Sunday, 30 October 2011

John O'Groats to Land's End: Offa's Dyke Path

Chirk Castle
I wanted to join Offa's Dyke Path as far north as possible in order to be able to see the 2 National Trust castles along the trail: Chirk and Powis. But unfortunately between me and Chirk Castle was the totally unmaintained Maelor Way - and Chirk Castle closed at 5 pm! I decided to roadwalk to get there in time for some sightseeing. I arrived at 4 pm only to learn that I had to walk half a mile around the whole place just in order to get my free National Trust member ticket. By 4.15 pm I was completely pissed off with the whole castle idea, but at least in the possession of a ticket. But 45 minutes proved to be enough for the castle - although impressive from the outside there was not that much to see inside.

Once on Offa's Dyke Path I realised that I had run into a positive problem: Good weather! I could not believe it, but now - already towards the end of my hike when I had completely given up hope that the weather would ever improve - an incredibly warm Indian summer had begun. On October 1st temperatures nearly reached 30 degrees Celsius - after I had had frost on my tent in Scotland on August 25th! Day after day after day sunshine! I started hiking in shorts and a T-shirt and nearly got a sunburn. Now you wonder why all that is a problem. Well, I wanted to as much advantage of the good weather as possible and lose not a single day of sunshine for a rest day. I even skipped Powis Castle in order to hike on and on and on - and ended up hiking 2 weeks without a rest day. After all that bad weather I had not expected that the weather would stay that nice for so long. But I did not only need a rest, I most definitely needed a shower and laundry. I started to smell really bad even for thruhiker standards. I washed up in a lot of rivers and hand washed one piece of clothing at a time so I could dry it a the back of backpack while hiking. On my second last day on Offa's Dyke I got to Monmoth were I discovered a camp ground with a coin-operated shower. I could not believe my luck but had to realise then that I did not have a 20 pence coin needed to operate the shower. I went off to get change. The first person I asked did not have enough small change but gave me 20 pence. "Don't worry," she said. "I just want you to have a shower." I guess I must have smelled really bad....

Offa's Dyke offered a lot of hiker amenities: Lots of the churches were open to hikers and offered tea making facilities and sometimes even free biscuits or juices. Free food was available in the form of huge apple orchards, the occasional plum tree and loads of blackberries. And to my great relief the waymarking was excellent. Still hiking was not easy: The trail follows a dyke built in the 8th century by the Welsh king Offa in order to defend his kingdom against the English. The steeper the terrain the better for defence purposes - and therefore 12 centuries later I was climbing up and down every single steep hill that was around. I felt like back on the Heysen Trail in South Australia! The actual dyke is sometimes very well preserved - and has sometimes completely been ploughed over by farmers. Although it often looks more like a mole hill than a defence dyke I still had to admire the technical achievement of building this 285 km long wall with just manual labour in the 8th century.  Very little of Offa's Dyke Path is on exposed ridges, except the stretch along Hatterall Ridge at an altitude of over 500 m. But here you are rewarded with great views and the sight of wild ponies. Needless to say that when I hiked Hatterall Ridge I had glorious sunshine, but gale force wind....

Hatterall Ridge
I really liked Offa's Dyke Path a lot: Good waymarking, enough patches of forest for good camping, scenic and convenient trail towns and most importantly really nice hiking. The hiking is strenouos due the steep terrain but you see a lot of varied terrain. In addition to the usual sheep and cows (which here are very tame and used to hikers) you will even see wild ponies! I can definitely recommend Offa's Dyke Path and I prefer it to the Pennine Way because you are less exposed to the wind and the weather.  And if you are forced to have a rest day due to bad weather then there is plenty to see in the trail towns.


Wednesday, 26 October 2011

John O'Groats to Land's End: From Pennine Way to Offa's Dyke

I was really desperate to leave the Pennine Way: I was just fed up with the seemingly endless bog and the constant gale-force wind. I left it earlier than planned in an area where I unfortunately did not have any maps for... oops. Still by using my GPS map, asking day hikers and doing half a day of road walking I was able to connect back to my planned route. And what a relief it was to be off those exposed ridges! All of a sudden I was in low-lying, pretty agricultural country - apple and plum trees everywhere, no more wind and even sunshine! And the very best of all: I was back into trees. Of course there were no extended forests, but little patches of it and lots of trees lining the fields. Camping became easy again.

On my very first day off the Pennine I had a very funny experience: I had found a nice little forest patch on my map that even existed in reality when I got there. Nice pine forest, but very densely grown. And as always in the UK with a fence around it... But I managed to find a gate, fight my way through the trees and find a great camping spot on pine duff completely sheltered from the wind. Life was good again and I was enjoying an early dinner when all of a sudden I heard a voice. I was very much surprised as my little forest patch was surrounded by huge pastures - and no settlement in sight. So where would a person come from? To my even bigger surprise this person was not talking, but singing. Actually singing rock tunes very loudly?! What on earth was going on here? I was pretty much convinced that nobody could find me inside this little pine plantation jungle, but still... Well, after carefully peaking out of my tent and listening it turned out that some teenage boy with rock star ambitions was practicing being the lead singer while walking his dog. He was pretty persistent and sang for over an hour - not having the slightest clue that a very surprised German hiker was listening to his exercises hiding in the trees. It would indeed have been very embarrassing for either of us to be discovered...

Greeting comitee
My planned route was stringing lesser known trails together: The Gritstone Trail, South Cheshire Way and Maelor Way. Because they were less travelled than the National Trails I encountered new problems: First of all the cows were not used to hikers. As soon as I had to cross a field with cows I was checked out by my big four-legged friends. I developed the following strategy: Climb the stile into the pasture and wait for half a minute. If the cows ignore you, just continue walking. If you are immediately surrounded by inquisitive bullocks, climb back to where you have come from and look for a different way. Unfortunately because these foot paths are very little hiked they are also very badly maintained. I encountered lots of broken or non-existing stiles, bad waymarking and paths overgrown with stinging nettles. In short very hard work - until I discovered that there were canals close by. And that meant easy and smooth canal tow paths! The lesson I learnt is that 8 km along a tow path take as long as 4 km on an obscure and neglected trail like the Maelor Way. So even if the distance was longer it made more sense to detour to the tow paths. Better maps would have helped a lot but I still managed to make good progress eventually on tow paths and quiet country lanes only using the foot paths when absolutely necessary.

Moreton Hall
This stretch also brought a nice cultural surprise: Moreton Hall, a medieval castle now run by the National Trust. And I being a National Trust member could visit for free. Nice forest close by that provided lovely camping turned this day into a real delight. Plus the weather was getting better and better every day - I could not believe my luck. I started to look forward to Offa's Dyke Path, the next National Trail along my route.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

John O'Groats to Land's End: The Pennine Way 2

I had hoped that after a rest day in the youth hostel in Alston the weather might have had improved - and the forecast had predicted a less windy day. So off I went in the morning in order to go over Cross Fell - the highest and most exposed place on the whole Pennine Way. Cross Fell is just 893 meters high which is nothing really measured with German standards. But here in the UK with nothing between you and the Atlantic Ocean the winds on top of it were horrible. Again I had to be careful not to been blown over. I had realised before how dramatically the weather can change here but on top of Cross Fell a sunny and clear day turned into an almost complete white out with 10 meters visibility within 10 minutes! But with my GPS and following the flagstones I managed to get down Cross Fell into a nice and calm valley with no wind at the end of the day.

I still had seemingly endless days to go on the Pennine Way and I felt already thoroughly fed up with the miserable weather. Luckily another highlight of my trip should come up soon: A visit to my old PCT hiking friend John who lives close by the Pennine Way. We had started the PCT together back in  2004 and had even hiked one day together. We both finished on different days but had always stayed in contact - and this would be my chance to meet him again. We had arranged a date and place where to meet and due to his schedule I could walk at a leisurely schedule now. This came in very handy when one day at 2.30 pm I came across a very nice shelter on the trail. Of course this shelter was not mentioned in any guide book or any map: Brits seem to think that hikers do not need to know where shelters are - I had found that out already in Scotland with the mountain bothies.... I could not resist the temptation and settled into the shelter reading a book and relaxing - when all of a sudden all heaven and hell broke lose and it started pouring down hard. It rained so hard for half an hour that water was flooding into the shelter from underneath the door!!! I was very glad not be out there hiking and was rewarded with an incredible rainbow the next morning. Of course as soon as I left the shelter it would start raining again....

Crazy John 
By the time I arrived in Horton-on-Ribblesdale and was picked up by John's partner Steph I was thoroughly fed up with the whole Pennine Way. It did not really boost my morale when John explained to me that the insufficient waymarking on the Pennine Way was done intentionally in order to achieve a sort of wilderness experience for the hikers! I was already way behind my original time schedule at that point and was getting worried about the ever deteriorating weather and my equipment that might not be really up to an English autumn. I was especially worried about my sleeping bag which at that point was just a synthetic quilt. I had already woken up in a frozen over tent in August and thought I would not survive colder weather without a proper winter sleeping bag. When I told John about my worries he just asked me: "What sleeping bag do you want?" First I did not understand his question but then he explained to me that as a freelance writer for outdoor magazines he gets a lot of equipment for free - for writing test reports. He actually came up with 4 synthetic sleeping bags I could chose between as a present. He wanted to clear his storage rooms and claimed that I would actually do him a favour by taking one. What hiker can resist such an offer? I mailed my quilt back to Germany and continued my hike with a new winter sleeping and other such goodies as replacement tent stakes and a new gas cannister. And of course we had a lovely time chatting about the good old times on the PCT. I left his place in relatively good spirits only to be drenched by a major downpour a couple of hours later and getting nearly hypothermic on another exposed ridge the same evening...

Malham Cove
I knew that in a few days another couchsurfing stay would come up in Hebden Bridge and also the trail offered a lot of very scenic highlights : Lots of waterfalls, High Cup Nick which is a fantastic glaciated valley and Malham Cove to name just a few. But the weather and the hard walking had ground me down. When I arrived in Hebden Bridge I was already counting kms before I could leave the exposed Pennine Way and return to some gentler hiking. And I had given up all hope on the weather ever improving. I still asked my couchsurfing host Karen to have a look at the weather forecast and we both could not really figure it out. We could not find the column for the probability and amount of rain. After a lot of guessing around we found the solution for this mystery: The forecast predicted a 0% chance of rain for the next 4 days. And that is something almost unheard of in Britain I assumed. I could hardly believe it but it almost turned out the be true. Only a little bit of drizzle for the next couple of days and then a major change of weather occurred: I was to experience a British Indian summer!

High Cup Nick
But to sum up the Pennine Way: It is a really very nice and incredibly spectacular and scenic hike - if the weather is good or decent. But if the weather is miserable you are in for big trouble. There are hardly any less exposed alternative routes to escape the wind and rain and hiking along these exposed ridges of the Pennines is a sure recipe for hypothermia. Do not assume that you can compare conditions between other countries and Britain at the same altitude - anything above 400 meters in the UK will be exposed and hard to walk in in bad weather. The lack of waymarking and fog with little visibility can make navigation a big issue. More than once could I see less than 10 meters and mistook cows for signposts! And of course you will be wading in mud most of the time.... No wonder that the popularity of the Pennine Way has steadily declined during the last 10 years. Half of the youth hostels along the trails have closed down you meet very little hikers along the trail. Still, it is a great trail - if you are willing to suffer through all I have mentioned you will be rewarded with unique sights.