Explosions, unwelcome as an alarm clock, brought me back to consciousness. With strained senses I rolled over in my sleeping bag and looked out
The night still lingered under the trees. Out over the downs a white mist swirled, which made it hard to see what was going on. Automatic bird scarers? Or the local hillbillies out on some mad dawn expedition? The explosions sounded very close.
It didn't seem wise to stay where I was, so I stuffed my wet gear into the rucksack and made my way cautiously through the trees. Once back on the track I felt in less danger from gun-toting lunatics. I turned east, splashing through the mud in the direction of Salisbury.
It was not a cheerful morning. The rain continued to fall, just enough to make waterproofs necessary. If there's one thing I hate it is walking in wet weather gear. The hood drawn tight around your face... the rasp of nylon... trickling condensation... Sometimes I wonder if it would be better just to get wet.
I had about nine miles to cover, and for most of the way there was absolutely nothing to look at. I was on a wide flat ridge, where even on a fine day you can only make out the tops of the surrounding hills. In a mist there is not even that much to see. Only the fields fading away on either side, and a chain of puddles ahead. I looked at the map, mentally dividing it up: when I reach that footpath I will be a quarter of the way to Salisbury; the lane crossing the ridge is half way; the race course, two thirds of the way, and so on.
Somewhere behind the sodden clouds the sun rose. As I reached Salisbury race course the rain eased and patches of blue sky appeared. A little further on I crossed the course, and was heartened by the first glimpse of the cathedral spire, still some way off. A track led me down through the West Wilts golf club to the water meadows.
The weather improved markedly during the last few miles. By the time I reached the mill at Harnham the sun was out. Having spread out such items of wet gear as I felt would not cause offence, I stripped off muddy socks and boots and dangled my sore feet in the icy mill race, where they were eyed speculatively by a couple of ducks.
The footpath from Harnham to Salisbury is one of the loveliest I know. Bordered by trees it runs through deep meadows where sheep and cattle graze. Beyond them the grey spire of the cathedral rises serenely from the sun-warmed Close. Over the sparkling Itchen and through a garden where willows brush the stream. And on, into the heart of the city.
It's a wonderful end to a walk.