Jun 062019

First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
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Cuilcagh is an eye-catching mountain. It stands lone and proud, straddling the border of Northern Ireland and the Republic, a long table of a mountain, isolated in a vast expanse of blanket bog.

Jane and I had admired Cuilcagh’s upstanding ridge for years, a backdrop to dozens of walks in Counties Fermanagh and Cavan. But starting off from Gortalughany viewpoint on a morning of sun and cloud shadows, we had no idea of just what a wet and squelchy walk it would be to reach the mountain.

The blanket bog of peat that encompasses Cuilcagh, thousands of years old and ten feet thick, has trapped an awful lot of water. Some of it runs into swallow holes in the limestone pavements of the northern slopes, to reappear miles away and lower down – the Shannon, Ireland’s chief river, has its origin here in this manner. But on the sandstone and shale that underpin Cuilcagh itself and its surroundings, the bog lies sodden and juicy.

Driving up to Gortalughany, we spotted the small, dark cross shape of a merlin gliding out over the valley. A pause to look north and east across the shattered mirror of Upper Lough Erne and its thousand lakelets and drumlin islands, and we set off across the bog following the Cuilcagh Way marker posts that faithfully showed the way.

Orange spears of bog asphodel, brilliant purple buttons of devil’s bit scabious and the blue bonnets of insectivorous butterwort. A hum of bees busy in the heather, harsh cursing of ravens, and the sudden onrush of thousands of midges hungry for our blood. We leaped black bog streams, trudged the wet peaty path, and looked round to savour the absolute loneliness as the sun lit up great empty swathes of dun-coloured bogland, the green farmlands and blue Donegal mountains far beyond.

Arriving at last at the foot of Cuilcagh, we looked aloft up the route of the waymarkers, hardly able to believe our eyes. Really? Climb a grass slope as steep as that?

It was one hell of a scramble, by grass tuft and boulder, handhold and boot tip. But once up there at Cuilcagh’s summit cairn, burial place of some Bronze Age chieftain, we too were lords of a hundred miles of bog and mountain, field and forest in every direction. A might position in the sky, a reward for all our efforts.

Start: Gortalughany Viewpoint, near Swanlinbar, Co. Fermanagh BT92 (OS ref SA 257956)

Getting there: Signposted from A32 Enniskillen-Swanlinbar road, 2 miles north of Swanlinbar. Car park (free) at top of road.

Walk (8½ miles, strenuous moorland walk and short, very steep climb, OSNI Discoverer map 26; download map/instructions at From Gortalughany Viewpoint, ahead along road. In 300m, right over stile (‘Cuilcagh Way’/CW); follow stony track into Aghatirourke RSPB reserve (signed, CW). In ¾ mile, at top of Legacurragh Gap gully, at waymark post with many directions (248964), bear left across rough ground to CW post 100m away. From here follow CW waymark posts across bog for 2¾ miles to eastern foot of Cuilcagh Mt (214941). Follow CW markers up steep slope (grass, then scree and rocks) to summit cairn (212939). Carefully back down slope; follow CW markers back to Gortalughany.

Conditions: Very wet underfoot; take binoculars for spotting CW arrows (helpfully spaced).
A wild mountain walk and short, steep climb for experienced, fully equipped hill walkers – good weather only.

Lunch: Picnic

Accommodation: Lough Erne Resort, Belleck Road, Enniskillen, Co. Fermanagh BT93 7ED ()28-6632-3230; – exceptionally comfortable, friendly, helpful hotel.


 Posted by at 10:43
May 182019

First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
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The young roe deer browsing the hawthorn hedge in the field behind the White Hart glanced casually over its shoulder at us, quite unafraid, then carried on nibbling the leaves. Finches and blackbirds chirped away under the blue sky and warm morning sunshine. A perfect day to walk the field margins and parklands of south Suffolk as spring made way for summer.

The dandelions were all gone to powder-puff cloaks, the hedges full of may blossom. Brilliant yellow oilseed rape gave out its sweet thick scent. A long red fox loped along a ditch and vanished, leaving the hare it had been stalking to continue nibbling bean shoots unmolested.

In the broad parkland of Helmingham Hall the fallow deer grazed as they have done for five hundred years, ever since the Tollemache family built their palatial country house of good red Tudor brick. The path meandered across the grass to The Mount, an obelisk-topped viewing mound from where we got a wonderful view eastward to the Hall, all chimneys and windows.

Strolling back along the rabbit-burrowed banks of a stream, we were watched by three tribes of deer – red, roe and fallow – each in their ear-flicking and tail-twitching segregated groups under giant old oaks. Some of these tremendous trees, storm-blasted and squat, could date back to the Norman Conquest.

Beyond the park and its church of flint and pale limestone, a path led alongside fields of young beet and corn. In the little flowery haven of Rectory Strip we picnicked among buttercups and lady’s bedstraw. A brown hare came lolloping through the hedge, stopped to inspect us from a few feet away, and lolloped away quite calmly.

The homeward path lay along arable field boundaries, punctuated by a swampy old horse-pond where trees had rooted, a miniature Everglades of Suffolk. A breath of earthy fragrance heralded a beanfield full of pink and white flowers with dark velvet eyes.

Beyond Hall Farm we finished the walk along a green lane hung with briars, waiting for a few more days in the sun to burst out in dog roses all over.

Start: White Hart PH, Helmingham Rd, Otley, Suffolk IP6 9NS (OS ref TM 202557)

Getting there: Bus 119, Framlingham-Ipswich. Road – White Hart is ½ mile north of Otley, on B1079 (off A12 Woodbridge bypass). Please ask permission to park, and please give pub your custom!

Walk (8 miles, easy, OS Explorer 211): From car park, right round field edge. In 500m, at T-junction (196557, fingerpost/FP), right on grassy track. In 400m at field corner, through hedge; dogleg right/left (194560, FP) under power lines and on with hedge on left. At 3-finger post, ahead; in 50m, right; in 20m, left over plank bridge and on along field edge. At end by Round Wood, left (192565); in 30m, hedge turns right, but keep ahead (west) over fields towards path by hedge in dip. Follow it to B1077 (187563).

Cross road (FP); across to corner of field; right with hedge on left. At next corner, through hedge (185566), across field to road (184569). Right past Mill Mount to B1077 (188572). Behind ‘Helmingham’ sign, cross 2 ladder stiles (FP). Follow yellow arrows/YAs across Helmingham Park. In 500m at corner of fence, left (184576, YAs) past The Mount and Obelisk (178577). Just before fence and deer gate, turn back right (175578), following YAs along stream. In ¾ mile, by ornamental bridge, right (186581, YA) to left of Helmingham Hall. Through deer gate (187579); along drive (YA); in 150m, left (YA) to cross brick bridge (189577) to church and B1077 (191576).

Left for 50m to B1079 (Grundisburgh) turning on right. Beyond central triangle, path (FP) across field with hedge on left. Across footbridge (194577, YA); up field edge; in 50m, left through hedge, right up narrow meadow and following field edge to east corner of Highrow Wood (201582). Right along field edges, heading south. In ⅔ mile, pass memorial bench to Rita Ling (203573); in another 3 fields/700m, look left for unmarked hedge gap and plank bridge (203566). Path crosses narrow field, then broad one, east to road (208566). Don’t go on to road; turn right along hedge, skirting Hall Farm’s embankment and cottage gardens beyond. At end of garden fences, through hedge, across plank bridge (FP) to green lane (206563). Right to return to White Hart PH.

Lunch: White Hart, Otley (01473-890312,

Accommodation: Premier Inn, Paper Mill Lane, Ipswich IP6 0BE (0333-003-1739;


 Posted by at 01:02
May 112019

First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
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Chaffinches spurting out their stuttering song, a wren squeaking and trilling, blackbirds fluting, the throaty cooing of pigeons – Combe was a valley full of birdsong. White violets dotted the mossy lane banks, and a partridge scuttled brainlessly ahead of us before ducking at last gasp under a gate.

The broad field beyond Combe village was more flint than soil. Our boots clinked with every step, disturbing a sleek and handsome brown hare who cantered away across the young wheat like a miniature racehorse.

Steeply up the face of Sugglestone Down and we were up on the heights under a wide and blowy Berkshire sky. From the crest we looked back over the Combe valley, a patchwork of milky chalk soil and green wheat, all under the eye of a red kite riding the wind with exquisite balance as it scanned the fields two hundred feet below.

A long flinty holloway dropped through hazel copses where sheaves of wild garlic leaves rustled and long-tailed tits swung twittering on the topmost twigs. At the bottom under Cleve Hill Down we found the Test Way footpath, a guide through the quiet hollows and inlands of these downs.

Someone in a conifer plantation was whistling to the kites, a close imitation of their sharp descending wail of a call. Two of the birds were flapping and playing over the wood, swooping together, springing apart at the last moment, while much higher overhead a pair of buzzards performed the same springtime dance.

The Test Way tilted and steepened as it climbed to the roof of the downs once more. An ancient ridge-way on Inkpen Hill ran east past the tall stark T-shape of Combe Gibbet, at whose yard ends in 1676 murderers George Broomham and Dorothy Newman had swung. They had drowned Broomham’s wife Margaret in a pond after she had caught them in flagrante delicto on the downs nearby.

On the great Iron Age rampart of Walbury Camp hill fort we paused for a final stare out over a prospect of farmlands, villages, woods and hills, stretching away west, north and east for dozens of miles – one of the great high vistas of southern Britain.

Start: Walbury Hill easterly car park, near Inkpen, Berks RG17 9EH approx (OS ref SU 380616)

Getting there: Kintbury (signed from A4, Hungerford-Newbury); Kintbury Cross Ways, Rooksnest, Inkpen Common, Crown & Garter PH, then follow ‘Faccombe’ to car park.

Walk (8 miles, moderate, OS Explorers 158, 131): West up trackway. In 200m, left (378616, fingerpost/FP) down path to Combe. At memorial bench, left (373609, FP) past cottages; in 200m, left (373607), then across wide field. From old fencepost (378606) path goes half right, steeply up Sugglestone Down to stile (379604). Aim for mast; path curves right to road (384601). Right (red arrow/RA) on Byway. In 1¼ miles cross road (372587, ‘Linkenholt’). In 100m, right on track. In ½ mile pass Adventure Centre (364586; Test Way/TW joins from left). In 250m, TW forks left past barn (364588). In 1 mile, at west edge of Combe Wood (353598), TW turns right, steeply uphill. In 1 mile, right through gate (358613, TW, Buttermere Estate notice). In ¼ mile at hedge break (359617, 3-finger post), ahead (not right) to ridge track (358621); TW right to Combe Gibbet and Walbury Hill.

Conditions: 2 short steep climbs

Lunch/Accommodation: Crown & Garter, Great Common Rd, Inkpen RG17 9QR (01488-668325,

Info: West Berks Museum, Newbury (01635-519562);

Ships of Heaven – The Private Life of Britain’s Cathedrals by Christopher Somerville (Doubleday) out now

 Posted by at 01:28
May 042019

First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
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This year is the 50th anniversary of the Cleveland Way, the National Trail that runs round the rim of the North York Moors with vast, spectacular views from the great escarpment.

Early on a cold morning I followed the Cleveland Way north out of Osmotherley. Vague shapes of Pennine ranges lay out to the west on the edge of sight, under a sky ribbed with cloud that stretched in parallel bars from horizon to horizon, a remarkable sight.

A short detour through the trees of fetchingly named Summer Game Hill, on a path lined with simple wooden Stations of the Cross. This rustic via dolorosa led up to a lonely Lady Chapel, object of pilgrimage and still used for worship.

Back on the Cleveland Way I took another sidetrack down through the trees of Mount Grace wood among bluebells and wild garlic, to where the remarkably well-preserved Mount Grace Priory lay sheltered below the escarpment. In these two-storey cells the Carthusian monks of the priory led lives of prayer and contemplation, solitary and utterly silent.

I climbed back up to the Cleveland Way and resumed the walk, up through South Wood to where larch and firs gave way to silver birch and young green bilberries. The upland sheep pastures were divided by beautifully maintained stone walls. On the eastern skyline ran the hummocky dark spine of Osmotherley Moor, the sombre-coloured escarpment edge trending north to where the sharp breaking-wave profile of Roseberry Topping stood up against the sky.

Out on Scarth Wood Moor a paved path wound palely over the heather. Suddenly an intent dark shape scuttled across – a handsome male black grouse, his bright scarlet crest erect, his legs strutting like clockwork.

Here I left the Cleveland Way, cutting back south by way of Cod Beck Reservoir, as cold and still as a sheet of tin among its trees. Above the lake I found High Lane, a track perhaps dating back to Neolithic times, down which Scottish drovers in former days would drive trains of up to 300 cattle to markets in Thirsk and York. It was a great way to head towards Osmotherley, staring out over 50 miles of lowland country, picturing those hardy men and their charges slowly plodding south across these moody northern moors.
Start: North End, Osmotherley, N. Yorks DL6 3AA (OS ref SE 456972). More car parking at Cod Beck Reservoir, 1½ miles north.

Getting there: Bus 80, 89 (Stokesley-Northallerton); X89 (Northallerton-Middlesbrough)
Road – Osmotherley is signed off A19 (Thirsk-Middlesbrough)

Walk (6¾ miles; 8 miles including Mount Grace Priory detour; moderate, OS Explorer OL26): Cleveland Way (CW, white acorn & fingerpost waymarks) north out of Osmotherley. After ½ mile, at 453977, signposted detour loop on right to Lady Chapel (454982. Returning to CW at Chapel Wood Farm (452980), right along CW.

NB For Mount Grace Priory detour, cross CW at Chapel Wood Farm, left past farm buildings, through gate (yellow arrow/YA); follow YAs down field edges, to corner of wood (448980) then through wood to Priory (448985) and return.

Main walk: from Chapel Wood Farm, north on CW via South Wood and Scarth Wood Moor for 1¾ miles to road (473003). Right on path beside road for nearly 1 mile to 2nd of 2 car parks at head of Cod Beck Reservoir (468992). Left (kissing gate, footbridge) into trees. In 50m, left up left bank of stream; at edge of trees, left (470990, ladder stile, YA). Ahead on grass path curving right; in 200m, right along High Lane trackway (472991).

In nearly 1 mile, trees end (472978); in another 400m, right across chain (473974) on grassy track. In ½ mile cross horse gallop (465973); left down path; in 300m, right (465970, CW) on CW to Osmotherley.

Lunch/dinner: Golden Lion, Osmotherley (01609-883526, – superb cooking in pub setting

Accommodation: Woodlands Farm, Thimbleby DL6 3PY (01609-883524, – really delightful B&B; pickups and drop-offs part of the service.

Info: Cleveland Way 50th Anniversary, May 24th – many events planned all year.
Mount Grace Priory:;

 Posted by at 09:45
Apr 272019

First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
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Walsden lies in a hollow of the hills in bleak moorland country where Yorkshire meets Lancashire. Strong sunlight and a cold wind greeted us as we climbed the stony trod of Long Causeway. Below, swathes of blanket bog cradled the reservoir of Cranberry Dam in cushions of pale brown velvet.

For all its upland wildness, this is a landscape of industrial endeavour, past and present. Sheer-sided scoops in the sides of the steep little cloughs or stream valleys showed evidence of lead and coal mining. Pylons like skeleton trees strode across the country. And high on Noon Hill and Ramsden Hill, tall white wind turbines lazily turned their three-blades apiece with a gentle, greasy whine and whoosh.

Among these ghostly giants we found an old track that rose past the gritty spoil banks of long-gone lead mines in the flanks of Rough Hill. Far in the south, beyond the million diamond sparkles of Watergrove Reservoir, the towers and factory chimneys of Manchester lay hazed with distance.

A confusion of ill-marked paths had us scratching our heads at the junction with the Rossendale Way, but soon we were heading north over squelchy black peat, through sedgy fields where sheep grazed. A pair of baths, complete with shiny chrome taps, stood beside the fence half-full of scummy green water, waiting for a walker too hot and sweaty to resist their allure.

On the heights of Trough Edge End the broad walled track of the Rossendale Way met the old trodden track now styled the Todmorden Centenary Way. It dropped down a bank among mine ridges to the ruin of Coolam Farm, and followed the old road past Pot Oven, once a beer-house for travellers in these lonely wastes. ‘Deaf old Sam’ Jackson, farmer, fustian weaver and tenant here in 1784, raised ten children with his wife Martha Woodhead. Foulclough Mine opened in the 1790s, and Sam and Martha’s sons became colliers and left the fustian trade forever.

A final descent into Ramsden Wood’s narrow clough, and a teetering path through bluebell woods high above waterfalls and cascades, back to the lake where stolid fishermen with twenty-foot roach poles were patiently sitting the evening out.

Start: Ramsden Wood fishing lake, Ramsden Lane, Walsden, W. Yorks OL14 7UN approx (OS ref SD 928213).

Getting there: Bus 589, 590 (Todmorden – Rochdale)
Road – A6033 (Todmorden – Littleborough) to Walsden; Ramsden Wood Road (next to Border Rose Inn); in 600m, left up Ramsden Lane to car park. Also parking in Ramsden Wood Road.

Walk (6 miles, moderate, OS Explorer OL21): On up lane. At Plantation Barn fork left (924213) over cattle grid. In 200m, right through gate (‘Long Causeway’). In 1 mile cross wind turbine service roadway (918199); in 200m, right at marker stone on moor track. In 400m, left across stream spring (914200, yellow arrow/YA). Track rises through mine heaps. 100m beyond last heap, fork left on rutted track (910201). In 200m wall comes in on left; follow it for 600m to turn right along gravel road (903198).

In 200m, at post with red reflectors, left (904199); turn left to follow enclosure fence, keeping it on your right. At northwest corner, keep ahead on track over Hades Hill. In 450m through gate (906203); left along fence; in 300m, left (904207, stile) across field to ladder stile (903206). Don’t cross it, but turn right/north with wall on left, on Rossendale Way. In nearly 1 mile right (901221) along Todmorden Centenary Way/TC.

In 350m, cross stile (904218); left along fence to trig pillar (906219). Half right on path down hillside towards Coolam Farm ruin. Near ruin, left through gate (911215, TC); follow rocky lane downhill. In 200m left along walled lane (913215, TC). In ⅔ mile, pass Pot Oven (920219); in another 200m, right (922220, TC) across farmyard. On down green lane. 50m before it turns left across Ragby Bridge, left through gate (923216, YA), on path (see below) above river to car park. Alternative: follow TC up past Inchfield to meet outward route (923212); left to car park.

Conditions: Rough moor paths. Riverside path to car park – steep drops, narrow path.

Lunch: Border Rose Inn, Walsden OL14 7UA (01706-812142)

Accommodation: Moorcock Inn, Halifax Road, Blackstone Edge, Littleborough OL15 0LD (01706-378156,

Info: Hebden Bridge TIC (01422-843831);

Ships of Heaven – The Private Life of Britain’s Cathedrals by Christopher Somerville (Transworld) was published on 11 April

 Posted by at 02:54
Apr 202019

First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
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The dead flat North Kent coast is a psychogeographical kind of a place. It has little in the way of chocolate box appeal, but is packed with wildlife, rumbustious local history and quirky corners.

Wandering down Preston Road in Faversham on a nippy spring morning, it seemed a place that Charles Dickens would recognise with its Assembly Rooms, weather-boarded shops (‘Baldy the Butcher’) with jutting upper storeys, curly Dutch gables and ornamental clock brackets over the pavements.

A handsome wooden-legged Guildhall straddled the Market Place. Half-timbered medieval houses along Court Street led down to the quays on Faversham Creek. Oyster smacks, sailing barges, a yacht hoisted in a sling while a whistling man in blue overalls scrubbed her bottom clean after the long mucky winter.

Black headed gulls already in chocolate summer hoods screeched like urchins on the muddy banks of Faversham Creek. It was this winding tidal inlet that brought prosperity to the town in Tudor times. Cherries, corn, bricks and beer went out to the Thames on flat-bottomed barges, thence to London and the continent, while exotic items such as French wine and Scandinavian softwood made their way inland via Faversham.

The Saxon Shore Way led us along the creek, then across the sticky, fertile beanfields of Nagden and Graveney Marshes. Big clouds pushed eastwards, a rain shower came and went, and skylarks uplifted body and voice over the fields. There was a sense of space, freedom and one’s own smallness.

A picture of a marsh harrier hung on a fence. ‘I live here,’ it proclaimed, ‘but how much longer?’ A solar park the size of Faversham is planned to cover these marshes. Meanwhile, birdwatchers and walkers savour the solitude.

At the concrete bar of the sea wall, a revelation – a ten-mile view opening over cockleshell beaches, the Isle of Sheppey opposite, Whitstable on its shallow hill to the east, and a scattered mass of birds harvesting the muddy shores of the Swale, a silver-blue backwater of the distant Thames.

Skylarks rose singing against silver and grey clouds inland, while from the tideline came the chuckling bark and bubble of brent geese feeding.

We turned eastward and followed the sea wall past brightly painted shore shacks and the blackened stakes of old oyster beds, ranks of wooden groynes and scampering dogs, all the way to the tall boarded shapes of the fishermen’s huts by Whitstable harbour.

Start: Faversham railway station, Kent, ME13 8EB (OS ref TR 016609)

Getting there: Rail to Faversham. Bus 3 (Canterbury-Sittingbourne). Road – M2, Jct 6

Walk (9 miles, easy, OS Explorers 149, 150): From north side of station, walk down Preston Road. Left along Market Street, right down Market Place and Court Street. Left by Anchor Inn (019619); right along quay. Follow Saxon Shore Way/SSW for 1¾ miles. Just past Nagden cottages, SSW turns left (031632), but keep ahead here (‘public footpath’, yellow arrow/YA). In 600m, right (031638, YA) under power lines on field path across Nagden Marshes. In 450m, left (035640, YA); in 500m, right along seawall (034645) to Sportsman Inn (062647). Continue along shore path for 5¼ miles past Seasalter to Whitstable Harbour (109670). Right down Cromwell Road; in 600m, left (111664) along Railway Avenue to Whitstable station. Return to Faversham by train.

Conditions: Path can be muddy and wet in places

Lunch: SportsmAn Inn, Faversham Rd, Seasalter CT5 4BP (01227-273370,

Accommodation: Swan Quay Inn, Conduit St, Faversham ME13 7DF (07538-106465,

Info: Faversham TIC (01795-534542)

Wales Coast Path Walking Festival, 4-19 May –;

 Posted by at 02:41
Apr 132019

First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
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A brisk windy day across the Isle of Purbeck. From high-perched Kingston we looked north across the valley to a gap in the long ridge of the Purbeck Hills, neatly plugged by the ruins of Corfe Castle. It seemed against the laws of gravity that such tall slender fragments of wall would not have tumbled long ago.

We followed the road west out of Kingston between neat grey stone cottages. Guns thudded from the military ranges beyond the downs, as though a sulky giant were banging a lambeg drum. Larks sang over stony plough and spring wheat. Bluebells and wild garlic contended for mastery of the woods, a springtime splash of blue and white.

We followed a track up through pastures of fat lambs. Walls of thinly sliced stone curled away to reach the tumulus on Swyre Head, highest eminence of Purbeck. Here was a viewing point over downs, farmlands and a dramatic coast of crumbling chalk and freestone cliffs running westward to where the Isle of Portland, Thomas Hardy’s ‘Gibraltar of Wessex’, stretched its low wedge shape into the sea.

The path bent inland along a ridge of grass polished to a shimmer by the sun. The strong sea wind hissed in the gorse bushes, bringing scents of coconut. A trail of smoke arose from the trees around Kimmeridge, and when we got down there it was to find the cottages of the old quarrying village now primped to a sheen of perfection.

We passed the immaculate new Museum of Jurassic Marine Life and followed the road round the knoll of Metherhills to the shores of Kimmeridge Bay. These tilted strata of dark shale yield a harvest of oil, sucked up from nearly a mile underground by a nodding donkey pump on the cliffs.

We sniffed the metallic tang of the oil on the wind, then climbed to the curious Tuscan folly of Clavell Tower. The tower, built by a 19th-century rectorial squire, was moved back bodily from the cliff edge in 2008, a costly and complicated operation.

From here the coast path led east, crumbly and cracked, at the very rim of ash-grey cliffs footed on flat rock pavements among a litter of fallen stones. The wind battered and shoved us, the sea creamed in lines of breakers, and we swooped homeward up and down the cliffs in breathless exhilaration.

Start: Houns-Tout car park, West Street, Kingston, Corfe, Dorset BH20 5LH (OS ref SY 953794)

Getting there: Bus 40 (Corfe-Swanage). Road – Kingston is signposted off A351 (Corfe-Swanage); right at Scott Arms along West Street to car park.

Walk (9½ miles, steep climbs on coast path, OS Explorer OL15): Left (west) along road. At next car park (943793), left through gates on track (‘Swyre Head’). At Swyre Head (934784), hairpin right through gate; ridge path for 1½ miles, descending to road (919801). Left; at junction, cross road; signed path opposite down to Kimmeridge (917799). Ahead past Fossil Museum on road to coast. At end of road (911787), right past WC. In 200m, left up steps (‘Chapman’s Pool’); follow coast path east for 3 miles. At top of Houns-Tout cliff by stone seat (950773), left (stile, yellow arrow, ‘Hardy Way’) inland on path for 1½ miles to Kingston.

Conditions: Steep climb to Houns-Tout cliff; unguarded, crumbly cliff edge path.

Lunch/Accommodation: Scott Arms, Kingston (01929-480270, – cheerful, lively pub with rooms – sensational views.

Info: Swanage TIC (01929-766018);
4-19 May:;

* Christopher’s latest book, Ships of Heaven, The Private Life of Britain’s Cathedrals, published 11 April

 Posted by at 01:00
Apr 062019

First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
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The wind blew, great gusts of cold fresh air from the southwest across the coasts and cliffs of County Derry. The map said ‘Windy Hill’, so that seemed fair enough.

We stood at the brow of the hill looking over Lough Foyle to the cloudy peaks of County Donegal in the Irish Republic. Behind us a romantic statue depicted a handsome chieftain, or maybe a druid, standing in a boat. Arms upraised, he was casting gold into the ocean to placate the sea god Manannan MacLir. That was fair enough, too. In 1896, in the townland of Broighter just round the bend of the cliffs, two ploughmen had unearthed Ireland’s greatest ever hoard of ancient gold, including a beautiful little boat complete with tiny, delicate oars.

Today the sea god had roughened Lough Foyle and scored the sea with lines of wavelets. He’d also hidden from sight the distant Paps of Jura, sixty miles away in Scotland but sometimes glimpsed across the northern sea from this high viewpoint.

We set off south along the mountain road. Ahead rose the dark face of Binevenagh, its basalt cliff falling into the arms of rock pinnacles, then a gentle tree-smothered slope shelving to the plain below.

Enormous flows of lava formed the famous cliffs of the Antrim coast further east, but these western Derry outposts are just as dramatic. They stand breathtakingly rugged and steep over the great flat littoral of the tomahawk-shaped Magilligan Peninsula that shapes the eastern shore of Lough Foyle.

We left the road to reach the rim of the steep jagged cleft called Hell’s Hole, then set back north along the edge of the escarpment. The green and brown quilt of the Magilligan cattle pastures stretched away below to a coast of ancient sand dunes and a seven-mile strand, curving off to where a ferry ploughed a furrow between Magilligan Point and the little harbour town of Greencastle opposite on the Donegal shore.

Tiny frogs scrambled among the moor grasses, horned ewes bounced off like affronted dowagers, and a meadow pipit preened its striped breast, quite unafraid, on a fence post ten feet away.

As we gazed and stumbled, our eyes on the view rather than the rough ground we were walking, a big bird came sailing overhead on long dark wings – a marsh harrier, lordly enough to suit the prospect, turning and circling against the grey clouds until entirely lost to sight.
Start: Gortmore Viewpoint car park, Bishop’s Road, near Downhill, Co. Derry BT49 0LQ (OS ref C716342)

Getting there: Bishop’s Road is reached from B201 (Coleraine – Limavady), or A2 at Downhill.

Walk (5 miles, mountain road and rough field paths, OSNI Discoverer map 4; map/instructions downloadable at From car park, south along Bishop’s Road for 1 mile. At stone bridge, right (712327; stile, arrow) down fence. At bottom of field, right along fence, and follow escarpment edge north for 1 mile (stiles) to pass car park, then on for another 1½ miles along escarpment edge (stiles) beside fence, then stone wall. Above a waterfall (732356, ‘Umbra Bridge’ marked on map), stone wall curves inland; follow it with stream on left uphill for ⅓ mile, passing farm buildings, to ladder stile onto Bishop’s Road (731350, ‘North Sperrins Trail’). Right along road to car park.

Lunch: Anglers Rest, 660 Seacoast Rd, Benone BT49 0LG (028-7775-0600)

Accommodation: Hegarty’s Corner, 33 Glebe Road, Castlerock BT51 4SW (028-7084-9617,

Info: Two walks (Gortmore to Hell’s Hole, Avish to Eagle Hill) downloadable at;;

Ships of Heaven – The Private Life of Britain’s Cathedrals by Christopher Somerville (Transworld) is published on 11 April

 Posted by at 02:18
Mar 302019

First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
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A lovely crisp sunny day over the North Downs, the sort of day you dream of as winter takes a sly peep behind the curtains of spring. The crocuses were out under the big oak on Ranmore Common, green lambs’-tails swung from hazel twigs, and deep in the woods a great tit rang his two-tone territorial bell.

A bridleway dropped northward through the trees towards the Polesden valley, winding among holly, yew and butcher’s broom – all trees and shrubs that would be in scarlet berry later in the year.

Down in the valley bottom Bagden Farm stood splashed by the late winter sun. A great spotted woodpecker drummed out a rattling claim to its patch of Freehold Wood as we followed a permissive path through the valley, one of many provided by the Polesden Lacey estate. The country house itself lay hidden beyond flint walls and thick belts of shrubbery, but the influence of a well-maintained estate on its surroundings was plain to read in beautiful parkland trees, subtle corners of landscaping, and the excellent waymarking of paths.

Walking the tracks I recalled a previous visit to the house, hearing splendid tales of Polesden Lacey’s early 20th-century chatelaine Mrs. Ronald Greville and her forthright manners (Lady Leslie: ‘Maggie Greville? I would sooner have an open sewer in my drawing room!’).

Actually Maggie Greville, despite her acid tongue, was a generous and warm-hearted person, one of life’s radiators. Born the illegitimate daughter of a Scottish brewer, she loved money and power, but was unashamed of her origins, proclaiming, ‘I’d rather be a beeress than an heiress.’ And it’s Maggie Greville we have to thank for leaving Polesden Lacey to the National Trust in her will.

From the high-perched environs of the house the deeply sunk old holloway of Hogden Lane rolled us down into the valley and up a long flinty rise to the ridge beyond. Here we crossed the ancient route of the Pilgrim’s Way, a shadow track in its contemporary guise of a country road, and turned for home along the North Downs Way among beech and venerable yews on the slope below.

A short detour through a grassy upland, and we were clear of the trees and looking south across a wide valley to where Leith Hill, highest point in Surrey, raised the impudent finger of its crowning tower.

Start: Denbies Hillside car park, Ranmore Common Road, Dorking RH5 6SR (OS ref TQ142504) – NT members free.

Getting there: Train to Dorking West. Road: M25 Jct 9; A 24 to Dorking; Ranmore Road west for 1 mile to car park

Walk (5¾ miles, easy, OS Explorer 146): Cross road; bear right on path to Ranmore Church (145505). Left; in 100m, left on bridleway (fingerpost) north for 1 mile. Just before Bagden Farm, left by shed (148520), through gate; on with fence on right. In ¼ mile, through gate (144517, BA); left; in 30m, right (gate 33, ‘Run England’ red arrow). Follow red arrows and Polesden Valley Walk/PVW. Just beyond Polesden Farm, right (135519, PVW); at top of slope, cross track (gates); ahead on permissive path. In 300m, through gate 20 (132522, yellow arrow); ahead on Hogden Lane, south for 1¼ miles to cross Ranmore Common Road/Pilgrim’s Way (126502). Keep ahead (south) for ⅓ mile; left on North Downs Way (127497, fingerpost) to car park. (NB – in 700m, path across open ground on right gives wide views).

Lunch: Duke of Wellington, East Horsley KT24 6AA (, 01483-282312)

Accommodation: White Horse, High Street, Dorking RH4 1BE (01306-881138,


 Posted by at 01:23
Mar 232019

First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
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A windy cold noon on the Foreland promontory outside Lynmouth. Moor ponies chewed the gorse on the slopes above Countisbury church, drawing back their lips as though seized with private laughter as they delicately snipped off the yellow flowers with their pale green teeth.

We walked north along the cliff path, treading warily above steep drops where the sea creamed in lace-edged waves on black pebble beaches eight hundred feet below. A milky sky stretched over land and sea. A big blue and white freighter idled in the Bristol Channel, and fifteen miles away the dunes and low hills of the south Wales coast rose under a white surf of cloud.

A teetering path descended over skiddy scree to Foreland lighthouse. But we favoured the wider South West Coast Path and the narrow service road to the lookout eyrie above the stumpy tower, where great curved scimitar blades of shaped glass flashed a continuous message of danger to shipping.

This is a wicked coast in winter, all unforgiving tides, cross currents, hidden reefs and a lack of safe havens. In a January storm in 1899, the lifeboatmen of Lynmouth hauled, shoved and cajoled their vessel up and over these cliffs by night. Heavy seas had rendered their home harbour inoperable; there was a ship in distress requiring their attendance. So they dragged the boat for fifteen precipitous miles to the next harbour of Porlock, and rowed to the rescue from there – an extraordinary feat.

The coast path ribboned eastward through oak and birch woods, up and down along the cliffs. Glimpses forward showed the plunge of slit-thin combes to dark narrow beaches.

In the cleft of Glenthorne Cliffs we passed a walkers’ honesty café – tea, coffee, mugs, milk, a thermos of hot water and some chocolate bars on a picnic table. ‘What a treat to find in the middle of nowhere!’ Colin and Adrian had written in the comments book. ‘It made us laugh and smile! Thank you!’

The sense of height, space and freedom up here in the cold winter wind set my head spinning. At last we turned inland below the unseen farm called Desolate and followed the field path back past Kipscombe. The grey and white house lay quiet below its sheltering beech trees, looking out across a wooded combe to a misty grey and white sea that lisped and murmured at the edge of sight and sound.
Start: Barna Barrow car park, Countisbury Hill, Lynmouth EX35 6ND (OS ref SS 753496))

Getting there: A39 (Lynmouth-Porlock); car park is at top of Countisbury Hill, beyond Blue Ball Inn.

Walk (5¾ miles, moderate, OS Explorer OL9): From car park walk seaward; left along wall; in 500m, right on Coast Path/CP beyond bench (747499). In 600m bear left downhill at 3-finger post; right at 2-finger post below (‘Porlock’), descending to road (756505). Left to lighthouse viewpoint (754511); return up road. At sharp right bend (758503) keep ahead on CP. In 200m CP zigzags right (759503, YA). In 1 mile CP rises up steps; at top, right off CP (775498, ‘Countisbury 2’). At top of rise, right at 2-finger post (770498); in 50m, left (YA) up path to Desolate farm drive. Right to gate (770496); right (‘Countisbury 1¾’) across fields (fingerposts, YAs) past Kipscombe Farm, back to car park.

Conditions: Careful on coast path – unguarded edges, steep slopes.

Lunch: Blue Ball, Countisbury EX35 6NE (01598-741263,

Accommodation: Rising Sun Inn, Lynmouth EX35 6EG (01598-753223, – comfortable, cheerful, full of character, wonderful food.

Info: Lynton & Lynmouth TIC (01598-752225);

Ships of Heaven – The Private Life of Britain’s Cathedrals by Christopher Somerville (Transworld) is published on 11 April

 Posted by at 15:30