Aug 012009
 

Bats get a bad press. People find them ugly, creepy, scary. They suck your blood and give you rabies and tangle themselves in your hair, right? Well, no, actually. Bats, seen in the calm light of reason and common sense, are rather beautiful, highly specialised and delightful creatures – and extremely useful at hoovering up midges and other thundering nuisances. Sussex is a county rich in bats – in fact all seventeen of the UK’s native species are resident, and 14 of these have been found on the Petworth Estate in the western region of the county. That was where Jane and I headed, one drizzly evening towards the end of summer.

A damp, cloudy evening, steamy with moisture and the threat of rain, is just the kind of evening not to be bat-watching. But our evening rendezvous at the gates of Petworth Park had been fixed many moons ago. Crispin Scott, the National Trust’s Regional Nature Conservation Adviser, was waiting with his young son Alf to take us for a walk on the wild side of the park, superbly landscaped in the mid-18th century by Capability Brown. ‘Bat detector,’ Crispin said, handing over a stout black box knobbly with buttons. ‘I’ll show you how it works when we’re out in the park. But let’s have a look at the tunnels first.’

In the brick-lined tunnels that connect Petworth House with its servants’ quarters, thousands of bats of seven different species hibernate the winter months away – Brandt’s bats, grey and brown long-eared bats with huge ears, Daubenton’s bats that hunt insects over water, common pipistrelles, whiskered bats and rare Bechstein’s bats. But on this late summer evening the eerie tunnels lay empty of bats.

Out in the park the light was beginning to fade. The great house stood, shadowed by rain, in a man-made landscape of subtle curves and hollows. In front of us a spinney of oak and sweet chestnut perched artfully on a scenic knoll. ‘Clumps on lumps,’ said Crispin, ‘very good for bats – the air’s still, there are plenty of insects, and it’s sheltered.’

Waiting among the trees for whatever the dusk might bring, Crispin brought us up to speed on the Petworth bats. No artificial fertilizers are used on the Estate; that encourages insects, which in turn attract the bats. Each bat species has its own preferred habitats: barbastelles, for example, like lightly wooded places, Bechstein’s prefer heavy tree cover, while Daubenton’s need water over which to hunt insects. A common pipistrelle is only as long as one’s thumb, but can easily pack away 3,000 midges in one night. Noctules are bigger than the other bats – they can tackle a cockchafer or maybug.

Bats hunt and find their way by echo-location, emitting a stream of sounds too high-pitched for human ears and measuring the returning echoes as they bounce back off objects. The echo-location is so precise that the bat can identify an insect even if it’s sitting motionless on a leaf, and pick it neatly off as it zooms by. Each species transmits at a different frequency – soprano pipistrelles at around 55kHz, common pipistrelles at 45kHz, Daubenton’s generally at 45-50kHz, noctules down at 25kHz. The bat detector reduces the transmission to a sound we can pick up – a crackle or quick vibration, which accelerates sharply to the ‘feeding buzz’, a wet squelch exactly like blowing a raspberry, when the bat closes in on an insect.

We were scarcely expecting much action on this damp evening, but as we waited in the ‘clump on the lump’, little black bullets suddenly started zipping round the glade. ‘Soprano pipistrelles,’ whispered Crispin, ‘tune your detectors to 55kHz.’ The pipistrelles streaked by in pairs, with the juveniles, learning to hunt, following their mothers in close formation like tiny fighter planes. Three or four bats soon became twenty or more, some of them flying within touching distance of us, crepitating and buzzing.

‘I’ve never seen such a good display,’ exclaimed Crispin, ‘and these are the worst conditions of any bat expedition I’ve done!’

Down by the lake there were noctules flying overhead, their echo-location translated by the bat detectors into a chop-chop-chop as of miniature helicopter blades. Daubenton’s bats hunted insects over the water, crackling like burning stubble as they darted with a flash of pale belly through the beam of Crispin’s torch. Natterers, on the wing after small moths, made bristly noises. There were quiet ploppings and quackings from out on the dark water to remind us that other denizens of the lake were about their nightly occasions.

Walking back through the park we saw the great house lost in the night. Of its scores of windows, two solitary squares shone as beacons of light and human presence. All around us the feeding frenzy of the pipistrelles continued unabated. Then Jane gave a sudden exclamation. A bat had flown so close, it had actually knocked her glasses off.

 

FACT FILE

Bats at Petworth: Contact Petworth House (see below) for details of guided Bat Walks.

Petworth House and Park, West Sussex (NT): tel 01798-342207 (info-line 343929); www.nationaltrust.org.uk

Further information: Petworth TIC (01798-343523; www.visitsussex.org)

Hints: Bats are most active for an hour or so around dawn/dusk. From late November to early March they hibernate. To watch bats, look for a place with still air, plenty of insects and shelter close by – on the edge of tree clumps and beside water are two good spots. Get in position by dusk, and keep quiet and still. A good bat detector (£60 upwards) is essential (see www.bats.org.uk).

Help and advice

The Wildlife Trusts (01636-677711; www.wildlifetrusts.org) can advise on locating bats across the UK; likewise Natural England (0845-600-3078; www.naturalengland.org.uk), Scottish Natural Heritage (01738-444177; www.snh.org.uk), Countryside Council for Wales (0845-130-6229; www.ccw.gov.uk) and Northern Ireland Environment Agency (www.ni-environment.gov.uk). Several National Trust properties are havens for bats, and offer guided bat walks and talks: see www.nationaltrust.org.uk

County Bat Groups: Many counties have their own Bat Groups – see http://www.uksafari.co.uk/batgroups.htm

European Bat Weekend every August: contact Bat Conservation Trust

Bat Conservation Trust (www.bats.org.uk) – all things bat-related

Bat Helpline (0845-1300-228) – information, help, practical advice

Reading: Bats by Phil Richardson (Whittet Books)

 Posted by at 00:00
Jul 042009
 

If anyone can steer you within watching range of the elusive badger, Meles meles, it is David Thurlow, Natural England’s warden who looks after the National Nature Reserves of Ebbor Gorge and Rodney Stoke in the Mendip Hills. David knows every cranny and cave of this delectable slice of north Somerset. Morning, noon and late at night he immerses himself in the habits and habitats of wild creatures – including those nocturnal beings such as bats, otters and badgers that most of us would love to see, but are resigned to viewing only on film. Our problem is, quite simply, our status as humans – large, conspicuous, noisy, strange-smelling, diurnal, and generally threatening and unwelcome to the animal kingdom.

I’d always longed to get a proper unhurried look at a badger, one of the UK’s largest, most populous and yet least-observed native mammals – Old Brock himself, lord of the underworld, as big as a mastiff, with bone-crushing jaws and earth-moving paws, builder of vast subways under our fields and forests. Now it looked as though my small dream might come true.

At 7 pm we set off four strong from the Rodney Stoke Inn – my wife Jane and I, David Thurlow and his colleague, volunteer warden Rod Hoskins. In David’s Land Rover we jolted up an old cart track to the top of the hill. ‘In general,’ Rod told us, ‘you’d expect badgers to be coming out of their setts around 8 o’clock in the evening, pretty much all year round. They’ll clean themselves, have a stretch and a scratch, and then go hunting for worms or beetles or whatever they can find. In the winter they’re a bit dopy – though they don’t hibernate, contrary to what most people think – but in summer, this time of year, the cubs’ll be wanting to play.’

The first spot we tried was top of David’s list, but the wind was all wrong for it tonight. But his back-up place, down the slope and across an unmown hayfield, proved absolutely perfect. The four of us crept through the grass and into the skirt of the wood about 30 feet downwind of the sett, disposed ourselves around a log as low to the ground as possible, and settled down in silence to watch and wait.

After a few minutes a gentle nudge and motion of the head from Rod drew my attention to the shadows under the trees just beyond the nearest tunnels. Something large and dark was moving rhythmically there. At first it was hard to see what was happening in the thickening twilight, but then the shape detached itself from the trees and moved into the open – a big badger cub a few months old, stretching and yawning after enjoying a luxurious scratch on a tree stump. A grey body two feet long with humped shoulders, a dramatically striped mask of black and white, a surprisingly long and thick tail. All of a sudden the badger was flat on the ground with another cub on top of it – a sibling which had sprung out from ambush in a flying leap. They rolled over, snarling and grinning and kicking, play-fighting like the hyped-up teenagers they were. Then two more appeared as if parachuted into the clearing, to join the melée. It was a strangely moving episode of play, so similar to what one had seen one’s own children do, yet capable of being broken and dispersed by the slightest cough or rustle on the spectators’ part.

A flicker of movement much closer to us, and two female badgers came cautiously out of a tunnel mouth some thirty feet off. They snuffled closer and closer, sweeping their snouts sideways across the earth in search of food, an older sow and a younger one, looking up every now and then to assess our alien shapes for any sign of threat. Unable to see us clearly or to smell us, they were wary, but more intent on their feeding than on us.

To have those vivid black and white faces and those ancient but seldom-seen presences almost close enough to touch was a magical experience. Jane and I would have stayed transfixed all night. But after half an hour the badger party broke up. The females wended their ways, the youngsters went crashing off in line astern to see what they could find to eat in the now darkened wood. And we got up slowly and went out across the field, startling grazing roe deer as we made our way back to the Land Rover, stretching and scratching and grinning at one another like a troupe of awakening badgers.

David and Rod’s badger-watching hints

  • Look for a sett with signs of activity – bedding hauled out, tunnel mouths polished by body contact, coarse grey hairs on tree trunks and other scratching posts.

  • Ask the landowner’s permission to watch the badgers.

  • Wear subdued colours, brown or green, something that blends in with the background. Camouflage is excellent, because it breaks up your silhouette. Choose a warm fabric that doesn’t rustle.

  • Bring binoculars (8 X 40 is a good magnification), insect repellent, and something soft to sit on.

  • Approach the sett keeping low, slow and silent.

  • Be in position by 8 pm, about 20-30 yards away, downwind.

  • Sit or lie low, so your silhouette doesn’t bulk on the skyline.

  • Get comfortable, and then keep very still and silent, and be patient; badgers don’t watch the clock.

Help and advice

The Wildlife Trusts (01636-677711; www.wildlifetrusts.org) co-ordinate 47 local Wildlife Trusts across the UK, Isle of Man and Alderney. Many have Badger Groups, and all should be able to help you locate and watch badgers. Natural England (0845-600-3078; www.naturalengland.org.uk) and Scottish Natural Heritage (01738-444177; www.snh.org.uk) organise badger-watching expeditions across their various regions; see also Countryside Council for Wales (0845-130-6229; www.ccw.gov.uk) and the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (www.ni-environment.gov.uk).

Badger information: The Badger Trust (08458-287878; www.badger.org.uk)

Badgers by Michael Clark (Whittet Books) is an excellent guide.

 Posted by at 00:00
May 022009
 

Of all the European countries blessed with sensational mountain scenery, Austria remains the walker’s favourite. There’s something about the combination of the mind-blowing drama of the Austrian landscape and the good humour and generosity of the people that’s irresistible to walkers, from absolute beginners to hardened mountain-hurdlers.

The paths that cross ridges and wind through valleys are beautifully maintained and efficiently marked. There’s a network of inexpensive, welcoming Hütten or mountain inns that British ramblers would give their eye teeth for. And from April to October the tourist information centres deal out walking maps, information, contact details for mountain guides and tips as though every other customer was a hiker in search of a good walk – which in the case of the Vorarlberg and Tirol regions of western Austria is not far from the truth.

You don’t have to be a hairy-chested peak buster to enjoy walking in Austria. From the highest Tirolean alp to the gentlest Vorarlberg path, there is something for everyone.

Vorarlberg: Bregenzerwald

The Bregenzerwald, a seductive area of undulating pastures and wooded hill ranges, lies in the north of the Vorarlberg, the region that occupies the north-west tip of Austria. My wife, Jane, and daughter, Mary, were accompanying me on this, their first Austrian adventure, and the Hotel Krone in the Bregenzerwald village of Hittisau – recently refurbished by its owners Helene and Dietmar Nussbaumer, using local craftsmen working in local wood – proved the perfect base for expeditions into the fields, wood and hills nearby.

On our first day we just strolled around Hittisau, pursuing the ''Wood Trail’’ from one beautifully made wooden house to the next, visiting the village cooper and beekeeper Peter Lässer in his resin-scented workshop, stopping in at the Women’s Museum with its startling and challenging modern sculpture displays – not what you’d expect to find in a sleepy hill village, and all the better for that. Next day we followed the newly waymarked Wasserwanderweg along the jade-green Bolgenach river at the feet of Hittisau, looking for dippers and dragonflies. We passed a group of nuns, out for a walk in full habit, who all chorused ''Grüss Gott!’’ and grinned shyly at us; then came up from the river through the yard of a flower-bedecked old watermill, up to an inn on a crossroads where we drank coffee in the seductive scent of wood smoke.

It was the time of year when the Bregenzerwald cows all walk down from the high summer pastures to spend the winter in their home villages in the valley. Hittisau’s neighbouring village of Schwarzenberg held a festival day, and we went along to see the cows, their coats shining like velvet from the rich summer grass, paraded through the streets with much clonking of neck bells and clinking of wine glasses. It made us keen to see an alpine pasture ourselves. Luckily the Schwarz family’s Helmingenalpe, up in the mountains beyond Hittisau, proved to be hanging onto its cattle for a few days more. Walks leader Christoph Oberhauser took us there by winding paths, past the Lecknersee and up through delectable flowery meadows thick with crocuses, scabious and royal blue gentians. Marianne Schwarz showed us her vast copper milk cauldron, her cool dairy and subterranean cheese store filled with big fragrant rounds of cheese. We sat at a long table by the window, the wooden platters in front of us piled with slabs of cheese – salty, sweet, new, mature, studded with chives – tasting and talking and sipping strong, clear perry from a wooden barrel. Now that’s a civilised way to walk.

Hittisau walks

''Wood Trail’’ (one hour – easy): Stroll around the village admiring the old, carved, wooden buildings and architect-designed new ones; visit Peter Lässer the village carpenter (0043 5513 2966), and the Women’s Museum (5513 620930; www.frauenmuseum.com).

Wasserwanderweg (two hours – easy): A waymarked trail with information boards along Bolgenach River.

Lecknersee and Helmingenalpe (four hours with farm stop – easy/moderate): From Kälberweidealpen car park by Lecknersee and Gästhof Höfle to Helmingenalpe alpine farm (5513 6117 – open May to September for cheese, but check first!), returning via Äuelealpe.

Staying, eating: Hotel Krone, Am Platz, 6952 Hittisau, 5513 6201; www.krone-hittisau.at – warm, friendly, stylish, comfortable.

More info: Hittisau Tourist Office (5513 620950); http://homes.tiscover.com/vbgtour/pdf_files/2005/Wanderlust_E_05.pdf contains excellent walks in the locality.

Vorarlberg: Lech

Remembering a splendid hike I’d enjoyed a few years before around Lech, a short way south-east of the Bregenzerwald, I left Jane and Mary to wander about Hittisau and its green plateau, and took myself off for a day to revisit some old stamping grounds in the east of the Vorarlberg.

The Kalbelesee lake was full and shining, the path through the beautiful green Auenfelder meadows as lovely with buttercups and cyclamen as I’d remembered. I stopped at the tiled old farmstead to drink sharp buttermilk, and tackled the steep path up out of Lech towards the Stierloch Joch and the Ravensburghütte mountain inn with a smile on my face, looking forward to dark beetroot soup, a buzz of talk and rumble of singing. If there’s a better definition of mountain bliss, I’ve never found it.

A three-day hutting hike around Lech:

Day 1 – Path 10 Lech-Zug, Path 55 Zug-Ravensburghütte (about three hours; moderate); Day 2 – Path 61 Ravensburghütte-Spuller See, Path 601 Spuller See-Freiburgerhütte (about six hours; hard); Day 3 – Path 62 and Path 10 to Lech (about four hours; moderate). Path 601 is a Höhenweg, for experienced walkers only, not recommended in bad weather.

Map: 1:50,000 Lech Wanderkarte.

Mountain guides, map, info: Lech Tourismus, A-6764 Lech am Arlberg (0043 5583 21610; www.lech-zuers.at.

South Tirol

The deep green valley of the Zillertal, tucked down in the beautiful south Tirol region near the Italian border, has just about everything a walking family could hope for: a network of strolling routes at low level in the bottom of the valley, a multitude of cable-cars and chairlifts rising to stations up the mountainsides, and a chain of well-marked mountain footpaths ranging from easy high-level circuits to serious peak-scrambling for those with confidence and energy to burn.

Rain and mist had cut off the high peaks, but our guide Walter Ludl knew plenty of other delights. The first day saw us exploring far up the Zillergrund, a narrow and dramatic side valley off the Zillertal. We found a track running along the shores of the Stausee lake reservoir, and followed it under tall slopes to the farm and alpine inn at the lake head.

Here, idling outside the wooden hut over a glass of beer at a table among cheery walkers, we appreciated how the farm’s mountainous situation, and the zen-like docility of its resident pigs, cows and hens, have earned it the appropriate nickname of ''Little Tibet’’.

Next morning we swung by cableway and chairlift up to the Penken alp. Here we wandered along the ridge paths in the cold mountain air, winding in and out of the Knorren, a set of jagged teeth of naked grey limestone, to reach the Penkenjoch café and its mugs of hot chocolate.

Then it was down a snaky path through pine trees to the Penkenbahn station and an eagle’s-view swoop back into the valley, where a few hours later we were throwing Seventies disco shapes in the bar of the Hotel Strass to the cheesy sounds of DJ Stocky.

On our last day we travelled north up the Zillertal to the village of Fügen, collected a map from the tourist office, and took off along a path, looking over old houses with flowery balconies and ground levels packed with wood for winter.

Zillertal walks

Fügen village circuit (one hour – easy): Through the old village to join Beleuchteter Panoramaweg; north to waterfalls, loop back on higher path to Marienbergkirche. Map from Fügen tourist office (5288 62262).

Zillergrund (three hours there and back – easy): From Adlerblick restaurant (0664 200 0332) on Speicher Zillergrund reservoir dam, along north bank to ''Little Tibet’’ alpine farm at head of reservoir, then back to Adlerblick.

Penkenalp (three hours – moderate): Penkenbahn cable-car station to Penkenjoch pass, descending to Lanersbach.

Staying: Hotel Strass, Hauptstrasse 470, 6290 Mayrhofen, (5285 6705; www.hotelstrass.com). Long-established, welcoming resort hotel with enjoyable nightlife.

Eating: Der Metzergerwirt, Finsing 16, 6271 Udens, (5288 62559; www.dermetzgerwirt.at). Hannes and Alexandra Hell’s haven of good food and ambience where locals and gourmets rub shoulders.

More information: Mayrhofen TIC, Europahaus, Mayrhofen, (5285 6760; www.mayrhofen.at).

North Tirol

Returning to the Tirol on a solo walking trip, I decided to head north to try out a section of the recently established Adlerweg, the 175-mile Eagle’s Way route that crosses north Tirol from east to west. It offers the grandest possible Alpine scenery to any hill walker with plenty of stamina, decent balance and a head for heights.

From the Karwendel valley, a nature reserve about 10 miles north of Innsbruck across the mountains, I struck out eastwards into the valley of the Filztal, walking easily and taking time to look around. The view ahead was sensational, a dozen miles of jagged overbearing mountains as perpendicular as cliffs, their feet spreading through last winter’s unmelted snow patches and vast fans of scree.

A serpentine path led across the loose pebbly slopes of the Kaltwasserkar, the Cold Water Screes, an obstacle course of tree roots and slippery rocks. I could see the Falkenhütte coming a long way off, and was ready for a good night’s kip by the time I had climbed up to the 6,000ft saddle where the wood-walled hut perched under the giant grey cliffs of the Laliderer Spitze. Cheese dumpling soup and cloudy Weissbier seemed ambrosial in a room full of the stories and laughter of mountaineers.

At dawn I watched the sun smack the sombre bluffs of the Laliderer Spitze with blinding colours. Before 8am I was off along the immense scree slopes fanning like skirts from the mountain walls that towered 3,000 feet. The Adlerweg rose to a pass under the sphinxlike outcrop of The Devil’s Head, then fell away into the deep valley of the Eng, loud with cow bells. A refreshing glass of buttermilk at an alpine farm far below, and then it was on and up in beautiful clear sunshine to the Lamsenjochhütte, another wood-panelled mountain inn on a green saddle under great rock walls. A quick bite to eat, and I was slipping and sliding in zigzags down the mountain to journey’s end in Pertisau on the shores of the Achensee 3,000ft below.

Two days on the Adlerweg

Day 1 – Karwendelhaus to Falkenhütte, (allow about four hours; moderate); Day 2 – Falkenhütte to Lamsenjochhütte (five hours; moderate/hard); Lamsenjochhütte to Pertisau (two hours; moderate).

Map: Freytag & Berndt 1:50,000 WK323 ''Karwendel–Mittelwald’’. Available from Stanfords (www.stanfords.co.uk); widely available locally.

Mountain guides, info: Tirol Tourist Board (www.tyrol.com); mountain guide Mike Rutter (664 262 3692; michael.rutter@tirolwerbung.at).

The huts

There are more than 1,000 Hütten scattered about the mountains, most within half a day’s hike of the next, open from June to September. The Hütte offers a tasty hot meal, a shower, an evening’s yarning over beer, wine and schnapps, and a comfortable bed in a dormitory or (for a supplement) a private room. Prices are very reasonable, and members of the Austrian Alpine Club (www.aacuk.org.uk) get a discount.

Reading

Walking Austria’s Alps, Hut to Hut by Jonathan Hurdle is published by Cordee (01455 611185; www.cordee.co.uk) and costs £9.95.

Eating

Don’t look at the scales! Austrian mountain food is long on calories, for warmth and energy. Try Krapfen (cheese, potato, onion, fried in rye batter); Bauernschmaus (Farmer’s Stew – smoked meat, dumplings, potatoes and gravy); Schliachtrnudln (noodles, cheese, cream); Kasspatzlang (noodles, onions, cheese); Schoderblatlang (sweet bread pudding); Graukas (blue cheese from the mountains). Cheese from alpine farms is wonderful.

 Posted by at 00:00
Mar 212009
 

A beautiful sunny day in West Berkshire; just the afternoon to go strolling on the common. Skylarks climbed high in the blue overhead, pouring out passionate song. Golden cowslips and pale pink milkmaids bobbed in the breeze. Cows grazed contentedly. Beneath their hooves, under the turf of the common, lay hidden the ghostly shape of the runway that once slashed its concrete scar across this heath. Beyond the fence squatted the truncated, toad-like shapes of silos which held the doomsday weapons that, in the event of war at the end of the 20th century, would have lifted off the runway in the bellies of USAF bombers, bound for a dropping point somewhere over Russia.

‘I stumbled on Greenham Common while I was taking the dogs for a walk, some time after we moved to the area in 1978,’ mused Derek Emes, Chairman of Greenham and Crookham Conservation Volunteers, as we strolled the common together. A retired civil engineer who’s worked all over the world, Derek and a band of like-minded volunteers have laboured tirelessly to restore the disused Greenham Common cruise missile base to its former state of ecological richness. ‘The nuclear silos were just being built, but the whole place was in a dormant state; the fence had been allowed to deteriorate, and I found I could get in and out pretty much as I pleased. I thought: what a lovely place! Of course, once the cruise missiles were installed and the first women’s protest group arrived from Wales, the ‘Women for Life on Earth’, everything changed.’

Greenham Common is not like any other common in these islands. From the Second World War until 1997 it was an air base, run for the most part by the United States Air Force; and for eight of those years, 1983-1991, it housed cruise missiles with a nuclear capability. No-one who watched television news in the haunted years of the 1980s, with international tension sharp and the Iron Curtain giving no hint of melting away, could fail to remember the Women’s Peace Camp that established itself outside the gates, nor the fence-scalings, incursions, sit-down protests, chants, televised struggles with stolid policemen, and other ways that the women found to keep their anti-missile cause in the headlines.

‘The peace women weren’t especially unpopular hereabouts,’ noted Derek. ‘But they weren’t exactly welcome, either. Greenham Common is really two neighbouring commons, Greenham and Crookham, and the women found out that some local commoners still enjoyed ancient rights of access to Crookham Common. So they befriended them, and were able to get onto that section and carry on publicising their cause.’

Eventually the peace women saw their mission fulfilled. By 1992 the USSR’s policy of glasnost or open engagement with the West had neutralized its perceived threat. The nuclear missiles of Greenham Common were removed and returned to the USA. Five years later the air base was closed, and the MoD handed Greenham Common over to Newbury District Council and the Greenham Trust. Since then the 1,200 acres of Greenham and Crookham Commons have been managed as one enormous nature reserve.

Two factors vie for your attention as you walk the common: the natural world that is re-establishing itself with astonishing speed, and the ominous remains of the air base that still lie in situ. Here are mires and sphagnum bogs, ponds and streams, acid grassland, mown meadows where orchids thrive – bee orchids with their bumble-bee-bum patterns, green-winged orchids, Autumn lady’s tresses with tiny white flowers. Hares, rabbits, weasels and foxes find refuge here. Dartford warblers nest, and so do skylarks and woodlarks. The common is bright with great blue drifts of viper’s bugloss, yellow of ragwort and purple-pink of rosebay willowherb, and the pink 5-petalled stars of lime-loving common centaury. These thrive next to acid soil plants such as bell heather, in patches where lime leaching out of the broken old runways has enriched the surrounding heathland. Nearby, old air base buildings quietly crumble. The cruise missile silos, green flat-topped pyramids with dark entrances, squat behind a triple layer of fencing like the burial mounds of long-superseded warriors. And a fire-practice plane lies in its moat of water, no longer blasted with flame in simulated emergency, silently rusting itself away.

This wonderful variety of wildlife, the resurgence of the common’s ecological riches after half a century in the shadow of military development, has not come about by chance. ‘All sorts of ideas were put forward for the base when it was closed,’ said Derek, ‘a housing estate, a new airport for London, a car racing track. But in the end we got what we were lobbying for. The Greenham Trust bought the entire site for about £7 million, and leased the Greenham and Crookham commons to West Berkshire Council for one pound. Our conservation volunteers meet on the third Sunday of each month and we go out on a task – scrub-bashing, perhaps, or clearing away rubble, cleaning up the ponds or maybe doing some hedge-laying or putting in a footbridge. Little improvements, but persistent.’

The shadow of the past still lies long on this wild place, lending it an extraordinary poignancy. And the Greenham and Crookham Conservation Volunteers can’t afford to be complacent, insists their Chairman. ‘The commons themselves may be safe now, but we’re always having to challenge applications for inappropriate development around the perimeter – intrusive lights, too-tall factories, increases in road noise and transport movements.’ Derek Emes swept his arm wide in a gesture that embraced wild flowers, ponds, woods and streamlets. ‘It’s just so beautiful when it’s all out in full colour on a day like this. A miracle, really, to think what it was like only ten years ago. And we are completely determined to keep it safe for the future. That’s what it’s all about.’

Information on Greenham and Crookham Conservation Volunteers (www.gccv.org.uk):

 

Greenham Common is one of 500 wild places described and explored in Christopher Somerville’s latest fully-illustrated book, Britain and Ireland’s Best Wild Places – 500 Ways to Discover the Wild (Allen Lane, £25)

 

 Posted by at 00:00
Mar 012009
 

Introduction

I have been inspired by writers, painters, musicians, poets; by naturalists, birdwatchers and wildflower experts; by conservationists and their vitally important work. And I have been galvanised by the wildly changing weather of these islands, the beautiful and absorbing manifestations of our four distinct seasons, the splendour and variety of our landscapes, and the company of countless workers, idlers and walkers I have met along the way and what they’ve had to say about a thousand things.

Christopher Somerville’s 100 Best Walks is designed to grab you by the ear and tug you outdoors. Meanwhile, here is a personal Six of the Best …

 

Aldbury and Ashridge, Chiltern Hills, Herts/Bucks (July 1998)

Up in the beechwoods on the Ashridge slopes above Aldbury, a softly fluting thrush was chief herald of a dawn that had hardly broken yet. I had yawned my way out of bed at two o'clock this morning to enjoy the moment so often read about, so seldom experienced, when the first birds crack the silence of night before traffic roar intrudes to spoil things. To have the whole of the Chiltern ridge entirely to myself, to be able to walk the chalk tracks through the trees without seeing another soul, was a pleasure so intoxicating that I found myself striding along through the half light more like a race walker than a man with time to dawdle and linger.

I turned off the path and sat down on a fallen tree to luxuriate in this unaccustomed sense of time in hand. Light was beginning to touch the beech trunks and leaves, and there was a pearly pink look to the sky in the east. Drifts of mist curled between the trees, and the air in the woods was cold enough to nip my fingers white.

In the treetops the dawn chorus was in full swing. Blackbirds, thrushes, chaffinches; a chiff-chaff repeating its name over and over again; a blackcap bubble-and-squeaking; wrens reeling out chattering streams of notes. From overhead came the chak-chak of rooks passing, and under everything lay a soft foundation of wood pigeons’ throaty cooing. A glorious row, that had me spellbound for half an hour as the daylight slowly broadened.

Barnsley and Bibury, Gloucestershire (January 2001)

The old ridge track, probably a prehistoric route in its origins, lay puddled and rutted. I followed it for a mile or so, head down, buffeted sideways by gusts that leaped with a shriek out of a dramatically darkening sky. Time to get off the ridge, down to more sheltered ground. I made it into St Mary's Church at Bibury just as the storm broke in earnest.

St Mary's is a good place to sit out a rainstorm. There is Saxon, Norman and Early English work to admire, and a fine display of beautifully carved stone foliage. I idled dreamily in a pew until the rain ceased crashing on the windows.

Bibury gleamed as I walked its higgledy-piggledy courts and streets. The Cotswold stone houses shone in a glaze of sunlit rainwater. The River Coln sluiced viciously under the arches of the little stone footbridge that led to the crooked 17th-century weavers' cottages of Arlington Row. The green acres of Rack Isle, where the weavers once hung their wool to dry, lay drowned under four feet of water. 'No-one in the village has ever seen it like this,' said the man laying sandbags on his doorstep. 'Just have to hope for a change in the weather, won't we?'

As I climbed the trickling track of Hay Lane, the western sky was all a purple bruise. One chink of lemon yellow sun broke through, running an electric wire of gold along the upper rim of the cloud bank – a sight I would have braved a dozen rainstorms to witness.

Worm’s Head, Gower, South Wales (June 2000)

Taking the two-mile scramble to the tip of dragon-shaped Worm’s Head is not as easy as it looks. You have to read your tides right. Currents are fierce here in the widening throat of the Bristol Channel, and many a careless venturer down the centuries has been swept away to death as the rising tides come swirling together.

The rocks of the causeway lay coated with millions of mussel shells that were themselves encrusted with a camel-brown layer of barnacles. In the rock pools blennies flicked from sunlight into the shelter of weed and anemone fringes, and hermit crabs went tip-toeing hastily from one dark crevice to the next as my shadow barred the water round them.

As the falling tide seethed back from the northern and southern edges of the causeway, the pattern of the rocks of Worm’s Head became clear. Hundreds of close-packed parallel lines of strata lay upended in the floor of the sea, ground down flat on the margins of the shore, rising to show through the meagre turf of the Inner Head’s nape like cranium skin peeking between the lines of a comb dragged through thinning hair.

I crunched on over carpets of broken mussel shells, passing a big rusted ship’s anchor lying tines up, and clambered up from the causeway on to the slope of the Inner Head. A strange name, since this 150ft lozenge of grass-grown rock is so obviously the body of the twin-humped promontory that Norse sea-rovers named Wurm or ‘dragon’. I checked my watch as I came ashore. Better be back here in a couple of hour’s time …

Hathersage and Stanage Edge, Peak District, Derbyshire (February 2008)

Stanage Edge, the rocky rim of what was once a gigantic dome of millstone grit, is climbers’ and boulderers’ heaven. The grey adhesive rock, fractured into steps, cracks and layers, offers challenges to test the virgin tyro as well as the complete and utter expert. Famous names from that introverted, macho and phenomenally athletic world, the hardest of the ‘hard man’ school – Don Whillans, Nat Allen, Joe Brown and their ilk – cut their climbing teeth along these modest-looking crags. They and their successors dubbed every climbable crack and interstice with names superbly curt and clipped: Goliath’s Groove, Agony Crack, The Unconquerables, The Vice, Blockhead Direct, Queersville, The Eliminator.

I strode the flat, tricky gritstone pavement along the Edge, face to the cold wind, in a kind of high-level ecstasy. Climbers crouched and sprawled in impossibly heroic poses on every crag, and beyond them a most enormous view opened to the south and west across the frosted fields and shadowy moors and edges of the Dark Peak. To the left ran cream and purple moors, the wind streaming their pale grasses so that the whole wide upland appeared to be in motion, racing north into Yorkshire.

Higger Tor and Carl Wark lay ahead, flat-topped tors like castles. I stormed their walls in an outpouring of supercharged energy. Then, breathless and buffeted, I dropped down through tumbled meadows around Mitchell Field Farm and the mock-baronial miniature fortress of Scraperlow House; down towards Hathersage, the warmth and light of the Scotsman’s Pack inn, and the grey church spire that marks where Little John lies sleeping until Robin’s horn wakes him for one last chase through the glades of the eternal Forest.

Poetry Path, Kirkby Stephen, Cumbria (September 2005)

It was a filthy, gale-torn day, with the rain-swollen River Eden crashing majestically through the woods and milky curtains of wind-rippled rain parting and closing on the Cumbrian fells. But Meg Peacocke was happy to brave the elements with me. It was Meg who created the twelve poems that were carved by sculptor Pip Hall into stones along the Poetry Path.

‘I found it very interesting and challenging,’ Meg told me as we walked the muddy river bank on a carpet of leaves whipped from the trees by the gale. ‘I wanted the poems to communicate themselves to anyone, non-poets really, and in particular these local farmers and farming people whom they celebrate.’

The poems are subtly located – January in an angle of bank by the Swingy Bridge, February on a pile of blocks opposite a lovely old stone barn, March in a pool below a natural spillway of tiny waterfalls. The carved cameos include April lambs butting milk from their mother’s udder, July haymakers hefting a bale, brawny farmers inspecting sheep at an October sale.

In Kirkby Stephen this afternoon the local farmers would still be hanging over the pen gates at the mart, or driving the Swaledales they’d chosen in the auction ring back up to the fellside farms. Down here in the valley I ran my hand over Pip Hall’s sculpture of sheep in a pen, and savoured Meg Peacocke’s words:

‘Penned in a huddle, the great tups

are clints of panting stone. The shepherd lifts

a sideways glance from the labour

of dagging tails. His hands are seamed with muck

and the sweat runs into his eyes.

Above us, a silent plane has needled

the clear blue. Paling behind it

a crimped double strand of wool unravels.’

Glen Esk, Angus, Scotland (May 2005)

The world of science lost a great botanist when music sank its fatal talons into Dave Richardson. I would have seen nothing on the ascent from Glen Esk if it hadn’t been for my sharp-eyed friend. ‘Broad buckler fern under the rock here,’ mused Dave, his restless curiosity all fired up, ‘and, let me see … yes, green spleenwort. Yellow mountain saxifrage, not really open yet of course – and purple saxifrage … hmm, cloudberry, Rubus chamaemorus, yes …’ The bare rocks seemed to flower as he pointed out their spring glories.

Up in the broad glen of upper Glen Unich we picnicked, dangling our legs from the footbridge upstream of the Falls of Damff. Tracks, rocks and open patches of moorland glittered with mica in the weak sunshine of early spring. Away to the north the three thousand foot crest of Mount Keen rose above all its sister peaks. Scuds of cloud swept up and across the steady blue field of the sky. This was spring in Angus as I had imagined it while coming north through grey weather from a stale southern city – cold, clean and entirely captivating.

We licked the last of the Arbroath smokie pâté from our fingers, swigged the remnants of the tea, and made off along the Water of Unich among stubbly peat hags and the black channels of hill burns. Mountain hares in snow-white coats went bouncing away over the dark heather as we descended to Inchgrundle farmhouse. A scimitar-winged shape skimmed close over the waters of Loch Lee – the first swallow of spring. I made up my mind that tonight I would get out the melodeon and persuade Dave to help me nail for good and all that tricky turn in ‘Out On The Ocean’.

 Posted by at 00:00
Feb 282009
 

"Now I would think," murmured Duncan Macdonald, nose to the faint paw prints dinting the snow on the banks of the River Findhorn, ‘that’s a brown hare. See how the front paws are quite far apart in their stride, while the back ones are close together?’ Duncan circled a gloved finger round the footfalls. ‘Quite a big fellow, I’d say – too big to be a mountain hare. There’s half a metre, maybe, between the leading and the trailing paws, so he was – well, cantering, that would be the right word. Now I wonder what spooked him?’

Going out tracking in the snowy Monadhliath mountains of the central Scottish Highlands with Duncan Macdonald, you can’t help but think of Sherlock Holmes. Where the untutored visitor to these wild hills might spot no more than the occasional red deer, Duncan can read the runes scratched in snow, mud, heather sprig and pine bark by the birds and animals that for whom these harsh surroundings are home. A countryside ranger with Highland Council, Duncan lends his tracking talents and general wildlife expertise to the Speyside Wildlife tour company from time to time. I was lucky he’d found the time to come out with me today, in the coldest and snowiest winter the Highlands had seen for a decade, to explore the hillside and valleys of Coignafearn, a wildlife-friendly estate far up the strath of the River Findhorn.

The Findhorn snaked black and swift through the flat meadows that floored the valley. Ice crusted the margins of the river and trailed from midwater boulders in lacy sheets of wonderful intricacy. Beyond rose the round shoulders of the mountains, blanketed white with snow and scabbed by dark rock outcrops hung with shark’s-tooth icicles. Snow clouds were gathering up there in the western sky, an uneasy swirl of heavy grey vapour tinged with yellow. ‘There’ll be more big falls this winter,’ prophesied Duncan, ‘and huge floods down here in spring when it all melts.’

We followed the hare tracks along the river bank, noting where they had been crossed by the twin slots of a red deer’s hooves, and then by the round cat-like prints of another brown hare. Duncan studied the tracks, inferring from their depth and rate of thaw how the two hares had circled and assessed each other, then gone on their separate ways. Meanwhile, down low along the river and out of sight of the hares, an otter had crept stealthily along under the overhang of the bank, leaving its webbed track with a faint groove where its rudder had dragged in the snow. Other, smaller prints might have been those of mink or of stoats in their winter coats of black-tipped ermine. ‘Too blurred by the melt yesterday to be sure,’ said Duncan.

Now the tracker’s eyes, sweeping the white landscape, picked up a small, continuous drift of movement along the mountainside half a mile off. ‘Deer, a lot of ‘em,’ was his laconic call to attention. A great herd of red deer, perhaps eighty strong and led by a stag with splendidly branched antlers, was flowing across the snow slope with a graceful economy of motion. ‘Odd,’ murmured Duncan to himself, eye to telescope. ‘Usually the stags and hinds won’t associate in winter, but there’s a real mix of the sexes in there. Too much snow on the ground to be picky about territory, perhaps?’

Fox and weasel, ermine stoat and feral goat, pine marten, red squirrel and red deer, otter and mountain hare: these are just some of the animals that find their winter food and shelter in the Monadhliath mountains. Golden eagle, peregrine, raven and buzzard quarter the sky. There are wild salmon in the rivers and wild cat in the rocks. ‘People go all over the world to see wildlife,’ said Duncan as we turned up into a side glen, ‘but Scotland has so much. Take the red deer: you come here in October and these hills will be just roaring with stags. Unforgettable – it’ll live with you for the rest of your life.’

A fierce wind came whistling suddenly, driving scuds of snow before it. We took shelter in a pine plantation where deer had whittled the lower branches to antler-like points in their greed for the nutritious bark. Duncan picked up fragments of chewed pine cone. ‘Decorticated by red squirrels – that’s the technical term for this close nibbling. Great word for Scrabble, eh?’

It looked as though the worsening weather had grounded the golden eagles of Coignafearn. A burst of snow buntings, some forty of them, went shooting overhead with tiny, needly squeaks. Then Duncan’s gaze fell on a set of paw prints that led away from the trees, up the slope towards the mountain. We scanned the patchy snow, and soon made out a pair of mountain hares crouching in the lee of a couple of heather clumps.

Close up in the eye of the telescope, these were magnificent creatures, their short black-tipped ears tucked hard back into the white fur of their flanks, black eyes fixed on us, the only perceptible motion a ceaseless twitching of their cream-coloured noses. ‘Saving energy,’ Duncan whispered in my ear. ‘They spend all day just sitting and digesting, nibbling whatever green stuff they can find, then sitting and digesting again.’

We belly-crawled to within fifty yards of the hares. When they decided we had tried their patience far enough, they sprang up and sprinted off, their lithe bodies a pale, electric blue against the snow – two lords of the winter mountainside, utterly at home in their sparse white realm.

Fact File

Speyside Wildlife, Inverdruie House, Inverdruie, Aviemore, Inverness-shire PH22 1QH (tel 01479-812498; www.speysidewildlife.co.uk) offer wildlife tours, walk and holidays, including 1-day guided tailor-made tours. They can arrange transport, accommodation etc.

Travel: Train (www.thetrainline.com) or coach (www.nationalexpress.com) to Aviemore; car via A9.

Accommodation: The Old Minister's House, Inverdruie, Aviemore (tel 01479-812181; www.theoldministershouse.co.uk): £84 dble B&B.

Gear: Bring thermals, wet/cold weather gear, binoculars, camera

Winter breaks in Scotland: www.visitscotland.com/white

 

 Posted by at 00:00
Feb 012009
 

Ice cream kiosks, bronzed life guards, a nice seafood restaurant and plenty of parking – that’s exactly what my favourite British beaches are not all about. It’s the beach you can’t easily reach that appeals to me, the lonely seabird refuge where you must watch the tides, the secret crescent of sand with the steep steps down to it that the Health & Safety Police should have closed long ago. Here is a selection of the UK beaches I’d take to my Desert Island, along with my copy of Robinson Crusoe and my very loudest set of bagpipes. I won’t let on exactly where they are; go and find them, and you’ll be in for some salty delights.

Cornwall

  • Below St Levan’s holy well lies the tiny, sandy crescent of Porthchapel

East Anglia

  • The weird and wonderful shingle spit of Orford Ness holds seabirds, rare plants and some truly extraordinary Cold War history

Wales

  • On Caldey Island’s cliff-backed beaches the grey seal cows give birth to their pups in autumn

East Yorkshire

  • Storm waves pound lonely Ulrome Sands, where the houses slide down the cliffs and the sea is an all-powerful enemy

North-West

  • Get out to Piel Island, by boat or on foot; you can drink with a King, have yourself knighted, and stroll a beautiful empty beach

North-East

  • Once blighted and scarred by coal mine waste, Hawthorn Hive is a miracle of regeneration

Scotland

  • Only otter tracks and gull prints mark the creamy sands of Kervaig, a sublime walker’s beach out near Cape Wrath

 

There are many more secret beaches, and other wild places of countryside and seashore, in Christopher Somerville’s recent books – ‘Coast: The Journey Continues’ (Ebury), ‘Britain and Ireland’s Best Wild Places’ (Allen Lane), and ‘The Living Coast’ (Last Refuge)

 

 Posted by at 00:00
Jan 202009
 

Introduction

‘I am afraid I find the Scottish national poet no more than a king of sentimental doggerel.’

When Jeremy Paxman used that teasing phrase in his introduction to the 2008 edition of Chambers Dictionary, he found he had put his foot in a midgie’s nest. Scots were not amused.

Robert Burns (1759-1796), the ‘heaven-taught ploughman’ whose 250th anniversary falls on 25 January 2009, is a towering figure in the national psyche of Scotland. Born in a poor clay cottage, sketchily educated and with a deep-rooted aversion to authority and the high-and-mighty, fond of high jinks in bed and bar, Burns lived fast (by the standards of a small-time rural Scots farmer of his era) and died comparatively young, having used his quick-witted poetic gift to excoriate the rich and well-born, satirise politicians, glorify the nation’s heroes, and make epic comic verse out of the drunken adventures of his friends. It was the perfect CV for a national poet.

Burns was brought up in the village of Alloway just outside the county town of Ayr, in a plain-living household among rural dialect speakers, and that earthy atmosphere informs all his best poetry. The family moved about from farm to farm around the Ayr district until Burns’s father William died in 1784. Robert went to farm at Mossgiel near the village of Mauchline, where he met local belle Jean Armour, his future wife and the mother of his nine children – the legitimate ones. Burns was never able to keep his winkie in his breeks. At Mossgiel poems poured out of him, among them ‘To A Mouse’, ‘The Cotter’s Saturday Night’ and ‘To A Mountain Daisy’. In 1786 Burns produced his first volume, Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, which was an immediate hit with Scots of all classes. A head-turning winter in Edinburgh followed. The tall young farmer with the high forehead and big brown eyes – suddenly the darling of the chattering classes whom he had despised – would often camouflage his awkwardness by playing up his lack of polish and sophistication.

The next few years saw Burns’s best work, a flood of mock-epics, socialist polemic verse, love poetry and a torrent of songs still passionately sung by Scots today – ‘Auld Lang Syne’, ‘Green Grow the Rashes-O’, ‘Scots Wha Hae wi' Wallace bled’ and dozens more.

Burns moved to the country around Dumfries near the Solway Firth, south-east of his birthplace, in June 1788, taking up the lease of the run-down farm of Ellisland. He found the landscape inspiring (it was here he wrote his comic masterpiece ‘Tam O’Shanter’), but the farm work was back-breaking and profitless. Next year Burns started working for the Excise as a gauger or tax-collector, a job that brought him more money and security. By 1791 he had moved into Dumfries, at first to Bank Street (‘Stinking Kennel’, as it was known), then in May 1793 to a better house in Mill Street. He joined the Dumfries Volunteers, sang French Revolution songs lustily (he was reprimanded by his boss and advised to be ‘silent and obedient’), made a drunken pass at his friend Mrs Maria Riddell that caused a long-lasting rift, continued an affair with Ann Park, niece of the landlady of his favourite pub The Globe, fathered more children on both sides of the blanket, and wrote ‘My Luve is like a Red, Red Rose’, ‘Scots Wha Hae’ and ‘A Man’s a Man for A’ That’.

By 1796 he had burned himself out and was ill with ‘flying gout’. A sojourn at the Brow Well on the shores of the Solway, involving daily chest-high immersions in the estuary, only worsened his condition, and he died of rheumatic fever in Dumfries on 21 July 1796, aged 37. A huge procession accompanied his body to St Michael’s Church, where he was buried to the strains of Handel’s ‘Dead March’- his future status as a Scottish icon assured.

Burns Country Trail

Ayrshire

Alloway (B7024, south outskirts of Ayr) contains the Burns National Heritage Park (01292-443700; www.burnsheritagepark.com :

  • Burns Cottage, birthplace of Robert Burns; museum with superb collection of manuscripts, letters
  • Burns Monument and gardens
  • ‘Tam O’Shanter’ sites – Tam O’Shanter Experience exhibition, Brig O’Doon, Alloway Auld Kirk with its occult gravestones

Tarbolton (B730/B744, 5 miles NE of Ayr):

  • Bachelors Club, whitewashed thatched cottage where Burns danced, drank, debated and became a Freemason (01292-541940; www.nts.org.uk; signed off main street)
  • Lochlea Farm, Burns’s home 1777-1784 (off B744 just north of Tarbolton; not open to public)

Mauchline (B743, 9 miles east of Ayr):

  • Mossgiel, Burns’s farm 1784-6 (between A76 and A758; not open to public)
  • Burns House Museum, Burns’s first married home (01290-550045; Castle Street)
  • Poosie Nansie’s Tavern, Burns’s local – actually a brothel in his day; the pub was across the road (Castle Street)
  • Mauchline Kirk where Burns did public penance for fornication; kirkyard has headstones and plaques of many locals immortalised in Burns’s poems, including Poosie Nansie, Godly Bryden, the Gallant Weaver, Holy Wullie and more (Castle Street)
  • Burns Memorial Tower on A76 near Mossgiel (occasionally open; 01290-550045)

Kirkoswald (A77, 12 miles south of Ayr):

  • Souter Johnnie’s Cottage, thatched house of ‘souter’ or cobbler John Davidson whom Burns featured in Tam O’Shanter (0844-493-2147; www.nts.org.uk)

Dumfriesshire

Dumfries (A75)

  • Robert Burns House, Burns’s last home; museum with mementoes, manuscripts etc. (01387-255297; www.dumgal.gov.uk/museums; Burns Street)
  • Robert Burns Centre; permanent exhibition on Burns’s life in Dumfriesshire (01387-264808; www.dumgal.gov.uk/museums; Mill Road)
  • Burns Mausoleum, St Michael’s Churchyard (St Michael’s Street)
  • Burns’s first Dumfries home, now a flat (plaque on wall; private; above Burns Café, Bank Street)
  • Globe Inn, Burns’s favourite pub (Globe Inn Close, off High Street)

Ellisland (signed off A76, 5 miles north of Dumfries)

  • Ellisland Farm, Burns’s home 1788-91; museum, contemporary farming display, walks (01387-740426; www.ellislandfarm.co.uk)

Ruthwell (B725, 7 miles SE of Dumfries)

  • Brow Well, 1 mile east of Ruthwell (signed), where Burns sought a cure for his final illness

Burns Fact File

Staying

  • Excellent B&B in Burns Country: Heughmill, Craigie, by Kilmarnock, Ayrshire KA1 5NQ (01563-860389; www.stayprestwick.com), from £70 dble B&B
  • Friendly welcome near Dumfries: Chipperkyle, Kirkpatrick Durham, Castle Douglas, Dumfries & Galloway DG7 3EY (01556-650223), £90 dble B&B

Maps

Ayr and district: OS Landranger 70, Explorer 326, 327

Dumfries and district: Landranger 84, Explorer 313

Celebrations

World Burns Night, traditionally on 25 January, the bard’s birthday, will be a World Burns Weekend on 24/25 January. Celebrations include

  • Ayrshire: Burns Night Supper, 22 Jan, at Burns National Heritage Park, Alloway (www.burnsheritagepark.com)
  • Glasgow: Celtic Connections music festival with Burns flavour in Clyde Auditorium (www.celticconnections.com)
  • Dumfries: Burns Light, 25 January – lantern procession, fire show, ceilidh (http://www.dgaa.net/)
  • Edinburgh: World Burns Night celebrated at National Library of Scotland (www.nls.co.uk)

More on Burns 250 celebrations: www.homecomingscotland2009.com

Burns in the Bookshop

  • Complete Poems and Songs of Robert Burns (Geddes & Grosset)
  • The Life of Robert Burns by Catherine Carswell (Canongate Classics)
  • On The Trail Of Robert Burns by John Cairney (Luath Press) – 5 Burns tours

Burns Online

Information: www.visitscotland.com

 

 Posted by at 00:00
Jan 012009
 

It’s no surprise to discover that the Cotswolds are the favourite destination of foreign visitors to the south of England. Lying as they do across the beautiful county of Gloucestershire, only an hour from London and very handy for Shakespeare Country, Bath and Cheltenham, the Cotswolds would have to be plug-ugly and as dull as ditchwater not to be the focus of a huge amount of tourist interest. And given their manifold attractions – the villages stone-built in hues of honey and silver, the gabled towns with their ancient market houses, upmarket delicatessens and creakily characterful hotels, the footpaths and bridleways through beechwoods and hidden valleys, the seductively undulating landscape, the rich orange soil, the meadows full of race horses and well-scrubbed sheep – one can only marvel that the hills have not been thoroughly, irretrievably spoiled.

Money has played a huge part in the survival of the Cotswolds as a rural, easy-on-the-eye, timeless piece of Old England. The Romans poured out money on building villas like the splendid specimen at Chedworth, and long, straight roads such as the Fosse Way which connected (and still connects) the Roman towns of Bath and Cirencester with the north Cotswolds. It was money in the form of wool wealth, untold millions of it, that built the golden towns and wonderful churches, the market houses and great field barns of the north Cotswolds in late medieval and Elizabethan days, when Cotswold sheep carried the riches of England around on their backs. And the handsome Palladian mansions that grace the south Gloucestershire hills were built for mill owners with money earned from the spinning mills in the steep valleys below, clothing the workers of the Industrial Revolution at home and abroad.

It is the southernmost sector of the Cotswolds that holds most surprises for visitors. There are few golden stone villages here. The limestone is hard and white, the landscape far steeper and deeper than the rolling countryside usually associated with the Cotswolds. Head east from the M5 at Junctions 14 or 13, and you’ll find yourself deep in proper south Cotswold country. Along the nape of the hills runs the Cotswold Way long-distance path, a superb grandstand from which to see and get to know the area. The vast Iron Age hill fort of Uley Bury crowns its hilltop, and nearby you’ll discover secret valleys where wonderful old houses lie – the delectable silver stone Tudor manor house of Owlpen, the eerie abandoned shell of the huge Gothic pile of Woodchester Mansion. Rivers rush through the narrow valleys, and it was the power of these swift streams to turn waterwheels and power looms that saw great mills, palaces of industry, sited in the Golden Valley and other clefts near the industrial centre of Stroud. Some of the mills, such as Longford’s Mill off the Avening-Minchinhampton road, have been converted at vast expense into complexes of houses and flats; others stand magnificent and empty among the ferns and mosses of their damp, dark valleys.

Up above these hidden valleys the rich brown fields of the south Cotswold landscape can appear almost flat. Here stands the market town of Tetbury, one of the true gems of the area, its wheel of streets revolving around the hub of the old Market House. Long Street in particular is a delight, lined with crooked, honey-coloured buildings such as Porch House with its goblin gables and leaning walls. North of Tetbury, the narrow streets of the hilltop village of Minchinhampton lead to a triangular market square and a church with a curious waisted spire. The late 17th-century Market Hall and the dignified old merchants’ houses bear witness to how wool brought prosperity to south Cotswold villages. Social cachet is not the sole preserve of the north Cotswolds: both Prince Charles’s Highgrove House and Princess Anne’s Gatcombe Park lie here in the south of the region.

This area is a celebrated centre for the breeding and training of race horses. Kim Bailey, trainer of Cheltenham Gold Cup, Grand National and Champion Hurdle winners, runs his training stable at Thorndale Farm near Andoversford. ‘I love showing people around here,’ he declares, ‘it’s just so bloody beautiful.’ What is the magical attraction of racing, in a nutshell? ‘Oh, it’s very addictive. You’ve got to have a dream in life, and this is it. The Gold Cup is the pinnacle. Winning it with Master Oats in 1995 was one of the greatest moments of my life, something that no-one can ever take away from me. Quite honestly, if I dropped dead in the winner’s enclosure, I’d die a happy man.’

 

The A40 separates the south Cotswolds neatly from their northern neighbours. The north Cotswold landscape opens out; the land lightens in colour, widens and develops an ocean-like swell. Hundreds of miles of drystone walls divide the Cotswold fields and line the streets of towns and villages, all needing maintenance, too many of them neglected these days. The craft of stone-walling is still alive and well, though. Keep your eyes open and you’ll see wallers at work, craftspeople such as John Nicholson of the ‘Traditional Boundaries’ company. ‘We give the wall a batter,’ says John, ‘an inward slope towards the top, to let the rain slide off. The walls we build might last for hundreds of years – they’ve found Roman ones down at Chedworth Villa, 2,000 years old.’ Another local waller, Chris Ingles, enjoys coming across odd items left in old sections of wall by previous workers. ‘In one wall we kept finding little round snuff tins every metre or so, about as much as a waller would do in a day, and every sixth or seventh tin would be twice the size – pay day!’

Among the sheep farms and horse paddocks live some of the richest and most famous men and women on earth, secluded among the folded hills and steep little dells of the north Cotswolds. In honeystone villages such as Stanton and Stanway, Snowshill and Broadway, the Guitings and the Slaughters, the lovely old manor houses and the thatched cottages and tithe barns are kept in apple-pie order. Garden trees are topiarised, verges clipped, hedges immaculately laid. Much of the north Cotswold countryside is private park and estate land, very carefully and lovingly maintained. This is the Jilly Cooper face of the Cotswolds (though she, like the Royals, prefers to live in the south Cotswolds), the ‘Rutshire’ region where people are pictured floating in Versace and Aquascutum from one hunt ball and cocktail party to the next, pausing only to ride each other’s horses and partners. Chipping Campden is the archetypal north Cotswolds market town, where deep gold houses crouch under their thatched roofs, dormer windows with stone mullions peeping out like sleepy eyes under straw fringes, the High Street lined with little old shops, steep gables, pillars and porticos.

In the village of Dorn out at the northern edge of the Cotswolds, beyond the town of Moreton-in-Marsh with its wide sheep-straggle street, Sarah and Simon Righton run their exemplary Old Farm, a welcoming place of Gloucester Old Spot pigs and big sleepy Charolais cows, of lambs and dogs, with a thriving B&B business and a farm shop stuffed with their own free-range produce. ‘There’s a satisfaction to doing it the proper way,’ notes Sarah, ‘selling what we’ve produced ourselves to people who like to see where it came from.’ And Simon concurs: ‘My family have had this farm since the 1930s. My children can run about in the open air and socialise with our guests. The Cotswolds may be about tourism, and we benefit from that ourselves. But this area’s not all about tourism. We belong here – and we wouldn’t live and work anywhere else.’

Secret Cotswolds

Woodchester Mansion

Tucked down in a hidden valley south of Stroud, Woodchester Mansion is eerie and magical. This never-completed masterpiece of Victorian extravagance features stairs that go nowhere, doors that lead to nothing, and a wealth of ornamental stone carving. For details of open days, visit www.the-mansion.co.uk.

Rollright Stones

The Rollright Stones lie near Long Compton at the north-east edge of the Cotswolds. Legends say of the 4,500-year-old stone circle and the even more ancient tomb nearby that they are knights enchanted by a witch. Don’t visit at midnight if you value your life and your sanity … !

Source of the Thames

Britain’s most famous river starts life as a trickle, its source marked by an inscribed marble slab in a field near the Thames Head Inn on the Fosse Way between Cirencester and Tetbury. Gazing at the spring, it’s hard to imagine the mighty tideway that surges through London to the North Sea nearly 200 hundred miles away.

Donnington Brewery

‘We’re very old-fashioned,’ twinkles brewery manager Valentine Teal, ‘and we like it that way.’ Donnington Brewery (www.donnington-brewery.com) with its swan-haunted pond is picture-perfect, and its superb bitter is drunk only locally – its 15 pubs are sited where a horse-drawn dray could reach them and return to the brewery in one day.

Three perfect villages

Guiting Power

A tangle of lanes north of the Cheltenham to Stow-on-the-Wold road leads eventually to Guiting (pronounced ‘Gigh-ting’) Power. The houses of Guiting Power are of deep gold stone. The Norman church of St Michael sits on the ridge, while the houses dip to the village square with its post office-cum-teashop and village bakery – a rarity these days. Guiting Power boasts two pubs, the Farmer’s Arms (Donnington’s ales; see Secret Cotswolds) and the Hollow Bottom, a characterful horse-racing mecca.

Snowshill

Three miles south of Broadway lies one of the north Cotswolds’ most beautiful villages, Snowshill. The village street dips steeply downhill beside a stepped wall into the valley bottom, where the Snowshill Arms (another Donnington’s pub) welcomes all comers. In the heart of the village stands Snowshill Manor (www.nationaltrust.org.uk/snowshillmanor), an Elizabethan manor house in lovely gardens laid out in the 1920s. Just east of the village the hilltop is purple and fragrant in summer with lavender, grown in ridge-and-furrow fields.

Bisley

The South Cotswold village of Bisley, hidden away in its valley just north of the A419 Stroud-Cirencester road, forms a tight huddle of beautiful stone houses under the guardian eye of the church of All Saints with its high rocket of a spire. The village school thrives, as do the village’s two pubs – the Stirrup Cup (dogs and walkers welcome), and the cosy Bear Inn with its asymmetrical rooms and log fire. Near the Bear stands the old village lock-up, just in case anyone has one over the eight.

Where to stay

The Ormond at Tetbury

23, Long Street, Tetbury, Glos GL8 8AA

From £69 double B&B

Tel: 01666-505690

www.theormond.co.uk

The Ormond at Tetbury sits snug and discreet in the town’s most charming, be-gabled street, right opposite Prince Charles’s Highgrove shop. A very pleasing sense of quiet, relaxed style pervades the whole hotel. Rooms are done out individually, and range from a four-poster with traditional ruched curtains to a more modern Scandinavian-style simplicity. The Ormond has recently picked up a Cotswold Life Food & Drinks Award 2008, and this seal of approval by local judges tells you all you need to know about the catering standards here. The menu is long on beef from the Prince’s Duchy organic farm via the local butcher, local duck and game, Cotswold cheeses, and bread made with locally ground organic flour. Cream teas await hungry walkers in mid-afternoon. Add pleasant, polite staff and a good range of locally brewed beers, and you’d search in vain to find a better Cotswold bolt-hole.

Budget Break

Camping Field,

Old Farm, Dorn, Moreton-in-Marsh, Glos GL56 9NS

From £7 a night, caravan or tent

Tel: 01608-650394

www.oldfarmdorn.co.uk

Canvas and caravans are both welcome; you can cook up a storm, too, with the Farm Shop’s own home-produced meat and other very local produce.

Blow Out

Lords of the Manor,

Upper Slaughter, near Bourton-on-the-Water, Glos GL54 2JD

From £191 double B&B

Tel: 01451-820243

www.lordsofthemanor.com

No piped music, no sharp edges to life in this former Rectory: just peace, quiet, luxury and escapism.

If you only do one thing …

  • … watch the lambs being born at Cotswold Farm Park (www.cotswoldfarmpark.co.uk) near Stow-on-the-Wold. See the ewes give birth, bottle-feed and cuddle lambs – irresistible!
  • … take a stroll along the Cotswold Way in Cranham Wood (off A46, 7 miles south of Cheltenham) – one of the best bluebell woods in the Cotswolds.
  • … enjoy one of the special Events Days at the National Aboretum, Westonbirt (www.forestry.gov.uk/westonbirt), near Tetbury – a wonderful display of spring flowers and blossom.
  • … buy fresh local produce at Tetbury Farmer’s Market in the 17th-century Market House (9-1, first Friday every month), and local crafts and organic produce at the Highgrove shop in Long Street (www.highgroveshop.com).
  • … go racing. The Cheltenham Festival (www.cheltenhamfestival2009.co.uk; 10-13 March 2009) is the biggest event in the British horse racing calendar, with the Cheltenham Gold Cup the pinnacle of the sport. If you just have to have a race horse yourself, contact Kim Bailey Racing (www.kimbaileyracing.com).
  • … make a splash at the Cotswold Water Park (www.waterpark.org.uk) as you fish, sail, watch birds, canoe, go wakeboarding and water skiing, and much more.

 

 Posted by at 00:00
Dec 202008
 

It was a beautiful winter morning, shortly before Christmas – one of those crisp, smoky mornings with ice skinning the puddles and a sky of unbroken blue over the leafless woods.

Nature calls you imperiously out of doors, then smacks you in the face when it has got you there. Setting off from The Swan Inn in the West Berkshire hamlet of Lower Green, eyes running with chilly tears, breath pluming out like a leaky locomotive, I gasped with cold. Five days ago I had been basking in 35°C heat in tropical north Australia, and this thermometer plunge into the minus zone was a shock to the system.

Out in the fields rooks strutted the stubble rows, their fat feathery thighs making them roll like drunken sailors. My boots cracked milky panes of ice in the ruts; brambles hung whitened and stiff in the hedges, each spiny leaf tipped with a droplet of half-melted frost. All the pleasures of walking in the English countryside in winter suddenly came flooding in on me. After weeks of energy-sapping heat on baking Queensland beaches I welcomed the rough embrace of winter stinging my cheeks, a brisk exhortation to stride out and get the blood coursing round the body.

Up the steep breast of Inkpen Hill I slogged, puffing out steam, stripping off scarf and then woolly hat as the interior radiators were turned on full by the hard exercise. Up at the top there was time to pause, pour a cup of coffee from the flask and take in the quite stupendous view. I gazed north, 20 or 30 miles across the plains of Berkshire and Wiltshire towards the White Horse Downs and the distant Cotswolds. The windows of country houses flashed among spinneys and copses that in the full leaf of summer would shield them from sight. Sheep moved slowly along the crest of the down, their fleeces turned to gold in the sunlight.

The black T-bar of sinister Combe Gibbet, by contrast, stood stark on the humped back of a Neolithic burial mound. The original hanging scaffold, set here on the skyline so that everyone for miles around would see it, was used only once. In 1676 the bodies of George Broomham of Combe and his lover, Dorothy Newman of Inkpen, were suspended from each cross-piece and left to rot as a grim warning, after the pair had been hanged for murdering Broomham's wife Martha and his son, Robert. It was Mad Thomas, a barefoot village idiot, who blurted out that he'd seen the victims being drowned in a pond. They had stumbled by chance across the lovers, in flagrante delicto, on the down.

Beyond Combe Gibbet rose the green inverted bowl of Walbury Hill, bisected by the ancient trackway I was following. The works of our distant ancestors litter the long ridge of the downs hereabouts: burial mounds, ditches, rutted tracks and the high-piled ramparts of Walbury Camp. It is easy to see why Iron Age men fortified this hilltop – at 974ft above sea level, Walbury is the highest chalk hill in Britain. Anyone commanding this site would be able to see strangers, friendly or otherwise, approaching from any direction in plenty of time to prepare an appropriate reception.

From the old hilltop stronghold I dropped down into the sheltered valley where Combe hamlet sits. In the south wall of the flint-built Church of St Swithun, shadowed by yews, I found a tiny stone head carved by some humorous-minded medieval mason, an imp-like homunculid with crazed feline eyes and the cheekiest of smiles. The narrow interior with its fine Victorian glass and elaborate Georgian graveslabs of black marble breathed peace and stability, a fixed point in a whirling world.

Up on the back of the downs once more, I faced into the wind and forged northwards. Pheasants exploded out of the hedge roots, and meadow pipits flew swooping and squeaking across the track. Back at the crest of Inkpen Hill I took a deep breath and went half-running down the slope, through a tunnel of pale elder suckers and back into Lower Green, heading for the door of the The Swan Inn.

There are certain pubs that you'd cheerfully take root in. The Swan is one of them: a firelit winter pub par excellence that brews its own bitter and serves its own organic beef. Cheerful barman Tomas, a Prague boy very much at home in the Berkshire countryside, pulled me a pint of the sort Australians will never understand. I sat by the log fire, feet well out in front of me, fingers a-tingle as they thawed; I felt my cheeks reddening and my grin widening. It was good to be home.

 

 Posted by at 00:00