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I’m walking on tracks,

On familiar tracks,

Under blue sky,

In the evening light.

My shadow before me,

The wind behind.

 

I’m yawning now,

And my legs are tired.

I’m looking forward to supper,

A beer and then bed.

 

The shadows lengthen,

Along with my stride

On familiar tracks,

Along familiar tracks.

I’m heading for home,

Now,

I’m heading for home.

 

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A Walk And Other Things

It was bitterly cold but sunny first thing yesterday morning, but after a couple of hours the air had warmed up enough to tempt me out. I was due a walk anyway, having not even left the house the previous day.

Every year there is a point somewhere around the middle of February when I feel the warmth of the sun for the first time that year, but yesterday morning there was already a hint of that.

It wasn’t cold enough to freeze the ground, except in a few particularly exposed places, and so it was very muddy underfoot. Therefore it was a delight to occasionally walk through drifts of last years leaves.

And there was so much birdsong. So much so that it became a background noise that was easy to filter out after a while, except when a particularly loud or unusual song caught my attention. Not that I do that deliberately, since birdsong is one of the delights of the countryside. At some point or another when I’m out, I can usually hear the rooks, but maybe because of the sun and the noise from the other birds they seemed to be silent. I’ve always associated them with cloudy skies for some reason, perhaps because I’m so used to hearing them on moorland and in the hills and mountains.

But I’m sure they like a sunny day every bit as much as the next bird.

This morning is cloudy again and the rooks are back. Outside I hear crark crark crark, and the occasional cronk. There is rain and sleet forecast for later, so I go into town in the morning. By the time I get home, the sky is already full of dark clouds and threatening to drop some weather soon.

The afternoon, then. I partly spent painting this little fellow:

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The blue tit is one of the few British birds whose population seems to be increasing slightly at the moment, in contrast to most whose populations have fallen – sometimes dramatically – over the last few years. We seem to be losing lots of the birds I took for granted as a child, which is such a sad thing. As a race, we seem to be so damned good at exterminating other creatures.

South Downs Way 4 – Amberley to Winchester

Our room looked out over what is called Amberley Swamp. We slept with the curtains open, and were woken by the pre-dawn light, although the bluey greys and purples soon gave way to greens and yellows in the low morning sun.

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But once the sun was up, the mist contrived to linger for a while longer and the cool, still air was filled with the cries of unseen birds. Later, as we left Amberley and approached the first steep climb of the day, we saw a yellowhammer on a gatepost singing its traditional ‘a little bit of bread and no cheese’ song.

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I tried to get a photo of the little perisher, though I wasn’t very successful.

This is all about the sheep, by the way.

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Baaa!

The South Downs landscape as we know it today was largely formed by sheep. I don’t mean that large flocks of sheep sat down and planned it as a kind of Rural Development Project, but that for certainly more than a thousand years it was grazed by huge flocks of sheep whose dung helped improve the soil so that in places crops might also be grown. This led to the felling of virtually all tree cover (originally, the Downs were forested, as was most of Britain) and the establishment of the large grassland areas we associate with the Downs today.

Fans of Terry Pratchett will recall that the Mistress Weatherwax series was set in a part of Discworld that bears a large resemblance to the Chalk Downs of England. No coincidence, I am sure, as he hailed from the Wiltshire area which includes, of course, Salisbury Plain. When I read these books, I get the sense that in describing that area, he is writing of an area that is dear and special to him. There are rolling Downs and sheep and a witch who is also a shepherd living in a shepherd’s hut, which is a caravan but not as we know it, Jim.

Shepherd’s huts were the most basic of boxes on wheels, usually with a tiny shuttered glass-less window, a bunk bed, a small wood burning stove and pretty well not much else. The  hut would be up on the downs (there’s an oxymoron that’s not an oxymoron for you) for most of the year, and the shepherd would live up there looking after the sheep. Probably no chance of a day off or a night out, month after month. It was a tough life, and not at all romantic. Even getting hold of water would be a problem, with the general lack of any water at all on top of the Downs, unless they parked up near a dew pond (see part 1).

There used to be one in the grounds of the Visitor’s Centre at Exceat, near Seaford, although I’ve no idea if it is still there now.

A number of companies now make shepherd’s huts for trendy well-off folks with a bit of garden to shove them in, and charge quite a lot of money, and they are frequently much larger than the originals would have been, and fitted out in some luxury – a far cry from how they would have been when built on the farm for the shepherd. Perhaps they need a new name for them: Mock Shepherd’s Huts, perhaps.

A quick look at what Professor Google comes up with when you enter ‘Shepherd’s hut’ into the search engine reveals an overabundance of words like ‘luxurious’, ‘style’ and ‘cool’ and ‘glamping’…you get the idea.

In the first post of this series, I mentioned I had once intended to start an outdoor adventure company, which never happened. Had I done so, it was to be called Red Kite Outdoors. I mention this, as we saw a number of Red Kites towards the end of our walk. Which gives me an opportunity to include a second poor quality photo of a bird in this post.

There, don’t say I never do anything for you.

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A Red Kite – just out of range of my camera.

As planned, on the last day we reached Winchester.

We cheated, incidentally. We were so tired after the penultimate day, we walked an easy path for 3 miles or so into the village / small town of West Meon, went for coffee there, had lunch, and then took the bus to Winchester.

We don’t care!

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An easy path

After finding our AirBnb guesthouse (pretty damn good, actually) we went and had a look in the cathedral. It is pretty close to the end (or start) point of the walk, after all.

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An arty farty reflective light shot of the cathedral that shows nothing of the cathedral

We stood around in the Cathedral as the choir went through their practice before Evensong. I do not know what piece they were singing, but it was a beautiful, haunting, ethereal piece. It was tempting to stay for Evensong, just to hear them sing again, but we had an appointment with a celebratory supper which I was reluctant to delay.

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What better way to celebrate our arrival in Winchester?

South Downs Way 3 – Chanctonbury Ring to Amberley

We left Chanctonbury Ring without being spooked, and continued on our way.

Near Washington, the South Downs Way drops down off the Downs and walkers have to cross the busy A24. Here, they have a choice – either make a dash across the several carriageways of rapidly moving traffic and hope their luck holds, or take a detour of a mile and half to the small town itself, where they can cross via a small bridge beside the church, possibly after taking refreshments at the Frankland Arms, a conveniently situated pub.

Well, which do you think we did?

Before we reached Washington, however, we passed four disused lime kilns set into a bank. These were built in 1839 by two farmers, and were in use from then until 1930 when production ceased.

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Historically, lime Kilns were constructed to burn limestone, such as chalk, which produced quicklime. Quicklime could be added to soils that were low in nutrients, helping to fix ammonia in the soil, aerate the soil, release calcium, and make the soil more workable. It was also used to produce mortar for building, and if mixed with mud it could be used to plaster walls and floors.

It has also been used for disposing of bodies in dozens of whodunnits from Sherlock Holmes to the present day.

Useful stuff, quicklime.

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It was scorchingly hot by now, and our pace had slowed considerably. As regularly as we could, we took advantage of any shade we came across to take a breather and drink some more water.

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‘The road goes ever onward’ Wrote Tolkien. It was certainly beginning to feel that way.

After the heavy rains and wind we had encountered during the first few days, this was to be the first of several extremely hot days, during which covering ten or more miles a day with rucksacks and hills to negotiate became a mighty chore. On the plus side, we certainly felt we’d earned a cold beer when we reached our destination each night.

South Downs Way 2 – Steyning up to Chanctonbury Ring

Mouse Lane begins in Steyning and runs along the foot of the scarp slope of the Downs, until it climbs a little towards Chanctonbury Ring, an old hill fort. It is a delightful route, as delightful as its name; a sunken lane full of flowers and bees and butterflies (and, no doubt, mice), cool under the overhanging trees in the hot morning’s sun. It would be pleasant to follow it the whole way, but our route takes us along the ridge, and so we leave the lane to take a footpath up the steep scarp slope.

But where we leave the lane, there is a poem inscribed on a stone block. It was written in 1915 during WWI, by a British soldier poet stationed in the Somme. We pause to read it then stand for a while in silence, each of us alone with our thoughts.

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I can’t forget the lane that goes from Steyning to the Ring

In summertime, and on the downs how larks and linnets sing

High in the sun. The wind comes off the sea, and, oh, the air!

I never knew till now that life in old days was so fair.

But now I know it in this filthy rat-infested ditch,

Where every shell must kill or spare, and God alone knows which.

And I am made a beast of prey, and this trench is my lair,

My God, I never knew till now that those days were so fair.

And we assault in half-an-hour, and it’s a silly thing:

I can’t forget the lane that goes from Steyning to the Ring.

Chance memory – John Stanley Purvis 1890 – 1968

Our footpath, ironically, then takes us past an old rifle range. So old, in fact, that according to a walker we stopped to talk with it is still possible to dig musket balls out of the bank behind the range.

On top of the ridge, there is a slight breeze, but it is already very hot and we are clearly in for a hard day’s walking.

Robert Macfarlane, writing in The Old Ways, records sleeping in the Ring one night, and being woken at 2 a.m. by blood-chilling screams that seemed to come from above him, and then proceeded to circle the Ring for a quarter of an hour, although he could see nothing that might account for the sounds – he rules out the possibility of a screech owl – until they finally disappeared and he fell asleep again.

I would never have shut my eyes there again, if that were me.

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The Ring has a reputation as the most haunted place in Sussex, with tales of hapless benighted travellers being scared witless for centuries. In 1966, apparently, a group of bikers decided to stay the night there and were forced to flee in terror.

We’ve been to Chanctonbury Ring before and it certainly has an atmosphere. I would have liked to have lingered for a while longer, but the downside of the journey is that we had still to cover quite a few miles in the heat to get to Amberley that afternoon.

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Three years ago when we visited the Ring, the weather was gloomy and somewhat more atmospheric, although we were mercifully left alone by whatever might be lurking around there on the astral plane.

Thankfully, it seems they only come out at night.

 

South Downs Way 1 – Eastbourne to Steyning

Once upon a time, or five or six years ago, if you prefer, I thought I would start up my own outdoor adventure company. It never happened in the end, largely due to the cost of insurance. However, if I had gone through with it I have to admit it would have been largely so I could go on long distance trails both in the UK and overseas without having to pay for it.

Oh, well. It was a nice idea.

The South Downs Way is a long distance footpath of one hundred miles in length, running from Eastbourne to Winchester, or Winchester to Eastbourne, if you must, along the top of the South Downs.

Hence the name.

We walked it in May.

It is usual, when writing about a journey – especially a long distance walk – to write in some detail about the scenery and the route, in sequential order. I don’t think I’ll do that this time. Instead I’ll probably jump about all over the place writing about odd things we found particularly interesting.  And post one or two photos of the stunning scenery…

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Such as this one.

So, a few points of interest.

This, then, is a dew pond:

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Chalk is a porous rock, allowing any rainfall to rapidly soak away, so the only way of providing water on the top of the downs is by artificial means. Dew ponds have been made up there for hundreds of years; a hollow is dug and lined with clay, which then fills naturally when the rain falls. Dew is probably not a significant contributor, despite the name. The downside to this simple system is should the pond dry out, then the clay, too, will dry out. When this happens, it will shrink and crack, and subsequent rainfall will leak out.

And while on the subject of rainfall, we didn’t have glorious weather all the way:

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We were forced to seek refuge in a convenient pub at the Devil’s Dyke for a couple of hours, but we made the best of it. This was clearly A Good Move because although it was still pouring with rain when we eventually left the pub, it began to clear up in about an hour and then we had sunshine for the rest of the day.

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These are cowslips. The word comes from the Old English cuslyppe, which means cow dung, because, yes, that’s where they like to grow, apparently. Years ago, before the coming of intensive farming practices and industrial weedkillers, our fields were full of cowslips, but they seem to be met with now primarily in the more open landscapes – like downland. For the first few days of our walk, especially, we saw lots of cowslips.

We had a rest day at Steyning, although we stayed at nearby Bramber.

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Bramber Castle is a strange and mysterious place, which magically energises the over sixties and causes them to revert to their childhood.

Although not for long, sadly.

Annapurna Circuit, Nepal – 5: A Life Less Lived?

It could have happened.

Everybody needs a challenge.

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Sunset on Everest and Nuptse from Tengboche, Nepal.

Well, most do. I guess there are a few people who are so content with their lot they have no wish to stray out of the round of their day to day life, but I think they must make up a tiny minority.

And while it is a great achievement to be satisfied with your life, and not to constantly want a more expensive car, or clothes or jewellery, we all need something to strive for, otherwise we tend to stagnate.

Even the most altruistic, who might strive to eradicate poverty, or bring justice where there is none, need a more personal challenge sometimes.

For some it might be speed – the need to have a go on a fast motor cycle or racing car somewhere. Maybe to try a bungee jump. To feel the adrenaline surge that comes with the mixture of excitement and fear.

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On Lake Dal, Srinagar, Kashmir, India.

For others it might be the very opposite. Many of us need the opportunity to spend time away from the 21st century. Those of us who do not like the noise and speed and intensity of our modern life, need to find respite in places like the mountains, or deserts, or somewhere else remote from modern life. Woodlands at night, perhaps, or a windswept beach on an island. The challenge is frequently to find these places or to access them. Perhaps even to make the time to do so.

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Monks on their way to morning Puja, Bodhgaya, India.

Those are the sort of places I need, and where I often feel I can do my best creative work. The only places I feel I can really relax.

And the reason I had to walk the Annapurna Circuit.

Just while putting together this set of posts, at times I have looked around the room at the photographs of the Annapurnas, the maps, then at my rucksack in the corner, and felt an almost irresistible urge to just…go.

This sense of adventure is frequently in conflict with the other strands of my life, though, because (like most people) my lack of money and the demands of work and family, and other commitments, prevent me just scooting off for a week or month away whenever I feel like it.

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A track through fields and woods a mile or so from where I live.

But I have always tried to take the opportunity to go off to these places when I could, as I reasoned that I couldn’t know how long I would still be able to.

What made me determined to do this was a missed opportunity when I was working temporarily in Peru. I knew that when I finished my six week stint and returned to UK, I might no longer have a job. So when I was offered the chance to stay on for a week to visit Cuzco and Machu Pichu with friends I declined, even though it would only have cost about a hundred dollars for the whole trip. And I regretted it ever afterwards.

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Little Adam’s Peak, Ella, Sri Lanka.

I have no intention of looking back on my life later and wishing I had done these things when I had the opportunity.

Mr. Stupid Goes For a Walk

I have been posting a bit about walking, recently, what with my frustration at being unable to do a great deal of it after my foot operation.

Foolishly, I made reference to the following episode in a reply to someone on one of the ‘walking’ posts, and admitted I might write about it sometime. Well, take this as a Warning From Someone Who Learned The Hard Way.

Thirty years ago I lived and worked in Oman. I was a seismologist, working on seismic data for an oil exploration company – but before you all shout at me, my conscience is clear. I don’t think I was particularly good at it, and I don’t think my efforts contributed to anyone finding any oil.

*phew!*

I do worry that as a result of this post, though, someone will now contact me and say ‘Hello, Mick. I was a geophysicist in Muscat when you were there, and I remember that one of the projects you worked on found absolutely stonking amounts of oil!’ But I doubt it.

Anyway, let me set the scene.

I lived near Muscat, the capital, which lies on the north coast of Oman. Behind me, towards the interior, ran a line of high hills

It is a massive simplification, but just at this point the hills run east to west, parallel with the coast, and consist of a series of ridges (jebels) and valleys (wadis). So to cross them from north to south (or in the opposite direction) the traveller has to continually climb up and down for the entire journey.

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I bet you can already see where this is going.

When I had a few free hours, I would often walk out of my house, and up into the hills to just wander around and explore. As a result of this, I knew the first couple of wadis and jebels pretty well. There was a high, prominent jebel to the south, though, which was the final ridge before the land fell away to a wide stony plain, and I had never gone that far on foot up till then. This ridge was easy to spot, however, as there was a large microwave (radio) transmitter on top, and I knew it was the final ridge as we would often drive past it on the south side.

I had a day off.

I don’t know exactly what time of year it was, but it must have been in the ‘cooler’ season, because even I wouldn’t have been stupid enough to try when it was really hot.

Surely?

I didn’t even have a proper rucksack, I had a small roll-bag, which I slung uncomfortably over my shoulder. Inside, I had a single bottle of water, and a dozen small packaged juice drinks. I had a compass, but no map. I had a hat, I had a camera.

So, well-equipped and well-prepared, I set off.

The first couple of hours went well. I crossed two or three ridges and felt fine. I guess I should say at this point, that I was pretty fit. The project probably wasn’t an unreasonable one, by any means.

Certainly not for someone with the right equipment and supplies.

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I was probably just beginning to feel a bit hot and tired when I crested what I thought would be the penultimate ridge, only to find I was looking down on another two smaller ridges that I still had to cross before reaching the final large one.

And the large one was looking very large indeed!

I can be ridiculously, unreasonably, stubborn, at times. I remember that on the final ascent I had to force my legs to bend and stretch, to take each step, but the top was getting nearer and nearer and I wasn’t going to give in.

I made it.

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I enjoyed the view and the moment. It was, admittedly, very impressive and I knew I’d done pretty well to get there.

And really, all I needed to do then was to carry on down the south side of the ridge, walk another kilometre or two to the road I mentioned earlier, and hitch a lift back to Muscat.

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Have I mentioned I can be unreasonably stubborn?

I turned around and started heading down the north side towards home.

I could draw this out into a long dramatic story of my walk, but I’ll give you the abbreviated version.

I found I was in difficulty as soon as I had to go up the next hill. especially as I had finished all my drinks by then.

It took me several hours and more energy than I realised I had at one point, just to get to the final ridge. But at that point, I knew I no longer had the energy or strength for that last climb. I could not do it. Fortunately for me, I knew I could follow the valley for a mile or two east, where it would come out to the coast plain. So I turned and stumbled that way. By now, I was desperate to find some sort of shade, just for a moment, but there was nothing.

But I staggered along, and as the hills either side dropped down, I came to a cluster of buildings. I don’t know what exactly they were, but I staggered in through a doorway and an Indian working there took one look at me, sat me down and brought me water.

‘Slowly!’ I remember him saying, as I poured it down my throat. ‘Not good to drink too quick!’

I didn’t care. I drank it like a camel on steroids given twenty seconds to fill up. I got through an awful lot of water, but he made me sit and rest for a while before I went off again. I think he offered me food, which I refused, and I think he offered to find someone to drive me, but I don’t really remember too much from that point on. I did walk home eventually, though. I just hope I thanked him sufficiently.

It was not one of my more intelligent adventures.

Hiatus – along the Peddars Way

Home again, after a few days away. We walked the Peddars Way in East Anglia over four days, a distance of some fifty odd miles. Not exactly a long long distance footpath, so to speak (Gabe – you might have something to say on this!), but a pleasant enough walk and surprisingly remote from habitation in places.

Perhaps it’s a short distance footpath. And why not?

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That should mean I have time to catch up with blogs and posts and writing and God knows what else, but I now have a very busy week ahead of me, so I just have time to bustle in and do a little housekeeping, as it were, only to then bustle out again until the weekend.

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Hence a random selection of photographs from the walk.

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And an extremely random selection of thoughts:

‘Why on earth is the only pub we pass on the first day – which is a long walk – closed at lunchtime? Other walkers bemoan this fact. They must miss out on a whole load of trade.’

‘Are we all honorary Peddars this week?’

‘I don’t really like staying in bed and breakfast places – it feels too much like borrowing someone else’s room for the night, and I feel I’m imposing on them, even though we are paying to stay there. I’d rather stay in an impersonal hotel.’

‘In all of the huge number of pig farms we pass, the fields are full of little metal houses for the pigs, with straight roads criss-crossing them. Do the pigs give these roads names, or simply number them on a grid system, as in New York?’

‘And do the teenage pigs have to make their own entertainment, or do they expect it to be provided?’

‘Why do large pub chains make their pubs so incredibly unappealing?’

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Now I must rush off and attempt to organise myself for the week ahead.

Speak soon!

Ciao!