Dec 072019

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It was cool and misty across the Wiltshire downs. I hung over the twin bridges at Great Bedwyn, first watching the train rattle away towards Newbury, then admiring the slender curves of the Kennet & Avon Canal.

The lacy stonework of the church tower rose among autumn trees – crimson, gold, lemon yellow, scarlet. Beyond the bridge lay narrowboats with cosily smoking chimneys, a wintering community of water gypsies that looked almost as settled as the village itself.

The towpath of the Kennet & Avon led south. The canal lay as still as a pond, its grey-brown water disturbed only by the gentle pat and ripple of falling willow leaves. A milky sheen glinted on chalky fields newly sown with spring wheat. Beside Lock 61 a tremendous grunting came from a pig palace of straw bales, where a massive ginger sow luxuriated in the mud.

The tall chimney of Crofton pumping station loomed ahead, softened by mist. Built in 1812 to pump water to the adjacent summit ponds of the Kennet & Avon, nowadays its preserved Boulton & Watt steam engine, a mighty monster, is the oldest working beam engine in the world.

Here I turned aside along the canal reservoir of Wilton Water, a rushy lake winding under willows. A young heron, disturbed at my approach, took off from its fishing stance and flapped away like an animated umbrella.

Above the brick-and-timber village of Wilton, larks sang over Dodsdown. The path led across a rain-pearled beet field into the neighbouring woods of Wilton Brail and Bedwyn Brail, deer parks in the long ago. An eerie half-light lingered among the enormous storm-shattered carcases of fallen beech trees. Long tailed tits passed in a twittering flock. Sweet chestnut husks littered the path, neatly split into quarters and robbed of their contents by squirrels.

At the summit of Bedwyn Brail I sat on a bench looking across the golden woods. Just southward along the ridge lay the earthworks of a grand mansion planned, but never completed, by Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset and lord of Wolf Hall. At one time Seymour flew high as Lord Protector to his nephew, young Edward VI. But his flight ended in 1552, crashing Icarus-like to earth at the execution block.

When the foundations of Bedwyn Brail house were excavated a few years ago, the brick-built water system installed in 1549 by the royal Sergeant Plumber was found to be still working perfectly.

Start: Bedwyn railway station, Great Bedwyn, SN8 3PB (OS ref SU 280645)

Getting there: Train to Great Bedwyn; bus 22 (Marlborough-Hungerford)
Road – Great Bedwyn is signed from Froxfield on A4 east of Hungerford (M4, Jct 14).

Walk (6½ miles, easy, OS Explorer 157): South for 1¾ miles along Kennet & Avon Canal towpath. Opposite Crofton Lock pumping station, left (262623, ‘Wilton Windmill’); footpath to road in Wilton (267616). Left past Swan Inn (‘Great Bedwyn’); opposite Tidcombe turning, left (270617), ‘Crofton’ fingerpost). In 100m, right; follow yellow arrows into Wilton Brail wood (271622) and on. In ¾ mile cross road (278627); on into Bedwyn Brail wood. At benches on ridge (284625), left and follow ‘Great Bedwyn’ and ‘footpath’ for nearly 1 mile to north edge of wood (283638). Cross field to far right corner (281641, yellow arrows); right down path to road (281649); left to station.

Lunch: Three Tuns, Great Bedwyn (01672-870289;; Swan Inn, Wilton SN8 3SS (01672-870274,

Accommodation: Pelican Inn, Bath Road, Froxfield, Marlborough SN8 3JY (01488-682479,

Info: Marlborough TIC (01672-512487);
Crofton Beam Engine opening and steam days:;;

 Posted by at 02:45
Nov 232019

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Just when the Cornovi tribe built the polyhedral stronghold of Castle Ring is a matter of conjecture. Certainly it was with primitive hand tools and massed labour, long before the Romans arrived in Britain. Walking the ramparts on this bright cold morning at the southern edge of Cannock Chase, we looked out over the sunlit Staffordshire plain to crumpled hills rising far in the northeast.

The Heart of England Way trails north from Castle Ring through the depths of Cannock Chase, ‘green lung’ and recreational woodland for the cheek-by-jowl old manufacturing towns of the Black Country. None of that was even a twinkle in an industrialist’s eye when the Bishops of Lichfield and Coventry held this area as a hunting forest for their great palace at Beaudesert, the ‘beautiful wilderness’.

The wilderness looked well regulated today. Cyclists pedalled, dog walkers sauntered. The rasp of saws and rattle of mechanical grabs sounded from Stonepit Green, where piles of logs just harvested gave off a tarry, resinous whiff. Soon we’d turned aside, deeper into the forest, where the long lake of Horsepasture Pools lay ruffled by the wind.

The sun struck down through the trees, a touch of wintry warmth for the cheeks, the strong low light silvering the trunks of beech and birch and turning the dangling seed cones on the larch boughs to rows of golden lanterns. Long-tailed tits and siskins skipped in company among the cones, twittering with excitement over their treetop feasting.

A rutted track led away from Horsepasture, over Startley Hill and on west along Marquis’s Drive. After the Reformation the Paget family, Marquesses of Anglesey, replaced the Bishops of Lichfield as lords and masters of the forest, a role they sustained for 400 years until emptying coffers and the demands of the taxman drove them away.

We passed the silty streams and rushy ponds in the hollow of Seven Springs, and turned up a rubbly track over Rainbow Hill. The pebbles underfoot, as hard and cold as quartz, had been rounded and smoothed by some primordial flood through millennia of tumbling, something to conjure as we crunched this ancient stony carpet back to Castle Ring.

Start: Castle Ring car park, off Holly Hill Road, Cannock Wood WS15 4RN (OS ref SK 045126)

Getting there: Castle Ring is signposted from Cannock Wood (M6 Toll Jct T6; A5190, Burntwood).

Walk (6¼ miles, easy, OS Explorer 244): Circuit of Castle Ring hillfort, then Heart of England Way/HEW north. In ½ mile descend over crossing (040133); in 200m, at HEW/Two Saints Way marker post, bear right/east (040135) on forest road. In ¾ mile, bear left past Trout Lodge gates (050139); cross Horsepasture Pools; on for ¾ mile to road at Wandon (040146). From junction opposite (‘Rugeley’), fork left downhill (public bridleway, HEW). Follow HEW/Marquis Drive for 1 mile. Just before A460 at Moor’s Gorse, left off HEW past metal barrier (025151), up track. In 100m, right at 3-way split; in 100m, at 4-way split, follow 2nd on left, uphill/south through trees. In 1 mile pass golf clubhouse (027136); left along roadway; in 50m, right down drive. Cross road (029136). Pass barrier; left on path beside road, then follow forest road southeast for 1 mile, keeping ahead at all junctions, to HEW at Castle Ring (042128); right to car park.

Lunch: Park Gate Inn, Castle Ring WS15 4RN (01543-682742); friendly pub with bar snacks

Accommodation: The Lodge, B&B, 603 Littleworth Rd, Cannock WS12 1QQ (01543-428582,


 Posted by at 03:28
Nov 162019

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Only the upperworks of St Davids Cathedral tower are visible as you enter the smallest city in Britain. First sight of the cathedral is so unexpected it takes your breath away. You step through the arch of Porth-y-Twr gatehouse, and there, filling a hollow far below, lies this magnificent and enormous church, with the ruin of a most spectacular 14th-century Bishop’s Palace just behind.

There’s hardly a sign of the modern world, just woods and fields beyond rising to knobbly, mountainous outcrops on the unseen coast. It’s a truly wondrous way to start this walk round one of the most spectacular sections of coastline in all of Wales.

Green lanes and country roads took us down to the southern corner of Whitesands Bay. On the far side of the tan-coloured strand the rocky promontory of St Davids Head ran a long finger westward into the sea. Wavelets creamed on the sands, and from a rock stack offshore came the querulous cries of a herring gull asserting its territorial rights.

The Pembrokeshire Coast Path leads along the coast at the very edge of green and purple cliffs whose dense sandstone has fractured into slanted faces as smooth as slate. The sea gasped hungrily at their feet, and from up ahead came the swish and thump of the tide race in Ramsey Sound.

Ramsey Island, long and low-slung with two humps of hill, lay square-on across a mile or so of very turbulent water. Sinews of tides pulled hard in opposite directions, whirlpools circled end to end, and a jabble of large waves rose north and south.

Ramsey is a RSPB reserve these days, but the old farmhouse where the Griffiths family once stuck out the tough island life still stands out against the green turf. From a tiny fingernail of beach at the southern end came a thin hooting. With binoculars we made out a little gathering of seal pups in white fur, nerving themselves for the short journey to the waves and their new lives as creatures of the sea.

Soon Ramsey Island was behind us. The path led in and out of tiny coves and beaches. We skirted the slit-like inlet of Porth Clais, and headed inland past the ancient chapel of St Non, mother of St David, with the last of the daylight transferring a silver sheen from the sea to the darkening sky above.

Start: St Davids Cathedral, Pembrokeshire SA62 6RD (OS ref SM 752254)

Getting there:
Bus 411 (Haverfordwest)
Road – A487 from Fishguard or Haverfordwest

Walk (10 miles, easy, lanes and cliff paths, OS Explorer OL35): From town centre follow Goat Street (‘St Justinian’s’). Bear left at ‘Merrivale’; on down Catherine Street. Opposite Ramsey Gardens, right (749252, blue arrow) down lane. In ½ mile at road, left (743252). In 200m, right (‘Ty Newydd Farm’). In 400m right at road (737250). In 500m, left at T-junction (736254, ‘St Justinian’). In 500m, right (731254, ‘Pencarnan’). At Pencarnan entrance, fork right (728258, ‘Public Path to Coast Path’). At coast, left on Pembrokeshire Coast Path/PCP for 6½ miles via St Justinian’s (724252). Porthlysgi Bay (731238) and Porth Clais (741242) to St Non’s Bay (750243). Inland off PCP at kissing gate (fingerpost) past St Non’s Chapel to road (752244); left for ¾ miles to St Davids.

Conditions: Coast path along unguarded cliffs

Lunch: Picnic; The Bishop’s Inn, Cross Square, St Davids SA62 6SL (01437-720422,

Accommodation: 15 Tower Hill (Landmark Trust), St Davids SA62 6RD (01628-825920, – cosy cottage overlooking cathedral.

Information: St Davids Visitor Centre (01437-720392);;

 Posted by at 02:56
Nov 092019

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A beautiful sunny morning in rural Essex, wintry but bright, with a blue sky mitigating the sharp northwest wind. There were puddles in the rough old road leading east from Newport Station, and a good solid crunch of flint underfoot.

South of the lane the big bowl of Chalk Farm Quarry has scooped away half a hill. Its roadways lay slick and glistening with the sheen of chalk compressed and polished by heavy tyres.

The lane ran as a holloway in a tunnel of goat willow and hawthorn. Hard green crab apples lined the ruts. The hedges were filled with brushy green heads of ivy berries, scarlet droplets of rosehips, and the plump pink fruits of spindle, about to burst to reveal their bright orange interiors.

Up in the open fields the feeling was a top-of-the-world one. The wind at our backs bowled dry beech leaves ahead of us along the track. Enormous fields of dark plough and tender green bean shoots stretched away to woods with intriguing names: Hop Wood, Cabbage Wood, Pig’s Parlour.

At Waldegrave’s Farm the barns were tight packed with the winter’s straw in neat square bales. At the farm fence three little spaniels did their best to give us a fierce send-off, their wagging tails belying every yap.

Down at Rook End we turned north beside the woods of Debden Park to reach the lonely church of St Mary the Virgin. The grand estate developed in Georgian times by well-to-do merchant Richard Chiswell is only a memory now, but St Mary’s retains a whiff of the family’s whims and wishes in the strange Moorish roof of the chancel and the exuberant monuments and stained glass armorial devices.

A snaking footpath runs the length of the Debden Water’s shallow valley, and we followed it back to Newport through coarse sheep pastures and whispery groves of poplar and willow.

I fell for the old trick pulled by sloes each autumn – look how plump and blue we are! How tasty we must be, don’t you think? Ugh! Nothing had changed. Still that old sensation of blotting paper and sour metal on the palate. Never mind – drowned in sugar and a Kilner jar of gin, they’ll sweeten my Christmas potations.

Start: Newport railway station, near Saffron Walden, Essex CB11 3PL (OS ref TL 522335)

Getting there: Rail to Newport. Bus 301 (Saffron Walden-Bishop’s Stortford).
Road: Newport is on B1383 (M11, Jct 9)

Walk (6½ miles, easy, OS Explorer 195): From Platform 1, right along Byway (‘Saffron Trail’). In 1 mile, ahead along road (536329); in 100m, right past Waldegrave’s Farm on track for 1 mile to road (550323). Left; just beyond Rook End cottage garden, left (552323) across field. Cross ditch; left up field edge. In ½ mile, path turns left through hedge (553332) across field to road. Left to Debden church (551332). From west end, path to kissing gate and on (‘Harcamlow Way’/HC). In 150m, right by stables (549333) to cross road at Newport Lodge (550340). On past Howe Barn. At corner of wood (547343), left along grass strip to pass Brick House Farm (545341, arrows). At road, right over stile (545339), following HC. In 600m fork left off HC (540339, yellow arrow) on path through meadows. In 1 mile at field corner, fork right (525342) into trees. Cross footbridge (524343); under railway (522343) to Newport High Street. Left to station.

Lunch: Picnic from Dorringtons Bakery, 24 High Street, Newport CB11 3PQ

Accommodation: The Cricketers, Clavering, Saffron Walden CB11 4QT (01799-550442,

Info: Saffron Walden TIC (01799-524002);;

 Posted by at 02:30
Nov 022019

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The handsome old Cumbrian coastal town of Silloth has re-invented itself a few times down the years – busy port, seaside resort, genteel retirement haven, nice quiet place to bring up young families.

Vestiges of all those incarnations were on display as we set out along the promenade – big boxy silos around the still-working port area, a Victorian pagoda-style pavilion perched high for the view across the Solway Firth to the Scottish mountains, and people out for exercise pushing into the strong sea breeze with hair and scarves a-stream.

The Solway shore was a bracing, blusterous place to be walking today. Too much rain and wind in the forecast for the Lake District mountains, we’d felt, but this was perfect for a thorough blow-through. Across the firth the low-lying hills of Dumfriesshire gleamed as though oiled and burnished by short-lived sun splashes, then dulled under sweeping rainclouds.

The wind moaned and drummed in the cast-iron bracing of Cote lighthouse, causing the tall white skeleton shape on the shore to tremble like a frightened giraffe. Gulls blew overhead. A squadron of oystercatchers went by on downcurved wings like little fighter planes, making their characteristic sharp pic! pic! calls.

At Skinburness a row of houses faced the sea behind a protective barrier of rough-hewn rock. It must be wonderfully exhilarating to live here on such a day, and frightening too, as you watch the hungry sea in the knowledge that its levels are rising year by year.

Beyond Skinburness the houses fell away along with the concrete steps of the promenade. Now the path followed a shore of multicoloured pebbles of sandstone and quartz with little scatterings of coarse-grained, dark pink sand. An oak leaf, blackened and weightless, raced us along the beach, pattering and bouncing across the sand, drawing gradually away until the wind flicked it head over heels into the waves.

Out at Grune Point, turnstones pattered busily on the tideline. A spread of brackish marsh pools showed where the sea was encroaching on the heathy terrain of the peninsula.

A circular pillbox lay among gorse bushes, its walls built of concrete sandbags, topped by a pyramidal seamark of stone. Inside a central pillar held up the roof, like some Neolithic tomb abandoned and forgotten. Built during the Second World War to ward off the German invasion that never came, the pillbox gloried in a most exalted title – the ‘Cumberland Machine-Gun and Anti-Tank Rifle Emplacement’.

We turned for home along the wide channel of Skinburness Creek, whose waters were already ebbing seaward. From the rain-darkened prairie of Skinburness marsh across the creek came curlew bubbles, wigeon whistles and the excited piping of many waders as the receding tide uncovered the mud flats once more, a well-stocked larder for all these wintering birds.

Start: Sea View car park, Silloth, Cumbria CA7 4AW (OS ref NY 106537)

Getting there:
Bus 400 from Carlisle; 60E (Skinburness-Maryport)
Road – from Carlisle, A595, A596 to Wigton; B5302 to Silloth

Walk (7¼ miles, easy, OS Explorer 314): Follow Promenade, then sea wall path north-east for 3½ miles to Grune Point (144569). Clockwise round tip of peninsula; follow path/track back along south side. At first houses of Skinburnessbank, right (129560, fingerpost) up green lane to north side of peninsula; turn left for 2¼ miles back to Silloth.

Lunch: Fairydust Emporium, Eden Street, Silloth (01697-331787, – truly delightful café/restaurant

Accommodation: Golf Hotel, 4 Criffel Street, Silloth CQ7 4AB (01697-331438,

Info: Silloth TIC, Solway Discovery Centre, Liddle Street CA7 4DD (01697-331944),;;

 Posted by at 00:15
Oct 262019

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The Royal Oak in Leighterton, all mellow pale gold stone, looked like the snuggest village pub in the world. The savour of roasting beef hung in the air like a promise. But first there was a walk to tackle on this sunny autumn morning – one of the most beautiful walks in the south Cotswold hills, but with a spice of poignancy at the outset.

The cemetery on the outskirts of Leighterton holds a cluster of Commonwealth War Graves. The two dozen young Australian trainee flyers of Leighterton aerodrome who lie beneath the neat white headstones all died in 1918 or 1919 – most of them the victims of crashes as they tried to master the volatile controls of their Sopwith Camel biplanes.

Beyond the cemetery the path led across stony ploughlands and sloping pastures, down into Hawkesbury Spinney where frills of bracket fungus clung to the trees. We climbed a bank and opened a gate into the arboreal heaven of Westonbirt Arboretum.

Squirrels scuffed up rustling drifts of leaves, looking for nuts to hoard against the winter. Families strolled, dogs yapped and photographers clicked away, entranced by the stained-glass effects of the acer leaves as the sun shone through them in liquid reds and acid yellows.

Beyond the Arboretum we looped through Willesley, whose neat lanes were edged with immaculately kept walls of Cotswold stone. Then back along Westonbirt’s valley bottom, where a track led away into a steep-sided little cleft that wound this way and that as it climbed gently to Bowldown Road and a whizz of traffic.

A short stretch along the verge and we were on the homeward path through broad sheep pastures where ewes with tender feet went hobbling away, dot-and-carry-one. Past the handsome stone walls and window arches of Slait Barn, and on over stone stiles towards Leighterton and the Royal Oak.

At the bar table by the fire we stretched out our legs, boots off. I opened my notebook and from between the pages shook out a shower of lemon and scarlet leaves, harvested under the trees of Westonbirt, now pressed and flattened to perfection.

Start: Royal Oak PH, Leighterton, Glos GL8 8UN (OS ref ST 823912)

Getting there: Leighterton is signed off A46 (Bath – Stroud) between Dunkirk and Nailsworth.

Walk (7 miles, easy, OS Explorer 168):
From pub, left through car park; ahead along road; in 400m pass cemetery; on left bend, ahead (827910) on Monarch’s Way, southeast across fields to gate into Hawkesbury Spinney (839902). In 150m, right up broad woodland track (unwaymarked; labelled ‘Macmillan Way’ on map); gate at top (841900) into Westonbirt Arboretum. Ahead along Broad Drive. At southern boundary of Arboretum, through gate (844887). Left (field path) to cross A433 (849888, kissing gate). Lane opposite; left at junction; in 200m, left (852887, stone stile, ‘Westonbirt’). Path (stiles, yellow arrows) across paddocks, then by field edges for ½ mile to stile/steps into road (858893). Left; in 100m, left to cross A433 (855894). Follow bridleway opposite along valley bottom for 1 mile to gate into Bennett’s Spinney (844901). Ignore Monarch’s Way ahead; instead, fork right (blue arrow on gate), north for ¾ mile up valley bottom past Ellick’s Wood to road (846913). Right to Bowldown Road; left on verge; in 400m, left (fingerpost) on path west, then southwest across fields for 1¾ miles, past Bowldown Wood, then between Sheephouse Covert and Slait Barn, to Leighterton.

Lunch: Royal Oak, Leighterton (01666-890250, – proper characterful village pub; excellent food.

Accommodation: King’s Arms, Didmarton (01454-238245,

Westonbirt Arboretum: (0300-067-4890;;;
NB Please keep to public rights-of-way as described; all other Arboretum paths are for ticket-holders only. If you want to enjoy the best of Autumn at the Arboretum, the entrance is on A433 opposite Westonbirt village. Entrance: £10 adult, £4 child, March-November; £7/£3 December-February.

 Posted by at 01:59
Oct 192019

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Today was one of those ‘Shall we?’ days – a morning of chilly winds over County Durham, and a weather forecast of spitting showers followed by proper rain. It wasn’t really conducive, the thought of pulling on all the raingear and setting out through a dank and dripping Hamsterley Forest. But in the end we were glad we did.

‘Oh, it can get a bit clarty up there in the forest,’ said the jolly young ranger in the Visitor Centre. We hadn’t heard that local word meaning ‘mucky’ for many a day. And a bit clarty it turned out to be, once we’d got off the hard-surfaced tracks.

We had a look at the ranger’s map and decided on the Three Becks Walk, thoroughly waymarked and well laid out. The Bedburn Beck, charged with rain, went bouncing down under the trees, a vigorous young stream of water stained toffee-brown with peat from the moors. The forest steamed, a heady whiff of bark, resin and damp pine needles.

Timber climbing frames beside the trail catered for youngsters with energy to burn. In its maturity Hamsterley Forest plays a role as a leisure woodland for walkers, cyclists, runners and riders, but when it was created in the 1930s, it was as a severely commercial softwood forest.

Back then the north-east of England was in the grip of the Great Depression, and local pitmen and shipyard workers who had lost their jobs were only too happy to be paid for planting young trees in their millions. They lived on site in barrack-like wooden huts, still to be seen near the Visitor Centre.

We followed the Three Becks Walk west among the pines and larches, their hard dark presence softened by borders of beech, oak and sycamore. There was a steady trickle of chaffinch song, a background chitter of wrens, and in the treetops the excited thin squeaking of goldcrests foraging high up.

Soon we forked off the surfaced track, up a stony forest path bound together with knotty conifer roots. Clearings opened up, large areas left to grow scrubby where spindly rowans and silver birch swayed to the windy swirls of rain.

A steep descent on a slippery track, across Bedburn Beck and up through Frog Wood on an old drove road to a view over a gate onto open moorland rusty with heather sprigs and bracken. Down past the ruin of Metcalf’s House, once an inn for the drovers, with an apse-shaped bread oven at the house end. And a return along Redford Meadows beside Bedburn Beck, a beautiful lush end to the walk in steady rain, watching for dippers along the stream and breathing in the scent of the wet exhaling forest.

Start: Hamsterley Forest Visitor Centre, Co. Durham DL13 3NL (OS ref NZ 092312). Car park £6/day.

Getting there: Hamsterley Forest is signed from A68 (Darlington-Tow Law) at Witton-le-Wear.

Walk (5½ miles, easy, OS Explorer OL31): Follow the well-waymarked Three Becks Walk (white arrow on orange square) all the way round. NB Hamsterley Forest contains many walking and cycle trails, so look out for the right waymarks! On the return leg, vary the route by following Riverside Walk (blue arrows) from the road at Low Redford Bridge (081310). Turn right along road here to cross Aisford Beck; in 80m, left through car park (080309, ‘public footpath’ fingerpost) and follow Riverside Walk back to Visitor Centre.

Conditions: well surfaced, well waymarked trails. Trail maps available from Visitor Centre.

Lunch: Hamsterley Café, Visitor Centre.

Info: Hamsterley Forest Visitor Centre (01388-488312,;;

 Posted by at 01:48
Oct 122019

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Swallow were skimming low over the buttercup meadows of Peatlands Park, fuelling up on insect food as they strove to put on fat before their great flight south to African winter quarters. The flies and midges, in great abundance here on the southern shore of Lough Neagh, had been forced almost to ground level by low pressure over Northern Ireland. Rain clouds and sun bursts chased each other, blowing in across County Armagh from the west over the grey misty hummocks of the Sperrin Hills.

We stood watching the swallows for a while, before following the path through woods of oak and wych elm where a little narrow-gauge railway track snaked among the trees. Before Peatlands Park was formed as a recreational area, this was a bog extensively cut for peat which was trundled away by the diminutive railway for processing.

Beyond the trees the purple heather moorland of Derryhubbert Bog stretched away, dotted with tattered Scots pines. Three hundred men worked here early in the 20th century, cutting, drying, loading and shifting the turf for livestock bedding and vegetable packing.

First World War soldiers had their wounds packed with sphagnum collected from Derryhubbert Bog. The soft material, known as ‘bog moss’, is capable of absorbing up to twenty times its own volume of liquid – blood and corrupt tissue – and also contains an antiseptic agent.

We passed bog pools as black as polished marble. A dip in the ground, juicily wet and full of hazels and willow, showed where Annagarriff Lake once lay. The landowning Verney family used it for fishing, for wild fowling and as a supply of water for their Big House nearby. The Verneys preserved these woods for chasing the deer, and some of the trees are splendidly old.

A rain shower hissed across, polishing every blade of grass and bringing fruity, rooty smells from the bog. We took to a boardwalk path, and soon had glimpses between the willows of the grey waters of Derryadd Lough, a big open expanse fringed with reedbeds.

The boardwalk encircled the lough, its margins bright with purple buttons of devil’s-bit scabious. Bees hummed between the flowers, laden with pale gold saddlebags of pollen. Meadowsweet stood thick with seeds ready to drop. Gaps in the reeds gave views over the lake to the far reedbeds where a fleet of wigeon bobbed in the wind-furrowed water.

The return route brought us along a squelching track through bracken and birch scrub. A patch of bog had been laid out to show the process of old-fashioned turf cutting. Such labour, such strength and energy, to harvest that versatile material from the bed where it had lain for thousands of years.

Start: Peatlands Park, near Portadown, Co Armagh, BT17 6NW (OSNI ref H897603)

Getting there: Signposted from Jct 13, M1

Walk (5½ miles, easy, OSNI Discoverer 19; downloadable map and instructions at From car park ahead through gate; left along tarmac path with fence on left; follow red arrow waymarks of Peatlands Walk. In 3½ miles, near Derryadd car park, left onto boardwalk of Lake Walk (blue waymarks) anticlockwise round Derryadd Lake. Back on Peatlands Walk boardwalk, right (red arrow), retracing route for 400m. Left over footbridge (red arrow) to return to car park.

Conditions: Surfaced paths and boardwalks

Lunch: Picnic

Accommodation: Armagh City Hotel, 2 Friary Rd, Armagh BT60 4FR (028-3751-8888,

Peatlands Park: 028-3839-9195;

Info: Armagh Visitor Information Centre (028-3752-1800);;;

 Posted by at 01:57
Sep 282019

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A cock crowed from a farmyard and wood pigeons cooed in The Rookery as we walked out of Eartham. The distant calls bestowed a sense of peace on this breezy midday after weeks of summer heat.

This corner of West Sussex countryside dips and rolls from cornfields to woods. The clouds in a grey and silver sky pressed down, sealing in pockets of heat among the recently harvested fields. I followed the outer row of stubbles for the pleasure of hearing the dry stems swish and crackle against my boots.

A path in the cool shade of Nore Wood led north in a subaqueous green light to Stane Street, one flinty holloway among many converging under the beeches. Out across the open landscape of the downs we followed this 2,000-year-old way, built by the Romans soon after their invasion as a thoroughfare between their coast port of Noviomagus (Chichester) and Londinium. The raised ridge of the agger or road embankment, metalled with flints and mounded between ditches, still stood man-height, a seam of rabbit-burrowed earth and stones running northeast in a ruler-straight line.

We walked in the shelter of a clump of whitebeam, their green fruits swelling among the crinkly leaves. Some of these old trees were huge; I stepped out round the skirt of one enormous low-growing veteran and reckoned a circumference of at least 200 feet.

From Gumber Corner, another meeting place of ancient tracks, we went south over Great Down on a ridged, grassy path between fields of dark Zwartble lambs sporting white tail tufts. The Sussex coast spread out ahead, from the snout of the Isle of Wight on a blue-grey sea to the white miniature alps of the sunshades at Bognor’s Butlins.

Shady green Butt Lane was floating with thistledown parachutes. We passed derelict Downe’s Barn, a handsome old brick and flint building for which the National Trust have great plans after repair – bat and owl boxes, wildlife ponds and outdoor adventures.

Past Courthill Farm, where writer Hilaire Belloc found escape from his high-pressure London life in the early 1900s, and past a large triumphal arch perched on Nore Hill, a folly conceived as a picnic shelter by Anne, Countess of Newburgh, to give employment to local men out of work after the Peninsular Wars.

We came down to Eartham towards evening, the declining sun polishing the harvest patterns in the stubble fields and turning the empty flower cups of knapweed into a sprinkle of reciprocal suns among the grasses.

Start: George Inn, Eartham, West Sussex PO18 0LT (OS ref SU 939094) – please ask permission to park, and give The George your custom.

Getting there: Bus 99 (Petworth-Chichester)
Road – Eartham is signed off A285 (Petworth-Chichester)

Walk (8 miles, easy, OS Explorer 121): From inn, right along road; round left bend (‘Slindon’); on next right bend, fork left down lane (fingerpost/FP; yellow arrow/YA; pink arrow/PA). In 700m, ahead across field (947094); inside wood, left (949095, FP ‘bridleway’/BW). North through Nore Wood, following PA and blue arrows/BA. In ⅔ mile, at post with YA and BA (952102), sharp left (BA) downhill. At bottom of slope, The Plain, go across track (951105; ignore BAs pointing left and right). Ahead up forest ride for ⅔ mile to 6-way meeting of tracks at bench (952114, 6-finger post).

Follow Stane Street/Monarch’s Way/MW (3rd right, ‘Bignor’) NE for 1¼ miles. At bench and 4-finger post, go through gate (967126); right (MW, PA, BW); in 150m, right at Gumber Corner (BW) to follow BW south across Great Down. In 1⅔ miles, just before gate, right (967101, FP, BA); in 40m, through gate; left (FP) along track. In 700m pass BW turning on right (965095); in another 250m fork right (965092, FP); in 30m, FP points left, but fork right to pass Downe’s Barn in 100m (965091).

In ½ mile, right at road (960086); in 100m, right (‘Bignor Hill’); just before Courthill Farm buildings, left up stony lane (960088). In ½ mile pass Row’s Barn (953091); in 200m, round right bend; in 30m, left along edge of trees (951092). At top of slope, enter trees (949092); right up green lane (BA); in 200m, left (FP) across field and back to Eartham.

Lunch: George Inn, Eartham (01249-814340,

Accommodation: Blackmill Spinney, Blackmill Lane, Norton, Nr Chichester PO18 0JU (01243-543603,

Info: Chichester TIC (01243-775888);;;

 Posted by at 01:40
Sep 212019

First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
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The Isle of Stronsay sails on the eastern edge of the archipelago of Orkney, a long island flattened on a sea that glinted like black obsidian this sunny morning. Sandstone farmsteads lay low, straddling the island’s low green ridges.

Two great skuas were bullying a gannet, trying to make it disgorge the fish it had just caught, as we steamed into Stronsay. Formalities at Whitehall harbour are at a minimum – you just walk off the ferry, collect your hire cycle and head off along the straight and narrow island roads. Brown and black cattle glanced at us through their long eyelashes as they munched a salad of grass, buttercups and clover.

Down on the rugged east coast the cliffs stepped seaward, footed on dark plates of sandstone. Fulmars eyed us from their nests in cracks and crevices of the rocks above slit-like inlets where a copper-coloured sea rose, hissed and fell away. There was a salt edge to the wind, and a great sense of being far from anywhere on a wide sea.

The path rounded the Vat of Kirbuster, a deep dark chasm of a blowhole, the entrance spanned by a sway-backed rock arch, its layered walls spattered with white blooms of sea campion. Beyond rose the green-capped rock stacks of Two Castles, where early Christian hermits somehow contrived to eke out existence in absolute solitude.

We crossed a stream trickling down through a rushy grassland bright with yellow cross-shaped flowers of tormentil, tiny white eyebright and the stout purple-pink heads of northern marsh orchids. At Carlin Geo a disgorged pellet of feathers, bones and two webbed feet lay on the grass, while a great black-backed gull on the rocks below snapped its beak in satisfied remembrance of this grisly feast.

The green promontory of Lamb Head curved seawards, its neck guarded by the stone-built round base of a Pictish broch, a defensive tower perhaps two thousand years old. In the centre a stone slab had been slid aside from a square-mouthed entrance, revealing a pitch-black chamber below.

Beyond in the Bay of Houseby, the beach of orange kelp and flat rocks seemed to writhe and undulate. It was a mighty haul-out of grey seals, shifting their blubberous bodies towards the water and watching us with solemn round eyes. As we followed the flicker of a wheatear’s white rump inland, a mournful hooting like a convocation of tuneful foghorns broke out behind us – the tideline singing of Stronsay’s seals.

Start: Vat of Kirbuster parking place, Isle of Stronsay, Orkney, KW17 2AG (OS ref HY 681241)

Getting there: Car or passenger ferry from Kirkwall to Whitehall harbour, Stronsay ( Bike (free) from Ebenezer Stores, Whitehall (01857-616339); head south on B9060 to Kirbuster parking (signed).
Taxi – 01857-616335.

Walk (7½ miles, easy/moderate, OS Explorer 465): From info board head east on track to coast. Right/south along cliffs for 4 miles to Bay of Houseby. At The Pow (677221), right/inland up concrete farm track. Follow road for nearly 1½ miles past Mid House (670228), South Schoolhouse (668232), Eastbank (672237) and Roadside (675241) to T-junction at Everbay (673246). Right (‘Vat of Kirbuster’); in 600m, right (679250) to start.

Conditions: Unguarded cliff-top paths, beach, quiet lanes

Lunch/Accommodation: Stronsay Hotel, Whitehall (01857-616213,; Storehouse B&B (01857-616263), Stronsay Fishmart (01856-616401)

Tea/cakes/info: Craftship Enterprise Café & Craft shop, Mallet on B9060 between Whitehall and Kirbuster (01857-616249,


 Posted by at 01:55