"We need to go now otherwise it will be dark before we get back. I didn't expect it would take so long to sort out the Gopro."
"Will I need my wellies?
"We'll have time to go round the lake, so yes."
The dogs have settled down. They gave up pestering for a walk at about lunch time. Now they sense that we are getting ready they follow us around, getting in the way.
"I'll take the lights. It might be dark when we get back to the roads."
The Student piles on layers of clothes although it feels much warmer than it was on Christmas Eve. It hasn't snowed and now rain seems more likely.
We set off down the road. The Student has brought the Gopro with her to try out the remote control.
"You would never have connected it to your phone or to the remote controller. The camera wifi wasn't working and we had to load a firmware upgrade."
"I don't know what that mean," the Student sounds disinterested. Techie stuff.
"You'd better learn in case you need to do it again."
"And if you're going to try filming your attempts at surfing use the remote control, not your phone. We can't afford for you to drop an iphone into the sea."
"The Old Dog seems to be getting a move on today," observed the Webmaster.
"She wants to jog again," I suggest as she picks up more speed and I start jogging along with her. She is pulling slightly on the lead and she maintains the tension as I speed up, further increasing her speed.
We all jog with the dogs, the Old Dog appears to enjoy herself, leading her pack.
"What is this? I've already been for a run today," the Student sounds amused.
The Old Dog stops once to pee in the grass and then resumes her jog. At the bottom of the hill she stops, hesitates, trying to decide which way we will go. We turn right into the farm yard and follow the path over the stiles and towards the woods.
"We can't afford to dawdle. It will be going dark soon," I say, "Come on dog, keep going." The Old Dog has stopped to sniff at what to her must be a very interesting clump of grass. I wait a few seconds longer and try again to persuade her to move. She digs her paws into the ground and resists my attempts to jog her on with the lead.
"Don't pull the dog like that," shouts the Webmaster.
"I'm not pulling; she's pulling back." The Webmaster calls the dog and whistles to it. After a few more seconds she lifts her nose from the ground and trots towards us. She picks up speed and tries to move to the front of our little pack but the Young Dog and the Webmaster have other ideas.
"It isn't as muddy as I expected," I shout to the Webmaster, who is now several metres ahead on the single file path.
"It is here, in patches. The ground is very soft, I can feel my feet sinking in."
As we get closer to the small plank bridge across the river the path became softer and muddier. The Old Dog seems to have discovered a new lease of life. She dashes over the bridge, pulls hard up the steep and very muddy path and makes an attempt to overtake the Webmaster, as he negotiates his way around a tree which obstructs the driest route, and tangles him in her lead.
"Keep that dog under control."
"She is under control, she wants to get past you."
The path continues to get softer and muddier and as it levels off near the top we can see two or three alternative routes trampled out by walkers attempting to find a firmer way through. The dogs plough straight through the mud, sinking in almost to their knees. In her wellies the Student is also not concerned about the mud.
"The Young Dog leaps the stile and the Old Dog crawls under the wire gate. "Which way? Do we have time to go up to the bungalow and down through the field?"
"Yes, if we're quick," the Webmaster decides.
We walk quickly. The Old Dog is co-operating and maintains a steady pace, it reminds me of her younger days when I took her running. Once she was off on a run she didn't stop for much.
"Is Boxing Day just a British thing?" asks the Student. "My friends at Calpoly didn't know what I meant. They just call it the day after Christmas."
"Could be, it certainly isn't a holiday everywhere even if Christmas Day is. You'll have to look it up."
The Young dog kicks up leaves. A thick layer of oak and beech leaves still carpet the ground, some remarkably dry, which the dog sends flying out and up behind him, covering all of us walking behind.
"I'll be walking up here in the race."
"Why? It isn't very steep."
"I'll be knackered after coming up from the waterfall. This will be a 'walking opportunity'."
"No, you'll do it."
We walk up through the woods. Most of the trees are bare but a few beech trees still cling to clusters of dry, brown shrivelled leaves, although mostly they have fallen and are carpeting the ground.
"You can see our house from here, look, over there, behind the tall, green fir trees." I turn round and point. We almost never walk down this path and so do not ofter see the view behind.
"Oh yes," said the Student sounding interested. Either she really had not realised or she was being polite.
The path through the fields down to the lake is very wet. The whole top field has turned into a marsh and as we walk our feet sink in several inches. It is tough going.
"I'm surprised it is so wet everywhere. I thought it would drain better than this," comments the Webmaster, somewhat surprised.
"I told you. You think this is an easy bit of the race, the downhill after the climb, but usually the ground is even worse than this. It's either like a bog, covered in snow or frozen solid."
"The sun will be down soon," the Webmaster looks over the lake towards the low, red sun.
"So let's hurry, maybe we should just go round the lake and back up past the rock," I suggest.
"I don't think that's any shorter than going along the feeder. We can go back up the road if it is dark."
We reach the castle and join the main path, turning anti-clockwise round the lake. There are a lot of people out walking, many family groups. Lots of dogs.
"What are all these people doing here?" asks the Student.
"Boxing day tradition, family walk."
"But its our usual walk," she says as though complaining that other people are walking our route.
We make our way round the lake and the Serpentine with little conversation. We keep the dogs on short leads and stop young kids from trying to pat the Old Dog which still looks cute but which can be very grumpy. The Young Dog spends his time greeting other dogs, performing his dancing and sniffing routine. It is slow progress and the light will soon be gone.
At the far end of the Serpentine we turn right onto the path along side the marsh. The path is slippery and in parts covered with large puddles. Parts of the marsh are under standing water.
"I haven't seen it this wet along here for ages. I hope it isn't like this for the race. I try to run along here before the walking opportunity at the steps."
The Webmaster and the Young Dog lead the way up the steps. The Old Dog gives up on the steps which are deep and wide, made with sleepers retaining the ground, and walks up the side.
"This is definitely a 'walking opportunity'," agrees the Student, "not like the path by the wall. You should run up there, no real excuse, but you can walk here. Now you are old."
"More like unfit." We reach the top and follow the path, continuing on, past the stone steps which turn off to the left, leading back down to the lake side path. "The race goes back down there, so by the time you reach the bottom you are only about 10 metres further on than when you turn off, but knackered after the steps."
"But then it is nearly the end so you can just go for it."
We walk through the grounds of the visitors' centre, cross the road and continue on the footpath along the side of the ridge. The sun has gone down, or at least is hidden by the top of the ridge. We walk on quickly, through the wooded valley and back out onto the farm land.
"The path actually goes up there over that hill, but we need to go straight on and cut the corner off to save time." We cross the field and join the path down to the feeder. The ground is rutted and the Webmaster turns his ankle twice and curses. The Young Dog pulls ahead on a long lead and begins to sink into the ground. The approach to the stile is like a bog. The Old Dog struggles through but them manages to climb the stile without difficulty.
"We should go straight down, past the tree and through the gate," suggested the Webmaster. The ground falls away sharply before levelling off. The footpath, according to the map, goes left at the bottom of the steep slope, then up and down again, crossing a gully and a stream before joining the bottom path along the river a hundred or more metres back from where we are aiming to meet it.
"This is where you fell and twisted your knee, last time," warns the Webmaster, "don't let the dog pull, it's muddy and your feet could slide away from you." But we negotiate the slope without mishap and make it safely down. The river is in full flood and the water level of the feeder appears higher than usual.
"Come on, don't dawdle, it's going dark." We walk briskly in single file along the feeder path.
"Can you remember refusing to come of this little bridge when we were running along here? The cows had congregated at one end and you were scared of them."
"Well they were scary," the Student defended her younger self.
The Webmaster has increased the pace and is now half a field ahead, calling us to get a move on and not to let the Old Dog into the stream by the stile. There are several stiles on this path but the Old Dog manages them all with no real difficulty.
"The paths at this end aren't as bad as I thought they would be given the conditions earlier," I observe. "This bit is usually really muddy," I explain to the Student, "this is where I was tripped up by the dog."
"I thought that was earlier, on the slope."
"There too. I fell twice on the same walk, but this is where I was cut down by the dogs lead."
We reach the road. It is definitely dusk, at least half an hour after sunset. Our usual route takes us across the lane, through the fields and up the track to the church, but today we turn left and follow the lane. It is a long way up but we walk quickly, falling into a rhythm and maintaining our pace.
"You seem to be on a mission," calls the Webmaster who, with the Young Dog, is about 20 metres behind me and the Old Dog. Without slackening my pace I turn to look. The Student is just behind him, strolling without apparent effort, looking at her phone.
"I'm trying to get back before dark, but I have got the lights just in case."
At the top, I pause briefly while the Webmaster and the Student catch up.
"I think we'll make it now," declared the Webmaster. And we do.