Oct 272018

First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
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A wild, blustery autumn day had marched in on Exmoor from the west. We waited in the car park at Dunkery Gate until the rain army had charged through and away, and set out in its heels to climb the path to the crest of Dunkery Beacon. A piglet-like squealing came down the wind from above, and when we came over the brow we found three children leaping and yelling for sheer glee round the summit cairn, their coats flying in the gale.

Up here on Exmoor’s highest point, standing by the cairn on the rocky tomb of some long-forgotten king, we drank in the view, as brisk and refreshing as a great gulp of cold water. Ninety wide and beautiful miles stretched out from the tiny tip of the Sugar Loaf, north across the Bristol Channel in Wales some 50 miles away, to Yes Tor’s hummock on Dartmoor nearly 40 miles to the south. Not that we could see those two distant landmarks in such conditions of wind and sun dazzle and rain curtains – it was enough to know they were out there, visible from Dunkery Beacon on the clearest of clear days. What we saw today were rolling ridges of moorland, humped green fields squared with tall hedge-banks, and a sunlit valley leading north to the bulky seaward slope of Hurlstone Point.

We turned east on the rocky ridge track, bowling along with the wind astern pushing us like a second-row rugby forward. The sun burst out across the hills, bringing the whitewashed farm houses far below into brilliant relief against their green meadows and woods. Suddenly a flight of twenty small birds went skimming across the path just ahead, cutting and turning like one creature, the sun flashing on their white breasts and sabre-blade wings – dunlin or plovers, they passed and vanished too quickly to be sure.

From the ridge, a squelchy river of a bridleway made a sloshy descent southward into the sheltered cleft of Mansley Combe. Down here, deep sunk in the valley bottom, the day fell suddenly calm. Gale-driven clouds tore over from rim to rim of the combe a hundred feet overhead, and the wind rushed and sighed in the beech canopy where leaves scattered horizontally in showers of gold.

We forded the River Avill, hurrying in bubbles and miniature rapids under a canopy of silver birches and luxuriant, rain-pearled ferns. As we followed the red mud track steeply up towards Dunkery Gate again, from the trees in the depths of the combe came a grinding, grating roar – a red stag bolving*, calling out a defiant rutting challenge to all comers, a wild voice to suit the wild day.
* Yes, that’s the word!

Start: Dunkery Gate car park, near Wheddon Cross, TA24 7AT approx (OS ref SS 896406)

Getting there: Dunkery Beacon is signed off B3224, 1 mile west of Wheddon Cross (A396 Dunster-Dulverton)

Walk (4½ miles, moderate, OS Explorer OL9): Cross Dunkery Bridge; in 100m, left (‘Public Bridleway Dunkery Beacon’) to summit cairn (892416). Right along main ridge track for nearly 1 mile. Cross road (904420) and continue; in 300m, right (907422, cairn) on bridleway through heather for nearly 1 mile. At hedge-bank (914410), don’t go through gate; turn right, keeping hedge-bank on left. In 450m, bear sharp left (910410); follow hedge-bank downhill, through gate (910407, ‘bridleway’), down to track in combe bottom. Right (‘Draper’s Way, Dunkery Gate’); uphill for 1 mile to Dunkery Gate.

Lunch/accommodation: White Horse, Exford, TA24 7PY (01643-831229; exmoor-whitehorse.co.uk)

Information: National Park Centre, Dulverton (01398-323841); visit-exmoor.co.uk
satmap.com; ramblers.org.uk

 Posted by at 02:22
Oct 202018

First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
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Approaching Farringford along the footpath from Tennyson Down, my first reaction was ‘What an ugly house!’ Farringford in its yellow brick bulk, all castellations and creepers, looks as forbiddingly Victorian as can be. It’s only when I was immersed in the dark red and blue rooms, the study and drawing room, the schoolroom and bedrooms where the Tennyson family led their intensely interwoven lives, that I began to appreciate what a haven this Gothic pile became for Alfred Lord Tennyson, Victorian England’s favourite celebrity Poet Laureate.

At Farringford, Alfred and his ailing wife Emma could put up the shutters on the clamorous outside world. They entertained a selection of the great and good; they dressed their beloved sons Hallam and Lionel in lace collars and long hair, and didn’t care if the boys would rather play the bugle or ride their rocking horse than do maths. Tennyson was a genial man, not at all inclined to stand on ceremony.

Above all, Tennyson in his great cloak and wideawake hat was a Poet, a very visible one. He came to the Isle of Wight to escape his celebrity, but became the island’s most famous figure, striding the long down beyond Farringford and mouthing half-created lines to the four winds at the edge of the great chalk cliffs.

Up on the back of Tennyson Down I strode, too, heading west past the big Celtic cross memorial to the poet, out to where the down narrows to a precarious blade of chalk.

A fenced eyrie overlooks a most tremendous view, a flint-scored wall of chalk nearly 400 feet high, the waves mumbling its feet, running out to where the three white blades of The Needles rise from the water. A salt-stained striped lighthouse clings to the outermost stack, and gulls wheel far below.

In Tennyson’s time they built a battery out here to ward off the threat of a French invasion. A century later, scientists and engineers used the promontory as a test ground for Black Knight and Black Arrow, rockets that tried and failed to make Britain a credible player in the Great Space Race.

Afternoon sun struck glowing colours – rose, peach, white, crimson and dove grey – out of the deeply fissured cliffs of Alum Bay. Beyond them I followed a field path back towards Farringford, glancing every now and then up at the skyline for a glimpse of a genial ghost in flowing cloak and broad-brimmed hat, still striding and declaiming to the winds.
Start: High Down Chalk Pit car park, 1 mile south of Totland, PO39 0HY approx. (OS ref SQ 324855)

Getting there: Red Funnel ferries (redfunnel.co.uk), Southampton-East Cowes. Bus 5 (East Cowes-Newport), 7 (Newport-Alum Bay).
Road – A3021, A3054 to Newport; B3401 Carisbrooke and Freshwater Bay. Follow ‘Needles, Alum Bay’; in 1¾ miles, left beside Highdown Inn to car park.

Walk (6½ miles; moderate, one short steep climb; OS Explorer OL29): From car park, east along foot of Tennyson Down. In 650m pass gate/path on left (331857) and leave trees. In another 150m, with chalk pit on right and drinking trough on left, path forks right (333858), but bear left and continue on path along lower hedge. Through gate; in 100m, left on fenced path. At 3-finger post (334861), right towards Farringford House and walled garden.

Ahead up Gate Lane (fingerpost). In 200m, at ‘Private’ garden door on left, turn right (338861) down Green Lane. In 300m through gate (337857); cross path; straight ahead, steeply up through trees. Cross summit of down to Tennyson Trail (337855); right (west) for 2½ miles to coastguard cottages (301848), Needles viewpoint (298847) and Old Battery (296849).

Back along lower roadway. In ¾ mile, at left bend to Alum Bay, keep ahead (308852, ‘Tennyson Down’) on field path. In ¾ mile at Nodes Beacon cresset (319853), fork left for 600m to car park.

Lunch/Accommodation: Highdown Inn, Highdown Lane, Totland PO39 0HY (01983-752450, highdowninn.com)

Farringford House: Guided tours, opening times etc – 01983-752500, farringford.co.uk

Tourist and walking info: visitisleofwight.com

Isle of Wight Walking Festival: 4-19 May 2019 (isleofwightwalkingfestival.co.uk)

satmap.com; ramblers.org.uk

 Posted by at 01:04
Oct 132018

First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
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Waking at Beckfoot Retreat, everything was absolutely quiet and still. With the nearest main road over the hills and far away, and the glittering wavelets of Ennerdale Lake at the feet of the fells for a view, we were drawn irresistibly outdoors.

Ennerdale Water is the most westerly lake in the Lake District, and the quietest of all those easily accessible. The only road beside it is the crunchy forestry track that we followed along the north shore.

Big tranches of forest clothe the lower slopes of Great Borne and Starling Dodd on the north side. We moved from shadow to sun splashes under silver birch, rowan, ash and larch, looking up and beyond the trees to see the pink splotchy shoulders of Red Pike and High Stile, two thousand feet above us against the cloudy sky.

Ennerdale is a shapely valley, scoured out by a glacier high on Great Gable to the east. The glacier pushed its moraine or rubbly foot down the valley towards the sea, piling up a long tongue of rocks where the River Liza runs into the lake. We turned down across this rough grassy hinterland, before setting back westwards along the steeper and stonier southern shore of Ennerdale Water.

It seems quiet incredible that a scheme should be currently afoot to bury nuclear waste in the granite rock below this lake. But that’s the situation. The lake is deep, dark and cold, a broad trench of water full of life – salmon and trout, and the rare Arctic char, a race of fish sealed into the valley when the glacier retreated. We teetered along the rocky path, watching our footing among the loose stones and tree roots, as white-faced Herdwick sheep watched us suspiciously from the bracken.

A sandpiper bobbed on a shoreline rock before uttering a silvery pipe of a warning, then taking off and flying low over the water. The white bar across its tail flashed in the sun as it turned and scooted for safety elsewhere.

A scramble up and down the slippery rocks of Angler’s Crag, polished to a shine of red and green by millions of boot soles. And a last section round the west end of Ennerdale Water, looking east to Pillar and the Pillar Rock, guarding the mountain approaches to Ennerdale as they have done for the past 400 million years.

Start: Bowness Knoll car park, Croasdale, Ennerdale Water LA23 3AU (OS ref NY 110153)

Getting there: A5086 from Cockermouth to Cleator Moor; left to Ennerdale Bridge; fork right at school to Croasdale, right to Bowness Knoll car park.

Walk (7½ miles, tricky underfoot, OS Explorer OL4): Left along track, clockwise round lake. In 1½ miles, pass modern bridge on right (131143); in another 350m, fork right (134142) down to cross 2 footbridges. Bear left through ruined wall; head across pasture for gate in plantation wall (131138). Go through; right along track; in 100m, right through gate. Left on the outside of plantation wall, and on along south lake shore. In 2 miles, scramble over outcrop of Angler’s Crag (103149); on clockwise round lake. In 2½ miles, path turns inland at Bowness to car park

Conditions: A mild rock scramble at Angler’s Crag; watch your footing! Stumbly path along south side of lake

Lunch: The Gather Café (01946-862453, thegatherennerdale.com); Fox & Hounds (01946-861373, foxandhoundsinn.org) or Shepherds Arms (01946-861249, shepherdsarms.com), all at Ennerdale Bridge.

Accommodation/evening meal: Beckfoot Retreat, Ennerdale (01946-748144, beckfootretreatennerdale.com) – peaceful, secluded and welcoming.

Info: The Gather Café (see above); golakes.co.uk; nationaltrust.org.uk/ennerdale; satmap.com; ramblers.org.uk

 Posted by at 08:20
Sep 292018

First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
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The two children came pelting out of the trees near the spanking new Sherwood Forest Visitor Centre, home-made bows in hand. ‘Look!’ shouted the girl in the green peaked hat, and sent her stick arrow flying across the clearing. ‘No, look at me!’ squealed the little boy behind her. He stopped to bend his bow, the string snapped, and his sister fell around in heartless laughter. Robin Hood would have had something to say to her on the subject of looking after the weak and misfortunate, I’m sure.

Whether bold Robyn Hode, the forest outlaw of the early medieval ballads, really existed or not is open to question. He certainly lives on in the imaginations of dozens of kids in Lincoln green hats who were dashing about and shooting the tree trunks in the outskirts of Sherwood. A fair number of them had made it as far as the Major Oak, a colossal veteran with a golden crown that could well be old enough to have dropped an acorn on Robin’s head as he sat at parliament with his Merry Men in its shelter – one of uncountable legends about the greenwood hero.

Once past the Major Oak, the clamour of young voices fell behind. The wide woodland track of Robin Hood Way took us west through the heart of Sherwood Forest, where immensely distorted and swollen old oaks raised arthritic limbs in the shadows. These tremendously characterful trees owe their survival to their imperfections. Had they stood straighter and taller, they would have been cut down for timber long ago. In the carpet of red and gold leaves at their feet grew clusters of fly agaric with white-spotted scarlet caps, fungi so potently psychotropic that even the most reckless outlaw would steer clear of them.

When fugitives from justice such as Robin Hood lived in Sherwood, the Forest was 100 times its current size and covered 150 square miles of country. Nowadays it all fits comfortable into two square miles. Somewhere toward the middle we found the Centre Tree and turned north along a grassy bridleway into Sherwood’s northerly neighbour, Budby Forest. Here the trees opened out into a broad heathland of golden bracken and purple heather.

The track swung south again through a stretch of wood pasture grazed by long-horned cattle with chocolate-brown coats and white streaks up their backs, a stylish combination. We stopped to admire their sleepy stolidity, and reckoned that the Merry Men would have been exceptionally pleased to encounter such slow-moving lunches on the hoof. Hollywood has dandified the doings of such as Robyn Hode, but the life of a Sherwood Forest outlaw must have been pretty tough. You had to take your chances when every man’s hand was against you.

Start: Sherwood Forest Visitor Centre, Edwinstowe, Notts NG21 9RN (OS ref SK 627677)
Getting there: Visitor Centre signed off B6034 just north of Edwinstowe (A6075).
Walk (5 miles, good forest tracks, OS Explorer 149. Online maps and more walks at christophersomerville.co.uk): From Visitor Centre, follow signposted Major Oak walk. Just beyond Major Oak, fork left (not through gate) and follow Robin Hood Way/RHW green arrows. In ¾ mile at Centre Tree, right (607676, ‘public bridleway’) on RHW for 1¼ miles. At crossing with 7-finger post, right (604695, ‘Budby’). In ¾ mile at crossing (616694), right through kissing gate; fork left on grassy bridleway, keeping ahead for 1½ miles to Visitor Centre.
Lunch/Accommodation: Forest Lodge, Edwinstowe, NG21 9QA (01623-824443, forestlodgehotel.co.uk) – friendly, comfortable village stopover
Info: Sherwood Forest Visitor Centre (01623-824643, visitsherwood.co.uk)
experiencenottinghamshire.com; satmap.com; ramblers.org.uk

 Posted by at 02:24
Sep 222018

First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
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A blackbird was giving us the best of his autumn repertoire from a cottage garden in Combrook. Not even the stone angels forming a guard of honour either side of the church door could have sung more celestially.

We sat on the churchyard wall to hear him out, then followed a grass path under heavy-laden horse chestnuts. The fallen conkers lay all around, their spiny green shells half split to reveal a wink of shiny brown nut within.

Greylag geese waddled complaining among the ewes in Park Field, where the long ornamental lake of Compton Pools glinted between trees just beginning to change their dress from green to gold. From the sheep pastures around Home Farm we looked back down a valley landscaped by Capability Brown in the 1770s for Baron Willoughby de Broke. Artfully shaped slopes and dells guided the eye from tree clumps and skyline down to the lake and its three-arched ornamental bridge, a brilliant trick of depth and perspective.

The parkland path and roads led north past stubble and pastures, between hedges crimson with hawthorn berries – peggles, as old countrymen used to call them. The land in its green and brown stripes billowed like a tarpaulin on a windy day.

The horses in the paddocks around Banisters Meadow Farm were too intent on loading grass into themselves to give us more than a glance. Just beyond, we turned back along the homeward path, skirting the osier beds at Poolfield where the knobbly old trees stood knee deep in dark carr swamp.

On the far side of a great trackless field of plough we found Compton Verney’s parkland opening its sculpted vistas again. The pillars and portico of the early Georgian mansion stood beyond the lake, every painter’s dream of peaceful Middle England.

The Verney family built Compton Verney and held it for 200 years. Soap king Joseph Watson, manufacturer of Nubolic disinfectant and Bumpo soap powder, bought the estate in 1921. The new owner exemplified the self-made man of the post-war world. He died a lord, chasing the fox with the Quorn – a paid-up member of the galloping classes.

Start: Combrook Church, Compton Verney, Warwicks CV35 9HP (OS ref SP 307517)

Getting there:
Bus 67A, 67B to Compton Verney house.
Road – Combrook is signed off B4086 at Compton Verney, between Kineton and Wellesbourne (M40, Jct 12)

Walk (7¼ miles, easy, OS Explorer 206): With church on right continue down ‘No Through Road’. In 200m, left by No 27 (307519, blue arrow/BA) down path, then beside Compton Pools. In 300m through gate (305521, BA), across Park Field. Gate to right of houses (305525, BA), right along drive to B4086 (307528). Left up Compton Hill; in 200m, right (‘Home Farm’, BA) along drive past Home Farm for 1¼ miles to cross road (318540).

Ahead for ½ mile; right (323545, ‘Hill Fields’) down farm road. In 400m, left along muddy lane (327543); at Banisters Meadow Farm (330545), left up drive to road (331549). Right; in 100m, right (stile, yellow arrow/YA) along field edge. At bottom, right; in 50m, left (333546) down field, across stream (334544) and on across large field. At corner of Poolfield Coppice, through gate (336537); right along fence; in 500m cross left end of Upper Pool (332535, BA). In 100m right across bridge (BA); follow field edge for 500m to Poolfield Cottages (328534).

Left up drive; in 150m, right (gate, BA). Aim a little right across paddock to hedge gap and deer gate (326534). On through wood; through another deer gate, across field, trending a little away from hedge on your right, for 500m to road (321536). Right; in 100m, left (kissing gate) into Compton Verney park. Follow path over meadow for ¾ mile to gate into car park (314527).

Cross in front of café; through gate; left on woodland path. Follow ‘Bird Hide’; pass hide, and follow woodland path to cross B4086 at bridge (311526 – take care!). Path across field (YA), into wood (310523, YA); straight ahead, no lefts or rights, to emerge in field (309519). Right, down to road by house (308518); left to church.

Lunch: Picnic, or Compton Verney Café (open 10-4:30)

Accommodation: Howard Arms, Ilmington, Warwicks CV36 4LT (01608-682226, howardarms.com) – cheerful, characterful village inn.

Compton Verney: 01926-645500; comptonverney.org.uk

Info: shakespeares-england.co.uk; satmap.com; ramblers.org.uk

 Posted by at 02:37
Sep 152018

First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
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Geologically, the Stiperstones are easy enough to explain – outcrops of quartzite some 500 million years old, spread along a mile or so of heathery Shropshire ridge on a westerly spur of the Long Mynd.

It’s their contrary aspect – jagged upthrusts of naked rock in the midst of smoothly rolling countryside – that has cloaked them in all manner of strange and demonic myths. And certainly, walking towards Cranberry Rock at the southern end of the line, it was disconcerting to find the harsh outline of the tor suddenly appearing between one minute and the next as though the ground had disgorged it all in a moment.

It was a beautiful autumn afternoon. The Long Mynd was a glowing green bar of dimpled slopes in the east, the Welsh borderlands a sunlit haze of woods and hills to the west. Cranberries spattered the heather with scarlet. A pair of ravens flew high overhead, one giving out deep croaks, the other emitting a strange, musical warble.

The path among the Stones, rocky and full of angular quartzite lumps, required careful watching. We followed it through the heather past Cranberry Rock and Manstone Rock to the Devil’s Chair – more like a giant and horrendously uncomfortable chaise longue of unforgiving stone.

Wild Edric the Saxon, Lady Godiva and all the witches and warlords of Shropshire have the Devil’s Chair as their trysting spot. Here Slashrags the Tailor got the better of the Evil One, once he’d spotted his cloven hooves.

And here the Devil reclines in stormy weather watching between the lightning bolts for the ruination of Old England. On that day, it’s said, the Stiperstones will sink back whence they sprang – into the bowels of Hell.

We descended a steep grassy path among old lead mine workings to the village of Stiperstones a thousand feet below. Down there, with the Stones shut away from sight by steep hillsides, it was hard to bring their otherworldly atmosphere to mind. But as we headed home along a track that skirted the ridge, we saw their ragged profiles lit by the setting sun and a spectral half-moon that sailed up out of the ridge. The Stiperstones stood sentinel, a ghostly guard above our homeward path.

Start: The Bog car park, near Stiperstones, Shropshire SY5 0NG (OS ref SO 358978)

Getting there: Shuttle Bus, weekends and BH Mon, May-end Sept; Bus 552 from Shrewsbury
Road: From A488 between Bishop’s Castle and Shrewsbury, follow ‘Shelve’, then ‘Stiperstones’.

Walk (5 miles, strenuous, OS Explorer 216): Follow Shropshire Way/SW signs to right of pond; follow path, up steps, through kissing gate (arrow). Ahead along gorsy bank to kissing gate; left to cross road (362976). Follow SW ‘main route’ for 1 mile along ridge past Cranberry Rock (365981), Manstone Rock (367986) to Devil’s Chair (369992). In another 600m, SW turns right (371996); keep ahead here. In 350m, at crossing and cairn by Shepherd’s Rock (373999, yellow arrow/YA, ‘Cross Britain Walk’) left down grassy path to road in Stiperstones village (363004). Left past Stiperstones Inn; in 400m, hairpin left (361002, fingerpost); cross stile; right, steeply up fence for 300m. Left at post (359999, arrow); cross stile, pass NNR notice; steeply up through trees to cross stile at top (361996). Half left across field; right (361994) on stony lane for 1 mile to road (359980) and car park.

Conditions: Rocky underfoot along Stiperstones ridge; steep climb from Stiperstones village

Lunch: Bog Centre (01743-792484, bogcentre.co.uk)

Accommodation: Stiperstones Inn, Stiperstones village SY5 0PD (01743-791327, stiperstonesinn.co.uk)

Info: Bog Centre, Stiperstones (see above); visitengland.com; satmap.com; ramblers.org.uk

 Posted by at 07:48
Sep 082018

First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
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The Antrim Hills Way hurdles high countryside seldom seen by tourists who stick to County Antrim’s celebrated Causeway Coast. These green hills form a volcanic backbone that shadows the coastline a few miles inland and a thousand feet higher, a rugged spine with ribs of basalt cliffs that fall dramatically to patchwork farmlands between the heights and the sea.

You could do the whole 22-mile path in a single long day, if you had time and stamina. But today we were aiming for some highlights of the route, the great arc of the Sallagh Braes cliffs and the high lookout of Scawt Hill. A blustery wind was sweeping the last of the night’s rain away in its skirts as we put on our boots in the ‘car park in the sky’, as locals call Linford car park with its tremendous seaward views.

Up the lower slopes of Robin Young’s Hill we went, heading south through sedge clumps that hissed and bowed stiffly before the wind. A patch of plants resembling a beanfield in flower turned out on closer inspection to be thistles, stuck all over with white hanks of wool from the ragged mountain sheep that wandered among them.

Ahead ran the bent bow of the Sallagh Braes, a wide amphitheatre of basalt ramparts, with fans of grassy scree sweeping down to crumpled country of green and yellow fields. Eastwards the sea lay in polished silver streaks, its far horizon crowned with the volcanic plug of Ailsa Craig, a thousand feet high. The hills of south-west Scotland were spread beyond – the Mull of Kintyre to the north, the Rhinns of Galloway in the south.

Topping the rise, we looked forward along the Sallagh Braes’ scoop of cliffs, with the long sea inlet of Larne Lough cradled in the arm of Islandmagee’s green peninsula. Inland, rolling hills led away to the black hedgehog-backed mountain of Slemish, southerly terminus of the Antrim Hills Way.

We skirted the rim of the Sallagh Braes, savouring these giant prospects, until the Way swung inland. Turning back along the cliffs, we crossed the road at the ‘car park in the sky’ and followed the path north for another exhilarating mile of high and mighty walking.

A stiff little climb up to Ballycoos Hill, and then an undulating stride to the top of Scawt Hill, another of the volcanic plugs so characteristic of this coast. The wind shoved us, our hair smacked our faces like a cat-o’-nine-tails, and we stared round over sea and land as the sky cleared, our eyes full of wind tears and belated sun dazzle.

Start: Linford car park, Feystown Road, near Ballygally, Larne BT44 0EA approx. (OSN1 ref 332072)

Getting there: Linford car park is 2 miles up Ballycoose Road/Feystown Road from Cairncastle on B148 (signed off A8 at Millbrook, just west of Larne).

Walk (5½ miles, rough moorland walking, OSN1 1:25,000 Activity Map ‘Glens of Antrim’): From car park cross ladder stile, head south uphill, following Antrim Hills Way white-topped posts (AHW) for nearly 2 miles to a notch in cliffs where AHW turns right/inland (344048). Return same way to car park. Cross road and stile opposite; follow AHW posts uphill, across Ballycoos Hill (335083) and on to Scawt Hill summit (337090). Return to car park.

Lunch: Picnic

Accommodation: Ballygally Castle Hotel, Ballygally BT40 2QZ (028-2858-1066, hastingshotels.com)

Antrim Hills Way: walkni.com/walks/51/antrim-hills-way

Info: Larne TIC (028-2826-2495); visitcausewaycoastandglens.com
discovernorthernireland.com; satmap.com; ufrc-online.co.uk

 Posted by at 01:25
Sep 012018

First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
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Six men bearing enormous reindeer horns cavort together, advancing and retiring, enticing and threatening. Lumpy-bumpy melodeon music accompanies their ritual, crowds of onlookers cheer them through the village streets. This is the ancient Abbots Bromley Horn Dance, performed every Wakes Monday in this Staffordshire village.

We start today’s walk in the village church of St Nicholas, and here on the wall behind the organ hang the venerable sets of reindeer horns, each a thousand years old, mounted on curious little wooden heads. Not long after sunrise on Wakes Monday the priest-in-charge blesses the horns before the dancers set out with them, a nice blend of the Christian and pagan.

The bells of St Nicholas ring out over Abbots Bromley as we walk away from the brick cottages and half-timbered old houses of the village. The hazy bloom of a hot summer’s morning lies over the steeply rolling countryside.

On the ridge near Spring Bank Farm, young cattle are sheltering from the heat in their shed. From here we look back to Abbots Bromley among trees on its hillside, and to the misty grey outlines of the great cooling towers at Rugeley, their waists nipped in like monstrous flamenco dancers.

At Beacon Bank Farm we get into a lane of hazel hedges between shady oaks, from whose upper leaves tiny caterpillars come abseiling down on glistening threads. At Hart’s Farm the young heifers blow through their nostrils as they stand in straw, emitting their characteristic warm, biscuit smell.

The royal hunting forest of Needwood once covered all this countryside. Now its fragments lie widely scattered. We sit on a medieval earthen bank in Hart’s Coppice, our feet among oak leaves, listening to blackbird and warblers making mid-afternoon music in the cool of the woodland canopy. Uncountable insects add a harmonic background hum.

Around Dun’s Field farm the stiles are choked with brambles and blackthorn. We clear a way at the cost of a few scratches, and follow a track across the broad acres of Bagot’s Park between fields of wheat and oilseed rape.

A wistful glance as we pass the silver silos of the Freedom Brewery, and we haul our thirsty throats and hot faces homeward along the Staffordshire Way. The fields shimmer in the sunshine, hoverflies hum their monotone refrain, and all colours are leached out in the heat of the afternoon to the dull gold of the crops and the green of trees so dark they look tar black against the pale blue sky.

Start: St Nicholas’s Church, Abbots Bromley, Staffs WS15 3DD (OS ref SK 079246)

Getting there: Bus 402A, 403, Uttoxeter to Burton-on-Trent
Road – Abbots Bromley is on B5014, signposted (B5013) from A51 at Rugeley.

Walk (7 miles, easy, OS Explorer 244): From church to village green at Buttercross. Right along High Street; left (084244) up Radmore Lane. In ½ mile pass Radmore farm; in 100m, right over stile (091249); fork left (fingerpost) across field to far corner (stile). Same line across next field to cross footbridge (094249). In 50m, right (stile, yellow arrow/YA). Straight uphill, then half left to shed (097250). Through gate; half left across field to gate. Ahead to 2 gates by The Clump wood (100242). Left through left-hand gate; along hedge (stiles) for 350m to lane at Beacon Bank Farm (099255).

Right; in 300m pass gates of Four Oaks (101257); in 240m, fork left (103259) to Hart’s Farm (103261). Between house and shed; on through farmyard between sheds; through gate at far side; follow farm track for 200m to go through gate (105264, YA). Bear left up flank of Hart’s Coppice to enter wood (106265, stile, YA). Ahead across track; on through trees with ditch on left for 200m to leave wood (107266, stile, YA).

Path across field; cross footbridge (100269, YA); on down field edge. In 200m at angle of field, right (101271, stiles, YAs, footbridges) across brook. Up field to shed; cross stile (110273); across following stile (YA); left with hedge on left to cross 2 adjacent stiles in corner of field (109274) at Dun’s Field farmhouse. Bear right past cattle grid; left along field roadway (108276) for 1 mile to pass Freedom Brewery (093270). In another 250m, left (090269) along field edge in valley bottom on Staffordshire Way (marked by YAs with ‘knot’ logo).

In 600m bear right round field edge (094264); ahead over stile (SW) through trees; up hill. In 500m, left through hedge (089263, SW, fingerpost). Follow hedge on right. In 200m, right through hedge (090261, YA) across field. Left along hedge on your left (YA), on path becoming green lane to road (087255). Ahead to Abbots Bromley.

Conditions: Some bramble-choked stiles near Dun’s Field Farm; secateurs/stick are useful!

Lunch: Café on the Green, Abbots Bromley (01283 840275) – excellent home cooking

Accommodation: Marsh Farm B&B, Uttoxeter Road, Abbots Bromley WS15 3EJ (01283-840323)

Abbots Bromley Horn Dance: Monday 10 Sept 2018; abbotsbromley.com/horn_dance

enjoystaffordshire.com; satmap.com; ramblers.org.uk

 Posted by at 01:22
Aug 252018

First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
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Among the Orkney islands, Hoy is the odd man out. The other isles of the archipelago lie low and green off the northern tip of mainland Scotland. But Hoy rises in a series of steep dark hills, culminating in the lowering 1500-ft bulk of Ward Hill.

From the pier at Moaness I bucketed along the rough road to Rackwick aboard the Hoy taxi. Once down there in the sparsely populated old fishing hamlet where big red and grey cliffs fall sheer into Rackwick Bay, I felt a long way from anywhere.

When young composer Peter Maxwell Davies met Orkney’s national poet George Mackay Brown at Rackwick in 1970, Brown pointed out a derelict house on the hillside, roofless, windowless and with decades of compacted sheep muck inside. Davies was delighted. The cottage was to be his home for the next 25 years, a harbour of peace as he composed and walked the hills of Hoy.

I set off up the grassy hillside track, crossing springs that glinted down over mats of moss and lichens. Soon the path became a well-paved route, the dusky pink granite sand sparkling between the stones. Turning the corner of the hill of Moor Fea, the sea ahead was a silken blue, the coast a dark red jumble of sandstone cliffs where fulmars planed on stiff wings.

The path ran north above the flat green and purple tableland of Rora Head, the Burn of Stourdale tumbling from the lip of slanted red cliffs in a grey mare’s tail of spray.

The Old Man of Hoy is a geological phenomenon, a slender sea stack of sandstone 450 feet high, rising from its footing on the rocky shore to a summit almost level with the cliffs. I saw it a mile away, its profile irresistibly reminiscent of General de Gaulle – receding chin, moustache, great prow of a nose and military kepi all present and correct.

The cliff path ran out to a viewing point. Fulmars, kittiwakes, herring gulls and guillemots lined the cracks and crevices of the Old Man. As I stood and stared, a horizontal prism formed in the air, bent in an arch and touched its seaward end to the foot of the stack, a once-in-a-lifetime rainbow.

The path from Rackwick back to Moaness led through a wild glen among the hills, a narrow cleft threaded by a boggy old road, as remote as could be. I came down to Moaness Pier as evening fell, the light going out of the day and a green flicker of the Northern Lights behind the hill of Cuilags to add the final touch of magic to the walk.

Start: Rackwick, Isle of Hoy, Orkney KW16 3NJ (OS ref ND 200997)

Finish: Moaness Pier, Isle of Hoy KW16 3NJ (HY 244040)

Getting there: Ferry (orkneyferries.co.uk), Stromness-Moaness, Isle of Hoy
Hoy taxi (01856-791315) to Rackwick

Walk (8½ miles, rough moorland walking, OS Explorer 461): From Rackwick follow ‘Old Man of Hoy’ signs past schoolhouse Folk Museum, uphill and along track for 2¼ miles to cliff viewpoint opposite Old Man of Hoy (HY 177007). Return to Rackwick. Back up road. In 400m cross Rackwick Burn (202001); follow path (‘Moaness 6.5 km’). In 2½ miles join road at Sandy Loch (219032); follow it down to Moaness Pier.

Conditions: Unguarded cliff-tops; Rackwick Glen track is boggy. Take midge repellent! – Avon Skin-so-Soft is effective.

Lunch: Picnic

Accommodation: Stromabank Hotel, Longhope, South Walls, Isle of Hoy KW16 3PA (01856-701494, stromabank.co.uk)

Orkney International Science Festival: 6-12 September; oisf.org

Info: visitorkney.com; hoyorkney.com; satmap.com; ramblers.org.uk

 Posted by at 01:57
Aug 182018

First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
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The steam trains of the South Tyne Valley Railway were slow enough by all accounts. But travellers in the slowest of them could never have had the leisure to spot all the wild flowers that Jane and I saw as we walked the footpath that now runs along the old railway. All this under a blue Northumbrian sky where white cumulus clouds 30,000 feet tall rolled with soundless majesty.

Along the farm lane to Lynnshield, black and brown heifers tittuped and snorted in pastures where oystercatchers circled above their nests, crying their sharp pik! pik! alarm calls. Beyond the farm we headed south at the rim of Park Burn’s deep canyon, where the burn rushed over rocky falls. Sphagnum was using the clumps of sedge as foundations for building its big pink and green cushions of moss, deep and damp enough to wet a finger thrust in among them.

We picnicked under the footbridge, watching sand martins popping in and out of their nest holes in the banks. Then it was on south by way of dusty spoil-heaps of old coal pits, and a tangle of dubious paths around the stone-built steading of West Stonehouse. Here we paused for a superb view north over many miles of moor and upland. Out there the landscape lumped up into the characteristic breaking-wave skyline of the Whin Sill’s volcanic ledge, where Hadrian’s Wall rode right at the edge of sight.

Down again through sheep pastures into the wide green valley of the River South Tyne. It was hard to equate the sluggish dark tideway through Newcastle-upon-Tyne with this young river of clear water, running fast round islets of pebbles piled up in winter floods. We followed it north to where the great grey bulk of Featherstone Castle raised its battlements and window arches.

Just upstream stood an abandoned clutch of stark red brick buildings, black-windowed and sinister – the remnants of Camp 18. Here after the Second World War, German officers were put through a process of ‘de-Nazification’, before being repatriated to help rebuild their ruined country. A humane, far-sighted initiative, the first step in the process of Anglo-German reconciliation.

Start: Featherstone Park car park, Featherstone Rowfoot, near Haltwhistle NE49 0JF (OS ref NY 683607)

Getting there: Car park is 1 mile east of Featherstone Castle (signed from A689 at Lambley)

Walk (8 miles, moorland and farm tracks, OS Explorer OL43): From car park cross road and on along old railway (South Tyne Trail, ‘Haltwhistle 3’). In ½ mile fork left at Park Village (687615); right across railway, to road. Right; in 150m, left (fingerpost/FP, ‘Broomhouse Common’) along farm drive to Lynnshield (695612). Skirt to right round buildings (arrows); on to gate. Beyond, fork right at waymark post (697613, yellow arrows/YA). Follow fence on right to wall gate (700613, YA). Right along gorge edge; in 600m fork right at post (702608, YA) to cross Park Burn on footbridge (700605).

Ahead to gate; green lane to road (690600); ahead for ¼ mile to larger road (696595). Left; in ⅔ mile at top of hill, right into Pinewood Grove chalet park (699587, FP ‘Yont the Cleugh’). In 10m, left through gate (YA); ahead to pass site office and farmhouse (697586). Through gate, down path to cross Christowell Burn; right up to gate. Half left across field to gate at West Stonehouse (695586).

Right; in 50m, left round end of barn; pass cottage on right, then between farmhouse on left and barn with steps on right. Through gate on right (YA); on to ladder stile (LS); on to gate, and cross farm track by Birch Trees house (694586). Half left and through gate (YA). Up field with fence on right to LS (691584); on to LS by corner of Beaconhill Plantation (689583). Right (stile, YA, FP) through plantation (occasional YAs), down to stile (687585). Forward to cross road (686586, LS).

In 150m at waymark post (YA), ahead downhill for 700m with fence on left, then across fields to farm at Coanwood (681590). Ahead through gate (YA); immediately left (stile, YA) along field edge to stile (YA) into lane (678589). Right between houses, and down to road. Sharp left, down through gate (FP, ‘Lambley Bridge’). At cottage (676589), right on path heading north beside River South Tyne for 1¾ miles. Just past Featherstone Castle, right up road (673612) for ¾ mile to car park.

Conditions: NB – poor waymarking around West Stonehouse.

Refreshments: Wallace Arms PH, Featherstone Rowfoot (NB no food); Blenkinsopp Castle Inn, Castel Home Park, Brampton CA8 7JS (01697-747757)

Accommodation: Kellah Farm, near Greenhead, Haltwhistle NE49 0JL (01434-320816, kellah.co.uk) – proper friendly farm B&B

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

 Posted by at 07:30