Day 45, Tewkesbury to Gloucester, 15 miles. 'Saxon Wonders'.
Fortunately I had planned for a shorter day today - not that it was really my choice - Gloucester just happens to be around 15 miles south of Tewkesbury so it made sense to bring the mileage down but after numerous 20+ mile days in a row, combined with the unnecessarily brutal slog that was yesterday afternoon, I was pleased with the decreased distance today.
I left Tewkesbury later than usual, around 10 am, as I had plenty of hours to play with. I thought I would stop by the famous abbey and check it out - you see I have a real penchant for the Anglo-Saxons. My postgraduate qualification in Anglo-Saxon history may be pretty much useless as a working adult, but surely here as I approached the heartlands of ancient Wessex it could put it to good use, and what better place to start than Tewkesbury Abbey? Well loads actually, because the Abbey wasn't built until 1087, but still I'm a sucker for history and with the Abbey barely a mile from my bed I slowly weaved my way through the distinctly medieval streets of Tewkesbury - and found the Abbey to be completely inundated with a hundred school trips, about twelve weddings and thousands of genuine church goers. It was therefore with a reluctant disappointment that I trudged on by, opting to give the impressively large queues of the Abbey a miss.
It took a few miles of shady lane walking before I reached the Severn again - the early miles of today were entirely unremarkable although noticeably busier than in previous days. I have a tendency to forget the days of the week when I'm out in the wild, so maybe it was simply a sunny Saturday? Either way I was back on the Severn Way, on the right side of the river, and the sun was shining - my only concern was that I would arrive in Gloucester too early to check into my Airbnb for the night - which I suppose is a nice problem to have.
A cursory check of my maps told me that, barely half a mile off the beaten track, I would find Odda's Chapel just up ahead in the tiny hamlet of Deerhurst. Now I'd already been let down this morning, historically speaking, so the chance to see a proper, genuine Anglo-Saxon monument was simply too good to pass up. I hopped off the Way, cut through some surprisingly well maintained fields, and soon found myself in Deerhurst outside St Mary's church. The church was en route to the ancient chapel and seemed to me to be just a regular English church - sure it was very large for the size of the village, but from the outside, at a glance, it seemed relatively unremarkable. Additionally, whilst I'm a passionate history advocate, I don't particularly like churches. Nonetheless, I felt compelled to pull at the obviously locked door of the church to see if it would open.
Much to my surprise the heavy church door was indeed open, and so I stepped inside to what may well be the most amazing historical site I have ever visited. The church was a genuine Anglo-Saxon monument, built way back on the 8th century, long before the Viking invasions that were eventually repelled by Alfred the Great, over 300 long yeas before Harold Godwinson caught one in the eye spelling the end of the Anglo-Saxons. A plethora of signs told of the unbelievable history of this small and forgotten place. It was here that Edmund Ironside and Cnut the Great met to divide the realm after the Danish victory at the Battle of Assandun whereby the northern half of England was granted to the Danes, and Edward the Confessor himself had visited to consecrate the church many years later. Carved animal heads, still with flecks of the original red Anglo-Saxon paint hung on the walls, and the largest Anglo-Saxon baptism font found in the world stood proudly at the entrance to the building. I could not believe that I had not heard of this place before and I wandered the dusty pews of this ancient place in solitude for a long time.
Still mesmerised by St Mary's, I blinked my way back into the strong early afternoon sun and cut through the village to find yet another superbly preserved Anglo-Saxon place of worship barely 500 metres down the road - Odda's Chapel. This had been the very reason for my detour, but in all honesty it couldn't compare to St Mary's. The chapel had been a place of worship since its foundation around 1056 until the 17th century when it was 'lost'. Quite how this happens is anyone's guess, but it was 'found' again in the 20th century as an appendix to a farmhouse, which is how it is seen today. The chapel was not an ostentatious place, but due to its bare boned humility, you could more honestly feel that many thousands of people had been visiting this place for many hundreds of years for a special purpose. There was very little to see inside, but it was still a fascinating monument to our shared history.
I soon jumped back on the trail and realised, much to my surprise, that I had spent the better part of 2 hours in the thrall of long-dead Saxons. Still, time was no issue today and the remaining miles down to Gloucester flew by without too much incident. I did have to cross through a field made almost entirely of cows - very curious cows too, by the time I reached the gate at the other side at least 50 of the huge bovine idiots were slowly but surely picking up speed behind me. I confess I did run the last little bit towards the fence - when it comes to cows I'm not taking any chances.
The fields on the approach to Gloucester seemed to take the same approach to directional signposting as the my previous day on the banks of the Severn: make it up as you go. The below picture perfectly emphasises both the lazy Gloucestershire attitude to signposting, as well as their reluctance to adequately manage their county's walkways.
Perplexing signage aside I arrived into Gloucester in excellent time, let myself into my empty Airbnb courtesy of a useful codebox and treated myself to a ludicrously large KFC delivery. Though there was to be one final twist in today's tale. Having ordered my greasy chicken feast, I sat in my very pink room, unpacked my stuff and took a quick shower. However, once I had dried off I saw a message from my absent hosts saying that some family friends would be arriving shortly to get some of their things from the kitchen, other guests would be arriving too and were staying in the pink room, mine was the blue one round the corner and could I please also let their dog out into the garden. Unfortunately I had already used the towels, water glasses and coffee making facilities in the pink room - my smelly hiking gear was strewn across their floor and I had no idea when they would arrive. Add to this that I was still undressed and that a stranger with a bag full of chicken would be arriving any minute to a house that was not mine and it was time to have a proper mild panic.
In the end it was fine and I was able to devour my KFC in private having just about cleaned up my mess and received my meal before the other guests arrived. I sat and planned out my next 2 days - I would be meeting friends in Bristol in 48 hours time, and between me and them lay over 50 miles, it was going to be a proper challenge to get there in one piece.