We spent quite a bit of time in London this autumn for various (happy and sad) family events. This meant a lot of time doing things indoors, and a lot of time in the car going back and forth. We tried our best to stretch our legs and get some fresh air while we were up there, and I am pleased to report: North London does a good green space.
(N.B. Almost all the pictures I've taken have been of fungus with the phone while out and about . . . So, ah, sorry if you aren't into mushrooms?)
We lived in Finchley for the better part of a year when we first moved to the UK. At that point, all I wanted to do was get into the country and traipse through fields and woods, over hills and farms, away from the city. Although we visited lots of city green spaces, they always felt a bit like second best. This extremely wet autumn, though, I’ve come to appreciate the parks and woods and paths of North London a little more.
London has been designated a national park city. Despite the enormous population, there’s green dotted all over the map. Some of those spaces are sports grounds and golf clubs that might only be accessible via public footpaths or not at all, but there are also playgrounds, woodlands, rail trails, gardens . . . In North London, as well as your suburban pocket handkerchief scraps of grass, there are big, sprawling open spaces like Hampstead Heath and long corridors like the Dollis Valley Greenwalk. There are allotments to walk past, reservoirs frequented by migrating birds and in certain places the city simply gives way to farmland. Also, some of those little patches of green are full on woodlands, and some of the cemeteries are overgrown wildernesses.
I’m not going to lie, probably the main reason I’ve enjoyed the parks this year is because I haven’t wanted to get my feet wet. A lot of country paths around our area have turned into boot-sucking bogs. In circumstances like these, it’s quite a relief to know that you can visit a park and wander for a couple of hours through the trees on hard-packed trails where your feet stand a chance of staying dry.
One day we ventured out for a circular walk from Muswell Hill. We hopped onto the Parkland Walk, a rail trail of which the northern branch runs southwest from Ally Pally to Highgate Wood. Alternatively sinking between embankments and crossing high bridges with views out over the city, the path can be like a highway during summer holidays but quietens down as soon as the weather turns a bit colder. Highgate Wood and neighbouring Queens Wood are some of my favourite refuges in North London - beautiful beech woods, broad paths (and little winding trails leading to adventure), play equipment, rope swings and the cute little cafe in Queens Wood where you can eat a hearty lunch looking out into the trees. On this particular walk I got rather distracted by mushrooms! From Highgate Wood, Parkland Walk goes south east to Finsbury Park - but we cut back between the Crouch End playing fields before returning to the top of the hill via as many back streets as we could.
But not all our outings have been like that. There are also little spaces that don’t need much energy or planning: a 15 minute break for some fresh air can take us through the little wood at the end of the road and back to the front door. Or you can jump on the short section of rail trail that picks up where the Mill Hill East branch line now stops and spend half an hour so going up and back. Or there’s Little Wood and Big Wood in Hampstead Garden Suburb, which are perfect for a shot of nature if you can’t decide which bit of nearby Hampstead Heath you want to tackle - you could sit in the Little Wood amphitheatre and watch the squirrels or you could combine the two parks and spend an hour enjoying the autumn leaves.
Anyway, here’s to the green spaces and mushrooms of North(ish) London!
Do you have any favourite city green spaces? Why not, in the parlance of those YouTubers these days, let me know down below.
I'm not announcing my abandonment of vegetarianism.
I mentioned last time that autumn was upon us, and the abundance of fungus we spotted on our weekend walk has confirmed this. We saw loads of different mushrooms. Porous, gilly, brackety, bright red, rusty yellow and orange, even a few dusky purple ones. And then, on a quiet side path . . . was that a beefsteak fungus?!
The only other time I’ve noticed these has been after rain, when the fungus is covered in a slimy, bright red film. I googled some identification guides to check I wasn’t about to poison us. I learnt that the beefsteak (Fistulina hepatica) usually grows on oak or sweet chestnut - I looked up and, yes, there were the oak leaves, up above a layer of beech leaves. I poked the fungus, it felt fleshy and some reddish-brown liquid (the "blood" of the beefsteak) squirted out. I took blurry photos of the underside and the colour seemed right. “You are unlikely to confuse this species with anything else,” said one website. And so, we took it home.
(After we’d taken it, I saw a few very young specimens on the opposite side of the tree trunk. It was definitely a positive identification - these had the classic look that gives the fungus its other name - ox tongue fungus.)
The fungus was pretty clean. I gave it a quick brush and rinse anyway (it was growing close to the ground, and who knows if a dog had visited earlier in the day?) and trimmed off a couple of minor bits of damage. I cut it in fairly thin slices. Incidentally, my wooden chopping board now has some artistic stains on it.
The inside has the most gorgeous patterns. It is pinky red and white when first sliced and goes slightly yellower as it oxidises. We tried a raw sample. It had a sour, faintly bitter, mushroomy flavour. The texture ranged from firm and crunchy to very gelatinous at the edges and top. This is definitely not one for people who have issues with texture.
If eating it raw, I wonder if you could slice it extremely thinly, do a kind of quick pickle, and use it as a garnish for salads? Or perhaps use some kind of olive oil marinade and add it to antipasto?
I had my mind set on cooking the mushroom, though. There are a number of suggestions online, often including marinating them for a while, soaking in milk to remove bitterness, having them in casseroles, making creamy sauces, and so on. If I find another one, I might try something like this. But I really wanted to get to know the mushroom a bit better, as this was my first time cooking it, so I went for the old classic: fry it.
It looks really meaty when it starts frying, as the red juices leak out and coagulate slightly (as you might expect the blood from meat to do). Check out the video! Blah, blah, science, science, proteins maybe?
I fried the slices on a low heat, changing fats with each round to see if it made a difference. For what it’s worth, I think I preferred olive oil over butter or sunflower oil. I tried a few samples as I went along and found the flavour fairly insipid - still sour, but not particularly mushroomy. I added a bit of garlic, for interest.
I also salted half the slices to see if that made a difference to the flavour and texture. The salt enhanced the flavour, but didn’t seem to do a lot for the texture (I expected it to draw more liquid out and decrease any sliminess, not that there was a huge amount to begin with).
After I’d cooked the lot, we decided to run with the sour flavour. I roughly chopped the slices and mixed them with sour cream and chives - a kind of Eastern European toast topping. Pretty yummy - and it even turned the sour cream a little bit pink! If I’d cooked them less, I imagine the cream would have turned even pinker.
Dan seemed to like the beefsteak mushroom more than I did, but I still think it’s pleasant enough. I also know from foraging experience that flavours can vary wildly depending on where and when something’s collected - maybe another time I might meet a less sour, more mushroomy beefsteak. Regardless, the novelty factor of the visuals makes this mushroom worth foraging at least once.
If you are interested, you can check out a few of my other foraging adventures here.
It feels as though autumn has arrived early this year, interspersed with bouts of summer that the grouches will say was “better late than never”.
As I write, I have been in the water every day for the last four days: sea swimming three of those days, in a smooth blue expanse that glints out to the hazy horizon; river paddling once with a friend, in a clear, young river surrounded by fish and laughing children.
Last week, I spent five days walking with Allysse through Wiltshire, experiencing everything from epic downpours to hot, lazy afternoons, camping in fields and woods and skinny dipping along the way.
For the two weeks before that, we were hosting my sister from Australia, taking her walking in East Sussex, dropping in on National Trust places for a history fix, visiting London and blissing out with gorgeous hill walks, whimberry picking and a river dip under darkening skies (for me) in Wales. It’s been a good summer holiday, the biggest gift of which has been slowing down, doing one thing at a time, not trying to fit things in around other commitments.
Looking out the window, I can see the rowan berries are hanging scarlet and the beech trees have set a golden fire in their topmost leaves. Along the roadsides, elders are drooping with berries and apples cast their fruit to the yellow grasses. The latest generation of robins is singing and families of other small birds are feasting at our neighbours’ feeders. Local friends are foisting excess produce from gardens and allotments onto whoever will take it - beans, zucchinis, a handful of potatoes. Early autumn is as beautiful as late summer - perhaps even more so, in its bounty and colour.
I have not blogged often over the last year or so, and it has felt like an obligation or a chore rather than a fun hobby. I recognise that I have unconsciously developed some entirely self-imposed rules about what a blog post should be, how many words, how many photos, how much structure, and - most stiflingly - how “important” an event needs to be to blog about it.
I hope that as the seasons quicken, as trees bear fruit and let go, colour their leaves and let go, that I will be able to emulate this. To let go of unhelpful patterns and reflect on some smaller delights of life.
P.S. This is still a good time to make hedgerow jam. Get on it!
Despite all our long distance walks and our walks on long distance paths, I don't think we've ever walked a formally named and labelled long path from end to end in one go. Well, not until now!
And when I say "now", I mean back at the end of May/start of June. It's taken me a long time to muster the energy to edit photos and blog, as things have been pretty stressful at work. But I promised myself I'd get something out before the summer holidays started at the end of July (I have one more day of work, this Tuesday!), so here it is.
Day 1: Lower Beeding to Handcross
We started by driving to Seaford (the end of the walk), then catching a bus along the coast to Brighton and another inland to Lower Beeding (the start of the walk).
After a winding trip down country lanes, we jumped off the bus at Leonardslee garden/park and found what our map said was the start of the walk. There was no sign that this was the terminus of a long distance path, but a few minutes in we found our first official Sussex Ouse Valley Way waymark. We wandered down a muddy track ("Lorrys and Vans will / Get stuck if you go / down / here !!!!!!!!!!!" said the sign) and past the gardens, enjoying the overhanging rhododendrons and glimpses of more through the fence.
It was lunch time when we started, and drizzly, so we stopped in the outskirts of a beech wood for a snack. A peaceful break, except for the sound of dozens of police dogs barking and howling in their training fields back over the valley.
We'd hoped to stay dry-ish, but walking through a field of recently-drenched young wheat put paid to this. Water leaked through my shoes in the first few steps, and more dripped down my legs, soaking my socks from above. After a little while I gave up being bothered by the squelching, knowing it was a short day and we had a nice Airbnb to look forward to at the end of it.
I didn't take a huge number of photos on this first day, as it was drizzling on and off. It was interesting to be on a path that I hadn't really researched (often I'll map them out myself, but we had a downloaded GPS route for this) and following waymarks more than the map (the path was pretty well signposted). I had a much less clear idea of where I was - and I had no idea whether the streams we passed or crossed were the Ouse or minor tributaries.
In the photo below (which may or may not be the River Ouse), you can see the rust-red of iron in the water on the right. I've talked about this phenomenon before - the photo below is a much less spectacular version!
When we reached Slaugham (pronounced Slaffem, we think - while Laughton in East Sussex is pronounced Lorten) we took a quick break in the church, resting our feet and getting out of the rain. From there, we took a long, unpaved estate drive up to Handcross, passing the interesting structure below, then walked on to our Airbnb. We upgraded to the family room with its own bathroom so we could wash our socks and dry them on the towel rail without forcing anyone else to look at (or smell) them. We watched a horse and chooks from the window, patted the cute house dog and binged on the last few episodes of Killing Eve Season 1.
Day 2: Handcross to North Chailey
Our friendly host gave us a lift back up to town so we didn't have to retrace our steps up the road. That was especially nice as we knew we had a long day ahead.
We set off in intermittent sunshine, heading straight into Nymans. We'd visited before, but we'd stuck to the gardens and the house then, rather than exploring the woods, so it was lovely to have a look around as we went through. We were almost the only people there so early. It was just us, the chatty birds and the tall trees.
Out the other side, we followed roads and paths into Staplefield. We'd read in the notes on some website or another that the Sussex Ouse Valley Way was on 80% sealed paths, so we were keeping note of what was underfoot. Although we did seem to follow a lot of country lanes during the first couple of days, we felt there was a good mix with dirt footpaths and grassy fields.
After passing through some farms - saying hello to the rams (above), ducks, flitty birds, horses (very keen to see if we had snacks for them), ladybirds and so on - we came to one of the key landmarks on the trail. The Ouse Valley (or Balcombe) Viaduct features on the waymarkers for this path. I remember going over the viaduct on the train down to Brighton the first time we visited, and again when we first moved to the UK back in 2011. I've always wondered what the structure would look like from underneath. Turns out it looks pretty great!
Having seen hardly anyone all day, about two minutes after we stopped for a snack and a lie down several people appeared - a solo walker, a solo sightseer and a family party that looked like they were going to stay for a while. So, after taking our pictures, we headed off.
And then . . .
. . . our first officially signposted crossing of the Ouse! It's always nice to know you're on the right track. Our next stop was to be lunch at Lindfield, a town outside Haywards Heath. From this section, my strongest memory is of passing through a wood where some kind of conifers were being harvested. The cut wood gave out such a sweet smell - almost like strawberries! We approached Lindfield via the cultivated surrounds of a golf course, then a bit of lane walking and some paths through farms and behind houses before we popped out on the street.
We headed into one of the pubs (on the recommendation of the walker who had passed us at the viaduct) and had a decent lunch. It was a short detour off the path, but we both needed the rest and it gave us a chance to dry our socks and shoes again.
Nearby clouds were threatening rain as we headed off after our break, but all we got was a very muggy atmosphere, ensuring we worked up a magnificent sweat. I started to worry that I'd only bought one shirt . . . was I going to get extremely smelly?
Looking back on this day, it seems very long! It was about 25km (15mi) in total, but it feels even longer than that. There are whole sections I've skipped in this post - we went through woods and farms, stopped at a pub near the river just as it was closing (they still sold us a nice cold drink) and admired all the late spring flowers (I have decided May is the prettiest month of the year in these parts).
We also passed quite a number of campsites, from small ones that looked mostly like a field right up to Wowo Campsite - a sprawling, multi-field affair with all kinds of glamping/camping facilities and even visiting food trucks. WoWo is where we left the official path and detoured to our Airbnb for the evening.
It was only a mile or so, but it felt like forever. My feet were very sore, and I was very happy to jump in a bath before settling down for the evening!
Day 3: North Chailey to Lewes
Morning broke and back we went - down the road, up the lane, into the fields, through the campsite . . . and on to the Ouse Valley Way! There was rain forecast for the morning, but it was meant to clear up into a nice afternoon.
I don't seem to have many photos from the first couple of hours. But we did take a few pictures of old machinery. This one's for you, Dad.
Early in the day we passed the Bluebell Railway station near Sheffield Park. Through the morning we would sometimes catch the hoot of the steam train in the distance. As predicted, it did have a good old rain at one point. We'd made it to Newick and I'd just bought a new packet of plasters to tape up all the weird and wonderful blisters I was getting as a result of walking long distances on my (still relatively new) insoles. We took the rain as an opportunity to have a snack and tend to our wounds under cover of a handy bus shelter. Soon enough, the rain turned into a light drizzle, and we set off once more, down country lanes, then up, up, up a hill to a lovely view. We could spot the South Downs, now, and started to get more of a sense of where we were.
The terrain felt more familiar, too, as we dropped back down into the Ouse Valley. We followed packed chalk tracks through what I believe was a large estate . . .
. . . and made it back to the river! Now, this was starting to be recognisable as the Ouse we knew. Maybe a little narrower, but I could imagine a line stretching from here to Barcombe Mills (where I sometimes swim), to Lewes, to Southease (a section we've walked before), to the sea. We were entering another stage of the walk.
I was surprised to come across Isfield Lock, which is the subject of a long-term restoration project. Because we hadn't actually spent that much time beside the river during this walk, we hadn't seen/noticed any of the 20 or so locks (or the remains of them) along its length. Information points and pamphlets at the lock informed us that the Ouse had once upon a time been 'improved' and made navigable all the way up to Balcombe - and that materials for the Balcombe Viaduct had been shipped in up the river.
Receiving this information so late in our walk made me wonder how much more interesting history we'd been missing out on - perhaps we should have bought a guide book after all! I had first heard of the path when reading Olivia Laing's To the River several years ago, but I don't seem to have retained much in the way of historical trivia - only a lingering sense of summer atmosphere, languid rivers and some background knowledge about Virginia Woolf, who drowned herself in the Ouse downstream of Lewes. (I recommend the book, by the way.)
Our next stop was going to be lunch at the Anchor - a pub that sits on the river seemingly miles from any village or town. We were getting hungry, but that didn't prevent us from stopping frequently to admire the scenery, make note of landmarks we knew appearing in the distance and (at least in my case) remove our boots for a bit of blister-doctoring. (Warning: feet picture coming up!)
Ha! I'd forgotten about these pictures. The one on the left was at the lock, warning of sharp edges and deep water. I thought it looked like someone entertaining several snakes. The one on the right is amusing because in the UK "OAPS" would usually mean "Old Age Pensioners" rather than "Ouse Angling Preservation Society". This river is not for you, old people.
We finally made it to the pub and scoffed down our food while sitting in the beer garden. We'd seen a few folks in hire boats upstream, and smiled to ourselves as they returned to the landing and stepped ashore with more or (usually) less grace. It was starting to warm up a little, and the rain was forecast to hold off, so it was a good opportunity to once again air out my feet. You can see how the insoles are directing my feet in new angles, creating friction in places that are unused to it. Pretty symmetrical, though. (P.S. More tractor!)
We were on a familiar section of the river now, heading down to Barcombe Mills, where I started wild swimming last summer and have continued to go for dips after work this year. After Barcombe, we made for the pretty hamlet of Hamsey. There were more people out and about in the afternoon which was nice to see. On the way we were passed by a small and very energetic dog who did not agree with his owner about where he should walk. We were serenaded to the tune of, "Bruce! Bruce! Come back!" as we traipsed along beside the fields.
I was getting quite tired and sore. I had somehow miscalculated both of the last two days - forgetting to add the distances to and from our accommodation. An extra 5-6km might not sound like much, but if you're limping along at less than 3km per hour it means an extra two hours on your (my) poor, knackered feet! Fortunately, the sun was out all afternoon, making for perfect lying-down-in-a-field weather. I had to make the most of it.
It was an enjoyable path into Lewes. We stopped for many breaks to admire the views. And after we'd struggled up the steep streets into the outskirts of town, we were very pleased to find our Airbnb was actually its own mini-apartment, with an amazingly powerful shower, full kitchen, a shared patio overlooking the garden and a comfy couch from which to watch West Side Story.
Day 4: Lewes to Seaford
The final day of our walk dawned sunny and warm. We wandered back down the hill into town and popped into the supermarket for a few snacks to help us on the way.
Oh! But before we went to the supermarket, we spent a good while watching ducklings on a pond. We also saw tiny moorhen chicks, which are the cutest, fuzziest things ever.
Back to the story: we followed the river through Lewes! The river is tidal here (it is tidal below Barcombe Mills), and there are a lot more boats, which meant some new and interesting things to look at.
This was the first town of any size on the river, too, giving us a view of a different riverside environment. The sounds of a busker on the bridge drifted down the water, bouncing off the brick and glass of old industrial conversions and new apartments.
The trail was well signposted through Lewes.
We'd walked the next section before, so we knew more or less what to expect. The path itself is also very straightforward, which allows more time to soak in the view. The tide was coming in as we were going out, creating interesting currents and eddies.
We saw a couple of SUPers and kayakers catching a ride on the current upstream, which seems like it would be a fun day out - catch the tide up to Lewes for lunch, then head back. The current was quite powerful and they were pretty speedy. I hope they were sticking to the 5 1/2 knot limit!
I like these flowers - they're called bladder campion.
Last time we walked here, we followed the river all the way to Southease. This time, we followed the official Sussex Ouse Valley Way, which diverts from the riverside about a mile upstream of Southease and detours through the small village of Rodmell and past Monk's House, where Virginia Woolf lived. We still haven't managed to visit the house, despite it being one of our nearby National Trust properties. One day!
We stopped in the shade of the trees in the churchyard at Rodmell, enjoying the view of the South Downs on the other side of the Ouse valley. And then we decided we'd head over to the YHA at Southease for lunch. I had nachos, which were adequate. It felt very civilised to have all of this in what feels like the middle of nowhere. We wondered if our friend in Brighton would like to walk over the hills from her place to Southease for lunch one day, then take the train home. (Spoilers: she did like, and we ended up doing this last weekend. It was great.)
After refreshments (and a re-plastering of my blisters), we were ready to set out again into the blazing sunshine. It was a stark contrast to the weather on the first day - and I was glad it had happened this way around, because there is no shelter to speak of in this section, so rain and wind would have been miserable. We followed a crowd of people heading into Southease for a fair on the green, but turned off south along the river before we got distracted and had to buy a second lunch and several jars of jam.
Instead of heading straight along the river, there is a short but noteworthy section that detours up a small, tucked-away valley (where I got to pat an enormously fluffy cat that was hanging out on a wall), climbs up a hill (we did a bit of paddock bashing here, as we couldn't quite figure out the route) and falls down the other side (through some extremely verdant nettles and brambles).
It was a fun mini-adventure on a path that had otherwise been pretty well maintained. It also gave us some views out to the sea. (Can you spot the walker - or the path?! - in the photo below?)
Slightly scratched and lightly stung, we made it into Piddinghoe. There, we did our walker-ly duty of visiting the church and admiring its stained glass windows, its fishy weathervane and its round tower (Southease also has a round tower, but we'd seen that several times before).
Back on the river, we struck out towards Newhaven. The unique building below welcomed us. We've always wondered what it was, as we've often seen it from the top of the surrounding hills. Turns out, it's an incinerator. They burn household waste and generate electricity there. I mean, if you're going to have an incinerator be the iconic structure of your town, you might as well make it good looking.
Newhaven is truly a lowlight of the walk. OK, I'm sure it didn't help that I was sore and hot and very, very ready for the day to be over, nor that the path passes through some less desirable streets, but the town felt dirty, ugly and run down. Soon enough, though, we crossed the rail line and took the diverted track out through a road construction site and onto the foreshore.
I'd vaguely wondered why the path ended at Seaford, to the east, when the mouth of the River Ouse is in Newhaven. Perhaps because it is nicer?! However, as we made our way along, the lagoon of Mill Creek to our left gave us a clue: this must have once been the path of the river itself.
This suspicion was soon confirmed by some information boards along the path. We also passed the foundations of what had once been a hospital or recovery centre for disabled boys who had undergone surgery. It was torn down in WWII as the powers that be thought Germans might invade here and use the buildings as cover. Tide Mills, the village the hospital was near, was condemned as unfit for habitation a few years beforehand. It all seems rather bleak, even on a warm, sunny day. It must have been dire in winter.
Eventually - finally! at last! - I got to do what I'd been dreaming of since Rodmell: take off my shoes and socks and go and stand in the sea. I love doing this anyway, but it was such a relief to numb my sore feet in the chilly water and to say thank you to them after the beating they'd taken over the last few days. I stood there for a good long while, wavelets breaking around my shins, gazing out to the boats and ships on the English Channel.
From there, it was a hop, skip and a jump to the end of the Sussex Ouse Valley Way on the outskirts of Seaford. This end had an information sign, and even a fingerpost pointing back to Lower Beeding. It said it was 42 miles, but it felt like we'd walked a lot further than that (and to be fair, with all the detours to accommodation and lunches, we definitely had). We snapped a happy selfie and immediately made a beeline for the icecream van before hobbling back to the car and driving home.
And so that is the story of a pleasant three and a half day walk along the Sussex Ouse Valley Way. I would recommend it to people who'd like to walk a well marked multi-day path, or who have a long weekend and want to thru-hike (as the USAns might say) a trail, or who are generally interested in the landscapes of Sussex.
If you are thinking of walking the Sussex Ouse Valley Way, find a gpx file online (or get the maps) and maybe buy a guidebook so you have a bit more information about the areas you pass through. I'd also highly recommend reading To the River - even if you never plan to walk the path at all!
When was the last time you took as long as you could to walk nowhere in particular?
Often, as I map out my walks, I’m wondering if I could put in a couple of extra kilometres before stopping at that pub for lunch, or whether it’s possible to visit both the lookout and the river beach in one day, or if it’s worth the sore feet of an extra five miles to make it to a particular B&B. “Twenty-five kilometres, should be fine!” I think to myself - not taking into consideration the early winter sunsets, not remembering that I haven’t done a long walk for a few months, forgetting to build in time to picnic, forage, soak my feet in a stream, get lost, snooze in the sun, watch birds or rabbits in the grass . . .
But at the start of the holidays, I didn’t have much of a plan. Dan was going to drop me off somewhere between home and Brighton in the morning and pick me up after he finished work. As long as I could let him know where I was at about 4pm, it was all good. I remember with great fondness my mapless walks of a few years ago, so I thought I might do something similar.
The landscape was wrapped in fog as we pulled off the A27 opposite Housedean Farm. I waved goodbye to Dan and set off up the side road to join the South Downs Way. I had a vague idea that I might want to walk north over the Downs and through the fields and villages beyond to the River Ouse, then follow the Ouse Valley Way back to Barcombe Mills or Lewes - which would be a long walk, but I was going to be out for eight hours, so it wouldn’t be unreasonable.
A tractor passed me, trailing the smell of cowshit, I snapped a photo of the highway as I crossed over it, I smiled to a couple of hard-faced bike commuters and then I turned off the road and began the climb up onto the hills. The sheep didn’t seem to want to get off the path, so I stepped slowly around them. I saw a couple of house martins (I’m pretty sure - they didn’t sound like swifts or look like swallows). I tried to make out surrounding hills through the fog.
After cresting this hill, the path goes straight back down through a wood. I ducked off to wee amongst the violets and noticed that the noise of the A27 had already started to fade. A big bird - which I assume was a buzzard, because I heard them calling soon after - launched itself off a high branch and disappeared above the almost-budding canopy. I decided to stop for a bit and found a convenient tree to sit on.
I like to play a game, sometimes, where I close my eyes and listen. I imagine I don’t know where I am and that I need to figure it out through sound alone. “What are these sounds telling me?” I ask. Birdsong - lots of small birds probably means lots of bushes, trees, places for them to hide and things for them to eat. Distant traffic - probably not a town or city, but not too remote a place in the countryside. Sheep - near or in farmland. The chock-chock of a pheasant and the cat-like calls of a buzzard - definitely not in Australia! Slight echo on the pigeon calls - a valley? A scuffling sound - maybe leaf litter and trees, possibly a wood? No human voices - could indicate location, time of day, time of year. The rattle of a woodpecker - definitely a big tree somewhere nearby. Distant seagulls, a plane overhead. . .
As I sat in a kind of meditation, I decided I was going to move deliberately slowly for the rest of the day. I set myself a different kind of challenge: to walk no more than 8-10 miles (13-16km) the whole day. One mile per hour, on average.
I left the wood and followed the green path into a little valley and up the other side, through fields, past rangy hedgerows. I noted all the plants I could see on the ground beside the path: nettles, rats-tail plantain, ribwort plantain, young hogweed (possibly?), dandelion, silverweed, sorrel, cleavers/goosegrass/sticky willy, violets (purple and white), thistles, bugle (I think - it's the one that looks like furry mint and smells like weed), lords and ladies, dock, a very curly leafed thing I don’t know. . . and plenty of grass, of course.
It felt so luxurious to move so slowly, with such attention to my surroundings! As I climbed through fields, skylarks called noisily all around me. They fly like they sing, skylarks, fluttering and chirring like noisy, hovering bats. I saw a silhouette of a walker through the fog, heading along an intersecting path. I slowed down even further to avoid them, wanting to hold onto my own space a while longer. My plan was immediately scuppered by a tractor that appeared to spray the field beside me. Oh well. The fog - or was it just low cloud? - hadn’t quite lifted off the hills. A bridleway cut a white line through fields of oilseed rape and winter wheat. Classic chalk downs. I sat beside a recently-laid hawthorn hedge to stretch my calves and eat a square of chocolate.
Another wood, another wee surrounded by violets. Further on, as the sun almost broke through the clouds, I picked some young sorrel and dandelion to add to my cheese and crackers for lunch. I’d been going for just over two hours when I made it to north edge of the downs. I congratulated myself on my slowness and decided on a little detour up Blackcap, which I’ve bypassed before on speedier walks along this section of the South Downs Way.
At the top, I found a trig point (well, I was expecting that!) and a little plantation that seemed perfect for another sit down. I found a log and made myself a substantial snack of crackers, cheese, tomato and freshly-picked weeds. As I munched away, I listened to the hum of traffic on the Ditchling-Plumpton road and thought about where I might want to head next: east towards Lewes, north off the downs or west along the ridge to Ditchling Beacon and beyond. I felt called in a Ditchling-ish direction, knowing that if I got hungry I could pop down into the village for a cuppa and a sandwich and so, after sitting for a while and thinking about nothing in particular, off I toddled.
Back on the South Downs Way, a sign informed me that I’d come 3 miles from the A27 and that it was another 2 miles to Ditchling. More people seemed to be out - several dog walkers, a handful of cyclists, a couple of folks that looked like they might be walking the whole path from Winchester to Eastbourne. I thought about walking it myself - it’s about 100 miles (160km), so would make a good week-long outing. I feel fairly comfortable wild camping up on the downs, too, so I wouldn’t need to book accommodation or be always tied to campsites (though if they were close enough of course I’d stay there - always nice to have a loo and perhaps a shower!).
I also thought that it would be a good place to encourage people to join another project idea I’ve been mulling over for a while: The Slow 100. My idea is that, for a lot of people, walking 100 miles (or 100 kilometres, for that matter), seems wildly out of reach. But what if you could do it slowly - like 10 miles or 10 kilometres a day over 10 days? Stopping for morning tea, lunch, afternoon tea, to take photos or do some sketches, to lie on the grass in the sun, to pop into a tea room or get an icecream from a van in a hilltop car park? You could do it over a week and two weekends. If you had a bunch of folks interested, you could hire a people mover and get someone to ferry you to and from your accommodation to make it even more accessible. I think that's something that many people (not everyone, of course) could achieve. Such were the things I pondered as I wandered.
Wrapped in my own thoughts, I was surprised when Ditchling Beacon appeared ahead. I’d been walking faster than I’d meant to! I stopped to get a pebble out of my shoe and to rub my feet - they were a bit sore as I was breaking in some new orthotics, which were tilting my heels out at a rather more drastic angle than my old ones! - noticing how the temperature was perfect for walking, how I wasn’t hungry or thirsty, how there was hardly a breeze and how the fog-haze-cloud-whatever was stopping the sun from becoming too hot. The skylarks were still going. I wasn’t at work and wouldn’t have to be for another two weeks. I felt so happy!
I dithered around before and after Ditchling Beacon, sitting for a while in the chalk hollows and tumuli to look at the view below, watching some goldfinches in the gorse and a kestrel above, holding the gate for a horse and rider and airing my feet out in the just-emergent sun. I also stood for almost a quarter of an hour watching a pair of yellowhammers pottering around on open access land. They are such spectacular little gems of birds that I gasped out loud when they first flew in. I’d sometimes lose them behind a patch of grass, only to find them again immediately as a bright yellow head popped up in front of me.
Having managed to while away a bit of time, I decided I’d head into Ditchling village via Burnhouse Bostall. I briefly considered going a mile further to the windmills, but knew if I did I’d probably end up breaking my 10 mile limit! So, down I went, taking the time to go off piste through some pretty scraps of woodland, where rabbits nibbled and butterflies flitted. I said hello to some horses. I stopped to pour out a little bit of water in front of a grounded bumblebee that looked a little sad. I admired the way the breeze had scattered blackthorn/sloe petals like confetti across the dried-mud footpath. Again, I realised how luxurious it felt to allow myself this time and presence - not to rush, not to be anywhere in particular, just to enjoy myself and the environment.
Eventually I made it into Ditchling. I called Dan and decided it wasn’t worth going to a cafe before he came to collect me. Instead, I sat on a bench in the sun on the sunken lawn by the church and museum and I watched a very energetic chihuahua run away from its owner (over and over again). That dog was having the time of its life. And frankly, that day, so was I.
In Ditchling, looking towards the Ditchling Museum of Art & Craft (which I haven't yet visited, but it has some interesting-sounding exhibitions).
All up, I think I walked about 14.5km/9mi - a nice, slow day! When was the last time you slowed down on a walk or cycle journey? The last time you meandered without a destination? I would love to hear about it . . .
February half term seems to be the time we head off for a few days’ walking on the Grand Union Canal.
We started walking the whole canal - or, really, the network of canals - back when we first came to the UK and were living in London. It’s been some time since I’ve posted about this ongoing project. Back in 2016, we walked the Slough Arm and then around to Berkhamsted. Since then, we’ve visited a few more times, completing the Brentford section in London on a day walk and filling in some gaps around Tring in 2018, then spending a few days walking up to Northampton last year.
This time, we set out from Gayton Junction (where the Northampton Arm splits off) and walked for three days up to Royal Leamington Spa. Allysse joined us for the first two days, which was lovely. We caught the first part of the unseasonal weather (hashtag climate breakdown), with quite a bit of sun.
We stayed in Daventry on Saturday and Sunday nights. Our very accommodating Airbnb host drove us to the start of the walk on Sunday, forgoing his lie-in. We set off from Gayton Junction in bright sunshine.
It was great to catch up with Allysse as we walked. We chatted about Queer Out Here, about work, about people walking various long trails in the USA, about photography and libraries and art.
This section of the canal was kind of an odd one - we weren't far from towns, but the towpath was quiet. It was also lacking in benches (at least when it came time for a snack). We ended up sitting on a grassy bank beside the canal somewhere near Heyford and then on a new bench under a very new road (it wasn't even on the OS yet).
The people we did meet or pass were very friendly. We played leapfrog with one couple for a while - they were out for a weekend stroll and we had a chat about canal walks and wildlife. And speaking of animals, we also met some cute dogs and cats. Including one cat that was almost spherical. We were too busy patting it to take a photo, sorry.
The Braunston mile markers continued to count down. Dan and I remember seeing these back when it was still over 50 or 60 or more miles to Braunston, so the excitement mounted as we counted them down from 16 miles to only three or four miles. Braunston was coming! But not this day!
The afternoon became cloudier and noisier. This is a major transport corridor with the motorway on one side of the canal and the train line on the other. I enjoy this kind of set-up (well, for a little while) because it helps situate the canal within its history as a highway - something that's a lot harder to remember when you're out in the middle of a tranquil farmscape with ducks and swans bobbing on the water and little birds singing from the hedgerows!
We stopped for a rather late lunch at the New Inn before passing the junction with the Leicester Line - a long and meandering arm of the Grand Union Canal, which will have to wait for another time (probably several other times). It was getting late in the afternoon as we started to approach Daventry. Muted sunlight, turned weird colours by the rainclouds, reflected off the canal. It did rain, but only lightly - I didn't put my coat on and for once, I was fine and the rain stopped within a quarter of an hour.
Finally we turned off the canal and made our way back into Daventry through the country park - a lovely walk around the reservoir with sunset reflections, loads of birds settling in for the night, some big old trees to stare at and blackthorn blossom to admire. We all had well deserved baths in the huge bathtub at the Airbnb and fell into bed.
In the morning, we set off back up through the country park and joined the canal just before it disappears into Braunston Tunnel. It was fun to hear the difference between the traffic noise at the top of the bank and the much more tranquil audio environment as we dropped down beside the water.
We spent a while at the entrance to the tunnel mucking around and recording echoes (Allysse might make something out of it for Queer Out Here, so stay tuned). The tunnel is almost 2km long, and the path follows the line of it over the top of the hill. There are a couple of signs of the tunnel below, including the red brick ventilation shafts/towers. There's also a lovely view between the hedgerows towards Braunston.
As we approached Braunston the mile markers - and the bridge numbers - counted down towards 0. Unfortunately, either we missed mile marker #1 or it doesn't exist! We did notice bridge #1, though. Although we felt like we'd only just started the day, we couldn't resist the lure of the floating cafe, where Allysse had her first ever bread pudding (I'd never had before moving here, either - it's the best value weight-for-money cake I think it's possible to get). Verdict: good! The folks on board were friendly, so we chatted for a bit before heading off.
Just after this, we talked to a man who operated a firewood business from his boat, shipping wood all along this part of the Grand Union Canal and down the Oxford Canal, which joins the GUC for a stretch here. It was an interesting conversation (and he had a cute cat to pat). We heard how the warmer winters were costing him quite a bit - pubs that usually bought ten or more bags of firewood had only needed half a dozen, and some private houses had only bought one, or none. Chalk that up as another livelihood affected by climate breakdown.
It was another long day. All my talk about the long trails in the USA seemed to have piqued Allysse’s curiosity, so we whiled away some time chatting about what we thought would be the pros and cons of the big three - as well as trails in countries that are easier to get (in) to. One of the subjects that came up was trail magic (specifically, offering food to hikers) and whether it would work in the UK, given the different walking culture here.
It was apt, then, that we discovered some unintentional trail magic, just as our energies were really dropping: a can of Coke! And then, only a few minutes later, a creme egg! Someone must have accidentally dropped them by the path. We felt bad for that person, but we toasted them with our sugary sweets. (Perhaps it was karma, but I was soon somewhat deflated when we stopped for a break and I kicked over my nice warm cup of tea before I managed to drink even a mouthful.)
As on the previous day, the afternoon clouded over and it started raining. This time I had to put the rain coat on! I was seriously flagging, with my right knee (long-term mystery pain) and heel (plantar faciitis) playing up, so I was glad to reach the turnoff down the Oxford Canal towards Napton-on-the-Hill, where we were staying that night. (It didn’t occur to me until the evening that I could have taken some painkillers?!) Unfortunately, Allysse had to leave us to head to a work commitment the next day, but we managed to squeeze in a short rest at our Airbnb and bite to eat in the village shop before she caught the bus out of town.
The place we were staying had excellent views south over the surrounding countryside. We'd enjoyed sunset the night before and were hoping for a nice sunrise. The sunrise did not disappoint! We watched it as we ate leftovers from last night's dinner delivery. Mmm.
Setting off, we decided to go up to the top of the hill to see what we could see. What we saw was: some dogs taking their owners for walks, a church, the above lumpy field and hazy views of, we think, Birmingham.
It was a glorious morning, and I think the knowledge that it would be a slightly shorter day also helped with my mood. We spotted loads of ducks, geese, swans, coots and moorhens - as well as several birds of prey: buzzards, kites and kestrels.
Once again, the canal-adjacent people were very friendly. Is this because we're in the midlands now? Or because we look middle aged, so people are happy to speak to us? Or because everyone is so pleased to be out and about in some unexpected sunshine? At one point we closed the lock gate for a man who raised his hat to us and said he was out “On my first day, and I’m forgetting things.”
We didn't have a lot of food, but we made sure to stop every hour or so to eat a snack and for me to try to stretch out my legs and feet. Probably my favourite stop was at this flight of locks, where I lay down lockside and soaked up the sun while listening to running water and birdsong.
Unfortunately, my foot and leg still weren't great, which made the last part of the walk drag on a bit. I was also desperate for the toilet and, as we were approaching a town, there were no private behind-a-bush opportunities! However, the canal soon deposited us in the centre of (Royal) Leamington (Spa), where Dan found us a fab vegan cafe to sit in for an hour or two as we whiled away the time until our train was due (The Garden Shed - recommended!). We also paid a visit to Jephson Gardens and the Glasshouse, where we warmed our bones and looked all kinds of 'exotic' plants - bottlebrush, loquat and other things you'd find in many Australian back yards!
This section of canal is fairly interesting, with lots of canal history around Braunston, a variety of landscapes and soundscapes between the transport corridor and the quieter sections, junctions with other canals (or other lines of the GUC) and a feeling that the water is well-used. I really liked Leamington and look forward to spending an afternoon exploring the town when we start the next leg of our walk.
I can’t say it was my favourite part of the canal so far, but I think that’s partly down to being out of practice walking long days and having quite a sore leg. That's something to keep in mind when planning our distances next time, especially if we do it in February after not having done any multi-day walks since the previous summer.
Speaking of next time, if we follow this pattern, February 2020 should see us walking into Birmingham! This is exciting because it marks the end of the main line of the GUC. But of course then there’s the Leicester Line (including the Welford and Market Harborough Arms) and a daywalk along the defunct Stratford Arm back near Milton Keynes. We’re not done yet!
After three days on the East Gippsland Rail Trail, we said goodbye to both our friends and the dedicated bike track and struck off on our own.
Bairnsdale to Stratford
The second part of our tour saw us cycling for two days on an exploratory (read: somewhat winding) route along quiet roads and gravel tracks from Bairnsdale to Stratford, again through GunaiKurnai (Brabralung and Brayakaulung) country. With a few detours and one abandoned route, we ended up cycling about 85km over these two days.
DAY 4: BAIRNSDALE TO GLENALADALE, ~45KM
It had been another chilly night - though we were both generally warm enough in our sleeping bags and layers - when a magpie carolled right beside the tent at 5am. I got out my recorder to catch the song . . . so it didn’t make another peep until after 5:30. Cheeky bugger! With just the two of us, breakfast was a quick affair - instant noodles in the camp kitchen as magpies scavenged around the tables. After checking our route on the wifi, we set off at 7am. A personal best (or at least earliest) for this trip!
We spun along beside the Mitchell River on an otherwise deserted path. It was beautiful, with the big moon hanging in the morning sky, the cool air biting our ears, the still water sporting hi-res reflections. We stopped to read a few of the information boards, then headed across the river and up the hill through Wy Yung. It was our first, but definitely not our last, hill of the day!
We followed our screencap maps without too much of a hitch along the Calulu Road, past pretty houses and farms with views to the south over the plains and to the north into the forested range that gradually lifts itself up to become the high country of the Victorian Alps.
The climbs were steeper than those we’d encountered on the rail trail, so we were glad we’d had a few days to build up some muscle and stamina. The downhills were also steeper, and I had a lot of fun daring myself to fly down them without using the brakes (don’t worry, there were hardly any cars that early on a Sunday morning).
At the turn off down to the Mitchell River flats, we made a brief attempt to follow the dirt bike track through the bush beside the road, but the ruts were too deep for a pannier-laden bike, so we returned to the road and coasted south to re-cross the river. I’d never been here before, and I was surprised how much the geography reminded me of the Orbost flats. We followed the long, straight, flat roads then pedalled up the escarpment to Lindenow.
Heeding Liz’s words from a couple of days earlier, we made our way directly to Long Paddock for a seat in the window, a view of the world passing by, a good coffee, a luxurious second breakfast, entertainment provided by a nest of swallows under the verandah . . . Nice!
We’d actually made much better time than expected. We were meeting some of my extended family for lunch down by the river at 1:30pm, but looking at our map we realised we were only 20 minutes or so away and had three hours to get there! So we did what any self-respecting bike tourist should do: we got massive slices of cake to take away, went and sat in a little park with a fantastic view out over the river valley and up to the distant mountains, pegged our tent fly out to dry in the stiff breeze, ate cake and soaked up the delicious weather.
And then, when we still had a couple of hours to go, we decamped to another park in Lindenow and lay under the trees to read our books. I realised I was happy. Content. Present. Couldn’t remember a time when I was sitting in an office instead of cycling from place to place, couldn’t remember what it was like in England in autumn instead of in Australia in spring. I really wanted to just keep going - or at least do a lot more cycle touring in future!
We ended up down at the river with an hour or so to spare, so we poked around below Wuk Wuk Bridge to find a nice shady spot for a picnic. Over the river, at a place that is marked on Google Maps as a caravan park, but which seems like it is half abandoned, we waited under a shady little tree. We read our books, listened to birds and bees and passing tractors, motorbikes and utes, and I had a nap . . .
On the dot, up drove my aunt and uncle (the ones who spent a couple of nights with us on our Snowy River adventure last year) and my cousin with her two kids. We set up our picnic by the river, chatted, laughed, ate sandwiches and generally had a lovely time. It was nice and sunny, so I had a paddle in the river. (The water wasn’t cold by UK standards, and if I’d had a towel I might have had a swim, but my cousin’s eldest kid started shivering and saying she was cold - I guess if you come from Cairns, 23 degrees with a breeze probably is quite cool.)
And now it was 3pm. We planned to meet my parents with their car and trailer (to take us home for the night) at 5pm. Our meeting spot was a decent distance away, so we said our goodbyes and cycled off into the warm afternoon. The first section was delightful - flat, quick, open, with views of hills, farms and dead reptiles beside the road. Then came the hills. Oh, the hills. We pedalled up all of them, but I was mostly in the easiest gear. The downhills weren’t so bad, but as Dan complained, “They’re over so quickly!”
We passed The Fingerboards, an allegedly well known landmark that I had never heard of, which appeared to mostly be a crossroads with a handmade wooden sign that said “The Fingerboards”. From here, a sign pointed south to Stratford (38km) . . . but we took the road north towards Glenaladale, because we’d told mum and dad to meet us at Beverleys Road. And after all those hills, we were getting pressed for time. The road continued to undulate - nothing massively steep, but enough to slow us down and make Dan a bit queasy. The main thing I remember, though, is a magical moment when we were coasting downhill and a huge mob of sulphur crested cockies lifted off from the paddock to our left, and swirled up through the trees, across the road and all around us. What a rush!
We made it to our meeting place at 5:01pm. (Of course, my parents were already there!) In the car, we took the road we’d planned to cycle the next day. There were a lot of hills. Too many hills. We decided another plan was in order. But first, a bath, a cuppa and a BBQ with the extended family - my sister had arrived, and our lunch companions re-joined us for the evening.
DAY 5: THE FINGERBOARDS TO STRATFORD, ~40KM
Unsurprisingly, having a comfy bed and a proper breakfast meant a later start. We jumped in the car with my dad and sister and they drove us back up to the Fingerboards. This time, we took the other way back towards Stratford - at least for a few kilometres, before turning off down a bumpy dirt road. We passed a couple of houses and paddocks, and enjoyed the ride beneath the trees.
The final building was part of a Christmas tree farm (called Hobyahs!) - but instead of heading through their front gate, we veered off down the sandy track into the huge plantation area managed by HVP. (We only travelled on named tracks, but perhaps we were meant to get a permit/pass? There weren’t any signs where we entered the area, so we didn’t even think we might be on private roads!) Not too far in, we stopped to observe a flock of yellow tailed black cockatoos in the pine trees. They were gossiping and chatting to each other, but as we drew closer they raised their voices in a chorus of creaking alarm calls. Some flew off, but others stayed, chuckling quietly and tearing up pinecones to get at the nuts. A few, sitting right up the top of the trees, looked like Christmas ornaments.
We got a few really good views as we ground and slipped and puffed our way up the hills. One recently logged hilltop reminded me of being on the moors in the UK and offered a pretty speccy vista over the surrounding trees to the hills beyond.
Some of the tracks were a bit rough, but our bikes handled everything well. It probably helped that I didn’t have panniers, and Dan only had a few snacks in his. We spent about a minute on a sealed road all the way through the plantation area, crossing a creek, before heading back off on other logging tracks. For the most part, the tracks and roads are all laid out in a grid system, which makes navigation fairly unstressful - we knew we’d just have to keep going west, south, west, and we’d hit the next main road. I enjoyed riding on the wide side grades, which were sandy and smooth - but also sliced through with deep water drainage cuts every now and then, which I had to avoid.
We spent some time cycling beside some dry paddocks - cows on one side, the stripped carcasses of pine cones on the other - but also enjoyed the wooded sections. Riding through one pretty little valley with birds calling all around reminded me that this might be mostly a plantation of non-native trees, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t habitat for wildlife. Probably our most spectacular sighting was an emu running down the track in front of us. At first I thought it was running towards us - a bit of a scary thought! - but the optical illusion soon righted itself and we watched it head off into the bush. We also saw quite a few wallabies - and a fox.
I think it was just before midday when we got out onto the Stockdale Road and decided to stop for a drink, a wee and a snack of chicken salt Pringles (thanks Stephanie and Danni!). Having made good time, we weren’t in any rush. And anyway, we knew the rest of the cycle wouldn’t be too difficult - sealed road, not too much elevation gain, a quiet time of day . . . We were accompanied along the way by what seemed like hundreds of pairs of eastern rosellas (with perhaps a dozen rainbow lorikeets thrown in). A few cars passed us, a couple of buses and a few motorbikes. In the distance, we saw another cyclist - a serious one, in lycra - but they headed off in another direction.
And suddenly we were arriving in Stratford. We took the obligatory photos with the town signs - yes, it is on the Avon (but Avon is pronounced with a soft A as in ‘had’) - then cycled to my parents’ new place. A flock of corellas swirled over us, surrounding us with their squeaky door calls as we turned our second to last corner. And then we were home - just in time for lunch.
What a brilliant holiday! I loved cycling and hanging out with Dan, Stephanie and Danni, watching the scenery and landscape change as we pedalled, hearing the birds in the bush, seeing wildlife scurry off, relaxing in small town campsites and generally being a tourist. I think we were very lucky with the weather (apart from the wind on the third day). There were a few things I learnt:
A few more thank yous for this section: my parents, for shuttling us and the bikes around, putting us up, feeding us; my aunt, uncle, cousin and niblings for the picnic lunch and BBQ dinner; my sister, for plotting a future adventure with me (can’t wait!); and of course Liz and Dave from Snowy River Cycling, who really went above and beyond, and even picked the bikes up from Stratford at the end, which saved us having to ferry them back to Bairnsdale or Orbost. I highly recommend looking up Snowy River Cycling if you are planning to cycle in the area (they run tours, too, which look amazing).
If you fancy some further reading on related topics, here are a few recommendations:
Would you like more about our travels in Australia? As well as our Snowy River adventure, I really like these two posts (if I do say so myself) about our first visit back after over four years away: 1 - Country, 2 - City.
Two weeks in the sunny, warm Australian spring? Five days cycling through Gippsland bush and farmland? Camping with friends and picnicking with family? Yes please!
We spent a lovely half term holiday in Australia and the main event was a five day cycle tour from Orbost to Stratford. It was the first time we’d been cycle touring, and I loved (almost) every minute of it. Here’s the first part - Part 2 coming soon!
I am not a frequent cyclist, and while Dan used to cycle all over the place when we lived in Melbourne, that was several years ago. But after hiring bikes for a day on our Snowy River adventure last year, the seed was sown. We got in touch with Snowy River Cycling to arrange bike hire, invited a couple of friends along for the ride, and booked some campsites along the way (with Australia-side help from my mum!). And then we started training.
First, we went on a tandem bike ride from Hastings to Bexhill to get some ice creams. Fifty minutes each way and 20 minutes for ice cream. Well, you have to start somewhere, right?
Next, we went for a ride around Bewl Water, a reservoir not too far from us. The circuit is about 12mi/20km, and we completed it in just under three hours with some snack, photo and rest stops. This confirmed the need for padded shorts and gloves, so we went shopping. While we were at it, I thought I should get a pair of shoes (I don’t really have anything other than work shoes, walking boots and thongs/flip-flops, none of which are good for cycling), and when I found a bright pink pair, I knew they were the ones!
Bewl is on our way to That London, so a couple of weekends later on our way to the city we went for a morning cycle - just for two hours, toting thermos and bickies for morning tea - to try out all our new gear. It felt much better, and I wasn’t walking like a cowboy the next day.
With time running out, it was easiest to stick to what we knew, so the weekend before we left we went all the way around Bewl Water once again. We went the other way this time and I was able to cycle all the hills bar one. My crotch was prepared for what was to come. All that stood between us and East Gippsland was 3 hours to London in the car, an hour in a taxi to Heathrow, 24+ hours in two planes, a lift from Tullamarine with a friend, some Melbourne public transport, the VLine train to Stratford and a 3 hour drive with mum and dad to Orbost. Easy peasy.
East Gippsland Rail Trail
The first three days of our tour were along the East Gippsland Rail Trail, which stretches approximately 100km from Orbost to Bairnsdale, through GunaiKurnai (Krowathunkooloong and Brabawooloong) country. Our friends Danni and Stephanie joined us for this section.
My parents helped get us and our gear to Orbost, where Dan and I picked up our hire bikes the night before we set off. After my folks left, we did a tiny tour of the main street, had a look at the new mural depicting local Indigenous foods and totems under the bridge, ate chips for dinner in Forest Park and shopped for some food supplies. A big moon bobbed in the dusky pastel sky as we ate tinned fruit, then bedded down for a cold (~5 degrees) night at Orbost Caravan Park.
DAY 1: ORBOST TO NOWA NOWA, ~40KM
I woke with the birds at 5am. This set the tone for every morning: waking up around 5am, snoozing until about 5:30, showering and packing after 6, having a leisurely breakfast with the crew around 7, taking the tent down, sorting out the day’s food and heading off around 8-8:30.
The trail started off nice and easy, heading over the Snowy and across the flats past cows and beside the old timber viaduct, which is in much need of conservation. The hired bikes were fantastic to ride. We skipped the cycle up to Grandview Lookout, preferring instead to save our lungs and legs for the day ahead. Still, we got some views through the trees over Bete Bolong and Jarrahmond farmland to distant hills as we slowly climbed the escarpment, then cycled around the back of the timber mill at Newmerella.
Dan and I had cycled parts of this section last time, but it was different in the spring. In fact, we haven’t been in Australia in the spring since we left seven years ago, and I was surprised by just how many bush flowers are out at this time of year - callistemon, melaleuca, orchids, flowering gums. We stopped to make a cup of tea at a handily placed picnic bench. Shrike thrushes, wattle birds, whip birds, currawongs and kookaburras called from the depths of the dry, grey bush around us.
The late morning heated up and the clouds burnt away, leaving bright blue skies. Wallabies scattered in front of our bikes as we crunched along, keeping a lookout for a water tank kept full for cyclists, walkers and horse riders by the lovely people at Snowy River Cycling.
Shortly after that we stopped under a picnic shelter at Partellis Crossing for what became our usual lunch - avocado on some sort of carb (Vita-Weats today - one of the Australian foods I miss). We chatted and soaked in the scenery for almost an hour - tall trees, deep blue sky, a few little birds flitting around. Relaxing.
On our hired mountain bikes (Giant Talon), Dan and I didn’t have any complaints about the trail, but Danni and Stephanie felt the loose gravel and bumpy surface more than we did. The first day was definitely the worst in this regard. On the up side, being a rail trail, the gradients were pretty mild. The main exceptions were when we reached the old wooden trestle bridges that span steep valleys. These bridges are blocked off and unsafe to cross, so the path sometimes heads straight down to cross a small creek, then straight back up the other side. We stopped at most of these to see the bridges or remnants of bridges - though at one point we could hardly hear each other over the wall of cicada noise!
Approaching one of these bridges towards the end of the day, the beautiful, secluded Waiwera valley opened up on the right. On the left, in an unshaded hillside paddock, a sheep was stuck on its back. Forgoing the scenery, I hopped through the fence, got the sheep sitting upright (I couldn’t get it to stand), and poured some water into its mouth. I hope it sorted itself out.
The final stretch took us up a long, gentle hill, then down a much steeper hill and over the bridge into Nowa Nowa. We stayed at Mingling Waters - under new management as of four days earlier! Unfortunately, we missed the famous vegan burgers, but I filled up on potato cakes.
We visited the Big Root (which I have memories of from when I was very young - maybe a toddler - when it was up on the hill at the timber mill), then lounged around and read in the lovely old mess hall (which I have memories of from when I was a teenager, when we’d come here for music nights) before Danni cooked us up some dhal and rice for tea.
DAY 2: NOWA NOWA TO BRUTHEN, ~30KM
After another cold night, I was the first up. I wandered down to the jetty, spotting an eastern whipbird on the way (I used to hear them daily, but I’m not sure I’d ever seen one before) and watched mist rising off the peaceful water. A small bird friend joined me for a while, and silvery fish made ripples as they surfaced and jumped.
Back up at camp, I headed back to the others for breakfast and, when Dan and I were ready to go, we went to the general store for some lunch supplies. There wasn’t much on offer, but we scrounged together enough for a decent lunch (avocado, tomato, tortillas and - much to everyone’s amusement - chicken salt as there was no plain salt to be found). We were leaving Nowa Nowa when Danni noticed a tear in the wall of her rear tyre. We decided to press on, knowing that if it came to the worst, we would be able to walk back to Nowa Nowa or on to Bruthen, no more than 15 or so kilometres from the very middle of the day.
There seemed to be a lot of uphill (albeit very gentle uphill) in the morning, punctuated mainly by the stunning span of the old trestle bridge at Stony Creek (sometimes written Stoney Creek). I visited the bridge a few times when I lived in the area, and it was just as impressive as I remembered. It’s amazing to see the evidence of such tall trees and to think of the engineering involved in construction. The facilities have improved since I was there last - a sealed path does a switchback up the side of the valley, with toilets (feat. nesting swallows!) and picnic benches on offer. We passed a group of cyclists as we left the bridge, and I wondered if this was the tour that Liz from Snowy River Cycling was guiding . . .
A few kilometres later, we heard, “I recognise those panniers!” . . . yep, it was Liz. We had a good chat and thanked her for maintaining the water tanks. When Dan and I said we would be going through Lindenow in a few days, Liz told us we had to go to The Long Paddock. In fact, “If you go to Lindenow and don’t visit Long Paddock, you might as well not have come to Australia!” Noted. Danni mentioned the issue with her tyre and Liz offered to bring a replacement to Bruthen that evening - so helpful. Then she mentioned that she had a second hand one in the support van that would be back at the bridge with the rest of the touring group. Danni decided to ride back and change the tyre. Dan, Stephanie and I pulled off to the side of the trail and made tea, ate biscuits and made stick art.
After Danni returned and had her own cup of tea, we continued on through the bushland of Colquhoun (pronounced ka-hoon. This seems to be dedicated a ‘regional park’ these days, rather than a State Forest, my cynicism says that’s probably so it’s easier to destroy through logging) [Edit: maybe not?!]. I’d always wanted to have a poke around this area and it was special to finally be there, noticing the change in vegetation and soil and the evidence of previous bushfires.
We leapfrogged with a Belgian man and his son, who had cycled Bairnsdale to Nowa Nowa a couple of days prior and were now heading to Lakes Entrance via the Discovery Trail - an old tramway built for transporting rocks to the lakes’ entrance. We waved them off at the turnoff, where we stopped for lunch.
As the afternoon rolled on, so did we: on some long, gentle descents, up some gradual ascents on gritty surfaces, out of the bush into steep paddocks, scrappy ridgelines, then down the hill into the Tambo valley and Bruthen (if you need a mnemonic it's "cruithin' for a Bruthen"). This fantastic entry into Bruthen highlights the stark difference between the forest we'd been cycling through (this is the least 'developed' day on the trail) and the farmland surrounding the Tambo. I was really enjoying myself - and I even appreciated the half-arsed swooping of the sentinel magpie at the highway crossing!
We peeled off the road into the campsite beside the oval just before the river and set our tents up in front of the bird feeder to be entertained by red browed finches (my family's always called them firetail finches), galahs and king parrots. After a short rest, we popped into town to check out Amegilla Gallery (some great art there!) and, forgoing a meal at the brewery (it didn’t look that great for vegans), we went shopping for dinner.
Back at the campsite, I had a shower, then lounged in the sun - Dan found a copy of Uncle Bruce Pascoe's Dark Emu on the bookshelf, which I read over the next few days. We chatted to a couple who had been travelling in their motorhome from a wedding in Queensland all the way down the east coast. Stephanie made a delicious pasta meal out of minimal ingredients and a large dash of inventiveness. We had a nice fire (gold coin donation for the wood) and sat around for a while.
DAY 3: BRUTHEN TO BAIRNSDALE, ~30KM
Our final day on the rail trail dawned slightly muted and overcast, but was brightened by a visit from a friendly male king parrot. He landed in a tree near our tent and, when we said hello, he jumped onto the ridgeline of our tent and started sidling towards us. On a hunch, I grabbed a handful of seed from the bird feeder and held out my arm - and yes! He hopped onto my wrist and nibbled away until all the seed was gone, then jumped on S&D's tent to say good morning to them. A highlight of the trip!
I made the quick cycle into town over the still, quiet Tambo River. I felt that same kind of peaceful excitement being outside by myself so early. I headed to the bakery and the general store. Pasty and vanilla slice - breakfast of champions! - sticky scrolls for morning tea and avocado and tomato and chips for lunch. We ate, packed up, and pedalled off.
The trail surface improved again in this section, possibly because it’s closer to Bairnsdale and gets more traffic and maintenance. We followed the road through farms, skirting the side of the river flats and stopping to check out all the old constructions - the bridges, but also maize cribs and hops kilns (reminding Dan and me of the oast houses in Sussex and Kent). We stopped in some liminal bushland between a quiet road and rolling paddocks and sat on the side of the track for an extended morning tea, smelling the scent of hot eucaluptus and dogwood, serenaded by bell birds and the sound of wind in the treetops.
A few things stick in my mind about the trail from here to Nicholson: making train hoot harmonies as we passed through the short tunnels, the nature reserve by an old station (where we saw a hare munching on the protected grasses), the change in track surface and vegetation to a more coastal feel, the falcon Dan spotted flying off, the hereford cows and calves in the paddocks beside the trail, the benches with beautiful views over said paddocks and down towards the lakes, the very strong wind that kept us from stopping at said benches, the wedgetail eagle soaring higher and higher on said wind, the magpie divebombing said eagle, an echidna shuffling in its slow-speedy way over a paddock and out of sight behind a dam wall . . .
Before we knew it, we were cycling across what Danni described as a “vertigo-inducing” former rail bridge over the wide Tambo and speeding down the steep side path into Nicholson. We stopped beside the river for lunch (avocado rolls this time) at a picnic bench below the caravan park, pleased to find water, some rather charming caravan-style toilets and - at the jumble sale outside the pub - coffee for Danni and Stephanie.
After a good break, it was back up the steep path to the trail. We needed another breather at the top, and were entertained by another echidna, waddling around a small paddock, poking its snout into piles of sticks looking for ants. So cute!
The trail from Nicholson to Bairnsdale is sealed and flat. Stephanie and Danni were in their element, and Dan was also able to speed off ahead. I struggled, though, especially with the very strong winds that alternated between pushing me sideways and making me pedal twice as hard to move forwards. I tried to enjoy the windbreaks provided by stands of blooming wattle, but I was not in the best mood when we made it to the signposted end of the trail in Bairnsdale. I was particularly sad that nobody wanted to go on the flying fox or the long slide at Howitt Park with me!
We made our way around the back streets of Bairnsdale to the train station, which we considered to be the true conclusion of the trail. Stephanie and Danni sorted out their tickets home - VLine is kind of notorious for being unfriendly and unhelpful towards cyclists, but everything worked out for this trip. With a bit of time to spare, we pedalled into town, ate chips and drank coffee from an actual cafe and, with no general store in sight, picked up a few things from the supermarket (including a gift of chicken salt Pringles for us from Danni and Stephanie!) before saying goodbye.
Dan and I coasted down to our campsite beside the Mitchell River and set ourselves up (me sneezing all over the place due to the high winds and plane trees) before heading out for a tasty Thai dinner. Now that's civilised!
A big thank you to the people who made this first leg of our cycle so fun: to Stephanie and Danni for providing great chats, helping out when our UK provider screwed us over with phone/data, cooking dinners for us, sharing snacks, being patient with two newbie cycle tourists and generally being fab companions; to my parents for helping book accommodation, putting the four of us up overnight, driving us and S&D’s bikes to Orbost, taking Dan and me for a drive around Jarrahmond and generally being very helpful; to Liz and Dave at Snowy River Cycling for hiring us excellent bikes, providing maps and info, maintaining the water caches and helping out with Danni’s tyre; to the friendly people at our campsites - especially at Bruthen - for the chats and for keeping us comfortable; and a special shoutout to the folks at the bakery in Bruthen who were well on the ball about what was and wasn’t vegan!
Let me know if you have any questions about this part the trail, the photos, the logistics, etc. And look out for Part 2, coming soon . . .
I’ve been published - and not just on the good old interwebs, but in a book!
My short story “Knuckerhole Shaw” appears in Terra: Dark Mountain Issue 14.
Several months ago, the Dark Mountain Project put out a call for submissions for their fourteenth issue:
In a restless, globalised culture which dictates that all places be the same and none of us loyal to a heartland, it is sometimes hard to make ourselves at home on Earth. As Martin Shaw writes, to become ‘of a place’ is to trade ‘endless possibility for something specific’. Some of us commit to deepening our investigations of one place, digging in and giving voice to the inhabitants (human and non-human) of the neighbourhoods in which we live. . . For the fourteenth issue we seek work which challenges borders and celebrates transgressions. . .
I’ve enjoyed reading Dark Mountain on and off over the years. With this call out, I thought I had something to offer.
“Knuckerhole Shaw” is a short piece that draws on the landscape, language and lore of East Sussex. It’s also about eels, because eels are bizarre and amazing. I can’t really remember how or why the two threads converged, but such is the joy of creative writing.
I first drafted the story in late 2014 and submitted it to another publication in 2015 - it was rejected, but with a couple of lines of helpful feedback. Some friends also read through it and gave me pointers (thanks Emily and Dan). Over the next few years, I revisited the piece occasionally, filling out the story and directing it towards a more satisfying conclusion while striving to keep the potential for ambiguity. The Dark Mountain submission deadline prompted me to give it a good polish and call it finished a second time.
It was exciting to be accepted for publication. I found it interesting to go through the editing process from a contributor/artist perspective for this piece (content, proofread, layout), guided by Nick Hunt as editor (I'm a fan of his work!) - while travelling a similar path from an editor’s perspective for Queer Out Here.
And the final product is just gorgeous - a beautiful book that I’m really proud to be part of. The written pieces (mainly non-fiction) are interspersed with visual art (mainly photography) and the sympathetic collation guides the reader deftly across continents, oceans and themes. I'm about half way through, and at almost 300 pages I think it will keep me going for a while as I dip in and out.
I’ll end with a short excerpt from my story, to tempt you into purchasing your own copy!
The archivist’s voice weaves a loose net. I try to slip through, thinking instead of what I will do tonight: of a bath in the big tub with the dragon feet; or food: two months to go, and boiled eggs and pies are grit between my teeth, but I must feed. ‘There was always a legend about marsh babies,’ she says, ‘of children found on the Levels wailing for food and shelter until a local family took them in.’ Her sentences tighten around me and I flinch, push the chair back and stand to rub the aching muscles of my back. He barely notices. ‘Of course, it’s more likely the children were born out of wedlock, perhaps even a product of sexual assault,’ she continues, and I start to walk the room, staring at the shelves. ‘The mothers or the girls’ families wanted to get rid of the babies without killing them outright. They might stand a chance, this way.’
You can buy Terra: Dark Mountain Issue 14 here.
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?
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