Warks Centenary Way Day 6

The Warwickshire Centenary Way
By Mark Walford
Day Six

Route: Leamington Spa to the Burton Dasset Hills
Date: Sunday September 7th 2012
Distance: 12.5m (20km)
Elevation: 174ft (53m) to 587ft (179m)
Climbing (ascent and descent): 846ft (258m) and 466ft (142m)

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See Route on ......

A dim view of the world ....

I decided to set off earlier for this section, based on my recent experiences of how long it was taking me to walk 12-plus miles including all the ‘getting lost’ episodes. The forecast for the day was good but as I drove along the M40 towards Gaydon there was a ghostly fog draped across the landscape and it brought with it an autumnal chilliness. Having to use the M40 served to illustrate the distance I had now covered on this long distance path, as the first few sections of this walk had seen me taking the M6 roughly northwards whereas I now took the M40 roughly southwards. I would be passing Gaydon during today’s walking, an area where I have worked several times over the years, and it was quite a thought that these legs of mine have carried me all the way from Kingsbury to Gaydon (and hopefully beyond) without any serious break down. I’m sure it’s all the walking I am doing that is keeping me just the right side of fitness because in many other ways I am as lazy and hedonistic as your average teenager, which is not terribly sensible when you live inside a middle aged body.
I arrived at the Burton Dasset hills and parked up near to the squat circular watch tower on the highest point. Everything was muted and a little sombre due to the fog and there was little to see beyond 30 meters. I was confident that on my return later in the afternoon the sun would be shining from a clear sky and the views would be a nice reward for my days journeying.
I had a new chauffeur today - Jamie had transferred the duty over to Griff, who lives in Kenilworth and had kindly agreed to ferry me about. He arrived punctually and we set off back to Leamington Spa, swapping gossip and rumour about office related stuff (we work for the same company and, quite often, work together and I can honestly say that he is one of the nicest people I have met during my many years of service).

From no path to tow path ....

Griff dropped me off in Leamington Spa, which was having a Sunday morning lie-in judging by the empty streets and scarcity of people, and by luck he left me at the gated entrance to Jephson Gardens which was the official start of today’s route. I set off through the grounds, admiring the fountains, statuary and shimmering colours of the autumn leaves. The gardens were created in the early 19th century, designed originally to be a place where the great and the good of Leamington could gather to be ‘seen’. Public access, at first limited, increased over the years and it is still a popular draw for tourists today. The monuments in the park pay tribute to the more notable residents of the town; a Corinthian-style temple houses a statue of the good doctor Stephen Jephson, chief promoter of the towns health giving spa waters,
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Jephson Gardens at Leamington

Dr. Hitchman (a local philanthropist) is honoured with a fountain, an obelisk memorial celebrates one Edward Willes, and a clock tower is dedicated to Alderman William Davis, who was mayor of the town three times. I also passed by a tropical plant house, all steamed up with its specimens pressing against the glass. I would have liked to have stopped to explore this more but reluctantly decided I didn’t have the time.
After leaving the gardens I followed the river Leam to a leisure centre and tried to work out what the guide book was telling me to do next. A sizeable group of ramblers edged past me as I stood. “You can come with us if you like!” said one of the guys cheerfully as he walked by. I smiled and said that they were going the wrong way and then set off in the wrong direction myself and soon became disorientated. I wandered about for a fair while before deciding that I was unable to get my bearings (even with a GPS) and would have to return to the leisure centre to start again - I was at this point on a small footbridge that crossed the Leam near to a busy road. The leisure centre was ten minutes’ walk away and of course when I finally got the route sorted out correctly it brought me right back to the very same bridge - well that was 45 minutes of my contingency time used up and I had barely started the walk.
Luckily the next several miles of the route were about as simple as a walk could get and, from the bridge, I soon found myself crossing the busy road and onto the tow-path of the third canal of the Centenary Way, the Grand Union. I now had just over three miles of tow-path walking to complete before I needed to consult the guide book again and with this in mind I set off at a fairly leisurely pace. Around the first bend I ran into the back of the convoy of ramblers I had seen at the leisure centre (so they were going the right way after all) while a steady stream of cyclists, joggers, and speed-walkers kept coming up behind me, forcing me to step out of the way. It was all far busier than I expected and being the sort of walker that prefers to be alone I soon decided to step up my pace to get past the knot of ramblers ahead of me.
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On the Grand Union canal

The couple at the rear of the line engaged me in conversation as I approached, wanting to know where I was heading. I told them about the Centenary Way (which they had never heard of) and that I was completing it end to end. The man asked me what that meant and I said Kingsbury to the northern Cotswolds. He stopped and looked at me in disbelief.
“Today?” he said incredulously. Sigh.
Within a mile almost all of the tow-path traffic left to join a green-way at a bridge and the ramblers broke for lunch at a small set of locks. Soon I was walking along in solitude, enjoying yet another beautiful canal-side amble. I love walking along canals but the writers of the guide book obviously didn’t share this pleasure as they suggested an alternative route, which missed the canal out entirely and offered a section of field and road walking instead. Each to their own I suppose, but faced with a choice between a tow-path and a field I’ll go for the canal every time. By now I felt like I had been walking a long time but I had probably covered no more than 10% of the routes total distance. Later in the day I knew that this idyllic canal section would be a distant memory; a memory of fresh legs and early morning sun, and anticipation (rather than tired indifference) about what lay around the next corner. I walked along and the morning slipped by, I waved at the occasional passing canal barge and the steersman, usually male middle-aged and tanned, often smoking a pipe, waved back. A pair of swans glided past me, a trio of almost full grown cygnets in tow, willows dipped their tresses into the still water and once, with a huge splash, a carp rolled, showing a brief flash of creamy white flank. All too soon I came to my exit point and I reluctantly left the canal, knowing that there would be no more tow-paths to follow on the Centenary Way.

Do you come here Ufton? ....

The small village of Ufton lay ahead, where I had decided to break for lunch, and to get there I followed a long track between fields, paved with hefty chips of granite and littered with large puddles after the recent heavy rains. A man was walking towards me exercising a couple of greyhounds, dogs that are always an irresistible draw for me. One hound, a tawny male, walked off leash and treated me with reserve as many greyhounds do with strangers, the other hound was on a long leash and as I approached the man started to warn me, a little late, that he was a jumper. A hefty greyhound taking a flying leap onto your shoulders can be disconcerting but I managed to keep my balance and crouched down to his level to say hello. He was an energetic, friendly young dog with a lovely white and grey marbled coat and I was reminded once again of the vast difference between a young untrained greyhound, a creature of unbridled energy and excitement, and the older retired racers who are almost Zen-like in their outlook on life and are happiest when stretched out on a sofa snoring.
The rough track became a farm drive climbing between grassy meadows and then in turn a small lane leading to a busier road where I turned left and climbed to Ufton village. Climbing of any real note had been a rarity on the Centenary Way so far, but I knew this was going to change as the land for the next day or two would be more undulating, culminating at the escarpment of Edge Hill. I stopped for lunch under the eaves of an old church where a bench had thoughtfully been placed. Diagonally opposite was the White Hart at Ufton perched on the shoulder of the hill and commanding far reaching views across Warwickshire and Worcestershire.
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The White Hart, Ufton

The landlord of the White Hart was doing a spot of gardening out front and he chatted to me amiably as he worked. They had owned the place for just over eight years, rescuing a failing business and making a modest profit despite the economic gloom. He told me that had I been here the week before I would have found the church open to the public and I could have climbed up to its ancient bell tower where fantastic views could be enjoyed. I finished my lunch in this most pleasant spot and then the landlord suggested that I take a look at the views from his beer gardens at the back of the pub, views which were indeed glorious, especially so because of the wide blue sky and clarity of the air.
I was about to set off again, shouldering my rucksack, and as a matter of routine I checked that my sunglasses were sitting on the visor of my baseball cap. They were missing. I retraced my steps back to the bench where I had taken lunch, scanning the ground for them. The landlord looked quizzical so I told him I had lost my sunglasses. He was a nice chap and offered to come back with me to check the beer garden but I didn’t want to put him to any trouble so I made my way back to the gardens alone, eyes on the ground, with furrowed brow. At this point it slowly dawned on me that there was a good reason my glasses were not perched on my hat – I was wearing them. I had just told a man that I was looking for my sunglasses, whilst wearing sunglasses. I guess that either he was too polite to point this out or he had assumed I meant some other pair of glasses and now I had to walk past him again to carry on with the walk; wearing my sunglasses.
I was going to walk by without saying anything but he asked me if I had found them, and feeling ever more ridiculous I said that I had not. And then, in an effort to explain the sunglasses sitting on my nose I added that the lost glasses were a prescription pair, used for reading. This little white lie made things worse because he then became concerned about the cost of replacement so I hastily added that they were insured. He insisted on taking my phone number just in case they were found by a regular and so I ended up giving my number to a perfect stranger who would be on the alert for a pair of sunglasses that would never be found. After all this nonsense what I needed was a good walk to clear my head and so, with a faint sense of relief, I left the pub and the village behind.

After Harbury it's all downhill ....

On the edge of the village I walked past a man busy working an enormous vegetable plot. Either it was a small commercial market garden or he had an awful lot of time on his hands as there were several beds, protected by tall frames of insect mesh, and quite a number of greenhouses and sheds. The man trundled through the midst of all this with a wheelbarrow full of compost and called a cheery good morning to me, reconsidered and changed it to a ‘good afternoon’ and then decided that he didn’t really know if it was either and what did I think? I had to confess that without looking at my phone I couldn’t be sure either but I told him I was reasonably certain it was now PM.
“I’ve been here since six this morning,” he explained, “and I have totally lost track of time.”
What a great way to lose a day.
I made my way through a tiny little nature reserve after Ufton, a place of much flora but curiously little fauna, not even of the feathered kind, and then there followed a time of uneventful field walking before I climbed a footpath to the next village of Harbury, a straggly strung out sort of place with a hotch-potch of dwellings of all ages and styles and a rather nice looking pub. The way into Harbury was pretty straightforward but the way out less so and as I approached its community hall I pulled out my guide book for a quick consultation. There was a kids birthday party going on at the hall, judging by the balloons and banners hung outside, and a small group of mothers were taking a fag break at the entrance. Feeling inexplicably nerdy all of a sudden I edged out of view into a small side road so they couldn’t see me poring over my notes.
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The guide book sorted me out and I left Harbury behind me by following a series of sports fields beyond the community hall. The day had worn on and I felt that there was a late afternoon feel about the weather - the sun seemed so low that it was about to set and the temperature had dropped noticeably, whilst long shadows were thrown across the turf by lines of tall poplars. I checked the time but it was barely 2:30 and I had hours of daylight left. Oddly enough, once I had left Harbury behind me the day seemed to adjust its timer and wound back a couple of hours.
There was a short path across fields and then I reached a lane where the directions told me to turn right, left onto a field past a house, and around its edge for a quarter of a mile to reach double white gates; except after all that walking I discovered that there were no double white gates and I realised that once again, somehow, I had strayed off route. Disheartened I consulted my GPS and could clearly see where the Centenary Way and I had parted company but not, exactly, how I could get back onto it. As far as I could tell I would have to retrace my steps all the way back to where I had joined the lane and then continue along it (left rather than right) to a junction where the Centenary Way could be regained. It was a fair distance and I had already walked quite a way by now so it was with mutterings and ill grace that I began to retrace my steps, passing a couple out for a stroll as I edged back around the large field. I couldn’t work out whether the guide book had failed me or I had missed a turn or just read the instructions incorrectly – possibly a combination of all three – but eventually I reached the junction (adding well over a mile to the overall distance I would walk) to find the double white gates and a drive with a nice shiny Centenary Way marker beckoning me onwards. To add insult to injury within twenty yards the same couple I had met on the field emerged onto the drive from a hedge – I could have just as easily followed them to regain the route.
“Going in circles?” said the woman as we passed. I smiled a tight smile.

Ending on a high ....

My grumpiness was not about to be improved by the next bit of the route as I followed the left edge of a sequence of nine large fields on a track that was composed of muddy clay, made slippery from recent rains. Every other step was also a mini slide and after a time this started to sap my strength, not to mention my sense of humour. I was so busy concentrating on where to place my feet that I rarely glanced up to admire the scenery although I’m sure it was pretty enough. The going got a little firmer once I reached the boundary of Itchington Holt woods where a woman with a large German Shepherd dog was peering into the depths of the trees and shouting ‘Sammy’ repeatedly in various tones of wheedling and exasperation. Sammy crashed through the trees almost at my feet, a large and handsome Alsation, he was excited and his tongue flew behind him like a pink scarf. He shot me a look as if to say ‘I’m in trouble now – but I don’t CARE!’ and loped off back to his owner. The woman scolded him but wasn’t fooling anybody and she was soon scratching his ears.
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Climbing the Burton Dasset Hills

“He only has to think he’s seen a squirrel and he’s in there,” she explained to me, “but he always manages to find his way out again.” The other dog stared out across the fields, maintaining a stolid dignity, aloof and indifferent to Sammy’s antics.
The guide book said that I had to turn left at the corner of the woods, which sounded a bit silly to me, I mean, how many woods have actual corners? But as it turns out, this one did - an almost perfect right angle - and that can’t be an easy thing to achieve with a mature woodland; surely not a natural phenomenon?
Around this corner and beyond sloping fields the M40 ferried cars and lorries, made tiny by distance, south towards London and the signpost for the Gaydon exit could clearly be read, which gave me some idea of where I was and how far I had left to complete the days walk. By now I expected to see the Burton Dasset Hills, my destination, rising above the fields but from this viewpoint the nearest hills looked a long way off and I fervently hoped these weren’t the Dassets. I headed down the side of the woods, watching a family blackberry picking on the far side with a contraption that, no matter how hard I stared, I couldn’t make out. It was either an off road motorcycle, a large pram, or some sort of shopping cart and it niggled me that I never really worked out which. A small lane followed, from which a gate led me across a few final fields before depositing me on a road which I think (and I’d like to be right) was called Pimple Lane. Around the very first bend of this lane the Burton Dasset Hills appeared as if from nowhere, and I could just make out the tiny dot on the skyline that was the watch tower where my car was parked. As I plodded on the hills got imperceptibly closer and I pondered the pros and cons of being able to see the end of a long days walk from such a distance. It was 50-50 really in that you could see that the end was in sight but you could also see just how far there was still to go. In the end I stopped staring at the hills, concentrating on the fields either side or the road ahead, until they were obscured by roadside trees at the T-junction with Blacksmith Lane. Turning right here brought me to the last village of the day, Northend, nestling right up against the Burton Dasset Hills, with the usual random mixture of houses and cottages strung out along
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On top of the Burton Dasset Hills

Blacksmith Lane, and the temptation of a village pub open for business with people sipping cold beers on trestle tables outside. I averted my eyes and left the high street behind, taking a small side road and passing a terraced garden where the world’s most miserable barbeque seemed to be in session with everyone sitting silent, pensive and avoiding eye contact. The road ended and a steep track continued from it, winding up into the hills. As I got higher the track opened up into a wide grassy vale reaching up to the high ridge of the hills. Turning back here gave me the first of several far reaching views across Warwickshire that can be enjoyed from the hill tops. I arrived a little breathless at my car and gratefully downed the cold drink I had stashed in the ‘fridge’ before walking the last few yards up to the watch tower where, as I had predicted at the start of the day, the late afternoon sun shone from a clear sky and a great sweep of South Warwickshire could be enjoyed from this high vantage point. I looked to the south west where the hazy line of Edge Hill could be made out, the direction I would be taking for day seven, the penultimate section of the Centenary Way.
It would be a couple of weeks before I could continue with the walk, time enough for seasons to change, and for summer clothing to give way to thermals and gloves. If I was unlucky I might end up cold and wet, just like on the very first day - the one that took place in August.

See Route on ......

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