Archive for September, 2011

Another Day On That Damn Big Wall

Standing on the wall

Today’s walk was really pleasant, through constantly changing scenery and several tiny villages. Every time we passed an old stone barn or cottage we eyed it suspiciously – there used to be a damn big wall around here at one time, until some bugger pinched it. It wasn’t hard to guess where most of it had gone.

If only it hadn’t been for the 15+ kilos of dead weight crushing the breath out of us. Uphill was a struggle – downhill was borderline suicidal. The rucksacks, now including food for three days and a tent, sat more heavily, their weight resting squarely on bruised hips, the straps sawing back and forth across shoulders rubbed raw the day before.

A lot of people tell me that an average person walks at 4 miles an hour. I’d LOVE to know where this common misconception comes from, but trust me – as someone who’s walked a few of ‘em – miles don’t pass that fast. 4 kilometers an hour is much more realistic – when happily skipping through the park on your way home from school. In thick mud, staggering uphill whilst bent double under a bag the size of a golf cart, you’re lucky to manage half that.

So I wasn’t too surprised to find, after four tough hours, that we weren’t even halfway. It had been a monster day for sure, but we were so sore from yesterday’s mission, and this route seemed all uphill. I was disheartened, but realistic – we had to call it a day at the next town, or we wouldn’t be able to stand tomorrow, let alone hike.

Roo checked the bus time-table – we could just make the last bus! We sat on a huge chunk of Hadrian’s Wall – the first we’d seen – and doctored our feet for the final push.

Infinite WallThe first problem was that we’d clearly bitten off more than we could chew – over 20 miles all told, when I finally tried to work it out.

The second problem was the complete lack of bus stop – after being told by a local that the bus would stop “anywhere you wanted, as long as you wave at it”, we hiked on even further, finally finding an official stop by a ruined watchtower about a mile away.

The third mistake was that there was no bus. It wasn’t listed on the stop. We checked the timetable in a panic – only to realize at the last minute that it was last year’s timetable! I dug the current one out of my rucksack and discovered it was identical except for one tiny detail – the last bus, the one we were desperate to catch, had been axed.

This was not cool. All we could do was soldier on to the camping barn another mile up the road. As we groaned and hauled our bags onto our backs, the wind howled and it began to rain.

We stuck out our thumbs in hope, but nothing happened. We arrived dispirited, aching and so, so tired, at the camping barn – to be greeted with a notice saying ‘CAMPING BARN CLOSED’. That was it. No-one around to ask and nothing else to do. Well, we did a good bit of swearing, but I don’t think it helped much.

We hiked on. Roo had more blisters than toes, and the muscles and tendons in our ankles were screaming at us. Expensive cars roared past us – all carrying a solitary, middle aged woman. None stopped to pick us up.

A mile later we arrived at the Youth Hostel at Birdoswald, ready to collapse.

Well, we arrived at where there should have been a youth hostel. We ditched our bags and explored the Roman Ruins (which, had they been officially open, would have cost us almost a fiver each) – but there was no sign. Only a closed and locked building behind the visitors centre which looked like it could once have been a hostel. Not cool at all.

It would have been time for despair, if it hadn’t been for Steve and John – two awesomely helpful blokes who had also over estimated their hiking speed. They rocked up to the empty fort, decided to call it a day, phoned their wives to come get them and immediately offered us a lift. We got driven to the next town of Gilsland, a frighteningly long distance away. Several hours by foot even. From here I planned to ring the hostel we’d booked in a town even further along the route – only to discover I’d left my phone in their car! With no numbers stored in it’s memory (as it was brand new!), and the phone about to die of battery death any minute, I was terrified I’d never get it back. It also meant we couldn’t call anywhere to get a lift, or to book a room for the night…

I lost the plot for a bit. Only a few minutes before, we’d been debating whether or not we could afford £60 to check in to the nearest B&B in a move of desperation. Now all that paled into comparison – I’d lost a £150 phone, and for all the closer we’d gotten, our nice cheap hostel might as well have been in Moscow. I got change from the pub behind us and waited for the payphone opposite. A bloke had appeared out of nowhere and taken up permanent residence in the phone box, just as I imagined the dwindling minutes in which I could still call my own phone. I sat on the curb, head in my hands. “How can this happen to us?” I asked Roo. “We help everyone. This morning I gave breakfast to that couple with no food – why is Karma being so evil to me?”

Well, someone must have heard me and thought, ‘Sorry, my bad!’

The folks that had given us a lift screeched up and handed back my phone – just as it died – and as we sat on the curb pondering our fortune, a random bloke in a shiny black Vauxhall stopped and asked if we needed a lift somewhere.

Amazing. He took us right to the door of our hostel, despite it being the opposite direction to where he was headed!

We ditched our bags, said bollocks to our super-noodles, and marched into the pub for some dinner. But just to stop me being too cocky, immediately after I got inside the pub, I sat in piss.

Whoever had occupied the seat before me had peed all over it – and no, it wasn’t cider – I could tell this by the smell, and so narrowly avoided taste-testing it. I washed my hands several times, but had no choice other than to sit and eat my dinner in pants that someone other than me had pissed on… and I’d be hiking in them tomorrow too.

To round the evening out I ate a massive slab of lasagna and showered in the dark (due to a busted light in my cubicle) – then fell in the general direction of bed. Not at all sure that, come the 8:30am alarm, I’d be capable of climbing out of it…

So. How was your day?

A Long Hard Walk With A Twist

Well, we’re a couple of days into our legendary attempt to hike Hadrian’s Wall. All I can think about is “Why the HELL did I want to hike Hadrian’s Wall?”

Hiking

Day One was an almost impossible mission. Fifteen miles ploughing through the countryside, seven and a half hours of grueling bag-dragging. Bruises forming on top of bruises. Muscles and tendons shrieking. It’s beautiful and all that, but hikers in this country must be nutters, I said to myself.

This opinion was reinforced by a pair of gear-clad old blokes striding towards us as we crested yet another hill. One of the men, with a gigantic binocular pouch hanging like a pregnant belly, beckoned us closer as though to impart a secret.

“Around the corner and down the hill, there’s a bridge,” he stage-whispered.

“Yes?” I said, certain some amazing discovery was about to be shared.

“In the river below there’s a rock with some spoor on it. I climbed down to get a closer look.” He was hissing through his teeth by now. Both Roo and I tried to look suitably impressed.

“I looked at it and smelled it, and – “ (he paused for dramatic emphasis) “ – it smelled like Otter droppings! So keep your eyes peeled – there could be an otter about!”

He seemed so excited with this discovery, I didn’t dare ask him what in God’s name had prompted him to sniff an old turd sat on a rock. Much less to climb down off a bridge for this purpose. To say nothing of how he knew what otter shit smelled like… We exchanged our best Interested Looks (the ones you perfect for those moments a nutter starts naming every train station in the country) and fled. Before he could tell us how the poo tasted…

Rock with poo on it

Nutter Rock, so called because the turd on it, clearly visible in this picture, apparently smells like an otter’s turd. Yes.

Following a poo truck

No, that's NOT mud..!

Poo continued to be a bit of a theme, as trudging down a particularly boggy lane we came face to… back end, with a muck spreader! Ever known the delight of following one down the road, travelling at 30mph, too wide to overtake and liberally splattering raw sewage with every jolt? Smells good, eh? Well we got the Full Story – sandwiched between two massive hedges we had to walk behind the poo truck for about a mile. I learnt an interesting thing then – no matter how long you walk behind a truck covered in liquid shit, you never get used to the smell. I could never be a farmer.

All in all we were glad to see the end of the first stage. Roo was limping slightly and we were both dead tired. All we could think of was tomorrow’s hike – just slightly longer than todays. Over slightly hillier terrain. And by then of course, we’d also be carrying the tent…

The Joy Of Tent

One Pot MealOur first night under canvas passed so quickly and smoothly, we hardly knew it was there. The only thing missing was power – we went to bed with the sun because, basically there was bugger all else we could do.

For our second night we spent so long driving around looking for somewhere with power to offer us that we ended up having to check ourselves into the last campsite we discovered, as it was officially closed for the night.

Not to be deterred, we pitched our tent with the last of the light and settled down to cook in total darkness. It was about now I wished I’d brought a decent torch – all we had was a tiny wind-up key ring thing which Roo had bought for £1! For some reason it just hadn’t occurred to me that we’d be camping in the dark. What is this, the middle ages?

It then emerged that the other thing we’d forgotten to bring was any food. Oh, we had plenty of snacks – a crate in the back of the car filled entirely with crisps and chocolates, Pepperami and Snack-a-jacks. Sadly, a close investigation revealed nothing remotely resembling dinner. Then, just when all seemed lost, I discovered a small stash of tins I’d stolen from my Mum’s kitchen. What can I say? They were on the top shelf, so it’s not likely she would have been able to eat any of them before I got back.*

(*My mother is a gnome. She can only reach the bottom shelf if she stands on the phone book)

Amongst the tinned horde were beans a tin of Spaghetti Bolognaise – ASDA’s finest. The two seemed destined for each other, and for our bellies, so without further ado Roo mixed them together in a pan, blasted it with our bunsen burner and that was dinner sorted. It made me quite proud to think how well we were looking after ourselves in the wild.

We’d pitched the tent under a group of trees, without realizing just how many birds were living in them. The dawn cacophony was magical and deafening at the same time, and utterly impossible to sleep through. A few ducks added their over-enthusiastic quacking, and were joined by the deep bass rumble of what Roo tentatively identified as a T-rex.

The rumbling got closer and more threatening, right up to the point where we cowered in our tent, sure that the rapture was approaching; in fact, it was this beast:

Bigger Digger

which the campsite owners, in their infinite wisdom, had decided to unleash upon us all at 7am. What was it doing so volubly, that simply couldn’t wait another hour? Why, it was trimming the hedgerows of course. And then dredging the streams that bordered the site. Obviously a full day’s work had been scheduled for the 300 decibel behemoth and we were eager to get out of it’s way.

And so to the toilet block! For those not familiar with camping, this is the communal toilet/showers facility for them wot’s not got their own. Rocking up to one first thing in the morning, toothbrush and towel in hand, is a bit of a ritual – and not quite as wholesome as you might imagine. For starters, most of the other male campers are OAPs. Most of them are fat, hairy and distinctly unashamed about it. And most of them eat more baked beans during a week’s caravan holiday than they do in the rest of the year. So, as I queued for a shower cubicle behind a sizeable portion of body-bearded man-blubber, it was to the tune of seventy-plus seventy-plus-year olds, taking it in turns to void their irritable bowels explosively. Never before in the field of human history have so few toilets taken such a beating from so many bloated backsides. The seats had become uncomfortably warm by the time my turn arrived…

(I have deliberately chosen NOT to illustrate this experience with a photograph)

The shower seemed more welcome by the minute. Feeling much less violated once the hot water began to flow, I hummed a half-remembered song. I’d hardly even noticed I was doing it, until the bloke in the next cubicle took up the tune. This scared me a little. Then, as someone a few stalls up joined in, the memory clicked – God knows why, but I was humming ‘Once in Royal David’s City’, a Catholic hymn from my childhood. Oh no. I suddenly wanted to leave very quickly, before a half-naked octogenarian could tackle me about my dedication to Jesus. I showered at high velocity, and luckily there wasn’t anyone waiting in a towel outside my cubicle to ask me for a ‘Hallelujah’…

So, notes to take on board for the next few night’s camping include:

  • Find a camp with fewer birds
  • Find a camp with fewer
  • Find a camp that isn’t a Bible Camp
  • Find a campsite with power
  • Find a suitable way to harness said power
  • Find a camp with fewer diggers (None at all would be nice)
  • BUY SOME FOOD!

I’ll let you know how we go on.

At last – A Grand Adventure!

Well, after quite a few false starts, the Grand Adventure (TM) is now up and running! The rules are simple – we have £1,000 to see as much of England as possible.

We very nearly set off three times. The first date was slightly delayed by issues of a tental nature; to whit, the tent we’d bought wasn’t big enough. Now, the missis and I are slightly built, but have two people – regardless of gender – EVER fit into a two-man tent? Just not possible. At least, not if we wanted our feet in there too.

So we resolved to wait a day, make a few more preparations (for example, we could actually decide where we were going!) and then get a slightly bigger tent in the morning.

Then we saw this:Gale Warning Newspaper Clipping

And that was the end of Official Start Date 2. Particularly since we’d decided to head straight to the north-west to hike the length of Hadrian’s Wall. They say it’s best to do the hike West to East to benefit from a following wind, but this wind looked like it could spread the bum cheeks of a wildebeest. I never like being followed by something stronger than me.

Anyway, the winds blew us up and down the road as we tried to buy our bigger tent, making us ultimately grateful that we weren’t currently trying to pitch said tent. We had a couple more home-cooked meals and congratulated each other on our decision to wait out the worst of the weather.

The next day we packed the car with maps and computers and rucksacks full of clothes, with sleeping mats and not one but TWO tents, with enough equipment prefixed with the word ‘camp’ that you’d almost think we were camp… and then we still didn’t go.

This time it was my fault entirely. Actually it was Australia’s fault. The buggers. See, they don’t make it easy for those of us who want to go live there. I thought I’d gotten over the biggest hurdle, when I seduced, despoiled and eventually married my Aussie chick. But no – they make sure you really want it before they let you in. Consequently I spent several days applying for Criminal Record Checks from every country I’ve lived in over the past ten years. By the time I was done I wanted to jump all right – off the nearest bridge. I’ll doubtless write about the process later, but suffice to say it cost me close to two and a half grand (so far) and made my balls ache from the inside out.

And then we saw this.Hurricane Newspaper Clipping

And thought, bollocks to it, we’re going anyway. Because honestly I was getting a bit scared about the whole idea – it’s been quite a while since I travelled properly, and that vague fear of the unknown that makes leaving home so hard to do in the first place, was starting to reassert itself.

“We should just jump in the car and go, wherever it takes us,” Roo told me.

“I’ve been home so long, I’m forgetting how to jump,” I admitted.

What a liberating feeling it was to finally bugger off! This time we were prepared for anything. I’d bought some waterproof hiking boots. I’d made a list of friends and relatives we might trick into letting us stay for a night or two. I’d also stolen as much food as I could carry from my parents’ house, in the hope that it would stave off roadside starvation for a couple of nights. Roo, meanwhile, had covered the car in stickers of ice-creams and octopus. And fastened a plastic dragon to the grill. Which, as she informed me, was equally important, “because you have to have a plastic dragon on the grill, or no-one will notice us!” I couldn’t fault this logic. I didn’t even want to try.

Decorated Car

And so, in severe danger of putting our departure off yet again, we jumped. Into the car, and into the loveliest part of the british countryside. A few pleasant hours beetling around he fields and forest of Somerset ended in a surprise camp-site near Wells. We had a huge meal in a nearby pub to celebrate – we only ordered a normal-sized meal, but when it arrived I found there was no part of it which would fit into my mouth.Huge burger

And then, with full stomachs and a warm tent awaiting… well, a tent that we would make warm, with vigorous generation of body heat… we were happy.

Spent so far: Fuel – £30.01 (It was Roo. She’s incapable of hitting the exact amount).

Campsite – £12.00 (“Just give us twelve squid,” said the man in the camp site office, as though he was doing us a deal. Was he? No. That’s their regular price. But the red hot showers were worth every penny!

How will we fare tomorrow, on this Grand Adventure? I’ll keep you posted!

A Clean Slate(r)

Mum cleaning

Careful! Gnome Cleaning

Some of you may have noticed that I haven’t posted a blog for quite a while. Sorry about that. I’ve been meaning to, I really have, but Real Life has a nasty habit of intervening.

Damnit, I hate Real Life! Give me dragons, or espionage, or an unstoppable alien invasion! Real Life… is like a big fat wobbly bum cheek. Not something I really want to experience, either personally or vicariously.

On the upside, my parents have been trying to rent out a house in South Wales for over a year now. The house itself… isn’t great and the area… well, could do with demolition (or an outbreak of a chav-eating virus of some kind).
Not to put too fine a point on it, it’s a bit of a shit hole. But then, the weekly rent is about the same price as a Big Mac meal and none of the previous tenants have bothered with anything so trivial as actually paying it.
After the last woman left (actually she fled, leaving several thousand pounds in unpaid rent and bills – not the first time this had happened and certainly not the last. It was notable mostly due to the contrast with the rest of her tenancy, during which I don’t think she actually left the sofa) – we’d had a lot of cleaning up to do.

Broken loo seat

I'll say nothing about the size of her ass, but somehow she'd broken the toilet seat.

I don’t want to be mean to her or anything; I’m just setting the scene. But she did look rather like Jabba the Hutt.

King amongst her crimes against us was the breaking of windows. In a house of six windows, she’d broken four of them – and all of the doors. Some had been kicked in, some punched, still others bore mostly teeth marks… Her dog – which she didn’t have when she moved in – weighed as much as your average bison. I never got to meet it, but I extrapolated it’s size by scaling up those teeth marks. Apparently one of the windows was down to the dog – it had seen something outside that ‘bothered’ it, and had reacted accordingly. It leapt straight through the window, a feat made all the more impressive by the twin facts that a) the window in question was five feet up the wall, and b) it was double glazed. Was double glazed. Now it was glazed with a bin liner.

Scummy Kitchen

One of the cleaner parts of the kitchen

Anyway, there’s a whole story behind what we had to do to clean the place up. Maybe I’ll get into that one day. For now, it only serves to illustrate my point that Real Life doesn’t smell like roses. It smells like sacks of year-old excrement stored in the back garden of a rental property for no reason under God that I can understand.

So when the call came through that we had a new tenant for the House of Horrors, I was overjoyed – for about 30 seconds. The rest of the call went on to mention that the place needed a bit of a clean before it would be suitable to move into. It had been empty for a year, and in that time a goodly number of insects had seen fit to expire inside it. Dust had settled. The garden had gone a bit wild…

Heavily Overgrown Garden

To the left you can just see the neighbour's 'normal' garden

It was with a heavy heart that I packed a cheap electric strimmer into our camper van and jumped in with my parents, off to spend the bank holiday weekend in my least favourite part of the world. Or rather, in traffic on the way to it. It was, after all, a bank holiday. I live in the West Country, which is where everyone who doesn’t live there, spends their bank holidays. The two hour journey took four, but I didn’t mind. Even gridlock on the M5 is preferable to certain parts of the South Wales Valleys.

We arrived and set to. We’d left two suede leather sofas in the house, having had them steam cleaned for reasons I won’t go into. Alas, an unoccupied house during the harshest winter on record had not been kind to belongings; both sofas were covered in mould. The garden looked like a set from Jurassic Park. I kept a sharp lookout for velociraptors as I fired up the strimmer…

Tony in Garden

I wade into the wild

It took the whole day. Still, nothing in comparison to our last visit, when I’d built a bonfire of brambles and kept it burning for four days straight. In fact everything went swimmingly, including Mum’s cleaning inside the house. Being a gnome she can’t clean anything higher than about three feet off the ground, so we still had to go around the top cupboards in the kitchen with a duster. After removing my hundredth cobweb something occurred to me about spiders: they are monumentally stupid. Many a documentary waxes on about their fantastic web building abilities, but I never saw one that explained this phenomenon: the house was carpeted in dead insects. Thousands of the buggers. Entering it for the first time was like a scene from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Yet still the spiders had spun their webs, and died in them, presumably of starvation. It had never occurred to them, once nothing was left to fly into their nets, to go and eat the countless dead ones. Perhaps that’s why they don’t have thumbs yet.

I slept the night on a mouldy couch. My parents used a mattress that looked like it had been the scene of a ritual slaughter. In the morning we took all of the above items to the nearest tip, parking outside and carrying them in as the camper van couldn’t get past the height restricting bar. As Dad and I staggered towards a container marked ‘Furniture’, we were accosted by one of the staff. He took one look at the suede sofa and said, “Number Five.”
Clearly, he didn’t like the look of our sofa. Skip Number Five was for landfill.
We put the mattress in Furniture anyway, because it was considerably closer than Skip Five (and that was a bloody heavy mattress), and because by then the guy wasn’t there to tell us we couldn’t. Half an hour later we struggled past with the second shitty sofa and sneaked a look into Furniture. The mattress had been removed.

It was just after we got back and started packing up that our day went downhill. We got a call from the plumber, saying he’d have to come up and give us a certificate to prove the gas boiler was safe to use. He’d be there in a couple of hours, which made me wish we’d been less enthusiastic about chucking the sofas as we now had nothing to sit on.

Back at home my girlfriend Roo was panicking. A team of carpet cleaners, who we’d completely forgotten we’d booked, had arrived with all their gear. She raced around moving furniture, giving a running commentary to us via a series of increasingly desperate phone calls.
“I need the hoover. Where’s the hoover?”
“Um, we’ve got that here with us. Sorry.”
“They want to move the computer – can I unplug it?” “They want to use a special chemical – should I let them?” “Now they want to go clean your granddad’s flat – are they supposed to?”
“Yes, that’s right,” I told her.
“You mean I’ve got to move all your granddad’s furniture too?!”

Then, when all seemed to have settled down, we got one last frantic phone call from Roo; “Help! I moved a bookcase and now there’s SPIDERS coming out of the wall! Hundreds of them! SHIT!”
At the other end of the line, my parents and I stared at each other in shocked disbelief.
Then we all pissed ourselves laughing.
Mum thoughtfully covered the phone, in case poor Roo thought we were making light of her predicament. The only advice we could give her, when we’d recovered the power of speech, was to look under the sink for some bug spray.
I was surprised, but not so much. “Does anyone else think that getting the carpets professionally cleaned at our house is a bit like trying to put sellotape over the hole in the Titanic?”
Our house is in worse a state than the one in Wales – largely because we devote all our renovation attempts to the houses we let out. Our own just sort of slips through the cracks…
Those cracks were the subject of conversation as we sat in the inevitable traffic jam on the way home. “We’ve really got to fill them,” Mum was saying.
“First we’ve got to get rid of the spiders,” I pointed out.
“No,” said Dad. “First we’ve got to stop the shower water from coming through the ceiling downstairs…”

So if I don’t get around to posing a blog next weekend either – well, you know what I’ll be up to. And it probably won’t be pleasant…