A reconnaissance mission

23 August 2019

Plotting routes for long training walks isn’t always easy, especially if you want to keep things interesting. An out and back route is the easiest but it means covering the same ground twice and I much prefer a circular walk. After a lot of messing about with maps I thought I had a fairly interesting eighteen mile route planned but there was one fly in the ointment. Avoiding walking along Wide Lane twice meant taking the trail across Monks Brook Meadows and, with all the building work going on there, I wasn’t sure if we’d be able to get through. Luckily, Commando had a session at the Running School this afternoon so I thought I’d check out the footpath while he was being tortured.

Last summer when I walked back and forth to the Running School for my own sessions this was the path I used. Those walks, some slow and painful because of my bad back, some fast and furious because I was late, stick in my mind as beautiful interludes before and after the hard work Paul put me through. Even then though, preparations were underway to turn the second of the large fields into some kind of sports complex. On more recent drives I’d seen locked gates and, even though this is supposed to be a public footpath, I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to get through.

This afternoon Commando dropped me on Stoneham Lane and I headed back under the motorway bridge towards the field. Last summer I’d usually got on and off the field through a gap in the hedge but, since then, fences and gates have gone up and the gap has disappeared. The little kissing gate was still there though so, feeling slightly worried at what I might find, I went through.

The path was narrow with overhanging brambles and a fence to one side. Odd bits of builders rubbish was strewn along it so I had to watch my step. It didn’t look as if anyone walked this path very often, which is a bit of a worry as an unwalked footpath is easily lost, especially when there are builders involved. Last time I came this way I’d found my way back onto the field quite quickly. Today I found that gap had been closed by fencing, beyond which I could see a row of portaloos, some large metal containers that might have been sheds and lots of diggers. There were no builders about but it was obvious I wouldn’t be able to get through that way.

Luckily, the path ahead, although badly overgrown, was passable. In places I had to push my way through brambles and ivy but, the further I got from the building work, the better I felt.

Towards the end the path turned right and I saw some steps ahead. At the bottom I found myself on the other side of the field. To my left was the tunnel under Stoneham Way and, to my right, the slope that once led up into the field. Last summer a piece of metal fencing had been easy enough to climb over. Now it has been replaced by much higher, more impenetrable fencing and the vegetation has all but covered the path.

It was a relief to know there was a way through, even if it wasn’t nearly as nice as it used to be. There was still plenty of time to kill before Commando’s session finished though so I thought I’d keep on walking for a while. Under the Stoneham Way tunnel and up the slope and I was on the second field. Out in the open now the sun was hot so I took the narrow path along the edge of the field, thinking it would be more shaded there. It wasn’t.

I reached into my bag for my water bottle but it wasn’t there. We’d been running late when we left home and I’d just grabbed everything. I remembered putting the water bottle into the cup holder in the car while I did my seat belt up. I’d meant to put it in my bag once we got going but I’d obviously forgotten, probably because of the stress of all the roadworks and detours we’d run into. So now I had no water and I was getting hotter by the minute. For a moment or two I thought about turning back and sitting in the waiting room drinking from the water cooler. That felt like a cop out though so, instead, I kept going.

On the other side of the field I knew there would be shady trees and the running water of the brook. When the path turned sharply left I could see the trees ahead. The thought of the shade made me quicken my pace.

Getting out of the sun was bliss. Of course I was still thirsty, but at last I wasn’t also hot. The light coming through the canopy of leaves had a green tint to it and the brook reflected patches of blue sky. Birds were singing and bees were buzzing around the Himalayan balsam. These little bits of woodland are so beautiful to walk through, you can feel the rejuvenating power of nature with every step.

The only plan I’d had was to make sure the path was open and I’d achieved that quickly. Now I just wandered slowly, listening to the brook tinkling away beside me and drinking in the peace and calm.

When I reached the railway bridge I thought about simply carrying on and walking home. I even got my phone out to leave Commando a message so he’d know not to wait for me. Then I remembered that, amongst all the stresses in the car on the way here, he’d realised he’d left his phone at home. If I went any further I wouldn’t get back before his session ended.

There was nothing for it but to turn and walk back along the brook. It was no hardship. The dappled green light, the sound of the water and the birdsong gave the walk a magical feel. Sadly it was over all too soon and I was soon crossing the bridge, climbing the slope and emerging into the sun again.

As the narrow trail along the side of the field hadn’t really offered any shelter from the sun I decided to walk straight across the field. This, I thought, would be a quicker route. There were flowers to see along the way, mostly daisies and ragwort, a few blackberries beginning to ripen, a candy striped vinca and some fluffy silken knapweed seedheads.

The trail across the meadow wasn’t as straight as I’d remembered though. In fact I am fairly sure it was longer than the trail at the side of the field. The sun beat down ferociously. What a contrast the the cool of the wood.

Finally I emerged on the far side of the meadow. There was a steep slope to negotiate but I managed without incident. Then it was back under the road towards the second field.

Before I headed up the steps to the footpath, I walked up to the new fence, climbed the bank and had a look at all the changes. There seems to be some kind of fenced in sports pitch and a lot of messy building supplies on the field. Whether the old path will be opened up again once it’s all finished I couldn’t tell but I rather hope so.

Finally I did climb the steps and fight my way back along the overgrown footpath. It may not be the best path in the world and it’s very narrow but at least I know Kim and I will be able to get through.

Just before I reached the kissing gate I got a glimpse of the new entrance to the field. This looks to be for cars rather than people but I was pleased to see the big old tree I’d sat beneath on so many of my old walks had survived. Whether I will ever get the chance to sit breath it again remains to be seen but the view has changed forever. In my opinion, it hasn’t changed for the better.

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