The Wealdway

(Image: Camping at Hale Farm, Chiddingly)

Walk: The Wealdway

Dates: 24-27 May 2019

Distance: 80 miles

Slept: Gate House Wood Touring Park (12 miles) / Camp Manor Court Farm (37 miles) / Hales Farm (60 miles)

Planning: OS map app / RambleFest.com

(Image: the approach to Camp Hill, East Sussex)

Gravesend has some good ‘bones’; you can tell from many of the buildings in the older part of town (which also houses the grave of Pocahontas, whose young life ended here), but the first two miles or so through and out of town, on my countryside amble from the Thames Estuary to the South Coast, did not make for the most promising of starts. As soon as you’ve cleared the thundering traffic of the A2 and crossed over the UK’s sole high speed train line though, you’re into another world – and pretty much stay there until you can see Eastbourne’s pier jutting it’s way into the English Channel.

(Image: the village of Golden Green, Kent)

I had the most fantastic walk this bank holiday weekend: flashes of electric blue as dragonflies darted around my ankles alongside the River Medway, Burne-Jones stained glass glowing in the mid-afternoon sunlight in the church at Bidborough, the Coldrum Longbarrow, where our ancient ancestors were burying their dead back in 3985 BC, the chalk infused soil of the North and South Downs sandwiching the rolling landscape of the Kent and East Sussex Weald, the wood that inspired AA Milne’s Winnie the Pooh stories (I had that damn song ‘but the most wonderful thing about Tiggers’ stuck in my head for half the day, but failed to spot one. Or Eeyore), the hillside chalk image of the Longman of Wilmington and a beautifully basic campsite, unmentioned on the OS map or any research I did for camping on the trail, right on the Wealdway at the exact time when I doubted I could walk much further on the third day…. it was a good way to spend a bank holiday.

(Image: The Longman of Wilmington, South Downs National Park)

I read a line in another blog that described the Wealdway as an exploration of the South Country. I’ve never heard that expression before, but I really like it. I’ve spent a lot of time exploring the moors and dales of the north of England, the bays and the cliffs of the southwest and Wales, but in the past six months I’ve been walking much closer to home, getting out on trails that are a short train ride away. And the truth is that, despite the south east being such a populated part of the UK, there are still vast swathes of it where you can walk for hours without seeing another person (as I did this weekend), where the rolling hills in soft morning light are just as lovely as other, more famed views, and where the country pubs are equally as welcome a sight. Walking in ‘the South Country’ has much to recommend it, and the Weald really was a revelation.

(Video: the consequences of walking across fields very early in the morning! Near Gun Hill, East Sussex)

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The Essex Way, Day 3

(Image: Good Easter’s village sign)

Date: 21 April 2019

Walked: 21.6 miles

Let me put forward what may be a controversial theory: I don’t think the Essex Way is 82 miles. Or the 81 miles Essex County Council states in it’s useful online guide. By my reckoning – or at least, that of the usually reliable step counter thing on my smartphone – it’s about 74 miles. Everyday I’ve progressed quicker across the county than I thought I would because the mileage was off… in my favour. Not so today. Today it was absolutely bang on. Sod it.

(Image: approaching Bury Hall)

My biggest, most gratitude-filled shout out of today – and probably the whole trip – goes to the lovely volunteer who was opening up St Andrew’s Church in Good Easter (I know. GREAT name. And I was there on Easter Sunday!) at about 9am this morning as I lazed on the bench in the churchyard. I was hungry, had run clean out of food, and was a good two hours or so away from being able to buy any. We had a chat, he told me that the quaint looking pub I’d passed earlier in the morning in Pleshey was none other than the one that had been owned by the recently deceased Keith Flint (The Prodigy), and then he disappeared and I headed off, stomach rumbling. Except then I heard someone trying to attract my attention. It was the church volunteer. With a bag. With Hot Cross Buns in it. For me! I have rarely been so grateful in my life. Reader, they were delicious. And eaten very, very quickly.

(Image: Bury Hall’s pet cemetery…)

Other notable instances from the day’s walk included a quite moving pet graveyard at Bury Hall (just outside of Great Waltham), a close-ish encounter with a deer and a stag by Walthambury Brook (I think we drew in the stare-off. Alas, they were too far away for the camera on my phone to do them justice), and getting tangled up with a load of silken threads festooning the trees in Ongar Park Wood. Upon closer inspection, I realised the threads I’d spent 10 fairly unpleasant minutes tangling with were produced by tiny caterpillars… and that I was covered in both. There may have been a bit of swearing. Verdict? Colin the Caterpillar M&S sweeties and cake: good. The real things: not my new best friends. But a passing local assured me they were harmless and walked my penultimate mile along with me, having a good old Essex Way chat as we went. All of a sudden, the end was in sight. Epping Tube Station may not exactly rival the cathedral at Santiago in grandeur, but I was almost as pleased to see it, and really enjoyed that whole ‘sitting down’ thing as London’s public transport system whisked me home.

(Image: plaque outside Epping Tube station)

Another cracking long distance UK walking trail complete, and the first one I’ve camped each night. Job done!

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The Essex Way – Day 2

(Image: field near Little Leighs)

Date: 20 April

Walked: 21.4 miles

Today was definitely one of two halves. Or rather two halves, interspersed with two lunchtime pints!

(Image: Colne River)

I woke early in the beautiful spot I’d wild camped in, to a tent soaked in dew. My early morning ambles took me alongside the Colne river to the edge of Aldham, where one of a number of WW2 pillboxes I’d seen had a notice explaining that the river was part of the Eastern Command Line. Just as with the pillboxes that line the lower reaches of the Thames, so these are left as reminders of our country’s not so distant past.

(Image: church at Great Tey)

Walking on, I saw my first lambs, a young deer lying dead, seemingly perfect and unharmed, on the path by the church in Great Tey, and a very welcome breakfast stop in Coggeshall, a village with more than its fair share of Tudor era buildings. A field full of alpaca eventually led to the peaceful churchyard in Cressing, where I sat for an hour reading and drying out my sodden tent, enjoying the sunshine and chatting to the church warden. And a 30 minute stroll later, I was meeting my friends at the Cross Keys pub in White Notley, where I spend a very happy three hours eating, drinking two pints of larger (I fear it was one more than I should have had…) and catching up in the sunshine.

(Image: Sandy Wood, approaching Fuller Street)

Then all of a sudden it was almost 4pm, I still had nine miles to cover and despite being late afternoon it was still unseasonably warm. The countryside, which looks it’s best in early and end of day light anyway, was all a bit workaday-dull except for a heavenly-scented, bluebell filled woods, and I dreamt of finding a B&B for the night and giving camping a miss. Luckily for my wallet, no such solution offered itself and after a half pint of lemonade in the beautifully situated Square and Compasses pub, I was on my way again, looking for a good, secluded spot to wild camp for the night. I found it in a small wood about a mile from Great Waltham, where I (totally knackered) fell asleep in a woods, listening to the hum of the traffic on the busy A131 in the distance.

(Image: Little Leighs)

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The Essex Way – Day 1

(Image: Ramsey)

Date: 19 April 2019

Walked: 22.4 miles

I woke early, and was on my way at 6am. My reward? A glowing red fireball of a sunrise as I looked back towards Ramsey and it’s windmill.

(Image: Stour Estuary)

The first three hours of the day were spent walking towards and along the pretty Stour Estuary, which separates Essex and Suffolk. It was a magical place on such a beautiful morning, but for a while – walking ever closer to Grayson Perry’s extraordinary ‘A House for Essex’, I did wonder if I was in some kind of fairytale and that was the witches house… lot of time to think when you walk on your own…

(Image: A House for Essex)

After passing through a number of nature reserves and the village of Mistley (the giant concrete swan ‘fountain’ in the pond negates the general feeling of class the place otherwise had – I can’t imagine what the Witch Finder General, a former resident, would have made of it), I was quickly into the pretty old town of Manningtree. A quick trip to the shop for a picnic lunch and I was on my way to another handsome northeast Essex village – Dedham, the site of Constable’s second most famous painting. This is all very much Constable County around here.

Shortly after Dedham I stopped by the river and enjoyed a leisurely lunch, soaking up the sun of this unexpected Easter heatwave, reading and watching people go by in canoes and on paddle boards. Then it was onwards, through woods and the occasional country lane, all bursting with bluebells and full of birdsong. Mile after mile of flat fields, with the occasional old stone church or thatched cottage (and a yard where I – honest to god – saw a treadmill for horses) I started to hear children. An Easter egg hunt! In a vineyard! An a van that sold posh scotch eggs! Was I in heaven? Close – Dedham Vale Vineyard. The glass of white wine I enjoyed there made for a couple more hours of happy wandering.

(Image: horse treadmill!)

After another long break from the sun in the church yard next to the beautiful West Bergholt Hall, my day ended at an undisclosed but very peaceful (and hidden away) location near the river in the Colne Valley. Safe to say, I’m definitely getting into my wild camping.

(Image: home for the night)

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The Essex Way – Day 0

(Image: Dover Court Lighthouses)

Date: 18 April 2019

Walked: 5 miles

The excitement of starting a walking trip, with four days off, a lot of miles to cover and a very promising Easter weekend weather forecast… god, if that feeling could be bottled!

(Image: Dover Court Beach)

I hit a hitch as I was getting changed into my walking gear at work: I realised I’d picked up the wrong boots as I left home. Not the ‘very worn down yet comfortable but have holes in’ pair, and not the ‘even though they are the same boot and the same size as my old ones they are too small and destroy my toes’ ones. Nope, I managed to one from each imperfect pair. I think it was the universe tell me to finally buy that replacement pair of boots I needed. Luckily Cotswold Outdoor has a branch right between my work and Liverpool Street station. An 82 mile walk isn’t the recommended way to break in a pair of boots, but as I have no other option, let’s just see what happens.

(Image: near South Hall Creek)

On the train journey down to Harwich, staring out of the window, it struck me that the walk I’m about to do might actually be rather prettier than I’d been anticipating. The five mile walk from the lighthouse at Harwich Town (which is the walk’s official end point – yup, I’m going backwards again) seemed to confirm that suspicion. So while my campsite tonight leaves something to be desired – £15 to camp in a neglected beer garden close to the A120, where the road signs alert drivers to keep to the left (well, we are right by the port) – the after work walk to get here was an uplifting way to start the Easter bank holiday weekend. Only 77 miles left to go. Come on Essex, let’s be having ya…

(Image: The Light House at Harwich Town. My official start, most people’s finish!)

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The Greensands Way (Surrey)

30 March 2019

Four weeks ago I did a day walk on the Greensands Way, a trail that in its 108 mile entirety, runs from Haslemere in Surrey to Hamstreet in Kent. It was more an excuse to try out wild camping again rather than with any expectations of great hiking – but all three day walks I’ve now done on it, each around 20 miles in length, have been wonderful. Far better walking, in fact, than a number of the National Trails in the south of England.

(I alway get over excited when a footpath takes you straight through a field rather than around it!)

It’s also been a brilliant way to see the season change. Although 2 March this year was actually pretty mild, with an oddly warm night for camping, it was very much a winter landscape that my friend and I walked and camped in. We had a pub lunch to warm us up and walked in quite a few layers. By last Sunday, 24 March, when a different friend and I went out walking (no camping that time, or today!) the daffodils were out in force. Today’s solo walk though, in a sunny 17c, was the very essence of spring. Bluebells were in abundance in the woodlands, many of the trees were in bud, and the very fat sheep I passed suggested that the lambs will be with us very soon indeed.

(Pic: This windmill is on a golf course near Reigate – cool golf club!)

I was up and out so early with today’s walk that I’d covered 20 miles by 3pm. In fact, I could have walked on the final three miles to finish the Surrey bit of the walk, but as I surveyed the public transport opportunities I realised that Oxted was the sensible place to bow out for the day. I’m left with three more 20 mile or so walks until the trail’s Kentish end, and I am really looking forward to them.

(Pic: I forgot to get a photo of the tent but you can see the patch where we wild camped on 2 March!)

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Walking home

Walked: To my mum’s house

Date: 17-19 July 2018

Distance: 75 miles

Weather: Heatwave!

Despite all the well known long distance trails I’ve walked, there’s a much more random – and personal – one that I’ve been wanting to do for ages… to walk to my mum’s house.

Now, I appreciate that for some people the distance to their parental home would be impossibly long, and for others a short stroll. Mine was a 75 mile, 2.5 day hike through the South London Alps (aka as the hilly bits that start immediately south of where I live in East Dulwich), the Surrey Hills and the South Downs, finally pitching up near Chichester Harbour on the sunny south coast.

It was also a totally new kind of walk for me. Armed with my newly purchased online access to all the OS maps in the UK (£25 a year: total bargain), I made up the route as I went along, checking my phone to ensure I was heading southwest by zigzagging my way out of suburban London, Surrey, West Sussex and – last but not least – a tiny bit of Hampshire. I also tried out wild camping for the first (and then second!) time, and to keep my bag light / because it’s been so darn hot, I had a bivvy bag rather than a tent. Day one ended in the fern-filled woods of Abinger Common, where I learnt that even the smallest of birds make quite a lot of noise when they walk on a bone-dry thick-pile carpet of leaves. I admit that, on my own as I was, it freaked me out a little and I didn’t have the best night’s sleep! Day two found me racing against the dying light of dusk to find a suitably secluded spot to stay, finally nestling myself among a pile of hay bales near Heyshott in the lovely South Downs: super comfortable, and I was rewarded with a beautiful sunrise.

After the longest, hottest spell of weather that the UK has experienced since 1976 (and as I was one at the time, I don’t exactly remember it), England’s countryside is parched; the normally green meadows are yellow, the rivers and ponds are either dry or running low, and the fields have deep cracks running through them, as if there’s been an earthquake. But the sunlight dappled forests were a delight, the hedgerows alive with life, and the air around me was often filled with butterflies. And despite my walk taking me through one of the most densely populated parts of the UK, and the dire warnings from some that our island nation is ‘full’, I walked for hours every day, on (largely) well marked footpaths, without seeing a soul. Reader, it was glorious. As was the much needed shower I had when I got to my mum’s!

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The Portuguese Way – Day 23

Date: 27 April 2018

Walked from: Padrón

Walked to: Santiago de Compostela

Distance: 23 km

Almost exactly six months ago today I arrived at the plaza next to the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, having finished my month-long walk west across Spain. Today I was back, 630 km after I set out from the Cathedral in Lisbon and started following the yellow arrow signs (which mark the route) north.

Today’s walk was surprisingly green, considering it was heading into a city. I walked much of it quickly, passing well over 100 ‘Camino Completers’ (I think I may have just made that expression up), many of whom I had actually never seen before. I chatted to a lot of them for a while before hurrying on to catch up with the new friends I’d had dinner with last night – and at a food van, a few kilometres before we finally saw the spires of Santiago’s Cathedral in the distance, I caught up with them. Beers were drunk, and then it was onwards into the main plaza where pilgrims gather to take their photos and hug. It was all rather lovely. As was the impromptu after-party some of us ended up having in gardens of the park post-celebratory meal. The (thankfully mildish) hangover I had the next morning when I flew home was less lovely… but it was worth every penny of the €2 bottles of wine we were drinking out of plastic cups under the streetlight lit blossom trees until 1am!

Scenically, the walk I did in October wins hands down. The route that starts in France got the looks (without question, it trumps the Portuguese Way) and it sure as hell wins in the popularity stakes. But last time I was walking away from home, leaving things behind. I’d left my workplace of over a decade just two days before starting the walk, and I had a lot to think about. This time it felt as if I were walking home – and I did it with a whole series of kind, generous, quirky, interesting and intelligent people who I met or walked with along the way… and who often made me laugh so much my jaw ached and my belly hurt. I couldn’t have had a better – or more enjoyable – end to my seven months of travelling. If you’re reading this, and we walked together, thank you: you ROCK. ¡Buen Camino!

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The Portuguese Way – Day 22

Date: 26 April 2018

Walked from: Caldas de Reis

Walked to: Padrón

Distance: 19 km

Imagine going to Munich and finding they had run out of beer. Or Bruges, and discovering the city was all out of chocolate. That’s how I felt about coming to Padrón – home of the type of Spanish food I love above all others (Pimiento de Padrón) – and finding out the delicious grilled green peppers I crave aren’t yet in season: when the Spanish say something is available from May-October, they really mean it. Late April just doesn’t cut it.

Fortunately I was able to overcome the impact of this devastating culinary news thanks to a combination of walking in perfect weather condition (not too hot, not too cold – Goldilocks would surely have approved), some sun-dappled woodland paths that were very easy on the eye, more great conversations… and an impromptu Camino dinner party this evening featuring participants from Portugal, Brazil, Holland and Russia, as well as this lone English representative.

I’m now just 25 kilometres away from completing my trans-Iberian walk from Lisbon to Santiago. Tomorrow it’s time for the Portuguese Way leaving party…

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The Portuguese Way – Day 21

Date: 25 April 2018

Walked from: Pontevedra

Walked to: Caldas de Reis

Distance: 22.5 km

I have no idea why the British think they are such great drinkers. We honestly pale into comparison with the amount that the Spanish and Portuguese can put away – and yet they seem to imbibe alcohol with a panache my countrymen and I can rarely manage. I’m saying this because – PURELY in the interests of being polite / culturally adaptive – I accidentally started drinking wine at about 11am this morning.

Having spent a few a very pleasant couple of hours chatting to some new folk, and talking again with some people I’ve met before over the past few days (all while walking, naturally), I wandered into a tiny impromptu looking cafe (it appeared to be in someone’s large garage) in Briallos for a nice cold lemonade to be greeted by a group of super friendly guys from Lisbon who I’ve met a couple of times in the past few days. ‘Come in, sit down, have a drink’, they said. I noted the large jug of red wine and the white bowls they were drinking it out of in the table. Then I noted that everyone else in the place – all walkers, and almost all Portuguese or Spanish – were drinking booze too. A bowl of the young local red wine was passed to me. We chatted. Then they bought out a jug of the young local white wine, so fizzy that I thought it was lager. New ceramic bowls are handed around. I had a bowl of that too. We chatted some more. Photos were taken of the Iberian drinking gang, complete with the English interloper and then I scarpered, completing the last 5 km or so into town with what may have been a little more spring to my step…

Arriving at my hostel, I showered and headed out for a late-ish lunch in the beautifully situated and very friendly Taberna O’Muiño taverna – on the river as you come into the centre of town. The staff were friendly, the food was absolutely delicious (razor calms – mmmmmmmm)… and the booze kept on coming. I asked for a glass of the local white wine… and got a jug of wine and another white bowl to drink it out of. I asked for the bill and was brought a lovely almond tasting cake instead. I asked for the bill again, and was given a Baileys-like liquor. Eventually I escaped. It’s 5pm, I’m a bit tired, a bit merry, and really quite glad I’ll be home in a few days: my liver couldn’t withstand the hospitality of the locals on a permanent basis, but it’s a really fun way to be ending my trip.

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