Easter Weekend Equestrian Walk – 3rd/4th April 2021

The weekend prior to Easter I discovered a new route that had been under my nose for so long but just had noticed it. I had been advising my neighbours, George and Georgina, who are in the processing of moving, along with their two young kids. A jogger, she had been looking for some alternative routes, so as I was pointing this out on the Streetmap website, this “new” possibility jumped out of the map at me. Roughly halfway along the bridleway from the Barkway Road (just after the turn-off along the Barley Road) to Fox Farm on the A10 is a gate which overlooks Newsells Farm with vistas south towards Reed. What had escaped my attention on the numerous occasions I had passed it was a sign on the gate signifying a “permissive path”, this being a path across farmland usually, with access at the behest of the farmer.

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Sunday 4th April turned into a glorious relatively still, sunny day, an opportunity not to be wasted. In another change to the routine, after setting off via the plantation off the Newmarket Road near Burloes Hall, I had decided to reverse the direction of navigation through Newsells Park Stud, primarily due to the direction of the sunlight and the resultant morning glare that did not make for a good landscape photo opportunity at that early hour. My hope was that I would get better photos later in the day. It was along the treelined bridleway between Barkway Road and the A10 at Fox Farm that I was passed by a few riders on horseback, led by the woman residing at the Pump House in Newsells village, whose homestead I had passed previously one midwinter walk, when I covered the last hour back to Royston in virtual darkness and mist, having got my timings hopelessly wrong.

The permissable path is well marked with signs requesting dogs on a lease so as not to frighten the horses occupying the fenced-off fields and paddocks. The farm comprises mostly vast open grassland with pockets of woodland but still a delight nevertheless, given its equestrian character. I entered Newsells Park Stud and headed back towards Royston. I encountered a few walkers en route. The air was silent save for gunshots emanating from a nearby shooting range. I was pleasantly surprised, upon stopping at the paddocks to photograph the horses, how their curiosity caused them to wander over to be stroked. What beautiful beasts these elegant creatures turned out to be. It left me wondering what fate would befall these few stallions, Equus caballi. Reared as racehorses, would they achieve stardom for their masters, face injury and certain death or eventually be culled when they had outlived their usefulness?

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Therfield-Sandon-Kershall Walk – Jan 2021

Since the start of lockdown in March 2020, my walks have been confined to areas close to the village of Royston, Hertfordshire, mostly setting out from directly from home. With track options limited, driving to the next village for a walk seemed a sensible idea, notwithstanding the fact that I ran the risk of a fine by virtue of the rules of travel during the coronavirus pandemic, as was the case with two women in Derbyshire, though this was subsequently rescinded. It was the weekend after the inauguration of Joe Biden as the President of the United States. Needless to say, this seemed to signal the start of a kinder, more compassionate era, to follow the catastrophic, divisive reign of the Trump administration. The problems facing the Biden administration will prove a huge challenge, not least formulating a plan to deal with the pandemic, which had claimed the lives of over 400,000 of the country’s citizens. At the time of writing, the United Kingdom is still in lockdown, with deaths fast approaching 100,000. It was forecast that I would in all likelihood only be eligible for vaccination in the Spring, 2021, at the earliest.

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So the planned walk involved paths linking the villages of Therfield, Sandon and Kelshall, all being on my cycle route. I set off from the Fox and the Duck, a pub adjacent to the village green, heading south along Police Row, before branching off along the muddy track, Duck’s Green, the Chain Walk path and Kelshall Lane track, until I reached the Icknield Way Path, on its 110-mile journey from Ivinghoe Beacon in Buckinghamshire to Knettishall Heath in Suffolk. Waterlogged and in worse condition than I expected, I had cycled this route on my off-road bicycle on many occasions however much to my surprise, one hapless cyclist appeared mad enough to attempt it mid-winter, thanking me for giving way as he raced by, covered in the stuff. Bypassing Philpott’s Wood along Notley Lane track, I reached Sandon Road. Along the tarred road into the village, I passed a girl on a pony ride being led by two adults. They willingly acceded to my request for a quick photo.

Just before reaching Sandon, I passed Danyells at SG9 0RF, a large impressive private property, the homestead partially surrounded by a moat. Just beyond it, I left the road, effectively bypassing the village as an intended detour, taking a path behind the property’s tennis court, along a line of trees after crossing a stream, reaching the road south to Roe Green. At this point, near the rundown buildings of what was once the Sandon Saddlery Company, I turned back towards the village. Signalling a bygone era, the local business had sadly closed its doors for the last time on January 31 2015. I passed Sandon Village Hall, once village school from 1835 to 1939. Temperatures began to drop sharply around 13h00 and for the first time, I felt the cold. Tiny, round hail pellets, each a couple of millimetres in diameter, began to fall from the sky.

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Royston Walks during lockdown 2021

After a cold spell the weekend before and incessant rain throughout the week, I took advantage of a dry spell on the Sunday preceding the inauguration of President Biden in the USA, with temperatures around 4-5 degrees, for a much needed walk. On the previous Sunday, also one of agreeable weather and blue skies, I had spent the afternoon cleaning the chain and cog of my road bike, so that I could set it up with an indoor trainer I had not used in a long while. And so it was on the weekend that coronavirus deaths in the United Kingdom continued to climb alarmingly, with predictions that the total could reach 100,000 before the end of January, that I found myself desperate to be outdoors, if only to serve as a morale booster.. As I had done on several occasions towards the end of last year, I elected to walk the anti-clockwise circular route that would first take me from Royston to Therfield along the Icknield Way Trail bridleway.

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It was along the tarred road near Fox Cottage that morphs into a pot-holed gravel road, well waterlogged at this time of year, that I passed a woman and her kids, all on horseback. We recognized one another from a similar walk at the back end of 2020, when I encountered them while on the path adjacent to the backyard of their property at Keepers Cottage, in badly fading light. She recalled the previous encounter and conceded that she had been concerned I might not have made it home safely on that occasion. Her fears had now been allayed.

Before reaching the T-junction with a choice of either a shorter route to Royston via Stock Bank or the longer route via Barley, with time on my hands before the 16h30 kick-off between Liverpool and Manchester United, I opted for the latter. The bridleway via Horseshoe Farm in Barley leads directly to the black barn on the B1039 Royston Road, where my attention was drawn to the unmistakeable sound of a drone above the farmland. Two off-road vehicles were parked outside but I couldn’t figure out where the pilots where positioned. After five hours including the tea break, I made it back home. Needless to say, fatigue had got the better of me, so I lay on my bed listening to the match commentary rather than watching it on my computer.

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Buckland – Wyddial New Year’s Eve Walk – 31st Dec 2020

Despite temperatures hovering around zero in the south-east of England, snow had not yet fallen during the cold spell leading up to New Year’s Eve. I drove to Buckland, just south of Royston and planned a route across farmland to the tiny village of Wyddial. A light touch of frost covered the trees and the landscape. Puddles of water had frozen to ice. The sodden, waterlogged terrain, soaked from the winter rains, had now hardened and with every step, the ground crunched underfoot. Bare tree branches, bereft of all foliage, exposed the nests of birds sheltering from the cold. In the tree tops, groups of crows cawed loudly, perhaps at being threatened by other foreign intruders or merely expressing their indignance at the world and my presence. Somewhat sinister in nature, they don’t strike me as exceptionally friendly birds but are arguably misunderstood.

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I was surprised to see a few folk out walking too, braving the cold as I was, either in pairs or as solitary individuals taking their dog out for some exercise. I set off from Buckland Bury via St Andrews Church, which, despite being fairly old, the nave and chancel having been built in about 1348, is now a redundant Anglican church. The paths from Buckland head across the farmland as indicated on the map but had been ploughed over by the farmer, perhaps out of spite or more likely sheer indifference, making it an entirely unattractive prospect to negotiate in the current conditions. The alternative was to take the longer route around, following the edge of fields but still arriving at the same chosen destination. In this way I reached Dade’s Wood but was able to take a more direct route to the larger Capons Wood, which I then circumnavigated. On the horizon, towards Chipping, I could faintly hear the sound of cars making their way down the A10.

Wyddial is first attested in the Domesday Book of 1086, where it appears as Widihale, and means ‘willow nook’. The parish church of St Giles dates from the 14th century, when the nave was built. Wyddial Hall, situated just north of the church and accessed via the churchyard, is a Grade II listed building, originally built in the early 16th century, with 12 bedrooms, a lawn tennis court, swimming pool, sauna, gymnasium and butler’s quarters. One wonders who gets to own a place like this. A bit of research provides some insight into the underbelly of privileged society.

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Christmas & Boxing Day Herts walks during lockdown – Dec 2020

With the relaxation of Covid lockdown rules over the Christmas period having been reversed in the south-east at the last minute, plans to spend the festive period with my niece and her family had to be shelved, so celebrations were being spent in solitude. Despite temepartures being around 3-4 degrees, the absence of rain provided an opportunity to make the most of the outdoors, so I donned my muddy boots, jumped in the car and drove the short distance to Shaftenhoe End, just outside Barley, near Royston, parking along Shaftenhoe End Road. Imprints in the mud along the churned up paths leading south from Shaftenhoe End indicated that the route was used by horse riders.

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I reached the junction of Park Farm Lane and Bell Farm, which I recognized on previous walks starting out from Barkway. I knew that the former Royal Air Force station, RAF Nuthampstead, lay just to the east. I made my way directly across the field where the main runway would be been located, so as to reach the top end of the wood, thus saving myself the unnecessary detour. Here I located an airfield service road heading north, past a structure that had patently remained from the war era, though I’ve not been able to determine its function or significance.

As I reached the end of the airfield service road near Gypsey Corner Farm, I located what I initially assumed to be a man-made canal which I figured to be Water Lane, a hedgerow lining one side and a thick grass verge on the other. After consulting the map again, I realized that it formed the border between Hertfordshire and Cambridgeshire. Despite no signs indicating that it was a public footpath, I was sure that the local farmer wouldn’t begrudge me the hospitality of a trespass on his lands on Christmas Day, so I decided to to hedge my bets and take my chance. Up ahead I saw a large herd of deer and as I pressed on, their spoor was in evidence everywhere.

At first light the next day, Boxing Day, the outlook seemed gloomy initially, as a new dawn was ushered in. The forecast had predicted a high probability of rain, when last checked the previous evening. Miraculously, blue skies unfolded and I found myself buoyed with optimism and promise.I drove from Royston to Great Chishill around midday only and found myself distracted as the windmill outside Great Chishill came into view in the distance, presenting a photo opportunity that would inevitably result in a shortening of the walk, the exact route of which hadn’t fully crystallized in my mind.

Almost every small town and village across the length and breadth of Britain commemorates those who gave their lives in the Great War, Great Chishill being no exception. A memorial at the junction of Barley and Heydon Roads lists just 13 names. Though Great Chishill lies only 4 miles east of Royston, it is located in Cambridgeshire, in fact, the area being the highest point in the county.

An abundance of cyclists seemed to be out and about, perhaps due to the air being relatively windless. I strolled back along Little Chishill Road until it joined May Street. Here I encountered a father on foot, his son riding his bicycle. I was about to head off, when I recognised the accent so familiar to me, as he addressed his little boy, so I approached them instead. Gustav hailed from Milnerton, a suburb of Cape Town, South Africa. It turned out that he had been living in Portugal with his Angolan wife and after being in America for a while, where his son Luca had been born, they had relocated to the UK only a year ago.

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Another pipetrack walk, Table Mountain – Dec 2018

It was at the beginning of 2018, just under a year before, that I had arranged a walk with Ed, John and Horst, along with Ed’s son-in-law and family at the time. Much had happened in the meantime. Ed’s wife had sadly passed away and with luck, subsequently met Elna and within months my eldest broertjie had tied the knot once more and was enjoying marital bliss. Elna had left her job as a conveyancer, where she had earned the nickname “Wielietjies”, due to the fact that she is constantly on the move. So Ed was keen to share the beauty of Cape Town and a walk along Table Mountain’s pipetrack, on the Atlantic seaboard, was arranged.

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Fynbos is in abundance and flourishing along the walk, most recognised by the protea, silver tree and pin cushion. The bluegum and pine trees are all alien and not indigeneous to South Africa. The infestation of black wattle is a threat and needs to be managed to keep it at bay. Fires are another threat to the indigeneous vegetation, although this helps in the regeneration of the species, provided it is sufficiently infrequent, such as a 10 year cycle. Fynbos (fine-leaved plants) is a small belt of natural shrubland or heathland vegetation located in the Western and Eastern Cape, predominantly coastal and mountainous, with a Mediterranean climate and rainy winters. Fynbos forms part of the Cape floral kingdom. The fynbos in the western regions is richer and more varied than in the eastern regions of South Africa. Of the world’s six floral kingdoms, the Cape floral kingdom is the smallest and richest per unit of area. Table Mountain in Cape Town supports 2,200 species, more than the entire United Kingdom.

Flanked by Devil’s Peak and Lion’s Head, Table Mountain makes up the northern end of the Cape Fold Mountain range. Cape Town is indeed a special place and it’s hard to imagine another large city with such easy access to nature and spectacular views any in the world. The mountain’s distinctive flat top – a three-kilometre level plateau – was once the bottom of a valley. The mountain was given its name — Taboa do Cabo (Table of the Cape) — by Antonio de Saldahna after he climbed up Platteklip Gorge in 1503. Legend has it that the tablecloth of clouds that pours over the mountain when the southeaster blows is the result of a smoking contest between the devil and a retired sea captain called Jan van Hunks.

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A walk with my brothers – Kings blockhouse and Contour Path, Table Mountain – Dec 2018

It was almost a year ago to the day that I last did the walk from the car park at Rhodes Memorial at the base of Devils Peak, to Kings Blockhouse and along the contour path towards Kirstenbosch. On this occasion however, I had invited my brothers John and Edward (accompanied by his wife Elna), and John’s brother-in-law, Horst. The initial ascent to the blockhouse is quite a steep one and Ed repeatedly asked me when we would get there, complaining that I had claimed that it was intended to be a relatively easy walk. To be fair, my brothers are not seasoned hikers, coupled with the fact that I have a 10-15 year age advantage. Nevertheless, once we had reached the gate at the top of the climb with the bonus of spectucular views across the southern suburbs of Cape Town, the Cape Flats, False Bay and the Hottentots Mountains in the distance, all talk of fatigue, the heat and creaking joints was forgotten.

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To continue along the Contour Path, a descent of the jeep track to the stile is required. From here the path enters the forest, the track all but hidden from below, that eventually merges with Newlands Forest. It’s a relatively easy walk with slight rises and descents. Large sections of the path have been covered in carefully constructed decking to protect the path underfoot from corrosion. A pair of dried-up waterfalls appear enroute in the narrow mountain ravines which serve as a steep channels Many are forested orthick with all kinds of thick vegetation, including ferns. Some of these may be accessible but danergous and I’ve never attempted any myself. In fact, it comes as no surprise that they are named First Waterfall Ravine and Second Waterfall Ravine. Large rock or boulders serve as stepping stones, when water is likely to flow down the mountainside in the winter months. A large constructed circular wooden deck serving as a rest stop, complete with seating, was occupied by a larger, relatively noisy group, so we moved on. Who on earth wants to be outdoors but still feel compelled to take along music, rather than enjoy the sights and sounds of the natural world, is beyond me!

We did stop further along for a nibble and a drink at one of the ravines. Ed and Elna always come well prepared, with sandwiches and fresh fruit, generously shared with others. We were well sheltered from the heat, so the walk and the pause was being enjoyed by all.The forest opens up into an exposed section offering views of the suburb of Newlands and its hallowed rugby and cricket grounds. Just after this one passes through a stile and not long after, Newlands Ravine, which I had descended on many occasions from the top of Table Mountain. The Contour Path continues on to Skeleton Gorge above Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens but since we still had the return walk to Rhodes Memorial to contend with, I decided on a descent to Newlands Forest.

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Blouberg Strand Beach walks with my brothers – Dec 2018 / Jan 2019

Bloubergstrand is a seaside resort town along the shores of Table Bay, on the Atlantic Ocean, 15 kilometres due north of the city centre of Cape Town. The name Bloubergstrand literally means “blue mountain beach” in Afrikaans, and is derived from Blaauwberg, a nearby hill.

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It is customary on my annual visits to the Mother City to take a walk along the long white, pristine sand beaches towards Melkbos Strand, notably because it is the closest beach to the northern suburbs of Cape Town, where two of my elder brothers have lived for years and the eldest for a shorter period. On occasions I have wandered for miles on my own, finding myself lost in my own thoughts in the process. Sometimes it’s my way of bidding a sad farewell to the city in which I was born, grew up and love so much. On this particular trip, I did a number of walks with my brothers on separate occasions, for no specific reason. Weather conditions can vary from one visit to the next, even within seasons, from sunshine to misty or even windy conditions, which make it popular with enthusiasts who take to the cold Atlantic waters to harness the power of the wind.

Urban expansion in greater Cape Town has accelerated alarmingly in recent decades, particularly along the coastline between Milnerton, Bloubergstrand and Melkbos, spreading inland towards the N7 highway (which runs north) and even beyond, in the direction of Durbanville. The impact of this rapid growth has undoubtedly had a massive impact on the sensitive coastal environment and ecosystems. I still remember the Big Bay area when it was largely undeveloped.

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Grootvadersbosch – Bosmansbos – Dec 2018

Originally known as Melkhoutskraal, the Grootvadersbosch Nature Reserve encompasses 250 hectares of indigenous forest in the foothills of the Langeberg Mountains, close to Heidelberg. The name translates to “big father” in honour of Roelof Oelofse who owned the land in 1723. It has only been a reserve since 1986 and was declared a World Heritage Site in 2004. On my annual visit from the soggy island that is the UK to the Fairest Cape at the tip of Africa, doing a series of day walks, a cycle or possibly a longer walk with my friend from school days, Ralph, has over the years become a bit of an institution. On this occasion Ralph warmed to my suggestion of re-visiting an area walked many years ago, just before the new millennium, I think it was, when we tackled Boosmansbos, located adjacent to Grootvadersbosch, along with Ralph’s American pal ‘Big Ron’.

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So after an early start from Stellenbosch, we arrived in the Overberg early to mid-afternoon and after setting up camp, which for me involved pitching a tent whereas Ralph had “moved up in the world”, in reality, to the tent perched on the roof of his offroad vehicle. The site provides self-catering cabin accommdation and 12 campsites, which overlook the indigenous forest. Access to the hiking or cycling trails requires a permit. To stretch out legs for the longer walk to be undertaken the following day, we tackled the Redwood Trail, which heads towards the Duiwenhoks River and in the process, managed to get lost somehow. Dinner the first night comprised packet pasta cooked on Ralph’s portable gas stove that has seen much use over the years.

Owing to fires which had burnt out much of the area along the Saagkloof Trail towards Boosmanbos, we decided to follow the Loerklip Trail bypassing Dwarsberg instead, the landscape untouched by fire save the lower sections just above Grootvadersbosch. The trail twists and turns, crossing a couple of streams, after which it leads through upper sections rich in fynbos before reaching a ridge that offered views north towards Barrydale, on the Klein Karoo side of the Overberg. The path continues on to Helderfontein, location of the nature reserve’s overnight huts.

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Orange Kloof and Table Mountain hike from Constantia Nek – Dec 2018

Orange Kloof forms part of the Hoerikwaggo Trail that extends from Table Mountain to Cape Point. A permit obtainable from Sanparks is required for this section, which runs from Constantia Nek to Woodhead Dam on the Hout Bay side of the Nek.

Orange Kloof should be booked months in advance, due to its enormous popularity. This I arranged prior to travelling out from the United Kingdom on my annual holidays to the country of my birth.
There is no cost involved for the actual permit however a guide supplied by Sanparks is mandatory. This was my first attempt at tackling this route. The closest available to my preferred date was the 20th December and so an Orangekloof Permit was secured.

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Owing to a limited availability of guides, the Sanparks office acceeded to my request for a friend of mine, Ralph Pina, a member of the Mountain Club of South Africa, to fill the role and to be accepted as a bona fide guide on the basis of affiliation to that organisation. Proof of membership was provided.

My plan was to take my elder brothers along this magical route. In the end only the eldest, Edward, 75 and far from being a seasoned hiker, was able to join, along with his wife of just over a month, Elna.

It’s a fabulous walk. After entering via the gate off Constantia Nek car park along a dirt track, at the point where a track leads off left down to overnight accommodation, on the opposite side, take a path on the right that leads up into the forest, joining a wider track that meanders up the mountainside. A waterfall may be encountered en route.

The track swings towards a route that emerges from Hout Bay with full views across the valley below back in the direction of the Nek. Eventually, one leaves the dirt track via a path on the right which heads up towards a narrow yet enchanting gorge abundant in fynbos, some of it clinging to the rock face. Following the gorge, the dam wall below Woodhrad is reached.

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