Much water, many bridges.

It’s been a while.

Lockdown, not lockdown, lockdown again, not lockdown again.

And then one day I was in the V&A Museum gift shop in front of this – a replica of an 1889 map of the River Thames.

The Oarsman’s and Angler’s Map of the River Thames from its source to London Bridge. 1889. James Reynolds & Sons.

A light bulb moment. Why not walk the Thames?

Which way? Upstream or downstream? Easy. London is endlessly fascinating and exciting, but I – a fully paid up provincial – also find it tiring, noisy and dirty. Starting in the city and walking my way out of it had to be the answer. And where to begin? The official trail has several starts, earlier and later points, subsequent extensions and the like, but I liked the simplicity of setting out from London Bridge. It’s where the old map begins, and there’s the Shard on the doorstep as a landmark against which I could measure my progress for the first few miles.

The Shard. Quite tall.

I am going to need all the encouragement I can find. Despite dog walks, my strength and stamina has dwindled away to the point where even five miles seems like an arduous trek.

A couple of weeks later I was back in London, ready for the off. I’d planned three days of walking with a museum visit booked for the afternoon I arrived. Not going to name the place as I was underwhelmed by it but it had achieved its purpose in preventing an old church being demolished. Just look at the glorious stained glass that would have been lost if that had happened. So maybe one and a half cheers.

Stained glass and maps – could there be a more perfect combination?

The directions advised taking the Tube to Vauxhall and walking from there. Turns out that Vauxhall is on the river (country mouse, like I said) and Lambeth is a mile or so downstream. I was going to inadvertently start the walk before I meant to. Add on a few more miles after the museum to get me to London Bridge and I’d be doing the whole first stretch backwards.

Might as well.

So I emerged into the daylight at Vauxhall, skirted the MI6 building and then was soon onto a long settled waterside walk with the Houses of Parliament coming into view across the river and the splendid former London Fire Brigade HQ building on my side.

Glorious friezes on the 1930s LFB building. It’s mermen fighting the fire in the bottom plaque. No, me neither.
Plus a few more prosaic illustrations for those who prefer firefighters in trousers.

Next up, the International Maritime Organisation – no slouches themselves when it comes to architectural adornments.

Would have loved to have known what that design brief was – We’re thinking that something a little bit decorative on the front would be nice – maybe a ship or something?

Then it was the museum and the very nice woman on the desk suggested I begin my visit with a trip up the tower for the view. (Look, they were lovely people, ok? It’s just that the permanent exhibition I found a bit thin. And the temporary display on the life and work of a big name showed her to have been a not particularly likeable person. In my reading of her life story. As presented.)

Anyway, the view from the top was indeed worth the climb. Make that two and a half cheers for the Museum.

Lambeth Palace just below, Palace of Westminster across the water.

Heading onwards, on a quiet patch of grass between the path and the road I came upon this unexpected monument to the quiet heroism of the SOE.

That these acts of courage took place years before I was born in no way reduces their extraordinarily selfless sacrifice but there is an element of tidiness in this commemoration. We know how the story ended.

But when it came to the next memorial, an unofficial ephemeral one painted on a wall opposite Westminster, my reaction was more visceral.

The only element of tidiness here is that all refer to the same two years. And we don’t know how the story ends. 

Have a look at Wall of love: the incredible story behind the national Covid memorial | Coronavirus | The Guardian and National Covid Memorial Wall – Wikipedia

The stretch of river bank from Westminster Bridge to Southwark is not my favourite. I think of it as crass and busy and grubby and somehow smelling sickly sweet. But today it was good to see people out on an early summer evening, watching the street performers,

going out and meeting up and living what we remember as a normal life.

I paused to take a photo of the river.

It’s a beautiful view, isn’t it? remarked a young woman passing by

It certainly is.

How to kill a man. And other stories.

The best thing about walking a canal is that you cannot get lost. It’s there, it’s big and if you stay on the dry side it’s nigh on impossible to go wrong. It’s hard to lose a canal.

But I managed it this time.

But before we set off, meet my wingmutt.

H before he waived his anonymity. He’s a mutt from mid Wales, product of an accidental encounter between a blonde of excellent pedigree and a dark brooding type down from the mountains. It’s a story as old as the hills. 

Huw belongs to our newly wed daughter and son in law. When they said that they were thinking of getting a dog, my reaction was predictable.


They got a dog.


He comes to me once a week. Tuesday’s Huw’s day.

We had a couple of dogs in the family when I was growing up but I’m clueless when it comes to canines. First surprise was that young dogs must not be overexercised. No more than five minutes per month of age is the rule. We’ve been building up but haven’t walked very far until now. That is not to say he has not raced hell for leather miles in happy pursuit of his ball in the park so I reckoned that at 9 months he could probably manage a few miles of canal walking.

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OL14. Thank you, Ordnance Survey

So we jumped in the car and headed up to Gloucestershire to the Arlingham peninsula. It’s an extraordinary quirk of topography – a meander in the Severn – which has created this almost-island no longer on the way to anywhere. Upper Framilode, now a backwater to a backwater, was once the starting point of a very early pair of canals linking the Severn with the Thames (and thereby the Atlantic with London). The first part – the Stroudwater – was built in the 1770s to join the wool town of Stroud with the Severn, so as to bring coal across the river from the Forest of Dean and beyond to power the looms.



An 1988 guide to what are now known as the Cotswold Canals. Handford covers the Stroudwater, and Viner the Thames and Severn and their writings are joined together in the middle. Much like the canals themselves

The Stroudwater is only seven or so miles long but traffic had ceased upon it by the 1930s and it was officially declared moribund in the 1950s. Nails were rammed into its coffin when it was truncated by the construction of the M5 motorway and the improvements to the main A38. (I am indebted to Michael Handford for his in depth, no stone unturned, account of the Stroudwater). My Dad, a civil engineer who spent many years devising plans for schemes to meet the demand for water from the burgeoning south east, recalls a colleague’s pet project to lay a pipe the length of the canals to channel Severn water into the Thames and thus into the drinking water of Londoners. It didn’t come to anything but it does illustrate the extent to which the canal was perceived as redundant.

But times change and, given the revived interest in boating, there is now a move afoot to restore the canals and reopen the route.

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A contemporary plan of the meeting of the Stroudwater Canal with the River Severn. Thank you, Michael Handford. My red scribble shows the bit that has since been infilled and turned into a very des res.

What strikes me as a major problem is that the first lock and its ancillary land and buildings –  that’s the bit at the entrance to the canal from the Severn which I’ve ham-fistedly marked on the plan –  has long been sold off, filled in and turned into a private home and rather a nice garden. There is no watery way through and I don’t think they are going to take kindly to the arrival of the diggers. But the energetic people bent upon canal restoration have a plan and it’s a nifty one.


Anyway, let’s get on with the walk. Turning away from Lock House, there it is. Rather green and weedy but undeniably recognisably a canal.IMG_4994 (2) There’s a row of charming canal side cottages and a couple of old pub buildings, one still very much in business. Not much further and the canal is completely choked up. IMG_5167 (2)

Then it’s over a stile, follow the footpath, and – hang about – where’s it gone? Now we’re by a waterway but it’s definitely not a canal.

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Where did the canal go?

Another dog walker tells me it’s the River Frome. Hmm. We plough on. Not much further and we’re in the grounds of a school boathouse and then straight out onto the wide expanses of the Gloucester and Sharpness canal. Yes, it’s an intersection, a canal crossroads and all a bit exciting as there’s a lot going on here.

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Looking over as the Stroudwater crosses the Gloucester & Sharpness

Along a bit to one side is the remnants of the lock which evened up levels of the G&S and the Stroudwater (How come I didn’t come out there? Where’s the canal been in the interim?), across the bridge is the old Junction house and over on the diagonal is a fascinating looking boat builders’ yard,

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The boatbuilders’ yard. What’s that lifeboat doing there?

behind which is a new marina, excavated since my 1999 map was published. IMG_5046 (2).JPGSuddenly it’s all busyness and here is the answer to the canal restorers’ dilemma of how to link the Thames to the Severn. Forget the stretch I’ve just walked, leave it to slumber, but instead direct boaters southish down the G&S to meet the Severn at Sharpness.

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Thank you again, Michael Handford

Nifty indeed, eh? (see for a bit about that neck of the woods).


Carrying on along the Stroudwater was plain sailing for a bit before the broad, straight way gave out and the map told me to take a detour along a road for a short way. This is the Thames and Severn Way and it’s an officially recognised long distance path. Not on the ground hereabouts it’s not. I saw one sign, just one. In a completely unhelpful place. Hmm, again.

From here on it was a bit of a game of hide and seek. Seek the canal, seek a sign of the path that is marked on the map but not on the ground. Light relief came in the form of another dog walker on a way through the long grass that I was not 100% sure was actually a path. She was bent double but straightened up when she saw me and explained that she’d been doing her back exercises (I can think of easier places to do them, but go ahead) and that her handbag sized pug had a thing about pups which is why he was letting rip at Huw (How could he tell? He’s enormous). We were in the midst of an interesting conversation about I forget what when her eye caught something in the hedge.

Oh my God, that’s henbane

What’s henbane?

It’s what they used to kill Socrates.

Really? Isn’t that cow parsley?

That’s the thing, it looks like wild carrot but it’s got the blood red streaks along the stem. It’s lethal, don’t go near it.

How much would you have to take to kill you, I asked. She didn’t know. So we stood in a field and Googled it for a bit. Then thought that perhaps that was the sort of question you posed on someone else’s phone, not your own.

Actually, I don’t think that henbane is the right name. But I can’t remember what it is.

That rather ended the conversation so we moved the dogs away from the poison tree and parted.

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It’s hemlock, not henbane. Five or six leaves should do it.

We came to a bridge over the river. We’d lost the canal again. The map indicated that it was over yonder at the far side of the field but that if we continued to follow the river we’d end up where the two waterways met.  I didn’t fancy either plan. There was a third option – take the way that Ms Henbane had presumably come along. That would lead us back towards Frampton on Severn and the map promised that we could divert back to the G&S canal in a big loop. Good. Farewell Stroudwater, you’ve had your chance.

This turned out to be a great bit of walking, through fields high with crops, edged with poppies and cornflowers and yes, cow parsley (or wild carrot/Nottingham lace/Anthriscus sylvestris. I checked for blood red streaks and found none).IMG_5114 (2).JPG Birds were singing and on the breeze drifted the church bells sounding the quarters. IMG_5083 (2).JPGThere was the dog and there was me and there was no one else about. It was all completely and utterly lovely.

At the end of the field we had a choice: follow the signposted path straight on or take the (not signposted but mapped) track to the right. Forward would get us to Frampton on Severn but would mean a longer walk back to the car for Huw, right would cut out a large corner.  Now I am the Ordnance Survey’s greatest fan but even I have to admit that they do have a weakness when it comes to how they mark their tracks. Footpaths, bridleways and other rights of way are marked in red or green depending on the scale of the map. Thoroughfares are marked according to their road designation and can be assumed to be public access. But tracks, those little roads marked in narrow black lines, how does the map tell you whether they’re private lanes or not? It doesn’t. It leaves you to work it out for yourself.

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That’s definitely a track, isn’t it?

I could see the track, I could see how it lead to the roadway across the field, I could see it wouldn’t take us into anyone’s back garden, and I could see that it looked about as well walked as the definitely public access path we’d just come.

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This was signposted as a public footpath

So I took a chance and we turned right.

After a mile or so, even Huw’s confidence in my decision was faltering. But before we got chapter and verse on this we had to contend with the gate. On the other side was the road, behind us a long walk back. In the way was a chained and padlocked gate surmounted with barbed wire.

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Happily I couldn’t see this sign until I was over the fence. Sorry for trespassing, Oatfield Farm. It was an oversight.

No room to wriggle through the hedge so it was over the top for me and through the middle for him.

Back on the side of the law, we were soon at the swing bridge over the wide Gloucester & Sharpness canal and then over to the far bank and headed for the café. As Ms Henbane had hinted it was not great (she’d heartily recommended the one in Frampton on Severn instead but it wasn’t on our route). Never mind. Huw was beginning to flag and we still had a couple of miles to go. I had a bottle of water for him and his bowl so I poured him a couple of dishfuls which he slurped down. I know nothing about dogs but I wanted to get him something to eat so I went into the café to see what I could find. I do know now that chocolate kills dogs (tell that to the dogs we had when I was child)  but I reckoned everything else on offer would be ok. The rock cake looked the least unappetising so he and I shared one as I drank a cup of tea. It was more a 80:20 split than a 50:50 one as it was ghastly, but he loved it. Next day I learned that dried fruit kills dogs too. What with the hemlock, the barbed wire, and the lethal currants this outing was turning into one death defying moment after another.

But these things happen in threes so we staggered on after our break.

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Approaching the junction again. Gloucester 8 miles. 

After the mild perils came the stories. A man packing up his fishing stuff on the canal bank began to chat.  This man, a plumbing and heating engineer (didn’t like school, no good at exams but give me a length of pipe and it all makes sense…)  had paid to have his family tree researched. All that had been found appeared to have come as a surprise to him. My grandfather, now he was a plumber too. Never knew that. Must be in the blood. And my grandmother on my mother’s side, turns out she was illegitimate. She was brought up by her grandparents who lived on a farm around here and I was doing some work for the doctor who lives just on the corner over in (he named somewhere I’d never heard of)  and I saw that the address was similar so I asked him. And he said that the farm was next door to him. I never knew that. He knew the woman. Said to call round. 90 years old and always first in the pub, the lady is, he said.

Did you go?


Do you know why they left the farm?

No idea. But you’re from Bristol then? Some of my ancestors went there but then they came back again. But guess what? I had my DNA analysed too and guess what it found from my blood?

(I think I know what you’re going to say)

I’m 2% Nigerian. I’m Nigerian from the knees down.

It took a while to take our leave of the plumber, a genial man who was simultaneously excited about his family history without being at all curious about what was beyond the genealogist’s report. Plots of several novels were spilt out onto the bankside right there – the love child grandmother, the farm that was left behind, the African forebears – but he wasn’t about to pick them up.

The final stretch of the walk took us off the Gloucester & Sharpness canal and back along the Stroudwater spur again. Outside the pub there was an elderly man sitting on the edge of the canal, legs in the water. Another conversation. Another story. This time a comedy.

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The expanse of canal directly in front of the pub.

The man’s accent was so broad that I couldn’t understand a word he said. Eventually, after some pantomiming of Huw wanting a swim and me not letting him, I got my ear in. He was pulling reedlike vegetation out of the canal and once he’d finished the ones he could reach he said he was going to go out in his boat and pick up a load more.

That Mrs Rees – Owen, she always says she can’t understand why the water’s clear down here but it’s never that way up her end. She never sees me doing this. And I never tell her.

And, because these things happen in threes, on to the churchyard for the final story: a tragedy. And a mystery.

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Such a tragic loss to one family. But why the different names? And why was the twin sister never named?





‘Let us now praise famous men’*. And a woman who is not a bit well known.

(* an earworm ever since I was drilled to sing the anthem in my girls’ school assembly.)

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Hebden Bridge

Mid June and it should have been a heat wave. When I booked the weekend in West Yorkshire’s Calder Valley, I had visions of striding out, slathered in sun cream, Panama at a jaunty angle. Along the Rochdale Canal I would go from our towpath cottage in Hebden Bridge, west to Todmorden one day, east to Sowerby Bridge the next, and then return to spend the balmy evenings outside enjoying a bottle of wine as the world floated by. Well, that didn’t happen. Too rainy the first day so instead it was off to the Todmorden Agricultural Show for T and me, picking our way across the soggy fields. And the long hot evenings? We battened down the hatches and switched on the heating. All very enjoyable, of course, but not what we had anticipated.

Next day there appeared to be a window in the downpour forecast so, encouraged by Yorkshire born and bred T, I decided to stop being a Southern sissy and step out.

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Black Pit aqueduct, where the Rochdale Canal crosses the River Calder. On Boxing Day 2015, the town was flooded when torrential rains caused the river waters to sweep down through the streets. The water level in the Calder at this point shown here was so high that it engulfed the canal.

I got 200m and it began to rain.

But enough of the moaning. Hebden Bridge is a really, really interesting place. There’s definitely a dissertation to be written there. It was known as Trouser Town back in the day being a centre for the production of corduroy, Nowadays it is better known as the lesbian capital of the UK if this rather dusty piece in the Guardian is to be believed ( (and look, someone’s already done the dissertation). Whatever. It’s post industrial, but prosperous, packed with creative types, independent shops and artsy crafty endeavours. Strung out along the River Calder and the canal, it sits at the meeting of two steep river valleys and is an attractive town in all senses.

We’d had a look at Todmorden the previous day when we’d changed buses on our way to the Show so Sowerby Bridge, on the outskirts of Halifax, was in my sights today. T had a bit of work to do so he decided to hop on a train and meet me at the other end. Yorkshire (North, South and West Yorkshire – all of them) is a bit of a foreign field to me so I was keen to see what it was like. The hills, the drystone walls, the building stone all looked different, the accents and the place names sounded different. I mean, I have no idea how to pronounce some of them – Mytholmroyd I didn’t attempt, Sowerby I was shaky on after my inept inflections over Todmorden. These sites were named by speakers of another tongue, not the Brythonic Celtic types that hold sway along the coastlines of Wales and the far South West. 

I’d read that settlements along the Upper Calder Valley sprang up with the mechanisation of the textile industry in the early 1800s and the completion in 1804 of the Rochdale Canal (the major commercial link between Manchester and Leeds until the railway in 1841), so I was expecting urban and signs of manufacturing. But as the UK textile industry today is a shadow of its former self, I anticipated that, with production having left the valley (the country even), then I would find only remnants of the industrial heartland of the past. Unsurprisingly, many of the old mill buildings in Hebden Bridge have been converted into housing, studios and workshops but would I find this repurposing all the way along the canal?

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A mix of new, old, and converted residential units

Or would I find dereliction of the Turn Off The Lights, Close The Door, And Let The Roof Fall In variety? Well, no, not so much.

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This building has been firmly mothballed but with an attempt to make the place look still occupied. There’s clearly been a dispute over whether imitation mock Georgian glazing bars would look better than a more modern style

Some old sites have been purposefully razed, while elsewhere new industrial units are sidling up to the water’s edge. Others are reincarnated as bases for newer commercial enterprises, some more unexpected than others. If you’re wondering where the 89a to Blackheath has got to…

What can I tell you about this stretch of canal? It was a very pleasant walk.IMG_4714 (2) There were a couple of locks, a tunnel, a few villages along the way, and some tiptop waterside gardens. And more commemorations of local worthies than I had expected. There was Ted Hughes at Mytholdroyd, his birthplace; there was Bramwell Bronte at Sowerby Bridge station, where he’d worked for five months; and there was Edward Kilner with his eponymous lock,

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Kilner’s Lock – not named for the man behind the jars but for a lawyer associated with the canal.

The fragrant Lady This or Mrs John That may have graciously tapped a commemorative trowel on a foundation stone a century ago, but Miss Ainsworth made me stop in my tracks.IMG_4742 (2) It’s not often a woman in her own right is commemorated on a plaque. 

Approaching Sowerby Bridge and just as I was trying to get a look at this place, IMG_4752 (2)squinting at what I thought was one of those Why Not Take On The Lease Of This Pub? banners that hang hopefully from the peeling woodwork of some forlorn inn, and wondering who on earth would ever go there for a drink there was a voice behind me. They’re doing a good job there, aren’t they? It’s looking really nice, isn’t it? Er no. A brisk woman fully kitted out for a long hike, lipstick exactly matching her fuchsia fleece (kudos for the attention to detail), had caught me up. Turns out the place is being renovated by a charity working to give homeless people in the town the construction skills to find work and move off the streets. So yes, they are doing a good job there actually. But I still don’t know who on earth would ever go there for a drink.

Sowerby Bridge is no Hebden Bridge. Sunday morning may not have been the time to see it at its best, but it remains more as it was than as it could be.

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Cobbled streets in Sowerby Bridge

But when we got down through the town and up the other side to the station (I’d met up with T by now) it all began to get a bit Richard Curtis, a bit stereotypical soft focus, rosy glow, old time Yorkshire.  First, there was the former station café, now an independent enterprise, offering a long list of refreshments to early morning commutersIMG_4772 (2) and later in the day a vast range of ales, whiskeys and gins – and coffee too – amidst a huge collection of railway memorabilia which cleverly hit the entertaining note rather than the specialist enthusiast one (

If I were a regular on the Leeds to Manchester line I think I’d be planning to hop off for quick one on the way home.

Then after a leisurely coffee (yes, it came with a Nice biscuit – when did I last have one of them?) and a quick train ride we were back in Hebden Bridge, in a main line station which appears not to have noticed the passing of the last 50 years. IMG_4774 (2)

And then, as we left the platform the sound of a brass band drifted towards us. Now we knew that there was to be a band competition that afternoon (it was billed as the Hebden Bridge Band March and Hymn Tune Contest) but hadn’t expected to come across bands limbering up in the town park. IMG_4777 (2)But there they were and there were more of them gathering in the centre of town ready to march down the street,

arrange themselves around a sculpture in a giant knitted condom and then to play their hymn and reprise their march tune.

12 bands were competing in all, 11 local and one from Canada (no idea) so it was quite a crowd. As the by now hot and sunny afternoon wore on and thirsts were addressed, the atmosphere shifted from pre performance nervous anticipation to post march relief. Ties were loosened, jackets were removed and instruments were scattered about.

A grand day out. Yorkshire? What’s not to like?

Hot and Cold Wars

I begin in a spirit of reconciliation.

Portreath – it’s not you, it’s me. It’s not that you’ve done anything wrong, it’s just that I’ve found you a little, well, odd.

It’s not that I expect to find every little spot along the way set up please me and the rest of the carrot cake eating classes. I really don’t. To be brutally frank, St Ives, I find you just a little bit too much with your artisan meringues that could crush a hamster; Newlyn, I love your quay with your stand there and look if you must attitude (but get out of the way of the forklifts because don’t you go forgetting that this is actually an industrial area); and Hayle, you’ve had better days, but your regeneration projects are looking great and everyone loves a trier.

But Portreath? You’re none of these and I just can’t work you out. Your harbour’s commercial life ground to a halt fifty years ago, and now you’re like a place turned in upon itself, a post-industrial spot cold-shouldering the huge expanses of golden sand at the end of the street. And in a part of the world where everywhere else has its eye on the grockle geld, I find this unusual.

Anyhow, I’ve got that off my chest so let’s look at this bunch of happy kids having a lovely time on your sands and move on. (See, I said it’s not you, it’s me).IMG_3818 (2)

When I planned these few days in Cornwall I had envisioned striding out as far as Perranporth but what are plans for if not to be changed? Two and a bit days of walking turned into one and a bit when I woke up on our second morning, looked at the weather and thought meh. Instead T and I headed off for a day of ambling at Heligan (lovely) and Mevagissey (also lovely). And so it was on the third day that we packed up and left our cottage and headed back to Portreath to get just a little further along the path before we had to hit the A30 for the drive home.

Porthtowan was the new destination and, though a short three mile stroll, the map suggested that it could be a more interesting few miles than the previous outing. There was an airfield on the headland just above Portreath for a start. Although it was shown as in use on my 2003 map (a charity shop bargain – it’s not as though they are going to move the sea, are they?), it was marked as disused on the 2015 version I consulted in the library before I left home (just making sure). From across the bay, I’d seen that there is still a giant golf ball there so I was curious to see if the path would allow me a closer look.

I was quickly up and out of Portreath and passing remnants of wartime buildings across the fields. IMG_4047 (2)A bit of Googling when I got home told me that the airfield  – formerly RAF Portreath – dates from 1940 and served as a Fighter Command station, a ferry stop-over for aircraft bound to/from North Africa and the Middle East, a temporary stop-over for USAAF and RCAF units, and then as a Coastal Command station. In 1950, its day was done so most of the site was returned to the government although today it remains a listening post with its long-range radar coverage of the south western approaches to the UK. That’s what’s in the golf ball. I got this from and there’s a whole load of other information out there on the place, but I was soon lost in a sea of abbreviationsand defence jargon (it’s Remote Radar Head Portreath now, by the way). I have never served in the military nor, other than my father’s National Service, have I known anyone spend time in the Forces so this is all a very foreign field to me.

Back to the walk. IMG_4068 (2)Without knowing any of this history at the time, the golf ball led to me assume that something was still going on in there, but the screaming of the stock cars racing up and down the runways on a Sunday morning suggested that the site was otherwise pretty much demilitarised. So the plethora of signs came as a surprise. There was this one, rather weatherbeaten and faded, which looked like it’s been there a while.IMG_4056 (2) But these looked pretty modern for a disused base.

I didn’t notice the fence at first. The coast path runs its whole length alongside – and in some case through –  privately owned land so it is normal to be separated from the adjoining fields by fence, wall, or bank. Only in extremis would it occur to me to try to access that land. IMG_4053 (2)But this pristine fence went on and on, even after the noise of the race cars was fading away behind me, and even in the face of the steepest of climbs it traced its unwavering line.

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Someone really doesn’t want anyone going in there.

At the top of the hill I found myself in amongst more remnants of wartime defences, platforms on which (I’m guessing) munitions were placed and a watch kept, with a trench dug to allow personnel to come and go undetected.IMG_4085 (2) It was a lonely spot, bleak on a late spring day, hard to imagine how it would have been on a winter’s night when the threat of invasion was real.

A little further on was this.IMG_4094 (2) Another military reminder? No, it’s the protective capping of a disused mine shaft. I was away from old defences and back amidst the remains of the tin and copper industries which straggle along this coastline. Those rungs were strange. Their stopping after a couple of metres suggested that the bottom was close below. IMG_4093 (2)It wasn’t. I dropped a stone to see how long it would take to hit the base. I didn’t hear it land.

Along the way were the preserved residues of Wheal Tye mine, with maps and interpretation boards (that shaft is 600 feet deep – sheesh) and a chimney painted with a faded graffitied protest of which I could make out only the last word.IMG_4097 (2) A word which made no sense to me here on the north coast of Cornwall.

I was almost in Porthtowan by now. Below me, the glorious beaches opened upIMG_4124 (2) and as I rounded the corner of the track to begin the descent into the village, I found the garden of my dreams.IMG_4128 (2) I don’t think I could improve on this.

IMG_4126 (2)Porthtowan is a pleasant place and it lacks Portreath’s gloom. There was coffee. There was carrot cake. I went home happy.


But after a few days some of the things I’d seen on the walk were niggling at me. I’ve no right to know the reason for the indefatigable fence – defence secrets must, of course, remain secret – but still I was intrigued. Here’s the air base on my 2003 map.

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Thank you, Ordnance Survey

And here’s the same spot on the map on a 1962 version, 12 years after the RAF left.

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Thank you,


A bit of Googling revealed an alter ego for this remote airfield.  From 1950 to 1978 the site was known as CDE Nancekuke. This led me down a whole series of online rabbit holes from official reports, to amateur explorers’ sites, via the conspiracy theorists to the frankly bonkers UFO brigade, all of which come with their own spin and levels of credibility. This was only meant to be a Sunday morning stroll and you come to indulge me in the telling of my What I did on my holiday tales, so feel free to call it a day right here.

But for a short summary which may perhaps hint at why Portreath is as it is, read on…

Jumping straight in, I read that captured war time stockpiles of German nerve agents and research documents identified GB Sarin as suitable for the UK to develop for use in potential Cold War chemical warfare. Production began at Porton Down, near Salisbury, but in 1954 it was relocated to the disused former RAF air station at Portreath – renamed Chemical Defence Establishment Nancekuke – which became the United Kingdom’s main chemical weapons research and development facility.

By 1956 international tensions were judged to have relaxed sufficiently for a halt to be called to production, but not before more 20 tons of Sarin had been stockpiled at Nancekuke. From then until the late 1970s, the facility was used for the manufacture of riot control agents such as CS gas, and the development of medical countermeasures, training aids, and the development of protective Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical (NBC) suits used by the British Forces

The closure of CDE Nancekuke was announced in 1976 and by 1978 all remaining stocks of chemical agents had been destroyed or transferred by road to Porton Down. Other chemicals were neutralized, returned to the commercial chemical industry, or buried on site alongside debris from dismantled plant and buildings. (There’s a very full account of this at

The underground explorers at identify old quarries and abandoned tin mine shafts as dumping grounds for the waste, along with a valley where the ground level was raised by 20 feet by the dumping of rubble, waste chemicals and quantities of asbestos from demolished buildings. (

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That would be here

Concerns have since been raised about the subsequent effects on the environment of the area and the possibility of leaching of dangerous substances into the water table or the sea.

Several hundred local civilian workers were employed at Nancekuke, all bound by the Official Secrets Act. In Parliament in 2000, Candy Atherton, MP for the area, sought to raise the above average incidence of sickness and premature death in this cohort of the local population,

The key time for the production of nerve gas…was the 1950s. During the four years from 1955 to 1959, there were 306 cases of respiratory disease—almost double the numbers for the following years… Some 41 men died—nine during employment and 32 after leaving the establishment— between 1950 and 1969… Some complicated statistical analysis was applied and the conclusion was reached that such a death rate was lower than the national average. If a small company employing 150 people lost 41 current and former employees among a relatively young and healthy cohort, alarm bells would ring…Those men were working not underground or at sea, but in a factory and a laboratory environment. (

In his response, John Spellar, Minister for the Armed Forces, refuted her contention that something untoward had been going on.


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Graffiti reads ‘…made here kills Vietnam’. Chemical weapons produced at Nancekuke were, it is believed, used offensively by the United States until 1964. Candy Atherton, MP. I am not aware of any chemical warfare agents being transferred to the United States, other than a few laboratory samples. John Spellar, Minister for the Armed Forces (

And so back to Portreath, to the small village that has lived with that secret place up on the hill for going on 80 years. Bound officially not to tell the truth about the unexplained comings and goings, the untimely and unlikely sicknesses, but bound unofficially to hear the rumours – I’m beginning to get the smallest inkling of why you are like you are.

To the lighthouse. Again.

IMG_3760 (3)Back to Cornwall for a few more days of coast path, beginning where I began last time, a year or so ago ( (2)Godrevy Point at the far end of Gwithian Sands was the spot but this time, instead of taking the Age Concern minibus to the start I had my own driver in the form of T who agreed to drop me off and meet me 7 miles later with such alacrity that I knew that a clandestine Full English had to figure in his plans somewhere. We actually reached the National Trust car park at practically the crack of dawn as we were both on city time when it came to waking up. But still the car park was hosting a good few surfers’ cars and vans.

Off I went in one direction and off went my husband in another.


I seem to have taken a great many And So We Say Goodbye shots of Godrevy lighthouse. I like this one best.

The National Trust own and manage the coast land here and, in that much of their work was imperceptible to me, and in that I very much appreciated their re routing of the path to allow for recent cliff falls, I did find some of their signage (and that of other charities) a little intrusive.

But it is a difficult balance to achieve and I have nothing against seals.

I thought I’d heard of excellent carrot cake being found on sale at the café hereabouts and I do love a piece of carrot cake. I hadn’t checked my sources too closely and so the first place I had my eye on turned out to be public toilets. Disappointing. In the fullness of time, at about the moment I walked off the edge of my very first OS map and onto the second (woohoo), I arrived at the café at Hell’s Mouth – the very place – but so early that it was yet to open and, to be honest, it was too early for cake, even for me. Still, I passed by with some regret but later, on rereading Jude’s post, I realised it may not have been so bad after all. (

I walked on as the way, although high up on the cliff,  ran flat and close to the road for several miles. Car parks popped up from time to time. It was turning into the least interesting section so far and I was growing rather fed up. It did give me time to reflect on my new walking/trail shoes and award them 9 out of 10.

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Ugly  brutes, aren’t they?

Still not 100% right. The quest continues.

Lovely array of wildflowers along the way though – bluebells, primroses, violets, red campion and a whole load of nameless others.

Just as my inner moaner was starting on the Are We Nearly There Yet? whining, the path dropped away, right from the top of the cliff to a few metres above the beach.


Didn’t see that coming.

A steep down followed by a steep up. That’ll teach me to get bored. Just time to catch my breath at the top and WHAT? Here we go again, all the way down and all the way up again. A double dip. Not sporting. Not sporting at all.

Then it was around the headland and into Portreath, my morning’s destination. I have to admit that I found the place a little odd. Its raison d’etre was as a port used to export tin and copper from the local mines across to South Wales for processing and to import Welsh coal to power the mine machinery. As I saw a bit more I came to admire its plucky ingenuity. IMG_3809 (2)I mean, would you build a harbour here on this wide expanse of gently sloping sands?

At one side of the beach walls were constructed to create the narrowest of channels to form the harbour. The skill that must have been required to navigate that unfeasibly tight passage is extraordinary.IMG_4042 (2)

The village itself is rather unusual. Although equipped with the requisite golden sands (and some truly ugly, crassly overdeveloped properties), just behind the beach front car park is an estate of 1970s housing where the old maps show were once coal yards. IMG_4040 (2)Throw in several derelict bungalows around which property developers must be circling, a couple of not very enticing pubs, a beach café reeking of chip fat

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Farm fresh premium pre-fried chilled chips? 

and a (much nicer) cycle café where we drank coffee amidst the frames and the inner tubes and it was all a bit of a mishmash.

I couldn’t wait to leave.

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But what’s that giant golfball up on the hill above the village?

That’s for the next walk

A quick run down

When it’s come to walking these past months, torpid has been my leitmotif.

But why?

Injury? No. Pressing social engagements? No.  Sudden new calling? Sort of.

I decided to run a marathon.

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The very talented artist, Eglantine Chesneau, was commissioned to illustrate the marathon stories of a dozen first time marathon runners and very kindly chose me. (

So I ran and I ran and I ran.

I ran in the darkIMG_1529 (1) and I ran in the light,IMG_1658 (1) when the sun was coming upIMG_1913 (1) and when the sun was going down,IMG_1348 (1)


when the waters were risingIMG_2083 (2) and when the floods had subsided.IMG_2300 (2) I ran through a vicious hail storm, soaked to the skin with icy water, when the rough, narrow canalside path turned to slippery mudIMG_2224 (1) and I ran through the strong spring sunshine which burned my nose.

I ran with my wingwoman daughterIMG_1601 (1) and I ran alone,

through scenes of great beautyIMG_2297 (2) and some not so great.IMG_2238 (1) I ran alongside main roads and down ways I never knew existed IMG_2242 (2) and I ran across every bridge I could find in Bristol (and still missed a few).IMG_2748 (1)And then I pinned on my number IMG_3082 (2)and I was away.IMG_3088 (2)

Back on track

Here we are again approaching Sea Mills station, my current second favourite railway station, much loved by me for its quiet, single track sleepiness and its pleasantly unexceptional suburban setting. But most of all for THIS.IMG_0814 (2) River – blah, fields – blah, mud – blah. Yes, yes, but look, there’s a boat mired where the Trym meets the Avon. Now if I were to hop aboard, let the tide rise and then cast off, I could drift downstream to where the Avon joins the Severn and then sail away down the Bristol Channel, into the Celtic Sea and on to the North Atlantic Ocean, deciding on a whim to turn left for Cape Town, straight on for Rio, or maybe I’d keep right for New York.

Obviously this would be insane because a) I don’t know how to sail, b) that’s not a sailing boat, and c) I don’t like getting wet. But it doesn’t stop my heart lifting at the sight.

So there we were for another outing for what I persist in calling the embryonic walking group (with some justification, I contend, seeing as this is only our second meet this year). As it was such a long time since our last outing in April we had rather forgotten where we had got to on our circumnavigation of Bristol, but all agreed that an exception could be made and a path traced along the banks of the Avon instead. We set off along the unexpectedly bucolic stretch set between the river, the railway and the last hurrahs of the A4, a remarkably peaceful spot given all that is going on around it.IMG_0824 (3) After a mile or so of loveliness the bank narrows and the path ends. Nothing for it but to climb back up to the main road and to the traffic for a mile of grot. IMG_0878 (3).JPG Eventually the Suspension Bridge came into view, making all things better, and after rather a lot more mud, we left the Avon and headed for the Floating Harbour (which is basically a giant pound with lock gates at either end to keep the water at a constant level). There’s always loads to see on the Harbourside, whether it’s a view across the waterIMG_0901 (2)

or one of Bristol’s sons in a festive landscape.IMG_0908 (2)

And can you spot Morph in this unintentionally tricksy shot through Aardman’s window?IMG_0915 (2).JPGHeading for Temple Meads station and the train back to the start, we left the water’s edge as L, whose office had once been based in these parts, took us off piste down narrow cobbled streets.IMG_0927 (2) We hadn’t intended to stop at St Mary Redcliffe Church though it is undoubtedly a fine and ancient building (Elizabeth I called it the fairest, goodliest and most famous parish church in England. So there. Mind you, she probably said that a lot). However, the prospect of Treefest, a forest of decorated Christmas trees, did call for a detour. There were some beauties,IMG_0944 (2) there were some cannily placed,

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The WI take the festive spot next to St Nicholas

there were some ingeniously inventive offerings,

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Just don’t sneeze anywhere near here.

there were some horrors (I’ll spare you), and there were many from those supporting the suffering.IMG_0950 (2).JPG There were some that made me laugh,

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Handcuffs as tree decorations?

and then there was the one from Asda.

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Would it have killed you to have found a few more lights, Asda?

And finally, at a bakery tucked into a railway arch beneath the station there was coffee and cake. Splendid.

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Never board a train without picking up a coffee and a little something from Harts Bakery (

Changing places

The other day the excellent Annie, who writes amusingly, movingly, and thought provokingly at, asked if I’d like to chip in with my thoughts on a matter that is currently exercising her.

Well, of course I would, and might she consider returning the shot with a few words of her own? Good grief, she was back within the hour with this splendid piece – a great read. So, in a first for this blog, we’re going for simultaneous publication. I’m over at and she’s got the floor here.

Over to Annie…

Walking: it’s the way forward

When it comes to walking, it must be said that I am a fan.  It was not always so and, when a teenager, I didn’t care for it at all.  I had a very brief stage of trying to walk barefoot – it was 1973, I was a mere child of nature – but found that was extremely unwise.  Litter, broken glass and dog poo was everywhere and, to be frank, I looked like a fool.  Long hair, long skirt, bare feet and a limp.  Very cool.  I rather liked being driven about at the time.  My father, on the other hand, took a view of walking that came into conflict with my own leisurely style.  I used to go to work for him in the summer holidays and we would travel up to London on the early train and then cross the City post-haste, Dad always setting a pace that made me irritable and laggard.  Waving his rolled-up newspaper, he would stride ahead, constantly telling me to get a move on.  But I was wearing platforms.  I might as well have tried staggering with bricks on my feet.


Image from The Diary of a Nobody  on Pinterest. Annie claims Mr Pooter as her stylist

Things did change, especially when I left home and went to live in London.  I would spend days on end walking, walking, walking around the City, crossing the river and back again, getting myself happily lost.  After a while, it became the most sensible way to get somewhere quickly, picking up short cuts and back-doubles, hurrying round slowcoaches and dodging the traffic.  I regularly walked about six miles a day to work and back in the early 80s, sometimes in very inadvisable footwear.  With my friend Carol, I would regularly stagger home in the small hours, teetering on heels and stopping off at the takeaway for chips.  Wonderful way to prevent a hangover and cheaper than a taxi. Back then, wearing special walking shoes was a mystery but my feet never seemed to suffer.  I enjoyed the peace and the opportunity to enjoy my thoughts, often dreaming the miles away as I pounded up and down Wood Lane and under the Westway, heading for work by Wormwood Scrubs.

By the time I had moved to the village where I now live, walking had another very useful purpose.  In the early 90s I suffered from depression – started quite mildly after my son was born, got worse when my dad died, exploded a couple of years later – and walking was a real boon.  I joined up with some friends after we had dropped off our children at the school doors and we strode up hill, down dale (literally, this is Yorkshire), chatting and sharing the joys and otherwise of our lives.  It was very helpful indeed and I began to feel that I could find a way out of this downbeat way of life; thankfully, I was right.  I still walk to loosen up my mind or stave off feelings of anxiety because I know that the moment I turn out into the street, things will start to look and feel different, lighter.

I don’t mind walking in bad weather or fine as long as I have the proper footwear (no more platforms) and the right outerwear (the misery of being cold and wet) and I am happy walking city streets or slogging up hills.  Deserts, mountains, valleys, concrete and tarmac – walked them all.  As I have vertigo I may well get wobbly in certain situations – coming down, not going up is the dangerous bit – and when that happens I transfer to my bottom and a fine array of swearing.  It helps.  Sometimes it startles people.

Some years ago, my friend Astra and I decided to do the Moonwalk night-time walking marathon.  We trained with real intent and bowled up at Battersea Park on a splendid May evening with a golden setting sun.  It was brilliant, if agonizing by 5am.  We laughed ourselves stupid when trying to wee behind tiny bushes and thoroughly enjoyed the reactions of drunken Londoners when they encountered the mass of bra-wearing women who seemed to have taken over the streets.  As dawn broke over West London, we urged each other onward; by the time we got to Kensington Gardens all we could think of was the pain in our backs.  Almost too weary to cheer, we walked together through the gates of the park again and literally staggered into a taxi.  God knows how we got out.  Think Pats and Eddie in Ab Fab.  Pretty close.  We did the Moonwalk a few more times so it just goes to prove that you can forget pain quite quickly, like childbirth.

I do enjoy walking with friends but am mostly happy when walking alone, thoughts running free, setting my own pace and getting somewhere, even if that is just to the local Aldi for a bottle of milk.  There is no technique to what I do and no scheme of improvement, rarely a swinging of arms.  I have seen what happens when you stop moving about and it isn’t appealing.  As the years go by I will probably slow down a bit, maybe even resort to using a stick.  Do I have plans for more walks?  Yes, certainly.  I should like to do at least a part of the pilgrim route of Santiago de Compostela and, closer to home, the Pilgrims Way across the Downs.  Not all in one go, but in stages, stopping off to admire things along the way and having a good lunch.

Things connected to walking that I love:

Stout shoes, fine socks

A snack in the pocket

Never worrying about how I look (not confined to walking)

Getting in a hot bath afterwards or a cold shower, depending on weather

Thinking without pressure

The wonderful film The Way


It really isn’t the destination, it is truly the journey.


Pembrokeshire again

Since I was 7, Pembrokeshire has been something of a constant in my life. Many years have passed since that first trip to Abercastell jammed in to the back seat of the family car, wedged in alongside my brother, my grandmother and my great grandmother (cue a throwing up of hands at the old ways). But still I return. Sometimes I’ve visited every year, sometimes a decade has vanished between visits, but still the place keeps calling me back. (I have no idea why this thing with the font keeps happening – apologies).

Strangely, in what appears at first to be a constant landscape, this place  – Abereiddi – is much changed. From a cow filled, green space leading down to the sea, where days were passed with picnics and playing in the gritty grey sand it evolved into a more organised, sea defended, car park complete with ice cream van which sagely sold hot tea alongside the choc ices, before it drifted towards its current incarnation, sea defences no longer maintained, foreshore denuded of green but instead furnished with a perky woman demanding a large sum to park for the day and gesturing at a cabin offering all manner of fun by the hour  –  mountain bikes, canoes, surfboards, paddle boats and the like,  available to rent.IMG_6498 (2)

This is not how I remember Abereiddi.

Instead I think of the time thirteen thirtysomething friends and friends of friends rented  a couple of those cottages to see in the new year, a year which, though we saw it in together, we saw it out in very different places. New jobs, new partners, new continents even.  And for us – T and me – the next new year’s eve saw us joyfully preoccupied with our first born (whose wedding has had me joyfully preoccupied again these past months).

But it was our second born, E, who was my walking companion this time. It’s been more than a decade since he was last over here so, as we had taken a cottage for a few days and as he had a few days off work, he decided to join me to walk our regular walk once more  (because while Abereiddi doesn’t have a lot to see, over the hill is a much more lovely beach inaccessible by any closer road).

Rather than take the short cut over the headland we decided to go for the full works and diverted off to see the Blue Lagoon. Now this may sound exotic but I must point out that this spot is neither blue, nor a lagoon. It is in fact an old slate quarry, with a sea entrance which was blasted through to flood the pit once extraction ended in the early twentieth century. It is undeniably picturesque and it has always attracted the more daring swimmer (Yes. When I was young and foolish. In April as well as in August). Although now, of course, there are signs to warn dippers that the water is cold (yes) and deep (who knew?) and best approached as part of an organised adventure group. More fun by the hour.IMG_6490 (2)

The location caught the eye of cliff divers and for a couple of years it hosted cliff diving championships but the circus seems to have moved on and left the place to slumber on with fearless sheep the only audience.

We ploughed on up to the clifftops and round the headland with E (who, forgetting just how much colder it is by the sea than at home,  wearing every item of clothing he had brought) bearing a disconcerting resemblance to the Grim Reaper.

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How come sheep can get so close to the cliff edge and never fall off?

As we turned the corner, the much lovelier beach – Traeth Llyfn – began to come into view. But not before this odd sign stopped us in our tracks – the Pembrokeshire Coast Path is now part of the Appalachian Trail?

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Really? I mean, I could just about accept the argument that the St Michael’s Way in Cornwall could be allied to the Camino de Santiago – there are all manner of interconnected pilgrims’ paths and trade routes along the seaboard of Western Europe, after all. But the Appalachians and Pembrokeshire? How? 

I digress.IMG_6527 (3).JPG

Here’s  Traeth Llfyn –  clearly a lovely beach – but how to you get down to it?

Once it was a case of clambering down a path that was not so much cut into the cliff side as lightly etched into the shale.

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You can just about make out the old step in the rocks at the bottom and see the line of the path heading off and up diagonally from the top of the flight. I’d always heard that it was built by Italian prisoners of war but why they carved out this access to a remote beach in a remote part of Wales remains a mystery to me.

Happly a while back the original path was found to be just a little bit too adventurous and this fire escape type structure took its place. Good.

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Once down on the beach we found what – in more rarified circles – might be termed a series of art installations.

Rather lovely, aren’t they?

Then it was back up the stairs, onto the cliff top, round a few bays, pausing to admire the arch and the sea stack along the way,IMG_6599 (2).JPG and we began to approach Porthgain. IMG_6600 (3)

More industrial remnants here – of brickmaking and quarrying – now long abandoned. 

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The Grim Reaper fails to spook the resident sheep.

Around the corner and down another steep flight of steps and there’s Porthgain harbour.

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Not much going on today but once it was a busy port exporting bricks and slate to build Edwardian cities.

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The fish and chip shop on the quay has won high praise but the Grim Reaper was intent upon beer and crisps so we made for the pub instead (which is good but it’s not Michelin).

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Although some commercial fishing does still go on here, Porthgain’s main income nowadays comes from visitors. There’s an ice cream shop and a couple of art galleries too, but I like that there’s still a ramshackle air about the place.

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Maybe it was this which caught the attention of the location scouts for Their Finest, (it’s not), a 2016 film featuring Gemma Arterton, Sam Claflin, Bill Nighy.  

But although I like Arterton enormously, don’t know Claflin, and can always rely on Nighy to play Nighy, for me it’s Porthgain which is the star of the film.

Two genial coves stare into the middle distance and wonder when The Sloop will be open.







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.  (

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. (

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

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 ( 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. 


1901. Thank you, NLS (


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?)