Hiking the suburban wild places

Rupert Barnes

Endless rows of identical semi-detached houses on roads laid down by compass and set-square built for the station – get up, get the train out, work, get the train home, sleep. The Victorians hated the new suburbs their industry created:  the “Dark Suburbs”, a metaphor for a land separated from culture doomed to ignorance; but then those left in the towns would say that.  What were these new, amorphous neighbourhoods obliterating the green fields?  No seats of learning, no theatres, no ancient churches – all the necessities of civilisation – and only the means to get out.

That is not true though, is it? The rivers are still there, and the little countryside brooks, and village greens, if hemmed in by habitation, and the churches and the theatres which have sprung up.  The pretty, well-tended park is not a gift of municipal benevolence, but a reserve surviving from what was always there.  The foxes that run though the end of the garden did not come in from the countryside:  it was the town which came into their countryside.

Create your walk through the suburban countryside: this is what the Middlesex Greenway is about, the walk which I will be reopening at the weekend, and there is room for many more explorations to find the suburban wild places.

The suburbs everywhere took a pattern from the planned development of “Metro-Land“, where the ideal was rus in urbe:  the countryside in the town, to each house a preserved plot of meadow as its garden; and between the houses the countryside remains.  Of those footpaths that strung the old villages together, many remain, but you have to go to have a look.  If you are missing all this, you are missing the very point of the suburbs.

Switch off Googlemaps and satnavs and whatever: they are only interested in drivers and roads.  Step into the open and breathe, and find those little paths that were here long before the encroaching suburb. Locked in a charging steel box you go from town to town, but a good map, a paper, Ordnance Survey map, shows the actual landscape, deep in the conurbations.

Even in unrelenting streetscape, there is variety and detail to be found on foot that a driver misses, and yes you can take joy in the presence of your fellow man, in all his quirky variety. Those once identical houses are not identical any more, after generations of individualisation.  The bland conformity is found in cheap, concrete council estates – a pile of bricks, a slab of concrete, a square of scrub grass behind a two-foot plastic-coated chain-link fence – but even they have not blunted the human spirit and those who have bought their houses have shown that they can be made beautiful.

This is what the Middlesex Greenway explores in the most suburbanised county of them all; Middlesex. It finds the green western edge of the county by rivers and farms, but then plunges into the suburbs, finding the parks, the paths by hidden country streams, even farms in the conurbation, and many forgotten places. It then steps into the relentless streets but not to rush by, so they too can be appreciated in their variety, from the ground. There too are parks and pocket-parks known locally and there for you to walk. Eventually the Middlesex Greenway emerges by the River Lee, canalised for industry but where its banks are bursting with fragrant nature which will not submit to the slide-rule. All this is there to be found.

Follow my route on the Middlesex Greenway

I am told that it can also be followed on Twitter: @wildthing_uk

To donate to Stroke Care, click here.

Rupert Barnes

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.

Walking the Middlesex Greenway

On Saturday 21 October 2017 I will be starting to walk the Middlesex Greenway, from Staines in the south-west to Enfield Lock in the north-east.  Using Ordnance Survey’s on-line tools, I have calculated the distance at 45 miles, and how long it will take I cannot say, but I have set two weekends aside.

The intention is to re-open the route – to see that it is still walkable and if not then to do something about that, and to encourage others to walk the route or sections of the route, for health and, frankly, for the pure pleasure of it.

I am also looking to encourage donations to the Stroke Association:  there is a link below for donations, and I will include a link on each post I make as I go along.

The route has not been walked in full, as far as I am aware, since Stephen Collins devised it and walked it 1990:  he took two days, but then he was a keen and frequent hillwalker.  I am also a keen hillwalker, but less frequent.  I also have to make notes as I go and check that the path is still walkable.  I have also possibly chosen a poor time of the year in terms of visibility:  the daylight hours are short, though in all other respects an autumn walk is a sensual delight.

The Middlesex Greenway is, if it is still walkable, an ideal long-distance route for those of us in the suburbs:  good hard work and running close to stations for getting there and getting home, while exploring lesser known parts of what we think are familiar places.

Actually, don’t just let me tell you:  pull your boots on and explore it yourself .

I will post here as I go when I can, and I am told that it can also be followed on Twitter: @wildthing_uk

Follow my route

To donate to Stroke Care, click here.

Rupert Barnes

Ben Macdhui by way of Cairngorm. Stage 3: The way home

From the summit of Ben Macdhui I was not content to trudge back just the way I had come.  However the first step is back down the last path to the summit.  Somehow it seemed more rugged and ankle-churning on the way down (again, thank goodness for good boots with inflexible soles).  I followed the mini-cairns back down to just above Lochan Buidhe, where paths diverge, and this time to the higher, left-hand path, heading north.

This looks to be a less frequented path.  It runs just the west side of the ridge of the bealach on which I had seen the reindeer, and to the west of it there are fearsome scree slopes dropping away down into a deep, capacious, precipitous valley, called Lairig Ghru, which is a main north-south mountain pass through the Cairngorms:  a path runs all through the pass that can be followed all the way from Aviemore to Braemar.  The River Dee rises in the Pools of Dee in Lairig Ghru just below where I turned off from the lochan, though unseen.

The valley is a wonder, but completely unphotographable (though I tried).  There are postcards in the shops of Aviemore showing Lairig Ghru under snow, which must be a spectacle.

The path leads above the valley for a couple of miles, and passes west of Stob Coire an t-Sneachda, and then begins to descend as the Ski Centre comes distantly into sight.  It is a well defined path, along the face of the slope and with some quick declivities.  The National Park authorities have been helpful in paving the path, that would otherwise be washed away by the burns running down the slopes, and bridging the main streams.

From here it is just a question of bashing on until I emerged in the car park (just as my family pulled into it).  A good day all in all.

It is the final summit plateau alone in the air, and distant view of the mighty fells beyond which will stay with me.

Ben Macdhui by way of Cairngorm. Stage 2: Ben Macdhui

Ben Macdhui, otherwise written ‘Ben Macdui’, is the second highest mountain in the British Isles, exceeded only by Ben Nevis, and the highest of the Cairngorm Mountains.  In the first part I described the first part of the climb, to the summit of Cairn Gorm.  The two peaks are joined by a high ridge, but a fair bit of climbing lied ahead and several miles to reach Ben Macdhui.

To the west of Cairngorm is a plunging cliff in the tight horseshoe of the Coire an t-Sneachda.  To the south the land soon drops into the long, deep corrie around Loch Avon.  The route toward Ben Macdhui heads west to the cliff-edge.  The clifftop, incidentally, marks the border of Inverness-shire with Banffshire.

Path along the Stob Coire an t-Sneachda

The path looks precarious from a distance, as it follows the edge of the sheer cliff.  In a strong wind or hail it could be very hazardous (and the first time I climbed Cairn Gorm I was battered by pea-sized hailstones in a fifty-knot wind), but this time it was a fine walk, climbing higher, and alternately dipping, in just light wind and rain, which frequently lifted, and the path is far enough from the cliff-edge to be comfortable.

However, when there is snow, it is another matter.  Snow can build up on the cliff, and form cornices, which is to say snow ridges overhanging the void, and with the path invisible a walker can easily step trustingly on the snow cornice; effectively stepping out onto thin air.

Grazing reindeer

I went in August, so that danger was not there; there was still snow though, in a sheltered spot above Loch Avon.  Within the snow patch, animals were gathered, of a type I had never expected to meeting in these slopes.  Turning then from the corrie (Coire an t-Sneachda), the path leads south, along a broad ridge below which the land drops down increasingly steeply to Loch Avon.

Here was the enduring snow patch in the distance and within it many moving shapes.  Binoculars showed me a distinctive shape I had not seen since a holiday in Norway many years ago – reindeer.  The over a rise the rest of the herd appeared, unbothered by me nor by other walkers on the path.  Reindeer have not been native to the Highlands since the Ice Age, but they were reintroduced in places in the 1950s, and now there is a thriving herd, unbothered by man, and not hunted.

Soon then as the other walkers gave up or disappeared, I came to my lunch spot:  the azure water of Lochan Buidhe.

Lochan Buidhe

Lochan Buidhe is a broad, shallow lake and an important landmark on the path.  From its foot runs a little stream, Fèith Buidhe, which plunges down the corrie to the east into Loch Avon: it may be considered the source of the River Avon.

From Lochan Buidhe, the path turns south again and climbs relentlessly over rocky ground:  thank goodness for sturdy boots with solid soles.  There is eventually a line of tiny cairns to mark the way.  I thought at the time that to find the top I would just have to look for the highest mountain going and walk to it, but the landscape is very misleading – gorgeous, frightful, but misleading, as all around there are other famous peaks of the Cairngorms, and in this the mountain top just a mile and a half away may be lost.  At this point though another walker appeared heading for the summit and reassured me of the way and spurred me on notwithstanding the ground.

Ben Macdhui:  the summit

Then, eventually, there was the summit, marked with a crafted cairn and a toposcope.  Ranged all around it in the distance to the south were other mountains with whose names I was very familiar, even if I had not trodden their slopes, yet:  Braeriach, Carn Toul, Carn a’ Mhaim, Derry Cairngorm, and far off somewhere The Fiddler.  Then the cloud lifted and far in the distance to the south-west appeared a familiar shape:  Ben Nevis.  Here the two highest mountains in the kingdom can salute each other.

There I stood in the midst of the Cairngorms, higher than any man in civilisation, unless they stood on the summit glimpsed for a moment in the distance.  My companion of the last climb had disappeared as suddenly as he had appeared, leaving the mountain to me alone.  It just remained then to find a way back.

RB at the summit

Ben Macdhui by way of Cairngorm. Stage 1: Cairn Gorm

Cairn Gorm is a worthwhile climb in itself, as well as the first step to Ben Macdhui, the second-highest mountain in the British Isles.   The best starting and finishing point is the car park of the Ski Centre at the foot of Cairngorm: from Aviemore there is a long, sinuous road eastwards through the forest (which is of great interest in itself) and which climbs to the Ski Centre and no further, at 2,030 feet above sea level.  The Ski Centre is manned in the walking season as well as the skiing season, and a helpful mountain ranger hut can guide newcomers on such useful points as where to find the start of the path (up past the toilet block and turn left at the arrow), points to be careful, and not to do it in flip-flops (I know, I know, but some people…)

Looking down on the car park

One thing is out:  the ski lift is not available to walkers.  Although it operates throughout the year, passengers are not permitted to ride it to the highest station and walk from there, as this could mean too much wear on the upper slopes of the mountain by the lazy:  to reach the summit you have to be a serious walker and start from the bottom of the hill.

The path starts as a long haul straight up the flank of Cairn Gorm until the path reaches the top ski-lift station, where it flattens somewhat and the views are spectacular down over the forest and Loch Morlich, and over to Aviemore in Strathspey.

From this point the top of Cairn Gorm rises apparently as cone above you, with a clear, straight path upwards, marked with cairns.  It is another, inviting hike upwards.  In clear weather the path is plain if precipitous path.  In a hailstorm (as when I first climbed the mountain) the cairns are a guide which are much needed.

It is not the top you see though:  that is further on as the slope curves away.  The first haul up the summit dome is a rewarding, steep push, which later calms down and the line of cairns leads eventually to the massive cairn at the summit of Cairn Gorm.

The summit areas is broad, and away from the summit cairn stands a weather station (abandoned?  I could not tell).  When the weather clears a fine view extends over the north, to the green forest of Rothiemurchus and The Queen’s Forest, and to Loch Morlich, and to the west over the threatening ridge of Stob Coire an t-Sneachda (which you soon realise with trembling is your next destination), and to the south rise the unearthly, trackless peaks of the inner parts of the Cairngorm Mountains.

The climb is worthwhile on its own.  Next though, we will follow to Ben Macdhui itself.

Ben Macdhui by way of Cairngorm

Ben Macdhui in the Cairngorm Mountains stands at 4,295 feet:  the second-highest peak in the British Isles.  As its summit marks the border between Aberdeenshire and Banffshire, it is also the county top of both of those counties.  BenMacdhui is one of just nine mountains in the British Isles exceeding 4,000 feet.

While there are plenty of guides to climbing the highest mountain, Ben Nevis, standing prominently above Fort William, and the paths to its summit are ground deep with countless boots, there are fewer visitors to the second highest, though it is just 114 feet short of its rival and it was once believed (until more accurate measurements were available) that Ben Macdhui was the higher.

Cairn Gorm (or Cairngorm) to the north climbs to 4,081 feet (its summit marking the border of Banffshire with Inverness-shire) and is better known as it gives its name to the whole Cairngorm range and is far more accessible:  there is long established skiing centre here and a ski-lift running up the mountain to well short of its top and facilities at the foot of the mountain.  It also stands between Ben Macdhui and civilisation and so most climbs of Ben Macdhui pass over Cairngorm first.

The starting base for a climb of Cairn Gorm is Aviemore, but the village is a long way from the foot of the mountain. The best starting and finishing point is the car park of the Ski Centre at the foot of Cairngorm: from Aviemore there is a long, sinuous road eastwards through the forest (which is of great interest in itself) and which climbs to the Ski Centre and no further.  Other, more challenging starting points are available from stops along the road, but with limited parking (and without the helpful mountain guides).

In later posts I will describe the climb.

County Topping

In a post last month, I looked at the county top of Hampshire (and Berkshire). What is a county top though?

Basically, a county top is the highest point of a county. It should only be a traditional county:  there are no prizes for the highest bureaucratic interference.

Therefore as there are 92 counties in the United Kingdom, and 26 in the Republic of Ireland, there should be 118 county tops in the British Isles, except that some of them are shared between two counties; the summit of the hill marking the county border. Of these, Ben Macdhui is the top of Aberdeenshire and of Banffshire; Cuilcagh of Fermanagh and of County Cavan; Sawel of County Londonderry and of Tyrone; Arderin of Laois and of Offaly; Mount Leinster of both Carlow and Wexford.  Some hills have two county tops on them in different places, like Meikle Says Law in East Lothian and Berwickshire, and Walbury Hill in Hampshire and Berkshire, where the very summit belongs to one county alone.  Therefore there are by this reckoning 89 county tops in the United Kingdom, or 114 county tops in the whole of the British Isles.  You could add the Isle of Man too, though it is not a county, making 115.

Serious toppers have made another sensible rule too: it should be the natural ground level, so no artificial structure counts:  neither banks nor buildings.  Otherwise you might take the lift to the top of One Canada Square in Canary Wharf and claim to have topped Middlesex.

With all this in mind, serious research was carried out for the Historic Counties Trust, resulting in a list published on Wikishire:

County topping is a long process if you want to bag them all but rewarding.

Books and top toppers

  • Johnny Muir has written a book “The UK’s County Tops – Reaching the Top of 91 Historic Counties” (though his effort predated the work of the Historic Counties Trust and he missed Sgùrr Mòr in Cromartyshire; a forgivable omission).
  • Andy Strangeway has set out to sleep overnight on every county top:  by September 2012 he had become the first person to sleep on the summit of all 52 counties of England and Wales.  (I joined him for the penultimate top on that list, which was Bush Ground in Huntingdonshire.)

Looping Lancashire

Lancashire has given us many things: hotpot, Eccles cake, Stan Laurel – oh, and the Industrial Revolution and the birth of the Modern Age.  It is a county of wonder and practicality, with some of the kingdom’s greatest cities and greatest wild places, so every celebration of the county is deeply meant.

A Lancashire Border Walk is being devised, to provide a walking route all around the bounds of the county.  The idea was the first inspiration for the county boundary walks being hosted on WildþingUK, and likewise the Lancashire project page is being hosted here.  It is more challenging than any other yet devised, as Lancashire is one of the biggest counties in Britain, stretching from the River Mersey and the vast conurbations of South Lancashire, to the Furness Fells of the Lake District.  The route will have to take a long coastline, and the Pennine fell country, where the county borders its rival, Yorkshire.

The Friends of Real Lancashire are looking for help to complete the drawing of the route by 27 November – Lancashire Day.  Then the next challenge is for a hardy soul to walk the new route for the first time.

When anyone is going to walk the route – please drop us a line.  Blog on it here if you can.  It won’t be me though!

Pilot Hill shot down over Hampshire

Pilot Hill is not what it seems.  In published lists of county tops, the hill frequently listed as the county top of Hampshire is Pilot Hill, at 938 feet on the ridge of the North Hampshire Downs.  However, the cartography has been checked by the Association of British Counties and it is not:  the compilers of these lists have been misled by modern administrative boundaries.  Since county tops are reckoned by traditional counties, not by shifting administrative conveniences, that will not do.

To the south of the ridge lies Combe, in Hampshire, whose administrative bounds have been redrawn by bureaucrats to encompass parts of Berkshire (no doubt they had their reasons for doing it) and while that does not affect the historic counties, it does cause confusion on maps.

The county boundary runs along the path that follows the chalk ridge of the downs here (a beautiful place for walking), and through the middle of a vast Iron Age hill fort, and this is where counties toppers should be visiting:  the county top of Hampshire is the summit of Walbury Hill, at 974 feet, the hill encompassed by the Iron Age fortifications.  The summit point is marked by a trig point in the middle of a farmer’s field.

The erroneous lists frequently give Walbury Hill as the county top of Berkshire, and they are right there, though the summit is exclusive to Hampshire:  the highest point of Berkshire is on the county border, on the ridge path by the gate leading up to the summit (at 965 feet).

The route along the ridge here is known as the ‘Wayfarer’s Walk’, and a pleasant walk it is on a sunny day; past the impressive earthworks on Walbury Hill walking eastward the path dips and climbs through open land with broad vistas over the Berkshire countryside, and then climbs suddenly through a wood to the top of Pilot Hill, which is worth a visit, even if it has been knocked off its perch.

Pilot Hill holds its own however as the highest hill wholly in Hampshire.