Whittle le Woods and le Waterways

IMG_0848 (2)A quick trip up to Lancashire and an overnight stay in Whittle le Woods, an old village a couple of miles north of Chorley, now much enlarged by twentieth century development but rather pretty and public spirited. Spectacular – and lovingly tended – flower baskets sprout from lamp posts – even by the side of the road where no one was looking and the redundant phone box doubles as a book swap and defibrillator station.

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Fully equipped for racy reads

I was out early and so were the dog walkers. I asked a man with a black lab if I was on the right road for the canal. Which one? There are two? Was I to face an embarrassment of canal walking choice? Mind you, the Walton Summit’s only a couple of hundred metres long. You’ll see that one first then the main one. And so I did, hitting this last gasp of the Lancaster Canal at its forlorn end and following it down to the junction with the much more up together Leeds and Liverpool Canal.

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The Lancaster Canal. I’d like to tell you more

I have to admit to having been a tad disconcerted by the official Don’t Do This sign

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No motorbiking, no riding, and no swimming I get, but…

NO SHOOTING? I mean, they only put up notices banning something if it’s going on in the first place, don’t they? What on earth were miscreants shooting? And were all the genial locals  (It’s a grand day all right) walking amiable dogs (Don’t mind him, he’s as soft as putty) secretly packing? Hard to believe. But I dodged the bullets and added the notice to my Hall of Fame just a little shy of my all time favourite.

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No pan frying, no kebabbing, and positively no doing a runner with a fish tucked under your arm. (Pewsey Wharf on the Kennet and Avon)

Over the defunct canal, on to the Leeds and Liverpool and immediately into the seven lock flight of Johnson’s Hillock (Cannot help but think that that must have a congestion blackspot back in the day with the merging of two major waterways, plus seven locks and a brewery thrown into the mix – http://maps.nls.uk/view/101102450).IMG_0897 (2) Revilo was just entering the bottom lock when I passed and leaving the top lock when I returned a couple of hours later. Otherwise nothing was moving on the water.

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After surmounting the Johnson’s Hillock flight, Revilo‘s crew were looking forward a leisurely afternoon cruising uninterrupted water before tackling the flight at Blackburn next morning.

My aim was to get to Withnall Fold before turning back. I was walking by the clock, 1 1/2 hours out and 1 1/2 hours back to fit in with my lift, so I actually got a little further, out from the gently wooded valley into the flatter soft uplands.

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Withnall Fold, once a paper mill, now the home of various car mechanics and metal bashers.

It made for a pleasantly undemanding walk with time to admire the array of bridges with their almost perfect circular reflections in the still water.

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The changing leaves will be fabulous here in a few weeks

Interestingly most of these bridges connect only old byways or farmlands rather than present day roads. So when T rang to say he was ready to leave earlier than anticipated, I realised that I was a good half hour’s walk from the nearest vehicular access to the canal, back at the top lock. As luck would have it there was pub right there which not only served excellent coffee but also threw in large lumps of home made chocolate chip bedecked shortbread too. No hardship to wait with that on offer.

I began to wonder if there ever was an I Spy book of canal country? I could have raced through it if there was. You know the sort of thing, score five points for a sheep, tick, ten for a goat, tick, fifteen for a pheasant, tick, twenty for a brace of floppy eared bunnies, tick, and twenty five for matching cow and lock gate combo.IMG_0923 (2) Thirty for some industrial heritage (chimneys tucked into a valley across the fields) and thirty five for canalside remnants.

And on to the back page list of elusive things that no one ever bags. Score 500 for the pair of jogging Mormon missionaries who passed me twice (you’re not going to make many converts at that speed, boys) and – yes, I smashed it – 1000 points for the morose horse giving me the side eye.IMG_1002 (2) Gold stars all round.

 

 

 

 

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Walking the dogs

Now I don’t actually have any dogs, and nor does my excellent friend, N, so this is a bit of a misnomer. But last week she was dog sitting a brace of them so I joined her for a couple of outings and became a dogwalker by association, as it were. I did not cover myself in glory as I failed to remember which was the boy and which the girl, but N had it all under control. Very firm is N.

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This is J who strikes me as a bit girly in the looks department. And in his frequent stops to strike a pose.

Walk 1 saw us meeting up in Winscombe in North Somerset and setting off along the Strawberry Line – a charmingly named railway side shoot turned cycle path which once carried the strawberries from Cheddar to the main line at Yatton for Bristol and beyond. I don’t know what was carried for the rest of the year but it’s a nice example of early destination marketing.

Now while there is almost nothing not to like about the repurposing of redundant rail lines into public access greenways, I have to admit that I find them mega tedious when it comes to walking along them. It’s not their fault – they were built to follow the straightest path along the flattest of terrain for obvious reasons. This make them excellent for running (if you must) and cycling (a delight to see whole families taking to two wheels to enjoy them) but a track that is flat and straight, taken at walking pace, makes for a dull outing.

Happily, N is splendid company so the miles passed easily. She’s also a great wonderer and, when we paused for a cup of coffee at a pub in Sandford, she looked up at a wooded ridge and wondered if there was a way of getting up to it. This was my cue to whip my map from my backpack and take a look. (Give me the slightest encouragement to consult a map and I’m there).  There was a path so off we went up Sandford Hill, cutting along drives and alongside back gardens and up into the woods.

Although we didn’t see a soul, it turned out to be an unheralded but obviously well used way through a rather glorious mixed wood. Every now and then signs of past quarrying could be seen.

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That sign’s been there a long time. The company changed names in 1989

Turning a corner we found ourselves on a track that didn’t appear to go to or from anywhere very much, but along which walkers were clearly anticipated. Thirsty ones too.

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I mean, how often do you find yourself in the middle of a wood and stumble across a sign for a bar?

Verdict on Sandford Hill?  Not somewhere to put on your must-see list but a fine example of the quietly lovely spots to be found all around us when we follow our noses.

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Looking north from Black Down towards the Welsh coast, the Wye Valley, and Bristol

Walk 2 began at Burrington, not so far from Sandford. Although just a few miles east along the Mendip hills, the landscape was strikingly different – no wooded ridge here, just the wild open moors of Black Down with glorious views in all directions, down to the Quantocks, over to Wales, up to Bristol and across towards Bath.

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J and L. Fluffy black dogs do not make good photographic models.

While the dogs jumped into every muddy puddle they could find, I burbled on about how unspoilt it all was, unchanged for centuries etc etc. N was too polite to disagree. Then we came upon this,

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Ancient Monument.  That’s all there is. Anyone’s guess as to what it’s all about but clearly people have been this way before us.

and then this.

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See those mounds regularly spaced on each side of the track?

N tactfully explained that far from being au naturel this area was heavily modified in the War. A whole network of lights and what have you was set up in a bid to fool enemy aircraft into attacking a decoy city here in the middle of nowhere, rather than the real Bristol 15 miles north. These small hummocks are remnants of this extensive defensive apparatus – either they were built to prevent invading planes landing on this otherwise flat top, or they were the bases of the runway lights of the ersatz Bristol airfield.

And as we dropped down into a steep sided valley, even I could see the hand of the Forestry Commission at work in the regimented planting of the conifers. But bracken, that’s natural isn’t it? Nothing cultivated about those ferny fronds, is there? IMG_0805 (2) Well, yes and no. It may grow wild but hereabouts they harvest it commercially for fuel. Here’s how the Mendips website explains it – ‘Through a simple yet ingenious process the harvested bracken is shredded, dried, shredded a bit more and dried a lot more. It’s then compacted under huge pressure… shunting down a line to be cut into ‘brackettes’, bagged up and distributed to 120 outlets around the country to burn on home fires.’ (http://www.mendiphillsaonb.org.uk/2017/06/07/brackenburn-a-growing-success-story/)

Ingenious indeed.

So all of this, far from being a wilderness on the doorstep, is actually a highly cultivated space. But what a good job is being made of it. And while neither of these walks are ones you’d cross the country (or even the county) to reach, these hours of talking the walk with N were treats indeed.

(And – bonus treat – I went home with the makings of a blackberry crumble from the wild brambles that are left in abundance. I’ll just whisper that I had to carry the berries in a spare dog poo bag that the ever organised N had in her pocket. IT WAS UNUSED, OK? But still faintly distressing)

So, tell me – are you a Plan It All In Advance, Verging On Anal Map Geek like me when it comes to your walking? Or more of a chilled Let’s See What’s Up There Wondering Wanderer like N? I’d love to know.

 

Changing views

The other day I had the chance of an afternoon in a place not too far from here so I mapped a stroll to search out the nice part of this particular town, something which has so far eluded me. I mean, every city has its nice part, doesn’t it? Er, apparently not as it turned out. But I am nothing if not perkily positive on this platform, so I shall not name this town but shall instead move swiftly on, noting that after some time searching in vain for a way of accessing the car park attached to the green space I could see on top of the hill, seeing only signs bellowing No parking, No access and (my bete noire) No turning and negotiating mile upon mile of post War housing estates, eventually I spotted a sign to somewhere completely different and headed that way instead.

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Not immediately enticing

My perky positivity was waning somewhat by the time I got to Sand Bay and was not improved by dodging the puddled potholes in a grotty car park and then having to grub about for the right coin for the loo.

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A penny in the slot machine – how charmingly retro

Happily a woman emerged from the Gents at this moment (yes, I wondered too) and kindly held the door open for me. Suitably relieved I lingered on the threshold for a bit, foot in the door, in case I could pay the favour forward. Then I realised that this probably wasn’t a good look.

Having faced a dearth of useful signage in the previous place, here they had gone to the opposite extreme. A faded sketchmap done in blocks of primary colours but now long outdated, promised many attractions, few of which appear to have survived. The mariners light cattery gave me pause for thought. Evidently this is accommodation for solely the sveltest of moggy – but how does that work then? Do they make all prospective guests hop on the scales on the way in? Or maybe the only access is through a very small cat flap? Then I realised – it’s the Mariner’s Light cattery. Of course. Silly of me. Maybe there’s more than one mariner but who cares as long as he’s brought an apostrophe with him. (It was turning into a bit of a day for errant punctuation – on the way into the Town I Shall Not Name I spotted an employment agency offering various services, including light house keeping. Naturally I read that as lighthouse keeping). IMG_0481Taking my life in my hands – quicksand, fast moving tides, strong currents, and unspecified inflatables related incidents – and determined to Be Positive I crossed the road, a very quiet dead end that turns to mud in the car park at the far end of the strand.  I cannot say that this most uninviting of beaches was in fact glorious, but the air was fresh and clean and, with the tide out, the sands seemed to stretch forever in a strangely calming manner.

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Spot the container ship passing Cardiff Bay on the other side of the Severn estuary?

It turned into a pleasant enough stroll, occasionally passing small knots of other people Being Positive, stoically eating sandwiches, using a discarded tractor tyre as a makeshift paddling pool, failing to get a kite airborne or displaying superior local knowledge. IMG_0524Reaching the headland  a mile or so later I turned back and took to the broad tarmac path along dunes, right by the road side. The beach based, seaward view was pleasant enough but, once the ship had gone down the channel, it was unchanging. From what I could see, the settlement of Sand Bay consists of a collection of mid century homes strung along a road that goes nowhere, interspersed here and there with the occasional older farm cottage, a pub reeking of old cooking fat, and a café, firmly locked up, chairs piled up against the doors, at just gone 4pm on an August afternoon.

But the start of this seaside drag was dominated by an extraordinary building, with something of the Art Deco about it,  incongruously out of scale amidst the Sixties bungalows. The Kewstoke Hospital – as the discreet sign announced it to be – looked to be neither a mainstream NHS institution nor one of those private places where they will do you a new hip, knee or nose. (I looked it up later – it is now a secure psychiatric hospital). IMG_0529 (1)I heard the affable couple settled on one of the path side benches before I saw them. They were passing the time of day in broad Midlands accents with all who passed. As I approached, the man called out to me and I stopped for a chat. Aged somewhere in their seventies, this pleasant pair had that comfortable way of speaking that some long marrieds have. Not so much finishing each other’s sentence, more one taking the descant while the other carries the tune. We’ve just come down from Birmingham. (We’re from Stourbridge, in fact). Terrible traffic on the motorway. (Long queues all the way from Bristol). Usually takes us two hours. (Took us two and a half hours today).

They had come down to stay at the holiday camp just along the road and were waiting to be able to check in to their chalet. You get your room and all your meals for a week for £59. (And you can eat as much as you like). It’ll be full this week (Over 300 people). And there’s entertainment in the evening. (But he likes his kip so he’s not bothered about that) I like my kip. (I like the entertainment though). They had been coming for years, they said, they loved it here. We’ve been down once this year already but that was an expensive week. (It was £65. They had better entertainers that week) They had Elvis here then. And Whitney Houston.

We put the world to rights for quite a time, none of us knowing the answer to the question that had been perplexing the woman on the journey down – what happens when electric cars get stuck in long traffic queues? If they run out of charge in the middle of the motorway how do they get them going again? (Any ideas anyone?)

IMG_0542As I walked on, I began to notice thatnearly all of the dedications on benches mentioned the West Midlands. This end of the road spot tucked away in a much overlooked corner of Somerset clearly occupies a large place in the affections of generations of Brummies. It’s Birmingham by the Sea.

But why? I was intrigued so when I went home I did a bit of Googling and ended up back at what’s now the psychiatric unit. Turns out this striking building started life as a convalescent home, its construction funded by the weekly contributions of the city’s workers into the delightfully named Birmingham Hospital Saturday Fund, back in the pre NHS 1930s. Interestingly it was a place of recovery for women only (Were there many female facilities back then? The men’s homes were in North Wales).

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Don’t they look a happy bunch? Source: Birmingham Hospital Saturday Fund Convalescent Home, Kewstoke Wellcome L0030741.jpg Wikimedia commons

I don’t know any more about it than that so I can only imagine just how much respite a spell in the fresh air and the open spaces in this quiet backwater could provide from the congestion and grime of the industrial centre. And in how high a regard such a place would be held for ever after.

But that is to jump ahead. All this Being Positive was starting to have an effect on me. The Black Country cheer was infectious. I began to admire immaculate front gardens and to wonder at the stories behind a couple of almost abandoned dwellings. I lauded the thoughtful positioning of a shelter mid way along the exposed path. I admired the variety in the design of the benches.

And then I saw this.IMG_0536 No idea where it had come from but such generosity could not be ignored. I anticipated sinking my teeth into something unlovely, woolly, or sour but, Being Positive, I took a bite. It was the best apple I have tasted in a long time.

So, Sand Bay?IMG_0486

Oddly life affirming.

 

 

Serendipity and the Oxfam Bookshop

IMG_9956On one of my Cornish walks I fell in with a couple of walkers as we paused to catch our breaths under cover of admiring Boat Cove – one of those rather lovely beaches with sand to laze on for a read in the sun, rocks to clamber over for a spot of exploring, a stream to dam should a civil engineering moment strike you (just me then?), and a slipway for the launching of boats and the provision of diversions for landlubbers like me. IMG_9957After we had exchanged the usual walkers’ pleasantries (Where are you heading? How are you finding it?), we turned to how we had come to find ourselves in the very tip on Cornwall. They – perhaps in their 70s – spoke of how they had first come to the Penwith Peninsula decades ago on the invitation of a friend and had so loved the place that they had returned ever afterwards. Their friend had been an art teacher at an upmarket boarding school, they told me, where houses were provided for masters and their families. With no need of a property in that area, the young schoolmaster bought a rundown miner’s cottage way down here instead. He spent his summers restoring it, joined by a wife and children as time went by, and eventually retired to live year round in this beautiful spot.

We – my new companions and I – agreed that there is something very special about this particular, remote part of the world. I cannot say that I know Cornwall and that is one of the reasons I’m walking this way. Before I came I had perceived that much of the county had been bespoiled by early uncontrolled overly commercialised and unsympathetic development (Tintagel, Newquay) or by its own picturesque success (Padstow, Rock). I’ll make an honourable exception for Porthleven, which is cannily steering a middle path, but my few visits to Cornwall usually had me scurrying back to Pembrokeshire.

Turns out I was wrong. I am sure that I shall meet blights of bungalowification along the way as I move further up the coast but Penwith is a very distinct place, wild and yet peaceful, with a gentle atmosphere.

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Sun setting over Land’s End

There’s a very good book about this place. Called West of Hayle River. Sums it up. Written by Gerald Priestland, remember him? Yes of course. From Thought for the Day. The Today programme has been the soundtrack to my mornings for as long as I can recall. Bit old now though so you probably won’t find it anywhereHe talks about how the part of Cornwall west of St Ives is like nowhere else in the world. A really special place.

I think you know where this is going.

A few weeks later I went into my local Oxfam bookshop in search of light, disposable holiday reading – nothing with a pink cover, nothing with a black cover, nothing with the title in gold letters, but otherwise all else acceptable – and there it was.

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Priestland, G & S (1980) West of Hayle River. Wildwood House. London

 

A short walk and a long lunch

Next morning, I went back to the coast path at Botallack and began to head up country again.IMG_9919.JPG Earlyish in the morning I had the place to myself and was rather enjoying the far reaching views – right out to the Scilly Isles – and the odd ruin amidst the flowers. I was just settling into my stride for an uneventful bit of cliff walking when suddenly there was this – the remains of the Levant tin and copper mines which were  rather wonderfully atmospheric.

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Today they are in the care of the NT and fully equipped with interpretation boards, loos and refreshment opportunities. I swear you cannot walk for half an hour round here without stumbling upon a slice of lemon drizzle cake. Not complaining, just noticing.

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Look at the staining of the cliffs – it is copper sulphate turquoise in places.

I’m not a geologist but it looks to me as if copper permeates the whole of this terrain, whether seeping into the soil or leeching through the watercourse and down to the sea. It is an astounding and dramatic landscape and all the more unexpected because it is confined into a relatively small space so that you come upon it suddenly and then just as suddenly it is gone.

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Geevor tin mine in the background

What I did find myself pondering is why these ruins of Victorian workings have a picturesque, not to say romantic, air about them when the more modern remnants of tin mining most certainly do not.

Back then to the grassy cliff path, a few ups and downs, and a couple of interesting conversations with other walkers, then on past the Pendeen Watch lighthouse, and around the headland to find a new vista opening up in front of me. This looked somehow far more daunting than anything seen previously.

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Looking toward Gurnard’s Head from Pendeen Watch. I didn’t see the woman and her telescope until she moved at the sound of my camera’s shutter. She was watching seals on the rocks below.

A couple of miles later and,  given the head of steam I had built up and the open terrain, I had convinced myself that next time I came down this way I would crack out a pair of shorts. Despite not having worn any since 1975. I can carry a grudge only so long. Thus decided, it was time to turn off the coast path and head inland to my lift at Morvah.

IMG_9959 Shoulder charging cow parsley is one thing (the path got way narrower than this, and the vegetation taller), barging through nettles is another. The trews took the strain and I came through the stingers unstung. Think I’ll be leaving those shorts in the shop.

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St Bridget’s Church, Morvah, parts of which date from 1400. But not this bit.

Time for a quick look at the ancient church and a snarky moment wondering whether There will be other times and better times is a fitting epitaph for an organist’s endeavours or whether it was in fact a veiled comment on his expertise. And then I found myself rather touched by these simple memorials alongside an instrument which has known only three organists in 107 years. (Four in 139 if whoever took over in 1985 is still in post). Does this speak of generation after generation of contented lives grounded in this place? Or of frustrated ambitions and an inability to get away?

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Gratuitous photo of Cornish hydrangea because I am besotted with them.

When I planned this trip to Cornwall I intended to spend three or four days out on the cliffs and to get all the way around that new horizon and on to St Ives, perhaps even beyond. As it turned out not only did it rain in a very determined fashion but something important blew up at work for T, so he had to go home early. And something even more important blew up for our daughter M – viz, her appendix –  so she was unexpectedly with us for a spot of post-op convalescence. Best laid plans going astray and all that, but this is such an interesting coastline that it is no hardship to have to come back to it again.

So at Morvah I hopped into the car with the others and set off for lunch. Mine is not a foodie blog or a place for restaurant reviews – I am not qualified to comment – and anyway the pub in question already features in a zillion guides. I mention it only to share a charming incident. A plate of soda bread and local butter appeared on our table as soon as we had ordered and we fell on it as do people who have not eaten since breakfast time. It was delicious and, as she cleared the plate away, I asked the young waitress what were the little brown flecks in the bread.  I don’t know, but I’ll go and ask in the kitchen and shall I get you the recipe?  Well, of course I thought that in the midst of a busy lunchtime service with not a table spare no one would have time to write out a recipe, even if the chef was willing to reveal the kitchen’s secrets, and so that would be that.

But with my meal came this note

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Soda bread recipe- it’s my photography which is making it blurry. http://www.gurnardshead.co.uk

and from the waitress, a helpful word of advice

It makes 15 loaves, so you might want to cut it down a bit.

 

New readers start here

Reader friends blessed with long attention spans may recall that I began this blog last autumn to chart my Great Adventure – my walk home from Land’s End – and they may be wondering about the distinctly unCornish directions my jaunts have taken ever since.

Well, wonder no more because here I am, back in the far west and all set to notch up a few more miles of the South West Coast Path. Thanks to the lovely N bringing me a memento from one of her trips (she knows I cannot resist a souvenir tea towel), we have a visual aid with which to orientate ourselves. Find Sennen Cove and we can take it from there.

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Thanks also to The Cornish Teatowel Company for their ingenuity.

On a sunny Sunday morning in June, I expected the Cove to be packed but instead it was practically deserted; indeed on the next door beach of Gwynver I spotted only one lifeguard, two surfers and one dog.IMG_9739 (2).JPG Do surfers keep late hours (it was getting on for midday – I keep late hours too) or was the tide going in the wrong direction?  Either way, rush there before everyone else discovers this beautiful spot.

Once the path had taken me off the beach, I settled into the rhythm of the trail. Gentle walking was interspersed with steep slopes up and down, wide easy paths were broken up by bits of rocky scrambling, even some seat of the pants stuff as my appalling sense of balance dictated frequent descentes sur derriere.

Exposed cliff tops contrasted with lush green valleys but at this time of year there were flowers everywhere. I have no idea what is growing in these fields below but isn’t the effect stunning? Any idea as to what it is?IMG_9782.JPG And what can the story be here? Something poignant, I feel, for it looks as though someone has carefully lain those cut flowers on the boulder in the streamIMG_9806

Gradually Sennen retreated into the distance as Cape Cornwall grew closer. As it did so the reminders of the landscape’s mining past began to appear.

At first they were mainly confined to the valleys where nature has almost succeeded in hiding them away (although I think that this walled construction up on the hill top is an entrance to a mine shaft – it certainly looks pretty deep).

This was to change, but not before I reached Cape Cornwall and finally turned the corner, away from Land’s End and on towards St Ives.IMG_9820 There’s not a huge amount to Cape Cornwall but what is there is rather charming. Have a read of this interesting blog post by a local writer who knows a lot about the place (https://cornishbirdblog.wordpress.com/2016/08/), admire these women having a dip in the tidal pool,IMG_9835.JPGand imagine my delight at the discovery of this timely homemade cake and tea trailer.IMG_9837Suitably refreshed (just tea for me, I never feel hungry when I’m walking, not even for cake. Odd that), I left Cape Cornwall behind and headed for Botallack. Now the scenery grew really industrial – remnants of old mine engine houses, chimneys and other edifices in all directions.IMG_9879The weather was closing in but, even if it had not done so, the landscape had really changed – no more human scale, dry stone walled farmers’ fields, here it was bleak and barren, despoiled by the copper and tin mining industry of the past.IMG_9877.JPG The Crowns engine houses clinging dramatically to the cliff are understandably magnets for photographers much more skilled than me.

Take my word for it that seeing the site in the gloomy damp brought home to me a little of the harshness of the lives once lived in this extraordinary place, a world away from the sunshine and the sandcastles, or even the swashbuckling and the sagas, of Cornwall as it is more often shown. What a fascinating place.

 

 

 

 

Swanning off to Swanage

The other day I had the chance of a lift down to Bournemouth for the day so I grabbed my stuff and jumped in. It wasn’t the town itself that was the attraction so much as what there is on the doorstep. As soon as I got there I hopped on a no 50 bus and headed west. I’ve had a soft spot for Bournemouth buses from when I knew the place thirty odd years ago. While other cities dressed their vehicles in dull, school uniform coloured liveries, Bournemouth buses were unashamedly yellow, making the holidayish moment last all year. Plus my banana bus was open topped and the website promised A bus journey you’ll never forget, route 50 takes you on a scenic trip through the stunning Sandbanks, on board the Sandbanks ferry and through the beautiful beaches and countryside that Purbeck is famous for. Not one to be missed! 

Excitement levels were high as the bus drew up and happily I managed to snaffle a seat on the top deck seat which, with typical British pragmatism with an eye to the climate, was only half open. (The front section being closed in as normal).

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Looking over to Brownsea Island

Luckily I had picked one of the few days when the sun blazed down and when an open top bus is just the only way to travel. I jumped off at Studland but not before tipping my hat to the starting point of the South West Coast Path at Shell Bay a couple of miles beforehand.

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Shell Bay – the start (or if you prefer, the end) of the South West Coast Path

Although I have no connections with this area, I do seem to have found myself in this neck of the woods quite often over the years. On my first Guide camp we were marched over the hills and down to the beach at Studland, stopping on the way to raid the post office stores for penny chews and the like. Later, on a Geography field trip, ice creams were snapped up.IMG_0048.JPG I was so happy to see that the Studland stores goes from strength to strength, even if – as I spotted when I poked my head around the door – it is not sweets but wine that is now in pole position on the shelves. Times change.

Studland is a charming little settlement, an estate village now owned by the National Trust, but it does seem to cater more for visitors than for any year round residents. Plenty of public loos and such a choice of refreshment opportunities that anyone who has just walked the 628 miles from the start of the South West Coast Path in Minehead could not be blamed for throwing in the towel and taking the last couple of miles as read.  Consequently I have no idea what this is about, other than it has been replaced in 1976.IMG_0055.JPG In a nearby thatched shelter – again, no idea – I spotted this complicated arrangement.

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Yes, but who does Seth love?

The plot of a novel right there.

Anyway, my plan was to walk up onto the cliffs and round the headland to Swanage – maybe five miles via the SWCP. I had forgotten just how tedious is the first bit which was busy with people returning from having slogged up to see Old Harry Rocks. But the grind is rewarded once you get there for they are a spectacular arrangement of sea stacks and collapsed arches, made more striking by the white of the chalk and – if you are lucky – the blue of sea and sky.IMG_0080.JPG It was – as I mentioned – a blisteringly hot day but somehow everyone was smiling happily as if to congratulate each other on having wound up in such a gorgeous spot on such a fine day. A woman pressed her binoculars on me so that I could see two chicks on a narrow ledge, half way down the cliff, while a man and his dog, resting just off the path, waved as I passed. I stepped off the way and perched on a tussock to eat my lunch gazing out to sea. Utter peace and contentment. The track up to the top of Ballard Down was a bit of a pull in the heat, but I took it slowly and eventually made the trig point and its views in all directions – out to sea, over Poole Harbour and Brownsea Island one way, and in the other direction over towards Swanage. IMG_0096I have a bizarre fondness for trig points. I love their uncompromising utilitarian solidity even if, I suspect, they have been specifically designed to prevent the likes of me from ever getting onto the top of one. Too high for a simple bounce and too narrow at the top to prevent my sailing straight over and crashing ignominiously to earth on the other side.IMG_0098.JPG From here it was downhill to Swanage, although not without passing through a curious area called Ballard Estate which, from what I can glean, was once a leftover First World War training ground but is now an estate of rebuilt bungalows with – it has to be said – an unwelcoming air.

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Is this is one of the original military huts?

Why not accept that a major long distance path passes through and signpost the way rather than leave walkers bumbling about? No matter, gravity soon had me on the sea front.

It is one of those unwritten laws that, for at least the last four decades, every school student of Geography in the Bristol area  (and probably further afield) will, at some point, find themselves on a field trip to Swanage.

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I spy a Geography field trip – can they have run out of jokes about poles and groynes yet?

And so I came to Swanage the first time and fell rather hard for both Geography and this town at the end of the line (where the line closed in 1972). Despite the name of the place having rather too many similarities with the word Sewage, I find it bizarrely appealing in its out of timeness.IMG_0143.JPG Turns out that, thanks to the untiring efforts of volunteers, just this week Swanage has been reconnected to the rest of the world via its resurrected steam railway. Bravo. And  – er – oops.

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This raises so many questions…

 

Come to Cwmdu

That’s what Cousin O’s note said. We’d talked about her walking group a few months earlier but so far all my best intentions of nipping over to Abergavenny to join in had come to naught. So that’s how I found myself sitting in the car park of the very spruce Cwmdu Village Hall, somewhere between Crickhowell and Talgarth. Listening to the rain drumming on the roof, I wondered what I had let myself in for, whilst on the Today programme John Humphreys, Nick Robinson and assorted others wondered what the country had let itself in for on the day after the election. I arrived early and so had rather too much thinking time. The longer I waited the more I quailed at the prospect of meeting these walkers who, as time ticked on, acquired yet more superhuman powers of speed and stamina in my feverish imagination. I should have been reassured by the gracious reaction of the woman who bowled up and who, in the face of my effusive greetings, said that she hadn’t come to go walking actually but rather to put her empties in the recycling bins. Eventually the Amazons of Abergavenny arrived, bang on time in a small fleet of cars (evidently highly organised as they’d shared lifts from closer to home) and a flurry of zipping of cagoules, extending of walking poles and leashing up of dogs.

Were they as fearsome as I had expected? Well, no. Of course they weren’t. In fact they turned out to be 16 of the nicest, most interesting women you could ever hope to meet, with three happy dogs. They welcomed me without fuss and the conversations began as soon as we fell into step. In fact so much chat was going on that it felt something of an interruption to stop to take photos or to look at the map so I have only a hazy notion of where we went. O was in the lead and knew the route so all we had to do was to follow her. She’d scoped out a nicely varied walk, following a lane up one side of the valley,

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The route took us along the track, through the yard of the white farmhouse and up onto Cefn Moel, the hill behind.

 

a track along the hill topIMG_9678 and then back across the fields via seldom used footpaths.IMG_9703 As the day went on, the weather perked up, and as the miles notched up, the breadth of expertise amongst the group emerged. My idle imaginings of this place making the perfect bolthole evaporated when someone pointed out that it was in fact a derelict chicken shed. IMG_9659Maybe not then.

Someone else, well versed in historic building methods, searched this ruin for signs of a former life as a longhouse.

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She was looking for the fireplace.

 

Up on the top, others named the hills and valleys which surrounded us and counted skylarks, while we all stopped to watch the red kite wheeling above us.

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Nice bit of canine photobombing

 

Had I asked I am sure that at least one person would have known whether this is a bronze age cairn, a drover’s waymarker or an artist’s installation and we all learned the translation of Cefn Moel (bare back – several women occupied that shaded area in the middle of the Venn diagram where the walking group intersects with the Welsh learners so every now and then a conversation would switch language.) IMG_9714Sharp eyed types spotted (and scoffed) wild strawberries and pointed out orchids amidst the bracken and O filled us in on the significance of historic sites.

The logistics of walking in a large group were new to me but, as you would expect, there was a well oiled procedure. The group spread out as people found their pace, so instructions to close the gate or to leave it open were shouted back along the line from person to person, a la Chinese Whispers.

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Looking over to the Black Mountains

 

Eventually there was a cry of no sheep and the dogs could be allowed to run free in the field. Given their head, lurchers can really move. Unfortunately what lurchers cannot do – or perhaps it was just these two – is to climb stiles. Despite the attention and advice of all these estimable women, not to mention sporting demonstrations of technique by the bearded collie in our party, neither dog could be persuaded to even attempt one and so they were carefully hefted across each time looking, it has to be said, more than a little pleased with themselves.

We ended up at a café in Cwmdu. Almost sharing a forecourt with some sort of garage workshop and by the side of the main road, it did not look too promising at first. Inside however the walls were plastered with many, many prize certificates from agricultural shows – both the local societies and the Royal Welsh. I’m guessing that they were for their baking rather than their bee keeping or show jumping, but I could be wrong as I didn’t like to peer. Anyway it made for a great ending to an excellent day for the tea was good and the team producing it clearly highly accomplished.

But it did leave me wondering –  is it me or is everyone in this part of the world is a multi skilled polymath? I need to come back to investigate.

 

 

Another Pembrokeshire path.

IMG_0135Just look at this lane. See how enticing it is in all its Cow Parsley And Grass Up The Middle glory? Isn’t it just the poster lane for all country lanes?  I fairly trotted along it, heading for the coast path and the sea. There was a slight onshore breeze bringing with it the faintest hint of sea air which made finding my way along a network of bridleways and tracks to this spot, a couple of miles north of Fishguard, very easy.IMG_0136 This is not a particularly eventful section of the coast path – perhaps that’s why I’ve never walked it before – but it was quiet and pleasant enough and wound its way up and down, past isolated coves and disinterested cows. Out in the bay, two canoeists were enjoying the sun. Even though they were way out – mere specks in my photos – I could hear every word of their conversation.

On I wandered, admiring the way every stile is neatly labelled with its location and grid reference, indicating just how popular is the Pembrokeshire Coast Path. And – on a less happy note – the number of people who get into difficulties along the way. This stretch of coast may appear to be dozing now but it appears that it has seen quite some activity in the past. I hit the path at a caravan park built on the remains of a wartime coastal artillery battery at Penrhyn Ychen, accessing it via a path through what I now know may once have been a minefield. Always good to be wise after the event.(http://content.yudu.com/Library/A1qcir/PembrokeshireMilitar/resources/61.htm.)

Further along I found this clifftop post standing in line with a stone hut once used to house underwater cable equipment (now Cable Cottage, a holiday rental).

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Relics of nineteenth century telecoms standing by

Presumably some part of a beacon or sign warning of the wire laid between here and Ireland in 1870,  forerunner of transatlantic telecommunications. (http://atlantic-cable.com/Cables/1883Fishguard-Blackwater/).

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Fishguard Harbour and the ferry to Rosslare is about to leave.

More remnants of transatlantic ambitions across the bay in Goodwick where the breakwaters and the relatively recent Fishguard Harbour (1906) were built to support the Irish ferry service and the aspirations to a place in the transatlantic maritime network. (Alas, other than one visit by the Mauretania in 1909, no other ocean going vessels could be persuaded to call by http://www.fishguardonline.com/harbour_centenary.html). Round the corner I came upon the original Fishguard Harbour (now Lower Fishguard) and just before that the ruins of Fishguard Fort. It’s an odd place and I get the feeling that while no one has the slightest interest in the site, there’ s a weary obligation to preserve it.

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Fishguard extends a hearty welcome.

From what I could glean from a dusty interpretation board up in the car park, absolutely nothing has ever happened here. I’m not sure that these cannons have ever been fired  (At least over at the artillery battery if nothing else they can boast of accidentally hitting and practically scuttling an RAF boat by mistake. Yes, an RAF boat – what’s that about? History does not relate). I could be misleading you here, but I found myself doing that thing when your eyes are going through the motions of reading the signage but your brain is just not listening. Twice I got to the last line and realised I was none the wiser so I gave up. Fishguard Fort: good for alliteration, not so good for anything else.

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Lower Fishguard – you can see why they built the new harbour over the bay

The coast path then heads down into Lower Fishguard, alongside the main road. I’ve driven this route many times but never walked it but I’ve often wondered about the barbed wire on top of the wall. I assumed it marked a steep drop and was to ward off over enthusiastic short cutters or the like.

I was wrong.

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I have no idea how this gardener gets up to his plot, unless ropes and pulleys are involved.

Just over the wall is an immaculate garden and evidently veg rustling is an issue. Don’t know why he doesn’t just drag one of those cannons down the hill. They’d be more use here.

Lower Fishguard is a quaint quayside which served as the location of the 1971 film version of Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood. Here’s a handy plaqueIMG_0162.JPG The inclusion of pretty much all of the actors in Hollywood’s Welsh stable promised to put the place on the map (in alphabetical order, deep breath – Ann Beach, Richard Burton, David Jason, Glynis Johns, Ruth Madoc, Vivien Merchant, Peter O’Toole, Sian Phillips, Angharad Rees, Victor Spinetti and – yes – Elizabeth Taylor). But it turned out to be another heroic failure, a turkey which never went on general release and which its three big names intended to be written off as a tax loss before even the first reel was in the can. So Lower Fishguard never became synonymous with Llareggub and the settlement slumbers on.

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Matching sky and paintwork – well played, Fishguard Bay Yacht Club

The cottages are mostly holiday homes now, gussied up with the local council’s offer of free paint, but it’s still a good place to wander, to watch the boats and to have a cup of tea and an even better spot to fling out a line and go at crabbing.

 

Those crabs never learn.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pembrokeshire landscapes

The light woke us early on our first Pembrokeshire morning and the urge to get out and get walking was not to be resisted.

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Good morning, Dyffryn Fernant

I had mapped out a route before we left home so I was all set to go. First, I had to get up to near the top of Dinas Mountain (only just over 300m high and so not a mountain at all if we’re being pedantic. But we’re not. Mountain it is).18403726_729779560527512_3683626516007204145_n

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Dinas Mountain, some curious cows and the odd bluebell

My plan was to toil up a series of lanes to reach a point where the fields meet the wilderness (where the green turns to brown in the right of the photo) and then follow a track across the hillside. D, one of the owners of the cottage in which we were staying and a keeper of the most beautiful garden, saw me setting out and very kindly offered me a lift up the mountain. I leapt in with alacrity and, not much later (and still not quite 8am), there I was deposited at the start of the track.

 

Now when we’re at home sometimes we stop and think how peaceful it is in our corner of the deepest suburban jungle. But the city quiet is always relative – we overlook the distant sound of a train or the helicopter flying some poor soul to the hospital and always there is the background hum of many lives being lived around us. Up on the mountain, the silence was in a different league. My footsteps on the rough track were deafening and set off anxious tweeting from birds and bleating from sheep who scarpered in panic at the sight of me. Climbing a bank, I disturbed a young rabbit who darted off into the undergrowth. Seems that nobody much comes up along this rough farm track.  IMG_0084Not now perhaps, but see the standing stones in the field here? Did they have had some long ago ceremonial purpose? (We’re on the Preselis here – source of the Bluestones with which Stonehenge was constructed). IMG_0094 (2)And I wondered why the path the other side of the farmstead has been carefully double walled. There’s no clue as to why from the old maps – the path just links two mountain farms – but clearly someone once hauled the stones from the fields to build these barriers for a purpose now long forgotten. Nobody to ask at the farmstead where, despite the children’s toys scattered about and the car with the open window, there was no sign of life. And no sign of the path. A few false starts, a couple more scrutes of the map and yes, I really did have to overcome my urbanite’s awkwardness, squeeze down the side of their car and stroll through their back garden, casually yet ostentatiously brandishing my OS map as a talisman of good intent.

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Dinas Head from Dinas Mountain.

I walked on and rounded the hillside until I could see the spot where I had arranged to meet T, down in a cove just this side of the headland. Distance was playing tricks on me. It looked a long way from here – far too far to make it in the hour we had agreed and yet oddly I ended up arriving early. After the solitude of the high mountain came the wall to wall geniality of the people of lowland Dinas Cross. A gang of bin men wished me a good morning, ditto a couple of builders and assorted elderly gentlemen heading for the village shop for whatever they were after to start their day.

 

I have been coming to Pembrokeshire for a long time. A very long time.  Since I was 6 in fact. Dinosaurs were packing their cases and heading for the station my first trip. I’m one of the many who are drawn to this place to bed down in tents, caravans, and cottages and who, despite having no real links or attachments, feel a special affinity to this part of the world. So although this was an entirely new walk for me it inevitably intersected with paths from the past. Here was a clifftop field above a bay where, in the late Sixties, my father – a Scout leader – brought a group of boys to camp.

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Dinas Mountain from Dinas Head. That’s the site of the scout camp in that field there.

Although a mere Brownie at the time and only an occasional visitor to the camp, standing back in that spot brought back a long buried memory of… trifle in a washing up bowl. Yes, that stalwart Sunday treat, a confection of cake, fruit, custard and cream, served from a battered plastic vessel large enough to feed the whole assembly. Clean, capacious and an imaginatively efficient use of resources but somehow wrong, so very wrong.

Dinas Head is almost an island. I’m not a physical geographer so I cannot tell you how it happened, but it’s a great lump of land, steeply sloping at every extremity, tangentially attached by a marshy bit. (Not getting too technical, I hope) Distance plays tricks here again. It looks huge but it’s only a couple of miles in circumference. And the views are fantastic. FullSizeRenderYou can see that this is a well trodden route – part of a long distance path – and deservedly so. (Why have I never walked it before?) By the time T and I made it to the top, lots of people were out enjoying what was turning into a glorious day, serious walkers and short strollers alike. Why go to Mallorca when you can come here and have all of this? called one as he passed.18403413_729776493861152_3413369683516869326_n

Who could disagree?