Day 39, River Dove to Abbots Bromley, 22 miles. Tales of Richard V, 'Enter the Staffordshire Way'.
If yesterday was the finest day of the hike so far (and it was), then today was definitely the worst - the reason, I hear you desperately call? The Staffordshire Way. It wasn't until Richard and I joined the Staffs Way that I realised just how lucky I had been with the tracks and trails of Scotland and England so far. Though, as we awoke on the banks of the River Dove, let's start there and we can meet the Staffs Way in due course.
Rich and I rather gingerly packed up our riverside campsite, no doubt due to the 30 miles from the previous day, and slowly made our way south along the river in the hazy early morning mist. We had around 2 miles until we reached the Dovedale car park, and assumed there would be picnic benches or similar to use for breakfast. However, a short skip over the 'famous' Dovedale stepping stones and we soon found that there was nothing at the car park other than a few manky looking stumps - but we were wild men now, used to sleeping rough and braving the elements, so a mangy stump was just what we needed and we settled down to a hearty breakfast of oatcakes and goats cheese. Or at least we tried so. Some old bugger with a lawnmower decided he just had to mow, meticulously and repeatedly, the small and specific patch of grass right next to our breakfast area and in the process continuously spewed grass shavings and dust all over our first meal of the day. And with that we left the River Dove and all our problems began in earnest.
Immediately after turning once more to the fields we mistakenly walked through a private camping site and were told, politely but firmly, to go round the other way. When we got there the gate was clearly broken and had locked itself shut, we thought about how best to climb over the broken gate, but Richard simply smashed it open with a truly impressive roundhouse kick and we were through. Little did we know, this would be just the first, and most minor, of the many obstacles we would face today.
From here we soon found ourselves back on our old friend the Limestone Way - since we had left the Way it had snaked east to Matlock before cutting back south and we picked it up again just after the pretty little village of Ilam, however the Way seemed to have traded in Limestone-shrouded magnificence for endless farmer's fields, waist high grass and a rapidly deteriorating system of signs which often left us guessing whether or not we were going to right way. We ran into Sophie and Stephen Holroyd on the path, who were also walking the end to end, just in the opposite direction - they were an affable pair of teachers who were taking a rather different route from myself, and we remarked on how between us we had walked the entire length of the kingdom. Their blog is far more detailed and well made than mine, plus Rich and I get a decent mention somewhere so here it is: https://walkingthelandscape.com/2019/01/27/the-journey-begins/.
They both warned us in much detail of the terrible nature of the Staffs Way and wished us luck with wry amusement in their eyes.
The path wore on and sapped at our spirits - leaving the Peak District involved a tiring and undulating path, and as soon as we were out of it the monotony of endless fields took over. Our lunchtime town, Rochester (again, pronounced like 'toaster'), was still some miles away, so we decided to take a short break at Ellastone before finding lunch in Rocester. Ellastone was a bizarre place. We walked past what seemed to be a large abandoned hall of some kind, with many classic cars in various states of repair in the forecourt. As we rounded the hall, an old boy was sat on his steps with jazz music playing from an old radio as he jammed along to the music with a clarinet, just watching the world go by. He kindly offered us both a cup of coffee - which we accepted - and so we sat on his bench and spoke easily of small things. He was Jim Chapman, classic car enthusiast and all-round decent human being. As we chatted, a coal-powered automobile chundered its way through the village, coating everything in its path with a fine layer of soot - whilst it was a cool spectacle I can certainly see why coal isn't used for the majority of transport these days.
Reinvigorated by two pleasant human encounters, and Jim's coffee, we cut through some people's gardens, briefly rejoined our old friend the River Dove, and made it into Rocester which marks both the end of the Limestone and the beginning of the Staffs. Rocester was pretty grim to be honest, the sort of quiet town that only serves lager, reads The Sun, and unanimously votes for Brexit regardless of the actual information on hand. The pubs were poor, tawdry affairs, so Rich and I picked up some fish and chips, ate it in the small town square, and discussed our next moves. We knew the Staffordshire Way was meant to be bad, so we uploaded the route in our phones and planned out the afternoon. To be honest, we could have sat for weeks in that square, surrounded by OS maps and sherpas and we still would have had a torrid afternoon. We found, almost immediately, that the Staffs Way has a truly significant problem - it doesn't really exist. Sure, every gate or stile has a sign with an arrow bearing the Staffordshire double-knot telling you which way to go, but the 'route' itself is impossible to follow. Barbed wire fences, hedges, streams, crops, nettles, brambles, cows, and so on. You name it, it was directly in the way, all the time. It was even more infuriating to make it through the barbed wire and overgrowth only to find that you had indeed been going the right way, yes that was actually the path, and no there is no other way through.
Things got really bad at a shooting range due south of Rocester. We skirted round the edge of the range and suddenly the path was gone, all we could see were nettles and thorns growing over head height, we were stung and scratched bloody as we fought our way through - it seemed as though someone had been this way recently so we fought on but we were completely off the edge of the map here. Rich went first and had to stop several times to employ his trusty roundhouse kick to smash through the vegetation - it took us a solid 15 minutes to make about 100 metres of progress. Then an underpass completely flummoxed us as the path went up and over a road then crossed back underneath in a completely nonsensical matter. After this there were more cows, more barbed wire and more nettles - the going was absurdly slow and the signage on the Way continued to be worse than useless.
The last 4 or 5 miles to our destination, Abbots Bromley, continued in brutal Staffordshire Way fashion as we skirted around the sorry-looking Uttoxeter - at every gate we would see that familiar knotted sign, and every single time it led us directly across near-impassable terrain. By the time we arrived at our Airbnb (the first time we hadn't camped in 5 days), we were absolutely shattered. After a wonderful shower, our host kindly gave us a lift into the town and we mt up with Dylan again for a proper three-course meal in one of the local pubs. Abbots Bromley itself was lovely, as was the pub where I received both ice cream and custard with my dessert for flirting outrageously with the barmaids. A few too many beers later we headed back to hit the hay - today was a stern reminder that I still had hundreds and hundreds of miles to go, and if the paths of the Midlands were anything like the Staffs Way, it was going to be a long hard road to Land's End.
Tomorrow? Rich's final day on the trail!