Sunday, 22 May 2011

Three on the Tow Path

Over the past few weeks I have reflected on 5 days which were, for me, totally out of the ordinary, once I had got over the eurphoria of finishing what was to become a very personal challenge, not only for myself but also for one of my book club buddies, Wendy and her 15 year old son Spencer. During these 5 days I stepped away from the routine of wake up, take meds, get up, get dressed, get breakfast, get kiddies to school, wash up, tidy up, take meds, get kiddies from school, take kiddies to after-school activity (swimming/gymnastics/brownies etc), get home, take meds, feed, water, wash up (again), tidy up (again), bathe, take meds and sleep – day in, day out.

We, as in Wendy, Spencer and myself, were to walk all 86 miles (or thereabouts) of the Kennet and Avon canal over 5 days, finishing on Easter Day. It would be an easy route to follow, being pretty much on level ground without the risk of getting lost (or so we thought) as we follow the canal as it wends its way from Bristol Temple Meads where it parts company with the River Avon, to Reading where it merges with the River Thames. Keeping it company along the way is the railway line which was responsible for the decline of the canal network, until they were reinvented and rejuvinated to become not only a place of recreation, but also a place to live and work for a great many people. I had spent many happy hours wandering up and down the stretch of the K and A between Wilcot and Burbage in my teens, but did not appreciate just how much in decline the K and A was at the time. But I'm glad to say that this is not the case any more, and I was astonished to find the K and A a thriving bustling hub of activity, especially at Bath, Bradford on Avon and Reading. The K and A, as well as many canals in the UK, is definitely not a place where life can be hurried. That said, the exception to this were the cyclists in Bath who whizzed along at breakneck speed threatening to scatter any poor smuck who got in their way. I found it difficult at times to hear them coming – as a typical human I don't possess eyes in the back of my head, and that whilst I love Bath, I was pleased to leave the cyclists to it.

When my father was alive, he often used to say “When I'm Prime Minister, I'm going to pass a law where........” and then he would trot out his plans for a better world. One of his favourite subject areas was smoking – he had a plan to ban it. Having been a chain smoker, he successfully managed to give up either before I was born, or very soon after and was the typical ex-smoker who frowned upon others addiction to the cancer sticks. So, picking up on this, I have decided that when I'm Prime Minister I'm going to make it mandatory for every man, woman and child to spend at least one week a year living on the canal and enjoying a much more relaxed and stress-free way of life. Certainly those 5 days did me the world of good and I returned home feeling much more relaxed.

So, why did Wendy, Spencer and I decide to take on such a challenge to walk 86 miles? We each had our own very good reason for doing this walk, of which mine was to raise as much money as I could for The Cure Parkinson's Trust, as well as raising awareness of Young Onset Parkinson's. Wendy's and Spencer's were to do likewise for Diabetes UK, as Husband/Dad (Paul) and younger son/sibling (Ryan) are both insulin dependent. The awareness raising was very much given a boost when Wendy, who hails from Reading, gave two radio interviews on Day 2 for local Reading stations. I got my chance on day 3, when I spoke to BBC Radio Wiltshire.

I had never ever in my life undertaken such a challenge before, and it was something that I very much wanted to do whilst my cocktail of anti-Parkinson drugs are still working in my favour. I am all too well aware that had I undertaken such an expedition 2 years ago I would not have made it out of Bristol. I am also well aware that time is not on my side, and at an indeterminate point in the future, I may not have the mobility I am enjoying now, thanks to my mate Parkie. This was an adventure I not only wanted to tell my kids about, but grandkids as well – assuming my two gorgeous monsters decide to have kiddies of their own once they have grown up and fled the nest to build nests of their own.

The trouble is, often finding words so often easy when I sit and write these blogs, for some bizarre reason when I think back to those 5 days, the whole thing seems to have passed by in a bit of a blur. Short bursts of those 5 days come to the forefront of my mind, but its like watching random bits of an old worn out movie, pieced together from the cutting room floor. Nothing seems to hang together, try as I might to document it. In short – I have stumbled across Writers Block – of all things! Why now? This is my third draft! Aaagghhhhhhh!

How do I convey the excitement as I got up every morning, barely able to eat my breakfast as I was keen to get on the tow path, setting off with the knowledge that I would be punishing both my feet for committing no crime apart from being the ugliest pair of feet in the whole western hemisphere. We were to be walking for up to 5 hours at a stretch interspersed with brief rests in cool shade until we reached either our lunch destination, or our evening rendevouz. Having prayed for cool dry conditions, we ended up walking in what transpired to be blistering heat – unusual for this country at any time of the year. To keep our spirits up, we often laughed, seldom cried if ever, and even spent many hours in isolation from each other. Not that we weren't talking to each other – we were, but we also needed time alone just to ensure we achieved what we had set out to achieve. This was especially true of our final day. I was a woman on a mission, and even when faced with a gang of about 15 adolescents blocking our path as we neared Reading, I put my head down, increased my pace whilst ignoring the pain in my feet, and just kept going. I must admit at that point I was wishing that my Big Bro Ant (all 6'4” of him) had been with us as originally planned, rather than the day before. But hey – as I said, I was a woman on a mission and I was not going to let a gang of 15 adolescents slow my pace down – Parkinson's notwithstanding!

As I said we had many laughs along the way, very few wobbles and definitely no squabbles, even when we were at our lowest. I think the low point was actually on the first day, when our pace had slowed to a sedate 2 miles if that. We had actually managed to wander off course – I know I know, how can you get lost on a canal? Well, we managed it. I hold my hand up to share the majority of the blame, even though Wendy had ownership of the map on Day 1. We were nattering so much, or rather I was nattering so much, we hadn't noticed that the tow path had forked in the middle of some god-forsaken shadeless stretch. We were supposed to have taken the right hand fork to carry on following the canal, and instead turned left. We didn't realise our mistake until about 2 miles later when we reached a village and wondered where the canal had gone. Ho hum!!!

Rather than turn back, we took a detour on the advice of a local, and eventually made it back to the canal about half an hour later. That cost us dearly on the first day in terms of time as well as our mental state of mind. At one point Wendy started to go in to melt-down, and on Spencer's advice I kept on walking, whilst he got his Mum back on her feet and walking again! I don't know what he said or did, but she was soon back on track and about an hour or so later we reached our lunch destination where we sat in the shade and relaxed for an hour whilst our feet enjoyed the freedom and fresh air, before they were confined once again in walking boots. That, I can tell you, was a much needed break. Boy oh boy was it hot and I had downed every last drop of water I had set out from Bristol with. Replenished by a hearty lunch (or in my case an All Day Breakfast which I couldn't quite finish – eyes too big for my tummy!) and fresh water in our backpacks we set out again. It wasn't to be until 7:30 that evening that we finally reached Batheaston where we were to meet with Paul's uncle – 2 hours late!

The following morning Wendy informed me there had been a bloodless coup first thing, as 15 year old Spencer had siezed control of the map. He was to remain our team leader for the rest of the walk, and in the process made a huge impression on our various friends and relatives who joined us – specially Q from Cure Parkinson's and Ant.

There were many high points, but for me I think the funniest was my one and only encounter with a “She-Pee”, and no, I'm not talking about the 4-legged woolly variety who wander around our green and pleasant land oblivious to the fact that their off-spring are destined to be turned in to lamb chops. I'm talking about a late-on addition to my backpack which would enable me to “Do it like a man” instead of crouching in amongst the stinging nettles (an art I've never ever been able to master, even when in rural France or Oman where public facilities tend to be the lovely traps). About 3 weeks before our epic adventure we had a “dry run” where the three of us walked a 12 mile stretch of the K and A between Pewsey and Froxfield. About an hour after we had set out I got caught short, and having held it in for about the next hour, I blagged my way on to a chartered Narrowboat going through one of the many locks, to avail myself of their modern convenience – much to Wendy and Spencer's amusement. Lets just say that I wasn't just spending one penny, but about five – during which time the Narrowboat Captain had forgotten I was still on board and had set off in the direction from whence we had come! Needless to say I staggered back on deck whilst hastily pulling up my drawers, and managed to not quite so elegantly get back on dry land without landing up in the drink!

Obviously I couldn't rely on being able to do this during the 5 day hike. Having visited a major retail outdoor “supermarket” in Swindon the day before we were due to set out, I came across the “She-Pee” and decided that it was just the thing which would give me the closest experience possible to “doin' it like a man”. Trouble was, on getting home I tried it out only to find that my bladder well and truly refused to let go – nearly 50 years of sitting down was not to be so easily eradicated from my auto-reflexes, and my rather hilarious attempts were to no avail. My girls, on the other hand – had great fun and much better success! Enough said. On day 2, having received a text from Tim enquiring whether or not I had tried out my new acquisition in anger, I plucked up the courage and decided to give it a go, as I really did need to go! So, whilst Wendy and Spencer rested in some meagre shade, I “nimbly” nipped behind a hedge and after about 5 minutes of my brain sending messages to my bladder that it really was OK to “do it like a man” my bladder finally let go. Needless to say next thing I knew, whilst mid-stream, I glanced down to find my “She-Pee” being investigated by a not so helpful wasp! Being somewhat unwilling to risk wasp stings in a rather embarrassing place, operations were immediately suspended, and my “She-Pee” remained redundant at the bottom of my backpack for the remainder of the walk.

Being close to home, we only spent two nights away, and a special mention here needs to be made about the hospitality and welcome we were given by my ex-colleague, the wonderful Mina in Bristol and Paul's aunt and uncle, Angela and Mike, in Bath. We were all made to feel very welcome in both households, so much so that on being offered first use of the bathroom at Angela and Mike's, I relaxed so much in the bath that I could have stayed there for about 2 hours. But, being conscious that Angela was waiting to serve supper, I decided it would be a bit rude of me to hog the bathroom facilities and decided I really ought to get out, which was when I discovered a bit of a minor difficulty in getting moving. Trying not to panic, I had several attempts to get out of the bath, and thankfully eventually managed it without having to call for help.

When we stayed at Mina's in Bristol, having bought up two boys single handed, Mina immediately recognised that Spencer was suffering from “Hollow Legs Syndrome” and made it her goal to ensure he didn't go to bed hungry. Having known Mina for about 7 years, I knew that she would not give up until she was satisfied Spencer had had enough to eat! Naturally it was nice to return home as well, and for the duration of the walk I commandered possession of the bathroom, and soon fell in to the routine of taking a long soak in the tub on getting home, another one immediately after supper and one again about 5:00 in the morning before everyone woke up – a wonderful time of the day in which to soak and reflect on the day before, as well as prepare myself mentally for the day ahead!

I have so many people to thank for joining us on the walk, for their sponsorship, the well-wishers we encountered along the way including the Vicar of Hungerford who kindly let me use the church loo and the lady in Bath who emptied out the contents of her purse – all ten pence of it! For me, I couldn't thank Wendy's entire family enough for their kindness where I was readily made to feel welcome, and in particular Wendy's sister Sue and Dad Chris. Also a huge thank you to my husband and children for their encouragement and support, and my big brother Ant for carrying my backpack on the penultimate day. Of course, the 5 days would have been far more monotonous if we hadn't been joined at various points along the way by Q (aka Helen from Cure Parkinson's), Slice of Life (aka John Stamford) who drove all the way up from Kent to walk with us for a couple of hours, and Laura and Karen from our book club, plus their dogs, kiddies, husbands.......

And here's where I start my apologies - first and foremost to David and Chris Mullings - we had arranged to meet on the tow path at Bradford on Avon, and completely managed to miss each other.

I also feel I must apologise to those walking with me as well as innocent by-standers for inflicting my dreadful singing at the top of my voice. Having just finished Lee Silverman voice therapy the week before, it meant that my vocal chords were in fine fettle, and I would burst in to song without warning, normally towards the end of the day. My favourite was to sing the chorus from John Denver's classic “Country Roads” but unfortunately I never made it past the chorus, as I couldn't remember the rest of the song. Feeling in a bit of a mad mood towards the end of day 2, Wendy and I regaled a trio of somewhat bemused local fishermen with Christmas carols as we tackled the Caen Hill flight of locks! Needless to say, Spencer was also much amused by my LSVT vocal exercises, and I endured merciless teasing and comparisons with the Muslim calls to prayer!

But this blog would not be here if it weren't for two people, Wendy and Spencer. I couldn't and wouldn't have done this without them.


  1. chris - wendy's dad and spencer's grandad5 June 2011 at 13:46

    If, like me, you met Jo for the first time on this epic 'charity' walk, you would be even more moved by this experience - yes, her feet are some of the ugliest I have ever seen, but she is one of the lovliest people I have ever met. Well done to the three of them - and thanks for the amusing blog.

  2. hmmm - thank you Chris! I think! Feet have just about recovered - well nearly.......