Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Pembrokeshire Part 2 (The Preselis) - July 2013

As well as a truly spectacular coastline, Pembrokeshire also boasts an abundance of prehistoric sites including the hillside from which the bluestones of Stonehenge were hewn - the Preselis.

Quite how the inner ring of Stonehenge's bluestones were transported the 180 miles from the summit of the Preseli Hills to Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire remains a mystery.  There are 80 stones in total, each weighing approximately five tons, giving rise to debate as to whether people or glacial action moved them.   I tend to favour the theory that their movement was the deliberate work of a group of people in view of the significant number of early prehistoric sites that have been discovered in the area surrounding Carn Menyn, the main source of bluestones.
Our holiday cottage had an uninterrupted view across to the distant Preseli Hills and a walk among the bluestones was at the top of my holiday itinerary.  Normally I would look at the weather forecast for the week and pick the best possible conditions for such a walk, but in this case every day was the same - hot! 

Our walk began from just outside the village of Mynachlog-Ddu and the curious Waldo Stone, a bluestone memorial to Waldo Williams (1904-1971), who has been called 'The most original Welsh language romantic poet of the 20th century'.

From this point it was a fairly easy climb to the first summit - Carn Bica.  There was a little hazy cloud cover towards the higher ground which provided a welcome relief from the blistering heat at lower levels.  Standing on the summit of Carn Bica we could hear the shouts and laughter of a school party on a distant peak and looking down from this vantage point we could also make out a group of rocks which our map identified as Beddarthur.  According to local mythology, this was one of the many supposed last resting places of the legendary King Arthur.  There are actually many places throughout the UK which lay claim to the sleeping king and, as it turns out, another lay just a couple of hundred yards away at Carn Arthur! 
From Carn Bica our route was to take us to the summit of Carn Menyn.  I had always thought that my sense of direction and navigational skills were very good indeed, but as it turns out this was the day when I discovered that this wasn't the case at all.  I had both a map and a guidebook and I knew that the path wasn't particularly distinct.  Setting off towards what I believed was Carn Menyn we quickly found ourselves in a reed-filled marsh.  A lengthy struggle ensued to a rocky peak which, it transpired, was in the complete opposite direction to our destination of Carn Menyn, necessitating a second climb to the summit of Carn Bica.  In temperatures exceeding 80 degrees, this was very hot work indeed and when we eventually reached the summit of Carn Menyn we had added an extra two miles to our walk. 

The top of Carn Menyn was a fascinating place, littered with bluestones.  It was in 1922 that these stones were identified by a geologist called Dr H H Thomas who noticed that the pink and white crystals of fieldspar in Carn Menyn's dolorite were identical to those seen in the slabs of Stonehenge. 

We lingered a while among the bluestones before making our way back to Mynachlog-Ddu and the Waldo Stone. 

Over the course of our week in Pembrokeshire we visited two further prehistoric sites of interest.  The little Neolithic chambered tomb of Carreg Coetan Arthur (yes, King Arthur again!) and the larger, slightly  more impressive Pentre Ifan.  Dating from circa 3700-3000 BC these tombs would once have been covered by rocks and earth. 

A week is never long enough to thoroughly explore an area as beautiful and diverse as Pembrokeshire.  Our week really only just gave us a taste of what was on offer, leaving us keen to return to this lovely corner of Wales.

Monday, 28 October 2013

Pembrokeshire Part 1 (The Coastal Path) - July 2013

I'm not normally blessed with good weather when I go on holiday.  The usual pattern seems to be that I set off, full of expectation for beautiful scenery and blue skies, only to spend the majority of the week under a blanket of grey with hardly a flicker of sunlight.  It's not that bad weather bothers me too much.  It is, after all, the only part of a holiday that can't be arranged.  It becomes significant though if, like me, you're hoping to get some good photos.

This year turned out to be the exception as we set off for our holiday in Pembrokeshire (South West Wales)  in the middle of  a heat wave.  In fact (and I hate to say this) at times it was almost too hot and sunny.

The county of Pembrokeshire is home to the only coastal National Park in the UK.  Some 186 miles of dramatic coastal scenery have been incorporated into the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path, a National Trail which can be enjoyed in short sections or as a complete long distance hike.  Our home for the week was a delightful little cottage nestled in a valley just a short distance from a particularly scenic stretch of the Coastal Path.
Departing from the door of our little coastal cottage, we could be onto the coastal path within 20 minutes from which point we could devise our own circular walks taking in the most breathtakingly beautiful sections of coastline which, to my mind, rivalled, if not bettered, anything I'd seen in Cornwall a couple of years earlier (although to be fair to Cornwall, most of that week we had less than favourable weather). 
Before we'd set off on our holiday I'd been told that Pembrokeshire was "Cornwall without the crowds" and this was something that had particularly attracted me to the area.  It was still something of a surprise, however, to discover just how peaceful and quiet the area actually was.  We enjoyed mile after mile of wonderful coastal walking without passing another person.  We wondered if this could have been due to the heat wave and the fact that walking the coastal path entails a lot of ups and downs (not easy in temperatures of over 80 degrees), but a conversation with one of the few other people we encountered along the way confirmed that solitude was the norm.  "It's Cornwall without the crowds" the lady confirmed as we stopped to exchange pleasantries and let her pass us on the narrow path.

I would like to complete a long distance walk, but I don't think the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path would be my first choice.  There's no disputing the scenery along its entire length is spectacular and, with a total rise and fall of 35,000 feet, having completed it a walker would have climbed the equivalent of Everest!  What concerned me most whilst on the short sections I walked was the precarious nature of some sections of the path.  At times we found ourselves walking down a very steep incline towards a cliff face of around 500 feet with the path only turning away from a sheer drop at what seemed like the very last moment.  I was very unnerved  at times, even with dry conditions underfoot, but on a wet day, when the path becomes slippery with mud, such a walk would be too much like an ordeal for me.

From May 2012 the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path became part of the 870 miles Wales Coast Path - the only footpath in the world to trace the coastline of an entire nation. 
Away from the coast Pembrokeshire offers a contrasting walking experience in the beautiful and mysterious Preseli Hills, which will be the subject of Part 2 of my Pembrokeshire blog entry.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

A new pair of boots

One of the results of my renewed interest in long walks and hill climbs has been that I've needed to invest in some new gear.  When I started out earlier this year all I had was a very old pair of walking boots and a "waterproof/breathable" coat which I quickly discovered was neither waterproof nor particularly breathable.  My earlier walks were undertaken in jeans and cotton t-shirts, which any serious walker will tell you are highly inappropriate items of clothing.  So, as the year has progressed and my walks have increased, I've had to invest in several items of kit. 

First on my list was a new pair of boots.  I'd had my old boots for nearly 25 years and they had been wonderful.  I worked out that I must have walked hundreds of miles in them but even so there was very little sign of wear to the soles and they still had their original laces.  It was the insides that were wearing out, to the extent that they had begun to rub and after one of my moorland walks I was left with quite a nasty blister on my right heel. 
My old boots were Brasher Fellmasters - faithful old friends for many a mile and I didn't exactly relish the idea of having to break in a new pair.

I needn't have worried.  Walking boots today boast of "out of the box comfort", meaning they don't really have to be broken in, although of course it would be foolish to set off on a long walk in a new pair straight out of the box.  As my old boots had lasted so well, I was adamant when I set off to the outdoor shop in York that I wouldn't entertain any other brand but Brasher and I had in mind a pair of their "Hillmasters".  What I actually wound up buying though was a pair of Scarpa Terra GTX.  The very instant I tried these boots on I smiled.  It felt as if my feet were saying "ooohh...thank you".  They just seemed to wrap my feet in comfort.  It almost seemed too good to be true and I was convinced that this was a false sense of comfort, so that when I actually got out on a walk I'd be cursing the day they'd tricked me into buying them.  With this in mind I went on to try nearly every pair of boots in the store, interspersed with repeatedly trying on the Scarpas - and smiling inanely when I got them back on my feet.  
Now I've had these boots for nearly four months and have walked for many miles over all kinds of terrain, I can happily report I definitely made the right decision.  They are fantastic boots!  I've walked through long wet grass, mountain shale, rock-strewn paths and even waded up to my ankles through streams without the slightest hint of wet feet, blisters or injury (even though I've cockled over on rocks a few times).  The Vibram soles provide excellent grip in wet conditions and after each walk, with the aid of Scarpa's excellent HS12 boot cream, they are quickly restored to looking as good as new. 
Although I'd never heard of the brand Scarpa until July, I can now wholeheartedly recommend them.  And they still make me smile every time I put them on!

Monday, 21 October 2013

Steam Trains, Stepping Stones and Honey - June 2013

I really love the North York Moors.  And I love steam trains too.  So it's no surprise that my favourite walks often combine the two with a route planned to take in a section of the NorthYork Moors Railway.
From the pretty town of Pickering the North York Moors Railway winds its way through some of the loveliest scenery in Yorkshire, visiting the popular villages of Goathland and Grosmont before joining the Esk Valley Railway which continues to the seaside town of Whitby.

Until the early 19th century the port of Whitby was only really accessible by sea.  In fact, there had been no proper road links to the town until the opening of the turnpike in 1759 and even after this date journeys across the high moorland were perilous.  In 1832, after consultation with the "Father of Railways", George Stephenson,  it was decided to build a railway to Whitby from Pickering.  In 1833 the Whitby and Pickering Railway Bill received royal assent and the first section of the line between Whitby and Grosmont was opened in 1835, with the complete line from Whitby to Pickering opening in 1836.
The railway gradually declined throughout the 20th century and, as with many similar little lines, it closed completely in 1965 following the infamous Beeching Report.  From this time onwards the line was turned over to a group of dedicated enthusiasts who subsequently  re-opened it, initially with a staff of volunteers, although today its workforce is made up of both paid and voluntary staff.

Whilst I do enjoy a ride along the North York Moors Railway from time to time, I have to confess that I find it much more enjoyable to watch the trains steam by a particularly dramatic stretch of moorland scenery, or to visit the stations at Grosmont, Goathland or Pickering to photograph the trains gathering steam. 
In late June I set off from Goathland to walk a ten mile circuit, taking in some woodland and high moorland before dropping down to the pretty village of Egton Bridge.  Here the village is divided by the River Esk with most of the houses on one bank and the pub on the other.  The quickest route from one side to the other is via a set of stepping stones, which led me to wonder how many people have slipped into the river on their way back from an evening at the pub.  The stones are very flat and not too slippery, but even so I crossed with extreme caution - mostly because I had my camera round my neck and I usually have more thought for its protection than my own safety.
It was on this particular walk that we discovered the very finest heather honey we have yet to find.  We're very fond of honey and always on the lookout for roadside signs outside the homes of local bee-keepers.  Heather honey, in our opinion, is the very finest of all and so we were delighted to spot a sign outside a house by the River Esk in Egton Bridge proclaiming "Local heather honey for sale".  And what a find!  We knocked on the door and were let into a small utility room stacked with jars of honey, the walls of the room covered with rosettes and prize cards for local produce shows, the Great Yorkshire Show and similar.  Nearly all of these were the red rosettes given for first prize and, having been back to this house a couple of times since to stock up, I can confidently state this honey would get a first prize from me every time.   Heather honey is  dark, rich and aromatic with a thick, almost jelly-like texture, and it has a stronger taste than most other honeys.  Absolutely delicious and packed with protein, iron and anti-oxidants.  A really healthy treat!

From Egton Bridge we made our way along a stretch of disused railway line to the village of Grosmont and a quick visit to the station so I could grab a few shots of a train gathering steam.  Then it was back across the moors to Goathland, but not without a short pause by the railway line at Thomasson Foss waterfall where I sat in wait of a steam train. The light was ideal and the setting delightful and I hoped I wouldn't have to wait too long until the sound of a whistle would  prompt me to pick up my camera for the perfect steam train shot.  I had to wait half an hour, which wasn't too long really, but in that time, typically, the light began to change - and not for the better.  The train, when it eventually thundered past, was a diesel.   It was a vintage diesel, not the steam train I'd hoped for - still worth a quick shot, but highly lacking in any kind of "wow factor".
Undeterred, I decided to sit it out a while longer.  It was getting quite late in the day now and I wasn't even sure if the trains had stopped running, but after about another twenty minutes or so I was rewarded with a steam train.  Only this one was tender-first (or "arse-about" as we might say here in Yorkshire).  Not exactly what I'd hoped and waited for, so once again the perfect steam train shot eluded me.  That didn't bother me too much though because it was such a truly lovely spot and the walk had been wonderful.
I'm determined that one day I will get that perfect moorland steam train shot, but until I do I have the perfect excuse to keep on going back to this beautiful place.  And sit and wait. And wait.  Preferably with a flask of coffee and maybe a few slices of bread and honey.

Thursday, 17 October 2013

Rosedale - June 2013

When choosing a route for a walk I usually take into account potential photographic opportunities and, more often than not, likely looking places for refreshment breaks.  My "refreshment break" of choice would usually  be a local ale and a tasty pub meal, but on this occasion I wanted to sample the treats on offer in the garden of a moorland farmhouse in the picturesque valley of Rosedale.  The route I planned was a nine mile circuit, starting and ending at the village of Rosedale Abbey and following the line of the old Rosedale Railway before dropping down to the farmhouse tea garden and then continuing back along the valley bottom.
The Rosedale valley is green and fertile, nestling between the higher moorland of Blakey Ridge and Spaunton Moor.  Today it is home to a few quiet farms and many of the houses along the valley are now second homes and holiday cottages.  It's a tranquil place, but a century ago things were very different indeed. 

In 1853 magnetic ironstone was discovered in Rosedale and in 1856 open cast mining in the area was producing ironstone of a very high quality, leading to the commencement of drift mining and eventually full production at the Rosedale West Mine in 1861.  Thereafter a further mine was opened at Rosedale East in 1864.  This subsequently led to the construction of the Rosedale Railway, a remarkable feat of Victorian engineering which transported ironstone across the moorland to the main line at Battersby Junction from where it could be carried onwards.  Today there are various ruins of the old mine workings dotted around the edges of the valley (I've already included images of the Rosedale East Mine calcining kiln and a ruined railway workers cottages in an earlier entry).    The abandoned railway track today provides an excellent level route for walkers and cyclists as it winds its way around the top of the valley for over ten miles in total.  On the day we walked round the valley edge a marathon was taking place in the opposite direction to our route and we called out encouragement as the runners sped by in various degrees of exhaustion (I think they were nearing the finishing post).  Photoshop has a clever little tool which allows me to make them disappear, as if by magic!

At the head of the valley we dropped down to the lovely Dale Head Farm where the farmer's wife has opened a small tea garden.  I'd read about this on the internet and was very keen to try the Wensleydale cheese and banana chutney sandwiches, followed by Yorkshire teabread and a lovely cup of tea.  The menu also included intriguing delights such as "Moggy" and "funeral biscuits", leaving plenty of enticement for me to go back again one day.

Dale Head marked the exact half way point of our walk and our route back took us along the valley bottom from where we could look across to the mining ruins we'd walked past earlier. 
Eventually the path led us back into the village of Rosedale Abbey and past the little church of St Mary and St Laurence.  The church was built in 1839 from stones remaining from the Cistercian nunnery which gave the village its name.  The ruins of a small turret staircase next to the church is all that remains today of the former abbey.

This won't be the last time I explore Rosedale.  There are plenty of routes around the area....and I just have to try those funeral biscuits!

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Newtondale - June 2013

My next walking excursion after my ascent of Roseberry Topping was in April, when we visited Hadrian's Wall, but as I've blogged about this already I'm now jumping forward to June 2013 and a delightful walk on the North York Moors.

We started this walk from the Hole of Horcum (the 'r' in Horcum is silent by the way), which is part of Newtondale in the North York Moors National Park.  Leaving from the roadside car park on the main road midway between Pickering and Whitby (the starting point for several moorland walks of varying distances), we completed an eight mile circular route, part of which overlooked a particularly spectacular section of the North York Moors Railway.  My intention was for us to have a picnic lunch at Skelton's Tower, the ruins of a two-storey tower which was built in 1850 as a shooting lodge by a former vicar of Levisham, the Reverend Robert Skelton. Some say that he wrote his sermons in the lodge but it is also rumoured that he escaped here to enjoy a quiet drink!

The reason I wished to linger a while at Skelton's Tower (which was approximately half way around our eight mile circuit) was that it overlooked an especially picturesque section of the railway line.  I hoped to be able to sit there long enough to catch a train passing through in full steam.  Plenty of other people had the same idea it seems and in spite of a chilly wind it was quite crowded in this usually isolated place with everyone huddling around the walls waiting for the tell-tale sound of a distant train whistle.  I consulted the NYMR timetable on my iphone and found myself a perch just in time for the 1215 from Grosmont which typically coincided with the disappearance of the sun.  It seems that on this particular section of track a good head of steam was not required, so not only did I have to do my best in Photoshop to enhance the light, contrast and colours, I also had to cheat and paint a bit of steam in too.  Nevertheless, it was a wonderful place for a picnic.  No doubt I'll go back there one day and try and get the "ultimate" steam train pic (I do love steam trains!).


The Hole of Horcum, the start and finishing point for our walk, is a valley formed by the action of springs along a boundary of two rock layers. Springs and rainwater seep through porous rocks, and the water gradually erodes the sides of the hole and enlarges it over many thousands of years.  Locally it is also known as "the Devil's Punchbowl" and there are a couple of myths about the valley, both involving a giant called Wade.  According to the legend Wade was arguing with his wife one day and scooped out a large fistful of earth to throw in her direction.  The version of the story I first heard tells that the earth fell close to the town of Scarborough, forming the hill today known as Oliver's Mount, but another version has the earth falling in the opposite direction at Blakey Ridge.  Whichever way he hurled it, luckily for his wife he missed! 

By the time I'd got back round to the car park at the top of the Hole of Horcum the light was very subdued and my photo certainly doesn't do the scenery justice.  I've always found this to be the case at this particular viewpoint.  It just seems to be one of those places that looks wonderful to the naked eye but not so amazing from the camera.  Or maybe it's just that I have yet to work out the best angle and light to capture the true beauty of the place.

I'm very fortunate to live only an hour's drive away from this lovely place, so maybe one day I'll achieve my aim of capturing the Hole of Horcum in its best light and maybe even one of those lovely trains in full steam.

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Roseberry Topping - March 2013

My rediscovery of the joy of country walking began in earnest with a visit to Roseberry Topping, in the Cleveland Hills, on the very edge of the North York Moors National Park.  At 1,049 feet (320m) it isn't a mountain (a mountain in the UK is over 2,000 feet), but nevertheless it presented something of a challenge to someone like me who has always found walking up an incline something of a struggle.  I therefore decided to test myself.  If I could make it to the top and survive then perhaps it was time to think about tackling bigger hills and, eventually, even a mountain.

Spring seemed to start very late this year and the cold weather lasted well into May.  The day we drove out to the village of Great Ayton to start the short walk up Roseberry Topping saw glorious blue skies and sunshine, giving a false sense that Spring may finally have arrived.  We weren't the only ones lured out by the sunshine.  A steady stream of people were making their way up the lane and all along the route to the peak to enjoy the views.  Walking down the lane the sound of a helicopter stopped everyone in their tracks to watch as it circled several times before disappearing over the summit to land on the other side.  Those coming back down from the top told us a young boy had slipped on the wet rocks and had broken his ominous start to the walk and a warning to be cautious.

I can't deny that getting to the top was a bit of a struggle.  Several rest stops were needed and, bearing in mind what had just happened to that poor young boy in the helicopter, I was very careful where I put my feet!  But once up there the view and the sense of achievement were marvellous. was only just over 1,000 feet, but prior to this I had struggled to climb up the steps from Sewerby Beach to the cliff top (about 80 feet). 

We certainly weren't the only ones enjoying the view from the summit.  It was pretty crowded up there, but I did manage to have my photo taken with something of a view in the background and no one else intruding on the scene.  Not the prettiest of views - the town of Middlesbrough - but still impressive on such a lovely clear day.  In the 18th century the nearby village was home to Captain James Cook who by all accounts enjoyed a walk up Roseberry Topping to admire the view.  In 1801 Middlesbrough was just a small farming hamlet with a population of 25, so the view Captain Cook enjoyed would be vastly different to that seen today!

Our route back down was much gentler than the ascent, although I'm actually pleased to have walked up the steepest side.  As we steadily made our way back down we came upon a curious ruin, incongruously nestled at the foot of the hill.  I had no idea what it was at the time, but took a photo anyway (I do so love old ruins!). 

This little building was apparently once a shooting box, built in the 18th century for a Captain Wilson, to shelter members of the local gentry who visited this romantic spot for picnics or for banqueting after a shooting party. 

Once back down to the car park I felt an enormous sense of achievement.  I was a little stiff-legged the next day, but I felt reasonably confident that I could now aspire to climb a greater height.  I began to think in terms of Yorkshire's Three Peaks - Pen y Ghent, Whernside and Ingleborough.  After that, who knows....maybe even a Lake District whopper.  It wasn't impossible.  I'd conquered Roseberry Topping after all.

A change of pace and a change of direction

When I first started blogging earlier this year, I must admit this was somewhat without direction.  I wanted to be able to write a blog but didn't really have a clear idea of what I'd be writing about, other than a few random subjects of interest to me.  The small number of subjects I wrote about were loosely linked around my excursions into the British countryside, along with a couple of short reviews of history books I'd recently enjoyed reading.

Since I first began this blog my life has started to change and now I find that I have a very clear view of where I'm heading and thus the path my blog will also follow.  This has all come about due to my recently rediscovered love of walking. 

I've enjoyed walking in the countryside for as long as I can remember, but in recent years, due to various other commitments, I haven't been able to venture out as much as I would like.  This year that has all changed and, from March onwards, I've steadily increased the amount, the distance and the altitude of my walks.  The result in terms of my health, fitness and general sense of wellbeing has been wonderful and this alone is something I consider worth sharing.  If I'd known earlier in the year just how positive an influence my walks would have, then I should have started this blog earlier and (if you'll pardon the pun) on the right foot!  But better late than never.

I've got some catching up to do.  What follows over the next few days/weeks will be accounts of my walking experiences from March onwards, along with any particular topics of interest associated with the places I've visited.  Over the course of the past few months I've also invested in some new gear to improve my walking experience, so as and when I think it's appropriate I may also include the odd review.

If I actually have any readers of this blog, I hope you'll feel free to comment or ask questions.  It would be very nice if just one person found it interesting or useful.