Saturday, 27 December 2014

I can walk 1000 miles ...

...  But I would walk 500 miles
And I would walk 500 more
Just to be that (wo)man who walked 1000 miles
Just to fall down achey and sore ...

Ok, enough of the song butchery and apologies to The Proclaimers, but seriously ... could I walk 1000 miles?

I used to get out walking every weekend. Sometimes on both days. I'd spend a lot of my holidays walking too. 1000 miles over the course of a year was easily achievable. But over the last few years, life has got in the way and my walking has got less and less. Now I rarely walk at the weekend and I've been doing less of it in my holidays (apart from my long walk in the Arctic last summer, that is).

When I walked regularly I really noticed the benefits. As well as being a generally enjoyable activity, I was fitter, less stressed and felt like I had more energy. I also felt more in tune with the time of year as I noticed the subtle changes as the seasons morphed from one to the next. It didn't matter whether I walked alone or with others, each had its additional benefits. Walking alone gave me time to think; walking with a friend or two gave me time for chit-chat and enabled us to catch up with each other's lives; walking in a group was sociable with lots of light-hearted banter. I miss all of this and really want to get this important part of my life back.

Last year Country Walking magazine challenged readers to walk 1000 miles over the course of the year. To ensure this wasn't too easy a challenge it could only include proper walks and not strolls up and down the aisles of Tesco. It doesn't have  to be done in one epic hike but can be walks fitted in at lunchtimes and at weekends. I had too much going on at the beginning of last year to even think about taking on something like this, but as a strong believer in the philosophy of 'better late than never', I'm going to challenge myself to do it this year.

For it to be a proper challenge, I need a few rules. Here are the ones I've come up with so far. I may need to adapt them or add to them as I go along.

1) I will include walks of 2 miles and above so long as it's a continuous walk and not 2 miles over the course of a whole day, in which I'm stopping and starting all the time. To monitor this I will set the time limit of 2 hours for a 2 mile walk. This may seem like a long time, but it will allow for walks in which I walk a mile to get to somewhere interesting, spend some time exploring and then walk a mile back. For walks over 6 miles I won't set a time limit so long as it is completed within the same day.

2) No bonus points for hills or tricky terrain. Clocking up the miles is the only thing that counts.

3) City walks can be included as long as they are proper walks such as circumambulating the city walls, taking part in a guided walk or following a themed trail (e.g. a Dickens' trail in London).Wandering round the shops does not count.
4) Pounding the treadmill in the gym doesn't count.

And, well, that's it really. Simple.

1000 miles shouldn't be difficult to achieve physically. My problems are usually with time, but having a goal to aim for will hopefully make me prioritise walking and give me some extra incentive.

Here are some maths:

1000 / 52  = 19.2 miles per week
1000 / 12 = 83.3 miles per month

On an average weekend I should be able to walk on at least one day. If I do a 10 mile walk that leaves another 9.2 miles to be walked during the week. I could try to walk 2 miles each day, or try two mid-week 5 mile walks. Of course there will be weeks when I can't do this, but as long as I achieve it most weeks, then the slack can be taken up on holidays when I'm more likely to walk every day.

I'll set up a spreadsheet to note down each walk and for extra incentive I'll include a countdown column.

I'm going to make a good start by kicking off the new year with a walk on New Year's Day. Better stop messing about on my computer and get those maps out and start plotting and planning.

You can find the link to the original challenge here.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

The Thames Path - Marlow to Henley

I had to drive home from Kent on Saturday and as it was such a beautiful day, despite being the first day of November, I really didn't feel like spending it sitting on the M25 and the M6. Instead I detoured to Marlow and spent the day walking along the Thames to Henley and only completed my drive in the evening. 

I parked in Marlow as this is an easy place to return to by bus from Henley and the street parking is free. I had wanted to walk from Bourne End as this was where I'd had to finish when I walked the Thames Path at New Year and flooding prevented me getting through to Marlow. Backtracking to Bourne End from Marlow proved quite difficult as the trains were only every two hours and my timing was out. I didn't want too late a start as I knew I'd have to be finished by 5pm as it's getting dark so early since the clocks went back last week. I never thought to check out the buses, so with hindsight maybe I could have got there. But not to worry, I'll try to do this 'missing section' next time.

Marlow was buzzing with Saturday morning activity. The sun was out and so were the people. Some were wandering up and down the high street, others wandering by the river. The local park was full of families with young, and not-so-young, children and the ice-cream van was doing a roaring trade.

I popped into the church, an impressive building with a chequer-board tower just by the river. All Saints was rebuilt in 1835, replacing a 12th century church. Inside I met a sprightly old lady who spotted my walking boots and informed me brightly that she was 93 years old, and not so brightly, that she'd recently had to give up walking as an activity. Her face momentarily clouded over as she remembered the day she'd taken her boots to the thrift shop. She brightened as she added that she's still driving and still attending yoga and aerobics classes regularly. Feeling inspired, and determined to make the most of my next fifty years' walking before I have to hand my boots over to the charity shop, I strode down to the river and started walking west.

A man sat on the river bank shouting commands and encourgement through a loudspeaker to rowers whizzing past making it look easy. Large boats with families and groups on board chugged past, not allowed to exceed 4 knots per hour. 


Bisham Church soon came into view on the opposite bank. Next to it, one of the UK's National Sports Centres can be found at Bisham Abbey, the 13th century manor house near the church which replaced the original priory. It was on this stretch of the Thames that poet Percy Shelley spent his time bobbing about in a skiff whilst writing about a boat and river in 'The Revolt of Islam'. 

Passing Temple Mill Island, I soon reached Temple Lock. A young couple were launching dinghies which they then paddled out of the lock and downriver. I sat and ate a sandwich, watching a boat pass through the lock as I enjoyed the sun on my face. 

Remembering I still had a lot of walking to do before I'm 93 I didn't linger for long and was soon off towards Hurley Lock and Islands. First I had to cross to the other bank using Temple Bridge which, with a span of just under 50 metres, is Britain's longest hardwood footbridge. Once at Hurley Lock I followed the path over a shorter bridge to reach Hurley Island, then walked the length of the island before crossing back to the towpath.

The path, which so far had led through trees and was deeply littered with autumnal leaves, now took me across open meadowland and fields. Looking back, the opposite bank rose into a high cliff with a mansion house sitting right at the top. This is Danesfield, named after the Danes who built a fortification in the field here. The present-day mansion is a hotel. 

A large caravan park lay to my left, the river was to my right. Large, expensive-looking houses soon came into view and the path joined a road labelled as private. The houses were to the left of the road and what seemed to be private gardens alongside the river were to its right. I puzzled for a moment, before realising that the path doesn't follow the road, but actually goes right by the river through the gardens. A couple of them had seats, lanterns and potted plants and looked like wonderful little spots for sitting and reading or just watching the world go by. 

Medmenham Abbey soon came into sight across the river. The Abbey had been founded in 1201, but all that remains of the original building is one derelict tower. The rest has been rebuilt over the years and now forms a luxury hotel. In the 1700s it became infamous as a meeting place for Sir Francis Dashwood's notorious Hell Fire Club. Members became known as 'Franciscans of Medmenham' after their host was said to have performed obscene parodies of religious rites there. 

Walking through more meadowland and crossing several bridged ditches led me to Culham Court. The strange looking sheep I saw from a distance turned out to be a very large herd of mostly white deer. A few were browner with spots and as far as I can make out they were fallow deer. I could be completely wrong on this. The house with its sixty-five surrounding acres is a privately owned family home, bought by financier Urs Schwarzenbach and his wife Francesca in 2006 for £38 million. 


After passing in front of the house the path then veers away from the river to reach the small village of Aston. The Flower Pot pub is a local landmark with chickens running around the garden. Outside was the largest pumpkin I'd ever seen. It was carved for Halloween and the inside could easily have held a small child. I touched it to check as I couldn't quite believe it to be real.

Walking from the pub along Ferry Lane to return to the river I passed several more huge pumpkins. One had an array of 'normal' sized pumpkins around it which looked tiny in comparison.

Back at the river, it was through a kissing gate and just a short way along a grassy path until Hambleden Mill came into sight. A long weir glinted in the low sun, backed by a splendid display of autumn colour. Realising I'd easily make it to Henley before dark, I sat awhile on a bench scoffing a snack and looking at my map. 

Greenlands was the next mansion to appear. White and palatial it stood proudly on the opposite bank, facing the river, and making me think of the White House in Washington DC. It had been built in 1853 for bookseller and First Lord of the Admiralty W H Smith. These days it houses Henley College. 

The sun was started to set behind the trees as I approached Temple Island. This is the start of the Henley Royal Regatta which runs to Henley Bridge. The 'temple' on the island, now a private fishing lodge, was designed in 1771 by James Wyatt who added frescoes inside. It was originally built as a folly to draw the eye to the view from Fawley Court which is situated a little further upstream. 


Facing Fawley Court is the hamlet of Remenham with its 19th century church. It was built to replace a Norman church and has its apse built on the line of its Norman predecessor. 

Houses and dog-walkers started to appear more frequently alongside the path and, rounding a bend, Henley itself came into view. The light was fading now and lights on the bridge and in the shops and houses along the bank produced bobbing gold reflections in the water. A raft of ducks, strung out in single-file, were out for a final swim of the day. I walked into Henley as the town was closing up for the evening. A bus was waiting at the stop when I arrived and twenty minutes later I was back in Marlow. 


Distance: approximately 8.5 miles.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Researching and writing

After a lot of research into travel books (good excuse to do lots of reading) I've come to the conclusion that most books have around 200 pages and 100,000 words. Give or take 10-20%. This is reassuring because this is what I'm aiming for with the book I'm trying to write at the moment. I'm not looking at bestselling travel writers as they tend to have much longer books, but more the sort of writers you only discover when researching books on a particular region or way of travelling.

At the moment I'm about a third of the way there with around 32,000 words. I've divided the writing of my first draft into three phases:

Phase one was typing up my diary notes. I kept quite a detailed diary as I was walking, but as I was hand-writing and, more importantly, not wanting to add a huge notebook to my load, it was in note form. My typing up in phase one involved writing it up into proper sentences and paragraphs rather than just copying up notes. As I'm a fairly fast typist this was completed quite quickly.

I'm now working on phase two, which is much slower going. Phase two involves the factual side of my walk and means lots of research. One of my USPs (unique selling points) is that the book will be useful for anyone planning, or thinking about, a walk along the Kungsleden. Although it's not intended as a guidebook, I do want to get quite a lot of solid information into it. One of the reasons I wanted to write this book is because so few people in the English speaking world are aware of this walk and there is very little written on it in English. The very reason I want to write the book is also the reason my research is going quite slowly - there's very little written on it in English.

I'm finding quite a lot on the internet, but it tends to be in Swedish. Although I picked up a few Swedish words, my language skills are definitely not of the proficiency needed for reading Swedish websites. I'm ploughing through, picking out the words I know and finding myself doing a complicated process of translating into English via Dutch. Yes, Dutch. When I was in Scandinavia in February I noticed how a lot of the words in both Danish and Swedish seemed to share a similar root to Dutch. I don't speak Dutch, but my Dutch vocabulary is far more extensive than my Swedish vocabulary and whilst I was travelling over the summer I found this came in very useful. I'm finding it just as useful now. When I've read through a page and got the gist of it in Dutch and English (Dutlish?), I'll put any relevant bits into Google translate to double-check. Although it comes up with a few strange translations and the word order is sometimes rather jumbled, I'm quite impressed with it. I wouldn't use it to translate anything of importance, say a legal document, but for my purpose it's fine.

Once I've done some research and made my own notes, I'm then inserting this into whichever part of my draft I think it'll best fit. This is all taking quite a long time. I'm aiming to have roughly 50,000 words by the end of the phase two. That'll be half the book dedicated to my first USP. Only 18,000 words to go then ...

Phase three will be dedicated to my second USP which is something along the lines of stressed, middle-aged woman/teacher gives up job and goes for a long walk in the Arctic wilderness. I think I'm going to enjoy writing this part. Not that I'm not enjoying what I'm doing at the moment, but I'm conscious of time and want to get as much done as possible before the need to pay bills means I have to go back to work. 

Of course, once it's all done, that's only really the start of it. My first draft will be a collection of disorganised ramblings and will be in need of some serious editing. But I'll cross that bridge when I come to it.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Why won't my balloon fly?

Three times a friend and I have booked a hot air balloon flight and each time it's been cancelled because of the weather. I knew when I first bought the voucher for this that balloons are dependent on the weather, but I didn't realise just how perfect the weather has be.

Wind, rain, storms, temperature and visibility all affect whether the balloon can be flown and some even affect whether or not it can be inflated.

  • The optimum speed for a balloon flight is 4-6 miles per hour.
  • The balloon is inflated with cold air using a fan. The fabric of the balloon is basically a giant sail and winds over 6 miles per hour can make it difficult to fill the balloon. The wind will cave the side of the balloon in and cause it to roll around and drag anything it may be attached to. This can damage the balloon and basket as well causing harm to participants.
  • The wind has to be blowing in the right direction - the balloon can't be steered in a particular direction and so the pilot has to be sure it won't be blown into an area that could be unsafe or where there aren't any suitable landing sites. Unsuitable areas include: built-up areas; wooded areas; large bodies of water; and restricted air space.
  • Once airborn, if the wind speed is less than 4 miles per hour, the balloon won't really go anywhere. If it is more than 6 miles per hour, it can be blown off course, over-reach the landing place, and will also need more space to land. The basket may bounce along the ground, eventually tipping over, before the balloon comes to a standstill. A balloon doesn't have brakes and relies on the friction caused between the basket and the ground to slow it down and bring it to a stop. The balloon will be travelling at whatever speed the wind is. The stronger the wind the more friction will need to be built to bring it to a standstill and the further the balloon will need to travel along the ground.
  • Just because the wind seems ideal at ground level, doesn't mean it's not blowing a lot faster higher up. The pilot will not only check the wind speeds at ground level and at the level you will be flying at, but also wind speeds much higher up as these could drop to the flying level during the flight, or cause other problems such as turbulance.
  • There must be no fronts in the area where the balloon is being launched and flown. Fronts usually come with a change in wind direction or increased wind speeds.
  • Balloons do not fly at night or in fog.
  • There needs to be at least 1-3 miles visibility depending on the area and the hazards and the terrain.

  • Rain can damage the balloon as well as decreasing visibility.
  • There must be no thunderstorms within 100 miles of the launch point.
  • Thunderstorms present hazards to any type of aircraft, but balloons are affected most of all. A plane can turn around and fly away from a storm; a balloon will get sucked in to it.
  • Not only is there the chance of lightning striking the balloon, but gusts of wind can occur up to 100 miles away from a storm.
  • Hot air is lighter than cold air and so rises. The air inside the balloon is heated and this causes the balloon to rise up through the colder outside air. If it is very warm outside it may not be possible to heat the inside of the balloon to a temperature that is sufficiently higher than the outside temperature.

So there you have it. With the weather needing to be SO perfect, it's a wonder anyone ever get to go on a balloon flight at all.

Friday, 26 September 2014

Goalless Walking

I mentioned previously that my long walk in Sweden had given me a new mindset on walking. So, what would that be then?

In the past I've always seen a walk as a kind of challenge: a list of places to be ticked off; a certain time to get somewhere; a set-in-stone quota of miles to be covered. This hasn't been something I've done consciously as my main reason for walking has always been that it's something I enjoy. But because I do enjoy my walks, I've always found it easy to get distracted. I'll sit and gaze at an idyllic view for twenty minutes, then spend another ten minutes trying to take a perfect photograph of a leaf. Add in distractions like tea-rooms, old churches or obscure little museums and my walk can easily take twice as long as it's 'supposed' to. Although I finish my walk happy, I'll have a little niggle at the back of my mind telling me that I haven't done well enough. On the other hand, when I have to rush to finish the walk to make sure I'm in time for the last bus or that the gates on the car park aren't locked, then I don't feel so happy. I feel like I've missed out.

It should be obvious really shouldn't it? That I should walk with the intention of doing what I want, when I want and enjoying myself rather than trying to achieve some self-imposed target. However, it took a long walk in the Arctic with plenty of thinking time for me to figure this out. 

At first I was concerned that I wasn't putting enough miles in each day; that I was starting too late in the morning; that I was taking too many gorgeous-view breaks. I justified it by telling myself I'd never be here again. If I don't absorb the view fully, or camp at that amazing spot by the waterfall and enjoy pottering around in the sun the next morning, I'll never get another chance. In the Peak District, I can always nip back for another look. In Swedish Lapland? Not so easy. Not when I have to take a plane, then a very long train journey, then a bus ride of several hours to the end of the nearest road, and then walk for a few days to get there. It's easier to come back and walk a part of the trail I haven't touched on, than it is to go back to the sections I've already walked just to see a bit here and a bit there because I rushed it first time round.

Once these thoughts started to sink in I began to relax and enjoy myself a lot more. I was learning to stop feeling guilty about something that there was no reason to feel guilty about anyway. I met lots of Swedish people, including some quite young ones. Although some were rushing along with only a few days to complete a long section of the trail, others were enjoying moving slowly and making the most of their time spent in the wilderness. Rather than rushing from target to target, their goal was to find a nice campsite, cook some good food and chill.

Swedes seem to have a different attitude to the great outdoors. From an early age, it's quite normal to spend time walking, carrying a pack, wild camping and jumping in rivers for a wash. Have you ever tried walking with a five-year-old? If so, you'll know how long it can take to even get a few hundred metres down the road. Everything is fascinating to them. They have to turn every stone, pick up every stick and sometimes sample every worm. Give them a backpack to carry and the chance of finding bits of reindeer antler in the stream beds and you've no chance of getting very far. This is fine. The point of the trip isn't to walk a long way, but to enjoy being in the wilderness.

Once they hit their teens they're chomping at the bit to get out there with their mates. No grown-ups allowed. And you know what? The grown-ups are fine with this. They walk a bit further than when they were younger, but still seem to get far more out of 'just being there' than they do for breaking records of distance or speed walked.

As adults, the annual trip to the wilderness is a time to de-stress away from busy lives in Stockholm or other cities. It's quality time with family and friends, or time to be perfectly alone with no-one else to worry about. Yes they have targets; goals they want to achieve, but the targets are not the main reason for being there. 

So why do I always have this feeling of needing to achieve a goal? Is it a general British attitude to walking? There's no point doing it unless you're going to achieve something? I don't think I'm alone in feeling this. Is it because we don't have any 'real' wilderness to spend days alone in? Even the remotest parts of Scotland are not that far from civilisation. I could have driven to the Highlands three times in the time it took just for the train journey from Stockholm to Lapland. Does this mean we never really shed our city feelings of targets, goals and everything at a specific time? Is it because walking is an 'adult' pastime and so we never have the opportunity to learn lessons from five-year-olds about the joy of going slowly? I know some Brits will take their children on short walks, but I don't know any who wouldn't shudder at the thought of taking them into the wilderness for two weeks at a time.

My time in the wilderness has taught me that the goal of not having a goal can be the best goal to have. Of course sometimes it's good to challenge yourself; to keep yourself on your toes rather than sat on your bum taking yet another gorgeous-view break. And sometimes there is no choice in the matter. Why do so many last buses depart at 5pm even in the long, light summer evenings?

So how am I going to apply these lessons now I'm home? I'll still walk according to other people's criteria, whether that's people I meet (it only took us three hours) or what the guide-book says. Or, more importantly, what the bus timetable says. But I also want to walk without a plan or goal. To just wander wherever I think looks interesting. To stop when I want and where I want for however long I want. Will I achieve this goal? Or am I just setting myself another target that I'll feel guilty about not achieving? Is it even possible to have a target of not having a target? Watch this space ...

When your campsite looks like this, why would you be in a hurry to leave?

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

I've returned ... what next?

I've been home for about 10 days now and I'm slowly getting myself sorted out. As planned, I've spent the summer on a long walk in a long country. I aimed to walk the Kungsleden trail in the far north of Sweden and managed to complete just under half of it before my knees gave out. Although it's disappointing not to have finished the whole thing, I really enjoyed what I did and developed a whole new mindset towards walking. I'll write more about that in another post. I've also got an excuse to go back next year.

Before I went to Sweden, I left my job. Drastic but sometimes these things have to be done. I was getting less and less time to do the things I want to do with my life and to spend time with the people I want to spend time with. Work was, quite literally, taking over my life. I feel a lot calmer and more in control of my life since finishing work. Unfortunately, as I'm not a rich heiress or lottery winner, and I don't have a sugar-daddy to hand, I'll have to find some other means of earning a living. But this time I want it to be on my terms. In the meantime I want to spend some time focussing on things I want to achieve personally.

One of the items on my list is to write a book. I've had ideas roaming around inside my head for years, but they've never seemed quite right when I've come to put them down on paper. My time walking in the wilderness gave me lots of thinking time and I now feel I have the right ideas for a book. I had thought about writing up the walk even when I was at the planning stages. There is very little written on it in English so I'd hope it would be helpful to others wanting to do something similar. This would be one of my USPs. Yes, I've been reading up on what helps a piece of writing to sell and found out all about the need for a USP (Unique Selling Point). I have two USPs. Is that a good thing? The first, as mentioned, concerns the lack of writing about this trail that is currently available in English. The second goes something along the lines of 'stressed, middle-aged woman gives up job and goes off alone for a wander round the Arctic'.

I kept quite detailed diaries whilst I was away and I'm now in the process of writing them up and adding to them. As I read back over them and think about fleshing them out, the book is almost writing itself in my mind. I have so many ideas. I think I'm almost glad I only completed half the walk as I definitely have enough material for one book already!

Monday, 21 April 2014

A long walk in a long country

So I was lying in bed, sipping a mug of coffee, flicking through my Lonely Planet Guide to Sweden, thinking about getting up and actually doing something. I really hadn't got the use out of my LP Sweden as I only bought it to use for a few days and it turned out there were only a couple of pages dedicated to Malmo where I was planning to go. In fact, so little of the book concerned Malmo I did something I have never done before. After much deliberation I decided I really didn't want to carry the whole book around, didn't have time to copy the relevant pages and so, I'm really struggling to say this, I (deep breath) ripped the pages out. Now I was thinking I really should get some more use out of this mutilated book.

Malmo is right at the bottom of Sweden, just over the Oresund Bridge from Copenhagen. It's a very nice place in what seems to be a very nice and very long country. As I've been to one end, maybe I should go to the other end? And as the other end is in the actual real Arctic as soon as this idea popped into my head, it seemed like a very good idea indeed. I turned to the Arctic section of the book and the page fell open on the description of a very long walk in this very long country.

The walk is called the Kungsleden Trail (means the King's Trail or the Royal Trail, depending who you believe) and the whole thing is over 400km through beautiful wilderness. Ok then, that's my summer holiday planned. My very long walk in this very long country will take place during the very long days of summer (are you seeing a theme yet?)

A few weeks later sitting in brother's kitchen in Germany I had time to do a bit more research. Apart from a few blogs and the official website and one not very well-known guidebook, there's very little written on it in English. This is all part of the attraction. It's something not many Brits either know about or will have done. I'm sold.

Friday, 10 January 2014

Thames Path - Maidenhead to Bourne End

Friday 3rd January, 2014

Today I planned to walk from Maidenhead to Marlow but things didn't quite work out as I'd hoped. I drove to Marlow and found free street parking just round the corner from the train station. I caught the train to Maidenhead so I could continue my walk from where I'd left off yesterday. 

Taken from the train window

From the train window I could see an awful lot of flooding. It was worst on what would be the last section of my walk from Bourne End to Marlow. The Thames had overflowed so much that what should be green parkland running alongside the riverbank was completely under water. I could see the tops of park benches looking as though they were planted mid-river ready for any passing swimmers to take a semi-submerged rest. I couldn't see any option for getting round the flooded area as it was bordered by the fenced-off train tracks. The railway fortunately ran along the top of a higher bank, otherwise it would have been under water too. I had a feeling my walk would have to end at Bourne End, though I didn't want to make a decision until I'd actually got there and checked it out. 

Arriving in Maidenhead, I made my way down to the river. According to the official tourism website, Maidenhead is one of the most affluent areas of the UK with house prices often exceeding those of Central London. It goes on to give the reasons for this as being the ease of commuting into London from here, plus the proximity of the Thames countryside. There were some very posh houses along the riverbank and a few old buildings around the town centre, but on the whole it didn't do it for me. It was too bland. If I had money, Maidenhead would not be high on my list of desirable locations to reside in. 

Crossing the bridge to the far side of the river, I set off walking. The first part of the path on this section leads through a manicured riverside park. This soon turns into a roadside walk before reaching Boulter's Lock. The lock is the longest and deepest on the Thames. At one time it was also the busiest. 

The path was muddy with puddles, but I wasn't wading through long stretches of water as I'd had to do on my first day of walking. The Thames was very high though. I saw a lovely house on the far bank; it looked really idyllic and serene, but the serenity seemed to be finely balanced with impending doom. Another day or two of rain and the scales would be weighted on the side of doom as the bank would be breached and everywhere flooded. An elderly man was sat on the decking looking as though he was enjoying the bit of sun, but I wondered what was really going through his mind.*

Not long after this house, the grounds of Cliveden appeared on the opposite bank. Cliveden, a large mansion house, is a luxury hotel. In its former life as a private house it was the home of Nancy Astor who was known for her holding of lavish parties. Anyone who was anyone attended including Charlie Chaplin, Winston Churchill, Gandhi, Lawrence of Arabia, Rudyard Kipling, Henry James, A J Balfour ... the list goes on. It gained notoriety in 1961 when it became the background setting for the Profumo Affair. Christine Keeler met John Profumo here and they began an illicit affair. As he was the Conservative Secretary for War and she was having a simultaneous affair with a suspected Russian spy, and it was the height of the Cold War, the resulting scandal brought down the government.

Although the house is now a private hotel, the grounds are owned by the National Trust and a few years ago I spent a pleasant afternoon wandering around them. From my side of the river today, I could see very little. Knowing how lovely the grounds are made me wonder what else I might be missing out on by being on this side of the river. But of course, if I was on the other side of the river, I'd be thinking the same about this side. Ah well, grass is greener and all of that. I continued walking. 


Next up was Cookham. Here the path detours from the river to pass through the small town. Cookham is usually associated with painter Stanley Spencer and there is a small gallery here dedicated to his works. Although Spencer painted on an array of themes he is probably best known for his biblical paintings created with Cookham as the backdrop. I'd been into the gallery on a previous visit and so with the days being so short, and not knowing if I'd face a long detour further on, I didn't linger and followed the path through the churchyard. 

The dramatic statues of angels in the churchyard made me think of the Weeping Angels in Doctor Who, though I'm sure their sculptor meant for them to be figures of other-worldly goodness and not scary other-worldly creatures who preyed on humans and zapped them back in time. 


Meeting the river again the path continued along soggy grass to Bourne End. Houses, boats and small jetties lined both sides of the river. Crossing the  railway bridge the path continues on the far side of the river. This is where I came to the area I'd seen from the train window. The water was sloshing deeply along the path and I knew that this wasn't a short stretch I could easily wade through, but continued most of the way to Marlow. I wandered into the town away from the path to look for an alternative route, but with the railway line now between me and the path I would have had a pointless walk along the main road if I was to continue. Instead I made my way to Bourne End train station for the ride back to Marlow and my van.

*As it happened, a month after my walk the banks broke and the news was full of properties along the Thames being underwater. I didn't see my little blue house on the news, but it's hard to imagine it surviving unscathed.

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Thames Path - Windsor to Maidenhead

Thursday 2nd January, 2014

It's always difficult timing walks at this time of year. I had a fairly long drive to Maidenhead, but didn't want to leave early and sit in rush hour traffic. On the other hand, without an early start, there aren't many walking hours before dusk. However, I think I got my timing right and had an easy drive to a multi-storey car park in Maidenhead town centre. I popped into a bakery to buy a pasty and ask for directions to the train station. Ticket bought, I was soon on the train to Windsor. 

I've been to Windsor several times in the past and so didn't feel the need to spend time poking around. I took a few photos of the castle and headed for the bridge across to Eton. I did digress from the Thames Path to take a quick walk up to the top of Eton High Street and back and took a few photos of the school. 

Formally known as Eton College this is the posh public school Princes William and Harry attended. Apart from the princes, it has also been responsible for the education of nineteen British Prime Ministers including current PM David Cameron. Oh, and Bear Grylls was a pupil here too. Does that mean he'll be Prime Minister one day? As it's the Christmas holidays, if there were any future prime ministers wandering around, I couldn't tell because they were not in the long-tailed jackets and pin-striped trousers that comprise the school uniform.

Back at the river, I turned right and continued along the path. Walking over a grassy meadow along the bank I passed under the railway bridge and over a footbridge on to a small island. The path skirts the edge of the island, alongside the main river before leading another over another footbridge back to the 'mainland'.

Continuing, I soon came to Athens. No, I hadn't taken a wrong turn, this Athens was an Eton College bathing place. Rules stated that boys who were 'undressed' when any boating ladies passed by must either get immediately into the water or else hide behind screens. These days there are no screens, but there is a nice bench to sit on.

Leading past Boveney Lock and Dorney Lake, the path passes under the M4 motorway. Before reaching the M4 I stopped to peer across the river at Oakley Court. The house was built in 1859 by an Englishman for his French Wife. The French connections continue with General de Gaulle who is known to have stayed there. In 1950 Hammer Films bought the house, possibly swayed by its Gothic style, and used it to film St Trinian's and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. The house looked very sedate and peaceful when I passed by. Maybe because it's been a luxury hotel for the past 40 years? 

Once on the other side of the M4 more people start to appear as the path draws closer to Maidenhead. I passed under the railway bridge before reaching Maidenhead road bridge over which I crossed the river and headed back into town. 

Thursday, 2 January 2014

Thames Path - Staines to Windsor

Tuesday 31st December, 2013

First view of Windsor Castle
Leaving friends in Kent, I drove to Windsor and parked in the long-stay park and ride car park. At only £3 a day including the shuttle bus in to town it was a bargain. I didn't need to take the shuttle bus as I walked a short way along the Thames Path from the car park to the Windsor and Eton Riverside train station where I caught a train to Staines.

Staines was a major linoleum producer
I was a little confused exiting the station and so used the GPS on my new smartphone to guide me in the right direction for the river. One of my objectives on this trip is to learn how to use my phone and to figure out all the different things I can do with it. I've brought my big camera, but want to use my phone as much as possible to take photos to check out its ability.

I soon found the path where I'd left it last new year and crossed the road bridge to follow the continuation of the path on the other bank. The weather forecast hadn't been good and there have been more flood warnings on the radio, though not for the part of the Thames I was walking alongside. It was a dry start to the day though, but as soon as I started walking on the path proper the heavens opened. I sheltered by some trees and struggled to get my waterproof trousers on and put the cover over my daypack. That was the rain set in for the rest of the day. It did ease a bit but never really stopped. I struggled with my waterproof pants all day. As it is a flat walk I wanted to take big strides, but each time I tried, the lack of flexibility in my trousers acted as a barrier my legs were pushing against. I felt like I was getting an extra workout and could feel my legs getting quite tired towards the end.

I was also trialling my Sealskinz socks on this walk. I've always been dubious about paying nearly 30 quid for a pair of socks, but several people have raved about them to me and I've read good reviews online so I'd decided to try a pair. They really got put to the test and failed miserably. As well as the Sealskinz socks, I was wearing gaiters and waterproof trousers and had waxed and sprayed my boots. I'm sure it all would have been fine if it wasn't for having to wade through water that came halfway to my knees on more than one occasion. As water poured in over the tops of my boots I knew the socks would have no chance and the 'test' was probably a bit too extreme.

The river was very deep. Even the boats were underwater

One of the flooded bits I had to wade through
Besides flooded bits of path, there were also a few parts blocked by trees which had fallen in the recent gales. Each time I was able to get around or under though, including one time where I had to force my way through the middle of what had become the equivalent of a very thick hedge across the middle of the path.

Leaving Staines behind, I passed under the busy M25. This is the motorway encircling Greater London and the first sign that I'd really left the city behind. The first bits of it were built in the early 1970s, but it wasn't completed until 1986. At 117 miles (188km) long, it's Europe's second longest orbital road, beaten only by the Berliner Ring which is a mere five miles longer. As one of the UK's busiest motorways it often seems more like a car park than a high-speed roadway, particularly the stretch near Heathrow Airport. 

Passing under the M25

Passing below, I could hear the hum of traffic above, but felt like I was in a different world. I walked on towards the day's second landmark: Runnymede.

Runnymede is a flood plain now in the ownership of the National Trust. The name is possibly derived from the Anglo-Saxon 'runieg' which means regular meeting and 'mede' which today is written as mead or meadow. This meeting meadow is considered to be where the signing of the Magna Carta took place in 1215. This charter was instrumental in the development of the parliament and laws we have today. 

There are several memorials in area including the Air Forces Memorial commemorating the men and women of the Allied Air Forces who died in the Second World War. Another memorial is that dedicated to former US President John F. Kennedy.

Continuing, the path heads towards Old Windsor and alongside Old Windsor Lock. Old Windsor is the original Windsor and only became 'Old' when the newer town of Windsor was built near the castle a few miles away. Elton John apparently lives in Old Windsor. Although I looked, I don't think he was one of the people I saw out walking their dogs.

Heading back to Windsor

At this point, it's possible to walk directly to Windsor. But as I was following the Thames Path my walk looped round via the village of Datchet. I crossed the Albert Bridge and had a bit of road walking before joining a riverside path again just before Victoria Bridge. Then it was past Romney Lock before following a lane back to the car park and my van.

Distance: about 8 miles