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!
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.
Day 2, Challenge 2: Stamina
I cheerily wave goodbye to Dan and set off with anticipation and curiosity. What will the day bring? How far will I walk? This was always meant to be the longest day, but I haven’t planned a precise destination. This is deliberate, because I don’t want to get caught up in reaching or exceeding a certain mileage. As I follow the track, leaves of rust, yellow and chocolate beneath my feet, I try to find some markers on the horizon to gauge my process. I think there are some wind turbines out there, but the rain in the distance makes it hard to tell. Where would they be, anyway?
I play chicken with the rain as it comes closer and I detour down into Charing. I’m envious of Dan’s cake exploits yesterday, so I’m pleased to find Mulberry’s Tearoom open early. Over a delicious and enormous slice of coffee cake, I watch the drizzle and chat to my friendly tearoom host. I mightn’t have seen many people on the path, but both the North Downs Way and the Pilgrim’s Way are very popular - especially with Dutch cycle tourists, apparently. The rain pauses and I head off, but not before Ms Mulberry (not her real name, probably) apologises that the scones aren’t quite ready for me to take away and admonishes me not to talk to strangers!
Of course, just as soon as I leave the shelter of the tea room, it starts tipping down. Oh well. It’s only water - and it’s not cold, either. I flip the my hood of my coat over my head and wear it as a cape. It works fine. I stick to the country roads around a ploughed field and secretly race a couple of walkers who are on the diagonal footpath through it. (I win - the field looks like hard, muddy going.) My shoes splat against the asphalt and I enjoy the feeling of water splashing up onto my legs.
I’m really appreciating the freedom of walking at my own pace. It’s not that Dan and I usually have an issue with that; we’re pretty well matched. But even so, without any other body’s input, I pay more attention to my own. I am probably walking faster than I would with Dan, but I can’t be sure. I’m also stopping to take photos without having to think about catching up, or being in someone’s way. I might be stopping more, but without having to negotiate with anyone, I feel more in the flow.
Soon, the way leaves the road and pops over a stile onto a farm track footpath. I greet two men, one with a radio, one with a gun crooked over his arm, and ask if it’s OK to walk through. “Go ahead,” jokes one, “but duck if someone starts shooting.” I send my best wishes to the pheasants for a safe and speedy escape as I trundle through the estate.
And there’s blue sky! I’m pretty excited about this, even as I realise I’ve left my sunscreen at home. As much as I’ve enjoyed the walk so far, everything’s a bit better when the sun comes out! I pass through a village that I barely remember (it has a huge green in the centre, and gardens bright with fuschia flowers) and then I find myself at the point where the North Downs Way splits in two - or into one big loop. One sign points towards Dover - via Canterbury, the other to Dover - via Folkestone. I stand at the post, suspended for a few moments within possibility, and misquote Robert Frost before I take the path to Folkestone.
The path to Folkestone goes to Wye first. Wye? Wye not. Wye sits on the same plain as Ashford, beside the River Stour, in an elbow-crook of the North Downs. In that analogy, this branch of the North Downs Way runs straight from wrist to armpit - along the bottom of the triangle. Down in the valley, I cross a busy road, cut behind an apple orchard, say hello to some donkeys, chooks and geese, then pass through a market garden field before heading into town. I stop in the churchyard for a much-needed lunch break and take a look at the blister I’ve been developing. I can’t really feel it, but it’s definitely there. I knew this last night and I really should have put a plaster on this morning, or when I stopped at Charing. “Oh well,” I think as I cover it up, “better late than never.”
It’s a struggle to get going again after lunch, but it’s such a nice day it would be a shame to stop. My motivation isn’t improved as the path heads straight uphill to the top of the Downs. I need the loo. I feel sluggish and slow. “It doesn’t matter,” I have to tell myself. “You don’t have to walk fast, you just have to walk.” This has been developing as a bit of a mantra today. As the Americans say, hike your own hike.
After a steep woodland path and a short road walk, I’m standing on top of the Wye Crown, a shape carved into the chalk hillside. I can’t make out the crown, but the view more than rewards the climb. Oh, it’s amazing! I can see Wye, and the hills I was on this morning, and the outline of Ashford and those wind turbines . . . They must be the ones near Rye, I suddenly realise, and yes, there’s the Fire Hills and, perhaps, beyond, the South Downs at Eastbourne! It’s all so much closer than I imagined. The sun is out and everything is shimmering. I wander along the top of the escarpment, peering down into tiny fields and woods below.
If I wanted, I could stop and call Dan to pick me up. I don’t want, though. I’ve still got a couple of miles in me, and there’s no rush. I don’t have to walk fast, so long as I keep walking. The view is a great distraction, while it lasts. Soon, though, the path turns away from the edge and trails along country roads through plateau-like farmlands. I am now busting for the loo and eventually find a quiet lane with a notch in the hedge. Thankfully, nobody comes along!
My legs are getting stiff, now. I look at the map and weigh up my options - there are two villages, a mile or two apart. I decide to aim for the closer one. There are no worries, though, no anxiety. I’ll get there. “You don’t have to go fast,” I say as I hobble along, “you just have to keep going.” There’s a trig point to aim for, too. When I get there, a grey-haired man is leaning on his van, looking at birds. I tell him about the wildlife I’ve seen, he says he walked the Pennine Way years ago. Now he has plans to kayak around the UK. “Some people say I’m too old. But the people who really know me just offer to bring me supplies!” We chat for a while, before I go down the hill into the village and wait for Dan to pick me up.
“So, how far did you walk today?” Dan asks.
“I really don’t know. It felt quite a bit further than yesterday. Twenty kilometres? Hopefully at least twenty, or I’m less fit than I thought.” I calculate it when we get back. Twenty seven kilometres. Sixteen miles. That counts as a long day for me. And I could have stumbled out another couple of miles if I’d needed to. It would have been slow, but, hey, you don’t have to walk fast, you just have to walk.
This was the second day of a three day walk in October 2017 from (approximately) Maidstone to (pretty much) Folkestone along (mostly) the North Downs Way.
Day 1, Challenge 1: Anxiety.
I start the walk angry. I am angry because . . . I don’t know why. There are a series of niggles, but nothing to upset me this much: we had to drive miles past our destination and use a roundabout to turn back on the highway just to get into the carpark; there are no toilets at the reserve and I’m busting; the weather was fine this morning and now it’s overcast; the velcro on my camera case is coming unstitched so I can’t keep it on the hip belt of my bag (I leave it behind and rely on the phone). I’ve been looking forward to this walk for a couple of weeks, but now it’s about to start, I’m unhappy.
I’m going to be walking by myself. This should be exciting, because it will be my first multi-day solo walk. Well, “solo” to a certain extent. Dan’s dropping me off and picking me up each day, but he’s doing his own thing while I’m hiking. If this goes well, it might be the start of a new era of holidaying, where I walk (which is fun and relaxing for me) and Dan relaxes/mooches around/doesn’t do much (which isn’t usually my bag) and we meet up in the evening for dinner and sleeping (which we both agree are excellent). Dan thinks he wins because he gets to do whatever he wants; I think I win because I get to walk - and I get a personal taxi service.
It’s great in theory, but now we’re about to wave goodbye to each other I’m both angry and sad. “Are you sure you don’t want to come?” I try to coax Dan. He doesn’t - he wants to eat cake and read, which is exactly what he’ll end up doing. “You’re always a bit like this at the start of a walk,” says Dan. “You’ll feel better in a little while.” We part ways and I turn around every few steps to wave, as if I’m heading into some vast wilderness rather than taking a stroll on the North Downs near Maidstone.
Five minutes later, Dan’s out of sight. So, this is it for the afternoon. Not much I can do now except walk. I put down one foot and then the other foot. I look out at the view on my right, keep an eye out for the National Trail markers. It’s just walking. I can do that.
Soon, I’m at the bottom of the first flight of steps. Ugh. Who ordered this? I’m annoyed all over again. I mean, sure, the North Downs are a range of hills, but who would have thought the North Downs Way would go up and down them? I give myself a talking to. “There’s no one else here. You can go up this hill as slowly as you want. It really doesn’t matter.” So that’s what I do, And, of course, it isn’t so bad. The hills aren’t big. At the next flight of stairs I think, “OK, this is how it’s going to be,” and adjust to the reality of the path. The view is good from up here - the slope sweeps down to a wide, low plain with fields and villages and roads - and when there’s no view it’s because the path is a half-magical tunnel through shrubs and trees in autumn yellow, orange and brown.
After 20 minutes or so, I still don’t feel great. I ask myself, “What’s wrong?” and then, “OK, but what’s really wrong?” until I hit the core of it. Anxiety. I’m unreasonably anxious. Last time I went on a real adventure, on the Snowy River, I developed a lot of anxiety. I became scared of everything. I worried constantly about our safety. And I didn’t deal with it then, so now, on my first multi-day walk since, it’s reemerging. I’m trying something new, I’m by myself, I don’t know what’s going to happen . . .
“What am I worried about?” I mutter. I list a few things, but it boils down to: “Something might go wrong.”
And what if it does? If I hurt myself, mobile reception is fine, so I can call someone. If a dog chases me, well, I’ve had dogs growl and snarl and bark at me before - generally they stop once you’re off their territory, plus they should be used to walkers on this well-trodden path. If the phone dies and I can’t check the map, the North Downs Way is very well waymarked - and I know there are villages nestled at the foot of these hills, so I can go to one of those and phone Dan from a pub or a random person’s house. If someone attacks me . . . OK, the chances of that are very slim. And there’s nothing I can do about that, really - the decision to assault someone is the aggressor's decision, not the victim’s. Really, the two things most likely to go wrong are: 1, it rains; and/or 2, I don’t enjoy myself. Those are some pretty low-stakes problems to have.
As I’m climbing another hill, it dawns on me that some of the physical symptoms of this anxiety are similar to the markers of physical exertion. My heart is pumping overtime, I’m a bit out of breath, my chest is a bit tight, my limbs a bit wonky, adrenaline is working its way around my body - it’s fight or flight-y. I wonder if I’ll feel less anxious when path is flatter. I reach the top of the hill and, sure enough, this turns out to be the case. Huh. So, where usually I feel anxious and as a result I get these symptoms, today I’ve got the symptoms and my brain has converted them into “I’m anxious”. Perhaps . . . actually, yes, I think this is true: I’m not really that anxious after all! This realisation amuses me so much that I laugh out loud and disturb some pheasants.
One hour in and I take a moment to appreciate that everything is now great. I’m relaxed and happy (ahh, endorphins!). I feel like I could keep going for hours. I’ve found my stride. The well-marked path dips in and out of the trees, and I can see the flowing skirt of the escarpment slowly receding behind me. I love walks like this, where you can look back and trace your progress, look forward and wonder where you’ll get to today. It’s very satisfying. The only people I’ve seen so far were two riders racing their horses along a gallop below the hill. This is what I was hoping for. This is the life!
I get lured into Hucking Estate by the Woodland Trust’s signs. They seem very clear, directing me to a viewpoint, but I somehow manage to go the wrong way. Ah, but no way is really the wrong way, is it, if you’re just out for a wander? I meet a shepherd carved out of wood and climb over a locked gate to get back onto the North Downs Way. I pass through a beautiful section of grassy glades and hawthorn thickets, where white cows seem to glow in the muted afternoon light. I watch a kestrel - suspended, a silent focal point in the midst of a frantic wind that gusts up the slope at Eden’s Hole.
The path tips me off the hills and I’m almost disappointed. But now I’m walking along the Pilgrim’s Way, an ancient trackway and road system that stretches from Winchester to Canterbury. Two cyclists pass me and, as they pass, one exclaims how amazing it is to be following the route that people have been following for a thousand years. I stop for a Snickers and a loo break. Later, I sit with a pilgrim (once again, carved from wood). But mostly I breathe deeply, open my stride and put the miles behind me. Chalk cross, chalk path, chalk cliffs. Any anxiety I had is a distant memory. Here I am, walking. I love walking.
This was the first day of a three day walk in October 2017 from (approximately) Maidstone to (pretty much) Folkestone along (mostly) the North Downs Way.
You might have already seen a few photos from our trip in my overview blog post, but I have hundreds more. Want to come over for a slide show? (I'm only half joking.) Over the coming weeks, I'll share photos of the Snowy River and surrounds from source to sea. This one spans the first few days - there are more from the foothills of the mountains, but they'll be in the next post about the Snowy Mountains Scheme.
The walk up the mountain was very pleasant, especially as the clouds started to clear. In this photo, Dan and I are (I think) approaching the crest of the Ramshead Range, with Ramshead North on the left. Read more about our walk up the mountain.
This is the Snowy River, a photo taken from the first (or last) bridge across it - a steel mesh footbridge on the walk from the top of the Thredbo chairlift to Rawson Pass. We saw tiny fish here, mountain galaxias, speckled and wiggling in the shallows.
The extremes of this landscape: huge, ancient granite boulders, exposed to the sky and weathered into a rounded jumble by thousands of years of rain and snow and wind; tiny flowers and delicate mosses of the ephemeral bogs. Beautiful.
The sign at Cootapatamba Lookout notes, "This waterhole was named Kau-oola-patamba, the place where the eagle drank, from an Aboriginal storyline from the north." Lake Cootapatamba (as it's generally written) is the highest lake in Australia. It’s one of only a handful of cirque lakes, or post-glacial tarns, found on the mainland, formed in the bowl-shaped hollow that occurs at the upper end of a valley where a glacier has scoured out the rock. Lake Cootapatamba is cupped in a shallow plain, and as we climb we see the landscape descends in steps down the mountain. You can't see it in this photo, but just over the ridge behind the lake there’s a tiny, bright red hut, a survival beacon designed to catch lost skiers and hikers who come the wrong way off the mountain in bad weather.
There was a cairn, like an OS trig point, at the top of the mountain. Several paces away, across the rocky top, someone had built their own cairn. Further downstream, in the middle of nowhere on a fire trail that is only accessible by management vehicles and people on foot, we found another stone tower.
Here a small stream meanders over a high plateau before disappearing into a steep-sided valley. This was one of the few views that made me feel that I really was physically at the top of the world. This landscape is beautifully described in Alan Gould's wonderful poem "Flying Over the Australian Alps", which I reproduce in part here entirely without permission. Please read the full piece at the link.
Under you Australia
is a broad unmade bed hills pleating folding
as if around an entanglement of limbs forests
cushion the yellow light greenly or vanish
into reservoirs of cobalt shadow a valley
ignites along the filament of its creek dams
perhaps a dozen take dazzle-fire like insect wings
You are travelling the earth is travelling
in a slow enchantment from a time toward a time.
Granite, granite, granite. And then, suddenly, an entire hillside of slate. This reminded me of the abandoned slate quarries of Wales though as far as I'm aware this has never been used as such? The spot in the photo caught my eye because of the tiny microclimate in the hollow, where a huge range of wildflowers and alpine herbs were growing.
Thick stone walls clutch green-framed windows, protecting the glass from the weather. A chimney straggles from a dark red roof, secured with wire to the ridgeline. This is Seaman's Hut, named after W. Laurie Seaman who, along with his companion Evan Hayes, was one of Australia’s first skiing fatalities. On 14 August 1928, Seaman and Hayes were on Mount Kosciuszko when a blizzard closed in around them. A search party following the pair’s tracks deduced that they’d been separated. Seaman had followed the pole line back down towards Rawson Pass. He was blown off course by the strong winds and retraced his tracks, but missed the pole line of Summit Road in the blizzard. His body was found near the current hut site almost four weeks later, where he had presumably waited for Hayes to join him. Hayes’ body was not found until 1930, over two kilometres away above Lake Cootapatamba. Seaman’s Hut was built by the NSW Tourist Bureau using money donated by Seaman's parents with the idea that anyone who might need emergency shelter on Kosciusko would be able to find it. It's maintained by the Kosciuszko Huts Association.
The second (or second last) bridge across the Snowy River, on the gravel road from Rawson Pass down to Charlotte Pass. It sees a lot of foot and bicycle traffic. In fact, until 40 years ago, the road from Charlotte Pass was open to vehicle traffic, too. A 1930s pamphlet The Motor Road to Kosciusko declares, “Every motorist should aspire to driving his car to the very Summit of Mount Kosciusko” - and many motorists (including the women drivers ignored by the pamphlet) did so. It wasn’t until the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve designation kicked in during 1977 that the road was closed to public vehicles. We stopped at this bridge for a while and I stood still in the clear water until the curious galaxias grew confident enough to come and nibble my legs. It tickled!
Alpine mint (left) and some kind of pea flower (right). The mint has a very Australian smell - not much like the mint you might grow in your garden. I kept meaning to make myself a mint tea, but didn't get around to it. At any rate, it's probably illegal to pick it in a national park.
Snow gums. How amazing are they? White Sallee is their other common name. As we came down the mountain, their presence indicated that we were dropping out of the alpine region. The snow gums don’t grow very big up here, due to the low temperatures, the snow and ice, the wind and frosts - as you descend, they get taller and straighter. The bark folds like skin in the bends of the trunk, making the trees seem part-animal. The bark is silvery grey, dripped and streaked with pale coffee cream, the pink of new skin and red, orange and pea-soup green. The colours flicker in ribbons around bending, curling limbs and flow across the gnarled base of older trees.
Facing upstream from the lookout at Charlotte Pass. The left hand fork is the Snowy, the right is Club Creek coming down from Club Lake. The track that crosses them both at the confluence is the Main Range Walking Track - the long way from here to Mount Kosciuszko! We started our second day by taking the track down to the river, then turning right and following the river bed downstream.
Here I am, at the start of Day Two. Look how happy I seem. That is the face of someone who really has no idea what they're in for! The going was easy here - it got much harder later on. Behind me you can see the path coming down from Charlotte Pass and to the right of the image you might just be able to make out a chimney - all that remains of Foreman's Hut.
The river began as a fairly shallow, wide stream. We could walk along the side, hopping from rock to rock when needed. Around the corner, though, the Snowy sank into a small gorge, the water became swift, the rocks became a little harder to negotiate. It got more difficult to climb out of the river onto the hillside and, once out, the slopes were often covered with dense alpine shrubs, almost impossible to walk through. I worked up quite a sweat, despite the cool, overcast day, and it was nice to be able to stick my head in the river, wash myself off a bit, and grab a drink while I was at it!
The rock formations here - and throughout our trip - were wonderful. This photo shows two basins that have, over thousands of years, been hollowed out of a granite boulder by the grinding motion of smaller stones moved by flowing water. I wonder how long the stones in the right hand basin have been there?
As the day wore on, we found ourselves clambering down more small waterfalls, over bigger boulders, through deeper water. This is the last photo I took while on the river - there's a gap of almost two hours before the next one. I'd already hit the wall by this stage, but over the next couple of hours Dan also got the wobbles, we realised that we'd not come nearly as far as we'd thought and we scrambled ourselves to a point where the river was too deep to wade safely any more. Eventually, we climbed up a small waterfall onto the hillside, where we found the vegetation was thinning out. We walked cross country, avoiding bogs where possible, until we found a footpad heading down to Illawong Suspension Bridge, Illawong Hut and the footpath out to Guthega. Adventurous!
The photo on the left was taken on the walk to Illawong Hut. Yes, it's the remains of a crustacean - a yabby. Probably. (I've just Googled yabbies and discovered their scientific name is Cherax destructor. How cool is that?) This explained the holes we'd seen the day before up near the source of the Snowy - they were probably yabby holes.
On the right is a cool contraption that was once used for crossing a creek between Illawong Hut and Guthega. It's a heritage monument now, and the plaque calls it a flying fox. Presumably you sit on the metal seat and pull it along one chain link at a time - in the photo you can see that the links on the far side of the seat are bunched up while the ones on the near side are extended.
Out of the mountains
This is the road out from the ski village of Guthega, high on the slopes above the Snowy River (which is in the valley to the right of this photo). We kept thinking how few people we saw - no walkers off the main trails, and only a couple of cars every hour. If this was in a small, densely populated country like the UK, it would be crawling! The tall red poles are road markers for visibility when everything's under snow. The epic number of reflectors on this one caught my eye. Someone's been busy.
The intersection of Guthega Rd (sealed) and Link Rd. Link Rd is a summer-only track that leads over the mountains to Smiggin Holes ski village on Kosciuszko Rd. But the main feature of this photo is obviously the bushfire-deadened snow gums on every hill. In 2003, a complex of fires killed several people, injured hundreds and caused huge damage to the outskirts of Canberra, while another raged through almost two thirds of Kosciuszko National Park. In 2006-7, when the longest continuously burning bushfire complex in Australia's history burnt through Gippsland and the Victorian Alps, Kosciuszko National Park again experienced serious damage. These are the scars. All across the ridges and slopes, the bony hands of burnt gums thrust up from the stony ground, fingers fanned out brittle and bare. The pattern is repeated over and over, crosshatched monochrome etchings on the slopes where there should be a flurry of leaves. With distance, the burnt trees blur together, giving the impression of dark cloud or smoke, as though the slopes themselves are the remains of a still-smouldering fire.
By this stage, the end of the third day, we had dropped out of the subalpine region and into the montane eucalyptus forest. Whereas snow gums are pretty much the only tree in the subalpine altitudes, there are several species of tree in this photo (in the reflection and behind the mirror in the river valley). You can also see how the tree behind the mirror is growing much straighter and taller than the snow gums in previous shots.
Goodnight, mountains! This is taken on Kosciuszko Rd, looking towards Sponar's Chalet (you might just be able to make it out at the bottom middle of the photo). It has to count among some of the most spectacular sunset skies I've seen. Emily stopped the car and we all spent a good while gawking as the clouds moved from yellow to fiery orange and bruised purple.
I'll post more pics in a couple of weeks. In the meantime, if you can read a trip overview (if you haven't already) and/or a more detailed account of climbing Mt Kosciuszko.
Kate invited me to contribute to her Mountain Monday series of guest posts last week. Here's an excerpt from my piece, all about our walk up Mount Kosciuszko/Targangal at the beginning of our Snowy River adventure.
Directly beneath the chairlift, the Australian Alps Walking Track struggles up the steep hillside. I wonder if people who hike the full 655km of the trail from Walhalla in Victoria to the outskirts of Canberra sneer at those of us dangling our legs from the metal benches above. Perhaps someone is watching us even now, puffing their way up from Thredbo village, shaking their head at our laziness. I doubt it. We didn’t see anyone heading up the fog-dampened track this morning, only those who - like us - finished their snacks, pulled their beanies low over their ears, wrapped their scarves across their faces, hefted their backpacks, handed over their tickets and jumped on the ski lift.
A chilly wind twists around my legs and the cloud draws close, silently reducing our view to the ground immediately below - a few straggly trees, boulders, yellow grass - and the next chair in front of us, swinging from the lift rope. Beyond the hum of the drive at the bottom, the chairlift itself is quiet. For a moment, between one breath and the next, we’re in a small, eerie world of grey, accompanied only by the clunks and whirs of wind and metal on metal.
Then Emily burps, we laugh, the cloud swirls back and the view of the valley unfurls behind us. There are slashes of treelessness under the chairlifts and in long downhill strips which in snow season would be ski runs. The morning sun catches a ridgeline; silver skeletons of snow gums mark the huge bushfires that burnt through here a few years ago.
Please do head over to The Adventures of Kate to continue reading!
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