The weather is seriously starting to get on my tits. I picked May as a sensible month in which to start this walk because towards the end of May the weather is supposed to get more summery, and from there to early August, when I'm scheduled to finish in northern Scotland, it's supposed to be a pretty reasonable climate for walking. Unfortunately the country is currently experiencing unseasonable misery, and for the first time in my life I'm in danger of understanding what sufferers of Seasonal Affective Disorder go through.
Checking back through my weather notes, I can see that the last sunny day I had was on 14 May, a week ago. Since then there's only been one dry day, yesterday, but the wind was so ferocious I had to wear my wet weather gear to stop my brains being blown out of my right ear. Today's weather played such an irritating game of cat and mouse with me that I'm even thinking of revising my generally positive attitude towards precipitation.
You see, I quite like rain, or to be more specific, I like rain when I'm inside, toasting my toes in front of a real fire with a bottle of fine ale to hand and a soft sofa to lounge on. Nothing beats the warm glow of being inside your very own home while all hell breaks loose outside, and because of this I've always rather enjoyed rain. It helps that in a normal career-based lifestyle, rain only gets to hit you when you have to dash for the train, pop out to the supermarket or get down the pub before someone steals the comfy seat by the fire. I'm not a farmer and I don't have to put up with rain in anything other than short bursts; instead, I can sit there behind my double-glazing and listen to the wind howling and the rain hammering down, thankful that it's doing it, and even more thankful that it's doing it outside.
Long-distance walking rather screws with this logic, and after spending a week trudging through rain (and with more on the way, according to the persistently smiling TV weatherman) I'm getting a bit worn down by the weather's antics. But today's blustery showers took things to a new level, a level I didn't know the weather was capable of, for today the weather gods were quite clearly toying with my mind.
If I have to walk in rain, then I'd rather it be relatively steady, because then at least I can don my Gore-Tex jacket, pull on my weatherproof trousers and jam my gaiters over my boots. Sure, I'm going to sweat away as the cats and dogs pour down, and I'm going to end up just as wet inside my jacket as outside, but at least the status quo is set for the duration of the walk and I can get on with my splashing in peace.
But today the weather gods weren't in the mood for a steady day-long downpour; that would have been far too boring. Instead they sent over the kind of drizzle that isn't torrential rain, but is heavy enough to soak you to the skin if you're stupid enough to be out in it for more than half an hour. So there I am, suiting up, pulling everything on to avoid getting wet... and look! It's stopped! And it's getting warm! Jeez, suddenly it's getting sweaty inside this gear, so it's off with the jacket, roll it up and stuff it into the pack.
'Aha!' think the weather gods. 'Mark's put his jacket away again. Send over another shower – this should be good!'
So I hold out for as long as I can, hopeful that this shower will prove to be nice and short and I can get on with my walking, but no, it's starting to soak through my T-shirt, so it's stop, drop the pack, pull out the Gore-Tex, slide it on, pull up the pack, tighten the straps, and head off again... just in time to see the heavens clear, the rain stop, and the temperature slide up into high humidity once again.
This routine went on until lunchtime, when the gods decided to put away their toys and instead sent a torrential and constant downpour that churned up the mud and kept me company all the way to Tiverton. Bizarrely, I was thankful.
Thinking in the Rain
The weather aside, today was a pleasant if plodding walk, following lanes from Crediton east to Thorverton, before turning north to follow the Exe Valley Way all the way to Tiverton.
Things are changing. Thatched cottages are springing up everywhere – on the way through Shobrooke I saw my first thatcher hard at work replacing the roof on a lovely village cottage – and the hedgerows are getting lower, which makes a pleasant change after the blinker effect of Cornwall's beautiful but restrictive roadsides. The fields continue to flash past in colourful greens, browns and yellows, even through the misty haze of this weather pattern, but for the first half of this walk I just plodded on, stopping at the occasional road junction to check my bearings before moving on again, mile by mile.
This meditative state was handy, for I have things to contemplate. Unbelievably, and rather pleasantly, my new socks seem to be reducing the number of new blisters appearing (either that or my feet are hardening up, which is a distinct probability). I definitely gained one completely new blister on the front ball of my left foot, so the 100% guarantee is baloney, but I'm not wincing as much, and that's handy for encouraging the meditation that comes with the hiker's high.
However, my thoughts today were mostly taken up with the realisation that I'm in danger of turning into a weirdo. I know I'm not that strange, but last night's pint or two in Crediton's Wetherspoon pub made me realise that I've adopted some key characteristics of the complete train spotter.
First up, I have a beard. This is purely down to laziness – I hate mornings and having a beard saves precious minutes that would otherwise be spent shaving – but it still means, not surprisingly, that I have a beard.
Second, I'm a rambler. Like it or not, I'm rambling, and although I think of this walk as a combination of challenge, research, travelling and a way to get fit, I'm following the same tracks as ramblers, I'm carrying the same gear as ramblers, and I'm reading the same guidebooks as ramblers. And it's not as if this is a one-off; I've been rambling in Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia, Malaysia and Nepal, so there's no excuse. I am a rambler, even if I have yet to stoop to singing 'Val-de-ree! Val-de-rah!' as I trot through the bogs.
Third, I like real ale. This trip is a great chance for me to sample local brews, and with all this exercise it's arguable that the carbohydrates and muscle-relaxants in ale are a genuinely positive thing after a long day's walk. Sure, I like a nice cold pint of lager on a really hot day, but real ale's my tipple, no doubt about it; hell, I've been to the Great British Beer Festival and enjoyed it, which is even more worrying.
Finally, I like folk music. People don't seem to notice that my record collection is as much Foo Fighters as it is Fairport Convention, but there's no denying that I enjoy a good fiddle.
So, to summarise, I'm a bearded, rambling, real-ale-drinking folkie. How the hell did my life come to that? Am I going to end up being an active member of my local resident's committee? Am I going to develop uncontrollable halitosis? Am I going to start collecting beer mats from around the globe? Am I going to nurture a fascination with railway memorabilia? Am I going to buy trousers with lots of pockets, because they're 'really practical'? Or, worst of all, am I going to become the kind of person who actually enjoys staying in Youth Hostels?
I don't think so, but at least it gave me something to think about while splashing through the rain to Tiverton.
The Exe Valley Way
Mention should be made of the Exe Valley Way, which must be a lovely little walk in good weather. It goes all the way from the River Exe's source at Hawkridge on Exmoor to the mouth of the river just south of Exeter, and although I only followed eight miles of the Way from Thorverton to Tiverton, it was delightful.
The first surprise was Bickleigh Castle, an obviously ancient stone house right by the lane that shadows the River Exe. It's now a stately home and it wasn't open when I walked past, but the view of the house from the road is excellent, so I snapped a few misty photos and moved on.
Then just up the road I stumbled over Dart Bridge (which crosses a stream right next to a picture-perfect thatched cottage) and Bickleigh Bridge (which crosses the much larger Exe). This latter bridge was reportedly the inspiration for Simon and Garfunkel's 'Bridge Over Troubled Water', but these days it's more of a bridge under troubled traffic, a situation hardly improved by the addition of a walker who's wet, in his rhythm, and not remotely bothered that he's holding up the traffic on a five-arched bridge that was built before people realised that roads work better if they're wide enough for two.
Finally the Exe Valley Way drops alongside the river itself, where the track decides to bury itself in the red clay I've recently been admiring in the farms. It might make for colourful views but it makes for awful walking, as the clay sticks to your feet like a nasty case of elephantiasis; still, I managed to haul my suddenly huge feet along the river valley, and the next thing I knew I'd reached Tiverton, home to shelter, food, and another Wetherspoon pub in which I could stroke my beard, examine my maps and hone my real ale appreciation skills.
And they had some interesting beer mats, too.