Sunshine, showers and river crossings

Llyn y Fan Fawr

Llyn y Fan Fawr

On a pleasant late September morning, punctuated with pulses of rain, a select group of five and a dog gathered at the Taffarn y Garreg pub for our walk up on the Carmarthen Fans.

It is a long, steady climb up the Nant Fawr Fechan valley and under the impressive cliffs of Fan Fechan. It is not a hard climb but it take a while to cover the three miles up to Llyn y Fan Fawr as there are several boggy sections that require a bit of thought and care.
I had decided to impose the two lunch system as a means of keeping the body sustained without eating too much in one go. As we settled to have out first lunch overlooking the lake, yet another heavy shower descended upon us, making it a fairly damp affair. It was interesting to note that when the showers came in the temperature dropped significantly and I was grateful that I had packed one or two warmer items in my rucksack, a sure sign that summer is finally over.
On the summit of Picws Du

On the summit of Picws Du

Fortified, we climbed the steep path up to the top of the ridge and the 802m summit of Fan Brycheiniog. Here we met Graham, a lone walker and a member of the Western Beacons Mountain Rescue Team. I had seen him earlier when we were preparing ourselves at the start. Now, on the top, he asked if he could join and walk with us. He did until we started the climb up Picws Du, where he ventured off again, on his own. I looked round to see where he was heading but he was nowhere to be seen, swallowed up by the vastness of the landscape. It reminded me of the production of Adrian’s Wall, a play I saw at Malvern a couple of years ago. In it there is a character, Stuart, a veteran of the Iraq war, who, unable to settle down to normal life, walked backwards and forwards along Hadrian’s Wall, latching on to other walkers and camping along the way. Was Graham a similar character, who was intrinsically part of the landscape, appearing and disappearing at will? I wonder?

img_2662Despite the regularity of the showers, the intervening light on the slopes was stunning and the contrast between the dark waters of Llyn y Fan Fach with the vivid shades of green on the precipitous slopes rising from them were sights to treasure..
Reaching the end of the ridge, we veered off south across rough, open moorland to pick up a path some 1500m away, which would eventually lead us back to where we started. In the distance the light glinted off the sea of Swansea Bay with Mumbles Head clearly visible.
It is not easy crossing a river on wet, slippery stones while controlling an energetic dog

It is not easy crossing a river on wet, slippery stones while controlling an energetic dog

When I did this walk a few weeks ago I hardly made mention of any river crossings. That was because there was not sufficient water to warrant comment. Shortly after second lunch we had to cross the river by which we had been seated. This was not a wide river but it was more than a single pace to get across, and because there was a greater volume of fast flowing water, many of the rocks that had been available for me previously were now submerged. We paced up and down the bank looking for opportunity, trying one or two out, retreating for fear of slipping on the wet rocks and spending the rest of the walk with sodden boots. Eventually we found suitable crossing points and I jokingly said that this was good preparation for the last river near the end of the walk. It turned out not to be a joke. This river was significantly bigger, wider, deeper and faster flowing than all the others. Needless to say, not everybody escaped without getting their feet wet. At least Juno, the dog, enjoyed the crossing and was not fussed about getting wet. One of the outcomes of having to negotiate the rivers was that it added about an hour to the length of the walk.

Looking back along the ridge of the Carmarthen Fans

Looking back along the ridge of the Carmarthen Fans

After seven and a half hours we returned to our cars for the lengthy journey home. It had been a super walk, proving yet again that you don’t have to have perfect conditions to have a memorable experience. The showers sweeping in on strong winds actually enhanced the day. It was well worth the longer than usual journey at either end of it. Those that missed it, well look at the pictures to realise just what you missed.

 

Ann’s Poem for the Wessex Ridgeway

1. The only way is Essex

John’s E-mail said to me

Ooooh! I thought…..that’s up my street

As I’d seen it on TV.

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2. “I’m up for that!” I answered

And preparations I did start

Fake tan, white stilettos and lipstick

Thinking I look a bit of a tart.

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3. “Wessex!” said John “not Essex!

We’re going to walk and to camp”

So away went my glamorous outfits

And I packed to look like a tramp.

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4. The rest of the group seemed quite normal

And I regretted my nearly “faux pas”

So we set off to tackle the Ridgeway

John said that it wasn’t that far.

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5. We chatted and laughed while walking

And talked about this and that

About how we’d arrived at this juncture

And how it helped if you were a bit of a twat.

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6. Evenings were spent eating and drinking

Joshing and joking, having some sport

I blushed when it got a bit smutty

I’m from Bolton, so wasn’t that sort.

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7. One day we passed the Cerne Abbas Giant

Cut in the hillside, naked and tall

I found it a bit underwhelming

Seen one and you’ve seem them all!

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8. But its anatomy gave John inspiration

For the “Dick of the Day” award

To present to some Klutz in the evening

To stop us from all getting bored.

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9. So nightly all our misdemeanours

Were discussed with hilarity and fun

As it’s not the sort of accolade

You’d be proud to say you’d won.

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10. The final night was upon us

And at dinner as John started to speak

We presented him with a giant appendage

And voted him “Dick of the Week!”

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11. He accepted the honour in good spirits

As he gazed at his Dick on a Stick

But his dilemma soon became obvious

As he wondered whether to bite or lick.

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12. So finally our Wessex week was over

Great people, great walking and laughter

Thank you for all your fun and friendship

We couldn’t have been any dafter!!

The Only Way Is Wessex

A journey across the delightful Dorset countryside following the ancient Wessex Ridgeway from Tollard Royal to Lyme Regis.

What is it about recent Saturdays? It always seems to rain when I least want it to. This was the case as I left home to drive down to Dorset ahead of the main group so that I could set up camp. Ann Jones provided company on the journey and we picked up her sister, Kath, en route. Our priority, on arrival at The Inside Park camp site, was to get the shelters up and organise the kitchen and dining areas before putting the tents up. Light rain focused the mind and it was not long before the shelters were up and everything was in place. The rain even ceased long enough for us to get eight of the nine tents up before the heavens really opened. The only one not up in time was mine and Angela’s, so not entirely a disaster.

Our pitch at The Inside Park

Our pitch at The Inside Park

The Inside Park is an excellent site with plenty of space that can accommodate a lot of people. We were on a flat plateau at the top of a hill, adjacent to to some woods and although it was quite a trek to the facilities it was a good spot.  Clearly, this had once been part of a large country estate. It might still be so, but apart from out buildings, now converted into bathrooms etc. there was no large house to be seen. The OS map indicates that there is a house well away from the camp site. Some of the trees are magnificent and must be several hundred years old. The grounds were well cared for and it proved good value.

img_2548With time to spare, we boiled the three kettles, got cake on the table, the wine chilled and chilli con carne bubbling away on the stove, all in time for the arrival of the rest of the group. How good is that? Despite the rain, spirits were high, and we were reliably informed by BBC Weather and a variety of other weather related apps, that it would be fine when we set out on our 62(ish) mile walk in the morning. With good food, plenty of wine and beer, everybody was happy.

It rained all night and was still raining when we began to stir, thinking of getting up and preparing for the day ahead. The rain, heavy at times, meant that sleep for many was punctuated. Hooting owls and low flying helicopters on military exercises ensured that, even when the rain was easier, we still had reasons to be awake.

All set

All set

A hearty breakfast of bacon and egg set us up for the walk, from Tollard Royal to a care park on the edge of Blandford Forest. My bit of string stretched across the route on the map suggested it was 12 miles or there abouts. Others might argue it was a bit longer!. Finding Royal Tollard in the high hedged, narrow lanes proved to be a challenge in itself, but find it we did and, after the customary start of walk photo we set off.

Just like the minibus ride, we soon found ourselves wandering around a field, scratching our heads as we tried to work out the route. This proved to be a problem from time to time as the signage was sometimes confusing as there were different routes for walkers, horse riders and cyclists. A bit more head scratching, we realised our mistake and corrected it. Judith seemed to like head scratching; she was raked across the forehead by an overhanging bramble but fortunately there were two doctors in the group to attend to her injury. It was hardly visible once the blood flow had been stemmed.

Harvested fields showing the downland nature of the route

Harvested fields showing the downland nature of the route

While the walk was varied, a mixture of farmland and forest, rarely did we feel we were on a ridge. Occasionally we climbed but height was never maintained for very long. Ashmore Wood, with many tracks criss-crossing through it and dubious signs proved a bit of a challenge. I thought we might have seen more wildlife on this journey but here was the only place where we saw deer, and that was really only the privilege of those at the front.

Further route confusion occurred where farmers had ploughed across the path, forcing us, sometimes, to walk around a field rather than across it. This naturally added a little to the distance covered.

Despite it being cloudy for most of the day it was extremely warm and humid, particularly noticeable on the up hill stretches.

Normally on these walks we have a “Wally” Award each day with the recipient having to carry and look after something appropriate for twenty-four hours. Being in Cerne Abbas Giant country it seemed appropriate to have “Dick of the Day” but to expect people to carry something of that nature was clearly inappropriate, so we just had the title awarded each day. During the course of this first day we met a very likely candidate, the leader of a South Dorset Ramblers group. We walked the same route for a while and he did not want his group talking to us. He kept berating them for being slow and constantly put them under pressure. Unlike me. Somehow, after dinner that evening, I was awarded the “Dick of the Day” award for losing my walking poles. I’m still not convinced I did.

Dorset is a county of beautifully named villages. Sometimes, they can’t make up their mind what to call a village so they give it two names. Such is the case with Iwerne Courtney, also known as Shroton. Here we stopped at The Cricketers for refreshments before embarking on the last section, and arguably the most beautiful, of the day’s walk. The cricket field has an interestingly steep section to one side of the square, I suspect making boundaries difficult to come by.

Reaching the trig point on Hambledon Hill

Reaching the trig point on Hambledon Hill

Climbing out of the village, we ascended the ancient fort of Hambledon Hill, which gave us far reaching views along the ridgeway, and, for once, gave us the impression of us walking along an escarpment.

From the hill we had just one last descent and a further ascent into Blandford Forest, the other side of which was our end point of the day.

We set out to do a twelve mile walk but according to those with the technology it was a couple of miles further. Even taking into account a few extra meanderings where the route was not entirely clear, I struggle to understand the discrepancies. What I did get right was the timing. Just as we finished and climbed into the minibus the rain fell from above and continued on and off throughout the night.

img_2563One of the disappointing aspects of any walk of this nature is that, for whatever reason, it becomes necessary to walk some stretches along roads, most often very quiet country lanes, but roads nevertheless. While this speeds up progress it is hard on the feet. So it was at the start of Day 2 and while we covered some distance quite quickly it numbed the mind. There were little highlights. The overnight rain had given a sheen to everything, foliage, flowers and cobwebs, of which there were a great many.

We also came across a pig farm, which in piggy terms was five star quality. Dotted around the field were pig yurts for them to pop into and sleep in. Otherwise they had the run of a very extensive field. They were friendly, too, coming over to investigate us as we stopped to admire their piggy luxury. Further down the field a farmer was loading some pigs into a trailer and the impression of luxury was lost when a loud voice rang out over the hilltop in a delightful Dorset accent, “GET IN THE FUCKING TRAILER!”

Bulbarrow Hill

Bulbarrow Hill

Leaving the road we crossed the top of Bulbarrow Hill, another ancient fort settlement with commanding views over the surrounding countryside. This whole area is littered with Iron Age forts and more recent Roman forts, making the walk fascinating on so many different fronts.

Shortly afterwards we met a remarkable woman, Vyv Wood-Gee, and her two Cumberland fell ponies. These beautiful black horses are quite short but really strong and sturdy looking. Vyv and her horses were 1200 miles into a 1500 mile journey connecting all the historical horse sites in the country. She started on the 18th June and is due to finish on the 2nd October when she rides across Tower Bridge. She is raising funds for MacMillan Nurses and Cancer Research UK. Do visit her at www.horselandjourney.uk

img_2567We walked the same route as her for a while, she riding one horse while the other carries her kit. She has a tent but has not had to use it, always being fortunate enough to find or be offered accommodation. Her pace is similar to that of a person walking but is often slowed down by having to negotiate gates, constantly having to dismount in order to get the two horses through together, and then remounting. It was good to talk to her, to learn of her exploits and to give her a bit of support, both financially and morally.

Having made good progress earlier in the day, we slowed during the time we were with the horses. However, at the Dorsetshire Gap, a cleft in the ridge, we parted company and we were able to increase our pace a little, so much so that we reached our final destination, Giant Head Farm, ahead of schedule. It was only a further two kilometres into the village of Cerne Abbas, where a cream tea was tempting us and where we would be able to get a decent view of the Cerne Abbas Giant with his thirty foot appendage.

"Dick of the Day"

“Dick of the Day”

The cream tea was most welcome, although up to that point we had not yet seen the giant, even though we had walked very close to it. The shape of the hill prevented us seeing more than just part of a foot. So, after we finished our tea, we went to the viewpoint on the edge of the village to see what all the fuss was about. I expected him to be much whiter and stand out more. The rock was yellow and quite muted. The ladies in the group seemed unimpressed by his magnificent attributes. He certainly was “Dick of the Day”.

Approaching Sydling St Nicholas just after early lunch

Approaching Sydling St Nicholas just after early lunch

Day three saw a change in tactics. In order to sustain energy, i decided that we would have two lunches, and early and a late. Early would be around midday and late around two. This would also mean that we did not eat too much in one go and make us feel lethargic in the afternoon. I also broke a rule and I would like to thank Mike Wilson for that. In Sydling St Nicholas, just after early lunch, we visited the pub in the village. Mike said, “I’ll have a beer if you do.” How am I supposed to respond to that? If I chose not to, Mike would feel upset, denied of something he desired, so I gave in to temptation and had a beer with him. It took me ages to come to the decision, about as long as it takes to blink.

We had been promised wonderfully warm sunshine but it never really materialised. It was certainly very warm but the cloud struggled to clear. On the top of the ridges there was a light, cooling breeze, but in the valleys it was airless and sticky.

We ended the day at Lower Kingcombe and a craft centre, nature reserve and cafe that served wonderful ice cream despite the fact that we arrived twenty minutes after it had closed. Thank you Lower Kingcombe.

Relaxing in Weymouth

Relaxing in Weymouth

We then had a day off so that while I moved camp to The Dorset Hideaway at Whitchurch Canonicorum, Angela took the group to Weymouth for a day on the beach. The sun did shine and it was an extremely pleasant day if you were on the beach relaxing. Not so if you were pitching ten tents. I did have some help with the shelters from Chris and Trevor before they went off to be little boys in the tank museum. To be honest I was happy doing what needed to be done and was pleased with the uniformity with which I had pitched the tents. I was disappointed to learn that nobody took advantage of the opportunity for a swim in the sea. A few paddled but that does not count.

Weymouth

Weymouth

The Dorset Hideaway is a new campsite in its first season. The pitch is very flat and the facilities, although not numerous, were really good. There is also a spa at the site offering lots of different treatments. It seems a very odd combination because campers are usually not too bothered about how perfect they look, particularly when they tend to enjoy the outdoor elements so much. Certainly, the day I spent at the campsite setting everything up, there were no queues of people looking for treatments.

img_2599The fourth day was again sunny and warm from the start and in many ways was the best day’s walking out of the five. We spent most of the day relatively high, enjoying the elevated expeience for the views it provided and for the breeze that cooled us slightly. When we weren’t high we were walking through wonderful beech woods on tracks that were sunk between two tree lined banks. You had a feeling that these tracks were very ancient and had been walked by travellers for hundreds of years. How many feet had travelled along them over the years and who did they belong to? I am sure that there are many interesting tales to be told.

Dropping into Beaminster between lunches, we gave ourselves half an hour free time to wander about the small country town. Mike led me astray again and we spent the time supping a pint in the Red Lion. Naughty Mike.

After Beaminster we climbed up Gerrards Hill and then remained relatively high for the remainder of the day, crossing the sites of a number of forts, the last being Pilsden Hill just to the north of where we were camping

Tree in the mist

Tree in the mist

The following morning we were greeted with low cloud and dampness in the air. Returning to Pilsden Hill, we had to work our way across it to pick up the Wessex Ridgeway, but this proved, in the conditions, to be a little more difficult than expected. Once sorted we then began to make good progress, largely because there was very little to see. It was a case of heads down and let’s cover as much distance as we can, in the hope that the weather will improve as the day goes on.

The weather did gradually improve but the navigation, at times proved to be difficult. Not only were we walking the Wessex Ridgeway, but this area saw a number of paths converging, The Jubilee Trail, The Monarchs Way,The Liberty Trail. Where the trails merged there became a confusion of signs and sometimes no appropriate signs at all. Sometimes the signs were hidden by dense undergrowth. But for all the challenges it set, none was more testing than crossing the A35. This busy trunk road, where the traffic travels at the top end of the legal speed limit, and beyond, has no facility for walkers to get safely from one side to another. How this has been allowed to happen is beyond comprehension. If we had been rare toads or endangered hedgehogs, provision for getting from one side of the road to the other would be there. It is only a matter of time before an accident occurs.

On the end of The Cobb

On the end of The Cobb

The final couple of miles took us gently downhill through beautiful forest to the outskirts of Lyme Regis. It is a very pleasant coastal resort, quite small and not spoilt with rows of arcades and stalls selling nothing but cheap tat. We walked along the front to the Cobb, the official end of the walk. Although the weather had improved considerably, the wind, for once, was quite strong and occasionally a fine spray came drifting over the Cobb. The windsurfers and kite boarders out in the bay were certainly enjoying the conditions.

In the evening we celebrated by all going out to The Five Bells in Whitchurch Canonicorum for a celebratory meal and a drink or two. It had been a very enjoyable few days, not least because of the company. The Dorset countryside is delightful, without being spectacular. It is quintessentially English, with rolling hills, quaint villages with thatched cottages, narrow country lanes, a sense of history, birdsong and so much more. And whether it was 62 miles or somewhat more, it really did not matter; every one of them was a pleasure to walk.

How rude!

How rude!

Somehow, that evening, back at camp as we celebrated Stella’s wedding anniversary and Chris’s birthday, I was awarded the accolade of “Dick of the Week”. How harsh is that? Ann entertained us with another of her observant and very humorous poems. If she does not let me have a copy before this is published I will do a separate entry.

During the night it rained, heavily, the wind blew, so much so I feared for my shelters. They survived. It continued into the morning as we packed up camp, loading sodden tents and equipment into the van, all needing a good clean and a drying when I got home. What is it about Saturdays that it always seems to rain?

 

 

Old Gits on the Wye

Four Old Gits on the River Wye with a combined age of 260!

Four Old Gits on the River Wye with a combined age of 260!

Having watched the rowing and canoeing at the Olympics, four men, all of whom reached the ripe old age of 65 this year, felt inspired enough to seek their own adventure by canoeing a 50 mile stretch of the River Wye from Hereford to Monmouth. This epic adventure was to be completed in three days. We had even paid close attention to the cycling in the velodrome and taken note of slipstreaming in order to save energy and to gain advantage over each other.

It was a beautiful sunny morning as we left Worcester for our mid morning rendezvous with the Ross-on-Wye Canoe Hire Company who were going to take us and our canoes to Hereford. There we received our standard safety instruction before we were allowed to prepare ourselves for the river.
Four of us and two canoes. Who was going to go with whom? Ian and Rob had met before but neither of them had met Steve. Could I risk them being exposed to Steve so early in the trip? I know Steve well but did I really want to be trapped on a canoe with him? Of course I did. if nothing else Steve is always good company and a source of great amusement.
Setting out from Hereford

Setting out from Hereford

Canoes loaded we managed to clamber aboard without anybody going through the embarrassment of one foot on the land, one foot in the boat and a backside slowly descending towards the water (that was to come later). We paddled gently through Hereford with the cathedral on our left, dodging bridge pillars and fishermen wearing waders and up to their waist in water. Soon the city centre was behind us and we passed some exceptionally large and beautiful houses with gardens sweeping down to the river, all very Grand Designs.

Throughout this section, and much of this first day, we were amazed just how many swans were on the river, not just confined to urban areas where children throw bread for them, but anywhere where the water was shallow enough for them to feed. And in many places it was shallow with strands of beautiful green weed swaying gently with the flow.

IMG_2467There was always something to fascinate us as we paddled, flashes of vivid blue as a kingfisher darted for cover, heron gracefully lifting off and flying laconically as they relied on their huge wingspan to make them airborne with the minimum of effort, cormorants standing on the uppermost branches of dead trees affording them the best aerial view of fish below, fish leaping with flashes of silver, cattle cooling their feet, standing in the shallows at the side of the river, sheep gathering in the shade of a river bank tree as they avoid the glorious sunshine, and of course, the fishermen lurking in their camouflage outfits semi-hidden  on the river bank. Often we would just catch the sun glinting on their tight line, forcing us to give them a wide birth, in an effort to share this glorious space.
IMG_2468Pulling into the bank for a lunch break, Rob provided me with the best egg sandwiches I have ever had in my 65 years. I had to have them as the bacon butty I bought in Ross en route was, predictably, long gone.
The river was quite busy with a number of other canoes paddling downstream, enjoying the peace and tranquility. The only time that peace was shattered was when we passed a noisy engine pumping water from the river on to parched farmland, satisfying the thirst of needy crops.
Yum!

Yum!

This was our toughest day on the river, only because we did not actually get on the water until midday and we had 18 miles to cover. There was a little pressure to get on with it, so we tended not to stop for long when we chose to have a break. As a result, at 5.30, we pulled into the river bank at Tresseck Farm, Hoarwithy, where a number of other canoe groups were already encamped. It is a lovely flat site but the facilities are rather limited with just a few portaloos and a tap. It’s saving grace is a good pub, the New Harp Inn, at the end of the track, into the village. The food we had that evening was superb and the few pints we had to help wash it down.
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The following morning we were up early. I was carrying a thick head (I wonder why?). It did allow us to get away in good time, meaning that we had the river to ourselves. I was now partnering Ian, while Rob was joined by Steve. It was glorious as the river meandered through the delightfully pleasant Herefordshire countryside. Life does not get much better than this.
Approaching Ross

Approaching Ross

Everything was going really well when we reached Ross-on-Wye after three and a half hours. Pulling up at the landing platform by the Hope and Anchor we prepared to go ashore for lunch. There were a number of mothers and children on the jetty, feeding ducks. Suddenly, a horror show opened up in front of them. Rob managed to get one foot in the water and was preparing to swing his other out of the canoe when his foot in the water slipped. Grabbing the nearest thing to him in the hope that he could save himself, he grabbed the canoe, unbalancing Steve to the point where he thought he was going to fall in. The canoe drifted away under Rob’s weight, splitting his legs further apart to the point where his bottom became his centre of gravity, whereupon nothing could save him. There was muted laughter from the mothers, not sure if they should express their mirth, until they heard Steve, Ian and myself falling about with laughter. I was laughing so much I forgot to get the camera out to record Rob’s embarrassment for posterity. The mothers melted away to give counselling to their traumatised children.

Taking it easy

Taking it easy

After lunch, with Rob’s shorts draped over the barrel to dry, we continued our journey in perfect conditions. There was not a breath of wind and the sun shone. We punctuated our journey with periods of sustained paddling and rafting up to drift gently with the flow. At one point, Ian tied our canoe to the rope at the stern of Rob and Steve’s, allowing them, unknowingly, to pull us along for a while.

The scenery, as we neared Symonds Yat, became more dramatic as wooded hills rose steeply from either bank of the river.
IMG_2474Throughout our journey so far we had been impressed by some of the houses along the river bank. Many of them were very “Grand Designs”. Now that we were coming into forested gorge there were fewer in evidence. However, high on the hill the was a large stone building rising above the trees. Rob pointed it out to us, saying, “Look at that monstrosity up there. How can they be allowed to build something like that?” It was only Goodrich Castle.
It was on a bend of faster flowing water that we came to the landing point for our camp at Wye Valley YHA at Welsh Bicknor. As we did so, Rob’s, now dry, shorts fell off the barrel into the river!
IMG_2493Youth hostels are so much better than they used to be with facilities to suit all tastes and needs. We were camping but we had full use of the hostel, choosing to eat their set meals. It was a short walk from the camp to the impressive building, once a large country house. Adjacent was an old church going through a full renovation paid for by the new owner of the large country estate further up the hill. As we relaxed on the grass outside our tents in the evening sunshine, three deer dropped out of the trees and started grazing on the camping field, not bothered that we were there. It is these unexpected little joys that make trips like this such a pleasure.
IMG_2503During the night it started to rain; the good weather had come to an end. Fortunately we had the shortest of our days with only ten miles to paddle to Monmouth. After a full English breakfast we loaded our canoes and set off with the only disturbance on the water, the rings created by raindrops and our bow waves. Despite the rain it did not detract from the pleasure of what we were doing.
We made excellent progress as we rounded Yat Rock with its spectacular view point high above us. Bypassing Symonds Yat West with its caravan park we headed to the more traditional Symonds Yat East with its hotels and bars. The wet weather meant that day canoeists were deterred from venturing out on the water and the pleasure craft were still securely moored. However, as we approached, we were met by bands of low flying Canada Geese, passing just above our heads, creating a wonderful spectacle.
P1040757Just before the famous Symonds Yat Rapids we moored up outside the Royal Lodge, a wedding and conference venue, and took our wet selves into the bar for a coffee. I have to say that I felt rather conspicuous as wet as I was but nobody seemed to mind.
Attaching all our kit to the canoes we prepared to shoot the rapids. Rob and I went first. Aiming for the V of smooth water before it tumbled over the rocks below, we got the line right and were soon through the main section. Pulling the canoe round we positioned ourselves in a smooth patch of water behind some rocks to watch Ian and Steve successfully navigate themselves through.
P1040751From then on it was plain sailing through the gorge with sporadic rain. After a beachside lunch stop by Biblins Bridge we continued the last three miles to Monmouth in increasingly heavy rain. Despite the rain we were happy to spend some of our last moments on the water simply drifting along. It would have been nice to have sunshine on our last day but it did not matter and in no way diminished our enjoyment of the trip. In fact, all of us have agreed to do it again, or something similar next year, and others have already said they want to join us. Maybe the full 80 miles of navigable water on the Wye, or perhaps we will find something better. Difficult to imagine when we have arguably canoed the best canoe-able river in England. Watch this space.
I cannot end without saying how much I enjoyed the company of Ian, Rob and Steve. Thank you, guys.

 

Kyrgyzstan, the final chapter

Having travelled to Naryn in our cramped lorry, we arrived at the Celestial Mountains Guest House and emerged like butterflies, stretching our limbs, circulating blood to the extremities of our bodies. You can sense the excitement as people prioritise their fantasies – a cleansing shower, Internet connection or a quick trip to the nearest shop to buy a favourite snack and drink. For me it’s shower, then Internet, but with so many trying to connect with the outside world, it is slow. Chris and Alice shop first so we have snacks when we have our first beer.
It looks good, it tastes good, and by golly it does you good!

It looks good, it tastes good, and by golly it does you good!

Now clean, a change of clothes and a quick trawl of the Internet, we head off to our little booth for a beer or two. Boy, it tastes good. The crisps were so moorish we get through three large packets. It is Saturday evening and the place is busier than I have seen it before. Most booths are occupied and plates of food are being delivered. Even flies go out on Saturday evening and they are a bit of a pain.

Refreshed, we return to the guest house for dinner. There is a subdued sense of satisfaction, people are clean, they have contacted people at home and they have spoiled themselves with familiar, tasty comforts.
Bed beckons. It has been a tiring trek. There is so much expectation surrounding bed but it proves to be disappointing. Sleep does not come easily, it is too hot, too stuffy, too uncomfortable. I want my tent back. Now that others are asleep the Internet is much quicker and my phone is a distraction. It pings. Ignore it, but the light it casts across the room draws me like a beacon. Rain starts to drum on corrugated roof and cars parked outside. It starts to get light and still sleep has evaded me. In the end, having tossed, turned and coughed all night, I get up, shower again, because I can, and head down for breakfast.
It is really raining and I am grateful that all we have to do today is drive to Bishkek. We have been lucky with rain throughout this trek. There has been much more than expected but it has, without fail, come at the right time, during the night, just after putting tents up, in the evening, driving in our cramped lorry, rarely when we have been exposed on mountain sides.
After breakfast we climb aboard our two minibuses and start the journey north to Bishkek, first through the mountains until we reach the flat plains of the north where we follow the border with Kazakstan to Bishkek.
Our driver is distracted, erratic, driving too fast for the conditions, always harrying the car in front. We doze but only so we cannot see the risks ahead.
In Kochkor, we visit a women’s cooperative craft centre. I visited it four years ago on my way back from China and K2. They said they remembered but I have my doubts. It didn’t stop them from showering me with three free gifts but that was probably because the group collectively spent a fortune, having had money but nothing to spend it on for so long.
Having spent, we lunched at the same house as we did on the journey into the mountains. Excellent fare. Then a visit to another ‘Nandicraft’ centre before completing the journey to Bishkek. Out of the mountains the road was straighter, faster, busier. Our driver alarmed us on a number of occasions travelling six feet behind the vehicle in front at 110kph. It left no room for manoeuvre or reaction. It was with some relief that we reached the Alpinist Hotel, a comfortable boutique style hotel, booked at short notice because of our early return to Bishkek. It’s a very nice hotel with a relaxed atmosphere and good food. It is a shame we cannot have both nights here.
Natalia from Asia Mountains met us and I was able to organise transport to take us all into town in the morning, to a restaurant for lunch and transfer us to Asia Mountains 2 in the afternoon for our last night and early start for the homeward journey.
Cheers!

Cheers!

Indeed, the meal in the evening was excellent. There was a calm and relaxed atmosphere as I bought the group a drink if they wanted one. It ensures that they don’t do anything silly. To keep us all entertained, Chris played the piano, using an app on his iPhone. Chris is totally self taught and manages to achieve a high standard. He does seem to be able to turn his hand to a great many things and the more I have got to know him the more I appreciate him being a part of the team.

Had a worthwhile sleep, which I put down to having the air conditioning on all night.
I tend to hate last days, as much of the time you are thinking of the journey ahead, taking the pleasure out of the here and now. Dimitri came to take us shopping for those items we had so far failed to buy, returning to the shopping complex we visited at the start of our trip. Many of the group had failed to spend all of their money so an hour was filled changing their Com into Euros, much more useful than trying to change them to Pounds in the present climate.
Lunch

Lunch

Lunch was taken in a very smart restaurant. Even the students felt they were underdressed.
Our final destination was to transfer ourselves to Asia Mountains 2 Hotel for a relaxing afternoon and our celebratory dinner in the evening. The hotel was very comfortable and the meal in the evening lived up to expectation.
At the end I made my customary thanks to the staff for the support and company during the trip and presented them each with a coffee table book on Kyrgyzstan.
New outfit

New outfit

The pupils have been excellent throughout and I was pleased to be able to tell them, to the extent that they have been one of the easiest groups I have had in every respect, a credit to the school, their parents and themselves. They had a surprise for me and presented me with a smooth, obelisk shaped stone that they picked up during the trek. Chris wrote ‘Kyrgyzstan 2016’ along the length of it and each member of the group had printed their name on the other side. Thinking that was it I was then surprised again when they produced a full length velvet coat embroidered with gold thread and a Kyrgyz hat. It looked stunning. Thank you guys.

Final sunset over Bishkek

Final sunset over Bishkek

Fittingly we sat on the top floor balcony finishing our drinks watching the sun set on a fabulous trip to Kyrgyzstan. I’ll be back!

This is also my final chapter as the one at the head of the Himalayan Club. After 25 years, I have decided, again, that it needs a younger member of staff at the helm. Needless to say, I wish I could go on and on, but I have to be realistic. It has been a tremendous 25 years for me and I have enjoyed every minute of it. I would like to thanks the hundreds of pupils that have taken up the challenge, the parents who have had faith in my ability to look after their children in challenging environments, and who have demanded their own expeditions, the staff and doctors who have supported me and the school for allowing me to follow my passion. Thank you to you all.

I will, of course, continue to seek out adventures for people nearer my own age, like my next trip, kayaking the River Wye.

Footnote:
Magda had to deal with sick passengers on each of our return flights – a Swiss man on the first and a Nigerian on the second. 4/4, not bad, eh?