Today should have been a great day, because my arrival in Launceston, Cornwall's easternmost town, brings the total distance I've walked to just over 100 miles. OK, this is a relatively inaccurate map-based estimate measured with bits of paper and a hefty amount of guesswork, but it's a psychological barrier, and it means I've only got around 1000 miles to go.
In the event, today stank like a pair of walking shorts after 100 miles...
The Weather Breaks
I've been incredibly lucky with the weather so far; the only rain that affected me was the overnight downpour just north of Helston, and the little bit of spitting the following morning. I haven't been drenched yet, but at least I've got a taster of walking in the rain, because for the entire stretch from Trecollas Farm to Launceston it drizzled in an irritatingly persistent way.
Drizzle doesn't sound like much of a problem, and compared to driving rain in high winds it's not, but it still manages to worm its way into your clothing, down your back and into your eyes. I donned my Gore-Tex like a dutiful son of modern technology, and as per usual it managed to heat me up to the point where I was just as wet inside the Gore-Tex as outside, but although the rain was irritating, it wasn't the real problem. The real problem was, as always, my feet.
I'm going to have to stop writing about the state of my feet, because I'm beginning to run out of things to say about them, but even though the stretch to Launceston was an easy and short walk along yet more country lanes, it seemed to take far longer than the 3.5 hours it actually took. The problem this time wasn't on my heels, which have started to heal up nicely into more hardened versions of their namby-pamby office incarnations. Nope, this time the most painful blister turned up on the front ball of my right foot, and to add to the thrill both my little toes decided to blister up in spectacular fashion. The hiker's high didn't help; the painkillers probably made a dent, but it was pretty impossible to spot; and I had no choice but to grimace my way through an utterly miserable walk to Launceston.
The walk itself wasn't much to write home about, but that's because I've already walked along more Cornish lanes than I care to remember. Luckily the monotony was broken halfway at a tiny village called Gospenheale, where I walked past a farm looking so bedraggled and pathetic that the farmer, who'd just driven up in his tractor after passing me at the previous bend, invited me in for a cup of tea. I took one look at the sky and gratefully nodded a thank you.
What lovely people the farmer and his wife were. They'd just spotted Howard's van parked in the village with its cancer charity banner down the side, and they'd assumed it was my van; when they discovered that I was a different End-to-End walker, they were amazed that there were two of us about. Then again, I pointed out, most people walking from Land's End use the same guidebook and Gospenheale is mentioned in it by name.
'Keep an eye on the road outside your gate and you'll probably see a lot more nutters like me,' I said, thanking them for the tea and the delicious cake the farmer's wife had insisted I eat to keep my strength up. And buoyed by this touching act of human kinship – an act that, by the farmer's own admission, is less common these days because 'there are some funny sorts out there' – I hit the trail again, gritting my teeth until I finally fell into Launceston an hour later.
A Bit Weird
From the moment I hauled myself up the incredibly steep hill on which Launceston lounges, I felt a bit ill at ease. I couldn't put my finger on it, but there was something weird about Launceston, and closer inspection didn't do anything to dispel my sense of disquiet.
It's possible that it was down to the bed and breakfast I ended up in. So far in the lottery of B&Bs I've been incredibly lucky; they've all been good, and some of them have been excellent. I really loved Tarny B&B in St Breward, Tregolls Farm was delightful even though I was only in the caravan, and last night's stay at Trecollas Farm on the edge of Bodmin Moor was great; but the Baker's Arms in Launceston is not one of life's great B&Bs, even though at £19.50 a night it's in the same price bracket as the idyllic country cottages I've been getting used to.
First up, the pub that hosts the B&B is not one of the most pleasant pubs on the planet; worryingly, this is obvious from the outside, which makes you wonder why on earth I even considered it as an option. Second, the shower was so grotty that the discovery of a cigarette butt swimming between my toes didn't surprise me one bit. And third, I found that the wardrobe in my room was held up only by the wall, on which it leaned at a worrying angle; I didn't really mind until I realised that it was only a matter of time before it collapsed and fell directly onto the bed. I only hoped it wouldn't give up the ghost that night.
Worryingly, this sorry state of affairs was reflected in Launceston itself. I tried two pubs and both of them turned out to be depressing linoleum-floored affairs with mediocre beer and about as much appeal as a bingo hall, but at least one of them was livened up by the continued reappearance of a man who'd been barred from the pub and who wouldn't take no for an answer. From my window seat I looked out into the rain and watched the man, a wiry, dark-haired figure with a prominent bald patch on the top of his head, as he walked up the street, took a seat in a niche in the pavement and whipped out a can of super-strong lager and a large container wrapped in a white plastic bag. He sucked on the can, coughed, and stuck his lips to the top of the plastic bag, inhaling deeply while his left hand twitched once, twice, three times in the rain.
I hadn't been expecting to see a glue sniffer on the main street of Launceston, and fortified by his hit he wobbled his way back to the pub, walked in, and had exactly the same conversation with the lady behind the bar as he'd had five times already today. Yet again she didn't care what his excuse was, he was barred and that was that, so he slurred his words, tied himself in knots, and got precisely nowhere before giving up and moving back to his niche for another session with the plastic bag.
'He'll be off to the next pub now,' said the barmaid. 'He's barred from all of them, mind, so he'll probably end up back here again.'
'Screws with your head, that glue sniffing,' said one of the men propping up the bar.
'A bit like the pubs in Launceston,' I thought as I sipped my pint of distinctly average Courage Best and looked out at the rain.
There was one wonderful experience waiting for me in Launceston, though. Having given up on the B&B, the pubs and the local population, I decided that the only solution was to go for a walk, blisters or no blisters, and after a few minutes of random wandering, I spotted something well worth visiting: Launceston Castle.
As I discovered on the way in, Launceston is built around a seriously steep hill, and crowning the top of this hill are the remains of a Norman castle that are simply spectacular. They're not large and they're certainly not in good condition – they're most definitely ruins – but the location is second to none, so I happily paid the £2.10 entrance fee and climbed the hill to the tumbledown remains.
I loved it. The hours of agonising walking fell away, the misery of my B&B fell into perspective as just one bad apple in a whole bag, and the twitching of the glue sniffer's hand seemed like another world; Launceston Castle is the sort of place that makes all the grief worthwhile, and in the rain I had the entire place to myself. It was easy to imagine the days when the castle was home to the most powerful men in the region, and from the top the misty views over Launceston and the surrounding countryside were stunning, even in the driving rain.
Because of the castle I found it easy to forgive Launceston for its weirdness. Sometimes you just have to know how to look at a place to see beyond the grot, the glue and the linoleum, and in Launceston it's by looking at its past. As for its present and future, I think I'll leave that to someone else...