Rugged Tales

Wherever my feet may take me…


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New Year’s resolution

Another year dawns and there’s a new adventure on my horizon: a trek to Everest Base Camp at Easter. I jumped at the chance to trek alongside a fully fledged summit expedition, but on sober reflection it struck me that the whole ‘summit expedition’ thing could be a double-edged sword: surely anyone seriously attempting to climb to the Earth’s highest point is going to be WAY fitter than me?! To maximise my chance of keeping up, it’s time to remind my legs that they’re good for something other than resting on the sofa while my upper body takes the strain of consuming Christmas delicacies and ‘Dexter’ box sets in equally lavish quantities. Enter the Capital Ring: ’78 miles of footpaths through inner London’s green spaces’, on a route which ‘takes in some of London’s most outstanding attractions…and encounters little-known treasures’, all within 10 miles of Charing Cross.  Although it’s a relatively modest distance, the route is – coincidentally – almost exactly as far as a round trip to Everest Base Camp (though quite a bit nearer sea level of course). I set off yesterday with high hopes that it would make an interesting – and convenient – way to pass the time and strengthen my legs ready for Nepal.

The route officially starts on the south side of the Woolwich foot tunnel, but the trail is designed so you can start and stop at any point on the circuit.  I opted to begin at the spot closest to my home in North London: Brent Cross Shopping Centre. Undoubtedly considered one of ‘London’s most outstanding attractions’ by oniomaniacs*, it wasn’t quite the kind of attraction I’d had in mind, but the excellent transport links made up for any lack of romance. And if nothing else, Britain’s first major shopping mall (opened in 1976) contributed to my objective of exploring parts of London I haven’t been to before. After a quite disproportionate amount of wandering about, dodging women determined to spritz me with perfume or thread my eyebrows, I eventually found my way from the bus station at the front to the exit at the back and spotted my first way-mark!  I was on my way…

…through a malodorous subway beneath the A41, through some nondescript residential streets, over the Northern Line, and along  the side of the North Circular (which my guidebook informed me ‘has the dubious distinction of being the noisiest road in Britain’). Not, perhaps the most edifying start, and I began to wish I’d set off from Woolwich after all.  It was with some relief that I arrived at Brent Park, whose pretty tree-lined paths run alongside the river Brent to meet it’s tributary, Mutton Brook. The remains of an alligator were apparently found near here in 1996, though I encountered nothing more aggressive than a quite surprising number of midges. But while I was happy to see an the increase in greenery, the thunder of traffic and the stern warning signs shattered any illusion I might have nurtured of a rural idyll.

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As the path turned into the peaceful back streets of Hampstead Garden Suburb, however, I could easily pretend I’d strayed into an English country village. Such tranquility, of course, does not come cheap in inner London. After passing the third Bentley it was hardly necessary for the guidebook to note that this is one of the most affluent areas of London.

From there is was just a short stroll to Highgate Wood, where the Capital Ring was formally launched in 2005, and – at last! – to something approaching actual countryside.  And the walk got better and better through the adjacent Queen’s Wood and onto the south section of the Parkland Walk. Running uninterrupted for nearly 2 miles along a disused railway line this was the most enjoyable stretch so far, and even the abundant graffiti added a splash of jaunty colour on a gloomy January day.IMG_1412

At the end of the path, another pleasant surprise awaited me. Finsbury Park, it turns out, is not just a handy transport interchange, but an actual park – one of the largest in London, in fact. Who knew that as I caught the train up the East Coast Main Line all this was directly overhead? And who knew that just around the corner from the throngs of happy families jostling for space in the well-appointed playground was the alarmingly deserted – and horribly muddy – New River Path? Squelching along the grassy banks of this 17th century watercourse in the already-failing light, past the perimeter of Hackney’s Woodberry Down – Britain’s largest council estate – with only discarded cans of Special Brew for company, I felt a certain amount of anxiety. Hackney Council’s decision to allow private developers to replace the run-down blocks with swish new apartment complexes has attracted some criticism but I was more than a little grateful to emerge unscathed in front of Berkeley homes’ luxury development, Woodberry Park, not least because they’ve surfaced the waterside path.

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Resisting the urge to rinse off some of the sticky clay clinging to my shoes in the futuristic fountain, I instead set off around Stoke Newington’s West Reservoir to the equally grand but more historic 19th Century pumping station (now a world-class indoor climbing centre)  known as The Castle. And from there it was just a short step across Clissold Park to Stoke Newington village. I felt at home ambling up Stoke Newington Church Street, perhaps because the independent shops and nonconformists past and present reminded me of living in Cambridge. Even the extensive Abney Park Cemetery at dusk provided only the most comfortable of frissons in artsy, middle class Stokie. Weather permitting I’m looking forward to returning next weekend to start the next leg….

* The technical term, apparently, for those with an uncontrollable desire to shop.

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Feet of clay

The weather this summer may not be good for hiking but it seems to be just the thing if you’re a slug. At the campsite in Shaldon I had to remove three or four small grey ones from my Crocs every time I wanted to get out of the tent. At Ladram Bay, the big black kind were more common, and we removed a number of them from all around the tent before setting off for Seaton.

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It was a tough start to the day with the path over High Peak to Sidmouth the worst yet. It ran through a woodland that had recently been logged and the passage of the heavy machinery over the sodden ground, followed by another day of heavy rain yesterday, had destroyed it. We both had near misses, almost standing on ground that wasn’t as firm as it looked, until eventually the inevitable happened and Rob sank into mud right over the top of his boots. Luckily he had the drawcord round his trouser cuffs tightened so they acted like gaiters, but when we finally came out onto more solid ground, having taken 45 minutes to pick our way through half a mile of quagmire, Rob was more skeptical than ever about hiking as an enjoyable leisure pursuit!

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Fortunately that was the worst of the terrain behind us, but after so much rain more paths were muddy than not. We climbed up and down the cliffs accumulating a colourful collection of different muds on our boots as the surface rocks switched between the deep red Otter Sandstone and Mercia Mudstone, and the creamy white chalk and Upper Greensand. At least my latest toy – the Jurassic Coast iPhone app – allowed me to revel in a new-found geological prowess as I slithered along! But in spite of the condition of the paths it was an enjoyable walk, and with the consumption of a tactical cream tea and the help of a fortuitously placed tree, we dodged the heaviest rain showers and stayed pretty much dry all day.

As we made our way round the delightfully named Beer Head, we had great views back over Hooken Undercliff, formed by an enormous landslip in 1790, under the stormy sky.

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And although my allergy to yeast prevented me indulging in a pint once we arrived in the village of Beer itself, I’m happy to report that the Anchor Inn had an excellent selection of alternative beverages (including specialty gins, single malts and a variety of wines) to refresh us after a very muddy, hilly walk.


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First steps

Laying in bed last night, listening to gale force winds tearing through the trees and flinging rain by the bucket-load against the windows, this whole project seemed like one of my less stunning ideas. And when my alarm went off at 5am my enthusiasm dimmed still further. But despite the low start to the day, once I’d set off for the station I rediscovered some excitement. Probably just as well given the scale of the task ahead!

The journey to the start was smooth and uneventful – but it’s definitely not one of the highlights. The final bus journey from Taunton to Minehead was especially tedious, as if First had instructed the driver to show passengers the maximum number of villages on the way, whether or not anyone wanted to go there. But eventually, just as I was about to give up hope, there was the sea! I was happy just to get up from the knee-crushing bus seat, and even happier to find the monument that marks the start of The Path.
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And wait…could it be…no, it was just…wait!…yes!…I think it’s actually…SUN!!

Faint with excitement I sat on one of the many sea-front benches and ate my lunch, both to recover from the shock and in preparation for the first ascent of the walk – 290m up (the rather muddy after last night’s rain) Selworthy Beacon.

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After what would have been an easy stroll across beautiful gorse moors, had I not been fighting to stay on my feet in the wind, I dropped back down to Porlock: my home for the night.

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I found Sparkhayes campsite and picked out a good spot for my tent, only then discovering I’d landed in the middle of a West Midlands motorcycle club. Fortunately, the Moonshiners turned out to be some of the friendliest people I’ve ever had the pleasure of sharing a campsite with. I hope I’m equally lucky tomorrow night.

So 9 miles down, 621 to go – after that crack of dawn start I’d better get some sleep…