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BIRTHDAVERSARY

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Forty years ago, my mother made the decision to get married on her birthday. Four years later, I decided that it would be a good date to make my own appearance into the world. When it came time for my fiancé and I to pick a day for our wedding, there was only one obvious choice. It means the chances of either of us forgetting the date are slim to none, and I literally get to celebrate the anniversary of turning 29; indeed, I much prefer to give my age as 29 and 7 anniversaries!

The double celebration also invites us to get out and about to do something special. Last year we ventured down to the charming town of Shaftesbury, location of the picturesque Gold Hill and a fascinating, if rather windy, place to explore. This year we stayed closer to home and decided to take our country walks to the next level. For much of this year we’ve done short walks of 2 to 4 miles, but the one we had our eye on was nearly 6 … and there were hills.

It started in Wiltshire’s own picturesque village of Castle Combe, a favourite of film makers and day trippers alike. Residents have great forbearance in dealing with both, especially the tourists who peer in windows and fill the street during the height of summer. As for us, we quickly walked through the main street of the village and beyond our existing knowledge.

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The first unexpected sight came as we turned off the main road and ventured onto a route our map called Macmillan Way.  As we walked over a stone bridge, we caught sight of a pair of swans cruising down the By Brook. This seemingly romantic start had a touch of the surreal as one had a leaf plastered to its front; perhaps an autumn accessory for the avian set?

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As we climbed Macmillan Way, we enjoyed the crunch of walking through ankle deep leaves that covered the path, and at this time of year the bare trees allow walkers to get fantastic views of the valley below. A field full of donkeys was another unexpected sight we stopped to photograph, although they seemed much less interested in us.

The walk then descended into the village of Long Dean and its smattering of traditional houses. Everywhere we looked there seemed to be signs warning of bulls in the field, so we stayed on the path until reaching the village of Ford. The guide recommended stopping at a local pub for a break but we had other plans and pressed on.

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The next part of the walk can best be described as the messy middle. It took us through ankle deep mud, flooded streams, and up an incredibly steep hill that conveniently had a bench at the halfway point. Once we found our way to the crest of the hill and out of the woodland, we came out onto a road. We realised we had a choice: we could take the low road, which would lead us directly back to Castle Combe, or the high road, which climbed further up the hill and would complete the full circuit of the walk.  After some debate, we went high.

This took us through even more mud, but also took us along the lovely and alliterative Broadmead Brook, which ended up on the Manor House Golf Course. This brought us back into the very heart of Castle Combe, and the next part of the birthdaversary celebrations.

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To commemorate our accomplishment of completing the walk, as well as mark the day itself, we had afternoon tea at the Manor House Hotel. It’s a wonderful place to visit at any time of the year, but with Christmas decorations up and a fire roaring in the foyer, it’s positively magical. This wasn’t the first time we had afternoon tea here.  Every other time we left incredibly full and unable to finish, but this time we thought we had it sussed: a Spartan breakfast followed by a 5.5 mile hike should be enough work up an appetite and leave plenty of room for three courses of treats.

The first part was certainly true. Sitting down to a selection of scones, sandwiches, and cakes, I felt I would be able to eat everything on the table. The scones were excellent. Soft and warm, the combination of one traditional clotted cream and jam scone with a cheese scone and Dijon mustard were simply delicious. Next up was the sandwiches. There were four crustless triangles, the equivalent of one full sandwich, and each quite tasty. Finally, the cakes. They were beautiful to look at and each had a different combination of flavours. We worked our way through three out of four, but somehow found ourselves running out of space. We called for a box to take the last slice home. Foiled again.

I could finish off this post by writing something saccharine, like how the walk was a perfect metaphor for marriage itself: there are ups and downs, unexpected moments and difficult decisions, bullish situations to watch out for, and sometimes it can all get rather messy, but the important thing is that you enjoy who you’re with. But instead, I’ll simply say that it was a wonderful way to prepare for the walking we did the following week in the historic and beautiful city of Chester—stay tuned!

Elaine Massung Off the Beaten Track
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