I suppose I hadn’t set out quite early enough for an eleven-miler. And maybe spending as long as I did in the halfway pub wasn’t the wisest. But even still, finding myself shin-deep in a waterlogged ditch after dark and not knowing which route to take through the woods and fields back to the station was less than ideal.
I’d caught the 12.30pm out of Waterloo, destination Petersfield, an hour away in east Hampshire, for a country walk along part of the Hangar Way, taking in Shoulder of Mutton Hill, the village of Hawkley and ending at Liss for the return train to London.
The guidebook said to allow five hours for the walk but I figured that was for those taking it a leisurely pace, stopping here and there to admire the views and what have you. Actually, if truth be told, I hadn’t really thought about the time. I guess that’s where the trouble started.
Coming out of Petersfield, it’s not long before I pick up the Hangar Way and, once across the A3 –more than a little dizzying, watching the traffic roar past in a torrent – I’m soon into Steep and the beginning of the woods that lead to the ascent of Shoulder of Mutton Hill.
By now, the mizzle had turned to drizzle and from shower to spray, autumn leaves dancing and spinning from their branches to join the yellow to orange to red carpet and beech nut casings underfoot. Wood pigeons are the only birds fleeing shelter to cross the grey and misted sky.
The ascent is steep. Pausing to catch my breath, I look back and see hills run across with clouds so low it could be mist as green fades into muted silver and the rain kisses my face and neck. I’m as wet now outside as I am from the sweat forming under my clothes. I take off my hat to better feel it and enjoy the sensation of remembering that these things are not without their pleasure.
At the summit, the path passes into woods, affording some shelter and then some more when it becomes a narrow cloister of trees, banking up to the left and down to the right. I climb left, up into the more densely wooded area and pause for a coffee from my flask.
The rain lessens then stops and, through the trees comes the sun, splashing on to the wet leaves creating a hazy sheen of diamonds and emeralds as blackbirds respond by clucking and chucking through the hedges and bracken.
Grinning, I sidestep back down to the path and before too long am approaching the Hawkley Inn, whose hanging sign features a moose’s head with the words underneath changed from Free House to Free Hoose. I go in.
It’s clear straightaway that this is a fine pub. There’s a smell of wood smoke from the open fire, over which hangs a moose’s head, and there’s a good amount of easy chatter unchecked by music or a TV. Half a dozen men sit or stand at the bar and at a table a group of five or six couples are finishing lunch at a long table. The barman looks like a not-long retired jockey.
I’m thirsty and a little damp from the rain so order a pint of bitter for the first and single malt for the second and take a seat at the fireside, thoughts turning to those not with me.
To the bar for a second pint before leaving and I’m talking to Phil and Martin, two carpenters from roundabout, one of whom has a sideline making nesting boxes for owls or kestrels out of reclaimed formula one tyres. The conversation grows so, even though I should be leaving, I buy a round. It grows further so they return the favour. Now I really should be going.
It’s five thirty, the middle of October and I’ve five or so miles to cover before I reach Liss for the train back to London. I’ve left myself no time at all. Ah well. There’s maybe an hour before sundown, maybe another of half light after that. If I get a wiggle on, should be fine.
I say goodbye and promise to let them know if I ever come back this way. We’ll go to the pub Alec Guinness used to play chess in, yes definitely, no, I must go, yes, a pleasure, take care, nice one, cheers…
I leave and am buoyant and remain so as I re-enter the woods as the gloaming falls, so much so that I sit in a clearing and watch the grey deepen through the green that surrounds me and draws closer. Very close. Actually, really quite close. I get going.
I’m using the torch on my phone to light the directions from the guidebook and the ground three feet or so around me, and I’m pacing the metres to the next stile or change in direction I must take. Perhaps inevitably, I miss one and end up facing a T-junction when I’m expecting a crossroads.
There’s no reason to go choose one way over the other so head right. The path becomes overgrown and soon impassable without the benefit of a jungle machete so I about turn and retrace my steps and choose the other way. This brings me, as far as I can see – which isn’t very far – to the corner of a fenced-in field. I skirt the left-hand edge, looking for an exit but find none and after four right turns am back where I started.
What to do now?
It feels wrong to retrace my steps even further so take one more circuit. Maybe I missed something in the dark. At the corner I see car lights go by not far through the undergrowth. The road must lead to somewhere and somewhere is better than here, which feels like nowhere. If I can only get on to it.
I climb the fence and enter what’s probably a hawthorn bush but feels like a prehistoric forest of tooth and talon. No way through. I renegotiate the fence, walk along a few feet and hop over again, this time landing, sploosh, shin-deep into a stream. Exhausting my knowledge of French I flash my torch light around and see no way forward. More French comes. I am slowly sinking into the mulchy stream bed. More French.
I clamber out and inch along the fence without climbing back over. Car lights flash close by. There’s nothing doing so I cover as much of my face and hands as possible and plunge through the thorns. They grip, snag and tear on my jacket and jeans but then I’m through and I jump down on to the country lane then sharply hop back on to the bank to avoid a car that comes splashing round the corner.
I check my phone and, praise be, I’ve reception enough for my location to register on the map. Liss is two miles that way. The train, which runs hourly, arrives in half an hour. More than possible.
I arrive at the platform, through the rain, just as the guard is about to blow his whistle and shut the doors. I’m sodden, tired and peckish. Wouldn’t have changed a thing.
This first appeared on the very fine Caught By The River