Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Chalk Balls and Other Discoveries

First Chalky Ball at Duncton

Following our successful foray along the Kennet and Avon Canalwe were keen to keep the momentum going with our walks.  With another fine day of weather and summer seemingly finally arrived we were anxious to make the most of it and so picked out a Downland walk to occupy our Sunday afternoon.  Back in 2002 the natural environment artist Andy Goldsworthy placed 13 chalk balls along a walk to the north of Chichesteras an art installation.  At the time he expected them to last 3-5 years before natural processes broke them apart.  The balls were quarried from nearby Duncton Quarry and putting them out must have been quite an undertaking for they are in fairly secluded positions well away from roads.

Last of the Bluebells
Anyhow, we took a picnic and headed out on the bus from our parking spot.  After a lively bus journey in which we seemed to feel every bump in the road we headed up on to the Downs along the South Downs Wayat Duncton.  Having a very heavy rucsac I was keen to unload our picnic as soon as was practically possible and we stopped only half a mile or so in.  I was pretty relieved as the weight in the rucsac was substantial!  
Deer Skull
We had to wait until we got to the top of the hill to find the first of the chalk balls.  The funny thing is that I feel fairly sure I have walked past this a number of times without giving it a second look! Although weathered it was quite clearly mostly intact.  A more recent estimate has suggested that the balls will last anything up to 200 years – a rather different proposition to the original estimate!  The girls immediately wanted to climb aboard, something that they did for every single ball that we found.
Ruined House
Our route took us away from the crest of the Downsand down through the woods back towards West Dean.  Despite the modest length of the walk (5 miles) the balls were surprisingly not that close together.  The second was quite weathered and was significantly cracked, I imagine by the frost.  Away from the crest of the Downsand we headed into the woods and it’s fair to say that most of the route is through woodland.  On the fringes of the woods bluebells were still clinging on, almost unheard of in any other June!
Finding the Long Barrow
At the next crossroads the next chalk ball was almost hidden in the undergrowth but the kids found it with their eagle eyes.  We found a deer’s skull, which may have come home with us if it weren’t found so early on!  The woods now seemed to become deeper and darker and through the next stretch of the woods we found the remains of a ruined house, maybe a shepherd’s cottage?  It was now overgrown with trees but proved an interesting place to wander around.  Most of what was left were a few mossy covered walls but we found some pottery and discarded machinery nearby – it was almost like an archaeological hunt!  Stories were exchanged between the kids as to who would have lived there and how life must have been.  I suspect the woods weren’t quite so thick back then for it would have been a tough place to access in the depths of winter.
Fields Near West Dean
Evidence of human habitation of a different kind was found further on in the shape of a long barrow.  It was rather a strange shape, almost like a disused dewpond.  Apparently though it is a burial ground, dating from the Bronze Age.  We speculated that it might have been excavated and left in that state.  The rest of our walk was downhill, which was rather a relief.  All along the way we delighted in the early summer flora and fauna now looking at its most lush.   While I delighted in finding new wildflower species along the way the kids were content to tell stories to each other and find the next ball!
Early Purple Orchid
As we descended the Downs the woodland gave way to fields and for awhile the path followed a road, which wasn’t so much fun.  At this point the girls started to tire too which wasn’t a good mixture.  We were relieved to finally leave the road behind and cross through some woods to the final destination of West Dean, where the path comes out opposite the Gardens.  The last chalk ball was placed by the bridge of the former railway line and proved to be the unlucky thirteenth – it was the only one that the kids didn’t manage to climb on to!  The bridge was almost overgrown too – a far cry from the line that was massively over-engineered to bring the crowds to nearby Goodwood races.  It never really fulfilled its purpose, being too far away from the course to be really useful.  The line closed in 1935 long before Dr Beeching or even nationalisation!

Old Railway at West Dean
This was rather a fun walk and exceeded our expectations.  The Long Barrow and ruined cottage were a bonus and the children liked finding the balls even if they were less interesting than hunting for Olympic Mascots!

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Kennet and Avon Canal Section 3 Woolhampton to Newbury

Newbury Station

This section was the last for our current trip and the route was a seven mile section from Woolhampton to Newbury.  We pitched up at Newbury station, a rather grand looking place with some fine old Great Western Railway features.  Today’s short train ride to Midgham was a much more relaxed affair as not only did we get a seat but also had most of the carriage to ourselves – a rather surprising change from the previous two days.

Setting off From Woolhampton
At Midgham we wandered down the short stretch of road to Woolhampton Swing Bridge.  The beer garden, so full of drinkers and diners less than one day ago was now very quiet early in the morning.  We resumed our trail westwards passing lock number 94 almost at once.  It was rather odd that we had not clocked the numbers of the locks before, but once we had spotted them the children wanted to count each one as we passed.

Express to the West
I passed the compact camera to my younger daughter to try and keep her interested in her surroundings.  This proved to be a bit of a mistake as for the next mile or so she played ‘click it’ and progress proved to be very slow indeed.  When I downloaded the pictures after getting home later I discovered dozens of pictures of seemingly every cow parsley plant that we passed!

Tiger Moth Caterpillar
The walk today had a slightly different character from yesterday.  We had lost most of the tree cover and alongside the canal in the early stages we were followed closely by the railway line.  Every few minutes trains rattled or thundered by depending on whether they were stoppers or express trains heading for Devon and Cornwall.  Eventually the memory card on the camera became full and so it was handed back to me for safe keeping. 
Distant Church

Sadly the lack of available memory meant that daughter was unable to capture a picture of one of the very hairy caterpillars that we found on the path.  I am fairly sure it was a Tiger Moth caterpillar looking for somewhere to pupate.  It certainly caused a lot of fascination for the girls and turned out to be one of a number that we saw along the way.
Canal Keeper Cottage

By now the canal seemed a lot less busy than the previous day.  There were fewer boats moored alongside the towpath and hardly any cruising by.  Even the number of bike riders seemed to have reduced, much to our relief.  There isn’t really room for walkers and cyclists to share the towpath simultaneously and we had got pretty fed up with giving way to the bikes.  One boat that we were not expecting though was a two person rowing boat, which passed us at fairly high speed!  The lack of other canal traffic did give us the opportunity to take in our surroundings more and the countryside through which we were passing.  Away on the hill we passed a grand looking church on a hill and then a beautiful canal cottage that we were all rather tempted by!

As we approached Thatcham the surroundings took on a decidedly more industrial look, with gravel pits starting to show themselves and large brick built warehouses on the opposite bank.  Not much of it looked very used though and those areas that were being used seemed to be for demolition rather than anything more constructive.  A couple of pipe bridges across the channel rather heightened the feeling of industry.

Getting the Best Leaves
The feeling of industry didn’t last too long though – when we reached the bridge by Thatcham Station we soon left it behind.  The towpath took the opposite bank now and as we reached the next lock we took the opportunity to stop for a rest.  We watched yet another boat pass through the lock in front of us and this was quickly followed by the crew of the row boat that we had seen earlier.  They didn’t use the lock though – merely portaged around it carrying their boat on their heads as they ran through.  I feel fairly certain that they were training for something or other.  It wouldn’t be the Devizies to Westminster race that is for sure – that was completed a couple of months earlier.  The famous kayak race has been a fixture on these waters for many years.
Canoe Sliding By

The next corner that we went around proved to be the last for awhile as we entered the longest straight section so far traversed.  Sadly I found this very uninteresting, except for a solitary cow on the opposite shore that had trampled through a bramble bush and was using its extremely long tongue to help it reach some more juicy leaves. I was astonished – I have never seen a cow eat bramble leaves before!

Eventually we did reach a corner and suddenly everything got interesting once again.  Away to the right we passed by another gravel pit, this one looking very pretty as it had been almost completely reclaimed by nature.  I was astonished to see a common tern fly over the gravel pit as we passed – sadly much too quick for my clumsy fingers on the camera shutter button.
Winged Craft

Further on we passed underneath the railway that we had been following all day so far.  The canal climbed through another lock and by now we were starting to see the buildings that suggested we were entering Newbury.  Fortunately, as with Reading at the start of our journey the canal cuts a pretty rural path through the town and maintaining a tranquil air about it.  Runners and more cyclists suggested that we were into short trip territory once again.
Newbury Boat Yard

By now the miles covered were beginning to catch up with the girls and lots of sweets were required to keep them going for the last mile or so into town.  They were also on the promise of a nice lunch if we could find one!  We crossed and re-crossed the canal and even had tree matter blocking our path along the way (that must have been fun for cyclists!).  The canal got steadily busier and as we reached the centre of Newbury it became quite clear that this was a major hub for the canal.  Boatyards had boats aplenty and there was even a repair yard stuffed to the gills with vessels all needing refurbishment.

All the boat traffic and activity made the last mile or so into Newbury rather fascinating.  It needed to be for the children were getting very tired by now.  They did manage to get to the end of the walk without too much complaining but 21 miles over three days was clearly their limit.  They loved the whole experience though & it was wonderful to have such good family time.  One thing is for sure – we’ll be back to continue our journey along the next stretch of the canal very soon probably for a shorter weekend.

Thursday, 6 June 2013

Kennet and Avon Canal Section 2 Theale to Woolhampton

Shenfield Millhouse

Today our walk started back at Theale, but before walking we took the train on the short ride over from Midgham station.  Amazingly the train was as packed as the day before – maybe there is a case for a more frequent service?  Luckily we were uncomfortable for only a few minutes for the short distance between the two stations.  At Theale we wandered back down to the Swing Bridge, seeing that this time we didn’t have any boats to wait for.
Passing Traffic

The onward walk was immediately fantastic with beautiful and classic canal scenery from the off.  The day was shaping up to be better weather than yesterday and the light across the water was particularly good.  A pattern developed on the walk almost immediately – one child would walk off with Mum further on while the other child would hang back with me and be on ‘nature patrol’.  Every so often we would swap children to keep things fresh!
Hovering Gull

For us nature patrollers the first interesting sight was watching the aerobatics of the black headed gulls that seemed to like this stretch of canal.  We thought they might be helping themselves to the hapless Mayflies that buzzed around just above the water.  We soon passed the first historical building of note, Shenfield Millhouse.  This is apparently a grade II listed building but sadly we could only see glimpses of it from our side of the canal.  We did see a boat moored on our side though that was from Arundel; it was good to see this local connection so far from home.  The boat itself looked as if it was still equipped to carry goods rather than passengers.
Purple World

The canal had a tree-lined course for quite awhile and with the still weather the reflections in the water were quite special.  Sadly it also meant that we could not see the surrounding countryside and felt like we were largely cocooned from the countryside around us.  One place that we did manage to see beyond the towpath was one of the many gravel workings along the way that had now been landscaped into a delightful fishing lake.  As I took the picture of the lake I couldn’t understand why my youngest daughter was so scared and worried – turns out that she had seen signs saying ‘Danger – Quicksand’ and thought I was going to be sucked down to a horrible death.  The fact that I was standing on a tree stump at the time appeared to have escaped her…
Sulhamstead Weir

It was apparent along the next part of the canal that the waterway was becoming less river and more canal at last.  Each lock passed by saw another height differential between the two and the canal was finally coming into its own.  Just before the next lock we were also treated to the opening out of the countryside too.  I probably made a mistake at this point by handing over a compact camera to my youngest daughter to play with and grab some shots as we went along.  I thought it would help keep her interested in what she could see and find some cool things to take pictures of.  I was completely unprepared for the amount of time that was subsequently spent on taking pictures of the cow parsley alongside the canal.  When she discovered that trying to capture the black headed gulls was impossible she finally gave up.  Later when downloading the shots, I discovered well over 100 of cow parsley and a further 20 self portraits!

Tyle Mill
The open countryside didn’t last long, which was a pity for we had a respite from the cycling traffic.  They found it easy to get round us on the open field – not so easy along a narrower towpath.  The next lock was a popular mooring spot – this was Tyle Mill Lock.  There were lots of boats moored here and much maintenance activity from proud owners making repairs, adding stuff and repainting their boats.  I noticed a nearby car park, which probably explains the popularity of this spot.

Quarantined Vessel
A little way past the lock we saw the curious sight of a boat that had been quarantined on account of it being mostly destroyed by fire.  It looked rather a sad sight lying next to the bank.  The bunding around it had managed to contain the debris and pollution though, which was some good news for the local area.
Tea on the Go

We were starting to feel the heat a bit from this point.  Jumpers and fleeces came off as we basked in the sunshine of the warmest day of the year so far.  Sweets and drinks were passed around to keep the girls going.  They worked to a point but what really grabbed their attention was watching a canal boat negotiate the latest swing bridge at Ufton.  Strangely for a moment we had found ourselves on the adjacent river and so crossing the bridge to maintain our onward course was a stroke of luck before the boat came.  We sat and watched as one of the crew got off and controlled the bridge by button.  I can’t imagine how much effort these electric bridges must have saved.  As the boat passed through I was amused to see that the man at the tiller had a cuppa on the go.  I have decided that all canal boat crews have permanent cups of tea on the go.

By now the pace was slowing considerably so at the next bridge we gave the girls a breather and allowed them time to explore a bit and lay around enjoying the sunshine.  Our rest was punctuated by the arrival of a boat called Avent Got One – one of our favourite names of vessels we have seen so far.  The boat needed to get through Towney Lock so my daughters both seized the chance to help out with the locks!  They git to turn the handle and heave the huge gate open, much to the amusement of the lady crew member who had been sent to do the job.
Lock Keepers

After that moment of excitement onward progress became a lot easier.  We were now approaching Aldermaston, where a lot of canal holidays seem to start on this particular route.  I expected a large boat yard to service the holidays but all we saw was a lengthy mooring spot where a couple of guys were doing some painting of one of the vessels.  Sadly the tea shop that is adjacent to the hire shop was closed for renovation.  This was a big disappointment as we had hoped to stop here for refreshment.  It was now lunchtime and we were in a bit of a quandary – should we push on with the momentum we had built up or stop somewhere for lunch?  We decided to push on and have lunch at the end – probably a wise choice as we only had a couple of miles more to do.

Aldermaston Yard
The last section from Aldermaston to Woolhampton was largely through woodland.  The shade was very helpful and the pace picked up again as a result.  Our path suddenly became a lot fluffier along the way.  At first I couldn’t see where the fluff had come from but eventually we passed by the culprit – a large willow tree shedding what I assume are its fluffy seeds.  My daughter wondered why it wasn’t used as cotton wool, so soft it was.

Aldermaston Tea Shop
We crossed and re-crossed the canal passing by lots of walkers along the stretch near Aldermaston.  Clearly we weren’t the only ones who wanted to enjoy the route of the canal. We passed by some very fit and active young girls, who rather looked like they might be in training for an award of some sort judging by all their gear.  My daughters looked at them in awe – I think the sight of older girls always sparks their interest.  It certainly helped push them on to the end!  The second footbridge was huge, much like the one we had crossed the day before and clearly designed to help bikes get across the canal smoothly.
Hand in Hand

The end of today’s walk was much like yesterday in that we finished at a swing bridge, this time the one at Woolhampton.  Next to the bridge the pub was serving up some fantastic looking barbecue food.  The smells were delightful and we were seriously tempted to stay.  Sadly there were no available tables and we didn’t really want to wait.  Maybe another time?
World of Fluff

For me this was the most scenic and enjoyable of the three days we had away.  The weather really helped too, as did the amazingly lush canal banks which were all alive with flora and fauna for the girls to check out along the way.  All in all a thoroughly enjoyable six miles, which felt like so much further due to the amount of interest that we packed into this short distance.

Wickham Knight Footbridge

Sunday, 2 June 2013

Kennet and Avon Canal Section 1 Reading to Theale

Meeting the Thames

Personal walking projects are becoming more difficult to fit in so this year we have decided to do something different to get more walking – we are all going!  Over the last year or so we have managed to get the girls walking more and more and now we felt confident enough to try out a long distance walk with them.  I hit upon the idea of a canal walk some time ago as I had looked at a couple myself and thought that they might fit the bill for the family.  My children are fascinated by history and nature and canals have both in abundance!  As we had tried out a short one in Derbyshire a couple of years ago to a degree of success it seemed the natural choice.

Caversham Bridge
A problem for us tucked down in the South East though is that there aren’t too many canals in our part of the world so we picked the Kennet and Avon as one we would like to start with.  Being 87 miles long it should provide quite a few weekends away since my children still have little legs and so distances have to be quite modest.  In fact our first day was 8 miles, further than they had ever walked before!  We took the train from Theale into Readingto begin our odyssey. 
Feeding the Geese

After fighting our way out of the incredibly busy railway station at Readingwe headed down to the bank of the River Thames to begin our journey.  Immediately we were confonted with the sight of narrowboats, our constant companions for our journey!  We headed under the graceful road bridge at Caversham and on to the lock of the same name, where we watched our first boat negotiating the gates.  A little further on and we stopped to have our picnic to relieve us of much of the weight in the rucsac!
Swan Preening Area

Watching river life while we ate our lunch was a most pleasing activity – almost like watching TV!  Inevitably the girls wanted to save some of their crusts to feed the local birdlife.  Not necessarily the best idea for their health so we made sure not to give each individual bird too much.  The geese that end up being the recipients were clearly used to getting fed as they actively sought what we had.

Food Patrol
Not much farther on and we saw birdlife of a different kind – at the junction of the Thames and River Kennet we came across a swan preening area.  There were approximately 20 birds all tending to their feathers leaving a carpet of spent ones all over the bank.  The girls stood and watched for a while, transfixed.  We crossed to the other bank and took our leave of the River Thames at this point, heading westwards along the Kennet.

Heading through Reding
Our route for the next mile or so was through the built up area of Reading, quite a contrast to the rural feel of the Thames.  Much of the bank of the Kennet was still in the process of regeneration, a process that clearly wasn’t yet finished.  Although some gentrification had happened there were also some grungy old buildings along the way too.  What really caught our eye along the beginning of this stretch were the number of swans we passed – a group of more than 30 were hanging out waiting to be fed.  As soon as one party moved off they came over to us to see what we had.  They soon dispersed when they realised we had nothing for them.
The Oracle Shopping Centre

As we moved through the built up area it was quite stressful trying to keep the kids away from the dozens of cyclists using the towpath.  I suppose this is possibly the best way of seeing more of the canal (as I did a couple of years back when I visited the BasingstokeCanal.  Eventually though pedestrians won out as we got to the Oracle Shopping Centre – there were just too many people wandering about for bikes to get a look in.  It was amazing walking along the canal through such a big shopping centre – most unexpected.  This area had once hosted the Courage Brewery among other things, but took its name from the workhouse that once stood here.

Heading out of Reading
After passing by all the fancy restaurants, bouncy castles and other entertainment paraphernalia we were soon out into proper canal territory once again with weirs and locks punctuating the scene, while above us were huge ribbons of concrete that now carry our transport needs.  It would be fantastic to be transported back in time to see what these canals would have looked like back in the day.  They must have been more in keeping with their surroundings back then.  In the urban landscape they are more like unwanted elderly relatives at times.

Floral walls
We had a moment’s excitement at the next bridge we reached.  A small child had got her head stuck in the railings.  I actually thought this was something that only happened in stories but for a moment I thought that we were going to have to call the emergency services to come along and free her.  Luckily her Gran was quick thinking and realised that her head was malleable enough to squish it through.  I’m not sure Mum would have done that!  Anyhow, despite looking a bit shocked and tearful the girl looked utterly relieved.  As for us, that was the catalyst to us going wrong and heading along the wrong side of the towpath for a bit.  We ended up having to walk through an area of housing before finally getting back on track.
Fobney Lock

The last stretch of canal through Reading was a fitting end.  On the opposite bank were old traditional houses with well tended gardens obviously lived in by people that really appreciated their good fortune living with the waterway running alongside.  A couple of properties even had boats of their own – must be a fantastic thing to be able to do whenever you like.
Grey Lag Family

The town of Reading was left behind surprisingly quickly and the canal took a very rural feeling route westwards.  Initially the path was tarmac, obviously good for the huge number of bikes heading this way but a bit hard on the feet.  The air was full of mayflies buzzing around for the very short time that they remain as adults.  In fact we saw a few that had already copped it, while others were just going straight down the hungry mouths of the local gull population.  It was all rather curious and a bit grizzly if I’m honest.  Never witnessed such insect carnage before!
Fobney Weir

By now our path was fringed by cow parsley, a sight that would be familiar for the next couple of days.  The air was thick with the aroma of may blossom at last, at least three weeks later than it should be.  No matter, for the air was warming up finally and summer did feel like it was on its way at last.  We soon reached Fobney Lock, where we switched sides.  Here we saw a different kind of nature – a group of Grey Lag Geese complete with their little family of goslings.  They kept a close watch on us from their protected spot on the other side of the lock.  This onward stretch of canal appeared to be much favoured by geese rearing their young – we saw several family groups of grey lags and Canadageese along the way.

Southcot Mill
The weir a little further on caused some fascination – it was shaped like a comb with triangular shaped waterfalls leading off.  I guess this is to dissipate the energy of the water and lessen the erosion downstream?  The canalisation of the original river was becoming more obvious by this stage – with meander loops being cut off and weirs helping to rebalance the levels of the water.  We crossed via the milkmaids bridge and stopped for a rest and refreshment at Southcot Mill.  The rural nature of this stretch is difficult to imagine considering that we are only a hair’s breadth away from the built up area of Greater Reading.
Burghfield Moorings

After recharging our batteries we walked along a very long straight stretch which took us to Burghfield Bridge.  This stretch is obviously a very popular mooring spot since there were dozens of boats all lined up along the opposite shore.  These were a fascinating mixture of different types – not just narrow boats and not all traditionally painted.  My particular favourite was Petra, a lovely looking old thing that looked more like a river boat than a canal boat.

We passed by a very well frequented pub at Burghfield Bridge, presumably the destination for many of the boaters that had parked up.  Yet all too quickly the waterway became quiet again and by the time we got to Swans Bridge, only a few hundred metres away the canal was completely deserted.  The bridge was an enormous affair, with great big ramps on either side presumably to help the cyclists.  Hidden on the other side behind the bridge pier was a pillbox, the first I had noticed on this canal.  They would become a common sight from here on as this canal, much like the Basingstoke Canal was used as a defensive line should this country ever have become invaded.

A little further on and we came to lock 103, also known as Burghfield Lock.  By now we realised that we were counting down in numbers but the locks themselves were already becoming less fascinating as so many of them had little going on by them.  Just past the lock though and the canal felt less constrained by the wall of trees alongside as it passed through open countryside that seemed to be almost completely yellow!  In fact the fields were almost completely covered with buttercups – a truly remarkable sight.  The cows grazing in the fields seemed none too bothered though either by the flora or the large numbers of walkers that seemed to have joined us out of nowhere.
Maintenance Boat

Soon enough we heard the roar of the M4 and were pleased when we went underneath it and left it behind.  It was surprising though how quickly we did just that and by the next lock at Garston the traffic noise had faded into the distance.  Not long after that lock we came upon the swing bridge at Theale, which would be our last sight on the canal for the day.  We were lucky enough to see it in action too, for one of the boats was passing through and one of the crew was operating the electric controls.  This seemed to be a fitting end to the day’s walk.  For the girls it was a fantastic achievement – the longest walk they had ever completed, some eight miles in total!

Theale Swing Bridge
I had not really expected much from this section of the canal – on paper it didn’t look that promising.  How wrong I was though!  It was delightful for almost its entire length and surprisingly rural too.  There was enough interest for all of us to not realise quite how far we had travelled.  A very promising start to our trip and surely it would only get better?