The Kennet and Avon Canal, Day Two: Please, just give me cake

Bleary-eyed, I sit on the bench by the canal and drink coffee made from single portion coffee bags I found in Tesco (I’ve been bemoaning the fact for years that nobody’s thought to invent them and at last, much to my satisfaction, someone – namely Taylor’s of Harrowgate – has). Birds are chirping in the trees around us. The nice woman who directed us to our camp site last night emerges from her boat, a floppy eared brown and white dog in tow. He comes directly over to me and wastes no time digging his nose in my backpack. His owner chastises him but he isn’t easily deterred. It’s my beef jerky that he’s smelled, I’m sure of it, unless he’s a fan of granola bars, which seems unlikely. He cocks his head to one side and looks up at me pleadingly, one blue eye and one brown. Sorry, I whisper as he is again reprimanded for his behavior. “Come on Dexter,” she says, her tone no-nonsense now, and off they go. 

The rain has stopped but it’s still cloudy and cool when we start walking, a little before 8:00. My feet still ache but I’m not as tired as I thought I’d be given my sleepless night. Mark is cheerful and says his legs are “a bit sore”, due to using muscles he doesn’t habitually use, being a cyclist more than a long distance walker. We pass pedestrians, many of them walking their dogs or jogging, some doing both, and cyclists, but they thin out the farther away from Bradford on Avon we go. We see day hikers but no other thru hikers. 

The boats have names like Snugglepug, Isabelle, and The Wanderer, with their license number and place of registration clearly printed on the side. Some are clean, freshly painted and tidy, with nothing on top. Others are decorated with homey touches, including plants and flowers along the top – entire gardens in some cases, full of color, scent and edibles – as well as neatly stacked firewood, tires, bicycles, and garden statuary placed, mascot-like, on either end. Some are decrepit and neglected, trash heaps on top of and alongside them. A few harbor downright junkyards. It is a neighborhood on water, some residents house-proud, others giving the former reason to wish they would keep up or just go away. We take note of the bridge numbers as we go, descending from 192 at the start of the Canal in Bath. When we see a sign for a store we follow it to a Spar’s where I purchase a packet of paracetamol, extra strength. 

About 11:00 or so we begin looking for a cafe alongside the canal where we can get a cup of tea and a piece of cake. I distract myself from thinking about the increasing knot in my left shoulder, pain in my right knee, and fire in my feet, with thoughts of cake. What kind will I have? I wonder. Victoria Sponge? Something chocolate? Or will I go for a scone with jam and clotted cream? Eventually, with no cafe in sight, we stop at a bench near a small park to eat the snacks we’ve brought with us – Mark his mixed nuts and fruit, I my boiled egg and beef jerky. It’s okay, I tell myself. We’ll find cake soon. Probably just after the next bridge. Or maybe the one after that.

Our break over, we continue on. My pack is lighter, it must be considering I’ve eaten three eggs and an apple since we started walking. So why does it feel like it’s getting heavier? 

Hours pass. We are in intermittently urban and rural territory now, with small towns or villages giving way to green pastures dotted with sheep or cattle, and vice versa. Places to find food on the canal, either store bought or prepared, are hit and miss. When we aren’t hungry, we come across a pub, when we are hungry, we come to nothing. We do not find cake. Someone we pass mentions a pub called The Bridge Inn along the canal at a town called Devises, a few miles ahead. We set our sights on that, figuring if we find a store first, we’ll buy something like noodles that we can cook up instead once we stop for the night.

I don’t know how many miles we’ve walked. That’s the thing about walking a canal. It all looks pretty much the same: water on one side, green on the other, a stone bridge every now and then. I find myself thinking we’ve got to be close to The Bridge Inn and wondering where I’m going to go to the bathroom if we don’t get to it before we (or possibly just I) collapse from exhaustion. This is one of the downsides of hiking anywhere but in the backcountry – public toilets are few and far between – so when you have to go, you may just have to hold it for hours. It’s all well and good for Mark, who can just turn his back between a couple of bushes. The passers-by and boaters in the area won’t even notice him. It’s more difficult to find a place where you can squat, naked from the waist down, unnoticed. When a stronger urge overcomes either of us however, the playing field is leveled and we are both, yes, that’s right, SOL. This is not, after all, India.

Finally The Bridge Inn comes into view, right next to the canal. We scout around before going inside for a place close by to camp when we emerge, knowing we won’t feel up to walking far at that point. It will be approaching dusk in any case. Once inside we plop down at a corner table and order two beers straightaway. I scan the menu for the cheapest items and decide on a fish cake mixed with spinach and convince the waitress to bring me a salad instead of chips. Mark orders fish and chips, heavily battered and greasy as usual. I have yet to see grilled fish and chips on an English menu (granted, I eat out rarely here and haven’t patronized an abundance of upscale restaurants). I admit I’ve learned to like mushy peas. 

We draw out our dinner as long as possible, both of us dog tired. Mark orders a second beer. I refrain, afraid it might not be safe with the handful of paracetamol I’m planning to swallow once I crawl into my sleeping bag. For the moment, I’m procrastinating as long as possible moving any body part with the possible exception of my hands, mouth and eyelashes. It feels so good to be still. At last we see the sun beginning to sink below the horizon and know we’ve got to get going. We ask for the bill and each make one last trip to the bathroom.

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