Yorkshire Three Peaks

Most people who climb the Yorkshire Three Peaks, Wernside, Ingleborough and Pen-y-ghent, do it as part of a challenge, raising money for charity or as part of a team building exercise. We were going to climb them purely for pleasure, and while most of the group were only climbing the two, Mike, Jonathan and I were going up a day earlier so that we could do all three.

As we headed north up the M6, England was bathed in glorious autumn sunlight. Mike and I decided to break our journey at Charnock Richard services, and, unbeknown to us, so had Ann and Stella, who were also going up a day early. A leisurely catch up with them over lunch and coffee added another hour to our journey.

Continuing north, we arrived in Ingleton by mid afternoon, full of intention for going for a walk but after checking in we wandered round the village until we settled on a cafe for a cream tea. It never ceases to amaze me how easily we can be distracted. We did eventually set out to walk to a series of waterfalls to discover, in no uncertain terms that they were private and there was a charge of £6 to walk up to them. In the end we didn’t go there but explored more of the village with its numerous eateries and cafes, far more than a town of its size warrants, but clearly catering for a constant stream of tourists.

The evening was spent enjoying the hospitality of the Whearsheaf Inn on the High Street.
Before dawn a bright light shone through the curtains of our room as the “harvest” full moon sat low in the sky outside our window. It was enormous and incredibly bright. The moon, having sunk into the western sky, it was replaced by the sun which shone from a flawless sky on to an earth sparkling with morning dew and perhaps a hint of frost. It was going to be a perfect day. That perfect day started with a full, Yorkshire breakfast, although, as I later climbed Wernside, I began to regret its volume.

While Ann and Stella were off to the Lakes for the day, Mike and I were joined by Jonathan, an extremely fit, retired GP, interested in joining me in Nepal next spring. We drove round to Ribblehead, renowned for its stunning viaduct, a testament to Victorian railway engineering, with its twenty four arches carrying the Settle to Carlisle line.

Oh dear, Mike!

Oh dear, Mike!

Our walk took us initially parallel to the viaduct and railway until it disappeared into a tunnel under Blea Moor. Standing beneath the stone and brick structure highlighted just how big it is and, looking through the arches framed Ingleborough. Crossing the railway we began our ascent on a good, well used, path, a mixture of stone chippings and well laid slabs of rock. It was easy to walk on and we were making excellent progress, when Mike tripped and fell headlong into the bog to the side of the path. Fortunately he did not hurt himself and once we had ascertained the fact we fell about laughing. He was plastered in wet, black mud. A little further up the path we stopped to sit on some rocks on the summit ridge so that the sun could help dry him off. As we did so a widely spread group of young soldiers were following our route. They were making good progress despite carrying 55lb packs on their backs. The PT sergeant who was well clear of the rest of the group was extremely positive and driven, while some of the squaddies following behind were less enthusiastic and didn’t mind telling us.

The bleak, open moors of the Yorkshire dales

The bleak, open moors of the Yorkshire dales

Well rested, and Mike partially dried, we headed on up to the summit, which provided superb 360 degree views. The views are not necessarily dramatic and all the hills are of a similar height and the slopes, on the whole, are well rounded. It was the feeling of space, of being away from the normal hubbub of UK life that made it so pleasurable. The summit was not without its crowds, for shortly after we arrived a large group of accountants, in varying degrees of distress, reached the summit on a team building charity challenge. This was their second summit of the day having already climbed Ingleborough. All they had left was the long, cross country walk to Pen-y-ghent. I anticipate that some might be really struggling towards the end.

You can just make out Morecambe Bay in the distance

You can just make out Morecambe Bay in the distance

I never really appreciated before just how far west the Yorkshire Dales go, but from this lofty viewpoint Lancashire was well and truly squeezed between the Dales to the east and Morecambe Bay to the west. Just to the north of Morecambe Bay the hills of the Lakes could be clearly seen, with Scafell Pike and others being easily identifiable. To the north, south and east there were rolling hills as far as the eye could see.

Back in Ingleton, we settled into the camping barn at Stackstead Farm and awaited the arrival of the rest of the group. As the afternoon progressed towards evening friends arrived in dribs and drabs until it was time to head out to the Wheatsheaf for a meal and a drink or two. It was a good evening and the conversation flowed between friends who have known each other for a long time but don’t necessarily see each other that often. It was also a bonus that we were introducing new people into the group, adding greater interest and diversity. While some of us headed back to the barn, some stayed on for a few more drinks and, so I am told, went in search of a take-away, despite having had a sizeable meal only a couple of hours earlier. There were a few lapses of memory the following morning.

It rained heavily in the night and the cloud hung low over the hills. Looking at the conditions and knowing that the forecast was predicting it to get worse, I suggested a late change of plan, to climb to shorter Pen-y-ghent on the Saturday, leaving Ingleborough for our last day. It made sense, so after a full breakfast, we drove over to Horton-in-Ribblesdale for the relatively short ascent of the third, and lowest, of the Three Peaks. It wasn’t actually raining as we set off, although many of us decided to wear our full waterproofs for the eventuality.

IMG_4963It was an easy walk on the Pennine Way, a wide track leading from the village on to the open hill. Immediately on reaching the open hill, Mike suggested we take a slight detour to look at Hull Pot, a former cavern where the roof had collapsed, leaving a large hole into which the river fell before disappearing underground. It is an impressive sight, a classic limestone feature in an area full of classic features – shake holes, limestone pavements, escarpments, pot holes and caverns.

Shortly afterwards we veered off to look at Hunt Pot, another hole in the ground where the stream disappeared into a maze of underground passages and caverns. Mike’s enthusiasm for showing us these features made it all the more interesting. In his early years of teaching he was an enthusiastic potholer and spent much of his time crawling along underground tunnels and squeezing his way through tight corners.

A wet lunch!

A wet lunch!

Continuing our climb, the path became steeper, the last section being a newly made staircase made of huge slabs of rock. As we climbed the weather deteriorated. With greater height came stronger winds and by the time we reached the trig point the rain was driven horizontally across the summit. Thankfully there was a wall behind which we could shelter in order to eat our lunch.

There seemed little point, and less enthusiasm, to walk along the summit plateau to Plover Hill before making our descent, so we headed back down the way we had come. It was an easy descent despite the fact that in the early stages of it the wind did its best to throw us off balance.

A shoe tree!

A shoe tree!

Back in Horton-in-Ribblesdale there is a tree in the car park behind the Golden Lion Inn. This tree bears a rather strange fruit. This is not a seasonal fruit but one that occurs throughout the year, but, perhaps more so in the summer months when there are more visitors. The fruit I refer to is lots of pairs of boots and trainers hanging by their laces. For many, this is the finishing point for the gruelling 24 mile Three Peaks Challenge, a time when those who have succeeded may have sore feet and who feel they will never walk up a hill again and will certainly never want to put their boots on again. So, as tradition has it, when they feel this way, they hang their boots on the tree. Looking at them closely, there were some decent pairs of boots there with plenty more wear in them. A bit of a waste but I presume that occasionally somebody harvests them and feeds them to a shoe bank, making way for more.

IMG_4979As the afternoon wore on the rain ceased and just before dusk we were treated to some sunshine casting a strong light on the fields leading up to a still cloud enshrouded Ingleborough. The evening was spent eating good, home cooking (although I say it myself) and lively and amusing conversation until, gradually, people began to drift off for an early night. A combination of exercise, fresh air and perhaps a little over-indulgence the night before, ensured that nobody was late to bed.

Our last morning dawned bright and sunny, although cloud still hung around the summit of Ingleborough. It was expected to clear. Walking from the barn, we passed through the village to pick up a wide path between two walls, which would eventually lead on to the open hillside and head straight up to the summit. As we got nearer to the summit, the cloud did, indeed, clear and all we saw now was clear blue sky and the hillside bathed in glorious autumnal sunshine.

Ribblehead

Ribblehead

The gradient up the hill is quite gentle to begin with but it was quite warm work, particularly as, unlike yesterday, there was hardly a breath of wind. Ingleborough, very much like Pen-y-ghent, has a summit plateau surrounded by steep, often vertical slopes. Hence, the final part of the ascent was making our way up these steeper sections to the trig point and shelter. The views from the summit were outstanding, made the more so by beautiful cloud formations bubbling up in the autumn heat. During the weekend we had seen the Ribblehead viaduct from a number of different angles but from the edge of the plateau it looked particularly impressive.

IMG_4990On the summit, we discussed how we wanted to play the remainder of the walk and day. Some were anxious to get back on the road and head south , while others opted to extend the walk and stay out as long as possible. Some rushed back the way we had come while others took their time and chilled out on some very comfortable rocks for lunch.

It had been a fabulous weekend in every respect. Mike, Jonathan and I had climbed all three peaks and while the weather on Saturday was not at its best, it could have been a lot worse. In the main, we had seen the Yorkshire Dales at their best. Stackstead Farm provided us with an excellent base and is one I would be happy to return to on a future occasion. But what makes these occasions so special, is the group of people you share them with, the common interest, the camaraderie and the laughter. All a stark contrast to what was to follow, as I left to join my sister, to be with her and give her support when her husband died the next day. Thank you to you all.

 

Albania and the Accursed Mountains

Albania, for so long a country steeped in mystery and intrigue, closed to the rest of world and yet, here I am, the result of watching Rick Stein on television. His short programme on the culinary delights of Albania showed me enough of the country to know that I wanted to go there.

Kruja

Kruja

After a late night arrival I wake up at the Panorama Hotel Kruja, a forty minute drive from Tirana and half way up a mountain. My room on this brief overnight sojourn looks out on to pantiled roofs, ancient rock fortresses, a lot of new buildings and the valley below. The hotel is so new I feel as if I am the first visitor to my room it is so spotless. As I drifted off to sleep the night before I could hear the rhythmic vibration of a wedding party deep in the bowels of the hotel. It was as if the fabric of the concrete was absorbing the sound and distributing it throughout. It didn’t stop me from sleeping though.

Breakfast was taken on an open veranda overlooking the oldest part of the town. I was amazed by the birdsong ringing out so clearly until I discovered it came from a canary in a cage in the dining area. By the end of breakfast I could easily have rung it’s neck, it was so loud.

A steep, rocky ascent

A steep, rocky ascent

Our first walk was up the holy mountain of Tumenisht behind the town, a climb of about 600m up, what appeared near the summit to be, a shear face of limestone. As we set out on a steepening path the heat began to tell. There was not a breath of wind and the temperature was rising rapidly. It was also very humid. The stony path, once used by pilgrims to a cave near the top, zigzagged its way up the hill circumnavigating its way around outcrops of limestone. Only occasionally were we given some shade from a path side tree, although most of the vegetation was quite scrubby. All the time the view down to Kruja and beyond got more expansive and impressive. Regularly the sound of police sirens came up to meet us from the narrow streets of the town below as they made preparations for 140 delegates from NATO who were meeting in our hotel.

Looking down on Kruja and beyond

Looking down on Kruja and beyond

We eventually reached the cave of Bectasci Teqe, a Sufi Dervishes Sanctuary, where we came across more tourists and Albanians, all of whom had taken the easier, less strenuous, and less rewarding journey by a road that approached from the flanks of the hill. A derelict building looked out over the view and spoilt the environment of the summit. It flourished as a shelter and accommodation in pre-road days, when pilgrims would stay longer to eat or even stay overnight. It was all a bit disappointing apart from the view out across the coastal plain towards the Adriatic.The only blots on the landscape was an uncharacteristic, unfinished tower block overlooking our hotel and the oldest part of the town, that has been several years in construction, according to our guide, Hassan, and a number of ugly cement factories.

Returning to  Kruja we were not sure whether we would be allowed to have lunch in the hotel, now occupied by so many important people and protected by an army of security personnel. Having been scrutinised closely by men in black suits and black ties we were allowed into a room for lunch. You could be forgiven for thinking that there might be a very important funeral taking place at the hotel rather than the most important military commanders in the world having lunch.

After lunch we boarded our minibus and began the journey north towards the town of Shkoder. There are no motorways in Albania so all traffic is confined, in the main, to single track roads. While, beyond the towns they are not very busy, there is plenty of evidence of a poor standard of driving with poor overtaking decisions unfolding before us, more wrecked cars at roadside scrapyards than you would expect for a country of only 2.9 million people, and memorials of flowers by the side of the road. Then you have to to remember that people in Albania have only really been driving for the last twenty five years, for before the fall of communism ordinary people were not allowed to own cars, or to drive.

Shkoder from Rozafa Castle

Shkoder from Rozafa Castle

Just before we reached Shkoder we visited Rozafa Castle, an enormous hilltop fortification at the confluence of three rivers and overlooking the town on one side and Lake Shkoder on the other. The border with Montenegro  runs through the lake and the far shore is fringed with mountains.

Whilst the castle is a must see tourist attraction I don’t think they have yet made the most of the monument. There are a few information boards but the majority of it looks rather scruffy. It clearly needs more investment for the development of the site into a living, working museum. It certainly deserves it, parts of it dating back to the 4th Century BC.

DSC_0016One of the most interesting aspects of the visit was ‘The Legend of Rozafa’, which tells the story of three young men, brothers, who were given the task of building a castle. By day they worked hard to build the castle walls yet each night, when they left, the walls would fall down. Day after day they built the walls. Night after night the walls would fall. One day, as they were working on the same walls once again, a wise old man approached them.

‘Day after day we work on this castle,’ they told the old man. ‘Yet every night the walls tumble down. We will never complete the castle. What must we do?’

‘I know what you must do but I cannot tell you,’ said the wise old man.

But the brothers pleaded.

‘Do you have wives at home?’ the old man asked.

‘Why yes, we do!’ the brothers answered.

DSC_0018‘The castle will only remain standing if one of your wives is sacrificed within its walls. Do not warn your wives, but  whoever comes to bring tomorrow’s lunch will need to be sacrificed. You must build the stone walls with her within them. Only that shall prevent it from falling.’

The brothers all promised that none would tell their wives of the terrible fate that would occur to them the following day should she be the one to take their lunch over to them.

The oldest brother did not keep his promise and quietly told his wife of the fate that would befall her. ‘Keep away,’ he warned her.

The second brother did not keep his promise and warned his wife also.

Only the youngest brother kept his word.

DSC_0019The following day, the mother of the brothers called the wife of the oldest son over and asked her to take over bread and wine for them.

‘Alas, mother,’ she said. ‘I cannot for I am unwell today.’

So the mother called the wife of the second son.

‘Alas, mother,’ she said. ‘I cannot for I am unwell today.’

The mother then called over the wife of the third son, who went by the name Rozafa.

‘Rozafa, please take over bread and wine for your husband and his brothers.’

‘But mother, I do not wish to leave my baby son. He needs me.’

‘We shall take care of him,’ said the oldest wife.

So Rozafa picked up the bread and wine and made her way to the site. As she approached the brothers looked up sadly and they explained what now must happen.

Rozafa did not protest and accepted her fate, asking only that she be built into the castle whilst still alive. Her plea continued, as she asked for her right eye to be left showing so that she might still see her son, her right breast to be exposed so that she might still feed her son, for her right hand to be exposed so that she may caress him and for her right foot to be left free so that she might still be able to rock her son’s cradle.

At the place where Rozafa was interred the walls are permanently damp with milk that still seeps from her breast.

An Orthodox Church

An Orthodox Church

Shkoder, the town, looked pretty unremarkable from the castle walls but, having established ourselves in the very smart Europa Hotel, we ventured out into town for our evening meal. From within, the town was much more pleasant with tree-lined pedestrianised avenues of smart restaurants and shops – not at all like the Albania we had imagined. We had learned already that Albania enjoyed religious tolerance, and it was clearly evident in Shkoder with a mosque adjacent to an orthodox church, adjacent to a catholic church. Throughout the communist era people were not allowed to follow their religion, certainly not openly, and many priests and imams were executed as a deterrent. Since the fall of communism there was an initial resurgence in religion, because the repressive restrictions were lifted, but in the intervening twenty five years it has tapered off. There is not the religious fervour of some countries and there seems to be a more liberal approach to the act of worship.

King John

King John

The following morning was an early start as we were to be collected by a local bus at 6.15 for the journey to Lake Komani. As we waited we appreciated just how over-the-top some of the furnishings were in the hotel. There was an unnecessary opulence about the chairs in the reception area, which provided us with a little bit of early morning humour.

I was expecting to be travelling on an overcrowded local bus with chickens and goats but as it turned out we had a local minibus with just three other passengers. There was no overcrowding, just a strong smell of stale sweat leaking from the seats and no seat belts. Fortunately, I had a young Albanian man sitting next to me who had enough manly perfume on to counter any unpleasant smells. After only half an hour of travelling we stopped in a small town so that the driver and two elderly passengers could disappear for a few minutes to return with a box full of bags of sugar. I can only assume that they are heavily into jam making, which is probably the case as it is obvious from our brief experience in the lodge that they are largely self sufficient. They make their own butter, cheese, jam and honey, and I am sure a great many other things.

DSC_0024After nearly two hours we passed through a tunnel where the dam blocked the valley which created Lake Komani back in the late 70’s during the height of China’s influence in Albania. The lake is long and narrow as it snakes its way through what must originally have been a steep sided gorge. When it was created no people were displaced by it and we discovered, as we sailed up its length, that very few people live along its shores, because of the nature of the terrain on each side.

As we emerged through the tunnel to the small embarkation area there were two ferries waiting to receive passengers and vehicles. We were in good time so we were able to get the best places to sit at the front of the top, open deck. The early morning air was a little chilly, and while some retreated to the cabin below, I stayed put, wanting to take advantage of a great viewing spot. More and more vehicles arrived in the cramped jetty area, offloading their passenger who seemed to be favouring our boat rather than the adjacent one.

DSC_0030Eventually, after much shuffling of vehicles, both on the shore and on our boat, we headed off up the lake on a two and a half hour journey. It really wasn’t very wide at all; sometimes only about 50m wide and never more than 100m. On either side the rock walls and steeply wooded slopes rose out of the water to meet a clear blue sky, which, in turn, reflected in the water, also turning it blue. The only disappointment was that it was not a totally pristine environment. Every-so-often we would pass a number of plastic bottles that had found their way into the lake, presumably tossed into the water by those few people that live near the shore. With no roads, it is easy to understand that the disposal of rubbish might be difficult, but you would hope that those who live in this beautiful environment might also look after it.

Frog for breakfast!

Frog for breakfast!

There was not a great deal of bird life on the lake, just the occasional duck and we saw frogs skimming across the surface, moving so fast that they hardly broke the surface with anything more than their feet. A heron fished by the side of the water was disturbed by our approach and flew off. As it did so it scooped up a frog and carried it off to enjoy elsewhere, away from noisy boats and prying human eyes.

The scenery never lost its drama for the whole length of the lake. As we neared the end a road ran along the shore and shortly afterwards we reached our destination and came ashore. A minibus was waiting for us to take us to Valbona. Although this was the end of  Lake Komani, a little further up the valley another dam stretched across its width, creating another lake behind it.

DSC_0064The journey into the heart of the Valbona region did not take long and we arrived at our lodge, Natyra, in time for lunch. I have to confess that I was expecting something a little more rustic, not a newly built house with adjacent accommodation, and with more being constructed. What I could not ignore was the beauty of the countryside around it. On either side of the narrow valley, steep slopes rose up to sheer limestone cliffs piercing the sky in a series of jagged ridges. At the head of the valley a wall of mountains ensured that only those fit and able would pass over into the next valley.

DSC_0068In the afternoon we explored the floor of the valley and came across a number of concrete bunkers, strange things to find in such a beautiful environment. However, when the Chinese lost interest in Albania in the mid 70s, after the death of Mao, the communist regime, without an international friend in the world felt vulnerable to attack from any quarter, so they embarked upon a programme of building bunkers that could withstand the harshest of attacks. Their aim was to build 250,000 but by 1983, while they failed to reach their target, they had still managed to build a staggering 174,000 bunkers. It was the expense of such a programme, which weakened the regime and began to slowly bring it to its eventual knees.

DSC_0076The following morning I sneaked out of my room early enough to catch the morning glow on the limestone crags, turning them orange. I had missed the evening glow, so I was determined not to miss the morning. It was not difficult as we had all drifted off to bed by 9.00pm and there are only so many hours you can sleep, or listen to the gentle breathing of your fellow room mates.

Taking a break

Taking a break

After a rather unsatisfactory breakfast of fatty doughnuts, we set out to to climb up to Qafa e Rosit, a mountain pass on the border with Montenegro known as Pyramid 18. Crossing the dry river bed we climbed gently up to the small village of Kikaj with just two houses. From there we climbed up through woods and across beautiful alpine pastures, eventually reaching a shepherd’s hut where we could buy a refreshing drink. It was fascinating to be served by a shepherd in this remote location wearing a suit. We had seen similarly dressed shepherds on our travels and they all seemed highly inappropriate, but they were all kept remarkably smart.

Wow!!

Wow!!

Three members of the group decided not to go higher, so while the rest of us continued upward, they began the descent. We were now on open, alpine hillsides, level with many of the craggy peaks we had gazed up at from the valley bottom. They were stunning. But, however stunning they were, we were not prepared for the view when we reached the top of the pass at a little over 2000m. As we reached its crest we were faced with a mass of spectacular rock faces and craggy peaks. It was a stunning view, impossible to turn away from. We were looking into a little corner of Montenegro with the furthest wall of mountains on the other side of the valley again being the border with Albania as it swept round in a huge arc. We were so lucky that the weather and conditions were perfect for us to enjoy such a vista.

DSC_0110Dropping about 30m into Montenegro we sat on the grass in pleasant sunshine and ate our picnic lunch, pausing between bites of bread to take yet more photographs. I felt that those who had descended were missing a highlight but as Claire was not feeling too well, it was probably the right decision.

After more photographs we dragged ourselves away and started the descent, retracing our steps all the way back to our lodge. We again stopped for refreshment at the shepherd’s hut, drinking cups of wonderful mint tea.

DSC_0103On the way down Fraser began to feel ill and by the time he reached the lodge he had been sick a number of times. What was happening to the group? What was the source of this illness? I could not think of anything that we had eaten or drunk in Albania. Certainly the food was a little different, a bit greasy at times but not sufficiently so to make us ill, I would have thought. It had to be something that was brought out with us or picked up on the plane.

I felt a huge surge of satisfaction by the time I got back to the lodge. We had climbed almost 1400m to one of the most stunning views I had seen and I felt that this was the best day walk I had had for a long time. I will never forget the splendour of those views.

That night it rained heavily and the night sky and surrounding hills were lit up by regular flashes of lightening. Thunder echoed around the peaks. The rain was so heavy it rattled on the roof above our heads. In the morning it was still damp and the mountains were wearing necklaces of whispy clouds. I was thankful that we had had such good weather for our hike the day before.

DSC_0123After another disappointing breakfast a local minibus took us up to the trail head, saving us about ninety minutes of road and river bed walking. There we met our mule team that were going to carry our kit over the pass to Thethi.  It was still damp and it was necessary to don waterproofs, but after a while of steep climbing through woodland, the rain eased and it became far too hot to keep the waterproofs on. Fortunately, those who had been off colour the day before had made a remarkable recovery, and although Fraser was still a little delicate, he was able to cope with the walk.

DSC_0125The climb continued steeply until we reached another shepherd’s hut serving refreshments, where we rested for a while. The gradient continued to be quite steep but we at least felt we were making some vertical progress as the valley below us opened out. Above, it was impossible to see where the path was leading us as there seemed to be cliffs of limestone blocking all access to the summit. Occasionally we would see a cleft and think that was where we were heading, only to find that the path then veered away from it. Eventually the path took us under the cliffs on a narrow path with a fairly steep drop below us, until we rounded a corner, and there was the pass. As we reached the summit a cold wind hit us and it was best to rest on the Valbona side while we waited for the group to reassemble.

IMG_4862Unlike the Valbona side of the pass, the Thethi side was forested almost to the top. The descent took us into an amazing area of beech forest on a steep slope. All the trees had a bizarre bend in the trunk just above ground level. I can only assume that the young trees initially grew at right angles to the slope but in their quest for light turned to the vertical. Walking through this beech forest it was hard to imagine that we were in Albania; we could so easily have been back home – beech trees, rain, temperate environment. It really was beautiful walking. It did not have the wow factor of the day before but we were all very privileged to be able to walk in such beautiful surroundings.

DSC_0133Just below the forest we came across another shepherd’s tea shop, but this one was very much an up-market affair with a welcoming log fire, tables and chairs crafted out of logs and a very clean toilet. While we rested and took refreshing drinks the rain returned, allowing us to linger and luxuriate longer until the rain eased and we were able to resume our journey down hill.

As we neared the floor of the valley we joined a stoney track and were almost immediately confronted by a JCB. To the side of it the vegetation on the downward slope had been disturbed and there were tyre marks leaving the road. Peering about 50 feet down the slope we could just make out a minibus through the branches and leaves. It had reversed over the edge and down the slope. The JCB was trying to manoeuvre in order to attach a line to it and pull it back up on to the track. We learned that the two occupants, brothers, were unharmed and that the undergrowth had slowed its fall until, eventually a couple of trees caught it before too much damage could be done.

Steve looking down on Thethi

Steve looking down on Thethi

On reaching Thethi, we were again surprised by the amount of development that had occurred recently, with new lodges being built, replacing the traditional building with their wood tiled roofs. There was even a very smart tourist information office, although I don’t think it was open, possibly because the season was quickly drawing to a close.

It was certainly colder in this valley and we were grateful for the log fire in the living/dining room of the lodge. The accommodation was in dormitory type rooms with five beds in each room, although there were only three to a room with an adjacent bathroom. It was comfortable, but quite basic; the windows did not shut properly, there was nowhere to hang anything and just about every pipe connection in the bathroom leaked. As the afternoon progressed into evening, both Rupert and Mike began to feel unwell, confirming that whatever it was that had affected Claire and Fraser was being passed around the group. Those who had so far remained healthy felt there was a sword of Damocles hanging over them.

DSC_0139The following morning the weather had improved slightly, although it was still rather cloudy and cold. Hassan tweaked the itinerary and suggested that we walk down valley for a couple of hours before climbing up to have a look at Blue Eye, a pool in a mountain river, tucked deep in the mountains. It seemed like a good idea, as going high we would almost inevitably end up in cloud and see very little. Fortunately Rupert had recovered but we left Mike behind to continue his recovery.

DSC_0143The walk down valley, dropping about 400m was pleasant and without difficulty, a bit of a relief after two strenuous uphill days, On reaching a small, largely deserted village, we turned into a side valley via an interesting small gorge with fascinating limestone formations smoothed by fast flowing, swirling water. This lead us up through scrub and woodland to a perfect pool of clear, blue, deep water fed by a single water shoot. It looked incredibly inviting but we weren’t fooled, having seen a couple of Dutch lads shivering, having been in for a quick dip.

Returning to the main valley by the same route, we then returned to Thethi on the stoney road on the opposite side of the valley to which we had descended. With the exception of the pool, this was the least spectacular of our walks but, in a way, I was pleased. My right achilles had become increasingly more painful as the week went on, although it appeared to be more noticeable on an easier walk. I almost decided there and then that I would not go on the short walk the following morning before we returned to Tirana. That is what I did and was joined by Steve who now was suffering a little as the sword of Damocles had fallen upon him.

A final look at the wall of mountains at the head of the Thethi Valley

A final look at the wall of mountains at the head of the Thethi Valley

After lunch on our last day in the mountains a minibus picked us up for the journey to Shkoder. According to the itinerary we should have been walking this route towards the village of Boga, but as it involved a very lengthy climb lasting several hours, Hassan decided there were not enough hours in the day to achieve everything. So, we let the minibus take the strain and drive us around many hairpin bends higher and higher. On reaching above the tree line the views opened out and we alighted from the bus to enjoy these last precious views before we began the descent toward Shkoder. Now that we were above the tree line we felt rather more exposed and the road hugged the hillside with a 1000 foot, very steep drop into the valley below. On the other side of the pass the road was newly tarmacked with safety barriers etc. It will only be a matter of time before the Thethi Valley is served with a tarmac road, making it more accessible to all.

In Shkoder we transferred to a newer, smarter minibus for the journey to Tirana, where, on arrival, we checked into our hotel, Villa Tafaj, very close to the centre of town.

The mosaic above the museum entrance depicting the history of Albania

The mosaic above the museum entrance depicting the history of Albania

Our last day was upon us but as our flight was not until midnight, we had plenty of time to enjoy the sights of Tirana. In the morning Hassan gave us a guided tour of the city centre, taking us first to the square in front of the museum. Here, a large stage had been set up for a concert that evening. From there we visited the statue of Skandaberg on his horse, the mosque, the clock tower and, most interestingly, the museum of the communist era held in an expansive underground bunker. Underneath tons of reinforced concrete we learnt about the power held by the communist regime, about the way they suppressed everything that was normal in life, murdered and tortured opponents and finally were overcome by the strength and determination of the people. The most chilling aspect of the whole display were the filmed interviews of people who had lived through the torture. Hopefully it is behind them and that the lessons learnt by the experiences of those dark years will never be forgotten.

The Bunker Museum

The Bunker Museum

The rest of the day was largely free so people went off and did their own thing, filling in the time to departure as best they could.

What did I think of Albania? I thought it was a stunningly beautiful country with sophisticated city centres and rural areas that are beginning to prepare for a positive future. I’m not sure I fully agree with Rick Stein’s assessment of Albanian cuisine but I am sure it will improve as the sophistication of Tirana and other cities spreads further and deeper into rural areas. I was disappointed and surprised by the lack of wild animal and bird life. We never saw a single bird of prey.

Our guide, Hassan, did everything he could to make our trip memorable and his love for the mountains came across strongly. His English was excellent, making it so much easier to understand the history, the geography and the legends that surround this fascinating part of the world. I think Albania, in the not too distant future will be one of the hot destinations of Europe as more and more people experience its treasures and report back. Would I go again? I most certainly would.

Thanks must also go to my fellow travellers, who, despite some health problems, were very good company. The conversation was interesting and varied and I thoroughly enjoyed beating them all at Uno! Here’s to the next time.

 

 

 

Hay Bluff and Lord Hereford’s Knob Circuit via Capel-y-ffin

Ready for the off

Ready for the off

There are occasions when we become slaves of the weather forecast, watching it religiously to see what we might encounter on a day out in the hills. This was the case this weekend, when we were heading out to walk a circuit around the northern end of the Black Mountains. If the truth were known, I was not looking forward to the prospect of getting a good soaking in the heavy rain and strong winds forecast for the day of the walk. There is no such thing as bad weather, just inappropriate clothing. This became apparent as I stepped out of the car in my shorts and flip-flops to be greeted by fellow walkers covered up to protect themselves from the blustery wind with its autumnal nip and the inevitable rain that was going to be driven by the wind soon after we started walking.

Looking across at Twmpa

Looking across at Twmpa

This circular walk of 11.5 miles was going to take us immediately up the steep northern face of Hay Bluff, followed by the long southerly trudge along the largely pavemented Offa’s Dyke Path, until we came to a small pile of stones with a faint path leading off it to each side. That marked the way down, gently at first, and then more steeply on a muddy, slippery path to Capel-y-ffin where we would break for lunch. Another steep climb would take us up the nose of Darren Lwyd and along the ridge to eventually reach the summit of Lord Hereford’s Knob (Twmpa), before descending to Gospel Pass and back to the cars parked by the stone circle. It is not a particularly difficult route with the steep up sections only lasting about half an hour each. The hardest part is the descent to Vision Farm, the setting for Bruce Chatwin’s, “On Black Hill”.

Hay Bluff

Hay Bluff

Geared up for the wind and the impending rain, we set off. The reward of this walk is that within half an hour of setting out you are on the top of Hay Bluff with its dragon embossed trig point. On a clear day it has an imposing view across the Wye Valley to the hills beyond, but today it was all a bit murky. Flurries of light rain began to fall and, as we walked south along Offa’s Dyke, we could see a wall of thicker, heavier and more persistent rain coming towards us from the south-west. We just had time to make some adjustments and additions to our outer layers before it hit us.

One of the more pleasant aspects of a walk are the conversations you have en route. In the ensuing conditions, strong winds, rain, hoods up and a narrow path conversations were virtually impossible, so for much of the time we were left to our own thoughts.

Lunch under the yews at Capel-y-ffin

Lunch under the yews at Capel-y-ffin

Descending, carefully, we made our way to Capel-y-ffin and the shelter of the ancient yew trees around the graveyard of the chapel. The trees gave us excellent shelter from both the rain and the wind.

Immediately after lunch we had our second climb up the steep nose of Darren Lwyd, although the route avoids the more direct approach and takes us zig-zagging to a rocky outcrop just below the brow of the hill. In pleasant conditions this outcrop gives stunning views down the Llanthony Valley, but today it disappeared in a haze of cloud and rain.

Heading out to climb Darren Lwyd

Heading out to climb Darren Lwyd

One of the group was clearly having some difficulty and seemed to be drained of all energy. Unfortunately, I could not contemplate her making the long trudge along the ridge to Twmpa and eventually back to the cars. The weather had deteriorated significantly, the wind had strengthened and the rain was sheeting down. The best she could do was to retrace her steps back to the shelter of the chapel at Capel-y-ffin with Trevor who volunteered to look after her. This would leave me free to guide the rest of the group, pick up my car and collect the two from the chapel.

I gave no instruction about their descent other than to take their time in the slippery conditions. I fully expected them to retrace our steps. I learned later, when I picked them up, that they had had an enjoyable adventure! I decided not to ask too many questions.

Looking down from Twmpa

Looking down from Twmpa

The rest of us set off up the ridge of Darren Lwyd. I decided to set a good pace as there was nothing to be gained from lingering, fully exposed to the wind and rain. Fortunately, the wind was behind us so that instead of battling into it it was helping to push us along. There were several boggy areas we had to negotiate, but we made excellent progress and reached Twmpa after about an hour. Ironically, the conditions began to improve; the sky to the south-west began to brighten and the rain eased. The sun even temporarily brightened up some of the fields in the Wye Valley below.

The descent to Gospel Pass and on to the cars was very straight forward. It was only when we stopped that I began to appreciate how wet I was. At no time during the walk had I felt cold or wet. Instead of feeling miserable I felt excited about the conditions, enjoying feeling the elements. I felt invigorated and energised, which just proves my point at the start of this blog, that it does not always pay to be influenced by the forecast. Provided you have the right gear, bad weather can be some of the best weather to go for a walk in.

Having divested myself of my outer layers, revealed my legs again and donned my flip-flops, I drove over Gospel Pass to Capel-y-ffin to pick up Trevor and Ann. Their downward adventure meant they had only arrived at the chapel a few minutes before me, but they were in good spirits and no harm had been done, although Trevor’s hat decided to allow the wind to separate it from his head and disappear in the bracken, never to be seen again.

Photos curtesy of Claire Cox

 

Walking the Teme Valley

It is 20 years since I last properly backpacked, so it was with a mixture of excitement and trepidation that I hoisted my 17kg rucksack on to my back at Newtown station. My walking partner, Steve, was carrying much less and had reduced it even more by cutting his towel in half before we left. It is because of Steve that I found myself in this situation, 100 miles from home with a walk loosely following the River Teme back to Worcester. As a boy from the Black Country, Steve had had childhood holidays with an aunt who lived in Eardiston, a village with commanding views across the beautiful Teme Valley. Wishing to re-engage with his childhood memories, he asked me, while we worked together on creating my new garden in the winter, if I would take him walking from the source to the point where it enters the River Severn at Worcester.

So, on a hot, sunny, August Bank Holiday Saturday, we were deposited at Newtown station with eight days of backpacking ahead of us. Well, I had. Steve had to leave after five days for a work commitment he could not avoid. The sad thing was that he would have to leave before we reached the area where he spent many happy, long summer days in the valley.

Looking back at Newtown

Looking back at Newtown

Leaving Newtown proved not to be as simple as I thought it would be. To the east of the town a huge scar has been cut into fields as they create a bypass that will deter travellers from entering the town and thus killing it further. The scar cut right across our path and required us to take a detour. Having negotiated the roadworks, we continued to climb out of the valley on ambiguous paths overgrown with nettles, thistles and brambles. The rucksack, despite its weight was comfortable on my back and only became cumbersome when we had to climb over a barbed wire fence with low horned branches above.

After two hours we seemed to have made very little progress. We were still looking down on Newtown. This was demoralising; we wanted to feel that we were making forward progress. Eventually, we climbed over the brow of a hill and dropped into another valley, at the bottom of which we broke for lunch. We were in a very peaceful part of the world; there was not a soul about, just us surrounded by nature.

The source of the River Teme

The source of the River Teme

After lunch we began to climb again, up Cilfaesty Hill, on the slopes of which is the source of the Teme. I have to say the source was a disappointment. There was nothing there other than a few course reeds, no spring, no bog, nothing. However, it was not disappointing because the views from the top were stunning on such a beautiful day. The 360 degree panorama was one to savour. To the west was Plynlimon and Cadair Idris, the north west the Berwyn Mountains, to the north the Cheshire plains coming round to the Shropshire hills of the Stiperstones, the Long Mynd and even the distinctive shape of Clee Hill. Then we had the layers of Herefordshire hills, the Black Mountains, the Brecon Beacons and the multi-layered ridges of mid Wales. It was a joy to sit there and soak it all in in splendid isolation while crowds of bank holiday travellers queued to stand on the summit of Snowden or Pen-y-Fan or sat in traffic on overcrowded roads.

Descending into the Teme Valley we crossed the first bridge across the fledgling river. In just a few miles it had grown from a dry source to a shallow stream flowing clearly on its route to Worcester.

Our comfortable camp

Our comfortable camp

We were camping that night at Brandy House Farm, elevated 100 feet or so above the valley floor. We were shown to our camping spot on the lawn by Richard, the owner, who then proceeded to bring us a tray of tea. Not the usual welcome you get on arrival at a campsite. He had booked the pub, the Radnorshire Arms in Beguildy for us for 7.00pm and would run us down a few minutes earlier. All we had to do was let Susan behind the bar know when we wanted to be collected and a quick phonecall from her would bring Richard to pick us up. What service! We were not the only ones being given this service, so Richard spent most of his Saturday evening running backwards and forwards.

It was during our journey that I discovered that he originates from Worcester, went to Hawford during its early days, his brother went to King’s and his wife is an old girl of Alice Ottley. Small world.

FullSizeRender-3The following morning was an absolute stunner with brilliant blue skies and a hint of mist hanging in the base of the valley. The grass sparkled with millions of drops of early morning dew. The morning improved when Richard, seeing we were up and going, brought breakfast to our tents. This was followed by a packed lunch each for us to take on our way. What service!

Steve taking time out on Beacon Hill

Steve taking time out on Beacon Hill

We had a choice of two routes – a shorter valley based route that incorporated quite a lot of road walking or a longer, high level route that would give us far-reaching vistas. We chose the latter, so, well before 8.00am we were climbing quite steeply up from Brandy House Farm on Glyndwr’s Way and over wide open moorland. There was not a breath of wind and the nearby wind farm stood motionless. The hills were deserted apart from wild horses roaming the upper slopes, looking for grass among the heather and bracken. The day was just perfect. We only saw three people all day.

FullSizeRender-22Having crossed the bulk of the range we began the long descent of Werngeufron Hill towards Lloyney. By the time we reached the village we were ready to visit the village inn for some light refreshment, but, alas, it was closed and gradually falling into dilapidation. This, I discovered, was not unusual on the route we were walking. There were many country pubs that were finding it difficult to survive and if they had not closed down, seemed likely to in the not too distant future.

The long grass of Panpuntan Farm

The long grass of Panpuntan Farm

After seventeen miles we reached Panpuntan Farm about a mile west of Knighton. Here was our base for the night. We were shown into the field that had just one other tent in it and were told we could pitch anywhere. The grass had not been cut all season and was a good foot long, giving us a lovely soft base if we could avoid the thistles.

So far we had not had to do any self-catering but I had come prepared with a variety of rehydrated meals. We decided to have salmon and potato with dill. It was perhaps not the best choice to introduce Steve to camp food . It was a bit like soup with limited flavour. Steve likes his food, and likes it to be good. He vowed not to eat any more, relegating us to finding a pub each evening. That is what we did having eaten. We walked the mile along the river into Knighton. The day before had been the Knighton Show where the whole town turned out to enjoy themselves. They were so high on the success of it that they seemed to be trying to relive the alcoholic experience all over again in the Horse and Jockey. It was noisy and we watched in horror as two young lads downed seven jagerbombs each in very quick succession. One man, originally from Liverpool, sat with us and got talking to us. He asked if we knew what the other name for Knighton was. When we said we didn’t, he said, “1950s”.

Back in my sleeping bag I was disturbed by the roaring of a car going up and down the valley. It was 4.00am. As we walked through Knighton a few hours later there was an abandoned car wreck and a bent iron bollard outside the Horse and Jockey. There was a telltale shattering of windscreen where a head had come into contact with it. The weekend party was clearly too much for some and I can make a shrewd guess as to who it might have been in the car.

Looking back at Knighton

Looking back at Knighton

By the third day Steve had had enough of hills, so instead of following the high level route to Bucknell, he was happy to walk along the lane at the foot of the hills while I went over the tops. As I approached Stowe, I entered a field of cows. As I get older I am becoming less confident about sharing the same space. Most of the time it is perfectly alright but just once in a while I meet some frisky animals, who with their weight and strength, would easily knock me over even if they didn’t intend to. Carrying 17kg on my back meant that there was no way I could outrun any beast that wanted to cause me harm. This particular field was full of benign cows who were not interested in me at all. However, the gate was open to the next field and as I came through it and over the brow of a small rise, there was a bull standing just feet ahead of me on the path. This was not just any bull but one with a single very long horn. I was hoping he did not lose the other on a previous walker passing through his field. I had no alternative but to deviate to the edge of the field, still with the bull only a few feet away from me, while I watched him watching me, waiting for the first sign of any movement. There was none, thankfully, and by the time I reached the stile the beast was back to eating grass.

Shropshire at its best

Shropshire at its best

This high level route proved to be very rewarding. It was quite steep in places but there was plenty to see to take my mind off the effort. Throughout the ascent there were bird feeders and I don’t think I have ever seen so many pheasants before. The ground was thick with them. Above, buzzards, red kites and crows circled overhead. Occasional pheasant carcasses told me why the were circling. Once on the top the route took me across high pastures with far reaching views over Shropshire, to woodland for the long descent into Bucknell.

Steve and I had arranged to meet up in the pub in Bucknell. There are two, The Baron, and the Sitwell Arms. I had chosen the Sitwell Arms as it was closest to where Steve would walk into the village. He missed that one and took himself off to the Baron. I walked passed the Baron and on to the Sitwell Arms, which is closed on a Monday, despite it being bank holiday. Thinking Steve had taken his time, had a nap, got into conversation, I waited by the railway station, ate my lunch, paced around and finally, after an hour decided to check out the Baron. There he was!

The view from the terrace of the Lion Inn, taken on another occasion

The view from the terrace of the Lion Inn, taken on another occasion

The walk that afternoon was relatively flat as we made our way to Lientwardine. I was looking forward to eating at the Lion Inn with its lawned garden overlooking a particularly attractive section of the river by a wonderful stone bridge. Having set up camp, we headed off to the Lion for a drink and a meal. They were taking no more diners on account of the fact that they were short staffed because of the bank holiday. As the nearest pub serving food was at least ten miles away, we ended up buying some supplies from the garage next door and drinking £1 per pint beer at the Sun Inn, left overs from a bank holiday beer festival. Having pinned so much hope on the delights of Lientwardine and the Lion Inn, I was deflated and disappointed with the outcome.

The turreted bridge of Downton Castle

The turreted bridge of Downton Castle

Now that the bank holiday was over the weather changed for the worse. It is usually the other way round where bank holidays are concerned, As we left Lientwardine it began to rain, not heavily, but enough to make us wet, and, more particularly, any long grass very wet. By now we were not necessarily following the published route but making it up as we went along. However, we did come across Downton Castle with its extensive grounds, which take in a section of the Teme. We came across a splendid bridge with a weir beneath. As we looked over at the water below a top of the range Landrover slowed and asked if we were alright. I can only assume that he thought we were going to end it all by plunging into the river below.

It was perhaps more noticeable because it was wet but there were many instances along the route where farmers had not maintained a path across a field where it should have been. Also, if we were required to walk round the margins of a field, they often did not leave enough room between the crop and the boundary, or they had let the margin become so overgrown that it was impassable. As a result of these difficulties, we got very wet from water laden plants, very stung by nettles and scratched by brambles. The worry is that so few people walk these paths that they are in grave danger of disappearing for good.

Bromfield

Bromfield

Lunch was taken by the bridge and weir at Bromfield, looking across at a derelict, but once beautiful, mill house. I am amazed that nobody has snapped it up and redeveloped it. It may be that it is part of Oakly Park and they prefer to keep it the way it is.

Passing through Oakly Park, we headed up towards Mortimer’s Forest and our camp on its edge at North Farm overlooking the beautiful town of Ludlow. It really is in a magnificent spot, looking down onto the castle, the church and the varied pantile roofs of the old town.

Ludlow

Ludlow

By the time we had set up camp and got ourselves cleaned up it had stopped raining so we walked down the steep hill to Ludford Bridge and into town. There is a real sense of history in the frontages with wide streets fanning out from the church at the top of the hill, but each one linked by narrow lanes and mewses. Inevitably we finished up in Ludlow’s oldest pub, the Rose and Crown, where there was a wake going on with free sausages and pork pies on the bar. I resisted. We wandered some more before settling in the Church Inn where we had six one third pint samplers (twice) and a meal, after which Steve could not think about climbing the hill back to camp. While he waited for a taxi, I walked and managed to get there just before him, and it didn’t cost me £4.90.

A large white egret fishing

A large white egret fishing

Steve was keen to get going in the morning as he needed to work. We left camp before anybody else had appeared at 6.45, just before it started to rain again. On reaching the village of Ashford Carbonell, one of those villages that is always a sign on a main road to somewhere else. It is in fact a beautiful village, well looked after by its residents. The going was much easier and as the rain did not last long we made good progress towards Tenbury Wells. Crossing the A456 at Little Hereford I thought of a coffee in the Temeside Inn. Sadly, like so many other pubs, it is no longer a pub, so we just carried on.

Tenbury Wells bridge

Tenbury Wells bridge

Nearing Tenbury we walked through an enormous wholesale tree nursery with hundreds of thousands of trees of every shape and size. It covered an enormous acreage. Shortly afterwards, we split again as Steve preferred the more direct road route while I wanted to go off piste. We met again in Tenbury High Street, had a bite of lunch and then he left. I still had nowhere to stay and as I had wet feet I was tempted to find a B&B for the night. Unfortunately, Tenbury is not a mecca for tourists and there was nothing available. The owner of the Rose and Crown offered me a place to pitch my tent just beyond his beer garden but as it was very public I declined the offer. The council, upon my enquiry, offered me Palmer’s Meadow but again, I felt that as it was public ground, my tent and belongings might be vulnerable if I left them unattended. So, Angela came to fetch me home, where I was able to dry out my boots, off-load a bit of unwanted kit, before heading back to Tenbury early the following morning.

Hops growing wild in the hedgerow

Hops growing wild in the hedgerow

Leaving Tenbury in glorious sunshine I followed more closely to the river for the first few miles, although it did restrict me to more road walking than I would have liked. There was no alternative until I reached Rochford Church, a quaint church with hops growing around the gate into the churchyard. I followed the river bank around the edge of several fields, although glimpses of the river were fairly rare as the Himalayan Balsam grew tall enough to cut it from view. As I approached the last field before returning to the road a herd of cows and their calves came running across the field to greet me as I climbed over the stile. Once in the field they stopped short of me and just watched with interest. They then parted down the middle to reveal a bull sauntering towards me with a confident swagger. We stared at each other as I continued across his field. By the time I reached my exit stile he had lost interest in me.

IMG_4747From Eastham I embarked upon a long, steady climb up to Fox Broadheath. On the way I came across a group of people and I was just about to remark on how rare it was to see people on this trail, when I realised they each had an even rarer alpaca each. At the top of the hill I popped into the Tally Ho Inn for a coffee. Behind the bar was a window on to a magnificent view across the Teme Valley towards Clee Hill and beyond. as I had climbed up the hill the view gradually materialised and in the clear air on the last day of August the light quality was fabulous.

Having climbed the hill I followed its line on very distinctive paths across harvested corn fields until I came to Wall Hills Wood, not far from my final destination of the day, Stanford Bridge. Until then I had made excellent progress but my first problem was that I couldn’t find the entrance to the woods. Eventually I discovered that a fallen tree had blocked the entrance, which needed negotiating. Once in the wood there was a pale, indistinct path but a sign pointed me in the right direction. Eventually the path dropped down steeply over rocks covered with moss, making it a little treacherous. For the first time on this walk I felt compelled to use a pole. Once down I entered an area of woodland carnage. Many of the trees had fallen, blocking any natural forward travel. The path disappeared and because there had been no woodland management for many years and the trees had been able to grow freely, I soon became totally disorientated with no horizon to focus on to get my bearings. To make matters worse the ground was covered in nettles and brambles, each attacking my bare legs with equal ferocity. I decided I had to get out into open fields if I was to get my bearings, so at the first opportunity I climbed over a barbed wire fence and walked around the edge of a field. I now had a pretty good idea where I was from the shapes of the farms lower down the slope. There were pheasants scurrying through the crop and I disturbed a fox lying in wait for one to cross its path and become his dinner. It had taken me a hour to negotiate my way through this small area of woodland.

The Teme at Stanford Bridge

The Teme at Stanford Bridge

As there was no camping available at Stanford Bridge I had booked a room at the Stanford Bridge Hotel and Angela was joining me for the night. It was a bit run down and the route to our room was an eye opener involving passing through a room with a massive inflatable pink duck in it, into the yard, up the spiral fire escape, into an area let out as a couple of flats, up some more stairs to a room in the attic. When I was shown to my room the advice I was given by the proprietress in the event of an emergency, “Just get out!” I texted Angela to come with an open mind and not an open mouth.

It was fine, really. The staff were friendly, the food was average traditional pub fare, the beer was good. But it wasn’t busy. When I arrived a little after 4.00pm there were two or three workmen having a drink on their way home. One or two others popped in and out, and that was about it. I fear the Bridge Hotel at Stanford might end up the same as so many of the pubs I have seen on this journey, closed!  During the night I felt something crawling across me in bed twice, and it wasn’t Angela.

The Malvern Hills to the south

The Malvern Hills to the south

The following morning friend, Rob, joined me for the day, for what is potentially the most beautiful part of the Teme Valley. The route took us up to the rim of the valley on more than one occasion, only to drop down to the river again. It was a gloriously sunny day and the varied colours of the fields and woodland looked a picture. Shortly after crossing Ham Bridge we stopped by the river’s edge for lunch. This is a spot I know so well as it is on the Worcestershire Way. Unfortunately it is a favourite spot for others who are not quite so meticulous about taking their litter with them. Rob and I collected the worst of it and buried the rest under half burnt logs where there had been a camp fire. As we ate our lunch we got fleeting glimpses of blue flashes as a kingfisher flew up and down the river, just above the surface of the water.

'That'

‘That’

We had made excellent time and reached the Talbot at Knightwick by 2.00pm, having walked fourteen miles. After a couple of pints in the garden we walked to Rob’s house about two miles away for a cup of tea and a freshen up. Then it was back to the Talbot, put up my tent and have dinner with Angela, Rob and his partner Karen, Sally and Rick, other friends who live nearby.

I have mentioned, several times, the demise of many country pubs and the perilous existence of others. The Talbot seems to be an exception to the rule. It is popular with both locals and people from further afield. It has a reputation for good food and the fact that it has its own brewery on site adds to its attraction. It was busy, lively, and I can vouch for the fact that both the food and beer are very good, especially a pint of ‘That’.

The Teme at Knighwick

The Teme at Knighwick

My final day was yet another glorious day. Although I would have been happy to eat my rehydrated breakfast, the landlady at the Talbot persuaded me to have one of hers, a full English with bacon, sausage, kidneys, black pudding, beans, egg, tomato, mushrooms, fried potatoes, fried bread and toast. At least I wouldn’t need to worry about lunch.

The Teme Valley was now much wider, so much of the walk was across flat fields of grass, corn stalks and maize. The going was easy. As I got nearer to Worcester the hum of traffic was getting louder. There was more litter on the edges of the path, although there were still no people about.

The confluence of the Teme with the Severn

The confluence of the Teme with the Severn

Eventually, I came to the confluence of the River Teme with the River Severn, a place I have been to many times. On this occasion it was a disappointment, a bit of an anti-climax after all the other things I had encountered during the course of the last eight days. It was made worse by the fact that it was very difficult to get a view of it through the undergrowth and the prolific Himalayan balsam. From there it was just a couple of miles to Diglis basin where the cafe barge was waiting to serve me a cup of tea and a piece of cake. Well deserved I think.

Over the eight days I had walked 138.97 miles, taken 299,390 steps, climbed 9600 feet and, as it turned out had lost no weight at all. I conclude from this that I drank too many pints and ate too many pies. When will I learn?

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.