…and then, nothing…



When a loved one is away, you go about as normal, don’t you? We’ve had one of Libs’ mates to stay and I was making pizza (not as good as Andy’s) and pootling about, baking cookies, doing laundry, hoping the recovered arms of the sofa really do match the rest of it, etc.

And then it got dark and my phone still hadn’t rung with a text.

You know how it goes. At first you think, ‘Maybe it’s not dark yet, up on the Ridgeway.’ And then, about half an hour later, you think, ‘Maybe he ran into a flesh-eating psychopath,’ having already gone through, ‘leg broken in rabbit hole incident’ and ‘lost solar charger’. My phone gets only intermittent reception  and it’s worse downstairs (old house, thick walls, O2), so I also thought, ‘perhaps when we go upstairs it will come.’

It didn’t. It didn’t come at 10:00, 12:00, 2:00, or 4:00. But at 6:15, when I’d given up on sleeping, I heard the familiar ting-ting.

Two texts at once. One saying goodnight and can I pick him up at Avebury tomorrow (today) and one saying, ‘Why didn’t you respond to my text?’ How blessedly irritating…still married, then…

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A Bed With A View


It’s the coldest night for a long time and Andy is somewhere in these woods, laying in his bivvy bag. If it’s not raining (it is here, and we’re only about sixty miles away), he can open the hood and look at the stars. I even found him a little mosquito net bag he can stick over his head, in case the midges attack.

It’s nine o’clock and he’s been asleep for at least an hour. He sent me the picture around 7 o’clock. He will have boiled his rice pack and snuggled down with a few custard creams. He doesn’t have a book to read and he shuts off his phone.  He just walks and eats and then sleeps. If he’s not sleepy, he hasn’t walked far enough, he says.

He walked far enough today. He did the whole third section of the trail, from Streatley to Wantage. He’s on the Ridgeway proper, now, the Neolithic pathway that was so important that walking it became a religious act. Great monuments were carved and heaped out of the earth along it. Kings and heroes were given barrow burials along it.

I’m warm in bed and reading a good book. And it is a bit cold and rather rainy outside. But I’m a little jealous of Andy’s bed with a view…

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Pain Halts Play


It was his feet.

The blister wasn’t on his ankle, it was on his heel. And it wasn’t little.

(Those with a nervous disposition might want to look away now.)

Image This was the ‘little blister on my right ankle’ that we heard of earlier in the week. Evidently, he liked it so much, he got the pair. The one on his left heel is just as bad.

When he got to Goring (of course he walked 17 miles with his feet in this condition), he rang me back. ‘Um,’ he said. ‘I’m hurting pretty bad. I don’t think I can do 55 miles over the next two days.’

‘Take a break,’ I suggested. ‘Do the rest later.’

‘But I’ve taken the time off work…and it’s about to be the Christmas rush.’

‘Finish it on weekends.’ I wonder if he can tell when I’m praying on the other side of the phone.

Long silence.

‘I could do that.’

And he will. Andy won’t let his sponsors or the Rett families down. Sometimes, though, you have to succeed in different ways than the way you planned.

Andy’s used three days of his week and has walked nearly halfway. He’s got four days more to do. Keep following the blog to find out how and when he finishes his challenge.

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Got to Get to Goring 51.530120214547 and -1.0772539764009.


The text came around noon. ‘I’m at Nuffield,’ it started…

Nuffield meant Andy’d already walked 10 miles.

‘I’m going to try and get to Goring.’

That was another five miles.

‘I’m hurting a bit.’

Worrying. Andy never mentions his injuries or illnesses. I’ve had to hone my detective skills as Andy’s wife. I’ve asked why he’s holding his arm funny (second degree burn), demanded to see what came out of his mouth (half a tooth…he didn’t want to be bothered with the dentist) and tracked the smell of TCP to a grisly cut. If he’s actually written about hurting, he must be in agony.

I stifle the urge to rope in friends for child and dog care so that I can immediately drive to Goring.

Doing the afternoon’s emails, running Olivia to her ballet class and walking the dog, I am thinking about Andy. He so doesn’t want to fail in his challenge. But he is fifty years old. I’ve tried his phone about five hundred times.
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Shirburn Hill – 51° 39′ 11.9988 and 0° 58′ 0.0012

11 miles yesterday. The terrain was rough and it was the hilliest part of the trail. It rained heavily and there was a biting northerly wind. Andy lost his way  and says, that the mistake ‘cost me an hour and tons of energy.’ It must have done. It was 10 minutes to six pm when he sent his goodnight text and I could feel how tired he was by reading the message. By seven this morning, he was back on the trail.

If you look at the overall map of the trail..

…Andy’s now starting section four, the dark blue bit.

He’ll send us a photo later today. He’ll be walking through a woody bit, and he’ll like that. Not only will the trees provide some shelter, Andy has a natural affinity for woodland; it’s where he feels safest and happiest.

Andy knows that the pressure is now on. He says he’s planning to ‘make good progress’ today. Physically, he’s doing very well (especially considering he’s just turned 50 and hasn’t done a lick of training). The test now is more about Andy’s mental endurance. It’s not easy to keep believing that what you are doing is possible or desirable when you are walking (and sleeping, and eating) in the rain and cold. Andy knew that the first few legs would be the toughest and that the walking would be easier once he got to Oxfordshire. However, when you’re in the middle of a challenge, you can forget that kind of information and feel as though you aren’t doing well enough. Andy will need to keep his energy up; both his physical energy (his huge packet of custard creams that he snuck into his pack will help with that) and his mental energy.

Before the walk, we talked about him taking a break today for a cooked lunch at a pub; it’d be good for him to boost his calories right now. But he’s taken the money his daughter and I raised at a car boot sale for his spending money, and I know he wants to give most of that to Rett Research Trust UK. I’ll bet he makes due with his packet soups and biscuits…

Andy needs four hundred more pounds to make his goal.

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Coombe Hill 51°45′09″N 0°46′17″W

This was Andy’s bedroom last night – Coombe Hill, just West of Wendover – and Andy sent me the photo this morning. Coombe Hill is the highest point in the Chilterns and about 11 miles from Ivinghoe Beacon, where Andy started.  The hill has a very well-known Boer War monument on the top and, on a clear day, terrific views.

It’s on the outskirts of the Chequers Estate, the official country residence of Britain’s Prime Ministers.

Andy texts that the bivvy worked beautifully, but that a cow nibbled a bit on one of his feet. It didn’t hurt (him or the bivvy) and his feet are holding up well. His legs ache and he’s got a slight blister on his ankle (glad I made him take the blister plasters and paracetamol … wish I was there to make sure he uses them), but it seems to be going well.

Andy will need to pick up the pace if he is to accomplish what he’s asked of himself. He said Sunday that he’s not concerned with measuring how far he’s come. He’s using his Zen training: ‘No hindrance’ and ‘no making good or bad.’ ‘Just walk,’ he said, putting his hand between his eyes, and shooting it out in a decisive gesture. ‘I’ll just walk from early morning until it gets dark.’ But in his text message, he quoted the page of the trailbook he’s using to tell me where he was – and I know he’ll know exactly what he’s got to do to reach his goal. Today’s the toughest leg of the trail, with the largest ups and downs. It’s also due to rain heavily tonight. But nobody can help Andy get to his destination. It’s just his body and his mind that will get him there.

You can, however, help Andy with his main goal – raising £1000 for Rett Syndrome UK Trust. He’s got £622, including Gift Aid, so far.

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He’s Off…

Well, he didn’t start last night. You see Sunday morning, about nine o’clock, he decided he’d see if the old MSR Whisperlite was working. It wasn’t. So, he had to run into Bristol, after his duties at 10:30 Mass, to buy a stove.  (There was no time to service the MSR…they’re brilliant things, but temperamental…I think I’ve managed to light it without either swearing or burning myself twice in about 120,000 miles and twelve years).
After he finished packing, he lifted the pack. I looked at his face, and lifted it myself. ‘Hell!’ I said and looked at him carefully. ‘Have you got books in here?’ (Andy once hiked the Chiapas with a huge text on semiotics in his backpack. He never read it, but assured me he needed it.)
‘No!’ he said.
He went through the pack and discarded several tons of unnecessary weight. This took time.
Then he thought he might take his car to the end of the trail. This involved negotiations with the pub landlord and a pint. We got back into the car as large grey clouds moved in, and motored up the M4 towards Heathrow.
‘We’re not going to get there much before six,’ I observed.
Andy grunted.
‘It gets dark early when it’s this overcast.’
I drove for another five miles. ‘We could call the hotel and see if you could stay with us tonight…if they can move us from a twin to a triple.’
‘There’s a steam room.’
‘And I’ve already paid for two breakfasts and kids eat free.’
So Andy started off this morning about 10am with a tummy full of coffee, cooked breakfast and croissant. Libs and I got him to Ivinghoe Beacon, where he posed for this photo,
shouting, ‘This is for you, Rett Research!!!’
We were going to walk with him the first half mile or so. But the dog was being silly, and it was clear we were holding him back. So we hugged and said good luck and…
… he was gone.
The dog whimpered and fretted on the lead, barking after his Alpha. A half an hour later, Libs, Andy’s daughter, also started to cry.
‘Don’t be silly,’ I said to them both. ‘He’ll be fine.’
And I’m sure he will. I can still see the semiotics text in our bookshelves as I write. It went 45K miles that year; by plane, foot, bus, and Mexican second-class train. It survived a downpour in a rainforest, a curious pair of black bears and a memorable encounter with armed insurgents. But it made it here, to our home. And it still has its dust jacket.

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51.8420° N, 0.6058° W
Ivinghoe Beacon (Map below)

He’s Ready To Go!

The vintage Lowe Alpine pack, in day-glo nineties colours, sits in the corner of the bedroom.

Ringed around it are bits of kit; our MSR mosquito-weight stove (‘Have you checked that it’s working?’ ‘No. It’ll work.’), an REI three season bag (‘Won’t it get colder than 13?’ ‘Yeah, but I’m always hot.’), an inflatable pad (‘Do you want me to get something a bit better?’ ‘Why? These work fine.’), the RAB Storm bivvy bag (‘Do you think you should try it out in the garden?’ Dismissive glance.), a small torch (‘Have you got an extra bulb? Extra battery?’ Sigh. ‘It’s NEW.’), the solar phone charger I insisted upon (‘If you don’t take your phone, I’ll pretend to be sick so that you can’t go.’ ‘Oh, allright, then.’), and various other bits and pieces (‘You’ll need some waterproof trousers. Proper ones.’ ‘You got me some last big camping trip…don’t you remember? They’ve still got the tags on.’ ‘Oh.’).

He wants to keep his bag under 30lbs.

He’ll carry a few packets of food, but really, it’s not like he’s heading off into the wilderness… The Ridgeway National Trail passes through several villages and towns. He’ll be within reach of a shop every day…and that goes for tap water, as well. I got him a two-litre ‘hydration system’ (‘I have a hydration system. It’s called a bottle.’), but he’ll use lots of fluid walking so many hours a day. And he’s a caffeine  addict…I seriously can’t imagine Andy starting the day without boiling up a cup of tea and have seen him go through great lengths to do so…so he’ll need the water. I imagine during his shopping trips a few biscuits will find their ways into his hands, as will a latte or two.

Andy says that if the trail was a climb, or if he had to take more gear, he probably couldn’t do it without some serious training. But because it’s relatively flat (he keeps calling it ‘a stroll’) and he’s not carrying too much, he’ll be fine.

He probably will be absolutely fine, that’s the irritating part of it. Because of Andy’s athletic youth, he has a great deal of what they call ‘residual fitness’. He has large muscles and well-cushioned joints. He has incredible physical and mental endurance. But he’s also got soft little white feet that have, for the last ten years, only worn hiking boots when it snows.

Which is why I’ve also insisted he carry quite a few special blister plasters and an anti-blister film stick.

He’ll pack it all up tomorrow and starts walking on Sunday…er… I mean strolling.
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Ecosystems of the Ridgeway: Part II

The chalk grasslands of England are ancient. Not only is the land ancient, but the human relationship to it is old, older than Christ, older than the Roman Empire.

And during almost all that time, the relationship between chalk grassland and humans has been based on the grazing of sheep. Sheep provided more than food and clothing to Ancient Britons. They also provided the landscape itself. Without grazing (and hard grazing at that), the weeds begin to creep in and destroy what we now see as the natural plants of the grassland. The weeds come, and then the trees come and then the grasslands are gone.

The keeping of sheep has actually made the grassland’s optimum biodiversity, which is what many people consider to be the typically English countryside.

These terribly English plants are all best found on grazed, managed chalk hills and downlands:

  • oxeye daisies (Leucantheum vulgare)
  • bird’s-foot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus)
  • common spotted orchid (Dactylorhiza fuchsii)
  • wild marjoram (Origanum vulgare)
  • salad burnet (Sanguisorba minor ssp. minor). 

When we think about nature conservation, we tend to think of wildness; of unmanaged tracts of land. But not managing the chalk grasslands will actually cause them to dissapear. Their relationship to people and farming is so ancient that they cannot exist without us.

They also can’t exist with too many of us. Between 1966 and 1980, nearly 20% of chalk grasslands were lost, either to intensive farming or development.

This is the place of skylarks and stone curlews; a land of butterflies and flowers. But it’s also a land of sheep and farmers. It’s the ancient farming communities that built so many of the monuments along the Ridgeway; the barrows and the earth mounds and the stone circles.

As Andy  moves along the Ridgeway, he will often be sleeping in grazed fields. He might wake up in the middle of a flock of sheep – many bivvy-ers have!
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More on chalk grasslands here

Ecosystems of the Ridgeway, Part I

The Ridgeway has two main ecosystems: woodland and chalk grassland. Andy will be walking the Ridgeway from the East to the West, so he’ll first encounter the woodland in the Chiltern Hills.

During the last Ice Age, a rich layer of clay was deposited on the chalk of the Chilterns, making an excellent base for trees.  Beech trees were the top colonisers, but there are also oaks, ash and whitebeam. The tree in the picture is a whitebeam, and one of the largest Chiltern hills is named ‘Whitebeam Hill.’

Because the chalk lies fairly close to the surface, the trees are shallow rooted here and blow over easily in storms. This makes for woodland with regular patches of open meadows; perfect for mammal habitats, particularly rabbits, deer and their predators.  The open character of the woodland is also conducive to plant growth among the trees, and the flowers of the plants attract insects and birdlife.

The woods here have been protected and managed by family dynasties for more than 400 years and gave rise to a local furniture industry and the production of charcoal.

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