There were two over-riding themes to the month – snowdrop walks and city sightseeing.
February is snowdrop month. I cannot resist the lure of a snowdrop stroll. And, even better, they often come as a package, with coffee and cake.
The granddaddy of snowdrop locations in our area is at Welford Park, near Newbury. If you want to see a woodland full of snowdrops this is the place to come. It’s also full of people. Luckily the snowdrops are fenced off to stop the masses trampling them.
There’s another side to Welford’s fame too as later in the spring it becomes the filming location for the Great British Bake Off. As befits the GBBO location I’m pleased to report I had an excellent piece of fruit cake after our walk.
The snowdrops on our next walk at Braziers Park are on a much smaller scale than Welford. More of a side show really. Braziers Park is a community run mansion house, once lived in by Ian Fleming. Nowadays the volunteers and long term residents look after 55 acres of land, maintain the house and host courses and events.
The guided tour around the house (yes, I counted these steps) provided an interesting peep into life at Braziers Park. I think perhaps I’m too happy with my comfortable life to consider alternative living these days.
Afterwards we walked through the gardens and woodland. An unexpected hail storm blew in so we hid behind trees whilst the icy white stones bounced around us.
Last but not least, we visited Milton Manor. There were only a few snowdrops left so the main attraction turned out to be more cake. And walking through a field with llamas in.
Dotted throughout the grounds are a variety of play areas, including home made forts and tree houses. I’m not sure Health & Safety would approve but the estate grounds offer a Famous Five type of existence for children. The ‘Teenagers only’ rope bridge looked great fun!
Away from the snowdrops we managed some impressive miles on our half term trip to Ghent in Belguim. We walked 18 miles during our two full days of sightseeing.
I’ve driven past Beacon Hill many times whilst travelling north on the A34, but have only just got around to climbing it. On the summit, at 860ft, is Lord Carnarvon’s grave. Together with Howard Carter he famously discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb in the 1920s. His subsequent death, from an infected mosquito bite, contributed to the story of the Curse of Tutankhamun. The summit offers fine views of Lord Carnarvon’s pile, Highclere Castle, better known to TV viewers as Downton Abbey.
After climbing Beacon Hill we attempted the High above Highclere Walk from the AA website. I’m a fan of the AA walk books but learnt the hard way that it’s best to take an OS map too rather than rely on basic diagrams. Yes, we got lost. On the positive side, it meant we walked further than I’d originally planned!
Chalk pits, Blewbury
Our final February walk was an after lunch stroll to the viewpoint overlooking Blewbury, a local village. A very muddy climb up past an old chalk quarry to a well placed bench. Our walk back to the village took us past a Grand Designs style house building project. Wow.
There are different ways to approach the 1000 mile target. Some participants count every step, others include only miles in walking boots. I’ve chosen to include all purposeful walks, including my lunchtime strolls along with more rugged mountain walks. I’m excluding the mundane miles; shopping, walking around the house or trips into town. No pleasure in those.
My challenge got off to a slow start as I only decided to take part halfway through the month. Whilst you can start anytime I decided to back date it to the beginning of January so that all my miles are completed in 2018. This gives me an average weekly mileage target of 19.25 miles.
I’m not a winter person so I always knew getting outside in January would be tough. Give me warmth and sun over drizzle, mud and grey skies. I also run several days per week so when I’ve got wet and cold once there’s less incentive to go outside again.
It’s therefore no surprise that most mileage in January came from my daily lunchtime and other regular walks. We walked longer routes at the weekends, although sometimes it was just a loop around a nearby nature reserve.
Favourite January walks
A couple of walks stand out. My favourite was a nine mile circular walk from Goring-on-Thames to Pangbourne. The outward route took us up onto the hills where we stopped for a winter picnic. Battling muddy woods, muddy farm tracks and muddy fields (spot a theme?) we dropped down to Whitchurch and on to Pangbourne for a reviving cup of coffee. We walked back to Goring alongside the River Thames, enjoying the late afternoon sunshine. It’s an area I often visit in summer to see the rare orchids at Hartslock Nature Reserve, but this time we kept to the Thames Path trail and didn’t deviate into the reserve.
In Goring we stopped briefly at George Michael’s house. The lane outside has become a shrine for his fans, with flags, photos and mementos left from all over the world. It’s an impressive display but I wonder what the neighbours think!
Another weekend took us from Badbury Hill to Great Coxwell Barn and back through the woods. It was a drab, cold and muddy day, made interesting with a visit to the 13th Century Great Coxwell barn. This huge stone barn still has its original timber framed roof and it’s amazing to think of all the historical events that have taken place in its 700 year life. More muddy farm tracks took us back to Badbury Woods. In May these are awash with bluebells and visitors. In January there are clusters of snowdrops. Not enough to bring the serious photographers out but they still brightened up the day.
Despite my efforts, January ended with a mileage deficit. I’m not too worried as I’ll catch up in spring. I’m looking forward to some warmer mud free walks!
It’s taken me three months to write up the final section of our 100 mile South Downs Way walk. Perhaps I left it this long so that I forgot about the decidedly autumnal weather we encountered.
In theory it was an easy 25 miles, split over three days, from Housedean Farm to the trail finish at Eastbourne. Rather than booking accommodation at either end of the route we based ourselves in a Premier Inn in Eastbourne. This gave us the opportunity to bribe the kids with big breakfasts each morning.
Unlike its hip neighbour Brighton, Eastbourne has a genteel feel, particularly out of the summer season. It was raining as we arrived but after a wet and windy wander around Eastbourne Pier and beach we discovered the great advantage of staying in a tourist town. Lots of different places to eat out!
The forecast for the next day was dry and sunny with rain and mist the following days so I decided we’d walk the last, most picturesque stretch, of the South Downs Way first. In some ways this was a great decision as we got to enjoy the fabulous coastal scenery between Alfriston and Eastbourne. On the flip side, it meant we finished our overall South Downs Way walk in horrible weather in Alfriston. A lovely village but not the grand finish I’d envisaged.
Day 1: Alfriston to the end of the South Downs Way at Eastbourne (10.5 miles + 1.5 miles to the Pier)
At Alfriston the South Downs Way splits with an inland route for cyclists and horse riders, and a rollercoaster cliff top route for walkers. Whilst the inland route offers the impressive Long Man of Wilmington chalk figure there was no chance I’d miss out on the coastal walk.
We set out from Alfriston following the river through the Cuckmere Valley towards Litlington. With the wind behind us and the sun shining it was perfect weather for a walk. Overhead we watched some late swallows who showed no signs of leaving for warmer climes.
Despite missing out on the Long Man we spotted an alternative chalk figure, a white horse carved into a hill across the valley. We walked through the picture perfect hamlet of West Dean with its duck pond and laboured up 200 steps through Friston Forest. From here we descended to the Seven Sisters Country Park and our first cafe stop.
We’d arrived at Cuckmere Haven, a geography teacher’s idea of heaven with its meandering river and oxbow lakes. We’d visited with good friends several years ago and I even wrote about it in one of my earliest blog posts so despite its beauty we didn’t hang around longer than it took to drink a coffee.
We ignored the flat path to the beach and headed up onto the cliffs. The Seven Sisters are a series of chalk cliffs, with peaks and dips between each. The walking was easier than I expected, undulating rather strenuous, although I did stop for a lot of photo breaks. It’s incredibly beautiful but all my photographs look identical – blue sea, white cliffs and green hills.
As we neared Birling Gap a crane loomed beside the cliffs. This section of coastline has suffered severe erosion over recent years, indeed thousands of tonnes of chalk collapsed last year between Cuckmere Haven and Birling Gap. The crane was helping to move beach access steps which have been affected by the erosion. Sadly there’s not much that can be done for the remaining coastguard cottages, which are slowly being lost to the sea.
Birling Gap is on the tour bus circuit and we saw a lot of tourists on the cliffs either side. I watched in disbelief as one man crawled under a fenced off section of collapsing cliff to take photographs over the edge. There are plenty of signs around advising of the cliff dangers but they obviously didn’t apply to him.
Our onward route took us past Belle Tout lighthouse. In 1999 this lighthouse was moved, with hydraulic jacks and concrete beams, 56 feet back from the cliff edge. I remember seeing it on TV at the time, what an incredible feat of engineering! That said, the lighthouse wasn’t good at being a lighthouse (too prone to fog) and after a variety of lives is now a bed and breakfast.
Belle Tout was replaced by the better positioned Beachy Head lighthouse, although it was harder to see this from the cliffs. In 2013 it was the subject of a ‘Save the stripes’ campaign after Trinity House announced they could no longer afford to paint its red and white stripes and would be leaving the building to return to its natural stone colour. Campaigners successfully raised £27,000 and the lighthouse had its distinctive markings restored.
It’s not far from Beachy Head to the metropolis of Eastbourne. The South Downs Way route finishes at the bottom of a hill on the outskirts of Eastbourne. There’s an information board about the trail and a conveniently sited cafe but we decided to walk on into the town, pleased to have completed the walk in good time.
Day 2: Housedean Farm, near Lewes to Southease (7.5 miles)
The idea of walking over three days rather than two was that we could split one long day into two two shorter ones. Useful in case of inclement weather. After all, how wet can you get in an afternoon? The answer? Very, as we found out.
With only a 7.5 mile walk planned for our second day we had plenty of time to spare. We ate a leisurely breakfast before driving to Southease railway station. The hourly train pulled in just as we arrived and we managed to jump on. Phew. It was only as we departed the station that we realised the train was going in the opposite direction to Lewes. Whoops!
After an unplanned visit to Newhaven we eventually arrived in soggy Lewes. I hoped the rain would ease off in time for our walk but it showed no sign of abating so we ate a quick lunch and decided to head out. Boarding the bus towards Brighton we disembarked at Housedean Farm, where we’d finished after our walk from Truleigh Hill YHA.
I can barely remember the walk. With our hoods up we focussed on the ground in front of us. It was wet, windy and misty. There were supposed to be views. I didn’t see any. I attempted a few photographs but my phone got wet and gave up on me. It didn’t want to be outside either. My memories from this walk? The time we stopped for a chocolate break, a large field of pumpkins and crossing the meridien line. That’s it.
We perked up as we walked into Southease village. I’d parked in the YHA car park so it was only fair to give their cafe some custom. Despite being soaked the kids decided to stay outside and watch some cows being herded down the lane. I preferred to peel off my wet layers and drink coffee instead.
The day had one last sting in the tail. In my haste to return to the hotel I didn’t stop at the multi storey car park entrance barrier. I drove straight through and knocked it down. I have no excuse, I literally didn’t see it. The kids thought it was hilarious. The car park attendant wasn’t at all amused. I was the second person that day to knock it off. I retreated to my room with my tail between my legs.
Day 3: Southease to Alfriston, and on to Berwick (6.5 miles + 2.5 miles)
The downside of staying in a Premier Inn is that there’s no drying room for wet gear. Our waterproofs (I use that word cynically) and wet clothing hung from every hook and item of furniture. The kids had even attempted to dry their boots with the hairdryer. Still, it was our final day on the South Downs Way! Time to put on our walking gear for one last time.
Returning to the car park I hoped to avoid the attendant I’d upset the previous day. As I stood at the pay machine looking for my ticket I realised I hadn’t collected one the previous day. After all, I’d driven straight through the barrier, no ticket required. Oh the shame. I had to return to the attendant’s office, remind him about my misdemeanour and ask to be let out of the car park. Unlike the previous day he now found it hilarious. As did my children. Three months on they still comment on every car park barrier we approach.
We left our car at Berwick Railway Station and boarded the train back to Southease via Lewes. Fortunately the heavy rain had passed through but we were left with a misty drizzle and, at times, a fierce wind.
As we headed up Itford Hill we discovered the over-riding theme for the day. Cows. There were cows in almost every field. Huge beasts suddenly appearing in the mist on the path ahead of us. I’m not keen on cows but at least these were docile animals, more interested in grass than chasing walkers.
One benefit of the mist was that we didn’t see the radio masts on Beddingham Hill until we were almost next to them. I bet they stick out like a sore thumb on clear days.
Annoyingly the mist also meant we missed out on views down to the Seven Sisters and Cuckmere Haven. Instead we had to content ourselves with guidebook descriptions of all the things we couldn’t see.
On Bostall Hill we suddenly found ourselves buffeted by a strong wind. The kids had great fun being blown around with their jackets unzipped and arms up in the air like bats.
Just before reaching Alfriston we passed a large field full of horses. I mean full. Maybe fifty horses and ponies. All of whom hoped we had something to eat. They were out of luck.
Before long we were walking the final section of the track down into Alfriston. The end of our epic walk. I’m not sure what I expected. A congratulations banner strewn across the street? A welcoming party? Perhaps we should have told them we were coming. Instead we hung around the village centre for a while, hoping a bus would magically arrive and take us to our car at Berwick. It didn’t so we went for a celebratory cake and cream tea before walking back to our car at Berwick ready for the long drive home.
The great thing about staying in Eastbourne has to be the evening meals out. Over the course of our stay we ate at Pomodoro e Mozarella, Toreros Tapas and Half Man Half Burger and I’d happily recommend them all.
We stayed at the Town Centre Premier Inn in Eastbourne. You know exactly what you’re getting with a Premier Inn and this delivered it.
Trains and buses. There’s a lot of public transport options along this part of the trail which was great for us. We made use of the stations at Berwick, Southease and Lewes, along with buses from Eastbourne and Lewes.
As is my blog tradition I like to review the year in passing.
Of course, nothing is ever perfect and this year has had its share of sad times, frustrations and grumpy children. But there were plenty of great times too and I ticked off a few things on my UK bucket list. Without further ado here are my top 10 of 2017 (in no particular order):
1. Watching the sunset at Newborough beach, Anglesey
This was the most perfect sunset of the year, possibly because it was so unexpected. The weather in Anglesey was, let’s say, mixed.
Newborough beach is a long sandy beach backed by dunes and forest. From the car park it’s a half hour walk out to the tidal island of Llanddwyn Island for more spectacular views. Just keep an eye on the tide otherwise you might be spending the night there.
2. Bryan Adams at Cornbury Festival
I was never much of a Bryan Adams fan and I hated the over-played ‘Everything I do I do it for you’ song back in the 1990s. But guess what? Bryan Adams was completely and unexpectedly amazing. He’s one of those performers that commands the stage and it was a revelation how many songs I knew and could sing along with. I’m sure he appreciated my contribution.
3. Walking the South Downs Way
Back at the start of January I decided the family needed a challenge. A 100 mile walking challenge to be precise. Split over four weekends we’ve now walked the South Downs Way from Winchester to Eastbourne. Logistics and weather weren’t always on our side but the views, evening meals and sense of achievement more than made up for the sore feet and wet clothing. Not sure I can persuade them to walk the Pennine Way though.
4. Wereldband at Edinburgh Fringe Festival
We spent three days at Edinburgh Fringe Festival, watching an eclectic mix of musicals, comedy and theatre. All of us had our individual favourites but the one act we all agreed on was Wereldband. This Dutch group is best described as a collection of slapstick musicians but this understates their talent, imagination and energy. Sometimes there was so much going on it was hard to decide who or what to watch. If you ever get the chance, go see them!
5. Worbarrow Bay walk
Whilst in Dorset we walked from the MoD village of Tyneham to the coast at Worbarrow Bay. The path passes through land used for military practise so there’s plenty of warning notices and unusual sights to keep an eye out for.
The bay itself, and particularly Worbarrow Tout, is picture perfect. Although the water is freezing in May. You have been warned.
6. The Ardnamurchan Peninsula
We spent four days exploring the Ardnamurchan Peninsula, and it’s now one of my favourite areas in Scotland (except the Isle of Eigg, nowhere beats that). Ardnamurchan is remote, empty of tourists and stunningly beautiful. But you’d probably hate it so please don’t go!
7. Highland Games, Skye
There were more tourists than locals at the Skye Highland Games but the traditional mix of sports, piping and dance lived up to my expectations.
I’m still in awe of those competing in the heavy events, I really must practise my tree trunk lifting.
8. Running the Oxford half marathon
I need a challenge to keep me running regularly. There’s no way I’d ever run a marathon again but I quite enjoy running half the distance. The conditions and route for Oxford half marathon were perfect and I was pleased to run a PB. I might even do it again next year.
9. An inaugural music festival
I’ll keep quiet on the location of this as it was a private festival held over midsummer. Camping out in a friend’s field, watching a hilarious tribute act (performing 30 different musicians in an hour) and then rocking to a 90s tribute band. The kids roamed free, returning occasionally with tales of misbehaving grown ups. An excellent night and already in the diary again for 2018.
10. Twixmas walking break in the Lake District
I’ve previously managed to miss my yearly Twixmas walking breaks off my top 10 posts, usually because I’m more organised and have written the blog before the end of the year. But this year I’m less organised so it takes its rightful place.
This year’s trip, as always with Country Adventures, was based in Ambleside in the Lake District. Our first day was spent enjoying a sunny, albeit icy, walk in the fells above Grasmere. The weather was more interesting on the second day (snow, then rain) but there was still fun to be had in the form of tobogganing and snowball throwing. A great sociable break as always.
How about you? What were your highlights? And what does 2018 hold in store?