|The Millennium Way|
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 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
A tempting invitation
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 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 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
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.
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
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.
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 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.
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