There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

A Brief Encounter with Carnforth and a Train Trip to Grange-over-Sands

‘There’s not much else to detain you in Carnforth,’ Brian said, ‘just a couple of charity shops, a branch of Greggs, a Chinese take-away and an estate agent or two.’ Brian was right, Carnforth has all these things and, useful as they may be, they are not the stuff of a blog post. Slightly more interesting are the old fashioned ironmonger’s and Carnforth Bookshop selling new, used and antiquarian books, but by and large Carnforth looks and feels like a town side-lined by the currents of history.

There is a Co-op which seems to have taken up residence in the old cinema….

Carnforth Co-op

….and a war memorial with half a dozen floral tributes to Drummer Lee Rigby, murdered the previous week in London. I was surprised; he was not a local man, and their presence clearly says something about the current state of the national psyche, though I am not exactly sure what.

Carnforth War Memorial

And then of course there is the railway station, the ‘else’ of the opening sentence. It was the railway - and the abundant local limestone - that made Carnforth, turning a village of a couple of hundred at the start of the 19th century into a steel making town with over 4000 inhabitants by its end. Then steel making stopped and so did Carnforth’s growth, though it remained an important railway depot for the first half of the 20th century.
Lynne outside Carnforth Railway Station

The railway also brought Carnforth its 15 minutes of fame, or more precisely, its 86 minutes of fame as that is the running time of Brief Encounter. If the locals are to be believed Carnforth Station was billed just above Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard, though, unaccountably it was Celia Johnson who got the Oscar nomination not the station.

The station clock, which features prominently in the film is still there….
The clock, Carnforth Station

… and part of one platform has been set out like the fictional Milford Junction of 1945.

Me, 2013, at Milford Junction, 1945

Inside, the refreshment room, which also played an important part, has been lovingly recreated…..

Refreshment Room, Carnforth Station

…… and returned to use.  Despite the 3d (that’s thruppence, children, there were 12d to a shilling and 20s to £1) on the till, the £8.95 on the blackboard shows they have not recreated 1945 prices. This till is just for show, but they all looked like that when I was a lad.

All tills used to look like this

Although the station was used extensively as a location, the refreshment room scenes were shot in a studio, so this is a recreation of a room that never was.

The rest of the interior is the ‘heritage centre’. Beside the shop, Brief Encounter runs on a loop, while other displays chart the history of Carnforth. There is as much railway memorabilia as anyone could wish for, a serious model railway shop for small boys of all ages and, of course, a nod to the superstar of the railway world, Thomas the Tank Engine (here upstaged by Percy the Green Engine).

Percy the Green Engine, Carnforth Railway Station

West Coast Main Line trains stopped calling at Carnforth in 1970 and the platform was removed so they could scream through at full speed. The station deteriorated into dereliction until its redevelopment as a heritage centre in 2000.

Carnforth Railways Station, the functional part

Two working platforms remain for trains running between Manchester Airport and Barrow-in-Furness. When you are at a station you should take a train, so we made the fifteen minute journey to Grange-over-Sands on the opposite (Cumbrian) side of Morecambe Bay. The attraction, at least for me, was that the line crosses the bridge over the Kent estuary or the top end of Morecambe Bay, depending on how you want to look at it.

Across the Kent estuary...or the top end of Morecambe Bay

Grange is about the same size as Carnforth, but there the similarities cease. The railway turned it, almost overnight, from a fishing village to a seaside resort but a small and select sort of resort. We walked along the promenade which is unusual as proms go as it overlooks not a beach, but a strip of salt marsh, grazed by a small herd of sheep.

Hilary and Lynne on the promenade

A hundred years ago the main stream of the River Kent ran beside the promenade but over the years it worked its way south, leaving behind sands and mudflats which have developed into the salt marsh we see today. Sustained easterly winds in early 2007 started the river moving back again and the marsh is now eroding; Morecambe Bay is forever changing.

The salt marsh - and the salt marsh lamb

Just because the river has been neglecting the promenade, it does not mean the residents have, and the gardens are carefully tended by a group of volunteers; we passed them as they took their coffee break. Mainly retired people – Grange is full of them us – with a sense of civic responsibility, they are doing an excellent job.

Having strolled out along the prom, we walked back through the streets, past large, solid stone houses built to last until eternity, if not a little longer. There are charity shops here, too, but you have to admire the wrought ironwork.

Charity shops and wrought iron

There are also a couple of top class delis. Where Carnforth looks sad and dated, Grange’s response to the 21st century is to be archly retro - and it seems to work. They have an artisan baker who makes real bread and a serious butcher who also produces pies - and do I approve of a proper pie. Brian assures me they are as good as they look, and Brian’s opinion in such matters can be taken as fact.

Archly retro Grange-over-Sands

At the end of the Main Street....
Main Street
...we crossed a small park populated by a variety of exotic ducks and geese (though fewer than of late, Hilary thought) and made our way back to the station, itself a listed building and recently restored and repainted.

Snow Geese and chick
The climate and the nature of Morecambe Bay mean that Grange was never going to be a candy-floss, kiss-me-quick-hat sort of seaside resort, but the surrounding countryside is beautiful and the Lakes are nearby so this is prime holiday cottage country. People retire to Grange, too. I would not consider it myself, despite its direct link to Manchester airport, as the climate is just too cool and too wet, however for those with webbed feet….

Grange-over-Sands station

Monday, 6 May 2013

Wells to Glastonbury, 'The Moutain Route': Day 18 of the South West Odyssey (English Branch)

The South West Odyssey is a long distance walk.
Five like-minded people started in 2008 from the Cardingmill Valley in Shropshire and by walking three days a year have now (April 2018) reached Ringmore on the South Devon Coast (almost).

The road sign outside our B & B said ‘Glastonbury 5 miles’. And indeed the A39 flies straight as an arrow across land as flat and green as a snooker table, if rather more criss-crossed by water courses. So that was it, then, a hearty breakfast, an early start and we could be finished in time for coffee.

But it was not like that. All walks need a destination, and ours was certainly Glastonbury, but the destination is secondary to the journey. Along the eastern edge of the Somerset Levels a couple of small hills swell out of the flat land, and others obtrude from the higher country inland. It was through these hills that we walked, heading southeast until our intended destination lay ten kilometres to the west. Only then did we turn towards the landmark of Glastonbury Tor. Calling it the ‘mountain route’ might be the tiniest of exaggerations, but it would keep us busy all day.

As we prepared to set out we welcomed Heather, Francis and Alisons’s daughter, who arrived to walk with us as she had in 2011 (Day 11: Perrott’s Brook to the Round Elm Crossroads) and 2012 (Day 15: Old Sodbury to Swineford)

Ready to set off from Glengarth House, Wells
(L to R Heather, Alison, Me, Brian (largely hidden) and Hilary

We left Wells through the recreation ground, its wrought iron gates surmounted by the words 'Mary Bignal Rand 1960-64' as though they were a memorial to a dead child. Born Mary Bignal in Wells in 1940, Mary Bignal Rand is alive and well. She came back from disappointments in the 1960 Rome Olympics to win, gold (long jump), silver (pentathlon) and bronze (4 x 100m relay) in Tokyo in 1964. She was granted the Freedom of the City of Wells in 2012.

Beside the recreation ground is the modest ‘stadium’ of Wells City FC of the Western League where 100 paying spectators is considered a bumper crowd.

Wells City FC
Photographed through a hole in the fence.

Beyond the football ground we hit open country and made a gentle descent to the little River Sheppey. Crossing the river we turned southeast towards Wellesley Farm over fields that had been ploughed and then baked in the sun. As no field head had been left we were faced with dusty and treacherous footholds, as Francis found to his cost. I did not laugh – but that cannot be said of everyone.

Footbridge across the River Sheppey

We rejoined the Monarch’s Way at the foot of Worminster Down, one of the hills that rise gently from the surrounding levels. Most of the climb was across a grassy field made interesting by the antics of a small herd of young cattle who charged around in tight formation like bovines on a mission, though what mission none of them seemed to know.

Worminster Down
The cattle are about to charge in from the right

On the broad summit we passed close to a possible hill fort, spotted on aerial photographs but not yet investigated on the ground. If there was little to see yesterday on Burledge Hill, there was nothing to see here.

The descent was through thick woodland. Passing a wooden cabin where an old man seemed to be living as a hermit, we picked our way downwards. As so often happens in woods there were plenty of paths to choose from, most of which petered out after 50 metres or so leaving us to crash downwards through the undergrowth or backtrack to try and find the correct route. Eventually we emerged from the woods at a stile, which indicated we were on the right path, if only at the end.

Descending through the woodland
Worminster Down

We made our way to the village of North Wootton where we climbed up the side of Pilton Hill, only to climb down it again a little further along. I am quite happy to climb a hill to get to the other side or just to reach the top, but this manoeuvre left me bewildered. Our footpaths have come down to us from medieval times or even earlier, and whichever ancient thought this was a good route had clearly been on the cider.

Approaching North Wootton
The oaks are only just coming into leaf

Appropriately we then passed through a cider apple orchard, surprisingly the first one of the weekend. Had we arrived a week later (or had spring arrived on time) the trees would have been in full blossom. Even so, I still find the military ranks of straight trunks rather pleasing.

Cider apple orchard, North Wootton

From here we continued south, on the Levels for once, until the foot of Pennard Hill, where we finally turned westwards towards Glastonbury Tor.

Heather and dandelions
Summerland Meadows

Pennard Hill is a sizeable hog’s back swelling up from the Summerland Meadows.

Up Pennard Hill

We paused halfway up to look at some locals….
Some of the locals, Pennard Hill

 ….and then a little higher up to look back at the Glastonbury Festival site. The structure in the centre of the photograph is the part completed Pyramid Stage. In eight weeks these empty fields will be occupied by over 100 000 people and it occurred to me that from where we stood you could doubtless hear the Rolling Stones and pay nothing. Brian pointed out you could hear them for the same cost but in rather more comfort watching it on television.

The Glastonbury Festival site
from Pennard Hill

Once on top of Pennard Hill it was a simple walk along the ridge before we picked up Cottles Lane and descended to West Pennard and the Sun Inn where Lynne joined us for a glass of lunch. She had spent the morning hunting her ancestors, her mother’s family having lived in this area before migrating to South Wales during the late 19th century industrial boom. The brother of one of her great great grandfathers had lived in West Pennard.

A glass of lunch at the Sun Inn , West Pennard

The first part of the afternoon was a straightforward walk across level ground towards the Tor, which had been a distant landmark since we topped the Mendips and was now becoming closer and apparently growing larger.
Glastonbury Tor gets closer...

Inevitably such a strange and striking landmark has attracted a range of legends. Some claim the identification of the tor with the Isle of Avalon goes back to Romano-British times but, more likely it dates from the discovery in Glastonbury Abbey of the bodies of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere in suspiciously neatly labelled coffins in 1191. Marketing is not a new invention, and medieval monks could lay it on with a trowel. Joseph of Arimathea visited Glastonbury, they claimed, and as proof you can see the cherry tree that miraculously grew where he planted his staff. He came with a companion, more than likely, a young Jesus…

‘And did those feet in ancient times
Walk upon England’s mountains green?’

asked William Blake many years later, knowing full well that the answer was ‘no’.

....and closer

It comes as no surprise to learn that the Holy Grail is also buried somewhere on the Tor (probably between Lord Lucan and Shergar) and it is also the home of Gwynn ap Nudd, Lord of the Underworld and King of the Fairies.

With all this magic in the air we approached with trepidation. There is a more prosaic – but perhaps more accurate – story, that the tor consists of layers of clay and blue lias with a cap of hard midford sandstone bound together by precipitated ferric oxide from the waters of the Challice Well. The surrounding soft sandstone has eroded away leaving the tor standing 170m above the Summerland Meadows. Before these meadows were drained it really was an island (though perhaps not the Isle of Avalon) in a sea of wetlands.

The path rises gently to the foot of the tor. On a sunny Bank Holiday Monday hundreds of people were climbing up and down it and there was an ice cream van parked at the bottom. I took advantage of it.

There is a concrete path all the way up - and down on the other side - to prevent erosion. From the top there are fine views back over where we had been, and westwards over the Levels and the low Polden Hills to the dark bulk of Exmoor our target for next year.

Looking back to Pennard Hill from Glastonbury Tor
The tower on the top is the remains of St Michael’s Church. The first church on the site was built by the newly Christianised Saxons, probably to keep Gwynn ap Nudd in his place. It was replaced by a medieval stone church which was destroyed in1275 by an earthquake – a rarity in these geologically stable islands. A third church was built and maintained until the Dissolution of the Monasteries in1539 after which it was quarried for building material so now only the tower remains.

Th Tower of St Michael's Church, Glastonbury Tor
We descended into the streets of Glastonbury. It is a strange town, half hardnosed marketing, half New Age vagueness. If you need to buy healing crystals or get your aura sorted, Glastonbury is the place to come. Having said that, some the streets round the south of the town or rather mundane…

Glastonbury, mundane streets
…at least until you look back at where you have been.

Looking back

On the western edge is another small hill called ‘Wearyall Hill’. It is a low ridge providing good views of the town and the tor (and the industrial estate, but best not to look there) and popular with those out for a stroll in the bank holiday sunshine. It’s not really big enough to live up to its name, even at the end of three days walking, but it provided a pleasing finale.

Glastonbury from Wearyall Hill, the ruins of the abbey are to the right of the picture
A lake survived at the foot of the hill for many years after the Levels were drained. It was into this lake that Sir Bedevere threw Excalibur after the death of Arthur so that it could be reclaimed by the Lady of the Lake.

9th and 10th century sources of dubious reliability mention a Romano-Celtic kinglet called Arthur who, in the early 6th century, resisted the invading Saxons, fought heroically at the Battle of Mount Badon and was killed at the Battle of Camlann - the locations of Badon and Camlann are unknown. Everything else is legend, mostly made up by Geoffrey of Monmouth (1110-1155) who gathered together all the stories he could, dreamed up a connecting narrative and presented it as a History of the British People. He was not highly regarded as a historian, even in his own time, but he did create a story that has kept on giving right up to the present time.

Lynne and Hilary were waiting for us near the Pomparies Bridge [update: It looks like 'Pomparies' but crossing it next year I discovered it is actually Pomparles] over the River Brue which divides New Age/Arthurian Glastonbury from the less exotic town of Street, more famed for its outlet shopping centre (where Hilary had spent much of the day) than its legends.

The end, at least for this year

If the Lady of the Lake and all her elves preserve us from Gwynn ap Nudd and his goblins, we shall reassemble at this spot next year for a further exciting instalment of the South West Odyssey (English Branch).

Sunday, 5 May 2013

Over the Mendips to Wells: Day 17 of the South West Odyssey (English Branch)

The South West Odyssey is a long distance walk.
Five like-minded people started in 2008 from the Cardingmill Valley in Shropshire and by walking three days a year have now (April 2018) reached Ringmore on the South Devon Coast (almost).

It may have rained overnight, but the morning mist cleared early and we prepared to set out in bright sunshine.

Preparing to leave the Seymour Arms, Blagdon
I took a short walk over the road to look at Blagdon Lake which, like its larger neighbour Chew Lake, provides drinking water for Bristol. It was formed in 1891 by damming the (Congresbury) Yeo one of thirteen River Yeos in Somerset and Devon.

Augustus Toplady was the curate of Blagdon from 1762-64. During this time he had cause to shelter from a thunderstorm under a large cleft rock in nearby Burrington Combe and was inspired to write the hymn ‘Rock of Ages’. The hymn was definitely written in 1763, the rest of the story is probably apocryphal though a metal plaque marks the spot where he may not have sheltered.

Blagdon Lake and the Rev Augustus Toplady's church

Back in Bishop Sutton we set off through the village and then up what the landlady of the Seymour Arms had described as ‘Cardiac Arrest Hill’. At 174m, 125m above the level of the lake, Burledge Hill does require a little effort, but to describe it as a threat to health was a bit over the top. Our plan had been to follow the minor road winding round the highest part of the hill, but it seemed pleasanter, if longer, to take a footpath that climbs straight up the side and then continues to a fort.

The hillside is designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest, ‘nationally important…,’ according to the citation, ‘…for a wide variety of species-rich unimproved neutral grassland communities…’ There is a list of plants an expert could have spotted, but we were happy to settle for several banks of wild primroses.

A bank of primorses on Burledge Hill
The fort, an Iron Age hill fort constructed early in the first millennium BC, was a disappointment. We had not expected to see much, but a great deal of imagination was required to turn a few bumps in the ground into earthworks. It probably shows up well from above, but no one had a helicopter in their pack. My photograph, showing only a bush and a field, is too dull to reproduce, so here is close-up of the primroses instead.

Primroses, Burledge Hill

We crossed the top of the hill to the road, turned south and a kilometre later entered Whitehill Lane. Someone had clearly been ignoring the ‘unsuitable for motor vehicles’ sign and I was glad when we reached the end of the muddy and deeply rutted track at a viewpoint on the edge of Widcombe Hill.

The views of the lake…..
Chew Valley Lake from the Widcombe Hill viewpoint

 ….and the northern scarp of the Mendip Hills were good…

The northern slope of the Mendips
… though the view of the assembled company involves a more niche use of the word ‘picturesque’. Alison had an impressive app on her iPad which showed exactly where we had walked and informed us, to two decimal places that I cannot now remember, that we had covered some 4.5 km at a respectable 3km/h.

Some look at the view, others don't

From here we walked round the hill to the village of Hinton Blewett before descending the grassy slope back into the Chew Valley. We paused for coffee by the lower of two small reservoirs which had recently been emptied for repair work and had just started refilling itself.

Coffee by the Coley reservoir

A heron flew up from the river, landed in an adjacent field and stood staring at the grass as if wondering where the fish had gone. Mike observed that it looked indignant. Sometimes I lie awake at night wondering just how large a range of emotions herons can display.

Our return to the Chew Valley was brief. We walked past the reservoirs towards Litton, turned down Stoneyard Lane, which, despite its name is more of a dry stream bed than a lane, and started the climb up onto the Mendips. At Wooten Hall at the top of the track the stile was equipped with a length of rope to make the ascent easier. We climbed across farmland and just beyond Greendown we joined the Monarch’s Way.

Over the wall at Wooten Hall

The Monarch’s Way is a 990km waymarked trail following the wanderings of the future Charles II after the Battle of Worcester in1651. Worcester to Shoreham-by-Sea, from where he fled to France, is roughly 250km, so he hardly took the direct route. We had walked part of the Monarch’s Way previously, notably on Day 10 in 2011 (Andoversford to Perrott’s Brook) and this time we would follow it, with the odd deviation, for the rest of today and much of tomorrow morning.

Back on the Monarch's Way

Once we had climbed the slope it was a long haul over a grassy upland. We passed the summit of Eaker Hill, at 290km one of the highest points of the Mendips, but rising only 20m from the surrounding grassland.

Reaching Red Quarr Farm (‘quarr’ is an old version of ‘quarry’), we turned right, spent too long on a busy B-road then turned left into a large apparently nameless area of woodland.

Nameless woodland on top of the Mendip Hills

The wood was pleasant after the farmland, dry and springy underfoot, pleasantly shaded overhead. Emerging from the forest, we crossed the road into the Priddy Mineries nature reserve, an area of open heathland. As it was lunchtime and there was no lunchtime pub we briefly paused here to not have lunch. We then set off, halted while I went back to attempt to fetch my glasses case (which had actually been in my pack the whole time) and set off again.

At not-lunch Alison’s app was telling us we had walked 500m in the two hours since the viewpoint. We began to wonder if it was all it was cracked up to be.

Across the Priddy Mineries to Fair Lady's Well

The heathland was also pleasant to walk over and we soon passed Fair Lady’s Well and continued through an area with grassed over spoil heaps and small patches of what is known locally as ‘gruffy ground’. Sparkling in the sun, they looked like surface coal deposits, and when Mike found an adit in a small ravine we jumped to the obvious, but wrong, conclusion. The North Somerset Coalfield, I now know, consisted of deep mines in the valley and these mineral deposits are not coal. The Priddy Mineries were lead mines which were worked from pre-Roman times until finally closing in 1908. The land is too contaminated for agricultural use, and is now a nature reserve. Clearly unfazed by the lead, twenty species of dragonflies and all Britain’s native species of amphibians (except the Natterjack Toad) breed here in profusion.

'Gruffy Ground' Priddy Mineries

At the end of the mineries, a quick right and left along a quieter B-road took us into another area of pasture. After a kilometre and a half of this featureless grassy farmland it was easy to forget that we were actually on top of the Mendips. We reached the edge almost without warning and a huge view opened up across the Somerset levels, with the distinctive outline of Glastonbury Tor in the hazy distance.

Down to Wookey Hole

The descent was grassy but steep.  At the bottom we reached Wookey Hole, a village of no great charm tacked onto the edge of the theme park that Wookey Hole Caves have become. Francis seemed to be expecting a twee little place offering a choice of tea rooms with home made cakes. He was disappointed, but the Wookey Inn was open and offered an opportunity for a belated glass of lunch.

The suntrap of a garden was surrounded by plants usually only found indoors, or much further south, and we sat in the unaccustomed warmth and enjoyed a couple of pints of Cheddar Brewery’s Potholer, by far the best beer of the weekend. We had another look at Alison’s app, which had now concluded that we had walked too far and had resorted to drawing straight lines across the map. It had been free – sometimes you get what you pay for.

Francis leaves the Wookey Inn
From Wookey Hole a few hundred metres along Lime Kiln Lane brought us to Underwood quarry.  Screened by trees it was difficult to see, but we suspected the quarrying had rearranged the land shown on the map - it was certainly a long walk round.

A friendly local who had walked up the hill to sit in the sun accompanied us into town. The path through the Blue School grounds gave us an excellent view of the Cathedral, then we rounded the less scenic soon-to-be-completed Waitrose before finding ourselves the old streets of England’s smallest city.

Into Wells

There was some discussion about whether Wells really is England’s smallest city, Francis championing the tininess of Ely – well, he does come from Cambridge. Having googled it, I can report that Ely has a population of 20 000, Wells just half that, so the argument is settled. Both, however, are megalopolises compared with the Welsh cities of St Asaph (pop. 3500) and St David’s (1800).

We arrived at the excellent Glengarth House B & B to find Lynne and Hilary already ensconced.

Wells remains small enough to be dominated by its cathedral, as all medieval cities were, and before dinner we popped into the cathedral precinct. The first church on the site was built in 705 but most of what we see today is from the late 12th and early 13th centuries. The Gothic façade, one of the largest and finest in Europe, does produce an involuntary intake of breath as you walk under the arch from the Market Place, even though, as Mike observed, the towers at either end look like they need something on top of them.

The facade of Wells Cathedral

We dined in the Crown Inn from which William Penn once preached to a crowded Market Place, though it now seems prouder of its role in the film Hot Fuzz.

It was time for the cider investigation postponed from yesterday lunchtime. Draught Thatcher’s Gold has a light, clean apple flavour but is too bland and too sweet for my palate. At 4.8% alcohol it tastes remarkably like a soft drink, wherein, maybe, lies its danger. Only Brian persisted after the pre-prandial pints; ‘drink local’ is a fine concept, but I am afraid I took refuge in Chilean Merlot.

The menu was above the pub average and flirted with ‘pretentious food’ (see Dandly’s personal, idiosyncratic,unscientific and deeply prejudiced food classification system) but my slow roasted belly pork with a black pudding sausage was pleasing enough to easily qualify as ‘good food’. I cannot speak for other people’s choices.