Race to the Stones – a 100km jog along the Ridgeway

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?

Race to the Stones
Race to the Stones

The route

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.

Kit

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!

Race preparation

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?

Day one

Just after the start - Race to the Stones
Just after the start – Race to the Stones

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.

Race to the Stones Copyright: Sussex Sport Photography
Race to the Stones Copyright: Sussex Sport Photography

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!

Pit stop one, Race to the Stones
Pit stop one, Race to the Stones

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.

Beside the Thames, Race to the Stones
Beside the Thames, Race to the Stones

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!

Pit stop info, Race to the Stones
Pit stop info, Race to the Stones

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.

My favourite pit stop, Race to the Stones
My favourite pit stop, Race to the Stones

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.

Afternoon on the Ridgeway - day one, Race to the Stones
Afternoon on the Ridgeway – day one, Race to the Stones

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.

Race to the Stones Copyright: Sussex Sport Photography
Race to the Stones Copyright: Sussex Sport Photography

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.

End of day 1, Race to the Stones Copyright: Sussex Sport Photography
End of day 1, Race to the Stones Copyright: Sussex Sport Photography

Day two

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.

Just after sunrise - day 2, Race to the Stones
Just after sunrise – day 2, Race to the Stones

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?

Race to the Stones Copyright: Sussex Sport Photography
Race to the Stones Copyright: Sussex Sport Photography

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.

Early morning on the Ridgeway - day two, Race to the Stones
Early morning on the Ridgeway – day two, Race to the Stones

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!

Race to the Stones Copyright: Sussex Sport Photography
Race to the Stones Copyright: Sussex Sport Photography

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.

Cattle in the way!
Cattle in the way!

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!

Only 14km left!
Only 14km left!

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!

The end (almost) at Avebury Copyright: Sussex Sport Photography
The end (almost) at Avebury Copyright: Sussex Sport Photography

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.

After

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!

More info:

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Walking the South Downs Way with children: part 4 Lewes to Eastbourne

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.

Watching the rain approach from Eastbourne pier
Watching the rain approach from Eastbourne pier

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!

Eastbourne Pier in the rain
Eastbourne Pier in the rain

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.

St Andrew’s church, Alfriston
St Andrew’s church, Alfriston

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.

River meander, Cuckmere Haven
River meander, Cuckmere Haven

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.

Overlooking Cuckmere Haven
Overlooking Cuckmere Haven

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.

Walking the Seven Sisters
Walking the Seven Sisters

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.

View from Birling Gap
View from Birling Gap

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.

Walking the Seven Sisters, South Downs Way
Walking the Seven Sisters, South Downs Way

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 lighthouse
Belle Tout lighthouse

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!

Walking towards Southease, South Downs Way
Walking towards Southease, South Downs Way

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.

Crossing the meridien line!
Crossing the meridien line!

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.

Crossing Southease railway
Crossing Southease railway

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.

Misty walking on the South Downs Way
Misty walking on the South Downs Way

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.

Horses near Alfriston, South Downs Way
Horses near Alfriston, South Downs Way

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 end of the South Downs Way!
The end of the South Downs Way!

And there ends our South Downs Way walk! Click on the links to read my earlier sections from Winchester to Buriton, Buriton to Amberley and Amberley to Housedean Farm.

More info:

  • 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.
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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. Only 25 miles left of the South Downs Way!

Fast forward and read about our final walk on the South Downs Way into Eastbourne.

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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