More to Gloucestershire than charms the eye

In Gloucestershire I have had some of my most enchanting walks, partly so because of the natural beauties and partly because the company I had.

I think of Gloucestershire for the Cotswolds, whose hills and combes are the essence of gentle walking country, and the honey-coloured villages, In which even the humblest cottage is of the distinctive stone hewn from these hills.

Is there more to the county though?  It is really in three quite distinctive parts – the Cotswolds, the Severn Vale and beyond it the Forest of Dean, as far as the River Wye and the bounds of Monmouthshire.  That is a lot to sample.

There are endless walking routes about the Cotswolds, and some lovely ones within the Forest of Dean. There is one walking route uniting the three parts of the county- the Gloucester Way.

The Gloucester Way stretches the whole width of the county, from the Wye at Chepstow out through the forest, to the Severn and to Gloucester itself.  Then it heads to the most celebrated Cotswold town, Stowe on the Wold, which is close to the Oxfordshire border, before cutting back to Tewkesbury, at the Worcestershire border.

At 100 miles, the route is something of a challenge, but as a way to explore Gloucestershire, it is amongst the best.

There should be more room for Gloucestershire walks, so I will endeavour to provide them, as I come to them.

Freeland: a celebration

Freeland is an Oxfordshire village, in the green middle of the county, the star and finish of a celebration walk of 17½  miles.

The walk takes in some pretty, hidden villages, a canal built for industry but now serving leisure, broad farmland, and the mighty estate of Blenheim Palace. It takes in at one point part of Shakespeare’s Way, reminding us of where we are in the middle of the British imagination.

The path through the estate runs to the north end of one of the great lakes of the park, and round the Column of Victory, celebrating the feats of arms achieved by the Duke of Marlborough, and on through some of the finest of the grounds.

Even at the end of January, or the dawn of a new age, there is no better way to wash the old air out of your lungs than with a vigorous walk n some of the loveliest countryside.

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Wellies along the Colne: London Colney and Colney Hatch

Just before New Year we headed out for another family welly walk, starting in an unfamiliar place by a familiar river: a six mile walk along the upper course of the River Colne, from London Colney, south-west of St Albans.

London Colney has the heart of a pretty village round a green by the little river, if you ignore the overwhelming grey modern development brought by the motorway junction.  Or destination eastwards was Colney Hatch.

We started for convenience in the main car park in London Colney, threading through alleys to avoid the main road before we needed it, and thence down to the village’s interesting bridge over the River Colne:  a fine, elegant, brick-built bridge with seven arches, and all this for a river little bigger than a brook, though it spreads into a wide pool above the bridge.

The path follows the river upstream, eastward, and very soon comes upon a children’s petting farm (which even in the after-Christmas frost was open with eager, short customers.  Beyond the farm you depart from the riverside to a series of fishing lakes, created from old gravel pits, whose banks are being reclaimed by nature.

Beyond here the path suddenly comes upon and crosses over a quarry conveyer belt, serving Tyttenhanger Quarry.

Approaching Colney Heath, there is a model railway centre created by the North London Society of Model Engineers. Not much to say as it was closed when I passed and nothing could be seen.

Instead of taking the path through the common on the south side of the river, we went to see the village which was after all the interim destination, Colney Hatch.  Through the edge of the village and along the north edge of the common, we had lunch before the return leg.

The river must be crossed, and here there is a ford: wellies were needed in the cold water.

The conveyor belt

This is the return leg. Again, it is possible to follow a path west and south-west to Tyttenhanger Farm, but the route chosen here follows through the common close to the road, and along field-edges until the farm’s entrance track, when the route heads north-east a short way, not to the farm, but the path turns off again, once again to encounter the long conveyor belt.

Here there are little woods and the river again; scrubby riverside land, until it reaches the petting farm again.

Under the A1081, it is soon back to London Colney and to the bridge.

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New Year’s Day welly walk in Stokenchurch

A Happy New Year to all.  Today the family enjoyed a gloriously muddy walk in the Chilterns to greet the new year and see if we approve of it.

It was a welly walk, as so often and just five and a half miles across fields and woods and valleys on the intertangled border of Oxfordshire with Buckinghamshire, beginning at Stokenchurch, in Oxfordshire.

Stokenchurch is a pretty place to start, at the village’s wide, scattered village green, and soon you escape the village, turning north into fields which were almost deserted.

The path climbed up and down, reaching the Buckinghamshire border invisibly at the edge of Crowell Wood at another fold in the land, before a short climb up to a lane. More woods followed, to Town End, one of the hamlets which makes up Radnage.

Radnage is a scattered place – not a village as such, it appears, but a collection of hamlets.  The path leads to one of these, ‘Town End’, though with no town in sight.  (At the south end of the parish, not on this walk, is a hamlet called ‘The City’. That might have to come into another walk some time.)  The parish church is not on the planned route either, but wander down the hill a little into Town End and it is across the fields, and worth a visit.  We had a picnic lunch at Radnage.

The return journey is on part of the Chiltern Way, over the fields to Grange Farm, where the lane marks the county border again so it is back into Oxfordshire. Then up and over the hill again – very muddy in winter, with many warnings to keep dogs away from sheep – but we had no dog with us, and saw no sheep – there was a llama though, and two great, black, hairy pigs rooting with delight on their snouts in the mire they had made.

All too soon it was back to Stokenchurch. A lovely day, and yes – we approve of the new year.

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High Force

High Force is a spectacular waterfall on the upper course of the River Tees, which forms the border between Yorkshire and County Durham.  It is also a popular place to visit, and there are a number of walks in and above Teesdale around the waterfall.

The main family route starts at Bowlees, on the Durham bank.  From here, you cross the road and a field into the wood edging the river, and to a swaying footbridge high above the gorge of the Tees – there are warning signs against having more that one cross the bridge at once, but whether that depend on how overweight they are is not a detail it explains.  Here you cross to the Yorkshire side of the river and start walking upstream.

Soon you reach Low Force, where the Tees tumbles in a complex of steps. The path here, along the Yorkshire bank of the Tees, is part of the Pennine Way: the Way comes up the dale from Middleton and past the waterfalls to get to the watershed ridge of Pennines.  This is a gentle walk still, and will stop short of the high fells.

In time you come to a private bridge across the river in to the Raby Estate.  For the moment, carry on past it.  The path then climbs above the dale past wilder heath, and eventually a sound of roaring thunder becomes distinct, and soon the path reveals a vantage at the top of High Force (which is a good place for  picnic). The power of the water is clear by its edge. You can see that were any poor beast to tumble into the water it would be churned and crushed mercilessly against and between rocks repeatedly and would be pulp before it were hurled far below down the fall. Its adds a grim remembrance to an otherwise lovely scene. Keep children away from the edge!

From the vantage at the top, the main route retraces your steps down to the estate bridge. Across, back to the County Durham bank, and through the meadow.  The path leads back up through the wooded fringe to the road to the High Force Hotel: buy tickets for the waterfall, then back across the road through a gate and down through the woods.

Daniel Defoe wrote “The Force is an august scene; the noblest cascade I ever beheld; description is beggared in the subject”. As we stood admiring, there was something like a small earthquake – the rocks trembled and several visitors in different parts started and commented on it. A Victorian writer wrote that “the concussion of the waters produces a sensible tremor in the earth for some distance; and the noise of the fall is heard for many miles round the country”.

Climbing from High Force back to the hotel, there is a path up over the hill, to a farm with the name “Dirt Pit”, and from there up and over and down again to Bowlees.

Other, wider routes are traceable around Teesdale, past the waterfalls or above them.

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Maps and books

  • Ordnance Survey Landranger series (1:50 000):
  • Ordnance Survey Explorer series (1:25 000), irksomely, on the border of two maps:

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The Border Abbeys Way

The Border Abbeys Way is a secret delight. I have been enchanted by the parts I have walked, and one day intend to walk it all. It winds through the Middle Shires, visiting three counties in a circular walk of 65 miles, between the abbeys which give it a name.

The Border Abbeys Way is a secret delight I have long been enchanted by the sections I have visited, and one day intend to walk the whole way in one.  It is  lovely way to explore the prettiest aspects of some of the prettiest shires in the land. It winds through the Middle Shires, primarily in Roxburghshire, but visiting three counties in a circular walk of 65 miles.

The theme of the way is in its name: in the Twelfth Century, King David I built a series of monasteries, in his southern borderlands – they were unlike anything Scotland had seen before: they were modern, of the European pattern that was now established across England, and the great estates the King gave them made the abbeys wealthy. In later ages they became the soaring, Gothic wonders whose denuded bones now stand in the towns to which they gave birth.

Through three shires, Roxburghshire, Selkirkshire and Berwickshire, by the Teviot and the Tweed and the lands between, this is a ring of delights.

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The Cateran Trail

The Spittal of Glenshee, sitting at the head of Glen Shee (and endlessly prettier than a vulgar and unorthographic interpretation of it name may suggest) – it is a tiny place in the midst of the ancient route north and south through the glen, at the meeting of the streams which create the Shee Water. Many have driven through on the road up Glen Shee, between the majestic hills, and I will confess that most of the time I have been hurrying through. This is a place to stop though and appreciate the enfolding mountains, the lonely isolation and wonder about the silent slopes wetted by solitary burns. Then again, you can climb and see.

This is Perthshire, a huge county of accessible spectacle that has to be explored, and is best on foot.

There is a lovely walking route that has been devised to take you off the road, up three of the glens in the north-east of Perthshire and into neighbouring Angus and over the mountains between, from Blairgowrie to the Spittal of Glenshee: the Cateran Trail.

The trail is a circular route 64 miles long with challenging climbs: it is far from a day-walk: it is recommended to do it in five days, and overnight stops are available. (The ‘Spittal’ in Spittal of Glenshee mean a place of hospitality in former days.)

The route is well established and waymarked throughout. It follows old drove roads and ancient tracks across a varied terrain of farmland, forests and moors.

The name of the trail is rougher: it is named after the Caterans: the bands of marauding cattle thieves who raided Strathardle, Glenshee and Glen Isla from the Middle Ages until they were pacified in the 17th century.

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The Icknield Way Path

The Icknield Way Path carried one of my favourite sections of the Hertfordshire Border Walk, as I could hardly avoid expressing on the first ‘Herts Embraced’ walk (on Day 3).  The path carries a heritage with it that connects you to the walkers of ancient ages, for it follows a road that was ancient even before the Romans came, and which in Anglo-Saxon days was noted as one of the Great Roads of Britain.

Much of the ancient Icknield Way is now tarmacked road, but other parts are remarkably left as footpath and bridleway, as they would have been in ancient days.  It runs roughly along the chalk ridge of the Chilterns, above the scarp, and the Icknield Way Path follows the ancient road, or close by it, from Ivinghoe Beacon in Buckinghamshire, and thence in an east-north-easterly direction across into Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Suffolk, for much of its length forming the borders of counties.  (It was in the latter capacity of course that it recommended itself to the Hertfordshire Border Walk.)

That is not quite the end either – Ivinghoe Beacon is the beginning of the Ridgeway long-distance route, and the north-easternmost end at Knettleshall Heath is the start of the Peddar’s Way.

To describe the walk is beyond a single, brief post. I have walk long, lovely stretches, but not the whole thing.  The rest of it is bookmarked for later explorations.  I’ll take a picnic: those chalk grasslands looking out far over the lower land below the escarpment are as if created for picnics.

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The route is long, stretching across several maps.  It might be done with standard Landranger maps, though the additional detail of an Explorer map can be very helpful.

In the Ordnance Survey Explorer, 1:50 000 series:

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The Timeball and Telegraph Trail

The Timeball and Telegraph Trail is a remarkably bold route across the whole of Kent, from Greenwich in Kent’s north-westernmost corner to the sea at Deal.

The Timeball and Telegraph Trail is a remarkably bold route across the whole of Kent, from historic Greenwich in Kent’s north-westernmost corner, to the easternmost sea at Deal. When hastily plotting a route across Kent for last weekend’s post I used a couple of known long-distance routes and tied them together with a long, straight walk along a main road, the old Roman road from Durovernum Cantiacorum (Canterbury) to Londinium. That is not ideal though.  Then I came across the Timeball and Telegraph Trail, which does the job with a pretty route (mainly). I will replot the London to Brussels route with it in due course.

The slightly eccentric name actually describes the origin of the route elegantly. There stands on Deal seafront a tower with a timeball – a ball which was dropped at the moment of 1 pm each day, Greenwich Time, visible from the ships anchored offshore, to synchronise their timekeeping. It is an exact counterpart of the timeball on the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, and in the days before radio or the electric telegraph the moment of 1 o’clock was transmitted from Greenwich to Deal by a series of semaphore telegraph stations, signalling from hill to hill with remarkable rapidity. In those heady days, Deal was a busy port and many ships anchored the Downs, the sheltered water off the little town. (A map does this roadstead an injustice showing it as open sea – ships may moor in deep water sheltered between the Kent coast to the west and the north, and the Goodwin Sands to the east.) Deal is a quieter place now, relying on its old charm.

Cottage in Womenswold, Kent

The route then runs the same route from Greenwich to Deal, not straight like the telegraph signals but looping over those hills. It is 97 miles long. On the way, the trail takes in some lovely parts of Kent – a county known for loveliness at least once you have cleared the suburbs and can avoid the motorways crashing through it, and this trail seeks to find that right route. In doing so, it begins close to the north-westernmost point of Kent, in Greenwich: from here it is a challenge not to end up waking along roads as the county is crossed by major routes linking the main nodes of the journey, but the Timeball and Telegraph Trail skilfully picks its way though, in parks and intrusions of green space into the metropolis, through to Dartford, then on farm ways to Kent’s second city, Rochester, where it crosses the Medway, then main, sparsely bridged river cleaving the county in twain.

From Rochester the obvious route 9as I found) would be straight along the Roman road it, but the trail instead shadows it along the low-lying littoral of the Thames Estuary, to Faversham, before heading south-east.  Here I follows downland paths, looping east, crossing straight beneath the main roads and railway coming from Europe to Womenswold and then east to the sea at Deal.

I cannot hail the Timeball and Telegraph Trail as a true ‘county way’ for Kent as it is all in the northern half of the county and thus omits some of the best bits of the Garden of England, but is the closest I have come to so far.

Route map

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Ordnance Survey Explorer (1:25 000 000)

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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 has 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

Maps

Ordnance Survey Explorer (1:25 000 000)