Salt marsh, floods and road walking: The Solent Way

This is a belated post, due to a busy work week – I did this walk last weekend whilst visiting my in-laws for the weekend (a busy weekend, combined with caravan training and fitting the car with a towbar). I decided to walk the Solent Way from Barton Cliffs (near my in-laws) north towards Beaulieu. I’ve deliberately not been measuring distances too precisely but from the website (http://www.solentway.co.uk/) it looked to be around 20 miles, which is the target daily average for LEJOG.

Of course, as with all my training walks, it didn’t go entirely according to plan. I started off alright, walking from about halfway between Barton and Milford on Sea – a nice fresh morning with a brisk sea breeze and not too hot. Other than the odd dog-walker, there were very few people around. I was feeling energetic and happy to be outside in the fresh air, helped by the sunshine and cliff views. (Apologies for the quality of the photos in this post as in the last one, blame it on the Blackberry!).

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Unfortunately, when I got about halfway along the golf course I was stopped by a big sign telling me the cliff path had been closed due to erosion because of the winter’s storms, and diverting me through the golf course – onto the busy B3058. I’m not a great fan of walking through golf courses, and particularly not driving ranges – it’s nice underfoot but I always feel like I’m at risk of getting a golf ball in the head – and I was deeply unimpressed when the diversion simply brought me out onto the road and stopped. There was nothing for it but to walk nervously along the edge of the road, pressing myself into the hawthorn hedges each time a car or truck came roaring past at 60 miles an hour (way to kill off the tourists, New Forest). After about 15 minutes of this I was beginning to wonder whether I would live to make it back to the coast and so I was deeply relieved when my partner and father-in-law appeared in the car, like knights in shining armour, and gave me a lift back to the cliff path just before Milford on Sea. Now I could get on with some proper walking.

As large banners put up at the side of the path tell you, this winter’s storms have wrought terrible damage on this bit of the coast, and the council is doing its best to repair the path and access to the beaches. In some places, whole chunks of the path had simply fallen into the sea, and when I reached Hurst Castle there was just a large lake where previously there was a road:

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I walked some of this route just after Boxing Day and it was sad to see how much it had been damaged. Still, once the path turned further inland towards Keyhaven and the salt marshes, it was hard not to feel exhilarated in the breeze, with birds wheeling overhead and the sun glinting off the water.

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The Keyhaven marshes are a nature reserve and part of the New Forest National Park – it’s one of my favourite parts of this walk. This was once an industrial landscape – windmill-powered pumps would draw brine out of the salt water into boiling pans, with the resulting salt taken by barges inland via canal or round the coast. There is the odd sign explaining how the process worked and showing a bustling landscape of cottage factories and barges which is very different to the peaceful nature reserve you now see.

Once through the saltmarshes you arrive at Lymington, a town where the stunning landscape and boats are matched only by the unfriendliness of the locals. After a quick lunch, I headed out of town with some relief, across the river and uphill. There is a monument in the woods to Sir Harry Burrard Neale, MP for Lymington in the early 19th century, which is surprisingly impressive, and the path then heads inland across a golf course and farmland. There are two memorial signs marking the sites of temporary airfields set up during World War II, and a slightly comedy warning to watch out for planes crossing the path:

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The path was very wet in lots of places going through Pylewell Park, and provided a good opportunity to check that the new boots are completely waterproof! After threading through the Sowley woods, the path then emerges onto the road. And continues on the road until Buckler’s Hard, which I estimate to be a distance of about 5 or 6 miles. Not much fun at all – although there was little traffic and wide grass verges, it was tedious and hard on the feet, and with none of the wide coastal views that made the first part of the walk so nice. I eventually got to Buckler’s Hard just as the rain began, having decided to call it a day after a cup of tea. I was a bit regretful about missing the last part of the walk – the few miles up the river to Beaulieu – but there’s always next time.

I’m definitely getting fitter – admittedly this wasn’t a hilly walk by any means, but I was still feeling energetic at the end, which is a good sign. Oh, and for those of you worried I’m a fair-weather walker I got caught in a freezing downpour in the middle of a field – good to know the jacket’s still waterproof too. Just over a month to go!

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Snapshots: Salt spray in my face while taking photographs of the Needles; a husband and wife out for a walk together, both wearing headphones; excited children in multicoloured lifevests having a sailing lesson in mini dinghies; crunchy chips in the pub garden; larks, swans and wading birds in the nature reserve; handwritten dedications on photographs of ex-servicemen at the memorial sign; the sound of hounds and hunting horns in the woods near Sowley Pond.

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Uphill: The Sussex Border Path and the Staunton Way

We were away this weekend visiting friends in Emsworth (a small town near Portsmouth and Chichester on the south coast), and so I decided to take advantage of our proximity to the South Downs to do a hilly (well, hillier) walk. I was a bit restricted by having walking gear with me but no maps – foiled by the archaic and counter-intuitive Ordnance Survey website (it’s the 21st century, people!) and lack of a reliable internet connection – so decided to follow the Sussex Border path from Emsworth to Chalton and then take the Staunton Way north to the Queen Elizabeth Country Park near Petersfield, where I would meet up with my family and our friends for a picnic lunch.

The Sussex Border path claims to have been set up in 1989, and there is a helpful website with section descriptions and sketch maps here: http://www.sussexborderpath.co.uk/. A word of warning though – although most of the section I did was waymarked, I found that some of the section was oddly described and it was easy to miss the path, resulting in a couple of lengthy detours. I managed the section using the rather rudimentary maps function on my Blackberry when I got lost.

The Emsworth to Chalton section starts next to Emsworth Creek, just outside the town centre:

 

 

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You follow the creek north before turning off to go past the Nature Reserve. I missed the turning and ended up near Emsworth Station, resulting in a lengthy walk through residential streets to get back on the path near Westbourne Church. The path then heads through woods and nature reserves and was almost completely deserted when I walked it apart from a few dogwalkers and the odd jogger. I passed some beautiful bluebells and only had to walk through one field of rape (I hate the smell!).

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I nearly missed the turning near Horse Pasture Farm (it would probably be more accurate to say that the path goes THROUGH a farm rather than towards it, and being a city girl I was reluctant to walk through the farmyard without a clearly marked path) and then completely missed the turning just before Finchdean, so ended up having to walk about 2k further on the road in order to reach the George pub at Finchdean. The George is a lovely looking pub, but it was a bit disconcerting the way the whole room went silent when I opened the door, went to the bar and ordered a pint (Doombar, if you’re wondering) from the rather unsmiling barman. I decided to opt for a packet of crisps rather than lunch and drank my pint outside in the sun with my boots off. Ahh, luxury.

From Finchdean the path heads uphill onto the downs, and this was a really enjoyable part of the walk – great views and the lovely sight of new crops blowing in the breeze. I made good time coming down into Chalton, but was already late for lunch because of the unplanned detours.

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From the Red Lion in Chalton (I didn’t have time for another pint) I followed the Staunton Way north to the Queen Elizabeth park. The path is well waymarked and seemed busier, although that may just have been the after-lunch crowd. I eventually made it to the park visitors’ centre (via a section of the South Downs Way) about an hour and a half later than planned, and then spent an enjoyable hour and a bit going round the 2 mile ‘space trail’ (waymarked with rockets and scale pictures of the planets) with the kids.

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By the end of the day I estimate I’d walked about 17 miles (including unplanned detours!). I was worried at how tired I was but then justified it by telling myself it was probably a gentle uphill the whole way from the coast, which made me feel slightly better. I decided to ditch my original plan of walking at least part of the way back and luxuriated in the car journey, accompanied by two very tired children.

I’m starting to think seriously about how four people (two adults, one 4-year-old and one 1-year-old) are going to fit into a caravan intended for two with enough clothing and equipment for at least 10 weeks away from home. A lot of the equipment lists I’ve seen for LEJOG are for self-supported walkers; I’m lucky to have the luxury of my partner running ‘support’ with the caravan, but that also means thinking about where all four of us are going to sleep and taking all the clothing changes that are needed for a holiday with two children in unpredictable British weather across the entire country! I would be lying if I said that any of us are tidy people and it’s going to be a major task to be disciplined about taking the bare minimum we need and keeping everything packed away as much as possible. I’ll probably blog a list in the next few weeks and any suggestions about what to take/what to discard are very welcome…

Snapshots: Hearing (but not seeing) a woodpecker in Hollybank Wood; a laminated Bible verse attached with bulldog clips to a fence near the bluebell wood; a wooden memorial cross to an airman who crashed during World War II; bluebells, anemones and dappled sunlight; a large and subdued-looking group of walkers following a beaming leader downhill; skylarks and straight chalk paths over Chalton Down; cheery greetings from Lycra-clad cyclists zooming past my seat outside the pub; admiring the tree wigwam of dead branches built by the kids; baby snores in the car on the way home.

 

Marathon day: the Capital Ring and Dollis Valley

As I’ve probably mentioned before, I am far from fit and although I have lost some weight in the last few months I am still probably between two and three stone over my healthy weight. I lead an almost completely sedentary lifestyle and the LEJOG walk poses a real challenge – it’s been a very long time since I did any long distance paths and I am acutely aware that the start of LEJOG (2nd June) is now only a matter of seven weeks away. After yesterday’s satisfying but short walk, I decided I needed to do a longer walk (and one not completely on the flat), to up my mileage and test how well I coped with walking two days in succession.

Accompanied by a colleague, today’s route went from home in Leytonstone, following the Capital Ring route up as far as Hampstead Garden Suburb and then the Dollis Valley Greenwalk and cross-country to the Orange Tree in Totteridge. Google guesses that it’s about 18 miles but that doesn’t include some of the ins and outs of the route so I think it may have been slightly longer. It was a lovely route – I haven’t walked any of the Capital Ring before and it was a pleasure from start to finish. I’ve lived in London nearly all my life but today’s walk was almost entirely through green places that I had never been to and didn’t even know existed.

Today was the London marathon, and perhaps because of that the streets round Leytonstone and Stratford were almost deserted when I left home. I sauntered along enjoying the quiet and the sunshine, and was rewarded by the lovely feel of new grass underfoot on the pristine new playing fields which nobody is allowed to use yet. The river looked absolutely stunning in the sunshine:

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The Lee canal (apparently, for those who like me were wondering, the Lea Valley and Lee Navigation refer to the same area, but the convention is that the Lee refers to the manmade aspects such as the canal) was similarly quiet. There were a few rowers and I spotted the same canalboat I saw going through Stonebridge Lock yesterday, motoring slowly south in the warm sunshine.

After a contemplative intro, I joined my colleague at the cafe in Springfield Park – some excellent coffee and a great smoothie – and then we headed off. The walk went through lots of green bits of London that I had never visited or never heard of – Springfield Park, Abney Park and the Parkway (London’s longest nature reserve) were particularly lovely revelations – and it all felt surprisingly far removed from the streets not far away.

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We stopped for lunch at a pub in Highgate and then followed the Capital Ring route round through Hampstead Garden Suburb, before picking up the Dollis Valley Greenwalk and heading north.

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The woods all through the walk were filled with birdsong and spring flowers – bluebells, hawthorn, cherry trees, cowslips – and there were surprisingly few people around for most of the route. The only downside was finding, midway through the afternoon, that the chocolate I had carefully stored in my bag last night had been removed by my son – so no ‘pick me up’ snack! My lovely new boots (gradually getting more worn in) were a delight – no blisters or hot spots at all – although I haven’t worked out a solution to the ‘waterproof Goretex equals very hot and sweaty feet’ problem. I suspect that even more technical socks are the solution and am going to test a few.

We finished at the Orange Tree in Totteridge, where we sat on plastic chairs by the side of the pond and congratulated ourselves on a walk well done. Not a marathon, but a good day’s walk nonetheless.

Snapshots: A bright green parakeet in the trees by the edge of Hackney Marshes; weeping angels and broken columns on the graves in Abney Park; bluebells and wild garlic in Highgate Woods; a man in a Tendulkar shirt diving to catch a cricket ball in the local park; rainbow graffiti blending with the greenery on the disused railway arches along the Parkway; bright yellow kingcups at the pond’s edge; a cold glass of white wine in the afternoon sunshine. Lovely.

Around and about the Lea Valley: a walk in two parts

Aware that it had been a while since I did any training (save for a very boring walk from Liverpool Street to a friend’s birthday party in East Dulwich last weekend, which didn’t merit a post), I decided that I was going to do a long walk this weekend, to try and up my mileage and incorporate some hills. My initial plan was to walk the Capital Ring from Woolwich to Crystal Palace, but due to a combination of factors (mainly grumpy children waking up at ungodly hours and mummy-guilt at not having been around very much during a busy work week) the plan evolved. Eventually we packed the kids, bike and child-backpack into the car and did a short circular walk up the Lee Valley Navigation from Stonebridge Lock to the next bridge and back. It was a short walk (only about an hour), due to being accompanied by tired and grizzly four-year-old on her bike

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but I compensated by carrying our one-year-old in the backpack (an added 15 kilos or so!). There was lots of interest on the canal – we were lucky to see a boat going through the lock – and we went up to a local pub to have lunch. Both children brightened up considerably at the prospect of chips.

After a hefty lunch my partner took the two kids home in the car and I walked home down the canal, which according to Google Maps (not the most reliable source) is just under 10 miles. It was an interesting route – hard going on the feet and knees though, as the majority of the towpath is tarmac or hard surface. But it’s not an area of London I know at all, despite having lived in East London for 9 years, and it was satisfying to see the landscape unrolling slowly and changing from the industrial landscape round Enfield and Tottenham Hale to the much prettier and busier stretches round Walthamstow Marshes, through to the Olympic Park and then home. These photos really don’t do it justice, especially as for some reason I didn’t take any snapshots of the later bits:

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Snapshots: a pair of nesting swans, unbothered by the rubbish floating around them; canal boat owners enjoying a casual lunch in the sunshine on their cabin roof; a girl wearing a skirt with rows of tiny mirrors on it which caught the light as she walked; an overweight family of cyclists trying to interest some equally overweight ducks in the bread they were throwing to them; the reflection of newly built apartments in the water round Millfields Park.

Not a long walk by any stretch of the imagination, but at least I made it home in time for bath and bedtime.

 

 

A hot and dusty urban walk

I decided to try out my new boots for real, so this morning walked from home in East London to visit a client in Pentonville Prison, a distance of 6.5 miles (it’s actually about 6, but I got lost at the end in the wilds of Islington).

The route includes everything I dislike about walking in London – lots of traffic, no parks, dirty streets, unforgiving pavement and tarmac, a wide variety of unpleasant smells from drains, rubbish etc, and that peculiar black urban dust which covers your pores and gets up your nose. Plus it was going to end at HMP Pentonville, which is one of my least favourite prisons in the country (yes, I spend a fair bit of time in prison for professional reasons, and yes, it is possible to prefer some prisons to others). Unlike other walks, there isn’t really a more pleasant option which doesn’t involve a lengthy diversion. So I was really dreading it, and only the thought of how much easier the first few weeks of LEJOG will be if I am a bit fitter (and lighter) spurred me on.

In the event it was not so bad. There were spring flowers everywhere – daffodils, narcissi, buttercups, camellias, scylla, cherry blossom – and every garden that I passed smelled beautifully like spring. People were making the most of the sunshine and sipping small coffees at tables on the pavement; I passed a Sloaney blonde woman in a sharp suit musing over an assortment of strangely-shaped vegetables and a tired looking student in a purple sweatshirt with ‘I Love London’ in red across her chest. There was movement and variety everywhere. Perhaps best of all, Londoners’ innate incuriosity meant that nobody stared too much at me, a tall woman dressed in a black suit and hiking boots, striding along sweating profusely in the spring sunshine and checking her watch every twenty minutes. I arrived (even with my unplanned detour) 10 minutes early, filled with love for my city, and felt disproportionately pleased with myself. Then the prison gates malfunctioned so nobody could get in or out – but that’s another story.

The boots (new Lowa Renegade GTX – why do the names of men’s hiking boots always sound like petrol or a sports car? are women’s boots the same?) were very comfortable, albeit my feet got extremely hot. I think I need to find some cooler socks for this summer.

A training walk: Seaford to Jevington via Beachy Head

This was not the first training walk I’ve done to prepare for LEJOG. I started in a fit of enthusiasm on Boxing Day with a 12 mile walk along the coast from Brighton, then have done a couple of slightly longer (and hillier) walks since then. However, realising that 2nd June (the planned start date for LEJOG) was drawing ever nearer, I thought it was time to try a long walk over some hills. I was accompanied by my sister and her husband, and we decided to walk the South Downs Way loop that goes from Seaford round Beachy Head through Eastbourne to Exceat. You can find helpful links here:  http://www.southdownsway.co.uk/index.html

That was the plan in any event. We met up at Seaford – the weather lovely and sunny with a light breeze – and headed over the Seven Sisters, which you can just about see in these photos:

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The beautiful weather continued nearly all day, but unfortunately the Seven Sisters and Beachy Head proved too much for my unfit legs and by the time we got past Eastbourne we were all a bit out of puff.  I made it as far as Jevington, where I had possibly the best piece of coffee and walnut cake ever in the tearoom (highly recommended), and then sat on a bench in the churchyard and admired the daffodils :

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I was glad to get back to the car and, after a long drive back to London through roadworks and Sunday night traffic, was very glad to get home to a glass of wine!

It was a lovely route, and has made me realise that it’s time to find some more hills for training.  Sadly, living in East London this may prove a bit difficult!

Spent the evening thinking about campsites and getting quotes for attaching the towbar to our family car – astonishingly expensive, before you ask….