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Signposting of The Wealdway is good throughout its eighty plus miles

The Wealdway

The Wealdway is an 80+ mile/134+ km path across the south east of England, from Eastbourne on the South Coast, to the River Thames at Gravesend. Traversing the Weald, walking northwards from East Sussex into Kent, the route crosses both the South Downs and North Downs.

Mr and Mrs Three Points of the Compass set off on a cold winters morning from Eastbourne Pier for our first day on the Wealdway

Mr and Mrs Three Points of the Compass set off on a cold winters morning from Eastbourne Pier for our first day on the Wealdway

Each year, Three Points of the Compass works through one of the long distance paths in ‘my’ south-eastern corner of England where I live. These are usually completed as a series of occasional day hikes. For the Wealdway, Mrs Three Points of the Compass joined me. We actually commenced this in 2017, intending to complete it by 2018. But with one thing and another, various commitments, not least my completing a five month 2000 mile hike last year, it was not until early 2019 that we managed to find time to knock off our final day on this trail.

Looking south from atop the South Downs, the English Channel can just be seen on a misty cold morning

Looking south from atop the South Downs, the English Channel can just be seen on a misty cold morning

This is not a difficult walk. Climbs may be moderate, but it it is a very enjoyable traipse though a changing countryside. The wide open chalk escarpments of the South Downs and North Downs stand above low lying farmlands. Pasture mingles with woodlands, tiny streams and almost forgotten villages are encountered every day.

Mrs Three Points of the Compass makes a short descent through a small mixed woodland to cross one of the many streams encountered on the Wealdway

Mrs Three Points of the Compass makes a short descent through a small mixed woodland to cross one of the many streams encountered on the Wealdway. The proliferation of both water and wood meant that it was this region that supported the first iron workings in the country

In the middle section of the path, the way climbs, crosses and drops from the High Weald at Ashdown Forest. This bulging geographical anomaly is beautiful walking, the term ‘forest’ is slightly misleading, it being more sandy heathlands and gorse, with stands of pines.

Ashdown Forest

The High Weald at Ashdown Forest makes for an easy and pleasant days walking

Some 99% of the Wealdway has excellent signposting

Some 99% of the Wealdway has excellent signposting

Sussex and Kent County Councils differ in their preferred signs but they are equally as effective

Sussex and Kent County Councils differ in their preferred signs but they are equally as effective

There is not much written about the Wealdway. I am not sure why as it certainly rates amongst other longer trails in Kent and Sussex though just a couple of other bloggers have written about it. There are GPX files but as it is marked on O.S. maps and I prefer hard copy maps, I carried the relevant O.S. Explorer map for each days hiking. The whole route is covered by O.S. Explorer 123, 135, 147, 136, 148 and 163. I preferred the larger scale 1:25 000 Explorer maps to the 1:50 000 Landranger maps as it is helpful at times to see which side of a hedge, ditch or stream that the path was following.

I carried a compass but probably used it on no more than two or three occasions. I carried the most recently written guide with me on occasion, but more for lunchtime or train reading en route than anything else. A guide to the Wealdway by John H N Mason was published in 1984 and there are a handful of changes to the route shown in his guide. Despite this, the researched notes make for interesting reading and if you can find a second hand copy, it is useful if you intend to enjoy this route. The most recent printed guide is Along and Around the Wealdway. This guide was researched and authored by Helen Livingstone and was published jointly by the East Sussex County Council and Kent County Council in 1999. It is attractively produced with lovely photographs and paintings. However its design is hopeless, the size and shape are not conducive to stuffing into a pack and it has a ‘pull-out’ centre Walk Guide.

There are only two guides of any note that cover the Wealdway, both are now pretty old and out of date in aprts. However they both provide a wealth of background information on the sites to be seen, the geography and history of the diverse route are well covered

There are only two guides of any note that cover the Wealdway, both are now pretty old and out of date in parts. However they both provide a wealth of background information on the sites to be seen, the geography and history of the diverse route are well covered

I never camped on this trail, or stayed overnight. When hiking, we travelled each day to and from railway stations that were never more than a mile or so off route. That said, while various guides give the total distance of the Wealdway as between 80 and 83 miles, these station link miles do add up and we covered 97 miles in total over the six day hikes it took to complete the trail..

Eastbourne (pier) to Berwick railway station 14.5 miles
Berwick railway station to Uckfield railway station 20.5 miles
Uckfield railway station to Ashurst railway station 16.0 miles
Ashurst railway station to Tonbridge railway station 12.5 miles
Tonbridge Railway station to Borough Green railway station 16.0 miles
Borough Green railway station to Gravesend Pier (end) then station 17.5 miles
Total distance covered on Wealdway including station links 97 miles
Only a couple of diversions were encountered, here, a blocked tunnel below a main road meant that 1.5 miles were added to the days total when hiking between Ashurst and Tonbridge

Only a couple of diversions were encountered. Here, a blocked tunnel below a main road meant that 1.5 miles were added to the days total when hiking between Ashurst and Tonbridge. Though I don’t reckon the tunnel was collapsing, the reason given

Three Points of the Compass does like to explore a church or two en route, or at least take advantage of a seat in the churchyard for a lunchtime halt. Beside pottering around fonts and pews, admiring stained glass and tombs, a peek inside the interior would frequently encounter the makings of a cup of tea with biscuits provided, laid on by parishioners in exchange for a modest donation. Very welcome on hot and colds days alike.

Part of the harvest festival display at St. Pancras Church, Arlington

Part of the harvest festival display in St. Pancras Church, Arlington

The Wealdway crosses differing rock strata, each of which has leant itself to different building materials and architecture. Thatch, wood, brick and hung tiles proliferate. Black & white timber framed houses and barns abound. Farms vary from the tatty and unloved to the grand and expensive. Wealden wooden braced halls alternate with flint walled churches. It really is a joy and if walking alone, I would probably have taken more time to halt and sketch en route.

Lovely wealden houses passed while on trail

The 13th century gatehouse and curtain walls are almost all that remain of Tonbridge Castle. Built by the Normans, it stands on the site of a Saxon fort

The 13th century gatehouse and curtain walls are almost all that remain of Tonbridge Castle. Built by the Normans, it stands on the site of a Saxon fort

Horses graveyard near East Hoathly. The nearest headstone carries the musings of a proud owner- '13 races, 13 wins'

Horses graveyard near East Hoathly. The nearest headstone carries the musings of a proud owner- ’13 races, 13 wins’

Honesty stall selling local produce

Honesty stall selling local produce

I walked through miles of orchards where the trees were literally dripping with apples, leaving these it was only to pass hectares of soft fruit. There are often surprises encountered on a long trail, I would never have expected to see a horses cemetery. The trail passes a statue to a kidnapped native American, the sites of crashed bomber aircraft, the haunts of smugglers, dead country railway lines, priories, the only surviving iron pier in the world, and the bridge where Pooh Sticks was invented…

“And that was the beginning of the game called Poohsticks, which Pooh invented, and which he and his friends used to play on the edge of the Forest.  But they played with sticks instead of fir-cones, because they were easier to mark.”

The House at Pooh Corner, A.A. Milne

Coldrum Stones Long Barrow was excavated in 1910. It contained the remains of 22 people, men, women and children

Coldrum Stones neolithic Long Barrow was excavated in 1910. It contained the remains of 22 people- men, women and children

An avenue through a young coppice woodland

An avenue through a young coppice woodland

We will never really appreciate just how much the countryside has changed around the Wealdway. While the hills remain largely the same, other than the ravages of quarries and road cuttings, the wooded slopes have largely gone, torn down to fuel the iron furnaces or build the warships, cleared to make fertile land for farming, or make travel easier across a former dangerous place for a hunter gatherer or traveller to be.

More modern coppice woodlands- chestnut especially, or beech, oak or coniferous, depending on soil type, remain if much reduced in acreage. However the remains of the prehistoric races that lived here are in evidence. The remains of Bronze and Iron Age forts are passed, the ‘Tumuli’ shown on the O.S. maps are often worth a bit of an explore, especially sites like Coldrum Stones just below the North Downs. This long barrow differs from others found in England, being more akin to those tombs found in Denmark, which belong to the earliest Northern European neolithic culture.

The statue of native American Pocahontas and her memorial are seen on the final day on trail at St. George's Church, Gravesend

The statue of native American Pocahontas and her memorial are seen on the final day on trail at St. George’s Church, Gravesend

Mrs Three Points of the Compass and I thoroughly enjoyed our time on the Wealdway. Travel to and from each days section was easy by public transport and each day bought something new. Even when the clay soils were wet, the going was never particularly tough and our six days were spread across all the seasons so we got to experience it in all weathers, we even did one section twice, if unintentionally!

I thoroughly recommend it to anyone that wants a gentle and fairly short introduction to the diversity of Kent and Sussex. I loved walking in out of the fields and woods to briefly pass through a tiny almost forgotten village, briefly ponder whether to pop in to one of the pubs or not, reluctantly decide against it (miles to cover) and walk on back into the Weald.

As to my next day walk trail in the South East, more on that in the future.

Taking time out for the crack of leather on willow- A cricket match at Bidborough

Taking time out for the crack of leather on willow- A cricket match at Bidborough

Baseball at Tonbridge

Baseball at Tonbridge

I’m off!

After a very late night packing maps in to bundles for Mrs Three Points of the Compass to send on to me (yes, I know I have only had a couple of years to prepare) I had a couple of hours sleep prior to rising early for my train into London.

Very excited, a little nervous, concerned about twinges in the back. Really looking forward to the first few miles from Poole railway station.

My dining room table is given over to final decisions in my route planning

Thirty five days to my ‘Big Walk’

“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail!”

Benjamin Franklin

Thirty-five days until I set off and I am still umming and ahhing over a small number of route choices. Occasional evenings are spent in firming up these choices, while also including a handful of more direct or low level alternatives in case I am running slow or the weather is absolutely foul. It is my walk, my route and I am attempting to include many places of interest to me, either for their historical aspect or natural beauty.

Demands of work

The daylight hours are spent at work. There are a number of things I need to finish off, pass to someone else, or put on hold until my return. I finally received official sanction to include some unpaid leave alongside an extended holiday and include days I have been able to bank over the past decade.

Part of my letter from HR. I am now 'officially' allowed to depart

Part of my letter from HR. I am now ‘officially’ allowed to depart

This is an important aspect of planning. I may be away ‘enjoying’ myself, traipsing up and down the country, while also spending money on food, fuel and some overnight halts. But back home there are still bills to be paid. Budgeting is something not to be forgotten when planning an extended hike of significance. I am fortunate that not only do I have an understanding and supportive manager, but also still have a job I enjoy to return to afterward.

Dirty Girl Gaiters have proved indispensable with my choice of footwear

Dirty Girl Gaiters have proved indispensable with my choice of footwear

New gear

I ordered a couple of new and replacement items. One was a new pair of Dirty Girl Gaiters. I have used these for years and wouldn’t go hiking in trail runners without them now. I find them an easy fix to the previous issue of bits of grit, twigs, and any other trail debris finding its way into my shoe. They stop a lot of dust too, though the finer particles can still make their way through the fine breathable mesh of my Altras. My previous pair have covered thousands of miles and have rather too many holes in them now and are a tad frayed around the edges. Most runners seem to like one of the lurid colour schemes these come in, I am more sober in my tastes. However I couldn’t get replacement for my previous Urban Struggle design as my size were out of stock. Instead, I went all English Middle Class and ordered XL Blackout, flying in the face of Dirty Girls’ entreaty to-

“keep the debris out of your shoes with ultralight style and sass. And you’ll have something fun to look at while you hang your sorry head and shuffle your tired feet”

For some unknown reason the weight has crept up, now 36g rather than the 31g of my previous pair.

A new pair of Dirty Girl Gaiters. Made in the USA by Goddesses apparently

A new pair of Dirty Girl Gaiters. Made in the USA by Goddesses apparently

It was also time to replace my battered Montane Lite-Speed windshirt/jacket. My old one that I have used on just about every UK hike over the past six years was beginning to fray at the edges, a fair bit of hem stitching had come adrift and even though there are quite a few miles left in it. I still felt a new replacement would last a good deal longer.

The 2018 Lite-Speed from Montane comes with a more capacious stuff sack than the previous mesh offering

The 2018 Lite-Speed from Montane comes with a more capacious, yet lighter, stuff sack than the previous mesh offering

I ordered mine through the Cotswold Outdoor website for collection in store and descended on their Maidstone premises yesterday. I reckon this windshirt is a cracking piece of kit and find myself often wearing one, especially when setting off in the cooler temperatures early morning, or on breezy ridges where simply cutting the effects of windchill is all that is required. I find it also often works well as a mid-layer, trapping an insulating layer of air.

Three Points of the Compass and Daughter on the Dales Way. Montane Lite Sped windshirt was the perfect layer over a thin baselayer on this spring walk of 81 miles. April 2012

Three Points of the Compass and daughter on the Dales Way. Montane Lite Speed windshirt was the perfect layer over a thin baselayer on this spring walk of 81 miles. April 2012

The 2018 Montane Lite-Speed is a fairly simple garment, constructed from 20 denier Pertex Quantum Mini Rip-stop, this dense weave nylon is both light and 100% windproof. It has an adjustable roll away hood with some stiffening in the brim. The hood doesn’t now roll away as well as it previously did. My 2012 garment had it folding away into the collar while the newer model simply rolls up to make a fairly loose collar in itself. There is a full length front zip with internal wind strip and zipped hand pockets. These are an improvement over my earlier model that only had a single chest pocket. The earlier shirt was made from Pertex Microlight and the previous 9g mesh stuff sack (always a squeeze to get the jacket into this) has been changed to a slightly larger 6g Pertex Quantum stuff sack. This is so light and handy that, at least for now, I shall be keeping it stowed in this if not in use. The weight has dropped a little too- from 196g to 167g for my size XL.

My new Lite-Speed windshirt,, on the left, shows off the added hand pockets that have replaced the single napoleon pocket on the earlier version

My new Lite-Speed windshirt,, on the left, shows off the added hand pockets that have replaced the single napoleon pocket on the earlier version. The fold down hood is a poorer replacement to the neater and more comfortable previous version on the right

Part of the Basingstoke Canal was followed by Three Points of the Compass when he completed the London Countryway in 2016

A library for hikers- Canals

Three Points of the Compass on a winter walk on a canal towpath

Three Points of the Compass on a winter walk on a canal towpath

Canals cross the United Kingdom. Historically, these inland waterways had a relatively short working life before being usurped by the railway but are today resurrected within the leisure market. Not only are they home to modern water borne travellers, but their banks provide access for anglers, cyclists, dog walkers, hikers and the modern day magnet fishers.

Signs of failure, decay and lack of use can still be found in and alongside many canals today. The rotting carcass of a wooden boat was passed by Three Points of the Compass when walking the London Loop in 2016

Signs of failure, decay and lack of use can still be found in and alongside many canals today. The rotting carcass of a wooden boat was passed by Three Points of the Compass when walking the London Loop in 2016

Three Points of the Compass has walked hundreds of miles along canals enjoying their banks and wildlife, a good few miles of canal are included on the route of my Long Walk. There are a small number of books within my modest library that provide more than a modicum of information on their history and add a smattering of interest to any walk along a canal.

Narrow Boat by Tom Rolt

‘Narrow Boat’ by Tom Rolt. A classic volume

Narrow Boat by L.T.C. Rolt is credited with kick-starting the interest in English canals. The author recorded his work converting a dilapidated wooden narrow boat Cressy in to a liveable abode on which he and his new bride set forth on a four month trip, taking in a variety of canals, pubs and encountering a mixed bag of characters. It was a strange and changing world, at the outbreak of World War II, when the future of the canal system seemed rooted in decrepitude. Yet publication of this book in 1944 led directly to the formation of the Inland Waterways Association when it was founded by Tom Rolt and Robert Aickman in 1946. From this the restoration and use of canals for leisure eventually became assured. My faded volume was published in 1946 and later editions are easy to find. It is an older style of book and I enjoyed it immensely. If published today as a new product it would probably excite little interest and it can be difficult to appreciate today just what sort of impact it had at the time.

The Grand Union Canal is a popular for leisure use and some of it was followed by Three Points of the Compass on the London Loop in 2016

The Grand Union Canal is popular for leisure use and some of it was followed by Three Points of the Compass on the London Loop in 2016

A later account of a similar length of journey by narrow boat across the English Canal system, taken in 2001, was written by travel writer and TV Presenter Paul Gogarty. As befitting his background, The Water Road is a well written and informative volume that understands, with the hindsight that the intervening decades have provided, what the reader wants. Part history, part ‘narrowboat odyssey’, part observational anecdote.

The Water Road is Paul Gogarty's account of a 900 mile, four month journey across the canals of inland England aboard his 50 foot narrowboat Caroline

‘The Water Road’ is Paul Gogarty’s account of a 900 mile, four month journey across the canals of inland England aboard his 50 foot narrowboat Caroline

It seems to have been no less a strange and awful time when Paul Gogarty’s journey was undertaken- the UK was undergoing a B.S.E. epidemic from which many communities never recovered, Salmonella was in the news and as the trip drew to a close- “I would return home just in time to watch the Twin Towers crumble. The apocalypse was alive and kicking”.

Having completed the West Highland Way in 2013. Three Points of the Compass stayed in Fort William and explored Neptune's Staircase on the Caledonian Canal the following day. This is the longest staircase lock in Great Britain, comprising of a flight of eight locks. The canal was built by Thomas Telford between 1803 and 1822

Having completed the West Highland Way in 2013, Three Points of the Compass stayed in Fort William and explored Neptune’s Staircase on the Caledonian Canal the following day. This is the longest staircase lock in Great Britain, comprising of a flight of eight locks. The canal was built by Thomas Telford between 1803 and 1822

Three Points of the Compass has included a good few miles of canal walking on the Long Walk commencing 1st April 2018. Tow paths can be useful for crossing the country quickly on often good paths. Though these can also be overgrown, muddy and, frankly, boring at times. Also it can be difficult to find wild camping spots along their length in places. But still, I am quite looking forward to some parts of my forthcoming walk that incorporate canals. Most canals have a book or two (or more!) dedicated to their history. There is one in particular that I was keen to add to my book shelf in order to learn a little more.

The amazing Falkirk Wheel aqueduct is featured amongst the images on the cover of Hamish Brown's book- Exploring the Edinburgh to Glasgow Canals

The amazing Falkirk Wheel aqueduct is featured amongst the images on the cover of Hamish Brown’s book- ‘Exploring the Edinburgh to Glasgow Canals’

Following the Lee Navigation in 2016

Following the Lee Navigation in 2016

Exploring the Edinburgh to Glasgow Canals is somewhat different to the aforementioned two books, it is not only a history of the canals (though missing out of more recent developments) but also tells of the towns and industry that were served by the canals in their working life. I am also encouraged by the fact that the author, Hamish Brown, is an accomplished walker and outdoors writer. This then, is not just for the boat dweller, but for those who amble the lengths of canals but want to know more on what they pass.

For a few years, I was fortunate enough to work with/for the author of another little volume that sits on my bookshelf that provides a fascinating and accessible concise introduction to one of the most noticeable facets of the canals; namely, the boats and craft used for trade, industry and upkeep. Tony Conder has illustrated the modestly priced Shire volume Canal Narrowboats and Barges with dozens of photographs from his personal collection. These and his text provide a wealth of information on boat construction, propulsion, their cargo but little of the people that lived and worked their lives on the canals. For that type of information it is best to visit one of the waterway museums listed in the book. The author was curator of the British Waterways Collection for twenty five years and opened the National Waterways Museum at Gloucester in 1988.

Canal Narrowboats and Barges by Tony Conder is an excellent and affordable introduction to the craft that plied the inland waterways

‘Canal Narrowboats and Barges’ by Tony Conder is an excellent and affordable introduction to the craft that plied the inland waterways

Narrow Boat, L.T.C. Rolt. Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1946

The Water Road, Paul Gogarty, Robson Books, 2002. ISBN 1 86105 515 3

Exploring the Edinburgh to Glasgow Canals, Hamish Brown. Mercat Press, first published 1997, revised edition 2006. ISBN 978 1 84183 096 4

Canal Narrowboats and Barges, Tony Conder. Shire Publications Ltd. 2004. ISBN 0 7478 0587 3

Three Points of the Compass has not only walked the tow path of many a canal, but has also enjoyed many a mile by boat. Here he navigates a lock, with hat aloft, on the Cheshire Ring in 2015

Three Points of the Compass has not only walked the tow path of many a canal, but has also, with his family, enjoyed travelling hundreds of canal miles by boat. Here he navigates a lock, briefly with hat held aloft, on the Cheshire Ring in 2015

Preparing

Fifty days to my ‘Big Walk’

“Before anything else, preparation is the key to success”

Alexander Graham Bell

The off grows ever nearer, half a hundred days away. So what am I up to?

I am still planning, my route underwent a bit of a change as I have now decided that it is best to complete the Offa’s Dyke Path and from there cross over to the Peak District, rather than my original intention of only completing half of the Path and leaving at Knighton. This meant that not only did a handful of new maps have to purchased, but a bit of reading around my new route was required. I am now following part of The Great English Walk from Tarporley to Youlgreave. This looks an interesting section in a ‘difficult’ part of the country to cross.

So along with maps and books arriving in the post, I was delighted to finally receive my footwear of choice. Cutting it finer than I would want, but I can now begin adapting the insoles to take my orthotics. The latter became necessary when I found myself suffering from Plantar fasciitis in 2015, a problem that still lingers with the occasional twinge. I am going to have to ensure I keep up with my stretching exercises when on trail. I have also been receiving small items ordered, some paint for my art kit, a new compass to replace the one that I have been using for years, but has an air bubble that appears at certain temperatures.

New Silva Expedition 4 compass. Some of the terrain being crossed on my Three Points of the Compass walk will require good navigation, this is an excellent tool for the job

New Silva Expedition 4 compass. Some of the terrain being crossed on my Three Points of the Compass walk will require precise navigation, a good map and compass are essential tools for the job

I would like to have booked my train to the start, but am unable to. While I have ‘agreement in principle’ from my work place that I can take my extended break, this has yet to manifest itself in an official ‘yes’ from HR. As soon as it does, then the train gets booked.

Beside adding weight to my pack as small items of gear are purchased, I am also working on the easiest way to take less on the trail, i.e. losing a little weight. So my diet has also been addressed. Three Points of the Compass is, ahem, a big lad, so I am making a point of addressing this before the miles on trail take yet more pounds off.

I’ve also being checking that my cook system is as I want it and renewing some older items in the First Aid Kit. Beyond that, a visit to the dentist and booking my car in for its annual service and MOT before I leave. There are still quite a few preparations to be made, I’ll keep you informed.

An Autumn morning on the Icknield Way Trail

An autumn wander on the Icknield Way Trail

Three Points of the Compass pauses for lunch on Day One on the Icknield Way Trail. Lady Chapel, Whipsnade Tree Cathedral

Three Points of the Compass pauses for lunch on Day One on the Icknield Way Trail. Lady Chapel, Whipsnade Tree Cathedral

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.

Deer were seen on every day, usually Muntjac, or Barking Deer which were seen in the hundreds, occasionally Fallow Deer

Deer were seen on every day, usually Muntjac, or Barking Deer, which were seen in the hundreds, also, the occasional Fallow Deer

The damage caused to crops from raiding deer was only too apparent. It would make me weep as a farmer

The damage caused to crops from raiding deer was only too apparent. If I were a farmer, it would make me weep

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.

Only published in 2003, and already not the easiest of books to find these days. The Greater Ridgeway by Ray Quinlan is to the usual high Cicerone standard. It is the ideal companion to anyone attempting the whole distance rather than just one of the constituent paths. There are dedicated Cicerone guides to both The Ridgeway and the Pedars Way and Norfolk Coast Path

Only published in 2003, and already not the easiest of books to find these days. The Greater Ridgeway by Ray Quinlan is to the usual high Cicerone standard. It is the ideal companion for anyone attempting the whole 363 mile distance rather than just one of the constituent paths. There are also dedicated Cicerone guides to both The Ridgeway and the Peddars Way and Norfolk Coast Path

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 three Clothall Elmdon 19.5
Day four Elmdon Willingham Green 19
Day five Willingham Green Cavenham Heath 24
Day six Cavenham Heath Knettishall Heath 17.5
120
The old trail is reflected in many place and street names

The old trail is reflected in many place and street names

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.

A basic lunch on trail

A basic lunch on trail

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.

Wildcamp on Day Two on the Icknield Way Trail. Long wet grass and little breeze meant that this was the worst night for condensation in my Z Packs Duplex

Wildcamp on Day Two on the Icknield Way Trail. Long wet grass and little breeze meant that this was the worst night for condensation in my Z Packs Duplex

On Rivey Hill, Cambridgeshire, the Icknield Way skirts a substantial brick built, 12-sided, water tower. Constructed in 1935-6, this is now a Grade II listed structure. This Art Deco tower used to provide water for 5000 people in nearby Linton and neighbouring villages

On Rivey Hill, Cambridgeshire, the Icknield Way skirts a substantial brick built, 12-sided, water tower. This Art Deco tower used to provide water for 5000 people in nearby Linton and neighbouring villages. Constructed in 1935-6, this is now a Grade II listed structure.

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.

A halt for breakfast a couple of hours in to my days walking. I would try and stop where there was a view, a seat, or ideally, both

A halt for breakfast a couple of hours in to my days walking. I would try and stop where there was a view, a seat, or ideally, both

First days on the trail took occasional beautiful woodland. Easy walking with little gradient

First days on the trail took in occasional beautiful woodland. Easy walking with little gradient

Village Green at Balsham

Village Green at Balsham

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.

Entering the King's Forest. The Icknield Way is shown on many Ordnance Survey maps. Usually showing the presumed prehistoric route in 'Gothic' lettering, and the modern route for walkers in sans serif Roman. However there is little to indicate what is the Icknield Way Trail and what is the Icknield Way Path. Therefore, referring to one of the written guides is a necessity, or at least advisable

My pink highlighted route shows where I entered the King’s Forest. The Icknield Way is shown on many Ordnance Survey maps. Usually showing the presumed prehistoric route in ‘Gothic’ lettering, and the modern route for walkers in sans serif Roman. However there is little to indicate what is the Icknield Way Trail and what is the Icknield Way Path. Therefore, referring to one of the written guides is a necessity, or at least advisable

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).

An alternative route passes through Toddington

An alternative route passes through Toddington

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.

 

The Icknield Way Trail is quite well signposted for most of its length. Sins seeming to only abandon the traveller when it matters most, or in towns

Finger Post on the Icknield Way Trail. The route is quite well signposted for most of its length. Signs seeming to only abandon the traveller when it matters most, or in towns. A map is advisable

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.

View from Sundon Hills Country Park, one of the highest points in Bedfordshire

Icknield Way Trail passing through Sundon Hills Country Park, one of the highest points in Bedfordshire

Half a mile of sticky, glutinous foot adhering walking ahead

Finger Post indicates that I have half a mile of walking through sticky, glutinous mud to contend with

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.

The middle section of the walk saw my trail crossing a mainly agricultural landscape. Farm vehicles were much in evidence and the fields were often being worked on

The middle section of the walk saw my trail passing through a mainly agricultural landscape. Farm vehicles were much in evidence and the fields were often being worked on

This part of the UK is pretty low lying. Here on Warden Hills, three miles from Luton, I was 195 metres above sea level. Further East, there is nothing higher until you reach the Ural Mountains

This part of the UK is pretty low lying. Here on Warden Hills, a Site of Special Scientific Interest and Open Access Land, three miles from Luton, I was 195 metres above sea level. Further east, there is nothing higher until you reach the Ural Mountains

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.

Remains of 12th century Motte and Bailey castle at Pirton

Remains of 12th century Motte and Bailey castle at Pirton. The trail passes right by it and a pause to wander its circumference should be obligatory

Village sign

Village sign

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.

Three Points of the Compass paused for lunch twice on the walk. The Jolly Postie in Royston provided excellent fish, chips and a couple of pints of beer. Handily, I could also top up my two litre Evernew bladder here

Three Points of the Compass paused for a pub lunch twice on the walk. The Jolly Postie in Royston provided excellent fish and chips and a couple of pints of beer. I could also top up my two litre Evernew bladder here, this was, of course, my true reason for popping in…

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.

At Burrough Green the trail passes the 17th century schoolhouse. now given an appropriate new lease of life as a home for the village playgroup

At Burrough Green the trail passes the 17th century schoolhouse. Now given an appropriate new lease of life as a home for the village playgroup

Avenues of Pine welcomed me into the Brecklands

Avenues of Pine welcomed me into the Brecklands

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.

Pig Farm in Suffolk

Pig Farm in Suffolk

Horse in the paddocks, cameras bristling on poles, helicopters taking nearby owners to and from their business, another world

Horses in the paddocks, nearby cameras bristling on poles, helicopters taking nearby owners to and from their business, another world

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.

Three Points of the Compass on his final day on the Icknield Way Trail. The track extends 6.5km into the King's Forest. This was afforested in 1935 to celebrate the Silver Jubilee of King George V. As I walked through in the early morning, I was accompanied by the constant sounds of rutting deer

Three Points of the Compass on his final day on the Icknield Way Trail. The track extends 6.5km into the King’s Forest. This woodland was afforested in 1935 to commemorate the Silver Jubilee of King George V. As I walked through it in the early morning, I was accompanied by the constant sound of rutting deer

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.

My final day on trail

Final day on trail for Three Points of the Compass

Sorting through the trip piles

Still sorting out…

Have you noticed how maps, guides, books and notes can begin to accumulate into little, and not so little, piles of ‘important planning resources’ over time.

My attempt at sorting out some of those piles has continued into a second day. Once Mrs Three Points of the Compass is happy with how much the accumulated ‘stuff’ has been reduced and sorted, I’ll try and get round to a post or two on a couple of these little adventures. One from earlier in the year, one still to come.