Towards the end of every long day's walk your mind starts to focus on the carrot at the end of the stick. No matter how fit you are, your feet start feeling tired, your energy levels start to droop, and the one thing that keeps you going through the last few miles is the thought of that gorgeous pint of beer that's already standing on the bar, your name clearly visible in the condensation down the side. Or perhaps the beer can wait, and the thing that really motivates you to keep trudging through the mud is the 16oz pepper steak and chips that you can practically smell wafting over from a nice, warm restaurant. Or it could be the thought of a long, hot bath, the bubbles soaking into your worn-out feet, massaging your muscles back to life while all the mud and sweat swims off down the plug hole, leaving you baby soft and as pink as a baboon's bottom, ready to plunge under the goose-down duvet for a seriously long sleep.
Normally I think of all these things, one after the other, and sometimes I even fantasise about washing my pepper steak and chips down with a pint of ale while soaking in the bath. But towards the end of my 24-mile marathon from Tiverton to Taunton, what I wanted more than anything else on the planet was a big, fat jar of Vaseline.
I'll tell you why later...
Along the Grand Western
The walk from Tiverton to Taunton is a long one. According to my measurements, there are only two days on my planned route that are this kind of distance, and both are in Scotland: Kilsyth to Drymen is 23.5 miles and Inverness to Alness is 25 miles, and right now they're so distant that I'm not exactly worried. Days this long are generally an indication that the going is easy, and the Tiverton-Taunton stretch is no exception.
The reason for the ease of this section is that it follows a canal pretty much all the way. It's no ordinary canal, either; it's a canal with just one lock – or, to be more accurate, a lift – which means that for the entire journey, you stay at exactly the same level. There are no hills, no valleys and no irritating undulations, so you can pretty much put yourself into gear and go out there and stomp all the way.
Well, that's the theory, but the Grand Western Canal that links Tiverton and Taunton is more what you would call an ex-canal. From Tiverton the canal runs for about 11.5 miles... and then it stops, dead. The last 13 miles of the walk trace the route of what used to be the canal, and for a lot of the time you'd be hard pressed to see there'd been a canal there in the first place. This makes it a fascinating trip, taking you from the polished brass of tourist canal trips to the overgrown mire of an old, dried-up canal bed. If I was the philosophical type I'd be going on about how this walk mirrors the journey through life, but thankfully for those who've sat next to me on the bus, I'm not.
The Grand Western Canal was built to carry limestone from Taunton to Tiverton, where it was fed into lime kilns and burned. I couldn't have told you why our ancestors bothered to dig up rock just to burn it, but luckily the first stretch of the canal is lined with informative signs, so I now know that when you dump burned limestone on acidic soil like the red clay around these parts, it neutralises the acid so plants can grow. The canal was meant to be part of a grand plan to connect Plymouth to the national canal network, but things didn't work out that way and the Grand Western was only completed between Taunton and Tiverton, where it carried quarried stone to be processed in Tiverton's lime kilns.
These days, though, the canal is a nature reserve (well, the first 11.5 miles are), and apart from the odd tourist-carrying horse-drawn narrow boat there's precious little activity. Indeed, from the start of the canal to the end of the navigable section I only saw a handful of craft, and none of them were moving. I love canal walking, but one of the reasons is the traffic; I like looking into people's parked canal boats or checking out the crew as another pristine narrow boat chugs past, because the contrasts are amazing. Some boats have lace doilies in the windows, while some have mould; some have beautiful potted plants on the roof, while some have grass growing through the cracks; some are decorated with the most ornate brass fittings, while some are decorated with the most ornate rust patterns; and some are populated by happy-clappy couples who are proud to wear Arran sweaters, while some are populated by people whose hair looks like a sheep's coat.
So the Grand Western doesn't provide many people-watching opportunities, but it more than makes up for it in terms of wildlife. Because the canal is rarely used – and then only along the few miles at the Tiverton end – it's full of wildlife, from swans with their downy chicks to strange green growths that thrive in the clear waters of this undisturbed waterway. It's a nature-lovers' paradise.
Typically, the only wildlife that I managed to examine at close range was a dog. There I was, minding my own business, when a golden Labrador appeared from nowhere, snuffling in the undergrowth and cocking his leg every few feet to leave a spurt of scent behind. I assumed his owner would soon appear from round the corner, but no; this dog appeared to be exploring on his own, and spotting that I was perfectly happy walking along on my own, he decided to join me.
'Shoo!' I said, while he dribbled in front of me on the towpath. 'I don't want to walk with you.'
He looked at me, snorted and ran off to snuffle in the greenery, before taking another piss and shooting straight back to me.
'Listen, go away,' I tried. 'You're getting in the way.'
A mile later he was still with me, rushing ahead, cocking his leg and dropping behind, only to repeat the procedure again and again. I was getting irritated; my hourly rest was overdue and I didn't fancy a dog licking my sandwiches while I let the blood flow back into my feet, but I had no choice, so at the next bench I dropped my pack, pulled off my shoes and looked on in horror as the Labrador jumped straight into the canal in front of me.
'Oh no you don't!' I yelled as he pawed his way back onto the towpath and gave me that look that meant he was about to shake himself off. 'Don't you dare!' I screamed, and picking up my trekking sticks, I pointed them at him like a matador pointing his swords at the bull, making it pretty clear that I wasn't interested in taking a dog-flavoured shower.
He didn't care. He still shook and sprayed, and with a sullen look he turned around and headed back to wherever it was he'd come from.
I was one bite into my sandwich when a local woman walked past, dragging two fur-balls of her own along the path.
'Is that your Lab?' she asked.
'Um, no, that's not my, er, Lab,' I ventured, wondering what on earth she was talking about and hoping that this was the right answer.
'Must be Joyce's then,' she said. 'I saw you walking together and I thought: "Ah, that man's having fun with his dog." Never mind. Cheerio, then!'
After 11.5 miles and some beautiful little canalside villages, the Grand Western stops, abruptly. One minute it's there and the next it's not, cut off by a road that also cuts off the water. From here the route meanders through all sorts of terrain, from farmers' fields to copses, but apart from a short detour along country lanes after Nynehead, it's never too far from the remains of the canal.
It threw me at first, though. I'd been happily wandering along the towpath, ploughing through the miles and thoroughly enjoying myself in the perfect walking conditions – cloudy but no rain – but suddenly I had to stop and use the map. 'Does it go through this field?' I found myself asking. 'Or are we over here, by this hedge? And where's that stream – oh shit, I'm in it.'
What wasn't marked on my map was the herd of cows who made the first field a complete nightmare. Cows are normally no problem; when you first squeak your way through the gates they look up, chew the cud and go back to staring at the ground. Sometimes they'll shift out of the way if you're walking directly towards them, but cows are mellow creatures; they normally wouldn't hurt a fly. These cows, though, were supercharged, and as I wandered through the field, with hedge to my right and open field to my left, the herd rampaged around me. They'd run in front of me at full pelt, then turn around and run back towards me, swerving at the last minute to wheel over to the other side of the field, where they'd stand and stare. And then they'd run towards me again, threatening to crush me against the hedge, but never quite making contact.
I was thoroughly spooked; these cows had attitude. Maybe it was something in the feed, but by the time I got to the opposite side of the field, they were just a few feet behind me, snorting and practically growling, something I've never heard a cow do. I felt like a human caught in the gaze of the Midwich cuckoos, and when I was six feet from the gate I heard them make their move.
I didn't need any encouragement; I ran like hell, opening the gate with the clinical precision of the utterly terrified. Only later, when I consulted the map, did I realise that I'd just left Devon while screaming for my life.
It didn't get any better in Somerset. The next herd cornered me as I tried to work out where the path had gone; my map reading skills had obviously decided to make a run for it too, and I found myself fenced in by an entire herd of cows at the top of a steep sloping field with no stiles to be seen. Their eyes weren't the normal placid pools of most cows; the poor sods were genuinely scared of me and were trying to drive me away. Making soothing noises didn't work and clapping my hands only put them more on edge, and as I tiptoed down the hill they bolted once more, running towards me and veering off only at the last minute. This was getting unnerving; luckily I found the gate again and got the hell out of there.
It was only while having my lunch that I figured out what was going on. I'd picked a nice little spot under a tree in a field by Elworthy Farm, and my sandwiches were tasting good, so good in fact that I didn't spot the herd pattering over from the corner, where they'd been lying unseen under a tree. I sat, and they stood and stared. I sat some more, and they stood and stared some more. And then, just as I was starting my second ham, cheese and pickle extravaganza, one of the cows reared up and tried to bugger one of the others.
'Cows?' I thought. 'They're bloody bulls! Look, there are no udders! And that one's definitely got... ah, yes. Whoops.'
There's no mistaking a bloke when you see one, and that's when I realised where I'd gone wrong; back in London, I bought a backpack cover to keep out the rain, and thinking that it would be sensible to be visible in case of an accident, I picked a nice, bright colour. I'd also picked a nice, bright colour for my Gore-Tex jacket. And so I'd been wandering through fields full of bulls, wearing a bright red jacket and carrying a bright red backpack.
Ah. Now it all makes more sense...
Run for the Pub
Soon after taking a shortcut along the pleasantly named Bughole Lane, I met two blokes on the side of the road. It turned out they were doing the Two Counties Way, the proper name for the Taunton-Tiverton walk, but in the opposite direction to me. We chatted idly, we swapped tips, they mistook me for an Australian, and they handed me a vital piece of information. In five miles, in the village of Bradford-on-Tone, was a lovely little pub. Mmm, that sounded good.
'It keeps odd hours, mind,' said one of them. 'What is it, quarter to two? Probably shuts at three. It's about five miles – you could make it if you push it, but it'd be close.'
It was close, so close that I missed it by five minutes. Panting and aching, I fell into the pub and asked the lady if the bar was still open. She looked at the clock, which said five past three, and said, 'I'm sorry, my love, you've just missed it. We shut at three. I'm so sorry.'
Damn, I'd been looking forward to that pint for five miles, but closing time is closing time, so I hitched up my belt, sucked on my water bottle and started back down the road.
'Here, over here,' I heard someone whisper behind me. 'Shh, over here!'
A man in a white shirt. In the pub doorway. Beckoning me over. Could it be..?
'I'm not kicking out the locals for another 15 minutes, so come on in,' said the manager, pointing me through a door marked 'Local's Bar.' And there, for the next 15 minutes, was a pint with my name on it, some wonderfully entertaining local drinkers, and a brief respite from the plod, plod, plod of the open trail.
It tasted good.
Rubbing Me Up the Wrong Way
Because I'd already drunk the pint with my name on, I had to obsess about something else on the way to Taunton, and my body, being the kind soul it is, didn't just give me one thing to obsess about, it gave me two.
The first one was a killer. At the base of the back of most backpacks lurks a soft pad that cushions the pressure of the pack's weight as it presses onto the base of your spine. This is a good thing. The problem is that sometimes this pad can rub at your skin – particularly if your T-shirt is wet – and this can create a sore patch that's in exactly the wrong place. Wriggling your back does nothing, adjusting the pack doesn't achieve much, but luckily the pain tends to go away the more you walk, as the pressure of the pack's weight drives the blood away. The problem is that because you can't see the small of your back without the aid of a mirror or a flip-top head, you keep thinking of the worst thing that can happen; as my back grew more and more sore I could picture the skin being ripped apart into a bloody mess, even though in the end all I had was a small red patch that stung for a day or so. Of course, I didn't know that until I'd got to Taunton, but the worry kept me going for a while.
The small of my back was the least of my problems, though. I don't really want to talk about the other problem, but suffice to say my pain was due to the friction between my cheeks, and I'm not talking about the ones on my face; 24 miles of constant striding leaves its mark on the whole body, and what's the best solution? Vaseline, of course.
And this is why I spent the last few miles of my walk into Taunton fantasising about Vaseline, and about how wonderful it would be to scoop up a big fingerful and apply it to a place I'd rather not talk about in polite company. Believe me, this is the only time in my life I've ever fantasised about that.
Disgruntled from Everywhere
Yet again I managed to pick a good B&B in Taunton, and after a quick visit to the chemist, some huge sighs of relief and a lesson learned, I hit the pub.
Wetherspoon pubs seem to have a hold on the southwest, and like McDonald's abroad, they have a kind of safe appeal to travellers like me. You know what you're getting and it's not bad; the food is OK, if not ground-breaking, the beer is great for real ale buffs like me, and above all Wetherspoon pubs are cheap. So, like an unadventurous but tired man in search of food and beer, I strayed into the Perkin Warleck, my third Wetherspoon pub in as many nights, and settled in with my imaginary pipe and slippers.
This time, though, I came across the Wetherspoon magazine, which is rather excitingly called Wetherspoon. It's not a bad magazine if you're on your own in a pub and trying to kill time, but what really marks it out is the letters page. It's stunning reading.
In the issue I picked up absolutely every letter was a letter of complaint. True, they all started off by saying how much they loved their local Wetherspoon pub, but they managed to whinge about pretty much everything else. There were two (yes, two) letters complaining about the lack of pint pots with handles in Wetherspoon pubs; another one called for a ban on mobile phones on Wetherspoon premises; another one complained about hot food being served on cold plates; there was one customer who was annoyed at having to stir their Wetherspoon coffee with a wooden spatula; one annoyed punter thought the lack of guest ciders was unfair; and finally another had a problem with dogs not being allowed in Wetherspoon pubs.
But my favourite letter ranted on about banning swearing in pubs. I loved it not because I have an opinion about pub language, but because the letter was obviously written by someone who believes everything the Daily Mail stands for, and that always makes me chuckle. It went something like this:
My wife and I are both great Wetherspoon enthusiasts, but feel compelled to draw your attention to one aspect which is becoming increasingly difficult for us to ignore.
Never trust people who use far more words than they need; they're building up to something scary.
I am referring to...
Go on! The tension's unbearable.
...swearing and general bad language...
Marvellous. Here we go...
...which is particularly embarrassing to us when taking friends and visitors, who are quite often being introduced to the Wetherspoon establishments for the first time.
Do tell us more...
Unfortunately it is not confined to the 'non-dining' areas or regrettably even the male gender!
Good heavens! You mean there are women swearing? The fairer sex? Surely there must be some mistake.
We are not prudes...
Never trust anyone who starts a sentence with 'I'm no racist...' or 'We are not prudes...' because somewhere along the line there's going to be a 'but' which flies in the face of this claim.
...and are quite used to 'working men's language'...
Never trust anyone who uses too many quotation marks either, particularly if they accompany it with finger gestures.
...suggest a gentle reminder, perhaps incorporated into your tabletop promotional material, might 'prick a few consciences.'
Funny, I was going to use that word too.
I suspect that the situation becomes worse towards closing time, but we visit pubs mostly at lunchtime or early evening. An alternative might be to create a 'non-swearing' or 'please moderate your language' zone, or even a 'swearing allowed' area!
Ye gods, this man is serious!
I think that it is worth a try... In any case, it is only a matter of time before a new European law is passed (without our being consulted, probably) regarding this issue!
What a letter! It's hard to know how to improve it; it has sexism, class bigotry, Euro-scepticism and exceptional over-use of exclamation and quotation marks, all rolled into one patronising mass. It quite made my evening, and I sat there soaking up every single word of that letters page and trying not to laugh out loud.
'Well,' I thought when I'd finished, 'at least I'm not the only bleeding arsehole round here.'
And with that, I ordered another pint of Godiva's Gold and flicked to the chairman's report, just for a laugh.