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.

Main article

Route map

Printed map

Walking from (or to) Brussels: announcing victory (or surrender)

Wellington’s dispatch from Waterloo was carried from Brussels to London. It would be a long walk (and if you walk to Brussels it may announce not victory but surrender.) Still, the challenge is finding the best route.

When the cannon had ceased to bellow on the evening of 18 June 1815, Wellington rode to his headquarters at Waterloo, just south of Brussels, and in the small hours of the morning wrote his dispatch, which Major Percy carried at once to Ostend, and thence to London.  The party landed at Broadstairs, on the Isle of Thanet north of Ramsgate, but anyone walking the route will find there is no ferry these days, so Dover will have to do.  If walking from London to Brussels, you may be carrying not news of victory but news of surrender – but I will let the politicians worry about that.

Percy used horses and coaches. On foot it will take longer than the three days Percy took:  the walk to Dover is about a hundred miles, which is a five day walk if you are not caning it.  (I know the LDWA have a challenge to walk 100 miles in 48 hours; well. you can try it.)

The best route should keep off the roads.  It is mainly through Kent, the Garden of England, which should promise pleasing scenery albeit even though the county is sliced up by major roads and railways. The direct route is by road, on old Roman routes, as the way from Dubris to Londinium is an ancient route. There must be other ways.  There is in fact the Timeball and Telegraph Trail, which runs most of the way we want to go, all the way from Greenwich to close to Dover and avoiding the long road walk, so while I have left my original route on the map, I have (since I first posted this) replotted the London to Dover section using the Timeball and Telegraph.

I have carefully mapped it as a proper route, though not one I have walked nor intend to.  To start though I have linked existing walks – the Thames Path from Westminster to Silvertown, the foot tunnel to Woolwich and the riverside to the Darenth, thence cross-country to Rochester.  Any walk across Kent has the issue of where you cross the Medway, and Rochester is as good a place as any, and a pretty city. There the long Roman Road to Canterbury is the direct route – that does the job, but it can be avoided.

From Canterbury the North Downs Way Canterbury Loop gives a pleasing journey down to Dover.

Across the Channel you land at Ostend, in Flanders, and there you may be delighted to find the Belgian footpaths are pretty good.  The main routes are called Grand Randonnée, or Grote Routepaden; but that is for next time.  A hundred miles to the edge of the land is enough for one post – the Further Wild follows, but I have a map of it all the same.

Route map


Ordnance Survey Explorer (1:25 000 000)

As they fall silent and we look ahead

So here we are, a hundred years after the guns fell silent. As the smoke cleared, the world the men had fought to protect was gone. But plant a boot in the earth and see that men are men still. It seems so recent, familiar.  We hear the names read each year, and it is not long since the last fighting man marched off to his final billet. We can see photographs and film footage and recognise our family features in an old, sepia picture tucked in a drawer.  Did the Battle of Waterloo seem so close for those who landed in France 99 years after those guns ceased?

When we think in terms of memorials we ask if it was worth it. Yes – I wrote about that in the Salisbury Review as we marked a hundred years from the beginning of the war.  I could not hike careless across the timeless Downs if they had been churned up in industrial war as France and Flanders were. It might have come to that.

The world looks very different.  Machines in every household can tell you exactly how far it is to Tipperary, I can sit here typing on an electronic machine unimagined in those days, which is a product of the peace of the English-speaking world whose norms are now those of the world because of what was done in the bloody fields of Europe a hundred years and seventy years ago.  In this world I can be confident that my children will not see what their great-grandfather did.

A hundred years then, a hundred years in which some ill-favoured souls have laboured relentlessly to destroy from the nation all that sense of patriotism and duty which achieved victory (and they have drunk deep of the tax money paid by Britons to do so, to our shame).  Yet we are here, unbowed and honouring those who gave all to defend our land and Empire.

Those faces are familiar because men are still men the whole world over, and there is no peace because men are men, nor ever will be.  We can however learn, and channel that vigour to better things, even as we that are left grow old.

Peace in the shadow of millennia of wars

Of course I took my walking boots to Israel.  It is a land where you are either removing your shoes in the presence of holiness, or scaling a scorched mountain ridge.

I had more surreal experiences in the Holy Land than anywhere else I have wandered and I will not even try to set them all down, but they will live with me forever, as they have all these years. It is a place where texts which were becoming bland through familiarity leap into life, so that they can never lie flat in the book again.  Beyond that are the people living in the land and living the land and all that lies beneath it.  That mound at the edge of town; that was a city in King David’s day.  The writing carved in that stone; it names Omri King of Israel.  That well in the quarter beyond the valley – there a blind man waited for an angel to stir the waters, until Jesus gave him sight.

Somewhere outside Jericho, in the Judean desert, I got lost on the wrong mountain – I needed a better map – and found a monastery where after a brief exchange in Greek an elderly nun explained I was on the Mount of Ill Counsel, several miles from where I thought, and so I climbed down and rested in the timeless landscape, my radio playing Elvis Presley from the Kol Yisrael transmitter above, so maybe not so timeless.  This was one of my more normal days.

Back to the centenary; yes, the date is heavy on my mind.  One hundred years ago the guns fell silent and the smoke cleared to show an unfamiliar world.  We think of the trenches, but there where I sat in the desert the war had swept through too. General Allenby advanced from Egypt through the Holy Land to dislodge the Ottoman Empire.  He took Jericho and the desert where I sat; in 1917 he entered Jerusalem, dismounted to walk like a pilgrim, a walk I also took.  Then he advanced north.

Another day I walked along the olive-clad summit of Mount Carmel.  At its southern end is the ancient fortress of Megiddo, and the reason for it is clear; as I stood on the ramparts before me stretched the broad, fertile plain that is the valley of Jezreel, a rich farmland and a gathering place for armies.  I looked out on a place where battles have been fought since time out of mind – Egyptians and Canaanites clashed here, and later Israelites and Midianites, Philistines and all the great empires which swept through.  A hundred years ago, in 1918, Allenby came here too.  Like the Egyptians, Israelites, Philistines, Assyrians and others lost to memory, he struck beneath the fortress of Megiddo, and was the final great victory which forced the Ottoman Empire to surrender.

At the foot of the mountain where it reaches the sea, in Haifa, is a war cemetery, with 305 burials of soldiers of the British Empire in the Great War, and 36 of the Second World War.  There are no poppies here on the bleached hillside, but like those in Flanders’ fields, they shall grown not old as we that are left grow old.

Rendezvous at Danger Island

The yacht slips in across the reef under a light breeze, all hands readied, tense. Silence aboard is not mirrored ashore – over the soft beat of the surf on the white sand is the sound of inhuman screaming.

A turtle swims past with what the imagination might call a knowing look on its age-old face.

Seagrass bed by Danger Island
A seagrass bed by Danger Island

The sea is alive now, shimmering with fish, and diving to meet them the birds of the isle. A bright, white pair of boobies jostles for a squid. The yacht stands off – the tide is dragging it to the razor-sharp coral.

This is Danger Island, in the British Indian Ocean Territory; a hazard and a beauty. It is a preserve of wildlife which few will ever see, and one of the many wonders those islands afford.  There is no walking here, no wind-scoured moorland, no remote vistas over forbidding fell-country – it is in everything the opposite of all the Further Wild should be to a Wildþing, and indeed man may not set foot here by law, but it is a paradise of nature, preserved for all mankind.

Hope grows in the British Antarctic

The British Antarctic Survey has just announced today that they have remeasured the mountains of Palmer Land and they are higher than we thought.  More than that:  the highest mountain in the British Antarctic Territory is actually Mount Hope, not Mount Jackson as we always thought.

We have been getting it wrong all this time the about the territory top.  I feel sorry for the BAT team who reached the summit on 23 November 1964, thinking they had reached the highest point in the British domains.  Will their children now be kitting up to scale the new top?

I know this is a bit further than most mountain walkers will go, but it is a British mountain, an impressive part of the Further WildMount Hope rises to 10,626 feet, two and a half times the height of Ben Nevis, wind-scoured and ice-bound:  beyond the reach of the everyday hiker.  Still, as Sir Ranulph said, there is no bad weather, just inappropriate clothing.

I have listed the county tops of the United Kingdom, but what of the territory tops?  It may have to be the next endeavour to wander the heights East Caicos and Cayman Brac, but the BAT?  Not this year.

St Helena flying at last

Good news from the Further Wild:  on Saturday St Helena received its first ever scheduled commercial flight: an SA Airlink service from Johannesburg by way of Windhoek.

St Helena Airport has its problems:  dangerous wind shear that can hurl an aeroplane off unexpectedly, and a runway that heads to the end of a cliff, but the flight landed safely and did not crash even once.  More good news for the moment is that Atlantic Star are still looking to begin flights from Britain to St Helena by way of BathurstBanjul.

The island is small, just 47 square miles, but filled with tough walking routes and challenging, verdant mountains.  It is a pocket paradise alone in the ocean:  “I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space”.

If it can ever become affordable, this little island might become a destination for the adventurous, as well as those seeking Napoleon’s last abode.