Arty walk Penzance, Cornwall
It’s tipping towards sunset on a November afternoon and St Michael’s Mount shimmers on the horizon, reflected in the high tide that surrounds this Cornish island. As I set out along the coastal path from Penzance to Marazion, it’s a surreal view. The mount, with its collar of gold-flecked water, looks like it’s levitating. The podcast I’m listening to is telling me that the mount is also surrounded by a submerged forest. This blue space was once green.
There’s a clue in the island’s Cornish name: Karrek Loos Yn Koos means “grey rock in the wood”. Thought to have existed 4,000 to 6,000 years ago, before disappearing as sea levels rose, that wood – now a petrified cluster of tree stumps and a Tolkienesque tangle of roots – can occasionally be glimpsed at very low spring tides.
At other times, visitors are invited to conjure the forest with the help of Gwelen, a new trail of 85 sculptures that fringe the footpath along Mount’s Bay. Designed by artist Emma Smith, with input from local residents, gwelen is a Cornish word that can mean sticks, rods or wands. The trail’s oak “seeing sticks” bring all of those into play, offering resting places for leaning against or sitting on but also a visual prompt for imagining the flooded forest.
I start from behind Penzance’s railway station and the first installation is revealed just after the signal box – a trident of posts that look like sticks whittled by Poseidon himself. Rooted in the landscape but separate from it, like other good sculpture trails this one offers a deeper link to the landscape, a perspective that a walk alone can’t offer.
The accompanying podcast encourages listeners to follow in the footsteps of local poets, scientists and folklore experts, while a downloadable booklet suggests ways of drawing, cooking, whittling and foraging inspired by the forest. Until they appear on additional signage along the trail in the spring, both can be found on Newlyn Art Gallery’s website.
Neither is essential to the walk’s enjoyment, though both add meaning. I discover that before this land was farmed, the forest would have been a rich foraging ground for birch sap, plantain and blackberries (a nugget I remember the following morning as I sip a blackberry smoothie in the town’s buzzy Artist Residence hotel (doubles from £125 room-only) all these millennia later.
As I follow the trail I listen my way around the landscape hearing about its marine biodiversity, rising sea levels (again), Cornish language and pirating history.
The sticks range from driftwood benches to stubby posts and tall crooks. Some have metal chairs and picnic benches. Newly upgraded, the path is accessible to all. In the gloaming, I’m joined on my walk by a tide of pushchairs, e-bikes, wheelchair users, runners, lovers and dog walkers.
I keep going as wagtails skitter and bob along the path ahead, and the industrial estates on my left give way to the Scots pines and rushes of the Marazion Marsh RSPB reserve. Eventually I dip down into Marazion along the beach, gulping the briny air swirling in over sea wrack.
As the tide is already in, it’s too late to visit St Michael’s Mount today, so I double back for a cuppa at the Hoxton Special, a cafe 10 minutes back along the path. Just beside it is the final cluster of posts. One of them is shaped like a chair, so I sink into it and watch the sun set over the bay.
As the waves wash rhythmically in, it sounds exactly like wind through leaves and branches. The conjuring is working.
Rhiannon Batten was a guest of Artist Residence Penzance and her trip was arranged by Love Penzance and Visit England
Pilgrimage walk, Canterbury, Kent
We were a group of strangers with a common purpose. Wearing sturdy walking boots and carrying rustic wooden staffs, we set out from beneath a stone arch carved with angels, griffins and birds to walk to Canterbury cathedral, destination of so many pilgrims down the centuries.
The 12th-century church of St Mary in Patrixbourne, a few miles south of Canterbury, lies on four pilgrimage routes: the 1,200-mile Via Francigena runs from Canterbury to Rome, via France and Switzerland; the Old Way, a medieval 220-mile route from Southampton to Canterbury; the North Downs Way; and the Royal Saxon Way.
More than half our group had come on this short pilgrimage alone. Among us was a Cambridge academic who had once walked the Camino de Santiago, the pilgrimage route across northern Spain, and wanted to rediscover the sense of being at once both solitary and deeply communal.
Another was a member of a ramblers’ group in the south-west, but was drawn by the idea of walking in the footsteps of others, dating back centuries. An American tourist “crazy about history” had also found her way to St Mary’s. Our ages ranged from early 20s to mid-60s.
The route took us through fields and woods and led us past half a dozen churches, where we stopped for precious moments of reflection. Sometimes we sang, some of us chatted and others were quiet. We agreed to walk one section in silence, listening to nature and the sound of our own breathing.
The walk was organised by the British Pilgrimage Trust, founded in 2014 to promote pilgrimage as “a form of cultural heritage that promotes holistic wellbeing, for the public benefit”. A recent resurgence in interest in pilgrimages has seen the re-establishment of ancient routes and the participation of people who embrace a range of beliefs, including no religious faith but a desire for contemplation.
At least 350,000 pilgrims walk the Camino de Santiago each year, 2.5 million make the hajj to Mecca, and 50 million do the Kumbh Mela pilgrimages in India. In the UK, ancient routes have been revived, and new ones opened.
In medieval times, groups of pilgrims would trek across England, often heading for shrines such as Thomas Becket’s at Canterbury and the Virgin Mary at Walsingham in Norfolk. Pilgrimages were undertaken for religious reasons, but were also a chance to escape humdrum daily life, meet new people and swap stories. Chaucer chronicled this phenomenon in his Canterbury Tales, written in the late 14th century.
The tradition came to a sudden end in 1538, when Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell banned pilgrimages as part of sweeping moves – including the dissolution of the monasteries and the abolition of saints’ days – to obliterate the pre-Reformation church. Relics could no longer be displayed for worship, and the shrines at Canterbury and Walsingham were destroyed. Pilgrimages did not make a reappearance in England for more than 300 years.
Now, the British Pilgrimage Trust offers guided walks to raise funds for the charity and free self-guided walks. Its 2020 book, Britain’s Pilgrim Places, has details of 100 routes and more than 600 holy places. It’s too big to carry so find routes and other useful information on the trust’s website.
At the end of our day’s walking, we were led into the dimly lit vaulted nave of Canterbury cathedral, where pilgrims have been welcomed for 1,400 years. A Latin phrase – solvitur ambulando, it is solved by walking – carried us through our return to 21st-century life.
Architecture walk, Birmingham city centre
Birmingham has a compact city centre, where the remnants of its civic blossoming butt up against new mixed-use glass and the 1960s modernism that clings on, despite changing architectural fashions. A good walk can take much of that in and still leave you close enough to enjoy some of the ever-improving pubs and food.
Exit New Street station by the Station Street entrance, if you can find it, and you’ll come out facing the Electric cinema, which opened in 1909 and has a claim to being the UK’s oldest picture house. Turning left, you pass the Crown pub, where heavy metal pioneers Black Sabbath played their very first gig (as Earth) in 1968. (It has been closed for almost a decade but there are plans to reopen it.)
Left again and up Hill Street brings a view of the brutalist New Street signal box. The corrugated concrete lump is Grade II-listed, which is a welcome surprise given Birmingham’s record of demolishing many of its mid-20th-century gems.
Turn right down Navigation Street and through Piccadilly Arcade. This was also once an early 1900s cinema, but has long been a shopping arcade, with a beautiful painted ceiling. (If it’s not open, go around what was the Midland Hotel, now the Burlington, site of Enoch Powell’s infamous 1968 Rivers of Blood speech.) Head west up New Street itself towards Victoria Square, turning your eyes upwards from the street preachers and chain shops to the fascinating modernist zigzags of Grosvenor House on the corner of Bennetts Hill. Built in 1953, it was one of the city’s first modern post-war buildings.
On Victoria Square is the Town Hall, with its Roman revival columns designed by Joseph Hansom, of Hansom cab fame. Here also is the classical-style Council House. But it feels as if the space focuses on a less interesting feature: a statue in a fountain. It’s called The River, but local media will tell you it’s better known as the “Floozie in the Jacuzzi”.
From the square, head down Colmore Row to the compact St Philip’s cathedral, walk across its square and round what used be “the back of Rackhams” department store (a local euphemism for shady goings on). Then walk down to Corporation Street to see the statue of comedian Tony Hancock on Old Square, appropriately enough outside the former home of the Blood Transfusion Service. Further down the street, the Victoria Law Courts and Methodist Central Hall are a riot of terracotta.
Walk down Newton Street towards Curzon Street station: Birmingham’s first major terminus, it now stands alone and unloved, soon to be overwhelmed by HS2. Next to it is the Woodman (sadly closed). With a facade by James & Lister Lea and a tiled interior, it’s a great example of Birmingham pub architecture.
It’s then a short walk to Moor Street station. Behind its old-world charm protrudes Selfridges’ “Dalek’s bum”. Admire all of its curves as you go past the markets and on to Smallbrook Queensway, where the huge brutalist sweep of the Ringway Centre delivers you back to the front of New Street, under the watchful eye of my favourite Birmingham building, the Rotunda.
River walk, Sutherland, Highlands
No dancer can move with the elegance of water. In the river next to my childhood home, the Cassley in Sutherland, the peat-stained stream turns and sweeps through broken granite, over quartz and dives deep, sending up bubbles in white water.
A fly-fisher, I spend hours studying water, working out what it will do with the tiny feathered lure in the unlikely event I can actually land it where I planned. Will it suck it down to the crevice where I suspect a salmon lies?
Leave the cosy Achness Hotel bar in Rosehall and walk north up the single-track road that leads into a landscape so little populated that its OS map was, for a while, the least-purchased in Britain.
Walk until the river flows towards you. You will be under a stand of old pine, needles like rust underfoot. Turn and clamber over a stile and follow the water back downstream. The river turns through shelves of rock and you will begin to hear the roar of the falls. A slippery railway sleeper takes you across a ditch. Roots of pine climb over rocks glistening with moss. Silver birch add a ghostly white. Next to you the water grows unruly. The smell of sap is overpowering.
A large rock splits the river’s flow, and from a crack a thin pine rises, God knows how old. Then come the thundering falls, the crash of white water landing in a wide pool. From May to September, once the water is warm enough, salmon launch themselves from the deep with desperate strokes and the urge to fight their way upstream.
The river falls again into a deep foamy gorge and the path leads along its clifftop, penned by an old graveyard. Highlanders like to be buried within the sound of running water, as it carries the soul away. The yard is full, fly-fisher Neil Graesser the last in, his plot under the gate. No one knew the river like Neil. I can still hear his cigarette-deep voice from the pub: “And how’s Ruaridh?”
Keep on downriver until you reach the beautiful Victorian bridge and climb up to the road, following it back to where you started, the Achness with its soup and warm fire.
Or else drive upriver, to where the glen opens out, and where I was raised. Bracken crowds the road and bog cotton grows where the ground is wet. Stop and wander and the trees will be full of songbirds. You may see a stone inscribed with the names of my parents and the dates they lived.
There are paths along the riverbank, usually made by sheep but also by the muckle boots of anglers. Occasionally there is a simple plank bench to rest on and look at the water some more.
I prefer to stand still, in the flow. Nature reasserts itself when you fish. Dippers work the gravel edges, ducks pass like arrows overhead, and sometimes an otter appears, to ruin my fishing but make my day.
The weather moves above, the water moves around and, once in a while, a salmon takes and everything explodes.
Station-to-station walk Roydon to Sawbridgeworth, Hertfordshire/Essex
A flock of long-tailed tits is flying between trees along the towpath. Below them, a swan slides over the water and moorhens squabble in the rushes. I’ve walked this route along the River Stort in every season. On really cold days, mallards skate over the ice and frost sparks the dry seedheads: teasels and feathery willowherb, umbels of hemlock and velvety bullrushes. Even today, on a drizzly morning, the towpath is doing its waterside trick of making the rest of the world feel pleasantly far away.
The meadows nearby flood every year, creating oases for waterbirds. Today there are gulls, geese and ducks, including chestnut-headed wigeons; a heron flies off on huge noiseless wings. There is water everywhere, but these riverside paths are unusually winterproof. Five minutes from Roydon station, there’s a small flood under the railway bridge. It’s usually no problem for those with decent boots but after months of rain you sometimes need to walk through the village to the lock. The rest of the route is surprisingly dry and takes in wildlife, history and cafes.
There’s art, too, at Parndon Mill, a craft centre with workshops and exhibitions. A mile-long sculpture trail beyond it includes a glass-decorated walkway, concrete cogs that reflect the lock’s industrial heritage and a block of sandstone carved with the words: “1769 – the Stort open to navigation – flowing into the Lea and onwards to the Thames. Then out to the sea and so to all the ports of the world.”
Smoke drifts from canal boat funnels and I can smell bread from a bakery hidden in the trees. Three long-distance paths follow this stretch of riverbank. Near Harlow Mill, the routes diverge slightly: the dragonfly-waymarked Stort Valley Way stays south of the river, but I follow the Three Forests Way and Harcamlow Way, looping north through Pishiobury Park with its layers of history.
Henry VIII bought a medieval manor here and gave it to Anne Boleyn. Elizabeth I’s chancellor, Sir Walter Mildmay, later built a new house and, in 1782, the park was landscaped, probably by Capability Brown.
There’s an old avenue of oak and chestnut trees on top of the ridge and newer stretches of boardwalk link the park to the river. The towpath runs on into Sawbridgeworth. I end at the cafes and antique shops in a maze of former malt houses near the station, with a craft beer at the newly opened Gallery.
From Sawbridgeworth, you could walk five more miles to Bishop’s Stortford station. The towpath near Stortford gets churned into winter mud, but on days of frost and sunshine it’s unbeatable, with hoary willows mirrored in the water and gold mist lingering over frozen marshes.
Adventure walk Whitby, North Yorkshire
This walk starts at a park bench above the Khyber Pass. Not the thoroughfare of the North West Frontier, but the road that rises up south of Whitby’s west pier. There a grassy bund, dotted with benches, which looks down on the harbour. Choose the one furthest right as you face the abbey ruins across the river.
It was close to this spot in 1890 that an Irish theatre manager sat down to examine where a Russian schooner had been wrecked on the beach below.
In his mind’s eye, he saw a black dog leap from the wreck and bound up the 199 stone steps to the ruined abbey. Some reading in the local library added a slew of blood-curdling touches and one of our greatest, and most horrible, literary creations sprang to undeadness: Count Dracula. It’s the shipwreck, however, that interests us on this walk. The town has had more than its fair share and wreckage is still strewn around the rocky scars below the cliffs.
Take the tunnel under the bund and walk down various narrow ginnels to the harbour, cross the swing bridge and head down to Tate Hill beach to where that Russian schooner once lay. If the weather and tide times are favourable, head around the headland to inspect another wreck, that of the MV Creteblock.
Bearing perhaps the least imaginative name ever given to a ship, it was built of concrete in 1919 and wrecked here in 1947. Unlike all the wooden ships that met their end here, the Creteblock, or parts of it, are still visible. The North Yorkshire coast was once the world’s most dangerous: in one single year, 1869, more than 800 ships went down. Roofs of old houses around here are often held up by salvaged timbers.
If the tide is right, you can keep going all the way to Saltwick Bay, which takes you past the underwater spot where the SS Rohilla lies, a dreadful 1914 wreck in which 85 people drowned (one survivor, Mary Roberts, had survived the Titanic two years before and said the Rohilla was the worse experience).
If you’re not sure about the tides, head back to Tate Pier and up the 199 steps. The church of St Mary and its graveyard at the top, are worth exploring – Bram Stoker came for inspiration, and many shipwreck victims are buried here.
From the church, head south-east off along the cliff edge. After a mile, at the caravan park, take the steep path down to Saltwick Bay beach. If you have checked the tides and have plenty of time, head along the scars towards the offshore stump of Black Nab. Between this landmark and the cliff, trapped in a crack of rock, are the melancholy remains of the Admiral Von Tromp, a trawler wrecked here in 1976 with the death of two seamen. If you are late and the tide is in, you’ll still be able to see its metalwork poking above the waves.
From the Von Tromp wreck, go back up the cliff and walk to the lighthouse station, where you turn back towards town along a track. In winter, the fields here are often full of migratory birds, and there’s even the occasional deer. The path reconnects with steep steps down to the East harbour. Refreshments are not hard to find. The best option is tea and a traditional lemon bun at Botham’s Tea Rooms, which has two branches in town.
With this type of adventurous walk, remember that the hour either side of low tide is good for shore walking and that low tides vary in height. Check sunrise/sunset times and weather conditions.
Birdwatching walk Sevenoaks, Kent
Earlier this year with friends I ventured to Handa Island wildlife reserve off the north-west coast of Scotland, where birds were so abundant it felt more as if they were watching us than the other way round. We could afford to chat about football while keeping a casual eye on eider ducks, kittiwakes and rock pipits. Great and Arctic skuas patrolled, and on the cliffs and sea stacks, citadels of guillemots, puffins, razorbills and fulmars offered an amazing spectacle above the crashing waves.
But birding while walking isn’t always so easy, especially inland in drier landscapes, where more powers of observation are needed to winkle out species. Early winter is a great time for a bird walk given recently arrived migrants. I choose a familiar four-mile route straddling Kent’s Greensand Ridge, south of Sevenoaks, around the hamlet of Underriver, and I’m joined by friend and birder Dave de Silva. First we cross pastures on soggy clay before climbing past hedgerows and orchards on to a thickly wooded sandstone escarpment. Where the clay and sandstone meet are springs and a series of farms and oast houses. We’ve done this stroll before and it’s great for views, geology, plants and, sometimes, birds.
We immediately hear long-tailed tits flitting through trees lining the first field. Dave reminds me: “You’ll often get hangers-on – other tits, even finches, hoping to be led to food.” And sure enough, tagging along are great tits, a chaffinch, and a coal tit.
A single pigeon or dove is silhouetted against the grey clouds. “How dull,” I think. But wait. Dave pauses. “Yep, it’s a stock dove: see how it flies – a bit ungainly, different from a feral pigeon, which you might have mistaken it for.” Ahem.
We pass over a stile between hedgerows. A twittering chatter reveals a flock of goldfinches. Above us we hear “seeze, seeze” – the telltale call of redwings. And sure enough, four of these beautiful birds pass over east to west: they are newly arrived from Scandinavia, and are now scanning the bushes for hawthorn and rowan berries.
It’s a reminder that hearing before seeing is a key part of birding, so a bit of time listening online to the calls of the birds you’d expect to see in the terrain you’re walking in will be rewarded; it’s not necessary to have a Dave on hand. Learn a few calls of common birds, such as robins and great tits, in your area first, then gradually build up.
More migrants soon reveal themselves: an empty cricket pitch suddenly erupts into a cloud of grey and white birds. These are fieldfares; like redwings they’re a type of thrush but larger. They had been pecking for worms but something had spooked them and they now made for the trees – poplar, alder and ash. A female kestrel – so beautifully coloured viewed through binoculars – watches from a small oak, hoping for a field vole meal.
Dave pauses again. Like a human bird radar, he builds up a 360-degree picture of what’s around us from fleeting calls. “Buzzard behind, maybe half a mile, some chaffinches on the move high above, a nuthatch in that sycamore – there it goes – goldcrests in that fir tree, more fieldfares, treecreepers calling … ”
We climb north on the Greensand Ridge, up Rooks Hill. There are rooks, predictably, but the bullfinches and siskins we’ve seen before here among the hedges and old fruit trees fail to appear. We stop to admire the view as far south as the Ashdown Forest and a small bird darts past us, chirping loudly. It’s a marsh tit, a bird that has declined in numbers by more than half since 1970, so it’s a notable record. It makes sense that we spot the bird here: there are thick woods ahead and plenty of moisture around as the sandstone releases spring water.
Feeling pleased with ourselves, and refreshed by sudden sunshine, we head west beneath the sharp slope to a sheer rock face cloaked in thick undergrowth; it’s a rare habitat in the south-east that few humans will ever penetrate, and one where rare turtle doves have been heard “purring” in summer. As dusk nears a tawny owl calls, preparing for its evening hunt.
Our final notable birding moment comes at a wonderful spring-fed pond. The usuals – mallard, moorhen – are dabbing around when I catch the silhouette of a kingfisher on a low alder branch. It darts off before Dave sees it, electric blue and orange piercing the encroaching gloom.
We circle back past the lovely stone and tile of Romshed Farm to Underriver and the White Rock Inn to discuss our observations. There were no rarities, no real surprises, but by listening, watching and counting we felt somehow we’d got to know the countryside a little bit better.
A walk through history Knowlton Circles, Dorset
There are traditions of holy rivers and sacred places all over the world. Make a pilgrimage through the wintry Dorset countryside to Knowlton Circles, a collection of mysterious circular earthworks dating from about 2,500BC, and you can ponder the theory that this, too, is one of those great sacred places. It has drawn people for millennia.
I start in the village of Cashmoor and head south over the brow of Gussage Hill. It’s windblasted and feels surprisingly remote on a watery, wintry day. The grass is low; the sky is wide. In summer, these hedgerows are verdant and blousy. Now, the hawthorn is skeletal and harsh, tearing into the sky. But life still thrives.
If you’re lucky and quiet, you may spot birds of prey hunting, and hares in the fields, perhaps the shadows of deer in the trees. You’ll also notice a succession of lumps and bumps – long barrows from the stone age, about 5,500 years old, and round barrows (or tumuli) from the bronze age, about 4,000 years old.
There are tracks and banks that could be prehistoric, or medieval, or both.
I head south-east on footpaths to the village of Wimborne St Giles and cross the River Allen, a chalk stream of exquisite clarity (although now under threat from water extraction and agricultural runoff). More quiet trails lead me south-west, loosely following the river until I hit Lumber Lane.
I walk up the gentle hill from the river’s water meadows and there, on the brow of the rise, is the centrepiece of Knowlton’s strange monuments – the crumbling tower of a medieval church in the centre of a neolithic earthwork circle. You walk through a gap in the earthen banks (4,500 years old) to reach the 900-year-old Christian building.
We don’t know what the neolithic people used this site for – perhaps gatherings of dispersed communities for ceremonies, sacrifice, trading, hooking up – or all of the above. We also don’t know why medieval people decided to build their church inside this ancient earthwork in the 1100s (church communities elsewhere destroyed prehistoric monuments for fear of pagan wickedness). Perhaps there had been a smooth segue from pagan worship to the new cult of Christianity in the Roman and post-Roman periods, and it became the obvious place to erect a cross, then a church.
Eventually the village population shrank to nothing. It wasn’t worth dismantling the church and so it remains, silent and steadfast. I go in and breathe in the quiet magic of this place. The narrow nave, a simple belltower, rough-hewn walls and sockets where timbers for roof structures once rested. Look up and you see the heavens – literally, as the church has no roof.
Out on the perimeter of the prehistoric earthwork, there is a pair of old yew trees. They’re festooned with offerings from modern day worshippers – ribbon and string, beads and crystals. They’re heartfelt acts of connection to this place. Knowlton perfectly demonstrates the idea that some places persist in importance, even when everything else – economy, technology, religion and race – changes. At the turn of the year, I find no better place to take stock and think.