Having gotten over the fact that the blog TADS #9 had somehow been deleted I woke early (before 5am for some stupid reason) so was in Paddington station in good time to meet Kathy, Rachael (whose name I'm now spelling correctly), and Pam (who was enjoying, in her own words, "the worlds crumbliest croissant"). Neil, Bee, and Eamon boarded the train at Slough (they're old friends (literally in Neil's case) but new TADS) and Shep, Adam, and Teresa joined us at Reading.
We were all on the same train so we were all in Hanborough station for half-11 and ready to go. A stroll along the A4095 took us into Tory heartlands (boo!) and to Winston Churchill's grave in Bladon's churchyard. It was a modest family plot (though when Nicholas Soames dies they'll probably need to clear some room) with floral tributes from appreciative Europeans. Neil claimed he was pleased to be able to finally respect to the dog who brought us cheap car insurance.
The light of life may be extinguished for Winston and his wife Clementine but the sun was coming up for us. We cut through a field full of camper vans. My parents are avid camper van enthusiasts and it looked like their kind of set up. I rang my dad on the off-chance he was there. He wasn't. He was in Bucklebury.
All this time we'd been circling the outer wall of the Blenheim estate. Signs advertising the forthcoming triathlon reminded me of how rubbish my training for that has been this year and when we finally reached the Hensington Gate we had our first logistical decision to make. The price of entrance to the gardens has gone from about £2.50 to £15.30 in the last 7-8 years, which is frankly ridiculous and prohibitively expensive too.
We'd investigated the local public footpaths with little joy but a book I'd seen in WH Smiths in Paddington station had suggested a 'cheat'. So we carried on through Woodstock. Woodstock is a delightful market town overwhelmingly constructed in local limestone with pubs scattered around the place. It feels like, and is, the kind of place you'd take a holiday.
Hampers deli promised organic bread, local cheeses, and bottled beer so some of us who hadn't brought a packed lunch stocked up. I took a falafel and hummus baguette with extra jalapeno peppers and some Fentiman's ginger beer.
With the sun now beating down the quiet network of streets that made up old Woodstock resembled a Tuscan hill town. There was a riverside pub that looked very very inviting indeed. We declined. Mainly on the basis that it looked too good and we'd struggle to leave. It's not often you don't go into a pub because it looks too nice.
Almost immediately we spotted the public footpath into the grounds of Blenheim. If you're ever visiting and don't want to see the palace itself take this option and save yourself untold amounts of money. We sat on the bank overlooking the lake taking photos and eating our packed lunches. All felt well with the world.
The reflection of April sunlight sparkled on the lake in a way that reminded me of the sublime beauty of the Hood Canal in Washington state. Who knew such pulchritude was so easily accessed? It wasn't just the views that made it a truly wonderful moment but the company too. As we hugged the edge of the lake vista after vista revealed itself. The silhouettes of trees framed the water, Capability's bridge, and John Vanbrugh's palace itself. I felt genuinely privileged to be witnessing it.
It was certainly nice not be swimming in that lake, and not doing a triathlon too. A swan sat atop the ripples and fallen leaves posing as if for a pre-Raphaelite painting. I shared its smugness and I felt as tall as the Column of Victory that oversaw our ramble. We exited via the Combe Gate on to a country lane, another country lane, and then through a meadow heading for the village of Combe and, hopefully, a pub.
A wrong turn through the meadow caused heated debate but eventually we found our way into Combe. Another beautiful village, amazingly rustic and rural when you consider its actual location. At The Cock Inn some sampled the local ale but I tried a Cotswold lager (in the Chilterns, I'm bonkers me) and we played a fun game on Pam's phone called Heads Up.
The inevitable 'two pint mistake' meant that the next stretch was jollier than usual. Hotter too. Pam and Rachael had to cover up so as not to get burnt. The rest of us simply enjoyed the meander of the Glyme (which empties in to the Evenlode, a tributary of the Thames) and chatted to a couple od dog walkers and an elderly lady who was sponging down her Skoda.
We took another wrong turn but it didn't seem to matter. The views were still great, the two pint buzz in the sunshine was still working, and none of us were that bothered about seeing the remains of the North Leigh Roman Villa anyway. A road took us up and into the village of East End. Yet more handsome limestone houses serenaded us. You could probably get bored of them in time but not in one day - and certainly not this day.
A few fields on we reached the outskirts of Long Hanborough and the Three Horseshoes pub came into view. There was an FA Cup semi-final on between Chelsea and Tottenham and as it was the sort of pub young men go into to drink strong lager and call other young men who play for football teams they don't support wankers very vociferously (seemingly unaware they can't hear them through the TV) it was quite busy.
I'm not knocking that kind of pub. I've used them myself. But there's a time and a place for it and we weren't on that kind of 'vibe' at all. We sat in the garden and Kathy drank a goldfish bowl full of gin!
Normally on a TADS walk we like to end up in an Indian restaurant but neither Hanborough nor Long Hanborough (pretty much the same place really) had one so Kathy booked a table for 10 (yes, TEN, did I not already mention that!?) at The George and Dragon. How apt the day before St.George's Day and only a few hours after visiting Churchill's final resting place.
It was a lovely pub. I had a vegan chili. Pam did too. Many of the others had either veggie or meat burgers. The food was great. The service was great. The company was best of all. So nice to spend a day with such good friends in such stunning surroundings. I consider myself to be a very lucky man indeed.
We walked back to the station. We took some daft photos. We got on the train. It was much much emptier than on the way up. Some bought gin'n'tonic from the buffet car. Shep and I cracked open the bottles of Waggledance we'd procured at The George & Dragon. As we played games and chatted, both seriously and daftly, I genuinely felt a moment of sadness that this memorable day was coming to an end. Still, we're doing it all in again in two weeks. Take heed Hastings and be warned Winchelsea.