Day 21 – Scunthorpe to Alkborough, the end

Miles walked: 8.5

Weather: Rain, rain, rain until lunchtime. Then just clouds.

A journey like this is an odd thing. In a sense, you have a goal that you’re heading towards – the end of the river. But it’s not like you want to reach it. If what we wanted was to go to Trent Falls, we could have just got a bus there. What we wanted was to walk the river.

We’ve spent three weeks heading for Trent Falls, so there’s a sense of excitement at nearing our goal. But now it’s like the last day of your holiday. We’ve loved this adventure, we don’t want it to end. We feel conflicted.

I woke up early and Trent Falls immediately popped into my head. I knew I couldn’t get back to sleep, so I carefully slithered out to avoid waking Ross. Downstairs Sadie was fixing the kids’ breakfasts and they were all getting ready for school. In the rhythms of family life, it felt like a companionable little haven. I cranked up the laptop and tried to catch up with blogging.

Sadie and Rob got in touch with us through couch-surfer, where we’d posted a plea for hosts along our route. They’ve been following our progress all the way and been lovely and supportive. It was great to be somewhere people got what we were about and what we’re doing. It felt like they were part of it. But it did mean that every time I started a funny story, I’d suddenly realise half-way through that I’d put it on the blog and they’d probably read it. Normally people don’t have to know how recycled your funny lines are.

Rob was going to come and walk this last day’s stretch with us. Looking at the incessant rain, I felt kind of guilty we were dragging him out on what was clearly not going to be our best day’s walking.

We were also about to walk off the edge of our OS map – I was too stingy to buy the last one, cos it covered so little of the route. ‘How hard can it be to follow the river when it’s this big?’, I’d thought, from the comfort of home. Now I worried we were going to inflict our vagueness and ineptitude on a kind and blameless host. Ross says I worry too much about things. I call it consideration. After all, he thinks it’s OK to leave the toilet seat up in other people’s houses…

We agreed we’d set off walking at 10am from this side of Keadby Bridge, where Sadie had picked us up yesterday. It’s about 15 mins away by car, but Rob’s been reading our blog, he suggested we set off at 9.30am. Obviously we were ready about 9.45am, so we reached the  car park by the bridge just in time.

A guy called Terry, who I knew from twitter, kindly came to meet us there and explained the best route to take. Terry’s a keen canoeist and environmentalist. He’s canoed the length of the Thames, the Severn and the Trent – the three largest rivers in Britain – and lives near the bank of the Trent just north of Scunthorpe. He canoes on the Trent as much as he can, picking up any litter he finds on his way. He told us he’s 61, but I’d have guessed 50. Keeping active and doing what you love is obviously good for you.

Ross and Rob's backs, walking along a road in the rain.

Walking in the rain

Armed with Terry’s directions and the last mile or so of Ordnance Survey map, we set off into the rain. There’s wharves along the east side of the river here, so we were walking a bit inland, along the road instead. Fast, but cheerless.

After a bit, the road bent back to the bank, and suddenly we found ourselves just a few yards from the river. We realised with a start that it was days since we’d been this close to the water. Since Holme on day 17, we’ve mainly been walking on flood defence embankments or roads, both set a little back from the Trent. Here the embankment was much lower than it’s been for days. We wondered what happens when the river’s in flood. But maybe, it being so wide here, it takes a shitload of water to raise the river even a foot or two.

A large, industrial-looking boating loading from a small nearby wharf. You can't really tell in the picture, but it looked like coal to us. The picture's taken from a few feet from the edge of the water, maybe 100 yards downriver from the boat. It's grey and raining.

Picture shows a wide river, low levee to the side (maybe only 2 or 3 feet high). In the distance some industrial looking buildings. It's grey and raining.

We got as far as Flixborough Wharf, but ‘No entry without full safety equipment’ signs persuaded us to detour round that. 28 people were killed here in 1974 when a chemical plant exploded, safety-consciousness seemed pretty reasonable. The Flixborough explosion was something the audience yesterday at Scunthorpe Arts Centre talked about, obviously a significant event in local memory.

It happened on a Saturday when the plant was lightly staffed – if it had been a weekday, hundreds would have been killed.

Two months prior to the explosion, a crack was discovered in the number 5 reactor. It was decided to install a temporary 50 cm (20 inch) diameter pipe to bypass the leaking reactor to allow continued operation of the plant while repairs were made.

Wikipedia, Flixborough Disaster

The temporary pipe ruptured. One woman said her aunt was a nurse at the time, and she remembers the bodies lying outside A&E, because there wasn’t enough room to deal with all the injured. Another woman remembers how everyone in Scunthorpe heard the explosion, but they weren’t sure if it was one of the steelworks or if it was the chemical plant. So many people had friends or relatives who worked at one or the other, they all headed out to try to find out what had happened. People were also all out for a Gala that day. The roads were chaos and the emergency services could only get to the site by screaming down the hard shoulder. She was just a kid, but remembers it vividly.

The wikipedia page makes sad reading, for the lack of safety-testing and expertise that lead to the explosion, and for the cover-up afterwards. 1,800 buildings within a mile of the site were damaged in the explosion. The 18 employees in the control room were killed instantly. The plant was rebuilt, in the teeth of local objections, but it closed down a few years later anyway. The price of nylon had dropped, so it didn’t make money any more.

We skirted the site, but then cut through yet another industrial estate, heading for a footpath disappearing tantalisingly off the edge of our map. It amuses me greatly the way industrial estates usually have numbered roads, that sound (pace New York), incongruously glamorous.

A bent and battered looking roadsign reading 'First Avenue'. There's a heavy-duty fence behind it and it's obviously an industrial estate.

We wandered, unglamorously, round the industrial estate, having to backtrack a bit due to my mistaken map-reading, until we found our way out the other side. I felt guilty some more for us dragging patient Rob on our rainy perambulations. Once we were on the footpath we nominally sheltered under a railway bridge and ate a sandwich. No time for cups of tea today. We headed up the hill, past Burton Woods in the rain, and eventually found ourselves in Burton upon Stather. Another pretty but real little place we’d never have had occasion to visit if we weren’t following a river from one end to the other.

After some google mapping and guesswork, we headed through the churchyard and took a footpath that seemed to head along the ridge-top. Until google maps realises that you can walk along footpaths – or even seems to know they exist – it’s a complete joke them pretending to have walking directions. No, I’m not making a 5 mile detour along roads when there’s a footpath taking me exactly where I want to go. The footpath has been there for probably hundreds of years longer than the road, how come you don’t know about it? Call yourself a map?

It stopped raining about now, and we strode through the dripping woods, feeling like Robin Hood (well, I was, anyway) and rescinding our cynicism about the Met Office’s predictions. Terry, the canoe man, had driven up to Alkborough and walked back along the cliff top to meet us. He walked with us the last stretch.

Not long after we met Terry came a gap in the trees, and suddenly we could see Trent Falls ahead of us. It’s not a waterfall or anything, so I don’t really know why it’s called that. It’s just where the Trent joins the Ouse and forms the Humber Estuary. There isn’t actually a River Humber per se. No, I didn’t realise that either, before I started researching this. Bit of a swizz, eh? The Trent and the Ouse do all the hard work, and then the so-called Humber steals all the glory…

Big sky, and a huge, curving river in the distance

Pretty much same as above, slightly closer

I’m not sure I can put into words how I felt. But obviously I’m going to give it a shot.

There was a real joy and a sense of excitement that the end was in sight. Being the closet romantic that I am, it felt mythical, like we were in an epic poem, or Lord of the Rings. Until now, we’d been just doing stuff, and however fun it was, it was just mundane, familiar stuff. Mainly, it must be said, walking and drinking tea. Suddenly I felt the urge to call up the elves, cast a spell, toss my raven-black hair* in the wind. I wanted an enchanted sword, and to start declaiming in cod-Olde English, ‘Stout companions, the end of our quest draws near and we fain must soon part ways!’

I probably read too many fantasy novels as a teenager.

We couldn’t quite believe we’d nearly done it. And we felt obscurely proud of the River Trent – our stout companion and trusty guide, these past few weeks. ‘We knew you when you were just a little trickle, and now, see how you’ve grown!’

Terry told us that just before the confluence, the Trent is about 3/4 of a mile across. In Stoke-on-Trent it’s a stream that wouldn’t come half-way up your wellies most days. At Biddulph Moor it’s little more than a muddy bit of a field. And look at it now.

We finally broke out of the woods and found ourselves by Julian’s Bower, with the confluence and Alkborough Flats wetlands below us.

Me and Ross standing by a turf-cut maze, with the confluence of the rivers behind us in the distance.

We made it, ah!

This was our Plan A venue for the last event, but although it had stopped raining, it still seemed a bit too wet. Plan B was the Paddocks Tea Rooms (run, gloriously, by a woman called Mrs Ogg), so we headed round the corner to there.

Ross holding a cup of tea, outside a modern-looking building with a blue plastic sign that reads 'Paddocks Tea Rooms'. If you look carefully you can see a 'Tales from the River' poster in their window.

Ross’s brother and his girlfriend had very kindly driven two hours down from York to see us do our last event. And Sadie had come to pick Rob up. It felt like a little get together. We ordered tea (of course), and Terry, to add to all his other kindnesses, treated us to bacon and egg butties. With all due respect to Bev Gibbs, I think this was the best bacon butty I’ve ever had.

We then began our last show. Quite a few people had come along to see us – mainly from the local WI and the local history group. But there were also a few people who’d just been in the tea rooms anyway, and some of them felt the need to carry on talking as loudly as possible throughout the show. Even though they were furthest away from us and could easily have talked to each other more quietly. To be fair, I suppose we were interrupting their dinner without asking.

There was also a toilet door just behind me that had a theatrically loud creak, an incredibly loud milk-frothing machine, and an unceasing crashing of crockery from the kitchen area. It was one of those spaces that’s all hard surfaces, with no soft furnishings to absorb sound, so it must always be really loud in there. Ross, sound engineer that he is, has been explaining the acoustic properties of different spaces to me as we’ve gone along.

However, after three weeks of this, having endured interruptions from dogs, dinners, engines, ice-crushing machines, locks, rain and parental offers of pork pie, I am unfazed by such things, and carried on regardless. Ross managed his bit with aplomb – for the last few days he’s been doing a story too, to help break things up a bit, now we don’t have Dad and his songs.

I could see he stumbled slightly over the fact that he was telling a story about him and his brother when they were kids, and that his brother was right there, and not expecting it. But Ross carried on like a trooper. The old ladies loved his story. It’s the twinkly eyes and mass of curly hair that gets them, I reckon.

They all shared their memories of the river afterwards, and said we were welcome in their village any time. High praise indeed!

Part of me wanted brass bands, champagne, the Mayor turning up and handing us bouquets of flowers. But this was appropriately mundane and tea-themed. Part of us still couldn’t believe we’d done it. Even now (I’m writing this five days later, due to, you know, sleep and stuff) it seems incredible.

We set off in Sam’s car up to Ross’s Mum’s house, feeling a mixture of emotions. Happy and contented, but sad it was over. We almost wanted to set off walking straight up the Ouse to York. After all, it was right there! As we drove, Ross and I were hatching plans for our next river…

*It’s brown actually, but if this were a fantasy novel, it would be raven-black. Also my breasts would be bigger. And I sure as hell wouldn’t be wearing baggy beige walking trousers.

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Day 19 – Gainsborough to West Stockwith

Miles walked: 5.5

Weather: Mainly sunny, but cold and windy

One reason we were glad to push on to Gainsborough last night was there was an Aegir predicted for this morning. We’d been thinking that given our laggardliness, we weren’t that likely to get up in time to walk from Marton to Gainsborough in time to see it. But even we could manage to see it if we were on site.

The Aegir is a bore – like a tidal wave coming up the river. It’s named after the Norse god of the sea. The Vikings invaded down the Trent, and a lot of the place names round here reflect that influence. They used to say that the Aegir was when the sea god was angry. And that he would take three lives a year.

A big Aegir can be 5 feet tall, and travels down the river ‘at the speed of a galloping horse’ (thank you again, Mr Fort). It’s caused by a big tide coming in, magnified by the funnel of the Humber Estuary. The Bristol Channel does the same funnelling for the Severn Bore.

I’ve read in lots of places that the Trent and the Severn are the only two rivers in Britain with a bore, but according to wikipedia, there are ones on loads of British rivers. It’s just that the Severn and the Trent ones are the largest and most reliable.

The Trent Aegir varies in size and the Environment Agency has a handy prediction chart on their website. Aegirs vary in size from one to five stars. In the whole of 2012 there were only one or two star bores predicted. Today’s was supposed to be a two star. The EA chart said it should come at 9.52am, but every local we spoke to said it would be an hour earlier than that.

We came down for breakfast at 8am, expecting an Aegir at 8.50ish. Ross finished eating quickly, and went upstairs to pack, planning to come back down for 8.50am. At 8.40am I was just mopping up my egg, when the guesthouse woman shouted, ‘It’s coming!’ from her kitchen. I could hear a sort of rumbling noise. I ran through, and we both leaned over her sink to watch a swell of water travel upriver, sloshing and breaking at the bends. Locals 1, Environment Agency 0.

It was maybe a couple of feet high. Two things surprised me about it. One was that the front looked more like a swell, a rise in the water. It didn’t break like a wave. The other was that the water behind the front, while not quite as high as the wavefront, was much higher than the water ahead of it. It wasn’t like a wave travelling along the river, it was like a higher step of river barrelling upstream.

You could see how you wouldn’t want to be out in a canoe on it.

Ross was disappointed to miss it. I tried to reassure him it hadn’t been that impressive. We finished packing and frantically googled for places to stay in West Stockwith (where we were due to perform at 3pm), or a few miles further on from it. We discovered that the Waterfront Inn, where we were due to perform that afternoon, did B+B. We phoned and they said they had been doing up a new room and it might be ready in time. ‘We’re hanging the curtains now’. We felt like the Queen.

West Stockwith is only 5.5miles on from Gainsborough, so we had plenty of time. Of course this meant we could go for a cup of tea. We headed into Gainsborough, where Reeds Coffee Shop had offered to host an event. Sadly we’d already arranged West Stockwith when we heard from then, but I’d said we’d pop in on the way and do something little if there were people around.

There were no customers in the coffee shop when we arrived, but they gave us a lovely (free!) pot of tea anyway. The sun was shining (despite the cold wind) and they were so nice in the coffee shop, that we warmed to Gainsborough a lot. A few people came in and we eavesdropped on their chats about the Aegir. Mainly they discussed how the predictions this year are totally off, when last year’s were really good. ‘I bet they’ve got a new man doing it’, was the diagnosis.

Heavy rain was predicted for the next couple of days, and Ross had left his waterproof at Mum and Dad’s. We headed further into town to look for a charity shop. Gainsborough Market Square was a lot nicer than our wanderings last night had suggested. Although there were still a lot of dead pubs and derelict buildings. Several people we spoke to later said, ‘You should have seen it ten years ago – it’s so much better than it was.’

I found an amazing fringed cardigan in one shop, which I decided was appropriately storytellery, and light enough I could bear the extra weight of carrying it. I have a bit of a charity shop addiction. Ross found a semi-waterproof jacket, with bright yellow arms (‘I look like I’m disguised as a wasp!’), and we had a nice chat with the staff about the Trent and the Aegir.

We set off to see Gainsborough Old Hall, pausing outside the shop to argue about the best way to get there. The woman from the charity shop saw us looking at the map and came out to help. She walked round the corner to show us the way and point out other sights of interest. People in Gainsborough were really so nice. Occasioning, of course, more smugness about the North from Ross.

Gainsborough Old Hall was a striking timber-framed Medieval manor house. We decided this was the perfect setting for Ross to play Greensleeves on his ukelele. There’s a little video of him doing that below.

We set off, eventually, for West Stockwith, and strode along in the sunshine. We arrived at the Waterfront Inn at 2.30 and they immediately made us a lovely cup of tea. It’s set looking out over a marina and feels like the seaside. We loved West Stockwith.

Karen and Stu, the couple who ran the pub, were so kind and welcoming. From the first moment we arrived, locals were coming in for a quick pint to catch up and have a chat with them. They were all interested in what we were doing and happy to tell us stuff about the history of the place and the life of the river in times gone by.

Ross immediately declared West Stockwith his favourite place we’d visited. Of course we later discovered it’s actually in South Yorkshire – the only place we’d been that was in Yorkshire. He’s such a Yorkshire snob.

It turned out that when we set up the performance time, they’d thought we would be going on somewhere else later that evening. In fact they’d have preferred us to do it later when more people were around. I can’t properly remember the conversation we had when setting it up, it was a shame we hadn’t all realised this then and could have scheduled things differently. We discussed it with them and agreed to do it later on when more people were around, but of course there wasn’t a chance to let lots of people know.

We chilled out and wandered around, exclaiming at how nice West Stockwith was in the sunshine. About 7pm we started the show, to, admittedly, a small audience. One couple in particular though were really supportive and interested. They came to talk to us afterwards, and bought us drinks, and they were utterly lovely.

She used to be a local news journalist, we talked about how your balance your responsibility to journalism with your responsibility to your humanity. He was born in a Leeds terrace, but joined the army at 18, became an engineer, and did well for himself.

They’re both retired now, and clearly still totally in love. She’d grown up in Lancashire, but moved this side of the pennines to be with him. They bickered about who’d swept who off their feet. They have a pet blackbird who they rescued as a fledgling from the neighbour’s cat. ‘People think I’m eccentric, but I don’t care at all.’

Once again I thought what a joy it’s been to meet some of the people we’ve met doing this. It’s really been all about the people.

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Day 14 – Gunthorpe Village Hall

No walking today, just errands and a show in the evening. As we’ve spent all our money (mainly on tea I think, boringly), I had to go into Nottingham and try to take money out of my online savings account. Unfortunately, as it’s a savings account that I very rarely interact with, I had to do this armed only with the cashcard and a smile. I didn’t know the PIN number, customer number, or basically any of the security information.

I had this conversation with the branch manager that mainly involved him suggesting solutions which I then had to stymie with further evidence of my rubbishness. I ended up telling him about Tales from the River, to explain why it was no good him sending me out a new PIN to the address they have for me, why all my paperwork was in storage 300 miles away and why I kind of urgently needed the money. God knows what he wrote on the form, ‘Customer is engaged on improbable long-distance trek.’

But he authorised an emergency transfer, bless ‘im, and the teller, Leah, who did all the paperwork and sorted me out couldn’t have been nicer or more helpful. I worked in a shop years ago and I know customers mostly only complain and never praise all the good service they receive. So I’d like to say, hurrah for Nationwide Building Society Nottingham branch!

That evening’s show at Gunthorpe Village Hall was great. I’m proud to say that we were the first people to perform on their new stage. It’s only a little platform about 18 inches tall, but still.

About 20 people came to see us, and several of them weren’t even our relatives. There was one contrary man, who seemed to want to interrupt and criticise all the time, and show how much he knew, but who then refused to engage in the storysharing bit. I found that quite odd. I mean, here’s a part of the event deliberately designed to give everyone a chance to say things, but you don’t want to say things in it. However, you do want to say things when other people are talking on stage.

When he first arrived we were putting out chairs. He made a beeline for me, and pulled out a photo. It showed him standing with a foot each side of a small stream. I said, ‘Is that near the start of the Trent?’ He said, ‘You reckon you’ve been there. Don’t you know?!’

Perhaps this is a failing on my part, but one small stream looks much like another to me. I didn’t stand at Biddulph Moor memorising each tussock of grass, in case someone set me a photo-based stream-identification puzzle later…

He told us, before the show, that he lived on the Trent, a few miles beyond Gunthorpe, and that we should pop in for a cup of tea in the morning, when we were heading towards Newark. I don’t think he enjoyed the show though, cos the next morning he phoned me, basically to dis-invite us. He described exactly where his house was, then said, ‘We’ll look out for you and wave at you as you walk past.’ It was most odd.

In the part of the event where people got chatting about their stories, he and his wife sat stony-faced, not talking to anyone. I set my brother on the old guy,  circled round the other side and sat down next to his wife. I smiled and said, ‘What Trent stories can you tell me?’ She looked nervous and said, ‘Oh, I don’t have any stories.’ and fell silent again. I asked what her earliest memory of the Trent was, and she started telling me about the pleasure boats, when she was a girl, before the war.

The boats went from Victoria Embankment in Nottingham, to Colwick (about 3 miles away), where there used to be an artificial ‘pleasure beach’. They’d go on a Sunday and eat ice creams and build sandcastles. It was like a trip to the seaside, for people who couldn’t make it to the seaside. They’d loved going to Colwick.

I’d had no idea about this. I was fascinated. But then the husband turned round and started telling me statistics about locks on the Trent and she went quiet again. It’s funny, the things you learn doing this walk.

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Day 12 – Nottingham to Gunthorpe

Miles walked: about 11
Weather: lots of rain, but not too heavy, and the sun came out on the last stretch.

Laurel and Leigh gave us an excellent breakfast of porridge – nothing better to set you up for walking, IMHO. And let us each have a go in their massage chair, bless them. We didn’t want to leave really. But eventually we tore ourselves away from their hospitality and set off during a break in the rain.

The Trent Valley Way follows the south side of the river for the next stretch, but we decided to take the north side, so we could visit my brother in Burton Joyce on the way. It had to be either/or, because there are no bridges across the Trent between Lady Bay Bridge in Nottingham and Gunthorpe Bridge about 10 miles east.

There are footpaths most of the way on the north side, but it did mean we had to walk through a couple of industrial estates near the start. ‘Tirra lirra by the river’ this ain’t. But that’s one of the things I like about it – we aren’t doing an edited highlights tour of the pretty bits, we’re walking the whole river. Sewage works, factories and all.

Between two industrial estates we had the brief joy of Colwick Park. There we found a ruined church, filled with trees.

A ruined church, showing walls, an archway, and the window space at the far end. Youngish trees are growing inside it's walls.

A ruined church, filled with trees

As we were going through Colwick Industrial Estate a man shouted over to us, and you can hear what happened next in the audio clip at the bottom.

We made good time, apart from all our tea and food stops. We were trying to make it to Nathan’s house, and should have been there by three, but it was raining and we were starving, so we stopped for a baked potato at the Ferry Boat near Stoke Bardolph.

We sheltered from the rain under a railway bridge.


Good baked potato and ample salad with it, 8/10. We dived on it like starving people, so we forgot to take a photo (I know you are desperate for photos of our every meal and cup of tea…).

So, of course, by the time we got to Nathan’s he’d gone out. Inconsiderate sibling. We were forced to have a pint in the Lord Nelson and wait. Not bad, but not as good as the Burton Bridge beer.

Happily, by the time we’d had a pint with Nathy and regaled him with our tales, it had stopped raining and the sun had come out. So we walked a happy last couple of miles, picking blackberries and singing as we went.

It’s cool to think we’ve now done 110miles, but sad to think it’ll soon all be over. We want to walk more rivers!

Gunthorpe is where my parents now live, and I know the river well here. Local legend has it that Dick Turpin used to cross the river near here, at a ford, to avoid the authorities who’d watch the main bridges. But I expect half the villages on this part of the Trent say that.

There’s been a river crossing near here for thousands of years: the Romans had a substantial town nearby – Margidunum, whose site was near Bingham – to service people travelling north and using the river crossing. Sadly they’ve just built a big roundabout pretty much on the site of Margidunum, but to be honest there wasn’t anything to see anyway.

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Day 11 – still in Nottingham

Today was a day off from walking. Woohoo! Much as we like walking (we’d be really stupid to be doing this otherwise, eh?), it’s good to get a chance to rest your legs occasionally. But as we’d got two gigs in Nottingham, we didn’t need to walk anywhere today.

We woke up on the sofa cushions on Matt’s sitting room floor, being snuffled by a friendly dog. After a fortifying cup of tea, we set off into town on the 28 bus. We marvelled at the efficiency and value of Nottingham’s bus services, compared to Bristol’s (have I mentioned how much I despise FirstBus?).

We ran round Nottingham doing errands. This is my home town and it was nice to be surrounded by familiar accents. And after a fortnight peering at maps all day long, it was also a joy to be doing errands somewhere you know where everything is.

Paul Reeves from the Environment Agency has been following our progress online, and invited us for a cup of tea, from their cafeteria machine. So, we headed back down to Trent Bridge. Our arrival in walking boots and backpacks amazed one of his colleagues. She’d thought he was joking when he said he was getting a visit from two people who were walking the length of the River Trent.

Paul works on several tributaries of the Trent (the Erewash and the Derwent, among others), improving the quality of the rivers. He advised us to eschew the tea in favour of a latte (which was acceptable) and he told us about his work.

You may have heard of the Water Framework Directive. It’s basically a scoring system for rivers. Rivers get scores in lots of categories (phosphates in the water, fish numbers, etc) and they need to get the right scores in all categories to pass muster. Someone like Paul’s job is to try to get their rivers up to scratch.

It made me feel a bit sad that these days even rivers are set tests and told they’re failing. Although realistically, of course I think we should try to improve rivers and look after them. I just wonder what in the big picture gets missed when you focus on specific, individual targets.

Do you know what weirs are for? It came up in conversation with Paul and I was kind of surprised to realise I had no idea. I asked everyone at the event that night, and they didn’t know either. Listen to the audio below to find out the answer…

Unfortunately weirs stop fish going upstream to spawn. Which means no fish. Which means no otters, herons, anything that lives on fish. One of the things Paul and his colleagues are doing is getting weirs taken out of rivers where possible. Or where that’s not possible, putting in bypasses fish can swim up.

What I find fascinating is the tensions between different ideas of what ‘improving the river’ means. This has come up several times in conversation with professionals working with rivers. For example shopping trolleys are actually really good fish shelters. Taking them out improves the navigation, and the look of the river, but it’s not the best thing to do for the ecosystem…

After saying goodbye to Paul, and arranging to meet up with some of his colleagues down river, we headed up to the University for a gig as part of a conference there. The conference theme was interdisciplinarity and we were there to show a bit of interdisciplinary public engagement in action.

This went brilliantly (imho). You can hear a snippet of it, and us discussing it, in the audio below. We did our show, and then got the delegates swapping their stories about rivers. We really enjoyed it, and James, one of the organisers said it was one of the highlights of the conference. Yay!

We then headed down to Lady Bay to meet Laurel, our hostess for the evening. It turned out that Laurel used to be a science teacher and had heard about the project from a science communication mailing list. I immediately felt at home – among my fellow geeks at last!;-)

It was a great evening – Laurel and her sister were very welcoming and fed us wine, an excellent coq au vin and even cheesecake. Ross then entertained us all on the ukelele while Laurel did her physio exercises. Then, when Laurel’s husband Leigh got home, I told everyone a story.

This was singing for our supper, troubadour-style, just as we’d envisaged it. They even had a super-comfortable bed in the spare room, and sheets that smelt of lavender. And a massage chair!

We felt like this was the day everything went right. I was glad it was in Nottingham, Queen of the Midlands:-)

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Day 10 – Sawley to Nottingham

Miles: About 12

Weather: Cloudy and damp feeling at times, but no actual rain.

After our slightly cheaty night at Mum and Dad’s house, Dad, bless his cotton socks, drove us back to Sawley in the morning. Obviously we had to then stop immediately for a cup of tea at Sawley Marina. The cafe wasn’t open, but the woman told us that they had a fantastic tea-making machine in the shop.

Your tea is now loading…

The shop tea-making machine was absurdly high tech. But I have to say, it did not make a good cup of tea. And it was UHT milk again. If I had my way that stuff would be banned… It did have the benefit of cheapness though. At 65p a cup it was the second cheapest tea we’ve encountered.

We walked on to Trent Lock, where we had a much better (but more expensive) cup of tea. Then on towards Nottingham. We walked through Attenborough Nature Reserve, which was lovely. Had lunch at the brilliant Boathouse Cafe in Beeston Marina. They’ve got loads of old photos of the local area all over the walls. And the fish and chips were only £4. There’s a short audio thingy of that part of the day below.

The kind of history people near rivers remember…

Just after Beeston Marina, a dog-walking couple spotted Ross’s ukelele and said, ‘Are you those people who are walking the River Trent? We read about you in the paper.’ That was bizarre. We felt mildly famous.

Then Ross’s foot started really hurting. He sprained his ankle earlier in the year, and that seemed to flare up again. It got the the point where he could only walk really slowly, and the last mile took us an hour, with Ross hobbling and leaning on my shoulder. We should have got to Nottingham by 4ish, but in fact, we limped into the Trent Bridge Inn at gone 6pm.

We were very glad to see the pub. Even gladder to find they had wifi, ample plug sockets, and a range of excellent ciders on tap. And to cap it all, two pints came to £3.98. What more could one ask for in a pub?

After a bit of admin and a pint, we headed to the City Gallery, for Story Club. There was a small turn out, but as Dad said, ‘You don’t need a big audience, but an appreciative audience is nice.’ Story club were a very attentive audience, and after we’d done our show, we got them telling us their stories to do with rivers.

My favourite was from an interesting guy called Lee. He told us the little snippet that when Gutenberg was showing people his first printing press (made from an adapted wine press), they mocked him. They asked how he planned to change the world with a wine press. Gutenberg replied, ‘Yes, it is a press, certainly, but a press from which shall flow in inexhaustible streams, the most abundant and most marvelous liquor that has ever flowed to relieve the thirst of men!’ I love that metaphor of knowledge as a flow of water.

The day had one extra treat in store – Matt, who runs Story Club, was our host for the night, and when we got back to his house he produced a foot spa. Just what we needed!

Categories: Recordings, The Journey | 3 Comments

Day 9 – Swarkestone Bridge to Sawley

Miles: About 10

Weather: Glorious, 26degC and not a cloud in the sky!

We had an excellent night’s sleep on Bridge Farm’s very comfy bed. Then had an excellent breakfast, with proper (Yorkshire) tea. (Our tea obssession continues unabated). Hallelujah. It was our best cup of tea so far. What better start to the day?

We faffed about putting up blogposts and the like until 10.30am, then set off in the blazing sunshine, enjoying the luxury of the fact that the footpath we needed passed right by Bridge Farm’s door. No trudging a couple of dispiriting miles back to the river for us today. No sirree.

The view of Swarkestone Bridge was impressive, and the Trent was glittering in the sunshine. We tripped along, full of the joys of an Indian Summer (and bacon and eggs). We followed the Trent for a bit, then set off on footpaths across fields to get to the Trent and Mersey canal. You can’t follow the Trent for part of the way here because of all the gravel workings. (Lots of alluvium and gravel round here, mostly dumped by the mega River Trent when it was fed by melting glaciers at the end of the last Ice Age, fact fans.)

So we fair skipped along the canal – you can make good time along canal towpaths. Although we’d pause occasionally to stuff our faces with blackberries. We’re getting half our vitamins from foraging, I swear. It’s one of the great things about doing the walk this time of year. Well, that and the fact that it’s rained all the rest of the summer.

We have been so incredibly lucky with the weather. If we’d done this in August it would really have been grim. As it is, the back of my neck now is the brownest it’s ever been. That’s the bit that’s getting the most sun, so I couldn’t claim to be an even colour, but still…

Anyway, we came to a big lock that had TWO narrowboats going through at once. We thought that was VERY exciting, so we stopped to watch, and Ross wanted to record the sound of it. If you’ve ever wanted to know what two narrowboats going through a lock sound like, then click play below.

Shardlow is a small town, a couple of miles before Sawley, and it’s where the river itself is officially navigable from. We got there about 1pm, in plenty of time to get to Sawley for 3pm, decided to stop for a cup of tea. Of course.

The tea was a 5/10 – real milk, a complimentary chocolate and a fancy teapot, BUT PG Tips teabags (they are always weak) and, horror of horrors, they gave us pots of hot water and teabags separate. Where were we, America? Surely everyone in Britain knows the tea won’t mash right if the water isn’t just boiled when it goes onto the teabag? They had excellent wifi though, and by that and the design of the teapots we deduced we were in a Marstons pub. Yes, we have got to the point where we can spot the pub chain by their tea and their wifi – two things central to our lives on this trip.

Then somehow it was 2.30pm and we were only a few mins on from Shardlow. I think I may have spotted our timekeeping problem. Whenever we look like being in enough time for things, we think, ‘Oh, we’ve got bags of time’ and start faffing about, until the spare time is all gone. So it was a forced-march the rest of the way to Sawley (did I mention how hot it was?), and we panted into the pub, sweating profusely, at 2.52pm. Bags of time, see?

The show went OK.  We did it outside in the beer garden, but that was quite big, and it was windy and not everyone could hear us. I tried to be as loud as I could manage, but it’s hard to storytell at shouting volume – you lose the variation in tone and texture. Also, the sound of the ukelele doesn’t carry that well, it being a small-bodied instrument. So all the little musical jokes we’ve put in were only working for the nearest tables. And to be honest, of those who could hear us, I think only about half were listening.

But a lovely man called John came up to see us afterwards. He’d read about us in the paper, and come from Gedling (about 20 miles away) specially to see us. I was really touched. He said my stories were wonderful, which was very kind of him. And that Dad has a fantastic voice, which is true. He also said I should become a teacher. I’m not sure that’s a good review, but Mum and Dad were both teachers. You obviously can’t escape heredity…*

As we’d failed to find anywhere to stay nearby, Dad drove us the 20 miles to their house. The car journey made Ross a bit carsick – we’ve got out of practice at travelling so fast! But wonder of wonders Mum and Dad have a bath, so now we are properly clean and our aching limbs soothed. And Ross’s laptop is here. So we can both be on the internet at once – yay, togetherness!

It feels kind of strange and cheaty to be at home now and have familiar things everywhere. But we’ll get the train back to Long Eaton in the morning, and carry on walking where we left off. Tomorrow night we should be in Nottingham, where we’re doing two gigs, on subsequent days. Then we walk back here to Gunthorpe again.

It’s kind of depressing that it will take us two days to walk what it’s taken us half an hour in the car to do today. But hey, that’s walking for you. At least we’re not releasing (much) CO2.

*Don’t write in, geneticists, it’s a joke.

P.S. Me and Ross’s feet look disgusting. Do not look at the following pics while eating your dinner.

Ross’s blister complex is escaping out of the sides of his mass of compeed.

The great weeping sore on my heel, covered by compeed, which is then held on by zinc oxide tape. Compeed is the wonder substance. The sore wasn’t even hurting today, once I’d got the compeed on it.

Categories: Recordings, The Journey | 1 Comment

Day 8 – Burton to Swarkestone Bridge

Miles walked: About 11

Weather: Absolutely roasting

Stiles crossed: Far too many

Day 8 was sort of a day off, as we didn’t have an event to do, so (apart from the walking) we got to relax a bit. As an experiment, we decided to do our report for the day verbally, so it’s below, on soundcloud.

We stayed for the night at Bridge Farm, Swarkestone, which is really lovely and we thoroughly recommend it. We can’t find anywhere to stay tonight in/near Sawley, so if you know anyone hospitable who lives there, we’ll love you forever. We are very polite house-guests and we can tell them stories in exchange!


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Day 7 – Barton to Burton

Miles walked: Only about 7
Weather: Glorious blazing sunshine

We had an easy day’s walking. Although we were sad to leave the lovely Shoulder of Mutton, it was a nice day. It was roasting hot, and Ross has turned quite pink. I’ve turned a most impressive brown – on one side anyway. I suppose we need to walk the river the other way to get an even tan… We weren’t expecting to get a tan at all walking an English river in September.

We got to The Burton Bridge Inn in plenty of time, and sat out the back having a lovely cup of tea (regular readers will have noticed our tea obsession) and running through the show, looking at the brewery behind.

They’d got barrels upon barrels of beer stacked up in the yard of the brewery. One regular told us he’d taken a mate to the pub for the first time, and when his mate saw outside, he said, ‘Blimey, they get through a lot of beer in this pub!’ The Burton Bridge Brewery actually serves eight pubs in Burton, so it’s not as bad as he thought…

The event went great. A mate of mine from Bristol was up visiting a friend in Derby, so they came along, and it was nice to see a friendly face. Alison and Tony, our couchsurfing hosts for the evening came along too, so that was nice. Also, a man who’d come out on a date, but been stood up, so he thought he’d come and see us instead. He said it was the most original thing he’d ever seen, and he seemed to have a whale of a time. That made us happy.

Other highlights were a Chinese woman, who didn’t seem to understand we were doing a performance, and kept trying to interrupt to chat to us. At one point, half way through Dad singing a heartfelt song, she loudly asked him how long he’d been playing guitar. I bet that never happens to Bob Dylan.

Also, I liked Geoff from the brewery buying us a round of drinks:-). But the absolute highlight was getting to tell the story of why Burton beer was the best, actually in a pub in Burton, while drinking some of it. What could be more appropriate?

So below is a recording of it. You’ll notice it’s enlivened by heckling and interjections from Mum and Dad. This really is Terry and June on tour at times.

I’d also like to say thanks to Alison and Tony, our lovely hosts for the evening, who were kindness itself. And even had a rabbit called Ross, which made me laugh. We were sorry not to meet their kids, who we heard all about – Adele is an opera singer and actress and Adam a sports journalist. You could tell they were in equal parts proud of and bemused by their offspring. I like to think our parents feel a bit the same about us. When they aren’t feeling exasperated.

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Day 4 – Stone to Rugeley

Weather: Cloudy and a bit of drizzle in the morning, then glorious sunshine

Miles: About 15 miles

We had a predictably cheerless breakfast at the motorway services. Is there anywhere with less atmosphere than a motorway service station? We opted for the soup and a sandwich deal though, which gave us a hearty bowl of leek and potato soup and a packed lunch for later. Canny, eh?

We found a much easier way through the fence than where we’d jumped into the ditch the day before. We’d have seen it the night before if there’d been more light… Then tiptoed through the cow field, but the cows weren’t in evidence, so that was all OK.

We followed what should have been a footpath back to the Trent, but in several places there were crops all across the field and we had to pick our way through nettles down the side. One field was covered in slurry, and crossing this it started to rain. We were really cursing the farmer at that point.

We mainly ended up on the canal towpath again, for lack of footpaths. But handily we’ve decided we like towpaths. Narrowboaters all seem so chilled and friendly. And the walking is easy.

Our event was at the Wolseley Centre, which is where the HQ of Staffs Wildlife is. We arrived there in absolutely blazing sunshine, felt excited to see our posters up on their wall, and were directed out to a lovely ‘star tent’ they’d put up for us on the far side of their lake.

Not many people had turned up specially to see us, but we stopped people as they walked past and asked if they wanted a story. We told stories to little groups and pairs of people and had a proper chat with them. It meant we could also pick stories to suit the audience and it worked really well.

Sitting there by the side of the lake in the sunshine, with birds singing and chatting to people with no pressure made for a really magical afternoon. I made a six year old hoot with laughter with my impression of an elephant, which was great.

But the highspot of the day was Jackie and Tim, a couple who stopped and chatted to us, and the story they told about blagging in to see Michele Obama speak. Ross recorded it and you can hear it below.

After that we made our way into Rugeley, which seemed like a lovely friendly town. After a slightly panicked search for accommodation, we ended up at the Cedar Tree Hotel, which was just perfect. They couldn’t have been nicer. After we missed dinner at the local pub, we ended up getting a takeaway, a bit worried they wouldn’t like us bringing it in. Quite the contrary, when the woman at the desk saw it, she just said, ‘Do you want me to get you some plates for that?’ And most importantly, in the morning, we got the best (read strongest, we were both born in Yorkshire) cup of tea we’ve had on this trip. We loved them!

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