Mountainside burning

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.

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Maps and books

Pathfinder Walk

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.

Maps

Route map

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

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.

Main article

Maps and books

stroke

Route map

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.

Maps

Route map

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.

Maps

Route map

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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