Northumberland Coast Path Cresswell to Berwick-Upon-Tweed

At short notice we decided to go. I referred to the website for this national trail and quickly booked the accommodation we could find along the way, starting on a Monday from Cresswell where the Tyne properly becomes the North Sea. Then I ordered what I assumed would be the corresponding book – but it turns out there are two, and the one I bought was different. I think this was very fortunate and I’m going to tell you about it, including notes on getting vegan food.

There was a lot – but not too much – of this

Roland Tarr, currently a Councillor in Dorset, has written one of the best guides to a national trail I’ve come across. His enthusiasm for geology, nature, history, engineering, industry and the people of the region brings the landscape to life. A solicitous guide, he manages expectations, attends to hunger, fatigue and doubt, and prompts a more appreciative look at some unpromising sections along the way. The book fit into the leg pocket of my new walking trousers and I referred to it often. It helped us interpret the landscape and took us to overlooked parts of heavily touristed places like Newcastle, Lindisfarne and Berwick-Upon-Tweed. Unlike the website, the book guides readers around Newcastle and then proceeds to the mouth of the Tyne before arriving at Cresswell to pick up the official route and beyond to St Abbs Head in Scotland. So we changed our plans to start in Newcastle, arriving by train on a Saturday evening in late July.

Day 1 Newcastle

This model of the Tyne industries was created in the ’50s to reverse decline in the region

Roland Tarr’s book includes a circular walk around Newcastle and Gateshead. In a masterstroke he specifically takes you to the model above, which is part of ‘The Story of the Tyne’ exhibition in the Discovery Museum – because, he writes,

“When you see a derelict shipyard or factory by the Tyne or a closed railway or coal mine site in one of the coastal small towns and villages, you will understand its importance in the historical order of things instead of just seeing dead and unused structures. You will be able to picture it as it was in the past.”

What a legend – and thank you Newcastle because entry to this museum hasn’t always been free. He took us to the New Castle, the Philosophical and Literary Society which catalysed the inventions of the industrial revolution, over the historical High Level Bridge, under the Tyne Bridge with its kittiwake colony, through the Sage, to the Baltic and the Gateshead Millenium Bridge which we were fortunate to watch tilt open moments after we crossed.

Gateshead Millenium Bridge tilted up, Baltic beyond

Newcastle that first night was a primal confluence of the races, Pride, and the wedding season. Accommodation was short and we stayed at Jury’s Inn near the station. Some youth football teams down from Scotland for a tournament were playing a stalking and pursuit game in the stairwells far into the night, sabotaging their opponents by pressing all the buttons in all the lifts. Their parents, drinking in peace in the bar, had bullied the staff into not intervening. We ate a very good Eritrean dinner at Mosob Gesana and went off for a wander through the seething streets, carpeted with broken glass just like home. One of the young race-goers I had seen earlier navigating the cobbles near the castle in four-inch heels appeared in our hotel lift and remarked (as the doors opened at empty floor after empty floor) “I wish I could tell you that it isn’t usually like this on a weekend but it totally is”.

On our first morning the streets soon filled with queasy trudging and trundle suitcases, and we saw grandad-aged men supporting each other while vomiting. We put this behind us and had an excellent vegan cooked breakfast at the Supernatural Kitchen which lasted us until dinner, picked up some supplies and followed the walking tour mentioned above. Dinner was competent veggie burgers in The Maven, preceded by a beer in the fairly spacious Split Chimp micropub (I don’t know what a micropub is, only a microbrewery). Also of note, the Jury’s Inn rooms were really quite bad – we had to swap because of a broken window. I sometimes wonder whether we get treated badly because we look like itinerants but the receptionist was enthusiastic about the coast path so maybe it’s just a run-down hotel in a country on the turn.

Day 2 Blyth to Ellington

That second night in Newcastle there was a crash or apprehension on the A1 ( the main view from our window) and the traffic stopped but the sirens and lights didn’t. The following morning we bought an early vegan sausage sandwich from Greggs (too sweet, too dry, £2) and got on the commuter bus down the Tyne through one of the largest business parks I’ve ever seen. Because of the haste in planning, we had to miss out the section between Newcastle and Blyth. Instead we picked up lunch at Morrisons and set off along the River Blyth (where M saw a leaping fish) to cross upstream at Bedlington Station where it briefly rained. No complaints from us about the weather – we’ve seen a drought, 40° and wildfires in Essex this summer – but I couldn’t help making the connection between that and this coal country. The aluminium smelting plant at Lynemouth consumed one million tonnes of coal a year in its day. But now British Volt is at Blyth making battery technology to store green energy – that’s 3000 green jobs with more in the supply chain.

We crossed the East Sleek Burn and returned to the coast and onto the dunes for the first time. We had our lunch of rolls, falafels and salad looking out to sea at the mining village of Cambois (legacy of the Norman Conquest, pronounced Kemiss).

Cambois from the dunes

Then it began to rain quite hard so we retreated to the comfortable sofas of Charltons. Then along the A189 for a while to cross the Wansbeck in steady rain, briefly lost in a friendly caravan park and wetly into Newbiggin-by-the-Sea with its enigmatic Sea Couple and Land Couple. A coal seam opens onto the beach at Newbiggin and there is sea coal on the sand. That day we stopped early at the Newbiggin Maritime Centre because M’s recovering knee had reached the end. We called a taxi for the last few miles to The Plough in Ellington and had a wide-ranging conversation with the driver including the cost of living crisis – he had converted his car to LPG and was saving 40%. Meanwhile BP recorded a £6.9bn profit between April and June this year, and Shell also had record-breaking profits – a direct result of domestic energy bills soaring to £3.5k this winter. Unless the next Prime Minister intervenes I can only guess what will happen.

The rain had cleared by the time we left our room to limp round the tidy little village and look at Ellington Pond Nature reserve. Then dinner at the Plough, a Punch Tavern with vegan stuff on the menu. Good night’s sleep.

Day 3 Cresswell to Amble

From Ellington we walked the mile to Cresswell where the official walk begins. I’m not sure why a barn owl would be hunting on Blakemoor Links on a bright morning but it was exciting to see. There we got onto the beach, shoes off, for the sunny miles of Druridge Bay. I don’t know the name for the long reach of water sloshing into a very shallow beach, but that’s the kind of sea it was. There is hardly anyone on these beaches – just enough so you don’t feel isolated. We passed East Chevington nature reserve, where the wildlife is currently persecuted by murderous vandals, stopping briefly to chat with a local gent who walked the same walk every day and admired the Montane walking t-shirt M’s mum had given him for his birthday. Nothing much for a vegan to eat at the Premier Stores in Ellington, but Matt had picked up a pasty and we still had a roll and some falafel left from yesterday so we ate those sitting on a bench looking at kayakers on the Ladyburn Lake at the Druridge Bay Country Park and talking to their grandma, followed by a coffee at the Visitors Centre. Then more dunes. We were too tired to follow Roland Tarr’s advice and look for birds at the Low Hauxley Nature Reserve and instead trudged on to Amble, a delightful town with port, River Coquet (another Norman name – pronounced caw-kit), beach and exciting wave-wracked jetty for our route into the town.

Jetty at Amble in playful sea

Though the stage ends at Warkworth further along, it has less accommodation and amenities so we stayed in Amble at the Wellwood, another Punch Tavern, and ate gaspacho, quinoa salad (me) and pizza (M) in the covered outside section of the Old Boathouse. After that we took another turn around the town where we saw surfers paddling home across the river mouth at dusk to save a two-mile walk. Then back at the Wellwood we watched the women’s Euros semi-finals where England won. Nice to see so many older gents and women watching together.

Day 4 Amble to Howick (Craster)

Warkworth Castle, built around 1150 to consolidate Henry II’s rule over Northumberland

After a foray to the Co-op to pick up lunch (vegan luncheon meat, rolls, tomatoes, packet salad) we followed the river path into Warkworth and walked round the castle precinct then out to the golden sands of Alnmouth Bay. There I slipped and fell on some weedy rocks and was capsized like a beetle for some moments in fear that my pack would drag me over the edge. A mile of paddling through the flat ripples brought us to a turn in along the estuary through farmland. The long vistas made it seem as if we were approaching the bridge into Alnmouth for a lifetime. We ate our lunch in a play area built to celebrate the construction of the sea wall, then walked into the village. Alnmouth is the port for England’s breadbasket and has many historical granaries we didn’t see because we were hurrying to get to Howick early. Instead we climbed an unusually steep and wooded hill onto cliffs. I think around Seaton Point is where we saw huts and caravans scattered amongst the bracken, often with wetsuits hung outside. There were no amenities and it wasn’t marked as a caravan park, and if it was it was lovely because of the space between abodes. There was one more the next day with this sense of seclusion and peace.

The cliffs then descended into dunes and we rested on a bench at Boulmer before diverting along the parallel Cycle Route 1 track through Seahouses (a farm of limousin cows, not the famous town) to the turn into Howick, a beautiful hamlet of stone houses and cottages where we were spending the night, Craster being fully booked. After a hurried shower and change in the lovely Old Rectory B&B, we rushed (or rather lurched stiffly) out again to catch the final opening hour of Howick Hall with its gardens and arboretum. 30 minutes before last orders at the tea room we were grudgingly served drinks – in my case a pot of Russian caravan tea which I drank black and as quickly as I could, which on an empty stomach inevitably led to me nearly throwing up in the sensory garden. Sadly there was no time to properly see the arboretum but at least we dropped off our entry fee and contributed a little to reviving the place after Storm Arwen.

We walked back and then a further two miles along quiet roads to the Cottage Inn at Dunstan for dinner (potato skins and a very good chickpea curry). We walked back at dusk and I was wracked by aches (which I attributed to unfitness and falling over) and had to have a painkiller to sleep. None of these pains and aches are much bother to us as walkers – they’re to do with a sedentary lifestyle and our advancing age, we price them in and they lessen as our bodies get used to walking and carryng our packs.

The Old Rectory has three downstairs rooms that guests can use and an honesty bar which M used. You can clearly hear the sea, and see it from some windows too. Howick Hall and two pubs within walking distances make it a good location, and it was the best accommodation we had, at a comparative price to everywhere else.

Day 5 Howick to Seahouses

The Old Rectory are competent with a vegan breakfast. We took the coast path into Craster, passing a colony of kittiwakes on the hexagons of the igneous whin sill (hard, flat outcrop) of Cullernose point. As well as their rather winning calls, which resemble whining and whinging, we could also detect the vast amounts of bird crap presumably falling into each other’s nests and spreading the awful avian flu. Flu has made a graveyard of Coquet and Farne islands, where where the seabird population has fallen by over 1%, also devastating the rangers and ornithologists who have been striving to nurture their habitat and increase their numbers. The blunt truth is that intensive farming of chickens is to blame, along with the generally hostile environment that oblivious humans create. Those chickens are coming home to roost now. I sense we are going to change our ways.

Ornithologists and rangers monitor the avian flu deaths on the Farne Islands. Source: BBC linked above.

It was misty in Craster and the famous smokery hadn’t opened for the day so I didn’t get to risk their contempt by asking whether they smoke any plant foods yet. We set out along a lovely turf track towards the ruins of Dunstanburgh Castle with sea shore covered in boulders at low tide. My aches were receding.

Dunstanburgh Castle: The Lilburn Tower with the Sea Beyond 1797 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/D00954

We rounded the back of the castle, noticing the interesting Grey Mare Rock, and through the Dunstanburgh Castle golf club where we stopped for a drink at the club house. Like several along the route (and in fact I have never seen so many golf clubs on one walk) it welcomes non-members in a genuinely friendly way. This was one of many places we passed which was struggling to recruit and staffed by inexperienced though well-meaning workers – we noticed along the way that we were often served by mature or grandma-aged women instead of the younger Eastern European staff we’d have expected before Brexit. I overheard a conversation in the kitchen about everybody needing to muck in with the washing up in the absence of a hoped-for young person on school holidays. At around 12.30 we arrived at the hamlet of Low Newton-by-the-Sea with its gorgeous (and short-staffed) Ship Inn in a car-free grassy square overlooking the sea. The women who staffed it, some of whom looked as if they should have been putting their feet up in life, did extremely well. A compact bar and focused menu kept the encounters brief. You queued in one line for the bar and to order food, you got served with good humour, you paid and sat down, and then before very long your food was brought (two vegan options – I had a spiced cauliflower pie). Lovely little place and we also were fortunate to find exactly the right table for two with bulky packs.

The Ship Inn, Low Newton-by-the-Sea

It became sunny as we walked along the beach towards Benthall and Beadnell. I accidentally lowered myself onto a thorny rose bush while trying to pee discreetly and in haste among the dunes. The main thing I noticed about Benthall and Beadnell was the presence of what I’d call ‘Hainault houses’ – plain three-bedroom terraced or semi-detached homes that looked as if they’d been built for people of modest means in the 50s or 60s – found all along this coast on the sea front or clifftops with uninterrupted sea views.

We were pretty tired by the time we got to Seahouses, and Seahouses didn’t much revive us. I couldn’t see the charm and the Bamburgh Castle Inn where we stayed was somehow depressing. It might have been the terrible carpets in the hallways, or the gloomy cave-like bar area snubbing the sea views, or the extremely high prices. The town itself was full of holiday makers eating and drinking or looking for places to eat or drink – huge fish and chip barns abounded. After trying all other options (including a windowless room in The Ship and failing to get served at all in the Black Swan where the inattention of the young men staffing it belied their smart uniforms) we were obliged to eat at the Bamburgh as well as stay there. They had run out of some vegan options and M’s meal was particularly awful – the chickpea patties were rehydrated badly cooked falafel mix (were they averse to the word ‘falafel’ even though all vegetarians know what they are?) dried out rice and a poorly-flavoured sauce. I should say the service was competent and the room, clean and comfortable.

Day 6 Seahouses to Belford

That morning at Seahouses we bought another Co-op lunch of Quorn chicken slices, rolls and salad and set out along another uplifting sun-drenched beach, passing in front of the magnificent Bamburgh Castle on the sea shore with the village behind it. The castle is now owned by a scion of the Newcastle engineer and ship-builder George Armstrong. The local golf course did not welcome non-members so we walked on. The official path turns inland at this point because the coast around Lindisfarne is reserved for animal life, or perhaps holiness. Roland Tarr has struggled in mud on this inland section and invites you to take the coast path as far as possible and then get a bus. But since it had been dry we decided to take the official route. We had our lunch with our backs against a hay bale looking out at Bamburgh castle and Lindisfarne.

Our lunch spot, not far from Spindlestone Heughs, Bamburgh Castle in the distance

There were two other things Roland Tarr cautioned about. The first was having to cross the fast train track between Edinburgh and London. Indeed if we hadn’t phoned the signal office as directed, we would have had a close shave at best with a speeding LNER train. So do do that.

“You must always phone the signalman before crossing” at Belford Burn

The next obstacle was the A1, which we crossed without incident. We then passed behind one of the several grain silos in the region and I thought of Ukraine. Most places we went we saw at least one flag – and it is also the colour of the sand against the sea and sky.

Belford has an intriguing calendar of cultural events. The teachers’ protest was not local trade unionism in action, but Norwegians standing up to that reliable old enemy the Nazis. This part of the country tends Conservative, English and Brexit.

Standing up to the Nazis, Tyneside history and an urgent appeal from the bridge club

The Blue Bell Inn is a historical coaching inn with a ballroom. It relieved us of nearly £130 in return for a room which was definitely not “well-appointed”. We had a badly-sprung bed, drabness, stains and and scuffs, poor upkeep and unwelcoming (perhaps demoralised) staff. Again, maybe somebody might take us for mucky itinerants with low standards who deserve poor accommodation, but if so they shouldn’t be working in hospitality. We weren’t offered vegan food and we weren’t offered breakfast in time to catch the tide and get to Lindisfarne. I hope somebody rescues this lovely old coaching inn from its current owners. For now I can say the Blue Bell was at least clean and we had a good view of the rolling hills. Things looked up after that. We took a turn round the village including the lovely old church and burial ground. The Salmon Inn is a fine pub and we got a good meal in the restaurant of the Sunnyhills Farm Shop which serves dinner and drinks to the nearby caravan site residents and is generally lovely. We got an apple pie from Belford Co-op for next day’s breakfast, along with the usual lunch.

Day 7 Belford to Lindisfarne, then Lowick

We left slightly before 8 to get the bus to a stop on the A1 for Fenwick, allowing us to walk through fields to access Lindisfarne by crossing three miles of intertidal zone. We encountered a frantic ewe calling for her lamb the other side of a barbed wire fence but also just a few metres from an open gate between the two fields. Seeing us she panicked and summoning all her strength, tried unsuccessfully to leap through the fence. It was quite hard to watch. I think we may have seen her in the same place the following day.

Arriving at the coast we had a decision to make. We hadn’t been sure whether we’d walk along the causeway road or the Pilgrim’s Way across the sand and mud. Official guidance, including Roland Tarr, cautions against the latter, but it is well marked and we took courage from some fresh footprints we could see striking out towards the first marker. I took off my sandals and went barefoot as advised in the pub. That crossing would have been the highlight of our trip even if half way across we hadn’t heard, and then seen, about 150 seals across the sands, raising their voices in a haunting song like a huge holy choir.

Birch posts mark the safe way across to Holy Island. The distant structure is a refuge for anyone caught out by the tide.

The barnacles on the posts went up to around my underarms but sometimes the tides would go over my head. The most important thing is to consult advice about tides for walkers rather than for vehicles. Also important, expect to make fairly slow progress, stick close to the markers and be prepared to get wet and muddy, perhaps to the knee – we saw a wellington boot stuck in the mud nearly to the top and I’d want to do this barefoot in warm weather. Walking poles are useful here, particularly on a stretch of slippery clay close to the start – we have packs and if we fall we go down like a tonne of bricks so we pick our way carefully.

At Lindisfarne we stopped for a coffee and half a bit of cake at Pilgrims Cafe, a walled garden where the sparrows will take crumbs from your outstretched hand. We then had time to see one thing, so on Roland Tarr’s suggestion we went to the Heritage Centre. There we interacted with digital Lindisfarne Gospels and watched some awe inspiring videos of how such a book would have been constructed and illuminated. We listened to different bird calls, and there was an illustrated interactive exhibit where you could ‘meet’ some residents of the island by selecting from a menu of questions to ask them (such as ‘Have you ever been stranded?’) which would then activate the relevant recorded answer. I particularly liked that ‘Goodbye’ was on the menu – the farewells were all differently cordial and you really did feel that you’d approximately met your hosts on the island. Another great recommendation from Roland Tarr. By that time I’d come to trust him implicitly.

We had to get back and walked to the bus stop in the village carpark. A bus from Berwick arrived and a young man of perhaps 17 got off. We weren’t sure whether to get on that bus, but he authoritatively advised against it and pronounced our bus due in minutes. He kept lookout along the lane, ascertained its whereabouts and conscientiously updated us. When it arrived he photographed it and got straight on to leave the island. Being the only three passengers I was able to indulge my curiosity. It turned out he was an ardent bus spotter, having converted from trains during the Covid-19 pandemic. He used his free time to make as many journeys by bus as possible. Lindisfarne had been a diversion for him, an unforeseen chance to be on two new buses discovered only that morning after setting off on a circuit which would take in Berwick and Newcastle before returning home to County Durham that night. Definitively not a tourist, with the single-mindedness of (I am assuming) neurodiversity he wouldn’t stop off anywhere unless timetabling necessitated it – and as a bustimes.org user he had no inclination to visit London because he said his searches crashed the site.

We got off back at the A1 and had an unmemorable, expensive lunch at the Lindisfarne Inn (same chain as the not-nice Bamburgh Castle but more welcoming). Then we walked 2.5 more miles inland with views of the Cheviots to Lowick House, a very well-run airbnb accommodation a pleasant walk from the village of Lowick. This was another highlight because the place was so well-kept, the room was comfortable, and the hosts were very helpful and warm. That evening we walked through a farm and along a quiet road to the Black Bull in Lowick and had a very good vegan meal – generous filo case filled with leek, chestnuts and artichoke – in lovely surroundings. We walked back at dusk, diverting into a playground to see the beautiful skies. Night falls later up there; this was close to 10pm on the last day of July.

Late July dusk from the playground at Lowick

Day 7 Lowick to Berwick-upon-Tweed

This would be the last day of our walk. It felt like a long slog back to the Lindisfarne causeway to pick up the coast path again. I hope somebody buys the old granary with the many dovecotes at Fenwick and saves it from ruin. The fast rail crossing had been blocked for weeks or months and diverted a couple of kilometres to a bridge. There was a Samaritans notice hinting at why. On the sea shore we turned north along some of the old World War Two defences, briefly inland to cross a river, then back again. The area around Goswick was throught to be particularly vulnerable because of the nearby railway line so they did belt and braces – there are dragons teeth, pillboxes, gun emplacements, tank traps, anti-glider poles and lookout towers, and hopefully no more landmines. We had lunch in Goswick Golf Club (jacket potato and baked beans for vegans) and noticed the accents had become mostly Scottish. Then back onto dunes (I saw a little weasle) then fields and an exciting nature reserve with beach users at Cocklawburn (not Norman but don’t pronounce the ‘ck’) where we watched raptors hover for bunnies who only came out when they flew away. There were many cows and calves, including a youngster which had managed to get himself stuck between the barbed wire fence erected to protect the dry stone wall and the wall itself. We lifted the wire and nudged the calf but he seemed depressed and entirely lacking the will to save himself. As he wandered free with his head low, nobody acknowledged him and it was clear he was abandoned by his mother and a lonely outcast of the herd.

We reached Spittal with its fine promenade, then turned into Tweedmouth where swans – whose moult leaves them flightless at this time of year – watched men load trees on a ship.

Swans gather round a ship being loaded with tree trunks

Then we wearily crossed old bridge into Berwick and arrived at the splendid YHA Berwick in a rescued granary just back from the quay. We had a private room with a bunk, a toilet and separate wetroom so we showered, changed and rested briefly after 17 long miles. After a wander round the town we went to catch the Euro final in the Brown Bear and were able to see Germany’s equaliser and Chloe Kelly’s winning goal. We ate good Turkish food at Mavi, watched some of the Commonwealth games back at the youth hostel and went to bed.

A day in Berwick

After breakfast at the youth hostel we locked our bags in its bike shed and set off following Roland Tarr’s suggested circular tour round the mediaeval and Elizabethan walls, which was fascinating and brought alive with plenty of interpretation boards.

Royal Borders Bridge, Berwick-Upon-Tweed

Berwick was contested and fortified to the hilt until relatively recently, and at one time had changed hands (between the English and Scots) more than any other place in Europe. Roland Tarr recommended the museums at Berwick Barracks so we went there. First we learned about the history of soldiering through the ages in 12 curated rooms. Most of Britain’s wars were against the French and even the American war of independence was lost because the French intervened for the American rebels. Soldiers were sent to fight in stupid, impractical uniforms (an early iteration of the tommy, ‘Tommy Lobster’ refers to the red coats you read about in Jane Austen novels) which they had to pay for themselves. They had badly designed equipment like the smart-looking back pack which cut off their blood supply and some ridiculous quilted hats worn in India. When sent overseas in the 1700s and 1800s many died on the way but they liked to go to America because the prospects for desertion were good.

I hadn’t realised that barracks were a relatively recent innovation because residents and innkeepers hated being forced to billet soldiers. Almost all were illiterate and were not allowed to marry; consequently the main passtimes were drinking, brawling and gambling. A soldier’s life was certainly cheap – you signed up for life and various stoppages were deducted from your promised wage so that you had very little left for any quality of life, let alone to save up. Soldiers would frequently seek oblivion in cheap spirits rather than feed themselves and consequently were in poor health. Hardly any could read, one in four would be punished for some transgression and many were badly injured by their punishment. There’s more to say about how the British army gained its formidable reputation but my hunch is that very few readers are sticking with me by now – so I recommend going and seeing for yourself.

Also in the barracks, the Berwick Museum and the Burrell Collection are both excellent. I’d have liked to stay longer but we had to have lunch (at the Corner House Cafe which is very veggie friendly) before catching the train back to London at 3.13. The journey was peaceful as it often is at that time of day, and we had dinner at the lovely Namaste Holborn before taking the hot but relatively calm Central Line back home. There we found the aubergines, parsley, french beans, cabbages, broccoli, chillis and tomatoes alive and well and nothing burgled or burned down.

What a marvellous week.

Bamburgh Castle from Blackrocks Point

Vegan on the South West Coast Path

In another post to come I’ll describe this year’s stretch of camping along the South West Coast Path Falmouth to St Ives, which we’re walking in the unofficial direction of Poole to Minehead. This post will be of interest to anybody hoping to sustain a vegan diet on that stretch of the path. For other stretches see my other posts tagged SWCP.

First of all, I should admit that I lost my nerve a bit. Sometimes my plans didn’t come to fruition and I didn’t feel comfortable to request vegan adjustments on the fly. I felt metropolitan and out of step so I either went without (and paid over the odds) or bent my own rules. This bothers me, and in future I hope to be a bit firmer. But there were certainly some high points.

We each carried a spork, penknives, and a non-leaking sandwich box. We tended to drink tap water – I had 1.5l in sigg bottles and Matt also has a hydration pack. Had the weather been warmer, the distances longer, the going more strenuous, or the beach cafes lacking (as between Pendeen and St Ives), we’d each have needed an extra half litre. Matt also carried four Trek bars (Holland and Barrett sell these) in case we needed them for a breakfast.

Falmouth

That evening we walked along the coast path to have a drink at the Chain Locker on the old harbour (West

Pea Souk, Falmouth

First course of the Persian supper club at Pea Souk, Falmouth

on cider) before one of the more memorable meals I’ve had in my life at Pea Souk, a vegetarian cafe which has embarked on an ambitious series of supper clubs on a different national theme. That night’s was Persian. The most astonishing thing was the number of people Nicola Willis managed to fit (not cram, but comfortably fit) into such a small space – 17 diners, to be exact, all eating the same menu (with small vegan adjustments for me), plus a man playing Persian classical music on a bazuki.  The food was absolutely outstanding – particularly the vegan alternative slice of something cheesecakey and crunchy soused in, I think, rose and orange blossom syrup. I have never eaten such a delectable dessert.

From Pea Souk we bought our lunch for next day – a porkless pie for Matt and for me a selection of salads. For those four meals (including beer) the bill was something like £65.

It was late when we left Pea Souk, so on our way back to the campsite we bought next morning’s breakfast from Tesco near the Discovery Centre, which closes at 10. I had one of their strange falafel wraps (mango chutney is original but not entirely successful).

Falmouth – Porthallow

Breakfast was the aforementioned wrap from Tesco, eaten at the campsite.

Lunch was the aforementioned take-out from Pea Souk, eaten at Helston by the ford.

That night we camped at the diving centre in Porthkerris and ate dinner at the Five Pilchards in Porthallow. Unfortunately the chef who had offered a vegan alternative had left (to his colleagues’ satisfaction) and the new chef, who seemed to be attempting to follow his predecessor’s menu, had nothing for either Matt or me, so we ate chips and salad. The owner apologised and said he hoped to accommodate us better next time. So, the lesson is to confirm plans close to the date. We stayed to drink at the Five Pilchards.

Porthallow to Coverack

This was a short day – mainly because of a late decision to camp on the coast at the diving centre rather than Helford River Camping further inland.

Cooked breakfast at Fat Apples Cafe, Porthallow

Cooked breakfast at Fat Apples Cafe, Porthallow

Breakfast – although the diving centre had a cafe, we noticed that there was a new and attractive-looking place directly on the Coast Path, called Fat Apples Cafe. No website that I can find, but a large number of enthusiastic reviews. I was impressed by the young man who kindly adapted a cooked breakfast for me, including (because they only had butter, no marge) very well fried bread – a bit of oil in pan, not saturated. If you’re reading, I’m sorry we didn’t tip – we each thought the other had done it. Fat Apples is a new start after the family business – a packaging company with origins in Leyton – fell foul of the financial crisis. Good luck to them, though I’m sure they won’t need it. They offer ‘wild camping’, which means wifi but no shower.

We ate lunch in Coverack, pea and mint soup at Archie’s Loft.  The woman behind the counter thought it probably was vegan, it was raining and there was nothing else that looked like a safer option. I think it tasted buttery, which most people who aren’t used to it find is an unpleasantly pungent flavour.

View from the dining room at YHA Coverack.

View from the dining room at YHA Coverack.

We were camping at the Youth Hostel in Coverack, and we ate dinner there – the dining room has a beautiful view of the bay. Notably, a batch of milk had gone bad before its use-by date so everybody was on soya milk. I ate a good tagine and Matt had a bean stew, also vegan. And I found out after committing to fruit salad that the blackberry crumble had been vegan. That was around £10 for the two courses. The man on the desk (also cooking) confirmed my prior impressions that for YHA, packed lunch for a vegan entails removing items rather than substituting them, so we didn’t have one.

We then went for a drink at the Paris Hotel in Coverack.

Coverack to Lizard

Breakfast was a cooked one at the Youth Hostel – baked beans, mushrooms, toast, hash browns. The margarine was Flora, which I don’t think was vegan. I can’t remember whether I ate it – there were some days I had margarine which wasn’t vegan and some days I resisted – this often has something to do with whether or not I calculate it would confuse the staff. If I were running these places I’d make it all vegan. Vegan margarine is easy enough to come by.

We bought lunch from Coverack Post Office – I can’t remember the name of the range of Mediterranean-style salads in plastic tubs, but you tend to get them in independent stores all over the country. I had one with kidney beans and one with couscous. They have a slightly strange metallic flavour, but at least they contain more than one major food group.

At the Lizard we had planned vegan dinner at Henry’s Campsite where we were staying, but the Galleon was locked up because the chef had departed – that meant no breakfast or packed lunch either. After a futile walk in the rain down to Lizard’s Youth Hostel (it’s staffed by volunteers and entirely self-catering) we returned to Lizard where, after checking there was no cream in it, I had the thai curry vegetarian option at the Top House, one of Lizard’s two pubs. It was £9 or £10 and we stayed on for the evening chatting to people on the neighbouring tables.

Lizard to Porthleven

At the butchers(!) in Lizard we bought a tray of flapjack for breakfast, two thirds of which we ate in a bus shelter across the road.

There we also bought some lovely soft white rolls, houmous and cherry tomatoes for lunch, which we ate in Mullion Cove during a gap in the rain with a bag of crisps from the cafe.

For dinner at Porthleven we had pizza and salad at Amelie’s (I leave off the cheese and ask for chilli oil instead). Since it was Wednesday, pizzas were two-for-one and the bill was modest. It looked as if there were other options but they were pricey.

We had a pint at The Ship where the harbour meets the sea.

Porthleven to Marazion

At Porthleven we stayed at the Copper Kettle, a welcoming place I can’t thank or praise enough. The new owner is from Porthleven and made every accommodation for me. I apologise for not having thought to let her know that I don’t take soya milk with my cereal or coffee at breakfast – and thanks for getting the sausages.

We bought lunch from the Spar at Porthleven – same range of salads as we got at Coverack.

Dinner was very enjoyable – we got the bus into Penzance (about 3 miles away) with a hankering for Chinese. We decided on Sunny City on Market Jew Street(!). It has large premises which look plush and banquety if you don’t look to closely, but are cheap, stained and more than a little depressing if you do. We were the only people there, and beginning to lose confidence. But the gent who served us was attentive and prompt, everything was clean, and the food was good – not salty or greasy. I had bean curd, vegetables and boiled rice. I recommend this food – I think it’s mostly a take-away place, which would explain the shabby premises. For two, the bill was just £22, including green tea.

Coop rhubarb tart at Dove Meadows campsite, Marazion

Coop rhubarb tart at Dove Meadows campsite, Marazion

We bought next morning’s breakfast from the Co-op – a rhubarb tart for £1.

Marazion to Lamorna Cove

For breakfast we ate the aforementioned Co-op custard tart from Penzance the previous evening.

Coffee and cake at Archie Brown's, Penzance

Coffee and vegan cake at Archie Brown’s, Penzance

At Penzance we were seduced into Archie Brown’s for elevenses – I had a fantastic vegan orange cake. Downstairs in the health food store we bought four tofu hazelnut cutlets – these are shrink-wrapped and (in practice) keep unrefrigerated. To accompany them we bought cherry tomatoes and pitta bread from the Co-op. Those were for future lunches – but that day’s lunch was a specifically vegan cornish pasty from Lavender’s pasty shop, also Market Jew Street. There was a choice of two, and I had the chilli one. We ate these on the harbour wall at Mousehole.

We camped a mile and a half away from Lamorna Cove and since the local pub, the Lamorna Wink, was being refurbished, we whetted our wallets and stepped out without warning to try the patience of the chef at The Cove Hotel, a formal place with a swimming pool overlooking the cove. We had a very enjoyable, clever meal.

Vegetarian and vegan dinner at The Cove Hotel, Lamorna Cove

Fine vegetarian and vegan dining at The Cove Hotel, Lamorna Cove

I had a starter with the two kinds or artichokes, parsley emulsion, marbled beetroot, cucumber slices marinated in cumin, and white onion puree. Matt had vegetarian watercress soup followed by a salad with root vegetables and local cheese, with a cheeseboard for afters. My main course was a pearl barley risotto. They lit a wood fire and two other couples arrived. With beer, a bottle of wine and tip we paid £100. According to the gracious waiting staff, the chef showed no sign of upset and we were welcomed despite our unkempt appearance.

Lamorna Cove to Sennen Cove

Boleigh Farm, where we were camping, is very beautiful and not near any shops, so for breakfast we ate the Trek bars that Matt had been carrying since the beginning. I tend to burn through those quite fast, compared to a cooked breakfast.

At lunchtime we stopped for a coffee at Porthgwarra’s shop. After inquiring about vegan food to no avail, I asked the man if we could eat our lunch at his picnic tables. “Go right ahead”, he said, pleasantly. We had another coffee each and Matt had a pasty. We used the shop’s wifi. We ate the tofu cutlets,  pitta and tomato we’d bought in Penzance.

We diverted to ‘top’ Sennen for the Costcutter, where we bought the next day’s lunch of Warburton sandwich thins, houmous and more tomatoes, and had a drink in the First and Last Inn.

Sennen Cove was about half an hour’s beautiful walk along the coast from our campsite at Trevedra Farm, and we were late that evening so I ended up with chips and salad for dinner at the Old Success Inn – Matt had vegetable lasagne. The bill was around £16 not including beer.

Incidentally, Lands End visitors’ centre is no respite for walkers or seemingly even for ordinary punters, who sit sadly on benches trying to suck some comfort from their over-priced ice creams.

Sennen Cove to Pendeen

Breakfast was a cooked one at the Ocean Blue Cafe at Trevedra Farm campsite.

We were soaked through by the time we packed up our tent so I made the decision to abandon the day’s walk and instead get the 300 bus along the coast to Geevor Tin Mine, a substantial museum among the disused mines which comprise Cornwall’s UNESCO World Heritage site. More about all that in my next post – this one is about food so suffice to say  that for lunch I had a very good, very filling vegan lentil and carrot soup there – and it seemed that local people were arriving just to eat their Sunday lunch at the restaurant, which did indeed have beautiful sea views and a cheerful informal bustle about it.

At Pendeen we camped at the North Inn, which had several modestly-priced vegetarian options for dinner. Matt and I shared a couple of vegan curries.

Pendeen to St Ives

At the covered picnic tables of the North Inn we had the rest of the Penzance pitta with the houmous and tomatoes from Sennen Costcutter for breakfast.

At the Pendeen Costcutter we got crisps and sweets. The weather was warm and fine and we had a lunch of more houmous, the Sennen sandwich thins and tomatoes on a bench at Trewey Cliff – I forget now to whom that bench was commemorated but I knew at the time and was grateful.

Dinner was at Spinacio’s, a vegetarian restaurant overlooking St Ives harbour. I very much enjoyed seeing the tide coming in and betting with Matt how long it would take a certain boat to start to float (always underestimating). Matt had a sambar with coconut rice, I had a borlotti bean cake with a satay sauce and squash puree. My meal was tasty enough but I think a little unbalanced in terms of weight and texture – the addition of a large, sharp chunk of pickled beetroot helped a lot. The bill for two courses and a bottle of wine, and tip was I think around £60.

St Ives to London

Breakfast was at our B&B, the Carlyon Guest House. They offered a vegetarian breakfast, which had attracted us in the first place, but they didn’t have any margarine and the grilled food tasted quite meaty indicating that there weren’t separate areas of the grill for meat and non-meat. Again, this may have been to do with the lack of notice – we had decided to get B&B accommodation because of a mixture of wet weather, Matt’s sleeping mat developing a puncture and figuring it would be better to be near the station so we could leave our bags while we did the sight-seeing. We hadn’t given notice of vegan requirements and so we weren’t accommodated to the same standard.

For lunch we had a pasty each on the harbour wall – I can’t remember where they were from but they weren’t brilliant.

Dinner on the train - Pengennis vegan pasties

Dinner on the London train – Pengenna vegan pasties

For dinner on the train I had a generous and I would even say fulfilling vegan pasty from Pengenna Pasties, a ready-made crispy salad from the Coop and a carton of grapes. Matt had the same, except his salad was from . From the Halzephron Herb Shop we also got a raw chocolate pie to share. I really love those.

South-West Coast Path camping pack list

(Late spring, not including cooking equipment.)

Pack list:

Transport

  • Advance ticket details

Kit

  • Pack. I like packs with net side pockets for water bottles, bellows side pocket, separate boot section, place for walking poles, and cover which stows at the bottom.
  • Mat
  • Sleeping bag
  • Tent (poles, canvas, pegs)
  • 30 litre pack
  • Waterproof pack liner
  • Waterproof see-through, touch-through cases for phone, &tc
  • Map case
  • OS Explorer maps
  • Compass
  • Walking book
  • Walking poles
  • Penknife
  • Spork
  • 2 water bottles
  • non-leaking lunchbox
  • head torch (for tent at night and walking back in the dark)
  • light stowaway waterproof shoulder bag (because sometimes shower cubicles spray everything inside them)

Electronics

  • Powermonkey and adapters
  • Power supply cables for camera, phone
  • MP3 player, earphones, waterproof bag
  • GPS
  • Phone
  • Camera
  • Rechargeable AA batteries for GPS
  • Watch

Clothes

  • Walking boots
  • Walking sandles
  • Crocs slipons shoes for shower and evenings
  • Pants
  • Walking socks
  • Waterproof socks
  • Walking brassiere
  • Walking trousers
  • Walking t-shirt
  • Fleece
  • Buff
  • Waterproof coat
  • Waterproof trousers
  • Baseball cap
  • Dress for evening
  • Leggings
  • Evening socks
  • Evening brassiere

Health

  • First aid kit inc. fabric plaster strip, scissors, antiseptic / fungal cream, second skin blister dressing, tea-tree oil, painkillers
  • Energy: sweets, seeds, nuts, dried fruit
  • Vitamin supplements
  • Earplugs

Hygiene and vanity

  • Toiletries bag which hangs from a hook
  • Biodegradable wash for everything
  • Sun cream
  • Lip sun protection
  • Tea tree oil – it’s a highly effective anti-bacterial deodorant between toes and under arms.
  • Contact lenses, solution, case
  • Glasses and case case
  • Toothbrush
  • Toothpaste
  • Floss
  • Deodorant
  • Moisturiser
  • Hairband
  • Razor
  • Travel towel
  • Comb
  • Handkerchief
  • Eyeliner
  • Nail file
  • Pumice stone and integrated scrubbing brush (sandals = dirt)
  • Moon cup (even if not time of month you can startle yourself with the change of pace and there probably won’t be a shop)

Misc

  • Book
  • Music and podcasts
  • Cash
  • Credit cards
  • Cheque book
  • Printed contact details and detail maps of where we have booked to stay (put these on the web)
  • Receipts for deposits
  • A few plastic bags in case of wet or dirty stuff or something you need to keep dry

On the Thames Path

When on holiday we like to move around and see the world – but in unison every camp site of the Gower imposed a three-night minimum stay over the bank holiday. So instead we scrambled pitches along the Thames Path, former tow path now National Trail, which we walked for four days and something like 65 miles upstream from Kingston to Streatley, camping for three nights and in a Youth Hostel for the last. Though far from our first choice, the Thames Path exceeded expectations from the first few steps. We hadn’t expected so much interest on the river.

In the light of last fortnight’s looting, growing unemployment and various other interests, this trip set off so many associations that I’ve been writing this post for days and it’s reached such epic proportions that I nearly decided to divide it up – but then I didn’t.

Paddling in the Thames

Me paddling in the Thames not far from Cookham, Berkshire

The route

We only met two other long distance walkers and two cyclists, and we didn’t see David Walliams, who is training to swim the Thames from its source to Big Ben (he says that the undertows round the bridge piers in the tideway are quite strong – you can see them, in fact, as you cross – as if a plug as been pulled).

Walking upstream, the going felt flat until the Chilterns around Henley. In fact the navigable part of the Thames between Cricklade and the sea drops 71 metres, and for centuries the flow from this fall had been focused with weirs to drive mills. However weirs are an obstacle to navigation, necessitating the 45 locks, situated every four miles or so, which allow river craft past the mills without any loss of flow. After many changes of hand these locks are now the responsibility of the Environment Agency. The 24 we passed were all hydraulic and a lock keeper told us that they can now be operated by the public round the clock. We wondered (to ourselves) whether his days as a lock keeper were numbered.

Each lock creates a reach – lake – above itself. The lock/weir combination also helps to control navigation depths and avoid flooding.

A Thames lock reach - perhaps Penton lock

Penton Lock reach, I think

We crossed one of these at Shepperton on one the last remaining ferry on that part of the Thames.

Then you see islands – aits (sometimes ‘eyots’) – crowded with less substantial dwellings, some with postboxes and doorbells on the riverbank. Matt cut into my romantic reverie of life tucked away on an island to inform me that these are inexpensive boxes – mobile homes and prefabs with cladding – for the aspirational and/or river lovers of modest means.

The other thing you see a lot of are boat yards.

boat yard

One of many boat yards

If you like engineering you’ll like the Thames. We passed under the railway bridge with the flattest arches in the world. Brunel, of course. Of course? Name some other engineers. There’s Telford, who at first riveted iron as if it were wood. There’s Stevenson, who did the light houses – Matt tells me that was before the split between mechanical and industrial engineering. On the final day we shunned the stations of Brunel’s railway line which we followed for miles along the river and walked for 20 miles or maybe a little further, the last section in the gloaming among the bats. We were quite fractious by the end. We have different attitudes to this punishment – I want to sit and recoup at intervals while Matt wants to get to the destination and end the pain for good. I start these things so unfit that suddenly acquiring a third of my body weight in kit and walking 20 miles a day on a flat gradient tends to hurt my feet and the backs of my knees, a discomfort that peaks in day 3, by which time my body and I are beginning to grow accustomed. Matt suggests I take a painkiller. I never take painkillers and the idea of taking one to carry out what is supposed to be a leisure activity is kind of weird. However, given his blisters, chafing and arthritis, it seems like a reasonable request.

All the while you cross and recross the river, crossing county boundaries at the same time. After Henley you are between the Chilterns and the Berkshire Downs, very green and rounded – horse country. I’m only sorry that it was getting very late and we were hurrying too much to take photographs of that evening. We ended in the Goring Gap, where meltwater from the end of the last ice age dissolved a new route for the Thames through the chalky hills. It is an area of Outstanding Natural Beauty where Thames Path intersects with The Ridgeway. Goring was Village of The Year last year – not hard to see why.

Craft

The first diversion, just after the beginning at Kingston Bridge, was a stand-up paddle boarder toppled by the wash from a pleasure boat.

The weirs provide a bit of white water for kayakking – most dramatically the Ninja Run at Sunbury. The White Water Canoe Centre has been operating on the Thames for over 50 years.

We were astonished by how many pleasure boats there were – cabin cruisers, lovingly-restored narrow boats, some splendid old barges with seafaring masts, yachts, little runabouts and rowing boats, including large numbers of skulling boats from the many clubs along the Thames – apparently 55,000 people in the UK participate in rowing in any given week. There are one or two paddle steamers on the Thames and we also saw a handful of Jerome K. Jerome Three Men in a Boat skiffs making their arduous way up river from Kingston to Oxford. And sailing.

Sailing club near Maidenhead

Sailing club near Maidenhead

But between one settlement and another, the river was often very quiet and sometimes – as in the case of Penton Hook Island near Laleham, which you access over the lock gates – even wild.

Interestingly, the one time we got demoralised at/by Marlow and looked for transport to Henley in time for dinner, we entirely overlooked the river service and instead put ourselves onto branch railway services with two changes. Duh.

The narrow-boats were fascinating to watch – particularly around the narrow cut of former hotspot of the late Victorian and Edwardian craze for summer boating parties,  Boulters Lock just outside Maidenhead. You can see how the congestion could turn into courtship.

Man on the Thames

With about three exceptions, it was “Man drive” the boat while women undertook considerable exertions at the locks. It happened that on the evening of our return we watched Timothy Spall’s wife Shane manage a staircase of locks on the Caledonian canal in a barge, entailing two hours outside in the rain with a rope. From the cockpit, Timothy explained “The man convinces his wife that she can’t skipper the boat, she can’t helm it”, and so she ends up outside in the rain. Shane, dripping wet: “Did he tell you I can’t steer? I can drive the boat. I can drive fairly well, actually”.

We probably saw upwards of 200 anglers – solitary men or dads with their sons in the daytime and, towards nightfall, taciturn gents in dark green waterproof clothes sitting in canvas chairs and  staring forbiddingly into the water. Quite a few appeared to be living on the river bank in makeshift encampments, including one formed from fishing poles and tarps, and many had a staggering amount of kit. There were next to no women. We wondered for some time and eventually surmised that angling is a solid reason, exciting no censure, for a man at a difficult stage of life to do nothing and speak to no-one. In four days I don’t remember seeing any anglers on the move, nor did we see anything caught. Despite the fish ladders of the upper Thames, I began to wonder if the fish are a rumour – every angler knowing a man who knows a man who caught something once.

Outside Chertsey on our first night, we returned to our campsite late and encountered the first and only group of fishing men. They spoke an Eastern European language. I’m still inventing their back stories.

Angling is a cruel blood sport and when it occurred to me I put some energy to creating vibrations along the path.

Creatures

Weirs don’t just stop boats – for the rumoured fish (who haven’t yet conquered operating the locks) there are fish ladders specially adapted for eels to slither upstream to the spawning grounds. As well as the fish, there were many other creatures on the path. Besides the many robins and some of the water fowl I couldn’t identify most of the birds we saw. One exception was a family of black swans at Reading.

When we were out at dusk bats flitted round our heads (but never very close). They may have been pipistrelles but given the proximity to fairly calm stretches of the Thames I wonder if they were Daubenton’s.

Dogs are invariably entertaining. Many dogs will treat a long distance walker normally until they catch site of your pack, which they often find appalling, disturbing, downright wrong. As you approach some abandon themselves to outrage, furiously vocalising their disgust at your grotesque deformity of the spine with the – ugh! – two spindly leg things coming out of the side (our poles). I call it prejudice and imagine them declaring that we should be put down. At Pangbourne we heard one dog before we saw him – he was beside himself because his owner was approaching the river in a wetsuit carrying a canoe. He kept pelting to the bank, braking hard, peering down, confirming all his fears – “Yes, it’s true, I knew it – he’s doing that thing again” – dashing back and barking “Turn back – for god’s sake man – I’m begging you, don’t do it again, it’s wrong, it’s ungodly, it’s witchcraft!” The man embarrassedly told him to shut up, put his canoe on the slipway, got in and paddled away. The poor dog had no choice but to dash backwards and forwards along the bank after him barking ceaselessly.

On the last day, in the mellow late evening sun we reached one of the most beautiful places I have seen, all trees, sussex-fenced pastures, grazing horses, airborne seeds and insects, overblown wildflowers and old soft redbrick farm houses dotting the round Chiltern hills. Ahead a man was effortlessly steadying a young horse, a russet coloured stallion with flowing mane and exquisite face which was up on its hind legs and then dancing in the lane with the bouncing gait spooked horses have when they’re expecting they might have to run for it. I thought the problem was the sight of us – but the man said it was a dog. Ha!

Listening

While Matt giggled his way through old Collings and Herrin podcasts, I listened to an RSA recording by Yale Psychology professor Paul Bloom, about pleasure. Bray is close by and molecular gastronomy was making its presence felt at the Swan Hotel in Streatley, where we had our penultimate cup of coffee and where, in the Cygnetures (groan!) Restaurant, you can buy ‘pigs cheek compression’ and something in a ‘Sauternes Gel’. Paul Bloom talked about a study scanning the brains of people drinking identical wine but with different names and different bottles. You can guess the findings – ideas are more important than senses in the end. Heston Blumenthal likes arsing about with food in his lab. He took that to the Thames Valley in Bucks, where people understand that wealthy  humans quickly habituate to luxury and ‘more’ doesn’t mean anything to them any longer. There’s a limit to how far their maxed out taste buds can stimulate them; they have to go deeper, into their imaginations. Heston can help them, and get paid.

I also, by happy coincidence, since I was feeling pretty melancholic, I listened to a podcast on happiness by the pioneer of positive psychology Martin Seligman, on how individuals can flourish. I am more of an Ehrenreich sympathiser myself – I harbour a suspicion of happiness as something blithe and indifferent. Seligman responded to Ehrenreich’s critique of positive psychology by pointing out that depressed people are often solipsistic and unable to contribute to the struggle for social justice. He emphasises a formula for happiness which goes by the acronym PERMA – positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning, and accomplishments / achievements. One important thing is that the first element of the formula – the positive emotions – is highly heritable, with any improvement capped at 20% – but the rest of the elements are not, as far as we know. Good, I have an excuse and a way out. He runs the Authentic Happiness web site at the University of Pennsylvania (as well as explaining many exercises for happiness, it functions as a data collection vehicle for the ongoing investigations).

And on the dark side of happiness, something else I listened to was Eli Pariser on the dangers that personalisation of Web services poses to politics. He asked various friends to search Google for Egypt. One was returned a front page of links about the revolution, another a front page of links about holidays. Google depends on selling advertising space; advertisers depend on purchases; purchases depend on dopamine. So Google serves us the things we like. Think about the implications for, say, a 9/11 conspiracy theorist. Correspondingly on Facebook, the ‘Like’ button is heavily weighted in the algorithm. But who is comfortable pressing ‘Like’ next to a story about a massacre in Syria? Eli Pariser argues for a second button, titled ‘Important’. He also advocates thinking of the £free web services as not free at all, but rather services you pay for in £100s worth of private data. He calls for web service providers to offer a way of opting out of the personalisation algorithms. He doesn’t think they will be easily persuaded. His book is called The Filter Bubble.

Too much money

As we notched up the westerly miles Conservative England took shape and we noticed how much property there is on the Thames – large dwellings with boat houses and huge craft moored outside.

Wealthy homes along the Thames

By the time we got to this one, I’d lost my sense of humour:

'Castle' by the Thames

To my sensibilities – abraded by the recent outbreaks of smashing and looting in London, the recent news that 949,000 16-24 year olds are out of work, and the prediction that inequality is set to deepen – the concentration of wealth on the Thames is both seductive and an affront.

In The Argyll, Henley, I picked up the local mag (ads organ for the local business interspersed with, I have to admit, superior articles on various things of concern to Henley residents – for example informative historical articles on treasures about to go under the hammer at the local auction). There we read an upsetting piece about the most expensive yacht in the world. It cost £3bn. Its hull is gold. It has platinum-clad rooms. There’s a decoration made of a tyrannosaurus bone. In the Horn of Africa, people are starving to death. It’s not all Al Shabaab – it’s about how we share out wealth.

Matt and I discussed the properties of gold, a very stable but very soft metal. Small molecules of gold will easily wear off that hull and sink to the bottom of the ocean. They will never coalesce. Entropy can have poetic justice.

The expensive pursuit of boating tends to be undertaken by the prosperous. Not that all older people have accrued great wealth – far from it – but today if you are wealthy enough to have a boat you are likely to be advanced in age, and this was borne out on the upper Thames. The presence of a model railway in the grounds of a massive property (Bolney Court) between Henley and Shiplake, was depressing, but arriving in Marlow (Buckinghamshire) tired and hungry on Monday afternoon brought about a particularly sharp spasm of bitterness. The best I can explain it is as an ill-fated coincidence of aspirational high street commercialism, shopping as leisure pursuit, over-large cars, the absence of crossing places and a rampant meat and dairy culture that forced us to eat supermarket food in a windy park. For some reason half remembered celebrity insults of British cities like Liverpool and Wolverhampton came to mind, and I thought that the average Marlow shopper with their purchases, animal-based comestibles and huge car is damaging the planet far more than their Wolverhampton counterpart, simply because the wealthier you are, the more you tend to.

But after tiring of my own litany of condemnation over the following days I sadly concluded that my attitude is folly and that the sites of the most social damage are just as likely to be behind the charming flowerbeds and leaded window panes of dignified London commuter belt villages like Whitchurch and Goring, where there may only be a village emporium, an inn, a little tea shop and an art gallery – a Merchant Ivory setting, nothing offensive to the eye – but all the while hosting the operators of the money markets with their boat houses and velvet lawns. Maybe we even saw some of them raising a glass like Pan with their friends on their cabin cruiser. You don’t earn that kind of money. You may acquire it, but you don’t earn it.

We had had a row with a couple in their 60s, orange of skin, white of sock, and unplummy of accent, who had parked their car (which Matt said was a low quality Merc) over our entrance to the foot path (Matt said it was because the man couldn’t be bothered to squeeze out between his car and the roped off grassy area). Because I had frowned the man had asked me if I had a problem, to which I had responded resignedly “No”. But the man had persisted, telling me that I was supposed to walk on the grass, and when I pointed out he had parked over my access, telling me to climb over the rope. That was when I lost my temper (as if I had not been a walker but somebody with dodgy hips or a wheelchair), drawing his wife and Matt into the argument. It became clear how they felt about us when the wife sneered “Goodbye, we’re going to our home“. They despised us because they thought we were gypsies walking with our belongings on our backs. I began to dislike the area. Which I acknowledge to be another kind of prejudice.

All this was thrown into sharp relief in Reading, where we followed two twelve year old boys along the promenade, watched them get bawled at by a boater for throwing things at the grebes, noticed that we were walking along the perimeter of the Reading Festival site on the day after it had finished, and shortly afterwards saw the boys peel off to a dark corner where a unit of high fencing had been wrenched away by their brothers and used as a ladder to scale the inner barrier into the site and scavenge the things of value that intoxicated festival-goers opt to waste or, in their assured prosperity, neglect to look after.

Scavenging after the Reading Festival

Scavenging after the Reading Festival

And looking into the site through one of the loosely fastened metal gates at the Tilehurst end of the enclosure (as two more urchins helpfully informed us that we couldn’t enter the site that way) the wealth of leavings was astonishing. And whereas these kids somewhat reminded me of others in far away places who eke out a living on rubbish tips salvaging good stuff that nobody wants any more, we watched yet another documentary on the night we arrived home which included footage of last months’ looters’ counterparts – specifically those who did not break but did enter and take – the 2007 scavengers of motorbikes and face creams from the break up of the MSC Napoli which spilled its shipment of containers onto Branscombe Beach. Middle class. Looters. That is not to say I find the sentences meted out on the looters too draconian – I’m not sure I do. But what about the rest, and what about the future?

At some stage Matt pointed out that we both find model railways on that scale very exciting.

Cleaning a model railway station

Cleaning a model railway station

If you click, you’ll see the man cleaning the station. He was one of at least five working in the gardens of that house that day. This is an affront. But ah, whimsy. If it weren’t for rich eccentrics whose creative imaginations now populate the National Trust, what would be made to delight us? What about the curiosities and the jokes? Can these be achieved by the committees of co-operative organisations? Can they be incubated by the National Trust? Then I took a photograph of a lawn mown into perfect stripes after which fell into a morose confusion, peppered with angry outbreaks, which lasted for much of the holiday. It seems I will accept wealth but not the appearance of aspiration. Sometimes I make myself uncomfortable.

At the campsites

Self-consciously we declined to dance at Laleham where a rollicking annual fancy dress party was held that night, joyfully breaking the site’s own curfew with The Supremes, medleys of Grease hits, and Queen’s ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’. The tents were alike – old fashioned, square semi-permanent-looking things hung with bunting (not the Cath Kidson kind) and with what looked like cookers and wall units inside. They were basically down-to-earth, economical Featherdowns before glamping was invented. I think Laleham is a place of annual migration – somewhere people look forward to reuniting in the summer, joined for short spells by their children and grandchildren during the holidays. In the washroom the next morning I heard a 40-something woman tell another than she had been coming to the site since she was a child, and then introducing a little girl she referred to as her future daughter in law. Laleham has a nice atmosphere.

The following night we swapped the M3 for the M4 (still on the Heathrow flight path and, if you aren’t used to it, incredibly noisy) and Amerden House campsite. It had rained and the couple who worked on the site (they are from north Manchester and come down each year) told us they had never seen the pitches so muddy. Amerden is another nice site, and the apple trees were laden. Maidenhead is a mile or so along the bank.

A mile out of Henley-on-Thames where humpy chalk hills of the Chilterns begin is a beautifully landscaped site of trees and beech hedges called Swiss Farm, where we spent the third night.

Streatley-on-Thames has no campsite. Its three-star Youth Hostel has wonderful showers and warm front of house service but the lighting in the sitting room sears your eyeballs a bit, there was food up the curtains, and we wouldn’t recommend a vegetarian breakfast. I love YHAs and would stay in it again, but I think their guests sometimes treat them badly and a lampshade doesn’t break the bank does it.

My ideal campsite is taking shape in my mind. The landscaping affords some areas for seclusion and some for groups. It includes many edible plants. There’s winter camping in (well drained, well ventilated, well insulated) dugouts with light pipes and little stoves so you can cook – you sleep on the ground in bags like you do in a tent. There are woodcraft and permaculture weekends, mushroom walks, birdspotting, and residential holidays teaching people to construct and maintain dugouts (this helps the campsite to acquire and maintain its dugouts). There are other structures, like benders and huts, for hire.

Victuals

Our first stop was The Weir Hotel before Walton-on-Thames, where we paid an ill-advised £4.50 for Fire Dancer, a featureless cider with a gimmicky red tint (see Paul Bloom above, whose observations helped us to avoid Goddess olives later in the week). That evening we walked from Laleham to Chertsey and had a pint at The Crown and a pizza at Ask (me substituting cheese for raw avocado). Then next morning a breakfast of half a Coop rhubarb pie each on the river bank outside the camp site. We stopped for a drink (Rebellion) at The Kings Arms, Cookham, Windsor. We had lunch (pasta arrabiata) in the quaint but down to earth Fox and Castle in Old Windsor. There was a cup of coffee at a pub in Eton. Thames Valley pubs have a lot of armchairs. For dinner we walked along the dark river bank to Maidenhead and had ate spring rolls, red curry and boiled rice at the Thai Orchid near the bridge. Very nice. The second morning we paid £5 each for a cooked breakfast at the B&B next to the camp site, which saved time hunting it out in Maidenhead. For lunch the ridiculous menus of Marlow forced us to Marks & Spencers.  At Henley we had a pint before dinner at the Argyll, then pizza at Zizzis, then another pint at the last free house in Henley, the Bird In Hand. Breakfast that morning was an iced currant bun and yellow rasberries from Waitrose. Then we had lunch, a mixture of Waitrose sandwich and M&S left-overs from the previous day. At Sonning Lock we shared a pot of tea, Matt had carrot cake and I had crisps. Dinner that night was a very good Indian meal at Masoom’s in Goring.

Autumn is early this year and the trees were on the turn. To eat, there were elderberries, blackberries, plums, damsons, and the occasional cheeky apple or pear. There were many plants I couldn’t name. If I had more electricity and time, or less distance and the possibility of increasing my load, I would have consulted reference materials.

An alternative to a YHA Streatley breakfast is to cross the river to Goring and go to the Miller of Mansfield (“perfect base from which to explore Kate Middleton country”!) or one of the cafes.

Equipment

Earlier this year Matt found us a very good tent – a two person Terra Nova Wild Country Duolite tourer. Good for several reasons: it’s light; the outer tent clips onto its frame rather so you don’t have to arse around threading poles; the inner tent is already inside and though you can detach it, there’s no need to – big advantage in wet weather; the alloy ‘v’ pegs are very light and can be easily trodden into the ground; its height varies intelligently and consequently it’s very warm. We also have light mummy sleeping bags which stuff into very small compression sacks (n.b. I’m told you shouldn’t store your bag in its compression sack since it compromises its heat keeping properties over time). We have full length mats which weigh little, insulate well against the cold ground. and inflate in a few puffs. As usual I walked in my amphibious teva sandals, and carried a pair of crocs, which are incredibly light.

One object I really appreciate is a Björn Dahlström Urbana toiletry bag I bought from the Bauhaus museum years ago when we went to Berlin. Made from lightweight rigid plastic it is ideal for a pack, sliding easily into a bellows pocket and protecting bottles and tubes from being squashed. When it opens – vertically in two separate halves – the bottom half has a divider and keeps your things in place as well as a central post which can receive the up-ended top half, converting the bag into a two-tier container. Less rummaging. The post has a long elastic loop which can hang the container from a hook or, when the bag is closed, fits snugly into a groove holding the two halves together. The whole thing is waterproof and easy to clean and dry. It is an object of beautiful simplicity, a true design masterpiece.

And on that contented note, I will finally draw this insanely detailed post to a close.

Brief spell of rain near Sunbury Court

Matt enduring a brief spell of rain near Sunbury Court

South West Coast Path – Burton Bradstock to Dartmouth

Herring gull, Sidmouth

Herring gull, Sidmouth

A week’s walk along the South West Coast Path, this time with tent.

From a wedding in North Bovey we took the train and bus to see an old friend in the Dorset coastal village of Burton Bradstock, camping at the massive Freshwater site where we were only pitches and consequently the only users of the massive and lovely shower block (powerful jet, temperature control, no timer). That evening there was a heavy cloudburst which filled us with foreboding, but that was the last rain we saw for the week – couldn’t have hoped for better weather. The beach at Freshwater needed restructuring – the waves had driven the imported shingle into a high cliff next to where the Bride emptied itself into the sea, totally obscuring the view and probably making it less effective as an energy-sapping sea defence. In our rain gear we trudged to the top of it and slithered down to the water. The late evening sun and the rain clouds gave everything a sulphurous glow. A large wave promptly soaked our legs and we scrambled back up the shingle and down to the pub where I was obliged to eat chips and salad due to what I came to realise was a general and profound failure of imagination and professional pride across Dorset and Devon when it comes to accommodating vegan tourists*. Matt had a nice-looking pie. We then whispered answers to the evening’s pub quiz to each other

Burton Bradstock to Seaton

The following morning, which was hazy, we picked up the Coast Path and walked west (counter to the book). The spring flowers were bursting out of the chalky soil and the shingle beaches were pristine. Between bank holidays, the coast was practically deserted except for a few dog walkers.

Deckchairs, West Bay, Dorset

Deckchairs, West Bay, Dorset

At Charmouth we bought a loaf at the back door of a bakery, some houmous etc from Nisa, and ate that on a bench outside the shut (but not closed) public library. 17 miles with packs was too long for the first day so we stopped in Lyme Regis and got a bus part of the way to Manor Farm, our camp site at Seaton (and once again ours alone). There we encountered a yellow ferret on a lead enjoying the grass, and a jack russell who took too keen an interest in the scruff of its neck, to the point where the ferret turned suddenly, sank its little needle teeth into his nose, and worried at it for a good ten seconds while the terrier made short frantic dashes forwards and backwards yelping in helpless anguish while the puppy at my side, who had experienced similar treatment of the day before, watched closely.

Seaton to Ladram Bay

The next morning the Axe estuary lit up its valley.

The Axe estuary from Manor Farm, Seaton

The Axe estuary from Manor Farm, Seaton

We walked on top of Dorset’s white cliffs, descending steeply first to Beer and then Branscombe, and had the first of several chips and salad lunches at the well-appointed cafe in Branscombe mouth.

The white cliffs of Dorset, from Seaton

The white cliffs of Dorset, from Seaton

Sidmouth has a beautiful seafront and the cliffs are shored up with an intriguing but futile-looking jumble of old concrete and older flint cobs. We continued through and spent the night in the enormous holiday park at Ladram Bay, where for the first time we had neighbours, which was nice. For dinner we walked a mile of green lane to the Kings Arms in Otterton where I had a few halfs of lovely golden Yellowhammer by Exeter brewers O’Hanlon, and back on the lane in the dark turning our torch on only when a car approached.

Ladram Bay to Dawlish

The sandstone is so permeable that this stretch of coast has an air of impermanence. The diversity of plant life dwindles compared to the chalk of the previous days and the harder limestone cliffs towards the end of Torbay further along. But there were a great many young rabbits. Budleigh Salterton reminded me of 1970s Ladybird books. At the Esplanade at Exmouth the shingle gave way to sand and since we were wearing our tevas we tried walking in the sea but the sand got into our plasters and flayed our blisters, which was a bit tedious. Another chips and salad lunch at The Point near the marina (clueless about vegans), and onto the ferry across the Ex to Starcross, which against the tide took 20 minutes round a big sandbank. We later heard from the Teign ferryman that the Ex is a confusing river to navigate because of the sand and the currents. Despite the romantic name, Starcross needs some tender loving care. The pubs at Cockwood further along were stupid about catering for a vegan so they didn’t get our dinner money. We camped among the trees in the back garden of Lockwood House, a CCC approved place above the static caravan city of Dawlish Warren, and with our favourite shower block yet – a lovely little site which once again we had to ourselves. We walked to Dawlish that evening for dinner, which took longer than we hoped, but rewarded us with a fine Chinese vegetarian feast at a place on The Lawn I think was called Hoi Shing. When we got out The Brook was lit up and looked very pretty indeed. Having been cautioned against the footpath or the busy main road in the dark, we took a modestly-priced taxi back to our tent.

The Brook at Dawlish

Dawlish to Torquay

After coffee and flapjack outside a bakery in Dawlish Warren, we headed along the sea wall with Brunel’s exciting railway embankment just to our right, beating high tide into Teignmouth where we caught another smaller ferry across the Teign to the genteel suburb of Shaldon where we continued up through golf links as far as Babbacombe and then cut straight through the suburbs of Torquay to a night of comfort in the Hillcroft B&B close to the centre of Torquay. Torquay seafront is winsome in the evening.

Torquay harbour, evening

Torquay harbour, evening

We had an utterly delightful Tex-Mex meal at Jingles and walked back steeply and turgidly but loving the how the lights of Torquay look at night. We watched Newsnight from a very high bed as our pants dried on the window handles, and marvelled at Cameron’s decision to divert so much public money into reopening the search for the (pretty blonde) McGann daughter.

Torbay to Brixham

Not much to say about this one – you walk along the English Riviera through Paignton and it’s pretty built up and low until around Elberry Cove close to the Western end, when the rocks suddenly harden into limestone, the outcrops and stacks begin to take on a savage look, and the walking becomes lonely and strenuous again. We had a good cup of coffee at the top of the glass box that is Shorelines in Paignton, which was memorable for the quiet and the view.

Brixham has the bustle and importance of a working town – there’s fish and pharamceuticals. We arrived early and pitched our tent with a few others in sight at Upton Manor Farm about a mile up the hill. We then walked around Berry Head to see the views and the lighthouse, and arrived back in Brixham for a fairly unremarkable dinner. Brixham is a beautiful place at dusk, tiers of homes with their faces towards the harbour, and at night their lights make it snug.

Brixham harbour at dusk

Brixham harbour at dusk

Then we went to the Crown & Anchor which serves the fishing community. I haven’t had such good cider as Paignton’s in years, and there was rowdy jollity which briefly soured when one of the fish marketers who sounded like he was from Essex shoulder barged another one off his chair and was asked to leave. The next pub was much stranger, every surface festooned with objects from keyrings to chamberpots. There was a small old fat terrier we were warned might ‘turn’, a boring Bay’s bitter, an African Grey on a perch with a shoe underneath which had been pecked to tatters, and a niche behind the bar filled with figures which the publican described as a “nigger’s corner”. Then we walked back up through the town, getting briefly lost around the edges, and to bed.

Brixham to Dartmouth

The last day was perhaps the best. We were warned that the going was very “up and down”. This characteristic of the Coast Path had bamboozled us at first, used as we are to long slogs upwards for hundreds of metres, then a long and windy ridge, or a moor, then a long way back down, then once more before the evening. On the coast path you climb the equivalent, but in 10 or so mini installments a day.

That day was very clear, we bought lunch from the Co-op and set off. There was a lot of activity in the sea, particularly as we rounded Sharkham Point to glimpse the sail boats round the eroded spires of the Mew Stone.

The Mew Stone, from near the Dart estuary

The Mew Stone, from near the Dart estuary

The loudspeakers of the tour boats alleviated the loneliness of the high path. We had lunch in the sun at the edge of a cliff watching cormorants resting and diving. There were some evocative martial defences to sea around the mouth of the Dart, and we headed round into the estuary  in woodland populated by huge and ancient coniferous trees to arrive at Kingswear and the ferry across to Dartmouth where we took the number 90 bus to our campsite, Little Cotton Caravan Park, a lovely place over the hill which had some campers in for the weekend. Eschewing the company, we pitched in the far corner.

We walked into town, ate a good veggie chilli at Kendricks and then drank in a genteel harbourside inn called the Royal Castle Hotel drinking strange drinks and writing our postcards. Walking back up the lane I complained about the bright light which was ruining my night vision, only for Matt to identify it as the moon.

Steam locomotive to London

The next morning we packed in record time, ate breakfast from the Co-op on a bench looking out over the Dart, got on the ferry, then connected with the coast line’s steam train staffed by a conductor whose demeanour and kindliness would have more than satisfied the Reverend Audrey (you would never have guessed that in a previous life he was a pharma supplier).

And now I am at home. Going to bed.

*Exceptions are our sole B&B evening, The Hillcroft in Torquay, where I was offered both soya milk and soya yoghurt, Ladram Bay Holiday Park where the waiting staff carefully discussed my breakfast order and the chef bought the hash brown packet out to show me the ingredients and offered to cater for anybody given sufficient notice, and the Kings Arms in nearby Otterton where chef came to ask me what I liked to eat, and knocked up a very fine risotto with no prior notice.

Green Man 2010

Gripes, praise, music and photos.

Update: Green Man TV. I remember now. It was brilliant.

At times this year Green Man felt like a rally for people so similar-minded that there was no need to say anything substantially political. Josie Long pretty much summed up my experience of the comedy and literature stage when she observed that all a stand-up comedian had to do to get their audience on side was to say they hate the Conservatives. Truly, out of my admittedly small sample, it’s all we got. Including from her, nice woman she is. And I won my bet that no fucker we heard pronouncing on the state of the nation would go anywhere near the Liberal Democrats. All the bad feeling was reserved for the Conservatives. It was if there was no coalition. The reason is that Green Man reads The Guardian and The Guardian laid foundations for this government everybody shapelessly and aimlessly hates, by telling us to vote Liberal Democrat.

Maybe I was doing something else at the times when the criticism of the Conservatives became trenchant and argued. What Josie Long said suggests it never did, though. All I saw were performers acting like they were the last remnant of some ancient British tribe consoling themselves in a valley surrounded by Daily Mail-reading Roman garrisons. And if there were any Conservatives or Daily Mail readers at Green Man’s literature and comedy stage, they won’t be returning in 2011 because they were assumed absent and lampooned. That pissed me off to an almost unspeakable extent – because in fact we are the ones who lost the political battle. Now we have to start again, and if politics isn’t changing minds, it’s nothing.

In a cranky conversation I started, a good friend told me that somebody who didn’t know me would assume I was right wing. True, there’s a kind of left – the kind that makes me homeless and others neo-conservative in protest – that I want to see wither. When Billy Bragg sings about power in a union, I think about how my institution’s student and staff unions swung militantly behind a campaign for funded scholarships for (only) Palestinian students, and yet allowed our nursery to close. And when he gets us to sing, with regards to African states, ‘just drop the debt and it will be alright’, I think it’s only responsible to consider the ramifications, same as I would for my, your, everybody’s household’s £90k debt, which nobody is proposing we drop. Only talking and singing about that – or that in general – is going to rekindle any home fires on the left (listening to Mike Skinner on the way home I wistfully imagined him getting into politics – sadly or maybe happily it’s skinner by name…).

But mostly Green Man is about music. For me there were two electrifying stand-out sets. Steve Mason was amazing and the atmosphere was amazing – here’s something he played, recorded here during his Beta Band days (and I was at that gig).

Local heroes (Essex, that is) These New Puritans were mindblowing. Imagine these live in the dark:

Then on Sunday I’d stamped off to the tent in bout of near-tears at being denied advertised vegan cake after queuing (it was that time of day, there been some smoking and a lot of rum), returned to find Matt and Rachel in actual tears after The Tallest Man on Earth had huddled with his friends on the Far Out stage to perform Gillian Welch’s ‘Everything is Free’.

For silly talent, dancing, and bouncy youth, Darwin Deez.

For distracting me from being bored during their songs with smoke, confetti, mic cams and zorbing, The Flaming Lips. It looked like this:

More photos. Yes of course it rained – the rain was heavy, and light, and prolonged. We all came prepared and nobody minded. Billy Bragg informed us it was pissing down at V. In between showers I got this (from inside my hood):

They say Green Man, with its natural amphitheatre and cloud-wreathed mountain backdrop, is the most scenic music festival:

The other lovely thing about Green Man is how many parents feel comfortable about bringing their children.

It’s fun, recommend it. Our friend got laid.

More comprehensive reviews:

New Year – Tywyn, Wales

A bunch of us, and latterly our children, have been booking holiday cottages together for new year for a decade now. This year was probably the most scenic so far, in a former farm up on the hills to the north-east of Bryncrug. After a wet and unbelievably windy start to the week, the weather turned very cold and clear, then snowy, then clear again, transforming our valley in a matter of hours.

Matt and I finally made it to the top of Cadair Idris, our third attempt, this time in fairly deep snow and sheet ice near the summit.

On our way up:

The summit, trig point just visible through the fog and snow:

On our way down:

A few days later we walked to Dolgoch Falls:

Met a snowstorm on the top of Mynydd Tan-y-Coed:

which was thankfully local and short-lived, giving us beautiful views seaward to the west :

although finding our way down wasn’t so easy:

The last weekend of summer: a treasure hunt, Claybury Park, the New River, and a sponsored walk

It was a cracking weekend.

We held a modest but well-attended get-together. The afternoon began with a barbecued lunch. We had a gazebo in case of rain or too much sun on the babies, but the darned thing kept casting its shadow in the wrong direction, and it was a perfect day anyway.

I tried out a pictorial treasure hunt for the young children which seemed to go pretty well. First you plan the hunt – work out where you’re going to hide the clues. Then you go round your home taking pictures of those locations. If you can, you make the pictures a wee bit cryptic so you can ask them “Where is there a wall like that?” or “If the sofa is there, then which table is that one? or “Where is there a piece of furniture with feet like that resting on a floor like that?” Then you put the pictures into a table in your wordprocessor and do simple captions in case anybody can read. Print, cut out, and you may like me decide to use your workplace laminator if, like ours, it has been dormant for years. Then you hide the clues, reserving the first one to start them off. In the event they needed a little assistance – for example, under-fives don’t necessarily know about pillowcases – but not all that much assistance; I hid 9 clues and they didn’t get bored. Turns out that treasure hunts are a good way to acquaint children with the ins and outs of a home. The final clue led to a key in Matt’s pocket and anticipation was at its peak. Just one caveat – the word “treasure” creates certain expectations which, no matter how polite the child, cannot be fulfilled by board games linked to the government’s numeracy strategy.

Then the parents and children departed, the booze flowed and strange and funny things occurred. We pushed on until 4 and (because it was Barkingside and you don’t get to pop home) had a sojourner in every room. Some were more comfortable than others, I fear – a selkbag doesn’t make the floor any softer, even with a yoga matt and a bedroll underneath. Then our friends’ dogs, whom we’d initially worried might be a problem for the babies, spent the small hours understandably going berserk whenever a cat came through the garden, so at about 5 I visited the guestrooms distributing earplugs. But in the end they were allowed upstairs. I had kind of expected the neighbours to understand, given that you could make a strong argument that the cause of the noise was their cats, but our more-considerate dog-owning guests didn’t want to test that understanding.

The next morning the place looked like a festival site. After cooked breakfast under the gazebo we took our friends and their dogs for a walk to Claybury Park, a peerless local beauty spot. After soaking up views of the city from Hospital Hill, we started picking and returned home with sloes for gin, incredibly sweet and perfumed blackberries and several varieties of apples. I made a crumble for afters and for once correctly judged the water content so that the topping didn’t suffer from too much steam.

Bank Holiday Monday fell on the last day of August. Matt and I are walking 32 miles in 10 hours with my dad and brother for a charity which helped my dad when he had cancer last year. Yesterday we took the train to Ware which is a couple of miles south of Hertford in Hertfordshire, and set off on foot for home in Redbridge, London along the New River path (see Google map).

The New River was created by goldsmith and merchant Hugh Myddleton in the early C17th to bring clean water from Hertford to Londoners. It runs in dug channel and aqueduct, following the contour lines to drop only 8cm per kilometre and eventually ending in Islington. I enjoyed reading about the C17th nimbies – they had a sure-fire antidote back then: get the king’s approval. If I permit myself a short digression, of course nimbies today are not local landowners, but ordinary inhabitants who feel that they are being disregarded and their interests sacrificed for some lofty and unproven idea of the greater good – this is why I was so pleased to hear last night’s edition of Costing The Earth on BBC Radio 4, Turbines or Tearooms?, which I heartily recommend to any environmentalist. The message: involve local people in decision-making to generate their renewable energy for their own community, organising a scheme for contributing back to the grid so that they can cover their costs. The way things are now, with attempted pariah-isation of the objectors, is very strange. New Labour embraced choice, market, profit and property in this country, and here is Ed Miliband (somebody I like, by the way) asking rural communities to make what many perceive as huge sacrifices for the good of the many in a way which is breathtakingly out of keeping with the other political currents of the time. I think that what we need is cooperative energy generation, devolved to a community level and coordinated and supported at a central level.

Back to the New River – even now it supplies 8% of our drinking water and it was nice to think about that as we watched various dogs plunging around in it. Peak water is never far from my thoughts in recent years. You might perhaps think it was a canal but the give-away is the bridges which only just skim it. Because nothing travels along it except water fowl, it’s a wildlife haven and we ate our sandwiches with our feet dangling above minnows, weed and crayfish (even English crayfish, I think – at any rate, it was pink. And, sorry to say, dead). The walk was slightly marred by dogshit, but there were many high points, not least the diversity of housing backing onto the river, from vast estates, through modest 1970s boxes, to beautiful big old houses with velvet lawns. My favourite part was crossing the M25 on a massive footbridge with the New River slung underneath. Then we were in Enfield, and soon after that we turned left onto the London loop to take us closer to home. At Enfield Wash I had a passion fruit off the vine overhanging the footpath! Epping Forest was gorgeous. Update: in fact perhaps my favourite part was climbing up Barn Hill to the edge of Epping Forest and turning back to see the tawny evening sun smashing into the KGV and William Girling reservoirs and turning them into lava pools. Round Sewardstone and Chingford we encountered the most glamorous horse rider we’d ever seen, golden-haired, hatless and sporting a splendid décolletage.

Matt and I had our poles and I lost count of how many times we were told “No slopes round ere luv”. This is one of the most unoriginal things you can say to a walker.

At Woodford Bridge, about 4 miles from home, it was 7pm and we figured we should stop. The 275 took us the final distance. We’d managed 20.5 miles and I reckon we had another 12 in us no problem. If you want to sponsor the walk, contact fleshisgrass@gmail.com and I’ll tell you how.

Wales in 9 days – Conwy to Carmarthen

9 days’ walking from Conwy at the top of Wales to Carmarthen more or less at the bottom.

The holiday was wet and set back by poor footpath maintenance, but very satisfying.

Here are some of the highlights.

The Hafod Hotel at Devil’s Bridge. Up in the eves of this enormous but very homey old coaching inn our large room had a window which looked out onto the gently steaming tree-filled gorge and the hills beyond. The room itself was very atmospheric, I can’t quite describe how – something to do with the dark, honest, old furnishings, floral prints of the curtains, wallpaper and bedspread, soft, gentle odours of the place, the light of a grey dusk, and the sound of the rain outside and the far off river crashing down over the rocks. I loved it. The staff were not only friendly, they were kind to the vegan and to the wet walkers. The owner made space available in the cupboard with the boiler and we dried our clothes. His daughter had shopped for me, and I had a number of sandwich fillings to choose from. They gave me the sandwich filling to take to the next place. I am deeply grateful. In the sitting room I read a 2003 farming notebook and Matt sat with three ancient books – British flowers, British moths and British birds. I would love to go back to the Hafod Hotel.

At Llangeitho we stayed at the Glanafon Guest House, one of two well turned-out en-suite dormer rooms in the immaculate home our proprietors built. Again, they were very friendly and welcoming and made us tea which we drank in their kitchen. They asked whether we liked dogs and when we said that we did, they let two out of the sitting room – they were lovely big dogs, full of comedy. One wanted to play with a rubber ring he refused to release; he and the other one conducted fierce playfights through the ground floor as long as somebody was looking. That night we could hear the river nearby. The food was good and attentive to the vegan, and the breakfast table was arranged for guests to look at the bird feeders, which were very busy.

Also a special mention for the warm and comfortable village pub in Llangeitho, the Three Horse Shoe. It was really good of the landlady to get in nut loaf especially. That was one of my favourite evening meals.

I really enjoyed our stay at Ivy House at Dolgellau. Again, they looked after the vegan, and the place was nostalgic, clean, deeply comfortable and honest. That morning a knowledgeable and understatedly humourous woman I presume was the owner came out of her kitchen and told us about some of the things we would encounter on our route.

It was too wet to use the camera much. This happens and you have to just shrug. But one time I was walking on a footbridge on what was supposed to be a bit of wet ground in a watermeadow by the Teifi, and it was half a metre under water. Another time one leg went down to the knee in a hidden bog, the other was sinking fast and if I had been on my own I’d have lost my sandals trying to get out. I’m not entirely confident I could have got out on my own. One sad lunch in the Ceredigion village of Bronant the pub was shut and the church locked – we ate our sandwiches huddled like sheep on the concrete under the rusted and leaking corrugated iron roof of the local shop. Another day the only shelter we could find was a remote sheep shearing shed on the slopes of Plynlimon, the massif which seems to stand between us and anywhere we want to go in Wales and which – source of the Wye and Severn – always soaks us. It soaked us again; this time we found the Rheidol ford near an abandoned farm where we ate lunch last time, but it was flowing forcefully, perishing cold and up to my behind.

Climbing Cader Idris from Dolgellau, ragged fingers of cloud threw out rain in front of us and behind us but not upon us. 200 metres from the top of Cader, which was out of our way, we met a man and his son who told us that the summit was “like being in a white bubble”. Not peak baggers, we decided to come down.

This all sounds dreadful, but it isn’t. Not that we planned for this, but I recommend making a long journey in remote places on foot in bad weather to fill you with appreciation for human achievement and a strong sense of your own wellbeing. You remember that roads – from Sarn Helen to the M1 – were created because of the need to make connections over wet ground. Made roads were some of our earliest networks. You remember that humans are very resourceful and enterprising creatures, and you love, and even marvel at, your waterproofs, OS maps, the bridges, your bed and the roof over your head. You feel fortunate about your food, and your beer. You feel practically joyful when you reach your destination each night. Matt and I are fortunate – we have more than we need. It’s good to confront yourself once in a while with the needs you have surpassed.

A few last things.

This time Wales felt like a foreign country. The language is formalised – my Machynlleth English friend’s daughter is on the Welsh track at school – she is taught in Welsh. Many young people from Conwy to Carmarthen were speaking in Welsh. Although we were obviously not Welsh (backpacking hikers in Wales are almost always not, and the English have always used Wales as their playground) some local people on the road addressed us initially in Welsh. I took this as gently making a point. Welsh is first and foremost a political and nationalist matter, I think. Thought maybe it is less rather than more archane to spell, phonetically, ‘ambiwlans’ instead of ‘ambulance’ and ‘egsost’ instead of ‘exhaust’. At any rate it has come to the stage now where next time I’m in Wales I think I will learn some courtesy phrases, and certainly greetings, in the language of the land as formalised by the democratically-elected Welsh Assembly.

I was afraid of the animals. I couldn’t read the dogs. A lot of the cats fled when I came near. A field of curious horses approached us at speed and followed us for a few hundred metres and I was nervous. Matt and I fought over a herd of cows with calves. Matt insisted on approaching them when they were in our way. They lurched, showed the whites of their eyes and looked poised to do something rapid – in the end they moved aside. This happened twice. On the second occasion I was so intent on creeping along the hedge that I stopped just short myself of trampling a dead new-born calf. Filled with horror and walking quickly for the end of that field I was close to the stile when a massive pale rock nearby twitched and flicked its tail. It raised a head with a gold-ringed nose. I was over the stile with some speed, noticing only when I got down that the gate between that field and the one I’d just left was open. It was fine. I think we were in some danger when the cows with calves were on our path and that we should have avoided them according to the countryside code, although Matt doesn’t. A few days later in Lampeter we read of the death of a poor woman, Anita Hinchey, charged and trampled by cows, the third such death in that month – these attacks are not such rare phenomena, although Matt is probably right when he points out that the people died because the cows reacted badly to the dogs. I’m glad, at least, that more are permitted to suckle their calves on pasture. This used to be a rare sight – the fact that it is less rare means there is a market for veal again. I wonder how they separate the calf and its mother before the death. Probably with dogs.

I buttoned my lip when one host (unmentioned above) held forth on the violence that wind turbines do to the landscape. When I look at the hills I see enclosed common land making prisons for animals and trespassers of people. It has only been this way since the industrial revolution. Almost everywhere in Wales human activity has carved up the hills. I think wind turbines are majestic, triumphant.

Wales in 10 days

We are walking from Conwy to Carmarthon and I’ve been doing the boring job of making little maps of where we are staying each night, to print on a sheet of A4 and take. This is easy to forget but very necessary when the addresses consist of a place and a postcode but no road name, a bit like this one:

09-19

We’ve stayed in places with fewer roads.

Packing list:

Kit

  • 30 litre pack
  • Waterproof pack liner
  • Map case
  • OS Explorer maps
  • Compass
  • Walking books
  • Poles
  • Penknife
  • space blanket
  • 2 water bottles
  • fire
  • bothy bag

Clothes

  • Pants
  • Socks
  • Walking boots
  • Sandles
  • Flip flops
  • Walking bra
  • Evening bra
  • Walking trousers
  • Evening trousers
  • Waterproof trousers
  • Walking t-shirt
  • Evening shirt
  • Fleece
  • Waterproof coat
  • Baseball cap
  • Gaiters

Electronics

  • MP3 player, earphones
  • GPS
  • Phone
  • Camera
  • Chargers: camera, phone, battery, USB charger adaptor
  • Rechargeable AA batteries for GPS
  • Wind-up torch/radio/charger with attachments
  • Watch

Health

  • Plasters
  • Antiseptic cream
  • First aid kit
  • Second skin blister dressing
  • Tea-tree oil
  • Painkillers
  • Energy: sweets, seeds, nuts, dried fruit
  • Vitamin supplements

Hygiene and vanity

  • Biodegradable wash for everything
  • Sun cream
  • Lip sun protection
  • Aloe vera gel
  • Contact lenses and solution
  • Glasses case
  • Toothbrush
  • Toothpaste
  • Floss
  • Hair conditioner
  • Deodorant
  • Moisturiser
  • Hairband
  • Razor
  • Travel towel
  • Comb
  • Handkerchief
  • Eyeliner

Misc

  • A paperback
  • Cash
  • Credit cards
  • Cheque book
  • Printed contact details and detail maps of where we have booked to stay (put these on the web)
  • Receipts for deposits
  • Clear plastic bags, plastic bags for dirty stuff