Saturday, March 31, 2012

Day 34: The South Cheshire Way

Distance: 18.2 miles
Bear Arms: Dawn, yes; Al, no

First a bit of blog housekeeping. We've heard from a couple of people who have had trouble with the word matching captcha thing that Blogger requires of anonymous commenters. So I turned it off, because we love comments! If you've had issues with that, or have been intimidated by the commenting procedure, try it again; should be easier now. Also, it seems that Google must have changed their spam classifier because yesterday about half the comments were mistakenly classified as spam. I reinstated all the comments, and we'll keep an eye out in the future.

Today was grey. In the morning, there was the faintest trace of drizzle, like it was trying to rain. Later, the grey turned white in patches, like it was trying to get sunny. The weather didn't succeed in either; it just stayed grey. It wasn't cold. It wasn't warm. It wasn't quite windstill, but despite little breezes trying to build up, it never got windy either. Just a middle of the road grey all day long. Which is fine walking weather, so no complaints.

Today we left Shropshire and started in on our seventh county: Cheshire. We spent nearly the whole walk on a waymarked path, the South Cheshire Way, which makes its way across pastures, crops, lanes, and, where unavoidable, the occasional A-road. The waymarks on the ground started out pretty far apart, putting the path in the middle of my three level path classification system, and leading to lots of scenes like the one in the photo above. As the hours rolled past we moved more into the heart of the county, and the signs got better and better, and by the end of the day, the SCW was clearly top tier. This is great, since we will be on the same path most of tomorrow.

We weren't sure that we'd encounter any open pubs on the way, so we started the day in a Whitchurch Tesco on our way out of town. We bought some apples, a block of cheese, a few buns, and a big bag of salt and vinegar crisps - the perfect lunch.

Dawn's rapport with the farm animals was at an all time high today. Twice today, we walked through a field of cows busy turning grass into cow pies, and they'd look up, see Dawn, and follow her. Look how sad they are after Dawn cruelly left the field through the human only gate, and left the cow gate closed.

She had power over the sheep as well, though today seemed a bit lighter on sheep than most days we've had.

We passed by a small lake today, ironically named Marbury Big Mere, where a guy was fishing for perch. I think that this was our first real lake of the trip. Here's a picture of the mere with the church from day one photoshopped into the background.

At five to twelve we walked by a pub, the Bhurtpore in Aston, due to open at noon. We waited five minutes, had our lunch there, and carried our Tesco provisions the rest of the day. This worked out well. Our B&B is a farmhouse, miles from anything - so we used the Tesco food as our dinner instead.

Tomorrow the weather is supposed to clear, giving sunshine again and 13 degrees. Perfect!

Location:Wrinehill Rd,,United Kingdom

Friday, March 30, 2012

Day 33: Whitchurch

Distance: 10ish miles (GPS battery fail)
Photo count: 3

Today ended up being a really short walk. When Al was mapping it out, for some reason he had us taking a round about route in order to stay on the Shropshire Way. Our experience the other day made us rethink that decision. With the help of our hosts at Soulton Hall, we were able to take a very direct, relatively painless route to Whitchurch. It did involve a rather harrowing bit along a twisty B road at the end, but we survived.

So, since this was a pretty uneventful day (not even any cute baby animal pics!), I thought I could follow up on Al's post from a week or so ago and answer the question "why are you doing this walk?!".

Well, I could say it's because Al wanted to, but that's not true. It's true that he came up with the idea and I probably never would have myself, but I wouldn't be here if I didn't want to be. The facts that I love walking in England and I wanted to see more of the country are also true. But mostly, I wanted to see if I could do it. I am not, as they say over here, very sporty. Never have been. So this kind of, admittedly not terribly extreme, physical challenge has never been something that I've sought out. This trip gives me the chance to try to do something that not many people have done. Something that I'd never have predicted I would even try to do. And it's going quite well! My feet are sore at the end of the day, but I seem to have turned the corner in the last week or so. I can definitely walk farther without as much soreness and my overnight recovery is better too. And I still haven't had to take any Advil! So that's why I'm doing the walk. Plus there's the added bonus of being with Al. After 25 years, it's still fun to be on an adventure together.

Tomorrow that adventure takes us onto the South Cheshire Way. I hope it's well traveled!

And since we can't have a post with no pictures, here's one of the pub we had dinner at in Whitchurch.

And here's one Al took of himself.

Location:Sedgeford,Whitchurch,United Kingdom

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Day 32: Soulton Hall

Distance: 18.0 miles
Metar: EGBB 291020Z 33007KT CAVOK 15/06 Q1029
Posting this a day late, on our day off. We had a nice late relaxing big dinner yesterday, and since Dawn doesn't drink wine, I had to drink nearly the entire bottle, and then a coffee with whiskey in it along with dessert, and it was getting late, and, well, anyway, I procrastinated on the blog till today. I was expecting a torrent of angry comments on the delay, and also supporting comments from people who had read yesterday's blog with tears in their eyes. Where are you all?
Yesterday we said goodbye to our friend the Severn River. From Shrewsbury, it turns southwest to its headwaters in the mountains of Wales, and we need to go the other way. From here, our route swings northeast around Manchester and to the south end of the Pennines. From there we head north to Haworth, in West Yorkshire, where we'll have our next rest day - a three day break for Easter.
Other than a few miles at each end, we spent the day on the Shropshire Way. On the map, the Shropshire Way is a dashed green line with green diamonds - very easy to follow. And as the day started out, it was easy to follow on the ground as well, a wide, well travelled path, with signs at every fork. In cool, sunny, morning air, we wound our way though pleasant woods, saying "Morning" to people walking their dogs; it was nice.
We saw on the map that our path took us by the ruins of Haughmond Abbey. We hadn't done any homework, didn't really know what to expect, but there was one of those English Heritage castle icons which often means "impressive". And it was.

English Heritage has built a little gift shop, and put up some sign boards, and installed some benches in the ruin, which is cool. They charge a few pounds to get in, which is also cool. And they surrounded the whole site with barbed wire, and specified that it's only open some hours - not cool. Oh well, it was still really something to walk around and see from outside the fence.

You get a clear birds eye view of the layout, since most of the buildings are just foundations now. One high archway is still intact, and a couple of the buildings. I found out later that the Abbey started around 1100, was given the official abbey stamp of approval in 1155, was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1539, and was burned and mostly abandoned a hundred years later during the civil war. Over five hundred years of history in that one sentence!

After the abbey, the Shropshire Way started to get a bit sketchier. I've learned to classify footpaths into three levels. At the top are paths like the Cotswold Way, where the path is easy to see on the ground, it matches up with what's on the map, and there are waymarks on the ground to keep you honest. That's what the Shropshire Way had delivered so far. But now the Way dropped to the middle level. Here, you lose some, often most, waymarks on the ground, and sometimes the path fades a little, but with a bit of map and compass work you can still figure out where the right of way goes, and there you'll find the necessary stiles and bridges so you can make your way. Walking paths at this middle level is slower, since you're stopping all the time to read the map, and since the path is sometimes more of a hackathon through a field than a real path - but this level is gratifying because of how Dawn's map reading skills are rewarded over and over. We made slow but steady progress.

As we so often do, we stopped in a church yard to sit on a bench, put on our bear arms (it was warming up), and have a snack. This is not just a recycled picture of a church from day one, it's the church in the beautiful village of Astley. Every church has something special. This one had freaky stone heads carved into the stone of the tower. Maybe all the churches have them, but for some reason I really noticed them here.

Here's a close up.

We made it to the village of Hadnall just after noon in need of lunch, but the pub was closed. We asked a lady tending her garden if there was anything else, and she pointed us to a restaurant just down the road. It was a little high end for us, with our packs, our boots, and my nylon shorts, but they were quite welcoming and told us they don't stand on ceremony. We sat in the corner of the bar, ordered diet coke (Dawn) and tea (me), and put in food orders for a bagel with mushrooms and tarragon cream, which looked like this

And a quite posh cheese and pickle sandwich

Our waiter came by and started taking my tea. "I'm not done!" I protested. He was very nice, and didn't make fun of me, even though I'm sure I came across as the dumbest git to fall from the turnip truck in the past few months. He was just collecting our drinks to lead us from the bar table to our dining table. The dining room was elegant; we were dressed like bums. To cap it off, my t-shirt was on inside out. The food was really tasty, and fortunately the dining room was empty except for us. To their credit, the folks at the restaurant treated us as if we were dressed to the nines.

After Hadnall, we climbed a couple of hundred feet through the Corbett wood (likely named after Reg) up to the town of Grinshill. Here I am taking a breather on the way up; the bench is chiseled out of the rock along with the date: 1880.

After this, the Shropshire Way went from the middle of my three level footpath scale down to the lowest level. At the lowest level, the waymarks, when they exist at all, go from disks with path names and arrows to things like this.

The terrain and the map begin to diverge. Finally, at the lowest point, following the lovely green line on the map leads you into the middle of a field with no clear exit, like this.

What you do now is look around for some escape to a lane, or someone's yard, or something. We found it at the edge of the field, where we hopped a fence into a school yard. Some kid pointed at us and said "hey, who's that?". We bolted.
After another class three foot path, we finally made it to Soulton Hall. Since we first saw the website, our dream was to stand on the roof of this building and taunt passersby.

But we're happy enough just to stay here. There's been a manor house here since the thirteenth century, or maybe earlier, but the current house wasn't built until the 1550s, when Sir Rowland Hill, who had been Lord Mayor of London, bought the place and remodeled it into an Elizabethan Borg cube.

It's been owned by the same family ever since. Can you see the family resemblance across 460 years to Tim? (who could not find a diplomatic way out of posing for this photo) Tim is Oxford educated, spent a year in Los Angeles considering a law degree, and after all that decided to come home to Soulton Hall to help with the family house and farm. Sir Rowland would be proud!

Our room is in the old part of the house, and the construction is really something. The big (roughly eight by eight) beams are fit together with tongue and groove and dowels. I guess you couldn't just stop by Home Hardware for a bag of nails back then. After centuries of settling, the floors and walls all come together at crazy slanted angles. Some walls are finished with 500 year old plaster parging. I Iike it.
It would be great just to stay here, but we've got to move on. Tomorrow is a short day to Whitchurch. Our plan is to sleep in a little, maybe till 7, then have a late breakfast and be on our way.

Location:Wem,United Kingdom

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Day 31: Shrewsbury

Distance: 14.3 miles
Sunburns: 2 arms and a neck

Yet another perfect day for walking. We left Coalbrookdale through a beautiful little gorge.

We strayed away from the River Severn with plans to meet up with it at the end of the day in Shrewsbury. I recently learned that only the Welsh say Shrewsbury like "taming of the". It should be pronounced like "shrow, shrow, shrow your boat".
Although the day was beautiful, there was a tinge of sadness. I'll let Al explain.

Not real sadness so much as loss. The story starts with me (Al, now) spending weeks poring over dozens of Ordnance Survey maps, sorting possibilities out for our route. The left side of map 242 stood out, right from the start. West of the A4169 and south of the M54, the Shropshire plain is like a beautiful pine board with a deep oval knot. The knot lines are contours, showing a magnificent prominence, towering over the countryside: The Wrekin. Google spoke of the magnificent views. I wanted it. Even though it meant a four mile diversion, and an extra thousand feet of climbing. I highlighted two routes, one including The Wrekin and one without. I knew I'd need to talk Dawn into it.

In Bridgnorth, we were chatting with our hostess, Allison, and we learned that she was Shropshire born and bred. What a lucky break! I knew from Google that the people of Shropshire love The Wrekin! "When you see The Wrekin, that's when you know you're home", they'd say. Dawn and Allison had rapport, so I made a strategic decision to bring up the question of the best route by bringing Allison into the conversation. "We're thinking of climbing The Wrekin on our way to Shrewsbury", sez me. "Great idea, right?"

"Ha ha ha ha", she answered. Her laughter went several levels deep. At the first level was my coarse Canadian accent and inability to pronounce simple words. "It's not Wrekin, it's Wrekin" (like in "rekindle", not like in "Wreckin' Crew"). She also corrected my Shrewsbury pronunciation, as I pronounced it like a Welshman.

But her critique went deeper. "It's just a bump" she said. "You're walking all the way to Shrewsbury, why would you climb all the way up there?".

"But I thought people from Shropshire loved The Wrekin", I countered, pronouncing it correctly this time.

"We do. If you had a free Sunday afternoon, then, sure, go climb The Wrekin. But to go out of your way up a bump, and then just to get a view over a plain - it makes no sense." Dawn nodded, agreeing with such sage advice. I could see I was backed into a corner. So today, we walked right up to The Wrekin footpath - and continued past it, leaving the climb for another day. Dawn was happy to avoid an extra four miles and a climb, and did her crazy pole swinging dance.

I know it was the right decision. An extra couple of hours, and a big climb, to see basically the same view we had on the Cotswold Way, would have been bad. But still, I felt some regret as we passed the trail by.

Two paths diverged in a yellow wood ...
And I took the one that did not lead up The Wrekin.

Let me just wipe up my tears....
Luckily, Al was able to pull himself together and continue our walk. We passed by the little village of Wroxeter which is located within the area once occupied by the Roman city of Viroconium Cornoviorum. Wroxeter is a tiny hamlet, while Viroconium was, at it's peak one of the largest cities in Britain with a population of more than 15,000. A portion of the baths has been excavated and includes the largest freestanding Roman ruins in Britain.

We couldn't walk around the ruins, since it's closed during the week this time of year, but we were able to see most of it from the lane. Viroconium was first established in 58 AD and remained as a settlement until the beginning of the 8th century! Down the road in the village, we stopped for lunch at the churchyard.

Interestingly, the oldest parts of the church were built from stones taken from the Roman ruins. Today the church is a redundant Church of England, which means it no longer has services but is still consecrated. It is under the care of the Churches Conservation Trust. Lucky for us, it was open. The font is made from a piece of column taken from the Roman ruins.

There were several tombs with effigies, the oldest of which was dated 1555.

It really is a beautiful church, and even though the town has dwindled, I'm glad it's being preserved.

The rest of the walk was a bit of a slog along busy B and A roads. (Thank god for the foot ways!)

But, as usual, there's always something to see.

This is Attingham Park, a former country home now owned by the National Trust. It took us ages to walk by it's walls! It's late and this is getting long, so you'll have to follow the link. There's a good picture of the whole thing. We only got a little peek at it.

Tomorrow we're off to Soulton Hall and another rest day. It feels like we're a couple of slackers, but I'm still looking forward to it!

Monday, March 26, 2012

Day 30: A Full English breakfast powers us to Ironbridge

Distance: 11.6 miles
Today: Sunny
Tuesday forecast: Sunny
Wednesday forecast: Sunny
Thursday forecast: Sunny
Friday forecast: Partly Cloudy (!)
We've had more weather related problems today. Today Dawn has come down with both watch tan and farmer tan! We're not sure there is much to be done; the next three days are all calling for sunshine and eighteen degrees, just like we've had the past three days. Looking out ten days, the worst is Saturday, with a 30% chance of rain. All the rest is sunny or partly cloudy. Hey, all you people back in snowy, cold Corvallis: you should have come out here and joined us!
Our morning routine has become pretty settled in now. We're generally up before 6:30, but we have a phone alarm set so that we can't sleep later than that - except on rest days. We slowly get up, walk around on stiff legs like zombies for a while, check for email and blog comments, and get our packs together. We head downstairs for breakfast at 7:30. The modern English breakfast experience starts with a selection of yogurts, cereals, fruits. Sometimes these are in packaged containers, but the nicer places, like our place this morning, has it laid out like this.

I set myself up with grapefruit juice, and a big bowl of yogurt covered by heaps of either granola or muesli. Dawn eats yogurt, wheatabix, and fresh fruit. Our hosts usually pop in right about now, and ask us if we'd like coffee or tea, and what sort of cooked breakfast we'd like. The hosts range from very matter of fact order takers, to quite formal, to chatty and informal. Our hosts this morning, Allison and Jonathan, were the latter, in the very best possible way.

We need coffee in the morning. It pretty much always arrives in a French press, except for the real restaurants (like our London hotel) which serve espresso. But the French press does not guarantee good coffee! The best coffee we've had was in Cornwall, and it's pretty much gone downhill since then. For reasons I don't understand, I drink several cups of coffee even if it's bad, and the bad coffee does not sit well two hours of walking later. But maybe the downhill trend has stopped, because this morning's coffee was great - I can hope!

The modern English breakfast is a two phase deal: after the cereal comes a cooked breakfast. It's like two breakfasts in one - I love this country! Everyone will do simple standards or a Full English, and sometimes they have specialities of the house, like pancakes or omelets. Dawn has gotten into the habit of ordering a standard: scrambled eggs on brown toast. I nearly always go for the Full English. The typical Full English comes with an egg, sausage, bacon, fried tomato, fried mushroom, toast, and, on a good day, baked beans. Every place has their own little variations. If the host seems nice, I'll ask politely if I might have two eggs, and I try and get them poached, in an effort to be heart healthy. Here's how it looked this morning.

The big black disk is Allison's replacement of the normal fried button mushrooms: a thick grilled portabello. A very nice surprise! The brown circles are Shrewsbury biscuits, kid of like scones, which is her upgrade to simple toast. Most places fry everything, but Allison does everything on the grill. This is pretty much top of the line breakfast in my book. To contrast, we had breakfast at a greasy spoon sort of diner yesterday morning. The tomatoes were cheap canned romas, the mushrooms were out of a can, the sausage was fatty and greasy, and everything was fried. Oh, and the coffee was swill.

The bacon they serve in England is nothing like the bacon at home. It's what we'd call back bacon - and instead of strips, they come in rashers. It's not smoked the way ours is; tastes more like normal ham than how I think of bacon. Dawn really misses the nice crisp smokiness of home. I like both; the thick heartiness of a rasher really hits the spot first thing in the morning.
Some places also serve hog's pudding (southwest country) or black pudding (more northern England). These are sausages made from bits of animals that normal people would never consider eating, except maybe on a dare. The main ingredient in black pudding is boiled blood. The texture is weirdly gritty. Bits get stuck between your teeth. It's just terrible. Hog's pudding is not quite as bad, but still, my advice is to just say "no". See if you can spot the black pudding in this breakfast from the Zetter, our London hotel (the first and last time I ordered it).

At the Endsliegh, back in Devon, the waitress was very sweet and convinced me to try some Hogs pudding. "It's so good", she cooed. It wasn't.

Although I usually go for the Full English, I'm not closed minded. In Cornwall, I made the very wise choice to try their local smoked Haddock with a poached egg on toast. The best was in Penzance, prepared by Simon and Susan at Camilla house, but I didn't take a picture before eating it. I had the same kind of thing a few days later at Penarwyn House, which was also quite good.

We're here in March, not exactly holiday time, and we like to eat early, so often we are the only ones eating. But sometimes there will be more people in the dining room. This morning we were lucky enough to be joined by another couple, here from northwest England on holiday. Friendly, nice folks, with challenging accents. I wonder if people with strong accents have as much trouble understanding me? Unfortunately, I didn't get a picture of them, so here's another one of our table, this time including Dawn's scrambled egg on toast.

After breakfast, we change from our breakfasting clothes into our hiking clothes, exchange shoes for boots, finalize the packs, pay the bills, and out we go. Usually we're walking by a quarter till nine, sometimes earlier, but today it was more like half past nine before we were underway. We were having such a nice time at Churchdown House that we lingered as long we could, and besides, today was a short day: not even twelve miles.

Once you get up north of Stourport-on-Severn, the river is no longer navigable to cruisers and barges. No more locks, and a lot more current. It's still mostly a wide, slow river, but here and there you see some riffles, and even small rapids. As we were walking, I was thinking how this was a river more my Dad's style, where you could put on waders, carry a fly pole out into the water, and maybe luck into some trout. Sure enough, around the bend, here's what we see.

Farther south, the fishing scene is a lot different. The river is lined with platforms on both sides, like little docks, sometimes just a few dozen yards apart, with numbers posted at the top so you know which sits which.

We didn't see anyone fishing off of these platforms, but I know how it would go. There'd be a guy with a tweed sports coat and cap, holding a spinning pole and behind him would be his valet, weighed down with bags of gear and an empty creel. "I say Thomas, be a good chap and bait my hook". "Yes, milord. Would you like one worm or two milord?". This is repeated every twenty yards down the river.
I mentioned yesterday how churches dot the landscape here. Even more common than churches are manors. There's a great range from relatively modest Victorian mansions, to enormous over the top places. Today we spotted a beauty across the river.

It's called Apley Hall, and was built by remodeling a more modest Georgian house in 1810. It was a grand house in the nineteenth century, with a big staff of servants, format dinners, balls. But times changed, and in the sixties it was repurposed for a few decades as a boarding school, and after the school closed in 1987 it sat completely empty, deteriorating, for ten years. Since then it's been repurchased and renovated, and it seems they are turning the grand house into flats.

After a pot of tea at a riverbank pub, we soon arrived at Ironbridge. They say this place is where the industrial revolution kicked off, and they might be right. It's really interesting stuff, and I'd love to write about it, but this post is already too long. And besides, I've got to get to bed - I need to get up in eight hours and have my Full English Breakfast! But first, here's a picture of Dawn with A giant teddy bear.

Tomorrow we are walking through the Shropshire countryside to the market town of Shrewsbury. I learned from my sister in law Lianne that there's a series of books about a guy from there named Brother Cadbury. I think he invented the process for getting creamy nougat into those little chocolate squares - genius!

Location:Woodside,Telford,United Kingdom