Today was packed with nostalgia, and if there's one thing I like, it's nostalgia. South Staffordshire held no memories for me, despite the excitement of finally arriving in the county where I was born, but soon after leaving Penkridge this morning I started bumping into places that rang bells.
The first nostalgic stop on today's walk was Cannock Chase, a beautiful area of woodland and heath that's deservedly been designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. After the farm fields of the previous few days (and, indeed, a pretty forgettable walk out of Penkridge), Cannock Chase finally gave me the chance to enjoy some wilderness walking. The wind howled and the skies flashed between clear and cloudy like a solitary light in a school disco, but the Chase is such a pretty place it hardly mattered.
As I wandered downhill to follow the Staffordshire Way along the Sherbrook Valley, something clicked. All around me were ferns, heather and springy turf, and suddenly I had visions of school trips to this very place, where we were left to run relatively free, armed only with a packed lunch, a drink, an apple and a deadline to return to the car park and the sweaty anarchy of the coach ride back to school. I couldn't remember anything specific, but something about the smell of the ferns hit a synapse, and instead of a walk through a strange new world, the path through Cannock Chase turned into a welcome wander through memories of my childhood.
After the rugged beauty of the Chase, the Staffordshire Way keeps up the momentum and wanders straight past the front door of Shugborough Hall. Now a National Trust property, Shugborough is the residence of Patrick Lichfield and it's a grand old place. For me, though, it reminds me of my sister Julie's wedding, for it was in one of Shugborough's classically ornate rooms that she got married back in 1999.
I love people getting married in stately homes. I don't mind people getting married in churches, but being a confirmed agnostic bordering on atheist – I pray every now and then, but only through social conditioning – I can't get my head round all those hymns and prayers that drag on through most church wedding services. Prior to my sister's wedding the only tradition-busting moment I could remember was when a couple of flower children played a love song at a friend's wedding, the acoustic guitar and drippy, hippy lyrics moving the audience to polite silence; I thoroughly enjoyed it, not because of the song, but because it was exactly the sort of thing you don't expect in a church, and there's nothing quite as entertaining as infecting the establishment with reverberations of the sixties.
Julie's wedding was the second I'd been to that enjoyed the freedom of a stately home service, and as with the first, I couldn't believe that it was over so quickly. It took half an hour, it didn't mention any religions at all, and it pleased me no end that someone had finally had the sense to take the clinical legality of the registry office and the formality of the church wedding, and to create something new out of the best bits of both. Shugborough might be another symbol of the outdated lifestyle of the aristocracy, but to me it's a reminder of the happy collision of stately pomp and conjugal circumstance.
Trent and Mersey Canal
From Shugborough the Staffordshire Way takes a short wander along the towpath of the Trent and Mersey Canal, the same canal that flows right past my parent's house. I might have lived next to the Trent and Mersey since the age of four, but I've never really explored it; thankfully the barge holidays I've been on have been a long way from home – they rarely encourage the responsible side of one's character, so it's probably a good thing – and the Trent and Mersey remains a canal of which I know a small part very well and the rest not at all.
From Shugborough the canal is lovely, and for most of this section the River Trent flows along the side of the canal at a slightly lower level. I've always associated the Trent with home, as it has a flood plain not far from my parents' house, and to see the river and the canal side by side, separated only by an embankment, made me feel like a walker with two close friends for company.
It was probably this companionship that put me in the mood for a pint; the last friendly body of water I walked alongside was the River Severn, and his pubs were of the highest quality, so I scanned the map for little blue pub symbols and came up trumps in the little of Colton, about four miles short of my target for the day, Abbots Bromley. At that stage of a walk a pint is not only acceptable, it's almost sensible, as it helps to dull the pain of the blisters; and so I stomped on to Colton.
It was only two o'clock, but both pubs in Colton were so firmly shut they looked like victims of some strangely localised prohibition order, so stopping only to ask a local if he could fill up my water bottle – which he did with glee – I headed for Abbots Bromley and the five pubs that line the village's high street.
Of course, they were all shut too, including the one where I'd booked a bed, and they remained steadfastly shut for a good couple of hours after I arrived. So much for a medicinal pint, then...
I didn't mind too much as I wanted to explore Abbots Bromley anyway, and I figured I could still explore with my backpack in tow, just as long as nowhere insisted on a dress code. Luckily, Abbots Bromley turned out to be a really friendly place.
My first stop was the Post Office, where I launched into my mantra.
'Of course,' he said as he filled out the form and handed it back. 'How would you like a cup of tea?'
'A cup of tea?' I said. 'Well, that would be lovely. Thanks.'
'No problem,' he said, turning to the back of the shop. 'Sue, can you make this man a cup of tea? He's doing a big walk.'
'How many of you are there?' she asked.
'Just the one,' I said.
'No problem,' said Sue, and a few minutes later she brought out not a cup of tea, but a tray containing a teapot, a cup, a jug of milk and a pot of sugar.
'Gosh, thanks,' I said, and with a smile she disappeared to serve the customers who had just come in.
The tea was lovely and the company was great; once the queues had disappeared, I was entertained and interrogated and thoroughly touched by the kindness of strangers, and half an hour later I'd met half the village and told most of my life story.
This included the story of my first two girlfriends. I've been looking forward to my visit to Abbots Bromley for a while, because back in the 1980s I went to school down the road in Derbyshire and we did a lot of joint functions with the girls at Abbots Bromley, particularly choral performances and the like. More importantly, this liaison brought me my first two proper girlfriends.
I say 'brought me' because I had precious little to do with the process that finally graduated me from the shy single guy to the shy single guy who had at least stuck his tongue down someone's throat. Both Abi and Kate were far more sussed than I was, and although I fell completely in love with the idea of being in love, they both ended up dumping me unceremoniously after short, whirlwind romances that were mainly conducted by letter. But Abbots Bromley helped me get on the first rung of a very long and mysterious ladder, and I have fond memories of it.
What I don't have are any memories of the place itself, as I discovered when I started exploring. I can remember my first girlfriend, Abi, making the first move by grabbing me and clamping her mouth over mine as the taxi arrived to take me back to my school, but search as I might I couldn't track down the doorstep on which this seminal event took place; and I might have blagged myself onto the team that produced the sound for a joint production of Carmina Burana simply so I could visit my second girlfriend, Kate, but I couldn't find the roof where I sat with her and smoked roll-ups for an entire afternoon of anarchistic bonding. No, Abbots Bromley village rang absolutely no bells, which was a shame.
I've still got the memories, though, and they're not going anywhere.
An Historic Village
Even without happy, pubescent memories, Abbots Bromley is a pleasant place. The fact that the village has five pubs is just one positive aspect – 'It used to have thirteen,' said Sue, proudly – and the village is studded with interesting historical spots, as befits a place that's mentioned in the Domesday Book.
Bang in the middle of the village is the Buttercross, a wooden shelter that's shaped like a ground-level bandstand and which saved me from a soaking when a freak shower hit. Dating from 1339, when Abbots Bromley was a busy market town, it's a good place to start a tour of the town. Just down the road is pretty Church House, a black and white timber-framed Elizabethan town house that was built in 1619 and which is now used as a church meeting room and caretaker's house; and framing the view of the house from the street is St Nicholas Church with its weird gargoyles, impressive stained glass windows and a history going back to 1002.
Back along the high street is the Goats Head pub, which boasts a Dick Turpin room where the highwayman was supposed to have stayed after he stole Black Bess from Bugeley Horse Fair. Further on, down a side road, you can find the Manor House, which once belonged to the monks of Burton Abbey and in which Mary Queen of Scots stayed for one night in 1583, while on her way from Tutbury Castle to Chartley Castle to be executed. Apparently, and rather delightfully, she inscribed a message on one of the windows with her diamond ring, and the window can now be found in the Salt Library in Stafford.
Further down the road is the school of St Mary and St Anne, where I failed to find any reminders of past liaisons. I did, however, manage to get the odd flirtatious look from the senior girls wandering down the street, showing that even weird, unkempt, bearded crusties like me are fair game when your bloodstream is overloaded with pubescent hormones.
The buildings, great though they are, aren't the most famous thing about Abbots Bromley. Instead, when you mention the village to people in the know, they always say, 'That's the place with the Horn Dance, isn't it?' It sure is.
The Horn Dance sounds a bit like the Helston Furry Dance but without the flowers. Every year on Wakes Monday – Wakes Monday being the Monday after the first Sunday after the fourth of September, of course – the Horn Dancers, who consist of six Deer-Men, a Fool, a Hobby Horse, a Bowman and Maid Marion, collect a set of 11th-century reindeer horns from the church, strap them on and perform a special dance to the sound of a melodeon player and a boy with a triangle; this dance is done in various parts of the village and its surrounding farms, houses and pubs, following a ten-mile route around town. At the end of the day the horns are returned to the church, where they remain until Wakes Monday the following year, and much merriment ensues.
This strange ritual was apparently first performed at Barthelamy Fair in , and according to the sign outside the Goats Head the dance 'offers a fascinating day out, attracting visitors from as far afield as Indonesia, America and Europe.' My memories of Abbots Bromley might be of a different kind of horn dance, but whatever your angle, it's a great place to spend the night after a long day's walk.