A flat stroll

On the off chance, yesterday I phoned my long-time walking pal Mel to see if he fancied a stroll, and I caught him just after he arrived home from a Caribbean cruise. Having spent more than a week eating vast quantities, in the company of vast Americans, he was ready to burn a few calories, but, like me, he was anxious to avoid mud. We decided upon a sea wall walk, out-and-back, from Heybridge Basin to Goldhanger.

Mel arrived at my house at about 10am and we started walking shortly after 11am. Mel had a 4pm appointment meeting a man in a car park about a ticket for a Tottenham Hotspur match, so with this seemingly dodgy mission in mind, we knew we had a deadline. We set off at a fair old pace in the cool, murky conditions that seem to have dominated the proceedings for far too long, which came as a shock to the jet-lagged Mel, who has become accustomed to a West Indian spring. We stopped at one of the “Tiptree Jams” tea room for a cuppa, but didn’t consume any solids, and then hurried on towards the Chequers pub, where Mel had the steak pie and I had the balti. We each enjoyed a pint of Woodfordes Wherry, a very tasty ale from darkest Norfolk. Thereafter we headed straight back, completing about 9.5 miles in under 4 hours, stops included.

Wildlife seen: 1 weasel, 1 marsh harrier, quite a lot of brent geese (shouldn’t they be in Siberia?) and a few waders. I didn’t take any photos.

A Chilterns Stroll with camping kit

With late June and the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path walk looming ever closer, it seemed like a good idea to to a bit of hill walking and to do some camping at the same time, with the sort of kit that was going to be needed in Pembs, I decided on a weekend in the Chilterns involving 3 nights’s camping and a total of just over 30 miles of walking.

Sadly, for very good reasons, my two pals were unable in the end to join me for this and I was beginning to get a bad feeling about the whole weekend. I kept an eye on the forecast, which was generally pretty favourable and decided that it would be OK to reduce it to 2 nights’ camping with marginally less walking. Definitely, the tough day would be from Wendover station to the Bella Vista campsite near Radnage, which is something like 12 miles. I was preparing myself psychologically for a weekend as Billy No-mates when my walking pal Katie said she would join me for the Saturday. So after a bit of preparation we met at Marylebone with a view to following my planned route but Katie getting on a train back to London at Saunderton station.

We arrived at Marylebone within minutes of each other, bought coffee and (for me) a second breakfast of pain au raisin, since my first breakfast had been so long ago, and then boarded the train. It takes only about 45 minutes to get to Wendover and as soon as we had exited the station, there was a bridge across the railway and a main road and we were Out In The Country and climbing up towards some viewing point or other.

Looking north across Aylesbury Vale

Chequers, and the Dogs of War

Inevitable selfie. There was supposed to be some landscape, but it was eclipsed by excessive amounts of hair…

From this point, we encountered mud. Lots of it. It became very difficult at times to find a path into which we did not sink ankle-deep. There had clearly been plenty of horse activity in the area and that was the cause of a good deal of the churned-up ground, but also there was quite a bit of tree removal going on. This, allegedly, is to allow more sunlight into the afforested area to encourage new growth and wildlife, but the enormous tyres on vehicles designed to transport half a dozen mature beech trunks around the place leave some pretty big ruts in soft ground, and those ruts have a habit of filling with water.

We encountered a farm shop and that was also selling tea and cake. I suggested that we might partake, but Katie seemed to want to press on so that’s what we did (to be fair, I wasn’t properly hungry at that stage, but I’m not normally one to miss an opportunity for a cuppa and a slice of cake…). We had to negotiate a road, but found that there was a footpath in some woodland just behind a hedge, but it was, again, remarkably muddy.

I was pretty pleased with the fact that I was making perfectly reasonable progress despite having a 12kg pack on my back. A few days ago I pulled some random, probably unread, volume from the shelves above my desk. It was entitled “Walking the Alpine Parks” or some such, a book I had no recollection of having bought, and one which was redolent of unfulfilled ambition, and I found a section in the book giving advice on how quickly you should walk when in the hills and mountains. The author opined that the vast majority of people set off far too quickly and exhaust themselves. His advice was to keep to about 60 paces per minute on the flat, lowering that to about 40 paces whilst climbing. So it was that I was consciously keeping my pace down and trying not to raise my heart or breathing rate too much. We made pretty decent progress and, given that we stopped to admire the view, take photos, or just negotiate our way around quagmires or through undergrowth, I was quite happy that we completed our first 3 miles in considerably less than 2 hours.

At one point we were walking along a very muddy track with a fence on either side when two horsewomen hove into view. We conversed as they approached and the second horse was almost past us when it suddenly panicked and shied away from me quite violently. The rider took it under control but again as we tried to walk past it, so it panicked again. I have to say that I’m not a great fan of having half a ton of horseflesh flailing about within a close proximity of my head and I was damned glad when we were past them. “I think she’s frightened of your backpack…”

Soon afterwards, we arrived at the Pink & Lily, our scheduled lunch stop, and one I would recommend. The main courses weren’t cheap and to be fair, neither were the sandwiches at £7.50 a go, but they came with chips and salad, so plenty of carbs to sustain hungry walkers. I had sausage sandwiches, Katie roast beef, washed down with a couple of local ales in my case, and a Fentiman’s ginger beer in Katie’s.This was at about 6.5 miles and that took us considerably less than 4 hours.

We walked down to Lily’s Bottom and she didn’t seem to mind at all, and from that point we found ourselves in Grim’s Ditch. This definitely lived up to its name with yet more mud. For a fair bit of it we walked in the field next door, which had a hardened vehicle track and was much easier, but after a few hundred yards of this we found an adequate gap in the hedge and rejoined the muddy track as it descended to Lacey’s Green.

Katie & mud

It was at this point that a small navigational error cost us a few minutes but we were soon back on our appointed quagmire towards Smalldean Lane, and the mile or so of road walking to Saunderton Station. I had been weighing my options during the past couple of miles and although I had no particular qualms about camping, I wasn’t looking forward to another long trudge in what promised, the weather forecast having changed rather, to be very wet conditions the following day. My navigational aids, my Garmin and OS 1:25000 maps on my phone, were both “touch-screen” devices and I know from personal experience that such technology goes totally haywire when the screen is wet, and being constantly bombarded with raindrops. So, providentially, when the one-train-an-hour turned up dead on cue just as we arrived on the platform, I caught the same train as Katie and we spent a little time drinking beer in the Beehive Pub, just of Baker Street, before I returned to Southend in a totally knackered state.

The main walk between Wendover and Saunderton was measured by the Garmin as 9.34 miles, but it’s over a mile from my house to Southend Central, and then of course there’s the general walking between stations, which must have been at least another mile. I’d call that a 12 mile day.

The Joys of Spring

Since she retired, my good friend Jane seems to have been busier than when she was in full-time teaching. So, when the opportunity comes to go riding for a day with her, I’m always keen.

As luck would have it, another good friend, Rebecca, is soon to start a new job and she’d picked my brains about the possibility of an electrically-assisted steed for her new commute, which at 21 miles a day is rather longer than her current one. It turned out that she too was free on the day in question, and since both Jane and Rebecca live in different parts of London, it was the same train that delivered them both to Billericay, where I had been waiting for about 3 minutes.

We exchanged hugs, pleasantries and small gifts. I had brought a couple of jars of my home-made marmalade, which I know Jane thoroughly enjoys, and it was particularly appropriate for Rebecca on this occasion as her new job is working for the Women’s Institute. Then we set off in the cold, bright April sunshine for our first port of call, which, at around 8 miles, was the very good tea room at Blackmore, where we imbibed coffees of different types as well as some sustenance. It was definitely a gloves-on morning and the ladies nattered away like old friends, which I was sure they would. I didn’t think they had met before, but it seems that they had a brief exchange at the start of the Dunwich Dynamo 2016 in which the topic of conversation was Dangly Bits, and how unfortunate if such things get caught in your rear wheel.

Today was a good morning for wildlife, and also wildnotlife, as we saw a couple of dead badgers. There were the first chiffchaffs of the year, at least 2 buzzards, and I think we heard at least one more that we didn’t see, a muntjac, a hare and possibly the prize of the day, a stoat hurtling across the road in front of us just as we entered High Easter. I also heard a fair number of goldcrests.

As we progressed, so the day warmed up. We had planned to have lunch at the Viper pub, in Mill Green. It is a very pleasant, unspoiled, basic pub in the middle of wooded countryside and Jane had expressed an interest in visiting. Unfortunately, it’s not well-placed for a ride from either Billericay or Shenfield stations as it’s just too close to the start, or, indeed, finish. We decided that on this occasion, since we only had about 40 miles planned, that we would try it for a late lunch, even though there were only about another 6 miles to Billericay station. Sadly, this plan was confounded by the fact that during the week they stop serving food there at 2pm and we arrived just before 2.30. We had a drink and some crisps, and then adjourned to the Cricketers, just along the road, where we had another drink and some jacket potatoes. The advantage of doing it this way was that I got 2 pints instead of just the one.

The ride back to Billericay was almost uneventful. Jane decided that it would be a Good Idea to ride through the ford at Buttsbury, and so she did. She was rather taken aback by the strength of the current and had to push quite hard on the pedals in order to maintain her momentum, and the result of this was a very wet foot. However, she can’t have been that far from getting rather more than her foot wet…

An absolutely delightful day in wonderful company. Let’s do it again soon!

42 miles done…



Sleeping arrangements

I am planning some backpacking trips this summer, starting with a long weekend in the Chilterns next weekend, and culminating it walking the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path in June. I have decided to experiment with a quilt instead of a sleeping bag. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, I find it very difficult to get s sleeping bag big enough to fit my shoulders inside and secondly, a quilt takes up much less rucksack space and is a lot lighter.

I have used an Exped Downmat for some years and as an experiment I decided to see if it would fit inside my cotton sleeping bag liner. And it does, perfectly!

Well that’s a bonus!

World Piano Day

29th March is the 88th day of the year, therefore Piano Day (most pianos have 88 keys. Quite a lot have 85, whereas others such as the Bösendorfer Imperial have more, added on at the bass end).

The idea is that everyone taking part in World Piano Day records and posts a piece of music that they have played and nominated 3 other pianists to do the same.

Anyway, here’s a prelude and fugue by J. S. Bach, which is my contribution.


YACF Birthday Ride

The very excellent YACF (Yet Another Cycling Forum) is 10 years old today. To mark the occasion a small but select trio of riders who are all 10 years older than they were a decade ago met at Audley End station for an early spring potter.

Bob (aka Canardly), John (aka Wobbly John) and I (aka Wowbagger) set off at a sedate pace under an overcast sky around this route:-


We had a stop for coffee and a bacon butty in Thaxted at Parrishes café, which was very welcome after 9 or 10 coldish miles – there wasn’t any frost or ice, but it was just cold – and then we set off towards Great Bardfield and on to Finchingfield, where the serried ranks of all sorts of motorcyclists had gathered. The Garmin’s batteries conked out a mile or so before we got to Finchingfield and I had, in a senior moment, forgotten to pick up the spare pair that had been slow-cooking on the charger all night. Luckily the shop was open and I was able to buy some Duracells so that we could continue without too much guesswork.

Much to Bob’s disappointment we didn’t climb the 1:9 (or whatever it is) hill which is on the route of the Dunwich Dynamo but instead turned let towards Stambourne and then on to Steeple Bumpstead where we had lunch in the Fox pub. We each had a roast and a pint or two of a very tasty porter that was on offer.

This route involved a fair bit of climbing, and at one point I noticed that the Garmin recorded 380 feet above sea level. I’m never sure how accurate it is though as it sometimes gives ludicrous readings. That must have been a decent guess as the Ordnance Map give 123 metres at Castle Camps, which is 403 feet above sea level. This part of Essex is positively alpine. (Small vaguely-relevant fact: Debden, near Saffron Walden, is twinned with Tang Ting, Nepal).

We enjoyed a pretty good descent from Ashdon, but I stopped and retraced my pedal-strokes as I had noticed a large advertisement for a concert including Mozart’s C Minor Mass, which I will be singing in with the Southend Bach Choir on 21st April. The Saffron Walden Choral Society’s concert was last night.

We arrived back at the station at about 5pm and John caught his train to Ely and Bob and I drove in our various directions.

We didn’t see a great deal of notable wildlife: a number of buzzards; but there were two notable bits of roadkill in the form of a hedgehog and a polecat-style ferret. I can’t think that there are wild polecats living in Essex.

Getting into Training

I suspect that people who know me will do a double-take on the title of this post.

A couple of months ago, when I was about to set off for my “day’s” teaching (in reality, about 2 hours, but with travelling it keeps me out of the house for about 4) I was suddenly hit with that sinking feeling “I’m fed up with this. I don’t want to do it any more,” and since I am fortunate enough not to need the money, I decided there and then that this would be my final term’s teaching and from now on I would dedicate my time as much as possible to pure hedonism. I justified this totally self-centred decision to myself with the reassuring thought “I’m 63 years old, I’m 6 stone overweight, I’ll be lucky if I’ve got another 10 active summers ahead of me in which I can do exciting things, so I’m going to start with this one!”

With this thought in my mind, I turned to the most excellent cycling forum YACF and mentioned a few ideas I had of ways to spend my time, and it didn’t take very long for my pal Simon (aka loadsabikes) to take me up on my idle suggestion of Walking the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path. So that’s what we are going to do, in late June. With tents.

I have only once been on a backpacking holiday and that was in 2004 when I went to the Brecon Beacons for a few days with the children (hardly children by this stage since the youngest was almost 18). It started pretty badly in the sense that I was naive enough to look at a 1:25000 ordnance map and notice a pub, and a shop, and to think that such establishments might be able to provide us with things to eat and drink, but discovering, on arrival, that I had to be there at the weekend for the pub, or Tuesday morning for the shop. This left us with rather a bad feeling about the whole proceedings until we got to a particular campsite that was really most wonderful.

But I digress. I know that the Pembs Path is going to be tough. It’s 186 miles and we have given ourselves a fortnight in which to do it. That’s going to be 14 miles a day, near enough. Another YACF member told us, encouragingly, that the 5 days it took him to get from Newgale to Fishguard were the toughest he’s known, and he’s walked the Eiger Trail. So with that in mind, I’ve been going out walking.

Given that the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path is going to have an awful lot of Up and Down, today I wended my way to Leigh Station, where I parked the car, and walked up to Hadleigh Castle and beyond. Those with something of a memory and a sense of humour will recall that in 2012, Hadleigh was chosen as the site for the Olympic Mountain Biking events. Not Wales, not Scotland, not the Pennines or the North York Moors, but Essex. At least they didn’t put the bobsleighs on Canvey Island.

To be fair, though, the range of hills around Hadleigh Castle does rise out of the Thames estuary pretty abruptly, and so far as I am concerned it’s the best I am going to get within a reasonable distance of home. So that’s where I went today.

It was a pleasant afternoon but I left it rather late before I started, not leaving home until well after 3pm and I started walking just before 4pm. Everything was much drier than the last time I came this way, but then there was still a lot of snow lying. All that had long since gone, and mostly I was able to walk on relatively dry clay. There was none of that sticking-to-your-foot stuff of two weeks ago.

I walked up the gentle slope towards the castle and made my way through the grounds. When I got to the Salvation Army Rare Breeds farm I found the café to be closed (tea rooms always close at tea time) so I followed what appeared to be footpath signs and found myself in the middle of the rare breeds. A very handsome cock turkey came and made threatening gestures to me and it struck me, never really having examined one before, that they almost appear to move around on wheels, rather like Russian folk dancers. I spied a couple of interesting pigs, but I couldn’t find the way out, so I asked a young woman who was about to give a load of hay to a donkey and she put me right.

Even then, I couldn’t fid the right place and a couple of hundred yards further on I could see what was very obviously a well-maintained footpath on the wrong side of a barbed wire fence. I felt confident I woud be able to get through a bit further on and so I did, but this brought me into conflict with brambles and a hawthorn bush. I won, in the sense that I managed to get through unscathed, but it would probably have been easier to retrace my steps.

I had never been to this bit of the Hadleigh Country Park before and I could see what looked like a very fine visitors’ centre. I was making for that when a couple walking their dog came towards me.

“Is the visitors’ centre still open?” I asked.

“No, it has just closed…”

Oh well, it was 4.50pm.

From there I walked down the most direct path I could see, and this at last led me to some proper mud, which made the going a bit tricky for a couple of furlongs, but soon I was back close to sea level. This bit I had been to before, but the path is now in much better condition than it was on my last visit.

I climbed back up to the castle and retraced my steps, the Garmin conking out about 5 minutes before I got to the car. Almost exactly 5 miles in about 1 hour 55 minutes and with about 500 feet of ascent. That will do!

Noteworthy wildlife observed: 1 green woodpecker, one fox.

A Walk in Surrey

A chance conversation revealed that my good pal Katie Collis shared my enjoyment of long walks and, moreover, generally had Thursdays as her day off. Since almost every day is my day off, we thought a potter around the Surrey Hills might be a rather good way of spending the day. So it was that we arranged to meet at Horsley Station with a view to stomping around the 9 or so miles of the East Horsley Jubilee Walk.

Trains being what they are, Katie caught one from Waterloo whereas I drove out from Southend, and our timing was pretty well spot on: she had just emerged from the station as I pulled into the car park. She came to my rescue when it came to paying for parking. “RingGo” is a company, it seems, that runs car parks and you can pay for parking by phoning a number and carrying out the instructions given to you. But they are utter shite and their automated system broke down at the point at which I was trying to tell it that I only wanted one day’s parking and the electronic person at the other end said “Sorry, you can only pay for up to 7 days’ parking at a time.” Katie downloaded their app and paid for my parking. I bought the coffee later.

However, we were soon on our way and it became pretty clear that we were in for a day of mud. I’m becoming quite an expert in mud, and I’m beginning to think that there aren’t enough words for it. Although today’s walk ranked a full 10 on the Mud Scale, its quality led me to the opinion that it was still less muddy than my walk to Hadleigh Castle last week. Essex’s mud has an adhesive quality that I have never experienced anywhere else. Walk through a muddy field in Essex and for every step you take your boots get heavier as the mud clings to our boot, and then itself, expanding in an ever-widening dinner-plate attached to the sole of your foot. This does not seem to happen with mud in the Surrey Hills: every time you lift your foot to take a pace there is less mud attached to it than there is in Essex, so by definition it wasn’t quite such a muddy walk.

However, this did give us ample opportunity to have a sing. Apart from the occasional dog walker where the route took us in close to habitation, for such a densely populated area so close to the capital we saw very few people. I suspect that the explanation for this lies in the previous paragraph, but it did lead to a great walk. And we sang the Hippopotamus Song, all four verses. The least well known verse, which includes a reference to the Aswan Dam, really tickled Katie’s fancy because as an archaeologist she knew all about the shifting by Unesco of the magnificent artefacts. Although I remembered Nasser and the building of the dam from my youth, I was unaware of the finer details. All this goes to prove what a fertile medium mud is.

That part of the Surrey Hills has a number of ornate bridges, the “Lovelace Bridges” that were built in order to allow horses pulling tree trunks relatively easy, shallow-gradient tracks on which to work. They were built, apparently, by Lord Lovelace, who was an enthusiastic forester. There were some signs up at a few of the bridges explaining a bit about their history, but I did a bit of fact-checking here. It is quite amusing looking at the comments beneath that piece, complaining about the mud. In May and in August. Wimps.

Anyway, back to our experience. We stopped and sat on a fallen tree for some slightly-delayed 11ses as I had brought a flask of coffee and some Welshcakes I had made the previous evening (Katie is from Swansea and I’m half Welsh, so they were a very appropriate choice) and a little later on we found some picnic tables where Katie very kindly shared with me her Greggs “Club Sandwich”. This was more like a shillelagh than a club and there was ample for the two of us.

Shortly afterwards we came across a very scenic spot looking northwards towards London, and with it a display pointing out what was what. We should have been able to see Crystal Palace apparently, but the trees seemed to have grown since the display was put there. We could see the tall buildings in the City, but at the distance we were, some 24 miles to the south-west, I certainly found it hard to tell which was which.

From that point it all became a fair bit easier. We crossed the A246 near St. Mary’s Church and then had a very pleasant stroll in warm sunshine across some well-kept grassland towards a railway bridge. We passed the imposing West Horsley Place, which itself has a fascinating history (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/West_Horsley_Place) having been inherited, much to his surprise, by Bamber Gascoigne, of University Challenge fame, in 2014. Around this time we also had excellent views, in quick succession, of a buzzard and a red kite against the clear blue sky. We had already seen what we thought was a buzzard flapping through the wood, but we couldn’t be certain, but there was no doubt about these two.

The final mile or so was on a paved footpath alongside the railway and we celebrated our success with tea/coffee and flapjack at a tea room that is sadly due to close soon. I took advantage of their misfortune by stocking up on lemon curd, which was at a knock-down price, for my wife, who has a weakness for that particular preserve.

We are planning another walk soon, towards the end of March, in the Danbury area of mid-Essex.

Oh, and here’s the route on Bikehike.

Back in the saddle

Woe is me! I am a lapsed blogger! However, I think the only way to do anything about that is to unlapse myself, so here’s a post…

After a long winter in which Jan and I had done next to nothing in the way of cycling (actually, that’s a lie: Jan had done no cycling since August) we resurrected the electric tandem (Circe Helios to those who don’t know, and if you do, it’s still a Circe Helios), plonked it in the car and took it to the Essex Wildlife Trust Visitors’ Centre at Hanningfield reservoir, gave them a donation of a couple of quid and then pottered off to the Fishing Lodge tea room for 11ses. We had already decided that a little over a mile is not sufficient to warrant cake with our beverage, a decision doubly justified when I realised that they were charging £3.95 for a slice of Victoria Sponge. We were not amused.

Thereafter we continued our northward meander, taking the scenic route to East Hanningfield via Middlemead and West Hanningfield, thereby avoiding the rather nasty climb out of Rettendon, with its busy traffic. We met a rather faster cyclist than us and nattered to him briefly at some temporary lights, but once we were under way again he left us well behind.

We used the attractive route to Danbury via Butts Green and Sporhams Lane, carefully avoiding cycling through the ford, which was the deepest I have seen it. I’m sure a temporary immersion would do nothing to improve the electric motor of the bike.

We took advantage of a couple of “CLOSED ROADS” into and out of Danbury. Some resurfacing work was taking place in Penny Royal Lane, and The Ridgeway, leading down to Paper Mill Lock, was also closed, due to a hole having been dug in it, so we had a peaceful descent. We had sandwiches, cake and tea for lunch and had a natter to a self-declared sedentary couple who were admiring both our bike and our athleticism.

Suddenly we became aware of the fact that the time was rapidly approaching 3pm and we had to be back to get the car out of the car park before 5pm, so we took the most direct route we could and covered the 11 miles or so in under 75 minutes. We then decided on a cuppa before we went home and found that the visitors’ centre has upgraded its coffee making facilities from a basic, grotty, machine to an entire counter with swish machine and a variety of cakes, at £1.55 a slice less than the fishing lodge café were charging. It’s now a very viable venue for tea and cake, whereas previously I regarded it as for emergency use only.