Beating the bounds

The thing about walking is that it can be very sociable. As you know, my excellent friend, A, indefatigable in the face of mud or boulders, has joined me on several strolls, and now a further two splendid women, J and L, have picked up their packs to come with us. We have, it seems, got ourselves a bit of a walking group.

Where to walk then? Not too far away and not too short a route, so that once the decision is made and logistics conquered we can look forward to a summer of walks and chat. Step forward the Bristol Community Forest Path. Yes, it must take the prize for the dreariest, worthiest, least enticing path name ever, but on closer acquaintance it looks quite promising. It’s a 45 mile circuit of Bristol aiming, as far as I can see from the map, to guide walkers around the extremities of the city via public green spaces, woodland, farmland and waterways. Some of it looks very suburban, some very rural; some is already familiar to us, some will be foreign fields.

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Sea Mills

I read that since its inception people have wondered whether it is possible to cover its 45 miles within a day.  [Actually that has never crossed my mind, but do continue]. One of the earliest to show that is was possible was Bristolian conceptual artist, Richard Long who completed a circuit in 16 hours in 1998 as part of one of his pieces. Not to be outdone, hearty types apparently continue to attempt the circuit in 24 hours –  the Green Man challenge – in order to be certified as Woodwose.  (http://www.closertothecountryside.co.uk/gmrouteSept11.pdf)

Each to their own.

As none of us feel any aspiration to becoming Woodwose, we are going to take it in bite sized, conversational pieces, navigating from refreshment opportunity to refreshment opportunity. It’s a circular walk so we could start anywhere but I wanted to end somewhere dramatic and that had to be the Clifton Suspension Bridge. Accordingly we set out on our first walk from The Downs, not very far away from the Bridge. The first few miles did not look at all interesting as the route descends through deepest suburbia, much of which is familiar.

We plunged off down a narrow way between the back gardens of Sneyd Park, squeezed between some rather grand Victorian villas with frustratingly high garden fences, together with some more modest infill homes.  I was probably too busy talking but it struck me as particularly insignificant little path and, as we popped out onto the road at the end of the shady gloom of Pitch and Pay Lane, I was hoping that the walk wouldn’t be as dull all the way.

Pitch and Pay Lane? That’s a name that called out for a bit of Googling later on. I have to say I am a little sceptical about the explanation. The first bit – that this path was once a country lane before the spread of the city – I get that.  The second bit – that in times of disease in the town, country people avoided the markets but left food for the starving townsfolk –  I’ve heard of that elsewhere so OK. And I can understand that this may not have been an entirely charitable gesture and so some form of cash exchange would have been involved. But the scene conjured up by Paul Townsend (and others) sounds farcical – at this pre-arranged spot, they developed the practice of pitching their produce at the waiting, hungry Bristolians. . . while the citizens paid by throwing back the necessary cash. (http://www.flickr.com/photos/brizzlebornandbred/2078516414).

Could the air really have been thick with flying turnips and groats?

But before all that, this little backway was better known as Via Julia, the road the Romans built to get from Bath to Caerleon in South Wales. (Inexplicably they failed to invent Bristol and marched straight past without even pausing). Of course, in the way is the River Severn, very wide at this point and with a massive tidal range. Ships were required. And a port. Abonae was its name, after the River Avon on which it stands, just upstream from the Severn itself. Must have been quite a place in its time.

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Abonae today. Better known as Sea Mills

I didn’t know any of this at the time so I happily followed the well signposted way across green spaces, through quiet residential streets, over a golf course,

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Shirehampton Golf Course

and up onto Kingsweston Down, heading for Blaise Castle estate.

Now I love maps and when I am walking on my own I bumble along quite happily but put me in company and tell me to read one and I get cartophile dysfunction. Everything goes to pot. A TV transmitter was marked on the map and we had to make sure we took the path to the left of it. But where was the transmitter? I couldn’t see it anywhere.

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It’s behind you…

Blaise Castle Estate is quite something (yes, Jane Austen does namecheck it in  Northanger Abbey). It’s a council owned site with a 19th century mansion, an 18th century castle, a museum, imaginative playgrounds, cricket pitch and pavilion, cafe and 400 acres of parkland and we all thought that we knew it pretty well.

Except I didn’t know that on three days a week volunteers toil away to create a community plot in the old walled garden, long abandoned. And nor had I ever looked through these gates before and seen that an artist is making use of the stable buildings.

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The small rural Gloucestershire hamlet of Henbury grew up at the gates of the Blaise estate, but today the few historic streets have been overwhelmed by the explosion of twentieth century housing which has turned it into a city suburb. Occasionally there are reminders of a past era, but not necessarily a fair or good one.

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Henbury churchyard

After Henbury, we began to feel on less familiar ground and here the discoveries came thick and fast, green spaces never spotted when driving past, immaculately signposted walks through unknown cul de sacs, pony paddock after unsuspected pony paddock. Then a completely new view of the Filton runway, birthplace – as any proud Bristolian, born or adopted, will tell you – of Concorde, that mighty plane which flew so fast (London to New York in under four hours? Yes, really) and fell from favour so quickly. (The good people of Toulouse may also make a claim as to origins but we’ll share the glory).

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It’s a bit of a blurry photo as we were quite a distance away but just look at the slope at the end of the runway. Never knew that before.

Over the M5, with conversation paused for the duration due to the din, and on towards  a Victorian house turned upmarket hotel somewhat marooned by the twentieth century.

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But what’s all this?

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An industrial site of underground tanks, protected by some very serious gates, high fences and CCTV cameras. Not so unusual, but this is completely and utterly anonymous – not a signboard or any hint of its purpose anywhere.

And there was no mention of it on the map.

Later, after a bit of quizzing of those who might know and a bit of Googling, we discovered that here is stored aviation fuel for both military and civil aircraft. Built in the 1930s in anticipation of War, and officially secret until the end of the Cold War, these so discreetly hidden tanks are linked by pipeline to RAF stations as well as to Heathrow and other civil airports. So when you’re up in London and tutting when there’s a delay in refuelling your plane, spare a thought for how far the petroleum has got to come.  (I think that’s the gist of it; there’s an exhaustive – and frankly exhaustingly acronym laden – explanation at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CLH_Pipeline_System)

After this bit of vaguely disquieting mystery, and with the airfield, the tanks, the motorway and all the other signs of the urban only just behind us,  we crossed a field and suddenly found ourselves deep in the most lovely bluebell wood.IMG_5785 (2)No one about. although well trodden path suggests that this is a popular spot but how come we asked, again, had none of us every heard of it before?IMG_5788 (2)The wood gave onto open fields on the top of what had become a very narrow ridge, overlooking the Second Severn Crossing mired in a slurry of industrial sprawl (no, we didn’t know there had been quite so much development out there either)

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and the rather more bucolic original Severn Bridge.

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Look at all those vapour trails burning up the fuel from the tanks we’d just passed.

Soon we were descending to the River Severn’s floodplain past old farmhouses  and the odd restored cottage. We had the Easter Compton pub (and lunch) almost in our sights when we came upon the village church (13th century origins, major Victorian revamp, currently having a bit of repair work to the roof).

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Curiously, apart from the adjacent Church Farm, All Saints Compton Greenfield stands alone. A couple of fields in one direction is Compton Greenfield itself, now just a couple of farmhouses alongside the old rectory, whilst across the fields the other way is Easter Compton, a mostly early twentieth century settlement despite being on the road to the old ferry points across the Severn.

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There’s a spectacular yew tree walk and rose garden in this immaculate but isolated churchyard, but where are the parishioners? From where do/did the worshippers come in this sparsely populated area? No time to go into the Church to have a look as the cold drinks were calling our names but, from what I did glean later on, there seems to have been quite a sprinkling of gentry families in the area back in the day, names which are no longer familiar living in estates which no longer exist. Perhaps it was down to them and their households?

As we sat in the pub garden in the unseasonal heat, we agreed that we were surprised at not only just how much green space there was in what we had expected to be a rather tedious urban fringe, but also how many hidden spots we’d found in what we had each assumed was overly familiar territory. Despite its less than alluring name, the Bristol Community Forest Path delivered a varied and surprising route which bodes well for all the sections to come.

So – well played BCFP. Big tick.

(Of course, in writing this up, my inner geekiness had to come out. Far from circling Bristol and looking in at the city, as I had expected, this first part of the walk underlined the ways in which the place is – and has long been – tied to the rest of the world through global networks. From the way of Via Julia to the contemporary motorway system, the ferry points on the rivers and tidal waterways to Concorde and the aviation fuel stores, in one morning we had crossed paths with them all.

Except the railway.

Well, maybe.

There was this…

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Standing just across the path from the Old Rectory in hardly a hamlet Compton Greenfield is what I reckon is a tin tabernacle (Wiki helpfully explains that this is a type of prefabricated ecclesiastical building made from corrugated galvanised iron (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tin_tabernacle)). With the Industrial Revolution and all that came with it, there was a mass exodus of workers from the land to the burgeoning cities so missions to the newly industrialised areas sought to support (or, yes, control) rapidly formed communities of the young, mainly single, men (and to some extent women) who had left their family ties and strictures behind. Prefab chapels sprang up to minister to them on land donated by benevolent landowners and this is what I think this is. It’s marked on the 1901 map so the timing would fit. 

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1901. Thank you, NLS (https://maps.nls.uk/view/109729246)

 

Except, of course, Compton Greenfield is conspicuously devoid of any trace of industrialisation, then or now.

I can find absolutely no reference to this chapel anywhere online so it is only my conjecture that it was in fact erected to serve the hordes of navvies and brick makers who set up camp a mile or so north east of here to build the Severn railway tunnel. For 13 years they toiled to dig out what was the longest tunnel in the world in 1885 when it was finally completed. As the map shows, the tabernacle is not exactly on the workers’ doorsteps but it is right under the Rector’s nose.

Why didn’t they just go to All Saints on a Sunday? After all, they had to walk past it to get to their chapel.

Maybe they weren’t Anglican.

Or maybe they weren’t welcome.

Victorian social apartheid anyone?)

 

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To the Lighthouse, and other stories

For my third, and final, day of coastal walking this trip I planned to walk from Portreath back down to Hayle, about 11 miles, beginning with a long stretch of cliff paths and ending with three miles of beach walking. I was feeling increasingly antsy about it as the day approached due to the rather complicated transport arrangements required to get me to the start – two trains and a bus – and the fact that however early I started I could not get to Portreath before 1148. Throw in a bust knee and you will see why I threw in the towel on that over engineered plan.

Although hours of stretching had worked like magic on my leg, I didn’t fancy being stuck up on some cliff if it went again so I began to rethink. Somewhere in my planning I recalled coming across a bus which occasionally calls at Gwithian, close to the far end of that sandy beach I had originally planned to cover. Could I jump onto that and at least do part of my planned walk? A quick peruse of the splendid Traveline website (www.traveline.info – How do I love thee? Let me count the ways) and it was all sorted. Train to St Erth and then the 515 from outside the station to Gwithian. Perfect.

Here’s a map to give you an idea of the lie of the land.

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Map kindly released into the community by Wikimedia

So I skipped off the train at St Erth and went in search of the bus stop. And found – nothing. Just a very small station forecourt. Not a trace of a bus ever calling.

I went back and asked the man in the railway ticket office. The 515? Haven’t seen one of those for years.  He intimated that a unicorn was more likely to turn up than a bus. This was not what I wanted to hear. Mind you, he went on, in a valiant attempt to be helpful, being in here I can’t see anything anyway. So if it does come, it’ll just come in out there. You’ll see it if it does.  I could not fault his logic.

So back out into the forecourt I went to await the mythical beast. For a long time nothing moved and then – bang on time – in rolled a large minibus. It didn’t actually say 515 anywhere on it but this had to be it. And if it wasn’t, I was going to jump aboard anyway. The driver got out, walked around to open the passenger door to let down the steps, helped a couple out, and then rooted around to find his ticket machine and his money bag. There was, I perceived, no hurry. We don’t usually have people get off at the station, he remarked conversationally. Or get on, he added. The front seats were taken by a trio of passengers who were deep in conversation. They fell silent as I clambered in. I greeted them with a Good morning; they greeted me back and then ignored me convivially.

The phrase all around the houses was no doubt inspired by the route this Age UK community bus took around St Erth, Hayle and other hamlets. Some people got on just to reach the top of the hill and as such it is a great resource for the less mobile. Add in the socialising that was going on between the passengers and the extent to which S, the chatty driver, knew all his regulars, who would be waiting for him where, who knew who and what they’d been up to since he last saw them, and it felt like I’d stumbled into some boisterous coffee morning. I reckon I’ll be buying you a wedding bouquet soon teased one man as his fellow passenger, a woman well into her seventies, waved at a dour man waiting on the pavement for her in Hayle. I’ve got lots of man friends, not just him she bridled, adding hurriedly but I’m not a slut.  I watched as the pair walked briskly but awkwardly away. Probably not marriage material that one, I thought, but who else did she have on the back burner.

Eventually we picked up speed – just me and another walker who’d joined us in Hayle now – and we reached Gwithian. I was rather enjoying talking to S but he had a schedule to keep and off he went, all around the houses again in his circuitous way back to Penzance. Gwithian may well have been worth a look but, as it had taken me 1 1/2 hours to get this far, I was keen to get walking. Down the road, along a footpath over land that became more and more dune like, and there it was – Godrevy Island.

And the lighthouse.

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Godrevy Head, Island, Lighthouse, Beach etc etc. Take my word for it, there’s a lighthouse on that rock.

And not just any lighthouse either. This is the lighthouse which inspired Virginia Woolf’s eponymous novel To the Lighthouse.  I haven’t read it so I’ve done a bit of Wiki cribbing. Apparently it’s

a 1927 novel… [which] centres on the Ramsay family and their visits to the Isle of Skye in Scotland… Following and extending the tradition of modernist novelists… the plot of To the Lighthouse is secondary to its philosophical introspection… the novel includes little dialogue and almost no action; most of it is written as thoughts and observations. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/To_the_Lighthouse)

Doesn’t exactly sound like a ripping yarn to me and there’s no clue as to why she moved the (in)action from Cornwall to the Isle of Skye, but I tipped my hat to the site of literary inspiration nevertheless.

But what was interesting around here (to me at least)  are the adhoc settlements of cabins up in the Towans (or dunes) which stretch from here down almost to Hayle.IMG_5419 (2)

Here’s a look at some at the Gwithian end. Can you see what an informal arrangement of dwellings has somehow evolved here?

Take a closer look

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There are a brace of basic wooden huts, an odd conical stone built structure, one that looks like a repurposed school terrapin building, something rather modern and fabulous (back left) and, in front, isn’t that an old railway carriage?

Feast your eyes on this 1920s/30s shot of the chalets down at the Hayle end

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I found this postcard in a junk shop and have been bizarrely fascinated by it ever since.

It appears from the map that the homes are scattered about like weed seeds.

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From the Ordnance Survey Explorer map 102

I haven’t been able to find out much about these Towans settlements. (Anyone able to fill me in?) Today they look as though they are holiday lets but, from the odd notes I gleaned from local reminiscence websites, I think that they might once have been family homes for the men employed in the mines hereabouts, although there’s little trace now of the copper, silver and lead extraction that once went on around here. Or the explosives factory. I don’t imagine these were comfortable places in which to live but I was still charmed by these organic communities.

But enough of that, let’s get onto the beach. Straight past the Lifeguards’ Station,

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Bet Virginia would never have moved her oeuvre to Skye if she’d met Barney, Tom, and Tarryn. They sound like a cheery trio.

and on to the sands.

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Three miles of golden sands is the tourist office claim and I cannot argue with them. The tide was out and the enormous expanse of beach was lightly populated with walkers, dogs and intrepid surfers. There wasn’t a lot to see, being a misty day, although obviously the potential for moody shots was enormous. (I’ll spare you).

The odd stream crossed the sands, this one showing the residue of the copper deposits. It is said that the river at Gwithian – the Red River – was so called because of the colour of the water as a result of the copper mining operations. See also Redruth.

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The dampness in the air, the crashing of the waves and the emptiness was soporific and I drifted off as I walked, occasionally looking around, but otherwise lost in my thoughts.

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Ever seen Zulu?

Eventually the low cliffs turned inland and with it the beach.

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The Hayle River gently scouring a way across the sands. See the posts marking the channel?

As I turned the corner, the far side of the estuary, over by Lelant Church, looked perfectly easily accessible but the River Hayle is deceptively deep.

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A few minutes later and I was alongside what had very obviously once been a busy commercial port.

IMG_5526 (2)Although closed to commercial traffic in the late Seventies – coal in, copper and other minerals out back in its heyday – a little non recreational shipping continues to use the harbour.

The tide was rising and a few fishing boats were preparing to set out, but otherwise nothing moved.IMG_5541 (2)

Hayle has, it must be said, seen better days but a programme of redevelopment of the quaysides is underway and the place was busy, with at least two unrelated outlets claiming to offer visitors Cornish pasties made to the oldest/most authentic recipe. From the bus I saw some rather impressive old buildings at the head of the harbour but unfortunately they are rather obscured by this.IMG_5545 (2)

It is a fine railway viaduct, but unfortunately it is rather obscured by a giant Asda. So let’s file Hayle under Not a looker, but probably has a very nice character.

And that was pretty much it. I ploughed on for another 20 minutes to Lelant Saltings station, gritting my teeth as the path took me over an historic causeway, albeit now a very busy road,

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Making progress

to complete the missing link in the chain from where I started two days earlier – Gurnards Head – all the way to Gwithian.

It’s a beautiful part of the world and I am sad to be leaving it behind as I move up the coast. Not sure when I’ll next be able to squeeze in a few more days on my Cornish Camino but one thing’s for sure…

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A day of bays

Day 2 of my Cornish walks and this time I’d planned a route along the next stretch of the coast path from St Ives to Hayle, about 8 miles. Looking at the map I  thought that the path would be pretty flat all the way round, but the reason there didn’t appear to be much in the way of contour lines at the water’s edge was because they were so close together that they all merged into one. Plus much of the first half of the way was so built up that I couldn’t make them out. Hmm, excuses, excuses but at least I had only myself to blame when I found that the walk featured quite a few heavy breather hills.

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Porthminster Beach with St Ives harbour in the background.

Straight after breakfast I loaded up my packed lunch and headed out, down to the station and onto the promenade along Porthminster Beach. Although it was the Easter holidays and the streets of St Ives had been crammed with families the day before, at this hour only a few strollers were out on the gloriously empty beach.

This  natural landscape is in complete contrast to what has been the norm since Land’s End. At St Ives, the coast turns a corner. Gone are the rocky coves and sheer drops, replaced by great expanses of sand and still steep but not impossible cliffs. Gone too are the remote, wild and unpopulated spaces of yesterday’s walk, and the crumbling industrial remnants of earlier outings, to be replaced by what I can only call suburbia.

It was the railway which first brought the crowds to St Ives in the late nineteenth century with the creation of a short branch line from St Erth on the main Penzance to Paddington line. A train shuttles back and forth all day but even though it is a standard issue three carriage GWR version that can be seen anywhere else on the network there is something magical about stepping off the big train (from, in my case, Bristol although time it right and it could be Aberdeen) and over onto the platform 3 for the St Ives line.

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St Erth station, platform 3. In the corner is a café crammed full of homemade cakes and visitor information and presided over by a chatty woman who happily minded my bags for me.

Before the railway came, St Ives was just a small fishing village, but there are not many working boats in the harbour today

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although some vestiges of the industry’s past do remain.

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Rose Lodge – one of three fishermen’s lodges on the harbourside,  built by a wellwisher as places of respite from the weather and – nowadays I imagine – the tourists.

Then there were the artists, drawn apparently by the light which is particular to St Ives. And it being a safe, cheap place to sit out the war, I muttered, if what I gleaned from Tate St Ives is correct. Anyway, here’s an artist’s impression of the place a while back

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1943 – 45 (St Ives) Ben Nicholson in the Tate St Ives

and here’s an artist at work

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From a display in the Tate. Mrs Bradshaw looking very chic for a day on the beach. Commander Bradshaw won his DSO in the First World War so I exclude him from my snark.

The old centre of St Ives is very picturesque and yes, if I was a painter, I would be tempted to get out my easel too. It’s all narrow streets, whitewashed walls with orange lichen covering grey slate roofs. It is very pretty indeed and it’s not surprising that the town is still a Mecca for artists and offers painting schools, art supply shops and galleries in abundance.

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It’s also a magnet for other visitors too with streets full of cafes, restaurants and  upmarket shops.

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You know it’s classy when you see Artisan. (But leopard print with Helly Hansen, madam? Really?)

Anyway, St Ives – somewhat unreal but very, very pleasant.  I’ll go back.

Back to the walk. The trail hugs the coast, as does the railway line, with the one hopping over the other from time to time. The views are spectacular from both. Such panoramas have attracted more permanent residents and so wherever anyone finds an inch of space on which a foundation could be dug, a property will rise. Some are delightful – Victorian or Edwardian homes or 1930s colonial style bungalows sitting amidst cared for but not overly preened gardens – others were impressively modern, all slate and wood and cleverly designed to sit within the landscape rather than stand out. Wonderful. Others were monstrous, unsympathetic, and deserted crass demonstrations of wealth. Not so wonderful.

The path snaked between the houses, and I realised that I could foretell the type of property from the level of malevolence of the gates. High, impenetrable barriers, festooned with Keep Out/Private/Go Away signs, always heralded something brash.  I passed an old bungalow perched on the cliff edge, overlooking the rail line. It looked rather ramshackle but there was something very attractive about it. Before it stood a bulldozer and an operator whose control of the jaws of the armature was so precise that he was delicately picking staves of wood the size of a school ruler off the roof. Almost as if he didn’t want to hurt the old girl.

When I passed by on the train the next morning, there was nothing left. Just a building plot overlooking the sea.

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Carbis Bay

Builders were about in force in Carbis Bay too, busily extending the upmarket hotel’s premises onto the beach in time for the season. Full marks to them for clearly marking an alternative way when their construction work made the official route impassable.

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Oh I see, they really did mean me to walk through the swimming pool. Past the guests in the hot tub who clearly wondered what on earth was going on.

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This has to be my favourite footpath diversion of all time

Suburbia began to thin out as the way turned towards the huge  expanse of  Porthkidney beach at low tide.IMG_5352 (2)

It was just stunningIMG_5357 (2)

I wandered along very contently. It was muddy in places but, after my baptism of boulders yesterday, this stuff was just entry level. My mind was wandering about pretty happily too. All was good in an uneventful way. I spotted this piggy backing of another trail onto the South West Coast Path. St Michael’s Way, part of a pilgrim route to Santiago? Heck, I’ve stumbled onto the real Camino. Where’s my scallop shell?

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Hard to tell but those vast expanses of sand are actually divided by the estuary of the Hayle river  which at low tide looks so insignificant that you believe you could paddle across it. But it’s deeper and faster flowing than it looks so the path must turn inland to find a crossing point upriver.

Cue the return of suburbia with a golf course

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… the preserve of golfers from whose swing very serious defensive protection is required. Behind the golf course is the distinctive tower of Lelant Church which must be a major point of navigation from out at sea as it can be seen for miles around (the more official light tower in the foreground notwithstanding).

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The Church was attractive and well cared for with pretty post Easter decorations in the porch. IMG_5382 (2)A notice on the door announced that a service was in progress but that the welcome would be warm. Mid morning on a Thursday seemed like an odd time for worship and, though I could hear people talking inside, I decided against going in and instead sat on a bench in the churchyard gazing out at the view of sea and sand dunes. Lelant Church is the real starting point of the St Michael’s Way pilgrimage route and with hindsight maybe I was tempting fate by not going in, and by taking pictures of signs that amused me instead.

Just as I left the Church and began what I knew would be a last couple of miles of tarmac lanes to Hayle, something went wrong with my knee. The strenuous walk the day before had taken its toll. On the flat it was fine. Going uphill there was not a twinge. But going downhill? Excruciating.

I had a short, steep road down to the shoreline to negotiate. I knew that once I was down  it would be flat all the way but getting there took forever. Two steps and a break to stretch, two more steps and another break. I could see a station at the bottom and that decided me. No pushing on to Hayle, straight onto the train and back to my room for a rest and some proper stretches.

Except at Lelant Station there wasn’t a train due for five hours. There was just a notice board and the old station house now converted into a private residence. Lelant Saltings station was only a mile away and I knew that the train stopped there every half hour so that’s where I headed and everything worked out fine. But why, I asked the GWR man at the Saltings station (built as a park and ride for St Ives in 1978), did the train seldom stop at the original Lelant station up the line? Partly due to the lack of passengers, was the reply, and partly due to the vociferous barrage of complaints from the owner of the old station house. About the noise of the trains stopping and starting.

So he bought a house next to the track and was amazed to find that there were trains? Who would ever have seen that coming?

 

 

 

 

Zennor phobic

A half price offer from a St Ives guest house I was eyeing up, a few free days in the diary and a forecast of fairly fine weather? Well, it would have been rude not to have hopped aboard a train and taken myself down to Cornwall for a few days.

I was aiming to notch up a few more miles along the South West Coast Path in my bid to walk home from Lands End over the course of the next however many years it takes. Last time I left the path at Morvah and grabbed a lift to a very lovely lunch at The Gurnard’s Head pub at Treen (the one on the north coast, not the one on the south). (https://wordpress.com/post/womanwalkingblog.wordpress.com/4993)

Let’s re-orientate ourselves with this handy teatowel.

close up

Logistics and the lack of the summer bus service saw me taking a taxi to the start of the day’s walk at the Gurnard’s Head, aiming to finish at St Ives, ten miles away. So I’ve got a gap between Morvah and Treen. Just a few miles of lovely scenery in a beautiful part of the world with the prospect of a good meal at the end of it. Sounds like I’ll have to make a return journey one day to fill in that bit of the map. Shame.

The day started on an unusual note with the taxi driver, a charming Italian. Possibly my conversational opener of What brings you to St Ives? was ill advised for he launched into a lengthy exposition of the sudden breakdown of his marriage and his inability to see his children about which he spoke volubly and with increasing passion, frequently taking his eyes off the narrow lanes to turn to me to make a particular point and – national stereotype alert – gesticulating wildly.  Naturally as we moved into the more remote countryside a thick mist descended and there was not another being to be seen. Just as I was thinking that this set up would make the perfect opener for a murder mystery – lone woman, angry  man, deserted wild country, fog etc etc – there came an announcement from the taxi controller Listen up, all drivers need to hear this. My driver was having none of it. I caught I’ve just heard from the warden that… before he reached over and switched it off. Warden? What warden? Where do you find wardens? Prisons? Secure hospitals? That’s it, I’m definitely in one of those Sunday night whodunnits. He’s probably an escaped convict (something in the air made me come over all Daphne du Maurier) and the real taxi driver is tied up in the boot. But in the event, I had barely any time to wonder who would play me on screen – might Haydn Gwynne be free and would she mind padding up a bit?  – and we were there at The Gurnard’s Head. Where my man charged me £3 less than I had been quoted, told me that it had been good to talk, shook my hand and wished me a happy day. Phew.

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The Gurnards Head, paint colour chosen to match the gorse, says @thefrustratedgardener. Just checking

I set off past the pub, head reeling from what had sounded like an insoluble and tragic situation (I only got one side, I know), in the direction of the rocky outcrop known as, yes, the Gurnard’s Head. Because it looks like a gurnard. I’ll take their word for it.

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It was only just after 9am and still misty but I was so ridiculously happy to be out on the cliffs again that I practically skipped through the meadows down to the coast path.

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I mean, just look – not a soul about.

I strode along very, very happily. It was all so picture perfect. Who could resist this view?IMG_5240 (2)

Or this arrangement of photogenic remnants?

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Streams tumbled to the shore,IMG_5243 (2)

and the sea turned turquoise.

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Now you can see the full gurnardness of the eponymous headland. It’s a fish but no, me neither.

Birds probably sang a happy song too, but I couldn’t hear them above the roar of the crashing waves.

It was all going terrifically well.

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See the path snaking up the hill to the right of the rocks?

I mean, there were lots of steep ups and downs but nothing a little gritting of teeth and pauses to admire scenery couldn’t cope with. I was making good time and reckoned I’d be back in St Ives by early afternoon, ice cream in hand, fighting off the seagulls. IMG_5270 (2)

But then came Zennor.

The first signs of the place did not bode well.

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In proud and happy memory of the friends whose love has sustained me. AB.  The same inscription has been placed on a large rock on the headland a short distance away to commemorate the donation of Zennor Head to the National Trust by AB in the 1950s. As to the identity of AB I have found nothing.

On a bench overlooking the most beautiful seascape, a couple chose to cast aside their ice cream pots, lids and spoons the minute they were no longer of use, finding it too arduous presumably to carry them back the way they had come. The arrogant selfishness of this lazy stupidity infuriated me, contrasting as it did with the gentle and generous dedication on the bench. I was only slightly mollified when I worked out that, given that the litter had yet to blow away, it had probably only been there a day or two, but this was still a fortnight after the best before date stamped on the tub. While I would not wish anything too debilitating on anyone, surely a bit of an upset stomach would not go amiss ?

I’d met a couple of walkers coming in the opposite direction but as it was still early they were few and far between at this stage. After Zennor, this section of the path is very remote with no dwellings and only a handful of footpaths offering to return the walker to the road and thence to civilisation in the whole six mile stretch. There is a definite sense of being cut off from the world.  I did meet a trio of young American women, lithe and athletic and striding out like gazelles. 18 miles today they cried as they briefly paused, adding that it was a bit muddy up ahead. They pointed to their mud caked trousers, one girl being plastered from thigh to ankle. We’ve taken some of the mud a bit too fast and fell over they joked. Ha, I thought, better watch out for that.

From Zennor onwards the path itself changed. Gone was the rough trail and in its place was a scree of large boulders, choked with mud and washed with spring waters. I took only a few photos for I had to focus all my energy on finding a way through the obstructions, clambering and sliding, trying to avoid the wettest parts whilst remaining upright. I have, at the best of times, a terrible sense of balance so this was tortuous.

It looked a bit like this, although this was just a nursery slope compared with what came after.

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Sometimes the ground was flattish, sometimes steeply sloping, but every step had to be thought through, every path evaluated. Cross waist high rocks – risk of slipping and falling – or bog trot amidst smaller stones and vegetation – risk of slipping and falling. Crash down onto rock or crash down into muddy wetness?  If my left foot goes there, where can my right foot go after? A crack team of dolphins could have been performing a synchronised swimming routine down in the bay, for all I knew, with a few juggling seals thrown in for good measure because I never lifted my eyes long enough to look.  The boulders went on for miles. And miles. I don’t know how many as I gave up looking at the map. Three perhaps, maybe four? The further I went on the more embedded I became – with no escape inland the only option was to continue to plough on. And on. Going back the way I had come was too exhausting to contemplate.

Every now and then passing walkers would strike up conversations. I fell in with one family who caught me up. A father and his three student age offspring. We walked together for a mile or so and I was glad of their company. For them the Zennor to St Ives hike was a ritual of every single one of their holiday visits. The father, a donnish man of about my age, said he knew every stone of the way and he recalled that, when each of his children were very little, he had carried every one them all the way on his back. Not all at the same time, he added. Once we’re up the top of there, that’ll be the worst bit over he announced as a particularly challenging pile of rocks with no obvious way through presented themselves. His sons sprang up them like goats, his daughter was slower even than me. What is your name? Where do you live? What do you do?  The man was very direct, so I could be the same. He was not an academic but a priest who had come down from his London parish to rest after the busy round of Pascal services and devotions. His elder son, an intense young man, picked up on something I had said. So is it true that PhDs are easier than Masters?  We fell to discussing the different demands of each. He had a Masters under his belt and a PhD place lined up for the autumn and seemed relieved by my answers. Then, having completely forgotten what had happened when I asked the taxi driver a seemingly innocent question, I ploughed on with So what are you thinking of looking at in your PhD? 

If it were up to me I’d give him his funding immediately because he certainly was passionate about his subject. Which was the interaction of Christian religious practice and hallucinogenic drugs. Two subjects on which I have absolutely nothing to contribute. I battled on bravely – at least it was taking my mind off the blasted boulders – and we all of us had an interesting side discussion of faith – if you have faith do you have more questions than answers, whereas if you don’t do you have more answers than questions? Discuss.

But eventually this earnest chap, well intentioned though he was, wore me out. Straight to no 1 on my top ten list of things I never thought I’d hear on the coast path will go his comment I gave my bisexual Pentecostalist friend some MDMA and he said he’d never felt closer to Jesus. Time for lunch, I decided, as I spotted a good dry rock on which to perch and wished the family well for the rest of their walk. They bounded off and left me in peace.

Now I don’t want to accuse a man of the cloth of untruths but his promise that the worst would be over when I’d reached the top of that particularly slope did not quite match up with my reality. I struggled on and on, making myself stop every hour for a snack and a drink just to keep my energy up as my woeful balance deteriorated and my progress grew slower and slower. The language of my internal monologue grew fruitier. I began to wonder just where those American girls had found so much mud into which to fall as I, clumsy as I am, had managed so far to keep my muddiness fairly well contained. I became quite obsessed.

And then I found itIMG_5288 (2)

Plough straight through or cross the electric fence and splosh through a stream sodden field? Ankle deep mud or ankle deep water?

I think that this marked the end of the boulders but it’s all a bit of a blur now. Certainly the path became easier, still rocky, still needing to be closely watched but no longer requiring the chesslike two steps ahead thinking. Every time I rounded a headland or reached the top of a hill I expected to see St Ives; every time I was disappointed when what I came to think of as Shangri-bloody-la was not there. But by great good fortune interesting people with life stories to tell at the slightest encouragement seemed to have been stationed upon the path at regular intervals to help me along.

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At this sign, I met a man who told me his granny’s recollections of the event. The sea takes what’s ours – our fishermen, so when it gives then that’s ours in return. That’s what people round here think. Trouble is the customs men don’t agree. He was, he told me, a 14th generation St Ives man; his father had done all the research right back to the time of Henry VIII. The dissolution of the monasteries came into it. (Please don’t ask me to talk about religious practice again).

It was getting on for 3pm and so I asked how far he was walking, as surely it would take him a good while to get to Zennor, where he could have picked up a bus. I’m going wild camping. I’ve found a little hidey hole just this side of Zennor.  In April? I do it all year round, I’ve got a hammock and a tarp and a quilt and an underquilt. And only a small backpack I couldn’t help remarking. Doesn’t it get unbearably cold? And how to manage without a morning cup of tea?  I’ve got a stove for that and some noodles for my tea… and a bottle of wine, of course. I’ve got tomorrow morning off work, so why not? And off he went to watch the sun set from his hidey hole on the cliffs.

A while later and still no sign of St Ives. A woman and her dog were sitting on a large rock by the path. Again a conversation. You’re from Bristol? I did my training there. And so followed another life story. We moved on to talking about the BBC programme which saw a random group of media faces walking the Camino de Santiago. We each agreed that while we liked the idea of making the trek ourselves, the final 100km as shown on TV looked as busy as a Saturday High Street and not very pleasant. Plus there was the Spanish heat in which neither of us felt we would fancy walking. Maybe I’ll just call my walk my Camino instead. I have no idea where that came from but suddenly it seemed absolutely the right thing. The woman agreed. Camino de Cornwall it is then.

You look very tired, she added, but it’s not much further now. Once you get to the causeway you’re practically there.  She was a kind woman and I sensed that we had much that we could have talked about but she wanted me to keep moving. By chance I saw her again a couple of days later as we both got off a train, she to go one way to her next train and me to head out in search of a bus. It’s you, she cried, did you make it ok? I’ve been thinking about you.  There was no  time to chat but only a fleeting moment to recognise a connection that might have been.

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Eventually – what bliss – the causeway appeared. A line of rocks laid across the kind of mudfield I’d just spent hours clambering through. How utterly delightful to be able to step out with confidence that what was underfoot was not going to shift or let me down. My spirits began to rise and then – finally, eventually – I turned a corner and there it was.

Shangri-bloody-la.

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Just above Porthmeor, the first of St Ives’ beaches, the path had one more gift for me. A brightly painted pebble caught my eye.

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A young couple just behind me explained that it was a Kernow Rocks pebble – part of an informal project involving people painting pebbles and then hiding them to be found by others who were then to post a photo on Facebook and rehide the stone. It had clearly gripped the imagination of a great many as the Kernow Rocks FB page was crammed full of collections of freshly decorated stones about to be hidden or of smiling children holding the pebbles they had just found. One from an offshoot – Truro Rocks – was there in front of me on a ledge at Plymouth Station as I got off the train on my way home (I left it by the harbourside in Bristol) but my favourite posting is this one…

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A fitting end then to a day’s walk which had demanded way more than I had expected. My 10 mile jaunt took 7 3/4 hours to complete and for a while I had hated it. But as the screaming in my muscles began to quieten in a hot shower I began to realise that while my day’s Camino had taken a great deal from me it had also given me way more than I had expected. It’s not a day I’ll forget.

Just don’t mention Zennor, ok?

 

Snow, spanners, and starts

 

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Happy St David’s Day. (Image filched from @megfrombristol. I’ll ask permission next time I see her)

This was not the post I was planning to write today but the not very common (here in Bristol) arrival of snow put a very large spanner in the works.

Yesterday was to have been the first outing with some new walking companions – A, J, and L. A few chance remarks and casual conversations  have led to us forming up, putting dates in diaries, and preparing to set to on the Bristol Community Forest Path. It’s a 45 mile route circling the city of Bristol linking green spaces and replanted and restored community forests and I hope that it will be really interesting. Despite what must be worthiest, dullest, and least enticing name ever.

Bristol is an ancient city which has grown by swallowing up many old settlements in its environs and so I am hoping that even the suburban sections in my neck of the woods (of which there are a lot) will guide us down unnoticed paths and historic rights of way to unknown green spaces which I may have passed countless times without even realising they were there. And then there’s the other side of the city and the places I know vaguely and by name only and finally – because it promises to be the most beautiful part – there are the rural villages to the south. Treading the ground, beating the bounds, invites a very particular knowledge of a space and I am looking forward to learning my place as we circle our city.

So, instead of setting off yesterday, I stayed home in the warm but was transported to the great outdoors by Ursula Martin’s wonderfully written blog, which I have just discovered (http://www.onewomanwalkswales.com/blog). She has a lovely engaging style and I am so enjoying her journeying. And I so enjoy the journeying of many other talented bloggers so my aim for these snow days is to work out how to set up a blogroll to highlight these great writers too.  Watch this space.

 

 

March, march, swing you along

 

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Votes for women. Long delays

Getting a bit late in the day to write about this one (although I’m not quite as far behind the curve as the woman in the crowd who asked why they couldn’t have done it in the summer when it wasn’t so cold), but I joined the Bristol Women’s Voice lantern parade to celebrate suffrage. The date was 6 February 2018, 100 years to the day after the passing of the Representation of the People Act which first gave the vote to (certain) women.IMG_4209 (2)

 

I don’t have much form when it comes to parades and marches but even so this one must stand out as being both rather ad hoc and orderly at the same time. Ad hoc because – obviously – the organisers had never run one before and had had no idea of how many women would turn up. In fact I don’t think I saw a single person with clipboard, megaphone or anything else which might have signified their being in charge; orderly because everyone was in great spirits and many, I suspect, like me just wanted to be there to mark the occasion and not to make any larger point.

Also it was snowing.

So off we went, into the rush hour traffic which necessarily ground to a halt and logjammed the entire city. I don’t know how many of us there were – hundreds certainly, maybe a thousand or so at the start before the cold felled many. There was no police presence to count us and the inane local newspaper report spoke only of lots being there to celebrate all women getting the vote (They didn’t. Not in 1918. Try Wikipedia next time).

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Bristol Women’s Voice image. Bristol University lit some of its buildings in green and violet – suffragette colours – to commemorate the event. When women were first permitted to graduate from this university, the male undergraduates discarded their mortar boards in protest. Which is why my Alma Mater’s form of academic dress still features no headgear. Nice tradition, eh?

The organisers – Bristol Women’s Voice – had run workshops in libraries and museums in the weeks prior to the event so people could make lanterns which were ingeniously brilliant in their simplicity and effectiveness. (Too late I discovered that there had even been a session on the train to Severn Beach – a situation so bizarre that it begged to have been seen.) I cobbled one together from the instructions on the website but came up short when I came to deciding what to write on mine. Votes for Women may have been historically accurate but I felt that the event was to be more of a celebration of achievement than a replication of the struggle, Deeds not Words would have got my vote had I thought of it in time. But there were many and various examples to be seen.

Some women were moved to tears by the thoughts of the suffragettes, they said. I struggled to feel a connection to the undeniably brave women of a century ago. As far as I know I can claim no suffragettes or suffragists in the family so I can not make their battle personal.  I thought about my grandmothers – women I have known – one of whom was 20 in 1918, the other only 5. The former would have had to wait until she was 30 in 1928 before she was entitled to a vote, not then being married or owning property, the latter would have grown up seeing her mother casting her ballot for the first few times. That made it a bit more real.

My younger grandmother did not talk about politics. When asked who she would vote for the most handsome man would always be the reply. With a husband involved in local politics she had to keep her views to herself and this was undoubtedly her way of telling a child to mind her own business. But until now I hadn’t reflected on to what extent her stock phrase  – this faux empty headed, fluttery feminine disinterest – hinted at a female disconnect with politics. Although all women were enfranchised by the time she turned 21, she had grown up in a culture where this had not been the case and early expectations were engrained. And I looked at the women around me and began to wonder what in their lives they had accepted as being just the way the things are. Older women would remember being paid less than their male colleagues, their mothers would have encountered the marriage ban. By the time I entered the workplace the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act was in place and, thanks to earlier women’s efforts,  I was able to enter traditionally male fields, albeit in a minority and always in a skirt. Many battles have been won but many remain.

I’ll leave you with these links to a piece composed especially for the lantern parade which may or may not work. I hope one of them does because it was rather uplifting.

http://www.facebook.com/BristolWomensVoice/videos/1641018542631794/?q=bristol%20women’s%20voice

https://bristolwomensvoice.bandcamp.com/releases

Serendipity and long shadows

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Picture posed by models. Spectacular photo by Lynne Newton www.lynnenewtonfoxybiddy.zenfolio.com. http://avalonmarshes.org/the-avalon-marshes/wildlife/starling-spectacular/ 

Who said that if a plan can go wrong, it will do?

That was certainly the case this time. My friend J had waxed lyrical about the starling murmurations, those glorious dancing swoops of the birds as they come in to settle for the night at this time of year. Apparently they can be seen to spectacular effect on the Avalon Marshes, down on the Somerset levels, so I fixed a date in my diary, and got out my map. It wasn’t as easy as I had thought to plot a circular route to end up back at the RSPB reserve for the show as this is an area of ongoing peat excavations, low lying and drained with a maze of rhynes and ditches and I wondered how accessible the paths would be on the ground. Especially when I spotted what’s happened just above Sharpham Bridge.

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That bridleway – are they expecting seahorses? OS map 141

Anyway, I ended up with a walk along the remains of the Glastonbury canal which looked promising and I was all set – bag packed, lunch made, the lot. And then I looked at the weather forecast – 40mph winds on the way. Now I’m not an ornithologist and I could be wrong here but I somehow doubted that those birds were going to be doing all that wonderful swooping and swerving in the teeth of a gale. They’ll probably have been blown so far that they ended up in the Midlands.

Time for Plan B and a bit of pragmatic searching of weather forecasts for somewhere which looked a bit more balmy. Like Wiltshire. Mere light breezes of 18mph were on the cards over there which sounded like zephyrs in comparison. But where to go? Then I recalled that last winter a stunning sunset had stopped me in my tracks. Back then I had pulled in to a random layby and found these rolling hills  demanding to be walked one day.

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Sunset over West Down, near Beckhampton, Wiltshire. December 2016

Today looked like being that day.

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From the layby alongside the gallops, I set off for the copse on top of the hill ahead. I may not have been in the teeth of a gale but it was still pretty windy. Maybe that was why I barely saw a soul out there, other than two bouncy black and white collies and a black clad man with a mane of silver hair, who was graciously demonstrating the notion that owners get to look like their dogs.

I’ve not got a lot to say about the walk itself, but that is not a bad thing. It was a rectangular route, up one side of the ridge top of Cherhill Down,

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around Cherhill Hill,

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along and down over West Down,IMG_3903 (3)

back along the Roman road – now just a rough track – in the dip of North Down (which is directly south of West Down. Yes, I know),IMG_3911 (2) and ending up back by the Beckhampton Stables gallops. 

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The Stables sportingly allows public access to their glorious expanse of downland once training has finished at lunchtime and when I reached it, many dogs had arrived to race around and revel in all the space. And that’s what made it a great morning for me too. I mean, I cannot say that this was a particularly exciting or eventful walk but strangely, of all the walks I have done, this is one of the few I could return to again and again. It was not particularly demanding, the hills were gentle and the way pretty clear, but the variety of views – and the feeling of wide open space – was exceptional. I loved it and shall be back to enjoy this landscape later in the year.

Now what I have studiously avoided mentioning so far is what there is at the top of Cherhill Hill. Which is odd really because it is stuffed full of fascination. For a start there are the earth ramparts and ditches of Oldbury Castle, an iron age hill fort which provided welcome relief from what was beginning to feel like a hurricane up on the exposed top. I’m not an ancient historian but even I cannot fail to feel a sense of wonder at such a huge construction surviving from so long ago.

Not your thing? Well, how about this being the natural habitat of butterflies and seven different types of orchid, not to mention one of the most ridiculously named insects ever – the wart biter bush cricket.

I am not making this up.

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A wart biter bush cricket takes a stroll. May not be shown life sized. (www.nationaltrust.org.uk/calstone-and-cherhill-downs/features/wart-biter-bush-cricket)

Wart biters are apparently found in only five UK sites, take two years to go from egg to adult, and sound like complete divas. They have very specific requirements… long grass at certain times of the year and shorter grass at others, a tricky balance to maintain notes the NT website wearily.

None of the picky critters were out that morning, but what about this…IMG_3882 (2)

Yes, it’s a peacock.

Ok, it’s a white horse. Why did I not go closer, get a better picture you ask? Because the wind was whipping up that scarp so strongly that it was buffeting me about and I couldn’t walk in a straight line (I am of sturdy stock, approaching the traditionally built).

But enough of white horses, what is that over the way?

IMG_3886 (2)It’s the Lansdowne monument. What? IMG_3896 (3)None of these names meant anything to me. That is not particularly surprising, but as one with a fascination with monuments and memorials verging on the unhealthy, my eye was caught by the dates. Why would the third Marquess choose to commemorate an ancestor who was well over a century dead? Extensive research (hello Wikipedia) suggests that Petty was indeed a good and highly able egg – if you overlook his surveying of Ireland for Oliver Cromwell. It appears that he is best recalled as an economist, the concept of laissez faire being one of his bright ideas. Worth remembering perhaps, but why did it take 150 plus years to do so – why weren’t Marquesses 1 and 2 quicker off the mark with their commemorative plaques? (So 1 was busy being prime minister , and 2 suffered from ill health, but 3 managed to fit it in around taking his turn as home secretary and chancellor of the exchequer.) And why put the memorial here, a place with which Petty had apparently had no connection?

I’d hazard a guess that this whole thing has little, if anything, to do with Petty himself. The date of the monument – 1845 – coincided with the famines in Ireland and rural unrest and migration throughout England and Wales. By this stage, the Lansdowne family held large estates locally – and thus wielded great power. What better way could there be to make this plain than to build a panoptical spire to overlook their people and their lands?

One which still casts a long shadow.

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(I have no idea why the font keeps changing at random – any ideas anyone?)

 

 

 

Mendips, mud, and mysteries

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Off  to the Mendips to walk a route devised by the stalwart A, loosely based on walks enjoyed by her late father who knew the landscape very well.

We began at Priddy, a picture book village set around a large village green, right on the top of the Mendip ridge. There are farmhouses, there is the cricket ground, the pub, the post office and so on and it all looks exactly as I envisage the fictional Ambridge. Only  the pub is closed for conversion into residential units and the post office has long been a private house. And in the absence of Linda Snell et al, a biting wind was tearing through the deserted place.

As we set out we battened down the hatches, hats, gloves, and zips-wise, but still the wind found chinks in our fleecy armour until we had left the village behind and dropped down a little, onto the southerly side of the Mendip ridge. The plan was to sketch out a rectangular route, along the ridge, down to the start of the flatlands, back along and up again. A had in mind to follow the West Mendip Way for the beginning, an excellent idea for these long distance paths are always well signposted.

Well, up to a point…

We managed to skirt the muddy edge of one field before missing the turning for the Way. I’d like to think that it was particularly well hidden. Indeed there was a gap in the wall at the end of that field encouraging the unwary walker through to the next one and at the far end of which – by which time it was clear that we had gone astray – the farmer had kindly left free of barbed wire a few metres of walling to throw ourselves over. Can you see how I’m building a case for this having been an understandable, and not infrequently made, mistake?IMG_2922

Except when we got to the other end of the missed path  – the place at which we should have joined the bridleway we’d vaulted onto somewhat prematurely – we found that it was fairly bristling with signs and indicators. So maybe we had just been yakking too much to spot them back in the first field.

Anyway, after a mile or so of ridge top walking along an old drove road, thankfully out of the worst of  the wind, we passed through a farmstead found ourselves approaching the top of the scarp. The views of the Somerset levels began to open up with vistas stretching away into the distance, all islands of high ground rising up out of the wetlands.

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Closer at foot – and talking of wet – there was mud. Lots of it, deep, damp, and simultaneously both sticky and slippery.IMG_2938 (2)

A viewing point above Ebbor Gorge got short shrift from us because of the slidey stuff, (if I’d got any closer, you’d have seen what a long way down it was), but full marks to Natural England for their thoughtful installation of rough wooden steps to ease the way down the slope to the foot of the gorge.IMG_2942 (2)

And the wild wicker boar was another happy surprise too.IMG_2957 (2)

Reaching the road at the mouth of the gorge, a refreshment opportunity presented itself – of which more later – so there was a break for a reviving cup of tea, a spot of lunch, and (in my case) an examination of just how much Mendip mud I had managed to cover myself in when I fell over. Thoughts turned to the return route – back up the scarp across the fields or a gentler climb along a lane? Unanimous vote for the lane.

Despite the warning.

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The lane up to Deer Leap offered lots of yet more splendid views of the Somersest levels. A had read that the panorama extends as far at the Quantocks and South Wales on good days and, even though the day was cloudy, we could indeed see all that way. It was all very lovely.

But what are those stones doing in that field? And yes, that is Glastonbury Tor in the distance in between them.

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Standing stones lined up with Glastonbury Tor? Must be a ley line, mustn’t it? I paused  to see if I could feel any special vibes. Has to be a bit of a mystical spot surely?

I must admit that I don’t know a lot about ley lines, but my book buying eye has recently been caught by a re-issue of Alfred Watkins’ 1925 work The Old Straight Track.  Here, according to the blurb, the writer expounds upon his original concept of such lines as being a network of prehistoric pathways of aligned stone circles, mounds, and standing stones criss-crossing the countryside. All rather intriguing, I thought.

I must confess that when it comes to ploughing through Watkins’ thesis I am finding it about as heavy going as Mendip mud and just as clear. Bogged down half way through, I turned to Robert Macfarlane’s introduction to the 2015 edition. (Am I the only person to read subsequent introductions after I have read the main work? They seem to make more sense that way.) Although the excellent Macfarlane does conclude that Watkins’ ley vision re-enchanted the English landscape, investing it with fresh depth and detail, prompting new ways of looking and new reasons to walk, when it comes to his opinion on Watkins’ work (fabulous gallimaufries of quotation), he doesn’t mince his words.

So, with hindsight, there probably wasn’t much that was mysterious about that alignment of stones and Tor after all. But to return to our lunch stop that place was one giant mystery after another.

Why does anyone think that a skeletal figure indicates that this café is a good place to eat? And does that rictus smile and that weaponry add a welcoming touch?

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Why is an old paper mill turned caves visitor attraction peopled with vicious looking one armed pirates?

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Plus aggressive Father Christmases?

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And although the people in the café could not have been more helpful, friendly or welcoming to muddy walkers, I am still wondering what this scale model of a circus visiting a make believe Swiss town is doing in their midst.

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There’s an awful lot of it too. It says that it was built by a Major Aubrey Jackman in his home in Bath. For twenty years, he, Lieutenant Commander Francis Gilbert and Liesel Barker toiled over this masterpiece before, presumably, Mrs Jackman blew a gasket and told the three of them that either it went or she did.

And so it washed up here.

But why?

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But what’s that behind the scale model of the car park?

Why, it’s a whole big display about clowns…

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I really never understood before why some people find clowns unsettling and troubling. But now I do.

And finally, tucked away in a corner of an old stable there was this.IMG_3004 (2)

Happy Christmas

 

If you go down to the woods today…

 

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…you’ll be sure of a big surprise

When I was here last year I spotted this intriguing path descending into the woods above the River Wye, not far from Chepstow. Then I turned left through the gate and followed the Offa’s Dyke path but, having earmarked this place as somewhere to return to another day, back I came with a new circular route in mind, from the top of the cliffs down to the river’s edge and up again.

What’s over the wall on the right, I hear you ask?

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The Pen Moel estate. Yours for £1.2m. Comes with a 25 acre garden. Not sure about the sheep. Tell Savills I sent you. (https://search.savills.com/property-detail/gbclrslac160047#/r/detail/GBCLRSLAC160047)

Well, it’s the rather splendid Pen Moel estate, sadly still seeking someone to call it home.

This time I was joined by the excellent A and we made short work of the track’s steep descent through the woods, admiring the brilliant colours of the remaining leaves, the grandeur of the cliffs as they began to tower above us, the abundance of Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust’s signage, the thoughtful provision of benches, and so on.

 

Bright November sunshine, no one about, absolute silence save for the birds – it was all going terrifically well. What the map showed as a bridleway – and which I had feared may have been long lost as it doesn’t really connect anywhere to anywhere else – was turning out to be a well trodden route through a pleasant nature reserve. With hindsight, maybe I should have wondered about this.

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How did he lose his cap? Have the bears got the Bulls fan?

I certainly should have wondered about this.

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What an interesting rock feature, I thought naively.

Suddenly the path disappeared and we were in for a big surprise, all right. We were face to face with a very steep mass of boulders. I’d call it a scree if the stones had not been giant rocks of at least hip height. To the right, more rockfall, steeper still. To the left, the mudbanks and the river awaited an incautious mis-stepper. (So that’s what happened to Mr Chicago Bulls.) Clearly we had to get across this but there was no indication of where the path would recommence on the other side – straight across, up a bit, down a bit, not a hint came there from the GWT.

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Really wish I had snapped A nimbly crossing these rocks to provide an indication of the size of these boulders. And the steepness of the slope. Am glad that we were not attempting this at high tide for the mud promised a softish landing, at least.

Happily A has the intrepid agility of a mountain goat and headed out into the rocky wilderness. I followed in an inelegant inverted crablike traverse au derrière (au derrière? sur derrière? Step forward linguists). Half way across were a few rocks with yellow splodges of paint which encouraged us to think that we were on a route to somewhere but as these could not be seen from either side of the boulder field I hesitate to call them useful.

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The view from the far side. Would it kill you, GWT, to splash a bit more paint about?

And good luck with getting a horse along this bridleway.

Safely back on terra firma and revived with a few chunks of chocolate on a handy bench, I took to mud gazing. The light and the low water (the Wye is tidal here) made the strange shaping of the silt oddly fascinating.IMG_2584 (3) A little further round the meander and the steep cliffs gave way to a gentler slope and to the ruins of St James’ Church at Lancaut. Other than a farmstead, this is pretty much all that is left of the medieval village which once stood here.IMG_2620 (2)The church was deconsecrated in 1865 and its roof and fitments removed but, 150 years later, there remains the marks of a lost community.

 

A picturesque ruin in a dramatic landscape – there has to have been a postcard and here it is on the information board (Neil Parkhouse Collection). Looks like nothing much has changed in the last century or so.

There’s also a quotation from one Eleanor Ormerod (c1840)  ‘The situation, on one of the crooks in the Wye, and just above the river is romantic in the extreme…’ (Ormerod turns out to have been a world renowned entomologist and ground breaking female academic, as well as a woman blessed with a good eye for a view. My, but this walking lark is educational.)

What then? A brief chat with a couple coming in the opposite direction – Are all those boulders still there? Well, yes – followed by a surprisingly gentle path back up the hill, past the old lime kilns, to the level of the cliff top, 100m or so above the river, and to a vertiginous vantage spot from where we could dare ourselves to lean out and retrace our earlier steps. It was a great walk, only a few miles long but, as A and I agreed, a world away from the everyday.

I just don’t fancy those boulders again.

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That’s the farmstead amid the fields on the promontory. Lancaut Church is diagonally down and to the right of the farm, almost hidden by the trees.

 

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.