Monday, 27 April 2015

Balcombe Circuit

I went for a walk last weekend that is freshly titled at my "new favorite" outside of London.  I loved it so much, I'm thinking about doing it again very soon.  Care to join me?

On your way south out of London, tucked between the paralel hills of the North Downs and the towering South Downs, there is a valley called the Weald.  If you've ever flown in or out of Gatwick, you would have been there.  It's mostly pastoral farmland and encompasses parts of Sussex, Hampshire, Surrey and Kent.  I kind of discounting it at first- I had hiked the North and the South downs, how could a valley be interesting?  Except it was.  

I did a bit of research online, bought the OS map and created my own trail.  This isn't an official trail at all, but just a pretty circular walk around the village of Balcombe, a 45 minute train ride out of central London.

I was awfully worried about those clouds though.  This could be a miserable stormy day.

The first stop was around the small, secluded Balcombe lake.  It made me pause- one thing this part of England doesn't have too many of are lakes.  I can't even remember last time I saw one.  It was full of Great-Crested Grebes, one of my favorite water birds, with their eccentric plumage and energetic courtship displays.

The walk was just strikingly pretty, and there was an unusual amount of forest walking.  It was also much hillier than what I expected.

One thing I should have planned on visiting more was the Kew Gardens Millennial Seedbank and the National Trust Wakehurst Place.  The gardens were spectacular, and we stopped for tea and a sunny spot to have our lunch.   Peeking into the seedbank was fascinating- the vaults here contain thousands of seeds from around the world.

It was just all very  easy.  No road walking, and aside from around Wakehurst, no people at all.  It was a blazingly sunny warm spring day out, and we saw nothing but cows and sheep and some very cozy little cottages that I'd be pleased to live in.  Views of the South Downs and the birdsong in the forest was reaching deafening decibels.

The most thrilling thing was that the bluebells are out:

These lovely Hyacinthoides carpet the forest floors in springtime, creating a fairy-forest blanketed in purple.  It's spectacular to stumble upon a grove of them.  Last spring, we were a bit late to hike through the groves when they were peaked, but this year, I've been seeking them out.

We walked through a university campus and around Ardingly reservoir, where I may have gotten a bit more house envy.

The next landmark on the trail was the brick Ouse Valley viaduct, an enormous railway bridge that is still very much in use despite the fact it was built in 1841.  I counted 37 arches, but my eyes started going fuzzy mid-count, and dozens of trains sped across it in the time it took to walk past it.  

After more farmland to meander through and a last big hill to haul ass up- I counted six hills for the day.  While they weren't mountains or even downs, they really added up to burn a bit those last few miles.

Back in Balcombe, we had plenty of time to sprawl out at the pub with a pint and a G&T before our train sped us back to the city.  Coming back into London on a Saturday evening in hiking gear is always an adventure, as everyone else taking the train into London at that time are people "dressed up to get messed up" and chattering about what after-hours clubs to hit.  Meanwhile, I can only think about showering and bed, and hopefully a plate of food will materialize before I pass out from exhaustion.

14 miles behind us and a new favorite walk to add to my list of favorite walks.  A perfectly pastoral slice of Southern England, in easy reach of London.  

Saturday, 25 April 2015

Rye Meads

The weather in Southern England had been unusually pleasant.  I don't even know the last time it's rained, and day after day of blue sky is starting to get disconcerting, and the fact we had a day near 38 last week in which all of London emptied out to occupy the lawns and parks in a sprawl of skin.   

Rye House, a former grand residence 

Not a mud puddle to be found.  In April.  Global Warming is real.

I won't complain.  I've been trying to get out as much as possible, slathered with SPF 50.  I headed out to Rye Meads, an RSBP bird reserve north of the city in Hertfordshire, right near the Lee Valley waterway.  Like most wetland reserves, it's sandwiched in an industrial wasteland.  It's surrounded by an enormous wastewater treatment plant, a rail line, powerlines, a motorway, a go-cart track and a caravan park.

Once you are in though, it's peaceful.  I grabbed a pair of binoculars from the front desk and set off to see what the birds were up to.

They have a whopping 10 hides around the marsh, each giving a surprisingly different view of the habitat and most have completely different birds depending on the depth of the water or the amount of shelter offered.  

Little Grebe



The real stars here are the Kingfishers.  They are unmistakable- the most brilliant shades of blue and orange, much like a New York Knickerbocker.  The first time I saw one was at the dumpy canal near Merton Mills on my way to the stables, and I've been looking for them ever since.

Happily, Rye Meads has a pair that are attempting to nest in a bank, with a great hide-view of the action.  They even have a webcam set up in front of the nest site waiting to witness kingfisher fledglings.  With a bit of patience, you can spy on their comings and goings.  I even witnessed some bawdy kingfisher-on-kingfisher action, which means that they aren't sitting on any eggs in the nest at this time.  Hopefully soon.  The world needs more of these beautifully painted fisher kings.

They do seem to like their privacy.  Or, at least the day was hot enough so they were seeking out the shade.

On the northern edge of the reserve, it's more grassland than marshland, and I spied a giant.

She was kind of far off, but it was a Marsh Harrier, a large raptor that flies in almost awkward swoops.

The paths were almost eerily devoid of people once you left the hides.

They also kept a herd of Konig ponies to help manage the grassland.  Without large grazers, marshland would turn to scrub and forest in a hurry.  A lot of places employ fat cattle or horses to do the job for them.

At this point, the heat was getting to my head.  I was happy to sit in the shade at the RSBP info centre with a lemonade and chat with the lovely volunteers there before taking the train back into the city.  

Friday, 24 April 2015

FO: Mandala Rug

Bear with me.  This was a bit of an impulse project.

We are floor-sitters in my house.  Ever since I was a kid, I would sit on the floor.  For fun, for study, for movies.  I love Japanese and Korean restaurants where you take off your shoes and sit on the floor.  I feel like it's better for your back and posture to sit up unaided, and you can sit in lotus or half lotus and give your hips a good stretch that you don't get from sitting in a chair.

Yes, bean bag chairs are comfy but not exactly classy decor, and building a low padded platform like I saw in the Tokapi palace in Istanbul is kind of out of the question in a rental flat.  

I was wandering the local TK Maxx (which inexplicably is called TJ Maxx in the states).  I occasionally find yarn here- last year I ended up with oodles of Rowan Kidsilk Creation to make oodles of ruffle scarves with.  Baby mohair and silk are things you should never turn down, even in novelty yarn form.  This go-round, they had oodles of Boodles- what they call "textile yarn".  It is stripped-out bits of leftover t-shirt fabric.  Most people know it (or have made their own) to make rag rugs.  I picked up all the good cones of colors I could find- it was tough as they didn't exactly have a brilliant selection, but for that price, I made do with what they had.  I was going to make a cushy little meditation rug.  

In the end, I found enough white, grey and red to do the job.  A stop by the little craft department at Morely's, my underrated independent neighborhood department store in Brixton and I had a 20mm crochet hook to wrap my hand around.  

A few hours later, I had this:

If I had more yarn, I could have kept going.  I did run out of red (oops!) and had to finish the row with grey, but it's not the most atrocious crafting crime of the century.  One day, I find enough good colors, I would love to do a softly graduated color rug.  The whole thing cost £12, plus another 2 squid for the crochet hook.

It was fun to make, and a real upper-body workout to wrestle with super thick stretchy cotton fabric yarn.  Roar.  It got heavy quite quickly, and a gator-wrestling match is the only thing I can think to compare this with once the first few rounds were done.  It's so cushy, too- your ass doesn't fall asleep at all, even after a sitting through and entire movie.  I put it next to my coffee bench, plop down in the centre bit and type away until I'm out of things to say.

Dear diary, it's now been 8 months, 2 weeks and 3 days since my last pedicure.  Not that I'm counting.

I used 4 cones of boodles yarn to make a rug that's about 3 feet across.  This is a pattern you could go on and on and on with and consume an entire room with if you felt so inclined.  It's a free pattern, too, and they have a great step-by-step tutorial to go along with it, so even the most basic of crafters could whip this up in no time.

It makes me feel peaceful and happy to have this around.  If it didn't weight more than a freight train, I'd be making more of them as gifts.  For now, I'll just quietly hoard any more good cones of Boodles that I might find.  

Thursday, 23 April 2015

FO: Hitchhiker, take two

I made another hitchiker scarf.  The first one I had gifted.  I quite liked making it.  It's fairy mindless, it's garter stitch, and it shows of wildly handpainted yarns quite nicely.

Like this skein of Wollmeise that I got in a swap.

The color was "Aspen Tree".  I loved it because it was COLORFUL, but couldn't really think of too much to do with it as I felt it was a bit busy.  Except...

It's glorious, this second hitchhiker scarf.  Wollmeise is sturdy stuff, so wearing this on a trail was no thing at all.  Plus, when I went to the pub at night, I had some class little accessory to brighten things up.

 I used up the entire skein, and it is plenty long.  It can drape, it can wrap, it can just be an awesome scarf-shawl and keep me warm, I can flip the end around and make a bandanna.  The asymmetry is fun to play with and I've worn this quite a lot already.  It's too bad- I love knitting lacy fancy shawls, but they never get any use as I feel they are too delicate or fussy to actually wear.  The big boring plain knits I wear all the time.

  Also....there's a fair bit of navy blue in there, which means I can wear this with pretty much anything in my wardrobe.

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Jurassic Coast Day 4: Abbotsbury to Weymouth

We awoke to a sunny, nearly hot morning.  Nothing small and stuffed had murdered us in our sleep.  Time to hit the trail for a final stretch- walking along the coast to the town of Weymouth, where a train would haul two dirty tired hikers back to the Big Smoke. 

The best part about this walk was to watch springtime happen before us.  The weather went from cool and cloudy to warmer and sunnier each day until we got a amazingly beautiful one.  We saw herds of heavily-pregnant ewes start to turn into fields of ewes with tiny freshly borne lambs.  The swallows were returning from Africa, and skylarks were chattering away in almost every field we walked through, and the little bits of forest and wooden hillsides were tinged with green.  This time of year is pure magic, and my favorite time to walk.  

 Instead of heading straight for the trail, we headed up the big hill to St Catherine's Chapel, the larger-than-all seafaring chapel that announced to sailors that they were near Abbotsbury.

Ah, first, we had a bit of a distraction.

 Trail side tyre swings are never left alone.

It's not an easy climb up through a terraced cow pasture, but the views from the top are worth it.

 The downs, the town, the sea.  Really spectacular, helped by the fact the sky was cloud-free.

 The coast path winds its way around the privately-owned Swanery, through farm fields and hills before settling down to sea level along an enormous body of still saltwater called the Fleet Lagoon.  It is a place to bring binoculars- this long, still body of water is of great importance to birds of all kinds.  I had to keep reminding myself of the non-refundable train that left Weymouth at 6.  There was just so much going on.  Without even trying, I saw dozens of waterfowl and songbirds.  The unique protected lagoon coupled with farmland and pastureland and a nearby beach meant this was birdy heaven.

Corn Bunting



Long-tailed tit
Little Egret
 It was pretty amazing.  In the space of an afternoon, I saw more birds appear in front of me than I had all winter.  Understandably, the lagoon was fiercely protected, with a few scientist having access to the water and that was it.

Finally, after passing a military firing range and some large industrial estates, we were back in civilization.  There was a very well-reviewed lagoon-side crab shack that we wanted to try, but they were closing post-lunch just as we walked in.  Which was fine: there were no fewer than three Ferraris in the front lot, all of them parked at "asshole parking space" angles for maximum "LOOK AT ME" exposure.

The Southwest Coast trail crosses the bridge and continues to do an 8-mile loop of the Island of Portland.  The island is connected by a bridge from Weymouth.  Before there was a bridge and if you didn't want to hazard the ferry crossing, you would have to go all the way to Abbotsbury to cross the Fleet, and walk all the way to Portland via the beach.

Portland is famous for its stone- the creamy-white limestone quarried for use of some pretty famous buildings- Buckingham Palace, St. Paul's Cathedral, and the far-off UN building in NYC.  

I won't be visiting this trip.  I looked at the map.  The train station was at least three miles away (!) and we had over an hour to make it there and find something eatable to bring for the journey.  Hustle the bustle, as my grade-school bus driver would yell at the pokey kids not willing to make good time.

So a small gripe:  I got the idea for this 4-day walk on the Southwest Coast Path website.  Not only do they have a great system of planning your trips along the trail, they have suggestions as to where to go for multi-day walks.  I booked the trip based on their recommendations and reasonable mileage between stops, but little did I know:

1.  The mileage they gave on the website was off by about 20% every day.  Meaning, we walked 20% more than what we planned.  We walked 9 hours the first day, and nearly 7 hours the next three days.  Even when we stuck strictly to the trail, we ended up doing 3-4 miles more each day than we though we would.

2.  They didn't include the trail closures adding miles to our trek, and that bumped up the total to 12 extra miles (which is a full days walk for most!).  At least 10 miles were done pounding the pavement on a diverted path alongside busy roads.  That is not enjoyable:  it's exhausting.  

3.  It would have been nice if they kept the website updated with the landslips; I only knew about the first one.  We would have planned ahead and taken a bus further down the trail instead of waiting and paying for a cab.

In the end, we did a whopping 70 miles over 4 days.  Even with that cab ride to shave 7 miles off, it was about 10 more than we thought we would be doing.  Three of the days were exceedingly difficult, with many steep ascends and descends.  I was exhausted and ready for a break, and my new-ish boots have proved to be less cooperative than the last pair and I was tending to several blisters and general sore feet.

Alas, it was a lovely walk.  The coast was stunningly beautiful and wild and remote in spots, and so civilized and charming in between.

From Weymouth, you could see the next bit of coastline:

More cliffs!  Lovely limestone ones.  The next bit of trail stretches between Weymouth and Poole along the Dorset coast.  I think I can do it in 3 days.

Weymouth was the biggest town he had been through on our walk, and it sprawled out quite a bit.  Being a beautiful bank holiday day, we were quite sad that the only ice cream flavor to be had was "natural", meaning not even flavored.  A seaside town that runs out of ice cream is a poor excuse for a seaside town, the calender be damned!

I had read about a pie shop that did excellent homemade pies near the train station so I jetted off to place an order before we had a long 3 hour train ride back to London.  I put an order in, mindful of the fact that the disclaimer on the menu said it might take up to 20 minutes to get our order since everything is homemade and from scratch.   I even checked with the server- we had about 35 minutes before the train left- and she assured me it would all be good.

Except a halfhour later, there were still no pies, and a few other patrons had left because they had been waiting so long.  Ah, the joys of bank holiday skeleton crews.  I begged the server for pies, and asked to refund my card because we had to go (with no time to find a backup sandwich) and she scrambled back from the kitchen with a paper bag in hand.  I grabbed it, breathless and thanked her before dashing across the square to the train with just a minute to spare.

I probably should have checked to make sure she had remembered to add cutlery of sorts.

Because she didn't.

The pies were easy enough as they were the delightful kind you could eat like a cornish pasty, but the mash potato and broccoli presented an issue.

I asked the train conductor if there was a cafe car and was told we picked one up in Bournemouth, about a  half hour down the track.

We got to Bournemouth, rushed the cafe car and was told nope, no cutlery- they only serve pre-packaged sandwichs.

So I improvised.  I tore up corners of the takeaway container, and used them like pita bread.

We had hiked 17 miles in the heat, I was starving.    Not my proudest moment.