Today is a momentous day, because at last I've reached the Midlands. I was born in the Midlands, brought up in the Midlands, educated in the Midlands and, like all good middle-class Midlands boys, I left for London at the first opportunity. But here I am at last, able to explore the Midlands properly for the first time in my life.
I've always quite enjoyed the way the Midlands doggedly clings to its own identity in the face of utter apathy from the rest of the country. People in the Midlands don't regard themselves as Northerners or Southerners, because they are quite obviously neither; they're from the middle of the country, and that's good enough for them. If only the rest of the country saw it the same way: to people in Newcastle, Midlanders are Southerners; to people in Watford, Midlanders are Northerners; and to people in London, Midlanders belong to just one of the millions of ethnic groups that make up our multicultural capital city. But the sense of identity within the Midlands is pretty strong, even if Birmingham struggles to project its self-worth to the rest of the country; indeed, it's probably because of the lack of an identity as strong as Manchester, Liverpool or Newcastle that the Midlands gets forgotten by the rest of the country.
But for me, being in the Midlands is a distinctly pleasant feeling, and for the first time on this walk I feel as if I'm in an area in which I'm welcome. Of course, Cornwall, Devon and Somerset have all been wonderfully friendly, but it's the little things that make the difference. I recognise quite a few local place names, not because I've been here before, but because these names cropped up in the local news from my youth; talking of news, the local bulletin after the main BBC news has now changed to 'Midlands Today', which is the same bulletin that my parents get at home in Staffordshire; and as if to rub it in, I woke up this morning to see the breakfast news being presented by Kay Alexander, whose name will mean nothing to those from outside the Midlands, but it does to a Staffs boy like me.
All of a sudden I've moved from the West Country into the Midlands, and it feels like I've come home.
Up and Down
Unfortunately coming home hasn't helped solve my problems. I expected the walk from Land's End to John o'Groats to be physically demanding and I thought the sheer length of it would be a mental challenge, but I never thought it would swing me through so many emotions in one day. Today I woke up grumpy, forced myself to cheer up, wore myself down to self-pity and ended the day hopping mad. I'm still hopping mad, even after a long, hot bath and a pint of Bob (the local Gloucestershire ale here in Old Sodbury). I'll try to explain why.
As with yesterday, I woke up in an inexplicable grump and didn't really want to walk, despite the glorious sunshine and the fact that I've now turned the corner and am at last walking north towards John o'Groats. It's strange, this dark mood, but at least walking gives you plenty of time to analyse what's going on, and as I walked I found four possible reasons for my misery.
First up is the sun. I hate heat and the last couple of days have seen a noticeable leap in temperatures, not to mention humidity. Perhaps this is enough to put me in a mood? It's certainly possible.
Second, I'm worried that I might be getting bored. I'm walking through some wonderful countryside, but I'm hardly paying attention; I've been surrounded by English countryside every day for three weeks, and I've got such a low boredom threshold I think I'm in real danger of losing interest in my own country. It's weird.
Third, I don't seem to be getting used to this walk. I've got no problem with putting in enough physical effort – I have yet to reach the point where I'm absolutely knackered, though I know it's coming, probably in the Pennines – but I do have a serious problem with the physical battering my feet are taking. I assumed that by week four, which I've just started, my feet would have hardened up, my shoes would be broken in and I'd be enjoying pain-free wanderings through the delights of Middle England. But this morning I woke up to find that overnight the gremlins had attacked the backs of my feet with sandpaper again, which means that every ascent is agony, and on the Cotswold Way – which I joined today and which is renowned for going up and down a lot as it flows north along the Cotswold Edge – that's the last thing you need. Climbing along the Edge might mean the views west are lovely, but it also means that anyone with blisters on their heels is in big trouble.
Finally, it hit me this morning that I'm not enjoying myself, which is missing the whole point of this walk. At this stage I don't really mind if I get to John o'Groats or not, but I do care about having a good time, and if I'm not, then I have to sort that out.
As I plodded along, my lower lip stuck out in the permanent pout of the spoilt child, I couldn't work out which of the four was annoying me the most: heat, boredom, pain or the fact that they were annoying me in the first place. I stewed, I slipped into self-pity, I philosophised about the pain and I eventually realised that I was winding myself up.
There was nothing else for it. I stopped in my tracks, took a deep breath and screamed at myself. 'Stop being so miserable!' I yelled. 'You're terrible company and you've absolutely no reason to be unhappy. The weather is gorgeous, the countryside is spectacular, the pain is bearable and the only person that's annoying you is you. Now stop it!'
This seemed to do the trick, at least for a while. I stopped looking inwardly and started looking at the scenery around me, and even I couldn't deny that the Cotswolds are a wonderful part of the world, a deserved area of outstanding natural beauty. My pep talk seemed to work until lunchtime, when I took a rest stop at the little hamlet of Pennsylvania and the blood ran back into my feet. This time I didn't scream at myself; this time I screamed at the sky.
From that minute on, things took a downhill dive. My attempts to cheer myself up took a back seat to the searing pain in my heels, and the walk changed from a moody jaunt through the countryside into the kind of physical ordeal that I'm all too familiar with after 250 miles of it. However, there was one positive outcome; my self-pity turned to anger.
I'm really furious, which is a good thing after the wallowing of the last couple of days. I'm incensed that every long-distance walk I do turns into a struggle through the blister pain barrier, and I'm even angrier that I'm still going through the pain after 250 miles. What do I have to do? I've tried every single remedy, from double socks to 100% guarantees, and still my feet explode every time I walk further than ten miles. I am the proud owner of a wonderful collection of pictures of my feet from around the world, and the one thing they have in common is blisters. It appears that I have friction sensitivity down to an art form, even with worn-in feet.
It didn't help that my lunchtime stop highlighted another problem. Today is the first day I've walked without tracksuit bottoms and I've discovered that my lower legs are allergic to the countryside. When you're wearing trousers, brushing through the grass is a breeze and nettles have no sting. But with my hairy lower legs exposed it's another matter, and by lunchtime they were itching like fury. I've been really careful to avoid nettles, which is saying something given the way they've claimed these islands as their own, but still my legs have blotched up nicely. There's no way of avoiding it; my legs have hay fever.
By the time I realised what the problem was, the anger was about the only thing driving me on, so it was only with the greatest restraint that I held a civil conversation with a couple who interrupted my afternoon wallow. Seeing my backpack the man sparked up a chat, and it soon turned to walking.
'So, which walk are you doing?' he asked.
'Land's End to John o'Groats,' I said. 'But don't tell my blisters that. They're killing me.'
'Ooh, don't tell us about blisters,' he said, pointing to his wife.
'Oh yes,' she said, 'I've had awful blisters. But wearing two pairs of socks does the trick.'
'Unfortunately I've tried that,' I said. 'Still no joy.'
'Hers were so bad she couldn't walk,' he said. 'I've never seen anyone with such awful blisters – she had one on each heel. You should try walking with that sort of pain!'
'Indeed,' I started. 'Actually I –'
'I see you're using those OS Explorer maps,' he interrupted. 'Any good?'
'Excellent,' I said. 'They show every hedge, every stream – they're great.'
'Of course, we've done loads of walking in places where there weren't any maps,' he said. 'All we had was a piece of paper saying "Istanbul this way", that sort of thing. It's easy when you've got maps like yours; you should try some real map reading.'
'I know what you mean,' I said. 'When I was in –'
'That pack looks heavy,' he cut in. 'What's the weight?'
'About 10kg,' I said. 'Still, it's much lighter than the pack I set off with; that was 17kg and was a real struggle, but I had to get rid of it.'
'We've carried heavier packs than 17kg,' he said. 'You get used to it, you know. You just have to keep going.'
'If you say so,' I said, realising that everything I did, he was going to do better. 'So, have you ever walked from Land's End to John o'Groats?'
'Oh no,' he said, with a face that said only insane people would consider doing such a stupid thing. 'But we've done some incredibly long walks.'
'Uh,' I offered, and clammed up. This guy was always going to be stronger than me, bigger than me, faster than me and more adventurous than me, and given my refusal to take the bait, they eventually left, probably to climb the Matterhorn backwards or something equally challenging.
But this episode proved useful as I set off again. Instead of wallowing, I concentrated my irritation into anger, and the anger kept me walking. I particularly enjoyed the idea of taking my frustrations out on the planners of the Cotswold Way; back in Street, young Barry had been scathing about the walk, saying that it had been designed by committee and felt like it. 'I think they ended up with an 80-mile walk,' he said, 'and decided that there simply wasn't enough waffle, so they added another 25 miles of stupid diversions and pointless loops. It's a bloody irritating walk.'
He's right, too. The path wanders around like a drunk, seemingly intent on taking in every hillock and village while completely ignoring the more direct route. This, of course, is the point, as the Cotswold Way is very much a scenic walk, but when you're walking to John o'Groats and your feet hurt like buggery, it's a pain. Luckily, I took great therapeutic comfort picturing which particular part of their anatomy the committee could stick their Way up.
Sometimes it's only cheery thoughts like this that get you through the day.
So I had a bad day, but what about the walk itself? Ah hell, I wasn't paying much attention, what with my itching legs, searing heels and short temper, but it was mostly gorgeous English countryside, with great but hazy views over the plains to the west and some classic Cotswold villages with their distinctive oolite limestone buildings and picture-perfect settings. It was exactly what I was expecting the Cotswold Way to be like, and I can't complain.
That isn't stopping me, though, and even after a second pint of Bob, I'm still seething. Luckily, anger can be turned to one's advantage, and I'm determined to crack this section of the walk, as it's obviously the part where things start to get on my nerves. This walk has just changed from a pleasant little jaunt with heaps of novelty value to a bloody long trek with pain, monotony and boredom as constant companions. If I play my cards right, I'll get angry enough to get through this bit, and somewhere along the line I'll start enjoying myself again.
I hope so, anyway. That is, after all, the whole point of this walk.