Floating the boats.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

Come and see for yourself.

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

More of the old ways

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

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


They had biscuits in there too

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


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


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


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


The Old Bakery

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


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

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


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

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



The old ways

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

Er, yes.

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

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

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


The next grove is just visible to the right


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


See what I mean about the groves marking the way?


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


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


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

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

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


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


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

This is what I found.


It’s his head.


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

Hm. Artists’ impressions.