Sunday, 24 July 2011
The Empty Quarter
I get up to a dry, still morning for the longest day of my whole walk – nearly 20 miles from Sulgrave to Southam – and there really isn’t a lot in between. Mandy, the landlady of the pub where I’ve been staying, offers to make me a sandwich in case I can’t find anywhere to buy lunch. I’ve checked the map and I’ll pass a couple of pubs. “I’ll find something,” I tell her. In any case I’ve just had another excellent cooked breakfast.
This is horse country in a big way. People in the pub had told me to look out for the eventing centre at Aston le Walls – a potential casualty of HS2, and as I walk out across the now familiar landscape of pasture and wheat fields I seem to see more people on horseback than anything else.
But the first place I had been told to look out for was Lower Thorpe. Here, as HS2 sweeps across the valley on a viaduct, the little group of about five houses will all have to be demolished. It’s a peaceful scene today, with the cows grazing, and the mother village of Thorpe Mandeville looking down from the top of the hill (pictured below).
One of the hazards of walking over farmland is electric fences. Often there is a stile or safe place to cross, but sometimes there just isn’t. Beyond Thorpe Mandeville one blocks the only opening into the field I have to cross. It’s a spiral section of fence with an insulated handle at one end, but I can’t work out how to unhook it. I ponder for a moment. Should I jump it? It’s a bit too high. I decide to push the insulated end down with one hand, to make the whole fence low enough to step over. Easy! I’m soon across and on my way. Or so I think. Two paces later I’m pulled to a sudden stop. Dammit! The strap of my binoculars has hooked round the spiral of the fence. I try to free it but it’s like that game where you try to move a disc along a piece of twisted wire without it buzzing. Inevitably I lose. Just as I free the binoculars I touch the fence…
Obviously there isn’t a small pile of charcoal in the Northamptonshire countryside as the only evidence I was ever there. After all I’m here to write the blog. My heart thumped for a few seconds, but after that I was fine. Even so I decide to crawl under the next electric fence I come across. Less dignified perhaps but more effective.
I continue across the horse gallops to Edgcote House. This is a beautiful country seat, one of a select group of Grade 1 Listed Buildings (pictured below). HS2 will cross its park, not more than 400 m from the main house, and a good bit nearer to Home Farm. I’m shown where it will go by a horsewoman from the farm, after she has jumped down from her mount and put her tack back in the tack room.
“They’re quite happy for a railway to come right through here, but they’ve never let me put in double glazing because it’s a listed building”, she tells me. The absurdity of the whole thing makes me laugh out loud. It’s sad but funny too. The little things are subject to massive levels of control, but when the big things come along… Fortunately she laughs with me. She still had a riding crop in her hand at the time.
As I stand at the top of the hill and look back to Edgcote and to Home Farm I realise that I’m actually quite angry, for the first time on the whole walk. Angry that this outstandingly beautiful, historic and peaceful landscape could be ruined for ever. At the same time I feel ashamed that it should be this bastion of privilege that has made me feel this way, rather than any impact on our more ordinary lives. That’s a middle class Englishman for you I suppose, I think to myself.
I pass the pub at Chipping Walden, decide that it is too early for lunch, and press on across the old airfield to Aston le Walls. Washbrook Farm eventing centre has a huge “Beware of Trains” banner produced by the local action group. As far as I can see the line would run just beyond their cross country course. I can imagine it might frighten the horses, but I don’t find anyone to ask.
The sky darkens as I near my planned lunch stop at Lower Boddington. From a distance I can see that the Carpenters Arms is ominously quiet. Disaster – it’s shut! Just as the rain starts I find a small notice on the back entrance to the pub: “Due to lack of demand we will no longer be open weekday lunchtimes”. It’s 1.30. Yesterday I didn’t get any lunch until nearly 3 o’clock. Today could be worse. I check the map. A one mile detour to Upper Boddington is my best option. According to the map there is a Post Office (hopefully doubling as a small shop) and a pub.
It’s really raining hard now. When I get to Upper Boddington the shop is no longer trading, but I find the pub. I’m not sure the landlord is too impressed with a hiker in full waterproofs dripping on his floor, but when I tell him what I‘m doing, and why I’ve had to stray off the route he warms to me a little. He’s wholly unconvinced about the case for HS2. “Invest in the London commuter lines instead. Enlarge the tunnels and put on double-deck trains. That’s where all the demand is,” he tells me.
It really is quiet here. The only other customers are an English couple now living in France who are staying at the pub while they make some business calls. They can’t understand why HS2 will make so few stops. “The Bullet train in Japan serves 32 stations,” they say. “Why can’t this?”
After an enormous plate of pasta I’m back on the road. I’ve still got about ten miles to go and my left ankle has started to hurt quite a lot. I’m really glad that I’m taking rest days – I’m not sure that I would be able to walk far tomorrow. Still, at least it’s stopped raining.
Two miles on and I’m into Warwickshire. The scenery doesn’t change, still the same rolling mixture of arable, pasture and small copses. Local attitudes to HS2 don’t alter either. I get to the Oxford Canal at the point where HS2 will cross it. A huge sign “You are about to go under HS2” greets boaters with the news (pictured below). And they aren’t suggesting it’s a cause for celebration.
Canals are a sedate means of getting about at the best of times, but even by their standards the Oxford Canal is the slow route. The canal follows the contours of the land where possible, rather than using locks to change level, so it isn’t very direct. I cross it half way along the stretch between Marston Doles and Claydon. Ten lock-free canal miles, which with all the meanders only gets you five miles nearer your destination. At narrow boat speed that is more than 100 times slower than HS2!
As I cross the flat pasture land by the canal I reach the gate into a field of bullocks. I’ve passed through fields of horses, cows and sheep on this walk, even occasionally geese and goats, without incident. This time something feels different. The bullocks are approaching me before I am even through the gate. They walk purposefully towards me, some are even trotting. They get up quite a pace, only veering off at the last minute before galloping round to make another pass. My nerve starts to fail me. I go back towards the gate, and the bullocks follow.
This is ridiculous, I think. If they veered off the first time they’ll keep doing it. They’re just inquisitive. I turn round and walk firmly and decisively across their field. Trotting bullocks pass in front and behind me, and then gallop off with wild eyes. This is really quite alarming. It’s as if a group of very large three year olds who don’t know their own strength want to play tag with me. As they charge past me again a hare darts out from under the thundering hooves and dashes over to the safety of the hedgerow. Oh for a turn of speed like that.
I’m very glad to get safely over the stile on the other side. Once over it I turn round to look. The bullocks are all crowded round the stile watching me intently (pictured below). That was quite enough excitement for one day.
An hour later I’m on top of Windmill Hill looking down over Southam. I had rather hoped that I would be able to see to Birmingham from here, but it is still too far away. The cutting for HS2 will make a deep gash in the hill right where I stand, and when I come down into Ladbroke almost the first thing I see is a Stop HS2 sticker. Somewhere along the way I left the stone country, as Ladbroke is a pretty brick village, but the attitudes still haven’t changed.
The last word from today belongs to the cab driver who took me into Leamington Spa to catch the train for home. “For me it’s about fairness. HS2 will be for the more affluent. Round here they’ve cut the buses down to one every two hours, and pensioners rely on those buses. British people value fairness. The ones I talk to don’t think spending £30 billion on HS2 is right when we’re so short of money.”
I’ve finished my longest day, and will return next week for the final push into Birmingham. There, finally, I am expecting to hear different views.
You can follow my route here .