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.

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