Monday, 20 July 2015

The Baron's Charter

Salisbury Baron
With an extremely busy June and bad luck with weather in the only windows of opportunity that we had we ended up with a blank month of major walks (plenty of short evening ones).  On the first weekend of July we were therefore keen to redress the balance and so headed over to Salisbury where we had spotted another Wild in Art Trail called 'The Baron's Charter'.  This commemorates the 800th anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta.  The connection with Salisbury?  One of the original documents signed by King John is still kept safely within Salisbury Cathedral.  Incidentally Lincoln is also holding a Baron's Charter trail this year as it is also a city that looks after one of the original 4 manuscripts.

Discworld Baron
The Trail is being run by the Trussell Trust, a charity behind the foodbanks that operate up and down the country.  It seems strangely ironic that a charity with that cause is commemorating Magna Carta and all that stands for.  There are 25 Barons altogether and the trail runs until September 6th this year.  The Barons will then be sold off for the charity at auction during the autumn.

Salisbury Cathedral
We started our hunt for the Barons near to Salisbury station.  This meant that we would not be starting at number 1 as that is stationed outside Salisbury Cathedral.  Our route would therefore be slightly haphazard as we tried to cover the distance in the shortest possible time.  The first on our list was rather appropriately Salisbury Baron, a magnificent specimen showing a depiction of Salisbury and its place in the landscape.  It was a good one to start with as it set the mood for the rest of the trail - we all loved the detail and looked forward to finding the next one.

Astro Baron
We wandered down through the back streets of Salisbury to Queen Elizabeth Gardens, a rather lovely and well appointed park on the south edge of the city.  The park was opened in the 1960s to commemorate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II and combines formal planting with a play area, barbecue facilities and a delightful stream running through the middle.  We were here though to find two more Barons.  The first was a lovely and thoughtful silhouette of a tree across a Baron with sunset colours designed to promote the work of the Trussell Trust.  The other was Hello Kitty, which seemed rather at odds with the rest of the Trail.  Even the explanation about Hello Kitty representing small acts of kindness seemed a bit thin.

Quintessentially British
Having ticked these two off our list we headed over to the Cathedral area where there were quite a few to find.  Salisbury Cathedral is awe-inspiring - partly courtesy of its spire which is the tallest in the United Kingdom.  The precinct around the cathedral is pretty impressive too - the largest of any in England and it also boasts the oldest working clock in the world (from 1336).  Perhaps it shouldn't be surprising therefore that there were five Barons in the immediate area.  The first we came to was Discworld Baron in memory of Sir Terry Pratchett who wrote the popular series of novels about Discworld.  Sir Terry lived locally in Salisbury until his unfortunate death in early 2015.  The Baron was already in production when he dies and the family gave permission for it to be included on the trail as a memorial.

City Gate
The next Baron was the only one that we couldn't see the face of - Astro Baron.  This was just a frivolous one with the Baron dressed in the most crazy uniform the artist could think of.  The detail was fascinating and at least one of my daughters voted this one as her favourite of all of them.  Other Barons in the precinct were Quintessentially British showing icons of what makes these isles unique; MC800 Baron showing the contrast between old calligraphy and contemporary print and Conrandin, a Baron that depicted some of the scenes that would have been seen in Medieaval Britain.  They were all fascinating and warranted some attention as we looked at them in detail.  The cloud that had bedevilled us so far showed signs of relenting and so we wandered into the city to look for some lunch with the hope that we would have a sunnier afternoon.

King of Hearts
As we left the precinct we passed through a magnificent old gate - I am guessing that this would have once been part of the city walls although it is now hemmed in by buildings on both sides.  Salisbury has been more successful in blending old and new buildings than some other cathedral cities.  This is evident in Old George Mall which manages to be modern and yet blend in quite well.  The King of Hearts and Stonehenge Winter Solstice Druid were based here - the first showed a Baron dressed up like the playing card and the second a druid that you might see at nearby Stonehenge.  One was colourful and eye-catching and the other was wonderfully lifelike.  Both were eagerly ticked off the list by my girls.

Stonehenge Winter Solstice Druid
Beyond the modern and rather tucked away shopping mall was the old Market Place and Guildhall.  These are by any stretch of the imagination the heart of the city and it was good to see that even on a Sunday there were plenty of people about frequenting market stalls and giving the whole area a thriving feeling.  The Barons here were particularly well done - Salisbury Market showed the colourful and plentiful produce you might expect to find here; Looking Forward, Looking Back showed the interior of Salisbury Cathedral and Aspiring Peregrines was a celebration of the falcons that roost in the cathedral itself.  We particularly liked the ones with a local flavour.

Market Cross
By now the sky was clearing nicely and we stopped for a bit of lunch and rest of the feet.  We had by now spotted about half of the available Barons.  Our next part of the trail would take us away from the city and into another park in the northwest corner.  The parks are the locations of Wiltshire Council, the police station and other civic buildings.  We also passed through the churchyard of what is now the Faringdon Centre.  The first was the Stained Glass Flower Baron, inspired by one of the windows in Salisbury Cathedral.  The second was the rather comical 'Oh Deer' which combines ideas of the past meeting present.  We particularly loved the detail of this one, which depicts the ancient tale of the founding of the cathedral with pictures of present incumbents, the peregrine falcons.

Looking Forwards Looking Back
We wandered around the back of the arts centre into the park beyond.  There looks to be parts of the ramparts of former fortifications here although a lot of imagination is required as all that can be seen is earthworks.  Three more Barons were in this area - the rather dull Magna Carta (sorry), the bright and breezy Tree from the Garden of Life and my personal favourite Busy Bee, which shows a delightful and colourful cherry tree and a monk enjoying himself relaxing underneath while bees continue to be busy all around him.

Oh Deer!
From this park it was quite a stride to the next place to the north east of the city and on the other side of the ring road.  Luckily for us there was a bridge that we could go underneath but what we hadn't bargained for was the flooded pavement.  This is obviously a regular occurrence judging by the appearance of a path next to it on a higher level.  This necessitated a crouching stance underneath the bridge though - hardly very comfortable.  Luckily on the other side was Waitrose and a cup of tea to follow the sighting of the Green Man Baron outside.

Busy Bee
Feeling refreshed we then headed over to the furthest flung Baron; Baron Button.  This flame haired and moustached Baron was ready to protect us all from fire and handily located at the fire station.  This was probably other daughter's favourite :)

Baron Button
From the fire station it was a straightforward journey back to the beginning - we would follow the River Avon path back through the city.  We passed by Runnymede Baron showing the scene that would have greeted the signing of the Magna Carta document.  This was probably my favourite.  We also passed by East Meets West, a beautifully illustrated piece that showed the Baron apparently looking like a piece of Ming pottery and later Loveheart Baron - decorated with the sweets of the same name.  I think the last one, although undoubtedly a lot of fun, was a bit lost on me...

East Meets West
Finally when we got back to the beginning of the trail we passed by Traditional Tribal Baron and Conceptual Baron.  Again both designs were fantastic but the symbolism was a bit lost on me.  The tour was now complete and as we wandered back to start our journey home we talked a lot about the quality of the art we had seen today.  There is no doubt about it - on the whole the art was of an extremely high standard and we enjoyed the opportunity to look around Salisbury very much.  Our favourite designs were definitely the ones with a local theme that was easily identifiable.  Some were a bit lost on us and a couple seemed very out pf place.  Definitely worth a go before all the Barons disappear though!

Runnymede Baron

Monday, 13 July 2015

Goodrich Castle

Symonds Yat Rock View
After completing our canal walk my wife and I were able to have a couple of days to ourselves in the Wye Valley as the girls were being looked after elsewhere.  This was a massive treat for us as the Wye Valley holds a lot of very special memories for us and is one of the parts of the country that we love most of all.  In fact when we are retired I could easily see us moving to this part of the country.
Symonds Yat
We stayed at Symonds Yat and while there we explored some old favourite haunts but also some new ones.  This walk was one that seemed to make the most sense from where we stayed since we didn't have to drive anywhere in order to start it.  The day started as a beautiful sunny day and perfect conditions for walking and we set out from our hotel feeling bright and breezy.  The route we had selected was walk number 15 Goodrich Castle from volume 29 of the Pathfinder Guide Wye Valley and the Forest of Dean.  The walk was actually just beyond our starting point so we took the opportunity to climb up to the viewing point at Symonds Yat before getting on to the route.

Vintage Rock View
The viewpoint at Symonds Yat is always worth a visit.  It is surely one of the most famous in the country and has been formed by the River Wye carving its way through the Herefordshire countryside and creating a steep sided valley as it does so.  The rock at Symonds Yat is a naturally hard piece of rock that formed a barrier to further progress and so the river did the easy thing and found a course through softer rock and bypassed it.  Although the rock was not on the official walk I think I would have wanted to include it anyway - it seemed wrong just to pass by.  

The view was not the only thing that we wanted to see while we were up here - we also wanted to catch sight of the peregrine falcons that nest up here too.  Luckily we did - perhaps because of our early start and the fact that there were few other people about.  We also made sure to linger awhile before moving on.

Idyllic Cottage
Our next task was to descend right down into the valley - this is a very steep path and descended down through some very rustic houses and then thick forest before we reached the bottom.  The last section was quite exciting as it entailed having to scale a ladder with many of its rungs missing as it had deteriorated through years of use.  We did manage to get down unscathed though and were now able to join the walk proper.  Initially the way was good as we had a wide track but eventually that gave way to a narrow and at some places pretty overgrown path.  Though the undergrowth we could hear the conversations of the many canoeists that are attracted to the Wye, even occasionally catching a peek of them.  The other piece of civilisation we encountered was the most exquisite house alongside the river - I couldn't help thinking that the person living here must have literally their own little piece of heaven on earth.

Canoeist Glimpse
After getting scratched and stung by nettles more times than we could begin to remember we thankfully passed out of the woods and onto a wide open field.  This terrain would take us all the way to Huntsham Bridge about a mile away although sometimes the crops would change.  Perhaps the most tempting was a field full of strawberries although they were far from being ripe.

Huntsham Bridge
Huntsham Bridge was a little unusual, being a road bridge that resembled a railway bridge in its style.  Yet no railway had passed by here so I wonder whether it had merely been built by the railway that drove a route through the Wye Valley?  Crossing it was no easy task due to the traffic and the onward route along the road wasn't pleasant either.  Any notion that it would get better when we reached a road junction further on were soon scotched though when the official route turned right along a busy B road with no pavement.  We immediately sought an alternative as walking along that road would not have been fun.  We took a path on the opposite side of the road that I thought might work but in the field beyond we got tangled up in more undergrowth and so turned back and tried along the other side of the field.  To our surprise the route carried on all the way to Goodrich Village albeit an unofficial one.  It was certainly better than the road.

Goodrich Church
At Goodrich we passed by the church and headed on to find the pub where we stopped for a long cold drink - it was heavenly on such a (by now) hot day.  We decided to stop in the nearby castle on the way by (the official walk starts at the car park) and this was a revelation.  I have passed by a number of times and never thought too much about it as it didn't look that impressive.  Yet up close I was rather surprised by the scale of it since the castle is sunk just below the brow of the hill.  This has the effect of making the walls look a lot shorter than they actually are.
Goodrich Castle
 The castle has been here since Norman times and is still remarkably complete despite being rendered useless as a fortress by the implementation of 'Roaring Meg'; a large mortar used by Parliamentarian forces in the Civil War.  This weapon also put paid to the castle at nearby Raglan.  It seemed an ignominious end to a fortress that would once have defended the border between England and Wales so resolutely.  The tour was a fascinating mix of its time as a fortress and home to a retinue of people that probably lived a relatively comfortable life compared to others in the surrounding countryside at that time.

Roaring Meg
Sadly the glorious day that we had experienced up to now disappeared under increasing layers of cloud and before long the blue skies gave way to grey as we prepared to continue on our way.  We thought about getting the bus the short distance down to Kerne Bridge so as to avoid further road walking (there was no serious alternative now) but in the event we thought we would try our lucj and walk instead.  Thankfully this section has a nice pavement and so the bus was not required.  We looked smugly at it passing as we were some way down the river bank leading away from Kerne Bridge.

Kerne Bridge
Our route now took us along the banks of the River Way once again.  We would follow the enormous meander loops, which meant that our walk of several miles didn't actually achieve very much distance compared to how the crow flies.  The river was abuzz with canoeists, largely family groups but also groups of youngsters trying out for the first time by the looks of things.  One group particularly caught our eyes - a group of young Eastern Asians (Japanese perhaps?) who were having the hardest time steering their craft and getting entangled in all manner of riverside vegetation as the current carried them in a more definite course than any of their steering could.  They didn't seem to mind though - there was loud chatter and laughter coming from their craft as they all could see the funny side of their uselessness.

Wye Canoeing
On the path we crossed what would once have been the Wye Valley Railway from Ross-on-Wye to Monmouth.  The train would once have paused at Kerne Bridge (the station is still there!) on the opposite bank to our path before continuing on to Monmouth in the direction we were headed.  The bridge over the Wye is long gone and the countryside a lot more wooded than it would once have been.  The line disappeared into a tunnel cutting off the meander loop we were about to walk around and we would meet the other end later.

Ramsons Lined Path
Our route alongside the Wye was largely very quiet with few other walkers about.  The going was easy with grassy pasture land being the order of the day for much of the way.  On the opposite of the river the valley sides were dotted with houses all taking advantage of the beautiful views on offer along this stretch.  Our side was more remote - the effect of a piece of land being effectively cut off due to the lack of bridges along this part of the Wye.  The only settlement on our side is the scattered village of Welsh Bicknor, which despite its name is not now in Wales but in Herefordshire.  It was once a curious little enclave of Monmouthshire, hence its name.  On the opposite side of the bank is perhaps inevitably English Bicknor.

Welsh Bicknor Church
Eventually we reached the lovely little church of Welsh Bicknor and its Youth Hostel next door.  Perhaps we should have stopped here for a cup of tea (we certainly needed it) but somehow the smell of raw sewage got up our nose and put us off.  Instead we reached the other end of the old railway line as it emerged from the tunnel under Welsh Bicknor.  This time I went up to find the tunnel mouth and what a sorry state the line now looks.  It has been more than 55 years since the last train came this way and nature is reclaiming this man made structure very quickly.  The cutting is full of water and the tunnel mouth suggests that any chance of a rebuilding of this railway is surely only a pipe dream by the most enthusiastic railway fans.

Lydbrook Bridge
My wife and I had actually passed this way some years ago when walking some of the Wye Valley Walk but I have to say I was shocked at how much the old railway bridge carrying us over the Wye had deteriorated even since that time 12 years earlier.  I wonder how long it can realistically carry the walkway over the river before the health and safety police do something about it?  On the opposite side is the surprisingly large Lydbrook Wire Works, a factory that has been closed as long as I can remember.  It all looks rather forlorn now and yet it seems surprising that something as large as this can have been left to rot for some many years, especially in such a beautiful area.  Orignially there was a railway junction here with another line heading off through Lydbrook to Lydney via a massive viaduct which sadly succumbed to demolition in the mid 1960s.  It would have been quite something to see an edifice like that still straddling the valley!

Lydbrook Wire Works
Our route continued downstream using the old trackbed alongside the river all the way back to the foot of Symonds Yat rock.  Unlike many other railways in this area engineering features were pretty few and far between and indeed it was difficult to even realise that we were walking along a railway until we got to the foot of the rock.  Here the railway disappeared first into a dark and dank cutting and then into a tunnel that would have been really handy for us now!  Sadly the only way we could get back to Symonds Yat was either the steep climb back over the rock or via a very long walk around the foot of the hill.  We opted for the short steep climb to get back to our hotel - a wise choice I think...

Symonds Yat Tunnel
This really is one of the finest places in England to walk - an area steeped in history as well as the most magnificent countryside.  It isn't perhaps top of most people's lists of places to visit in England but I am glad for that - it is a secret that I want to keep!

Monday, 6 July 2015

Kennet and Avon Canal Section 10 Avoncliff to Bath

Avoncliff Aqueduct
Well here it is the last section of this walk.  It has taken two years to complete but like the end of a good book it leaves you slightly bereft when you finish.  I have to say that I was really pleased that we left this section until last as finishing in Bath seemed somehow more interesting than finishing in Reading.  The scenery along the way more than justified our decision too.

Limpley Stoke Section
We started by driving over to the hamlet of Avoncliff where we had left off the day before.  Getting to the station in a car is not easy as it is at the end of a lengthy narrow lane and there are only a few spaces available.  We struck lucky on the basis that we were quite early and not all of the half dozen or so spaces had been taken.  There is another car park available on the other side of the aqueduct but there is no physical road connection between the two so be warned!

Perfect House?
Once we had got ourselves together we started by crossing the aqueduct and then crossing underneath the canal on the far side to gain the towpath.  The terrain of the walk was much changed from a little further east as we have now reached the southern end of the Cotswolds.  The canal now follows the wooded Avon valley and to say it is picturesque would be an understatement.  The weather had improved markedly on the day before too with bright sunshine and puffy clouds the order of the day.

Avon Valley
Initially the towpath took a route high above the railway that superceded it and all around were lush green pasture fields; some with livestock and some without.  The canal had lots of boats moored along the sides - Avoncliff is clearly a popular place.  As we looped around the contours pastures gave way to woods and the cool dappled shade was really welcome as the day warmed up.  Although the bluebells had long since disappeared from the woodlands there were still plenty of other flowers to spot along the way including red campion, which grew in profusion and heaps of wild roses and may blossom.  The bright sunshine certainly brought out the best in the colours.  As we passed through the woods I could not help but notice a particularly fantastic looking house along the canal side.  It could not have been a more perfect setting if it tried!

Dundas Aqueduct
When we finally left the wood views of the Avon Valley opened up again.  I have passed along here on the train before and always thought how fantastic it looked.  Walking along the towpath really gave us the opportunity to see the scenery properly.  The only sounds that broke the peace and quiet were the occasional roar of a train or the chug chug of the odd canal boat.  All along the valley sides are houses that are dotted on the valley sides, each competing for the best views.  Yet despite how many houses there are it cannot be said to be anything other than a truly rural setting.

Somerset Coal Canal Basin
Eventually we came to Dundas Aqueduct.  This fantastic engineering feature carries the canal over the River Avon a second time in order that it can maintain the same level heading towards Bath.  The main Bath to Bradford-on-Avon railway line also passes underneath.  The aqueduct was named after the Chairman of the Kennet and Avon Canal and was built between 1797 and 1801 by John Rennie and it still very ornate even 200 years later following restorations in the 1980s and approximately 10 years ago.  Perhaps unsurprisingly it was the first canal structure in Britain to be designated as a scheduled ancient monument.

Dundas Wharf
Luckily for us we got to watch a couple of boats cross the aqueduct as we arrived.  The thought of anyone doing this in the 1950s must have seemed very remote when the canal was dry and disused.  Back then it was actually possible to cross the aqueduct on foot using the canal basin itself rather than the towpath!  At the western end of the aqueduct is the junction of the former Somerset Coal Canal.  Only a short stub of this remains and the access is a very narrow strip of water passing between some gardens.  It would once have been used to ship out coal from the old coalfield around the town of Radstock.  Seems hard to believe that coal mines were part of the landscape in this part of Somerset but the towns themselves do suggest something more industrial than you might expect.

Restoration Required
Before continuing on our way along the main line of the canal we took the opportunity to walk down to the visitor centre just a short way down the Somerset Coal Canal.  Here there is a cafe, boat hire, cycle hire and (perhaps most importantly) toilet facilities.  We had ourselves a nice cold drink and a little freshen up.  In the little visitor centre I also took a look at the small exhibition of pictures showing how life was on the canal and surrounding railways.

After double backing to the main line our route now took us north along the western side of the valley.  As we headed towards Bath the route now resembled the M1 it was so busy.  It was sometimes hard to enjoy our surroundings as there were so many cyclists zooming along the towpath.  I suspect this is a particularly popular route because of the railway line that follows us all the way into Bath enabling linear bike journeys as far away as Trowbridge.  There was a significant amount of boating traffic too suggesting that this end of the canal is also perhaps the most popular with boaters.

Largely the scenery was woodland and fields along the Avon Valley with few more features on the canal itself until we reached the edge of Bath.  The only exception was Claverton Pumping Station, which would have had a similar function to the one we had passed at Crofton near Bedwyn.  This one was not nearly so obvious though - it was tucked away in the trees and we passed it without me noticing!  The station does serve a very important purpose however as it brings water into the canal from the nearby River Avon and moves it 48 feet in the process.

Sydney Gardens
Sadly as we walked along towards Bath the weather really came on overcast.  This rather spoiled my picture taking but it did allow us to travel a bit quicker along the towpath.  All too soon the houses started up suggesting that we were heading into Bath.  First we came into the suburb of Bathampton and a very popular looking George pub.  The houses alongside were beautiful too made of the celebrated Cotswold stone for which the city is famous.

If we thought that it would be a passage through the suburbs though we were to be mistaken for after a brief flirtation with the suburbs the canal seemed to want to return to countryside for as long as possible for the corridor of the canal itself was still very rural feeling almost until we could deny that we were in the city no longer.  Yet even as the urban area closed around us the canal had one last surprise for us as it entered the other worldly Sydney Gardens.  We entered via a short tunnel and the gardens were all around us for a short stretch before we entered another tunnel and suddenly they were gone again!

Journey's End
Once beyond the gardens the canal needed to get down to the level of the River Avon rather quickly and the last half mile or so was punctuated by a series of locks that brought us down the hill to the junction of the river very quickly.  Thus we entered Bath through the back door and not that close to the city centre.  Bath Spa station was pretty close but being a Bank Holiday the trains weren't that frequent and so we decided that we were early enough for a look round.  I cannot begin to write about the city or add anything that hasn't already been said except to say that it is a fantastic place to finish any walk.  We had a really good time wandering about the city and having some well deserved refreshments and musing on our 80 odd mile trip from Reading.  The girls felt immensely proud of their achievement and why not?  Now the fun will be planning the next trip!