Don't worry about failure or focus too much on the destination. It is the journey that is important, no matter how long or where it eventually ends. If your challenge is going to be a life changing experience (and it may not be) then it will be in the months you spend on the trail that this will happen, not just the final seconds. Enjoy it and don't wish you were already at the finish line.
Try not to pay too much attention to injuries. More often than not there will be some muscle, joint or patch of skin that is having a good moan, but if you keep on going it is likely to sort itself out. If you are still maintaining a good pace, then it isn't serious. Of course when you do finally repair yourself, and are looking forward to some trouble free miles, something else will always pipe up. Keeping positive and motivated when all this is going on is one of the toughest parts of the experience. Many people who end up completing the walk will have worried that some injury was a show stopper. Don't expect rest days to clear everything up either, it's not enough time.
A short day is almost as good as a rest, with the advantage that you're still making progress and things aren't seizing up through lack of use. Long days are satisfying but are best as an unplanned response to good weather and fitness rather than big scary monsters looming on the horizon.
Initially have plenty of easy or rest days to build fitness. No matter how much training you have done, your muscles and joints will need time to strengthen during the first few weeks. If these rest days are in special places or with special people they can provide useful targets as you learn to motivate yourself to walk long distances.
Try not to fix your accommodation too far in advance. If you can be flexible, you can vary your mileage to respond to the weather and your own fitness. Plus there are always more accommodation options than the Internet knows about.
Don't neglect the mental side of the challenge, which is as important as the physical. Forcing yourself to train in bad weather or when tired or hungover is good preparation. It is also helpful to think through your motivations for taking on the challenge. They need to be strong enough to get you through the hard times, which is not the same as worthy or morally correct. For some bragging rights will be enough, others may need a higher purpose.
There are a number of other blogs online that give a good insight the experience, and are especially useful for mental preparation.
Dave obviously has a talent for writing and his highly entertaining blog captures some of the mental challenges and paradoxes of the walk perfectly. His average mileage is very impressive, especially considering it was a winter attempt.
A really entertaining blog with injuries a speciality. If you get a bit of jip from your leg on the trail remember that Daryl didn't let a decent sized hernia affect his journey. The unconventional route is worth a look if you want to keep to the lanes and away from the bogs. He then came back this year to walk the other way.
There are some great insights into a whole range of issues (not just related to LEJOG) in this well written blog. Alan's route was huge at 1687 miles but includes some lovely walking and hopefully will entice some people away from the usual West Highland Way/Great Glen Way option. The blog is also a good starting point for more reading as it links to a number of other really good blogs.
Prolific and full of insights into this year LEJOG and a number of expeditions since. Comprehensive and useful gear reviews complete this extremely well written blog. Essential reading.
A work in progress, Chris is writing up his journey after its sucessful conclusion. Very entertaining, so worth checking regularly for new installments.
Blogger blogs (like this one) produce a web page for each entry, so a nicer way to read them is to select the earliest post and then use the newer post links. This way the story unfolds in the correct order, without the flow interrupted by having to jump up the page after each day.
Walking from John O'Groats to Land's End in the winter of 07/08.
Thursday, 13 November 2008
Don't worry about failure or focus too much on the destination. It is the journey that is important, no matter how long or where it eventually ends. If your challenge is going to be a life changing experience (and it may not be) then it will be in the months you spend on the trail that this will happen, not just the final seconds. Enjoy it and don't wish you were already at the finish line.
Monday, 31 March 2008
Wednesday, 30 January 2008
It was dark and frosty as I walked the empty streets of St Ives; an early start due to warnings about the toughness of the final section as well as having no cooked breakfast to hang around for. The path traverses along the sloping cliffs, a carpet of deep green and light brown grasses dotted by boulders. Rocky headlands restrict the view and at each crest a completely new coastline emerges, making the walking constantly engaging. Foaming white reefs lie offshore while waves rush into narrow inlets and break in sandy coves beneath me. Many miles and hours passed by in this way, conquering each newly discovered peninsula underfoot until the final one is reached, crowned by a white walled compound with tall lighthouse and elegant fog horn.
The coast path now spends a bit more time on top of the cliffs and I found a route through the confusing tracks, slime tanks, shafts, slag heaps and winch houses of a well preserved tin mine. After this, the line of cliffs was broken by a sheltered, green and pleasant valley, a little steam bubbling past an old mill. The usual steep climb was required to regain the cliff tops where I looked out over Cape Cornwall, jutting out further than any of the nearby headlands and looking like the end of the world. Not quite though, so after another valley the national trail continued onto the open sands of Sennen Cove. Many people were wandering along the little path and some even wanted to shake my hand when they heard where I had come from, although they might not have been so keen if they had known that my gloves had recently been used to deal with a runny nose.
After the sand dunes and the streets of the village I knew the end was approaching, the isolated collection of buildings ahead was my final destination. It was late afternoon when I arrived and everything was closed, with some shops boarded up for the winter. Signs creaked in the breeze and there was nobody to be seen. It was a slightly surreal ending, but a fitting finale for a lonely and deeply personal journey. I checked into the hotel and looked back over the last two and a half months while enjoying a lovely hot bath.
Relief is my main emotion, not that the walking is over but that the outcome is no longer in doubt. I have made it from one end of the country to the other and that will never change. After the perfect days on the coast path, any memories of being soaking wet and cold, or suffering from any number of aches and pains are fading fast. I have experienced a lot over this journey and those wide open spaces in Sutherland, or that high pass through the mighty snow capped Cairngorms, or those crisp days on the Pennine Way are now distant memories.
I find it hard to believe that I am in any way special, and feel that this challenge is something that almost anyone can achieve, whether it's doing it in small sections at weekends or struggling a few miles a day before retiring to a motor home on the roadside. There will be people who will stoke my ego with praise, and will claim that they would love to do similar but it is beyond them. I'd be happier if they just got out there and experienced it for themselves.
Tuesday, 29 January 2008
Another day following the intricate north coast of Cornwall, with the simple daily routine of breakfast, bit of walking, a break for lunch, bit more walking, find somewhere to stay, get some supplies, fall asleep and repeat. It may seem like a bit of a grind, but on the good days, like any day this week, it is a fantastic way of life.
A steep climb out of Porthtowan returned me to the blasted grassy cliff tops, where the path was contained within a narrow strip of land between the crumbling edge and an ugly military fence. All the usual coastal features were present, such as the sandy cove of Sally's Bottom or isolated stacks thrown out by rocky headlands. It was an easy walk to Portreath, a little town that ticks all the tourism boxes with a sandy beach sheltered by tall cliffs, lighthouse, long curving pier, harbour and rows of white terraced cottages. After a few steep ascents and descents the cliffs level out again and lead onto the unspoilt gorse headland of Knavocks, looked after by a team of roaming Shetland ponies.
The most noticeable feature for the next couple of miles was a gleaming white lighthouse on a rocky island just offshore, alone but defiant. As this has some kind of literary significance, the path was quite popular, and when I saw an opportunity for a short cut and some solitude I took it. I scrambled down some rocks to cross a sandy bay but was stopped by a quick flowing stream running along the beach. Unable to find anywhere to cross I was forced to climb back up, which wasn't very elegant in big boots and a destabilising rucksack.
I soon found myself lost in a vast maze of sand dunes. Paths led all over the place with some having prickly gorse dead ends. Quickly confused, I slid down a sand chute to emerge on the beach and was soon making better progress, returning to the path when I reached the thin neck of the estuary. Although the opposite bank was in spitting distance, I had no choice but to use roads and bridges to get me there. Busy roads and industrial estates made this a little unpleasant but before long I was following hidden paths through steep vegetation and looking back at my morning's work.
Leaving the coast path to head to Tesco, I did one last big shop to keep me going to the finish line. The main road led into St Ives and I found a little B&B amongst the old fishing cottages and steep narrow streets. A little over twenty miles left, achievable in a single day, although the fact that I might just finish this thing hasn't sunk in yet.
Monday, 28 January 2008
In the fresh sunshine of the morning I wandered into Newquay, past the long sweeping sands of Watergate Bay and Jamie Oliver's restaurant. As the sprawling town approaches, the coastline becomes more interesting with long thin golden coves and rocky headlands. Watching the waves roll in, I tried to work out what the tides were doing as my next obstacle, after endless roads where every house is a bed and breakfast, is the Gannel. There are a number of options for crossing the estuary, but the closer it is to high water, the further you have to walk (or maybe the wetter you'll get). Confident that I was looking at a low tide, I picked the easiest route that doesn't involve a ferry or private bridge, successfully crossing the seaweed coated structure and making fresh footsteps across the rippled sand.
Crossing the neck of the headland, the grassland and sandy soil led to huge dunes covered in prickly bushes. The path then loops around the military installations at Penhale Camp, above impressive caves, blowholes and foaming white water that I could watch for hours. I emerged at one end of an endless expanse of sand and followed it all the way to the town of Perranporth. It seemed to take forever to get anywhere, with no real landmarks on the huge canvas of sands, dunes, sky and sea.
The last part of the day had a slightly industrial feel with old tin mine workings littering the cliffs. I skirted around an airfield and ambled along a nice little path that contoured around the cliffs at about half height instead of the usual stroll along the top. Old stone chimneys, engine and winch houses made interesting diversions, as well as the few stream lined valleys. It's been another good day, although I am having disturbing daydreams about failing close to the finish line, maybe being run over on the road into Land's End. Although this has been a wonderful experience, the thought of starting all over again is worrying.
Sunday, 27 January 2008
One of the things I'll have to give up when this journey is over is enjoying a full greasy English breakfast every day, or I'll end up unable to walk anywhere ever again. After another superb example this morning I set off into warm sunshine and blue skies.
The first stretch was described as one of the most challenging of the coast path by the guidebook, with seven deep and narrow valleys to cross, the last four in such quick succession that there is no chance to get your breath back. It ends up being a little disorientating as you jump between admiring the rock architecture of the cliffs while waves crash beside you, and wandering along the tops while looking down on the sandy bays far below. It is, however, pretty spectacular stuff, with sights such as the steep rock faces of 'The Mountain', isolated by landslips, and culminating in the first glimpses of the attractive twin fishing villages of Port Isaac and Port Gaverne.
After that, it was time to leave the coast path for a while, as it heads onwards to Rock to catch the ferry to Padstow. I managed to resist the temptations of the short cut offered by the boat, mainly because it wasn't running today. Rarely travelled paths across rolling fields took me southwards, and it was interesting to be once again struggling with hedges, fences, muddy streams and not always knowing where to go after the helpful wooden signposts of the national trail. Eventually Wadebridge was reached, which as the name suggests, allowed me to cross the estuary and get onto another handy disused railway bed.
Although this was busy with people taking advantage of the unseasonal weather, and despite managing a good pace, it seemed to take a long time to reach features I could see in the distance, cuttings through the rock, elegant thin metal bridges, the dark rich muds of the creeks as they joined the estuary and the sprawling houses of the town of Padstow. A couple of little footpaths provided short cuts across the forked headland and led to sand dunes and a return to the coast path. Easy walking along grassy cliff tops led past numerous little rocky coves and inlets, the landscape becoming wilder as you get further away from civilisation.
The sun was setting as I reached the famous Bedruthan Steps; the tall dark stacks had an imposing presence in the fading light. It was time to call it a day, and I asked about accommodation in the next pub I came across. I was directed up a steep hill and struggled to find the little hotel in the gloom. Today I've walked at least thirty three miles, a total that would have been daunting if I'd known this morning. With a pleasant ache in my legs and my ego massaged by the reactions of the other guests, I'm glad I did.
Saturday, 26 January 2008
As the new day dawned, my journey along the coast path continued, and today everything ramped up a notch; the cliffs are higher, the coves more dramatic, the sandy bays more remote and enclosed and the sun shone with more intensity, setting later in a blaze of red sky. I wandered along happily, soaking it all up, no longer under any pressure to reach a particular destination. Even though a lot of the tourist infrastructure is closed at this time of winter, I know I will be able to find somewhere to sleep when the day has come its natural conclusion.
Steep gorges cut grooves in the impressive cliffs, ending in waterfalls that ran down the folded strata of the rock with seams of gleaming white quartz. The white houses of Cornish villages gathered next to narrow secluded bays, while the more isolated coves made you feel privileged to be enjoying this ever changing landscape. Approaching Boscastle, rounded slopes sit atop short steep cliffs. As I traversed the delicate greens and browns of the grassland on a thin path I could hear the seething waves pounding the rock invisibly beneath my feet. The natural harbour here is well protected by the curving jagged headland, white water roars high into the air on these rocks while the turquoise waters of the bay stay calm and pleasant.
The final delight before I decided to end the day was Rocky Valley, almost a Dove Dale in miniature with tiny crags and scarred by little gullies. The wooden footbridge at the bottom of this lush dale was a moment of peace before mingling with the tourists in Tintagel. I can't help but feel that these fantastic final days are going to make hanging up my boots difficult when the end of the country is reached.
Friday, 25 January 2008
Another perfect day on the coast path, taking me into the final county of the journey. The scenery was even more impressive than yesterday; skirting the rounded hill of St Catherine's Point, I watched waterfalls being blown upwards at Speke's Mill Mouth. There were high cliffs with extensive views down the coastline and steep secluded valleys that the path zigzagged into and back out of. Sometimes these zigzags lead out onto thin rocky peninsulas, where the waves gurgled and crashed beneath. Streams flowed out of hanging gorges and plunged down to rocks and foaming seas below. The landscape was constantly engaging, with something wonderful waiting over each hill. Time flew by.
The only blemishes were the huge satellite dishes of Cleave Camp, which would be elegant if they weren't surrounded by tall fences and warning notices, and the holiday parks and decaying hotels of Bude. The regular obstacles of the narrow valleys mean that I've climbed and descended more height than any other day so far, over five thousand feet. The trick seems to be to rest on the way down, then tackle the uphill in one push, since although steep, the cliffs are no more than five hundred or so feet high. If you give in to your aching calves and stop for a rest, it then turns into a bit of a struggle to finish the hill off.
The ever changing sea was a constant companion, and I never tired of looking out into the vast emptiness. It feels like you are approaching the very tip of the country as the coastline becomes more striking and scarred by weather and waves. This landscape is perfect for contemplation and in these final days (hopefully) I'm looking back and savouring what has gone before, while beginning to think about how I will readjust to normal life.
Thursday, 24 January 2008
Fully rested and with good weather on the way I was eager to get going, just as soon as I'd tackled the momentous breakfast served up by the hotel. I picked a road heading out of town and kept going past the hospital, colleges, bunched up rows of terraced houses and finally the sprawling estates of detached properties before I was out amongst the rolling Devon countryside. Passing the Big Sheep, I wondered just how desperate tourists are to find something to do on a wet day, since obese livestock is enough is pack them in.
Country lanes took me back to the coast, completing the short cut I'd been taking across the headland. I turned left and followed the well made path through some of the most spectacular scenery I've encountered so far. Endlessly climbing and descending, I followed the edges of huge cliffs that look over rocky platforms and pools, past sandy bays, descended into gorges lined with rows of white houses and wandered across steep slopes covered in trees until I reached the little gem of Clovelly. This is a perfect Devon coastal village, clinging to the cliffs in the groove of a small brook. The cobbled high street is too steep for vehicles, and I watched the residents taking their shopping back home on wooden sledges.
It was time to cut across another headland. My focus is still on Land's End, so I won't be indulging in all the twists and turns of the coast path. This short cut took me into a peaceful wooded valley, through the small town of Hartland for supplies and then along a lane that varied between open fields and wooded dells beside streams. I felt the setting sun on my face I approached a hotel perched on huge boulders beneath the cliffs. As I look out the window to see waves crashing over the car park, it feels like I'm on holiday again.
Tuesday, 22 January 2008
One of the many rivers with the name Yeo rises as a series of springs just north of Bratton Fleming, and I followed it all the way to where it enters the Taw estuary near Barnstaple. A sunken lane, shaded by trees, lead down into the little dale. After crossing the shallow waters, I entered the solitude of a wood, moving softly along a flat shelf cut into the steep slope and enclosed by the trees.
As the river grew in strength beneath me, paths through young plantations and rolling grass fields led back to roads and into Chelfham. The wooded dale is becoming more defined here and is dominated by the eight white arches of the largest narrow gauge viaduct in the country. Bridleways marked on the map climb completely out of the valley and then back down again, so a cheeky short cut along forestry tracks let me continue on my riverside walk.
The river began to slow and meander in a widening flood plain, while pleasant ambling took me through various sizes and shapes of woodland, down muddy tracks and eventually into the suburbs of Barnstaple. Here I met the South West Coast Path and followed it alongside the estuary on a disused railway bed. Once again, the loss of the railway network is a blessing for the long distance walker. The miles went quickly past as I stared out across the mudflats to the rolling farmland on the opposite coastline.
My destination seems to be full of workmen who have booked out the cheaper accommodation, so my rest day will be spent gathering strength for the final push while soaking up the luxury of the Royal Bideford. I will be on the coast path most of the way to Land's End, so all that remains is to keep the sea on the right and put one foot in front of the other.
Monday, 21 January 2008
Yesterday's hopes were quickly dashed. After following hoof-churned bridleways along the slopes of a small valley, I found myself getting wet while taking an arrow straight road back to the high moorland. I did my best to follow the vague grassy tracks while being blasted by shards of rain, swept along on a ferocious wind. It become almost impossible to see where I was going as my face and eyes were stung repeatedly by the vicious raindrops. The steep bracken filled valley of the River Exe provided a damp oasis for a while, before I returned to the exposed moors and another onslaught began.
The weather is beginning to grind me down, although some deranged shouting over the howling wind was useful for regaining motivation after each big gust. I was alone in the clouds, adrift in a remote and harsh landscape. There was a section along road before a thin footpath led to Exe Head, the source of the river. On a nicer day, I would probably be enjoying views of the north coast across the rolling heather, but this river heads in the other direction for fifty miles to meet the sea. A river after my own heart, doing things the hard way.
It wasn't raining quite as hard when I reached Pinkery Pond, but the cold wind and my sodden clothing had chilled me to the bone. Attempting to pinkle meant a lot of fumbling with frozen fingers and zips. Time to leave the high ground. My escape followed walls and lines of trees before little lanes took over. A planned shortcut and break from the tarmac was obstructed by biosecurity measures, but for the final miles I was in a completely single minded mode, focused only on the destination. It has been an exhausting day, and I have promised myself a day off when I reach the thousand mile mark.
Sunday, 20 January 2008
Leaving Roadwater on a lane nestling alongside the River Washford was the only time I would be dry all day. The rain started as I used a forestry track to climb steeply out of the dale, with the usual soft mat of pine needles to cushion my feet. The trees sheltered me from the worst of the precipitation, although not from getting sweaty. Exposed to the elements when I emerged from the woods, the wind spat raindrops at me as I continued uphill, through grassy fields and then awkwardly alongside a flooded track.
I gained some respite in the form of a pleasant muddy path that followed a stream through woods, before I resumed upward progress and crossed the rounded summit plateau of Lype Hill. After I passed through the last remaining line of trees, the rain blasting past coated me in sheets of cold water; droplets ran down my face and soaked me from the inside out. There was no escape and I became increasing frustrated by the drenching. By the time I had battled the wind to reach the trig point I was shouting obscenities at the sky. After almost a thousand miles on the trail, I'm perhaps not the most mentally balanced person anymore.
Things improved slightly as I crossed a road and headed downhill, but it was still unpleasant to be cold and wet with plenty of miles still to go. As I reached Wheddon Cross I had to choose between a busy road or a path that takes in the highest point on Exmoor. I decided on the path, at least the scenery would be more interesting.
I followed the River Anvil though a wooded valley, crossing the few swollen tributaries easily thanks to my already sodden feet. A steep climb took me into the clouds and onwards to Dunkery Beacon at 519m. I followed tracks across the high moorland, meeting only school children forced outside on this wet and windy day by the Duke of Edinburgh. I was getting used to being damp as I descended into Exford, and my occasional bouts of shouting were peppered with phrases like "come on then", as well as the usual abuse. The weather gods had failed to defeat me today. Eventually finding my accommodation after a quick phone call, they luckily also had a stable so were used to filthy creatures who had been stomping around the moors all day. Hope the weather improves soon.
Saturday, 19 January 2008
Through persistent drizzle I've walked all day to end up further north than where I started. Although this might sound like a step backwards on a John O'Groats to Land's End journey, west is the new south.
I left Bridgwater on tarmac; tightly packed council houses slowly decaying into a country lane as I wandered past. After getting very confused in a farmyard where four paths meet, I eventually managed to cross a few soggy fields to rejoin the roads and pass through some lovely little villages. It required a long climb to enter the Quantock Hills, an area of outstanding natural beauty, but it was worth it to return to a landscape of grassy slopes, tumbling brooks, open heathland and large pine woods after the flatlands that have been dampening my spirits over the last few days.
Fine misty rain was being blown in on a fresh breeze as I escaped onto footpaths, my natural habitat. The miles flew by; dropping into a muddy farmyard, descending a small valley to cross a tiny stream, climbing steep fields to ever greater heights, ambling along tracks through woodland and finally emerging onto open moorland on the main ridge. Up there visibility was a matter of metres, although what I could see seemed suitably wild and there were plenty of people following the crest to the highest part of this range of hills. Far too soon, it was time to stop heading towards the Bristol Channel and tumble down a bracken filled gully.
The rest of the day mainly followed roads, but there were some little shortcuts, such as the delightful path along a babbling brook at Crowcombe Bridge or the old lane being reclaimed by prickly vegetation. The route linked a number of wonderfully named villages nestled in the low hills; the Roald Dahl-esque Stogumber, the potential treasure trove of Monksilver and finally Roadwater.
I have now entered Exmoor national park and it feels like the final straight. Only fantastic walking, across high moorland and along dramatic cliffs, remains.
Friday, 18 January 2008
Setting off into the Somerset Levels, past the huge round bowl of Cheddar Reservoir, my world consisted of drainage channels, pumping stations and incredible quantities of mud; the land often only a handful of metres above sea level.
After crossing the river Axe, I found a rare hill, rising to the majestic height of 58m. There were wide views of the wetlands, under a big and complex sky, but soon the little used paths became very difficult to follow. Without stiles and therefore my usual way of finding the right route, I passed through fields until I lost any sense of where I was. I gave up trying to match the walls and fences to the lines on the map and wandered along in roughly the right direction, crossing streams and clambering through lines of trees.
I slowly lost height to reach a track, then back onto the Levels proper, with endless long straight lanes to numb the mind and make the soles (or souls) of my feet tingle. Desperate for some variation, I took to the fields when they weren't flooded as well as some muddy tracks, but soon faced another stretch along roads. A short cut across fields followed by an exciting scramble down an embankment lead to a tiny section of dismantled railway. More hard tarmac followed and a crossing of the huge King's Sedgemoor Drain, which just manages to be beautiful due to its size and directness. I refused to be tempted by invisible paths indicated by wooden signposts, and ended up on a pavement next to a main road and a long march into the centre of Bridgwater. An unmemorable day but another bite taken out of the remaining miles.
Thursday, 17 January 2008
The aching of my muscles made me feel like a rest, and a little wander along an old railway line and over the low hills of the Mendips fitted the bill perfectly.
The railway in question was the old Strawberry Line; now a gently curving path with views across the plains to the towns of Yatton and Congresbury. Before long, I had covered half the distance to Cheddar, and after passing through a cider orchard I decided to leave the fast track and chose a longer route through the hills.
With no time pressures, I picked paths at random from the myriad wandering around the limestone ramparts of the hill fort on grassy Dolebury Warren. Dropping off the ridge, the number of paths meant I only had a vague idea of where I really was. Thinking I had helped a map-less runner find her way home, I soon realised the path we had both chosen wasn't going where I expected and hoped I wouldn't see her coming back towards me. I couldn't face her realising I wasn't the proficient walker I seemed to be.
It was a long and enjoyable climb, through heather and thin yellow grasses, to the summit of Black Down, with the views you'd expect from a hill surrounded by so many flatlands. This was followed by a leisurely, although sometimes muddy, descent into Cheddar. It was far too early to get into my room for the night and settle into a hot bath, but the next best thing was to sit in the pub as the rain began to fall outside, especially as I hadn't felt a drop all day.
So it was almost a perfect day, although it does make me wonder whether people who take this trek at a more leisurely pace might have the right idea.
Wednesday, 16 January 2008
Today I spent approximately nine and a half hours moving my legs about, mostly with the added bonus of wet feet on the end of them. The heavy mileage was largely due to a lack of bed and breakfasts, but also because I wanted to escape the tentacles of Bristol, the council estates and commuter villages that radiate from the city.
With this in mind, it was very early when I tucked into the continental breakfast that had been deposited outside my room. The world felt peaceful as I strolled through the pretty village of Aust and along grassy tracks in the dim early morning light. Pathless fields followed, proving that even if people have been given the legal right to walk across wet fields near a motorway, it doesn't mean anyone actually does. After passing through a farmyard, provoking the usual vicious barking (from the dogs, not the farmer) I emerged onto a small lane. Then things went belly-up, and I'm not referring to setting off in the wrong direction, although that did happen.
Suddenly there was water as far as I could see, filling the shallow depression of the lane and forming a neat lake between the hedgerows. I made little progress trying to cling onto the prickly vegetation and decided to stride confidently through it, causing a line of waves to roll across the calm surface of the newly formed pond. Liberated from trying to keep my feet dry, I could splash through the floods for the rest of the day.
Crossing the motorway, small roads took me into Easter Compton and then a climb up onto a muddy hill with reasonable views across the flatlands. Another motorway to cross and then into suburban Bristol, not the long distance walker's natural habitat. Luckily Andy Robinson's End to End book offers hope in a green corridor that follows a small ridge; much nicer despite being covered in slow moving dog walkers. After another section of housing estate, it was time to join a footpath that shares the motorway bridge across the River Avon. Noisy and unpleasant, the only views were of a muddy estuary and huge industrial estate.
After slowly working my way through Easton-in-Gordano I followed a complicated series of paths, which were often muddy and sometimes almost impossible to find. I made sure I was careful when navigating across the playing fields of an isolated school, especially since I was wearing the modern equivalent of a macintosh. The visual highlight came when I gained enough height to see the whole of the Bristol Channel laid out before me.
Time was moving on, so I abandoned the footpaths for an exclusive road plastered with warnings of security cameras, protecting the huge houses hidden in the woods. Appearing out of the trees at the hill fort of Cadbury Camp, I looked down over a vast flat plain, criss crossed with straight drainage channels and shallow pools of water that had formed on the grassy fields. I descended to follow these drainage channels, the banks of which at least rose above the flooding, but there was a lot of crossing other drainage ditches involved.
Lastly, a very straight and boring road took me through the setting of the sun and well into the evening before I reached the north end of Yatton, the much anticipated destination. Bristol was the last urban challenge of my route, just beautiful countryside to come.
Tuesday, 15 January 2008
While I tucked into another full English breakfast this morning, a week's worth of rain was falling. Putting off leaving my warm and dry accommodation for as long as possible, I ventured onto the Hotel's exclusive path, which led back to the main trail. Luckily, after slogging along the dark wet road last night, it would be a relatively relaxed day.
After clambering out of the valley on steep slippery zigzags through the trees, I was soon following thin lanes and heading down small enclosed paths. Rainwater tumbled down these alleyways as they wound their way between dozens of small fields. There was no alternative but to splash along these streams and get wet.
A steep climb followed, due to crossing a small tributary, and then everything improved as I entered a large ditch. Archaeological experts (or people who can read labels on the map) will tell you these are the remains of King Offa's Dyke. Despite this ancient boundary lending its name to the long distance trail I have been following, the ditch had been absent since my first day on the path.
The rain began to clear as the Dyke took a commanding position at the top of the heavily wooded slopes of the Wye. Through the trees, there were expansive views along this steep valley that holds the ever widening and now tidal river. The striking jagged ruins of Tintern Abbey slowly emerged from the mists in a beautiful and mysterious way. Every now and again there were glimpses of the tall limestone cliffs beneath me. The path sensibly cut across the neck of a huge meander and then wandered behind people's back gardens, as the surroundings became increasingly urban into Chepstow.
A large Tesco was a good excuse to stock up on cakes, before a long walk through an endless estate to reach the motorway and the old Severn Bridge. Compared with my memories of the Forth Road Bridge, it seemed like a poor and rusty imitation, but both represent significant milestones. This is the end of the Welsh adventure, five memorable days of both real challenge and captivating beauty. It feels like a lifetime. I have reached the south west peninsula, the beginning of the final chapter of the walk.
Monday, 14 January 2008
Last night, the girl behind the bar had warned me about this next stretch of Offa's Dyke. Apparently, someone had counted sixty-three stiles between Pandy and Monmouth and my destination lay even further away.
Rain was falling as I tucked into my breakfast, but as soon as it cleared I got down to work finding my way across the endless fields. Most of the time was spent scrutinising the map for little navigational clues, the thin blue squiggles of streams or the solid black lines of hedges or fences, then hauling my awkward pack over each newly discovered stile. I can't pretend I'll remember much of the scenery, but the green hills were pleasant enough.
At the well preserved White Castle, the path loops around the ruins and water filled moat so the traveller can appreciate them from every angle. I must be getting fond of the Offa's Dyke Path as I followed it all the way round instead of cutting across. As I continued down narrow lanes and alongside rivers of various sizes, the defining feature of the day was what was under my feet. The ground was completely saturated, resulting in huge quantities of mud where animals had roamed or large shallow lakes on any flat ground. Wet feet were inevitable.
Eventually I took a lovely path over a wooded hill and then residential roads into Monmouth. It felt like a natural place to end the day but I wanted to break out of the traditional itinerary and make sure I had time to cross the Bristol Channel tomorrow. Crossing my old companion the Wye once again, the climb out of the town was steep, long and sweaty. I rested a moment at the Kymin naval temple, looking across the landscape I had spent hours stuggling across. It was then an easy stroll downhill, on sheltered paths, to return to the riverside.
With darkness falling, and with my accommodation off the main path, I decided to follow the A road for the rest of the way. It turned out to be many more miles, while rain began to fall in greater quantities and cars forced me into the verge. The river was an angry brown, full of debris and spilling out onto the fields. The riverside route is no longer an option for tomorrow, but hopefully the flooding won't cause me any more serious problems than that.
Sunday, 13 January 2008
Described on a map, today's stretch of Offa's Dyke looks almost perfect. The path takes the crest of a long ridge which rises to just over 2300ft, with the promise of magnificent views and after the initial ascent, rapid progress southwards. Hay Bluff forms the rounded end of the ridge and looks down benevolently on the little town of Hay-on-Wye. Yesterday it was clearly iced with snow, but this morning I only had memories as cloud shrouded its current state in mystery.
Following a well travelled path and soon gaining height, the blustery gusts I had noticed in town grew to form a constant and strong wind. After climbing steeply through a wood, I emerged on a grassy plateau that spread out from the base of the bluff. The wind swept down these treeless slopes and blasted me with incredible force. I could hear nothing but roaring as it rushed past and struggled to make upward progress. I began to consider alternatives to the exposed ridge, which seemed a bit daft.
For some reason I kept going, ignoring a path into the valley that runs alongside. After rounding the nose of the hill, the wind began to ease slightly and I took the opportunity to rest a little before I headed up onto the ridge and all hell broke loose. Reaching the crest, it was more like a boggy plateau and I could follow the flagstones in the disorientating clouds. The wind knocked me about constantly, many times off the path which I then had to fight my way back onto, but I was able to walk roughly where I wanted to go. In this world of drifting whiteness and occasional stinging showers, the presence of such a powerful, noisy and invisible force was unnerving.
Although the flagstones disappeared in places and I had to pick my way through the bog, I found my way to the summit cairn. It was all downhill from here. After some time I dipped down under the clouds and got a taste of the views that make this part of the world so special. On the Welsh side, peaty ridges rose to impressive heights and hid narrow green valleys, while the English side is a blanket of fields and trees that stretches into the distance. After many hours with the wind as a constant companion, I was becoming more comfortable with the situation and was glad I hadn't chickened out earlier.
The ridge went on for many more miles, and I used the trig points and cross paths to judge my progress. It also became much narrower, with one particular section being a little bit exciting as I couldn't let the wind deposit me too far to the side. The more I descended, the more the wind began to ease, until I dropped off the ridge itself to wander through the remains of a hill fort. Lanes led down to the valley, before I followed a main road through the very strung out village of Pandy to find an inn.
Settling down to a pint, I slowly adjusted to the lack of noise, although it'll take a while for the ruddy glow to leave my wind scoured cheeks. As the landlord said, “that should have blown out a few cobwebs”.
Saturday, 12 January 2008
The storm moved away overnight and I woke to a peaceful and frosty world. After putting on my reasonably dry clothes, I took a small lane out of town and headed for the old racecourse that encircles the summit of Hergest Ridge. As I climbed, far reaching views revealed themselves; green valleys and snowy hills illuminated by the pure winter sun and in the distance the dark mass of the Black Mountains.
I couldn't help but feel my mood lifting as I followed the signposts and acorn symbols across hills covered in fields and bare open ridges. Yesterday's nightmare is a distant memory now. I guess the sunshine finds a way into your soul (never expected to be thinking soppy things like that). Small lanes lead to the magical wooded dell of Bettws Dingle, where I found a soft path through the trees and looked down over a tumbling brook. Emerging at the bottom, a wide river dominates the landscape. It was a simple matter to follow it upstream into the tourist filled town of Hay-on-Wye.
It was only early afternoon and I had the unusual luxury of a bit of time to look around this pleasant town. After a grand day out in the hills, I'm refreshed and ready for whatever the Dyke is going to throw at me next.
Friday, 11 January 2008
Two days of relaxation. Lazy days that were not merely guilty pleasures, but necessary in order to gather strength and continue this journey (or maybe just a good excuse to spend more time in bed). After this, setting off again was a brutal reawakening to just how hard walking the length of the country in winter can be.
It started innocently enough, finding a route across the waterlogged grassy fields that form the floodplain of the River Teme. I worked my way across more green fields, took tracks across steep wooded slopes and followed lanes through villages as I headed for the Welsh border. Drizzle grew to heavy rain, blown in on a strong wind, and the wetness began to overwhelm my waterproof clothing. This continued for several hours through the pleasantly lush and gently undulating landscape until I entered the third country of this walk and the town of Knighton.
Here I joined the Offa's Dyke Path, which I found climbing steeply out of the town in a small wood, and followed as it skirted a golf course to reach the crest of the hill. As I gained height the rain turned into soggy snowflakes, which coated fences and began to slowly colour the fields in white, a broad brush stroke starting from the lee side. Leaving the shelter of the trees, the wind was bitterly cold. Many stiles lay ahead, each marked with the acorn symbol, but eventually I emerged on a road. Fighting to keep warm, I ducked into a bus shelter for a few moments of relief. Eating a few muffins, each movement reminded me of my damp clothing. I wrung out my hat and gloves, casting my mind forward to the end of the day and away from this unpleasantness.
It was time to move on, although I doubted whether I was being particularly rational at that moment, the past forty two days of effort compelling me to keep going. The snow covered the fields in increasing depths and camouflaged the trees to the white of the rest of the landscape. Visibility dropped, the usual landmarks and the footsteps of previous travellers disappeared and the blizzard blew flakes into my eyes. The shallow ditch of the Dyke took the crest of the hill and offered no shelter. Eventually I descended to a tiny hamlet and a green valley.
The path was easy to follow over the hills and I began to grow in confidence, no longer intimidated by the aggression of the weather. As darkness fell I struggled to find the way through a farm and wondered how long it would take me to navigate over the tricky final hill. So I returned to the road and followed a small lane. Here I got into a rhythm and detuned my mind from the red rashes my wet trousers were rubbing into my thighs, something I hadn't had to deal with since Scotland.
Finally I took to the verges of a busy road, and trudged in the rain as cars illuminated my dishevelled form. I found a room in the first inn I came across and slowly began to dry out. It's tempting to think that after the wilds of the north, and with large proportion of the distance already walked, I faced only an easy romp in increasing daylight to Lands End but this journey still holds some tough challenges.
Tuesday, 8 January 2008
After a series of tough days and with an increasingly broken body, it was comforting to know I was only a short distance away from a cosy cottage in a peaceful village where I could sit by the fire and put my feet up. Ambling along, and when I wasn't getting wet, I had a bit more time to take in my surroundings and appreciate some of those little details I tend to miss when I'm pushing hard to reach some far off destination.
I followed a small river through soft pastures and between trees to reach Craven Arms where I could stock up on vital supplies (such as deep heat, which I'm rubbing into my legs in excessive quantities at the moment). After passing under the railway line, I crossed a field to a copse where I clumsily negotiated a newly fallen tree, before steep grassy fields climbed up to a wood covered cone that formed the top of the hill. Rain was driven in on a forceful wind to add drama as I skirted the forest of swaying branches and reached the top of View Edge.
Crossing a patchwork of fields my boots occasionally gained a thick layer of mud as some were either waterlogged or freshly ploughed. Under roaming angry clouds, the scenery was varied and kept my interest. A woman doing a crime survey became the only person I would meet in the hills today, while an overgrown hedge on a rarely used path became the only real physical challenge.
Soon I could look down on the village of Leintwardine, a cluster of houses in the valley below. My path joined lanes that lead to the little cottage, where I gathered wood for the coming rest days.
Monday, 7 January 2008
The limestone escarpment of Wenlock Edge flows like a wave across woods and open fields. Its distinctive shape graces the water bottles back in the office I spend my working days in; a life I can barely remember. Today it provides an obvious route for approaching the Welsh border.
With all the potential accommodation options along the Edge closed for the winter, I set out knowing that I would have to tackle the whole thing in one go, despite continuing leg pains and the strong winds that were forecast. At breakfast I tried to avoid the various colds in the room as the news talked about the winter vomiting bug that was taking hold of the country. Avoiding these viruses is essential if I am to complete the walk and return in time to resume my job in that faraway office.
Crossing the wide iron span of the famous bridge, a faint rumbling became louder as I headed upstream. Through the trees I began to make out the tall concrete expanses of cooling towers. Torrents of water were falling into troughs at the base of these majestic structures; an impressive sight.
A number of paths up the hill looked reasonable; I followed the buzzard shaped waymarks since they seemed to know where they were going. This took me to the pleasant little town of Much Wenlock, where I got lost. Soon realising I wasn't on the Edge, I cut back to the ridge and was soon strolling in light drizzle past a large quarry with a bright blue lake.
I then chose to follow an old railway line that runs along the bottom of the woods, which offered the promise of easier miles. Returning to the top when this was no longer practical, I became aware of another wooded wave rearing up behind the one I was riding the crest of. After the flatlands, the dramatic scenery was inspiring and certainly took my mind off the rain showers, the trees protecting me from the worst of the wind.
Following the Edge was now fairly simple, as I slowly got damper from the rain and from negotiating the huge pools of mud horses had churned up. It was also a lot further that I thought and I was relieved to drop off the edge down a huge sunken mud slide and cross grassy fields in the fading light to a roadside inn. A deep bath was a luxurious surprise as I relaxed in anticipation of easier days to come.
Sunday, 6 January 2008
It was a day of big skies and endless flat countryside, observed from many miles of roadside verges, an incredibly muddy track and a few little used paths across fields. As expected, yesterday's injury meant my legs ached constantly. The muscles would seize up during breaks and I would set off again using a complicated and awkward gait as I tried to remember the least painful sequence to make progress. A bystander wouldn't have expected me to make across the next field. Slowly, as my pace picked up, I would get into a rhythm and start to ignore these problems, at least until the next time I fancied a rest.
So, you might expect that today was a day to be endured rather than enjoyed, but actually I was pretty happy throughout. This may have been because, with the sun on my face, it felt pleasantly warm for a change, or because miles are more easily won on the road and I could feel progress being made, or maybe just because I was leaving the unpleasant farmland of Staffordshire behind and could almost see the hills of Wales on the far horizon.
In the cool breeze of the morning, I took a small lane out of Penkridge to follow paths along fields boundaries. These unexpectedly took me to the small hidden nature reserve at Bickford, where duckboards conveyed me smoothly across the tranquil wetlands. I left the Staffordshire Way at a bridge over the Shropshire Union Canal, taking minor paths to a reasonably busy road. Some miles later I was able transfer to the Monarch's Way, which used a track running parallel to the road about a field's length away. This was lovely and peaceful in places and an inescapable mud flow in others. The extra effort was a price worth paying to avoid the road for a couple of miles, particularly as the tarmac became more unavoidable later on.
The afternoon featured the noise of a motocross event, many more lanes and a small bit of wandering across fields. Approaching Telford, the road cut through the grounds of a grand house and outside a walled garden was a large flat tree stump, which I gladly parked myself on. This was a moment to be savoured. Full of endorphins from hours of effort and with the sun shining, I had almost reached my destination and I allowed myself to just rest and take it all in. Eventually I headed down into the steep valley of the River Severn and followed a cycle track until I could cross the famous Ironbridge. Picking the first B&B I could see, I relaxed and said goodbye to a tough but gratifying day.
Saturday, 5 January 2008
The main crop of Staffordshire is mud, with acres and acres of fields producing the stuff. The Staffordshire Way takes in as much of the sludge farming as possible, while making sharp turns every few hundred metres to obliterate any sense of direction, giving the impression of being lost in a sea of oozing muck. Stiles and a handful of waymarks make it reasonably easy to follow, apart from the odd occasion where I reached a blank corner in a field before realising I was supposed to pop through a tiny gap in the hedgerow half way along.
Some respite from all this was found in a section of open parkland surrounded by forest, as well as when passing through the pleasant town of Abbots Bromley and the linear village of Colton. Blithfield Reservoir initially looked like it might add some interest to the landscape, but the wide expanse of water soon disappeared as I passed beneath the long low dam. My general frustration was not improved by the wide loop required in order to avoid a small section of track that is forbidden to walkers because it passes a boat house.
After what seemed like a hundred more fields, I joined the towing path of the Trent and Mersey Canal. The smell of wood smoke from the stoves of the canal boats took me back to the bothies of the north, and I felt envious of their tranquil lifestyle. A long bridge took me away from shallow waters to the heather and bracken covered lumps of Channock Chase. Following the wide paths that criss cross this beauty spot I looked completely out of place with my heavy pack and sticks, being surrounded by families on afternoon strolls, although I was possibly more prepared for the hail showers that spoilt an otherwise peaceful day.
The Staffordshire Way returned to farmland and led to the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal. Initially overhung by trees and passing under old stone bridges, this turns from quaint to industrial when it is forced under the M5 in a wide low concrete tunnel. On these final miles, the usual aches and pains were a bit more vocal than usual and I began to hobble. It may have been a mistake to attempt these long days straight after the Christmas break and I'll admit to feeling nervous about tomorrow's mileage.
Friday, 4 January 2008
The reward for yesterday's effort was to wander down the southern end of Dovedale before breakfast, the tranquility undisturbed by the usual crowds. Here, the wide river slows and grows deeper, passing though woods before being enclosed by steep grassy banks marked by isolated trees and streaked by chutes of stones. Tall spires of limestone and huge caverns dominate the absorbing scenery. After crossing the stepping stones, I passed the distinctive peak of Thorpe Cloud and followed the river as it left the valley for fertile farmland.
Muddy paths led to a large stone bridge, whose impressive arches used to carry an important coach route but now only see farm traffic. A steep climb took me away from the River Dove and into a maze of small fields. This was slow going as I tried to judge where to find each rotting stile in the hedgerows, navigating mainly by the shape of each field and thereby working out which piece of the jigsaw I was standing on. After Swinscoe, the number of paths multiplied and I had the additional problem of finding the correct stiles.
I followed a barely used path into a wooded dale, branches tearing at my face and catching on my backpack as I fought to stop myself sliding down the steep mud bank. After negotiating my way past some steep drops over the babbling brook, I was relieved to be back in open fields. The next section alongside that same brook followed a track leading into more woodland. This was much more pleasant, despite degenerating into a muddy morass in places and requiring careful stone and branch hopping.
Here my route joined the Limestone Way, although I took to the road through Ellastone for a bit of respite from the mud. This took me back alongside the River Dove before more tricky fields to Rocester. Approaching the town, the huge flat mass of the JCB factory was almost too much to take in, a industrial mirage shimmering on the shores of a lake.
I transferred to the Staffordshire Way, which sticks to the edge of the wide flood plain while the river disappears and reappears on tight meanders. I was beginning to struggle to see the paths in the fading light and a muddy field crossing where huge clods of earth stuck to my boots, making every step hard work, did not improve my mood. I crossed under a dual carriageway in an underpass made for dwarves and escaped the jaws of an angry dog at The Willows with a quick leap over a stile. An industrial estate followed, and as I had no desire for more muddy and torturous footpaths I took to the roads as it began to rain. It didn't take long before I was happy to pack it in for the day and got the van to park up at the next suitable spot just outside Uttoxeter. After a lovely start, most of the day was something to forget (probably shouldn't have written about it then).
Thursday, 3 January 2008
After problems finding accommodation for last night and with a vague hope of saving money by upping the daily mileages, today has found itself a day later than planned (if that's not too confusing). Reversing the route of many days ago to the mud waves of Totley Moss, it was nice to find it frozen and covered with a thin coating of snow. This made my escape from the city a little bit easier.
Like many other days on the trek this was a day of two halves, although this time I'm referring to the geology rather than the fact I had lunch in the middle of it. The first half consisted of the rough gritstone edges of the Dark Peak, a couple of which provided obvious routes southwards. I strode along the top of these outcrops of huge rounded boulders as they looked over misty field lined valleys, before descending to the well kept grounds of Chatsworth House. Passing strolling families I then headed up and over the hill to the famous town of Bakewell. Growing up in Sheffield, I had often thought of wandering out here to buy an authentic pudding, but there were always more accessible treats.
After climbing steeply out of the town using cut-throughs between rows of houses, I entered the second half of the day, the limestone plains and deep valleys known as the White Peak. Shallow grooves in the grass led through fields bounded by white dry stone walls to the pleasant wooded dale of the River Bradford. All too soon it was time to climb back out again and take a quiet lane for several miles to the busy A515. My aim was to join the Tissington Trail, another old railway line that has become a popular long distance cycle route, but there were no obvious paths marked on the map and walking alongside the main road would be unpleasant. Luckily, while planning this trek, I had trained satellites to spy on an obvious track that went exactly where I wanted. It was still a relief not to encounter any gates or irate farmers and reach legal ground again.
Darkness was falling as I followed the frustrating loops of the snaking railway and after spotting the lights of the small village of Biggin, I headed down the embankment and clumsily made my way across fields into the village. Although it was now night time, I wanted to make the most of my well rested muscles and decided to head down into Dovedale. After all it should be impossible to get lost in a narrow steep sided valley, even with the gloom.
Following a grassy filled empty valley down to the river, and spending some time being trapped the wrong side of a wall, I don't think I had realised how far it was going to be before I reached the village of Milldale. Time ticked by and while I could sense the steep limestone crags and slopes that surrounded me, my world was the beam of my head torch. The loneliness was interrupted by a couple of dog walkers, illuminated collars seeming to glide randomly around the valley bottom, hovering a couple of feet above the ground.
Eventually a road was reached and then a painfully steep lane to a car park and a night in the van. Not including breaks I walked for around ten and a half hours and covered the biggest daily mileage so far. Although I am completely and utterly knackered, there is something quite satisfying about this.
Monday, 24 December 2007
“I'm walking home for Christmas
Oh, I cant wait to see those faces
I'm walking home for Christmas, yeah
Well I'm moving down that path
And it's been so long
But I will be there
I sing this song
To pass the time away
Trudging in the mud
Walking home for Christmas”
Crossing the mighty Ladybower dam, which holds back the waters of what was once the largest reservoir in the country, took me to the Derwent Valley Heritage Way. This initially runs along an old railway line before taking to the banks of the River Derwent itself; the thin strip of land marked out for the path worryingly disappearing into the water at times. This is rambling country, and the network of paths that criss-cross the area were heavy with traffic, making finding the necessary solitude to empty my bladder particularly difficult.
After solving this problem, I abandoned the line of purple waymarks to find a way through to Grindleford, where my dad would shortly be arriving on the train. We would then tackle the last few miles into Sheffield together. The brutal climb out of the valley up onto Totley Moss was a tough warm up, but crossing the moor on tracks gorged by army vehicles and trail bikes was even more difficult, requiring negotiating steep waves of mud and deep dirty pools of water. The only features are the huge earth submarines that hide ventilation shafts for the railway tunnel deep underneath. After this introduction, I doubt my dad will want to join me on any more of the trek.
Lanes and suburban streets quickly and surprisingly emerge from the bleak moorland to lead back to my old home. Now I have a good chunk of time to get into the festive spirit, to eat enough cakes to return to my pre John O' Groats weight, to reproof my gear and let my body do some repairs. My focus for the last few weeks has been on getting here in time for the festivities, but when I hit the trail again I will have Land's End in my sights. With over half the distance already walked, it actually looks like it might be possible.
Sunday, 23 December 2007
As I left Holmfirth by the steep lanes that wind their way uphill between cosy stone cottages, the townspeople enjoyed a traditional Sunday lie-in. A frosty and peaceful morning. To avoid walking along a main road, I followed further narrow lanes as they strenuously climbed the ridge between the rivers Ribble and Holme, then dropped into the Ribble valley and climbed out the other side. A few hundred meters of overgrown paths offered some respite from the tarmac before the lanes led on to Winscar reservoir.
The dam itself is impressively steep, high and hopefully no longer leaky. I had planned to follow a zig-zagging path that the map hinted might offer a short cut but found myself wandering along Broad Hill Bank with nothing obvious to take me to the bottom. Knowing how damaged my ego would be if I retraced my steps, I headed straight down the bank, luckily staying on my feet, and quickly nipped through someone's driveway to end up at Dunford Bridge.
This village is at one end of the lengthy Woodhead tunnels, the railway line having gone under the popular transformation of becoming a cycle route. While strolling along this I started to see people out enjoying the last Sunday before Christmas and there were plenty of people about for the rest of the day. I cut across fields to the forests around Langsett Reservoir and then up onto high and remote moorland. Now it was mainly fell runners that were passing by, making me feel unfit as I hauled myself up. The path is cut out of the peat, offering a unique lower view of the moor (the perspective of a grouse maybe).
I followed a small stream that dropped steeply to meet the northern tip of the Derwent reservoirs, famous for being the training ground of the dambusters. I was back in a familiar environment, as many of my childhood days were spent biking around these shores. The track alongside the water is easy, long and popular. Finishing the walking before the light ran out was a nice surprise but something that might become more common as the days lengthen and I head even further south.
Friday, 21 December 2007
Today I passed through the now familiar southern Pennine landscapes of peat moors, gritstone edges and small reservoirs. I would describe the views, described as extensive and inspiring, but the mist hadn't shifted and I spent most of the day enveloped in my own little white bubble.
The first task was to find my way to the Aiggin Stone, a 600 year old guidepost that, as I found out, is still a useful waymark. From there I followed Blackstone Edge where the waves of eroded black peat kept me on the wide grit pavement. Various rounded and unusual rock formations drifted in and out of my dream-like sphere of vision, as well as the majestic white trig point.
I picked what looked like the most used path, which led to a bridge that soars over the M62, luckily exactly where I wanted to be. The elegant arch faded to white in front of me and I could just make out the lights of the traffic below. After a busy layby filled with truckers buying their breakfast from a greasy van, I tackled a section of even-more-featureless-than-usual moorland. I doubt I will remember anything from this stretch. My only concerns were keeping track of the path and avoiding tackling the bog directly .
After crossing another arterial road, linking northern industrial towns, I enjoyed more moor and another edge which provided an occasional rock buttress for interest. Then I was back amongst a series of small reservoirs, whose lack of presence at one point meant I noticed today's navigational slip-up (there's usually at least one) and didn't end up several miles out of the way in Marsden. This was followed by a steep descent into a lush green valley to cross a river and a lovely slow climb back out that looked over the Wassenden Reservoirs. On reaching the top road, the mist evaporated and I was bathed in sunshine, the world floating on a fluffy sea under a clear blue sky. Must be a sign that I'm back in Yorkshire.
It was time to part with the Pennine Way, a companion of the last couple of hundred miles and provider of acommodation for long distance walkers (i.e. filthy frugal types), signposts to take away the faff of navigating and some fantastic scenery. I think I'll miss it. So, instead of making the ascent up Black Hill, I was heading down into Holmfirth, initially on pleasant tracks by Digley reservoir and then on tarmac and pavements into the town centre. Christmas is in full swing here; panoramas of stars hang over the brightly lit shops. I'll be spending tomorrow here to try and get into the festive spirit, by which I mean eating a lot of very nice but not very healthy food.
Thursday, 20 December 2007
Another dawn start, although these days this doesn’t mean getting up early. After gaining height in grassy fields I headed straight up onto the moors. The Pennine Way skirts the moor, passing a number of wooden shacks that would have been very tempting if I had passed by last night. A ruined stone barn points to a thin path that strikes out across the moor. I had faith that this would deliver me to the other side and not into the depths of some remote peat grough. Occasionally disorientated by the lack of features amongst the bilberry, heather and long grass, it was reassuring to find lines of Pennine mill flagstones improving the boggier sections.
Eventually a wall joins alongside and a steep and direct descent to the shores of Pondon reservoir is required. After a small climb to join a track looking over the water, the signposts begin to get Japanese translations. This is Brontë country. After revisiting the shoreline, the Way heads quickly uphill to visit the ruins of Top Withens, famous for bearing no resemblance to Wuthering Heights. From here the day repeated the theme of crossing moors and strolling along the shores of reservoirs. On Heptonstall moor the sheer number of paths was confusing and I’ll admit to losing the proper line of the Way.
The afternoon provided a chance to stretch my tiring limbs with a couple of steep valleys. The first is merely a warm up, descending to use a small bridge across a stream, while industrial Calderdale is impressive in its scale. After picking a way down to the valley floor among little stone cottages clinging to the hillside, it is then hard work all the way up to Stoodley Pike Monument. By now mist was forming around me and it was a bit of a surprise when this 120ft tower popped into existence. Having said that, it is perhaps nicer than spotting something a long way off and then spending hours actually reaching it.
With darkness approaching and the mist thickening, I needed to get across the last bit of moor and onto the tracks that run alongside three more reservoirs as soon as possible. After correctly choosing the right moment to leave the steep rocky edge I was following away from the monument, I could relax a little.
The rest of the day had a slightly surreal feel to it. I was walking on a straight track with the reservoir wall on one side, the only sound being the water lapping up against it. On the other side was a steep grass bank that quickly faded into mist. The dim light blurred these repetitive features and I was moving through a dream world. I could walk as much as I wanted, but I never got anywhere and nothing ever changed. It was quite beautiful.
Wednesday, 19 December 2007
The River Aire bubbles down a shallow valley surrounded by gently undulating hills, the lush green grass carved into squares by crumbling limestone walls. I followed alongside, sometimes a little too closely since its low profile prevented me from spotting the loops of slow meanders, occasionally passing though small hamlets of traditional stone houses. After the short day yesterday, I was refreshed and enjoyed wandering among this pleasant landscape.
This all changed when the Pennine Way left the riverside meadows and dumped me in a field of freshly flung muck. Now I was consulting the map every two minutes to guess at how I would be leaving each field, looking for overgrown stiles or rotting signposts, getting confused by a number of other rights of way, sinking in mud around well used gates and trying to forget about what was coating my boots and encrusting the bottom of my trousers. After being rescued by a lane leading into the nice town of Gargrave, I was soon out in the fields again, this time confused by new wire fences across what I thought was the path (but may well not have been).
I was pretty frustrated by the time I was back on tarmac at East Marton, but allowed myself to be soothed by a stroll along a tow-path and the much photographed double arched bridge. This easy section was over too quickly and the fields beckoned again. Luckily the landscape was getting lumpier and this provided a few more clues I could use to navigate.
Ahead lay a good chunk of high moorland and a chance to make some progress. There was only the farmyard of Brown House to cross before a steep climb onto open country. This was another farm whose main winter crops are faeces and mud and I followed the track that dipped down into the morass like a slipway. I knew that the concrete had ended when I started sinking. The most successful technique I found was to feel for stones under the dark sludge and use them to reach the safety of the pastures.
The moor felt surprisingly bleak after a day amongst farmland, tall masts being the only feature in a sea of windswept heather. I quickly covered ground and headed down into the thin valley of Lothersdale. Days are incredibly short now, and doing tricky navigation at night is far worse than in the daytime. Never one to hang around in people's driveways or back gardens too long while staring at a map, this led to a small mistake near Surgill Beck which cost me the last rays of the dying sun. Luckily there was a path to follow into Cowling, but it was clear I wasn't going much further today. Overall I can't help feeling annoyed by the lack of progress, and slightly apprehensive about doing it all over again in Staffordshire or the South-West. What I need is a day of roaming across desolate moors. Brontë country awaits.