Saturday, 27 July 2013

London Loop Part 2: Old Bexley-Jubilee Park: A.K.A. a Long Trek Through Some Woods, fortified with an Earlybird Special

The great thing about the London Loop is that it is all so easy to get to.  At least, it is as long as there are no engineering works and you don't arrive at your destination to find the station deserted and your one remaining link with the outside world severed.  That is, after all, what happened last time I was in Bexley.

This time, however, due to the unusual luxury of being able to go on a weekday, the station was in full working order, and I was home within an hour and a half (oh the joys of South London being really, really far away).

One thing about walking on a weekday, though, is that everyone is at work, so the paths are deserted.  Brilliant if you don't want to spend all day dodging small children and dogs (although there were still quite a few of the latter), not so good if you want to engage in conversation with the locals, find out their thoughts on local bus services, etc.  Although the suburban periphery of South London is in fairness probably not as deep a well of hilarity as the more remote villages of the Thames Path seem to be.

There are of course also places that seem to come into their own on weekdays, where you really get a feel for the local area when the place is swarmed with the elderly, the unemployed and construction workers digging stuff up.  One of these places is my own beloved Wembley, where the other day I was asked for directions to the Jobcentre and then came to the aid of a stranded cleaner who had found herself trapped in my apartment building and was very distressed at the prospect of having to spend all day walking round the courtyard trying to find a way out.  We have all been in that situation.  The highlight of that particular excursion, however, was when dropping some items off at the charity shop, I witnessed a scramble to get served at the till which was so intense I thought a fight was going to break out.  Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you Austerity Britain, where the population of Wembers is so hard-up it gets into scraps in St Luke's Hospice over an old pair of tracksuit bottoms.  The future really is bleak.

Anyway, I digress, for Bexley, I am happy to report, was not like that.  Bexley was actually pretty nice.  The first part of the walk took me across an old landfill site (glamour indeed!) to a really rather nice park which was populated by middle class mothers having picnics with their children, then a brief interlude of streets and houses with a Lidl (Austerity Britain spreads its tentacles into the Outer Suburban Hinterland) and a young mother having a conversation with her neighbour about how she had had to break into her own house the other day after locking herself out- "I was trying to get in through the cat flap, and all the neighbours were there taking pictures on their phones!  I'm all covered in bruises today!"

Good to see the concept of neighbourly concern is alive and well in South London.  Then again, perhaps they thought she was a burglar and were trying to gather evidence.  There were a lot of "Danger!  Neighbourhood watch!" signs around with pictures of meerkats on.  After all, a handy pack of meerkats is exactly what you would need if your house was being burgled.

I pressed on, and soon reached Sidcup, which has an old house in a park which has handily been turned into the sort of pub where elderly people go to have an Earlybird meal on a Friday afternoon which was, naturally, just the time I had arrived.  After enjoying that classic Mediterranean combination  "lasagne and chips" with a slice of a certain kind of garlic bread that comes in a ready-made, plastic-sealed frozen and pre-chopped baguette, I headed off for the latter part of the walk, which was basically a massive trek through some woods.  Loads and loads of endless bloody woods.
Sidcup House.  Haute cuisine for the elderly Earlybird connosieur

Now I like the woods.  The woods (no woods are ever referred to by name, all are simply known as "the woods") are where I spent much of my childhood, attempting to cross ankle-deep streams without getting wet and feeling as though I had just kayaked the length of the Amazon by doing so, introducing reluctant parents to the joys of crossing said streams and enjoying what was quite possibly the single most hilarious highlight of my entire childhood when they fell in (legendary moment Dad), but when it comes to simply walking through them, they can get a bit boring.  After all, there's not much of a view and walking through the woods simply isn't as interesting as running through them as a child, climbing things and finding buried treasure (unfortunately the buried treasure we usually found was porn magazines.  One of the most brilliant things about the internet is surely that one never has to worry about porn in the woods anymore, as clearly whoever looks at it now has a much more easily disguised source of titillation that never needs to visit the woods and never would, due to the fact that most woods still haven't been activated with free wi-fi).

Anyway, I somehow managed to find my way through the myriad of woodland tracks without getting lost and eventually found my way out of the woods and into what the London Loop guidebook describes as "Trainspotter's Paradise," meaning this.
 A railway bridge.  Over this
Some track

In reality there were three railway bridges, but I took a picture of this one as it was the least health and safety conscious, i.e. the only one without a thorough covering of barbed wire.  Compared with the other two this looked like something from The Railway Children.  I half expected to see a young Jenny Agutter running down the track with a red flag as a steam train chugged behind, cloaking us all in a great black blanket of soot.

Shortly after crossing the many bits of track, I arrived in Petts Wood where a teenage girl was standing outside the station looking terrified as her friend came to meet her.

"Are there ants here?" she enquired gingerly.  "Yes," her friend answered.  

"Are they the flying ones?  I'm scared!"

Aren't we all.  Surely the apacalypse itself will be heralded by a plague of flying ants.

When I got home, I discovered that I had been bitten all over my legs, despite wearing leggings.  Bloody woods.  Bloody flying ants.

Thursday, 25 July 2013

Thames Path Part 2176 (feels like): Wallingford-Dorchester

My mother's suggestion to alleviate boredom the other day was "Why don't you go off walking on your own somewhere, like Julia Bradbury?"

I didn't mention that Julia probably has something of an entourage, as I don't think she's filming herself walking about in all those TV programmes, but as I had been fully intending to do some walking over the summer holidays, in lieu of an actual summer holiday (have you SEEN the prices of last minute package holidays these days?  And who wants to go all-inclusive anyway?  Doesn't that mean you're chained to the hotel and can't leave?) I decided it was time that I knocked off some more mileage on the Thames Path.  After all, I've only been walking it for like, two and a half years.

I headed off to Wallingford, which is ridiculously awkward to get to.  I therefore not only spent an inordinately huge amount of time sitting around at Reading Station waiting for the infrequent train that would take me into the wilds of Berkshire/Oxfordshire (I'm a bit hazy on where the borders actually lie), but the nearest I could get to was Cholsey, after which I was reliant on the local buses.

Note to self, never be reliant on local buses.  Especially not in the countryside where they only arrive about once every two days.

Alas, before I had even arrived at the starting blocks, let alone been released from them, I faced a grim decision; a 45 minute wait at a bus stop with no seat and a less-than-enticing street view, or a 56 minute (thanks Google maps) walk from Cholsey to Wallingford.  I could scarcely believe the audacity of the bus companies who for some reason did not appear to have timed their buses to arrive exactly five minutes after the arrival of a train bearing people who might potentially not want to stay in Cholsey (which is basically a street with a Co-Op) and might want to go somewhere marginally more interesting (Wallingford has a Waitrose).  Therefore my first glimpse of life on the Thames Path in months was this:
The Cholsey-Wallingford road

Roughly 56 minutes later, I did eventually get there and was finally able to set off.  Given that I had left my flat sufficiently early for it still to be regarded as the rush hour (I had to STAND UP on the train.  RUDE) the fact that it was now 2pm was disappointing.  Clearly I was not going to be able to cover the 74 miles (or something like that) of meandering river pathways between Oxford and wherever I was (just outside Oxford) in one day at this late hour.

I made it to Dorchester.  Just.  Number of Special Brew-swilling tramps seen: 0 (the joys of venturing outside the M25); Number of Local Yokels Befriended: 3 (VERY impressive.  Four if you count the elderly lady in the wheelchair that two of them were pushing); Number of Times Got Trapped in Caravan Park: 2 (why the sudden proliferation of caravan parks?  WHY?)

My favourite bit was the enjoyable encounters with the locals.  The first of these occurred on the second occasion of entrapment in caravan park, when a jolly middle aged man on a bicycle rode past yelling "It's a dead end!  I didn't know that either!" to warn me of the dangers ahead, and then enquired "Do you work in the Crazy Bear?"

The Crazy Bear sounds like a great place.

He then suggested that I visit a local village "where they film Morse and stuff."  I hoped the "stuff" was Midsomer Murders.  This place had "death by pitchfork in the back during midnight satanic ritual" written all over it.  Not literally though.  There was definitely no graffiti to be seen.

When I finally got to Dorchester (thanks again Google maps) the problem was getting out again.  After two fruitless circuits of the entire village looking for the bus stop for the fabled bus to Oxford, which I had been reliably informed by the bloke in the tea shop was nearby, I collapsed, beaten, onto the grass outside the graveyard that the bus stop was allegedly near.  The only bus stops were going back to Wallingford and not due for over an hour, and there was no one in sight to ask for directions.  Just at that moment, an older couple came out of the graveyard pushing an elderly woman in a wheelchair.  Civilisation!  Human beings!  I asked them if they knew of this fabled bus to Oxford.  They were clueless.

"Well, we live here, but we've never seen a bus, have we?" (already this was looking promising).

I told them that I was willing to go anywhere the bus would take me, preferably a location with a train station.  

"Really?" hollered the man, "well if you can do that then I think you're marvellous!"

I suddenly felt very intrepid, like Ray Mears with a live python slung over his shoulder trekking through the jungles of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

"Where are you trying to get to?" enquired the woman.

When I answered London, she looked as flabbergasted as Dick Whittington's mum when he tossed his stick over his shoulder, fastened a small pouch on the end containing all his worldly possessions and told her he was off to make his fortune where the streets were paved with gold.

"Surely you're not going to get there tonight?" she gasped.  It was 5.10pm.  I was still fairly hopeful that I hadn't missed the last train.

Fortunately, I managed to find a slightly more worldly local on the other side of the road five minutes later, and she told me of the correct location of the fabled bus stop which, contrary to the expectations of some, did in fact exist.  And took me all the way back to Reading, from whence I managed not to miss the last train, and arrived home while it was still light.  Here it is, my saving grace, some way out of the village, and I did accidentally try and flag down at least two transit vans and a coach full of schoolchildren while stood here waiting for the bus, but the main thing is I got home.