Exploring Somerset – A solstice microadventure

‘Do you want any specific days off in June,’ my manager asked as she prepared to write the team rota.
‘If I could have the 21st and 22nd off it’d be brilliant.’
‘No problem.’ She left the shop floor for the quiet of the stock room, leaving me grinning like an idiot at the idea of having the whole solstice off work.

Planning for what to do was a short affair. I had wanted to cycle south from my front door since moving in, following Sustrans cycle route 3 to Glastonbury. After that, I didn’t know or care very much. There were plenty of options. So on the 21st of June, I packed my panniers, pumped my tyres, and pedalled away from home, my skin lathered with sun cream.

My handlebar bag was full of camera and recording gear and my mind breaming with ideas. I had been wanting to film one of my journeys for a while but I didn’t see the point of filming me. There seem nothing extraordinary or worth recording about me, not on film anyway. So for a long time, I did nothing. It was only when attending the Cycle Touring Festival a month earlier that an idea had began to emerge. I had joined the ‘Filming your trip‘ talk and discovered another way to record cycling journeys. Most videos focus on a person, but Geoff Broadway offered another possibility. His film excerpt was about the place he had visited, not about him. It was a simple idea but one that, for some reason, hadn’t occurred to me. I kept thinking about what I could bring to a cycle touring video and this is my answer:

For photos of the trip, visit my Flickr account.

Wales Border Walk: Monmouth to Haye-On-Wye

‘You chose a great day for your hike,’ a man said as I walked under Monmouth old gatehouse.
‘It couldn’t be better,’ I agreed.
He smiled and waved me off. I turned my gaze upwards. The sun was bright and there was barely a cloud around. I paused for an instant, closing my eyes and feeling its warmth. Last time I had been on Offa’s Dyke Path, there had been no warmth to the air. Instead a cold tang had accompanied me from Chepstow to Monmouth, keeping me in constant motion not to lose body heat. I opened my eyes and stepped away from the bustling town centre.

Following the signs, I meandered my way out of Monmouth, easily finding the countryside. A few dog walkers passed me by, but soon I lost sight of any other human being as I entered King’s Wood. Bluebells adorned the floor, their bright blue a sharp contrast against the brown and green of the trees. The path was generous and well kept, making for an easy start to the day. Soon I reached the last of the trees and met grazing sheep. They raised their heads as they heard me approach, but dismissed me as of no importance.

The path led to a small road into the village of Hendre. B&Bs and campsites were available here and I made a note to come back with my partner. The silence of the village and the abundance of countryside would make a great escape from city life. Distracted by the farms, I missed a sign and found myself away from the path. Instead of turning back, I walked on, knowing I would be able to rejoin it a few metres away. The familiar acorn signs reappeared soon enough, leading me through a gate and into a field, and another one, and another one, and another one, and into a large meadow by the river Trothy. I stopped under a tree, watching the river flow. I knew I wasn’t far from a hamlet but for a moment it felt like there was no one around. It was only me, the river, and the sheep in the distance.

I eventually got up, meeting a group of hikers going in the opposite direction. Many hellos were exchanged. I let them disappear at a bend and walked out of the meadow, into a farm track and by the church of Llanfihangel Ystern Llewern. I spent a good five minutes trying to pronounce the name and failed, forever intrigued by the sonority of the Welsh language. I met up with fields and meadows again, rising and dropping all the time, the countryside sprawling uninterrupted all around. In the distance, I could make out the Black Mountains, Skirrid Fawr, the first of the peak I spotted. Those distant tops would become constant companions for the rest of the day, growing close with each step I took.

‘Good afternoon,’ I greeted an old woman in her garden.
‘Good afternoon,’ she replied with a tinge of Welsh accent. ‘Are you on Offa’s Dyke Path?’
‘Yes. I’m going to Haye-on-Wye, although not today,’ I hastened to add.
‘What route are you taking?’
So I told her about the eastern ridge of the Black Mountains, names of villages along its slopes confirmed by the guidebook. She told me about her younger days when she would walk to those villages to attend church services and the mischief she got up to with her friends. The conversation moved on to her life in this valley, to her farm and her son now the owner of it. We chatted about Bristol briefly, her memories of it different from mine and yet anchored in the same places. We exchanged one last smile and I was walking again, waved away by Gwyneth, a stranger no longer.

I followed a stream out of the village, into more fields, a stretch of road, a happy wedding, and onto a disused access road. Tall hedges grew on its side, blocking my view. I emerged on top, the ruins of White Castle around me. I dropped my bag and stick against one of its old wall and went to explore the remains. Over the years, I had stumbled upon and visited many castle ruins, but never as good as the Welsh ones. I made a mental note to come back to this area and follow the Three Castle Walk.

Part of me wanted to linger there until sundown and sleep under the shadow of the walls but I was still a good few miles away from my chosen end point of the day. So I went on, leaving the castle behind, turning my head often to watch it rise higher as I dipped into fields below. The rolling hills I had enjoyed were beginning to be felt in my legs, each incline harder than the one before. So when I reached Llangattock Lingoed church and its picnic table, I stopped. I dropped my bag on the bench and rested for a while. But curiosity got the better of me and I was soon up to explore the church. Once inside, I got sidetracked from the architecture by an alcove offering free tea. I poured water in the kettle, enough for a cup of tea and for my dehydrated evening meal. Waiting for the kettle to boil, I perused the books on a nearby shelf. There were the usual religious texts but alongside them were a few guidebooks for walks in the region, most of them so old even my parents hadn’t been born then. I was about to browse one when I heard the heavy door open. I walked out of the alcove and greeted an older woman with the keys of the church in her hand.

‘It’s a lovely church you have here,’ I commented eager to have a chat. But the lady was unresponsive and left me to my tea. Unfriendliness or respect for a devout moment I was not having, I gave her the benefit of the doubt. The kettle boiled, I walked out of the church and left its guardian to her evening duties. She walked away without a word.

Waiting for my tea to brew and dinner to rehydrate, I began to stretch, every muscle in my body glad for it. The routine finished, I sat on the bench, relaxed and happy for a long day in the hills of Wales. I slowly ate the warm meal, forcing my hand and mouth to take their time rather than devour the whole packet of food in too few mouthfuls.

My meal and tea over, I packed up and regretfully left the church. I love the quiet of an isolated churchyard for a night under the stars. But this one was in the middle of the village and visible by all. I rejoined Offa’s Dyke Path and followed it out of the village. I passed a field with grazing horses before settling into a neighbouring one filled with sheep. A brook gurgled at the bottom and I settled in for the evening. I rolled out my sleeping mat and sleeping bag, laid down and read for a while. The birds, water, and horses were the only sounds I could hear. The light grew faint and I put my book aside. I changed into my night clothes, tucked my shoes under my bag and pulled on the rain cover to protect them from morning dew, and slid into my sleeping bag. I was slightly too warm in all my layers but I didn’t care. The night would grow colder and then I would be at optimal temperature. I closed my eyes, gently drifting into sleep.

–*–

I woke with the sun and birds, smiling to myself. I had long learned that setting an alarm when wild camping is of no use. The natural world will take care of waking me up gently. Eyes open, I lingered in the sleeping bag watching the clouds drift by. The day was not going to be as bright as the previous one. But it didn’t matter. Rain was not forecasted and that was good enough for me.

I wriggled out of my sleeping bag and began packing my few belongings. I drank some water, too lazy to brew a cup of tea, and munched on a cereal bar as I went on my way. I crossed the stream over a narrow footbridge and found myself in a field full of horses. The land was green and undulating, a continuation of the previous day. I enjoyed the ups and downs, knowing they would soon end in favour of the eastern ridge of the Black Mountains. I tried not to think too much about it. I had walked in mountains before but never on my own. I knew what to expect, but couldn’t help a slight pinch to grow in my stomach. This time there would be no one to lead the way and know what to do in case of bad weather or an accident. I would be on my own.

I walked on, leaving Pandy as I reached it, its inhabitants still asleep in the warmth of their beds. The path led me up, the slope gentle at first before shooting upright, the acorn signs lost to my eyes. But I knew where I was going and I could guess at the trail easily enough. I passed an Iron Age hillfort, the shelter of its wall making me wish I had departed that much earlier on the previous day. It would have made a great sleeping spot. My mind lost in a whirl of memories never created and of times gone by, I forgot to look at the signs and lost my way. But all the trails led to the ridge. I picked one and climbed. Soon the path levelled and I met the first trig point of the day, rejoining Offa’s Dyke Path at the same time. I paused and marvelled at the valley below me, envious at the people leaving in the shadow of the mountain.

I left the trig point and followed the path, the only one big enough to exist outside of local knowledge. A man passed me by, his pace too fast for me match. I kept pausing to admire the view or compare the features of the map with the landscape before my eyes as a way to improve my navigation skills.

Heather and grass mingled on either side of the route, small birds darting low above ground, too fast for me to spot any of their features. Soon, I stumbled upon a wild horse, its unimpressed look at odds with the growing grin on my face. I yearn to touch it but knew better than to try. So I stood my ground and watched it breathe and eat before I moved on. There were still many miles to go.

The path kept its undulation, gently rising under my feet. It was easy to follow and I let my eyes drift to the landscape, unafraid of losing my way any longer. There was only one way to go. I noticed a change in temperature as a puff of air appeared in front of me and I was reminded to stay on my guard. I was not strolling in the valley. A check of the map and I was reassured. I still knew exactly where I was.

Moving dots appeared in the distance. It took me a moment to realise they were people. On the few miles I have walked of Offa’s Dyke Path, so many had been unshared that it was a shock to be able to count more than five dots ahead of me. Our paths crossed, we shared a nod, a smile, sometimes even a conversation. It was a good day for a ridge walk.

I stopped at another trig point for lunch, stretching as the water came to a boil and I waited for my dehydrated food to rehydrate. A runner stopped by, his words flowing out of his mouth without the consent of my ears. But he was soon gone and I had the peace of the ridge to myself again, the clouds enveloping me in a world outside of the valley below.

Lunch eaten and legs rested, I left the trig point behind. The path climbed through a rocky section, the landscape barren and dry for a while before vegetation grew again. More walkers appeared, and I knew I was getting close to the end of the ridge. I passed the highest point of the walk, only noticing it had gone when the path began to lead me downwards. Heather was replaced by wind burned grass and fresh sprouts. I stopped and turned around. I had just walked a mountain ridge by myself. I nodded in appreciation, a notch of confidence gained in my outdoor skills.

Soon I was at the side of a tarmac road, the sight of it odd after a few hours with no signs of human life other than passers-by. I went alongside it for a few minutes, cheering the cyclists going uphill, but I soon left it for a wide open field where a father was playing with his young daughter. Not a bad day out, I thought, happy that the dad had chosen the outdoors over an indoor play centre.

Alone once more, I followed a stream to a farm to a field, and was rewarded with a wide view of the Wye valley and Haye-On-Wye, my destination for the day. I checked the time. I had time for a beer before my bus. With a steady pace, I followed the acorn signs, narrowly avoiding being chased by a playful calf and angry cow, before reaching empty fields and a full car park. I had reached Haye-On-Wye. I strolled in the streets, gazing at the windows of bookshops, before I settled at a pub terrace. The clouds had cleared, letting the sun soak the city of books in the warmth of a beautiful spring day. I took a sip of a local ale, closed my eyes, and smiled.

Wales Border Walk: Chepstow to Monmouth

I can’t remember how it began. There were long-distance walks enjoyed and leaving me craving for more. There were people writing about walking the South West Coast Path in stages. There was Quintin Lake taking photos of the whole British coastline. And there was the move to Bristol right next to Wales. This somehow made me yearn to walk the Wales Coast Path. So when I realised I had a whole week-end off at the start of February, it felt natural to embark on the first walk around Wales.

I popped in Stanfords to get a book about it. There were publications about various stages of the walk and a chunky Cicerone guide. I picked the latter up before anyone else could snatch it and was about to pay when another book caught my eye. ‘Offa’s Dyke Path‘ I whispered, reading the title. Instinctively my hand went up and took the book off the shelve. I had heard of this walk, friends and vague acquaintances had followed it. I remembered it involved the Welsh border. So what if I walked the entire Wales Border? After all, this was only adding a 177 miles to my journey around Wales, and it would make a nice loop. Not thinking any further, I went to counter and paid for both items.

But now had a dilemma: which path would I follow first? I knew I was going to start in Chepstow. But would I veer north or west? I thought about tossing a coin or rolling a dice. Instead I checked the weather forecast. North was predicted to be marginally better. So that was it, Offa’s Dyke Path would be the start of my journey around Wales.

On Friday night, I packed my bag, and went to sleep eager for the hours to tick away. Six o’clock came, my alarm rang and I was out of the house to catch a bus. There was no traffic at this hour and the bus soon arrived in Chepstow. The sun had risen by then and I easily made my way out-of-town, half following the Wales Coast Path signs, half following Google Maps. I stopped on a bridge overlooking an A-road but didn’t linger to watch cars go by. Daylights hours were still scarce and I wanted to leave the urban environment. I spotted the familiar acorn of National Trails and followed it through kissing gates and fields.

The grass was cracking under foot, still trapped in a layer of frost. I thought of the camp I would have to make that night and shivered. I had my winter equipment with me, but I knew it would still be a cold night. But now was not the time to think about it, so I brushed the thought aside and walked on. The Severn estuary rolled away to the east with views of England on the other side. But I was more interested in what was going on to the west. I had reached Wintour’s Leap. Perched high in the landscape I overlooked the Wye gorge as the river made its final dash for the sea. A thin layer of mist hung low over the valley as if the landscape was not quite awake yet.

Buildings and tarmac disappeared as I made a turn into the woods. I remained below the dyke for a while and marvelled at the determination and manpower it must have taken to built it. And yet there are no contemporary accounts mentioning it. So its origin and purpose are still enigmatic today but it is generally agreed that Offa, King of Mercia from 757 to 796 ordered its construction. This earthwork formed the boundary between Mercia and the Kingdom of Powys. Even the full length of the dyke is debated. But what is certain is that it marked and still marks the landscape of the borderlands. More than a millennium later, it still passes within a few miles of the current England-Wales border.

I reached the Devil’s Pulpit overlooking Tintern’s Abbey. Legends has it that the Devil preached on the jetting stone to tempt the monks of the abbey. His efforts were wasted as Tintern Abbey became one of the most prosperous in Wales.

‘Admiring the view,’ I heard a man ask me.
‘Yes. It’s quite something,’ I replied. Two men had arrived from the opposite direction.
‘Are you going far,’ the older man enquired upon spotting my bag on the floor.
‘Monmouth. I’m walking Offa’s Dyke Path.’
‘Us too. We started down there,’ the younger man commented as he pointed to Tintern. ‘We’re going to Chepstow.’
I reassured them that the walk was going to be just as good and with a quite a bit of downhill for them. They couldn’t promise the same for me.
I waved them off as they continued on their way and strapped my bag to my back. There were still many miles to go.

I passed a few more groups of people, all wishing me well on my journey, and reached a crossroad. I could go straight ahead across to the Hudnalls or visit Brockweir and continue along the river Wye. I looked at the hills ahead and began walking towards them but soon I backtracked and descended to the river. I had never seen the river Wye but I had heard of it many times. I had read about people walking alongside it and people kayaking on its water. And I wanted to see it. The hills would have to wait.

I stopped for lunch in the village by the Wye. Its water was running fast and I didn’t fancy trying to paddle upstream. I thought about having a nap before walking on but the weather was too cold. I needed to move to keep warm. So I went on along the river, watching its murky water flow in the opposite direction.

I rejoined the main route at Bigsweir Bridge, climbing back to the top of the landscape, and into the woods. It wasn’t so cold under the canopy of trees so when I got hungry again, I stopped to brew a cup of tea. As I sat on a fallen tree, I realised I had not seen another human figure for a while, nor could I hear the sound of traffic or planes. There may have been human activity a few miles from me, but as far as I was concerned I was on my own in the forest. I smiled and enjoyed that cup of tea all the more.

I checked the maps and instructions and realised I wasn’t too far from Redbrook. I hadn’t expected to walk that far but the cold had powered me on with shorter breaks than usual. Maybe I could make it all the way to Monmouth? I brushed the idea aside. I wasn’t that far but there were a lot of ups and downs and I was beginning to feel the weight of the bag on my shoulder.

I packed my stove and walked on under the trees, occasionally crossing a muddy clearing. The brown and green of the ground were highlighted from the rain of the previous week, marking a sharp contrast against the bare canopy over my head. As I reached Highbury Wood, I found the whole of my body and brain drifting into the rhythm of my steps. The bag felt heavier than at the beginning of the walk and I couldn’t find a position that would relieve the pain. There were many spots that called me to stop and set up camp for the night, but it was cold and there were still another couple of hours of daylight. So I walked on, my thoughts obliterated by the pain.

Perched high in the woods, I was faced with a steep descent into Redbrook. Staying upright took all of my concentration, making me forget for a moment the load on my back. I arrived in the village and wondered what to do. There was a welcoming pub just around the corner from the path. A pub with accommodation. I looked at it longingly, a strange figure on the pavement by a park full of children. In the end, I walked away. I had not come to sleep in a bed in Wales. Monmouth was now just under four miles away. I knew that if I reached it I wouldn’t be able to carry on the following day. The guide was quite clear about the scarcity of transport between Monmouth and Haye-On-Wye (which was just a little too far for another day’s walk). This left me with two options: find a spot to spot between Redbrook and Monmouth or walk all the way to Monmouth and catch a bus home. Not wanting to bargain with buses, I checked timetables on my phone. As long as I kept walking there was a good chance I could catch the last bus to Abergavenny and from there hop on a train.

Invigorated by the idea of making it to Monmouth, I found a new spring in my steps. I left Redbrook via a narrow farm path surrounded by fields. I could see further than I had been able to most of the day. A few cars passed me by, people busy gathering chickens and horses waved at me, and a few dog walkers shared an amicable greeting with me. I was not part of their life but I was not an unusual sight either and in that moment I felt part of the general landscape.

The sun began to set, slowly draining the world from its colours. But the progress was slow and I could still see where I was going. I reached the Roundhouse on the Kymin Hill overlooking Monmouth. The buildings were impressive but I didn’t spare much time for them. Not far in the distance, a few miles below me, lay Monmouth illuminated like a starry night on the ground. And further still, I could just make out the contours of the Brecon Beacons. I gazed at them longingly. Ever since I had known I was going to move to Bristol, I have been lurking at the Brecon Beacons, desperately waiting for the weather to change so I would have time to explore them. The light was rapidly fading and I had a bus to catch. So I tore myself away from the sight and walked on. It was all downhill from there and I found myself almost giggling as I half walked, half slid on a muddy woodland path.

I reached a road, and found myself standing by Monmouth sign. I had made it. I had passed a pub a few metres ago and doubtless there would be more in town. And in that moment there was nothing more I wanted but to sit in one with a well-earn pint of ale. I checked my watch to see if I had time. I didn’t. In fact, I had to hurry to the bus station if I didn’t want to miss the bus. I drank some water, pretending this was an ale and walked on to the station. The bus pulled in as I arrived. I hopped in, the sole passenger at this time of day, and the driver took me straight to Abergavenny station where I caught a train home.

A 2016 retrospective

When I look back over 2016, I cannot deny that my trip to the Iberian Peninsula dominates my mind. I spent nearly six months away from home and the memories I created during this time are still vivid, feeling indelible. But 2016 wasn’t just about fulfilling my dream of cycle touring for longer than a week. It was filled with many other outings and experiences.

January

The plan was to go to Reading and cycle towards Bristol following Sustrans cycle route 4 along the Kennet and Avon canal. I was going to meet up with Pete whom I had last seen in September and we would make a week-end out of it. Only, Pete wasn’t feeling too well and I missed my train to Reading and found myself in Windsor instead. What followed was a very enjoyable winter day ride.

February

The ferry to France that marked the beginning of my cycling escapade was booked for late February, so my partner and I took the opportunity of left-over annual leave to book some time away. We ended up in Lyme Regis, enjoying long walks by the seaside and on the cliffs, retreating to a cosy B&Bs when night fell.

March
untitled-2

My journey into the Iberian Peninsula began. Nothing was going according to plan. The weather was colder and wetter than expected, I got sidetracked from the Camino del Norte almost on the first day of it, and I ended up cycling in Spain for almost a month. But it all worked out for the best and those guys are the perfect illustration of it. They invited me for some coffee as I was waiting for the shops to open and we got chatting. They extended their invitation to their home for the night. We took the train to their place only to find out that the wife of one of the guys was not up for it. I ended up in Bilbao after another train ride where I met a man who led me to a hostel, saving me the struggle of finding it in the dark.

April
resize_P1100761

I was finally in Portugal, the weather was brightening up, and I was discovering the most beautiful region of Portugal: the Alentejo (I may be extremely biased). I spent my time cycling under the sun, devouring Alentejo bread (that rivals French bread), eating freshly caught fish and amazing sausages accompanied by hand-picked vegetables. All while hopping from dam to dam sleeping by peaceful lakes in the company of other travellers.

May
resize_P1120343

In May I discovered the joy of Warmshowers.org, frequently getting kidnapped by my hosts and learning more about the Portuguese way of life. This was also a time when I struggled with the fact that I was on my own and the company of strangers became essential to my well-being. Meeting the family pictured above was a blessing. They had been cycling from Morocco and were heading home (Belgium) via France and the UK. We spent a week cycling together and it undeniably became one of my fondest memory of the year.

June
resize_P1120398

I was back in France, cycling long hours of flat straight roads in the Landes region to meet up with my father at the estuary of the Gironde river. It was almost Summer and although the weather wasn’t always up to it, the landscape certainly was with its long, long stretches of forest, immaculate beaches and lakes. It was idyllic. And so was the company of other cycle tourists.

July
resize_P1120558

My partner came to France and we spent an unforgettable two weeks travelling between family members and city escapes. There were barbecues on an almost daily basis with beers, wine, and cocktails (and even a bottle of Champagne once). There were long swims and games in the pool. There were football matches and long hikes with my niece and nephew. But most of all there was the sun and long hours shared with my partner, my bicycle gathering dust in a shed at my grandparent’s home.

August
There is no record of August.

I was back in the UK and finally took the time to go through everything I’d recorded and photographed while away. But I didn’t stay cooped up inside. I made the most of the British summer and cycled to Bristol from London (and back) to be re-united with the Belgian family on wheels. I also made my first friends in Bristol, cycled 100 miles as it if was nothing for the first time, and enjoyed being alive and free for a little while longer before the struggle of house viewings and job hunting began.

September

I met up with Jonathan and we set off to walk the 1066 Country Walk, reacquainting me with my walking boots and the English countryside. The sun was still shining and I was full of optimism for what lay ahead.

October

I ended up in Wales sleeping in my tent once more for the #OutdoorBloggers week-end. There were new friends and the crackling of the fires, a long hike up Snowdon and nature all around. I was being reminded of what mattered in life. The strain of modern life and bills had led me to accept a job I barely tolerated. The week-end was all I needed to hand in my resignation.

November
31174864866_600dd499c3_h

This was the lowest I had ever been this year. Landlords kept turning us down, job interviews didn’t work out (and the feedback was never helpful), and money was running low. I spent long hours on my longboard, the focus needed to acquire new skills obliterating every thoughts from my mind. But however long I stood on that board, I always needed to come home, to check e-mails, to apply for jobs, to arrange for viewings. But it wasn’t all doom and gloom. My partner took me away for a much needed break in Sussex. We followed Constable’s footsteps and discovered Colchester, making me forget about everything else for a week-end.

December
screen-shot-2016-12-28-at-12-40-11

Not much outings other than walks and rides on Bristol many footpaths and cycleways. So I will only copy what I wrote a few days earlier on Instagram:

Five carefree months on the road when money was no issue (so little was needed, it could be earned easy enough). Four months struggling to find a job when money was a constant struggle (what with rent and food and transport to interviews). And finally today when I receive the first pay check of my new job (well-earned and much appreciated). This year has seen many ups and downs (literal and metaphorical) and I am grateful to end the year on a positive note. A new life lies ahead of me and to celebrate its beginning I treated myself to churros at the Christmas market. It felt overly indulgent and I savoured every last bit of it.

I hope your year was as good as mine but with less emotional roller-coaster.
Feel free to drop links of your best posts and 2016 retrospective. I’ve missed a lot while away and I’m really enjoying discovering what you’ve been up in the first half of the year.

And finally, as a little thank you if you’ve made it this far into the post, a collage of sounds from this year. This track includes sounds from my trip in the Iberian Peninsula, a little sneak peak of what’s to come in 2017.

Visit SoundCloud for a full description of the track.

Walking the 1066 Country Walk

A month ago, I received a message from Jonathan (from In Which I). We’ve been in touch regularly via our blogs but it was the first time we’d chatted through e-mails. His message went something like that:

’Are you a walker? We’re planning to walk all of the 1066 Country Walk on 10-11 September over two days.’

I did not hesitate when I read that line and replied that I would be more than happy to tag along. Ever since coming back home from my recent cycle tour, I have been meaning to go on a walk. I had gone as far as cleaning up my walking boots. They were still dirty from the Lyke Wake Walk. And that had been almost a year ago. I had missed the slow pace of my feet and the amount of details that come to life from this mode of transportation.

1066 directions

river

On Saturday 10th of September, Jonathan, Dan and me departed from Pevensey train station, quickly exciting the village to venture into the flatlands of Pevensey levels. The sky was hidden behind a cover of grey clouds choked up with rain but I did not worry. The weather people had assured us it would remain dry until mid-afternoon. Our stride was light and eager as we followed the green line on the map more than the signs. We talked a lot and without us noticing a couple of hours had passed. It was easy to walk.

But soon the hills began. We stopped on a bench in a churchyard for a break, filling ourselves with snacks to power us on. Above the field by the cemetery a crow and a kestrel engaged in an air pursuit, the bigger of the two intent on chasing the other one away. We watched them until they became two ball points in the distance, and we couldn’t distinguish which bird was which.

cemetery

map checking

We rose from the bench and went on. We passed Herstmonceux castle, the Observatory Science Centre, and a lone trig point, an odd sight at such a low altitude. We entered a forest, our bodies shadowed by a canopy of leaves and emerged by a very orderly brown field.
‘It’s like a zen garden,’ Jonathan commented.
I had to admit it was impressive. Tidy lines zigzagged throughout, the patterns changing at regular intervals. I couldn’t even spot a wheel track anywhere. I let my eyes rise to the top of the field where the earth stopped and the clouds began. I knew there was a slope on the other side but from the bottom of the rise, I could easily ignore it and pretend the field stopped where my gaze did. I smiled at the simple vision. I would have never found it if not for this walk. I snapped a picture, backing up my mental memory into the digital one of my camera.

zen field

The hills became steeper and I was surprised at how well my legs were taking it. I knew walking and cycling did not engage the same muscles but my body seemed to fair well. I silently hoped it would remain so. There were still many miles to go. But first we stopped for tea under the watchful eyes of cows.

tea time

curious cow

Lunch followed soon after. We were over halfway into our route for the day. As we packed away what we had not eaten, I braced myself for the afternoon dip I usually encounter when walking. But it did not come. Instead of my world narrowing down into pain and boredom, it expanded and I noticed every details of our surroundings. A bee was nestled in between John Dowie apples. Blackberries sprouted on bushes everywhere, their juices melting in my mouth as I pressed them against my palate. The breeze sent ripples through the high grass, their blades rubbing my black trousers. Flowers still shone defiantly in spite of the turn of the season. And we were walking in the middle of it all, words and ideas easily flowing between us.

apples and bee

flowers

And before I realised it we had crossed a road and found ourselves by Great Park Farm shop and café, a couple of miles from Battle, our end point for the day. We sat down for tea outside. And the rain began to fall. We huddled closer, trying to fit under the sun shades that were now used as umbrellas, and drank our teas safe and dry. But one of the sun shade had other ideas in mind and dropped a puddle of water over Dan.
The waitresses came around to clean the tables and it was time to go. The rain had petered out into a drizzle but still we put on our rain coats and climbed one last hill for the day before taking off our boots. My legs were still good but I knew better than to trust my body and began to stretch my muscles. There was still 15 miles to walk the following day.

tree trunk portal

The next day I awoke with the sun. I rolled over in my bed and glanced out of the window. There was a blue sky. I got off bed and eagerly made my way downstairs. My legs felt stiff but I ignored them. I hoped that once we got going, the muscles would relax and forget the miles of the day before. Boots on and snacks packed, we met up with friends and set off to Rye.

group walking

We excited Battle via the Great Wood and soon found ourselves in the middle of a golf course. Balls flew to the clacking sound of metal against plastic, but I paid them little attention. I was too busy chatting away with new friends, getting to know one another. Conversation flowed and it felt great to be sharing this walk with other people on such a beautiful day. It was summer again and my worries about job hunting, interviews, and money melted away.

grass and tree island

lone tree

A lone swing hung from a tree. ‘You want a go at it, don’t you?’ Jonathan said looking at me. I couldn’t resist the smile growing on my lips. ‘Oh yes.’ I admitted and climbed onto the seat sending my legs in the air and leaning into the air flow. There was nothing to do but enjoy that simple moment of joy. So I did.

jonathan swing

We left the sheltered footpath we had been following for an open field. The sun heat fell on us and we took a break to hydrate and shed some layers of clothes. I could have easily taken a nap but there were many more miles to go. I took another swig at my water bottle and marched on with the group. The hills began and we promised Peter that they were all actually flat or downhills rather than uphill. I wished that had been true. My calves began to hurt as we ascended and I found myself stretching at every opportunity hoping it would help the muscles. It mostly didn’t but it wasn’t difficult to ignore the pain. The sun was shining bright, I was in good company, and summer felt like it would never end.

many paths

going uphill

Paths spread out in front of us as we climbed down yet another stile. We poured over the map trying to find the right way. Everybody seemed to have their idea as to which route to take and we spread out over the hill, all trying to find the next way marked post. Jonathan had picked the right path and we all converged towards him, past a farm, past a pub, and into a field where we stopped under the shade of a line of trees for lunch.

lunch time

More hills followed and led us to a trig point. It still felt too low for one but at least we had climbed a hill and the view spreading out in front of us was worth a stop and a photo. Square of greens joined yellow ones, with the occasional brown and white dots of cows and sheep. And everywhere trees clustered in small woods or borderlands between the fields. Above it all, the sky was baby blue, trails of translucent clouds like paint brushes on canvas.

view

view

The afternoon slumber didn’t come that day either, and it was with high spirits that we approached Winchelsea where we had promised ourselves a pub break. But before entering the town, Jonathan got stung by a wasp, sending a ripple of panic through our group with his cries of ‘Get of me! Get of me! Get of me!’. Luckily, he wasn’t allergic and the sting hasn’t been deep. He was able to walk on.

We stopped at the pub for a well-deserved break and sipped our drinks with relish, their freshness a welcome relief from the hill climbs, and the alcohol soothing to our aches and pains. I could have happily remained on the bench watching the light of day dim into night but we were not at our final destination yet.

pub break

We strapped our backpacks on once more and walked out of the village and met up with Dumb’s Woman Lane before leaving it for the gentler ground of a footpath. The sun was at our back, its warmth fast disappearing. I gave it a silent thanks for the day it had given us and walked on. Houses began to appear and it hit me that we must have reached Rye. ‘Is that Rye?’ I asked Jonathan unsure of myself. I couldn’t quite believe that the day was already coming to an end. There had been two miles to walk from Dumb’s Woman Lane and somehow it didn’t feel like we had done two miles since then. ‘Yes, it is.’ He confirmed. So that was it. We had walked the 1066 Country Walk and it was time to go home.

sign