We seemed to reach some invisible border where the tight fisted, the mealy mouthed and the watery smiles were replaced with full on, good hearted, sublimely beautiful experiences that kept coming. The clues started early – within 50 paces from our start point at the Inn on the Lake, we got the first hoot of goodwill. In the next 60 seconds, several more followed and not all of them came from white van man with their cheery smiles and raised thumbs.
After about a mile, we were aware that a woman was waiting on the pavement with that look that said ‘it’s you I’m after’. That’s how we came to meet our first patron saint in the form of Godalming’s Jackie Rees-Thomas. She had her mobile camera phone at the ready, so we posed for pictures and then had a lovely chat.
She had seen us on the BBC News the night before and generously thrust a significant contribution (of the folding kind) in to our hand. She signed the copy of Nicholas Nickleby we are carrying and the pages are filling up nicely with the names of all the good people with good souls we have met along the way. Jackie, I said we’d mention you – thank you again so much, and we hope your daughter is feeling better soon.All of 200 yards further on, we dived in to a quaint corner shop in Milford by the name of Tesco Express. At the till, an old boy spied us and exclaimed ‘What the Dickens are you doing here?' It was the same story – ‘saw you on the TV news last night and love what you are doing’. We discussed the torrential rain yesterday which had put paid to his Bowls match and as we made ready to leave, he pulled all the change out of his pocket and donated it to our cause. He upped Mrs. Fragrant Chelsea lady from day one on the Kings Road by 10%
On the way out of Milford, an old chap was walking towards us and as we drew level he looked us in the eye and said “Blimey, I thought it was the undertakers coming to get me”. And with the joke shared, he laughed. When I say laughed, I mean he really exploded in to the loudest, heartiest, happiest laugh there could be. His lips pulled back to reveal a fine set of porcelain dentures and as he drew breath to raise the second and then the third belly laugh, the light caught them and we were bathed in an ethereal glow of dental happiness. As we walked on, we could hear the guffaws continue and we joined in too. It WAS a very funny joke.
And just when our giggles subsided, there on the way to Witley Common was another person looking down the road to see where we were. He too had seen us on the telly and the trade mark top hats were working their treat again. “Ah, the Dickens Boys!” he said, (which made us sound a bit like a vaudeville act) and once more, a generous donation, lots of goodwill and delightful dollops of support were shared before he sent us on our way.Even the way itself had taken a happy pill. Witley Common gave us a soft and gentle carpet of pine needles to cushion our suffering feet and I’m sure that if we looked up, the birdsong in the trees above would be coming from a Snow White cast of chirpy cheery feathered friends.
Our path lead towards the A3 once more. We first walked next to it as the Portsmouth road thundered out of Roehampton, on Sunday. We saw it again from a motorway bridge as it hurtled aggressively underneath, assaulting the senses as we closed in on Cobham yesterday. Today, we had stopped in a tranquil country lane and realized that for the first time on this walk, there was no din, do hurtling cars, not even the distant all-pervading hum hissing across the trees coming from a thousand reps with deadlines to meet.
The path worked its way steeply towards the sky and, not for the first time in the day, I admired the receding form of my brother as he took to the paths with a healthy, youthful ease. It was a short, very sharp work out and when we paused, the hum of traffic was back but it took on a different tone. Through the trees, we watch the ground swallow up the hurtling trucks, the BMW’s and the Golfs as they pinged past us - and then vanished in to the bowels of the earth. Or the new Hindehead tunnel, as it’s known in these parts.Further on (or rather, further upwards), we came out on to the old, old London to Portsmouth Road. Down below us, the more recent one replaced by the tunnel is being turned back to nature and in just one year, I’m delighted to report that nature is doing a grand job. Just along from us on the old, old road sat one of the key milestones of this trip and waiting to meet us was a reporter from the local paper.
A large stone marks the spot of a grizzly murder that took place in the 1700’s when three men set upon a friendly sailor who had recently bought them drinks at the local pub. They ambushed him, took his life (along with his money and clothes) and fled down the path we had just struggled up. They were duly caught and hung within spitting distance of the crime there.In Nicholas Nickleby, our hero and his friend Smike paused at the very spot to read the story and today we did the same. As we did, a lovely lady (because today, everyone was lovely) came by and stopped for a chat. Gerry gave her an exclusive performance of the reading, as her dogs sat dutifully at her feet and she promised to rush home, log on to this site and donate. And when she had gone, a lively and noisy group of Mums and toddlers walked by and once again, the greeting refrain was ‘Oooo – we saw you on TV last night’ and we had another happy, smiling chat. After that, four more people out for a stroll hove in to view and a complete stranger said ‘Goodness me, it’s the Dickens brothers’. And then the complete stranger enthusiastically introduced us to more complete strangers, with our story being accurately relayed to the friends he was with.
The stone is supposed to have a curse and ghosts haunt this magical bit of Surrey, known as the Devils Punchbowl. As we stood to leave, the decent weather was interrupted by a sudden chill and dark clouds rolled over the hill, turning it almost dark. Rain stung on our faces from the sudden onslaught and I looked at my phone to check our leaving time. It was almost a quarter past one in the afternoon, so my digital read out said 13:13. Perhaps it was coincidence, but dear old Uncle Cedric always told me that 13 was Charles Dickens’s lucky number. Dismiss it if you will, but I’d like to see it as a sign that we were being watched by benign and supportive ghosts.On towards Liss and the hooting and tooting continued. Money was thrust out of a passing car with shouts of good luck and on Liphook’s very smart golf course (through which our footpath was winding) two chaps about to putt stopped to take us in. I thought this would be the ultimate test and was half braced for a members rant at invading their precious club in fanct dress. But no, the Barabra Cartland haze continued and yet another two were telling us they had seen the TV news and loved what we were doing. Even in Liss itself (where we were due to stay tonight), a lovely chap called Dave added his support. Dave had an armful of tattoos, several piercings and looked and sounded like he was on the wrong side of around six pints of beer. But in to our hat went numerous coins and an earnest entreaty to come inside his favourite watering hole to join him for a drink.
We would have loved to, but it turned out that our pub/hotel was not in Liss at all but five miles back down the track we had just plodded for the last two hours. So we took a taxi and will return to our stopping point tomorrow morning as we stride out towards Rowlands Castle. But even with that error, the magic was not over. We were shown to our rooms in the Flying Bull and for the first time on this challenge, they were fitted with long, wide, deep, beautiful baths.Those baths are now filled to the steaming brim and this blog comes to you live from my tub in which I’m wearing nothing but a smile. It’s been that sort of day.
TO SUPPORT THE CHARLES DICKENS STATUE FUND, CLICK ON THE LINK AT THE TOP OF THIS PAGE.TO SUPPORT THE NATIONAL LITERACY TRUST, GO TO: http://www.justgiving.com/Dickenswalk
Note: Apologies for the delay in this post. Poor internet connection now resolved!