Normally I try have a rest between two long walking days, but with the bank holiday approaching and Peta coming to visit for a couple of days, I figured I might as well press on to Street and recuperate over the weekend. Not surprisingly, doing a 22-mile day straight after a 24-mile one proved to be a bit of an effort, but yet again there were no hills, at least until the very end, and this helped.
As with the walk from Tiverton to Taunton, today started off along a canal, this time the Bridgwater and Taunton Canal (no prizes for guessing which two towns this canal connects). One thing struck me immediately; whereas Tiverton is a relatively small place and people are friendly when you pass them in the street, Taunton is a pretty hefty town, and for the first time since leaving Land's End I came across the city and town dwellers' code of etiquette.
It wasn't the fault of the people of Taunton, but as I wandered along the streets towards the canal, bouncing along in my pack and bush hat, I nodded hellos and got absolutely zilch in return. Some people avoided my eye and some people simply stared at my clothes, unaware how guppy-like they looked, but none of them returned my smile. It's an urban thing, and it's certainly not restricted to Taunton, but what was noticeable was how miserable this municipal attitude seemed to make people. Taunton presumably doesn't have a larger share of genetically ugly people than the rest of the country, but when you steal people's smiles and replace them with the pasty, sullen look of those on the treadmill, it doesn't half make them look repugnant. I live in a big city, and I normally don't spot this kind of thing – hell, I know that I adopt the same sallow look – but coming from a lengthy spell in the countryside into a big town, you can't help noticing how pre-occupied people are, and how miserable that makes them look. It doesn't make me want to leave London for farmland, but it's an interesting observation; it's like being able to smell people's perfumes after a long wilderness trip, or being able to smell land after a long voyage on the sea. Sometimes you have to look out to look in, I guess.
Through the Wetlands
It didn't take long before people started saying hello; a mile along the towpath out of Taunton, and people were jauntily waving 'good morning' as their dogs dribbled happily on my feet. Despite passing through the eastern suburbs of Taunton, which are full of industrial parks, factories and concrete, it didn't take long for the fields to take over, creating a pleasant if unremarkable environment in which to tick off the miles.
Luckily, given yesterday's canal theme, the route only follows the Bridgwater and Taunton for about four miles, opting instead to switch to the River Tone, the river that runs through Taunton. The difference is subtle; apart from the odd gentle corner, the Tone is a completely straight river, and feels as man-made as any canal. This is because it pretty much is man-made; east of Taunton the Tone runs through a huge area of wetland that is watered by perfectly straight irrigation channels feeding off the river, itself constrained by banks that man has constructed. In the old days this area was liable to serious flooding whenever the Tone burst its banks, but now that it's hemmed in and the irrigation channels are controlled by sluice gates, flooding is theoretically a thing of the past.
This has good and bad consequences. The good consequences are, of course, that the farmers who depend on this area for their income are less at risk, and people can live in the area without having to build their houses on stilts. However, man's control over the floodwaters is playing havoc with some species, who depend on periodic flooding to survive, and as wetlands are increasingly rare due to man's expansion, it's a cause for concern.
For the walker too, irrigated wetlands have good and bad sides. The good side is the abundance of nature; as you walk along the river, entire flocks of 30 to 40 swans swim past, and when they spot you approaching, they panic and take off, an entire squadron of huffing and puffing flying machines running along the river, their wings swishing through the air and beating the water as they take off, away from danger. Ducks are everywhere, and as you walk along the bank they too panic, shooting out of the undergrowth and into the sky, quicker but less graceful than the swans; and because the wetlands aren't really suitable for mass housing, you can spend hours walking in a straight line without bumping into anything larger than a hamlet.
It can be hard going, though. Because of the nature of the irrigation channels, which branch off the main river at right angles every 100 metres or so, you can't get into your stride; sometimes you have to cross the channels through a gate, and sometimes over a stile, but it's impossible to get into a good rhythm. On top of this, some sections of the wetland are covered in luscious, deep grass, which looks lovely from a distance, but which slows you down massively. In the latter half of the day's walk, when I was already pretty worn down, a 1.5-mile stretch along King's Sedgemoor Drain nearly did me in; the grass was up to knee height, dragging at my legs like treacle, and at one point it reached my shoulders, by which stage it was figuratively and literally getting on my tits...
Luckily there were two lovely little highlights in the long slog across the wetlands: Burrowbridge and Middlezoy.
Burrowbridge is a tiny village at the northern end of Stanmoor Bank; the latter is a good example of man's hemming in of the river that dates back to the 13th century, but which was rebuilt after a massive flood in the 1920s took out the houses lining the river. Burrowbridge is a pretty little place that's marred only by the A361 thundering through the middle of town, but it's not the A-road that attracts your attention, but Burrow Mump.
Burrow Mump is lovely. It's a conical hill that rises straight up out of the flat wetlands, and on the top of this presumably man-made hump is a ruined church. There are no helpful signs explaining the origins of this church, but the great thing about it is that the church is gloriously ruined. There's a square tower at one end and an arched stained-glass window at the other, but the glass has long gone and all that's left is a shell that's open to the sky; from the plains below you can see straight through the church, and because it's visible for miles around, you get to see this atmospheric silhouette from different angles as you walk past.
It's a handy place to visit for a leisurely lunch, despite the incredible wind at the top, and as I munched on my sandwiches I stared at my route, laid out below me; in the distance I could see Glastonbury Tor, and behind me, the River Tone. My timing was impeccable, for as I loped downhill and started walking again, a moody cloud front swept over the plains and dumped an impressive amount of water directly on my head, only to be followed by the biggest surprise of the day, a bout of hot sunshine.
This combination of ancient monuments and strange weather weakened my resolve as I passed the pub in Middlezoy... or, to be more accurate, as I didn't pass the pub in Middlezoy. I'd been fine as I entered the village from the west, but the Post Office freaked me out; out front was a billboard advertising the latest issue of the local rag, the Bridgwater Mercury, and what was the headline? 'DOG IN HORROR ATTACK' it yelled, and it was all I could do to stop running to the pub for a reassuringly refreshing pint of Yellowhammer Ale. I tell you, it's only a matter of time before me and the dogs have our day of reckoning; I just hope the headline doesn't read: 'CITY MAN CHASED BY BULL, MAULED BY DOG, AND WITH ONLY HIMSELF TO BLAME, MIND.'
The Long Haul to Street
The rest of the walk was long, boring and painful. I've already mentioned the tiring grass of King's Sedgemoor Drain, but I also had to contend with a busy mile walking along the edge of the A361, two miles along a completely straight stretch of track called Butleigh Drove that seemed to stretch on forever, and a hike uphill to Walton Hill, which has fantastic views over the wetlands on one side and Glastonbury on the other, but which is a hell of an effort to climb at the end of two long days on the road.
Luckily, I spotted a sign that was so encouraging it got me the last mile to Street Youth Hostel without a break. Street is effectively Glastonbury's twin town – one day they will no doubt merge into one glutinous mass – and Glastonbury is of course famous for ley lines, druids, Arthurian legends and hippies. And there, pinned to the gate on the top of Walton Hill, was the following:
Community Healing Day
Edington Village Hall
On the Day:
Silent Auction, Complementary Therapies, Healing,
Demonstrations, Psychics, Tarot, Stalls and Much More
10.30am to 5pm
I'm intrigued by the thought of psychics running a silent auction, and I dread to think what 'much more' entailed, but not only was the whole event for charity, it fitted the groovy vibe of the local scene so perfectly. How could I complain about aching feet when the earth below me was pulsing with such resonant vitality? All I needed to do was to tune my psychic antennae into the local energy lines, and I'd be there in no time... so I did, and I was.
Which just goes to show how deluded you can get when you've just plodded for 46 miles in two days.