If I end up aborting this trip early, then this is the day I'll blame. Today I completely screwed up my route planning, but I didn't realise until too late and now it's created my first major hurdle. I have serious blisters, and they mean business.
This stage was supposed to be one of the easiest on the whole walk, a 13.5-mile jaunt from Truro, through a wood, along the A30 and to the industrial town of Indian Queens, home to Cornwall's china clay mines. A flat 13.5-mile walk should take just a few hours, especially in today's perfect walking weather, and I slept like a log last night in my Truro B&B. The spring in my step as I walked past Truro Cathedral early this morning was for once unaffected by my heavy backpack; at last I felt I'd found my stride.
My only problem was finding somewhere to stay in Indian Queens. Even with my partner Peta's help back in London I couldn't track down any B&Bs or campsites in town, but luckily she found a B&B a little further on that was fully booked, but which had a caravan I could use if I was interested. I was, I booked it, and I set off on day four.
Dogs with Dogs
The walk started beautifully, meandering north out of Truro under the arches of a huge viaduct and up towards the outskirts of Idless Wood, a pretty forest that's run by the Forestry Commission. I follow a strict timetable when I walk – I rest every hour for between five and ten minutes – and my first rest of the day coincided with a leafy ridge on the eastern edge of the wood, where I gladly dumped my pack, shuffled out of my shoes, peeled off my socks and inflicted my feet on Mother Nature. The feeling of cold air hitting hot, sweaty feet is one of the unsung delights of long-distance walking, and as I sat there I fell into a kind of trance in which I could actually feel the effort of my walking evaporating off my toes. And into this trance roared the Hound of the Baskervilles, heading straight for me with slathering jaws, its one good eye pinning me to the spot.
My heart didn't miss a beat; instead it crammed a whole day's pounding into the two seconds it took for the monster to cover the distance to my spongy woodland seat. I was frozen in mid-meditation, my mind unable to tell my body what to do because it was too busy yelling, 'Run! No, actually, don't run! It'll sense your fear! Don't show any fear! No, don't show any fear! It'll smell it... Oh my God, it's too late, we're all going to die!'
Of course, the dog turned out to be far more interested in dribbling spit into my walking boots than ripping my arms out of their sockets, and I was so grateful to still be alive that I even tried a tentative pat on his head. This cheered the dog up so much that he playfully farted into my backpack and licked my knee, leaving a layer of drool on my tracksuit bottoms that would attract flies for the rest of the day. Just as it appeared that we were getting along fine, the owners appeared.
Most people are disarmingly friendly when you meet them in isolated places like woods or country paths, but the two women who strode round the corner seemed to have forgotten that this was Cornwall, where everyone is happy to see everyone else and the sun always shines. Instead they totally ignored me, striding along the path and oozing the kind of aura that simply doesn't believe that there are people on this earth who don't like dogs, horses and dungarees. The dog, encouraged by the arrival of its masters, leapt around a bit, jumped back towards me, stuck its tongue into my left boot and barked twice in my face. I stared at the owners with the pleading look of someone who'd very much like them to call their bloody dog off the scent, but they completely ignored me and I just had to wait until the dog lost interest and ran back to join them.
'I thought he might have stolen one of your socks,' said the shorter of the two in a voice all the more impressive for her lack of an Adam's apple.
'Um, yeah,' I said, resisting the urge to add anything in case they discovered I was a dog-hating infidel.
'Hard to tell who that would have been more unpleasant for,' rumbled the tall one, and as they disappeared round the corner, laughing like Isaac Hayes and Barry White, I thought about what she said and decided that yes, she was being rude.
'Bloody dogs,' I muttered to myself, purposely using the plural, and with a sigh I pulled on my clammy socks, wafted the musty smell of canine out of my backpack and hit the forest trail once again.
I Fought the Law
After the delights of Idless Wood the route turned east to follow the lanes just south of the busy A30, the main road through central Cornwall. On the horizon I could just make out the strange lunar landscape of the clay mines near Indian Queens, and seeing as I had the day's destination in my sights, I decided to pop into the next pub I saw for lunch. A few minutes later, in the little village of Summercourt, I spotted the London Inn and ducked through the low door into the sound of clinking glasses and Sunday lunchtime conversation.
'Hello there,' said the barman. 'How can I help you?'
'Are you doing food?' I asked.
'Yep,' he said, 'but we're only doing Sunday roasts, and all we've got left is roast beef and Yorkshire pud. Is that OK?'
I could have picked him up and kissed him; Sunday lunch was just what I needed.
'And a pint of Coke,' I added, resisting the call of the colourful hand-pump labels dotted along the bar. 'I'll be over here.'
Trying not to knock back my drink in one go I retired to a quiet corner of the pub, from where I had a good view of proceedings. The London Inn turned out to be a great little boozer, the kind that Cornwall does so well, and just as I was settling into the comfortable anonymity that's so welcome when you're travelling alone, I heard a familiar conversation. Just behind me a grumpy old man was having a go at his wife.
I say 'familiar' because this is the third time on this walk that I've heard a grumpy old Cornishman being horrible to his wife in public, and I've only been here for five days. The first time I just squirmed a little and wished they'd take it home, and the second time was on the bus back from Helston when I put it down to a little too much Spingo on the part of the husband. But hearing the same old story for a third time was tiresome; it's one thing having a minor disagreement, even though you shouldn't do it in public and certainly not in a pub, but in each of these cases the man was simply being spiteful. Of course, I know nothing of the background to these public arguments, but one thing was obvious from all three: I couldn't believe that they even liked each other, let alone lived with each other in holy matrimony.
To get away from the miserable old goat behind me, I occupied myself with a good old nose around the pub. Regulars propped up the bar in the traditional Sunday stance and the roast dinners were doing a roaring trade, but far more interesting was the collection of books I discovered right by my head. Books in pubs are pretty common, but more often than not breweries buy them by the foot, filling the shelves with out-of-date law texts, ancient school books, failed novels and hilariously biased histories of the world. This collection, however, was different; in fact, it was fascinating.
The section I sat next to consisted purely of children's books from a bygone era. Sandwiched between classics like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Treasure Island and Just William were books that have long since disappeared into out-of-print obscurity. Scanning the shelf I spotted such seminal titles as Mission to Mars, The Bobbsey Twins at the Circus, Cop Shooter, Jet: Sled Dog of the North, The Bobbsey Twins on a Houseb-
Hang on a minute! Did you say Cop Shooter? In the children's section? Oh, I've just got to take a look at that one...
Let's see... Cop Shooter by Kit Higson. Well, it's the story of young Simon Shooter, who discovers a half-drowned puppy in a dustbin and rescues him. Simon names the puppy Cop, hence Cop Shooter. They become inseparable friends, a bully boy from school takes an instant dislike to the pair of them, adventures ensue, the dog helps to win the day... and everyone lives happily ever after. And according to the sleeve notes this book 'will delight all those who know what a friend to man a dog can be.'
Ah, well that probably counts me out then, which is a shame, because Cop Shooter looks like the kind of book that I might have enjoyed as a nipper, even if it isn't the gangsta rap exposé its title might imply. Cop Shooter might have no swearing, no homeboys, no crack cocaine and no gold jewellery, but you still wouldn't come across a children's book with such a contentious title these days. Then again, looking at the list of other books available in the same series – the Oxford Children's Library, no less – I was glad to see Howard Spring's Darkie and Co. keeping Cop Shooter company in the wilderness of political incorrectness. I wonder what that one's about...
The beef was perfect, the Coke helped prevent post-roast lethargy, and I made a friend in the urinal (as you do in the country), but I had a trail to walk, so I set off again with my spirits high and my sights set on a pleasant afternoon stroll. Unfortunately I hadn't yet learned the lesson that you shouldn't measure distances by looking at a map and going 'it's about... this far... so that's about... yeah, ooh, a couple of hours.' I now know that if you do this, you will be wrong.
Yesterday, when I tracked down the caravan at Tregolls Farm, I took a quick look at the map and estimated that it was only a few miles beyond Indian Queens. I was right, in a sense, but those 'few miles' turned out to be 7.5 miles on top of the 13.5 miles to Indian Queens, and they went right over the top of a bloody great hill, through some desolate fields, and then along winding country lanes that went up and down more times than a lift attendant. It turned today's trek from a happy little jaunt through the Cornish countryside into a test of character that I really didn't need, and it was all my fault, which made it even more irritating.
Things didn't go wrong for a while, though. I merrily wandered through Indian Queens, discovering in the process that there is indeed a campsite there; it's called 'Gnome World', and it's a strange place that manages to combine roadside camping with an insanely large collection of garden gnomes. I didn't dawdle, and headed on past a dilapidated house whose caged garden was home to three huge and carnivorous Alsatians who acted as if they hadn't eaten in a month. It's funny how the houses with the biggest and nastiest dogs are the ones that blatantly have nothing worth stealing, and I wasted no time in rushing past the wonderfully named Screech Owl Sanctuary and on towards the ancient iron age fort of Castle-an-Dinas. It was there, at the bottom of the hill, that my walk suddenly turned nasty.
I've mentioned my blisters before; I know this because I remember the therapeutic effect of writing about them, particularly the one on the underside of my right heel that's buried deep below layers of skin hardened by judicious use of surgical spirit over the past month. I thought it would hurt a bit and then go away, but today I stood on a stone and all hell broke loose.
Imagine, if you will, a sandwich made of two slices of bread and generously filled with egg mayonnaise. Now imagine sitting on this sandwich, and picture the effect on the mayonnaise. Does it burst through the bread? Nope, it shoots out of the sides of the sandwich, staining your trousers in a way that's hard to explain to your friends. Now imagine that my subcutaneous blister is this sandwich, and I've just placed my heel on a stone and put the entire weight of my body and my 17kg pack on top of the whole lot. I felt a sharp pain as the mayonnaise shot out of my sandwich and I assumed I'd popped it, but on closer inspection I found that my blister had expanded sideways, tearing apart layers of skin so the bubble could turn the corner of my heel and start making its way up the outside of my foot, still under the surface. If it hadn't hurt so much I'd have been fascinated; as it was, I had a hill to climb and miles left to walk. It hurt.
The rest of the day was an exercise in pain control, but luckily every hiker has a friend, and that friend is the hiker's high, where walking meets the art of the hot curry. Curries get some people quite stoned; I should know, as I'm one of them. Give me a really fiery curry, especially a jalfrezi with those evil little green chillies in it, and I'll lose the plot for about ten minutes as the chilli grabs hold of my frontal lobes and whisks them off to Madras. It's rather pleasant and I'm not alone; curries are addictive for this very reason.
The hiker's high is a very similar feeling to the chilli buzz, and occurs after a reasonably long period of regular plodding. It could be something to do with the meditative qualities of putting one foot in front of the other, mile after mile, but there's definitely some body chemistry in there somewhere, because once the hiker's high has kicked in, minor blisters cease to trouble you. Indeed, the high appears to start in the feet and work its way up the body, with the pleasant result that after about 50 paces you can't feel your blisters. OK, this doesn't work for patches of raw skin, but for blisters that aren't debilitating the hiker's high provides a solution to the pain.
Then again, those first anaesthetic-free steps are utter agony. The secret is to push yourself through the pain barrier and into the high, and you have to get used to doing this because every time you stop for a rest – and I stop every hour – the blood rushes back into your feet and all hell breaks loose. That's when you remember where each and every one of your blisters is located, and you also get the thrill of discovering where the newest ones have set up shop. It's like blister bingo, but with no prizes for a full card.
The hiker's high got me over Castle-an-Dinas (home to great views, amazingly strong wind, ancient iron age earthworks and, strangely, a Land Rover and a herd of sheep), across some desolate fields that looked like they'd lost out in the lottery of life, through a beautifully picturesque village called Tregonetha and along the endlessly winding lanes to Tregolls Farm. And to round off the day, the lovely hostess at Tregolls fed me up with – wait for it – roast beef and Yorkshire pud.
It tasted just as good second time round, even though I could hardly walk.