Tuesday, September 15

A week in Bladnoch

Scotland was very kind to Jon and I last week when we pitched up in one of the more remote parts of the lowlands for our September holidays - the weather was fine and sunny nearly all week, and our waterproofs stayed firmly in the rucksacks. It was something of a relief considering we hadn't realised quite how little there was to do in the area if the weather had been different. The fact that we were staying close to Wigtown, the 'National Book Town of Scotland' might have at least meant we had plenty to read in front of the fire, but thankfully we did not need it.

The nearest town of any size was Newton Stewart, which straddles the River Cree and has a couple of  lovely bridges. It's not obligatory for there to be lovely bridges at my holiday destination but I do seem to pick 'em! As well as the beautifully-proportioned stone arches of the town bridge, we came across this lovely little suspension bridge over the river just upstream of the town centre, which dates from 1911.

Closer to our cottage in Bladnoch we had another stone arch road bridge, as well as the remains of this railway crossing just downstream. Our cottage was in the middle of the row shown on the far bank - the 'main street' of the hamlet.

As they had north-facing gardens, quite a few of the cottages had instead resorted to benches out on the front pavement for catching the evening rays. The fact that the local pubs struggled to supply any decent ales on tap meant that we were out here most evenings supping on our bottled Scottish craft beers from Aldi.

We spent the days doing an awful lot of walking, mostly around the lochs and forests of the Galloway Hills. My particular favourite was from Glen Trool to Loch Dee - about 13 miles there and back, and barely a soul to be seen, not even fishermen in the distance.

We lunched by the deserted loch then I managed a refreshing dip in one of its tributaries before the walk home, again along tracks with no-one else in sight. 

Here and there the forests offered up mysterious items that we had to seek out online when we got home - no interpretation boards here. This large stone inscribed with runes that we found on the way to Loch Dee turned out to be one of the 7 Stanes after which the Scottish biking trails are named.

The large surf-board-like sculptures that we came across at a number of different locations turned out to be Rosnes Benches, another project aimed at bringing art to the forests. Not quite as successfully, in my opinion, could have at least done with a leaflet or some kind of information in the visitor centres.

And Kirroughtree forest trails provided a rather quirky little bridge which carries the mountain bike trail over the footpath on a giant wheel! 

But who needs art and bridges when you have spectacular scenery in which to soak up the September sunshine? We did have a few off-piste adventures testing our nerves in Scotland's open access environment - wading barefoot through knee-deep water (this stream about 2 miles further on) to cross a 'ford' and tramping over rough forest routes made by tracked vehicles in search of a road - but thankfully nothing too hair raising, and we did get to see red squirrels and red deer along the way.

This loch-side wild camping spot does look rather idyllic in the photo but in reality there was a strong, cold wind blowing which made me reluctant to dip into the water. Most days I was constantly looking for the right spot and not finding it, so the swimming was rather limited.

Even when we found a lovely sandy beach, sufficiently sheltered from the wind, our timing was badly lacking and we ended up being there when the tide was out among the seaweed and rocks and far from being swimmable.

Instead we soaked up a few late afternoon rays in the deserted churchyard.

We did manage to see some interesting wildlife, but the otters proved rather shy and all we saw were several sculptures at various locations, reminding us of what we were missing.

The slow worm in the middle of the path might have looked a bit dead, but when gently poked with a stick it slowly slunk away into the grass, its beautiful copper body glinting in the sun. 

The only day when the sun stayed away for most of it was Wednesday, the day we took the early ferry for a day trip to Belfast. This costs the princely sum of £10 on a Wednesday for foot passengers,  including a ticket for day-long bus travel in Belfast, so it seemed rude not to take advantage of it. The 'super fast' ferry from Stranraer only took a couple of hours, so we had a full day in the city.

I wasn't keen on the aggressive bus-tour salesmen that seem to line the streets of Belfast - however holy its citizens believe they are, they are not above making a nuisance of themselves with tourists who are trying to have a leisurely stroll. 

We had a look at the Titanic museum, and even a good lunch there in the bistro, but shunned a visit to the museum itself and instead satisfied ourselves with a trip around the Nomadic, a former tender of the Titanic which was based at Cherbourg. This turned out to be a fascinating visit, my favourite aspect being the fact the ship was moored in a dry dock, and the former caisson gate is also 'moored' right next to her! 

Sunday, May 31

Shoeburyness to Benfleet by bike

What better way to spend a rather grey bank holiday than cycling along the Essex coast? Yes I know it might sound a bit underwhelming but I'm getting a bit of a soft spot for the northern side of the Thames estuary, a bit like the southern side took a while to grow on me.

With Jon's home being close to the Shoeburyness line we've been out to Leigh on Sea and Benfleet a couple of times for walks, but this time we loaded up the bikes on the train with the intention of exploring a few more miles than usual.

Our plan had been to explore the wonderfully-named Foulness Island but this was abruptly stymied by the fact that the majority of it is fenced off for use by the military, something that wasn't clear from the rather old map I was referring to. We'd been aiming for a pub that was marked on the map in the settlement of Churchend but had to be content with a stretch of beautifully smooth asphalt road through the firing range - open on weekends and bank holidays - that took us down to a typically muddy and mostly deserted expanse of beach. 

I'd already taken this photo before reading the sign about how photography was prohibited, but there didn't seem to be anyone around to mind.

Apparently you can get access into the restricted area once a month to visit the Foulness Heritage Centre - might plan to do so just for curiosity's sake.

Further back in Shoeburyness we happened upon these lovely modern beach huts designed by Islington architect Pedder & Scampton - one's currently for sale at £30k but they do have fitted kitchens! They are made of timber frames clad with plastic sheets that are then infilled with pebbles and shells, and have grass roofs.

Much further along the coast, having survived the seafront at Southend where footy fans were lining the promenade in anticipation of cheering their local team which had secured an unexpected and last-minute promotion, we settled down at Osborne Brother's in Leigh on Sea for a seafood feast. Every bit of it was delicious but the rollmops won the day for me.

We also did a detour to Canvey Island just for the hell of it - notable as having the best beach of the day, presumably imported sand and lucky to have the sea even when the tide is low, due to being in the middle of the estuary. 

The Labworth Cafe on the seafront was very disappointing, having been badly refurbished and looking sad and deserted. The din issuing from the band playing outside the Monico Hotel on the seafront did not help. I'm assured there is a good pub on the island - this one presumably - but we fled the place without seeking it out and took the train back for liquid refreshment closer to home.

Thursday, May 21

North Downs Way - Oxted to Maidstone

Our North Downs Way walking has seen quite a few contrasts, and the two sections described below could not have been more different - although to be fair, mostly because they were several months apart! 

We'd planned in advance that we would do our third foray, from Oxted to Otford, on 4 January - one year exactly since the day we first met. So even though the weather did not promise good things, we decided that we should plough on regardless.

And that was pretty much what happened. 

All we saw all day was fog, ghostly trees, occasionally other walkers, and right on the border between Kent and Sussex, a massive shit load of fly tipping that almost blocked the lane. A few hundred yards further on there was a big sign warning of the penalties for fly tipping.

We'd been slightly concerned about pub options - it not being a great day for a picnic - but this was the most successful part of the day. We stumbled on the Tally Ho Pub, which despite all appearances of being a bit grim, served up huge portions of steak & kidney pudding, and Sunday roast to us chilled and hungry souls.

Then it was back to the gloom and the trees, the only benefit being that the mist damped down the sound of the traffic on the motorway a bit. We trudged our way towards Otford. Probably not the most auspicious way to celebrate our first year!

The most recent North Downs Way walk took place last weekend, and it could not have been more of a contrast! We planned to walk from Otford to Hollingbourne, although we only made it as far as Maidstone on the second day, due to a cock-up on the planning front (too much attention focused on the 15.5 miles of the first day and not enough on the 17.5 miles of the second day, which we'd somehow thought was half the length!).

It was glorious walking weather the whole weekend, and even the fact that it was the start of the hay fever season for Jon, not to mention being assaulted by his hay fever nemesis Oilseed Rape every other field, it could not bring down our spirits.

This field was particularly trying. Luckily the drugs were working by then.

On the first day we had our lunch at Wrotham, a pleasant little village near Sevenoaks which is either plagued by serious crime or full of paranoid anguish - I have never seen so many CCTV cameras in such a small area of public space. Even the children's playground had cameras at each end. Big brother is definitely watching the people of Wrotham parish.

Our bed & breakfast accommodation - the North Downs Barn in Cuxton - could not have been better, which helped counterbalance the fact that Cuxton's only pub is pretty rank. We had a couple of pints of mediocre Shepherd Neame beer to wash down our mediocre food, then bought chocolate and ice cream from the Coop on the way home to take away the taste of the beer.

North Downs Barn
Sunday the weather was just as glorious - we'd planned to come back via Hollingbourne or Bearsted rail stations, but when we realised it was 17.5 miles rather than the 8 or 10 we'd anticipated, that idea got knocked on the head very quickly! It was just as well we did; when we arrived at Maidstone we found that the trains were all delayed due to someone on the line near Bearsted, so at least we missed getting stranded.

Next section I'm looking forward to getting away from the bloody motorways, which also dominated the route today. It will be quite a novelty to have some real peace and quiet for walking.

Monday, April 6

Bank holiday cycling

Sometimes enforced solitude is a good thing - not that I've been entirely without company this weekend. But I've had plenty of time to do my own thing and often that involves pottering around, looking at things and finding things. It can be just as much fun alone as it is with others, sometimes more as you can be entirely selfish.

This weekend it started off with a bike ride down the Thames on a rather chilly morning. I decided to hop over the river on the cable car (your own pod guaranteed if you bring a bike! no extra charge!) to the Royal Docks.

From the cable car terminal on the north bank it's a short hop to Trinity Buoy Wharf - a rather otherworldly space on the end of a swathe of semi-derelict peninsula which has many surprises when you turn the corner, including a beautifully shiny, newly-painted red lightship, a stack of studios made of multi-coloured containers, two cafes and a whole host of art.

Bow Creek cafe has a lovely outdoor seating area and serves up great coffee and grub - I avoided the temptation of the all-day breakfast in favour of a humus, olive and roasted pepper baguette, probably just as much in terms of calorific content, but I suspect a lot of it was burned up on the ride home in any case.

Today has been another day of wandering, this time upstream. I left home in glorious sunshine before 9 and meandered up through Surrey Docks to Tower Bridge.

It was bright and sunny and there were very few people out even at that hour until I got to the Tower.

Spent half an hour or so wandering through the streets of the city; deserted apart from construction crews taking advantage of the traffic-free conditions and lack of parking restrictions to get refurbishment work done.

The morning light threw some fantastic reflections off the many tall buildings in the city, and I also got chance to pull over and look at some of the little details that often get missed when you are dodging traffic or trying to find your way.

I'd originally planned to go back on the north side of the river, but couldn't face the long stretches of cobbles and view-free streets of Wapping and the Greenwich foot tunnel for a second day running, so I took the southern route again. There's so many lovely quiet tracks and routes between Tower Bridge and Deptford I could ride it a dozen times in a day and go a different way each time.

Coffee break was in the blossom-festooned churchyard at Rotherhithe, and on the final stretch the tide was right out so I got the chance to admire the beautifully-dressed stonework of the Surrey docks.