I hope everyone enjoyed a warn bank holiday weekend. For those of us who have dipped a toe in local politics, it is no holiday, but a long weekend of leafletting and door-knocking. Still, it can make for a good, healthy walk.
In previous years I have combined pavement-bashing with cycling to remoter houses, adapting my boots for pavement or fields. This year I was in a more constricted, suburbanised knot of residential houses, which is a more intense experience. To get a measure of the length of the walk is impossible: you cannot just measure the length of each stretch of each road and total them up a most of the distance may be nipping back and forth from street to doorway – a petty distance you may think but it all adds up, and after two thousand of them, that is a few miles just walking back and forth from the pavement even without the length of the street.
A road is a dull, grey landscape. Head down, foot before foot and it goes by.
You get variety: I missed the wide-open country vistas and landscape carved by nature’s hand into breathless beauty, now blooming in the richness of late Spring, but deep in the streets there is a microcosm if you look; a glimpse into the souls of thousands of individuals. Those long streets all built with identical houses in ranks like soldiers on parade, have changed as years pass over them, for householders put their own into their own houses, and even though I see no more than the front drive or garden and front door, in these little things the character of the owner may shine through (not always to their credit).
I just wish, as every leafletting street-hiker does, that when they replace their front door or build a porch, they would include a letterbox.
At Easter, our local churches organise a walk to the cathedral. The routes from each village congregate on the great Abbey Church crowning the hill in St Albans. I should gather these together in a map, though routes may vary from year to year, but I will start with the route I know from Croxley Green.
This spring weekend is a bright and glorious one. You can never tell in April, but on a hot day, it is hard with a large group of mixed walking experience. This is not hill country by any means, and the route scouts the edge of the Chilterns, not plunging through the middle. It also follows made paths and roads for the most part: if you have a large group, they should not be squeezing through narrow, nettle-clad paths or deep mud. The way is a lovely one though all the way.
The usual route from Croxley follows up the Green to the green lane at the top of the village and follows it down and through the woods to the Grand Union Canal, and the canal towpath takes us north. There is a mixture of the ancient and the modern in the walk, which is unavoidable in a county such as this, developed yet preserving its rich farmland and woods wherever it can. Part of the canal follows a natural route through the Chilterns followed by the Romans, but we turn off it before reaching into the hills, at Hunton Bridge and into a modern town.
For all that Abbots Langley has become to house the thousands who wish to live here, there are paths to follow in the quieter parts and out again, and out the route emerges at the ‘tin tabernacle’ in Bedmond (one of only two still open for worship in the county; the other being a large corrugated iron church at Cockernhoe (and which can be seen on the Hertfordshire Border Walk).
The road directly from here to St Albans is quiet and largely pavementless, but a direct route to the city. In time there is an escape from the road back onto a path, which leads through an outer suburb and into Verulam Park. From there is follows the line of the wall of Verulamium, still impressive after a millennium and a half of abandonment, and follows the last footsteps of St Alban up the hill to the Cathedral.
There are other villages which make the same journey, and at sometime I will see if I can follow their routes too.
A New Year’s walk is best when it opens new horizons, and the horizons are very broad around Ashwell. It is a village I have visited before, towards the end of a weary day trekking over the fields from Hitchin walking the Hertfordshire Border Walk, but this was a gentle family walk, a welly walk around the fields and farms surrounding the village.
The village is a very pretty one and stands at the very northernmost reach of Hertfordshire, close by its meeting with Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire – and Ashwell has a lot of the character of the villages of southern Cambridgeshire, even with cottages decorated in the distinctive East Anglian decorative plasterwork, known as pargetting. It is on the plains below the chalk ridge, so the skies are huge and the horizons flat and broad. The claggy fields are strung with streams and ditches – the tiny brook through the village itself is the Rhee, which broadens into a river soon enough and claims to be the true River Cam which beautifies Cambridge.
The day started bright and clear, which was an encouraging introduction to the new year. In the afternoon the rain came on, but nothing too off-putting. If this could be a portent of the character of 2022 as a whole (which is vanity, but a pleasing one) then it will be a better year that the one we have just got rid off, and on which I will not look fondly.
We walked just six miles in a ring to the north and the south of the village. First we took a silent benediction from the towering church we passed, then out into the fields, looping north of the village, passing Bluegates Farm, and glimpses of Bluegates Dairy and Love’s farm – charming names, and all apart from each other – this is all a contrast from the crowded south of the county.
Looping south of the village, our route climbed to the hills, such as they are, (There is an ancient earthwork up there, though I will admit that apart from the protective fence all round it, I could not see anything of note.) Then over the top and down to the village again, and a pleasant, very muddy, walk it was to greet the new year.
There is a lot of road walking on this one, but many were just farm lanes and the actual roads were almost empty (and we were only a mile from the tearing rush of the A505).
Mam Tor is one of the Seven Wonders of the Peak, standing grandly above Castleton in the north of Derbyshire and the heart of the Peak District.
Castleton is an exquisite village at the head of the Hope Valley, with its back against a cliff, on top of which stands the castle which gave the village its name, filled with pubs and cafés, with arty boutiques, hardy boots, and surrounded by sights for the curious.
At the very top of the Hope Valley, just above the village, the wall of hills is suddenly pierced by Winnats Pass, a narrow chasm between the rugged hill slopes, which attracts cyclists after a challenge beyond the rest of us.
There are several walks around Castleton and the valley. A particularly satisfying one loops all round the caverns and over the summit of Mam Tor itself.
This is a landscape full of surprises, many of them underground, for this is Derbyshire, known for natural caverns as well as for its profusion of lead mines, and here the two meet. This valley is where the limestone of the White Peak stops and the Dark Peak to the north begins. The limestone is full of water-carved caves and holes which lead to passages without end all under the hills – a hidden kingdom.
The walk starts in Castleton, and wanders to the back of the village below Peveril Castle, to the chasm in which is the Peak Cavern, a vast show-cave known traditionally by its more robust name, the Devil’s Arse. It continues westwards to the portal to the Speedwell Cavern: the lofty cavern is far inside the hill, discovered by lead-miners and reached by boat along the tunnel they carved; but that is another trip. The walk continues past this, across the road and up Treak Cliff (which is not a cliff, but a steep slope across which the path takes a gentle gradient) to yet another mine entrance, this time to Treak Cliff Cavern halfway up, where Bluejohn is mined – a decorative stone unique in the world to this and one other mine reached later on the walk.
Over the top and round one comes to the entrance to Bluejohn Cavern, the other mine for this stone. In the Regency and Victorian periods, bluejohn was used to create vast bowls and vases, now worth a fortune, but now it is depleted it is found in small chips in the artisan jewellery shops of the village.
Past Winnat’s Head (a farm at the top of the eponymous pass), and it is on to Mamo Tor itself
There are now steps on the well-worn path up to the summit of Mam Tor: it is not a public footpath but National Trust land. There was a univallate hill fort built up here in the Iron Age, the earthworks still prominent. (The steepness of the hill should have been defence enough.) The summit now is part-paved, a detraction from natural beauty but necessary to reserve it against the passing of footsteps. The view is wonderful all around, down to the valley, and over to Edale the other side, and along the sweeping ridge in both directions.
Continuing along the ridge eastwards, the path is broad enough, but with a plunge each side. The target and point furthest north is Ward’s Piece, or Lose Hill, another fine viewpoint. Along the ridge looking down to the lower slopes of Mam Tor, you can see the feature which gave the hill its almost mystical reputation: a jumble of little hills looking as if they are growing at its foot, born of the mother mountain. They are understood to be the spoil shivered off Mam Tor, and it was said that the hill never becomes less however much rock it loses to its daughter hills.
Coming off the ridge steeply down to the valley the walk works its way back to Castleton.
If that is not enough though, at just six and a half miles, a loop can be taken a little further to the village of Hope down the valley, before looping back to Castleton.
There is more to be seen from the hills here than by staying at ground level, and more amongst just this little ring of hills than in any outwardly similar setting.
It has taken me too long to get back to the Peak District. A gentle start then, with a short-ish family walk: round the Ladybower Reservoir, the lowest of the three Derwent Valley Reservoirs.
The string of massive reservoirs along the valley here were created across the course of the early twentieth century. Work even continued during the War. The War brought an unexpected role too: the similarity of the lakes and dams to the Möhne and Eder dams on the Ruhr made them the ideal training ground for the newly formed 617 Squadron to practice for the Dambusters raid in May 1943. (The Ladybower was only just being completed at the time and not filled up.) It is a heritage borne proudly. The waters and woods are peaceful, away from the buzzing carpark, with just the birdsong to accompany the walk, but you can still imagine the deep, heavy rumble of the Lancasters’ engines and the low swoop over the surface.
The walk around the water is about five and a half miles. Much is wooded, some is on a remote road. It is not waymarked, but it does not have to be: follow the clear, made path above the shore down to the Ashopton Viaduct, cross the viaduct, then make your way up the other side.
There is some sadness here too: two villages were drowned when the valleys were flooded. Ashopton lies beneath the deepest part, where the River Ashop met the Derwent, where the viaduct now runs. Further up was Derwent, where the Mill Brook enters the waters. The water was low today, and the base of the walls of a demolished house lay exposed on the shoreline. There are many more beneath the water, and the village church.
At the head of the Ladybower, the path crosses a meadow beneath the towering wall of the Derwent Dam (behind which the waters of the Upper Derwent Reservoir are pent). I could imagine here the dark shape of a Lancaster passing close overhead.
The walk is popular for families, and all around the shore the roads and some paths are swept by cyclists. It is only one of several walks hereabouts. When I am back with a main computer, I will try mapping each of them.
For years I assumed that a walk following Surrey’s long and highly varied boundary would not be practical. I like to walk in Surrey and have got to know a number of happy paths through the middle of the county, but I could not see paths at the edge, one border excepted.
Surrey has particular qualities. The roads in Surrey are single-minded: principally they head to and from London, so if a drives chooses to drive athwart these routes it is a tortuous journey. The footpaths are mainly little ones between villages and even the most famous long-distance route, the Pilgrim’s Way, was invented by a Georgian cartographer from many such disjoined paths. At the edges, the paths seemed few. I have enjoyed many a long and glorious walk may on the footpaths in the green heart of the county, amongst the North Downs and the Weald, and along the Tilbrook amongst others, there are not so many around the border. It is as if the footpath network shared the same aim as the roads – to London.
However, much work has been done in latter years to devise new waymarked routes on the edges of Surrey. Knitting them together and roping in new, local paths, and admittedly some road-walking, it is possible.
The first sketch I made is very close. You find trespasses into neighbouring counties with every boundary path, and there are a few more than I would have wished, into Sussex in the south in particular. That could be drawn in a bit.
On the northern border, we have the Thames Path to follow all the way from Deptford to Runnymede, but this too steps over onto the Middlesex bank – that cannot be helped, as there are long stretches where the well-to-do villas of Surrey folk run their gardens all the way down to the riverbank – and good for them, as it is a delightful river in those parts.
In the west, by Hampshire, we now have the Blackwater Valley Path established by the local councils thereabouts in the last few years. By the Kentish border, a local council has established a path named after the local Hundred (and after the council with a borrowed name which devised the path) namely the Tandridge Boundary Path. These are both very good routes for our purpose.
In the south, the county border is with Sussex, and is in the hills and woods. The Sussex Border Path provides a route though its preference to to dip into the latter county.
This may take work, but an appropriate route, of about 175 miles, should be possible.
A lovely patch of the Chilterns can reveal a new aspect each time, so when I set off for Little Hampden, I had been there before on the Buckinghamshire Way, but a circular walk around the Hampdens was all new, and all delightful.
It was also liberating not to be carrying a camera so I could just enjoy the walk and the many vistas that sit better in the eye when free than if I feel obliged to record them in a box. (It does mean I am limited though to borrowed pictures to illustrate this post.)
We parked in the estate car park at the northern edge of Cobbler’s Hill Woods and plunged into the woods. It was a gloriously sunny day and had not rained for a week, so it was mainly dry underfoot. It is only a little wood and with good, clear paths, but woodland paths change and criss-cross unexpectedly and we needed compass work to find the way. There is a main bridleway that we joined which did not get the instruction about being dry for us, and the hungry mud sucked two boots off.
Emerging doubtfully but at the correct spot, we headed along Cobblershill Lane a short way until a path struck promising the due south, with beautiful open vistas, running all downhill towards a land and the unusually named Hotley Bottom.
This landscape is still a wonder to me: underfoot it seems to be made entirely of flint, rocks rammed tight together, with barely a skim of soil over the top, yet it manages to be so green. All along this walk I observed the same, and it is a tribute to the force of nature in the Chilterns that on what should be bare rock hills, is such gloriously verdant, abundant farmland and forest.
A few steps clambering up a bank at Hotley bottom take the path up along a hedge-line path and out into a wood, where we zig-zagged to keep westward to Honor End Farm, and thence west to Great Hampden, along apparently an ancient linear earthwork, Grim’s Ditch, though there was no sign of it.
Great Hampden is small but remarkable. It appeared essentially as a church and a grand house, the latter the ancient home of the Hampden family, of whom John Hampden, a Puritan, effectively started the Civil War. It is too a peaceful place for that sort of thing. Even so, I avoided accosting any locals to demand that they pay the King’s ship money, just in case.
Past Hampden House, a sharp north turn took up onto the Chiltern Way, through woods and over fields and eventually to Little Hampden. Here we encountered familiar ground, meeting the Buckinghamshire Way (I had lunch there on the first walk). Instead of walking straight across the valley though on the Buckinghamshire way route, we wandered down through the village itself, to the church; an interesting one perched up on a bank. (Closed of course – COVID et.)
Then we went across the valley, on the last dip and climb. over blooming fields and up through woodland, to Cobblerhill Farm (and another meeting with the Buckinghamshire Way). Then it was just a gentle walk down the lane to the car park, and a fine day it was.
There is a gorgeous wood that runs up the slope between Slieve Donard and Slieve Commedagh, watered by a wee river, the Glen River, that drops down to Newcastle and the sea. It gives a series of scenes often in my mind, not least as I use those pictures as lock-screen.
Or at least there used to be such glorious woods. The sight on the news of the fires burning across the slopes of the Mourne Mountains are a hard blow. The pictures were beyond a normal brush fire: from Newcastle a whole mountain is alight with deathly white lines of flame spread miles in length, the whole hill in an orange glow, and Slieve Donard itself behind.
Heather and gorse burn easily and fiercely when dry, and the Mournes are covered in heather and gorse. This is a gorse fire. It can be cruel.
Last Saturday they said that around the Glen River the fires were out, but they were bursting out elsewhere. The toughness of the fire crews hauling equipment onto the hills calls for the greatest admiration. There is a picture of one man, utterly exhausted, surrounded by black ash, and others of firemen with just mats and spades treating amongst burning ground, where there is nowhere where you could even start except by starting somewhere.
I gather there are woods still standing. What else remains I do not know – the icehouse I hope is there unbroken. It burns itself out eventually, as the crews douse what they can.
I remember though a great fire that swept through the woods near where I was brought up, and the community volunteers who headed out, my family among them, to held keep it down when the fireman had battled all night. Now, you would not know it had happened. The fire was a living part of a living environment as I suppose it always will be. The gorse grew back and the trees around them. By the time I next step on those slopes, nature may have reclaimed them and restored the soft cover of those beautiful hills. It will do before too long.
Huntingdonshire Day on Sunday reminded me of some of the great walks of that county, which I have barely covered. It is a stunning little county: in the summertime, coming across the fields in the south of the county, bursting with fecundity, lifts the heart with wonder. Through the midst flows the Great Ouse, possibly the finest lowland river there is.
To start then, there is the Pathfinder Long Distance Walk, devised as a celebration of the Pathfinder Force of Bomber Command, which was based at RAF Wyton in Huntingdonshire. It loops 46 miles around the east of the county, and dips into neighbouring Cambridgeshire too, starting and finishing at Wyton.
The route runs up to Warboys in the north, down to Papworth in the south, crossing the Ouse half way in two lovely stretches, following the river for a way south of Needingworth (a gorgeous village as I recall); south of here looping into Cambridgeshire, not quite getting to Cambridge, before heading east again.
The route passes though Godmanchester, a little town about which I could write a great deal, not quite touching the great meadow, Port Holme, but you may always turn aside and lean over the Chinese Bridge.
The loop is long, but is just a sample of Huntingdonshire. I will look for more walks about that enchanting county.
O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done, The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won, The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting, While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring; But O heart! heart! heart! O the bleeding drops of red, Where on the deck my Captain lies, Fallen cold and dead.
O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells; Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills, For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths—for you the shores a-crowding, For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning; Here Captain! dear father! This arm beneath your head! It is some dream that on the deck, You’ve fallen cold and dead.
My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still, My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will, The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done, From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won; Exult O shores, and ring O bells! But I with mournful tread, Walk the deck my Captain lies, Fallen cold and dead.