I didn't expect the Midlands to be the highlight of my walk, but it most certainly was. The section along the River Severn, with its riverside pubs, peaceful meadows and amazing dragonflies, has to rate as some of the best walking I have ever done anywhere, and although the farmland of Shropshire and Staffordshire is less interesting, the people more than make up for it. Derbyshire plays a trump card in the form of Dovedale, rounding off one of the most satisfying walking areas in the country.
I celebrate my arrival in the Midlands (I'm a Midlander), but the first few miles of the Cotswold Way wind me up completely. I am not in the mood for walking, and I have to yell at myself to cheer up. My blisters get worse, I meet an infuriating couple who insist on putting me down at every opportunity, and I curse the designers of the Cotswold Way. I end the day writing grumpily in a pub in Old Sodbury, in a foul mood.
I wake up in a much better mood, only to find the sun burned my legs yesterday. I enjoy the walk, passing two large monuments and struggling down the steep descent into Wotton. I finally reach Cam, where I have a chat with the ladies in the Post Office as they stamp my verification form, and my girlfriend joins me for a rest day.
I decide that this is the perfect walking day because the weather is good, the distance is short, I'm leaving the Cotswold Way early, I avoid the pointless diversions that characterise the Way, I have a perfect pub lunch, and I meet up with my girlfriend halfway through the day. My spirits are lifting after the last few days.
Today I decide to make my own way cross-country to Gloucester, because the Cotswold Way is an irritating shambles. I talk about the delights of making up your own route and enjoy a good view over Gloucester before walking into town and exploring it.
Taking the Severn Way along the river bank, I fall in love with this part of the world. I find I adore river walking and discover clouds of blue damselflies that live in the flood plains. I drift off into a meditative walk, enjoying the pubs on the way, and compare the historical delights of Tewkesbury with the grittier experience of nearby Gloucester.
Again I drift into relaxing river walking, passing through Upton (where I bemoan the awful design of the modern bridge in the town centre) and enjoying another riverside pub. I soon discover that static caravans have infested the river; I can't understand the appeal of static caravans, and I explain why I think they're evil.
I talk about the difficulty of finding places to stay in the countryside, and bemoan how organised I like to be. Again I am beset by static caravans, but this time the pubs are all on the other side of the river. I meet a mad cycling couple who are hopelessly lost, and on the way into Bewdley I bump into Barry once more, with whom I share a B&B and a long chat in the pub.
After discovering a serious error in the route guidebook I'm using, I decide to strike out on my own to get to Staffordshire, where I'm from. I get all excited about crossing the county border, only to discover that I've actually entered Shropshire. I eventually reach Staffordshire and the village of Pattingham, where I meet a wonderful collection of party animals in the local pub and get mistaken for a tramp by some farmers.
I find walking the Staffordshire Way disappointing. There is one surprise – a gargantuan farm dog is friendly to me – but this is a filler day, and there's little to report apart from some pleasant canal walking and a few pretty villages.
Today is a nostalgia day. The Way passes through Cannock Chase, where I used to go on school trips; it then goes past Shugborough Hall, where my sister got married; and finally it follows the Trent and Mersey Canal to Abbots Bromley, where I had my first proper kiss. I explore Abbots Bromley, making friends with the local Post Office and finding out about the ancient Horn Dance.
This is a terrible day. The Staffordshire Way passes through nothing but fields, sheep, cows, farms and stiles, and I get hopelessly lost in Uttoxeter. I find my way, but end up getting lost again and taking a shortcut through a farm that appears to produce nothing but liquid shit. Luckily the Peak National Park appears on the horizon and I walk towards Dovedale, passing through the irritatingly pub-free village of Ilam on the way to a cottage in the middle of absolutely nowhere.
The walking is getting more rewarding, and I enjoy walking along beautiful Dovedale in the early morning. I get stared at in Hartington and take a huge detour to see Arbor Low, a disappointing pile of stones that some fool once christened 'the Stonehenge of the North'. Ah well.
I start to get worried about the Pennine Way, as I've already tried to walk it once and failed. I get accosted by school children and have to take part in a survey in Castleton, but eventually I climb over the hill to Edale, where the sight of the Pennine Way brings back all sorts of memories. At last, I am about to tackle my nemesis in the North...