My longest walk – Waltham Cross to Welwyn Garden City

Looking back now to this monumental yomp at the end of May I wonder what on earth I was thinking walking 30 mazy miles across Hertfordshire from Waltham Cross to Welwyn Garden City (29.2 miles to Welwyn Garden City the other 0.8 miles was finding the pub back in Kings Cross Station). So I dig my walking journal out of my backpack to unpick the day.

Waltham Cross

Waltham Cross

30th May 2017

On the train – That buzz of excitement when heading out on an expedition really hit me as I walked up Platform 11 at Stratford for the train to Waltham Cross. Only decided to head off over breakfast, chose the route quickly, violent bad dreams I saw as a warning to stay out of Essex and abandon the half-planned walk through Ongar to Chelmsford. I almost forced myself that way but as soon as I saw a route from Waltham Cross to Welwyn Garden City I was seduced – it was calling me. A quick dash to WH Smith in Westfield to get an OS Map and pick up the Chelmsford map too for another day not plagued by nightmares.

City of London Coal Tax Post, Wormley Wood

City of London Coal Tax Post, Wormley Wood

3.20pm – resting on a fallen tree in Wormley/ Derry’s Wood 12 miles in – much further to this point than imagined and still no idea of where I’ll end up (entertaining various possibilites including Hertford and Hatfield). I passed through the far side of this wood in the snow in February walking along Ermine Street to Hertford. I’m slowly filling in the OS 174 map. Super humid today and feeling it a bit, waiting for my second wind. Good just to stop and savour a moment in the woods beneath the canopy, under ancient boughs, the spirit of Pan – is this where we’re meant to reside?

Quarry footpath Hertfordshire

Quarry footpath, Hertfordshire

10.30pm – in the Packing Yard Pub in Kings Cross Station. 29.2 miles in the end, too bloody far, feel dizzy. The classical music in the Howard Centre at Welwyn Garden City was a suitable end. Where this differed from my epic Hertford hike just before Christmas is that I didn’t really stop – just a couple of 5 minute rests. If I’d stopped,  I’d never have made it. Clambering along the overgrown stream bed was a real moment, my arm still hums from the nettle stings. The irony being that I only intended to do 14-miles, how did it end up being so long and taking 10.5 hours?

 

Watch the video at the top of this post for the full story of my epic hike from Waltham Cross to Welwyn Garden City

Walking ancient trackways – over Pitstone Hill to Ivinghoe Beacon

Ridgeway Path sign

This is a bit bonkers I know, but I’m sat here watching a Jason Segel movie on Netflix called Jeff, Who Lives at Home about a guy who keeps looking for signs telling him what he should do with his life. He goes out to the hardware store and helps an old lady onto the bus and for a brief moment you see the street sign behind him – Ridgeway. I instantly see it as a sign, a reminder that I need to write this blog about the walk I did in late September last year along the Ridgeway from Tring, over Pitstone Hill to Ivinghoe Beacon. I was going to do this before I started watching the movie but got stuck on how to start – I must have know a film about a guy who lives in his Mum’s basement would give me inspiration.

The walk was inspired by seeing a photo of the footpath running over Pitstone Hill – a white way carved out of the grass covered chalk ridge with the lowlands far below. It called out to me sat in my box room in East London, summer in final decline, the last chance for a venturing out in the long days before winter drew in.

Ridgeway sign post
One late September Friday after dropping the kids at school I boarded the train at Euston bound for Tring, soon sliding through Wembley, then Harrow and Bushey under a clear blue sky – perfect walking weather.

I’m carrying too much stuff in my battered old backpack, which is a bit too heavy. I’m packing 3 cameras and 2 jackets somehow. The 3 cameras I can just about justify, the extra jacket has me flummoxed.  But by the time I’ve turned up the track onto the Ridgeway my mind is clear for the way ahead.

I first planned to walk the Ridgeway while I was backpacking in the mid-90’s, catching the bug after jungle trekking in South East Asia. My Dad had talked about it throughout my childhood in South Bucks with the Ridgeway passing no more than a few miles from our home. But somehow we never got round to it, children arrived, and as the old man advances into his 80’s the talk has diminished. But just seeing the first sign for the Ridgeway sparks something inside.

Aldbury Nowers
The Ridgeway forms part of an ancient long distance path thousands of years old, the oldest prehistoric track in the country running between Overton Hill near Avebury in Wiltshire and Ivinghoe Beacon in the Buckinghamshire Chilterns. I walked a mere fragment of its 87 miles, but sitting here now 7 months later every footstep lingers in the mind.

I passed over Grim’s Ditch, a 20-mile long Iron Age earthwork, at the bottom of a steep wood where I also searched for the tumuli marked on the Ordnance Survey map – spotting two mounds in the undergrowth that reminded me of a tumulus I’d seen in the Upper Lea Valley.

As the path continues through Aldbury Nowers you get that sense of the travelers that have passed this way over millennia. Today most of my fellow walkers appear to be retirees out with their dogs for a morning stroll, vigorously healthy pensioners wearing performance sportswear. It’s a beautiful hot day, the burning out of summer; the two jackets seem even more of a folly than they did on the train.

Pitstone Hill Ridgeway

The path breaks out through the trees presenting the vista I’d seen in the photo that had brought me out here – the curving white track running along the edge of Pitstone Hill – it was every bit as glorious as I’d hoped it’d be. Earthworks had been identified on Pitstone Hill within what is believed to be a prehistoric “Citadel” cris-crossed with trackways, boundary ditches with some features identified as possibly being Neolithic. Other finds indicate the site was in use through the Bronze and Iron Age into the Roman period

Pitstone Hill Ridgeway
I rummage around in a deep hollow formed by a pre-Roman flint mine, where chalk and flint still litter the grass. It is a majestic spot looking out over the valley floor towards Aylesbury. I probably linger too long gazing at flints and admiring the view, checking archaeological notes and attempting to walk around the perimeter of the ‘Citadel’.

Incombe Hole the Ridgeway

Ivinghoe Beacon rises majestically in the near distance – the Ridgeway snaking along a green spine.  It leads me around the edge of Incombe Hole – a deep sided hollow way, possibly a prehistoric boundary marker or ‘linear earthwork’. Breathtaking views stretch out in all directions. I rest on the side of Steps Hill and shoot a timelapse of Beacon Hill and the southeast facing tumulus before my final ascent.

Ivinghoe Beacon summit
It’s an odd sensation to summit Ivinghoe Beacon at the midpoint of a relatively short walk rather than the conclusion of an 86-mile yomp from Wiltshire. As people arrive at the stone plaque at the top of the hill I try to ascertain whether they’re completing a Ridgeway thru-hike but don’t observe any obvious signs of celebration. I vow to come back here to start a walk along the entire Ridgeway, fulfill the plan I made those 20-odd years ago.

Ivinghoe Beacon view

It was difficult to wrench myself away from the stunning views spreading out in all directions from Ivinghoe Beacon. A tangible sense of ancient history is present – it’s said to contain remains of one of the oldest Iron Age Hillforts in Britain with burial mounds dotted around the summit, the surrounding landscape is ridiculously rich in prehistoric sites. I munched on a Marks and Spencer sandwich I’d bought in Euston Station trying to process it all.

I’d made no clear plan for the route back to Tring and as was only mid-afternoon, plot a mazy loop through surrounding woodland. The evenings will soon draw in dragging wind and rain with them and memories of these glorious last rays of summer will be rekindled to keep me warm.
Ivinghoe Beacon and Gallows Hill

The Icknield Way crosses the Ridgeway just below Ivinghoe Beacon and continues the ancient trackway all the way to the coast – the simple wooden signposts an open invitation to adventure. I follow a path along a ridge over the tumulus on Gallows Hill then loop back across farmland to the Coombe.
Mid-afternoon I rest beside the footpath on the side of a steep hill reflecting on what has been a classic walk that although the original purpose has been fulfilled I’m keen not to end just yet. Checking the OS map I spot another tumulus in woodland on Moneybury Hill so decide to push on.

IMG_0870

Entering the wood after crossing a field of stubble I clamber up a high bank which sharply falls away into a deep-sided ditch. Rising on the far side appears a mound in the trees. The ditch has the clear look of a human intervention, like the outer-rim of a defensive earthwork, boundary marker, or holloway. I continue along a narrow path that runs along the high outer ridge of the ditch and find a shard of flint shaped like an axe-head or hand-axe. A tall tree has fallen across the ditch. It’s a dramatic prehistoric landscape hidden away on the edge of this large tract of woodland. It is a majestic find in the last light of summer.

Moneybury Hill Ashridge
At the far end of the path there is a small plaque confirming the ditch’s prehistoric origins, explaining that it was carved out over time by herded animals led this way to feed on grasses and acorns.

There is another, smaller burial mound near the carpark of the Bridgewater Monument – a towering granite column standing on a York Stone base raised in 1832 in memory of the Duke of Bridgewater who had lived at Ashridge.

flint axe moneybury hill

After taking refreshment in the café I make my way down wooded paths to the Valiant Trooper in the village of Aldbury. Supping a pint of Chiltern Brewery Bitter in the beer garden I reflect that I have been royally rewarded by the walking gods for pushing those last 2 hours. I check the flint axe is still in the front pocket of my bag before drinking up and making my way over a damp stubble field back to Tring Station.

 

Lost in Epping Forest in the Dark

“The spirit of devotion for the woods, which breathes through the simple expression of the poet [John Clare], is akin to “that hereditary spell of forests”, which Robert Louis Stevenson describes as acting “on the mind of man who still remembers and salutes the ancient refuge of his race.”

From the opening pages of London’s Forest by P.J.S Perceval published in 1909 which follows on from a quote by John Clare. He continues:

“Such a refuge once was London. Indeed she makes her first claim on history as a mere stockade in the woods – the Llyndin of the ancient Britons. Her wood and fen and heath, with the sweet country which once surrounded her, have disappeared, while a part only of the Essex Forest remains to recall the once great forest of the East Saxon Kingdom, which once had Lundentune for its port and ecclesiastical centre.”

To me Epping Forest is still a place of refuge, a haven from the pressures of urban life, a step through time. I headed out on Saturday, departing the tube at Woodford, then turning down Whitehall Lane by Bancroft’s School. Perceval writes how Bancroft’s was once the site of a poor-house. Its annual fees of £16,323 are more in the tradition of the mansion belonging to the Earl of Essex that had previously occupied the same land. The Earl wanting to be close to his supposed love Queen Elizabeth I when she used the hunting lodge on Chingford Plain.

Warren Pond Epping Forest

My wander took me past the Warren Pond and Queen Elizabeth’s Hunting Lodge. I reflected that this is often where my forest walks end, in the bar of the Premier Inn next door but today I wanted to walk on into sunset. I crossed Chingford Plain and took a path beside the road for a short distance before turning into the rump of the trees past bushcraft shelters dotted amongst the undergrowth.

bushcraft shelter epping forest

The light started to give out as I crossed the Cuckoo Brook so I consulted my map to pick a route towards an exit and a way home. I decided to walk East towards Loughton, a simple case of staying on the path I was on till I hit the road by The Warren.

I got caught up in the reverie of being alone in the woods while people bustled around going home from the shops, pubs filled up, and streets were abuzz with activity. Then I came upon a narrow lane in the darkness and looked for the way across to head down towards Loughton but the far side was blocked by hedgerows and fences. I followed the lane what I thought was south till finally becoming slightly concerned that I was going in the wrong direction. My map reading isn’t the best but surely I couldn’t have gone wrong on a straight path. I checked my compass then the map on my phone – both indicated that I was heading north towards High Beach, placing me between Springfield Farm and the Field Study Centre. Impossible I thought, how could that be?

Epping Forest Chingford Map

I decided to follow my nose and turned away from the road back into the now pitch black forest and walked for 15 minutes or so using instinct, enjoying the quiet of the night trees. Something splashed in a pool beside the path then was gone into the undergrowth. A pair of green eyes looked out at me from a clump of holly. I started to feel like an intruder – the animals that avoid human contact during daylight could reasonably expect to have the forest to themselves at night but here I was clomping along the gravel path disturbing their nocturnal activities. I stood still for a moment hoping to sense some wildlife moving around in the trees – but there was just silence. Beautiful silence.

I checked my phone once more and it indicated that I was heading North East. I put this down to lack of GPS coverage in the forest and returned to my cheap old-school compass. It too told me that I was walking in a northeastern direction. I decided to head South for Chingford, and hopefully pick up paths familiar enough to be recognised in the dark. My concern now wasn’t spending a few hours walking in circles in the forest at night (actually very pleasant) but finding myself having to make my way along dark country roads to a station at the mercy of speeding cars not anticipating a stray walker.

I still couldn’t make out any familiar features in the gloom but simply kept following the compass needle south enjoying the quiet of the evening. It made me think it would be nice to spend an entire night wandering the forest if you could manage to avoid the doggers, cottagers, and deep ditches (if people stuck to having woodland sex in the ditches that would help to avoid all hazards in one go).

Soon I recognised the section of path leading down from the Long Hills towards Magpie Hill and Connaught Water. The sign for the Cuckoo Trail marked the route that I assumed I’d taken an hour previously, highlighting just how far off trail I’d been. The trees parted and the sky opened up over Chingford Plain.

Settled with a pint of IPA and packet of Prawn Cocktail crisps in the Premier Inn next to the Hunting Lodge I studied my OS Map trying to work out how I’d managed to get my location so wrong. It boiled down to one simple error – that when I’d crossed the Cuckoo Brook and checked my map in the poor light I’d assumed I was on a different path – one that ran east – west, when in fact I was beyond Woodman’s Glade heading north through Bury Wood across Ludgate Plain towards Lippitts Hill. The loudness of the helicopters from the Police heliport should have been a clue.

But it proved once again, that even what starts out as a simple walk in the woods can turn into a minor adventure as long as you manage to get lost.

 

Trail Magic – dreaming of the Appalachian Trail and the PCT

Wild Cheryl Strayed

In these dark winter days thoughts return to long summer walks. At night I watch videos made by hikers on America’s Appalachian Trail  – with the hiking season kicking off in April it’s at this time of year that people reflect on their thru-hikes and others start to plan their epic trek along the 2000 mile trail.

I’ve just started watching videos from the Pacific Crest Trail, a 2659-mile long path that stretches along the western spine of the US from California to Oregon and Washington – skirting the Mojave Desert, crossing the Sierra Nevada, and scaling the Cascade Mountains, through desert, snow and forest. The nearest I get to Sierra Nevada is through a bottle of the delicious Pale Ale bearing its name that I buy from the corner shop.

The longest trail we have in Britain is the South West Coast Path at 630 miles. We’ll have to wait for the completion of the England Coast Path in 2020 before we have a challenge on the scale of the AT. Locked into the domestic routine of a stay-at-home Dad the idea of life on the trail is amplified by how distant the possibility of spending 6 months walking actually is – a distance I can measure in years rather than miles. In the meantime I satisfy my wanderlust with my excursions around London, in themselves a hangover from my twenties backpacking years, and nightly binges on YouTube hiking videos.

I have also just opened Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, an account of her PCT trek (my discovery of the AT came after reading Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods bought at the end of a walk to Ilford in the howling wind). A guide to the Ridgeway sits on my desk as well that sings to me at night. There are a few more winter months to while away, day-walking, watching, reading, plotting, and then … who knows what the summer will bring.


 

Here are 5 of my favourite YouTube Hiking Channels – in no particular order

Hiker Trash VideoSeven out chasing Hikers and ‘safety material’ on the AT

John Zahorian – beautifully produced videos with stunning vistas and practical advice on ultra-light long-distance hiking

Homemade Wanderlust – Jessica (Dixie) is a great guide to life on and off the trail and a good source of practical information. Also love that she hiked the AT with her dog

Will Wood – hiking everywhere across the US, always on the trail. Zpacks team member

Neemor’s World – there’s a gentleness to Neemor’s videos out on the PCT and the AT and also some good gear reviews and tips.