Oh my god, what an awful, awful day. I'm sure someone put something in my coffee this morning that made each hour last a week; I walked 21 miles today, and my mind is so worried about conserving my sanity that it's already started erasing the memories. I'd better write them down quickly...
The problem with today wasn't just the long distance; I've done long days before, and they've been fine. The problem was the walk itself, which spectacularly failed to fire my imagination. I left Abbots Bromley under perfect blue skies with a chilly wind blowing at my back that prevented the heat of the sun from wearing me down, but even in these perfect walking conditions the utter banality of the Staffordshire Way ground me down.
I really wanted to like the Staffordshire Way and I really wanted to like walking through Staffordshire. It's true that yesterday I enjoyed myself, but that was mainly because of the happy nostalgia of walking through Cannock Chase, Shugborough Hall and Abbots Bromley. The previous day, though, I got pretty bored of walking through farmland, and today the Staffs Way did nothing else, yet again. There's a lot to be said for creating a walking trail that goes from one end of your county to the other, but surely it's sensible to check whether it's actually worth walking first?
For hours the farm fields relentlessly plodded on; the long grass slowed me down and the detours round the edges of yet more acres of barley started gnawing at my stamina. An hour, two hours, three hours... and still it was nothing but fields, sheep, cows, farms and bloody stiles. I promised myself that the town of Uttoxeter would be a pleasant break from all this banality, but when the time came the Staffs Way avoided the town centre completely, instead opting to pass through the most amazingly dull red-brick suburbia I've seen in a long time. And after suburbia? Well bugger me, it was time to get stuck into another endless conveyor belt of fields, sheep, cows, farms and bloody stiles.
At least there was one exciting interlude in all this mediocrity. When I came to cross the A50 Uttoxeter bypass, I got utterly confused. I won't say 'lost', because I knew exactly where I was all the time, but I couldn't for the life of me work out how to get across the A50's hurtling dual carriageway. The way-markers pointed east along the A-road, but following them took me miles from the crossing point on my map; barriers prevented me from jumping across the carriageway, though it would have been a dangerous manoeuvre anyway; and when I snuck under the road along the River Dove, heading for an old bridge that I knew was on the route, I got totally lost in the undergrowth and couldn't move for brambles. I was stumped.
After half an hour of wandering down the carriageway, hacking through the brambles and wondering what the hell the way-markers were talking about, I realised the only thing for it was to go under the A-road, go back onto the carriageway, jump the barrier and smash my way through the undergrowth to the old bridge. Amazingly this worked, though I still have no idea which route I was supposed to take. Frankly, after half an hour of wandering around next to the mechanical chaos of the A50, I'd have smashed through anything.
After Uttoxeter the Staffs Way ducks into Derbyshire for a time. I hoped that this would signal a change of scenery and perhaps a break from the monotony of farmland, because for a few miles the Way runs along the edge of the River Dove's floodplain. Given my happy experience with the River Severn, I had high hopes.
But high hopes are there to be dashed, and until Rocester (which excitingly rhymes with 'toaster') the path trudges along old tracks and through fields, and does little more than link a bunch of farms in the by-now-familiar manner. One farm, Eaton Hall, broke the monotony by hosting a clay pigeon shoot, which left me to enjoy the peace of the River Dove with the regular crack-crack! of shotguns going off nine to the dozen; by the time I reached Rocester, some five or six miles on, I was beginning to have vivid fantasies involving me, the designers of the Staffs Way and a few shotguns of my own.
Luckily I said goodbye to the Staffs Way in Rocester and instead leapt onto the Limestone Way, which I hoped might take in the odd view or pass the odd interesting sight. Initially, though, all the Limestone Way did was take me past more fields, sheep, cows, farms and bloody stiles, but this time on slopes. I couldn't have been more irritable; not only was I still bored out of my skull, but I was having to work hard to get there.
It didn't help that I got lost, this time properly. The Limestone Way is unloved by way-markers and for long stretches there are no handy hints to point the walker in the right direction; this is clearly not a walk to be done without a map. The Staffs Way might be boring, but at least the way-markers are clear, from the new yellow Staffordshire Knot markers to the older wooden signposts that bravely point out the route despite the obvious onset of wood rot. The Limestone Way leaves a lot more to the imagination, and for me that means straying from the path.
I wouldn't have minded, but I managed to go wrong in the worst possible way. I was only out by a hundred metres or so, but when I looked at the map I knew I shouldn't be walking bang into the middle of a farmyard. 'Ah well,' I thought, 'this is a farmyard, so there must be a way out to that road there, and if I can get onto that, then it's an easy hop back to the Limestone Way.'
Unfortunately I managed to pick the only farm on the planet that farms shit. It looked so easy, crossing the farmyard, but what I'd thought was a healthy dose of good old farmers' mud turned out to be cow shit, and it stretched across the entire yard, all the way to the gate. I've never walked so carefully in my life; it was like an ice rink covered in an inch of liquid dung, it smelled like concentrated evil, and my boots decided to pick this moment to lose all grip on the situation.
How I managed to remain upright is anyone's guess, but after the kind of performance that would earn at least 5.8, 5.9, 5.8, 6.0, 5.9, 5.9, 6.0, 5.8, I slid into the gate at the other end, jumped over it and ran for solid ground. After that, the fields didn't seem quite so awful...
Into the Peaks
In the few miles preceding my stellar performance in the shit rink, the landscape gradually changed. Sure, there were still plenty of fields, sheep, cows, farms and bloody stiles, but it's around here that the flat, tedious farmland of Staffordshire starts turning grittier and more rugged. The reason is simple; just round the corner is the Peak District National Park.
The change hit me quite suddenly after a swift crossing of the A52, just a mile short of the border of the National Park. Minutes earlier I'd been slogging through grassy fields, watching the farmers harvest the grass into black silage bags, but from the A52 I took a single-track lane over Marten Hill, and after a short stroll round a corner, there, spread out ahead, was the glorious sight of Dovedale.
This, at last, was the point of all that bloody hacking through the tedium. Grassy slopes soared up at impossible angles, with the red buildings of Ashbourne behind and the promise of interesting walking ahead. Slowly the tiny village of Ilam appeared over the hill, nestling at the foot of the knifepoint of Bunster Point, and my mouth started watering. Air Cottage, my B&B for the night, was a mile and a half beyond Ilam at the top of a steep climb to the very top of Dovedale, and to prepare for the uphill struggle I promised myself a pint of iced water and a pint of real ale, in that order, and in the first pub I came across in Ilam; pints like that are earned and they taste that much better for it.
Ilam is a picture-perfect village. Beautiful cottages with stunning gardens line the main road, and up the lane the primary school sits next to a wonderful black-and-white Elizabethan house that takes the breath away. On the right is Ilam Hall, part of which is home to a Youth Hostel that gets irritatingly full with school groups at this time of year (as I found out when I tried to book a bed there), and when you add in the lovely bridge that spans the river into town and the stone-carved memorial that greets you on arrival, you've got the most amazing location for a classic country pub.
I loved Ilam, right up to the point when I realised that this picture-postcard village doesn't actually have a pub. I was so flabbergasted that I stopped someone and asked them what had happened to the pub, but they couldn't help. Stunned, I realised I was going to have to climb the 150m up to Air Cottage without the aid of Timothy Taylor, Mr Marston, Betty Stoggs or any of the other good folk who've been entertaining me on this walk.
But I made it, the B&B was delightful, and the lady running it gave me a lift down to the Watts Russell Arms in Hopedale for a huge steak and a couple of gorgeous pints of Landlord. And not only did I meet some lovely people in the pub and stuff down a huge steak, I also discovered an amazing fact.
'Pint of Landlord please,' I asked the landlord.
'Certainly,' he said.
'Lovely,' I said as he pulled on the hand pump. 'I'm really in the mood for a pint of proper beer.'
'Well, it's got the ultimate accolade now, has Landlord,' he said.
'Oh,' I said. 'What's that?'
'Well,' he said. 'Apparently it's Madonna's favourite beer.'
Which was the perfect excuse for me to drink a good couple of pints, just to make sure the Queen of Pop was right.