Despite meandering around the northern borders of Dartmoor and occasionally straying into the moorland on the Tarka Trail, the End-to-End route steers clear of the national park, instead veering east-northeast to Crediton. I was thankful for the lack of a moor-exploring detour; moors can be pleasant in good weather, but in foul weather they're utterly, utterly dismal, as I discovered a few days ago. Dartmoor is famous for being a nasty place when the mists come down, which only adds to the misery.
I didn't realise it until after I flirted with the moor's northern slopes, but Dartmoor was the setting for Arthur Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles. This classic Sherlock Holmes story combines a number of my pet hates – boggy moor, inclement weather and slavering canines – and the discovery that Dartmoor's Fox Tor Mire was the inspiration for the book's Grimpen Mire was enough to convince me that in this weather, skirting the edges of Dartmoor is more than enough. I'd like to see Dartmoor on a beautiful, wind-free sunny summer's day, but for now I'll settle for having it at my back.
I decided to take two rest days in Okehampton, not just because resting is a good idea for any injury, but because I had to wait until Monday for the Post Office to open, so I could mail my 7kg package of discarded trekking gear back to Peta in London. That done, I spent Monday avoiding the continuing rain by holing up inside the B&B and writing. But Tuesday soon came, and I had to tear myself away from Mike and Viv's convivial little place and hit the trail once more.
It might have been the after-effects of the whisky that my hosts had offered me the night before, or it might have been a natural psychological response to my plans derailing, but when I jumped out of the taxi that took me back to the trail in South Zeal, I felt miserable. I could feel the mood swings buffeting me around in the amazingly strong winds that hit Devon that morning, and I couldn't work out what the problem was. After all, it wasn't raining, the walk consisted of an easy stroll along country lanes to Crediton without once brushing past a moor, and I was back on the road again, eating away at the miles to John o'Groats.
But miserable I was, so I tackled my uncooperative psyche by strapping up my tendon with chiropody felt and getting on with the walking. The wind blew me sideways as the miles unfurled, and still my mind wallowed in the bottom of some strange self-pitying mire. I didn't even notice the landscape I was walking through – though, to be fair, there wasn't much to see from the high-hedged lanes – and instead, in time-honoured fashion, I obsessed about my blisters.
You see, like all good addicts, I have found a new twist to enliven my obsession. While I was walking round Okehampton, easing my tendon back into walking mode, I spotted an outdoor shop and thought I'd pop in to ask their advice about blister prevention; after all, I've tried surgical spirit, I've tried wearing two pairs of socks, I've tried wearing one pair of socks, I've tried wearing my boots in before walking, and I've tried everything from normal plasters to Compeed blister plasters to micropore to surgical tape... and I still get blisters. Their advice, though, was so amusing I just had to try it; they suggested I buy a pair of 1000-mile socks that guarantee that your foot will remain blister-free, or your money back.
'Bring it on,' I thought, and took a second look at the packet; yes, there it was, a promise to refund my money in full if the socks either wear out within 1000 miles of purchase, or give me blisters. I didn't bother to read the small print; this just had to be worth the gamble, if only for amusement value.
So instead of admiring the Devon countryside or laughing as the wind blew me across the road and into the path of incoming traffic, I concentrated on my feet. Was that twinge a blister in the making, or would that rubbing sensation turn into another wincing pain that I'd need to smother in bandages? I tried to analyse the theory behind the socks; they have a thin inner lining sewn inside the main woolly sock that is supposed to cling to your foot, while the outer part of the sock flops around in the normal way. This is supposed to reduce the friction on your feet to nothing, so blisters can't form; it's the same theory as wearing a thin sock under a thicker one, but in one combined package.
But the ball of my right foot soon started hurting, and the heel of my left foot was definitely rubbing, and within a couple of hours of take-off I had blisters forming – not big ones, but definite blisters. There are two reasons why I'm not claiming my money back, though. First, the small print, which I ignored in my gormless surprise at the audacity of a 100% guarantee, insists that I return the socks with the receipt, but I realised halfway to Crediton that the man in the shop didn't actually give me a receipt; and second, there's a slight possibility that these blisters were already half-formed before I tried the socks, and it's unfair to blame the socks for aggravating problems that were already there, if that is what's actually been happening.
So the experiment goes on, and I hope it works. But I'm going to be obsessing about new blisters like never before, because now it's between me and the marketing droids who came up with the name '100% blister-free socks, guaranteed.' Somehow, I think it might turn out to be nothing but a slick slogan.
I might have started today under a cloud, but the worries about my tendon proved to be unfounded; it didn't hurt once. As the walk unfolded I started cheering up, and I realised the incredible difference that a lighter pack makes. I had been coping fine with the heavy pack in terms of muscle stamina and doing the distance, but when you shed half the weight of your burden, it's amazing how much more pleasant it is to walk.
I know today was an easy stage, but I didn't find myself sweating or straining once, whereas the slightest slope with a heavy pack is noticeable. I was so pleased at my progress that I even broke my normal rule of avoiding beer during the walking day, promising myself a pint at the Mare and Foal pub, about an hour before the end of the walk at Crediton. Unfortunately the pub was closed due to a family bereavement, so I had to eat my lunch alone in the beer garden, hammered by the fiercely freezing wind that had been bothering me since I set off, but it didn't dent my good cheer.
Luckily the lack of a pint meant I was awake enough to notice that the landscape is different here in Devon. Things change slowly when you're travelling on foot, which is one of the reasons I'm walking this journey rather than taking the bus; as you walk things gradually take on a new aspect, but this is the first time I've actually noticed it. It's hard to be specific about what's different, as walking on foot also means you're not confronted by rapid and obvious change, but one thing I spotted as soon as I walked on from the Mare and Foal was the difference in the colour of the farms.
Generally, Cornwall is green. Whenever I managed to grab a glimpse of the Cornish countryside through a gap in the hedgerows, it would be full of rolling green meadows and dark brown fields, or a combination of the two, with green potatoes sprouting from the brown soil. In this part of Devon, though, the colours are much more vibrant; as I headed towards Crediton, I passed through a valley whose fields ranged from the distinctive yellow of rape and the light green of grassy meadows, to the deep red-brown of ploughed clay and the darker green of a field of crops rippling in the wind like a strangely botanical lake.
Unfortunately I'm no farmer and don't know enough to make informed comments about crop rotation and soil types, so my observations have to stop at the pretty colours. I have a real problem with getting my head around how farmers do what they do, though I'm incredibly grateful that someone else does it and fills the supermarket shelves with grub. As I plod through cow shit and dog kennels, I look around and know that I couldn't do this. For a start, I'd fail the first three exams at Agricultural College – Paper A: Enjoying the Company of Your Dog, Paper B: Getting Up at the Crack of Dawn, and Paper C: Living a Happy Life Surrounded by Mess and Chaos. I'd also have a real problem finding the obligatory caravan or JCB digger and leaving it in the yard long enough for everything to rust, for the tyres to burst and for the grass to become so entwined in the chassis that it's hard to tell where manufacturing stops and Mother Nature starts. But worst of all, I'd have a problem with the boredom factor; I've always marvelled at how teachers manage to go through the same syllabus every year, though presumably the different pupils in each year provide enough variety to stop terminal tedium from setting in. But the thought of going through the same rigmarole with a bunch of plodding cows or mindblowingly stupid sheep... it fills me with the same admiration I store up for sewer maintenance men, landfill-levellers and people who stamp holes in widgets, day in, day out. We'd be completely stuffed without them.
But no, I can't imagine anything worse than being forced to work on a farm with a namby-pamby outlook on life like mine. It wouldn't matter how colourful my fields were, to be honest; I'd be plain old hopeless.
Yet again Peta's advice on B&Bs turned up a lovely place to stay. Great Park Farm, to the south of Crediton in the fields beyond the town centre, was a wonderfully quiet spot that guaranteed a good night's sleep, but the real killer was the en suite bathroom. I decided to push the boat out by coughing up an extra £2 for my own bathroom, and I couldn't believe what a result it was, because I had... a bath!
Why the exclamation mark? Because Cornwall, surprisingly, doesn't appear to go in for baths. In the entire walk so far I have encountered just three baths: the first was in Truro, where the lady running the B&B kindly asked me if I wouldn't use the bathtub, as it shared a room with the only toilet in the whole building, and would I please use the rather uninspiring shower along the landing instead; the second was in Okehampton, but as I was resting there rather than walking, I never felt inclined to wallow in hot water; and here was number three, all to myself, and at the end of a day's walking too. Oh yes, I loved it.
Crediton itself, though, is a pretty uninspiring place, strung out along a high street that's notable for the amount of dust that clings to the insides of the windows. Empty shops pepper the high street, and even in the sun the colour scheme is drab and frayed around the edges; Crediton is one of the few towns that would actually benefit from a Laurence Llewellyn-Bowen makeover, which is really saying something.
But people still enjoy bubbling about in the evening, possibly due to the fact that the local Wetherspoon pub, the General Sir Redvers Buller (named after Crediton's 'most famous son', the British commander-in-chief in the Second Boer War), sells pints of very pleasant real ale at 99p a pop. Funnily enough, by the end of the evening I didn't mind the slightly faded feel of Crediton one little bit; sometimes, the lived-in look can grow on you, particularly at that price.