The Millennium Way - Day Six

The Millennium Way
By Mark Walford
Day Six

Route:Packwood House to Morton Bagot
Date: Sunday August 16th 2015
Distance: 11.5m (18.5km)
Elevation: 249ft (76m) to 499ft (152m)
Climbing (ascent and descent): 902ft (275m) and 1014ft (309m)

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One Christmas, One Easter, and one summer holiday later ….

Almost a year since the last chapter of this walk and I found myself standing before Packwood House under a bright morning sun and wondering just where the time had gone. There was the hiatus for Winter of course, and then in Spring I decided to dig a big hole in the garden and fill it with water, and then there were a few family things to attend and a few commitments to fulfill, oh yes and a holiday in Devon, and a sizeable slice of laziness.
And now here I was in mid August 2015, with early summer just a memory and Autumn shuffling its feet in the wings and I hadn't progressed one single mile along the Millennium Way. I had started to feel genuinely guilty that I hadn't acted on my intention to finish the walk by the end of the year (although technically I hadn't stated which year) and therefore made a determined effort to set aside a Sunday to kick-start the final stages. I finally managed to shoe-horn a day in between holidays and visits and those really-important-household-maintenance-tasks-that-I-still-hadn't-got-around-to and now here I was, over-rested and under-prepared and ready to set off for stage six.



A big house, a small church, and a silent car ...

I had been deposited before the wrought iron gates of Packwood House and the place looked very fine indeed in the morning sun, its ancient brickwork glowing orange and russet and its uneven roofs framed against a cloudless blue. At this early hour there were few people about, just a couple of National trust volunteers who wished me a good morning and then engaged in battle with a gazebo they needed to erect in the car park. I walked up and down in front of the main house, filming it from various angles, and taking in the vibrant green lawns that were laid before it, still sparkly with dew. I had toured the house once, years ago, and in contrast to its sunny fa├žade, the interior is a domain of shadows and quietude. Here's what the National trust have to say about the place …
"The culmination of a lifetime of dreams: salvaged objects and exotic pieces come together in a Jacobean meets Edwardian style. Beautiful, homely, warm and welcoming. We can't put it better than a visitor in the 1920s did: A house to dream of, a garden to dream in. The house was originally built in the 16th century, yet its interiors were extensively restored between the First and Second World Wars by Graham Baron Ash to create a fascinating 20th-century evocation of domestic Tudor architecture. Packwood House contains a fine collection of 16th-century textiles and furniture, and the gardens have renowned herbaceous borders and a famous collection of yews."
… there's much history to the house concerning its rivalry with nearby Baddesley Clinton and the game of one-upmanship the respective families played. A game where the rules were dictated by adherence to faith, and the winners and losers decided by the monarchy. The owners of Packwood House won in the end, being Protestant and in favour, unlike the Catholic owners of Baddesley Clinton.
It was a fascinating story but was doing nothing to get me moving along the Millennium Way and so I shouldered my rucksack, gave Packwood House a final backward glance and set off along the lane.
MillWay Day6 Pic 1

St. Giles church, Packwood

I had barely made ten yards before I broke my walking pole. I extended it too far, noticing belatedly that there was a STOP line engraved on its shaft, and the entire bottom section detached itself. It didn't look like it wanted to fit back in very easily so I forced the two sections together with a certain amount of swearing, which seemed to work until I put some weight on it and heard a sharp snap. It sounded terminal and on inspection the pole proved to be a goner. This was the second pole I had lost on this route – an annoyance, though not as emotionally painful as losing the first one, which had been with me for many miles - and I was forced to hide its remains in a roadside ditch. I'm now responsible for three walking poles that are quietly degrading in the English countryside. The first lies under brambles somewhere in Meriden Shaft woods, the second is propped against a wall in a field in Northamptonshire, and now this third one, buried alongside a lane in Packwood.
Its becoming an unwelcome theme.
Leaving Packwood House I crossed a couple of small fields and entered the grounds of St. Giles church. I took particular notice of the name as I was married in another St. Giles church in my parish back in Birmingham. At 800 years of age, both churches are of roughly the same vintage. St. Giles (c. 650 – c. 710) was a Greek Christian hermit saint from Athens, based in Provence and Septimania. His tomb in the abbey Giles in Saint-Gilles-du-Gard, became a place of pilgrimage and a stop on the road that led from Arles to Santiago de Compostela. He is one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers and must have been a very busy chap in that respect as he is now patron to beggars; blacksmiths; breast cancer; breast feeding; cancer patients; disabled people; Edinburgh (Scotland); epilepsy; noctiphobics; forests; hermits; horses; lepers; mental illness; outcasts; poor people; rams; spur makers; and sterility.
Something for everyone there.
I was taking pictures of the church and its grounds as a small congregation left the church after morning worship. They were a friendly crowd, with many a 'good-morning' offered me as they passed me by. One of them asked me if I'd walked far.
"Not yet" I replied feelingly, thinking of all the miles ahead of me and mentally contrasting my current freshness and vitality with how I would feel by journeys end. I left the church grounds by walking along its secluded little driveway and was lost in thought when a polite 'excuse me' made me turn about. A couple in an electric car had ghosted up behind me and I hadn't even heard the crunching of its wheels on the gravel. I stepped aside as the car glided past, just the faintest whisper of its motor now audible. I had noticed, for the very first time, electric re-charging posts at a motorway services on my way home from Devon, and wondered how common a site they might become over the next decade or two. I'm pretty sure that they will have to give electric vehicles some sort of artificial engine noise (or tone, or something) otherwise mowing somebody down will become as stealthy and effective as a ninja assassination.



In the Lapworth of luxury ...

After leaving the church grounds Packwood merged seamlessly into the village of Hockley Heath, and I followed a straggly line of cottages into the village centre and then along its high street. There, a business advertised itself as a 'cleaner of fine clothes' and I amused myself by imagining the proprietor throwing out potential customers on the basis that their coat/dress/suit wasn't fine enough.
“Go to the next village – they have a Sketchleys”.
Reaching the Wharf Inn I escaped the village via its beer garden and found myself on the tow-path of the Stratford-upon-Avon canal, an understated little waterway that was completed too late in the day and failed commercially as the railways quickly usurped its customers. Thanks to dedicated volunteers the canal escaped being filled in and now thrives as a haven for narrowboat enthusiasts, cyclists, and on this occasion a long distance walker. I paused on its embankment, consulting my notes, and I was addressed by a tweedy woman of a certain age with a small dog in tow who wanted to know if I needed help. It was very kind of her but I was fairly confident of the way ahead and I said as much. However she seemed determined to assist me whether I needed it our not and she demanded to know my ultimate destination. When I declared it was Henley-in-Arden she pointed in the direction I was already headed and assured me that this was the right way to proceed. Actually, from this location, I could have reached Henley from practically every point on the compass but I thanked her nonetheless and she nodded curtly before bustling away. Bless her, she was extremely helpful in her no-nonsense Enid Blyton sort of way and I was all the better for meeting her. I love canals – they have a timelessness and a sense of peace that I find very therapeutic – and I walked along happily enough, seeing the odd duck or rolling fish break the surface of the still brown water. Eventually I came to moorings where a variety of craft were tethered to the embankment with the usual assortment of whimsical names: Classy Lassie, Montana, Sea Jay. Their occupants moved around audibly and were occasional shadows flitting past portholes.
All too soon I had to leave the green sanctuary of the canal, crossing a bouncy drawbridge and engaging a number of grassy meadows until the sharp spire of St. Mary the Virgin's church poked up above the rise of a green hill and my first testing climb left me at it's Lychgate, breathless and unimpressed with my fitness. This was the village of Lapworth which I saw very little of as the Millennium Way merely grazed its edge. I walked down a lane alongside the church cemetery, bordered by an old brick wall topped with ancient headstones. The old wall was about six feet tall which, I realised, meant that the owners of the gravestones rested at road level with traffic rumbling by, doing its best to wake the dead.
My brief visit to Lapworth ended as I turned down the driveway of a large estate. The driveway was broad and level and was made from block paving. It ran for a considerable distance and must have cost a fortune to lay. On either side there were neatly mown pastures and large greenhouses. Through a gap to my right I noticed a brightly painted gypsy caravan and further on a restored windmill which was now somebody’s des-res. This area is either Lapworth Grange or Green Acres and has properties with an average value approaching a million pounds. I probably couldn't even afford a raised vegetable bed here, but it was most pleasant to walk through.
The sound of shotgun's cracked and echoed as I progressed, along with the unmistakable surf-like roar of a motorway. Luckily for me I met the motorway first, the M40 to be exact, and I crossed over the rushing traffic and ascended a steep flight of wooden steps to find myself amidst sheep grazing the grass of a large pasture, exhibiting no concern whatsoever for the gunfire, the motorway noise, or my sudden appearance.



Bothered by Bullocks ...

After the sheep came a scrubby little field of knee high thistles and the horrible clumpy grass that threatens to turn an ankle every other step. I escaped the field with lower legs smarting from the thistle bites and reached a tiny ribbon of a lane with a shallow brook running alongside. A group of ducks waddled indignantly away from me as I emerged from the shrubbery to consult my guide sheet. I had slavishly copied these from the excellent Millennium Way website, tailoring the sections to suit my target of around 12 miles per day. The sheet now warned me of changes to the original route and that I should follow the new instructions detailed in italics. The problem was, I hadn't italicised the changes so was now unsure if I was about to run into a newly created barrier or an irate land owner. For a short period at least this wasn’t an issue as I crossed a few wild fields and then a narrow ribbon of lane. I probably crossed one field to many and completely overshot a particular hedge that the guidebook informed had 'the most delicious blackberries in August' which was a huge disappointment. I was deposited onto the metalled lane in a quiet dell, which gave me the
MillWay Day6 Pic 2

The Stratford-upon-Avon Canal

opportunity to film a walk-to-camera piece of filming but took me no closer to the fabled blackberries. Soon though the way ahead became more uncertain and I emerged through a hedge into a steep field which I couldn't be absolutely certain was on-route. I edged past a large white cottage in the corner of a field, noticing that all of its boundary fences were new which had probably necessitated changes to public access. However I wasn't challenged and I climbed the field to emerge at a crossroads which took me onto Irelands Lane and a nice mile or so of road walking, sheltered from the warm sun by the dappled shade of trees either side. The lane performed a series of long switchbacks which were by no means challenging but still enough to gently test my stamina. I arrived, panting slightly, at the drive to Irelands Farm which I was instructed to follow before cutting across a few of the farmers fields. All went well at first as the fields were full of ripened wheat and the views were lovely. However I then met a posse of juvenile cows occupying a field I was required to cross. They were either heifers or bullocks (I didn't look too closely) and being youngsters they were full of beans. They spied me at the gate and then jostled each other excitedly as they rushed towards this strange new object that had appeared on their doorstep. Soon the whole herd of them were clustered at the stile, peering at me intently and skittering about when I made a slight move.
“Go away!” I demanded, which met with twenty blank looks that reminded me of my Greyhound at his most gormless. It was hopeless.
I have a policy to avoid unnecessary confrontation with the bovine species and clambering over the stile into that crowd seemed a bit foolhardy. Young they might have been, and harmless I'm sure, but they were still big enough and clumsy enough to do accidental damage. I checked my GPS map and found that Ireland Farm boasted two driveways, the second of which was just a short backtrack away, and which led to a lane, then a bridleway, and thence back to my route.
“Sorry but bye-bye” I said to my disappointed playmates as I turned away.



Falling apart at the seam ...

The farm drive ended at a metalled lane which, using my infallible sense of direction, required me to turn left. It wasn't long before I became unsure of my choice as the 'lane' narrowed between tall hedges and started to resemble the private drive to a house. With predictable timing a car rolled up behind me, the gentleman in the car giving me a searching look as he went by. I continued around a bend to be presented with a very fine house surrounded by flowery gardens. The drive I was on swept past this property and disappeared around a corner suggesting that it led to a road and that I was heading in the right direction after all. I continued past the house, with a strong feeling that I was being watched, and around the corner. The drive ended at a compost heap guarded by well-stocked greenhouses. Nearby were some raised beds with carefully netted vegetables growing in neat rows. There was no doubt at all now – I was trespassing, and I had to turn about and slink past the front of the house again. This time I know I was being watched because a man (probably the one who drove past me) stood at a window and I felt his eyes on me. I was grateful to get around the next bend and leave the house behind me out of sight. A quick check on the map told me that I needed to turn right then left before picking up the bridleway.
Simple when you know how.
Back on route at a tiny hamlet called Buckley Green I encountered two women walkers, the first fellow hikers I has seen all day and they cheerfully informed me that there was a good climb just ahead. Sure enough I approached a meadow which sloped upwards for around 100 meters at its further side. There were curious blemishes stretching across this slope, resembling large molehills but arranged in neat rows. Intrigued by these grassy lumps I clambered over the stile into the meadow and heard a sharp rrriip followed by a sudden and cooling gust of a breeze in a region that shouldn’t be receiving it. My trousers had ripped apart just below the zipper. I couldn’t believe it, first my walking pole and now my favourite pair of walking strides;
MillWay Day6 Pic 3

Wheatfields at Irelands Farm

this was becoming an expensive journey. I examined the damage; the rent was quite large and presented a nice view of my boxer shorts and their contents to any one who might notice – and it was worryingly noticeable. I would have to be mindful of this when I walked into Henley-in-Arden as it struck me as an ultra-conservative sort of a place, where they may have only just allowed gentlemen to slacken their ties a little on hot days.
Feeling slightly grumpy (but refreshingly ventilated) I ascended the slope, discovering that the mounds were in fact old tree stumps, evidence of a previous plantation long since cleared. I rested briefly at the top of the rise and then struck off along a snaggly little track between avenues of rowan and birch. It was at times enclosed and claustrophobic and I was glad to break out into more open land. I was surprised to find myself on familiar ground, striding along the top of a ridge that fell away to my right down to where the outlying rooftops of Henley-in-Arden could be seen. I had made more mileage than I thought and lifting my gaze westwards I could see the low mound on which sat Bannams Wood, and the end of my days walking. It was still some distance away, a good hours walking in fact, but I knew exactly where I was now and no longer needed the guide sheet. From where I stood until the far side of Bannams Wood the Millennium Way shared the same pathways as the Heart Of England Way, a long distance path I had completed two years previously with my brother.
A convenient bench appeared before me and I decided that it was time for a lunch break. The bench was set at a peculiar height so that I sat with my feet dangling several inches above the ground, like a toddler in his dads armchair. I have long legs so quite who the bench was designed for is anyone’s guess. It also occurred to me as I sat munching crisps that anyone who approached the bench from the path below would be rewarded with a money shot of my torn trousers and the secrets within. I could hear people ascending towards me and so they found me reclining across the bench as if it were an Ottoman, lolling indolently, hiding any potential peep-show, with a large Cornish pasty on the go.



(nearly) A Field Of Dreams ...

After lunch I set off across the ridge once more, passing by the indistinct grassy hummocks that were all that was left of a once mighty motte and bailey castle. It was an up and down trail and I noticed that on the downward sections my toes were becoming very tender when they were pushed up against the front of my boots. This was to get worse as the day progressed and is puzzling since I have never had this trouble with these boots before. Then again, they are four years old now so I probably need to change them. Calculating the cost of a new walking pole, new walking trousers, and new walking boots, I descended into Henley-in-Arden with a furrowed brow. The route took me along Beaudesert Lane, a short little road that boasted large and ancient churches at both ends. The churches of St. Nicholas and St. John The Baptist belonged, historically, to different parishes despite their close proximity, being amalgamated comparatively recently. It seemed incongruous to have two such elaborate places of worship sitting cheek by jowel – I wondered if a pair of church organs going full blast and the singing of two different hymns at the same time clashed horribly on Sunday mornings.
Henley-in-Arden, as I have mentioned before, is known for two things: Ice cream and private lunatic asylums. Thankfully the latter no longer exists, being a product of Victorian mental health care. I had intended to sample some of the former but I had a large hole in my pants so I didn't dawdle. Passing through this town during the Heart Of England Way we found that the place was full of students spilling out of the local secondary school. Today it was much quieter, being a Sunday and in the midst of the long summer recess. A few sight-seers walked up and down the comely high street with its hotch-potch of old buildings searching in vain for a place to buy an ice-cream (they all seemed to be shut). I waved my cam-corder at the shops for a while and then ducked into a little side alley that led to a path climbing up between houses and old brick walls until I reached Henley railway station. This was as deserted as the high street and in many respects Henley-in-Arden seemed to have been folded up and packed into a box for the weekend. Maybe one day I'll get that ice-cream.
Soon I was descending grassy pastures and narrow tracks between hedges as I left Henley behind, crossing a small brook and heading out into rural fields once more. Quite a few rural fields as I recalled, before the final climb up to Bannams Wood. I reached a point where, on my last walk here with my brother, we had been befriended by a small brown mongrel who had latched onto us with, quite literally, dogged determination and despite our efforts seemed destined to follow us all the way to the finish. To our relief she reached the limits of her territory as we climbed a stile through an arch in a tall hedge and watched us as we dwindled into the distance. The arched hedge was still in place, and I climbed it with creaking knees and protesting calf muscles. I had completed over ten miles by now and because of my long lay-off was reaching the limits of comfortable walking. This was a shame really as I knew that I now had to traipse across several large fields with the Bannam Wood hill growing imperceptibly larger as I trudged. The convenient kissing gates so prevalent at the start of the walk had disappeared and at the end of each field was a rickety old stile to negotiate, and each one I clambered over brought more protests from my legs.
By the time I reached the foot of the long sloping field to Bannams Wood I was, frankly, knackered. This year, ochre corn swayed and hissed in the field, a peaceful sound like a barely audible ocean. How nice it would be, I decided, to take a little lie down before tackling the climb; just a bit of a stretch-out to watch the white clouds floating overhead, listening to the soporific drone of insects.
I woke with a start, feeling the familiar lethargy permeating my limbs. I'd only napped for perhaps a minute but it could easily have become an hour, which I couldn't afford to burn. Nor could I afford the risk of being swept into the innards of some passing farm machine - it was time to move on. Scrambling to my feet
MillWay Day6 Pic 4

Looking back eastwards from the edge of Bannams Wood

I hiked up to the top of the hill and turned to admire the long eastward view back across all the fields I had traversed, where Henly-in-Arden's church towers were just visible in the distance and where, far far beyond them, somewhere in Northamptonshire, lay Middleton Cheney where I had started this walk over a year before.
I turned to the line of ancient oaks that formed the eastern edge of Bannams Wood and entered under their eaves via a creaky iron gate. The first part of my passage through the woods was via a small badger track, hemmed in aggressively by brambles and nettles and much more overgrown then on my previous visit – which had been in early spring at a time when green things are only just waking up. I nearly lost my cap a couple of times as I stooped beneath branches and I felt my trouser cuffs snatched at by thorns. I remembered that somewhere over to my left the woods ended at a nice viewpoint across the countryside and a bench had been set at this lofty vantage point. The bench had a rather poignant little message dedicated to to memory of a woman who obviously loved this place, and I had intended to revisit the spot to make a note of the words. However, due to Mother Nature's enthusiastic efforts the bench was obscured behind thickets and shrubbery. I'm sure it was still there, somewhere, but it was late in the day and I wasn’t enthusiastic about hacking through the vegetation to pay the seat a visit. Instead I continued along the path, which now widened out and pushed the invasive plant life away. The trees here were smaller and sparser, revealing the cool green depths of the woodland for quite a distance. As before, the woods were devoid of people and I walked alone in a pregnant silence broken only by the mad cackling of a Jay. It was both peaceful and on some level a little spooky, being up there on that hill surrounded by ancient forest (officially designated as such, which means that Bannams Wood has stood continuously since at least the sixteenth century). The canopy overhead shut out most of the sky so it was cool and gloomy, and birdsong was muted (Jays notwithstanding). It was the sort of expectant hush that made the snapping of a twig underfoot seem disproportionately loud. Eventually the track met a larger forestry road which took me downhill and out the other side of Bannams wood via a wooden gate. From here it was a small section of road-walking before I reached my car where I gratefully sat down, boots removed, and sank a bottle of Lucozade Sport which a couple of wasps tried to commandeer and which for them turned out to be a fatal move (I learned later that a couple of wasps had stung my Greyhound Frankie on the rear earlier in the day, so my lethal swatting strategy proved to be just revenge).
I contemplated the remaining two sections of the Millennium Way, the next one was going to be another Walk Of Many Fields which I sometimes find a little wearing but nonetheless had to be done. The reward was the final day, a longish fifteen miles which concluded with a stretch of the River Severn, leading me into Pershore and its beautiful abbey.
Only another 28 miles to go.

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