Tag 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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

A very British revolution: the creation of the National Parks

Seventy years ago Clement Attlee became Prime Minister. In the aftermath of the six long years of the Second World War the UK needed a new settlement fit for the future that could rebuild the morale and infrastructure of the country. As we all know the welfare state was born and this is now seen as one of the great reforming Governments that transformed people’s lives.

One of the less well known, but equally important aspects of six years of a very British revolution, was the huge strides that were made in opening up access to the countryside and beginning to create a system of protecting the wildlife that calls the British Isles home.

In 1949 a truly radical piece of legislation became law – the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act. It set a framework to establish the great National Parks of England and Wales, began the journey towards creating Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and addressed the needs of a network of public rights of way.

Two years later the Peak District became the first National Park and fifty-eight long years later the South Downs became the last of the original list of twelve to join the ranks of great national natural assets.

The journey towards this momentous passage of legislation was a long one. As the towns and cities of the industrial north and London expanded there was a recognition that we needed to protect our most treasured landscapes. Many of these special places were off limits because of private ownership. It was the mass trespass on to Kinder Scout (in Derbyshire) in 1932 that set in train a domino effect which led to the Attlee Government giving the full weight of the law to protecting our rights to enjoy these special places.

Seven decades on and it feels like the National Park movement is under huge strain. Its coffers are increasingly bare, i.e., it’s having to do the same or more with much less resource and staff, and the new Government has a taste for deregulation and a weakening of planning legislation.

The National Parks of England and Wales are our great natural lungs: places where you can go to play or just take a moment to get off the treadmill of life. Millions of us travel to them every year. I grew up spending many a happy day on Dartmoor – its bleak and unforgiving beauty engrained on my memory bank. I live in Bath surrounded by the Cotswold AONB and that wonderful escarpment.

When we think of the welfare state and that safety net for people in the UK we should include the consequences of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act. This is about our well-being and ability to spend time enjoying and being part of a wild landscape. Yes these places have been shaped by human activity and continue to be so but they provide a place to connect with nature and we need them now more than ever.

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.

Creating coastal corridors

Walking between Port Isaac and Port Quin on the rugged north Cornish coast is pretty special. A landscape battered and sculpted by the sea this undulating walk is part of the South West Coast Path that meanders 630 miles through four counties.

And yet go beyond the tourist hot spot that is the South West of England and the opportunity to wander our majestic coast is limited. That’s why the ambition to open up the whole of the coast of England is so important and the lessons from Wales show the benefits that it can bring.

Championed for years by the Ramblers and now enshrined in an Act of Parliament, passed in 2009, a footpath around the coastline of England, would link many of the jewels of this beautiful coast.

There is a need for the new Government to back the commitment made by the coalition, and the Deputy PM, Nick Clegg, back in September 2014 to deliver this by the end 2020. This means committing money and resource to allow Natural England to help deliver this exciting and ambitious project.

The Wales coastal footpath opened back in 2012, the first of its kind in the world, has made great strides in giving people access to hundreds of miles of shoreline rich in nature, archaeological and epic beauty. This is giving people the chance to see their coast anew and generating much needed income for coastal communities.

Over the Irish sea in Northern Ireland, the journey to create a footpath along its coastline is just beginning and would be a real boon for the tourist industry. I’ve been to Northern Ireland three times and its coastline is spectacular.

The Great Orme, 12/05/15. Photograph Richard Williams richardwilliamsimages@hotmail.com 07901518159

The Great Orme where the National Trust has bought Parc Farm and the wider grazing rights for this wildlife paradise. Picture: Richard Williams

Our history, cultural and the story of our nations has been shaped by the sea. In the last 50 years the National Trust’s Neptune Coastline Campaign has saved, thanks to a people-powered and very British revolution, hundreds of miles of coast; something that it still alive and kicking as seen by the announcement today that the Trust has bought a farm on the wildlife paradise that is the Great Orme in north Wales.

The next part of our coastal story needs to look at how we can create the space for people and nature. There is a need to look at the idea of coastal corridors, where footpaths can be moved as the coast changes and we can look to move habitats for nature. This would truly revolutionise our relationship with the coast.