Où sont les miles?
The Hayling Billy Line is a (near) 3 mile length of disused railway that goes down the western edge of Hayling Island. It opened on 28th June 1867 and became popular with holiday day trippers. After the road bridge was built in 1956 the cost of repairing Langstone Harbour Bridge proved too prohibitive and this quiet branch line closed in November 1963. Today the trackbed is preserved as a footpath and cycleway and makes for a thoroughly enjoyable stroll down the harbour edge. Now and again I like to walk to the island from Havant Station via a short section of the line to Langstone. On a recent visit I was delighted to see a substantial investment had been made in new wooden fingerposts but was less impressed to see the distances marked in metric only. Not a mile, yard or foot in sight. Let’s get one thing straight before anyone accuses me of being anti-European (in fact I am the exact opposite) this is not about nationalistic jingoism or a lament for outdated British values but has more to do with common sense practicalities. If a sign tells me it is 4.8 kilometres to West Town, it is telling me nothing of any use. What on earth is 4.8 kilometres? (2 miles, 1,729 yards actually) If you want to give metric distances then fine, but don’t presume that everyone will know them, give us the miles as well. Is this the start of a trend I wondered? In Julia Bradbury’s Countryside Walks series her Sandstone Trail walk is 6 miles, yet when she reaches the top of Raw Head she says it is 227 metres high. Again, that tells me nothing!
I have nothing against metrication, I simply feel there are advantages to either system in different situations. My preferences for miles are numerous, but any given distance using metric values has no concept in my level of understanding. If someone gives me directions by telling me the turning I need is 2 kilometres down the road, I don’t want to have to sit in the car converting this to get an idea of the distances involved. Then there is the question of scale… the South Downs Way is quoted at 100 miles or 160 kilometres, now which of those two measurements sounds more impressive? Obviously it is 160 kilometres, but that’s my point, kilometres give a false impression. The substantial mile lends itself comfortably to the English language, it always has done. As a nation we have embraced the kilometre, but we will always be hardcoded to imperial mileage. The mile has made us a European subculture and will long remain in our psyche. The same goes for feet over meters, it is not enough to say Ben Nevis stands at 1,343 meters, what a paltry figure to give our grandest mountain. It has to be 4,406 feet and as our only mountain above 4,400 feet, how could you possibly make that distinction in metric terms? So, miles it is, are we all agreed? In fact today’s mile is a shadow of its former self, the old British one was once 2,428 yards, nearly one and a half times longer than the modern mile which was devised in 1593 and made its debut on maps in 1675. All this hasn’t put me off returning to the Hayling Billy line, I have walked it enough times to know how far it is to the oyster beds or Hayling Bridge. I just think a lot of money was wasted putting up a network of impressive wooden signposts that will be of little use to the majority of people who look at them, and that is a huge shame.
When I was planning the St. Cuthbert’s Way I needed to find a way to get to Melrose from Edinburgh and was astonished to discover the Borders Railway. From platform 20 at Edinburgh Waverley Station I caught the first Sunday train at 9:11, arrival Tweedbank at 10:08, for the princely sum of £10:10. Other trains followed an hour later. Of all the Beeching cuts in the 1960’s the most controversial was the Waverley Route from Edinburgh to Carlisle. When it did finally cease to operate in 1969 after years of campaigning against its closure, countless rural communities in the Scottish Borders and northern England were cut off from the national rail network. In September 2015, a 31 mile section of that line was reopened as far as Tweedbank. This farsighted and bold venture was approved by the Waverley Railway (Scotland) Act in 2006 with work starting in 2012. It was officially opened by the Queen on the 9th September 2015. It was the most exciting train journey I had taken in a very long while. To me the achievement of reopening this was both historic and, so far as our depleted rail network is concerned, very encouraging. It stopped at eight stations with the first six coming in less than half of the journey time. From Gorebridge the stops were less frequent and I sat back to enjoy some breathtaking scenery. It made me wonder if this was an accessible disused line beforehand, if so it must have been a tremendous walk and yet as a walker I didn’t begrudge losing that privilege for the return of the railway. The Borders Railway is a single track line with passing loops but such has been its success, many have criticised the decision not to have two lines. However, it was clear to see that a substantial investment had already been made with new station platforms and footbridges such as the one at Shawfair. There were so many gabions and rock cages banking up the cuttings as well as a mind boggling amount of new fencing. It was a huge step to reopen a railway closed in the Beeching era and then re-introduce back into the rail network as a working line rather than as a preservation railway. It made me wonder how many more lines that I have walked may one day re-open, it was a fascinating thought.
As the train terminated at the red buffer in Tweedbank I stepped onto a shiny new looking station, how long this red buffer continues to halt trains is anyone’s guess as plans to extend the line even further are still in the pipeline. From Tweedbank I walked an absorbing 1¾ miles to Melrose and then climbed over the wonderful Eildon Hills. I would have liked to explore all three of these hills but alas time was against me, so I vowed to return one day and walk them properly. It all got me thinking what a terrific day out it would be for anyone staying in or near Edinburgh… jump on the Borders Railway, walk from Tweedbank to Melrose and its abbey where the heart of Robert the Bruce is buried. From there, if the weather and inclination is favourable, you could walk over the Eildon Hills by following St. Cuthbert’s Way to the col between Eildon Hill North and Mid Hill and wander between the two on a wide grassy path. In either direction there are tempting paths with Eildon Mid Hill the steeper challenge. The map reveals any number of circular routes that could be taken for a return walk alongside the River Tweed. Perhaps even take a look around the delightful town of Galashiels where events from the Marillion song Kayleigh were played out and the lyrics are inscribed into the pavement of the market square. What a rewarding day out!
DST – is it Time to Stop?
I don’t know about you but I love the months of early spring, lighter evenings, a rise in temperature, not having to wash my boots in darkness, magnolias, crocuses, blossoms, tulips, daffodils, newborn lambs, my birthday, practice sessions in the cricket nets, the four day Easter break, my birthday (did I mention that already?) and, most importantly, the arrival of British Summer Time. Since turning the clocks back five months earlier this was the moment I had longed for, at last my camera could finally be in sync with the correct time. It does however throw open the long standing debate about DST, or daylight saving time as it is officially known. Apparently opinion is divided as to whether we should or should not adjust our clocks each autumn. I find this curios as I have yet to hear one voice in favour of our absurd time changing protocol but plenty against. As a long suffering paperboy in my youth I detested it and then later on, as someone who worked overnight shifts, I resented being made to work that unpaid extra hour even more. These days my opinion has not changed, I hate changing the clocks at the end of British Sumer Time with a passion. Not only are my walking days shortened by an hour but it is the whole introduction of winter darkness at a stroke that I struggle with mostly. Nothing symbolises the end of summer happiness more than the disheartening ritual of changing the clocks in October. I am not sure if I suffer chronically with so-called SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) but there are many who do and I can well understand the underlying reasons.
In effect we have two different times in the UK, the more commonly known GMT (Greenwich Mean Time) in the winter and BST (British Summer Time) in the summer. The AA has estimated that each winter 100 lives could be saved by the lighter evenings of an adopted year round BST, whilst £485 million a year could be saved in electricity bills, not to mention the benefits to the global environment. Meanwhile, domestic tourism (which includes the leisure industry of walking) could increase its turnover by £2.5 to 3.5 billion per annum. Arguments against a permanent BST tend to dwell on the darker mornings incurred by northern Scotland, during the shorter days this would mean a sunrise as late as 10am. It begs the question if Scotland had gone independent in September of 2014, could England have reverted to a year round BST? DST in the UK was first advocated by a builder from Farnham in Surrey called William Willett in 1907 (coincidentally he was great-great grandfather of Coldplay frontman Chris Martin who wrote the song ‘Clocks’). However, Willett’s complex system of a four tier time change was simplified to the one hour switch we know today and introduced to Parliament in 1908 as the ‘Daylight Saving Bill.’ The bill was rejected but after Germany first put the idea into practice on the 30th April 1916 to conserve energy during World War One, Britain soon followed. BST was first implemented on the 21st May 1916 and made official in 1925 by the ‘Summer Time Act.’ On two occasions since then the October switch back to GMT has been cancelled; in 1940 as a wartime effort to allow people time to get home before blackout (in fact the following spring the clocks were put forward another hour and the UK remained two hours ahead of GMT until 1947). The second occasion was 1968 when Howard Wilson’s government reverted to a system known as British Standard Time, alas this worthwhile experiment was abandoned and the familiar GMT switchover was re-introduced in October 1971. Since then we haven’t looked back, well, not until the last weekend in October at least! It has been a century since we first adopted BST so surely it is now time to scrap GMT permanently and stick with BST forever and ever.
Obituary: In Loving Memory of the Brasher Boot
Chris Brasher enjoyed one of the most successful careers of any British post war athlete. In 1954 he was a pacesetter for Roger Bannister’s historic sub four minute mile run at Oxford’s Iffley Road Stadium. Then two years later in Melbourne he won Britain’s first athletics Olympic title for twenty years by taking gold in the 3,000 metre Steeplechase. He later went on to pioneer the burgeoning sport of orienteering and in 1979 founded the London Marathon which was first run in 1981. Yet Chris Brasher’s great passion was walking. During one particular walking trip through Wales in 1978 he experienced difficulties with painful blisters and abandoned his irksome boots in favour of training shoes which enabled him to complete the 180 mile walk in comfort. After pondering why walking boots weren’t as comfortable as trainers he created a pair made of a cushioned, lightweight construction with a rolling motion incorporated into the sole. After twenty-five prototypes and five years of testing and development in the Lake District, the Brasher Boot was born. It was a revolutionary design based on the simple principles of comfort with little or no wearing-in required. In 1994 the company introduced the Hillmaster GTX, one of the most innovative walking boots ever developed. This was the year I bought my first pair and I went on to walk 1,567 miles in them. The Hillmaster GTX was the Volkswagen Golf or Nokia 3310 of walking boots, an absolute classic that became Britain’s best selling and most popular boot. Between 1994 and 2015 no other boot has given me such consistently reliable comfort and the freedom to enjoy the sights and sounds of the walk without having to worry about what was happening to my feet. Alas this was a luxury I took for granted. It may be a coincidence but in the years following Chris Brasher’s death in 2003 the quality and standard of the boots bearing his name declined. With each pair I bought the return of miles walked lessened as the soles wore down or the leather creased and cracked beyond repair. Then in June 2014 came the final death knell with the announcement that the Brasher brand was to be swallowed up by Berghaus in February of 2015. It was an all too familiar story but, with both companies being owned by the Pentland Group, masters in the craft of shoddy workmanship, no one should be surprised at this inevitable outcome. So now the Brasher Boot, once a byword for simple no-nonsense quality, can now be added to the Berghaus portfolio of overpriced substandard walking equipment. It is a classic example of how to take a successful formula, popular in its breathtaking simplicity, and turn it into flogged horse, killed before its time was up! For someone who has fallen foul of their lamentable performance waterproofs, the sound of the new Berghaus Hillmaster II GTX walking boot is an anathema. It’s like Fuller’s selling a beer called HSB… don’t get me started on that one again! Chris Brasher may not be spinning in his grave but all of the seven previous pairs of his boots I have used over the past twenty years are.
On the 18th August 2015 the Post Office released a set of bee stamps, an illustrated collection of six of our recognised species. For me it brought into mind the story of Albert Einstein who supposedly predicted that if bees ever disappeared from the surface of the earth, man would have no more than four years to live. Arguments still rage around whether the eminent physicist ever said this at all given he wasn’t an apiarist. However, these arguments rather miss the point for whether he did or did not make this prediction, the fact remains that the world’s bee population is disappearing at an alarming rate. The honey bee evolved in Asia around 300,000 years ago and soon spread rapidly across Africa and Europe. Humans have been using bees since the first days of agriculture, over 9,000 years ago and may have even started domesticating them at that time for honey and wax to use for food and medicines. Today bees face threats from climate change, disease and pesticides. Studies are now being made into what is known as colony collapse disorder where insufficient or no honey bees are found in the hives. In the cold winter of 2012/13, 29% of British colonies died, one of the worst cases in Europe. The reasons are unclear but pesticides, parasites and loss of habitat are key. In 2013 the European Commission banned the use of insecticides containing neonicotinoids, however the UK is one of a minority of countries opposing the ban due to the farming lobby who argue that research into this is inconclusive. This is the same farming lobby that advocates the culling of badgers based on inconclusive evidence that they transfer TB to cattle… don’t get me started!
Politicians would do well to note that a third of the food we eat is dependent on pollination and that bees pollinate 70 different types of crop, the knock on effect of this is that bees contribute 400 million pounds to the Treasury. Yet what of the humble bee itself? One colony contains roughly 50,000 bees and makes an average of 14 kilograms of honey, flying the equivalent of two round the world trips to make a single jar. One bee can make more than ten trips in a day at a speed of 15 mph covering up to 5 miles. It visits over one hundred flowers per trip in pursuit of nectar and pollen to use as food and protein. They can transport one quarter of their own bodyweight in pollen. When a bee has found a good flower it communicates the location to the colony by a waggle dance. Specific angles to the sun tell the direction whilst the duration of the dance tells the distance, the more enthusiastic the dance tells of the quality of the flower. It may seem a little random to us but bees are incredible navigators and know the exact meaning of these strange rituals. Honey feeds the colony over winter but a healthy hive produces more than is required so the surplus gets collected. Bees collect the sugar rich nectar and mix it with enzymes from glands in their mouth and store it in hexagonal tubes of wax. When the water content reaches around 17% it is sealed with wax. The honeycomb is a true wonder of nature. Specifically shaped to ensure the wall of each cell matches the one alongside, the hexagon allows maximum storage with the least amount of wax. Six walls meeting at precisely 120 degrees, it is structurally very strong and, if you like, cost effective. Any hive anywhere in the world will reveal the same blueprint, bees instinctively know the best geometrical solution to their building needs. We rave about Pythagoras, Leonhard Euler and Albert Einstein etc. yet bees have been doing this stuff every day for over 300,000 years!
Happy Birthday Pennine Way
The Pennine Way was the UK’s first ever Long Distance Path (LDP) and the 24th April 2015 was its 50th birthday. Like me this great walk was born under Taurus but its conception, gestation and accouchement had been a laboured and painstaking affair. The story of the Pennine Way is far more enduring than any written by those who have walked it over the last 50 years. Proposed in 1935, submitted in 1939 and approved in 1951, the Pennine Way was an epic, 30 years in the making. It came out of a nation’s desire to explore the countryside during the inter war years, with changes in social and political attitudes the open moorlands provided a means of escape to an otherwise bleak working class existence. A requirement for affordable accommodation was met by the newly created Youth Hostel Association as were the needs of this new breed of outdoor enthusiast by the Ramblers’ Association in 1935. Despite this, most of the sought after moorland was privately owned and inaccessible. Things came to a head on the 24th April 1932 during the famous (or infamous) mass trespass on Kinder Scout with ramblers attacked by gamekeepers, or gamekeepers attacked by ramblers depending on whose version of events you believe. Either way, the social order of twentieth-century Britain was changing.
On Malham Moor in the Yorkshire Dales 33 years to the day after Kinder Scout, Fred Willey Minister of Land and Natural Resources, cut the ribbon that officially opened the Pennine Way. No one amongst the crowd of 2,000 on that blustery Saturday could have been more delighted than Tom Stephenson, Secretary of the Ramblers’ Association and one of the great unsung heroes of the twentieth-century. For him this was the culmination of a 30 year struggle to see this walk become a reality ever since publishing an article in the Daily Herald on the 22nd June 1935. ‘Wanted – A Long Green Trail’’ bemoaned the lack of anything in the British Isles comparable to the Appellation and John Muir Trails in the US. It was a judiciously timed article that pitched in on the land access issues of the day by proposing the creation of a trail from Edale in Derbyshire to the Scottish border. The Pennine Way Association was formed in February 1938 and by the end of 1939 it had estimated that, along with roughly 180 miles of presumed right of way, a further 70 miles of new paths were needed. A private members bill was introduced but it never came to anything as Parliamentary attention was diverted to more pressing matters. It would be 10 years after Tom Stephenson’s article following World War II and the landslide victory of Labour immediately afterwards before any real progress was made.
The 1945 Dower Report on National Parks in England and Wales recommended the Pennine Way, as well as other LDP’s, become a reality. The support of ministers like Lewis Silkin in favour of legislation to establish National Parks greatly assisted the cause. In 1947 Sir Arthur Hobhouse recommended the creation of the Pennine Way and other such trails but it all became swamped in bureaucracy and political opposition and would have died a premature death but for the persistence of Tom Stephenson. In 1948 he organised a Pennine Way walk along the proposed route for MP’s. It received the required publicity and brought it back to Parliament for further legislation. From the ‘National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act’ in 1949 emerged the National Parks Commission, (now called the Countryside Commission) a new body by which the framework for LDPs could be established. The new commission adopted the route originally surveyed in 1939 and the Pennine Way was presented to Hugh Dalton (Minister for Local Government and Planning) and approved on the 6th July 1951.
It then fell upon local authorities to negotiate new rights of way, a long and arduous process that ran into various opposition groups. In one instance, the Water Authorities made the nonsensical claim of a typhoid epidemic caused by large groups of ramblers within the reservoir gathering grounds. This was refuted by Tom Stephenson who questioned why this logic never seemed to apply to large numbers of shooting parties over the same area. By 1957 61 new miles had been created but the remaining 9 took another eight years. Even by the time of the official opening the final northern section was incomplete with the last few miles not becoming legal until 1977. Tom Stephenson was seventy-two by the time the Pennine Way was formally opened on the 24th April 1965 and for him it was an astonishing achievement. When he first climbed Pen-y-ghent (above) it was as a trespasser, the fact that hordes of people can now climb the mountain in freedom is his legacy. He died during the 1980’s but so many of us today, including those who might not share his political convictions, owe so much of the day to day lives we take for granted to people like Tom Stephenson. The Pennine Way is a monument to one of our great post war social struggles and the culmination of a pre-war movement that fought against an old order that had no place in the modern world. When I walked the Pennine Way in 1994 I soon discovered that not only does it pass so much history along its 270 miles, it is history and for that it deserves the reverence it has long received and will continues to do so for many years to come.
T-Plylons, the Shape of Things to Come
On Thursday the 9th of April 2015 the first in a radical new design of pylons was installed at Eakring in Nottinghamshire heralding in an era of potential change to the British countryside. Love them or hate them, pylons are everywhere you walk in the UK. No matter how remote or timeless the land may look there is usually a line of them striding across the horizon to remind you of the present. Pylons, or transmission towers, were first seen in July 1928 at Bonnyside Edinburgh following the 1926 ‘Electricity Supply Act.’ Architect Sir Reginald Blomfield was charged (pun intended) with creating an eye-pleasing construction. His design was based on the ancient Egyptian doorway to the sun known as a pulon (narrow at the top, wide at the bottom) which culminated in the classic 164 foot, 30 tonne lattice design we know today. After 1928 a further 26,000 pylons went up, the last of them in the New Forest in September 1933. Today there are 88,000 of them in the UK each carrying up to 400,000 volts. On the 14th October 2011 the new T-shaped pylon was unveiled and now the first six of these have been erected at what will be a training site. Designed by Danish firm Bystrup, they are shorter (120 feet) and can be installed in a day rather than a week as before. They won’t replace the current pylons but are more of an alternative for a generation of renewable energy lines to come, however they do give us a fascinating glimpse into what will frame our countryside in the long term future. In a later development, on Tuesday 15th September 2015 the National Grid announced that four protected areas in England and Wales have been selected to have pylons removed in a project costing £500 million. This money has been made available by Ofgem who will get it back by increasing electricity bills. Overhead power lines and pylons will be removed completely and replaced by underground cables in the New Forest near Hale, Snowdonia near Porthmadog, the Peak District in South Yorkshire’s area of Dunford Bridge and the AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty) near Winterbourne Abbas in Dorset. These areas were specifically chosen as their current electricity lines were considered to have the most detrimental visual impact. A total of 12 areas were under consideration with the Brecon Beacons, the High Weald in East Sussex and the Tamar Valley of Devon and Cornwall amongst those to have missed out.
I feel I owe an apology to some people who first ventured onto the original Rambling Walker.com address only to be presented with this image (above) again and again with no change whatsoever. If you are one who has bothered to return from that worthless effort then thank you for giving me this second chance. It was always my intention to work on this but, well, stuff – that old timewaster – stuff just got in the way. A poultry introduction of ‘Welcome to my sad litle world!!’ was all I could manage, and, to add insult to injury, I couldn’t even spell little correctly! The intentions were genuine, unfortunately the execution was not. It was only after seeking professional help (and not for the first time in my life) that I have finally managed to get things done properly. So now my website is here, surely it was worth the wait (answers via the ‘Contact’ page please). Well, maybe not. However, rest assured now that the Rambling Walker is up and running, it will continue to evolve and change. Oh yes, no more sad litle worlds on this domain name from now on I can promise you. Still, I am sure you’ll agree it was a lovely picture it’s just unfortunate I can’t use it again as it will be forever associated with my former incarnation and I simply cannot allow that to happen!
Why I Won’t Drink Fuller’s Beer
As I was plodding though the village of Horndean in Hampshire recently, I was reminded of why I will never let a drop of Fuller’s beer pass my lips. I lived in Horndean between 1970 and 1985 and came to know the people that worked in Gales Brewery (George Gale & Co. Ltd), the award winning beer it produced was a source of pride and without doubt the finest brew in the land, an opinion shared by members of CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale). There was a dark side however, Gales was poorly run by its higher management. Whilst those on the production side were doing magnificent work, those who ran the show haemorrhaged money at an alarming rate. It got so bad that the brewery was bought out by Fuller, Smith & Turner in 2005 for £92 million. Fuller’s was always a beer I enjoyed, but it being comparable to that of Gales was a worry, why did a large concern like Fuller’s feel the need to buy out one of its nearest rivals? The answer came on the 27th February 2006 when they announced that Gales Brewery would shut down with the loss of all twenty-one jobs and the famous old building on Portsmouth Road would be used as a distribution warehouse, for the time being. Their decision to move production to its base in Chiswick, London from March 31st 2006 was officially put down to costs and the best option for the long term development of Gales beers. In reality it had more to do with eliminating the opposition, Gales beer was too similar to Fuller’s and of a far superior quality so they just bought it up and wiped out 150 years of brewing tradition at a stroke. They then had the temerity to continue making beer called HSB at their London site. HSB was made from water drawn from the well beneath the Gales brewery fed from the South Downs, that it was made in Horndean gave it the unique flavour. It would be like moving the Glenfarclas whisky distillery to England, the Wensleydale creamery into Lancashire or Cadbury’s chocolate production into Eastern Europe (ahh, wait a minute…), Gales beer has to be made in Horndean otherwise it is not true Gales beer. Fuller’s need to be reminded what the ‘H’ stands for in HSB!
Okay, rant over, I know I‘m probably a lone voice in this. Time and beer has moved on and people have far more important things going on in their lives to get hot under the collar about some old brewery in the south of England closing down. Gales Brewery will never return and the photo below from February 2015 proves that. Now it is being converted into flats, just the old tower will remain, a quaint old reminder of what Horndean once had before the big money of London moved in and blew it away. They even have the balls to call this development ‘The Old Brewery,’ how quaint indeed. With such a large stake in my upbringing having been moulded in Horndean, seeing the brewery being dismantled and deformed reminded me of a scene from the ‘Likely Lads’ film when Bob and Terry took time off to have a final drink in their old local before the bulldozers moved in. As Terry sneaked off work for some fictitious funeral, one of his work colleagues asked “Who’s died?” to which he replied “A part of me has died!” Even if it were the only beer left in the world I swear I will never touch another drop of Fuller’s for as long as I live, what they did was unforgivable.
Wild & The Way
I am not usually in the habit of reviewing films and can hardly claim to know much about what is de rigueur in the world of film critics. However, after going to see ‘Wild’ recently, I felt some sort of appraisal was appropriate for the pages of this website given its overriding theme of walking, or hiking as the Americans call it. Since first reading about it from the Toronto Film Festival, Wild was one I made a point of catching even though it wasn’t on most people’s radar. By the time of its release in January 2015, I wasn’t exactly fighting for seats at my local multiplex. The film is based upon the 2012 Cheryl Strayed memoir ‘Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail’ which charts her 1,100 miles of this monumental trail in 94 days. Following the book’s release, Reese Witherspoon’s newly formed production company bought the film rights and in an inspired piece of casting chose her for the title role. It was directed by Jean-Marc Vallée who had worked on the critically acclaimed ‘Dallas Buyer’s Club’ the year before, and written by Britain’s Nick Hornby, better known for his novels ‘Fever Pitch’ and ‘About a Boy.’ (Spoiler alert) The film is essentially a series of flashbacks of Strayed’s former life set amongst her struggle along America’s western mountain ranges as she headed north from the Mexican border. However, it soon becomes clear that wild is more of a reference to her erratic and unpredictable lifestyle as much as the wilderness she is so ill prepared to tackle. In places the film loops in and out of scenes of lurid sexual recklessness and almost wanton self-destruction. Her one anchor is her mother played candidly by Laura Dern but when she is taken out of her life by cancer, Strayed decides to abandon everything and everyone and walk the Pacific Crest Trail, or PCT. I am never quite sure if we are supposed to like Cheryl Strayed or not, but I certainly warmed to her attitude. Wild is no twee amble through the American picturesque, the caption for Day 36 being more in tune with the film’s core narrative. At times it becomes so gritty and painful to watch I had to turn away. One telling, if not highly amusing scene that makes us realise she is about to embark upon something way beyond her comprehension, was that in her motel room locked into a life or death struggle with her absurdly overweight backpack. As the walk proceeds she struggles endlessly with the environment, her own self doubt and ultimately, as the flashbacks intensifies her own demons. However, that this is a struggle we endure with her is down to the acting, every exasperated frustration, hurt and elation is brilliantly portrayed by Reese Witherspoon who fully justified her Oscar nomination for the role.
Put quite simply, Wild is a terrific film. For me especially it was inspiring to see a thoroughly engaging bit of cinema about something so simple as a walk. Wild was a film I bought as soon as it flipped to DVD, much as I did with another film about walking called ‘The Way.’ When this came out in 2011, The Way was another that escaped everyone’s attention but two things attracted me to it, Martin Sheen and the Camino de Santiago, Europe’s great pilgrimage trail across northern Spain. Written, produced and directed by Emilio Estavez, he chose his father to play the lead role as an American doctor who receives news that his only son has been killed on the Pyrenees whilst attempting to walk the Camino de Santiago. After collecting his ashes and fully laden backpack he decides to go himself on the walk his son never completed, spreading his ashes along the way. As the walk progresses he is joined by a disparate band of stragglers; an overweight Dutchman with body dysmorphia, a man-hating Canadian woman and a failed Irish author with writer’s block. They all provoke his ire at some point as his stuffy all-American middle-class persona struggles to deal with their individual quirks (let’s be honest, James Nesbitt can be seriously irritating at the best of times), which inevitably leads to the odd uncomfortable scene. The Way’s finest moment comes as all four characters reach their objective in Galicia. Estavez later explained that after many failed attempts to obtain permission to film inside the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, when it finally came they had forty-eight hours to prepare. He told his four leading actors to simply react as their characters would have done which resulted in some of the most stunning pieces of improvisation on film. Chief among those was the breakdown of James Nesbitt’s character, brilliantly played as his contempt for the destructive side of religion finally reveals itself in a heartrending struggle between true faith and apostasy. Ultimately, Sheen’s character realises that his inability to accept his son’s wanderlust has been part of his own failing. Much as Wild had been a walk of self-discovery, The Way is a fictional work of how one man was led to his true self by his dead son. Rather like Wild, The Way drifts beautifully on a flow of breathtaking scenery and a suitably measured soundtrack. Two fine movies for those who not only like to walk, but enjoy excellently well made films as well. There you have it, my first and only attempt at a film review, unless another one about walking comes out in the near future. Perhaps a biopic of my walk along the Pennine Way with Brad Pitt in the title role, now that would be a film worth writing about!
63 Not Out
On Tuesday 25th November 2014, Australian cricketer Phillip Hughes was playing in a domestic cricket match in Sydney. A renowned batsman who played twenty-six test matches for his country, he spun around in an attempt to hook a bouncer from fast bowler Sean Abbott and was hit on the back of the neck. He collapsed instantaneously and was rushed to hospital where he died two days later, three days short of his twenty-sixth birthday. Hughes, who played for Hampshire in 2010, was a natural, one of many batsmen who had an irritating knack of upping their game whenever playing against England. His death shocked not only cricket but the sporting world and raised awareness of just how dangerous cricket can be, a fact all too often forgotten in the high profile media show of sledging and Kevin Pietersen’s interminable whingeing. In the raw days that followed it was suggested that bowler Sean Abbott, who needed counselling afterwards, may never play cricket again. Even if he did, I failed to see how he could do so with the same intense, almost pathological hatred that a fast bowler must possess. Hughes was wearing a helmet but the ball struck him on an unprotected area as his mistimed manoeuvre exposed the back of his neck. How I wish he had hit the ball the way he’d intended and lived to bug me in the World Cup and Ashes series of 2015, something his resurgent career was showing every sign of doing. Phillip Hughes’s death hit me hard in a strange way, that someone can die playing a sport they love, or any outdoor activity for that matter. Perhaps it reminded me of my own vulnerability when out and about doing what I love best. Now don’t get me wrong, I am not suggesting for a moment that a walk can be compared to facing a cricket ball at 90 mph, but there have been occasions when I have genuinely feared for my own mortality. I mean for starters, the cows seem to be getting a lot grumpier these days! Someone like Phillip Hughes dying whilst playing in a first class cricket match was a sobering leveller for all of us I reckon. In this cynical world of modern sport he played the game the way it should be played and that made his loss all the more tragic.
The Storms of 2014
As mentioned on previous pages, the storm damage of early 2014 was a big deal, especially for those living in the areas worse affected. Much (excuse the pun) was made of Muchelney, a village cut off from the rest of the country by the worst of the floods. As if it wasn’t bad enough they had page three girls from The Sun boated in uninvited, then Prince Charles paid them an unannounced visit. Meanwhile rumours were spreading about a reported crocodile being on the loose amongst all the floodwaters of Somerset. It seemed too ridiculous to believe but sure enough, there on the BBC News website I saw the report. As if they had not suffered enough, now they had a wild croc on the loose to contend with! On Friday 7th February 2014, these storms caused serious damage to the western railway line at Dawlish resulting in an anticipated six weeks of no service along the main rail artery into Penzance. This was the same spectacular line I’d travelled en-route to St. Ives less than four months earlier. It was a disaster estimated to cost the West Country up to £20 million a week. As the storms continued to pound the crippled line and cause even greater damage days later, it was hard to imagine how it could ever operate again. On Thursday 20th February it was reported in the news that this was officially the wettest winter ever, or at least since records began back in 1910, having beaten previous records set in 1995. Was it, was it really? With the greatest respect to the Met Office, I think we managed to work that one out for ourselves!