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)

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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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.

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The Millennium Way - Day Two

The Millennium Way
By Mark Walford
Day Two

Route: Upper Boddington to Long Itchington
Date: Sunday June 1st 2014
Distance: 12.5m (20km)
Elevation: 230ft (70m) to 614ft (187m)
Climbing (ascent and descent): 540ft (164m) and 748ft (228m)

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A man outstanding in his field …..

Starting a day’s walking by taking an immediate wrong turn never bodes well but the directions told me to walk along Frog Lane at Upper Boddington, so that’s what I did. I had to walk downhill through the little cluster of cottages that ran along the main road to do so and then I discovered that Frog Lane is the sort of road that forms a crescent. It was the other end of the lane that I should have chosen which of course meant an immediate back-track uphill and ten minutes of my life I’ll never get back. As I turned away from the main road a group of Lycra-clad cyclists appeared, arrowing down through the village at impressive speed and, heedless of the danger of other traffic, riding two or three abreast. Their leader, a florid-faced and heavily built chap was having a conversation with the man behind him and he had an unusually loud and sonorous voice. His discourse was barked out like a sergeant major and could be heard long after they had disappeared from view around a bend. I think after five miles or so of that amplified droning I might have felt the need to kick him into a hedgerow, and I was thankful that I wasn’t a member of that party. I left the village behind via a kissing gate which led to a narrow footpath, shrouded by tangled hedgerows. I had underestimated the effects of the heavy rain we had enjoyed since my last outing and was soon slithering and sliding along in ankle deep mud (this was a gaiter day if ever there was one but of course I had left mine at home). Once the path had led out into more open ground I paused briefly to take my first video of the day; mindful of my commitment to deliver a more upbeat presentation I talked about the mud and possibility of rain without the usual scowling and bitching but it was an effort Dear Reader, it was an effort.
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Looking back towards Upper Boddington

I was soon presented with a series of fields, barren and brown with the stalks of some earlier harvest poking out of the earth like designer stubble. There was a choice of paths to take and I was clutching my directions, working out the right track as a lady passed me by with two Beagles in attendance.
“Are you alright?” she asked me, with a trace of concern on her face. I replied that I was indeed alright and she moved on leaving me to reflect that, like the farmyard dog on the previous walk, the unexpected sight of a man standing alone and immobile in a field seems to provoke a degree of wariness. The wariness may have increased moments later as I tailed her across the first large field, passed her on the second and seemed to draw the Beagles along with me as I forged ahead on the third. I felt a little relieved when we parted ways at a stile.
I made my way around a large field of young plants, tender-green and lush after the recent rain. Despite my years of walking along the rural byways of Britain I still remain ignorant of the things that farmers grow in their fields. Rapeseed is easy enough to identify because its yellow and makes me sneeze but anything else is just a generic crop. Wheat? Barley? Rice? It’s all as one to me – it’s just ‘stuff’. After leaving this large field of Stuff I marched across another field of tall, slender Stuff (which I’m guessing was barley) and reached a gate where, since I was now completely alone, I decided to capture a ‘walking towards the camera’ shot for the video of the day’s journey. I carefully attached the camera to the metal gate, lining it up with the track across the field and was just about to set off up the field for twenty yards, intending to wheel around and walk purposefully back to the gate, pretending that the camera wasn’t there at all, when the creak of an unseen gate beyond a hedgerow broke the silence: Somebody was heading my way. If I got a wary reaction when people happened upon me standing immobile in a field then how about when they discovered me filming myself marching across one? I quickly snatched the camera off the gate just as a jogger bounced around the corner of the hedge. He was a tanned man of middle years, lean tall and sinewy and dressed in a small pair of blue shorts, running shoes, and a sheen of sweat. He carried a limp t-shirt in one hand. “Warmer than I thought” he confided in me as he swept through the gate and loped off across the field. I had to wait patiently for him to disappear from view before carefully setting up the camera again, but my concentration was gone and the resulting footage has me striding manfully towards the camera completely obscured by a clump of cow parsley which takes centre stage and steals the scene.

Landmarks and diversions ...

I had noticed, away to the east, a tall tower of some sort, sited on the summit of a distant hill. It was an unusual object and it drew my attention every time it appeared to me through a break in the trees or beyond an open field. At first I guessed it was some sort of communication tower but it was unlike the usual slender radio masts you see scattered across the country. This was a far more substantial structure and appeared to be made from concrete rather than steel. I estimated it to be around 400ft tall and perhaps 20 or thirty feet in diameter at its crown. Only later, when I could Google from the comfort of my own armchair, did I learn that I had seen the National Lift Tower. The tower (previously called The Express Lift Tower and known locally as the 'Northampton Lighthouse') is a lift testing tower built by the Express Lift Company and is sited off the Weedon Road in Northampton. It was commissioned in 1978 and was officially opened by the Queen Elizabeth in 1982. I was right about it being a substantial structure as its vital statistics are 418 feet tall, 50ft in diameter at the base and 30ft diameter at the top. It has the distinction of being the only lift testing tower in Britain and only one of two in Europe. Although a relatively new building its already been granted Grade II listed building status - making it the youngest listed building in the UK. It fell out of use in 1997 for a while and was closed but was re-invented as a testing facility in 1999 and now it also provides a great platform for those lunatics who like to dangle themselves off the edge of high things and abseil down them. I managed to impress myself by estimating the height of thing: Seeing it from a distance of several miles I had estimated around 400ft and it was in fact 418ft tall. Not a bad guess!
What with the imposing tower to the east and the gently rolling landscape unfolding to the west I enjoyed a passage of time where I ambled along with plenty to distract me, enjoying the scenery and letting my thoughts trip along randomly. If only I had channelled these musings a little more sensibly I would have noticed that the village of Priors Hardwick was off-route long before I descended from high pastures to stand amidst its dwellings with a set of directions that no longer made any sense. It took a bit of head scratching and map reading to see where I had gone wrong; identifying the point where I had parted company with the Millennium Way as it turned eastwards, towards the tower, rather than running down into the village. However it was easy enough to regain the route and I had simply replaced a mile or so of fields with a mile or so of quiet country lanes. I set off through Priors Hardwick towards a crossroads that would take me back on track and admired a succession of fine properties, each one surpassing its neighbour until they ended at the Old Rectory, a building of mansion like proportions set back behind a sweeping drive and iron gates. It had been worth taking this minor detour into Priors Hardwick just to enjoy its impressive real estate and the aura of prosperity and wealth that the village exuded.
Presently I reached the crossroads, turning left for perhaps half a mile until I picked up the way-marker for the Millennium Way at a stile crossing a large meadow. I had started off across this grassy expanse when a familiar booming voice caused me to turn about to see that the cyclists I had met in Upper Boddington were now hurtling along the lane I had just walked along. The leader was still treating his fellow cyclists to a monologue delivered at volume eleven with the occasional ‘right I see’ or ‘oh yes?’ thrown back from his fellow travellers. As they sped by, disappearing out of sight again, I was put in mind of a flock of migrating geese, honking senselessly but moving with great purpose.
I talked to the camera whilst crossing the next big field, commenting on the humidity of the day despite there being a fresh breeze and noting the fact that I had not met any cows during the morning. It was inevitable therefore that at the very next gate I was greeted by a large herd of the beasts, many of them shepherding youngsters. It was a very big field, the largest I had to cross all day, and the herd were two thirds of the way across it, distant but already alerted to my presence. Cautiously I climbed the gate and worked out the best way to cross the field without spooking the cows. Unfortunately this soon became academic as within twenty paces they took off in fright and, predictably, huddled in the very corner of the field where my exit stile lay. I slowly walked towards them hoping they would decide to break for another corner but they stayed put and began to toss their heads and paw the ground in meaningful gestures. I saw no option but to retreat as I didn’t want to end up placing myself at unnecessary risk or indeed upsetting the cows, who after all had more right to be there than I did. I was within 30 yards of them by now and I had a lot of field behind me to backtrack along so I raised my arms and walked backwards slowly, only turning away when I was at a safe distance to outrun them if required. Back at the entrance gate I considered my options. The map appeared to show a track running down an adjacent field that led to a farm drive and then a road where a left turn would see me re-join the route beyond the cow pasture. I opted for this route and soon discovered that there wasn’t a track of any sort along the field I took, just waist high grass with roots that snatched craftily at my ankles, and when I reached the farm I discovered that there was no stile leading to a drive, just a low stone wall and a metal gate that let onto the farmhouse garden and yard. Feeling a little exposed and aware that I was trespassing I had little choice but to climb the gate, drop into the yard, and make my way across the farm and out onto its drive, thankfully without anyone noticing me. If I had hoped to find the road around the next bend I was to be disappointed as instead I found myself crossing the property of a shooting school, which wasn’t marked on the map at all but at least explained the repeated loud bangs emanating from a field beyond. I walked past some low huts searching for the exit but I had been spotted and a helpful young chap in tweeds, a shotgun broken across a forearm, kindly pointed the way to the public footpath gained through a gap in the hedge. Feeling slightly harried I thanked him and disappeared through the hedge and back into the large field with the red cows I had worked so hard at avoiding. At least I had entered the field from a different point and the cows had meandered away from the exit stile and were now standing on the skyline watching me with bovine suspicion. I hurried across the bottom edge of the field, and the next two such pastures, with one eye on the cows, negotiating a section of hilly broken ground that gave me a sharp stitch in the side. I was forced to stop mid-field until the pain went away, a sitting duck for students of the shooting school with a poor aim or worse still, overzealous cows.

Bridleways and Barges ...

With quiet relief I finally escaped the endless dung-strewn pastures and made my way into the hamlet of Priors Marston, a tiny collection of cottages and a crossroads with a granite war memorial, honouring the men of the village who had left to fight a war overseas and had never returned. There was a bench near to the war memorial and I rested for a while, savouring the peace of Priors Marston and commenting on camera about the birdsong that seemed to fill every nook and cranny of the place. My stomach began to growl but it was still too early for lunch so I shouldered my rucksack, stretched stiffened leg muscles and exited the village through a gap between more modern houses and a cul-de-sac of lock-up garages. From the rear of one of the properties some sort of altercation was going on, spoiling the impression of tranquillity that the place had previously given me. Raised voices carried to me, at first indistinct, but becoming clearer as I passed by the back gardens to cross a horse paddock.
“I’m not scum!” a man’s voice proclaimed defiantly, leaving me to wonder what the argument had been about as I left Priors Marston behind me.
Just a short hop across some fields saw me emerge onto a bridleway running through an avenue of stately birch and cow parsley. To my mind, bridleways are the equivalent of motorways when taking a rural walk: They are direct, uncluttered, and take you from point A to point B with none of the frustrations found on lesser footpaths such as broken stiles, illegal barriers and unpredictable levels of navigability. It was, therefore, with pleasant anticipation that I set off along the broad track - but the optimism wasn’t to last very long. The trouble with bridleways is that horses use them, horses with big iron-shod hooves that clomp along, churning the ground over and allowing the rain to soak in. The soft ground beneath me turned at first porridgy and then full-on muddy and I made little headway, being forced to edge along the margins of the track using my walking pole as both support and depth-tester. I made a short video of this section, the scale of the mud, and the effect it was having on my boots and clothing and perhaps over-egged my assurances that I wasn’t ‘having a moan’.
Halfway along this boggy excuse for a path I was rewarded with a scene of unexpected tranquillity. Just beyond the line of birches there lay a still pond, lined with rushes. It had an air of remoteness about it, as if I were the first person to have set eyes on it in months, perhaps years. To emphasise the serenity of the scene a pair of swans posed gracefully on the far bank, contented in their silent green world.
By the time I got to the end of the bridleway my cream trousers were muddied almost to knee height and I looked as if I had been wading through slurry just for fun. Before me a series of grassy meadows tumbled gently downhill and the low dome of Napton Hill rose in the middle distance, the houses of its village scattered untidily across its flanks.
The meadows ended at a metal gate that let me onto a straight piece of road running between fields full of black horned cattle reminiscent of the Spanish Fighting Bull bred for the corrida de toros. I was no matador so I was happy that a substantial hedge separated us.
The road allowed me a closer look at the village of Napton-On-The-Hill. The village has been around for quite a while – its name is derived from the Old English cnaepp, meaning hilltop,
MillWay Day2 Pic 2

A boggy bridleway after Priors Marston

and tun meaning settlement and has an entry in the ubiquitous Domesday Book. Most of the houses command a fine view of the lands thereabout, being some 500ft above sea level, and I was grateful that my route was going to take me around the village rather than over the hill and through it. During the Middle Ages it became one of the largest settlements in Warwickshire owing to its royal status as a chartered market town, but its glory days are now long gone and even the days of the canals, with Napton’s rebirth as an important trading post, have faded into history. These days it just poses picturesquely atop its hill, its old windmill standing proud against the skyline and visible for miles around. For me, by far the most fascinating fact about Napton is that Ed Bishop, a naturalised American actor most famous for playing Straker in the 70’s sci-fi program UFO, is buried in the grounds of its medieval church. Apparently he lived in the village for many years.
Other than Napton Hill there was little else of interest along the road apart from a tiny barn conversion, not much larger than a static caravan, where a woman of mature years pottered about in her garden, flanked on all sides by the green expanse of the cow pastures. The tiny building bore the numbers 1891 on one side, built into the brickwork, dating the building if not its tenant. There was also a ramshackle farm towards the end of the road, an untidy place of collapsed roofs and outbuildings overstuffed with carelessly stacked junk. Its forecourt was more like a scrapyard, hosting a larger than usual collection of rusting farm machinery which looked as if it hadn’t moved in years. Once again I was struck with the casual disregard farmers seem to have for their equipment; there must have been a small fortune invested in the rusting hulks sitting in that yard - surely it had some sort of scrap value?
The road ended at the hamlet of Chapel Green, a place I was in and out of in less time than it took to say it, and from there it was a traverse across a hummocky sheep pasture to gain the first canal of the walk. I could make out the line of the canal ahead of me as a number of canal barges were moored up and I could hear the occupants nattering to each other. The canal tow-path ran parallel to the meadow but at a greater height so that the barges appeared to sit on the crest of the field which made the whole scene a little surreal, an effect enhanced by the twisted remains of an electricity pylon I walked past, which put me in mind of a downed Martian tripod from Well's War Of The Worlds.
By the time I had gained the canal tow-path it was most definitely lunch time and I sat by an old brick bridge to take my break, following my brothers example of baring my feet to allow some fresh air to revive them, not pleasant for passers-by but thoroughly recommended for the footsore hiker. I was surprised at how wet my socks had become, a result of the mud and dew I had walked through all morning. My boots were usually reliable but I now suspected that after several hundred miles they were beginning to let in water: It would soon be time to replace them. Luckily I had spare dry socks with me which along with the fresh air rejuvenated my tired feet for the second half of the walk.

On the Oxford ...

The second half of the walk hadn’t progressed very far before I came across the Folly Inn, a solid Georgian building set back from the canal behind an expanse of lawn. Despite my earlier misgivings about wandering into a pub covered in dried mud the lure of a pint of cider became too strong to ignore. As it happened it wasn’t my muddy trousers that drew the attention of the folk in the small bar because as I walked in I cracked my head on the door’s low lintel and swore in pain and surprise - that certainly got me noticed. With the top of my head gently throbbing I took my cold drink outside to sit near to the canal and enjoy the barges that drifted by. I was moved to tweet about the strident lady on a barge moored close to the pub, who popped up from its depths occasionally to yell loudly at a small child which, to my mind, didn’t appear to be doing anything wrong at all. As I commented in the tweet – there’s always one. I had observed earlier that I didn’t have a clue which canal I was actually on, and only when I got home could I do my research.
MillWay Day2 Pic 3

The Oxford Canal

I discovered that I was on the Oxford Canal, a 78-mile-long waterway running from Oxford to Coventry and terminating at Hawkesbury Junction, a place I had visited during my walk along the Centenary Way back in 2012. Completed in the late 1700’s it swiftly became one of the most important and profitable transport links in Britain, with most commercial traffic between London and the Midlands using the route. Its decline began after the opening of the Grand Union Canal, a rival waterway, faster and with a more direct link to London. This proved commercially disastrous for the Oxford Canal, and profits plummeted, sparking a bitter rivalry between the two independently run canals, some of which I learnt about at Hawkesbury Junction, one of the flash-points of this rivalry, being the place where the two waterways met. These days it’s a much more peaceful scene on the water, with pleasure boaters supplanting the tough and often violent barge families who carved a precarious living ferrying stone and coal along its route.
I regained the tow-path and continued on my way, passing canal barges whose names gave some clues as to their origins and purpose:
Narrow Escape
Country Wines (a floating wine merchants)
So Wye Not?

And painted in crude whitewash on one shabby hull, the rather wistful ‘One Day’
I took a video of the barges, with the So Wye Not? puttering towards me - its passengers were a senior couple and a young lad that I took to be their grandson. They looked a little self-conscious as I pointed the camera at them but they smiled awkwardly at me and so I waved back. The awkwardness continued as I set off along the tow-path to discover that my walking speed was now keeping pace with their cruising speed. For quite a long stretch of the canal I strode along just a yard away from them, privy to their conversation and trying to look as if I wasn’t listening. I even stopped for a minute to let them get ahead of me but at the very next bend they were forced to slow down and I sidled up alongside them to invade their personal space again. I thought about striking up a conversation but they didn’t give the impression that they were up for a chat and it was probably a quiet relief to all concerned that I finally left the canal at yet another pub.

A canal by any other name ...

The Napton Bridge Inn was closed, probably no bad thing as I may have been tempted inside for a second pint of cider, and so I crossed a busy road to set off alongside hedgerows, on a straight route through sheep pastures and then fields of Stuff towards a distant farm. The sun, a reticent presence up to that point, suddenly broke cover and the air became stifling and humid. By the time I had reached the outbuildings of the farm I had stripped off my T-shirt and had left my lightweight fleece unzipped to let air circulate, a method I had devised on Day 1 of the walk which I decided could be safely deployed out of sight of the general public. I looked back along the series of fields I had just crossed and due to the flatness of the terrain I could make out the tiny white dot of the Napton Bridge Inn in the distance, marking the point where I had parted company with the Oxford Canal.
Soon I found myself in Stockton, a village as seemingly deserted as the others I had visited on the day, with its solid old church and single pub staring at each other across the small village green. It wasn’t a very large village and I paid it the briefest of visits.
MillWay Day2 Pic 4

Long Itchington

As I was leaving its final street I decided to capture it on video, The chittering noise my camera emits when it fires up attracted the attention of a ginger and white cat, appearing from around a corner with an alert and eager expression. Once it found out that the source of the noise wasn’t edible it reverted to a street-cool nonchalance and strutted away from me, its demeanour suggesting that it had never been fooled in the first place.
Just beyond Stockton the Millennium Way channelled me down a tiny track that ran alongside woodland and the rear boundaries of a couple of large properties. Once again I was making my way over some rather muddy ground, with every other footstep sliding away from me. I came across a man with a lawnmower under the eaves of a small spinney. He was mowing the ground underneath the young trees although as far as I could make out it was devoid of grass, or in fact any kind of vegetation. I was too busy trying not to fall on my backside to ponder on this over-much. Finally I broke free of the trees and the muddy track and, with a fresh coating of muck applied to my trousers I found myself on the tow-path of a canal again. Though I wasn’t aware at the time, this was a different canal entirely. It was the Grand Union – the usurper of the Oxford Canal's crown and its ultimate nemesis. The canal links London to Birmingham and is 137 miles in length, flinging out spurs to Leicester, Slough, Aylesbury, Wendover and Northampton along the way. It's profile has been chopped and changed over the centuries and its current form only came into being in 1929 after an amalgamation of lesser canals. Despite the huge competition from the railways (a battle that all canals eventually lost) the Grand Union managed to turn a profit right through the 1930's before slipping into a decline after the war. Like many other canals across the country it has enjoyed a rebirth and boom in popularity thanks largely to the sheer hard work and determination shown by volunteers and canal enthusiasts. I dropped onto the tow-path opposite the Blue Lias Inn, a strange name for a pub, and a cue for another Google session when I got home. Wikipedia informs me that Blue Lias is a particular type of rock formation. Blue Lias stone is used for both building and for aggregate production and England has a deposit that starts in Dorset and runs diagonally north eastwards all the way to the Yorkshire coast. A deep seam of the stuff runs through the Midlands and a lot of the nation's cement is made locally as a result. It has provided a source of wealth for the area that has outlasted both agriculture and canal transportation and continues to bolster the economy to this very day.
It was a very short trip along the canal this time, but long enough to walk past a trendy canal-side inn where people in clean clothes sat outside with cold beers and cast critical eyes over my soiled condition as I ambled by.
Finally I turned away from the canal and crossed one last grassy meadow before reaching the main street of Long Itchington and the end of my days walk. By today’s standards Long Itchington was a large settlement - over 2,000 inhabitants - but even here there was a deserted feel to the streets. The village is named after the River Itchen which flows to the south and west of the village and it is a village of mainly contemporary housing although it does have its more ancient relics, including the half-timbered "Tudor House" on the main road, a handsome property that I walked past as I came into the village. As for any claims to fame, well there are a few – Queen Elizabeth I is said to have stayed a couple of times and St Wulfstan, an 11th century Bishop of Worcester, is said to have been born here. I emerged onto the high street next to the church and was presented with a straight left or right choice to find my car. I’d actually passed along this very street earlier in the morning, trying to find a suitable place to park for the day. I recognised the buildings presented to me but couldn’t relate them to where, exactly, I’d ended up parking which was a bit irritating because I was by now tired and looking forward to a nice sit down. I elected to turn left and it was a good ten minutes before I conceded that I had made the wrong choice. Wearily I turned about and walked back to the church. My car, of course, was barely ten yards to the right of it.

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