Thursday, October 23, 2014


The London tube is expansive.  It's the third-largest transit system in the world, and finding living quarters close to a stop is what motivates many real estate deals.  

I was quite surprised to find out that if you take the Metropolitan line to its furthest reaches, you end up in the hills in the countryside.  No matter than it was nearly two hours on the tube and I should have just taken the faster light rail to get there, the novelty of taking the tube to the Chiltern Hills was just too much of a novelty to pass up.  

I picked up a guide to the Chilterns by the local tourism board that makes for a nice 8 mile circular, starting and ending at the train station in Chesham.

Passing through town to get to the hills, I noticed a prettified construction barrier:

Finally, out passed the church, the trail climbs into the hills.

Big, beautiful expansive hillsides.  The Chilterns make up part of the Ridgeway- the downs that cut across the north of London, and home to the Ridgeway National Trail.  I've been wanting to hike it- I love the hills and it's close enough to London for it to be an easy out, but there is no public transportation to the trail head and you have to walk three days before you can get your first public transportation back to the city.  I don't want to hike it that badly.

Probably the most magic thing about the hike, aside from taking the tube here, were the numbers of Red Kites I saw.

Dozens of them!  Some of them quite close.  I couldn't turn around and see a patch of sky without seeing one swooping down and harassing all the rest of the avian world.  

Oh, and there were brambles.  So many brambles.  Although the trail cut through a bit of suburbia and I was never far from a backyard, no one had picked a single berry.  They were all for me!

I hike slow to begin with and having food for the taking lining the trail side is downright dangerous.  

Which wouldn't be so bad except I kept getting lost.  Even with a map and compass, there were just too many trails and unmarked branches, and if I got off the trail, I had a hard time rectifying the written instructions for the route I was supposed to be on.

But ah!  There was a pub on route.  Which was closed.  Pubs aren't supposed to close on Sundays!

Altogether, not a bad walk, but not my favorite either.  I somehow managed to lose my Oystercard on the trail- it must have slipped out of my pocket during a vigorous berry reach- which I had never done before.  I guess taking the tube to the trail has its hazards.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014


I had been wanting to get out to the London Wetland Centre since I had heard about it.  This sprawling marshland was very close to central London- you can take the Piccadilly line and walk across the Thames to get there.  That's pretty amazing.  Not too many cities have the kind of foresight to decide not to drain a swamp, let alone create one where there had once been a reservoir.

I waited until I had a nice sunny day and headed out with my giant telephoto lens.  Autumn is a great time to birdwatch here in England as all the birds who had spent the summer at points north are on their way to Africa then, and there are other winter visitors that start trickling in.

One thing I didn't realize about the Wetland centre is that it was set up as a bit of a zoo.  They had a big cafe and visitors centre, and they accommodate school groups regularly.  They had a lot of birds from all over in open-air enclosures with their wings clipped, with the common theme of "these are all birds that depend on wetlands all over the world".  I don't know how I feel about that, and they have come under fire from the public and from naturalist about this practice.  I guess they figured the general public wouldn't be satisfied paying admission for sitting in a blind hoping to see something other than seagulls and mallards.

Still, it afforded the ability to get good close-up shots of birds that normally would be a far-off smudge on the screen.  This was fine by me as some of the birds were just fantastically beautiful.

Tundra Swan

Bufflehead Duck
White-headed duck


After a jaunt around the zoo, I made my way to the marsh, where they had blinds set up all around, and a tall fence as well.  You were invisible to the wildlife, and if there weren't too many screaming kids around, you could see quite a lot.   Tons of ducks and gulls, lapwings, lots of herons, a handful of divers.  It was bountiful, and some of the blinds had telescopes and binoculars, which were really handy. 

Red-breasted Merganser
Grey Heron

It took me most of the afternoon to walk around the marsh, stopping at each blind for a vantage point, studying what was there.  Hoping for a sighting of a shorebird or a peregrine falcon, but no luck there.  A falcon supposedly lives on the roof of Charing Cross hospital right across the Thames, and swoops on over from time time time when he is sick of dining on pigeon.


Parts of the trail they had planted with local meadows, with beautiful wildflowers and the songbirds and butterflies they attract.

It seemed very remote, but at some points, you look across the marsh and ah, it is indeed London.

Gadwalls, with their black bottoms

Great crested grebe
My favorite sightings were those of the Shoveler ducks, with their comically oversized beaks.  They flock to the Thames in huge numbers in winter.  

I also so quite a few Teals with their painted hussy faces.

All this kissing-close to Central London.

I also saw a water vole, nimbly climbing up a bird feeder cage while his cousin the Norway Brown could only watch.  I got a glimpse of one last summer at Rainham Marsh- they are acrobatic little climbers that shimmy up and down reed stalks in the marshland.

Worth a trip out?  I guess...I was happy with my sightings and the ease of access from the city.  Having the zoo there kind of put a damper on things, and if I did it again I would probably find an RSBP site to give my money to instead.  Some online research showed much outrage not only about the clipped wings of their birds, but they also had allegedly gotten in the habit of shooting mallards that had gotten into the exhibit enclosures.  I hope that they were at the very least enjoying some roast duck if they were going to be shooting the wildlife they were claiming to protect.  

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

SDW Day 8: Steyning to Lewes

A cat, on a map:

MOVE, CAT.  Without looking at me, he somehow spread out his mass to cover even more of the map.  I am just never going to be a cat person, am I?

Our last day on the South Downs.  It was going to be a long day- a bit over 20 miles.  Even though this trail is fairly easy, 20 miles is 20 miles.  No matter how many times I hike that much, I don't think I'll ever get comfortable with that kind of distance.  And yet I keep pushing myself.

The brilliant thing was last spring when we did our first day on the SDW, we did a 20 mile day and I was pretty sure I was about to rupture something that last half mile, and the next day I found it really difficult to get moving.  I don't get terrible pain at the end of the day any more, which is a huge improvement from when this obsession with walking started. Perhaps for the first time in my life, I feel really fit.  This will all go to hell as soon as it gets cold and I refuse to leave the sofa for months on end while siphoning endless amounts of thick, comforting soups.  It's like a keg stand, but with soup instead of beer.  For now, I'm just pleased with myself.

The morning was wonderfully foggy and warm, and we stopped to explore the ruins of Brambler Castle.

There really wasn't much too it- a remaining wall of the keep and the foundations of some out buildings, and a really large earth lump in the centre covered in tall trees.   It was once an important fortification along the river Adur, which was probably helping create all this atmospheric mist.

 The church next door was just as old and is still in use.

Ah, but don't we have miles ahead of us yet?  After a quick explore, we continued on our way, climbing back up the hill to rejoin the trail.

I almost stopped for a snack:

Once we climbed our first hill, we couldn't see a thing.  Then an ocean breeze came up and cleared all the fog away, where it sunk down into the valley below.

 Suddenly, the sky was blazing blue, and the sun was much hotter than it should have been for this time of year.

 This wonderful weather, combined with the idea that it was a Sunday, meant the trail soon became crowded, with swarms of people arriving from the car parks just off the trail.

Another tumulus:

Rather excitedly, there was an endurance race going on, and all day long there were beautiful, fit horses taking on the long uphills at a gallop.

The trail got even more crowded as we reached Devil's Dyke, a National Trust site.

It's a unique dry valley, carved sharply into the hills by huge amounts of glacial melt water coming off the downs in the last ice age.  Either that or the Devil made it because really now.  What a terrible evil place.  There's also remains of an old fort on the hilltop, but at this point I was sick of seeing those.

There's a sizeable car park and a pub at the top of the hill here, and we gladly gave the ice cream truck guy all of our money for a late-morning Magnum bar.

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We stopped by Saddlescomb farm for a fantastic lunch- I had a green salad and a vegetable-packed pastie and some fresh much better than expected on a trail-side lunch stop.  It's that devil at work again, I am assured. Saddlescomb is a working sheep farm and you can rent a cottage here for an overnight.  This has been a farm for nearly a thousand years, and despite it feeling remote and lonely, it was only five miles from Brighton.

The rest of the afternoon was glorious- a perfect 10.


We took a detour to check out "Jill", a working windmill built sometime before 1780.  They still grind flour there and you can buy it in the gift shop, and if it is opened, there is a nice man who will tell you all about it and let you poke around and explore.  It was a really fascinating bit of engineering.

We kept walking late into the afternoon, and we had the trail to ourselves until we got to the turnoff at Lewes...the exact spot where we started the trail.  100 miles, whoo-hoo!  Actually, with all the detours we took and the miles spent getting to train stations and accommodation, it was more like 130.  But still...look at that!  It's just so lovely.  Memories of our first day on the trail came flooding back, and how much fun I've had this summer.

This has seriously been the best trail ever.  For the amount of energy spent to get remote and lovely views, it's a 10.  If you are in London and have weekends to spend, I can think of no better way than to take a series of hour-long train rides out and knock out some miles here.  If you are really motivated, you could do it all at once...8 days did us nicely, and we had three very long days over 18 miles.  But it was something I looked forward to be able to get a weekend to get out here.  It was much quieter and countryside out by Winchester, crowded like crazy closest to Brighton, and a pretty good mass of people near Beachyhead, but it stayed up high and far away from civilization- you really had to leave the trail and walk a mile down the hill to get to a village or a pub.

Speaking of Beachyhead, we were planning going back and doing that 13 mile stretch along the cliffs because I just loved it so much, and it feels wrong to end the trail in Lewes officially.

We headed into Lewes, absolutely exhausted.  We passed the stud farm that caught my eye the first day we had walked out of Lewes, where dozens of fit thoroughbreds cavorted in the fields, impatent for their dinner.

Lewes was still adorable and quaint, but we just wanted to get home badly and didn't linger.  It was kind of a pain in the ass, but instead of the hour train ride back from Lewes, there was weekend track work on the Brighton line.  We ended up having to hop on a Routemaster bus for a two hour rumble to the nearest open train station.  Instead of an hour to get home, it took us three.  I was knackered and in love with our giant bath tub to soak away the aches of the day.