Our good friends Gill and Dave host a mid-winter walk for all their friends after Christmas every year. We’re invited, and we’re never sure why. We’re not known for showing much interest in horses, and we don’t own a dog. As you can see from this shot taken just as we set forth, fortified by bacon sandwiches and coffee, having a dog in tow is pretty much expected.
We love this post-Christmas event, and this year I was especially keen. I’ve not been able to go on a decent hike for six months now because of a knee condition, but today was the day to begin to put all that behind me.
So here we all are. Here are the dogs, here is the mud, here are the woods and the local views – understated, pleasant good old rolling English countryside. I’ve deliberately overstated the mud for dramatic effect – it really wasn’t bad at all, and with enjoyable company we didn’t notice it anyway.
Back home with Gill and Dave, we ate and drank, laughed and talked for most of the afternoon.
And on the way home, this was the sunset.
Another entry for Jo’s Monday Walk. It’s been such a long time since I’ve had the chance…
It’s time for my monthly trip to the archives. And an opportunity for me to remember, as I stare out at the rain sodden garden, that the grass isn’t always greener…..
November 14th 2014
7.00 a.m. Sunday. 22 Ariègeois radios were switched on for the day’s weather forecast. ‘It’ll be an exceptionally sunny and hot day for the time of year, throughout France. Temperatures in the south will reach 23 degrees in some places.’ 22 satisfied listeners, members of the Rando del’Aubo, switched off their radios…. without bothering to listen to the end of the forecast. Instead they turned to the more important business of packing their rucksacks for a rather heavy-duty walk an hour and a half’s drive from Mirepoix, la Forêt d’en Malo.
With a stiff climb of 700 metres in prospect, a 14 km. walk isn’t a stroll in the park. But the payoff as you emerge from the forest is an extraordinary panorama of the Pyrénées, jagged teeth of rock emerging from the thickly forested mountainsides: especially lovely in autumn as the trees turn from yellow, through ochre, to magenta and crimson.
As we drove eastwards, the cloud and mist descended. We parked, we walked, we climbed, we scrambled and we struggled for three hours as the mists became ever damper and more clinging, and an unexpected cold wind whipped across the mountain side. And at the top, this was our view.
We hadn’t listened to the end of the forecast you see. What we should have known that our little patch of south eastern France was a little bad-weather cold spot. There we were bang in the middle of it.
Later, back at home, our smug families and friends recounted how they’d spent the day in shorts and tee shirts. Maybe they’d had a little bike ride, a gentle stroll in the sunshine, a drink on the terrace in the hot sun……
Regular readers will know I’ve got into the habit, once a month or so, of revisiting an old post. And I’m reminded of what October used to mean in France. Blackberrying’s over now in England (the devil spits on the fruit as soon as October kicks in, didn’t you know?), but my inner-Frenchwoman has been squirreling away scavenged apples, pears, mushrooms – even a few unimpressive walnuts. It all reminds me of France, where foraging is a way of life…
‘All is safely gathered in, ere the winter storms begin’ *
I’ve written before about the ‘au cas où’ bag: the carrier you always have with you on a walk, ‘just in case’ something tasty turns up and demands to be taken home and eaten.
Well, at this time of year, it isn’t really a case of ‘au cas où’ . You’re bound to find something. A fortnight ago, for instance, Mal and I went on a country stroll from Lieurac to Neylis. We had with us a rucksack and two large bags, and we came home with just under 5 kilos of walnuts, scavenged from beneath the walnut trees along the path. A walk through the hamlet of Bourlat just above Laroque produced a tidy haul of chestnuts too.
Yesterday, we Laroque walkers were among the vineyards of Belvèze-du-Razès. The grapes had all been harvested in the weeks before, but luckily for us, some bunches remained on the endless rows of vines which lined the paths we walked along. We felt no guilt as we gorged on this fruit all through the morning. The grapes had either been missed at harvest-time, or hadn’t been sufficiently ripe. They were unwanted – but not by us.
The walnuts we’re used to in the Ariège are replaced by almonds over in the Aude. You have to be careful: non-grafted trees produce bitter almonds, not the sweet ones we wanted to find. But most of us returned with a fine haul to inspect later. Some of us found field mushrooms too.
Today, the destination of the Thursday walking group was the gently rising forested and pastoral country outside Foix known as la Barguillère. It’s also known locally as an area richly provided with chestnut trees. Any wild boar with any sense really ought to arrange to spend the autumn there, snuffling and truffling for the rich pickings. We walked for 9 km or so, trying to resist the temptation to stop and gather under every tree we saw. The ground beneath our feet felt nubbly and uneven as we trod our way over thousands of chestnuts, and the trees above threw further fruits down at us, popping and exploding as their prickly casings burst on the downward journey.
As our hike drew to an end, so did our supply of will-power. We took our bags from our rucksacks and got stuck in. So plentiful are the chestnuts here that you can be as picky as you like. Only the very largest and choicest specimens needed to make it through our rigorous quality control. I was restrained. I gathered a mere 4 kilos. Jacqueline and Martine probably each collected 3 times as much. Some we’ll use, some we’ll give to lucky friends.
Now I’d better settle myself down with a dish of roasted chestnuts at my side, and browse through my collections of recipes to find uses for all this ‘Food for Free’.
* Two lines from an English hymn sung at Harvest Festival season: ‘Come, ye thankful people, come’
You don’t have to go very far in Yorkshire to feel remote. You don’t even have to get beyond the reach of the man-made. Those adjacent reservoirs in Nidderdale for instance, Angram and Scar House, both built to supply the City of Bradford with fresh water: Angram in the 1890s, Scar House in the 1920s. They’re off the beaten track, isolated. You’d never guess that when they were being built construction workers had their families with them on site: a shop, a place of worship, a school, all built for their use.
Now the construction workers are long gone, and their community too. Only the odd foundation stone remains. The area feels remote, reached only after a long drive down a narrow B road and one belonging to Yorkshire Water. It’s home to a rich variety of wild life. Walkers love to tramp its walking routes, relishing the emptiness, the silence, the bleak beauty of this spot.
Several of you commented on my coastal pictures from Northumberland, remarking on how relaxing the whole thing must have been. Well …. it recharged the batteries alright … but not by lying down on the beach with a good book. Certainly not.
We were at Nether Grange, an HF hotel, with our walking group. And we were there with other walkers – some in groups, others not. At Nether Grange, walking is what you come for. That and good food eaten in good company. We’d opted for guided walks. Three levels of difficulty are offered each day so there’s no excuse not to get involved. I chose one of each, so finished the week with 15.3 km, 12 km and 17 km. walks under my belt.
This is hill country. The Pennines, the backbone range that bisects northern England becomes the Cheviots as it marches towards Scotland. In the car you’ll swoop thrillingly up and audaciously down those hillsides. They provide a backdrop to the area which is at once dramatic and bucolic.
On foot, you’ll get to know about those slopes….. actually, we weren’t often faced with gradients that had us gasping, panting and begging for mercy. But we rarely had a long level stretch either. And our leaders were there to encourage, chivvy along, provide good humour and background notes on all kinds of topics … as well as read the maps, so we didn’t have to.
We walked moorland tracks, bouncy with springy turf nibbled short by sheep. We crossed hillsides bright with golden gorse. We tracked through woodland carpeted with bluebells.
We passed Ford Moss, an extremely ancient raised peat bog where we excited the residents: Exmoor ponies charged with grazing the vegetation and keeping it in trim.
We passed farms with shire horses and hissy geese.
Shirehorse and foal.
And on the last day, we walked the local coastal path: St. Oswald’s Way. The section between Alnmouth and Craster-where-the-kippers-come-from is characterised by craggy cliffs, and are home, like the nearby Farne Islands, to many thousands of seabirds such as kittiwakes and fulmars. Here’s what the zoom lens on my new camera can do.
Our group, the 17 km one (10 1/2 miles to the non-metric) finished just beyond Dunstanburgh Castle. It was built in the 14th Century by the Earl of Lancaster, who was openly hostile to King Edward II – never a good idea, because the king had him executed in 1322. This fortification was built to make a bellicose statement, in an area crowded with castles. Now it’s a ruin, and an impressive one. We slogged to the top of the keep for the views, marvelling at the extra-thick walls as we climbed.
We finished the day, and our three days of walks, with a paddle. Gotta have a paddle. Or ‘plodge’ as the locals call it.
With thanks to our walk leaders Chris, Helen, Paul, Richard: to Reuben and Team Nether Grange, and to our own Mike and Angela for organising the holiday.
This is the last entry in my re-blogging season. I’ve enjoyed browsing through my memories: this was why I created my blog in the first place – as a diary and travel journal. I think that I’ll continue to re-post, maybe once a month, to allow memories to resurface, and perhaps give them a fresh audience.
This particular walk is one we’ll never forget, ever.
Yesterday we walked through Montaillou. It might seem a tiny and unremarkable village now, but it’s the place that’s maybe done most to contribute to our understanding of turn-of-the-14th century village life in the Languedoc when religious strife between the Catholics and the Cathars was at its height. This is a big subject: it deserves more than passing mention: a future blog maybe.
I’d read le Roy Ladurie’s book on Montaillou more than 30 years ago,and never dreamed that I might one day live in what the tourist offices are pleased to call ‘Cathar Country’. So it was the shepherds of Montaillou I was thinking of as we began our Sunday walk. They would come to the annual fair at Laroque d’Olmes, a good 40 km from where they lived. They would drive their flocks long distances for good pasture, and as national boundaries meant little in these mountain zones, their fellow shepherds whom they met in their travels would sometimes be Spanish.
We too were climbing out of Montaillou. The paths seemed unchanged through the centuries – short springy turf with early spring flowers pushing through. Pale pink and white blossoms busting open. Narrow streams cutting deep channels through the turf. Thick forest climbing the slopes. Patches of snow made the going a bit tough from time to time. It was warm and sunny, the slopes were steep and sometimes hard-going.
Then suddenly…suddenly, and so unexpectedly, we reached the top of our first climb. Around us, to east, south and west were the snow-covered peaks of the Pyrenees, glistening white against the blue sky. Above us, skylarks called and swooped.
Later, Danielle remarked that she felt as if at that moment she’d received a special gift: that perfect view, the clean clear air, the singing birds which were the only sounds. She voiced, I think, what we all felt.
We hadn’t reached our highest point: we climbed onwards, always with those snow-capped mountains at our side. And then we were on top: handy rocks provided seats and shelves and we unwrapped and shared our lunches, lingering in the sun, drinking in the views for well over an hour.
Soon after lunch, we turned our back on the snowy mountains. As we faced the hotter, drier Pyrénées Orientales, the equally high peaks there weren’t covered in white. Our path was downwards now, and soon we had to pass the ski station above Camurac. Built long after those years when snow could be relied upon throughout the winter, it was an area of scalped earth, snow machines and all-but-redundant chair lifts. My Montaillou shepherds certainly wouldn’t have recognised it.
But then it was forested paths again, open pasture and spring flowers. We finished the walk passing a collection of horses, Thelwell style ponies, and appropriately for Palm Sunday, a couple of friendly donkeys. A good day.