My main motivation for receing as much of the MW as possible was to minimise the amount of time lost to navigating (and getting lost). I also thought it would be good race specific training. And finally, I like a ‘project’.
Spurred on by following the 2017 race I set off on my first rece in June, the weekend after the General Election. To say it wasn’t a success would be a gross under-statement. I’d planned to get the first train to Worcester on the Saturday morning. However having stayed up all night on the Thursday/Friday I didn’t make it out of bed till mid-morning and it was mid afternoon before I even got to the start.
The fun and games started just before Droitwich Spa when I got confused by the conflict between the route stickers and that year’s race GPS. I ended up doing a route which was a hybrid of the two and involved crossing a major road junction. In the process I acquired a stalker, a small-ish teenage boy. After initially asking for directions he then followed close behind me, stopping whenever I did and making a series of agitated phonecalls in a language I didn’t understand. At one point a woman stopped her car and asked if I was OK. I answered ‘yes’, because I wasn’t sure what else to say. Eventually I’d had enough and told him in no uncertain terms to stop following me. This did the job, but I was left feeling somewhat unsettled.
Not long after it started raining and I encountered the first over-grown field path. I hadn’t bothered to put on gaiters and soon the insides of my waterproof boots were soaked. The route was quasi-rural and I’d vastly over-estimated the ease of finding both food and suitable places to sleep. I eventually stopped at about mid-night and bivied hungry right next to the path.
Next morning I got moving just after dawn, and narrowly avoided getting caught having a wee by a pack of super keen elderly walkers. I’d also under-estimated how overgrown the route would be. My legs and arms got scratched to bits by brambles and then pollen got into the wounds and made my legs swell up. To cap things off I discovered that Hoka Tor boots aren’t wide enough for my feet-it felt like my toes were being crushed in a vice. By late-morning I decided that I’d had enough and slowly trudged my way to the nearest train station and headed home with my tail between my legs. I’d managed a grand total of ~50 miles in just over 24 hours. I’d later come to realise that that’s actually not a bad day’s walking on the MW.
Having entered the race the moment (literally...) entries opened I set off on my next rece over the August bank holiday weekend, aiming to get to Stratford-upon-Avon. This time, to get an early start, I stayed in a ‘hotel’ in Wolverhampton the night before. It was cheap. It was also the 2nd worse place I’ve ever stayed in the UK. It took half an hour to even get checked-in as people puked and argued with the receptionist and each other. And when I finally got to my room it looked like a DSS hostel. Getting the hell out of there was at least a good motivation for getting up early in the morning.
I got the first train back to Codsall, where I’d stopped before, and was soon back on the route. I occasionally struggled with the fiddly navigation, missing invisible styles and unmarked turns. But on the whole I enjoyed making my way around the Boscabel loop. I stopped and bivied at White Ladies Priory. Which was a nice location, apart from the condom wrapper I spotted when I got up in the morning.
The next morning was a bit of a death-plod as I’d again made the mistake of over-estimating the availability of shops, and wasn’t carrying enough food and water. After one of many ‘does the route really go there’ moments (a scramble up a steep embankment, followed by a climb over fence) I detoured to a Costa for brunch. The route through the West Midlands urban conurbation then got increasingly grim. Miles of canal tow-path where half the benches were burnt out and all the people on it were off their faces. It made the last section of the Grand Union canal into Paddington seem pleasant. I made sure my GPS and phone were packed away and avoided making eye contact with anyone.
I really didn’t fancy heading into the Netherton tunnel on my own with this company, so instead I headed ‘over the top’ in increasingly heavy rain. I was extremely glad to make it back to fields but, with the route running parallel to the M5, there was nowhere quiet to sleep. Next morning, feeling throughly miserable from the lack of sleep and food, I decided that I’d far rather spend what was left of the BH weekend with the OH. I plodded to Bromsgrove and threw the towel in early, again.
I squeezed this one into a term-time weekend in November and don’t have much to say about it. It was actually quite pleasant! The weather was Sunny and not too cold, and this section of route, in particular the Wooten Wawen aqueduct, was nice. There were some low points though. My new Inov8 waterproof boots started leaking within metres of entering the first wet fields. And when I turned my phone on in Stratford-upon-Avon I found a message from the B&B asking where I was (even though check-in was supposed to be open for another few hours) as they were going to a party. I ended up sitting on the door step for a while waiting for them to come back. But this was a good opportunity to clean myself up.
The next day was a short one. Fuelled by an excellent veggie breakfast, I ran all of the disused train line out of Stratford and a fair bit of the rest of the route. I made it to Moreton-in-Marsh just before dark, and with just enough time to scrape the worst of the mud off myself before the next train arrived.
I squeezed a long weekend trip into the gap between Christmas and work restarting. To avoid camping I booked, cheap, hotels and limited myself to shortish (35 mile) days to make sure I got to each one in time. The limited milage and kit to carry made for a much more enjoyable weekend than my usual wild-camping slogathons.
The route through the Cotswolds was interesting, but not too challenging (in terms of both terrain and navigation). It did include the most ridiculous MW ‘deviation’ however. There’s a nice flat, even path between Lower Slaughter and Bourton-on-the Water. The Heart of England Way follows this route. The MW on the other hand, turns off of it. Up a steep muddy field, along a narrow, bendy but busy road, down a steep rocky field, and finally across a field with signs warning of adders!
Footwear and check-in times also caused problems again. A new pair of (non-waterproof) Inov8 boots blistered my heels and (despite being a men’s 7) squished my toes. And I hadn’t spotted that the hotel in Cirencester was in fact a (ridiculously expensive) hostel and check-in closed at 8. Thankfully they were still open (but understandably not happy) when I showed up at 20 past. After a short final day I got the train home from Bristol, travelling in the bike compartment because I was caked in mud.
Another civilised hotel based trip. I set out from the Travelodge in Bristol into rain. It eventually stopped and the route through the Mendips was interesting but muddy. I thought I was going to get to my next hotel, in North Wootten, a few miles South of Wells, in time for dinner. Instead I struggled to keep to the route through dense woodland, and at one point ended up crawling under trees up a hill.
Somerset in general was ‘fun’. The route was often completely over-grown (spot the 2nd style in the first photo below) or knee deep in mud and shit. A proper dinner eluded me yet again, and I arrived in Yeovil just in time to have a dehydrated meal and crawl into bed.
The MW in Somerset, in fine fettle
Up till now I’d been doing the route in order, to allow me to change my plans without messing everything up. However the new few stages were very rural, with limited or no accommodation. So I planned to leave them to later, when the weather would be better and I could camp with lighter gear (ha ha-see rece 7 below...). Therefore my next rece was going to be a short one from Rowland’s Castle to the finish, staying in hotels and hostels. Snow, and the cancellation of all South West trains out of London, put pay to that. Fortunately I managed to get all but one of the hotels and both my train tickets refunded.
Thanks to work I didn’t have any spare weekends to try rece 6 again so it was back to the West Country for a camping trip around the Yeovil loop. Day one was fun, I got to watch all sorts of aircraft flying in and out of Yeovilton airbase and met lots of interesting looking sheep. The route was really wet and muddy and just before Crewkerne a dog-walker directed me around a section which was apparently knee deep in water. The weather began to deteriorate and I spent a windy night trying to sleep just outside Hawkchurch.
Day two was tough. I was surprised by quite how steep the hills were and as I made my way along the coast it started snowing. I stopped in the Morrison’s cafe in Bridport for a much needed hot meal. The navigation and route remained challenging. At one point the route was heading along a green lane. A fallen down tree blocked the lane. I assumed it had come down recently and crawled under it only to find myself trapped in the midst of overgrown bushes. I eventually escaped by climbing a barbed wire fence into an adjacent field. A few miles later another green lane turned, literally, into a river and I alternated between paddling in shin deep water and trying to inch along the muddy banks.
The snow then got heavier and there was soon several inches of snow, covering everything and making route finding hard. I gave up on finding footpaths across fields and stuck to minor roads instead. I’d been aiming for Broadwindsor, but called it a day several miles sooner and bivied on the edge of Pilsdon Pen hill fort. Despite having full “Spine sleeping gear” it was a chilly night, and the local sheep weren’t particularly happy with my presence.
It continued snowing through the night and I decided that if I wanted to get home that day my best bet was to get to the nearest train station ASAP rather than carrying on along the route back to Yeovil. Three hours of road walking through snow got me to Crewkerne station. No trains were running towards London, but there was a delayed service going in the other direction (along the single track!) towards Exeter. After conferring with the OH by phone I decided to get it (the alternative was another long walk to Yeovil). That train broke down a few stations down the line, but eventually another train arrived and I made it to Exeter and then home.
I planned to do my final long camping rece, from Yeovil to Rowland’s Castle over the Easter bank holiday. Because of more bad weather and minor illness instead I worked that weekend and postponed it for a week. I also set off a day early so I could do the Broadwindsor to Yeovil section that I’d got snowed off of.
After an ‘interesting’ few hours killing time in Yeovil Wetherspoons and bus station I finally made it back to Broadwindsor (my grandparents lived just outside Yeovil and I really don’t remember the bus station being so grim back then). I struggled to stay on route through Nine Springs park in the dark, but otherwise I made my way back to Yeovil OK. After running, almost literally, into some badgers I stopped to sleep in the porch of the church at Mudford. I’d been so relieved to get home from my last rece that I’d forgotten to unpack my rucksack. When I got my bivvy bag out several weeks later it was stinking and covered in mould. Repeated washes didn’t help much. For this trip I was therefore stuck with a lighter, less robust bag, so I wanted to try and find sheltered places to sleep. The bag also wasn’t very breathable and I woke up with a damp sleeping bag.
New (ginger) friend
The morning of day two involved some more surprisingly steep hills and some friendly alpacas. I stopped in Wincanton for a pub meal and (probably not so) surreptitiously dried my sleeping bag by the fire. After an afternoon of flatter terrain I stopped for another church porch bivvy in Fonthill Bishop. Day 3 brought lots of nice straight tracks, that were easy to navigate and make good progress along. Settling into a good routine I had another pub lunch and a church porch bivvy at Houghton.
The next day was less fun. It rained and for the first time ever I had arse crack chafing (it was so bad that climbing styles was agony). A car fire while I was having a pub lunch provided some excitement. And removing old layers of sudocrem and reapplying it much more sparingly reduced the arse crack pain. I decided a night in a hotel, and a shower, would be a good idea and found myself a room in a pub in Warnford for that night. The pub was closed when I got there but they’d texted me a code so I could get in. Having a shower and sleeping in a bed (rather than on a concrete church porch floor) was heavenly. I booked a cheap train ticket home from Rowland’s Castle for the next afternoon. The final half day was very wet and very muddy, so I was very happy to make it to Rowland’s Castle and kill the time until my train having a beer in a very ‘locally’ pub.
So was all the time I spent receing worth it? It definitely made navigating the route easier, partly from knowing where I was going and partly from being familiar with its foibles. It wasn’t great training though. Carrying a big rucksack with several days of clothes and food (and often camping gear as well) got me into the habit of plodding really slowly. This was fine for the Spine, but to finish the MW you need to move a bit faster. I’d have been better off following Ellen’s lead and practising walking fast. On the other-hand I had some great adventures and saw interesting places I wouldn’t otherwise have been (I don’t plan on ever revisiting the stretch of canal North of the Netherton tunnel however).
Apart from the reces my training went OK, but not great. The leg problem which started in November, and messed up the 24 hour track race in Sweden, continued. The only time it didn’t hurt was after day 3 of my final recce. It started again once I was back to everyday life and sitting in cars, trains and planes. But this did at least give me confidence it wouldn’t be a problem on the MW (and indeed again it magically cleared up after 3 days of walking). A couple of times during medium length runs I felt like I’d trod on a stone. I iced my foot, and didn’t think too much of it. Having a sabbatical from lecturing meant I could take two weeks off in May to do the race, but it also led to a lot of research related travel. I got carried away with saying yes to things and ended up going to the US 3 times in the first 4 months of 2018. This was fun, but tiring, and the long-haul flights made my leg hurt.