Wye Kent? Because it’s there! – Spring Bank Holiday, May 2021

It had been a while since I had last done a walk with Tammy, so I was well up for it when she proposed a North Downs walk on the last day of the Spring Bank Holiday weekend, setting out from the historic village of Wye in Kent, centred about 12 miles from Canterbury and about an hour’s drive from Eltham. After a lengthy spell of inclement weather during May, as a result of the Atlantic jet stream, summer finally arrived over the Bank Holiday weekend. The North Downs are a ridge of chalk hills in south east England that stretch from Farnham in Surrey to the White Cliffs of Dover in Kent.

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We parked near and set off via St. Gregory and St. Martin’s Church, not before I picked up a drink at the Co-op across the road. Accompanying us on the walk was a brown cocker spaniel by the name of Joey, a task for which Tammy regularly volunteers. Leaving the eastern side of Wye and following the Stour Valley Walk emerging through Long Plantation, we crossed an open stretch chalk path, as white as a sheet in the bright sunlight, as it rose towards Beech Wood. Wild flowers adorned the grassland between Beech and Marriage Woods. Emerging from the woods, we picked up the AE101 lane heading towards Marriage Farm. Here we took a narrow track following a line of trees towards a collection of homesteads near Down Farm, where we reached a tarred road as it joins the AE103 to Down Farm. The tarred road, which we had also crossed earlier when passing through Long Plantation, heads down through Olantigh Wood. Just as the road enters Olantigh Wood, a path heads off to the left along its edge. This track joins the North Downs Way on the Wye Downs, near the Wye Memorial Crown markings gouged out of the chalk hillside. This spot provides spectacular views across the Kentish landscape beyond, which called for a tea break and a sandwich, to pause for a moment and take in the splendour of the English landscape.

We continued along the chalk ridge to Broad Downs, location of the most spectacular coombe is known as the Devil’s Kneading Trough. The views here are quite spectacular. There is a route off the ridge at this point however we remained on high ground. We encountered sheep grazing on the hillside grassland, who remained surprisingly tame given the presence of a rather active cocker spaniel, albeit on a leash. The hillside was littered with cow pies, some of a more liquid consistency than others. Joey had taken to rolling playfully on the grass, ending up with a good amount of the bovine creatures’ dung smeared across his back, the green streak in stark contrast to his chocolate brown hair, which displeased Tammy somewhat. A water trough provided the ideal opportunity and Joey was summarily dispatched and dumped into the water and cleaned, with the added benefit of allowing the mutt to cool off.

In the vicinity of Newgate Scrubs, off Cold Harbour Lane, an establishment advertising itself as providing Luxury Home Boarding for Dogs may be found. Yes folks, a Five Star licensed Dog Hotel! Shortly thereafter, at Cold Blow Farm, we took the path off the hillside, leaving the North Downs Way in the process. We crossed Brabourne Road, which, if not for the fact that it was once the Pulgrims Way trackway, following the lower slopes of the North Downs escarpment, carefully avoiding the steep slopes above and the sticky clay below. The Pilgrims Way was a 120 mile route from Winchester to Canterbury, followed by mediaeval pilgrims, heading for Thomas Becket’s tomb. The route follows a pre-historic trackway dated to 500BC. The Pilgrims’ Way is not a designated long distance footpath, but it can be followed as most of it is roads today.

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Rear garage finally sees the light of day!

This blog page documents a few DIY projects I have undertaken on my UK home in Royston, Hertfordshire, most of which I would not have achieved without the help of neighbours and friends.

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Access to a row of semi-detached properties where I live is somewhat untypical, in that, rather than emerging into a long, slender rear garden upon exiting the back door, one encounters a common access lane running across the back, with the advantage of providing additional space for a garage or for parking a car or two. All the neighbours make use of this, despite there being a driveway in front of each property. The garden proper lies beyond that. In 2015, specialists removed and disposed of my old asbestos garage, leaving nothing more than a naked cement slab. Rubble retrieved from the bottom of my garden provided me with much-needed hard-core and in 2016 I was able to extend and widen the existing garage base. It was only now, four to five years later, after some effort preparing the base, that I was able to finally see the void filled with a gleaming new wooden garage structure!

I was finally in a position to be able to order a garage unit from a Kent-based company called Chart Garages, located in Ashford. There is a bit of a story to the company, which I only learnt quite recently. An employee of the company had risen up through the ranks to become a director, then left the company to form his own, Olson’s Timber Buildings, which had subsequently become so successful that they had recently bought out Chart and a number of related companies entirely.

With time running out, my neighbour Chris and I got stuck in a week before the installation date of 25th May. With he assuming the role of bricklayer-in-chief, I kept up the supply of bricks and mortar on the mixing board, albeit that his cement mixer came in really handy. The dry concrete surface was first treated with Everbuild PVA, which was then also added to the concrete mix, providing additional bonding capability. There was much discussion as to the various ways to square the unit precisely and things got a little bit tense but we got there in the end, although Chris bellowed with laughter on the day when the installation team told us it wasn’t quite square. With the old concrete surfaces not being as level as the extensions, laying the brick course presented a small problem in that the 3″ height stipulation didn’t allow much room for error, for a standard brick height of 2½”.

It also turned into a race against the weather, with the Atlantic jetstream playing havoc with UK weather patterns all week. The tarpaulin sheet I had ordered for when the base was being extended came in handy, if not for the fact that the gigantic size of 7m x 9m size was proving somewhat unwieldy to handle. It was akin to managing a cricket match in England the summer. The covers are on…….and then they’re off! It took two days to complete the brick course. With each light shower, the PVA bond I had brushed onto the concrete surface turned a milky white, indicating that it wasn’t waterproof, as we had originally expected. Not that it was going to be an issue. The ever-present formation of cumulonimbus clouds hinted at the possibility of thunderstorms. As Chris literally laid the last the last brick, the heavens opened up. Typical!

At the weekend, with the inevitable threat of showers looming, I knew I had to crack on with the pointing and filling of the holes of the engineering brick, believing in the old adage that you create your own luck. It took all of 6 hours to complete this task on the Saturday. The final bit of preparation on the Sunday involved glueing a damp proofing material onto the brick course from a roll Chris had given me, using a product called Sticks-like-Sh*t, then weighing it down here and there overnight with the odd brick or two. Fortunately, the material is the exact width of a brick, so I was able to get the job done relatively quickly.

The logistics of the project had been a bit of a concern at the outset, however I needn’t have worried. I thought it only fair to enlighten my neighbours as to what was in store. Given that it seemed unlikely that 12-tonne delivery truck would make it down the lane around to the rear of the property, which is accessible for parking, blocking off of the lane was inevitable, so I prepared a notice which was henceforth delivered to the respective letterboxes. Forewarned is forearmed, as the saying goes. I was told that they would arrive onsite at 7h30 in the morning and they were true to their word. Rather than overnight in Milton Keynes the night before after completing a job there, they had returned to base in Kent and subsequently travelled up to Royston in a smaller truck, which had the advantage of being able to at least get down the lane with centimetres to spare despite not reaching the actual site. This made the carrying distance shorter, freeing up the access lane along the front of all our properties. My ex-next-door-neighbour, George, who had moved out only recently, had graciously volunteered to help with carrying on the day, cycling all the way from the neighbouring village of Melbourn, roughly four miles away, where the family had now settled.

The two artisans who had arrived from Chart Garages were both named Jordan. A quick check of the brick course measurements confirmed that, at the very least, the installation could proceed. They told us they had been to numerous sites in the past, only to find that this was not the case. In fact, on one occasion, they alleged, they had driven all the way up from Kent to Liverpool, only to abort installation and return immediately. Neighbours Mary and in particular a thoroughly absorbed Chris made up the rest of the audience as we watched this very professional outfit swing into action, whilst ensuring that they were well primed with cups of coffee throughout and introducing them to the very particular South African delicacy known as a rusk!

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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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