Touring the Tors

It seems like quite a long time since our last planned ‘special’ weekend – I suppose that’s what we get for not spacing our plans evenly. However, this weekend was most definitely worth the wait!

Sam and I are quite lucky in that both of our birthdays usually fall around Bank Holidays, so we can nearly always plan something good to do. This year, Sam’s birthday fell on Good Friday, and to celebrate I took him for a long weekend away on Dartmoor.

Dartmoor has always appealed to me; I love bleak, unforgiving landscapes where I can walk for miles without seeing another soul, and the moors have all of the above in spades.

We arrived mid-afternoon on the Friday, so before heading out onto the moorland we visited Okehampton Castle, because – let’s face it – with me in charge of the itenerary we could hardly ignore it.100_0214.JPGI can’t say either of us were blown away by the ruin though; I think the castle has the (unwelcome) distinction of having the most uneventful history of any that I’ve visited. It has seen no battles, hosted no armies, waged no wars, but it does have some very well preserved garderobes. I wish I was joking, but the medieval facilities were the star feature of the audio-guide, taking up nearly half of the commentary..!

The next day, after a scrumptious breakfast (we stayed at Okeside Cottage B&B and I can’t recommend their breakfasts highly enough) we drove out to Meldon Reservoir and headed up onto the moor.100_0459 (2).JPGAt first, we were a little disappointed because we could hear a lot of traffic which detracted somewhat from the ‘wilderness’ aspect of the walk, but as we headed further south we thankfully lost the noise from the road.

The landscape was exactly as I’d pictured it – bleak, barren, and boggy. Oh, and utterly beautiful.100_0306.JPG100_0343.JPG100_0358.JPG100_0347.JPGWe were lucky with the weather and although it was cloudy and very blustery we did see some sunshine and blue skies. From the Reservoir we climbed up to Yes Tor and then across to High Willhays, the highest point on Dartmoor (and yes, we did carry up a stone each from the bottom to add to the cairn).100_0387 (3).JPGWe also had a chance to ‘road-test’ our new walking socks! Sam’s Mum, Lis, is a very talented lady and has dyed, spun, and knitted our gorgeous walking socks. We’re very pleased to report that as well as being super cozy, we managed 15 miles without even the hint of a blister. Thank you!100_0491 (2).JPGBefore setting out, I’d read all sorts of horror stories about the dangers of the mists and the mires and was worried that we were totally unprepared for such an environment. Sam, with his usual level-headedness, was not so worried – and while I’m sure that in bad weather it would be incredibly easy to lose your way, on our bright and clear day there was really nothing to worry about. Once off the Tors we mainly stuck to the army tracks as they made the going so much faster, and we made a fantastic 15 mile circular walk, taking in views of Ockerton Court Pool, West and East Mill Tors, and Rowtor.100_0440.JPGWe were heading home on the Sunday and couldn’t do another long walk, so planned to take an easy route around Cosdon Hill and Little Hound Tor. On the map, there was a clear footpath marked that would take us on a circular route from South Zeal and back at the car in time for lunch. Hmm – I thought it seemed too good to be true and it was. There are no other paths marked on the map, but in reality the area was a maze of criss-crossing tracks in every direction, and of course there wasn’t a single waymarker in sight. Oh, and the path that we were supposed to be following turned out to be more like a stream…100_0496.JPGDespite the difficulties with the terrain, the route we did end up taking was spectacular. Along with enjoying far-reaching views, we also got to experience some of Dartmoor’s human history. I love prehistoric remains; hill forts, barrows, and ancient settlements all fascinate me, but my absolute favourite are the standing stones and stone circles that were constructed millennia ago.

Part of my enjoyment comes from the mystery of the remains; I think it’s possible to make some fairly educated guesses as to why they were built, but we still don’t know – and personally, I wouldn’t really want to.

Dartmoor is full of ancient stone circles, menhirs, and stone rows and our walk took us past all three. The first feature that we came to was the stone row known as either ‘the Graveyard’ or ‘the Cemetery’.100_0482.JPGAlthough the day was clear, it was very windy and cold which made me appreciate even more the effort that it would have taken to build the row. It’s thought that it may have been longer at one point and there are also (at least) two burial chambers associated with it but the stones have seemingly been taken to build walls and gateposts. I’m very glad that at least some of it remains.

We then headed further south towards Little Hound Tor and after some bog-hopping came to the stone circle – and it was worth every muddy boot and detour.100_0524.JPGVery near to the circle was a menhir, the Whit Moor Stone (okay, so it’s not a true menhir as it is most likely associated with the circle, but it’s good enough for me) which I loved.100_0528 (2).JPGI have never seen anyone yet when coming across a menhir that has not resisted the urge to reach out and touch it”

While researching the stones, I came across the above sentence on the Legendary Dartmoor website and it really resonated with me. I stood and admired the view for ages, and maintained a contact with the stone the whole time. All of the stones that we saw seemed to be such an integral part of the moorland, highlighting how this landscape has been inspiring people for thousands of years. I still can’t believe the effort that it would have taken to stand large boulders of granite on end in such inhospitable terrain; regardless of the reason why they’re there, I know that they meant a great deal to the people at the time.

After taking in our fill of the scenery, we headed back to South Zeal. On the way down the hill I was struck by the contrast in the wild beauty of Dartmoor and the gentle, rolling green fields down below. The moor itself seems to be unchanging, remaining distant and remote from the rapidly altering world below as it has done for many, many years.

I think we’ll be back.100_0544.JPG


Romans Revisited

We’ve had Sam’s parents staying with us for a couple of days en route to their home in Spain, so we thought we’d combine their company with our ‘special weekend’ for March. It’s always nice for us to have people to stay, especially when they’re not familiar with the area and we can enjoy sharing some of our favourite places.

Just like us, Roger and Lis are keen walkers so there was no question of what we’d be doing with them – it was just a case of which walk to pick!

As it was our special weekend we also wanted to incorporate an interesting stop into our walk, and decided to continue our Roman theme from February with a visit to Bignor Roman Villa.

Although I really enjoyed visiting Fishbourne, for me Bignor is the firm favourite, partly due to the setting (this is most definitely not in the middle of a housing estate!).108_3790.JPGThe Villa is smaller than Fishbourne, and I suppose it could be argued that none of the mosaics are quite as impressive as ‘Cupid on a Dolphin’, but the whole set-up feels far more informal and friendly which suits us perfectly. The Villa has remained in the same family since its discovery in 1811, and they’ve managed to avoid any kind of corporate feel which sometimes detracts from historic monuments. I’ve found that a lot of local people haven’t really heard of it, unlike Fishbourne which I’d say is recognised by nearly everybody as one of the leading sites of Roman remains in Britain.

The mosaics themselves are stunning. The craftsmanship is so impressive; it’s hard to believe that the Villa disappeared from all knowledge and was hidden for hundreds of years.108_3841 (2).JPG108_3830 (2).JPG108_3802.JPG108_3826 (2).JPGBignor also provides several picnic benches in the grounds, so we made the most of the sunshine  and ate outside (this was the first walk I’ve done this year without a hat and scarf, and I had to carry my coat most of the way – I think it must finally be spring!). I’d packed some curried sweet potato and pea pasties, made using Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s wonderful rough puff pastry recipe, as well as whinberry muffins and some more home-grown Spanish kiwis. Mmm.108_3791.JPG108_3793.JPGThe walk itself was lovely; we parked at the top of the hill which made quite a change, and walked down into Bignor before climbing back up and following the ridge until we arrived back at the car park. I’ve been rambling on about hints of spring in my last couple of posts, but this weekend really felt like spring was out in full force. The fields were full of lambs; daffodils and primroses were brightening up the hedgerows; and we even saw a herd of wild deer happily grazing in the middle of a field (unfortunately, the only angle I could get included a telegraph wire, but I took the picture anyway).108_3780.JPG108_3850.JPG108_3846.JPGWalking on the Downs on days like this makes it easy to understand why the Romans settled here. The land is green and fertile, with the gentle hills providing protection from any wind and rain blowing in from the coast. The Villa in its heyday would have been spectacular, and I’m so thankful that enough of it has been preserved to allow us to admire it today. There is so much history packed into the landscape here and I don’t think I’ll ever be tired of finding out about how people from across the ages have left their mark on the land.108_3761.JPG

Windswept Wanderings

As well as being behind with my walking miles, I’m now seriously behind with writing about said miles! Oops.

Backtrack to a couple of weeks ago, where despite the wind and rain caused by ‘Storm Doris’ we managed to get out for a couple of good walks. We re-attempted our abandoned walk of a few weeks ago and this time successfully completed the loop on the Downs overlooking Lewes.

Doris was causing a fair bit of chaos and the Downs were windier than we expected, although the rain only came in showers so we at least managed to enjoy the view in sections. The hints of spring from a couple of weeks before were becoming more obvious, with daffodils and snowdrops making an appearance.108_3600.JPG108_3604.JPGWe could see quite a long way from the top, although we didn’t stop to enjoy the views for very long (or take many photos, as it was proving a bit difficult to hold the camera steady!).108_3611.JPG108_3617.JPG108_3618.JPGNext time, we’ll try and visit without gale force winds and rain. Who knows, maybe third time lucky?108_3602.JPGLast week, we managed to dodge the showers completely and had a great ten mile walk on the Downs nearer to home. We started from a car park just below Chanctonbury Ring and headed across the hills towards Cissbury Ring. We’d not actually been to Cissbury Ring before although we’ve walked past it a few times. Bizarrely – and quite embarrassingly – I’d somehow managed to miss the fact that it features the remains of whopping great big Iron Age hill fort (I’ve since found out it’s the largest in Sussex and the second largest in England).

Our pictures don’t really do it justice unfortunately; the ramparts and the defensive ditch would have been huge and they really stand out in the landscape as something man made.108_3648.JPG(For anybody interested, the National Trust have a great aerial photo on their website which gives a much better perspective)

The climb up to the top was gentle and short, so we were very pleasantly surprised to see such far reaching views in every direction.108_3661.JPG108_3665.JPG108_3671.JPGAlthough the views were stunning, the wind was still quite bitter and after a refreshing kiwi snack (grown by Sam’s parents in Spain – thank you!) we set a brisk pace back down the hill towards home.108_3675.JPGHaving managed to miss Cissbury Ring up until now, I think I’ll be making up for lost time and visiting again soon!

That February Feeling

The last couple of weeks of January seemed to fly by with the excitement of starting my new job, and as a result my time spent walking has really decreased. It wasn’t exactly unexpected, as I knew I wouldn’t be able to maintain my rate while working but I’m now four miles below target. I’m hopeful that I’ll make it up once the evenings are lighter, but it’s still disappointing to see the numbers dropping, and I know they’ll continue to fall for a while until spring arrives.

We’ve got a busy February coming up (well, I say we – what I really mean is that Sam has lot of tennis planned), so we decided to do our February ‘day out’ this weekend. It does seem like it’s coming hot on the heels of January’s and we’ll have a bit of a wait until our one in March, but I’d rather get it in early than run out of time and not do it at all!

The day was off to a great start before we’d even set off, with the arrival of this fine fellow on the bird-table. I’ve really not been having much luck with feeding the birds this winter and have been attracting mainly pigeons and starlings, with a couple of robins and blue tits thrown in, so I was thrilled to have a bullfinch visiting. I know they’re not rare in the UK, but it was a very welcome change to have such a colourful visitor!108_3295 (2).JPGWe began with lunch in Arundel which is one of my favourite spots and so always a great start to a day out. I have mixed feelings about the castle as it was restored in 1900 and has a slight air of being made of Lego rather than being a ‘real’ castle. It redeems itself with its 12th century remains, and also by its wonderful gardens that are a real treat in summer. Regardless of its origins, it remains an imposing sight.KODAK Digital Still CameraInspired by my love of castles, Sam took me to the Motte & Bailey cafe where I had a scrumptious lunch of scrambled eggs, smoked salmon, and salad, but the real highlight of Arundel was this beauty that we followed into town!108_3306 (4).JPGIt was quite happy to pose for photos and took very little notice of us on the path as it happily fished in an offshoot of the River Arun.

It’s quite difficult to top seeing (and photographing!) a kingfisher, but our next stop – Fishbourne Roman Palace – was trying its best to impress. Okay, so the first impression of the building was a little underwhelming, not helped by the fact that it’s right in the middle of a housing estate, but the inside definitely made up for it.108_3335.JPGThe highlight was the ‘Cupid on a Dolphin’ mosaic that has been incredibly well preserved, although there were several other mosaics that were impressive in their own right.108_3329.JPG108_3319.JPG108_3327.JPGIt had only just opened for the year and was fairly quiet which meant that we were free to wander around at our own pace. We’d not been before although it’s been on my list of ‘places to go’ for a while now, so I was thrilled to finally visit. It’s hard to believe that such a huge palace could disappear without a trace for hundreds of years, and I found the whole site fascinating.

It was a fantastic day out and a great start to February. As the days start to slowly lengthen and warm up, I’m hoping that we can squeeze a few miles in around the various tennis matches coming up this month – watch this space!

Castles and Crochet

This week has marked my last week of ‘unemployment’, and so I’ve been making the most of having my time to myself. The weather has been glorious – gone is the drizzle and grey skies of the last couple of weeks and instead I’ve been treated to day after day of bright sunshine. Admittedly, it’s also absolutely freezing, but I never mind being outside in the cold as long as I’m well wrapped up. I’ve taken the chance to get in some more miles (the current total stands at 77 miles since January 1st) while I can still walk in daylight, and have continued my trend of trying to catch either the sunrise or sunset.108_3040.JPG108_3061.JPGAs well as the walking, I’ve also been making a start on some of my other resolutions this week. Resolution #2 was to learn a new skill, and so last week I headed into Horsham and picked up a crochet hook, some cheap yarn, and a reference book. I can’t exactly say that I’ve been making great progress, but it’s definitely a start. The thing I’m really struggling with at the moment is keeping enough tension in the yarn to catch it with my hook, and as a result my hand is really aching. However, I do like the motion of crocheting, and I think I’ll easily be able to sit and chat while crocheting at the same time (something I never really manage when cross-stitching). It’s slow going for now, but I’ll be sticking with it. Stay tuned for the next half inch of my tiny square being added some time in the not-too-distant future…108_3273.JPGResolution #3 was to plan a day out per month, and this weekend was the first installment. We’ve decided that we’ll take it in turns to plan each month, and as this whole thing was my idea, I went first. Sam had Friday off as he has some carry-over holiday to use, so I thought it would be good to plan two days of activities to really kick things off in style!

On Friday, we took advantage of the weather and walked some of the South Downs Way along Devil’s Dyke. This is one of the most popular spots in the area, partly because it’s quite close to Brighton, partly because you can park at the top of the hill, and partly because the views are spectacular. It’s been a tourist attraction for years; the Victorians built a cable car, funicular, bandstands, and a fairground on/around the Dyke, and although that has all disappeared there is still a very popular pub at the top and at weekends the area is usually covered with people.

The resident Geologist informs me that the Dyke is the longest, widest, and deepest dry chalk valley in the country, formed by snow melt during the last Ice Age. It’s been of interest to humans for thousands of years and is the site of an Iron Age hill fort, as well as a later motte and bailey castle further along the ridge.

After a hearty breakfast of whinberry pancakes with maple syrup, we set off from the village of Fulking and headed towards the Downs.108_3074.JPG108_3076.JPGWe then began the short and steep climb up the Fulking Escarpment which hadn’t seen the sun for days – the path was frozen solid and the frost lay thick on the ground.108_3080.JPG108_3088.JPGOnce at the top, we stopped for lunch at a handily placed bench and enjoy our picnic of homemade quiche and whinberry cakes. The view was stunning, but a very cool breeze meant that we didn’t linger for too long!108_3097.JPG108_3100.JPG108_3135.JPGWe then made our way to the first castle of the weekend, which were the motte and bailey remains on Edburton Hill. There’s not a huge amount to look at, and it’s admittedly not the most impressive of castles, but the view more than makes up for it!108_3110.JPGWe bypassed the pub and the few other people who were around and headed down into the Dyke itself. I think the concrete slab that I’m sitting on in the next picture is the remains of the cable car supports, but otherwise nature has truly reclaimed the land.108_3126.JPGAfter dropping down into the valley, we walked the last few miles through gently sloping fields back to the car at Fulking, ready to go home and make our new meal of the fortnight which was salmon and ginger ‘burgers’ (they were definitely fishcakes, but they tasted great regardless of the name!) with sweet potato wedges. Mmm.108_3155.JPGAfter the great walk of Friday, I’d planned a day out to Pevensey Castle which was the landing place for William the Conqueror in 1066, as well as being an ancient Roman fortress. We’d not been before, and I loved it – it was the perfect blend of crumbling ruin but with enough still standing to make it worth exploring. Entry was a little bit odd as we almost had to go out of our way to find the ticket cabin and buy tickets (a few people just seemed to be wandering in) but I was glad that we did as we were given really good audio-guides which made up for a distinct lack of signage in the grounds.108_3167.JPG108_3179.JPG108_3186.JPG108_3181.JPGWe then headed next door to the Royal Oak and Castle for a warm lunch before setting off to Lewes, our last stop of the day.

I’ve been to Lewes before and love the sheer amount of history contained in a relatively small area. One of the main attractions for me are the ruins of the priory which are fairly substantial despite being a fraction of the size of the original complex. It underwent a pretty thorough demolition thanks to Henry VIII but there’s enough there to be worth looking at, along with a number of good signs (plus it’s all totally free).108_3210.JPG108_3223.JPG108_3232.JPGWe’ve currently got free entry to Lewes Castle for a year after gift-aiding our tickets last May so we decided to take advantage of this and make the most of the abundance of castles in the area. It also proved to be too good of a dressing-up opportunity to miss…108_3241.JPG108_3258.JPG108_3251 (2).JPG108_3253.JPGWell, if they provide a trunk full of costumes for adults, why not?!

We stayed up on the battlements to watch as the sun sank in the hazy sky, enjoying the views above the town.108_3262.JPGI’m so glad that I decided to keep resolution #3; I wasn’t convinced when making it as it seemed a bit too ill-defined, but taking the time to plan something special gave me something to look forward to all week and also had us venturing slightly further afield to explore new places. Definitely a resolution that we’ll be sticking to, and I can’t wait to see what Sam comes up with in February!

Thunder Snow

There has been much excitement in the South-East this week, as we’ve been subjected to the prospect of ‘thunder snow’! Cue mass hysteria, various weather warnings, and general panic…

Thunder snow actually turned out to be, well, just snow – and not much of it at that. We ended up having a light smattering on Thursday which only managed to stick around until Friday because it froze overnight. It was ever-so-slightly underwhelming, but did make for some nice pictures on Friday morning when I caught the sunrise and notched up another couple of miles on the Downs Link.108_2804.JPG108_2832.JPG108_2845.JPGActually, the weather that had the biggest impact on my week wasn’t the snow, but the rain. The beginning of the week was lovely and I had a couple of great walks with Mum although I forgot to take the camera out with me so have no photos – oops! After that though we had several days of rain and I was surprised to see just how quickly the River Adur responded to the rainfall. The morning following an afternoon/evening of rain resulted in the river overflowing its banks and covering the fields which I really wasn’t expecting as I didn’t think that the rain had been anywhere near heavy enough to cause flooding.108_2866.JPG108_2868.JPGThis meant that most of my usual walking routes were out as the river was up over the footpaths, so I had to go exploring. We live close to a Carthusian monastery, and I decided to head north and find out how much of it I could see from the path. The spire is visible from miles around, but the rest of the building is very well hidden from the road so I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to get a good view. After a couple of frustrating miles where I could only see small glimpses through the trees, I turned a corner and was treated to an unobscured view and it really is very impressive. I’ve heard that the best way to see it is from the air, but I think I’ll be quite happy with what I can see with my feet planted firmly on the ground.108_2907.JPGThe rain may have led to one interesting new walk, but it made for a fairly awful one on Saturday. Sam has had a really busy week at work and hasn’t been able to get out at lunchtimes for a run or walk, and as a result has started to fall behind on miles. He planned a new walk for us just south of Lewes which would have been a good nine miles, but the weather was so atrocious that we called it off after three miles and drove home.108_2922.JPG108_2923.JPGThe walk was made worse as the lovely homemade quiche that I’d packed for our lunch was still frozen, and the parking area recommended by the guidebook had a rather large “Absolutely No Parking” sign by it resulting in a detour to another village to find somewhere more suitable. All in all, it was a rather unsuccessful day! One of the only bright spots – quite literally – was a kingfisher happily diving in the River Ouse. Sadly, my wildlife photography skills are not up to kingfishers (or otters, not that I’ve seen it since the first sighting), but we enjoyed watching it make its way down the river. At least someone didn’t mind the rain! Another point of interest was the church in the small hamlet of Southease which dates from the 12th century and is one of only three in Sussex to be built with a round tower. It also has wall paintings inside which date from the 13th and 14th centuries which I enjoyed looking at while sheltering from a particularly nasty downpour.108_2937.JPG108_2929.JPG108_2931.JPGWe think that the walk itself will be lovely when not tipping down with rain, so we’ll definitely be going back and hopefully managing the whole distance. The weather for this week looks better, so fingers crossed for some better walking over the next few days!