Day 46, Gloucester to Berkeley, 25 miles. 'The Best Pub Ever.'
What a strange day. Knowing I had around one marathon to cover today, I was up early and enjoyed a simple but hearty breakfast courtesy of my absent Airbnb hosts who had left a plethora of tasty treats in the fridge for guests to use. I met the other guest from the pink room I had nearly ruined the night before and it turned out he lived on the Isle of Dogs, a mere 15 minute train ride away from my own dwelling - small world.
The day began by taking in the sights of Gloucester as I worked my way across the city to the start of the Gloucester and Sharpness canal - maybe it was the overcast skies and light morning drizzle but Gloucester is a gloomy place indeed. So far the Severn towns and cities had all been lovely in their own way but aside from the very impressive cathedral, Gloucester just didn't do it for me. Interestingly the bones of King Edward II are kept at Gloucester, one of the few medieval kings to not receive burial honours at a more mainstream cathedral such as Westminster or Winchester, mainly due to his lacklustre performance during his time as monarch. As I turned onto the canal I noticed 2 things, firstly the rain was slowly but surely increasing in potency, and secondly there was a fishing event on which meant that every 30 or so yards along the canal sat a moist and grumpy fisherman - it was an odd sight, seeing old men perched on the edge of the canal barely moving for fear of scaring the Gloucestershire fish away.
The canal went on, and on, and on. Looking at my maps I knew I had around 18 miles to plod along the waterway before eventually turning off and whilst these were easy going miles (aside from the occasional deluge), it was incredibly boring after a while. Still, compared to the Staffordshire Way or being on the wrong side of the Severn I knew better than to complain about dull mileage. As the day wore on the canal became increasingly more rural with strange signs and advertisements littering the benches and posts that I passed. One such sign proclaimed the 'Annual Elver Eating World Championship' (an elver is a baby eel), a competition so disgusting in nature that I simply had to get a photo.
Regrettably I had just missed the event, but at least now I know what my plans are for May 2020. I soon approached Frampton on Severn around lunchtime and called ahead to see if the pub had any availability - sadly I had not realised this was the May bank holiday weekend and as a result the pub was full. I checked my maps and found a highly rated cafe, Mrs Massey's, just a mile or so away, however finding the cafe was incredibly challenging, as it was tucked away in the middle of an odd industrial estate. Once I arrived, however, I could not have found a better place. Mrs Massey herself happened to live in Berkeley, my destination for the evening and we ended up chatting about my walk and the places I had seen so far. The steak baguette I ordered was delicious and at the end the staff not only said my meal was on the house, but Mrs Massey also very kindly thrust a crisp £20 note into my hand to go towards my fundraising - it was an unexpected act of generosity that left me quite touched. If you ever find yourself in Frampton on Severn (unlikely I know), I cannot recommend Mrs Massey's highly enough, although sadly there were no elvers on the menu.
After Mrs Massey's, the remaining canal miles seemed a lot less dull and buoyed by pleasant human interaction the miles melted away as the clouds began to break and the sun started to weakly shine through the early afternoon hours. A man in a barge on the canal shouted over to me as I walked, asking if I was walking the end to end, I yelled back affirmatively and he cheered me and tooted his barge's horn - I was beginning to warm to this part of the country. I met a man with 2 dogs who also donated to my page after a brief chat and I once more departed from a random conversation with a spring in my step.
The canal terminates at Sharpness, but I would be turning off when I reached the penultimate lock at Purton, eventually the lock swung slowly into view as the canal weaved its way to its end and I was thrilled to be leaving the walkway. It had been easy and quick in terms of distance covered, but 18 miles on the same, largely straight, piece of path is enough for anyone I should think.
I had thought Berkeley to be just around the corner, whereas in reality I had a solid 7 miles of road walking left to go, the tarmac was heavy underfoot and the additions of traffic and blind corners were both unwelcome. Still, when I finally arrived into Berkeley it was all worthwhile. See, no other end-to-end walker's account I had read mentioned Berkeley - they all preferred to strike out for the Cotswolds and go from there, missing out Gloucester, Berkeley and Bristol altogether. Whilst the Cotswolds are lovely, they meander around in a way that makes for a pleasant afternoon's stroll, but are terribly inconvenient if you actually want to make up the miles, so I had opted to give them a miss - this turned out to be a great call as Berkeley was a fascinating place. Firstly, it was the birthplace and residence of Edward Jenner, father of causing autism, I mean vaccines (note: vaccines do not cause autism).
Secondly, the castle at Berkeley had been owned and lived in by the same Berkeley family since the 12th century, and had also served as the site for the grim imprisonment and eventual murder of Edward II, the very same king whose remains had been entombed at Gloucester cathedral. You may remember from your school history days that a medieval English king was killed with a red hot poker up the bottom? Well that happened right here in 1327 (I mean, it probably never happened at all and was added into the folklore later on, possibly due to Edward's likely tendency to prefer men, a stance not looked on too kindly in 14th century England, but still it's an interesting historical footnote). Whatever the reality King Edward had been imprisoned and killed here many hundreds of years ago, and for such a small town to boast 2 important historical events was genuinely impressive, but the best was still to come.
Having checked into my lodgings for the night and seen the main sights of the town, it was time to sample the pubs and one, The Boar's head, had by far the best reviews for the town. However, upon arrival things seemed off. Numerous laminated signs outside the front door proclaimed that the pub was neither responsible for, nor advocated the use of drugs on site - never a great sign for a pub. However, I often place my faith in reviews when I don't have any direct knowledge of the area myself and so I shuffled in hoping for the best. Turns out the Boar might just be the worst pub I've ever been in. No real beer, a cracked and shaky projector had a local rugby match on that no one was watching, and all the clientele were continuously nipping to the loos every 5 minutes and sniffing a lot on their return. 50 scrawny men gathered loudly around the pool table jostling for position and bobbing along to the music which played at a volume sufficient enough to make one's teeth bleed. All in all I was not impressed and left half of my disappointingly flat lager behind. Still with several hours before bedtime I once more consulted my phone, this time opting to find a proper pub, and I found one about 1 mile away in a small village called Ham - The Salutation Inn.
The CAMRA beer guide advised that the Sal had won the coveted best pub in Britain award numerous times in recent years, and had been voted the best pub in the southwest on and off for the last 10 years - I was impressed. Upon arrival it seemed clear that a birthday event was happening as around 40 people milled about with clear familiarity. The beers were all largely brewed on site and the Tilley's IPA was easily the best pint I had had on the entire walk to date, I found a bar-adjacent seat and settled in for a pleasant evening's drinking.
As I sat alone, drinking and writing up these notes for the day, a red-faced 40-something year old man shuffled across and noticed I was clearly not part of the party. It turns out the celebration was for this man's birthday and he dragged me off my feet, insisted I have as much of the buffet food in the side room as I wanted (which I did) and introduced me to the group at large. Friendly strangers asked for stories of my travels and I gladly indulged them and as time went on more and more beers were bought for me and more and more cash thrust into my hands for my fundraising. A friendly bearded man introduced me to peter, the landlord of this unparalleled establishment and we eventually chatted and drunk our way into the wee hours as he insisted I try every beer on the extensive menu, free of charge of course.. Never have I ever felt so welcomed by a group of complete strangers. I felt like one of the gang, part of the group, and everyone made sure to say goodbye upon leaving, remembering my name and wishing me luck for the rest of my journey. Photos were taken and details exchanged and, as I left the Sal around 2am, I could not recall enjoying a pub more than this. Simply put, the Salutation Inn in Ham is the best pub I have ever been to, and I could see clearly why the officials had deemed it to be the best pub in the UK. As I weaved my way back to my Airbnb for the night, definitely and resolutely drunk, I felt reinvigorated and empowered - but also blindly unaware that 26 miles tomorrow were going to be absolutely brutal with the inevitable hangover looming.