Day 11 : Wolverton to Nether Heyford (part 1)

Thursday 5th May 2016

17 miles – Grand Union Canal

Sunny, warm max 20C

A short distance out of Wolverton, the Grand Union Canal and I are transported high over the River Great Ouse by the Iron Trunk Aqueduct, a magnificent Georgian structure. 

Engineering 

Paradoxically this is at the lowest level of the southern Grand Union towards which I’ve been descending almost imperceptibly via 24 locks since I reached the Tring summit on Monday evening. The navigation used to be even lower here. Before the aqueduct was built, a flight of four locks took working boats down from the Wolverton side so they could cross the Great Ouse at its own level and then ascend by working up through another five locks to reach the village of Cosgrove on the far bank. This was time consuming as well as wasteful of water so a triple-arch brick aqueduct was opened in 1805, engineered by William Jessop. Unfortunately this collapsed in 1808, severing the canal, at which point the original locks (of which I could see no vestiges today) had to be temporarily reinstated. Then engineer Benjamin Bevan designed a new two-arch stone structure carrying a cast-iron trough of water at a height of 10.8 metres above the river. This was inspired by the leading-edge model that had recently been employed by Thomas Telford for the stunning Pontcysyllte aqueduct (a world heritage site) near Llangollen. The new aqueduct was opened in 1811 and remains in operation to this sunny day, although the supporting arches have been brick-faced since 1921. The expense, ingenuity and tenacity exhibited in all these arrangements more than two centuries ago bring home to me now the huge commercial importance of the canals in those days. 

Arcadia

Even if you were to disregard the engineering and history here, this is a wondrous spot (see photo below) and is also the point where I leave MK and Buckinghamshire to enter Northamptonshire. Officially I’m leaving behind the South East of England and am walking now in the genuine Midlands. And although these administrative and cultural boundaries are invisible to me it is evident that this crucifix of waterways is announcing a very noticeable change again in the character of my walking terrain, from suburbia to Arcadia this time.

If you have not previously associated Northamptonshire with this Ancient Greek notion (and modern Greek province) that has persisted for centuries as a poetic byword for pastoralism and harmony with nature then I doubt you are alone. Until today, even I had considered this county as no more than an unfortunate and early obstruction on the way to the North via the M1 or West Coast Mainline. But today it reveals itself via the Grand Union to be an idyllic locale reminiscent of the setting of Vergil’s Eclogues, as I now pass through mile after mile of Ceres’ fields and sheep pastures via a grassy towpath alongside a waterway that teems with goslings, ducklings and cygnets and where welcome shade is provided to walkers by arching hawthorns whose heady scent of May blossom almost intoxicates me. 

May Tree

It doesn’t smell or taste like Marmite but people do either love it or hate it. I’m a big fan, as much as I’m an enemy of Marmite. The sight and aroma of the common hawthorn in full flower just makes me so glad to be alive, heralding as it does the maturing of Spring and the longer days now to be spent walking in the countryside. I cannot get enough of it. It’s been coming into its prime during my walk so far especially since the temperature has risen this week. Because it is ubiquitous and prolific, the May Tree’s huge clusters of creamy flowers provide an early broad-brush decoration of England’s landscape all the way from South to North in a contrasting cream-on-green way that no other native can match at this time of year or any time I think. But some people find it foul smelling. In Medieval times its scent was associated with the plague and therefore with illness and death such that this became a reason to avoid bringing its flora indoors. Curiously botanists have since discovered that the chemical trimethylamine which is a key constituent of the flower is also one of the first compounds to be released in the process of decaying animal flesh. And yes when I think of that fact, I can indeed get a whiff of slightly rotten flesh or of fish that’s neither old nor fresh, but I can always then still sniff deeply beyond that. One day I will make a jam from its fruit and a salad including its leaves.

Kev 

Being alone today means there’s plenty of time for reflection and so I soon stumble upon the other reason – a subliminal one – why I earlier today linked this locality with the silver age of Latin Literature. That’s Kev. The only son of Northampton Town I’ve ever befriended. We were colleagues in the School of Classics at the University of Liverpool around the end of the 1970s. Oddly for a Classicist – even one in Liverpool – Kev was a skinhead, rarely seen without tan Doc Martens, a Harrington jacket and the appearance and attitudes of a pit bull terrier. I cannot think of Kev without recalling at the same time the football match we both played in for the “Classical Society First (and only) XI” versus the “Open Air Club”. This was not a top-of-the-table clash. Neither team could muster eleven bona fide male members to do battle in what was generally a female-free competition, this being the 1970s. The Open Air Club deviously employed women dressed up (in what resembled walking gear) as guys. We had plumped for male ringers who’d been overlooked by the coaching staff of butch faculties such as Geography (goalie Alf), History (utility man Richard) and Comecon (marijuana Jim) – plus a couple of superb brothers from Woolton whose names I forget but who had no connections at all with the University. All these signings of ours were, I have to say, far better at football than our opposing hikers (cross-dressed or not) and indeed ourselves. While this was not a fixture eagerly anticipated by anyone anywhere for any reason at all, especially in a league dominated by testosterone-fuelled hordes of hardworking Engineers (and mysterious Comeconomists), it turned out to be a remarkable game for three reasons.

  • Firstly the final score: Classics 13, Open Air 0. A record win at the University then; and I’d be amazed if it has been bettered any time since in the footballing life of that football-mad city (let alone by Classical scholars or hikers).
  • Secondly, five (5) goals were scored that day by that classic number 9, Michael Sheridan, a Personal Best that endured throughout and beyond his future illustrious career with “The Old Inebriations” (Haringey and District Sunday League) and even his twilight MLS-like days gracing the AstroTurf occasionally for “HUBO FC” (Holloway Unemployment Benefit Office) and BT’s “Charles House (Kensington)”.
  • Thirdly, Kev punched the lights out of an effete gender-neutral member of the opposition in an incident I didn’t see but learned of shortly afterwards when the bloodied and lesser-toothed victim came running to me for comfort, complaining of an unprovoked assault. Kev didn’t disagree with this interpretation when I quizzed him in a leisurely moment in between goals 4 and 5. I abhor violence and had little to do after that with Kev who, as far as I recall, never wore our praetexta again. 

Bond, James Bond

The Kev incident wasn’t even seen that day by the referee. That might have been because the man in black then – as often in our victories – was called Bond, James Bond. Not a spook as such but definitely some sort of undercover agent with a helpful blind eye when it came to our infringements. For not only was James one of the few qualified referees in town who sported the full black regalia, coloured cards, whistle and notebook but he was also a third-year Classics student and the driver and kit-man for our team (as well as the sports editor of the Student Union rag). I owe James. Not only for his bit-part in my five-goal tally that day but also because I gained from him the insight that life does indeed “take all sorts” (including a few Kevs). James managed to combine the appearance (though we didn’t know it then) of a youthful Alan Partridge with that of a fully mature Tony Blair (and yes I know now they are more or less the same thing). He went on to be a journalist with the Hartlepool Evening Mail and then a presenter on BBC Radio Shropshire. He once took me on a road trip in his Austin Mini (not easily confused with his namesake’s Aston Martin) – along with goalie Alf and a few bottles of homemade Banana wine that we picked up en route in Whitchurch – to Gay Meadow on the banks of the River Severn, where at least one of us was reporting on the clash of midgets that was unfolding there: probably Shrewsbury Town versus Hartlepool United. We had to stop quite a few times on the A49 on the way back to Merseyside – and no I don’t remember the final score that Wednesday night; but I’m convinced that all this happened. I also owe James for the lesson I learned through knowing him that it’s perfectly possible in life to stand up to aggression with a smile on your face. A lesson not just learned every time he refereed a match but one I took to heart on the occasion when he later snook me into the press box at Ayresome Park to watch Middlesborough being thrashed 1-4 by Fulham after which – during the official media conference – Bond asked a question to which Fulham’s then manager, bow-legged ex-Gunner Malcolm MacDonald (another classic number 9) didn’t take that kindly. Unbelievably now, James and I also sat together during the 1980s in the press box at Highbury Stadium to “report on” an uneven match between Arsenal and Man City (a 1-0 home win I should think) but I was too overcome by the occasion then to be able to retrieve today any memory at all of the post-match buffet and chatter with Terry Neil and whomever it was that had got the final seat that week in City’s routine game of musical managers.

Cup-winners

Now you might think that the 1979 Classics victory against Open Air was a fix and a one-off. I assure you that neither was the case. We went on to perform above expectations and with integrity for the rest of the season, so much so that we actually won the University of Liverpool 7-a-side football tournament. Read that again, I urge you. 7s are unusual in football but the format suited us well because we could just about gather together a septet of bona fide (male) Classicists, and also because each school, faculty, hall, society or club was allowed to enter only one such team which levelled out the playing field a little. Our triumph was the talk of the town. Not least because: Bond was not refereeing the final, our goalie Jim (non-marijuana Jim) was one of our own; and we had in fact no ringers on board at all (well just a sub or two). And no Kev

Blair

I mentioned Tony Blair in passing back there, not far north of Cosgrove. But my mind returns to him now on the towpath in the middle of nowhere. This is partly because he inadvertently and indirectly inspired this walk of mine. His bogus rationale for leading the UK into the Iraq War – with its consequent massive death and destruction, and its effect of exacerbating grievances between the Islamic world and “The West” – had been one of the catalysts in Marina Cantacuzino’s journey to form The Forgiveness Project. But I also return to thinking about him because he has a sort of family connection with me. His children attended the same primary school as I and my siblings did, as did my own children until very recently: St Joan of Arc RC Primary in Islington, North London. What’s more, two-Tone attended Sunday mass at the church associated with this school both before and during his premiership, prior to becoming a Catholic later. As a feature of being a celebrity worshipper on Sunday mornings he was lucky enough to get to know my lifelong church-going parents, possibly just in a “nodding acquaintance” and chummy chat sort of way. A few years after my mother died in 2003, my father (like mum a stalwart of the parish) had to quit his Sunday routine when he went to live in a care home in nearby (but not near enough) Highgate. Blair soon gave him a gift to mark the occasion and show respect. It was a signed photo of himself and Cherie… “to Jimmy… etc.” Now like me, you can probably envisage a less egotistical and more generous gift to bestow on such an occasion. However it meant a lot to my dad despite the fact (or perhaps because of it) that Jimmy had always, as far as I know, been a Tory voter and Daily Express reader, to my constant mystification I have to say. When dad passed away in 2008 it fell to me to curate this photographic inheritance which I do to this day. It is either in a three-cubic metre storage locker in Denton or in a box in my sister’s attic in Glossop, the two modest locations where all my worldly possessions now reside. It patiently awaits a 22nd century episode of the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow where a descendant of mine will no doubt appear visibly underwhelmed by the evaluation made of it. 

I don’t feel at all warm towards Blair. I don’t feel vitriol either because I find it impossible to be thoughtfully vitriolic about any human being. I would definitely not wish to meet him though. He comes across as being too keen on the stage, too showy about “faith” in a dispassionate way, and seems to be the antithesis of humility and the very definition of lust for wealth. I’m willing to believe that there’s more to him than all that. But I’m not interested and I cannot help wishing he’d keep very quiet these days and go for a long silent walk by the waterways to cleanse his soul in private. I sort of regret thinking about him now. 

Lunch. Stop.

After all this, I’m glad to reach Stoke Bruerne, a tiny village of less than 500 residents but a Mecca for canal geeks. For me it’s a late lunch stop and a chance to replenish water supplies. But for others whom I meet here it’s a pilgrimage. Stoke Bruerne is a picturesque place bisected by the Grand Union Canal, about which I’ll say more in my next post because I’m dividing today’s blog into two halves now. That’s because I know my posts are becoming too long for a blog and because I also know there’s a lot ahead today including the first of three long towpath-less tunnels on my route, a warm sunny afternoon of reflections and decisions about forgiveness, and a bed that for once has been pre-booked. Join me again in Stoke Bruerne after lunch.  

Best wishes,
Michael

Iron Trunk Aqueduct between Wolverton and Cosgrove
Arcadia (aka Northamptonshire)
Arriving in Stoke Bruerne

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Day 10 : Z is for everything 

Wednesday 4th May 2016

Sunny, warm max 17C

A day off with Lee in The Midlands. There’s a lot of catching up to do since last time we met, back in 20th century Cheshire.

Lee and I were colleagues in “Business Systems” at a British multinational “life sciences” company in Macclesfield during the early 1990s. This was around the time the company was being “demerged” out of Imperial Chemical Industries (better known as ICI) to become a new entity called Zeneca. According to the Daily Telegraph “Zeneca was an invented name created by the branding consultancy Interbrand. Interbrand had been instructed to find a name which began with a letter from either the top or bottom of the alphabet and was phonetically memorable, of no more than three syllables and did not have an offensive meaning in any language.” However I’ve always liked to think it was inspired by a brander’s sneaky admiration for that great Stoic philosopher of ancient Rome, Lucius Annaeus Seneca (better known as just Seneca) who famously said: “I’d have spelt my name with a Z had I met those Interbrand guys earlier”. Of course he didn’t say that because he was a Stoic and he was busy saying a lot of better stuff like: “Anger: an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured” a favourite of mine and an apt sentiment given the charity I’m walking for.

Whatever the truth about the etymology of our employer’s name, from that time onwards Zs abounded in our corporate lives. Medicinal products were launched with names such as Zoladex, Zestril and Zomig. More significantly – at least for persons free of cancer, cardiovascular disorders and migraine – Lee and I co-founded “Zircus”, probably the world’s leading mental health remedy for bored professionals working in the pharmaceutical industry. Zircus was a workplace circus skills club, funded partly by a subsidy from the company’s umbrella social society (known as Icicals before the Z days) to which most of the c. 5,000 local employees subscribed via deductions from their salaries.  Zircus was however further financed by its own fee-paying members all enthused about mastering or just dabbling in the arts of juggling, stilt-walking, diablo-doings and so on. With such massive financial backing, Lee and I could now buy lots of kit to feed our habit. We had balls. Dozens of them – acrylic balls, contact balls, stage balls, bouncy rubber ones (a personal favourite but not recommended for beginners unless simultaneous sprints in three directions appeal) and bean-filled L-plated “balls” which were not balls at all, merely flaccid sacs.

In case you are thinking this was all just a bizarre ruse to embezzle funds as a means to indulge a couple of lazy lads in their latest fad, I ask you to think again. We had serious and altruistic matters to attend to: buying public liability insurance up to the value of about a zillion pounds; running workshops and demos for local kids; performing at charity events (I particularly remember a hazily sunny May Day at the amazing Capesthorne Hall); providing therapy to new hardcore members such as the delightful and dazzling Lizzie, dizzy Sheena, several zany Richards and dozy Bryan whose forte was balancing on a supersized (and super-expensive) sphere while crazily chucking juggling clubs at Lee’s face. We also managed to organise a well-attended trip to see the Chinese State Circus at the magnificent Buxton Opera House where I was pleased to note that several superb performers had such on-point names as Zhang, Zhou and Zhao. We ventured out to juggling conventions nationwide including a poignant one for me (this being the time of birth of my canal-mania) at Manchester’s Castlefield basin, en route to which I called in at Affleck’s Palace to purchase my first ever pair of multi-coloured baggy trousers. Last ever pair too in fact.

The zenith of my juggling partnership with Lee came when we finally, almost miraculously, cracked the knack of swapping six clubs between us in what’s called a solid pattern (or just “solids” – as if we’d finally graduated from our weaning period), wherein every club thrown from the right hand – in our dexterous case – is passed to (or in Bryan’s case loosely aimed at) your partner’s raised left, and every club caught in (or in Bryan’s case dropped from) your left hand is the one simultaneously zooming  in towards you via a single aerial spin from your partner’s right. Hard to describe and even harder to do but easy to watch particularly if you’re looking at the flying Karamazov brothers whose wizardry I’d witnessed firsthand as a wide-eyed trainee, along with my mum (not sure why she agreed to this), in the Criterion theatre at Piccadilly Circus. Doing this feat with Lee for the first time in a sustained but occasionally frenzied fashion is one of the greatest joys I have known. Psychologists call it “flow” these days, thanks to the work of Hungarian researcher Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. It’s a concept you might know of as “being in the zone” wherein there is a feeling of joy or even rapture as a product of complete immersion in a task. Well worth experiencing or even just reading about here. In many ways flow by juggling is much better than zex (as our employer encouraged us to think of it then) not least because no orifices are involved – unless your partner is called Bryan – and because as soon as it’s over you can usually do it again immediately, and then again and again and again with zero risk of disease, staining or unintended parenting. The worst that can happen is it stops; usually because Lee has dropped a club I’ve perfectly passed to him or else he’s thrown an uncatchable one at my feet, head or unmentionables.

That was our pinnacle but it presaged our nadir. It came as no surprise to us  – being the heroes now of Zircus – that our fame spread rapidly throughout the entire community of juggling IT professionals based in Cheshire and beyond. When the call came it was from no less than the maestro himself, Barnum (in the guise of the Salford Amateur Operatics Society), inviting us to appear on stage at a public fee-paying event. We rehearsed with the cast at Monton every Sunday for months. And when the time came to perform – at a civic theatre in Worsley, the very womb of Britain’s canal network in the 18th century thanks to the Duke of Bridgwater – we were on orgasmic form. But stage fright is a curious thing. And it even affected us in the foyer where we were expected to entertain punters before and after the show as well as during the interval. We were, I have to admit, well below par that night. Great costumes though. A bit like every member of the cast. But in our cases, the exposure we had in the aisles and public spaces inevitably attracted the attention of the disappointed crowds including an elaborately dressed local dignatory (or perhaps he was the doorman) who deemed us utter rubbish: “two tossers”. The name stuck. Like oozy smelly things do.

But we are Lee and Michael. So, we dug deep and recovered. Our next gig – euphorically for me – involved the Two Tossers entertaining boat-people at their summer barbecue beside a marina near Poynton on the Macclesfield Canal. When darkness finally came that night, Lee and I did our first public rendition of our torch-passing routine (do not imagine battery-powered flashlights) and thankfully I recall only a half dozen occasions in that 5-minute performance when I had to catch the wrong (i.e. burning) end of one or other of the six blazing torches that Lee was tossing at me somewhat speedily. The highlight for me that evening had been an earlier solo performance of my personal piéce de resistance – balancing a 13-foot quant (wooden barge pole) perfectly vertical on my chin for what felt like several minutes of ‘flow’ while mentally struggling to shut out the silence created by an inexplicable lack of applause and cheers from the large crowd gathered around us with their fizz-free real ales and sizzling designer sausages. If that sounds inane, I pity you. It is very difficult yet supremely satisfying to balance large objects on any part of your face and I look forward to doing it again some day. To loud acclaim please.

Lee and I – and Zircus – went out with a bang. Our biggest achievement (perhaps the biggest achievement of my career at Zeneca) was to plan and execute a 1-day fire-eating and fire-breathing workshop in the luxurious grounds of Zeneca’s R&D centre at Alderley Park. A crucial hurdle was the security office at the site entrance where, upon arrival, our tutor Bob (with his alarmingly grazed lips and charred teeth) had to negotiate passage via a crew of heavies. As a consequence of his bedraggled Glasto-appearance and his ramshackle vehicle rammed full of white spirit and sundry pyrotechnic kit, Bob bore more than a slim resemblance to a fiery animal liberationist full of destructive intentions – a veritable persona non grata at this facility famed for its toxicology labs and notorious dog-block. But, unfazed by the circumstances, Bob got in without our assistance. From then on, the day was plain sailing such that at only one point were the damp towels needed – the sole “health and safety” device available, not counting the presence on the course of a senior medic from Zeneca’s drug development department who was either an undercover agent of the company’s management or else a sufferer from a peculiar strain of mid-life crisis.

After that, Zircus fizzled out. Lee moved on, via another corporate role at GSK, to become a sort of Czar in the field of coaching small businesses. Finally a round hole for his peg. See his book and its rave reviews on Amazon. And I just moved, via lips burned while entertaining the citizens of Tytherington on a breezy day – to a life without fire in Zeneca and then in its successor company formed in 1999 by a merger with Swedish firm Astra, marking the beginnings of my obsession with Scandinavian noir. At that point, incidentally, a huge sum of money was no doubt paid to another branding company who must have laughed all the way to the fermented herring store since they were given both ends of the alphabet to work with, were obviously unfettered by any tight constraint on the number of syllables allowed and must have spent no more than 5 minutes of an apprentice’s time on innovating the new name for this gigantic corporation: AstraZeneca.

In my opinion the Zircus story is well worth telling for its own sake. But more than that, it epitomises what I love about Lee. He effortlessly marries convention with quirkiness. He has zest. He is a confident, assertive, extroverted salesperson and at the same time a reflective, vulnerable friend with a passion for goodness, truth, self-knowledge and self-development. At times he can tow you along in the welcome current of his own babbling brook; and when needed he can pause with you to gaze into our still and silent pools and help us appreciate both the decay and new life within them. But he’s not disorderly in this – he just is both these personalities with complete integrity. I have found this rare and intriguing.

Lee likes models. Not those of the Kate Moss ilk. But those that often comprise four quadrants pinched between two conceptually vague axes – the sort that management consultants favour and which Lee finds useful to make sense of the world (and himself) and to bolster his credentials with clients. I’m not a fan these days having spent far too many years working in IT and HR and indeed inside the crack that divides those two corporate buttocks. I was nevertheless happy to be present on my day off at the birth of a new model Lee conceived then and there to assist small businesses in rapid growth (and perhaps help raise funds to pay for the next phase of refurbishments at the modest but beautiful cottage Lee shares with his delightful partner Julie).

Between a modestly boozy night reminiscing about Zircus days (with more than adequate absorption provided by the sublime jalfrezi dish concocted from scratch by a dancing Lee and Julie) and the birth next day of Lee’s latest coaching model, we get a walk in. About four miles with the exuberant Murphy, Lee and Julie’s black Labrador. It seems I am destined to be with writers and dogs on this walk. We traipse under azure skies through fecund fields of young wheat and flowering rape (photo above), past the Weetabix factory and through the largest and cleanest chicken farm I’ve ever seen, to Pytchley and then back to Isham (both pronounced with an eye in their first syllable – and I learned too that the local River Nene is pronounced to rhyme with “when”). Afterwards we talk a bit about the role of forgiveness in our lives. In both our cases it’s connected with the dreary days-long drizzling of designer harm rather than a sudden shocking storm. It is often like that I think. Except in cases like that of Dave Carroll whose video on YouTube Lee introduced me to and about which I love absolutely everything – combining as it does kitsch, irony, country music, humour and gentle invocation to goodness via social media. Watch this and smile from ear to ear.

I could say a lot more. But I need some Zs.

Best wishes,

Michael

Lee in a new hat bought in Olney (delightful village) en route to towpath next day

Day 9 : Soulbury Three Locks to Wolverton

Tuesday 3rd May 2016

16 miles – Grand Union Canal

Sunny, cooler again max 14C

I’m in a good mood. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the company I’ve kept in recent days and I’m looking forward to solitude for most of today. It’s sunny again. And I’m pleased about something Marina said yesterday. She asked me if I’m a writer. Marina herself is a writer, an excellent writer, and has made a living from it. She took the trouble yesterday to let me know she admired the writing in my blog and in particular its honesty. You can have no idea how pleased I am about that this morning.

Not long after leaving the Three Locks behind me, my mood darkens a shade as I fall off the map. eCanalMapp is telling me I’m leaving the South and asks if I’d like to buy the Midlands for £5.99. While that seems a bargain, given the recent regeneration of Birmingham I’ve heard about and am looking forward to seeing next week, nevertheless I decline. As you’ll no doubt understand, especially if you live in Buckinghamshire, I’m a bit miffed to find that “The South” ends here on the London side of Bletchley for Pete’s sake, so I make a stand and decide to give (the free) Google maps a go instead, defiantly accepting that I will thus lose certain benefits that come with eCanalMapp: those quaint symbols that represent various canal features (moorings, locks, water taps, refuse points, bridges, winding holes – those are places, by the way, where you can turn a narrow boat 180 degrees – marinas, tunnels etc.); the comprehensive gazetteer of information about those features, for example the warnings about tunnel opening times or manned locks where passage needs to be booked in advance; and most crucially – because, let’s face it, everything else I’ve mentioned is really for boaters not walkers – those bold red triangular milestones (or, via settings, kilometre stones if you are that way inclined). You see, I’ve found Google very unreliable in considering towpaths as viable walking routes, often recommending a road-walk instead and calculating distances on that basis. Annoying yes, Mr. Google, but I tell you, Mr. eCanalMapp, I’m definitely not going to buy your Midlands when I’m clearly still in the South.

I leave the towpath for a while to explore Fenny Stratford because I like the name of it and I’m in need of a coffee among other comforts. This turns out to be a nondescript little town on the old Roman Road (and old A5), Watling Street. I think it’s fair to say that there isn’t a vibrant coffee culture here. However I do eventually root out among the slumbering kebab shops and curry houses the refreshingly wide-awake Colosseo, an Italian café, which serves me a very good cappuccino indeed. I sup my drink al fresco and tell myself that this would be a very fine place to be if it weren’t for the noisy industry of the numerous men in luminous yellow jackets and wielding heavy machinery who’ve just started re-laying the cobble setts of Aylesbury Road right in front of me, right now. Yes, please note: Aylesbury Road (Midlands indeed!).

Fenny Stratford is sort of absorbed these days by Bletchley, a town renowned primarily for being the location of Bletchley Park where the British government’s code breakers secretly worked during the Second World War. The story of mathematician and cryptographer extraordinaire Alan Turing, whom many consider to be the father of modern computing, has recently been popularised in the film “The Imitation Game” (many scenes were shot here at Bletchley Park). I’m thinking about this over coffee, in particular wondering how on earth it took until 2009 for the establishment (in the shape of Gordon Brown then prime minister) to offer Turing an apology for the appalling way he was treated in the 1950s shortly after his and others’ work effectively shortened the war by years, thus saving thousands of lives, as a result of cracking the Germans’ Enigma code. In 1952 he’d been prosecuted and convicted for homosexual practices, accepting a course of oestrogen injections to restrict his libido as an alternative to gaol. He died two years later of cyanide poisoning, officially an act of suicide. He was eventually granted a posthumous “pardon” by HM Queen Elizabeth II in 2013.

I’m also now thinking of my own more modest connection with goings-on at Bletchley Park. Before it became the museum and tourist attraction it is today, the place was occupied by various tenants, the largest of which for many years was BT (formerly the GPO). I worked for BT in the 1980s and shortly after joining the company – along with every other recruit – I had the privilege and pleasure of attending a residential training course for several days at Bletchley Park to learn a good deal about the history of telecommunications. I had a blissful time. The subject was absolutely fascinating to me, the grounds of Bletchley Park formed a beautiful recreational area during breaks and in the summer evenings, I quite got to like a girl on the course and we both got to like the local country pub. This liaison among delegates (as we were referred to) turned out to be no more than the educational equivalent of a holiday romance, in fact not even that. More significantly, this was a time when the U.K.’s telephone network was being converted from analogue to digital. I was employed in a small team of computer system analysts and programmers to help develop in short shrift a suite of new applications to help BT’s National Network planners do their job of designing and planning capacity at a few new and mysterious “DMSUs” (Digital Main Switching Units) a species intent on ousting from towns everywhere those friendly and familiar old brick-built telephone exchanges with their bulky but beautiful mechanics.

Just as Fenny Stratford is now absorbed by Bletchley, so Bletchley is today a part of Milton Keynes, a phrase rather than a place as such which dominates the rest of my day. I feel as if I’m walking through a flatly sprawling “suburbia without an urbs“. It’s quite pleasant. The towpath is hard-surfaced (good for bikes but not for feet, except as an alternative to mud) and the canal environs are well maintained. I pass by hundreds of well-spaced-out and amenable homes with double-glazing, double-garages and gardens where granddads play with toddlers and where lilacs bloom. The public spaces are self-consciously landscaped to create a sort of meandering linear parkland beneath the ugly bridges that carry the east-west rungs of the town’s road-ladders across the south-north canal (and its parallel rail and motorway friends). The water appears free of major litter and there’s the usual wildlife around. But it’s anodyne, as is (so people tell me) MK’s Central Business District which, despite how it appears (or doesn’t) to me on the Grand Union today, actually in fact does exist somewhere round here, thus suggesting that MK is more than a mere conglomeration of boring suburbs propagated needlessly from perfectly interesting ancient villages. But it’s still not a city. Neither in my book, nor officially.

There are plenty of moorings today, at one of which I stop for a chat with a mixed-race late-twenties woman who’s sitting on the roof of her narrowboat sunning herself with a roll-up and a glass of wine. She’s only just acquired the boat and is cock-a-hoop about that, unsurprisingly. She tells me that her parents bought it for her because they didn’t like her being in the shared digs she was previously renting nor were they happy about the sort of stuff (and people) she was getting into there. I don’t know whether to be impressed by her mum and dad or worried for the entire family.

It’s around here that I pass the 100-mile mark on my walk, though I’m not sure exactly where, thanks to Google. But in late afternoon sunshine I do recognise without any help from apps that I’ve reached today’s destination, Wolverton at the north west tip of MK. This is a town that really started to develop in 1838 when Robert Stephenson brought the railway through an area that was then largely green fields. Wolverton (or rather “Wolverton Station” as opposed to the existing village to the west which soon became “Old Wolverton”) found itself in a strategic location about half way between Birmingham’s Curzon Street and London Euston. So it became the site of a major railway works for servicing and refuelling locomotives and a “Grand Central Station” where passengers would disembark briefly to take comfort and refreshment since the trains in those days had neither toilets nor dining facilities and the journey between the two cities took about four hours. The Grand Union Canal was used to supply materials by barge for the construction of the railway works and of the town itself which grew up rapidly to accommodate the railway workers. It could all have been different, had the landowners of Northampton not objected to the London & Birmingham Railway (now part of the West Coast Main Line) running through their own town instead, although some commentators now contend that the gradients there would have been too steep in any case.  Today, in the clinical new London Midland station building (opened in 2012), I study a massive display provided by Wolverton Works that’s superbly well-illustrated with fascinating stories about the town’s relationship with the railways, a relationship that has sadly suffered a terrible decline in recent years with the closure and imminent demolition of what was until a few years ago the world’s oldest continually-operating railway works, and one that had enjoyed a long and proud association with Britain’s Royal Train. There’s been a consequent loss of hundreds of jobs as well as the threat to historically important buildings, while at the same time the town has “gained” – on part of the same site – a huge Tesco store and, more sympathetically, some canal-side residential, office and recreational developments that I walked past a short while ago. Sadly too now, I haven’t quite finished admiring the refreshingly honest plaque in the station when my train arrives to take me closer to my overnight stop: I’m staying with an old friend Lee who lives a fair distance from here… in the actual Midlands come to think of it.

Best wishes,

Michael

 

Day 8 : Tring to Soulbury Three Locks

Monday 2nd May 2016

17 miles – Grand Union Canal

Sunny, a late rain shower, warming up max 17C

I’m due to meet today’s companions at Tring Station: Marina, founder of The Forgiveness Project (TFP); her husband Danny; their long-time friend Sue; and Sue’s young cocker spaniel Louie. I’ve met Marina briefly once before, the others never. While waiting, I recall my only other visit to Tring. It was less than a year ago when my then 11-year-old daughter Lily and I waited here at the station for another Dad-and-daughter pair attending a camping trip for Year 6 Leavers from Lily’s school in London. The highlight of that weekend last July turned out to be a walk by eager Dads and reluctant daughters (and a few impartial sons) up the nearby 233-metre Ivinghoe beacon which marks the end of The Ridgeway, an 87-mile National Trail from Avebury in Wiltshire that is known as Britain’s “oldest route”. I reflect now that among the most exhilarating times of my life are simple occasions like this, sharing an outdoor pleasure such as walking, cycling, or camping with one or both of my children and noticing how their occasional lack of enthusiasm at the outset quickly gives way to enjoyment and a desire for more. At least I tell myself it does, sometimes.

Once today’s party assembles we’re off to a quick start. Tring station is a mile and a half from the town but it’s just a couple of minutes walk to the Grand Union. Danny, who’s recently run the Brighton Marathon to raise funds for TFP, sets off at a pace that’s challenging, especially for Louie who’s sniffing around fairly aimlessly back and forth along the towpath. I’ve learned in the first few days of my walk that it’s alright to be a bit like Louie at times so I suggest to Danny we go a little slower, at canal speed if you like. I feel for him because I know how difficult it can be to walk at a reduced pace: taking awkward mini-strides; stopping every few minutes to wait around for stragglers; and even deliberately zig-zagging left and right to avoid gaining too much ground on your companions. Equally I know it’s no fun to be constantly racing to keep up with the leaders, nor to feel you’re spoiling others’ enjoyment by slowing them down. But today we all soon adjust our subconscious strides to find an harmonious pace, almost as if we’re getting to know and accommodate one another through the act of walking.

We’re in the Chilterns, those hills rising where Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire collide. And we’re at the southern summit of the Grand Union Canal, a three-mile stretch that’s 121m above sea level, towards which I’ve been gently climbing (via 56 locks) since Brentford last Wednesday. Not surprisingly – if you’ve got even a smattering of knowledge about canal engineering – we soon see four reservoirs to our left just after Bulbourne Junction where the short disused Wendover Arm spurs off westwards. These reservoirs were constructed along with the canal in the early 1800s to ensure a supply of water to the navigation. They are now a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and one of the best places for bird-watching in southern England. They border a particularly open section of canal that affords tremendous views all around. Today the whole area is busy with people enjoying the Bank Holiday sunshine while picnicking, fishing, cycling, twitching or just walking and talking like us.

We’re so deep in talk in fact that we don’t pay as much attention to the surroundings as I’m wont to do and so after a flight of 7 locks (downhill of course) we nearly take a wrong turn at the forked Marsworth Junction where the Aylesbury Arm looks briefly like a good pretender for the main line ahead.

Marina tells me about the origins of TFP. At the time of the Iraq war, Marina was “stirred up and spurred on” by two events. The first was a newspaper image of a terrified and traumatised boy of 12, Ali Abba, who became for her as for many a symbol of the futility of war, having lost both his arms and most of his family in a US missile attack on Baghdad in 2003. The second was a news item about a father in London whose three-year-old daughter had accidentally been killed by a hospital doctor after he administered the wrong drugs. In the coroner’s court the father, on hearing the verdict, had simply crossed the floor, hugged the doctor and told him: “I forgive you”. Setting this against the backdrop of the cycle of war and violence in the Middle East at that time (much as now), Marina became determined to collect the personal stories of “people whose response to being harmed was not a call for revenge but rather a quest for restoration and healing”. She set about this with a photographer colleague Brian Moody (Marina was a journalist at the time) and they were then able, with the sponsorship of the late Anita Roddick (founder of the Body Shop and human rights campaigner), to create in 2004 an exhibition of the images and stories they’d gathered from all over the world. This exhibition, entitled “The F Word”, was an astonishing success and later that year Marina went on to found TFP as a charity. In case you are wondering, Marina is no evangelist nor someone who wears the air of an expert. As we talk I’m reminded of a striking statement of hers which I recently read in her book: “I chose this subject of forgiveness because gentle people attract me more than resolute ones, vulnerability more than strength”.  To find out more about all this and what the charity is doing today to help people chose peace over violence, you might like to watch Marina in this brief recent TEDx Talk

The walking takes us through quiet open countryside, the peace being disturbed only occasionally by the mad rush of a Virgin train on the West Coast mainline tracking us away to our left now, having crossed over our path back near the village of Marsworth. Sue and a tired Louie leave us after 6 or 7 miles to catch a train from the nearby village of Cheddington which to my surprise has a station (according to eCanalMapp) and a train arriving very shortly (according to TrainLine). I’ve enjoyed talking with Sue today, especially discussing the decisions she’s made: to get out of a dissatisfying job and an unsuitable relationship; to live more simply; and to get a dog after a lifetime of not being a dog person at all. I found Sue’s decisions and the evident benefits they’ve brought her both inspiring and reassuring and I sense that’s exactly why she’s shared her story with me.

Danny and I discuss all sorts of things including growing up in North London on opposite sides of the Arsenal/Tottenham divide (you know where I stand on that one already). I try to share with Marina and Danny, as best I can, my story about why I’m doing this walk and why I’m raising money for TFP. Four years ago, following a marital breakdown I was very unhappy and disorientated. My sister Eilis suggested I might need to think about forgiveness – she meant forgiveness of self as well as others, rightly sensing that I felt at that time a confused mix of: guilt for my part in harming loved ones; pain caused by the hurt done to me and others as I saw it; and exasperation at the perpetuation of petty conflict. Eilis even sent me a book, “Finding Forgiveness” by Jim McManus and Stephanie Thornton. I devoured it. I remember being surprised that, while being brought up a Catholic, I’d never really thought much about forgiveness before. So I was learning for the first time that forgiveness can be thought of as more of a selfish act than an altruistic one. I also learned that it is different to “excusing”, different to “forgetting” (which I don’t think I will ever do except in dotage) and different from “reconciliation” which I now think of as restoring a relationship to its former state of trust, which might or might not be a desirable or feasible outcome at all in situations where something is to be forgiven. I recall now being especially struck by the force of a particular quote in the book, a Chinese proverb in fact: “if you seek revenge, first dig two graves“. So, I then researched forgiveness – I mean I Googled it. I quickly came across TFP and Marina’s work. I was amazed. I took great solace from it even though my own experiences had been so much less dramatic than those of the perpetrators and victims whose narratives are collected there. In fact one of the most inspiring things was my realisation that while some people cling on to remorse or to resentment or want revenge in response to what seem to be relatively trivial hurts – while perpetuating harm in the process – others are clearly capable of forgiving (or accepting forgiveness for) enormous damage done that might appear “unforgivable” to others, while at the same time creating something significantly positive out of the experience. I’d like to say that this awakening changed my life from that point on, but it didn’t. Life carried on much as before, sometimes up and often down, though all the while I kept these new insights somewhere safe and within easy reach so I could consult them from time to time. And I’ve gained a lot from doing that even if life didn’t suddenly become a bed of roses.

We have to leave all that for now at Leighton Buzzard, as Marina and Danny opt for a train back to Tring, where their car is parked, and thence the drive to London. We’ve only just about finished our goodbyes, when a torrential downpour immediately forces me to take shelter in a canal-side Tesco superstore before I push on alone for a few more miles in gentle rain, then renewed sunshine, towards the nicely maintained Soulbury Three Locks near the village of Stoke Hammond.

It’s been a great day. I’ve made three new gentle friends whom I hope to meet again soon. We’ve walked and talked through idyllic parts of three counties. I’m enjoying an ale beside a flight of three handsome locks. And I’ve got a basic room for the night at The Three Horsehoes pub in the nearby village of Drayton Parslow where for the third time on this walk I’m later told I’m a dead ringer for Rick Stein, the piscine celebrity chef and (rare this, in his chosen field) a good humble bloke; but that’s another story.

The news today is that Leicester City are Premier League Champions, Tottenham Hotspur having failed to keep the contest alive, only drawing with Chelsea. And I’ve now walked 92 miles of my route.

Best wishes,

Michael

 

Day 7 : Watford to Tring

Sunday 1st May 2016

16 miles – Grand Union Canal

Sunny, warming up max 16C

Today I’m delighted to be walking with others for the first time: my brother Anthony, sister-in-law Teresa and niece Laura – three-fifths of the Watford Sheridans in other words. I’m happy too that by the end of today I’ll have walked 75 miles, a quarter of my route, bang on schedule.

The Grand Union is busy. It’s a bank holiday weekend and the warm sunshine is enticing people outside in large numbers to seek revenge for the unseasonably low temperatures inflicted upon them during recent weeks. The canal steers us and a good few narrowboats (plus other vessels) through the lovely wooded parkland of Cassiobury before curving around the edge of The Grove. A week earlier the paparazzi had been hanging about the towpath here hoping for a lucrative shot of Barack Obama thrashing his mate Dave on the golf course at this “luxury country house estate hotel & spa”. The place has an interesting history including during the Second World War when the former home of the Earls of Clarendon became the secret HQ of the London Midland and Scottish Railway company whose massive air-raid shelters remain, providing a home today for Europe’s largest population of pipistrelle bats.

This is affluent country. It’s like Surrey again. So it’s with neat symmetry that we soon pass northwards under the M25 viaduct to break free of London’s gravitational pull, me reflecting on the moment 6 days previously when I’d entered that gigantic force-field at a similar M25 viaduct near Weybridge, where Surrey’s wealth-zone merges into the fringes of south west London. 

Around Kings Langley, we ignore a few half-hearted towpath closures after making a full risk assessment which confirms that the advertised maintenance work is not being carried out today (and that the barriers erected by the contractors are in fact useless).

The next settlement is Apsley, where a smart marina and a modern canalside residential and retail development presents an attractive bustling scene and an opportunity for us surreptitiously to eat our packed lunch at a dining table on the patio of The Paper Mill, a busy waterside pub complete with Sunday roasts and an accomplished jazz trio. 

After our secret sandwiches, we continue to walk north in the company of the West Coast Mainline and, as a closer companion, the river Gade as it runs through the ancient common land in the heart of Hemel Hempsted. A cyclist almost floors Anthony here, very nearly riding into him from behind then angrily demanding that he watch where he’s going. Mystifying and annoying, especially when it is a rule on our towpaths that cyclists give way to pedestrians and ring their bell twice when approaching. But many cyclists have no bell and all expect pedestrians to give way. I’m a firm believer that the canals are there for all to enjoy and I am also a cyclist myself but I do object when users disrespect fellow users or choose to ignore the few simple rules that exist to help ensure this narrow space can be a shared pleasure for all who wish to avail of its amenity.

Now we’re talking about “canal people” as we walk on in the heat of the afternoon. Some folk think there’s an homogenous community living full- or part-time on the canals. But this stereotyping does not match my experience. I’ve met: genteel retired couples; young single professionals; wild and scary hermits in combat gear; a friendly milkman with his young son; a cantankerous old biddy; a few genial organic veggie types (pardon my stereotyping); several floating shopkeepers, labourers, tradespeople and artisans; and more than one rich show-off on a pristine fat barge that might well have been called “F.U. Poor People!”, with a brand new designer motorbike parked up neatly on the on-board gravel driveway. Almost anyway. Just like land people then. But when cruising and mooring overnight these characters could all be very close neighbours I suppose, an unfeasible scenario off the canal.

At ‘desirable’ ‘unspoilt’ Berkhamsted (main photo above) my companions leave me. From here to Tring is over 4 miles and the going is suddenly tough. The absence of easy conversation now means my attention turns to the aching in my feet and the obsessive calculations I sometimes do this time of day about how many furlongs (yes furlongs) are left to walk, what pace I’m now doing, what time I should expect to finish and whether my water supply will be sufficient (it always is). But the character of the route is also changing. It is no longer semi-rural. This is very soon unequivocally the countryside, beautiful and tranquil. This cheers me up immensely. 

When I leave the towpath near Tring Station, it’s cloudy and cool. I ride a train back to Watford where I’m staying again tonight. This costs £8.20 single and takes exactly 20 minutes to return me to the place we set out from about 7 hours earlier, causing me to feel a sensation that I can only describe as being like free-falling down to earth from high in the sky following a slow and delicious ascent in a hot-air balloon (something I’ve never done mind you). I promise myself I won’t go backwards on this walk again. 

Best wishes,

Michael

River Gade in Cassiobury Park on the way from Anthony’s to the towpath
Under the M25
Apsley
F-B Teresa, Laura, Anthony (near Hemel)
Near Dudswell Bottom Lock
Rosie and Jim in retirement near Tring
Where I leave the towpath today

 

Day 6 : Eat the Holloway Road

Saturday 30th April 1960

Sunny, cool max 12C

Another day off! It’s my sister-in-law Teresa’s birthday and I’m joining the family for lunch to celebrate. Not only that but this lunch is doubly special because it’s the latest instalment in a series of brunches and lunches known as “Eat the Holloway Road”. My brother Anthony and his son Patrick are engaged in an epic epicurean quest to dine in every eatery along the two miles of the A1 between Highbury Corner and Archway in North London. They take a bite each time Arsenal FC play at home in the nearby Emirates Stadium (photo above). Today it’s the turn of Norwich City to visit the stadium and it’s the turn of  Piccolo Sogno – a welcome new addition to Holloway’s panoply of cafés, restaurants and bars – to host the Sheridans.  You can read the restaurant review, find out the football score and explore the quest as a whole by reading Anthony’s blog, but only if he’s updated it (he’s somewhat slow at writing, no more than myself).

After lunch, my blood-bloggers went to the match and the women did a bit of shopping while I walked a couple of miles to and around West Reservoir at Woodberry Down for a natter with my twelve-year-old daughter Lily, and to stave off the waterside-withdrawal symptoms. During my early childhood, West Reservoir served us locals with a constant supply of drinking water but was invisible to us except for a bizarre-looking pumping house built in the style of a Scottish Castle that could be admired when passing by on Green Lanes. Nowadays this picturesque corner of Stoke Newington is accessible to all. The reservoir is a bustling water sports venue, the castle has been transformed into a climbing centre, the walk by the nearby New River is part of a wildlife reserve and this is the setting for an enormous work-in-progress development of high-rise luxury apartments where Lily and her brother Liam live with their mother. 

Best wishes,

Michael

 

 

Day 5 : Uxbridge to Watford

Friday 29th April 2016

12 miles – Grand Union Canal

Sunny, hail shower, cool max 12C

A day in Metroland where London’s magenta tube line fans out towards the Chilterns like the delta of a reversing river. Once I’ve passed under the A40 where it becomes the M40, the Grand Union offers pleasant walking through this sub-suburbia, cutting its way most of the rest of today through the Colne Valley Regional Park. I ponder rhetorically on the matter of how many rivers called Colne there are in England. I lived near the banks of a Colne in Colchester a few years ago and ascended another Colne Valley when I walked to Marsden on the Huddersfield Narrow Canal last month while training for this 300-mile charity walk. I’ve since discovered that many (though not all) scholars propose that the name derives from the Latin word colonia meaning settlement or outpost which is also how the German city of Köln (Cologne) got its name.

The towpath is quiet and I imagine how that might change if and when HS2 crosses the canal near Denham, about which threat a huge canalside banner is protesting. At the border between the London Borough of Hillingdon and the county of Hertfordshire I stop for a conversation with one half of a couple who’ve just bought a new narrowboat and are deep in the work of fitting it out inside. They’ve moored here a while this afternoon because they’ve spotted a supply of dead wood and are chopping it to fuel their stove. I’m a little envious as I move on.

After a few more miles and a torrential hail shower I stop again on a sunny bench by Springwell Reedbed (the largest in “the London area” according to an information board) for a late lunch of cheese and pickle sandwiches made and packed for me by my friend John this morning. It brings back memories of being at school when my mum would pack a lunch for me consisting of either cheese and pickle or else garlic sausage and butter sandwiches. I emphasise the butter simply because of the quantity involved. In retrospect, garlic sausage was rather exotic for my mum back in those days and could only be procured from the pungent and pricey Da: Mario delicatessen (or “the Italian Shop” as we called it), an establishment still doing a brisk trade in Highbury Barn some forty years later I noticed yesterday when passing by. This recollection enhances my satisfaction with lunch, and I’m glad to be alone on this bench to eat all the sandwiches myself rather than sharing them reluctantly with that fellow at school whose threats were always greatest on garlic sausage days.

Sated, I soon reach Rickmansworth and a good many long term moorings where a number of boaters have made attractive gardens that spill over the gunwales onto the towpath (photos below). I make a mental note that this would be an excellent place for me to be based if I were ever to live on a boat. The countryside is attractive. The nearby town is small, pretty and has all the amenities I’d need including a choice of quick rail connections to London where my children Liam and Lily live with their mother. What’s more, my brother and his family live a couple of miles away in Watford, just a short walk from the Grand Union where it enters the splendid Cassiobury Park. And that is where I’m lucky enough to be staying tonight.

Best wishes,

Michael