Our unseasonally warm and wet winter season lasted into January but has now been replaced by more recognisably winter conditions.
We have been blessed with cold, clear, crunchy mornings on Salisbury Plain this week. Clear, frosty mornings are one of the glories of wintertime – perfect for a walk and with the bonus of returning home with a clean dog and clean boots!
The evenings are drawing out now and the official beginning of Spring, March 1st, is now less than six weeks away. Our hens have started providing us with eggs again, a good indicator of the approach of Spring.
The New Year has seen a flurry in bookings as people plan their spring walking break – some as early as February (officially still winter), but most in April. The vast majority of these are for visits to Cornwall, Devon and West Somerset. No surprise there; spring comes early to South West England and to West Wales, the region is bathed in the mild air provided by the Gulf Stream. The Gulf Stream gives us our benign climate; let’s not quibble about a few ferocious Atlantic storms, our latitude puts us next to Siberia or the north shore of Hudson Bay and if it wasn’t for that agreeable maritime feature we would, quite literally, be freezing.
This ‘buffered’ weather on the coasts of the West and Wales, with severe winter frosts and summer droughts a rarity, enables some unexpected species to thrive. In February Camellias will start to blossom in Cornwall, followed a few weeks later by Magnolias and then rhododendrons. The landscaped gardens in Devon and Cornwall are really at their best in April and May. From April onwards, the coast path is a riot of colour due to a succession of wildflowers.
So, Spring’s just around the corner, time to dust off your hiking boots and head west.
It sustains life, supports growth and without it we would perish. It can be tranquil, picturesque, magnificent or destructive but when you’re out for a walk nothing lifts the spirits like a bit of water (unless it has flooded your path, of course!).
Whether it be a moorland stream, a mountain torrent, a glacial lake, a canal, a river, an estuary or the ocean there’s nothing like a body of water to add interest and heighten your enjoyment of a walk or hike.
Moorland Streams and Mountain Torrents
They babble, they thunder, they tumble. In a dry spell they trickle and tinkle musically, in a rainy period they gush and roar. No two walks next to a mountain or moorland stream are ever the same. My favourite moorland walks are in the region where I grew up; Dartmoor, Exmoor and Cornwall. I also love the moorland walks in North Yorkshire, the Yorkshire Dales, the Derbyshire Dales and Northumberland.
The streams are also magnets for wildlife and often form natural boundaries and borders which often makes them historically significant too.
Rivers and Canals
These moorland and mountain streams end up joining others and eventually run into larger rivers on their journey towards the sea. Some of these rivers have paths running alongside them for their entire length. Most notable among these is the Thames Path National Trail which follows the Thames from its source in a Cotswold meadow to the mighty Thames Barrier passing through a multitude of pretty riverside towns and villages as well as the city of Oxford and the great metropolis of London.
Other noteworthy riverside walks include the Severn Way which follows Britain’s longest river from its source in the Welsh mountains to the Bristol Channel and the Test Way which follows England’s premier trout stream from its source in the North Wessex Downs to the Solent.
Canals provide excellent walking. Some feel that they are not natural and, therefore, in some way unworthy of the attention we give to our precious natural landscapes. These miracles of Victorian engineering are very much part of our heritage, provide excellent habitat and encourage biodiversity. They are beautifully adapted for walking too. In the early days canal boats were towed by horses, so there is a towpath next to the canal. Our favourite is the Kennet and Avon canal linking the Thames (by way of the Kennett) with the Avon at the beautiful city of Bath.
Of course, canals can look spectacular in wintertime too.
Estuaries and Coast
As you reach the upper tidal limit of these rivers, they become estuaries and as the walker heads downstream and gets closer to the sea the water becomes more salty and the flora and fauna change. The mighty Thames reaches its tidal limit at Teddington Lock near Richmond-on-Thames.
One of the finest examples is the River Dart which rises as two rivers (the East and West Dart) which meet at Dartmeet before tumbling down off Dartmoor, through stunning Devon countryside to meet the sea at Dartmouth.
Finally, before I move beyond estuaries and out into the open sea, my personal favourite the Tamar. The boundary between Devon and Cornwall. I grew up next to it and miss it every day!
As befits an island sat in the Atlantic Ocean the coastal walking around Great Britain is stunning. As far as footpaths are concerned the ‘jewels in the crown’ are the South West Coast Path (which runs the continuous 620 miles around the South Western tip of England and takes in the coasts of Somerset, Devon, Cornwall and Dorset) and the Wales Coast Path (a continuous walk of 861 miles around the coast of West Wales).
So the advice for whisky and the advice for walking are the same; take more water with it.
From late June the daylight in the northern hemisphere begins to dwindle, imperceptibly at first but as the year progresses through August and September the darkening evenings become ever more noticeable. In late September the Autumnal Equinox is a real ‘milestone’ pointing at the darkening days to come. In late October the United Kingdom puts its clocks back an hour, temporarily extending the morning light at the expense of lighter evenings. For countries as far north as the United Kingdom this means a real lack of daylight. As we approach the winter solstice, even in the south of England the evenings are dark by 4.30 and the mornings don’t lighten until around 7.40. In the north of Scotland you can subtract another hour of daylight.
Even in these days of artificial light and ‘on demand’ heat, food and entertainment, we boreal dwellers look forward keenly to the returning of the light. Imagine how important it would seem to ancient man; no light and only the food stored up from the summer and autumn harvest to sustain you. The lengthening of days, the Winter Solstice, would be more to celebrate than the shortening.
So to prehistoric man the solstices were of huge significance, the turning of the seasons was, quite literally, a matter of life and death. No wonder then that stone circles (time clocks for the midsummer and midwinter) were constructed. Many will be familiar with stonehenge and Avebury but the ‘Celtic Fringe’ of the United Kingdom; Scotland, Wales, Ireland and South West England contains an abundance of stone monuments.
In addition to the stone circles, Dartmoor in Devon and Bodmin Moor in Cornwall are also dotted with ‘stone rows’, straight lines of stones with a similar solar alignment.
It’s not all circles and rows though, other ancient stones are to be found such as Neolithic burial chambers like the West Kennet Long Barrow which has a midwinter solar alignment (although a set of Bronze Age portals now exclude that light).
Some of the most imposing ancient monuments that are found in Cornwall, Wales and Ireland are known as ‘Cromlechs’ (Wales), ‘Quoits’ (Cornwall) and ‘Drumlins’ (Ireland).
These ancient stones are powerful reminders of our ancient ancestors. The effort that must have gone into the construction of these circles, rows, long barrows and cromlechs is incredible and certainly demonstrates a level of social organisation, cohesion and motivation which flies in the face of the perception of prehistoric man as some kind of ‘noble savage’. We should not underestimate them.
So, in our household, the seasonal celebrations will begin early as on the winter solstice, December 21st, we will raise a glass of ‘crimson wonder’ to ‘those that went before’. That still leaves Christmas, New Year and Yule to celebrate.
2015 was the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of the Pennine Way National Trail. The brainchild of journalist and hiker Tom Stephenson the ‘Way’ has challenged thousands of hikers over the years. At 268 miles long and with almost thirty thousand feet of ascent it remains a challenge, even in these days of lightweight gear (and we haven’t even considered the rough terrain and bad weather yet)!
The hills, moors and mountains of the Pennines form the backbone of northern England. The route starts, as all good routes should, from a pub – the Old Nag’s Head at Edale in the Peak District National Park in Derbyshire.
It’s not long before the first challenge appears – the long haul up Jacob’s Ladder to the summit of Kinder Scout and then the Kinder crossing. Back in the seventies and eighties, the passing of many thousands of booted feet had left the summit plateau an eroded quagmire of exposed peat hags – not pleasant to walk through but, more importantly, a badly eroded habitat. A block path has been laid which keeps the human traffic where it ought to be and has contributed to a regeneration of a valuable habitat and vital resource.
Once beyond Kinder you are well into the challenge and the next hill to cross is Bleaklow. Again, the Peat bogs have been stabilised so a more pleasant experience than in days of yore.
Another legendary bogtrot, now tamed by the block path, Featherbed Moss is next on the agenda; a peat wetland with rare sundew (insectivorous) plants. These are the Pennine moors, magnificent in their bleakness.
These high moors are where Derbyshire, Cheshire, Lancashire and West Yorkshire meet. The next civilisation you meet is the town of Hebden Bridge, nestling below the monument on Stoodley Pike which seems to be visible from all over the Calder Valley.
Beyond the bustle of Hebden Bridge the route climbs over Haworth Moor and passes Top Withens farm, thought by many to be the inspiration for Emily Bronte’s ‘Wuthering Heights’.
Leaving Calderdale behind the route reaches the Limestone Dales of the Yorkshire Dales National Park at the magnificent cliffs of Malham Cove, haunt of extreme rock climbers and Peregrine Falcons.
The route from Malham to Horton in Ribblesdale takes in the summits of Fountains Fell and Pen-y-Ghent. The summit of Pen-y-Ghent is reached by an exhilarating scramble and the descent into Horton-in-Ribblesdale is rewarded by a pint mug of tea at the Pen-y-Ghent cafe.
A short days walk beyond Horton lies the attractive Dales town of Hawes and beyond Hawes the great bulwark of Great Shunner Fell which takes the route into glorious, green Swaledale. From charming Thwaite it’s on to Keld where the Pennine Way and the Coast to Coast meet.
After Keld the route becomes wilder still with a more remote feel to it. A few miles past Keld you reach England’s highest pub, the Tan Hill Inn. If you’ve seen ‘An American Werewolf in London’ or you are a connoisseur of double glazing ads, you might recognise it. The beer here is very good (and hard earned).
After this much walking, especially if the weather has been ‘mixed’ you need something to cheer you up, and the next stage provides it – beautiful Teesdale, ‘the valley of the ice flowers’. A verdant limestone river valley with waterfalls, hay meadows and the last remnant of the ice age flower cover. A real tonic for sore feet. The stretch from Middleton-in-Teesdale to Dufton in the Eden Valley is my personal favourite on the whole route and, taken in isolation, one of my favourite walks anywhere. Passing High Force, Low Force, Falcon Clints, Cauldron Snout and, just when you think it can get no better, spectacular High Cup Nick before descending gradually to the pretty village of Dufton. Lap it up, the next bit is hard……
The mixed nature of the weather on the Pennine Way could not be better illustrated than in my most recent experience. the walk from Middleton to Dufton was idyllic – blessed with bright sunshine. The following day, one of the hardest on the entire route – the traverse of Cross Fell – was completed in monsoon like rain driven by the Helm Wind. In Britain we don’t give names to winds, well just one – the Helm. On the summit of Cross Fell it was impossible to stand up and arriving at the village hall at Garrigill was one of life’s great reliefs! The only real sight of the day was a Red Squirrel in the valley. The camera stayed tightly wrapped in its waterproof case.
The Pennine Way runs together with Hadrian’s Wall Path for a day before the two part company and the Pennine Way strikes north again. This is, arguably, the finest stretch of the wall.
Just four more days to go now. Three if you’re feeling strong. The route visits the fine Northumberland town of Bellingham and crosses Otterburn Moor before heading over the Cheviot and descending to journey’s end in the border town of Kirk Yetholm.
The job is not finished, however, until you have toasted your success at the Border Hotel, Kirk Yetholm. Of course there’s a pub at the end, you’ve just walked 268 miles. There has to be.
My most recent completion of the Pennine Way was leading a guided group for Footpath Holidays. Footpath Holidays use their unique ‘Daypack Hike‘ system to make the route feasible and the route is split into three separate consecutive holidays based in Hebden Bridge, Hawes and Hexham.
Keats’ ‘Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’ is giving us stunning views, thick fog and, lately, plenty of mists. London and the South East of England have been fogbound for the last two days. Further west in South West England and West Wales we have been somewhat luckier. The problem with fog is its unpredictability. Sunday started misty but developed into the warmest November day in the UK since records began (22C/72F).
With a decent forecast for Monday and a deterioration predicted for the rest of the week, my daughter Heather and I decided that if we wanted any photographs of Exmoor’s famous Red Deer as the Rut came to a close, it would have to be Monday. Monday dawned with thick fog and we headed west more in hope than expectation and the gloom continued even as we reached Exmoor.
Sometimes you have to keep the faith, as we crested the hill between Minehead and Porlock shards of sunlight burst through the valley mist and we had an inkling that something special was going to happen. We headed for the high ground as quickly as was prudent before the sun started to disperse the low cloud.
As we emerged from the top of the cloud into sparkling blue skies the early start and dubious optimism were immediately rewarded. The hilltops of Exmoor’s highest hills peaked through the top of a sea of marshmallow clouds. This white blanket stretched out across the sea to Wales and the tops of the Brecon Beacons mountains were also visible above the clouds.
What had purported to be a wildlife photography day was now a dual purpose shoot – scenery and wildlife. We crossed our fingers that the wildlife would ‘play ball’ as well as the scenery had! Dunkery Beacon, the highest point on Exmoor is usually reliable for catching a glimpse of Exmoor’s native herd of Red Deer and is also famous for its stunning views. The obvious destination.
Dunkery didn’t disappoint scenically so now for the deer!
The deer turned up too. What a fantastic day. Memories enough to last through the long winter months!
So the big question is; would it be feasible or viable to rewild the United Kingdom?
Knowing the definition of ‘rewilding’ would help. To my mind ‘rewilding’ is the reintroduction of lost species and allowing/encouraging natural habitat to regenerate. The call for this to happen is becoming ever louder.
The landscape of the British Isles is very, very different to the one you would have seen 6000 years ago. This is the point at which the ‘hunter gatherer’ decided to stop the nomadic lifestyle, tie himself to a piece of land and start farming it. Vast tracts of forest were cleared for cultivation and moorlands became managed landscapes. The hand of man (in the form of hunting and redevelopment of the land) have further denuded the landscape.
During recent years there have been small victories; principally reintroductions of birds such as the White Tailed Eagle and the Red Kite. It’s fair to say that these top predators were not welcomed unreservedly by fishermen and gamekeepers!
Other successful reintroductions have included the return of the Great Bustard to Salisbury Plain and the Common Crane to the Somerset Levels.
These species reintroductions are a source of great joy and each represents a little victory, a small step forward and should be applauded. Much of the value is symbolic; it is possible to save a species, it is possible to reclaim a habitat. The cynic in me (and he is very strong) tells me that these (comparatively small) high profile successes tend to insulate ‘Joe Public’ from the unpalatable ecological reality.
So, what else can we do?
Many environmental commentators advocate the introduction (reintroduction) of keystone species. My definition of a keystone species is one which will change its environment for the benefit of other species. Examples include beaver, lynx, wild boar, elk and……..there’s no way around mentioning it……..the wolf.
There have already been some very successful reintroductions of beaver in the UK; some planned, others not. Beavers slow the flow of rivers by building dams and in many circumstances are a positive force in flood control.
Wild Boar are a very successful keystone species. They have, effectively, reintroduced themselves. They’re far too smart for us to keep them fenced in and they’re out there in numbers in places as diverse as Exmoor, Surrey and the Forest of Dean. Their scratching and wallowing opens up the forest floor. We have recently had the first fatal car crash between a human and a wild boar. This will certainly put the Boar on the radar for the wrong reasons.
So the Lynx is on the list of keystone species and would be a suitable top predator. A typical range for one Lynx is 250 square kilometres (a box about nine miles by nine miles) they are elegant, solitary and do not have any ‘folklore baggage’. Are we ready for the Lynx effect? Probably!
So who’s afraid of the big, bad wolf? Plenty of people I suspect. This species would doubtless do the job required but I can’t see much public appetite for a reintroduction.
Why do we need top predators?
Historically areas such as the Scottish Highlands were cleared for sheep. The reason that these landscapes have not recovered to native woodland is the excessive numbers of deer which eat the saplings. Why is there an excessive deer population? They have no natural predator. The only deer management is by man. The Highlands are not the only area with an excess of deer. The Thames and Chiltern area, on London’s doorstep. is overrun by deer, as is much of central and southern England. Just because you can’t see them doesn’t mean they aren’t there.
So it’s that simple then?
Absolutely not. The issue of rewilding is going to bring enthusiasts into direct conflict with farmers, sporting estates and other rural enterprises. Nobody has a monopoly on correctness but the conversation needs to take place and the more informed voices taking part the better.
Don’t wait for the conservation ‘establishment’ to do it for you. I find myself agreeing with Chris Packham (this doesn’t always happen) that the conservationists in the UK have, in many cases, got too involved in politics and have become timorous. I fear that they are so tied in to local government and fighting for budget share that they’ve lost sight of the fact that they should be fighting on another front altogether (and seeing a much bigger picture).
I grew up on the coast. For my first twenty years I could look out of our back window straight on to a tidal estuary with sailing boats bobbing at anchor.When we headed down to the river we would be carrying oars, an outboard motor, fishing tackle or a bait-digging fork. Sometimes all of these things!
When I left home and made my way in the world, I lived in a number of lovely, landlocked places. Beautiful but far from the sea. Joni Mitchell really got it right; ‘you don’t know what you got ’til it’s gone’. Today I was due to do some filming on the coast of West Somerset and I went to bed excited about seeing the sea in the morning. This morning ‘something had come up’ and we couldn’t make the trip. My sense of disappointment was acute, much more so than it would have been had I cancelled a trip to a non coastal location.
Nowadays I am fortunate to be able to visit coastal regions as diverse as England’s South West, the south coast of England, the west coast of Wales, Cumbria, Yorkshire and the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. They are all beautiful and all have their unique geography, geology, flora and fauna. But there’s more to it than that. The people tend to have that stoic humour – the kind that tells you ‘we’ve been battered by storms before and we’ll be battered by storms again (and it won’t get us down)’ and there are a wealth of local traditions; a good example being ‘Obby Oss’ in the small fishing port of Padstow every Mayday.
Chesil Beach, Dorset
Being an island race the British have a tremendous love for the sea. Even those who glimpse it rarely. There can’t be a family which heads for the coast on holiday where the competition in the car isn’t who’s first to see the sea. What I find encouraging is that all of these people are so thrilled with their visits to the coast; because if it thrills them and they love it, hopefully they’ll show it some love and be motivated to look after it. If the British people hear about pollution events at sea, it’s not something that they have a ‘disconnect’ with. This is someone messing around with their formative childhood memories, the experiences that they want to share with their future offspring and it makes them angry. So long live the Great British Seaside Holiday – one of the ecologist’s trump cards!
Due south of London is an unspoiled landscape which has been awarded National Park status, England’s newest National Park in fact. The landscape consists of rolling chalk downland which reaches the sea at a series of dramatic cliffs.
I recently had the pleasure of leading a small group of walkers based in the medieval village of Alfriston.
Our first day’s walk took us along the coast from Birling Gap over the Seven Sisters Cliffs to Exceat with its distinctive Ox Bow lakes and then along the Cuckmere estuary to Alfriston (stopping at the excellent Plough and Harrow Inn at Littlington for refreshment).
Our second walking day took us through beechwoods and over rolling downland to the village of Jevington. Bizarrely, Jevington was the birthplace of Banoffi Pie! Nestling in a fold of the landscape Jevington is a delightful village with an excellent pub, the Eight Bells which we duly visited. Beyond Jevington our objective was one of the South Downs iconic landmarks; the Wilmington Long Man.
.Our other walks took us from the Jack and Jill windmills at Clayton to the historic town of Lewes, home to dissident and revolutionary, Thomas Paine, and scene of the historic Battle of Lewes
‘Eryri’ (literally translated it means ‘home of the eagles’) is the Welsh name for the Snowdonia National Park, a wild region of dramatic, soaring peaks, surging rivers and tranquil valleys. A stronghold of the Welsh language, the region is a mecca for hikers, climbers, kayakers, cavers, mountain bikers and adrenaline sports enthusiasts.
The mountain which gives the region its name, Snowdon (Welsh: Yr Wyddfa), is the highest mountain in Wales or England and, therefore, receives the lions’ share of visitors. There is a ‘park and ride’ service to the trailheads from the nearest village, there is even a cog railway up the mountain and a bar near the summit. At the height of the holiday season and on sunny summer weekends thousands of walkers and train riders visit the mountain each day. It is very tempting, in the light of these numbers, to turn your nose up at Snowdon but it does have some magnificent ridge walking and scrambling and some very challenging rock climbing. The view from the summit is awesome, if you happen to be up there on one of the few days that it isn’t shrouded in cloud!
If you do visit Snowdonia in the high season, why not use this mass obsession with Snowdon to your advantage. Snowdonia is a sprawling area dotted with a large number of spectacular mountains and wild areas. The Moelwyn mountains offer wild, lonely walking and stunning views.
At busy times, I head straight for the Ogwen valley, a steep sided valley sandwiched between the ‘Glyders’ and the ‘Carnedds’. The most striking mountain on the Glyders is Tryfan and the higher Glyders are accessed by ‘Bristly Ridge’ which is just how it sounds!
Hidden from view and nestling in the shadow of the Glyders is Cwm Idwal, a glacially sculpted ‘hanging valley’ containing a picture perfect lake (geologically speaking, a Tarn) Llyn Idwal. A path snakes its way up from the lake to the seemingly impenetrable wall of the Glyders, but if you look carefully there is a fissure, the Devil’s Kitchen, with a rocky staircase up through it. If you’ve just watched ‘the Hobbit’ this route might concentrate your mind. In 35 years, I have yet to meet a dragon!
On the other side of the valley, across Llyn Ogwen, is the forbidding steepness of Pen yr Ole Wen but once you have reached the top of this particular bastion you find yourself on an undulating whaleback ridge with several peaks of 0ver 3000 feet and beautiful sea views. Do the whole thing and you can end your walk in historic, medieval Conway (Welsh: Conwy), with its stunning castle. Ah yes, as well as all of the adventure sports and spectacular scenery, Snowdonia is absolutely crammed with history and is home to some of Britain’s finest castles; Conwy, Caernarfon, Harlech to name but three.
Since the end of World War II some 97% of the wild flower meadows in England and Wales have disappeared, it’s high time we reversed the trend. Some people are already making the effort.
Last week , accompanied by my daughter Heather, I had the privilege of visiting Highgrove House. Highgrove is the home of His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales. We had the opportunity to look around the gardens, in particular the reintroduced wild flower meadows, and then to listen to a talk by Dr Trevor Dines of the charity Plantlife.
What’s important about wildflower meadows? A fair question. Wildflower meadows typically contain between 150 and 160 species of plant; a modern, intensively-farmed field typically contains fewer than 10. Obviously we have a world to feed and intensive agriculture is necessary but, as we are teetering on the brink of a huge extinction event, we have to make some provision for biodiversity. These meadows support huge and diverse ecosystems.
In Golden Jubilee year, 2013, the ‘Coronation Meadows‘ scheme was launched. This scheme encourages people to identify suitable meadows in their area and for communities to establish new wildflower meadows by effectively using the established meadows as ‘seed donors’ for these new projects.
Gardeners can plant wildflower areas but should be wary of seed mixes containing only annual varieties. Packs of seeds containing perennial varieties including ‘yellow rattle’ are more suitable.
Another major refuge for these dwindling wildflower species are the roadside verges, regrettably a number of county councils are cutting these verges before these flowers are able to set seed. There is an online petition encouraging councils to delay the verge cutting (other than in positions where road safety would be compromised).