Day 40, Abbots Bromley to Penkridge, 18 miles, Tales of Richard VI: 'Poor Rich limps home'.
It's fair to say that neither of us were really relishing another day of getting beaten about by the Staffordshire Way - yesterday had been an absolute ordeal - and today would be another solid 18 miles on the Midlands' (and surely the world's) worst kept trail.
The first 2 miles were simple enough, just a short march back down into Abbot's Bromley but then it all got a little murky. We decided to ignore what the actual Staffs Way markers claimed and took matters into our own hands, but we inevitably became slightly lost and had to hop barbed wire fences and skirt around sheep for most of the morning. We completely lost the path by a long road that cut through a reservoir, took to the road and had a short conversation with a discernibly creepy middle aged man, and decided to seek out the Trent and Mersey canal which added a couple of miles to the day as it wound around in a north-westerly direction, but were both more than happy to not be slogging through the overgrown fields for a time.
The canal was a breath of fresh air and unlike some previous canals on this trip, was teeming with life. Canal boats slowly chugged up and down the waterway, whilst swans and ducks frolicked in the water. It was a cooler day today as well and whilst we were a little aggrieved to be heading away from our eventual destination, the miles slipped by easily. We soon saw a huge manor house in the distance, Shugborough Hall, and left the canal where the path skewed off towards the old estate - but not before we met an enterprising old fellow selling homemade fudge from his canal boat. We mused over the wide range of flavours on offer, then opted for the chocolate orange and the rhubarb and custard.
Bartering done, we carried onto the hall with the hopes of a pot of tea and some cake in the inevitable cafe - however the charge just to get into the hall was astronomical - and it didn't even look like that good a hall to be honest. We chose not to be extorted and carried on in search of a picnic table for an early luncheon, which we soon found and sat down to plan our afternoon.
We left the rather boring edges of the hall estate, hiked up an A-road for a mile or so, and entered Cannock Chase, one of the very few Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty in Staffordshire.
Odd signage aside, Cannock Chase was lovely, reminiscent of Epping Forest where I grew up. Swift streams created picturesque natural borders around which the silver birches of the Chase happy grew and danced in the afternoon breeze. We were heading back in the appropriate direction, going south west once more, and the miles through Cannock Chase were happy ones, as both Rich and I were more than content to simply amble along the wooded path, taking in the sights and sounds of the forest.
We left Cannock Chase behind and rejoined, with much dismay, the Staffordshire Way, which actually behaved itself much better than it had done yesterday, mainly because it ran directly through a number of small villages and so had to keep a relatively straight line, all of them desperately competing for the coveted 'Best Kept Village in Staffordshire 2019' award. If you ask me, the villages of Staffordshire should be violently encouraged to take better care of their paths as opposed to ensuring that their verges have the correct ratio of wildflowers to discarded fag packets, but that's just me. One village in particular, Bednall, was creepy beyond all imagining. Laminated flyers attesting to the resolve of the village to win the award for a second year running were plastered on every available surface and looming large in the front gardens of the residents? Dolls. Tons of creepy, homemade, often life-size dolls with bulbous eyes that followed you no matter where you stood in relation to the figures. One house even boasted a 6 foot mermaid with a barbie doll head crudely glued to the top and a shock of green hair. We looked once at each other, quietly shook our heads in disbelief and got the hell out of there as quickly as we could (I mean, Rich only does one speed, but what can you do).
From here it was back through fields and small forested areas, though thankfully without any barbed wire, bovine obstacles or horror film dolls in our way this time, some of the trail was even enjoyable - something I hadn't thought possible for the Staffs Way.
On the approach to Penkridge we hopped onto our second canal of the day, the Staffordshire & Worcestershire canal. These miles were painfully slow - as is often the way when you near the end of a day, you feel every step three times as much and whilst it was nice and direct the concrete was hard on tired feet. We booked a table at the local curry house as we drew closer to the town itself, and were dismayed (but wholly un-surprised) to find that my hotel for the night was on the complete other side of the town, furthermore it was decidedly average.
This minor disappointment aside, we took to town for the evening. Richard had taken on a full 6 days' hiking, and had managed it comfortably - so we ate and drank (well, I drank) heartily to celebrate the end of Richard's time on the trail. We returned to the hotel where Richard's brother came to give him a lift back and I was left alone once more. Ever since I had met Annie at Horton-in-Ribbesdale a full 10 days ago I had been in the company of other humans, and now it was back to tackling the path in solitude - I wasn't quite sure how to feel. Still, tomorrow was a blessedly short 16 miles and then a full rest day where Becky was coming to meet me, so I wouldn't be alone for long.
Thanks for coming Rich!