The Monarch’s Way 2019; The Start

On September 3rd, 1651, a young King Charles the II was a fugitive, having narrowly escaped capture following his Royalist armies’ heavy defeat at the hands of Oliver Cromwell’s Roundheads at the Battle of Worcester. For the next six weeks he was pursued all over the country by Cromwell and his forces, famously hiding up an oak tree to avoid capture, now famously called the ‘Royal oak’ and source of the name of many pubs in the U.K. Eventually reaching Shoreham where the king set sail to France to begin nine years of exile.

His famous escape route is now memorialised by a walking route called the ‘Monarch’s Way’ that roughly traces Charles’ escape route from its very beginning at the Battle of Worcester. After passing north up to Boscobel (site of the famous oak tree) the long journey south begins, through Stratford upon Avon and the Cotswolds, across the Mendip Hills to Charmouth on the south coast. The path then heads east along the coast through both the Hampshire and the South Downs where it ends at Shoreham, the site of the kings escape by boat and, more importantly, my home town.

From start to finish the Monarchs way is 615-625 miles, depending on who you ask. This gives it the prize of being the longest inland walking trail within England. In walking its entire length, you cover the distance of London to Milan, ascending a total distance equivalent to climbing Everest and then some. Now all this is information I wish I knew back when I made a silly bet with my friend, Ash Fee, boldly claiming that I could walk the entire Monarchs Way before the end of the year. We agreed on a £50 wager and it was on!

The first of many signs to guide you along the Monarchs Way.

Now at the time I knew of the Monarch Way from passing it distinctive waymarker; a ship above a crown that is superimposed into an oak tree. But I had no idea how long it really was. I had done some long-distance walking of 100 miles before but nothing like this. 625 miles is a long, long way to walk. My plan was to ‘wild’ camp the whole way, this was to keep cost down as I would be spending astronomical amounts on public transport to get to and from the Way back home. I would carry all the stuff I need to survive on my back and save money by cooking food I bought with me on my portable stove. Great plan, right?

Trip 1 (26-28 July, 2019)

It was a few months after I had agreed to the original bet that I was finally on the train to Worcester and to the start point at Powick Bridge. Boris Johnson had just been sworn as Prime Minister and the United Kingdom had just endured its hottest July day on record, so obviously everyone was going a bit crazy. It was therefore nice to get away from it all and to start my long walk. I at arrived at Worcester Foregate Station, with my large pack containing all I thought I would need for a weekend’s walking. I abruptly jumped in a taxi and asked to be dropped at Powick Bridge. After around ten minutes of awkward taxi chat, as my eye fixated in watching the metre climb steadily higher, the driver pulled over on the lay-by of a main road and asked;

 “This alright mate?”

 Not having a clue where I was and not willing to pay more than the £7.20 the fare had already reached, I agreed it was alright, handed him the cash and jumped out.

Down the road from the lay-by I saw a pub, so I quickly decided the best plan of action was to go have a pint, to reward me for getting this far, and then find my way to Powick Bridge and get down to some walking.

Now seems like a good time to tell you I had bought no maps with on this walk. Well technically this isn’t true, I had bought my recently purchased copy of ‘The Monarchs Way Guidebook; Part One’. I had got this from the brilliant people at the Monarchs Way Association, the people responsible for the Way and its maintenance. They kind people there even warned me that I would require maps for navigation. Advice I foolishly ignored. The guidebook included detailed written direction of the Way and some crude hand drawn maps which I decided was all I needed to navigate. A quick check on the map app on my phone showed the old bridge was just a 10-minute walk away, so after sinking my ‘celebratory starting’ pint, and feeling confident, I headed down to the bridge and the start of the Monarchs Way.    

Selfie Number 1 at Old Powick Bridge, mile 0.

Old Powick Bridge is lovely old bridge and site of the first the English Civil Wars. The Battle of Powick Bridge (1642), the first major engagement of Civil Wars and a Royalist victory. Standing on the historic bridge I took the obligatory ‘start of walk’ selfie, read the plaques honouring the Highlanders and Lowlanders of Scotland who died fighting for the Royalist armies and set off.  Following the River Severn, I quickly walked the first 4 miles to Worcester and decided to take some time to have a look around the cathedral as, truth be told and despite its charm, I can’t see myself coming back to Worcester any time soon.

Worcester Cathedral is an imposing building on the banks of the Severn, offering stunning views as you approach from the riverside. Wandering in I was greeted by a lovely old lady who caught me standing, staring at the stain glass windows above the door;

 “Lovely, aren’t they?”

“Yer, crazy how they managed to make them so long ago.” I replied curiously.

“Oh, those aren’t that old, they were built during renovation done by Victorians. If you’d like to follow me, I’ll show the really old parts.” She added. 

So, I followed her round the cathedral for the next ten minutes or so, as she pointed out and gave me a rough date as to when each section was built. To be honest, I lost interest quickly, but the lady was just so sweet I couldn’t bring my-self to stop feigning intrigue. When my short tour finished I thanked her for time and put a little change in the collection pot, which she had tactically decided to finish next too. Well played old lady, well played.

 After departing the cathedral, I set off out Worcester via the Stratford upon Avon canal past the old commandery. In general, I like walking along canal as they are flat and navigation is easy. Once I turned off the canal it was another story though; instead of an easy straight-line down canal, the Way took me down rarely used and overgrown footpaths followed by long field crossings, at the end of which I would I pass through a gate or over a sty into yet another over grown path or field. Quite Foolishly I had decided shorts and running trainers would be suitable attire for my little adventure. I’ll tell you this for free, walking through nettle and brambles in shorts is not a pleasant experience. My progress was slow as although the Monarchs Way Association has done a great job of way marking and describing the route, I found myself having to stop regularly to consult my guide and trying to work out where in the text I was.

A few hours, and many more field crossings and nettle stings, I found myself back canal side. This time on the Drowitch-Spa Canal. The sunlight was quickly fading as I spotted a mink swimming, dipping in out of the reeds on the far bank.  Minks aren’t native to the United Kingdom instead they are an invasive species from North America. In the 1950’s they were widely prized for their, at its peak there were 400 fur farms in the United Kingdom. They become widespread in the wild after some activists released them from their shackles. Quite frankly I was rather happy that this little guy had so far avoided being made into a coat. I spent a few minutes watching him before he scurried off into the reeds to conduct his mink business and I walked on to find a spot to sleep.

Once I turned off of the canal, the Way took me alongside a very large and very posh country house. Shortly on from this house, I stumbled through a gate into a sheep field where I spotted an overhanging tree, under which I decided to make camp. Despite the day before being one of the hottest on record, rain was forecast, as the clouds looked ominous and grey. I was in for a wet night. It was around this point that I deeply regretted my decision to leave my tent at home for this trip. This decision was based on a few reasons; firstly, I wanted to travel light to up my walking pace and daily mileage. Secondly, and very idiotically, I thought that it wouldn’t rain in July. Instead I opted to bring just a bivvy bag. What is a bivvy bag?  To put simply it is a waterproof bag you climb into with your sleeping bag. I used the final light of the day to set up my little camp under the tree and prepared for a wet night. By this point in the day I was ravenous! So, I decided cook some super noodles. I was mortified to realise at that very moment that the new gas I had bought for this trip didn’t fit onto burner. In desperation I tried to force it on, to which it responded by squirting its flammable contents over me. Defeated, I gave up and resorted to eating 4 of my 12 cereal bars and bedded down for the night.

During the night the heavens opened, rain came crashing through the tree hitting me as I hid in my plastic bag. I know most people’s idea of fun isn’t sleeping on the ground, under a tree in a field somewhere in the Worcestershire countryside, but I was relishing in the adventure and my bivvy bag was doing a good job of keeping me dry. Surely it wouldn’t rain tomorrow, right?

I woke up early at 6 am to some curious sheep who had got brave enough to come check me out. Facing my reality that I couldn’t have my morning coffee or a warm breakfast, I scoffed another 2 cereal bars and set-off into the wet Worcester countryside. About an hour into walking the rain returned and so begun what would turn out to be a truly horrible day.

Wading through the wet long grass caused my trainers to become instantly saturated and by this point my legs were red raw from the constant barrage of nettles and brambles. At one particularly large patch of nettles, I decided to run through and minimise the torture. I got to the other side feeling triumphant for making through and only being stung 300 times! But sadly, my torture was not over. At some point during my legendary nettle crossing my guidebook had fallen out of my hip strap, where I was keeping it in a failing attempt to keep it dry. Bordering on tears, I realised I had to go back into the nettles, this time slowly scanning for my lost guidebook. I found the illusive book and quickly scampered out of the nettles. Finally free, I turned, kicking the last of the nettles in anger to exact some sweet revenge. However, this only achieved another painful sting to the leg to add to my now quite impressive collection. I’m confident in saying that on the 27th of July, 2019, I was stung by nettles more than anyone in the British Isles. At the time, this small achievement offered me no comfort, I was really not a happy chappy!   

Wet, sore, hungry, desperate for my morning coffee and questioning my sanity I carried on following the Way along it’s many interconnected public footpaths. Though, now even slower as my guide book was getting soaked and the pages were sticking together making navigation increasingly harder. I was angry at myself for not being prepared, and because I find the feeling of wet paper revolting. I started too doubt my chances at finishing this challenge that had been set upon myself. I arrived at the first village I planned to pass through that day only to find that all the tables in the only tea room were booked. Who on earth books a table at a tea room for 9 am in the morning! I decided to settle for yet another cereal bar and a packet of sweets I had brought with me and walk on.

 It rained the rest of the day, as I carried on my painful slog along the Way. My legs by now felt like they were on fire and I relished every time the Way took me onto a section of road or canal where I didn’t have to face another path through a waist high pain factory nature had created for me. I soldiered on, paying little to no attention to anything, far too miserable to stop in the rain. At one particularly miserable moment, that I’m not proud off, I passed a lovely lady who wished me a lovely;

 “Good afternoon!”

Is it?” I replied sarcastically. Trudging on, saddened for what I had become.

By 3 pm I had passed through the villages of Stourbridge and Hagley and reached the small village Stourton. I gladly noted that my guidebook instructed me to follow the Staffs & Worcs canal towpath for 7 miles, straight to Wombourne. I decided to carry, on without stopping hoping to find somewhere to eat and plan for the night ahead.

I walked the 7 miles along the canal as quick as I could with the thought of warm food and escaping the rain driving me on. Now on arriving in Wombourne I made a decision I’m not proud off. The thought of another wet night in my bivvy bag was one I could not take after walking x miles in shorts, in the pouring rain. I certainly was no longer ‘relishing the adventure’. So, I hope you forgive me for booking into a hotel, just a mile off of the Way for the night. My plan of keeping cost down and camping wasn’t going well!

‘soiled socks’.

At the hotel I quickly undressed, removing my soiled socks, to find a tick had made residence just below my sock line. He was quickly evicted and, after showering, I dried my guidebook with the hairdryer in my room. Feeling refreshed, I decided to head to the hotel bar with my guidebook and notepad to start taking this seriously. The first thing I noted ‘next time bring maps, trousers, tent, and the correct fuel you idiot!’.

Sitting in the hotel bar, I ordered the mixed grill alongside a pint and sat down to the realisation that I had walked a shade over 45 miles of the Way. Tomorrow was Sunday and I had to be at work Monday, so I was only going to have to walk at least another 8/9 miles before heading back. At this rate it would take 11 more weekends of walking to finish before the end of year. With the end of Summer coming and my schedule not allowing me to walk every weekend I still needed to find the time to walk another 550 miles. This surely meant I would still be a long way from finishing when the cold nights and short days of Winter arrive. With this worrying thought in mind I decided my best course of immediate action was to get far too merry and enjoy the slightly chubby Gary Barlow impersonator that the hotel had very kindly provided.

Not-so-shockingly I woke up late the next morning, made myself a coffee and checked out. I walked the short distance back to where I left the Way yesterday. It was a dull, grey morning and the rain was holding off as I walked along an old disused railway track. It was busy with cyclists and morning dog walkers, a lot of whom stopped for a friendly chat and too ask why I was carrying such a large pack and ‘why on earth are you in shorts? ‘.

Leaving the old rail track, I started the first one of a series of long crossings through fields of wheat (I wouldn’t dare run through them Theresa, calm down!).  I noticed that it seems every field I walked through had shards of pottery sticking out the mud. How did it get there? What did it used to be? How old is it? With these questions in mind, I decided to channel my inner Tony Robinson and conducted a little experiment by collecting all the pieces of pottery I saw on one particularly long field crossing. I found 32 little pieces of pottery in that one field alone, maybe archaeology is my life calling.

My impressive assortment of pottery pieces on my now battered guide book.

Not long after I finished playing ‘Time Team’ the rain returned. And it returned with vengeance. My guidebook was quickly soaked through again and I still had a 5 mile walk and a 4-hour train journey before reaching the comforts of home. The heavy rain quickly made the path look more like a stream then a walking route.

Briefly cheered by the sight of a flight of swallowsdescending all around, swooping down, and catching bugs from just few feet above me. I caught glimpses of black and white as they flashed past all around me. It reminded me of something my older brother used to say to me, when I was much too young to understand;

 “If the dove is the bird of love, then the swallow is the bird of true love”.

 I get it now of course, well, not literally at least….

 It was mid-afternoon when I eventually made it to Oaken and sought shelter in an old-style red phone box to take my ‘end of walk’ selfie. I was quite miserable and desperate to make the next train, as there was only an hour, so I hope you excuse my gormless appearance. I had walked 54 miles of the Way, and the thought of walking another 500+ miles is a very daunting one indeed. I had commitments the next two weekends, so it won’t be until mid-August that I’m able to start walking again. It’s only going to get harder as Summer draws to an end.

My very unflattering ‘end of walk selfie’.

As I walked the way a lot of people asked if I was doing this for charity? This is because they didn’t think any willing 24-year-old would choose to go walking around the Black Country in the rain. But it made me think; what a great idea!

I decided that I would change the bet with my friend Ash Fee. If I finish before the end of the year, he has to donate that £50 to St. Barnabas Hospice. I decided on St. Barnabas as, two years ago, I charged out the final assignment of my university degree to a missed call from my mum; my dad had been told he has terminal lung cancer. After under-going chemotherapy he was still strong enough to return home. Where he has been the past two years, staying strong for his family.

 Once a week however he gets to go St. Barnabas Hospice where, with people in the same situation as him, they go out on trips or take part in group activities together. This give him, and everyone else there, a vital opportunity to chat to people in a similar situation to themselves. Along-side this they have helped him with physical therapy to help him stay as mobile and as strong as possible. When I asked my dad about turning this walk, which he thought I was crazy for wanting to do anyway, into a fundraising walk for St. Barnabas he replied with this;

“That’s a lovely idea! I wouldn’t be here without them!”

 St. Barnabas Hospice really is a truly wonderful charity that does truly wonderful things. I couldn’t think of a better cause to walk for. So, I thought a good aim would be to raise £625, a pound for every mile I walk. I would be incredibly grateful if you could spare anything to help a great charity and keep me motivated on my long walk.

 So now using an old trick taught to me by a lovely little lady at Worcester cathedral, I’ll leave you with this link.

Cheers for reading,

Jack

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