Nearly 14 hours in and half the distance done, or thereabouts. It was properly dark at 2am, and the weather is turning a little earlier than expected. On with the show!
Trotting along the River Thames by the moonlight was peaceful for a while, until the clouds rolled in and it started drizzling. Although no longer peaceful, the drizzle was quite nice and refreshing actually, and as the drops danced through the beam from my head torch they created my own little light show as I moved. A very pleasant few miles! Passed through a graveyard attached to a small church at nearly three in the morning. A little spooky – I saw cats or foxes or little devil thing’s eyes light up in the torch beam!
Grim’s Ditch was a long straight section on the map and not having studied the contours I expected a nice steady flat bit. Nope, it was a long slog up hill and the instead of the beautiful pictures I’d seen in guide books, there were just dim pools of light where my torch went with n’ary a bluebell to be seen. I tried imagining nice sights – anything to keep the brain ticking over as mentally I was starting to shut down through the wee hours of the morning, before the sun came up.
At Nuffield, I crossed a very pleasant golf course. I had the headphones on again for a little while, listening to the Columbo podcast where two Scottish chaps dissect each episode about the rumpled detective. Very interesting and it kept the mind going even if the legs were getting tired. After the golf course I was really concerned about my heels again as they felt in a bad way. I took my shoes off and had a look, but didn’t see anything to really take care of. Talc, new socks, crack on. Except I felt I couldn’t stand, never mind move.
I laid down on the side of the road and asked Simon to nudge me in twenty-five minutes so I could just rest the soles of my feet. It wasn’t to be much of a rest – this spot, where I could go no further, was oddly busy even at 5am. A good few heavy trucks whizzed past on the road! Also, the disused pub I was near had a large garage attached that I learned had the grounds-keeping kit in for the golf course I’d just crossed. I learned this as two of the grounds-keepers came roaring out of the garage on ride-on lawnmowers. Not very restful!
Got going as best as I could on very tender feet and after a bit passed the Church of St Botolph. I spent the next few miles wondering if I could have got some kip on a pew in the church and whether or not the vicar there would have had a ride-on lawnmower. Recognising that my mind was working loose, I knew it was time to bring out the big guns. At my next coffee stop I opened the bourbon creams. Demolished half a packet and then trotted on. The sun was firmly back in the sky and it was getting toasty warm again.
The next thing I remember is passing a quarry near Chinnor. Very odd, because along the high fence securing the quarry were guards every few hundred metres. They were half-hidden in the bushes until you were right on them. I’m not sure who was more surprised – me to find people guarding a fence in what felt like the middle of nowhere, or them seeing a bedraggled and slightly addled fellow giving an insanely cheery greeting because he was a little delirious. They were there to deter wild swimmers and party-goers who were sneaking into the quarry instead of going on a package holiday. Whatever else was going on, I was delighted to see portaloos. I’d never been so glad to see a portaloo and probably never will be again!
A little bit further on, just passing Princes Risborough, the Icknield Way (another marked trail which overlaps The Ridgeway in places) went straight on and my path went uphill. I thought long and hard about following the Icknield Way for a bit, knowing that the paths converged again – I’m pleased to say I resisted the temptation, not least because two minutes later I was chatting to a lovely couple and their bouncy dog. The bourbons were a mini-pick-me-up. The dawg was the real deal. After that the uphill wasn’t so bad!
Chequers beckoned. The Ridgeway passes just inside the private drive leading to the Prime Minister’s residence and it’s here that I received some really good news. Nope, not that Boris Johnson was going to say hello (although I’d prepared some choice words for him). Simon had scored an ice cream from nearby and was making his way back along the route to find me with a rapidly melting treat. By unfortunate coincidence, it started raining about a minute after the ice cream was paid for and now it was half melting/half dissolving. Could I go a little quicker, Simon asked. Well, errr, nope.
Coombe Hill is an outstanding viewpoint that I remember very fondly from my childhood. I’ve watched kites flying, model airplanes crashing, and rolled down the hillside until I was sick. It’s a great place to be, unless it’s raining hard and you haven’t got waterproofs on. And you’re tired and a bit emotional. Coombe Hill overlooks Wendover, where my Nan lived and was buried six weeks before the run where she rests with my Grampy and my Dad’s ashes. Sodden, slowly, and painfully, I jogged through Wendover and on to St Mary’s church where I’d be taking a break.
After 27 hours on the move, I’d covered around 75 miles. Changing into dry kit and putting on extra layers felt good. Being in a waterproof jacket felt really, really good.
The Ridgeway runs quite literally along the side of the graveyard where I’d been able to attend my Nan’s very small funeral, despite lockdown. My Nan was a remarkable woman. A beacon of good cheer and quiet strength. When my Gramp passed away having not been able to do much driving in the car they’d recently bought, my Nan learned to drive just to be able to see that the car was used – in her sixties. As I said at her funeral, she made everyone feel special, but none more special than any other. Everybody would feel warm and welcome with Nan’s chuckle nearby. Such a beautiful soul and incredible example.
To get moving again from here was incredibly hard. Physically tired and full of emotion, the pain in my feet was really wearing. For fifty metres after getting going I looked like I was treading on eggshells, progressing onto walking over hot coals, then onto prancing over broken glass. After two hundred metres I was back into a fast-ish amble, but I certainly couldn’t jog anymore. Good news though – less than a marathon left to go!
Simon had realised that I wasn’t interested in food all that much now. Whatever was in the car was of little interest, I just wanted everything that we didn’t have! Being a good egg, he bought a whole bunch of stuff without my asking and I was putting away caramel pancakes and Danish pastries like there was no tomorrow. I moaned, made progress, moaned and made more progress. If I’d spotted a McDonald’s en route, I’d have eaten everything on the menu. Crossing the A41 on a high bridge had me thinking about all the things to eat in a service station for a good many miles.
Tring Station was coming up and Simon and I were both surprised to learn there’s a whole place called Tring Station – it’s not just a railway station in Tring (which is down the road). This shouldn’t have been mind-blowing, but it was. That tells you something about where my mind had got to! After passing the station, I posted a video to Instagram cheerily (and wearily) proclaiming only five kilometres to go. Only! I said in the video they were all uphill, but they weren’t. This was maybe worse, as every time I took a step downhill I was now dreading the inevitable uphill steps that followed!
It took an hour and a half to cover the last three miles. Uphill and down dyke and, admittedly, dawdling to enjoy a cracking double rainbow. Just as I was coming over what surely (surely, surely) must be the penultimate hill, I could hear odd shouts from the direction I was heading in. Unexpectedly, it was my family from Wendover who’d come out to see me to the end. For some time they’d been shouting “is that you, Mark” at anyone nearby. I still think it’s a shame there hadn’t been another Mark passing by, who would’ve wondered why they were looking for him.
Buoyed by my family and by the end being so near I went flat out to the top of the hill, accelerating to perhaps as much as a slow jog! Reaching the trig point at Ivinghoe Beacon, I pretty much collapsed on to it. I had some lucozade passed to me, I think, which I was very, very grateful for. This was it – 87.5 miles officially, probably a little over 90 miles given the couple of navigation errors. 32 hours and some minutes.
In doing so, the people who’d kindly sponsored me had raised £775 for Refuge and The ManKind Initiative. With gift aid, that’s getting on for a thousand pounds! Outstanding! I could lie down now, right? Well, not quite…
Having been a Project Manager, I’m a big fan of the ‘wash-up exercise’, so there’ll be one more part in my Ridgeway Write-up. Some thoughts from the day and some that have occurred since, as well as some lessons learned. Look-ahead to lesson number one – do this route the other way around so that it finishes at the car park and you don’t have to walk a little further when you think you’re done. Gah!
(Photo of me, in Wendover feeling slightly broken. I cheered up a lot at the end!)