A Walk in Shropshire

One of the great things about hiking is discovering how many beautiful places there are in England. A couple of weeks ago I went up to Shropshire for a weekend of hiking near the Long Mynd. Sadly my plans were interrupted by a migraine. I couldn’t start the main walk, and arranged to join my friends half way.

I set out to meet them at Pole Bank, and took the wrong direction. The rendezvous was ontop a ridge, with various valleys etched on the edges. I picked the wrong valley, striking north-east rather than north.I should probably have taken a map, as the combination of a photographed section of OS and smartphone was not enough.

Climbing the hill I was weak too, barely able to breathe. I was an hour from the rendezvous, lost on a golf course and realised I was going to have to turn back. This was the first time I’ve had to give up on a walk, and I was disappointed. I’m used to planning over-ambitious walks then managing them. Giving up half way was not easy but it was the right thing to do. At least mobile phones meant I could let everyone know what was happening.

I did manage a couple of smaller walks, the first an afternoon stroll up Carding Mill Valley. And the following day, early in the morning, we drove a short way along Watling Street North to climb Caer Caradoc. We had thirty minutes to ascend before turning back for home – we still needed to check out of the airbnb.

I managed the climb and was rewarded with some amazing views of the local area. It made up for my failure on the earlier walk. The hill was meant to be the site of Caractacus’ last stand against the Roman invasion. There was supposed to be a cave near the summit, but we couldn’t find it. According to legend, the cave can only be found at dawn, so maybe we’d arrived too late for that.

We also tried out the local curry house, and Church Stretton’s Jaipur Lounge was excellent.

Adventures on the South-West Coastal Path

I’ve heard the South West Coastal Path being compared to Everest. Which is a bold comparison, but it’s one that the official website makes too. Over the path’s 630 mile distance, it manages a total ascent of 35,000 meters, which is almost four times the height of the world’s highest mountain. But, the website boasts, the SWCP is even better as “completing the 630 miles will see you cross 230 bridges, catch 13 ferries, open (and close!) 880 gates, climb over 436 stiles”. There are no ferries on Everest.

Back in March we walked a small section of the path, from Exmouth to Beer. This is a long way from home in Sussex – I’d originally suggested walking a section from Dorset, but something was lost in translation, and we ended up walking a section in Devon.

The main impression of the SWCP is hills. There are slow climbs up long soaring cliff-sides, before dropping down to sea level once more. On the second day there was a race from Exmouth to Seaton, which looked amazing and made me very sad that I can’t run these days.

Two other impressions from the walk: a lack of coffee and far too much mud.


The Tan Hill Inn

You know those inns in fantasy novels? The ones with a blazing fire, where travellers discuss their journeys and their lives? Most pubs I’ve visited don’t come close. The only place I’ve had that experience is the Tan Hill Inn, the highest pub in the UK.

The Tan Hill is a decent walk or drive from the nearest town, and famed for being isolated. It has its own snowplough and generator; in March 2013, visitors were stuck there for five days. The pub has survived for centuries as a refuge and is a well-placed stop on the Pennine Way.

Before going, my mental image of the place was the Slaughtered Lamb in the movie American Werewolf in London. Indeed it had been used in a Vodafone advert, with the pub sign from this standing in the corner of the bar. We arrived to a blazing fire, which someone told me was kept going at all times.

In the dining room that night, people gathered. As people played music next door, we talked about about our journeys, what we’d seen and plans for future walks. A couple, a man from Essex woman and his fiancee from Riga, had dropped by and ended up deciding to hold their wedding at the pub. The talk went between tables, as did the dogs. We discussed walking the Pennine Way North to South, running out of water in the Cheviots, and hiking injuries.

In the bedroom was a book called The Ascent of Everest. It seemed appropriate for an Inn with so many hikers. But, flicking through the book I found it was about a different Everest to the one I expected.

Sunset was beautiful – from the window of my room I could see only a couple of lights. Indeed, on the next day’s hike, it was most of the day before the ridge where the pub sits dropped out of sight.

Panorama from Tan Hill – click to expand

For me, one of the best points in hiking is the brief conversations with other travellers – where are they from, where did they set out from, what have they seen on their way. As we get further north on the Pennine way, accommodation becomes rarer, and the hikers cluster more. There’s something fantastic about drinking a pint with people you’d never meet anywhere other than the country’s highest pub.

Experiment: From Antarctica to Everest in Brighton & Hove

A classic technique for exploring cities is to walk an arbitrary shape laid over it. The idea being that the route cuts across the usual ways of traversing the streets, exposing new areas and resonances. Even better if you can anchor this walk to meaningful points, which should create new connections. Examples of this include Iain Sinclair cutting a V into London or Sam Miller following a spiral path around Delhi.

I started out with my friend Sooxanne in the Extra-Mural cemetery, where Edward Bransfield is buried. Bransfield died 31 October 1852 in Brighton, and is famous for being the first person to see mainland Antarctica. Wikipedia notes “During 2000 the Royal Mail issued a commemorative stamp in Bransfield’s honour, but as no likeness of him could be found, the stamp depicted instead RRS Bransfield, an Antarctic surveying vessel named after him.”  The grave, his only memorial, was neglected until the turn of the century when a descendent organised some renovations.

We didn’t see any other people in the cemetery. It appears to be undergoing a period of rewilding, and the grass was tall and meadowy. I’ve no idea if this is down to council cuts or wildlife, but the plants growing tall made me think of the people buried as seeds.

I’d printed out a map of Brighton and we did our best to follow a straight line from Brasnfield’s grave to our destination. On our way we found few resonances with the endpoints; but walking across any town won’t be boring for people who’ve lived there a long time. I spent years around the Lewes Road triangle before lighting out to Hove.

Each street came with memories, places we knew well and stories connected with them. Between me and my companion we had about a half century of time in the town. We’ve encountered a lot of people and seen a lot of change. We swapped tales along the way.

And of course, we ran into people we knew, including the owner of this very handsome dog. Their owner had been away for a time, and I’d been looking forward to hearing about their travels. Thanks to them I now know what Balut is, although they hadn’t dared try that. Um… that link might not be for everyone.

The street art in Brighton continues to be incredible. Of course, a lot of the graffiti is tags – while those can be interesting, they usually aren’t. But the sticker and poster work is usually exciting. The work at the intersection of Viaduct Road and Ditchling Road was better than anything I saw in a brief exploration of this year’s open houses exhibitions.

Above: posters up for last night’s Brownton Abbey event at the Dome. I’d been the night before to see Big Freedia, which was one of the best gigs I’ve seen in a long time.

At Preston Circus we crossed the London Road Stone Circle.

We passed down Norton Road, where Edmund Gorse once lived. Gorse is the main character in Patrick Hamilton’s West Pier Trilogy, about a con-man living in Brighton.

At the other end of the walk was the grave of Sir George Everest (4 July 1790 – 1 December 1866). Everest was made the General Surveyor of India in 1830. The mountain was discovered by his successor, who named it Everest as a compromise between the different local names; it was actually objected to by Everest, since he felt his name was hard to pronounce in Hindi. Everest never set eyes on the mountain that bears his name. It is this naming that Everest is mostly named for, and his grave is a modest one.

As an experiment in urban walking, the format I chose was not a success. The points chosen were arbitrary, and nothing else about the walk connected to them. But it was an interesting walk, and a good chance to swap stories. I think much of the art of walking is choosing the right companions – certainly, Iain Sinclair’s records of his walks depend greatly on the companions.

The important thing about walking is getting out there and doing it, actually setting out, and something like this provides a good excuse for getting out there. But maybe guides on walking need to focus on how to pick the right companions and the right conversations.

Although it wasn’t part of the actual walk, on the way to the start we passed by a branch of the Smallest Bookshop in the World. Despite the limited stock, I bought two volumes – a book on Sussex dialect and a 90s catalogue of counter-culture.

Theresa May’s return to Wales

The news broke on Thursday 29th March (the date exactly a year before Brexit): Theresa May was planning an Easter break in Wales. This was notable because of what happened last time the PM went hiking in Wales. Given time to think and relax in the glorious scenery, May was inspired to hold a snap general election.

A year later, she returned to Wales. Who knows what brave and bizarre plan will emerge from this trip? The newspapers have responded to this with headlines implying a time of national crisis. I liked the Sun’s lead:

Apparently when May joked that she was not planning to hold another election, Iain Duncan-Smith responded: “The PM assured us she won’t do the same as she did last year, but I will wait until she gets back just to make sure”. And, to be fair, Theresa May has a record of committing to something and making a sudden U-turn.

I’m fascinated by Theresa May’s previous trip to Wales and recently booked a visit to Dolgellau to follow in her footsteps. Partly it’s a good excuse for a holiday – I’ve been meaning to visit Powis Castle and Portmerion for years, and fancy some hiking. But it’s also part of a longer project.

Back in October, I joined with the Indelicates in organising the October Ritual. Rather than a straightforward album launch, we organised out a magic ritual to banish the demons of Brexit. It was quite an event – Cat Vincent’s incantation during the final song was spine-tingling. It was easy to believe in magic at that moment.

I gave a talk at the event on hiking and Brexit, subjects that have overlapped in small ways for me. I’ve hiked through the fruit fields of Kent, which rely on foreign labour; I’ve had racist B&B owners tell me the appalling lies that led them to vote leave; I’ve walked the fringes of the estates owned by the figures bank-rolling Brexit. The more I’ve read, the more things that have connected with the subject – Tolkien, folk horror, the British Empire and Glastonbury. These have implied other hikes, some of which are already arranged. And, tied into it all is the concept of magic and Brexit.

A 600,000 majority has been transformed into a mandate for the hardest of Brexits, and there seems to be no coherent opposition. Under these conditions, writing and hiking seem as constructive as anything else I could be doing. So, I am off to Wales to do some hiking, and to visit an interesting part of the country. But I will be writing a story too.