Warks Centenary Way Day 3

The Warwickshire Centenary Way
By Mark Walford
Day Three

Route: Hawkesbury Junction to Coombe Abbey Country Park
Date: Saturday September 15th 2012
Distance: 11m (17.7km)
Elevation: 262ft (80m) to 390ft (119m)
Climbing (ascent and descent): 384ft (117m) and 413ft (126m)

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Shaggy dog stories ....

Today's walk almost didn’t happen as Lenscap Dave (who was to be my companion for the section) was stricken by the Tenby Plague and had to cancel. Chauffeur Jamie stepped up to the plate at the eleventh hour, for which I am very grateful, and I met him bright and early at Coombe Abbey Country Park. He ferried me back to Hawkesbury Junction, swapping dog-owner stories with me as he drove along. I own a greyhound and he owns a German Shepherd but we found common ground through my previous dog, Bryn, who was 50% greyhound, 50% German Shepherd, and as a result, 100% schizophrenic.

Up the junction ....

He left me at Hawkesbury Junction, which at this time of the morning was sleepy and deserted. Hawkesbury today is a far cry from the noisy, polluted place it must have been two centuries ago, when it facilitated the passage of coal barges bound for London and when its local pub - the Greyhound Inn – would have been a dangerous place on a Saturday night. Now the Greyhound stands proudly on the very shoulder of the water, bedecked with hanging baskets and polished brass, vying with the best of country pubs in the charm stakes.
It was another gorgeous day and everything looked crisp and fresh in the early morning air; it inspired me to record Naff Commentary which took five attempts to get right. I had an audience of assorted water fowl but they lost interest in my performance once they realised I wasn't carrying any stale bread.
The topology of Hawkesbury Junction gave me a moment of confusion before I sorted it out via my GPS. It is here that the Coventry Canal meets the northern limit of the Oxford Canal and all sorts of shenanigans
WCW Day3 Pic 1

Hawkesbury Junction

went on in the late 18th century as a result of this, with Hawkesbury at the centre of it all. It’s far too contrived a mess to go into detail but basically the two canals were run by different companies and each demanded a toll from the other for the precious coal cargoes plying the canals. This rivalry and animosity went on for decades, much to the inconvenience (and irritation) of the coal merchants – the furore only getting resolved in court many years later. Also, the Oxford canal is seven inches higher than the Coventry canal owing to an engineering faux pas, which led to continuous water loss from one to the other. Also also, there was a big engine installed in an engine house (still standing) to pump water from local mines to add to the canals. The engine, originally in use in the Welsh coalfields, became known as Lady Godiva and is now in the Dartmouth Museum, way down in Devon. All of this notwithstanding it took my simple brain some time to realise that there were in fact two different canals and I was leaving one to join another.
Which I did.

Historical Factoid – The Oxford Canal
The Oxford Canal is 78 miles long and links Oxford with Coventry via Banbury and Rugby. Commissioned in 1769, it was almost twenty years in the making and became one of the most lucrative canals in the network, returning profits right up to the advent of the second world war. Like most canals in the UK it suffered a post-war decline and came very close to being closed down and filled in. Once a vital part of the UK’s industrial powerhouse, it now services the leisure industry and is considered to be one of the most scenic canals in England.

Itching on the cutting ....

I started off down the canal, where a small flotilla of narrow-boats were moored up, waiting to cruise into Hawkesbury Junction. Enticing aromas wafted out from each one of them; bacon, coffee, toast - by the time I had left them behind I was salivating and craving a full English breakfast. Narrow boat folk are a friendly bunch; everyone had a ‘good morning’ or ‘nice day’ to offer me as I ambled by. I suppose that when you live your life at the unhurried pace of a canal journey, surrounded by peace and beauty, and with bacon sandwiches for breakfast, it has to make you a nicer person.
I rounded the first bend of the canal and passed by the less-than-lovely profile of an electricity sub-station on the opposite bank, walking underneath a steel pylon that sizzled like … well like frying bacon I suppose (I will try not to drop in any more breakfast references from now on, all that talk of fry-ups in the previous paragraph has made me hungry again).
My guide book told me I had around five miles of canal walking ahead of me, which appealed on many levels. The tow-path was nice and flat,
WCW Day3 Pic 2

The Oxford Canal

the scenery was terrific, and I couldn’t get lost as there were only two possible directions; forward or reverse. I reached Bridge 4 (all of the bridges on this canal were numbered, rather like motorway junctions) and I wouldn’t be leaving the canal until I reached Bridge 16 so there was a fair step ahead of me on a day which was developing into an absolute stunner – clear skies, bright sun, and a cooling breeze; perfect walking conditions. I was having a great time, except for the irritating itch I developed on my left side. It was just below the ribs, and it felt as if a tiny little thorn was jabbing me with every step I took. I could feel the irritating sensation spreading like a heat rash; something was amiss. I found nothing either on my skin or on the inside of my clothing but in the end I had to smear Vaseline all over the irritated area. This addressed the symptom but I never discovered the cause.
I noticed that the canal's original bridge numbering had undergone some adjustment over the centuries. Bridge 6 was followed by Bridge 9 so obviously two bridges had disappeared completely, whereas as Bridge 13 was followed by an inserted Bridge 13A, carrying the M6 over the canal. I wondered what I’d do if I discovered that Bridge 16 had also disappeared. Unlikely I know, but the Centenary Way applied a haphazard approach to way-marking so nothing was certain.

To the lonely path ....

I reached the edge of the village of Ansty, where a row of pretty terraced cottages looked out onto the canal, whitewashed in pastel colours and vibrant with summer flowers. It must have been an idyllic place to live before the motorway arrived, but now the dull roar of traffic was ever-present. Industrial pollution had been replaced by noise pollution. Ansty village has been around since the Domesday Book and its name is derived from the old English ‘one path’ or ‘lonely path’. It shares this name with four other villages across England. It is, of course, also an anagram of ‘nasty’ but seen from the canal tow-path is actually rather nice – or perhaps I should say ‘ince’ .
About a mile beyond Ansty I met the first pedestrians I had seen on the tow-path all morning. A middle aged couple dressed in immaculate and neatly pressed clothing, the man with an expensive suede jacket hung across his shoulders. They were a bit of a mystery considering that there wasn’t much of anything from the direction they came from, just several miles of canal. They may have been from Ansty, out for a canal-side stroll, but they were hardly dressed for such activity. They greeted me as I approached.
“Guten morgen.”
Germans – the mystery deepened!
Ansty golf course passed by, flanking both sides of the canal, and I could hear the intermittent swish and thwack of club meeting ball. I wondered if any sliced shots found their way into the canal - there were a couple of shouts of ‘fore!’ but I didn’t need to dive for cover. After the golf course the canal ran parallel to an intercity railway line and sleek silver express trains flashed by at regular intervals. Not wishing to overshoot my exit point from the canal I stopped to get my bearings through my phone app just as a canal barge glided past me. The man at the tiller had been watching me.
“No mobile phones please!” he said half-seriously, obviously believing that use of technology in such a place was sacrilege.
“It’s a GPS.” I replied.
“Ahh yes - hahaha!” he cackled, nodding his head as he sailed away down the cut. Narrow-boat folk; friendly but sometimes a little odd.

Bovinophobia ....

Bridge 16 was finally reached (yes it still stood in the right place) and just beyond that I saw a high steel bridge spanning the canal and knew it was time to leave the tow-path. Naff Commentary ensued (I don’t quite know what I’m going to do with all this Naff Commentary – stitch it together in one long monologue of the Centenary Way maybe. Post it on the rambling Owl website? Preserve it as a family heirloom?) and then I climbed the short track from the tow-path up to the bridge and stood looking down along the canal from a height of perhaps fifty feet. The bridge was part of the drive to Mobbs Wood farm and spanned both the canal and the railway running alongside it. The sides of the bridge had been modified at the point where it passed over the railway, with additional sections added to increase the height and
WCW Day3 Pic 3

A view from the bridge

presumably reduce the possibility of suicidal swan dives to the track below. I peered over the edge. It was a long way down and my stomach flipped at the thought of taking such a desperate leap. I almost committed accidental suicide shortly afterwards as I set off along the bridge, without paying due care and attention, to find a tractor towing a many bladed contraption rounding a bend and motoring towards me. There wasn’t room for both a tractor and a hiker on the narrow bridge so it was either me or him. I opted for a quick retreat.
After the bridge, the drive to Mobbs Wood Farm became a wide concrete track that ran for a mile or more across open fields and up to the farm complex. Sweeping views were all about me and away to the right the M6 snaked its way across the landscape, busy with traffic made tiny by distance, throwing out a faint sound like a distant seashore. I left the track before reaching the farm and climbed into a paddock to be greeted by……
…. cows.
Of all the livestock one might meet when walking I distrust cows most of all. Horses are usually curious but are used to being handled, pigs are usually aggressive and best avoided, but cows are an enigma. I have learnt that cows fall into certain categories of behaviour when hikers enter their fields.

1. Lying down, facing away and not in the least bit bothered
2. Standing up but at a distance, regarding you with mild interest
3. Standing up close by, heading towards you with intent to hassle
4. Rucksack Rage

I’ve had experience of Category 3 a few times (and on one occasion a Category 4) and I didn’t enjoy it very much. Cows are curious, stupid, occasionally aggressive, and above all clumsy. Cows kill people and I have no desire to be added to the statistics. ‘Crushed by half a ton of boisterous beef burger’ is not the end I have in mind, so therefore I am naturally cautious when I have to cross a field full of heifers. On this occasion I encountered category 2 cows that soon lost interest in me, which suited me just fine.
I left the field and then followed a grassy track which skirted the edge of woodland - presumably Mobbs Wood. The wood was dominated by tall conifers, lending it a slightly sombre atmosphere, and the track was gloomy under their shadow. I came out from the twilight into a hayfield under brilliant sunshine, where I was inspired to commit more Naff Commentary to audio, and which in turn led to a bridge over the thundering M6. I stopped here to take photographs of the traffic hurtling towards me. I became one of those people you see standing on remote motorway bridges as you drive along, leading you to wonder just how they got up there and what they are about. In all likelihood they are probably out on a long walk, and are taking photographs of you.
Beyond the bridge there was a long field hedgerow to follow, which divided arable land from cattle meadows. I was happy to be on the arable side of this divide as the herds of brown shaggy beasts over the hedge capered about when they saw me in a distinctly Category 3 fashion. On my right the wide fields of wheat stubble fell gently away to reveal on the horizon the skyline of Coventry city centre, the twin spires of the ruinous old cathedral clearly visible. The hedge finally ended at a farm gate which in turn led to a small farm drive and a brick-built railway bridge.

All roads lead to ....

My stomach started suggesting that it was lunchtime as I crossed the bridge to a lane with the picturesque Colehurst Farm on my right, and I decided to take a break by heading over a tiny bridge to re-join the Oxford Canal at Bridge 26 – ten bridges further on from where I had left the canal at the high steel bridge. I spent a happy thirty minutes seated by the tow-path, occasionally swinging my legs out of the way of passing cyclists, discovering that some orange pips sink and some don’t. I would have been happy to continue to sit there in the warm sun all afternoon, watching narrow-boats chug by with names like
WCW Day3 Pic 4

Lunchtime view

‘Peggy Sue’ and ‘Fazeley Lass’ (overweight Labradors seemed to be the on-board dog of choice). However, there were several miles to complete and time was pressing so I shouldered my rucksack and climbed the steps to re-join the lane. There followed a short moment of confusion as I struggled with both GPS and guide book to work out the way forward before a passing local stopped to point out the blindingly obvious. I then enjoyed a couple of miles of road walking along quiet B roads, meeting my first real hikers of the Centenary Way who were traversing it in the opposite direction, before passing the gates to Peter Hall, a grade II listed building of 16th century vintage. These quiet back lanes of Warwickshire reminded me of years gone by, when I used to visit an aunt in rural Shropshire who had a smallholding near Admaston. I would walk from the train station in Wellington along country lanes very much the same, with the rich aroma of cattle cake and pig nuts hanging in the air, and the twittering of Skylarks (a rare sound these days) falling from the skies above summer meadows.
Eventually I left the road-walking behind and picked up the long cinder driveway of Hillfields Farm, where the asymmetrical skyline of the Rolls Royce Aero centre poked rudely up above the fields. The drive performed an S-bend through the farm complex giving me a close up view of the recently burnt-out barn; the smoke and the heat had gone but the acrid stink of burnt building still hung about the ruin (Google Maps still show this building as intact). An accident? Arson? I would never know, but expensive to the farmer either way. I hoped he was insured.

.... Coombe Abbey

The track meandered out of the farmyard and climbed gently, enclosed by tall hedgerows, to reach a second farm where I diverted left across a ploughed field towards the tree fringed boundary of Coombe Abbey Country Park.

Historical factoid: Coombe Abbey was founded as a monastery in the 12th century. Following the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 16th century it became royal property (or in other words was stolen). Elizabeth of Bohemia, the daughter of King James I, was educated there in the early 17th century. Had the Gunpowder Plot succeeded she was to have been abducted from Coombe Abbey and proclaimed as Queen Elizabeth II, several centuries too early for the postage stamps and the Christmas TV speeches. In 1682, the West Wing was added by architect Captain William Winde (Willy Winde - seriously?), who also designed Buckingham Palace. In 1771, Lancelot 'Capability' Brown redesigned the gardens, incorporating the Coombe Pool lake. For successive generations Coombe Abbey was owned by the Earls of Craven, in whose possession the estate remained until 1923. In November 1964 Coventry City Council bought Coombe Abbey. The park was opened to the public in 1966. What occurred between 1923 and 1964 is not recorded.

I stepped across a small wooden bridge, under the cool canopy of mature oaks, and picked up a bark path that wound on into the park itself. Coombe Park contains a lot of acres - 500 of them in fact – made up of woodland, formal gardens, an arboretum, open grasslands and a lake. It’s a haven for dog walking, family days out, and leisure activities, and is extremely popular with the people of Nuneaton and Coventry - and therefore busy.
Having seen hardly a soul for almost ten miles it was a bit of a jolt to suddenly find myself surrounded by people enjoying the fine weather. As soon as I stepped into the park I started dodging cyclists, and yapping dogs, and whooping children. I’m not at all bothered by crowds normally,
WCW Day3 Pic 5

Coombe Abbey Park

but I felt a bit like my private peace had been shattered, and the closer I got to the centre of the park the thicker the crowd became. I suppose I felt a bit shabby as well - compared to all the summer finery about me I looked a little travel worn, trudging through the park in well-used walking gear, head down after ten miles of the Centenary Way behind me. I was intent on reaching my car but soon found myself lost amidst the parks many footpaths and recreational buildings. I started to frown and meander about. I drew a few curious stares. Eventually I caught site of the large public car park, beyond the rather grand Coombe Abbey Hotel. The hotel is situated in the very centre of the grounds, with the water of Coombe Pool lapping at its feet, and I paused to admire it before setting off to locate my car. This might have proved difficult - when Chauffeur Jamie had met me early in the morning there were the only two cars in the place, but now it was at full capacity. However one advantage of having a black Land Rover is that you can always spot it in a crowd. The days walking was done.
It was time to try out my ‘fridge’.
My wife often tests new products for the retail sector and one such item, a new type of fruit juice, had arrived in a polystyrene box with a tight fitting lid. It looked like the sort of thing that paramedics ferry human organs about in, and it came complete with ice-packs. I commandeered it, placing it in the back of the car and leaving a bottle of energy juice inside packed with ice. No more blood temperature drinks!
I sat in the back of the Land Rover, swigging ice cold Lucozade Sport, and reflected on the days walk. Easy to follow (mostly) picturesque (mostly) and enjoyable (completely). From my study of the route, the next section would provide the most industrial aspect of the Centenary Way , passing the Peugeot car plant at Ryton-on-Dunsmore and offering scenery that would be interesting rather than pretty. However the section would also provide an important land mark as I would reach the halfway point of the Centenary Way at Stoneleigh.
All I had to do now was arrange transport and order decent weather…

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Postcode South in pictures

Colin's Postcode South in pictures

Day 1 - My garden flowers were nodding sagely at me. The gardener was noisily strimming the hedges and annoying me as I tried to voice my intentions on my camcorder. Nothing was different from any other day and few people knew I was even attempting to walk to the coast.

Day 1 - I followed the winding curves of the river Wye for about three quarters of an hour, enjoying the warmth of the day and receiving companionable little waves from canoeists who glided past me now and then.

Day 1 - Goodrich Castle, which I wanted to explore, was open, so I wandered around contentedly for about an hour as I explored it’s mostly intact rooms and turrets.

Day 1 - I joined part of the route of the Wye Valley Walk for a while after leaving the ruins of Goodrich Castle.

Day 1 - I took a long, climbing track through Court Wood which suddenly gave an open view to my left along the valley I had seen earlier, but also introduced a severity to the climb which made me grit my teeth a little.

Day 1 - I found myself on an open stretch of river bank. It was a lovely spot and too good to pass by, so I sat by the side of the river with woodland at my back and a long valley between low hills to my right.

Day 1 - It was now that I began to encounter stiles on public walkways that had become the victims of farmer neglect. Their upkeep was certainly not a priority to the farmers around here and I was forced to battle my way through brambles and nettles every time I reached another field boundary.

Day 1 - Chapel Hill wasn’t large, but it was steep and I gained height rapidly and lost my breath equally quickly. I rested near the summit, mostly because I suddenly had a good view back north of all the ground I had covered since Symonds Yat, which was now in the middle distance.

Day 1 - The town of Coleford at six p.m. on a Friday evening was a quiet place and I didn’t see many people out and about as I worked my way through its centre and past a clock tower, outlined against a blue sky as empty as a blank canvas.

Day 1 - From Twitter: Actually got a signal in the pub in Bream. A good day's walking, bloody tired now mind. Tent pitched at the edge of some woodland. Feet have held up, bar a sore area on the sole of my left foot. Some work required in the morning. Pub is called The Rising Sun. Not buzzing, even for a Friday night. Dance music with chirpy-type sound going on hasn't impressed one of the older regulars. "Sounds like a Budgie being kicked around a room," I overheard him tell his missus.

Day 2 - I passed a house and yard which contained a ruinous vehicle I likened to an ancient school bus. It had a rust-nibbled bonnet and was dressed in faded blue paint, vegetation sprawled over bowed plastic windows. The house cat watched me disdainfully and refused to be drawn by my earnest entreaties to pet it, so that I gave up and moved on.

Day 2 - Now, I stood looking at Chepstow castle and trying to come to a decision. I was thirsty and fancied a pint. The time was now 4:50pm. Did I make a detour into the town, or carry on towards the Severn Bridge?

Day 2 - It took about forty minutes to walk the entire length of the 'old' Severn Bridge, although this included a couple of stops to do some filming and simply marvel at the size of the structure I was on. Tiny and delicate, it had seemed, from some miles away but not now.

Day 3 - A frustrating day of wrong turns and enforced detours. I began to lose count of the farms that I passed, sometimes reaching them by way of small lanes but more frequently accessing them via their own agricultural land.

Day 4 - I took a few moments to sit near the fountains at the Marina in Bristol to take stock. I’d already ruminated over my itinerary and knew that I was getting way behind, so I’d decided to just head for Chew Magna and then see how far past it I could get by day’s end.

Day 4 - Bristol spilled out around Dundry Hill, receding to middle distance with the well-worn estates I had negotiated that morning and back further, where the Clifton Suspension Bridge spanned the Avon gorge.

Day 4 - East Dundry gave me a generous amount of muddy woodlands and muddy fields to traverse, interspersed with a generous amount of cow manure. My progress therefore was literally bogged down, and I lost time as a result.

Day 4 - I set off on well-kept, gravel paths between mown lawns along the east side of Chew Valley Lake. It was all as neat as any park, with several crossing paths and information boards about the local wildlife and how this man-made reservoir (for this is what it was) was built back in the 1950’s at the cost of drowned farmland.

Day 5 - This is me entering Mendip country for real and tackling one of its hills for the first time. I actually converged on the end of the dog walker’s route at Harptree Combe as I angled across a field and joined Western Lane, itself part of the Monarch’s Way route.

Day 5 - As I walked, I noticed how easier it had been to locate and pass over stiles today. It seems that the local farmers and authorities take more care of walker’s routes around these parts than in the Forest of Dean or Bristol, if not their outbuildings.

Day 5 - The morning had worn away into afternoon as I passed over the expanse of rural scenery; crossing stiles, finding gaps in hedges and going through gates that were in various states of disrepair. I thought to myself how easy and enjoyable I was finding today’s walking, despite being in hilly country.

Day 5 - A traffic sign, medieval style, pointing me in the direction of the tiny city of Wells.

Day 6 - I was sharing a bit of pasture with several cows and looking down on the village of West Pennard. A handsome selection of evergreens was clustered around the equally handsome fa├žade of the 15th century church of St Nicholas.

Day 6 - I reached a cattle drove and started out along it. It was the centre one of a trio of droves and so was called, naturally enough, Middle Drove. Well, it was lovely to walk along; straight, open and sunny with the moving canopy of trees and hedges throwing dancing shapes across the runway of grass before me.

Day 6 - I had reached the village of West Lydford and it was here that I stopped, briefly. Actually, I stopped to rest on the old 17th century (restored 1846) Mead Lane Bridge, which spanned the River Brue. A soft drizzle had but recently ceased and the daylight was still a little wan with cloud cover. A large Weeping Willow was leaning over, seeming to hold its branches, festooned with many narrow leaves, just above the inert surface of the Brue.

Day 7 - It was a long day, my feet were hurting, it was (remarkably) growing hot and there was a pub ahead of me at the bottom of a downhill street in Yeovil. It was meant to be, so I stopped at The Black Horse at 1:15pm for a drink and a rest.

Day 7 - After another hour’s lane walking I stopped to rest at the little hamlet of East Chelborough, standing in front of some handsome thatched houses. There was a break in the hedge here, so I was finally able to appreciate and film a lovely shallow valley to my left, comprising of wooded slopes and open grassland.

Day 8 - In the morning I entered a spread of pasture, upon which sat twenty-six lofty transmitter pylons; the location of one of the main transmitters of the BBC World Service in Europe. I had imagined that I would be able to walk between and beneath all of these giants and in fact, satellite maps clearly showed a path through the site. I can only think that these are paths set out for maintenance men and engineers because, clearly, Joe public would not be allowed to just traipse merrily through, potentially getting fried to death as they go.

Day 8 - I crested a rise and was immediately presented with an all-round view that had me reaching for my camcorder. I was in hilly country for sure now, with sheets of moorland and pasture stretching away on all sides.

Day 8 - Chesil Beach was visible at last and within touching distance. It lay as a thin strip between the sea and a narrow body of water called West Fleet, the white rime of breaking waves forming a thin line along its length.

Day 8 - Eventually I reached the coast, made my way up some steps, then onto a wooden platform with a hand rail on one side. The sun was riding down the sky as I walked the length of this and took some photographs. Then, I stepped onto Chesil Beach.

Day 8 - I walked with some difficulty across a rock-strewn bank and sat down at the edge of the sea. The waves crashed onto the beach with an even regularity; half meter cascades of foam, which sucked and pulled noisily and swept thousands of pebbles onwards with a strange, roaring whoosh.

Day 8 - The final photo, an unashamed selfie, to celebrate the completion of Postcode South.