Reflections on backpacking, walking, places and gear
I rediscovered the joy of walking in my early 50s having done little execise of any note since my early 20s. I have been lucky to be able to find insights, help, tips, opinion and reviews online and I also want to share my thoughts on places I have been and kit both good and bad.
Another trip to Sussex on a bright, cold blustery day to complete another section of the South Downs Way (SDW), an accidental inspiration borne of having completed a couple of sections in the last few months. The object is to use public transport where I can to get there and back (home in London) in a day and complete a decent walk in between. This walk is the last leg of the South Downs Way (SDW) heading West to East.
The walk is 13 miles in length with nearly 3000 ft of ascent so allow 5.5 hours plus to complete it, particularly in the Winter when the going can be muddy and slow in places. The train to Lewes takes about an hour from Clapham Junction followed by a 40 minute bus ride leaving Lewes either at 09.30 or 12.30 to Alfriston Village. At the end of the walk from Eastbourne Station there is a direct 1.5 hour service back to London via Lewes, which is worth a visit if you have time to break your journey. I use Trainline.com for my tickets. If I book well ahead and am sure I will be able to catch specific trains outside of rush hour this return train journey can cost as little as £10.00 or if you have a rail card £7.00. Potluck with the weather but as we get in to Spring it can only improve. Nothing can compare with the muddy wet of this Winter.
The walk (map below) begins by crossing the river Cuckmere over a footbridge to the left of Alfriston Church. Having crossed this join the river bank following the yellow sign for the SDW heading S. The path follows the raised levee and is muddy but manageable. After about a mile the path leaves the river and head into the village of Litlington which has another beautiful downland church of flint and stone, a white painted weather-boarded wooden belfry tower which supports a broach spire covered with wooden shingles. The path crosses the minor road 100 yds S then branches at 45 degrees up through a small field. Look for the small concrete waysign.
The path gains height until the view opens up back to Alfriston and beyond. Continuing up the hill to the S, Friston Forest fills the view with Charleston Manor in the fold of the valley you walk into. The path then rises up a flight of steps into the wood which in turn becomes a ride with pleasant walking through the wood into the Hamlet of Westdean before climbing a hundred or so steps up to a hill overlooking The National Trust’s Cuckmere Valley, a salt marsh where the river meets the sea at Cuckmere Haven. Cuckmere Valley is a haven for wildlife, from over-wintering wildfowl to colourful wild flowers.
The path crosses the Busy A road then appears to join the valley walk before climbing the side of the hill before descending to the valley where the path then cuts back SE uphill some 270 ft to the amazing walk along the chalk cliffs. Once on the top the wind was bracing, out of the NW. The views are stupendous, from Cliff End you can see the major part of the cliff walk, to the lighthouse above the Birling Gap and beyond to the high point of Beachy Head at 538 ft. At this point a WW2 Spitfire, sporting D-Day black and white stripes on the underside of its wings, flew along the Cuckmere Valley before wheeling round the cliffs and heading inland. Quite a sight given where I was and an amazing sound from its Rolls Royce Merlin engine – unmistakeable.
The ‘Seven Sisters’ cliff walk is a real roller coaster and forms the main part of the walk. It is a ‘Country Park’ managed by East Sussex Council and there is real effort to maintain habitat for wildlife, I saw a Rock Pipit and heard Skylark’s in the fields and scrub to the North. It’s a nice workout for the Quads having already put in 4 miles and the path is kind of obvious so you can enjoy the ever revealed cliff views – but don’t get too close to the edge. The chalk cliffs are eroding about 22 to 32cm a year but occasionally there is a big rock fall. However these falls do help to protect the base of the cliffs from further erosion.
Having climbed Went Hill, the last of the Seven Sisters, the path descends to the Birling Gap where there is a National Trust shop and cafe with toilets, drinks, hot and cold food. The walk continues to the Belle Tout Lighthouse described by the owners who run it as a B&B as ‘Built in 1832 and decommissioned in 1902, a tea-shop, a home, part-destroyed during the second world war and lovingly rebuilt in the 50’s’. After the lighthouse the walk becomes less roller coaster and rises steadily towards Beach Head passing the distinctive Beachy Head lighthouse.
The path winds round the point below the trig point and you get your first view of Eastbourne, beyond the wooded slope that sits above the lower cliffs. The walk continues through the woods on a narrow path until it enters a wide ride with the town below. The path becomes steeper heading down toward the road on the edge of town and finally picks up the coast road. It’s a 2 mile walk to the the Railway station via the pier which I chose as my end to the walk. You can use the path that runs next to the beach, there are various steps down.
I have the SDW sections West of Amberley to look forward to in the coming months. It will be a relief to have drier, warmer, longer days to look forward to, particularly as the Western end is the muddier! My kit performed brilliantly. I think I have found the sweet spot for me in terms of footwear and the various crucial layers. It will be interesting to see how useful these layers remain as the weather improves.
The weather of early February 2020 has been so much better for getting out. It’s still quite gross underfoot in places but the ground has dried out enough to make a long walk less of an assault course. So with a weather forecast of sunshine, a light NE wind and single figures C, I wanted to get back to Sussex to complete another section of the South Downs Way (SDW), an accidental inspiration borne of having completed a couple of sections previously. The object is to use public transport where I can to get there and back (home in London) in a day and complete a decent walk in between. In this instance 15.5 miles from Pyecombe to Southease Station. From Clapham Junction I took the train to Hassocks Station then a quick 5 min walk to the A273 to catch a bus to Pyecombe. In just over an hour and I was at the foot of the Downs.
The walk (map below). You have to retrace back up the A273 for just over half a mile in order to pick up the SDW and the road is busy with no pavement so better to walk round through Pyecombe village and use the dedicated path to the W of the road until you cross E to start the walk. The first mile or so is steadily uphill through a manicured golf course before the path turns N through a stables then up to the scarp path where you can see the two ‘Clayton’ windmills. The path turns sharp right and continues E and opens up as do the magnificent views (weather permitting). There are Tumuli to the left and right and a couple of ‘dew ponds’ – man made pools, traditionally lined with straw, clay and Lime (to deter worms from perforating the lining) which date from medieval times, designed to harvest rainwater for livestock in an otherwise parched landscape.
The path continues E towards Ditchling Beacon, one of the highest points of the Downs. Noticeable in the surroundings as an area of scrub which is being grazed back into chalk grassland. The Beacon was gifted to the National Trust by a local family in memory of their son, an RAF pilot lost in the English Channel during the Battle of Britain of 1940. I cycled (actually I pushed my bike) up here when taking part in the London to Brighton Bike Ride and remember it as the toughest part of the route before becoming a welcome downhill freewheel to the coast.
For a couple of miles beyond Ditchling Beacon the path retains a wide open feel, more ride than path and occasionally Skylarks can be heard as they hover above more hospitable areas of field stubble, in what incredibly has become an ever more unfriendly zone for them. Skylarks are on the Red List of threatened species, as changes in farming practices (including the use of herbicides to eliminate weeds which provided the Skylark with over-Wintering food) and the decline in habitat has led to a 90% decline in just 30 years. I find it incredible that we haven’t addressed this issue of erosion of habitat during an extended period of awareness of the problem. The British Trust for Ornithology has more information about the plight of the Skylark and has launched an appeal to help farmland birds. This helps explain why my memory of Skylark song as a constant backdrop when walking the Downs in the early 1970s isn’t fanciful nostalgia.
From Plumpton Plain views of the Ouse valley and coast, including the Seven Sisters cliffs, open up together with views of the Downs beyond the Ouse marching E towards Alfriston. The path soon turns right heading S away from the scarp slope into the rolling dip slope of the South Downs. The landscape becomes a patchwork of largely arable fields with some grazing and the path less busy as it heads away from the obvious route towards Lewes.
The path carries on roughly S before reaching the busy A27. There is free water by Housedean Farm (and a campsite) before the path crosses the bridge over the road then continues parallel to it, backtracking past a foot tunnel on the right before going under a second bridge/tunnel a few hundred yards further on. Thankfully once through this the sound of the road diminishes as you begin to climb past a stretch of wood to the left. The route emerges onto the edge of a large bowl, the edge of which you trace around – always climbing to nearly 600ft /190m. The views become expansive as you pass the Dew Pond at the top.
For the views alone this is a lovely and quiet stretch of the Downs as it heads SE but after a couple of turns the path becomes a mile long concrete road between ploughed fields running downhill and the going is tough on weary feet. Beyond this the path enters a field, then a short section of fenced path past houses* and enters another field above a farm, the path twists round the hill descending to join a farm track heading NE. *An option (though not following the SDW) would be to follow the sign to ‘the pub’ in Rodmell. Very tempting and you can follow the minor road from there and rejoin the SDW at Southease.
After about half a mile the path leaves the scrappy track and climbs to the right, crossing a road entering Southease, a hamlet with a beautiful church with 12thc tower and small green with a couple of houses. From Southease the road heads E, crosses the River Ouse and reaches Southease Station from which you can get to Lewes in minutes or Brighton in under half an hour. Trains run every hour at about five past the hour until late evening. From here I caught the 16.05 to Lewes and was at Clapham junction in less than 90 minutes.
It’s a long walk with 1600 ft of ascent. I wore light boots (Salomon X Ultra 3 mids) which, paired with Darn Tough socks, perform brilliantly on fair paths. The weather was good and my Montane Power Up hoodie over a Lowe Dryflo base layer worked for most of the day until the afternoon when it cooled and I swapped the hoodie for a Marmot Alpha 60 jacket. As it wasn’t too cold I wore a pair of Bergans Torfinnstind softshell trousers which are surprisingly wind resistant for their light weight and have a close alpine cut at the ankle which stretches over the top of the boot. Outside of Winter these are an excellent, comfortable packable option which wick really well.
Another bright January day and the opportunity to get out of London by train and walk a section of the South Downs Way (SDW) National Route for just over 11 miles, from Amberley Station to the village of Steyning allowing about five hours with a stop for lunch en route. My aim is to walk the entire length of the SDW in day sections of between 9 and 19 miles using public transport (whenever possible) with London as my base. In this instance returning by bus from Steyning to Pulborough station (on the Amberley line) thence home.
The forecast was for 5c with a cold SW wind and no rain. Perfect! The direct train from London takes just over an hour and a quarter. The walk (map below) starts by exiting the station and walking N up a busy road for a few hundred yards before turning E up a lane called ‘High Titten’. This is metalled for about a mile before the SDW takes a left and turns into a steep chalk and flint footpath. This path opens up (pic below) as it climbs between chalk grassland and I heard my first Skylark, for me the icon of the Downs. Being January and being wet chalk the path can be muddy and slippery and the path is restricted between fences (though there is a drier field to the left as an alternative, parallel path with stiles at each end – which I realised too late). The path runs past Rackham Hill (633 ft – 193m) before continuing through a spinney then between more fences and ploughed fields for another few miles.
For some of the first section the land is cultivated intensively leaving a mean, fenced, narrow strip for the SDW with no sense of it being a downland landscape other than the ploughed flint and chalk to left and right. Work is being done to help the Downs – since its having become a National Park in 2010 – but to quote the South Downs National Park website ‘much of the chalk grassland habitat in the National Park has been lost, and it now only makes up 4 percent of the National Park. During World War II many of the chalk grassland sites in the South Downs were ploughed and have since remained in cultivation.’ It’s tragic that in a National Park so little is being done to reinstate natural habitat in which threatened and native species can thrive. I understand that prior to going under the plough the land was still farmed but the cost of this has been the threat to a set of flora and fauna wholly reliant on chalk grassland. The South Downs aren’t unique as an area of grassland on chalk which has suffered badly from loss and fragmentation in the UK. As a national resource we must do more to return some of our most iconic and sensitive landscapes to a less intensively farmed, biodiverse, chemical free environment. There is work being done by National bodies and land owners who care such as the Knepp Estate owner Charle Burrell in a ground breaking rewilding project adjacent the SDW.
By Kithurst Hill the path opens up a little and is more more grassland and thorn and gorse as margins to the wider path. In a small area of heath I saw a pair of Stonechats and more Skylarks. The going is easy past the car park at the Chantry Post then uphill to wide open views. The path continues through farmland – a quagmire in places after the Winter’s rain, to Barnsfarm Hill, from which you can see ‘Black Down’, the highest point in the SD National Park some 13 m to the NW. It also offers a first glimpse of Chanctonbury Ring (pic below). The path descends towards a wood above the A24. The path turns into a lane (the signpost suggests going down a steep hill to the left to the N but I chose to stick to the metalled road (Glaseby Lane) given the conditions underfoot). There is also a welcome public water point on the lane opposite a few houses as you near the slip road to the A24.
Having crossed the busy A24, the path climbs and twists steeply past small quarries and spinneys of Sycamore, Hazel and thorn (pic below) before joining a path running NE which in turn opens out into lovely open walking as you approach Chanctonbury Ring.
I love this place having spent nights camping here in its spooky earthworks. Its prominent setting and form is just so pleasing. As an important point in the SD ridgeway the ring ditch was built in either the Bronze and Iron ages perhaps for defence or to coralle livestock and later hosted Romano-British temples. There are many associated structures such as barrows in the area suggesting the site was of ritual significance. The outer ring was planted with Beech trees in the mid 18c and the interior planted in the early 20c which by the mid 20c further enhanced the amazingly distinctive living mound which could be seen from miles around. The storm of 1987 destroyed many of the trees leaving an unrecognisable mess. Since then the Ring has been replanted and the canopy is already beginning to resemble its former self. You can just see Steyning in the river Adur valley below, about four miles distant, from the E end of the Ring (pics below).
Leaving Chanctonbury Ring, the path is pleasant level, easy walking with great views, after a mile and a half there are options. Leave the SDW at the path signposted ‘Steyning 1.2m’ or continue on the SDW as it turns S then leave the SDW and double back NE towards the village (this option indicated on map). I took the former option and regretted it. This route follows the gnarly edge of the woodland hugging the scarp slope and the going was muddy, narrow and annoying. Better when dry I’m sure but not on a wet January afternoon. My route eventually joined the alternative route above the village. Then there is a steep descent into the streets leading to the centre of Steyning.
Steyning is small but a really attractive destination with everything you need after an eleven mile walk. I took some cash out at the ATM in the Co-op and had a couple of pints of local Sussex bitter at the Chequer Inn (which has a Pool table). If going back to London, there is a bus service which takes you to Pulborough Station in about 35 minutes, leaving in late afternoon from the prominent clock tower in the High Street at 15 past the hour (last service 17.15) which connects with the London train with four minutes to spare (though the service is regular – approx. every 30 minutes) if delayed.
I loved parts of this walk particularly the wide spaces of Chanctonbury Ring but the going was nasty in places so suggest boots and poles (for balance) vital in the Winter. It was cold and windy but sunny and I found a base layer, decent mid layer, wind shirt and selection of hats and gloves worked well. I can’t wait to re-visit this walk on a dryer, warmer day.
After years of buying, trying and refining I have pretty much found clothing and kit that suits me, my needs and the environment I’m likely to walk in. I prefer to do my walking in fair weather because I find it more enjoyable but am equally prepared for the worst weather the UK can dispense when alone on the top of a hill.
Over the years my pack has got lighter and my gear more minimal. That said, I have gear that is heavier that does a really good job when it’s needed. For the average mixed UK day outside of real Summer heat or the coldest Winter days, my kit stays much the same with options depending where I am walking and the weather on the day. I run quite hot and seldom have cold fingers or feet. I am 1.8m in height and weigh 95 kg with a 36″ waist (most of the time) and these choices reflect my body type. I look for discontinued or second hand stock. I think this a great way of buying tried and tested kit at bargain prices without always buying new. The following is a ramble about my preferred clothing and gear for day walks. It’s not a kit list and I appreciate that some of my stuff is no longer available but similar products exist which would equally fulfil the role. To quote Julie Andrews: “these are a few of my favourite things”.
Socks Darn ToughMid-Calf Light Cushionmerino socks These are excellent and I wear these on colder days well into Winter. Really well made, tough and they don’t shrink (47% Nylon 46% Merino Wool 7% Lycra mix). The cushion is perfect for a little more comfort. I also have some Teko socks which seem pretty good with good eco-credentials.
Base layers Berghaus2.0 Long Sleeve Zip T-Shirt Good value, comfortable as an XL, light at 195g, stretchy and adaptable the Zip T has to be the one piece of kit I wear most including the Summer. The neck is comfortably high for chilly days but also shields from the Sun and the wicking is excellent. Argentium also stops it getting stinky. sleeves can be pulled up and the zip is long enough to properly vent around the neck. I also have the thermal version of the Zip T – which is slightly thicker, has a micro waffle inner, thumb loops and deeper zip as well as a small zip chest pocket. It’s an old model but is also a fabulous base layer and they still make a similar product. I also have a couple of old Lowe Alpine Dryflo base layers which are a tad warmer than the Berghaus.
Montane Power Up Hoodiemountain mid-layer If it’s colder still I’ll wear this as a base layer. At 380g it adds real jacket warmth with a waffle inner and the hood is excellent as another cover for a thinning pate. It also makes for a good mid layer on days that aren’t too cold. It also has a chest pocket which will accommodate a phone. One of my favourite pieces of kit. Montane stuff comes up small on me so I wear an XXL. In combination with a wind shirt it’s really effective.
Rab Dryflo 120 Briefs 54% polyester, 46% Cocona, these are great but I believe discontinued. Wicking and quick drying as all base layers should be, they are very comfortable with enough warmth for all but the coldest days and feature Polygiene for less stink. I prefer these to Merino.
Mid layer I used to wear Polartec micro fleece all the time as my midlayer and still do but find it isn’t always great at dissipating moisture and not windproof in the slightest. I often find it’s the combination of base and mid layer that I wear most of the time, supplemented by either a wind shirt or hardshell dependent on the conditions. Most recently I’ve been wearing the:
Arc’teryxAtom SL Hoody This is a lovely hoody and fits perfectly as XL. Light at 260g and highly packable, it’s a lightly insulated jacket with Coreloft front and back with air permeable panels that run from the inside of the wrist to the waist, this really is effective at keeping the torso warm while venting well, while having a DWR finish where it’s needed. The neck gaps a little and isn’t adjustable but I usually wear a buff so if anything the design allows for this. The hood has no insulation and features a brim and simple adjustability but is a bit flappy. Arc’teryx products are beautifully made and built to last and this has been a revelation. I love it and wear it as my fleece meets windshirt/light rain shell. It’s also somewhat stretchy and not baggy so I can happily slide a second wind/waterproof layer or additional warm layer on top.
MarmotAlpha 60 Jacket/hoody When it’s colder I have been wearing the Alpha jacket (pics below). It has Polartec Alpha Direct Insulation 60g/sqm throughout designed with both warmth and wicking in mind. And it is really warm on its own as the Pertex outer does a decent job in moderate wind and showers. The hood is a a useful scuba design and the three pockets help venting, though Marmot have adopted the crazed ‘let’s put the pockets precisely where the backpack belt sits’ system. The hem isn’t adjustable but as it is cinched at the waist by the backpack it’s not an issue. The micro zip is meagre as compared to the Atom SL but it does provide lovely warmth at just 280g for the XL.
BerghausVaporLight Hydroloft Reversible Hoody This is a versatile lightweight alternative to the Marmot Alpha 60. Worn one way it retains warm and cuts out a fair amount of wind and features pockets. Reverse it and it is much more breathable. It packs small and weighs 225g. The hood is a decent fit (pics below) and the jacket is sheer enough to go over a layer or be worn under a waterproof.
Wind shirt Montane Lite-Speed Jacket At 175g for the latest version it doesn’t get much better. Packs down well yet provides fantastic shelter from strong wind. Probably the piece I have used for the longest time without ever thinking of replacing it. A classic worthy of its peerless reputation, as recommended by Chris Townsend, goes everywhere.
Trousers Mountain Equipment Ibex Mountain Pant I am so glad I came across these (pics below). My first pair were bought second hand on Ebay, I spent £30 and found a perfect home for my legs. They just do it all so well. The fit is good for me (36″ Reg), the length nearly perfect, the no loop belt and waist fit is really good and the pockets and vent pockets all add up to the best pants for colder weather outings. The fabric is tough but stretchy and resists the wind well. Zipped gusseted ankles provide options on comfort depending on footwear and a slim fit which is pretty much ideal being more athletic in the latest iteration. Probably my favourite piece of clothing. I buy a pair whenever they are stupidly cheap in the sales.
Wet weather gear: Trousers I’m not a fan of over trousers but have had to use them this past few months as 2019 has been a wet Autumn and winter. As technology has changes with ever more breathable, stretch waterproof materials I’m hopeful I’ll find a pair that breathe well without the sack of potatoes quality inherent in most. Otherwise it’s a kilt for me. I have two pairs of overtrousers that have served pretty well.
RabKinetix Pertex Shield+ At 180g these are the over trousers that live in my backpack. An old model with 2.5L and a reasonably slim fit, they do a pretty good job of keeping the worst of the weather out. Rab’s latest offering looks even better being stretchy but as I use these only occasionally I’ll stick with these. My second pair is a Montane ‘Event’ trouser (possibly the ‘Venture’ model) which comes up larger/baggier but breathes better. More robust, I use these as a second string if the weather is looking really rough. I like Event waterproofs. I think they breathe better than older Gore-tex fabrics (though I can’t comment on more recent developments).
Wet weather gear: Jackets The holy grail of staying dry! I have a selection of waterproofs that I take for a day out. I originally bought a Mountain Hardwear waterproof that was just awful as it barely breathed at all. I then followed this up with a cheaper ‘Gore-tex’ jacket from Tog 24 that was equally poor for similar and other reasons. These have now gone and I have a hardcore of worthy jackets which I rely on. I like eVent, I think it breathes better than other offerings and is the better system. It requires a little more care but I look after my gear and don’t stress it if I can avoid doing so.
OMMCypher eVent Jacket (2012) At 300g for a 3L jacket, this has to be one of the best lightweight jackets I have owned (pics below). I have read reviews of it failing but so far this has proved to be an excellent waterproof. It has 2 large waterproof zips and the length is ideal – covering the backside. The hood is great and it beads extremely well. Probably the most useful for the weight, it’s the one I keep in my pack.
RabBergen eVent jacket (2010) At over 500g, the Bergen is a really tough waterproof and wholly reliable. You can still get these on Ebay for a decent price and being a tough 3L eVent are a good deal. The storm proof pockets and deep, wired, rigid hood are excellent. It’s been a haven in the past.
MontaneFurther Faster Neo Waterproof Jacket (2017) This comes in at about 440g for the XL so falls between the other two jackets I use most. I would say it is reasonably robust and feasures Polartec 3L NeoShell which breathes brilliantly. Storm proof zippers and a great hood make it a good alternative to either of my other two jackets. Being Montane this is a little more athletic in fit which helps maximises convection of vapour to the outside while allowing for a layer of insulation beneath.
Warm layer RabXenon Hoodie A lovely warm layer which goes with me when it’s going to be really windy/cold on the hill. Insulated with Primaloft (in my older version) with a Pertex Quantum Shell it’s a cosy layer with DWR and good pockets for staying warm over a mid layer when having a break. The hood is capacious enough for a helmet and does the job. It packs almost as well as down and at 350g makes for a better weather resistant option.
Gloves Rab Polartec Power Stretch Pro Gloves These are excellent. Light, stretchy and reasonably warm, they cut out a great deal of wind while you don’t get too hot. A classic. I recently bought Mountain Hardwear’s version with the conductive finger-tips the ‘Stimulus‘ glove which also features a grippy pattern to the palm. They are both an excellent all rounder for not a lot of money.
On top of these I have bought some very light, cheap (£10) waterproof trekking over-mitts by Forclaz. Not breathable but perfect for keeping the hand dry and warmer in cool/cold weather while giving them some room. I don’t know how they will stand up to wear but they seem ideal for what I need outside of Winter. I also have some Outdoor Research combination insulated mitts with a matched over-mitt in eVent similar to these but would only ever expect to use these in very cold/wet weather though the overmitt was my previous waterproof over my Rab gloves.
Headwear I wear a mix of merino beanies – thick and thin, light baseball caps if warm, a Gore sweat band and a combination two or three depending on the conditions. I wear a Buff most of the time. Merino in the colder months and a smaller polyester version when warmer. A really versatile item that can be used for warming and wicking around the neck or on the head.
Footwear I have bought a lot of shoes and boots in order to find which work best for me. I started well by buying a pair of Meindl Respond mid boots. They were fine until it got wet and slippy, in which conditions they were dreadful. The Gore-tex liner also failed quite quickly so I thought I would go up a grade and moved on to a heavier boot the all leather Meindl Kansas. A lovely bit of footwear, really robust but heavy and which just wasn’t what I wanted for most of my trips. So I started using Trail shoes – Merrell’s Chameleon which I really liked and when discontinued, Merrell’s Capra which I liked less. Then I started wearing Garmont’s Trail Beast which was by far the best shoe I had worn, being tough, supportive and roomy. Subsequently I discovered Salomon’s X Ultra 3D in a wider fit (pics below). These are by far the best shoes (and mids) I have used for mixed walking. They make for pain free treks and easy descents – their key benefit – though they don’t have a sticky sole so aren’t great on slippy/slimy surfaces. They have a GTX lining which still works but if it fails so be it, it’s expected, I do find the lining keeps the feet warmer. 14 miles in the Black Mountains confirmed their effectiveness and comfort. I won’t be looking to replace these in a hurry.
Backpack I used to carry all this stuff in a variety of light packs with few features and no consideration of comfort other than weight. Finally I succumbed to the marketing and reviews of those I respected and bought an Osprey Talon 22. It isn’t particularly light but it really is very good and 22 litres is just about right for a mixed day of UK weather. The Talon torso length is adjustable and it features a venting mesh back panel which works brilliantly in heat or when pounding up hill. The shoulder straps and seamless back/waist pads/belt are comfortable and supportive and breathable. Two small pockets at the hips are useful if not that capacious but will take an iphone, chapstick and a small amount of food or compact camera – though they aren’t at all water resistant. There is one small pocket on the shoulder strap which I use for my glasses and stretchy mesh pockets on each side and on the front are ideally sized for the pack. Osprey have designed a stowage system for poles and added a decent compression system. There is a small pocket behind the head and an inner pocket in the main pack and an external hydration pocket which houses my sit mat and map. It’s a well thought through pack and the quality is really very good. I love it. I don’t over stuff my pack as the pack’ inbuilt comfort is compromised. I would rather go up a size. There is an excellent review of the Talon here.
I generally pack my gear in stuff sacks within the pack primarily to organise the contents with the added benefit of keeping things dry and sometimes use a liner/bin liner to ensure things stay dry. I have an ill-fitting pack cover (the Talon doesn’t come with one) and the Talon’s zips and nominal flaps will allow ingress.
Walking Poles My first walking poles were a pair of very light Fizan Ultralight compact poles. I loved the fact that they nested into a relatively small tube. That said, they seemed a little flimsy if compact. They worked well for a few years until I started on an overnight trip in Scotland and they just wouldn’t slide out – or at least one wouldn’t. The aluminium had corroded a bit and that and some grit and they suddenly became useless, the twist mechanism wouldn’t work. As I was changing my shelter to one which relied on trekking poles to support it, I did a little research and found an excellent review of the Black Diamond Distance FLZ poles. The joy of the community is the trouble people take passing on knowledge, it’s incredible. The reviewer had a similar experience with the Fizan poles and settled on the FLZ poles as a good, robust compromise. They break down into three parts and make a compact 350mm length package which comfortably sits in the side pocket of the Talon with the pack’s elastic securing them. They are strong and adjustable up to 20cm ensuring they can be used by me being average height and to support either of my two shelters, the Tarptent Notch and Durston X-mid. The wrist straps are excellent and the handles comfortable. I also have a pair of Leki CF poles which I like but I just think the FLZ poles are tougher.
The first fine week of 2020 and I was keen to get out and enjoy some sun on a cold and frosty morning so decided to get out of London and revisit an 11 mile walk from Lewes in East Sussex to Alfriston. From Victoria Station, Lewes is just an hour away by train and added to that 20 mins on the Overground and I could be there by mid-morning. I use Trainline for tickets and, with a discount card could get there and back for £14. A bargain. A quick loo stop at Lewes station and packed lunch bought at the excellent cafe on platform 2 and I was on my way. The walk (map below). Come out of the upper part of the station and turn left towards the ruined Lewes Priory adjacent some playing fields. Cross diagonally to the right across these (or take an alternative route past the college to the left) go through a small gate and over a bridge that crosses a small river, turn left onto a metalled road which winds past a couple of houses and round the local recycling depot and ultimately under a large road bridge and finally onto the banks of the River Ouse, a large, navigable, tidal river which meanders its way S to Newhaven on the coast. The river does flood and there are levees on each bank which can be used as your path if the river is high. Given this was January after a wet, wet Winter the path was claggy in parts but frustratingly slow to begin with, the path narrow and occasionally very muddy. Thankfully it does improve after a mile or so, the path becoming wider and drier. The expansive scenery also improves – A mix of road, rail and river and some attractive pylons but beyond these the beautiful inviting downs to to the E and W. There is interesting birdlife – seashore dipper types, Swans, Starlings, Egrets and various reed loving little birds.
The path meanders with the river until it reaches an old swing bridge (pic above). Cross this to the E and continue along the lane until you get to Southease station. Use the railway crossing and continue until a group of buildings which include the YHA at Itford farm. Turn right immediately before the buildings (signposted South Downs Way) and follow the path over the footbridge that crosses the busy A26. Once you are over the bridge the Downs come down to meet you. Take the long path snaking up the hill or go straight up the grassy hill to the top of Itford Hill and continue E on the SD Way past Red Lion Pond. The views really open up here with Newhaven to the S and the Ouse valley N with views of Lewes and its prominent castle. The walking up here is really enjoyable, easy and freeing. Continue E for another mile or so, cross a track and head for the monolithic radio masts. Then, in less than a mile, cross another small road and car park and continue for approx. 1 mile till you reach Firle Beacon (217m 711 ft.) The views are vast – N to the Weald and S across rolling downs to the sea.
The route now heads SE towards Alfriston past another car park through farmland until see the village and come to a gate with three routes to the village. Take the one directly in front (not the two to the left) this being the SD Way which winds down a hedged lane into the village. There are places for coffee/tea and pubs in Alfriston (the George Inn is open early afternoon and very cosy) and an incredibly beautiful church and Green. It’s worth spending a few hours exploring the beautiful architecture. I needed to get back to Lewes and there are alternatives. There is a bus (just the one) at 16.00 or Berwick station with an hourly service three miles to the N on footpaths. The alternatives are a taxi to Lewes or the cheaper option (as suggested by a local in the George) a Seaford taxi to Seaford railway station then a quick train to Lewes.
About 10 years ago when I decided to start backpacking and walking seriously again, I had no gear to speak of. So I started buying both Trail and The Great Outdoors (TGO) magazines which (a little like a wedding magazine) were excellent in making recommendations on where to go season by season and what to take, as well as passing on really useful tips on how to do it all reasonably safely. They were critical for me in building my confidence that I could get fit enough and adequately equip myself do some of the routes I had enjoyed 40 years ago – and take on new challenges whatever the season or conditions.
There is a considerable amount of trial and error in the process of finding what gear that fits you, suits your approach to being outdoors and which works best for you, not least in what kind of walking you expect to do and crucially, what you want to spend. There is just soooo much stuff out there . The magazines have a remit to constantly review new products and this can overload the would-be buyer with a dozen choices for every new longed for shiny class of item every month! I fell into the trap of rushing the process. I wasn’t going to get to Scotland in the winter for a few years so didn’t need to buy ‘bombproof’ gear that was massively over-specced for the kind of walking I was going to do for the foreseeable and indeed for most of the time I’m out walking. I suppose I bought using ‘worst case’ thinking. Hence I ended up with a mountain tent that is too hot for three seasons of the year, boots that were too heavy and jackets that felt like armour. Put simply I was the safest I have ever been while beyond my front door but in most instances, hot, uncomfortable and burdened by heavy expensive, inappropriate equipment.
The realization that I was doing it wrong came when I started to wear trail shoes (Merrells’s Chameleon and Capra models, then Garmont’s Trail Beast). Very much influenced by the writings of backpacking guru, Chris Townsend. These had a freeing effect in more ways than one. I began to appreciate that the walking itself is a great deal of the enjoyment of being outdoors and trail shoes just allowed me to walk further and enjoy more with a lot less discomfort or pain. I also began to look at ways to tailor my kit around enhancing the process of enjoyment. Effectively I was going lightweight. I found other blogs and review sites (listed below) which further informed and advised, a great many from the US, where the ultralight movement is the pre-eminent philosophy for thru hikers tackling the immense national trails. I also began to feel less overly concerned about what might befall me in the UK. We have no bears wolves or large cats, water is abundant and you are never more than seven miles from a road anywhere in the UK. The point is to get out there whether on a brisk four miles on my local heath or 16 miles crossing the Black Mountains. Get fitter, know your kit and grow in confidence.
This process takes time and your preferences change as your walking continues, your approach is developed and advice improved. I now have a kit list which includes options that suits me for ninety percent of the time. The hardest part was getting to know my feet. I am amazed that so little time is spent considering and understanding the very fundamentals of the activity. I am lucky to have found the shoes and boots that fit me perfectly – the Salomon X Ultra shoe and boot in a 2E width fitting. On reflection perhaps I should have had my feet measured correctly at the outset but given the limited width fittings available to the UK market I’m not sure I would have found the shoe that best suited my needs. I have bought new and second-hand gear. I generally wait for the sales and visit sites that offer decent discounts. I have also sold a lot of gear over the years and passed stuff on to friends I walk with as I have pared down to my favourite kit. There isn’t a right or wrong way to do all this but hopefully the following links will be of use. Hardly comprehensive but these are where I go to first when choosing equipment and gear, getting motivation or where and when to go.
The challenge for the Londoner wanting a decent day hike is being able to find real countryside and decent walking within striking distance of the city. To the South there are the North and South Downs and to the North, the Chilterns, a beautiful area of woodland and open chalk ridge with far reaching views. I had to drive through the area so took my boots and stopped en route to take in an 8.5 mile walk that gave me a real sense of the area, its flora, fauna, and the stunning landscape (map below).
I parked in the car park in the pretty village of Aldbury (which has a pub) a mile or so to the East of Tring railway station and walked N on the small road for a couple of hundred metres before taking the well defined track/footpath to the W then SW. This path briefly becomes the ‘Hertfordshire Way’ before meeting the magical ‘Ridgeway‘. Turn right N onto the Ridgeway along another well defined and signposted track. I love the prehistoric Ridgeway, stretching from Wiltshire to Buckinghamshire following an ancient track, you are walking in the 5,000 year old footsteps of fellow travellers.
The flora lets you know this is now a downland environment, Wild Clematis ‘Travellers Joy’ climbing through Blackthorn hedges. The track enters woodland ‘Aldbury Nowers’ and climbs to the ridge edge. Just before reaching ‘Pitstone Hill’, the route turns NE having emerged into pleasing, open downland country with great views to the N.
From here you get to see Ivinghoe Beacon. Still following the Ridgeway, the route descends to cross a minor road before rising into the pleasing shape of Incombe Hole and partially wooded Steps Hill.
The route turns N and descends again to cross a minor road before rising up white, worn chalk paths that take you to the trig point of the Beacon (233m/764ft) where the views are really expansive, a vantage point that has been enjoyed for millennia.
Walking East to Gallows Hill you get the real space of being at height with a panorama to enjoy. I had lunch here before roughly tracing my steps (there are options) returning to Incombe Hole. As the path begins to flatten take the path to the left. This rises slowly along the edge of a wood before you bear left and pass some houses and continue towards Duncombe Terrace. The route becomes a woodland walk through the heart of the Ashridge Estate, 5,000 National Trust acres which encompasses the Beacon and the remainder of the route back to Aldbury. It’s an easy level track which turns to the S before reaching the ‘Bridgewater Monument which you can climb up (172 steps). There are also a visitor centre, food stop here and loos. With the centre to your left walk past the monument into more woodland, then bear right where there are a couple of paths to the W back to Aldbury, the first to the car park, the second to the centre (aka the pub).
I walked this on a blustery November day and while there were some muddy bits, it’s a generally dry route with decent paths. There is a 45 minute train from Euston to Tring station which is just a few hundred metres from the Ridgeway path below Aldbury Nowers. I use ‘Trainline‘ to buy tickets, they offer decent discounts and a decent app to make the process easier when collecting tickets.