Perhaps it was down to the 'morning after the party' feeling that hovered over me following the bank holiday weekend, but this day never really got going. The walk was inoffensive but pretty uninspiring; my destination, Midsomer Norton, was disappointingly awful; and by far the most exciting thing to happen to me all day was being shat on from a great height by a bird (interestingly, the second bird to shit on me in as many days).
Still, this travelogue wouldn't be much use if I simply wrote 'BORING DAY' whenever things stop happening, so even though I don't know what to say, I'll take the advice of 1980s Scandinavian popsters A-ha, and I'll say it anyway.
When I'm Sixty-nine
My stay at the Youth Hostel in Street was considerably enlivened by the arrival of a man called Barry, who also happens to be doing the End-to-End walk. He'd just had an awful day's walk from Taunton, and it only took a few seconds to work out that he'd been fine until King's Sedgemoor Drain, when the long grass and the endless boredom of Butleigh Drove had ground down his nerves in exactly the way they had mine.
The difference, though, is that Barry is not only carrying the kind of leaden pack that I'd originally set off with, but he is doing it at the ripe old age of 69. 'I always said I'd do the End-to-End when I got to 70,' he said. 'But my wife said now would be as good a time as any, so here I am.'
Apparently Barry has spent the last couple of weeks being told about another End-to-End walker a few days ahead of him, and now he's met me in the flesh. Barry set off a week after me, and took precisely no rest days between Land's End and Street, thus catching me up convincingly. He's a nice bloke, our Barry; I hope I bump into him again, though the chances are he'll reach John o'Groats before I've even reached Scotland.
Magical Mystery Tor
Street is apparently famous for being the place where Clarks have been churning out shoes since 1825, and on my way along the high street I walked right past the Clarks factory and visitor centre. I've never really understood how Clarks have managed to keep going in the face of the far more sassy competition – perhaps they have the school shoe market sewn up, or something – but Street and Clarks certainly suit each other. For me, Clarks shoes conjure up images of Enid Blyton, terrible knitwear, and those greeting cards that take photographs from yesteryear and add captions such as 'Clive's happiest memories were of his days with Raphael and those little red pills' and 'Marjorie always got a cheeky little thrill from wearing no knickers to her bridge nights.' Street is in a similar time warp; it's a pleasant little place but it feels strangely isolated, not unlike Clarks.
Street's northern neighbour, Glastonbury, is similar except the theme isn't the 1950s, but the 1960s. It's a bit of a cliché that Glastonbury is a hippy colony, but judging by the shops on the high street, this really is where the beat generation settled down, had children, and tried valiantly to avoid reality. As I wandered through the site of ancient Avalon and past the ruined abbey where King Arthur is purportedly buried, I marvelled at the shop names; The Psychic Piglet and The Speaking Tree rub shoulders with Gothic Image, while Yin-Yang Health stands just down the road from Natural Earthling. I loved it, even if the pleasant town centre soon morphs into a standard suburbia that is only enlivened by the atmospheric silhouette of Glastonbury Tor looming in the distance.
I adore Glastonbury Tor, and like all good landmarks it follows you around town. It peeps through gaps in the buildings and peers at you through the trees, but the best views are from a distance as you're entering or leaving Glastonbury. The perfect cone of the Tor topped with its ruined church is a magnetic sight, and I've been attracted by its atmospherics ever since those ill-informed student days when I thought I looked good in long hair.
Unfortunately the church on the top of the Tor is currently being renovated, and instead of the lone finger pointing into the air that graces the compliment slips of so many local businesses, the Tor is currently topped with something that looks like a 1970s communication satellite, the sort with a groovy glam-rock name like Telsat or Commstar. Amazingly this doesn't spoil things half as much as you would think, which just goes to show how impressive the Tor is in the first place.
Or, as the graffiti said on the wooden bench where I took my first break of the day, 'Pain is Love. Ja Rule.' Uh-huh...
The Long and Winding Drove
After the thrill of finding the hippy generation alive and well in Glastonbury, the day's walk deteriorated into a pretty mundane plod through the Somerset countryside. There was nothing wrong with the walk itself, or indeed the countryside, but I found it more an exercise in steady plodding than a walk to remember. Perhaps it was just me bouncing back down to earth after the thrill of having Peta visit me over the weekend, or perhaps it was just a boring walk; I didn't really care, just as long as I got to Midsomer Norton in reasonable time.
Long Drove didn't help matters. Essentially a perfectly straight two-mile road through the wetlands, it was a repeat performance of the mundane walk into Street, except this time it was even longer. The only excitement was after a few hundred metres, where I witnessed a group of farmers separating two cows from a herd of bulls, presumably because the bulls had done their work and the cows now needed to do theirs. I noted that the farmers got as much grief from the bulls as I had, except they knew how to react; the men stood their ground, yelling and cajoling the bulls back into the paddock, and they waved me through, saying, 'Walk on through, slowly and steadily, and keep to one side.' I obeyed to the letter as the bulls bounced around, yet again trying to bugger each other in the excitement, and I emerged unscathed but still deeply uneasy with the thought of walking through herds of horny beefcakes.
The next highlight (or rather the next thing I can remember, as there weren't really any highlights in this section) was Maesbury Castle. Despite the evocative name, Maesbury Castle is simply a hill with some ancient earthworks on top, and if you didn't know it had a history, you'd think it was nothing but a normal hill. The views to the west are wonderful, though, especially for the End-to-End walker, as you can see exactly where you've come from. The ever-present Glastonbury Tor sits towards the horizon, wreathed in the mists of distance, and beyond that I could make out High Ham, which I skirted on the way from Taunton to Street. To the right is Wells with its distinctive cathedral, and beyond it the Mendip Hills rise to the horizon. These sweeping vistas seem to be more common in Somerset than in Devon or Cornwall, though this could be a simple consequence of the amount of high hedgerow walking I did in the first two counties; I'm thankful for them, anyway, as they're the only things that get me up those damn hills...
The only other points of note on the way to Midsomer Norton were the dark satanic mills of the Gurney Slade quarry works, which clanked and spat and gurgled and crunched away behind their closed doors and security fences; and in complete contrast, the lovely strung-out houses of Chilcompton, where I not only started seeing houses that wouldn't be out of place in the Cotswolds, with their light-brown stone façades and beautifully tended gardens, but I also came across one of the few signs in the country that warns motorists to give way to ducks crossing.
And then, after walking through seemingly endless bland suburbs, I finally arrived in Midsomer Norton.
It's a lovely name, Midsomer Norton. It conjures up images of pleasant rural cottages, a village green, babbling brooks and ducks in the town centre, and as I walked into town, I thought I'd struck gold. A swan bathed itself in a lovely weir right next to a pretty little tea room, and just beyond I found the B&B I'd booked from Street, the Greyhound Hotel.
The Greyhound turned out to be an ultra-modern sports bar, boasting Sky Sports, a pool table and absolutely no real ales. Moderately loud INXS greeted me as I bounced through the door, Michael Hutchence singing 'Suicide Blonde' without a trace of irony, but my room turned out to be tidy, comfortable, and just down the corridor from a bath with an endless supply of very hot water. I was happy enough.
I was less happy after I'd gone out to explore Midsomer Norton in search of a nice relaxing pub in which to write up the day's lack of events. The high street could be delightful – hell, it has a river running along it, which is a great start – but the main drag in Midsomer Norton is a spectacularly awful place, particularly on the Tuesday evening after a bank holiday weekend. The pubs on the high street are uniformly appalling and serve nothing but sterilised beer and alcopops; the restaurants consist of takeaway pizza, takeaway Chinese, takeaway Indian and takeaway fish and chips; and apart from the odd betting shop and a swathe of closed retail outlets, that's the high street.
I couldn't quite believe it, so I walked further afield, popping into a couple of pubs in search of a comfortable watering hole, but all they had was more chrome, more Stella and more TV screens. It took about half an hour for it to sink in that I was going to have to get a takeaway and eat it in the street, so I picked fish and chips as the healthiest option and settled down in the deserted high street for my evening meal, wondering where the decent pubs were hiding1.
It was by far the worst fish and chips I've had since starting this walk, with over-fried chips and batter that boasted an intriguing collection of unidentifiable black bits trapped in its greasy bubbles. Gripped by the realisation that this was as good as it would get, I held my nose and ate most of it up, praying that I wouldn't regret it later. And just in case I started wondering whether I'd caught Midsomer Norton on a bad day and that perhaps it wasn't such a dive after all, three birds flew directly overhead, one of them judging his aim so perfectly that the shit spattered all along my thighs, into my almost empty fish and chip paper, and all the way up my right arm.
Meanwhile cars rumbled past booming the kind of bass that loosens window panes from their putty, and the youth of Midsomer Norton shuffled along in their baggy flares and Beckham haircuts, sucking on cigarettes and kicking empty Coke cans into the river. As I wiped the bird shit off my jacket and threw away the remains of my meal, I realised that if you need an answer to the question 'Why do young people turn to drugs?' then you need look no further than Midsomer Norton.
Thankfully I realised that not only could I leave when I wanted to, but that's exactly what I would be doing the very next day. There's nothing quite like a Midsomer Norton or a Launceston to motivate you to get back on the trail...
1 In fact, there are at least two decent pubs in Midsomer Norton, but you have to know where to look. The Wunder Bar has a dedicated following, and the White Hart has a CAMRA silver-star rating, but you'd never guess it from the pubs on the high street...