Friday, 10 August 2012


94 miles after leaving London’s Golden Square, we arrived at Guildhall Square, Portsmouth.

The original expectation was to walk 75 miles but twisting footpaths, the odd diversion and the occasional wrong turn added the extra distance. Over the five days, we have walked for 44 hours, the longest day covering 25 miles.

And our constant companion throughout has been a set of now rather dog-eared Ordnance Survey maps that have faithfully lead us down footpaths, along bridleways, across hectic roads, through ancient woodlands, down shaded valleys and atop high chalk ridges as central London gave way to Surrey, West Sussex and finally Hampshire.

I love an Ordnance Survey map and can settle down to ‘read’one like a good book. The contour lines in brown swirls ripple out across the landscape revealing a flat river plane here or a steep ridge there. Bold motorways in blue, bulldoze their way through the landscape regardless. Bright red 'A' roads hurtle self importantly from town to town. Dull 'B' roads in brown join them in a series of tributaries while the back roads, the narrow lanes, the rural roads meander haphazardly in paths of serene yellow. Criss-crossing it all are the dotted green lines of footpaths, bridleways and byways that have been walked upon for centuries and it is these old and ancient ways that have been our best friend.

It is all deeply reassuring. The map shows a track should be just ahead to take us off a horrible 'A' road where there is no pavement and wing mirrors shave by our backpacks at 70 mph. And sure enough, unseen by the hurtling motorist, there indeed is a worn wooden signpost with FOOTPATH carved in to it, pointing the way across untroubled countryside. And it’s not just the maps that deserve praise. It is the parish councils meeting in the village halls and pubs, the local councils in the towns and the county bigwigs in their labyrinth of corridors in sprawling county halls, who ensure the networks are marked and maintained. Stiles, kissing gates and small bridges are all there to ease our path by the curious stares of cattle and the farmers too respect the ways, leaving narrow bands of soil uncultivated as lines across their fields.

The one thing the maps don’t do is to give any warning of vegetation or conditions underfoot. Yesterday dawned bright and clear with the promise of hot and sunny conditions, so for the first time in our walk, the lower section of trousers were unzipped and our milky white legs were on show. Which, of course, meant that the first wooden footpath sign, just outside Rowlands Castle, pointed the way down a narrow avenue lined with overgrown patches of stinging nettles.

The nettles, having spurred us on with plenty of poisoned barbs, gave way to rich banks of brambles and their thorns seemed to delight in ensuring that the damage continued. And from there, it was over a long meadow full of cows. In the heat, the horseflies were out in force and we could feel them taking great chunks out of our legs as we covered the 16 miles in to Portsmouth.

We were both feeling pretty weary. Gerry’s performance the night before had been a huge success as Rowlands Castle came out to support us in force. It was standing room only at the Robin Hood Inn and when the top hats went round at the end of the show, the donations were generous in the extreme. The generosity continued at the bar where several of the locals insisted we join them for a drink.

Followed by another.

And then one for the road.

And then a nightcap. And then ein for the strasse.

And then a very last one.

Breakfast was a quiet affair but once on the road, we were back to our easy pace and the combination of hot sun and top hats soon had the sweat pouring from our brows as the excess of fluids took their leave. Around the back of Havant, we were quickly on to the Portsdown Hill with Chichester Harbour, Langstone Harbour, Portsmouth Harbour and the Solent spread out beneath us. It’s one of the finest views in the UK and plenty of people were out enjoying it in a long line of family picnics. We needed to liaise with BBC South to film another piece, having spent the previous day doing the same with ITV Meridian.

As we spotted producer David Allard, a beaten up car braked sharply to a halt and a friendly young chap by the name of Toby donated £10 to the cause. Walking down in to Cosham, a lovely lady proffered a fiver and two further passers by emptied their pockets of change. As we walked through a park with immaculate bowling greens, the ladies interrupted their game and a gaggle of white matrons waved and applauded our passing.

A back street in Portsmouth lead to more kindnesses and the filling up water bottles and making a donation came easily to David and Amanda at number 13. We walked by the Dickens Birthplace Museum and got a lovely welcome from the staff there, then it was on down Commercial Road, and in to Guildhall Square, following the original path of the old A3 that has connected Portsmouth to London for centuries.

The global delegates in town for the Dickens Fellowship were out in force and we were welcomed with applause, flag waving and cheers from a crowd of around 150, which included my eight month old grandson Joe. The Lord Mayor was warm in his praise of our efforts, our fund raising initiatives and the publicity we have generated for our cause. The spot where we were standing will be where the Charles Dickens statue will be unveiled and I am certain it will be there for all to see by next spring.

Sculptor Martin Jennings has been a generous supporter of our walk and two days ago, we took a call from him telling us that after four months of work, the final piece of clay had been placed. Yesterday, the full size Charles DIckens was driven in a slow convoy to the foundry for the mould to be made and all we need now is the final sums of cash to start the casting process.

Gerry and I were due to address the Fellowship Conference with an illustrated talk in one of the University Lecture Theatres last night, but things went a tad awry. The bloke who was supposed to show up with the keys didn’t appear, leaving 150 delegates from all over the world amassed on the pavement with nothing to do. So we hoofed it, giving an impromptu talk on our walk and the six generations of Dickens’s who have lived in Portsmouth. We hoofed it from the steps outside the building and the audience responded in kind. It was the lark of all larks, full of laughter and fun and by the end of it, the top hats were overflowing once again with a richness of notes.

And then when the delegate’s coaches didn’t appear either, I blazed a trail through the streets of Portsmouth, leading them back to their accommodation in Rees Hall (the site of the old Southsea Pier Hotel where Charles Dickens once stayed).

 It was the least I could do and anyway, it was nice to have a walk.

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