|The Millennium Way|
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 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
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 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 The undergrowth was tangled and seemingly intent on tripping me up, and verdant nettles raised itchy lumps on my forearms and calves. A exploded skywards from my right, making its strange rusty-clockwork alarm cry and causing my heart to skip a beat, 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 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 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
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
Near Old Hunningham
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 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 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, 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
A juxtaposition of town and country
Formerly known as Leamington Priors it became 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 and 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
Leamington has been featured in a number of television series, including the 1990s BBC situation comedy The occultist was born in Leamington as was world champion boxer. comedian and performer currently lives in the town. Bizarrely 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. can lay claim to being the spiritual home of in the UK and is also one of the birthplaces of 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 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 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
Final stretch of the Grand Union canal
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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