When I first started exploring my back yard again, I tried to mix it up. Now I’ve settled into familiar, favourite routes. No surprise to find they follow parks and trees. Green space. The playing fields, the park, the very edge of town. All too often I make excuses not to venture beyond. It’s wet, it’s cold. There isn’t enough time. There’s always time. The countryside is also vastly more interesting than the same old houses and roads and cars I’ve been getting used to. The Southern clouds blush pink and burn gold. I remember what it means to get up and go. Sunday morning streets are quiet. Robins and blackbirds hurl early abuse across the road. A runner pulls out of one of the side streets ahead of me and disappears around the slight bend in a seemingly straight road. I bounce three straight lines, skimming roundabouts on the way before I quit town.
Hackwood House is the closest arrogant display of wealth to where I live. The whole time I have lived here I had assumed the 110 hectare grounds were private. I had only ever seen the outer perimeter wall. Today, I approached the gate house. The sign I expect to advise of opening hours informs of the public footpath through the grounds. I have to admit to being a little disappointed not to be trespassing as I pass through the pedestrian gate. Why not find out what £65 million will get you? On this vast enclosure I couldn’t help but think of the news. I’d been following the attack on public freedom on Dartmoor. One wealthy land owner against everyone who has ever enjoyed a night under the stars. I knew when the case went to court the common man would lose. The rich always win. The right to wild camp has been removed from the last place it was allowed in the UK. Progress! At any cost, unless it costs a hedge fund manager anything at all. I don’t go near the house, barely see it even. I know there are wings on either side larger than the house I live in. I’ve seen from aerial photographs the swimming pool out back. I watch the large herd of deer in front of the house. They watch me back, deciding after a while I probably am a threat and drift away.
I set off once more, over a bridge that maybe once upon a time crossed an ornamental pond. Coming down the hill towards me is the same runner I watched disappear down the road first thing. I make a mental note to look at where they might have gone. A new route for the summer perhaps? I leave Hackwood Park, finally joining Three Castles Path. The route links Winchester to Windsor. There are no markers, no obvious sign that this is a recognised trail. I enter the village of Tunworth. There’s no pub here, which probably explains why I’ve never heard of it. I have to walk on the roadside for a way. A squadron of dirt bikes burst out on to the road. The lead rider attempts intimidation, seeming to forget I’m already on the road. Cars are a lot harder to dodge. I’m glad I met them on the road, and not on the muddy, puddle lined track I turn on to. I follow the lane. More bikes come some with motors, some without. At the five way junction I rest against a tree in the morning sun. Little moments like this are worth stopping for. I’ve nearly reached the village of Greywell, the start of the canal. I keep moving.
In the chewed up mud lined with brown pools I bounce on to my shin. Feet fail to stay in place. I make the appropriate checks. Nobody ahead or behind. My embarrassment is mine alone. I don’t think I’ve done any long term damage. There’s s thick streak of mud and chalk up my right leg, all aesthetic. I consider myself lucky. I stayed out of the puddle. I’ve stayed remarkably dry. I plough on. Keen to get to firmer ground. Greywell I know, having a pub helps. I don’t stop in the Fox and Goose. I tell myself it’s too early. The clarity of the canal shocks me. I can see. There’s a blue-ish tinge to the water. Reeds glow green in the shallows. At the sort-of start of the Basingstoke Canal I pop my head in the tunnel. No obvious signs of bats. There are more people along the tow path than I’ve seen all morning. Kayaker, paddle boarders, cyclists, dog walkers. I stop at the remains of King John’s Castle. One of the three the trail is named for. The most ruined one. After Odiham the canal better resemble my expectations. Brown murk. I slop through the mud, cruising over the gravel. A reminder that maps don’t give away all the world’s secrets. The constant question remains; how’s the terrain?
I leave the tow path and cross boggy fields towards Winchfield. My last stop today. I hadn’t bothered to check if the trains were running. After all the strike action, I’d forgotten that the train companies themselves regularly decide to put on a special bus service some weekends. For whatever reason the bus drivers seem to consider any thing resembling a timetable null and void. In the backwater village of Winchfield, nobody is on hand to advise. I approach the first bus that comes in. “Are you going to Basingstoke?” I ask the driver. He looks like I’ve asked him if he’s going to Siberia. “No mate, you’ve just missed that one.” It was either incredibly late or incredibly early. Neither bodes well. Not long after another bus comes in. I try to show the driver my ticket. He’s appalled I’ve bothered to buy one. “Don’t buy a ticket when it’s a rail replacement bus service, we don’t care.” I’m sure the Revenue Protection Officers at Basingstoke will feel otherwise. Not that there are any when I get there. It’s a short, repetitive walk home. Legs tired, and I’ve done nothing compared to what I once did.