Reading this blog

I started writing this blog after requests to document my journey along the Compostella path in France.  Longer journeys are split down by day, with shorter expeditions grouped together into a single blog entry.  As well as walking, I’ve written reviews and blogged about marketing.

On the Way of St. James

These blogs cover stages one and five of the ancient path from Le-Puy-en-Valey to St-Jean-Pied-Port; more stages will be added as I complete them.

Through England’s Green and Pleasant Land

These blogs cover walking in England, including London and the South West Peninsula Coast Path.

Into the Celtic Mists

These blogs follow my recent trip along the Wicklow Way in Ireland.

Other Items

I have also written reviews and blogged about marketing.

I hope you enjoy reading them.  Leave a comment if you’d like more information.

Phil Male, London, November 2015.


Completing the French section of the Way of St. James

This blog completes my series following the French section of the Way of St. James (Le Puy route, or the Via Podiensis).  At the end, I crossed the border into Spain before heading back home to London.  This time, I decided to ‘go authentic’ and not use a travel agent or a baggage transport service.  Just pack my ruck sack and get on the train!  This had advantages and disadvantages, on the plus side it’s a lot cheaper, you can also set your own pace.  On the downside, you’re always risking having nowhere to sleep for the night.  In September that’s not too risky, but there were many occasions when only communal gites were available.  You also have to carry a much heavier sack, with spare clothes, washing equipment, towel, sheet sleeping bag, torch etc. which can weigh quite a lot.

Day 0 – Travelling to Aire-sur-l’Adour

Last time I had flown out to Toulouse and then got stung with a horrendous taxi fare due to the French train strikes. That had made me regret being too organised, so I booked my travel and accommodation a day or so before leaving.  Train turned out to be cheaper that flying, so I took a combination of the London Underground, Eurostar, the Paris Metro, TGV, SNCF and a bus.  All in all it probably took around 10 hours, but I like to leave long changeovers for trains, just in case.

I arrived safely and stayed in the Chez L’Ahumat hotel, which I’d found on  The room and breakfast were fine and the price reasonable.

Day 1 – Aire-sur-l’Adour to Arzacq-Arraziguet (34 kms)

Gite Communal in Arzacq-Arraziguet

A flat, but long trip.  I walked largely on my own before encountering some of the other pilgrims whose paths I would cross towards the end of the day.  I mainly walked along country roads and lanes in around 30C heat.  I booked in at the Center d’Accueil Communal (communal accommodation).  I was sharing my dorm room with one other person, who I’d met along the route.  The evening meal was duck and chips, which worked pretty well.  I met two English women who were riding the route (and had been since May), supported by one of their husbands who drove the horse box ahead of them.  With breakfast included as well, this gite was good value, but I struggled to get much sleep in the communal area.

Day 2 – Arzacq-Arraziguet to Arthez-de-Bearn (29 kms)

I’d forgotten to bring a light sleeping bag, pillow case, towel and the button had come off my walking trousers.  Luckily, there was a supermarket in town where I was able to buy a pillow case and towel, a sheet and small sewing kit.  I mended my trousers and made a simple sleeping bag from the sheet, I then bought a filled baguette from the local boulangerie and headed off.

The terrain was getting more hilly as the mountains were gradually approaching.  My next stopping off place was the Maison des Pelerins, a very basic Catholic-church run communal gite. It was very cheap at just E11 per night.  Although I had to buy my dinner from the local supermarket.  In the gite I met a Polish man who was cycling the who route from Cracow to Santiago.

Day 3 – Arzacq-Arraziguet to Susimiou (32 kms)

I’d not slept wonderfully well in the two communal gites, and it was beginning to show in my pace.  The temperature kept rising and I was having to rest and drink every few miles.  The accommodation recommended in my Michelin guide was full, so I took to to see if I could find somewhere else.  All that I could find nearby was a luxury tree house!  I quickly booked it.

La cabine du vieux chene

As I walked, I could now see the mountains and a storm was brewing in them. I was quite relieved as it brought the temperature right down and I started to speed up again.  The rain, when it came, was very welcome.

I got to the tree house and was shown up. There was a double bedroom, small sitting room, a sawdust toilet and veranda.  All half way up an oak tree accessible by a spiral staircase!  A shower and washing facilities were available nearer to a large guest house, although there was a small sink with running water.  Dinner that evening was in the main house and was Basque-style fish stew know as Marmitako, followed by trifle and local wine.  I was warned not to come down from the tree house at night as wild boar lived in the area.  I wasn’t 100% sure I believed that, but wasn’t going to take the risk!  That night I slept very well.

Day 4 – Susimiou to Aroue-Ithorots-Olhaiby (15 kms)

The day started well.  My hosts in the tree house winched my breakfast up on a pulley and I ate it to the sound of the dawn chorus in the trees.  They dropped me back on the route and I got going.  Things were going well, until I reached an apparently straightforward path, I wondered off the track accidentally and had to find my way back using my compass.  I was confidently back on the path when, bang, I fell heavily over on a small patch of slippery mud, hurting my hip.  The weight of my pack had pulled me over quickly and irresistibly.   A fellow walker checked that I was alright.

My night of luxury was over and my next stopping off point was another communal gite.  There were no shops in the village, but you could buy basic provisions from the gite and prepare them for yourself.  We were also warned that there was nowhere to buy food between Aroue-Ithorots-Olhaiby and the next stopping point, so we had to ensure that we had enough provisions for the next day.

Dewy web

Day 5 – Aroue-Ithorots-Olhaiby to Ostabat-Asme (21 kms)

Sleep was patchy in the communal dormitory.  But then at 4.30am, crash, my bed collapsed underneath me banging my head and shoulder.  Obviously, I woke everyone up!  Hurt and embarrassed, I gathered my things up and headed out into the dark.  The sun wasn’t due to rise for over another two hours, so I found my way along the path using a torch.  Luckily, the GR65 is so well marked that its difficult to get lost even in the dead of night.  Breakfast was too squares of dark chocolate and some water.

Seeing the stars and the sunrise made up for it though, and I was treated to seeing the mountains rise from their surrounding mists.  I was glad to get to my next stop in the early afternoon; Gite d’etape Izarrak.  Another communal sleeping area (and mixed gender), but with a more solid bed!  The meal was a traditional Basque recipe and it was accompanied by Basque singing and local wine.  There was also a swimming pool.  I was so tired from the night before that I slept well that night.

Day 6 – Ostabat-Asme to St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port (the last leg, 20 kms)

Pretty much everyone I’d encountered en-route had gathered in Ostabat, and we all set off together.  The pack started to split a bit as the day wore on, and there was one obstacle left Col d’Oyhanzarre, a 365 m high foothill of the Pyrenees.  I trudged up the hill to be treated by the sight of eagles flying overhead.  Now things got easier.

A herd of cows

As I descended towards St Jean, a herd of cows passed me by, heading in the opposite direction.  The mountains loomed closer and closer, until eventually myself and a few others passed through the gate of St Jean.  The Via Podiensis, or Compostelle from Le Puy was finished!

Day 7 – Epilogue:  Crossing the Border (16 kms)

I was staying at the Villa Goxhi guest house about a kilometer along the famous Camino Frances.  Although I knew that there was no way I could do the next section and get back that day, I decided to cross the border into Spain.  To do this, I had to take a variant on the GR65, the Valcarlos route.  I was right in the mountains now and following the river and main road.

On the border was an out of town shopping centre, originally for duty free sales.  There was no sign to indicate that I had walked into another country, except the signs were in Spanish and Basque rather than French and Basque.  My mobile phone operator also texted me, welcoming me to Spain.  I wished that I could continue, but instead headed back for St. Jean.

So what next? Should I return and continue to Santiago, or do a completely different route?





Walking the Emerald Coast of Brittany: St. Malo to Mont St. Michel

The Emerald Coast is a stretch of Brittany coastline running broadly from the famous Mont St. Michel in the east to Cap d’Erquy in the west; a distance of nearly 200 miles.  Starting in 2016, Sue and I walked the entire path. We completed it in two – week-long – sections; east from St. Malo to Mont St. Michel, and west from St. Malo to Cap d’Erquy.

St. Malo is an obvious starting point if you live in the UK.  There is a daily ferry service from Southampton, which takes you there overnight and back during the day.  Relatively inexpensive for foot passengers, the journey takes around eight hours; and you get to sail past many of the islands in the Channel; including the Isle of Wight, Jersey, Guernsey and Cezanne.  On arrival you can look around the walled city before starting your hike.

The name ‘Emerald Coast’ is a relatively recent invention, being thought up for marketing the area in the 20th century.  It refers to the noticeably green seas around the coast, made verdant by abundant sea-life.  Traditionally, the area was known as the ‘Clos Poulet‘ or chicken coup, a particularly unappealing name corrupted from the Latin ‘Pagus Aleti’ (Alet’s Land).

Brittany derives its name from the settlers from Britain who came to the area from the fourth century onward, possibly, to escape the encroaching Anglo-Saxons  who were colonising what was to become England from the east. Hence the region shares much in common culturally with the English west country, Wales and Cumbria.  The, now rarely spoken, native tongue of Breton shares much in common with Welsh and other Celtic languages.  More apparent is a shared love for Arthurian legend and general mysticism.

The climate is generally similar to that of southern England, although perhaps a degree or two warmer on average. Rainfall is frequent, although we only had one day of really torrential rain in our two separate weeks in the region. The following walk was in late June 2017.

Sunday:  Guimorais to Point du Grouin (around eight miles)

Departing the ferry on Sunday morning, we were met by our taxi driver who took our luggage to our next destination and dropped us off in a small village called Guimorais.  We headed towards the coast to join the GR34 (grande randonnee or long-distance footpath) along the coast.  Following the path is easy, as it is clearly marked with red and white painted bars at regular intervals.

Aside from the craggy coastline and great views back out across the bay towards St. Malo, perhaps the most notable

sight is Guesclin island.  Topped by a medieval fort, now a private house; this small island was once occupied by Henry III King of England, for a brief period in 1207.  Site of many battles against the English, and later occupied by Nazi Germany, the island has a rich history.

Crossing the headland, we caught our first glimpse of the Bay of Mt. St. Michel to the east.  We then made our way to our first hotel, the Hotel Point du Grouin.  From the hotel you could see the craggy islands now serving as wildlife reserves and light-house off the coast.

Monday:  Point du Grouin to La Houle (around six miles)

Although, not that far in distance, this was perhaps the most difficult part of the walk.  The path led up and down some quite tricky paths, often with a sheer drop to the rocks below to one side.  Luckily, the weather was fine so we didn’t risk slipping on the paths.  Our walking poles (Sue christened her two which she had borrowed from a friend, John and Charles Wesley) were an invaluable aid on this section.

Resting in the first large bay (Port Mer) I caught my first sight of Mt. St. Michel, barely visible as a small, grey triangle on the horizon.  Awkwardly holding my binoculars against my phone’s camera, I was able to snap a first picture.  You can see it just to the left of the cliff.

We continued along the coast until reaching the resort of Cancale.  Famous for its oysters.  Cancale oysters are renowned throughout France and are farmed on large beds just out to sea.  I’ve had oysters before, and not enjoyed them.  However, my mind was changed by tasting these oysters which, when served with lemon and caramelised onion sauce are delicious.

Walking through Cancale to La Houle, we reached our next stop.  Ty Lilli, a nice bed and breakfast on the seafront.  In the evening, we dined out on a Breton speciality – gallettes – a savoury pancake filled with various items such as eggs, cheese and ham.

Tuesday:  La Houle to Mont-Dol (11 miles)

The next day took us along the ‘polders’ (land reclaimed from the sea) and then inland.  The bay of Mt. St. Michel has the largest tides in Europe, with the sea going out over six miles at low tide.  The tide moves fast too, at a brisk walking pace of around 4 mph.

The polders were easy and flat walking, but the weather turned very wet as we headed inland towards our next stop; Mont Dol, a small, rocky former island some miles inland.  By the time we reached Mont Dol, we were thoroughly soaked.

However, our hotel wouldn’t allow us in until 4.30pm, and as we had arrived by around 3pm  we needed to find some shelter.  We noticed that the village church was open during the day, so decided to go there.  However, we found out that we were in the middle of a requiem mass; but were made to feel welcome.

The rain had started to subside, so we made our way up Mont Dol to a tower with a statue of Mary on top, keeping watch over the local area.  We were able to climb to the top and see right out as far Point de Grouin.

On descending the hill, we had dried out and were let into the hotel.  The hotel was comfortable, and dinner was served in a separate restaurant.  After dinner, drinks were served in the drawing room, all very nice, but a little awkward.

Wednesday:  Mont Dol to St. Broladre (11 miles)

We continued our journey inland to first visit the medieval town of Dol de Bretagne.   Dominated by a spectacular cathedral, this town is reputed to be the home of ‘House of Stewart’, who became kings and Scotland and later the unified kingdoms of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland.

Our first stop was the cathedral; dedicated to St. Samson who travelled from Wales to found a monastery on the site in 548.  300 years later work began on building the cathedral, which took another 500 years to complete.  (To be fair it was repeatedly destroyed by the Normans, the Vikings and the English.)

After the cathedral we found a very amusing restaurant ‘The Round Table‘; with a number of Arthurian themed dishes and drinks, including ‘Lady of the Lake’ gallettes (seafood if I remember rightly) and Lancelot beer.

We next headed further inland and found the ancient ‘menhir’ (standing stone) not far from the town.  This gigantic stone had been placed there during the stone age.  (Asterix fans, may recall that Obelix made and delivered menhirs for a living!)

Near to the stone, we found a board explaining three legends about this mysterious stone’s origins.  Firstly, it was reputed to have been thrown by the Devil from Mont Dol at the cathedral. However, the Devil’s aim wasn’t too good and he overshot by some considerable distance! Secondly, it was believed to have fallen from heaven to stop a battle between two brothers on the field.   And finally, legend has it that the stone imperceptibly moves into the ground a little each time someones dies.  When it is completely buried, the end of the world will come.

Moving on, we now had to make it to our next stop, La Petite Ange in St. Broladre.  As we’d already had quite a packed day, we didn’t arrive until around 7pm.  Set in a relaxed farmhouse, we were befriended by the farm cat, who we found sleeping in our suitcase the next morning!

Thursday:  St. Broladre to Mont Saint Michel (12 miles)

Our recommended route took us through the hills and then along the river to the bay of Mt. St. Michel.  However, we decided to take a short-cut, head for the sea and then simply follow the path towards Mt. St. Michel.  When we emerged by the sea, the Mont was now much nearer than when we had last seen it.  And it was fascinating to see it gradually approach.

At last we reached the barrage over the River Rance, which drains into the bay, and saw the Mt. St. Michel in all its glory.  There are a few hotels on the island, but most visitors stay on the mainland, from where you can either walk to the Mont over a bridge, or catch a free shuttle bus.

We easily found our next accommodation, La Jacoterie, not far from the footpath.

Friday:  Mont Saint Michel

Although, Mt. St. Michel is the second most visited tourist attraction in France (after the Eiffel Tower) I’d never been there.  Sue had seen it from the road when on a school trip to Normandy though, but hadn’t visited it.

The first big question though is, is the Mt. St. Michel in Brittany or Normandy?  This was a highly contentious issue when the Dukes of Normandy vied with those of Brittany for control of this important religious site.  The river marks the border between Brittany and Normandy, so as it then flows around the island, an argument could be made for each.  However, officially, it’s in Normandy.

Work on Mt. St. Michel started in 709, when the Bishop of the local diocese was instructed by the Archangel Michel to build a shrine in the island.   Initially, the bishop refused, but the angel visited him one night, making a hole in in head, to ensure that the bishop got the message.  300 years later, there was a thriving community of Benedictine monks living in abbey on top of the rock.

Construction continued over the next 900 years, with ramparts being built in the 14th century to protect it from siege from the English, and the spire actually not being in place until the late 19th century.  Today, and for most of its history, Mt. St. Michel was home to a monastic community; however, after the French Revolution it was converted into a prison, when much of its interior decorations were lost.

We were lucky enough to attend a service of Vespers in the evening, open to the public.  Although only 12 monks and nuns live in the abbey, the wonderful acoustics of the building made their voices sound like that of a much larger choir.

Saturday:  Guimorais to St. Malo (11 miles)

Having reached our destination, all that remained was to be dropped back off at our initial start point, and then walk back to St. Malo.  Going pack onto the rocky coastline was quite different to the flat polders we had walked along for much of our trip.

We reached St. Malo after a few hours walk, and then strolled around the rampart of the town.  Our ferry left at around 10am the next morning, and by Sunday afternoon we were back in England, having now completed the Emerald coast path.

All Around the Wrekin: a day’s hike around Telford

A Friday appointment at my employer’s office in Telford in Shropshire gave me an excellent opportunity to explore the local area on foot.  Although Telford itself isn’t exactly what you’d call a tourist attraction, it’s set in some of the most beautiful and historic countryside in the Midlands.  Most famous are the local hill called, the ‘Wrekin‘ and the Iron Bridge over the River Severn.  I combined the two into a day’s hike.

The Ercall

Ercall Woods

Ercall Woods

I stayed in the Whitehouse Hotel in Wellington.  Wellington is two stops down the line from Telford Central station and there is also a regular local bus service.  The hotel was walking distance from the ridge of hills known as the  ‘Shropshire Hills‘ in which the Wrekin sits.

On Saturday morning, I left the hotel and walked westwards along the old Roman road known as ‘Watling Street‘, I soon turned off to climb my first Shropshire Hill; ‘The Ercall‘.  Although small, the hill is quite hard going in places with some steep climbs and descents.  Covered in ancient oak woodland, it’s also an easy place to get lost; and I found that I had gone full circle around the

The Ercall Unconformity

The Ercall Unconformity

hill at one point!

The Ercall has been quarried for rocks since Roman times, and this quarrying led to the discovery of its most famous feature.  The Ercall unconformity.

If you look closely at the photograph, you can see towards the right-hand edge of the exposed orange coloured rock, a a change to grey rock.  The orange rocks (Ercall Granophyre if you must know) are volcanic in nature and date back to a time when sea creatures did not leave behind shells and other hard parts.  The grey rocks (Wrekin Quartzite) are sedimentary, having been laid down much later by an ancient ocean, and mark the time when marine animals began to produce hard parts, leaving behind many more fossils.

Leaving the Ercall, I continued on to climb the Wrekin.

The Wrekin

A popular phrase in the Midlands (and elsewhere, as I’d heard it before) is to go ‘all around the Wrekin‘.  This means to take a longer route than necessary.  Like many natural hills in the British Isles, the Wrekin was home to a Neolithic and Bronze Age hill fort, before being abandoned not long after the Roman invasion.  The fort formed a tribal meeting place, temple and the capital of the Cornovii tribe.

The Wrekin viewed from Ercall

The Wrekin viewed from Ercall

Wrekin summit, looking south

Wrekin summit, looking south

Wrekin summit looking west

Wrekin summit looking west

Wrekin summit looking north

Wrekin summit looking north

The path to the summit, approaching from the east, is well marked, and popular.  Once at the top, you are rewarded with spectacular views across Shropshire and as far as Wales.  Descending down the western slope is quieter, as most climbers return to their cars parked to the east.

Departing the Wrekin, I kept walking until I joined the Shropshire Way.  Heading east, I followed this path, which runs along a quiet local road, until I reached the village of Little Wenlock.   Here I stopped off at the excellent Huntsman Inn for some sausage and mash in the hikers’ bar.

The Iron Bridge

Heading due south, I soon came to the River Severn, and followed its northern bank eastwards towards Ironbridge. Reaching Ironbridge along the Severn Path was harder going than I’d expected.  Much of the path was impenetrably overgrown with nettles and other weeds.  However, I pushed on, walking by the road on occasion.

The Iron Bridge

The Iron Bridge

The Edward Albert Bridge

The Edward Albert Bridge

Before reaching the famous iron bridge, I passed other – less famous – iron bridges, including the Edward Albert Bridge.

Ironbridge itself was the silicon valley of the 18th century, and one of the cradles of the Industrial Revolution.  The famous landmark, was the first arch bridge in the world to be made of cast iron; and stands today as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

I ended my day by taking two buses back to Wellington and enjoying an authentic Balti meal.



Fells, Lakes and Stone Circles: Walking in the Lake District

I hadn’t been to the English Lake District since I was a child, so when two of our friends from London moved up to run the wonderful Glencoe Guest House in the lakeside town of Keswick; Sue and I were obviously keen to visit.  Even though Keswick is quite some way from London, getting there is actually easy.


Skiddaw fells from Derwentwater

We took a three-hour high speed train from London Euston to Penrith, and then an hourly bus from Penrith to Keswick.  Our guest house was then only a few minutes walk from the bus stop.

Our en-suite room was well appointed and our hosts; Keith and Sally, were very knowledgeable about the local area.  Keswick also has a wide choice of pubs and restaurants; and we tried out some local hostelries and Cumbrian Ale.

You can’t get far in Keswick, or the Lake District, without encountering the legacy of Alfred Wainwright.  Wainwright was a civil servant who, in his spare time, during the middle of the last century, took to walking up the hundreds of hills and mountains (known as ‘fells’).  A pre-internet age blogger; he carefully documented each of his trails with maps and illustrations.  Ultimately, he published these in his seven volume, Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells; which still acts as an inspiration to this day.   He described 214 fells, now known as ‘Wainwrights’, and walking up each of them is known as ‘Wainwright bagging.’

Day 1:  Derwentwater and Latrigg – around 17 miles

Keswick is set north of Derwentwater; a lake around three miles long, one mile wide and around 72 feet deep.  As well as being a very popular tourist attraction, it is also home to the last remaining natural habitat of the Ice Age fish the vendace.  We started our day with an excellent cooked breakfast, before heading out.


Towards Castle Crag from Derwentwater

We walked clockwise, often on the beach, sometimes on the road.  Before crossing a flooded path to the western side.  Although, as we found out later, you can easily avoid this path.

Derwentwater is undoubtedly one of the most picturesque areas of Great Britain, and affords spectacular view of the famous Cat Bells and Maiden Moor fells from the eastern side.  Cafes, however, cluster to the north-west, so if you’re walking in hot weather it’s worth bring some water with you.

After returning to Keswick, we grabbed a sandwich in local cafe and then headed off to bag our first Wainwright; Latrigg.  Whilst Latrigg isn’t quite the lowest of the Wainwrights, it is the easiest to ascend, so it’s an ideal fell to start with.

Leaving Keswick past the Leisure Centre, you walk to the start of the now defunct railway line but turn left towards Spoonygreen Lane.  This track takes you on to the Cumbrian Way for a while before offering a zig-zagging path to the summit.  From the summit you can clearly see Keswick, Derwentwater, Cat Bells and other fells including the Skiddaw mountain.


Looking towards Keswick from Latrigg

We then continued over the summit to ultimately descend onto the footpath which has replaced the old railway.  Crossing back and forth across the river Greta we made our way back to Keswick to enjoy a pub meal and a pint of Jennings Ale.

Day 2:  Skiddaw – 11 miles

From the top of Latrigg, you can clearly see Skiddaw.  A ridge of high ground rising to over


Skiddaw from Latrigg

3,000 feet (931 m).  At this height it counts as a mountain, the sixth highest in England.  Perhaps if we’d have known it was a mountain, we might have thought twice about climbing it!

Our hosts at the Glencoe Guest House, Keith and Sally, prepared an excellent packed lunch for us; including home made fruit cake.  Normally, I wouldn’t have accepted cake in a packed lunch, but fell walking requires additional energy and we were very grateful for it later.

Getting to Skiddaw is, on the face of it, quite straight-forward.  It’s about five miles from blog_skiddawKeswick, you follow the paths towards Latrigg along the Cumbrian Way, pass the Latrigg turn and then carry on until reaching a car park.  The route is then clearly sign posted and well trodden.  But it is steep, very steep.  Although you don’t need to do any scrambling up rocks it was quite hard work, and we were humbled by seeing fell runners rushing up to the top and even one woman carrying her mountain bike on her back to reach the summit! Apparently, mountain bikers then descend at high speed back down again; but I doubt the wisdom of this personally!

The weather got more Arctic the further we ascended and we came across snow, still fresh on the ground.  Just before Skiddaw is another Wainwright fell, Little Man, but we decided to pass him by and just get the top.

When we arrived, the feeling was amazing.  I’d climbed Snowdon as a child and been in the Alps as a teenager, but this was the first mountain I’d ascended for over 30 years.  I actually found descending harder than going up, but we got back to Keswick eventually, looking forward to some well needed food and drink.

Day 3:  Cat Bells and Derwentwater – 14 miles

Cat Bells is, perhaps, the most popular fell in the Lake District; sitting just to the side of Derwentwater.  I think its popularity is, to no short measure, down to its intriguing name and that you can sail to it on one of the regular lake launches which head out from Keswick.   However, I was actually inspired by Wainwright’s contemporary acolyte, Julia Bradbury, who climbed Cat Bells in one of her BBC4 ‘Wainwright Walks‘ series.  (Shh, you can also find them on YouTube.)  Having watched the programme twice, we tried to follow in her footsteps.


Cat Bells from Derwentwater

Cat Bells is possibly a corruption of ‘Cat Bields‘ meaning, lair of the wild cat – equally intriguing.   Wainwright describes Cat Bells as ‘one of the great favourites, a family fell where grandmothers and infants can climb the fells together‘.   Perhaps grandmothers and infants were much hardier when Wainwright was writing, as the fell isn’t as easy to ascend as it appears to be from the shore.

Instead of catching the launch, we decided to walk anti-clockwise around Derwentwater and approach the fell from

The view west

The view west

the north.  On reflection, it may have been better to have approached from the south.  The climb was short, but steep, and there were a few times when we needed to scramble up and down rock rather than walk.  However, we soon got to the top and were treated to a magnificent view across Derwentwater and out to the fells in the adjacent valley.


Derwentwater from the Cumbrian Way

We didn’t fancy climbing up the next fell, so headed down the slope to join the Cumbrian Way about three quarters of the way between the top of the fells and the lake shore.  This path was easy, although there was a steep drop to one side.  Soon we made it to Grange, the historic village and crossing over the River Derwent. We stopped off for a Cumberland sausage sandwich and drinks, before finishing our hike along the other side of the lake.

Disappointingly, on my return home, I looked at my GPS track on my phone and discovered that we hadn’t actually made it all the way to the top of Cat Bells.  Knocking my Wainwright score down to a measly two.

Day 4:  CastleRigg Stone Circle – 6.5 miles

Our final day was less strenuous, we decided to visit the nearby Castlerigg stone circle; about three miles out of Keswick.  Set upon a natural stage, surrounded by an amphitheatre of fells this ancient monument is well worth a visit.  The easiest way to get the stone circle is simply to follow the roads out of Keswick.

blog_stone_circleSurprisingly little is known about this mysterious building.  It was probably constructed around 3000 BC during the late stone age and remained in regular use until 900 BC.  One of the stones appears to have been aligned with sunrise on the Autumn equinox, and forms one of many similar circles throughout Britain and Brittany.

The current theory is that the stone circle was used to facilitate the trading stone axes made with local slate.    But rather than it being some sort of prehistoric tools shop, the trading of axes possibly involved some elaborate religious rituals which were conducted here.  It is thought that the people who built Stonehenge, far to the south, worshipped spirits who lived on the top of nearby hills, so perhaps the circle marks the locations of nearby deities as well?

As this was our last full day, we decided to have a relaxing afternoon browsing in the many shops in Keswick.

Essential Information

Getting there:  we took the Virgin Express from London Euston to Penrith and then the X4 bus from Penrith to Keswick.  You can wait in the MacDonalds next to the station for your bus.

Where to stay:  we stayed at the Glencoe Guest House, an ideal base or walkers and others.

What to take:  if you’re planning to do some fell walking, or walking by the lake; you’ll definitely need some sturdy hiking boots (preferably waterproof), a waterproof jacket, some warm clothes and preferably waterproof or quick-drying trousers.  Make sure you bring a map, your phone and enough to eat.

Where to eat:  there is a wide choice of reasonable priced pubs and restaurants.  We liked the Pack Horse Inn best.

Fun fact:  Derwentwater featured in the recent Star Wars:  The Force Awakens film, and was flown over by the Millennium Falcon, X-Wing and TIE fighters.







Walking the Grand Union Canal

Before moving back to London, Sue and I spent many years living in the Bedfordshire market town of Leighton Buzzard.  Situated approximately in the centre of a triangle edged by Aylesbury, Luton and Milton Keynes; Leighton Buzzard is well connected with roads, trains and a canal.  What with the onset of winter, we decided a great hiking project would be to walk ‘home’ along the Grand Union Canal which runs between London and Birmingham, passing through Leighton Buzzard as well as many other interesting places.


The Grand Union Canal at Berkhamstead

The railway broadly follows the canal, right up until Wolverton a few miles north of Milton Keynes.  So, it’s a convenient route to take on an irregular basis as you can get the train or tube to your start point, walk for the day, and then catch a train home from your end point.  Being a canal, it’s pretty much impossible to get lost (unless you go the wrong way!) and is well supplied with pubs en route.  The only downside is that the tow-path can get very muddy; so you do need to wear reasonably watertight hike boots in wet, or recently wet weather.

London Bridge to Putney Bridge: around 14 kms

We decided to actually start on the Thames path at London Bridge and then walk, over a


Looking towards Tower Bridge from the west

couple of days to where the canal joins the river at Brentford.  In previous trips, I made great use of the GPS map and routes on my phone, but for this walk, you don’t need it.  The best markers of your position are the numerous bridges, which are named along the Thames and numbered along the canal.

I’ve often been asked by overseas walkers, which route I’d recommend in England.  I’d


Stop off for fish and chips, pie and mash or a pizza

actually say the Thames path, as it offers history, architecture, convenience and great food and drink.  You can choose the north or south bank, but choose the south.  This part of the walk is probably one of the most culturally rich routes you could take on all of the planet.  Passing through busy markets, tourist traps, historical monuments dating back centuries and ultra-modern office blocks and museums; you have so much to see and do that you’d be forgiven for not walking beyond the Houses of Parliament in Westminster. But persevere and you’ll enter a quieter, less famous, but equally fascinating area of London beyond the normal tourist areas.


The Peace Pagoda

Our next big sight after Westminster was Battersea; home to the famous ‘power station’. The power station, memorable from Pink Floyd’s ‘Animals’ album cover amongst other appearances, no longer generates electricity; but is being re-developed into flats, shops, restaurants and a cinema.

After passing the power station, we came into Battersea Park; a large area of parkland and gardens.  Perhaps the most interesting item in the park is the Peace Pagoda. During the 1980’s; the world felt at threat from annihilation by nuclear weapons and London’s local government of the time, the Greater London Council (GLC) took a stand by nominating 1984 as its ‘year of peace’ and declaring London to be a ‘nuclear free zone’.  To celebrate this one of Japan’s foremost Buddhist groups donated the peace pagoda to the people of London; and Buddha now looks serenely out over the river.

Not far after Battersea, we reached our end point for the day; Putney Bridge and stayed for a great meal at one of the numerous local pubs.


Looking towards Albert Bridge from Battersea Park

Putney Bridge to Southall 21.8 kms

Arriving back a week or so later, we got going from where we’d left off.  A good thing about walking in London is that you can easily reach your start point, and return home again by public transport.  For the morning, we continued along the Thames Path towards Kew Bridge.


Thames Path near Kew


Looking towards Kew Bridge

By this point, London is becoming more suburban; but there’s still a lot to see.  We passed numerous rowing clubs and the London home of the famous William Morris.  William Morris was an influential interior designer, key member of the ‘arts and crafts’ movement and 19th century English socialist.  His wallpaper and fabric designs are still used to this day.


Starting on the Canal

By lunchtime we’d reached Kew Bridge and stopped off at the Greyhound Pub, just south of the bridge for some fish and chips.  Leaving the pub, crossing Kew Bridge, we got caught in a freak hail-storm; as the weather had been good when we’d set off in the morning I’d not packed a waterproof and got absolutely soaked!  On y va.

The main line of the Grand Union Canal starts at Thames Lock, not far from Kew Bridge.  The Grand Union canal is in fact a network of earlier canals, which didn’t fully open until 1927.  Running from London to Birmingham, it has a number of branch lines reaching to locations including Paddington, Aylesbury, Slough and Leicester.

We finished the day in the highly multi-cultural suburb of London called Southall, and then caught a bus home.

Hayes to Rickmansworth 22.63 kms

I’d looked for a good guide book to accompany our walk, but none are still in print. Luckily, I managed to get hold of a copy of Clive Holmes’ 1996 ‘The Grand Union Canal Walk: London to Birmingham’.  Although 20 years old, not

Swans are a frequent site of on the canal

Swans are a frequent site of on the canal

much seems to have changed, although a few pubs and much of the local industry has since gone.  Clive Holmes starts his walk on the Paddington branch of the canal, which doesn’t join the main line until Bull’s Bridge, just after where we left off last time and just before where we started today.  After reading the guide, I was able to drop using the GPS app on my phone and navigate just using the canal and the bridges.  Each bridge has a sequential number, and we’d returned to Bridge 200; Hayes.  This part of the walk takes you right out of London to Rickmansworth (Ricky to locals) in the beautiful Chiltern Hills.


A sinister guard

The path continues to run through suburban areas until reaching Uxbridge at Bridge 186.  The canal then pretty much follows the outer borders of London, before leaving the city altogether near Rickmansworth (Bridge 172).  We started to see more colourful houseboats after Uxbridge, many with romantic names. Interesting that people feel the need to personalise a boat more than a house or car.  The boats moor up and down the canal, so if you return, you may see a boat in a different place.  One memorable boat, which I nicknamed the HMS Jeremy Corbyn, was purely dedicated to animal rights.  Another had a defunct car built into the back of it to act as a cabin.  But most had more predictable names such as Saxon Wanderer and Hadynuff.

We passed Black Jack’s Lock just after Bridge 178.  This lock is reputed to be haunted by the ghost of its former keeper; ‘Black Jack’.  Jack was a large African man, brought in to enforce the tolls imposed on boatmen passing though.  One boatman, unable to pay his way, murdered Jack and his spirit reputedly lingers to this day.  Equally peculiarly, we passed a large plastic crocodile!

We stopped off to eat at one of my favourite local pubs; The Coy Carp.  Right next to the canal, the Coy Carp is a spacious ‘gastro-pub’ and we had ‘pie of the day’; with a local craft beer.  Passing through the Aquadrome (a collection of small lakes adjacent to the canal), we reached Rickmansworth station and took a short tube ride home.

Rickmansworth to Hemel Hempstead 18.96 kms

Today was a bit of a trudge, as it rained constantly for most of the day and the tow path become increasingly

Meeting a new friend at the King's Head

Meeting a new friend at the King’s Head

waterlogged and muddy.  Even full waterproofs and hike boots didn’t keep all of the water out. So we passed on the chance to look around the canal centre or the miniature canal with working locks.

We were glad to reach our lunchtime stop at Kings Langley.  The pub immediately next to the canal wasn’t great, so we shifted to the nearby King’s Head, a good choice.  A traditional English pub, the range of beers was limited but it had a great atmosphere.  To get to Kings Langley, we passed through Abbots Langley; home to England’s only pope, Nicolas Brekspear; who became Pope Adrian IV in 1154.

Time was pressing on and there was no break in the weather, so we pushed on to our next stop; Hemel Hempstead at Bridge 150.  The station is some way out of the town centre, and from the canal and Sue got completely soaked by an inconsiderate driver on our way. Although out of the Transport for London area, the trains connect to the underground system at Watford and we were able to make our way home.

Hemel Hempstead to Tring around 18 kms

Weather again proved to be a problem on our next leg.  This time the cold.  The temperature had dropped to around -5C overnight and the canal had frozen with a thin layer of ice.  Whilst this was fun, not so enjoyable were all of the

The Port of Berkamstead

The Port of Berkamstead

frozen puddles which became quite treacherous to navigate.  Hence, our progress was rather restricted, and even my phone had given up the ghost and didn’t record our mileage.

Our spirits rose when we reached Berkhamstead at Bridge 141.  Here in the 1060’s William the Conqueror was offered the Crown of England by the defeated Saxons.  You can still visit the ruins of a once powerful castle which had held the King of France captive.  The canal boasted three pubs, the furthest along of which appeared to have closed, but the other two were in rude health and we chose The Boat.  blog_berk2This turned out to be a great choice with a good selection of local beers and some excellent fish and chips.

It was getting cold again and the light was failing; so we agreed to call it a day when we reached the railway station at Tring, right by Bridge 135.  We were now right in the heart of the Chilterns and we could see the famous Ridgeway in the distance.

Tring to Leighton Buzzard 18.6 kms

The final leg took us ‘home’ to Leighton Buzzard.  This section is considered to be, perhaps, the most picturesque section of the walk.  The weather was cold, but dry, so ideal. We got off the train at Tring station which is some way out of the town centre, but right on the Ridgeway between Avebury and Ivinghoe Beacon as well as the canal.

Not far from the station, we stopped at Bulbourne.  Here the commercially unsuccessful


Bulbourne Dry Dock

Wendover arm of the canal splits from the mainline to Birmingham.  Just before the junction we stopped off for fish and chips and some locally brewed Tring Ridgeway ale at the Grand Junction Arms.  The quality of the food was excellent.


Stopping early on, meant a straight march to our destination.  We noticed at Bulbourne Junction a sign pointing to our starting point, Brentford, over 38 miles away.  Not far from Bulbourne, we passed through the picturesque wetlands of Tring reservoirs; these lakes are adjacent to the canal and provide great fishing and bird-watching opportunities.


Tring Reservoir

Next, we then came across the short Aylesbury arm of the canal, and almost started walking down it until I noticed that we were at Bridge 1!  We were now deep into the countryside, and experienced something very rare in the city.  Near silence.  Only the


Ivinghoe Beacon from the Canal

sound of the wind and some distant bird-song.  Looming ahead was the famous Ivinghoe Beacon, rising 233 m above sea level, the Beacon marks the end of the long-distance Ridgeway path.  Its height and location, also made it a site for a Bronze Age fort.

Gradually, the Beacon fell behind us as we headed north.  I was on the lookout for Leighton Buzzard’s most famous landmark; the spire of All Saints Church, which can be seen from many miles away.  I spotted it first somewhere between Bridges 118 and 116, and now knew our destination was not that much further.

We passed Grove Lock and a very good pub, and started to head into the outskirts of Leighton Buzzard and Linslade.  Finally, we reached Bridge 114 and climbed back into familiar territory.  Not pausing we headed for the nearby railway station reflecting upon the 114 bridges we crossed either under or over, and the nearly 50 miles we’d walked.








The Chess Valley Walk


The River Chess is a clear, chalk stream that flows through the Chiltern Hills just to the north-west of London.  Rising in Chesham  it flows through its valley to join the River Colne at Rickmansworth.  You can follow most of its route via the 10 mile (16 kms) Chess Valley walk. This walk is great for a winter’s day, as it takes between four and five hours to complete, and is easily accessible by public transport.

The purity of the Chess’ waters make it home to a wide variety of wildife; including water voles, storks, kingfishers and trout.  As it runs through the Chilterns AONB (area of outstanding natural beauty); the local scenery is attractive and the route is steeped in history.

Rickmansworth to the M25 Motorway

Rickmansworth (‘Ricky’ to locals) is just outside London and a stop on the Metropolitan line from Aldgate. I started at the station and made my way around the edge of the town centre to join the path near the recreational ground.

Although the Chess isn’t a broad river, it was quite wide at this point. Following the route was easy, just keep the river to your right and head upstream.  Although I didn’t spot any of the famous water voles, I did see a young stork on the river waiting for a fish.

The path heads alongside the village of Loudwater, the ancient name for the Chess river, to cross the mighty London Orbital mM25otorway; the M25. The motorway circles London and connects various other routes such as the M1 and M40. Opened in 1986; the motorway became instantly overloaded and clogged up – carrying 15% of the UK’s total motorway traffic.  Over time, matters may have eased a little, as the road has been continuously widened and expanded.

M25 to Latimer

After crossing the motorway, you pass through some open farmland with a terraced formation known as lychets.  This stepped landscape was formed by the area having been continuously ploughed since the 9th century.

Not long afterwards, I passed by the Sarrett Bottom watercress farm; the only commercial watercress farm still operating in the valley. Watercress is known to be one of the first leaf vegetables consumed by human beings, and was once extensively grown along the Chess.  Related Latimerto garden cress, mustard, radish and wasabi; watercress can be a delicious addition to soups and salads.

My next stop was Latimer; a village made up of a number of 17th and 18th Century houses around a village green. Latimer is also home to Latimer House; which was built in 1863. During World War 2 the house was an interrogation centre for senior prisoners of war, including Rudolf Hess. Latimer was also the site of a Roman Villa.

CanonsMillLatimer to Chesham

I lost the path not long after Latimer and got stuck on the wrong side of the river, having to walk a few miles along a road with no pavement before re-joining the path at Weirhouse Mill.

By this point I was pretty much at the end of my walk and was definitely hungry, not having passed any pubs or shops en route (note to self, take packed lunch and flask on your next walk).  I stopped off in the Red Lion pub before catching the Chesham train home.

If you’d like to try this walk out for yourself, take a look at the Chess Valley walk webpage.




Walking the Wicklow Way

Into the Celtic Mists

A short contract in Dublin, left me with an ideal opportunity to do some walking afterwards.  Although I’d been to Dublin a River_Glendaisanfew times before, I’d never ventured beyond the city.  I first heard of the Wicklow Way whilst walking the Compostella earlier this year, having read of it in a brochure in a French hotel.  Starting just outside Dublin,and being Ireland’s most famous long-distance footpath, this seemed too good an opportunity to miss.

The full Wicklow Way is nearly 130 kms long, although deviations to get to your accommodation may add quite some distance to this.  Traditionally, it’s walked from Marlay Park near Dublin to Clonegal to the south-west.  With just a few days spare, I’d been booked to walk from Glenalough, around two-thirds of the way along the route to Enniskerry, which is a day’s walk from Marlay Park.

Walking in early November in Ireland is approaching the last week you could reasonably go hiking before the days get too short; and the weather too cold and wet.  Snowfall in the mountains can be treacherous, as the path is very hard to find even under light snow.

Getting Started

I was already in Dublin, so I needed to make my way to my first bed and breakfast near Glenalough.  My instructions were to take the ‘St. Kevin’s bus’ and then walk.  As it transpired, there are only two buses per day between Dublin and Glenalough; one at 11.30am and one at 6pm.  So I had to be pretty sure that I’d make that bus.  A taxi would have cost a fortune, and the only other option was to take the commuter train to Rathdrum and take a taxi from there.

RiverI found the St. Kevin’s bus stop ridiculously early, having looked for it the night before.  There, I met a family of Belgians who were walking too, and we all got on the bus.  About an hour and half later, we made it to Glenalough.

It was dark, very dark.  We were the only people left on the bus and we all looked up to the heavens in astonishment to see the Milky Way gleaming brightly.  Living in London, you can forget just what the un-light polluted night sky looks like.  On the downside, I quickly realised that there was no way I was going to be able to find where I was staying on foot.  No taxis ran that late or that far out from the towns, so I called the B&B up and they kindly collected me.

I was actually staying in nearby Laragh, at the Riverside B&B.  A friendly and very well appointed place to spend the night.  For dinner, I was supplied with a torch and a high visibility jacket and dropped off at a nearby pub.  Irish pubs are very like English pubs, except that they’re more likely to have beef and Guinness stew on the menu.  So, my mind was made up; the stew it was.  I had to walk back, but – although being pitch black, this was actually quite easy.

Glendalough to Roundwood (18kms)

Rather than start in Laragh, which is a bit further along the Wicklow Way, I doubled back to start at Glendalough. Glendalough Glendalough is home to two lakes (loughs or lochs) and an ancient, ruined monastic city.  Glendalough is on the confluence of the Glenasan and Glenealo valleys and its name means ‘valley of the the two lakes‘.  At this point it was only really spitting with rain, and the mists added an air of mystery to the countryside and especially Glendalough monastery.

The monastery was established in the 7th century, but destroyed during the abolition of the monasteries in 1530.  It remained a site of pilgrimage until into the 19th century, however.  Much of the city is in ruins, or barely discernible, the site being dominated by the 30m tall round tower.  This tower was used by the monks to escape from Viking and other marauders, as they could flee to the top of the tower and pull up the ladder.

Glendalough_ruinI then walked across a board-walk allowing passage across a marsh to the first and smaller of the two loughs, ‘Lower Lake’. I decided not to carry on to Upper Lake, as I wasn’t sure how easy the journey would be from here on in. This was the only time I got lost.  I needed to join the path from Glenalough, but made a wrong turn somewhere and found myself scrabbling through undergrowth to get up to the path. It hadn’t even really started raining, it didn’t plan to stop, and by now I was so soaked that there was little point donning my waterproof trousers.

Back on the path, I climbed up to Paddock Hill, from where, despite the rain, I could see both lakes.  As the rain intensified, I needed to press on.  The path is well marked, you just need to follow signs showing a yellow hiker symbol and an arrow.  I passed in and out of woods before crossing the Avonmoor river.  Much of the Wicklow area is made up of granite, together with other rocks such as quartzite and slate.  Amongst the grey granites, you get glimpses if white quartzite, sometimes with a pinkish tinge.

Eventually, I came out onto the road and saw the sign for Roundwood. Much of the Wicklow Way is actually on the road, however in the pouring rain this is a good thing as the ground is firm.  A silver Skoda passed me en route, and then again, and again!  Eventually, the driver asked if I knew where a house he was looking for was; I didn’t but I said I’d look out for it. They then passed me about 15 more times, before eventually letting me know that they’d found the house, they’d be given the name of a building, not the house.  They offered to give me a lift into Roundwood, but as I was almost there I declined. They said that they’d thought that I would have had a good chance of walking the whole Wicklow Way before they found their house!

I got to the Coach House in Roundwood, my next stop; and checked in.  I took my large bag which had been transferred from Riverside up to my room and then came down to dry myself by the large open fire near the bar.

I recognised a fellow walker, Chere from Minnesota in the USA sitting at the bar.  We swapped stories of the day’s walk. The bar was fun and friendly, I tried some of the special craft ale from Cork and had a traditional Irish roast meal of bacon and cabbage.  The latter was much better than it sounds.  Slices of ham in parsley sauce with mashed potato and cabbage was exactly what I needed to warm up.

Roundwood to Crone Wood (19kms)

The second, and final, day of the walk was truly stunning.  Sunset was at 4.30pm, so I had to get moving fairly early. Luckily Mysterious_paththe Coach House provided a full Irish breakfast (sausage, egg, bacon, black and white pudding), and so I was on my way.  It was drizzling as I set off, but this stopped quite quickly and the clouds started to lift as I reached Ballinafunshoge Hill.

This part of the walk displays some of the most spectacular scenery in the British Isles, interspersed with strange trips through dark mysterious woods.  I hadn’t seen any other walkers the day before, but now I came across quite a few heading out from Dublin.  As I climbed towards the top of Djouce mountain, the wind started to pick up. Crossing the top of the mountain meant following a board-walk across the bog.  The wind was so strong that I was occasionally blown right off the walkway, only saved from plunging into the dark, black bog by my walking pole.  En route I could see Lough Tay, part of which is owned by the Guinness estate. The lough is black with peaty water and it is surrounded by a startlingly white beach, resembling a pint of Guinness!

Lough Tay

Once at the top of Djouce, you can see the Sugar Loaf mountain and Dublin Bay.


Descending the mountain, I passed a group of hikers and asked them if I was heading the right way for Crone Wood.  I was.  As it turned out, they were all in training to do their next section of the Camino walk outlined in my earlier blogs.  So we had a lot to talk about.  They even gave me a flapjack, proving the power of the Camino.

The descent was hard, as there were a lot of loose rocks and running streams to navigate.  I then noticed someone waving at me in the distance.  It was my American co-walker Chere, she had caught me up having been delayed at the Coach House.  We continued towards Crone Wood crossing the Dargle River and then ascended a very steep hillside.

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Crossing the River Dargal

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Finally, we entered Crone Woods and could see the famous Powerscourt waterfall from on high.  We were then picked up at the Crone Woods car park and taken to Coolakay House, a large and comfortable bed and breakfast not far out of Enniskerry.  Dinner was at a local pub.

That was all of my route along the Wicklow Way, but instead of heading back to Dublin for the next night, I decided to stay at Coolakay and visit Powerscourt House; a trip I’ll describe in my next blog.