The Millennium Way - Day Five

The Millennium Way
By Mark Walford
Day Five

Route:Meriden to Packwood House
Date: Sunday September 7th 2014
Distance: 12.5m (20.2km)
Elevation: 302ft (92m) to 479ft (146m)
Climbing (ascent and descent): 686ft (209m) and 679ft (207m)

Prev      Next
See Route on ......

Rumination and procrastination ...

I sat on a bench surrounded by the leafy tranquillity of St. Laurence Church, Meriden, and watched the morning sun slanting through the boughs of the oaks and ash that protected the little churchyard and its ancient headstones. I mused on how my timetable was, to say the least, a little askew, given that it had always been my target to complete this walk by the end of September. It was now mid-September and my progress had stalled since the beginning of August. I was still barely halfway through the route and already the summer was waning; the first tinges of autumn were blushing on the leaves of the trees and there was a distinct nip in the early morning air. Life is what happens to you when you are busy making other plans, as John Lennon once said, and that applies to long distance walkers as much as it does to rock stars. Pleasurable events like holidays, and family gatherings, and a good slice of indolence on my part, had taken me through August and beyond and now I had to concede that by the time I reached Pershore some fifty miles distant it would be deepest autumn and winter would be hot on my heels, or perhaps more accurately cold on my heels. This was no bad thing of course, as walking in the autumn and winter has its virtues, but I didn’t relish the ploughed lumpy fields of cloying mud that the latter part of the year would present to me. With revised plans comes revised targets and now I wanted to reach the end of the trail by late October and sitting on a quiet bench in Meriden was doing nothing to meet this aspiration. On legs that were fresh from a month’s resting I sauntered down the little lane alongside the church just as its bell chimed the hour of nine o’clock.

Memorials in Middle England ...

Soon I had left the lane and struck out across high grassy meadows with the rooftops of the village below me and a fine view across flat lands towards the horizon, where the towers of the city of Birmingham shimmered in a hazy distance. I met a lady walking her Jack Russell terrier, a little dog who believed I was trespassing on her territory and wasted no time in telling me so. I walked for a while with them, and chatted about the route I was taking which she found very interesting, having never heard of the Millennium Way We discussed where I’d started from and where I would end up and she winced at the mileage I was intending to cover that day, although to be honest it was moderate compared to some previous routes. Leaving her I continued down towards a lower meadow where black cows grazed the long grass. As I rounded a gap in a hedge I saw another dog walker, a tattooed young man who was busy on his mobile phone as a bulky Staffy nosed about in the grass. Suddenly the dog became aware of me and it stiffened, staring at me in just the way you don’t want to be stared at by a brindled slab of muscle with a powerful bite. I knew it meant trouble so I stopped in my tracks and waited for the inevitable. Sure enough the dog began to head towards me, ears raised and eyes fixed on whatever part of me it had decided to chew on. Luckily, at the last minute, the owner saw the situation and lunged at his dog, catching it by the collar. He nodded curtly at me, I nodded curtly back and I moved on, hearing the rasping gargling noises the Staffy made as he pulled against his collar. For a while the pair of them were parallel to me on the other side of a hedgerow and I walked along with my walking pole in hand, shortened in length to provide me with a whacking stick. It was with quite relief when I took a kissing gate into a field and left them behind.
I crossed the field of black cattle with their swishing tails and incurious stares, dropping out onto the village’s main road which in turn led to the village green. Meriden is another of those places that are on my doorstep but seldom visited, I had passed through it many times over the years, knew that there was some connection to cycling, had an idea that it claimed to be the centre of England, and always considered it to be one of those ‘nice places to live if you can afford it’ communities like Kenilworth and Leamington Spa.
Referred to as Alspath in mediaeval times it was re-branded as Meriden a few centuries later, probably due to its geographical location, and has ancient links to Coventry via Lady Godiva who founded the church I had started from earlier in the morning.
MillWay Day5 Pic 1

The village green, Meriden

It is home to a couple of thousand people and was for many decades the home of the Triumph motorcycle, production only ceasing in the early eighties. The village green was bordered by a row of shops on one side and roads on another two, making it a large triangular swathe of neatly mown grass. It sported a tall needle of granite which I’d always assumed was the centre of England monument but I soon discovered was a memorial to the cyclists who had given their lives in both World Wars. It had been erected in 1921 and there is now an annual pilgrimage of cyclists who gather at the spot to remember these fallen cyclists, apparently they arrive in their thousands which must be quite a sight. Quite why the history of cycling is so entwined with this village is a mystery to me but the monument is very impressive and draws the eye as you drive past. There is another stone pillar at the other end of the green, somewhat overshadowed by the glamour of the cycling memorial but no less interesting. It is a weathered spire of red stone that used to bear a cross at its crown, now long since lost. This is a 500 year old way-marker that announces Meriden as the very centre of England, even though there are several other claimants to the title, and is a grade II listed monument. I’d never noticed it before, tucked away behind low shrubs and fringed by flower beds it wasn’t easy to spot from the road, which I can’t help feeling is a bit of a shame given its provenance.
After wandering around Meriden’s monuments it was time to move on and so I followed the guide’s directions, taking one of the main roads branching off from the village green. I hadn’t gone very far before I met the lady with the Jack Russell again. I was a bit puzzled by this as she was approaching me from the direction I was supposed to be heading, which was odd given that I had walked along in the same direction as her earlier: It seemed that one of us was doubling back on ourselves and I had a feeling that it wasn’t the woman. We exchanged brief pleasantries as we passed and I continued along the road for a short spell, admiring the fine properties that passed by on either side. Soon though I was obliged to leave the road and duck left onto a claustrophobic little track that squeezed between a wire fence on one side and thick brambles on the other. Following the canine-influenced theme of the day a large German Shepherd dog appeared behind the wire fence and began bellowing at me, making me start violently and emit a naughty word. The fence didn’t look particularly robust and I edged along the track with one eye on the dog which was rather too close for comfort. I emerged from the track onto a concrete farm drive, the hoarse barking of the German Shepherd fading away, to be confronted by familiar scenery. Before me lay the field of black cattle I had passed on entering the village, with the sweeping slope of turf beyond them that I had ascended earlier. The guide was apparently asking me to go back and say hello to the cows again, sending me back on myself in the process. For a brief moment I feared that I had copied the wrong set of guides for the day and was attempting the West-East traverse of this section but the last page of the guide referred to Packwood House so I knew this couldn’t be the case. I proceeded along the drive, brow furrowed, and a question mark hovering above my baseball cap. The drive ended in a locked gate so I had no choice but to enter the meadow with the cows for the second time that day and head off towards the sign post and metal gate in the middle distance. In the end it became apparent that the Millennium Way had created a special little loop for the traveller to visit Meriden, enjoy its monuments, and no doubt spend a few quid in its shops. No bad thing, the village is well worth the visit, but I could have cut straight across the field of cows and saved myself some time and distance. Meriden forms the apex of the inverted ‘V’ that forms the profile of the Millennium way and is, as such, its most northerly point. From now on I would be heading south-west, leaving the familiar byways I had enjoyed since strolling into Leamington Spa and walking on into the unfamiliar territory of the Worcestershire countryside.

The silent land ...

Almost immediately after leaving Meriden I picked up a path that snaked its way around the perimeter of a large quarry, hidden beyond high embankments but with plenty of ‘No trespassing’ signs in evidence, and other signs warning the unwary not to swim in the deep and dangerous waters that the quarry had created. Suddenly the world became very quiet, with no sounds of distant traffic and no livestock in the fields to break the silence. I met one couple exercising their dog at the beginning of my navigation of the quarry and saw nobody else for the next hour. The track became wider, gravel crunching under my boots, and still the quarry sprawled on, largely unseen beyond its high fences and looming embankments. The quarry is mined for aggregate and mortar material and is owned by Lafarge Tarmac. It covers an area many acres in size and is right on my doorstep and yet I never knew it existed until today. Finally the gravel track became a metalled road, still following the contours of the quarry works and still deserted and silent.
MillWay Day5 Pic 2

A scarred landscape

I stopped for a five minute break to savour the feeling of solitude, noticing an odd chemical tang in the air which held an underlying sweet, sugary note. I couldn’t tell if it was emanating from the quarry itself or the unseen fields at my back, but it was quite strong and I debated the wisdom of sitting here for too long, breathing it in.
Not too far along the metalled road the embankments disappeared and the scarred and dusty workings of the quarry could be enjoyed in all their splendour. Over time the quarrying would exhaust its resources and move on to the next acre of land and a process of restoration and replanting would begin, but standing before the blasted landscape with its giant craters and dinosaur-like quarrying machines, it was hard to believe that anything could ever grow there again.
The views opened up again shortly after leaving the quarry behind and I crossed fields lying fallow under an autumnal sun that grew steadily warmer as the day progressed. The forecast had promised a fine day and the blue skies and bright sun started to deliver on that promise, though I doubted it would be as uncomfortably humid as on previous sections. I entered a grassy field which dipped down into a shallow valley before climbing towards the exit gate. In the valley sat a couple of women enjoying the weather and sharing a light picnic. Their dogs, a young German Shepherd and a smaller specimen of uncertain breed, capered about happily, chasing each other over the tussocky grass. Soon they spied me, almost at the same time as their owners. The young German Shepherd’s eyes lit up and I could read the gleeful intent in her eyes even at a distance.
“No Sheba!” yelled the women, but it was too late. Sheba galloped towards me, eyes bright and pink tongue flapping to one side and from a yard away she leapt, planting all four paws squarely on my chest, forcing an ‘ooofff’ of expelled air from me. Mission accomplished Sheba raced away back to her owners who were very apologetic but didn’t really need to be; as a dog lover I don’t mind the attentions of other peoples mutts so long as its well-intentioned and being jumped on by a large German Shepherd was fine by me.

The accidental A Road ...

Following on from this episode I crossed a number of fields, following lines of ancient hedgerow, and started to drift off mentally (as one is inclined to do on a long walk where nothing much happens for a while and the scenery remains unchanged). As a result of this I suddenly found myself on the verge of the busy A452 Kenilworth Road, a thundering dual carriageway which I hadn’t expected to negotiate as part of the days travels. It took a while, peering at my satnav app and consulting the guide, before I sorted out what had gone wrong. At some point during the crossing of fields I had veered off to the west, lost in a reverie, instead of continuing southwards. Not only had this prevented me from walking alongside the delightful-sounding Sixteen Acre woods and yet more fields but it had also deposited me onto the A452 quite a way further from Balsall Common than I needed to be. I had a choice; I could retrace my steps and try to pick up the correct route somewhere amidst all the fields, gates, and hedges, or I could head along the A452 and route-march to the point where the Millennium Way crossed its path some distance ahead. Much as the thought of a trudge along such a busy road was unattractive it was both the quicker and the easier option and so, reluctantly, I set off, with the steady swish of passing traffic making the silence of the quarry lanes earlier in the morning seem like a dim and distant dream. Not only was it an unwelcome bit of road walking, not only was it along tarmac and concrete which was hard on the feet, but it was also a route which required me to cross the dual carriageway three times in order to follow the footpath which mysteriously petered out on one side to be continued on the other. Luckily there was a large central reservation of grass and trees which gave some protection but even so I did feel like the frog in that old video game of Frogger.

Canine capers (again) ...

After rather a long time of breathing in exhaust fumes and dodging juggernauts I finally made it back on route, just before the large village of Balsall Common, and turned my back on the noisy Kenilworth Road, taking sanctuary on a small country lane that took me down between fields of cattle and horses. Very soon I realised that I had been down this way before a year previously, and that I was following the Heart Of England Way which my brother and I had tackled in the spring of 2013. It was to be a short reunion however as I parted company with the Heart Of England way at the next gate and struck off left across the right hand side of a grassy valley. At a metal kissing gate I was brought up short by the sight of a shaggy pony being shepherded between an elderly couple, who flanked the animal, arms outstretched as if to guide it along. A Jack Russell slunk along beside the woman, well out of range of the pony’s hooves. I assumed they were its owners and they were going to lead it through the large gate beside me so I waited patiently.
“Is he nervous?” I asked them as they got closer, meaning ‘do I need to back off further as I don’t really like horses?’
The woman shook her head.
“No, he’s not ours. We were just walking through the field and he came up and started biting us.”
The man nodded in agreement. “He’s well known for doing that. I think it’s because he’s a bit lonely and wants the attention.”
As if to prove his point the pony waited until the gents attention was focussed on getting through the kissing gate and then took a generous chomp on the man’s shoulder. He flinched and then waved his arms at the pony which skittered away a few paces.
“Oooow NO stop it that bloody hurts!” said the man as his wife took the opportunity to squeeze through the kissing gate and out of harm’s way.
I wasn’t looking forward to entering that field very much.
“Right then,” I said eyeing up the easiest way past the pony, which now stood regarding me with evil yellowy eyes, “how do I do this without getting bitten?”
“Where are you going?” asked the lady, and I told her.
“Oh in that case you’re all right because you need to head straight down the valley here – you don’t go into his field at all.”
This was music to my ears, and after saying goodbye to the couple I set off, leaving the pony looking a little crestfallen that he wouldn’t be nibbling on me for fun after all.
I reached the floor of the narrow valley and then began to ascend the further side, hopping over a gate and following the edge of a large field of ripening sweet corn. A weather-beaten chap with a couple of Labradors and a young man in tow kept emerging from the green depths, peering back into the jungle of stalks, and plunging back in again. They were obviously searching intently for something but it was to remain a mystery to me as I left them behind, striking out across a series of wide open fields with superb views all around. As I traversed the fields I pondered on the emptiness all around me; the land was stripped of crops and devoid of livestock. It was late summer so most likely the harvest had been completed and the brown stalks sticking up in serried ranks were waiting for the plough to do its work, but what happened to all the cows at this time of year, where did they go?
The fields increased in size until I found myself marching along the boundary of one so large that it almost had a horizon. The sun beat down on me as I traversed this savannah so that by the time I’d reached its far side I’d divested myself of a t-shirt and an impressive amount of sweat and I’d started to develop the crumpled-trousers dishevelled look favoured by Charlie Chaplin, Phil Collins, and park bench winos.
MillWay Day5 Pic 3

The village of Temple Balsall across fields

Feeling not in the least like another encounter with an enthusiastic canine I rounded the corner of a cottage set in a paddock to be presented with just such a scenario. This time my antagonist was a stout barrel of vaguely Staffy heritage who, until I appeared, had been nosing about in the long grass whilst his owner stood by gazing across the fields. Within three seconds the dog had spotted me, targeted me, and had set off towards me much like the German Shepherd earlier, with a belated shout from his owner which fell on deaf ears. I stood stock-still, which I’d always been advised to do in such a situation, and watched the creature galloping towards me - I had time to notice that there was a hard edge to its stare rather than a twinkle of mischief before it took off a few feet away from me. Being lower to the ground than a German Shepherd to start with, and being nowhere near as athletic as Sheba, its trajectory described a lower arc and it planted its hard round head squarely in the crown jewels. ‘Whoo’ I grunted as the familiar dull ached started spreading out from the epicentre of my trousers.
The owner had managed to capture the dog and was apologising profusely.
“Sorry – he wouldn’t have done you any real harm. He really likes people. You did the right thing standing still like that.”
I nodded reassuringly but secretly wished I’d done the right thing by punting the little swine into the next field while it was in mid-flight. Nads throbbing gently I moved on, crossing gentle pastures that afforded a view of the picturesque village of Temple Balsall in the near distance, set against a backdrop of billowing trees and presenting an almost Constable-like scenario. I entered yet another immense field and began beetling along its left hand edge, spying the first walker I’d seen all day heading towards me. I estimated that we would meet after about a minute or so and considered what I might say to him, perhaps discussing the unusually clement weather, or a comparison of the routes we were walking that day, or the number of dogs that had leapt on him during his journey; the opportunities for engaging conversation were endless. Eventually we met, roughly in the middle of the field.
“Ayup,” he said.
“Aye,” I replied.
And we moved on.

Not far from the madding crowd ...

Beyond this field I emerged onto a small lane which in turn led to a larger road and it was with some surprise that I found myself standing at the drive of the Black Boy Inn, a familiar landmark to me which gave me some idea of the distance I had travelled that day. I walked up the gravelled driveway towards the low cluster of buildings, intending to have a pint of something cold and hoppy but as ever the Black Boy was rammed to the rafters. It enjoys a good reputation as a restaurant that provides generous portions of good food at reasonable prices and added to that it’s a canal-side pub. On such a nice sunny Sunday it was doing a roaring trade and I abandoned the idea of a beer. The queue at the bar would be long and the place would be full of people dressed in their smart-casuals, all fragrant with perfumes and colognes - I had no wish to share my sweaty Chaplinesque demeanour in such company. I decided instead to hop onto the canal tow path and find a suitable spot for lunch. The ideal spot proved to be quite elusive as I first passed a narrow boat full of people enjoying a clamorous Sunday lunch and then a barge, shrouded in silence and mystery, but with the shadow of a person moving about behind its port-holed windows. Finally I found a grassy embankment beyond an ancient brick bridge and flopped gratefully onto the turf, stretching out tired legs and lying for a while under the warmth of the sun. A gentle breeze stirred the leaves of the trees growing on the opposite bank and large white billows of cloud drifted across the blue sky, the soupy brown waters of the canal glided slowly by, carrying fallen leaves and the odd detritus from canal boats. I ate a leisurely lunch and realised that I had a grown a mild headache at some point during the day so I rooted through my medical kit in search of paracetamol which, of course, I hadn’t packed. After a quick call home I lay back again, enjoying relative solitude apart from the occasional cyclist that rattled by along the tow-path and the distant nattering of a pair of fishermen a hundred yards downstream.
It was the sort of spot that invited you to while away an entire afternoon but I had a walk to finish so eventually I rose stiffly to my feet and followed the canal downstream, passing the fishermen who it appeared hadn’t caught a single fish all day but were content enough with their flasks of tea and each other’s company. At the very next bridge I left the canal (the Grand Union ) and began crossing a seemingly endless procession of stiles and small paddocks. From the number of jumps set up in these little fields it was obviously a place devoted to ponies and horses.
MillWay Day5 Pic 4

The avenue of trees at Packwood House

There were a number of expensive looking horse boxes and motor homes parked along the way and the low roofs of farms. I even passed a fenced off sand-strewn training area but there were no horses to be seen, nor indeed people, during my crossing of this section - it was all somewhat deserted and a little forsaken. After the umpteenth stile my dodgy knee began to whinge at me, supplanting my headache as the focus of pain and reminding me to pack some pain killers before my next outing. Eventually the paddocks ended and I climbed the final rickety stile to find myself on the aptly named Rising Lane at the tiny village of Kingswood.
Again I was on very familiar ground as I had walked up this lane several times over the years, it being part of the ‘Hay Wood’ circular route I had devised. The lane climbed steadily towards a railway bridge and I followed it, passing by pleasant little red brick terraces of Edwardian vintage with the hint of more modern dwellings in the side streets beyond them. After the railway bridge the lane began to fall again and, still following a familiar route, I turned left down a driveway leading to a group of cottages. I recalled with some fondness the very first time I had walked the Hay Wood circular with my wife, many years before. We had reached this point and then circled around the perimeter of the cottages endlessly, searching for the elusive footpath to Packwood House and failing to find it. It had been a hot afternoon and we had wandered up every available path we came across, bickering gently, and still unable to find the right way forward. Of course, once you knew the right tracks to take, it wasn’t that complicated at all and I now followed the perimeter of the cottages confidently, emerging onto a small car park. The Hay wood circular would have now taken me left, across a farmyard and along its drive before reaching Packwood House, whereas this route offered a much simpler (and hitherto unknown) path straight up along a hedged field and onto the main road. Here I stopped for a little video shoot, gurgling the last of my water and realising with some surprise that I had made very good time today and the walk was almost done. It had been a warm day for sure, but nothing like the baking, humid day that had sapped my strength on the Kenilworth section and as such I had covered much the same mileage today but with far less effort.

The green eaves of Packwood ...

Just a few hundred yards along the road I turned left onto the grounds of Packwood House, a National Trust property of Elizabethan vintage. Approaching the house along this route was always something I looked forward to as it was a long straight avenue, lined on each side by a variety of lovely old trees. I imagine that in earlier times it must have been the main approach to the house, allowing horse drawn carriages to rumble past the estate’s sheep pastures and right up to the front gates of the mansion. The path had narrowed considerably since those far off times and the trees had grown closer together, so now it was a byway that could only be enjoyed on foot.
I walked along in the company of groups of people, families and couples, all heading towards the house, whose impressive chimney stacks slowly emerged beyond the trees. Eventually I reached the neat lawns and gravel drive that swept past the complex of ancient buildings that grew about the main house, old red brick glowing in the late afternoon sunshine, and the uneven lines of tiled roofs delineated against the sharp blue sky. The house and gardens were open and I had intended to pay the entrance fee in order to film the exterior of the property, its well-tended flower borders, and its famous group of topiary yews, but the fair weather had drawn people to the place and the thought of joining the throngs after a long days walking didn’t really appeal to me. Instead I reached my car, downing a bottle of warm sports drink, and congratulated myself on completing another section of the walk. Five down, three to go. But would I complete them all before the end of October?

For a full profile of the route (PDF format) click here

See Route on ......

Prev      Next

The Millennium Way - Day Four

The Millennium Way
By Mark Walford
Day Four

Route:Warwick to Meriden
Date: Sunday July 20th 2014
Distance: 13.8m (22.2km)
Elevation: 184ft (56m) to 489ft (149m)
Climbing (ascent and descent): 728ft (222m) and 505ft (154m)

Prev      Next
See Route on ......

Ominous signs ...

I started the day pretty much where I left off on Day 3 – alongside the busy Coventry Road running out of Warwick - and I adjusted straps and checked equipment as cars and lorries swished by. It was a relief to escape the noise and diesel fumes when I turned left onto Woodloes Lane, a thin ribbon of asphalt that was once a minor country road but now acted as a border between the urban overspill of Warwick and the rural landscape beyond. Fine old whitewashed properties faced the redbrick and larch lap fencing of more modern estates and it seemed to me to be a fragile stand-off; how long would it be before this lane became a rat-run between Bovis homes?
The lane ran across the Warwick bypass via a bridge, where I decided to pause and pull on my gaiters. I had plans to visit Kenilworth Castle later in the day and I was keen to avoid wandering around its grounds with trousers caked in mud and cow dung. I also took the opportunity to give my map a once-over and saw that there would be a change in direction on the Millennium Way after today’s walking was completed. Ever since starting out from Middleton Cheney I had been drifting eastwards and northwards, today in particular was taking me almost due north. But after reaching the apex of the route at Meriden I would begin to head south, still drifting ever eastwards, into Worcestershire and the end of the Millennium Way at Pershore still some sixty miles distant.
Woodloes lane became a cinder track beyond the bridge and presently it reached a fork in the road, each path leading to detached farm properties. The left hand path had a sign that read ‘Private – no admittance’ so I ignored it and took the right hand path, walking into a field as it bent sharply left towards the rather large house on the rise above me. I find that once you’ve covered enough miles on long distance paths you eventually develop a sort of sixth-sense when you are veering off-route. This sense began tingling after 20 yards or so and for the first time that day (but not the last) I fired up the GPS app on my phone and tried to work out what I should be doing next. I walked back to the cinder track and looked up at the house above me, it was rather a forbidding place and a hand-crafted sign had been fixed to a telegraph pole in front of me depicting the silhouette of a walker with a red line scored across it. This was even more unfriendly then the ‘Private – no admittance’ sign hosted by the other property: In fact its message was overtly hostile and I wouldn’t have been surprised if the walking figure had sported an arrow in its chest. I could see from the GPS map that that the Millennium Way ran straight past the other, left hand, property before snaking off across meadows. With some wariness I ignored the warning sign and strode up the track, past the house where I felt I was being watched from one of its many windows, and finally struck out across the wild grassy meadows beyond it. It was still early but already the sun was beating down with some force and the day was forecast to be hot and humid. Just before a kissing gate, in a quiet and secluded spot between two large meadows, I decided to stop and shed some clothing. As soon as I started to pull my T-shirt over my head a lone jogger appeared over the crest of the meadow, as if from nowhere. He bounced by, eyeing me up curiously as I stood half naked in the sunlit glade. This happens more often than you might expect, being caught doing something odd in remote corners of the countryside, but it never fails to exasperate.

When is a bunker not a bunker ...

I made my way around the edge of a scrubby meadow, following the line of a wire fence that separated me from the pair of horses that watched me with mild curiosity. As I left this field behind I realized that I had been here before, although two years’ worth of growth had subtly changed the profile of the hedgerows and trees. I was sharing this path with the Warwickshire Centenary Way, a route I had completed in 2012 albeit walking in the opposite direction this time, away from rather than towards Warwick. I looked at the GPS map again and sure enough I saw that I would be retracing my footsteps from two years before all the way to Kenilworth Castle. This foreknowledge was both a blessing and a curse as, whilst I now knew that there was some open pleasant countryside before me, I also recalled that there had been a fairly scary encounter with a bull not too far ahead. Forewarned is forearmed and at least I knew I had the option of ducking right into the golf course that ran parallel to my route for a mile or more should I have any Bovine hassle. First though, I had a small section of woodland
MillWay Day4 Pic 1

A tempting invitation

walking to enjoy, following a muddy track rampant with tree roots, hemmed in between a wire fence on one side and a long pond on the other. This pond, sunk into a hollow and marking the border of the golf course beyond, was shaded and stifled by the boughs of the trees above it so that chickweed had covered its entire surface in a blanket of vivid green, turning it into a perfectly flat expanse like an immaculately tended lawn.
When I finally broke free of the tree cover I was in the meadow where the bull had been shepherding his harem and where my appearance had greatly displeased him. However this time there was to be no such confrontation, the meadow was knee high with a golden crop of wheat and there wasn’t a cow in sight. I edged along this field and several more like it, all full of ripening grain, seeing occasional glimpses of golf course bunkers through breaks in the hedgerow to my right and watching garishly clad men swing club against ball with that characteristic thwack.
Eventually I left the golf course behind me, turning onto the long asphalt drive of Goodrest Farm where I pondered once more over the squat brick structures grouped together in a field to one side. They had intrigued me the last time I passed this way and the internet has little to offer except a theory as to what they might have been ...

These hastily built looking bunkers beside the farm drive were probably built as part of the air defences for the industrial Midlands during WWII. Information suggests they look a bit like a Heavy Anti Aircraft gun battery. Typically there would be four gun positions usually with mount for gun in the centre and surrounded by magazines for shells. One low rectangular building would be for the battery command and a short distance away there would be an engine house.

Whatever their original purpose they were now abandoned and derelict, softened by the lush grass that grew about them. I also remembered a detached cottage that stood at the end of the drive leading out onto the main road and sure enough I walked past again, noting that the little bench with its hand written sign inviting the passer by to ‘take a seat’ was still in place surrounded by cheerfully painted flowerpots. By direct contrast I remembered that the lady who lived in the cottage had appeared in her garden wearing a perpetual scowl and I was amused to see her emerge from her house again as I walked by, clambering into her car and wearing the same dour expression she had sported two years before. It’s nice to see that some things don’t change. A swift hop across the main road and I was striking out across fields again, turning a hedge corner to be met with the rarity of fellow walkers - a group of them heading towards me and all of a certain age. I stopped to allow them to file past and a few of the fellows asked me where I was heading. This was the first opportunity I had had in nearly fifty miles to announce that I was walking the entire Millennium Way and I did so with studied casualness. If they were impressed then they hid it well. ‘A fair step’ one of them offered before they marched off towards Goodrest Farm.
After this rather anti-climactic exchange I continued along an easy trail running along a series of hedges. The last time I had crossed this trail I had enthused about it as being a particularly pleasant stretch of walking and I had anticipated an uplifting stroll today. I don’t know why but it didn’t really ‘do’ it for me this time. Perhaps the weather conditions were different, or my mood was less ebullient – certainly the long wire fence that had been introduced didn’t improve matters as it seemed to hem me in whereas before I had felt at one with the landscape. It was a nice bit of walking, but nothing to enthuse about, apart from the sheep and their late-season lambs – they were undeniably cute.

An historic interlude ...

Eventually the trail left the fields and hedgerows behind and took me onto a footpath that led down into the car park for Kenilworth Castle. I intended to visit the castle this time, rather than walk around it, and saw that I had ten minutes to kill before the gates opened. I spent the ten minutes sitting on a grassy knoll overlooking the wide flat meadow to the west of the castle; a meadow that in the castles' pomp used to be a large lake stocked with fish and swans for the castles' tables. The castle itself stood framed against the sky, a romantic and haggard ruin which somehow still gave out the impression of the spectacular building it must once have been. I went in to buy my ticket at the office, pestered by an English Heritage representative who tried to sell me a season ticket with the persistence and annoyance of a sugar-starved wasp. After disengaging myself from his grasp
MillWay Day4 Pic 2

Kenilworth Castle

I wandered down the wide avenue that led into the grounds of the castle proper. I had been to Kenilworth Castle many years before as part of a school trip. To the small boy I had been then the castle seemed huge and exciting, there were towers you could scale via the eternally twisting spiral staircases within them, there were giddy views of the surrounding countryside from the top. You could play at being knights and kings across its ruined battlements. Today as a middle aged man I no longer felt the urge to run about whooping, brandishing an imaginary sword, but I was a little disappointed to discover that A. the castle seemed to have shrunk in the intervening years and B. the stone stairs carrying you skywards were now closed off by iron gates. Health and safety had crept into the grounds of this ancient monument and ascending crumbling old towers on worn stone steps was no longer allowed. Happily there were still enough accessible bits of the castle left to make for an interesting hour walking around its broken walls and its ghosts of rooms, to make out fireplaces suspended high in the air, and ancient doorways opening onto chambers that were no longer there. The plaques dotted around the place were informative and spoke much of the castles rich history during its five hundred years of occupation. There’s a wealth of information on the internet about Kenilworth Castle but here’s what I jotted down back in 2012 when I passed it on the Warwickshire Centenary Way ...

Constructed from Norman through to Tudor times, the castle has played an important historical role. A record breaking siege (Siege of Kenilworth, 1266), a base for Lancastrian operations in the War of the Roses (1400’s), the place where Edward II got the elbow from the English throne (1327), the French insult to Henry V in 1414 (sadly not ‘your mother was an ‘amster and your father smelt of Elderberries’), and the Earl of Leicester's lavish bash in honour of Elizabeth I in 1575 for which he no doubt had his head removed from his doublet by the grateful Queen. English Heritage has managed the castle since 1984. The castle is classed as a Grade I listed building and as a Scheduled Monument.

After my sight-seeing was done I made my way to the castles' restaurant and sat outside with a cup of tea, with the ancient Norman keep as a backdrop. In the shadow of the trees that grew in front of it I watched a boy of perhaps eight years old, clad in his toy helmet shield and sword. He was totally lost in his game play, careless of the adults who passed him by and who couldn’t share his dream. He ran from tree to tree, peered about, made swishing arcs with his sword, and crept up close to the keeps wall. Only a child can play like this, unselfconscious and totally immersed in the world they have conjured up. I think we lose something precious when we grow into adulthood and let this talent die within us.

Hedge-hopping ...

It was time to move on, there were many miles yet to cover and the day was developing into a midsummer scorcher. I made my way out of the castle grounds and picked up the little track that wound about its outer walls, the great depression of the moat on my right, now grown over with grass and wild shrubbery. If I could have time-travelled back to the middle ages I could have sat here in, say 1266, and watched the cool green waters of the moat dance with dragonflies. No traffic noise to pollute the air I would have clearly heard the droning of the insects and the birdsong, the distant sounds of the castle beyond its thick walls. There must have been thousands of such summer days in the life of this place. As I walked along I saw a square gate embedded in the walls just above the level of the moat. It had been sealed up for a long time but my guess is that it was one of the outlets for the castles’ sewage, flushing straight into the moats waters. Perhaps not such a great place to be standing back in 1266.
I left Kenilworth via a small lane which in turn took me onto a track across open meadowland, the ragged silhouette of the castle framed above the acres of thistle and gorse. It was rare to see such an expanse of land left to run wild and I enjoyed the colours of the wild flowers and the sound of myriads of droning insects. Hundreds of butterflies danced gracefully in and out amongst the blooms adding a bright dynamism to the scene. Beyond the wild meadows lay a vast field of wheat, rippling like a tawny lake and cracking audibly in the hot noonday sun. I stopped briefly at the far end of this field, eating the remains of my lunch and buckling on my gaiters once more. This seemed to be a well frequented right of way as several groups of people strolled by as I sat; not hikers by any means but just regular people on their way to and from Kenilworth, perhaps from the scattering of smaller villages further out across the fields.
The walkers thinned out very quickly once I had passed through the tiny hamlet of North Mere and I found myself alone once more, threading my way around a series of boundary hedges bordering fields with crops that ranged from clover to sweet corn. It was becoming ever more hot and
MillWay Day4 Pic 3

Leaving Kenilworth

humid and I began to swelter, muttering ‘Phew what a scorcher!’ as I glugged yet more water from my reservoir. Almost predictably the well placed series of way-markers I had enjoyed through Kenilworth now became a scarcity, probably at the point where they might have proved most useful. I came to a T-junction of hedgerows and couldn’t work out where I was from the guide. It was a straight choice between left or right and right felt … well, right, so I went right which unfortunately turned out to be wrong. The hedgerow took me down to a small patch of woodland which I entered doubtfully only to find my way blocked by a large stagnant pool of black water. Quite obviously I should have turned left at the T-junction and now I had a needless bit of backtracking to do. Not for the first time I reminded myself that I could have consulted my GPS app, but the truth is, it’s a bit of a faff to fire it up, find my reading glasses, wait for the GPS to locate me, and then work out what it’s trying to tell me. I tend to opt out of all this fiddling around and try to guess my way out of moments of disorientation, and on the whole I guess correctly. Not on this occasion, but at least the detour allowed me to witness a scene I would otherwise have missed. Just beyond the patch of woodland was a secluded mead, filled with tall grasses and sunlight, mature birch trees grew around it and they swayed and hissed in the sultry breeze that blew through their boughs. Hawks of some kind keened loudly to each other, hidden amongst the greenery. It was an atmospheric little tableau and it held my attention for some time before I turned away and regained the T-junction and the leftward path. For quite some time I continued crossing fields, taking regular draws on my water supply until, with an ominous gurgling noise, I finished the last of it. I knew there was a fair way yet to walk and now I would be doing it with an ever increasing thirst.

A field too many ...

Finally the long procession of fields gave out onto the A452, but it was to be the briefest escape from the crops and hedgerows as the Millennium Way cut straight across this busy road and back into pastures. There was a large metal kissing gate that I had to go through in order to regain these pastures and by a peculiar freak of nature the area around the gate was almost devoid of weeds whereas the gate itself was crammed full of nettles. There was little choice but to negotiate it, trying to trample the nettles as much as possible but still getting a generous nettle rash in the process. I’m led to believe that sections of the Millennium Way are maintained on a voluntary basis so I can only assume that the volunteer for this bit had not found much free time of late. With my legs stinging I started off across more pastures, crossing a greenway which looked like another disused railway line, and looking ahead to where the fields marched away into the blue yonder. I stopped abruptly before I had gone too far, realized that I’d had enough of field walking, and turned about, making up a new route that would take me around the edge of Balsall Common via its quiet lanes and neat detached houses. I turned back onto the disused railway line and followed it for a short while. I’ve since learnt that this is the Kenilworth Greenway Project, described by Warwickshire Council thus ...

The railway branch line from Berkswell to Kenilworth Junction was opened in 1884. It effectively provided a short cut avoiding Coventry for freight trains heading south. Rumour has it that it was used in the war for the transport of munitions and the siding at Berkswell, left when the track was lifted in the 1960s, was used for ‘parking’ the Royal Train when the Queen visited the area. Later, even the siding was removed to make way for a station car park. Left to itself, the old railway became a wildlife corridor. Hawthorn, birch and other plants quickly took hold and softened the edges, animals and birds found cover for dens and nests. People also found a traffic free route to and from Crackley Wood where, if you were quiet, you might see a fox. Warwickshire County Council took ownership of the route in the 70′s but apart from work to clear a wider path, it was left to the walkers and the wildlife.

It was a good idea in principle to follow this secretive tree-lined avenue but when it came to leaving it there was a bit of a challenge. I had to scramble up a very steep embankment to regain the road above and my knees protested vehemently at such treatment. I fell out onto the road, surprising a trio of cyclists who had a brief image of a bedraggled vagrant emerging from the hedge, and then set off along the road, Waste Lane, admiring the rather nice houses that fronted onto it and searching in vain for a little shop or garage that might be open and could sell me some water. There was no such luck of course, and I travelled along Waste Lane and then Hodgetts Lane before rejoining the official route just before a road junction at Carol Green where I saw the first signpost for Meriden and the end of this days walking.
With a certain weariness I started off along fields again, trying not to think of tall glasses of iced water, or how the heat had started to sap my strength.
MillWay Day4 Pic 4


There was an amusing distraction when I came across a group of horses in a paddock that, upon seeing me, started to gallop up and down, led by a stubby little pony that stopped at the end of each run, checked to see if I was still watching, and shot away again.
I’m going to be charitable at this point and say that the next moment of confusion and disorientation has as much to do with my tiredness as it did with the way the guide was written, nonetheless I reached a point where the directions made no sense at all and so I just went route A and broke out of the fields on Benton Green Lane opposite an impressive detached house. I flopped onto the grass verge in front of the property and wrung the last few drops of water out of my reservoir. They did little more than moisten my mouth but I felt better for it. I rested for a while in the shade of the For Sale sign that had been planted outside the house and then hauled myself back onto my feet and continued up the lane, searching for the stile on the left hedgerow that would point me towards Meriden. As I rounded a corner I saw a sign propped up on the roadside some twenty yards ahead. It was for a garden centre. In my experience garden centres have fridges full of cola and orange pop and … water!
I picked up the pace, sorting through my pockets to glean enough change to buy a couple of bottles of water that I would soon be retrieving lovingly from the big fridge that the garden centre would no doubt be storing it in. When I got to the gates of the tiny little shop they were locked. It had shut ten minutes before I arrived.

I’ve bean to Meriden ...

I eventually found the errant stile and struck out across fields for the final stretch of the walk. At one point I paused to deliver a rather weary report-to-video of my thoughts about the day. I confessed to feeling more than usually tired, which I attributed to the heat, and I made mention of their being too many fields on the route. There’s no escaping the fact that the Millennium Way is 90% field walking which perhaps can get a little repetitive at times, but it’s a minor niggle really as the walk delivers so much else to compensate. Walking is walking, be it across mountains or across farmland and I’m fairly certain that had I not been so parched and fatigued due to the heat I would have delivered a much rosier commentary. However, it’s all part of the walking experience and I have included it both on the video and in this journal as an honest appraisal of how I felt at the time.
I walked a short section of Back Lane before cutting through a caravan storage park at Flints Green. It was odd, walking along rows of deserted caravans, like visiting some post-apocalyptic holiday camp, and something metallic clanged repetitively in the breeze just to add atmosphere. I also mused that security wasn’t much in evidence as I strolled through the front entrance of the place, passing some very expensive rolling stock, and exited via a small gate at its rear without seeing a soul. Beyond the caravan park were some wide fields of wheat and the green line of Millison’s Wood at Meriden: I could now see the end of the walk.
I tripped happily enough down the slow incline to the border of the woods and then paused in puzzlement. The map clearly showed me the direction I should take but equally obvious was the solid green wall that obscured the path. It seemed to be some sort of tough bean crop, chest high and planted close together. With an equal measure of amusement and irritation I was obliged to hack and trample my way through this lush jungle, smearing myself with green sap and heading for the yellow marker post I could just make out ahead of me under the eaves of the wood. It was pure slapstick as every step snagged a root or one of the tough stems of the plants, causing me to make ‘wooa’ noises and threatening to pitch me head first into the green depths of the crop. I emerged on the other side of the plantation with mottled green trousers bearing the odd scent of freshly crushed beans.
After this there was no more drama. I rounded the edge of Millison’s Wood and picked up a rough farm track that led me through the farmyard it belonged to before depositing me on a lane outside Meriden’s old church. This was officially the end of the days walking but my car was parked a short distance away which meant another descent along a couple of fields (there were in total 72 fields of varying sizes on this section of the route – I counted them on Google Maps when I got home).
At last I dropped down onto the road in front of the Queens Head pub next to which I had parked my car. The pub was open and already busy with early drinkers taking advantage of the weather and downing pints of cold beer. I had other desires at that point though and when I reached the car I extracted the bottle of Lucozade Sport I had thrown in that morning. It was raspberry flavour, my least favourite, and disgustingly warm, but tasted like nectar and was gone in four swallows. I sat and rested my tired legs, regarding the pub not thirty yards distant. I could walk that short distance and treat myself to a cold beer or I could drive home to a cool bath and all the cold water I could drink.
I drove home.

For a full profile of the route (PDF format) click here

See Route on ......

Prev      Next

The Millennium Way - Day Three

The Millennium Way
By Mark Walford
Day Three

Route:Long Itchington to Warwick
Date: Sunday June 29th 2014
Distance: 12.2m (19.6km)
Elevation: 157ft (48m) to 358ft (109m)
Climbing (ascent and descent): 554ft (169m) and 594ft (181m)

Prev      Next
See Route on ......

Long Itchington: So good I saw it twice ...

It was a lovely start to the day, a bright early summer morning full of lemon sunshine and dappled shade. I sat on a bench facing Long Itchington’s large village green and felt a growing reluctance to leave the place. The soporific droning of bumble bees and the soft chimes of the church clock added to the ambience and I found myself staring across the swathe of grass, in no hurry at all to set off on a twelve mile walk. The days were long at this time of the year and time was on my side; I could have sat there for hours, drowsing the morning away, a nice lunch at a nearby pub, a stroll around the shops. Wishful thinking of course, brought on by an early start to the day and a nice merlot the night before. It took some effort but eventually I mustered up my enthusiasm, performed some warm-up stretches for the amusement of locals on their way to buy the morning papers, shouldered my rucksack, and set forth for day three of the Millennium Way.
I wandered down the high street passing neat rows of cottages and the lovely Holy Trinity Church before taking a left turn that led me over a stream and away from the village, whose rooftops poked up above the hedgerows. The route led me across a lumpy field of long grass and thistles which served as breakfast for the few straggly sheep that watched me pass by. Halfway across I met a white van bumping towards me over the uneven ground, which was a mild surprise. I assumed the driver to be the owner of the paddock (either that or he had the world’s worst Satnav) and I nodded towards it as it passed me - an arm emerged from the side of the van and gave me a cheery wave in return. After the paddock came a tiny lane, and after the lane came …. Long Itchington again. I’ve looked at the map since completing this walk and I could have easily continued to walk along Long Itchington’s high street to reach this point. The whole paddock-sheep-van episode was an entirely unnecessary dog-leg, or in this case a sheep-leg. Maybe there used to be something in the paddock worth the diversion; an ancient monument perhaps, or a plague pit, or (more useful) a burger van, but now it was just rank grass and scruffy sheep. Very strange.
Having re-acquainted myself with Long Itchington I continued around some of its tiny back streets and finally left the village for good via a concrete drive leading to White Hall Farm.

Close Encownters of the Herd Kind ...

I was going to have Cow Trouble again. Ahead of me was a stile that led into a large pasture and clustered densely around the stile was a herd of Fresians They made no attempt to move off as I approached but merely gazed at me with limpid brown eyes and a general impression of inertness. They were four deep beyond the stile and even if I was inclined to climb over and drop down amongst them I would have needed the strength of Hercules to push them aside. I cooed softly to the beasts, trying to cajole them into a mass exodus away from the stile but they remained unmoved. I was in a quandary as there was no alternative way forward that I could easily see; it was a bovine blockade. After several moments of futile arm waving and head scratching I did a little exploring
MillWay Day3 Pic 1

Long Itchington

and found that to my right the farm track became a wide yard bordered by various sheds and outbuildings. I followed the walls of one such shed, running parallel to the cow pasture, and eventually found a way into the field via a wooden fence and a certain amount of inelegant clambering. I was now beyond the mob of cows at the stile but I had dropped down in front of a pair of young bullocks who gave me the same suspicious stare that I give to Jehovah’s Witnesses who venture up my garden path. I had no option but to walk towards them and thankfully they edged sideways and away from me and I was able to make the other end of the pasture unmolested.
At the further end of the field I paused to shoot a little video, commenting on the uncooperative cows and also on the slender tower that rose up into the sky to the east. I was fairly sure that this was the 400ft National Lift Tower first seen on day two, some twenty miles distant now but still a significant landmark. Finally I waved my trusty walking pole belligerently in the general direction of the cows, exited the field and walked into a jungle.
For a passage of time I pushed my way along a wild and overgrown avenue that bordered a field of towering rapeseed, gone to seed now and no longer the harbinger of Hay Fever. The undergrowth was tangled and seemingly intent on tripping me up, and verdant nettles raised itchy lumps on my forearms and calves. A pheasant exploded skywards from my right, making its strange rusty-clockwork alarm cry and causing my heart to skip a beat, damselflies danced in the humid air, shimmering blue and as fragile as lace. The sounds of nature were all about me, from the furtive rustlings in the hedgerows to the trilling of a skylark somewhere high overhead in the pale blue sky. My contribution to this bucolic scene was an occasional bout of swearing as I snagged a foot or was caressed by yet another nettle. I had scant hope of finding the marker post my guide-book told to look out for in the green wall to my left but I discovered it easily enough, freshly painted and at odds with its unkempt surroundings. The marker pointed the way through a hedgerow and into the cover of woodland and I ducked through hoping for a surer path and less foliage to battle. I was soon disappointed as, if anything, the woods were even more tangled and wild, and I swished and trampled my way along an unseen path, trying to tread down the chest high nettles before they stung me and failing in the attempt.
For all its uncultivated appearance (or perhaps because of it) the tiny woodland was an extremely picturesque place, punctuated by half-fallen trees all hung with vines and etched with a hundred shades of green. The River Itchin wound lazily through it, little more than a stream, dun brown and dusted with damsel flies, and there was an exciting earthy scent under the shadowy eaves of the trees that spoke of rich loam and wholesomeness. Despite having a nettle rash on my forearms that could be read like brail I was a little sorry to emerge from the other side of the trees, where I then crossed a narrow bridge over the river and entered more cultivated land.

Abandoned poles and railways ...

I broke out onto a wide field of Stuff that waved in the gentle breeze and whispered to me as I passed by (this Stuff had long whiskery ears so was most likely barley but I wouldn’t put money on this guess) and a succession of such fields followed, offering wide views of the countryside around me, particularly to the south-west where, just a few miles distant, lay the village of Ufton and where, in 2012, I had enjoyed a bizarre conversation about missing sunglasses with a publican as I walked the Warwickshire Centenary Way.
I decided to do a ‘walk to camera’ sequence after a few such fields as I was completely alone with not even a farm in sight. I busied myself with setting up the camera as the barley whispered its secrets and the larks warbled overhead, all caught pleasingly on the subsequent video. Finally I reached a particularly large field, the errant breeze pushing the sea of barley this way and that, so that it seemed to ripple like a mirage and where the Millennium Way unexpectedly ran out at a hedgerow blocking any further progress forward. According to my guide book I should have left the field and should now be on a metalled lane, and I had to retrace my steps a fair way back along the field before discovering the glaringly obvious gap in the hedge that let me out onto the road. The road, Stonebridge Lane, offered a welcome break from the tangled undergrowth and better yet it offered the traveller superb views all around. As I started off along the road, which wound gently uphill, a brace of cyclists rushed past me, free-wheeling down the hill with huge carefree grins on their faces. They threw me a cheerful hello as they sped by and I experienced one of those happy-attack moments where everything seems, just for a moment, to be aligned in perfect harmony. The weather, the scenery, the simple pleasure of walking alone in the countryside, lifted my spirits suddenly and I committed this moment to film sounding, for once, genuinely upbeat.
I left Stonebridge Lane just before the crest of the hill was reached, turning right to climb a sharper gradient along a cart track. It was here that my jubilant frame of mind took a knock as I realised that my precious walking pole was no longer with me. I was high enough now to look back across the many fields I had traversed and I could make out the distant hedge-line where I had stopped to make a video and where, I was sure, my walking pole was propped against the kissing gate. It was too far to go back to retrieve it and I continued on my way feeling a little bereft. That pole had been with me across Scotland and along the length of the Midlands. We had shared several hundred miles together and although it was an inanimate object I still felt as if I had abandoned it - akin to tying my greyhound Frankie to a lamp post and walking away. Illogical? Absolutely but I fretted about it for the rest of the day.
I was moved to discuss this on video as I passed by the rather grand entrance to Snowford Lodge along a pretty avenue of birches. The avenue soon gave way to old hedgerows and the well-laid tarmac became pot-holed, muddy, and in some places waterlogged. Just the very sort of terrain, I reflected bitterly, where a walking pole would have come in handy. I edged around the worst of this broken track, called Ridgeway Lane, as the odd cyclist passed me the other way looking tired and mud-spattered, until I came out from the hedgerows to find myself on an old iron bridge spanning the former railway line that ran from Rugby to Leamington Spa. It was a rickety old structure
MillWay Day3 Pic 2

Near Old Hunningham

and bore warning signs stating that it was no longer suitable for vehicular traffic. Looking over its edge the contours of the old railway could easily be traced as a green line of tree-tops cutting through the countryside. I was about eighty feet above the floor of this valley and the green ribbon wound out into the distance on either side. It’s quite amazing how quickly nature asserts itself once humans have abandoned a place, the railway line was probably closed as part of the Beeching Axe cut-backs during the sixties but the flowing river of tree-tops beneath my feet looked as if it had been there for centuries.
Shortly after this bridge Ridgeway Lane ended at a tiny road which carried me into the equally tiny hamlet of Old Hunningham which consisted of a cluster of cottages, a rather squat church, and a confusing set of signposts that ensured I had a grand tour of the place before picking up the right track for the Millennium Way. I passed by the Hall Meadow Nature Reserve without even knowing it and although it’s marked on the map, the internet has little to say of the place:
Situated in the village of Hunningham, about three miles east of Leamington Spa, this site is agriculturally improved grassland with small areas of relatively species poor semi-improved grassland. It has been used in recent years for year round horse grazing.
I didn’t see a single horse.
Presently I found myself on a much used path, churned to slippery mud by boots and hooves (bovine not equine), where once again I rued the loss of my walking pole, before crossing a paddock to the White Lion inn (a pub reached too early in the day for refreshment) and a stone bridge crossing the River Leam. Out here in the sticks the river was a quiet and secretive little waterway, bordered by graceful willows and with only cattle wandering its banks. I would see it again when I reached Leamington Spa where it would transform into an extrovert; a wide waterway, capricious and busy with pleasure boats.
After the river I struck off across a series of sheep pastures, one after the other and all looking very much the same. It was the sort of undemanding walking that encourages one to daydream, walking along in the real world with a mind given to wandering along odd paths and random thought processes. I have no idea what I was musing on when the pastures came to an end but I do know that I was brought back to reality when I realised that I was lost once more. Most guide books tend to have moments of ambiguity, like a man losing his thread in the middle of a story, and at this point the guide book lost the plot and suggested that I might turn left, or right and then left, or …. something. I had emerged onto a farm track and turned right as this seemed closest to what the guide book was suggesting. There was a small field occupied by a single horse around a corner and just beyond that a cluster of terraced cottages - there was also a firmly closed gate discouraging any further progress in that direction. It was obviously off-route but despite this I still revisited this same spot three times, meandering this way and that and trying to work out just what the damned guide book was trying to tell me. Each subsequent visit caused the horse to become ever more quizzical and by my third appearance he had his head cocked to one side and ears pricked in bemusement. Normally I would have found his expression highly amusing but I was frustrated and perplexed and to my mind the horse had a touch of the sarcastic about it. Eventually I took yet another overgrown avenue alongside a field, which the book seemed to ignore completely but was in fact the correct path. I resorted to grumpy video commentary on the vagaries of guide book authors – not for the first time on my travels it has to be said.
After I had hacked my way through this mesh of weeds and grass I followed an ancient hedgerow across a few fields and then turned into a small patch of woodland called South Cubbington Woods. This was a strange place, where the trees grew close together creating a gloomy little spot with a muted atmosphere that had a brooding quality, however it was a short passage through the trees and I came out the other side to walk around the edge of another large field of Rapeseed where the rooftops of Cubbington hove into view. This marked the beginning of what I considered to be the more urban section of the walk and I decided to have lunch before I tackled it. I sat by the side of the path running around the Rapeseed field and ate my lunch with a cool breeze caressing my bare toes, and then made myself comfortable by lying on my back using my rucksack as a pillow. I stared up at the few clouds drifting overhead, lulled by the drone of insects and the gentle breeze that stirred the Rapeseed pods, making them hiss gently. I’m pretty sure I dozed for a while, and it was the intrusion of a middle-aged couple walking their dogs that brought me back fully awake with a jolt. They passed me by on another nearby pathway and I watched them head off towards Cubbington as I stretched, pulled on my boots, made a short video, and creaked gently as I got to my feet.

Parks and puns ...

I followed in the dog-walkers footsteps, pacing the lanes of Cubbington and taking but three corners before I was confronted by the the King’s Head pub and the irresistible urge for a pint. I took a seat outside and admired St. Mary’s church on the opposite side of Church Hill Street as I supped my pint of Abbots Ale. As with all such village pubs it was full of locals who all seemed to know each other and I eavesdropped on the village gossip which chiefly consisted of weather forecasts and car troubles. A young couple arrived, the woman dressed in a blue feather boa, a swimming costume and deely-boppers.
“Don’t mind me”, she sang out as she walked inside, “I’ve been on a charity run.”
Which seemed to surprise nobody.
I continued along the back lanes of Cubbington, heading towards its high street. Cubbington has an entry in the Domesday Book, 1086, where it is referred to as Cumbynton, an old English phrase meaning a settlement in a low or deep hollow. Up until the 1820’s it was a much larger settlement than near-neighbour Leamington Spa before the latter’s boom as a spa town. Today, Cubbington is dwarfed by Leamington Spa, both commercially and by population (‘Cubby’ as it’s known affectionately to the locals is home to a mere 4,000 inhabitants). However it does boast a rather successful silver band that has gigged all around Warwickshire and has won the area championship a couple of times. Cubbngton's dark side is nicely detailed in the tale of Cubbington Manor House (now demolished) which was said to be haunted by a young girl who starved to death when her mentally-ill father locked them all in the house and refused to speak to the outside world.
I soon found myself on Cubbington’s high street, an unprepossessing place consisting of a small number of shops and a line of terraced houses. Despite its tiny size, the high street played host to a variety of shops with whimsical names:
The Prudent Purse (a charity shop)
Cubbington Plaice (a fish and chip shop)
And - best of all - Only Foods and Sauces (speciality foods)
The end of the high street marked the end of Cubbington and I climbed a grassy hill to set off in the direction of Leamington Spa. I had convinced myself that it would all be developed land after Cubbington but this was not the case. Although the edge of Leamington could be clearly seen, marked as it was by a tower block thrusting up beyond the greenery of arable farmland, there was a most pleasant section of walking ahead of me, a gently rolling landscape of crops and fields of wild flowers, the ugly tower block falling away to the east to be finally lost behind a small wood that I edged around before heading towards an isolated farm. Here I found myself lost again for a while, meeting a couple of guys coming in the opposite direction. They surprised me on two counts; firstly because they were walkers, a rare sight on the Millennium Way, and secondly because they were French.
After sorting out my errant sense of direction once more I crossed a final field and began my traverse across the playgrounds of Leamington Spa. I particularly like this aspect of Leamington, where the River Leam splits the town in two and where a series of public spaces have blossomed along its banks, running together in a continuous line of recreation and leisure facilities that allows a walker to traverse the borough, passing across its high street, and out towards Warwick, surrounded almost continually by parkland. I entered the grounds of the first of these places, Newbold Comyn, via a gap in a hedge and a spinney of slender silver birches. The Comyn was for many years held in private hands and has a long if unremarkable history. In 1539 two men, Richard Willes and William Morcote jointly purchased the land and its farm. The two families were subsequently joined by marriage and the Willes then held onto the land for over 400 years, before selling it to the Leamington Corporation in the 1960s. It has enjoyed a fairly tranquil existence on the whole, punctuated by brief moments of excitement. One such moment occurred during the Second World War when the Luftwaffe dumped two bombs on the park whilst returning to base from Coventry - the craters can still be seen. Later still, in 2009, the park briefly made news in the local paper due to rumoured sightings of a lynx on the golf course. The big cat was dubbed the "Beast of Newbold Comyn" by the media.
It also had, as I duly discovered ……
…. a dreaded golf course. Most of my enforced crossings of golf courses have ended in disorientation, irate men in silly trousers, and wasted time, but on this occasion it was straightforward and I crossed the course without drama.
Directly after the golf course I turned right on a wide cinder track with playgrounds and grassy glades on either side, alive with folk pursuing outdoor fun. There were dog-walkers, Frisbee-throwers, cyclists, footballers, roller-skaters and one solitary and slightly shabby long distance hiker. Ice cream vans did a roaring trade and the yells and whoops of people at play echoed all around. After so many miles of quiet country lanes and endless fields it was a welcome change to be
MillWay Day3 Pic 3

A juxtaposition of town and country

amongst such a busy crowd. Soon I reached the Newbold Comyn liesure centre, a place that was the epicentre of a major sense-of-direction incident I experienced (2012 Centenary Way) where I had visited, and then endlessly re-visited this building in a vain attempt to sort out my bearings. Thankfully this afternoon I had a much easier path to tread, passing the liesure centre by to continue on along a road lined with mature trees, heading for the River Leam and the entrance to Jephson Gardens. I came to the river by crossing a large stone bridge and I peered over its parapet at the wide green waters of the Leam. No longer the modest little waterway I had met earlier in the day it now played host to laughing family groups seated in pedaloes shaped like Noddy cars that steered uncertain paths from bank to bank. I entered Jephson Gardens on the side of the river that hosted the Boat Centre where kids in red life jackets were enjoying a somewhat chaotic canoe lesson watched by an appreciative crowd. Just beyond the Boat Centre I took in a few yards of the Elephant Walk, a wide pathway originally created so that circus elephants could be led down to the river for a drink, and then walked across a bridge over a lively weir before entering the more formal area of the park. Here the great and the good of Leamington are commemorated in a variety of monuments, and wrought-iron benches line pathways resplendent with summer bedding. Cool fountains spring high into the air and the park's clock chimes cheerfully on the quarter-hour. The last time I had walked through Jephson Gardens it had been deserted, it being late September and an early Sunday morning. Today it was a high summer afternoon and the place was packed with people making the most of the sunshine. I walked along the busy main thoroughfare of the park enjoying the opportunity to people-watch and mingle with the crowds. The decorative iron arch that served as the east entrance to the park came into view ahead and I walked beneath it, following a family with a handsome Blue greyhound in tow, to cross into the third park, The Pump Room Gardens. To begin with the gardens were only for the use of patrons of the adjoining Royal Pump Rooms "to afford them pleasant promenades." however in 1875 the gardens were opened to the public. The gardens originally contained decorative flower beds but with the decline in fortunes of the Pump Rooms these have been grassed over, although the nineteenth century bandstand has been preserved and is still used by brass bands on occasion. The gardens host the annual Leamington Peace Festival, an annual fun fair, a farmers market once a month, and on the occasion of my visit, a Punch & Judy show. This park is little more than a wide grassy place in the centre of the town but still draws people in search of fun, whiling away a sunny Sunday afternoon before embarking on another week of nine-till-five. Around it, the business of Leamington continued, albeit at a Sunday pace, as shoppers browsed its high street and buses rumbled by.
Formerly known as Leamington Priors it became Leamington Spa in 1838 after a visit by Queen Victoria, establishing itself as one of the nation’s burgeoning royal spa towns. Leamington’s spa waters were rediscovered and commercialised in 1784 by William Abbotts and Benjamin Satchwell although the Romans had known about them long before. The spa became a runaway success and the town experienced a population explosion as a result. By 1901 the denizens of Leamington had grown from a few hundred to nearly 27,000. The economy of Leamington decreased towards the end of the 19th century following the decline in popularity of spa towns. These days it's a popular destination, like Kenilworth and Warwick, for Brummies-made-good, retirees, and the professional middle-class. Strangely it’s also a hub for the video games market with many of the top
MillWay Day3 Pic 4

Leamington Spa

Games Houses based nearby. I looked for, but failed to find, the statue of Queen Victoria raised here to commemorate her visit. Apparently the statue was almost destroyed by a German bomb during World War II, and was moved one inch on its plinth by the blast. The statue was not returned to its original position so Her Maj remains permanently skew-wiff, as a plaque on its plinth explains.
Leamington has been featured in a number of television series, including the 1990s BBC situation comedy Keeping Up Appearances. The occultist Aleister Crowley was born in Leamington as was Randolph Turpin, world champion boxer. Russell Howard, comedian and performer currently lives in the town. Bizarrely Napoleon Bonaparte also lived in Leamington Spa, as an exile between 1838 and 1839.
I continued along the Pump Room gardens, crossing a small footbridge to continue along the banks of the River Leam, passing into Victoria gardens, the fourth and final park in this sequence, stopping for a moment to film the rear of the imposing office building where I worked for a short while, before continuing on into the grounds of the park. Victoria Park can lay claim to being the spiritual home of Crown Green bowling in the UK and is also one of the birthplaces of Lawn tennis, being one of the first in the country to establish a club. Up until the 1830s the park was just part of farmland on the edge of the growing spa town. Then the ubiquitous Willes family began to hold archery competitions on the land, starting its transformation into a leisure area. In the middle of the nineteenth century Leamington Cricket club made their first home there and in the 1860s the New Riverside Walk was opened. The park was extensively landscaped and redesigned in 1899 to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria. It also hosted the Royal Show before it moved to its current venue in Stoneleigh Park. The bowling greens are amongst the best in England hosting the English Women's Bowling Championships annually as well as Women's World Bowling Championships in 1996 and 2004. Again this was a place busy with people, including Crown Green Bowlers dressed in their dazzling whites, and I ambled along without a care in the world. I had convinced myself that the route through Leamington Spa was simply a reversal of the route I had taken on the Centenary Way and only at the viaduct after Victoria Park would I have to consult my map to determine how to get onto the canal for the final stretch of the days walk. Soon the high Victorian arches of the viaduct loomed above the treetops and I sat on a bench for a five minute rest, pulling out my guide book to see what I needed to do next. It was with a certain amount of disappointment, not to mention irritation, to discover that what I needed to do next was to retrace my steps all the way back to Jephson Gardens. I had been a little too blasé about the route through the town and now I was going to pay for it by quite a long back-track and subsequent lost time. According to the guide I needed to drop onto the canal from the centre of Leamington, using streets I was unfamiliar with, and the Pump Room Gardens and Victoria Park had all been a rather pretty waste of time.

Backtracking rather than backpacking ...

As I sat and kicked myself silently I observed a woman with a border collie practising Frisbee acrobatics - they really were very good at it and formed a minor distraction until I returned to my predicament and wondered idly if I could strike out across Victoria Park and thread my way through a few streets to pick up the canal further along; I was sure that it ran parallel to the park at a distance of a mile or so. In the end however I decided to retrace my steps and do the route properly; trying to guess at short cuts has never worked for me in the past.
The return journey to Jephson gardens wasn’t nearly as much fun as I had to step up my pace to try and grab some time back and I no longer felt a part of the jolly crowds I strode through. I was by now a little heavy of leg as I’d walked the best part of ten miles and all this additional distance wasn’t putting a smile on my face. Eventually I stood before the gates of Jephson Gardens again and followed the guide book as it took me on a zigzag route through the commercial district of Leamington before depositing me on the tow-path of the Grand Union Canal, a waterway I had already encountered on previous sections of the Millennium Way. At least with canals, provided that you were on the right side of the channel and pointed in the right direction to start with, you couldn’t really get lost, and I now had a straightforward two miles of steady walking along the tow-path to bring me back to my car. As I set off it did occur to me that I might have parked my car based on what I thought was the correct route, and as I’d already had that glaring error exposed, I might well find myself completing the walk in Warwick only to discover
MillWay Day3 Pic 5

Final stretch of the Grand Union canal

that my car was elsewhere, with no frame of reference on how I might find it. However, that was a bridge I’d have to cross if it came to it and at least there was a lovely mellow golden afternoon to enjoy as the walk drew to a close. I’d progressed perhaps half a mile when, from a side gate, the lady with the Frisbee-catching collie from Victoria Park appeared. I could have followed them and saved myself both time and distance – I knew there was a more direct route between Victoria Park and the canal. The lady gave me a double take as she passed me by, I think she half recognised from the park earlier. If the collie recognised me then he hid it well.
I walked on, the tow-path was empty and quite a contrast with the parks I had recently crossed, I could hear birdsong again. Even the few narrow-boats tethered along the banks seemed unoccupied. I turned my attention to what lay beyond the tree lined embankment and as I progressed I noticed a distinct pattern to the buildings surrounding me. Essentially I was walking between two towns of similar size, Leamington and Warwick, and the infrastructure of one slowly gave way to more rural architecture before returning once more to urbanisation. The sequence ran as follows: Shops\Business parks\Posh houses\old houses\fields\old houses\Posh houses\Business parks\Shops.
On the outskirts of Leamington there were a lot of newly built apartment blocks whose front doors opened straight onto the tow-path, there were little courtyards and secluded parking facilities, wrought iron lamp posts and block paved pathways. It all looked very upmarket; a sign of Leamington’s continuing prosperity despite its decline as a spa town.
I always enjoy a good stroll along a canal and today was no exception, I forgot the leaden feelings in my legs and my sore toes and simply enjoyed the final two miles, walking past the rear of old factories whose crumbling wharfs told a story of the days when essential materials such as coal and iron were delivered to factories via the canal rather than road. As I passed by a marina an old fellow met me coming the other way. “Sunny day for you.” He observed as he passed by. I realised that apart from the bartender back in Cubbington he was the first person I had spoken to all day.
Eventually I reached bridge No. 49 which signalled the end of the canal walk, I clambered up onto the busy A429, relieved to recognise the place where I had left my car no more than a hundred yards distant. As I sat in my car drinking blood-temperature Lucozade Sport I kept an eye on the houses I had parked in front of. There had been a degree of curtain-twitching when I had pulled up in the morning and, even though I was legally entitled to park my car in this spot, I half expected an indignant resident to fling open a door or window to 'have a word'. However nobody stirred and instead, just before I set off home, I was treated to the sight of a family taking their pet cat out for a walk, the tabby padding elegantly along at the end of a long lead and completely content with its lot. On a day of contrasts this seemed like a fitting end.

For a full profile of the route (PDF format) click here

See Route on ......

Prev      Next