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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What’s the best way to reach the Isle of Skye?

I first visited Skye in 1993 when the Skye Bridge was a mere glimmer on the horizon. Back then we took the ferry for the short journey from Kyle of Lochalsh to Kyleakin. When the Skye Bridge opened in 1995 it used the same crossing and signalled the end of this ferry service.

Since then the Skye Bridge has proved a huge success in increasing tourist numbers and allowing quick and easy access to the island. Yet as a holidaymaker I’m drawn to the idea of a ferry ride; it makes me feel like I’m on a proper journey. Fortunately there’s another option, the tiny community owned Glenelg ferry. So which is better – the bridge or the ferry?

Glenelg-Skye ferry

The Glenelg ferry is the last manually operated turntable ferry in the world. It crosses the straits from Glenelg to Kylerhea on Skye every 20 minutes between 10am-6pm.

If it’s scenery you’re after then the ferry wins hands down! From the A87 turn off at Shiel Bridge it’s about nine miles to Glenelg, a drive of around twenty minutes.

View over Loch Duich and the Five Sisters of Kintail from Bealach Ratagan
View over Loch Duich and the Five Sisters of Kintail from Bealach Ratagan

The first section is a steady climb, around hairpin roads and through woodland, until you reach the Mam Ratagan viewpoint. The vista over Loch Duich and the Five Sisters of Kintail is stunning, and worth the detour even if you don’t plan to get the ferry.

The panorama was ever changing, with rain, clouds and sun throwing up different shadows on the mountains. Annoyingly, the dreaded midges were also out and about, limiting the time we spent outside the car gazing at the hills.

Rain clouds on the road to Glenelg
Rain clouds on the road to Glenelg

The road itself is quiet and easier to drive than I expected. Although I was unnerved at one point by a logging lorry coming up fast behind me. Fortunately it’s easy enough to pull over and let locals pass. That said, even if I was a local I think I’d want to stop and saviour the scenery.

The road to Glenelg
The road to Glenelg

Heading on through gloriously green pasture land we experienced what we came to call ‘Skye weather’ (despite still being on the mainland). This consisted of sun on our faces and torrential rain just behind. You’d never realise from the photograph above just how ominous the weather was right behind us!

We arrived in Glenelg just as the MV Glenachulish departed. It didn’t matter though as this gave us a few minutes to browse the small gift shop and watch the turntable ferry. The car deck is rotated around during the crossing so that drivers are able to drive on and off easily. Not something I was really aware of when we were on the ferry so good to see it in operation.

 

Queuing for the Glenelg ferry
Queuing for the Glenelg ferry

A few minutes later the ferry returned and we were directed on. The ferry takes a maximum of six cars and twelve people. Even though Skye was extremely busy when we visited there were only a couple of other cars waiting to travel.

Glenelg ferry arriving in Skye
Glenelg ferry arriving in Skye

The journey across the Straits took less than ten minutes. There’s not much space to move around on the ferry so we sat in the car, keeping an eye out for the sea eagles that inhabit the area. No luck though.

Once on Skye we drove up to meet the main road towards Portree. I found this road trickier than the mainland side. It’s single track with a couple of stomach lurching blind summits. Added to this, the rain had finally caught us which meant reduced visibility despite my window wipers being on double speed.

The downsides to the ferry? Firstly, it only runs between Easter and October so if you’re visiting outside these dates use the bridge instead. It doesn’t run in inclement weather either; check the sign at Shiel Bridge to see if it’s open before you make a wasted journey. There’s also a £15 cost (car and four passengers) which means the Skye Bridge is the way to go if you’re on a budget.

Skye Bridge

There’s not much to say about the Skye Bridge. There’s none of the anticipation or adventure that you get with the ferry crossing. Despite the obvious presence of water you hardly realise you’re crossing to an island, just carry on driving along the A87. But it’s almost always open, it’s free and fast. It does its job.

Skye bridge
Skye bridge

Which did we prefer? The Glenelg ferry won hands down for us. But try it yourself, take the ferry one way and the bridge the other.

The third way – Mallaig to Armadale ferry

There is one further option from the mainland, the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry from Mallaig to Armadale. The boat is weather dependent but runs year round and is a great option if you plan to visit southern Skye. A single journey for a car and two passengers costs approximately the same as the Glenelg ferry.

More info:

  • Check the Skye Ferry website for service dates, times and fares.

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Suitcases and Sandcastles
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Scaring myself at Zip World caverns, Blaenau Ffestiniog, Gwynedd

I wasn’t sure whether to be nervous or excited when my partner bought me a birthday voucher for Zip World caverns. Billed as an exhilarating underground journey using zip lines, rope bridges, via ferrata and tunnels, it’s one of the experiences that’s taking adventure tourism to a new level in North Wales.

Based at Llechwedd Slate Mine the site also provides the opportunity to ride on a four person zip line and bounce on an underground trampoline. But I think the Caverns Experience is definitely the most exciting!

Kitting up

My adventure started in the kit room. As well as myself, there were two family groups ranging in age from 11-55 years. Following the instructor, the eight of us stepped into harnesses, tightened belts and buckles, attached the trolley (zip lining device) then donned helmet and gloves. We almost looked like we knew what we were doing.

Zip World Caverns training
Zip World Caverns training

Part 1 training

After a brief introduction we stepped outside for our first training session. On the ground we were shown how to click our harness system onto the safety cable.

Outdoor training area at Zip World Caverns
Outdoor training area at Zip World Caverns

If you’ve tackled a Go Ape course you’ll be familiar with the safety cable system. Zip World uses something slightly different, CliC-iT, which relies on magnets between the two lanyard connectors to stop accidental unclipping. You are only able to have one connector unattached at any one time which is reassuring. However it does require practice and this was our opportunity. Best to perfect it on the ground in daylight.

Part 2 training

We soon graduated into the second training area. Led inside the cave, we passed the underground trampolines in Bounce Below, where my kids were burning off some energy, to reach a ladder and small set of zip wires.

Here we were shown how to attach the trolley to the zip line (with the wobbly bit next to your nose) and how to hold the device when ziplining. And then we were let loose on the mini zip wire course.

Indoor training area at Zip World Caverns
Indoor training area at Zip World Caverns

Rather nervously, I climbed the ladder to the highest zip line, clipped on and launched myself off. Although daunting I’ve tackled enough zip lines to know that the step off the safety ledge is the hardest part. Before long, I had zoomed back and forth across the cave several times until I reached floor level.

If, after this stage, you decide you don’t want to go into the caverns there’s a chance to pull out and get a full refund. Everyone in our group was happy to continue so we walked back through to the caverns.

Onto the caverns

The instructor leaves you after the training sessions and you complete the course at your own pace (although you’ll always have people in front and behind). The caverns are monitored by a myriad of CCTV cameras so if you get stuck you can raise your hand and wait for help.

The training sessions were very good at familiarising us with the equipment. But they in no way prepare you for the environment that you encounter in the caverns themselves. From my perspective that’s actually a good thing; I prefer not to know. But if you want to, then read on.

The zip wires

The first part of the cavern adventure is all about the zip wires. There are evidently ten of them but I wasn’t counting, just focussing on making sure I’d attached myself correctly.

The zip wires start high then get lower and longer as you progress through the course. A couple at the end have a very fast landing. I discovered the trick is to start moving your legs a little just as you approach the end so that you’re ready. I’m not sure this makes the slightest difference but it gave me something to focus on apart from the impending cavern wall. If all else fails there’s plenty of crash mat protection!

Inside Zip World Caverns
Inside Zip World Caverns

There’s a photo opportunity on zip line number nine and although I remembered to smile for the camera I also put my arm in front of my face. No souvenir photograph for me then.

The via ferrata

Popular in the Italian Dolomites, via ferrata are a way of traversing cliffs using metal rungs, ladders and bridges. The second half of our route took us along the edge of the cavern wall, up and down ladders and across a variety of bridges. I shuffled across tree trunks, crawled through tunnels and clambered up rope nets.

This part of the course was much harder for me as I don’t like the exposure that comes with heights. I found it tricky balancing on an iron foot hold, holding on to a rung above me and attempting to re-clip my leads on to the next wire. All the time trying not to look down. I admit it, I was scared.

I wasn’t the only scared person. There were plenty of shrieks coming from all around, which did little to reassure me. Although the family in front kept an eye on me, gleefully telling me how difficult the next parts were. After an hour or so I was happy and relieved to reach the end of the course, but slightly disappointed there wasn’t a final zip wire to ride.

Would I go again? As most of the adventure relates to not knowing what to expect I wouldn’t rush back to do the same thing. However there’s lots of other experiences to try out. In fact, I’ve already added a trip on Velocity, Europe’s longest zip ride, to my UK bucket list so I’ll be back.

More info

  • Are you brave enough? If so the Zip World website details a myriad of adventure options to part you from your cash. The caverns adventure lasts 2-3 hours and costs £60.
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Our family caving adventure down Gaping Gill, North Yorkshire

The small notice in the Yorkshire Dales visitor newspaper caught my eye: “Gaping Gill Winch meet. Experience the thrill of being lowered down this huge natural chamber by bosun’s chair and discover a hidden underground world”.

As a hill walker I knew Gaping Gill was a pothole somewhere on the route up Ingleborough hill. What I hadn’t realised was that twice a year caving clubs give visitors the opportunity to descend over 100 metres on a winch down into Gaping Gill, a trip that is usually off-limits to non-cavers.

An idea formed in my head, taking in the descent of Gaping Gill and the ascent of Ingleborough, the second highest hill in the Yorkshire Dales. The rest of the family were in agreement. Well, at least with the cave descent; I forgot to mention the hill walk until much later. Pop over here to read more about the rest of our family walk up Ingleborough.

Walking up through Trow Gill
Walking up through Trow Gill

Fast forward two days. It’s 7.30am and we’re in Clapham, the nearest village to Gaping Gill. Small groups of walkers are emerging from parked cars. They’ve obviously read the same warnings as us. Arrive early if you want to guarantee a place on the winch!

The walk from Clapham to Gaping Gill, through the woodland of Ingleborough Estate, past Ingleborough Cave and up Trow Gill gorge took about 1.5 hours. It was a pleasant enough walk in the early morning sun but my excitement grew tenfold when the pothole club basecamp came into view.

Waiting for the Gaping Gill descent
Waiting for the Gaping Gill descent

Gaping Gill basecamp

At basecamp there were already quite a few people waiting to go down Gaping Gill. Each return trip takes about five minutes so there’s a maximum of twenty visits or so an hour. Without further ado we headed straight to the main tent to sign up, hand over our monies and collect our numbered token.

Fortunately the weather was lovely so we relaxed in the sun and watched others descend whilst awaiting our turn. The cave attracts a wide range of people; the groups in front of us included a 91 year old man and young children (7 years+). One lady sat in the winch chair but changed her mind at the last moment. It was a brave decision but I felt a little sad on her behalf. Without fail, everyone who returned to the surface was smiling!

All about Gapng Gill
All about Gapng Gill

Whilst waiting I read about the history and exploration of the cave. Gaping Gill was first explored in the 1800s; John Birkbeck diverted the waterfall which drops over the shaft and was lowered by rope into the cave. His rope wasn’t long enough to get to the bottom but the ledge he reached is still known as Birkbeck Ledge. A French explorer, Edouard Martel, finally reached the cave floor in 1895. Subsequent expeditions have even managed to link Gaping Gill to Ingleborough Cave although this is not possible at present.

Waiting for the Gaping Gill descent
Waiting for the Gaping Gill descent

The descent

A couple of hours later our numbers finally appeared on the board. We climbed down the ladder and were briefed on the descent. Our instructions consisted of keeping our legs still and not swinging around in the chair. Easy for me, but I made sure my son knew this too!

My other half went first, followed by the children, and then it was my turn. I was a little apprehensive, but mostly excited when I took my place in the chair. It’s a slick operation and before I knew it the sliding platform drew back and the long descent began.

Sitting in the bosun's chair, Gaping Gill
Sitting in the bosun’s chair, Gaping Gill

My first thought was how close the edge of the cave was to my knees. So close that you think you are going to hit them. I sat very still. It gets dark after a few seconds and then you can hardly see anything at all. I felt the spray of water from Fell Beck. This waterfall normally falls into Gaping Gill but is diverted during the winch meet. Even so you still get a few drops coming your way.  Long after my senses had processed all of this we were still going down. It’s a long way down. Longer than I expected.

Heading down into Gaping Gill
Heading down into Gaping Gill

Inside Gaping Gill

As I reached the bottom of the Main Chamber I became aware how much colder it was below ground. Leaving the chair I carefully picked my way across the rocky ground to where the family were waiting. Although the cave has some lighting, and we wore head torches, it takes a while to acclimatise to the darkness. Even in the dim light it’s soon apparent how big Britain’s largest natural chamber is. Huge!

The caving club has set up a couple of floodlights and information boards to help visitors. We made our way from one side of the chamber to the other, peering into the nooks and crannies, and standing for a while on the aptly named mudbank.

We watched as some proper cavers climbed East Slope and slowly disappeared from view into another passage. There are more than 16km of passages underground and although I’d quite like to try caving my biggest fear would be getting lost.

The view from inside Gaping Gill
The view from inside Gaping Gill

Once we’d explored the main chamber we queued again for the return. It was mesmerising watching others ascend into the bright light above us. Impressively one of the cavers made his own way back up using just a rope and leg power. We took the easy option, propelled upwards by the winch. Heading up it was much easier to see the cave walls and almost as much of a shock to emerge into sunlight as the darkness was on the way down.

If you get the opportunity I highly recommend the trip down Gaping Gill. Slightly scary, but perfectly safe, it’s an experience you’ll remember for the rest of your life. If you’re visiting the area you might also like to read about my top 5 highlights of the Yorkshire Dales; it’s such a beautiful part of the world!

More info

  • Gaping Gill winch is operated by Bradford Pothole Club in May half-term and Craven Pothole Club over the August Bank Holiday. Check the caving club websites for operating times. The descent costs £15 per person; it is not possible to pre-book so arrive early. There’s a comprehensive guide to Gaping Gill on the Bradford Pothole Club website.
  • Gaping Gill is inaccessible to non-cavers except during the winch events.Heed the warning signs around the edge of the entrance. One volunteer pointed out a grass ledge where people take photographs; it is very dangerous!
  • Take waterproofs, a head torch and some snacks to eat whilst you’re waiting. There is a basic field latrine but no other facilities.
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