June 29, 1985: Marlow to West Wycombe
Harold was in the States and Tosh had compulsively double-booked this day so Dorothy, Bertie and I could easily have been on our own for day six of the London Countryway. However the previous Sunday we had met Tom and Cindi Notarainni at the old alums reception for Michigan State University trustee Carole Lick – held in our living room. When they found out that I had been the sponsor of their daughter Karen’s Alternative the Notarainnis were full of questions about walking – so we invited them to join us at 9:31 at platform five, Paddington Station, on Saturday, June 29.
Dorothy and I arrived early and had time for a burnt coffee and a bun in a quiet corner – after we had endured the long Saturday queue at the ticket window. The Notarainnis were waiting for us at train time and we found seats for four in a non-smoker and proceeded to Maidenhead, where we changed to the Marlow shuttle. We were taking some chances with the weather, which was advertised as “dull and misty at first,” but though it was occasionally grey we only felt a momentary drop of rain once – and increasingly the day became warm and sunny.
Attractive blonde Cindi, the mother of four, was an aerobics instructor and I expected her to be in good shape. Burly Tom, a director of Exxon Subsidiaries, UK, cut a more sedentary figure but he did a good job of covering the day’s eight miles with his long legs. I took our party past the Jolly Fryer once again and then detoured to the churchyard to show the Notarainnis a view of the river at Marlow.
Then we followed Pound Lane, an alley, and Oxford Road – as prescribed by Chesterton. Directions were pretty good again today: the ambiguities were mostly the result of serious overgrowth problems. For instance, the street sign for Chiltern Road was pretty well hidden in a screen of weeds, but we started up an enclosed path heading west. It was mucky underfoot; a month of rain (or so it seemed) had created a gluey surface at many spots today. One could see that the heel of Tom’s Nike was separating itself from the body of the shoe at every gooey step. The surface also provided a good test for my poor right foot, recently recovered for a gout attack and sporting a permanent calcium deposit on its crown. I had even brought my walking stick as a precaution, but the foot held up pretty well. This was the encouragement I needed, only two weeks before a major Lakeland expedition with the Lees.
A huge sow was suckling her young off to the right and poppies were blossoming in the wheat fields to our left as we approached Blounts and Woodland Farms. We followed the track past the latter, a delightful country conversion, and descended through a woods to the bottom of a valley. I let the others go ahead on this stretch as I sought cover for a quiet pee. They were waiting for me at a trail that ran along the valley bottom; our way lay straight up the side. We passed a mother cat and two ginger kittens playing near a farmyard but fortunately these felines escaped Bertie’s attention. I had a momentary fright somewhat later when a horn sounded twice on the road above us; the dog had gone forward, unleashed, with the other three, as I struggled up behind – but the horn had nothing to do with him.
Once again my companions were waiting for me when I reached the road in question. We followed it to the left and, scouting, I traveled alone along a track which proved to be the right choice for the ascent to Copy Farm. (If we had continued on the lower roadway we would have ended up in somebody’s garage.) I gave a blast on my whistle and the others followed This lane, screened by hedges, was as mucky as all the others today but when we reached Copy Farm we rejoined a dry roadway momentarily. An ancient sheepdog emerged from the farmyard to exchange sniffs with our Schnauzer. The old fellow’s owner was just then approaching in a car and, following an urging from his master, the sheepdog limped back to his post.
At Copy Green we descended west past more poppy fields and at the bottom found the track through Shillingridge Wood. There were many calls for lunch hereabouts but it was not easy to find a dry spot for this activity. When we reached the top of our ascent we found a suitable place amid beech leaves and stumps. The view of the green valley below was enlivened by the galloping of a grey and white stallion – who took several snorting runs across the field while we ate. Bertie was not pleased but he had his own lunch and bits of everybody else’s to preoccupy him. Tom asked me if East Lansing would be a good pace to retire to. More sensibly, Cindi said she wanted to stay overseas.
She was startled by our first stile, but I had to assure her that, indeed, we were meant to use it. The enclosed path to Bluey’s Farm seemed to be bordered by junipers or cedars and not pines, as promised by Chesterton. When we reached this charmingly thatched fake I was reluctant to charge through – or use an overgrown stile facing us – so I retreated uphill a bit and followed the left hand white arrow (many of these today) into a field above the farm, and in this way I reached the dry (i.e., streamless) valley – which lead north to another woods through which we plodded for some distance. At a decisive fork (but not at the wood “end,” I would say) I chose the right-hand path and this put us out on the busy B482.
We turned left but I was confirmed in my diagnosis only when, some 300 meters on, we discovered a northern turn-off to the next patch of woods. The path was a narrow trough through knee-deep wheat, ending abruptly at a pile of charred rubble amid tire tracks at the edge of the woods. We had another brief rest here – it was getting sunnier and warmer. I had a look at my compass in order to ascertain that the nearby path was heading off at the required 30 degrees. (I have always wondered why more guidebook authors have not used such compass points in their instructions; Chesterton should have served as a model here.)
The path, particularly at its northern end, was quite overgrown. This led me to continue to the right at a foliage choked fork – but here we were obviously heading in the wrong direction. So we retreated a few steps and took the left-hand path. We seemed to be heading in the right direction now (northwest) but hardly on a “track,” which I mistakenly assumed applied only to surfaces capable of carrying wheeled traffic. However I was relieved to see, at the top of the hill, the wire fence of the waterworks. This left another question – which was the descending track that marked out next turnoff? I began a circuit of the waterworks and finally came out on a tarmac road; this surface, I would have argued, seemed more that a mere “track.” But we used it to stamp some mud from our shoes.
“Do you ever get lost?” Cindi asked me. “You’ve been lost for the last fifteen minutes,” I replied, “but you’re not any more.” We descended a short distance and found our next turnoff. It brought us through a spooky plantation whose trees were so tightly packed that we had to search out our route in noontime darkness. This path ended at the side of the M4. We crossed a secondary road with a “Site Closed” sign on which someone had painted, “So Fuck Off!”
We passed over the motorway and turned left on the wide but empty road to Pyatt’s Farm. The Notarainnis were some distance ahead, accompanied by the disloyal Bertie. As nearly as I can tell, the sharp right turn to the farm represented the most westerly point on the London Countryway’s oblong circuit. We had, of course, been heading north and west from day one, but all of our movement from this point on would now be tinged with an eastward tug.
Pyatt’s Farm was passed as quickly as possible (for the nose’s sake) and we descended on a track and then climbed steeply uphill, our last ascent for the day. Dorothy wanted to give our shaggy dog some water on this ascent but I insisted we reach the top first. Some complaints about deferred gratification followed. At the top we lay down for a few minutes in the sun. I had to give a thirsty Dorothy my apple.
We were now catching views of Dashwood’s famous Mausoleum and the golden top of the church tower across the valley. These were part of the next day’s walk for us, however. Today we had only to descend to the A40, passing cricketers at play, and into West Wycombe village. While I was pondering bus timetables outside the Swan Hotel a local lady pointed out where we were to stand for the High Wycombe bus. There was about half an hour for snacks and for Dorothy and the Notarainnis to do some antique shopping. Dorothy bought a bakelite card case and the Notarainnis bought a ginger jar and two spoons. Shortly before five we were at the bus stop, but the first vehicle to arrive was not the local over to the High Wycombe train station but a Green Line coach heading for London itself. We decided to ride it all the way to Marble Arch.
For the first few minutes the bus was rather crowded – it was a struggle getting to a seat with the dog – but after High Wycombe there was plenty of room. Dirty Bertie even selected his own perch for the rest of the journey. We said goodbye to the Notarainnis at Park Lane. They had been excellent walking companions but – like most ASL families – they were soon off to another posting and we never saw them again.
We crossed over to enter the underground labyrinth in search of a toilet, jumped on a 16 bus opposite the Odeon (Bertie, refusing to follow me upstairs, actually slipped his collar at this point), and got off at Elgin Avenue. We got Turkish takeout at the Lokanta and arrived home at 7:00.
To continue with the next stage of our walk you need: