Six o'clock on a cold April morning. I looked at a huge pile of equipment, wondering how on earth it was going to fit into the rucksack. There was a tent and cooking gear, as well as a sleeping bag, warm clothes, food and waterproofs. The weather at the time was uncertain, and I wanted to be able to cope with any eventuality. It took me the best part of half an hour to sort it all out. This accomplished I swung the load onto my back. I nearly fell over. Was I really planning to carry this lot eighty-odd miles?
That rucksack was a nuisance from the outset. It crushed several passengers on the Underground. It took up most of the luggage space on the train. And it got stuck between two seats on the ride from Tring to Ivinghoe, so that when we pulled into the layby the bus driver had to wait patiently as I attempted to drag it free. Eventually I emerged, heaving the millstone in front of me. I was glad to be out in the open.
It's a stiff climb from the road up to the trig point on Ivinghoe Beacon, and I took it slowly. Storm-clouds were streaming overhead, threatening rain. As I came out onto the broad summit of the hill I was buffeted by the gale. A south-westerly was gusting over the ridge, making it difficult to keep my balance. It had not occurred to me that by travelling from east to west I would be fighting against the prevailing wind. It never stopped blowing.
It was cold up there on the Beacon, no place to hang about. I struggled off along the ridge, trying to keep a steady pace. Unused to a heavy pack, I didn't want to push on too quickly. I had heard somewhere that mountaineers, when trekking to the start of a climb, walked at what they called an Alpine Plod - the idea being to get there without wasting energy, steadily and never out of breath. It seemed a good approach since, although moderately fit, I was unused to carrying a load.
When planning the trip I had been slightly concerned about the going underfoot, as it had been a wet winter. In fact on the first day it was not too bad, especially on higher ground. The exposed chalk was fairly dry, making walking relatively easy. There was mud under the trees, where the sun did not shine, but out in the open it was comfortable enough. The path wound along the escarpment, through thickets resounding with the song of birds. The woodland floor was dark with the glossy green of bluebells, though the flowers were yet to come. There were celendines, however, and primroses. Violets crept in the long grass that bordered the path.
After a few miles the line of the ridge is cut by a narrow valley, and the Ridgeway drops down to the railway line and the Grand Union Canal. A noisy corridor, this - the A41 also makes use of that gap in the hills. The footpath vaulted the road before taking cover in the peaceful woods once more. Not the prettiest section of the trail, but it was made memorable that day by banks clothed in daffodills and the drifted clouds of blackthorn blossom in the hedgerows.
I carried the National Trails Guide to the Ridgeway, but I found that I hardly needed to use it. I had walked from Ivinghoe to Streatley the previous year and it was surprising how much of the way I could still remember. There seems to be something about travelling on foot - the steady pace, the change of wind and weather, the subtle shift of gradient and terrain - that impresses itself on the mind. Certainly I find it harder to recall any road I have driven.
That afternoon the clouds were closing in as I dropped down through the long dank woods to Wendover. A few drops fell from the darkening sky. The conifers sighed gently, but on the path the air was still. I stopped just outside the town, where waterfowl squabbled on a little pond. I had covered eleven miles, and though my feet were rather sore they were not too bad. My shoulders though were already bruised from the weight I was carrying. I dug out a jacket as some protection, but for several days they were painful, especially when starting out. After a few hundred yards the discomfort sank to a dull ache.
From Wendover the way winds slowly up to the monument on Coombe Hill. It was a long and unforgiving climb in the teeth of a boisterous wind. In fine weather this switchback stage offers spectacular views out to the north and west, but that day they were discouraging. The little that I could see on that gloomy afternoon suggested rain to come. I was tired, and remembering my resolution not to push too hard I rested for a while by the monument. I had to consider where to spend the night, as I had set off just after midday and the afternoon was passing. The smooth turf on the hilltop was inviting, but it seemed a little early to set up camp. In the end I decided to carry on.
From the monument the trail bends south, before descending to the Chequers estate. In the woods fringing the escarpment the long ranks of beeches were naked and still. I walked quietly in the grey silence of the trees. As I emerged at the foot of the slope I could see the house away to my right. I crossed the drive close to the lodge, under the watchful gaze of CCTV cameras. Then off across the open fields, until I reached the shelter of more woodland.
The clouds were thickening now, and the weather looked more threatening. The way meandered among grass and scrub, winding over the shoulder of Pulpit Hill. Descending once more it traversed a broad slope, then cut through a narrow belt of trees to Cadsdean Road. The light was failing, and as I approached the Plough the rain came down, heavily. I was planning to camp on Whiteleaf Hill, a couple of miles futher on, but there seemed no harm in stopping until the shower passed.
I changed my footwear and entered the inn. It was still early, and there were not too many people about, so I stood at the bar. The barman, seeing my rucksack, asked where I was heading, and I explained. When it came out that I was looking for somewhere to stay, he and the manager immediately offered me a place to put up my tent. It was completely unexpected, and a welcome relief. I had not been looking forward to trying to erect a new tent in semi-darkness on an exposed hilltop. Still less on a night like that! Tent up and rucksack inside, I spent a pleasant couple of hours in the pub. Then I went out into the night and crawled into my sleeping bag. I lay there warm and dry, listening to the pattering rain and the heavy wind gusting in the woods, until at length I fell asleep.