Sunday, 12 August 2012

Swearing on the Saint's Way

You know when you agree to do something for which you are hopelessly unprepared and you just know it's not going to end well but you go and do it anyway?

'Oh yes, I'll enter that half marathon with you, it'll be fun!'
'Cycle from Land's End to John O'Groats? Sure, why not, after all, how hard can it be?'

Last Sunday I did it again. Two friends and I had gone to stay for the weekend with our friend Damon, who runs Encounter Walking Holidays. Damon, as you'd expect given his business, is a seasoned walker. He had already announced the challenge - to walk the Saint's Way, from Padstow to Fowey, a distance of 28 miles in one day and we had agreed we would do it.

Graham runs marathons for a hobby and Frank is an keen hill walker. I, on the other hand, had done hardly any walking for months. I was hopelessly outclassed. But I had cycled 1000 miles around Ireland recently. I couldn't be that unfit, I reasoned, trying not to panic. It was simply a case of 'keep walking'. I could have - should have - said: 'hey guys, if you want to set yourselves the challenge of walking across Cornwall in a day that's up to you but count me out,  I'll meet you at the end of the walk in the pub with some bandages and Deep Heat, you lunatics.' I didn't though. I just thought it wouldn't be that hard and also, as the only female on the trip I didn't want to appear a wuss.

Preparing for the off
We knew we needed an early start but Frank and I insisted on a cooked breakfast before we left. This did delay the start but I am sure that if we hadn't stocked up on bacon, egg, sausage, tomatoes, mushrooms and beans before the off, we would never have made it to halfway, let alone the finish line. However this veritable feast did take a while to cook and eat so it was getting on for nine before we arrived at the carpark in Padstow.

We made our way to the gate of St Petroc's church, the offical starting point and took a couple of pics and then set off along a couple of residential streets. I got out my phone and tweeted our plan to walk across Cornwall. Thirty seconds later a tweet came back telling me I had set off rather late for such a plan. I made the mistake of relating this to the rest of the gang, which immediately started recriminations. Ok, no more tweeting.

We soon found ourselves climbing a hill out of the town. This was Dennis Hill and at the top, to our left was a huge obelisk. 'What's that there for?' I asked Damon. Damon wasn't sure, so I suggested we walked along to it to have a look. It turned out to be a monument to celebrate Queen Victoria's golden jubilee which everyone agreed was quite boring. We had hoped it was a monument to toiling Cornish miners or suchlike. The views were fantastic though and we spent a few minutes taking more photos before Damon began hurrying us along. I had the feeling he was starting to think this walk could turn into an exercise in herding cats.

We had been walking for less than half an hour when I started to realise that I could be in trouble. My feet were hurting, and I had committed not one,but two cardinal sins. I had new boots AND nylon socks. Now I know what will happen now - any seasoned walker will read this and throw their hands (and their walked-in feet) up in horror and say - well, what we have here is a complete and utter twonk - and you get what you deserve! And they would be right.  A blister had already started to form on one of my toes, but I didn't dare start moaning already.

We headed down the other side of the hill and along some classic Cornish creeks before another climb up to St Breock Downs. By this time, Frank, who, despite his hill climbing experience, shared my view that walks should be liberally interspersed with coffee, beer and tea stops, commented on the lack of enterprise of establishments along the route. 'If I lived here, I'd advertise home made lemonade and cakes or something!' he grumbled. It was true, we had not passed a single place which offered refreshments along the way, and the only pub had turned itself into a fancy curry restaurant.

We briefly stopped by the monolith at the top of St Breock Downs, enjoying the view which was spoiled only by the wind turbines on the opposite hill. The stone itself is the largest and heaviest standing stone in Cornwall according to the information board next to it. Despite this, it somehow managed to fall over in 1945 and was re-erected nine years later.

After St Breock we headed into the village of Withiel. It was here that I started to swear for the first time. Withiel had a church and a seat. And some pretty cottages. But no cafe, no pub. ''For christ's sake,' I muttered to myself, 'you don't get this in Devon. Where are all the fucking pubs?'  By now my feet were burning hot and I wanted to sit down for a proper rest. It was about another seven miles of trudging before we found one.

The Lanivet Inn was a gem though when we finally got there. It served St Austell ales. Graham and Damon demurred and went for orange juice. 'Bugger that!' I declared, I've earned a beer!' Thankfully Frank agreed, and so he went for a pint of Tribute whilst I plumped for Trelawney, a favourite of mine when I can get it. I released my poor throbbing feet from my boots whilst we sat there in the sun. Ten  minutes later, and while I was only halfway through my pint, the others started moving. Reluctantly I guzzled the rest, pulled my boots back on and we headed into the next door shop where I purchased an ENORMOUS pastie. As soon as we were outside I tore into it like a demon.

Bringing up the rear...

From Lanivet things got worse. I now had a blister on every single toe and I could feel them all squidging as I walked. Graham could see I was in pain and tried to cheer me up. 'When I run marathons' he said, 'sometimes the only thing that doesn't hurt is the end of my nose. So I just focus on that.' I tried to focus on my nose rather than the pain in my feet. It wasn't working. I have never been very good at stoicism. I stumbled on in an increasingly bad mood, swearing to myself all the while. Frank and I had now found ourselves constantly behind the other two. Hints were dropped that we had been the ones to have a pint of beer, maybe that was the cause?

Then, at about the twenty mile mark, something strange happened. I suddenly went from sheer exaustion to having loads more energy. I climbed the hills faster than the rest, and the pain, whilst still there, didn't seem to matter anymore. It was weird. I felt exhilarated. 'This is great!' I said. ''Six miles to go,' said Graham. 'Oh, is that all?' I replied breezily. 'That's easy!!

It didn't last though. We stopped at the Fisherman's Arms at Golant. I considered a pint but by now all could drink was a coffee. I made the mistake of examining my feet. My blisters had multiplied, I had baby blisters on my mother blisters. It was a bloody blister factory down there. This time, replacing my boots and trudging up the hill was agony. By the time I tottered down the hill into Fowey I was done in. A car went past with a group of youths in, they were yelling something out of the window. It may have been 'stupid runts' or something like that, I didn't know and cared even less. Coming down the hill another car slowed and I stepped aside to let it past. It came to a stop and I realised it was Damon's wife who had come to pick us up.

I was still 500 yards from the end but I didn't care. Grabbing the door handle I opened it and climbed gratefully inside. 'Bloody hell,' said Jo, can't believe you've got this far.'
'Neither can I,' I muttered. I had given in early but I had had enough. Farther down the hill we collected Frank and then Damon. Graham had decided he wanted to be purist and finish the walk at the church so we drove around awhile before we found him.

Later that evening, slumped on the sofa I reflected on the day. Had it been worth it? I had walked farther that day that I had ever done before in my life so that was, I supposed, a thing To Be Proud Of. The telly was showing the closing ceremony of the Olympics. George Michael and Jessie J were doing their thing and I thought: 'my walk has been like the Olympics - it started well, there were triumphs and tears along the way and all in all, I'm glad I participated. But the ending was a bit of a let down and I'm bloody glad it's all over.

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