Friday, 21 December 2012

Season’s Greetings

It's not like me to be first off the mark in such matters, but I just thought I’d add a quick post to wish everyone a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

What with work, walking and a recuperating Missy G, it’s been a busy twelve months. It’s been a good one, too: luckily there are still a few days to go, and we hope to be out on the hills and fells for a final few miles of the year in between the turkey and trimmings.

This year has been characterised by rain – at least here in the UK – and must go down as one of the wettest on record. The forecast over the festive period is for still more rain, which might soak the clothes but won’t dampen the spirit. I’ll do a round-up of what we get up to in due course, even if the pictures turn out a bit on the soggy side.

But as well as passing on season’s greetings, I’d like to thank everyone who has read the blog this year – particularly any newcomers and those who have felt moved enough to leave a comment of their own. It is always a humbling experience to learn these scribblings have elicited a response, and I thoroughly enjoy reading them all.

So here’s to health, wealth and happiness in 2013.

And, of course, plenty of good walking!

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

If music be the food of love, play on.

I’ve been up north for work today, and just got in after the long journey home. It’s pitch black outside, -3°C and foggy as hell. So what better on such a night than to shut the world out, settle in with a coffee and listen to some music.

Although mentioned occasionally in these pages, I haven't specifically discussed music before as the main focus has always been walking and the outdoors. But it has been a part of my life since childhood: from my early years listening to Dad's classical collection, through playing in amateur bands of one sort or another for 25 years, to now; regular (if not frequent) trips to gigs.

It’s about that time of year when lists start appearing: awards, bests of and top 10s for this, that and the other. A car journey of some 4 hours each way gave me plenty of time to consider this years' output, so, in a first (and possibly a last) for this blog, here is the Ambles & Rambles music of the year 2012 recommendation.

As I generally tend to listen to albums rather than singles, I’ve picked one track from each of my three favourite releases of the year. None of the tracks is especially short, but is hopefully representative of the album as a whole.

Somebody much more erudite than me once said of popular music that it “says nothing to me about my life.” Well, these songs may not be popular, but they are good, honest music, crafted with care and beautifully performed. All very British and all probably ignored by everybody but fans. These songs say a lot - and say it well. If even one reader takes the trouble to investigate and discovers something they enjoy, it will have been worth posting.

On the other hand, I hope you’ll leave the cold outside and find time to sit back, relax, and check them out for yourself.

Anathema - Untouchable Part 1

This is the opening track of the Weather Systems album, an album full of brooding music played with power and conviction and an intensity of performance so often lacking these days. Five band members from only two families: sometimes the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. A new band to me this year, I know little of their history or back catalogue, but on the basis of this it looks worthy of further exploration.

Marillion - Sounds That Can't Be Made

Most people's opinion of Marillion - if, in fact, they have one at all - is of that band that did "Kayleigh" and sound a bit like Genesis. Well, that was a lifetime ago, and they're a very different band now. For the last 20 years, Marillion have been putting out high quality stuff, most of which has slipped well below the radar of most of the music world. Which is a shame, as they deserve to be heard! This year's offering is every bit as good as anything they have ever released, and this track - the title track of the album - will surprise those who's last recollections of the band include jester-bedecked album covers and a singer called Fish.

Big Big Train - Summoned By Bells

A band I imagine few will have heard of, let alone heard. Never mind - this lot have been beavering away releasing thoughtful, well-crafted music on their own label for around two decades now, and have rarely sounded finer. Very complex, very ambitious and steeped in the English pastoral tradition: the craft is in the detail, and the often simple-sounding passages hide some fearsome playing and deft writing and arranging skills. The orchestral arrangement in the coda is a case in point: gorgeous! 

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Daylesford, The Oddingtons, Adlestrop & Chastleton – approx 9.16 miles

Sunday November 18th 2012

Map: OS Explorer OL45 – The Cotswolds

A436 Parking – Diamond Way (S) – Daylesford Hall Farm – Daylesford – Upper Oddington – Lower Oddington – A436 – Adlestrop – Macmillan Way (N) – Chastleton – Adlestrop Hill – A436 Parking

As mid-November mornings go, they don’t get much better than this. A damp and drizzly Saturday afternoon had given way to a clear, cold night, followed by a bright, lightly frosted Sunday morning. Parking on the verge beside the busy A436, it was already clear that today could be something rather special ….

Such reward was, of course, entirely justified. Around this time of year it is our practice book a weekend away with the aim of mixing a bit of shopping (for you-know-what: the festival that dare not speak it’s name – at least until December) with a bit of walking (as a kind of emotional ballast).

Last year we chose Ludlow in Shropshire, and mitigated the purgatory with walks over Harley's Mountain and the Long Mynd. This year, by way of a change, we opted for the Cotswolds – only about 90 minutes away – basing ourselves in Stow-On-The-Wold, that pretty paragon of particularly pointless present purchasing possibilities so perfect for you-know-what. No, I’m not taking the pee: it’s actually quite a good place to find all those nick-knacks, house wares and crafty-type things of little real value and no actual use deemed so essential at this time of year.

Leaving the road, we took the Diamond Way into the estate of Daylesford House, heading first southeast before turning southwest at Daylesford Hall Farm. A “farm” it maybe, but – as you can see – it’s a million miles away from the rotting machinery and six-inches-of-shit found at your typical Pennine hillside hacienda. As we passed through the estate, we were glad to be offered this helpful advice: just think, we could’ve made a costly error had we not opted to use the car this weekend.

Continuing on the Diamond Way, we soon passed the Daylesford Organics farm shop. The estate produces a lot of it’s own high quality, organic meat, dairy produce, fruit and vegetables, sold via the farm shop and restaurant, and there are also lots of crafts and gifts as well. It’s very nice, but doesn’t really cater for walkers, muddy or otherwise.

So we trundled on, leaving the Diamond Way to follow a mix of tracks and field paths towards Upper Oddington. In the glorious sunshine, it was hard to imagine that only yesterday we had walked a gloomy, drizzle-soaked 6-mile circuit from Stow (taking in the villages of Upper Swell, Lower Swell and Maugersbury) and banished the evening cold with a couple of leisurely drinks beside an open fire.

On a narrow lane just outside the villages of Upper and Lower Oddington the church of St. Nicholas sits amongst mature trees. It’s quite an impressive structure – as are many of the buildings in these parts – but is hard to photograph. So we passed by and picked up the Macmillan Way into Upper Oddington, past a horse with an underdeveloped sense of personal space, before back tracking slightly to reach Lower Oddington. Both are quintessentially Cotswold villages, and both have a pub. Unfortunately for us, we were way too early for lunch.

Across the A436 we entered Adlestrop Park. A gentle rise through well laid out grounds soon brought us to the village. Sitting on a bench beside the church of St. Mary Magdalene, we were taking a coffee break when we got chatting to a man who, every Sunday, tends to the church bells, and who let us in for a look round. It’s quite a big church for a small village, with some nice stained glass and a bit of history as well.

Adlestrop, it turns out, is immortalised by Edward Thomas’s wonderful poem of the same name (reproduced below).


Yes, I remember Adlestrop --
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.

The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform. What I saw
Was Adlestrop – only the name

And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

Edward Thomas 1878 - 1917

It’s easy to form a picture of the hot, still afternoon and the quiet waiting disturbed only by the collective bird song, a perfect pastoral moment. More poignant still, the journey described was undertaken just before the outbreak of WW1, during which Thomas would be killed in action, aged just 39. With our visit being only a week after Remembrance Sunday it was doubly moving. The station may be long gone (falling to Dr. Beeching’s axe) but the memory – through the poem – lives on.

In thoughtful mood, we picked up the path heading northwards along the flanks of Adlestrop Hill. It was a glorious afternoon, with clear blue skies and a little warmth from the sun seeping through.

We passed this unusual tree: I’ve no idea what type it is, but in the sunlight the strong colour stood out.

At the brow of the hill, views opened up to the hills and vales of the main block of the Cotswold Hills. These villages lie on the north-eastern fringe of the area, with the majority of the AONB spreading away to the west and south.

We were now approaching the fifth village of the day, Chastleton: another small agglomeration of fine houses, topiary hedges and rarefied atmosphere. One of the houses – Chastleton House – is a National Trust property, open to the public (but only in the summer months).

A second coffee stop beckoned, so we sat on a bench overlooking the house and grounds whilst enjoying a warm drink.

Soon, it was time to move on. A short spell of road walking was followed by a cut through woodland to join a field path for the last three-quarters-of-a-mile back to the road. Despite the sunshine, shaded areas were still carrying traces of frost – ideal for the cleaning up of dirty boots.

The Cotswolds is a much-maligned walking area, being considered too twee, too “posh” and rather tame by some. It has a not-entirely unjustified reputation for unfriendliness towards walkers and parts can be very muddy, especially in the winter. And true, you are more likely to find walks for the area described in Country Walking than in Trek & Mountain.

But it is still an undeniably beautiful part of the country, if a bit snooty and chocolate-box-y in places. There is plenty of good walking to be found, and we shall definitely do this circuit again.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

PPW, TMO & The Morning After ….

Last night had ended sometime early this morning. The great and the good of the village had assembled for the annual Safari Supper: a merry-go-round evening of food, fundraising and fine company, finished off with a gentle wobble home along frost-fringed pavements beneath clear, starlit skies. Dimly, at the back of my mind, I recall the village magazine editor reminding me that deadline day for the Winter edition was only a few days away: was my copy ready?

Here, in Northamptonshire, the council operates a volunteer system of footpath monitoring known as the Parish Path Warden scheme, and yours truly is the local incumbent. PPW duties involve walking all the paths in the parish a minimum of twice a year, reporting any problems, carrying out minor maintenance (for example replacing lost or damaged signage) and acting as local liaison on the ground.

In addition, though, I’ve found myself agreeing to write up a short, local walk for each quarterly edition of the magazine. Which meant Sunday was the only day to do a recce …..

Fortunately, the morning dawned bright and clear. The well-deserved hangover failed to materialise (something to do the sun always shining on the righteous, perhaps, given all the “fundraising” we’d been indulging in last night) so we were up, breakfasted and away by a reasonably acceptable 10.30am.

Today’s walk was an 8-mile circuit taking in the villages of Lamport, Hanging Houghton and Maidwell, along with sections of the Brampton Valley Way (a disused railway line originally connecting Northampton and Market Harborough). It was a beautiful late autumn morning, and the many stands of mature trees were glowing at their colourful best in the sunlight.

Unfortunately, I’d left my camera at home ….

I’d picked this route for two reasons: firstly because I reckon it would make a great circuit for walking off any seasonal excesses on Boxing Day (there’s nothing too strenuous to contend with for those who were overly refreshed the day before), and secondly because it keeps, by and large, to fairly clean, well-surfaced paths and tracks – always a bonus during the muddier winter months.

I say “by and large”: we encountered a three-quarter-mile section, designated as a Byway (or BOAT – Byway Open to All Traffic), which was quite wet and muddy underfoot. Routes with this kind of designation are, as the name indicates, open to access by a variety of different user groups, including motorised traffic. This particular section is subject to a Traffic Management Order (TMO) excluding all motorised traffic except motorcycles, and gated to restrict access by 4x4’s and other large off-road vehicles.

As we made our way we were twice passed by a group of four trail bike riders, all of who were careful and polite, giving us a wide berth and keeping within the law as far as we could see. However, the earth in these parts is quite heavy, and doesn’t drain too well at the best of times. Coupled with that, the wet summer we have experienced this year has left the ground even softer than it would usually be, so it’s not hard to imagine that, come spring, this stretch might be a complete quagmire and likely in need of expensive repairs (probably unaffordable on current ROW budgets).

Now, I don’t want to come across as a killjoy, and recognise that the riders had every right to be there, but to me four noisy trail bikes – churning up the track and shattering the peace and quiet of the countryside – somehow doesn’t seem right, especially one that brings motorised transport into contact with slower-moving walkers, runners, horse riders and cyclists, no matter how legal it may be in the eyes of the law.

The Jeremy Clarkson’s of the world might be happy to ridicule the likes of me and have some smart-arsed put down at the ready, but I’m just as entitled to my opinion as anyone else, and I think off-roading is an inappropriate activity for the countryside.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Brasher Kanika GTX Walking Boots - Review

£50.00 – Field & Trek (RRP £100)
In the last week or so I’ve had to consign two pairs of boots to the recycling. One, an elderly pair of Meindl Burmas, has leaked for a while, but I kept them as a standby for walking the local lanes in dry conditions, not wanting to waste any valuable tread. The other, Brasher Air 8’s, have recently begun to leak after about 6 or 7 years of intermittent use.
In truth, neither pair owes me a thing. Each has covered many hundreds of miles and accompanied me on many a happy trip. As I already have a newer pair of Burma’s, I was really on the look-out for a new pair to replace the Air 8’s.
And this is where technology and thinking has moved on a little. Brasher were one of the first walking boot manufacturers to embrace the concept of lighter footwear, and have produced some market-leading products over the years, such as the iconic Hillmaster model. Nowadays, with so many manufacturers offering lightweight (or even ultra-lightweight) boots and shoes it is easy to overlook Brasher’s significant contribution to lighter footwear.
Truth be told, in this matter – as in a number of others – I’m a bit of a traditionalist. I prefer the solidity and stability of boots. I don’t like walking with wet feet either: one particularly uncomfortable week a couple of years back disabused me of that notion. So none of your “leaky shoes that dry quickly” or low-cut trainer-types that let wet in over the top for me: boots it is, unless easy, dry conditions can be guaranteed (and you only need to think back over this last summer to work out how likely that is).
However, I’m not a complete Luddite, and if boots can be made lighter and more comfortable yet still maintain levels of support and protection, that’s great. For tough, mountain conditions or boggy moorland walking I still prefer a leather boot such as the Meindl Burma. But for general low-level walking in the countryside I reckon a fabric boot is fine.
So when I came across a pair of Brasher Kanika GTX boots selling at half price on the FIELD&TREK website, my curiosity was piqued. A lightweight, fabric boot with a Gore-tex waterproof lining by a respected manufacturer for £50: these must be worth a try.
In “buying without trying” I had broken one of my cardinal rules: never buy boots without trying them on first. I am quite finicky about footwear, but I reckoned I knew enough about the brand from previous experience to risk giving them a punt untried.
So I must admit I got a bit of a surprise when I put them on for the first time. I have quite wide feet, and was used to previous pairs of Brasher boots being quite generous on the width. But these felt quite narrow, and I wore them round the house for a couple of nights before invalidating the returns option and taking them outside for a spin. I figured that being fabric they would “loosen” slightly as they were worn, which seems to be the case, and I am happier now that a good fit will be obtained.
At 1132g per pair (size 8.5) they are quite light for a boot, and certainly felt so when in use. Yet they also felt quite sturdy, robust and supportive, with a nice bit of flex to the sole, a comfortable rolling action, and a reasonable amount of torsional rigidity given they are designed as a lightweight fabric boot for lowland walking, not a crampon-compatible mountain boot. Hopefully, then, no tired feet at the end of a long day!
There is plenty of padding round the ankle cuff and the top of the bellows tongue, and the cuff is high enough to provide good protection to the ankle bone. A protective rubber trim to the toe box offers further foot protection. I think that after a couple of trips they will mould nicely to my feet and prove to be very comfortable. If I had one slight criticism it would be that the laces are a bit on the short side: something easily remedied but a tad annoying nonetheless.
Last Sunday, I put them through their paces in earnest: an eight-mile walk in nearby countryside that had them tested on metalled lanes and stony tracks, through wet grass and deep puddles, and along slippery, muddy paths – and all that in the first mile! And I’m happy to report the Kanika’s coped pretty well on the whole. OK, traction in some of the muddiest sections was not brilliant, but I think any boot would have struggled to maintain a firm grip in such slick, clay-rich conditions, and I don’t think the lack of friction was due to any failing of the sole unit or lug pattern.
All-in-all, then, a thumbs-up. I’m not an advocate of the disposable culture, but for this price I paid if I got just one year’s use out of them I would be happy: that would equate to around £1 per week (a benchmark I set myself for big-ticket items). So not bad at all, although I reckon they’ll do better than that.
Like I say, these are currently on sale at F&T for £50, although there are plenty of other stockists to be found and an array of prices. I think this is because this model is in the process of being discontinued. However, there are current versions that are very similar: Kiso for the men (RRP £120, buy for £85) and Kenai for the ladies (RRP £100, buy for £50).
If you’re in the market for a reasonable pair of boots for light use, I think these are definitely worth checking out.
Performance: 8/10
Comfort: 8/10
Value (at price paid): 9/10
Total: 25/30

Friday, 19 October 2012

A Long Weekend Round Bishop’s Castle – Part 2

Carding Mill Valley & Ashes Hollow – approx 8.00 miles.

Tuesday October 9th 2012

Map: OS Explorer OL217 – The Long Mynd & Wenlock Edge

Church Stretton – Carding Mill Valley – Long Mynd – Shooting Box – Boiling Well – Ashes Hollow – Little Stretton – The Owlets – Church Stretton.

Monday turned out to be a bit of a washout. We managed to complete a few more jobs in the morning, did a bit of shopping around Ludlow, and found ourselves in Knighton for lunch. Later, we went out for an unsatisfactory wallow from Llangunllo: a wet, muddy plod in rain and low cloud. Considering we were close to Glyndwr’s Way (and had meant to incorporate a stretch into our circuit) we were quite disappointed with the state of these connecting paths. Progress was generally awkward: slippery, poorly signed, and with gates difficult to open – and, given we were following a bridleway, some were tied irrevocably shut (get your horse through that). So we did something we very rarely do: turned back.

So, for today, we wanted to do something a bit more enjoyable – and reliable. In such circumstances the Long Mynd often comes to the rescue, with clear paths and straightforward route finding making for easy going.

We took the popular route into Carding Mill Valley, then on up to the broad ridge of the Long Mynd, dodging school parties as we went. We do this route quite often – after all it is one of the main routes to the top – but it always seems to have something to offer every time. Today the stream was in high water after copious recent rains, and it never ceases to amaze me just how Alpine the upper reaches of the valley feel at times.

On top it is a different world, with heathery moorland being the dominant landscape. We followed the main path towards Pole Bank, turning left shortly before the summit to meet the road at Boiling Well and the start of the route into Ashes Hollow.

I must confess, despite having walked the area quite a lot in recent years, we have never taken this major route before. And what a revelation! After a muddy start, the path plunges through scenery not unlike Grindsbrook Clough or one of the other streams tumbling off the Kinder plateau. We managed to pick a line that closely followed the stream, offering a few easy crossings and a bit of hands-on work too – nothing too taxing, but a bit of fun nonetheless.

From Little Stretton, we took a path atop a steep bank before descending towards the road, through The Owlets, and back into town. Three and a half lovely hours before the drive back home and work tomorrow.

Sunday, 14 October 2012

A Long Weekend Round Bishop’s Castle – Part 1

On Offa – approx 13.00 miles.

Sunday October 7th 2012

Map: OS Explorer OL216 – Welshpool & Montgomery

Bishop’s Castle – The Wintles – Seven Wells – Shepherdswhim – Bishop’s Moat – Dog And Duck Cottage – Offa’s Dyke Path (S) – Nut Wood – Churchtown – Knuck Wood – Shropshire Way – Reilthtop – Middle Woodbatch – Bishop’s Castle.

Weather forecasters, eh? What an unreliable bunch.

As our long-awaited long weekend in the Shropshire/Powys border area drew nearer, we’d been keeping a close eye on the forecast – only to be promised the kind of weather that would have Noah whetting his chisel.

So we had planned accordingly. Though Saturday’s weather was nothing special, we’d managed to squeeze a short stroll in between the showers and the errands we had to run. Sunday was due to be awful, with low cloud and heavy rain set to dominate, and we held out little hope of a meaningful outing.

But we woke to an unexpectedly bright morning that had us reaching for our kit much earlier than planned, and I hastily cobbled together this route to take advantage of the sunshine and blue skies. As many of you will know, Shropshire is well-endowed when it comes to footpaths, but flaunts her charms demurely, with both major routes and minor paths being well represented.

Our route was a circuit linking parts of four of these paths. From the centre of Bishop’s Castle we followed the route of the BC Ring, a 60-odd-mile circuit encircling the town, heading west towards The Wintles. The BC Ring is not marked on OS maps though it is clearly waymarked, and the route is described in a small booklet available locally.

A gentle climb rewarded us with views back over town and north towards Heath Mynd and the Churchstoke hills; Corndon, Roundton, et al. After a mile or so of open field paths, the BC Ring takes to the network of narrow tracks and lanes that criss-cross the area, heading west at first before swinging southwards past the scruffy farm of Shepherdswhim to join the Kerry Ridgeway at Bishop’s Moat.

The Kerry Ridgeway is a curious track. Running between Bishop’s Castle in the east and Newtown in the west, it was a major thoroughfare in its day. Its origins are uncertain at best, but it is believed to date from the Iron Age some 2,000 to 2,500 years ago. Not that you could tell that by looking at it nowadays, as today this section is a metalled lane frequented by walkers, cyclists and the occasional car. Still, it provided us with a good two miles worth of easy walking as we continued our westerly trend.

In relation to the Kerry Ridgeway, the 8th century Offa’s Dyke is something of a Johnny-come-lately. Again there are uncertainties regarding its history and purpose, but conventional wisdom has it that it was built during Offa’s reign to keep the marauding Welsh at bay define the western borders of the Kingdom of Mercia.

Whatever the actual reasons, it remains an impressive structure. Between the Kerry Ridgeway and Knighton it is possible to walk right beside (and even on) some of the most complete sections of the Dyke. Mindful of potential invaders, we scanned the horizon to the west as we sat to enjoy our sandwiches. Cunningly, today’s raiders-to-be seem to have disguised themselves as harmless-looking sheep.

This section of the Offa’s Dyke Path runs through some superb countryside and is one of the most scenic of the whole trail. It is also considered to be one of the toughest – and with good reason. Often referred to as the Switchback section, a series of steep, relentless undulations accumulates hundreds of metres of energy-sapping ascent and descent. Here, a clear section of dyke can be seen ascending the opposite hillside: the path runs to the right hand side of the ditch and is every bit as steep as it looks.

A knee-jarring descent brought us to Churchtown, a tiny hamlet with a large church, which we popped in for a quick look round.

Beyond Churchtown, we joined path number four: the Shropshire Way. This was to be our companion for much of the return leg: through Churchtown Wood and Knuck Wood, above Mainstone and along to cross the road at Reilthtop. The early sun and clear skies had gradually faded to overcast, but it made for pleasant walking through archetypal, rolling British farmland.

Now we could see Bishop’s Castle in the valley below, with the bulky ridge of the Long Mynd beyond. Skirting Henley Wood, we passed through Middle Woodbatch Farm and joined the quiet lane for a gentle trundle back to town.

Along the lane we passed a couple of groups of Sunday strollers: incredibly, on such a lovely autumn Sunday, from leaving BC early this morning to nearly being back again – around 11 miles – we saw no other walkers at all.

Friday, 5 October 2012

Walking Matters: Zermatt 8th – 19th Sept 2012 – Day 10

Höhbalmen & Trift – 12.75 miles / Ascent = 1,040m / Descent = 1,911m

Our last full day in the area was marked by a slight change in the weather: nothing too awful, mind, just a gradual thickening of the cloud as the day went on, and a hint of rain in the air that never properly materialised.

We wanted to finish our holiday on a high note, or at least with a memorable day out that would leave us pining for more, so we planned a route from the Schwarzsee via Höhbalmen and Trift back to Zermatt. I’d been looking to work Trift into a suitable route for some while, but had been struggling until the revelation of using the Schwarzsee as a starting point for this side of the valley a couple of days ago had provided the key to unlock this particular mystery as well.

This time there was no breakfast party to hinder our progress up the mountain, and we stepped off the gondola at a much more promising 9.15am. Our aim was to walk the high level contour path over the Höhbalmen below the peaks of the Gabelhorn (a line roughly following the base of the scree fans in the picture below).

The first part of our route was as before: down the hill to Stafelalp, across the valley past the Hydro scheme, and up beside the waterfall to Arbenbach. This morning, though, we had time for coffee at Stafelalp: no cake, mind, as we were “too early” – a disappointment we were later to get over big style.

From Arbenbach, a steep path zig-zags up the hillside for around 400m before the gradient eases to eventually gain the 2,700m contour. Behind us, views opened up towards the Schönbielhütte and the glaciers at the end of the valley. As the path levelled out, we stopped for lunch – not a bad viewpoint, it has to be said ……

Having reached the level path the going was much easier, the next hour’s walking being quite straightforward. Not that we could afford to lose concentration, though: the yawning chasm to our right providing ample reminder to watch our footing, and we always checked the stability of the stony gullies before swiftly crossing.

As there are no lifts servicing this side of the valley it is generally much quieter, and we saw few other walkers on this stretch. Those we did see were coming from the direction of Trift – a good omen, we thought, for the restaurant being open this late in the season.

Besides the actual walk itself, there are three good reasons to endorse this route. One is the fact that it overlooks almost all of the other areas you may have walked: you can see all the big summits you have gazed at in awe over the past few days, and trace the routes you have taken up the mountains and across the hillsides. The second is one of scale: looking at the enormous drop into the valley somehow allows your mind to calibrate the size of the geography more easily than when you are standing on it. From the small building in the bottom left of the photograph below (actually Stafelalp) to the summit of the Matterhorn is a vertical elevation gain of some 2,300m – that’s 7,500ft in old money.

Eventually the path begins to swing north (passing the junction with a steep path down to Alterhaupt) to enter the huge, glaciated cirque of Trift. And here we find the third good reason to do this walk: the Hotel du Trift.

It took a good half hour to reach the Berghaus after it first came into view, the descent of 300m gradually becoming steeper until a slippery zig-zag path deposited us on level ground once more. We ordered beers and huge wedges of apple cake, and sat on the terrace to admire the view as we consumed them.

We got talking to Hugo and Fabienne who run the Berghaus. As there are no lifts servicing this side of the valley, it is run as a summer-only concern, from early July to late September, accommodating walkers and climbers who want to explore the cirque and it’s surrounding peaks. In a couple of day’s time they would shut up shop and move on to other lives for nine months, until next summer when, in late June, they would make the climb out of Zermatt, dust everything down, and welcome visitors to the quiet side of the valley once again. Sounds awful, doesn’t it?

All that remained for us to do was follow the steep path down beside the Triftbach gorge, passing through the area known locally as Edelweiss, to reach Zermatt some 90 minutes later. Bar a bit of pottering about in the morning, we had finished our walking for the holiday. And, despite the low-key nature of today's walk – given the all-star billing of the area in general – we were happy to have ended it this way, experiencing the quieter side. Somehow we felt we had got a deeper understanding of the area as a result.

There was just time for a final bit of shopping: lunch for tomorrow, souvenirs, Toblerone* for the troops back home: that sort of thing. Then it was back to the apartment to begin packing. We’d had a fantastic time, and managed to cover a fair bit of ground over the course of the ten days: without doubt, these few pages in our “Lebensbuch” would be well written.

Which I guess is a good sign.

(*Other Matterhorn-shaped, chocolaty comestibles are also available. Er … possibly.)

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Walking Matters: Zermatt 8th – 19th Sept 2012 – Day 9

A Leaf Every Day – 10.00 miles / Ascent = 670m / Descent = 637m

After yesterday’s exertions we decided on a bit of an easier day today. A gentle amble round the low level, picturesque villages of Blatten, Furi and Zmutt (eschewing the various lifts) would be followed by time in Zermatt for shopping, reading, generally tidying up – and planning another full day for tomorrow, our last full day.

So it was slightly later than usual that we trundled through town, the early cool having already dissipated. We chose a different way up to Furi this time: via the hamlets of Blatten, where the small chapel is worth a look inside, and Zum See. It’s no more than a steady climb, but even without rushing we were pretty warm by the time we’d reached Furi, and down to shirt-sleeves already.

As we’d promised ourselves an easy day, we stopped for an early coffee break at the Restaurant Furi. It’s surprising what sort of a thirst you can build up if you try. We’d considered aiming for Stafelalp, but a sign informed us that “Montag ist Ruhetag”: closed on Mondays.

Instead, we took the easy road trail towards the dam above Zmutt, crossed the stream over the dam itself, and turned for home. Our lazy start and relaxed pace meant it was already nearing lunchtime, so we picked a grassy spot at the side of the path and sat in the glorious sunshine to eat our sandwiches.

Fifteen minutes further on, we pottered into the charming hamlet of Zmutt. The opportunity to catch a bit of shade in delightful surroundings proved irresistible, so we quickly rustled up another thirst and pulled in for a beer.

Although Zmutt is little more than a chapel, a couple of nice restaurants and a few wonky, wooden houses, it’s a hub for many of the area’s paths that seem to radiate out in all directions. For example, there are four different routes to Zermatt alone.

Today, we picked one we hadn’t used before – and what a revelation it proved to be: plenty of interest; good views; part woodland, part open hillside; an interesting narrow bit with a drop off to the side; even keeping to a high line right until the last minute descent into Zermatt.

One unusual point of interest: we passed by a house sporting a number of poems hanging on the outside walls. This one is entitled “The Book Of Life”.

My translation skills are not great, but roughly speaking it appears to say the following:

When we are born, God gives us all a special book – a diary, so to speak – to record what we do each day. Each day has a clean page, and through our actions we write clearly what we have thought or done, each in our own way. And, when the time comes and we are called to account, God will judge each of us according to what we have written. So don’t waste the pages: and make sure you write well – a leaf every day.

We liked the sentiment in this: each day is precious, a clean slate waiting to be filled with words and deeds. So make the most of it, stand by your principles and live life to the full.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Walking Matters: Zermatt 8th – 19th Sept 2012 – Day 8

The Schönbielhütte – 16.50 miles / Ascent = 955m / Descent = 1,917m

In line with planning bigger walks for better days, we had a decent trip lined up for today. I’d been looking into the possibility of walking to the Schönbielhütte since the beginning of the holiday but had been unhappy about taking a simple there-and-back route for fear it might lack a bit of interest in one or two places.

Then an odd idea popped into my head: could we tackle it from the Schwarzsee? A quick look at the map seemed to confirm the prospect, and the rest fell neatly into place.

We set off nice and early to catch the gondola, but lost a lot of time getting mixed up with some breakfast event that had commandeered two out of every three gondolas. It was very busy, rather chaotic, and not very Swiss at all. A large queue had formed as a result, and in the end it was 10.45am before we reached the Schwarzsee, putting us some way behind schedule.

Clearing the gondola, we headed downhill towards Stafel on a wide track, soon leaving the crowds behind who were mostly aiming for the Hörnlihütte. Part way down we got chatting to a German chap who asked if we could spare any sunscreen. He was studying for a PhD in Neurobiology at the University of Geneva but had come to the area for the weekend and stayed at the Schönbielhütte overnight. He said today was to be their last day, and that they were closing for the end of the season.

With this information filed away we carried on downhill, leaving the track to pick up a pleasant path over undulating ground to Stafelalp. With its sunny terrace and good location below the north face of the Matterhorn, the restaurant looked a good place for a stop. But we had a long way to go and time to make up, so we passed on by and began to pick our way between the Hydro scheme workings across the valley bottom.

Our target was an obvious waterfall on the opposite side of the valley. A narrow path zig-zagged up the side of the falls before opening out at the top to run beside the bubbling stream of the Arbenbach.

We stopped for lunch amid a gaggle of path junctions. Around here, routes lead off in several directions, and we could see people heading to Zmutt, back to Stafel from where we had come, and high above the valley towards Trift. Our route led westwards, though, towards the Schönbielhütte.

Because of the earlier delays we were mindful of the time, especially as the walk back to Zermatt from the Schönbielhütte is around 4 hours. At this time of year it begins to go dark after about 7.30pm, and we wanted to be sure we could reach the hut and make it back to town with at least a modicum of margin for error.

Soon we could see our goal perched on a rocky promontory up ahead, and decided – having got this far – to give it a shot. The sting in the tail was the steep, zig-zagging 170m climb to get there, but we made good time were soon sitting on the terrace in the warm afternoon sunshine enjoying a Cardinal “blonde” moment.

There was an end of term feel to proceedings: the remaining food was divvied out between us and two other parties (we got the last pieces of apple cake!), all the hut slippers were being collected up, and there was much dusting and sweeping in progress.

It was a pleasant half-hour, though, and we thoroughly enjoyed our rest. Surrounded by glaciers and high peaks, the quiet broken only by the occasion crack and boom of an avalanche, it was a privilege to be here in this special place – if only for a while.

Sadly, we couldn’t linger. The route back was simple to navigate and easy going, but there were still some miles to cover before we could call it a day. At one point our intended path had been land-slipped away, but the diversion through re-colonised moraine was very enjoyable and we didn’t begrudge the extra half-mile.

On we went, past the (now closed) cabin at Chalbermatten and on towards Zmutt. By now there were few other people around; just us, the peace and quiet, and our own lengthening shadows. It felt like we had the whole valley to ourselves.

Beyond Zmutt there were a few more people about. We were in need of a brief rest, and found a bench on which to sit for a few minutes: we could afford the time now we were near town on known paths. A man and his dog came by. In response to our greeting the man said nothing, while the dog carefully lowered it’s hindquarters and unhurriedly deposited a long turd on the path in front of us before moving off. It was difficult to keep the smiles off our faces – especially when we encountered this sign a little later.

Dinner was simple: pasta with ham, broccoli and cheese sauce, quickly rustled up – and equally quickly dispatched. We’d had a long day, but enjoyed every minute of it, and were very glad to have pushed ourselves a bit in order to reach our goal, pleased that our fitness seemed to be up to the challenge.