Category Archives: Walking

Heading for a hillfort

For the last 15 years Solsbury Hill has been part of my life. Looming large in the distance it can be seen from my garden every time I leave the house. Sometimes it can be shrouded in mist and other times it glows in the warmth of the evening sunshine. It’s a view that I never tire of and it always feels so reassuring when I look across to this site of a former hillfort.

IMG_0221

Solsbury Hill in the distance on a sunny day

Standing on the summit of Solsbury you see why it made such a great place to set up home. Over hundreds of years it was a hillfort and you can follow its outline as you walk around, with views across to the Westbury Whitehorse and the rolling Wiltshire countryside to the east and the city of Bath to the west. I’ll often hear the sound of the skylark, a dot in the cloudless sky, or if I’m lucky catch its ascent from ground level.

And now this much loved hillfort is part of a new atlas that for the first time captures all 4,147 hillforts dotted across the landscape of the U.K and Ireland. Over the last 5 years researchers based at the universities of Edinburgh and Oxford, on this Arts and Humanities Research Council funded project, have been working to collate a wealth of data about these amazing places. Citizen scientists have also been helping to collect information for this treasure chest of an online resource.

Curiosity driven research projects like this can only enrich our understanding of history and having all of this exciting data in one portable place will help people to digitally connect with those story of hillforts where they live.

The beauty of this research project is that it showcases the whole range of hillforts that can be found in the countryside like pearls on a necklace. It takes you beyond the really well-known and much visited sites and demonstrates how fundamental these places have been to the story of these islands over hundreds of years. Scrolling across the map you get a sense of the density of hillforts in some places, that you’d expect, and how they have played such an important part in our national story.

Each hillfort catalogued in this atlas will have its very own story. Clambering over a hillfort you get a deep sense of connection with the people that lived there transporting you back in time. You start to take in the landscape that our ancestors would have seen, imagining a very different view with woodland dominating the horizon. Hillforts were built with a focus on defence and as you enter one you can see the careful thought that went into the access points.

Hambledon Hill in Dorset, which is now owned by the National Trust, was one of the last occupied hillforts in the UK – with a group called the Clubmen living there during the English civil war in the 17th century. The size and complexity of this place is mind boggling. Now it’s lightly grazed by cattle and home to countless wild flowers and fluttering butterflies.

Though this atlas is all about the celebration of hillforts there are also many challenges for them. Any hillfort situated on the coast is at risk of vanishing into the sea as our coastline begins to slowly erode. And some have also suffered at the hands of the plough over many centuries. For me this atlas is a clarion call for us all to visit these atmospheric places rich in history and wildlife; and we also need to champion them and care for them, so that future generations can immerse themselves in history.

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Corridors of wild power

When we think of places where we connect with nature our minds often turn to open fields, deep forests, mountain ranges or the rugged coastline.  Its a natural instinct in-built through thousands of years of tending the land that we associate nature with rural places. After all our diet of wildlife telly beamed into our living rooms or devoured on smartphones has a particular countryside bias.

And yet for most of us its the everyday experience of urban living where we can potentially connect with the natural world. However, in our busy, fast-paced and hard-pressed lives, we often miss the obvious signs of wildlife right in front of our eyes or beneath our feet.

The nature of our towns and cities means that wild oases can be found in the most unusual places. You just need the time and patience to look in the right places.

WP_20160516_13_00_40_Pro

Not far from where I work in Swindon there is a lane sandwiched between the mainline railway and an office car park. Its no more than a few hundred metres long and about 5-10 metres wide; and connects one of the station car parks and path into the centre of town. In reality its one of those non-descript places that people pass through in a hurry, either on their way to work or heading home.

This slightly unloved grey/green corridor, however, is full of wild life. Stroll along the footpath on a sunny day and the noise of the trains and hum of urban life drains away as the birds sing in full throttle, the bees buzz past in a real hurry and butterflies rest on nettles to soak up the sun.

WP_20160516_12_59_57_Pro

Over the last few weeks the foilage of the trees and hedgerows has come alive with hawthorn bursting into brilliant white and the mini meadows filling up with buttercups, dandelions and forget-me-nots. Blackbirds and robins have been getting busy building nests for the breeding season and the lane has come alive with cabbage white and orange tip butterflies.

WP_20160516_13_01_51_Pro

Throughout the rest of Spring and into Summer this will become a place where I go to get my fix of nature, to daydream and let the troubles of the world disappear.

WP_20160516_13_01_02_Pro

For me its these edgelands, these arteries of urban life, that can re-awaken people’s interest in nature. We can all find them near to where we work or live. Just take the time in a lunch break or on the way to home to linger and tune into the intensity of nature or just watch as insects fly this way and that.  It doesn’t matter whether you can identify the species you see; the act of just connecting with the wild place where you live will enrich your life.

Two feet good…the joy of wandering

Every month has its designation and now that we’re in the month of May its National Walking Month. Any initiative or campaign to encourage more people to walk is a good thing in my book.

For some people walking has an image problem. Think walking, think hikers, with all the latest kit, striding off into the countryside. We shouldn’t forget that its the people that have rambled the land for generations that helped open up our green and pleasant land for everyone and the mass trespass to Kinder Scout in the Peak District ultimately led to our network of wonderful National Parks.

I like to think of walking as the stuff of life. If I don’t have a daily wander it doesn’t feel like I’ve connected with the world around me. Yes you can see it in the narrow confine of how many steps that you’ve walked today but there is something plain nice about walking the streets of the place that you work or live.

Back at the start of April I began a new job. One of the first things that I did was to work out a few walking routes of different lengths. And as part of this detective work there was the real bonus of a footpath neighbouring the railway, nearby the office, which is a nature rich urban corridor – full of wildlife. As spring arrived so did the birdsong, trees bursting into leaf and the sight of butterflies on the wing.

We should all try and get walking more. Just set off from where you live and walk. See where it takes you. I can bet that you’ll find out so much more about the place where you call home. The pace is just right too, to take things in and to notice the buildings, the green spaces and the sounds that just flash by or you miss when driving past.

Walking is also a great time to think. Try to resist the urge to plug those headphones in and just let the soundscape inspire you. You can use a walk in the morning to plan your day or in the evening to download your day.

I still love a long distance walk (I’m in the midst of trying to complete the classic Cotswold Way with friends) but a ramble through some woods with my family or the walk to the station in the morning is just as rewarding. We’re made to walk and hopefully May will tempt a few more people to see that walking in good your body, soul and mind.

Wandering along Bath’s skyline

Bath is a pretty hilly place, which means that it has the advantage that if you get into the right spot you can catch some amazing views of this world-famous Georgian gem.

The lie of the land also means that while one minute you can be in the heart of  the city, in what feels like just a few footsteps you’re then deep in the countryside.

The Bath Skyline walk is a six mile circular route to the south of the river
Avon. It hugs the contours of the land, climbing high into places that
you feel like people have never been before. While I’ve walked the skyline
many times, it sometimes feels like this is a secret route only familiar to
Bath residents. Yet it has proved to have enduring appeal for thousands
of ramblers who have kept it top of the National Trust downloadable
walks poll year after year.

The great thing about a walk like the Skyline is that it can be divided
into sections that are manageable for families. Taking my two children,
aged 5 and 8, around the whole route would be a good day out.

You’d need plenty of stops and a rucksack full of snacks and lunch.
There are certainly plenty of things to keep the kids interested en
route from amazing ant hills to follies and the fantastic new natural play
area in Rainbow Wood. The sections where you climb out of the city
might be testing but nothing that a jelly baby-inspired quiz wouldn’t
solve. So it’s worth planning ahead and thinking about where you start
the walk or whether you maybe aim to complete it in sections.

In the autumn Bath looks spectacular. That golden glow of the low afternoon sun and the changing of the leaves as they turn red, yellow or brown is pretty special. There is also the promise of some blackberry picking along the walk.

Starting somewhere near to Bathwick Hill always seems the best option for walking the whole route, plus it has the advantage of getting the big climb out of the way first.

As you pass Smallcombe Farm you really do feel a world away from a busy city and that you’re in the heart of the Cotswolds. Walking up the hills, it’s worth remembering to simply stop every now and then and take in the fantastic views. I always find that a treasure hunt or encouraging children to take pictures as they go keeps up the momentum for trickier parts.

As you reach the flatlands above Bath you’re just to the east of Prior Park. This landscape would look very different today if it wasn’t in Trust hands as it had been eyed as a location for development in the 1960s.

The undisputed highlight of the Skyline walk is getting nearer. In the last few years the creation of a natural playground in Rainbow Woods has been a big hit with families. Before you get to the old quarry, check out the lovely little
fairy doors trail and then the energy levels of the children will rise as they spot the den-building area, rope swing and assault course.

This is a great spot for some lunch and about half way around the walk. If you have younger kids then it’s probably best to plot a shorter walk based around the natural play area. For families walking the whole route I’d definitely recommend some sort of quiz and treasure hunt.

Leaving Rainbow Woods you pass near to the Bath Cats and Dogs home, round  the back of the University and through an old quarry before emerging with
fantastic views of Solsbury Hill.

It’s all downhill now past Sham Castle, which is worth a detour, and through a patchwork of small meadows. In the autumn some of the walk can be pretty muddy so walking boots or wellies are the order of the day.

The Bath Skyline is for me one of those walks which can become part of a family memory bank. You can give parts of the route family names and as the children grow they will start to spot the richness of the landscape and get to know a lovely
city and its green and pleasant land.

This blog first appeared in the September/October edition of The Bath and Wiltshire Parent Magazine

A butterfly oasis

On the south west corner of the Isle of Wight is a butterfly oasis. Not since a trip to the Pyrenees in France four years ago have I seen so many butterflies in such a short space of time.

Yes on a lovely summers day and in the right spot you might see a pretty health number of these symbols of summer. But to be almost tripping over them and not knowing where to look as there are so many butterflies is a rarity.

Adonis blue sparkle on a late summers day

Adonis blue sparkle on a late summers day.         Photo: Matthew Oates

Walking up a chalky track which forms part of the Tennyson trail on a glorious September day I was blown away by this wonderful spectacle. The warmth of the day had created the perfect conditions for lots of zig-zagging butterflies flying across the track or those chilling out and soaking up the sun.

As we headed west towards Compton Down I caught sight of an Adonis blue, then a Common blue and to complete the trio a Chalkhill blue; all in a matter of minutes. Everywhere you looked there were butterflies.

Chalk downland is the perfect habitat for butterflies but you have to get the management right. Compton Down on the Isle of Wight is one of the top, if not the top, sites for butterflies that the National Trust looks after. Grazing the slopes, in this case using Galloway cattle, forms an important part of creating the perfect conditions for butterflies to flourish.

By the time we’d reached the top of Brook Down I felt slightly punch drunk with it all. This was the best butterflying that I’d done in the UK and all in barely twenty minutes. I can safely say that I’d walked through a wildlife paradise.

Walking home: a time to download the day and connect

Several times a week I get dropped off from my car share about two thirds of a mile from my house. The walk home is a great time to download the day but also begin to retune in to the world around me after a day in the office (with a short break of fresh air at lunchtime if I’m lucky).

Like the majority of people a fair chunk of my day is spent staring of screens of varying sizes or sat in meetings. The modern working world for office workers isn’t that conducive to feeling the warmth of the sun on your face or just sitting on a bench and watching the world go by.

So the walk home is a great time for me to connect to the wildlife that lives in Bath and quite simply – begin to unwind.

In effect every time I walk home I’m following the route of my own little self-guided nature trail. For me connecting with nature in my own local neighbourhood is pretty important. It feels like I’m unpacking another layer of the place that I live, seeing and hearing things differently. That is the joy of walking: that ability to connect and immerse yourself in a place.

Yes there is the background noise of the rush hour but it doesn’t take much to tune into a different soundtrack. It’s so important to take the time to listen and look. If you just speed from A to B in a great rush you’re missing out on so much.

My journey home takes me through a little wooded garden in a local church, through an allotment and a green space called Beacon Hill, a small triangle of common land (I’m always intrigued to think who might have the commoners rights and that one day I’ll find a flock of sheep grazing). Then it’s downhill past a woody hill, down a grassy bank (that has escaped the attention of the mowers) and the breathtaking views over Bathampton Meadows and Solsbury Hill.

It’s a walk that changes dramatically as the seasons pass but feels like a re-assuring constant in my life. I never tire of this walk and yes I’m lucky that Bath is so green but if we take to the time to use our senses even the most urban of places has nature lurking, moving in where we’ve moved out.

The nature of Bath City Farm

When we tell our kids that we’re going for a walk, the fairly standard response involves the phrase ‘do we have to?’

But if you say we’re going to Bath City Farm for a walk you get a much more positive response as it starts and finishes with the farm animals.

Kids love walking through mud in their wellies and this lovely little walk around Bath City Farm keeps them going

Kids love walking through mud in their wellies and this lovely little walk around Bath City Farm keeps them going

The one-mile circular family nature trail around this countryside gem within the city of Bath has something for everyone. Its distance is just about right, there are amazing views towards the Royal Crescent and there is loads of great wildlife to look out for. In fact the best thing about this walk is that just when you think the kids are starting to flag something pops up to re-charge their batteries and they skip across the fields.

Celebrating twenty years in 2015 Bath City Farm is the biggest in the South West of England. Amazingly it’s been used for agriculture since farming began thousands of years ago and has a really important role in connecting people with food and farming.

Starting where the Gloucester Old Spot pigs live the nature trail heads westward along an easy access path; often sheep, cows or the Shetland ponies can be found grazing in the field.

When you walk through a kissing gate into Keltson Copse there is a little bench, slightly hidden from view, and it’s worth the slight detour to have a quick sit down. This is a great spot to gaze out across the cityscape looking for well-known landmarks. And as you continue on your journey you feel like you’re in your own secret little kingdom with loads of wildflowers, lichens and mosses clinging to the trees. You’ll also be able to tune into the birdsong that fills the woods with sweet melodies.

Then you either head towards the hobbit trees or take a shortcut down the hill along a line of majestic beech trees planted in 1830 to act as a windbreak against the south-westerly winds. In the spring this is where you’ll find the bluebells and look up for those beautiful luminous green leaves on the trees. By autumn they’ll have crisped up into golden browns and even in winter they look stunning.

The hobbit trees are great as the kids can get right into them and look out for beetles or ladybirds. Heading back towards the farm you follow the line of a classic hedgerow. There is something really special about hedgerows: the skill involved in laying them and the wonderful diversity of the things that you can find in them from hazel to hawthorn.

A great new addition to this walk is a woodland play area near the line of beech trees. With two ropes swings and a suspended walk way between the trees, this is a great natural spot for a snack and drink.

As you walk towards the southern slopes of the farm you get a real sense of the patchwork of fields, all with their own names such as Maiden Furlong or Broads Sideland. En route to the pond there is a disused air raid shelter where a family of foxes has moved in to bring up their young.

Ponds are like magnets for children. The scale is just right for them and you never know what might be lurking in the water. It is a great place to stop, stand still and see what moves. Frogs, newts and dragonflies all call this place home and in the summer you can see the beautiful yellow flag iris and water lilies – a great chance to get the camera out.

From here you’re nearly there, walking past the community allotments, orchard planted a couple of years ago and the field of sheep. Then you’re back at when you began with the goats and hens.

An edited version of this article first appeared in the Bath and Wiltshire Parent Magazine