Thursday, 29 October 2009

Westonbirt Arboretum

In the Acer glade

We decided to drop into Westonbirt on the way back from a flying visit to Somerset. I had got the idea from an interesting piece on autumn walks in last Saturday's Daily Telegraph. We didn't arrive until nearly 4pm, when it was already getting dark, and initially it seemed that we might have made a wasted effort. However, although we saw less than we had expected, the great benefit of arriving late in the day was that most people had already left, or at least were on their way out - the number of cars in the car parks, and the trampled muddy grass, strongly indicated that massive numbers had been there earlier in the day. I took fewer photographs than I would have wished, but at least they weren't full of other people taking photographs.

We had read about the seasonal trails through the arboretum and in the time available before dusk we opted to follow shorter trail, through the Old Arboretum (the other trail goes through the much larger Silk wood).

Leaving the restaurant/shop complex, you follow a mud path into the Old Arboretum and are quickly presented with the Savill Glade, an area of mature trees dating back to when the Arboretum was founded in the 1850s by Robert Stayner Holford.

Soon the path leads to the first of many wonderful Japanese maples (acer palmata).

Then you reach Holford Ride, with Westonbirt House (a school since 1928) framed at the end. One might think that the ride was laid out in order to see and be seen from the house, but in fact the reverse is true. Holford knocked down the house built by his father only 40 years earlier and built Westonbirt House, positioned in such a way that he could look down Holford Ride.

A few steps from here brings you to the Acer Glade, epicentre of the autumn colours at Westonbirt. Apart from the colours, the shapes of the trees and their sinuous branches add interest and beauty.

Further on, we marveled at this Oriental Plane, with its multiple trunks and great spreading canopy.

And in Specimen Row, we were staggered to learn that the beautiful Ginkgo, with its delicate, butterfly-like leaves, was the first tree to evolve, some 250 million years ago.

Distance: no more than 1.5 miles.

Rating: four stars. A wonderful experience. A gentle, winding walk through a garden devoted only to trees, planted in the aesthetic or romantic style - for appearance or effect and not in formal rows. We know we have only scratched the surface and can't wait to return.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

A world without bees by Alison Benjamin and Brian McCallum

A World without Bees presents a powerful and alarming account of current threats to the Western Honey Bee and draws attention to just how serious it would be if bees were to die out. We learn that a third of the average diet (presumably in the west) has been pollinated by honey bees, and other crops pollinated by honey bees are critically important as animal feeds. The food supply and economic consequences would be plainly catastrophic. So what is the problem and what causes it?

In a nutshell, the problem is sudden and substantial deaths among bees. In the USA for example, about 30% of the 2.4 million bee colonies died in 2007 and 2008. And large numbers of colonies have also mysteriously died in Canada, Europe, Asia and South America.

The term Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) has been coined to describe the phenomenon. Its typical features are: colonies die or dwindle despite having plenty of honey stores, the queen is usually still alive, most bees die in the field rather than in the hive, and most cases occur in the spring or autumn when the weather is cool.

However, there are some problems with the notion that CCD is the right way to encapsulate the problem. Firstly, sudden losses are not a new phenomenon: the authors describe other examples in America and elsewhere going back as far as 1869 and continuing in most decades since, usually being given a new name: May disease, disappearing disease, Isle of Wight disease. Secondly, some authorities and some countries (Including Britain and Australia) don't accept they have CCD. And thirdly, it seems to be accepted that not all losses are due to CCD.

So the problem is a little ill-defined. Are the causes any clearer? Alas no. What the book reveals is that there are large number of strongly-held theories and explanations, but no clear consensus. The main ones are as follows:
  • Infestations by parasites: especially the varroa mite and the nosema ceranae fungus.
  • Viruses: for example Chronic Paralysis Virus and Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus.
  • Agricultural pesticides: neonicotinoids, especially one marketed by Bayer under the name Gaucho.
  • Genetically modified crops, especially sweetcorn, which produce a pesticides.
  • Mobile phone transmitters which are alleged to interfere with bees' homing instincts. (Ironically, this seems to be the one theory which has entered popular folklore and yet for which there is no scientific support.)
  • Poor bee-keeping practices by bee-keepers e.g. over-use of pesticides designed to eliminate parasites.
  • Monocultural farming which depletes the bees' diet.
  • The weather: several specific episodes have been blamed on unseasonal weather.
Additionally, the authors emphasise what they call the industrialisation of pollination. In the USA there are about 2.4m hives and most of these are operated commercially. This means that they are moved around the country by truck to pollinate crops at specified times of the year. The most staggering example is the Californian almond crop. There are 60m trees producing 80% of the world's almonds and they require 1.2m hives for their annual pollination. Yes, half of all bee hives in America are trucked into a 600,000 acre area of California for the purpose. Maybe, the stress of being trucked around reduces bees' immunity to the diseases and pests they are assaulted by.

Secondly, commercial use of bees has driven selective breeding in favour of sub-species which are gentle (i.e. less likely to sting) and good honey-producers. Maybe the price is reduced resistance.

What the book also makes clear is that pet theories abound, that scientists (who tend to favour virus theories) and bee-keepers (who are more likely to focus on environmental threats) see things differently, and that economic interests are also a factor (including those of the agro-chemicals industry). It is also clear that some strongly-held theories fail basic logical tests: bee disappearances have occurred for example in locations where neonicotinoid pesticides have not been used.

So what are we to think? The authors come to no clear conclusion, although they note at the end of the book that the scientists generally think the cause is viral, with other factors increasing bees' susceptibility. They also refer to "the noose tightening around the pesticide companies", which suggests that they see this as a critical factor.

Overall, this a very stimulating book, which marshals a vast range of evidence in a very readable way. There are some problems with the structure which combines a sequential approach to the story with thematic chapters on possible causes, resulting in some repetition. I was never entirely convinced that the core problem was entirely nailed: are losses of entire colonies the same as reductions in the number of bees in a colony?

And perhaps, finally, the book is too apocalyptic in tone - the argument is not really made for a world without bees. There are for example other types of honey bee, who do not appear to be subject to CCD: the Eastern Honey Bee and the African Honey Bee. The latter are unpopular in America because they are more "defensive" (i.e more likely to sting) - and more likely to incur lawsuits! There are also many other varieties of bee. However, this book was obviously intended as a wake-up call, and in that I am sure it has succeeded.

A world without bees by Alison Benjamin and Brian McCullum, Guardian Books, 2009

Monday, 26 October 2009

Walking poles

I was very generously given a Leki walking pole for my birthday earlier this year and I can now distill what I have learned about using walking poles. Apart from my personal experience, I have learned a lot from Peter Clinch's website and from the Plas y Brenin (the National Mountain Centre) site.

Actually, the first thing is that you need two - it follows naturally from how you use them and how they are supposed to work. So my first act was to buy a second one.

How to use walking poles

The first thing is to adjust them to the correct length. This is fairly easy to identify: it is the height which allows you to hold the pole around the handle with your forearms horizontal. At first you think it will be a problem to remember what length each of the sections of the pole should be but in practice you quickly remember and anyway the poles become marked at the relevant point from repeated use.

There is a view that poles should be adjusted in length while you are out walking - shorter for uphill and longer for downhill. I suppose this makes sense if you doing a sustained climb or descent, but for everyday use simply changing the angle of the poles seems to work perfectly well - slightly behind for uphill and slightly ahead for downhill.

Much more problematic is how to hold them correctly - and I have seen lots of walkers not doing so. The idea is that you put your weight on the straps not on the top of the poles, as you might with a conventional walking stick. You then take a light grip with your fingers rather than a tight one.

To get the right grip you put your hand upwards through the strap, then bring it down to grasp the handle so that the strap is across your palm and under your thumb.

The idea then is to place the poles level with the opposite feet as you walk: so you start off by putting your right foot forward and your left pole. At first, I thought this would take some getting use to, but it quickly becomes completely natural. In fact you can quickly stop thinking about it and allow your hands to swing taking the poles into the correct place without conscious effort. Occasionally surface hazards will mean you lose you rhythm, and here at first I found it necessary to consciously restart in the right relationship of foot and pole, but after a while readjustment becomes natural too.

So what are the benefits?

Perhaps the major benefit is a reduced load on your knees and hence reduced wear and tear and discomfort. Various studies are quoted as demonstrating a reduction of 20-25%. I have a bit of arthritis in both knees and I can vouch for these benefits. Peter Clinch points out that one should also take preventative measures to strengthen the muscles around the knees, and this is clearly very sensible advice.

Secondly, you get much more power when climbing and on steady evenly surfaced slopes you can get a strong sense of being driven along. Our recent climb up Dunkery Beacon in Somerset was a good example.

Conversely, on downward slopes the poles provide a bit of extra stability.

Used in the way just described, another important benefit is that you use your upper body when walking as well as your lower body, so you get more of a whole-body impact. The generally under-used triceps muscles are brought into play for example. Critics point out that the effect might be to increase the overall energy output required for waking - and I suppose it depends on your point of view as whether this is to be seen as a good or a bad thing.

Are there any drawbacks?

Well yes. They are a bit of a clatt. You have to put them down to do simple things like blow your nose or have a swig of water, or take a photo. And you can't in fact carry your camera in a accessible over-the-shoulder position because it gets in the way of the movement of your arms. One could add following directions, map-reading and using binoculars or a compass as other things that the poles get right in the way of.

They don't feel right on the occasional sections of tarmac that walk routes some times require. You can get plastic covers to go over the pointed tips, but that is another palaver to put on and take off.

It can also be trying - or impossible - to use poles when the path is narrow because of fences or undergrowth. They appreciably increase the width required for comfort.

And although poles are great going uphill, some slopes are just too steep or rocky and then the poles can become a hazard by occupying your hands and making it hard to take the correct forward-leaning posture.


I have been delighted with my poles, but I only use them when two conditions are met:
  • Either I know the way or I am walking with someone who is navigating.
  • When the route is known to be hilly - on the flat, the disadvantages outweigh the benefits.

Sunday, 25 October 2009



We had some business south of Newbury and looking at the map, I decided that Ashmansworth looked a promising location for a walk. I found this one on a site called John Harris's Walking in Hampshire - in the Andover section. There is also a link to John Harris's Walking in England. Both offer free downloads and other useful information and are a fantastic resource. The walk itself is on the AA website.

The walk starts in the centre of the pretty, spread-out village of Ashmansworth. There are a number of charming thatched cottages, but we especially admired the one in the photo above for its topiary - notably the "snowman" on the right.

You walk up the road back towards Newbury until you reach a crossing path - the Wayfarers' Walk - where you turn left (north-east). This is an immediately inviting path along the ridge of the North Hampshire Downs.

Later, it opens up to offer a long series of views over Berkshire, at their best when the path joins a lane.

A short way along the lane you join a track still heading north-east to reach Pilot Hill, which at 312m is the highest point in Hampshire. Here you leave the Wayfarers' Walk, cross fields and soon join a track meandering across wonderful downland towards the village of Faccombe. Soon there are excellent views ahead and to the right.

And as you are about to enter Faccombe you can look back to see the path you have been following descending from the tree line in the distance.

Faccombe is a small, classic estate village with a Georgian manor house, a late Victorian church and promising-looking pub. You skirt the Manor's grounds and head east down through woodland and then along a track along a valley bottom. Again, there is a wonderful view back as you leave the track to enter a copse.

Further field-edge paths and a copse lead you to the road into Ashmansworth and the end of the walk.

Maps: Explorer 144 (Basingstoke) and 131 (Romsey, Andover and Test Valley)

Distance: 5.5 miles.

Rating: four stars. Constantly climbing or ascending after the Wayfarer's Walk, this walk offers wonderful views throughout.


The directions and map are very good, but we went briefly astray near the end. However, we applied a good general principal: if you are lost on this sort of walk (i.e. what you can see around you doesn't match the walk description), stop and return to the last place where the real world and the described world did match. (Or, at least, somewhere where you can see that place.) Now, look at the map (which is why you carry a map, even when you have good directions) and review the directions and work out the right route. This is a version of Denis Healey's famous law of holes: if you are in one, stop digging.


The latter part of the was through the Faccombe Estate and we kept seeing these mysterious blue drums mounted on tripods with a sort of spike projecting below.

We also saw large numbers of pheasants and a few partridges. Eventually, we put it together: they are corn feeders for these game birds.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Dorchester and Wittenham Clumps

Dorchester Abbey from Castle Hill

Last night we went to a splendid birthday party and stayed over in a hotel. Apart from avoiding the need to drive home, this set us up for a walk a bit farther from home than usual. This wonderfully varied walk, in a figure of eight, starts at the south end of the pretty village of Dorchester, near the Abbey, of which more later. You go down a lane towards "River (Thames) and Wittenham" and quickly leave the village. Entering a field you see Round Hill and Castle Hill - and the name Wittenham Clumps begins to make sense.

You pass the so-called Dyke Hills, the ramparts of an Iron Age settlement ...

... cross a meadow and reach the banks of the River Thame, just before it joins the Thames. (Why is one pronounced "tame" and the other "tems"?)

You now walk along beside the Thames as far as Little Wittenham Bridge, a footbridge which leads to Little Wittenham church.

Here you enter the Little Wittenham nature reserve and climb a grassy but increasingly steep path to reach Round Hill. Looking back you can see Little Wittenham, the Thames and the gravel pit lakes to the north of Dorchester.

You then walk over to Castle Hill, once the site of an Iron Age hill fort. The walk book describes a route through the trees on the top, but this area is now fenced off and you have to go round the side. At the point where you would have emerged from the woods, a dead beech tree has a poem
which was inscribed on it in 1844-45 by one Joseph Tubbs of Warbrough Green. It is now all but illegible, but happily a tracing was made in 1965 and the text is now displayed on a plaque. It is not a great work, but you can read it here.

You now descend back to Wittenham bridge and walk across meadows and beside the Dyke Hills to return to Dorchester.

From: Chilterns and Thames Valley (Pathfinder Guides).

Distance: 4.5 miles.

Map: Explorer 170 (Abingdon, Wantage and Vale of White Horse).

Rating: four stars.


We were thrilled to see what will probably be the last Painted Lady of this wonderful summer of Painted Ladies.

Dorchester Abbey

After the walk we visited Dorchester Abbey and then had an excellent lunch at the wonderful Fleur de Lys pub opposite. There was a Saxon cathedral here from the 7th century and parts of the existing church date from the rebuilding undertaken in the 12th century. There has been much further rebuilding, damage during the dissolution of the monasteries and later restoration and Pevsner describes it as "an unsatisfactory building as a whole". From the outside, the most striking features are the length of the nave plus chancel - making it difficult to photograph - and the tower. The tower dates from 1602, but incorporates a 14th century stair turret at the corner.

Inside, the most dramatic and inspiring feature is the 14th century choir, which contains an extraordinary window combining tracery, stained glass and statuary in a way which is "without parallel on this scale not only in England but in Europe" (Pevsner again). It depicts a family tree showing Christ's descent from Jesse.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Fontainebleau to Barbizon


Yesterday we walked around Fontainebleau. Today's plan is to walk through the Forest of Fontainebleau to the artists' village of Barbizon, the focus of the Barbizon School of mid-nineteenth century painters: Theodore Rousseau, Daubigny and Corot among them. In preparation, we have read seemingly the only book available in English: Steven Adams's excellent The Barbizon School and the origins of impressionism. The Barbizon painters pioneered, at least in France, painting nature in situ - and paved the way for Monet and co.

The walk, downloadable from the Fontainebleau Office de Tourisme site, begins at the Office de Tourisme, just near the main gate of the chateau. You walk out of town on the Rue Royale, cross the main N7 road and pass by Fontainebleau's other claim to fame, the INSEAD business school. We just loved the sign to the "Executive Learning Space" - what might once have been called a library perhaps.

Very soon the road gives way to a track and you are in the forest, albeit that the trees are thinly spread.

We soon came on the first of the extensive and frequent FB (Fontainebleau-Barbizon) waymarks.

Rather to our surprise, the route turned out to be metalled the whole way, and subsequent waymarks were in the centre of the road. It was flat and to be honest a bit disappointing at first.

However, the route then climbed onto a plateau and after the half way point we entered an area of older trees which we could imagine had inspired Corot.

Then a sign on the right indicated a view point over the Gorges d'Apremont. We left our route and walk a short distance across a rocky area with trees which surely could have been the work of Corot.

The path, such as it was, ended at the rocky viewpoint. The gorges could not be seen directly, but after an hour or more in the trees the open view was a delight.

From here on, the forest became much more interesting, with massive rocks scattered among the trees, which were now on slopes leading down to the track. We could see now why the Barbizon painters based themselves there and not in Fontainebleau.

We came on a classic tree of the kind favoured by the painters. This one was helpfully labelled chene de Sully, the Sully Oak.

All throughout the route there had been many side tracks, often with helpful signs giving their names. We especially liked this one: the route de solitude.

Finally we came to a quiet road into Barbizon and followed it for a kilometre to reach the long narrow main street, seemingly full of hotels and gourmet restaurants.

The museums were unfortunately shut, as we had known they would be, but we did at least photograph the house of Theodore Rousseau before having the requisite gourmet lunch.

We got a taxi back.

Distance: about five miles.

Rating: four stars.

Monday, 12 October 2009


The cour d'honneur

We are in France on a short break specifically to see Fontainebleau and Barbizon. The first thing we have learned is that we did't know how to pronounce it: not fon-tan-bleu, but fon-tan-blow. The story has it that the name derives from a contraction of the fontaine de belle-eau in the grounds. The Palace was rebuilt by Francois I who came to the throne in 1515 and represents the arrival of the Renaissance in France. Later construction was the work of Henri II and Henri IV. Much later, Napoleon made his mark on the interior, and famously bid his adieus before going off to exile in Elba.

I found this lovely walk around the gardens and the park on the website of the Fontainebleau Office de Tourisme. We started the circuit facing the chateau in the Cour d'honneur and turned right through an archway towards the Jardin Anglais. You approach this through a smaller arch, through which can be glimpsed a statue.

The garden is a green area surrounded by trees and shrubs. Not what we would think of as an English garden, although certainly the kind of thing you might find in the park of a country house.

From here we passed the fontaine de belle-eau and saw some beautiful autumn colours on the trees.

Emerging from a long formal avenue you suddenly come on the Etang des Carpes, with what we supposed must be the model for MPs' duck houses in its centre. It is apparently known simply as La Pavilion.

At the right side of the lake is the Avenue de Maintenon, named after Madame de Maintenon, the mistress and later wife of Louis XIV, with the Porte Doree at its end.

A bit further on, through some woods, you come on a marvelous vista of the whole chateau from front to back, with elaborate water features in the foreground and beyond them the Grand Parterre. The circular lake is known as La Romulus.

Completing a loop around this area, you come to a long, wide artificial canal which ultimately drains into the Seine.

You walk up the right hand side of the canal under tress, swing round to the left at the top and follow the outer edge of the park in an anti-clockwise direction. The route zigs zags back towards the chateau and is memorable for several splendid tree-lined avenues.

You return to the Grand Parterre with its formally structured, but very pretty, planting.

You pass the Porte Doree, go through into the Cour Ovale and pass through the Cour d'Honneur to complete the walk in the Jardin de Diana, with its ornamental peacocks.

Distance: about 5 miles.

Rating: four stars.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Port Sunlight

Port Sunlight: Park Road

In Liverpool on a family visit, we took the opportunity to fulfill a small ambition and visit Port Sunlight. I found the directions for this walk on the Guardian website. You could just wander around, but this very well-structured route makes the most of the village.

Port Sunlight is a model village built by William Hesketh Lever, later Lord Lever, for workers at his soap factory. Sunlight Soap was the company's flagship product. The houses are the work of nearly 30 architects and are in a variety of styles, but all the early ones at least have an Arts and Crafts feel to them. The overall feel is of a garden city: wide streets and lots of open space. The houses all have unified front gardens, which creates a very ordered effect.

The walk starts at the railway station, close to the factory, which is still in production, now part of Unilever. This is where building began in 1891. An immediate detour reveals the rather quaint Fire Station.

Turning away from the factory, you are presented with this fine block in a Dutch gabled style.

Round the corner you come on the sprawling picturesque Lyceum of 1896, originally the village school and church, but now used in part as the Social Club (the remainder houses Unilever's archives).

A little further on you reach the bowling green, faced by another splendidly extravagant block.

Passing to the left of the 1901 Hulme Hall, you reach an impressive arch, through which can be seen gardens, the war memorial and in the distance, the Lady Lever Gallery.

The Gallery can be seen much more clearly once you have reached the memorial.

The Gallery was in fact our other reason for visiting Port Sunlight. Its crowing jewel is a fine collection, all in one large room, of 19th century painting: Pre-Raphaelites such as Millais, Holman Hunt, Burne-Jones and Rossetti and classicists such as Leighton and Alma-Tadema.

I was staggered to find that this is the home of Holman Hunt's wonderful "The Scapegoat". Even more wonderful in a way, the gallery also houses the well known painting by Millais called "Bubbles". Leaving aside any artistic judgement, it is amusing to find it here, given that it was used to advertise Pears soap, presumably Sunlight Soap's bitterest rival.

To return, you swing round behind the gallery, walk along Church Road, passing the school with its cupolas.

A loop along Bolton Street and into The Gunnel brings you to the pretty small park known as The Dell, from which you emerge opposite the station.

Rating: Four stars. Wonderfully interesting. Some lovely houses, richly individual and most with beautiful detailing in wood, plaster and terracotta. One can also see aspects of town planning which are still honoured today, albeit at much higher densities.

It is unusual perhaps to include an art gallery on a walk, but it is an absolute delight, thoroughly enriching the experience.

The walk description was very detailed and helpful but would have benefited from giving more street names and being linked to a proper street map. I downloaded one from the Liverpool Museums website.