Two days on the Wye

Having already eulogised about the beauty of the River Wye in previous blogs, I am going to avoid that this time and focus on the differences.

We were three couples, six close friends. The males in the group made up the bulk of last year’s ‘Old Gits on the Wye’ team and this time we were wanting to share the river with our better halves. While eating energy giving bacon butties before leaving, Ian set the tone for the two days by announcing that he was going to be really nice to Mari. Isn’t he always? This was quickly picked up by Angela so I knew I had to be on my guard.

FullSizeRender-32The weather was not brilliant but the forecast was even worse. We were going to get wet and the wind was strengthening. Nevertheless, we were in good spirits as we left Ross on the first leg of our journey. Lunch was planned for the Inn on the Wye but we seemed to get there just after crowds of others arrived and, having to wait some time in order to get a drink, we decided to forget lunch there. In any case, unbeknown to me until this point, Rob had made some of his famous egg sandwiches for everybody.

Rob & Chris

Rob & Chris

Back on the river the weather improved and we were able to discard our waterproofs. We saw all the usual things, cormorants drying their wings, fish leaping out of the water and fleeting glimpses of kingfishers darting just above the water. Normally, long before we get near a kingfisher, it is off in a flash of fluorescent blue. But we came across one sitting on a rock determined not to be disturbed by us passing only a few feet away.

Occasionally we were caught by gusts of wind which made steering almost impossible. No, I must be honest. On a couple of occasions, totally impossible, and I treated Angela to a close encounter with a willow tree, which I found embarrassing as I am supposed to be the expert!

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Should I buy it?

On reaching Symonds Yat West we checked into The Old Ferrie Inn for the night just in time for the heavens to open, releasing heavy, persistent rain for several hours. There was nothing we could do but spend our time usefully in the bar drinking pints of Butty Bach. Mark, from the Ross-on-Wye Canoe Hire Company joined us in the bar and pointed out a canoe belonging to the hotel owner, that was for sale. Taking a look at it got me excited.

Having eaten, by nine o’clock I was gone and I struggled to keep awake. I was not the only one and we all drifted off to bed for an early night, beaten by a day of exercise, too much food and certainly, in my case, too much drink. I went to sleep dreaming of my own canoe.

I woke in the morning deciding that I would not buy the canoe as it would be an impulse buy. After a hearty breakfast, Ian and I took out the Old Town Ojibway canoe on to the river for a test run. The rear seat is very snug but the canoe glided across the water beautifully and handled very well. The conditions were perfect with mirror glass water. I tried all the seats and fell in love with it, deciding that I would, after all, make an offer.

Mari & Ian shooting the rapids

Mari & Ian shooting the rapids

Donning our hard hats we set off for the short distance to Symonds Yat East and the rapids. There was a little more water than three weeks ago, which made them a little more feisty. One at a time, each couple took their canoe through, emerging the other end unscathed but having shipped a bit of water along the way. Angela and I pulled in to one side so that I could photograph the others coming through. While there had been a little apprehension on the faces of the girls before they went through, it gives me enormous pleasure to see the excitement on their faces as they ride the bumpy water. It is over all too soon and we are back on to the black mirrored water as we pass through the gorge. Here we were sheltered but as we emerged from the gorge we began to feel the strong breeze, which did not bode well for the next stage of the journey.

The calm before the storm

The calm before the storm

Having exited the gorge we turned ninety degrees left to head west towards Monmouth, right into the teeth of the wind funnelling up the river. It was strong enough to make life very difficult for the next mile and a half and with 35mph gusts catching us, almost impossible at times. If the canoe was not lined up so that it faced straight into the wind we would be pushed to one side or another, getting tangled among the trees on either bank. Once knocked off course it was impossible to bring the canoe round. We were all floundering. We all had different strategies to cope with it. We had, throughout, had the girls at the front and the men at the back with the responsibility for steering. Rob and Chris stayed as they were drawing upon their Zimbabwian grit and determination. Ian turned round in his seat, sitting with his back to Mari, so that he became the front and Mari could only see where she had been but could now steer. Angela and I changed places so that we had more power in the bows. She did a brilliant job of steering; I was so proud of her, of all the girls, coping with the difficult conditions. It took us an hour and twenty minutes to cover the mile and half.

Having lunched on the steps of Monmouth Rowing Club, we paddled the last three miles to Redbrook with ease as we were now out of the wind. Angela remained at the helm and continued to do a fine job. We are going to have fun together when I have bought OUR canoe.

I have had three fabulous trips on the Wye this year, all very different in nature and in the dynamics of the groups. All hugely enjoyable and I look forward to more next year.

I have put in an offer on the canoe but have not heard back, yet.

Paddle the Wye

Following the success of last year’s ‘Old Gits on the Wye’ a number of friends expressed an interest in a four day camping trip, paddling the River Wye from Hay-on-Wye to Redbrook. This has to be one of England’s finest rivers and the fact that it is not navigable to anything other than a canoe, apart from a short stretch at Symonds Yat where pleasure boats glide, makes it such a pleasurable journey.

Final preparations before leaving Hay

Final preparations before leaving Hay

Six of us met early on Monday morning and made our way to Ross-on-Wye Canoe Hire Company for 6.30am, where we were to pick up our canoes and associated kit, and be driven to Hay. It has been a particularly dry summer and the water levels at Hay were lower than they have been for years. There was a distinct possibility that we would be running aground and possibly having to porter our canoes over banks of gravel just below the surface. With all the kit shared and stowed between the three canoes, we entered the water and began our 80 mile journey at about 8.00am, enabling us to have a leisurely day travelling the 18 miles to Bycross. It was still early enough for there to be plenty of activity on the river with herons positioning themselves by any fast flowing water on the lookout for breakfast. Unfortunately, they did not feel comfortable with our approach, causing them to fly off before we could get really close.

Approaching the toll bridge at Whitney-on-Wye

Approaching the toll bridge at Whitney-on-Wye

Initially, we picked our way through channels of deeper water, avoiding, in the main, the banks of shingle and rocky outcrops. it was also a time for us to get used to paddling with our partners, coordinating our strokes in an effort to maintain a relatively straight line.

Soon we were in deeper water, giving us much more flexibility but these wider sections would become narrower at regular intervals as more of the river bed became exposed. All along the river the banks were largely lined with trees or heavily vegetated banks of Himalayan balsam, giving just a very narrow view of the river and its immediate environment. Very rarely did we get a view beyond, but when we did it was usually of some very splendid house and gardens.

Taking a break on an island mid river (Photo - Claire Cox)

Taking a break on an island mid river (Photo – Claire Cox)

There are very few places where you can officially land a canoe. The land owners on either side of the river own the river butting on to their land. Often there are signs warning of there being no rights to landing. However, where we could we would take the opportunity to stretch our legs, get the stove out and make a cup of tea. After all, we were not in any rush after such an early start. We also had to take care, when we did land, that we were not disturbing any swans with their broods of anything between two and five cygnets. Had we done so we might have encountered the aggressive side of a swan’s nature, but, as it was, all we saw were majestic birds with their fluffy young.

A sand martin delivering to its young

A sand martin delivering to its young

The air above us was alive with swooping birds, sand martins, skimming the surface of the river at speed, picking up insects as they did so. Where the bank was exposed, sandy cliffs had formed, created at a time when the river was much higher. Now, they were honeycombed with holes, each with a nest full of hungry chicks. Once the parents were loaded with insects, they swooped into their hole, deposited the food down hungry throats, and swept out again to hunt for more. Their aerial dexterity was a joy to watch. It was incredibly difficult to photograph these birds as they moved so quickly. Also, if we ventured too near to the bank they would cease delivering until we pulled back to where they considered they were safe.

Bredwardine Bridge

Bredwardine Bridge

The Wye is crossed by numerous bridges. The most beautiful are the old, sandstone road bridges that have spanned the river for centuries. Some have been widened to cater for modern day traffic but have retained their original arches. The first we came across was the bridge at Bredwardine. Some have not survived. many of the railways that crossed the river no longer exist so the bridges have been demolished, leaving monolithic pillars rising out of the water, reminding us of a time when steam ruled.

Losing battle (Photo - Claire Cox)

Photo – Claire Cox

On the whole this is a gentle, sedate part of the river, but there are reminders of the damage it can do when there is a lot more water flowing down it. One feature, named The Scar is on a sharp right hand loop in the river. Here it has gouged into the bank creating a steep cliff. At times, when the river successfully eats further into it, damage occurs higher up. At the moment this is plain to see as a tree, now dead, clings precariously to it earthly anchor. I suspect, given one more winter, it might lose its grip and end up in the river. Half way down the cliff there is a tree that is not only hanging on, but hanging on to life as it gradually makes its way to a watery grave. These signs of damage along this tranquil river are rare. That does not mean to say that this river does not have its angry moments. It is a very different river in the depths of winter, much deeper, much faster flowing, and full of silt, a far less pleasant river to paddle down in those circumstances.

Thanks Mike

Another lost battle. Thanks Mike! (Photo – Claire Cox)

We were now nearing the end of our first day’s journey, arriving at Bycross Farm by mid afternoon. We had all managed to stay dry throughout the journey. It would seem that getting in and out of the canoes is when we are at most risk. This was certainly the case last year, and it was also this. Having pulling up at the landing place, where it is necessary to step into the water, Mike managed to get one foot in the river while the other lingered in his canoe. His canoe foot started to push the canoe away from him, gradually widening his legs. Inevitably gravity took control and he sank backwards into the river. In doing so he grabbed hold of my canoe and tipped it, also partially depositing me in the river. It was extremely funny and I am so grateful that Claire, who had already set foot on dry land, was quick enough to get her camera out.

Simon test his nerve at Mornington Falls

Simon test his nerve at Mornington Falls

The campsite at Bycross Farm is delightfully set in an orchard on the right bank of the river. We had plenty of time to relax and wander down to have a look at the first obstacle of the next morning, Mornington Falls. They are hardly a waterfall in the present conditions as much of the rock has been exposed, leaving just a narrow channel of agitated water for us to follow in the morning.

It is a popular campsite for anybody travelling the river and there were many more arrivals after us. One of the later arrivals was a couple with a labrador, the latter wearing a fluorescent jacket. We immediately jumped to the conclusion that it was a guide dog and that the lady was at least partially sighted, if not blind. We rushed to help carry their kit up the bank, hoist their canoe out of the water and up the ramp. Then we watched the woman, unaided, climb the steps and start carrying her kit across the campsite. She had no visual impairment at all. For our community spirit she gave us some insect repellant.

Getting smoked out!

Getting smoked out!

In recent years the facilities at Bycross Farm have been improved and it is a pleasant place to chill out in the evening. Our meal that night was a variety of ready made meals in sachets that just needed to be heated in boiling water for a few minutes. As we had the stove out, I took the opportunity to hard boil a dozen eggs that Sandie and Simon’s chickens had kindly donated to the trip. These would keep us sustained during the long second day. During the evening Simon lit a camp fire and we sat around it, enjoying the peace and tranquility in the fading light.

The following morning the weather forecast did not bode well. It promised to be wet, potentially all day but with a likelihood of it deteriorating as the day went on, turning to heavy rain. In reality it was not as bad as forecast, and we got away with only occasional light drizzle in the morning. It was only in the last hour or so of our 10 hours paddling that it became less pleasant. This was our longest stretch, with 28 miles to paddle between Bycross and Hoarwithy. I think it was a wise decision that we set off at 7.00am, giving us every chance to reach Hoarwithy before the weather became too horrible.

Approaching Mornington Falls

Approaching Mornington Falls

Having successfully managed Mornington Falls, our first target was to reach Hereford, a little over 10 miles downstream.We swapped crews around and Simon put away his pirate’s tricorn hat to protect it from the rain. The overcast weather had brought out the fishermen and we always had to be on our guard not to snag their lines, particularly as many of them were hidden among the bushes lining the banks. Having been warned not to upset them, we found them all to be extremely friendly, engaging in conversation as we passed them.

Looking for breakfast (Photo - Claire Cox)

Looking for breakfast (Photo – Claire Cox)

Being on the river earlier in the day meant that we saw much more wildlife as they were all busy feeding. Swans, ducks and Canada Geese were prolific in their number, but we saw several heron, usually where the water was running faster. We had several sightings of kingfisher, usually just a darting flash of blue as, they too, were disturbed by us. The most dramatic and thrilling encounter was with leaping salmon. One of our conversations with a fisherman taught us that the salmon were hanging around in pools waiting for rain to add more water and increase the levels so that they could reach their spawning pools. In the meantime they swam around in the deeper water, occasionally leaping well clear of the surface, sometimes very close to our canoes. With no warnings it was impossible to catch them on camera.

It was also thrilling to see an otter swim across the bows of our canoes before disappearing into the riverbank vegetation. It would have been great to have some form of photographic evidence but sometimes it is better to savour the moment and enjoy it in real time rather than missing the moment while you fumble around with your camera.

Hereford Cathedral (Photo - Claire Cox)

Hereford Cathedral (Photo – Claire Cox)

We reached Hereford in good time and pulled ashore at the rowing clubs steps for a leg stretch and a bite to eat. And then we were off again, passing through the centre of Hereford, not that you would really know it from our position on the river. Just beyond the rowing club is the modern bridge carrying the inner ring road. just beyond the wonderful old stone bridge with the cathedral beyond on the left bank. Once we had passed them there was nothing of Hereford left to see as the banks are quite high and lined with trees and thick vegetation.

Well earned treat at Lucksall

Well earned treat at Lucksall

For the rest of the afternoon we paddled and meandered our way downstream with intermittent showers encouraging us to paddle. Passing the confluence of the River Lugg, just a trickle, we came across the up market caravan and camping site at Lucksall. Pulling up to the jetty we took our wet selves into the cafe for a well deserved cup of tea and a treat. We were also able to catch up on what was going on at Wimbledon. We had, by now covered 20 miles and common sense should have told me that to organise it into four equally distanced days would have been better, but as much as I enjoyed the treat, I would not want to stay on this pristine and manicured camp site.

Mesmerising weed drifting in the current

Mesmerising weed drifting in the current

Heading back on to the water we continued towards Hoarwithy. With little to see beyond the banks of the river I passed the time admiring the vivid green weed waving gently in the current of the river. Wherever the weed broke the surface, little white flowers opened. This weed, along with the wide variety of thriving wildlife, confirms what a healthy river the Wye is. It is a treasure of the English countryside and should be rigorously looked after so that it remains so. I could watch these weeds all day as they gently sway from side to side. However, I would rather not paddle through them as they do have a tendency to slow a canoe down.

And then it started to properly rain. Something happens to the brain when it rains. I knew, having done it last year that we should go to the right of Carey Islands, but we went left. Why? Thankfully a fisherman called out to us that we should be on the other side and we managed to squeeze through a gap of narrow, fast-flowing water. Well two of the three canoes did, at least. Mine got stuck on the rocks and I had to get out to push it, with difficulty, into deeper water.

Yummy!

Yummy!

And so, after 28.5 miles we reached our camp at Hoarwithy, a flat but basic site with only portaloos by way of facility. The bonus of camping here is that it is about 300m from The New Harp Inn, a pub that sells excellent beer and even better food. After a series of make do meals, albeit only for two days, we deserved something better after ten hours on the water. There would be no fun in self catering in the wet weather we were experiencing now that we were in camp. We spent a very pleasant evening in the pub and also bought a few extra supplies before we returned to our tents extremely well fed and watered(?).

St. Catherine's Church (Photo - Claire Cox)

St. Catherine’s Church (Photo – Claire Cox)

The following morning the rain had just about ceased and with the promise of clearing skies we were looking forward to a relatively short day to Ross. But before we could leave we went, while the tents dried a little, to visit the ‘Italianate’ church of St Catherine’s. Standing on the top of a small rise above the village of Hoarwithy, it has such a distinctive stye about it, so much so that it has featured in three films, apparently as a means of saving on production costs. Why go to Italy when you can go to Hoarwithy?

Aye, Aye, Captain

Aye, Aye, Captain

At about half past nine we cast off and set out on the eleven mile journey to Ross, which involved working our way round a massive loop in the river. In Hoarworthy the road sign told us that it was only 5 miles to Ross. We were taking the quiet, scenic route. With good weather, Simon had donned his tricorn hat, which the wearing of seems to make his voice go funny as he assumes a different character. I was partnering him today and while he was definitely captain, I was definitely only the cabin boy!

Weeping Willow and swan

Weeping Willow and swan

This stretch of the river is particularly beautiful. There were so many swan families I lost count. The salmon continued to jump and entertain us and the banter with the fishermen was a joy. Who said fishermen are all grumpy? They were delightfully accommodating, even when we got it wrong and disturbed them. I am particularly attracted to the grace of the weeping willows, which, like the reeds in the river, waft gently in the breeze, creating wonderful flowing shapes as they stretch their branches towards their lifeblood, the river.

I am laughing and not in pain.

I am laughing and not in pain. (Photo – Claire Cox)

We were in no rush, so at a convenient spot we went ashore for me to get the stove out, make a cup of tea and enjoy a biscuit or two. Clearly, this was a favourite spot as there were the remains of a camp fire and a couple of concrete fence posts balanced on rocks to form benches. Having made tea for everybody, I decided to sit on one of the makeshift benches. Not appreciating just how narrow the seats were, I carelessly plonked myself down, my backside missing the concrete post. Momentum and gravity took me backwards and I landed on my back, making sure that I spilt only the minimum amount of tea I was holding in the process. Needless to say, the cameras came out and my demise was well recorded. Thanks, guys!

IMG_4295Continuing our journey, Simon decided to take us through a arch created by an overhanging branch of a willow tree. It was only when we got to the point of no return that we realised it was, perhaps a little lower than we anticipated, forcing me to lie down as we went under. Embarrassingly, I struggled to get back upright, partly due to the fact that my head was lower than my bottom and partly because I couldn’t stop laughing. Soon the sound of traffic on the busy A40 told us that we were approaching Ross-on-Wye. We had made good time and arrived at the Ross Rowing Club by early afternoon. There we were able to set up camp and use the facilities of the club before exploring Ross and seeking out some refreshment.

The secret garden

The secret garden

By the time we ventured into Ross it was too late for lunch and, having planned to eat out in the evening, we did not want to overdo it. It would seem that most cafes close at 4.00 or at least stop serving savoury foods. We eventually found Truffles Delicatessen in the heart of old Ross, and although they had stopped serving savouries, they served afternoon teas in their secret garden. The fact that we found other people there suggests that the secret is out. We had a pleasant time there, eating fruit scones with lashings of butter, jam and cream before heading off to explore Ross a bit more thoroughly.

Steaks or lamb shanks all round

Steaks or lamb shanks all round

The upper part of Ross, around the church is much more pleasant than the lower part of the town. There are some old buildings and a sense of history about this small riverside market town. The church of St Mary’s, that stands out above all buildings, whether visiting Ross or passing by on the A40, is a magnificent church with a particularly high steeple. The buildings around it all seem to have some historical relevance and importance, including the Royal Hotel, with its wonderful views overlooking the river and surrounding countryside. It was here that we decided to return later for our evening meal.

Early morning fishing perch

Early morning fishing perch

With 24 miles to cover on our last day we needed to make an early start. As the morning dawned I became aware of the noise of traffic on the A40. Unable to sleep further, I eventually got up at 5.00am and started to make preparations for breakfast and packing away the kit. Others, prompted by an awareness of activity, emerged from their tents and we were successfully on the water by 7.00am. This was potentially going to be the best day in terms of scenic beauty and the fact that we were away before any others, we had the river to ourselves. I was partnering Sandie and we soon developed a good paddling understanding of each other and a good rhythm.

IMG_4307The sun shone and the salmon continued to leap spectacularly out of the water. The only disappointment was that the river meanders quite close to the main road at times, and the peace we had come to appreciate was shattered for those periods when we were within its proximity. Nevertheless, we were gradually getting much bigger views from the river as wooded slopes rose steeply from each bank. On the top of one such wooded slope we could see the ramparts of Goodrich Castle perched loftily above the river with far reaching views over the surrounding countryside. Closer to the water’s edge gardens belonging to idyllic houses swept down with willow trees gracefully bowing before us.

Sandie and Simon happy with their performance

Sandie and Simon happy with their performance

Eventually, we reached Symonds Yat and ordered an early lunch from the Olde Ferrie Inn on the west bank. This was to recharge our batteries before we hit the famous Symonds Yat rapids, which are always larger and more violent in the mind than they are in the river. We had a little crew change as Claire trusted my helmanship while Sandie wanted to be with Simon as he would be much easier to blame if things went wrong. Mike and Ann paired up for this last section. Donning our helmets we paddled towards the rapids and one at a time rode them with professional ease, much to our satisfaction and joy. The build up to this moment is with you all the way upstream to Hay, but is over in a matter of seconds.

Claire fiddling with her camera and certainly not paddling!

Claire fiddling with her camera and certainly not paddling!

All that was left now was to cruise through the still, dark waters of the Gorge with fallen trees creating monstrous shapes. Emerging from the gorge we had the mile long stretch into the teeth of a strengthening breeze towards Monmouth. It is amazing the difference a head wind can make, slowing down forward progress significantly and making steering harder. Also, there is no time to relax, because, if you do, you find yourself going backwards. Digging deep, after nearly four days of paddling, we managed to overcome the wind and reach Monmouth Bridge where the river turned south and we were into calmer air.

Approaching Redbrook (Photo - Claire Cox)

Approaching Redbrook (Photo – Claire Cox)

From there it was only a matter of two or three miles to Redbrook with a series of interesting boulders strewn about the river. These can act as an obstacle if you try to be clever and weave your way through them. While Mike and Ann, and Sandie and Simon chose a direct line through the boulders, I tried to be clever, much to the disgust of Claire. I don’t think the fisherman on the bank was too impressed either. Having freed myself, I shamefacedly paddled the last few yards to the landing point at Redbrook where Mark from the Ross-on-Wye Canoe Hire Company was there to meet us.

To finish, just a few statistics, curtesy of Claire:

Day 1 Hay to Bycross 17.8 miles at an average of 3.4mph (5.16 hours paddling time)

Day 2 Bycross to Hoarwithy 28.5 miles at an average of 3.6mph (7.53 hours paddling time)

Day 3 Hoarwithy to Ross 11.1 miles at an average of 3.6mph (3.07 hours paddling time)

Day 4 Ross to Redbrook 23.6 miles at an average of 3.9mph (6.03 hours paddling time)

I would like to thank my fellow paddlers for their company over the four days. I think it is fair to say we had a fantastic time on a superb 81 mile stretch of river, a journey to be repeated. Oh, and one more statistic, after all that paddling I put on 2.5kg in four days! How can that happen?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Jurassic Coast – A 100 mile walk along the beautiful Dorset and East Devon Coast

June is the month of long hot days, gentle breezes and, if luck is with us, little rain. It is for those very reasons that I organise these long distance treks during June. There is nothing better, after a good day’s walking, than to sit in camp enjoying a drink or two while the blazing sun sets, feeling that warm glow of satisfaction.

At least that is how it should be. Instead, on our first day in camp we, David, Claire and I battled strong winds as we put up the tents and the shelters at Higher Moor Farm Campsite. I was particularly worried that the shelters might not survive as the material ballooned out in the wind, the guy ropes strained and the rigid poles tried their best to detach themselves from the heaving nylon sheet. However, survive they did, and continued to do so as the wind was abnormally strong for several days to come.

By the time the group arrived, camp was all set up, but it was clear that it would be impossible to cook. Even if the flame was not blown out, the wind would make sure that it was not directed on the cooking pots. The only solution was to go out. Having made the decision, what could go wrong. Daniel, the campsite owner, recommended a choice of two pubs, The Elm Tree Inn and The King’s Head. We chose The Elm Tree Inn. The telephone numbers for both establishments were one above the other. I read the code, turned my attention to my phone, returned to the two numbers for the next part, dialled and booked a meal for seventeen at The Elm Tree Inn. When, at 7.00pm we turned up at The Elm Tree Inn they knew nothing of my booking, my gaze having gone from one number line to the other during the dialling process. We promised to return another evening and headed off to The King’s Head. It does not take much imagination to guess what some members of the group had to say about the matter.

Corfe Castle

Corfe Castle

The following morning dawned dull, grey, cold and still with a strong wind trying its hardest to do damage to our shelters. This morning we had our longest drive of the trip as we had to head out to the point at the far end of Studland Beach, where the ferry carries out the short crossing to the very expensive spit of land known as Sandbanks. On the journey we came across a number of vintage Rolls Royces on a scenic tour with their occupants well wrapped up against the elements. The other highlight of the hour long journey was the sight of Corfe Castle, a magnificent elevated ruin overlooking the valleys on either side.

Battling the elements

Battling the elements

After our compulsory start of day photo at the very eastern end of the Jurassic Coast Path, we headed out on to the beach to be hit by the full force of the wind. We were walking straight into the teeth of it. The soft sand beneath our feet made the going even harder. We soon headed towards the firmer wet sand at the water’s edge. It was also not long before we donned waterproofs as heavy, squally showers raced across the beach in the wind. The beach was virtually deserted, and there were certainly no naturists in the designated naturist section, unless they were hunkered down in the dunes at the back of the beach. I very much doubt it. Towards the southern end of the beach it became more populous with school groups on outings. What horrible conditions for them. I tried to give the teachers a sympathetic, knowing look but they were far too embarrassed to make eye contact.

Old Harry

Old Harry

At the far end of the beach we treated ourselves to a coffee, and as we did so, the weather showed signs of improving; the rain had ceased and there was a brightness in the sky, giving us some hope. From the beach we climbed up on to the headland and out to Handfast Point where the highlight is the stack Old Harry and, a little further around the corner, the Pinnacles. Here, and for much of this eastern section of the route, the cliffs are of chalk, standing out between the blue sea and the gradually blueing sky.

The deserted beach at Swanage

The deserted beach at Swanage

As we walked along the sea front at Swanage, more school groups, older this time, were carrying surveying poles on the beach. There was clearly a wide range of commitment among the groups, with some earnestly measuring and taking readings while others stood around getting cold in the never ceasing breeze. Had it not been for these groups, the beach would have been deserted.

Having passed through Swanage we traversed around Peveril Point with its lookout station and continued to Durlston Head, by which time the rain had returned. This had been a relatively easy introductory day, with just 9.2 miles covered and 1608 feet of ascent. The wind and occasional showers had taken away some of the pleasure. My comment on Facebook, “It can only get better, can’t it?” summed up how we all felt. June was letting us down.

It did get better, because the following morning the sun shone and although the stiff breeze continued to dominate, it was a much brighter day. It was also a much tougher day, a few miles longer and with some very steep ascents and descents.

Chris & Gill

Chris & Gill

It took us a while to get going, for having arrived at Durlston Head we ventured into the cafe for a coffee, so that by the time we started walking it was 10.45. However, the first few miles were quite easy as we contoured along the cliffs, which had very few indentations or ascents. However, distractions hindered us as we watched a dolphin off Anvil Point cavort through the water. We stopped again at Dancing Ledge, a flat platform of rock with a brace of cliffs, one descending to the sea while another rises into the hillside. It is in fact one of many old quarries along this section of the coast. Chris and Gill entertained us briefly with a little dancing.

Precarious props hold up the roof

Precarious props hold up the roof

Further along the coast we stopped off at another former quarry for lunch, using the time to explore further the old workings and the caverns created by long ago quarrymen. On a sunny day it is a lovely spot but you only have to imagine what it was like to work these quarries while a storm crashed ashore, and to look at the precarious pillars of rock that held up the roofs of the man-made caverns, to realise that life was hard.

Soon after lunch we reached St Alban’s Head with its coastguard lookout post. Two men sat there with their eyes fixed either on the vast expanse of sea in front of them or on a screen on the desk. There was absolutely nothing to see and I did wonder how often their days are filled with nothing.

Steep down followed immediately by a steep up

Steep down followed immediately by a steep up

Around the corner we encountered our first major descent and ascent. The path dropped steeply by a series of steps, built specifically to make it easier for us but actually making the descent knee and ankle jerkingly difficult. The steps are not quite close enough together and they are too deep for comfort. Hence we tended to look like cripples hobbling our way down stairs. No sooner had we reached the bottom, the path reared straight back up via 182 slightly miscalculated steps, to the height we descended from only a few minutes earlier. This was the first of several such descents and ascents of the day, but none were quite as much of a shock as that first one after St. Alban’s Head. The motivation with all these ascents and descents is that they are not mountains; they are relatively short bursts of strenuous activity, we knew that after a few minutes we would reach flatter terrain. Collectively we were climbing mountains each day.

We eventually reached Kimmeridge where the minibus was waiting to transport up back to camp. Whilst it was sunny, the wind still thwarted the temperatures so that, instead of lazing out in the evening sunshine, we tended to huddle in the mess tent before retiring quite early to bed.

Rex

Rex

I feel here is the time to digress, to stray from the point and mention T-rex, or Rex to his closest friends. I brought Rex with me to be a companion, to enjoy walking the land of his ancestors and possibly meet with a fossilised relative. I chose this instead of the usual  award, given daily to someone who has done or said something worthy of being reported. I chose it because some members of the group cannot live with the humiliation of being made a public spectacle. I was showing compassion to my fellow walkers, thinking carefully of their sensitivities. So it became a bit of a shock when, at every opportunity, Rex would be stolen from my bag, or his advantageous perch to be hidden from me and for him to be hidden from his wonderful surroundings. The group took joy in my humiliation, my anxiety for the welfare of Rex. What concerns me more than anything else, is that the perpetrators of my humiliation were the very people I was trying to protect. It is clear that there are some people, not only in the world, but in this group, who take great pleasure when they can dish it out but cannot take it themselves. Just you wait ’til next time, my friends, the gloves are off!!

IMG_4103For the rest of the week we played a game whereby Rex was passed from one to another. If he was found in your possession, it was your duty to get rid of him surreptitiously. The aim was not to be in possession of him at the end of the day. I have to say he had a marvellous, if somewhat precarious time, with many scrapes along the way, including being impaled on the walking pole of the most innocent and mild mannered member of the group. He also developed a bad drinking habit. It is hardly surprising that his ancestors became extinct.

The third day was by far the shortest in terms of distance, barely eight miles, but it took us through some stunning coastal scenery, a lot of it part of a massive military firing range. Fortunately, as we left Kimmeridge the red flags were not flying so it was safe to continue.

Kimmeridge Oil

Kimmeridge Oil

As we left Kimmeridge we were able to admire some industrial heritage in the form of the Kimmeridge oil field. Searching for oil in the shales off Kimmeridge began in the 1930s but it was not until 1959 that they really struck ‘black gold’. Pumps or nodding donkeys were built to extract the oil and the one adjacent to the path started production in 1961 and has been pumping ever since. In its heyday it produced 350 barrels a day but now tends to only achieve about 50 barrels daily. When one thinks of oil fields, one tends to think big, of an industrial environment as far as the eye can see and of environmental damage. This one is small, inoffensive and part of the industrial/cultural/environmental heritage of the Jurassic Coast.

Gad Cliffs

Gad Cliffs

Once we were in the the area of the firing range we had a steady and long climb up to Gad Cliffs. These are interesting rock formations, which are reminiscent of Mt Rushmore with its carved presidential heads. There is a series of rocky outcrops at the top of the cliff.  Each of the rocky outcrops lends itself to be the carved head of a British politician. However, as the rock is fairly fragile, the sculptures would not last very long (just like real politicians) as, bit by bit, their faces fell into the sea below. Interesting thought.

Having walked the length of Gad Cliffs we descended steeply to sea level before climbing up to Flower’s Barrow. Inland we looked down upon the abandoned village of Tyneham, commandeered by the Ministry of Defence, and further inland the ramparts of Lulworth Castle. More descents, followed by ascents brought us ever closer to Lulworth Cove, an iconic feature of the Dorset coast, and the subject of many geography field trips.  We descended to the beach for our picnic lunch.

Lulworth Cove with the village and route to Durdle Door behind

Lulworth Cove with the village and route to Durdle Door behind

If I am honest, Lulworth Cove disappointed me. I don’t think the beach is the best vantage point, but the beach was disappointing. In photographs the water appears a pristine blue, but when we were there it was a grey/green. The beach looked untidy and a show-off in a rubber speed boat spoilt any potential peace and quiet. After lunch, when we walked round the beach to the village, it got no better. The road leading up from the beach smelt of rotting fish and sewage. And there were hordes of people. I couldn’t wait to get out, but the path covering the short distance between the cove and Durdle Door was similarly crowded, and not all the people were that pleasant, scoffing at us in walking kit.

Looking back at Lulworth Cove beyond the car park

Looking back at Lulworth Cove beyond the car park

When we looked down to the cliffs of Durdle Door there were crowds there. Looking inland, slightly, the car park was crammed with cars, behind which there was a monstrous looking caravan park. There was no point in going to look at Durdle Door. We decided to wait until the morning before the crowds arrived. I love these places but I hate what mass tourism is doing to them. It is turning them into theme parks and encouraging people with theme park mentalities to visit them.

Hurdle Door

Hurdle Door

The following morning Durdle Door was much quieter and we were able to enjoy this fantastic feature without the crowds. But Durdle Door was not necessarily the star attraction, it was just the starter, the hors d’oeuvres, for we were to be treated to some stunning coastal scenery as we headed for Weymouth. Mind you, that beauty comes at a price. You do not get fantastic coastal scenery without there being some significant ups and downs. Despite all, we were getting fitter and managed to keep up a good pace throughout the day. However, there was no desire to rush; we had all day, and we really relished the opportunities to stop, to stare and to absorb.

Soon after leaving Durdle Door behind us we noticed a seal popping his head out of the water to stare at us. You could tell that he was as intrigued about us as we were about him. Then he would disappear for a while and then pop up again to give us the eye.

David and Chris striding out with The Beacon just visible over David's right shoulder

David and Chris striding out with The Beacon just visible to the right of  David’s shoulder

This section of the route has some wonderful names. How they came about is a mystery. For example, the dip in the path from where we watched the seal is marked as ‘Scratchy Bottom’ on the map. There is also Middle Bottom and West Bottom. Rocks breaking the surface of the water just off shore are named as ‘The Cow’, ‘The Blind Cow’, ‘The Bull’ and ‘The Calf’, none of which bear any resemblance to those bovine creatures. It was while taking a rest at an obelisk known as ‘The Beacon’ that we were able to sit and enjoy the spender of our surroundings. The wind that had bugged us for so many days was beginning to calm down; conditions were perfect.

IMG_4074I have mentioned the solitary dolphin and seal, but I have not mentioned much in the way of land based creatures. The reason for that, we very rarely saw any. There were plenty of birds, skylarks, stonechats, chuffs and, of course, gulls, but very few mammals. We saw a mouse one day, occasional rabbits but not a lot else. The chalk downs and cliffs are home to a wide variety of flowers, although many of them were past their best when we were there. These attract plenty of insects and butterflies and we were pleased on this day to see a Blue Adonis that stayed still long enough for a photo.

King George lll on his horse

King George lll on his horse

We were heading to Weymouth but before we got there we had to pass through Osmington Mills, not the village as that is slightly inland from the coast, but the area. We had driven through the village on a number of occasions to the start or from the finish of our walks on previous days. Whilst it is quite a pretty village, its main claim to fame is a horse and rider on a nearby hill. It was created in 1808 by cutting the thin turf to reveal the chalk beneath, and depicts King George lll, a regular visitor to Weymouth. From the cliff top we got a clear view of this magnificent chalk land carving.

Also along this stretch of cliff we came across a large hedge, behind which were many tall, straight poles with ropes and walkways suspended between them. It was a huge aerial activity course. Behind were row upon row of chalets from a bygone age of holidays. Now it is a PGL centre but, until 1994 it had been a Pontins holiday camp. Considering it was a children’s activity centre it seemed very quiet and deserted.

IMG_4080As we descended the cliff to walk the long sweep of Weymouth Bay we dropped in to Bowleaze, which had another remnant of a bygone age, the Art Deco Riviera Hotel, painted lovingly blue and white. Surrounding it was a rather austere institutional fence but it is still a fully functioning hotel with 98 chalet type bedrooms all brought up to date in a refurbishment programme. It too seemed quiet and deserted. Unless you like Art Deco it is a bit of an eyesore. Its beauty is not looking at it but looking at the sweeping Weymouth Bay from it.

Weymouth harbour area

Weymouth harbour area

And so we progressed to Weymouth with it sheltered, extensive, sandy beach, which attracts holiday makers of all ages. Along the promenade there were the usual tacky kiosks selling ice cream, candy floss and sticks of rock. It is not an aspect of holidays that appeals to me one bit. By contrast, the harbour area was much more interesting with colourful boats moored along each side of the waterfront. The quay led on to cobbled streets lined with lively bars and restaurants in attractive, well cared for buildings. Climbing up to Nothe Park, Weymouth showed another side to it. Here families gathered for picnics. The smell of barbecues fill the air. Groups of all ages were engaged in lively games of rounders and cricket with all enjoying a pleasant, sunny, Sunday afternoon in the park. There was a lovely atmosphere here.

Finally, the path again descended to sea level, picking up the route of an old railway line that lead us to Ferrybridge and the end of our walk. Sadly, the old inn at Ferrybridge is closed and derelict, meaning we had to wait until we got back to camp before we could put some effort into rehydrating.

Easy walking but lacking interest

Easy walking but lacking interest

We were missing out the section that walks around Portland, a day’s effort in itself. So the following morning we resumed from behind the old Ferrybridge Inn to walk to Abbotsbury. This was the least interesting day’s walking of the whole lot. For the bulk of the day we were walking around the inner edge of the lagoon behind Chesil Beach. I was expecting there to be a lot of bird life on the water, but there was very little until we were approaching Abbotsbury where there is a swannery.

Making hay while the sun shines

Making hay while the sun shines

One of the highlights of the day was calling into the Moonfleet Manner Hotel for a very mediocre coffee but where we had some fun banter with a group of about fifty ladies having a coffee morning meeting. It was soon after this that we left the water’s edge, gained a little height  and got a bit of a view. We were walking through fields of cut hay with its beautiful aroma. Farmers were making the most of the settling weather to gather it in. It painted a pleasant rural scene.

We soon reached Abbotsbury where we adjourned to The Swan Inn, the landlord of which has been in situe for 50 years. There we rehydrated while waiting for Angela and Annie to join us before heading back to camp, just a few minutes away in the minibus.

The new camp at Salcombe Regis

The new camp at Salcombe Regis

That evening we went out to the Elm Tree Inn for some excellent food and drink to celebrate coming to the end of the first phase of the walk. We were some way over half way. While the group would have a rest day the next day, David and I would move camp to Salcombe Regis, just outside Sidmouth. We had had a few good days at the excellent site at Higher Moor Farm, and, if I had judged it well, we were going to have a similarly good time at Salcombe Regis. It was at this point that we said farewell to Libby and greeted Gerry in her place.

The weather was improving. The wind that had accompanied us for several days had now died down, sunshine was dominant and the temperatures were rising. After several hours of hard toil we got camp as we wanted it and awaited the arrival of the group from their various ‘day off’ activities.

St Catherine's Chapel

St Catherine’s Chapel

We now had four days of walking left to complete the route, so the following day we returned to the affluent village of Abbotsbury, steeped in religious history (hence its wealth), to resume our walk.

We immediately took a slight detour to include St Catherine’s Chapel, perched dominantly on top of its own hill above the village and above the nearby coast.

It was good to be walking again after a day off.

Chisel Beach

Chisel Beach

That pleasure soon waned as the path took us on to Chesil Beach. I have walked along Chesil Beach before, many years ago, and I could still remember how hard it was then. It was no easier this time. The stones are small, just a little larger than pea gravel. There is absolutely not stability, firmness in it at all. Every step moves and, because it is lacking firmness, it does not give you any power as you stride forward. It is so energy sapping. Fortunately, it does not last for ever and the route finds firmer ground. What makes it worse is that for much of the time we have little visual stimulus to interest us. We cannot see the sea as we have the mass of the beach to our left. To our right, for much of the time, there were marshy areas behind which the land rose gently.

It was with some relief that, after several miles, we began to climb again and to get far reaching views. Ahead of us Golden Cap, the highest point on the south coast could be seen, still several miles away, and a climb that we would save until the next day.

IMG_4120At Burton Bradstock we popped into The Hive, a highly recommended restaurant, for a rest, a variety of non alcoholic drinks and some well deserved cake. Others around us were being served huge seafood platters at £75 for two! It was a very busy lunchtime but the staff were incredibly efficient and no sooner was our order in than it was there in front of us on the table.

Kath, one of the group, should have been with us, but because of ill health was unable to do so. The Hive is one of her favourite places so a few of those that know her posed in front so I could send her a photo, a photo that got bombed by a grinning Chris Perks.

Burton Bradstock Caravan Park

Freshwater Beach Caravan Park, Burton Bradstock

Burton Bradstock is a lovely place but just around the coast there is a hideous caravan park that spoils the natural beauty of the coastline. This was the first of many along this stretch of coast. I am sure that if planning applications were submitted today, there would be far stricter regulations to be adhered to. This is a stunning stretch of coastline with golden beaches and sandstone cliffs. It is so out of character to see rows and rows of static caravans sweeping down to the edge of the beach. Only those in the front row have an uninterrupted view; the rest are all looking over the roof of the one in front. Many of these places have their own pub, restaurant and shop so it is not as if the community as a whole is benefitting from this explosion of caravan parks. Now there’s an idea – explosion!

West Bay - with such a beautiful beach you would have expected it to be crowded. No, it was the pavements that were crowded.

West Bay – with such a beautiful beach you would have expected it to be crowded. No, it was the pavements that were crowded.

Worse was to come as we descended into West Bay. Made popular by the television programme, Broadchurch, people flock there to visit places they have seen on the small screen, to walk or sit in the same places that David Tennant and Olivia Coleman have walked or sat. It seems to be full of people with no purpose in their walk, so they clog up the pavements with themselves and their dogs, so much so that it tests both our navigational dexterity, our tempers and our sanity. I had been looking forward to a well-deserved ice cream, but there was no way I was going to contribute to the economy of West Bay. Again, it is a shame because it has some lovely beaches and coastal scenery either side of it.

Stunning backdrop to a stunning group photo

Stunning backdrop to a stunning group photo

With relief, we climbed the cliffs out of West Bay, and continued our journey to Seatown, a small village just a few stunning miles up the coast. Between West Bay and Seatown the path rose and fell several times, and each time giving us fabulous linear views along the coast. Golden Cap was now much nearer and, to be honest, it did not appear to be much different to the many climbs we had already achieved. It was a perfect walking day along these cliffs but there is evidence of much harsher conditions. On the cliff tops trees lean at very awkward angles and growth has been dictated to by the general direction of the wind, so that trees resemble an uncontrollable comb over.

As we travelled over Doghouse Hill, a place well known to the men in the group, a fox ran across the path in front of us chasing birds on the cliff edge.

We reached Seatown in good time, allowing us to relax and take on some fluid in the Anchor Inn. Some of us also took advantage of the time to go down to the water for a paddle and to cool off our feet.

Happy on the top of Golden Cap

Happy on the top of Golden Cap

Leaving Seatown the next morning we began immediately our ascent of Golden Cap, a flat topped peak rising to 191m above sea level. Our ascent was helped by the fact that we were quite early and there was a layer of cloud keeping the temperatures muted. It proved much easier than anticipated and we enjoyed good views from the summit. Looking back we could just see the outline of Portland Bill, while ahead of us lay Charmouth and Lyme Regis. Shortly after we descended, almost to sea level, we looked back and the cloud had descended also, covering the summit.

We continued on our way to Charmouth, where we took time to have some refreshment at a sea front cafe. We had made the decision that we were not going to walk the stretch from Charmouth to Lyme Regis as the coastal path for that section was now closed due to the cliffs becoming unstable. Instead the route takes an inland course, using roads where paths are not available, including the busy A35. There can be no joy in walking along roads. So Angela came to meet us in Charmouth and transport us to the outskirts of Lyme Regis.

As we drove up a steep hill en route to Lyme, we passed a girl pushing her heavily laden bike up the hill. As we later walked towards the beach in Lyme we came across her again. We were pleased to see she had made it and as we got into conversation with her we learnt that she had given up her career and was cycling around the coast of Britain while she made up her mind what she wanted to do with her life. She had started in Canterbury and had so far cycled 550 miles. She still had an awful long way to go. She had a small dog with her that travelled in a special basket on the front of her handle bars. It is meeting other people and hearing their stories that makes trips like this even more interesting.

Dangerous lunch spot!

Dangerous lunch spot!

Having wished her well, we went down to the beach for our picnic lunch, little realising that we were exposing ourselves to robbery and thuggery like no other. Ann was about to take a bite out of her mini pork pie when a gull swooped down in an effort to take it from her. It nipped her finger causing her to drop her pie. Tina also got mugged and the rest of us were constantly in danger as the gulls circled and swooped above our heads. I kept all my food sheltered under my spare hand, I was not sharing it with anyone, let alone a gull.

After lunch we moved on, slowly passing through the rest of Lyme before climbing up into woodland and an area known as the Lyme Regis Undercliffs. This is a heavily wooded area with an undulating path snaking its way through. It is a national nature reserve of significant importance. There is a layer of chalk and a layer of green sand sitting on top of clay sloping slightly towards the sea. When there is a lot of rain the chalk and the sand become waterlogged and multiply in weight. The clay becomes slippery, so the rock above slides ever closer to the sea. It is a fascinating area to walk through but after two or three miles you begin to tire of not having a view in any direction. This woodland section is over five miles long so it was with some relief that we emerged into open country after a couple of hours.

It was then a straight forward descent into Seaton, with an inoffensive, if dull, seafront. It has the air of being a retirement home.

After seven days of walking we were really beginning  to feel fitter, feeling the benefits of doing so much walking. We needed to because the eighth day from Seaton to Sidmouth was potentially the hardest day. We would find ourselves climbing steeply to the cliff top only to descend to sea level several times during the course of our twelve miles. To make it a little harder the temperatures were now significantly higher than they had been earlier in the week and there was no longer a cooling breeze coming off the sea.

Beer

Beer

The departure from Seaton was a little messy with quite a bit of tarmac walking and no direct route. Almost as soon as we had climbed the cliff to the west of the town we began the descent into Beer, a very attractive village in a narrow valley leading to a delightful stony beach. Old conveyor belts had been placed over the pebbles to create walkways to the deckchairs, and little cafes on the upper edge of the beach. Small boats and fishing vessels sat at jaunty angles on the pebbles and there was a very relaxed holiday atmosphere about the place. We stopped for coffee at one of the cafes, which seemed to be used as much by locals as by holiday makers and ourselves.

The cliff traverse route

The cliff traverse route. You can see the red sandstone cliffs beyond

Climbing out of Beer we climbed upon the last section of chalk cliffs along the coast. At the top of the headland we had a choice as to whether to take the high top of the cliff route or the route that initially descended part way down the cliff before traversing its way around. The group split according to their preference. I took the latter, an interesting path which was a little exposed at times but gave us close-up views of the features. Having rounded the corner of the headland we could see virtually all of the route ahead of us, not just to Sidmouth, but beyond to where Exmouth lay hidden behind cliffs. Descending into Branscombe we decided we needed another coffee. We were not in any rush.

There was mischief in the group. Some were taking great pleasure in secreting pebbles into rucksacks belonging to others. The fun was not getting caught doing it so that the recipient walked some distance before finding the source of their extra weight.

Enjoying the view and the moment

Enjoying the view and the moment

From Branscombe it was a constant up and down all the way to Sidmouth. The sun was beginning to sap energy and it was becoming increasingly hard to find any shade, particularly when we wanted to stop for lunch. With each hill it got a little harder and water supplies were running low. Nevertheless, it is a stunning stretch of coast, perhaps the best of the whole route. Whilst the sun and the desire for more water drove us on, there was also a desire to make it last as long as possible, to enjoy the spectacular scenery.

All too soon we found ourselves in Sidmouth, walking along the promenade to our finishing point at the western end of the town.

Climbing out of Sidmouth

Climbing out of Sidmouth

And so we come to the final day of our trek, a day with just three climbs  and lots of level walking. While the previous day had been the hardest of all, this was going to be one of the easiest, particularly as there was an ‘end of term’ atmosphere among the group. For the last few days the heat had been building up and even as we started our walk it was already well into the twenties and that first initial climb out of Sidmouth got hearts pumping and sweat pouring.

IMG_4174Although the cliffs were not as high as those on previous days, they were still pretty dramatic. They were very red and in places the sea also turned red as each wave, as small as it was, picked up red sand and carried it away from the cliff. Disappointingly, this stretch of coast is also where holiday parks have been allowed to develop. The first of these was at Ladram Bay where a lone, very old, thatched cottage had been completely surrounded by static caravans and all that goes with them.

Somewhere near Ladram Bay I lost my walking poles. I had carried them from Studland on the off chance that I might need them on one of the steep ups or downs, but at the same time determined not to use them. I had achieved my aim but now at the expense of losing my poles.

Budleigh Salterton was within our sights but the River Otter separated us from the town. There was some debate as to whether we should wade across the estuary or follow the official trail that took us a kilometre inland to the nearest bridge, followed by a second kilometre back out to the coast to within a couple of hundred metres of where we had been forty minutes earlier. This lack of forward progress was disheartening in the heat and we needed to reward ourselves with refreshment. In the town we came across the cafe, ‘Tea and Tittle Tattle’, that produced an interesting and very fruity version of flapjack. Suitably refreshed we continued on our way.

Our lunch time view and just a fraction of the Devon Cliffs caravan Park

Our lunch time view and just a fraction of the Devon Cliffs Caravan Park

One of the problems we faced as the walk progressed was where we could find any shade for our lunch. Wherever there were trees there were thick clusters of nettles. It was now so very hot and the sun was very strong, it was important that we gave ourselves a break from it. Unfortunately, the only place that gave us any shade at all was a tall hedge, which meant that we had to sit facing the worst of all caravan parks along the entire trail, Devon Cliffs Caravan Park. It was a town in its own right with acre upon acre of static caravans. At the core was a pub, a restaurant and a supermarket. As we sat there nibbling our sandwiches we devised ways of destroying it. The simplest was to ask the army who have a firing range adjacent to it to turn their guns around.

The finishing line

The finishing line

The final walk to the finishing line in the heart of Exmouth was much longer than I anticipated. We had to walk the length of the very extensive promenade adjacent to the sandy beach with crowds of Saturday sun worshippers. There was noise, laughter, music, shouting and tears and the heat bouncing back off the tarmac and the glare of the sun off light coloured surfaces made it a gruelling two or three miles. Nevertheless we made it to the end, the point where you catch the ferry across the River Ex, which, if we were continuing along the South West Coast Path, we would have had to take. As it was, this was the end and the pint in the pub by the finishing post was one of the best for a long time.

That evening we celebrated our achievement with a fantastic meal at the Blue Ball Inn, Sidford. We had had a fantastic time, enjoying each others’ company, with many laughs along the way. Over nine days we had walked 107 miles, climbing 14,680 feet in the process. Angela had looked after and catered for us well, so well in fact that some complained of putting on weight. How does that happen?

Ann Jones summed up the whole experience with one of her wonderful poems.

How the Dinosaur became Extinct

 

 

 

 

 

Mentoring Plus Climb Sugarloaf

It is always refreshing to meet new people and to spend time with them in a shared activity.

I was on my way to Llangattock YHA to meet a group of ladies on a weekend of activities to raise valuable funds for, and to increase awareness of, Bath Mentoring Plus, a charity that gives valuable support to an ever increasing number of vulnerable children and young people. It makes me ask the question, “Why have we, as a society, got so many vulnerable people?” Have we always had proportionally as many vulnerable people, or are we more aware and caring? Is society expected to fill the void left by diminishing government support? Whatever the answers are, meeting these ladies highlighted for me the value of the work they do.

IMG_3742During the course of the weekend they were, in the beautiful surroundings of Llangattock YHA, having yoga classes, art classes, mindfulness sessions and walking in the Black Mountains. That is where I come in. Driving up the driveway to the former farmhouse my way is blocked by two resting bullocks and a pair of inquisitive Shetland ponies. The bullocks I found easy to negotiate my car around but the ponies proved more difficult as they scrutinised me and my car for food. Making sure I did not hit them with my wing mirrors, I reached safety on the other side of the cattle grid, where I met up with Stephanie who had organised the weekend.

While some of the ladies were going to walk along the Monmouth to Brecon Canal towpath, six were joining me for a walk up and around Sugarloaf.

Most people who climb Sugarloaf tend to do a quick up and down. It is a hill that can easily be climbed and descended in a little over an hour, particularly from the car park at Mynnydd Llanwenarth, which is where we were starting out from. However, I had not planned a quick up and down, I wanted to give the ladies a much bigger picture, an opportunity to see Sugarloaf change shape as we walked round it’s southern and Easter flanks, to walk the long ridge west from the summit with expansive views of the Black Mountains and the Usk Valley leading us towards the Brecon Beacons.

IMG_3743It was an overcast morning as we set off from the car park and there was a stiff breeze, with a chilling effect, coming in from the north east. I lived in hope that the cloud would clear and that we would get the views I had hoped for. My optimism failed me. There were occasional breaks in the cloud but there was a constant heavy haze that limited, not only the quality of our views but also the extent. The northern hills disappeared into a gloom, as did the Brecon Beacons. Only to the east did the views improve.

Whilst it would have been rewarding to get the views, it did not detract from the enjoyment. It could have been a lot worse.

IMG_3745Having traversed along the southern flanks we headed north along the fringes of Parc Wood, from where the summit has a distinctive conical look about it. Having reached the northern end of this beautiful oak woodland, we began the steep climb up to the summit, rejoining the crowds that had taken the more direct route. The group performed well and the climb did not take long. Summit photos taken in the strong breeze, we headed along the ridge of Mynydd Pen-y-fal, stopping for lunch in a reasonably sheltered spot along the way. At the end of the ridge we followed the wall round, all the way back to the car park.

We had been out for about three and a half hours and covered a little over six miles. But the ladies were not finished yet. On the way up they had noticed the Sugarloaf Vineyard and thought it would be against their nature to forego the opportunity to have a little taste. It was a first for me and, although I didn’t succumb to wine tasting (I am a responsible driver), I might be tempted back on another occasion.

Back at the hostel the other half of the group were focused on doing some art work, so, after a quick cup of tea and a piece of cake, I left them to it.

I thoroughly enjoyed guiding the ladies over and around Sugarloaf, admire their commitment to Mentoring Plus and hope to be able to support them in the future.

Three Pens and a Table

The forecast promised us good weather but as i drove down the M50, with the roof off, the skies were pretty leaden and it was quite chilly. By the time I reached Crickhowell the cloud had begun to lift, break up and clear, revealing bright sunshine.

Approaching the Darren with Table Mountain and Sugarloaf behind

Approaching the Darren with Table Mountain and Sugarloaf behind

There were eleven of us and a dog as we set out from the car park, working our way through the Darren housing estate towards Cwm Cumbeth. This is a lovely tree-lined valley just to the west of Table Mountain, which brings you out on to the open hillside beneath the massif that is the three Pens. Heading west, we climbed further towards The Darren, an outcrop of rock just below the plateau. By now the sun was shining and we decided to sit, just below the crest for “first” lunch, overlooking the Usk Valley and Crickhowell. Although this was a little earlier than planned it proved a sensible choice as there was still a chill wind on the top.

The view north

The view north

Once on the plateau the going was much easier as we followed the southwestern edge of the plateau towards our first pen, Pen Gloch-y-pibwr. From here there are superb views to the north, of moorland hilltops with a patchwork necklace of fields around their shoulders. The Dragon’s Back Ridge rose via several humps towards the Black Mountains high point, Waun Fach. The surrounding hills were so dry the grass had the colour of August rather than the fresh colours of spring. There were no mud sections along the route and any streams were running extremely low for the time of year.

Having climbed our first pen, a journey that took approximately three hours, the others came more quickly. Following the north westerly edge of the plateau, we soon reached Pen Allt-mawr, the highest point of the walk at 719m. From here we could look across the four main ridges of the Black Mountains towards the hazy Malverns, some fifty miles away to the east.

Preparing to leave after "second" lunch

Preparing to leave after “second” lunch

Shortly after setting south towards the third and final Pen, we dropped just below the ridge line for “second” lunch, where we could enjoy the view in glorious sunshine while being out of the wind. It was very relaxed with nobody wanting to rush off; it was much too pleasant to want this walk to come to an early end. Eventually, we had to prize ourselves away and climb the third pen, Pan Cerrig-calch. From here we had lovely views of the southern half of the Black Mountains, Sugarloaf, Skirrid and to the south the hills above Llangattock. To the west the larger Brecon Beacons stood out distinctly.

Approaching Table Mountain

Approaching Table Mountain

All we had to do now was descend to Table Mountain, an isolated plateau that had once been a defensive outpost with extensive views up and down the Usk Valley. It had never been a permanent settlement, because of the lack of water, but it was a very useful lookout, a place to store supplies and a handy retreat in case of need. The ascent all round is steep and with defensive ditches all round it would have been difficult for any aggressor to attack.

Our final descent brought us back to Crickhowell and a swift drink in the Bear before heading home. A fitting end to a glorious day of Black Mountain walking.