WGC Welwyn Garden City

FFS – Five Fantastic Stories about … Welwyn Garden City

How much do you know about Welwyn Garden City? Okay, it was a New Town and …. it’s a garden city (well … but more on that later). What else? Go on …. Thought not.

Read on:

 

100 Up

Ebenezer Howard

Plaque to Sir Ebenezer Howard, founder of the New Town movement

In 2020 Welwyn Garden City will be celebrating its centenary. Yes, it’s almost twice as old as Milton Keynes! Somehow that doesn’t feel right, I don’t quite know why, but there you go. Yes, in 1920 Sir Ebenezer Howard bought a plot of land to start building his second garden city. Where was the first? Go on, you know this. Think. Yes, it was Letchworth. Gold star for all who got it right.

Later, when the town was fit to be lived in it was advertised as an opportunity to ‘Live In The Sun’. Nice try lads. Just goes to show that advertising was as ambitious a hundred years ago as it is now.

By the way, I know I might be accused of being obsessed by this (Northampton, Milton Keynes take note), but Welwyn Garden City is a town. Not a city. Again, nice try lads.

 

Blue Plaques

The First House to be occupied in WGC – nearly 100 years ago!

Welwyn GC (which is what I’ll call it from now on to disguise the whole ‘city’ thing), had eleven blue plaques. These celebrate places and people who’ve played an important part in the town’s history. Yes, town’s history. Just to whet your appetite, these include such luminaries as Jack Catchppol, Louis De Soissons and C. B. Purdom. Yes, not exactly big names, but big names for Welwyn GC, so let’s not knock them.

 

Roman’ Around

Welwyn GC has its own Roman Baths. Yes, the New Town has a connection with the Romans. They sit around 500m east of the village of Welwyn, and whilst not fully excavated, can be visited. They are, it goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyway) a scheduled ancient monument. In fact, the baths sit in a steel vault sitting under the A1(M) at its junction with the A1000.

 

Never Eat Shredded Wheat

The actress Flora Robson lived in WGC for a while, where she worked at the  local Shredded Wheat factory. This was about the time here career was taking off, in the early 1920s. Funnily enough, this coincided with the time that Welwyn was taking off too. She also has her own blue plaque (see above).

Welwyn GC was once synonymous with Shredded Wheat, whose large white silos acted as a landmark on the rail line between London and the north of England. The factory was designed by Louis de Soissons. Hold on, haven’t I heard that name before? Yes, he is another of those blue plaque holders. They get everywhere.

The factory is now a Grade II listed building, but production of the famous breakfast cereal moved to Staverton in Wiltshire in 2008 when Nestle, the company that owns Shredded Wheat, decided it needed too much money spent on it to keep it sustainable. Tesco had a go at buying the site, but public protest stopped that.

 

Bandits at One O’Clock

Scenes for the 1969 film The Battle of Britain, directed by Guy Hamilton and produced by Harry Salzman (of James Bond film fame) were shot at the Panshanger Aerodrome in Welwyn Garden City.

The future of the aerodrome currently hangs in the balance – there are plans for 650 homes there, but also plans to bring it back to an aerodrome. There are also plans for a combination of both. Who knows?

 

That’s it. There will be more on how I experienced Welwyn Garden City in my book. Register your interest here.

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The Sense of an Ending

Welcome back to another ‘eve of walk’ themed blog, written as I wind up the planning for the fourth leg of Diagonal Walking. As with the last ‘Progress’ blog, I’m going to use this one to bring you up to speed with the walk itself and also some of the work going on behind the scenes regarding the Diagonal Walking travelogue. As has now also become the norm, I’ll also give an update on some numbers.

 

 

Where Now?

The last leg left me in Newport Pagnell, although I added a day on to the end of that stage to visit Milton Keynes. There, caught up with both the town itself, and the people living in the house I helped build there over thirty years ago. There’s more on this in this podcast which is also available on the Diagonal Walking feed on iTunes. Just so it didn’t feel left out, I also wrote a separate blog on Newport Pagnell.

From the delights on the north of Buckinghamshire, on this fourth stage I’ll be heading into Bedfordshire. For much of the way I’ll be following the line of the MI, well, at least as far as Luton. I’m staying the night in Luton and hope to have a little bit of time to explore why it has such a reputation for extremism. That’s of both the far-right and Jihadist varieties. Wish me luck. Luton also presents one of the route’s main physical obstacles. The diagonal line passes directly through the main runway of the town’s airport! Luckily, there’s a way around it, following the Upper Lea Valley Walk, but things could get a bit noisy for a while.

There’s a fair bit of urban walking on this leg, especially towards the end, when I pass through East London. Before then though I have the delights of another new town to explore (Welwyn Garden City). The diagonal also passes a house I used to live in (it’s literally within yards of the line). As such, I’ve written to the current occupiers to see if a visit is possible. I’ll keep you posted.

From there, I pass through Enfield, Chingford and Walthamstow. So, if you’ve got used to pretty pictures of fields on the Instagram and Facebook accounts, get ready for something different in the coming days. As I write, the exact end point of this leg is open to events, but put it this way, I won’t be far from the River Thames, which I have a cunning plan to cross.

 

 

Route Planning

Planning for each stage requires a fair bit of work. Not only do I have to calculate a route and prepare copies of it onto A4 sheets, but I also have to find places to stay along it. Taking lessons from earlier in the walk, I try to find places as close to the route itself as possible. I’ll even manipulate the route to make this possible. While still keeping to my three mile corridor of the diagonal of course.

As such, once I’ve sketched out a route I then have to find potential places to stay. These may be budget hotels (all I need is a clean room, a bathroom and wifi), and ideally near somewhere I can eat. Airbnbs or kindly friends and family who can put me up also feature. Naturally, when planning, I start at the beginning of the route and then work my way down. You don’t want to fix up the back end of the trip and find the front end is impossible. All this takes time and needs to be done in advance. I’ve found that the sorts of places I’m looking to stay in are often in demand from contract workers during the week, something I hadn’t anticipated.

This, in turn, means needing to commit in advance. Whilst medium term weather forecasts can help in allowing me to know what I’m in for, they tend to be as reliable as a politician. However, the heatwave we’ve been having recently seems to have provided a more reliable indicator from Mother Nature. As such, I’ve decided on this leg to commit to shorter legs. At least that way I won’t over-do it, something to take into account when on my own and have somewhere I have to get to.

Once the practicalities are sorted, the research begins. I try to find out what I can about the places I’m passing through in advance. This helps to direct me towards places of interest and to make sure I don’t miss anything. Results from the research might be tangible – a specific thing to see – or intangible, a sense of a place, or an interesting fact or statistic.

 

 

Reassessment

My previous planning had suggested that Newport Pagnell would represent the half way point of my walk. I’ve reassessed this and reckon I’m probably now nearer to 60% of the way through. Indeed, by the end of this fourth leg I’ll be getting close to the end. This seems incredible, even though there’s still a way to go yet.

There’s no getting away from it though, there’s the sense of an ending to the project, or at least the actual walking side of it. I feel a bit conflicted about this. On the one hand there’s a sense of challenge met, on the other, there will be some grieving. The whole exercise has been fantastic fun, as well as stimulating.

The walking and the people I have met along the way has gone better than I’d anticipated. That said, when I set out I had hoped for a little more connection with third parties, for example people ‘finding me’ on the internet or through my publicity efforts. While there’s been a bit of this, it would have been nice to have more. It’s possible that I should have left more time for momentum to gather, but countering this has been a need within me to keep the momentum going on the walk itself, and to get it completed within the summer. This, in turn, is driven by the demands of the book and when I want it to be ready by. More on this in a moment.

 

Diagonal Walking – The Book

A key part of the Diagonal Walking project has been the writing and publishing of a book – a travelogue. I want this to be available around the proposed Brexit date of the end of March 2019. Diagonal Walking is not about Brexit, but there is a link to it. It’s my guess that it will act as a spur to contemplation about where we as a nation, and I hope my book will contribute to this.

As anyone who’s ever had contact with the publishing world will tell you, it isn’t exactly dynamic. It can take a year from signing a contract to seeing a book in print. Before then, you have to get the contract, which these days invariably means getting the attention of an agent. Neither agents nor publishers can be engaged without a completed manuscript, unless you’re a celebrity or established author, so you can see the dilemma.

Following the ‘traditional’ publishing route would involve a journey at least twice as long as the project itself, with no guarantee of success and the near certainty of the book now being available until 2020 at the very earliest. It’s not encouraging. For this reason, going down the self-publishing route is becoming more and more attractive. I also happen to think that from a marketing point of view, the book’s premise has enough of a sense of intrigue to be attractive to the organisers of talks, journalists and other media. I am confident enough in my own abilities in this field – to ‘sell myself’ – that my current mindset is this is the way I’ll go. I will approach more traditional publishers (there are three or four obvious candidates), but more in hope than expectation.

 

The Numbers

Instagram Page

An integral part of Diagonal Walking was to get others to ‘Walk With Me’ virtually. I’ve had some success here. The most notable areas are in podcasting, where I’ve had about 500 downloads so far, and with Instagram, where I have around 800 followers at the time of writing. There’s a fair bit of coming and going here too, but I’m monitoring it and the general trajectory is upwards – I want genuinely interested followers, not people playing games. Reaching 1,000 followers here now seems very achievable, and I’d have taken this at the beginning. Twitter is interesting, with a steady flow of new followers, but these tend to be replacing my ‘temporary friends’ I gained through the competition I did with ‘Stay in a Pub’.

In terms of the walk itself, as I say on my ‘How I am Doing’ page, I reckon I’ve completed just under 250 miles and over half a million steps. I might not make a million steps, but it’s a good marketing angle! For those interested in the book, which I’ve been writing as I go, I’m now up to around 50,000 words, which is probably more than half.

There’s much more to come, so stay tuned and keep diagonal!

 

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FFS – Five Fantastic Stories about … Newport Pagnell

Like Keele earlier on the Diagonal Walking route, Newport Pagnell is probably best known for its motorway service station. Pull off the motorway however, and there’s enough there to keep you interested, if only for a while. Let’s take a look …

 

 

The Place for Lace

From the sixteenth century until recently, the whole of northern Buckinghamshire, and Newport Pagnell in particular, was famous for its lace. Particularly prized was Bucks Point, a bobbin lace. Sometimes known as English Lille, this was similar to French Lille lace, and was made in one piece on a lace pillow (it’s also sometimes called Pillow Lace), widthways, not in strips. Simpler than Belgian lace, designs tended towards the floral and geometric. Lace making was a cottage industry, with the skills, once learned, earning a better income than spinning or sewing. There’s a monument to the successful lacemaker Thomas Abbott Hamiliton by the side of the parish church.

 

 

From James Bond to Brooke Bond

The Aston Martin Lagonda Heritage Showroom

For a long time, Newport Pagnell was home to the car maker Aston Martin, the favoured ride of James Bond. Production moved here in 1947 when the company was bought by David Brown in the first of what has been a series of financial rescues. It stayed here until it outgrew its premises and transferred to Gaydon in Warwickshire. Most of the factory was demolished with the land behind it sold to Tesco. To round things off, in December 2017, production of Aston Martins returned to Newport Pagnell. Twenty five track-only DB4 GTs are being built here, so maybe the story isn’t over yet?

 

Incidentally, Ian Fleming, the author of the Bond books, spent some time in Buckinghamshire, visiting both the Aston Martin plant and nearby Bletchley Park.

 

Not Just Any Old Iron

Tickford Bridge, Newport Pagnell

Newport Pagnell is home to the Tickford Bridge over the River Ouzel (or Lovat). Built in 1810, this still carries the main road traffic and has the distinction of being the oldest iron bridge in the world still in constant use. A plaque near the footbridge by its side gives dates and construction details. Erected in 2010, this marked the bicentennial of the bridge. Spanning 17.68 metres across the river, the engineers behind the bridge were Thomas Wilson and Henry Provis, with the former having been the supervisor on the Wearmouth Bridge in Sunderland.

 

Skin-Deep

The Un-Prepossessing Entrance to William Cowley

Newport Pagnell is the location of the country’s only vellum producer. Vellum, made from calf or goat’s skin has been used to record every Act of Parliament for 1,000 years. Recent moves to end the practice to save money led the Cabinet Office to provide the necessary funds from its own budget. Vellum is said to be preferred over paper because it lasts much longer. The Magna Carta for example, written more than 800 years ago, is still legible. William Cowley of Newport Pagnell have been producing the stuff for four generations, and thanks to the Cabinet Office perhaps, can look forwards to a fifth. Their output is also used from drums, bespoke furniture and wall coverings. Lovely, a dead animal on your wall. Hold on, isn’t that quite popular in some quarters?

 

Some Like It Hot

William Taylor, a chemist by trade, created the first English mustard sold ready-prepared, and he operated from Newport Pagnell. His recipe was kept a closely guarded secret, but is favoured by those who like their mustard hot and smooth. The factory in Newport Pagnell closed in 1990, after which it was produced by Colman’s of Cheshire, and it is now manufactured by Black Foods of Glasgow.

 

Time to get back onto the motorway, or perhaps head south into Milton Keynes, which now dominates the area, and in whose shadow Newport Pagnell lives, although has it ever produced a fiery hot mustard? I thought not. There will be more on how I experienced Newport Pagnell in my book. Register your interest here.

 

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multiple footpath signs

In Praise of Pathwatch

This blog is to draw your attention to the Pathwatch initiative from The Ramblers. Those of you who’ve been following my progress will know I’ve had a spot of bother or two with footpaths. Specifically, step forward Staffordshire and take a bow, but mind that electric fence. Ouch! Too late.

I blogged about this and also put a video up on YouTube which this garnered quite a lot of interest. Not least, I managed to get the walking magazine The Great Outdoors to write a piece about it. One of the suggestions that came out of this was that I should download the Ramblers app Pathwatch, and it’s been a lifesaver.

Pathwatch is part of a wider initiative from the Ramblers to get all the rights of way in England and Wales well maintained by 2020. Quite a lofty ambition, but surely a worthwhile one at a time when we’re all being encouraged to exercise more?

So, I’m here to praise Pathwatch, and to tell you why it’s worth getting. Just so you know, this is an entirely independent review, no one’s paying me. I just love it and want to share it.

Know Where You Are

The app is super easy to use and one of its best features is the knowledge that you never need be lost again when out on a walk. It starts with this three option screen. The three choices are whether to download some maps. This is useful if you think you may have dodgy signal. These don’t need to be where you are at that moment, you just search from this home screen:

Home Screen

The second, and to my mind most useful, option is to locate yourself, using this handy button.

Locate me!

Not only does this tell you where you are, it also overlays your position on a map of public footpaths! So, if you think you have gone wrong, you can check, like this:

Whoops! Field edge, but not the path.

Equally, I find it useful to reassure myself that I’ve taken the right path, like this:

On track again. Phew!

 

Report Naughty Landowners

One of the biggest issues I had with my walking in Staffordshire was unmaintained footpaths. Okay, it isn’t just Staffordshire, but they have it bad. Well, one thing this app lets you do is report bad practice. Not only report it, but send a picture, if it’s something bad like this:

rotton stile

Electric fence barring a stile

Or just let the Ramblers know, so they can see if they can do anything about it. The reporting procedure lets you record positive and negative experiences.

So far I’ve only used the negative option! This takes you through two stages. First, what the nature of the problem is/was.

Then, some more detail. This is the screen under ‘Obstructions’ for example.

But, Isn’t It cheating?

Yes, that was my initial reaction. I set out on this walk not wanting to use any electronic gizmos unless in extremis. I wanted to be a heroic map-only kind of a person. The problem is, in extremis is what I experienced. So, I say: embrace the technology! As such, I offer this sort of mini-review up for nothing. Think of it as a little gift from Diagonal Walking.

 

There’ll be more on how I managed to find my way around the country in the book. Register your interest here.

 

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FFS – Five Fantastic Stories About …. Northampton

For many of us, Northampton may be one of those far away towns about which we know nothing. Even if we did know something about it, it would probably involve shoes.

Shoe Town

But there is more to Northampton than that. Okay, not a great deal more, but let’s see if we can come up with five fascinating facts about the town. By the way, don’t call it a city. Northampton has twice applied for city status, in 1996 and 2000, failing both times, so the subject may be a bit raw.

 

The Best Brewery Outside Denmark … Probably

Like most reasonably sized towns, back in the day Northampton had its own local breweries. In 1906 there were 24 breweries in the town, although by 1940 this number had fallen to eight, and to five by 1960. The two main ones remaining were Phipps and the Northampton Brewing Company. These merged in 1957 to become Phipps NBC, making them the largest brewer in the Midlands.

However, this entity was acquired by Watney Mann and in 1974 it was replaced by a Carlsberg plant.

This was the first Carlsberg plant outside Denmark. It was opened by none other than HRH Princess Benedikte, who must have enjoyed herself, as she made a return visit in 2012 to honour trade links between the town and Denmark. Some good news for non-lager drinkers. The Phipps NBC marque was revived in the late 2000s and now brews in the restored Albion Brewery.

Phipps, NBC

 

The MP Was Once a PM

Anyone who likes a good pub quiz will know that the first and, so far, only British Prime Minister to be assassinated was one Spencer Perceval (not Percival by the way). What less people know however, is that he was also the only Solicitor General or Attorney General to achieve that rank. And that he was the MP for Northampton, elected in 1796.

His assassin was one John Bellingham (hang onto that name if you want extra bonus points in a quiz). He shot the unfortunate Percival in the House of Common lobby in 1812. Bellingham had been falsely imprisoned for debt in Russia and was aggrieved that the British Embassy there wouldn’t help him. He tried to plead insanity at his trial, but it didn’t work. He was hanged at Newgate two days after his victim’s funeral.

 

A Pressing Engagement

Like a nice piece of pressed tongue? Well, Northampton has the dubious honour of hosting England’s only ever recorded case of someone being ‘pressed to death’. This form of execution involved adding stones or iron weights on a felon’s chest until they confessed. In Northampton’s defence, there are other claimants to this title, but none of them pressing  ….

 

Up, Up and Away

Northampton’s most famous landmark is probably its Express Lift Tower. Standing at 127.45 metres tall, (that’s 418 feet to you), it’s visible from most parts of the town (not a city remember). Opened by the Queen in 1982, it was used for testing lifts. Well, it has to be done somewhere I suppose. It has a few nicknames locally, including the ‘Cobbler’s Needle’ and the ‘Northampton Lighthouse’. It’s rise (see what I did there?) was followed by a fall. It wasn’t in use for long and in 1997 was granted Grade II listed status. It’s available for abseiling should you be so inclined. Or not.

 

Sea Air

Northampton feels like it’s slap bang in the middle of England. As anyone who follows this site will know, they’re not far wrong, it’s just down the road in Fenny Drayton.

As such, it may feel far from the sea. However, ever since 1761, when the River Nene was made navigable, it’s been possible to go all the way to the coast from here by boat.

river nene

This is down to the West Bridge Arm, which reaches into Northampton. It goes all the way to The Wash in fact, to a place called Crab’s Hole. That’s 88 miles and 38 locks away. Good luck!

Enough about fascinating facts about Northampton for now. There will be more on how I experienced the city, sorry, town, in my book. Register your interest here.

 

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Aiming For Middle England

I’m back after a short break away from Diagonal Walking, busy planning the next stage. As promised in my last blog, I’m going to use this opportunity to allow you to ‘get inside my head’ a bit. At the moment my main preoccupation is around planning the next stage, which is a long one, rather than the actual writing. I’ll explain why there’s not so much on this later. By way of compensation for those interested in the writing process, I’ve included some initial thoughts on publishing. Also, for those who want to know, an update on progress of the various social media channels.

 

The Route

The next stretch of the walk takes me out of Staffordshire. This is a big deal, see the Surviving Staffordshire video if you don’t understand why. Yes, within a day I’ll be walking into Warwickshire. After that I’ll be more or less following the Warwicks/Leicestershire border. Incidentally, this or more or less congruent with the A5, of the Roman Watling Street. It’s curiously pleasingly that the Romans built their road on a diagonal line passing through the centre of the country!

From there, my route dives into the centre of Northamptonshire, and the county town, and then into the top of Buckinghamshire. Technically, it passes into the unitary authority of Milton Keynes, but I’ll ignore that for now. Places people might recognise include Atherstone, Hinckley and Watford – but not that one. The Watford I’ll be going through is the one better known through its service station Watford Gap. When people talk of ‘north of Watford’ it’s here they’re referring to, rather than Watford, Herts. Not a lot of people know that.

 

 

Landmarks

There are three significant landmarks on this leg, one geographical and the other two more personal. The geographical one is that I’ll be passing through the centre of England. As such, I will truly be in Middle England. As an earlier blog has outlined, this is on private land outside Fenny Drayton, near Atherstone. This is a big deal, as you can imagine. I’ve tried to get in touch with the farmer who owns the field it’s in, but no luck yet. I haven’t given up though. I’ve also tried to whip up some interest from the body responsible for tourism in Leicestershire, but also nothing so far. Disappointing.

The first personal milestone is that, all being well, I’ll also reach my own half way point by the end of the walk. Due to the shape of the country there’s more walking after Fenny Drayton than there is before the centre. As the How I’m Doing page shows, I’ve currently done nearly 300,000 steps, and I reckon I’ll be on more or less half a million by the end of this stretch, having walked around 250 miles.

The other personal milestone is I’ll be close to Milton Keynes. That may sound an odd thing to say, but Milton Keynes holds a pivotal part in my life story. It was here, over 30 years ago, that I helped build a house for an exhibition of energy efficient buildings. Ours was supposed to champion a self-build system, and we built the house over a series of weekends with architectural students providing the labour. The house is still standing, and I’ve tracked down the current owners and they’ve agreed to meet with me. This house is as old as my marriage – I had just met my wife to be when the project was, quite literally, getting off the ground. It will be interesting to see if it has lasted as well.

 

 

Practicalities

I’ve been spending some time planning the actual route, and it’s a bit tricky. Although it’s not as rural as the run through Staffordshire, places to stay remain few and far between. This has meant having to set quite long targets for each day. This decision has involved a trade-off between having somewhere to stay actually on the route, as tended to be the way on the first leg, and taking a wider brief and being prepared to travel, as was more the case on the second leg.

I’ve gone for the former. Even though I had the option on a car, the time wasted moving it around is time I’d rather spend walking. On average, I’ve ended up setting myself targets of around fourteen miles a day. This is more than I’d like, especially given the fact that having no car means carrying everything in a rucksack. This doesn’t daunt me too much – I have done these distances already, but the problem is I hadn’t planned for them. When I’ve done these sorts of distances earlier, it’s normally because something’s gone wrong. In other words, I’ve not left a lot of wriggle room. If the footpaths in the next counties are as bad as Staffordshire’s, I’m in trouble.

On the subject of the rucksack, I’m determined to make it lighter this time. As a large part of the avoidable weight is clothing, I’m going to pack light in that department. Don’t worry though, I’ve arranged to stay at an AirBnB half way round and to use their washing machine. For those that are wondering, I tend to use a combination of homestays, AirBnBs and cheap hotels. I am to spend no more than £50 a night on accommodation, sometimes its more, sometimes less.

 

 

Mixed Emotions

This leg is going to be as long as the first one, but with a vital difference. This time, there’s less of the excitement that came with the whole project starting off. As such, there’s more of a sense of the mundane, no, not mundane, but routine. I remember having this feeling when I undertook the canal trek for Walking on Water, and I suspect it’ll pass. That, plus the distances, plus the variations in the weather forecasts for the week ahead, all add up to a sense of challenge and some trepidation. Still, challenge was part of what I signed up for so here I go!

 

 

Walk With Me – Physically

As anyone reading these blogs will know, the concept of Walk With Meis integral to Diagonal Walking. Whilst I continue to have a great relationship with Stay In A Pub, we have yet to secure anything with one of their pubs. The idea was for me to give a talk on a weekday to boost trade, or to review their accommodation, but none have taken the bait so far. Hopefully, this will come in time. What will be, will be.

I have managed to secure two people to walk with me in person for one of the days, which is great. I have also got a good response from local community websites, and there’s still time for someone to come forward for other days. Response from more traditional media has been sluggish, although it’s not always possible to know you’ve been featured until you get a response from someone who’s read a piece. I did manage to get this piece in Waterways World, the leading canal magazine, which I was quite pleased with.

 

Walk With Me – Virtually

Stay In A Pub organised a competition which required people to follow Diagonal Walking on Twitter, and this resulted in a couple of hundred new followers. Most of these have stayed, and I’ve since built on this number to get to over 500. Instagram continues to be the best social media outlet for me. Even though I’ve had little new to post in the hiatus between legs, followers here are coming up to 600. In both cases, followers were half these total sat the start of the last leg. I sense some traction here now, especially with Instagram.

The podcasts are steady if unspectacular. I’ve had over 250 downloads so far, but the frustrating thing is not having any idea who these people are! Facebook remains much the same, gaining a fresh follower every now and then, and the YouTube videos are a useful backup. Out of interest, I’ve also asked my website designer to find out how many hits I’m getting on the website. I’ll amend this blog if I get this.

 

 

Writing

I mentioned the writing at the start. This is a frustrating area as I cannot do much actual tapping away at a keyboard without fresh material. Stuff keeps popping into my head – thoughts, reflections, ideas – and of course I capture these as notes, but I don’t want to ‘pre-write’ the book. I want it to be real, a true reflection of the experience. At the same time, once the antennae are active, it’s surprising how many things crop up that might be relevant to the book. The recent BBC exercise in defining ‘Englishness’ being a good example.

 

 

Planning for Publishing

I’ve begun to think about possible publishers. I recently completed a novel and have been trying to get agents interested in it, as this seems to be the only route into fiction publishers. The experience hasn’t been heartening, it’s a very tough world to break in to. That said, there’s a lot less publishers focussed on travel, so it should be possible to approach them direct. I have put together a list of likely suspects from the Writers and Artist’s Yearbook, but don’t want to start approaching them until the book is in a more complete state.

So, in conclusion, I’m beginning to consider my options here, but am not quite ready to act. I’d welcome any thoughts or advice people may be able to give. The one thing I can say for certain however, is the book will be published. Self-publishing is a common route for this kind of book, or I may focus on a combination of e-publishing and print on demand. This would reduce upfront cost, whilst still making it possible to satisfy both those happy with their Kindles and those who like a physical book. More on all this as it happens.

 

That’s about all for this update. I hope you’ve found it interesting getting inside my head and not too scary!

There’s much more to come, so stay tuned and keep diagonal!

 

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how to write a travel book

Safe From Staffordshire

Well, I’ve made it safe from Staffordshire. As anyone who’s been following my other blogs, or indeed the YouTube Channel (see the video Surviving Staffordshire), or my Facebook page, might have gathered, the second stage of diagonal walking wasn’t exactly a breeze.

 

As with previous blogs, I’m going to use this blog to keep you up to date with progress on the walk. However, from now on I’ve decided to differentiate the various platforms I’m using in order to sharpen things up. This follows a discussion my son Ed, who ‘walked with me’ over the bank holiday weekend and provided some feedback, for which I’m grateful.

 

The following therefore is for clarification. In future the blogs will be more for giving an insight into the process of writing a book. In doing so, I intend to be very honest, perhaps disarmingly so. These are in addition to the FFS occasional series giving Five Fascinating Facts about places I pass through. Instagram and Twitter will be used more to provide pictorial updates on progress. YouTube will provide occasional videos for a bit of variety. As much as possible, I’ll be using interviews with people who ‘walk with me’, or who I encounter on the walk, on the podcasts. And finally, Facebook will act as a bit of everything and as a signpost to the other media.

 

I hope that all makes sense. Anyway, on with the show.

 

 

Mayday! Mayday!

 

The second leg took place from the Thursday before the Mayday bank holiday to the Tuesday after it. All the walking was in rural Staffordshire, pretty much all of it in East Staffordshire. This is not a particularly easy place to find convenient accommodation, so we took the decision to book a cottage for four nights and use that as a base. When I say we, I mean me and my wife Annette, who acted both as chauffeur and fellow walker for two of the days. This meant we could settle in somewhere and also have room for two other walkers, my son Ed and his partner Lydia join us for a couple of the days.

 

As most readers will know, it was a hot one. This was good, in as much as it meant we only got rained on once. However, it also meant taking extra care not to dehydrate or do anything heroic for the sake of it.

 

It also meant shorter days, as there tended to be a fair bit of driving to and from places. Typically, we got on the footpaths anything from 10 to 11 each morning and ended around 4 or 5. This was less than I’d got used to in the first leg, but as I say, it was hot, so this wasn’t a bad thing.

 

 

A Different Dynamic

 

As well as having Annette walking with me one day, and Annette with Ed and Lydia on another, I also had my cousin Simon and his wife Judy walking with me one day. On the first leg I’d done all the walking alone, and this meant a different dynamic. Walking with others means you tend to do more talking and less thinking. Or at least I do. This also means less notes, which makes the writing harder later.

 

On the other hand, having others’ perspectives helps add to the thinking process afterwards. Plus, their insights invariably add to the mix, making it richer. I think the challenge for the future will be getting this balance right. On this leg I did have the final day on my own, but this was only half a day. Still, I found it invaluable to get my thoughts in order. I hope the book, when it’s finished, will show this.

 

 

Writing

 

Writing is what I promised I’d talk about in this blog, so here I go. As I mentioned in my previous blog having good notes makes a tremendous difference when it comes to writing the passages up. What I tend to do is think of a unifying ‘message’ or theme for each chapter and write to that, weaving the actual experiences into it. Sometimes this emerges from the experiences, other times it is more deterministic.

 

To give an example, on this leg we visited our old university at Keele. This allowed for some ruminations on education and how it’s changed and is changing in England. Certainly in the last twenty years, which is my horizon for this book. Throughout, I am keen to keep the book as a mix between a travelogue and something a bit grittier, hopefully providing some insight into the state of the nation.

 

At the same time, I want to keep the book highly readable. This means injecting some humour, or letting it flow. I don’t want the humour to be forced, and I do want the book to have ‘a voice’. Luckily, this seems to come fairly naturally, especially as I have the template of my first book, Walking on Water, to go by. I am also not just writing notes up, but trying to write straight into a first draft. Sure, there’ll be some polishing, but I hope what I’m writing is 80-90% of the way there by the time I’ve finished. Again, another objective is to have the book reading asap after the walk is finished. This is so it’s fresh as we approach the actual ‘exit’ part of ‘Brexit’ (assuming we do – controversial), and also so it’s still fresh and relevant.

 

The only exception to this is the conclusion – for conclusion there will be. I want to bring the various strands of the book together in the end, and here I have been typing in notes, or streams of consciousness. I see these as helping to refresh my memory when it comes to writing those pages.

 

 

Wordcount

As for progress, I’ve now written about 25,000 words. That’s the equivalent to around 50 to 60 pages of a paperback. They fit into five chapters, two of which cover the last leg, which required around 9,000 words. Of course, all this may change in the editing, but it gives an idea. This seems about right. I’ve completed around 25-30% of the walk (it’s difficult to know) and somewhere around 100,000 words is a good target.

 

 

The Staffordshire Experience

Interestingly, as I’ve said, the entire walk this time round was in Staffordshire. In fact my diagonal also cut a diagonal through the county, which is a big one geographically. This was both good and bad, Good in as much as it allowed me to get under the skin of a distinct area. Bad in that the footpaths in the county are pretty poor. Not only are they poorly maintained, but there seems to be a semi-deliberate policy to deter walkers. This said, at least it gave me an angle for the book – a chapter theme! There’s more on my experience in Staffordshire in the above mentioned video and on this blog, which I called ‘Playing Hunt the Footpath’

 

 

And Finally …

 

I know some people like to be kept up to date with the progress on social media, so here goes. Remember, the reason I want numbers here is to make the book more of a compelling proposition for potential publishers, not vanity. I am even beginning to wonder whether to start to approach potential publishers sooner rather than later, rather than waiting until its finished. More on this in the future.

 

I now have approaching 400 followers on Instagram, and again following the advice of my son Ed, have installed an app caller ‘Followers’ which allows me to monitor who is following me to get their own numbers up and then dumping me. Twitter had been lagging behind, but has received a boost through a competition run by the Stay In A Pub initiative I have been working with. The prize is a signed copy of Walking on Water, and to date this has seen at least 50 new followers on Twitter. Okay, they are not of the highest quality, but hopefully it will kick start things. The total here now is around 350. This article was the second from Stay In A Pub, the first came out in the 26thApril.

 

I was initially disappointed by these totals, but have to keep reminding myself that the accounts are only a few weeks old. Actually, they’re doing quite well considering, and I think there may be a snowball effect. Certainly the Instagram account seems to be gaining momentum. This may be due in part to some of the publicity I’ve been getting, both locally and nationally. One coup I was pleased with was this article on The Great Outdoors website.

 

Facebook is still stuck in the friends and family plus odds and sods zone. I’m okay with this, but it would be nice to ‘break out’ a bit. As I’ve said above, I’m changing direction on the podcasts, but these are accumulating a following. I’ve regularly been in the top 5 in the Travel section of the PodOMatic chart, where I host the pods. In March I had 40 downloads, and I doubled that in April. So far, I’ve already reached the 40 mark in May and I’ve two more podcasts to come out. The YouTube channel is there as an adjunct really, but I enjoy doing them.

 

 

That’s it for now I think. I hope you’ve found this update on progress blog interesting. There’s much more to come, so stay tuned and keep diagonal!

 

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pot bank in stoke on Trent

FFS – Five Fantastic Stories about … Stoke on Trent

Okay, we all know that Stoke is the centre of the Potteries, but what else? Well, first let’s get those Potteries out of the way. Although Stoke makes much of its pottery past, many of its ceramics firms disappeared towards the end of the last century. These days there’s still Wedgwood just outside the town (although most of their production take place in Indonesia), and Portmerion (which also owns Spode and Royal Worcester) in Stoke. Others still around include Emma Bridgewater in Hanley, Aynsley China and Churchill China in Tunstall.

 

 

Six for the Price of One

 

Stoke is polycentric. This means it isn’t one town but six, all gathered together under one roof and made a city. Stoke was taken as the umbrella name as it had the railway station as late as 1910. Arnold Bennett famously wrote of five towns in his classic Anna of the Five Towns, but then he didn’t count Stoke. The five (plus Stoke) are: Hanley (the main centre), Burslem (often referred to as the Mother Town as it was the birthpace of the pottery industry), Tunstall, Longton and Fenton (not the dog in the famous video).

 

 

Oatcakes

 

No, not the Scottish ones. Pah! These are a local speciality . They’re a savoury pancake made using oatmeal, flour and yeast and cooked on a hot plate or griddle. They are extremely versatile, going well with both sweet and savoury fillings, and can be had for breakfast, lunch or tea. They tend to be sold either ready-filled or in plastic bags with six or a dozen in them. If you fancy your hand making some there’s a recipe here. 

 

 

Lobby

 

On the subject of food, another local speciality is lobby. In the same way that Liverpudlians had Scouse (see my earlier blog),Staffordians had lobby. This is another stew with various ingredients, but typically diced potatoes, beef, carrots, onions, beef stock and whatever comes to hand. There’s a recipe for it here.

Visit a local pub and you’ll likely see it on the menu, so now you know what it is you needed make a complete idiot of yourself by asking. It’s warm, it’s filling, it’s perfect for Winter. What’s not to like?

 

 

D-Road

 

Most places have A roads and B roads, but Stoke has a D road. This is the A500, with 500 the Roman numeral for 500. See what they did there? This runs from Crewe, southbound, towards Hanchurch. It even does the vague shape of a D – if you’ve left home without your glasses, anyway.

 

 

Second Oldest

 

Stoke City Football Club (it’s probably best to draw a veil over local rivals Port Vale), is the second oldest professional football club in the world. Care to take a guess as to the oldest? Go on. It’s Notts County. Originally Stoke Ramblers, which is kind of appropriate for this site, there is some dispute as to when the club actually started, and it was liquidated in 1908, but 1863 is the date the club used to celebrate its centenary in 1963 and it’s on its current crest, so it’s probably too late to do anything about it now.

 

Fun fact. Stoke City are responsible for the introduction of the penalty kick. They were playing in an FA Cup game in 1891 when a defender on the opposing side punched the ball away. A free kick was awarded, but the defending side put eleven men on the goal line. The referee that day later campaigned for the introduction of the penalty. The oppossion that day? Oh, Notts County of course.

 

 

Enough about Stoke, onwards and upwards. There will be more on how I experienced the city in my book. Register your interest here.

 

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multiple footpath signs

Playing Hunt the Footpath

There are nearly 3,000 miles of footpaths in Staffordshire, but those East Staffs are in a terrible state. That, at least, was the finding of this writer. I spent four days walking through the footpaths of this part of the county and found a story of what seemed almost wilful neglect. It seems footpaths and their maintenance, have become the walkers’ equivalent of motorists’ potholes.

 

Ignoring the Footpath

 

Issues faced along this stretch of the Diagonal Walk included footpaths being ignored, hidden and obstructed. Crops were regularly planted in the path of the public right of way, making access impossible. They were also planted right up to the edge of fields, making it very difficult to negotiate boundaries. In these cases, the walker is left with little choice but to plough on through crops. This cannot make sense to either the walker or the farmer.

 

The nominal width of a public right of way is a metre. So why did this farmer think it was okay to leave what was effectively a tyre track for walkers?

footpaths walking

 

‘Losing’ the Footpath

 

Another common feature was ‘losing’ the footpath. This involved having a sign for the footpath where it was most public – by the side of a road for example – and then ‘losing’ it. No further signs. Time to play ‘hunt the footpath’. This was seen in various guises, from absent signs to broken fingerposts, like this one.

wilful neglect of footpath

 

 

Making Walking Difficult and Dangerous

 

Broken stiles were another issue. Often, a stile that looked vaguely dodgy when approached, turned out to be downright dangerous. Rotten wood and rusty nails were all too common. This one for example, would have required a tightrope walkers balance to use:

broken stile on a country footpath

 

Then there were stiles wilfully obscured. In what world does it make sense to put an electric fence either side of a stile, as was the case here?:

rotton stile

 

Electric fences were a problem in general. During a single day, I had to duck under three of them, like a prisoner escaping from Colditz.

electric fence

 

Mud and ‘Don’t Ask’

 

As if all this wasn’t enough, there was the mud – or worse. On numerous occasions, I had to wade through ankle deep mud or manure at a footpath junction. On one occasion, me and my companions were yelled at by a farmer for not going the right way – a path made inaccessible by liquid manure. We were only trying to find a way through!

mud manure

 

A Question of Money or of Attitude?

 

I understand that budgets are being squeezed. However, I wonder if this problem is more one of attitude than money? Like many places, East Staffs has a rich asset in its footpaths. Indeed, English footpaths are an underappreciated asset for the country. So why, when we are all being urged to do more exercise, do these practices still go on?

 

I wonder if it’s more a question of attitude and approach? A footpath allowed to return to nature takes a lot of effort to recover. Why waste such an asset? When farmers get so irate at people not sticking to footpaths, why do they allow them to get that way in the first place? It’s not in their interest, and it’s not in the walkers’ interests to walk through crops. Leaving a gap on the edge of fields costs virtually nothing.

 

Is this a classic case of passing the buck? The County Council is responsible for working with landowners to keep public rights of way open, safe and welcoming. Footpaths seem to get caught in the middle – with no one having clear responsibility. Even when ramblers and other groups help out by installing stiles and gates, it remains the landowner’s responsibility to maintain them. But if no one’s looking ….?

 

East Staffs now proposes to designate three levels of footpath in East Staffs. Proactive maintenance will only take place on the best of these – the A footpaths. Routes B and C will be left to their own devices.

 

On the evidence of what this walker encountered, I wish them the best of luck.

Actually walking

First Leg Over

There comes a time when you have to break your duck, lose your virginity, get the first one over with. So it was with the first leg of my diagonal walk. In this blog I aim to share some of the emotions and practicalities involved with finally getting on the road. Of actually walking at last, as well as its aftermath.

 

 

Actually Walking

 

Let’s start with how it felt to be actually walking. I’d planned for ten plus miles a day, with the first day slightly shorter. Best laid plans and all that. Around three miles were added to the first day to find the start point! On other days there was the disappointment of finding my bed for the night was still a couple of miles off. Take it from me, that’s not something you need after a dozen or so miles. Still, it was all learning for next time. I only count actual miles and steps on the walk in the ‘How Am I Doing’ section by the way. I’m usually doing much more than that in total over the day.

 

Another learning was what may appear to be ten miles on the map was rarely ten miles in reality. Hills and diversions all add to the total. Equally, I learned that the rucksack was heavy, although goodness knew why. I thought I’d packed light. On the other hand, it didn’t really trouble me once it was on my back, it was more the getting it on and off. I think it’ll be alright.

 

There’s no doubt my feet took a battering. I’d employed a two pairs of socks strategy, which I find usually does the trick, but not this time. Blister city. In the end I bought some special two layered socks in Liverpool, and these seem to act as a shock absorber, making the rest of the walk do-able. I was also expecting to feel more creaky the day after a long stretch and it was a surprise this wasn’t the case. Sure, the first mile or two required an extra push, as did the last mile or two, but I soon got into a rhythm. Maybe all the training actually paid off?

 

 

Time

 

I usually tried to get on the road by nine or half nine. In theory, ten to twelve miles walking at three plus mph would mean, with a couple of stops, getting to my destination early afternoon. Again, so much for the theory. In reality, time tended to get gobbled up in the taking of notes, and in meeting my (self-imposed) social media obligations. Taking pictures, posting them with hashtags, thinking of and noting podcast ideas, and filming sequences (these often need more than one take, believe it or not), all take time. I now plan on around two mph.

 

In reality, I tended to get to my room for the night by late afternoon – around five. It was then that the fun began. Updating the social media, sorting out clothes, showering and tending to the feet, all took time. Then I had to find somewhere to eat. All this before readying myself for the next day, checking the route, making sure I had the right maps, ready for that none am start. Time, time, time.

 

 

Partnering Up

 

From the start, I’ve wanted to make the Diagonal Walking project a collaborative exercise. I also wanted to get the first leg done so I had something to show to potential partners. I understand that for many there’s a huge gap between theory and practice. Of ‘getting Diagonal Walking. This has seen some success. I have received some press coverage (a couple of local newspapers and a national Waterways Magazine). I’ve also had an invitation to work with the StayInAPub initiative, funded by Cask Marque and Visit England, including a piece on their News page. This is a £1.2million initiative to promote walking trails and getting people to stay in pubs. Watch this space for updates on this, but I’m excited by it.

 

Having completed the first leg, I also felt more confident approaching national media, including newspapers and walking and outdoors magazines. This has already born fruit with the magazine TGO (The Great Outdoors) wanting to do a piece and an interview.

 

 

Walk With Me

 

I have also had my first Walk With Me companion, albeit only for a few yards as he is wheelchair bound. However, the next leg will see more of this. As for the virtual side of things, there is movement here too.

 

The Twitter account has seen around a 40% increase in followers since the start of the first leg and I’m starting to attract Facebook followers from outside the immediate friends and family circle, which is satisfying. The number of podcast downloads in April was double that in March, and I’m now well past the 100 mark here. It would be good to get into the high hundreds and maybe even thousands on at least one of the accounts.

 

Instagram looks like the favourite. This has seen a 50% increase in followers since the start of the first leg, but I did suffer a brief setback here. In an effort to ‘cull’ people I’d followed and hadn’t followed back, plus the various obviously non-sincere accounts (I’ll just say the word ‘actresses’), I blew a fuse in Instagram’s algorithm. It wouldn’t let me follow people back, or add fresh follows. Having Goggled the problem, it seems too much following and unfollowing makes you look like a bot, so they’d frozen the account. I felt like a child who’d been put on the naughty step. In the end it resolved itself overnight, thank goodness!

 

 

Actually Writing

 

I started this blog with ‘Actually Walking’, and will now turn to ‘Actually Writing’. One of the main drivers for the project, other than doing it for its own sake, is to write a book about my experiences. Writing up my notes and creating a voice for the book has taken a good three to four days of my time since ending the first leg. But boy, what notes! The value of writing things down as I go, of having ready-baked finely parsed sentences, has proved to be essential. I’ve written around 15,000 words so far, which considering I reckon I’ve done 15-20% of the walk is probably about right, especially considering this is only a first draft.

 

 

Planning the Next Leg

 

The first leg has also shown the importance of good planning. So, nothing for it but to invest the same time in the next stage so it can be as successful as the first. This involves not only planning the route, but also researching places I should go and interesting details about where I will be walking.

 

The next leg is largely rural, and away from water, in contrast to the first. This will mean a lot more countryside walking and a lot less ‘civilisation’. As I’ve mentioned, I will have more partners walking with me on this leg, plus I am employing some back up in the form of my wife. She will have a car to get me to and from a central location, a cottage we’ve rented for four nights. This will give me more freedom to get as far as I can each day, rather than having a specific target. The route on the next leg will take me from Alsager, through Stoke and points south east, through Meir Health and Yoxall, with an ambitious target of reaching the National Arboretum at Alrewas, or as near to there as possible.

 

 

I hope you’ve found this update on progress blog interesting. There will be more to come! In the meantime, keep diagonal!

 

 

 

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