Day 41, Penkridge to Boningale, 16 miles, 'Strawberry Fields Forever'.
For the first time in well over a week, I woke up alone. Despite feeling a little melancholic upon Richard's departure last night, I was actually looking forward to tackling the trail in a solo fashion once again. Not to say that Annie and Richard weren't exemplary hiking buddies - they were - but there's something about being on your own in the wild (I mean, not that wild, it's only Staffordshire after all) that simply can't be beaten.
Upon leaving Penkridge I nipped into the local Sainsbury's to restock, heading initially north through the town, and followed a easy going, if dull, path back round to the south. The early stages of today consisted of small farm roads with sight-obscuring hedgerows, and not a great deal else - but the miles were easy enough. Soon the farmer's fields gave way to a more rugged, overgrown route - several times I was forced through head-high nettle patches and over surprisingly boggy ground considering the lack of rain recently, but overall I was content enough with the morning.
After the farmer's fields and dense greenery came a long stretch of strawberry fields...forever. Seriously, they went on for miles and miles - I actually left the path through the domed strawberry huts due to sheer monotony, but ran into a herd of rather curious cows. I tried to hop the wire fence and realised the hard way that it was, in fact, electrocuted, so back to the strawberries I went.
I soon jumped onto the Shropshire Union Canal Main Line (oh yeah, I'm in Shropshire now, do try to keep up), a wonderfully dilapidated length of canal that was being overgrown on all sides by dense forest - it made for quite an atmospheric section. The water lay black and undisturbed to my right as huge trees loomed over the water blocking out much of the light and noise from elsewhere. Fish would occasionally leap from the canal to snatch at the clouds of midges that hung heavy in the air and the people were few and far between as I plodded southbound down the old canal.
The canal saw me almost right the way through to my destination, but I still had a few fields to scamper through before joining B-roads for the last 3 or 4 miles. These fields, unfortunately, were reminiscent of the Staffs Way, completely overgrown and with no discernible signage at all. I'm not exactly sure when I had left the Way behind, but I assumed since I was now in Shropshire I could sleep easily at night, knowing I would never have to set foot on that trail again. Then again, the Shropshire paths were just as bad, so the Way was with me in spirit at least (and indeed, at most).
Once I had hacked through the stubborn fields of the West Midlands, 4 long road miles lay between me and my Airbnb at Boningale - but these passed by without event and I was soon safe and sound lying in a large bed watching Leyton Orient lose 0-1 to AFC Fylde in the FA Trophy final - oh well, still Champions!
My hostess said that i was the second end-to-ender she had hosted this year, and to my amazement the other had been Marcel - the tall Belgian who had given me a Tunnock's caramel wafer bar in a hailstorm atop a freezing hill on the Pennine Way! I was surprised as my route was a slightly unusual one through this section of the country, but I found it strangely comforting to know that Marcel had been here before me, I wondered how far he had made it on his journey.
That was it for today, after all the recent excitement of finishing the Pennine Way, smashing through the Peak District and struggling through Staffordshire, today was very much a filler day, an easy and largely uneventful 16 miles, but one that was very much needed. I remembered, almost too late, that it was a Sunday and headed to the local, The Horns of Boningale, for an excellent 3 course meal (I had only intended to have 1 or 2, but they all looked so good). Tomorrow i would be meeting Becky for a surprise, I would be taking a full 2 rest days to recuperate and catch up with my better half, and I couldn't be happier with the prospect.