Bikes, birds, bats and butterflies on the Gippsland Plains Rail Trail.
It felt like February was ending before I fully got into the swing of it, and I realised I had to get the skates on if I wanted to get my fourth walk in! I mapped out a few routes in the area, but in the end I went for the close, easy option: another bit of the Gippsland Plains Rail Trail. Yep, that makes three of my four February walks on rail trails!
It ended up being a family adventure. Mum came with us to Tinamba, leaving her car at Maffra, and walked the first half back to Maffra with us. Meanwhile, Dad cycled to Maffra as well, meaning we all got to have morning tea together at The Pickle Pot. Then my folks did some shopping and took Dad’s bike home in the boot of their car, while Dan and I turned around and walked the 8-point-something kilometres back to Tinamba.
There’s not much to say about the trail itself. It’s mostly flat and straight, the surface is hard-packed crushed gravel and the grass is encroaching a bit (we did see someone on their ride-on mower clearing up the sides when we were on the way back). It’s quite exposed apart from the last kilometre into Maffra. We saw a lot of people out and about: several solo cyclists, a couple of pairs, a group of 5 cycle tourists with stuffed panniers, a handful of joggers and a few dog walkers closer to town.
The fog was intense in the morning, with many spiderwebs glittering with dew. It rose into fluffy clouds or got burnt off by the sun soon after we started, but it was lovely to have the early light illuminating everything and to watch the clouds lifting off the paddocks, trees and distant hills. On the way back, we got blasted by the sun, so we were happy that a few of those little clouds remained to give occasional relief.
We saw lots of creatures. Birds included fantails, ibis, magpies, mudlarks, punky (crested) pigeons, noisy miners and so on. There were lots of yellow winged grasshoppers that make a clicking sound (we also saw heaps of these at the fire tower on our previous walk), dragonflies, bees and different butterflies. One cool sight was a butterfly with red and yellow spots under its wing laying eggs on a leaf by the path. We also heard lots of frogs - especially in the morning near Tinamba. I couldn’t tell you what species they all were, though. Less of a highlight, but having more of an impact on our walk (and probably our speedy times), were the bloody flies! Yuck. But the main excitement, animal-wise, was a colony of flying foxes (bats) just over the river from Maffra. We’d driven past multiple times and never noticed them, but they were pretty unmissable while walking under their roost trees - what a racket!
View of the Wirn wirndook Yeerung - "song of the male emu wren" or "song of the male fairy wren" - (Macalister River) on the entry to Maffra.
Maffra is a nice little town, and we enjoyed having morning tea there with my folks. Not only was it fun to hear about Dad’s bike ride and have a little debrief with Mum about the first half of the walk, it was good to sit in a comfortable chair, let our legs and feet rest for half an hour, and engage some different muscles. The riverside walks and parks in Maffra are always lovely to stroll in, too.
We were pretty ready for a snack and a cold drink when we got back to Tinamba, and the general store provided both - including some great potato cakes!
After the hills of our last walk, this was dead easy. We walked each way in under 2 hours, probably in part because whenever we stopped the flies would swarm us! Aside from a couple of dips down to creeks and so on, the path is flat (walkers’ flat - it’s slightly uphill on the Tinamba end if you’re cycling).
My legs were fine afterwards, my lower back appreciated the rest in Maffra, and my feet were a bit achy from the repetitive, flat walking. I gave myself a bit of a foot rub in the afternoon and stretched out my calves to make sure I didn’t have too many issues the following day. The second right toe blister didn’t make a reappearance (I don’t get it!), though the toe itself was a bit achy.
All in all, February has been good for getting my distances over 15km, and I’m pleased that I’m able to get that distance knocked out before lunch. March is for ~20km walks, and I know that these take a bit more preparation, as they almost always involve lunch on the trail. I’ll also be starting to add in some overnight walks in the next couple of months (probably shorter distances to start with) to get into the swing of things with my Tarptent and so on.
This walk moves through Brayakaulung (Gunaikurnai) Country. As with all of so-called Australia, this always was, and always will be, Aboriginal land.
I wanted hills. I got them.
As the season tilts ever so slightly towards autumn, we’re getting some lovely, crisp mornings. The daytime temperatures are still getting up into the high-20s/low-30s, though, so we decided if we wanted to do a harder walk in the hills we would have to leave early. We drove up through Briagolong as the sun was rising and arrived at Blue Pool carpark at about 7:15am.
We’ve been for a couple of walks here. A few days before we did a two hour loop with our friend Ross up to the Peregrine Lookout, down to McKinnons Point and back to Blue Pool along the Freestone Creek Walking Track. We started this day’s hike along the walking track, enjoying the quiet valley and the single-file walking. Soon, though, we popped out and onto Froam Road. We’d be following these back roads for the rest of the walk.
Things started easily enough in the cool morning air, with the sun picking up a slight mist and sending shafts of light through the trees. We turned down Bonus Spur Track, which tipped us back down to creek level before starting the climb up. And up. Our destination, and the main landmark of this walk, was visible at times through the trees: the Mount Moornapa Fire Tower. I guess the key is in the name: “mount” (although Australia will call just about any hill a “mount”). This section nevertheless climbs steadily, ascending about 400m in 3km. Throw in the rising humidity and by the time we reached the top we were drenched in sweat.
We stopped at the fire tower to admire the views of the surrounding hills. We could pick out Ben Crauchan and to the left we figured out Mount Hedrick and maybe Pearson Point. To the north of Old Benjamin, Gable End is pretty unmistakable, and the low angle sunlight helped us pick up the treeless Wellington Plains (Wikipedia currently has Mount Wellington labelled as Beef Wellington!). I sent a photo to Dad - who works up this tower - to ask about the little pimply protrusion to the right of that area and he later let me know it was Cromwell Knob. (I’m sorry that I only have the colonial names for these places.)
After a snack and a rest in the shade, we set off again. In retrospect, I probably should have checked the distances more thoroughly - I thought the fire tower was just under half way around the loop, but it was only just over a third. We left Ten Mile Track (not ten miles long, as far as I know) for Three Bridges Road (may have more than three bridges). This road gave an occasional wild undulation and made us very glad we had our trekking poles. On this stretch we had our most exciting and amusing encounter - a big old goanna which, on eventually noticing we were there, took off at top speed through the scrubby growth beside the road. Other animals spotted included some lizards, a few black cockatoos (traditionally a sign of rain… and to be fair, it did rain the following day) and many other birds. We also heard a couple of lyrebirds.
The next nice spot to stop came at the bottom of Three Bridges Road, where a little stream was running steadily across a washed-out ford and through a damp and almost rainforest-y gully. This might even have been the same creek we'd crossed earlier on Bonus Spur Track. If we’d been thinking ahead, we would have stopped here a bit longer to cool down. I did take the chance to splash my face and drench my hat in the cold water, though. So good!
As the sun got higher and hotter, it became impossible to keep any sunscreen on us - it just sweated straight off. There wasn’t a huge amount of shade along some of these roads as there were fires a few years ago and there has been a lot of clearing alongside to create firebreaks. We ate a muesli bar and reminded ourselves to drink water at every intersection. Froam Road (again) to Cooks Road. Cooks Road (last glimpse of the fire tower) to Engine Road. The trees were closer on each side. Engine Road took us down a long spur through dry bush, and we continued down the spur on Hairs Track back to Freestone Creek Road.
The last hour or so we were simply fantasising about the swim that was awaiting us at Blue Pool. When we hit Freestone Creek Road, a car pulled up alongside us and the first humans we’d seen for the whole walk asked us for directions to Blue Pool - I was pretty happy to inform them the carpark was about 100m away, just around the corner! We stripped off our stinky, sweaty clothes, changed into our swimming gear, gingerly made our way down to the water and jumped in. Oh, it was bliss!
The walk was about 15.5km, with >650m ascent. Including breaks, it took about 5hrs and 20mins. The main issue for me on this walk was the heat - the hills were big but manageable (with sticks we didn’t even fall over) and the distance was OK (just) for a full morning. If it had been a bit cooler, or overcast, I think we would have done the whole thing in closer to 5 hours. It's good to know that on extremely hilly terrain in hot weather my walking pace is closer to 3km per hour. At the end of the walk, after our swim, I felt like I could easily have walked another 5-10km over the rest of the afternoon if I’d needed to.
Speaking of the swim… what an amazing way to end a walk on a warm day. It was so good to cool down and stretch out the body in a different way. I took the opportunity when we were drying off to give my feet a bit of a rub, too.
The toe blister returned, argh! It was at around the 10-11km mark that I felt it starting up. I hadn’t taped it this time. The next day it didn’t feel too bad, though. In terms of aches and pains, my calves were quite tight (especially the right), but I stretched them during and after the walk and the next morning, and it wasn’t anything I didn’t expect after all that climbing. My knees were fine (thanks, trekking poles) and my feet were pretty good too. Just goes to show that sometimes a long flat walk is harder on the body than a walk with lots of ups and downs.
This will be a great loop to come and do with a full pack later in my training and prep. I just hope it’s a bit cooler!
This walk is on the unceded Country of the Brayakaulung (Gunaikurnai) People. I acknowledge their Elders, knowledge and claim to this area. This always was, and it always will be, Aboriginal land.
Another rail trail! This time, a there and back walk along the Great Southern Rail Trail between Koonwarra and Meeniyan.
Dan and I spent a few relaxing days in South Gippsland in early February, which gave us a chance to check out a section of the Great Southern Rail Trail. While most material will tell you this trail starts at Leongatha in the west and goes to Welshpool in the east, it is being extended on the other side of Leongatha and if you don’t mind a bit of a road cycle you can also hop on the Tarra Trail from Alberton to Port Albert or Yarram at the eastern end. As we were walking, we chose the 8km section between Koonwarra and Meeniyan, planning to walk one way, grab lunch, and then walk back.
Which is exactly what we did. The End.
Just kidding! At the Koonwarra end, there are currently major roadworks to realign the South Gippsland Highway. The rail trail passes under the new alignment at a couple of points, but we didn’t have any disruptions. While we didn’t have to wait, we did stop and take photos (along with most of the work team) of a crane lifting a digger down into the valley. We also had a quick convo with one of the workers who recommended we get our mid-way coffee at the bakery in Meeniyan.
Most of the rail line itself was built in the 1890s, and was a key mode of transport of wood and dairy produce to Melbourne (or to ports and then on to Melbourne). The train had mixed goods and passenger service throughout much of its life. In later years it was kept open mainly by the need for commercial transport - superphosphate (fertiliser), the branch to Barry Beach that serviced the Bass Strait oil rigs, the sand mine (for glass production) and so on. Parts of the service, the line and its branches were discontinued or closed starting in the 1940s. Services to Leongatha itself stopped in the 1990s.
The line apparently had a reputation as being a particularly scenic route, especially in the western parts - and it’s still a really nice trail. The path between Koonwarra and Meeniyan weaves around grassy hills, crosses the Tarwin River a number of times (sometimes on the old wooden trestles, sometimes on new bridges beside them), and snakes along beside the flats a bit above the floodplain.
It was interesting to compare this to the Maffra-Stratford section of the Gippsland Plains Rail Trail from the week before. Although I’d like to show some kind of home-team loyalty, this is honestly a much nicer path! As well as having corners and therefore several changes of views, there’s a little more ascent and descent (even a couple of walkers’ uphills, as opposed to only cyclists’ uphills) and variety in surface. There’s also more shade under the mature trees on some sections.
In Meeniyan, we checked out a few options for lunch (we’d come on Thursday when we knew most places were open) and ended up going with our road worker friend’s suggestion of Pandesal Bakery. We had some very fresh cheese and salad rolls (the freshness made up for them only having cheese, tomato, lettuce, onion and aioli - this wasn’t your massive milk bar salad sandwich!) and I had an excellent coffee. Meeniyan is a really interesting little town, as are most of the villages on this section of trail. We didn’t spend time mooching this time as we knew we had another two hours of walking to get back to the car, but it’s definitely worth a visit!
Most of our walks this year have ended with a meal, and I’d kind of forgotten that it’s always hard to get going again after lunch. I tried to convince Dan to carry me, but no luck. We stopped a few times on the way back for mini breaks, but it took us a while to find a bench that was actually in the shade for a proper rest - I took my right shoe off and we ate muesli bars. Allegedly, it was only meant to be 21 degrees, but with 95% humidity and the afternoon sun starting to beat down it felt a lot warmer.
There were lots of little birds out on the return walk. We saw heaps of wrens, a few red browed finches, an eastern (yellow breasted) robin, a rufous whistler (pleased I could identify this after our walk at Holey Plains), fantails and even something that may have been a goldfinch - as well as the usual bigger birds, such as magpies, wattle birds, a shrike thrush, wood ducks (aka maned ducks), a heron and crimson rosellas. There were a few I couldn’t identify and I didn’t get a good enough look at them to check later, but that just means more birds to find out about another time.
We hobbled back to the carpark and I was very thankful for a sink with a good tap so I could wash my face and drink water until I could feel my cells starting to unwrinkle and rehydrate!
In terms of speed and distance, we were just edging over 2 hours for the eight-point-something kilometres each way, spot on for my 4km per hour standard. We didn’t have big packs, and it was easy walking. At one point I thought it might have been useful to bring my sticks, just to give my feet a bit of a break. I’ll need to remember to take them on more walks!
My feet hurt. That second toe on my right foot has never really recovered from bashing it on a brick a few months ago and I should probably get it checked out as Dr Google seems to think the options are either a fracture or arthritis. I also didn’t tape my toe, but I didn’t get a blister. Dan kindly rubbed my feet that night and the next day I was fine. (I always get surprised when a foot massage makes that much difference, even though it consistently does! I need to build a foot rub into my post-walk schedule… Dan???)
There was slightly (and I do mean slightly) more variation in this trail, and I did a few minimal stretches for my legs and back. This seemed to keep me pretty pain free. My lack of energy in the second half of the walk was probably mostly because I slept really poorly the night before. Not even the coffee at lunch really helped when all I wanted to do was lie down in the shade and have a sleep. (And I probably would have, if we’d found a good bench earlier on!)
This walk is at least in part on the unceded Country of the Bunurong People. The rail trail also traverses the unceded Country of the Brataualung (Gunaikurnai) People. This always was and always will be Aboriginal land.
A walk along the Gippsland Plains Rail Trail from Maffra to Stratford.
Mural at the Stratford end depicting the story of Borun the pelican and Tuk the musk duck among other things.
The calendar flipped to February, and that could only mean one thing: 15km walks! The plan is to gradually increase my walking distances for the first few months of the year, before adding packweight and overnighters to the schedule as the weather cools down. And since our car had to go to the car doctor in Maffra, it seemed like a good opportunity to stretch my legs. It's taken a couple of weeks to get this up on the blog.
Dan dropped me off near the Maffra (Macalister) Wetlands just after 8am, and I started with a quick stroll up to the loop in the northern section of the reserve, then back around the boardwalk. There were loads of birds out and about early in the morning, including some extremely cute juvenile fantails that would have been darting in and out of the reeds and rushes if they could fly well enough to dart. A person went past on a fat wheeled bike and responded to my standard greeting and how are you with a big smile and, “Don’t make no difference if I complain, it really doesn’t.” OK, then.
I headed back down the river and met Dan in Island Reserve, the park out the back of the main street. (Why is it called Island Reserve? Old aerial photos seem to show it might have had an oxbow lake there, possibly…). Dan had bought some tasty buns and a coffee for me, so we sat and had our breakfast in the slowly emerging sun. The weather was almost perfect for a walk - a bit overcast, a bit cool, a slight breeze. Quite different from most of January’s outings, and (other than the humidity) a relief after the heat of the last week.
It wasn’t the first time we’d walked this section of trail. Since we’ve been back we’ve walked once from Stratford to Maffra and once from half way along back into Stratford. Probably because of this, we didn’t stop that often to read the information boards and signs. However, we did make note as we passed various landmarks - the spot where the old Briagolong line (1889-1952) used to branch off, the entrance to Powerscourt (homestead built circa 1859), Powerscourt Siding (built 1914 to help bring sugar beet to the factory in Maffra and the weighbridge later used to weigh flax for the flax factory), Beet Road (also related to the sugar beet industry).
Another reason we didn’t stop that much was because of the bloody flies! We haven’t had much trouble with flies since we’ve been back - unlike on some other trips - but they were out in force on this walk. We tried to talk them into transferring to some local cows, and even a passing jogger. We wished for a stiff breeze to blow them away over the paddocks. I put on sunnies and tucked a hanky in my hat to try to keep them off my skin. And we spent many kilometres hitting ourselves in the face with leafy twigs. In the end, what sent them packing was a short, sharp shower of rain.
Arriving back in Stratford, we noted the progress on the rail trail path that curves under the bridge (getting ready for the concrete to be laid). Stratford is the eastern terminus of the trail - it runs all the way from Traralgon, so one day I hope to walk and/or ride the whole thing! We had a little rest stop at Apex Park, then followed the path under the new and old rail bridges and up onto the street. It would be great if they could use the old bridge for the rail trail - it’s had trains on it up to a year or so ago, so surely it could be made into a bike/walking bridge? A short street walk and a hop across the tracks took us to the station.To be sure I walked the full 15km, we took the long way home.
In the afternoon, my dad gave Dan a lift back to Maffra to pick up our freshly repaired, fully serviced and thoroughly cleaned (!) car.
I walked just under 16km in a little under 4 hours - we arrived home at about 12pm, right in time for lunch (Mum made garlic bread - yum!). That’s pretty much spot on for speed, no doubt helped along by the cool weather, familiar route and irritating flies.
The day before, we’d headed back to Mount Hedrick with my folks for a short (4km) but much steeper walk. I’d carried my backpack with a couple of thermoses, food and raincoat and I really noticed how much impact that had - from balance on the boulders to the strain of extra weight on steep climbs. In comparison, this was an easy walk.
I taped my toe for this walk (and the previous day's walk), but I'm not sure it helped. My blister remained though it didn't seem any worse. I still had a sore toe the next day. But the main issue was, once again, the lack of variety. I stretched my legs a couple of times along the walk, but my knees noticed the repetitive work and my calves were very tight afterwards. My feet and lower legs were achy for a couple of days. Overall, though, the switch up to a slightly longer walk went well. I’m feeling a bit fitter than a month ago, which is a good sign!
This walk is on the Country of the Brayakaulung (Gunaikurnai) people. Sovereignty was never ceded and this always was, and always will be, Aboriginal land.
Sometimes instead of going somewhere else to do a walk, you just need to step out your front door.
I recently calculated that, depending on how many little detours I added in, a walk from my folks’ place around Stratford to the Knob Reserve (heh), around the Knob (heh) and back would be about 10km. So, one overcast, relatively cool and humid January morning Dan and I set off. We let my parents know that if they wanted to bring us morning tea halfway through, we wouldn’t mind that at all! We did have a backup plan, though - we first went to the IGA and got a selection of muesli bars. We’re not going to be caught without snacks again!
Walking through towns is a good opportunity to put lots of things in your eyes. There’s always heaps to look at - houses and buildings and fences, different plants in gardens, pets and other animals, various bits of signage and public art. Stratford actually promotes an “art trail” around town, mainly by the river, and we followed part of it on this walk. A lot of it is (perhaps unsurprisingly) Shakespeare related. We took a detour to see the three witches, a cool bit of sculpture beside a lookout where the view is otherwise in the process of disappearing behind growing trees. Along here, we also saw someone kayaking down the river - mostly just floating downstream, really. One day I’d like to do that.
Not all the streets in town have sealed footpaths, so we spent a lot of time walking on the road or on the nature strips. This was actually quite nice underfoot, sometimes, with springy grass to soften our steps. And at the Knob the paths are all unsealed. Bonus.
The Knob Reserve has been a gathering place since pre-invasion times. We noticed two scar trees in the reserve on this visit. After colonisation, the reserve was used as a police horse holding area, and later it became a public reserve. A couple of years ago the reserve ceased to be jointly managed by Gunaikurnai Land and Waters Aboriginal Corporation and Parks Victoria and was handed over in its entirety to GLaWAC. As you stroll around you will see new signage and other objects, and some work on a few of the paths. I’m grateful as always to be permitted to share and enjoy these places.
Mum and Dad did meet us with morning tea! It was delicious and I forgot to take photos. Oh well. After they left us, we popped up to the lookout at the top of the Knob. From here you get a great view of a sweeping curve of the Dooyeedang (Avon River) with a few rooftops of Stratford behind - and beyond the plains, the blue hills of the Avon Wilderness and the Alps. A photo of the view is at the top of this post. One of the most iconic peaks in this area is that of Ben Cruachan - pronounced a bit like "crow-can" or "croakin'". Benjamin, as I like to call him. (I’m guessing it’s named after Ben Cruachan in Scotland, and I’m not sure what the hill’s name is in the local Indigenous language.) One day we’ll get up there for a look - though probably not using this extremely unhelpful listing from Parks Victoria.
The sun came out just as we were having morning tea and it got pretty warm as we headed back, meandering through the residential streets of Stratford. We mostly avoided the new build suburb, both because it’s a bit ugly and because there’s very little shade. We dropped into the oval and stood in the shade of some trees watching magpies digging up bugs in the grass under the sprinklers. Later we also had a little rest on the sheltered benches in the skate park (it’s nice to be back in a country where shade is provided!) enjoying the occasional cool breeze. After a final few blocks of detour, we headed home.
I mapped this walk out after we got home, and in the end we walked about 12.5km. It didn’t really feel like we walked that far. Maybe because it was pretty flat, maybe because we had an excellent morning tea in the middle, maybe because we had lots of things to look at. I was noticeably less sore in the foot/leg department than previous walks, which is great.
Not so great: return of the pinch blister! I wonder if it happens more when it’s hot and I’m sweaty? Or if I sometimes walk in a particular way without realising? I Just don’t know. I am going to put tape on the shopping list - I’ve never used it before, so it’s going to be a bit of an experiment. I already know that plasters just fall off my toes, though, so I need something else.
Other than that, I noticed sore hips/lower back post-walk, which I’m chalking up once again to the lack of variation. I should have done a few minutes of stretching when we were halfway through. It doesn’t take long, so why do I always forget or put it off? The neverending struggle. Woe!
This walk is on the Country of the Brayakaulung (Gunaikurnai) people, and takes in a site of significance for the Gunaikurnai tribes more generally. Sovereignty was never ceded and this always was, and always will be, Aboriginal land.
The day after my walk in Bairnsdale, off we went for another hike! This time, the whole crew came along to explore Holey Plains State Park.
I wasn’t expecting to do another walk so soon, but Dan and my parents had agreed to go the night before (when I went to bed so early after the previous walk!), and I’m not one to turn down such an adventure. The weather was partly cloudy when we started at about midday and the temperature was still in the low 20s. It definitely got warmer as the afternoon wore on, though!
Holey Plains was so named for the crab or yabby holes down on the flats near the creek, but this part of the park actually covers a range of gentle hills. We set out on Long Swamp Track through an almost coastal ecosystem - grey sandy soil, banksias galore, reeds and rushes and other grasses in the swamp and through the bush. A fire came through here a few years ago, and you can really see the effects. There are a lot of burnt tree trunks and dead trees amongst the bracken, some larger eucalypts with epicormic growth, a few small eucalypt saplings and huge numbers of baby banksias. That probably makes sense, as many banksia species not only survive fire, but need it for their seedpods to open.
More delightful (at least to me!) than the trees were the copious pretty wildflowers. There were so many delicate little purple flowers, along with yellows, pinks and whites. I was constantly catching up to the others, then falling behind to take photos. There were hardly any birds - though we did see a rufous whistler and heard a shrike thrush - but while looking down, we noticed tracks of a horse (shod) and what we thought might be goanna (monitor lizard), as well as plenty of wombat poo and a few possible emu tracks. We also found one particularly big spider, which Mum almost walked straight into - the worst person in the group for this to happen to, as she hates spiders!
This was a walk we’d been thinking about doing for a while, although after the Mt Hedrick incident we weren’t sure if we could trust the map! The trail was listed on the map as about 3.4km each way (3.5 according to AllTrails, 3.2 according to the signage). We decided to go south to north, planning to stop at the picnic area on Holey Hill, do a loop of the Banksia Forest Walk, then head back. When we got to the northern end, the loop walk was not signposted and not even remotely visible on the ground. I guess the map was made before the fire came through, and presumably the fire wiped out the walk - and possibly the banksia forest - and the powers that be have not reinstated it. I really wanted to get my 10km in, so I walked about 1km one way down Holey Hill Track and back before lunch (with Dan) and then down to the junction of Seldom Seen Track after lunch (with Mum).
We appreciated having the picnic lunch with us this time! We ate leftover pizza and some chocolates, then headed back down Holey Hill, past the swamp and back to the car. Just before we finished, we saw a goanna (aka monitor lizard)! It was so delicate, very small for a lace monitor, with pretty markings on its body and legs. It seemed pretty chill, climbing up a burnt tree trunk, having a yawn and then (we think) eating a few ants. So cool!
I wasn’t sure I’d made my 10km yet (though later mapping showed that I had), so I suggested we do a loop of Harrier Swamp, marked on the map. We drove there and found the site complete with the promised camping area, picnic bench, fire pits and drop toilet… but the walk was closed due to fire damage. Those fires have a lot to answer for. At least this little detour gave us a chance to enjoy the view to the north from the hill on Wildflower Track.
This was a very nice spot to visit, and I think we might come back to do some walks using the quiet roads in the park.
Just a reminder, this section is about my fitness as part of preparing for a long walk later this year. If you’re not interested in that, please skip over it!
I walked 10-11km including the extra sections at lunch, but I didn’t really time things. It took us a bit over an hour to do the first 3.5km and I imagine we were a bit speedier on the way back as it was downhill and we didn’t stop as often. The path and roads were sandy, the undergrowth slightly infringing on the track in places and causing a few little scratches. Not really gaiter-worthy, though. Most of the walk was over gentle ascents and descents, apart from the last short stretch up to the top of Holey Hill.
It was good to do >10km walks two days in a row, to see how my body held up. I was less sore after this second walk than after the one in Bairnsdale, which was good. I can feel my calves starting to develop, which means I probably need to start doing some squats or something to get my glutes working and even things up in my legs (I have been told that uneven development can cause or exacerbate knee issues). Any suggestions for non-squat alternatives? I don't like squats so I never do them. My right calf is tighter than my left, too, so I concentrated on stretching that out after. My feet were, as usual, a little sore - but nothing lasting. No blister under that pesky right toe, either - yay!
I have had a slightly achy neck and shoulders after the last couple of walks. I think this may be from only having a shoulder bag to carry - I don’t have a good daypack, and the very average one that I do have is still in a box on a ship somewhere. I swap from side to side with the shoulder bag, but it's not perfect. I should probably invest in a decent small pack for shorter day walks.
This walk is on the borders of Brataualung and Brayakaulung (Gunaikurnai) Country. Sovereignty was never ceded and this always was, and always will be, Aboriginal land.
It was a relatively cool, overcast Monday morning when my parents went to Bairnsdale to pick up some supplies (a particular type of flour, some horse poo, the usual). I didn’t get a chance to do a long walk last week, so I hitched a ride with them with the intention of notching up another 10km along the paths beside the Wy-Yung (Mitchell River).
My folks dropped me at Howitt Park and I started by taking my favourite route down the hill: the big slide! It’s not quite as fun as it was when I was a kid - no metal surface to burn my legs on the way down, no risk of flying off the side - but it was still an adventure. I lost half the contents of my bag on the way down, and a small child coming down next helpfully picked everything up for me. Thanks, kid.
I set off at a good clip along the north bank of the river, knowing that it would be a flat walk and wanting to get some speed into my training after the last couple of slow goers. Dan stayed home, so it was just me, the butterflies, a juvenile silvereye . . . and hundreds of mega bats, aka fruit bats, aka flying foxes! So much for not stopping. I constantly paused to listen to the bat chat and look at the furry little faces hanging from the trees around the path. The signs say this is a “colony of national significance” which “forms a vital link in a chain of camps between Brisbane and Adelaide.” The main part of the colony was on the opposite bank, but occasionally a few would fly across to join the smaller (but not insignificant) groups in the trees surrounding me. I'd decided not to bring my camera, just the phone, and now I regretted not being able to get some good shots!
Hardly anyone else was using the path at the start of my walk. I saw one jogger just before Lind Bridge, at about the same time the first drop of sweat rolled down my buttcrack (despite the clouds and low-20s temperatures, it was pretty humid). When I passed under the bridge I met a handful of people from the Gunaikurnai Land and Waters Aboriginal Corporation who were spraying weeds, clearing grass with ride on and push mowers and trimming some harder to reach spots with whipper snippers (strimmers). It was good to see folks looking after the area.
West (upstream) of Lind Bridge on the north side of the river, the trail is much less made. It feels more countryside-ish on the outskirts of town. From the map, I expected the path to end after about a kilometre. Sure enough, I ran out of dirt footpad then continued on a grassy path until it became completely overgrown. I turned back towards the bridge, spotting a few cheeky rabbits on the way. On the other bank, I saw a group of what looked like teenagers on a DofE excursion (not really a thing in Australia) - big packs and slow walking. I wondered what they were doing and if I’d see them when I headed up the other side of the river.
After crossing Lind Bridge I once again turned upstream, this time on the opposite bank. A boat sped past and disappeared around a corner. I watched a tractor ploughing the dark brown soil on the river flats. Cockies, magpies, flycatchers, ibis and willie wagtails kept me company. I passed the end of Webbs Road, then a stockyard and then, as I arrived at Picnic Point, I caught up to the group of walkers I’d seen earlier. They were a group of teenagers at a summer camp, who had walked down the river the day before, camped overnight, and had just arrived back at their transport. Their leader said they were about to have a dip in the river and a bite of lunch, then they’d head off. It sounded like a good adventure, and most of them looked suitably fed up.
Although I often came to Bairnsdale as a kid, I don’t ever remember visiting Picnic Point. In the old days, people used to come up in a boat from the Port of Bairnsdale to, you guessed it, have a picnic. It’s a small reserve in a bend of the river with a few paths to explore. I went as far upstream as I could, over a very small creek, to the road and back. Then I climbed the little hill where I found a covered bench to stop for a while and eat a lot of chocolate!
Instead of retracing my steps along the river, I walked back down to the bridge along Webbs Road. It was nice to get a different perspective and the road was unsealed all the way, which made for easy walking. Only one ute came past, so I didn’t have to spend my time jumping out of the way. There is so much feral fennel flowering at the moment. Although it’s not native, the bees seem to enjoy it, and in combination with what I think are purple verbena/vervain and chicory (also not native), it made for a pretty roadside.
I had walked further than I’d intended and was running a little behind schedule, so I picked up the pace back towards town on the south side of the river. I hadn’t recorded the bats earlier, thinking that I’d wait until I was under the main colony, but when I reached that area I found that the walking track was diverted around it and up onto the street. I suppose it’s fair enough, but it did mean that I couldn’t get the recording I wanted!
I didn’t make it all the way back to Howitt Park, in the end. Mum and Dad met me on Mitchell Port Road so they got to have a look at the bats, too. They brought hot cross buns, which were a much-appreciated snack. Just as we were finishing up, it started to rain.
On the way home, my folks got both a bag of horse poo and a bag of alpaca poo. Fancy.
In the end, I walked just over 11.5km in just under 2 hours and 45 minutes, including stopping for rests and to record and photograph bats. This is almost exactly the 4 kilometres per hour that I usually estimate as my walking speed. I was a little surprised that I wasn’t quicker. Maybe I’ll come back and do this walk again and try to beat my time!
The surface was pretty nice for walking as it was almost entirely gravel, with a bit of grass and only a very small amount of sealed path. The weather was pretty decent for walking, too, though a few percent less humidity would have been better. Later in the day, I had quite sore feet and a little bit of an achy lower back, again because there wasn’t a lot of variety in ascent/descent. It was all better the next morning. The blister under my second right toe has healed up and I didn’t get it this time. I wonder if the callus forming there will prevent this from recurring? I am still getting some pain in that toe more generally, which hasn’t improved over the last couple of months, but hasn’t got worse. I guess I’ll just keep an eye on it. I was extremely tired after this walk, which might be due to other things, but it’s probably worth remembering to do a bit more prep in this regard as the walks get longer - proper meals beforehand and some scroggin to take along (any excuse for scroggin, really).
It was fun to walk by myself for the first time in a while. I do enjoy walking with other people, but there’s something very satisfying about being able to (and needing to!) do all the regulation for myself - when to stop, when to speed up, which way to go, when to drink, when to eat. It’s also really relaxing to have some time alone with nature.
This walk is on the Country of the Brabralung (Gunaikurnai) people. The name of the river, Wy-Yung, is the word for spoonbill. Wy Yung is also the name of a suburb of Bairnsdale. This always was, and always will be, Aboriginal land.
So much for easing into things… This 3 hour stroll accidentally turned into a 5½ hour hike, in which we saw a little more of the bush than we intended!
After a week of rain, rain and more rain, it was time for an outing. Dan and I were meant to be visiting a friend on Saturday but, due to complicated Covid things, we had to postpone. (Don’t worry, we’re fine for now - in fact we got our third doses this week!) Instead, we brought my folks along for a walk at Mount Hedrick in the Avon Wilderness Park. Well, I say we brought them along, but really Dad drove us up there in “the big car” in case the roads were a bit crappy after all the rain. We had what looked like a 3-4 hour window before it was going to storm, so we started the walk earlyish - around 8:30am.
I’ve been trying to find my way around AllTrails. It seems to work OK for me on the browser, but I can’t log into the app. Anyway, I saw a couple of routes on there, but decided to make my own approx 10km loop based on data from AllTrails and from the info sheet from a Victorian Government website (which I now realise is from 2004, when DELWP was the DSE). On paper the walk looked pretty simple, and I just assumed that it would be a well marked trail. However, we missed a turn-off, which was not signposted, and ended up taking a bit of a detour on a path that was not marked on any of the maps. Although we were all fine in the end, it did add a couple of kilometres and a pretty steep - but spectacular - ascent to the top of Mount Hedrick.
Rather than doing a full description, here’s a list of things we discussed towards the end of the walk - things that went well vs things to learn from.
Things to learn
The walk ended up being approximately 12 kilometres long, with just under 500 metres of ascent, and it took us 5½ hours. We did go very slowly up the steep side of Mount Hedrick and other slopes, making sure my 70 year old (!) parents were doing OK! As well as the ups and downs, the surface of the trail included sandy gravel road, paths with lots of loose former river stones (ankle breakers), sections of slightly overgrown track, a few blowdowns to negotiate, and some fairly easy rock scrambling. The temperatures were in the mid-20s, and it was very humid.
The variety meant that although this walk was a lot more strenuous than last week’s, I didn’t have the same kinds of aches to contend with. Although I forgot to buy tape for my second right toe, I only got a small blister. Once again, I forgot to wear my sunglasses (even after I went back to get them!), but it was fine on the headache front - possibly because the path itself was often in shade or covered in leaves, rather than bright and reflective. I should remember to bring the poles for hikes like this - could have been quite handy on some of the uneven surfaces and hills. Other than that, just the usual residual achiness of feet, ankles and calves. In fact, the next day, I can really feel that my lower leg muscles have done a lot of ankle stabilising - ow!
I would definitely do parts of this walk again with friends. It could also be a good training walk with a loaded pack - maybe even doing a double loop of the original plan when I’ve worked up to that.
This walk is on the Country of the Brayakaulung (Gunaikurnai) people. Their sovereignty was never ceded and this always was and always will be Aboriginal land.
It’s 2022 and we are now living in Australia! We’ve done a bit of exploring, but none of it has yet appeared on the blog, so it’s time I put something down in writing (and pictures).
Dan and I usually go out for a walk on the 1st of January - start the year as you intend to go on, etc, etc. We’re currently staying with my folks in Gippsland (Gunaikurnai country), and convinced my mum to come along, too (my dad was at work, fire spotting in the hills.) One catch… the forecast was for 38 degrees!
Instead of postponing, we headed out very early to try and beat the heat. We drove to the Sale Wetlands (aka Sale Common and the Sale Game Refuge, among other things) and started walking not too long after sunrise. The low light came streaming through the trees and helpfully highlighted the many, many spider webs across the path.
Our count of creature sightings started early, with swans (black, of course - we’re in Australia!) and cygnets, a spoonbill hunting, a few rabbits and cows, crested pigeons, magpies, a swamp wallaby, wattle birds, magpie larks and herons. A pelican also flew overhead - our first sighting since we got here! Mum and I tasted some berries which we thought might have been midgen (midyin) berries but which our post-walk research tells us were probably coastal beard-heath (aka native currant). One for future foraging!
Unfortunately, big stretches of the wetlands boardwalk are currently closed due to flood damage, so we weren’t able to go out over the water. Instead we skirted the northern edge of the reserve along a gravel street, then went south on Flooding Creek Trail. The trail was a dirt and grassy vehicle-width track for most of the way. It was very pleasant walking through the trees, with views out over the swamp. (Well, it was pleasant apart from the constant spider webs on legs and arms, in hair and mouths!)
Dan and I first read about this walk when we stopped off at the swing bridge at the southern end of the loop a few weeks before. At that time there had been a lot of rain and we thought the path that follows Flooding Creek might have been, well, flooded. Turns out, it definitely would have been at that point - probably at least knee deep in places - but luckily we only encountered a few muddy patches to negotiate.
We saw plenty more swans and cygnets, ducks and ducklings, an egret, moorhens, swamphens and at least two types of cormorant. In the trees, we saw crimson rosellas, rainbow lorikeets, red-browed finches, blue wrens and other little birds. We heard - and eventually saw - kookaburras and butcherbirds, grey shrike thrushes and noisy miners. I recorded some frogs (I assume!) that sound like someone chopping wood or hitting a post with a mallet.
By the time we met the Dartyowan (La Trobe River), it was past 8am and getting warm. We turned west on the road to the swing bridge, past some lovely old trees. We crossed the bridge (it was due to open later in the day, but we weren’t going to stick around for 6 hours in the heat!), looked at the bark canoe sculpture and made use of the picnic benches for a rest and a stretch. Not too far from the bridge we spotted two kingfishers!
Here the loop turns back towards Sale. Because the boardwalks are closed, we followed the bike trail that shadows the highway (I think it might have even been the old highway at some point?). Along this stretch we found some big colonies of spiders in the shrubs, walked through two huge swarms of dragonflies, noticed a few different butterflies and moths, helped a brilliantly shiny stag beetle across the path and watched three huge birds - we are pretty it was a family of white bellied sea eagles - riding the thermals above us.
By now it was pretty hot in the sun, and the whining, buzzing sound of insects and crickets started to rise up from the grass (and stands of feral fennel!) to surround us. An unexpected gravel path took us on a little detour alongside the river and through what used to be a flood-prone caravan park. This stretch is planted out with non-native and non-indigenous species, including oak, ash, poplar, fruit trees and kurrajong, but the area also has many eucalypts and paperbarks. Before we headed back to the car we waved to a boat that sped past downstream and watched a couple of grey currawongs and a pretty little grey fantail.
It was about 30 degrees by the time we got home. My dad called us from the top of his fire tower as we walked in the door to let us know that we’d got out just in time, as there was a fire near the common! Luckily, there was plenty of water around to put it out with…
As well as being our New Years Day walk, this marked the start of my training for a longer trip I’m hoping to do later this year, Covid and lockdowns permitting. The plan is to walk the Heysen Trail in South Australia from north to south, starting in August. The trail will take about two months to complete, depending on how many kilometres I walk a day and how many rest days I need to have. I’m starting from low-ish walking levels (for me), so I’m building up slowly - starting with weekly ~10km walks in January and gradually increasing to more hardcore overnighters later in the year.
When I blog these walks, I’m going to keep a record of a few bits of physical fitness at the end - feel free to skip the section after these photos if that isn’t your thing.
We completed the loop in almost exactly three and a half hours including rest stops and taking lots of photos, and I estimate we walked a bit over 11km. It was almost entirely flat, with surfaces ranging from grass and loose gravel to dirt road and sealed path.
The lack of variation in ascent/descent meant I got quite a sore lower back - mitigated slightly by stretching. I have been having trouble with a pinch blister under the second toe on my right foot, and this appeared towards the end of the walk. I might need to try taping this toe (and its neighbour) in future. Other than that, just some the usual slightly sore feet. My right knee didn’t play up, but I need to remember to stretch out my calves more regularly, especially early on, to avoid knee issues and next-day tightness. Also, note to self: wear your sunglasses to avoid headaches later in the day!
This walk is on the Country of the Brayakaulung (Gunaikurnai) people. Their sovereignty was never ceded and this always was and always will be Aboriginal land.
Here are three projects I’ve been involved with as a volunteer over the last couple of years, focused on preserving and expanding the use of the UK’s amazing rights of way network.
In February 2020, I headed up to London and joined dozens of volunteers helping Dan Raven-Ellison kick off the Slow Ways project. The idea behind this project at the start was to use the current OS rights of way map as well as Google street view/satellite imagery, local knowledge and Open Street Map to find walkable, direct routes between as many UK cities, towns and villages as possible. Eventually, we’d end up with a spiderweb-y network of routes linking these towns or hubs, with most of those hubs offering some combination of public transport links, accommodation, grocery shops and/or eateries.
The mapping started on that day, just pre-lockdown, and many volunteers continued over the following months, creating potential routes and offering opinions on different hubs and paths. Should this route go over the hill (shorter) or around it (more accessible)? Should we make this place a hub town to break up a load of longer sections, even though there’s no rail link? (I argued for Alfriston being a hub during that first workshop and was told no… but I see that in the end the route wranglers agreed with me!) Should this route take the scenic footpath (longer, quieter) or the roadside pavement (more direct)? What about if the direct route is walking on the shoulder of a busy road? What’s safer in the city during the day or night - a main road, a back street or a park? Is there really a path here, or does it just look like that on the satellite imagery? It was quite interesting to be part of this process, even though we were having to work online and remotely due to Covid, rather than in the smaller regional meetups originally envisaged.
Eventually, these routes would be walked, reviewed and improved on. People could use them to plan walking trips by plugging in two locations (e.g. Bristol and Birmingham) and finding a verified route between those places. These routes which would be broken into full- or half-day sections, each section usually ending, as noted, with transport links and/or accommodation.
Slow Ways is now in the route checking stage. Each section will eventually be surveyed by a volunteer trained by the Slow Ways team and reviewed by at least three volunteer walkers. The idea here is to give users an idea of what to expect, any problem areas, accessibility (e.g. for people on wheels) and points of interest along the way. This stage can also flag up unwalkable routes (e.g. footpaths that have been diverted, landscape changes) and people can propose alternatives (e.g. easier, more direct, more pleasant). Once three people have reviewed a route, the route is verified and listed with a tick on a blue snail. And so, when you are the third person to review a route, you have bagged a snail. To add a bit of competitive fun, Slow Ways has got us using the hashtag #SnailBagging.
A few weeks ago, I went out for my first review walk (and dragged Dan along with me). In the process, I managed to be the 3rd person to walk and review the route, bagging my first snail! The photos in this section have been from that walk. It was a lovely morning out, and as the route was only 5km long, we walked it both ways! It was interesting to walk the route with different things in mind, enjoying the facilities along the way (there was some good play equipment - always an important part of a walk for me, haha!) looking for accessibility issues (e.g. places where there are no lowered kerbs for road crossings, gates that cyclists or prams/buggies might not fit through, muddy or flooded areas) and thinking about whether the route could be more direct or easier. All in all, a good walk - and I felt like I was doing something for the greater good, too!
Don't Lose Your Way
While the public rights of way network in the UK is fantastic, it was hard won and is being continuously fought for. Lots of paths that are in use are not actually on the “definitive map” (drawn up by local authorities post-WW2), which means that our right to walk on them in the future might be revoked. That hasn’t necessarily been a huge issue in the past, because people (usually local Ramblers groups) have been able to add those paths to the definitive map as rights of way if they’re shown on old maps or it can be proved that they’ve been in use. However, after January 2026, paths will no longer be able to be added to this map based on historic evidence, meaning that many public rights of way may be lost forever.
This deadline has been looming for some time, and Ramblers groups have been busy trying to find and claim as many paths as they can. But usually these groups comprise a few volunteers for quite a large area, and many paths are likely to slip through the net. So the Ramblers launched the Don’t Lose Your Way project.
In the first stage of this project, thousands of volunteers logged on to a website that allowed easy comparison between the current definitive (OS) map and older maps. I was one of those volunteers, and I found it really interesting looking at 1km x 1km grid squares on the map, checking where paths (probably!) used to be and where they are (or aren’t!) now. One key place to check was along parish boundaries, where a path might be cut off arbitrarily because one place listed it on their map in the 1950s, but the neighbouring council did not. Where we found what looked like missing paths, we’d trace them onto the map and submit them to the database. This process turned up almost fifty thousand miles of potential lost ways!
Now, having mapped so many paths, the next step of the project is to start sorting them out. This is also being done online by volunteers. Which paths are higher or lower priority? Which “lost” paths fix obvious dead ends or create good links in the current path network? Which routes assist with access to sites of interest and open access land? Which are “non-starters” because they have been completely built over? Which ones have been accidentally traced on a current right of way or another map feature like a county boundary? This sorting will help the Don’t Lose Your Way team decide which paths to focus on when it comes to doing further research and putting in claims for the paths.
I’ve been spending a bit of time going through the online map and categorising routes. Some of the categorisations have been pretty easy and clear (routes that I know from personal use, ways that give access to otherwise isolated bits of open access land, paths that are now under reservoirs, or paths that have clearly just been diverted around a field are good examples) while others are more difficult (it’s hard to decide if a particular path should be a “high” or “medium” priority if I don’t know an area well or at all). But generally I’ve found it quite a soothing way to spend a quiet hour of down time - while also making a small contribution to a wonderful cultural asset that has given me so much joy over the years.
Sussex Diamond Way
The Sussex Diamond Way is a 60 mile, waymarked path in East Sussex, running from Heathfield in the east to Midhurst in the west. The route was created by the Sussex Ramblers in 1995 to mark their 60th anniversary (hence 60 miles) and it takes in some of the varied, picturesque local landscapes - kind of like the low weald equivalent to the High Weald Landscape Trail.
Twenty five years after the route’s creation, it was time to refresh the path with a full survey and new markers to guide walkers on their way. The Sussex Ramblers put out a call in 2020 for volunteers to help waymark sections of the route. I’ve wanted to do some of this kind of volunteering for a while (I’ve also previously been a local footpath secretary for a nearby parish, and done quite a few other bits of Ramblers volunteering), so of course I said yes.
I was slow to start and complete the actual waymarking what with the winter lockdown, cruddy weather and intense busy-ness at work and with life in general. However, starting in spring I managed to go out with Dan on a few different weekends and evenings to walk our section. We also went to do some waymarking in Ashdown Forest, before realising it wasn’t our patch and it had already been well marked out.
We walked quite slowly, making sure every written direction was correct - going both ways - and affixing the markers to fingerposts and marker posts (and only those posts - not to gates, stiles and other path furniture, which belong to the landowners rather than the council). It was also surprisingly tiring, especially when affixing markers higher than my shoulders over and over again. (Thanks for your help, Dan!)
I’d seen a couple of markers for this path over the years, and noticed it on lists of long distance paths in Sussex, but I’d never purposefully gone out to walk any of it. More fool me - it’s a really beautiful trail. Just in our short stretch, we found broadleaf woodlands full of bird life, farm tracks with friendly sheep, art and sculptures in gardens, meadows churning with butterflies, a viaduct and bridleways along quiet back lanes. And further west, of course, the path goes through Ashdown Forest, which is always high on the list for visitors to the area. If we had been staying in East Sussex for longer, I would definitely have added this to the list of trails to walk in full. Oh well, something to do when we come back to the UK!
If you’d like to get involved, you can check out Slow Ways here and Don’t Lose Your Way here. I also highly encourage UK walkers to join the Ramblers - those paths don’t open, maintain, fight for and walk themselves!
Facing another locked-down birthday, my friend Erin Kyan decided to hold a postal zine fair for his party!
Erin sent out two templates for aspiring zinesters to use, then he and his partner printed and folded many, many, many zines to send out to friends. My parcel is waiting in Australia - I'm looking forward to seeing all the hard copy zines when we get back there in a couple of months. In the meantime, I'm enjoying the digital versions. Erin also had a live stream to go through all the zines, but it was at 3am UK time, so I had to watch it the following day.
I made a zine for the party! I'd just been on a wonderful three-day walk with my friend Gemma over the South Downs, meandering slowly from Brighton to Eastbourne. We aimed to take it easy and really soak up the atmosphere, only walking about 12km/7.5mi per day. Our main preparation seemed to be bringing way more food than we needed. It was delicious, and we weren't carrying camping gear, so I'm not complaining!
One thing I'd wanted to do on the walk was to make some art along the way, so I took my sketchbook and a pen and did some contour drawings. In the technique I like to use, you look at the subject of your drawing but not at the paper while you use one continuous line to draw what is in front of you. It's a fun way to make you slow down and really look at whatever is in front of you, and the results are often kind of surprising.
My sketchbook is square and the zine format is oblong, so these are crops of photos of the images. Usually I spend about 5-10minutes on each drawing, so it's not a huge time commitment when walking or travelling in general. It often takes me a couple of drawings to get into the swing of things - and some scenes are trickier than others.
Anyway, the walk was fun and making the little zine was fun, and Erin's idea for a postal zine fair for his birthday was super fun! I just thought I'd share something I've been up to in addition to packing up our lives and getting ready to move to the other side of the world!
One of the things I enjoyed on this trip was crossing over with so many of our other outings and adventures, like walking the Sussex Ouse Valley Way, sleeping on the South Downs after a thunderstorm and, although not the same bit of the South Downs, carrying on the idea of enjoying slow walks. It was a fitting and slightly bittersweet goodbye to an area I have learnt and loved and feel really connected to.
We spent quite a bit of time in London this autumn for various (happy and sad) family events. This meant a lot of time doing things indoors, and a lot of time in the car going back and forth. We tried our best to stretch our legs and get some fresh air while we were up there, and I am pleased to report: North London does a good green space.
(N.B. Almost all the pictures I've taken have been of fungus with the phone while out and about . . . So, ah, sorry if you aren't into mushrooms?)
We lived in Finchley for the better part of a year when we first moved to the UK. At that point, all I wanted to do was get into the country and traipse through fields and woods, over hills and farms, away from the city. Although we visited lots of city green spaces, they always felt a bit like second best. This extremely wet autumn, though, I’ve come to appreciate the parks and woods and paths of North London a little more.
London has been designated a national park city. Despite the enormous population, there’s green dotted all over the map. Some of those spaces are sports grounds and golf clubs that might only be accessible via public footpaths or not at all, but there are also playgrounds, woodlands, rail trails, gardens . . . In North London, as well as your suburban pocket handkerchief scraps of grass, there are big, sprawling open spaces like Hampstead Heath and long corridors like the Dollis Valley Greenwalk. There are allotments to walk past, reservoirs frequented by migrating birds and in certain places the city simply gives way to farmland. Also, some of those little patches of green are full on woodlands, and some of the cemeteries are overgrown wildernesses.
I’m not going to lie, probably the main reason I’ve enjoyed the parks this year is because I haven’t wanted to get my feet wet. A lot of country paths around our area have turned into boot-sucking bogs. In circumstances like these, it’s quite a relief to know that you can visit a park and wander for a couple of hours through the trees on hard-packed trails where your feet stand a chance of staying dry.
One day we ventured out for a circular walk from Muswell Hill. We hopped onto the Parkland Walk, a rail trail of which the northern branch runs southwest from Ally Pally to Highgate Wood. Alternatively sinking between embankments and crossing high bridges with views out over the city, the path can be like a highway during summer holidays but quietens down as soon as the weather turns a bit colder. Highgate Wood and neighbouring Queens Wood are some of my favourite refuges in North London - beautiful beech woods, broad paths (and little winding trails leading to adventure), play equipment, rope swings and the cute little cafe in Queens Wood where you can eat a hearty lunch looking out into the trees. On this particular walk I got rather distracted by mushrooms! From Highgate Wood, Parkland Walk goes south east to Finsbury Park - but we cut back between the Crouch End playing fields before returning to the top of the hill via as many back streets as we could.
But not all our outings have been like that. There are also little spaces that don’t need much energy or planning: a 15 minute break for some fresh air can take us through the little wood at the end of the road and back to the front door. Or you can jump on the short section of rail trail that picks up where the Mill Hill East branch line now stops and spend half an hour so going up and back. Or there’s Little Wood and Big Wood in Hampstead Garden Suburb, which are perfect for a shot of nature if you can’t decide which bit of nearby Hampstead Heath you want to tackle - you could sit in the Little Wood amphitheatre and watch the squirrels or you could combine the two parks and spend an hour enjoying the autumn leaves.
Anyway, here’s to the green spaces and mushrooms of North(ish) London!
Do you have any favourite city green spaces? Why not, in the parlance of those YouTubers these days, let me know down below.
It feels as though autumn has arrived early this year, interspersed with bouts of summer that the grouches will say was “better late than never”.
As I write, I have been in the water every day for the last four days: sea swimming three of those days, in a smooth blue expanse that glints out to the hazy horizon; river paddling once with a friend, in a clear, young river surrounded by fish and laughing children.
Last week, I spent five days walking with Allysse through Wiltshire, experiencing everything from epic downpours to hot, lazy afternoons, camping in fields and woods and skinny dipping along the way.
For the two weeks before that, we were hosting my sister from Australia, taking her walking in East Sussex, dropping in on National Trust places for a history fix, visiting London and blissing out with gorgeous hill walks, whimberry picking and a river dip under darkening skies (for me) in Wales. It’s been a good summer holiday, the biggest gift of which has been slowing down, doing one thing at a time, not trying to fit things in around other commitments.
Looking out the window, I can see the rowan berries are hanging scarlet and the beech trees have set a golden fire in their topmost leaves. Along the roadsides, elders are drooping with berries and apples cast their fruit to the yellow grasses. The latest generation of robins is singing and families of other small birds are feasting at our neighbours’ feeders. Local friends are foisting excess produce from gardens and allotments onto whoever will take it - beans, zucchinis, a handful of potatoes. Early autumn is as beautiful as late summer - perhaps even more so, in its bounty and colour.
I have not blogged often over the last year or so, and it has felt like an obligation or a chore rather than a fun hobby. I recognise that I have unconsciously developed some entirely self-imposed rules about what a blog post should be, how many words, how many photos, how much structure, and - most stiflingly - how “important” an event needs to be to blog about it.
I hope that as the seasons quicken, as trees bear fruit and let go, colour their leaves and let go, that I will be able to emulate this. To let go of unhelpful patterns and reflect on some smaller delights of life.
P.S. This is still a good time to make hedgerow jam. Get on it!
Despite all our long distance walks and our walks on long distance paths, I don't think we've ever walked a formally named and labelled long path from end to end in one go. Well, not until now!
And when I say "now", I mean back at the end of May/start of June. It's taken me a long time to muster the energy to edit photos and blog, as things have been pretty stressful at work. But I promised myself I'd get something out before the summer holidays started at the end of July (I have one more day of work, this Tuesday!), so here it is.
Day 1: Lower Beeding to Handcross
We started by driving to Seaford (the end of the walk), then catching a bus along the coast to Brighton and another inland to Lower Beeding (the start of the walk).
After a winding trip down country lanes, we jumped off the bus at Leonardslee garden/park and found what our map said was the start of the walk. There was no sign that this was the terminus of a long distance path, but a few minutes in we found our first official Sussex Ouse Valley Way waymark. We wandered down a muddy track ("Lorrys and Vans will / Get stuck if you go / down / here !!!!!!!!!!!" said the sign) and past the gardens, enjoying the overhanging rhododendrons and glimpses of more through the fence.
It was lunch time when we started, and drizzly, so we stopped in the outskirts of a beech wood for a snack. A peaceful break, except for the sound of dozens of police dogs barking and howling in their training fields back over the valley.
We'd hoped to stay dry-ish, but walking through a field of recently-drenched young wheat put paid to this. Water leaked through my shoes in the first few steps, and more dripped down my legs, soaking my socks from above. After a little while I gave up being bothered by the squelching, knowing it was a short day and we had a nice Airbnb to look forward to at the end of it.
I didn't take a huge number of photos on this first day, as it was drizzling on and off. It was interesting to be on a path that I hadn't really researched (often I'll map them out myself, but we had a downloaded GPS route for this) and following waymarks more than the map (the path was pretty well signposted). I had a much less clear idea of where I was - and I had no idea whether the streams we passed or crossed were the Ouse or minor tributaries.
In the photo below (which may or may not be the River Ouse), you can see the rust-red of iron in the water on the right. I've talked about this phenomenon before - the photo below is a much less spectacular version!
When we reached Slaugham (pronounced Slaffem, we think - while Laughton in East Sussex is pronounced Lorten) we took a quick break in the church, resting our feet and getting out of the rain. From there, we took a long, unpaved estate drive up to Handcross, passing the interesting structure below, then walked on to our Airbnb. We upgraded to the family room with its own bathroom so we could wash our socks and dry them on the towel rail without forcing anyone else to look at (or smell) them. We watched a horse and chooks from the window, patted the cute house dog and binged on the last few episodes of Killing Eve Season 1.
Day 2: Handcross to North Chailey
Our friendly host gave us a lift back up to town so we didn't have to retrace our steps up the road. That was especially nice as we knew we had a long day ahead.
We set off in intermittent sunshine, heading straight into Nymans. We'd visited before, but we'd stuck to the gardens and the house then, rather than exploring the woods, so it was lovely to have a look around as we went through. We were almost the only people there so early. It was just us, the chatty birds and the tall trees.
Out the other side, we followed roads and paths into Staplefield. We'd read in the notes on some website or another that the Sussex Ouse Valley Way was on 80% sealed paths, so we were keeping note of what was underfoot. Although we did seem to follow a lot of country lanes during the first couple of days, we felt there was a good mix with dirt footpaths and grassy fields.
After passing through some farms - saying hello to the rams (above), ducks, flitty birds, horses (very keen to see if we had snacks for them), ladybirds and so on - we came to one of the key landmarks on the trail. The Ouse Valley (or Balcombe) Viaduct features on the waymarkers for this path. I remember going over the viaduct on the train down to Brighton the first time we visited, and again when we first moved to the UK back in 2011. I've always wondered what the structure would look like from underneath. Turns out it looks pretty great!
Having seen hardly anyone all day, about two minutes after we stopped for a snack and a lie down several people appeared - a solo walker, a solo sightseer and a family party that looked like they were going to stay for a while. So, after taking our pictures, we headed off.
And then . . .
. . . our first officially signposted crossing of the Ouse! It's always nice to know you're on the right track. Our next stop was to be lunch at Lindfield, a town outside Haywards Heath. From this section, my strongest memory is of passing through a wood where some kind of conifers were being harvested. The cut wood gave out such a sweet smell - almost like strawberries! We approached Lindfield via the cultivated surrounds of a golf course, then a bit of lane walking and some paths through farms and behind houses before we popped out on the street.
We headed into one of the pubs (on the recommendation of the walker who had passed us at the viaduct) and had a decent lunch. It was a short detour off the path, but we both needed the rest and it gave us a chance to dry our socks and shoes again.
Nearby clouds were threatening rain as we headed off after our break, but all we got was a very muggy atmosphere, ensuring we worked up a magnificent sweat. I started to worry that I'd only bought one shirt . . . was I going to get extremely smelly?
Looking back on this day, it seems very long! It was about 25km (15mi) in total, but it feels even longer than that. There are whole sections I've skipped in this post - we went through woods and farms, stopped at a pub near the river just as it was closing (they still sold us a nice cold drink) and admired all the late spring flowers (I have decided May is the prettiest month of the year in these parts).
We also passed quite a number of campsites, from small ones that looked mostly like a field right up to Wowo Campsite - a sprawling, multi-field affair with all kinds of glamping/camping facilities and even visiting food trucks. WoWo is where we left the official path and detoured to our Airbnb for the evening.
It was only a mile or so, but it felt like forever. My feet were very sore, and I was very happy to jump in a bath before settling down for the evening!
Day 3: North Chailey to Lewes
Morning broke and back we went - down the road, up the lane, into the fields, through the campsite . . . and on to the Ouse Valley Way! There was rain forecast for the morning, but it was meant to clear up into a nice afternoon.
I don't seem to have many photos from the first couple of hours. But we did take a few pictures of old machinery. This one's for you, Dad.
Early in the day we passed the Bluebell Railway station near Sheffield Park. Through the morning we would sometimes catch the hoot of the steam train in the distance. As predicted, it did have a good old rain at one point. We'd made it to Newick and I'd just bought a new packet of plasters to tape up all the weird and wonderful blisters I was getting as a result of walking long distances on my (still relatively new) insoles. We took the rain as an opportunity to have a snack and tend to our wounds under cover of a handy bus shelter. Soon enough, the rain turned into a light drizzle, and we set off once more, down country lanes, then up, up, up a hill to a lovely view. We could spot the South Downs, now, and started to get more of a sense of where we were.
The terrain felt more familiar, too, as we dropped back down into the Ouse Valley. We followed packed chalk tracks through what I believe was a large estate . . .
. . . and made it back to the river! Now, this was starting to be recognisable as the Ouse we knew. Maybe a little narrower, but I could imagine a line stretching from here to Barcombe Mills (where I sometimes swim), to Lewes, to Southease (a section we've walked before), to the sea. We were entering another stage of the walk.
I was surprised to come across Isfield Lock, which is the subject of a long-term restoration project. Because we hadn't actually spent that much time beside the river during this walk, we hadn't seen/noticed any of the 20 or so locks (or the remains of them) along its length. Information points and pamphlets at the lock informed us that the Ouse had once upon a time been 'improved' and made navigable all the way up to Balcombe - and that materials for the Balcombe Viaduct had been shipped in up the river.
Receiving this information so late in our walk made me wonder how much more interesting history we'd been missing out on - perhaps we should have bought a guide book after all! I had first heard of the path when reading Olivia Laing's To the River several years ago, but I don't seem to have retained much in the way of historical trivia - only a lingering sense of summer atmosphere, languid rivers and some background knowledge about Virginia Woolf, who drowned herself in the Ouse downstream of Lewes. (I recommend the book, by the way.)
Our next stop was going to be lunch at the Anchor - a pub that sits on the river seemingly miles from any village or town. We were getting hungry, but that didn't prevent us from stopping frequently to admire the scenery, make note of landmarks we knew appearing in the distance and (at least in my case) remove our boots for a bit of blister-doctoring. (Warning: feet picture coming up!)
Ha! I'd forgotten about these pictures. The one on the left was at the lock, warning of sharp edges and deep water. I thought it looked like someone entertaining several snakes. The one on the right is amusing because in the UK "OAPS" would usually mean "Old Age Pensioners" rather than "Ouse Angling Preservation Society". This river is not for you, old people.
We finally made it to the pub and scoffed down our food while sitting in the beer garden. We'd seen a few folks in hire boats upstream, and smiled to ourselves as they returned to the landing and stepped ashore with more or (usually) less grace. It was starting to warm up a little, and the rain was forecast to hold off, so it was a good opportunity to once again air out my feet. You can see how the insoles are directing my feet in new angles, creating friction in places that are unused to it. Pretty symmetrical, though. (P.S. More tractor!)
We were on a familiar section of the river now, heading down to Barcombe Mills, where I started wild swimming last summer and have continued to go for dips after work this year. After Barcombe, we made for the pretty hamlet of Hamsey. There were more people out and about in the afternoon which was nice to see. On the way we were passed by a small and very energetic dog who did not agree with his owner about where he should walk. We were serenaded to the tune of, "Bruce! Bruce! Come back!" as we traipsed along beside the fields.
I was getting quite tired and sore. I had somehow miscalculated both of the last two days - forgetting to add the distances to and from our accommodation. An extra 5-6km might not sound like much, but if you're limping along at less than 3km per hour it means an extra two hours on your (my) poor, knackered feet! Fortunately, the sun was out all afternoon, making for perfect lying-down-in-a-field weather. I had to make the most of it.
It was an enjoyable path into Lewes. We stopped for many breaks to admire the views. And after we'd struggled up the steep streets into the outskirts of town, we were very pleased to find our Airbnb was actually its own mini-apartment, with an amazingly powerful shower, full kitchen, a shared patio overlooking the garden and a comfy couch from which to watch West Side Story.
Day 4: Lewes to Seaford
The final day of our walk dawned sunny and warm. We wandered back down the hill into town and popped into the supermarket for a few snacks to help us on the way.
Oh! But before we went to the supermarket, we spent a good while watching ducklings on a pond. We also saw tiny moorhen chicks, which are the cutest, fuzziest things ever.
Back to the story: we followed the river through Lewes! The river is tidal here (it is tidal below Barcombe Mills), and there are a lot more boats, which meant some new and interesting things to look at.
This was the first town of any size on the river, too, giving us a view of a different riverside environment. The sounds of a busker on the bridge drifted down the water, bouncing off the brick and glass of old industrial conversions and new apartments.
The trail was well signposted through Lewes.
We'd walked the next section before, so we knew more or less what to expect. The path itself is also very straightforward, which allows more time to soak in the view. The tide was coming in as we were going out, creating interesting currents and eddies.
We saw a couple of SUPers and kayakers catching a ride on the current upstream, which seems like it would be a fun day out - catch the tide up to Lewes for lunch, then head back. The current was quite powerful and they were pretty speedy. I hope they were sticking to the 5 1/2 knot limit!
I like these flowers - they're called bladder campion.
Last time we walked here, we followed the river all the way to Southease. This time, we followed the official Sussex Ouse Valley Way, which diverts from the riverside about a mile upstream of Southease and detours through the small village of Rodmell and past Monk's House, where Virginia Woolf lived. We still haven't managed to visit the house, despite it being one of our nearby National Trust properties. One day!
We stopped in the shade of the trees in the churchyard at Rodmell, enjoying the view of the South Downs on the other side of the Ouse valley. And then we decided we'd head over to the YHA at Southease for lunch. I had nachos, which were adequate. It felt very civilised to have all of this in what feels like the middle of nowhere. We wondered if our friend in Brighton would like to walk over the hills from her place to Southease for lunch one day, then take the train home. (Spoilers: she did like, and we ended up doing this last weekend. It was great.)
After refreshments (and a re-plastering of my blisters), we were ready to set out again into the blazing sunshine. It was a stark contrast to the weather on the first day - and I was glad it had happened this way around, because there is no shelter to speak of in this section, so rain and wind would have been miserable. We followed a crowd of people heading into Southease for a fair on the green, but turned off south along the river before we got distracted and had to buy a second lunch and several jars of jam.
Instead of heading straight along the river, there is a short but noteworthy section that detours up a small, tucked-away valley (where I got to pat an enormously fluffy cat that was hanging out on a wall), climbs up a hill (we did a bit of paddock bashing here, as we couldn't quite figure out the route) and falls down the other side (through some extremely verdant nettles and brambles).
It was a fun mini-adventure on a path that had otherwise been pretty well maintained. It also gave us some views out to the sea. (Can you spot the walker - or the path?! - in the photo below?)
Slightly scratched and lightly stung, we made it into Piddinghoe. There, we did our walker-ly duty of visiting the church and admiring its stained glass windows, its fishy weathervane and its round tower (Southease also has a round tower, but we'd seen that several times before).
Back on the river, we struck out towards Newhaven. The unique building below welcomed us. We've always wondered what it was, as we've often seen it from the top of the surrounding hills. Turns out, it's an incinerator. They burn household waste and generate electricity there. I mean, if you're going to have an incinerator be the iconic structure of your town, you might as well make it good looking.
Newhaven is truly a lowlight of the walk. OK, I'm sure it didn't help that I was sore and hot and very, very ready for the day to be over, nor that the path passes through some less desirable streets, but the town felt dirty, ugly and run down. Soon enough, though, we crossed the rail line and took the diverted track out through a road construction site and onto the foreshore.
I'd vaguely wondered why the path ended at Seaford, to the east, when the mouth of the River Ouse is in Newhaven. Perhaps because it is nicer?! However, as we made our way along, the lagoon of Mill Creek to our left gave us a clue: this must have once been the path of the river itself.
This suspicion was soon confirmed by some information boards along the path. We also passed the foundations of what had once been a hospital or recovery centre for disabled boys who had undergone surgery. It was torn down in WWII as the powers that be thought Germans might invade here and use the buildings as cover. Tide Mills, the village the hospital was near, was condemned as unfit for habitation a few years beforehand. It all seems rather bleak, even on a warm, sunny day. It must have been dire in winter.
Eventually - finally! at last! - I got to do what I'd been dreaming of since Rodmell: take off my shoes and socks and go and stand in the sea. I love doing this anyway, but it was such a relief to numb my sore feet in the chilly water and to say thank you to them after the beating they'd taken over the last few days. I stood there for a good long while, wavelets breaking around my shins, gazing out to the boats and ships on the English Channel.
From there, it was a hop, skip and a jump to the end of the Sussex Ouse Valley Way on the outskirts of Seaford. This end had an information sign, and even a fingerpost pointing back to Lower Beeding. It said it was 42 miles, but it felt like we'd walked a lot further than that (and to be fair, with all the detours to accommodation and lunches, we definitely had). We snapped a happy selfie and immediately made a beeline for the icecream van before hobbling back to the car and driving home.
And so that is the story of a pleasant three and a half day walk along the Sussex Ouse Valley Way. I would recommend it to people who'd like to walk a well marked multi-day path, or who have a long weekend and want to thru-hike (as the USAns might say) a trail, or who are generally interested in the landscapes of Sussex.
If you are thinking of walking the Sussex Ouse Valley Way, find a gpx file online (or get the maps) and maybe buy a guidebook so you have a bit more information about the areas you pass through. I'd also highly recommend reading To the River - even if you never plan to walk the path at all!
When was the last time you took as long as you could to walk nowhere in particular?
Often, as I map out my walks, I’m wondering if I could put in a couple of extra kilometres before stopping at that pub for lunch, or whether it’s possible to visit both the lookout and the river beach in one day, or if it’s worth the sore feet of an extra five miles to make it to a particular B&B. “Twenty-five kilometres, should be fine!” I think to myself - not taking into consideration the early winter sunsets, not remembering that I haven’t done a long walk for a few months, forgetting to build in time to picnic, forage, soak my feet in a stream, get lost, snooze in the sun, watch birds or rabbits in the grass . . .
But at the start of the holidays, I didn’t have much of a plan. Dan was going to drop me off somewhere between home and Brighton in the morning and pick me up after he finished work. As long as I could let him know where I was at about 4pm, it was all good. I remember with great fondness my mapless walks of a few years ago, so I thought I might do something similar.
The landscape was wrapped in fog as we pulled off the A27 opposite Housedean Farm. I waved goodbye to Dan and set off up the side road to join the South Downs Way. I had a vague idea that I might want to walk north over the Downs and through the fields and villages beyond to the River Ouse, then follow the Ouse Valley Way back to Barcombe Mills or Lewes - which would be a long walk, but I was going to be out for eight hours, so it wouldn’t be unreasonable.
A tractor passed me, trailing the smell of cowshit, I snapped a photo of the highway as I crossed over it, I smiled to a couple of hard-faced bike commuters and then I turned off the road and began the climb up onto the hills. The sheep didn’t seem to want to get off the path, so I stepped slowly around them. I saw a couple of house martins (I’m pretty sure - they didn’t sound like swifts or look like swallows). I tried to make out surrounding hills through the fog.
After cresting this hill, the path goes straight back down through a wood. I ducked off to wee amongst the violets and noticed that the noise of the A27 had already started to fade. A big bird - which I assume was a buzzard, because I heard them calling soon after - launched itself off a high branch and disappeared above the almost-budding canopy. I decided to stop for a bit and found a convenient tree to sit on.
I like to play a game, sometimes, where I close my eyes and listen. I imagine I don’t know where I am and that I need to figure it out through sound alone. “What are these sounds telling me?” I ask. Birdsong - lots of small birds probably means lots of bushes, trees, places for them to hide and things for them to eat. Distant traffic - probably not a town or city, but not too remote a place in the countryside. Sheep - near or in farmland. The chock-chock of a pheasant and the cat-like calls of a buzzard - definitely not in Australia! Slight echo on the pigeon calls - a valley? A scuffling sound - maybe leaf litter and trees, possibly a wood? No human voices - could indicate location, time of day, time of year. The rattle of a woodpecker - definitely a big tree somewhere nearby. Distant seagulls, a plane overhead. . .
As I sat in a kind of meditation, I decided I was going to move deliberately slowly for the rest of the day. I set myself a different kind of challenge: to walk no more than 8-10 miles (13-16km) the whole day. One mile per hour, on average.
I left the wood and followed the green path into a little valley and up the other side, through fields, past rangy hedgerows. I noted all the plants I could see on the ground beside the path: nettles, rats-tail plantain, ribwort plantain, young hogweed (possibly?), dandelion, silverweed, sorrel, cleavers/goosegrass/sticky willy, violets (purple and white), thistles, bugle (I think - it's the one that looks like furry mint and smells like weed), lords and ladies, dock, a very curly leafed thing I don’t know. . . and plenty of grass, of course.
It felt so luxurious to move so slowly, with such attention to my surroundings! As I climbed through fields, skylarks called noisily all around me. They fly like they sing, skylarks, fluttering and chirring like noisy, hovering bats. I saw a silhouette of a walker through the fog, heading along an intersecting path. I slowed down even further to avoid them, wanting to hold onto my own space a while longer. My plan was immediately scuppered by a tractor that appeared to spray the field beside me. Oh well. The fog - or was it just low cloud? - hadn’t quite lifted off the hills. A bridleway cut a white line through fields of oilseed rape and winter wheat. Classic chalk downs. I sat beside a recently-laid hawthorn hedge to stretch my calves and eat a square of chocolate.
Another wood, another wee surrounded by violets. Further on, as the sun almost broke through the clouds, I picked some young sorrel and dandelion to add to my cheese and crackers for lunch. I’d been going for just over two hours when I made it to north edge of the downs. I congratulated myself on my slowness and decided on a little detour up Blackcap, which I’ve bypassed before on speedier walks along this section of the South Downs Way.
At the top, I found a trig point (well, I was expecting that!) and a little plantation that seemed perfect for another sit down. I found a log and made myself a substantial snack of crackers, cheese, tomato and freshly-picked weeds. As I munched away, I listened to the hum of traffic on the Ditchling-Plumpton road and thought about where I might want to head next: east towards Lewes, north off the downs or west along the ridge to Ditchling Beacon and beyond. I felt called in a Ditchling-ish direction, knowing that if I got hungry I could pop down into the village for a cuppa and a sandwich and so, after sitting for a while and thinking about nothing in particular, off I toddled.
Back on the South Downs Way, a sign informed me that I’d come 3 miles from the A27 and that it was another 2 miles to Ditchling. More people seemed to be out - several dog walkers, a handful of cyclists, a couple of folks that looked like they might be walking the whole path from Winchester to Eastbourne. I thought about walking it myself - it’s about 100 miles (160km), so would make a good week-long outing. I feel fairly comfortable wild camping up on the downs, too, so I wouldn’t need to book accommodation or be always tied to campsites (though if they were close enough of course I’d stay there - always nice to have a loo and perhaps a shower!).
I also thought that it would be a good place to encourage people to join another project idea I’ve been mulling over for a while: The Slow 100. My idea is that, for a lot of people, walking 100 miles (or 100 kilometres, for that matter), seems wildly out of reach. But what if you could do it slowly - like 10 miles or 10 kilometres a day over 10 days? Stopping for morning tea, lunch, afternoon tea, to take photos or do some sketches, to lie on the grass in the sun, to pop into a tea room or get an icecream from a van in a hilltop car park? You could do it over a week and two weekends. If you had a bunch of folks interested, you could hire a people mover and get someone to ferry you to and from your accommodation to make it even more accessible. I think that's something that many people (not everyone, of course) could achieve. Such were the things I pondered as I wandered.
Wrapped in my own thoughts, I was surprised when Ditchling Beacon appeared ahead. I’d been walking faster than I’d meant to! I stopped to get a pebble out of my shoe and to rub my feet - they were a bit sore as I was breaking in some new orthotics, which were tilting my heels out at a rather more drastic angle than my old ones! - noticing how the temperature was perfect for walking, how I wasn’t hungry or thirsty, how there was hardly a breeze and how the fog-haze-cloud-whatever was stopping the sun from becoming too hot. The skylarks were still going. I wasn’t at work and wouldn’t have to be for another two weeks. I felt so happy!
I dithered around before and after Ditchling Beacon, sitting for a while in the chalk hollows and tumuli to look at the view below, watching some goldfinches in the gorse and a kestrel above, holding the gate for a horse and rider and airing my feet out in the just-emergent sun. I also stood for almost a quarter of an hour watching a pair of yellowhammers pottering around on open access land. They are such spectacular little gems of birds that I gasped out loud when they first flew in. I’d sometimes lose them behind a patch of grass, only to find them again immediately as a bright yellow head popped up in front of me.
Having managed to while away a bit of time, I decided I’d head into Ditchling village via Burnhouse Bostall. I briefly considered going a mile further to the windmills, but knew if I did I’d probably end up breaking my 10 mile limit! So, down I went, taking the time to go off piste through some pretty scraps of woodland, where rabbits nibbled and butterflies flitted. I said hello to some horses. I stopped to pour out a little bit of water in front of a grounded bumblebee that looked a little sad. I admired the way the breeze had scattered blackthorn/sloe petals like confetti across the dried-mud footpath. Again, I realised how luxurious it felt to allow myself this time and presence - not to rush, not to be anywhere in particular, just to enjoy myself and the environment.
Eventually I made it into Ditchling. I called Dan and decided it wasn’t worth going to a cafe before he came to collect me. Instead, I sat on a bench in the sun on the sunken lawn by the church and museum and I watched a very energetic chihuahua run away from its owner (over and over again). That dog was having the time of its life. And frankly, that day, so was I.
In Ditchling, looking towards the Ditchling Museum of Art & Craft (which I haven't yet visited, but it has some interesting-sounding exhibitions).
All up, I think I walked about 14.5km/9mi - a nice, slow day! When was the last time you slowed down on a walk or cycle journey? The last time you meandered without a destination? I would love to hear about it . . .
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