The London Countryway – Day 4

April 27, 1985: Sunningdale to Windsor

Virginia Water

Virginia Water

Close to half a year passed between days three and four on the London Countryway. A hard winter and a grudging spring had intervened – and more than one restart date had been scrapped at the last minute due to adverse weather projections. Even today Tosh was sitting this one out with sciatica, Dorothy had a miserable cold, and the Cumbrian Way students who had asked for a reunion hike had all found suitable excuses for themselves – everything from “got to get ready for a camping trip next weekend” to “have to study for next Monday’s Quiz Bowl.” In the event only Harold and I were determined to get this stretch under our feet, so Bertie and I prepared ourselves for departure with an umbrella-raised perambulation of Paddington Rec on a cold Saturday morning.

It had stopped raining when we made our way to the tube station, Bertie squeaking with excitement as usual. They were re-doing part of the Maida Vale station as we descended to the smoky depths. I chose a quiet car but Bertie soon found plenty of other passengers to investigate; he made friends with one pretty girl who was dozily making her way home after a late-night fling. Harold had already arrived at Waterloo. We bought singles to Sunningdale and he went to get us some coffee. Mine sloshed over the brim and scalded my fingers. We entered gate 19 – which had two yellow flower boxes bravely planted beneath the overhanging roof  – and Bertie actually jumped to the top of the steps of our carriage. We left at 9:28 and chatted about property matters for forty minutes while behind us two earnest black passengers discussed the affairs of an obscure religious sect.

It was 10:15 when we left Sunningdale station. It wasn’t too cold, though I did have my tan bomber jacket on for most of the day. We began with high clouds and some patches of brightness, but not much wind. We were soon past some familiar landmarks – Choo Choo burgers on the right, the Water Margin on the left – and had left the A30 to retrace our entry into Sunningdale last November. Bertie made an attack on a suburban lawn but he seemed far more restrained in his deportment today. We turned off on the Onslow Road and followed Chesterton’s descriptions carefully. There was indeed a circle at the end and a walled path exiting it on the left. We used this to thread a trod between yards, eventually rejoining another suburban development and what turned out to be Shrubs Hill Lane.

At its head we rejoined the A30, which had a pavement for pedestrians on both sides of the roadway. We crossed the busy highway from south to north, dodging between speeding cars, and in a few paces reached the Red Lion pub. Here a bridleway through Coworth Park began. I found it curious how Bertie could sense the presence of “the enemy” over the hill – long before any actual beasts came into sight  – and these blanketed equine aristocrats were a long way from our track. Nevertheless there was extended barking at the menace, which at last faded to a memory as we reached the A329.

Here we lacked a sidewalk but there was only 150 yards of verge walking against the traffic before we reached a parking lot entrance to Windsor Great Park. The surface of nearby Virginia Water was already glistening through the trees below us. I had kept Bertie on lead for this first hour of the walk but he was unhooked now. This enabled him to dislodge some mallards from their resting place on the shore – a sport the dog engaged in repeatedly during the next two miles.

Harold and I had a snack as we reached the lakeshore path and I gave the dog some water and biscuits. When we were ready to start up again there was a brief light drizzle. We took cover under some rhododendron bushes, me seated, Harold standing because of his arthritis, Bertie running around in circles – but in three minutes it was dry again. Two long-haired Dachshunds were approaching and he ran forward to greet them. Their owners cooed over young Bertie, “Isn’t he beautiful!” The male half of this couple watched the dogs sniffing away and concluded, “What a load of old krauts!”

Even where more obvious paths existed across headlands I stuck to the shoreline as often as I could. “It’s not often you get to walk the edges of a Berkshire lake,” I explained to Harold. After a while we came to some Roman ruins – transferred from Leptus Magnus in Libya. “They look cold here,” Harold said. A few more drops fell while some other visitors, not trusting their Alsatian, chained him up as Bertie approached.

At the lake’s outflow a lovely artificial waterfall had been constructed. We descended below it and joined another lakeside path along the east shore. We disdained a snack kiosk in a caravan and pressed forward against a flood of daytrippers and joggers. I have noticed that the latter often assume the worst about dogs; today some were annoyed that they had to take a step or two off the public footpath to accommodate humans.

We left Virginia Water at the totem pole from British Columbia. I posed Harold against this import (which did not look cold) and took a picture. Then I had to attend, once again, to the throbbing in my left fourth toe. I took my boot off to have a look, but there wasn’t much to see. I put some tape on it anyway, but basically it just didn’t like walking today. The pain returned several times throughout the rest of the walk and this was quite a nuisance – for I found myself tensing the foot in an effort to find a more comfortable position in a boot I had worn for years.

We relied on park signs to take us through the next two turns but things were not too clear on the ground as we made our way over Smith’s Lawn polo field. I wasn’t wearing my compass, which would have been very useful, but fortunately a car sped past the distant statue of the Prince Regent and re-oriented me northwards. I was better prepared to turn right at the noticeboard informing the local guardsman’s regiment which chukkah they were playing in. Indeed as we approached Cumberland Gate a match was in preparation (in spite of Bertie’s objections) but this was surely not a serious endeavor for they were allowing girls to play.

As we passed through the gate we had to take a half left in search of a tennis court. Then, once beyond Cumberland Lodge, we oriented ourselves by a fence. It led over a hill. Below, in a hollow, was a pond, and we decided to use this wind-sheltered place as a lunch spot. Harold lead an abortive thrust through some brambles in search on an actual pond-side site, but Bertie was having terrible problems fighting his way through and I got a nasty scratch on the back of my leg –so we retreated to our track and sat down beneath a tree.

I prepared some dog meal and a hard boiled egg for the dog; it took him a while to eat it because a young man came up with two Labrador pups – one ten months old and the other eleven – and Bertie made instant friends. He did not, however, follow Ben and Gemma into the waters of the pond when the Labs were sent to fetch a weighted float. This was part of duck-fetching practice for them but Gemma’s future in the sport was already in doubt because she was showing signs of nervousness over the sounds of a mechanical shotgun which was blasting away in a nearby cornfield. Between dunkings the Labs played with sticks  – so there was a great deal of chasing back and forth. Bertie got a dog biscuit from the dogs’ owner. He drank some water and we packed up as the puppies headed back toward Virginia Water.

Then we climbed a hill and entered the deer park. Bertie returned to lead here, though I threaded this attachment through my belt. I was testing the trailside potentialities of my walkman with Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony, using the same tape that we had put on the intercom of the bus driving dozens of Close Up students to a plane in Norfolk, Virginia only a few weeks earlier. What a dramatic moment it was –with that gorgeous music singing in my ear – to reach the top of Copper Horse Hill and see Windsor Castle three miles away along the Long Walk.

It was now sunny as well, though very cold. There was a real glacial taste to the air, which was blowing at us from the north. In spite of the views The Long Walk was a tedious trod for the toes, with the tarmac hard on the soles and the verge quite uneven. As we left the confines of the deer park I had to take off camera and walkman in order to zip up my jacket. I was now wearing my wool cap as well. Bertie ran loose, except for road crossings, and greeted everyone and their dogs. It seemed to take forever, though it was only an hour, before we reached the walls of Windsor Castle and turned off on Park Street.

After the quiet of the Long Walk it was a bit of a shock to be back on Windsor High Street on a bustling Saturday. At least one woman looked at me oddly as I took the dog lead off my belt and rebuckled. Bertie did not enjoy the crowds of tourists visiting the market stalls and barked at a young girl who ran down the railway platform in noisy shoes. There was a long queue at Windsor Central, which we chose because of its connection via Slough with Paddington. We had covered today’s nine miles in just under five hours and it was only just past 3:00. We left Windsor Central at 3:08 and hardly had time to get seated before it was time to switch to platform five at Slough; Harold and I snoozed a bit on the next stretch while Bertie, who had been given a bowl of water, also managed to get up onto a seat. We reached Paddington at 3:49. Here I said goodbye to Harold, and Bertie and I found a tube right away. We were home shortly after 4:00 – surely one of our fastest returns from the trailside ever.

To continue with the next stage of our walk you need:

Day 5: Windsor to Marlow