Thursday, 19 March 2015

Levada Dos Tournos

Heading up from Funchal
Having been away for some winter sun last year I am definitely a convert!  This year we decided to go somewhere rather different and I had heard that Madeira was a walker’s paradise and that was enough for me.  We stayed the week in Funchal, the capital of this small island out in the Atlantic Ocean.  One of the things that attracted me to the island was how green it always looked in pictures and this walk really showed off this aspect of the countryside.

Botanic Gardens Cable Car
One of the joys of walking in Madeira is the huge network of Levadas, or drainage channels, that carry the plentiful water of the high ground to where it is needed to supply irrigation channels and drinking water reservoirs.  Alongside the levadas are footpaths that have become justifiably popular and mean that it is rather easier to walk around the mountainous island than you might otherwise think.  I wanted to introduce my girls to a relatively easy levada walk to begin with and so we picked one on the edge of Funchal leading from the top of the cable car in Monte.

Ribeira De Joao Gomes
It wasn’t strictly necessary but I thought it would add a little extra spice if we parked in the middle of Funchal and got the cable car to the top.  The 15 minute ride was breathtaking – the view across the harbour and city was magnificent.  Sedately climbing the mountain also gave us some interesting glimpses into Madeiran life.  Far below us we could see out of use swimming pools, orange groves, allotment sites, random dogs wandering about and holiday villas obviously shut for the winter.  The latter seemed rather odd for it was as warm as any summer day in the UK.
Makeshift Bridge

All too soon we were dropped at the top of the hill in Monte.  Most tourists headed left and into this most famous of the hill villages surrounding Funchal.  Most tourists come up here to see the Palace Gardens, the white church (which prominently stands out on the hill looking up from the harbour) and for the more adventurous tobogganing back down the hill into Funchal.  We took a right turn and headed down the hill towards another cable car that takes tourists on to the fabulous Botanical Gardens (and where we had visited the day before).  All the remaining tourists that followed us took this cable car leaving us completely to ourselves to carry on.

The path took us underneath the cable car station and down a very steep hill.  Almost immediately we were faced with the choice of continuing down the steep hill across the valley ahead of us or taking a gentler route around the valley head where we would meet with the levada.  We chose the latter, even though it came with the health warning that the levada was quite vertiginous in places.  All seemed well to being with although we were surprised by how wild the valley and terrain were considering how close to civilisation we were.  The path clung to the side of the valley and we slowly headed up hill for about half a mile before reaching the levada as it emerged from a tunnel in the mountainside.
Vertiginous Section
 We discovered our first little problem here as we had to cross and then recross the levada in the space of a few moments – not easy for little legs!  While I leapt over gazelle-like the girls had to make do with little log bridges and some outstretched hands to provide a degree of security.  Fortunately this was a minor problem and the path soon settled down to the one side of the levada.  It was reasonably full and kept a good flow of water.  Further on we went through a little tunnel under a waterfall – rudimentary engineering it might have been but very effective.  We passed a couple here having their picnic – the first people we had seen so far.

Mountain Waters
Beyond the tunnel the walking conditions became a lot more hairy.  The steep slope that we had had on one side soon developed into a sheer cliff and the path was barely a metre wide in places.  None of my girls much liked this stretch and we considered going back.  The promised barriers that were supposed to protect us on this section had either never quite materialised or had been broken off/ bent.  Whichever it was we clearly couldn’t rely on any protection and for a 300-400 metres the going was extremely vertiginous.  In fact, if the water in the levada hadn’t been so cold I think that at least some of our party would have been tempted to walk along the channel for extra protection.  Soon we were passed by the picnickers who told us that the path only gets better by walking it several times.  The first time they were probably as terrified as my lot!

Curral Dos Romeiros
Eventually though we got past the worst of it and when we weren’t watching out for a cliff we could admire the view back across Funchal.  It was surprising how wild it was given how close to the city we were.  Soon though we reached a small village and the levada disappeared under the streets for a short section requiring us to negotiate the streets ourselves.  As we passed through the village we were greeted by seemingly dozens of barking dogs, a common theme in these parts!
Levada This Way

Just the other side of the village the walking became a lot tamer and everyone could relax a little more now.  We passed by a makeshift hut selling produce for walkers.  There wasn’t much left on offer though – mostly a few small Madeiran bananas that I wasn’t too keen on the look of.  It was starting to become really hot on this section of the walk and we were pleased when after a short while we were able to enter the shade of the mimosa forest that clings to the hillside.  The levada kept resolutely to the contours all the way despite the incredibly steep terrain  and that made walking pretty easy.  It also meant though that we got nowhere pretty fast as we had to head all the way into the deep valleys until we reached a stream bridging point.  A mile of walking often mean that we only covered a quarter of the distance that a crow would fly.

Levada Plants
Mostly the path was in a good state of repair although there were a couple of short stretches where we had to walk along the concrete channel top where the slope had slid away.  Strangely this did not seem to be any problem around the streams coming down off the mountains – all of those were nicely bound by mini-aqueducts or tunnels taking the levada across safely while walkers had to ford.  We had a couple of miles of delightful walking through the forest and it was hard to imagine that we were still in one of the most populated parts of the island. 

Water House
The character of the path changed for a short distance as we headed through the grounds of the Choupana Hills Resort.  There were some very posh looking chalets here and the forest had been cleared to make room for them.  Most were unoccupied but there was one chap enjoying his veranda and reading his book.  It must have been blissful without anyone else around to disturb his peace.
Early Blossom

Just past the resort we crossed a road and felt like we had to breathe in on the other side as the path squeezed through a narrow gap between fence line and hillside.  It soon opened out to reveal one of the main uses of the levada – water source for irrigation.  A large water tank and pretty little water house made for a perfect scene on the next corner.  A little way past here and we bumped into an English couple heading the other way.  They told us good things about the tea houses further on and we were feeling very hungry from what they said!
Quinto Do Pomar

Eventually we found our way to our ultimate destination; the Hortensia Tea House.  It wasn’t the one recommended by the couple we had just met but importantly it was the first one we reached and we had heard good things about it.  In particular the soup was recommended to us so that is what we had.  The tea house is located in the centre of a beautiful garden full of the most colourful flowers you can imagine.  Definitely Madeira at its very best!  We had clealy arrived just after a coach party had left for all the tables were covered with empty soup bowls.  We were glad that there was some left for us!

Hortensia Tea House
Following our delicious lunch our route back was mostly a retracing of steps at least as far as Curral Dos Romeiros where we decided not to reprise the vertiginous section but go via the valley route.  Wouldn’t you know though that that was the one place where I slipped – putting my foot into a rather unexpectedly large hole!  Our way back was a lot less quiet too – we managed to come across a couple of large walking groups that held us up.  Thankfully we managed to get past them quite qquickly.  Judging by their attire they were probably on a shore excursion from the cruise ship in port.  They were certainly ambling a lot slower than us and the numbers of them could easily have caused a problem on such narrow paths.

On our return to Monte we did have a look in the village briefly – we wanted to have a quick look at the famous church that dominates the hillside here. There was a big line up of toboggan riders too – they clearly weren’t doing a huge amount of business that day.  It is a famous and traditional way of getting from the hills above Funchal into the centre of the city.  Nowadays though it stops short of that destination and finishes in one of the suburbs.  One set off as we arrived – it looked fun but rather impractical for us so we headed back to the top of the cable car and headed back down to the starting point of our day.

Monte Church
This was a wonderful introduction to levada walking abut the first part is definitely not for the faint hearted!  My girls were all quite frightened by the sheer drop down the side of the path and there was no way I could persuade them to return via that route.  This section can be left out though courtesy of the path crossing the valley that the levada skirts around.  Be warned though – there are some steep climbs either side!  The tea house is highly recommended and makes for a good destination – if you want to add some extra distance there is another a little further on.

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Frensham Common and Kettlebury Hill

Little Frensham Pond
A couple of days after our Kingley Vale walk I had the opportunity for another outing although this time I was a lot less fortunate with the weather.  I cast around the south east for the best conditions and although it promised to be a dry and reasonably mild day most places looked like they would shrouded in cloud.  However I found what I thought to be a significant break in the Guildford area and so I headed there to reprise a walk done many moons ago with my wife in the area around Frensham Ponds.  This is walk 27 in Pathfinder Guide volume 24 Surrey and Sussex Walks (the one I followed) and walk number 2 in Pathfinder Guide Volume 68 Surrey Walks (this version is slightly truncated)

Little Frensham Pond
My walk started at Little Frensham Pond, a delightful little oasis that seems to have more of the character of the Scottish Highlands or New Forest about it than being in the Surrey countryside.  There was little peace and quiet initially though as there was a lot of chain saw noise from forestry operations nearby.  I did have the luxury of sunshine though and even a little warmth in the air, which was a bonus for a January Monday.

Signs of Spring
The walk around Little Frensham Pond was very pretty and I remembered this most from the last time I visited.  Perhaps it would have been better to have this section as the finale to the walk rather than the beginning?  While the rest of the walk does have its charms none can match the beauty of the pond and shoreline walk.  All too soon I reached the far end of the pond and my walk took me into a forested area alongside fields that were clearly meant for horses.  In fact I very much doubt whether there is very much in the way of other farming in this area as the acid soils aren’t much good for growing crops or grass needed for grazing livestock.  There were a couple of grazing horses and a collection of Nissan huts that I imagine had their heritage in the military that are based all around this area.

Nissan Hut
The adjacent forest area had clearly had some work done on it recently for the tyre tracks through the mud were enormous and there were bits of wood and brush everywhere.  Luckily for me this was about the worst of the mud for the day and easily avoided.  I wandered down through the forest before meeting a pretty wet looking road.  The reason for its wetness became clear quite quickly as there was a ford a little further on just out of my immediate sight.  I was glad though for the pedestrian footbridge next to the ford, for the stream was quite swollen by the winter rains.

I soon left the road to head out across heathland again and past a large house called Grey Walls.  This had a magnificent setting with a huge pond stretching out from the front of the house.  I could only get glimpses through the trees though as the owners had planted a thick looking hedge to protect their privacy.  Nosy parkers weren’t the only thing being protected against – wires across the pond suggested that protection of fish in the pond against heron attacks was also an important consideration.

Frensham Country Park
Eventually I reached a place called Harold’s Hill and my walk through countryside resembling the New Forest ceased for a short while and I headed along an access road and past a garden centre.  Alongside the road was an old watermill, yet another desirable house out here in the Surrey countryside. 

Harold's Hill
After a few hundred metres along this road I once again descended into forest, thick pine at first but this then relented to another stretch of seemingly endless heathland in a surprisingly wild and rather lonely area called The Flashes.  I am not sure that it is possible to follow the exact path suggested in the guidebook and so I stuck to the most obvious one as the last thing I wanted to do was get lost!  In actual fact route finding on this particular walk can be quite challenging in places as I was later to find out!
For the whole distance across The Flashes I didn’t meet a soul and by now the clouds had rolled in once again giving the whole place rather a forbidding feel.  At the far end I climbed up and away from this rather boggy heathery basin and I actually felt rather pleased when I did.  I crossed a road and past a fishing pond that was deserted.  Ahead of me was a rather disturbing sign warning of unexploded ordinance and advising walkers to be vigilant to army exercises.  I have seen these sorts of signs plenty of times before without giving them much consideration.

Crosswater House
I continued walking through sandy heathland, which wasn’t very easy going until I got to Kettlebury Hill.  I was now at the highest point of the walk and the going got easier for a while as the path continued along a flat ridge with harder ground underfoot.  Some of the sand had been really hard going as it was like walking across loose sand dunes and is quite strength sapping.  As I walked along the ridge views opened up across a vast area of heathland stretching far away towards Guildford in the distance.  Allegedly you can see Guildford Cathedral from up here but the conditions weren’t really clear enough for that today.

The Flashes
I soon became aware that I was not alone walking along this ridge although could not put my finger on the reasons why.  I soon caught sight of some running soldiers some distance away and wondered whether I should even be here.  Looking around behind me I noticed a family walking a dog and an off road cyclist which reassured me and I continued on my way.  It wasn’t much further forward though that I managed to find myself in the middle of a military ambush all set up for the army carrying out their exercises.  Initially a little scary and after a while a bit tiresome I did get a good insight into the ‘army games’ that recruits have to do in order to pass through into the army proper.  Some of the ‘fighting’ became quite intense and the recruits and their training officers clearly treated it very seriously.  A helicopter kept buzzing overhead and with a little imagination I could easily have been part of a real life war zone.  I felt like an unwelcome gatecrasher into a party that I was clearly never intended to be a part of.

Kattleberry Hill View

Inevitably perhaps as soon as I was released to walk on past the soldiers I went wrong, taking the wrong turning at the junction of paths where the soldiers were.  It wasn’t a great problem as I merely headed off across the heathland on a slightly different route to the one intended for me.  It wasn’t easy walking and actually I soon got a little fed up with the underfoot conditions of more loose sand.  After an undulating walk across what felt like inland sand dunes I was pleased to finally leave them behind me as I reached the road to the north of Rushmoor village.  More importantly perhaps was the nice feeling to have peace and quiet again and no more marauding soldiers!

Stockbridge Pond
From across the road I still had a mile and a half or so to walk.  I would like to say this was delightful woodland walking but in truth it was a bit dull.  No singing birds, no flowers, bare trees and stubbornly grey skies overhead made for a pretty uninteresting last half hour or so.  The only bright spot was the crossing of a largish ford across the River Wey.  My guess is that the size of the ford precludes most vehicles from trying their luck down this otherwise usable track.  Lucky for me there was a footbridge so I didn’t have to worry.  Not much further past hear and I could hear the chainsaw once again that was disturbing the peace at Frensham Pond and my return back to the beginning.

Chuter's Ford

This is a pleasant walk but sad to say most of the highlights are at the beginning.  It might be better to walk the loop in the opposite direction for a better finish as the section around the pond is by far the best part and ought be savoured last.  As it was on this day I was glad that I had done the pond section first as the weather definitely deteriorated during the day.  After my walk was over I headed over to Frensham Great Pond a short distance away where I found the small café was open.  I had a welcome cuppa although in truth the café was a bit rough and ready and seemed a little out of keeping for its surroundings.

Thursday, 5 March 2015

Kingley Vale

Heading Out
As I get older I get increasingly intolerant of muddy walks and so during the winter months I try very hard to find areas that I can walk to minimise the amount I have to negotiate.  It’s been a few weeks since this walk took place now but we did find a beautiful Saturday morning to while away a few hours on the Downs before the next dumping of rain came.  We chose walk 2 in Pathfinder Guide volume 66 (West Sussex and the Downs).

Entering the Nature Reserve
It had been a few years since our last visit to Kingley Vale but I thought another trip would be good.  This is one of the largest and oldest yew forests left in Europe and some of the old trees are fascinating to look at on account of their gnarled trunks and huge spreads that leave the underneath of the tree cavernous in nature.

Into the Yew Forest
We arrived to find only a couple of spaces left in the car park and thanked our luck that we had decided to head over early.  The initial stages of the walk are pretty straightforward, along a nice clean flinty track.  The light on this particular morning was also very good and it was one of those winter days when it is a joy to be out of doors.  Eventually we reached the yew forest at the end of the track and it was pretty evident that this is a very popular place for walking judging by all the family groups and dogs that were out.

Reaching Out
At the entrance to the nature reserve is a little gazebo containing some displays on prehistoric people that lived in the area as well as the more usual material on geology and natural history.  The forest is merely a remnant of a much larger habitat that was once quite common on the South Downs but which is now quite rare.  Given that this is one of the largest areas left it is quite sobering how much has been lost, for this really is only a small tract of woodland occupying an otherwise attractive but otherwise useless bowl in the chalky downs.
Leaving The Woods

After perusing the displays and getting a sense of what we were looking at we headed along the path at the bottom of the valley through the main body of trees.  Each tree is almost a sculpture in itself, with gloriously crooked branches that twist their way outwards from huge lumpy and bumpy trunks.  Some of the trees are said to be more than 500 years old and one specimen in particular is rumoured to have been planted in the Viking times in the 9th Century.  Virtually nothing can grow under the canopies due to the darkness underneath.  For my girls this really fired their imaginations for it felt like we entered another world entirely full of mystery and intrigue.

View Across the Vale
Our path wound in an out of the trees and into more open areas where we could see the extent of the forest.  The colours of the trees were most interesting for they were not the uniform dark green that you might have expected but interspersed with other contrasting colours of yellows and browns, I assume the vestiges of autumn colours.

In the Dark Woods
Eventually we reached the end of the old stand of trees and our path took us up the hillside to our right past an old dewpond that I suspect doesn’t get a huge amount of use for livestock drinking any more.  However, a small habitat like this in an area of very little water must be invaluable for a different set of flora and fauna.  At the top of the slope we entered another yew woodland – this time much more densely packed and even darker as a result!  Before entering I did swing round to look at the view across the bowl in the Downs.  It looked quite magnificent on this January day.
Old Man's Beard

We plodded up through the trees to the top of the hill.  Most of the woodland had been drained of colour but little flashes of red were provided by the remnants of woody nightshade (bittersweet) berries and the burgundy shades of dogwood branches.  Even the odd bramble bush created some shades of purple and red on the dying leaves.  Thankfully the low winter sun highlighted all these colours in the landscape beautifully – this would have been a lot less enjoyable on a dull day.
Chichester Cathedral

As we reached the top of the slope we had an encounter with mud as the path along the top of the bowl was a quagmire – largely as a result of being churned up by horses.  As we got further round though the view more than made up for the underfoot conditions.  We could see across to the Isle of Wight, which seemed so close you could almost touch it.  Off to the east and the spire of Chichester Cathedral dominated the view along the coast. 

Tansley Stone
We made a small detour from the path at this point to a memorial called the Tansley Stone.  This is a memorial to the 20th Century ecologist Sir Arthur Tansley, whom was responsible for creating the nature reserve here at Kingley Vale.  I’m not sure if his ashes were scattered here but I cannot think of a more inspiring place to spend eternity…

Devil's Humps
Further along from the memorial stone are some resting places of a rather different nature – the four bronze age burial mounds known as the Devil’s Humps.  Two of the Humps are out into the open countryside away from the trees and these have particularly good views – perhaps even better than Sir Arthur’s!  I don’t know why but it seemed appropriate to climb to the top of each one to take in the 360 degree views.  Lots of other people were doing the same and as I stood there I imagined that a late summer’s evening picnic here would be absolutely perfect.

View From The Jumps
After enjoying the views for a time we headed off on our way again, descending down through more mixed woodland to meet the gazebo at the bottom of the hill once again.  From here we retraced our steps back to the car park to find it absolutely jammed by now – there were even cars stretched out along the adjacent road.  This hints at the popularity of this ancient place so beware if you decide to visit for yourself!  The walk itself was delightful and easy to see why it is so popular.  A mixture of history, unique nature and fabulous views means that you pack a lot into the 3.5 mile total distance.