This Al Humphreys' inspired microadventure has been on my list of to dos for a while. His challenge to city folk in need of adventure is to catch a train out to the country and walk back home. So simple, yet why haven't I done it?
The thing that has inspired me to actually get on this challenge is watching Poldark. I've just finished series three and those broiling seas and wild Cornish coastlines have got me thinking about doing a long-distance coastal walk later this year (as part of one of my many 2019 resolutions to do a challenge that I have to get fit for).
So this walk was like a test. Would I enjoy it? Could I even go the distance with my dodgy foot arches? Would I have the guts to get off the road and walk solo back into the city? Would I feel like doing it all again tomorrow or be seized up on the sofa?
My local train route shoots from Birmingham city centre out to Redditch and Worcester beyond. The first question was how far out do I go? Alvechurch was definitely a stretch with a certain search engine suggesting it was a 2.5-hour walk home – I usually walk for up to an hour – but it also felt doable… about five stops out on the train and seven miles on foot. I later discover Its B48 postcode is the highest and last of the proper Birmingham B postcodes.
With no plan but a window of sunshine, I sent out some callouts on Twitter and Facebook to see if anyone wanted to join me. Quite a few friends seemed up for it, given a bit more notice – you know who you are; I'll be roping you in on a future walk.
The train out of town was nearly empty. From the comfort of my seat, walking the ever-lengthening distance back seemed impossible. But one thing I've learnt from my local walkabouts of the past two years is that everywhere seems too far until you actually walk to them. Places I used to hop to the car are now quite doable by shank's pony.
Past Longbridge we go, past where the old Austin and British Leyland car factory used to be – now ironically a car park – and the edgelands of Birmingham before the green fields and pastures of Barnt Green and Alvechurch in North Worcestershire fill the train window.
I get off the train in full sunshine and check the route options. The search engine satnav offers a 'walking' route, which goes via busy A-roads and takes 2 hr 27 – so specific. But I can see there is a slightly longer canal route that veers east to Hopwood so I head for that, albeit with some trepidation – as a solo female I never feel that comfortable walking on canal towpaths. Still it is the weekend and there look to be quite a few people on their narrowboats at Alvechurch Marina so I duck down onto the path of the Worcester/Birmingham canal.
It's a picturesque start to the walk and for the next 40 minutes, I fairly stride along the towpath, passing the occasional human – a mum with a buggy, several dogwalkers, a jogger. There are fishermen and reservoirs and teenage couples hanging out on humpback bridges. I pass underneath the M42 motorway bridge and the white noise of traffic is loud and invasive. I feel glad I've skipped the road route but don't feel safe enough to put my music on, which is usually a big part of feeling uplifted and keeping the pace up on my walks.
At Hopwood House pub, about a third of the way home, I check in my location on Twitter and review the next bit of the route. I'd assumed I'd get on the 60mph A-road as per the satnav as the canal is about to duck under a tunnel for nearly 3km. But it looks as if you can sort of go over the top of the canal and pick it up again at the city edgelands of Hawkesley – a bus terminus area for my local 35 bus. Phil B on Twitter confirms taking the scenic route and suddenly things get muddier and emptier, with barely a soul about.
I pass two lots of two men walking – one possibly a father and son, the other pair equally unthreatening. I feel as if I'm getting strange looks but it could be that they don't want to make me feel uncomfortable so are looking for cues from me first. I say hi, as any walker would, and stride on.
I suspect most women view the world through a certain lens of safety checks and risk assessment, and I notice how I adapt to my fears now. I walk tall, have my hands out of my pockets (ready), and try to look confident and alert and not like a victim – all things I learnt from life in south London and some free self-defence classes from Lewisham council.
When I see a solo man in the distance, I tie and tuck my blonde hair under an army green wool hat – a reaction to past experiences of showing my femininity in public and this being an invitation to being followed and approached. In case of mugging, I've hidden my cards and identifiers in a coat pocket, leaving just some cash and a water bottle in my bag. My keys are in my pocket and my phone ready to hand.
I feel a bit sad that I do these things but I also think of talks I've been to by RGS explorers, who do far, far riskier things than I, and how risk taking is about preparing for your expedition and trying to mitigate the things that can go wrong.
On a positive note, it's the conquering of these fears and the 'knowing' what is out there and the 'doing of things anyway' that ultimately brings relief from the fear and anxiety. Take it from someone who is constantly fighting their comfort zone.
Now I'm growing in confidence. When the canal disappears into the 2.5km Wast Hills Tunnel, I head over the top to a country lane and turn immediately off it onto a North Worcestershire national footpath. I don't even check my phone map. My sense of direction tells me I'm walking in parallel to the A441. I check for cows – which make me nervous – and then follow the route across several fields.
Without music I find myself coming up with an acronym for all the random shit I do, things that people have started commenting on and which I have found myself recently responding to with 'This is what you do when you don't have kids'. I am a 'Woman Adventurer No Kids Early Retirement'. Or as my lovely friend Paul suggested 'Tearaway Outgoing Surfer Sister Enjoying Rambling'. Either way, it keeps me humble without giving up bragging rights.
There are a couple of surprises before I enter the city boundary. One, a sudden colourful sign on the country lane announcing 'Welcome to the Wast Hills Autism Services'. Two, a random tower-like building with a face that looks like it is wearing a hard hat – this turns out to be the Birmingham University Observatory, for the teaching of physics, astrophysics and astronomy. They do events for the public (ooh!).
One minute there are green fields and woodlands, the next the sharp brick edge of the city. This is Hawkesley, which features one of those maze-like estates full of small disorienting veiny roads, curves and cul-de-sacs. Twitter tells me there are no dead-ends and to follow a direct line pedestrian pathway straight through the maze. I ask a local to be sure. They wish me good luck like I'm a proper explorer. I cross at Seals Green, which bridges some small unnamed brook.
I desperately need the loo, and sadly not in the way that involves nipping behind a bush. What would a Cornwall coastal path walker do? There are no pubs or cafes. Just endless suburban housing. I ponder knocking on a door and asking to use the loo but then think how utterly impolite it would be to leave such an aromatic gift with total strangers. I walk on in agony but eventually the pain goes away.
This is a strangely empty estate, devoid of people except for the occasional bus terminus drop-off and driving lessons taking place on the deserted roads. I'm amazed at how I've walked for two hours from country to city on a Saturday and only seen handful of people and moving cars. For the UK's second city, it is so peaceful. Disconcertingly so.
A line of blue pops up on the map. The Wast Hills Tunnel is at an end and the canal drifts slowly out into daylight again. The towpath here is sunken down with tower blocks overhead and the sound of lads somewhere in the dank distance behind me. I feel vulnerable again and, despite the tiredness in my legs, speed up my pace.
I'm nearly at Kings Norton and from there it is the home stretch down to Stirchley. I meet no one on the canal until I reach the junction with the Stratford canal, where a police dog van is in attendance after an arson attack on the historic tollhouse exactly a week ago.
From here it is another 20 minutes or so to walk home. I'm back on familiar ground and the canalside quinces are in full pink blossom over pink graffiti.
My legs are starting to seize up but I'm elated at having come so far and facing my fears. I remind myself that the reality is almost never as bad as the perception. Someone later points out that seven miles is like a walk to the shops for them; but that is how a change in your perspective can shorten distance. I'd never in a million years thought I could walk from Alvechurch, where my sister used to live and where I used to balk at going in the car.
It took two hours and 22 minutes to walk from Alvechurch to Stirchley, from Worcestershire to the West Midlands, from B48 to B30. I beat Google's algorithm by 10 minutes.
Could I do it all again tomorrow? Luckily I'm saved from a follow-up walk by Storm Freya. Perhaps if this were Cape Cornwall and I had a tricorn hat and boots… but still I think I might need a bit more practice first.