Day 42, Boningale to Bewdley, 24 miles. 'A Bridge over the River Severn'.
I spent the previous 2 days not walking and instead was whisked away by Becky to a luxury treehouse pod with a hot tub and BBQ, before then sampling the G-force delights of Drayton Manor. It was an excellent break from the trail and I once more felt the now-familiar pang of solitude when we parted ways again - especially as we had no further plans to meet up until I returned from Land's End. In a strange way this was a comfort, I now had one final leg to complete before I could return home in earnest and today was going to put a significant dent into the remaining mileage in 2 distinctly different ways. Firstly it was 24 miles, that's a decent day's walk and above my average for the hike so far. Secondly, my initial aim today would be to strike out and make the Severn as soon as possible, from here I could follow the river all the way down to Bristol and reaching the water would represent a mental milestone, as I would trade in the dull fields and lanes of the West Midlands for lush river trails. So today was a day of 2 parts, the first being a long march to the water, and the second experiencing the river itself.
The closest river town to Boningale was the aptly named, Bridgnorth - no prizes for guessing the etymology - but this was at least 10 miles away. There were a few more rural tracks that eventually led to the river, but I was in no mood to play ball with the footpaths of Shropshire, I had been stung one too many times, and so the morning was nothing more than a brisk and boring walk along roads with no verges and golf courses with even less character. There was one point of interest, a strangely secluded residential community - the entire thing was gated with clear signs passive-aggressively informing you that this was private land - however I had a mind to make Bridgnorth as soon as possible, so I casually ignored the signs and marched right on in. Despite the community being gated, every house also boasted its own crude set of ornate metal-worked gates, clearly privacy was paramount to these people. There was an abandoned church in a little copse which had a genuinely haunting vibe, I tried the door but it was locked, much like everything in this small, strange place.
After around 3 or 4 hours I made it to Bridgnorth, a little tired from maintaining a brisk pace, but ahead of time - there had been a tall-spired church at Worfield with Norman remains on my march, but it was a mile out of the way and up a tall hill so I opted to continue straight through to Bridgnorth which, looking back on things, I regret slightly. Unlike the vast majority of the insipid Staffordshire and Shropshire towns I had been through, Bridgnorth was a breath of fresh air. The Severn cut right through the town and the buildings rose steeply away from the river, eventually rising up to Bridgnorth castle in the north - the castle was devastated so thoroughly by Cromwell's forces in the civil war that the ruined keep leans at an angle 4 times greater than that of Pisa, which is pretty cool. I sat in the sun under the ruined castle, far above the river, ate a small lunch and prepared for what would surely be an excellent 6 days of plodding down the Severn.
It was with some reluctance that I left my comfy bench with a view and descending the castle steps to, for the first time, join the Severn Way - I had heard good things about the trail, but after that Staffs Way I was taking nothing for granted. Initially the path was, like everything else around here, completely overgrown, but after only a couple of miles the vegetation cleared to leave an easy path to follow. With the river to my left I sauntered down the track - the sun was shining, there was an abundance of life all around me, and for the first time in a while the walking came as a joy as opposed to a slight (and self-imposed) chore.
The early afternoon miles slipped away easily and I was soon faced with that age old problem: what to have for lunch? I'd already had a mini lunch up at Bridgnorth castle, but on a 24 mile day its important to keep yourself fed and watered and I found the perfect place, a genuine BBQ smokehouse with local game just on the other side of the river at Hampton Loade. Google maps told me there was a bridge, and there was - but it was securely locked and very clearly not to be used by pedestrians. I shook the lock once just to try my luck, and a huge wasp buzzed angrily at me, shaking itself free from the sun-warmed metal and going into full attack mode, clearly I wasn't crossing here. Well that wouldn't matter because Hampton Loade boasted an old-school manual ferry, the kind you operate with a punt as depicted so well in Lord of the Rings (Buckleberry Ferry, anyone? No? Never mind.). Well these were just the kind of eccentric adventures I had dreamed about when I planned this challenge so many months ago. Punting myself in a raft across the Severn in the sun, cutting a fine, rugged figure as I accelerated through the choppy waters of the UK's longest river seeking out a mysterious smokehouse on the opposite bank, powered only by my own intrepid sense of adventure and longing for char-grilled venison? Sign me up.
I arrived at Hampton Loade to find the remains of what had once been the 'ferry' sunk squarely in the middle of the river. A cursory check of my phone told me the ferry had been permanently closed since 2016 and that it now lay half submerged in the water, as i could plainly see with my own eyes. My dreams of daring the rapids by raft now thwarted, I settled for the Unicorn, a nearby pub that served a static caravan campsite. From the outside it looked pretty grim, but the reviews were good, as was the beer and burger I wolfed down in the now-oppressive afternoon sun. A small dog barked noisily the entire time I was there, but other than that it was an acceptable break.
I soon reached Upper Arley, where a group of people sunning themselves and drinking at the Harbour Inn cheered at my arrival. I was a little confused as I had barely spoken to anyone all day, but it transpired they had cycled here from Bridgnorth on the roads, and had seen me crossing the bridge there and had wondered what I was up to. We chatted amicably for a pleasant 10 minutes before I was on my way again, I've said this before but I'll repeat myself (because who even reads all of these entries anyway) it really does lift your spirits - just a small conversation with other humans when you've been alone for some time leaves you with a genuine spring in your step, and I was pleased to have the extra energy as I closed in on Bewdley.
The river approaching the town was full of rowing teams and people floundering about in kayaks so the final miles evaporated briskly as there were always things to see. That said, by the time I actually arrived in Bewdley I was shattered. 24 miles is a solid day, and I hadn't stopped for much, so I limped over the bridge and made my way to the excellent guesthouse/airbnb I had booked, which I had all to myself. The pubs by the river looked exceptional so I headed straight there to write up my notes for the day and was pleased to find they were as good as they looked. After 2 or 3 beers, with the light beginning to fade, I crossed the Severn for the third and final time that day to head to bed, and look forward to another cracking day of river walking tomorrow. Next stop, Worcester.