Chapter 1

Julian Howard Crowfoot (born 5 May 1943 in Buxton, Derbyshire) is a chef, restaurateur and hotelier who at one stage became infamous for certain behaviour which allegedly caused a slump in Cadbury’s Wispa profits.

Career
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Public school educated, Crowfoot did not excel academnically and entered the catering trade at the age of 16, working his way up from washer-upper to owner of a string of restaurants. He won renown as a dessert chef, and also popularised wine tasting courses at his various establishments.

Crowfoot became a household name via his 1985 primetime BBC2 show Choc-wise with Julian Crowfoot, exploring the wonders of chocolate and its many and varied uses in cookery. An eponymous book was published to accompany the series.

A large proportion of his recipes contained alcohol. His speciality, rum and Wispa soufflé, became one of the BBC’s most requested recipes of the 1980s.

However, an infamous appearance on a 1989 edition of the chat show Wogan, during which a clearly inebriated Crowfoot repeatedly swore, despite the programme’s pre-watershed slot, and insulted his fellow guests Larry Grayson and Su Pollard, saw the demise of his terrestrial television career.

In the 1990s he acquired a short-lived presenting stint on the obscure – and now defunct – cable channel Menu TV.

After an ineffective attempt at reviving his obsolete TV career with an appearance on I’m a Celebrity…Get Me out of Here!, Crowfoot opted to bow out of the public eye altogether and throw himself into the hotel business.

He returned to his Peak District roots to purchase the historic Rosterbury Manor Hotel at Tunclough, where, although virtually teetotal these days, he runs regular wine tasting workshops and residential cookery courses.

Personal life
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Crowfoot’s first marriage, to teenage sweetheart Josie, the mother of his two children, collapsed at the height of his fame following his high-profile affair with the children’s TV presenter Cassie Pincher, who shortly thereafter became his second wife.

However, her affairs with two members of the Chippendales male strip troupe were exposed in the media.

In a lurid kiss-and-tell to the News of the World following their acrimonious divorce, Pincher claimed her infidelity resulted from her repulsion at Crowfoot’s preference for lolling around their house in baggy green Y-fronts, and his fetish for smearing his 18-stone body in melted Wispa and inviting her to lick it off.  Hence sales of the chocolate bar briefly dipped.

Crowfoot subsequently suffered a well-documented nervous breakdown and battled alcoholism and obesity. He was banned from driving for 18 months after pleading guilty to driving his Jaguar XJ6 at more than twice the legal alcohol limit.

Following his infamous Wogan interview, he admitted himself to the Priory rehabilitation clinic.

It was there he met his third wife Wendy, a fellow recovering alcoholic, whom he married following a whirlwind romance. That union too ended in a swift divorce, however, when it was discovered that Wendy was allergic to chocolate and thus unable to enjoy her husband’s recipes or indulge his aforementioned Wispa fetish.

References
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1. ^ “‘How Crowfoot’s careless Wispa made our marriage a total choc-up,’ by TV babe Cassie” News of the World, 5 August 1988.
2. ^ “‘Cooking sherry doesn’t count, sshurely,’ pleads troubled chef as magistrate imposes driving ban” Daily Mirror, 15 October 1989

External links
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– Rosterbury Manor official website
– Whatever Happened To…?

**********

From:  Adrian Raybould
Sent:  16 April 2010 15:53
To:   Naomi Ball
Subject: Jumping ship

Nay

Just spent my spare 10 minutes between appointments flicking through your resignation letter.

You pick your moments, girl, I’ll say that for you – sneaking that in on a day when I’m in back-to-back meetings and you’re about to escape on your jollies!

Only joking (you know my sense of humour by now), it’s just that you’re a valued employee and I can’t deny I’m gutted to lose you.

All this overtime you’ve put in to help Sian learn the ropes during her first few weeks has been immeasurably appreciated.

As you know, we work as a team here at Raybould Communications.  With Sian being relatively new to PR, and our lunchtimes currently eaten up by appointments with wedding suppliers (we intend getting spliced ASAP now Sian’s Decree Absolute is through), we have had to think outside the box for a while now.  Your continued help on these evenings and weekends is crucial.  Obviously some of it can make up for that day you had off for your uncle’s funeral.

I know you were disappointed not to get the senior marketing exec job this time around, and you must be kicking yourself for not correcting those typos in the McConnell Group press releases the other week.

I am unsure quite why you raise that matter again in your letter.  I have long since forgiven your slip-up.  Nova has repeatedly assured me that she passed you the message about the press releases requiring amendment, and I have made allowances for your undoubted distress that day following your unc’s death.  It is unfortunate that they were dished out to the newspapers containing misinformation, but these things happen.

May I beg you to, whilst slogging across the wilds of Shropshire next week, spend some time reconsidering your decision to quit?  We’ll touch base a week on Monday.

Regards.

Ade

**********


BEST FOOT FORWARD WALKING BREAKS

The Four Matthews

* 2-8 March, 19-25 April, 12-18 July, 4-10 October 2010
* 7-11 miles a day + ascents of up to 517 metres (1,696 feet)

Roam into Anglo-Saxon England on this 50-mile trek across some of the Midlands’ most fascinating yet forgotten natural landmarks.

The quartet of hills rise to varying heights at virtually equidistant intervals across the one-time Earldom of Matthew Theodoric, the 11th century Earl of Rosterbury.  The Earl (modesty never his strong point!) commissioned a marble bust of himself to crown each hill – thus they became dubbed The Four Matthews.

The ‘Matthews’ at Sneydley in south Shropshire and Tunclough in the Peak District mark the perimeters of his former land, with the two in between gracing the Staffordshire village skylines at Bhylcroft and Hisley.

The Earl’s powers were drastically curtailed during the reign of William the Conqueror, and the Earldom became obsolete.

The busts were torn down over 600 years later by rampaging anti-Royalists who opposed the Earl’s descendents’ support for the Cavaliers during the English Civil War.

Only the fragmented and centuries-ravaged head of the Bhylcroft bust remains, preserved in Manderwood Manor on the outskirts of Wolverhampton, the Jacobean manor house owned by subsequent generations of Theodorics before being acquired by the organisation History for Britain.  Earl Matthew’s ghost is a reputedly frequent visitor!

BFF will be taking groups of up to 8 on this idyllic yet testing hike.

We will stay in homely guesthouses along the route, and for our last night have negotiated a very special rate at the prestigious Rosterbury Manor Hotel, another historic Theodoric family home, now owned by famed chef Julian Crowfoot.  That evening’s activity, for those who opt to partake, will be an introductory wine tasting course.

The total cost of the break includes all bed, breakfast and evening meals, packed lunches where provided, and admission to Manderwood Manor on Day 3.  Please bring your own packed lunch for Day 1 only.  On 3 of the days there will be café or pub lunch stops, which will be payable separately.

Stout footwear is essential.  Parts of the route may be steep or muddy, and there are several stiles to negotiate.

We transport your baggage door to door between each destination, so you can enjoy the beautiful countryside unburdened by heavy cases.  Our luxury mini coach will return all participants to the Sneydley starting point on Day 7.

For full booking and costs information, see page…

**********

Monday
Sneydley – The First Matthew

Monday had a definite ‘first day of the rest of my life’ feel to it. The spring sun flooding my room seemed auspicious; the sensation of being bathed in it on that guesthouse candlewick could not help but uplift me.

The three computer printouts I’d been rereading surrounded me like dog-eared  islands.  I planned barricading my bedroom door at Julian Crowfoot’s place on Saturday, on the off chance he lapsed into infamous habits – especially since Cadbury’s recently re-launched the Wispa.  I’d printed off that Wiki entry to learn a bit about him – a decision I was now somewhat regretting.

As for Adrian stupid Raybould, about whom my dad often told me I had grounds for complaint to an employment lawyer, it was remarkable how my de-frazzled mind was already downgrading him to panto baddie status. His pudgy hands and ‘comedy’ ties might at this moment have been on another planet.

The little tosser had snubbed me for the rest of Friday, after his e-mail, which incidentally pointedly failed to address my more incriminating motives for resigning (it was understandable there were things he wouldn’t be admitting in writing).

Nova Bagnall’s family connection to the firm, for example. Adrian oh-so-earnestly denied that was an automatic basis for his accepting her word over mine (distress or no distress, I know she never passed me that message).  Then there was his hideously patronising suggestion to sharp-clawed Sian and me, who have never exactly clicked, that ‘you girlies have a bonding session sometime over a nice lunch.’

April Fools Day was the proverbial final straw the other week, though.  I tore over to the Fairlawns Hotel (yes, I was somewhat slow on the uptake that day)  to greet bemused staff who had no knowledge they were hosting any ‘urgent press conference.’  Only when the receptionist sympathetically thumbed towards her desk calendar did I twig the date.

When I returned incensed to the office, my dear boss guffawed that it was ‘just a more sophisticated version of the old “go and get a long stand” trick’ and ‘if you’re not blessed with a sense of humour I’m afraid you ain’t going to get far in this life, my wench.  No harm done, though.  Here, I think you’ve earned yourself a biccie.  You’re just in time for tea break.’  He jiggled the tin in my face but I declined, not caring to take a chance on it containing rubber biscuits, or one of those fake packets with a finger trap inside.

I now sipped tea on my bed, thinking elatedly of how I was free of the abominable Ade, for this glorious week and then shortly for good.  Any ‘touching base’ we’d be doing in a week’s time would be only for the purposes of agreeing my departure date.

I wondered whether there was any merit in lodging a complaint now I was leaving. I really hadn’t the funds for solicitors, due to my impending unemployment (temporary unemployment, I assured myself).  Dad had offered to pay for a consultation, but I refuse to leech off my parents. It’s one of my rules.  I knew I stood to inherit from Uncle Terry soon, but had no intention of dipping into that sum either.  It would be a backup, on which I would allow myself to subsist only if desperate.

I had career plans brewing, you see, and actually hoped this week would assist me in that direction.

I covered Adrian’s e-mail with the third printout on the pink bedspread, from the Best Foot Forward website, the very reason for my presence in what he called ‘the wilds of Shropshire.’  In fact Adrian’s definition of ‘the wilds’ is a location devoid of a Starbucks.  Sneydley village, according to its Wiki page, boasts a large primary school, small supermarket and post office, Chinese takeaway, Norman church – and the ‘distinguishing ratio’ of one pub to every 400 residents.

And The First Matthew (dubbed thus for our purposes – it’s the Fourth one, of course, to walkers who opt to follow the southbound route), the country peak I was to spend this afternoon scaling with seven strangers.  This was to be a gentle ascent to ease us in, with a packed lunch at the summit.

I wondered what friendships I might have forged by the time I returned to Walsall on Sunday; whose numbers I might have added to my mobile; in what ways – if I wanted to get all philosophical about it – I might have grown as a person.  What decision I might have reached regarding a prospective vocation.

I could employ any number of clichés here, about ‘finding myself’ or ‘going on a journey.’  People talk a lot these days about going on a journey, if not always a literal one.  It’s become an overused term on shows like X Factor.  Now I can’t sing (which admittedly is no hindrance to a lot of contestants on that show), but have been avid about walking ever since childhood Sundays when Mom and Dad packed my brothers and me into the Astra to Sutton Park or Kinver Edge to exert our tiny legs.

Innumerable walkathons, rambles and casual strolls later, completion of the Four Matthews path became an aspiration as I reached my twenties.  I nurtured it as my pet project – to the extent that, six years on, I had chosen to fulfil it with an organisation which promoted itself as friendly to ‘the solo traveller.’

I had Majorca to look forward to with Kathryn in September, but this week was my thing.  She and my other friends either couldn’t get the time off this week or didn’t share my passions for walking and local history.

As far as my soon-to-be-ex-workmates were concerned, though, I was with Kathryn this week too.  I’ll admit I felt silly and weak for telling a white lie, but without it I’d be labelled ‘Norma no mates’ in no time.  I was apprehensive enough as it was about taking my first solitary holiday.  The fact BFF advertised itself as ‘welcoming to the single traveller,’ therefore I was unlikely to be a Gore-Texed gooseberry, would never hinder their derision.

They thought it hilarious enough that I was ‘going to Shropshire for a holiday.’  To be fair, I suppose it could be seen as mildly amusing that I would at one point this week be about eight miles from my hometown (go on, laugh if you want to).  But then this was a specific trail I wished to follow, and I couldn’t exactly get the hills shipped to Ibiza in order to meet with Adrian Raybould’s approval.

I should stop now, as I’m sounding defensive, as though I’m justifying my actions to Ade himself.

Right, quarter-to-one.  I folded the printouts and weighted them down with my alarm clock on the bedside table.  Flipping my mobile open, I dashed off a text  to Mom – ‘Arrived safely.  Just about to go & meet the others.  Love u loads xx’ – while simultaneously draining my last slosh of tea, swilling the mug in my minuscule sink and standing it upside down next to the tub of tea bags.

The vista of sky and hill from my window was the uncompromising blue and green of a primary school painting.  The vivacious shades were so energising.  Standing up straight and determinedly, I flexed my arms into a ‘right, here we go’ kind of marching posture.  Then I zipped my rucksack and headed downstairs.

******

My first sight was of his back.  Cagoule-clad, of course, and in extremely heavy-duty hiking boots, he seemed to fill the tiny lobby of the Earlcott guesthouse (yes, the first of many Earl- or Matthew-derived place names gracing the route) where he was engrossed in the rack of leaflets.

I guessed at once this tousle-haired man was our leader.  Besides all the super kit, he had the assured, tranquil posture of an organiser. He wasn’t pacing the carpet, or compulsively checking his watch.

As soon as I approached he attentively turned, returning a Severn Valley Railway brochure to the shelf, and greeted – nay, dazzled – me with the most deliciously gregarious smile.  Now I hate to sound teenage, but this was a real ‘helll-ooo!!’ moment.  Already he was proving worth coming for, even without the walk.  I only hoped I wasn’t blushing too garishly – a tomato in Gore-Tex was never a good look.

‘Are you with Best Foot Forward, by any chance?’ Aged around thirty, he spoke with a faint Brummie accent, and his whole being seemed to exude this amazing quiet strength.  I hated to think what I was exuding, in the beam of those expressive grey eyes.

‘Yes, I’m Naomi Ball.’

‘Lyndon Hyde.’  Mmm, strong handshake.  Calm down, Nay, he’ll have women in every national park in the country, I cautioned myself, even as I was inspecting the other hand and thinking: Way hey, no wedding ring!  ‘Welcome. I shall be leading you all this week. You obviously found the place OK then?’

‘Yes, no problem.  Got a sat nav.’

‘What would we do without them?  Should be a good ’un this week.  The long range weather forecast looks promising.’

‘Yes, it does.’

‘Well it seems you’re the first, Naomi.  Oh, here’s another one.’

A spindly man, whose snug tracky bottoms revealed he’d be a frontrunner in any knobbly knees contest, materialised from a ground floor room, terminating my time alone with luscious Lyndon.  For the time being.

‘Shane Craddock,’ he declared in a Dudley twang, pushing his tiny glasses up the bridge of his nose.  His voice actually sounded remarkably similar to the Black Country one I’ve downloaded for my sat nav (instead of ‘You have reached your destination,’ he notifies the driver ‘Yow’m where you wanted to be,’ the ‘be’ phrased at a high pitch characteristic of the regional dialect, to make the statement sound like a question).

Then the rest surfaced in succession.  I fancied they’d been listening behind their doors for activity, none wishing to arrive first at the one o’clock meeting point. There were actually two couples – one fairly elderly and clad in matching khaki anoraks, one around my sort of age – plus a fun-looking lady in floral waterproofs and a ton of eyeliner. We exchanged fleeting introductions, but I hadn’t quite memorised all their names by the time we ventured outside for the afternoon.

Lyndon shepherded us into the little lounge for a brief preface.  We shyly clustered in front of the armchairs.  Nobody sat down, as though to make a point (‘We’re hardy hikers, you know – sofas are for wimps!’)

‘Now this afternoon we’re going to be climbing 506 metres, or just over 1,650 feet for those of us ot quite up to speed on the old metric system. This is the second highest of Matthew’s hills, the southernmost tip of the ancient Earldom.’

He stood in front of the fireplace, placid yet authoritative, like a favourite college lecturer.  Were abseiling a required element of this trip, I knew I could cheerily dangle off a mountain and trust him with the other end of the rope.

‘Our journey this week, as you know, will take us the entire length, bottom to top, of historic Earldom of Rosterbury, which comprised chunks of what later evolved into Shropshire and Staffordshire.  These Earldoms often encompassed numerous shires, or counties as we would now term them.  It was following the Norman Conquest that the vast Earldoms were dissolved and carved up into shires.

‘Any questions along the way, just shout, it’s what I’m here for.  We’ve got a reasonably leisurely ascent today, just to break you in for the week.  The path is nice and wide, not too craggy, and the view up there is something else, so I hope you’ve all brought your cameras. We’ll have our picnic at the top, then stroll back down in plenty of time for a cup of tea, or something stronger if you’d prefer, before we go in for dinner at half-six.  Now,’ he did a self-conscious little point in the direction of the front door, ‘let’s get going!’

******

‘To tell you the truth, bab,’ Shane Craddock was chattering, ‘I don’t know much about ’istory.  Ha, sounds like that song, dunnit?  Who was it sung that now, Marvin Gaye or someone?’

‘Sam Cooke, I believe.’  We were ten minutes along the path, comparing our motivations for taking this trip.

‘Oh ah, that’s the chap.  See, I’m no expert on ’istory but I’ve been bit by the fitness bug since me divorce.  The ex used to stuff me up with chips, y’see.  Every day.  That was all she knew how to cook.  Fish and chips, pie and chips, steak and chips, faggots and chips.  Eighteen stone I was by the time she left me last year, bab.’

Really?’ It was hard to picture scrawny Shane carrying any surplus lard.

‘I must admit I used to eat whatever was put in front of me.  I’m a binman, but I became a human dustbin.  She did all the cooking because she wanted to be an old-fashioned housewife. Her choice.’  He raised his hands, as though to fend off an onslaught from the feminist police.  He lowered his eyes.  ‘Then she ran off with her manager at Netto.’

‘I’m sorry to hear that.’

‘She’d only bin working the tills three months – gone back after having the kids, like.  Got two – Bart’s me lad, named after Bart Simpson, he’s nine, and the little girl, our Myleene, is coming up to four.  I wanted to call her Beyoncé, but Debbie – that’s the missus – thought it sounded naff.  I see ’em twice a week now.  Not this week, of course, cuz I’m here.  Well anyway, it turned out this manager fella was slipping Debs a lot more than cheap groceries, if you catch my drift, bab.’

‘I do, unfortunately.’  At the head of our little convoy, I could see the female half of the younger couple simpering up to Lyndon, while her boyfriend/husband drooped silently in her wake.  I sensed somehow she could be of Debbie’s ilk.

‘Sorry to be crude, like.’  Shane turned burgundy, and toyed with his glasses again. ‘They’ve gorra fancy house together in Sedgley now and she’s fattening him up. When she left she took the chip pan, of course.  I’m sure you ladies’ll think it’s shocking that I couldn’t cook,’ he addressed myself and Floral Cagoule Lady, who had drawn level with us, in this sheepish admission, ‘but I’d lived with me mom, see, right up ’til I met Debs, which worn’t ’til I was thirty-four.  Anyway, I enrolled on a cookery course at Dudley College, learned how to do amazing things with vegetables.  I joined Slimming World, started eating salad and took up walking in a big way.  I’ve lost seven stone in a year.’

‘Wow!’  I was impressed.

‘I won Slimmer of the Year in their mag. They called me the Dieting Dustman from Dudley.  I could see me feet for the first time in
yonks.  The old gut’s as flat as a dodo now.’  He patted his diminished stomach with an expression of coy pride.

‘Bravo Shane.’  Floral Cagoule Lady actually slapped him on the back.  ‘That’s noble spirit.  Noble spirit.’  Shane ducked his head, doing that thing with his glasses again.  Noticing that the man was a touch overwhelmed by his own openness, our floral friend tactfully changed the subject, sweeping out her hand as if to embrace the boundless greenery before us.  ‘Now isn’t this all
just glorious?’

‘Idyllic,’ I agreed.  We had progressed now from meadow to the gentle gradient of Matthew number one.  We were blessed with comfortable walking weather: a resplendent sun, but its fire diluted by a jaunty breeze.

‘You don’t get scenery like this in Vietnam or Peru.’

‘You’ve done a fair bit of travelling then – sorry, what was your name?’

‘Hazel.  Boden.  And you’re Naomi, yes?  Oh Naomi, these boots have tramped across continents.  But give me the Pennine Way
any day over the Inca Trail.  There’s just something about the English countryside that calls to the heart, I find.’

Hazel Boden took an exaggeratedly hearty breath in, as though attempting to ingest Shropshire.  She had weather-beaten colouring, hair like a sooty dandelion, and an actressy manner which would probably grate on some people though I rather warmed to her.

As though shed read my mind, she said, ‘My father used to say I was probably a dandelion in a previous life. He had a quirky turn of phrase at times, bless his soul, but it’s true I do thrive outdoors.  I am not a person who can be contained within walls. Consequently I chose landscape gardening as a profession.’

‘Interesting job.  Must be so rewarding making people happy for a living. I’ve just walked out of a horrid one. PR company with a boss who’s a reptile in human form.’

‘Good for you, darling.  Life is far too short to be discontented at work.  I’m long retired now actually, hence I have so much time for rambles.  This is my fifth with BFF in the last twelve months.’

‘You rate them then,’ I had my ‘research’ hat on now, ‘as an organisation?’

‘They’re a super group to be with.  The leaders really know their stuff.’

Shane had dropped behind, and was now regaling the mousey older couple at the back with his diet history.  I decided to confide in Hazel.  That can be the beauty of groups like this. You find yourself, with no preamble, launching into confidences with strangers.  These people know nothing of your background, you are not usually likely to see them again, therefore an assumption exists that they will be non-judgmental.

‘To tell you the truth, I’m considering becoming one.  I’m finding it increasingly difficult to be contained by walls too, I suppose.
another part of my motivation for being here, to see whether I’d be suited to this kind of vocation.  I assume I could train.’

‘I suppose so.  No harm in making enquiries.  I imagine a sort of Butlins redcoat type with map and compass skills is what they’d be after.  You seem pretty passionate.  I think you ought to go for it, girl.’  Hazel’s gusto was infectious.  She was one of those women-who-won-the-war-but-still-got-home-in-time-to-make-a-nice-cup-of-tea types.

‘You do?’

‘I’m sure the good Earl himself would approve of your enterprise.’  She jabbed with her thumbstick towards the bare summit from which the marble Matthew once surveyed his subjects.  ‘Why not have a little word with that nice young man?’  She pointed towards another impressive male figure, Lyndon Hyde.

I smiled surreptitiously.  ‘Oh, I intend to.’

******

The climb was steady but energising, and by the time we sat down to eat in Earl Matthew’s spot the first layers of thermals were coming off.  Though it was reasonably breezy up there, being so exposed, there was real intensity in the sun when it burst forth.

I tethered my cagoule round me, and delved in my rucksack for the ham rolls I’d brought.  My new pal Hazel and I did the old school trip thing of comparing sandwich box contents.  She had delectable-looking slabs of rustically nutty bread, encasing tuna and lettuce.

‘Homemade?’ I enquired.

‘I bake all my own loaves.  Got a freezer full of ’em.’

‘You should go into business.’

I made ravenous inroads into my more prosaic but nonetheless delicious Tesco baps.  One thing regular walking teaches you is that the childhood cliché about food tasting better outside is so, so true.

The collage of fields and ant villages below us might have been all there was in the world at that moment, stretching into Staffordshire on the north-facing side and towards Kidderminster to the south.

‘There you go, bab, this is what I looked like.’ Shane was thrusting a photo at me. An engorged version of himself in a West Bromwich Albion top the size of a trade show gazebo. ‘I keep this on me all the while.’

‘As inspiration?’

‘Yow gorrit,’ he beamed. ‘It reminds me of what I never want to goo back to, and how much better off I am without bloody Debbie and her vegetable oil.’

‘Good on you, Shane.’  He was an open, sweet, surprisingly profound soul.  The contrast between this scarcely recognisable image and the Ryvita-crunching Shane of today was peculiarly touching.

I had a sudden vision of Adrian, Sian and the way they’d undoubtedly sneer at Shane were their paths ever to cross.  It made me feel extraordinarily protective towards this man I had just met.  More Shane Craddocks and fewer Adrian Rayboulds, that’s what the world could do with.

‘And here,’ his face glowed with love, ‘are my nippers.’

‘Aw, they look lovely.’  Bart was a mini Shane, specs and all; little Myleene dainty, with a bubble of curls.

‘Proper little bosters, they are.’

I handed his pictures back, and he showed them to the matching anorak couple – ‘There you go, Ted, Enid’ – who exchanged mutters in a low, fast, kind of animal language before returning to their forage of Tupperware salad.

Hazel produced a bag of Midget Gems from her rucksack and dispensed them among the group.

Lyndon was striding over to us.  I actually felt a blush seep up through me right from my feet. How pathetic.  Hazel winked knowingly at me.

‘Enjoying yourselves so far, ladies?’

‘Yes thank you, Lyndon,’ we chorused like schoolgirls answering the register.  Hazel thrust her sweets at him.  ‘Midget Gem?’

‘Thank you.’  He selected a red one.

‘Have another.  They’re only tiddly.’

Lyndon was clearly only circulating, to make sure none of his charges had sprained an ankle or knee, or been eaten by ferocious squirrels, but even this innocuous attention was resented by a certain faction.

Lyndon’s blonde fan was watching me, her eyes like bullets.  She had a tight cerise fleece on, strategically unzipped to allow liberal boob overspill.  Her make-up was about as subtle as a drag queen’s, she had nails that could tear out a rival’s eye if need be, wore earrings the size of toilet seats and pink boots that were pristine and impractical-looking.  The tall, timid man who accompanied her might as well have been invisible; I recognised it was Lyndon she had in her inexorable sights.

Lyndon continued, ‘I truly think this is one of the best views in Shropshire.  I was just saying to Martin and Polly over here’ – so those were their names – ‘this was reputed to be Earl Matthew’s favourite of “his” hills. Nice to have a selection at one’s disposal, eh?’

I somehow doubted Posturing Polly was enthralled by Lyndon’s views on, well, views.  I was sure Martin was the walker or history buff of the two.

My own conversation skills were hardly stunning at that moment.  ‘Quite,’ I gulped.

‘He used to relax up here, no doubt with his goblet of mead and his bag of Monster Munches, and survey his domain.’

‘Who could blame him?’  Woo, four words that time.  My voice as I chuckled at his wit sounded strained and echoing in the open air.

Polly, with her hostile eyes still on me, was now virtually fellating a Flake bar.  I felt like yelling at her: ‘Yeah OK, we get it, you’re The Sexy One!’

I met her glare with an exaggeratedly ingenuous smile which seemed to nettle her further.  Good!

Lyndon repeated his ‘Any questions, just ask’ encouragement, smiled gorgeously at me and loped away to check on Shane, Ted and Enid’s progress.

And – oh cringe! – I noticed a wodge of tomato had plopped out of my roll while he was talking to us, and landed on my lap.  I flicked it on to the grass in disgust, thinking it was no wonder he was smiling.

******

Tomato stains aside, the post-lunch descent was more successful, in terms of interaction with Lyndon.  It was Polly and Martin’s turn to be filled in on Shane’s divorce-and-diet saga, and the comical sight of bored Polly pouting as the Dieting Dustman from Dudley ploughed on obliviously about chips gave me the confidence to monopolise our leader for a while.

‘You must have done this route a few times,’ I ventured.

‘A few dozen.  It’s one I never tire of, though.  You?’

‘I’ve never done the Matthews before.’  I often giggle needlessly when I’m self-conscious. I did so now, cringing at how dippy it sounded.  ‘Well, only sections of it.  Actually this is the first time I’ll have attempted a route this length.’

‘What made you choose this one?’  He had an attentive manner that was so appealing, as though everything you said was of
real interest to him.

‘I’ve lived in the Midlands all my life, know the area well.  And history always fascinated me at school.  I loved learning about the Four Matthews, and when I found out there was a footpath across the land it became a bit of an obsession that I just had to get it out of my system before it drove me mad.’

Hazel, who had slunk diplomatically apart from us, caught my eye and grinned, as though approving that I had found my voice.

‘You’re an experienced walker then?’ Lyndon asked.

Why does the urge to spout inane one-liners strike when you’d really prefer to appear sophisticated?  I swallowed ‘Been doing it since I was a year old – I’m shattered now,’ and instead responded, ‘When I was a kid, my parents took my two brothers and me out every weekend in the summer.  Sometimes my Uncle Terry came too.  Gary and Simon used to moan and groan – they preferred to stay in and watch The Chart Show – but I always loved it.  We used to pile the bag up with cheese and tomato sandwiches and a box of Mr Kipling cakes, and play poohsticks if we happened to be near a river.’

‘Sounds very similar to my sister Caroline and myself.’

‘There just the two of you?’

‘Yeah.  She’s six years younger.  A teacher. PE teacher.’

‘Quite a sporty family then?’

‘S’pose we are really.  Going back to childhoods, I bet the sun seemed to be permanently shining on your excursions too, eh?’

‘Absolutely.’  I’d got carried away blethering about my childhood, but sod it, he seemed more interested than he had in whatever Posturing Polly was saying to him earlier. ‘Happy days.  I think we did every beauty spot within a twenty-mile radius of Walsall.  Gaz and Si grew out of picnics with the parents, and so did I eventually but I’ve always kept up with the walking.  That’s why my big brothers are lard-arses now!  No, they’re not really, it’s just that I’m the family mountain goat.  As I grew up, I progressed to longer and longer trails.’

‘You get such a buzz from pushing yourself that bit further, don’t you?  Saying that, I only have to get a couple or three miles under my belt before I feel as though I could carry on and on until I’ve reached the Equator.’

‘I know what you mean.  It’s addictive.  You know, I’ve never taken drugs in my life.  I get all the natural highs I need from the exercise and fresh air and country landscapes.  My school and college mates thought I was a bit eccentric when I used to say that. Certain people I know still do.’

‘You never need to worry about what people like that think.’  Lyndon shook his head earnestly.  I expected he’d been on the receiving end of similar digs.

‘Oh, I never have.   A simple stroll brings untold joys.  If swotting for my exams ever got too much, I used to put my boots on and after a few miles I’d walked the stress out of my system.  I do the same nowadays, when work woes start to mount up.’  I veered away from that topic, not wishing said work woes to excessively encroach on this break.  ‘The Matthews has been an ambition of mine for some time.’

‘It is such a picturesque path.  The distance between the hills is so uniform, it’s as though they’ve been carefully placed at those intervals along the edge of some colossal tape measure.  I truly believe the world has seen no greater designer than Mother Nature.’

Lyndon’s passion on the subject was so attractive. He had such a lovely easygoing manner – which made conversing with him
comfortable, once I was over my giggly, gabbly hot blush stage – but there was also vigour in those deep smoky eyes.

He had that tousled hair thing going on too, which gave him quite an arty appearance though there was nothing hippyish or unkempt about him.

‘I expect I sound a bit of a Matthew anorak,’ he chuckled apologetically.

‘Not at all.  So how long have you been with BFF?’

‘Just over a year.  After a decade of following a very different career path.’

‘Oh?’  I could picture him as a sculptor, throwing clay in a converted barn studio, or perhaps a landscape gardener like Hazel.  Nothing desk-bound.

‘Accountancy, would you believe.’

Really?

‘I’ve only let the old locks grow since those days.’  He gave his collar-length mane an exaggerated flick, chuckling at my unconcealed amazement.  The idea of him with sensible hair and a tie was way too silly.  ‘I kind of fell into the profession.  That may sound terribly pathetic and passive, but you know what schools can be like.  Exam factories, steering gullible teenagers
towards super duper careers, hyping you up to thinking you’ll be somebody if you acquire certain letters after your name.  Well I got my degree, qualified, attained these goals I thought I aspired to, then several years down the line finally woke up and twigged that it wasn’t me, you know.’

‘I understand.  Totally.’

‘I’d always had this love for the countryside too – well, affinity really – and used to escape there of a weekend.  It became a necessity, after spending Monday to Friday poring over audits.  My first step was moving out here.  I fell in love with a cottage half a mile from where we are now.’

‘Handy.’

‘Very.  When I’m on the rota for the Matthews trip at least.  It’s such a haven here.  I’m still at the stage of waking up every day feeling as though I’m on holiday.  I suppose, doing this job, I am in a manner of speaking.  Albeit other people’s holidays.  My dad first told me about the group.  He’d been on a few of these breaks.  Then I came on a couple, and was very impressed with how they ran the show. Other things had changed in my life, so I took the next plunge, quit the rat race, and here I am.’

‘Good for you.’  What ‘other things?’  I couldn’t help wondering.

‘Best thing I ever did, I tell you.  Used to be able to see the Clent Hills from my office window, well just about, on a clear day, but they seemed to tug at me.  One day – as I say, this was just over a year ago, and it was a glorious spring day – I happened to look out, and something inside me just snapped.  We were approaching the financial year end, and I thought: why the hell am I not yomping over those hills instead of being caged in this sterile office up to my neck in tax returns?’

I could have married him on the spot.  Was there ever a man who spoke to my heart so?

I opened my mouth, and would have requested an application form for BFF leader training there and then.

‘Lyndon mate, sorry to interrupt like – I was just wondering what that was up there.  That great big wheel.’  It was Shane, pointing out a monument on a distant slope.

‘A memorial, Shane,’ Lyndon flipped back into tour guide mode, ‘to the men who worked in Sneydley Pit.  This used to be a huge mining area.  Some of Earl Matthew’s descendents became wealthy mine owners, among other things.  The pit shut down in the late sixties.  It’s a country park now.  That big winding wheel was put up about ten years ago as a memorial.’

Thus ended my monopoly on conversation with Lyndon for a while.  I could hardly be irked by Shane.  He was entitled to ask questions about the local heritage, and this is what it’s like on long walks anyway.  Folks drift in and out of fluid groups, and
sights along the way spark conversation that is by its very nature spontaneous.

******

Back at the Earlcott, we dispersed to shower and change and were invited to reconvene for dinner at half-six, or in the bar from six if we wished to partake of a pre-meal drink.

I checked my texts.  There was one from Mom, in reply to mine, and one from Kathryn, to whom I rattled off an emoticon-peppered précis of our handsome walk leader.

Then I spread a few clothes on the bed, put the TV on, flicked through the early evening game shows and left Come Dine with Me on as a soundtrack while I climbed in the shower.  I wasn’t too muddy or sweaty today.  After more strenuous slogs, the anticipation of sluicing my grimy skin and throbbing joints in citrus shower gel is as much part of the experience as the walk itself.

After showering, I ran the stained square centimetre of my walking trousers under the tap, scouring at the faint tomato splodge, and draped them over the bath to dry.

Now for tonight’s attire.  On the telly (I’d seen this episode before) Rod from Keswick was bellowing bleeped-out expletives as he slopped half of his banana soufflé mix on to his kitchen tiles.  I meanwhile was cursing my lack of wardrobe foresight.  I think I’d been half hoping my splayed-out clothes might miraculously breed during my shower, to produce a week’s worth of sexy, Lyndon-wowing outfits. Nope, there was still just the one dress – Monsoon’s finest, in silvery-purple – staring back at me.

It was extremely pretty, though: a strappy mesh dress with a handkerchief hemline that hung flatteringly around my calves. It was gathered at the waist, with embroidered detail to obscure the slight bulge of tummy to which I’m irksomely prone despite all the exercise I do, while the pleating and boning at the bust accentuated me where I needed accentuating.

I had earmarked it for Saturday night at Julian Crowfoot’s, anticipating more casual nights in tops and trousers at the other boarding houses.  Not that said tops and trousers were not presentable, I just hadn’t banked on meeting a Lyndon type.  Or, for that matter, a Polly type who was bound to eclipse me in something strapless, backless and frontless.

Even as I was getting ready, a voice in my head screeched: ‘Let him take you as he finds you.  If he’ll only like you in a frock he must be shallow.  He’s already seen you in waterproofs anyway – any variation on that is going to be an improvement.  And he hardly seems the kind to judge if you wear the same thing twice!’

Obviously I could not pass up an early drink with Lyndon, so I called for Hazel and was bar-bound for six.

‘Woo, you look nice.  He’ll love it,’ she said conspiratorially, which instantly sent my self-esteem soaring.

‘You’re pretty striking yourself, Hazel.’  She was all floaty in a tangerine kaftan, the sort of garment I’d have actually put money on her possessing.  Her cloud of hair looked more windswept, her marker-pen eyeliner smudgier than ever.  It was fair to say her look would not have suited every woman.  ‘Been watching Come Dine with Me as well?’  The end credits were rolling behind her shoulder.

She zapped it off with the remote.  ‘Don’t care for television much as a rule, but that programme is rather an indulgence of mine.  That and Strictly Come Dancing.  Can’t believe the ninny with the soufflé won it, though.’

‘I know!  Gives us all hope for our culinary efforts, doesn’t it?  Shall we call for Shane on the way?  I remember which room he came out of this morning.’

‘Yes, of course.’

As we walked down, livid voices wafted through Polly and Martin’s door.  Or rather hers was livid; his more docile and placatory.

At first I couldn’t distinguish words.  Then I heard Martin mumble something like, ‘You know it was Sarah’s idea that we come on this week together.’

‘Bloody Sarah,’ Polly shrieked, ‘she’s all I hear about lately.  You’re getting quite boring on the subject, Mart.’

Hazel pulled an ‘Ooh heck!’ face at me.  Hmm, so maybe Polly’s attention to Lyndon was vengeance for Martin’s affair with sexy Sarah?  Somehow, despite apparent evidence, this was not a theory that convinced me.

Shane was already in the bar with Lyndon, as it happened.  His now familiar Dudley twang was audible as we arrived downstairs.

‘They called me the Dieting Dustman from Dudley. And this is the photo I keep on me as inspiration – ooh hello ladies.’  He stowed his now very dog-eared ‘fat’ picture back into his pocket.

Lyndon, with his wallet poised, flashed us one of his fabulous smiles.  ‘What can I get you both to drink?’

He had a black shirt on now, with dark jeans. Dark hues suited him.  I had an odd fascination with seeing these folks in ‘civvies,’ as it were, after an afternoon in fairly uniform outdoor gear. It reminded me of mufti days at school. I’m no fashion judge, never have been, it just interested me what my classmates wore in their leisure time.  Something to do with clothes revealing character.

Shane pointed to his pint.  ‘Haven’t had one of these in months.  Not since I found out how many calories are in beer.  Treating meself today, though, bab.’

‘You deserve it,’ Hazel insisted.  ‘Mine’s a Scotch and water please, Lyndon.’

‘Naomi?’

‘Red wine, please.  That’s very kind of you.’  I noticed he was drinking the same.

‘The house red all right with you?’ asked Bryony the barmaid.

‘Great, thank you.’

I was hungry, so it zoomed to my head on first sip.  But with it came that lovely softening sensation wine produces, and also a self-righteous sense that because I’d exercised today this was a glass earned. I’ve never been one to get pissed for the sake of it.  A glass of good wine is always preferable to a skinful of alcopops.

‘If you like your vino,’ Lyndon said, ‘you should enjoy Julian’s tasting course on Saturday.’

As long as his wine is all we’ll have to taste, I thought, bearing in mind the chef’s reputation.

My empty tummy chose that moment to rumble like a jet plane.  I clamped my hand over it apologetically.

‘Fancy a look at the menu?’ suggested Lyndon diplomatically.  ‘I can recommend the lamb.’

‘Think I might have that actually.’  I wasn’t saying that to ingratiate myself with Lyndon, I did genuinely favour the roast rack over the braised chicken with beans, salmon fillet or aubergine melts.  A surprisingly broad choice for a rural guesthouse.  ‘Plums baked in sloe gin – mmm, that sounds lush.  I won’t bother with a starter in that case, then I can make space for a pudding.’

My unruly belly gave another yearning roar at the thought.  I golloped some more wine, as though that would silence it.

Polly and Martin made their entrance as it approached half-past six.  While Martin appeared faintly distressed from their row, Polly shimmied in, a defiant sensation in a cerise bustier and leather leggings.  I saw Shane gulp.  I was forced to wonder what Polly lacked that the ill-famed Sarah could possibly possess.

Her standards were evidently slipping, however, as she wasn’t quite swift enough to bag a seat next to Lyndon at dinner.  I slid into one; Hazel swiped the other.  I had to stifle a smirk when Ted and Enid arrived just as we were being seated and nipped obliviously into the places opposite Lyndon and me, which left our stroppy couple at the other end, across from Hazel and Shane, who I hardly imagined were favoured company for them.

Over dinner – ‘You were right about this lamb, Lyndon, the food’s delicious here’ – I confided my new career ambitions in him.
His eyes unguardedly met mine; I could have been the only person in the room.

Happily he was receptive to my idea too.  ‘We’re always delighted to welcome new recruits. I’ll sort you out an application form. Once you’ve returned that, they invite you to go for an assessment.  That takes place over four days, usually somewhere in the Peak District.  Pretty intensive.  You’ll have to navigate a walk; they test you on the kind of scenarios you’re likely to encounter on one
of these breaks.  Once you’ve passed, they let you loose on the general public.’

‘Sounds right up my street.’

‘Once you qualify, though, you’re not on constant holiday.  We do a lot of non-residential walking days too – we take groups of students out, do corporate events, that kind of thing.  Still up for it?’

‘Absolutely.’

Hazel did a discreet thumbs-up at me.  I hid my crimson face behind my wine glass, which proved an unwise idea as it only drew
to my juddering hands.

I attempted to deflect attention from them by making conversation with Ted and Enid who, apparently unimpressed with the diverse menu, had both ordered salads.  I’m afraid to say I thereafter privately christened them the Salad Couple.

‘How’s your, er, watercress?’ I ventured.

They looked startled to be addressed.  ‘Very nice,’ Ted murmured, after peeking at Enid as though he sought permission to answer.  They then kept their eyes on their leafy plates to preclude further dialogue.

Over coffee, Lyndon said to the table at large: ‘Now I’m sure you’ve all brought your itineraries along but just to refresh you, we’ll be getting about ten miles under our belts tomorrow.  We head to Quanswood first – some interesting wildlife there – we’ll get to the village of Lower Bratchley by lunchtime, that’s in South Staffs, then we follow the canal north to Crockington, which is where we’ll be staying tomorrow night, at a delightful place called the Badger Inn. It’s a Georgian hostelry with an intriguing menu.

‘We need to leave here at nine.  Come down for breakfast when you like – it’s served from seven – as long as we’re all ready to assemble in the lobby with our cases at nine.  Clive who drives the mini bus will drop off whatever luggage we aren’t taking on the walk to the Badger.  So obviously make sure you don’t leave anything behind.  Any questions?’

‘Can you expand on the intriguing menu?’ I asked.

‘No, I won’t elaborate yet, Naomi, but I can guarantee it will be quite unlike any other you encounter this week.  Now the rest of the evening is yours to do with whatever you wish.  Anyone fancy a game of cards?  They keep a pack in here usually.’

Lyndon went over to the dresser and pulled a dog-eared pack out of a drawer, which I saw also contained chess and a tattered Guess Who game.

Hazel was up for it, so was Shane, so was I of course.  The Salad Couple conferred with one another before burbling that they would get an early night.

‘Polly?  Martin?’ Lyndon tipped the cards on to the table and started shuffling.

Polly had scowled at the rest of us like shit all night, but now that Lyndon was talking she instantly dimpled and adopted an oozy voice.  ‘Love to, but Mart and I really ought to be getting to bed’ – she emphasised the word – ‘as well.  Come on darling.  G’night everyone.’  Despite the cursory ‘everyone,’ she looked only at Lyndon.

I have to say he displayed no signs of being impressed as she floated out like a figurehead, or wildly jealous when, within minutes, ostentatious bedspring and orgasm noises filtered down from her and Martin’s room.  Evidently they were over their squabble.

I didn’t hazard eye contact with Lyndon while their showy shag was in progress.  Neither did I snigger or pull a face, because that would have seemed pitifully unsophisticated.  In fact all four of us were far too polite and British to acknowledge the shrieks in any way other than by talking over them, through an increasingly loud bout of rummy.  I was halfway through yelling ‘Jack of SPADES’ when they suddenly subsided and I found I was echoing.

Hazel proved an adroit card sharp.  She triumphed at rummy, and after a few hands we decided to disperse and retire.  ‘Naomi, dear,’ she said, ‘I’m not much of a morning person so don’t worry about calling for me – unless I still haven’t surfaced by ten-to nine.’

‘Right you are.  Well it’s been a very interesting day,’ I said woozily as I tucked my chair in.  Hazel and Shane murmured their agreement.

‘Glad you’re all liking it thus far.’  Lyndon gathered up the cards and crammed them back in the packet.  ‘I hope the rest of the week proves as enjoyable.  Naomi, I’ll sort you out that application form in the morning.’

‘Thank you Lyndon.’

‘My pleasure.’

All mine, I assure you!

I was not yet so forward as to engineer being the last one downstairs with Lyndon (I intended waiting until at least, ooh, Wednesday).  I had no idea yet whether a wife, girlfriend, or indeed boyfriend, existed on whose toes I potentially trod.

Heading for the door, flooded with lust and wine, I sneaked a last pre-bed gaze at him while he was at the dresser with his back to me.

‘Good night,’ I said.

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