Apr 102021

First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
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For years we’d been saying to ourselves: ‘Must walk the Dragon’s Back!’ Now the day had come, a cold and misty one down at Pengenffordd. But we could feel a warmer morning waiting in ambush behind the clouds that wreathed the western outliers of the Black Mountains.

The knobbled ridge of the Dragon’s Back rises quite abruptly from the banks of the Rhiangoll stream. We climbed steeply through sheep pastures where fat lambs ran crying to their anxiously bleating mothers. Celandines spattered the grass, ten thousand miniature suns glittering in the steamy light.

Up on the roughly mounded ramparts of Castell Dinas, it was easy to see why Norman invaders chose this ancient hill fort for their stone stronghold. The castle commands the valley, the road from south to north, and the looming heights of Mynydd Troed beyond.

The dominant aspect of its position proved deceptive however; Castell Dinas was besieged, captured, yielded and recaptured over the course of three hundred years of border strife, till Owain Glyndŵr destroyed it and vanished into the mists of mythology.

We passed the dimpled hollow of the castle well, and went down to a saddle of ground below. Families out for a hike were climbing the steep spine of the Dragon’s Back, their children gambolling ahead like spring lambs. It was a good old puff up to the stone shelter at the summit, and once up there the prospect into the wildest quarter of the Black Mountains took our breath away all over again.

From the pass beyond, a green track sloped away into a silent valley hemmed in by mountain slopes, a secret little corner of these hills. Iridescent oil beetles were excavating egg-laying nests in the loose pink soil of the path. Cuckoo flowers had opened among the boggy sedges where the first leaves of spearmint yielded their distinctive chewing gum scent to our pinching fingers.

Down at Rhyd-y-car the householder was digging over her raised beds. ‘Beans and onions, a row of potatoes and some nice beetroot,’ she told us. ‘I’ve lived here more than sixty years now,’ and she smiled as though every spring had been a particular gem.
Start: Car park near Dragon’s Back Inn, Pengenffordd, nr Talgarth LD3 0EP (OS ref SO 174297) – £2 honesty box.

Getting there: Dragon’s Back Inn is on A479, Crickhowell-Talgarth.

Walk (4½ miles, strenuous, OS Explorer OL13): Go down steps beside the map board; turn right along path; in 40m, left up steps (yellow arrow/YA). Down the slope to cross the brook; steeply up 3 fields to Castell Dinas fort (179300). Down the north side to gate (180303); ahead up a clear hill path to the summit shelter (185306). On down to Bwlch Bach a’r Grib saddle (187308). Bear half right down a grassy track past trees; on for ⅔ mile to reach a sheep dip (196304). Where the wall turns sharp right, go right across the stream. Follow path to a gate; left up the wall to turn the corner (196302); follow the wall to the right. In 300m, right through a gate (193301); follow green lane to Rhyd-y-car (187300). Ahead along the road; in 500m, right on track (187295, gate). In 50m, bear left, keeping the hedge on your left (yellow arrows) for 500m to the road at Cwmfforest (182291). Turn right up the road; in 250m at left bend (180291), keep ahead on a dirt road for ½ to car park.

Info: Crickhowell TIC (01873-811970)
satmap.com; ramblers.org.uk
More walks info: @somerville_c

 Posted by at 03:36
Mar 272021

First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
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Low cloud was swirling clear of the fell tops along Wharfedale as we set out from Grassington. The village was packed, as busy as ever, but ten minutes put us high above the stone-built houses on a path rising through sheep pastures to the walled track of Edge Lane, where no-one came or went.

The narrow squeeze stiles between the fields were each sealed with a tiny wicket gate on a powerful spring that shut smartly behind us with a rat trap snap. Nothing was more reminiscent of our former walks in this delectable dale than that sharp ‘crack’ of wood on stone – though the hinges have been modernised since the days when they were bodged from the soles of discarded rubber boots.

Wharfedale ran away north-west, exuding its habitual aura of peace and plenty, neat green fields walled with stone barns dotted here and there, the gently ‘inbye’ grazing rising to wild moorland tops with rugged profiles, and a far view of Pendle Hill’s broad back some 25 miles off in Lancashire.

Pine trees sighed in the wind around Wise House. Across the cleft of Hebden Beck the ground rose abruptly, too steep for farming, a jumble of red-brown bracken and pale grey rocks fallen from the scars or gritstone cliffs at the rim of the valley.

Down at Hole Bottom we teetered across Hebden Beck’s slippery stepping stones, collecting a boot full of beck water apiece. Scale Haw Force’s waterfall crashed down its rock steps just upstream, a fine noisy spectacle.

A steep climb through meadows led to a zigzag path up through the coarse gritstone rocks of Scale Haw where we came upon a large sleepy slow worm, the smooth bronze belly distended with its latest meal.

A blasting wind up at Scar Top, a puzzling scramble down hard-to-read paths on a bracken slope, and we were threading the walled lanes of Hebden towards the green and level homeward path beside the peat-brown River Wharfe.

How hard is it? 6½ miles; a moderate walk by field and fell paths; rough going just below Scar Side House

Start: Grassington National Park Centre car park, BD23 5LB (OS ref SE 003637)

Getting there: Bus 72 (Skipton-Buckden)
Road – on B6265 Wharfedale road.

Walk (OS Explorer OL2): Left into village; right (Hebden Road); in 200m right (Low Lane, High Lane). In 250m, left (006640, gate, yellow arrow/YA). Field path (stiles, YAs) to Edge Lane (013641). Right, in 550m, at gate, left (017638, ‘Hebden Gill’). Just before High Garnshaw, right (020643, gate), down fields to drive (022642), down to Hole Bottom (024641). Right along drive. In 200m, left (024639, fingerpost/FP ‘Edge Top’) to cross Hebden Beck by stepping stones (NB: if beck swollen, return to drive, left to Hebden).

From stepping stones, right along opposite bank. In 250m grassy track rises to gate (025637). Either continue parallel to Hebden Beck to cross B6265 in Hebden (see last paragraph below); or to continue this route, don’t go through gate, but turn left uphill along wall. Near top, bear left to wicket gate (026639). Grassy path up through rocks to Scar Top House (028639). Right (FP) to cross drive, stiles, FPs to pass Scar Side House (028637). Down through bracken (Access Lane = a bit of a scramble – pick your own path!) to stile/wicket gate at bottom (027635). Next gate, fields and FPs down to cross B6265 in Hebden (026632).

Ahead down road, in 150m, left (027630, kissing gate, FP); follow ‘Suspension Bridge’ beside Hebden Beck to road (027624). Right; in 150m left (‘Dales Way’ FP). Right along Dales Way for 1½ miles to Linton Falls (001634); right (FP) to car park.

Conditions: Hebden Beck is crossed by stepping stones. Slope below Scar Side is steep and scrambly in places – for adventurous walkers!

Info: National Park Centre, Grassington (01756751690), yorkshire.com
satmap.com; ramblers.org.uk
More walks info: @somerville_c

 Posted by at 01:32
Mar 202021

First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
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Seen from the escarpment edge of the Mendip Hills, the aspect of the Somerset Levels after weeks of flooding had turned from streaky silver back to green and brown. On a lovely afternoon of early spring, a bit cloudy, a bit sunny, we set out from the Avalon Marshes Centre to explore Shapwick Heath National Nature Reserve, one of several bird-haunted NNRs in these watery West Country moors.

The main spine of the Shapwick Heath Reserve is the old branch railway line across the moors to Burnham-on-Sea. From this ruler-straight track, side paths and boardwalks lead to observation hides (temporarily closed).

The path we followed led through lush carr woodland of birch, alder and pussy willow stubbled with silky catkins. Sunlight glinted in the wet glades and on the birch trunks. Pollarded willows bristly with stems stood above their own reflections in black mirrors of shallow, peat-stained water. Bracket fungi multiplied their creamy frills, thriving on sodden birch trunks fallen into the water. A lush, marshy, ferny place of luminous green mosses, the surfaced paths springy underfoot, everything permeated by water.

Our ancestors built cunning wooden trackways to get them safely over this treacherous ground. We came across two replicas of these early thoroughfares deep in the carr woods. The Meare Heath trackway of the late Bronze Age had planks laid lengthways in pairs, held in place with wooden pegs. Further into the marsh lay a wobbly section of single planks about eight inches wide, laid end to end, held with pegs and cross ribs – a replica of the Sweet Track that was built over these marshes 6,000 years ago.

We teetered along the bouncy planks with arms outstretched for balance, conscious of the black water just one clumsy step away, before reaching firmer footing and the path to Decoy Hide. Here we paused, looking out over lake and reedbeds to a sunlit Glastonbury Tor and tower in the distance.

Back on the railway path we followed the old track east past huge reedbeds and lagoons, former peat diggings now flooded and packed with wintering ducks – shovelers with spatulate beaks and iridescent green heads, tufted duck with white side patches and golden eyes, and pochard with pink beaks and scarlet eyes.

As we turned for home, a Cetti’s warbler suddenly emitted a burst of chatter from the scrub, loud enough to make us jump. A marsh harrier went flapping slowly along the edge of a mere, its legs bright yellow, its wings patchworked in buff, white and orange, with long black feather ‘fingers’ at the tips. And a foghorn voice came booming from a reedbed – a bittern, asserting mating season sovereignty over its watery kingdom.

How hard is it? 6½ miles; easy, level walking; some parts can be boggy

Start: Avalon Marshes Centre, Shapwick Road, Westhay, Glastonbury BA6 9TT (OS ref ST 426416)

Getting there: Shapwick Heath NNR is signed from Westhay (B3151, Glastonbury-Wedmore)

Walk (OS Explorer 141; leaflet maps/trail guides available at Avalon Marshes Centre or online at avalonmarshes.org; NB hides are temporarily closed): Left along Shapwick Road; just after bridge, left (423411) along old railway track (‘Bittern Trail’). In 200m right, following ‘Sweet Track’, then ‘Decoy Hide’ for ¾ mile to Decoy Hide (closed at present, but still a great birdwatching spot). Return, following ‘Reserve Entrance’ to old railway (427409). Right for 1¾ miles to Ham Wall Reserve car park (450396); return along old railway to Avalon Marshes Centre.

Info: Avalon Marshes Centre (01458-860120, avalonmarshes.org). Marshes Hub Tea Stop café open for takeaway 10-4.
satmap.com; ramblers.org.uk
More walks info: @somerville_c

 Posted by at 02:38
Mar 132021

First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
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The Cerne giant looked particularly rampant this morning, the low sun of early spring lighting up every detail of his splendid physique. No-one knows when this phallic wild man, brandishing a fearsome club and very clearly ‘pleased to see you,’ was cut into the chalk hillside above Cerne Abbas.

Plenty of fun has been had with the Cerne Giant over the centuries. Childless couples would couple on his mighty member to quicken their seed. Advertising agencies have clad him in jeans and a condom; he has been paired with a giant Homer Simpson wielding a doughnut, and has sprouted an outsize grass handlebar moustache during Movember. Unadorned, though, he emanates the wildness, dignity and menace that his originators must have intended.

We set out west from Cerne Abbas, blown by an icy east wind along banks already thick with primroses. Bees were bumbling there, and we spotted a great black oil beetle in jointed armour labouring up through the grasses. The wind whistled in the leafless hawthorn hedges and trembled the green spear-blade leaves of wild garlic up in Weam Coppice.

At the ridge we passed the medieval earth-and-flint bank of Park Pale, constructed to keep the hunted deer in Cerne Park. Beyond ran the Wessex Ridgeway, an ancient track, broad and green, hurdling the downs. We followed it north past holly and elder hissing with wind, looking west to where hedges and field shapes undulated together across the chalk valleys under a clear-cut skyline.

From Redpost Hill we cut east across big open fields jingling with flints, under the first lark song of the year sounding sweet and silvery in the upper air. A view opened ahead over the valley of the River Cerne, with the thatched cottages and old gabled manor at Up Cerne far below. South over the distant, unseen sea a long cloud bar formed, streaming slowly to the west.

In the hedge-banks along the lane to Cerne Abbas, violets made splashes of contrasting colour to the predominant yellow of celandines, primroses, dandelions and daffodils. Back at the village we climbed Giant Hill, circling round the great chalk man before returning by way of Cerne Abbey – abbot’s hall, tithe barn, guest house, and a tall porch hidden in a thicket, with an oriel window exquisitely carved.

Start: Giant View car park, Cerne Abbas DT2 7JX (ST 662016)

Getting there: Bus: X11 (Dorchester – Yeovil)
Road: Car park is signed off A352 (Yeovil-Dorchester)

Walk (6½ miles, easy, OS Explorer 117): Cross A352; right around field edge to green lane; left. In 50m fork left; follow lane, then path (yellow arrow; fingerposts ‘Cerne Park,’ then ‘Weam Coppice’) up valley, into wood by gate (650013). In 50m fork right uphill. At top of trees (647013) dogleg right/left (‘Sydling Drove’), past radio mast and sarsen stone to Wessex Ridgeway (645013). Right; in 1¼ miles pass ‘Up Cerne’ fingerpost (639032); in 100m fork right, then right (fingerpost ‘Wether Hill’). Cross field; pass ‘Up Cerne’ fingerpost (642033); on, soon downhill to T-junction (653035). Right to pass Great Pond (655031); in 150m round left bend; in 50m right (655029) past end of trees to cross road by white gate (656027). On across field (fingerpost) to road (659023); ahead to A352 (661018); ahead to car park.

Giant Hill climb (strenuous): Ahead from car park (‘Picnic Area’); left on Kettlebridge Lane (663015); follow ‘Giant Hill’ and yellow arrows to climb wooden steps. Clockwise up and around Giant’s enclosure; returning, follow ‘Abbey’ signs to Cerne Abbey; back around to car park.

Info: Dorchester TIC (01305-267992)
satmap.com; ramblers.org.uk
More walks info: @somerville_c

 Posted by at 01:50
Mar 062021

First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
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The Pentland Hills are to Edinburgh what the Chilterns are to London or the Wicklow Mountains to Dublin – a green open space on the doorstep of the capital city, hilly country that’s easily accessible and threaded with excellent paths. Setting out from West Linton, just to the south of Edinburgh, on a cold damp winter morning, we were looking forward to getting city air out of our lungs and a little red into our cheeks.

The stony lane called The Loan ran straight between mossy banks towards hillsides paled by a dusting of snow. Beech trees formed a guard of honour on either hand. Sleety rain came in short sharp flurries, pocking the puddles in the old droving track that soon joined a Roman road. Agricola’s soldiers built it in about 80 AD, a straight highway heading for the Firth of Forth.

A hillside of coarse grass rose alongside, lumpy and dimpled with ancient lead workings. Locals name this piece of ground the ‘siller holes,’ after the tradition that it also yielded silver to the miners.

Soon we turned aside on a rutted and grassy track heading purposefully into the hills. A couple of hundred years ago sheep were drive in great multitudes along these Pentland tracks down to West Linton market, a huge bustling affair where up to 30,000 sheep might be sold.

Below the track the Lyne Water went hurrying round the intricate bends it had carved for itself in its steep-sided green valley. Shooters walked its banks, pop-popping away at pheasants, each discharging gun betraying its position with a sudden spurt of grey smoke.

Beyond the shooting party we descended to cross the river, icy and black as it raced below the footbridge. Then it was back along a moorland road in spatters of snow which cleared in an instant to beautiful sunshine spreading across the hills.

Near West Linton we recrossed the river and follow a teetering woodland path known with good reason as the Catwalk. High on the lip of the Lyne Water’s gorge we threaded the beeches, watching our step and admiring the races of the river far below. Sleet gave way once more to sun, and every beech twig sported a row of raindrops as bright as brilliants.

How hard is it? 5½ miles; easy; good tracks and paths. Catwalk path is narrow above steep slopes.

Please only walk within your Tier area, or enjoy this as an armchair walk till restrictions lift. And please consider others when you park.

Start: Gordon Arms Hotel, Dophinton Rd, West Linton, EH46 7DR (OS ref NT 149520)

Getting there: Bus 93 (Peebles – West Linton), 101 (Dumfries-Edinburgh)
Road: West Linton is on A702 between Edinburgh and Biggar

Walk (OS Explorer 344): Up lane opposite Gordon Arms (‘Carlops via the Loan’). In ¾ mile, right along the Roman Road (143530, ‘Carlops’). In 500m, sharp left (145535, ‘Little Vantage’). Follow arrows through farmyard and on. In 1¼ miles, at angle of drystone wall, left through gate (131546, arrow). Descend to river; right to cross footbridge (128546); up bank to road (127545); left. In 1¾ miles, left (140523; ‘Carlops’ on reverse of sign). Cross river above Lynedale House (141523); in 200m at top of rise, just before sheds on left, turn right (142527), up bank and through kissing gate. Follow narrow Catwalk path through woodland at edge of ravine for ¾ mile to return to West Linton.

Info: scotways.org, pentlandhills.org, visitscotland.com
Walking in the Pentland Hills by Susan Falconer (Cicerone)
satmap.com; ramblers.org.uk
More walks info: @somerville_c

 Posted by at 01:49
Feb 272021

First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
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A day of big weather over the Forest of Bowland – big clouds sailing in patches of blue sky, a big boisterous wind across the high empty moors of this most treeless of ‘forests’. Bowland is a huge area of wild hilly country in the north west of Lancashire, Slaidburn a rare centre of civilisation at its heart.

We passed the First World War memorial in the village – 27 local men killed in that great slaughter – and crossed the arched bridge over Croasdale Brook. From the road a field path led north by way of stepped wall stiles and clover leys, the big bosomy fells of Bowland rising in the west, their flanks dull red with bracken, the long back of Pendle Hill ten miles off in the southeast like an upturned ship’s hull.

Twenty years ago the Forest of Bowland was notorious for possessing only one public footpath within its hundreds of square miles of moorland. Nowadays, thanks to the Countryside & Rights of Way Act of 2000 and a more enlightened attitude among landowners, plenty of hill paths are open to all, and the lower pasture lands are crisscrossed with rights of way.

We followed a path across grass fields gleaming in the sun, down to Shay House and a moorland road north. Soon we branched off along tracks and paths through coarse grass, rush clumps and boggy dells where cattle stared and went trotting off with panicky little steps.

Below lay Stocks Reservoir, looking for all the world like a natural lake with its islets, encircling trees and angling boats. The navvies who lived up here in the late 1920s, constructing the reservoir dam, had a canteen with its own branch railway line bringing barrels of Dutton’s Blackburn ale direct to the cellar, whence it was sold to the men at 4d a pint.

Round the reservoir we went, crossing the grassy rampart of the dam wall, then descending a long track through sheep pastures. We passed the Tudor country house of Hammerton Hall, the dozens of blank windows in its three gabled bays lending it a secret and inward looking air, and came down to Slaidburn just as the rain began to freckle in over the hills.

How hard is it? 6½ miles; moderate; field and moorland paths

Please only walk within your Tier area, or enjoy this as an armchair walk till restrictions lift. And please consider others when you park.

Start: Slaidburn car park, BB7 3ES (OS ref SD 714524)

Getting there:
Slaidburn is signed from A65 (Skipton-Settle) at Long Preston.

Walk (OS Explorer OL41): Right along road; right by war memorial; in 200m, left (712526, wall stile, fingerpost) up fields. Beyond beech plantation, half left (712529); path over 6 fields to Shay House drive, left of barn (707544). Right to road (710546); left. In ½ mile, right (710553, fingerpost) on moorland track. At corner of plantation fork half left (714556, yellow arrow/YA) to far left corner of plantation ahead (717559, stile, YA). On across stream and past ruined house for 700m to reservoir track (723559). Right. In 1 mile, cross track near Board House (717547); cross dam wall. Near far end, right down steps; left; at end, left (720544, gate). Immediately right up bank, across successive stiles and fields. Right along grassy track (721543) with wall on left, down to Hammerton Hall. Through gate (720539); right; bend left through gate (YA); follow stony drive. 100m after crossing Holmehead Bridge, left (713530) with wall on right. At ford (714525), right along river to road (712525); left into Slaidburn.

Info: forestofbowland.com; satmap.com; ramblers.org.uk
More walks info: @somerville_c

 Posted by at 01:10
Feb 202021

First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
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We set out under a cold grey sky on one of those dank winter days when you are glad of the company of two pelting dogs to cheer you up and urge you into motion. There is nothing more ridiculous than a dog frisking about like a mad thing, and nothing better at barking the midwinter blues away.

Priston lies sunk in a fold of ground just south of Bath in that debatable land where Cotswold and Mendip hills blur together. Beyond the stone-built cottages we passed the church of St Luke & St Andrew with its curious central tower and outsize weathercock.

The path led south-west down a narrow valley where a slim and nameless stream slid round its bends under a coat of leaf-green weed. On the far side of the park-like wooden fences, ewes heavy with lambs stared and turned tail. Hazel twigs wriggled with catkins, snowdrops hung their white heads among the damp black leaves of last summer, and the bare hedges were netted with ragged powder puffs of old man’s beard.

The dogs played follow-my-leader, sheepdog Megan with a stick across her jaws. Cockapoo Philip zigzagged from one ditch to another like an earthbound snipe. By the time we reached the farm lane at the foot of the valley, he was sporting a thick and clotted pair of mud trousers, and had turned colour from pale cream to chocolate brown.

Turning north up the hill, we passed an old sheep-dip in the break of a field, beautifully shaped and stone-walled. Alas, no water in it for cleaning filthy Philip. From beyond the hillock of Priest Barrow came the pop-pop of shotguns and a faint cawing of rooks disturbed from the roost.

The path sloped down to Stanton Prior and the little grey church of St Lawrence. From here we turned south across the slopes of Pendown Hill to drop into the Priston valley, spread in greens and greys below. At Priston Mill the pool lay as dark as smoked glass. Beyond, the cottages and farm of Inglesbatch stood along their ridge.

The dogs, garbed from muzzle to tail in mud, led the way home beside a brook overhung with pussy willow buds as soft as kittens’ paws. In the sodden fields buzzards sat and waited, hungry enough in this back end of winter to be grateful for every unwary worm they could seize and swallow.

How hard is it? 7 miles; easy; field paths, muddy in places; 2 streams to ford)

Start & finish: Ring o’ Bells PH, Priston BA2 9EE (OS ref ST 694605)

Getting there: Priston is signed from Marksbury on A39 Bath-Wells road

Walk (OS Explorers 155, 142): Leaving Ring o’ Bells, turn left along side of pub. Take left fork to pass church; bridleway continues (692604, ‘Bridleway’); over stile and on (yellow arrows/YA). In 250m, fork left (YA) to valley bottom, and follow path for 1 mile to road (677595). Right uphill. In 200m, left through kissing gate/KG (677597); right along hedge, following YAs north for ¾ mile past Priest Barrow to road (675610).

Forward for 50m; forward off road (fingerpost, KG). North along hedge; across footbridge; through KG, up to top of hill. At road (675618), dogleg right/left; on up green lane, crossing road (675620) and on for half a mile to Stanton Prior (676627). Right along road past church; in 150m, on left bend, right along byway (679628) for ⅓ mile to cross road (682623). On south (‘Bridleway’) for ⅔ mile to road at Pottern (685614). Left; fork left for ⅔ mile to pass Priston Mill (695615).

In another 100m, fork right (‘Byway’) across ford and on for 350m to gate (699613). Left along green lane; cross ford; up slope, right at top (701614). In 100m, pass barn; right through small gate; through KG. Down slope to next KG; down to cross footbridge (700611). Follow field edge, YAs south to road (697606); right into Priston.

Info: priston.org.uk; satmap.com; ramblers.org.uk

 Posted by at 02:23
Feb 132021

First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
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Notwithstanding its name, the New Forest is not a monolithic block of trees. These 150 square miles of ancient royal hunting ground comprise woodland, wetland, heathland, water and farmland, a wonderful patchwork of accessible countryside from which to tease out a walk for a short winter’s day.

Waymarks are thin on the ground in the New Forest, but the patch of open heath that stretches south of Burley is crisscrossed with good clear paths. We set out on a cold sunny morning along a gravelly track that ran between flowering gorse, sombre winter-dark heather and individual silver birch trees whose slim trunks and dusky red twigs glowed in the clear light.

New Forest ponies cropped the grass by the path, delicately snipping off precise bites with their strong grey teeth. From Turf Hill the southern skyline was spiky with ranks of conifers. We caught a glimpse of a pale blue whaleback hill on the distant Isle of Wight. Between hill and trees rose the slender rocket shape of Sway Tower, a Victorian folly 218 feet tall, built entirely of concrete and still standing proud in the landscape.

It’s easy to get the impression that these heaths form a flat tableland, but in fact they are burrowed with surprisingly steep valleys known as ‘bottoms’. We dropped down into Shappen Bottom past the tufted mire of Holmsley Bog, and crossed the long disused track of the Southampton-Dorchester railway, savouring the smell of bog myrtle cones that we pinched and rubbed to release their spicy fragrance.

Up on Holmsley Ridge beyond we strode west into the sun and wind, buoyed up on exercise and exhilaration. Three ponies had caught the same mood; they came cantering across the path, hooves drumming, tails flying, the leading pony neighing wildly and kicking up his heels as he frisked along.

Down in the hollow of Whitten Bottom streams, pools and flooded ruts led to Whitten Pond, the wind-ruffled water steel blue, the grassy margins a brilliant green in the low afternoon sun. A broad track beyond climbed the gently domed nape of Dur Hill Down, before looping off across the heath towards the old railway.

It’s a shame that Slap Bottom signifies nothing more exciting than ‘sloping valley’. There we steered around a group of ponies grazing the bank of a stream, and sauntered back to Burley in the cold bright sunlight.

How hard is it? 5¼ miles; easy; heathland tracks, wet in parts.

Start: Burley Cricket car park, Cott Lane, Burley, Ringwood BH24 4AP (OS ref SU 214029)

Getting there: Bus 125 (Ringwood)
Road – Burley is signed off A35 (Christchurch-Lyndhurst) and A31 (Ringwood-Southampton)

Walk (OS Explorer OL22): Cross road; down track (‘Forestry Commission Burley’). In 50m left on gravel track. In nearly 1 mile cross old railway (219015); in 200m fork right (219013). In ¾ mile keep ahead (right) at fork (209010) to Whitten Bottom. Cross stream by outlet at Whitten Pond (203012); ahead to cross road at barrier (201013). On along track over Dur Hill Down. In ½ mile at post, right (194013) along line of trees, on track curving right across heath to road (201017). Left across old railway; right into Burbush car park. Aim left towards power lines; in 50m, right on path between trees, across stream into open. Ahead up slope; in 500m, left (206018) on clear track. In ½ mile at Goat’s Pen Cottage join gravel drive (212025); at tarred road, right to car park.

Info: Ringwood Gateway (01425-473883, thenewforest.co.uk); satmap.com; ramblers.org.uk

 Posted by at 01:25
Feb 062021

First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
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The sun had broken through at last, rolling away a cold blanket of mist to reveal the Wiltshire Downs and their subtle undulations. We stepped out under a blue sky, hearing horse hooves pounding along an unseen gallop in the hollow where Manton Stables lay hidden.

This wide open downland is horse and cattle country, the gallops tending to stretch along the tops, the cattle grazing the dry valleys below. A very fine Charolais bull, contentedly recumbent, kept a lazy eye on us as we passed on our way to the Devil’s Den.

Neolithic men raised the huge stones that form the structure of this passage grave. After the end of the last glaciation, these sarsens – ‘saracens’ or foreign stones – lay scattered all across the downs, easy pickings for the builders of Stonehenge and other ancient monuments.

We followed a wide path west through a shallow valley where a great congregation of lichen-stained sarsens delineated the curve of the hollow. Local people, seeing their resemblance to an enormous flock of sheep in bedraggled fleeces, named these clustered stones the Grey Wethers. Cows moved slowly among them, and a handsome ginger-and-white Simmental bull licked one ruminatively for the minerals it contained.

Sarsen stone is composed of sandstone bound together with a glassy silica. In his book ‘The Stonemason,’ Andrew Ziminsky calls it ‘diamond-hard, tougher even than granite.’ Nonetheless, three centuries ago in his ‘Palaeographia Britannica,’ antiquarian William Stukeley warned masons not to build with sarsen; ‘It is always moist and dewy, and rots the furniture.’

We shadowed the river of stones up the valley, then took to the ancient downland tracks that are the pride and joy of Wiltshire’s walkers. The Herepath (a Saxon word for ‘warpath’) led to the Ridgeway, a high road of braided ruts with a stunning view westward over many miles of downs and wooded valleys gilded by the afternoon sun.

Sarsens lay alongside the Ridgeway, and sarsens bounded the White Horse Trail, another venerable downland track that led us homeward between leafless hedges. A yellowhammer perched high on a bush, its breast sulphurous in the sunlight, and fieldfares flew over with vigorous wing thrusts, flocking together for protection and company in obedience to an age-old winter instinct.
How hard is it? 7½ miles; easy; downland paths and tracks

Please only walk within your Tier area, or enjoy this as an armchair walk till restrictions lift. And please consider others when you park.

Start: Gravel Hill car park, Downs Lane, near Fyfield, Wilts SN8 1PL (OS ref SU 159700)

Getting there: Follow ‘Manton House & Hollow’ on A4 (Calne-Marlborough) between Fyfield and Manton. Car park 1 mile on left.

Walk (OS Explorer 157): Follow gravelled trackway west. In 700m left through gate (153703); on through field, with fence on left. In 500m, left (149701) down slope beside fence; left through gate (150698) to Devil’s Den stones (152697). Return to gate; on along grass track through Grey Wethers valley. In 1 mile path curves right to metal gate (137706). On with fence on right to corner of Wroughton Copse (138711); left down slope; left along Wessex Ridgeway/Herepath (133710). In 300m cross gallop (130709); bear right for 550m to stile onto Ridgeway National Trail (127714). Right for 1 mile; right onto White Horse Trail/WHT (125729). In ⅔ mile fork right at copse (132723), cross track and on (WHT). Through wood (135720), then grassy track (WHT). In 600m, left on Wessex Ridgeway/Herepath (143714); in 100m right (‘Byway’) to car park.

Info: uksouthwest.net/wiltshire/fyfield-down; satmap.com; ramblers.org.uk

The Stonemason by Andrew Ziminski (John Murray)

 Posted by at 01:29
Jan 302021

First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
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A beautiful day was promised over the eastern fells of the Lake District, with light easterly winds and plenty of blue sky. So it turned out, as we set off from the tiny village of Dockray to make a circuit of the craggy outlier of Gowbarrow Fell.

In the pastures around Parkgate Farm they were training an excitable young sheepdog in the business of gathering his charges. The flock swerved and fled across the field like a shower of white iron filings impelled by the black-and-white magnet of the dog. He yapped shrilly, they bleated high and low, the farmer shouted and whistled. Gradually the noise faded as we crossed Riddings Beck and turned up Gowbarrow’s steep rocky slope.

The fell rises in a graceless lump of green-grey rocks and fox-brown bracken to the east of Dockray. Norsemen named it ‘Windy Hill’, but all was still today under the winter sun. ‘More deer than trees’ was a late 17th century description of this private hunting ground for the lords of the Greystoke estate. Gowbarrow is still a wild place today, a hummock of moorland, rock, heather and boggy ground.

Views as much Alpine as Cumbrian opened to the south as we gained height on the steep stony path, a view of Ullswater’s lake and wooded shores. Beyond rose the long hummocky ridge of High Street, where the sun was causing the last curls of early mist to shred away in the clear air.

Up we went, a stony ascent by rocky steps and tree roots. Sparkling streamlets descended beside the path with a tinkling sound like distant sheep bells. A meadow pipit, disturbed from a mossy bog pool, darted up and away with snipe-like jinkings and a sharp chip! chip! of complaint. Near the top of the fell the gradient eased and the path ran over a wide heather moor to reach the trig pillar on Airy Crag at 1,579 feet.

The view from here was superb in unbroken sunshine, Ullswater trending northeast towards the flat plain of the Eden Valley and the rise of the North Pennine fells beyond, Great and Little Mell lumping in the northern foreground and a big crumple of high fells towards Helvellyn in the south west.

Down a well-trodden path, clockwise round the hump of Gowbarrow, to reach the lake shore level and a woodland path to Aira Force.* The waterfall that Wordsworth and countless other poets admired came bouncing and sluicing in white water down a black rock chute slick with mosses and liverworts. A fine spectacle to mark the homeward path through woods of alder and silver birch, along the fellside and back to Dockray in the last of the afternoon sunlight.
*NB spelling = Airy Crag; Aira Force

How hard is it? 5 miles; strenuous; steep climb to Airy Crag; many trip hazards on paths; many steps at Aira Force.

Start: Royal Hotel, Dockray, Penrith CA11 0JY (OS ref NY 393216)

Getting there: Dockray is on A5091 (Glenridding-Troutbeck)

Walk (OS Explorer OL5): Cross A5091; follow lane beside Dockray House (‘Aira Force’). Cross Riddings Beck at Millses (397217); in 200m through gate; left (399216, ‘Airy Crag’) through gate. Steeply up beside stone wall to Airy Crag trig pillar (408218). Keep ahead clockwise on clear path for 2¼ miles to footbridge over Aira Beck (401203). Don’t cross; turn right up right bank to Aira Force (399205). Cross lower footbridge; up steps; right to recross upper bridge. Path north on right bank to Millses and Dockray.

Lunch/Accommodation: Royal Hotel, Dockray (01768-482356, the-royal-dockray.co.uk) – friendly, characterful village inn.

Info: Penrith TIC (01768-867466); visitlakedistrict.com; satmap.com; ramblers.org.uk

 Posted by at 01:33