2016 Walk 1 – Llangollen Loop

I’m currently in the beautiful North York Moors and sitting in my b&b as the rain is drumming away on the roof. The silver lining to these dark grey clouds is that the inclement weather provides a perfect opportunity to do some long overdue blogging.

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The view from Castell Dinas Bran

I arrived in Britain just over a week ago and immediately headed north to Chester where I stayed for four nights. I spent much of the time researching at the archives, visiting my great-grandfather Herbert and making a day-trip to Huddersfield where I visited Royd’s Hall School and paid my respects to a young Canadian who died in the First World War.

On Friday I made my way to Llangollen by way of Wrexham. When I was last in Llangollen I arrived by narrowboat and I remember thinking to myself that one day I must return to do some walking. It took 13 years but today is that day. It was late afternoon and so I took a short walk down the towpath and through the town before tucking into one of the best sausage and mash suppers I’ve ever had. Judging by the crowds at The Corn Mill this was par for the course.

Saturday morning was misty but the showers appeared to be lifting when I headed out from my b&b. I didn’t get past the driveway before I realized the showers were going nowhere and so on went the wet weather gear. Suitably encased in Gortex I began the steep trudge up to Castell Dinas Bran looming high above the town. Lower down the trees provided some protection but once I emerged into the open I was slammed by wind and rain. The clouds and mists lifted enough to provide some stunning views but it was a struggle keeping the camera lens dry as the sheets of rain lashed the hillside. A series of switchbacks led the way to the top and the climb, weather and full Welsh breakfast combined to make it a challenging start to my walking holiday.

After exploring the castle ruins I descended via a different and very steep route to a short paved track. This led to a narrow road that followed the valley wall and formed part of Offa’s Dyke National Trail. I followed this north for a mile or two with great views to the west and a sheer cliff face rising up to the east. The rain was now intermittent but the skies weren’t promising enough to tempt me to remove my wet weather gear.

I had two possible routes planned for today but with a long walk tomorrow I was leaning towards the shorter (12-14 mile) option. However I spent too much time looking at the wonderful scenery and entirely missed the shortcut I intended to take. I studied my OS printouts (no GPS this trip) and found an alternative route was possible a mile or two further along. Almost immediately Offa’s Dyke left the road and followed a track along the steep hillside for some distance before descending though a forest where it met a road near a ford.

I’d been walking for two and half hours without a break and so I took a breather on a bench near the junction. It was only a five minute walk from World’s End Farm and so I thought this was an appropriate spot to turn back in the direction of Llangollen. I followed the beautiful quiet road, nestled in the valley floor and running alongside a small beck. Green fields on either side were chock a block with happily grazing sheep, cattle and horses.

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Showdown near World’s End Farm

A short way along I encountered a lone sheep walking along the road in my direction. It stopped and stared for a long time trying to determine what I was and whether I was moving in its direction. It eventually realized I was and turned tail and fled. Hemmed in on both side by fences and hedges it had nowhere else to go. A mile later I noticed a father and son working in a field of full of sheep marked with the same dye as the runaway. I caught the farmer’s attention and he quickly bolted for the gate. The sheep got ahead of him but she was no match for the Border Collie that quickly shepherded her back into the fold.

Not long after this I left the road for the Clwydian Way and followed a footpath that made a long slow turn around a hillside. There were a few fields to cross but much of it was on a dirt track which slowly rose to offer nice views to the west. The ruins of Valle Crucis Abbey were clearly visible as was the plume of steam from the train that whistled its way down the Dee Valley.

By this time patches of blue sky were appearing and so I took a break and happily removed my wet weather gear. A mile or so later a heavy shower forced me back into them, frustrating given Llangollen was less than half an hour away. Predictably the sun returned ten minutes later and once again it was off with the rain gear. I eventually rejoined the path that ran below the castle and began the steep descent into Llangollen.

The final leg of my walk was eventful as at some point on the descent I did something to my right knee and hobbled the last few hundred metres into town. Back on level ground I cleaned the mud off my Ecco walking shoes when I noticed the sole in my right shoe had split all the way through. Although these shoes were well over a year old I was shocked to have them fail like this on my first walk. Any decision regarding my shoes would have to wait until after tomorrow’s walk, a 20-mile ramble from Llangollen to Ellesmere in Shropshire.

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New Jaunts Old Haunts

Walking through the Saanich Peninsula in late April

On one of my weekly 15-mile walks through the Saanich Peninsula

My trip to Britain and Belgium is rapidly approaching and I’ve been busy researching, sorting out logistics and walking. A combination of fine weather and flexible hours has allowed me to clock a minimum of 5 miles a day and at least one 15-mile hike per week. The photo above was taken on the one wet outing in mid-April when I practically had the Lochside Trail to myself. On one stretch, normally very popular with cyclists, I counted only seven whizz by in a two-hour period. In contrast during the same period I walked by six deer and hundreds of slugs, the latter of whom took full advantage of the gentle rain to slither about on the grass that lined the footpaths.

This route never gets old

This route never gets old

On my last hike I passed a pair of walkers and we were both so shocked we had to stop and chat. This might sound strange but hikers are a very odd sight on the Lochside Trail. Dog-walkers, joggers and cyclists outnumber us by a thousand to one. In the last seven years I’ve walked this route at least 60 times and I can count on one hand the number of hikers I’ve encountered. In fact other trail users often give me a quizzical look when they spot me approach with a fully laden backpack. Still this is much preferable to the stares I get in the city from those who simply assume I’m homeless. Fortunately the kindred spirits I met that day were heading to England to explore parts of the South West Coast Path and so we had a thoroughly enjoyable chat.

Surprise, my walking plans have changed! Instead of walking Offa’s Dyke I will divide my time between Cheshire/Shropshire/Wales, Yorkshire and the north Norfolk coast. I’m going to base myself in a handful of locations and explore each area on foot. I’ll be visiting some areas for the very first time while others are old haunts I haven’t ventured into for decades.

This new approach is essentially the one I used for my UK visits prior to my LEJOG in 2010. I believe this will be my 17th visit to Britain since 1983 and I’m finding that reasonably priced single rooms are getting thin on the ground. Cheap and cheerful rooms are giving way to luxurious ensuite sanctuaries geared to weekend getaways and not tired walkers looking for one night’s accommodation. I’m not the first to comment on this but I would be interested in hearing your thoughts. I’ve more or less come to the decision that if I do another LEJOG-type walk I will be carrying a tent.

This church is definitely one place I will be visiting again

Christ Church Willaston

In my last article I featured a photo of a church and promised an explanation would be forthcoming. It is of Christ Church Willaston and it will be one of the first stops on my visit. If you’ve followed my blog over the years you will know that I’ve been trying to unravel the mystery surrounding my great-grandfather’s disappearance after the First World War. My research began in earnest in 1996 and it’s been quite a journey. I’ve spent countless hours exploring the streets of north-east London, Windsor, Chester and several villages on the Wirral. I followed in his footsteps on the battlefields surrounding Ypres and hunkered down in Archives across Britain in search of clues as to his whereabouts. Last month the Reverend of Christ Church Willaston confirmed that my great-grandfather is buried in their churchyard. I can scarcely believe that within two weeks my long journey will be over and I can’t help but notice that my feelings are similar to those I experienced the day I walked into John O’Groats.

Pondering No More!

This church is definitely one place I will be visiting again

This is one must-visit destination on my upcoming trip

After years of false-starts I’m pleased to report that I will be returning to Britain in just over one month from now. Having previously planned and then abandoned visits in 2014 and 2015 I too would be sceptical was it not for the credit card bills confirming that I really am going this time.

A lot has happened since last July. The biggest news is that I quit my well-paid and secure job at the beginning of April in order to join the ranks of the self-employed. I did so for several reasons not the least of which was the toll it was taking on my health, but more than anything I felt that now was the time to devote my time and energy to creating meaningful work. I have little interest in retiring and so I see no reason to postpone developing something that will keep me engaged, put food on the table and hopefully be of benefit to others.

I’m pretty passionate about helping others research their family trees and especially their military ancestors. As such I’m devoting a lot of time to my Military and Family History blog while keeping my eyes open for other opportunities, especially those related to travel, tourism, writing and walking. I’ve worked in these areas before and so I’m looking forward to seeing what possibilities exist for me this time around.

Major transitions in life need to be marked in some way and so before I settle into a new routine I’m off to Europe for a month of R&R (Research and Relaxation). A lengthy LEJOG-like walk isn’t in the cards but being self-employed will provide me with both freedom and adventure and so I’m content with a shorter ramble.

At this point it looks like I will be tackling Offa’s Dyke with the possibility of an additional short diversion (or two). I will also spend a few days wandering amongst the battlefields, cemeteries and memorials of the old Ypres salient. Research visits to Chester and Huddersfield are in the works and of course there will be real ale.

I’ll provide more details in the days and weeks to come including an explanation of why I posted the photograph above. In the meantime I have weekly 15-mile walks planned in order to get my legs and back into shape!

Pondering the Possibilities for 2016

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Ah, the good ‘ole days!

I’ve spent quite a few evenings in the past month pondering possible walking routes for 2016. In fact I’ve spent the better part of three years (!) sifting through various itineraries, often settling on a particular idea only to discard it a few weeks later. Despite the setbacks planning an adventure is an activity I’ve enjoyed since I was a 15-year old daydreaming about my first trip to Europe.

I’ve moved around quite a bit in the last 35 years but despite a couple of significant down-sizings I still have a handful of guidebooks that inspired me all those years ago. I’m featuring some of them today as well as a photo of myself taken during my first backpacking trip through Europe in 1983 (care of my travel buddy Scott). It’s taken 30+ years but I think my ‘look’ is back in style.

Back in ’83 Scott and I planned our 6-month adventure with military precision. We never expected to follow our itinerary to the letter but surprisingly we weren’t far off. One of the main reasons for all the planning was that we were on a strict budget. We didn’t manage 84-cents a day but we did keep to $15 a day excluding our flights and a pair of two-month Eurail Youth Passes. In the process we must have stayed in nearly 100 hostels. We only began ponying up for cheap hotels when we reached Italy and Greece and if I remember correctly we found a room in off-season Santorini for about a buck each. Incidentally I read today that Ryan Air is offering €5 flights to Athens so who knows what the future will bring.

Eat your heart out Hipster types

More Hipster than Hippie? I’ll let the Millennials decide

While I’m no longer a starving student I’m still careful with my cents and pence and with the Canadian dollar tanking I’m more conscious of it now than I was in 2010. A 4-5 month stay in the UK is a significant investment and so I need to build some flexibility into my itinerary. At this point my plan is to spend most of the time in Britain but if the Pound becomes too dear I may need to head to the land of the Euro.

With this in mind I’m hesitant to plan a LEJOG-style walk from point A to point B. This was never a requirement of course but I do admit there is something magical about walking 1000+ miles without using any other form of transportation. One prerequisite I do insist on is that I cover new ground, with the possible exception of one or two short sections I walked in the 1990’s. With this in mind I’m seriously considering doing a collection of Long-Distance Walks in England, Wales and Scotland, some of which could be linked together to create walks of 3 to 4 weeks in length.

In addition to the flexibility this approach provides it also ensures that I spend the bulk of my time in walking country and less time walking between Long-Distance routes. One disadvantage is that a series of walks lacks the focus of a continuous walk. Will it be tougher to keep going if you don’t have a carrot dangling from a stick? I will likely set myself a different objective, perhaps walking a minimum of 100 days or a certain number of miles. I’ve mulled this over quite a bit and would be interested on your thoughts.

Christmas Hill & Swan Lake

Floating walkway over Swan Lake

The floating bridge over Swan Lake Nature Sanctuary in Victoria, BC

Last Saturday I had an errand to run and decided to walk home after I was dropped off on the outskirts of Victoria. My improvised route turned what could have been a 6-mile slog along busy roads into a 10-mile excursion through a nature sanctuary and quiet residential streets.

The Swan Lake & Christmas Hill Nature Sanctuary is bordered by a highway on one side and a busy arterial road on another. While I have visited Swan Lake in the past this was my first walk up Christmas Hill, astounding really considering I’ve lived here for 41 years!

For many years I admired Christmas Hill and the cows grazing in the pastures beneath it while I sat in a long lineup waiting for a set of traffic lights to change. This intersection was replaced by an overpass in the preparations leading up to the 1994 Commonwealth Games but unfortunately this also led to the green pastures being opened up for development. The grazing cows are long gone but the Garry Oak forest that surrounds the rocky 109m summit of Christmas Hill is intact and includes a network of wonderful walking trails. As you can see by the photos below the 360° views of the southern tip of Vancouver Island are fantastic. Other than the birds and the butterflies I had the summit to myself on this hot Saturday afternoon.

Swan Lake is connected to Christmas Hill by a short trail corridor bounded by residential homes on both sides. At one point the wooded trail opened up and I entered a sunny patch containing dozens and dozens of birds flitting from branch to branch and seemingly unconcerned with my presence. Despite being spoiled for choice I didn’t do a great job of identifying the half-dozen species circling around me, with the exception of noting the handful of big and bold American Robins who seemed just as keen on identifying me.

The 48 hectares that makes up Swan Lake includes marshy areas, woody shrubs and large sections of grasslands. The trail system is highlighted by two floating piers and a floating bridge, the latter of which cuts across the western edge of the lake. The bridge is inhabited by some extremely tame ducks, one feeling comfortable enough to snooze atop the railing as I took its photo from just two feet away. Red-winged Blackbirds and Spotted Towhees were seen and heard on several occasions.

I spent well over an hour at the Lake before cutting across the Lochside Trail and onto residential streets that eventually hooked up to my regular 3-mile route that led me back into the heart of the city. This was definitely one of my best impromptu walks in quite some time and I will not be waiting another 41 years to visit Christmas Hill again!

Extreme Walking in the 19th Century … and other random thoughts

Spotted in Kend and on Twitter (source: The Poke)

Spotted in Kent and on Twitter (source: The Poke)

My Twitter focus is on history and genealogy however from time to time I stumble upon tweets that could be of interest to ramblers. While the Visit Kent folks might prefer that visitors spend a bit more time (and money) in their county I can’t help but appreciate the local sense of humour, even if the London reference has been photoshopped in at a later date.

A far more interesting find was this excellent article on George Wilson – The Blackheath Pedestrian, an extreme walker from the early 18th century. Wilson became well known for taking bets on his walks including one in August 1814 when he successfully walked 96 miles in 24 hours (and finished with 30 minutes to spare). His most (in)famous wager was when he was offered 100 Guineas to walk 1000 miles on Blackheath in just 20 days. To find out how local magistrates and a celebrated elephant become involved you’ll have to read the story.

While I attracted no elephants on this weekends’ walk it was nice to get back on the trail after a series of minor ailments had put a temporary stop to my rambling. I’m still getting to grips with all the aches and pains associated with the other side of 50. The good news is I’ve discovered that a tube of Bengay and a fine single malt can work wonders.

Perhaps not surprisingly my appreciation of whisky and anti-inflammatories has coincided with an appreciation of birds. I’m not sure if this is related to having spent too much time on Twitter but I do admit to becoming increasingly curious as to what all that damned chirping is about when I’m out on my walks. It’s a bit unsettling really. I have nothing against Birders but I really never saw myself as being one. Imagine my surprise then when I forked out $300 for a pair of binoculars that increased my pack weight by a back-numbing 520 grams!

That being said I am very happy with my Vortex Diamondback 8×32 binoculars and I’m seriously considering taking them with me to Britain next year. What were once small blobs of greyish-brown feathers have been transformed into colourful collections of reasonably interesting creatures. If only they would stop flitting about!

Wood Duck (source: Wikipedia)

Wood Duck (source: Wikipedia)

My normal training walk passes by both Blenkinsop Lake and a large stretch of pastureland and so there are lots of previously unidentifiable flying objects to check out. I didn’t take any photographs but in addition to the many bald eagles soaring over the fields I spotted a pair of extremely colourful Wood Ducks at the lake and a sinister looking Turkey Vulture in a field. The former are year-round residents but the latter are only here during the warmer months. While it’s early days yet I hope someday to improve my skills beyond “see the big bird – it’s black and white“.

Gearing up for 2016

A walk near Dunquin on the Dingle Peninsula in September 2013

A walk near Dunquin on the Dingle Peninsula in September 2013

LEJOG season has arrived! This time last March I hoped I would count myself among those setting off in 2015 on a very long walk but alas it’s not to be. However I will be taking a sabbatical in 2016 and am already looking forward to setting off on another adventure. In the meantime I will satisfy my wanderlust by following others as they set off on their own long walks.

It’s at this point that I usually list a handful of blogs that we can all enjoy following. The problem is they are rather thin on the ground this year. I can’t find any despite having spent quite some time searching the net for walkers with LEJOG or JOGLE blogs. My links page includes two blogging walkers who may complete their journeys in 2015 but if you know of any End-to-End blogs, or other long-distance walks that may be of interest, please contact me or leave a comment. Thank you in advance.