Walking is such a varied occupation that different types of walking attract different types of people. For some, mountain walking is the thing, with views that stretch for miles; for others the best walking is through gently undulating fields, with picturesque villages tucked away in pretty valleys; some prefer coastal walking, with the sea crashing against the cliffs and the sound of seagulls on the wind; and there are plenty of people whose favourite walks involve short distances, utterly flat terrain and copious pubs.
One of my favourite types of walking is along rivers and canals. I've mentioned the delights of canals before, but today is the first time I've followed a single river for an entire day, and it's just the start, for I'm going to be walking along the Severn Way for the next few days. I finally leave it at Upper Arley, just west of Kidderminster, but until then the path follows every bend and curve of the River Severn, hugging the river as it winds into the heart of the country.
I'm not sure why river walking appeals to me so much, as on the surface it sounds pretty boring. The views are rarely anything to write home about, unless the river cuts through a particularly steep valley, and because it's a flat walk, the distance you can walk in a day is big, which means lots of plodding. But I think the main thing that grabs me about river walking is how timeless it all is; man can build houses, put up fences, plough fields and chop down forests, but there's not a lot he can do about rivers except for diverting them or damming them, and all that does is change their direction. The earth can be shaped by man without too much hassle; rivers, though, do their own thing.
It's a constant part of river walking, this feeling of independence and inevitability. The water flows, sometimes slowly and sometimes fast, but it flows, it has always flowed, and unless something very bizarre happens, it will continue to flow until it doesn't need to flow any more. In that body of brown water lie countless raindrops that have fallen within the grasp of the river's catchment area, and here they all are, drifting gently to the sea, where they'll mix with all the waters of the earth before evaporating and turning into clouds, to repeat the whole performance in a different river.
It doesn't take a theological genius to work out why rivers are such an inspiration for the religious, because rivers form a perfect analogy of life. A river plays a pivotal role in Hermann Hesse's wonderful Siddhartha, and just like Hesse's book, walking along a large river like the Severn is a delightful exercise in philosophy, poetry and gentle progress.
The Severn Way
It's not just the rivers that attract me to river walking. The environment along the riverbanks can be just as fascinating, varying from flood plain and farmland to overgrown swamp. The early stretches of the Way from Gloucester might be smothered in too much vegetation – a welcome change after the well-mown pavement of the Cotswold Way, to be honest – but the long grass and forests of cow parsley hold a wonderful surprise. As I walked through the damp undergrowth, with my feet automatically following the well-trodden path underneath the greenery, scores of day-glo blue damsel flies fluttered up from the grass, their wings precious and dainty and their bodies no thicker than pencil leads, so all I could see were clouds of two-inch-long neon flashes hovering inquisitively around my hat. I felt like I was walking through a Disney film, and it wasn't just a one-off; the damsel flies were there in every long-grassed field from Gloucester to Tewkesbury.
All this other-worldly walking only helped to send me into a happy walking trance, the damsel flies flitting past as I wandered across fields, past stagnant swamps, over stiles and through gates. At various points on the path the walking was made even easier by a series of man-made embankments, set maybe 30m back from the river and gently rising a few metres from the floodplain. These embankments were obviously put in to try to prevent flooding, a big problem with a river this size, but they had the added bonus of being perfect for walking on; indeed, after lunch I couldn't quite believe my eyes when I saw a car with an L-plate doing a three-point turn bang in the middle of one of these embankments, the drivers cheerily oblivious to my jaw dragging along the embankment behind me. I guess it beats practising in an industrial estate, though I'm not sure I'd be confident enough to drive a crappy one-litre Renault through a floodplain, even with my licence.
Learner drivers excepted, I was in the zone, wandering along in a distracted haze, my thoughts peppered with river meditations, regular plodding and happy tunes. It seemed perfectly logical to start talking to the river; in fact, it seemed to be the only polite thing to do.
'Hello river,' I said.
'Hello Mark,' the river replied.
'Nice day for a walk,' I said. 'How are things with you?'
'Mustn't grumble,' said the Severn. 'A few boats roughing up the water, some fishermen tackling the trout upstream, a pretty gentle day really. You should try it.'
'Try what?' I asked.
'Being a river,' said the river. 'Just follow the natural flow... go where it takes you... leave it all to gravity. You'll like it.'
'I might just do that,' I said, and it was in that peculiar state of flowing gently along the embankments that a jogger powered past my right shoulder and scared three shades of shit out of me.
'Oh, sorry,' he said as he saw me jump out my skin. 'Didn't mean to surprise you, but it's easy to get distracted along here.'
'Uh?' I said, still reeling from the surprise of having a jogger overtake me in this totally deserted part of the world. 'Oh, yeah, sorry. Hi, anyway.'
'Hi,' he said as he jogged past. 'It happens to me too, you know.'
'What?' I asked.
'Drifting off,' he said. 'Nice, isn't it?' And off he bobbed through a cloud of neon damsel flies while the river flowed nonchalantly alongside, tempting me back to the land of nod.
'Ah, happy daze,' I thought as I gently slipped back into the zone, my right foot following my left foot without troubling those parts of my brain that had once again started pondering the meaning of life, my place in the world, and the slow, steady progress of the river.
There were some ebbs in the flow as I wandered along the Severn Way, all of them pleasant. As the sun passed over the yardarm and I reached the halfway point of my walk, I happened to wander past the Red Lion at Wainlode Hill, and its wonderful wooden tables by the river called me over, pointing out that it would be criminal not to enjoy a pint in such lovely surroundings. I figured that taking advice from a bunch of tables was pretty sane after talking to a river in a cloud of neon blue pencil leads, so I ordered a pint of Coopers from the disinterested barman and sat down for a break and some sandwiches.
What a great spot the riverside is for a gentle drink. It doesn't matter whether you're in the country or the city, there's something divine about drinking near water; it seems to aid digestion in some strange way, and the Red Lion fitted the bill perfectly. The beer tasted good and the view was enjoyable, and it set me up nicely for the English Heritage sign on the map, further along the river.
English Heritage signs indicate ancient buildings that are almost always worth a visit, and Odda's Chapel is a worthy two-minute detour from the Severn Way near Deerhurst, though it's more worthwhile for what it conjures up in your imagination than for the site itself. According to the sign it's a small late Saxon chapel with lots of characteristics associated with Anglo-Saxon construction, including 'long-and-short' quoins (corner stones), double-splayed windows and tall proportions; in all honesty, though, it still looks like the barn it was turned into before someone discovered that it was actually an ancient chapel, built by Odda, a kinsman of King Edward the Confessor, in memory of his brother Aelfric.
Still, anything that dates from 1056 is going to be atmospheric enough to fire the imagination, especially after a pint by the river.
Tewkesbury is such a step up from Gloucester that it's scary. Don't think I'm knocking Gloucester, because I thoroughly enjoyed its take on suburban sprawling, but after a night exploring its pubs, I get the feeling that Gloucester is the sort of place that readers of the Daily Mail wouldn't really like.
For example, two minutes after stepping out of my Gloucester B&B I was yelled at by a phenomenally pissed Scotsman as he slouched on the monument at the corner of the city park, caressing a black 1.5-litre Tango bottle that certainly didn't contain Tango. It took him three attempts before I realised that he was asking me for a cigarette, and when I politely pointed out that I didn't smoke, he asked me if I had any change, before being distracted by a passing car at which he barked until I'd safely disappeared round the corner.
Round the corner was just as weird. On the opposite side of the terraced street a pasty woman with a black mohican growled at a lanky man with long hair, who yelled back, 'Don't ask me! I couldn't give a fucking shit!' as he grabbed one of the plastic bottles of strong cider that the couple were drinking on the steps of their basement flat, his voice barely audible above the rap music distorting out of the basement. Opposite them a woman with an amusingly savage mullet slouched on the wall, dangling a fag into the pavement while she argued with what looked like her daughter, and down the road an old timer stood in his doorway, peering out into the crusty carnival that his street had become with the confused look of someone who hadn't quite expected retirement to be like this.
Even in the Wetherspoon pub, a pleasantly converted cinema called the Regal, a man at the bar was having a one-sided conversation with the barman, who had just informed him that he'd obviously had enough, so no, he couldn't have another pint. Gloucester, it seems, is a great place for hard drinking, tattoos and familial dysfunction; I thought it was a fascinating city.
Tewkesbury, though, is all tea rooms and olde worlde pubs, and although the hard end of urban life is great fun, there's something irresistible about places that wear their historical atmosphere on their sleeve rather than smothering it under yet another concrete shopping complex. The different flavour of Tewkesbury is evident from the moment you reach the outskirts; on the way into town from the Severn, the path goes right past the huge hangars of the Cheltenham College Boat Club, and as I stomped along the tarmac towards town three buses hummed past me, packed to the gills with young college kids on their way to cheer their compatriots to victory. Gloucester this was not; I very much doubt there was one tattoo, mohican or mullet in the entire convoy.
The most obvious landmark in Tewkesbury is the abbey, which is big enough to be a cathedral but is actually a plain old parish church. At about 900 years old, the church is unusual in that it managed to survive Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries because the townsfolk clubbed together and bought it for the princely sum of £453; without this foresight the huge tower and sizeable main building would probably have fallen into disrepair, and it demonstrates that in Tewkesbury the people are willing to pay to save their heritage.
I presume this is still the case, even if they now pay via local taxes, for Tewkesbury is a lovely town. All along the high street are buildings with mediaeval timber frames peeping out from under the plaster, and even though all the global brands are there, from banks and supermarkets to shoe shops, it feels pleasantly undamaged by progress. I wasted no time at all in finding my B&B, dumping my bags, washing the damsel flies out of my hair and tracking down a pub that served real ale.
Sometimes the post-walk bit is the best part, irrespective of whether you've been climbing mountains, jumping through fields, hopping along the coast or meditating beside a river. The name 'Ye Olde Black Bear' might sound a little too twee to be true, but as Tewkesbury's oldest pub it manages to get away with the silly spelling, and with its riverside position by the River Avon (which flows into the Severn just west of town) it did the trick for me.
Somehow beer tastes so much better out of a glass than out of a Tango bottle...