I think it's fair to say that my mind is a little too organised for its own good. A walk of this stature requires a fair amount of planning, and for me this means being at least two days ahead of the game; I like to know what I'm doing for the next 48 hours, I like to have my accommodation booked, I like to have the maps to hand, and I like to know the weather forecast. After those two days are up I don't mind so much – a vague itinerary is good enough – but I don't like the idea of walking into a place only to find there are no places to stay, no pubs and no sympathetic faces.
A lot of this comes from travelling abroad; in the UK you're never really stuck for a place to stay – the worst that can happen is a night in a field, or if you're really stuck, a roadside travel lodge – but in places like Africa or India sleeping rough is a little more serious, and while it's a nightmare to book ahead in the Third World, you can at least prepare yourself with guidebooks and maps. When I'm walking I like to keep a similarly tidy house, and for me this means booking ahead.
Unfortunately it's not always easy to book ahead, because sometimes you walk through rural areas where B&Bs are rare, pubs lock their doors just when you need them, and even taxi firms shut down, whatever you're willing to pay. So as I set off from Worcester this morning, I wasn't talking to my old friend the Severn and I wasn't enjoying the riverbed scenery. Instead I was winding myself up about tomorrow night's accommodation.
The thing is, I want to get to Penkridge the day after tomorrow, because I've arranged to be picked up by my parents, with whom I'm hoping to spend a relaxing weekend before being dropped back in Penkridge a few days later. It's possible to get to Penkridge in time, but only if I can break the journey somewhere around the villages of Seisdon or Pattingham, the logical halfway points between Bewdley and Penkridge. Unfortunately all the places that I tried to ring last night were fully booked, so this morning I set out from Worcester and instantly started worrying myself stupid about tomorrow night. Is this logical? Not at all, but that's how bloody organised I like to be.
Luckily Peta sent me a new bunch of numbers and by 11am I'd managed to book into a place in Pattingham, so at last I could stop obsessing about my accommodation. Instead I checked that the maps I'd ordered from Ordnance Survey had arrived at my parents, got Peta to mail up my Pennine Way guidebooks and checked the details of the weekend with Mum and Dad. And only when I'd done all that could I start enjoying the walk.
Sometimes I wonder if I've actually managed to leave the office behind, or whether there's a part of my brain that will be forever working...
From Worcester the path slips along the banks of the River Severn in the manner to which I have become comfortably accustomed. Again the river kept me company as the miles ticked by, and I found the change in the riverside walk fascinating.
I'm not talking about the river itself, which remained its calm, brown self throughout the day. I'm talking about the curse of the caravan, which I first noticed yesterday, but which completely takes over the river north of Worcester. It feels as if there's a caravan park every few hundred metres, and the Severn Way is privileged to wander straight through the front gardens of these weird enclaves of Englishness, no doubt annoying the hell out of the holidaymakers sunning themselves outside their homes. Signs make no bones about the status of the parks; walkers are instructed not to stray from the path, to make sure they keep their dogs on leads and not to fish anywhere along the bank. Then again, the latter would be pretty difficult, as most of these parks also have moorings along the river for a motley collection of boats, some of which gleam, and some of which are practically fish food.
Between the caravan parks lives another strange beast, and one I've never seen in England before. If I was on the continent I'd use the word 'chalet' to describe the strange hybrids of cottage and static caravan that populate the banks of the Severn, but this is middle England and there's not a beach or a ski slope in sight. These buildings bear an uncanny resemblance to large garden sheds, and one of them I saw in Stourport even had a brick chimney at one end, a permanence that most of these strange buildings don't share. They're about the same size as static caravans and they live along the river, but unlike the caravans they don't look like they were ever meant to move; on the other hand, they don't quite manage to look like houses either.
I nicknamed them the 'Severn Dwarfs' and walked on by, wondering whether there's anywhere else in England where the houses look they've been smoking since the age of 12.
Across the Drink
Today all the pubs seemed to be on the wrong side of the river, and it nearly drove me to drink. The Severn isn't exactly overrun with bridges; indeed, between Worcester and Bewdley there are only two bridges, one at Stourport-on-Severn and the other at Holt (the latter, the Holt Fleet Bridge, was built by Thomas Telford and is effortlessly beautiful, something the architects at Upton clearly failed to learn from). I can't remember how many pubs I counted on the west bank of the river, but I remember exactly how many I counted on the east: there was just one, in Stourport, and by that stage I was so close to Bewdley I figured I might as well enjoy a pint there instead.
The lack of bridges didn't seem to discourage the couple I met in a field about halfway through my walk. Along this stretch of the river the fields flow right down to the banks, and the path picks its way over numerous stiles as it skirts fields of cows and sheep. I was enjoying watching the reactions of the different animals to my sudden appearance – cows generally sit and stare while sheep run like hell – when a couple in their mid-forties appeared, wearily pushing a couple of mountain bikes through the grass.
Sometimes it's obvious when someone is an expert, and in the world of cycling the telltale signs are Lycra body stockings, maps on the handlebars, wrap-around gold-plated shades and the leg muscles of a frog; this sort of person either knows which end of their bike is which or has a serious fashion problem. But the couple who were panting their way towards me had Lycra-free T-shirts, baggy shorts, absolutely no gear and a look in their eyes that told me they were not quite Tour de France material. So, as one does in the country, I cheerily said 'hello' as they hauled their bikes past.
'Um,' started the man, aware that he was talking to someone with a map around his neck. 'Um, d'you know where the pub is?'
'Ah,' I thought, and realised that these guys had absolutely no idea where they were. Stiles and bikes don't go together and where I'd just come from the grass was overgrown enough to annoy a walker with heavy boots; but for someone in shorts and light trainers it would be even worse, especially with a bike in tow.
'Um, I don't think there's a pub for a very long time,' I said, 'at least not on this side. It'd be a few miles to the nearest pub from here, I reckon.'
'Oh,' he said, a bit crestfallen. 'Still, it can't be too far to the next bridge, eh?'
'Well, it's a long walk that way to anywhere,' I said, 'especially with a bike. There are loads of stiles and it's pretty overgrown. It's only marked as a footpath on my map, not a bridleway or byway; I don't think it's that suitable for bikes, you know.'
'Never mind,' he said, his eyes glazing over as he decided this wasn't what he wanted to hear. 'We'll be fine. Thanks anyway.'
And with that they pushed onwards, into what I knew would soon become an argument containing the words 'I told you so.'
We Meet Again
After a pleasant day's walking along the river, with only one diversion to take in the lovely little village of Holt, I arrived in Stourport-on-Severn, a small town just south of Bewdley. It was here that for the first time in days I came across heavy industry, and it was quite a shock.
Lining the river on the way into Stourport is a small collection of industrial units, none of which have windows. This is perfectly normal for industrial units, but as I walked past a particularly large monster in the hot afternoon air, it was pretty obvious that behind the thin sheet of the unit's metal walls lurked a world that bore absolutely no resemblance to mine. Amplified Radio Two blurted out the mechanical plink-plonks of Kraftwerk's 'The Model' while the unit shook and rang to the screech of metal grinders, and although I couldn't see anyone inside as I walked past the end of the factory, I could hear men yelling above the din of satanic mills in full swing. On one side was the peaceful, Buddhist Severn flowing its gentle course to the sea, and on the other were the bowels of hell being entertained by Steve Wright. The contrast was heady.
Luckily the riverside soon turned into an utterly delightful park, with some lovely locks and a pleasant promenade past pubs and ice cream vans, and Stourport saved itself from the industrial hole it had initially appeared to be. By the far side of town I'd fallen for the place, and it helped set me up for the stroll to Bewdley, a few miles upstream.
I didn't quite get there on time. The reason? There I was walking along the path, eyes fixed on Bewdley, and who should I find relaxing on the bank but Barry, whom I'd last seen in Street.
'Mark!' he said as I charged round the corner. 'Eh, take a pew, there's no charge.'
'Don't mind if I do,' I said, and from that moment until our parting the next morning Barry kept me entertained in top fashion. I'd found him lively company back in Street, and if anything he was on even better form after a few more miles. In need of a B&B, he joined me in the one I'd booked, and after dumping our packs and freshening up, we hit the Pack Horse in Bewdley.
What an excellent pub, and what excellent company. We ended up enjoying three pints and an amazing pie called a Desperate Dan; it had pastry horns sticking out the top and half of Sainsbury's stuffed inside, and the Greene King IPA tasted so pleasant that it bore absolutely no relation to the insipid rubbish that gets served under that name in London. Barry waxed lyrical about the various walks he'd done in his time, from the beautiful mountains in northern Wales to his favourite walk, the Cleveland Way, and I just sat there and soaked up the stories along with more IPA. It was a lovely end to another great day along the Severn, and to cap it all Barry confessed to something that made me realise I wasn't the only one losing the plot.
'Eh, Mark,' he said. 'Do you remember that part of the Severn Way after Gloucester, with the long grass?'
'Yeah,' I said. 'I thought it was going to be like that bloody King's Sedgemoor, but it turned out OK in the end.'
'Well, did you see them damsel flies?' he asked.
'Ooh, yes,' I said. 'Weren't they lovely?'
'I'll say,' said Barry. 'I tell you, these damsel flies were flying up, all blue and lovely, and I just had to stop there and say: "Eee, damsel fly, you are gorgeous." Lovely things. Magical.'
You see. I might talk to rivers and hold conversations with pub benches, but I'm not alone.