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.


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.


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?


The Pen Moel estate. Yours for £1.2m. Comes with a 25 acre garden. Not sure about the sheep. Tell Savills I sent you. (

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.


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.


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 – (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.’ (

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.


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.


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.


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).

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.


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


A short walk and a long lunch

Next morning, I went back to the coast path at Botallack and began to head up country again.IMG_9919.JPG Earlyish in the morning I had the place to myself and was rather enjoying the far reaching views – right out to the Scilly Isles – and the odd ruin amidst the flowers. I was just settling into my stride for an uneventful bit of cliff walking when suddenly there was this – the remains of the Levant tin and copper mines which were  rather wonderfully atmospheric.


Today they are in the care of the NT and fully equipped with interpretation boards, loos and refreshment opportunities. I swear you cannot walk for half an hour round here without stumbling upon a slice of lemon drizzle cake. Not complaining, just noticing.


Look at the staining of the cliffs – it is copper sulphate turquoise in places.

I’m not a geologist but it looks to me as if copper permeates the whole of this terrain, whether seeping into the soil or leeching through the watercourse and down to the sea. It is an astounding and dramatic landscape and all the more unexpected because it is confined into a relatively small space so that you come upon it suddenly and then just as suddenly it is gone.


Geevor tin mine in the background

What I did find myself pondering is why these ruins of Victorian workings have a picturesque, not to say romantic, air about them when the more modern remnants of tin mining most certainly do not.

Back then to the grassy cliff path, a few ups and downs, and a couple of interesting conversations with other walkers, then on past the Pendeen Watch lighthouse, and around the headland to find a new vista opening up in front of me. This looked somehow far more daunting than anything seen previously.


Looking toward Gurnard’s Head from Pendeen Watch. I didn’t see the woman and her telescope until she moved at the sound of my camera’s shutter. She was watching seals on the rocks below.

A couple of miles later and,  given the head of steam I had built up and the open terrain, I had convinced myself that next time I came down this way I would crack out a pair of shorts. Despite not having worn any since 1975. I can carry a grudge only so long. Thus decided, it was time to turn off the coast path and head inland to my lift at Morvah.

IMG_9959 Shoulder charging cow parsley is one thing (the path got way narrower than this, and the vegetation taller), barging through nettles is another. The trews took the strain and I came through the stingers unstung. Think I’ll be leaving those shorts in the shop.


St Bridget’s Church, Morvah, parts of which date from 1400. But not this bit.

Time for a quick look at the ancient church and a snarky moment wondering whether There will be other times and better times is a fitting epitaph for an organist’s endeavours or whether it was in fact a veiled comment on his expertise. And then I found myself rather touched by these simple memorials alongside an instrument which has known only three organists in 107 years. (Four in 139 if whoever took over in 1985 is still in post). Does this speak of generation after generation of contented lives grounded in this place? Or of frustrated ambitions and an inability to get away?

IMG_9966 (2)

Gratuitous photo of Cornish hydrangea because I am besotted with them.

When I planned this trip to Cornwall I intended to spend three or four days out on the cliffs and to get all the way around that new horizon and on to St Ives, perhaps even beyond. As it turned out not only did it rain in a very determined fashion but something important blew up at work for T, so he had to go home early. And something even more important blew up for our daughter M – viz, her appendix –  so she was unexpectedly with us for a spot of post-op convalescence. Best laid plans going astray and all that, but this is such an interesting coastline that it is no hardship to have to come back to it again.

So at Morvah I hopped into the car with the others and set off for lunch. Mine is not a foodie blog or a place for restaurant reviews – I am not qualified to comment – and anyway the pub in question already features in a zillion guides. I mention it only to share a charming incident. A plate of soda bread and local butter appeared on our table as soon as we had ordered and we fell on it as do people who have not eaten since breakfast time. It was delicious and, as she cleared the plate away, I asked the young waitress what were the little brown flecks in the bread.  I don’t know, but I’ll go and ask in the kitchen and shall I get you the recipe?  Well, of course I thought that in the midst of a busy lunchtime service with not a table spare no one would have time to write out a recipe, even if the chef was willing to reveal the kitchen’s secrets, and so that would be that.

But with my meal came this note


Soda bread recipe- it’s my photography which is making it blurry.

and from the waitress, a helpful word of advice

It makes 15 loaves, so you might want to cut it down a bit.


New readers start here

Reader friends blessed with long attention spans may recall that I began this blog last autumn to chart my Great Adventure – my walk home from Land’s End – and they may be wondering about the distinctly unCornish directions my jaunts have taken ever since.

Well, wonder no more because here I am, back in the far west and all set to notch up a few more miles of the South West Coast Path. Thanks to the lovely N bringing me a memento from one of her trips (she knows I cannot resist a souvenir tea towel), we have a visual aid with which to orientate ourselves. Find Sennen Cove and we can take it from there.

close up

Thanks also to The Cornish Teatowel Company for their ingenuity.

On a sunny Sunday morning in June, I expected the Cove to be packed but instead it was practically deserted; indeed on the next door beach of Gwynver I spotted only one lifeguard, two surfers and one dog.IMG_9739 (2).JPG Do surfers keep late hours (it was getting on for midday – I keep late hours too) or was the tide going in the wrong direction?  Either way, rush there before everyone else discovers this beautiful spot.

Once the path had taken me off the beach, I settled into the rhythm of the trail. Gentle walking was interspersed with steep slopes up and down, wide easy paths were broken up by bits of rocky scrambling, even some seat of the pants stuff as my appalling sense of balance dictated frequent descentes sur derriere.

Exposed cliff tops contrasted with lush green valleys but at this time of year there were flowers everywhere. I have no idea what is growing in these fields below but isn’t the effect stunning? Any idea as to what it is?IMG_9782.JPG And what can the story be here? Something poignant, I feel, for it looks as though someone has carefully lain those cut flowers on the boulder in the streamIMG_9806

Gradually Sennen retreated into the distance as Cape Cornwall grew closer. As it did so the reminders of the landscape’s mining past began to appear.

At first they were mainly confined to the valleys where nature has almost succeeded in hiding them away (although I think that this walled construction up on the hill top is an entrance to a mine shaft – it certainly looks pretty deep).

This was to change, but not before I reached Cape Cornwall and finally turned the corner, away from Land’s End and on towards St Ives.IMG_9820 There’s not a huge amount to Cape Cornwall but what is there is rather charming. Have a read of this interesting blog post by a local writer who knows a lot about the place (, admire these women having a dip in the tidal pool,IMG_9835.JPGand imagine my delight at the discovery of this timely homemade cake and tea trailer.IMG_9837Suitably refreshed (just tea for me, I never feel hungry when I’m walking, not even for cake. Odd that), I left Cape Cornwall behind and headed for Botallack. Now the scenery grew really industrial – remnants of old mine engine houses, chimneys and other edifices in all directions.IMG_9879The weather was closing in but, even if it had not done so, the landscape had really changed – no more human scale, dry stone walled farmers’ fields, here it was bleak and barren, despoiled by the copper and tin mining industry of the past.IMG_9877.JPG The Crowns engine houses clinging dramatically to the cliff are understandably magnets for photographers much more skilled than me.

Take my word for it that seeing the site in the gloomy damp brought home to me a little of the harshness of the lives once lived in this extraordinary place, a world away from the sunshine and the sandcastles, or even the swashbuckling and the sagas, of Cornwall as it is more often shown. What a fascinating place.





Swanning off to Swanage

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

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


Looking over to Brownsea Island

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


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

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

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


Yes, but who does Seth love?

The plot of a novel right there.

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


Is this is one of the original military huts?

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

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


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

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


This raises so many questions…


Come to Cwmdu

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

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

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


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

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

She was looking for the fireplace.


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

Nice bit of canine photobombing


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

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

Looking over to the Black Mountains


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

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

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