If you look at the recommended route for the End-to-End, it does something quite illogical after Bath. Until that point it behaves sensibly enough, wandering in a relatively straight line through the middle of Cornwall and Devon before entering Somerset and turning left towards Bath, but after Bath it seems to lose the plot until seeing sense again in Tewkesbury. The culprit is the Cotswold Way, which staggers all over the place as it heads north-northeast from Bath, but instead of cutting its losses and striking out north from Painswick, the End-to-End route sticks with the Way for another day and a half, creating two long days of 17.5 and 22.5 miles and a large and unnecessary bulge in the walk.
But my main aim is to get to John o'Groats before I retire, so I've decided to ignore the book's suggested route and strike out on my own. The resulting route consists of two very short days instead of two very long ones, with very flat walking instead of hill climbing, and instead of curving east and then back west again, I'm simply heading north straight to Gloucester, and then along the River Severn to Tewkesbury. It makes much more sense that way.
Today, then, was a stunningly easy day, and I checked into my B&B in Gloucester at lunchtime. The walk itself was short and sweet, and was considerably more enjoyable because I didn't have to keep an eagle-eyed lookout for Cotswold Way markers. The freedom was liberating after the way-marked trails of the last few days; I just sat down with the Ordnance Survey map and made it up as I went along.
For example, one path I'd planned to take turned out to be overgrown and sodden from overnight rain, so instead I walked a little further along the road and took a bridleway that went pretty much where I wanted to go, but in a slightly more roundabout way. Being a bridleway it was wider and flatter than the footpath – horses tend to stamp out nettles pretty effectively – and I couldn't have been happier as I waltzed along on the springy turf, the sunlight shining green beams onto the path.
Given the incessant climbing of the Cotswold Way, I surprised myself by deciding to include a hill climb on my route. Robinswood Hill is a country park that overlooks Gloucester from the south, and I figured it would make an interesting approach to the city. What I hadn't expected was the hugely confusing golf course on the eastern flanks of the hill, where a complete lack of footpath markers saw me wandering up and down the fairways, trying to guess in which direction the right of way might lie. Golfers are probably the last people to understand your average long-distance walker – they wear pressed trousers while I've been wearing the same T-shirt for hundreds of miles – and I got some pretty strange looks as I plodded past the greens and tees, trying to find the summit. At one point I thought something had fallen out of a tree behind me, but no, it was just a golf ball hitting the turf about ten feet away; incredibly, it later turned out that I'd managed to follow the path exactly and hadn't strayed once, which makes you wonder whether many walkers get hit on the way up Robinswood Hill.
The view of Gloucester is well worth the risk, though, and it enabled me to pick out exactly where I was heading. It only took a handful of hours, but I've managed to avoid the illogical loop of the recommended route and the sun has come out to celebrate; I can't wait to strike out on my own again.
Gloucester is a slightly strange place, though it's perfectly pleasant. I say it's strange because one minute you're walking past the wonderful cathedral or through the modern and amazingly bustling shopping centre, and the next thing you're surrounded by terraced housing and the sort of suburbia you wouldn't expect to see this near to a city centre. Perhaps it's the city's size, but in Gloucester the city centre and the suburbs rub shoulders in a way that you don't see too often.
Perhaps this is why Gloucester feels very much like a place where people live, rather than a place where they just work and shop. I found Taunton to be almost all shopping centre and pubs, with housing pushed a long way away and hidden out of sight, but a short stroll from the main drag in Gloucester are terraced houses that are quite obviously people's homes.
There's also a completely different multicultural mix here compared to the countryside, where blacks and Asians are relatively rare; I didn't come across an Indian restaurant until Launceston, on the border of Cornwall and Devon, and throughout rural Devon and Somerset, the people I saw were almost exclusively white. Gloucester, however, has a very strong racial mix, and it was pleasantly refreshing to hear all the different languages and see all the different clothes of modern England once again.
The tourist attractions of Gloucester are particularly traditional, though, and I spent a very pleasant afternoon wandering round the compact city centre, threading through the strangely crowded streets (strange because it is, after all, a Monday, and although it's the 50th anniversary of the Queen's coronation, I don't think that means people are entitled to a day off work). Gloucester Cathedral is huge and stunning, and the inside is worth a quick tour; and just around the corner from the cathedral is St Michael's Gate, next to which is the house in which Beatrix Potter set her tale The Tailor of Gloucester (and which now houses a Beatrix Potter shop, naturally).
But for me Gloucester was the place where I managed to pick up something that I've been meaning to buy for some time. Until now I've been relying on the distances given in McCloy's book to plan my walks, but whenever I've strayed from the recommended route, I've ended up measuring distances with bits of paper, and believe me, this isn't a very accurate method at all (though it's more accurate than guessing, as I found out in Cornwall). But now I'm the proud owner of one of those funky map measuring devices, the kind that looks like a pen with a wheel at one end and a measuring dial at the other, so now I can measure my distances accurately and plan accordingly. The only drawback is that it only tells me the distance in kilometres, not miles, and according to my map that means I have to divide the figure by 1.6093 to get what I'm after.
But who cares? It's a gadget, it's light and I'm a bloke, so I'm happy. In fact, I'm off to find a Wetherspoon pub where I'm going to buy a pint of real ale, spread my maps out on the table, and wheel away until I can wheel no more. For me, this is actually an exciting prospect.
How the mighty have fallen...