|The Warwickshire Centenary Way|
Prats in hats ....
In August, when I first started this walk, getting up at 6:30 a.m. was so much easier when compared to rising at the same time in early December. Back in August I had opened my eyes to full daylight streaming through the window, and it had been warm, and summery. This morning, as Classic FM did its best to rouse me gently, it was most definitely wintry. I dragged myself out of my warm soft bed to be slapped about by the chill air in the bedroom, stumbling about in the dark, puckered by goosebumps, feeling for the neat pile of clothes I had left at the foot of the bed but which now seemed to have wandered away overnight.
Colin joined me downstairs, having stayed overnight in order to make this early-bird journey to south Warwickshire. We packed rucksacks, muttered about the cold, ate a bagel and poured hot coffee down our throats and then de-iced our cars, leaving the neighbours in my street, and possibly the rest of Birmingham for all I knew, still snuggled in their beds sleeping contentedly. However, rising so early has its advantages and we drove south along an almost deserted M40 to be greeted by a stunning sunrise which turned the eastern sky into layers of molten gold. It was the promise of a fine day in store weather-wise, which is just what we had hoped for.
An uneventful hour or so later we parked up outside the Royal Oak at Whatcote and made our preparations for setting off. Given the frigid morning air we both opted to wear the Silly Hats That Keeps You Snug. Colin donned his faithful old World’s Worst Ninja headgear whilst I opted for my Inbred Lumberjack cap, complete with ear flaps. Hiking may make you a fitter person but it will never raise your profile in the fashion stakes.
|A Prat in a Hat|
Every mile is two in winter ~ George Herbert (1593 - 1633)
We set off, ensuring that Colin had everything he needed but most especially his car keys, and strolled through the still sleeping village, passing the ancient pub (10th century), a row of ancient cottages (age unknown) and into the grounds of St. Peter’s church (12th century) where I whipped out my camera and captured some video (21st century). We paused to examine the rows of aged gravestones, their words of remembrance and the history of those who lay beneath them, obliterated by centuries of ice and wind and rain. We thought that the churchyard looked particularly atmospheric, cast in the light of an early winter morning, everything rimed with frost, and the pastel beauty of the December sky as a backdrop. We took a wrong turn – quite a feat really considering how obvious the path was – and dithered about for a while before locating the gate that let us out of the church and, indeed, out of Whatcote.
We walked along, negotiating a series of fields on a high saddle or ridge which meant that on either side the land fell away and the views flowed out across the wintry patchwork of Warwickshire, the December air providing a pin-sharp focus to the world so that even the most distant trees marching along the crest of a low hill presented their bare branches in minute detail. Despite the chill of the day we soon grew warm with our efforts and the Silly Hats That Keeps You Snug were eventually replaced with the more traditional baseball caps and sunglasses. We both remarked on the perfect yet simple beauty of the morning, the very best of what winter hiking could provide, because only at this end of the year did the air clarify, as the dust and pollen of summer blew away and only now did the sky choose to colour itself with pale pastels rather than bold watercolour.
However, today, it was all about completing the Centenary Way and moving on we left a series of fields behind, losing height along the way, to find ourselves on a country lane near a small village. Worryingly the guide book and the GPS seemed to be at odds at this point and of course there was nothing so enlightening as a well-placed way-marker to sort it out for us. After much frowning and gesturing it really came down to a choice – left or right – and either option seemed to be vaguely correct. I elected to go with the GPS and we turned left to walk along for a short while before heading off across fields once more. Just as we were wondering if we had made the wrong choice we came to a rickety old bridge spanning the river Stour with the rooftops of visible in the distance. An old house stood opposite us, perched on the very banks of the river which, today, was a busy but insignificant waterway but had, judging by the mud ravaged embankments, risen alarmingly during the recent heavy rains.
For once it’s not the guide book ....
I decided to have a quick check of the guide book as Colin framed the house for a photo and I opened it up only to have the book mark slip out and spin down into the water below. It was a makeshift bookmark, an old till receipt from the local Tesco garage, but it had kept the pages of the book for me faithfully ever since I had left Hartshill Hayes Country Park some seventy miles to the north and to see it float away down the river delivered an illogical pang of loss. I stared sadly at it as it disappeared around a bend, with Colin chortling unsympathetically behind me. I performed Naff Commentary, using the riverside house as the focal point, musing on just how safe the house would be in a severe flood. The property was built on massive slabs of stone, a secure enough footing against the waters power, but above that layer it was ancient brickwork and I was pretty sure that the flood line might rise to this more vulnerable level.
We moved on, deciding to let the guidebook show us the way through Shipston, which was either a sizeable village or a small town depending on your view of civic guidelines. The decision to follow the book was ultimately misguided, but we were yet to discover this as it told us to first to turn left and then follow the road through the town centre. This was a walk of perhaps twenty minutes and at least it allowed us to see the beating heart of Shipston which amounted to some nice Georgian architecture, a multitude of pubs, and several plaques fixed to buildings commemorating The Great Flood of 2007. There were banners hung across the main street advertising The Victorian Experience which (being cynical) we decided was an excuse to get drunk on cheap gin, be lewd with women of the night, and develop rickets. We soon realised, as we saw signs for an entirely different long distance path, that the decision to turn left at the country lane appeared to be have been a poor one. Something didn’t feel right and so I resorted to firing up my GPS to try and follow the line of the Centenary Way. The guide book, for once, had been entirely correct; had we turned right instead of left back at the country lane we would have visited the pretty village of Honington and all of the descriptive directions contained in the book would have made perfect sense: We shouldn’t have been in Shipston at all. At the time we blamed the authors of the book completely (only with hindsight was our mistake made more obvious) and we retraced our steps for twenty minutes to get back on route, pointing out (unfairly) how the guide wittered on, throwing out impossibly wrong directions, mentioning landmarks that didn’t exist. We decided that the authors has spent the day in the many pubs of Shipston and had made up the directions after several pints of Shankers Rash. Not that I am letting the authors completely off the hook mind, had their directions been more precise at the lane near Honington the detour would never have happened and, of course, I have already made mention of the books many little oddities throughout my journey.
Four miles, two villages, one way-mark ....
We set off in the right direction, on the shoulder of the busy A429 - a stretch of perhaps two miles, and we lapsed into companionable silence broken only by the swish of passing traffic and the interesting diversion of a field full of Emus. The road led us eventually to the edge of a village I knew by proxy since one of my workmates had lived there for a few years. It was a pleasant enough place and we were drawn in towards the village centre before my Wrong Turn Radar began tingling again. I checked the GPS and sure enough we had overshot our route and need to retrace in order to take a side road away from the place. We were now firmly back on the Centenary Way but, as often happened during sections of this walk, the way-markers disappeared and so we walked along Blackwell Lane, crossing the A49 in the process, with no real certainty that we were still on course. Given that other sections of the route are extremely well sign-posted it’s a bit puzzling why these stretches occurred but I suppose it’s all down to the local parish councils and their varied enthusiasm about stumping up the cash to advertise the walk.
The opportunity came just a half a mile later as we left the road via a gate into a field and celebrated the return of the Centenary Way Marker, the first one we had seen since before Tredington. Colin scuttled off in search of a tree and I strolled ahead realising that the day had warmed enough to melt the frost and we had to expect that further ploughed fields would no longer be solid underfoot but would be a slog through mud – just as on day seven. Indeed, out of the next five fields we crossed, two of them were ploughed and pregnant with mud. We began the dreary cycle of scraping several kilos of the stuff from our feet at the end of each field, shuffling through wet grass to clean the residue off, knowing we would be repeating the whole exercise around the very next corner. The last field into Ilmington illustrated this to a nicety, being not only ploughed and very large, but also hilly. The path (according to the map) took us right over the summit and we arrived at the crest a little breathless and heavy of foot. There was a nice view of from this vantage point, a village that cascaded down the side of several hills to meet in the middle where a church raised an important finger skywards. I laughed at a horse in a paddock below us who had been watching us with some interest ever since we started toiling up the hill, ears flicking back and forth in puzzlement. As we climbed down into the village he shook his head and ignored us completely, choosing not to suffer fools gladly.
As it happened we shouldn’t have climbed down at this point and so we vaulted a gate to find ourselves in a small square of lock-up garages. The GPS helped us round a few corners to get back on route and we strolled along through the narrow streets of the village enjoying its quaintness and its peacefulness. Ilmington is a contender for the prettiest village along the Centenary Way in my opinion. Its rich old limestone positively glowed in the winter sunshine, and there were thatched cottages, a classic village pub, an old smithy, and of course an ancient Norman church: Truly a lovely spot.
Historical factoid: Looks can be deceiving. British History Online has this to say about the village: “Dr. Thomas records, from the information of the rector, Abraham Swanne, that a popular gathering, wrongly styled a 'Wake', was held on 21 September, St. Matthew's day, which 'was set up by Mobbish People for wrestling and other masculine Exercises about the year 1650'. This is said to have continued until about 1830.” So there you have it – Ilmington was doing the Saturday Night thing long before Broad Street in Birmingham became a Mecca for those ‘Mobbish People’.
Colin stopped to capture some of the villages' charm on camera and so I wandered a little way ahead. I was committing Naff Commentary, standing alongside a particularly gorgeous row of thatched cottages called The Bevingtons, when he re-appeared.
“Is this place Tredington?” he enquired.
“Ilmington.” I corrected.
Colin began to tap this into his Twitter Message.
“Il-ming-ton” he muttered to himself carefully as my video faded to black.
All good things ....
A minor mistake entering Ilmington was followed by a minor mistake as we left. We started to slog up a steep lane which was great exercise but my Wrong Turn Radar began to tingle as the last of the cottages were left behind. The GPS told us that we had missed a tiny track to the right some way back down the hill so there was a minor amount of retracing our footsteps to find the track, a well-hidden little footpath that climbed up a hill via a series of old stone steps. We made height fairly rapidly as we climbed under the cover of trees and hedgerow, passing through a secret little valley of coppiced willow, and finally out onto higher open ground. We were greeted by another lovely view and a large friendly dog that appeared suddenly to caper about us, assuming instantly that we were all best mates in that way which only dogs can get away with. After his rather grumpy owner had called him to heel we made our way across more fields to reach Admington Lane which provided a bit of welcome and mud-free walking for a while.
Colin suddenly piped up “You really should get another dog you know.”
I had recently lost my much loved old greyhound Tom and we had decided to try and take a break from dog ownership – the first in many, many years. I had been finding it a struggle and I asked him what prompted him to say this.
He shrugged. “Just the way you look at other people with their dogs, the way you talk to the dogs that approach you.”
He had a point of course, I had found myself looking almost enviously at other people with their young fit four legged friends but it was still too soon to be sure of making a commitment to a new dog. Or so I thought at the time.
We left the road just past some farm buildings and crossed a rather bleak field of rough grass and fly-tipped rubble, before striking out across one final ploughed field. As we sat and cleaned the worst of it off our boots I looked ahead and could make out the rooftops of Upper Quinton across a few more fields. We were almost home.
The ‘few more’ fields turned out to be quite a few more fields but they were paddocks and pasture land and blessedly free of mud. Without ceremony we passed through a gate and onto a tiny lane and found ourselves staring at Colin’s car. We had reached As Colin set about changing into dry footwear I continued along
“Got your keys this time then,” he remarked.
We asked him how things were and how the pub was doing and he answered politely enough but seemed a little reticent about it all. He left us with the impression that he wasn’t overly ecstatic about life, but that might just be his default personality. We supped our beers in front of a crackling log fire and hatched plans for the coming spring in which we decided that we were going to tackle the during one week in May. It would be something to look forward to during the long dark winter months ahead.
See Route on ......