What are the chances?

That was an odd coincidence. There I was browsing in an Oxfam bookshop – killing time to be honest as I was early for an appointment – and what should I find but this.

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Handford & Viner, 1988

I’m not an expert but I doubt that these defunct waterways are at the top of many gongoozlers’ wish lists. I came across the Thames & Severn canal a couple of months ago when I stumbled across what remains of it up near Kemble.

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Coatesfield Bridge, Coates. Gloucestershire

Care to hazard a guess where it goes? Yes, from Lechlade on the Thames to Framilode on the Severn, although it is called the Stroudwater from Stroud to the Severn. I have no idea why. But I am sure this book will tell me.

 

Exploring further looked promising and so – just the day before I came across the book – I strolled a stretch, chosen pretty much at random and heavily weighted by the prospect of a pub at the turn around spot. Chalford to Daneway and back was the route and what do Handford & Viner have to say about my previous day’s choice? Only that it is ‘probably scenically the most interesting and certainly the most accessible of the entire canal length’. I’m not sure whether to congratulate myself on the success of my pin in the map approach, or whether to take the rest of the waterway as read now, having already done the best bit. So were H&V right about the scenic delights of this stretch? Absolutely. It is an astonishingly beautiful walk, drop dead gorgeous in places. For starters, the canal passes through this valley.

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The Golden Valley, a few miles east of Stroud

If this is not textbook Cotswold loveliness, I don’t know what is. Then there are the remnants of the canal; a few canal related structures

 

and an early bridge here (dated 1784 and look how T is helpfully adding a scale note to show how steep it is),

the reminders of the locks there (10 of them in just a few miles, dug by a 1780s army of navvies)

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That’s a deep lock

and a pub that looks like the one you always hope to find (originally built to house the men with the picks and shovels).

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The Daneway. At Danewaywe

But on top of this is that since the T&S was closed in 1927 Nature has been very effectively reclaiming the space, like hereIMG_1597 and here.IMG_1656 We stopped to eat our lunch on a fallen tree trunk, a little way up into the wooded hillside. The trees were still bare and so the ground was carpeted with wild flowers.

 

As the final flourish there was the busyness of spring itself – a swan building a nest and new arrivals basking in the sunshine. IMG_1592Apparently the farmer had not realised her sheep were in lamb – just imagine her surprise when these turned up. IMG_1583.JPGAfter such a spirit lifting walk, I decided that it would not hurt to forage for a few handfuls of wild garlic to take home for a champ to go with the Easter lamb. IMG_1721.JPGOr maybe a vegetarian alternative?

Barging along

Back to an old favourite walk. The canal side path between Bath and Bradford on Avon passes through some of the most gently beautiful scenery around. Nothing spectacular – no astounding gorges or towering peaks – just ten miles of quiet walking loveliness, with the added bonus of a station at each end for the return trip through the same valley but seen from a different angle.

This time I started halfway along at Brassknocker Basin,  between Monkton Combe and Limpley Stoke (Who could resist?). There’s a café there, a boat place, a small exhibition and a canal that disappears into a cupboard.

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It’s behind those blue doors

 

OK, so I have seen what lies behind the doors but I can tell you that it’s nothing much. From here to its junction with the Kennet & Avon is what remains of the Somerset Coal Canal, less than half a mile long, but a popular spot for a stroll, not least because of what lies at the junction of the two waterways.

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The River Avon beneath the Dundas Aqueduct

 

It’s an aqueduct – the Dundas Aqueduct (1797 – 1805) to be precise – and mighty fine it is too, even if it is impossible to photograph it in any way that conveys the strangeness of walking next to water many feet above the river flowing below. Last time I was here, I was emboldened by the excellent A and we clambered down the bank to take a look at it from below.

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The Dundas Aqueduct in October 2015. Happily, when they invented the steam engine there was a spare archway all ready for the railway line.

 

Then I spotted the mason’s marks. And once you see one, you cannot stop seeing them. They’re everywhere. As I understand it, these are the marks stonemasons used to identify their work so that they could be paid, but they were usually placed on the back of the block and thus hidden (I got this from http://www.masonslivery.org/supporting-our-craft/masons-marks/for work. It’s an interesting read, especially the initiative to encourage present day masons to register their marks) IMG_1477So why are they face on here? Could it be that these early 19th century masons recognised the nascent talent of John Rennie, the civil engineer in charge, and sought to associate their work with his? Or were they just an unruly bunch who wanted to do things their way? History does not relate. Either way, can you not imagine the elbowing aside and jockeying for position that must have been required for the man who got his stone into the prime spot in the centre of the parapet?

After the aqueduct, the canal clings to the side of the hill, with sharp drops to one side and steep wooded cliffs to the other. Protected from the wind, if nothing is moving along the canal, then the water returns to a mirror like calm.

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From a previous walk – October 2014

Every now and then a view opens upIMG_1503

Or an interesting boat goes by. Or a dog walker stops to chat. Or the waft of wild garlic becomes impossible to resist (those flowers are STRONG – who knew?). There’s another aqueduct at Avoncliff, which somehow negotiates the presence of a (retrofitted) railway station, but basically there is very little going on here and that is its charm. The world can be put to rights or reveries sunk into without interruption.

And then just when you are beginning to run out of deep and meaningful thoughts, there is Bradford on Avon. It’s a pretty town with a flower bedecked station and I keep meaning to take a good look round. But this time I headed for the lock amidst the remnants of a canal basin and to the Canals and Rivers Trust café there, run by the most delightful of men and stocked with the products of the dabbest cake baking hand. It sits within a charming garden which, he told me, is all the work of a dedicated team of CRT volunteers. Every year we win Bradford in Bloom, so now no one else enters.

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Bradford on Avon canal basin. The lock is over to the right.

 

The Easter holidays and the unexpectedly bright sunshine had brought people out so it was a busy spot in which to drink tea and watch the world go by. Comparing notes with a chatty woman on a bike, we managed to cover a range of topics in short order – paid work, Year 7 maths, middle aged men, sugar,  teenage girls, bosoms, cycling, the weather, and the trials of a big bottom –  before she leapt onto the saddle and zoomed off, enjoined by me to look out for Jelly Bean.

I’m not a fan of linear walks so I’m always keen to hop onto a bus, a train or whatever for the return if there’s no circular option. So you can imagine how excited I was to hear that the excellent G has become the resident owner of a narrow boat which, being in need of a touch of remedial work, she was single handedly bringing down from London to a boatyard near Bristol. And would I like to jump aboard for a stretch?

Our rendezvous worked out perfectly other than for an unfortunate incident when I, eyes peeled for a (previously unseen) red boat, enthusiastically hailed a rather startled man who – to add to the confusion – thought I was trying to prevent him accessing the water point. Sorry, I mistook you for Jelly Bean was a line sure to be misinterpreted. Happily all was smoothed out as G came round the bend at the helm of the aforementioned vessel and he and she went down through the lock together, while I faffed about winding up things and opening gates (which is exactly where a big bottom comes in handy) and was swiftly relieved of my duties by an eager chap from a boat waiting to come up. Good.

Chugging back to where I had started took longer afloat than afoot, but there was much  news to be caught up and regular pauses in which G leapt ashore with a rope to adroitly manoeuvre Jelly Bean out of the way of oncoming boat hirers with rabbit in the headlights expressions. (But then you should have seen my face when left alone on the boat, engine running, without a clue. B, the ship’s dog, was more use than me).

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Dundas Aqueduct from Jelly Bean

 

Back eventually to the Dundas Aqueduct where I hopped off and G, B and Jelly Bean carried on to Bath to moor up for the night. Tea and ice cream may have featured at this point. G could count it as part of her pre-marathon carb loading eating plan; I could make no such claim.

But it did make for a very lovely end to a very lovely day.

A tale of two walks

One longer than looked for, the other shorter than expected. One a stomp through the dreary inner city dankness of a barely light early morning, the other a stroll through the filmic golden tones of a benignly sunny late afternoon. And so on.

This week it transpired that my car was in need of a new gearbox. Not a great state of affairs but my ever reliable local garage sent me off in the direction of an outfit specialising in the very thing, also staffed by the nicest of men, who could fit me in on Wednesday morning. Hooray. And if I had to get it there by first light as requested, then no problem, I’d be there. I would call the whole procedure utterly unremarkable apart from one small detail – my lift home let me down. There wasn’t a taxi to be had for an hour and not quite 7.30 is no time to be ringing round asking friends for favours. And gearbox specialists are shy retiring creatures who hide themselves away on obscure industrial estates in parts of the city where no one ever goes and buses fear to tread.

And it was raining.

So I had to walk. Or more accurately stomp. I was not in the best of moods.

But I have to confess a strange fascination with these industrial workshops where people continue to purposefully make things, even though I have no understanding of what end they serve. I like the way that down this potholed cul de sac, these modest post War buildings, hemmed in by the railway line, house a panoply of engineering output. The street speaks of ingenuity, of innovation and of creativity and, while I am at a loss when it comes to explaining what is precision milling and plastics moulding and the like, I am glad to see that there are some in this little enclave who are pretty good at it.

At the end of the street I was out into an odd area, built up, but somehow empty. The sort of place which has had the bad luck to be blighted by both the Luftwaffe and the City Planners. There was a couple of run down streets of terraced houses, a few stridently coloured warehouse blocks, recent additions and unoccupied, and a row of once grand Victorian shop fronts, crumbling flats above, boarded up windows below, one or two occupied by small charities desperately clinging on, and then there was – hang about – a tapas bar. A tapas bar? Here? And just along the way a pie shop, outpost of an empire which includes Borough Market amongst its outlets. Around the corner and into a broad street, lined with tired old pubs, massage parlours, empty shop windows obscured by posters for niche bands, and yes, coffee shops in which artistic looking types could be seen preparing to open up for the day. Galloping gentrification is not a universally accepted Good Thing; I’m aware of the debates. I know that it is not a panacea for all urban ills but, as I rounded the corner and moved on into the newish shopping quarter (a towering but bland corporate zone occupied by the same retailers that line the malls of Birmingham, Berlin and, for all I know, Brisbane), I was feeling really very happy that something of the ingenuity, innovation and creativity of the industrial estate was now beginning to permeate the barren spaces of the long neglected Old Market area.

By the time I reached familiar streets, well served by bus routes, I had decided to keep walking. Away from the centre and up a road which I have driven many times but never traversed on foot, contending at this still early hour with the waves of commuters on their way to work in the city, then along suburban backways, surprisingly quiet save for birdsong, and finally home.

What had started out as an enforced inconvenience, undertaken in high dudgeon, became a true delight, a fascinating exploration of a patch of my Bristol backyard that is so far off my radar as to be invisible. It took me a little over an hour all told and it was probably one of the most interesting hours of my week.  I have no photos to show for it, partly because it was wet and partly because some areas felt a bit too edgy, euphemistically speaking, to draw attention to myself by waving my phone about, but maybe that makes it all the more memorable.

But I do have a raft of photos of my second walk of the week – a gentle sunny afternoon outing to Lacock with my recently post-op partner.img_1124

Even if you have never been to Lacock you will probably find it familiar for everything from Cranford to Wolf Hall, via various iterations of the works of JK Rowling and Jane Austen and much else, has been filmed here. It’s quite remarkable, albeit a tad twee, as I have muttered before. But still, feast your eyes on the streetscapes.

Our objective was a little mooch about the Abbey grounds and – as it turned out to be open – the Abbey and house itself, which was all very pleasant. img_1045The rather sweet artist’s rendition of a plan of the estate hints at extensive walks but this wasn’t actually the case. No matter, it was the snowdrops which I particularly wanted to see and they did not disappoint. img_1022In the woodland area everywhere you look there are drifts of white, with the odd scattering of crocus here and there, and signs of daffodils promising to burst out in a week or so. img_1080The path ended at a small, but deep, river where under a tree a couple of gardeners were busy digging up the snowdrops and loading them into barrows, ready to cart them away. ‘They’re just off for a holiday’ called one who had the look of  Olivia Colman, were the actor to don outdoor workwear, a woolly hat and a head gardener badge, ‘We’ve got tree surgeons coming for this tree next week so we want to get them safely out of the way of their boots’.

Now I would never call myself a gardener. Plant worrier is about as far as I’d go. I stick things in the soil and if are determined enough, they grow. But I do enjoy gazing upon the fruits (and flora) of others’ labour. I don’t know how big a team of paid and volunteer staff this head gardener has at her disposal, but she has squeezed in some lovely little details alongside the larger task of keeping the estate gardens up together. Leaving tall grasses in the border over winter may be routine but it doesn’t stop them looking delicately exquisite in the late afternoon sunlight.

Flopping hyacinth heads need propping up with twigs but isn’t this nest of catkins, complete with little lambs’ tails, delightful? My favourite tiny touch was this stone and its indentation into which spring flowers have been planted.

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You’ll have to take my word for that there are what I think are aconites planted into that rock – I couldn’t get any closer without treading on the blooms.

 

So that’s two walks which could scarcely be more different but which, in their different ways, each underline the happy opportunities walking offers to see the grain of a place at the human scale.

How about you – have you found yourself walking a route you normally speed along and making delightful discoveries? Are you as cheered as I am at the sight of spring bulbs making their appearance after what has felt like an unusually dreary few weeks?

Seeking the source

Well hooray – a fine weather forecast coincided with a free day so I headed out to get some mud on my boots. Off I went, up into the Cotswolds and to Kemble, a village a couple of miles south west of Cirencester. Turns out there’s a lot of interesting things to see around there, but I was on a mission. I was out to journey to the source of the Thames. (I feel as though I should be saying that in my most important voice. In an echo chamber with a little bit of reverb. JOURNEY TO THE SOURCE OF THE THAMES). Anyway I was pretty excited about it because wherever I’ve known the Thames it’s been a big river, wide and deep, and so the idea of following some little stripling of a stream into nothingness appealed. I saw myself jumping lightly from bank to bank, and even took along my own Boaty McBoatface bath toy to see if I could launch him into the very uppermost of the headwaters. And not lose him.

First, a word about the Cotswolds and about Kemble in particular. In my experience the Cotswolds are Picturesque with a capital P. (The Cotswold Way takes you through 100 miles or so of gloriousness from Chipping Campden to Bath – highly recommended). Here’s a shot from the archives to show you the sort of thing.

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Hidcote. 2015

But while it’s true that the village of Kemble is in a wealthy area, with a direct line to London and a station car park full of Range Rovers, Audis and Mercs, it’s also really quite – how can I put this? – normal. A mix of old and new housing, light on the chocolate box exteriors, with some very friendly inhabitants. Nothing spectacular but just nice.   I like nice. True to form, the village church was equally pleasant but unremarkable – other than the historic fondness of the parish for a man, any man, named John.

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Other clergy names are available

Perhaps one of the reasons that Kemble is not on the Treasures of the Cotswolds coach tour route is that the area is very flat and exposed, ideal no doubt for the former eponymous RAF base. So the discovery that my walk started in the biggest cabbage patch I have ever seen should not have come as a surprise.IMG_0737.JPG

Putting the spring greens behind me, I arrived at the Thames (or Isis, as it is known this far upstream, but which I shall gloss over).  Just a wiggly mile and a half down from the source according to the map, it was way bigger than I expected, full of fast flowing, crystal clear water – too deep to paddle through – and unexpectedly appealing.IMG_0741.JPG As I began to walk along the bank I found myself in a small plantation of what I think were birches and the combination of the low winter light, the spare straight lines of the leafless trees, and the sound of the river was enchanting. Around a bend and I came upon the most perfect spot for a dip, where the river had eroded a sharp and surprisingly deep meander. Had it been high summer I would have leapt in, no question.IMG_0753.JPGApproaching the first road crossing the water grew sluggish, perhaps under the bridge there would just be the narrowest of jumpable stream? IMG_0774.JPGNo, with under a mile to go, the Thames was still pretty full for an infant watercourse.

A little further on there was this. A wall. Across a river. It’s evidently been there a while and yes, I get that it is intended to stop large branches and other bits of detritus being carried downstream and blocking things up. But what’s it doing here? After a squint at an old map (How do I love thee, maps.nls.uk, let me count the ways), I realised that it is not a wall at all but a sluice. Makes perfect sense now. Presumably there was once a system of moveable gates with which to open or shut those little doorways, so as to control the flow of the water. Doesn’t look like it’s been used for a long time though.img_0780

Behind the wall was a riverine T junction; off to the right was an attractively ample stream flowing out of what was – on closer inspection – a form of underwater pipe.

I knew that there are actually two sources of the Thames marked on the map. It pops up at a spring, then immediately disappears underground again only to re emerge a mile later on and get going properly. This must be the spot where it takes off, I decided, and so I spent a long time looking at it, before I realised that I had it completely wrong and that the other watercourse which looked boring and boggy was in fact the embryonic Thames.

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With the best will in the world, I cannot call this inspiring.

Amazing what you learn when you look at the map.IMG_0855.JPGAfter the bridge the channel ran dry in a matter of metres. These tall desiccated water grasses which must like to keep their roots damp show very clearly where the water begins.This then is the source of the Thames. Not what I was expecting.

 

Looks like sometimes there’s more water on the ground for a ghostly trail of dry grass leads onward across the field. img_0799But eventually it runs out at a small rubble heap.IMG_0802.JPGNot an auspicious start for a mighty river.

But I could still pin my hopes on the spring, the true source. Two rather beautiful fields later (and one death defying scarper across the Fosse Way where the traffic was travelling at speeds the Romans would not believe) I saw something in the distance.IMG_0830.JPG A stone, a sign, a lightning ravaged tree and  a small ring of rocks.img_0823

The source of the Thames. Bone dry but, I trust, bona fide. And really rather perfect.

 

 

 

Clifton Wood

IMG_0321.JPGThe other day when I was out taking a turn around my favourite harbourside route, I realised that there is a large chunk of that pleasing vista across the water which I have never, ever explored. Clifton Wood – home to strings of multi-coloured streets clinging resolutely to the cliff edge – is a foreign field to me. It’s a jumble of Georgian and Victorian streets, many fairly modest, all apparently built  on top of one another without much thought to vehicular traffic. That they’re too old and the land is too steep would probably account for it, but whatever the reason the result is a quiet but colourful enclave, criss crossed by a maze of paths and passages.

I started out at a very familiar spot. No one can come to Bristol and not be aware of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s Clifton Suspension Bridge. It dominates the city skyline and  visitors come from far and wide to gaze upon its graceful lines. Here it is.IMG_0437 - Copy.JPG I’d like to have taken a better shot of it by moving a little way to the left but then there would be a lamp post slap bang in the way. Yes, well played City Lighting People for ruining every tourist’s photo opportunity. Being charitable perhaps it is not a good idea to have snappers  cluttering up the pavement just there and a viewpoint has been provided down the way, but you just can’t get the whole bridge in from that angle.IMG_0436 - Copy.JPG See what I mean? Anyway, let’s quit the moaning and move on. Imagine if you will what lies across the road – behind me in the first bridge shot above – an elegant terrace of large white stucco Georgian houses. Not so long ago one changed hands and the new owners set about a project of modernisation. Amongst the renovation team was a roofer who told me a lovely tale of how he was working away on the roof one day when a bus pulled up across the road and out rushed a stream of tourists. Who promptly formed an orderly queue, not to take selfies in front of the bridge but instead to avail themselves of the builders’ Portaloo in the front yard…

Not far from here is another Bristol landmark – Royal York Crescent.IMG_0469.JPG Allegedly the longest in Europe if anyone is counting and superior to that one they’ve got in Bath, if you ask me.  Trouble is they’ve taken more care over there, tighter planning restrictions and rather more open space in front and the like, so I have to admit that their’s has the upper hand, lookswise. But this one’s not too shabby, is it?

From here I headed off into uncharted territory, following paths and passageways that looked promising.

Occasionally I found myself somewhere familiar although I have to confess that I have been trying to erase this particular spot from my memory ever since a research interview I conducted in one of these homes went spectacularly pear shaped. You’ll note that I am standing quite a long way away from them. It’s a bit of a long story so feel free to skip on if you prefer.IMG_0496.JPG

Still with me? OK, so my interviewee, an artist I hoped would provide me with some reflections which could be key to my project, is a well known name in the field and I am going to start by saying that it was generous of him to agree to see me at all as he is undoubtedly inundated with students’ requests for his time. He chose the place, date and time: his home, 3pm on a Sunday afternoon. I accepted with alacrity but alarm bells were beginning to ring. I don’t know how it is in your house, but at that time of day we’re either busy doing something which needs doing or sunk in a post lunch torpor, neither state being conducive to receiving a visitor with a list of questions. To add to my unease, he’d picked 23 December – the day which (if you are having guests for Christmas) you probably want to keep clear for last minute preparations. Anyway, I spent a lot of time preparing for the discussion, going over his work in the field, planning the directions I’d like to take the conversation and so on. I was as ready as I could be when I knocked on the door on the dot of 3 o’clock and met a man who clearly wished he’d never agreed to see me. Sunday papers scattered on the floor in front of the armchair by the blazing fire spoke of a nap curtailed, an ironing board piled with crumpled linen and a Christmas cake part iced at the other end of the open plan room told of a wife disturbed in her plans and dispatched out of the way but not before, if her husband’s mood was any indication, sharing her displeasure at this considerable inconvenience. So this wasn’t a great start. But, to give him his due, the interviewee did not show me the door (which would have been understandable) but kindly offered me a cup of tea. Unfortunately, the kettle had barely boiled before it became clear that not only had he moved on from the field in which I was working (and which I had outlined fully in my email), but that he no longer had any interest in it and indeed did not want to talk about it. He was happy to speak of his current work but, as this was not pertinent to my research, I had only the haziest notion of it, an inadequacy he soon discovered and which did not improve the atmosphere. I tried to soldier on, rattling through my carefully prepared enquiries, receiving terser and terser replies, until I could down my still scalding cup of tea and exit as quickly and as graciously as I could and leave him in peace. It was such a gruesome experience that I couldn’t even bring myself to transcribe the tape. Not, that is, until more than a year had passed and I was polishing up my thesis and looking for a killer first line with which to begin.

And there it was…fullsizerender

Briskly turning out of Anecdote Alley and leaving Memory Lane behind, I meandered on until I came upon the first of the coloured houses.img_0528 Rather subtle this row, but they soon got brighter and brighter.IMG_0599.JPG And they went on and on. Here are a few more

IMG_0640.JPG I think these are my favourite but I wouldn’t rule out changing my mind if the sun was in a different direction.

The place was deserted, apart from builders (natch), and the pub was closed in the middle of the day, but doesn’t this look like a perfect place for a sundowner?img_0614

Definitely somewhere to come back to.

 

A promising haul

Pretty ghastly weather hereabouts recently, but I’m brewing up a whole list of walks to seize the day when the sun does shine. Or it stops raining. Either. Both. I’m not fussy.

With this in mind, I nipped into my local Oxfam bookshop to browse their selection of second hand OS maps. They had none of the ones I was looking for, but if you’re in the market for an impressive coverage of the Highlands at all scales allow me to point you in the right direction. Did someone just move down from up there or was someone intent on leaving nothing to chance in planning their Scottish holiday?

But I did get lucky when I moved onto the books. First up was this splendid compilation.

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Minshull, D. (ed) (2000) The Vintage Book of Walking. London. Random House. (Sorry, I just can’t help myself)

OK, I admit that it was the cover that sold it to me. (That’s my favourite colour. I never said I was deep). Plus it promises to be glorious, funny and indispensable – who could ask for more? Quite how the original owner could have dispensed with it is a question that has been worrying me ever since. I have read no more than the first page so far but I see that it opens with a lengthy quote from the second volume which leapt off the shelf at me. I mean, what are the chances?

Yes, I know we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover but who could resist this one?

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Jebb, M. (1986) Walkers. London. Constable.

What is going on here? Hipster 1 appears to be looking down his nose at Hipster 2 who looks crestfallen for reasons which are unclear.  And what about the fellow on the left, he who only appears when the whole dustcover is unfurled? He’s desolate. I’m thinking there may be some stick envy going on, but I cannot decode it myself (although I will confess to having taken a shine to Hipster 1’s old school staff). The only cheerful creature in this little tableau is the dog, carefully pretending he’s not with any of them. It’s not exactly a great advert for the convivial joys of walking so I am eager to see how Mr Jebb moves on from this unpromising start.

Back on the map hunt, I went and plundered my Dad’s cartographic collection. Success. Latterly he has taken to marking up his maps with an enviable collection of highlighters to note his route, the date and even the direction of flow. He’s a civil engineer; one would expect nothing less.

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OS Explorer 168

I don’t know quite what’s so special about Luckington but clearly it’s well worth the detour. Think I may have to take a look.

 

 

Floating the boats.

I don’t know about you but when it comes to the Winterval – that peaceful time between Christmas and New Year when time stands still and pottering about becomes an engrossing occupation – undemanding is the order of the day. Which is why, when the teeniest twinge of cabin fever struck, I turned to one of my favourite walks, one which I have walked, run, pushed a pushchair round for going on 25 years, rain and shine, solo, with friends and en famille. Were the stakes not quite so high I could probably do it blindfold. But that would be a shame because the whole point of this familiar route is that there is always something new to see.

Enough of the build up, where are we? In a word or three, we’re on Bristol’s Floating Harbour embarking on a turn around the harbourside. Beginning at a swing bridge at the entrance to the harbour, we’ll walk up the north bank to the next bridge, cross over and come back down the south side – about 45 minutes at a push,  considerably longer at a saunter. img_0237Off we go.

Even though it was getting on for mid morning by the time we had got ourselves together, the fog was still clinging to the water as we set off, casting a romantic mistiness over the scene, IMG_0247.JPG lending a noble air to Gromit’s profile on the prow,img_0249 and turning our mighty SS Great Britain into a ghostly apparition.IMG_0257.JPG When I first encountered Bristol docks in the late Seventies, it was a heavily polluted industrial wasteland on which the city had turned its back and where, on my first time at the rowing club, I was warned that if I fell in I would have to have my stomach pumped. (Over exaggeration in the face of an impressionable newbie or not, I never went back to find out). Times change and the water is now clean and much of the old port infrastructure has been cleared away for housing, all of which is pricey, some of which has been carefully thought out to add to the attractiveness of the cityscape. And there’s a waterborne community here too.

In amongst all of this, towards the centre of town, is a corporate headquarters which is also making sterling efforts to add to the gaiety of nations. img_0277Well played, Lloyds Bank, for taking the circular theme and running with it to such pleasing effect.

No surprise to hear that there is an abundance of spots for a coffee or something stronger,

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A kid height window into MShed museum. Anyone know what the clanger is doing amidst the ships?

along with several museums, galleries and other places to take a look at.

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Bristolian John Cabot (who allegedly beat Columbus in the first European foot on North American soil stakes) surveying the scene halfway around the walk.

All very good in their way and this renovation of a once redundant urban space is hugely popular with visitors for good reason. But that’s not what draws me back. What keeps me returning are the small signs of maritime life, past and present,  that have survived the heritagisation (I just made that word up) of the harbourside. The ferry steps worn by centuries of passing feet,IMG_0254.JPG the cranes and rail lines that, though now museum exhibits, still etch their presence on quayside and skyline,img_0312the old boats being restored in the dry dock or winched up onto the slipway, the new ones taking shape in the boat builders’ workshopsIMG_0329.JPG and the orderly jumble of the marine engineers’ yardsIMG_0325.JPG – all tell of individuals and their lives in this place.

 

And this is why this view of my home city, which has evolved through the  residents’ bold colour choices, will always be my favourite.img_0326

Come and see for yourself.

And tell me please – where’s your favourite walk? What’s the place that keeps drawing you back?

More of the old ways

The Ridgeway, Barbury Castle, the old groves, the not so old white horse… after my walk on the ridge I was immersed in the ways of the ancients. Next stop? Had to be Neolithic Central, a few miles down the road. If you’ve ever been to Stonehenge you’ll know that, stunning place though it is, it does come with a hefty helping of hoo ha. All the apparatus of enablement – visitors’ centre, interpretation boards, guided tours, shop, café, loos, car park – and all that of preservation – fences, ropes, guardians and the like – are crammed into a small site, into which coach after coach disgorges its load of visitors.

Then there is Avebury. A lesser known spot which is not only bigger but, for my money, a whole lot better too. Take a look.(Thank you, English Heritage, for the aerial photo http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/avebury/)avebury It’s a huge circular ditch of nearly a mile in diameter (that’s the henge bit), in the centre of which are two circles of rough Sarsen stones. Whereas at Stonehenge English Heritage only allows access to the stones on special occasions, here you can get right up to the stones whenever you want. There is nothing precious about Avebury and EH manage this site with a very light touch.  I saw one woman using the monuments to pace her jogging route, a young family having a lovely game of hide and seek, and a well insulated couple pressing a Sarsen stone into service as a handy coffee table.

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They had biscuits in there too

So insouciant are they hereabouts about the history in their midst that not only did a village spring up around the stones but there’s even a road running right through the middle of them. Not a mere quiet country lane either, this is a full fat, copper bottomed main road.

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Horsebox used to give an idea of the scale of the stones and the nearness of the traffic. And the size of that picnic basket

 

It negotiates three dog leg bends in quick succession but on my way in I was tailgated by that rarest of rural creatures, a country bus. A double decker too. On a Sunday. And then we met another one of these mythical beings coming the other way. Rather a nice reminder that Avebury, once a place of importance served by the Ridgeway, is still a spot serviced by the No 49 from Swindon. Old ways, new ways, same ways.

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After a peaceful stroll around the perimeter in the pleasingly fading light there was just time for a look around the village before diving inside for a cup of tea. Walking from the car park, the place grated on me. Too gentrified, too twee  (looking at you, Lacock).

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The Old Bakery

But I take it back. Alongside The Old Vicarage, The Old Bakery, The Old Teacher’s House – gussied up bijoux every one of them – there was what looked like an old schoolroom turned village hall which was hosting a craft fair, and a row of cottages which appeared to be family homes rather than holiday lets, judging by the kids’ toys scattered around. Plus there was the general store – a community one, run by volunteers, but well stocked, busy and staffed by a charming woman with whom I bonded over our mutual conviction of the utter invincibility of flapjack. On then to the National Trust café (there’s a manor, gardens and museum to see here another day) which was a good one, offering a fine scone and excellent overheard remarks. I hear that Ascot Forest is packed full of resting actors and dancers at this time of year. Confused? Well, that’s what you get for listening in to other people’s conversations.

 

My journey home had one more delight in store. Heading west, I found myself driving into the most spectacularly beautiful sunset. It was so astounding that when I spotted a layby I pulled over to stop and watch the sky. I had no idea where I was exactly but by some serendipitous chance, I found myself with glorious views stretching away into the distance. Here’s the sun settingIMG_0141.JPG and here’s the moon risingIMG_0163.JPG and here, in the words of my wise friend K, are some hills that need walking.IMG_0146.JPG

And there, quite by chance,  on the side of the old Great West Road was a milestone, a latter day way marker, just like the glades of trees along the Ridgeway.

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Cherhill milestone. Love the way the stonemason couldn’t decide whether to go for upper or lower case letters for Miles

So my day began and ended with these old guiding signs. Long superseded, they quietly mark and celebrate the journeys along their way by long forgotten travellers. It seemed a rather fitting bookending of my trip somehow.

 

 

The old ways

I don’t know about you, but all these gloomy mornings and dark afternoons have been giving me cabin fever so when a free day coincided with a hopeful weather forecast I headed for the hills. Well, not the hills exactly – more of a ridge, but even so I reckoned I was on course for a splendid vistas, far horizons and all the rest of it.img_9895

Er, yes.

Where was I? Hard to tell.Turns out I was on the Ridgeway, right down towards its southerly beginnings in Wiltshire, aiming for a gentle stroll from the Hackpen Hill white horse to Barbury Castle and back (and then to a cup of tea at Avebury, but more of that later).The white horse, usually visible for miles, was lost in the mist but at least the weather conditions made for some artsy photo opportunities.img_9900

Back to the Ridgeway –  what it’s all about then? It’s a way for sure, along a ridge at a guess, but how come it’s one of those tracks that sound vaguely familiar? Time for a quick Google of the facts. Looks like it’s been around for 5,000 years, through the Neolithic Age, the Bronze Age and the Iron Age. Then the Romans took to it, followed at a discreet distance by the Saxons, the Vikings and anyone who was anyone ever since. Crikey. It’s route long been used for ceremony, for communication and for commerce and for good reasons it sticks to the high ground where, although exposed to the elements,  it’s dryer underfoot and the open vistas provide ample warning of bandits and bad hats.IMG_9896.JPG

Off I went into the gloom and soon a grove of trees loomed up in a field just off the track. Now I’ve always assumed that a glade of trees on top of a hill has something to do with ancient customs, pagan worship and all the rest, so I took a look at it and kept going. But I hadn’t gone very far before another grove appeared and, now that the mist was lifting, I could see another one a bit further ahead, maybe just a quarter of a mile distant. They couldn’t all be sacred sites, could they? Well maybe, but I’ve got another idea. I think they are early road signs, planted centuries, even millennia, ago to mark the way across this exposed, featureless ridge. Take away the cultivated fields and the fences and it would be easy to go astray up here.

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The next grove is just visible to the right

 

Imagine the drovers herding their beasts along the Ridgeway and plotting their course through rain and (yes) fog from one clump of trees to the next. Even though the path is so well fenced today that accidentally wandering off would take some doing, I too began to search for the next grove to lead me on.

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See what I mean about the groves marking the way?

 

The ridge narrowed as I approached Barbury Castle; to one side the plains of north Wiltshire with Swindon in the distance and the M4, heard but not seen; to the other, rolling hills, bare arable fields and racing stables’ gallops – all silent and empty on a Sunday morning. IMG_9994.JPG Barbury Castle itself was anything but quiet and still. This enormous 6th century BCE earthwork was full of people taking the air, dogs and children racing up and down and round the concentric walls. (OK, so it looks like it was just me and my shadow, but take my word for it, it was busy)

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I caught up with this chap later on. He was looking for red kites

 

I stuck determinedly to the path across the centre – don’t know why as it was clear that I was missing the views –  thinking of what a wonderful refuge from the perils of the journey the earthworks would have provided for the drovers and their herds over the centuries, a motorway service centre of its time (I have a soft spot for drovers, in case you hadn’t noticed). I also fell to wondering why artists’ impressions of life back in the day are always so unlifelike. I speak as one who cannot draw a straight line and make it look realistic, but even so…IMG_9944.JPG

On to the carpark on the far side of the castle in the hope of finding a tea truck there, but nothing doing. Just a gathering of kite flyers who, having got their craft airborne, promptly tied them to a fence, turned their back on them and had a good chat. I liked their style.IMG_9984.JPG

Back then the way I had come, now with a determination to seek out that white horse which had eluded me at the start. The cloud had lifted, the thing was presumably enormous so surely it was just a question of stepping into the field. Turns out 23m long representations of horses cut into the chalk hillside are not as easy to find as you might think.

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There’s supposed to be a white horse in this field but all I could see was a black sheep.

 

This is what I was led to expect.IMG_0036.JPG

This is what I found.

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It’s his head. 

 

And stepping back a bit, here it is again.IMG_0039.JPG

Hm. Artists’ impressions.