Prelude - Sunday 6th. January
"You need to get fit!", she said.
I never argue with a woman, not even when she catches me off guard. Picture this. I was sitting by the roaring log fire on a chilly January evening. I had just finished one of Adele's excellent dinners, the sort where courtesy demands you have three helpings of everything. John had just brought in the Glenfiddich, and was in the act of pouring a tot each when she-who-knows-best looked at me, slumped near-horizontal in my chair, with my eyelids drooping and with my well-filled stomach bulging, and issued her ultimatum.
"Yes, Dear", I said. What else could I say? Spending 40 hours a week cooped up in a car teaching people to drive must be one of the most sedentary yet stressful jobs there is, and so I secretly agreed with she-who-knows-best that I should get more exercise.
What she meant of course was getting a dog and taking a daily brisk 5-mile walk, or enthusiastically working out three times a week at the local sports centre. Now, as it happens, earlier that evening John and I had already mulled over the idea of exercise, though on a much grander scale than that proposed by my nearest-and-dearest. Eighteen months had passed since John, my two lads and me had walked the Ridgeway Path (all forty-odd miles of it, by easy stages) in 1989. We now felt sufficiently rested to consider bigger things. We pondered a bit more over the Glenfiddich. "The Pennine Way?", I said. John contemplated his glass, then smiled and shook his head. "Not that big, mate".
I don't know why I suggested the Thames Path. (There were many moments in the next ten months when my legs hurt or when we got attacked by rampant vegetation that I wished I hadn't.) The more we thought about the project, the more obvious it became that it was perfectly viable. A map confirmed my worst suspicions. The River Thames from its source near Cirencester right down to the Goring gap was all easily accessible, with John living just a few miles from Goring and the whole stretch being within half an hour's drive or so of my Wantage home. Conveniently for us less-than-fit would-be walkers the Upper Thames is crossed by roads every ten miles or so, and ten miles-ish was the sort of distance that we reckoned we could cope with in one day. Better still for us idle chaps, riverside walking would of course be level, easy going.
So that's why, in eight stages over some ten months of 1991, four humans and a dog walked the 85-mile upper section of the Thames Long Distance Path from where the River Thames cuts through the chalk of the Chilterns and Berkshire Downs, upstream to the source in Gloucestershire. Certainly this walk has been done before, certainly it has been written about before, but despite many a hassle and pair of stiff legs on the way, we found it to be something rather special.
By chucking-out time that January night, a daft idea had become a firm project, and we set a provisional date of February 10th. to walk from Goring to Shillingford.
Interlude - 10th-24th. February.
10th. February. 7.30am! I awoke, feeling keen. This was the big day! This was the day planned for my umpteenth effort at getting fit. But no! - a look out of the window indicated that Old Mother Nature saw things differently. I picked up the phone.
"Good Morning, John. How's the weather at your end?".
Not being given to idle and un-necessary chat, John held the phone up to the window so I could see the snowdrifts halfway up his bungalow, whereupon we retired back to our beds. It was to be another two weeks before the snow had cleared properly, and the weather forecasters promised 'a mild day, apart from a chance of a band of showers'.
While the snow clears, let me introduce:
Besides being economical in the use of words, John (referred to hereinafter as 'Big' John) is a middle-aged civil servant, a keen vegetable gardener, a brewer of delicious home-made wines, and a countryman at heart. Big John brought as companion Ben-the-Dog, a most aimiable domesticated collie of (almost) unlimited energy.
My elder son 'Young' John celebrated his 11th. birthday during the year. Tall, but lightly built, he is naturally inquisitive and very sharp-eyed: he'd like to think he's a trainee David Attenborough. Two-years-younger brother David also has a sharp mind, but directs it differently. He views a long walk in the country as an interruption to his computer games, but I couldn't see any real reason why he shouldn't make the trip, so he found himself dragged along 'for his own good'.
Me? Well, it's true that I needed to get fit. I am not naturally energetic, preferring to avoid exertion whenever I can. Despite having been country bred, and lived in rural areas most of my life, I really didn't know much about the natural world around me until Young John and David started asking me, "What's that bird?" or, "What's that tree?" and I found I didn't know. Perhaps it was time I found out.
Thames Path does not lend itself to circular trips, and walking out and retracing steps seems such a waste of effort, that we adopted the 'two cars, two drivers' method that we had used for walking the Ridgeway. This means meeting at a pre-arranged point, driving in convoy to the end point of that day's walk, leaving one car there, and all cramming into the other one to return to the start. At the end of the day's walking, we all cram into the car left conveniently at our destination, then drive back to collect the car that had been left all on its lonesome at the starting point. Simple, isn't it? Of course, there is an easier way. Your chauffeur - or wife - takes you all to the start, and collects you all from the pub at the finish - if you're very lucky! Just occasionally, it turned out, we were lucky!