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!
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.
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