Rising Ground: searching for the spirit of place

Rising Ground: searching for the spirit of place

The genesis of Philip Marsden’s latest book, Rising Ground, was his acquisition of an old, decaying and overgrown Cornish farmhouse. It is subtitled ‘A Search for the Spirit of Place’, and a few pages in, Marsden explains how, after writing a series of books cataloguing journeys he had made to distant lands he came to write one which follows him as he sets out on foot from his new home. Continue reading “Rising Ground: searching for the spirit of place”

Walking the Sandstone trail: three characters in conversation

Walking the Sandstone trail: three characters in conversation

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In her book, Wanderlust: A History of Walking, Rebecca Solnit characterizes walking as, ‘a state in which the mind, the body, and the world are aligned, as though they were three characters finally in conversation together, three notes suddenly making a chord’.  Solnit’s ‘three characters in conversation together’ describes pretty well the walk which saw (more or less) the completion of a project my good friend Bernie and I embarked upon many moons ago – to walk the length of the Sandstone Trail through Cheshire.  We were accompanied on this leg of the journey by Tommy, a freshly-retired former work colleague. Our aim was to pick up where Bernie and I left off nearly a year ago and walk the final 16 mile hike that begins with most dramatic section of the Trail before it ends with a sigh, winding its way across the fields and meadows of the Cheshire – Shropshire border, then joining the Lllangollen canal for the last lap into Whitchurch.

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Tommy and Bernie stride out

After leaving a car at either end of the hike (rural bus services being virtually extinct in this neck of the woods), we set off from the Pheasant Inn at Higher Buwardsley up Hill Lane, an ancient packhorse route and salters’ way – a short cut over the sandstone ridge linking the Cheshire salt-mining towns of Northwich, Middlewich and Nantwich with the old crossing-points over the Dee to Wales at Farndon and Chester.  Salt was a very important commodity at the time, used not only as flavouring but, more crucially in pre-refrigeration times, for the preservation of perishable goods such as meat.

Hill Lane is only one of many such ancient paths and lanes which the Sandstone Trail now follows, a reminder of the importance of these trails in times past, worn by walking feet and the hooves of cattle and horses.  As the Scottish poet Thomas A. Clark observes in In Praise of Walking, ‘always, everywhere, people have walked, veining the earth with

Walking is the human way of getting about.

Always, everywhere, people have walked, veining the earth with
paths, visible and invisible, symmetrical and meandering.

There are walks in which we tread in the footsteps of others,
walks on which we strike out entirely for ourselves.

A journey implies a destination, so many miles to be consumed,
while a walk is its own measure, complete at every point along
the way.

We press on, treading ‘in the footsteps of others’, and soon reach the spine of the sandstone ridge that rises out of the Cheshire plain.  Here, at the southern edge of Peckforton Hill, we pass the Lodge, a picturesque sandstone gatehouse belonging to the Peckforton Estate.

Peckforton estate gatehouse

Peckforton Lodge

Peckforton Lodge is a reminder of the days when a monied man could buy up an extensive tract of land, with two villages thrown in: both Peckforton and nearby Beeston were part of an estate purchased by John Tollemache, 1st Baron Tollemache, in 1840. Between 1844 and 1850, Lord Tollemache had Peckforton Castle, a Victorian replica of a medieval castle, built from sandstone dug from a ridge-top quarry, now lost among the trees on the Peckforton Hills.

Local quarries exist all along the Trail, where sandstone was cut to provide building stone for houses, farm buildings and walls throughout this part of Cheshire.  I feel at home on sandstone.  It is the rock that reared up from the Cheshire plain at Alderley Edge, a few miles from where I grew up, and also the familiar bedrock of the place where I have lived these last fifty years: a city rose-red as Petra, Liverpool was founded on a sandstone bluff at the northern end of the ridge of sandstone which ruptures the Cheshire plain, and along which we now walk.

Bulkeley Hill (Wikipedia)

Bulkeley Hill (photo: Wikipedia)

Following the ridge the Trail leads to Bulkeley Hill, where the National Trust maintains a stretch of ancient woodland.

Bulkeley Hill

Bulkeley Hill

The name Bulkeley is first recorded as Bulceleia in 1086 and is from Old English bulluc and leah, meaning ‘pasture where bullocks graze’, suggesting that this was common land to which local villagers would bring their animals to graze.  Thinking back, I remember that the primary school I attended, about ten miles or so from here, was on Bulkeley Road

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Name Rock viewpoint

There’s a popular viewpoint, up here on Bulkeley Hill, from which on a clear day it’s possible to look west and see the Welsh hills.  But not today.  Warm and dry it may be – weather we’ve enjoyed since the beginning of September – but, as luck would have it, today, after two days of azure skies, it’s cloudy and dull, the distant hills shrouded in haze.

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Through sandstone to Rawhead

So, no sight of the Welsh hills today as we make our way along the steep western escarpment towards Rawhead, the highest point on the Trail where we might have expected panoramic views.  Still, we found plenty talk about, we three ‘characters in conversation’.  The Scottish referendum was good for a mile or so, and provoked some pretty intense debate. (For myself, I’ve felt for some time that a Yes vote could be liberating for other places – like Liverpool – remote from Westminster and chafing under merciless policies they have not chosen.)

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The murky view from Rawhead

Walking also led us to ponder the distances walked by individuals before the motor car arrived.  I have been re-reading David Copperfield in which Copperfield (like Dickens himself) walks considerable distances as a matter of course. There is, for instance, a period in which, by day, he works as a legal clerk in central London, then walks out to Highgate to assist Doctor Strong with his dictionary project before walking to Putney to spend time with his fiancée, Dora, then back to his home near St Paul’s. On another occasion he walks the 16 miles from Dover to Canterbury, arriving at his destination in time for breakfast.

Then there’s the early chapter in Wuthering Heights where Mr Earnshaw walks from Haworth to Liverpool and back – 60 miles each way – staggering into the kitchen at Wuthering Heights at 11 pm on the third day. But, as Rebecca Solnit described in Wanderlust, William Wordsworth beat that with an amazing walk in 1790 when, with fellow-student Robert Jones, he walked across France, over the Alps and into Italy before arriving at Lake Como in Switzerland.  They had covered a steady 30 miles a day.

That morning I’d read a review of Naomi Klein’s new book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs The Climate, in which she argues that the climate crisis is fundamentally not about carbon levels in the atmosphere, but about the extreme anti-regulatory version of capitalism  that has seized global economies since the 1980s and has set us on a course of destruction and deepening inequality – that ‘our economic system’ is at war with life on Earth. Epic walker Wordsworth also had things to say about materialism and losing touch with nature or ‘getting and spending’ as he expressed it in his poem, ‘The World Is Too Much With Us’:

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.

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Rawhead triangulation point: the highest point on the Trail

Beyond Rawhead the path follows a precipitous course along the edge of sheer sandstone cliffs, before dropping down off the ridge to cross the busy A534 Wrexham-Nantwich road (also known as Salters Lane, so we know what the traffic would mainly have consisted of two to three hundred years ago).

Sandstone cliffs at Rawhead (Wikipedia)

Sandstone cliffs at Rawhead (photo: Wikipedia)

At Bickerton women were decorating the church porch and gateway with astonishingly intricate plaits of white flowers: a wedding, or maybe harvest festival, in preparation, perhaps?  It looked like a scene from another time; I wish I’d taken a photo.


Holy Trinity Church, Bickerton (photo: Les Needham)

Past the church we headed up the lane and back onto the ridge.  This is Bickerton Hill, owned and managed by the National Trust, a geological SSSI for its exposed Triassic sandstones, and a rich mixture of open woodland and lowland heath. Beneath the scattered birches, purple heather was in bloom, there were bright splashes of yellow gorse, and we tasted jet-black bilberries.

Bickerton Hill is one of few remaining areas of heathland in Cheshire, but it hasn’t always been so: the abandonment of grazing in the 1930s allowed birch, pine and oak to grow, shading out the bilberry and heather that had flourished for centuries. But, for a decade now the National Trust has been working to remove the encroaching trees and restore areas of the hill to heathland. Grazing has been reintroduced to halt the spread of the birch trees which have threatened the rare heathland habitat on the hill.

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Bickerton Hill: birch, purple heather and bilberries

There were toadstools, too – the iconic ones, bright red with white markings, and familiar from childhood story books. Fly Agaric they’re called, apparently a reference to their use as an insecticide, crushed in milk to attract and kill flies. They also have hallucinogenic properties, and there is a long history of their use in religious and shamanistic rituals across northern Europe.

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Fly Agaric: hallucinogenic if consumed

This was where we paused for lunch, with me handing round tomatoes fresh from from the greenhouse on our allotment. (What a summer it’s been for growing: we’re currently overwhelmed with tomatoes, and courgettes that seem to grow as soon as you turn your back.  This week we have gathered the first figs from a tree we planted three years ago.)

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Taking in the view

We sit on a log and take in the stunning views across the plain towards the Welsh hills.  The haze is lifting a little and some sun breaks through, brightening the scene.

My eyes already touch the sunny hill.
going far ahead of the road I have begun.
So we are grasped by what we cannot grasp;
it has inner light, even from a distance-

and charges us, even if we do not reach it,
into something else, which, hardly sensing it,
we already are; a gesture waves us on
answering our own wave…
but what we feel is the wind in our faces.

– ‘A Walk’ by Rainer Maria Rilke

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The view from Bickerton Hill

It’s difficult to believe, looking out at the tranquil rural view, that this was once a mining district.  But, as at Alderley Edge, further to the north and a few miles from the village where I grew up, the vein of copper that runs along the sandstone ridge was mined beneath the Bickerton Hills from the 17th century onwards. Nearby is an engine house chimney, all that remains of mine buildings demolished in the 1930s.

Up here on Bickerton Hill there is older evidence of human intervention in the landscape.  The Sandstone Trail crosses the ramparts of Iron Age Maiden Castle, one of a series of six forts on the sandstone ridge – hilltop sites probably first enclosed in the Neolithic, around 6,000 years ago, to mark them out as special places. By the late Bronze and early Iron Age these hilltop enclosures had become increasingly defensive, possibly to protect and regulate important goods such as salt, grain and livestock.

Packing away the remnants of our lunch, we press on – past the memorial called Kitty’s Stone; placed at the highest point of the hill, it was placed here by Leslie Wheeldon, the benefactor who helped the National Trust acquire the hilltop heathland, and displays poems written by him  in memory of his wife, Kitty.

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Down off the ridge and through Cheshire farmland

The Trail drops down through Hether Wood to emerge at the end of southern end of the sandstone ridge, close to Larkton Hall Farm. Now we are walking through a classic Cheshire landscape of undulating  meadows and hedges, the fields grazed by the black and white cows that seem as much part of the landscape here as the grass and the trees.

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Undulating meadows – and a lone hawthorn

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Manor House Stables with Bickerton Hill beyond

We pass Manor House Stables with its extensive white-railed training course.  Tommy, who ‘laid his first bet when he was five’, fills us in on the details.  It’s operated by Tom Dascombe, who is gaining a reputation in the racehorse training world, and owned by Michael Owen, the former Liverpool and Manchester United footballer. It’s a multi-million pound investment and looked it: new buildings that appeared to house luxurious reception facilities for humans, as well as, apparently, state-of-the-art facilities for the horses, including an equine pool, ice bath and veterinary centre

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Through the fields

Now the Trail took us through fields, some where maize had been freshly-sown, some golden with the stalks of recently-harvested grain. At Bickley Hall Farm, belonging to the Cheshire Wildlife Trust, we encountered a herd of pretty fearsome-looking (but docile) longhorn cows, part of the Trust’s herd of Longhorn and Dexter cattle, and Hebridean and Shropshire sheep. The Longhorns are the Trust’s ‘living lawnmowers’, a natural way of managing wildflower meadows, heathlands and peatbogs for the benefit of wildlife.

Bickley Hall Farm longhorn (photo Tom Marshall)

Bickley Hall Farm Longhorns (photo: Tom Marshall)

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The winding path

‘The traveller that resolutely follows a rough and winding path will sooner reach the end of his journey than he that is always changing his direction, and wastes the hour of daylight in looking for smoother ground and shorter passages.’ That was the view of Samuel Johnson, and he was surely right.  It was late in the afternoon and, as the Trail wound its way across one field after another, at each hedge or stile we hoped to see the long-anticipated Llangollen canal which would signify the final leg of our journey.

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Willeymoor lock – and the landlady’s bridge

Then, over a stile and long a hedged path, suddenly we were there on the canal side, at Willeymoor Lock, one of those greatly-anticipated stages of a canal journey where a pub  invites a pause.  Certainly, for several miles now, what I had been imagining was a significant pause at the waterside with a pint of good beer.  But the pub was closed – it would open again at 6pm.

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Taking advantage of the outside seating, we nevertheless sat and rested our feet.  This is the Llangollen canal, a branch of the Shropshire Union, that runs for 46 miles between Hurleston on the SU and the river Dee above Llangollen.  As we sat, the pub landlady appeared and explained in a matter of fact manner that she had run the pub for more than thirty years and felt entitled to a break in the afternoons.

We fell into conversation, and she explained that for several years after taking over the pub she had been unable to cross to the far side of the canal via the lock gates, suffering from a degree of vertigo even more serious than mine. So she had her own bridge built, offering easy access to the far bank and the A49.  But then she discovered that British Waterways was entitled to make an annual charge for the convenience!

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Navigating the lock

By this stage we had realised that we couldn’t walk the last threee miles into Whitchurch since one of our party had acquired fairly painful blisters.  While we waited for a taxi, a barge appeared, navigated by a couple, and we watched (the way you do) as the Canadian half of the crew manipulated the key that opened the lock gates while her partner steered the craft into the lock.

Then it was a brief taxi ride back to our waiting car in Whitchurch, and a surprisingly lengthy drive (had we really walked all that way?) back to our staring point, the Pheasant Inn at Buwardsley. Now, sitting on the pub’s terrace looking out across the Cheshire plain as the clouds lifted sun finally broke through, I was able to savour an excellent local beer – a pint of  Weetwood’s Best Bitter, brewed not far away in Tarporley.

Later, driving back towards Liverpool, the western sun shone golden on the ridge of hills we had walked that day. And I thought about the pleasure of walking – something captured in the words of a poem by Thomas Traherne, a 17th century mystic and contemporary of Milton.  Born about the year 1636, probably at Hereford, Traherne was the son of a poor shoemaker, and – according to his biographer Gladys Wade, was a happy man:

In the middle of the 17th Century, there walked the muddy lanes of Herefordshire and the cobbled streets of London, a man who had found the secret of happiness. He lived through a period of bitterest, most brutal warfare and a period of corrupt and disillusioned peace. He saw the war and the peace at close quarters. He suffered as only the sensitive can. He did not win his felicity easily. Like the merchantman seeking goodly pearls or the seeker for hidden treasure in a field, he paid the full price. But he achieved his pearl, his treasure. He became one of the most radiantly, most infectiously happy mortals this earth has known.

Most of his poetry is mystical and religious, but in ‘Walking’ he wrote a paean to the secular act of walking

To walk abroad is, not with eyes,
But thoughts, the fields to see and prize;
         Else may the silent feet,
                Like logs of wood,
Move up and down, and see no good
         Nor joy nor glory meet.
Ev’n carts and wheels their place do change,
But cannot see, though very strange
         The glory that is by;
                Dead puppets may
Move in the bright and glorious day,
         Yet not behold the sky.
And are not men than they more blind,
Who having eyes yet never find
         The bliss in which they move;
                Like statues dead
They up and down are carried
         Yet never see nor love.
To walk is by a thought to go;
To move in spirit to and fro;
         To mind the good we see;
                To taste the sweet;
Observing all the things we meet
         How choice and rich they be.
To note the beauty of the day,
And golden fields of corn survey;
         Admire each pretty flow’r
                With its sweet smell;
To praise their Maker, and to tell
         The marks of his great pow’r.
To fly abroad like active bees,
Among the hedges and the trees,
         To cull the dew that lies
                On ev’ry blade,
From ev’ry blossom; till we lade
         Our minds, as they their thighs.
Observe those rich and glorious things,
The rivers, meadows, woods, and springs,
         The fructifying sun;
                To note from far
The rising of each twinkling star
         For us his race to run.
A little child these well perceives,
Who, tumbling in green grass and leaves,
         May rich as kings be thought,
                But there’s a sight
Which perfect manhood may delight,
         To which we shall be brought.
While in those pleasant paths we talk,
’Tis that tow’rds which at last we walk;
         For we may by degrees
                Wisely proceed
Pleasures of love and praise to heed,
         From viewing herbs and trees.

See also

Autumn arrives on the Sandstone Trail

Autumn arrives on the Sandstone Trail

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It was the day that the forecasters had said would mark a sudden change of season, with chill northerly winds arriving to disperse the warm, muggy weather we’ve had of late and remind us that it is, after all, October.  It was the day that Bernie and I set off to walk the second leg of the Sandstone Trail, a walk begun in February.

We started at the car park at Gresty’s Waste, just along the busy A556 from Kelsall.  I wondered about the strange name; the first part derives, apparently, from the Old English, graegstig, meaning a badger run, while the medieval concept of ‘the Lord’s waste’ or waste land on the edge of a manor or lord’s estate which could be used communally, explains the rest.

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From the car park, the Trail drops down beneath tall pines into a valley called Hindswell Gutter, before crossing a small stream and rising again to reach Primrosehill Wood, a southern outlier of Delamere Forest.   It was here that things started to go awry. Soon after entering the wood, we had come to a place where two paths diverged with no sign of which one to take. I joked about ‘the road not taken’.  We didn’t know, but our choice would indeed ‘make all the difference’.

I didn’t think it was possible to get lost on the Sandstone Trail, with its clear and regular waymarking, but in Primrosehill Wood we did.  We emerged from the wood to find that we obviously adrift, but unsure just where we were (lesson one: you do need an OS map, even on the Sandstone Trail).  After asking for help, and adding nearly an hour to our trek, we got back to the Trail – and almost immediately got lost again (lesson two: the Trail markers are yellow, like Cheshire County Council footpath markers, but they have an additional footprint symbol, so always look for the footprint).

To cut a long story (that probably added three miles and nearly two hours to our trek) short, we eventually got back on the right track on Wood Lane outside the village of Utkinton, which we had been wandering around for a couple of hours.  This was not the best part of the day: the wind had got up, bringing with it squalls that we could see approaching from the Welsh hills across the Cheshire lowlands.  They didn’t last long, but left us soaked and didn’t exactly improve the experience of being lost.

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South from Wood Lane we followed a lovely old green lane, known locally as Gypsy Lane.  Lanes like this were worn by the feet of farm workers or villagers or the wheels of carts bound for local markets.  The hedges looked centuries old, with a wide variety of different tree species – oak, hazel, holly and hawthorn among them. These hedges are rich in wildlife, offering food and shelter for birds and other creatures.  It was somewhere near here that we stood, entranced for a moment by the vivid red, black and yellow colouring of a goldfinch as it fluttered along the hedgerow, always maintaining a distance of a few yards.

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The Trail here crosses undulating Cheshire farmland, through huge fields carved from the landscape by modern agribusiness.  Many fields had been planted with corn which grew tall, rising to above head height.  There were yellow corn cobs on each plant, and Bernie wondered whether these were being grown as sweetcorn for human consumption; I thought it more likely the crop was destined for green silage to feed cattle.

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As the Trail heads south here, some of the best panoramas open up as the distinctive mound of Beeston Crag, topped by its castle makes its appearance in the distance, rising up sheer from the flatlands around.

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We were crossing another huge field, this one recently sown with something that looked remarkably like the ryegrass I sowed for green manure a week or so ago on the allotment.

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As we drew closer to Beeston Castle, the view ahead became ever more dramatic.  Turning into the strangely named Pudding Lane, there were the distinctive black and white curved-topped iron railings that I remember from my own Cheshire childhood.  I was surprised to read in the Trail guide that they’re a unique Cheshire feature, now being widely restored across the county.

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Cheshire railings
Soon the Trail crosses the Shropshire Union Canal at Wharton’s Lock. Originally the Chester Canal, the canal was built in the 1770s to link the manufacturing towns in the Midlands with the River Mersey.

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As well as the canal, we find there’s a river – the Gowy that rises in the hills here and flows twenty miles across Cheshire before meeting the Mersey at Stanlow – and the railway line from Crewe to Chester and onward to Holyhead which we now pass beneath.  There was once a railway station at Beeston, serving this small agricultural community and the tourists coming to Beeston Castle, but it was closed by the Beeching axe in the 1960s.

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Beeston Castle looms large as we cross the fields beyond the canal. This must be one of the most distinctive landmarks in Cheshire, perched on a crag over 300 feet high. Excavations suggest that there was a Bronze Age settlement and an Iron Age hill fort on the site long before Beeston Castle was begun in 1225. The castle was subsequently modified by Edward I as part of his major programme of building forts to enforce the final suppression of the Welsh.

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Unfortunately, having lost time by getting lost earlier, we had to pass the castle without going in for a look around.  I had visited with Rita on a hot August day three years ago.  It’s a great place to visit, with superb views across the Cheshire plain to the hills where unruly Welsh could be spotted.Sandstone trail 14

After skirting Beeston Castle another castle came into view, but this one is fake.  Peckforton Castle is, in reality, a country house built in the style of a medieval castle. It stands surrounded by the woodland acres of the Peckforton Estate at the northern end of Peckforton Hill. The house was built in the middle of the 19th century as a family home for John Tollemache, a wealthy Cheshire landowner, estate manager, and Member of Parliament. The Tollemache family continued to live in the house until 1939. It is now a hotel.

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It was after 4pm by now, and the best part of the day.  As the wind increased, the cloud cover broke and we were treated to spells of late afternoon sunshine.  Looking back, Beeston crag basked in the sunshine.

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In Horsley Lane, just before we enter the Peckforton Estate, we see a fine example of a 17th century timber-framed house, part half-timbered and part built of brick.  There are casement windows and fine brick chimneys.

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We strode on, towards the deep shade and dappled sunlight of Peckforton woods. Here we’re walking the old lane to Buwardsley village, through deciduous woodland with the escarpment rising steeply on our left. Soon we are out of the woods and strolling down the metalled lane to our destination – the Pheasant Inn where, attended by a Polish host, we were served a perfect pot of tea.  It seemed a bit ironic that copies of the Daily Mail were lying around for, as Nick Clegg pointed out on his radio show last week:

If anyone excels in denigrating and vilifying modern Britain it is the Daily Mail. Every time I do open it, it seems to be overflowing with bile about modern Britain. They don’t like working mothers, they don’t like the BBC, they don’t like members of the royal family, they don’t like teachers, they don’t like the English football team.
The list goes on …

Indeed: and it would no doubt include enterprising Poles who come here to join the hard-working people of Britain.  I wondered how many of those living in Buwardsley take the Daily Mail, but see no incongruity.

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As the day had worn on, the wind had got up, backing from the west to the north, and with that the temperature had begun to fall, even as the skies cleared for a bright late afternoon.  Autumn had come, without a doubt.

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Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveller, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.
– ‘The Road Not Taken’ by Robert Frost

See also

A favourite walk in the Clwydian hills

A favourite walk in the Clwydian hills

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The good weather has stayed with us into October: warm and humid, with plenty of sunshine.  So, waking up to blue skies on Sunday morning, we felt one of our favourite walks calling – along the spine of the Clwydian hills, following the Offa’s Dyke path.

I wrote in September 2012 about the history and landscape of this short walk – from the Moel y Parc TV, radio and mobile phone mast to the parking place on the lane to Nannerch – so here I’ll just let the photos from the walk speak for themselves.

We set off, plucky Cavalier by our side…

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Soon, terrific views in all directions open up before us…

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To the north, across Flintshire, the Dee and the Wirral, we can make out the Liverpool waterfront and the Anglican cathedral….

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While across the Mersey bay we can see clear across to the coastline from Crosby to Southport…

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It’s busy up here, with walkers, cyclists, and lots of dogs…

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Moel Famau lies ahead, but we’re not going that far today…

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The waymarker points onwards, past a bright bank of gorse to a stand of conifers where golden, autumnal grasses toss and shimmer in the breeze…

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Soon we are retracing our steps, past the gorsey bank, back over the great earthworks of Penycloddiau hill fort, and down the track towards Afonwen…

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This has been a good autumn for Rowan berries…

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And berries of all kinds – hips…

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and here and there, some late blackberries on the brambles still…

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The Guardian’s Plantwatch notes a week or so ago referred to this year being:

A mast year, a phenomenon of nature when trees are weighed down with an astonishing crop of nuts. The mast itself is the nut of beech trees, but a mast year includes all the other nuts of woodland trees – acorns, sweet chestnuts, conkers, hazel, ash, maple, lime and many others. […]  Berries have also appeared in a bonanza season that should make for good foraging. There are heaps of big blackberries, elderberries, bilberries, sloes, rowan berries and others and this could be thanks to the cold winter, a wet spring and a warm, dry summer, which has helped stimulate flowering and produce plenty of fruits.

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It’s October, but we found this Red Admiral still soaking up the warmth of the sun…

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Walking the Leete path from Loggerheads to Cilcain

Walking the Leete path from Loggerheads to Cilcain

Loggerheads 1

Returning from Nice last Tuesday, we feared that after enjoying three days with the temperature in the upper 70s F, we’d be in for a shock when we got back to Liverpool.  But, since our return the days have been warm and sunny in the way that September days often are.  So yesterday, with early high cloud clearing to skies of deepest blue, we knew we had to get out of the city and walk.

By chance, returning from Anglesey recently, we’d stumbled upon an old haunt, familiar to most Liverpool school children. Searching for lunch we’d taken a turning that brought us to the village of Cilcain, deep in the Flintshire countryside beneath the Clwydian hills.  Following a road that led out of the village and through a beautiful wooded valley, we came to Loggerheads Country Park.  When our daughter was a child, we’d come here often to walk, and, like any number of Liverpool kids, she came here many times with her school – to stay at the Colomendy outdoor activities centre.

So yesterday we didn’t take long deciding where to walk: it would be a return to Loggerheads to walk the Leete path up the valley of the river Alyn to Cilcain.

The  Leete path follows the leete, a deep water channel which was built to divert water from the river at Loggerheads in order to service the pumps and machines of the local lead mining industry.  It was originally 2 metres wide and 1.5 metres deep, and still forms a distinctive raised stone bed – as seen in these photos.

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Loggerheads 12

The leete was built in 1823 for the Mold Mines company. Its purpose was to divert water from the river at Loggerheads past swallow holes in the limestone bed, into which the river disappears part of the year, to service waterwheels that powered mining machinery and water pumps lower in the valley.  These photos show how, for much of the river’s length on this walk, the river disappears beneath the ground at this time of year.

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Loggerheads 11b

The leete ceased to operate in 1845.  It was the limestone geology of this valley that drew industry to the area. The rich mineral veins in the rock were extensively mined for lead during the 18th and 19th centuries and evidence that Loggerheads was an important lead mining area in the past still remains partially hidden within this beautiful woodland. Apart from the path following the line of the old water course built to carry water for the mining operation, you also occasionally come across the shafts dug out by the miners.

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At one sheer rock wall marking a shaft entrance, we came across a rock climber practising his holds.

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The path forms a beautiful walk, following the whole length of the Alyn Valley. It rises slowly from river level at Loggerheads to something like a hundred feet above it as you approach Cilcain.  On Saturday, the late September sun slanted through the foliage of the old wildwood, casting splashes of light across the path.

Loggerheads 3

Loggerheads 5

The path follows the foot of dramatic limestone cliffs, with occasional breaks in the tree cover that afforded glimpses across the Alyn valley towards Moel Famau.

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It’s about six miles to Cilcain and back.  On our return we sat in the sunshine in the Tea Gardens that form the focal point of Loggerheads County Park, drinking tea and eating delicious bara brith from Caffi Florence that caters to the visitors here.

Crosville buses once brought thousands of visitors here from Merseyside. The bus company owned the park until the 1970s before the county council turned it into a country park. I remember the lumbering green and cream Crosville buses from when I first came to Liverpool in the 1960s. It was a local company – formed in 1906 by George Crosland Taylor and his French business partner Georges de Ville, the company name being a combination of their two names.  After de-regulation, Crosville struggled to be profitable and in the 1980s further cuts were made and the Crosville name disappeared altogether.

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Hilbre sandstone: a memory buried in time

Hilbre sandstone: a memory buried in time

It’s the sandstone.  It gets me every time, the familiar bedrock of the place where I have lived these last fifty years, a city rose-red as Petra. Liverpool was founded on a sandstone bluff and a ridge of sandstone ruptures the Cheshire plain, the county of my childhood.  Merseyside is a place where buildings great and humble glow in the ochre of sandstone.

Last Friday we walked out to the Hilbre islands, three sandstone outcrops in the Dee estuary.  Size-wise they may be insignificant – Hilbre itself about eleven acres, Middle Eye, three acres, and Little Eye a mere half acre – but to the open sea of Liverpool Bay they present a sheer cliff-face of stratified red and yellow sandstone laid down in a vast desert more than 200 million years ago.

And that’s the other thing about sandstone that resonates with me: the sense of deep time.  I place the palm of my hand on the red sandstone, warm in the November sun,  and sense the millennia pulsing through my skin. The red and yellow sandstones of Hilbre were laid down in the Triassic era.  Some contain pebbles -they are known to geologists as the Bunter pebble beds – pebbles washed into the desert sands during flash floods. The footprints of a prehistoric animal called cheirotherium have been found imprinted in the sandstone on Hilbre.

Until the waters melted at the end of the last Ice Age, the three sandstone knolls of Hilbre were joined to the Wirral shore.  Now, if you take careful note of the tide tables, you can walk out from West Kirby across the wet sands to these uninhabited islands as the tide ebbs.  It takes barely an hour to walk out from the suburban hum of the Wirral, but when you arrive you feel that you have travelled to a far-distant place, a wild and lonely place, one that sea birds, not humans, call home.  It’s for this reason that Hilbre features in Christopher Somerville’s gazetteer of Britain and Ireland’s Best Wild Places.

It had taken less than half an hour to drive from Liverpool city centre to the shore at West Kirby, and another hour to walk across the sands of the Dee.  Yet, standing at the northernmost point of the main island, the sense of isolation, of being far from things, is intense.  No matter in which direction you look, you gaze into far distance.

To the north, across the bay of Liverpool, your eyes are drawn towards the distant horizon of the Irish Sea where vessels pass along the shipping lanes into Liverpool.  To the south (above), the full length of the silver waters of the Dee extend as far as Shotton on the Welsh shore.  Turn east, and across bay the the north coast of the Wirral stretches from Hoylake past Leasowe and its lighthouse, to Crosby and Formby on the coast beyond Liverpool.  Look west (below) and the most dramatic view opens up: the dark bulk of the peaks of Snowdonia, the sudden drop to the sea at Llandudno’s Great Orme and, on a clear day like yesterday, the low flat outline of Anglesey.

Close as this place is, we haven’t done the crossing to Hilbre for nearly 25 years, last coming here with our daughter when she was little.  Now with a King Charles spaniel skipping by our side, I sift the sediments of memory and a little girl and the ghost of a dog, a big, bounding, bobbed Old English sheepdog, are there, too.  Flashes return of a childhood journey through Cheshire lanes bounded by red sandstone to visit my godfather in West Kirby.  He once gave me a book signed by a friend of his who also lived in West Kirby, Norman Ellison who, as ‘Nomad’, presented regular present natural history programmes on Children’s Hour on the BBC Home Service during my childhood in the early 1950s.  I still have the book – The Wirral Peninsula – and in it Ellison devotes three chapters to Hilbre, a place he loved and visited regularly, often with his friend Eric Hosking, where they would watch birds together.  And then I remember the first time I came to Liverpool – for a university interview – approaching by train through tunnels and deep cuttings sliced into the sandstone the city rests upon.

Leaving the slipway at West Kirby we set off across the wet sands, sloshing through the gutters, heading as you must, not directly to Hilbre itself, but taking a dog-leg towards the smallest island Little Eye (above).   All around were the little circular mounds that are the casts of lugworms which swallow the sand, digest organic material and eject the rest as the little mound.  It’s a reminder that the plentiful marine organisms and all kinds of shellfish attract a great number and variety of birds to this shore.  The islands are port of call and staging post for migrating and overwintering birds, especially waders.  The Dee estuary is a giant larder feeding thousands of oystercatchers, knot and dunlin, curlew and lapwing, duck and geese.  On our crossing we saw a group of white egrets and crowds of noisy oystercatchers, while a herd of several dozen seals basked in the sun on a sandbank out in the Dee.

The name Hilbre derives from Old English of the seventh century, when Anglo-Saxons settled in Cheshire, and means ‘Hildeburgh’s eye or island.  Not much seems to be known about Saint Hildeburgh, other than that she was an Anglo-Saxon holy woman to whom a medieval chapel on the island was later dedicated, after which it became known as Hildeburgheye or Hildeburgh’s island.

Maybe Hildeburgh was one of the religious women who, surprisingly in the largely warrior-dominated society of the seventh,  could wield significant power and influence.  Last month, Radio 3’s The Essay began what will be a series of 30 Anglo-Saxon Portraits, the first ten of which have been broadcast and are still available as podcasts.  In one of the talks – about the seventh  century abbess Hild of Whitby, Barbara Yorke told of a time when a notable religious woman such as Hild could be in charge of a monastery the size of a small town – a monastery in which both monks and nuns lived and future bishops might be trained.  What was fascinating about this, in the light of recent events, was that women from the royal house and leading families could become church leaders. It was only later that the patriarchal hierarchy of the church asserted itself, and the idea of a woman training a province’s bishop came to be seen as impossible.  Yorke concluded with these words: ‘Hild is a woman well worth remembering, as some thirteen hundred years would elapse before we find women holding power within the church of England that is in any way comparable to hers’.

Looking back to the shore at Hoylake

While there is evidence that Hilbre has been occupied on and off since the Stone Age (Stone and Bronze Age items and Roman pottery were discovered in 1926) it was the beatification of Hildeburgh that seems to have made it a place of more permanent settlement. A small cell of monks was established on the islands around 1080 when the area was part of the lands of the Norman lord, Robert of Rhuddlan. He gave the islands to the abbey at Saint-Evroul-sur-Ouche in Normandy, France which in turn passed responsibility to the Abbey of Saint Werburgh in Chester.

In 1540, John Leland, official historian of Henry VIII, visited the area and wrote:

And half a mile lower is Hillebyri, as the very point of Wyrale.  This Hillebyri at the floode is al environid with water as an isle, and then the trajectus is a quarter of a mile over, and 4 fadome depe of water, and at ebbe a man may go over the sand. It is about a mile in cumpace, and the grounde is sandy and hath conies. There was a celle of monkes at Chestre, and a pilgrimage of Our Lady of Hilbyri.

The island was a place of pilgrimage in the 13th and 14th centuries, but by the mid-16th century the last monks had left the island, no longer regarding it as a holy sanctuary, for by this time Hilbre was an important port and trading centre.  In the reign of Elizabeth I, when the Earl of Essex was pursuing his campaign in Ireland, 4,000 foot and 200 horse troops were encamped on Hilbre en route to Ireland.  This would scarcely be possible today, given the size of the island.  But 17th century maps of Cheshire, such as Speed’s of 1610 (below) show Hilbre as a single island roughly square in shape and about a mile long with a deep inlet on the southwest.  If the three islands were once one, today they are linked only by sandstone reefs exposed at low tide.

The route out to the islands is pretty obvious: we simply followed the tracks of the ranger’s landrover.  No-one lives on Hilbre these days, but Wirral coastal rangers make the crossing to the islands every day at low tide.  The first island, Little Eye (below), is barely more than a grass-covered knoll of sandstone.  At the southern tip are the remains of some kind of brick structure, now largely washed away.

Some patches of chamomile, with their daisy-like flowers (above), were still in full bloom on the smallest island, from where, looking north there was a clear view across the sands to Hoylake and the array of wind-turbines offshore.

Past rock pools and over sandstone reefs, the way now leads to the middle island.

Middle Eye is my favourite of the three islands. It may be small-scale, but its cliffs of yellow sandstone are dramatic and imposing.  Facing the mainland, a cave (once used by smugglers, they reckon) has collapsed, leaving a picturesque sandstone arch.

From the western-most high point of Middle Eye there’s a great view towards the red cliffs of Hilbre itself (top of post).  From there, it’s a short walk across the sand to Hilbre itself.

Coming off the sand, the approach to the island is round the cliff, deep red in the bright sunshine, and up a paved causeway past the boat-shaped Old Telegraph Station with the curved windows at its prow, facing east down the estuary.  Built in 1841, it was part of a chain of signalling stations between Liverpool and Holyhead, sending messages about shipping.

It was from the cliffs here that, looking south across the estuary towards Wales, we saw the group of Grey Seals basking on a sandbank, a common sight on most days of the year, apparently.  Whales and dolphins have also been sighted off the island: now that would be something to see!

Half way across the island is a rectangular pond (above), obviously artificial, but the reason for it being dug is not known.  A clue may lie in the fact that several clumps of the Two-flowered Narcissus grow here; one botanical authority states that the plant was ‘probably introduced centuries ago by Benedictine monks who had a small cell there since Saxon times’.  Wormwood also grows here – a relic of the days when there was a brewery here, and it was added to the beer to give it a bitter taste.

The brewery was attached to an inn that served the needs of sailors, traders and soldiers who passed by the island.  In 1692 a small factory was set up to refine rock salt from around Northwich in Cheshire.  With the silting of the River Dee, trade switched to ports on the River Mersey and the trade vanished from the island leading to the closure of the beer house, but part of its structure is incorporated in one of the buildings on the north side of the island.

In 1813, Richard Ayton visited the island and mentions the public house in his account, A Voyage round Great Britain in 1813:

Upon it there is a public house, the only habitation, and a few rabbits, the only quadrupeds, to which nature supplies a very meagre provision, only parts of the island being covered with a scanty sprinkling of grass. It is most important as a station for two beacons, which are raised upon it, as guides to vessels through the Swash, a channel between the Hoyle Sands, leading into Hoylake, an admirable roadstead for ships of 6oo tons burden. There is another entrance into this road; but with the wind in any degree from the Eastward, the Swash is the only outlet by which vessels can escape to the sea.

The approaches to the land, between the mouths of the Dee and the Mersey, have a most formidable aspect, and a stranger casting his eye over the puzzling confusion of banks which break the sea, would scarcely believe that these dangerous passes are avenues to the great port of Liverpool. . . . Nothing could be more wild and dreary, and the eye was not relieved on turning to the land, which was also sand, with something of vegetation but not of verdure upon it, and without a single tree.

A man and his wife are the only permanent inhabitants, and they are said by various arts of industry to have amassed immense wealth, not less, fame has ventured to assert, than a thousand pounds. The crews of some small vessels which find a harbour under one side of the island, are the great customers of their tap-room, but their riches have been gained principally by wrecking, for which business their situation here is said to be admirably calculated. She was an active partner in the miscellaneous business of her husband, having hardihood enough to despise the privileges of her petticoats.

Towards the western end of the island there’s a tall mast – not a mobile phone transmitter, but a radar station, webcam and weather station, part of the Liverpool Bay Coastal Observatory.  The Coastal Observatory webcam is located at the top of the radar tower and is powered by small wind turbine power generator.

At the very tip of the island is a ruined lifeboat station (above), with a fireplace carved from sandstone.

As we stood at the head of the island looking towards the mountains of Snowdonia, we could see a squall approaching from the Flintshire shore, where it was raining.

We expected a downpour, but the rain slipped to the east of us, and we stayed dry.

You dreamed of this island and
I wanted to buy you the book
Remember? You said it was too much.

The river sweeps past Hilbre’s rocks
carrying the silt of Berwyn Hills out
into the Celtic sea.

Kick. Kick and pull
past mudflat and marsh.
Past Shotton, her blast furnaces once
an altar to Baal. Cold now.  Bulldozed rubble.
War grave of an age of iron.
Wanna buy some of the good stuff?
He worked on the night shift, kept the gear in his locker.

The way ahead is clear and my arms stretch and pull.
The river runs straight and true as far as Deva,
and her echoes of the Twentieth Legion.
Within her walls, cower ghosts of Welshmen
hung before dawn and left for all to see,
though the dead know no shame.

Past meadows, hedges and riverside pubs.
A bridge that links and divides.
Two nations, border country, and in my mind
I’m so close to the edge.
But fly-strewn water fills my mouth,
and drowns all possible words.

Llangollen sisters take the air.
The wisteria is so beautiful this year.
Words hang unspoken while
its beauty moves them to tears.
And on this bank you walked and laughed.
Dinas Bran glowers down, as, from the next bed,
the addict demands my shoes.

The stream presses and pulls, squeezes
the air from my lungs. I follow the river,
a golden thread weaving through
Tegid’s cold depths to her source, where
I am sucked into the ground
and spat out into the clouds.

‘Swimming Against the Stream’ is by local poet Bobby Seal,who explains the background to the poem:

I wanted to write about the River Dee in Wales, as that is a part of the world I know well. But, in following the river from where it enters the sea back to its source, I saw the opportunity to make it a temporal journey as well as a physical one. Moving back through time as well as back to the source of the river; mixing personal memory with historic facts and topographic observations.

We made our way back across the sands, towards the shore and some much anticipated lunch.  As I walked I noticed that, as it dried, a dimpled pattern appeared on the surface of the sand – precisely the same pattern to be seen on the sandstone of the islands, a pattern baked hard in hot, primordial desert winds and covered by layer on layer of more sand. Like a memory, buried in time.

I would still go there
if only to await
the once-in-a-lifetime
opening of truth’s flower;

if only to escape
such bought freedom, and live,
prisoner of the sea,
on the mind’s bread and water.
– RS Thomas, ‘Island’

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These books are made for walking: step one

These books are made for walking: step one

Paths have always fascinated me. Sometimes their imprint of human purpose on the landscape can be a mystery: why does this path exist? Who made it, and when?  Often paths lift the spirit with their sense of wilfulness – tracks left by those determined to make their way according to no rules.  I’ve walked for years now in our local park – the twice-daily dog walk – always entertained by how, in a landscape where planners have mapped out in tarmac or gravel where people should walk, foot-worn paths still weave anarchically but determinedly across the meadows and through the glades.  They are the tracks of kids on their way to school, routes to work, trails left by dog walkers like me seeking variations on a theme: short cuts, a path under the trees, a better view.  Paths like these emerge all over the place – across vacant land in urban areas, in suburbia, or across fields and moors.

Unofficial path in Sefton Park

Recently I’ve been reading several books that explore this fascination with paths and walking, and in the process I discovered that Robert Macfarlane has also shared this fascination with paths and trails of all kinds.  In his recent book The Old Ways, he writes:

Paths and their markers have long worked on me like lures: drawing my sight up and on and over.  The eye is enticed by a path, and the mind’s eye also.  The imagination cannot help but pursue a line in the land – onwards in space, but also backwards in time to the histories of a route and its previous followers.  As I walk paths I often wonder about their origins, the impulses that have led to their creation…

These books represent just a fraction of those that have added to the already voluminous literature of walking in recent years. Pathways is a historical guide to the origins of the paths that we follow through the land; Wanderlust, by Rebecca Solnit, is an erudite cultural history of walking; The Green Road Into The Trees by Hugh Thomson is a narrative account of his journey along the Icknield Way – a route followed, too, by Robert Macfarlane in his new book The Old Ways which I’ve read alongside his earlier The Wild Places.  Werner Herzog’s Of Walking In Ice is another proposition entirely: as you’d expect from the director of Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo it is as far from Macfarlane as you’re likely to get: an often bizarre stream of consciousness account of a pilgrimage he made in 1974, from Munich to the bedside of his close friend, film historian Lotte Eisner, near Paris. It was deep winter and Herzog believed that tramping through adversity would help the friend, that the sheer effort of the walk would bring her back to health.

Alongside these books, I’ve also been dipping into The Walker’s Literary Companion edited by Roger Gilbert, Jeffrey Robinson and Anne Wallace, which gathers together examples of fiction, essays and poetry on the experience and meaning of walking.  It’s a great compendium: rather than being arranged chronologically, the extracts are allowed to strike echoes off each other – Frank O’Hara nudging James Joyce and Elizabeth Bishop; Robert Frost strides alongside Wendell Berry and Walt Whitman; and Charles Dickens, John Clare and Matsuo Basho stroll along together.

What the latter book brings home is the degree to which the act of walking has inspired poetry.  Among contemporary poets, the work of Thomas A Clark is almost entirely concerned with, and inspired by, the thoughts and sensations arising from a walker’s encounter with the natural world.  His prose-poem ‘In Praise of Walking’, published in a little volume entitled Distance and Proximity begins with this walking manifesto:

Early one morning, any morning, we can set out, with the least possible baggage, and discover the world.

It is quite possible to refuse all the coercion, violence, property, triviality, to simply walk away.

That something exists outside ourselves and our preoccupations, so near, so readily available, is our greatest blessing.

Walking is the human way of getting about.

Always, everywhere, people have walked, veining the earth with paths, visible and invisible, symmetrical and meandering.

Clark’s poem is cited by Robert Macfarlane in the opening paragraph of The Old Ways:

Humans are animals and like all animals we leave tracks as we walk: signs of passage made in snow, sand, mud, grass, dew, earth or moss. The language of hunting has a luminous word for such mark-making: ‘foil’. A creature’s ‘foil’ is its track. We easily forget that we are track-makers, though, because most of our journeys now occur on asphalt and concrete – and these are substances not easily impressed.

‘Always, everywhere, people have walked, veining the earth with paths visible and invisible, symmetrical or meandering,’ writes Thomas Clark in his enduring prose-poem ‘In Praise of Walking’. It’s true that, once you begin to notice them, you see that the landscape is still webbed with paths and footways – shadowing the modern-day road network, or meeting it at a slant or perpendicular. Pilgrim paths, green roads, drove roads, corpse roads, trods, leys, dykes, drongs, sarns, snickets – say the names of paths out loud and at speed and they become a poem or rite – holloways, bostles, shutes, driftways, lichways, ridings, halterpaths, cartways, carneys, causeways, herepaths.

Many regions still have their old ways, connecting place to place, leading over passes or round mountains, to church or chapel, river or sea. …

Pathways by Nicholas Rudd-Jones and David Stewart (Guardian Books) is a book that provides answers to those questions about the origins of the pathways that weave their way across Britain’s landscape. It explores and documents twenty different kinds of route trodden by man or horse which now form the footpaths and trails followed for leisure.  Rudd-Jones and Stewart explain the histories of routes used for the transport of goods (ridgeways, packhorse trails, drovers’ roads, miners’ tracks and smugglers’ trails), pathways created to facilitate the exercise of power or define boundaries (Roman roads, dykes and Monks’ trods), and paths with a distinct spiritual dimension (processional ways and pilgrimage routes). They trace the course of  corpse roads, canal towpaths, seaside promenades, long distance footpaths and leisure trails, urban pedestrian ways, and municipal parks.

Each chapter provides a historical account of the origins and use of a particular kind of pathway, followed by the description of an example and an account of a walk along it undertaken by one of the authors.  Maps of these walks are included, but the size and weight of the book mean that it could not be carried on a walk.  However, the book has been published in collaboration with the walking world website, where maps of all the walks featured in the book, plus a huge range of other walks,  are free to download once you join by paying an annual subscription, currently £18. (There is a similar site – walkingbritain.co.uk – that is free, though the maps of the walks are useless).

Pathways is a beautifully produced book, lavishly illustrated with photographs, each chapter providing a succinct but informative history of one kind of trail that has left an imprint on the landscape.  The book leaves you more knowledgeable and with a deeper understanding of how these tracks across the terrain were created.  If you want to know more, each chapter has a useful guide to further reading.

Wanderlust: A History of Walking  is by San Francisco writer Rebecca Solnit and environmental activist who is the  author of books about art, ecology, politics, hope, meandering, memory and getting lost.  She is a cultural commentator and historian who respects no boundaries in the sources upon which she draws, meandering through disciplines as if the act of writing were an assertion of the right to roam.  She acknowledges her eclecticism at the outset of the journey:

This history of walking is an amateur history, just as walking is an amateur act. To use a walking metaphor, it trespasses through everybody else’s field—through anatomy, anthropology, architecture, gardening, geography, political and cultural history, literature, sexuality, religious studies—and doesn’t stop in any of them on its long route. For if a field of expertise can be imagined as a real field—a nice rectangular confine carefully tilled and yielding a specific crop—then the subject of walking resembles walking itself in its lack of confines.

Solnit begins with a chapter on ‘The Mind at Three Miles an Hour’ in which she explores the connection between walking and thinking, beginning with the Athenian philosophers — although no one really knows whether they walked to think — and moves on through Jean Jacques Rousseau, Kierkegaard and Wordsworth, who collectively promulgated the romantic idea of solitary rambling as a contemplative exercise.

There follows a diversion to ponder the significance of the Rubicon crossed by evolving hominids when they stood upright and began walking. Although human beings are usually viewed as unique in terms of consciousness, Solnit points out that it’s our bipedalism that makes us stand out:

the human body is …unlike anything else on earth and in some ways has shaped that consciousness.  The animal kingdom has nothing else like this column of flesh and bone always in danger of toppling, this proud and unsteady tower. … Even standing still is a feat of balance, as anyone who watched or been a drunk knows.

If walking came from evolution and necessity, Solnit says, it then went everywhere, usually looking for something.  With this observation she sets out on a quest to understand pilgrimage – one of the basic modes of walking ‘in search of something intangible’.  She follows a pilgrim route in New Mexico, musing as she goes on the essence of pilgrimage: the idea that there is a geography of spiritual power, that the search for spirituality can be pursued in the most material terms, through arduous physical exertion, toiling along a road towards some distant salvation. Pilgrimages allow people to bodily enter a story (most obviously as in the stations of the cross).  A path, Solnit suggests, is a prior interpretation of the best way to traverse a landscape, and to follow a pilgrimage is to accept an interpretation, to reiterate something deep, and think the same thoughts.

The activist in Solnit leads her to explore the idea that in the last 50 years or so pilgrimages have evolved into secular assertions of political and economic values.  She cites many modern variants that reflect a shift from appealing for divine intervention to demanding political change, such as the annual peace walk from Las Vegas to the Nevada Test site.

But Solnit pushes the analogy further, noting how, in actions like the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, the collective walk unites the iconography of the pilgrimage with that of the trade union march, appealing to the public rather than spiritual powers.  She traces the line of descent, from Gandhi’s Salt March in 1930 to Martin Luther King and the civil rights marches.  ‘Inspired walking’, she calls it, epitomised for her in Matt Heron’s photo of the 1965 Selma to Montgomery march (below):

He must have lain low to take it, for it raises its subjects up high against a pale, clouded sky.  They seem to know they are walking towards transformation and into history, and their wide steps, upraised hands, the confidence of their posture, express the will with which they go to meet it.

Solnit also one of the strangest of secular pilgrimages – that of the film director Werner Herzog who at the end of November 1975, hearing that his friend, the film historian Lotte Eisner, was seriously ill and close to death, set off to walk several hundred miles from Munich to her hospital in Paris.  By enduring the pains and hardship of terrible winter weather he thought would avert her death:

I said that this must not be, not at this time, German cinema could not do without her now, we would not permit her death.  I took a jacket, a compass and a duffel bag with the necessities.  My boots were so solid and new that I had confidence in them.  I set off … in full faith, believing that she would stay alive if I came on foot.

[Diverting from the main track for a moment: I recently acquired as a very welcome birthday gift a copy of Herzog’s rare and difficult to obtain book.  First editions in English are priceless – this was a Canadian limited edition reprint of 2009. It’s a shorter read than Herzog’s walk – no more than 60 pages, almost the entire text of entries made in a notebook as he walked.  It’s quintessential Herzog – a stream of consciousness account of the hardships of the walk (those new boots – blisters, aching swollen legs, cold, and constant soakings due to inadequate clothing), the terrain, the people he encounters along the way, and the thoughts running through his mind. You can almost hear that inimitable Bavarian-accented English as you read.

There are constant flashes of Herzog the German romantic. On his second morning on the road he writes:

What a sunrise behind me.  The clouds had split open a crack; yes, a sun like that rises bloodied on the day of Battle.  Meagre, leafless poplars, a raven flying through missing a quarter of his wing, which means rain. … The village is dead silent, telling of deeds done from which it refuses to wake.

The Herzog who, when twelve and told to sing in front of his class at school, adamantly refused and was almost expelled for it, the Herzog who stole a film camera in order to make his first feature and later said ‘I don’t consider it theft – it was just a necessity’ – that Herzog is present in these pages.  He shows no compunction about breaking into barns or empty holiday homes for the night:

Beyond Volertsheim spent the night in a barn; all around there was nothing else.  What a night.  The storm raged so that the whole shake, which was solidly built, began to shake. Rain and snow came sprinkling in from the rooftop and I buried myself in the straw.  Once I awoke with an animal sleeping on my legs.

This is not an heroic account of a trek (in the manner, say, of a Macfarlane).  Along with his physical discomforts, Herzog’s words evoke the psychological disturbances and the intense loneliness that he experiences:

No one, not a soul, intimidating stillness. … I can see sheets of rain, and the annunciation of the end of the world is glowing on the horizon, glimmering there. … The universe is filled with Nothing, it is the Yawning Black Void.  Systems of Milky Ways have condensed into un-stars.  Utter blissfulness is spreading and out of blissfulness now springs the Absurdity.  This is the situation.  A dense cloud of flies and a plague of horseflies swirls around my head, so I’m forced to flail about with my arms, yet they pursue me bloodthirstily nevertheless.  How can I go shopping?  They’ll throw me out of the supermarket, along with the insect plague swarming around my head.  A flash of lightning bolts across the orange-black sky far below me, striking Francis the Miller, of all people, dead. … Is the Loneliness good?  Yes, it is.  There are only dramatic vistas ahead.  The festering Rankness, meanwhile, gathers once again at the sea.

Some three weeks after setting off, Herzog arrives in Paris.  In her hospital bed, he finds Lotte Eisner alive, though tired and marked by her illness (she lived for another nine years).  She smiles, and Herzog says, ‘Open the window.  From these last days onward I can fly’]

Returning to Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust:  she continues with an exploration of the idea of life as a journey – ‘a pilgrim’s progress across the landscape of personal history’ – delves into the meaning of labyrinths, and considers the place of promenades and the aristocratic garden walk.  She follows the trail of walking in literature in the footsteps of Dorothy and William Wordsworth, Henry Thoreau and John Muir, and evaluates the literature of the long-distance walk (citing, amongst others, one of my own favourites: Alan Booth’s account of walking the length of Japan in the mid-1970s in Roads to Sata: A Two Thousand Mile Walk Through Japan.

There are chapters on mountaineering, walking clubs like the Sierra Club, an public access to the land through the mass trespass on Kinder Scout in 1932 (an excellent account). Then Solnit turns her attention to urban walking, illustrated by ambles through London (in the company of De Quincey, Dickens and Virginia Woolf), New York (with Whitman, Ginsberg and O’Hara) and Paris. Inspired by Walter Benjamin and Hannah Arendt, she ‘ran away to Paris’ in the 1970s when the city was still a ‘walker’s paradise’.  She inhabited the city like Arendt, ‘ strolling through it without aim or purpose, with one’s stay secured by the countless cafes which line the streets’.  She returned recently to find Paris ruinously changed by cars.

As well as the writers, Solnit also casts her eye over the artists who have walked and incorporated the experience into their art.  In particular, she considers the work of Richard Long, the contemporary artist most dedicated to exploring walking as an artistic medium.  She traces the way his work – from Line Made By Walking in 1967 –  aims to capture the way a walk can inspire and live on in the imagination: in Long’s own words, ‘a walk expresses space and freedom and the knowledge of it can live in the imagination of anyone, and that is another space too’.  Attesting to his significance, another ‘walked’ work  by Richard Long adorns the cover of Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways.

Richard Long: Line Made by Walking, 1967

In ‘Walking after Midnight’, Solnit explores the history of women walking the streets.  She notes that men have usually had an easier time walking down the street than have women:  ‘women have routinely been punished and intimidated for attempting that most simple of freedoms, taking a walk’. Solnit charts the threat of violence and harassment often faced by women exercising their right to walk in public spaces, and attitudes to prostitution – the oldest form of street walking.

Freedom to walk is, however, not much use without somewhere to go: with this statement of the obvious Solnit introduces a fascinating chapter on the ‘suburbanization’ of the American psyche, the way in which modern American suburbs have been built exclusively for the car, without sidewalks and in every respect hostile to the person intent on getting around on foot.  Bizarrely, she notes that as Americans – and residents of the developed world generally – have abandoned walking, so they have become addicted to the treadmill in the gym. On the treadmill a key element of walking, space – in the form of landscape, spectacle, terrain, experience – has vanished.

In The Green Road Into The Trees, Hugh Thomson describes walking the Icknield Way, probably the oldest pathway in Britain, from the Dorset coast to the Wash.  It’s a route also followed by Robert Macfarlane in The Old Ways and both were inspired in part by Edward Thomas’s account of walking the Way, Thomas figuring in both accounts. But though their paths and interests overlap, the sensibilities of these writers are attuned to different wavelengths. There isn’t, for example, an index entry for ‘pies’ in Macfarlane’s book: there are six in Thomson’s, and he doesn’t shirk the fact that his walk is an expedition from one great meat pie to the next.

Thomson is a travel writer, film-maker and inveterate wanderer: at the start of the book, he’s just returned from Peru. It is the rather weird strangeness of some sort of celebration in his local town that persuades him to set about exploring his own ‘complicated and intriguing’ country.

Needing a strong coffee and with no food in the house, I cycled to the local market town. The sound of Abba’s ‘Dancing Queen’ being pumped out by a brass band could be heard for some way before I arrived. A celebration was in full swing. Red and white bunting hung from the church, matched by the small flags the children were waving and by the icing on the teacakes sold in the market place; near by was a puppet stall where Punch was setting about Judy with ferocity. The children watching had their faces painted to look like lions or tigers.

Tattoos snaked out of the busts and jeans of the farmers’ wives queuing at the ice-cream van, which had been painted in neon orange with a ‘chill-out’ logo, and was dispensing Skyrockets, Mr Magics, Daddy Cools and Blackcurrant Peep-Ups. A quiff-haired teenager ostentatiously did a wheelie right across the Market Square on his bicycle pimped up with double shocks and chunky chrome spokes. Oblivious to the fairground stalls and the noise, an elegantly overdressed older lady with sunglasses, light wool coat and malacca cane was stooping against the spring breeze, leaning into it.

The band had finished ‘Dancing Queen’ and were now playing a more stately jig. I noticed not so much the music as their hats: a pink stetson playing the guitar, a bowler manning the cello, a Pete Doherty-style pork-pie perched on the lead guitarist and there, on the drummers head, an unmistakable panama, just as I had seen and bought at a small market on the Ecuadorian coast only weeks before.

England has become a complicated and intriguing country. In truth it’s always been one, but perhaps I’m just noticing it more now. The familiar is looks very strange. … I am seized with a sudden desire to explore England.

Thomson is very good at bringing to life, light-heartedly and with good humour, the characters he meets along the way.  Take this encounter, for example:

In Peru I usually travelled with a mule –so that it could carry my kit as well as be company of a limited sort, but that wasn’t so feasible in southern England.

I had toyed with the idea of taking a dog along with me for the journey. Not that I’ve got one. But occasionally I had walked my neighbours’ sleek and beautiful rottweiler when at the barn. And my sister’s family had a parson’s terrier. Both were fine dogs. John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, when he crossed the States with his large poodle, was one of my favourite books and an inspiration for this journey; I grew up to John Noakes’s television programmes about walking the Cornish coast path with his border collie, Shep. And I was aware, not least because my children kept telling me, that a book with a dog in it would be commercially attractive.

But there were disadvantages. For a start, both candidate dogs had names I didn’t feel like shouting out across a crowded field of walkers: the rottweiler was called Portia (like naming a gladiator Phyllis); the terrier, even more improbably, was called Spartacus. More seriously, the way I was walking would not work with a dog – too many impromptu stops and starts and stays with friends. I met a lot of dogs along the way anyway – particularly at Iron Age hill-forts, where dog walkers were often the only other visitors. It made for a perfect constitutional circuit:  once round the earthworks of a fort and no need to scoop.

I was able to borrow a dog of my own just for a day though, as I passed Watlington, where my sister lived. Spartacus could come with me.

‘You can let him off the lead,’ said Alex, my brother-in-law, an incurable optimist, ‘but he may not stay with you.’

Within the next hour I had dragged Spartacus out of willow ponds, hedges and just about any cover that conceivably contained a rabbit. Dog-walking was the modern equivalent of medieval  falconry – it required the owner to be led into unknown territory that they would otherwise not investigate. This was fine if it was a local landscape that you were happy to explore; not if you had a whole country waiting for you to cross.

I sat down on a bench outside a pub when I got to the next village along the Icknield Way, Chinnor, exhausted by having detoured past so many rabbit burrows. A man joined me and we got talking, mainly about Spartacus, as an easy and obvious point of conversation. It took all of a minute before he made the usual joke about ‘I am Spartacus’.  I guessed he was about thirty-five, dressed eccentrically for the country, in pale tracksuit and trainers – more an urban look – and with an iPod looped to ostentatiously large and white Sennheiser headphones.  He was very tanned. He said he had just been on holiday to Tunisia, where the clubbing was better than Ibiza.

I explained that the dog wasn’t mine and that my travelling lifestyle made it difficult for me to have one. He was sympathetic.

‘I know what you mean. And to be honest, I always think, “who needs a pet when you’ve already got a penis to look after.” ’

It was unanswerable.

But it would be wrong to characterize this as simply a light-hearted read.  Thomson sees the England of the rural south through which he travels (so different to the England with which I am familiar) through eyes that are a bit rock and roll, a tad hippie radical. Indeed, if you read this book, please do not overlook the hilarious appendix, in which the Random House editor lists at length the various individuals and categories of people whom , he alleges, Thomson manages to insult (I don’t know whether this is genuine or not, but it’s a hoot).

More than this, though: Thomson brings erudition to his account.  Travelling along the Icknield Way, Thomson passes the great prehistoric monuments of Maiden Castle, Stonehenge and Avebury, before ending at the Wash near Seahenge. Thomson knows his history, is familiar with the latest archaeological evidence and the most recent scholarly conclusions.  He succeeds in digesting the scholarly sources to provide an informative and entertaining  guide to the context and origin of Bronze Age, Iron Age, Roman, Anglo-Saxon (and more recent) structures along the route.

Recently I listened to the edition of Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time on the Druids, in which, as usual, a group of top-rank academics discussed their area of expertise. After the programme, I went back to the book to check how Thomson’s account of the Druids and Stonehenge stacked up.  It is on the nose:

They have already started to arrive for the solstice, although there  are still some days before it is due.  Among  them  are  the Druids who lead the solstice celebrations. While New Age travellers fondly like to imagine that they are re-enacting Druid ceremonies at a Druid site, this is historically incorrect. The stones were erected many thousands of years before the Celtic prophet-priests became active around 500 BC. While perfectly possible that the Druids may have been drawn to the stones, they would have done so much in the same way as today’s New Age travellers – as pilgrims hoping to tap into the spiritual energy of their forebears.

I see the travellers’ vans lurking in lay-bys and along some of the sandy tracks that lead off the busy roads besieging Stonehenge in a pincer of tarmac: the A3o3 and A344 thunder by unbelievably close, the latter almost clipping one of the outer megaliths, the thirty-five-ton ‘Heelstone’. An unattractive wire fence separates the stones from the cars that stream past.

For Stonehenge represents all that is best and worst about England.  There is the sheer imaginative leap of the decision, whether taken in a day or over several generations, to turn a ring of wooden posts into a circle of gigantic sarsen stones with – the literally crowning glory – stone lintels notched and raised onto them: a triumph of spirituality, of engineering, of ingenuity and of the sheer bloody-mindedness that has distinguished much later English history.

This passage epitomises Thomson’s approach: accurate history, folded lightly into a sometimes humourous account of middle England now, spiced with political savvy and a sprinkling of righteous indignation over things being done to the countryside and aspects of the way we live now.

Next: Robert Macfarlane’s The Wild Places and The Old Ways

See also