Swanning off to Swanage

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

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


Looking over to Brownsea Island

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


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

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

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


Yes, but who does Seth love?

The plot of a novel right there.

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


Is this is one of the original military huts?

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

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


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

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


This raises so many questions…


Come to Cwmdu

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

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

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


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

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

She was looking for the fireplace.


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

Nice bit of canine photobombing


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

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

Looking over to the Black Mountains


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

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

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



Another Pembrokeshire path.

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

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

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


Relics of nineteenth century telecoms standing by

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


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

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


Fishguard extends a hearty welcome.

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


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

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

I was wrong.


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

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

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


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

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


Those crabs never learn.







Pembrokeshire landscapes

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

FullSizeRender 1

Good morning, Dyffryn Fernant

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


Dinas Mountain, some curious cows and the odd bluebell

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


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


Dinas Head from Dinas Mountain.

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


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


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

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

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

Who could disagree?


London calling

Bit of a hiatus in blogging activity hereabouts recently, not because I haven’t been out and about but rather because my Iphone has taken to going doggo on me. Snaps a few photos and then the thing goes as dead as a doornail. Now you may think that this is a world class workwoman blaming her tools situation and you would probably be right but – if this doesn’t sound too pretentious – I tend to think in images and recall through photographs, so I get quite lost if I don’t have a few to fling around the place.

So what shall I tell you about all the walking we did in our long weekend in London?

First, there is the joy of wandering through a big city and chancing upon unknown, unsuspected parts just off the main track (I’ll say flaneur now so I need never mention it again). I’ve come very late to these discoveries. I was wont to hop off the train and head straight down the rabbit hole to the subterranean systems to get me to where I was going. But one day I looked at a map, saw that Central London is not actually that big in the scheme of things and realised that a brisk walk above ground may well get me there about as quickly as a ride under ground, with a whole lot more to look at along the way. (Like I said, I’m very late to the party on this one). Second, in doing all of this wandering considerable distances get racked up. Ten miles for me on Sunday – no wonder my feet were weary.

Some of these steps were measured around galleries (the British Library and the Royal Academy. The RA café – what a revelation… a few blocks from Piccadilly Circus but a world away), others shuffled about bookshops (Hatchards and the giant Waterstones) and quite a number more were strode around Kew Gardens (what a great sanctuary of green). But many others were wandered and wondered. Why for example does Islington’s main street (Upper Street. Or the A1, if you prefer) offer quite so many bakeries? There are the ordinary, large chain bakeries and there are the artisan bakeries – I’m with them so far – but then there are the gluten free bakeries and – yes – the sugar free bakery. Let them eat cake indeed.

I stumbled across the magnificent Daunt Books on Marylebone High Street (yes, late again) with its superb travel section (www.dauntbooks.co.uk) where, amidst the maps and guides, I found a novel set in the actual Corfu village to which we’re headed this summer. Have no idea what it is about but I could not pass it by.

With an afternoon to myself, I set out for a purposeful walk and, though I am trying to give them a rest, it was a canal which drew me to it. The Regent’s Canal from Little Venice, just above Paddington to – in my case – Regent’s Park, although it does trace an 8 mile route across the city to reach the Thames further east. These few miles showcased a variety of Londons. The carefully fenced off, manicured waterside lawns of the mansions near the park into which I suspect few but the security guards and the gardeners ever step, the ad hoc cultivating of the banks alongside the long moored narrow boats, and the rather jolly barge shaped planters in the open spaces in front of a somewhat challenging block of flats where – despite this being in the heart of a busy city – only birdsong seemed to disturb the peace.

Photo courtesy of http://afamilydayout.co.uk/

The canal was built as an industrial highway so in places the ugly necessities of the metropolis do intrude –  a huge electricity generating station, busy streets and the new developments around Paddington Station, for instance – but overall the canal was being busily enjoyed by a crowd of Sunday afternoon strollers.

No doubt many of them were drawn to the Little Venice basin where the Inland Waterways Association Canalway Cavalcade was taking place.

Photo courtesy of The Daily Telegraphy 1.5.17 (Spot the priest? More on him later)

This involved a joyous conglomeration of narrow boats filling every available spot on the water, with stalls, displays and activities taking over on dry land. I cannot say that either folk singing or morris dancing does it for me but clearly they do for some, and most of them were there enjoying the spectacle. It was as if some amateurish (in the best sense) country fete had somehow been transported into the heart of the sophisticated city. It was great. My abiding memory? This has to be the blessing of the boats. That’s what it said in the programme and here’s a picture of how it went last year with the Anglican Bishop of London decorously doing the honours, with some form of Mayoral personage having his back

The Bishop of London blessing the boats. May 2016 http://www.london.anglican.org/

This year, the task fell to a different cleric, a white cassocked priest with a custodian helmeted police officer as his wingman. If this were an Ealing comedy (which it very nearly was), I would say that the copper was not there to defend the clergyman so much as to protect the public from the priest and his wild, but powerful, sprinkling of the Holy Water. Built like a rugby player, the Father’s energetic dispensing of Blessings was soaking the faithful and the unfaithful alike, a fact that he, the wet and the wary all seemed to find uproariously funny.

Wish I’d had my camera.

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.


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.


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.


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)


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).


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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).


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.