|The Warwickshire Centenary Way|
Day 7 Day 7, so good he walked it twice ....
This was going to be my second attempt at section seven of the Centenary Way. The previous weekend I had attempted it and through various delays, off route wanderings, taxi failures, and a general lack of mobile phone signal I arrived back at my car several hours late, in the dark, with most of my family convinced that I had fallen into a ditch and expired. Luckily they had refrained from calling the police but it was a close thing. As a result of this ‘adventure’ I had neglected to record any Naff Commentary and my photographs were to say the least sporadic. I reluctantly decided that a revisit was necessary, reasoning that this time, with full knowledge of the route and a second car to utilise, it would all be so much easier ( I am ever the optimist).
The second car belonged to my brother and oft-time walking companion Colin, who just happened to be paying us all a visit the weekend following on from my first attempt, so it seemed like too good an opportunity to miss. This journal, and the associated video, is all from the second attempt.
The photographs are a combination of both visits.
The screw-ups are all our own work.
Baggy eyes and waggy tails ....
I prepared for a chilly days walking, as the forecast had predicted light rain and Icelandic temperatures. The car ‘fridge’ was stocked with milk and coffee rather than sports drinks as I believed that on our return to the car there would be nothing nicer than a mug of strong hot coffee as a reward for our efforts. I had arranged for an early start with Colin and so it was that he arrived in the dim light of early morning, a little chastened and a little late because he had been watching a stopped clock for the best part of twenty minutes as he took a leisurely breakfast, but there was no cause for concern - we were still on course for a nice early finish.
An hour or so later we parked up on top of the (my fourth visit to the place during this journey across Warwickshire) to be greeted by a keen wind and drowsing sheep. We wrapped ourselves in scarves, gloves, hats and – on my advice – gaiters. Colin owned a nice new shiny pair but had always been a bit gaiter-averse, claiming they ‘looked silly’ and so today was, as he put it, going to pop his gaiter cherry. Considering the less-than-flattering hats we sported I suggested that gaiters were the last thing we should be self-conscious about. Colin’s headgear made him look like the world’s worst Ninja and my faithful old grey woolly suggested more than a passing nod towards Village Idiot. We checked we had everything we needed,
The Burton Dasset Hills
Across the fields to our left stood a handsome country residence perched halfway up a hillside, its clean Georgian lines painted a cool and elegant buttery yellow , and we imagined what it must be like to celebrate Christmas in such a place, decked out in Victorian Yuletide splendour and with assorted family members and hangers-on making merry with the sherry.
Ed: I hesitated about mentioning Christmas in this journal – it’s not yet November as I write this - but DFS have started their Christmas advertising campaign on TV and the local garden centre has all its Christmas ware on display so I guess it’s now PC to start talking about the thing. One year the adverts will just continue seamlessly from December through to December and that’s when I will sell my house and buy a one-way ticket to the Galapagos Islands.
The world lay under a blanket of low cloud that just kissed the top of the higher hills and suggested that rain was percolating somewhere high above us, however the initial chilliness of the Dasset hills was left behind and we began to warm as we walked, packing away first our scarves and then our gloves. We picked our way across a final paddock before strolling into the village of turning right to follow its winding main street. We passed cottages reflecting a distinctly Cotswold style of architecture, being constructed of the famous that mellows with the centuries to a warm honey brown. I performed some Naff Commentary, commenting on the state of my eyes (a debauched puffiness that told of a bottle of wine the previous night and not enough sleep afterwards) and on how my hat accentuated the feature (I later referred to it as my look). As I concluded filming, a cyclist shot past within inches and at suicidal pace. The video ends with the whizzing sound of his fly-by and me shouting ‘You bloody hooligan!’ in my best Mr. Angry from Purley voice.
One of the last cottages we passed presented a pretty flower garden and a little white dog of terrier lineage. She had been there the week before and she had greeted me with wagging tail and happy demeanour. She was just the same this time around and we stopped to make a fuss of her; I hoped she had been let indoors a few times in the intervening week.
On Edge ....
We left Avon Dasset, taking a road past a playground that sported a tall totem pole, and marched down to cross over the M40 and then along a quiet country lane into the village of Arlescote, a bit of an oddity as villages go. Arlescote had no shop, no pub, and no sense of a high street. It had a single track road that wound through it, with a small collection of houses and cottages scattered here and there, each with a broad swathe of grass before it. It was ghostly quiet when I passed through the week before and was equally deserted on this second visit.
Light rain began to fall as we left Arlescote, never enough to trouble us into pulling on waterproofs but enough to make us consider doing so every few minutes. We left the road via a stile into a paddock, swishing through lush damp grass to climb up onto higher ground, a climb which had me blowing like a winded nag by the time I reached the top. We then encountered the first of many large fields that had been recently ploughed, obliterating both the remains of the summer crop and also the path across it. The soil in this region was a reddish-brown clay which had become sticky with all the recent rain and which clung to the soles of our boots, growing in volume with each step. By the time we had reached the far side our feet were improbably large, swollen by the accrued mud, and each foot seemed to weigh around half a stone. We then performed a ritual that involved finding clumps of damp vegetation to scrape our feet through with an exaggerated and eccentric gait a la Ministry Of Silly Walks. This cycle was repeated on every ploughed field we encountered – and there were many. In fact another two ploughed fields followed in succession before we reached more solid ground and popped out from between farm buildings and onto the road leading down to I knew Ratley well, having extensively walked around the area, and told Colin it was a beautiful old village with a church nestled up against an ancient pub, and thatched cottages lining the village street as it wound uphill to where we stood.
The Castle Inn
We reached a natural hollow in the woodland and almost immediately began to climb up again on a rocky track that threatened a broken kneecap if a slip occurred. At the top of this rise we were presented with the crenelated tower of the a pub built to commemorate the famous civil war battle of Edge Hill that took place on the great flat plain below the ridge. I knew that the place served good food and ale but we were too early for opening time and had to content ourselves with the rich aromas of Sunday lunch being prepared, wafting out from the open kitchen doors.
Historical factoid: The tower was built in 1742 by Sanderson Miller on the centenary of the battle, and is said to mark the spot where King Charles raised the standard before the two sides clashed. The Tower; also known as the Radway or Round Tower was intended to replicate Guy’s Tower at nearby Warwick Castle. The Tower first became a pub in 1822, when it was sold by a descendant of Sanderson Miller to become a free house. Then in 1922 the Inn was acquired by Hook Norton Brewery. A reputedly active area of paranormal activity, the Edgehill Ghosts remain the only British phantoms to be officially recognised by the Public Record Office. But I bet they don’t pay tax.
The walk continued along the high ground of Edge Hill through light woodland, glimpses of the patchwork quilt of fields and farms far below us occasionally visible through the branches of birch, ash and oak. The ground fell away sharply to our right at times with nothing to stop us stumbling off the path to go bouncing and rolling down into the forest, and I found myself wondering how many people had enjoyed this exciting diversion over the years. Presently we met a group of four walkers coming from the opposite direction. They were Weather Forecasters, the woman opining that the sun might yet make an appearance and the three men behind her offering ‘Cold isn’t it?’, ‘Rains holding off’ and ‘Better than they said it would be’ as they filed past. I love this about the British, the unwritten law that says we can break the natural reserve we hold for strangers simply by mentioning the weather – it’s like a genetic instinct.
A not so civil war ....
The trees around us were losing their leaves at a fast rate now, casting them onto the ground as a thick crunchy carpet and inviting Justin Hayward to start singing Forever Autumn inside my head. We passed one old tree – I think it was an ash – that played host to a mistletoe which itself must have been many years old, the stems of which curled about the trunk like the tentacles of an octopus, as thick as a man’s arm. We reached a lane opposite an old house called Sunrising House where, it was said, King Charles 1st had breakfasted on the morning of the great battle. A lot of the old inns in the area laid claim to a piece of civil war history. The Rose & Crown at Ratley, for instance, insists that a parliamentarian foot-soldier, having fled the field, had taken refuge inside the large open fireplace that even today dominates the small bar area. Royalist troops had discovered his hiding place, pulled him out, and executed him on the hearth. Inevitably it is rumoured that his ghost now wanders the place but for real haunting potential you have to move on to the Castle Inn which, although being built after the civil war, still holds a reputation for being one of England’s most haunted pubs.
We took a wide driveway past Sunrising House to reach a T-junction alongside a riding school where a magnificent chestnut horse was being ridden back to the stables. As he drew level with us he began to get agitated, he stopped and then began to prance about and toss his head. I assumed it was our sudden appearance that had spooked him so I asked the girl riding the horse if we should walk away.
“No,” she replied tersely, “he’s just being an arse!” At which point the horse reared up on its hind legs. I was sure the girl would be thrown but she clung on with amazing skill and with supreme confidence brought the horse back under control. By this point Colin and I had exchanged a glance and backed slowly away, wondering what we would do if the girl hit the deck and the horse bolted. Thankfully we never found out.
“I think he wants to go back to the paddock,” she decided, and wheeled the feisty horse about to disappear around a corner.
We stood for a few seconds.
“Bugger that. Horses are just too big.”
We wandered down along a woodland path, passing a small fenced area where horse jumps were arranged in a circuit. The young lady was taking the feisty horse around it, speaking to it sternly whenever it tried to dance about. It was a battle of wills and my money was on the girl who despite, having to control a wilful 1,000lb beast, seemed totally in control. I was full of admiration.
We continued along a wooded path until we reached a gate which led onto Sunrising Hill where the trees parted and a beautiful vista opened up before us, the plain below patched with fields and studded with farms where odd wisps of bonfire smoke twirled lazily skywards.
Historical factoid: The Battle of Edge Hill was the first pitched battle of the English Civil War. It was occurred on Sunday, 23 October 1642. Almost by accident the opposing forces of King and Parliament found themselves in the same neighbourhood and were obliged to ‘have a go’. Equally matched in terms of numbers around 6,000 Royalists were arrayed at the top of Edge Hill whilst 6,000 Parliamentarians were deployed on the plain below. It was a lovely sunny day and there was a certain reluctance to engage in actual battle. From dawn until late afternoon the world’s biggest staring contest took place until eventually King Charles rode out to encourage his men which provoked the Roundheads into action. A somewhat shambolic battle commenced, with inexperienced troops on both sides deciding to leg it rather than risk a musket ball. On the Royalist side, Prince Rupert became the bravest man with the soppiest name, proving himself to be a skilled and able soldier whilst on the opposing force ‘Faithful Fortescue’ failed to live up to his name and defected almost immediately. Several noblemen never got home to polish the family jewels again and the end result was a rather scrappy draw with neither side able to claim the advantage. A couple of thousand men lost their lives and it is said that many more were saved when the following night turned out be a bitterly cold one, serving to freeze wounds thus preventing death from loss of blood.
By contrast, on this October afternoon in 2012, all was silent apart from the whisper of a breeze and the production of Naff Commentary, during which I thought I heard Colin describing the light rain as ‘spaffling’ and thereby invented a new meteorological term.
And remember, 'mud' spelled backwards is 'dum' ....
The spaffling became a little more insistent so we headed off along the bare crest of Sunrising Hill before ducking under the cover of woodland again for a short while. We soon came to the path leading down, and off, the high ridge, and I warned Colin that this section was particularly muddy and treacherous underfoot. I had carried a walking pole all these miles just for this very spot but as it turned out I needn’t have bothered. The intervening week had seen a lot of leaves deposited over the path and they acted as a sort of raft, protecting us from the worst of the bog underneath them. We left the high ground via a gate and a meadow and then reached another obstacle that I remembered well from my previous visit. We crossed a short pasture near to a farm and then had to go through a space between fences to reach a track - there was no alternative route. The problem here was that herds of cows had also used this space on a regular basis and left behind a foot deep porridge of dung and mud. The muck was inescapable but to add a little spice the farmer had also electrified both fences, requiring us to inch carefully around the edge of the mess taking care not to touch anything live. I was initially annoyed when forced to cross this mud-bath but I suppose, on reflection, the place is first and foremost a working farm and I suppose, logically, cows have more right to use the track than we do. However, it would have been nice to have seen some sort of effort made to help the occasional Centenary Way walker over this trouble spot.
After escaping electrocution we made our way across a few more fields and into the village of Tysoe, walking past its fine church, its pub (The Peacock), and along its winding main street.
‘Ooo that’s council’
‘Could have made an effort with that porch’.
We left Tysoe, turning off from the road to approach a rather grand stone gateway – sans gate – that led into what looked like the private drive of a large property. A diminutive old lady stood before it with an even more diminutive dog on a lead. She watched us approach with a sympathetic expression.
“Oh what a horrible day it’s been for you!” she exclaimed (that good old ice-breaker The Weather again). I assured her we were quite comfortable and we had walked through much worse but she wouldn’t have it.
“Oh no its awful today – cold! And I’m a Yorkshire lass!”
She had a completely undetectable Yorkshire accent.
After agreeing that rum was indeed the solution to it all we continued along the drive, leaving it on a bend to continue along a lovely little path between stone walls. Further back along the drive we had spied a very grand house indeed and I wondered if we had just chatted to its owner. The path opened out into a sort of sheltered glade which I imagine would look at its very best in the spring, with Aubrietia and Alyssum tumbling down the old stone walls in splodges of purple and canary yellow.
We went through a gate and with hardly any surprise we found ourselves crossing another large ploughed field, skirting around its edge whilst taking a mild interest in a couple on the far side who had lost their dog and were calling for it in ever more anxious tones - they fell silent before we left the field so I assume that there was a happy ending. Just as we thought that we had walked across the worst of the mud and slime we were treated to a long diagonal slog across a field of stunted sweet corn where the sludge underfoot became extra sticky and extra slippery. There was a small wooden footbridge at its end and we spent several minutes scraping the stuff off our boots before striking out across more ploughed acreage and getting them just as claggy again. We were very close to the end now and we picked our way around the rear gardens of a line of farm cottages before one last crossing of ploughed earth. This was the last and probably the worst of the lot because the furrows were higher than usual and gave softly under our feet - it was like walking up a sand dune and it was bloody heavy going. The exit from the field could be seen far ahead of us but for quite a while it just didn’t seem to be getting any closer and it was with great relief and singing calf muscles that we eventually completed the crossing.
Epic failures ....
There was one last tiny meadow to cross before we walked into whose neat little rows of cottages could be seen just ahead. I began calculating how long it would take us to get back to my car on the Burton Dasset Hills, and how much I was looking forward to that fresh hot coffee: Just a 20 minute trip in Colin’s car and we would be there. Suddenly, out of the blue, and just as the spaffling become a more persistent drizzle, a Bad Thought occurred to me. I will let Colin tell the rest, via the Tweets he published later that evening ...
“Hugely enjoyed the walk today. We had the advantage of two cars and made use of this. My car was left at what would be the end of the walk and we then drove in @DarkFarmOwl's [Marks] car to the start of the walk about 12 miles away. We could then do the walk and finish by taking my car back to his car, where we would then drive home in our respective cars. Good logistics. Trouble is, I had The Bright Idea. I didn't want to walk whilst carrying my house keys on me, so asked bro if I could leave them secure in his car - he was happy to do so. We enjoyed a good few hours walking and were lucky with the weather, the rain only got going as we finished. We were on the final field and it seemed that @DarkFarmOwl had been ruminating. "Those keys you left in my car," he said, "Did they include your car keys?" My heart sank. So, it was a phone call for a quote from a not so local taxi firm and me staring helplessly at my totally unusable car. It was a piece of absent minded brilliance that cost us £25 to taxi back to bro's car, then a drive back to my car. Sheer Laurel and Hardy.”
... with a resignation born of many such mishaps we called the most local cab firm we could find, assisted by the landlord of the at Whatcote, and then propped up the bar supping pints of local bitter. We chatted to the landlord who, as it turned out, was a Brummie and had run a few pubs in and around Birmingham before heading out into the sticks. He planned to stay for a few years and then wanted to fulfil his ambition of running a seaside pub.
Sunset at Whatcote
“Oliver Cromwell slept in a room upstairs,” he told us, presenting us with the Royal Oak’s particular claim to fame regarding the civil war.
The taxi arrived fairly promptly and he turned out to be a chatty sort of bloke, hearing with interest about our car key cock-up (but with no hint of reducing the fare out of sympathy) and also wanted to know all about the Centenary Way as he, like almost everyone I met along its route, had never heard of it.
We arrived back at the Burton Dasset Hills to find it equally as chilly as when we had left and I was so glad I’d packed the coffee brewing gear as I had been thinking about hot fresh coffee for the last two hours. The cabbie departed, with all our collective wealth in his back pocket, and we gratefully stripped off our walking gear and I got the coffee things together. The milk was nice and cold as I had packed ice packs into the ‘fridge’ and I had even thought to bring a couple of Thermos mugs with me. What a pity, then, that I had forgotten to bring the flask of hot water along.
It was just that sort of a day really.
See Route on ......