The Ridgeway Days 3 and 4

Something I’ve experienced in both hiking and tourism is that the most incredible places seem unappealing when you’re tired. By three o’clock on a long day, a diversion that would seem exciting most other times is just too much trouble.

This leg featured amazing sights that were hurried through and hurried past so as not to extend the day; including the Uffington Horse, one of the most incredible landscapes I’ve ever visited.

The Uffington Horse was one of the highlights of the trip, but it is probably best not encountered towards the end of a long day travelling. The landscape nearby, shown below, is stunning. The small hill with a bare patch is where St George fought the dragon. This is proved by the exposed chalk on the place where the dragon bled out: nothing has grown there since. One of the downsides of this route is that the view of the horse from the hilltop is not the best. But we were too tired for any diversion. Hiking is a good way of seeing landscapes, but not so good for visiting particular things.

I briefly ducked below the fence to place my hand on the chalk.

We made time for a couple of places, Wayland Smithy and a huge fort, because they were right on the path, and perfectly timed for a long break.

One of the great things about this walk was meeting some interesting people. In a valley we met someone flying a drone. He was taking thousands of photos that could then be used in making CGI models for an upcoming Hollywood film (he told us what it was, but said he wasn’t supposed to).

As Summer fades, it’s harder to summon the memories of the ferocious heat. The weather continued to brutal, meaning hats, sun-cream and lots of water. On day 4 we had the last water-stop 5-7 miles from the end. I’m so used to taking water for granted, particularly on hikes around the Sussex Downs.

We also had a water-stop near a beautiful mansion. The gardener stopped to talk and showed us to the taps. There were peacocks in the grounds, and he explained how he had to hunt for the eggs. He told us that passers-by would often ask who the house belonged to, but he would never say. I wanted to ask as well, but forced myself not to. We were told to check out the roses as we passed them; they were indeed impressive.

On the hilltop, sunny day, we passed some abandoned kit on a monument. It was only some time later I realised someone had just left it there for a run to save carrying it around.

While the curry houses on the North Downs Way have been nothing special, I loved the ones along the Ridgeway. We went to a couple that were under new management (judging by their reputation, the previous owners had run them into the ground). They were both now excellent, despite seeming to be in the middle of nowhere. I wonder why some areas have much better Indian Restaurants than others?

On this section, we passed the halfway point. Signs showing the full distance travelled are always encouraging.

Walking the Ridgeway (Days 1 and 2)

Back in June, to celebrate my 41st birthday, I set off with a friend to walk the Ridgeway. This is one of Britain’s oldest paths, going from Avebury to Aylesbury – or you can walk it the other way round, which is what we did. This meant we ended in the amazing landscape of Avebury, although the scenery on that last stage was less exciting than (what was for us) the opening stages.

The Ridgeway was adopted as a national trail in 1972, and the route is 87 miles. Adding in the journeys to and from the accommodation, this worked out as pretty much 100 miles over 5 days. As well as the Avebury complex, the route takes in amazing locations including the Uffington White Horse, the grave at Wayland Smithy and several hill forts, supposedly built to protect this ancient trading route.

Unlike the South Downs Way, there’s a real feeling of following a path, with the trail unwinding relentlessly in front of you.

On the first day, the track crossed the driveway of Chequers,the Prime Minister’s country house. We were walking a few weeks after the election, when Teresa May had admitted the naughtiest thing she had done as a child: running cornfields. The cornfields around Chequers contained imposing warning signs, but I’m not sure if they were there to warn walkers, or to warn off the Prime Minster.

The month I picked to walk with Dan turned out to be the hottest June since the year I was born – a year sometimes referred to as the ladybird summer, since the hot conditions caused a plagues of them. I found my thoughts straying a lot to politics – the new Queen’s Speech was voted on while we were hiking. Out here, in the English countryside, I felt the presence of the upheavals ahead for the country.

The other great thing about the Ridgeway is that it is a chalk path. Most of my walking has been done around the South Downs, so I feel at home on chalk.

A lunch-time adventure in Brighton: the stone circle

It’s good to have adventures that can fit into a lunch hour.


There have been times I’ve resented lunch-breaks, mostly because I didn’t like the job I was doing. An hour is just enough time for a taste of freedom, but not long enough for anything substantial. Many years ago, a friend suggested I do a blog about all the different ways I could spend a lunch-break, and the things I could do with them. I think it’s a shame I never did start that site. These days I work for myself, and no longer hate lunchtime, so it’s too late for that.


A lot of Brighton’s tech companies are clustered around Brighton’s North Laine, and it was while I was working there for Intel Security that I dragged a load of colleagues out to walk Brighton’s Stone Circle. Several of us set out on the mission, although only one of us made it all the way around.


I blogged about the circle a couple of years ago. It consists of a series of numbered stones embedded into the pavement. Jake Spicer told me that they were laid out by a group called The Brighton School The stones are laid it in pavements, on the Level and even in some private gardens.


The route is small enough to be walked in a single lunch, with a little time left over to buy a sandwich on the way back to the office. There’s a map you can follow to guide you around. You might not find all of them – some are well hidden – but folklore claims that you cannot count the stones in a circle. The first one is by the cashpoint at Preston Circus.


All but one person in our group drifted back to the office without travelling the full circle, but that’s OK. I still think it was better than almost any other lunch-break I’ve had.



A business trip walk – Ulysses Episode 1 – Telemachus

Working regularly in Dublin over the next few months seemed like the perfect opportunity to read Ulysses. The book describes travels around Dublin on June 16th 1904, and I thought I would visit a new chapter’s location on each visit. I’d run out of project before I ran out of chapters, but I could come back and do the last sections on a holiday.

I read the first chapter on the flight over. I know Ulysses is a great book – during my MA I read a lot of essays about it – but I’ve not made it through the text. I’ve enjoyed the bits I have read, although that was with the heavily annotated Oxford World’s Classics 1922 text. The footnotes and forewords explain some of the jokes and allusions. Reading the first episode without these hints is less exciting. The references are hard to parse and it’s mostly a stilted conversation.

After the day’s work we took the DART to Sandycove station and walked along the shore. The weather was pretty good and we regretted not bringing swimming costumes to take advantage of the sea-swimming lagoons (the Forty Foot appears in the book). The water was cold, but would still have been perfect after a day’s walk. We settled for paddling instead.

It was easy to find the martello tower where Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. Since we’d come after work, the museum was closed, but I enjoyed the strangeness of being in a place I’d read about on the flight over.

We had a meal then decided to continue walking around the coast, to pick up a train from Dún Laoghaire station.  We found ourselves near a jetty and Tara suggested we stroll along that. Lots of people were out promenading. The gentle breeze and setting sun, the boats rocking in the water. It was perfect.

I’m not sure an impromptu stroll along a jetty counts as a hike as such, but it was a lovely way to unwind. And, being a mile out to see, it was just the right length for a post-dinner walk.

Even then, although it was getting dark, we didn’t quite make it to the station. There was a bar on one of the hotel lawns with tables laid out in front of the view. It was the perfect end to a good day’s work.

The irony is that my future trips to Ireland are not going to be to Dublin, ruining my plan of exploring Ulysses. Instead I’ll be working from another office, in Kilkenny, some distance away. According to Atlas Obscura, this is near to the grave of Santa Claus – although this is in the grounds of a stately home, which will be long closed by the time I’ve finished work. This is the problem with business travel – you visit amazing locations and don’t get to enjoy them fully.

PS – Ulysses also has a link to Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, one of the people profiled in John Higgs’ book, Stranger than we can Imagine. According to wikipedia:

The 1920 prosecution in the US [of Ulysses] was brought after The Little Review serialised a passage of the book dealing with the main character masturbating. Legal historian Edward de Grazia has argued that few readers would have been fully aware of the orgasmic experience in the text, given the metaphoric language. Irene Gammel extends this argument to suggest that the obscenity allegations brought against The Little Review were influenced by the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven’s more explicit poetry, which had appeared alongside the serialization of Ulysses.

A walk to the Devil’s Punchbowl

When I told a friend that I was downloading a walk from a blog, he pointed that out I wouldn’t download software from a blog and should be just as careful with route maps.

I had to go walking with Helen because she had a pile of my tents. I had a full car returning from the Port Eliot Festival, so handed off some cargo, which gave us a great excuse for getting together to go hiking. We considered a few different locations, finally settling on a walk near the Devil’s Punchbowl. With a little research, I found a route on, The Devil’s Punch Bowl and Surrey Heaths.

We picked the Devil’s Punch Bowl as it was near to Helen, and arranged to meet at Haslemere station, shuffling the cars to leave one at each end. It turns out there is more than one Haslemere and we started the day at different ones – my plan to save driving had not worked out so well. Still, this gave me chance for a second breakfast and we still set off fairly early.

The walk took us from Haslemere Station to Bentley and the scenery, particularly around Frensham, was stunning, with brightly coloured heather moors and scenic hills. We passed fish ponds once owned by the Bishop of Winchester. As I learned at Miranda Kane‘s show Crossbones, the position also used to involve running brothels in London. The reeds at the shore once stood in for the banks of the Nile in the movie The Mummy.


The Devil’s Punch Bowl is a stunning landscape, a natural amphitheatre at the top of a valley. I’d not realised there was landscape this amazing so close to where I live. This site was formed after the devil dug out the Dyke near Brighton. Hearing a cock crowing he leapt from the Dyke, causing the crater when he landed.

This was originally the site of the main London to Portsmouth Road until 2011 when it was re-routed by a tunnel. It’s hard to imagine what this landscape was like before that. Nearby is Gibbet Hill, which was the site of a gallows where tarred bodies were hung in cages as a warning to highwaymen. The site is now marked with a Celtic cross.

It’s possible to look out from Gibbet Hill towards London and, on a fine day (like when we visited), the skyscrapers are visible 41 miles away in the distance. Nearer by, is Box Hill, which I’d visited on the North Downs Way.

And how did the downloaded instructions work? Pretty well. They were published a few years ago and a few landmarks such as noticeboards had disappeared. But we had maps and knew roughly where we were headed so it worked out pretty well. The landscapes were some of the finest I’ve seen in the South East, and I might not have visited without this guide.

Looking at the pictures on the website, they seem to have been taken in winter. It was interesting to see how the seasons affected the directions. Sometimes, the guide described landmarks that weren’t visible from a distance, hidden by the growths of summer.

A good walk, and one that will be worth revisiting in the future.

In Search of Andy Goldsworthy

Yesterday, for the second time, I failed to follow the Andy Goldsworthy sculpture trail around West Dean. The first attempt was a couple of years back, with my friend Sophie. That time we were defeated by mud and unreliable directions, with Sophie announcing  that “I’m not sure who this Andy Goldsworthy fellow is, but I don’t want anything more to do with the man.”

It’s probably a good thing we did turn back on that trip, since I’d not realised that the end of the trail would have left us about 3 miles from where we’d parked. I’m not sure Sophie would have liked that surprise.

My walk yesterday was with another friend, John, part of a day exploring West Sussex. We started with a visit to Kingley Vale and its forest of yew trees, some of them thought to be 2000 years old. Many of the tree’s centres have been rotted out by a fungus called ‘Chicken of the Woods’. And, yes, wikipedia’s entry on this does include a link to the tastes-like-chicken entry.

It’s pretty impressive to be near a living thing that is that old. Apparently the area was a firing range used by British and Canadian troops in the preparations for D-Day, and some of the trees contain bullet-holes. On the hill above the yews are some amazing views down to the sea:

Our first failure of the day was an attempt to visit the Clock Trust Museum, said to be the location of a working time machine. Sadly this is now by appointment only, so we continued on to the not-amusingly-named village of Cocking, the start of the Goldsworthy sculpture trail.

The trail features over a dozen chalk boulders along a five-mile stretch of the south downs. Some accounts say 13, others 14 – which fits in with the folklore about stone monuments being impossible to count. We set off uphill, along a stretch of the South Downs Way. I’d walked this last August but had no memory of the particular path until I turned back and saw the view towards Cocking, which finally sparked some memories.

The leaflet and map for the trail makes it sound straightforward. The first time we turned back because of mud and unsuitable footwear after finding just one of the boulders. This time, because of weather, we also stopped after one stone. While I would never turn back because of rain, John had come out only in light clothes and would have soon been soaked to the skin. We retreated to Uppark, a National Trust property in search of food and history – which we found, although we paid a high price for both.

We ended the day with a climb to see the Vandalian tower, a folly erected in 1774 to celebrate the founding of the American state of Westsylvania. When the colony failed, the site was abandoned and now lies in ruins, protected by fences and dire warnings.

At some point, I need to come back and make a serious attempt to see these stones. Not because I’m that big a fan of Goldsworthy – I like his art, but not three trips worth – rather, I just hate the idea of having failed at such a simple hike.

The weirdest thing about the day was finding myself on sections of the South Downs Way and finding it so hard to recall the landscapes. I’d have expected the scenes to stick in my head. It took a few minutes before I realised that I had also been to Harting Down.

The Lives of Three Wattles, the Life of a Hound;
The Lives of Three Hounds, the Life of a Steed;
The Lives of Three Steeds, the Life of a Man;
The Lives of Three Men, the Life of an Eagle;
The Lives of Three Eagles, the Life of a Yew;
The Lives of Three Yews, the Length of an Age.