Splattered with mud, blinded by fog, a walk through nothingness, but a fine way to start the year ...
Saturday 06 January 1996
Our leader was Ron Robins - a tall, lean, fit-looking 59-year-old, who, with his wife, Margaret, owns the shop and runs the post office. Like most of the others present, I was uneasily aware that in 1992 these two walked by a roundabout route from John O'Groats to Land's End, covering 1,400 miles in 100 days. So did Max, their black mongrel, like a sawn- off labrador, whose ebullience on New Year's Day was such as to suggest that he was hoping for a repeat performance.
After a quick head count, Ron announced that because fog was lying on the hills, we would head down the valley first and come back over the top, in the hope that by then the mist might have lifted. His aim was a two-and-a-half-hour walk, ending at the Old Crown on the green.
Away we went, out of the village on to footpaths and down across the fields. Our little column proved agreeably flexible: we tended to bunch at stiles, then spread out again. The result was that I kept falling in with new companions, some of whom I knew, some strangers.
At first there was much talk of the weather. "We'd never have done this on Saturday," said somebody - nor would we, for Saturday was the vilest and most dangerous day that anyone could remember. Freezing rain, hitting frozen ground, turned every smooth surface to glass and made it impossible to stand up on the slightest slope. Now, as we trudged, the bone was still in the ground but at least the top had thawed to greasy mud.
At any point where there was a possibility of error, Ron waited genially to shepherd his flock, and Margaret handed out reviving peppermints. On the move, they talked of their big hike. They walked the length of Britain not to raise funds, but merely for a holiday. Yet as they headed south, people began to offer them money, and when they returned to base in Gloucestershire, Max proved such a charmer that fans sponsored him to the tune of pounds 2,500, enough to provide a trained guide dog for the blind. The couple also raised pounds 600 for the village church.
As we went round the back of the eminence known as Smallpox Hill, Ray, who had lived in the village all his life, admitted that he had never been able to find any trace of the isolation hospital that once stood on its summit. All the same, he reckoned that the hill was a spooky old place, especially when shrouded in mist.
When we passed Coldharbour Farm - what a name, on that morning - the talk turned to hornets, which nest in a long wooded gully known as The Delkin, and we wondered if the poor creatures could have survived the recent bitter cold. Speaking of natural history, one woman disclosed that she has inherited a collection of birds' eggs, some with labels in Arabic, and finds herself in some difficulty, since possession of such things is now illegal.
As we ground up to the 700ft ridge of Cam Long Down, Ron, ever the optimist, predicted that we might come out into the sun on top. Far from it: the air was colder, the fog thicker, the view - normally spectacular - zero.
A steep grass descent caused some spectacular falls, and left Elliott, one of the teenagers, plastered in mud all up the back of his red lumberjack shirt. Then came a hard pull up to Uley Bury, an extensive Iron Age fort crowning the next-door hill; half a lap of the Roman race-track that skirts its perimeter, and over one of the precipitous earth ramparts, down which I like to imagine the defenders rolling rocks on wild, red-headed invaders from Wales.
And so at 2pm we piled into the cheerful fug of the Old Crown for a few pints of Uley bitter. We had achieved (and seen) practically nothing; but we had given ourselves a good workout and made new friends, and everyone felt that we had started 1996 in the best possible fashion.
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