When you live in an area as rich in wildlife as the Wylye Valley in Wiltshire you can’t turn your back for a minute, so much can change in such a short time. Go for a walk in a wildflower meadow near you. It’ll lift your spirits and feed your soul!
Having spent a very enjoyable four weeks away walking and hiking in the Cotswolds and on the coast of Cornwall, I returned to find the wildflower meadows of the Wiltshire Downs to be awash with colour as attractive butterflies and moths skipped around a profusion of wild orchids and other wild flowers. Wiltshire has a huge proportion of what’s left of this threatened habitat, ‘unimproved calcareous grassland’ (meadow and pasture on limestone or chalk which has never been sprayed with chemicals), which is now protected.
This year’s show of orchids (especially the rarer varieties) is the best I’ve ever seen.
With all this profusion of plant life, it’s no surprise that the parasitic Broomrapes are out in numbers. They are brown, no chlorophyll required as they tap into the roots of other plants for nutrients, but an attractive oddity in their own right and all part of the natural order of things.
So keep an eye on nature reserves and rare habitats around your area, you might have a chance of being there when Mother Nature has her annual explosion.
It’s been a while since my previous post, but I haven’t been wasting my time. I’ve been leading two great groups of hikers on walking adventures in the Cotswolds, Cornwall and places in between such as Wells and Bath.
If you enjoy pastoral scenery, picturesque villages, wildflower meadows, drystone walls and old buildings the Cotswolds are for you.
If, on the other hand, rugged coastal scenery is what you crave, head for Cornwall. Craggy cliffs teeming with bird life and all the wildflowers, small animals and insects to support a vibrant ecosystem are waiting for you.
The pretty fishing villages are worth a look too.
So whether you enjoy soft and pastoral or something much wilder – Go West!
The Pennine hills are known as the backbone of England; rising in Derbyshire in the very middle of England and meandering northwards to cross the border into Scotland north of Hadrians’ Wall. For those who are up for a challenge, there is a hiking trail along this chain of hills – the Pennine Way. Renowned as England’s toughest National Trail (no arguments from me on that score), British walkers are celebrating its fiftieth annivesary. In 274 miles of wild walking there will be emotional ups and downs to go with the topographical ones. This is a description of my favourite stretch. I’ve walked and hiked all over the world but very few of those walks come close to touching this.
This magnificent stretch is around the half way stage on the route and, for many, provides that lift to the spirits which silences those little voices suggesting that you might quit (many do on the Pennine Way).
Our walk starts at the very traditional Northern town of Middleton-in-Teesdale, a great place to refresh, have a beer and a meal, resupply and regain your sense of proportion. The next 25 miles are sublime. The Pennine Way follows the banks of the River Tees upstream through a limestone landscape filled with waterfalls, rapids and wild flowers.
This area was the last place in England to lose its glacier during the Ice Age and still boasts arctic flower species not to be found anywhere else in the Land. Given that it abounds with Alpine and Limestone species too, it’s hardly surprising that it’s a real hotspot for wildflower enthusiasts. The mechanisation in farming since World War Two has seen a decline in traditional hay meadows. The last few square miles are in Teesdale and are now heavily protected. A globally significant ecosystem teetering on the brink.
On reaching Langdon Beck (great little Youth Hostel here), the Pennine Way heads out of Teesdale, westward across to the Eden Valley and the pretty village of Dufton. We may be saying goodbye to gorgeous Teesdale with its thundering waterfall and carpet of wild flowers but the fun is far from over.
After walking across the limestone pavement at Falcon Clints the route takes you up the side of Cauldron Snout to cross the roaring water on a little metal bridge. A couple of miles of upland pasture and you reach the jaw dropping spectacle of the land dropping away below your feet at High Cup Nick.
You have crossed the Pennine watershed and the path takes you down to the pretty, almost picture postcard, village of Dufton in the valley of the river Eden.
There is a welcoming pub and a post office which serves teas at Dufton. Make the most of them. The next stretch is hard.
Towering above Dufton is Cross Fell, at a shade under three thousand feet the highest point in the Pennines. Cross Fell has another distinction too, the Helm.
A comparatively small island sat in the North Atlantic, let’s make no bones about it in Britain we get wind. We’re so ‘matter of fact’ about high winds that we don’t bother to name them; no Mistrals, Scirocco’s or Levanters here. The weather phenomenon unique to Cross Fell is the only wind we give a name to – the Helm. To simplify a very complicated thing; a cap of stable air sits above Cross Fell and when strong winds blow down from the East they are channeled through the gap between this and the top of the hill, the wind then accelerates down the hill and hits the villages in the valley. Whilst doing all this the moaning and wailing sound is extraordinary. I’ve been caught out twice and on one of those occasions had to crawl off the summit plateau. A truly wild place.
In the United Kingdom we don’t so much have a climate as a lot of different weather; sometimes ‘all four seasons in one day’. With the gulf stream bringing warm water and mild air across the Atlantic Ocean from the west ; cold Northerlies blowing down from Iceland and Easterlies straight from Siberia and mix those in with the occasional hot Southerly straight up from the Sahara and you have weather which is notoriously difficult to predict. The weathermen certainly do get it right more often than not these days, but on occasions they have got it spectacularly wrong. It doesn’t help their cause that when this happens countryside dwellers and folklore exponents nod sagely over their cider and mutter things like ‘the bees weren’t flying, it was obvious bad weather was on its way’.
Red sky at night, Sailors’ delight…….
This certainly has its roots in scientific fact. The vast majority of the UK’s weather arrives from the west (off the Atlantic). If there’s nothing obscuring the light of the sun as it sinks in the west, there’s a very strong likelihood that the weather will remain clear overnight and into the morning.
Rain before seven, sun before eleven……
This one is probably correct more often than it’s wrong. Most of our rain comes from the west and is blown through on stiff Atlantic breezes. It generally takes three or four hours for a weather front to pass through.
Ne’er cast a clowt ’til ‘t May is out………
Great advice if you can understand it! Allow me to translate; don’t put away your warm clothes until the May is out. The May in question is the ‘May Blossom’, predominately Hawthorn. In these days of climatic uncertainty we should probably add; and dinna throw ‘oot the sunblock ’til December.
When clouds appear like cliffs and towers, the earth will be washed by rain and showers………..
True. The towering cumulonimbus clouds definitely herald rain, but light or heavy? If the clouds are ‘bubbly topped’ and look a little like candy floss they are unlikely to give much more than light rain. If, however, the top is flattened and wispy it points to there being ice in the atmosphere and there is the real likelihood of a heavy storm.
Mare’s Tails and Mackerel Scales make tall ships carry low sails………
Pretty much true. The ‘mackerel scales’ are Cirrocumulus and are composed mostly of ice. They herald unsettled, squally weather. Mare’s Tails are a little more complicated – if they are pointing up cloud is descending, which generally is not good news. There is another rhyme;
‘Mackerel sky, Mackerel Sky, Never long wet, Never long dry’.
If woolly fleeces bestow the heavenly way, be sure no rain shall come today…
If the clouds look like fluffy sheep or small cushions of cotton wool, it’s your lucky day. These scattered cumulus really are fair weather clouds and indicate a settled weather pattern.
Beyond the sayings and the ‘old wives’ tails’ a little bit of commonsense advice…….
Always take a rain jacket. It’s also windproof and, if the weather gods are have really smiled on you, it will come in handy as a picnic rug!
A good practical method for predicting the weather for the next few hours whilst you are out; stand with your back to the wind. If the clouds are travelling with the wind, you’re in for pretty much of the same. If they are moving left to right, stand by for a deterioration.
Thirty years as a mountain leader has taught me a lot. If you don’t have the odd thirty years to spare I can recommend Tristan Gooley’s book; ‘the Walker’s Guide To Outdoor Clues and Signs’ isbn: 978-1-444-78008-6 or check out his website
On the 7th June 1930 the 23 year old Alfred Wainwright, in the company of his cousin, travelled by bus from his home in Blackburn, Lancashire to Windermere in Cumbria’s Lake District. On arrival at Windermere they walked to the top of Orrest Head, a modest hill but a fine viewpoint. The panorama of rugged mountains, trees and lakes which greeted them astonished and transfixed them and changed Wainwright’s (AW) life forever.
In 1948 he secured a job at Kendal, in the Lake District, and every spare moment was dedicated to wandering the Cumbrian Fells (hills and mountains). He set about producing a series of handwritten (and drawn) pictorial guides to walking in the Lake District. The books are excellent, readable and worth buying for his illustrations alone.
By the early seventies AW’s guidebooks had introduced many thousands to the joys of walking Cumbria’s fells and he had also written a guidebook to the Pennine Way, England’s most challenging National Trail.
In 1973 AW published a guidebook to a Long Distance walk which he had devised himself; A Coast to Coast Walk. The route, some 190 miles in length links the Irish Sea, on the coast of West Cumbria, and the North Sea, on the coast of East Yorkshire crossing three National Parks enroute.It has become one of Britain’s most popular long distance challenges.
Starting Out – St Bees and the Lake District
Some people like to dip their toe in the Irish Sea some people put a pebble in their rucksack before setting their backs to the beach and heading for the path up onto St Bees Head. Salt water is not good for the boots and pebbles have to be carried which does not sit well with my ultra lightweight approach to backpacking – so the wet boot it is! If we all moved a pebble from one sea to another it might give the archaeologists and geologists of the future something of a riddle to solve. They would probably attribute it to some form of pilgrimage, possibly not so far from the truth!
The first days walking gets you through the coastal plain and into the Lake District at Ennerdale. The scenery from here for the next four or five days is stunning.
As you cross Haystacks, above Buttermere , you will be in good company. AW’s ashes were scattered here in 1991.
After a few days tough, but incredibly rewarding, walking you leave the Lake District and cross the limestone country to Kirkby Stephen, the gateway to the Yorkshire Dales.
Half Way…….The Yorkshire Dales
Kirkby Stephen has a sting in its tail, Nine Standards Rigg, which has to be crossed before reaching the tumbling waterfall of Kisdon near the Dales village of Keld. You are now in the Dales.
The countryside has now completely changed. Swaledale has a feeling of wildness and remoteness about it but contains welcoming, attractive villages such as Muker, Gunnerside and Reeth. You will notice place names with Norse origins throughout this walk. Make sure you have a pint at the Black Bull on your way through Reeth.
Beyond Reeth you reach the lively town of Richmond with its perfectly preserved Georgian Theatre and plenty of good pubs to choose from. From Richmond the route crosses the Vale of York and reaches the Cleveland Hills and the North Yorkshire Moors.
Final Push….North Yorkshire Moors
The landscape changes once again. Rolling heather moorland is now the order of the day. The route follows ridges and valleys through charming villages such as Sleights and Grosmont. Before reaching the cliffs and following the coastal
footpath to journey’s end at pretty Robin Hood’s Bay and the thrill of achievement (tempered with tiredness). To me there is nothing better than a challenge met head on and achieved. The weather is not kind all the time and the path is not well marked, so competence with map and compass is essential as is good raingear and stout comfortable footwear (make sure you pack your sense of humour too). This is all part of the challenge. You will meet plenty of friendly, interesting people along the way. You might even discover your real self, now there’s an intriguing prospect…..
Don’t forget to leave the pebble or dip your toe or you’ll have to come back and do it again!
The recent eight part BBC dramatisation of Winston Graham’s ‘Poldark’ has recently finished its run although its still there to enjoy on the BBC’s ‘catch up’ service ‘BBC iPlayer’. An excellent period drama woven around the fortunes of the copper and tin mining industries in 18th century Cornwall. A good drama and a reasonable stab at social history too. All good historical dramas need endearing, attractive, charismatic characters who should also have visual appeal (Mr Darcy and Miss Bennett in ‘Pride and Prejudice for example). In the case of ‘Poldark’, in my opinion there were three; Ross Poldark, Demelza Poldark and the Cornish landscape,
Unlike the characters, fictitious and out of reach, the landscape is there for all to enjoy and remarkably accessible. There is a footpath the whole way around the coast (all 320 miles of it), thankfully the path reflects the landscape it travels through; wild and rugged. A walk around the coast of Cornwall is not an easy undertaking, plenty of ‘ups and downs’ but the rewards to both mind and body are immense. A real lift to the spirits.
As well as spectacular ruggedness and the colourful wild flowers, the sound of the Atlantic provides a constant soundtrack to your hike. It could be lapping peacefully, purring purposefully or exploding onto the cliffs and beaches with rock-splitting ferocity. You could do the same walk along the coast a hundred times, it will never be the same twice. The moods of the ocean just serve to underline just how wild and elemental this special place is.
The cliffs are not relentless though. Every now and then turn a corner and a quiet inlet or a fishing village will take you completely by surprise.
The sharp-eyed among you may have noticed that many of the scenes in the TV drama show rough, rugged scenery with no coast. There is a spine of moorland the length of Cornwall; wild rugged country with a covering of heather and distinctive granite outcrops. These moors are littered with standing stones, stone rows, stone circles and cromlechs (Known as quoits in Cornwall).
There are three landscape types guaranteed to get my pulse racing; wild coastline, untamed moorland and mountains. Cornwall’s Atlantic Coast and moorland fulfill two of these – laced with a healthy dose of history, heritage, folklore and romance you can’t beat it! The food’s good too.
The English countryside has, for the last few weeks, been a sea of yellow. We have now reached the point where it begins to enter its ‘blue phase’.
The most obvious sign of the ‘bluing of the landscape’ is in the woodlands where carpets of bluebells bear witness to the fact that we’re in that transition period from springtime into early summer. This being England and all, not even the gorgeous bluebell can steer clear of controversy. There are two varieties; the native English Bluebell and the non-indigenous Spanish Bluebell. The Spanish version spreads more vigorously than the native and also hybridises with it, the worry is that soon there will no longer be a pure strain of English Bluebell.
The hedgerows are sporting some very fine Germander Speedwell and Forgetmenots. Not much controversy here although I guess one man’s wildflower is another man’s weed!
Grassy meadows, especially on limestone and chalk base rocks are taking on a subtle blue sheen as vast patches of Ground Ivy and Milkwort come into bloom.
Coming soon to many hillsides will be Harebells and, more rarely, Gentian. We are fortunate that our local hillside gets a good annual crop of Gentian.
Maritime Squill is about to put in appearance on the coasts of Cornwall, Devon and West Wales. We have found our first wild orchids of the year – but as they were purple, they don’t count as a shade of blue.
Down by the river, the invertebrates are carrying on the blue theme. The Damsel Flies are gorgeous.
Rural, rustic, idyllic, quirky even. Its difficult to pin a label on the county of Dorset. Its coast bridges the gap between the traditionally perceived West Country and the more metropolitan coast of Hampshire with the large ports of Southampton and Portsmouth. On the coast to its west lies Devon, to its east Hampshire and the Solent. Inland it shares borders with the very rural counties of Somerset and Wiltshire.
Many people will feel that they know Dorset from the books of Thomas Hardy and, if they do they might well think of Dorset as a county where there are few happy endings! The truth is that if you’re an outdoor enthusiast there will be happy outcomes galore.
The inland areas of Dorset, Cranborne Chase in particular, provide idyllic rolling scenery and charming villages perfect for ramblers, horseriders and cyclists.
For those requiring more physically challenging pastimes head for the coast. Challenging and invigorating hikes along the dramatic coast, mountain bike rides and road cycling around the stunning Purbeck Peninsula, scuba diving around Old Harry Rocks and Kimmeridge Bay and some good rock climbing on Dancing Ledge at Kimmeridge.
Dorset’s unique geology has given rise to some stunningly distinct coastal scenery such as the huge shingle spit known as Chesil Bank with a tranquil tidal lagoon behind it – a haven for seabirds – and the distinctive arch of Durdle Door. Plenty to interest photographers and artists.
At the end of Chesil Bank is the beach resort of Weymouth which hosted the sailing events for the 2012 Olympic Games so I think the box marked ‘Sailing’ is well and truly checked.
So where does ‘Jurassic’ come into it. The unique geology has made Dorset a mecca for fossil hunters; regular finds from the Jurassic period range from simple ammonites to fossilized T Rex footprints. The mecca for fossil hunters is the genteel resort of Lyme Regis. The coast of Dorset and East Devon has been designated a UNESCO world heritage site named……the Jurassic Coast.
The landscape of England has transformed in the last couple of weeks to a pastiche of various shades of yellow. The daffodils are almost over now, just a little splash of colour left.
Springing up in their place in the hedgerows, the dandelions have put in an appearance. In the woods the primroses are out in huge numbers.
On the downland, heathland and the moors, the gorse is still blooming. Very colourful and with a beautiful aroma (reminiscent of coconut) gorse adds a golden lustre through the late winter and early spring. Don’t grab a gorse bush, though, the gorse prickles are one of the sharpest and most painful you will find – which explains why it hasn’t been eaten by hungry cattle or deer during the winter!
By far the most dramatic addition to the landscape at the moment are the bright yellow fields of Oilseed Rape which dominate the arable farming areas.
Many people see it as a relatively new crop, but nothing could be further from the truth. In the first century, the Romans introduced it as a feed crop for animals. It has no pollen, as such, but gives off an oily fragrant substance. It is a member of the cabbage family. It is grown for its oil (known in North America as Canola Oil), which is light, healthy and excellent to cook with. Rapeseed was reintroduced to England in the seventeenth century, when the lowland fields were drained. The Dutch drainage engineers needed a light oil to lubricate their pumps. The fields will be blooming for another few weeks, but the crop will be in the fields for months whilst the pods of seeds fill with oil.
The fifth (not fiftieth – OK, I exaggerated) shade of yellow appearing in large numbers on unspoilt grasslands is provided by the majestic Cowslip. The cowslip is a species in decline as it does not respond well to chemicals.
If yellow is not your colour, relax, change is on the way. The first of the bluebells are with us and will soon be dominating our Beech woodlands.
I’m sure that most people enjoy a walk or hike for its own sake; exercise, relaxation, fresh air – the benefits are obvious. Add another element to the walk and, for most of us, the enjoyment goes up another level. The obvious enhancements to any walk include great views, wildlife, wildflowers and, for some, the thrill of an exposed path on a mountainside or sea cliff. There are an increasing number of paths that have another theme – heritage.
The immediate thought provoked by the word ‘heritage’ might be a castle or an old mill from the time of the industrial revolution. Further reflection however will reveal a wealth of subject material; ancient monuments, industrial heritage, historic buildings, landscape heritage, literary heritage – the list goes on.
Many Long Distance Paths are centered on heritage. The Offa’s Dyke Path is a National Trail which follows the defensive earthwork which Saxon King Offa built along the border between England and Wales (it just so happens that it passes through nearly 200 miles of stunning countryside too). The Great Stones Way and White Horse Trail pick out some of Wiltshire’s wealth of archaeological heritage. Probably the best example, though, is the Hadrian’s Wall Path, a National Trail running the length of the famous Roman Wall across the very north of England.
Britain’s industrial heritage has yielded some interesting landscapes and enhanced some great walks; the South West Coast Path visits the mining landscape of the Cornish Coast (now a UNESCO World Heritage Site), The Cleveland Way passes through the former alum mines of North Yorkshire and the White Peak Way passes a number of Derbyshire’s former cotton mills. Canal towpaths are a wonderful legacy of our industrial past; the Kennet and Avon Canal, from Reading to Bath effectively spans the country from coast to coast, linking Bristol and London.
A number of walking trails have been tied to literary themes; the ‘Hardy Way’ in Dorset visits villages which featured as locations in the books of Thomas Hardy, in the North of England there are walks based on the works of the Bronte Sisters. In the Highlands of Scotland there is the Rob Roy Trail (based on Sir Walter Scott’s fictional hero).
The number of paths themed around architectural styles or historic buildings is huge. Notable among them are; the Three Castles Path in Wales, the Border Abbeys Way in Scotland and yet another Three Castles Path in southern England. In truth any country walk you might take in England that visits a village or two is likely to contain at least one medieval building – the church.
So whether your preference is for a side order of heritage with your hike or the full main course; in the United Kingdom you’re spoiled for choice.