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A winter walk on the South Downs Way

A winter wander on the South Downs Way

The South Downs Way is a 100 mile National Trail between Winchester and Eastbourne. it follows the northern escarpment within the South Downs National Park for most of its distance and is a fairly gentle walk along the chalk downs with only occasional drops to cross river valleys.

Three Points of the Compass travelled down to Winchester to stay overnight. This not only permitted a late night wander of the city, taking in Winchester Cathedral, but also a pint in the Royal Oak, reputed to be 'the oldest bar in England'

Three Points of the Compass travelled down to Winchester to stay there overnight prior to commencing the South Downs Way. This not only permitted a late night wander of the city, taking in Winchester Cathedral, but also a pint in the Royal Oak, reputed to be ‘the oldest bar in England’. Building of the cathedral commenced 1079 on the site of an earlier Saxon Church. The pub dates from around 1002

Three Points of the Compass completed a five month 2000 mile hike in 2018, much of that time was taken as unpaid leave so consequently still had a few days holiday left to fit in before the end of the year. So I decided to knock off another of the National Trails. I walked this trail decades ago when I was in the British Army, but the memory has dimmed. Not only that, but it used to be considerably shorter, originally extending only as far as Buriton until the circa 25 mile extension to Winchester was approved in 1989.

Nigor Wiki-up 3 with Hex Peak V4 single person inner nest

Nigor Wiki-up 3 with Hex Peak V4 single person inner nest

I decided to complete the Way as a winter thru-hike, doing a mix of camping and accommodation. My Z-Packs Duplex had been worn out completely on my Three Points hike earlier in the year so I took my Nigor Wikiup 3 pyramid tent instead. In a nod to the colder conditions expected, instead of simply using a bivi-bag inside the shelter as I have in the past, I took a small one person nest to make the nights a little more comfortable. This was the Hex Peak single inner V4A. It worked brilliantly and the three nights slept inside were all very comfortable despite winter arriving with a vengeance while I was on trail.

The paraphernalia of an evening meal- now soaking in boiled water, my lentil curry continues to cook beneath my down beenie while a hot OXO provides much required re-hydration in the interim

The paraphernalia of an evening meal on the South Downs Way- sitting in freshly boiled water, my lentil curry continues to cook beneath my down beenie while a hot OXO provides much required re-hydration while waiting. There is plenty of room within the Wiki-up 3 shelter to enable cooking inside while it rains outside

My complete gear list can be found here. Accepting that the weather had turned, I carried a few more comfort items of clothing in addition to those I usually take on longer hikes- a mid-layer, puffy trousers and jacket, down beenie etc. Base weight was 9615g but because it was a pretty short hike I carried much of the food I would require. This meant less reliance on infrequent shops, less time spent hunting down meals when the daylight hours were short and less miles added to my total. Cooking was simple- lentil curries, hot drinks such as tea and OXO, granola for breakfast, plenty of chocolate. Tortillas and tuna pouches for three lunches. A few flapjacks were also stuffed in. For this trip I carried the little 25g BRS 3000-T ‘bumblebee’ stove and a 110g  gas cartridge.

Tried and trusted, if a little worn out, my Gossamer Gear Mariposa pack was used for my hike. This had ample room for everything I required, including a few extra cold weather items

Tried and trusted, if a little worn out, my Gossamer Gear Mariposa pack was used for this hike. This had ample room for everything I required, including a few extra cold weather items

Having enjoyed a pint in one of Winchester’s older establishments, I followed this with a meal in the local Wetherspoons. A big mistake, going for cheap and plentiful calories I waited over an hour for my food which was dire and even the selection of beers was poor. A shame as I can normally rely on a ‘Spoons to deliver what a hiker needs.

There are a lot of guides and maps for the South Downs Way. Despite being well-waymarked, it makes sense to carry a map and a guide book can only add to the enjoyment of the walk. I carried the Cicerone guide book, but left the Cicerone map booklet at home, preffeirng to take the A-Z Adventure Series that contains good 1:25 000 O.S. mapping with a wider coverage than the Cicerone version

There are a lot of guides and maps for the South Downs Way. Despite being well-waymarked, it makes sense to carry a map and a guide book can only add to the enjoyment of the walk. I carried the Cicerone guide book, but left the Cicerone map booklet at home, preferring to take the A-Z Adventure Series that contains good 1:25 000 O.S. mapping with a wider coverage than the Cicerone version

The following day, a Friday, I left my hotel at six-thirty, an hour or so before dawn and it was a short walk to the start of the trail beside the City Mill, from there it was an easy well-marked trail, following the River Itchen out of town. I crossed the M3 and was immediately into the countryside. I was carrying around 1.5 litres of water as I set off as I was unsure on how water supply would be. I had been told that many taps are turned off from the end of October. I’ll do a separate blog on the water sources I used.  Suffice to say, I had no problems sourcing water throughout the hike. Highlights of that day were lovely leafy tracks, mostly soft walking, deer, partridges and around a million pheasants…

Beacon Hill on the South Downs Way. The mist barely cleared on my first day on trail

Beacon Hill on the South Downs Way. The mist barely cleared on my first day on trail

With sixteen miles completed by 11.40, my first halt was a little later for lunch at the Bronze/Iron Age site on Old Winchester Hill, just one of many National Nature Reserves I passed through. I knew that with short day light hours I was going to have to get a move on to that night’s halt. But I still took a break for a mug of tea at the fly fishers little cafe adjoining the tackle shop at Meon Springs. Friday’s camp site was at the Sustainability Centre, Wetherdown Lodge. Arriving at 14.40 after slightly more than twenty miles, I had a winter pitch booked which still meant I had a warmish shower and compost loos to use. There were no other campers and after pitching the tent, I managed to get to the cafe on site minutes before they closed for a pint and a bag of crisps. Back to the darkened tent for lentil curry and instant mash. With a long night before me, I settled down in a warm quilt at 18.50.

I slept well, the campsite was silent beyond a few owls, a mouse rustled through my rubbish bag outside but cleared off when I muttered at it. I rose at five as I had a twenty four plus mile day to complete to where I hoped to wild camp that night. The temperature had dropped considerably and I was pleased I had bought a full set of insulated clothing as camp wear. Quite a bit of condensation on the inner surface of the shelter, nothing within the nest however. I wiped this down while the tawny owls set off again, breakfast, ablutions, packed and away prior to seven. A bit later than I had hoped but I frequently faff around a bit too much on my first morning. It wasn’t long before I was into the Queen Elizabeth Country Park. it was good walking through the wooded park until the wonderful long and sweeping descent down to the crossing of the A3. I held a gate open at the bottom for a couple of horse riders who after thanking me, set off at a fine gallop up the slope toward the ancient field systems below Butser Hill that were very evident that morning with the misty low sun and long shadows.

Horse riders gallop up the national trail toward the radio station on Butser Hill

Horse riders gallop up the national trail toward the radio station on Butser Hill

I had held faint hope of a bacon sarnie at the cafe in the visitor centre beside the carpark but that didn’t open until ten. I wasn’t waiting around for two hours so after a brief chat with a marshal setting up for a Park Run taking place later (it was a Saturday), I walked on through the park and out the other side. It sounded as though World War 3 had kicked off as there were shoots taking place in all directions. The path was pretty stony today and the feet felt it a bit in my mostly worn out Altra Lone Peaks. Time for a new pair perhaps.

The mist cleared a little in the afternoon but soon gathered again as the early evening approached, so views were modest. My planned halt that night was at Glatting Beacon but I found that there was a cold wind whistling up the slopes so hunted around for a bit looking for shelter. I eventually settled for a quiet little flat space immediately next to the entrance to the compound containing the masts. It looked as though the place had few visitors, as evidenced by what appears to be arson attempts to the buildings within the compound.

Saturday night's camp was on Glatting Beacon. I arrived around 16.30 and immediately pitched, it was dark by the time my shelter was up

Saturday night’s camp was on Glatting Beacon. I arrived around 16.30 and immediately pitched, it was dark by the time my shelter was up

Another lentil curry and plenty of chocolate. I had a good signal there so was able to chat to Mrs Three Points of the Compass for a while as I sank hot drinks, first an Oxo, then tea, finally a hot chocolate, then early to bed as I could feel the temperature dropping.

I didn’t sleep fantastically that night. I was warm enough but the cold was evident in the morning with a heavy frost. My alarm failed to sound at five thirty, possibly affected by the cold, but I woke soon after anyway. Hot mug of tea and granola followed by ablutions. I had picked a pitch away from the cold wind but condensation was heavy, this immediately froze as soon as I opened the tent flap in the morning. Being frozen, it was easy to shake this off when packing up. It was a lovely clear morning when I hit the trail a little after seven.  It was Sunday and this was the busiest I saw the trail with quite a number of dog walkers out.

Little mist on my Sunday on trail. Gentle slopes could have made for reflective walking if it were not for the blasts of shotguns reverberating through the wooded slopes

Little mist on my Sunday on trail. Gentle slopes could have made for reflective walking if it were not for the blasts of shotguns reverberating from the wooded slopes. Quite a few pheasants would not see another morning

There were quite a few deer in the fields, running as soon as they saw me, stopping to gaze at me from a safe distance, then turning and running again. Partridges cher cher cherred away in low loping flights. Yesterdays Buzzards were now joined by numerous Red Kites. It was a good days walking with the best views so far on trail.

Disused chalk pits on Chanctonbury Hill

Disused chalk pits on Chanctonbury Hill

Approaching Chanctonbury Ring. A feature of the South Downs, it is visible for miles to the north and south. The original ring of trees, long since replaced, were planted on the site of a prehistoric hill fort

Approaching Chanctonbury Ring. A feature of the South Downs, it is visible for miles to the north and south. The original ring of trees, long since replaced, were planted on the site of a prehistoric hill fort

Sunday was a nineteen and a half mile day to Truleigh Youth Hostel. I hadn’t been able to book it as it was on exclusive hire but emailing them, the warden had kindly informed me I was welcome to camp in their field opposite- “hide in the field, by the pond or under the trees”, she had also left the campers w/c and shower unlocked for me. I made sure to leave a generous donation in the charity jar when I left the following morning.

Sunday night's camp was in the field opposite Truleigh Hill Youth Hostel. A lovely still evening and a cold night

Sunday night’s camp was in the field opposite Truleigh Hill Youth Hostel. A lovely still evening and a cold night

When I arrived at the hostel, quite a few of the group that hired the hostel were outside the entrance smoking. What they were smoking I had my suspicions. Drinking and dancing was taking place on the first floor. In chalk smeared outdoor clothes, I felt alien to what was going on but stood chatting to the small group on the steps. I was asked where I had camped the previous night, I told them it had been a wild camp- “wow, that’s awesome”, I quietly demurred- “it was just the one night, not much of a pitch, no view to speak of…”, he interrupted ” yeah, but wild anything, that’s  cool”.

A couple of them were unloading a large sound system from one of the vans- “its a fiftieth birthday party, it’ll be going on ’til the morning”. Oh great! I held out little hope of any sleep but as it was, barely heard anything tucked away some 100 metres away. I slept pretty well that night and condensation was limited in the morning.

The weather was cold with clear skies and good views for much of Monday mornings walking. There were a couple of highlights to visit today. Having crossed the Hulking escarpment, it wasn’t long before I was passing through scrubby downland above Devils Dyke; Britain’s largest single coombe of chalk karst, this is a steep dry valley. Through Saddlescombe, the Hikers Rest cafe closed at this time of the year, then a leisurely halt at the Shepherds’ Church at Pyecombe. The village itself was hit badly by the plague in 1603 and is now split with part of the village now situated half a mile away from the remainder.

The Norman built Shepherds' Church, Pyecombe

The Norman built Shepherds’ Church, Pyecombe

Famed for the Pyecombe Hook, a particular design of shepherds’ crook, I was only slightly more fixated on the dedicated room newly built on to the rear of the church specifically for pilgrims. I declared myself a pilgrim and stopped in to use the facilities and make a cup of tea followed by a hot chocolate. Eating flapjacks and bars  and chatting to a parishioner meant this was a prolonged halt.

The tapsel gate at Pyecombe church is opened by one of the famous shepherds' Pyecombe Hooks. These were made for around 200 years

The tapsel gate at Pyecombe church is opened by one of the famous shepherds’ Pyecombe Hooks. These hooks were made for shepherds and Church of England bishops for around 200 years. A tapsel gate is made of wood and rotates through ninety degrees on a central pivot. Unique to Sussex, only six such gates survive

Then on to the equally famous Clayton windmills, better known as the Jack and Jill windmills. I diverted slightly off trail to go and see these. Jack, a dirty black smock mill is a pretty poor sight now. It has no sails and is a private residence. The nearby Jill, a white painted post mill looks superb.

Post Mill Jill is one of the Clayton windmills and can be seen for miles

Post mill Jill is one of the Clayton windmills and can be seen for miles. She was originally sited in Dyke Road, Brighton and was bought to its current site by a team of horses and oxen in 1852. Occasionally open to the public, she was closed during my visit

 

The uncommon circular tower at Southease church

Southease church tower

handstamp impression from my journal

Hostel handstamp impression from my journal

Despite my halts and diversions, Monday was still a hike in excess of twenty one miles but I was less concerned with finding a camp site as tonight’s halt was YHA South Downs. It was still cold but dry, however the blue skies were clouding over and it was obvious that a change in the weather was imminent. I still made time for a halt at a roadside caravan where two huge bacon rolls were consumed. Also a brief halt to admire Southease church with its rare circular tower. There are only two others in Sussex.

Three Points of the Compass on Ditchling Beacon, the highest point on the South Downs in Sussex

Three Points of the Compass on Ditchling Beacon, the highest point on the South Downs in Sussex

Having booked in to the attractive Youth Hostel, situated on a farm, I found myself sharing a room with one of the most taciturn men I have ever met, also one of the friendliest! Showered and clean, I made my way to the hostels courtyard cafe where the two young wardens- Chaya and Steph, provided me with a series of good beers and the unhealthiest of food options.

Accommodation buildings at YHA South Downs

Accommodation buildings at YHA South Downs

I slept well in an overheated room, only a little snoring from the other two occupants. Both were contractors and were away early to their work. On my final day, Tuesday, I had breakfast in the campers kitchen and was away soon after eight for my walk to the coast, I enjoyed second breakfast at the Singing Kettle Tearoom at Alfriston. I was headed toward the lovely walk along the Seven Sisters via Cuckmere Haven. My final day also had the greatest amount of ascent- 4892′. This was all easy enough though and would make for a great finish to the hike.

About to descend to the famous winding meanders of the Cuckmere River

About to descend to the famous winding meanders of the Cuckmere River

However the weather had indeed changed and it was rain for much of the day, if it wasn’t raining, it was mostly sleet or hail, such fun! It didn’t really bother me as it was driving in to me from behind or my left, so I was able to keep the hood of my Velez Adventure Lite smock up and was warm and dry to the great extent. My legs got wet but never cold, if it briefly stopped raining, the Montane Terra trousers dried quickly in the stiff wind. This was almost twenty two miles from the Youth Hostel to Eastbourne Pier where I was finishing my South Downs Way hike. Then about face and another long ascent back out of town to that nights halt at YHA Eastbourne. I arrived before five  and had to stand outside until the warden unlocked. This remains a ridiculous YHA requirement that has been largely done away with by independent hostels. I was also less than pleased to find there was no food provided on site and there was nowhere in the vicinity. Not fancying another slog back down into town that night, I was able to rustle up sufficient from my almost totally diminished food supplies supplemented by a little pasta left in the kitchen to make an ‘OK’ last meal. The warden even found a bottle of wine for me, bonus.

Walking toward Birling Gap

Walking toward Birling Gap on my final day on the South Downs Way

With my little diversions off trail and the extra couple of miles up to my Youth Hostel from Eastbourne Pier, I completed 108 miles over my five day hike of the South Downs Way. It had been a cracking walk. The mist had obscured views at times but it added another element to the walk in itself. This has to be one of the finest chalk downland walks to be found anywhere. I wouldn’t do it again in a hurry but am pleased to have completed it.

While the South Downs Way originally opened in 1972, the South Downs National Park is much younger. It is the youngest of England's National Parks and first became operational from 1st April 2011. It is heavily advertised for all forms of leisure activity and can become swamped at certain times of the year. A winter walk means that it is much quieter and beyond a handful of horse riders, three cyclists and less than a dozen walkers, al of whom seemed to be on day walks, the paths were empty

While the South Downs Way originally opened in 1972, the South Downs National Park is much younger. It is the youngest of England’s national parks and first became operational from 1st April 2011. It is heavily advertised for all forms of leisure activity and can become swamped at certain times of the year. A winter walk means that it is much quieter and beyond a handful of horse riders, three cyclists and less than a dozen walkers, all of whom seemed to be on day walks, the paths were empty beside dog walkers never more than a mile from their cars

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

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.

Two Degrees West, an English Journey by Nicholas Crane

A decent read- Two Degrees West, an English Journey by Nicholas Crane

On a mid-August morning, Nicholas Crane set off on his self-devised adventure. To walk two degrees west of the Meridian, from one end of England to the other, from the North Sea by Berwick-upon-Sea, to the Isle of Purbeck on the English Channel, and why not.

The author gave himself some leeway, he permitted himself to stray up to a 1000 metres each side of his line, between grid lines 99 and 01 on the Ordnance Survey maps that he cut and pasted together, giving him a strip route, 577.96 kilometre long, on thirty-six separate maps, folded and slipped into his trouser pocket. For all his two kilometre wide limit, the book wanders far wider, giving snippets of history and social context, though often, not quite enough.

He carried his belongings in a pack and, armed with an umbrella, sallied forth. Sleeping where he can, be-it ditches, woods or beneath motorways, he meets and engages with a hotchpotch of characters and commits to his self imposed parameters with determination. This man knows how to create an adventure, how to carry it out, and, most importantly, how to write about it.

Two Degrees West is a captivating book. It is an England and its people that few bother to go and explore and meet. If ever you want a book to inspire you to look for your own adventure, then this may do the job.

Two Degrees West- Constrained by his self-imposed line of longitude, Nicholas Crane prepares for a crossing of the River Tyne

Two Degrees West- Constrained by his self-imposed line of longitude, Nicholas Crane prepares for a crossing of the River Tyne

Two Degrees West, an English Journey. Nicholas Crane, First published 1999. This edition 2000, Penguin Books

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.