Illuminating Hadrian’s Wall

•7 August, 2010 • 2 Comments


In March this year Hadrian’s Wall Heritage organised a line of torches along the whole of Hadrian’s Wall, from coast to coast, to mark the 1600th anniversary of the end of Roman rule in Britain. (I am not entirely sure that this is something to celebrate, after all, a civilisation that has underfloor heating in their houses is, well, civilised. But that’s beside the point.)

When you drive from London up north along the A1, there are signs saying simply “The North”. I wonder if it ever says “This is the North” or “You have arrived” or something of the sort. I suppose one would have to go all the way to Dunnet Head to find out. Which reminds me of a friend’s satnav, which instead of home led him to the gates of a nearby cemetery, where it announced “You have arrived at your destination.” But that’s also beside the point.


The traffic along the Wall was so heavy that we arrived after the line had been lit, but there was still plenty of time to use the mighty 14-24 mm Nikkor which I had hired for the occasion.


There was a group of people in charge of each torch and some Roman legionaries and ladies as well.



All these photos are handheld, by the way.


The second line of light, visible on the right side of the photo below, is from all the cars stuck in the narrow line running along the Wall – the event was very popular.


_ENG1980s  _ENG1981_100crop


There are more photos in this Flickr set.


Ridgeway 40 one year on

•5 August, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Where oh where is my pedometer? The battery in my phone went flat after 15 miles, what with the GPS tracking and compass running on it, so I do not have a record of our impressive achievement this year. So much for technology.

Last year’s 40 mile walk at the beginning of May (part 1, part 2) left me with a very sore knee. By January I realised the pain was not going to go away by itself and made an appointment with a sports injury specialist (the first time in my life I did enough sport to cause me an injury, by the way). The specialist sent me to a physiotherapist, while expressing his doubts as to the sanity of my plan to do the 40 mile walk again in May. The physiotherapist gave me three different exercises to be done every day and pronounced me cured at the next appointment two weeks later. Two months later I did the Ridgeway 40 hike again without any knee problems whatsoever. Magic.

View over Streatley  Waiting for the coaches

All the more so because this year the weather was dreadful. Apparently the worst ever in the 40+ year history of the walk. It was not raining the day before or in the morning as we queued for the coaches that were to take us to the start. The rain was saving its strength and started as we set off, driven to our faces by cold wind. It was waterproofs or hypothermia, no other option. It was the first time I wore proper hiking trousers and waterproofs on a hike (as opposed to jeans) and I was astonished to find how comfortable can one be in driving rain. I even took some photos along the way.

On the Ridgeway  Walkers on the Ridgeway
Walkers on the Ridgeway  At checkpoint 1

I was very sorry for the marshals. At least we walkers were moving. It took about 30 seconds to freeze to the bone – you just had to stop, take your hands from the pockets and have a drink the already-frozen marshal handed you. That did not bode well for the lunch break. In the end we did not really have any. We sought shelter at Wayland’s Smithy, so as to be able to stop and take out our sandwiches and then just continued walking.

Wayland's Smithy  Wayland's Smithy

I did not take any photos afterwards. As we neared checkpoint 6, some 27 miles into the walk, my friend and I flagged a little. But the warm tea and cakes made an incredible difference and from then on we were happily striding on, overtaking other walkers, munching on crisps and oatflake muffins and marvelling that we were still able to go. (Regarding food, last year we discovered that junk food is junk food even when one needs calories in a hurry, hence the healthy oatflake muffins this time. Crisps are an excellent source of salt, so for once they did not count as junk food.) People spend years in meditation to get an “outside view” on their body, so to speak. In my experience long distance walking works just as well: when you stop your mind messing with your body, that is, when you allow the body to determine its own walking speed and length of stride, and to take care of posture and the overall mechanics of walking without being bothered by the mind worrying it about every cramp and twinge, the body will be capable of walking far beyond what the mind would think and be comfortable in the process. It will even keep the effort constant, slow down when walking uphill and pick up speed on a flat stretch. Just keep the mind quiet.

We finished in daylight this time, in 13 hours 2 minutes, and even walked up those steps to get our certificates and badges without a second thought.

Kent in spring

•19 September, 2009 • 2 Comments

Earlier this year we went on a 15 mile trip, by way of preparation for the Ridgeway hike. It was organised by the Central London Outdoor Group and it was very nice. Kent was once known as the “Garden of England” and it was spring when we visited it. Here are some photos.

kent_2009_289 kent_2009_290 kent_2009_293
kent_2009_300 kent_2009_302 kent_2009_317

kent_2009_304   kent_2009_296
kent_2009_297   kent_2009_307

kent_2009_309 kent_2009_302 kent_2009_315

kent_2009_310   kent_2009_311
kent_2009_319   kent_2009_316

Here is the whole Kent photo set.

Ridgeway 40 – part 2

•17 September, 2009 • Leave a Comment

Checkpoint 4 was 20 miles into the route and we decided we deserved lunch by then. We sat down next to the Ridgeway halfway up Uffington Hill (you can see the Ridgeway climbing up the hill on the first photo) and immediately became an object of interest to a flock of curious sheep. They quickly decided that we were not that interesting, though.

Whitehorse Hill   Sheep on Whitehorse Hill
Sheep on Whitehorse Hill   Sheep on Whitehorse Hill

My friend found she had a huge blister on her foot, but other than that we were fine. Then. It was as we were nearing Checkpoint 5 that I started to feel as if my legs were to fall off at the hip joints. Were I but to know that this was going to be the least of my troubles.

The Ridgeway in spring   ridgeway_40_2009_428

At mile 25 or so I started to feel a twinge in my right knee. I realised that I had felt that twinge a few times before, usually when running upstairs or swimming, but it never lasted long, so I had paid no notice. I had to pay notice now, as the twinge developed, over several miles, to very serious pain. Now, I do think that masking pain with medication and continuing with the activity that had caused the pain in the first place is beyond silly, but I was prepared to make an exception here (while still admitting that it is silly). It took about half an hour for the painkillers to start working, but when they did they helped a little.

ridgeway_40_2009_429   View from Checkpoint 6

I grew up in a hilly country and have always had a desire to know what is beyond the horizon, beyond the next hill, the next bend of the river. This was part of the attraction of the Ridgeway walk: here you looked ahead and knew that you were going to find out what is beyond the next hill and looked back and knew you came over the hills now blue with distance. Interestingly, I found that people who grew up in a flat country often do not share this curiosity. Of course, when you know that wherever you look you can see for miles and it is still the same boring combination of flat fields and roads, you do not necessarily have the wish to know how far they continue. I know I don’t. (All right, I admit it, I am prejudiced against flat landscape, but then I spent five years in Berlin, so I have a good reason to be.)

We came to Checkpoint 6 to find there was a birthday party in progress. The cakes (and chairs!) they had there were very welcome. I was continually checking my watch to see whether I can take another dose of painkillers, but did not dare to yet.

On the lookout   Birthday party at Checkpoint 6

After Checkpoint 6 I stopped taking photos. The sun was going down anyway. The painkillers took longer and longer to work. I suppose it is because human body under physical stress preserves energy supplies by shutting down nonessential processes, like, unfortunately in this case, digestion. There was an ambulance at each checkpoint and I was telling myself “Smile, or they’ll retire you!” I am sure my smile became more and more glassy with each subsequent checkpoint, but I was not retired from the walk. By Checkpoint 8 we were not talking much, each of us concentrating on putting one foot in front of the next. We later found out that both of us thought that because the other one was not giving up, it must be possible to continue… The sun set just as we left Checkpoint 8 and we took out our torches. It was encouraging that we overtook several other walkers, but nothing could take my attention from my right knee.

At long last we hobbled into Streatley and continued along the road. I had never been on such autopilot. There seemed to be a short circuit from that part of brain that controls movement to my legs and feet, bypassing any thought process. A car stopped and the driver asked me directions. It took an effort to stop and switch on my brain, but I managed to mumble that I was not local and went on. She glared at me, but I really did not care. We came back to the hostel, thirteen hours thirty nine minutes after we set off from Overton Hill. There was a marshal standing in front of the hostel and we asked where we should hand in our cards. “Just up these stairs”, he said cheerfully. I beg your pardon? We had just walked 40 miles and you want us to walk up stairs?! We did, of course. We wanted official confirmation of our achievement and I wanted a badge, too.

Here I must say that the cook in the Streatley YHA is superb. We had dinner, designed specifically to be eaten without much chewing, and went to get some sleep. I quickly realised there was only one position in which I was able to lie and if I moved an inch I would scream, so I padded my leg with clothes and blankets so that it would not move (that First Aid course is proving really useful!) and managed to get some rest. In the morning the knee did not hurt (!), but the muscles around it, which must have been working hard to compensate whatever problem there was, were very, very sore. I knew I would be using an ibuprofen gel instead of body moisturiser for days to come.

We set off the hostel to catch our train and spotted a young lady with a backpack going in the same direction. We recognised her from the walk, but even if we had not, we would have known she was a fellow Ridgeway 40 walker – she was limping.

Ridgeway 40 – part 1

•13 May, 2009 • 2 Comments

First things first: yes, I crossed one OS Landranger map from left to right plus a quarter of another in one day, and that’s without even considering the distance added in the north-south direction. It took 78284 steps and 40 miles:


The Ridgeway is a route that was considered ancient already by the Anglo-Saxons. It is part of a long distance path network connecting the south west of England with the north east. Today The Ridgeway is a National Trail, which for the most part follows the original Ridgeway. The Reading Outdoor Group has been organising a 40 mile walk, covering almost half of The Ridgeway, since 1962.

Ridgeway 40 is by now a perfectly organised event complete with checkpoints, water, fruit, rice pudding, ambulances, YHA accommodation and meals, and coaches provided. The coaches take the participants to the start and they walk or run back to the hostel. Which is fine, except for the demoralising hour or so on the coach, when you have enough time to think that you will have all this distance to walk back. I was consoling myself by thinking that the coach surely made a big circle, but that was of course just wishful thinking.

The Ridgeway at Avebury Down   View from the Ridgeway

We set off at 8:15 from the official start of The Ridgeway at Overton Hill. The place is close to Avebury with its standing stones and legends. The path stays mostly on hilltops, which means great views most of the time. And at the beginning of the walk one is still able to take in the views… The first checkpoint came after 7 miles, at the Iron Age hillfort called Barbury Castle on Barbury Hill. It was overcast and the wind was so cold I put on a fleece hat, which I had packed despite feeling a bit wimpy about it. At Barbury Hill, that changed to feeling quite smug at being able to outsmart the English weather for once. (The score so far is about even, but the weather scored heavily at the last archery practice, when it brought out the coldest wind since Christmas, specially designed to freeze archers to the marrow.)

Barbury Castle   Path up Barbury Hill
View towards Whitefield Hill   View towards Barbury Hill

The last photo above shows a view back to checkpoints 1 and 2 (if you click on it, you’ll get a larger view on Flickr, which shows the location of the checkpoints when you move the mouse over it).

We climbed Whitefield Hill, the steepest hill on the route, with its ancient earthworks, and continued to Liddington Hill, which is one of the possible sites of the battle of Mons Badonicus.

Crabapple tree in bloom   Liddington Hill
Liddington Hill   Draft horses

After Liddington Hill The Ridgeway crosses the M4, which slightly spoils the illusion of timelesness, but that’s about the only reminder of civilisation along the way. There are no villages directly on The Ridgeway until Streatley, 40 miles from its start.

Around mile 20 we spotted a bicyclist. We considered asking him to give us a lift, but decided there would not be room for three on the bicycle. The obvious solution was that the two of us would ride away and leave the bike for the bicyclist to pick up when he came there (he would surely thank us for giving him the chance to walk and stretch his legs), but by the time we worked the plan out, he was already away.

Just before checkpoint 4 we came to Wayland’s Smithy, a neolithic long barrow and home of Wayland the Smith, who not only shoes your horse if you leave it at the smithy overnight with a sixpence as payment, but is also said to have shod the White Horse of Uffington.

View towards Bishopstone   Wayland's Smithy
Wayland's Smithy Wayland's Smithy Draft horses

To be continued…

Rye, Rye Harbour, and Winchelsea Beach

•7 May, 2009 • 5 Comments

There is a good reason why East Sussex is not particularly known for good beaches. It is the same reason for which lesser known artists remain lesser known.

I swear this is the last time I fell for a Lonely Planet guidebook’s enthusiasm for a place. (Sadly, it is not the first time: the first time concerned the Berlin guidebook and a glowing description of two “small and picturesque” Spreewald towns, Lübben and Lübbenau, which turned out to be just small and unremarkable. And do not even get me started on traditional Spreewald crafts.) The LP guidebook section on Rye begins “Rye is almost impossibly beautiful.” and continues along the lines “desperately picturesque”. Desperately, maybe. On reflection, the word “picturesque” was used to describe Lübben and Lübbenau too, so I suppose that should have set the alarm bells ringing. Unfortunately, it didn’t. The three photos below are one of the very, very few sights that made a nice picture.

Dove in an apple tree Cat on a windowsill Doorway in Rye

The day started cloudy and rainy, but the talk in town was that yesterday had been the same and it brightened up around 1 p.m. I had planned to walk to the beach in the morning, but, in the hope of better weather later, spent the morning exploring Rye, looking for places to photograph in the afternoon if the sun comes out, shivering and cursing the weather forecasters who had promised sunshine. The main attractions of Rye are its timber houses and cobbled narrow streets. All I can say is that timber houses look much the same in any town and cobblestones are very difficult to walk on even in hiking boots. And the fabled Mermaid Street? Hm.

Mermaid Street, Rye The Pette Shoppe Sweet shop in Rye

Rye has three main kinds of shops: art gallery, teashop, and sweet shop. These are repeated over and over, with slight variations, probably learned from art textbooks, which say that repetition can be used to good effect in a painting, provided that the repeated objects vary slightly. Mind, I did like “Ye Olde Pette Shoppe”.

At half past twelve I set off for the beach, under still clouded skies. Another similarity to Spreewald swiftly became apparent: the landscape is very flat. To make it any flatter you would have to use sophisticated landscaping techniques, or, alternatively, flood it. The only saving grace, from my point of view, were the sheep and lambs.

Two lambs  Sheep with lambs
Lamb  Camber Castle

The footpath lead through the sheep pasture to Camber Castle, a small ruin. By then I had spotted that the next pasture was occupied by cows. Although someone did tell me that farmers are obliged not to put any dangerous animals to pastures accessible to public, I did not feel very comfortable walking among cows, so I kept fairly close to the only other human around, a man walking his dog. Not too close, though, because he looked what the English would describe as eccentric (i.e., madman). Just as I managed to persuade myself that the cows must be harmless, the dog walker picked up a stout stick. Then one cow started to follow me and it cost me some effort not to break into a run. The main reason I did not was the mental image of what would happen if I did.

Eventually I came back to a road. To a sharp bend in a road, with both parts going almost in the same direction. The rough map I had was no help, so I chose the way which did not lead to fields and trees. As it turned out, it was a mistake. Instead to Winchelsea I came to Winchelsea Beach. I did not mind, because Winchelsea was touted as similar to Rye and I was much more interested in the sea. The downside was that it was now about 2 p.m. and I was going to miss lunch (actually by then I had already missed it).

sussex_2009_252  Dilapidated house close to Winchelsea Beach

I suppose they had to include the word “beach” in the name the village, otherwise no one would even think of visiting the area to go to beach. The East Sussex countryside is described in the LP guidebook as “lovely”. This is not an adjective I would use. Bleak, empty, and desolate is much nearer the mark and it also explains why I had not been able to find any photographs of Rye Harbour online. There is nothing to photograph.

Seagull in Rye Harbour Seagull in Rye Harbour

The only other people there were dog walkers and bird watchers, that is, people with reason other than to look at the landscape. Dog-less and binoculars-less, I asked one dog walker whether I was going in the right direction to Rye Harbour. She confirmed I was, and took her leave quickly. Eccentric, I read in her eyes. I was inclined to agree. I should have stayed home and go and have a look at the kingfisher that I had seen on a riverbank few days ago and to archery practice later.

Walking back to Rye I spotted something that made me think I was perhaps even hungrier than I thought and was hallucinating – it was tall and feathery and had a very long neck. And there were more of them, moving around. Aha. It was an ostrich farm.

Church window in Rye Rye fortifications Rye Church and an apple tree
Mermaid Street, Rye  Hungry

The sun appeared at a quarter to four, by which time I was back in Rye. It did look slightly more interesting and I briefly considered climbing up the church tower, but decided not to. After all I had already walked the countryside. I certainly did not need to be reminded of how it looked like. By then I was ravenous and the only thoughts going on in my head were symptoms of hypoglycaemia I had learned on a First Aid course the week before. I went in quest of food. Innkeepers clearly think four o’clock is no time for lunch. That left the tearooms. I did have excellent lunch in one of them, the only quibble being that I would expect a quiche to be larger than about 8 centimeters in diameter and if the menu says “potatoes”, I would sort of assume they mean more than four small ones. Oh well, the food was good.

Why do people come here? They must have been conned by the guidebooks too.


•26 February, 2009 • Leave a Comment

The flower seller at the St Albans market has only bunches of cut flowers of the same colour. I once asked whether they would sell me a bunch of sweet peas of different colours and they said No, sorry, we would not be able to sell the rest. I do not believe there is any logic in this “reasoning”. As it is, they are cerainly losing my custom. Fortunately a new flower seller appeared recently, who does not scruple to mix colours: