As the time approaches for Three Points of the Compass to set off on the Long Walk, I thought it wise to fit in another week or so walking with, more or less, the gear that I am planning to set off with on April 1st 2018. Some contents of the pack have altered since last I hit the trail for any distance, not least, my tent. I’ll chat about a few of those items in a follow up post in a week or two.
I walked The Ridgeway in May 2016, and the Peddars Way in April this year. These form part of The Greater Ridgeway which stretches for some 363 miles from Lyme Regis in Dorset, to Hunstanton, on the North Norfolk Coast. The Icknield Way Trail formed another link. Being around a weeks walking, it was perfect for an autumn excursion.
Mind you, this did not go down particularly well with Mrs Three Points of the Compass as we had just returned from a fortnights holiday in Cyprus (more on that in another blog). While she had to return to work, I fortunately found myself still with a weeks annual leave to take. So a weeks walking it was.
There are differing lengths to be found for the Icknield Way Trail in publications and online, varying from 98.5 to 110 miles. For this walk, I set off from Tring Railway station, Hertfordshire, where my Ridgeway walk had ended, the morning after completing that trail at Ivinghoe Beacon in 2016. This autumn, I finished walking six days later at the lonely carpark on Knettishall Heath, Suffolk. My total, with a bit of wandering, just a little exploring and not getting lost (sorry, momentarily unlocated) too much, was 120 miles.
|Start point||Finish point||Mileage|
|Day one||Tring station||Upper Sundon||19|
|Day two||Upper Sundon||Clothall||21|
|Day four||Elmdon||Willingham Green||19|
|Day five||Willingham Green||Cavenham Heath||24|
|Day six||Cavenham Heath||Knettishall Heath||17.5|
I deliberately carried out little planning, as I wanted to get a better idea on how days might pan out on my longer walk next year where planning will frequently be day-by-day. I allowed myself eight days for the Icknield Way Trail, not really caring how long the walk took. In the end, it was six, finishing a little before 13.00 on the final day. In truth, I probably pushed myself too much, I am still recovering from Plantar fasciitis after all. I did get the occasional twinge from that on my walk. I would certainly aim at much lower mileages next year.
I carried plenty of food, enough for six days. This was shop bought, mostly low bulk, low weight. I never took any sort of specialised, dehydrated ‘backpacking’ food. Again, to see how both myself and my pack handled the extra weight and bulk. Needless to say, some uneaten food returned home with me afterward, mostly due to my eating a couple of meals in pubs en route.
Despite being a marked route on O.S. maps, this is a little followed route. I only met two others walking the trail, and the two ladies were doing it together, in sections, over many months. There are few places to officially stay, be it camp sites or B&B. Purposely, I wild camped on each of the five nights on trail. None of my sites were planned. I would walk each day, look ahead on the map between midday and 14.00 and from around 16.30 begin to look for a place to hide myself away. At this time of the year, day light hours are few, light was failing at 17.30 and was dark an hour later. I was invariably up prior to dawn, packed and walking by seven. I stopped for a hot breakfast of porridge some two to four hours later.
I was disturbed on a couple of the nights. My halt on the first night coincided with a bunch of young lads from the nearest village turning up to let off fireworks for 45 minutes, what great fun… My second night had a pair of gleeful herberts hurtling up and down a nearby track (on the other side of the hedge in the image above) on a quad bike, lamping. Fortunately I remained undiscovered.
The Icknield Way Trail may be a little confusing to some. Most authorities would describe it as a collection of parallel track ways connecting Avebury in Wiltshire, with the north Norfolk Coast, around the Hunstanton area. The way follows the geology- a band, or spine, of chalk stretching across the country. Where the going became tough for our ancestors, usually due to thicker vegetation emanating from the clay covering of the chalk, they switched to a lower level. Much of the route is Ancient with some having been ‘improved’ by the Romans. For my section, much of the old route has now been consumed by the A505. Where it remains extant, some of the older track way is indicated on O.S. maps by Gothic lettering.
Today, we have a choice of routes to follow. There is the walkers route- the Icknield Way Path, as described by the Icknield Way Association, there are also occasional variants from the walkers route for cyclists or horseriders (the Icknield Way Riders Route).
To further confuse the user, there is even the occasional choice of routes for the walker. There is an alternative route that takes the walker through the village of Toddington, I never followed that alternative. Also, there is a link whereby the walker can stride directly to Thetford with its transport links. Instead, I followed the path to Knettishall Heath so as to finish where I had commenced my Peddars Way walk.
In 1992, the Countryside Commission designated the Icknield Way as a Regional Route, connecting The Ridgeway with the Peddars Way, it is this route that is shown on O.S. maps and is mostly signposted. My trail ran through six counties and some lovely gentle country, including the Chilterns and Brecklands.
The weather was mostly kind to me. Day temperatures varied from 6°C to 20°C (43°F – 115°F), but dropped much colder at night after a warmer first night. However there was often a stiff breeze which dropped the temperature considerably. If it was blowing, my Montane windshirt over my Rohan polo shirt was always suffice to keep me warm.
I experienced little rain during the day and it rained briefly on just two nights. I found the trail underfoot almost always good with a few notable exceptions as a result of the farmers putting their fields to bed. It paid to keep an eye on the map where the occasional short detour meant that crossing a freshly ploughed field could be avoided, though that wasn’t always the case by any means.
As mentioned previously, this closely shadows a route followed by man for thousands of years. While I encountered far fewer tumuli and ancient sites than those seen on The Ridgeway, nonetheless, there were a few sites of interest passed. Burial Mounds were most prolific- there are over a hundred surrounding Royston. Near Stechworth, the Icknield Way Path briefly followed the Devil’s Ditch, a striking Ancient feature, up to 6m wide with a rampart some 9m above it.
Wild camping the whole way, needless to say, ablutions were at the most basic. Keeping up a decent pace and working hard, it is fair to say that I stank to high heaven when I finished my walk six days later. This was mostly due to the fact that, perhaps surprisingly, water can be a struggle to find. I never took a filter with me as agricultural run-off is rife and there was no way I was drinking anything that came from the many small streams. Instead I relied on finding somewhere, or someone, and filling up with water from midday onward and each nights camp meant there was enough to drink and cook with, leaving just the merest of amounts allotted for a cursory clean up of body with a cloth. The many villages passed offered no taps for travellers and little chance to fill up. I never had to resort to simply knocking on someones door, though in one town I did pop in to a motor mechanics garage and ask them for water. They were, of course, more than happy to oblige.
The Icknield Way Trail follows grassy, leafy, stony or muddy paths, lanes, roads, bridleways and byways, and was never hard going. I found this particular route of less interest than both The Ridgeway and Peddars Way. But still, it was an excellent trail for a decent leg stretch over a few days and provided opportunity to try out a few pieces of my kit.
I suffered one particular piece of kit failure that resulted in some back pain. Painkillers (Vitamin I) were taken on one day but I never had to resort to them again. I’ll cover that particular problem and subsequent fix in my follow up gear report later.
I always derive pleasure from walking in the Brecklands and the trail passed into these on day five. Deciduous mostly gave way to Coniferous, the paths became sandier and the air perhaps just a little more fragrant as I began to pass numerous pig farms.
Sadly, my time here also coincided with a large number of off-road motorcyclists and quad-bikers on the By-ways. The great majority showed great courtesy to a pedestrian, the minority seemed to want to kill me.
The economic disparity of the countryside was only too apparent on this walk. I passed horse paddocks where a few million quids worth of stud pranced. I was only a few miles from the famous horse racing town of Newmarket where James I was pivotal in starting the ‘sport of kings’.
Only a couple of miles distant, lonely hamlets vividly indicated a lack of employment and hardship. There was often a helicopter in the air on the final two days and I wondered how much of the overseas money filtered into the local economy.
Would I do the walk again? No. Would I recommend it to others? Again, no. Unless you are completing the entire Greater Ridgeway. In that case I think you would find sufficient of interest to make it worthwhile.