Final Day on the Ridgeway

I’ve walked three complete trails this year: North Downs, Limestone and Ridgeway. In each of these cases, the ending of the trail has been a strange experience. Given all the work that goes into promoting and maintaining these routes, I’m surprised more thought doesn’t go into the ends.

Walking the Ridgeway against the grain, from Aylesbury to Avebury, meant a more exciting destination, but a less impressive final stage. Much of day five was open countryside and tame scenery – but it was good to spend a night in Avebury, a short distance from the stone circle.

The final day began with a boring stretch of roadway. The weather was cloudy which was a relief after four days of harsh sun.

As usual there were strange sights along the way. The sign on the tree shown below read “Christmas is the warm, happy ending to our family’s story each year”

The endings of these hikes often feel odd. You’ve achieved something, but often the only marker of the trail’s end is a signpost pointing in only one direction

Avebury is a fascinating place to visit, with some incredible ancient sites. As it was mid-Summer, the hill up to Kennet Long-Barrow was covered in golden corn. I somehow missed this the last time I came to Avebury, so it was good to explore.

I think it’s a shame we’re no longer allowed to climb Silbury Hill. Who are we saving it for?

As it was just after the solstice, Avebury had been visited by people on the way back from Stonehenge. The Red Lion pub, inside the stone circle, was surrounded by fences. Security guards kept watch. I learned these were not designed to keep hippies out, but to keep everyone safe from stumbling into the road.

Avebury is a great place to explore. Putting your head against these stones, you can feel the energy thrumming through them.

In the local Avebury shop there is a binder with pictures of the year’s crop circles.

After a couple of hours exploring, we took buses and trains to make our way back to Brighton, just in time to set off on my next hike with Katharine and Romi. The Ridgeway was a fun trail to explore. The route followed did have the feeling of one followed in ancient times.

The End of the North Downs Way

The final hike on the North Down’s Way was far more interesting than yesterday’s dull section. But, sadly, the trail’s end in Dover is a bit of fiasco.

I’ve been walking this route with Katharine and Romi since January, inspired by the section of it at the start of the Downs Link path. We continued in FebruaryApril and June before finishing this weekend. While weekend walks are easier to schedule than complete hikes, they are hard work. There is a lot of car shuffling and I miss being able to just walk from a B&B onto the trail.

At the start of the walk, it looked like it was going to another trudge through empty fields.

Soon we found ourself walking through some cornfields, which was much more exciting. The sky was cloudy, but the day was warm and dry.

I decided not to use the gate here. Romi claims that this means I didn’t complete the actual North Downs Way.

In this field a cow stood on the path. Katharine and I have had some bad experiences in cattle fields. These cows were quite calm, although passing through was tense.

Just like yesterday, one of the road names appeared to be a metafictional comment on the walk. Five miles to go!

Can you see where the signpost is in the scene below? It took us a while. I’m not sure how many people actual walk the North Downs Way. We met very few people, and some parts of the trail were hard to follow.

On the last few hundred yards, the North Downs Way takes in this scenic car park. Dover is a discordant note at the end of the trail – it’s not a pleasant place to visit.

The end of the trail is almost as bad as the Limestone Way, which concluded with just a one-armed signpost. He we reached the end point in Market Square to find no mention of the trail. We had to google the Rambling Man website to find out that the trail end had moved to the seafront.

We found it in the end, and ate salted caramel icecream on the seashore. Then we had coffee and drove home.

It took a couple of hours to drive home. Along the M25 I passed a section of the walk from February. I’ve enjoyed the project of walking this trail over the last nine months. The question is: what next?

A flat day on the North Downs Way

Every trail tells a story, a sort of narrative. This story depends on the weather, the company, the time of year. It depends on the people you encounter, some of whom share stories about their own journeys on the trail; or about the people ahead of you, who they’ve already met.

Walking the North Downs Way from Chilham to Shepherdwell is not a particularly interesting story.

All trails have sections that are marking time. Sometimes this is forced by roads, other times it’s unavoidable, the dull bits between great views. This section of the North Downs way was a flat and wearisome walk from Canterbury towards Dover.

We started walking the North Downs Way in January, doing a stage every month or two. This weekend is our fifth one on the path, where we will be completing the main part of the route.

The start was promising. The weather was good and the day warm. We passed through a churchyard with a 1300 year old yew tree, killed by falling trees during 1987’s Great Storm.

We passed through orchards full of fat apples where there may have been some scrumping (but not from me). According to Rambling Man, the fruit farm we crossed is the largest in the UK. I was moved to see a grave placed among the trees.

But this section of the walk suffered from missing signs. Even the guidebook didn’t help much, as we kept being sent in the wrong direction. One sign we did find was a road name one doesn’t want to when hiking.

Some of the fields might have been quite interesting to walk if they had crops. Instead we crossed empty flat landscapes, nothing beyond the fields but more flat countryside. Some of the maps were mostly white space.

The middle of our day’s walk took us through Canterbury, where the signs dried up completely. It did allow me a chance to look through some bookshops, but I couldn’t see anything worth carrying for ten miles.

It felt a little strange to have our hike take us through the Saturday afternoon shopping crowds.

We passed through an area or cornfields, pheasants and keep-out signs.

The rest of the day we hardly saw anyone. This is one of the strangest things about the hikes, how few people take advantage of the routes.

Near the end, a pile of litter.

It was well Brexit.

Bad weather or inappropriate clothing?

I have no idea who first said that ‘there is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing’. A quick google search suggests Ranulph Fiennes, Alfred Wainwright or Billy Connolly as candidates. I’m going to add myself to this list: there is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing.

Day three of my last stint on the Pennine Way was a drag. We were about halfway through when it started to rain. We’d just stopped for lunch and were sure it was going to pass; and putting on the waterproofs seemed like a hassle. The Rambling man website describes this well:

When you’re out in the countryside and the heavens open the last thing you want to do to is undo your boot laces, remove your footwear and struggle into the trousers, then put your boots back on again, often whilst desperately trying not to fall over into the large pile of mud that you suddenly realise is right behind you.

So we set off without waterproof trousers. It turns out that these are a really good idea in the rain. We squelched our way up Pen-y-ghent and trudged our way down again. It was not pleasant. Reaching the Penyghent Cafe was a relief. Few drinks have felt as good as that pint of hot chocolate.

We put our names in the hiker’s register that the cafe has kept for years, which now stretches to multiple volumes. We also heard the tale of a couple of cyclists who that very day had quit their Land’s End to John-o-Groats ride, spirits broken by the headwinds.

I am unsympathetic. If you’re planning a huge cycle ride in September you need to consider the weather. You don’t discover it’s difficult halfway and then give up. If they were doing this for charity, I hope the sponsored organisation tracks them down, and lets them know how many orphans their failure will force to go hungry.

I’d wore what Amazon described as a “Waterproof US Army Hooded Rain Poncho”. If this is indeed US military style, it explains why the US military has recently fought in hot, dry countries. It didn’t keep me very dry.

Day four, the sound of rain woke us in the night. Lesser souls might have given up at Horton-in-Ribblesdale. Not us. I layered up: long johns under my trousers, waterproofs on top of them. I borrowed a jacket to keep my top dry. And it worked – despite worse weather than the day before, worse than I’d ever seen in my life, maybe, I stayed dry. Water didn’t run down our legs, which meant it didn’t pool in our boots.

It turns out that there is no such thing as bad weather in the right clothes. And before the next walk I will buy some better trousers, ones I can put on when it starts to rain.

Too lazy for amazing things

Time after time, I run into this same problem. It’s mid-afternoon and I’m somewhere amazing; any other day I’d kill to be there. It might even be somewhere I’m unlikely to return to. But I’m worn out and can’t summon the energy to explore further.

This happens to me a lot when I’m being a tourist. I spend the morning seeing a place’s main sites; by the afternoon I’ve had enough of beauty, and desire rest more than amazement. (A friend told me that students at the Sorbonne are told to spend no more than two hours at a time in the Louvre to avoid this sort of problem).

The most recent time I dodged something wonderful was when walking the Ridgeway. For me, one of the route’s highlights was the Uffington horse. We arrived there late on a long, hot afternoon. I could have spent hours exploring the landscape – if I’d not been walking all day. Instead I had a quick look at the horse, took some photos, then we carried on walking.

(See that flat-topped hill with a chalky patch? No grass grows there because it’s where at George killed the dragon. Allegedly)

The problem with travel and hiking is that they’re tiring. Yesterday’s trip on the Pennine way was hard work. We saw some amazing landscapes and some odd places, but my pack was a little too heavy.

We’d also been dodging rain all day. There was a shower times just before we left the canal and could hide under a bridge. Long rainy spells came and went as we lazed about in Gargrave’s excellent Dalesman café.

We arrived in Malham tired and damp. I knew that Gordale Scar was about three miles away, but that seemed too much for two weary hikers. As we checked into our home for the night, I asked whether it really was worth the extra walk just to see another amazing view, particularly after a day of them. We were told it was.

I pointed out that the weather looked shifty – was this worth seeing in the rain? We were told it was especially worth seeing in the rain. So somehow we summoned the energy for a last few miles’ walk. The initial omens were good:

We passed Janet’s Foss, said to be the home of a fairy queen. Pretty nice.

Finally we walked along a small ravine. Pleasant.

And then we turned the corner. The photo doesn’t quite do justice to the scale of the looming rocks and the sound of the water. Sheep ate grass at the very edges of the drops. We’d seen some great views but this was the best of the day.

On the way back, we found rotting fallen trees into which people had hammered copper coins.

This reminded me of something similar in Kathmandu – a block of wood which people nailed coins to. According to the guidebook, it was to ward off toothache.

I don’t always summon the energy to go exploring and that’s a shame. Sometimes it really pays off.