The Limestone Way

I spent last weekend walking the Limestone Way. I had a spare couple of days before some work in Derbyshire, so wanted to find a nearby trail. 45 miles was a little longer than was sensible for two days – but I thought I’d do it anyway.

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It was a very different trail to the ones I’m used to, with the ground quite difficult in the first stages. Dad only made a short distance, and it was a good thing I was wearing new walking boots. The weather was also ropy for the first stage but by the afternoon was pretty sunny.

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One thing I’ve noticed is how long trails changes as they cross administrative boundaries. The first part of the Limestone Way was fairly well signposted, although there were a few games of hunt-the-stile. After crossing the River Dove I entered Staffordshire where the signage went to shit. They didn’t even bother marking the trail, just used regular footpath markers. At the end, the route fizzled out even worse than the Downs Link, with no indication it was done. It was almost as if Staffordshire was ashamed of the Way or had a vendetta against walkers. If I’d researched better, I’d have seen the Rambling Man’s account of this issue.

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The stunning scenery made up for all the hassles, my favourite moment being the River Dove valley. Just so much space and green! I’m due to do the start of the Pennine Way next month and I’m very excited about that now.

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This stile was stood on its own in the middle of a field. I have no idea why, but it looked… dangerous. I went around it.

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The first day was about 25 miles, with a couple of miles added on for misdirection. I found the bench shown below just when I needed it most. I stopped, lay down, read for a bit and ate a cookie. I was very grateful for Hilary, in whose name the bench was donated.

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I’m not a big fan of squeeze stiles, which seem to be designed for people with tiny, tiny legs.

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The River Dove valley below. The sort of view that deserves a round of applause.

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This is the trail end. Nothing to mark it, just a post with a single direction marked on it, rather than the two one normally finds on a trail.

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A long weekend

My original plan for this weekend was to attend the Super Weird Happening in Liverpool. But when organising that was proving too complicated I started looking for other things to do. Which led to me spending this weekend walking the Limestone Way.

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The path is 46 miles and the brochure suggests it can be walked in four to five days. As I only had a weekend I decided to walk it in two. The walk was a mix of stunning scenery and appalling signposting. It also would have been better done over three or more days,

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So, I walked 110,000 steps this weekend, and broke the 50 mile barrier thanks to appalling signposting. It was a stupid thing to try, but I learned a lot of lessons – after all, pushing things past their limits shows where they might break. The remaining walks for this year will be much easier.

Hunting the Wilmington Ley

Today would have started better if I had remembered that the clocks went back. I just about made it to the station on time to meet Vicky Matthews for the train to Berwick. From there we walked along the A27, past the giraffes at Drusillas, and into the village of Wilmington. There’s some strange roadkill in this part of Sussex – what is that doll’s arm doing?

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We were out to explore the ley-line beginning in Wilmington. It’s described in a couple of Paul Devereux books, including the Ley Hunters Companion (written with Ian Thompson). Devereux writes that “other leys may pass through and near the long man and we in no way claim this to be the best“. No explanation is given for why this was the one in the book.

Our journey started at the church of St Mary and St Peter. Last time I was here was with the British Pilgrimage Trust. The church is beautiful and in the grounds is a 1000 year old yew tree. We stopped in its shadow for a drink of tea.

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The church sits at the Northern end of the ley-line, with the second point being the nearby priory, which is now run by the Landmark Trust. The two are so close together that it almost seems like they should be a single site.

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The third point on the line is the Long Man of Wilmington. The two vertical lines beside him are sometimes seen as doorways, an image used notably in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series. Watkins, the discoverer of ley-lines, has claimed that he is a prehistoric surveyor, the Dodman, with his two sighting staves. Devereux suggests that the long man is related to the nearby Litlington Horse, and makes the fanciful suggestion that there might be a South Down zodiac similar to the Glastonbury one.

(Interestingly the Long Man is said to be at the centre of a cross made between the churches of Alfriston, Folkington, Selmeston and Jevington)

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Fences forced us to make quite a detour to reach the fourth point on the line, the barrow on Windover Hill. The alignment of the church/priory and long-man proved a useful guide towards this point, although the long-man was hidden on the hillside. The presence of fences and prescribed footpaths make it difficult to get much feeling for the straight lines, but at this point I could imagine the ley-markers as useful way-points along the route. Watkins theorises about travellers using leys to make sure they kept on-track, even as they meandered around marshes and obstacles.

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The depressions near the barrow at Windover Hill were, I believe, the traces of flint-digging. Local legend suggests they are craters from missiles hurled at the giant of Windover Hill from the giant at Firle. It’s often claimed the long man was  originally the outline of the body a giant who died there, killed by pilgrims or another giant.

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The final point, in Friston forest, was impossible to find, even with the GPS. I regretted not bringing dowsing rods, which might have been more help. I will try and get some on my trip to Avebury in June. This final ley point also some distance from the other points would have been hidden by the hillsides.  Its difficulty seems to contradict the idea that the line was used for navigation; although it’s always possible there are points missing in the middle.

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The route led us to some beautiful scenery on the way to Exceat. We joined with the South Downs Way, which felt pleasantly familiar. Vicky had brought a picnic of daal, which we ate at Cuckmere Haven before making the long bus journey back to Brighton. I even caught a little sunburn. It was a good day.

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The North Downs Way on the Installment Plan

Back in December I walked the Downs Link with Kaylee. That route was a little dull – being an old railway line, it was flat, straight and screened by trees on both sides. The most exciting part was the start, St. Martha’s church near Guildford. After seeing that stunning landscape, which was part of the North Downs Way, I knew I had to do that trail.

I finally began in January, setting out with Katharine and Romi. It was frosty but not too cold, and the winter light was incredible. Our pace was fairly slow as we kept stopping to take photographs – although none of us snapped the woman we met carrying a scythe. She was actually charming, despite being armed.

Towards the end of the second day we had one of the best moments I’ve ever had on a walk. We emerged from a wooded trail onto a hillside common which was full of families with dogs, taking advantage of the good weather. Everyone seemed in a great mood. What a lovely way to spend a winter’s day!

 

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The Return of Pilgrimage

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Last night I went to a Brighton Fringe event, Pilgrimage: A New British Tradition of Walking with Soul. It featured Guy Hayward and Will Parsons of the British Pilgrimage Trust who told us about modern pilgrimage, served us foraged tea and led a short journey to St Ann’s Well. The event’s write-up described pilgrimage as “the best form of physical prayer for people who aren’t sure if they believe in prayer”. While the sessions was organised by the Brighton & Hove Centre for Spirituality, a group “rooted in the riches of Ancient Christian wisdom” the religious aspects were never intrusive.

Pilgrimage is a walk of one or more days to a site of some type of power. It doesn’t need to be an officially sanctioned holy place, but could be, say, a family grave. Guy and Will have performed a number of pilgrimages leading to their founding of the British Pilgrimage Trust (whose patron is Rupert Sheldrake, who will speak in Brighton this Wednesday – it was at his house where Guy and Will first met). As well as doing the Cheeky Walks recently, I’ve become interested in various aspects of walking, and pilgrimages are a fascinating link.

For Guy and Will, walking is connected with song and they shared a number of these with us on the night. The songs often relate to the places they pass  – for example, at a war memorial, they would stop to sing Kipling’s lament for his son Jack. I particularly loved the song ‘What is a Man’ (also known as the Fall of the Leaf). Their first pilgrimage was to the Hartlake Disaster memorial, which is remembered in the Hartlake Bridge Song. On reaching the site, Guy and Will arrived at exactly the same time as some descendent of the survivors, who had made their own journey to the site. Apparently pilgrimages generate a lot of coincidences – something that Discordians are great enthusiasts for.

There was a psychogeography bingo point for use of the word ‘liminality’. This was part of a fascinating description about how pilgrimage disconnects walkers from everyday life, with the world continuing around them. This reminded me of Guy Debord saying that the derive involved a suspension of the walker’s normal relations to the world and society.

Pilgrimage also has a connection with the etymology of holiday as holy-day. Apparently religious journeys were one of the few reasons that a serf could use to escape their feudal obligations. This may have been one of the things that led to the suppression of pilgrimages in reformation times. British tradition turned the pilgrimage internal, encouraging worshippers to stay home and read the gospels.

The traditions of pilgrimage go back a long way. I’m often frustrated by the how English tradition is often ignored entirely in favour of yoga, Buddhism etc. Pilgrimage was described as an “indigenous British yoga” with links to questing and the grail. Along with the main aim of a quest, there are often sub-quests that emerged, just like in a video game.

Sometimes modern pilgrims will stay in chruches, other times they will wild camp. The mention of how easy this was, just a tarp and a bivvy bag, reminded me of Alastair Humphrey’s microadventures. It was also pointed out that one advantage of a tarp was that you could see clearly what was around you. This led to a discussion of how lying down was the best way to look at stars – and, apparently, it’s a great way to experience a church. So we all went into the sanctuary and lay down. It was an novel and relaxing experience.

We were then offered a choice of teas made from rosemary and plantain, (also known as Lord of the ways because it grows well on compacted soil like footpaths). Plantain is particularly interesting as it was the only plant that was taken from Europe to the Americas. It has medicinal properties and can be applied to blisters, where the rubbing will cause it to release its juices.

The status of a pilgrim is an interesting one and a pilgrimage is definitely different to a walk – for example, there are the pledges: to go slow, to improve the way (or to right wrongs), to need less, accept more and pass the blessing on. Guy and Will described an almost-primal response of welcome that they received from strangers. There is a social benefit to people just passing through an area.  Most people accepted them as pilgrims without suspicion – although a pilgrim’s staff helps make a good impression.

The talk included so many fascinating aspects: about drinking wild water and different tastes; pilgrimages among animals, including the mysterious migrations of the Kingfish. We also heard a fascinating story about the clearance of St Helen’s Well in Hastings. This is a modern miracle, “magic in a way” as one of the speakers put it.

The Pilgrim’s Trust aims to establish a South Downs Pilgrims Way (the North Downs one, as walked by Hilaire Belloc is apparently blighted by a motorway along much of its route). A quarter of a million people a year walk the way of St James in Spain; 200 a year is a good year in Canterbury Cathedral. The Pilgrim’s Trust aims to nuture a revival.

The evening ended with a short pilgrimage to St Ann’s Well garden. We circumabulated the well, singing a song to the water. As the speakers said, this is a place that “Probably didn’t get honoured much”, but it was a lovely occasion. Then Guy and Will were off to spend the night at a long barrow before a meeting today.

The trust has some bold ambitions and I hope they succeed. It was an interesting counterpoint to the Odditorium’s Edge of Culture night, which is part of another nascent movement. I hope they both blossom.