Now, that's slow travel! We have finally completed one of our long-term walking projects: from Dan's parents' old house in Finchley to their holiday let in Old Hunstanton.
After finishing my River Rother walk, I had a few days at home before we headed up to Norfolk for a week. We planned to walk four or five days to complete our "every now and then" walking project between London and the north Norfollk coast. The weather was hot at first - too hot to walk on a couple of days, so I ended up going to the beach and swimming in the sea for hours instead! And then, of course, the day we finished was grey and rainy.
I'll pop a few more photos down the bottom of this post, but I thought this would be a good moment to look back over the whole walk - which we started back in 2011, when we'd just moved to London from Australia. We didn't get back to it for a few years after that, but we've been fairly consistent in doing a section since 2015.
Possibly early November 2011. Finchley to High Barnet.
November 2011. High Barnet to Cuffley.
December 2011. Cuffley to Hertford; Hertford to Green Tye; Green Tye to Bishop's Stortford.
October 2015. Bishop's Stortford to Great Chesterford over two days (wild camping overnight). Read a snippet about this leg under "Other adventures" in this post.
October 2016. Great Chesterford to Cambridge; Cambridge to Ely. Read more in a previous blog post, Rivers and Roman roads: An autumn walk in Cambridgeshire.
August 2017. Ely to Littleport.
August 2018. Littleport to Downham Market; Downham Market to King's Lynn; King's Lynn to Little Massingham; Little Massingham to Old Hunstanton.
Some of our other long-term walking projects and incomplete paths include the Grand Union Canal, the Thames Path and the Ridgeway (which we also completed this summer - more to come). A friend recently asked us if this was a common thing to do . . . so, is it? Do you have any walking projects on the go?
You know I love following rivers, so it probably won’t surprise you to learn I’ve been meaning to follow my local River Rother from source to sea for a long time.
I've decided to do a multi-day walk every week these summer holidays, and I realised it would be a good chance to finally go exploring along the Rother. I recorded the river as I went along, from the first time I encountered it as a small trickle across a bridleway to the windy harbour arm where it meets the English Channel. Have a listen as you read on (notes at the end of the post).
The East Sussex/Kent Rother (there’s another one in West Sussex) rises near the village of Rotherfield and flows east and south about 55km (35mi) to the sea near Rye. There are long sections of the river that don’t have public rights of way alongside them, so the best you can do as a moderately law-abiding walker is follow the valley, sometimes by the water, sometimes in the fields or on the hills and ridges above. The route I planned out was about 70km (44mi).
I’ve never been quite sure how to go about this walk. Should I do it all in one go, wild camping on the way? Should I use public transport as much as possible to come home each night? How many days would I be walking - three or four, maybe?
As it happens, Dan didn’t feel like coming on the walk, so he kindly ferried me back and forth when needed. I had some pretty extreme weather, too, which meant I was glad to not be camping out. Due to the heat on the first day and the wild wind and rain on the third day, I ended up walking for four days rather than the three I initially planned.
I tweeted about the walk, and you can find the threads and lots more photos here:
Overall, I had a great time. I enjoyed getting a sense of progression as the scenery changed from the steepish hills and small streams at the beginning to the widening floodplain and braided watercourses in the middle to the levels and tidal stretches of river at the end. There are sections I would definitely walk again. I had fun exploring somewhere quite local to me and getting a bit of an insight into land use along the valley, smelling the hay bales and hearing the hoots of the steam train around Bodiam and Newenden. For the most part, the weather was pretty good.
I saw loads of birds: buzzards and kestrels, magpies and jays, LBJs (little brown jobbies), goldfinches, herons and egrets, crows and jackdaws, wagtails, swallows, swans and ducks and geese, a few varieties of gull, oystercatchers and something that I thought was a mudlark/magpie lark, except that they’re Australian. I spotted some interesting beetles, lots of butterflies (gatekeepers, peacocks, common blues and red admirals among others), and dragon- and damselflies in bright colours. And of course, many sheep and cows, along with several horses, a few donkeys, some chooks, domestic ducks and a goat.
That’s not to say there weren’t challenges. I had to go doorknocking for water on the first and last days, and the heat and humidity made me a bit ill. The blasting wind and rain on the third day made for an unpleasant last hour or so, as my boots filled with water (running off the long grass onto my legs and down through my socks). I had to cross a few fields with nervous cows, but it was actually the frisky horses in the rain that made me most wary. Probably most annoyingly, though, I encountered a lot of difficult or impassable paths - mainly due to undergrowth of long grasses and nettles, but also a few poorly waymarked paths, locked gates and broken stiles. I got a few scratches from barbed wire and brambles and some small holes in my new shorts from an overgrown stile which could have been avoided with proper maintenance from the landholders.
Still, every day I felt so grateful to be able to do this - that I have the time off for walking, the access to the countryside, the physical capacity to do it and a wonderful partner who is happy to act as a taxi service! First walk of summer: done.
The recordings in the piece above, in order, with about 10 seconds of each:
For more river-length adventures: Snowy River, Cuckmere and River Otter. For more Rother walks: Royal Military Canal, Bodiam Castle and Northiam.
I could post about lots of things, but I've been far too busy doing stuff to actually get around to blogging. Instead, let's have another photo update - this time for June.
2 June 2018 - We went for a walk with one of Dan's colleagues up on the South Downs near Alfriston. It was nice to meet her and her partner and hopefully we'll go for another walk with them soon. I really enjoyed taking a new-to-us bridleway cutting down the hills - a slightly sunken green path that sees only a fraction of the traffic that passes above on the ridge, stuffed with wildflowers and interesting insects.
5 June 2018 - We saw lots of little fledgeling birds in late spring and early summer. This cutie was sitting here when we opened the front door and it took a little while for it to move. A pair of grey wagtails nested in a hanging flowerpot in the other courtyard and we watched them for days from the window.
9 June 2018 - A dear friend came to stay with us for a night. He was in the UK for a month before heading off to his next assignment with the Red Cross. We went for a lovely and, in places, overgrown walk around the Brightling Follies. In the afternoon I had a stand up paddle boarding lesson - I was extremely anxious about it beforehand, but I enjoyed the activity itself once I was out on the water (we went on a river as the wind was blowing the wrong way for sea paddling).
11 June 2018 - We continued to enjoy our after-work strolls around Stanmer Park, watching spring fold quickly into summer. The weather was amazing in June. Do you know what this tree is?
13 June 2018 - Back to Stanmer Park. I didn't take photos every time we visited. It was beautiful this month.
15 June 2018 - This is the way to start the weekend: sitting on top of the Downs in the sun with a cider, strawberries and a few other snacks from Middle Farm.
17 June 2018 - Time for the monthly walk with HRRA, our local LGBT/queer group. Our leader for the month took us in a loop from Crowhurst, down over the new bypass and across Combe Valley, with a spontaneous alteration to walk a section of dismantled rail line.
19 June 2018 - We hadn't been to Arlington Reservoir for a while. Last time we were there it was so muddy that we couldn't make it around! But it was coming up to cherry season, so we went to see if any of the wild cherry trees had fruit. They did, but it wasn't ripe. Still, it was a nice stroll!
21 June 2018 - Solstice last light. I have felt like summer days are even longer than usual this year - I think it's mainly because we get so much more evening light through the windows here than in our old place.
22 June 2018 - I set off walking down the wrong track, without a map or phone. I figured I'd gone astray soon enough and decided I'd try to cut through back to the path I was meant to be on. It turned out to be quite a fun little adventure, with a bit of backtracking and a lot of rehearsing my best, "I'm so sorry, I think I'm lost!" in case I bumped into landowners or estate managers.
23 and 24 June 2018 - I cancelled my next SUP session due to anxiety. Instead, we went for a walk on a local footpath that we've never been on before (there aren't many of them left!) then went camping overnight about 25 minutes north of here. We have tried to spend solstice evenings outside for the last few years - usually we go for a summer solstice wild camp, but this time we decided it would be more fun to have a lazy time reading books in a campsite where we could take all our nice bedding and lots of food and nobody was going to come and tell us off.
28 June 2018 - Finally, after years of thinking about it, I went swimming at Barcombe Mills, in the Ouse. I love river swimming and it was so luxurious to slip into the cool water after a stifling day (my work, like many UK buildings, doesn't have aircon and is not built to be good in the heat). The ducklings were a nice touch!
29 June 2018 - Barcombe Mills is kind of on our way home from work, which is very convenient. And it had been so nice the day before. And it was so hot again . . . So I jumped in the next day, too! Since then, I've been in several times. It's so refreshing. I love it!
Special shout-out to Skarlett's - a small local cafe that does diner-style food with lots of vegan options. I pretty much started and ended June with a freakshake: success!
So, that was my June - no 30 Days Wild for me this year, but I still managed to get out and about! Now I'm looking forward to a month of summer holidays with plenty of walking adventures . . .
This poem/sound piece was my contribution to Queer Out Here Issue 01.
I thought I'd share it separately, mostly as a record for myself, but also for those who might be interested but who haven't yet listened to Queer Out Here Issue 01 for whatever reason. The text is below (it's not a precise transcript - it's the text from which the sound piece grew) and there's more info in the show notes.
As I am walking
I am becoming myself
In this world
In this way I am becoming
A mind full of the present
I am a movement
I am a moment
I am presented to myself
As a footfall on grass
As a breath in the breathing of leaves
As a body
Enveloped by sky and earth
By rock by water by trees
Defined on a path
On a past dissolving
On the wind
As I am walking
I am becoming aware
Of place and pace
And time measured in heartbeat
As an ever unfurling
As I am walking breath
I am becoming step
I am a movement breath
I am a moment step
I am presented to myself as a footfall
I am falling
I am filling
I am full
If you're queer and want to make an outdoors-related audio piece for Queer Out Here, submissions for Issue 02 are open until 1 September 2018. We'd love to hear from you!
Long weekend. Welsh hills. Gorgeous weather. Great company. Lots of hard walking. In short: fantastic!
We left work a little early on Friday of the long weekend and drove straight to Abergavenny/Y Fenni, meeting our friend Paulina at our hotel (she was over from Poland). It was great to catch up during dinner, but we were all pretty tired, so it was an early night.
Day 1 - Abergavenny to Llanthony
Saturday dawned clear and bright - a far cry from the constant cloud cover forecast on the BBC weather app! - and we set off after a hearty breakfast. We remembered just in time for a short detour to a cash machine that the campsite that night was cash only, before we crossed the Gavenny River and headed up a shady lane, over a golf course and into farmland.
Ysgyryd Fawr (known to many as “the Skirrid”) loomed ever closer. And then we were climbing - up from the carpark, steeply through the woods, steeper and steeper, then finally up onto the clear ridge. We stopped often to admire the view and to catch our breath. Dan and I have been here a couple of times, but this was the first time with big packs. Yeah, it was a bit harder!
Having done the climb before, we two were prepared for the many false summits on the way - I felt for Paulina when she reached yet another ‘top’ only to see there was more climbing to do.
But we got there!
We rested at the summit and had a good snack while trying to trace the route we’d be taking over the ridges of the Black Mountains. It was a gorgeous day and we felt lucky to be out in it.
Soon it was time to go down the hill. And I mean down. See, the thing about Ysgyryd Fawr is that one approach is quite gradual (believe it or not, that was the way we’d come up), while the other drops off almost vertically.
The descent took all our concentration. Paulina actually took off her pack and rolled it down the hill at one point so it wouldn’t pull her off balance (minor casualties: the block of cheese and a few oatcakes). My toes were threatening blisters by the end of it, from gripping and sliding and sometimes knocking on the ends of my boots.
In the valley, we passed an old farm with peacocks, grabbed a pint (of lime and soda!) in the Skirrid Inn, spoke to many lambs, sheep and cows. Dan and I tried to translate things into Welsh (or English, if it was already in Welsh) and possibly impressed Paulina with our limited knowledge.
We’d planned a late lunch at the top of Hatterrall Hill, but the heat dictated an earlier rest stop in the leafy shade beside a quiet lane. We ate delicious camembert with slices of apple and some sorrel I foraged from the verge. Nice!
This was the first time we’d done an overnight walking-camping trip like this with a friend, and it was really fun. I have lots of memories of laughing about things - many that now puzzle me (why was the cheese so funny?) - and it was lovely to be able to introduce Paulina to a place we really like.
On Hatterall Ridge, we found ponies and foals, an interesting looking bird (we later discovered it was a wheatear), an old fort and a QR code that gave us a history lesson about King Offa and the Offa’s Dyke Path, which converges with the Beacons Way for a few miles here.
Oh, and lambs, too. (Paulina probably has a whole coffee-table book full of lamb photos from this trip!)
It was pleasant to have a little bit of flatter walking along the ridge among the heather and whimberry (wild blueberry) bushes. We had great views over England on one side and Wales on the other, with the late afternoon light filtering through a thin haze into the green valleys.
And then we started dropping down the hillside, towards the distant ruins of Priordy Llanddewi Nant Hodni/Llanthony Priory and the campsite that we hoped would be home for the night. Paulina kept us distracted with important topics such as, “What is the best kind of pasta shape?” and “What are your favourite pizza topping combinations?”
At Llanthony, the campsite was pretty busy, but there was still plenty of room for us. We set up the tent (for Paulina and Dan) and tarp (for me), then went off to the little pub beside the priory ruins for dinner. We all agreed it had been a pretty excellent day. By the time we got back to our site, a layer of dampness had settled over everything - including the sleeping bag I hadn’t yet tucked into the bivvy. Oops! Still, we made pretty short work of cleaning ourselves up and hopping into bed before 9pm. I slept much better than expected, warm and relatively comfy. I only really woke up once in the early morning, with the moon shining directly into my tarp like a big lunar spotlight.
Day 2 - Llanthony to Llanbedr
On Sunday morning, I think I was the first person up in the whole campsite. I walked to the toilets accompanied by the songs of robins, blackbirds, tits, jackdaws and a cuckoo - amongst others. The tent and tarp were both saturated with dew/condensation, but our gear was mostly fine. After a quick breakfast we packed everything away and made tracks to the first big climb of the day.
The sun was blazing and it was already pretty warm and humid. The path up towards Bâl Bach was beautiful, with views behind us to the priory, a stream tumbling down the hillside, bright spring leaves and a clear blue sky. But boy howdy, was it steep! (At least it was to us. We were passed by someone running up the path!)
We stopped frequently and played tag with a Duke of Edinburgh group ahead of us.
At the top we spoke with the D of E group properly - they were on a practice run for their gold award, having come from Abergavenny over the Sugarloaf/Y Fâl the day before and being due in Hay-on-Wye on the Monday afternoon.
We parted ways with them there, as they continued right up the ridge and we turned left towards a large cairn (where we saw some more wheatears and even a few lizards - a rare sight in the UK) and down into the next valley.
As we descended, Paulina’s new boots completely fell apart (the glue bonding the sole to the boot had been disintegrating since the previous afternoon). Luckily, she had a pair of running shoes to change into, and we loaned her our walking poles to help her ankles on the descents. Dan and I had brought the poles mainly for my tarp set-up but they did make a difference while walking. I’m thinking I might get myself my own set of poles, as I find my joints and feet hurt less and I can travel more quickly when I use them.
In the valley, we stopped by a little stream and bathed our feet in the icy water. Well, Paulina and I did. Dan doesn’t often take his boots off during a day of walking. I love him very much, but he is definitely a fool in this regard!
And then? Straight back up the next hill! We’d promised ourselves lunch at the top, and we were sticking to it this time. There wasn’t much scope for talking, as we all put our heads down and slogged it out in our own time.
A couple of escapee sheep ran up a lane ahead of us, bleating at their compadres in the neighbouring field, only turning back and high-tailing it past us when they reached a closed gate at the end.
The ascent to Crug Mawr was again full of false horizons. Dan would stop ahead of me, I’d call out, “Does it get flatter?” and he’d call back, “A bit! Sort of!” and I’d relay that to Paulina behind me. But eventually we could see the trig point at the top.
Dan and I put on a bit of speed so we could set up the tarp for shade before Paulina arrived. We also staked out the tent and fly to dry out, which they did in about five seconds in the sun and wind.
We had a long and well-deserved lunch break, eating our broken block of cheese with oatcakes and wild garlic. It tasted amazing. We also made the call to take the road around to Crickhowell rather than climb yet another hill in the heat, as we were all feeling a bit woozy and were getting low on water.
Knowing we’d climbed the last hill perked us up (or maybe that was the energy-nougat-that-tasted-like-camping-shop?) and we started down the long descent, watching and watched by sheep and ponies. We discussed capitalism, neoliberalism, depression, anxiety, notions of community and other such interesting things. We met a couple of people heading up over the hill to visit their neighbours - it reminded me a bit of growing up a couple of kilometres and one large valley away from our the-people-next-door.
We left the Beacons Way (which, incidentally, was well signposted throughout) and navigated our way down, down, down to a shady little stream. Which, of course, meant Paulina and I had to go paddling again. As we splashed, we decided to change plans a second time, head for the village pub in Llanbedr and call a taxi instead of walking to Crickhowell. After all, we were here to enjoy ourselves.
So that’s what we did. The Red Lion is a lovely pub, there was lovely weather, we drank some lovely soft drinks and shandies and beers while waiting for the taxi. Our taxi driver was lovely (he breeds miniature pigs! and models beards!) and we had lovely chats while we sped through the lovely Usk valley back to Abergavenny/Y Fenni. From there, it was a short drive to our lovely Airbnb - and an extremely lovely bath!
We were all exhausted, but our host had lit a fire in the fire bowl and invited us to drink a beer and watch bats. She even had a bat detector. So we sat out for a while chatting, spotting bats and enjoying the sunset, before I had to admit defeat and go to bed.
On Monday, we had a fresh breakfast of fruit salad while sitting in the dappled morning sun. It was quite delightful. We took a slightly slower route to drop Paulina off at Reading Station - driving down the Wye valley, stopping at Tintern for a sandwich, crossing the Severn, heading to Avebury (the carparks were too full to stop there), spotting the white horse carvings and stopping for an uninspiring pub lunch. We agreed it had been a great weekend!
(After saying goodbye to Paulina, Dan and I took the back roads to Battle, stopping for a short leg-stretch at Winkworth Arboretum, owned by the National Trust. It was full of bluebells! I’d love to visit again when we have a bit more time.)
If you're interested, here's more about the Beacons Way, or check out some of our other Welsh adventures!
I can't tell you how relieved I am that spring is here. Actual light! Actual warmth! Actual greenery! The world is waking up and I am cheering up.
And so, for no reason other than I'm happy, let's have some April photos. These aren't masterpieces, just a selection of pics from the iPhone (some mine, some Dan's), but does anyone really care about that when there are blossoms and blue skies and sunshine to be enjoyed?
(Just a little tune to look at photos by!)
Stuck in traffic around the back of Lewes, we decided to stop and explore Malling Down Nature Reserve. A brilliant idea, it turned out!
And so, we head into May. I want to gobble up as much lovely springtime I can, and I'm looking forward to some nice walks and trips to Wales, Oxfordshire, maybe Bristol . . . What are your plans?
Queer Out Here Issue 01 was released in February. Woohoo! It’s been a really exciting project - starting from deciding to put it together, to creating the structure to support it, asking people to contribute, then working on the episode. My co-editor Allysse and I have each answered a few questions about the process so far - you can read mine below and Allysse's at Beste Glatisant.
Did you have any expectations for Queer Out Here - and how did they match with the reality?
I tried not to have too many expectations, but I did have hopes!
I had no idea what kind of response we’d get to our call for submissions, so I was really happy with the number and range of pieces we received. We ended up with enough content to make a nice, fat Issue 01 - longer than I’d expected - with creative writing, sound art, conversations, field recordings and monologues/musings all represented. Overall, I probably expected more stories about specific events or activities, and possibly a few more essays/academic approaches to the theme, but it was a pretty good balance.
The process of putting the issue together was more time-consuming than I’d thought - but it was fun! Allysse and I spent a lot of time building the infrastructure and doing background work, chasing up submissions, choosing the running order, recording the links and transcribing. We’ve also learnt a bit about the technical side of things - especially the distribution of podcasts (or things-that-are-kind-of-like-podcasts).
Are there any podcasts (or other media) that inspired you more than others for the creation of the zine?
The initial spark came from listening to the Tough Girl podcast by Sarah Williams and wondering if there was anything similar for queer/LGBTQIA+ adventurers (there isn’t, as far as we know!). Allysse and I didn’t have the time or energy to do weekly, long-form interviews like that, so we knew we'd have to take a different approach. We’re also both really interested in the more creative side of audio as a format, and from that perspective I took inspiration from the creative journals I remember from uni and the collaborative zines I’ve enjoyed or been part of since then.
When it comes down to it, we had a hankering for stories of queer folks doing stuff outdoors - we wanted something like this to exist, and sometimes if you want something to exist you have to create it (or facilitate its creation) yourself. And that is quite a zine-y attitude.
How did you go about organising the pieces into a coherent whole for the issue?
Ooh, this was interesting! Obviously, until we passed the submissions deadline, we couldn’t really decide on a running order. Once we had all the pieces, Allysse and I both went away and created our own track lists (I made some colourful spreadsheets, of course), then reconvened the following weekend to talk through our ideas. We’d independently come up with some of the same notions - like a preference for Adele’s piece coming first and Wendy’s coming last, and about the links between some of the pieces. A few pieces were harder to place than others - for example, Belinda’s poems are so powerful that we felt the piece following them needed give the listener a bit of space to come down.
Doing this was a bit like curating and planning an exhibition, with questions about theme, tone, format, creator and length all playing a part. We tried to mix things up - for example, not putting all the poetry, or all the American accents, or all the long pieces together - but we also wanted the zine to have a momentum, and to flow from one piece to the next rather than chopping and changing. In the end, we kind of created chapters within the zine, like rooms within a gallery - sections of about four pieces each, which we felt spoke to each other in some way.
What has been the most interesting thing about making Issue 01?
Is it a cop-out to say “the whole process”? Like I said above, we started Queer Out Here because we wanted to listen to something and we couldn’t find it - and it was exciting to learn that other people obviously wanted to share and listen to these stories, too. I loved hearing all the pieces that were submitted - the range of topics, the different styles, the personalities of contributors, all of it! Overall, though, project is something of an experiment, so I’ve tried to approach without too many preconceptions and it’s been wonderful to watch it take shape so far.
What has been the most difficult thing about creating Queer Out Here for you?
Luckily, we didn’t encounter too many snags and hitches. Sure, there were a couple of technical concerns, but overall I feel like the two of us - and various helpful friends - managed to sort them out.
The hardest thing for me, personally, was the process of approaching people and asking for submissions. I’ve never enjoyed cold calling, fundraising, and the kinds of things that mean asking people to do something for you. Although I am obviously invested in the idea of Queer Out Here, I still find the approaching-and-asking process rather anxiety inducing. Issue 01 features several friends and acquaintances, but outside of my usual circles I took quite a scattergun approach, which didn’t work so well. This is something I want to focus on for Issue 02 - finding new people and groups to approach, and doing that in a more personal way.
What are your hopes for future issues?
My main hopes are that people keep creating and submitting interesting pieces and that Allysse and I continue to enjoy working together.
As well as more of the kinds of audio we feature in Issue 01, I would like to hear from people of colour, from Indigenous people, from people in countries outside of the UK, Australia and the USA, from older folks, from queer families and youth. I’d like to hear music, essays and documentaries, pieces about sport (team, solo, extreme, everyday), epic journeys, cultural geography, homelessness, relationships, ecology and conservation.
One thing I loved about Issue 01 was getting submissions from people who hadn’t created much (or any) audio before, as well as from people who do this professionally. I hope that mix continues. It would be amazing to hear from previous contributors as they continue to explore the possibilities of the medium, too.
You can listen to Issue 01 here, and on iTunes, PlayerFM, Stitcher and a few other places. Let us know what you think! Submissions for Issue 02 will open in May 2018.
What are you working on? What do you want to achieve by the end of the month? And what do you need to do this week to reach those goals? I wrote about our online goal-setting group The Monthly Weeklies over at The Research Whisperer . . .
Many people are familiar with this approach to time and project management - figuring out your big goals and breaking them down into smaller steps. But sorting out what you need to do is one thing, while actually following through is quite another!
This can be especially difficult if you operate in a more solitary environment, as do many writers, artists, researchers, and people involved in projects outside of their paid job or formal study. Without the everyday structure of collaboration deadlines, team meetings, and so on it’s pretty easy to let the weeks slip by, to transfer an item from one to-do list to the next, to de-prioritise your own goals in favour of things that other people want from you. It can be hard to hold yourself accountable.
I started The Monthly Weeklies online goal-setting group with this in mind. My aim was to create a structure that would help me think seriously about short and medium term goals, a place to record those goals and my progress, and a team of people who could help keep each other focussed and celebrate each other’s successes.
The group started in September 2016 and, as the name suggests, it runs in monthly cycles with weekly check-ins. Members come and go, finding the structure useful in different ways. Benefits might include:
The fairly simple format of our group should be easy for others to replicate. If you're interested in setting up a group like this, or in learning about ours, please do pop over to The Research Whisperer to read more. . .
Thanks to Tseen Khoo for inviting me to contribute to The Research Whisperer blog - the closest I've been to an academic publication for many years!
After leaving the high country and passing through the reservoirs, weirs, tunnels, pipes, pumps and dams of the hydro scheme, the Snowy loops through the Monaro High Plains. Our exploration of this stretch was very non-linear: we spent a few nights in Dalgety, canoed the river upstream, wandered down dirt roads and did some (very tame) 4WD exploring of the remote, arid pasture hills to the south. I hope this post gives a flavour of the Monaro, especially around the Snowy.
NB: This post contains photographs of a dead animals and bones.
Dalgety Bridge over the Snowy River, first erected in 1888 to replace the previous punt that crossed a little upstream. Most people who see the Snowy as it travels through the Monaro see it at Dalgety.
The Snowy emerges from the steep-sided gorges of the high country into the rolling farmland and grasslands of the Monaro. (The photo above was taken before we reached the Monaro proper, as we were hitchhiking to Dalgety - but you can see the scenery is already changing from the previous section.) “Monaro” is - or at least used to be - usually pronounced more “m’n-air-o” or “m’n-air-uh” than “mon-ar-o”, in keeping with previous spellings like “Menero” or “Miniera”. The range of spellings is a sure sign that the name was transcribed from one of Australia’s Indigenous languages, and most sources give the meaning as something like “high plain” or “plateau” or “breasts” - referring to the smooth, undulating hills. Christine Frances Hansen discusses the name in her dissertation Telling Absence (pages 26-27), which charts many possibilities, including the option that there wasn’t a language name for the collective area now known as the Monaro - rather, when asked, a local person answered “manyer” or “I don’t know.”
Geographers usually describe the Monaro as a plateau, sitting above the eastern seaboard escarpment and below the Great Dividing Range - you can see the difference between the wooded hills of the Divide and the grasses of the Monaro in the photo above. Geologists (who apparently can never agree) generally think the Monaro High Plains are a basalt lava field formed sometime in the last 50 million years, when lava from small volcanoes flowed over the landscape, filling in the low-lying areas and valleys to create a gently undulating plateau. The rounded, Henry Moore-esque boulders which you can see scattered across the plain are granite. They are what has remained after water and naturally occurring acids have eaten away at the surrounding rock, turning it into gravel and clay which is in turn has been eroded by wind and rain.
More striking than the rolling hills and granite boulders, though, is that the Monaro is virtually treeless. The photo above, taken as we started our drive downstream, is a fairly typical example. I remember staring out of the car window on many trips between Orbost and Canberra as a kid, comparing this landscape to the tall, straight, densely packed trees of East Gippsland and thinking I might as well have travelled to the moon, it was so different. You might assume that the lack of vegetation here is a result of colonial/white settler damage as it is almost everywhere else in Australia: clearance for crops, over-grazing, logging, or a combination of all three. In fact, the Monaro was treeless when non-Indigenous people first moved through and settled here and scientists believe the phenomenon is caused by a combination of heavy basalt soil laid down by those ancient volcanoes, low rainfall (the Monaro mostly falls in the rain shadow of the Great Dividing Range) and the fact that the cold air pooling in the valleys makes it too cold for seeds to germinate (in winter, the Monaro is the coldest part of the country outside of the Alps), but the plains are not high enough for cold-resistant alpine vegetation to grow.
We loved seeing these emus - including some young birds and a completely white adult - near Beloka, west of Dalgety. We wondered if the white feathers are leucism (which I learnt about after seeing white-winged crows in East Sussex) or albinism, but we weren't close enough to see if it had pink eyes. The first emu photo above contains a lot of clues to the use and mis-use of the Monaro - non-native hawthorn trees and weeds all over, signs of bad erosion, and yet these emus thrive on land that seems barely able to sustain farm stock.
This would once have been underwater. Around here, the Snowy of old was a natural stock boundary for nearby stations. When the river was dammed, farmers were informed they might need to extend their fences, but the local belief was that the scheme would only ‘skim the snowmelt’ from the river, keeping anything over flood level. In reality, Jindabyne Dam stopped the river almost entirely. Photos of the river at 1% flow show that it could hardly prevent a determined sheep from straying to greener grass. The difference between the Snowy of old and the river in its dammed state was, and is, most keenly felt in this stretch. Here, joined by the rushing waters of the Thredbo and Eucumbene, the river would once have swept clean a wide path over the stones lining the riverbed. These days, that path is much narrower, the water slower, the stones often covered with a thick layer of sediment. While canoeing upstream of Dalgety, we enountered a long stretch of reed-clogged river. The water moved from side to side of the old riverbed, meaning we had to paddle back and forth, searching for a gap in the reeds. We often had to jump out of the canoe to drag it down rapids between each reed-walled pond, trying not to fall and twist our ankles, hoping we weren't annoying any snakes in the reeds!
Despite the reduced flow, the Snowy River around Dalgety is meant to be a great spot to see platypus. One evening we wandered up from the campground, following the handmade signs to a riverside spot recommended for platypus sightings, and sat in a pair of plastic garden chairs provided for just such occasions. We were instructed to sit still and silent for as long as we could, as platypus are rather timid animals. I was enchanted by the delicious sunset light playing on the river (above). As we waited, a flock of galahs provided a soundtrack - screeching to roost on one tree, then swirling away behind us to another. We saw no platypus, but it was a relaxing end to the day.
Dalgety sits on a natural crossing place over the Snowy, which has been used for thousands of years. The first non-Indigenous settlement here was known as Buckley's Crossing, uncreatively named after a colonial settler-farmer in the area. The present day pub (built 1889) is still called Buckley’s Crossing Hotel. Buckley’s Crossing became a key point on the droving route down into Gippsland and back, being one of the easiest places to ford the Snowy. It was sometimes called Barnes’ Crossing from the mid-1800s (surprise, surprise, after another settler). The name Dalgety was not applied until the early 1870s, when the town was formally surveyed. Before the bridge was erected in 1888, there was a punt in operation - I think from the bottom of Barnes Street, pictured above left. The Catholic church, Our Lady Star of the Sea (above right) opened in 1878. I think the outdoor dunny opened more recently. (There was another outhouse a bit further away, made of stone and stuffed so full of hay or grass and other organic material that the door couldn't open properly.)
Did you know that, for a few years, Dalgety was set to become Australia’s capital city? Here’s a history lesson for you. After European invasion but before federation in 1901, settled Australia was not a single nation but a series of British colonies. Victoria and New South Wales were the two largest and most powerful colonies and there was a deep-seated rivalry between them, partly based on their differing trade policies. This proved to be a hurdle on the track to federation, as both colonies believed the new nation should follow their trade practices. In addition, a new nation needed a new capital city and bitter debates raged over whether that should be Sydney (the older city, in New South Wales) or Melbourne (then the larger city, in Victoria). This disagreement called for a compromise - and section 125 of the Australian Constitution states, “The seat of Government of the Commonwealth . . . shall be in the State of New South Wales, and be distant not less than one hundred miles from Sydney” but that “Parliament shall sit at Melbourne until it meet at the seat of Government.”
Thus began the search for a suitable location for Australia’s new capital city. In February 1902, senators made a trip to proposed sites. Climate, soil fertility and the ability of locations to support major industries were paramount - though it seems that the majority of sites failed the first test, providing sweltering summer heat, threat of bushfire and dust storms. After those experiences, it’s no wonder that the cooler climes of Dalgety provided a smidgin of relief. There’s a famous photo of senators swimming in the Snowy at Dalgety during the tour. They’re chest-deep in smooth water, flanked by the area’s characteristic rocks and dark shrubs. At bleaker times of the year, Dalgety was buffeted by bitterly cold mountain winds, but at the time a “bracing climate” was considered an ideal environment for producing healthy, intelligent people. Two years after federation, in 1903, a Federal Royal Commission named Dalgety as the optimal site for the new capital city, and this was formalised the next year in the “Seat of Government Act 1904”.
I wonder if the Snowy’s fate might have been different if Dalgety had indeed become the capital city. Would the river have been turned into a large ornamental lake, just as in the Griffins’ winning design for Canberra? Or would it have been redirected and sculpted like the Yarra through Melbourne? It’s likely that the Snowy and Mowamba would have both been dammed - when Dalgety was being staked out for the capital, the surveying team noted the Snowy’s potential for hydro electricity, and part of the reason for the Snowy Mountains Scheme was to provide power for Canberra. But I doubt that the Snowy and its tributaries would have been so mercilessly strangled if their damming and diversion inland for irrigation might have had a visible, tangible impact on the aesthetics and lifestyle of those in the capital city. As it stands, a small weir just upstream of the Dalgety Bridge (above) only gives an illusion of fullness.
For a couple of years, over a century ago, Dalgety must have felt like it was near the centre of Australian culture. But the New South Wales politicians kicked up a stink about the site - they thought Dalgety was too close to Victoria and too far away from Sydney, too cold, too dusty, too sparsely vegetated, too wild. In addition, there was concern from the powers that be that placing the capital at Dalgety would draw sea trade to the port at Eden on the south coast of NSW, which might eventually supersede the harbour at Sydney. To be fair, there were also some practical objections, such as Dalgety’s distance from the main Sydney-Melbourne railway line and how much it would cost to build a branch line to service the proposed capital. And so the search began afresh and the “Seat of Government Act 1908” named the site of present-day Canberra as the location for the new city.
So in the end, Dalgety did not become the Australian capital; it lost the race. And then, sixty years later, it lost most of its river - and thereafter much of its irrigation and tourism from fishing, its two general stores, butcher, market gardener, service station and police station. It still has a school, caravan park, hotel and small store/cafe but there are only a few dozen houses in town: it's not a lot, considering it might have been the ‘bush capital’.
Amusingly, despite the story of the dams and the rain shadow of the Great Dividing Range, it absolutely pissed down on our first evening in Dalgety. But during our few days there, I was lucky enough to see the famed rain shadow in action. I walked out of town and headed down a long gravel road to get a glimpse of the Snowy downstream (above). I watched as a huge rainstorm billowed over the Divide, while only a few dark clouds sporting small skirts of rain made it onto the Monaro.
Ironmungy Nature Reserve, about 20km downstream of Dalgety, conserves an area of ridge and hilltop bush in the naturally treeless surrounds. The area around Ironmungy, as across the Monaro, has a long history of Indigenous use. Artefacts have been recorded in the reserve, in similar densities as other sites around this part of the Monaro. It’s thought that these spots by the river, with their easy access to water, materials and food combined with the warmer shelter of the woodland environment, would have made good winter campsites. The name itself originates from an Indigenous language, possibly one of the local Ngarigo dialects. (If you’re interested in this kind of etymology, check out Harold Koch’s 2009 article “The methodology of reconstructing Indigenous placenames”.)
We visited Ironmungy Nature Reserve on our 4WD day downstream with my dad. Some of the side roads were closed so we headed straight down to Bairds Crossing on the river, spotting a big wedge-tailed eagle as we went. This area was declared a Forest Reserve in 1875, and a State Forest in 1917. NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service is fighting an ongoing campaign to control serrated tussock and willow in the area, as well as blackberry and African love-grass, while rabbits have munched away at the botanical diversity of the reserve and foxes on the prowl have destroyed much native wildlife. But down near Bairds Crossing the Snowy River Rehabilitation Project has replanted the riversides with various native trees, shrubs and grasses. Bairds Crossing itself featured a crunched up, broken concrete bridge, with mangled ironwork poking out the sides. A hand painted sign on the approach, dated from earlier that month (March 2017), warned: BRIDGE COLLAPSE. NO HEAVY VEHICLES.
You can see in the photo above how reeds and other vegetation encroach on what was once riverbed. I have to say that, while small, the river was livelier than I expected - perhaps due to the recent rainfall.
We drove past many farms and talked with Dad about the history of sheep farming and shearing in Australia. It plays such a big part of the country's colonial (and racist) history, and as we travelled through the Monaro we could see signs of a much more prosperous past - a time when wool was a key part of the Australian economy. There was shearing at a couple of the nearby farms/stations when we were staying in Dalgety; we heard a few people at the pub talking about it. And it was pretty interesting to see this old corrugated iron-clad building a way outside of town. We presumed it was old shearers' quarters. The smaller structure looks like a meat shed - before refrigeration, this is where carcasses would have been strung up and butchered for consumption. The top half would be covered in flywire/mesh to keep the insects out and to let the cooling breeze in.
The roads took us through grasslands choked with lamb’s ear and thistle and hoarhound, past neat, abandoned farm houses. Perhaps the successful graziers are those who have land elsewhere, somewhere the grass can catch a coastal rainstorm and cattle can put some flesh on their bones before market. Somewhere the local council hasn’t given up on spraying the worst of the weeds. Somewhere the wild dogs don’t terrorise the ewes into miscarrying, or pick off the calves with the tiredest mothers.
They say there’s no such thing as a pure dingo around here. Two hundred years of domesticated dogs - run off bush, abandoned, dumped, gone feral - and interbreeding has seen to that. But the dogs we saw strung up from trees and fences, despite the palimpsest of decay, had the typical yellow and cream colouration of dingoes. In the photo above, you can see a jaw that could bite the throat out of a smaller animal and the big, triangular ears that would have pointed, alert and incongruously fluffy, when it was alive.
In the hills near Bungarby, tucked away down a dirt track to the river, secluded amongst the trees and granite, it’s astonishing yet strangely understandable to find a monastery. Understandable, because isn’t this precisely the half-wild, hard landscape, sitting on the edges of formal civilisation that people seeking spiritual nourishment have been inhabiting for thousands of years? Astonishing because, in an area colonised by Protestants and Catholics, this is a Russian Orthodox community for women, established in 1999. Finding this community, with its connections to far flung places and famous political revolutions, reminded me once again that the Snowy River’s colonial history is not homogenous. We wanted to go down to the river, but thought we'd ask permission first. I ducked out of the rain under a vine-covered verandah and spoke to the Abbess/Mother Superior through the window to the kitchen. She told me the track was pretty sketchy (well, she didn't use those exact words) after the recent downpours and that she didn't fancy having to come to our rescue if we got stuck.
We'd had a bit more luck getting down to the river earlier in the day, right on the extremities of what could be described as the Monaro. The road we were following veered into a paddock beside a small, old farm house and became barely more than a smudge in the grass. I knocked on the door, but the house was empty. Halfway up a nearby hill, we could see a couple of people on a bike rounding up cattle and we waved to get their attention. A few minutes later they came down to chat to us, to let us know they were only here for a couple of hours to pick up their mob and take the cattle down to their paddocks down on the coast, a property with more rain and more grass. It was lucky we’d caught them on the right morning! They doubted our car’s chances of getting to the Maclaughlin, but suggested we could drive up and around through their property, park near an old sheep run and bushbash down to the river at the top of Stonebridge. My ears perked up at that, because I’d read about it in George Seddon’s book Searching for the Snowy and knew it's a place not many people get to see. Thanking them, we headed off, following one of the aforementioned unmaintained roads, going slowly - very slowly - over the enormous waterbars until we came to what we thought must be the place they said to park the car.
We left the car, crossed through the paddock (full of mullein and horehound) and over the ridge, then used the fence line and feral goat trails as our guide as we bush bashed down the steep hill. In the photo above, I think that the dark green trees are the native black cypress pines - quite distinct from the duller colours of eucalypts surrounding them.
Our friendly guides had told us to look out for goats and for a big stone outcrop that they called Goat Rock, which they said always had goat poo on it. We knew we were on track when Goat Rock appeared as promised. We'd caught glimpses of the river before, but the view from the top of Goat Rock was pretty special. We scrambled down and across the rocks, made slippery by the drizzle, until we stood beside the river at Stonebridge.
George Seddon describes Stonebridge in Searching for the Snowy (1994:71) like this:
It consists of a drop of perhaps twelve metres over a distance of about 200 metres, but it is not an ordinary rapid so much as a massive and intricate piece of rock sculpture. The rock is a hard, dense and mostly fine-grained granite, with many inclusions (xenoliths) of a dark rock that had been shattered by the molten granite as it was squeezed into place below the surface of the earth. This granite has a massive jointing system, planes of weakness set at right angles, three or four metres apart. The rock has not weathered into the usual rounded boulders, but into great cubes, although the edges have been rounded and under-cut. The result is a series of almost horizontal rock pavements, almost vertical rock walls, and deep slots. At one point, the entire river disappears into one of the slots, where it can be heard and sometimes glimpsed moving with great force some four metres or so below, eventually to emerge from fissures and slots lower down. There is no real ‘bridge’, and it is quite difficult to clamber across because of the changes in level and sheer faces, but the river itself is well out of sight.
The photo below shows the river disappearing under the granite, and the sculptural dips, curves and wells created by the action of water over millennia. It felt like a very special place. I would have loved to spend a few hours or even a whole day exploring the rocks, but the rain started sheeting down and lunch was waiting for us back up the hill in the car. This was the last point we were able to access the Snowy for a good long way and, as such, it symbolises to me the river's gateway out of the Monaro High Plains. Beyond here, the river gorge becomes ever deeper, the hills larger, the roads and tracks less accessible . . . Next time, our attempts to see the Mysterious Middle Snowy!
It's been a year since we set off on this adventure, and several months since I said I'd be "back in a couple of weeks" with this batch photos - sorry for the delay! The next bunch of pics will probably also take a month or three to appear. In the meantime, check out my overview of the trip, the photos from the high country and pics from the Snowy Mountains Scheme/Snowy Hydro.
Day 3, Challenge 3: Moods
After such a beautiful afternoon yesterday, today is bleary with mizzle. Clouds are low on the hills. I head out into the smudged middle distance and pay attention to the details, trying to get into a good mood. Water drops on spider webs and fence wire, the shining colours of wet leaves on the path, the trickling sound of a hidden stream, sheep emerging from the fog like woolly boats . . . There is something very beautiful about this quiet, close world. I walk softly and hear the scuffling of little animals and birds in the hedgerows. I surprise several pheasants, which take off in noisy bursts, their chok-chok-chok alarm call trailing them into invisibility.
Dampness clings to every surface, just enough to feel unpleasant. Damp shirt, damp spirits. After a small, unintentional detour, I climb what I presume is the North Downs. There’s no view to speak of, so it could really be any old hill. My feet are wet from the grass. Not worth the effort, I think.
Still, I take enjoyment from the otherworldly appearance of an overgrown brassica patch, the pearly drops of water decorating crinkled leaves. I see just how close I can get to the pheasants on one bare field - they don’t seem to be able to comprehend that I’m a human, or they can’t see me in the dense fog, so they go about their business within a few metres of the path.
I come to a field filled with looming cattle and decide to bail off the path. It looks like steers, not cows with calves, but I can’t see more than 10 metres ahead, so I don’t know how far the exit to the field will be, or if there’s any other way out. Usually I’m not too bothered by cattle, but I worry that in the fog they’ll get surprised or spooked when I appear in their midst. I take my chances with the road running parallel to the field. It’s not fun - high hedge, fast cars, no shoulder, very poor visibility. I’m thankful that I packed my little LED torch, which I shine into the oncoming traffic. It seems to work, but I’m pleased to get back on the footpath, wet grass and all.
One point in the day really stands out. The path tips into a secret dip between some hills, the Postling Downs, and the low rumble of traffic suddenly disappears. The noise of the M20 and A20 has been almost constant for the last couple of days, so it’s sudden absence is slightly eerie. I think of Allysse and how she describes her enjoyment of Richmond Park in London being mitigated by the flight path overhead and the busy roads cutting through (in Issue 00 of Queer Out Here). This traffic noise hasn’t ruined the walk for me, but it’s made me appreciate how motorways can affect an environment not just from visual or physical perspectives (e.g. by cutting off animals from their territories or blocking migration paths), but can be really disturbing from an aural perspective, too. The sonic environment of this part of Kent has really been screwed over, I think.
I’m too busy with my own thoughts and I somehow miss a turning and veer off track. My feet are cold and wet, I can feel the plaster on my blister coming unstuck, the traffic noise is irritating and now I’ve gone the wrong way. I’m altogether in a good state for a bit of a strop. And yet . . . I’m not grumpy. I’m the only person here, I’m the only person my mood is going to affect in any way, so what’s the point? And after all, there’s no wrong way when you’re not heading anywhere in particular. I pick and eat a mushroom and make tracks for a nearby village.
My plan is to sit in the church for a bit to dry off. The church is locked, but the porch is open, so I wring out my socks, tend to my blister, have a bite to eat and ponder my options for the rest of the day. There’s a village with a pub on the other side of the next hill - or at least, so the OS map says. I check online and see that the pub is (a) still there and (b) open, and decide to head over for a loo break and a bit of warmth. I’ll make my next decision then.
The pub is the carrot I dangle in front of myself as I climb to the top of what feels like a big hill and toddle down the other side. I’m not really enjoying myself, and the thought of climbing up an even bigger hill into even more cloud after the pub doesn’t sound great. As I sit with my half pint of cider and bowl of chips, I realise I’ve already made my decision. Instead of following the North Downs Way, I’m going to take the easy path along an old railway line to Peene (Peene!). There might even be a bit of shelter. I call Dan to arrange a new pick up point.
It turns out to be a good decision. It's raining, but I meet a friendly ram, pass a few happy dogs (they don’t care if it rains, they’re just full of joy to be outside) and enjoy the last bit of my walk along a flat, pretty trail. Dan’s waiting at the end next to Peene Railway Museum (unfortunately it’s shut) with a choc orange flavoured cupcake. We drive up to the place I was planning to finish and spend a few minutes looking out over Folkestone to the (barely visible) sea. It's a bit of an anticlimax, but that's OK - it's not the destination that counts. I'm feeling pretty Zen.
Then it’s home time. All in all, I’ve had a great few days. Dan’s enjoyed doing his own thing, too. Hopefully we’ll do it again one day.
This was the third day of a three day walk in October 2017 from (approximately) Maidstone to (pretty much) Folkestone along (mostly) the North Downs Way.
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