Jun 272020

First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
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‘We’ve done something quite special here,’ says Pete Bowyer, senior manager at Fenn’s Moss National Nature Reserve, with modest pride. ‘Pretty much the whole bog had been wrecked and destroyed, and we’ve gradually brought it back to life.’

If there’s one outstanding example of how conservation can work to dramatic effect, it’s here on the borders of Shropshire and Clwyd, where England and Wales rub shoulders. Fenn’s, Whixall and their neighbouring ‘mosses’ form over 2,000 acres of raised bog, a rare landscape brought into being by the growth of sphagnum mosses that trap and hold rainwater.

We set out along the NNR’s History Trail. It’s a juicy and squelchy environment, a vast cushion of carbon-absorbing sphagnum where butterflies, spiders, wetland birds and flowers throve undisturbed for 10,000 years after the last Ice Age – the mosses were too deep, sodden and dangerous for man to do more than a little wildfowling and fishing. Then in the 19th and 20th centuries came commercial drainage and peat harvesting on a massive scale.

We passed scrubby areas of irregular banks, where peat was hand-cut by local villagers – ‘Whixall Bibles,’ they called the square black slabs of peat. Further out were vast acreages of bleached grass, heather and bog cotton, golden spatters of bog asphodel, oily black bog pools where dragonflies skimmed, and big skies full of swifts and swallows. Overhead sped the intent dark crescent shapes of hobbies, slender birds of prey hunting dragonflies to munch on the wing.

We walked the Long Mile and the old railway track to Fenn Old Peat Works, a skeleton shed holding rusty old pulley wheels, conveyors and ramps, the derelict rump of destructive industry. Harebells, mulleins, heath spotted orchids and yellow loosestrife clustered here.

Back on the bog track we crossed the regrown heath of Oaf’s Orchard. Rusted wire baskets once held incendiary devices to trick wartime German raiders into dropping their bombs on the ‘useless wasteland’ of the bog.

Walking the homeward tracks across the moss it was hard to credit that this wonderful multi-coloured world of busy wildlife, buzzing and calling, was a dead black desert only forty years ago, cut and dried and abandoned. The painstaking work of professional conservationists and the volunteers that help them, the water management, the restoration of vegetation and encouragement of wildlife have combined to work a miracle in the Welsh Borders.

Start: Manor House NNR Base car park, Whixall, Salop SY13 2PD (OS ref SJ 505366)

Getting there: From Wem, follow ‘Whixall,’ then ‘NNR Base’ and brown NNR signs.

Walk (9¼ miles, level paths, OS Explorer 241): Obtain ‘History Trail’ leaflet from Manor House office or dispenser, or download at publications.naturalengland.org.uk.

From car park, down drive, right at road for 500m to Post 1 beside gate (498364); follow History Trail clockwise to Post 21(504368). Left along Long Mile green lane. In nearly 1 mile, left at post with arrows and dog notice (505382); in ½ mile, left (497381) along railway path. In 1½ miles left at Fenn’s Old Peat Works (478367), heading SE on Mosses Trail. In nearly 1 mile, right at Post 10 (487355). At Post 11 (485354), left to Llangollen Canal (485353); left to Roving Bridge junction (488352). Fork left (‘Hurleston’). In ¼ mile, left at Morris’s Bridge (493354, green arrow) on green lane. In 300m pass gate (492356); at Post 8, right (490358). At Post 6, left (496363) and retrace outward walk to Manor House.

Conditions: Can be wet and muddy.

Lunch: Picnic.

Info: Manor House NNR Base (01948-880362);
first-nature.com/waleswildlife/n-nnr-fenns-whixall.php; shropshiresgreatoutdoors.co.uk satmap.com; ramblers.org.uk

 Posted by at 02:19
Jun 202020

First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
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The map of south-east Gloucestershire between Cirencester and Cricklade is spattered all over with blue. It looks as though a flood of biblical proportions has struck this unemphatic, low-lying countryside through which the infant Thames wriggles.

Actually it’s quarrying of sand and gravel that has formed the Cotswold Water Park. As each pit has been abandoned as worked out, underground springs have flooded it. Nature, with a little help from man, has created a patchwork of bird-haunted lakes that are wonderful to walk, binoculars in hand.

We started our walk through this remarkable landscape along the old Thames & Severn Canal, once a boldly conceived thoroughfare connecting England’s east and west coasts, now a quiet green ditch of a waterway choked with waterlilies, yellow flags and reeds.

A field path led to the Cotswold stone village of South Cerney and its Church of All Hallows, whose Romanesque south doorway writhed with carvings. In the nave, corbel heads looked calmly down, and a pair of snarling dragons guarded the inner chancel arch.

The dog roses were out in Ham Lane where a jay hopped in agitation on a bent branch, trying to spy out a blackbird’s nest and eggs concealed in the hedge below. We followed broad tracks that skirted the gravel pit lakes of the Cotswold Water Park. One quarry was still active, roaring and grinding its industrial purposes behind a screen of trees. Four Egyptian geese with eyes as black as kohl waddles across a strip of ploughland, looking for seeds or a tasty worm.

A sudden hatch of damselflies saw the meadow grasses and the pyramidal orchids at the lakeside alive with these electric blue beauties, as slim as needles. Coots were busy reinforcing their floating nests and great crested grebes sailed in pairs, diving every so often with a smooth grace that scarcely raised a ruffle on the water.

A cake and a cuppa in the shady bower at Jennie’s Kitchen teagarden, and we were on the homeward leg along a meadow path among seas of yellow rattle where meadow brown butterflies spiralled round one another, oblivious to everything except their aerial pas de deux.

Start & finish: Gateway Centre car park, Spine Road, South Cerney, Glos GL7 5TL (OS ref SU 072971)

Getting there: Bus 51 (Swindon-Cirencester). Road: Signposted off A419 between Cirencester and Cricklade.

Walk (8 miles, easy, OS Explorer 169): Left along canal path. In 1¼ miles, cross road (056977); in ¼ mile, left (052979) to South Cerney church (050973). From churchyard’s south gate, right; left at road; cross High Street (049970); follow Ham Lane. In 450m, right along railings (051966); follow public footpath across Broadway Lane (049965) and on. In 500m cross bridge (046962); left on path past lakes. In nearly 1 mile on sharp right bend, left (051953) along fencing; cross B4696 and on east (bridleway, blue/yellow arrows). In ½ mile bear right parallel to Fridays Ham Lane (058951); in ¼ mile left across lane by Jennie’s Kitchen (060946). Follow lane opposite for ¾ mile. By Wickwater Farm (069952), left; in ¼ mile right (066954, ‘Cerney Wick’ fingerpost) across fields. Left along railway path (068958, ‘South Cerney’); in 300m, right (067959, ‘Gateway Centre’) to Cerney Wick Lane (069963). Right; in 600m, left (073965, ‘South Cerney); in 100m at post, right to canal (076966); left to car park.

Lunch: Jennie’s Kitchen tearoom, Wheatley’s Barn Farm, Fridays Ham Lane (01285-860048, jennieskitchen.co.uk)

Accommodation: Lower Mill Estate, Somerford Keynes GL7 6BG (01285-869489, lowermillestate.com) – superb lakeside rental properties

Info: Gateway Centre, Cotswold Water Park (01793-752413, waterpark.org) satmap.com; ramblers.org.uk

 Posted by at 01:12
Jun 132020

First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
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Grafham Water lies large and flat in the lowlands of west Cambridgeshire. We found it hard to get a handle on this great reservoir, so low-lying in such a wide landscape, until we were out on the well-surfaced track that circumnavigates the water, peeping between the willows at the private lives of swans and great crested grebes.

The reservoir swallowed 1,500 acres and four whole farms when it was built in the 1960s to bring drinking water to Milton Keynes. The farmers’ loss was the birdwatcher’s gain. The scrub trees beside the path were loud with song this beautiful summer’s afternoon, blackcaps out-singing blackbirds, willow warblers lording it over wrens.

The track led west through clumps of germander speedwell as blue as the bowl of sky stretched over Cambridgeshire. On our left, monoculture wheat-fields of uniform green where tractors dragged sprayers with seventy-foot arms; on our right, birdsong and the rustle of water beyond a screen of shivering poplar leaves.

Fluffy seeds floated in clusters from the poplars, drifting like hanks of fine grey lambs-wool to their settling grounds along the banks. Fishermen sat stem and stern in their little bobbing boats, rods flashing in the sun as they tested skill and luck against the resident trout.

The west side of Grafham Water is managed as nature reserve by the Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire & Northamptonshire Wildlife Trusts. What a beautiful job they have made of the orchid verges, the bird hides with their privileged platforms over reed beds and creeks, and the ancient woodlands carpeted with bluebells in spring.

‘The nightingales are in great voice,’ beamed the young warden we met. ‘I’ll be out in Littless Wood listening to them at dawn.’ Every robin and warbler chirrup we heard for the next half hour became the slow, expressive flutings of a nightingale – for a few anticipatory seconds at least. In our hearts, though, we knew it was wishful thinking.

A Bombilius bee-fly with her needle-like proboscis went hovering across the dried-up stubs of cowslips, no doubt looking for the burrow of a solitary bee to fire her eggs into. The Bombilius progeny, once hatched, eat the host larvae in a ‘live and let die’ manoeuvre.

Along the northern shore of the reservoir the wind blew a strong, refreshing blast. Hawthorn branches dipped and bowed, weighed down with blossoms so dense it looked as though a flour dredger had been shaken over them. A chiffchaff sang its early summer song: chip-chap, cheeky chap, chippy chap, a-chip-chap.

At Hill Farm we stopped to watch a pair of swans sailing downwind, their wings upheld like sails, to hiss menacingly at a dog swimming after a ball. Then we crossed the great concrete curve of the dam with its 1960s space-age valve tower, and strolled back along the south shore.

From Lagoon Hide in evening sunshine we looked out over reed beds full of bunting chatter and warbler burble, as the birds of Grafham Water bedded down for the night.

Start: Mander car park, West Perry, Grafham Water, Cambs PE28 0BX (OS ref TL 144672)

Getting there: Bus 400 from Huntingdon.
Road – A1, St Neots-Huntingdon; at Buckden, follow B661 towards Great Staughton. Drive through Perry; at far side, Grafham Water is signed on right.

Walk (9¼ miles, easy, OS Explorer 225): Walk clockwise round Grafham Water, using cycle track and waterside paths.

Lunch: Cafés at Marlow Park and Mander Park for takeaway food.

Info: Grafham Water Visitor Centre, Marlow Car Park, Grafham (01480-812154; anglianwaterparks.co.uk/grafham-water-park)
satmap.com; ramblers.org.uk

 Posted by at 01:23
May 062020

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1. St Ives and Zennor, Cornwall
11 miles; OS Explorer 102

The outward leg from St Ives is one of the finest stretches of the South West Coast Path, a beautiful westward run of heath-covered headlands, granite cliffs and rocky coves where seals bob and fulmars wheel. Wild thyme lends a bitter-sweet fragrance to the grassy banks. Opposite the village of Zennor the coast path swings out onto Gurnard’s Head, a wild dragon-headed promontory with sheer cliffs that fall to sea-sculpted caves where the waves crash and boom. At Zennor, St Senara’s Church is home to the mermaid of Zennor, stiff and stark after 600 years as a carved bench end.

The homeward path follows the old Corpse Road footpath through the fields. This former route for bodies to be borne to Christian burial passes through a farming landscape that remembers its Bronze Age origins in the tiny size of the fields and the immense sturdiness and thickness of their walls. Each field is linked to its neighbour by a Cornish stile, a row of four or five well-spaced bars of granite set over a pit. It forms a grid barrier that baffles cattle and sheep – but not the sagacious local pigs, apparently.

Start/finish: Porthmeor Beach, St. Ives, TR26 1TG, (OS ref SW 516408)
Directions: SW Coast Path to Zennor; return by field path via Tremedda, Tregerthen and Wicca to Boscubben (473395); then Trevessa (481396), Trevega Wartha, Trevalgan (489402) and Trowan (494403) to Venton Vision (506407) and St Ives.

2. Corton Denham and Cadbury Castle, Somerset
7½ miles; OS Explorer 129

Not just a stroll through the green lanes and hills of south Somerset, this is a walk in the ghostly presence of King Arthur. The Macmillan Way lies just west of Corton Denham, and takes a northward course with an enormous view over a wooded vale leading to Glastonbury Tor, the summit tower a tiny pimple at the apex. The long line of the Mendip Hills closes the vista, with the green wedge of Brent Knoll 25 miles away in the west.

A clockwise loop around the mellow stone houses of Sutton Montis, and you follow the old greenway of Folly Lane across the medieval ridge-and-furrow to South Cadbury, tucked in the lee of Cadbury Castle’s great ramparted hill fort. A stony cart track climbs through the Iron Age ramparts to the wide, sloping summit of the hill. Did King Arthur, the ‘once-and-future King’, ever feast here with his warriors and his treacherous queen? An excavation in 1966-70 brought to light the foundations of a great aisled feasting hall, built in the early Dark Ages at the crown of Cadbury Castle. And spectral riders still sally forth from the fort at midnight, local stories say, their horses shod with silver that flashes in the starlight.

Start/finish: Corton Denham, Somerset DT9 4LR (OS ref ST 635225)
Directions: From Middle Ridge Lane (opposite church) footpath west to Corton Ridge (626224). North (Monarch’s Way) for 1 mile to road at Kember’s Hill (629241). Footpath through Sutton Montis to meet Leland Trail/LT (620252). LT to South Cadbury; right (632256), then right again, up to Cadbury Castle. Return to road; right; 100m past Crang’s Lane, path (633249, yellow arrow/YA) south to Whitcombe Farm and road (631237). Path below Corton Hill (‘Corton Denham’) back to Corton Denham.

3. Kingley Vale, near East Ashling, West Sussex
3 miles; OS Explorer OL8

Every summer I look forward to a lazy walk in warm sunshine, up the track from West Stoke car park and round the waymarked circuit of Kingley Vale National Nature Reserve. It takes all afternoon to stroll these three miles, because Kingley Vale’s preserved chalk grassland is made for lingering and looking. It’s composed more of flowering plants than of grasses, a tight-packed sward rich in thyme and marjoram, with scabious, harebells, pink centaury, bird’s foot trefoil and dozens more species attracting clouds of blues, coppers, argus, browns and other butterflies.

By contrast, the sombre yew grove that colonises the steep east-facing slope on the west edge of the reserve seems barren of all life except that of its ancient occupants. This great grove, protected on its chalk slope, is a rare survival. The yew crowns are a green so dark it is almost black, but once in among them you find that their limbs are pale, brittle and twisted, like dried muscles. How old are these sombre, knotted trees? At least 500 years, but some of them are old enough to have seen druidical worship. Some could already have been standing many centuries at Kingley Vale when the upstart Romans came invading.

Start/finish: West Stoke car park (OS ref SU 825088), near East Ashling on B2178 near Chichester.
Directions: Through kissing gate; follow track north to kissing gate into NNR. Bear left on footpath just inside fence; follow uphill for 1/3 mile to yew grove on right (819105). Continue along waymarked path to make clockwise circuit of reserve.

4. Alfriston, Jevington and the South Downs, East Sussex
8½ miles; OS Explorer 123

Some walks just grab you so hard that you know you’ll be back to enjoy them again and again. I can never get enough of this beautiful circuit of East Sussex villages in the shadow of the South Downs.

Alfriston’s houses and inns are rich in carved timbers. On a sunny day the village lies in bright brick reds, acid greens and indigos. A flinty track runs east to pass below the Long Man of Wilmington, an ancient giant two hundred feet tall, his outline cut out of a chalk downland slope. A rutted woodland path leads on to Folkington, where pioneer celebrity chef Elizabeth David lies in the churchyard under a gravestone carved with aubergines, peppers and cloves of garlic. Then you head south on a snaking track to Jevington with its thousand-year-old church tower built like a fortress against Viking marauders. A Saxon Christ adorns the wall, victorious over a puny, wriggling serpent.

Crossing the downs on the homeward stretch, one marvels at how a corner of countryside with such a vigorous and bloody history – Viking and French raids, coastguard battles with the smuggling gangs, Second World War bombs and doodlebugs – has settled to a tranquillity as smooth as the applewood smoke rising from Alfriston’s chimneys into the blue Sussex sky.

Start/finish: Alfriston, East Sussex BN26 5UQ (OS ref TQ 521033)
Directions: Downland track east via Long Man of Wilmington (542034); Wealdway path via The Holt (551040) and Folkington church (559038) to St Andrew’s Church, Jevington (562015). South Downs Way west to Holt Brow (553019); Lullington Heath NNR via Winchester’s Pond (540020) to Litlington (523021). Left past Litlington church; just before Plough & Harrow PH, right (523017 – ‘Vanguard Way’) to Cuckmere River; right to Alfriston.

5. Latimer, Chenies and the Chess Valley, Bucks/Herts border
7 miles; OS Explorer 172

Of all the gorgeous walks within easy reach of London, this one never palls in any season. From Chalfont & Latimer tube station (Metropolitan line), Bedford Avenue and Chenies Avenue lead north into West Wood, where the Chess Valley Walk trail descends to cross the River Chess in its beautiful green valley under the neat estate village of Latimer. From here it’s a clockwise circuit, following the Chess Valley Walk above the shallow, winding river. ‘Mr William Liberty of Chorleywood, nonconformist brickmaker’ (died 1777), having refused a church burial, lies by the field path with his wife Alice in a brick-built tomb. Further on, you can buy a peppery, crunchy bunch of watercress from Tyler’s farm, before reaching Church End where astonishing 14th-century paintings adorn the village church.

Back across the River Chess, the Chiltern Way leads across lush wet pastures, then through woods of hornbeam and cherry to Chenies village. History lies thick on the great Tudor mansion of Chenies; and in the adjacent church generations of Russells, Dukes and Duchesses of Bedford, lie entombed. From here you follow a ridge path back to Chalfont, with glorious views across the Chess Valley.

Start/finish: Chalfont & Latimer tube station, Bucks, HP7 9PR (OS ref SU 997975)
Directions: Bedford Avenue; Chenies Avenue (996976); at Beechwood Avenue (996981), ahead into West Wood. Follow Chess Valley Walk downhill to leave wood and cross road (999985), then river (000986). Right to cross road (004987; ‘Chess Valley Walk’/CVW, fish waymark). Follow CVW for 1¾ miles to road (031990); on Sarratt Church (039984). Chiltern Way west to road (021980) and Chenies (016983); west via Walk Wood and West Wood to return to station.

6. Dunwich and Dingle Marshes, Suffolk
6¾ miles; OS Explorer 231

A perfect encapsulation of the moody magnetism of the Suffolk Coast. Dunwich was a great trading port whose churches, hospitals, squares and houses were utterly consumed by the sea. A path leads up to the solitary curly-topped headstone of Jacob Forster, still clinging to the cliff edge, the last relic of the church of All Saints that toppled to the beach in 1922.

The Suffolk Coast & Heaths Path runs north through copses of old oak and pine trees. Grazing marshes, dotted with black cattle, stretch away towards the long straight bar of the sea wall. Soon you are in among the great reedbeds of Westwood Marshes where tiny bearded tits bounce and flit through the reeds, trailing their long tails low behind them and emitting pinging noises like overstretched wire fences. There’s no view whatsoever of the nearby sea, just a haunting feeling of country walked by many, but known by very few.

Once across the Dunwich River, you top the shingle bank. Here is an instant switch of view and perspective, out over a slate grey sea and round the curve of the bay, as you follow the pebbly beach back to Dunwich under its sloping cliff.

Start/finish: Dunwich car park, Suffolk, IP17 3EN (OS ref TM 478706)
Directions: Ship Inn – St James’s Church and Leper Hospital (475706) – Bridge Farm (474707; ‘Suffolk Coast Path’/SCP). Little Dingle (475717) – Dingle Stone House (476724) to Great Dingle Farm (483730). Follow SCP arrows through Westwood Marshes to footbridge (495742, SCP) to shingle bank; right to Dunwich.

7. Lakenheath Fen, Norfolk/Suffolk border
7¾ miles; OS Explorer 228

All the famed dampness and richness of unspoilt Fenland are perfectly caught in this walk around Lakenheath Fen nature reserve. The path from Hockwold-cum-Wilton is by way of Church Lane, Moor Drove and the sluices and banks of the Little Ouse River, heading west into the reserve via its excellent Visitor Centre.

It’s hard to credit that this green and fertile fen landscape was intensively farmed carrot fields not so long ago. Dug out, planted with fen vegetation and provided with plenty of water, it has burst into life. Various waymarked trails lead through the reserve, with the Main Circular Trail as the spine. Otters thrive here, bitterns boom in spring among the reedbeds, kingfishers and water voles scud about. Cranes are nesting for the first time in centuries. Marsh harriers hunt the reedbeds and ditches on long dark wings, sailing the air with effortless mastery. Along the trail, detours lead to hides with privilege viewpoints over meres where great crested grebes perform their elaborate courtship rituals.

At Joist Fen the walk bears right to follow the bank of the Little Ouse back to Hockwold. A bunch of lucky cattle graze here, up to their chins in the lushest grass in East Anglia.

Start/finish: Hockwold-cum-Wilton, Norfolk IP26 4NB (OS ref TL 735880)
Directions: Church Lane; Moor Drove East (734876); cross sluice (731870); right along riverbank to B1112 (724868). Left; in 300m, right to Lakenheath Fen Nature Reserve Visitor Centre (718863). Follow Main Circular Trail/MCT (white arrows/WA) clockwise as far as Little Ouse river bank (698861). Right (Hereward Way) for 2 miles back to B1112 (724866). Left (take care!); retrace steps to Hockwold.

8. Purton and the Ships Graveyard, Gloucestershire
6½ miles; OS Explorer OL14

The River Severn comes down through west Gloucestershire in great wide loops, slowly broadening into its estuary. Boats that ply the river are few and far between these days, and the skeletons of some old Severn craft are one of the features of this fascinating walk.

From Brookend near Sharpness, field paths run north across the swell of the land to the tiny village of Purton on the edge of a big bend in the Severn. Through the village runs the long silver streak of the Gloucester & Sharpness Canal, dug across country at the turn of the 19th century to bypass some of the most difficult and dangerous bends of the river.

Dozens of old coal and cargo boats were brought here to Purton at the end of their working lives and rammed into the soft mud of the Severn’s east bank, to stiffen it and protect the adjacent canal against the fierce sweep of the tides. It’s a poignant walk back to Sharpness among the ribs and sternposts, tillers and rudders of these former river queens. And Sharpness itself is a fascinating rarity, a working river port where cranes clank as they unload cement and fertiliser from rusty old sea-going boats.

Start/finish: Brookend, Sharpness GL13 9SF (OS ref SO 684021)
Directions: Footpath north across fields for 1½ miles to Purton (682042). Cross canal; past Berkeley Arms PH (691045). Riverside path joins canal towpath (687044). Detour right along riverbank through Ships Graveyard, then canal towpath into Sharpness. Cross canal (670030); ‘Severn Way’ up steps; ahead past Dockers’ Club (671029) to road. Left across left-hand of 2 swing bridges (673029). Ahead to road (677026); right (‘Sharpness’). Left beside Village Hall (674021 – fingerpost); paths via Buckett’s Hill Farm to Brookend.

9. White Horse and Wayland’s Smithy, Oxfordshire
6 miles; OS Explorer 170

If you want to savour the deep history and mythology of these islands, you can’t do better than tramp the ancient Ridgeway across the chalk downs of Oxfordshire. Start from Woolstone, tucked in below the hills, and follow the field paths southwest via Knighton and Compton Beauchamp. From here you glimpse the White Horse that was cut out of the chalk turf high above some 3,000 years ago, still beautiful and enigmatic in her disjointed, futuristic form.

From Odstone Farm a sunken track leads uphill to reach the Ridgeway, already ancient when the White Horse was made, a rutted upland thoroughfare curving with the crest of the downs. Turning east along the Ridgeway you soon come to a remarkable monument, the great Neolithic long barrow of Wayland’s Smithy, its huge portal stones and grassy mound surrounded by a ring of tall old beeches. Wayland was a blacksmith in Norse mythology, and local tales say he’ll shoe your horse if you leave it overnight along with a silver coin. You don’t have to be a New Age devotee to sense the power and presence of the far past here.

A long mile along the Ridgeway brings you to the White Horse herself, and a descent down a steep breast of downland called The Manger to reach Woolstone.

Start/finish: Woolstone, Faringdon, Oxfordshire SN7 7QL (OS ref SU 293878)
Directions: cross Hardwell Lane – Compton House – just before Odstone Farm, left up Odstone Hill – left along Ridgeway. Wayland’s Smithy – detour to Uffington Castle and White Horse – continue on Ridgeway for ½ mile – left (308864) – Britchcombe Farm – cross B4507. On for ½ mile – left (308880) – path to Woolstone.

10. The Stiperstones, Shropshire
5 miles; OS Explorer 216
The Stiperstones stand stark and jagged. These quartzite outcrops rise from a heathery ridge at the northern end of the Long Mynd, Shropshire’s great whaleback of a hill. They are the focus of some of the most bizarre folk tales and superstitions in these islands.

The Shropshire Way leads up and past the Stones, heading north across heather moorland where cranberries make scarlet splashes of colour. This upland heath is carefully preserved for its wildlife value, with cowberry and crowberry among the great swathes of purple heather. You pass Cranberry Rock and Manstone Rock to reach the largest outcrop, the Devil’s Chair. When mist envelops the Stones, the Devil is in his Chair, waiting for Old England to sink beneath the earth. Impossible to tell how all these Gothic notions gained ground, but they lend the Stiperstones a very peculiar aura.

Views from the ridge are superb over the Shropshire hills and woods, east to the long green bar of Wenlock Edge, west as far as the borderlands of Wales. From Shepherd Rock a steep grassy path leaves the hill, descending steeply Past old lead-mine workings to Stiperstones village far below. From here a lower track leads back below the Stones, hard-edged and ominous along the eastern skyline.

Start/finish: Bog Centre car park, Stiperstones (OS ref SO 355979)
Directions: Shropshire Way from road (362976) past Cranberry Rock (365981), Manstone Rock (367986), Devil’s Chair (368991). From cairn just before Shepherd’s Rock (374000), steep descent to Stiperstones village (363004) and Stiperstones Inn. Return to Bog Centre via 361002, 359999, 361996 and lane parallel to the Stiperstones.

11. Kinder Edge, Derbyshire
9 miles; OS Explorer OL1

A hugely popular walk, and deservedly so. This is the ultimate memorial hike, commemorating the crowd of left-wing, working class youngsters from the industrial sprawls of Manchester and Sheffield who in 1932 initiated an incursion known as the Mass Trespass onto the privately owned moorland of Kinder. Some were imprisoned, others vilified. Without the impetus of their bold action, we wouldn’t have the right to roam over wild upland country that we enjoy today.

From Bowden Bridge near Hayfield you head north above Kinder Reservoir, looking across the valley to the long upstanding line of crags that form Kinder Edge. A steep climb beside the beck in rocky William Clough leads to the peat bogs of Ashop Head, where gamekeepers with sticks tried and failed to stem the mass trespass of 1932.

From here it’s a long and exhilarating stride south along the Pennine Way at the very edge of the gritstone escarpment, with magnificent views to Manchester and the distant hills of Wales. Across the watersplash of Kinder Downfall, and on to where the homeward path turns west off the Pennine Way at ancient Edale Cross and starts its descent down the long, long lane to Bowden Bridge.

Start/finish: Bowden Bridge car park, Hayfield, Derbyshire, SK22 2LH approx (OS ref SK 049870)

Directions: Continue up road. At Booth Sheepwash cross river (051876); in 100m, take path (yellow arrow). In 250m, left to reservoir gates; up cobbled bridleway on left. In 300m, left (054882, metal ‘bridleway’ sign) up to gate. Right (‘Snake Inn’) for 1½ miles (White Brow, William’s Clough) up to Ashop Head (065900). Right on Pennine Way along Kinder Edge for 3½ miles. Beyond Edale Rocks where PW turns left for Edale, right (081861) through gate; lane for 2¾ miles down to Kinder Road and car park.

12. Muker and Keld, Swaledale, N. Yorkshire
6½ miles; OS Explorer OL30

A classic walk in the Yorkshire Dales from the picture-book village of Muker. An old road, stone-surfaced and stone-walled, leads up the sloping fellsides. It heads northwest through sheep pastures to skirt the big open rise of Kisdon Hill before dropping gently down to Skeb Skeugh ford and the huddle of grey stone houses at Keld. I remember, many years ago, stumbling into Keld after a miserable day of rain and mist on the Pennine Way, and the bliss of a cup of tea and a pair of dry socks there.

From Keld the homeward path crosses the River Swale at the hissing waterfall of East Gill Force. A little further on and you pass tumbledown Crackpot Hall, undermined by subsidence in the lead mines of Swinner Gill. This is a sombre spot, resonant with history, a maze of spoil heaps, arched stone mine levels, and the precarious hillside trods or tracks of the miners.

It’s a remarkable contrast, walking south from these dolorous ruins above the fast-rushing Swale, down into the delightful green lushness of Swaledale and the stone-walled sheep pastures around Muker.

Start/finish: Muker, Richmond, N Yorks DL11 6QG (OS ref SO 910979)
Directions: Up lane by Muker Literary Institute. Forward; up right side of Grange Farm (‘footpath Keld’). Follow lane; then ‘Bridleway Keld’ (909982) up walled lane for ½ mile. Cross Pennine Way/PW and on (903986; ‘Keld 2 miles’) along bridleway to ford and B6270 (892006). Right into Keld. Right down lane (893012; ‘footpath Muker’). In 300 yards, left downhill (‘PW’) across River Swale, up to waterfall. Right (896011; ‘bridleway’) for ½ mile. 150m past stone barn, left (904009) to Crackpot Hall; path into Swinner Gill, to fingerpost (911012) opposite mine buildings. Sharp right (‘Muker’) to ford beck (911008); follow track down Swaledale for 1 mile. Cross Swale (910986); meadow path to Muker.

13. Cronkley Fell, Upper Teesdale, Durham Dales
7 miles; OS Explorer OL31

For its wonderful flowers and birds, this is my favourite springtime walk of all. You set off from Forest-in-Teesdale to cross the River Tees near Cronkley Farm. The peat-brown Tees comes charging down its rocky bed, roaring loudly and rumbling the stones as it races by. The valley meadows are full of nesting birds – lapwing, redshank and curlew – each with its own haunting cry, the very voice of spring in this wild place. Snipe go rocketing about the sky, divebombing with a drumming rattle of outspread tail feathers.

From Cronkley Farm the Pennine Way climbs southward to meet the old lead-miners’ road called the Green Trod. Turning west along this grassy broad track, you are soon in flowery heaven up on the nape of Cronkley Fell. Tiny white flowers of lead-resistant spring sandwort flourish in abandoned mine workings. Higher up you find the real jewels of this rugged, enchanting valley – tiny, delicate Teesdale violets, miniature bird’s-eye primroses as shocking pink as a starlet’s fingernails, and royal blue trumpets of spring gentians.
A picnic pause to contemplate the forward view over the basalt crags of Falcon Clints, and you descend through pungent-smelling juniper bushes to turn for home along the brawling Tees once more.

Start/finish: Forest-in-Teesdale car park, near Langdon Beck, Co. Durham DL12 0HA (OS ref NY 867298)
Directions: Right along B6277; in 100m, left down farm track via Wat Garth, to cross River Tees by Cronkley Bridge (862294). Follow Pennine Way (PW) past Cronkley Farm, up rocky slope of High Crag and on along paved track. In 500m, left across stile (861283). PW bears left, but continue ahead uphill by fence. Through kissing gate (861281); in 100m, right along wide grassy trackway. Follow it for 2 miles west across Cronkley Fell (occasional cairns). Descend at Man Gate to River Tees (830283); right along river for 2½ miles. At High House barn (857294), half-left across pasture to Cronkley Bridge; return to car park.

14. Mellbreak, Mosedale and Crummock Water, Lake District
6 miles; OS Explorer OL4

This delectable circuit offers all the delights of Lakeland in one go – a steep (but not too steep) fell, a little-visited side dale, and a gorgeous lakeside stroll back to one of the best pubs in Cumbria.

From the Kirkstile Inn a country road runs south. A little way past Kirkgate Farm a path heads off, straight up the northern face of Mellbreak. The fell looks tremendously steep; but in fact the path is clear once you’re on it, and with a bit of zigzagging and a modicum of hard breathing you’re on the top of this rugged mini-mountain almost before you know it. The view is one of the finest in the Lake District – north across the Solway Firth to the distant hills of Galloway, east to the pink screes of Grasmoor across Crummock Water, south to the magnificent humpy spine of Red Pike, High Stile and High Crag.

Gaze your fill; then drop down west into green and silent Mosedale, boggy and orchid-spattered. ‘Dreary,’ opined Alfred Wainwright. For once, the Master was wrong. Head south along Mosedale, round the end of Mellbreak, and finish with a glorious stroll north up the side of Crummock Water with a feast of fells all round.

Start/finish: Kirkstile Inn, Loweswater, Cumbria CA13 0RU (OS ref NY 141209)
Directions: From Kirkstile Inn, south on lane past Kirkgate Farm for ½ mile. At gate (139202), up through trees, then to foot of scree (141199). Bear left; zigzag steeply up to Mellbreak’s northern summit (143195). Forward for 500m to dip and fork in path (145190); bear right, steeply down to path in Mosedale (141186). Left (south) for ¾ mile to gate in fence (146175); down to track by Black Beck (146174); left (east) to Crummock Water. Left (north) to north end of lake. Bear left (149197) to wall (148199); follow to Highpark Farm (145202). On to cross Park Bridge (145205); fork left to Kirkstile Inn.

15. Holy Island, Northumberland
10 miles, OS Explorer 340
NB Causeway and Pilgrim Path are impassable 2½ hours either side of high tide. Tide times posted by causeway; also at lindisfarne.org.uk

Pilgrims have been crossing the sands for a thousand years to reach Lindisfarne or Holy Island,  monastic retreat of the 7th century hermit bishop St Cuthbert. The pilgrim path to Lindisfarne, marked out by tall poles, diverges from the causeway road to cross the murky sands. It’s a squelching walk, windy and redolent of salt mud and seaweed, passing a long-legged refuge tower for unwary travellers caught by the incoming tide. Often you can hear the eerie singing of seals on the distant sands.

Once ashore on Holy Island, the little village with its great red sandstone monastic ruins is fascinating to explore. Down off the southwest corner lies tiny, tidal Hobthrush Island, with the sparse remains of an ancient chapel marking the site of the cell where Cuthbert sought even greater privacy.

A circular walk round Holy Island by way of Lindisfarne Castle on its dolerite crag and the nearby garden laid out by Gertrude Jekyll, and then back along the pilgrim path to the mainland, savouring the solitude of this vast expanse of tidal sand under enormous skies.

Start/finish: Holy Island causeway car park, Northumberland (OS ref NU079427)
Directions: Follow sands route (post markers) to Holy Island. Right to village and monastery. Walk anti-clockwise round island: harbour, castle, Gertrude Jekyll’s Garden (136419), The Lough, path west beside dunes. At gate by NNR notice (129433), left down track to village, or ahead for ½ mile, then left (122433) to causeway and sands route.

16. Worm’s Head, Gower Peninsula, South Wales
4 miles there-and-back; OS Explorer 164
NB Causeway is accessible for 2½ hours either side of low tide. Tide times at tides.willyweather.co.uk. Please don’t venture as far as Outer Head between 1 March and 31 August – nesting birds!

Norsemen named Gower’s double-humped promontory ‘wurm’, meaning dragon or serpent, and Worm’s Head does resemble a massive green monster heading out to sea. This is a wildly exhilarating scramble, spiced by the knowledge that you have to get your tide timings right. If you don’t, you’re in good company – Dylan Thomas once got himself marooned here.

From the National Trust car park at the western tip of the Gower peninsula you follow the cliffs out to the rough and rugged causeway crossing. There are blennies and crabs in the rock pools, and canted blades of barnacle-encrusted rock to cross before you can scramble up onto Inner Head, the middle section of the promontory. A path leads among pink flowerheads of thrift to the square wave-cut arch of the Devil’s Bridge, across which you make your way (but not in nesting season) onto the furthest hummock, Outer Head. Here kittiwakes, fulmars, guillemots, razorbills and puffins fill air and sea with their cries, flights and incredible guano stink.

Start/finish: Rhossili car park, Gower (OS ref SS 415880)
Directions: Walk ahead past National Trust information centre, following track and descending to cross causeway. Follow path round south side of Inner Head, across Devil’s Bridge (389877), round south side of Low Neck, out to Outer Head.

17. Llyn Bochnant and Cwm Idwal, Snowdonia, North Wales
6½ miles; OS Explorer OL17

Cwm Idwal is justifiably one of the most popular spots in Snowdonia – a readily accessible, highly dramatic bowl of crags cradling the dark lake of Llyn Idwal. Just above in a hidden valley lies another lake, Llyn Bochlwyd, far less frequented, from which you descend into Cwm Idwal by a steep and beautiful path.

The trail starts from Cwm Idwal car park (on A5 between Capel Curig and Bethesda) up a stone-pitched track. After 400m you leave the crowds behind, forking left onto a path that climbs the steep chute of Nant Bochlwyd beside a tumbling stream. Up at the top under the grim crags of Glyder Fach lies Llyn Bochlwyd, in a silent hollow of bilberry and grass. A spot to sit and savour before skeltering down the precipitous path to Llyn Idwal far below. Look out hereabouts for the white bib and harsh rattling chirrup of the ring ouzel, a mountain blackbird rarely seen.

A path circles Llyn Idwal, running high up under the crags of Glyder Fawr. Among the big boulders here grows starry saxifrage, delicate and white, and the miniature green blooms of alpine lady’s mantle, a lovely carpet of mountain flowers.

Start/finish: Cwm Idwal car park, Nant Ffrancon, LL57 3LZ (OS ref SH 649603)
Directions: Up stone-pitched path at left side of Warden Centre. In 350m path bends right (652601); ahead here on stony track across bog; steeply up right side of Nant Bochlwyd to Llyn Bochlwyd (655594). Right (west) on path for 400m to saddle (652594); then steeply down to Llyn Idwal (647596). Left along lake. At south end take higher path (646593) slanting up to boulder field; take care fording torrent at 642589! At big 20-ft boulder (640589), go right down side of boulder; left across rocky grass to homeward path (640590), steep in places.

18. Creag Meagaidh NNR, Inverness-shire, Scotland
8½ miles; OS Explorer 401

A classic there-and-back walk among the Scottish mountains, rising up a flowery glen to a hidden corrie. If you’re longing for the day you can take a picnic out among the hills again, squirrel this splendid walk away in your wish list.

Creag Meagaidh National Nature Reserve car park lies on the A86 between Spean Bridge and Kinloch Laggan. A trail marked with otter symbols leads past buildings and up steps to a sign for ‘Coire Adair’, the start of the walk up the bow-shaped glen. At first the path runs among woods of young birch, alder and oak. The boggy hillsides are dotted with heath spotted orchids, the hair-like stems and bright blue flowers of insectivorous butterwort, and purple blooms of wood cranesbill.

Once beyond the trees, mountains hem you round, the Allt Coire Adair burn tumbles down its snaky bed, and the path rises gently across open moorland tufted with bog cotton. At the top of the glen you surmount the hummock of a glacial moraine, and a prospect opens down onto the little glassy lakelet of Lochan a’Choire under a curving wall of black cliffs, lonely, wild and utterly silent.

Start/finish: Creag Meagaidh NNR car park, PH20 1BX (OS ref NN 483873)
Directions: From car park follow red trail (otter symbol). In 500m pass to right of toilets/buildings (479876). Follow path on the level, then up steps; fork right at top (474879; ‘Coire Ardair’) on clear stony path for 3 miles to Lochan a’ Choire (439883). Return same way.

19. Hermaness, Isle of Unst, Shetland
5 miles; OS Explorer 470

One of the most dramatic springtime walks I know, and certainly one of the remotest, Hermaness is a place apart. This blunt headland forms the northernmost tip of the Isle of Unst, itself the most northerly island in Britain. You set out literally from the end of the road, climbing a well-marked path that circles round the headland. The first inhabitants you meet will be the bonxies or great skuas, big clumsy gull-like birds that defend their nests and fluffy chicks by screaming and flying at you – though a stick upheld will deflect them.

It’s a rugged welcome to Hermaness, but this is a rugged place of bog, tiny lochs and tremendously craggy cliffs. The dramatic showpiece suddenly appears as you breast the rise and look down over a line of enormous sea stacks, great canted blades of rock jutting out of the sea. Their sheer dark slopes are whitened by the tens of thousands of gulls, fulmars, kittiwakes and guillemots that circle restlessly far below. Rumblings, Vesta Skerry, Tipta Skerry, Muckle Flugga with its stumpy lighthouse, and the little round button of Out Stack – these are the full stops that top off the mighty travelogue of Britain.

Start/finish: The Ness parking place, Burrafirth, Isle of Unst (OS ref HP612147)
Directions: From Ness parking place at end of road, follow marked circular path (green-topped posts) round Hermaness. Allow 2-3 hours. Remote, windy, boggy and slippery underfoot: dress warm and dry; walking boots. Take great care on cliff edges. Bring binoculars and stick. Information leaflets in metal box at start of path. NB: Great Skua (‘bonxie’) dive-bombs during chick-rearing season, generally late May until July, coming close but rarely striking. To deter, hold stick above head. Please avoid Sothers Brecks nesting area, May-July.

20. Slieve Gullion, Co. Armagh, Northern Ireland
5 miles there-and-back; OSNI Discoverer 29; walkni.com

Slieve Gullion rises over South Armagh, a kingly mountain, a great volcanic plug that dominates the landscape for miles around. This is a mountain of myth and legend, with a sensational 100-mile view from the summit as a reward for the not-very-demanding climb.

From Slieve Gullion Forest Park car park (signposted on the Drumintee Road between Newry and Forkhill) there’s a well-walked trail (‘Ring of Gullion’ waymarks) rising in stages via forest roads and tracks, clockwise round the southern slopes of Slieve Gullion. In a couple of miles you bear right at an upper car park, a short steep upward puff that lands you on the south peak of the mountain.

The prospect is simply sublime. A great volcanic ridge of hills encircles the mountain, with views beyond as far as the Mourne Mountains, the Antrim hills, the billowy Sperrins, and the green and brown midland plain running south to the tiny silhouettes of the Wicklow Hills beyond Dublin, a hundred miles away.

Explore the Neolithic passage grave on the peak, then picnic by the Lake of Sorrows. But don’t touch the enchanted millstone that lies half-submerged there. It might bring forth the dreaded magical hag, the Cailleach Beara, and you wouldn’t want that.

Start/finish: Slieve Gullion Forest Park car park, Drumintee Road, Killeavy, Newry, Co. Armagh BT35 8SW (OS of NI ref J 040196)
Directions: From top left corner of car park, left up path through trees. In ¼ mile join Forest Drive (038191), up slope, then level, for ¼ mile to ‘Ring of Gullion Way’ post on left (035190). Right up drive, past metal barrier; left uphill for 1½ miles to car park (018200). Beyond picnic table, right at white post, steeply uphill. South Cairn (025203) – Lake of Sorrows – North Cairn (021211); then return.

 Posted by at 15:30
Mar 212020

First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window

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Clouds clearing over South Lakeland, a fresh nip in the air, and Wray Castle looking endearingly preposterous, all turrets and bulges, a rich Victorian neo-gothic fantasy.

Below the castle we followed a path through the beechwoods along the shores of Windermere. The lake steamer Swan came past, humming gently and trailing a long silver wake. All was quiet, still and peaceful. No wonder Beatrix Potter, holidaying at Wray Castle and exploring the lakeside woods as a romantic 16-year-old, fell so passionately in love with the Lake District.

A hillside path led up through stone stiles to High Wray, and higher among the birches and alders of Waterson Intake woods where mosses and grasses twinkled with last night’s raindrops.

On up the brackeny flank of Latterbarrow with a breathtaking view opening across Windermere to Ambleside, huddled in white and grey under the green elephantine back of Wansfell. To the northwest, more fells, with the crumpled dark crags of the Langdale Pikes dominating the skyline.

A young family came up to Latterbarrow’s summit obelisk, the little girl racing to be first to touch it, her younger brother bobbing and grinning in Dad’s backpack. Two young walkers in the making, said Mum – they just loved being outside and exploring.

We descended a wide grassy path from the summit and skirted round the foot of Latterbarrow. There were wide views out westward to whitewashed farms on green velvet slopes where belted Galloway cattle grazed, their white belly bands marking them out.

Loanthwaite Lane was edged with hazel and strung with necklaces of dry and wrinkled bryony berries. It led us to the Outgate Inn, a seat in the sunny beer garden and a plate of home-made hotpot.

It was hard to uproot ourselves for the homeward stretch, but we had our reward along the banks of Blelham Tarn. Blackthorns were beginning to powder themselves with white blossom, and a buzzard mewed like a hungry kitten as it circled over the tarn.

Ahead stood the eastern fells, drenched in afternoon sun, every hollow and crag picked out in shadow – a prospect that had us dipping in our Wainwrights in hopes of a walk up there tomorrow.
Start: Wray Castle car park, Ambleside, Cumbria LA22 0JA (OS ref NY 375010)

Getting there: Bus 505 (Ambleside-Coniston) to Outgate.
Road: Wray Castle is signed off B5286 (Ambleside-Hawkshead)

Walk (6¼ miles, moderate, OS Explorer OL7): From car park follow ‘Ferry from Windermere’ to and along lake shore. In ⅔ mile through gate at High Wray Bay (375005); left (‘Bark Barn’). In 100m, right (376004, ‘High Wray’, yellow arrow/YA). At road, left (374000); follow ‘Hawkshead’; in 50m, left (‘High Wray Basecamp’). In ¼ mile right through gate (372995, ‘Chaife’); in 100m, right (YA) on woodland path up to Latterbarrow summit (367991). Grassy path beyond, down to bottom; right (367988, ‘Hawkshead’) for 700m to road (362992). Left, then right along Loanthwaite Lane. In 700m pass farm buildings (357991); right (gate) into walled lane; left (‘Outgate’) across fields (YAs) into wood. Track to road at Outgate (355998). Right past Outgate Inn; in 50m, right (‘Stevney’); on through gate, down bank (YAs) to cross footbridge (358999). Uphill, to stile on right (359998, YA) and driveway beyond. Left; in 250m, left (362999); follow ‘Wray Castle’. In 1¼ miles, cross road (371010); follow signs to Wray Castle.

Lunch/Accommodation: Outgate Inn, Outgate, near Hawkshead LA22 0NQ (01539-436413, robinsonsbrewery.com) – NB closed Sunday evenings, all Monday.

Info: Ambleside TIC (01539-468135); golakes.co.uk; satmap.com; ramblers.org.uk

Wray Castle: nationaltrust.org.uk/wray-castle

 Posted by at 04:46
Mar 142020

First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
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Winster and its surrounding countryside were once a roaring, clanking, fume-laden lead mining environment, but you’d scarcely guess that nowadays. The grey-roofed hillside village lies along its jitties, a tight tangle of picturesque laneways that overlook a beautiful green valley. Only the velvety nap of the lumps and bulges on the hill slopes tells of the spoil heaps and mineshafts now sinking back into the landscape.

Under a sky of unblemished blue we threaded our way down the jitties and through the village. A path paved with old stone flags hollowed by countless feet led down across wet pastures into the valley and up again to the former packhorse road of Clough Lane.

Rutted, puddled, stony and scarred, the old way led east between its flanking stone walls. As it dipped and snaked through the wooded banks of Cowley Knowl, we saw ahead through the leafless trees the houses of Matlock wedged under their hill across the valley. Beyond, the skyline was broken by a fantastic cluster of black towers and battlements – the silhouette of Riber Castle, a grand 19th-century baronial pile built by Matlock mill owner (and millionaire) John Smedley.

In the valley bottom we cast around among old mine heaps to find the path. It rose steeply through Cambridge Wood to reach Wensley, another former lead mining village charmingly placed for views of hill and dale.

Beyond Wensley a green path followed the edge of Wensley Dale through stone walled pastures, then up a long bank peppered with old lead mine shafts, now sunk to mossy dimples in the ground.

At the top we turned along the Limestone Way long-distance trail, crossing tiny walled fields by way of innumerable squeeze stiles, their ancient stone uprights supplemented by tiny wicket gates on springs that snapped shut with a bang. Persons unusually stout of leg would have quite a job to negotiate these.

Lark song shimmered overhead. Pied wagtails hopped and bobbed as they turned over flakes of cow dung, looking for titbits. And as we came in sight of Winster’s pink-grey houses far below, the view opened northward past Darley Dale to Chatsworth House, pale and magnificent, half a dozen miles off, and the cushiony outlines of the South Yorkshire moors far in the distance against the china-blue sky.

Start: Winster South car park, Winster, Derbs DE4 2DR approx (OS ref SK 239602)

Getting there: Bus 172 (Bakewell – Matlock)
Road: Winster is on B5057, signed from A6 (Matlock – Bakewell) at Darley Dale.

Walk (7 miles, moderate, OS Explorer OL24): Right on gravel track to pass houses. Down lane by Rock View cottage; right at junction; right past Bank Cottage, down to cross B5057 at Market House. Down Woodhouse Lane; on down paved path for ¾ mile; north across valley and up to Clough Lane near Ivy House (244617). Right for 1 mile. Descend to T-junction by gateposts at Cowley Knowl (259619). Right to T-junction; right past barrier; fork left (fingerpost) downhill. At bottom, right across footbridge (258617, yellow arrow/YA); steeply up through Cambridge Wood and on to Wensley. Dogleg right/left across road (261610). Down steps; left along path (YA); in 200m fork sharp right uphill (not ‘Snitterton’). Follow path (YAs, stiles) southeast, soon steeply uphill, for 1½ miles. Just before road (271592), right on walled path; cross road and on along Moorlands Lane. In 400m right (266590), following waymarked Limestone Way for 2 miles to Winster.

Lunch/Accommodation: Miners Standard PH, Bank Top, Winster (01629-650279, theminersstandard.co.uk)

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

 Posted by at 00:30
Mar 072020

First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
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It’s just as well that the Courtenay family, stout recusants and traditionalists, held such sway in the countryside around Molland back in the 19th century. They didn’t see why Victorian ‘improvers’ should be allowed to lay a finger on the tiny moorland village’s Church of St Mary. So no-one did. What’s survived here is the most perfect Georgian interior, a rare treasure.

We opened the church door on a maze of softly shining box pews, a fine 3-decker pulpit, and the Ten Commandments sternly admonishing us from their place above the low chancel screen. The north arcade leans so dramatically out of kilter that it had to be braced with wooden beams. And the elaborate, faded Courtenay wall monuments are a-bulge with cherubim, swags, scrolls and elaborate encomia.

Daffodils and primroses were struggling out in the churchyard, whipped by a cold wind from the south. We put our backs to it and went trudging up a stony bridleway over the moors that rose to the north in waves of creamy grass and black heather.

Up here it’s all airy bleak and open, proper Exmoor upland where the weather comes hard at you. The views are enormous, across the winter-dried moors to lush pasturelands lower down. A lark sprang up singing, the first of the year, and a group of moorland ponies champed their way along a combe bottom, shaggy manes and tails flailing in the wind.

We followed the hoofmarks of trekking ponies along the bridleway until it reached Anstey Gate. Just down the road we passed a memorial stone to Philip Froude Hancock (1865-1933), genial huntsman and international rugby player. A rugged monument to a rugged man, this 13-ton granite boulder was hauled up here in 1935 by a steam lorry, which almost blew up its boiler climbing the steep Exmoor lanes.

Below Guphill Common we turned back along a moor road, skirting its winter potholes and dipping into muddy combes. A bridleway brought us down into lower country of steep green pastures, where heavily pregnant ewes lumbered off and starlings whistled their jaunty vespers from the bare oak tops far below.

Start: Church car park, Molland, South Molton EX36 3NG (OS ref SS 807284)

Getting there: Molland is signed from B3227 (Hayne Cross intersection on A361).

Walk (6½ miles, rough moorland tracks, some short steep sections, OS Explorer OL9): Up lane between church and London Inn; left by church; in 30m, right on footpath past farmyard, across fields (fingerposts) and Moor Lane (810286). Ahead (yellow arrow/YA); down to cross footbridge (812288); steeply up to gate; up to far right corner of field (814290). Lane to Smallacombe. Follow bridleway (blue arrows) across ford (816291). Fork left; in 100m, ahead (not right; fingerpost). Follow bridleway hoofprints northeast, then east across moor. In ½ mile ignore left fork (821297); keep ahead on track bending gently right over hill ahead.

At Anstey Gate, right along road (835298). In 500m pass memorial stone on left; in another 100m, right opposite boundary stone (840296); between posts, and follow faint track running half-left across Guphill Common, heading for line of trees, then for their right-hand end. At road, right (845288); in 1 mile pass 4-finger post (830293, ‘Molland’). Cross Anstey’s Combe (827294), then the following ford (824294). In 300m, bridleway bends left with hedge-bank; on through gate (821291, fingerpost). Follow it down to road (819282).

Right (‘Molland’); cross stream; immediately right (817283, steps, stile, fingerpost). Steeply up to YA post; up to stile (YA). Follow YAs to road (813283); follow ‘Molland’ to village.

Lunch: London Inn, Molland (01769-550269, londoninnmolland.co.uk)

Accommodation: George Inn, South Molton EX36 3AB (01769-572514, thegeorgesouthmolton.co.uk)

Info: South Molton TIC (01769-572591); satmap.com; ramblers.org.uk

 Posted by at 04:51
Feb 292020

First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
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Bonfires crackled in the gardens of Little Berkhamsted, everyone’s dream of an English village. White weather-boarded houses faced the immaculately kept cricket field, and dog walkers greeted each other with the easy manner of people at home and content.

Hertfordshire lays under brisk grey skies, the countryside folded in on itself in the quiet stillness of a long winter. Golf balls clicked and hummed over the greens of Essendon Country Club. In the oak woods the wind lifted last year’s brittle brown leaves and brought a faint whiff of damp bark and rain-softened earth.

At Essendon the flint-built Church of St Mary carried a wall plaque recording the events of 3 September 1916, when bombs jettisoned from a Zeppelin airship demolished the east end of the church and killed the village blacksmith’s two daughters. Hertfordshire was not as safe as it might have seemed – searchlight batteries ringed the villages, handy targets for enemy bombs.

In the church hall, morning coffee was on the go. We were allowed a glimpse of the church’s singular treasure, kept under lock and key – an 18th-century Wedgwood font of black basaltware, one of only five in existence, rich in decorative swags and flourishes. When Richard Green of Essendon emigrated to Australia in 1880 he asked for the font, by then no longer in use, to be sent to him Down Under. It never reached him; the parishioners of Essendon were too poor to raise the price of freighting such a delicate object to the other side of the world.

There was blue sky over Backhouse Wood, and a gleam of icy blue in the splashy ruts of the byway that ran south along the valley of the Essendon Brook. Lime green lambs tails danced in the hazel branches along the way. Tiny spear-blades of dog’s mercury were beginning to push up under the trees. Hardly the call of spring, but a whisper of it hung in the air like a tentative promise.

Fieldfares stood tall in the paddocks at Warrenwood Manor, their slate grey heads raised, checking us for menace. The namesake trees of Hornbeam Lane lined its banks, their limbs silver and green in the low afternoon sun. Snowdrops drooped their heads in clumps pearled with raindrops retained from the last shower of the morning.

Hornbeam Lane gave way to Cucumber Lane. A partridge went whining off explosively, low over a field of crinkly beet leaves, making us jump and laugh as we turned for home.

Near Epping Green an ancient Dalmatian limped up and thrust its spotted body against my legs for a pat. At the walk’s end in Little Berkhamsted I found a souvenir of the dog, a clutch of white hairs embedded in the mud that I brushed from my trousers at the door of the Five Horseshoes Inn.

Start: Five Horseshoes, Little Berkhamsted, Herts SG13 8LY (OS ref TL 292078)

Getting there: Bus – 308, 380 (Hertford-Cuffley).
Road – Little Berkhamsted is signed off B158 between Essendon and Brookman’s Park (M25 Jct 24; A1000 towards Hatfield).

Walk (7¾ miles, easy but muddy, OS Explorer 182): From Five Horseshoes, cross road, down right side of cricket field (‘Epping Green’, ‘Hertfordshire Way/HW). At kissing gate, right to road (290077). Left; in 100m, right (‘Danes farm’); fork right up drive. In ½ mile descend from woods to crossing of drives by two black-and-white houses (283084), left (HW). Dogleg right round golf clubhouse (281084); up path with lake on right. At top of slope fork right by wooden fence; at road, left (276086) up School Lane to cross B158 in Essendon (275086).

Right; in 75m, fork left; left through churchyard. Path from west end of church to gate into field (273088). Left; follow yellow arrows/YA across fields to turn right along HW (273085). In 400m cross Essendon Brook (269083); on up field edge (HW). At top, at T-junction (267083), left along ‘Byway’ (red arrow), soon marked HW. In 500m fork left off Byway (267078, HW) for nearly 1 mile to cross B158 (270068).

On (‘Warrenwood Farm’) along HW (‘Hornbeam Lane’) for nearly 1 mile. At Cucumber Lane, right (281060), at Tyler’s Causeway road, left (285058). In 100m, right (fingerpost) on HW; in ¾ mile, opposite house no 79 at New Park Farm (295052), left off HW (fingerpost). North for 900m to Tyler’s Causeway (294061).

Left along road; in 100m, right up laneway. In 200m, enter 2nd field; in 200m, right through hedge (293065, YA). At road in Epping Green, left (‘Bridleway 22, Berkhamsted Lane’). In 200m, at entrance on left to Woodcock Lodge, ahead along rutted lane. In 150m keep ahead (not right) at fork (292070, blue arrow). In ½ mile, right up cricket field to Five Horseshoes.

Lunch: Five Horseshoes, Little Berkhamsted (01707-875055, chefandbrewer.com)

Accommodation: Baker Arms, Bayford SG13 8PX (01992-511235, bakerarmsbayford.co.uk)

Info: Hertford TIC (01992-584322); visitengland.com; satmap.com; ramblers.org.uk

 Posted by at 03:40
Feb 222020

First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
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A couple of rows of low-standing terraced cottages and a stout little harbour defended by stone breakwater walls – that’s the sum of the tiny haven of Dunure.

Setting off south along the Ayrshire Coastal Path, we passed the jagged ruin of Dunure Castle. Desperate deeds were the order of the day at the castle in lawless times past, the most infamous of them the ill-treatment of Allan Stewart, administrator of Crossraguel Abbey in 1570. When Stewart demurred at signing over his lands to the castle’s owner, the 4th Earl of Cassilis, he had his feet basted and roasted. Unsurprisingly, the document of surrender soon acquired Stewart’s signature.

The path led over coastal pastures that dipped and rose with the undulation of the cliffs. A sharp east wind stirred the nascent bluebells in the woods and ran dimpling cat’s-paws out over the sea. Across the water lay a long green bar of land, the Isle of Arran, with its mountainous head in the clouds, and away in the south-west the thousand-foot volcanic plug of Ailsa Craig rose abruptly on the horizon like an island in a Japanese painting.

Soon the path zigzagged down the cliffs to run along the shore, a strand of dark pink sand spattered with beautifully multi-coloured pebbles. We walked it slowly, watching sanderlings patter the tideline in agitated crowds. Light-bellied brent geese sailed the shallows, fuelling up for imminent flight to their breeding grounds in the Arctic Circle, and further out a couple of mergansers cruised, looking for fish to catch and hold in their saw-edged bills.

Ahead loomed Culzean Castle, the High Baronial cliff-top mansion designed by Robert Adam for the 10th Earl of Cassilis. No tales of foot-basting here; instead, the sad legend of the piper who rashly entered the caves below the castle and was never seen (or heard) again.

We climbed the steps behind the handsome old Gas House on the shore (the 3rd Marquess didn’t hold with that new-fangled invention, electricity), and followed the Long Avenue through the wooded grounds of Culzean Castle. Another curve of tide-ribbed sand led us into the harbour town of Maidens, as sun shafts pierced the clouds and crowned distant Ailsa Craig with dramatic evening light.

Start: Dunure Harbour, near Ayr, KA7 4LN (OS ref NS 255161)

Getting there: Bus 361, Ayr-Dunure; return, bus 60/360, Maidens-Ayr.
Road – Ayr is on A77 (Glasgow-Stranraer); Dunure is signed off A719 (Ayr-Girvan).
Taxi: Jamie’s Taxis, Maidens (01655-331221; 07712-864430)

Walk (6½ miles, easy, OS Explorer 326): From Dunure Harbour follow Ayrshire Coastal Path/ACP signs and logo waymarks (green arrows). Pass Dunure Castle (252158); on through succession of gates and coastal fields. In 1¾ miles (247138), path zigzags down cliffs to Katie Gray’s Rocks. Left along shore (check tide times – see below!) Pass Isle Port rocks (245129) and chalet park beyond. Continue south for 2 miles around Culzean Bay to Gas House (classical building with tall industrial chimney – 234103). Up steps behind Gas House; follow Long Avenue (main estate road – white arrows/ACP logo waymarks). In ¾ mile, at Swan Pond, signs point right (224094), but keep ahead (‘Ardlochan Lodge’). At Lodge (221091), over stile; down to shore; left along beach to Maidens.

Conditions: At very high tides, access round Isle Port rocks near chalet park may be difficult. Check tide times at tidetimes.co.uk.

Lunch: Harbour View Café, Dunure (01292-500026); Dunure Inn (01292-500549); Wildings Hotel, Maidens (01655-331401)

Accommodation: Fairfield House Hotel, Fairfield Rd, Ayr KA7 2AS (01292-267461, fairfieldhotel.co.uk); Wildings Hotel, Maidens KA26 9NR (wildingshotel.com).

Info: visitscotland.com
Culzean Castle – nts.org.uk
visit-hampshire.co.uk; satmap.com; ramblers.org.uk

 Posted by at 04:13
Feb 152020

First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
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Keyhaven means ‘the harbour from which cows are shipped,’ and looking south from the little tidal port to the Isle of Wight you can see just how convenient it was for transporting boatloads of cattle across the Solent. The nearest point on Wight is less than a mile away, and the whole southern skyline is filled with the long, humpbacked loom of the island.

Keyhaven Marshes used to be salterns, or salt pans. There were oyster beds here, too. There’s still a flavour of former workings about this gravelly Hampshire shoreline with its black wooden stakes and marsh walls, though nowadays Keyhaven Marshes nature reserve is better known for the thousands of wildfowl and waders it hosts for feeding, breeding and winter roosting.

In a moody half light over land and sea I set off along the Brent Trail, a loop that took me east along the seawall. Something close to a hundred thousand birds see out the winter here. Today, dark-bellied brent geese creaked and grumbled as they fed along the tideline. Sandpipers and turnstones ran among them, light-footed scamperers in counterpoint to the heavy-legged plodding of the brents through the murky wavelets of the Solent.

Softly gleaming creeks threaded their way seaward through broad mudbanks coated with brilliant green algae. A pair of egrets, white as ice, landed on the mud and went stalking after crustaceans on spindly black legs, as intent and sharp-eyed as any fox after a chicken.

I turned inland between waterlogged marshes where shelduck made bold blobs of chestnut and white. Flocks of dark little teal went speeding across the grey sky. Shaggy cows grazed the bramble banks, and a pair of swans came in to land on the water with sawing noises and maximum hubbub.

The return path led back to Keyhaven car park, then on west to where a great shingle spit turned south into the Solent. This was an utterly different world, with waves splashing on the seaward margin of the spit and a view across the windy Solent to the downs of the Isle of Wight, backlit by peach-coloured light over the unseen coast of France.

Out at the end of the spit lay Hurst Castle, an uncompromising block of a fortress. Built by King Henry VIII to ward off the French, reinforced in the 19th century against the threat of the same enemy, it squats like a grey, salt-streaked toad, looking across the Solent to the great blockhouse of Fort Albert on the Wight coast.

Crunching back towards the mainland I pictured King Charles I, pacing this shingle spit daily to while away his period of incarceration at Hurst Castle in the cold Christmastide of 1648. There would be no Icarus wings for poor Charles Stuart to escape upon. The beheading block awaited him in London, and he knelt there for execution before January was out.

Start: Keyhaven car park, near Lymington SO41 0TP (OS ref SZ 307915)

Getting there: Keyhaven is signed from B3058 in Milford-on-Sea (A337, Lymington-Christchurch)

Walk (7¼ miles, easy, OS Explorer OL22): From car park, right across inlet; on far side, right through gates; follow Brent Trail (red arrows). In 1¾ miles, opposite jetty with red and yellow markers, left inland (325924); follow Brent Trail back to car park. Left along road (‘Hurst Castle Ferry’); footpath to sea wall (308913); right (‘Solent Way’) to spit (299908). Left to Hurst Castle, and return.

Lunch: Gun Inn, Keyhaven SO41 0TP (01590-642391)

Accommodation: Mayflower Inn, King’s Saltern Rd, Lymington SO41 3QD (01590-672160, themayflowerlymington.co.uk)

Info: Lymington TIC (01590-689000); visit-hampshire.co.uk; satmap.com; ramblers.org.uk

 Posted by at 01:27