If you’re looking for a short quirky walk in Gloucestershire how about visiting a ship’s graveyard? We spent an hour discovering the Purton hulks, one of my British bucket list items, on the way home from an overnight stay at St Briavels Castle YHA.
Gloucester and Sharpness Canal
After parking opposite the church in Purton, we crossed the bridge and followed a sign directing us to the Purton hulks. This took us along a towpath, bordered on one side by the Gloucester and Sharpness canal and the River Severn on the other.
The 16.5 mile canal runs, as you’d expect, between Gloucester and Sharpness. Built to bypass a dangerous stretch of the River Severn it was once the deepest and broadest canal in the world. Nowadays it’s mainly used by pleasure craft and kayakers. In the not too distant past oil tankers and even submarines have navigated its waters!
After 15 minutes or so we reached the first few boats. Between 1909 and the 1970s vessels were deliberately beached along the River Severn to shore up the banks and protect the land between the river and canal.
Today there are over 80 vessels in the ship graveyard. Many are hidden under grass or silt. Some are in an advanced state of decay with just the rotting timbers and huge bolts remaining. You certainly need to keep your eyes on the ground, partly so you don’t miss anything but also to avoid the trip hazards.
There’s a huge variety of boats here, from schooners to concrete barges. The Friends of Purton group have investigated and published in-depth histories of each of the vessels on their website. Each ship has a name plaque which you can look up online.
In the same way that I loved learning about the residents of Highgate Cemetery on our recent visit, I enjoyed finding out about the vessels at Purton.
The ship below is Harriett, the last known example of a Kennet built barge. She spent her life in the Bristol docks area, carrying grain and wood pulp.
This is Edith, a Chepstow trow. She used to transport coal between Bristol and the Forest of Dean. Edith has an eventful past, with several collisions and groundings. She was finally beached in the 1960s.
There’s not a lot left of Sally, also known as King. Beached during a snowstorm in 1951 much of her history is a mystery although she may have originated in the Caribbean. Sadly she has suffered at the hands of arsonists who have burnt her timbers in order to extract metals from them.
Photographers will have a field day exploring the hulks. Historians and boat lovers too. I don’t particularly class myself as any of these but they’re well worth a visit. Just don’t leave it too long. They won’t be here forever!
After you reach the last of the accessible boats the path leads back up to the canal. From here you can return along the towpath. Or, if you fancy a longer walk, head into Sharpness in the opposite direction.
The Friends of Purton website is a mine of information with copious detail on the ships and their histories.
Wear wellies or boots after rain. It will be very muddy!
Highgate Cemetery, one of my UK bucket list items, might appear a strange destination for a family day out but we loved it. We spent an afternoon visiting the cemetery after a morning walk across Hampstead Heath.
We had a couple of hours spare before our cemetery tour so I’d planned a walking route from Hampstead Heath underground station to Highgate Cemetery.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from Hampstead Heath. My prior knowledge mostly came from lurid tabloid headlines about the after dark activities of gay men on the western heath. The daytime reality was a tranquil dog walking and running area, albeit one that was in need of a good dose of rain.
Our route took us up to the viewpoint on Parliament Hill. From here the Shard, Gherkin, St Paul’s Cathedral and BT Tower are all easy to see. Some of the other buildings shown on the orientation map were harder; I couldn’t see the London Eye however much I looked.
Highgate is also famous for its outdoor bathing ponds. These were much busier than I expected on a gloomy weekday. I’m not a water lover so couldn’t imagine wanting to swim in them, surrounded by ducks and pond debris. However plenty of swimmers looked like they were enjoying it, particularly the divers jumping off the board in the men’s bathing pond.
Before heading to the cemetery we popped into the Village Deli in Highgate village for a takeaway lunch. Despite the expensive sounding name, and location, our picnic lunch was incredible value and very tasty, highly recommended. There’s a square opposite to sit and eat your lunch in.
Highgate was one of seven new private London cemeteries, constructed in the Victorian era, to accommodate the increasing number of burials. Prior to this, burials were in local churchyards but these were literally overflowing due to the doubling of London’s population.
Many of London’s wealthiest were laid to rest in Highgate. However, the cemetery fell into decline after the second World War. Decaying and vandalised it was taken over in 1975 by a charity, the Friends of Highgate Cemetery, who work to restore and preserve the area.
We visited West Highgate on a guided tour before crossing Swain’s Lane to look around the East Cemetery independently.
West Highgate Cemetery
Forget your local graveyard. Imagine instead a jumbled area of crowded gravestones and gothic and Egyptian influenced monuments, some covered with ‘Dangerous’ tape. Nature is in charge; tree roots climb over gravestones, ivy and bramble tendrils encircle the monuments. This is West Highgate cemetery. Some visitors call it romantic, others creepy; I guess I’m somewhere in between.
We started our tour in the open space in front of The Colonnade; big enough, our guide explained, so that the horse drawn carriages delivering coffins could turn around. From here we followed the path up through the graveyard to the Egyptian Avenue, flanked by columns and obelisks.
There are sixteen family vaults on either side of the avenue; each with room for twelve coffins. The vaults are also home to a large spider, the rare orb weaver. Discovered during a bat survey the London Wildlife Trust estimates the vaults could contain a hundred of these adult cave spiders. I’m not sure whether the bodies or the spiders unsettle me more!
The Egyptian Avenue leads out into the Circle of Lebabon; a huge 300 year old cedar tree surrounded by a circle of tombs. The Victorians certainly knew how to celebrate their interred relations, very different to today’s attitude to death.
Our eyes slowly accustomed to the dark inside our next stop, the above ground Terrace Catacombs. It takes a moment longer to realise that every recess on either side of the passageway houses a coffin. Room for 825 people in total! We heard how coffins were once prone to exploding due to a build up of gases inside them. The ingenious solution was to drill a small hole into the coffin, insert a pipe and burn the gases off.
Outside the catacombs stands the mausoleum of Julius Beer. This was built for his daughter Ada who died she was just eight years old. Although we couldn’t go inside our guide showed us photographs of its rich interior. The mausoleum cost £5000 to build in 1878; in today’s money that’s around £3 million!
Most residents of West Highgate cemetery may not be household names today but many were famous in their day. I loved hearing the stories of some of these. Our guide recounted the life of Tom Sayers, a bare knuckle fighter whose stone dog adorns his grave. And that of Jim Selby, a carriage driver who raced from London to Brighton and back in less than eight hours.
The grave of George Wombwell reflects his livelihood, a travelling menagerist. His tomb lies under a statue of his lion, Nero. George famously advertised a dead elephant as one of his exhibits in order to attract more visitors than a competitor, who only had a live elephant. Different times indeed.
One of the more recent graves is for Alexander Litvinenko, the Russian defector who was poisoned by polonium radiation. His grave is buried 12 foot deep and lined with lead to protect from visitors from accidental radioactive exposure.
Our guide also explained the symbolism used by the Victorians. I’ve never given it any thought before but urns, clasped hands and broken pillars all have specific meanings. For example, a broken column indicates a life cut off in its prime. I’d always assumed it was due to vandalism!
We finished our tour with a visit to the dissenters graveyard. This is an area of two acres set aside for non-Anglicans; not as extensive as the fifteen acres for Anglicans.
I’d hoped we might see some of the wildlife that Highgate is famous for. There were plenty of butterflies and a cheeky robin but no fox cubs lounging on gravestones that I’ve seen in some photographs. Fortunately we didn’t see the vampires or ghosts that Highgate is also known for!
East Highgate cemetery
East Highgate Cemetery is a tidier, more manicured resting place on the opposite side of Swain’s Lane. There’s less woodland and the graves are arranged in a more formal layout.
The entry booth provides maps with the graves of more notable residents marked; there are plenty of familiar names. There are all walks of life here; from historians, architects, zoologists and cabaret stars to political activists. Even the mastermind of the Great Train Robbery.
Over in West Highgate most of the gravestones we saw were of traditional design. Whereas in East Highgate Patrick Caulfield’s gravestone has the word DEAD cut out of the granite, and Malcolm McLaren has another statement headstone. Douglas Adams has a simple grey headstone but fans have adorned it with a pot full of pencils.
However the most famous grave belongs to that of Karl Marx, the German philosopher. Although originally buried in another part of the cemetery he was moved in the 1950s after the Communist Party funded a new memorial.
We didn’t stay long in East Highgate as we had a train to catch. Fortunately we left early as I took the roundabout route back to the underground station. Yes, we went the wrong way!
You’ll need to book in weekday tours advance in the West Cemetery on the Highgate Cemetery website. Alternatively turn up early on a weekend and go on the next available tour. You can visit the East Cemetery without a tour, an entrance fee is payable.
Summer days are made for picnics. Whether you’re looking for somewhere to take the kids, a peaceful river bank or a hill with a view there are plenty of great picnic spots in Oxfordshire. Scroll down to find my favourites!
1. Cutteslowe Park, Oxford
Cutteslowe is the largest park in Oxford with lots to keep children entertained. There’s mini golf, a splash zone (summer only), miniature railway (selected weekends), play areas, duck pond, sandpits and picnic tables. You could easily spend all day here. Parking charges apply.
2. Warburg Nature Reserve, near Henley
Hidden in the Chiltern hills this woodland is a great spot for nature lovers. At the reserve entrance you’ll find a small interpretation centre, toilets and a picnic area. Once you’ve eaten, walk off your lunch on the circular wildlife trail. If you visit in early summer look out for the orchids.
Warburg isn’t the easiest place to find so follow the instructions on the BBOWT website.
3. White Horse Hill, Uffington
In my opinion the view from White Horse Hill is the best in Oxfordshire. After your picnic be sure to explore the area; as well as the chalk figure, walk around the Iron Age hill fort of Uffington Castle and wander along the Ridgeway to the Neolithic burial ground of Wayland’s Smithy.
Park in the National Trust car park, charge applies for non members.
4. Abbey Meadows, beside the River Thames, Abingdon
Another family friendly option. Visit in the summer to enjoy the interactive water features and outdoor swimming pool. You’ll also find a newly refurbished playground, tennis courts and walks along the River Thames.
Parks in general are great for picnics; check out the free parks website for lots more suggestions.
5. Hartslock Nature Reserve, Goring
This is a good option if you want to combine a walk with a picnic. Park or take the train to Goring and then follow the river east until you reach the reserve. Head steeply uphill and rest on the bench looking out across the Thames and Goring Gap. A fabulous view, albeit slightly less lovely since the railway electrification gantries have been installed!
6. Minster Lovell hall, near Witney
Minster Lovell hall was a 15th Century Manor House. Now in ruins it backs onto the River Windrush; a perfect setting for a picnic. Paddle in the shallow river, watch the ducks or explore the ruins. Be warned, it gets very busy in summer.
Park in St Kenelm’s Church car park from where it’s a five minute walk to the ruins.
7. Blenheim Palace parkland
Blenheim Palace is one of Oxfordshire’s most visited attractions. Its manicured parkland make sure a great picnic spot.
Whilst you need to pay to access the Palace or Pleasure Gardens it is possible to enter the parkland for free on a public footpath. Just pick up an OS map or follow the instructions here.
8. Rollright Stones, near Chipping Norton
Picnics aren’t just for summer. We ate a memorable picnic one cold January day surrounded by the Rollright Stones, a complex of three Neolithic and Bronze Age monuments.
There’s limited road parking beside the stones and an honesty box for your £1 entrance fee.
9. Lord Wantage monument, The Ridgeway
Take the B4494 from Wantage to Newbury for approximately three miles until you reach the Ridgeway car park. Park on the left hand side and then walk east along the Ridgeway for a few minutes until you reach the Boer war monument.
Despite the amount of house building in Oxfordshire I always marvel at how much ‘countryside’ you can see from here; it feels very rural. Although you’re unlikely to be alone as it’s a popular rest stop for walkers and cyclists on the Ridgeway.
10. Beside the Oxford canal, Thrupp
Thrupp is a small canalside village a couple of miles from Kidlington. Choose your picnic spot beside the towpath and settle down to watch the narrow boats and ducks.
Parking is behind Annie’s cafe. Of course, if you’ve forgotten your picnic you could always just eat here instead!
11. Wittenham Clumps, Long Wittenham
Easy to spot from a distance these two wooded clumps are visible across much of flat South Oxfordshire. Archaeological digs have confirmed the site has been used since the Bronze Age; understandable given it’s prominent location.
Nowadays it’s a nature reserve and is better known for its kite flying and winter sledging opportunities. There’s an orientation pillar, benches and lovely views of the River Thames from the top of Round Hill. Or Didcot if you look in the other direction.
12. Watlington Hill, Christmas Common
Oxfordshire is well known for red kites and this is a great place to watch them. Its chalk grassland is also a haven for butterflies in the summer.
Park in the free National Trust car park at the top of the hill and walk a couple of hundred metres to find a picnic spot with a view. If you’re feeling more adventurous there’s a waymarked short route to follow around the hill.
13. Port Meadow, Oxford
Port Meadow is a large meadow just outside the centre of Oxford bordering the River Thames. Best visited in summer unless you’re a bird watcher, if so visit in winter when the flooded plains are full of geese and ducks.
For picnics I prefer the Thames Path side on the opposite river bank, away from the grazing ponies and cattle, unless you’re happy surrounded by hooves!
14. Kirtlington Quarry nature reserve
Famous for its fossils this small nature reserve was once used for the production of cement. The tooth of a Megalosaurus has been found here so your picnic would have been a scary affair 166 million years ago. Nowadays it’s rather more relaxing; after your dinosaur hunt here’s a large flat area perfect for setting up your picnic mat.
15. Faringdon Folly woodland
Previously owned by the eccentric Lord Berners Faringdon Folly is usually open on the first and third Sunday from April to October. There are great views from the top so it’s worthwhile trying to coincide your visit with one of these dates. However the surrounding woodland is always open and is perfect for a picnic.
Wherever you decide to picnic remember to follow the Countryside Code. Respect the countryside and most importantly take all rubbish away with you.
If I’ve missed your favourite picnic spot please let me know in the comments.
Two years ago I ran the London Marathon and vowed never to run another marathon. But, like childbirth, the pain slowly eases from your mind. Instead, you remember the good bits; cheering spectators (er, only in the marathon, not childbirth), unlimited chocolate and the sense of achievement you get from asking your body to do ridiculous things.
Or at least that’s how I justified entering the equivalent of two and a bit marathons, the 100km (60 mile) Race to the Stones. Although that’s only partly true. The phrase that swung it for me, in one of the many positive reviews of the event, was that it was a ‘running picnic’. How could I possibly resist?
The full 100km route runs along the Ridgeway from Lewknor to Avebury. Competitors can tackle it straight through, split it over two days or opt for ‘just’ 50km. I chose to run 100km with the overnight stop. Although I headed home for the night rather than camping.
Knowing this would probably be my only ultra marathon I didn’t want to spend a fortune on kit. With the exception of expensive Injinji socks and Brooks Cascadia trainers I wore cheap and cheerful kit from Decathlon and my free Parkrun T-shirt. I also gleaned an invaluable tip from the Race to the Stones Facebook group. Take a buff, soak it at each pit stop and wear it wet around your neck. This was a lifesaver!
I loosely followed the official Race to the Stones training plan. I completed the long back to back weekend runs but some of the midweek runs didn’t happen. And none of the cross training. Life just got in the way.
I live local to the Ridgeway so it was easy to acclimatise to the terrain. I trained with food too. The ability to stuff salt and vinegar crisps into your mouth when you’re not hungry is an important component of ultra training. But I was so sure the heatwave wouldn’t last that I never trained in the midday heat. Why would I? Mad dogs and Englishmen and all that.
Of course, the weekend was wall to wall sunshine. The army cancelled a similar event the same weekend citing adverse weather conditions. Ours went ahead. What had I let myself in for?
The race starts in a farmer’s field in Lewknor. I only arrived about ten minutes before my wave left so didn’t have a chance to get nervous.
In most races participants stream across the start line, often running way too fast. I know, I’ve done it. The Race to the Stones start was the opposite, and much better for it. We trotted slowly through the start and into shaded woodland for a few miles. A gorgeous start to the day.
The pit stops are located every ten kilometres or so with the first one at the top of a big hill at Swyncombe. These give participants a chance to fill water bottles, use the loo, patch your feet up and eat. I was stupidly excited by the thought of food but contented myself with just a banana, a cereal bar, a packet of dried fruit and some Munchy Seeds. Seriously, the run uses about 6000 calories so you need to fuel up!
Onwards I ran, still in shade. I loved running through the trees and beside the ditches but there were slippy roots to contend with. There was also a hidden badger hole right in the middle of the path. I’d smiled inwardly at the warning sign and then almost fell down it. That would have been the end of my race.
Between the first two pit stops there’s the famous field of dreams. I don’t dream about wheat but perhaps I’ve taken the name too literally. Anyway, it’s a nice field to run through and there’s a photographer on the far side to capture you still looking fresh.
Pit stop two passed quickly. I’m not one for gels or sports drinks so salty crisps, orange segments and bananas saw me through again. Along with lots of squash. After pit stop two the Ridgeway runs alongside the Thames until it reaches Streatley. There were a few golf courses. And some very big houses. How the other half live!
Checkpoint three was 34 km in. A new fruit on offer. Pineapple has never tasted so good. Marmite sandwiches too. And coffee. But even I, an eight mugs a day drinker, couldn’t bring myself to drink in the heat.
Leaving the checkpoint the going got tough. I hadn’t run further than this in training. It was also the distance that I’d started to suffer in the marathon. Hence my brain had already decided things would get hard. Physically the Ridgeway changes to a chalk trail. There’s no shade, the sun reflects off the white path and the temperature had risen about 10C whilst I’d been scoffing pineapple.
So I walked. There’s no shame in walking in an ultra. Indeed it’s the done thing on hills. Well, perhaps not for the racers but certainly for everyone else.
At checkpoint four there were boxes and boxes of chocolate. I love chocolate. But in the heat they’d have been liquid inside the wrappers. Instead I took another packet of crisps and a drink of flat coke and sat down, in the sun, for a while chatting to a fellow competitor. Getting up off that chair and moving again was one of the hardest things I did all day.
Still, it was only a few miles to the end of my first day. And on a section I knew very well, it being my local training run.
However there was a sting in the tail. Although the sugary coke had an initial positive effect I soon began to regret it. I never normally drink the stuff so felt sick for much of the last section. Thank god it was a relatively short one.
Day one ended on a hill near Wantage. I didn’t hang around, instead headed home for a much needed shower, clothes wash and rest.
Forecast to be even hotter, up to 31C on Wimbledon centre court for the men’s final.
We had the option of an early start. I’d set my alarm for 4.15am but this wasn’t really required as I’d been awake half the night; partly in pain from the previous day and partly because I was convinced I’d sleep through the alarm.
It turns out that many at basecamp also had a sleepless night. As one of my temporary running companions mused, how can so many fit people snore so loud?
The Ridgeway put on a spectacular sunrise. I ran with the rising sun behind me, the day still relatively cool. Chatting to and passing the same people over and over again (we weren’t running in circles, just alternating walks and runs). Almost a perfect start to the day.
I say almost. All of the niggles I’d had on day one returned for a second day. A couple of new ones joined them. I knew it was only going to get worse. But, as I like to remind myself, I did this for fun so shouldn’t whinge.
Day two was stuffed with history. Aside from the ancient Ridgeway itself there was the chalk figure at White Horse Hill, Neolithic burial mound at Wayland’s Smithy, Iron Age forts at Barbury and Liddington and of course the stones at Avebury. But did I appreciate them? Not at all.
At pit stop seven I stopped to sort out my toes and met an old work colleague who was running the second day. Small world.
You’ll notice I’ve barely talked about food on day two. It stops being a novelty. More a chore. Definitely not my idea of a running picnic!
Have I mentioned how hot it was yet? I’ve seen a few comments likening the weekend to running through the Sahara. I’m not sure that’s fully justified but the ripe crops and yellow grass certainly contributed to the feeling of a desert run.
Despite the parched landscape, or perhaps because of it, the run was spectacularly beautiful. There are a couple of sections when you remember how close to civilisation you are (crossing the M4) but for most of the run you’re immersed in the countryside. Just skylarks and hundreds of runners for company.
I ran/walked for a while after reaching the village of Ogbourne St George. As I’d set off early I was still ahead of many other runners and at times completely on my own. I would say it’s impossible to get lost as there are so many signposts but then I met a chap who had taken a wrong turn and lost time. Whoops. We carried on together for a while; a rather incident packed twenty minutes in which he took a tumble and I got nervous of the cows blocking our path. Once past the cows we were out on a wide grassy down, fabulous running territory.
Sometime after checkpoint nine I passed the tailwalkers who had set out the previous morning and presumably walked through the night. They must have been shattered!
I’d been told the last few kilometres were all downhill. Whilst this would usually fill me with joy my legs could no longer cope with anything that wasn’t dead flat. I felt every stone under my foot. The end couldn’t come soon enough!
I already knew the race ended a mile or so from Avebury and that we had to visit the Stones then double back. Other runners have commented how tough this was but I quite enjoyed seeing all the faster runners coming towards us. Everyone was offering congratulations and words of support, and then the Stones were suddenly upon us. It was a little surreal running around them (only a couple) surrounded by American tourists and family day trippers. I managed to smile, well, grimace for the photographer. And then it was only a kilometre or so to the end. Yay!
Yes, I finished. My overall chip time was 14 hours 25 minutes; 29th out of 365 lady finishers on the overnight option. Much longer than an extrapolated marathon time but when you factor in pit stops, first aid, trail conditions and walking I’m surprised it wasn’t much longer. The real challenge was just finishing and surviving the heat and distance.
I’m not sure its sunk in yet. And, despite running an ultra marathon, I’d never class myself as an ultra runner. Even though my feet and legs said otherwise. And I’ve got the photos to prove I did it.
The organisation and support for this event was impeccable. If you’re thinking of running your first ultra I can highly recommend Race to the Stones. Just hope for cooler weather!