Thames Path: Day 1: Woolwich Arsenal to Greenwich


Woolwich Arsenal – Thames Barrier – Millenium Dome – Greenwich

I haven’t been on one of my beloved hiking trails this year, and the prospect of hiking in Nepal seems a long ways off right now…at least at the moment as we try and settle into our new lives.    In the middle of everything else this summer, I planned the possibility of starting a new UK trail, something I could do with family, in increments when I’m visiting. The Thames Path National Trail seemed perfect for that.  Its 180-200+ miles longs (depending on where you start) and follows the Thames from its source in Oxfordshire to the mouth of the river in London.  Also, almost half of it is easily accessible as a day trip from my family’s London home, which cuts down the cost and logistics.  So with only a few precious family days here and there to grab over the years….this seemed like a very doable journey…even if it takes us forever!DSC00498

File:London River Services map.svg

Day one of the walk started at Woolwich Arsenal, home to Arsenal Football Club and the historic Royal Arsenal on the South bank of the Thames.  At this point in the journey, the Thames Paths offers a choice of North or South Bank and, for various reasons, we chose to follow the South Bank path.  Choosing to do the path in reverse (most people do it from the source out to the sea) meant that we were starting in the least developed part of the Thames.  In fact, parts of the path were still being finished, and as London starts to move Eastward and develop the its far Eastern Boroughs, previously long neglected, we walked through much construction and development, abandoned industrial sites and spanking new luxury apartments.

Thames Path

It many places the walk is well signposted. If you thought that that signage for a route that follows the river isn’t really important, you’d be wrong. The Thames Path at this stage of the journey and this point in time is a area in flux. There were plenty of clues that the path was constantly being diverted as construction affected the banks of the Thames. Or sometimes long established riverside property meant that the path would turn inland for a while and the way through the industrial backroads wasn’t always clear. I wouldn’t always have felt safe doing this part of the journey alone.

Woolwich Market

Woolwich Market near the start of the walk

Royal Woolwich Arsenal

Nikki on a call amid a sculpture at the Royal Arsenal. Walking through the Arsenal was an interesting mix of history, military heritage and funky art!

Woolwich Pier

Near Woolwich Pier. London through barbed wire. A grey prickly start to a very long walk….

Woolwich

Woolwich Thames Path. Canary Wharf in the far distance

Woolwich Ferry

Watching the Woolwich Ferry load up and depart…

DSC00497

First major landmark of the walk here is the Thames Barrier…


DSC00495

…and in the distance the next landmark… The Millenium Dome

If you glance at the earlier green map, this section of the walk could be shortened considerably by crossing inland across the large bend in the river.  Of course, that would totally be against the rules!  But it is relevant because the bend causes distortions in the perceived location and distance of landmarks.  At the Thames Barrier, the Millennium Dome seemed closer than it did a few kilometers further along the river.  And once we approached the Dome, we seemed forever in its shadow.  It was perpetually just around the corner, upon us, or just behind us for what felt like most of the walk that day.

The Emirates Airline Cable Car

The Emirates Airline Cable Car across the Thames. A pretty new addition that I had no idea existed. Apparently originally designed as a commuter option for crossing the Thames, since the end of Olympic traffic use has dropped considerably. Most of the cars looked empty to us.

Canary Wharf

Canary Wharf

A second large loop in the Thames around the Isle of Dogs made for another windy detour towards our second omnipresent landmark:  Canary Wharf.  Canary Wharf is a new major financial district in London, its tall skyscrapers visible from a long way off. Like the Millenium Dome they stayed with us all day and into the nex,t until we were far along enough for even the tall towers to disappear.

The last stretch of the day was along a neglected strip of riverside towards Greenwich. It was run down, a little spooky, and full of reminders of an older industrial London port of times gone by.

boat

Nikki’s excellent photo of an old, creaky barge moored along that stretch of the river.

DSC00507

…and, yes, we had to walk along this stretch..under the arm of the bulldozer…after we got the ok from the driver. This stretch was definitely not quite ready for us!

Finally after this neglected section, we were suddenly in beautiful kept, historic Greenwich with its charming restored houses, quaint village pubs, historic sites and tourists. It was quite a change of scene.

DSC00509

The Royal Greenwich Observatory

Cutty Sark

At the Cutty Sark. Our last stop for the day


Hiking Pico de Loro


Pico de Loro Michelle and I hadn’t been hiking since The West Highland Way in Scotland. And prior to that The Banaue Rice Terraces  and Pinatubo Volcano were our last Filipino hiking experiences at least a year ago.  As we are both leaving the Philippines this summer, we wanted to get at least another one in before we leave.  We’d already missed the cooler months of December through March, and the only non-weekend day remaining on the calendar before departure was May 1…..so May 1 it was..hot or not!

Its amazing how having a hiking goal helps kick me into gear in the gym.  I went from dragging myself down there once a week on a Sunday to going 4-5 times/week on a mission.  (Note to self:  How about always having a hike planned?  It should be easy in Nepal!)

Pico de Loro

Pico de Loro

Pico de Loro is located in Ternate, in Cavite province, about a 2 hour drive from Manila. A friend had recommended to Michelle as an accessible day trip, not too difficult, on a well-marked trail, and I think that’s a pretty good summary of the hike.  As with all hikes here, its an up and down event (rather than cross-country).  I heard different times reported on how long it would take.  For us it was 7 hours roundtrip (which would probably would have been 6 hours if I hadn’t kept making us stop!)  Alot of the hiking is a more gradual climb, although there is a steep hour or so in the middle.  I found this exhausting in the heat as I couldn’t handle hiking sticks and a water bottle at the same time. ( I can’t believe I still don’t own a hydration system of some description.)  In general, I found the heat unbearable and I remember how exhausting Pinatubo was for just that reason.  There were times when I had to remind myself how great it was to be out of the city – and it really was….  Manila is not the Philippines, but it is so easy to forget sometimes.

Pico de Loro

May 1 is a Filipino holiday and I understand Pico de Loro is a popular hiking destination for college kids.  It was lucky we went as early as we did as the groups started to arrive in throngs after us.  At first I was taken aback how many kids were coming from behind, but they were the nicest people.  One group that over took us (because of my huffing and puffing) was kind enough to wait at a split in the path to make sure we took the right route.  And when I took a well earned break on the main ridge, they kindly offered to share all their food with me.  Really nice kids.  Many of them were staying the night and little camp sites starting going up all around.  While I waited for the others to come back from their attempt to ascend the beak, I watched a marriage proposal on a nearby rock.  Very cute.

They do need learn the hiker’s mantra that I was taught though:  take nothing, and leave nothing behind.  It was pretty clean up there, not too much litter, but it wasn’t litter free either.  And when I saw the piles and piles of plastic garbage at base camp that had been collected from a very recent clean up campaign, I understood how bad it could really get. I’m glad I didn’t get to see that.

The trail is marked as easy, and it is really – except for the heat.  Especially by Filipino standards where trails can involve climbing and ropes.  The beak itself I did not attempt, as rope climbing is not for me, but braver souls than me made it all the way to the top.  An accessible day hike from Manila.  Best done with an early start, December-February on a non-holiday weekday for a little more peace and solitude…

pico4

Revisiting Profitias Ilias


The church of Profitias Ilias (Prophet Elias/Elijah) is always the highest point in a given area in Greece, referencing Elias’s mountaintop Biblical stories. On Spetses, the church is at 245 meters, which is predictably the highest point on the island.  Not such a great height I know, but it’s high enough to give significant views out to both sides of the island.

We hadn’t visited in a really long while. Its a small detour from the Anagiri hiking path and most of the time our hiking party is just eager to get down to the beach. But I remembered going there when Latham and his friends were small (about four years old) and we hadn’t been back since. When we used to live in Spetses year round, it was best to go outside the summer months, especially with little kids. Here’s a few “then and now pictures” as contrast, both taken from the sterna (cistern) in front of the church. Happy days!

Latham and girl friends in front of Profitias Ilias, Spring 1999 I think.

Same spot July 2012. Unfortunately not the same group (except for Latham of course). But still a very rare “mothers and sons” pic.

The front of the church has a large working cistern. Here’s some more pictures from beside the well:

Clear Spring day 1999

Hot and hazy, July 2012

Hike to Anagiri


We have hiked over to the beach on the other side of Spetses for several years now. It takes 1.5-2 hours at a leisurely pace and I think most family and friends know the route now by themselves. About 15 years ago someone painted discreet red dots on the rocks to indicate the route. The dots have mostly faded or become covered in moss, but its not too difficult to remember without them.

Early morning start at Agios Vassilis

We usually get going early, around 7-7.30 am to avoid the sun on the ascent up to the ridge behind Agios Vassilis church. Its a steepish climb for about 20 minutes through the pine forest, and then a gentle climb up to Panagia Daskalaki, an abandoned monastery/church set among the trees. There are really pretty views from up there and we usually take a breakfast break as a reward for the climb.

Following the trail up to Panagia Daskalaki

The church itself is kept in pristine condition and visited on its saint day each year and there’s even still a functioning cistern full of fresh water. However the living quarters have long fallen into ruin. When we first visited about 15 years ago, the kitchen area still had a roof, and the sleeping quarters had a dangerously caved in roof still in place. Now the sleeping quarters are just a roofless shell.

Breakfast break

Ruined walls

After Panagia Daskalaki the trail leads to the wide ridge road that runs like a spine down the centre of the island.  From there onwards its a mostly gentle, winding descent to Anagiri beach.  The trail used to be well shaded with pine trees, but about 12 years ago a major fire ravaged the back side of the island and now its just an open and dusty trail.  A shame, of course, because the trees were so pretty, but also unfortunate because it means that the hike back is only for crazy people who can handle 100 degree plus direct sun beating down on a slow, dusty ascent.  We take the bus back!

Taking the trail down to Anagiri

Destination Anagiri – reached! Now for a swim….

Day 4: The Ridgeway: Wantage to Goring


Lockridge Farm was the best start to a new day that we had experienced yet.  The exit out the B&B took us immediately to a footpath and then straight on the trail.  No back pedaling, no rain, and no road walking.  The farm is located at the highest point in the local vicinity, so we headed out to more flat ridge walking and the occasional cyclist or jogger out and about on a Sunday morning.

The trail had few other walkers on it the whole time.  Its not as popular as the other long distance trails that I’ve walked, but today was Sunday and we did see a few family day walkers and dad’s out exercising with baby carriers or dogwalkers.

We did fourteen miles today, and most of it was level or down hill.  The few climbs we had were gentle and not very long.  We covered most of it quite quickly in about 5 hours, slowing down only near the end as the road walking started.  Crossing the river from Streatly into Goring, we entered West Berkshire(our third county in four days) and into the world of Sunday afternoon cream teas and day trippers out to enjoy the sun.

A beautiful four day trip.  Nikki was a great walker and we were really lucky with the weather.  48 miles.  DONE!

Day 3: The Ridgeway: Uffington to Wantage


The morning of the third day began with a steepish climb back up Uffington Hill, back to the White Horse and on to the continuation of the Ridgeway trail.  Only six miles today of trail walking, plus a couple of extra miles into Wantage, a small town off the Ridgeway proper.

The walking was pretty easy.  No real ascents or descent after the initial climb, just long stretches of ridge walking – it is called The Ridgeway after all.  Here’s a view of a typical stretch of trail.

It was dry but windy on the trail, and I was feeling a little too windswept today.  The scarf on my head became my new best friend as I tried to the hair out my face.  I got a bit tired of seeing pictures of myself with the thing on my head, but it did keep me sane.

Breaking up the miles of grassy trails, there were another couple of hill forts today, but we decided to keep going.  Pretty though they are, after a while its seen one, seen ‘em all…..

We took a nice long break at the Court Hill Tearooms not far from the end of today’s section.  We made tea and a cake last at least an hour as we took a break from the windy weather.

Of course, the last couple of miles into Wantage were along the road.  There’s some dangerous verge-less strips of road where there’s nowhere safe to stand away from the racing traffic, so we trespassed by taking a safer side route through some farm fields.

Wantage was upon us quickly, though.  It’s a pretty town with shops and restaurants, which came as quite a shock after a few days in villages.  We arrived at around 3pm and decided to stay there for dinner, before taking a taxi out to the B&B farmhouse where we were staying that evening.  After a coffee break, we took a little walk around the town, looking at the small, attractive houses, shops and church.

Around the churchyard


After a yummy Thai dinner at Yummy Thai Food, (yes, it really was!) we headed out to Lockridge Farm B&B by taxi.  No, it wasn’t cheating.  We were off the trail already!  Good stay, early night, and the last and longest day tomorrow….

Day 2: The Ridgeway: Ogbourne St George to Uffington


We woke up to our first rain in the morning.  The weather forecasters were promising brighter spells later in the day, but to start off we needed to don our raingear and head out the door regardless.  Again, we took a slightly different route than the Ridgeway for a short while in the morning, joining the trail a little north of the village.  Again, this meant some road walking but this time on a busier A road in the rain.  The cars whipped by the narrow grass verges where we stood for some protection, and I was glad to reach the Ridgeway trail again after about a mile.  The weather started to brighten and we saw the sun start to come out.  Our walk today was 12 miles with two highlights:  Waylands Smithy, another ancient long barrow, and the White Horse of Uffington, an ancient hill carving.

The view from the ridge in the light rain

There was lots of ground to cover across country lanes and wide grassy tracks.  I loved the wheat fields, splashes of poppies, bright rapeseed fields, and other crops growing around us.  We continued to spot different breeds of cows and sheep, as well as today’s animal highlight, horses, Lots of them.  Unlike the pea-brained sheep, when they saw us coming they all ran to the fence to greet us and watch us with an intelligent curiosity.  I wish I had been able to capture the sight as about 30 horses galloped together to the edge of the field.  Here’s my best effort with just a camera:

A field full of horses came over to greet us

Horses were an important theme of this trip.  Race horses feature prominently in the area.  Grassy circuits called “horse gallops” appeared alongside the trail regularly.  We hoped to catch a glimpse of them in training, but with no luck.  I think we were always too late in the day.  However, we did see them grazing in the fields, and being ridden around on the many bridleways that crossed our path.  And of course, there was the horse, the White Horse of Uffington, waiting to greet us at the end of the trail.

Sitting near the eye of the white horse looking down the valley

You can’t see the White Horse when you are on it, just swoops of bare chalk where the image has been carved.  Here’s a view of it from a distance away:

An explanation of the day wouldn’t be complete without a more detailed mention of Wayland’s Smithy, another extraordinary long barrow tucked away down a country lane.  Unlike the West Kennett Long Barrow we visited a couple of days earlier, we arrived in the afternoon as the sun made a re-appearance and everything seemed so much less spooky.

At the entrance to Wayland’s Smithy

In fact, Nikki managed to get a signal on her phone, and while she caught up on texts, I lay in the damp grass and closed my eyes.

Chillin’ at the barrow

I even managed to get a power nap.  We stayed at least half an hour in that quiet, hidden place until other visitors showed up and the spell was broken.

We spent the night at Norton House in Uffington Village, after about 1.5 miles of road walking to end our day.  A sore finish for the knees was starting to be a regular occurance.  Uffington Village is in Oxfordshire, somewhere today we crossed the border into the next county, and very pretty it is too.

There were lots of chocolate box thatched cottages and pretty English country gardens.  We had a pretty good dinner in The Fox and Hounds, except for the gritty side salad which really let them down.  A shorter day tomorrow – only six miles – almost a day off!

Day 1: The Ridgeway: East Kennett to Ogbourne St George


Today we were official beginning The Ridgeway trail, but we got off to a shakey start.  The B&B owner recommended a non-muddy shortcut to the start of the walk and we took it, and got lost.  It took us 45 minutes to get back on track and at the start of the Ridgeway proper.

Heading out from our first B&B

Both last night and today we noticed a lot of travelers around.  Not really gypsies, but young people attracted by the life on the road, the druids and ancient spiritual stories associated with this area.  They were very friendly, and soon disappeared as we moved away from the Avebury area.

Typical trail view at the start of the walk

Today’s goal was 9 miles to Ogbourne St George, passing through some very pretty country and more ancient sites.  The first stop of the day wasBarburyCastle, one of several iron age hill forts on the trail.  Most people hear the word “castle” and think of traditional stone castles that we all know from watching Robin Hood movies.  However, preceding these more well-known structures were wooden castles built in elevated locations for protection.  Today, of course, all that remains are the raised footings and sloping sides of the moats.  But with a little imagination you can still see their importance  to ancient tribes and how they would have protected them from marauding enemies.

Aerial view of Barbary Castle

Further along the path came the next interesting part of the walk, the beautiful Smeath’s Ridge – a wide grassy trail along the ridge of a hill covered in grazing sheep.  The farmer’s sign on the gate warned walkers to stay to the path as mother were still protecting their young, and we saw plenty of evidence of older lambs with their shaven mothers all over the field.  Along with the horses and cattle in adajecent fields it really was the picture perfect English countryside scene, especially now as the sun had come out.

Walking on Smeath’s Ridge

We relaxed for quite a while on a well-placed bench, enjoying the sun, the views and the white fluffy clouds.

Nikki taking lots of photos

Baby lambs with their mothers enjoying the sun

The last view miles of walking into Ogbury St George involved a little road walking.  We cheated a little, cutting off a corner of the official path as it really didn’t make any sense to walk in a big loop around the outskirts of the village when our room for the night was in the centre of town.  The village was pretty but the pavement walk on top of the previous 9 miles was hard on the legs.

Our bed for the night was at The Inn with the Well, and we have a very acceptable room in purpose built accommodation next to theInn.  The evening was sunny and pleasant, and after a pretty good dinner from the Thurs Curry Night menu, we turned in early for the longer day tomorrow.

Day 0: The Ridgeway: Discovering Avebury


Not strictly part of the Ridgeway, Avebury is a very interesting centre for prehistoric sites in Wiltshire.  We arrived for our walk around 3pm in the afternoon, with plenty of time to do a short 5-mile loop around the Avebury area to explore a little of the sites.  There’s a lot to see.  The Avebury stone circle is the most famous of the sites, but still nowhere near as well-known as the nearby Stonehenge.  The road cuts the stone circle into quarters, so its not really possible to photograph it as a complete circle unless you do it from the air. As I didn’t arrive by helicopter, here’s an aerial shot, courtesy of the internet to give you an idea:

There was so much to see in such a short time and we knew we’d be hungry soon, so we planned a 5-mile circuit tour of Avebury to view the Sanctuary and Avebury Circle first before a stop of a pub dinner. Then, as it’s still light until about 10.30pm, we would still have time to view Silbury Hill, West Kennett Avenue, and West Kennett Barrow, all ancient monuments dating back to the Iron Age or earlier.

The Red Lion pub in Avebury

But we lingered a little too long in the pub. After a nice Scottish salmon salad and a glass of wine, we almost gave up the urge to explore. But there was still plenty of light and once we were out among the stones, curiosity returned and we walked along the ancient West Kennett Avenue, still lined with Sarsen Stones, until it stopped in the middle of a cow field. The cows were blocking the path and with lots of them and only two of us, we felt a little cautious and climbed over the low barbed wire fence to avoid them. Of course this was a wasted effort as they scattered anyway once they saw us get a little closer.

Risking life and limb to avoid the ferocious cows!

Fortunately skin and clothing survived the barbed wire and we headed over the meadow to Silbury Hill, a mysterious hand-built chalk hill.  Who built it and why are still a mystery.

Silbury Hill – Made by ancient man. Photographed at dusk – hence the grainy photo.

From the hillside opposite we could see the West Kennett Long Barrow about ½ mile away. Barrows are ancient grave sites, usually containing the bones of a handful of people or more.  Some are long and narrow in shape, while others are round and hill-shaped.

High view of West Kennett Long Barrow

By the time we reached it, dusk was starting to fall and the barrow looked pretty spooky, spelt dank and quite frankly gave me the creeps.

Entrance to the Long Barrow

We quickly took a couple of pictures and shot away back towards our B&B as the sun got lower. A bit freaky that place.

We managed to view a lot that evening before we had even started the walk, and the trail promised plenty more sites tomorrow.

…and a peek inside. Spooky!

Following the Acorn: Walking The Ridgeway


Yes, really.  I just did another walk…back to back with the West Highland Way.  However, due to time restraints, it was just to be part of a long distance trail called The Ridgeway, which runs west to east in the south of England.  In Scotland, the thistle is the national symbol used to show the way on national trails.  In England it was the acorn that lead us across almost 50 miles of ancient rolling countryside.

Nikki at the start of the walk

My sister-in-law, Nikki, has long thought about doing a long distance walk and this year carved a window of time from her busy life to do a walk with me.  I managed to schedule it in too with all our comings and goings this summer, so the same day as I returned from Scotland, Nikki and I set off to Avebury in Wiltshire to start our journey.

Map of the whole Ridgeway. We traveled from Avebury to Goring in four days which is just under 50 miles.

Unlike the Coast 2 Coast Walk or the West Highland Way, this trail was not as wild or as difficult.  The rolling downs made the going easier, which left more time to explore many of the ancient castles, ruins and burial grounds that the area is famous for.  Everyone’s heard of Stonehenge (which is also in Wiltshire on nearby Salisbury Plain) but the county has many less famous, but equally interesting historical sites, which were ours to explore.  More to follow….

Stonehenge - not on our itinerary but very much part of the ancient history we were to explore

Stonehenge – not on our itinerary but very much part of the ancient history we were to explore