Wilts and Berks Canal

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One of our favourite walks is along a section of the Wilts and Berks canal (pronounced ‘barks’ from the counties ‘Wiltshire’ and ‘Berkshire’ ) that begins on the outskirts of the nearby town of Chippenham.

This canal has been disused for the last 100 years and is part of an ambitious plan to restore it by volunteers and the Wilts and Berks Canal Trust. Built in the early nineteenth century, it was used to transport coal from the mines of Somerset up to the midlands, but was abandoned in 1910 largely due to the collapse of an aqueduct and competition from the railway. The entire length of the canal is 52 miles long, about 8 miles of this has been re-watered. Though several locks and bridges have been restored.

The small branch that led off the main canal to Chippenham once terminated at the wharf, which is now Chippenham bus station. Where once the water would have flowed, there are few signs of its existence. The canal was destroyed in many places by army explosive exercises during the Second World War, and the dumping of rubbish… according to wikipedia it was even used as a dumping ground for pig offal!

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The eighteenth century brickwork is visible in many places. This part of the lock is waiting to be restored:

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The completed parts of the canal make a beautiful walk, many wildflowers and native species have taken up residence along its banks. In March the paths were lined with thick rows of white flowering garlic, and when we last went in July we saw peppermint, crab apples and lots of butterflies, damselflies, and  dragonflies.

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If you look up, you can see bat boxes attached to the trees, placed there to enhance the local population of bats.

The restoration began in 1977, so this is a long process. It is quite fascinating to visit from time to time and see the progress that’s been made; the creation of a lovely new/old habitat for wildlife, and an enjoyable recreation area for us 🙂

Along the River

River walk/Cycle

 

River walk/Cycle

 

River walk/Cycle

 

River walk/CycleRiver walk/CycleRiver walk/Cycle

River walk/Cycle

River walk/Cycle

A stroll along the river while Jay rode ahead on his bike.

There is a late summer feeling in the air, while beneath our feet the ground is dry and yellowing despite the recent rain.

St. Andrews church in the distance chimes the hour and I take a photograph of its framed greenery. Wandering away from the town centre the noise of traffic and children diminishes and the silence of the river settles upon us.

We watch pink blossoms scatter in the shallow water, bobbing in and out of the sun’s reflections which dance and twinkle like fairy lights. The shadows of trees play on the surface creating intricate patterns and mingling with the stones on the riverbed.

The smooth relentless glide of the river seeps into my bones, slowing us to the languid pace I wish to hold and take home with me to calm busy days.

On Walking

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“Walking is the great adventure, the first meditation, a practice of heartiness and soul primary to humankind. Walking is the exact balance between spirit and humility.”

~ Gary Snyder

I have lived in a rural village for the past twenty-three years, before that a city for three, and before that my childhood on the outskirts of a busy town. When you look back on your past you can see it through the lens of achievements or perhaps the people you’ve known. I like to see these places through the walks that I have taken.

In my childhood my walking consisted mostly of getting from one place to another – from home to school and back with friends, to and from ballet classes with my mother and young brother. We would sometimes visit local places like Avebury stone circle, and Savernake Forest, but mostly it is the streets of daily life that I remember. That time it snowed so much we waded through five foot drifts to get to school, only to find ourselves getting sent home again and taking two hours to walk back slugging handfuls of the icy white powder at each other and flinging ourselves into the laden verges. I remember the long walk to my dance classes in autumn. The steep hill at Lowdon was overhung with huge trees that would litter the ground. My brother and I would jump and crunch and kick our way down collecting great piles and throwing armfuls up into the sky and at each other.

In my first year of college in the city of Chester, one of my fondest memories is walking alone on Sunday mornings. I would borrow my landlord’s collie dog and take it for long walks around the Chester Roman wall. Past the horse-racing course where the bright evergreen grass contrasted with the gleaming white painted stands, down to the river Dee and the little shops where you could browse old secondhand bookshops and buy hand-painted gift cards to send home. Then across the Eastgate clock bridge that passed over the busy shopping centre where Next and Principles and other upmarket chain-stores jostled for space with the olde-worlde Medieval and Victorian facades. Past the remains of a Roman amphitheatre and Benedictine nunnery and behind the cathedral with its elaborate and grotesque carvings. Walking is the time I have felt most free, most able to absorb the history, the sights, smells and sounds of the world around me.

I have never walked as much in a place as the village I now live in. When my children were at the local school I walked the mile and a half to and from school twice a day for sixteen years. At first we had to walk along the verges at the sides of the road, jumping up on the grass when cars passed by and fearing for our lives on the hidden bend at the top of the hill. I wrote letters to the council about the need for a path. At first they said it wasn’t possible but eventually, a couple of years later, a beautiful path was laid.

Walking became a pleasure, at least most of the time. I came to realise what good it was doing both me and my children. No matter what the weather, we walked. Through hail, sleet, snow, gales and sunshine. There were sometimes tears and tantrums from us all. When the weather was particularly fierce I would resent my inability to drive, despair of the complaints of my children and we would return home thoroughly miserable. I would be envious of all the other mothers with their cars. But other days it was cold and wet and we would enjoy racing home to change our sopping clothes and have a mug of hot chocolate to warm us up. As the years passed, my attitude changed. I realised how lucky we were. Those daily walks have built stamina and a love for nature into my children and myself that I don’t think would have happened without all that trudging to and fro.

Those years of walking our way through the seasons, my children sitting in their prams, or my holding their tiny hands as they wobbled on little legs; oohing and aahing over spring lambing time at the farm on the hill; admiring the wildflowers and racing their scooters through the summer; filling faces with blackberries and exclaiming at the squirrels running along the telephone wires in autumn; or in awe over the patterns of sparkling ice on the stone paths and smiling at the robin as he hopped from fence to fence in winter. These moments, repeated year after year after year, are so ingrained in me and my children as to become a part of who we are.

Though my children don’t attend the local school anymore, we still take walks around the village together, and I often go on my own. Walking slowly, stopping to take notice of so many little things around us, the unusual weathervanes, old gates and doors, crumbling walls, the local cats, wildflowers and berries that grow in every spare nook and cranny. Even after all these years there’s always something new to see or a new way of seeing it. Walking slowly has the effect of slowing down the mind to a level where you can actually process what you are thinking, feeling and sensing. Body and mind, for a short while at least, come to settle into a rhythm of working together in tandem. The benefits of which cannot so well be described as felt. This slowing down has the effect of engraving the experience in our bones and shaping our days in a new deeper and richer way.

These photographs were taken on a recent walk around our village, we saw the spring lambs fidgeting around their mothers, met a much-loved grey cat, and took note of wildflowers of which we are trying to learn the names. A resident of the village grows flowers and vegetable seedlings to raise funds for the local school so we bought a few plants for the garden.

If you are interested in learning more about the soul enhancing aspects of walking there is a lovely essay here, and Maria Popova recommends Wunderlust, a history of walking by Rebecca Solnit: a book that has been on my pinterest board for ages, and which I hope to get my hands on soon. x

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The Village of Lacock

P1020891My mum and I went for a walk back in time last week. We took a long slow meander around and through the nearby village of Lacock. Once home to one of the fathers of photography William Henry Fox Talbot, and the site of many film locations including Harry Potter, Pride and Prejudice and Downton Abbey. The village is mentioned in the Domesday Book and is now almost entirely owned by the National Trust.

I took a lot of photographs but sadly lost several of them due to a hiccup with my camera. Now we shall have to return so I can take more… I do need another excuse to visit the exquisite collection of shops. A bakery, handmade soap, antiques, gifts and plants – everything you don’t strictly need – but would very much like to have or at least look at.

P1020900Rows of 18th Century cottages with drooping rooftops and crumbling stone (for a while there I fell into a deep and fruitless Internet hole while trying to discover which is correct: roofs or rooves?); there were beams you have to duck to walk beneath and strange inviting little doorways and paths that seem to come from another world.

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P1020904This is the medieval Tithe barn. Vastly cavernous and echoing with walls as thick as my arm is long – aye they don’t build em like they used to.

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Brrrrrrr

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How are you? How do you like these wintry days (If you live in the Northern Hemisphere that is)? When it’s cosy and warm and comfortable inside it takes a certain amount of willpower to get up and go out for no real reason. Being the kind of person who loves to hibernate, I try to make it a habit to go outside no matter what the weather.

I always feel better when I do. Over time I have come to notice just how much of a difference a 30-40 minute walk makes in a day. It invigorates, it grounds, it calms, it clears my head. I usually come home with ideas for writing or painting and the enthusiasm to get on with it. I even feel healthy afterwards – all fresh-cheeked and glowing from the inside and I am less likely to reach for a coffee and a chocolate biscuit.

Deep in the winter season as we are, the first impressions of the landscape are bleak. Here in England, at first glance, there is little to see but bare brown branches and a whole lotta mud. There are no wildflowers or squirrels to catch your eye, no bugs or bees; no roses or lilacs tumbling over garden walls. If you want to see anything of interest, anything unusual, you have to look deeper.

You have to really look closely to see the puffs and curls of fungus on the old tree stumps and the yellow-green lichen clinging to the dry-stone walls. You have to pause at the gate of a field and wait quietly to see the flock of crows ascend en masse, or to catch the flash of white underwing as a collared dove alights on the tallest bough. Though even the berries are gone at this time of year there are a few birds still around, not least of all the robins with their berry red breasts.

If you’d like a bit of inspiration for the kinds of things to look for in the UK at this time of year, there’s a short video Here of a botanist with the Natural History Museum, who goes in search of wildlife on a winter walk.

Though I often think I can’t be bothered to drag myself out of that door, I am never sorry when I do. The sky was blue this afternoon and the sun glowed gently from low on the horizon. I closed my eyes and stood still for a few minutes as the warmth soothed my chilled face.

The poet Edith Sitwell wrote that…

“Winter is the time for comfort, for good food and warmth, for the touch of a friendly hand and for a talk beside the fire; it is the time for home.”

…and it is all these things which make the long winters bearable. And after a swift or slow meander in the bracing air I appreciate these things all the more. A toasty warm house never satisfies as  much as it does coming from the outside in.

Kim x