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November 7, 2011 / annakpf11

British Blog—Footpath Adventure

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I, 

I took the one less traveled by, 

And that has made all the difference.


—Robert Frost (1874 – 1963)

Dave departs for work.

I set off to discover more of the surrounding countryside. For the second morning in a row I run across a gentleman with a cane, walking his ancient snow-white Labrador.

“Hello again,” I greet him.

“Have you been walking ever since I saw you yesterday?” he jokes.

“Yes, just going ‘round and ‘round,” I smile. “Now I’m headed to Chesham.”

“Chesham!” he exclaims, bushy eyebrows inching upwards.

“Is that too far to walk?”

“Depends.” He says with a little laugh. “I don’t know how far you can walk!”

Neither do I, as we will see. Luckily, during our chat, this kind gentleman imparts a vital piece of information: the news shop in the village sells ordnance survey maps, exquisitely detailed area maps noting the location of every road, lane, public footpath and pub. After procuring said map, I embark on what I expect will be a two hour walk, home in time for lunch.

Two hours later, after tramping through leafy woods and narrow lanes, backtracking to make up for wrong turns and long pauses to decipher the ordnance map, I’ve barely made it a quarter of the way to Chesham, never mind the trip home.

It’s long past lunchtime. A brief consultation with my map reveals the hamlet of Ballinger Common not far ahead, across a grassy vale.

But the pub in town is shuttered and closed—for sale, in fact. I consider a bus ride home. But the schedule posted at the bus stop informs me the bus only runs on Wednesdays. (It’s Thursday.)

Famished and footsore, I stumble onward, making for the next nearest “PH” (public house) symbol on the map. Past the cluster of stone farms at Ballinger Bottom and the fine homes of Lee Common. About a mile later, I gratefully spy The Cock and Rabbit, on a tiny green called The Lee. I slump into a chair by the fire, thinking Ploughman’s Lunch, and maybe even a pint of ale. But I know there’s plenty of walking still ahead, so settle for a salad and a cappuchino. Afterward, I feel surprisingly refreshed and ready to tackle the footpaths again.

A country lane leads to a storybook view of pasture and woodland. Wooly sheep graze in the field. My route, a worn track in the grass, leads past these (harmless?) creatures.

They seem overjoyed to see me. A flurry of eager hoof beats, and a dozen or so fuzzy beasts trot over and peer at me as if to say, “Hi there! So glad you could make it. Please come in!”

I hesitate a moment at the gate, then lift the latch and enter the field. The sheep scurry aside to let me pass, then follow in line behind me. I stop, they stop. I walk, they walk.

Eventually they lose interest—or faith in me as their leader—and wander off.

A wooden stile leads to an adjoining pasture, signposted with a stern warning: Bull in Field; Keep Dogs on Lead. In no mood for a detour—there are only two good hours of daylight left, and at my snail’s pace I’ll need every minute to get home before dark—I climb over the stile hoping the sign is out of date, and the bull is not in residence today.

Keeping as much distance as possible between me and a small group of grazing cattle, I creep along the perimeter of the field and try to determine the gender of the largest bovine whose ponderous head has swiveled in my direction. The raincoat I’m wearing, I suddenly realize, is a bright shade of raspberry, eye-catching as a matador’s cape. Heart beating a tick faster, I pull off the jacket and turn it inside out so only the navy blue lining shows.

The bull—by now I’m convinced the one staring at me is male—stands rooted in the field like a malevolent sentry, gaze fixed on my timid progress. His harem of milk cows follows suit, and now an angry sea of bovine faces monitors my approach. A barbed wire fence borders the pasture, thwarting any hope of emergency exit. The bull lifts a leaden hoof and lumbers a few steps in my direction. I imagine my epitaph: Heedless American Woman Gored to Death by Bull in Field. Deciding I’d rather be dead-tired than literally dead, I retreat as swiftly as I dare (do bulls chase prey?) and resign myself to taking the long way around.

A half-hour later, thorn-scraped and sweat-soaked from fleeing mad cows and crashing through a grove of brambles and pine trees—surely trespassing on private land—I halt to consult the map and get my bearings. But the map is missing. I check each pocket twice, but the precious document is no longer on my person. Dropped, I presume, in my haste to escape the bull and his mavens. Sure enough, when I retrace my steps, I find the folded pages on the ground underneath the stile at the edge of the bull field.

The sun is beginning to set as I navigate the last hedgerows and fields outside Great Missenden. I trudge up Grimm’s Hill in the evanescent light just before dusk, grateful for the sight of home.

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