footsteps for something to do - literally without realising. I caught up with myself at 100 and promptly forced myself to stop.




The Nene Way meets the Nene again at Guyhirn, but all the way to Wisbech, the river runs alongside a heavy trunk road. I'm not sure I've been anywhere on the river where there hasn't at least been the a very distant roar of traffic. I think that's a shame.




Around this area, the Nene starts to become tidal, which means large areas of mud are exposed at low tide, as was the case today. The mud itself is carved into intricate swirls and chevrons by the water.




The final walk into Wisbech was brutal. I walked over 23 miles today, and started really feeling it at about 18. The river went milky white underneath the setting sun and building mists.




I was offered a lift by a man in a Land Rover with very funny teeth. A lovely gesture, which I declined. I later found him standing in a field singing like a cuckoo. At the same moment an old crone passed me driving a taxi. The accents in these parts are suddenly unfamiliar. And everyone I say "Nen" to corrects me to "Neen" without any sense of the double pronunciation thing. They're lovely people, but I'm not sure they belong to my Midlands tribe.




The Nene river smell occasionally catches me off guard. It's the same smell that I was experiencing in Wellingborough which I find astonishing.




As I entered Wisbech, the smell of woodsmoke became intense. I was in heaven, largely because I was also listening to ABBA on my iPod. I need to be very aware of all my senses when walking the river, but, when the going gets tough, at the end of every day, if I'm walking along a road, I allow myself half an hour to cheer myself up.




The Nene is behind a tall wall in Wisbech: another indication that there's an unpredictable tidal element to the river's flow round here. Wisbech is stunning. So, so beautiful and filled with 16th, 17th, 18th and 19th Century houses which jostle for positions on the river itself. As I arrived, the sun was setting into pink streaks.




The hotel I'm in is 16th Century and plainly haunted. As I hobbled up the stairs, I got a very strange vibe. Right. I'm off to bed!

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