Day 8 – The Final Leg

Body tiring, the weight of 7 days of travel hanging from my bones, it was time to get up and at the road for the last day of the journey.

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I had breakfast with my sister, Lisa, at the pub near the hotel, stocking up on the cooked breakfast I was now accustomed to.

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The first third of the walk followed the canal by two massive reservoirs and under the North Circular. It still felt as though we were far from the city centre, as the various birds bobbed about on the water, and canal boats lazily meandered past us.

At Tottenham Marshes we got off the canal route and headed to the louder side of London.

We stopped off at White Hart Lane for a quick photo and to think of Jamie, the other half of my charities that I have been walking for. I have worked for and with Maria for many years, a driven, ambitious woman that above all else loves her son. Unfortunately her son Jamie died, and the energy that Maria put into her love for him is still as strong as ever and lives through the James Ahern foundation, that aims to pass on the compassionate nature that Jamie always showed, helping other young people in their dreams and passions, as well as helping the most vulnerable in the local community. At the core it has an ideal which I just love, which is to help make others smile. Jamie was a huge Tottenham Hotspur fan, and so it was nice to have this stop on the way in to London.

The journey from Tottenham to the city centre was not of great interest. My local tour guide (my sister, Lisa) pointed out all the trendy suburbs as we passed through, such as Stoke Newington and Shoreditch, and I saw a lot of the London I like, the streets lined with independent cafes, shops and restaurants, full of noise and activity as you would expect on a Saturday.

The first stop in the centre of London was the City Museum of London, which holds a fragment of the cross that used to stand in Cheapside (or Westcheap, as it used to be called). It was incredible to see it in person in the museum, and we made the short walk down to Cheapside itself to try and figure out where it once stood.

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From The Strand, we popped down to the Thames. My feet at this point were at their very limit, but seeing the river and the in the distance, familiar sites of London, it helped to keep me going and to make the end.

At Charring Cross station we got to the last cross, the replica that stands directly outside of the front of the station. That was it, the last of all the crosses. It was difficult at the time to know how I felt as my feet were just crying out in pain, and I just decided to take it all in, then go down to where the Charles I statue sits, on the roundabout at Charring Cross, where the original stood.

With the journey complete, I could really feel a sense of accomplishment, and it was nice to think back on this last day, of all the others that had preceded it. I’d like to take a moment to thank everybody that has left a message of encouragement, and to the people who have donated to the two charities I decided to walk for. I hope that you have enjoyed keeping up with the blog, and hopefully this is just the start of more adventures to come.

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We rested finally in The Westminister Arms, right at the heart of London (a rather brilliant pub, although I may be biased in this regard) and a glass of champagne (thank you Gerry!), before going back to my sister’s house to relax, drink and more importantly, sleep.

Day 7 – Birthday Biking

For those that don’t know, today is my birthday, and I’ve reached the rather young age of 29. I’m not one for celebrating birthdays to an extreme degree, just enjoying a meal with family and friends is enough for me. To be out on the road, enjoying the weather (for most of the day) was a great experience for my birthday, with no outside pressures to worry about, just the open road.

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Today was to be the shortest day, time-wise, a mere 19 miles by bike. I woke up rather early, possibly as my routine has changed, possibly for the little bit of alcohol I had the night before. I had my breakfast at the hotel and headed back on the road pretty early.

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Almost immediately I found myself on a trail called The Alban Way, which stretches from St Albans to Hatfield. It is a smooth path, built upon an old railway that used to run its length.

Dotted around the path are the old railway stations which have been done up with flowers and signs to mark its past, and if you ever have a chance to ride or walk it, I would thoroughly recommend it.

After reaching Hatfield, or which there was little to note as the path ran through trees through the centre of it, I made my way across country roads and back trails.

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The going was tough as the weather decided to have a mardy and throw rain at me, but I was prepared for the weather and got everything wrapped up in waterproofs and soldiered on. Waltham Cross was within sight and I couldn’t wait to see my next cross.

I put on some more music, as you can see is customary for my journey. This time it was a mix of Folk music that I had saved on my phone. One song that stands out in it is by Sharon Van Etten, who has this very earthy tone that almost puts me into a trance.

The cross in Waltham Cross is situated in the middle of a pedestrianised high street filled with shops, but it is still rather large, and it a modernised replica of the original, which stood close to where this one did. It’s a very nice reconstruction and bears a great resemblance to the crosses that are still standing in Geddington and Northamtpon. There isn’t much more to say about Waltham Cross apart from it feels very much like London, because I guess it is.

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I’m always rather torn with London. For every feature that I love of the city, there is something that irritates me. I love visiting London, and some of the people that I have met, that live there, have been great people. I suppose what it is for me is the bustle of it. I’m at a much slower pace than London, the people whizzing around with places to go and people to see. I’m not saying they’re wrong when they try to squeeze every ounce of life, like squeezing lemon juice from fresh lemon, I’m just saying my brain isn’t wired that way. It will be nice to experience it again, though, as my favourite thing is being in places that are different to what I’m used to, with people that aren’t immediately similar to me.

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At this point my trusty steed gained a puncture, and so I was back to my feet for the last 3 or 4 miles to the hotel. A big milestone for me was passing under the M25, which is considered the modern boundary of Greater London, I was here and almost at my journey’s end.

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I took the winding route off the main roads and enjoyed the small walk to the hotel, ready to celebrate my birthday with some of the people that I love.

Day 6 – Getting into the Groove

It was another enjoyable day on the road, again on my bike, taking in the sights between Woburn and St Albans.

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I started the day in Woburn, deciding to walk off my breakfast and enjoy the grounds of the abbey and the last of countryside for a while.

I had been warned by a friend that the scenery in Dunstable left a little to be desired, and so my plan was to get through the town as quickly as possible. It’s true that the town is a little worn-down, and even the tribute to Eleanor is tucked away from the high street, easily missed if not sought. The assumption is that the cross used to be on the crossroad, just up from the modern interpretation nestled away.

Heading throught Dunstable, on the Dunsty-road, straddling my metallic steed, it was time to listen to some latin-soul, that always reminds me of the deserts of south-western America, specifically the music by Tommy Guerrero.

And so I made good time through Dunstable, heading to a road-side pub for a quick lunch, and a break before heading off to St Albans.

I was looking forward to seeing St Albans, an old city that supposedly has a lot of charm and ancient buildings. The journey was short (relative to what I had done to date) and I was in the city in the early afternoon, giving me ample room to check into my hotel. This gave me plenty of time for exploration. I walked up and down the city, checking out the old buildings and heading to the clock tower, close to where the cross reputedly stood all those years ago, as well as checking out the cathedral, which is a common site for tourists to see. It was interesting to see all the layers of workmanship as the cathedral had been worked upon for hundreds of years.

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It was then off the Ye Olde Fighting Cocks, which is just down the hill from the cathedral. It is said to be one of the oldest pubs in England. Although coming from Nottingham, it has nothing historically on Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem, but maybe I am a biased person in that regard.

After a couple of lovely ales, it was time for food. As it is my birthday the next day, I decided to treat myself to a great little European-style brasserie, indulging in Camembert and Roquefort. I finished the meal with a Calvados, which was a favourite of my grandpa, Sir Dennis Pettitt, and one I have become accustomed to enjoying because of him.

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After asking the bartender for a recommendation for somewhere to drink, I found myself in a place called Suckerpunch. It was a very modern, cool bar, where they specialise in cocktails. I had the best Old Fashioned I have ever drunk here. If you aren’t afraid to splash out on your drinks, this was an incredible experience, and even though it was a little pricey, it was most certainly worth every penny. I would do well to find cocktails that good again.

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Back to the hotel, and to bed. Tomorrow is a short-ish day on the bike, the last on my steed, and although it has little noteworthy to see, I intend to take it slowly and enjoy the journey, hoping to see some familiar faces at the hotel, ready to tackle the final day by foot.

Day 5 – The Metallic Steed

It was time to get off my feet for a bit and continue the journey by bicycle. I had looked at this part of the route for some time, and really wanted to incorporate the Grand Union Canal between Stoke Bruerne and Cosgrove, for reasons I will come to later.

A slightly bizarre breakfast of prunes and leftover pizza from the night before and it was a short walk up the hill to see the cross in Northampton. It’s a great version of the cross and has been nicely restored, and I’ve seen it hundreds of times with it being on the main road into Northampton from the south.

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Next was Grand Union Canal, which I jumped on straightaway and followed it round to the Blisworth Tunnel, into Stoke Bruerne and down to Cosgrove.

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I made a quick stop near the start to load up on sunscreen and get all the sun-gear out as the weather was really good. It was great to be off the main roads, dodging lorries and fast cars, just enjoying the sun and taking the quiet route. I’m really glad my plans of walking the entire length of the journey were scuppered as I wouldn’t be able to do this route otherwise.

One of the reasons I was so keen is one of the reasons I’m doing this journey. My step-dad, Dennis, died last October of complications from one of three health conditions he was fighting with. One of my charities is the UCL, who treated his Amyloidosis and helped him to fight it. Unfortunately he had a stroke, which impaired his movement somewhat. Last year I was able to go on holiday with my mum, Dennis, younger brother and niece, and we took a canal boat from near Northampton down to Cosgrove, over several days. It was the perfect holiday at the time, as it allowed Dennis to see the country side that he loves without putting too much pressure on his body. It’s a holiday that you only the significance of after the fact, but I’m glad that I was on it and that I get to walk the journey we made last summer, again.

I stopped for a cider in Stoke Bruerne, Kiwi and Lime, and then another a little further down for a lemonade and half an american pale ale. It was really good going, and I really felt as though I was enjoying it more.

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The second cross of today was in Stony Stratford, just south of Cosgrove, and all that is there to show it existed was a plaque on somebody’s house. It is disputed where the statue originally stood, but it is believed to be near to the plaque, at the northern end, possibly close to the small crossroads there.

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Unfortunately after Stony Stratford, I had to travel the distance of Milton Keynes, which is a large, sprawling city. Fortunately it is a rather modern construction and so there are cycleways all the way through it that I could take advantage of and put some good miles in. A quick stop at a supermarket cafe to regroup and get out of the sun, and off for the final leg.

To get me through Milton Keynes, I put on a mix of music I’m listening to at the moment. One in particular I’m enjoying is by Michael Kiwanuka, who does some really atmospheric and moody songs. The ten minute version of the above song is definitely worth listening to over the radio edit.

It was a quick blast (walk, uphill) through Woburn Sands, then down again into Woburn itself, where one of the crosses used to stand. There is no record of the cross existing in the town and no plaque or monument, but my best guess is that it was on the main crossroads, as this was a common theme with the crosses.

My mum was waiting for me in Woburn and we enjoyed some lovely mussels, and I settled in at my guest house, which lacked any phone signal or decent wireless. So I had an early night, ready for the trip to Woburn the next day. All in all, with the detour down the canal, it was around 32 miles by bike today, and seeing as I haven’t ridden a bike in around 5 years, it was some feat for my body!

Day 4 – Self-preservation Society

After the last 3 days, my feet have taken quite a bashing, like every step was sending a dull thud through my bones.

As I said last week, I really wanted to enjoy the journey and not push myself to the point where I’m injuring myself at the sake of taking it easy. I have also changed footwear from heavy walking shoes to more comfortable and lightweight trainers, made for traversing the roads, which I have done for the majority of my walking so far. A quick breakfast, and it was on the road again.

The first hour was a short walk from Corby to Geddington, where the cross I was looking forward to the most was. The reason for this is that the Geddington Cross is the most like it originally was. It has been restored of course, but its situation in the middle of the village, surrounded by thatched cottages and ancient buildings was a great view into what it may have been like all those years ago. A lot of the crosses have been moved from their original locations, or just a plaque remains. So to see this in all its glory was a great sight.

For the walk out of Corby, I thought it would be nice to listen to some music that reflected the area well. Of course that meant for some Buena Vista Social Club, straight from the streets of Havana. Pure, rhythmic Salsa, that never fails to put me in a good mood.

From here I made the journey south to Kettering. It was an uneventful trip, only made briefly exciting with a short trip through a field with sheep in it, my presence frightening them a little.

Kettering itself looks a shell of a town. Like the money in the area has just seeped from the stone, and all that remains are the charity shops, betting places and high-street chains. I took a rest in a popular fast-food restaurant chain to get off my feet and take a bit of a rest. This was a slow day, and I wasn’t expecting to finish it by foot, and this was more than likely to be the case.

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From here it was off to Isham. I’ve been here before and know it to be a nice little village, although there is little here to be found. Fortunately there is a old-fashioned pub, The Lillacs, nestled at the back of the village, where I could enjoy a nice pint and some pork scratchings, and come to the realisation that this would be the end destination for today.

In all, 12 miles walked today, and the total walked for the week up to around 80 miles. It’s no mean feat, and despite the fact I had to take the bus back to Northampton to round off the day, I really enjoyed the trip today. It was a stark opposite to the previous day of braving the lorry-laden A-roads and wearing myself thin.

Tomorrow it looks like I’ll be taking another form of transportation to get to Woburn, a metallic steed, in order to fully take in the journey taken by the many people that travelled south to London. A perfect opportunity to rest my feet for the next couple of days and enjoy the moments I wish to enjoy the most.

Day 3 – A step too far

First of all I have to apologise for the lack of pictures today, there are two reasons for that. The first is that there were no crosses on the walk today, I had seen the one in Stamford yesterday and the next one, in Geddington, is a short walk south from where I’m staying tonight. The second reason is because I didn’t manage to walk all the way to my hotel, but we’ll get to that.

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The day started well at the guest house in Stamford, I had a nice chat with the owner, who had packed it all in, in London, and moved here to enjoy the countryside. The breakfast was lavish, with fruit, cereal and bacon sandwich on offer.

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I packed up and hit the road, mainly doing the main road that links Stamford and Corby. On the face of it, it wasn’t that long a journey, much shorter than my previous two days, but I was carrying the pain caused by those two legs. I passed into Northamptonshire pretty early on which was a nice target to hit

To keep me going through the early part of the day I listened to Valerie June. She has a beautiful voice and mixes a modern interpretation of Country and Blues music.

The road was non-descript, and mainly was cars and lorries speeding past. So not the most fun route, and not the most photo friendly. The only thing of notice to me was the glorious archway here to Deene Park.

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By the time I hit the outskirts of Corby, my legs were giving in, and I couldn’t mange it any longer, I had gotten to a snail’s pace. I took refuge in a Tesco cafe, hoping that a long rest would give me the strength to carry on. It didn’t. The pain from my feet was stinging, like the bones were bruised. I called for a taxi and went King Edward style to the hotel to check in for the night.

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It would be a lie to say I wasn’t disheartened by my lack of ability in walking those last 3 miles. But this walk is really more than the walking itself. To see each cross and remember Eleanor, and many others, is a key part to it. For me, a person’s life is like a pebble skimming across a lake. Sure the pebble will drop, but for an age you can watch the ripples expand across the water, a trace of its flight. It doesn’t matter where I’m standing when I watch it, just that I get to experience it. How much of the journey I will be able to cover by foot, I do not know, but I’m going to try and savour every second I can of this ripple of water, and walk of it what I am able to.

Day 2 – The Killer Day

One thing my uncle, Neil, said to me (among many other things), was the second day would be a killer. I knew it would be tough, believe me, but that is single-handedly the hardest thing I have ever done or experienced. But we’ll get to that…

I started the day in Grantham at my guest house, with the owner giving me a good pep talk and a great breakfast. I don’t usually eat early in the mornings, so that was my first challenge, which I couldn’t quite manage.

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We started at 9, that is me and my Dad, from the guest house, and planned to snake our way over the A1 several times. Google Maps reliably informs me that it is much quicker to walk the length of the A1, which would be an option if it wasn’t an extremely busy dual-carriageway with no pavement at all. Instead we had the long way round. Unfortunately my Dad has a history with knee problems, but he soldiered on and we made it to Colsterworth in good time, not far from where Sir Isaac Newton used to live, but far enough not to get a look in…

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I left my Dad at the local pub to be picked up and carried on, for what will be an entire day of country roads. And now I bloody hate country roads. Every one was up and down for miles, snaking through the countryside.

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At one point I had to nip across the A1 to carry on with the roads and came upon my first sign for London! Still a way to go for me, but progress regardless.

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It was around this time that I checked the football scores. For people that don’t know I support Nottingham Forest, who were battling against relegation on the last day of the season. Being able to do the walk really helped to keep my mind off things, but I couldn’t resist checking in. Forest won and were safe, and a little bounce to my step was just what I needed.

It was time to put on some Toots and the Maytals, and enjoy the little bit of sun that was peeking out from the clouds.

Again at the 20 mile mark I hit the wall, and my pace dropped. It was a long old slog through the villages at the North of Stamford, but I made it through, barely. At times, all I could think of was putting one foot in front of the other, hitting each mile as it came and trying not to concentrate on the pain. Music was a brief reprieve, and those miles ticked, ever so slowly

Settled in for the night at my next guest house, a lovely modern house with hints of antique furniture and a very homely feel, ran by a fun couple. I jumped in the bath at the first opportunity and soaked my legs. With cross number 3 photographed, I was ready for the recovery sleep.

Day 1 – Or, what have I let myself in for

Today’s trek was a short journey from Lincoln to Grantham, nearing 25 miles of roads/trails and other “paths”.

My Uncle and I started in at St Katherine’s Church in Lincoln, where the Eleanor Cross stood originally. It was here at what was once a priory, that the procession started. Immediately we were beset upon by a hill. Good to get it out of the way early.

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We made good time by sticking by the road, and enjoying the various towns and villages en route. One of these was Waddington, which my Uncle reliably informed me is now a “super” air base. We had a brief sighting of one of the surveillance planes that are flown out from her, just a short distance off of the road.

We stopped for a quick tea and coffee in Navenby, in a little local run tea shop. Navenby seemed a very quaint town, and is backed on to by Ermine Street, which was originally a Roman Road that linked Lincoln and London, funnily enough. We dove off on to Ermine Street, and it started as a nice country road, then into a track, which had more ups and downs than Game of Thrones.

We lost a little time by this point, and decided to make sure that we stuck to the roads for the remainder of the journey.

Ermine Street is not a particularly thrilling stretch of road, but we soldiered on all the way to Ancaster, and stopped at a bar in a Woodland holiday resort that my Uncle used to frequent. It was an interesting mix of caravanners, campers and fisherman and we enjoyed our first alcoholic drink of the day with a quick lunch.

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This was when the pain began. We had about 7 miles to go at this point, and although the finish seemed close, it took a rather long time as our pace lessened the closer we got to Grantham.

But hurrah! We arrived in Lincoln to my Dad and Maria (organiser of the James Ahern Foundation and mother of Jamie) to much adulation from both. We took a quick picture with the modest plaque that adorns the town hall, and I did the last 15 minute walk to my accommodation for the night. A nice little Guest House, with a lovely Victorian decor and a quirky owner, a great place to put my head down for the night before I go through it all again tomorrow, this time with the help of my Dad.

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Day 0 – Viscera, etc.

It’s Friday, and the eve of the big trek. I boarded a train in Bicester and made the long journey up to Lincoln to start things off. The journey up was uneventful, which is always a positive in terms of train travel, with a short stop for lunch in Birmingham whilst waiting for a connecting train.

I arrived in Lincoln around late lunchtime and after heading to the local supermarket for last second supplies, I made the walk into Lincoln town. The architecture of the town is a fascinating mix between modern and medieval, as Lincoln itself dates back to Classical history and the Romans.

Part of the journey to the Cathedral and Castle that sit atop the hill, is the long walk up it. Steep Hill, as it is appropriately called, is a beautiful old cobbled road that has a steep incline, and one that I have walked before. The last time, however, I was a little intoxicated, which made the journey easier and harder in equal parts. Even with fresh legs it is a tough one to tackle, and I’m hoping for no hills like this in the coming days.

First was Lincoln castle, a well-maintained fortress that dates back to William the Conqueror (and further back as a settlement, with its high vantage point being a key defensive position), and has in its grounds a part of the statue that was erected in the city, by St Katherine’s Church, where the old South Gate used to stand. This will be the start of the journey for Day 1.

I then wandered to the Cathedral, which handily was just across the road. There was some form of technology show happening in it at the time, and the place was bustling, but I managed to sneak round the affair to explore the Cathedral and hope to chance upon Eleanor’s tomb. As I rounded the back of the Cathedral, all hope seemed lost, but then I saw the emblem of Eleanor, as seen below on the tomb. The castles representing the castles of Castile in Spain, her family name, and the lions of the area of Leon, also in Spain. It was a lovely replica of the one that rests in St Paul’s Cathedral, and obviously well looked after. It is the Cathedral where Eleanor’s viscera (her insides) are buried, as part of a triple burial. The other, less gruesome parts, were taken south to London.

With the historic side of affairs dealt with, it was time to settle in a pub and wait for my uncle. He will be joining me for the first day and I will be staying at his house for the first night. I nestled myself in the Royal William IV, which sits on Brayford Wharf, a regenerated, modern part of Lincoln, that I have visited most times I have been here. It was a typical modern interpretation of an old pub, trying to keep its charm whilst accompanying modern tastes. The walk up and down Steep Hill had me thirsty for a continental lager, which I enjoyed inside and then enjoyed the view whilst waiting for my uncle.

My uncle, Neil, is exactly the sort of person you would need for this sort of expedition. The sole reason, he is absolutely driven and a little foolhardy when it comes to trying new things. He is a feet first kind of guy, doing many of these types of challenges before with little training, but with more than enough gusto. I can’t wait to see what adventures we have lined up for the first day of walking.