Rugged Tales

Wherever my feet may take me…


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Freeze-thaw

Having walked just over half of the Capital Ring (not that you’d know it, since I’ve only blogged about 10% of it – but still planning to catch up – eventually!), I’ve suspended that project in favour of a bigger and better one: trekking to Everest Base Camp.  More scenic, more interesting, more altitude, more…well…just about everything really, I am very excited to trade walking round London for walking around in Nepal.

The first improvement has been the weather.  When I left London it was -5C with the wind chill, and snowing.  On the shady roof-top terrace of my hotel here in Katmandu, prayer flags fluttering overhead in the balmy breeze, I am comfortable in cropped trousers and flip-flops.  It must be around 27C.  Bliss!

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True, the pumping baseline of a ‘Gangnam Style’ remix blaring from an adjacent building, with occasional interjections from a selection of barking dogs and honking car horns in the street below, might not be to everyone’s taste.  I’m just happy to be able to take my coat off.  If it’s any consolation, Kathmandu is more than usually dusty and dangerous to walk around at the moment as a major road widening project has replaced the pavements with rubble and some sizeable holes, forcing pedestrians perilously close to the rather ‘lively’ traffic.

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Nor is the prospect of a 3.45am wake-up call tomorrow in preparation for a 5am trip to the airport for our flights to Lukla likely to make my list of trip highlights.  Sadly, my flip-flops won’t be required in Lukla: today’s forecast predicts an overnight temperature of -7C and a high of 4C tomorrow, and it will only get colder as we climb. I suspect the coat will be going back on.

But I’ll worry about that in the morning.  Today is all about making final preparations – and then (hopefully) a bit of lolling to recover from a hectic last few weeks.  In the cause of the former we have already had a team meeting, my first opportunity to meet the guides and the rest of the group.  Unsurprisingly for a trip run by American company IMG, the majority of the 20 or so people in our group are Americans, with four Chinese and myself.  Around half, including my friend Viki, are climbers hoping to make it to the highest point on earth in seven or eight weeks’ time.  The rest of us are trekkers for whom base camp is the summit of our present ambitions, many of whom, like me, are here with a climbing partner or friend.  I’m looking forward to getting to know them all over the next few weeks.  Right now, however, I’m still processing being introduced to quite so many people who have (repeatedly, in some cases) and/or plan to climb Everest.  Listening to the guides explain the plans for the coming days and weeks, highlighting preparations that need to made, protocols we need to follow, and checking everyone has the gear they need makes me realise that all these guys have taken a mental leap that I – and probably most people – have not: from viewing ‘climbing Everest’ as a euphemism for an endeavor of such enormous proportions as to be almost impossible, to seeing as it as an achievable goal to be worked towards as I might plan to move house, or going travelling.  I guess to a certain extent we are capable of what we believe we are capable of.  Certainly, it will be a privilege to be along for part of the ride.  And so I’d better get back to making sure I’m ready to go…

My plan is to blog every few days as opportunities present, so watch this space.  You might also be interested in the official IMG blog which is updated most days.


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A perfect ending

As my journey drew to a close I met another hiker just setting out to walk the entire Coast Path in the opposite direction.  He did it last year, he told me, and enjoyed it so much he was back to do it again in the opposite direction. I couldn’t help expressing my surprise, and may even have included the phrase ‘glutton for punishment’, but he was confident I’d feel the same way.  “Not right away, of course, but give it a month or two. You’ll see.” he added, with a sage nod. Standing there on my sore feet, legs stiff and aching from yesterday’s exertions – not to mention those of the preceding 620 miles – I was more interested in finishing than in starting again, and the end was getting closer by the minute.

A few easy miles and a low hill brought us to Swanage beach, crowded with families excited that summer had finally started

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We joined the happy throng with my sister, brother in law and their two children. It was a lovely reintroduction to home life after so long on the road: eating a picnic lunch, chatting with my family, jumping over the waves with my niece and watching my baby nephew discover that sand is fun in your fingers but not in your mouth. I could have sat there all afternoon but there was the small matter of the last six miles to attend to.  Brushing the sand off my feet, I put my boots back on for the final time and headed back to the Path.

It was a perfect summer day, and as I climbed up to the top of Ballard Down I was grateful for the breeze to offset the heat of the sun and the walk up. Two paragliders launched as I approached the top, and wheeling low above my head in the thermals of the cliff we waved to each other as they glided by.  A little further and I rounded The Foreland, my final headland, Old Harry rocks shining bright white in the late afternoon sun.

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But my gaze was drawn the other way: to my first glimpse of South Haven Point, the end of the Path. I walked on to Studland and catching sight of a board outside the Manor House Hotel advertising Dorset cream teas in their stunning gardens overlooking Studland Bay it was as if fate had brought us together. I was in! But a quick call to check they were still serving revealed that, while they were open, they had sold out of scones and clotted cream after an unusually busy day. I was crushed! I walked on around Studland Bay, contemplating an ice-cream instead to console me, and there were plenty of kiosks: but my heart wasn’t in it.

When the National Trust cafe at Knoll Beach hove into view a flicker of hope was rekindled. I approached the door, hardly daring to look inside for fear of another blow: but yes!  There were scones!  I scanned the menu board, and there it was: “Dorset cream tea – Large (2 scones) £4.95”. Relief flooded through me; to have finished the walk without a final cream tea would have been to have left things somehow incomplete. The cream tea itself was not the best I’ve ever eaten: after a long, hot day the scones had become a little dry, and the queue to get them was tedious. But sitting in the sun on the back of the beach, just two miles from the end of the Coast Path, it was still an entrant in the cream tea challenge that will always have a special place in my heart.

Back on the trail, licking the jam off my fingers, I found the sands of Studland Bay were an altogether calmer affair than the happy chaos of Swanage Beach. Boules seemed to be the amusement of choice – I counted three separate games within 50 yards of leaving the cafe.  As I moved further away from the car park the crowds thinned still more until it was just me with the oystercatchers and stints probing the sand at the waves’ edge.  Oh, and some naked people.

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Studland Beach, it turns out, is a popular spot for naturists.  “If you’d been here a minute or two earlier I’d have posed by that sign for you,” called out a man pulling on his shirt a few metres away.  I told him I thought that was above and beyond the call of duty, but it was very kind of him to offer.  We parted on a less bold note – an agreement that it had been a really beautiful day – and in fact I couldn’t think of a better end to the walk.  As the tide went out a wide, firm, flat expanse of sand was left beneath the clear blue sky. It couldn’t have been better for walking. Rounding the final corner I felt I could go on for ever, or at least, until I got hungry again. I was almost sorry to reach the monument marking the end.  I couldn’t quite believe that, just like that, it was all over. The struggles, the frustrations, the appalling weather and the terrible conditions of the last weeks melted away under the hot sun of a perfect English summer day.  I looked at the sign pointing back towards Minehead.  Maybe….

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Stone cold

Today’s stage was a circuit of the Isle and Royal Manor of Portland, Gateway to the Jurassic Coast. I was puzzled as to how a place can be a ‘gateway’ to somewhere it’s in the middle of, but at least this conundrum gave me something to think about during the tedious three mile trudge along the edge of the A354 that links the island to Weymouth.

When I arrived in Chiswell another, physical, gateway greeted me, more traditionally placed at the entrance to the island, and I went over to read the inscription.

“By the great generosity of the brethren of the six Portland Lodges of Freemasons under the auspices of…”

Wait a second – the tiny Isle of Portland has six Masonic Lodges? Who would have thought a population of just 13,000 people would support so many? Perhaps the Freemasons have more to do with masonry than I previously realised; quarries were by far the most striking feature of the island. At one time there were apparently over 80 working quarries whose products can be seen in numerous impressive edifices including the National Gallery, the British Museum and, most famously, St Paul’s Cathedral. It is still a major industry but many of the old quarries are now abandoned and the Coast Path runs right through them.

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The discarded blocks and abandoned faces of Tout Quarry have become an al fresco gallery, adorned by numerous sculptures left there by the departing artisans. I would have liked to spend longer pottering round the quarry looking for them, but the weather didn’t encourage me to linger. Cool, windy and drizzling it was a day for brisk walking not dawdling. And after a few heavy showers I started to wonder whether I wanted to walk at all. My guidebook makes the Isle of Portland sound almost optional, and as I approached Portland Bill I saw there was a tempting bus service directly back to Weymouth – but not for another 45 minutes. To kill time I walked down behind the lighthouse to explore the tip of the Bill and saw a Coast Path marker: Minehead 581 miles to the left, Poole 49 miles to the right.

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I hadn’t realised how close I was to the finish line! I decided not to cheat after all: after coming so far I could surely manage another 49 miles, especially if I had a good lunch. With that in mind I headed into the Lobster Pot restaurant for ham, egg and some excellent chips. As I ate I noticed a sign advertising cream teas, based on their famous award-winning scones made to a secret recipe handed down through the generations. How could I pass that up? But how could I fit one in when I’d just eaten such a large lunch?! Fortunately, it turned out they did a takeaway version for just this eventuality. Relieved, I popped one into my rucksack for later and set off up the east coast of the island.

It was an interesting route, beautiful in places, that I would have enjoyed in better weather. As it was, by the time the path rose to the highest part of the island I was walking in thick fog and couldn’t see a thing – ironic, given that on a clear day you can apparently see a quarter of the Coast Path from Portland Bill, more than from any other point. In the swirling mist I couldn’t even see Portland Harbour – one of the largest man-made harbours in the world – directly below me. I hastily skirted the old Verne Citadel, a fortress until the end of the second World War, now a medium security prison and an eerie desolate place to be this afternoon and hurried down to the harbour where a more cheerful sight greeted me. Osprey Quay and the adjacent athletes village were decked out in party colours ready to host the Olympic sailing next week, a welcome splash of colour on a grey, miserable day.

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Less welcome, however, was the detour round the security cordon: back out onto the main road again. Still, since there’s only one way on and off the island it was coming sooner or later. Of all the sections of the Coast Path to have to walk twice, this had to be one of my last choices, but spurred on by the thought of the cream tea in my bag I made it back to the tent in double quick time. Chilled and tired after the damp 16.5 mile walk my take-away cream tea hit the spot and the scone was just as good as they’d claimed. But the logistics of eating it out of a box with only a spork and a folding pocket knife to assist me were a challenge. Several hours later, still discovering crumbs in my sleeping bag, I concluded that cream teas are better enjoyed in a proper tea shop.


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Silver linings

We stopped last night at Ladram Bay Holiday Park. Although it was voted Hoseasons Best Holiday Park in Britain 2011, when I read that it was one of the largest privately-owned holiday parks in the UK, together with a review praising “some of the best entertainment I’ve ever seen on a campsite” I was tempted to look elsewhere: it’s the not the type of campsite I normally prefer to stay at. But with the Coast Path running right through the bottom of the site the location was too perfect to turn down, especially once I’d negotiated their initial price of £26 down to a much more reasonable £15. And it had wonderful views over the red sandstone stacks in the bay.

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We got up eager to walk but our enthusiasm was quickly drowned by the heavy rain that started around 9:00 am and was forecast to last all day. We put on our coats and went back to Reception to pay for another night. The staff were incredulous: everyone else had come in wanting to check out early, did we really want to extend our stay in such terrible weather?! We explained that it was better than the alternative – and then graciously accepted their sympathy. But if we were going to be rained in it was fortunate we were on a big whistles-and-bells holiday park when it happened. With it’s own launderette, shop, cafe and pub on site we passed the day with only minimal outdoor exposure, although we drew the line at attending the evening entertainment programme (complete with a guest talent spot).

As darkness fell and the rain – finally – slowed to a drizzle, we headed back up the hillside to the tent. After a whole day of torrential rain the grass was disagreeable squelchy underfoot but my lovely two man tent had withstood the deluge without a single leak. It turns out a rainy day is much less miserable when you have a properly waterproof shelter to go back to, and somebody to spend the time with.


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Birthday presents

It was my birthday today! But it didn’t get off to the best of starts. I woke up tired and a little grumpy after a terrible, night’s sleep. Some little creature(s) left over 50 bites across the small of my back while I was walking yesterday – an unwelcome early birthday present – and they itched infernally.

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Uncomfortable as it was to put on my backpack, I manned up and set off around 8am since the forecast was for light rain to move in late afternoon. As I passed Strete I met a man from the village walking his dog, who told me he thought the rain would hold off. I liked his optimism and happily shared it – right up until it started to rain heavily as I approached Stoke Fleming half an hour later. I took shelter under a tree, hoping it was just a shower: after 15 minutes standing there, however, I got bored. Deciding to push on into the village and find a cafe to wait it out I dug out my coat and headed into the deluge.

It turned out my tent is not the only thing that’s sprung a leak. In the 10 minutes it took to walk through the downpour to the village shop then onto the Stoke Lodge hotel, my shoulders, back and chest were soaked. I drowned my sorrows in a full English while I dried off. Two hours later it was still pouring, and I noticed the Met Office forecast had been updated to heavy rain most of the day and all night. Presumably someone had looked up from the computer models and out of the window! I decided to take my sister and brother-in-law up on their excellent suggestion of a hotel room for the night as a birthday present and, being already in a nice hotel, checked in there and then.

The good thing about having such a small tent is that it’s easily dried even in the confines of a hotel bedroom. With my damp belongings spread over every available surface I borrowed a golf umbrella from the hotel and caught the bus to Dartmouth in search of waterproofer for my coat. Mission accomplished, there was just time for a quick cream tea by way of a birthday cake while I waited for the return bus. When the plate arrived I was startled by the size of the Dart Cafe’s scone; it was probably the largest I’ve ever seen in my life! But I felt a small qualm: my researches so far had suggested that smaller scones generally prove the best. But you can’t judge a book by its cover, and the mega-scone turned out to be excellent: tasty and crumbly without being dry. While not quite enough to knock the current leaders from their perch it was definitely a cream tea I was glad to have eaten.

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Back at the hotel I spent the afternoon washing and reproofing my coat. While Andy Murray fought for a place in the Wimbledon final I battled in my en suite. As the manufacturers had suggested when I phoned them in distress after my soaking this morning, I washed my coat in normal non-bio laundry detergent, then in Nikwax Techwash, and finally Nikwax reproofer, all with copious rinsing in between. Then I did it all again for my tent footprint, figuring I might as well give it a try while I was at it.

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It was a long and arduous process. By the time Andy and I had triumphed I’m not sure which of us was tireder! I can see why people invented washing machines. It seemed an ideal moment to restore the bath to its rightful function and get into it myself for a long, hot soak. After walking some 470 miles of the Coast Path I’d almost forgotten what it’s like not to have slightly stiff legs and slightly smelly feet; neither condition being readily cured by a quick shower, however much soap you use. But after the bath I was as good as new. I even blow dried my hair!

Emerging from the bathroom I caught the tail end of the news. The Met Office had revised their forecast again and issued a red weather warning – the first ever – for heavy rain in the South West, with the area affected almost directly centred on where I am. With widespread flooding expected the Environment Agency was apparently touring campsites to warn people. Excited as I was to be in the area on this momentous occasion I was very happy not to be experiencing it from the increasingly limited shelter of my tent. After a three course birthday dinner in the hotel restaurant – a nice change from all the instant mash and pub grub I’ve been eating lately – I curled up in my warm, dry bed, reflecting that it’s much nicer listening to the rain pouring down from inside.


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Déjà vu

Another rainy day, another tea shop… With it forecast to rain hard all day through the fog – a forecast that certainly seemed accurate when I woke up – there didn’t seem much point in walking. I fell back on my alternative, bad-weather activity: eating. There is only one tea shop in Bigbury-on-Sea, the Bay View Bistro and Cafe, so it was lucky for me that it’s a friendly place with good food, and quiet enough that I could keep a table all day. At least I had a good view of Burgh Island to look at through the sheeting rain.

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Home to an exclusive Art Deco hotel where Agatha Christie famously stayed, and subsequently used as a setting for a couple of her books, the hotel was used as a location for the TV adaptation of one of them (the Poirot story Evil Under the Sun). The hotel also runs a pub on the island, The Pilchard Inn, and as I sat in the cafe more adventurous patrons, who’d been across to island, told tales of the log fire there. It sounded good, but as they had also returned soaking wet from the walk back I decided to stay where I was.

I watched the tide finish going out over the sand bar that connects the island to the mainland, turn, and come back in again, in that time consuming:
1. A pot of tea
2. Fish and chips (really excellent)
3. A coffee and a slice of Millionaire’s shortbread (both very good)
4. A large cream tea (rather disappointing – lucky I ate all the other things!).

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As the tide cut off the island from the mainland the bizarre-looking ‘sea tractor‘ started up to ferry passengers back and forth during the high tide. I quite fancied a ride in it, but it didn’t look to offer much more protection from the rain than I would have had by walking.

When the downpour finally paused – for the first time since about 11am – it was well after 5:00 and I thought I should use the time to get back up the hill to the campsite. Moving slowly from the weight of all that food, the rain started up again before I was half way back, and when I reached my tent I found a small puddle (perhaps 3″x1″) had formed on the floor. Fortunately, it was in the place I’d expected given last night’s drips and my sleeping bag and other gear had stayed dry but I still felt a bit depressed as I mopped it up. Poor tent! Poor me!

Fortunately, my lovely neighbors Rachael and Martin came to my rescue again. They chastised me roundly for bringing them whiskey to replace what we’d drunk yesterday, insisted I stay and help drink the new bottle, and invited me to join them for dinner (the tastiest meal of the day). After a fun evening setting the world to rights with them things didn’t seem so bad.


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River deep, mountain high

I was woken in the night when a cold splash of water landed on my arm. Battered by the elements week after week my poor little tent has sprung a leak. I went out in the rain to reposition the fly sheet but it didn’t help. Back inside, I spent a good portion of the night peering anxiously up at the two wet spots with my head torch until I managed to position a Kleenex under the worst drip and get back to sleep. By the morning the rain had stopped and I set off on schedule, despite my tiredness and the forecast fog and drizzle. I wanted to get the tide-critical fording of the River Erme behind me. But knowing what I know now I would have stayed in bed, however leaky the roof over it. By the time I’d walked back to the Coast Path from the village the drizzle had turned to light rain, and in another half an hour it was pouring. By the time I reached Erme Mouth I was soaking wet – and I hadn’t even started the wading part!

I made my way across the expanse of flat sand towards the river, took off my boots and paddled into the water. It was cold! And deep. I’d read that normally, if timed correctly, the water shouldn’t come above the knees, and I’d successfully timed my arrival at the crossing point to within a few minutes of low water. But as I made my way into the stream the water got deeper and deeper until I was pulling up even my quite short shorts, and the rush of water was so powerful I struggled to keep my feet. I started to feel a little scared and wondered if I ought to turn back, but then what? I’d already established that the other options for getting round the river weren’t great. When I saw a couple walking their dogs on the far shore I called out – several times to be heard over the distance, the wind and the rain – to ask if I was in the right place. They confirmed I was and stayed to see me safely over, calling out encouragements. Grateful for their reassuring presence I inched my way across, adopting an inelegant wide-legged waddle that probably looked ridiculous but which I figured would give me the best chance of staying upright. To my relief, the worst was over. The water started to get shallower and I finally got to the other side. It had probably taken no more than five or ten minutes to get across but it felt like half an hour.

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I had the depressing feeling I’d been a bit of a wimp about the whole river fording thing. But as I started to put my sodden boots and socks back on, thanking the couple for their moral support, another dog-walker came by. “Can you believe the state of it?” she said, gesturing at the river. “It’s never this high in July!” The consensus seemed to be that the heavy rain over Dartmoor last night – and all the last month, come to that – had changed the river from it’s normal placid summer state to a much deeper torrent. At least it wasn’t just me!

Bidding goodbye to the dog walkers I headed up onto the cliffs for the next challenge: the roller coaster path to Bigbury-on-Sea. Although reputed to be a tough stretch the steep ascents and descents over the high cliffs were not as bad as I’d expected. Finding the path in the thick fog that clung to the cliff tops, however, was almost impossible. The only other creatures out there were the sheep and for the second time today I wondered whether it was wise to continue.

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But I pressed on and was doing better until I came to climb the final hill. What looked like a firm, grippy dirt surface turned out to be a particularly slippery mud, and an inarticulate squawk of alarm escaped me when my front foot suddenly slid several feet back down the steep slope while I scrabbled to regain traction. I felt my pack pulling me off balance and for a moment I thought a face first fall into the mud was a certainty. But by a stroke of luck I managed to get one foot onto the scrubby grass and arrest my slide, ending with my legs sprawled in opposite directions, balanced on my left hand in a sort of bizarre triangular sideways press-up position.

I’d had enough walking.

Although it was only 2pm I abandoned my plan to catch the ferry across to Bantham for another five mile stretch and headed straight to the nearest campsite, wet and cold but most of all frustrated that all I’d seen of ‘some of the best cliff scenery on the South Devon coast’ was a few tantalizing glimpses through breaks in the fog.

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I pitched my tent in the most sheltered spot I could find, between the toilet block, a high hedge and a caravan, apologising to the couple in it for picking a spot so close to them in a nearly empty field. As it turned out I couldn’t have been luckier than to have pitched next to Rachael and Martin, my fairy godparents for the evening. Not only understanding about where I’d put my tent, they invited me into their cosy caravan for tea, chocolate biscuits and – later – several large whiskies, dried all my soaking clothes on their radiator, charged my phone, let me cook the food I’d bought for dinner on their cooker, and left their car unlocked so I’d have somewhere to go in the night if my tent leak got too bad. It’s testament to the warmth of their hospitality that the wonderful evening I spent chatting with them eclipsed all the trials of the morning. I was as lucky with the people I met today as I was unlucky with the weather.