Oct 212017

First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
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Beech leaves twinkled like gold coins in the cold autumn sunlight as they rained down from the trees of Buckhurst Park. It was just the day to be walking the well-tended and waymarked paths of this prosperous piece of parkland on the northern borders of Ashdown Forest. Cricket field, lake, sheep pastures, neat little estate cottages with red-tiled roofs and walls – Buckhurst is carefully looked after, and it shows.

On the ridge beside Coppice Wood we stood to admire the southward view over a shallow valley rolling upward to meet the fringe of Five Hundred Acre Wood – AA Milne’s ‘100 Aker Wood’, where Christopher Robin and Pooh Bear had their many cosy adventures. Christopher Robin Milne and his parents lived just across the hill at Cotchford Farm, and this billowing, thickly wooded countryside was their enchanted place, a gorgeous snapshot of a mythic England on this brisk autumn afternoon.

On the lane past Whitehouse Farm our boots scuffed drifts of oak leaves and crunched the acorns that the squirrels had not yet gathered for their winter hoards. A tang of woodsmoke hung round Friar’s Gate Farm with its gipsy caravan, shepherd’s hut and wheeled wooden henhouse.

In the fringe of Five Hundred Acre Wood old ponds lay rust-red with iron leached out of the underlying sandstone. We found enormous ancient oaks big enough to accommodate Wol and all his tribe, and carpets of beech mast and acorns that could have fed a thousand Piglets. No hoard of Hunny, though.

At Fisher’s Gate the estate cottages stood neatly in a row, looking back across the valley to the tall chimneys, great mullioned windows and Elizabethan gables of Buckhurst Place, carried aloft on a sea of gold and green treetops. On the lane back to Withyham the flailed hedges were dotted with brilliant autumn colours – scarlet rosehips, crimson haw peggles and spindle berries whose bright orange seeds had split their lipstick-pink cases and were pushing on outwards.

On the far side of Withyham we crossed the slow-flowing infant River Medway and looped back to the village along the Forest Trail railway path, a tunnel of pink elder leaves, roofed and floored with oaken gold.

Start: Dorset Arms, Withyham, Hartfield, E. Sussex TN7 4JD (OS ref TQ 496356)

Getting there: Bus 291 (East Grinstead – Tunbridge Wells)
Road – Withyham is on B2110 between Tunbridge Wells and Hartfield.

Walk (7½ miles, easy, OS Explorer 135): Beside Dorset Arms take driveway (‘High Weald Landscape Trail’/HWLT). In ⅔ mile, 100m past lake, fork left (502350, HWLT). At gate in ⅓ mile, left over stile (506347, HWLT); half left up to corner of wood; half right between 2 trees, on down slope. In ¼ mile, left over stile (504342, HWLT); turn right downhill inside edge of wood to cross B2188 (503341).

Up road opposite. In 300m HWLT turns left (503338), but continue along lane. At right bend, fork left (502335) up farm drive. In 350m, on right bend leading to sewage works gate (501331), bear left over stile. Left up field edge past Friars Gate Farm buildings to drive (499329). Follow it to road (499325). Right (take care!) to B2188 (497331). Right; in 200m on sharp right bend, left along drive (‘Private Road’). In ½ mile, fork right (491336, yellow arrow); in 60m, fork right, and right again beside gate (‘Weald Way’/WW). Skirt a section of driveway to stile (490338) and follow WW north along drive for 1¼ miles to B2110 in Withyham (493356).

Left for 50m (take care!); right (stile, WW) across 2 fields. Cross Forest Way cycle track (491363, WW) and River Medway beyond. Continue on WW (stiles) for ¼ mile to driveway at building (495368); follow it to road (498366). Right; in 250m, right on Forest Way. In ½ mile, left (491363); WW back to B2110; left to Withyham.

Lunch/Accommodation: Dorset Arms, Withyham (01892-770278, dorset-arms.co.uk) – stylish place, great food.

Info: East Grinstead TIC (01342-410121)
visitengland.com; satmap.com; ramblers.org.uk

 Posted by at 08:24
Oct 142017

First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
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The Earl’s Palace frowns out over the Bay of Birsay, strong, stark and harsh, a fortress reflecting everything that’s known about the man who created it.
Robert Stewart, Earl of Orkney and illegitimate son of King James V of Scotland, was a high-handed and brutal ruler of the Orkney isles. The great stronghold he built with forced labour in the 1570s stands in ruin at the outermost tip of Orkney Mainland, still massively impressive with its jagged gables and tall dark chimneys stacks.
Looking down from the green trackway behind the Earl’s Palace at the jumble of buildings and the crashing sea beyond, I pictured these wretched sprigs of the Stewart family tree. Nasty Earl Robert died in his bed, but his even nastier son Patrick – ‘Black Patie’ by nickname – and rather pathetic grandson Robert both came to bad ends at the hands of the king’s executioner. Those were wild times, and there were few places wilder than the Orkney archipelago, remote in its northern seas.
The trackway led up onto dark sandstone cliffs, where the wind whipped the short turf and whirled the fulmars past in stiff-winged flight. I put my head down and trudged north, with the Earl’s Palace looming inland.
Luckily Orkney has known better men than Black Patie and Earl Robert. Past the ruin of their citadel runs a newly opened pilgrimage route, St Magnus Way, a 55-mile trek that celebrates Orkney’s much-loved local saint and miracle worker. It was in Birsay’s ancient kirk that Magnus Erlendsson’s bones resided after his martyrdom 900 years ago. They were soon translated to their final resting place in Kirkwall’s St Magnus Cathedral, terminus of the new pilgrim path.
At the outer end of the road from Birsay lies the zigzag causeway to the tidal island of the Brough of Birsay. The sea was just receding from the isthmus as I crossed it, the ebbing water forming tiny sucking maelstroms beside the causeway.
The landward slope of the Brough of Birsay presents a fabulous jumble of stone walls, half-formed windows and house foundations. Pictish settlers were succeeded by Norse ones between 600 and 1200 AD, each wave of islanders building on top of its predecessors’ dwellings. Pictish round houses, Norse long ones and a tiny compact Romanesque church can all be made out.
I climbed the back of the island to the little castellated lighthouse, and looked out from the puffin-burrowed summit. Tall cliffs fell sheer into the sea on all sides, and on the northern horizon other islands floated in evening light, as grey and distant as breaching whales.
Start: Earl’s Palace car park, Birsay, Orkney Mainland KW17 2LX (HY248277)
Getting there: Bus 7 (Kirkwall-Birsay).
Road – From Kirkwall, A965 through Finstown; in 1 mile, right on A986 through Dounby; from Twatt, A967, A966 to Birsay.

Walk (4½ miles; easy; OS Explorer 463): From car park, left up road. Cross Burn of Boardhouse; follow road past Birsay Bay Tearoom, then grass track to cemetery and road (248268). Right; in 300m, at left bend, right (245268). Follow St Magnus Way (waymark) north down track to rejoin road (248275). Left, following road to causeway (242284). Cross to Brough of Birsay; walk round island; return across causeway.
Conditions: Causeway is open for 2 hours either side of low tide. Check times – magicseaweed.com
Lunch: Birsay Bay Tearooms (01856-721399; birsaybaytearooms.co.uk) – check for opening times
Accommodation: Ferry Inn, 10 John Street, Stromness KW16 3AD (01856-850280; ferryinn.com; 20 mins drive) – friendly, lively, clean
St Magnus Way: stmagnusway.com
Info: visitorkney.com
visitscotland.com; satmap.com; ramblers.org.uk

 Posted by at 08:30
Sep 302017

First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
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A hot afternoon of streaky blue sky over Cleeve Hill, with Cheltenham spread out 800 feet below like a town in a scale model. The sleek horses of the Wickland Stud champed their grassy paddocks as we followed the Cotswold Way, a powdery white track, along the northern edge of the great swath of common land that caps Cleeve Hill.

Golfers, walkers, joggers and kite flyers disport themselves on Cleeve Common these days, but this dome of flower-rich calcareous grassland has traditionally been a scene of hard work for graziers, arable farmers and quarrymen. Through a tumbled landscape of old quarry scoops and ledges we dropped down to the delectable dell where Postlip Hall raises its Jacobean gables on a wooded slope above a handsome medieval tithe barn.

There was a sleepy Mediterranean feel to Postlip, house and path simmering in the sunshine, only the crowing of a cock behind the high garden wall disturbing the soporific afternoon air. Sheep panted in the pastures, too sun-dazed to get up as we went by.

In a green dingle beyond Postlip a stream tinkled seductively under a footbridge. From here the Cotswold Way rose in stages – some of them pretty steep – through the intriguingly named Breakheart Plantation, with glimpse out north-east across the valley where the huddled houses of Winchcombe and the pale walls of Sudeley Castle lay and baked in the sun.

Out again on the wide Cotswold uplands we came to the sad ruin of Wontley Farm, barn roof in holes, buddleia sprouting from windows and doors, all silent and crumbling in a sea of nettles.

From Wontley a grassy track led back west to Cleeve Common. Along the rim of the escarpment young kestrels were playing chase in the updrafts. The Cotswold Way ran north through the ramparts of an Iron Age hillfort to reach the topograph on Cleeve Hill. We stood and stared out west, over Cheltenham and May Hill, way beyond the Forest of Dean, across the Welsh border to where the Sugar Loaf raised a tiny peak nearly 50 miles away. A breath-taking panorama in the peachy light of evening.

Start: Quarry car park, Cleeve Hill, Cheltenham, Glos GL52 3PW (OS ref SO 989272)

Getting there: Bus service 606 (Cheltenham-Winchcombe) to Rising Sun Hotel (footpath links with walk).
Road: – Quarry car park is just beyond Cleeve Hill Golf Club clubhouse (signed from B4632 Cheltenham-Winchcombe road.

Walk (6½ miles, moderate, OS Explorer 179): From car park, right along stony track. Follow well-waymarked Cotswold Way/CW clockwise for 2¾ miles via Postlip Hall (998267), footbridge below The Paddocks (006265), steep ascent in Breakheart Plantation (007255) and under power lines (009251) to farm track NE of Wontley Farm (011245). CW goes left here; but turn right to ruined Wontley Farm (008247). Right on Winchcombe Way. In ½ mile descend to gate (001247); ahead on grass path to radio masts (994248). Left along road; in 200m, right (993246, fingerpost). Don’t cross stile; fork left down edge of wood to reach CW (991246). Right along CW for 2 miles, following escarpment to Quarry car park.

Conditions: Steep paths in Breakheart Plantation; can be muddy, slippery.

Lunch: Cleeve Hill Golf Club (01242-672025, cleevehillgolfclub.co.uk)

Accommodation: Rising Sun, Cleeve Hill GL52 3PX (01242-676281, oldenglishinns.co.uk)

Info: cleevecommon.org.uk
More directions, maps and walks at christophersomerville.co.uk
visitengland.com; satmap.com; ramblers.org.uk

Walk with Christopher: Christopher is appearing at Cheltenham Literature Festival (cheltenhamfestivals.com/literature) on 10 October, and will be walking on Cleeve Hill that afternoon with audience members. Please book walk places with Ramblers Worldwide Holidays at ramblersholidays.co.uk.

 Posted by at 09:15
Sep 232017

First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
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The great chalk horse of Hackpen Hill shone out in blinding white under a scudding blue sky. Once we’d left the runners and cyclists on the Ridgeway, and ducked off along the edge of Wick Down, we saw nobody else.

These downlands of northern Wiltshire are exceptionally beautiful. We walked at the lip of the escarpment, looking south over a roadless bowl of a valley, its curves shaped by weathering, its white chalk ploughlands contrasting with the green pastures in a harmonious subtlety of colour that called out for the paintbrush of Paul Nash or Eric Ravilious. Skylarks overhead drew generously on their bottomless wells of song, and a brown hare paused in its skyline lolloping to sit very upright and inspect us for signs of danger.

On the slope of Rockley Down we turned north into a great bowl of downland where the horse gallops of a training stable formed a straggling oval along the slopes of Ogbourne Maizey Down. A greedy, panicky screeching broke out among the gallops. Crows were bullying a pack of black-backed gulls, and the gulls were taking it out on the worms that had risen to the surface of the ground after last night’s rain.

We left the birds to their squabbling and feasting, and headed up the slope of the down. A brief struggle with a patch of nettles and brambles, and we were out again on the roof of the downs, walking the ruts and jumping the puddles of another of Wiltshire’s ancient roadways towards the low hummocks of Barbury Castle hillfort.

Whatever provoked the attack that marauding Saxons made on Barbury Castle in 550 AD, it was disastrous for the defending Britons. Several were slaughtered, and their fortifications were destroyed. As we strolled a circuit of the double ramparts, it was hard to picture the bloodshed and screams. Common blue butterflies busied themselves among the harebells and scabious, and dogs scampered the earthworks that have crowned Barbury Hill for the best part of 3,000 years.

We left the fort by its western gate and descended the rutted track of the Ridgeway, an upland road that was already ancient when Barbury hillfort was built. Flocks of cyclists and coveys of walkers were out along the old trackway, and we followed its white ribbon back to Hackpen Hill under the bluest of skies.
Start: Hackpen Hill car park, near Swindon, SN4 9NR approx. (OS ref SU 129747)

Getting there: On minor road between Broad Hinton (M4 Jct 16, A4361) and Marlborough (M4 Jct 15, A346)

Walk (7¼ miles, easy, OS Explorer 157): Left (Marlborough direction) along road. In 300m, right through gate on left of driveway (132745); right along field edge with fence on right. In 100m bear left along escarpment edge. In 1 mile, on Rockley Down, left up tarmac driveway (147734) to cross road (150738).

Along broad concrete track. In 300m, ahead (yellow arrow/YA) past ‘Private Road’ notice to T-junction at ‘Barbury International’ notice (153745). Left; in 200m, bear right (152747) and follow clockwise along perimeter of horse gallop. In 300m, bear a little left off stony track (155747; pond shown on map, not really distinguishable on ground), leaving trees on your right (YAs on fence to left). Keep ahead beside grassy ride, passing ‘Stonehenge’ installation, for ½ mile.

150m before a crossing fence, turn left uphill. Cross stile (161742); on uphill for 150m. At top fence post, above square enclosure on right, turn left (162743). In 150m, through deer gate (162744), chained but not locked; on between hedges. In 50m bear half right between hedges; in 100m right again between hedges. In 200m, path bends left (164747) through scrub trees and undergrowth. In 200m, through gate on right (164748); up fence to stile onto broad trackway (165748). Left; in a little over a mile, at ‘Neil King Ridgeway Racing’ sign at Upper Herdswick Farm (157760), left through gate (‘Barbury Country Park’). Follow Ridgeway through Barbury Castle Hill Fort (147763) and on south-west for 1½ miles to Hackpen Hill car park.

Lunch: Barbury Inn, Broad Hinton, SN4 9PF (01793-731510, thebarburyinn.co.uk), or The Crown, Broad Hinton (see below)

Accommodation: The Crown, Broad Hinton SN4 9PA (01793-731302, the crownatbroadhinton.co.uk)

Info: Swindon TIC (01793-466454); satmap.com; ramblers.org.uk

 Posted by at 01:50
Sep 162017

First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
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A glorious day over north Cornwall, and where better to walk than the ‘Poldark Coast’ of rocky cliffs and great smooth sands between Holywell and Perranporth? We saw no bare-chested horsemen galloping through the surf of Holywell Bay (‘Warleggan Beach’ to Poldarkians), but wet-suited surfers were riding the creamy waves. We left them to it, and turned up the coast path that hurdles the neighbouring headlands of Penhale Point and Ligger Point.

From a knife-edge promontory over the sea came a wild, chittering scream. It was a peregrine falcon, slate of back and barred of tail, mantling over her kill, a broken-necked pigeon, while fulmars streaked challengingly close overhead on stiff pointed wings.

The path teetered between cliff and sea before descending to the long two miles of Perran Beach where a mass of round transparent jellyfish had stranded at the top of the tide. We walked among them, avoiding the occasional purple blob of a (mildly) poisonous moon jellyfish, before scrambling steeply up the crumbly face of Penhale Sands.

These enormous sandhills stand 300 feet tall, a billowing inland sea of green and gold dunes. Sandy paths led us inland to the humble stone oratory built some 1500 years ago by the Irish missionary Piran. He was a giant in stature, and a jolly one too, it seems, fond of a drop of the honey-based hooch called metheglin. Adrift in the dunes beyond St Piran’s cell we found an ancient three-holed granite cross and the foundations of a 12th-century church, reminders that this barren spot was once a staging post on the medieval pilgrim route to Compostela.

Under lark song we made our way south by tangled paths across the dunes to a country road. A bend in the lane brought us to the path back to Holywell, a green way over granite stiles. The stream that shadowed the path at the smuggling hamlet of Ellenglaze was formed from a witch’s tears, so legend says. If so, her sins must have been forgiven, for the brook runs as clean and sweet as any innocent water.

Start: NT car park, Holywell, Cornwall TR8 5DD (OS ref SW 767589)

Getting there: Holywell is signposted from A392 between Newquay and Goonhavern.

Walk (8 miles, moderate, OS Explorer 104): From car park follow SW Coast Path south via Penhale Point and Ligger Point to Perran Beach. ¾ mile along beach, pass metal beacon in dunes, then fence and white ‘danger’ notice (762565). In 150m, turn inland up dune path through obvious gap (761563). Aim for rock outcrop, then keep same line up to skyline. Pass post with white panels; ahead on path, through hollow and up left side of far slope. Through gate (766564); ahead (east) with fence close on left (ignoring tall stone cross 200m on right) for 200m to St Piran’s Oratory (769564).

Keep ahead, bearing a little to right away from fence, to bear left (east) along wide track in a hollow. Pass waymark post (771564) to reach ancient stone cross on skyline (772564) and foundations of St Piran’s Church in hollow (600m east of Oratory). From here, keep ahead (east) with fence on left. In 200m, bear right (south) with fence and follow clear grassy path. In 300m (774563) bear half right across a wide open common. In 300m join a footpath marked with white stones; bear a little left with fence on left, following waymark arrow posts. At 2nd ‘acorn’ post, fork left (posts, white stones) to road at junction (775553).

Left along road for 1 mile. Descend to right bend (783566) where 2 adjacent lanes fork left. Take right-hand lane of these two; in 15m, fork right to go through gate (yellow arrow/YA). Path runs north-west along right edge of wide common with trees on right. In 600m, at far right corner of common (781572), path keeps ahead through undergrowth into hedge to pass black arrow on post. Right through kissing gate; boardwalk path through wetland patch, then across footbridge (782573). Uphill to go through gate at hamlet (782574). Left (‘Holywell’, YA); follow YAs across fields for ⅓ mile to Ellenglaze. Ahead along road (776577, YA), round left bend. In 200m, right (YA) on well marked green lane path, then holiday village road, for 1 mile to Holywell.

Conditions: Vertiginous path on Ligger Point; steep climb on loose sand from Perran Beach. Compass/GPS useful among dunes of Penhale Sands.

Lunch: Picnic

Accommodation: Holywell Bay B&B, Inshallah, Rhubarb Hill, Holywell TR8 5PT (01637-830938, holywellbaybandb.co.uk) – immaculate B&B.

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

 Posted by at 01:06
Sep 092017

First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
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A hot day, and the north-eastern corner of the Cotswolds lay in glorious sunshine. On the grass verge in Chadlington a girl in a red T-shirt patiently sat a stout white pony as it lifted its dripping muzzle from the brook and smacked its hairy lips over the savour of cool water.

Chadlington is a sprawling village, a place of rills and springs. In one of the brook meadows an old man went blithely singing through the docks and thistles, and we followed him down towards the fishing lake at Greenend. The fields beyond the shallow dip of the River Evenlode’s valley shone dull gold under the sun, mown and harvested, but not yet gathered. The woods on the ridge lay black and impenetrable in the dark dress of late summer.

Trout plopped in the olive-green lake under weeping willows. We followed a broad stony lane, thick with the scent of new-mown hay, west to Pudlicote and the banks of the Evenlode. The river wriggled like an agitated centipede between pale meadows freshly cut, and rustling fields of elephant grass destined for immolation in some green power station.

Swallows were fuelling up for their imminent southward flights. They flicked and zoomed like miniature fighter planes low over the stubbles, picking off insects by the thousand, snatching and swallowing as many as possible before the long, improbable journey to their African wintering grounds. We couldn’t help but admire their panache, while feeling a shiver of anxiety for their vulnerability and a pang of sadness at these last rites of summer.

We chose a crumbly seat of earth under an enormous old oak and sat for a gulp of water, looking out over the green and gold valley of the Evenlode and up overhead at a jigsaw tessellation of oak leaves against the blue and white sky. Then we took the homeward path across Dean Common, where the Wychwood Project is turning old gravel pits and worked-out ground into flowery wetland and butterfly-friendly grassland.

Back in Chadlington, high on the outside of St Nicholas’s Church, I spotted my old chum the Green Man, carved a-gape with jovial menace, his knotted brow crowned with leaves in all the vigour of summer.

Start: Tite Inn, Chadlington, Oxfordshire OX7 3NY (OS ref SP 324225)

Getting there: Bus X9, Witney-Chipping Norton.
Road – Chadlington is signed off A361, 2 miles south of Chipping Norton.

Walk (6¼ miles, easy, OS Explorer 191): From Tite PH car park, left up road. In 15m, right (kissing gate/KG, ‘Brook End’) on path beside brook. In 200m, through gate (324222); bear right up bank (YA) across field. Over stile; left (YA) along hedge. Across Cross’s Lane (322219, fingerpost/FP) and on (YAs) to cross road (324214) at Greenend. Down ‘No Through Road’ opposite.

Just before Lower Court Farm, right (‘Bridleway, Pudlicote’); follow farm track west for 1 mile to Pudlicote House. At road, left (314205); in 200m, left (‘Oxfordshire Way’/OW). Follow OW east for 1 mile to cross Catsham Lane (331208) and on. In 700m, at NE corner of Greenhill Copse (337212), don’t turn right, but keep ahead for 100m into trees. At Wychwood Project info board, OW turns right; but keep ahead (east) on path across Dean Common. In 350m cross Grove Lane (341213); on down slope. At bottom, before entering woodland, left/north (344214) along fence. At field end, dogleg left over stile (343216); continue north beside Coldron Brook for 3 fields to road (343220).

Right (take care – nasty bend!); in 50m, left along Dean Mill drive (there is a right of way for walkers). In 30m, left across footbridge (YA on far end); follow path between paddock and hedge, then across field to stile into road (341222). Right, in 100m, sharp left (FP) past No.1, Dean Bank. Right round end of house, through gate ahead; pass stables and cross stile (340224). Half left across field, sloping down to bottom right corner (339223). Cross stream (2 gates) and follow hedge (now on unmarked Wychwood Way). Over stile at top; on along lane to road (336221).

Right, soon on pavement, through Eastend. Pass St Nicholas’s Church, cross Church Road, and just before right bend, go right (332219, KG, FP), clockwise around recreation field. At top left corner, through gateway (330221); half right across field to road (327222). Right; opposite Church Road, go left over stile (326224, FP). At path end, through gate; left along fence. In 100m, through gate into garden. Aim just left of house to cross stone stile; right beside wall to road and Tite Inn.

Lunch: Tite Inn, Chadlington (01608-676910, thetiteinn.co.uk)

Accommodation: Bull Inn, Charlbury OX7 3RR (01608-810689, bullinn-charlbury.com)

Info: Banbury TIC (01295-753752)
visitengland.com; satmap.com; ramblers.org.uk

 Posted by at 01:22
Sep 022017

First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
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In the low-rolling landscape of north-west Cambridgeshire sits Ufford, a wholly charming estate village built of the local pale grey limestone. There’s plenty of green ground and plenty of trees at the heart of Ufford, overlooked by the ridge where its church perches high and handsome.

A wren whirred among the sycamores in the grounds of Ufford Hall, where stout parties in white sweaters were assembling for a cricket match in the most leisurely style imaginable. Along the fields of stubble and plough furrows the elm hedges were thick with plump hips and haws. Barnack’s stocky Saxon church tower, silvered by the sun among boiling clouds, beckoned beyond thick dark woodlands.

On the far side of Barnack lie the remarkable ‘Hills and Holes’, the remnants of a vast quarry opened during the Roman occupation and worked until Tudor times. Peterborough, Ely and other great cathedrals were built of ‘Barnack rag’, a durable and workable stone from the great seam of oolitic limestone that snakes from south to north through the geological body of England.

Five centuries of disuse have smothered the old quarry with a rich grassy sward studded with wild flowers. We wandered the miniature hills and dales of the reserve among harebells and parasitic broomrapes, sprigs of deep blue clustered bellflower and the just-emerging purple blooms of autumn gentian. What a beautiful spot, peaceful and remote, sensitively preserved and managed by Natural England.

Just west of the Romans’ quarry runs their great thoroughfare of Ermine Street. We found it under the name of Hereward Way, a broad greenway running straight as a die along the wall of Walcot Park – a superb piece of masonry in its own right, capped with carefully graded stones and pierced with imposing gateways.

At Southorpe the road was lined with old farmhouses in glowing stone – Stud Farm, Bottom Farm, Grange Farm, Hall Farm. A quick circuit round the medieval ridge-and-furrow of Southorpe Meadow nature reserve (all cut and baled already) and we set course for Ufford under telephone wires a-twitter with Africa-bound swallows.

I plucked a single tempting blackberry from the hedge, and beguiled the homeward path by sucking seeds from between my teeth. The White Hart had hove in sight by the time I got the last one unstuck.

Start: White Hart, Ufford, Cambs PE9 3BH (OS ref TF 094041)

Getting there: Bus service – call 0845-263-8153.
Road – Ufford is signed from Barnack (signed from A1, Stamford-Peterborough)

Walk (6¼ miles, easy, OS Explorer 225, 227): From White Hart, along Walcot Road. On left bend, right (091041, fingerpost/FP); in 100m, left (stile, yellow arrow/YA), and follow YAs round field edges. At southwest corner of Ufford Oaks (085043), right on grassy track. In 500m, left at T-junction with bench (085048). Into trees (082047); pass pond; path bears right, then left with hedge on right. In 200m, right (080046, YA) along Church Lane (green lane) to road opposite Barnack Church.

Left; round dogleg; left (077050) along Main Street. Cross Walcot Road; along Wittering Road; in 100m, left up steps (075049) into Barnack Hills & Holes NNR. Ahead over humpy ground; in 100m, right through gate and follow orange ‘Limestone Trail’ arrows anticlockwise through reserve. At south edge, bear right along path to SW edge of reserve (074043); on for 450m to road (070041). Left here (‘public bridleway’, blue arrow) beside Walcot Park wall, then along grassy drive (‘Hereward Way’) to road at Grange Farm (081026).

Left along road. In 600m, right beside ‘The Meadows’ (082031, FP) to make a circuit of Southorpe Meadow nature reserve. Continue up road; at right bend, left over stile (082035, FP); follow YAs across 2 fields to Walcot Road (083040). Right; round right bend, past left turn to Ufford; in 50m, left over stile (085039, FP), under arch and on along track. In 250m, right by Ufford Oaks (085043); retrace steps to Ufford.

Lunch/Accommodation: White Hart, Ufford (01780-740250, whitehartufford.co.uk).

Barnack Hills & Holes NNR: 01780-444704, naturalengland.org.uk

John Clare Living Landscape: wildlifebcn.org/john-clare-country

Info: Peterborough TIC (01733-452336)

Sheffield Walking Festival: 9-17 September (theoutdoorcity.co.uk/walking-festival)
visitengland.com; satmap.com; ramblers.org.uk

 Posted by at 02:12
Aug 262017

First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
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The Holly Bush Inn at Greenhaugh is one of a very rare breed – an old drovers’ inn, long, low and full of character, in a hamlet tucked into a fold of the Northumberland National Park. They welcome you here in a no-nonsense way, no matter where you’re from.

We followed the rough lane to Boughthill between fields of cut hay and pastures grazed by blackfaced sheep. ‘A fair lambing this year,’ said the farmer, stopping his old Land Rover to find out if we were lost. ‘Not a good summer so far, though. But if farmers weren’t complaining about that, it’d be something else, eh?’

Past the grey stone barns at High Boughthill we turned up the hill road to Thorneyburn. The verges were spattered with colour – pink campion, purple heads of knapweed, sharp yellow of meadow vetchling, and the brilliant scarlet of rowan berries, hanging in bunches and dripping with the last of the afternoon’s rain.

High Thorneyburn farm lay on its lonely hillside in a protective collar of shelter trees, looking out over sedgy fields across the North Tyne valley to the rise of Snabdaugh Moor and the ripples of rocky crags beyond. These upland farms, beautiful though their aspect is, are tough places, demanding practical ingenuity from those who work them. The sheep dip and pens beside the lane were a marvel of clever construction, with little gates, lath fences and runways to direct the animals exactly where the shepherd wanted them to go.

Beyond High Thorneyburn we scrambled round the flooded spillway of Slaty Ford, and climbed a path knee-deep in heather up over the shoulder of Thorneyburn Fell. At the entrance to the forest of Sidwood a pack of siskins went flitting through the birch tops with a flash of yellow and a thin burst of twittering.

The wind rushed with a sea-like murmuring through the pine tops as we followed the forest track down to the valley of the Tarset Burn. The moorland path led home by way of the stark stone ruin of a pele tower, built back in the dark days of raiders and reivers when all these hills and valleys were dangerous, debateable land.

Start: Holly Bush Inn, Greenhaugh, near Bellingham NE48 1PW, (OS ref NY 795873)

Getting there: Greenhaugh is signposted off B6320 between Otterburn (A68) and Bellingham.

Walk (8 miles, some boggy sections, OS Explorer OL42): From Holly Bush Inn, right along road. In 200m, right (fingerpost, ‘High Boughthill’) down drive. In 500m cross Tarset Burn by footbridge (793867). On to turn right through Boughthill farmyard (2 gates) and up track (occasional yellow arrows/YA). Pass Higher Boughthill barns (789867); ahead with wall on right through trees. Through gate (787867); left along back of plantation and on to road (785862).

Turn right. In 350m, fork right through gate (782864) and on along moor road. In 1¼ miles, at turning on left at High Thorneyburn farm (766872), ahead through gate along track to Slaty Ford (767874). Scramble round to the right to avoid the stream. 50m beyond, through gate; in 70m, right (‘Sidwood, 1½’ fingerpost), on clear track to cross Thorney Burn, then NE up well-trodden path through grass and heather over Thorneyburn Common for 700m to a gate beside wall opposite Stank Well (765881, blue arrow/BA).

Ahead into Sidwood. Keep ahead on broad track. In 600m cross a forest road (770885, BA); continue on path, descending among trees for 600m to cross forest road (775889, BA). Ahead on path among trees to road in valley (776890). Right along road. In ⅔ mile pass Redheugh (784885); in another 500m, right (‘Thorneyburn’) to Thorneyburn church (786877).

Just past church, left through gateway, down west wall of churchyard. On through garden; out into a field. Head half-right (YA), steeply down a rough slope, to cross burn by footbridge (786875, YA). Climb far bank; head half left across open moor, aiming for low ruin of pele tower (787872). Ahead to stile in fence – don’t cross, but turn left (YA), keeping fence on right, to bottom of field (790868). Right through gate; left through gateway (YA); ahead to waymark post (YA). From here aim ahead, steeply down bank to cross burn (791867). Steeply up far bank to waymark post at top (YA); down track to Boughthill farm and retrace route to Greenhaugh.

Conditions: Route over Thorneyburn Common faintly marked in places; Slaty Ford wet and slippery.

Lunch: Picnic

Accommodation: Holly Bush Inn, Greenhaugh (01434-240391, hollybushinn.net) open Mon-Fri from 4 pm, weekends from noon.

Info: Bellingham TIC (01670-620450); Kielder Forest TIC (01434-250209)

3 September: 50th Rossendale Round-the-Hills Walk, Rawtenstall, Lancs (realtd.co.uk/50th-rossendale-round-hills-walk)

visitengland.com; satmap.com; ramblers.org.uk

The January Man – A Year of Walking Britain by Christopher Somerville (Doubleday, £14.99).

 Posted by at 02:12
Aug 122017

First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
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A pure blue-sky morning, a dreich drizzly afternoon, and in between whiles, one of the classic walks of coastal Suffolk. Senior citizens perambulated the village green in Orford between mellow red brick cottages whose windows peeped out among rambling roses. Down on the quay, fresh-landed skate had just hit the slab in Brinkley’s shed.

Orford is a pure delight, a self-sufficient coastal village at the end of a long road. Not that Orford faces the bracing tides of the North Sea directly – the monstrous shingle spit of Orford Ness, ten miles long and still growing, cut the village off from the open sea hundreds of years ago.

The strange pagoda shapes of long-abandoned MOD nuclear laboratories straddled the pebbly spine of Orford Ness. We turned downstream along the flood banks of the River Ore, looking back to see the red roofs of Orford bookended by the village church and the octagonal tower of Orford Castle. The garrison of the castle in medieval times, it was said, once hung a captured merman upside down in their dungeon when he refused to speak. He got the better of them in the end, though, slipping away and back to the sea when no-one was looking.

Hares scampered in the meadows under the seawall, and a tern dive-bombed a shoal of fish in the incoming tide of the Ore. We made inland for the dusty road to Gedgrave Hall, where the breeze carried beautiful tarry whiff from Pinney’s fish smokery near Butley Ferry.

‘Smallest ferry in Europe’, said Roy the ferryman, skilfully balancing the forces of wind and tide as he rowed us across the Butley River in his little muddy dinghy. ‘We don’t like to drown too many, though.’

We crossed the back of Burrow Hill, at 50 feet high a mountain hereabouts, and followed broad flowery lanes inland for miles to Chillesford. It was slow, heavenly walking in calm clear air through a seductively beautiful coastal landscape.

In Sudbourne Park on the homeward stretch, cricketers in their whites were preparing for their Sunday match. Bowlers pounded the nets, batsmen practised immaculate strokes they’d never execute, and as the umpires emerged from the pavilion the first spits of rain were felt on the wind, in true traditional style.

Start: Orford Quay car park, Orford, Suffolk IP12 2NU (OS ref TM 425496)

Getting there: B1084 from Woodbridge, B1078 from Wickham Market, both off A12 north of Ipswich.

Walk (10 miles, easy, OS Explorer 212): From quay, right along seawall for 1½ miles, passing Chantry Point. At tide gauge where River Ore bend south-west, bear right off sea wall path, through gate (416485, ‘Suffolk Coast Path, Orford Loop’/SCP/OL). Up grassy lane for ½ a mile to road (409490). Left; 500m past Gedgrave Hall, right (401483, ‘Butley Ferry’) past Pinney’s fish smokery (397485), following SCP to Butley Ferry (393482). Cross Butley River; ahead through gate; in 150m, right through gate (390482, SCP); follow well-marked SCP for 2½ miles via Burrow Hill (389485), Coulton Farm (382498) and South Chapel (380496) to road at Butley Mills (383515). Right to B1084 in Chillesford (386522); right past Froize Restaurant. In another 100m, right (391522, SCP/OL, ‘Orford 2¼’); follow marked SCP back to Orford.

Conditions: NB This is a weekend walk. Butley Ferry runs 11 am-4 pm Sat, Sun, BH, Easter-end October; £2 (07913-672499, butleyferry.org)

Lunch: Picnic

Accommodation: Crown & Castle, Orford, Woodbridge, IP12 2LJ (01394-450205, crownandcastle.co.uk) – wonderfully friendly and classy village inn.

Info: Ipswich TIC (01473-432017);
visitsuffolk.com; satmap.com; ramblers.org.uk

 Posted by at 01:56
Aug 052017

First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
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The Solway Plain, leading north to the vast tideway of the Solway Firth that separates England and Scotland, is a most extraordinary landscape. Squelching with juicy peat and water, teeming with wildlife, dotted with remote farmsteads and rimmed with giant saltmarshes, sands and mudflats, it is as lonely and windswept as any lover of wild places and enormous skies could want.

We set out from the Solway Wetlands Centre to follow the RSPB’s Red Trail around Campfield Marsh on the northern edge of the Solway Plain. Cumulus clouds blew around the blue sky like ships in a gale, and a beautiful rich smell of sun-warmed heather and spicy bog myrtle wafted to us from the moss, as Cumbrians call their bogs.

The trail led past a field of fodder radish, specially planted to attract butterflies and birds, the pink and white flowers fluttering with peacock, painted lady, large white and red admiral. Beyond the crop we traversed a piece of wet birchwood, the tree trunks rising from bog pools as still and black as looking-glass.

Out on the wild expanse of Bowness Common a duckboard trail led across the wet moss, aiming for the dramatic silhouettes of the Lake District’s northern fells outlined in pale grey on the southern horizon, Skiddaw rising like a king over all. Tiny green and gold lizards basked on the edge of the duckboards, flicking away and out of sight in the blink of an eye. We stopped to watch a wheatear on a post, laterally striped in brown and pale olive, its white tail flashing as it darted away across the bog.

Turning off the trail, we made for the isolated farm buildings of Rogersceugh, perched conspicuously on a low drumlin mound. From here the view was sensational, out across a dozen miles of green and purple moss to the Lakeland fells, the southern Scottish hills across the Solway, and away in the east the big mountain hummock of Criffel.

Back at the Wetlands Centre, we took a stroll west along the coast road. A thousand oystercatchers stood head to wind on the strand, the fleets and sandbanks of the Solway lay in glinting lines, and across the firth Criffel rose from the Scottish shore in a stately curve, with evening light pouring from behind it.
Start: Solway Wetlands Centre, RSPB Campfield Marsh, North Plain Farm, Bowness-on-Solway, Cumbria CA7 5AG (OS ref NY 198615)

Getting there: M6 Jct 46; Bowness-on-Solway is signed from A689 western Carlisle bypass. From Bowness, minor coast road towards Cardurnock; Campfield Marsh RSPB is signposted on left in 1½ miles.

Walk (5½ miles, easy, OS Explorer 314; map/guide available at Solway Wetlands’ Centre. Online maps, more walks at christophersomerville.co.uk): From car park, walk between stone gateposts. Follow Discovery Zone path; turn right through gateway and follow Red Trail arrows clockwise. In 1⅓ miles, beside giant wooden compass carving and post with red ring (206600), turn left on boardwalk trail to Rogersceugh Farm viewpoint (214597). Back to compass carving; complete Red Trail. Through entrance onto road; left for ½ a mile to left bend for superb view across Solway Firth; return to car park.

Conditions: Boardwalk or damp grass paths; wear waterproof footwear.

Lunch: Picnic; hot drinks at Solway Wetlands Centre; or Highland Laddie PH, Glasson CA7 5DT (01697-341839; highlandladdieinnglasson.co.uk)

Accommodation: Midtown Farm, Easton, Drumburgh, Wigton CA7 5DL (01228-576550, midtown-farm.co.uk) – really friendly, excellent B&B.

Campfield Marsh RSPB Reserve (01697-351330, rspb.org.uk/campfieldmarsh) Always open. Solway Wetlands Centre open daily 10-4; manned at weekends.

visitengland.com; satmap.com; ramblers.org.uk

The January Man – A Year of Walking Britain by Christopher Somerville (Doubleday, £14.99).

 Posted by at 01:00