25 May – The Ridgeway

It wasn’t the Low cloud and drizzle this morning that dampened our spirits as Marianne and I set off on the first stretch of the Ridgeway. Not having Pat with us was the big downer. She has gone to Reading to take it easy, maybe visit a few museums, but generally stay off her feet. She tried to go to Chester, but there is no room at any affordable inn there, nor in Oxford, nor in Wells, nor in Edinburgh…. seems Reading is about the only town in the UK with room availability. This has been hard as Pat, like me, has a passion for walking historic routes.

As mentioned in an earlier blog, the Coastal Path is a recent creation, developed solely for the purpose of recreation. This path – The Ridgeway – has been in use for millennia. Migrating animals, then humans, trading, herding, armies – they have tramped, and ridden here along this elevated ridge, safe from swamps, with a clear line of sight – since the end of the last ice age.

Their passage is scored in the wide smooth way of the path. They have left behind traces of their passage. The old stuff now in museums. The new stuff mostly in litter bins. As we walked today we imagined our Neolithic, Bronze and Iron Age ancestors walking this same route. We walked through the remaining earthworks of Iron Age Barbary Castle where the Briton’s were later defeated by the invading Saxons in the 5OOs AD. History oozes from the chalk under our feet.

The route follows the top of the sweeping ridge. There are a few gentle ups and downs, but all on a broad path. The grand visas are of wide stretches of open farm land interspersed with copses and white blooming hawthorn trees. The countryside rolls away into the distance, the fields green with new growth or yellow under the bloom of rape blossom. We saw very few other walkers and were in Ogbourne St George by shortly after lunch time.

Oops – when staying at a B&B, early arrival can pose scowls or unopened doors. Here however we were invited in with a gentle chastisement. We ate humble pie and have spent the afternoon reading and sipping tea in a nice bright conservatory.

Almost time to head out to the local pub for dinner. It only opens at 4pm on weekdays. This, our hostess assured us, we should have known. All part of her displeasure that we had the audacity to arrive early. Sometimes you just have to smile and take it. She went on to explain that it’s all on their web site didn’t we know. I didn’t like to tell her I didn’t actually know the name of the village’s local pub. Her tea was good. The bathtub was comfortable and the water hot. The beds are as advertised – and look comfortable. So really – no complaints.

Signing off from Ogbourne St George

24 May – Avebury

We spent this cool cloudy day (which is now also very wet) wandering through the biggest known stone circle (henge) in the world. It is gently impressive. Many of the original stones, erected by Neolithic people, are now gone. They were largely ignored by the Romans, they survived numerous English wars, they remained largely intact and in place until many were smashed to bits to build houses and barns as recently as the 16 and 1700s.

In the 12th and 13th centuries, some had been buried in pits for reasons that can just be guessed. Christians trying to hide evidence of pre Christian belief systems? Maybe. It is interesting to note that they were buried, not destroyed. Were they being hidden to protect them from damage? Maybe.

The entire place may have been lost to history had a fellow – William Stukeley – not realized in the 1740s that the remaining few stones had significance and should be preserved. What that significance is though, remains a mystery.

Today’s archeologists are sure people did not live within the henge. They feel therefore that it was an important gathering place. For trade? For worship? For ceremony? They reason that all aspects are probable. What is known, is that the stones and surrounding circular earthworks date back at least 5000 years. It is also known that the place was not built as a defensive position. It was likely designed to impress and control the points of entry and exit. The people who built the henge over many centuries were intelligent, organized, wealthy, creative and interested in the metaphysical.

In the early 1900s Alexander Keillor took interest in the historic significance of the henge and supervised the aerological excavations and re-erection of some of the fallen and buried stones to what visitors see today.

Back in the Middle Ages the village of Avebury had grown up partly within the circle. The village remains. Now there is a major road running through the henge. When that road was human foot traffic and animal drawn carts it would have been fine. Today it is a considerable hazard to tourist and local pedestrians trying to cross between one half of the circle and village and another. The car drivers seem to feel this section of road (with two blind right angle bends) should be driven at high speed with disregard for inhabitants, visitors and what may be the sanctity of the place.

Within the wide grassy areas surrounding the stones, sheep and tourists are free to wander at will. Unlike at Avebury’s little sister, Stonehenge, where the circle is now behind a fence, here people may still touch the stones, lean against them, as they ponder their mystery. Today, being mid week, cool and cloudy, there were few others of our kind, so it was peaceful and pleasant. I imagine that in the summer, this village must be sheer chaos. As we are staying within the circle, we don’t even see the car park which is just over the Earth Works.

There was a bit of excitement today as a heavily armed policeman strode about outside our lodge talking into his radio about goings on behind the church. We’ve no idea what it is all about.

Avebury is also home to a lovely old manor house, the modern addition having been built by the Tutors in the 1500s. It is now open to the public so we went in. The BBC has redecorated various rooms with furnishings dating from the 1500s to the early 1930s in keeping with the furnishings of various owners of the house over the years. Unlike many such places, here visitors are invited to sit on the chairs, read the books, touch the bedding, clothing and kitchen implements and generally make themselves comfortable. Each room has a knowledgeable and enthusiastic person to chat with about this and that. There is an extensive walled kitchen garden in full operation as well as ornamental gardens and an orchard. It was a very enjoyable interlude to our day. We also enjoyed a traditional Victorian light lunch and tea in the library. Thankfully we did not have to “dress” for the occasion.

Marianne and I are now wrapping our minds around the Ridgeway walk without Pat. This really sucks, but her heal is not recovered enough for her to continue with us. She is trying to find accommodation in Chester, from where one of her ancestors immigrated to Canada. This being a long weekend, her search is so far proving difficult. I’m so very disappointed for Pat. We will reconvene at Princes Risborough for our last night. Meanwhile our walk will not be the same without her.

Soon time to scurry over the the Red Lion for dinner. We are hoping this downpour will get the rain out of the weather system and that tomorrow is dry. I don’t mind cloudy as it might otherwise be too hot to be enjoyable, but rain – could do without a drenching!

Good night from within the ancient henge of Avebury.

PS Pat and I both tried to “get through” a stone or two but we’re still here. I think we needed to have a precious jewel with us to open the portal….. forgot that bit. We are traveling without our precious jewels.

23 May – In quest of an ancient stone circle

Today saw us on a bus. Another bus. A train. Another train. Another train. And a bus.

Our journey began at 08:04 in Portleven Cornwall and ended at 16:30 here in Avebury Wiltshire.

Why are we just as tired today, having sat around on various conveyances for hours, as we usually are after trudging up and down cliffs all day?

Hmm. No answer to that. But I still feel like I’m on a train… clickety-clack, rock and sway.

We are staying at the Avebury Lodge which has a posh view of itself. We’re paying a bundle to stay here, but there’s a rub. Marianne let the hosts know that an English king size bed is not acceptable, (being several centimetres narrower than a North American king size). The hosts gave Marianne assurance that their king size beds were of an internationally acceptable standard. But we have arrived to discover an ancient queen bed in a small room. Nowhere near king in size. Nowhere near worth the price.

We’ve had firm words with the unrepentant hostess and instead of one mat on the floor this evening (for me) there will be two (the second for Pat). The price is exorbitant here because the place is within the circle of stones.

More on the stones tomorrow. We are now at the Red Lion Pub next door. It is thatched roofed, has been a pub since the 1600s and due to numerous years of practice, has great beer and good pub grub. There is a fellow holding up the bar who is a bit of a character. The sun is still shining outside. There are sheep and tourists amongst the stones. Marianne has gone out to experience the stones with the last of the tourists and the chill evening air. Pat and I are indulging in a second glass of wine in preparation for our night on the floor.

Good night from Avebury. No pictures to follow this evening as I took very few from bus or train windows.

22 May – And that’s a wrap

Marianne and I walked out of Marazion under a cloudy sky into a cold wind. Pat meanwhile was catching the bus back to Penzance for her appointment with the Chinese medicine woman for some more acupuncture and assorted treatments.

We hadn’t walked far when the sun came out, the wind died down and the day became quite warm. Off came a layer of clothes. Today’s walk was a lovely culmination of our coastal walking. There were ups and downs but none too strenuous. There were cliffs but none too scary. There were no boggy bits and no crazy boulder fields. It was a gentile walk around coves, past wild flowers, over headlands.

We watched a family embarking on a coasteering expedition. Do you know what that is? We didn’t until a couple of days ago. It is a combination of climbing, scrambling, swimming, caving along a coast. The participants had donned wetsuits, life jackets, helmets, booties and gloves and were clambering and swimming around a cliff. This was a gentle day with no smashing waves, but we’ve seen some video of a more wild version of the sport.

Later we saw some climbers. The rock in this area seems to lend itself to some good climbing on the vertical cliffs rising above the waves.

Marianne and and I arrived in our room at the Harbour Inn, in Portleven to a bottle of celebratory wine. Thank you Pat. We’ve checked bus and train schedules for our onward journey tomorrow and enjoyed our last Coastal dinner.

I’m not unhappy the Coastal Path portion of this trip is now over. It was different from what I’d imagined. Harder. I don’t mind hard. But I wasn’t psyched up for what the trail presented us with. Pat and Marianne agree with this sentiment. They both have friends who told them this was a challenging trail, but those friends and our guide books didn’t really get the real message through to us. Were we listening? Maybe not as well as we might have.

Anyway this was not a walk. It was a good tough hike. It was beautiful. This is a lovely place to visit. There is an almost magical synergy between the wild of the coast and the domestic farm fields that reach down to its edge. I hope the people who resist the trail realize that this is a countryside that should be shared. I thank those who cooperated with the creation of a fabulous and unique walking route.

Good night from Portleven. Next stop Avebury.

21 May – St Michael’s Mount

A funny little five kilometre walk today. Not scenic.

Marianne and I started our day by walking into Penzance to pick up a few supplies. I’d left my English adapter plug behind a couple of places ago… dumb rocky move. First store I walked in had exactly what I needed. Next stop “Boots,” a major pharmacy chain here. More sunscreen (me) and ibuprofen (Marianne) acquired, we were ready to walk along the shore to Marazion.

Not an inspired path. First we walked between the railway track and the harbour. Eventually we made it down to the beach. Along the way we stoped a wonderful beach side cafe. The young man who owns this enterprise serves coffees and teas in an eclectic mix of china cups. He also rents surf boards, and invites people to partake in yoga and gymnastics. Something for all age groups and a variety of interests. His little tables sit along the sea wall and command an excellent view of St Michael’s Mount. We were in Marazion at our hotel by shortly after eleven. Too early to check in so we dropped our packs and headed over to the island.

As the tide was still too high for the causeway to be dry, we took one of the little passenger ferries across. Lunch for me was a cream tea. Much better than the one at Tintagel but I still couldn’t get through it all. Very rich dish.

Marianne and I have now explored the church, castle and gardens of the Mount and are kicking back on a sunny grassy meadow until the causeway is fully above the water line. ….. and it is.

So where is Pat? She has hurt her Achilles and is taking a couple of days off walking. She missed nothing today. When we meet up with her in a while I’m hoping to discover that the day off will have eased her considerable pain. The plan at the moment is for Pat to not walk until we start the Ridgeway. Our fingers are crossed that by then she’ll be able to do so. Needless to say she, and we, are concerned.

St Michael’s Mount has an interesting and long history. A tidal island, it has always been a good defensive and trade position. In the first century BC Cornish tin was exported from here for onward shipping to the Mediterranean. In the 12th century it was a Priory until Henry VIII’s dissolutions in 1548. A castle was built around and incorporating the Priory. It was a Royalist stronghold but surrendered to Cromwell after a lengthy siege during he civil war in 1645. It is now inhabited by the St Aubyn family.

Pat update: She was at our very nice hotel when Marianne and I returned from our bout of tourism on the Mount. She had some positive news. Before she caught the bus from Penzance to here she noticed a Chinese medical clinic. Acupuncture being one of the treatments advertised, she went in. She’s been properly stuck with needles, had some other treatment and will return tomorrow for another session. As Pat says, there’s good evidence that acupuncture works for pain control so she’s hopeful that this and the upcoming days of rest will see her able to continue on the Ridgway.

We are now engaged in our usual early evening pursuits of cleaning selves, hand washing laundry – our socks were truly in need – journaling (Marianne) blogging (me) researching bus schedules (Pat). Then a pub dinner and another ridiculously early evening.

Good night from Marazion.

20 May – When does a walk become a hike?

We had an excellent breakfast this morning. Fruit, cereal and yoghurt! A welcome change from the traditional English bacon and eggs. Our host came in early so we could get on the road before nine. We were grateful because we really enjoy the morning time walking.

Walking? Hmm….. According to various web sites I’ve just looked at in seeking an answer to this question, we have been hiking, not walking, the coastal path.

However today the route upped the ante considerably. We “Uber Hiked” if there is such a thing.

The trail was very overgrown for long stretches. Stinging nettles abounded. We had bare legs so it wasn’t pleasant. Bits of grass fell into our boots, and brambles provided exfoliation. Other areas were mud pits. Some spots were very steep and scrambling was necessary up and over and through rocky headlands. At one point we balanced and hopped across a bouldery shore.

My pack seemed to weigh more than normal too. That was party true because of the weight of the Cornish pastie I was carrying for lunch and the extra half litre of water as the weather has been warm. I envied Marianne her lighter day pack! We are however all becoming quite tired. This trail has been beautiful but in places challenging.

Today our distance wasn’t really far but by the time we arrived in Mousehole we’d had enough. We noted that the last five kilometres into Penzance would be on tarmac along a road, easier walking but why would we want to trudge along the coast alongside a road? We checked a local bus schedule. A bus would be along in a few minutes. It came and on we hopped. The driver kindly dropped us on the corner of the road to our hostel and right outside a pub. The other passengers waved us a kind good bye as they drove away.

I forgot to mention that now that we’ve passed Lands End we are on the south coast of Cornwall and the vegetation has changed. We walked through a forest today. The first one we’ve seen since leaving Bude. It wasn’t very big. We were through within a few minutes but it was a pleasant change of scenery. The hedges surrounding the path were really high so at times it was like walking in a roofless tunnel. The lack of view made these parts a bit boring. Because of the nearly invisible trail we needed to watch every step anyway so perhaps that was just as well.

A delightful interlude today came in the tiny cove of Penberth. We’d hiked down to the hamlet and there was a small fish boat being hauled up onto the shore. The winch man and the fisherman were a friendly pair who happily answered our questions and explained the modern and ancient workings of the winches used to haul the boats (called Coves) up out of the sea. It was a highlight of our day.

Tomorrow is a short day to Saint Michael’s Mount. Then we had two more days to Lizard Point before a day of travel to Avebury. We planned to leave from there the next day to begin the Ridgeway. This all seems a bit rushed and after today, we feel we’ve seen enough of this coast, so plan B is taking shape. We aren’t going to Lizard Point. Instead, we will travel to Avebury a day early and have a full day there before commencing phase three of this walking (hiking) extravaganza.

We’re currently relaxing in the pub where the bus dropped us. We’ll have dinner before walking the last kilometre to our hostel. Normally we’d have gone to our accommodation, showered and ditched the hiking boots before eating, but none of us feels like adding another two kilometres to this day.

So good night from “The Pirate.”