Northumbrian refreshment

Jen and I have had a very refreshing week’s holiday in Northumberland after Easter, doing some good walks and meeting up with friends.

We did two walks in the Cheviots, a range of hills that spans the Scottish border. Compared to the more familiar Lake District fells, the Cheviot hills are much more remote with fewer crowds; the higher levels are windswept and treeless, with rounded tops that somehow look bleaker. Our first walk was an enjoyable trek up Windy Gyl – which lived up to its name – from Upper Coquetdale. The second was to The Cheviot – at 810m one of the highest mountains outside of the Lakes. This has a large plateau at the top, so that there are no views of surrounding hills from the summit trig point.

Jen modelling a signpost on the Pennine Way, with the upper sign pointing us to Windy Gyl.

View of Windy Gyl as we descended towards Upper Coquetdale.

Upper Coquetdale

We were also able to meet up with a number of friends. On the Wednesday we visited Jaybee and his wife Jane in South Hetton; Jaybee’s mobility now limits his wildlife photography, but he’s still managed to become a specialist on hoverflies. The next evening we went to dinner with Satomi Miwa at an excellent Turkish restaurant in Longbenton, who told us about her ministry amongst international students at Jesmond Parish Church.

On Saturday evening we arrived, late and smelly after a long walk up the Cheviot, at Ann and Arthur Pratt’s house. They understood our plight immediately and gave us towels and showed us to the showers! They gave us an excellent meal, and told us about their lives as medics and also about their church in Prudhoe.

With Satomi at the Lezzet Turkish restaurant in Longbenton

I managed to survive without going on a birdwatching trip, but there were still some great photographic opportunities! We spent a day at the National Trust’s Wallington estate, which had a lovely river walk winding round one side of the site. There was a very showy dipper on the river, which performed lots of characteristic antics, like dipping at the knees and running underwater.

Dipper on the river at Wallington, with a beakful of insects and other prey.

There were lots of red grouse when we walked to The Cheviot, with one in particular showing great patience in allowing me to bend down to get a better angle on a photograph before flying off.

Red Grouse

One of the major highlights of the week was on the Sunday morning, when we dropped into Stockton Parish Church, where I’d done my placement from college in 2010-11. The church has grown dramatically in the years after I left, with the congregation roughly double the size, with many from refugee communities. We had a very good chat with Alan Farish, who was the vicar when I was there, and has since handed over the reins to his curate, Mark Miller (who had been at Cranmer in the year below me). I was also delighted to be able to catch up with those who’d been part of the ministry at the Community Church, such as Jon and Sarah Searle, Adam Walsh, Rob and Kath Bailey. Being part of this team was hugely formative for me – and, with hindsight, appears to have been for everyone else involved as well!

 

Mist, sun and reflections in the Lake District

Jen and I could hardly have picked a better week to be in the Lake District last week! Although we had to contend with mist and cloud on occasions, the weather was stunning for much of it the time. I’m going to let the photos tell most of the story this time.

Our first full day was the one where the clouds never fully left the scene. We did the Dale Head round, which is one of my favourites in the Lake District, but Jen never quite got the views that I’d promised!

Dramatic clouds from the top of Dale Head towards Maiden Moor (Newlands Valley just visible on the left)

Dramatic clouds from the top of Dale Head towards Maiden Moor (Newlands Valley just visible on the left)

Late on the following morning around Buttermere, we had the most spectacular scenery of the entire week – and this view of the reflections from High Crag scarcely does it justice.

Reflections on Buttermere: High Stile is the mountain

Reflections on Buttermere: High Stile is the mountain

Our walk that day started late. Further up, a light mist had settled across the landscape, and I haven’t yet worked out to compensate for this photographically – but the mountains still looked magnificent.

Jen on Stile looking towards Great Gable

Jen on Stile looking towards Great Gable

I’m sure I’ve done Red Pike before but I’d certainly forgotten how amazing the views are, despite the mist. Nevertheless the entire descent from top to bottom was dreadful – it’ll have to be another route down next time!

Getting clear views was difficult because there was a light mist all day, but Crummock Water and Grasmoor still looked stunning from Red Pike.

Getting clear views was difficult because there was a light mist all day, but Crummock Water and Grasmoor still looked stunning from Red Pike.

We were based at the Black Sail youth hostel for Thursday and Friday nights, and our best day’s walking was on the Friday. We did some peaks neither of us had done before: Pillar, Scoat Fell, Steeple and Haycock. The clouds prevented obtaining great photos – but it was a most rewarding walk.

Jen crossing Scoat Fell, with Steeple in the background on the right

Jen crossing Scoat Fell, with Steeple in the background on the right

Our final walk, on the Saturday, was on Grasmoor – just out of the main tourist area but a very rewarding climb. I particularly enjoyed this view of Dale Head and the Newlands Valley.

The evening Sun gave some nice textures in the view towards Dale Head and the Newlands Valley

The evening Sun gave some nice textures in the view towards Dale Head and the Newlands Valley

Evading the clouds on Sca Fell

“We should definitely do Sca Fell,” I told Jen, “because the views are far better than from the Pike – and anyway we can walk straight from Boot” (where we were staying in Eskdale). Having bigged up Sca Fell on what was forecast to be a bright and sunny day, it was somewhat disheartening to see a thick layer of cloud enshrouding all the high tops! Jen took this philosophically – I was a little less inclined to do so…

Cloudy views towards Great How (front right) on the way up to Sca Fell.

Cloudy views towards Great How (front right) on the way up to Sca Fell.

As we plodded upwards we were tantalised by the clouds lifting and then descending, only to repeat the cycle. Nevertheless, when we got onto the main part of the mountain, the views across Upper Eskdale to Bow Fell and more distant peaks were impressive in themselves, even if the looming clouds gave a rather moody appearance…

Upper Eskdale from the ascent to Sca Fell

Upper Eskdale from the ascent to Sca Fell

Scafell Pike from Sca Fell

Scafell Pike from Sca Fell

With Jen at the top of Sca Fell

With Jen at the top of Sca Fell

Fortunately, the clouds finally lifted as we reached the summit ridge – the kind of timing that only rarely happens! Indeed the views got better the longer we stayed up at the top.

I was particularly relieved that, having talked Jen into going up Sca Fell, it lived up to – and exceeded – expectations. We lingered at the top for lunch, and the panorama in front of us provided plenty of opportunity to bag some photos.

View from Sca Fell across to Pillar (with the snowy cap) and Great Gable (looming front right)

View from Sca Fell across to Pillar (with the snowy cap) and Great Gable (looming front right), with Grasmoor (far right).

Wastwater from Sca Fell, with Yewbarrow on the right.

Wastwater from Sca Fell, with Yewbarrow on the right.

The return journey promised to be easier – except that the path, which was already very wet in places, was set to cross the marshy ground east of Burnmoor Tarn. (In fact we’d been warned about this by the manager of the Boot Inn the previous evening: if you get your feet soaked, he’d said, you’d only have to walk an hour to get back).

Burnmoor Tarn from Sca Fell, with Raven Crag on the left

Burnmoor Tarn from Sca Fell, with Raven Crag on the left

I did get my feet nicely soaked – but much higher up on the mountainside, and in the end we were able to navigate through the marshland fairly easily.

Sca Fell from Burnmoor Tarn... the mountain looks deceptively easy from here!

Sca Fell from Burnmoor Tarn… the mountain looks deceptively easy from here!

The following two days were dreadful, weather-wise. John, the proprietor of the B&B, recommended a trip to the RSPB’s site at Hodbarrow – a suggestion I quite readily took up! The road to the site is dreadful – riddled with potholes – but just as we arrived a local birder pointed out a summer-plumaged Slavonian grebe close to where we’d parked. Having spent an Easter trip to Loch Ruthven to see them, I was particularly pleased to see one so easily, on migration to its breeding area.

Slavonian grebe at RSPB Hodbarrow.

Slavonian grebe at RSPB Hodbarrow.

Notes from a French riverbank

Jen and I have recently returned from a lovely week in France. We were staying in Châtellerault, because Jen’s uncle and aunt, John and Hélène, are looking after Hélène’s mother who lives there. This was a great opportunity to explore a part of France that neither of us had been to before.

On our first full day we were given a tour of the town, which is built on the banks of the Vienne river, a tributary of the Loire, and is about as big as the Severn in Worcester. One of the major features of the town is the Henri IV bridge, built around 1600, during the reign of one of France’s best loved kings: his concern for the well-being of the poorest in the country was epitomised by his determination that every peasant should have a chicken in his pot on Sundays!

The Henry IV bridge crossing the Vienne at Châtellerault

The Henri IV bridge crossing the Vienne at Châtellerault

Any guesses as to what wildlife Vouneuil is best known for?

Any guesses as to what wildlife Vouneuil is best known for?

We went on two walks exploring the region close to the Vienne. On the first of these we departed from Vouneuil-sur-Vienne, which has an eye-catching and unusual emblem on its village sign!

The route took us to the Pinail nature reserve, an area of heathland with a large number of small ponds. The bedrock consists of flint and silicified limestone, so that it was ideal for extracting millstones – leaving behind the many pools. This is one reason why the reserve now hosts 46 species of dragonfly and has rich biodiversity. December was not the best month to go, but it was easy to see that it would be a great place to dwell for a while during spring and early summer.

Two of the ponds at the Pinail nature reserve.

The walk – about 9 miles in all – took us through a wide variety of terrain. Leaving the Pinail, we walked through woodland, along a couple of low hills, and then round to the large village of Bonneuil Matours – where we discovered a great cafe with its own bakery! We later discovered that it’s a favourite of John and Hélène.

Cafe Choquet in Bonneuil Matours

Cafe Choquet in Bonneuil Matours

By the time we left the cafe and walked north back to Vouneuil, it was getting late and we didn’t get great views of the river, which, although it ran close to the road along which we were walking, was still a short distance away. However, we did get a good sight of a flock of bramblings on the edge of the village: rounding off a good day of birding, as I’d also seen a couple of firecrests and a black redstart (each probable rather than definite, though).

On New Year’s day we took another walk, south of Cenon-sur-Vienne back to Vouneuil, and this route kept much closer to the riverbank. Although tke sky was overcast all day we had no rain, so it was great walking weather.

Along the banks of the Vienne

Along the banks of the Vienne

Not far south of Cenon, we found a quiet spot on the riverbank. I was searching for a good scenic photo, when, noiselessly, a mid-sized mammal slipped into the water and swam across the river. I thought at first that it was a beaver, but I discovered later (thanks to the expertise of members of the Mammal Society!) that it was actually a coypu, a species from South America which escaped from European fur farms in the early 20th century.

Coypu near Cenon-sur-Vienne

Coypu near Cenon-sur-Vienne

Both beavers and coypus are known in the Loire valley and its tributaries, but only the latter are seen during the day. Unfortunately for the coypus they have a destructive effect on the landscape and are considered a pest species.

Shortly afterwards we had another extraordinary sight: a train of caterpillars!

Caterpillar train!

Caterpillar train! It turns out this is the Pine Processionary Moth, an invasive species spreading north through France – see here for full story.

The château at Chitré

The château at Chitré, which is quite typical of the region.

Our route this time kept us close to the river for most of the way and enabled us to have some great views. We were lucky enough to see three kingfishers on the walk – the streak of blue flashing past being the giveaway – but unfortunately they were too far away to photograph well. I also saw a flock of cirl buntings – which emphasised the similar-but-different nature of birding in western France. The overcast skies meant that the photographic potential was more limited than it might have been, but it was still an excellent walk which, like the previous one, would be great to repeat in the future.

The river Vienne near Ardentes

The river Vienne near Ardentes

Severn Valley trails: by steam and on foot

A few days ago I took Jen on one of my favourite trips – the steam train from Bewdley to Bridgnorth, and then walking back along the bank of the river. The scenery is beautiful almost the entire way, especially with the spectacularly good weather that we had!

Severn Valley Railway steam train, the 'Sir Keith Park', on its way back from Bridgnorth.

There are some great spots for watching the trains: this is the viaduct at Borle Brook, as the ‘Sir Keith Park’ heads south to Bewdley.

River Severn  south of Highley

River Severn south of Highley

River Severn at the confluence of the Borle Brook.

River Severn at the confluence of the Borle Brook.

We went all the way to Bridgnorth and walked back as far as Arley, arriving just in time to catch the final southward train. The uphill stretch from the river to the station reminded me again that Jen’s running is way better than mine!

In fact the route from Hampton Loade to Bewdley, a similar distance of about ten miles, is probably the most scenic section. It may seem a bit churlish to complain about the scenery at the Bridgnorth end, which is itself hard to beat – but the stretch a few miles further south is even better!

The path itself is easy to follow (if in doubt, head for the river) and flat most of the way. There are many photo opportunities – almost too many!

River Severn near Arley

River Severn near Arley

The lads in the Lakes

Bridge over the Esk river, upper end of Eskdale

Bridge over the Esk river, upper end of Eskdale

Last weekend, while Jen had her hen weekend, I went with a few buddies to the Lake District (determined not to call it a stag weekend because of the connotations!). It was great to be able to spend time with a group of guys, some of whom I’ve holidayed with and camped with many times over the last few years.

On the Friday, the weather forecast was poor so the five of us (John, Dave, Nick and the Marquis of Moisey) went up Eskdale and round into Mosedale, a very picturesque route that is ideal for low-level walking (except for the steep uphill trudge along the road through Hardknott Pass at the end!).

Esk River

Esk River

Our main walk was on Saturday: I went with Dave Doughty and John Linney up Scafell Pike via  the Corridor Route. This is a scenic, gently inclining trek up from Styhead Pass, which gives great views across the valley to the brooding, bleak presence of Great Gable.

Great Gable from the Corridor Route: in the distance Skiddaw & Blencathra.

Great Gable from the Corridor Route: in the distance Skiddaw & Blencathra.

John Linney and Dave Doughty on the way up the Corridor Route to Scafell Pike. Great Gable in the background.

John Linney and Dave Doughty on the way up the Corridor Route to Scafell Pike. Great Gable in the background.

The weather was meant to be good that day, but it was instead overcast most of the time, and just as we got to the summit the clouds rolled back in. This was less unfortunate than it sounds because the views are much better on the way than in the middle of the summit plateau.

Descent from Scafell Pike, with Red Pike and Pillar in the distance.

Descent from Scafell Pike, with Red Pike and Pillar in the distance.

We stayed at the Wasdale Hall youth hostel, at the southwest end of Wastwater – and this was one of the best that I’ve stayed in (genuinely very good, and I’ve been to some that have been quite poor by comparison).

Wastwater

Wastwater, loomed over by Great Gable.

Travels with Jen

Sunshine and snow might make for marvellous views – but not necessarily for great walks, as Jen and I discovered in the Cairngorms, the day after leaving Ardnamurchan.

We decided to climb Cairn Gorm itself from the upper car park – which would have been fine had we found the right path, and had we realised that the alternative route we tried to take instead was in fact the ski run. The walk was more of a grim trudge.

The views at the top were spectacular but we also battled an icy blast the entire time on the top – the photograph gives no suggestion of this! We also recognised that our lack of crampons and ice axe meant that going further would have been foolhardy.

Cairngorm range: Ben Macdui is the far peak on the left.

Cairngorm range: Ben Macdui is the far peak on the left.

The following day we had a mega drive down to Devon, because one of Jen’s cousins was having her son christened in the local church on the Sunday. It was therefore a great opportunity to meet Jen’s wider family.

During the afternoon we had a short walk on Dartmoor. We had lunch by the East Dart river, which provided a photo opportunity that I could not resist…

Jen on the East Dart river

Jen on the East Dart river

We had an awesomely wonderful week together in Scotland and then briefly in Devon – being exceptionally fortunate with the weather. Since coming back we’ve been doing some wedding preparation – which also meant a quick trip into All Souls, Langham Place.

Jen & Rich at All Souls Langham Place

Jen & Rich at All Souls Langham Place