If there's one thing you don't expect from a publication like McCloy's guidebook, it's the kind of fundamental error I spotted the other night. Don't get me wrong – overall it's a great book, and without it this walk would be a hell of a lot harder – but between Bewdley and Penkridge it comes off the rails totally.
This time it doesn't have anything to do with the author's taste, which is what I presume is behind his overzealous route through the Cotswolds. This time the problem is a simple measuring mistake, but it's serious enough to make the book totally useless for a couple of days.
McCloy suggests heading east from Bewdley to join the Staffordshire Way at Kinver – a sensible enough suggestion – but that's where things go wrong. He's managed to measure the next leg, from Kinver to Seisdon, at a whopping 20.5 miles, but even a cursory glance at the map makes it pretty obvious that it's nowhere near that. It's actually around 11 miles, and this makes a considerable difference when you're planning your route, especially as his suggested stop-over point, Seisdon, has no accommodation options at all, not even a B&B. It's even more bizarre when you consider that he's got it wrong on the Staffordshire Way, a way-marked trail for which guidebooks are available. You wonder if he actually walked this part of the route while researching his book; if he did, then the poor soul must have got horribly lost.
Luckily I'd already decided to ignore McCloy because I want to visit my parents at the weekend, and given a bit of judicious planning along the B-roads of Staffordshire, I figured I could easily make it to Pattingham in one day, and then move on from there to Penkridge, not a million miles from home. Thank goodness I didn't base my plans around McCloy's guidebook; individual taste is one thing, but failing to check the basics is another.
This morning I spent the first couple of hours wandering along the Severn again, dodging drops of rain that soaked the grass but brought the temperature down to a perfect walking level. I finally waved goodbye to the river at Upper Arley, just after the impressive Victoria Bridge, the largest iron bridge of its day; it was quite a sad event saying goodbye to my travelling companion of the last few days, but we both took it on the chin, him with his usual calmness and me with the Zen-like quality of someone who's been happily meditating for the last few days.
Ahead, though, were roads and bridleways. I like this way of travelling, not following anyone else's path but mine. Given the overnight rain, I decided to avoid footpaths where possible, as off the well-walked tracks they tend to get a bit overgrown and after rain it's a bit like walking through a waterfall; bridleways, on the other hand, are designed for horses, and although some of them get pretty unloved and forested, most of them are more like small roads than muddy paths. It turned out to be a great decision; the only bit that was slightly overgrown was the footpath I took through a wood called Square Coppice, and that was so charming I didn't feel moved to clock one single dandelion.
The only setback came when I entered Staffordshire and jumped for joy at reaching the county where I was born and bred. 'Isn't it pretty,' I thought, 'and doesn't it feel great to be home,' and as the rolling countryside panned out before me, it struck me that I'd just managed to walk from Land's End to my birthplace, which felt good. I still felt good five miles later, when I spotted a piece of paper stapled to a post by the start of another bridleway, announcing that the path had been reopened following the foot and mouth epidemic. 'By order of Shropshire County Council' it said, and it took me a while to work out that, no, Shropshire Country Council wasn't in the habit of sticking its nose into Staffordshire business, and that I'd actually been in Shropshire all the time. I felt a right pillock; I'd been heaping praise on my home county, and I'd got the wrong one.
The problem is that Ordnance Survey maps assume a reasonable amount of intelligence on the part of their users, and although county names can be found somewhere round the outer rim of each map, they're cleverly hidden among all the names of unitary authorities, parishes, constituencies, European electoral regions and so on. On top of this, county borders are shown by dashed and dotted grey lines, but there are so many other grey lines denoting administrative boundaries that it's almost impossible to spot when you're changing county, let alone which county you're walking into.
Still, at least I can say I've walked through a bit of Shropshire now, and a very pleasant place it is too.
After stopping in the pretty Shropshire village of Claverley for a lunchtime pint of Timothy Taylor's Landlord, a refreshingly bitter brew that quite knocked me for six after the long hike along the roads of Shropshire, I finally reached the genuine Staffordshire border. This time I knew I'd got the right place, for a big blue sign by the roadside proclaimed that, at last, I really am home. I was also intrigued to see the Staffordshire coat of arms on the sign; I couldn't quite work out what the animals were, although they seemed happy enough doing whatever it is that heraldic animals do, but at least I understood the motto. 'The knot unites,' it said underneath the flowery design, and although I thought for a minute it was leading up to a tasteless joke about dyslexia, it was, of course, referring to the Staffordshire knot. To Staffs people the knot is up there with pottery kilns and Robbie Williams as symbols of county pride, and I entered Staffordshire happy in the knowledge that this time I'd got the right place.
The rest of the walk followed a long, straight road, for which I was thankful after my blast of Landlord; I was less thankful when I reached Pattingham only to be rudely shaken out of my plodding reverie by two huge black dogs who shot out into the road and barked menacingly at my approach. The owner wasn't impressed and yelled at the dogs to get back inside, but this just set the rest of Pattingham's dogs off on a howling spree that followed me all the way to the Post Office, waking up the elderly population and forcing them to glare out of their bungalows in the way that only horribly wizened old goats can. I smiled back cheerily, getting no response except a darkening of the brow, and with that I arrived in Pattingham.
I didn't realise it at the time, but Pattingham would turn out to be one of the friendliest places on my trip so far, and I'm glad I ignored McCloy's suggested route and came this way instead. Terry and Sue, the couple who ran the farmhouse B&B where I stayed, were wonderful hosts, and even though I was only there for one night, I warmed to them hugely. Terry even drove me down to the Pigot Arms and bought me a couple of pints, a sure-fire way of getting in my good books, and I counted myself lucky to have found them.
The Pigot turned out to be much more than just a pleasant place to while away an evening meal and a few beers. After a hearty steak and chips I pulled out my computer and started typing away, oblivious to the Friday buzz around me. It wasn't to be, though, because a few minutes after I'd started hacking away, a young guy wandered over and pointed at my keyboard.
'Is that a computer?' he asked, so I showed him the folding keyboard and launched into the usual spiel about me walking from Land's End to John o'Groats and writing about it on the way.
'No way!' he cried, and insisted that I come outside for a drink with him and his mates. It turned out to be a great move; outside was a big group of Pattingham's finest party animals, their cars pulled up to the pub and pumping out the guitar riffs of the Wildhearts at a healthy volume, while everyone got themselves geared up for what was obviously going to be a long night.
'Here, this guy's walking from Land's End to John o'Groats!' said the man from inside the pub, and from that moment I was welcomed into the group with open arms. They couldn't quite believe what I was doing, and they insisted that I come to the party they were about to go to; I was so very tempted – they were obviously the kind of people who threw legendary parties – but despite the promises of endless beer, a curry at 2am and even 'a dirty girl from Sedgley', I stuck to my guns and insisted that I had to go walking in the morning, something I clearly wouldn't manage after a night on the town with this lot. Instead I promised to send them a postcard from John o'Groats and waved them goodbye as they screeched off to a night of drunken debauchery with a Sedgley twist.
Without a doubt, Pattingham is the friendliest place I've been since Okehampton. It's always the least likely places that surprise you...
On the other hand, when I woke up in the morning and went down to breakfast, Terry told me a story.
'You know when you came back from the pub last night?' he said.
'Yes,' I said, remembering the long walk back to the isolated farmhouse where Terry and Sue have their home. I'd said goodnight to Terry and gone to bed, leaving him watching TV.
'Well, I stayed up to watch a bit more of that film,' he said, 'and while I was sitting here, a couple of cars came down the drive and parked in the yard out back. They left their headlights on, and one of them was driving up and down, shining his headlights on the barn. So I stood here for a bit, watching from the kitchen, and after a while I thought, "This is weird," and went outside to see what was going on. It turned out to be the farmer, so I asked him what he was doing. "Well, we've had these reports," he said. "One of our neighbours was coming down the drive, and they said they saw this unshaven bloke walking along the drive with a bag on his back, and we're just checking the buildings to see if he's set up shop in our barn. Don't suppose you've seen him, have you Terry?"
'"Oh yeah," says I. "He's upstairs in my top bedroom."
'I had to laugh. Everyone round here knows everyone else, you see, and they didn't know about you staying here.'
'Well, it's good to see your neighbourhood watch scheme works,' I said, and scratched my beard, wondering what would have happened if Terry hadn't wandered outside. I'd have probably featured in the local paper, complete with a blunt axe, long hair, dirty fingernails and a wild, evil glint in my eyes, under the caption 'MAD AXEMAN SAVAGES LOCAL DOG POPULATION.'
I doubt they'd have been so fussy in Sedgley...