Some of my earliest memories, growing up as a child in inner-city London, involve walking. Walking everywhere. I recall trotting alongside my mum, her pushing my sister in a pushchair whilst I clung onto the side handle as we marched, always purposefully, along city streets, through parks, over bridges, past shops and offices and through the ‘back doubles’ (one of my mum’s favourite phrases) from the council estate where we lived to just about everywhere we needed to go. We walked mostly out of necessity, walking is free and when you don’t have much money, it becomes an obvious way to cut costs.
We also walked because my mum, Geordie lass that she was (and still is) was used to walking to get from A to B – whether that was the six-mile round trek in all weathers to get to and from her local school or the I-don’t-know-how-many-miles round trip to get my sister and me to nursery before she set off to one of her many part-time jobs. When the young me got tired of walking, I was invited to step onto the footplate of the pushchair and hang onto the crossbar as mum then transported two youngsters across town.
We moved to the south coast of England when I was eleven and the walking continued as, at that time, we didn’t have a car and, well, old habits die hard. When I started work as a student nurse in the local hospital, I used to get up before 6am in order to walk to work to start an early shift at 7am. When I had children of my own I would walk everywhere because getting a pushchair on and off the bus was too much of a pain
Our family prospered and as we became a little more affluent and I was able to have my own car the day to day walking turned into going out somewhere for the deliberate purpose of walking: beach, forest, hillside or field – just being outside propelling myself under my own steam, often with kids and picnics in tow.
As an adult, I gave a name to that which I just knew to be true as a child – walking is what we are built to do. It is as necessary to our wellbeing as fresh air and human touch. When we walk we connect, with our own rhythms and ourselves and with the environment through which we pass. When we walk we breathe the way we’re meant to breathe. We also see the day change in front of us and we are part of that.
I started doing longer distance walks almost by accident when a girlfriend asked me if I’d like to go on a walking holiday in the French Pyrenees – an offer I couldn’t refuse. From that point onwards I’ve been hooked and now a trip without a walking element just feels like a wasted opportunity to really get to know somewhere and to gain a sense of place.
I’ve enjoyed walking with groups and alone but the best of times have been walking with my best friend. In 2018 we completed the 500 plus miles of the Camino Frances, carrying all of our own kit. What an absolute privilege and joy that was.
Earlier that year we had set out on the Great Stones Walk (from Swindon to Salisbury) and, partway we were halted by the snow that accompanied the Beast From the East.
What follows is an account of that walk and the more recent finale.
The Great Stones Walk from Swindon to Salisbury
February, 2018. Perhaps not the best month to undertake a long-distance walk (just under 55 miles) but Catriona and I have scuba dived in the cold dark waters of the Solent, run miles and miles in sub-zero temperatures, body boarded in the icy alpine white waters of the Isere and completed a marathon on a very warm day. Suffice to say that we are women of a certain age and temperament and it takes a lot to put us off when we have decided to do something. The something on this occasion being the Great Stones long-distance route, which runs north to south through the Wiltshire countryside, linking England’s great prehistoric sites of Avebury and Stonehenge.
Our mini-adventure started modestly, alighting from the train in Swindon and transferring to a local bus, which would deposit us near the distinctly non-neolithic roundabout where our first night’s pub accommodation was located. The cold weather, icy wind and snow were already making itself felt across the country to the north of us and a weather warning had been issued for the part of the world that we now planned to hike across for the next 5 days. Perfect.
Overnight accommodation in a pub near a roundabout always seems like a great idea when you book it – it’s cheap and there is beer readily available. When you actually arrive, especially in inclement weather, it’s more often than not a bit of a letdown. It’s noisy due to the traffic, it’s rarely a gastronomic delight, the rooms are usually a bit sad and not in the least bit luxurious and they never offer packed lunches for the following day. So it’s cheap plus beer that scores the only points out of five if you were doing a review on Tripadvisor.
However, beer and a meal of deep-fried stuff ensured a good night’s sleep and the breakfast the following morning provided enough bread to fashion a couple of marmalade sandwiches and biscuits for a packed lunch and coffee to fill up my flask (an essential bit of kit that goes on every single walk). We set off in a light sleet, wearing multiple layers of thermals and waterproofs, and headed for the start of the route: Coate Water Country Park.
This is a surprisingly lovely part of Swindon where there is a lake, constructed in the 1820s to provide water for the Wiltshire and Berkshire Canal and is now a haven for wildlife as well as an open-air swimming area during the warmer months. From here our route took us across the M4, via the Iron Age fort of Barbury Castle and the steep slope of Barbury hill onto the Ridgeway National Trail for several miles before looping off to take in Avebury and its remarkable stone circle.
The Ridgeway is often described as Britain’s oldest road and it is now a national trail, extending from Wiltshire, along the chalk ridge of the Berkshire Downs, including footpaths and parts of the ancient Ickneild Way from Streatly, through the Chiltern Hills to Ivinghoe Beacon in Buckinghamshire. As we marched along the deep ridges of frozen solid mud I thought about the 5000 years of footfall that this route has seen, the ancient people’s whose footsteps we were shadowing and how cold they all must have been without a down jacket and alpine grade waterproofs!
Our arrival in Avebury bought us into the village through the fields that were just beginning to grey out in the failing light of the late afternoon, we were both taken aback by the sudden appearance of the great stones, bleak and beautiful with their dusting of snow. Almost the entire village of Avebury is encircled by the stones and the effect is enchanting. I am so glad that we experienced this in mid-winter when the absence of tourists made us feel like the first people to have set eyes upon this prehistoric monument.
Avebury also left me with a warm fuzzy feeling because we stayed in a fantastic B and B where we were treated to tea and cake on arrival, had sherry and chocolate in our room, plus access to a very large bathtub and, as well as a substantial breakfast, we were supplied with a great packed lunch.
Day Two of our walk saw us heading towards East Chisenbury via Overton Hill and Casterley Camp. It was bitterly cold and windy with regular blasts of fine, icy snow. Our eagerly anticipated packed lunch was taken in the porchway of All Saints Chruch at Alton Priors where we discovered that Branston pickle does indeed freeze in a cheese sandwich and that ice crystal in your drinking water bottle can give the illusion of having a cheeky gin and tonic! A short ‘praise the Lord for the flask of coffee’ ensued and we continued on our way, getting blown up the hill towards the edge of Salisbury plain where we spent what seemed like a very long time trekking alongside the huge MOD ‘Danger – Keep Out’ fence, with our heads down to avoid being ice blasted by the now driving snow and listening to the occasional muffled boom of artillery being fired somewhere in the distance. As the snowdrifts started to deepen and the countryside turned white and silent (now that the day’s tank shelling practice had ceased) we descended along strangely quiet country lanes, empty – apart from a few abandoned cars that had fallen foul of the snowy roads, to arrive at the Red Lion pub, and its unbelievably gorgeous accommodation at Troutbeck, in East Chisenbury.
To say that I was overjoyed when I discovered that the restaurant at the Red Lion is run by an epic chef whose menu is superb would be a gross understatement. To add that I was deliriously happy when we discovered that we would be snowed in for the next two nights (drifting snow, high winds and a red weather warning from the Met office should not be ignored!) would be a very accurate description of my state of mind that evening.
We spent the following day messing around up on a small hill just outside of the village. This involved an Olympic standard toboggan run using a survival bag and drinking real gin and tonic from our water flasks. Our husbands had been instructed to stay away for another night (for their own safety of course) before coming to rescue us in a Landrover.
February 2020. February again. This time we had storm Dennis to contend with! Trina’s husband dropped us off early on Sunday morning in East Chisenbury. It was raining steadily with no sign of letting up so ponchos were donned over waterproofs, gaiters and thermal layers and we set off for the relatively short (9 miles) walk to Amesbury which is about 3 miles from Stonehenge. It was actually very pleasant to be walking along English country lanes with high banks and hedges giving shelter from the storm winds.
I could see this day unfolding in an uncomplicated way. Then we rounded a bend to find the road ahead flooded with at least a metre deep water and just very narrow grass banks, backed by blackthorn bushes, on both sides. We hopped onto the right-hand bank and started to gingerly pick our way along. At the halfway point the bank narrowed even further and the choice lay between getting soaked or getting impaled. But I spotted a five-bar fence on our right a couple of feet ahead. We could climb over the fence, into the farmyard and clamber over a large pile of soil to walk along the edge of the farmer’s field parallel to the road until we found another exit, beyond the flood back onto the road. Plan thus agreed, we scrabbled along the diminishing bank, launched ourselves onto the fence and clambered over.
Success. Or maybe not. I placed my walking pole onto the earth pile only to watch it sink into several feet of soft and sodden manure. Great. Now we had cow poo Armageddon on one side and blackthorn, hawthorn and a helpful barbed wire fence on the other. We opted for sharp things. Picking our way along a two-inch furrow that seemed to be relatively clear of smelly stuff we were focused on getting to the grass about 20 yards ahead when the wind picked up and we spent the next jolly half hour wrestling our ponchos out of the thorny grip of the hedges. When we finally made it to the muddy but clean (kind of) haven of the grassy field the heavens opened and the rain sluiced down. We were very glad of this hosing as it washed all the cow pats off!!! I can’t imagine the reception we would have got, had we turned up at our accommodation later that day in our original state.
When we did get to the Stonehenge Inn (mediocre carvery pub, bleak rooms, no breakfast included – give it a miss) we decided to have a late lunch – (at the aforementioned mediocre carvery) and then hunker down to binge watch tv before an early night. As the springs were actually visible through my mattress I slept on top of the duvet, in my clean clothes ready for the next day, using a bath towel as a blanket!
All in all, it was an excellent walk. We enjoyed, as ever, lots of mini-adventures and lots of laughs. Our friendship has been cemented by many shared experiences but our walks together have enabled a depth of sisterly camaraderie that I don’t think would arise from any other activity.
SUGGESTIONS FOR ADVANTAGES OF AGE FUTURE WALKS
Walk one – a day trip to the South Downs (walking distance approx 8 miles)
This is an ‘out an back’ walk (to avoid crossing the bust A3M) and is one of my favourite local walks, it takes in Butser Hill, Queen Elizabeth Country Park and the lovely village of Buriton.
The walk starts in Buriton and follows the Hangers Way to Queen Elizabeth Country Park (QECP), which sits at the foot of Butser hill. The climb up Butser is rewarded with great views onto the Solent, across the South Downs and Meon Valley and, if the visibility is good, across to the Isle of Wight.
The walk back can take in the visitor centre at QECP where the homemade cakes are always tempting and can finish off at the Five Bells pub in Buriton where you can reward your efforts with real ale and good food.
Train from London Waterloo (South Western) to Petersfield (approx 1 hour).
Bus from Petersfield station to Buriton. (approx 20 mins).
Walking options: Those who don’t fancy hiking up Butser hill (and back down again) can stay around the visitor centre at QECP – this will make their walk approx 5 miles.
Walk 2 – an overnighter (or two) on the Jurassic Coast.
You cannot beat the Dorset coastline for some spectacular sea views and this circular walk,(approx 6 miles) out of Swanage where there is YHA accommodation takes in the Swanage Coastal Park, the Priest’s way and the Dancing Ledge. Midpoint is the village of Worth Matravers where the Square and Compass pub, which dates back to 1752, provides great food, drink and, very often, live music.
Getting there: Train from London Waterloo (South Western) to Wareham (approx 2h 20)
Bus from Wareham to Swanage (approx 40 mins)
a) Arrive in Swanage after midday on day one, settle into accommodation, short local walk, evening in pub with live music. Main walk to start around 10.00am on day 2, lunch in Worth Matravers, back to Swanage around 5pm to allow time to get the bus back to Wareham station.
b) As above but stay an extra night in Swanage to allow extended time at the Square and Compass and then an early evening walk back to Swanage. Additional walk from Swanage on Day 2 to Corfe Castle via the Purbeck Ridgeway (approx 8 miles) returning to Swanage on the Swanage Steam railway and then taking the bus to Wareham station.
Walk 3 – A weekend on the Isle of Wight.
The Isle of Wight is literally crisscrossed with hundreds of walking paths, each one affording a mixture of sea views and beautiful countryside.
I’ve chosen three walks, all starting in Ventnor, which I think to capture the uniqueness of the Island. Ventnor is a great place to be based for the weekend with a variety of accommodation to suit all tastes and budgets.
Friday Afternoon – A coastal walk from Ventnor to Shanklin .
This lovely 3-mile leg stretcher starts on the Sea wall linking Bonchurch to Ventnor, gives a short detour to see the old Church at Bonchurch, before following the coast path through the Landslip, Rylstone Gardens and the Appley steps and on into Shanklin where its possible to visit the beautiful chine before catching the bus back to Ventnor.
Saturday – a walk with everything! Ventnor to Brading via St. Boniface Down.
This walk of just over 10 miles provides stunning views from the top of the Downs (ST. Boniface and Brading) as well as deep woodland and charming villages. It’s a great walk to get a real sense of the Island and the Waxworks at Brading is the ultimate in UK Kitsch! Bus back to Ventnor.
Sunday morning – Easy walk along the seafront and then the Botanical Gardens.
A relaxing Sunday morning, just enough walking to blow away cobwebs and enjoy Ventnor’s Victorian heritage before heading for home.
Getting there: Train from London Waterloo to Portsmouth Harbour (approx 1hr 50). Ferry from Portsmouth Harbour to Ryde (approx 25 mins). Either train/bus to Ventnor (train from Ryde to Shanklin then bus to Ventnor, approx 1 hour) or Bus direct from Ryde (approx 1 hour).