Watlington weekend

It being the 50th birthday of that Stalwart of the Community Rich Forest, a number of us hied ourselves over to Watlington for the weekend. Rich is Events Organiser for the Association of Lightweight Campers as well as being a member of YACF, so it was a mixture of cyclists and campers, there being a considerable overlap between the two activities, who met at the White Mark Farm campsite in Watlington.

As part of my preparation for my Pembrokeshire walk, which is rapidly approaching, I decided to walk with a large, heavy rucksack from Saunderton station. This was exactly the sort of practice I needed as I was walking “against the grain”, as it were: up and down the escarpments rather than following contours. Although ascending is hard work with a heavy pack, it suddenly hits you as to why people ride bikes. When you are walking, descending is just as much tortuous hard work as is climbing: the footpath took me alongside the cricket pitch at Bledlow Ridge and immediately thereafter the descent is nigh-on precipitous. Steps had been cut into the soil with planks of wood holding them together so I found it rather easier to come down backwards and was very dependent on my walking poles. Compare that to coming down a hill on a bike.

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Watlington really is Red Kite Central. There was a time when the red kite could only be seen in Wales, and there were very few pairs there, but some were introduced to the Chilterns and they have thrived. Indeed, they have become so bold that one of our number lost his burger in an air raid and required some minor first aid on his thumb. From my vantage point at the top of the camp site I can see the Scots pine where a pair is nesting, but there are many more than just the one pair. We also had a visitation from a buzzard this morning. There are plenty of other species, mostly evidenced by the ever-present peep-peep-peep-peep of a flock of long-tailed tits, and a song thrush, which seems to be the leading light in the dawn chorus.

Meanwhile, most of our number have gone for a ride. One of the younger members of our party asked me “Are you coming for a bike ride, mate?” I replied “No, I didn’t bring a bike.” His response of “Oh dear…” summed up the situation perfectly.

It was all kept very hush-hush, but Woolly managed to organise a nice little ride for Peliroja, whose 30th birthday it is in a day or two. Mrs. Wow and I caught the 8.15 train to Fenchurch Street and then cycled the entire length of the Embankment to Parsons Green, and then onto Woollypeli Villas where tea, cake and surprised expressions were the order of the morning. Then we cycled to Windsor, visiting a couple of pubs en route.

It was a gorgeously relaxed day with about twenty riders, I think. I was still pretty knackered after only managing something like 9 hours’ sleep in the past 48. Regulator managed to wind up a BMW driver perhaps more than any I’ve seen of late. There were strong words exchanges, slammings into reverse, squeals of tyres and finally, it seemed that the fine man had been intending to take his family to the same pub that we were going to, and when he saw that all these cyclists were there, he changed his mind and roared off, gesticulating in amost vulgar fashion as he disappeared.

It was a really lovely day.

Mosel und Rhein

Jan and I last tackled this journey in 2010 with some pals, one of whom spoke fluent German and took charge of all the arrangements. This time it was down to me to book the B & Bs so we stopped in Brussels, Luxembourg, Trier, Bernkastel-Kues, Cochem and Spay before getting the train back to Belgium with overnight stays in Liège, Leuven and Brussels before boarding Eurostar for our return to London on Sunday. I am writing this in Liège after an excellent meal with good beer and wine.

I hadn’t remembered exactly, and failed to check, the mileages between the overnight stops. Leaving Luxembourg was a shock to the system as the place is full of steep hills. We were grinding our way up one of these, and must have been close to 1000 feet above sea level, when a cheery young family approached from the opposite direction, father on his bike, mother and both children on hers. Never one to be ashamed of my rudimentary French, I bade them “Bonjour”. My greeting was returned with the extra information “Vous savez qu’il y a une funiculaire…?” No, I didn’t. “Yes,” she elaborated, in English, “there are lifts for everything in Luxembourg!”

By now we were nearly at the top so carried on but there were more hills and as the shade temperature moved into the high 20s Celsius so we flagged. Even the sight of a black stork and a red kite, closely followed by hearing a nearby cuckoo, didn’t spur us on as much as you might have expected. Jan was really struggling so when we happened upon a closed level crossing with a train approaching from the right direction, we hopped on. Jeff and Annie were well ahead by this time so I phoned Jeff and made him aware of developments.

We found the Römerbrucke hotel and had scarcely installed ourselves when Jeff an Annie appeared, having ridden about 10 miles more than we did. After ablutions, we wandered into Trier, found Karl Marx’s birthplace and took the necessary photos, albeit 200 years and 1 day after the event, and then dined on some splendid provender from some Wirtshaus or other in the city centre.

Slow train to Luxembourg

We weren’t that impressed with what we saw of Brussels. Eurostar dumps you off to the south of the city, which is a bit scruffy and the Bedford Hotel, where we spent the night, is on the way to the centre, so we almost certainly didn’t see the best bits. Our hotel is in an area of the city known as Stalingrad, no doubt celebrating the role its residents and the Soviet army played in the defeat of the nazis. So, when Karl Marx’s 200th birthday dawned bright and hopeful, we were in Stalingrad.

Our task today was to get to Luxembourg. It is too far for us old codgers to cycle, being about 140 miles, but we felt that 90 minutes on a train should do it, but to out great surprise the train took well over 3 hours and cost €43 per person and €13 per bike. We researched the possibility of a bus, and the journey seemed to take less time and only cost about €12 but we couldn’t find anyone to tell us about bikes, so in the end we caught the train.

Luckily our hotel, the Empire, is just across the road from the station so we settled straight in and then wandered around the city. We definitely approved of this one. Luxembourg has a deep ravine dividing it into two and there are two spectacular bridges over it. I expected to see an impressive river flowing below us but there was hardly a trickle, just a lot of attractive ornamental gardens.

There was some sort of festival on, with all kinds of sweets for sale, but we opted for a restaurant with steak and schnitzel. Then another wander back to the hotel and a couple of beers before bed.

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Twinkle Twinkle Eurostar

Here we are on the 12.58 to Brussels and what a sodding rigmarole it was. Getting to St. Pancras was easy enough, but the fun began when we arrived at Eurodispatch where we had to disassemble a couple of bikes to go in the stout black bike box supplied. Given that the chances are that any bike being transported will be a touring bike, i.e. equipped with luggage racks, it is very awkward that the boxes are too small for a bike with racks. As luck would have it, there was a spare “complete bike” slot so we only had to dismantle the one.

Then there was the tortuous business of having our luggage checked. Our rookie status was clear for all to see as various bits and pieces of my attire ended up in an untidy heap in the tray on the conveyor. When I thought the torture was over I found myself trapped in a cubicle where a machine struggled personfully to try to match the photo in my passport with the image of my face on a screen. Whether this is due to beards is hard to say, but mine matches the picture in my passport for only a few days in any given six-monthly period, which is roughly how often I shave.

When we get to Brussels I have the tedious task of trying to build a bike out of a box of components, hoping that we haven’t lost any.

I’ll go by boat next time.

Postscript: Jeff became a victim of a light-fingered felon who made off with his watch shortly after we left Brussels station. Luckily the watch was fairly old and of not much value. That’s two Eurostar trips in succession that my companions or I have been victims of petty crime. I had my pocket picked in Lille las year.

A flat stroll

On the off chance, yesterday I phoned my long-time walking pal Mel to see if he fancied a stroll, and I caught him just after he arrived home from a Caribbean cruise. Having spent more than a week eating vast quantities, in the company of vast Americans, he was ready to burn a few calories, but, like me, he was anxious to avoid mud. We decided upon a sea wall walk, out-and-back, from Heybridge Basin to Goldhanger.

Mel arrived at my house at about 10am and we started walking shortly after 11am. Mel had a 4pm appointment meeting a man in a car park about a ticket for a Tottenham Hotspur match, so with this seemingly dodgy mission in mind, we knew we had a deadline. We set off at a fair old pace in the cool, murky conditions that seem to have dominated the proceedings for far too long, which came as a shock to the jet-lagged Mel, who has become accustomed to a West Indian spring. We stopped at one of the “Tiptree Jams” tea room for a cuppa, but didn’t consume any solids, and then hurried on towards the Chequers pub, where Mel had the steak pie and I had the balti. We each enjoyed a pint of Woodfordes Wherry, a very tasty ale from darkest Norfolk. Thereafter we headed straight back, completing about 9.5 miles in under 4 hours, stops included.

Wildlife seen: 1 weasel, 1 marsh harrier, quite a lot of brent geese (shouldn’t they be in Siberia?) and a few waders. I didn’t take any photos.

A Chilterns Stroll with camping kit

With late June and the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path walk looming ever closer, it seemed like a good idea to to a bit of hill walking and to do some camping at the same time, with the sort of kit that was going to be needed in Pembs, I decided on a weekend in the Chilterns involving 3 nights’s camping and a total of just over 30 miles of walking.

Sadly, for very good reasons, my two pals were unable in the end to join me for this and I was beginning to get a bad feeling about the whole weekend. I kept an eye on the forecast, which was generally pretty favourable and decided that it would be OK to reduce it to 2 nights’ camping with marginally less walking. Definitely, the tough day would be from Wendover station to the Bella Vista campsite near Radnage, which is something like 12 miles. I was preparing myself psychologically for a weekend as Billy No-mates when my walking pal Katie said she would join me for the Saturday. So after a bit of preparation we met at Marylebone with a view to following my planned route but Katie getting on a train back to London at Saunderton station.

We arrived at Marylebone within minutes of each other, bought coffee and (for me) a second breakfast of pain au raisin, since my first breakfast had been so long ago, and then boarded the train. It takes only about 45 minutes to get to Wendover and as soon as we had exited the station, there was a bridge across the railway and a main road and we were Out In The Country and climbing up towards some viewing point or other.

Looking north across Aylesbury Vale

Chequers, and the Dogs of War

Inevitable selfie. There was supposed to be some landscape, but it was eclipsed by excessive amounts of hair…

From this point, we encountered mud. Lots of it. It became very difficult at times to find a path into which we did not sink ankle-deep. There had clearly been plenty of horse activity in the area and that was the cause of a good deal of the churned-up ground, but also there was quite a bit of tree removal going on. This, allegedly, is to allow more sunlight into the afforested area to encourage new growth and wildlife, but the enormous tyres on vehicles designed to transport half a dozen mature beech trunks around the place leave some pretty big ruts in soft ground, and those ruts have a habit of filling with water.

We encountered a farm shop and that was also selling tea and cake. I suggested that we might partake, but Katie seemed to want to press on so that’s what we did (to be fair, I wasn’t properly hungry at that stage, but I’m not normally one to miss an opportunity for a cuppa and a slice of cake…). We had to negotiate a road, but found that there was a footpath in some woodland just behind a hedge, but it was, again, remarkably muddy.

I was pretty pleased with the fact that I was making perfectly reasonable progress despite having a 12kg pack on my back. A few days ago I pulled some random, probably unread, volume from the shelves above my desk. It was entitled “Walking the Alpine Parks” or some such, a book I had no recollection of having bought, and one which was redolent of unfulfilled ambition, and I found a section in the book giving advice on how quickly you should walk when in the hills and mountains. The author opined that the vast majority of people set off far too quickly and exhaust themselves. His advice was to keep to about 60 paces per minute on the flat, lowering that to about 40 paces whilst climbing. So it was that I was consciously keeping my pace down and trying not to raise my heart or breathing rate too much. We made pretty decent progress and, given that we stopped to admire the view, take photos, or just negotiate our way around quagmires or through undergrowth, I was quite happy that we completed our first 3 miles in considerably less than 2 hours.

At one point we were walking along a very muddy track with a fence on either side when two horsewomen hove into view. We conversed as they approached and the second horse was almost past us when it suddenly panicked and shied away from me quite violently. The rider took it under control but again as we tried to walk past it, so it panicked again. I have to say that I’m not a great fan of having half a ton of horseflesh flailing about within a close proximity of my head and I was damned glad when we were past them. “I think she’s frightened of your backpack…”

Soon afterwards, we arrived at the Pink & Lily, our scheduled lunch stop, and one I would recommend. The main courses weren’t cheap and to be fair, neither were the sandwiches at £7.50 a go, but they came with chips and salad, so plenty of carbs to sustain hungry walkers. I had sausage sandwiches, Katie roast beef, washed down with a couple of local ales in my case, and a Fentiman’s ginger beer in Katie’s.This was at about 6.5 miles and that took us considerably less than 4 hours.

We walked down to Lily’s Bottom and she didn’t seem to mind at all, and from that point we found ourselves in Grim’s Ditch. This definitely lived up to its name with yet more mud. For a fair bit of it we walked in the field next door, which had a hardened vehicle track and was much easier, but after a few hundred yards of this we found an adequate gap in the hedge and rejoined the muddy track as it descended to Lacey’s Green.

Katie & mud

It was at this point that a small navigational error cost us a few minutes but we were soon back on our appointed quagmire towards Smalldean Lane, and the mile or so of road walking to Saunderton Station. I had been weighing my options during the past couple of miles and although I had no particular qualms about camping, I wasn’t looking forward to another long trudge in what promised, the weather forecast having changed rather, to be very wet conditions the following day. My navigational aids, my Garmin and OS 1:25000 maps on my phone, were both “touch-screen” devices and I know from personal experience that such technology goes totally haywire when the screen is wet, and being constantly bombarded with raindrops. So, providentially, when the one-train-an-hour turned up dead on cue just as we arrived on the platform, I caught the same train as Katie and we spent a little time drinking beer in the Beehive Pub, just of Baker Street, before I returned to Southend in a totally knackered state.

The main walk between Wendover and Saunderton was measured by the Garmin as 9.34 miles, but it’s over a mile from my house to Southend Central, and then of course there’s the general walking between stations, which must have been at least another mile. I’d call that a 12 mile day.

The Joys of Spring

Since she retired, my good friend Jane seems to have been busier than when she was in full-time teaching. So, when the opportunity comes to go riding for a day with her, I’m always keen.

As luck would have it, another good friend, Rebecca, is soon to start a new job and she’d picked my brains about the possibility of an electrically-assisted steed for her new commute, which at 21 miles a day is rather longer than her current one. It turned out that she too was free on the day in question, and since both Jane and Rebecca live in different parts of London, it was the same train that delivered them both to Billericay, where I had been waiting for about 3 minutes.

We exchanged hugs, pleasantries and small gifts. I had brought a couple of jars of my home-made marmalade, which I know Jane thoroughly enjoys, and it was particularly appropriate for Rebecca on this occasion as her new job is working for the Women’s Institute. Then we set off in the cold, bright April sunshine for our first port of call, which, at around 8 miles, was the very good tea room at Blackmore, where we imbibed coffees of different types as well as some sustenance. It was definitely a gloves-on morning and the ladies nattered away like old friends, which I was sure they would. I didn’t think they had met before, but it seems that they had a brief exchange at the start of the Dunwich Dynamo 2016 in which the topic of conversation was Dangly Bits, and how unfortunate if such things get caught in your rear wheel.

Today was a good morning for wildlife, and also wildnotlife, as we saw a couple of dead badgers. There were the first chiffchaffs of the year, at least 2 buzzards, and I think we heard at least one more that we didn’t see, a muntjac, a hare and possibly the prize of the day, a stoat hurtling across the road in front of us just as we entered High Easter. I also heard a fair number of goldcrests.

As we progressed, so the day warmed up. We had planned to have lunch at the Viper pub, in Mill Green. It is a very pleasant, unspoiled, basic pub in the middle of wooded countryside and Jane had expressed an interest in visiting. Unfortunately, it’s not well-placed for a ride from either Billericay or Shenfield stations as it’s just too close to the start, or, indeed, finish. We decided that on this occasion, since we only had about 40 miles planned, that we would try it for a late lunch, even though there were only about another 6 miles to Billericay station. Sadly, this plan was confounded by the fact that during the week they stop serving food there at 2pm and we arrived just before 2.30. We had a drink and some crisps, and then adjourned to the Cricketers, just along the road, where we had another drink and some jacket potatoes. The advantage of doing it this way was that I got 2 pints instead of just the one.

The ride back to Billericay was almost uneventful. Jane decided that it would be a Good Idea to ride through the ford at Buttsbury, and so she did. She was rather taken aback by the strength of the current and had to push quite hard on the pedals in order to maintain her momentum, and the result of this was a very wet foot. However, she can’t have been that far from getting rather more than her foot wet…

An absolutely delightful day in wonderful company. Let’s do it again soon!

42 miles done…





 

 

Sleeping arrangements

I am planning some backpacking trips this summer, starting with a long weekend in the Chilterns next weekend, and culminating it walking the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path in June. I have decided to experiment with a quilt instead of a sleeping bag. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, I find it very difficult to get s sleeping bag big enough to fit my shoulders inside and secondly, a quilt takes up much less rucksack space and is a lot lighter.

I have used an Exped Downmat for some years and as an experiment I decided to see if it would fit inside my cotton sleeping bag liner. And it does, perfectly!

Well that’s a bonus!