Posts tagged wild camping

Into the WILD! Days 4 & 5: High Cup Nick to Cauldron Snout & beyond

High Cup Nick was spectacular. A gouge out of the landscape, we agreed it would probably be yet more breathtaking 1) were we to have approached it from the other direction and 2) had the weather been even half-way decent… But it was amazing nonetheless.

Right on its very top, we bumped into a walking party who told us the tale of an 18 year old girl they had encountered a little way back. They had spotted her apparently waiting for somebody, only to discover that it was indeed they for whom she was hoping… or anyone really… to help her out of the bog in which she had become stuck. Her story is one of bravery, actually. She had, at her tender age, started the walk with two friends; one of whom had twisted her ankle and had to leave, and the other had given up and gone home. But on she soldiered (not too happy to be identified by us, when we encountered her the following day, as the girl who had got stuck: “Does everyone know?!”) Anyhow, our walking party walked on and we filled our Aquapure in preparation for the first cup of tea we were to have on our funky stove.

Balanced Precariously above High Cup Nick

Balanced Precariously above High Cup Nick

And the rain it did rain and the wind it did howl… And our faces became fixed into the grimace of those who are determined to look like they’re having fun… We couldn’t stop for said cup of tea until we could find somewhere even vaguely sheltered, so we paused to rest our weary shoulders in a small dip, atop a rock, and ate a Snickers bar. From. The. Gods. It’s amazing, as one who is generally enormously snobby about chocolate (my favourite being Lindt 90% cocoa) how good a Snickers bar tastes under such conditions. It just wouldn’t have the same effect here in my comfy sitting room.

And on we marched, over that vast and exposed expanse of soggy grassland. And something miraculous happened… As we descended into Upper Eden Valley (yes, that really is its name), the sun emerged from behind the clouds, which blew away with alarming and delightful speed. And it stayed. We could see all sorts of revolting weather going on behind us, but overhead and before us were simply blue skies. We began peeling off layers: waterproof coats, fleeces, the legs of trousers…! Our path took us along the Eden River: a wide, babbling, rocky river of awe-inspiring beauty and proportions. We came to a bridge, rearranged some rocks to sit on, hunkered down out of the still rather powerful “breeze” and (drum-roll, please) made our first cup of tea on our funky stove. The water boiled in such a short time we were speechless. I opened a packet of plain chocolate Digestives and our bliss was boundless. Listen carefully to this next bit (especially as you’ll have to take care to remember these words when it comes to describing our supper): there is nothing in the world that can make you appreciate the smallest comforts when you are out in the wild with only the possessions you carry on your back. Nothing. You take only what you can carry. You possess, in time, only the moment in which you are living. Your company is only that person with whom you walk. Your entertainment is the awesome power of the nature that surrounds you. That afternoon I felt, possibly for the very first time, soaring  contentment and an utter sense of peace. I should have been nervous: yet again our little book had misled us. We didn’t know where we were going to sleep for the night; we were once again in the middle of nowhere without a plan (our forte) and yet… It was beautiful. Absolutely beautiful. The world felt right.

We pushed on through that scenery, keeping an eye out for a suitable spot to make camp. We passed through deserted farmyards, greeted many, many sheep, and all the while the Eden River gargled nearby.

Shortly before dusk we were attacked. Yes, you heard right. Attacked. By blooming midges. Thankfully, my ever-prepared companion had had the foresight to read many an article on the absolute necessities of such an outing and we applied, most liberally, our insect repellant. Repeatedly, as it happened. It was necessary!

And then!

We heard it before we saw it. The crashing, thunderous roar of gallons and gallons of water falling tumultuously from great heights. Cauldron Snout (unhappily named, in my humble opinion, for such a spectacularly beautiful piece of natural architecture) is dramatic and regal and irresistible. We scrambled down the rockslide that passes for a path down the side of the falls and (I can hear celestial voices singing as I recall this bit) there, at the bottom, far from any hint of civilisation with one of the most beautiful of natural wonders this country can provide as our backdrop, was the perfect spot for a tent.

Making Camp at Cauldron Snout

Making Camp at Cauldron Snout

I washed our clothes in the river, marvelling at the happiness such basic living could inspire.

Washing Clothes in Eden River

Washing Clothes in Eden River

Behind me the thunderous falls and my view: our tent and the open vista of the Northumbrian Fells.

View of the Fells from the Falls

View of the Fells from the Falls

Nothing but the distant bleating of sheep for company. And weren‘t we pleased with ourselves:

Smugness Personified

Smugness Personified

That evening, we had wine – cleverly decanted into a plastic bottle to keep the weight down – to accompany our tuna and Smash. Yes, you heard right. Smash. Just add water! Tuna, Smash, a little olive oil, salt and pepper and some garlic flakes. My God, it was good! Yes, I mean it (remember I said you needed to mark my words?) So good to have hot food with some flavour (thanks to the bits and bobs we’d brought with us – plastic travelling bottles and pots from Boots are perfect), a glass of wine and survey the incredible scenery.

Smash and Tuna Gourmet Delight

Smash and Tuna Gourmet Delight

I hope I’m not waxing too lyrical, but I have to say that that afternoon and evening were the most perfect and magical of my life so far.

To wake up to that view isn’t bad either (she understated).

We were up with the lark, wild-camping style, packed up and off in the direction of High Force with this for our view:

The Eden River

The Eden River

Can you beat that?

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Into the WILD! Day 4: Alston to High Cup Nick

Blenkinsopp Common had taken its toll. My feet were in an uncomfortable state of disrepair, blisters are serious business when you still have 80 or 90 miles to walk. So I hobbled up the hill on a quest for soothing beer that night, and chatted drunkenly with mad old women who were visiting Alston to take an art course while troughing lasagne. I managed near on 4 pints of Black Sheep, which – incidentally – is far better than the bottled variety; they put fizz into beer when it goes into bottles and that degrades it considerably.

The next morning we determined to go to the outdoor shop in the village to find some magic solution to our predicament; our boots, which started  very happily, had become completely permeable to the wet: not surprising considering that we’d waded the best part of 15 miles through the neverending puddle that is Blenkinsopp Common; but I could hardly walk uphill due to the blisters on my heels. Alice, had the opposite problem due to a recently diagnosed case of patellofemoral syndrome (or runner’s knee if you prefer the vernacular) so she was struggling to walk downhill. Somewhere far off, the Gods laughed.

Alston is quite probably the village featured in the Hovis adverts. I half expected to be taken out by a freckled ginger kid on an old fashioned bike, but the local youth were nowhere in evidence. Alston is famous for its sausages (apparently), for being the highest market town in England and all the streets are cobbled thus:

alston

Down the hill in the picture on the right-hand side is the Angel Inn, scene of the previous night’s shenanigans. We briefly met another couple who were walking the Pennine Way in the opposite direction in the pub and they told us of the interminable slog they’d endured over Cross Fell and along the dubiously monikered “Corpse Road” that day to reach Alston; it was not the first portent of doom we were to have relayed on the subject of the next stage of our itinerary and with my disintegrating feet and Alice’s hurty knee we were already beginning to question the wisdom of trying to make it to the next point of civilisation: some 21 miles away in the remote village of Dufton. Neither of us felt particularly optimistic about such a gruelling march across some very inhospitable country so we decided to see if we couldn’t find an easier way.

Besides, I rather liked Alston, but clearly, not everyone felt so positive about the place.

alston2

It wasn’t an especially easy decision, and there are those, purists and long-distance walk fanatics who would surely have scoffed at us for even considering such a soft option. We were learning very quickly though that the Pennine Way is not an easy walk. The difficulty in navigation, the roughness of the terrain, the wet, the lack of shelter, the remoteness of the fells and the sheer distances that you are required to cover to get to civilisation all combine to create a challenge that is far more gruelling than we had expected. Besides, we decided that since this was our holiday, there was no sense in making ourselves miserable, so instead of setting out at some unearthly hour on a death march to Dufton, we decided to find ourselves a public transport alternative and take some time to eat, rest and recover from our two days of slogging over the interminable marshes of Northumbria.

Our first task then was to try and find some way of keeping our feet dry. We called in at the Hi-Pennine Outdoor Shop and found the staff there to be incredibly helpful and after discussing our predicament they even telephoned the youth hostel to see if anyone was driving to Dufton that day and would be willing to offer us a lift. Sadly, the fates were against us in that respect  but we did invest in a pair of Sealskinz waterproof socks each. I cannot even begin to convey how wonderful these things are, although they are not remotely cheap, so they are not the kind of socks you can stock up on. From this point forward I was blessed with completely dry and problem free feet – and that boon cannot be remotely underestimated when you’re on a long-distance walking holiday. Apparently, you can stand in water with them on, confident that your feet will remain completely dry, but the miracle is that they are like normal socks; they are breathable and warm and soft; it’s not like putting plastic bags or the like over your feet. We also, crucially found some butane for our little stove.

Eventually we found a convoluted route out of Alston and went next door to the Blueberry tea-rooms to wait for said transport, of course, with time on our hands and feeling rather hungry (in spite of the great feast of beer and lasagne from the night before) we ordered breakfast from the most surly waitress which it has ever been my displeasure to encounter. She stopped short of actually swearing or spitting at us, but we sat for a few stunned seconds in the aftermath of her taking our order before embarking on a discussion of exactly why anyone would take a job when they were clearly so unsuited to it. Even so, the breakfast, when it did arrive was delicious, so I cannot complain too much.

Our revised plan was to make our way to Dufton and camp at High Cup Nick, so I went back to the camping shop while Alice hunted down our transport options at the other end of the village. I bought a cheap plastic container and decanted a bottle of Jacob’s Creek Shiraz into it before joining her. The woman in the camp shop promised she’d think of us as she sat warmly and dryly in her house watching telly that night. If you ever find yourself in Alston go and say hello and please convey our warm regards to those in that fine establishment, they were most fine and friendly.

To cut a long and rather tedious story short, we eventually arrived in Dufton and proceeded to walk the 4 miles or so to High Cup Nick. Vertically. With a hangover.

Okay, I whined more or less incessantly, like a big girl’s blouse. Alice very stoically ignored me for most of the way, although (in my defence) she’d drunk less than me and even palmed off her last half pint of Black Sheep Ale onto me the night before. I realise that she didn’t put a gun to my head or anything, but still, it would have been a shocking sin to leave it to be tipped down the sink, so I felt that I’d really had no choice but to drink more than was sensible. Goodness, did I feel it though on the long climb out of Dufton that morning. For the first time we met substantial numbers walking the opposite direction; indeed, 80% walk the Pennines from South to North, but with Uranus rising, I wasn’t going to fall for that convention. The weather wasn’t especially wonderful either; more rain, wind and cold, August was beginning to feel distinctly distant and mythical.

alston3

We carried on, not sure where we were going to sleep that night, but knowing that we’d have to find a remote spot in any case because we had dallied overlong in Alston and couldn’t hope to reach human habitation before nightfall. It was looking grim, the weather was ferocious and so we marched on; little were we to know that it would turn out to be the best day so far.

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South Downs Scramble

(Itinerary: Eastbourne – Jevington – Alfriston – Cuckmere Haven – Friston – Eastbourne)

South Downs Way

South Downs Way

A brief interjection…

Having spent a week walking  a portion of the Pennine Way this summer, we felt it would be foolish to allow fitness levels to drop too much, quite apart from the fact that the more we use our kit, the more return we get for our money 😉

So, on Saturday morning, armed with backpacks once more (it had become tricky walking without one…) we hopped on a train to Eastbourne and marched out of that town onto the South Downs Way. It is, of course, an entirely different proposition. The South Downs Way is, generally speaking, wide chalk-white paths etching meandering ribbons into rolling hills; none of the barren magnitude of the Northumberland wilderness. But it is none the poorer for that. The terrain, while mercifully free of that godforsaken peaty bog, is firm and easy-going but hilly. Man, is it hilly!

A Typical View of the Downs Paths

A Typical View of the Downs Paths


The first stretch, out of Eastbourne, decided against breaking us in gently and took us directly upwards, over a golf course and out onto breathtaking countryside, the hills nestling and overlapping like eggs in a basket, with distant views on at least two sides of a sparkling sea.

Jem-on-Downs

First View of the Downs - Sea on Horizon


We had decided on the following itinerary: march as efficiently as we could, via Jevington, to Alfriston where we would have a late lunch. Then, we would carry on up onto the Downs once more, find some Access Land on which to pitch our tent and have a light supper (thanks to our funky stove – yet another of this modern world’s greatest and most efficient inventions – have I mentioned that yet?) of cupasoups accompanied by tuna, mayonnaise and red pepper sandwiches (prepared before we left). Needless to say our itinerary – as appears to be becoming our trademark – bore little or no resemblance to the actual order of the day.

For starters, we had set off later than planned, necessitating a pause en route at Waitrose for a quick pork pie. Thank God we did. The walk to Jevington was beautiful. I have, as a child, walked on the South Downs on many occasions with my family, but had never started at this point, nor crossed these stretches. We passed a groove in the hills (Sussex’s rather subtler answer to High Cup Nick) called Harewick Bottom that was dramatically cut-away through the chalk. Incidentally, this is also a great route for cyclists as evidenced by the number who passed us as we wended our merry way. Knees and thighs moaning and groaning we descended into Jevington where we passed The Hungry Monk – a restaurant with, again, associations from my childhood. I remember my parents talking about going there (the name always did rather grasp my imagination) and that it was a pretty well-to-do establishment back in the day. It proudly stated from banners draped across its front that it had been serving fine food for forty years and I remarked on that fact to my lovely companion, just as a family of four passed us bemoaning the fact that it had gone downhill and was overpriced. Another sad symbol of our day and age…

Out of Jevington was nothing short of gruelling. I felt we were on a vertical climb, but it was credit to our week away that we managed it with neither a break nor a pause in conversation – we are becoming carthorses. Another gash scythed out of the rock, where a gentleman was flying his model aircraft (big boys and big toys) dropped dramatically away to our left as we began the descent into Alfriston.

The Descent to Alfriston (Beer!)

The Descent to Alfriston (Beer!)


We managed to entirely miss the Long Man of Wilmington, a figure dug into the chalk a very long time ago – arguments abound as to precisely when – but I am pleased to say we have seen him before so we weren’t too miffed.

Alfriston… ahhh… Alfriston! A lesson that needs to be learned. It is such a pretty village, but it has succumbed entirely to the temptation to fleece unsuspecting tourists and passers-by for whatever they have left in their purses. The George Inn charges positively outlandish prices for poncey-looking meals (I overheard a Spanish couple also commenting on the massive expense – baratisimo – as they perused the menu outside the establishment) whilst the pub down the road – now a brasserie, if you please – has at least the decency not to pretend it is doing anything but go upmarket. Not a hope of a pint of bitter there, though. The only remaining possibility for a relatively well-priced meal and a pint of beer is the Angel. Not inspiring, but it would probably have been all right. So disheartened and disgusted were we, though, at being shoved over a barrel and held to ransom in such a fashion that we sank a beer, begrudgingly, in the George and resolved to soldier on to the next settlement. There were several choices (our itinerary now, obviously, well out of the window) including Seaford – not our first choice; Litlington – rather small; and a promising-looking OS Explorer pint jug symbol signalling a pub near Cuckmere Haven.

Some of us were getting a little grumpy at this point. It had been a long time since our last meal and we had walked a good 8 miles by this stage. But on we plodded, narrowly avoiding a bit of a set-to with a feisty-looking herd of cows and their calves, to Litlington. The path from Alfriston to Litlington takes you along the Cuckmere river and is a terribly pretty route, probably the easiest going of the whole walk. The pub here (the Plough and Harrow) looked fine. The menu was reasonably-priced and consisted of delicious-sounding meals, but the time was 5.45 and they didn’t start serving food again until 6.30. Not knowing where we were going to camp for the night and needing to be far enough on with our journey to get to Eastbourne again relatively early the next day, we did not want to risk such a long stay and resolved to keep going to our next hope – Cuckmere Haven. Should this fail, Seaford was to be our last resort.

Litlington to Cuckmere Haven was gorgeous. Once again, the climbs were punishing, but the South Downs Way led us through Friston Forest to the timeless little haven that is Westdean, where every house is a picture postcard, and back up through Red Riding Hood country until we emerged to the awe-inspiring view of the Cuckmere Valley and the Seven Sisters Country Park.

Cuckmere Haven from Friston Forest

Cuckmere Haven from Friston Forest

On trembling knees we descended the slope to the main road which brings you out just by the Visitors’ Centre at Cuckmere, opposite the public car park. A short and increasingly hopeful walk along the road delivered us to the Golden Galleon – a welcome sight for the weary walker and oh, so very sympathetically priced. To add to our general delight, they had as guest ale Theakston’s Black Sheep – the very beer we drank a little too much of in Alston! Our faces warming and spirits reviving, we partook of some breaded mushrooms and a very welcome burger and chips, washed down by that rather lovely ale, and contemplated the horror of finding somewhere to pitch our tent in unknown territory in the dark (again! Will we ever learn?!) Stumbling out into the black, Jem came up with the rather clever solution of the grass along the bank of the Cuckmere’s meanders behind the car park.

It was a most fortuitous choice. Beautiful by night it was yet more so at 6.30 the following morning as we packed up our (rather damp) tent and prepared to be on our way. Dozens of geese flying overhead were our alarm call, a swan eyed us idly from its vantage point on the river, a white heron and a pair of cormorants flew by as we watched in speechless awe. Luck again, eh?

Eschewing the bus to Eastbourne, we opted instead for the five-mile yomp to give us an appetite for breakfast. It did not disappoint, but took us again through Friston Forest and Westdean, on into yet more and unutterably beautiful deep, dark wood (where we paused and employed our little stove for a well-earned cuppa) to Friston which was expansive but utterly deserted, with manicured lawns and empty houses – all a little eerie, out onto the farmland which was to take us the rest of the way back to town. Where we enjoyed a good ole English breakfast washed down with cups of tea. And caught the train home.

A weekend well spent, I am sure you’ll agree.

I have extracted a promise that next weekend we’ll do nothing. I mean, nothing. Except maybe watch a movie or two…

🙂

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