What originally was a news section for the rest of the website soon became a place for me to write about human-powered wanderings in the countryside. Photography inspires me to get out there, mostly on foot these days, though cycling got me started. Musings on the wider context of outdoor activity complete the picture, so I hope that there is something of interest in all that you find here. Thank you for coming!
After my trip to Ireland in March, I noted how much good it did me and started pondering an Easter getaway to further the improvement. After surveying possibilities and rejecting a few because of the predicted inclement weather, I decided to base myself in Jersey instead.
For the sake of speed, I flew there and back to enjoy a week-long stay. St. Helier was where I based myself and a good bus network got me where I wanted to go. After that, ferry services allowed day trips to Saint-Malo and to Guernsey. What was not so convenient were some of the timings with an early morning arrival from Manchester along with early morning sea and air departures. The departures particularly meant that breakfast was skipped on some mornings in favour of getting something on the way.
Arriving early on Wednesday did mean a day of exploring though and it was possible to check in early at the hotel too. A stroll across the beach took me to St. Aubin, from where I ventured to Noirmont and wandered around its German gun emplacements. Sunshine was in short supply when I began this and cloud cover grew all the while with rain encroaching on the way back to st. Helier with the tide having come in while I was in Noirmont. It moves fast on these islands and covers a large area as it does so.
Thursday saw me head to L’Étacq, from where I was to walk all the day to Rozel in bright sunshine. Along the way, I passed Grosnez Castle, Plémont, Greve de Lecq, Bonne Nuit and Bouley Bay. After Greve de Lecq, there was an inland detour before the coast was reached again near the Devil’s Hole. A motorsport track meant another slight detour later on, but this was no deprival. There was plenty of dramatic coastal scenery to savour on what was the longest hike of the trip, and all the ups and downs made for tired legs too.
Friday became a day composed of shorter trips. The first was to La Corbière, whose dramatically sited lighthouse grabbed my attention while passing on the bus the previous morning. Next was Noirmont again, this time in bright sunshine so better photos could be made before strolling back to St. Helier across the beach. After that, there was an evening visit to Gorey to see and photograph Mont Orgueil Castle. That was a short stay but it was still long enough for the tide to come in to its full extent.
For Saturday, I went to Saint-Malo to retrace old steps from a school trip longer ago than I care to admit. The old town looked stunning as ever despite being festooned with a crane. Most of my time was spent beach hiking as far as Pointe de la Varde. The sun beat down on me as I did so and it felt unseasonably warm to me too. On the way back, I followed the GR34 and along a promenade much traipsed in that August numerous years ago. There was a brief call to Centre Patrick Varangot where we stayed back then. The hostel had not changed much apart from the sports facilities in front of it. Being there and spotting the hypermarché where midday lunches were sourced brought back some memories before I returned to the coast again. That was a quieter interlude before I ventured among others again, and especially so around the old town, which was very busy. Fancying somewhere quieter, I went out along Môle des Noires, a breakwater with a lighthouse at its end. By this time, I felt tired so I returned to the ferry terminal even though it was a bit early. It had been a good wander anyway.
On Sunday, the skies grew cloudier, but there was ample time for photographic wandering around St. Helier. That was followed by a saunter from Rozel to Gorey past St. Catherine’s under clouded skies. That may have limited photographic activity yet it was still a good stroll and finding a good vantage point for viewing Mont Orgueil Castle in the wrong weather was no perturbation.
Rain made a visit on Sunday night but I still went to Guernsey, perhaps with more hope than expectation. The weather improved as the day wore on, so there were plenty of dry interludes and occasional sunshine too. My wandering took me out of St. Peter Port, past Fermain Bay and as far as St. Martin’s Point before retracing my steps with some unintended deviations. There were views of nearby Herm and Sark to complement what was on Guernsey itself. There was a motorsport event at St. Peter Port so I was happy to get away from that, and there was plenty of peace and quiet away from that. While I might have fancied a visit to Castle Cornet, I thought it to be best to be at the ferry terminal in plenty of time with a deliberate detour through the town centre.
Tuesday morning was the drier part of the day and desire for a sighting of Jersey cows sent me out to St. John. That errand duly satisfied, I then made my way to the Waterworks Valley, through which I headed to First Tower on the island’s south coast. That was a rewarding hike and would benefit from a sun-blessed return, yet I did not feel short-changed. A stroll along the promenade by the beach returned me to St. Helier before the rain got too heavy and I was back in my hotel relaxing before my early departure the next day.
The whole trip had been very rewarding, and whets an appetite for a longer visit to Guernsey and perhaps Brittany. Only time will tell what becomes of such prospects with what else there is in my life. There was much gained in any event.
My perusal of a recent copy of TGO magazine brought me across a few possibilities in an issue having the strapline “Walk the World” on its cover. When it comes to overseas journeying, I tend to take what alpinists might call a centrist approach. What I mean is that I have a habit of basing myself in one location and exploring that and places situated around and about it. The other approach would be to go from place to place on an itinerary.
Certainly, my usual approach makes it much easier to organise a trip and it matters more when I am going further away from home: just book somewhere to stay and sort out how to travel there and back again. After that, it is possible to concentrate on finding one’s feet and experiencing any local delights to a deeper level than you would if moving from place to place. It also works well for independent travelling and that is what I did before the pandemic came our way.
There are many trips to Scotland and the Isle of Man where I have taken the centrist approach and it has come in handy for overseas escapades featuring Iceland, Switzerland, Austria, Spain and Canada. One notable exception has been Norway but, even there, I have limited my stopping points and there was a time that I traipsed from place to place around Scotland too.
Thus, the list of possible base “camps” for European excursions in that recent issue of TGO caught my eye. Two places on the lists have seen my footfall already: Innsbruck in Austria and Sóller in Mallorca. The first of these has an embarrassment of riches surrounding it that easily caused quandaries during my extended weekend stay during May 2016. The others need to remain on file for the future. They include Senja in Norway, Gavarnie in the Pyrenees, Sotres in Picos de Europa, Cortina d’Ampezzo in the Dolomites and Bled in Slovenia. All are near to the type of countryside that I relish so they could be worth seeking should opportunities arise.
In a similar vein, Outside also listed the best mountain towns in the U.S.A. and this too struck a chord with me since I have had designs on exploring American mountain country for a while. For example, the prospect of spending time around Denver and Boulder in Colorado during the summer of 2020 foundered because of the pandemic. So, getting a wider list could be helpful and there are twenty-four entries. The source article is behind a paywall but it is worth becoming a paid subscriber to get a list like this.
The possibilities include Cordova in Alaska, Sedona in Arizona, Bentonville in Arkansas, Truckee in California, Durango & Telluride in Colorado, Stanley in Idaho, Copper Harbor in Michigan, Bozeman & Whitefish in Montana, Asheville in North Carolina, North Conway in New Hampshire, Taos in New Mexico, Lake Placid in New York, Bend in Oregan, Spearfish in South Dakota, Chattanooga in Tennessee, Terlingua in Texas, Park City in Utah, Stowe in Vermont, Roanoke in Virginia, Leavenworth in Washington State, Davis in West Virginia and Jackson in Wyoming. Here, I have ordered things by state so you will need to go to the article to get their ordering and the details that they supply for there is a lot to uncover about these. Many already are places that I have checked out but others are not.
It is all very fine to have lists of locations but there are other considerations like accessibility using public transport and the availability and cost of accommodation. Some locations are sure to be well known and hence will be busy places so knowing quieter times like shoulder seasons will prove useful as could using the services of a travel company. Of course, you cannot go anywhere without having the ideas in the first place.
Having what is called a bucket list, a list of places that you would like to visit while you can, is common these days but I wonder if such a thing is all that desirable. By the its nature, the problems start when compiling a list of such ideas because chances are that you will select places that already are popular. That applies as much when perusing travel magazines or holiday brochures as it does when using social media.
One consequence of this is that certain locations become too popular for the sake of sustainability and that leads to restrictions that affect the independent traveller. South American destinations like Machu Pichu and Torres del Paine National Park come to mind here but the problem is spread around the world. Scotland’s Isle of Skye has experienced problems that never made the news before and you only have to see how many visit well promoted attractions like the Cliffs of Moher to see how many people visit a small number of locations in Ireland at a time during the high season.
This then poses something of a dilemma: do you cater for the visitor numbers or do you restrict them? With wilderness and conservation areas, there is a tendency to do the latter though it does have the consequence of pushing up visitor costs and that may have its benefits for local tourism businesses as you may find on a trip to places in either the Canadian Rockies or Alaska. When you add in short summer tourism seasons, the effect by necessity is more pronounced.
In other destinations, they add in facilities for the extra visitors with some decrying the effect that this has had on Spain’s Mediterranean coastline because of hotel and holiday apartment construction. Parts of the Alps are afflicted like this but in a different way: it is the infrastructure of skiing resorts that hardly help appearances in mountain country during the summer season. Both examples make you wonder at the appropriateness of such developments and they must tug at the heartstrings of anyone who adores mountain and coastal scenery.
Another aspect of any overdevelopment is that you can install something that encourages the otherwise unprepared into wild places without realise the possible dangers that are there. For instance, I seem to have inherited my father’s unease at cliff edges and my knowledge of how slippery limestone can be almost made me shout at people to keep back from the edge on a damp day hike around the Cliffs of Moher and Doolin. It is little wonder that staff are equipped with whistles to direct the unaware away from peril.
There is overcaution too and one example is the boardwalk on Cuilcagh Mountain and how incongruous it looks in the landscape through which it conveys people to the top of the hill shared between Cavan and Fermanagh, between Éire and Northern Ireland. It also does not help that it stops short of the top too but the boggy morass deters most. Another location where path development attracted adverse comment was at Sliabh Liag in County Donegal but it might be that some sense prevailed there in the end.
Hillwalking is a growing pastime in Ireland so there remains a lot to learn in a country where there is neither experience nor tradition of path and track building in such places. Thankfully, organisations like Mountain Meitheal and Mountaineering Ireland together with initiatives like Helping the Hills are starting to address this so lessons are learned from places like Scotland and applied to get sensible solutions to the growing problem of erosion on popular hills. It is something that needs attention as much as securing access for hill wandering in the first place.
The mention of countryside access brings me to another factor that causes some places to feel overloaded: a lack of alternatives. It is not everywhere that has the liberal access rights that are enjoyed in Scotland and across Scandinavia so there can be a very really reduction in the number of places where you can explore. The options may not stop you going to those better known places like Norway’s Preikestolen before finding other quieter hikes nearby as knowledge grows and maps feel more confiding.
It is this last point that inspires the title and the theme runs through Fiona Reynolds’ The Fight for Beauty, a book that I read last autumn. It is not for nothing park rangers in Denali National Park tell you not to walk one after another in a group so a path never develops and that everyone’s backcountry journey is their own. When there is plenty of land for all, we can spread out and find our own space to recharge weary spirits. That is easier when we are not retracing the steps of others all the while and it can have a lighter impact on the countryside too with less erosion caused by many feet and much path widening. While it can be true that we get confined by or own lack of knowledge, physical restrictions caused by not having enough other places to go hardly help either. Overcoming both might be the ultimate answer to the visitor management conundrum.
There are some of us who normally do not crave warmer temperatures and I consider myself among those. My parents were much the same as is my brother and others who I know. With us, anything much above 20° C hardly is desired and triggers a kind of hibernation during heatwaves.
In my case, it also has meant that I often had headed north for summer getaways. Scotland has featured a lot, as much for its scenic delights as for the ability to leave my normal way of life after me for a while. In the last two years, it has become more obvious with my rejection of continental summer temperatures for the relative cool of Iceland and Norway. That walking is much of what I do for relaxation means that scorching temperatures are not so compatible anyway.
For alpine wanderings, I chose what I saw as shoulder seasons such as spring for Austria and autumn for Switzerland. Still, I still met up with temperatures in the mid to high twenties around Innsbruck yet I found, that by going higher, it was easy to escape these though cable car travel saves your sweating on the way uphill. It was a reminder that higher level alpine walking is a way of escaping heat as much as would going to the coast in more maritime localities.
In contrast, many heat lovers head south during the winter and there always is the southern hemisphere where they have their summer. In between, the milder winters of southern Europe suffices for those of us fancying a warmer escape from frosty weather that is not overly hot. In fact, such is the heat that some of those places get in summer that walking becomes a autumn, winter and springtime activity.
You might be tempted to think that applies to places like the Canary Islands, Madeira or the Azores but much of Spain, Italy, Croatia and Greece is likewise. It may come as a surprise to some but places normally associated with sun, sand and sea have their delightful stretches of nearby hill country too. That makes them possibilities for for warmer winter walking getaways. Mallorca and Corsica may have fleshpot reputations but going elsewhere on those islands brings you to dramatic craggy terrain.
The same applies to the south of Portugal, Spain and Italy. There are places in the hills not far from the Algarve, the Costa Blanco and the Costa del Sol have a wilder and less developed feel. Winter is low season too so whatever hotels are open may give you better deals depending on when you go. It may feel odd to base yourself somewhere geared up for more sedentary or hedonistic pursuits when you are after more wholesome country walking but it can be made to work.
Coming a little further north, I even considered Catalonia, Tuscany and Umbria too as I surveyed places that I otherwise would not consider. Given the reputations of some and my need for restorative quieter breaks, that may not be such a surprise. With a different time of year, different needs can be fulfilled and year round popularity makes for simpler travel arrangements even in the off season too.
After playing with the prospect earlier in the year, I made good some of my designs on overseas explorations. July saw me head to Iceland for a few days. An early morning arrival allowed plenty of time for exploring Reykjavík before a day when I embarked on an excursion that took in Þingvellir National Park, Geysir and the enormous Gullfoss. On my last full day there, I ventured as far as Landmannalaugar for a day walk in its striking hill country. The weather may not have played ball then like it did on other days, but the whole visit was a good introduction to Iceland for a first-time visitor and there are other possibilities to be undertaken if I get more brave.
Alpine ambitions also were partially sated with an elongated weekend spent in Switzerland. My base was Geneva and another morning arrival allowed me to stroll about the place to get my bearings. A trip to Bern followed on the only totally dull day of those that I spent in the country. There were day walks in Alpine surroundings too with one around Zermatt allowing plentiful views of the Matterhorn under blue skies. That was followed by a journey to Grindelwald that allowed a little taste of how Bern appears in sunshine on the way there. From Grindelwald, I trotted up to Kleine Scheidegg with the Eiger steadfastly remaining cloaked in cloud. Others were on show so I was not at all disappointed. When the altitude surprised me with its effects after walking at similar heights around Zermatt unperturbed, I was happy with slow progress on the final stretch to Kleine Scheidegg’s train station. With clouds overhead and a certain chill in the air, I did not dally either. After gaining around 1,000 metres in height, I was surprised that my legs were more willing than my lungs, so that is a lesson for the future.
Both of these punctuated a year that has been a journey of spirit following the passage of my father from this life in January. The Icelandic escape slipped me out of a rut into which I had fallen and got me away from concerns about political events in Britain. Solace was a distinguishing feature of the Swiss interlude and it felt great to stick with enjoying delightful sights in place of life’s troubles. That sense of peace has returned from time to time since then, though there has been mental turbulence too. Thankfully, the latter appears to be subsiding while life is running its course.
One downside to both excursions is the cost and I should have got myself a Swiss Travel Pass for rail travel is expensive there. That means that any future ventures beyond British, Irish or Manx shores will have to await 2016 and I am looking at the possibilities for Norway at the moment. In addition to that, there is more of Switzerland to see with Austria, Germany and France all having their portions of the Alps too. Given what I gained from this year’s trips, savouring scenery in other parts of the world is something that I fancy continuing.
Another thing that attenuates foreign travel ambitions after the cost of such exploits, or the passing of the summer is the need to find my feet again when it comes to Ireland. It no longer feels the same with both my parents gone and it is as if an anchor has disappeared. There no longer is the feeling of attachment that there once was even though I still have family there and there are things that need doing on a continual basis. The latter offer a chance to find my place there again and only time will tell as to how things proceed.
Living in the U.K. for as long as I have has compounded the lack of attachment to Ireland yet it also has not been a year for walking excursions in the country that I now call home. Around April and May, there were quite of few walks around Macclesfield’s hills and August saw me reprise a walk between Monyash and Bakewell via Lathkill Dale. Another factor that may have played its part in keeping me from my usual hill country haunts has been my return to cycling local roads now that I have regained my road confidence. Cheshire has featured strongly in the various routes and there even was an incursion into Staffordshire that took in Leek and Tittesworth Reservoir. Maybe the shortening days will draw me backing to wandering among hills again.