Just a few notes from my recent trip to western Normandy and eastern Brittany – a well-worn trail for me, with its highlights at Mont St Michel and Carnac. In particular, we were immensely privileged to be taken up through one of the flying buttresses to the roof level of the Abbey of Mont St Michel – something that’s only possible with a private guide that you’ve been working with for some years! So I’m afraid I can’t tell you who to contact.
The Mémorial de Caen now includes galleries on the weapons of the Cold War and Berlin in the Cold War – you might expect it just to deal with D-Day and the Battle of Normandy, but it now covers everything from the causes of Word War II in the Versailles Treaties of 1918-19 up to its consequences in the 1950s and 1960s. Also new in 2017 is a Résistance & Collaboration gallery and a new film on the Battle of Normandy (in French and English versions). There are lots of small private museums in the villages near in D-Day beaches, which have their own quirky individual charm, with lots of recovered artefacts, but none offers anything like the detail and context of the Mémorial de Caen. It’s not cheap though, at almost €20 (€51 for a family pass). Over to the west, the Utah Beach Museum reopened in 2011; originally in a German bunker, it now has a state-of-the-art building for its displays, including a B-26 Marauder bomber in a custom-built hangar. But the landings on Utah Beach (and Gold, Sword and Juno) were relatively straightforward – Omaha will always be the main focus of attention.
It’s worth mentioning that the city of Caen is planning to change from its unique and unreliable guided trolleybus system to a standard LRT tramway – the single central rail will be replaced by two running rails, so there will be construction chaos for quite a while once they get started.
It opened in 2006, but I hadn’t come across the Mémorial des Reporters in Bayeux before – in a lovely park-like setting near the British Cemetery (rue de Verdun, off Bd Fabien Ware), it remembers the more than 2000 journalists killed in the line of duty since 1944 with a gravestone for each year. It’s getting more dangerous to be a war reporter – in 2015 110 were killed, at least 67 of them deliberately targeted because of their work, according to Reporters sans Frontieres. Across the road from the British Cemetery is the Bayeux Memorial, a classical portico bearing the names of 1,808 men of the Commonwealth and Empire who died in the Battle of Normandy and who have no known grave. Above is a Latin inscription that translates as ‘We, once conquered by William, have now set free the Conqueror’s native land’.
Also in Bayeux, the new Villa Lara is a great hotel, with large stylish roosm and great service – although the first wi-fi log-in is unnecessarily complicated (and it’s not very fast); and every time you leave your bedroom it seems someone comes in and puts a sticker on the loose end of the loo roll – a bizarre obsession! But it’s great that they were able to get permission for a new building right in the centre of town (hidden away just off the main Rue St-Jean), and that they did such a good job. It’s not at all cheap, though. L’Angle St Laurent at 4 rue des Bouchers seems to still be the best restaurant in town – always fabulous. Down towards the Baie du Mont St Michel, the Auberge de Carolles is also much improved under its new management (though well out of the way for most tourists). I also have a new favourite crêperie in Dinan, Art-Bilig at 8 rue Ste-Claire – small, friendly and efficient, serving up excellent savoury brown galettes and white dessert crêpes, with local cider, of course.
Speaking of restaurants – I don’t know whether this was coincidence, but in many places where I’d asked for a set menu for our group I was given a choice of cabillaud ou canard (cod or duck) – last year (2016) every menu in Britain seemed to offer arancini as starters (or they appeared as amuses-bouches while we were studying the menus), this year wild mushroom is everywhere – but that’s the UK, and I don’t expect that kind of faddiness in France, where chefs have the confidence to just do what they feel they do best, and the public expect that. But I can’t help wondering just what ‘wild’ mushrooms really are – I’m sure they’re not all authentically foraged from the fields.
In Brittany, Léhon, 2km south of Dinan, reminded me a bit of Todmorden, with Incredible Edible-style plantings (which I also saw in Liège) – but rather than being a community-based free food scheme, these are educational (and very decorative) displays of the sorts of medicinal and edible plants that would have been grown by medieval monks. There’s always been a beautiful display in the cloister of the simple largely twelfth-century abbey, but now it’s expanded out onto the streets; the abbey garden is also open now, with newly planted apple trees (rare local varieties, I imagine) and bug hotels. It leads down to the river and the simple bridge, blown up by the Germans in 1944 (the blast also shattered the abbey’s stained glass) and rebuilt. Léhon is an older crossing point of the Rance, superseded by Dinan, just downstream, from the eleventh century, and now it’s just a quiet little village, overlooked by the remains of its castle – the towpath between Léhon and Dinan, closed by rockfall for at least half a dozen years, has now reopened and makes for a lovely walk or cycle ride.
This interest in recreating monastic herb gardens is not new in France, and in fact I saw similar gardens at Fort La Latte and Poul-Fétan (where the whole village has been restored to its pre-industrial form). A little further west near Planguenoual, Herbarius is a garden of medicinal and edible plants that runs educational activities and grows plants to sell, aiming to preserve the biodiversity of the medieval ecosystem.
Rennes and the railways
Rennes is a large, unattractive and basically un-Breton sort of city now – although there are some lovely half-timbered buildings, and the modern Musée de Bretagne is excellent. When the new high-speed line from La Mans to Rennes opens in July 2017, with 20 trains a day bringing passengers from Paris in as little as 1hr 25min, they will be greeted by a building site. Work began in 2015 to build a second metro line and to create the shiney new EuroRennes interchange – both the main Place de la Gare, to the north, and the Parvis Sud, the convenient and less well-known southern entry, will be a mess until 2020, and the redevelopment of the area won’t be fully completed until 2027. But more importantly (it seems) the new shops in the station will open in 2018.
In the west of Brittany, Brest and Quimper will each have 9 TGVs a day reaching Paris in 3hr 15min; Lorient has an entirely new station, which opened in May 2017 (also part of a local regeneration scheme). It’s all being promoted as Bretagne Grande-Vitesse, aiming to provide faster, more frequent and better integrated rail transport across the region. It’s worth mentioning that the Sud-Europe-Atlantique high-speed line from Tours to Bordeaux will also open on July 2, bringing Paris-Bordeaux journeys down by 75 minutes to just over two hours (London to Bordeaux will take under six hours, with a change of train in Lille or Paris). And France’s TGV services will all then be branded as inOui (a pun on inouï, meaning unheard of or amazing).
Meanwhile, in 2020 Normandy will introduce its fleet of new double-deck trains (les Trains Normands) – paid for by the central government as part of the process of transferring unprofitable long-distance services from the SNCF to the regions (which already run local train and bus services under the TER (Transport Express Régional) brand. Normandy will now take responsibility for services from Paris to Caen/Cherbourg, Rouen/Le Havre, Trouville-Deauville, Granville and Serquigny, and from Caen to Le Mans and Tours, with the usual objective of boosting frequencies, speeds and connections.
If that all sounds like good news, I found I was unable to collect my ticket (booked online) as usual from the ticket machines at Rennes station – I was told the system had changed and now I was expected to print it myself, or have it on a phone. Luckily I was able to find wifi (the usual SNCF station wifi was down, perhaps because of the construction works) and download the ticket. Still, this seems unnecessarily obstructive.
I took the Brittany Ferries ship from Portsmouth to Ouistreham (15km north of Caen) and back – an excellent service, and there’s usually a direct bus connection from the port to Caen station. However on Sundays the service is poor – arriving late in the evening there’s no connection (and the one taxi loaded up and left, so I hitched into town just as it got dark), and returning on a public holiday (ie the Sunday timetable) the last bus to Ouistreham (not to the ferry terminal, but near enough) is at 1814 – the ferry leaves at 2300, so there’s plenty of time for dinner, and plenty of decent places to eat just south of the ferry terminal.
So – what possessed me to undertake Walking the Welsh Coast Path? The honest answer is that I simply don’t know. It somehow caught my imagination, billed as the first complete coastal path of an entire country in the world. I wanted to do it. Then I said I would and I did – or to be precise – I have half done it – Chepstow to Cardigan from March 13th to April 23rd 2017. The rest to be completed in 2018. For the purposes of this blog I’ve pulled out the highs and lows and added a few retrospective musings.
I planned to walk every day apart from Mother’s Day.I’d bought a book about walking the WCP – but it went from North to South and having decided to do it the other way round, it was not that useful. I knew I had six weeks at my disposal and when I sat down to work out the mileage I realised I’d only get round halfway in the time available. I did make use of a blog by Charles Hawes who meticulously logged his route clockwise round the WCP a few years ago. If you want to know the minutiae of each day’s twists and turns I recommend you look there! I also made a Facebook group of all my friends who like walking and/or live near to the route and invited them to join me or give me a bed to sleep in. The response was gratifying and generous.
Small rucksack. 2 prs of kwik-dry walking trousers Kwik-dry long sleeved walking top 2 T-shirts (only wore one) 4 pairs of walking socks 7 prs knicks 2 bras Pair of lightweight silk thermal long johns and top Warm fleece Sunhat Beanie Showerproof jacket Lightweight rainproof plastic poncho (used only twice) Walking pole
I didn’t take a map but followed the cleverly designed ‘Conch’ symbol of the WCP, which morphs into a dragon’s tail.
After a few weeks I bought an ankle support and also a tubigrip for my right knee which troubled me more or less constantly. I was knocked off my bike some years ago and badly twisted my knee. Physio had seemed to sort it out but I hadn’t asked much of my knee in the intervening time and the weakness revealed itself fairly quickly. The walking pole helped a lot to relieve the stress, particularly going down hill.
I knew I was heading towards spectacular coastal scenery in the Gower and Pembrokeshire beyond, but in the early days my only highs were places with baths where I could have a good long soak to let my muscles relax – Sue’s hot tub with the added bonus of prosecco just about takes place as my top high in the early days!! And anywhere with food. I was able to eat anything – ANYTHING I wanted and walk it off the next day!
It’s been years since I could eat chocolate and chips and cake without thought and not worry about weight. I lost half a stone, perhaps I built some muscle and strangely, my appetite regulated itself such that I still feel full more quickly since having completed the walk and have stopped overeating. Long may it last….
The first real high, location-wise, was Merthyr Mawr en route from Ogmore by Sea to Porthcawl (Day 7). It’s a delightful estate village that boasts several thatched roofed cottages (and a substantial domestic pig in a garden) a charming 19th-century church and medieval cross, and is surrounded by a host of Neolithic remains. The path leads through woodland and on to a vast array of sand dunes – the second highest in Europe it seems, yet practically unknown. I then walked along the beach all the way to the seedy amusement arcades of Porthcawl which had a peculiar charm of their own.
For the first nine days I averaged 13 miles a day, so the next high was a mere six-mile amble from Swansea to the Mumbles (Day 9) and a dinky village to explore full of coffee shops and independent retailers. The walk from Mumbles the next day to my cousin’s flat at Caswell Bay was also a breeze compared to the previous week and the scenery began to beguile me. The Gower lived up to its reputation. The route is varied with short sharp inclines and descents, through woodland and dunes, along fabulous beaches and substantial cliffs and with far-reaching views.
Also plenty of watering holes like the Three Cliffs Café at Pennard Stores (Day 11), which I’m told can get super busy in the summer.
The views from the Worm’s Head Hotel at Rhosilli (Day 12) are unrivalled too and the perfect place to watch the sunset.
There’s also an Old Rectory on the beach which is the National Trust’s most popular holiday cottage.
The six-mile stroll from St Clears to Laugharne (Day 22) was pretty and perfect for someone who may not like serious walking! It also ends at Dylan Thomas’ picturesque Boathouse where there’s a lovely café with sandwiches, cake and excellent coffee. And a small museum worth a look.
I also loved the section from Laugharne to Amroth (Day 23) despite an early stretch on the road. Lots of ups and downs but on lovely grassy paths which made a welcome change from muddy gullies. The path officially routes inland at Amroth beach but I saw the tide was out and decided to walk along the beautiful sands. Downside was that I had to cross a shallow river running across the sand to the sea. As it was the end of my day I got a bit gung-ho and simply strode boldly across it, without worrying about wet feet for the remainder of the day, but hadn’t reckoned on slipping. I fell lock, stock & barrel into the freezing water and to get myself up I had to roll over thereby completely immersing myself!
No-one on the beach took the slightest bit of notice of me, so having stood up again, I felt lucky that the sun was shining brightly as I dripped my way up the slipway to the nearest park bench where I brazenly stripped off to my underwear in front of an elderly couple ensconced in their car and looking out to sea as they munched their sandwiches. I didn’t dare make eye contact with them as I pulled a bag of dry clothes out of a plastic bag in the sopping rucksack and proceeded to dress as quickly as my damp body would let me. I was shivering by now, so made my way to a nearby pub which had a double-sided open fire where I was allowed to both dry my clothes and warm my body. Strangely, I suddenly didn’t fancy the two-mile walk to my bed and ordered a taxi. Was told to wait ninety minutes, so settled in for a drink and when time was up the taxi driver called and said he’d be another hour. So another drink was ordered..but they didn’t serve food..oh well! I fell asleep that night well and truly sozzled. But after all, I was celebrating having reached the Pembrokeshire Coast Path, a well-established route, sections of which I already knew and was delighted to revisit. The conch symbol was often absent in this section and replaced by an acorn, the symbol of the much older and better established PCP.
Stackpole Quay and Estate (Day 27) are also worth a mention and perfect for a day’s outing especially with children. The National Trust do a great job maintaining this stunning location and run an excellent café at the Quay. Stackpole’s historic designed landscape is Grade I-listed, full of surprises and a tranquil contrast to the rugged coast. I passed through the Estate to St Govan’s, another lovely village with a pub and tea room. The next day, walking through to St Govan’s Chapel (Day 28) was also a delight as I passed along one of this coast’s most beautiful beaches at Barafundle, which was entirely deserted that morning.
The chapel is a small medieval church tightly tucked between the cliffs at the water’s edge. The day I visited a marriage proposal was taking place – not the first I suspect. A more romantic spot would be hard to find! I wasn’t so keen on the drone filming the event….
The ‘sheep incident’ was definitely one of the strangest things to occur along the WCP
It was a lovely day for the Freshwater West to Angle leg. (Day 31). It started with an egg sandwich slathered in laver bread (seaweed) butter from the fabulous mobile Cafe Môrwhich serves a variety of delectable Welsh-based treats including a vegan burger. We began walking through the dunes and then three sharp inclines and descents, passing lots of small inlets & bays. At the third one, having stopped for a brief rest, I saw the most peculiar sight. A sheep, seemingly stranded, perched on a large rock which had sheer sides from all angles, on the very rocky beach. Very much alive. No idea how she got there. I didn’t call the coastguard till half an hour later when I picked up a weak signal on my phone. They thought I was bonkers but I persisted sensibly and after sending them a geo-located photograph, they were convinced and said they’d notify the local farmers.
A few days later I received the following satisfying message! “The RSPCA responded to our call and attended the scene with the farmer of the land. They recovered the sheep and discovered it had gone down to the rocks to give birth so now has a lamb. Although the sheep is back on dry land at this time, the farmer has informed us that it is very fond of this location on the rocks and has been recovered several times without injury.”
Arriving, eating and staying at the Druidstone Hotel (Day 34) is always a highlight and did not fail to impress on this occasion. It stands at the sea edge above St Bride’s Bay and offers a range of accommodation from camping in the summer, a tiny eco-lodge, bunk rooms (I had the cheapest at £60 for two) right through to exec-type suites and everything in-between, including self-catering cottages. Even if you never stay – do go there for a drink in the basement bar or the terrace with its fabulous view over the sea and sands below.
The next night was also a culinary high – we dined at the Cwtch* in St David’s, the smallest cathedral city in Britain. Between us we ate lobster, rabbit and turbot. NB: Cwtch is Welsh for a loving safe place in a room or in people’s hearts.
Pwll Deri Youth Hostel (Day 38) is probably in the most spectacular location of any hostel in the UK. I walked alone from Abermawr and the scenery was majestic. The path eventually disappeared as I scrambled up and over the craggy Carn Ogof from where I spotted my destination in the distance perched on the side of the cliff.
I was very glad to have booked a room to myself and after watching the sunset from my bedroom window I had an early night.
I was proud of myself this once as I heard from the volunteer wardens the next day that since they’d been there, I was the only one who had actually come in and out of the hostel on foot. Everyone else was touring by car.
Early on I discovered official coast path signs reading “What! No Coast?” – they constitute what I came to call the Welsh Coast Path Con. Basically the WCP is a work in progress and it needs more work. For one reason or another the path is routed inland more often than one would hope and frequently through unattractive industrial areas, tediously lengthy outskirts of towns or along busy dual carriageways. So I took a decision early on to only ‘walk the coast’. After all, that was what I signed up for – right? So whenever I came to a shitty bit or an estuary where I was routed inland one side and then out to the coast the other, if the path was not in view of the water, I took a bus or cab or hitched to the bridge to walk to the other side. (For the record, this happened five times.)
Many of the lows came from the workings of my mind! There were plenty of days when I simply did not ‘feel like’ walking. And I did it anyway. Then there were the times I wanted to stop walking because I was tired or bored or lonely or in pain or…well, there was always a reason! Once I’d started, I found one strategy for keeping going was to count to ten over and over again. Usually after a few minutes or so, I’d get through the resistance. It was important though to recognise when it really wasn’t wise to go on. One morning I woke up with a fever, felt shivery and a bit dizzy and was expecting company the next day. After two hours of struggle I hitched a lift with a couple of potato farmers to the nearest village and asked at the lovely Marloes Village Store, Café and Post Office if I could settle in for a few hours, explaining that I was under the weather. They were super friendly and accommodating and produced great coffee and a baked potato for me even though it wasn’t on the menu. I spent four hours there resting and catching up on emails and doing the cryptic crossword. I felt disappointed because Marloes Head is one of the finest stretches of Pembrokeshire coast. Still, I can look forward to going back to complete it.
There was a sadness to the day I walked with David Gardner from Trefin to Pwll Deri (Day 38), as a couple of holiday makers were dashing around the area trying to find their elderly terrier Fido who had gone missing on the Coast Path the day before. I heard, a few days later, that he had been found and retrieved from the rocks below but had not survived. Dogs really need to be kept on the lead in this environment not only for their own safety, as there are loads of tempting rabbit and badger holes near the cliff edge, but also to protect the sheep which roam freely and at this time of year have vulnerable small lambs.
People have asked me lots of questions, some of which may have been answered already.
To the question “what did you learn’? I say that I learned that I have grit. I suspected as much but had never really tested myself. Now, on the other hand, I am acquainted with some serious walkers, including my beloved Tim Burford, and I’m sure they must be bemused by the outpouring of encouragement and respect and support and praise given to me on Facebook for something which to them may seem rather common-place and unremarkable. But for me, it was hard. And I came to the conclusion that while I enjoy walking for a day or so at a time … or even a tad longer, I am not at heart a real walker. I’d imagined that by the end of the 41 days I’d be feeling fitter and full of enjoyment of the terrain and scenery. The truth is I felt exhausted and franky blasé about ‘another nice view’ and dreaded the long hours (often seven a day) of putting one foot in front of the other. I learned that I can keep myself company with pleasure but that I like a regular dose of other people and mercifully, that is what I got.
So you might think I regret it. Not at all. My mind has an interesting trick of remembering the good times more than the bad ones. I’m grateful for that. So will I complete the walk? Absolutely! In 2018 I intend to walk from Chester to Cardigan anti-clockwise this time, to ring the changes, and will have the sea to my right for a change! And I’m not going to do it all in one go. I’ll do a week or so at a time and factor in rest days. And I hope people will join me too.
I’ve been asked “What did you think about?” Well, it’s no different to any other day except that more often I found myself thinking about the discomforts. The best strategy then was to focus on the sensations of being present beyond the aches and pains. The light, the colour, the wind, the sun, the sounds. I used all my senses to embrace the whole experience rather than focus on the bits of misery. I didn’t make any momentous decisions nor receive any great moments of enlightenment. But then, I hadn’t set out to.
Some people wondered “Why didn’t you get sponsored?”. That’s an easy one…I wanted to be free and not beholden to anyone. Nevertheless, a couple of people have said they’d like to sponsor me retrospectively and I’d be delighted if they donate to any charity of their choice. Thanks!!
My top walks
Below I’ve listed my top walks and then the ones I do not consider at all worthwhile unless you too are going to complete the whole route for whatever reason! In no particular order.
1. Ogmore by Sea to Porthcawl (7 miles) described above.
2. Caswell Bay to Oxwich (8 miles) Wild spring flowers in abundance – the route is varied with lots of ups and downs, far-ranging coastal views, wooded valleys and a long section through the dunes. Three Cliffs Bay is stunning and if you get there at the right time of day you can cross the river on the stepping stones. Then there are lovely marshes at the end.
3. Oxwich to Rhossili (11 miles) Shaded woodland hugging the coast emerges onto a broad close-cropped grassy path overhung by majestic stone outcrops with a great view of the Worm’s Head. Lots of remote beaches and fab rock formations. 4. Llansteffan to St Clears (12 miles) Varied terrain starting at the very end of the beach at Llansteffan. With an incoming tide we only just managed to reach the steps up in time. Wonderful, truly coastal, path along a well-maintained track with views back to the Worm’s Head and to Tenby ahead. We had a section through National Trust land with more great views over the Taf estuary towards Laugharne and up to St Clears. Then into a huge field where we stopped at a conveniently positioned fallen tree and ate our lunch at leisure marvelling at the lack of road between ourselves and the river and no people or boats to be seen for miles. We proceded past a goose farm where the farmer chatted to us about the strange types who follow the Coast Path. One died on in the bog, another was found wandering around talking to himself and was admitted to hospital. He advised us re avoiding said bog and said we were welcome to picnic by the nearby quarry with the locals in the summer. We hugged the edge of the field which was badly littered as it was also the high tide mark and then were taken into a lovely wood carpeted with celandine.
5. The whole section from Stackpole East to St Govan’s Chapel is superb. 6. St Bride’s Bay to Druidstone (8 miles) with lunch at the pub at Little Haven. 7. Solva to Whitesands Bay (13 miles) includes St Non’s chapel and Porthclais harbor with its National Trust kiosk selling yummy cakes. St Justinian’s has a section where the water looks like a boiling cauldron, the water being whipped up by the combo of tide, wind and current over the rocks known locally as the Bitches! 8. Whitesands Bay to Porthgain (12 miles) Varied terrain with some bigger climbs as the rocks and cliffs become larger and more dramatic. There’s an ice-cream van at Abereiddy and some lime-kiln remains to shelter for a nap! 9. Porthgain to Pwll Deri (8 miles), as described above.
10. Fishguard to Poppit Sands (29 miles) My old stomping ground as a young mother. Includes the wonderful Dinas Head, the Sailor’s Safety at Pwllgwaelod for fresh seafood, Cwm yr Eglwys – one of the prettiest beaches with rock pools and a ruined church, the stunning estuary at the Parrog in Newport and the Witches’ Cauldron, a spectacular blow hole near Ceibwr Bay. Finally, Poppit Sands with its dunes and lovely café and the EU-funded Poppit Rocket bus which ferries walkers back along the coast.
My worst walks
1. Chepstow to Redwick (16 miles) lots of walking along the levee and two detours over the M4 to avoid firing ranges.
2. Redwick to Newport (15 miles) Too many deviations inland off the coast, going round private properties, and lots more repetitive levee culminating in industrial terrain with power stations.
3. Newport to Cardiff (13 miles) Uninspiring back streets of Newport leading back to the levee. 4. Barry to Llantwit Major (14 miles) Too many miles walking inland again and then an unreasonably long bit along the edge of a muddy turnip field.
5. Angle to Pembroke (9 miles) Whilst Angle is very pretty the main body of the walk involves one prolonged view of the Milford Haven Refinery on the other side of the estuary.
There was also a significant amount of path on tarmacked country roads. No pit stops or nice places to rest either.
I decided to use miles as although they are longer, somehow in my mind, the fact that there were fewer of them helped me psychologically. Go figure! I needed all the help I could get and help I did indeed get both in the form of friends who joined me for as little as an hour to those who walked with me for days and, in one case, a week!!
407.7 miles completed between 13 March and 23 April 2017. 9.94 miles average day’s walk.
18/41 nights in B&Bs 3/41 AirB&B 2/41 in Youth Hostels 18/41 with friends
Fauna seen: Marsh Harrier (Oxwich Marsh) Red Kite, Pied wagtail, Egret and Grey Heron (Rhossili) Pheasant & Red Admirals, Brown Fritillary (Laugharne) Peregrine Falcon & Choughs (Trefin)
Georgia and Josh & friends in Cardiff who distracted me from my aches & pains for an evening and gave me and Joe a bed each to sleep in.
Cressida Leigh in Swansea who popped down to my hotel at very short notice so I didn’t dine alone.
Andrew, and Debbie who laid on a feast and brought me wine in the bath and whose dogs treated me to a foot lick massage, all this and in the ‘posh end of Barry’ no less (as informed by FB geolocation services!).
Sue Wright in Llantwit Major where I spent two nights which had absolutely nothing to do with prosecco in the hot tub each evening, Sue’s fabulous cooking and the lifts to and fro. It had everything to do with an enduring friendship!
Diana Benjamin, my cousin, who brought Mum down to stay in her Gower flat so I could take her out for Mother’s Day lunch and who also accommodated me on the sofa.
Janice Williams who scooped Karen and me out of the rain and took us back to her lovely farmhouse near Carmarthen.
Sara & Squidge in Martletwy – thanks to Squidge for the fine dining and chauffeur services..much appreciated from a man with clearly many other things to keep him busy!
Selena and Roger for trusting me with Llanteg for a night.
Sophie and David Wellan who gave me and Peter such comfy places to sleep.
Imogen and Stephen Castle who gave me a key to their home and included me into their family routine for three days including Stephen’s gig.
Stuart and AnneFreeman who waited up, cooked for me and put me in front of a cosy fire.
Charley and Seb Garman who had us to stay with their easy & fine hospitality, despite having a number of pressing things to attend to. And to Tanya for cake and lasagne.
Lesley & Peter Fletcher who welcomed us so warmly at their swanky Pavilion café at Penrallt Ceibwr.
Robby Coles who linked up with us at Castlemartin and provided his freshly baked bread and cheese sandwiches for lunch.
Thanks to those who accompanied me:
Joe Smithfor getting me going and keeping me motivated for the first four hard long days in an uninspiring landscape and drizzly, grey weather.
Selena Vane who popped up unexpectedly in Barry and walked a bit before inviting me over to her future mother-in-law’s for tea.
Andrew Derrick who stoically walked with me through a longish day of mizzle and kept my spirits up before catching a train home. And on my last evening caught fresh sea-bass for dinner. Yum!
Sue Wrightwho managed to fall over in deep wet mud within half an hour of joining me and instead of turning round, rolled in the wet grass to clean up (a bit) and gamely continued for a further few hours!
Karen Bellfrom Cornwall who came for a week! Great & cheerful company through the most drizzly and trying days.
Sara Lloyd-Morriswho walked and talked with me more than once and brought with her gin and freshly smoked salmon amongst other culinary delights.
Freddie Rileywho accompanied me to Laugharne where we had a picnic, courtesy of Robbie Coles, below the castle with the family, to celebrate Josh’s birthday.
Tim Burford who came for breakfast with me at Dylan Thomas’ old watering hole and joined me for Dylan’s Birthday Walk (as part of his research for the Rough Guide to Wales) and also linked up at Castlemartin military range a month or so later.
Sophie Wellanfor bringing Sky the dog, great chats and setting a pace when I was flagging
ImogenClarke who walked out of her comfort zone to get me on my way.
Julian Peckwho came all the way from Cambridge (and thanks to Katherine Ireson for graciously ‘lending’ him to me for two days). And Marc Bailey (also from Cambridge) for jolly company and not complaining about my snoring in the bottom bunk. And for lending me his rucksack.
Stuart Freeman who did a few hours with me over a couple of days and took me up a beautiful sweeping valley parallel to the coast before turning back across the mountain for home.
Al Brunker & Sara-Jane who joined us on the walk to the Druidstone – AND walked all the way back. Respect!! Oh yes, and who also provided home-baked fruitcake.
David Gardner for great conversation and his expertise in identifying birdlife.
Last but not least Peter Knight who with patience and good cheer accommodated my flagging energy and found the joy in each day.
You may already be aware that Hebden Bridge is the Totnes of the North (I mean the North of England), with its organic veg shops, its organic reiki practitioners, its organic… well, a bit like Glastonbury but without the crystals. You may not be aware that Todmorden is the new Hebden Bridge, now that property in Hebden Bridge has become relatively unaffordable – after the cotton mills closed in the 1970s they were originally squatted by artists and hippies but now they’ve been converted to cool lofts for media types commuting to Manchester. Todmorden is just four miles up Calderdale, one stop closer to Manchester by train or a pleasant cycle ride along the Rochdale Canal. As with Hebden Bridge, it has gritty industrial buildings, lots of independent shops, an independent bookshop (there aren’t many of those left these days, thanks to Amazon, so to have two towns so close each with its own bookshop is amazing); in fact there are very few chain shops at all apart from the Boots pharmacy.
Both benefit from remarkably good public transport services, with pretty frequent trains on the Manchester-Halifax-Leeds axis, and buses that reach the smallest hamlets, it seems, as well as running constantly up and down the Calder Valley. And they both have tourist information centres too, the Hebden Bridge one still professionally run, the Todmorden one run by volunteers and supported by its Friends, who pay £10 or more a year to keep it going.
Even though Hebden Bridge is in the Rough Guide to Yorkshire and Todmorden isn’t, Todmorden is not necessarily second-best, a pale copy of Hebden Bridge – it was for instance the birthplace in 2007 of Incredible Edible, now a global network of groups building communities through growing and talking about food. It all started with runner beans planted secretly outside a disused health centre, and vegetable plots with Help Yourself signs. Now commuters pick herbs at the railway station as they head home, there are vegetable gardens along the canal and outside the police station – and the police report that vandalism is down. There’s even a fish farm at a village school. One crucial idea was the community growing licence dreamed up by the council’s director of communities – now people can apply for a licence to plant on council land and as if by magic the council has less waste ground to care for.
Remarkably, there are two excellent vegetarian cafés immediately next to each other in the centre of Todmorden, the Old Co-op and the (slightly better, it seems) Káva. I’m also hearing good things about The White Rabbit, a Modern British restaurant with vegan choices and vegetarian tasting menus. However Todmorden doesn’t seem to have any particularly good pubs (the Queen Hotel and Wetherspoons’ White Hart are decent enough), and you have to go to Hebden Bridge to find West Yorkshire’s first pub co-op, the Fox and Goose, on Heptonstall Road, and Calan’s micro-pub (closed Tuesdays) in the central pedestrian zone.
Hebden Bridge also does better in the cultural stakes, with its Picture House (since 1921; cash only, no booking), the Little Theatre, the Trades Club and the Hippodrome (rechristened the Hipper Drome, and home to the Hebden Bridge Burlesque Festival and similarly metropolitan entertainments); there are lots of festivals too.
I visited with my friend Rob (who was with me cycling in Taiwan; he’s blogged about Hebden Bridge too), and we stayed at Mankinholes youth hostel, which is up a hill to the south, closer to Todmorden but easily reached from Hebden Bridge. It’s a good base for walking, with Stoodley Pike and the Pennine Way just above, but we used it as a base for cycling, with some very pleasant loop routes over to Burnley or down to Halifax. There’s plenty of information elsewhere (including GPS trails and so on), so suffice it to say that there’s a great range of rides available, from 70-mile road rides with several big climbs to family pootles along the canal. There’s no wifi at the hostel, but it’s a pleasant stroll from the hostel to the Top Brink pub in Lumbutts for a pint and an online catch-up.
I’ve never seen so much Victorian plumbing (actually stone spillways) to get excess water out of the canal, but it’s definitely needed, as there were serious floods here in 2000, 2012 and 2015, and they’re still making good the damage. Even so, the spillways are an impediment to cycling, requiring regular dismounting.
One nice loop ride was to follow the Rochdale Canal to Littleborough, via the highest broad canal lock in Britain (just 14m below the Huddersfield Narrow Canal’s summit, which is 197m above sea level), then a steady climb to Blackstone Edge Reservoir and then the longest unbroken descent in Britain, 8km or five and a half miles down Cragg Vale to Mytholmroyd. Obviously it’s tempting to charge straight down, but you could also take a one-mile (each way) detour to The Craggs Country Business Park, New Road, home to a branch of Hebden Bridge’s excellent Blazing Saddles bike shop and to Craggies café-deli-butchers, offering great lunches and cakes etc, and also the products of the two breweries that share the business park. Cyclists with lightweight bikes and lycra naturally prefer to ride up Cragg Vale, but that’s too much like hard work for us.
Next time I’ll make a point of getting to the National Trust’s Hardcastle Crags and the information centre/café at Gibson Mill, just north of Hebden Bridge, via Heptonstall, which features frequently on film and TV. I might also take a look at Gaddings Dam, on the moor just above Mankinholes – built in 1833 to supply water to the mills of Lumbutts and long disused, it was rescued in 2001 by a local group determined to preserve Britain’s highest beach – yes, it’s usually freezing, but being shallow it can warm up nicely in high summer.