Zennor phobic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I mean, just look – not a soul about.

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

Or this arrangement of photogenic remnants?

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Streams tumbled to the shore,IMG_5243 (2)

and the sea turned turquoise.

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

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

It was all going terrifically well.

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

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

But then came Zennor.

The first signs of the place did not bode well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then I found itIMG_5288 (2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shangri-bloody-la.

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

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

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

Just don’t mention Zennor, ok?

 

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Snow, spanners, and starts

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

March, march, swing you along

 

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Votes for women. Long delays

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

 

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

Also it was snowing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

https://bristolwomensvoice.bandcamp.com/releases

Serendipity and long shadows

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

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

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

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That bridleway – are they expecting seahorses? OS map 141

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

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

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

Today looked like being that day.

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

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

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around Cherhill Hill,

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along and down over West Down,IMG_3903 (3)

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

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

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

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

I am not making this up.

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

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

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

Yes, it’s a peacock.

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

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

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

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

One which still casts a long shadow.

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

 

 

 

Mendips, mud, and mysteries

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

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

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

Well, up to a point…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Despite the warning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Plus aggressive Father Christmases?

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

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

And so it washed up here.

But why?

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

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

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

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

Happy Christmas

 

If you go down to the woods today…

 

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…you’ll be sure of a big surprise

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

I certainly should have wondered about this.

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What an interesting rock feature, I thought naively.

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

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

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

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

And good luck with getting a horse along this bridleway.

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

 

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

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

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

I just don’t fancy those boulders again.

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

 

Whittle le Woods and le Waterways

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

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Fully equipped for racy reads

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The changing leaves will be fabulous here in a few weeks

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Walking the dogs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and then this.

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

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

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

Ingenious indeed.

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

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

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

 

Changing views

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

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Not immediately enticing

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

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A penny in the slot machine – how charmingly retro

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, Sand Bay?IMG_0486

Oddly life affirming.

 

 

Serendipity and the Oxfam Bookshop

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

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

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

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Sun setting over Land’s End

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

I think you know where this is going.

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

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