An athletic afternoon at the Skye Highland Games, Portree

I’ve wanted to visit a Highland games for years. It was on my ‘must do’ list before I’d even written my UK bucket list. So perhaps it’s no surprise that I planned our trip to Skye to coincide with their Highland games.

Field events at Skye Highland Games
Field events at Skye Highland Games

What are Highland games?

Highland games take place throughout Scotland between May and October. Although each event is slightly different they usually encompass piping, dancing, field and track events. It’s thought the games originated as a way for clan chieftains to choose their best bodyguards and fighters. Seems logical, I wouldn’t mess with someone who could toss a tree trunk at me!

The Skye Highland Games are held at The Lump. This aptly named area is a wooded promontory with a natural amphitheatre overlooking Portree harbour. It’s a great location and, although busy, it was easy enough to find a space to watch. Those more organised than us bought along picnic blankets and camping chairs. Why didn’t I think of that?

Piping

Most of the piping competitions took place the day before the main games. A fortunate coincidence from my perspective as I’m not a huge fan of bagpipes. Despite this we somehow managed to position ourselves next to the remaining piping competition. Perhaps that’s why there was a space!

Band at the Skye Highland Games
Band at the Skye Highland Games

That said, I enjoyed the interludes when the Isle of Skye Pipe Band marched through the games field. I couldn’t fail to be moved by the spectacle of the band members dressed in traditional clothing, combined with the sound of massed pipes and drums, parading through the grounds.

Dance

The dance competitions took place on the opposite side of the arena. Children of all ages, and a few grown ups, danced the hornpipe, Irish jig and reel.

Dancers - and tug of war - at Skye Highland Games
Dancers – and tug of war – at Skye Highland Games

I have two left feet so feel unqualified to report on the dance competitions. Suffice to say there was lots of jumping up and down on the spot, pointed toes and outstretched arms. I can only apologise to the Highland dancers for this simplistic description of their celebrated dance.

Track events

The track events were a mix of running laps around the arena and a longer hill race.

Whilst some of the runners looked like they’d trained hard for the races there were a smattering of tourists too. I almost wished I’d brought my trainers. Instead I contented myself with working out who I’d have beaten. And who would have beaten me.

Men’s track event, Skye Highland Games
Men’s track event, Skye Highland Games

The main running event was the hill race. After leaving The Lump competitors ran down to the beach and up the hill opposite. Runners collected a token to prove they’d reached the marker flag before racing back to the arena. It’s just under three miles in total, assuming you take the direct route. The hill climb wouldn’t have bothered me; I’d be more worried about getting lost en route!

Field events

The quintessential Highland games events are the heavy ones. Hammers, tree trunks and stones are flung varying distances and heights. It’s rather ironic this display of manliness takes place in a kilt.

Indeed, Highland Garb is compulsory for these events. An understandable, albeit somewhat bizarre, requirement given that most of the open event competitors weren’t from Scotland!

Putting the stone, Skye Highland Games
Putting the stone, Skye Highland Games

There were some seriously impressive competitors in the field events. I couldn’t lift 56lb, let alone throw it several feet in the air. There must be some very sore backs after these events.

Tug of war at the Skye Highland Games
Tug of war at the Skye Highland Games

The penultimate field event was tossing the caber. Surprisingly it’s not the distance the trunk is thrown that counts. Instead, contestants have to toss a tree trunk so that it turns end over end.

Tossing the caber (or considering it) at the Skye Highland Games
Tossing the caber (or considering it) at the Skye Highland Games

One moment will remain engraved on my mind forever. The hill race runners returned for a final lap at exactly the same time as one of the caber competitors managed to lift and toss. As the tosser (yes, seriously) staggered towards the runners with his caber I had visions of it going seriously wrong. I could hardly bear to watch. Fortunately all ended well and no runners were impaled with a caber!

I’m glad to report that my first Highland games lived up to my high expectations. Have you been to the Highland games? If so, what did you think?

More info:

  • The Skye Highland Games are held in Portree at the start of August. Tickets cost £10 per adult for the main event day, there is a reduced fee for the earlier piping competitions.

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My Humphry Davy MOOC review and a visit to the Royal Institute, London

I can imagine many of you wondering what on an earth a MOOC is. Simple really. It’s A Massive Online Open Course. Or in other words an online course, often created by a University, open to anyone with an Internet connection. I discovered them recently whilst browsing the web and decided to try one out.

Why did I study a MOOC?

I completed a Natural Sciences degree through the Open University (OU) in my 30s and often think about studying again. However I cannot afford the time or money to study another degree at the moment.

Fortunately many MOOCs are free and take just three to six weeks to complete. In the UK, FutureLearn (a private company offshoot of the OU) have been providing courses since 2013. They work with UK and international universities and provide an eclectic choice of courses. There’s bound to be something for everyone!

Humphry Davy MOOC

Sir Humphry Davy, Bt by Henry Howard oil on canvas, 1803 NPG 4591 © National Portrait Gallery, London
Sir Humphry Davy by Henry Howard NPG 4591 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Created by Lancaster University, this MOOC focussed on the life and works of Sir Humphry Davy. I have a fascination with polymaths and Davy fitted the bill perfectly. Probably best known for inventing the miners’ safety lamp, he was also a chemist and a poet. He isolated several elements, experimented with nitrous oxide, helped found the Zoological Society of London and wrote Salmonia, the fly fisherman’s bible. A man of many talents.

The course took place over four weeks, with about three hours study per week. It’s easy to extend this if you want to read more around the subject; indeed I’ve just bought one of the further reading suggestions.

The course is a mix of online videos, reading and discussions. Each week we looked at two or three different aspects of Davy’s life. For example, investigating the controversy around the Davy safety lamp or looking at Davy’s possible connection to Frankenstein.

The work involved was quite straightforward but I struggled to understand and enjoy some of his poems. Whilst I appreciate Davy’s many talents his poems were not to my taste.

Davy’s safety lamp - and a variety of other designs, Royal Institution, London
Davy’s safety lamp – and a variety of other designs, Royal Institution, London

Students were encouraged to contribute to online discussions with comments and questions after each piece. I didn’t always have time to add my thoughts but it was interesting to read everyone else’s. The course educators also commented and created a weekly summary arising from the online discussions.

Whilst browsing the comments I couldn’t help but sneak a look at some of the other student’s profiles. Most appeared to be retirees who I guess have time on their hands and want to occupy their brain cells. It also appears that once you’ve completed one course you start another. That’s my experience too as I’ve already signed up for another two courses!

And what’s the connection to the Royal Institution (Ri)?

I’m a regular visitor to London but have never considered visiting the Royal Institution. That is, until it was offered as an opportunity as part of the Humphry Davy course.

Founded in 1799, the Ri was set up to promote scientific education and research. Humphry Davy lectured at the Ri; his chemical experiments were incredibly popular but would be a health and safety nightmare today.

Professor Frank James at the Royal Institution
Professor Frank James at the Royal Institution

Located in Mayfair the building is set amidst luxury hotels, jewellers (Faberge is at the end of the road) and high end restaurants. Not an area I’d usually visit.

Our course educators had arranged for us to view some of Davy’s notebooks from the archive, take a guided tour of the Faraday museum and listen to them presenting in the lecture theatre that Humphry Davy presented in. Professor James even demonstrated how Davy’s safety lamp worked (with real flame!). It was an incredible opportunity to learn more about Davy and a definite highlight of the MOOC for me.

Although the Ri is open to visitors I’m not sure I’d gain the same enjoyment from a visit without the context of the course. You’d need an interest in the history of science to truly appreciate the Faraday museum but I’d certainly attend the regular public lectures if I lived closer.

My introduction to the world of MOOCs was an excellent experience. I think my other FutureLearn courses will have a high bar to overcome!

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An autumn walk from Turville in the Chilterns, Bucks

Despite living only 40 minutes drive from the Chilterns we don’t visit as often as we should. Stretching across four counties, from Bedfordshire to Oxfordshire, they’re less well known than the Cotswolds but a great option for walkers in hill deprived southern England.

The area is characterised by beech woodlands, chalk hills and brick and flint villages. Autumn, when the leaves change colour, is impossibly pretty. It also seems to be the only time of year I remember that I live close to the Chiltern Hills. There is an inherent switch in me; falling leaves equals walk in the Chilterns.

Add into this mix a fantastic cafe whose existence I’d only recently discovered. It was time to head to the Chilterns.

Turville village

We started in Turville, a small village with an impressive screen pedigree. Scenes from Midsomer Murders, Lewis and Jonathan Creek have all been shot here. And you may even recognise St Mary’s Church, renamed as St Barnabas Church, which featured in the Vicar of Dibley. Of course all of this was lost on my Netflix generation of children.

Turville village
Turville village

Leaving Turville we walked up through Churchfield Wood, emerging beside the security cameras of Turville Court.

It’s fair to say many of the home owners round here are rather well heeled. Whilst Google couldn’t name the owner of Turville Court we did discover it was sold for £18 million in 2015. It has 26 bathrooms, 13 bedrooms and interior decoration which is definitely not to my taste.

The Chilterns in autumn
The Chilterns in autumn

As we walked on we were treated to the sight of about 30 red kites circling above a nearby field. Kites are common in the Chilterns but I did wonder what was attracting the carrion eaters. Or maybe I read too many crime novels.

The next property, Turville Grange, is the country retreat of an influential American family and has previously been owned by both the Henry Ford family and the younger sister of Jacqueline Onassis. The footpath passes between the house and walled garden so you can sneak a view of the estate. Oh how the other half live!

The Barn at Turville Heath

Pub walks may be popular for beer lovers but I’m not much of a drinker. I prefer a cafe with coffee and cake any day. When I heard about The Barn Cafe in Turville Heath I knew it would be a perfect lunch stop.

The Barn cafe at Turville Heath
The Barn cafe at Turville Heath

One niggling concern was that I wasn’t sure exactly where it was. I was therefore relieved our walking route took us right to the front door. This is one of its great features. It’s a no car cafe; you can only reach it on foot, bicycle or horse.

Burgers at the Barn cafe, Turville Heath
Burgers at the Barn cafe, Turville Heath

As befits the name it’s a cafe in a barn; keep an eye out for the old Land Rover in the kitchen! The cafe serves its own Dexter cows in the form of beef burger and ghoulash, along with other home reared and local products. I was pleasantly surprised to find several veggie and vegan options.

We sat inside but there’s limited seating so do come prepared for an outdoor lunch. After our excellent burgers we just about had room for something sweet so shared a slice of lemon and blueberry cake. Rarely get that in a pub!

Walking down to Turville Wood
Walking down to Turville Wood

Onwards towards Ibstone

It was time to walk off our lunch. From Turville Heath we took the footpath leading down to Holloway Lane, and back uphill the other side. Did you know Holloway is another name for a sunken lane? It described this road perfectly.

At Hell Corner Farm, previously owned by the Labour MP Barbara Castle, we turned towards Ibstone and walked a track through the woods. The kids found a rope swing and argued over it for a couple of minutes.

Park Wood, near Ibstone
Park Wood, near Ibstone

These woods were the reason I wanted to walk in the Chilterns. We kicked through leaves, spotted fungi and watched the sunlight filter through the trees. It really was the most gorgeous day.

We emerged onto the road near Ibstone House, yet another mansion owned by the super rich. After a short road section we headed back into the woods, eventually arriving near Cobstone Mill.

View through the trees, Park Wood, near Ibstone
View through the trees, Park Wood, near Ibstone

Privately owned Cobstone Mill stands proudly on a hill above Turville. The 200 year old windmill has starred in numerous TV programmes and films including Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Somebody from the TV location agencies must really love this area. Or live here.

Cobstone Mill, Turville Hill
Cobstone Mill, Turville Hill

From the windmill it’s a very steep walk back down the hill into Turville. So steep that it was hard not to run down it. Although I’d probably end up falling over if I attempted to do so.

Back in Turville we mooched around the church and admired the houses. It’s a gorgeous area and we really must make the effort to visit more than once a year. Particularly now I know a great cafe for lunch!

More info:

  • The Barn at Turville Heath offers full service during weekends and a limited menu with self service during the week.
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Walking the South Downs Way with children: Part 3 Amberley to near Lewes

After a summer break we returned to walking the South Downs Way with the children. We’ve already completed the sections from Winchester to Buriton and from Buriton to Amberley. This time our walk took us from Amberley to near Lewes, with an overnight stop at Truleigh Hill YHA.

Amberley to Truleigh Hill YHA (14 miles)

As with our other South Downs weekends the logistics of linear walks take some organising. This time we had an early morning drive to Three Bridges railway station where we left the car for the weekend. From Three Bridges we took a half hour train ride to Amberley, our starting point.

Unlike our previous visit the sun was shining and our feet and shoulders were fresh and ready for the walk. Amberley is evidently the prettiest village on the South Downs Way but it was too early in the morning to get distracted by tea rooms so we skirted the centre and headed steeply uphill to join the crest of the Downs.

View from Rackham Banks
View from Rackham Banks

The path continued upwards, passing the fenced off trig point on Rackham Hill. A while later we decided to take the diversion which avoids crossing the busy A24 dual carriageway and enters Washington instead. Although longer it allowed us a quick drink in the pub and the chance to refill water bottles.

Walking towards Chactonbury Ring
Walking towards Chanctonbury Ring

Suitably refreshed we climbed again up to Chanctonbury Ring whose beech trees mark the site of an Iron Age fort and a Roman temple. Sadly much depleted by the great storm of 1987 there are several legends connected to them. Did you know you can summon the devil by running anti-clockwise round the clump seven times? Or that women can increase their fertility by sleeping beneath the trees for a night. Needless to say we didn’t try either of these.

Looking towards Steyning Bowl
Looking towards Steyning Bowl

Onwards towards the amphitheatre of Steyning Bowl, nicely framed by a field punctuated with sunflowers. In the far distance we saw the radio masts on Truleigh Hill, reminding us how far we still had to walk that day. We were also treated to views of the derelict Shoreham cement works. There are grand plans afoot to convert the works into an eco or holiday village, depending on which report you read. Until then it’s a blot on the landscape.

As we made our way down Annington Hill we were distracted by the sights and sounds of hundreds of pigs and piglets. Row after row of pigsties, full of sows lazing in the sun and piglets squeaking.

We crossed the road and climbed Beeding Hill, our last hill of the day. We met a couple of cyclists heading in the same direction and rather embarrassingly passed them on foot. In their defence it was a steep hill and perhaps easier to walk than cycle up!

Arriving at Truleigh Hill YHA
Arriving at Truleigh Hill YHA

The last mile or so was a long slog along the road to the Youth Hostel. Taunted by other guests arriving in their cars, and the cyclists overtaking us again. It was a relief to finally arrive at the YHA!

Overnight at Truleigh Hill YHA

This was the perfect location for our overnight stop. The building design was nothing to write home about but the hostel is right on the South Downs Way so no extra mileage required.

Truleigh Hill YHA
Truleigh Hill YHA

After a short rest we were picked up by friends for an evening meal and discovered that even though a pub is a couple of miles away as the crow flies it’s a whole lot further when you need to use the roads! After a twenty minute drive, via Shoreham, we arrived at the pub and decided the menu wasn’t for us. Fortunately the pub in the next village was more promising and, surprisingly, had availability on a Saturday night. An excellent evening of catching up with old friends ensued.

Back at the hostel we had a good night’s sleep and a reasonable breakfast. Although I do wish the YHA would stop offering powdered scrambled eggs at breakfast. Yuck.

Truleigh Hill YHA to Housedean Farm, near Lewes (15 miles)

After a short walk we finally got to pass the radio towers which we’d seen from far away the previous day. The site is a former air defence radar station and underground there’s a nuclear bunker and tunnels. From the looks of the web it’s a favourite for urban explorers, which always sounds like an exciting, if slightly scary, hobby.

Wonder which way the winds blows on the South Downs Way?
Wonder which way the winds blows on the South Downs Way?

From the escarpment we were able to look down to Fulking and realise just how close the pub was to the South Downs Way. If you’re walking that is.

View from Fulking escarpment
View from Fulking escarpment

Our route took in a couple of major attractions, the first being Devil’s Dyke. It’s a deep V shaped valley and, given its name, unsurprisingly home to more legends about the devil. It was a huge attraction for the Victorians with thousands of daily visitors at the peak of its popularity.

Devil's Dyke view
Devil’s Dyke view

After Devil’s Dyke we stopped for a drink at the WildFlour cafe. Located in a small walled garden at Saddlescombe Farm I was surprised to find that the current tenants of the farm had until recently farmed just a couple of miles away from our home. Small world.

Jill windmill, near Clayton
Jill windmill, near Clayton

I had shown remarkable restraint at the cafe so whilst walking through the village of Pyecombe I bought some brownie treats from a street stall. We ate these whilst walking up through the golf course, keeping an eye open for stray golf balls.

At Clayton there’s the chance to detour slightly off route to see the Jack and Jill windmills. Jack, a tower windmill, is privately owned and unusual because of it’s male name. Evidently windmills are usually given female names.

Jill windmill was another casualty of the Great Storm when she caught fire as a result of her sails moving whilst the brakes were applied. Fortunately members of the local Windmill Society came to the rescue. Nowadays, Jill is owned by Mid Sussex District Council and open to the public on summer Sunday afternoons (although it was also open when we visited in the morning). Visitors can buy stoneground flour, or just sit and enjoy the sound of the sails moving in the wind.

Braving cows on the South Downs Way
Braving cows on the South Downs Way

Onto Ditchling Beacon, the highest point in East Sussex. It’s a popular destination, evidenced by the overflowing car park and ice cream van. There were plenty of cyclists too who had struggled up the steep road from Brighton. Rather them than me!

The final part of the walk was a bit of a trudge into the drizzle. That type of rain that gets you wetter than you realise. We quickened our pace to escape the rain, trotting through the woodland and down the steep hill to Housedean Farm, and the bus stop. I was relieved to discover there were frequent buses on Sunday as I really didn’t fancy walking beside the busy A27 into Lewes.

From Lewes we hopped on the train to Three Bridges, and returned to our car for the long drive home. Only 25 miles left of the South Downs Way!

More info:

  • Visit the National Trails website for further information about walking the South Downs Way.
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