Monday, 19 September 2011

A Walk Too Far (Or a Tale of a Middle-Aged Man's Arrogance)

I have now more or less recovered from my second consecutive and final unsuccessful attempt to walk the Thames Path between Isleworth and Abingdon in Oxfordshire.

Some people may remember that I tried five years ago to walk the same route with only one stopover, only to have to throw in the towel after some 55 miles. On that occasion I was able to blame my preparation and my equipment, having in an extraordinary display of amateurism miscalculated the distance between here and Windsor by some ten miles. This time I once again omitted to take into account a massive detour that seems to have been incorporated into the route around the same area, but cannot blame this for my inability to complete the walk.

Instead it was simply a case of too much - having completed 75 miles over the first two days I set off on the third with the underside of both heels inflamed like balloons and resplendent in a worrying shade of yellow, without any prospect at all of covering the remaining 20 miles within the required 10 hours.

Having gone through the motions of limping the four miles between Streatley and Moulsford on the third day (in at least as many hours), and mindful of the fact that I had just a couple of weeks beforehand been diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes (which requires one to take extra care of one's feet), I decided to call it a day upon arrival at the Beetle and Wedge and to spend the next hour or so immersed in a pint of Heineken Export and a large plate of mixed nuts and olives.

So near yet so far, as they say.

But the three-day event was for me something of a surreal experience. Whilst I am unlikely to attempt it again, now that the pain has abated there are some pleasant memories, as well as some not so pleasant ones.

Amongst the latter was the unfamiliar experience of having been almost all in after just fourteen miles, at Walton Lock. I frequently walk for 10 to 12 miles as a recreational activity and certainly wasn't prepared for the experience of early blisters, near-torrential rain and pushing into close to gale-force winds. So early into the walk the experience had ceased to be pleasant and I was faced with the reality that this was going to be an arduous ordeal and not the stroll in the park that it had looked to be on the website.

Nonetheless I persisted, and at 20 miles I was between Shepperton and Staines and encountered not one but two people of my regular acquaintance. The first was a guy who drinks in a local club with which I am familiar, the second was my cousin who was visiting her mother (my aunt) at her home in Chertsey.

At Staines I met up with Caroline and Joe (Rosie had gone back to school the day previously) for a coffee at the Thames Lodge Hotel. The coffee was pricey but the service was wonderful and we were really made to feel welcome despite my disheveled appearance which did not best suit the surroundings.

Then I moved on, first to Runnymede, then to Datchet and later to Windsor, where all the detours are and which seems to carry on forever. Windsor may be a proud and historic place but it is truly the graveyard of this particular walk, the point at which one begins to wonder whether it ever ends. As if the horrendous detour through a cow field and then around the streets, always it would seem in driving rain, was not enough the river walk between it and Maidenhead comprises the longest six miles known to man.

Having completed a dubious 44 miles (dubious in the sense that it was almost certainly more), I stopped off at a bed and breakfast in Marlow where I was able to enjoy a bath once I had finally managed to climb into it, and then the next morning it was off again along the 31-mile route to Goring.

After a largely pleasant walk past some picturesque riverside dwellings and public houses it was a relief to arrive at the particularly splendid town of Henley, where the quite stunning scenery continues into Shiplake and Sonning. At one point upon reaching the latter I wanted to leave the path and enjoy a pint in an old pub that had been recommended to me, but it was 100 yards off the route and I just couldn't motivate myself to add the extra distance to my schedule, which must sound quite of weird when one considers the overall distance involved with the walk but be assured that at the time it made perfect sense.

Past the enormous presence that is Reading one passes through Pangbourne and Whitchurch before encountering the beautiful town of Goring, from where one walks across the bridge to Streatley where my second bed and breakfast awaited.

After settling in at the house I ventured, very slowly, across the road to The Swan at Streatley where, unbeknown to me, the comedian David Walliams had stopped off along the route of his heroic charity swim for Sport Relief. He had not managed to actually reach Streatley by water at that point as he had originally planned due to illness, but he had proceeded to the hotel by taxi before returning to Wallingford the next day to continue where he had left off. By the time I had reached the hotel and had settled down with a glorious pint of Addlestone's cider he was, presumably, tucked up in bed, but I enjoyed a wonderful evening at the venue enjoying a couple of pints with his film crew, as well as having the benefit of a long friendly chat with the hotel manager Karl Bentley and some of his delightfully sociable, helpful and efficient staff.

Although I didn't actually stay there overnight I cannot recommend this wonderful hotel enough as a place to relax and enjoy a drink and some food. During a telephone conversation with my parents I discovered that The Swan had previously been a restaurant owned by the late drag artist Danny La Rue, of whom my mother had been a fan, and that I had visited the restaurant in the company of my parents as a child. Small world.

The following (Thursday) morning, having enjoyed a hearty breakfast, I hobbled uneasily onto the street and back onto the Thames Path with the assistance of a walking stick that my landlady had kindly lent me, but it became immediately apparent to me that I would not reach the speed required to make Abingdon by nightfall and I had begun to have serious concerns about my health. Nonetheless the four miles that I did manage to complete were not uneventful.

First of all somewhere around Cholsey a crowd appeared from nowhere to run headlong down the towpath towards me. After a moment of two I caught sight of Mr Walliams, whom they were following, maintaining an impressive speed between two red and yellow canoes in spite of the problems he had encountered the previous day. He was being followed by his press team on a boat, and when one of them spotted me and shouted out asking me how the walk was going I was touched and felt more than slightly honoured.

Then into a big open field that seemed to stretch for miles a female walker caught up with me and asked me what I was doing. When I explained about the walk she handed me a ten pound note to put towards the cause.

A few yards and about half an hour later I was suddenly overcome by the need to sit down. I was by this point in really bad pain and it took me several attempts and some 40 minutes simply to get back onto my feet. During my time on terra firma the most extraordinary, not to mention slightly eerie thing happened. When I looked up what appeared to be a huge red kite was hovering overhead, moving closer and closer down towards me. Kites are carrion feeders, and it was clear the creature had become alert to my distress and was pondering the prospect of a rather hefty meal. At first I laughed, but as it became closer I felt it prudent to wave my walking stick to reassure the bird that I was still very much alive, whereupon it flew swiftly off. How creepy is that?

Although what I had decided was to be the finishing point was by this time in sight it still took me some 30-40 minutes to reach it, and that as they say was that. After the aforementioned pint and luxury snacks I took a taxi to Cholsey, and then a train to Richmond to finish the day off with around six pints of Abbot Ale at the Cricketers pub on the Green before being collected in the car by Caroline.

Was it worth it? Probably - I have hopefully raised enough money to buy a boat for the sports department at my son's school, St. James Independent School for Senior Boys. The school has been extremely kind to my son and to us his parents and I feel pleased and privileged to have been able to give something back.

Should anybody who hasn't done so already feel my efforts to be worthy of a donation, no matter how small, sponsors can be given at

Will I try it again? I doubt it. There could be no excuses for failure this time beyond advancing years and I need to start taking my diabetes seriously. The doctor counselled lots of exercise but I'm not sure this was what he had in mind.

In closing I would like to say a big thank you to those who have sponsored me already, and also to those who encouraged me along the way by following my progress on Twitter and on Facebook.

Here are a few (sadly not very good quality) photos that I took along the way, there are more at the sponsor site above:


Anonymous said...

Wicked old father Thames
Why must you thwart all who want to travel your length for a good cause ?
With your floating turds and divergent towpath
Gastroenteritis and huge blisters
Are the only prizes you're prepared to bestow
Lifeblood of London
Patently more harmful than a dodgy curry or ill-chosen footwear
Messrs Walliams and Andrews may reciprocate your cruelty
Wee off Westminster Bridge without feeling any remorse
Honourable members all round
As we count down the next Olympiad
If there were medals for inhospitable watercourses
You'd probably get at least a bronze

Phil Andrews said...

Excellent poem but I really wish I knew who you were. Just out of curiosity like...

Old Father Thames said...

Never mind weeing on me from a great height, looks like you'll have to issue another birthday present list.

No problem with goldie-looking pinchbeck fripperies, but I'm afraid none of us can find frankincense or myrrh in ANY of the pound shops.

Similarly no joy with genuine shepherds, though we've luckilly just chanced upon some very accommodating Peruvian lavatory attendants working at the library.