In his poem “Flies and Nettles,” English poet Fergus Allen writes:
The purpose of nettles is to make more nettles,
green, bitter, sharply hairy and introverted…
Put these two together…
well, you shall see…
Good morning, friend. Yes, I am heading out on another long hike, this one around 14 miles. No, I’m afraid you can’t come with me on this one. This one, I fear, will be rather dangerous, so dangerous even I wish to remove myself from the reality of it. Therefore, I am going to tell you about it in the third person. You stay right here in this graveyard. This should set the mood for the scary story to come (perhaps the story will be scary because the telling of it is so frighteningly appalling, but you shall be the judge of that).
. . . . . .
… isn’t this how all good stories begin? Or maybe: it was a dark and stormy night… but it was not dark and stormy but bright daylight, 73 degrees, warm, sunny, a beautiful morning when Nicole headed out on what should have been a six-mile hike (according to Google Maps.UK) from Corsham to Castle Combe.
“Have you a map?” her host asked.
“Oh, yes, I have very good directions,” she replied assuredly. According to what she saw on Google Maps, she could do this walk with more ease than the Wye Valley walk. And unlike her two previous well-cooked walks, today she was prepared. Sunscreen on and the bottle in the bag for reapplication along the way. Water. Cell phone. Cell phone charger. No getting burned this time.
“I got this,” she told herself.
And “got this” she did. Aside from the lack of sidewalks and the too-tight roads where she had to stop and back herself up against the side of the road to allow cars clear passage, the way was straightforward with areas of wide-open and empty fields as far as the eye can see, tiny bridges crossing tinier streams, and sheep grazing in the distance. Out in the middle of nowhere she stood gazing and gazing, seeing no one as she walked. This picture was for her alone.
While the gorgeous paths afforded sheer pleasure (and much exercise), the roadways caused frustration. On one of these roadways she had a small altercation. At one point, while backing up to allow a large truck hauling logs to barrel its way down what she feared was actually a highway, she felt burning on her legs. She was backing up into nettles. The sting was fierce. She’d felt this before at the Dairy House Farm. “Perhaps I should have worn jeans instead of capri workout pants,” she considered.
The tight roads and nettles were worth it for when she entered the town of Castle Comb, she was instantly enchanted.
Bridges with multiple arcs crossed small, quiet streams. Couples and small groups wandered up and down the road, enjoying the unseasonably warm September afternoon. The town where multiple movies had been filmed was a pleasure to see.
Quaint. Historical. Charming.
She found a church and walked through the graveyard, admiring the worn gravestones. “These are much more beautiful than the markers we have today. So cold. These are warm, elegantly designed.”
She entered the church softly and strode quietly through, taking in the serenity and peace.
But six miles. One can understand what happened next. Hunger was calling and she responded.
With a lunch (and dessert) at the Castle Inn Hotel now satisfyingly digesting away, she set out to continue her journey back.
Up the path to the right, into the woods. Follow the markers. “Where is this wall and stile I’m supposed to climb over,” she wondered. Piles of wood lined the path from recent felling. She continued onward.
Then she saw it. A crumbling pile of rocks where a stone wall had once stood. “Maybe this is the wall I was supposed to climb,” she wondered. “Perhaps the lumberjacks destroyed the wall and it’s not reflected in my map. Maybe this map is outdated.”
And with that, she decided the loggers had destroyed the wall. She decided this must, indeed, be the place where she was to cross. She crossed over the stones and continued on her way. Following the worn edge of a field, she traveled, across farmlands, over a gate and into another field.
She admired a field of clover, lush and beautiful.
“Well, this is misleading,” she whined as she moved through the clover. “This looks so soft and wonderful but it’s actually like stepping on top of snow, thinking it’s not too deep, only to drop down, up to your knees in snow. I’m up to my calves in lush clover.”
But she didn’t go back the way she had come. Truthfully, because truth is what we narrators are to tell, truthfully, she wasn’t exactly sure she could find her way back at this point. Also truthfully, she was stubborn and hated to have to retrace her steps.
She stopped and turned on her phone, checking her map. The triangle showed she was not far from where she needed to be. She needed to go east. She crossed an open field and found a gate. She climbed over. “At some point, some farmer is going to come out with a gun and ask me what I’m doing. Accuse me of trespassing on his land.”
But she saw not a soul.
She heard cars in the distance speeding along. “A busy highway. I need to go in that direction.” In that direction she headed. She came out on a road, Long Dean. Castle Combe Circuit read the sign, explaining the sound of speeding cars. Not a highway, a race track. “Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes,” she cried. This road was on her map. This road would take her back. This was actually the road she had wanted to be on in the first place. “Well done,” she laughed. “How funny. I ended up right where I need to be. Easy!”
But we all know about “the best laid plans” and “pride cometh before the fall” and my own personal favorite, Billy Crystal’s line from Forget Paris, “I never say ‘piece of cake’ [and] Never say, ‘Famous last words,’ because they could be.”
Everything looked familiar. Familiarity made her comfortable. She walked along the too-tight roads, roads she had been on that very morning. She passed through the center of Biddestone where the ducks were crowded along the pond, locals sitting on the bench as their children played. She crossed the busy intersection to continue on the road on the other side. She re-greeted the horses grazing in the fields on the side of the road. But she tired of the stop and go, stop and go.
Every time a car came, she felt she needed to make room for it, stopping, backing herself up against the side of the road. As before, there was no shoulder. There were no sidewalks. And she just did not want to get hit by the one person who looked down for a moment (maybe texting?) only to look up just before hitting her, no time to swerve, like a bug on the windshield, splat. End of story. She did not want this story to end (as much as you, about now, probably are wishing this story would end), so the side of the road she hugged, and waited, and then continued on.
Growing even more weary of the stop and go, she took advantage of a footpath sign and left the road. Up through the plowed hay field she happily walked without stopping. The extra unplanned wandering across the fields made her tired. “And miles to go before I sleep,” she uttered, so tired that the only thinking she could muster was repeating the same words over and over, “and miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep.” Over and over she repeated the phrase, “and miles to go before I sleep,” until it became a lifeless repetitive chant, “and miles to go before I sleep.”
Unfortunately for our wanderer, there seemed to be no exit from the footpath. It merely came to an end—as footpaths are often wont to do. She pulled out her phone. The road showed just at the end of the field ahead of her. No longer caring about any confrontations, she climbed over a locked gate and walked assuredly toward the road, stopping to say hello to the horses, taking pictures of the beautiful creature having his dinner, watching her as he ate.
The footpath ended and she was back onto the road. Stop and go. Watch the cars. Don’t get hit. 13 miles already walked today.
She knew she should have arrived home by this point.
Another foot path sign and she again left the road. Had she not done so, she would have made it home quite quickly, for she was but two miles or so from home. Yet, if she had not left the road, this story would be not much of a story (or even less of a story as is). So she did leave the road to follow another foot path.
However, after trudging across the field, short stalks of wheat crunching under her feet, she found there was, once more, no opening for her to reenter the road, no opening into the field on the other side of a tall shrubbery bordering two fields. “I’m not really in the mood to scrape myself up trying to get through to the other side.” She saw a gate quite a distance beyond. “What’s a few extra miles,” she reasoned. “I’m already beyond what I planned to walk today.”
Again she trudged across the field, headed through the gate, walked back along the other side of the shrubbery and then continued forward, all the time she could hear the cars on the road she had been traveling. She was fine, or so she told herself.
But then she wasn’t. She wasn’t fine. She turned her phone on again, and walked along with the triangle, heading through fields as best she should, trying to stay in the vicinity of the road. “Battery critically low.” “Shit. Let’s hope my charger works.” She attached the phone to her charger. She breathed a sigh of relief as she saw the charger icon blink. She continued on her way.
“All walk and no play make Nic a very dull girl,” she mused. She pictured herself typing this sentence again and again like crazed Jack Nicholson’s character in The Shining. “All walk and no play make Nic a very dull girl.”
“It’s just on the other side,” she cried out loud. She was talking out loud now. She was low on water. She was tired. She wanted to get back to the road. “It’s just on the other side,” she repeated.
Shrubbery. A stone wall. Barbed wire.
“I need to get across. Ok. Barbed wire it is.” She grabbed onto a tree. “Shit,” as the tree bark stung her hand. She placed her fingertips carefully back on the bark, placed her sneakered foot onto the barbed wire, and hoisted herself over.
“Still need to get farther over.” She climbed over a long gate. She was no longer worried about angry farmers and private property. “Maybe a farmer will come and point a gun at me, and I’ll say, ‘yes, please shoot me.’ Or maybe ‘please, escort me off your property, to a main road where I can find my way back.’” But she saw not a soul.
Another gate and she was in a pasture, cows resting on the other side. She recalled a sign she’d seen earlier, “beware of bull” and wondered if this was the field with the bull. She hurried along and crossed another wire barrier. “Ok, no more. I’m not putting on extra miles walking the long way around these walls of shrubbery anymore.” She dropped her backpack on the ground, pulled out her water bottle and took a swig, put it back in her bag and put her phone in alongside, freeing her hands for what she was about to do.
She confidently zipped up her knapsack. “Let’s do this,” she asserted. She climbed another barbed wire fence directly into a dense field of shrubbery. Thorns pricked against her leg. She moved forward and felt the stinging of the nettles. “Oh God. Oh God. Ow. Ow. Ow. Shit. Keep going,” she willed herself. “I need to move forward. Yes, it hurts, Nicole, but you need to keep moving.”
Thorns pulled at her capris and tight shrubbery snagged hold of her foot, holding her in place. She lost her balance, falling forward, but the weight of her body leaning forward freed her from her captor and she allowed the momentum of this to shoot her forward faster. A thought briefly crossed her mind that she might have ripped her clothes, and then more nettles.
“Oh shit. Oh shit. Ow. Ow. Keep going. Need to get through. Don’t stop.” She hopped into a less dense area. “Can’t stop here. Need to just get this over with. Can’t stay here. Need to move.” And move she did. Thorns. Branches. Nettles. She saw the blood dripping down her leg. She felt the stinging nettles burn her legs.
And finally she was through it. She threw herself down onto the open field, and grabbed for her water bottle. Instinct moved her to wash her wounds, the idea of cold water washing away the pain. She took a drink first before pouring the rest onto her legs. The stinging increased, and she pressed her jacket up against the wounds in response. She whimpered.
And finally she heard it—cars driving nearby. She looked up and saw the top of a car peak out above the wall. The road was just on the other side of a long rock wall. She ran to the wall, looked over, and recognized the intersection.
“Less than a mile from here. Less than a mile,” she said as she jumped into a sitting pose on the wall, swinging her legs over. As there was, “of course,” she thought, no sidewalk, she waited for traffic to clear before jumping down and making her way quickly to the intersection.
The adventure was over. She was bloody, scraped, in pain, tired, and thirsty. She needed a shower and some antiseptic. She wanted to sleep. But she had made it through. She had survived the nettles and thorns and angry farmers. Her legs had stopped bleeding but burned steadily, feeling constantly as if they were coming out of pins and needles, but never settling.
She continued the walk along the comfortable sidewalk. She continued toward the familiar, home.
You now see why I didn’t want you to come, my friend? Much more comfortable sitting here in a quiet, well-manicured graveyard, the friendly spirits of the dead to keep you company. Perhaps I should have joined you instead. Care to join me for a trip to the drug store for some calamine lotion?