Walking the Ridgeway 40

It’s not often we spend a day away from the kids.  We enjoy our family time together and want to make the most of it. Last weekend was an exception.  The kids got to spend a day with the grandparents, and we took part in an organised challenge walk along the Ridgeway, our local long distance footpath.

This is the second time we’ve taken part. Last year I thought walking 40 miles in a day would be a great way to celebrate my partner’s 40th birthday.  Fast forward a year, and for some reason we’re doing it again. During the intervening year my mind has somehow obliterated the soreness and blisters we experienced last time.  Even my souvenir black toenail had grown out.

Raring to go at the start of the Ridgeway 40
Raring to go at the start of the Ridgeway 40

If you’re unfamiliar with the Ridgeway, it’s an 87 mile ancient track, running from Wiltshire through Berkshire to Buckinghamshire.  The first half (which we were walking) is mainly across rolling chalk download. The scenery changes in the latter stages to beech woodlands, as it passes through the Chilterns. Our walk was more or less along a ridge (funny that, given the name) and although not hilly there were quite a few ups and downs, particularly near the start.

Our day began with an early morning bus journey from the end point at Streatley Youth Hostel to the start of the Ridgeway at Overton Hill. Driving for an hour to our destination reiterated just how far we were going to walk. It was also during this bus ride that the other half remembered his sandwiches were still in the fridge at home!  Fortunately he had plenty of other snacks to sustain him.

Walking the Ridgeway
Walking the Ridgeway

By 8am we were off the bus and on our way.  The event is limited to 300 participants and whilst the challenge is officially for walkers some people do run it. During the first few miles we were repeatedly passed by these super fit individuals.  Later on we found out that the first runners home completed it in around 6 1/2 hours,  almost 6 hours quicker than our eventual time!

The morning walk was relatively painless, and we made speedy progress over the first few miles. We were thankful that the brisk wind was behind us, and although we had a couple of short rain showers the cool weather was perfect for walking.

A highlight of the early part of the walk was Barbury Castle.  This is the home of an Iron Age hill fort, and one of many historical sites along the track.  I made a mental note as we zoomed through to bring the children back for a more leisurely exploration another day.

Registering at checkpoint 1
Checkpoint 1

There were 9 checkpoints along the route, the first one at 7 miles. At each checkpoint our cards were clipped and times allocated for the previous leg.  The first stop offered squash with subsequent ones offering snacks such as dried fruit, orange segments and rice pudding. All built up to the highlight of the day at checkpoint number 6, but more of that later.

It’s fair to say that as we passed the 14 mile checkpoint we were starting to suffer.  We trained for the walk last year but hadn’t done much in the way of long distance walking since. A big mistake! The only way to train for a walk such as the Ridgeway 40 is to do plenty of walking.  Our feet were letting us know that we hadn’t done enough.

We took the opportunity to stop for a quick lunch break at Uffington, and a change of socks.  It was a relief to sit down for a few minutes, although getting up again was rather painful.  Blisters were starting to form, rather worrying given how many miles we still had to walk.

Uffington was the halfway mark so from that point on we started to count down the miles.  Didcot power station came into view, albeit with the recognition that we had to walk several miles past this to our destination. I’d love to tell you more about the scenery we were walking through, but by this time my view was near enough restricted to my feet.  Heads down, we trudged on.

Well deserved cake at checkpoint 6
Well deserved cake at checkpoint 6

Checkpoint 6, which we reached around 4pm, offered tea and cake. As we arrived the lady advised us to eat as much cake as we could and to take some with us for the rest of the walk. The table reminded me of a WI cake stall, with gingerbread, Victoria sponge, fruit cake, chocolate cakes and more! It’s not very often that taking up a suggestion like this is guilt free, but given the circumstances I demolished three slices of homemade cake in a very short time.  Cake has never tasted so good.

Leaving checkpoint 6 we were 28 miles down, 12 to go.  The weather forecast had advised of an 80% chance of rain, with the possibility of hail and thunder.  We had been incredibly lucky to miss the heavy showers throughout the early afternoon but our luck was about to run out.  Our first soaking only lasted about 20 minutes and the wind blew the showers over pretty quickly. I was secretly happy that I got to use my waterproofs, which I’d been carrying all day.

The rain that missed us
The rain that missed us

Shortly afterwards, we were joined by a friend who’d come to provide some moral support, along with bananas, Club biscuits and Mars bars. We both felt rather guilty however as he’d got caught in the aforementioned rain shower, but unlike us he’d been wearing jeans.  There’s nothing worse than the feel of sodden jeans.

The rain that didn't miss!
The rain that didn’t miss!

With only 10 miles to go we were onto the home strait.  At this point we just wanted to finish.  Our feet were screaming at us and it became an effort to put them in front of each other.  Rather ominously the sky was also turning black.  We walked as fast as we were able to at this late stage but just after we passed the last checkpoint the rain started again.

This time it was much heavier.  We were down to the last couple of miles, which is along a road, and small streams were racing alongside us.  A couple of cars came by, throwing spray our way, but by this time we were so wet it didn’t  really matter.

The rain stopped just as we arrived in Streatley and we were treated to a glorious rainbow.  A few more hundred metres and we were at the Youth Hostel, the end point. We’d hardly noticed the steep slope up to the hostel entrance when we’d left in the morning, but I can assure you we noticed every step of it that evening.

It was a relief to finally finish.  Of course it’s a fantastic achievement, and I’m glad we did it.  However the agonising walk back to our car and the taking off of boots will stay with me for some time yet. I am also not ashamed to say that I had to physically crawl up the stairs to bed that night!

More info:

Fancy taking part next year?  Are you sure?!  If the above hasn’t persuaded you to give it a miss you can find out more and register for the next event at www.ridgeway40.org.uk

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Fossil hunting on the Isle of Wight

Earlier this year the Natural History Museum named the Isle of Wight as dinosaur capital of Britain. With the Bank Holiday weekend looming, and fond memories of previous trips to the island, we decided to see whether we could discover some dinosaur bones ourselves.

A browse through Trip Advisor suggested the Fossil Hunting trips run by Dinosaur Expeditions. My inner child was immediately captivated by the name, and putting aside all thoughts of Jurassic Park I booked us onto an afternoon ‘hunt’.

Walking the Tennyson Trail to The Needles
Walking the Tennyson Trail to The Needles

We caught an early morning ferry so had time spare to walk a stretch of  the Tennyson Trail. It was a gentle uphill walk, along a broad trail over West High Down to The Needles. Newly arrived swifts swooped along the trail, and with the gorse bushes smelling of coconut (suntan lotion) it really felt like summer had arrived.

needles
The Needles

The walk ended at a viewpoint over the white cliffs out to The Needles.  A coastguard helicopter was practising below us, adding a touch of excitement to the otherwise serene spot.

Dinosaur fossil hunting
Dinosaur fossil hunting

Back in the car, we managed to fit in a quick picnic at Freshwater Bay before heading over to start our fossil hunt. Oliver, our guide, met us in the car park near Brook Chine on the south coast of the island.  He started by explaining the types of fossil we might find, and handed round samples for us to familiarise ourselves with.  The children listened attentively to the ground rules (no paddling, no cliff climbing and don’t throw stones) before we walked down to the beach to start our fossil hunt.

The group consisted of 6 families, and I’m pretty sure the adults were as excited as the kids, I know I was! We trawled our way through the stones on the beach, picking up anything that looked fossil like and taking it to Oliver for identification.  We quickly became adept at identifying flints, sandstone, fossilised wood and sea sponges.

dinosaurfoot

After a while, Oliver took us on a walk to see some dinosaur footprints. He also explained the geological history of  the beach, and talked about the various strata in the cliffs behind us.  The tide wasn’t quite low enough to visit the footprints, instead he pointed out dinosaur footprint casts. I’d have never realised these were the slimy green rocks we’d been clambering over earlier but it was obvious the minute he showed us!

The walk back along the beach provided more fossil spotting opportunities.  My daughter was desperate to find a dinosaur bone, but sadly it was not to be.  However, at the end of trip Oliver surprised the children with a small fragment of dinosaur bone each.

We rounded off our day with a cream tea at Chale Bay Farm.  Our first of the year, it was a delight to laze in the sunshine, and feast on fruit scones, jam and cream.

Back home the kids had fun washing and sorting their finds.  You might think this just looks like a selection of stones, but we know better!

Not just any old stones!
Not just any old stones!

Kids view:

The dinosaur fossil hunt was very good because the man knew the names of all the things we picked up.

General info:

  • Take a bag or bucket to collect your fossil specimens in.
  • There are no toilet facilities at Brook Chine, so ensure you pay a visit before arrival.
  • The beach isn’t accessible for either wheelchairs or buggies.

Costs:

We travelled with Red Funnel from Southampton to East Cowes; a family day return cost £32. The family ticket for the fossil hunt was £12.50.

wavingatship
On the way home
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A free day out at The Vyne, Hampshire

vyneLast weekend we took advantage of the free entry offer to National Trust properties.  After searching through the suggestions on their website we decided on a trip to the The Vyne, just north of Basingstoke.

The visit didn’t start well, as upon arrival we were faced with traffic queues outside the property and parking stewards telling people the car parks were full.  After sitting in the queue for a while we turned around and were lucky enough to find a spot on a nearby verge, just a short walk from the The Vyne.  We headed up through the NT car park and were surprised to see lots of free spaces, and a rather harassed parking attendant trying to pass on the message to those directing traffic on the road.  The mayhem continued in the cafe, which looked like it had been looted and had little left on the shelves.  Let’s just say it was an unfortunate introduction to our visit!

Daffodils at The Vyne
Daffodils at The Vyne

Luckily after lunch things got better.  We started with the Hidden Realm play area, so the kids could run off some energy before visiting the house.  This is newly built, and consists of a variety of tunnels, a fort and a stream to dam. The stream and resulting wet sandpit area were incredibly popular with the pre-school age group who were having a ball!   The playground is advertised for children up to the age of 10, and my two did have fun even though it was mostly younger children using it during our visit.

The Vyne
The Vyne

The house dates from Tudor times but has some more recent associations with Jane Austen and J R Tolkien.  We don’t tend to visit stately homes much, given the bull in a china shop tendency of our youngest but we decided it give this one a whirl. We were pleasantly surprised.  The assistants were not the usual staid guardians that I tend to associate with such properties, but were keen to point out interesting items in the rooms and engage with the children.  My eldest daughter’s latest school topic is the Tudors so it really helped history come alive for her.

I liked the use of holly and teasels located on the various bits of furniture to stop people sitting on them.  They were an interesting alternative to the usual “Do not touch” signs, although the first time I noticed them was after my son had picked some up and was wandering over to me with it!

The house also has a room dedicated to the ring that may have been an inspiration for Tolkien’s The Hobbit.  Whilst I found it an interesting, but tenuous, link I think it could have been presented better.  The exhibition was word heavy and neither of my kids bothered to read any of the information, despite them both loving The Hobbit.  They had a quick glance at the ring on display but were in and out of the room in minutes.

walksvyne
Which walk?

Back outside again and we decided to take advantage of the fabulous weather.  We walked by the side of the lake, spotting some huge fish, until we reached Morgaston Woods.  The NT have signposted several walks through the woods, including one which takes you along a concrete track that was built during the Second World War.  Its purpose was to act as a decoy for enemy bombers, and to distract them from a nearby munitions depot. We had great fun imagining what it would have been like back in war time.

Geocaching at The Vyne
Geocaching at The Vyne

I’d read on the website beforehand that the woods had a geocache trail.We weren’t organised enough to plan this in advance but whilst on one of the woodland walks I checked the geocaching app on my iPhone and it picked up the NT geocaches. The kids had an enjoyable time running around and searching for them. Both of the ones we found were pretty easy to locate, but that’s better than not being able to find them at all!

So, in summary, the day didn’t start that well but things got better. I’m surprised how interesting we found the house, but as always it’s the outdoor things we enjoyed the most.

Kids view:

We liked the geocaching best.  It was boring whilst we had to wait for somewhere to park.

General info:

  • Check opening times carefully before you visit.  Not all parts of the property are open, particularly out of season.
  • The property and grounds have reasonable accessibility, and good family facilities.
  • Further details: National Trust website.

Costs:

We visited on a free weekend so didn’t have to pay. The usual price of a family ticket, including gift aid, to the house and gardens is £30, entry to NT members is of course free.  Would I pay this to visit again? Er, probably not!

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Queen Elizabeth Country Park, Hampshire.

We’d originally planned a day trip to the New Forest but whilst browsing for inspiration came across the Queen Elizabeth Country Park and decided to change our plans.  The park lies at the western end of the South Downs and includes a large managed wooded area and chalk downlands.

Running through the woods
Running through the woods

We visited over a busy Easter weekend and were initially put off by the large number of visitors.  However, we soon realised that the majority were only there for the Easter egg trail around the visitor centre, and egg rolling on Butser Hill.  Away from these areas the trails were pretty quiet.

After a look round the centre and a drink in the cafe we decided on three activities – the Juniper adventure trail, orienteering and a walk up Butser Hill.  There’s plenty more to do in the park though, including  mountain bike and off road cycle trails which looked good fun.

Juniper adventure trail

Juniper Adventure Trail
Juniper Adventure Trail

This is a large circular course with lots of obstacles for older children. It has a variety of rope nets, logs to balance on and chains to hang from.   The kids raced round it a few times, and declared it awesome.

There are several picnic tables, and barbeque sites dotted around the trail.  There’s also a seasonal kiosk which sells hot drinks, ice cream and a small selection of snacks.

You can drive up and park almost next to the trail, which is handy if you’re bringing a large picnic.  However, we walked up from the lower car park.  Be warned, it’s a steep climb up through the woods!

There’s a smaller playground near the visitor centre for the under eights.

 Orienteering 

Orienteering at Queen Elizabeth Country Park
Orienteering at Queen Elizabeth Country Park

The park has three permanent orienteering courses, with varying levels of difficulty. We purchased an orienteering map from the visitor centre, and decided on the ‘yellow’ course.  This is the easiest of the three, and involves finding eight controls which are generally visible from the main paths.

The leaflet explains how to complete the course. I recommend taking some time to  decode the colours as they’re different from what you’d see on a normal OS map.  The  scale is also larger than usual, so the map includes a lot of detail.

We didn’t make a great start as we couldn’t find the starting marker in the car park! After a while we gave up looking, and started on the rest of the controls. Fortunately these were all straightforward to spot.  When you find a control you need to mark the number and letter onto the section on your map. If you complete your course you can download a certificate when you get home.

The kids really enjoyed the trail, and it was just the right level for them.

Butser Hill

We finished our day with a walk up Butser Hill, which is signposted from the visitor centre.  It’s difficult to get lost – just head towards the large radio mast on top of the hill!  Alternatively you can drive over  to the car park towards the top of the hill if you’re feeling less energetic.

View from trig point at Butser Hill
View from trig point at Butser Hill

Our kids were getting tired so there were a few moans as we headed up the bridleway to the 270m summit. Butser Hill is one of the highest points in Hampshire, and from the top there’s a great view over the surrounding area.  It was pretty cold and windy on the day of our visit though so we headed down quickly once we’d had the obligatory photo stop at the top.

Kids view:

The orienteering was great fun as you got to run around the woods. It was quite hard climbing the big hill at the end.

General info:

  • You’ll need to bring your own bikes with you if you’re going to ride one of the trails as there’s no cycle hire available.
  • You should pre-book if you want to use the on site BBQs.
  • The visitor centre and cafe are wheelchair accessible, but the surrounding terrain is pretty hilly and the woodland paths are not suitable for those with limited mobility.

Costs:

A bargain! £2 to park all day.  We also chose to spend £1 on an orienteering trail and £1 for a map of the park.

More info: http://www3.hants.gov.uk/qecp

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