TITLE: I SURVIVED THE RIVER SEVERN WALK
By Bella Rossiter
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DAY 1. I put on my backpack and exited the train, stepping into a beautiful Gloustershire afternoon.
The long train ride from Liverpool had left me feeling groggy and listless. Now my body started to come alive again at the realization that my long-anticipated adventure was about to begin!
My desire to hike the River Severn Trail had started two years earlier when I picked up a travel magazine back in my hometown of Apache Junction, Arizona, and found myself caught up in an article about Walking the Severn from Source to Sea.
For the past forty years I had made the journey many times to visit my family in Liverpool, England. But this time I wanted it to be different. I wanted to see and, if possible, to touch the heart and soul of this beautiful country of my birth. What better way to embrace her than to walk through her one step at a time.
The city of Glouster bustled with activity as I wended my way through crowds of shoppers and headed for the center of town. I wanted to stop and take in some of the sights of this Roman city with Medieval and Victorian buildings and the Gothic Saint Peters Cathedral. But my legs kept moving forward. Something inside of me wanted to reach the peace and serenity of the river and begin my journey of discovery.
Herring gulls glided above, as I wandered through the picturesque docklands, lined with outdoor cafe's, antique shops and museums. Then I found the first sign for “THE RIVER SEVERN WAY.” I smiled as my step quickened. I was finally on my way. It couldn't have been a more perfect setting or more perfect day to begin my journey.
Within a mile, I stood bewildered on a busy highway, unsure of where to go next. I looked around for a sign to show me the way, but there wasn't any. I crossed the gauntlet of speeding cars, hoping for a sign on the other side, but, again, there were none. The river itself had meandered away with no path to follow after it, unless I hacked through the thickets. Well, so much for this dream walk of mine. I was lost in the first mile! I had no choice but to walk along the highway with cars speeding by within inches of me.
I tried to shake off the feeling of weariness that had suddenly crept inside of me, robbing me of that first sense of wonder and exhilaration. The absence of a visible trail didn't help much. Through one pasture after another, I kept as close to the river as I could, until I was able to pick up the trail.
Three hours into the walk, I was totally exhausted. Every field had its own stile or gate to climb over, and my twenty-pound backpack was beginning to feel like fifty!
Finally, I stopped in the middle of a pasture and lay down. Using my backpack for a headrest, I closed my eyes. For the first time I wondered if maybe, at sixty-two, I was beyond doing this kind of thing.
After a while I sat up and ate an apple. Except for the bleating of sheep nearby, the silence was complete. I stood to my feet, listening to the silence.
All around me was this surreal beauty of patchwork emerald green fields spread across gentle, rolling hills. This was the heart of England. This is why I came on foot. I was completely alone, wrapped in its embrace. My body still ached, but my spirit soared.
Just when I thought I couldn't walk across another field, or climb over one more stile, I turned a bend in the river to see a most welcome sight. A beautiful nineteenth century pub nestled in a grove of trees. I could have laid down right there on the lawn and fallen asleep. A man sat on a bench enjoying the late afternoon sun, a pint of ale in his hand. He gave a courteous nod in my direction as I walked toward him. “Man, that sure looks good,” I croaked, my eyes focused on his pint.
His face broke into a big grin. “American, are ya?” I gave him a weak grin and dropped my backpack on the grass.
“Grab a pint, then, and come join me,” he said, a trace of sympathy revealed in his voice. I wasn't a drinking man, but, oh! That pint went down so smoothly.
It turns out that John had a fascination with America and was very knowledgeable about it. His great grandfather had immigrated as a young man and made his fortune there. So I let John do most of the talking, while I nodded every once in a while just to show I was listening. The pint of ale had taken its effect on me and I was barely able to stay awake. Finally, I said goodbye and walked wearily down a country road to spend my first night a a Bed and Breakfast Inn.
I couldn't believe my luck. Ashleworth Court was a beautiful fifteenth century stone house with neatly landscaped grounds and a neighboring cathedral. To me it looked like something straight out of King Arthur's Court. There was no way of telling which door was the guest entrance. I inadvertently walked into this huge medieval kitchen, with a polished flagstone floor and a high beveled ceiling from which hung a montage of copper pots and kettles.
Who, in America, would not want to trade places with me right now, I mused. I followed my host up a winding staircase of well-worn stone steps through a large oak door that was obviously built for the giant in Jack and the Beanstalk, and not for mere mortals like me.
The dying embers of sunset cast pale shadows of the turreted windows across the wall of the long hallway. I followed him silently to the door of my room. I wondered if I could really sleep in such a house as this. Would I wake during the night in a cold sweat after dreaming of seeing headless men in full body armor floating by my bed?
Once in my room, that kind of thinking changed. The room was bright and cheerful, with a table set before a window overlooking the garden. On the table were all the things needed to make tea or coffee and a package of cookies. Even the bathroom down the hall had a modern shower in which I luxuriated. After savoring a cup of English tea while sitting at the window, I went to bed and was asleep in minutes.
Day 2. I was awakened by a thinly veiled sunrise and a cacophony of early birds. The smell of bacon cooking drifted up through the stone floor. Breakfast wouldn't be for another half hour, so I took this time to explore the church next door.
I went for a stroll down the land where time had stood still for a thousand years. There were no new buildings; no paved roads with noisy cars; just a peacefulness and serenity that I have come to cherish in recent years.
I was totally unprepared for the table that Amanda and Humphrey Chamberlayne had set before me. The table settings were polished and high class. A variety of cereals and cream, alongside jam and butter with a carafe of coffee, greeted me. The only thing missing at this beautiful table was someone to share it with. I ate in silence. Then Amanda came in with what she called the Full English Breakfast, consisting of two strips of bacon that looked more like slices of ham, two fat sausages, fried tomatoes, mushrooms, baked beans and toast. Where in the world am I going to put all that food? I wondered. I'd already done a pretty good job on the cereal. I decided to stuff myself, knowing I had a full eight hours of walking ahead of me. I promised myself I wouldn't eat lunch today!
The morning started out overcast, soon turning to a wet mist. I had chosen to hike in my tennis shoes because they were easier on my feet. It came as no surprise to have wet socks and feet the whole day. Still, my spirit was high, and I was eager to walk off some of that breakfast.
Long canal barges moved slowly up and down the river. I took time to wave at each one as they went by. Renting these colorful barges was a favorite way families found to spend summer holidays together.
Walking along hour after hour, I sometimes envied them. At the locks, where they were a captive audience, I would engage them in conversation. Many of them were families from America. Some even envied my solitude and spirit of adventure.
Being alone gave me the freedom to relive some of my cherished childhood memories. Not to far from where I was now walking, I had spent a life-changing four years in the approved school called St. Gilbert's.
Being taken away from home and family at the age of eleven was very traumatic for me. I was stubborn and very strong-willed as a boy, and resisted change and authority. I experienced a steady diet of corporal punishment, including beatings, until I finally got smart and settled down.
Apart from learning how to behave differently, I also experienced what it was like to be able to read a book or write a letter home. It was a privilege to be able to take a shower every day, brush my teeth, wear clean clothing, and sleep in my own bed. Oh, yes, and meals, three times a day. Most of all, I learned how to get along with other boys, and to be part of a soccer team or cricket team.
It was at St. Gilbert's that I began to realize that I had choices, and that I could change things in my life according to the choices I made. I wanted to play on the first string soccer team. So I was motivated to play better. I remember when they posted the team roster on the board. I looked, and for the first time there was my name. Oh, what joy! That same year, I ran the fastest one-hundred-yard dash. I became a member of the four-man relay team. Yes, I could change, do, be, anything I wanted. All I had to do was want it bad enough to work hard for it. I left after four years, returning to Liverpool, where nothing had changed. But I had! Within a year, I left home again, knowing that the world was big and beautiful and full of interesting things. St. Gilbert's had done that for me, and I am forever thankful.
Better than all of that was meeting a man who inspired me without his even knowing it. A member of the staff, Mr. Whittle, was a strong, quiet man. He was tall and thin, with mischievous eyes. He possessed a rare kindness and fairness that impressed my incorrigible nature.
Not having a dad of my own, I began to look upon him as I would a father. From a distance, I respected and honored him for who he was. But, up close, I gave him a harder time than I ever gave other staff members. To this day, I don't understand why. But, I did, and he took it all in stride, as though he had me all figured out and knew exactly what I was about.
It had been over thirty years since I had last seen him, during a visit with my family in 1964. I wondered if he was even alive. I hoped against hope that he would be. I was getting excited at the prospect of visiting the Big House that held so many fond memories. I envisioned walking through every room, down every corridor. I knew every inch of that place. I was eager to explore it all, just one more time. I would have to wait a few more days until my walk would lead me to it...
I limped into Tewksbury, a town with roots also dating back to Roman times. At least half the town's buildings were historic, including a magnificent thousand-year-old monastery. This was a town worth exploring. But, I couldn't! The toes on my right foot were just too painful to walk on any more. I was dog-tired.
I acquired a list of Bed and Breakfast Inns from a waterfront hotel and began checking them out for price and comfort. The first two had no vacancies. The third was too expensive for a small room and a shared bathroom down the hall. Still, I hesitated to leave, I was so exhausted. The proprietor assured me there was a cheaper one about a mile on the other side of the river. It was worth a try.
I limped, dragging myself to the door, only to be told the last room had just been rented. I couldn't believe it. I nodded, with a sick grin, to the gray-haired lady, that it was okay. It wasn't okay. I'll sleep in the hallway, a closet, anywhere! I just didn't think I could make it back across the bridge. I had never felt so tired in my life, as I did at that moment. I was angry at myself for not taking that last B&B, instead of being so cheap. I think it was the anger that gave me enough fuel to get back across the river and back to the B&B. I'll shower in the morning, I thought, as I rang the bell and waited, longing to fall into bed. I rang the bell again and knocked, just in case the bell wasn't working. After a couple more tries, it was obvious to me the last room had been rented, and the proprietor probably went out for the evening. A light rain was falling now. I was feeling dejected and rejected. Anyhow, I returned to the river hotel, where I had first begun, and took a room there. At this point, I didn't care how expensive it was. Not even the blaring noise from the bar below could keep me awake for very long.
DAY 3. I awoke early and took a hot shower. It was amazing how well I recovered after a good night's rest. I felt refreshed standing at the open window, looking down at the river. I took my usual slow walk around the sleepy town, in appreciation of its history and beauty, and also to settle the full English breakfast, which had become the main meal of the day for me.
After purchasing fresh pastries, fruit, and a couple of candy bars, I found the trail and headed out of town. Upton-Upon-Severn was about an eight mile walk. If I went beyond that, I would end up in the middle of nowhere when it came time to stop. So Upton was my destination; a short walk today. I felt like I was cheating if I didn't walk at least eight hours.
The morning sky was a pale blue with fluffy, white clouds blocking the sun and giving the air a little chill. My tennis shoes and socks got wet from the dewy grass. I promised myself a new pair of hiking boots when I got to the city of Worcester.
Canal boats were more plentiful on the river and I took time to wave and shout good morning. This was my easy day, a walk in the park. I felt so full of joy, I could hardly contain it. This is what life is all about, being one with nature and at peace with the world.
The toes on my right foot began to ache again, but I wasn't going to let that get me down. Soon, my left ankle started giving me trouble, slowing my pace. You're starting to wimp out on me, Rossiter, I chided, always happy to get a conversation going with myself.
I walked through fields of grain that grew above my head. I thought, If I have a heart attack they won't find me until harvest time!
Climbing over a gate onto a dirt road, I was confronted by a huge German Shepherd, who definitely wanted a piece of me. As I braced myself for the worst, a small woman with snow white hair suddenly appeared. In a gentle tone of voice she called the dog to her. “I'm sorry,” she said softly. “He really thinks the whole place belongs to him.” “Well, he isn't going to get an argument from me!” I laughed, the tension beginning to fade.
It was amazing to me how friendly and easy going she was. We walked down the path together, chatting as though we were old friends. She was seventy-one and lived here all her life. She had never traveled anywhere, not even for a holiday. We stopped walking as she pointed to a gracious two-story Victorian home surrounded by a colorful profusion of shrubs and flowers.
“Why go anywhere else, when all that I love is right here,” she said, smiling. I couldn't agree with her more. It was a little bit of paradise. There was a long silence as we stood looking at each other. I knew she wanted to ask me to stay a while; maybe have a glass of lemonade on the front porch. The porch was shaded by a Weeping Willow. It looked inviting, and I was intrigued by her character. I was silently willing her to invite me. Then the moment passed. She smiled and put out her hand. “Well, I know you want to be on your way. Have a safe journey.”
“Oh, no!” I felt like saying, as I shook her hand. “I'm in no hurry. In fact, part of the reason for my trek is to meet local people like you.” For the next couple of miles I felt like I'd said goodbye to a friend, knowing I'd never see her again; never know the rich tapestry of her life by the river.
To make matters worse, I climbed over a stile and pulled a muscle in my back. I hobbled to a nearby Oak tree and sat in its shade, staring at the river. I felt young, ready to accomplish great things. Outside, I was hindered by the passage of time. I knew I had some good years left, but was being reminded that time was no longer on my side.
Determined to prove myself, I stood to my feet. “Ouch!” Slowly, I hefted my backpack to my shoulders, uttering a smaller “ouch” this time.
I limped into Upton-Upon-Severn, glad it was over for the day. I'd walked five hours and it felt like ten. I took the first B&B I came to, no questions asked. I fell onto the bed and didn't move for hours. I had registered into a hotel/pub combination rather than the typical private homes, which are more personal. The music downstairs woke me. I turned on the T.V. And watched the Commonwealth games until bedtime. It was an unusual experience, walking alone during the day and spending the evening alone, watching the telly. As the English would say, I fell asleep to the distant sounds of a jazz band.
DAY 4. I awoke to the aroma of bacon again. I was hungry. No, starving! I hadn't eaten since late morning the day before. I walked around the room to loosen my body. The slight twitch in my lower back reminded me to take it easy.
After consuming another enormous breakfast, I toured the picturesque town. Similar to other river towns and villages, it was very old and well-kept. The streets were dotted with bright outdoor cafe's, tea rooms and pubs serving all-you-can-eat buffets. Jazz bands entertained on the spacious lawns along the riverside. Yet, I was glad to set foot on the trail again, and be on my way. The mornings were always fresh and new with anticipation of the unknown. What would I see today? Who would I meet?
Worster was nearly an eight-hour walk. My body felt good; the sun was shining. I was living my dream. Flocks of elegant swans settled on the river. In the middle of a field, I had to stop, remove my pack and absorb the sights and sounds. I could barely see a church spire in a grove of greenery.
Hanley Castle stood crumbling on a distant hill, guarding history's secrets. A scurrying field mouse rustled through leaves inches from my feet. Two mourning doves cooed atop a broken fence post. I was rewarded for taking the time to stop and listen, really listen and see.
This was my fourth day. Except for owners walking their dogs, I met no one else hiking the river trail. It was a lonely walk, lonelier than I thought it would be. Sometimes the path disappeared. It had been lauded as “The River Way,” marked by medallions on posts or fences to indicate turns or detours. Often, weeds and grass were overgrown, hiding the directive, and I would end up in an isolated farmer's yard. I had to back-track, stay alert and locate the medallion, in order to continue. The weather was unpredictable. Warm sunshine turned quickly to cold, wet clouds. I constantly donned and removed the heavy leather jacket tied to my pack.
The countryside is beautiful and serene. But after a full day trudging through rugged pastures, skirting cow pies, climbing fences, being rain-soaked, feet throbbing and back aching, all I care about is arriving at the next oasis. I long to drop my burden, shed my clothes and fall on a soft bed...
The city of Worcester came into view. Agony enveloped me. I imagined that the first person to see me would call an ambulance. Many passed me by. Maybe I didn't look as bad as I felt. I had to admit that this time I was finished. The joy of adventure fled. I felt I should stay here for a day or two of rest, and catch the train back to Liverpool.
Worcester was another former Roman city. I sensed that it was a time capsule of enormous importance in the evolution of English culture. If the streets were emptied of vehicles and people, you would be transported back to Shakespeare's time or the Knights of King Arthur's Round Table. Many historic buildings were well-preserved. But the icing on this city's cake had to be it's Gothic Cathedral dominating the riverfront. If I was a history buff, I would gladly spend many hours exploring this beautiful, rich city.
But, I couldn't. I felt like a tired, bedraggled orphan, who would be happy to find a bed, any bed, where to lay his silly head.
At the tourist information center, I obtained a list of B&B's and a map showing where they were. Four of them were side by side about a mile walk from the town center. I thought it was worth the walk to have so many to choose from. They were all high-priced with very tiny rooms. But, I wasn't prepared to look any further.
I chose the one with the shower stall in the room. The room was so small, I could make a cup of tea, brush my teeth, go potty, take a shower and climb into bed, without my feet touching the floor. There was no room for a floor! And I didn't need a remote control for the T.V. It was right there in your face.
Ah, this lovely land called England. It is by far the most interesting and enchanting of any country I have ever had the privilege of visiting.
DAY 5. I awoke to a glorious sunrise and tiptoed out of the B&B and walked the mile back to Worcester. The English, in general, are not early risers, so I usually had towns to myself, until the shops opened up around eight o'clock.
I strolled up one side of the river and down the other. The whole length of the river was like a garden show, with planter boxes and hanging baskets overflowing with flowers of every color and description. The local cathedral was cared for and groomed like a treasure, the shadow of its spires shimmering across the river.
Yes, this was a very beautiful and peaceful place. I settled on a park bench and basked in the warmth of the early morning sun, taking great pleasure in watching the elegant swans glide by.
Before I even got back to the steps of the B&B, I could smell the bacon frying. Mmm, it sure got me salivating. I was so hungry. But this time, what I did was, fill up on cereal and made sandwiches out of the toast, bacon and sausage for meals during my walk. This way, I could make my money stretch a little further and not buy any food at all. I decided to do it this way every day until I finished the walk.
After purchasing new boots, the softest I could find, I left town and returned to the trail. I felt happy and free, full of life. Yes! If you're gonna grow old and retire, this is the way to do it. No rocking chair for me. Not this lad. I got a whole lot of living to do!
I was also excited that I would be passing within three miles of St. Gilbert's on my way to Stourport today. All one hundred and eight of us lads had walked two abreast every Saturday to the movie house to see “Tom Mix,” “Roy Rogers,” and “Gene Autry.”
It was at the movies where I first fell in love. Yes, a pretty girl took a fancy to me out of all those boys. She would pass sweets and little love notes across the aisle. But, hey, that's another story.
The trail followed the river very closely for a couple of hours. I wish I had the words to describe just how amazing everything was. I watched the festive canal boats; the variety of regattas doing their training for the big races the following weekend in the town of Bewdley. I was awestruck by the constant sight of the snow-white swans, people fishing from both sides of the river; the variety of birds and wildflowers, the picnic grounds where families spread a wide array of foods, and babbling sounds of conversation and laughter.
The trail left the river, winding its way through marshy farmland and small villages with names like Grimley and Holt. It was in this terrain that my new boots became a blessing and a curse. They kept out the soft marsh, but began to hurt and rub the skin raw, until I could stand it no longer. I ended up putting my tennis shoes back on and tied my boots to my already heavy backpack.
After a couple of hours of slogging it out, mercifully, the trail joined the river again and remained close to it all the way to Stourport. Again, exhaustion overcame me. It seemed like every bone and muscle in my body ached. Putting my tennis shoes back on had not alleviated the pain from the raw spots. It would take very little to convince me to give up the hike now. First I had to find a B&B, hopefully, with a shower and a soft bed.
I knocked on the door and was greeted by a kindly gentleman. “Yes, we have one room available. Would you like to take a look at it?” “No,” I said a little too quickly. “What I mean is, I don't have to see it. I'll take it; just show me the way.”
It was wonderful. So cozy and clean, with coffee, tea, milk and cream on a tray with biscuits! Wow, somebody up there likes me. I felt such joy in these simple things after a very trying day. Liz and David Barclay were that rare and perfect couple who were doing exactly what they should be doing after their retirement. They were making people like me very happy.
Baldwin House was an oasis for the weary traveler. As tired as I was, this place gave me such a lift, I took a long, hot shower and went outdoors for an evening walk. The sun was just beginning to set, bathing the scenery in a soft orange glow. I walked through the center of town looking for that movie house. I asked a passerby where it was. He pointed to a general store and said, “It must have been a long time ago when you were here.” I smiled, nodding my head, “Yes, it was a very long time ago.”
As I approached the river the lights were starting to come on. I walked past cafe's, enjoying the sounds of music. I joined in the throngs of people out for an evening stroll. The air was warm, a special evening, indeed, in jolly cold England.
DAY 6. David served the most delicious English breakfast yet. He even lingered to get acquainted with me. I willingly shared my excitement about my nostalgic visit to Hartlebury. He must have told his wife when he returned to the kitchen. Liz, in her apron, came to my table to warn me about the danger of walking the Stourport Road; it has no shoulder for pedestrians. “It's nothing like back then,” she said, “It's a very busy road now and still narrow.” I assured her I would be very careful, but I could tell she wasn't convinced.
When I was packed and ready to leave, David stopped me. “I'll drive you there,” he said matter of factly, “Boss's orders.” “Oh, no,” I protested, knowing that this was their busiest time. People were arriving for breakfast and others wanted to pay their bill before leaving. “Three miles. It'll only take a minute.” he assured me. He was past me and out the door before I could get another word out.
When we arrived in Hartlebury, I was confused as to where I thought the old mansion should be. Things had changed here, too, and we ended up going around in circles. Reluctantly, David dropped me off so he could get back to help Liz. I stood at the side of the road trying to get my bearings.
My heart began to race at the realization of where I was standing. Fifty years began to melt away. I had walked down this hill a thousand times. Yes, there's the old church on the corner. I have to cross over that dual-highway and bear left, go down a small country road, and it should be there on the right hand side. Time had changed and rearranged a few things, but finally I stood where the entrance to the estate used to be. There was no entrance; at least not here, and a high fence had been built all around the property. I followed the fence-line until I found a private driveway. A large imposing sign said, “Private Estate – Keep Out.”
I walked down the driveway until I came to the playing fields. It used to be beautiful with four soccer itches, a cricket pitch, and a track for running. Now it was overgrown; the fence around it was in need of repair. There was the huge oak tree we used to run under for cover when there was a sudden downpour, but the pond that used to freeze over in winter and give us many happy hours of sliding was no longer there.
I walked past a row of two-storied homes. I had helped clear the land in 1953, and helped the staff and their families to move in when they were built. Finally, I came to a large electronic gate. I wanted to get in there so bad I could taste it. This used to be the driveway to the Big House. I was so close. I sat down in front of the gate and waited. Soon, a car pulled up and I walked forward to greet the driver.
“Good morning, Sir,” I said, “would you be kind enough to take me in with you? I used to attend this school fifty years ago and I've come all the way from America to see it again.” He hesitated before speaking. “It isn't a school any more. It's been remodeled into private flats.” “But, I'd hate to get this close and not see it. It holds so many memories for me.” “Hop in, then. I can only spare a few minutes.”
He wasn't the friendliest guy in the world, but at least I was getting inside the gate. When the driveway opened onto the circular drive, I got my first glimpse of the house. I felt goose bumps all over my body, as I slowly stepped out of the car. It looked like it had been neglected and I was disappointed. Where were the rose bushes and trimmed hedges and the manicured lawns? I remembered the head master on his hands and knees, his gnarled fingers digging out weeds and plucking dead flowers. His black robe was pulled up by the hem and tucked under his sash to keep from kneeling on it. Boys would kneel beside him, also pulling weeds. We felt privileged that this “Supreme Being” had chosen us because he valued our ability to work...
The gentleman was looking at me. His body language was such that I knew he was finished with me. I looked at the front door. “Please, may I just take a peek inside? I promise I won't take any more of your time. I just need a quick look around.” He unlocked the big door. I walked in and stood inside the dark-paneled foyer. “That used to be the staff bathrooms,” I said, more to myself than to the resident. “And there, that used to be a hallway leading to the showers and dispensary,” I added, pointing to a blank wall. “And the dining rooms were there; the chapel there; the headmaster's office over there.” The huge ornate fireplace and chandelier were gone! When I turned, I saw the most beautiful staircase in the world, still polished to a high gloss. “My God, it's just like I remember it!”
“It leads to the private apartments,” the man said, almost in protest. But I was already climbing the stairs, with him right behind me. When I got to the top, I stood in shock. What used to be large dormitories fanning in every direction was now blank walls with a couple of doors opening into elevators. I recalled the laughter, the friendships, all the goofing off before settling down for the night. It felt like someone had made a tombstone out of the school, and buried my memories. I felt sad as I turned to back down the stairs. I thanked the gentleman for his kindness and walked down the driveway and out the gate...
But there was another memory I had to pursue; Mr. Whittle, my favorite teacher. He used to live in one of those staff houses, but which one? For the English, this was still quite early in the morning. I found a house with an open front door. I shouted from the street, “Is anybody home?” After my second attempt, I could see a beautiful lady coming down the stairs. She stood in the open door.
“I'm looking for Mr. Whittle or someone who might know where I can find him.” She beckoned me over with a sweep of her arm. “Come on in,” she said, as she turned her back to me and went inside. I followed after her, surprised at her friendliness.
“Coffee?” “Er, oh yeah, yes, I could sure use a cup.” This was one fine lady. Never saw me until ten seconds ago, and here I am sitting at her kitchen table feeling very humbled and inhaling the fragrance of percolating coffee. “Where did you know Jim from?” she asked, continuing to putter. “You're obviously from America.”
“I was actually born in Liverpool. I was sent to Saint Gilbert's for four years when I was eleven years old. Mr. Whittle was my favorite teacher and I was hoping to visit with him if he was still around.” For the first time, she stopped moving and came to the table, pulling out a chair for herself. “Oh, that's so sad. Jim died about twelve years ago.”
I don't know why the news came as such a shock to me, but it did. If he was still living, he'd have been at least ninety years old; which wasn't that old for an invincible character like him.
“Coffee's ready,” she said, jumping to her feet. “Take anything with it?” “Milk and sugar, thanks.” When she poured the coffee she sat down again. “Jim was an avid gardener in his retirement,” she said reflectively. “He grew the best sweet-peas around.”
I shared my boyhood memories of him and the school back in the fifties. I painted a vivid picture of the corporal punishment and the beatings, especially at the hands of the headmaster. Yet, I was able to tell her that it was this environment, this harsh discipline, which had eventually changed me and turned my life around. She found my story very interesting in the light of the way children are handled today.
She had also worked at St. Gilbert's as a counselor and couldn't imagine life under the conditions I had described to her. We must have chatted for over an hour, two people engrossed in their commonality. I thanked her for her wonderful hospitality before having to say goodbye.
Once outside, I took another long look around. Memories held for years already began to crumble. Never could I think of this place in quite the same way again, I thought, as I approached the Stourport Road. Even on the narrow winding road that I had walked so often, I tried to bring back those long-ago days. Back then, there was no traffic, unless you want to call an occasional farm tractor or a farmer in Wellington boots herding sheep or cows, traffic! Our group of over a hundred kids meandered, laughed, picked apples and pears from overhanging branches, telling stories, without any need to worry about where you were walking.
I had to laugh, as I hugged a patch of bramble bushes, hoping that no one in the fast-moving cars were mad at the world this morning. I remembered the place where we lined up to take a pee. This was about the half-way point in the walk; because going to the lad's room at the theatre was not allowed. Once seated, you didn't dare move!
There was a bus stop, a small shopping area, and rows of neat homes on tree-shaded streets; a far-cry from the rolling farmland and the pungent smell of apple cider coming from the farmer's pulping machine.
I did make it back to Baldwin House where I was able to show Liz and David I was still with the living, and thanked them once again for their kindness and their caring. My next destination was a small town called Bewdley.
By early afternoon it was obvious something major was happening up ahead. The river was now swarming with two, four, six, and eight-man regattas. They were sleek and fast, gliding effortlessly through the choppy water. What I didn't yet realize was Bewdley Hotels and B&B's had been booked solid for weeks because of the regatta races this weekend. I was out of luck. It was the loneliest feeling to stand there in the middle of this lovely town, and not know a single person, or have any place to retreat. This was the price I paid for choosing to live so precariously. But all wasn't lost. Through the Tourist Information Office, I was able to secure a room in the town of Kidderminster, a half-hour's bus ride away.
DAY 7. The next morning I couldn't wait to get back to Bewdley. I downed breakfast and hit the road, not wanting to wait for the first bus of the morning. It was chilly but the sky was clear blue; a perfect day for walking. Even this early, traffic was bumper to bumper going into Bewdley for the festivities.
The name of Bewdley is derived from the French, Beau Lieu, meaning “Beautiful Place.” The waterfront is the main attraction. Gracious houses, many with medieval timber-framed structures, hug the narrow streets. Some buildings have an eighteenth century makeover with a distinct Georgian look.
Old warehouses have been turned into cute, flower-bedecked apartments.
I decided to explore the winding streets leading away from the river. I discovered a restored century-old train station and sat down on one of its benches. Every detail reminded me of how grand and yet simple life was back in the days when train travel was an adventure. I enjoyed to atmosphere and watched the races for a couple of hours. But it was time to find the trail again.
Bridgnorth was at least an eight-hour walk, if not ten, and I was starting out later than I normally did. I was reluctant to leave. Once again, I was alone with the birds overhead and the cows and sheep that gave me nary a backward glance. There was a difference now. The Severn Valley Railway followed the river almost as closely as I did. Every half-hour I would be greeted by the train's whistle. I stopped and waved at all the smiling passengers waving back at me.
By late afternoon I was bushed. There was no way I was going to make it to Bridgnorth. I looked at the map. There was nothing but fields and more fields, except one little spot that indicated a railway station about two or three miles ahead. I gotta take the train the rest of the way, I thought, the feeling of guilt creeping over me. I couldn't help feeling that somehow I was cheating. But I had made up my mind. By the time I arrived at the station, I knew I had made the right choice. I had reached the end of my endurance.
Running since 1862, the Severn Valley Railway had been kept from extinction by the Preservation Society and has been a major attraction for the tourist trade. Today, I attribute it to saving one “insignificant, tired body from extinction.”
Bridgnorth is actually two towns; High Town, which crowns the sandstone cliffs, and Low Town, which occupies the river-side below. A winding cobblestone road links the two, with pedestrian access provided by seven ancient stairways. You have to be in great physical shape to get around on foot. And, in great shape, I wasn't. My first sentence after getting off the train was, “Show me the nearest bed and breakfast.”
My worst fears came true when the elderly gentleman in a genuine bowler hat, pointed to a street that would have made a fantastic site for a rocket launcher. I mean, it was straight up with a few wiggles in the middle. I should have asked around for a second opinion, but he seemed so sure that there was one up there somewhere, but none down here.
To anyone watching, I did not look like your typical hiker. The late-afternoon sun was hot, so I kept close to the buildings for shade. I stopped frequently to catch my breath. If I fell, I was sure I would roll out of control all the way to the bottom. With sweat pouring down my face, I had almost reached the top when I spotted a lady sitting on her doorstep reading a book. From a distance, I said, “Excuse me, Ma'am. I was told that somewhere up here there's a bed and breakfast place. I'm almost to the top and I haven't seen one. Would you know where it is?”
To a weary traveler, there's nothing better than seeing a friendly face. She stood up, smiling at me. “Why don't you come on in and I'll see what information I can find.” I remained at the doorstep until she returned. “Come and sit down out of the heat.” Her home was small and quaint. Close-up, the woman, in her mid-forties, looked frail. She was a cancer survivor, she told me, and saw each day as a gift to enjoy and share, even with a stranger.
She handed me a tall glass of water before searching the local newspaper and tourist brochures for B&B's. Finally, she looked up and said, “I have a friend that knows this town better than anybody. I'll take you to him.” Instead of giving me directions, she insisted on taking me there, acknowledging she hadn't been out walking in months. With the sun setting, the air felt a little cooler as we walked gingerly down the street toward low town. Susan was so open, and it was easy to share my personal feelings with her. She also confided that during her illness, her husband abandoned her and her two daughters. By the time we reached her friend's house, I felt we were no longer strangers. I knew this would be a lasting friendship.
Alan was also friendly and welcoming. As a man in his eighties, he was tall, slender and youthful in spirit. He showed me through his home, including four bedrooms, each containing two beds. “Take your choice,” he laughed, as we descended the stairs. “Alan, you could open your own bed and breakfast with all this room,” I said. “I don't need the money, and I certainly don't need all the headaches that come with it. But you're welcome to stay the night.”
After visiting for a while, it was time for me to walk Susan back home. This time we rode up to High Town on a remarkable contraption called the Inland Cliff Railway. Built in 1892, this rail car, resembling a sky tram, transported passengers up the side of the cliff. The view from the top was spectacular, and we stood for a while enjoying it together. When we said goodbye at her door, I promised to come by in the morning and see her before I left town.
Both Alan and I enjoy sports, especially boxing. After walking to the fish & chip shop, we carried our meal back to his place and ate while we watched the Commonwealth games on the telly.
Alan had been a casualty of the Second World War. Being part of the British Invasion of Normandy, he took a bullet in the head, blinding him in one eye, and causing a hearing loss in one ear. He was one of those rare people that lived a quiet and unassuming life, yet could tell surprising and captivating stores. I felt privileged to be in his company.
DAY 8. Alan offered to cook my breakfast in the morning, but I felt he had already done enough. Together, we fed the neighborhood birds that land in his back yard every morning. Then we said our goodbyes. I set out to see Susan one more time, looking forward to our visit over a cup of tea. Just as I arrived at her door, her two friends came by to visit. She invited me to join them, but it wouldn't have been the same...we parted there at her doorstep.
Ironbridge, where the world's first iron bridge was constructed in 1779, was ten miles ahead of me. Little did I know that I was entering a more poorly maintained hiking trail than I had experienced until now. What I thought was a small patch of overgrown fern and briar, turned out to be a labyrinth of nettles that stung my face, arms and legs, wrapping their long, sharp vines around me with each step I took. I pressed on, hoping the trail would break out into open fields, but it didn't.
Even though I was drenched with sweat from fighting through the maze, I decided to put on my jeans and jacket for protection. That was easier said than done. Imagine the space around you covered with sharp vines and nettles. Now try taking off your backpack, rummaging through it for jeans and shoes, and putting them on. My socks were covered with tiny needles, too many for me to extract while standing on one leg!
About a half-hour later, I emerged from the ordeal, my body throbbing from the stings and lacerations. I wanted nothing more than a deep, hot bath in which to immerse.
Crossing over a footbridge, I walked into the lobby of the first hotel I came to and took a room. Yes, there was an old-fashioned tub in the communal bathroom. I locked the door and that sucker was mine. Entering my room, I noticed how shabby it was. On a tabletop beneath a dirty window was strewn numerous dead flies and insects. The carpet looked soiled. The electric pot for boiling water was cracked and leaking on the table. The T.V. Wouldn't turn on. I had paid top price for this, because it was a hotel right on the tourist strip.
I sat down and counted the ready cash I had left. It was enough for two more days. I had hiked eight days out of the planned fourteen. Did I want to continue, and use my American credit card? Or was it time to call it quits?
Because the day had been a particularly hard one, and the room a terrible disappointment, I decided it would be best to sleep on it and make my decision in the morning. During the night, I was awakened several times by revelers leaving the hotel bar and carrying on in the parking lot beneath my window. My decision was made. It was time for this lad to head back to Liverpool...
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