26 October 2006

SORRY IT’S BEEN SO SLOW IN COMING!

Where to start?! This could turn into an epic post, considering my tendency to wax lyrical about the English countryside.

THE FLIGHT OVER
Was fine, although we left Melbourne at 12:30am instead of the scheduled 11pm due to an auxiliary engine failure, which they assured us only affected the aircon when we were on the ground. I suspect they tell us that so we don’t panic. The same thing happened at Hong Kong (our mystery stop-over place) airport, though we were only delayed by about half an hour. The flight was on a QANTAS plane, and we all had our own little screens – movies, TV programmes, CDs on demand. I finally got to watch ‘Kenny’ (though I think I would have enjoyed it more if I wasn’t in that weird waking-sleep mode somewhere over the Tibetan Plateau). But most importantly, one of the CDs we could listen to (and I did. Repeatedly!) was Led Zeppelin ‘Remasters’. No music should have the right to be so sexy! I am now well reacquainted with those songs, and I have to say. . . ZEPPELIN RULES.

THE FAMILY
Is mostly well. We’re having a lovely time staying in our ‘other’ home (it’s nice to be back somewhere so familiar), which has a brand spanking new kitchen. Yesterday, Margot had a meeting with an Extremely Important Person from Microsoft, to convince him he simply must write the forward to her book (which is due out in July). Aaron is cooking us delicious things with the new kitchen – the ceiling collapsed on the old one and until we arrived the household had been using a makeshift kitchen in the entrance ‘hall’ (i.e. under the stairs). Eliot still has many shirts, is still at BT but is considering finding something else, continues to watch hard-core amounts of football, martial arts films and snooker, and has a shaved head (EJ, he said he had a mullet before he shaved it! I can’t believe he didn’t let us see it!!!). He is also in the process of buying a house in Mill Hill (north of here). The house has 3 bedrooms, 2 storeys, a bit of a yard, is near a park, and is quite run down. The buying process is confusing over here, but I think it’s fairly certain it will be his to make over soon. Adam and Orly have also bought an apartment in Edgware (next door to Mill Hill). They are in the process of getting it cleaned up a bit, though it was in good condition, and moving in. They’ve been living with Orly’s parents since Tzvi was born, so it will be nice for them to have their own space (though Amanda and Moy seem very happy to have them around!). Tzvi is a baby. As far as babies go, he’s not too scary. He has quite a lot of hair, likes to gnaw on things, and is completely spoilt by everyone. We’ve only seen Harry and Lorna once, but Lorna is recovering from another illness, which knocked her around pretty badly. We’ve also seen aunts and uncles, but only in passing.

THE WALK
Was OMG AMAZING.

DAY 1: Monday 16 October: SOURCE
We caught the train up to Kemble, a little village in the Cotswolds about 2 miles from the source of the river. The whole journey up was extremely pleasant and un-stressful, and I half thought that things could ONLY GET WORSE. Because that’s how travelling often goes! However, when we arrived we were greeted by the sight of a few riders on horseback clip-clopping along the road, over the little stone bridge and out of sight down a country lane. ‘How picture-skew,’ we thought. A few minutes later, on the other side of the village as we walked towards our B&B in Ewen, we were passed by a few more riders. And then some more. And THEN! We looked behind us to see a whole group of riders, lead by a pack of dogs and a man in a bright red jacket. OH YES! A HUNT!!! Of course, hunting for real is illegal, but apparently that doesn’t stop people getting dressed up and riding through the countryside looking spectacular. And because it wasn’t a real hunt I had no qualms being completely and utterly taken in by the vibrant atmosphere of fresh-eyed horses and riders who, to a person, sang out friendly greetings as they passed us by. OH, ENGLAND!

On that first day we dropped off our packs at the B&B Brooklands Farm is a pokey little place that I couldn’t really recommend except as being warm and comparatively cheap) and wandered up the path to the source of the River Thames: a stone at the edge of a paddock saying RIVER THAMES WOZ ERE. On the walk we encountered the first of many stiles (yay!), kissing gates, cows, sheep, woods, fields, end-of-season blackberries (LOVE), and free apples (in baskets by people’s gates, or on trees growing seemingly wild along the way). The river itself was completely dry, and we didn’t actually come to a place where it started flowing and didn’t stop a bit down the way until day 2. We lunched at the Thames Head Inn, walked back through Kemble, did a bit of shopping for snacks, and encountered some Very Friendly Horses on a ‘short cut’ footpath on the way back to Ewen that were very interested in the bags containing said snacks. And the thing is, I don’t mind friendly horses, but you sort of forget how fucking enormous the creatures are until they start gently nudging you with nose and flank, and try to herd you off the path so they can nibble on the contents of your bag!


DAY TWO: Tuesday 27 October: EWEN – LATTON (nr Cricklade)

Our first day of REAL walking, with packs, from one place to another. We tried to break the walk into 10 mile (16 kilometre) days, and this was probably our shortest stretch – a little under 10 miles. We had breakfast and met the house cat – a big grey tabby tom with a white leg, named White Leg – and then set off just before 9am into the misty fields.

Much of the day was spent walking between the lakes of the Cotswolds Water Park around Ashton Keynes. The lakes were attractive (they’re not formed naturally, rather they are filled-up quarries and machine-dug), and we saw many a white swan, and many coots! Ha! That’s what the moorhen-looking birds with white beakyfaces are called. We’d hoped to have an early lunch at Ashton Keynes in a pub called ‘The Red Lion’ (you know the one. . .), but we were too early, so we ended up eating an entire packet of gingersnap biscuits and a whole thermos of tea, sitting on a bench beside a sports ground on the outskirts of the village. Ashton Keynes was very quiet, and very pretty. The Thames is a small stream here, and runs beside the path straight up against the grey and yellow Cotswold stone cottages and buildings. Some of the houses are effectively moated (is that a word, even?) by the Thames and its tributaries.

It threatened to rain once or twice, and it did drizzle lightly for about 10 minutes in the afternoon – it was quite nice drizzle, very fine, sort of ethereal. But it got on my glasses. How annoying. How do you glasses-wearing people deal with rain? My ankle started hurting really badly during the day, and I thought it might have been a strain. I thought doing my boot up tightly would help support it. HOW STUPID WAS I? I limped through the afternoon as Dan and I approached the hysteria that comes from exhaustion! We giggled like loonies through North Meadow (one of the finest remaining examples of ancient meadowland, according to our book and the information board), creating fabulous tales of rescue by white horses, or cowboys, or shiny black cars, or the air force. The walk became a trudge, then a stagger, and we eventually collapsed at ‘Red Lion Inn’ (you know the one) in Cricklade.

We called Jemma of ‘Doll’s House’, where we were staying, for directions, and started walking out (about a mile out of town). Just as it started raining seriously, a car pulled up beside us – it was Jemma come to give us a lift. How sweet! Dan sat in the back seat with and enormously friendly Staffordshire Terrier/Boxer cross named Harvey, who proceeded to lick Dan’s face to bits. The B&B was lovely – very cosy and welcoming, and Jemma did all she could to help us out: plied us with maps, pots of tea (in Mad Hatter’s tea party crockery), food and friendly advice. Most of the cushions, quilts, curtains etc were handmade by Jemma (some were exquisite, others were. . . interesting). We ate a gigantic dinner, and fell into bed at about 8pm.

(I should begin the ‘You don’t sound Australian’ tally, as it was pretty much the response I got every time I told people I was from Melbourne. Today’s count: 2)


DAY THREE: Wednesday 18 October: CRICKLADE – LECHLADE

This was our longest day – approximately 13 miles, or 19 kilometres. After another enormous meal we said goodbye to Jemma and slipped into the mist along the footpath to Cricklade, passing by the fields and cottages and high across the overpass. Once in Cricklade we tried to check out St Samson’s, the towers of which can be seen from miles around, but Wednesday at 10am happens to be the only time other than Sundays when it’s being used. We didn’t have a lot of luck with God and Jesus on this trip! Instead, we sat down for a pot of earl grey in a little café (I will never be used to smoking in cafes, though we did manage to remain smoke free at the back of the place).

Then off we set, along possibly the poorest-maintained bit of the Thames Path we encountered. The actual rights of way tended to be knee-deep in nettles, or completely churned up by cows, or a delicious combination of the two – mud, shit and nettle stew! All over our boots and trews. Luckily this section lasted for less than an hour, and soon we were following the Thames Path temporary route through a windbreak/orchard (where more apples were consumed – we felt a little like Merry and Pippin, and hoped they would start falling from the sky and bumping our heads. Or that Aragorn would appear. . .), along a quiet back road and into Castle Eaton. We dined on mushroom and stilton soup at the pub – ‘The Red Lion’ (you know?) – looked at another closed church, and limped on. By the time afternoon tea was to be had, my ankle was uber-painful, and we had to sit down on the verge in Upper Inglesham, eating M&Ms like they were going out of fashion (yes, we bought provisions, and then we hunted a wendigo and used M&Ms instead of breadcrumbs). After our break we walked the least pedestrian-friendly section along an A road before turning off down a small lane to see St John the Baptist’s Church – an AMAZING little slice of centuries past. It’s barely been altered since the 16th century, and contains sections built in the 13th to 15th centuries and bells from the 18th. And it was full of German-speaking restoration workers, climbing ladders and peering closely at crumbling wall-paintings, pointing at architectural sketches and talking in long lists of numbers. From there it was a short stroll into Cricklade, during which we spotted our first boats on the river, the entrance of the now-defunct Thames and Severn Canal, and chatted to a man with a passion for lighthouses who had just spent a few days in the Shetlands and lived in Camberwell.

We met three other walkers on this stretch – all going in the opposite direction. A guy from Seattle, who had started at the barrier and was almost complete, and two English men who were doing the whole thing, barrier to source, in 2-3 day stretches. These last two had two cars with them – in the morning drove both cars to their finishing spot, left car one there, drove back to their accommodation in car two, did the day’s walk, drove back in car one. No big packs. Lots of exhaust fumes.

We stayed at Cambrai Lodge, and had Chinese take-away for tea. Or is it dinner? Or supper? It was good. We were full and exhausted.

(You don’t sound Australian tally: 1)


DAY FOUR: Thursday 19 October: LECHLADE – TADPOLE BRIDGE

Honestly, that morning I did not want to get up. Put on the pack and it felt SO HEAVY. Despite having slept quite well, I still felt drained, and my legs didn’t want to GO. At breakfast we chatted to the two hikers from the day before, laughed at the coincidence, and gleaned tales of hiking trails around the world from them. It wasn’t until later that we realised we were younger than all the walkers we met – probably by at least 15-20 years. We are such dorks!

It had rained quite heavily overnight, but we set out in bright sunshine and almost completely clear blue skies. It was quite windy, though, which made it difficult to walk a straight line! Our first pause was at St John’s Lock – the uppermost lock on the river – where we posed foolishly on the lock and took photographs of Old Father Thames. A statue, not a real person. We then continued along the meandering river to Kelmscot[t], where William Morris used the manor as a summer house. The manor was closed, but we did see a cow with her newborn calf. She was eating the afterbirth. We went to the Plough Inn and had a pot of tea instead.

We stopped at Radcot for lunch at a pub called. . . ‘The Swan’. Radcot Bridge is the oldest bridge on the Thames, and it’s very pretty and bridge-like and old. I heard something jump into the water and saw a line of bubbles going across the river. I maintain it was Ratty, and that Toad and Mole were around somewhere. . . In the afternoon we stopped at Rushey Weir and Lock (the weir is an old fashioned paddle and rymer weir), then trudged the last short section to The Trout at Tadpole Bridge (the only thing at Tadpole Bridge, really!), where our booking had apparently not gone through, but luckily they had room for us, and where they are closed from 3pm-6pm, but luckily there was someone around to check us in. The room had a bath. Oh, the joy of it all! We both had long soakings.

Then we had the most expensive meal of the trip, which included a whole sole with lemon for Dan, and finished with a platter of LOCAL FARMHOUSE CHEESES OF FANTASTICALITY!!! Exmoor blue with Jersey milk, a creamy ash-rolled goats’ cheese, a single Gloucester soft cheddary thing, and two gorgeous runny cheeses. Two of them were made with unpasteurised milk. HEAVEN (and it would want to be, considering the room and the dinner ended up costing £130. That’s over $300AUS!). We were so full!

(You don’t sound Australian tally: 2)


DAY FIVE: Friday 20 October: TADPOLE BRIDGE – BABLOCK HYTHE

Again, it rained heavily overnight, but as we had our breakfast the sky cleared completely, and on very full stomachs we set out into the glorious shiny morning. After I’d had another bath to make the extortionate room tariff worth it. The luxury seemed to have worked, though, because we both felt much more fresh and raring to go. The pack seemed to be a kilo or two lighter, and my ankle hardly hurt at all. The day was gorgeous – sunshine glinting off the night’s rain as it clung to leaves and spiderwebs, shining through the riverside stands of silver birch. It was quite wet and slippery underfoot, but we were generally in very good moods. We stopped at Shifford Weir on a little footbridge overlooking the lock and weir on one side, and an idyllic landscape of green pastures, blue skies, cows and sheep on the other. Not for the first time I thought we must have walked into an advertisement for butter or milk.

Also along the Thames from Lechlade, we encountered small concrete ‘pillboxes’ (you can see a picture here) built during WWII as part of England’s ‘Stopline Red’, the never-used “last desperate bid to keep invaders from the Midlands” (according to our book). They are quite incongruous, and most of them still look pretty solid – testament to their construction, I guess. Dan and I considered for a while that there might actually be only two or three of them, and that they kept moving to make it seem like there was a whole line along the river. Ah, mid-afternoon hysteria.

We had lunch at ‘Rose Revived’ at Newbridge (called new because it was built less than 50 years after the bridge at Radcot in the 13th century). And it was SO GOOD. I had a wrap with goats cheese, red ‘pepper’ and onion, and salad – YUM. We got a serve of chips, too, which were delicious – perfect blend of crunchy outside and soft inside and really thick and hot, and it’s about time I stopped drooling over them, hey? Because, after all, they’re just chips. We sat outside, next to the swollen river (the other pub at Newbridge had a very flooded carpark), and met a cute, black enormously fluffy-tailed cat.

In the afternoon we met another walker going in the opposite direction, who told us we were the first ‘serious’ hikers he’d seen since before Abingdon (downstream of Oxford). We were recognised as SERIOUS WALKERS! VINDICATED! At Northmoor Lock and Weir (another paddle and rymer weir), we finally got to see a lock in action. It took a while, but it was a nice rest stop, and the lockkeeper was CUTE. For those who remember the ferryman from Lismore, Scotland, last year, this lockkeeper and that ferryman should run away and have a water-based relationship of cuteness. The river by now was very full, and the rush of water over the weir was extraordinarily powerful. It was here we saw our first dated flood-markers on the side of the lock. And one on the lockhouse itself from the 1880s (I think)!

We arrived at Bablock Hythe, at the Ferryman Inn (which I can only recommend as a convenient stop-over) where our room overlooked the river, and the vegetarian menu included macaroni cheese. FOR SEVEN POUNDS!!! The food, when it arrived (I eventually got curry) was not as bad as it could have been, thank goodness. We slept soundly.


DAY SIX: Saturday 21 October: BABLOCK HYTHE – OXFORD

Foolishly, we hadn’t asked what time breakfast was, so when we found ourselves locked into the building at 8am, we were a little concerned. Eventually we found a way out, Dan scouted around and found our table – unfortunately on the other side of some very locked doors and windows. We considered doing a runner, and I was almost ready to go when Dan finally found someone who told us that breakfast was at 8:30. this man then proceeded to spout such gems as, “I’d like to live in Australia because you make people be Australian and speak English if they want to live there,” and “Your Muslim women mustn’t wear the veil.” On the other hand he didn’t really like Stirwin or Neighbours, so at least we had some common ground.

It rained again overnight, but was once again fairly fine as we set out past the trailer-park (or ‘chalet estate’) and into the sheep paddocks surrounding. And soon we encountered the only major obstacle of our whole walk. See, there was a field, and we had to walk to the other side of it. However, between us and the other side of the field seemed to be running a healthy little stream – a couple of metres wide and about a foot deep in places. After some insane laughter, we decided to get all MacGyver on yo asses and build a suspension bridge with nothing but some willow branches, dental floss and chewing gum. However, what ended up happening was us throwing down some branches over the stream/lake in an attempt to not get in over our ankles, starting off across the water, realising it wasn’t going to work, and wading the rest of the way with great snorts of laughter. Testament to my excellent Raichle Scout boots, though my shins were freezing cold and wet, my feet remained warm and no more than a teensy bit damp. Yay waterproofing!

From Northmoor, the path of the river is basically a big loop to Abingdon (it’s something like 10 miles as the crow flies, and three times that if you walk the river), so today was about walking around the top of that loop and back into Oxford. We passed many cows and swans and pheasants and horses and sheep and mud (LOTS of mud), and geese, crows and seagulls, and noticed that the river was VERY FULL. We noticed some weekend cyclists and joggers, all looking like they might be Oxford students, or dons or something, and giggled. We had a most excellent lunch at the most excellent and popular inn at Godstow – ‘The Trout Inn’. DELICIOUS. I had a pear and goats cheese tart (I’m seeing a theme here with the goat) and a glass of Australian shiraz, Dan had an average dish called Chicken , and we finished off with mouth-wateringly good apple crumble. Let me tell you, I did NOT want to leave! (And it had nothing to do with all the cute Oxford students discussing philosophy and whether it’s posher to pronounce ‘scones’ with a short or long O. I want some for my house. They can wear blazers and cravats and lounge around dusting and reading Voltaire. Then they can row me to work.)

However, leave we did. Looked at Godstow Abbey as we passed by (you should read up about Rosamund and the king. Eeenteresting), then strolled down to Oxsfors, watching the ‘dreaming spires’ appear on the horizon over the bright green meadows, the blue sky and river full almost to capacity. We saw many silly skinny dogs with curly tails frolicking by the water, and many cyclists, and much early-autumnal leaf rustling. Once in Oxford, we still had over a mile to walk to our guesthouse. I was exhausted and sullen, and my feet HURT DAMMIT from walking on concrete, but Gail and Peter at Homelea Guesthouse were super-friendly, the tea fresh and hot, and the room most excellent. We chatted away, learning that they had only taken over the place 6 weeks ago, and talking about walks in Oxfordshire. They let us know about the open-top bus and walking tours, told us which bus to take into town, magically produced information on a café we’d overheard people talking about in Godstow. . . superb. This was probably the best all-over place we stayed – friendly and generous and professional. Lovely.

(You don’t sound Australian tally: 3)


DAY SEVEN: Sunday 22 October: OXFORD


We didn’t have enough time in Oxford, and we had to cart our bags around for the whole day, and it drizzled throughout the morning and started raining seriously in the afternoon, so we didn’t get to see as much as we’d have liked. What we did do, though, was go on a two-hour walking tour of central Oxford, including a few quick visits into some colleges, etc. Our tour guide had lived in Oxford for over 40 years, tutoring at a couple of colleges (at one time next door to Tolkien – a grumpy old man, to whom one should never mention LOTR or The Hobbit), and she was totally in love with the city. She claims it is one of the three most beautiful cities in the (very Eurocentric) world, and her attempts to convince the group were, well, convincing! We got to see the inspiration for Tumnus, for bits of ‘Alice in Wonderland’, and filming locations for Hogwarts. Yay!

We went for lunch at a nice little café (mmm, falafel roll) with an upstairs, where we ate, read delicious. magazine, got a pot of tea and some muffins, sprawled on the couches, giggled at the boy reading Foucault, and the other boys discussing linguistics and vagaries of Italian language, and the other boy with his black mac using the café’s wireless. It sort of felt like home, like I could get used to it. I somehow doubt they do film/trans studies at any of the colleges, though.

(You don’t sound Australian tally: 2)

(TOTAL TALLY: 10 . . . in 7 days)

So, the walk was excellent, and I highly recommend it to everyone – it’s easy, well marked and flat, and there are enough places to stay and eat along the road. If I did it again, and had enough time and money, I would stay two nights in Lechlade (gives you more time to look around the cute little shops, and to rest your feet), and longer than we did in Oxford (there is still so much we’d like to see there, and we’ll surely go back one day). We were VERY lucky, weather-wise, thanks to this being “the longest, hottest summer EVER” (according to the TV), but I think early-summer and early-autumn would be usually be good for doing it. We’d hoped for a bit more autumnal orange leafiness, but what we lacked in that was made up for with the blue skies and lack of day-time rain.

*

And that’s about all I can be bothered typing up. We’ll fill you in on other stuff later on! Hope you’re all well!

4 comments:

  1. that sounds like the englishest fun you can ever have!
    did you see the doctor, or inspector morse? If not why not you cads!
    hope to see you soon...

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  2. we saw the first two episodes of torchwood... does that count?!

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  3. Hello my darlings,
    here in Melbourne we had a little taste of Oxford with your postcard today - many thanks. Glad you're having such a ball. I am no stranger to the bizarre attractions of the Oxford nerd. Last week at climbing when I mentioned I wanted to move back to the UK next year, a friend said: "Lots of grey skies there." Me, in classic freudian-slip mode: "Yeah! There sure ARE a lot of great guys there!". Oops.
    Looking forward to seeing you when you get home. I'm off to sunny Queensland tomorrow morning for an indefinite period (read: until both my grandparents die, which looks like not too far away...)
    xx Chess

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  4. Heya,

    Tee hee! Fun. It all sounds emerald green and delightfully English and twee. Ah, the old 'You don't sound Australian.' I like the tally. It is good. What is it with that? Several people told me they thought I sounded like I had no accent (how is that possible!?!) - like a newsreader aparently.

    Gosh, doing all that walking WITH your backpacks. Your BIG backpacks I assume. Impressive!

    I like the word 'FANTASTICALITY' especially in relation to delicious cheese. Hoorah for cheese!

    Keep having fun kids!

    Rae.
    XXX OOO

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