The train slid over the broad face of Hampshire, brushing aside the mild airs of spring. All around me were woods and fields, bright in the clear morning light. I was travelling to Reading, and the start of the Kennet and Avon Canal. For seventy-five miles it runs, through the chalk country of southern England, linking the Thames navigation to Bristol and the sea.
I passed the journey half asleep. The quiet carriage was warm and comfortable, and tired from an early start I could have remained there still and drowsy forever. But soon we pulled into Reading, and it was time to go. I grabbed my rucksack, and passed from the white interior of the station out into warm sunshine. The town centre was almost deserted. The inhabitants had evidently been celebrating the start of the long weekend in style: the pavements were littered with broken bottles, and the streets stank of ketchup and kebabs. A lorry ground slowly past, crunching the debris. Down by the canal workmen were tearing up the forecourt of a large office block. Dust hung in the air, and the metallic clatter of pneumatic drills rang painfully. I headed for the quiet countryside as fast as possible.
From a pedestrian's point of view, a towpath offers an easy escape from urban areas. You can walk without the risk of being slaughtered. Having said that, however, the first few miles of the K and A couldn't really be described as attractive. "Dirty and dismal" is how Jerome K. Jerome, in Three Men In A Boat, described Reading in 1889, and it hasn't changed since. The canal picks its way through brick suburbia, past scruffy back gardens and patches of waste ground. As I trudged along beside that muddy stretch of water I was thankful that I was travelling from east to west. Reading would have been a depressing end to the walk.
Suddenly the path dived beneath a sprawling concrete arch and emerged into the sunlight. Reading was gone, and the world seemed a brighter place. I came to a lock where I rested for a while. I was rather tired, and my rucksack was starting to feel heavy. I had a little food to see me through the first day; after that I would buy what I could. When planning the trip I considered packing a gas stove, but as I intended to camp out I already required a fair amount of gear - army poncho, which doubled up as a groundsheet, sleeping bag and spare clothes. I also carried a homemade bivouac, rather like the outer part of a ridge tent. Once I spent a week in the French Alps, sleeping out under a flysheet, and I found that it offered a fair degree of protection from the rain. No point in carrying unnecessary weight!
Across the canal a heron drifted down on bowed wings. It alighted clumsily, then stalked to the concrete edge of a pool, froze, and stabbed downwards. A fish thrashed helplessly for a moment in its beak; then it was gone. The bird flapped heavily away, and I picked up my rucksack and moved off.
The K and A touches four Ordnance Survey maps, though I only had with me the two which cover the central part of the route. With the canal to guide me I was confident that I would be able to find my way out of Reading. As it turned out, I could have walked the whole way to Bath without any maps at all. Even so, I regretted not bringing the missing sheets. Maps are reassuring things. They make sense of the landscape. A footpath is not an isolated thread running on ahead, but a strand in a web that extends outwards in all directions. From Inkpen, south of Kintbury, the Test Way runs down to the muddy edge of the Solent. To the north is the road from Avebury to the valley of the Thames. And the Wessex Ridgeway, which crosses the canal at Devizes, leads down on dusty byways ever deeper into Dorset, until it climbs the long last slope and looks out on the bright flowing waters of the English Channel.
For myself, I kept to the towpath. The first few miles went by without leaving much impression. The canal follows the line of the river Kennet, sharing the valley floor with a main road and railway line. The countryside here is undistinguished, a mosaic of hedgerow and field. After the noise of the town, though, it seemed very peaceful. Swans stared at me inscrutably as they drifted, aloof and self-contained. Duck splashed into the wind-ruffled waters. The air was full of the music of birds. I ambled along in the sunshine, enjoying the warmth and the feeling of not being in a hurry. To my right, a few hundred yards away, traffic was thundering west along the old Roman road to Bath. It seemed a world apart.
I reached the waterside inn in time for lunch. It was an attractive spot, where a country lane crosses the canal via a swing bridge. The car park, though, was full of Range Rovers and BMWs, a disconcerting sight. Such vehicles congregate outside those establishments where one would feel distinctly out of place, clumping into the bar with rucksack and muddy boots. I was hungry, though, and there did not seem to be another pub close by, so I ventured in. In fairness I should state that they did not refuse to serve me! I beat a tactful retreat to the garden, where I dined in company with some affectionate ducks. It would have been pleasant to idle away the afternoon, watching patterns of light and shadow drifting on the warm brown canvas of water. But there was no time for contemplation. I had to keep moving.
I don't remember exactly where I saw the first canoe. It came round a bend in the canal, surging along at a breathless pace. The crew, perspiring freely, dug their paddles deep into the water in concert, driving it forward. It was followed by another, then several more. I heard later in Newbury that it was the day of the Devizes to Westminster race. All that afternoon, and far into the night, the canal was alive with competitors and their support teams.
Throughout the short afternoon and into the evening I plodded on. The weather was changing. Grey clouds spread slowly across the sky. The wind shifted and colder air began to flow from the north. At Kintbury I sat on a wall in the gathering darkness, listening to the rustle of leaves. The countryside seemed lonely and rather forlorn. I had covered a third of the distance I had to walk, and I was tired and depressed. I wanted to lie down, but I could not see anywhere suitable, either on the map or on the ground. In the end I decided to push on to Hungerford Common. At least by the time I got there it would be deserted. I eventually set up camp, discreetly, behind some gorse bushes. I was exhausted, but sleep would not come. My legs ached; every muscle in my body ached. My feet were sore, and my shoulders and hips, unused to the weight of the rucksack, felt bruised. And it was cold. Foolishly I had not brought a foam insulation mat. I should have known better. As I lay on the hard ground I could feel the heat draining from my body. I put on everything I had with me, except a pair of jeans too wet and muddy to be tolerated inside the sleeping bag, and wrapped a towel round my head. Every few minutes I turned restlessly, trying to find a position that would allow me to drop off. Eventually I fell into a fitful doze.
I woke late in the night and looked out across the common. A mist had risen from the river and was spreading silently over the grass. It drifted in through the open ends of the bivouac, soaking my rucksack and sleeping bag with dew. I lay huddled up, waiting for the grey light of morning. I could not sleep any more.