In mourning

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.

South Georgia on my mind

Far in the south, a great island of rock and ice, its inhabitants hardy and temporary. It was once an island busy with ships, in season, with little industrial villages dotted along the bays of the north coast welcoming the ships home and rendering the mightiest beasts of the sea into meat, oil and whalebone.

South Georgia is a romantic place, more so now that it is almost deserted. It has had its dramas. In 1982 the Falklands War started here, but before then, in the age of the whalers, it was a profitable frontier land.

In 1916, five men in a small boat crossed an ocean churned by Antarctic storms to South Georgia to seek rescue for their colleagues. On reaching the island in a hurricane, they were unable to relaunch to sail around the island to where the whaling stations stood: instead they looked to the mountains separating them from the habitations of the whalers, and three men set of into that unexplored land of ice, over the island across mountains, glaciers, snowfields, each with hidden hazards, until they reached help.

Soldiers have followed in latter years to honour Shackleton. It must be the toughest established walking route there is.

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The Usk Valley to Brecon

Who could not like a route which follows one of the prettiest of river valleys through a cleft in the mountains to such a town as Brecon?

The Usk Valley Walk is a charming walk along a charming river, and whuile I have complained of routes that depend too much on canal towpaths, as this one does to an incontinent degree in my opinion, it is still a pleasant fifty mile stroll; a gentle way to reach into the heart of the Brecon Beacons.

The route begins in what might be Monmouthshire’s oldest town, Caerwent, which signs will not cease to remind you was the Roman Uenta Silurum, north of Newport, and wanders up the meandering river, seeing where it slices through the mountains until it reaches Brecon, a town as well known to hillwalkers and to soldiers.

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Coombe Hill: the theme is mud

Continuing a theme of welly walks in the Chilterns, we found a route recommended by the National Trust, from their car park on Coombe Hill. This hill is best known for the monument at its peak, and some walkers were going up to that and just coming back again, but there is more to be seen by getting lost in the woods. A walk of three and a half miles, it was a perfect walk for a family morning out in December.

The nearest hamlet is Dunsmore, but there is nowhere to park conveniently in Dunsmore without causing an obstruction, so the car park is the best starting point.

The path heads out into the woods: go in the opposite direction from the crowd heading for the summit. The path, followed carefully, leads southwards through the Low Scrubs and the presumably more elevated High Scrubs, in a long and very deeply muddy path up to the lovely crossroads in Dunsmore, with its fingerpost and pond.

Turning westwards, there is a short walk along the lane out of the hamlet, before turning west into the woods again (Fugsdon Wood, then Linton’s Wood) to the edge of the Chiltern escarpment. Here we turned north, along the Ridgeway path.

(This next stretch is one I incorporated in ‘the Resignation Way‘ as far as the summit, as it provides a route to walk concealed from cameras away from the gate of Chequers towards the station in Wendover.)

The route continues northwards, eventually breaking from the cover of the woods to look out down from the scarp and over the Vale of Aylesbury beyond; a wide horizon and a landscape dotted with church spires, farms and grand houses.

On the summit of Coombe Hill stands a tall monument to those local men who fell in the Boer War, listed on plaques on the face of the pillar. It must be one of the earlier monumental tributes not to an individual officer but to ordinary men of all ranks who fell in service of Queen and Empire. Looking down, we could see the back of the Prime Minister’s official country residence, Chequers (and here the Resignation Way turns away at its last view of the house).

From the monument is a quieter walk over the to of the hill, turning then south beside not through the woods back to the National Trust car park.

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New Year at Christmas (Common)

Happy New Year, looking forward to 2021. This year we greeted the year around Christmas Common in Oxfordshire.

(A difficulty with listing recent walks, is that certain people of ill-will may look upon the list under their furrowed eyebrows and treat it like a charge-sheet in waiting. However actually, even under the strictest rules, going out for exercise is legal. So there.)

Christmas Common is a hamlet in the Chilterns, near the escarpment above the village of Watlington. It is in Oxfordshire, close by the Buckinghamshire border, and close by Oxfordshire’s highest point too (Cowleaze Wood).

The National Trust car park was a convenient place to start. It is begirt by woods, which were thickly covered by frost in the morning. It started to snow gently. The gorgeous views over the fields below were hidden in fog.

The path tracks slowly down through the edge of the woods, down Watlington Hill, until emerging at the road. The woods were sparkling in the frost and though busy with walkers the closing in of the fog seemed to emphasise its loneliness.

It is a short way along the modern road to a more ancient one: the Icknield Way (which features in many walks in the Chilterns and was a memorable part of the Hertfordshire Border Walk). It is an ancient way, walked by Stone Age men and all the ages which followed. Now it is a broad, chalky path, running along the lower slope of the scarp. (A sign at one point specified the vehicles permitted to use it, which does not allow anything with a motor, but a horse-drawn carriage was depicted as a permitted conveyance.)

Crossing the Icknield Way is the Oxfordshire Way, and we turned up this to climb the scarp again. It started as a tarmacked path, quite as wide as a lane but serving just one farm, then beyond it a more conventional path entering the woods. then crossing a field to emerge at Christmas Common, and a short walk back to the car park. It was three and a half miles all told – a good family welly walk. It must be revisited too when we can see the views.

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The Cambridgeshire Length 1.4: Fenland rivers to Ely

From Fen Ditton the way is to the north along the River Cam. Here I also leave Brooke’s cruel caricatures of the villages about Cambridge, “Ditton girls are mean and dirty”?; not that I could see in a rather pleasant village, where cricket was being played in the fields as ever it should be.

This idea I had, the bicycle-assisted walk, will not catch on. I found that while cycling expends less energy per mile, it far exceeds walking in energy per hour, and so if the idea is to telescope the time down to allow you to achieve a greater distance in the day, you will be more worn-out after that day than after a normal day’s walking. You will run out of energy sooner and may be unable to start day 2. Also, bicycles do not take well to footpaths and bridleways: the earthen surface pushes back at the wheels the way a metalled road does not and makes it very hard-going.

Much more of this route then I was walking for miles, not cycling but still having to lug a large bicycle with me. It is a lovely walk; I could have done without the burdensome machine though, except on the short stretches there were of good, smooth ways.

The first path from Fen Ditton is marked both with markers for the Harcamlow Way and the Fen Rivers Way. The latter would take me all the way to Ely. The Fen Rivers Way runs on both sides of the Cam and latterly the Great Ouse, so you have a choice. I crossed at Bait’s Bite Lock, where the University rowers finish their course, and north from there is a good, smooth (and very cyclable) path.

I crossed again at the bridge at Clayhithe, because I wanted to get to Upware on the way, and on that side it is not effectively cyclable – but this is a walking route I was exploring.

Endless miles it seemed, beside perfect azure waters, the landscape pancake flat but for the works of man: I walked on a bank thrown up to contain the waters. It is a broad stream, with boats – not the narrow rowing boats and the skiffs of Cambridge but proper, broad river cruisers and family yachts, some with masts (which must be collapsible for the bridges, rare as the latter are).

Other walkers were out: tired by this time I asked one if I was yet five miles from anywhere and was told that was another two and a half miles ahead. Sure enough after that time I came across my target: the inn at Upware famed across the county; the Five Miles From Anywhere No Hurry Inn. The kitchen was closed that weekend but a pint of lemonade drunk deep in the garden overlooking the river where several boats lay moored was a blessed relief. It is a popular place, Upware, though it is further than 5 miles from anywhere of size.

North again, the path waymarking disappeared at a crucial point but I managed to pick it up again, or some path anyway. I crossed the river again at the next bridge, now walking in the narrowing tongue between the River Cam and the Great Ouse. Somewhere along here I at last caught sight of the Ship of the Fens: Ely Cathedral.

The two rivers join at a marina: here the Great Ouse upstream is known to boatmen as ‘the Old West’, as recounted by a boater with a Cambridgeshire flag flying from his cabin. I crossed the Old West on a semi-circular bridge and followed all the way downstream toward the mini city, Ely.

It was about 7 o’clock when I got there: six hours later than planned because I had not reckoned on how hard-going this bicycle business would be, and in no state for Day 2, which will wait a bit now.

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The Cambridgeshire Length 1.3: Cambridge waters hurry by

The City of Cambridge is the magnet for all the county, and for the scientific brains of the world, and has grown since the days I knew it. There is more to it than the University, but for the service of the latter it has grown.

I left Coton (which is not “full of nameless crimes” as Brooke insists) to carry on east, and from this point a dedicated cycle path has been provided, so my bicycle was now in its element at last. I was still on the Harcamlow Way and the Wimpole Way, and also found curious waymarkers with “GMT”, which turned out to mean “Greenwich Meridian Trail”; Cambridge is just east of the line.

The path goes by new developments – not just houses but after it clambers over the M11 are research campuses for the University (or some such) and it was a while before I reached the familiarity of Queen’s Road and thence Garrett Hostel Lane to the Backs and the river.

Stourbridge Common

Time for lunch on Market Hill. There’s always variety there. (The problem with the town is they remind you that there’s some epidemic or other going on and demand that I root deep in my backpack for the face-nappy I had happily been forgetting about all day.)

The city is very green – not just the Backs but with parks and commons, and I headed out to Midsummer Common, along the river and to Stourbridge Common and out of the city. There used to be a great merchant fair held on Stourbridge Common in past ages, described as comparable to that at Nizhny Novgorod (which is not a helpful comparison, to be frank). For now it is the greensward which reaches out to a little village that marks the beginning of the fen: Fen Ditton. Northward I would look for the Fen Rivers Way.

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The Cambridgeshire Length 1.2: Meads towards Haslingfield and Coton

Saturday was an interesting day, starting my odyssey in Odsey as planned and heading north-east to find a walking route across the county. It was, as I concluded in my opening post, not a cycle ride but a bicycle-assisted walk, because I was following footpaths and bridleways, and using a bicycle just to cut the time down. Crumbs, it is tiring doing that though.

There are in south-western Cambridgeshire two specific long-distance routes that can be followed through very pleasant country – the Harcamlow Way and the Wimpole Way: the latter coincides with the former but in places is better marked. These defined most of my track to Cambridge.

Cycling – Morden

The start, after I had headed half a mile in the wrong direction to take in the southernmost point of the county on the A505, was to slip behind the station and follow paths to Morden Grange Farm and north to an ancient, broad and straight track (a Roman road, perhaps? I don’t know) which runs for some miles to the east, to the main road at Bassingbourne. Just after this it meets the Harcamlow Way heading north on smaller paths.

I came across another part of the oddity that is the Harcamlow Way when walking the Hertfordshire Border Walk. It is a loose figure-of-eight route from Harlow to Cambridge and back again and seems to turn up everywhere. It served a purpose and led me to Wimpole Hall: I came up the long avenue of trees, past an abandoned ornamental lake, to the house itself – a magnificent Stuart-era / Georgian country mansion fallen into the clutches of the National Trust.

It struck me that I was going all round the houses to follow the paths – a straight route on the roads would have been half the distance, but it would have been on roads.

North of the Wimpole Estate, the Harcamlow Way signage fades and I followed the Wimpole Way, which led north through Kingston and to a sudden east turn directly towards Cambridge, on broader paths promising a destination, to Coton, and a brief pause.

(I didn’t go anywhere near Haslingfield – that’s just in the poem.)

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The Cambridgeshire Length 1.1: An Odsey start

Odsey, early morning. I pitched up at Ashwell and Morden Station in the early morning, in the very southernmost corner of Cambridgeshire. I have been here before, when replotting part of the Hertfordshire Border Walk but this time I am looking on the other side of the border: my target is Cambridgeshire, and I look north. It is the start of a gruelling day.

‘Cambridgeshire, of all England. the shire for men who understand’ said Rupert Brooke. His Grantchester, a true jewel of the county, is not on this morning’s route, alas. It could be a variant I suppose.

Actually I am writing this in advance, in anticipation. I may dip down to the actual southernmost point of the shire, but essentially is starts at the station and thence across the fields: there are some convenient bridleways hereabouts, which is just as well because this time I am on a bicycle: I am still going for paths in preference to roads, so the route which emerges can be walked, and because the back ways are where the charm is found.

The first target destination is Wimpole Hall, by which time I will have encountered the Harcamlow Way, and that will lead all the way into Cambridge.

I was feeling confident about getting a lot of distance done in the morning, because I have done so before, but typing this I recall two things: firstly I was much younger then, and secondly I was using good roads, when today I will be on slippery chalk and flint paths, but at least it should be dry. Some paths will be unsuitable for wheels, but I see this not as a cycle ride but as a bicycle-assisted walk.

I will see, anyway.

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The Cambridgeshire problem

Cambridgeshire is a beautiful county, where I spent many idyllic years, and I drove all over it and cycled over much of it, and walked too. However county walk, a Cambridgeshire Border Walk or Cambridgeshire Way, runs into a problem in the fens.

My challenge is to length the whole county in a way I can enjoy so that other may too, and open other, more accessible routes as I can.

Forget what you see on the conventional maps showing administrative areas; the real Cambridgeshire is a pleasingly banana/barbell-shaped county, broad in its village-dotted south, with a narrow waist opening into the steam-iron flat fenland in the north. The south of the county is laced with footpaths and bridleways and many walking routes can be drawn and enjoyed amongst the villages. The fenland though has a more austere beauty. The bulk of it has no meandering paths – just arrow-straight roads and droveways and these can be very tedious indeed to the walker.

To the east of Ely there are bridleways in abundance between the villages and the Isle of Ely from here looks a little less unearthly than the acres beyond, but they are village paths and not a route.

The landscape of the drained fenland, with its lodes and droveways, fills the whole of the north of Cambridgeshire, the Isle of Ely, and comes right to the edge of Cambridge too, where I have walked extensively.

Standing in the fenland, paused looking at vast horizons, nothing but fields and hedges, distant grain silos and far away the tower of Ely Cathedral, you feels small in the vastness of creation. This is a land which should not be shunned just for ease. The fenland must be penetrated.

The plan then: take a bicycle to the southernmost point of Cambridgeshire at Odsey, and then walk and cycle north, all the way to the northernmost point at Tydd Gote, by way of the two cities, Cambridge and Ely, and the fenland towns, keeping within the county and finding a pretty, yet practical, route, off the road where possible and on quiet roads where not.

(One certain point of the route is Mepal: any route across Cambridgeshire must cross the great drainage system of the fens, Old Bedford River and New Bedford River slicing in a straight line southwest to northeast across Cambridgeshire and Norfolk, and within Cambridgeshire there are only two crossing points; a pair of bridges at Mepal and the old bridges a mile to the south.)

It will not be a heavy-boot route as previous expeditions have been; it should be cycled most of the way, but others may wish to follow on foot.

There is only one way to find out if it is practical, and that is to go out and do it.