"Is there a good walk towards Horton?" asked the Webmaster.
"I'll look on the map I made, I found all the Staffordshire rights of way. It's got most of the paths. The only ones missing are those round the Serpentine and past the visitors centre."
I print out a section of the map I made yesterday using OS OpenMap Local data, rights of way data from the county council and my very novice GIS skills.
We select a route. It doesn't go to Horton but it includes paths we have not walked before and it criss crosses lanes we know well from running.
The dogs are surprised when we turn left out of the gate but the are eager for their walk. At the top of the lane we turn right and see a large group of ramblers ahead of us. They are queuing to go over the stile onto the path we are intending to take. They are all kitted out with boots and coats. We have training shoes and sweatshirts. We wait while they clear the stile. The dogs sniff and pull. It takes us a while to get the dogs past the stile. For some reason they are both being awkward today.
We finally clear the stile. The ramblers are at the top of the field negotiating the next stile.
"This ground is very soft and soggy today."
"I don't think it has been raining much."
"We'll catch them up before they all get across the stile. It's the one with the engraved coping stones."
"O-oh, don't look now." One of the ramblers has dropped behind and is standing facing a hedge row with his back to us."
He turns "Oh, I didn't see you coming."
"We've seen it all before," reassured the Webmaster.
"At some of our cross country events there are rows of men doing the same ... and some ladies." He laughs and hurries over the stile to catch up with his companions.
We follow. At the next stile we catch up while several of the ramblers are still waiting to cross.
"Do you want to go ahead?" one asks.
"No thanks. We're not in a hurry and the dogs find this stile difficult. The old one can't climb over very well and this has sheep mesh at each side so she can't squeeze under the fence."
"Do you lift her over?"
"Yes, and get covered in mud for our efforts." While we wait the Webmaster pulls up his trousers and re-tightens his belt.
At the next junction of paths the ramblers go straight on, the way we went a couple of weeks ago, but we turn left and head towards Gratton. We haven't been this way before.
The path slopes down through the farmland and over a stile in a small thicket of trees at the bottom. The ground around the stile is wet and muddy. The Young Dog pulls and the Webmaster slips. He curses a few times before regaining his balance and attempting to climb the stile. The Young Dog leaps the stile ahead of him and pulls. The Webmaster almost topples head first over the stile. He curses again. The Young Dog has seen a pheasant and is impatient to give chase.
By the time the Old Dog has struggled to cross the stile the pheasant has disappeared and the Young Dog has calmed down.
We come out of the trees and join a track. It bends down to the right but we go the other way, almost stright on from the path, and follow it as it makes its way up a shallow incline. Off to the left, in the middle distance we can see the hills of the Peak District. We have seen the view many times before but never from this exact spot.
The Young Dog is pulling again. The Webmast is beginning to lose patience. "I don't know what has got into him today" he said, "I need to hitch up my trousers again but I can't with the dog pulling."
"I'll hold him. Why don't you tighten your belt so your trousers don't keep falling down?"
"I do, but it keeps slackening off."
"Well get a better belt."
"This is a good belt."
"Not if it doesn't stay fastened."
"Well it was a good belt, but its worn out."
"Get a new one. Why not get a new belt when you go for your new shoes? Do you want a belt and some shoes for Christmas?"
"For your birthday."
"You want them for MY birthday. How does that work?"
"Well then I won't moan all the time that my trousers are falling down and I've got wet feet."
The track curls slowly to the right. "Are you sure this is the right way?" asks the Webmaster. "Is this dog-leg on the map?"
"Yes. We are here." We stop and I point to map. "It doesn't show the type of path, the tracks aren't marked, but we are just coming up to that building there."
We walk on past the building and a field in which two donkeys are grazing. They see us and run to the fence. Maybe they are expecting carrots. As we walk on one of them follows us.
We emerge onto the lane.
"You must know where we are." We are near Blackwood Farm. We have often run down this lane.
"There's the footpath sign. I expected it to be a bit further down" said the Webmaster.
We cross the road and after one refusal by the Young Dog it leaps the stile in one bound. The Webmaster flies over behind him. The Old Dog struggles, and slips but doesn't come to any harm. Within five metres there is another stile. This one is easier for the Old Dog.
"Now where?" asks the Webmaster.
"According to the map the path turns right and goes between the farm buildings. I think we need to go down there" pointing to the track into the farmyard. But the Webmaster continues into the field. He doesn't like going through farm yards.
"I don't think we can get through, there is a big fence."
We continue through the field and soon meet a path crossing our route at right angles.
"Stop, this is this path" I say pointing to the map. "We need to go right and it will take us back to where we should be. Go down here and then there will be a path to the left."
The gate onto the path is jammed. The gate has dropped on its hinges and it is impinging on the fence post. It takes us several minutes to open it, but with pushing and shoving at the post and gate we manage it. It closes behind us more easily.
The path is overgrown. The Old Dog has gained a new lease of life and is charging ahead pulling me into the nettles and brambles that block my way.
"This looks like a stile" said the Webmaster pointing to a wall with a low section and protruding stones, similar to steps, "but if it is there's no way we can get through."
On the far side of the wall is a thicket of scrub, brambles and weeds. "According to the map the path goes between two buildings so I don't think this is it."
A building is just in sight a few metres further on so we continue.
"Look, there's the path we should've come along."
"And it should go straight across this path."
"There" the Webmaster points to a small gate in the wall between two buildings. He walks over and looks. "It doesn't go anywhere. Can you see a way out?"
The gate leads into a very small overgrown yard.
"No, but maybe we should go through the farm gate." We look across the field.
"Can you see any way out down there?"
"No. We can carry on down to the road. It comes out on the sharp bend after the farms. We can take the lane off to the left instead of going down the way we run."
"I don't like that route. All that down hill. It hurts my knees."
We reach the lane and follow the road until we reach the junction where we expect to find the footpath.
"This is it." The Webmaster points to a wide grassy track between two hedge rows. It is heading back up the hill, we are at the lowest point on our route. "It must be right but there isn't a sign post."
We follow the wide track. It goes steadily upwards for about a mile.
"It's a very wide path. Is it a briddle way?"
"The rights of way map didn't distinguish between footpaths and bridle ways, but there is a bridle way down from the chappel, the Rider mentioned it, and this path comes out at the top by the chappel.
We walk up the path noting all the paths off to either side. We may try them another time. As we approach the top we pass a few well spaced houses. It seems strange that this is so close to home, the people who live in these houses are almost neighbours but we don't know them.
"I recognise that van" the Webmaster announced, pointing to a red transit type van.
"You mean you have seen it driving around the lanes."
"Yeah. We are under a grey cloud. It might rain."
"We are nearly home. Only about a mile to go now."
"Oh yes, and how wet can you get in a mile?"
"Depends how hard it rains."
It doesn't rain. We reach the top and follow the lane home.
"It looks different walking. I don't see the view when I'm running and I've been this way hundreds of times."
"At your speed there isn't much difference." An insult from the Webmaster.
"That's not fair. I come along here quite fast."
"Putting in a last spurt because the end is in sight."
"Look, another of those High Commissioner whiskey bottles. It's quite a way from where we see the others. They are all the way from before Hill Top, mostly along the top road after the second bend. If they walk they come a long way with their booze."
The Webmaster has been puzzled by the many dozens of small whiskey bottles he has seen while walking the dogs. He has long speculated on how they get to be dumped at the edge of the road and by whom. He suspects someone of a secret alcohol problem.
"But why would someone dump the empties at the side of the road. Surely they could drop them in a bottle bank, no one would take a second look at someone throwing away a lot of bottles."
"Doesn't want his wife to find out."
"You'd know if someone was drinking all the time. Surely you'd smell it. Unless they are always cleaning their teeth with strong toothpaste or eating strong mints."
We pull the dogs to the verge as a car comes towards us. This is a fast, fairly busy road and not quite wide enough for two cars to pass at speed.
"It could be you" I accuse the Webmaster. "You have lots of strong mints in all your pockets."
He laughs, "You found them when you were looking for my car keys." Yesterday the Webmaster had become very stressed when he realised he had lost his keys. He finally found them in his document case, but in the meantime we had searched all his pockets.
"Yes. And it explains why you seem drunk in the evening when you've apparently not had anything to drink."
He laughs again.
"That's it. It's you. Making a mystery out of the bottles to distract attention. Hiding in plain sight."
The dogs walk in the mud and paddle through puddles at the edge of the road. The Webmaster complains.
"They'll have to stay outside until they dry off" decided the Webmaster, as we turn in through our gate.
The grey clouds have gone and the sun is bright again.