Narrow boats and slithering slugs

Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen famously declared: “Adventure is just bad planning.”

Well I’m certainly in awe of his courage and determination to become the first to reach the South Pole a century ago, although I’m queasy about the fact that he survived the journey home by systematically eating his sledge dogs. I guess I’m a romantic and an idealist like his rival, Englishman Captain Robert Falcon Scott, who died heroically after losing the race to the bottom of the Earth.

GeoffPilgrimage164Of course, what I’m doing is a walk in the park compared with exploration of the coldest, windiest and loneliest continent of them all, although I’m finding it challenging enough, especially while walking and wild camping during the wettest English weather in recorded history.

And I make no apologies for my own minimal planning or passion for adventure and the unexpected.

In the past I planned my overland motorised expeditions meticulously, while this time I’m largely relying on my intuition and the guidance of helpful strangers and friends. I’m not even carrying a GPS or compass, but seem to meeting exactly who I need to while having experiences worth writing about.

Thanks to a suggestion from my friend Eli Eyerbury I’m discovering the amazing network of canals that were originally used to transport goods all over England, sturdy horses using towpaths to haul the narrow boats.

Of course, these days the boats are mostly diesel-powered pleasure craft, many Britons also choosing to scale down their lifestyles and move from fixed houses to these floating mobile homes.

GeoffPilgrimage166In an abrupt switch of plan (what would Amundsen say!) I’m avoiding busy and dangerous public roads and long-distance hiking trails that are often a quagmire, walking alongside the ancient waterways instead.

This is an exciting glimpse of another England although squelching down muddy paths and sloshing through seemingly ceaseless rain in soggy socks and waterlogged shoes is not my usual preference. It’s character-building though.

I’m invited aboard one of the narrow boats for tea and biscuits and have a great chat with somebody who has chosen to live differently and more modestly, while getting to know his own country more intimately. “When I stayed in a house I never knew my neighbours and now I’m making lots of friends,” he tells me.

My most unforgettable experience in recent days is of a long night hunkered down in the mud beneath my tarpaulin, hoping the local farmer wouldn’t discover me on his land. I didn’t sleep a wink and had to contend with slugs slithering onto my face, these largely unloved creatures thriving in the damp conditions and multiplying at an alarming rate.


Friends and hosts Jackie, Stephanie, Wayne, Alan, Rebecca, Sharon and Alex

Afterwards I’m rescued by friend and former motoring colleague Alan Clunnie, who fetches me in his Porsche. I spend a wonderful night with him him and his wife Sharon and their daughters and inevitably there’s lots of car talk, Alan almost sheepishly showing me his collection of 20 motorcycles, knowing I’ve chosen to let go of most of my possessions to live a sustainable life of simplicity.

“Yes, I know I should get rid of most of them but I find that so hard to do,” Alan admits, lovingly eyeing the two-wheeled beauties.

He also has a pristine Volkswagen Corrado sports coupe under a dust cover in his garage and I have a nostalgic moment remembering the fun of driving one on slippery, snow-covered roads in Germany. I always fancied the Corrado but have finally got that out of my system, along with a craving for early rear-engined 911 Porsches.

More important is my walk and I’m hoping the towpaths will take me at least as far as Liverpool, although that’s still many days away.

GeoffPilgrimage165Walking several hours a day allows time for reminiscing and my attitude of gratitude has intensified as I count my many blessings. I’ve had fun and continue to fill my days with fascinating and often inspiring encounters.

I meet an elderly cyclist who is dealing with depression after discovering he has an enlarged heart. I tell him of my friend Tim O’Hagan who has survived a heart bypass and crippling bouts of rheumatoid arthritis to hike to Everest Base camp a few weeks ago. We’re all capable of more than we realise.

When I slip in the mud and tumble down a steep bank, the mouthpiece on my water bottle detaches and my precious drinking supply spews all over me.

GeoffPilgrimage167I decide to refill at the next village and stroll into the Lion Hotel in Brewood, the customers immediately insisting I should stay and urging the management to give me a rate I can afford. I’m offered a luxury room and one of my benefactors telephones the editor of the Village Times to tell him of my arrival.

Jason Bate is a delightful person who promises to write up my story and we chat about everything from village life to music, 1960’s pop star Manfred Mann of Do Wah Diddy Diddy fame, having performed in the village the previous weekend with all his old zest.

Today the sun is peeping through and for the first time in ages my shoes have dried out – a pilgrim appreciates the simplest pleasures!

I’ve just received the exciting news that my book Lost and Found is with the distributors and significantly ahead of schedule. I can’t wait to have a copy in my hands!

Geoff Dalglish

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