Another year over. Time to reflect on the year gone by and to think about what 2019 will bring. I love looking back at what we’ve done and deciding on my five favourite things of the year. In no particular order they were:
1. Running an ultramarathon – 100km Race to the Stones
This wasn’t particularly enjoyable but running 100km along the Ridgeway from Lewknor to Avebury was a huge achievement. And one I’ll never repeat! Given that I swore I’d never run another marathon I’m not entirely sure why I decided to run an ultra instead. I guess I like a challenge. It was hot, it was very long and my toenails have only just grown back. But I did it!
2. Driving the Hardknott and Wrynose passes, Lake District
It’s a strange turn of events when I count a day sitting in a car driving the Hardknott and Wrynose passes as one of my favourite activities of the year. Despite our incredible summer we managed to coincide our Lake District holiday with a week of rain. All of our wet weather clothing was, er wet, so I decided on a driving tour, taking in the famously steep passes. Fortunately the drive wasn’t quite as hairy as I expected. Instead, the passengers were treated to great scenery (I could only watch the road), waterfall walks and a spectacularly located Roman fort.
3. Exploring Worm’s Head, near Rhossili, Gower Peninsula
I loved everything about our day exploring the tidal Worm’s Head. How can I fail to enjoy a day with all of my favourite things in? Rockpooling, scrambling over jagged rocks, watching seals and eating sandwiches with an incredible view for a backdrop. A fabulous day.
4. GR221 walks in Majorca
This is is the year I finally made it to Majorca. And it was everything I expected. From the moment we left a grey, cold UK at Easter and flew into the warmth of sunny Palma I knew I’d love the island. Things that I remember? The smell of the citrus groves, incredible mountain walks, a Tardis of an apartment (with its own lemon grove) and freshly squeezed orange juice. It was one of those holidays where every aspect was perfect. Even the teens loved it!
5. George Ezra at Truck Festival, Oxfordshire
I’m not much of a festival person but when it’s local (as in, I can sleep in my own bed) and features my kind of line up (read, suitable for middle aged person) then I make an exception. I didn’t actually buy a ticket but volunteered for a few hours and got to watch George singing one of my favourite songs on one of those hot sunny weekends. Pretty memorable.
Blogging in 2019
Regular readers will notice two things – I don’t blog as often as I used to and the kids don’t feature as much. They’re both teenagers now; one is in their GCSE year, the other is Xbox obsessed. We still go out and I’ll continue to write about our walks, holidays and day trips. But I’ll be focusing less on family attractions and more on ‘grown up’ activities, sometimes without the kids.
What will I blog about? Well, I’m still working through my UK bucket list so I’ll be posting about these trips; in fact I have a couple to still write about from recent months. And, in a little over 12 months, I have a big birthday coming up and am planning a year of mini adventures so I’ve plenty of ideas up my sleeve.
It can be hard work holidaying with teens. Even more so when your destination is a soggy Lake District rather than the Instagram perfect beach of their dreams. Fear not, if you’re in the Lakes, and you’ve managed to lure them out of bed before noon, why not try one of the following:
Walk up a mountain
Climbing to the summit of any mountain gives a great sense of achievement, even if there are a few grumbles along the way. From Coniston, the 2634 ft Old Man of Coniston is the obvious target. The tourist trail paths are well marked and there’s plenty of legacy mining activity to add interest.
We booked on to a guided walk with Lake District volunteer leaders. Our route was originally designed to summit both the Old Man and Dow Crag. However the incessant rain put paid to this and our leader suggested an alternative descent instead of Dow Crag. Although slightly disappointing we were all soaked through and it was the right decision. Of course the rain eased off not long afterwards!
Walking with a guide offered us the opportunity to learn more about the area and its industrial history, which I wouldn’t always appreciate if walking alone. The National Park offers a variety of walks for all abilities which generally cost £10 or less per person (many are free). Highly recommended.
Go gorge scrambling
If there’s one thing that gets teens animated it’s the chance of an adventure. Something completely different from their day to day routines. Gorge scrambling definitely offers this.
We booked a half day gorge scrambling and canyoning trip with Adventure 21. This was a somewhat unusual activity for me as, unlike the rest of the family, I do not like water. I can hardly swim and I hate getting my face wet. I was way out of my comfort zone.
After manoeuvring ourselves into wetsuits, waterproofs and helmets we walked from Coniston Water up through the village to Church Beck. Here we entered the fast flowing water and I was relieved not to be immediately swept downstream. Despite my fears an almost enjoyable two hours ensued. Gorge scrambling is as it sounds; we climbed up through small waterfalls and negotiated the rocky river bed. If you’re used to scrambling on dry land, this is technically easier but the water makes it ‘interesting’.
At the end of the scramble there’s a chance to try canyoning. Better known as scary big jumps into water. The non-swimmer in me opted out. There was no way I was going to put my head under water.
Despite my reservations everyone survived. And, as predicted, the teens declared this the best day of the holiday.
Take a boat trip on Coniston Water
I’d been looking forward to a boat trip in the Lake District (particularly as it’s one of my UK bucket list items). Truth be told, this was one of our less enjoyable days. It didn’t help that I’d read the wrong timetable and arrived just as the steam gondola I’d planned to catch left the jetty. Or that it was raining. Again.
We took an alternative boat which, although perfectly serviceable, wasn’t what I’d envisaged. Our 60 minute cruise took us up to Wildcat Island, of Swallows and Amazons fame, before returning via Brantwood. This was the home of John Ruskin and makes for an interesting stopover. There’s a cafe, museum and, on dry days, gardens to explore.
For a little more excitement we could have hired a canoe, kayak or rowing boat from the Coniston Boating Centre. But I’d had enough of water over the previous couple of days. And at least our boat trip was weather proof.
Go on a road trip
I was running out of ideas to occupy another wet day. Sitting in a car for much of the day wouldn’t normally feature on my list of activities. But when your drive includes a route over the Wrynose and Hardknott passes it’s a lot more exciting!
We drove a circular route via Coniston to Broughton-in-Furness, up to Duddon Bridge and Ulpha, onto Eskdale then over the passes to Little Langdale.
We stretched our legs in Eskdale with a walk to Stanley Ghyll Force waterfall and again at Hardknott Roman Fort. The fort is in an incredible setting but I didn’t envy its inhabitants. The winters would have been so harsh; no amount of Roman plumbing could convince me to live there.
From the fort a single track road zigzags up and over Hardknott and then Wrynose Pass. It’s one of the steepest roads in the UK so you’ll be lucky to get out of second gear. My advice? Give way to drivers coming uphill (and locals), concentrate on the road and don’t be scared by the TripAdvisor reviews. If you’re a confident driver in a decent vehicle you’ll be absolutely fine. Believe me, it’s one of the best drives in the UK. Even the teens stayed awake for it!
There are lots of abandoned quarries, mine workings and caves in this area. Many are dangerous and shouldn’t be entered. However Cathedral Quarry, a short walk from Little Langdale, offers you the opportunity to explore a man made quarry and tunnels in a relatively safe environment.
Cathedral Quarry is, rather surprisingly, owned by the National Trust. It is not your usual NT property. It’s free to visit and always open but there are no facilities or cafe. You’ll need to bring a torch for the tunnels and waterproof footwear for clambering over rocks and wading through puddles. Great fun for an hour or two. Oh, and watch out for the goldfish!
All of the above suggestions are at your own risk. As in, they might be dangerous. But how boring would life be it was perfectly safe?
We visited in summer (I use this term loosely); a winter visit is a completely different undertaking.
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!
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.