Hampshire days

Watership Down. A resting place for my morning break. The only sound is skylarks overhead whilst red kites circle silently high above under the deep blue sky.

Hampshire, the large county in central southern England was my home for ten years so it was nice to get back to this area early this month to walk in some familiar territory. One good thing about the county is that it doesn’t suffer so much from the ‘mud’ issue which so affects so many areas in winter and particularly this last winter, but that is not to say there is no mud. On the rolling chalk downlands, much precipitation soaks into the ground and so you can get out on a walk without watching every step you take.

I’m leaving Macclesfield early on a frosty moonlit morning to beat the rush hour in Birmingham but alas the M6 is already crowded by 6am and so it’s a slow crawl around the city until I’m onto the M40.

The surfaced track running east out of Litchfield. It’s going to be a perfect day.

My starting point is the small village of Litchfield which lies just off the busy A34 a few miles south of Newbury. It’s only 8.30am as I set out east up a surfaced drive and despite the sun being up awhile there is a cold freshness in the air and still cold enough to wear gloves.
Its days like this when it’s good to be out under deep blue ‘winter’ skies and hardly a breath of air. I’m making steady progress east but having said that mud isn’t much of issue here, I encounter a muddy stretch as I follow the valley through Little Down. At least the gravelly track on the far side of a minor lane is better under foot.
Turning left, I walk beside Caesar’s Belt, a long strip of woodland. My route now is following The Portway which forms the course of a Roman Road which originally ran from Exeter (Isca Dumnoniorum) to Silchester (Calleva). I stay on this former Roman Road for a mile and quarter through the empty countryside before turning north along a good track gradually ascending to higher ground where the views begin to open out. I am aiming for Watership Down for my morning break and the short trespass into a field to the trig point provides a good place to sit down to take in the view. Watership Down became famous after the author Richard Adams set his novel with the same title about rabbits in this area. The only sound today is skylarks overhead whilst red kites circled high above under the deep blue sky.

The Wayfarer’s Walk below Watership Down. A fine path runs along the ridge lined with sturdy beech trees.

I set off west along the Wayfarer’s Walk, a long distance path that I walked in the 1980’s and this well way-marked path runs seventy one miles from Inkpen Beacon in West Berkshire to Emsworth on the coast near Havant. The next section of path to the next road proves rather muddy due to countless feet but beyond I am on a good track before crossing a grassy field en-route to the unfinished Iron Age hill fort at Ladle Hill.

Sheep soak up the first warm sunshine of the year on the unfinished hill fort at Ladle Hill.

I make a short detour here to view the dips and mounds of perhaps the best example of an unfinished hill fort in England. An open track leads southwest but what concerns me now is how easy it will be to cross the A34 dual carriageway as this road links the Midlands with Southampton. As I near this road there seems no let up in the fast moving traffic. I later descend via dry valley down to the busy road and do a risk assessment. The route crosses the road at this point but attempting to cross this road under these conditions would not be wise. Thankfully there is an alternative by following a permissive path south for 6oo metres to an underpass and although this will take possibly a little longer it is the sensible thing to do. Reaching the underpass I find it is flooded but not enough from preventing me getting through. It is then a walk north up the western side of the A34 to Thorn Down.
I am glad to get away from this busy road, and set out west on a track which shortly passes a memorial to Geoffrey de Havilland who first flew his home made aeroplane from this spot. He went on to design and work on many aeroplanes but he is best known for his work on building the Mosquito, considered to be the most versatile warplane ever built. He later built his Comet which was the first jet airliner to go into production.

Memorial to Geoffrey de Havilland who is famed for designing and building the Mosquito warplane.

I follow the track uphill towards Sidown Hill but this is initially very rutted and flooded but conditions improve as I gain height. On Sidown Range I stopped on a grassy bank for lunch. It is the first time this year that I hadn’t felt cold whilst having a picnic lunch and I have no hurry to move on but to soak up the sunshine instead.
The walk over Sidown Hill is a pleasure to walk and on the summit I made a short detour on a path which forms part of the Highclere Walks but I don’t venture as far as the viewpoint at Heaven’s Gate. It is unfortunate that the information board about the walks is currently blank so I am unsure where these paths lead.

My route up to Sidown Hill and now I’m looking for a spot to have my picnic lunch.

The Grotto which stands on the ridge overlooking Berkshire. The building is a holiday let.

Back on the main path, I gradually descend towards the A343 passing on the way The Grotto, a curious round house which is now a holiday let and part of the Highclere Estate. The views to the north open out across Berkshire and it is such a good afternoon to be out. Highclere Castle, famed for the television series Downton Abbey can be seen from this area.
It’s time to turn south and I follow a lane before taking a field path to the small village of Crux Easton. Crux Easton House which I pass was once owned by fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley and it was here that he and his wife Diana were placed under house arrest in 1944.
Also of interest in the village is an old wind engine which dates from 1892 and has now been restored to working order. It is occasionally open to the public and pumps water from a 410 foot deep well.

Crux Easton Wind Engine which has been restored to working order.

Dunley – where time stands still in this secluded corner of Hampshire.

With the sunshine beginning to turn watery I head south and continue on pleasant field paths and later walk beside an old ditch which formed the boundary of an ancient field system. To reach the secluded village of Dunley I follow quiet lanes. Traditional cottages line the large village green in a land where time has stood still. Leaving the village I follow a field path towards Litchfield but stick to field boundaries due to ploughing taking place

Entering Litchfield there are a profusion of primroses on the embankments on the approach to the underpass beneath the A34. Spring I think has probably arrived. It’s now only a couple of hundred yards to the car and the end of a perfect day on the downs.

A perfect day on Meall Ghaordaidh

Its still a long way off but the mountain with the snow on is where I’m heading. the path I’m following is rather squelchy.

Glen Lochay is an isolated valley which runs west from the Scottish village of Killin and in June 2015 I spent a week exploring this lonely valley in depth and managed to bag every Munro and all but one Corbett that surround this glen.
For most of the week, the weather was near on perfect with sunny days and a pleasant temperature and so after a strenuous day of bagging a number of peaks at the western end of the valley I opted for a day just to bag one Corbett and one Munro. So it’s just a twelve mile walk rather than the strenuous eighteen miles of the previous day.
By base is the Suie Lodge Hotel in Glen Dochart to the south and I’m starting out on this day with a drive via Killin and up the single track road through Glen Lochay to find a shady spot to park the car.

A bridge no more. At least is was easy enough to cross the stream known as Allt a’ Choire Ghlais.

A faint path leads up onto Beinn nan Oighreag.

My lunch stop on the summit of Beinn nan Oighreag. Meall Ghaordaidh rises to the west.

It’s already warm as I set off to follow a private hydro road which zigzags its way uphill with a good surface and soon I gain a good altitude and I am glad of any little breeze there is. The private road abruptly ends at an overgrown compound and so I decide to head around the upper side of it before contouring across to join the path which runs up into the hills towards the old shielings at the deserted hamlet of Riabhaich. When I do eventually join the path it is in a poor condition with missing bridges not that this is an issue but also that much of the path is a boggy watercourse. It is therefore easier walking parallel with it. A footbridge marked on the map over the Allt a’ Choire Ghlais has seen better days and is totally rotted but here the stream is easy to cross. As the path begins to fade a little beyond this point I decide to cut across to the Allt Dhuin Croisg, a more substantial stream. I reach it at a point where it runs in a ‘V’ – shaped valley and so opt to continue upstream to find a easier crossing point. Briefly on the far side I follow the track of a wheeled vehicle before veering right up a gradual and easy slope towards Carn Shonnach. An easy ridge walk follows with old metal fence stakes in the ground to gain the summit of Beinn nan Oighreag 909 metres and not quite a Munro, however it was once thought that this hill was a Munro and saw a flurry of activity in the thirties before the Ordnance Survey firmly classified it as being under three thousand feet. This is my lunch stop and a most pleasant spot it is in the warm sunshine. This summit is classified as a Corbett.

The final ascent to Meall Ghaordaidh and kicking steps in the snow on a warm June afternoon. Pure enjoyment! The snow overhang at the top is over twenty feet high.

The view from the top of Meall Ghaordaidh with Ben Nevis visible centre right in the far distance. Its hard to tear yourself away from a scene like this. The valley in the foreground is Glen Lyon leading up to Loch Lyon.

The main purpose of today’s walk is to bag the isolated Munro of Meall Ghaordaidh but first it means descending to a col at 638 metres. The western slope of Beinn nan Oighreag has a few crags and so I first opt to follow the line of metal fence stakes down until it runs down the steepest part of the hillside and here I decide to take a course a bit further south to reach the col. On the far side there are a few crags and so this time I opt to head slightly further north up a steep but smooth slope to a un-named spur at 815 metres. From here a ridge continues up over Cam Chreag before ascending further to Meall Ghaordaidh. It might be mid June but only problem now, is that there is a snowfield towards the top which can’t really be avoided without a detour well to the north. Near the summit of Meall Ghaordaidh I can see a snow overhang which is casting a shadow despite the sun being high in the sky. I press on uphill over Cam Chreag before making the final push towards Meall Ghaordaidh. Reaching the snowfield well to the right of the summit, I can see footprints in the snow and despite its initial steep gradient I am able to kick steps into the snow to gain the northern ridge. This feels more like alpine climbing and I am glad of my walking pole as an aid in case of a slide.

Back down in Glen Lochay on a perfect summer’s afternoon for the last stretch along this peaceful valley to the car.

Once on the summit of Meall Ghaoraidh I decide to take a longer break as I have made good time. I sit for a half hour admiring the view from the 1039 metre summit which stretches to beyond Ben Nevis to the north, Jura to the southwest and East and West Lomond to the southeast. When I do eventually set off it is a straightforward walk downhill in a fairly straight line and following for much of the way a path. Midway down the path does become a bit squelchy underfoot but is much firmer better as I near pasture land. One hour and twenty minutes brings me to the road through Glen Lochay and here it was a easy walk back down this road to the car stopping on the way to chat with some local residents at Duncroisk.
A perfect end to a day. If only more days were like this in Scotland.

The end of the afternoon at Killin with these colourful boats moored on the River Dochart.

Searching out the Devil

The curious pre-historic feature known as ‘The Devil’s Ring & Finger’.

Tucked into a corner of a field in northeast Staffordshire, the Ordnance Survey Map shows a curious feature written in gothic writing. Having an interest in history, I decided that this feature was worth seeking out. ‘The Devil’s Ring and Finger’ is rather unique to this part of the world and something that would be more at home on a lonely moor on the western seaboard of Britain.
So what is ‘The Devil’s Ring and Finger’? My research showed that it was once part of a pre-historic burial mound but what is left is not in situ and was moved a couple of hundred yards to the field boundary a few hundred years ago. It consists of a large circle of stone with a large hole in the middle with a standing stone propped up alongside it. Both stones show much weathering and today lie almost hidden and forgotten just off a footpath west of the village of Mucklestone.

It was time to investigate and make a day of it by doing a circular walk by taking in another curious feature that had come to light during my research. On the one dry day of a week of wet weather last October, Tony Littler joined me for this circular walk in the area.

Unusual plaque on a house at Mucklestone.

A peaceful setting in the churchyard at Mucklestone.

We are setting out from Loggerheads in Staffordshire (not the one in North Wales), and taking the minor road cum track to reach the village of Mucklestone. We pause to read a plaque on a house in the village which reads ‘On this site stood the smithy of William Skelhorn at which Queen Margaret had her horse’s shoes reversed to aid her escape from the Battle of Blore Heath 23rd September 1459’.
Nearby, we wander around the churchyard before setting out west on a field path which is initially a bit overgrown. Crossing the B5415, we now take a minor road to Mucklestone Lodges and here turn right on a field path. I want to take a look now at a pre-historic site known as ‘The Devil’s Ring and Finger’ which lies just off the right of way. This megalith is not signed but we easily find it by crossing a broken down fence and crossing some rough ground to a field boundary. The two stones are quite impressive with one stone forming a large doughnut type circle with a large hole in it whilst the other stone stands upright alongside it and is well weathered and gnarled. Using your imagination it looks as if it might have belonged to the devil!

Back on the path, we continue through Norton Forge which is situated on the infant River Tern which itself forms the county boundary with Shropshire. Not far from this spot is an unusual gravestone not visited on this walk but the gravestone is dedicated to fifty four cattle which died in 1866 as a result of one of the last outbreaks in this country of the disease Rinderpest. The outbreak started in the nearby village of Bearstone and at the time there was no known cure. The following inscription (which is taken from the Norton in Hales village website) on the stone reads ‘THIS STONE IS RAISED AS A MEMENTO OF THE GREAT CATTLE PLAGUE OF 1866 WHICH SWEPT 54 HEAD OFF THIS FARM IN 14 DAYS OF MARCH THEY DIED WITHOUT REMEDY AND HERE LIE.’

Norton in Hales and the Brading Stone on the village green.

At Norton Forge we join a track before taking a field path into the attractive village of Norton in Hales. It is now time for our morning break and a large shelter with ample seats is an ideal spot. The village green has another interesting megalith which is known as the Brading Stone. The date is uncertain but tradition has it that anyone found working after 12 noon on Shrove Tuesday, was taken to this stone and either beaten, bumped, or rolled on this stone.

A view from Willoughbridge Park – one of many on this stretch of the walk.

We leave the village via Bellaport Road and soon take a field path on the right and now we cross several fields towards the farm known as The Grove. Near here we veer east, briefly following a track before crossing several more fields where way finding isn’t exactly easy as we have to find gaps in thick hedges with hidden stiles but at least they do exist. Beyond Bellaport Old Hall we have to cross a stream twice and the little bridges over this watercourse are well hidden. One of the main problems in this area is that there is a fair amount of waterlogged ground hidden in the mowing grass that you are often upon before you realise it. The muddy Poplar Lane which is a track is joined briefly before taking another path across fields to the next village of Knighton. We opt here for an early lunch in a bus type shelter as there is a seat. It isn’t necessarily the best spot as it is by a road but at least it provides a dry spot to sit.

The unusual RC Church at Ashley.

Leaving Knighton we soon take a field path eastwards which crosses a field with a bull in which thankfully carries on grazing. A quiet lane is then followed to Pipe Gate.
Heading south from here we join another field path which is rather overgrown at one point where it crosses some streams on plank bridges. The path continues across ploughed fields before reaching a rather wet spot where we have to divert slightly. The next section of the walk is through the slightly higher area of Willoughbridge Park. The area is well wooded with extensive former quarry workings on our right which had just been left to nature but the boundary fence is full of warning signs. A lane is later joined before climbing an awkward bank to take another path across a ploughed field. Later we cross the A53 and take the lane into the village of Ashley. The Roman Catholic Church here is of an unusual design and is a white washed building. Another path is soon followed before heading back towards Loggerheads following minor lanes and using a short link path. Nearing Loggerheads, we take another path which turns out to be overgrown and here we have an issue with slurry leaking across a field so it is obvious why it is little used. The next path presents some problems with brambles at the end but we manage to push our way through. Reaching Loggerheads we take to an enclosed path between up market houses but the second path which borders the village school is fairly overgrown. At least at the end of this enclosed path we are on the road for the short walk to the car after an interesting and adventurous walk.

I will be leading this walk again for the group on the 14th April but in the opposite direction.

A day on Connaght’s highest

The eastern spur leading up to the summit of Mweelrea. The weather is holding for now.

I have had Mweelrea Mountain on my tick list for any years but it wasn’t until 2016 that I had the opportunity to climb this rather remote mountain. The summit is the highest in the province of Connaght and is the county top of County Mayo. Together with Ben Bury and Ben Lugmore, the three mountains form a mountain block which drop almost to sea level on all sides often in steep craggy slopes which give the appearance that the peaks are much higher than they really are. The area, being on the Atlantic western seaboard, is prone to sudden changes in the weather so I would need to take this into account.
The approach from the east is via rough country from the lonely road alongside Doo Lough and takes you deep into the corries that line the northern flank of Ben Bury and Ben Lugmore and the ascent is made via a hidden path between two cliff bands. I opt to ascend from the west, which in some way would be a less attractive route which would involve ascending a rough grassy slope which gradually became steeper with no path to follow as such.

The cliffs on the southern spur from Mweelrea summit leading down towards the sea inlet of Killary Harbour.

I’m staying in Westport and for once it is dawning a cloudless morning so it is time to go and bag Connacht’s highest mountain Mweelrea. I am away from Westport quite smart for the drive west via Louisburgh to park up in the hamlet of Dadreen. I have decided to climb Mweelrea from the west as I know this would be the easiest way.

The impressive ridge leading from Ben Bury towards Ben Lugmore. I’m just hoping that the cloud stays clear of the summit.

As I set out, cloud is already building to the east and so this isn’t going to be a completely sunny day but for now it is fine. A track initially leads east to reach open moorland before a long trek across pathless moorland with a few boggy patches. The gradient gradually steepens but other than a long haul it was fairly straightforward. I am aiming for the col between Ben Bury and Mweelrea and an hour and ten minutes of uphill toil I reach it. Ben Gorm to the southeast is already in cloud and so time is of an essence to reach the summit of Mweelrea whilst the weather stays fine. Turning right it is only a short walk to the summit, and first of all I make for the eastern spur from the summit to admire the view of Mweelrea’s cliffs which fall away steeply from the southern spur. A short and fine ridge walk takes me to the 814 metre summit. I still have a view and the sun is staying out for now. Today however, views aren’t great and it is very hazy, with the hills to the east engulfed in cloud. Just off the summit I pause for my morning break out of the cold breeze before returning to the col.

On Ben Lugmore eastern summit. The ridge over Ben Lugmore with Ben Bury beyond (right) and Mweelrea (left).

The path leading down from the col between Mweelrea and Ben Bury. I will explore those deserted sandy beaches after my walk.

While I am up at this height, I want to bag Ben Bury and Ben Lugmore and now set off up the stony slope to bag the rounded summit of Ben Bury 795 metres. Cliffs fall away steeply on the northern side to boggy moorland. The rounded summit has a number of cairns and I stop now to don my waterproof coat for warmth as I am heading into a cold easterly wind. Cloud is beginning to brush Ben Lugmore ahead of me and so the sunny start to the day has all but gone. The ridge ahead looks interesting with precipitous cliffs on the northern side. I can see a path running up from Doo Lough far below me and I believe this is the most popular route to bag these summits. This path runs along a broad shelf between two cliff bands and is hence called the ‘hidden Path’. From the col and a large cairn it is only a short ascent to Ben Lugmore west top at 790 metres. The route ahead now looks interesting but is almost into the cloud base. To reach the shapely Ben Lugmore I have two satellite summits to cross both on a narrow ridge which involves a little ‘hands on’ work. A small col then a steep ascent takes me to the airy summit of Ben Lugmore 803 metres. Thankfully I am still just below the cloud base and so get limited hazy views. I now want on to bag Ben Lugmore eastern top 790 metres which involves a grassy slope to ascend to a more level summit.
After a brief pause at this far eastern summit it is time to backtrack along the ridge and to find a sheltered spot on the summit of Ben Lugmore to stop for lunch. During lunch I spot another walker on Mweelrea who I shall meet later.

Back along the airy ridge I decide to omit going back over Ben Bury and take a faint path along the upper southern flank of the mountain. The walker that I had seen earlier I now met up with. Ironically he was born in Timperley in Cheshire but had lived in Ireland since his childhood. He is a member of the local mountain rescue team and knows the local hills well. We chat for some twenty minutes shaking hands as we depart.

A ten minute walk takes me down to the col between Ben Bury and Mweelrea from where I make the descent back towards the car but now I find a path to follow which I had not discovered on my ascent. I have around a mile and a half of moorland to cross and take a parallel course to my upward route and find it much easier and drier. There is a faint part in parts and I am down at the car by mid afternoon having completed an exhilarating and rewarding walk but perhaps not the far reaching views I was hoping for.

All around Stow

Hyde Mill on the River Dikler.

On my numerous visits to visit relatives in the Bristol area each year, I try and do a walk on the way down from Macclesfield or on the return. Over the last couple of years I have walked the entire Cotswold Way most of which have been linear walks by parking the car at the end point of each walk and using buses to get to the start of each walk.
Now, my plan had been to explore some other areas and so perhaps a walk along part of the less known Gloucestershire Way might be an option. The section between Chepstow and Lydney appealed to me but it would be an early start from home to catch the 08.17am train from Lydney to Chepstow.

As the day of travel draws near so the weather forecast is looking decisively bad and on the day prior to my walk the met office warns of a active weather system moving slowly in from the south west coupled with a yellow weather alert. It’s time to re plan and so by heading further northeast I might be able to get a walk in before the weather closes in.

The area around Stow-on-the-Wold appeals for what is planned as an easy circular walk visiting numerous attractive villages with the aim of completing my walk around lunchtime or that is the plan.

I’m leaving Macclesfield early to avoid the Birmingham rush hour and the day dawns with a crescent moon to the south with a pace blue and pink sky. By the time I reach the start of my walk the prospect of a fine start to the day has diminished. The sun is now quite watery and the wind is freshening. I decide to park in the village of Broadwell, a mile and a half outside Stow-on-the-Wold and I am walking by 8am and set out on a steady ascent along a lane towards Stow-on-the-Wold. From the lane, I join an enclosed path, way marked with the Monarch’s Way logo. A minor lane is joined later passing Stow Well where there is a large stone water trough and an abundant flow of clear water. It was once the main supply of water for the town and is reputed to have never dried up.

It is still before 9am as I enter Stow-on-the-Wold and I opt to take a wander around the town despite most premises not yet open. This attractive small Cotswold town has many tea shops and restaurants which appear to be mostly upmarket judging by the prices charged.

I leave the town and take the lane towards the village of Maugersbury then skirt around to the west on a cul-de-sac lane to reach the A429. I have to follow this road south a short distance but at least there is a good pavement. To my left but not visible is the site of St Edward’s Well, named after a Saxon hermit who lived at this spot.

The Dovecot at Bowl Farm.

My route takes me west next following a private driveway and later along a path diversion to reach Hyde Mill. Here, the River Dikler is running high. I head north next on a field path which is initially squelchy to reach the attractive village of Lower Swell. The village has many fine stone cottages. The village once had a spa well rich in minerals but this has long dried up. On the village green I stop for an early break before moving on and taking a field path down towards the River Dikler. Turning north, I follow a good drive, passing the historic Lady’s Well before reaching Bowl Farm. In a field on my left I come across a curious square building with the date 1917 above the porch and from my research afterwards I find that this was once a dovecot. I now continue on a field path to Upper Swell which today seems to be a bit of a bottleneck with traffic queued through the village as the result of a large truck meeting a coach at a narrow bridge. I have no choice but to follow this road through the village but I have to keep standing in so that traffic can pass me. Worse is to come as leaving the village, the intended lane I want to take is closed not only to traffic but also to pedestrians and a map posted on a board shows a lengthy diversion on foot. Rather than cutting my walk short, I opt to extend it as I am making good time and furthermore, the reasonable weather is holding. I therefore set out west along the busy B4077, and fortunately there is a grassy verge which I can leap up onto when traffic passes. I am glad however to divert onto a side lane towards the village of Condicote. This lane passes over some higher ground and in places old snow still lies in the ditches. At the next lane junction it is decision time. I can turn right and follow lanes back towards Broadwell or extend my walk further with a larger loop to take in the village of Longborough. With plenty of time to spare and the weather showing no signs of turning wet I chose the latter and march off to the village of Condicote. The village is set around a circular green and the place has little changed for centuries. An ancient cross stands on the western side of the green and the base dates from the 14th century. On the eastern edge of the village is an Iron Age hill fort but very little of this visible. In a shelter on the village green I take another short break and watch the postman doing his round.

Condicote – cottages are dotted around the village green and the place takes on the feel that nothing has changed for centuries. The base of the ancient cross dates from the 14th century.

Leaving the village, I head northwest and soon join a track which is full of potholes. I stay with this track for about a mile before turning right and descend on a lane to the remote hamlet of Hinchwick. From here, I join a good path running generally east towards Longborough. This path is quite undulating and on the first summit I pass a new slate memorial stone. Later, I cross the A424 and take a woodland track to reach another lane. The view from the end of the woodland stretches many miles. To reach Longborough I now follow a lane north which is lined with old snow drifts. I take a field path east next descending towards the village. I now head for the village church and find a small seat on the south side of the building but this proves a fairly breezy spot to have lunch. Afterwards I briefly take a look inside the 12th century church but the interior is fairly dark, plain and cold. The name Longborough derives from the nearby long barrow which lies on the ridge to the southwest. To reach the next village of Donnington I follow a muddy track and later waterlogged path through the edge of some woodland. To the south of this area was fought the last battle of the First English Civil War in March 1646. It was yet another victory to the Parliamentarians and resulted in the imprisonment of around 1600 Royalist soldiers in the parish church in Stow-on-the-Wold.

A modern slate gravestone at a lonely spot on the path between Hinchwick and Longborough.

St Paul’s Church Broadwell is overshadowed by the massive yew tree in the churchyard which is said to be 1300 years old.

At Donnington, I skirt around the northern side of the village passing the fine manor house. I join a lane here and soon cross the A429. It is just a short walk into Broadwell where I make a detour to visit the12th century parish church. The interior of the church is quite plain, however in the churchyard is an impressive and very large yew tree which according to the church guidebook is 1300 years old. The name Broadwell derives from the numerous springs in the area. To reach the car, it is just a short walk across the village green to complete a much longer than originally planned walk and furthermore I have completed it in the dry.

April to September Stroller Walks

The club is organising a programme of four mile ‘stroller’ walks on Fridays between the months of April and September as an introduction for people who are considering taking up rambling but are unsure about tackling longer distances.  Full details are in the walks programme.  Note that the walks all start at 10:30 am.

Macclesfield Forest Paths Closed

United Utilities, the owners of Macclesfield Forest, have closed the forest to visitors while their staff make safe the large number of trees which were blown over by the recent high winds.  More information can be found at https://www.unitedutilities.com/help-and-support/about-us/recreation-sites/

Contrasting weather on a Shropshire walk

A lovely March day for a walk but this weather wouldn’t last. The ford at Strefford near Craven Arms.

I love walking in Shropshire as the area is rich in medieval history and rolling rural countryside. For this walk, the weather wasn’t exactly at its best but it was a day with rapidly changing conditions which made the walking interesting.

Arriving at Craven Arms I am greeted by a biting easterly gale coupled with frequent snow showers which is reducing visibility from many miles to a couple of hundred yards within minutes. My parking is in the deserted car park at the Secret Hills Discovery Centre in the town which incidentally is closed on a Monday.

Having donned boots and warm gear I’m setting off through a largely deserted Craven Arms however there is a steady flow of traffic on the A49. Walking east from the town, I follow the B4368 for a short distance and cross the River Onny then turn left on the lane leading to the small village of Halford. My second port of call will be the small village of Strefford. Leaving the lane I branch right onto a field path above the River Onny. The fields are frozen and so walking is good but it is so bitterly cold with the occasional snow flurry interspersed by fleeting glimpses on the sun. By some woodland, I stop for my morning break where there is some shelter then continue north on a field path parallel with the Quinny Brook which I later cross via a footbridge.

Strefford is a quaint old village with many old dwellings but there is virtually no one about. In the village, I turn right and descend to re-cross the Quinny Brook via a footbridge with a parallel ford. A left turn then a fork right takes me up through Strefford Wood and here I encounter some mud. At the top I veer right to join a track passing close to Moorwood Farm. After crossing a lane I have a longer and steeper ascent ahead of me to gain Callow Hill. I opt to take the easier way up by taking the track up through Frizland Coppice then doubling back to gain Callow Hill crowned with its tower known as Flounder’s Folly. Built in 1838 by Benjamin Flounder’s, the tower stands some 80 feet high and is occasionally opened to the public. By the early 1900’s it was falling into disrepair but was rescued recently by the Flounder’s Folly Trust and has been restored to its former glory.

Flounder’s Follow on Callow Hill. When St George’s flag flies from the to,p then the tower is open.  See website at end for opening dates in 2018.

Reaching the top, I come across a small group of rambler’s taking a break. Being so cold, I don’t linger long and head southwest in search of the trig point which lies a little distance away from the summit and involves scaling a fence. It is a quick visit as the weather is quickly deteriorating from the east.

A blizzard roars in from the east as I descend from Callow Hill.

Five minutes after the photograph above was taken and it could be a completely a different day.

Heading alongside the upper edge of Callowhill Plantations I later turn south with a biting wind. The first flakes of snow from the next shower are now falling and over the next half mile it gradually became heavier resulting in a full blizzard. This next section of the walk means a bit of trespassing as I want to join the path at Buck House. Leaving the path, I follow a good enclosed track but there is no sign to say it is private. Now I am walking in blizzard conditions but soon blue sky returns making a complete contrast from minutes earlier. Buck House is no more, just a few mounds in a field and no sign of my intended path. Instead, I decide to press on towards Marsh Barn but this will mean more trespassing, and in full view of farm buildings but at least I am still following a good track. Luckily today there is no one about and I follow the good track downhill and later opt to walk beside a field boundary to avoid a field of restless horses.

At the B4368 I turn right and have no real option but to follow this road for nearly a mile. With no pavements I have to watch for fast traffic but thankfully there isn’t too much about. Beyond Whettleton Barn I turn left across a field but there is no footpath sign leaving the road. After crossing two fields I reach Whettleton Woods at a gate and thankfully beyond, a good path leads up through woodlands. I am expecting problems here but am pleasantly surprised. Ascending, I later turn right and made my way up towards Norton Camp. There are many paths to choose from and I think that some of the way I not on the official right of way. I opt to investigate Norton Camp and scale its two well defined embankments. The camp dates from the Iron Age and is well overgrown by vegetation but I have read that in the spring the banks are full of bluebells and wild garlic. The interior of the camp consists of a round field and I decide on following it round to the north western side before searching west for the path that runs southwards. I find it with ease and it is way marked at frequent intervals. The embankments at the south western end of the fort are again well defined.

Stokesay Castle is probably the best preserved 13th century medieval manor house in England.

Heading south I find a sheltered woodland spot at a stile for lunch and the limited sunshine is most welcomed. The fine weather isn’t to last as another blizzard is bearing down to give a temporary covering of snow as I head south joining the track known as Rotting Lane. A steady descent takes me down passing Lower Park and Park Farm to reach the A49 by which time the sunshine has returned. I cross the main road for the last leg of the walk along the valley to Craven Arms.
A ploughed field is crossed which passes beneath the railway and soon joins the Shropshire Way. It is now a walk parallel with the railway and later crossing it via a level crossing to reach the fortified manor house at Stokesay Castle. The castle is one of the finest and best pre preserved fortified medieval manor houses in England and has remained unchanged since the 13th century. The castle was built by Laurence of Ludlow who at the time was one of the richest men in England. The property is in the car of English Heritage.

With the light being right, I wait on the far side of a pond to get some photographs before continuing with the Shropshire Way. Crossing fields, a blizzard is bearing down and this time it looks as if it will be a heavy one. A right turn takes me on the last path towards Craven Arms into the teeth of driving snow. Before long the ground is turning white as I make the last few steps into the town and the end of my walk.

Here comes that weather again. Minutes later I was battling into yet another blizzard as I neared the end of my walk at Craven Arms.

Flounders Folly will be open on certain dates during 2018 and the website is as follows;- www.floundersfolly.org.uk

Details on Stokesay Castle can be found on the following website;- www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/stokesay-castle

Climbing high in the Fens

One of many such colourful fields of tulips in the Fens. This one is at Fleet Hargate.

Every Spring in the Fenland town of Spalding, large crowds are drawn to the annual flower festival when many richly decorated floats covered in tulip heads slowly wind its way through the town. For the spectator and the photographer it is a very colourful event and you need to take up your perch well before the procession starts. Having said that, we made a family weekend of it a few years ago and decided to explore what the Fens had to offer. One good thing about the weekend of the Spalding Flower Festival is that many of the local churches put on flower displays and so you can spend all day visiting as many churches as you wish.

One of the floats in the Spalding Flower Parade. There are normally at least thirty such floats and each one has a  theme.

The Fens are probably one of the least walked areas in Britain but have their own attraction. Its true there is a lack of footpaths, and those that do exist tend to run in straight lines either along the boundaries of very large fields or beside dead straight water channels. Having said that, Spring is a good time to visit this area as some of fields are full of tulips or daffodils which can give a vivid display of colour which is almost unique in this country. Another plus point is that despite the area being as flat as a pancake, there are normally wide open vistas and cloudscapes which have its own attractions.

Daffodils as far as you can see near Long Sutton.

Having spent a day in Spalding we had a second full day to explore and go on a walk. Starting out from Long Sutton, I was going to follow a walk taken from a guide book. With an overnight thunderstorm, the air still felt muggy on this Sunday morning and it seemed almost as if the thunder might return. The open landscape of the Fens was probably not the best place to get caught out in a thunderstorm but nevertheless we opted to set out from the large village of Long Sutton.

The village which is thankfully now bypassed by the A17 has some fine Georgian buildings and was once a quite prosperous trading centre but nowadays it takes on the feel of a quiet backwater. It once had a railway station and local produce could be easily transported to major conurbations. On a darker side, the village was once home fo5r a brief period to the infamous highwayman Dick Turpin who lived under the alias name of John Palmer.

Tulips in the churchyard at Long Sutton, just one of hundreds of displays in different churchyards in the area.

We set out on this walk by crossing the churchyard then the recreational field before taking a path north east. The church bells are ringing for the Sunday morning service but other than that it is quiet. Veering east later we pause to photograph a large field of daffodils. Soon, a right turn takes us onto Hospital Drove which we will follow due south to reach the South Holland Main Drain, one of the principal water drainage channels in the area. At least this road is very quiet and is dead straight in this very flat countryside. En route we cross the A17 and later join a track to reach the South Holland Main Drain. This waterway despite being very straight at least breaks up the flatness of the surrounding countryside and there is an embankment to walk along. Furthermore it makes a good spot to stop for our morning break. We now follow the embankment west for a good mile and cross the A1101 on the way.

Heading north towards Long Sutton the way is more interesting as we follow a minor road on top of the old Sea Bank. In mediaeval times this was the coastline and over the course of several centuries the land has been drained so that The Wash now lies several miles to the north. Walking this raised road gives us a better view of the surrounding countryside and there are several cottages dotted along the road.

Later we join the B1390 briefly then take a field path bordering ditches and watercourses. The A17, is now much busier and we cross this road again then follow a faint path back to Long Sutton.

St Mary’s Church Long Sutton. My son and I climbed to the top of the spire to get a view from the  hatch door which can be seen open just below the top.

With a picnic lunch in the churchyard it is time to explore the village church. With my wife and daughter busy taking in the flower display, I note that the church tower is open to the public. Now I can’t resist a climb up a church tower and this is a rare opportunity at this particular church. My son joins me for the ascent up the solid church tower and reaching the top of the tower there is then an opportunity for a small charge, and at your own risk the climb the interior of the spire.
The spire of St Mary’s Church, Long Sutton was built to a similar design to the famous twisted spire at Chesterfield but the spire at Long Sutton is not twisted. The 13th century lead covered spire is said to be the highest and oldest in England and possible Europe of this type.

The belfry at St Mary’s Church, Long Sutton at the top of the tower. The next photograph shows the climb ahead of us.

The medieval latticework within the spire of St Mary’s Church, Long Sutton. Ladders can be seen at the top left and centre right at the top of the photograph.

Looking up it is a daunting task to climb up through the wooden medieval latticework on a series of wooden ladders with nothing to stop a fall. There are few handrails and it is dark as I follow my son up a series of steep wooden ladders. Every so often we pause on a small airy wooden platform before tackling the next ladder. Far below is an unprotected drop to the belfry, and as we climb higher the interior becomes narrower as we squeeze from one ladder to the next. Nearing the top of the interior I estimate that there is a drop of a good ninety feet to the belfry and we ensure we have a good grip of the ladder.

The view from the top of the spire at St Mary’s Church, Long Sutton.

The top comes quite suddenly and we take it in turns to squeeze past one another on the small platform where there is an open hatch at the top of the spire giving us a rewarding view of the Fens. During the Second World War, a lookout was posted on top of the spire to report on enemy bombers crossing the area. What a job!

After ten minutes at our lofty perch and with several photographs taken it is time to descend, and just as a point of comfort our guide tells us not to put two feet on any one rung on the way down as occasionally they break. Well that is a good time to tell us! I had incidentally noticed on the way up that many of the rungs had been replaced. The descent proves more difficult as at each dark platform you need to get down on hands and knees to feel with your feet where the top of the next ladder is. Back on terra firma we head for the good old fashion village hall for a good cup of tea. What an end to a walk!

The Spalding Flower Festival will be held this year on the 8th and 9th of April.

Exploring Slieve Gullion and its interesting geology

Ascending Slieve Gullion with a view southwest to the outlying hills which form the ring of volcanic hills surrounding Slieve Gullion. The village in the gap between the two hills is Forkhill and beyond is County Louth.

So here was my plan. Leave Macclesfield at 5am, get a lift to Manchester Airport for the first flight out to Belfast City Airport. Collect my hire car and get provisions for a few days then head down to County Armagh to climb the hill called Slieve Gullion and be walking by 10am. It seemed an ambitious plan and having negotiated the Belfast rush hour I was parked up and ready for the off at 09.45am from the Slieve Gullion Interpretation Centre in South Armagh and furthermore it’s was a fine and sunny October morning.

On my first visit to the area in 2003, the observation watch towers were still in place along the border. Ten years later, the towers had gone but being close to the Irish border and not knowing what to expect, I was a bit dubious about walking here due to its past terrorist history as just down the road were the two villages of Forkhill and Crossmaglen both of which often featured in the news for all the wrong reasons. I needn’t have worried as the site was well used by walkers and the place where I set out from had a complex of buildings including a café, toilets and detailed information boards of the area explaining the rich geological history.
Geologically Slieve Gullion and the encircling ‘ring dyke’ hills are considered to be the best example of a volcanic ring dyke system in the British Isles The complex attracts international research interest and has made contributions of world significance to scientific understanding of volcanicity.
The oldest rocks date from the Silurian period 440 million years ago and were laid down under the sea bed then 30 million years later, molten granite rock was intruded into these rocks which spread as far as Newry as few miles away. This volcanic activity formed an important part of mountain building in Ireland
Around 65 million years ago during the Palaeogene period, the area saw further volcanic activity and Slieve Gullion today forms the heart of an ancient volcano. Ring faults around Slieve Gullion form an interesting circle of hills some seven miles in diameter.
So why had I come to climb, Slieve Gullion? Well, it just so happens to be the highest piece of land in County Armagh and therefore a county top. I had only two ‘county tops’ summits to bag in Northern Ireland and with the weather being good I set out on this recognised nine mile circuit.

The trig point and toposcope at the summit of Slieve Gullion and the view south towards County Louth.

The passage tomb at the summit of Slieve Gullion. Probably a good lunch stop out of the wind! I decided not to put it to the test.

With a fine sunny morning I set off up through Hawthorn Wood from the Interpretation Centre but already the map and information I had didn’t agree as I should have been higher up the hillside. I continued with a good path and knew exactly where I was. Soon the views to the south began to open out towards Dundalk and County Louth. With a little bit of a dog leg on a unmarked path, I managed with ease to get onto the intended route, which was a deserted forest drive albeit a few dog walkers. The drive skirted around the lower southern slopes of Slieve Gullion gradually ascending and views opening out across the vast expanse of green fields towards County Monaghan. As I ascended so the circuit of rocky hills around Slieve Gullion were becoming more prominent and the geological landscape was giving up its secrets.

Reaching a high point on the forest drive I stopped for my morning break and soon left the drive up an engineered path on my right. This good path ran all the way to the 576 metre summit. The summit was a cold place and no spot to linger. The sunshine of earlier had gone and fleeting showers were around. The view however was excellent with the visibility extending to Sugarloaf Mountain south of Dublin some sixty miles away. Below the trig point and toposcope is a large chambered passage tomb, the highest of any such tomb in Ulster. The entrance to the tomb is along a short, lintelled, passage which leads to the octagonal, originally corbelled, chamber.The earliest documented investigation of the tomb dates from 1789 when only a few bones were found and another archelogical imnvestigateion in 1961 revealed that the tomb had probably been ransacked and little was found.

A pleasant grassy path descending north from Slieve Gullion and a view to the ring of volcanic hills that surround Slieve Gullion.

Sunlight catches Sugarloaf Hill, north of Slieve Gullion.

I decided to set off for North Cairn which lies at the northern end of the ridge. In contrast with the walk so far the going was quite boggy in parts and a slip I took resulted in an awkward fall onto my thumb. Thankfully, I didn’t break it but it was a close thing. From North Cairn I descended north towards the Ballard Road carefully treading on any sloping boggy ground. Lower down at a drier spot, I found a good sheltered spot for my picnic lunch staring out across County Armagh and County Down. Setting off once more, the path became very good and well defined as I descended that last half mile to the Ballard Road. It was all road walking now back to the car and turning east, I soon made a winding descent to continue with the road running south below Slieve Gullion. There was the odd shower around but not enough for waterproofs.

Tree felling on the slopes of Slieve Gullion. Its amazing what this bit of kit can do. Grabbing each tree, felling, stripping the branches and cutting into lengths takes as little as forty seconds.

Clonlum South Cairn near Meigh. One of many prehistoric monuments in this area.

 

I paused at three locations en route back to the car. Firstly I stopped below Ballintemple Wood and watched a machine at work felling pine trees. Easy work was being made as each tree was grabbed by claws and the powerful saw cut through tree trunk then felled and the trunk stripped of branches and cut into equal lengths with each tree only taking around forty seconds to process. Next on the agenda was Killevy Old Churches which date from the 5th century AD and started out as a convent. Two churches were built next to one another in a peaceful setting and surrounded by a graveyard. Today the buildings are roofless. Finally, a short detour was taken into a field to visit Clonlum South Cairn. A Cist, surrounded by a raised bank lying in the middle of a field. I continued with the road back to the car finishing the walk by mid afternoon.
So to sum up the walk is that I was pleasantly surprised by the good facilities at the start and overall the paths were good in this area where few walkers would have dared to tread only a few years back. There are plans for a network of paths in the area. It is now a case of attracting people into this area of interesting scenery.