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. 

Friday, October 3

Lakes and the rest

September proved to be the most glorious month of the year so far, and offered those of us without school-age kids (or totally child-free like myself!) the opportunity for a fabulous late-summer break. 

Way back in June or something, Jon and I had booked a week in the Lake District, with the optimistic view that we might be able to get one or two good walks in. As it was, we had the most amazing time - walks every day, and swimming every day, mostly in different lakes. 

Jon hadn't swum for years, and rarely outdoors in the UK, so it was a bit of a challenge for him. Not to mention the cold water and stony conditions underfoot, my freewheeling habit of getting changed wherever we happened to be - no matter if it was right next to a busy footpath on Windermere - with only the most basic attempts at modesty.

By the end of the week he was well into it, and had even bought a pair of swim shoes to accompany his brand new trunks!

Our lodgings in Ambleside had a west-facing terrace outside the french windows, and we took advantage of the great weather to eat every meal there, or chill out with a glass of wine or a beer every night before eating out.

Breakfast was a little bit parky one or two mornings but a hot cup of coffee generally solved the problem - once we'd been out and bought a filter cup and some filters. Would you believe it - a self-catering cottage with NO COFFEE MAKING FACILITIES! You can imagine the tone of what I wrote in the visitor's book.

We also decided to try and drink as many different beers as possible throughout the week, and we got almost up to 30! Testament to the amazing range available - also incredible that almost all of them were very local brews.

Our walks ranged from six-mile strolls to the tough 14-mile route up and around the Fairfield Horseshoe (below) - well worth the effort though, for the amazing views - and we came across some unexpectedly beautiful bridges (this pedestrian one above, just upstream from Skelwith Bridge). By halfway through the week we were planning our walks not just around pubs, but also with swimming opportunities in mind.

I think the little-known Loughrigg Tarn (below) was my favourite swim, with Rydal Water (pic below that) not far behind. Rydal lost points because of the busy road on the far side, which rather spoiled the peaceful setting, but Loughrigg was a hidden beauty, peaceful and clear and welcoming. It was so quiet we could hear what the three lads fishing on the other side of the lake were talking about - nothing particularly inspiring, mostly fishing, as you might expect!

We walked right up to Easedale Tarn (below) and swam there too - it was most certainly the coldest of the swims and although I'd brought my goggles with me for once, I decided that swimming with my face under water was not really a good idea as it was so dark and deep I'd rather not know about it!

We had bought a pack of six slices of Grasmere gingerbread before we began our climb, and we ate four of them after this swim. I rather like the pic of us above - Jon looks like he's having second thoughts about hooking up with the crazy woman who throws herself into any bit of water at the first chance.

And on that note, I leave you with a photo of another swim: Coniston Water. Never swum so much in one week in the UK!

Friday, August 22

North Downs Way and Greensand Way; Dorking to Oxted and back again

Another two-day walking trip saw us setting out from Dorking on a beautiful morning to tackle some more sections of the North Downs Way.

First up was a steep ascent of Box Hill; being earlyish on a weekday morning we met plenty of dog walkers on the way down, but once we were a mile or so from the town, things quietened down considerably.

The views were glorious and expansive and very green considering we were viewing London's southern urban sprawl. We started to feast on the luscious, juicy blackberries, which turned out to be an enduring feature of the walk. The hedgerows were laden with them, begging to be eaten, and we grazed on them for the next two days, occasionally stopping for a full-blown gorging.

Reigate Hill was busy with kite flyers and dog walkers, being only a short step from the National Trust car park and cafe at Wray Lane, where we stopped off for a cup of tea. We admired the beautiful mosaics inside the roof of the Inglis Memorial, which apparently used to be a drinking fountain for horses. 

At Wray Lane the cafe owner has provided deck chairs as well as the traditional picnic tables, making a rather nice place for visitors to sit and admire the view.

We saw plenty of sculpture the first day - including natural beauties such as this upended tree whose roots had worn to make a wonderful knotted screen on the edge of the woodland.

A little further on, in the grounds of the private Royal Alexandra and Albert School we came across this dramatic sculpture by Peter Dawson, who sadly lived a very short life according to the plaque next to it.

I love the weathered copper finish and the abstract shapes. I don't think there was a date given for the sculpture, but it wouldn't be too difficult to guess given its style.

On the outskirts of Merstham we diverted from the North Downs Way to head for our night's accommodation in the little village of Bletchingly, a couple of miles away. We came across a tree absolutely groaning under the weight of wild plums - not the first we had seen that day, but certainly the most productive. We stopped to gorge again, and to fill up a box with some snacks for tomorrow.

The path shown on the map looked like it might be a bit tedious, as it skirted the edge of the huge M25/M23 interchange then followed the M23 until it dipped beneath it. I had been expecting a bit of a trudge, but in fact it turned out to be the most surprising and interesting, not to mention unexpected, parts of the day.

It seemed like when the motorway junction was built it must have been policy to plant fruit trees along the verges; we passed tree after tree covered with plums or apples, and then plunged into thick bramble ground cover where the path had been recently cleared to create a canyon effect. As we twisted and turned through the undergrowth we came across a deer on the path, just a few yards ahead; it skittered off pretty quickly when it saw us, but it was a magical moment.

Half a mile further a buzzard lifted from the fence on the side of the field as we approached, making the motorway verges the most productive for wildlife spotting that we'd had all day!

The next morning we diverted from our planned route - rather than heading back up to the North Downs Way and following it to Oxted, which would have been a rather short day, we decided to follow the Greensand Way direct from Bletchingly to Oxted, then loop back up to the North Downs Way and return to Merstham to get the train home.

The Greensand route to Oxted was almost deserted, through quiet countryside and lovely woods. We stopped for a well-deserved pint of Harveys in the first pub we came across on the outskirts of Oxted, then got takeaway cheese and onion sandwiches from a local bakers to eat a bit further round the route.

What I hadn't fully anticipated was that the second part of the day, going back on the North Downs Way to Merstham, would be so wholly dominated by the presence of the M25. The roar of the traffic was all we could hear for most of the afternoon's walk.

Yesterday we'd been just as close, but on the other side of the ridge, and had hardly noticed it. Today it was just below us in the valley, and the traffic noise was unrelenting.

The scenery was beautiful and we came across lots of interesting things to look at, but if I was recommending the North Downs Way to someone I would definitely suggest that they miss out this bit, and divert via the Greensand Way instead. What a contrast!

The last section of the walk took us back over the M25 so we could get a closer look, adding up to one crossing of the M23 and two of the M25 in the same day!

Sunday, August 10


This came about through a combination of factors. My friend Rowan, who lives in the Kent countryside and has a very productive allotment, sent me home from a visit with tons of green beans and runner beans (not to mention a whole load of other stuff!). A few days earlier I'd been very disappointed with the bar snacks in the local pub, not just the flabby pork pies but also the gloopy piccalilli that was dolloped on a plate to accompany it.

I was reminded that I'd been meaning to try my hand at piccalilli for ages, especially since another allotment-owning friend had given me a jar of fabulous runner bean piccalilli a few years back. So I assembled a heap of beans, a carrot, half a red pepper and a patty pan courgette, which were washed and chopped up before being salted and left to brine overnight in the fridge.

I had two recipes - one suggested cooking the veg but I stuck to the dry brining process, which is recommended in the Pat Corbin 'Preserves' book from River Cottage, which is generally my preserving handbook.

Put the chopped veg into a large bowl, add the salt and mix well, then leave in a cool place for 24 hours (ish).

The next day you rinse the veg in ice cold water to remove the salt, then leave them to drain.

Put most of the cider vinegar in a pan with the honey and sugar, bring to the boil stirring till the sugar dissolves.

Use a bit of the cold vinegar to mix a paste with the spices, mustard and cornflour, then add a little bit of the hot vinegar into the paste and stir well before tipping it all into the pan and bringing to the boil. Don't forget to stir constantly to prevent it going lumpy or burning.

Cook for a few minutes then stir the veg in, decant into sterilised jars and put the lid on. Leave for at least two weeks, six if possible, before you eat it.

1kg veg (beans, carrots, cauliflower, peppers, courgettes, etc) chopped into small bitesize pieces.
50g salt for brining
600ml cider vinegar
150g sugar
50g honey
30g cornflour
1tsp turmeric
15g mustard powder
1.5tsp coriander seeds
1.5tsp mustard seeds
1tsp cumin seeds