Friday, 6 September 2013

Go! Rhinos

We had a walk with a difference this time out.  Following the success of the mascot trails last year when we went to the London 2012 events we discovered another along similar lines this year but in Southampton.  The Rhino Trail has been set out to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the opening of Marwell Zoo and similar to other mascot trails the exhibits will be sold off at the end of the season for charity.  With 32 main mascots along the way, there was a lot less walking between rhinos than we had experienced on the Olympic Trails.  Additionally there were a whole lot of smaller rhinos that had been decorated by schools and community groups as well as a few full sized ones outside the city at selected locations.

Our walk started at Town Quay, which is the passenger terminal for ferries to the Isle of Wight and the Hythe Ferry.  It was a hot day and as a result there were plenty of tourists about, with the bars and cafes full.  My guess though was that everyone was waiting for a ferry to arrive as that seemed to be the only thing missing from the equation!

Our first rhino was particularly pleasing.  Rika was decorated with a snakes and ladders board with a twist.  The ladders were replaced by giraffes and the snakes by slides.  It made for a colourful spectacle and was rightly popular with visitors to the pier. I noticed many of the admirers clutching maps in hand suggesting that we would see many of them on the way!

Perhaps the surprising thing about Southampton for those who don’t know the city is the concentration of old buildings and a fairly intact city wall just north of the ferry terminals.  We passed through the City Gate and past the remains of some old buildings into the small area of Town Quay Park where we found the second rhino known as Rita.  This one was dedicated to outdoor activities and depicted walkers and cyclists.

Holyrood Church
From here the rhinos came thick and fast as we headed around towards Mayflower Park.  Next up was my personal favourite, Reggie, which showed a scene from The Solent with some colourful sailing boats complete with spinnakers fully unfurled.  This was perhaps the most popular of all the mascots we saw on the day as it was thronged with crowds, making it quite difficult to get a decent picture.  Will was the next, dressed up like a lifeboat and that was equally popular.  For some reason though we managed to lose the worst of the crowds by the time we reach Docks, which depicted rhinos being unloaded from ships.

St Michael's Church
Following the numbers of the rhinos seemed a little counter-intuitive at this point for we could see what we thought was the next one further along the street, only to discover that there were several more that we should see before that.  The trail took a zig-zagging course through the narrow streets of the Old Town and back on to the QE2 Mile for a short distance, catching three more rhinos along the way until we got to the rather astonishing Holyrood Church.  This 14th Century Church is now a reminder of the horror of World War II as it remains a ruin after being bombed during the Blitz in 1940.  In 1957 it was dedicated as a memorial to the sailors of the Merchant Navy and makes for a magnificent tribute to the bravery of those men.

Remarkably a little further away is the church of St Michael’s, which emerged from the destruction of the city completely unscathed.  It is now the oldest building and the only one of the original churches that remains intact within the walled city.  Outside was a rather lovely purple rhino called Rosie, which we had plenty of time to admire since we seemed to have lost all the crowds that had bedevilled us earlier on the trail.

Southampton City Walls
We passed by the Tudor House and down a narrow path through the City Walls to reunite ourselves with Newton, the rhino we had seen from afar when we were at Docks.  After the flurry of rhinos (we had already seen 10 at this point) our thoughts now turned towards lunch and we headed towards the West Quay Shopping Centre where we could get some refreshment before tackling the remaining part of the trail.  The route from Newton took us along perhaps the best preserved section of the City Walls, which date from the 14th Century and were built on the orders of Edward III, perhaps inevitably to repel the French.  Given how much modern building there is in Southampton it was surprising but pleasing to see the old walls still taking pride of place in the urban landscape.

Within West Quay we took the opportunity to find our first indoor rhino, a very multi-coloured and busy looking one called Ringo.  This was out of sequence as far as numbering was concerned but it did seem to make more sense visiting this one before as the route would have been unnecessarily messy otherwise.  We took the opportunity to break from the walk once inside the shopping centre to have a bit of a look around.  For the girls the window shopping was a welcome distraction for a short while.

Where's Ralph?
Feeling fortified by lunch we continued our route along the city walls, which had been knocked about a bit to accommodate modern developments.  However, the magnificent Bargate is still intact and nicely restored to take pride of place on what is now the main shopping street. I wonder what mediaeval forces would have thought of that?  Sadly not all seems well with retail in this part of Southampton for adjacent to the historical gatehouse there is the surprising sight of an entire shopping centre that has gone out of business.  The Bargate Shopping Centre was only opened in the late 1980s but following a chequered history it has finally closed its door for good and is boarded up.  Given the current economic climate I can’t see it being taken over as retail space again and it has every chance of being a blot on the townscape for some time to come.  On a happier note the two rhinos on either side of the gatehouse were receiving a good deal of attention from passing shoppers.

Marlands Shopping Centre
From shopping to the park, our next rhino was said to be in Houndwell Park.  Sadly when we got there we discovered a concrete plinth but no rhino as it had been taken away to be repaired.  Despite the signs asking people to stay off them, much of the damage to the rhinos appeared to be caused by people ignoring the notices and posing for pictures on the backs of the mascots.  Others have been damaged particularly around the horn area I imagine by vandalism.  It is very disheartening when people ruin other people’s enjoyment…

The play area in the Park was absolutely rammed with children and families. We stopped for some time to allow our girls time to enjoy the equipment before moving on. I have to say that it was a particularly nice looking play area – I wish I was young enough to be able to enjoy such a facility!  We crossed the road into the next park (Palmerstone) and found Sunny Rhino, a rather lovely sunny design.  We didn’t hang around in this park too long though as the happy atmosphere created by the children playing in Houndswell was sadly replaced by a more threatening mood created by a few groups of drunks.  We escaped back into the shopping street and to perhaps the most intriguing of all the rhino’s, ‘Where’s Ralph?’.  As the name suggested it had a number of identical and repeating designs on it (penguins), with one different from all the others.  It took some time to find the different one, but we did manage it in the end.
Dahlia Show in East Park

From the shopping street to another shopping centre – it seems that Southampton is remarkably well served by them.  In this one (Marlands), we seemed to hit the mother lode, for not only were there two of the original rhinos but they had been joined by a number of the smaller ones painted by school children and community groups.  To be honest they were as good and imaginative as some of those painted by professional artists.  We spent a good deal of time in the main concourse of the centre and then in the Go! Rhinos HQ, which was in a shop at the back and where one of the rhinos from elsewhere had been brought back (Stylo Rhino from Southampton Airport).
Southampton City Hall

We still had more than one third of the rhinos to find after leaving the shopping centre but the remaining ones were concentrated around the civic heart of the city, being in and around the Civic Centre and the adjacent parks.  It was a short task looking for them and we were fascinated by all the themes that had been depicted including nods to Southampton based gifts to the world such as the Spitfire and the Ordnance Survey.  Others such as Beauty and the Beast were just purely decorative.  The parks were well manicured and full of lovely planting schemes and the rhinos looked most at home in these environments.  Sadly not all were weathering well though and Cosmos in particular was looking a bit worn out from too much handling.

Any notion of us following the numbering system completely went out of the window through this section.  Essentially we just devised a loop around taking the quickest route to see all of the remaining ones and ended up at RhinOSeros, the one celebrating the Ordnance Survey, which has its headquarters in Southampton.  From here it was a hop, skip and a jump back to the railway station to head home


With all the many distractions of shopping, lunch etc along the way this turned out to be a most enjoyable and surprising walk.  The people behind the trail really had done their very best to show off the best of Southampton City Centre.  We particularly enjoyed seeing the historic buildings at the south end of the city and the manicured and colourful gardens at the northern end.  On the whole the trail was a great advert for the city and the rhinos kept the children entertained along the route.  I think we would try and do another of these mascot trails if we come across one.

Thursday, 29 August 2013

Alsace Castles

For our last day on our recent holiday in Alsace we decided to go castle exploring.  There were a good many to choose from as the border between this part of France and Germany has always been heavily defended.  Our main focus of the day was to explore the castles near to Fleckenstein, where we had been earlier in the week but on the way was the castle at Windstein and so we thought we would add that in as an appetiser.  The castle is in the small community of Windstein, effectively just a scattering of houses in this small wooded corner of Alsace.  We parked up some distance from the castle and had to walk up the last quarter of a mile of road and then up along a track through the trees to get to the castle.  When we got there it wasn’t at all obvious how much structure was left for all we were greeted with at our side of the rock were sandstone outcrops.
Windstein View
We climbed some steps that had been cut into the rock to get in and found ourselves in semi-troglodyte caves at the top, with much of the remaining structure of the castle on the other side.  We spent about half an hour exploring the old place and admiring the view out across the forests.  Of particular interest to the girls was the enormous well cut into the rock in the centre of the castle. I have to say it was pretty impressive, being cut in a perfect circle and being at least 80 feet deep.  That must have been quite an engineering feat in its day for the castle was built in the early 1200s and lasted until being destroyed some 500 years later.  Once we had admired the view at the front of the castle, we decided to move on to the main course of the day…
After our short visit to Windstein we headed back to Fleckenstein a short car ride away and parked up at the start of the charcoal burner’s trail where we had started a few days earlier.  The weather this time could not have been more different – the grey cloudy conditions replaced by blue skies and burning sun.
Fleckenstein from Above
We were here to check out a walk between four chateaus that we had clocked on our earlier visit.  The first was of course Fleckenstein, but we had already visited that one so we plotted our route to Loewenstein, the next one on the route.  This involved a long and slow climb through the heavily wooded hills to the east of Fleckenstein, which was mercifully cool on account of the shade afforded by the trees.  Towards the top we started to get glimpses of the view through peepholes in the trees suggesting that the view would be something special.
Loewenstein Viewpoint
At the top we were not disappointed.  Although the sun was relentless now that we had left the cover of the trees, the view was spectacular.  Far below us was the castle of Fleckenstein, while much of the rest of the vista was an endless forest.  It must have been quite the place to be holed up during mediaeval times when the castle was built.  As with many of the others, this one was partly built into the rock on which it sat and little of the structure remained.  Lizards and butterflies were constant companions, attracted no doubt by the reflected heat of the sandstone rock.
After a refreshment break we headed on to the next castle, Hohenbourg, just five minutes walk away along the ridge.  It seemed a bit of a mystery why there should be two castles so close to each other?  I assume they were both garrisoned, but maybe the view was sufficiently different that they afforded more of an all round view of the enemy?  Anyhow, this had more of a structure about it and we climbed the narrow steps to the top of the tower.
View From Hohenbourg
This was clearly higher than the last castle and seemed to have more of a view towards the fourth and final castle across the border in Germany.  Perhaps they were signalling stations?  It certainly felt like an eagle’s nest high up here on the top of our perch.
German Border Post
We gathered our strength for the assault on the last castle.  This required us to cross the border into Germany, although we were in fact only 10 minutes away.  On the way we passed by a spring, with lovely cool water bubbling out of it.  That enabled us to have a bit of a face wash and cool down a little before heading on.
Surprisingly, given the loneliness of the place there was an old hut at the border. We weren’t sure but I wouldn’t mind betting that there would once have been a border guard here.  The border itself was marked for a distance by some tree trunks laid on the ground.  I should imagine these were pretty effective at keeping out unwanted visitors J.
Gateway to Wegelnburg
It was a short climb up through the trees to Wegelnburg, the last of the three castles.  This looked fairly and squarely out over GermanyFrance was behind us and although we could see Hohenbourg we could not see the other two castles.  Our view was northward towards the Eifel region of Germany and the small town of Pirmasens, some 15 miles or so away.  This was the highest castle along the border, although strangely it did not feel as high as Hohenbourg, perhaps because the layout of the castle was a lot flatter and more elongated along the sandstone rock.  After exploring thoroughly and getting plenty more drink on board we headed back down the slope to our starting point.

Wegelnburg View Into Germany
At the bottom we had remembered how nice the cafĂ© looked and so we availed ourselves of it for lunch, having some well deserved sausage and chips for our efforts.  Despite the moans and groans from the children all the way to the top of the hill, they later agreed that this was her favourite trip of the whole holiday.  Contrary?  Not our two J

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Sussex Border Path Section 15 Charlwood to Copthorne

Providence Chapel, Charlwood
It’s been awhile but I managed an early morning outing on a Saturday and although I toyed with the idea of continuing along the Serpent Trail I decided against it on account of the exceptionally hot weather we have been experiencing.  I decided that a better bet would be the short and tricky section of Sussex Border Path around Gatwick Airport as this has held me up from onward progress for some considerable time.  I have to confess to not being overly-motivated to doing this section, but thought it would be a good idea to finish it while I have only a short timeframe.

Lane Out of Charlwood
Due to the heat (it was later to reach 30 degrees Celsius), I decided also to complete the walk first and get public transport second especially as at least two bus journeys were going to be needed.  I parked in Charlwood, where I had finished up more than a year ago.  I picked up the Sussex Border Path as it led northwards out of the village, passing initially an attractive little school and then a surprisingly old looking church hall before heading out into the countryside along a green lane.

In the relative cool of the morning there were plenty of insects about and a few cows in the field next to the path lazily swishing their tails and grazing happily.  Yet any thoughts that this would be a nice quiet walk were soon dispelled by the roar of jets taking off and landing at nearby Gatwick Airport every couple of minutes.  Yet, the intermittent sound of the jets did not bother me as much as I thought it would as the noise was not as continuous as traffic.

New River Mole
I turned right at the next junction of paths and wandered along a very dusty farm track for half a mile or so.  The underfoot conditions were very different to the last time I did any of the Border Path, when I had to play hopscotch between boggy parts of the path.  The wildflowers grew in profusion and so far at least I was enjoying more countryside than I had dared consider.

At the end of the track I crossed a busy road and headed through a broad hedgerow, coming out into the managed course of the River Mole.  This has been diverted considerably in order to fit the perimeter of Gatwick Airport in.  Yet, despite that it still looks quite authentic as it follows a twisty path in much the same way that you would expect to see in a completely natural setting.  All along the banks were profusions of flowers, all seemingly at their peak now in mid July.  The butterflies were having a great time flitting between flowers trying to sup the nectar from the best ones.

Mole Valley
The warmth of the day was properly getting going now after a surprisingly cool start.  Away on the bank opposite I caught a flash of ginger hair as a fox crashed through the undergrowth, quickly followed by another.  I soon became aware of a pair of eyes upon me and some barking like noises and realised that I was witnessing a family of foxes with the young ones having a great time playing in the bushes while being watched by a vigilant parent looking for signs of danger.  I stood and watched them for some time, transfixed by their antics.

Perfectly Framed
After a few minutes I moved on and had the fright of my life as I turned the next corner when I was confronted by a startled deer that bolted into the bushes as soon as it caught sight of me.  I think I was almost as startled as the deer!  The foxes and the deer were all within a stone’s throw of the built up area to the north of the airport itself and yet this was more animal action than I had seen for a long time on the path.

Brighton Main Line
I crossed the road ahead and to my surprise the path followed a green tree corridor down the side of the dual carriageway of the A23.  Although I was aware of its presence the trees did a remarkable job of screening the road and made this section of path far more bearable than I dreamed would be possible.  Eventually I had to bow to the inevitable though and enter the world of Gatwick Airport.  The path was fairly badly signposted through the complex and it took a good deal of map reading to find the right route across the approach roads.  The noise of the planes was by now joined by the noise of the people mover that takes passengers between North and South Terminals and the traffic heading to the car parks.

Landing in the Fields
Eventually I managed to find my way through the complex and crossed the main London to Brighton railway line into a quiet stretch of countryside once again.  Far from being the hideous stretch of walking that I had expected, the section through the airport area was surprisingly short lived and far from being the horror that other commentators have suggested I found it fairly interesting although I was thankful I didn’t have to walk much further. 

Choked Path
I rounded another field with grazing horses and came out opposite a pub that now serves as an Indian restaurant.  It is surprising how many pubs have found this fate, although it is preferable to see them still functioning at all than be boarded up, as has happened with so many others.  The onward path took a course down the side of the M23 spur with pleasant views to the north even if the southern aspect was dominated by the high motorway embankment.  The path is clearly not very well used for it was very overgrown and I questioned the wisdom of wearing shorts that day.

M23 Crossing
At the end of the path I turned right under the motorway and headed down a rather strange road.  I passed some well-to-do looking houses living cheek-by-jowl with some that had fallen on hard times and were in some cases completely derelict.  On my left hand side was an old nursery but the glass houses had clearly seen better days, with most of the glass smashed and the vegetation inside now running riot.  I did think it might make for a cool photograph but got a sense of life at the other end of the property & hesitated.  I was glad that I did, for in the far corner there were some very furtive looking men that appeared to be dealing in scrap metal or some other such thing.  My watching was clearly not welcomed and so I hurried on, feeling rather uncomfortable about the area as I did so.
Burstow Manor

Further down the road a lorry was reversing in the lane.  This seemed quite a complex manoeuvre and I wasn’t quite sure what the lorry was even doing there.  It was registered in Bulgaria and at first I thought that it had got lost on the satnav but realised that it was in fact connected with the men I had seen back at the ‘scrapyard’.  I was rather relieved when I left them all behind as for some reason I felt a bit vulnerable as I walked past them all.

Burstow Church
Eventually I turned off this road and up another lane towards Burstow, crossing the main M23 as I did so.  After passing some more rather strange looking storage units and being stared at again I finally came upon the lovely little hamlet of Burstow, which seemed like a world away.  I took the opportunity to have a look inside the wonderful old church and its stained glass windows, enjoying the coolness of inside as I did so.  Across the way was an old school house, now turned into a nursery.  It really was a beautiful and unexpected oasis after all the industrial stuff earlier.

Burstow School House

My onward walk was mostly through fields of various crops although I did have an encounter with some fairly fierce looking white geese. I showed them who was boss though and they didn’t push it.  I was by now feeling very hot and when I approached Copthorne I checked the bus timetable and was very pleased to see that I could get one only nine minutes later.  I decided that I would save the onward walk for another day – it was far too hot to push myself too much.
Fierce Geese

It wasn’t the best walk if I’m honest but far better than I had expected, with far more countryside than urban areas. It reminded me of sections of the London LOOP, darting from sections of countryside into urban areas almost at whim.  What did please me most about this modest length of walk though was the fact that I had overcome an obstacle and I now could continue this walk in loops in much the same way as I had previously done.

Friday, 19 July 2013

Kennet and Avon Canal Section 5 Kintbury to Bedwyn

Turning Circle
Our second day on this latest trip to the canal started at the last station of the commuter line from London, which rather curiously is the very rural Bedwyn.  It seems rather an arbitrary place to terminate the line and is about as far as you can imagine a London commuter station to look like.  Anyhow, it does mean that this is the last ‘easy’ stage of the route westwards along the canal for the next station at Pewsey is further away and after that there are no stations at all for a while.  All that though is for another day as this time we headed back to where we had finished yesterday at Kintbury.

Large House at Kintbury
Our route today would take us through the small town of Hungerford back to Bedwyn; a distance of 8 miles.  We hoped that we weren’t pushing the girls too much but had remembered that they completed a similar distance out of Reading on day 1.  The start of the day was a bit grey as the early morning mist and swirling low cloud hadn’t burnt off quite yet.  It did make for cool and clammy conditions to begin with, but none of us were particularly complaining for it had got a little hot the day before.

Goods and Chattles
We passed a cycling family eating their breakfast and soon realised that they weren’t the only ones.  Kintbury seemed gripped with breakfast fever as many of the canal boats had the various aromas of coffee, bacon, eggs and toast all wafting over the towpath.  Fortunately we had already had a substantial breakfast otherwise the smell of all this cooking would have been torture!

Poppy Side
Kintbury is obviously a very popular stop for boating traffic for the line up of boats was surprisingly long considering that we had not seen a moving vessel east of here for some miles.  Some of the vessels were not here for pleasure though as the banging and sawing sounds revealed.  I guess maintenance and DIY is a common theme for Sunday mornings in this corner of Berkshire.

Orange Tip Butterfly
At the next bridge though the moorings gave way to clear canal once again and at this point the clouds finally drifted away to reveal the true nature of the day, which was going to be another hot one.  We passed a very large and ornate house on the left hand bank and off into open countryside.  Bridges seemed to come along at regular intervals on this section and the number of locks seemed to increase too, suggesting that we were heading uphill a little more quickly.

Wire Lock Bridge
The path passed through some lovely shading woodland for awhile before coming out into open fields once again.  This change in scenery was to happen a number of times during the day, providing a nice balance between the two.  Along the towpath the flowers were attracting a number of butterflies, including small tortoiseshells and orange tips which were the most eye catching. 

Yellow Flag
We crossed under the railway and then across the canal itself to resume our trip down the left hand side.  Curiously this was to be the only canal crossing of the whole day.  Across the other side of the canal was the unmistakable features of an old mill, this one called Dunmill. It looked like the old place had had a significant facelift for the brickwork in places looked very new.  I suspect it is now luxury apartments although it was impossible to see them properly from our side of the water.

Dunmill Lock
The town of Hungerford soon came upon us and we took the opportunity to head into town for a little looks around. Sadly the first thing I think about Hungerford is that awful day in 1987 when a large number of people were shot dead by a deranged gunman in what was the first event of its type on this shores.  The fact that it happened in this fairly sleepy but very picturesque town makes it all the more shocking.  By now the day was getting properly hot and so we thought that a nice cold lemonade in the nearest pub would help flagging spirits.  We took the opportunity to sit out in the street and watch the world go by, which was very pleasant. 

Hungerford Town Hall

On the way back to the canal we caught sight of a very pleasant looking bakery, which to our surprise was actually open on this Sunday lunchtime.  I always have a hard time passing a bakery shop and it wasn’t hard to persuade me to go inside.  We grabbed some snacks and made our way back to the canal for our journey westwards.  As with Newbury the canal seemed to find a course through the town that did not seem to prolong the urban stretch very much.  The last sight before we headed into the open meadows was a view of the large and well appointed church that wasn’t dissimilar in style to the one we had passed in Newbury yesterday.

Hungerford Church

As we wandered along the towpath through the meadows to the west of Hungerford I got the unlikely sight of a canal boat coming towards me sporting a Brighton and Hove Albion flag, my local team in Sussex. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity of a photo & we exchanged pleasantries as he chugged by.  A little further on and we passed a sadly derelict house before finally finding the seat we had been looking for to stop and eat our snack.

Albion Fan
We passed under the railway once again and our onward walk from here seemed to be very much more open in character. We seemed to have finally left the woodland behind and the canal followed a much straighter course.  This had the effect of the mileage seeming to be chalked off more quickly but it also meant that there was less interest overall.  Every so often the trains thundered or rattled by, depending on whether it was a stopper or an express.  The difference between the two could be identified long before they passed by.

Derelict Lock Keeper's House
A couple of miles of pleasant but unremarkable countryside ensued with the main interest points being offered by the canal-side flowers in the shape of some lovely yellow flag irises and the odd orchid that hid surreptitiously in the grass.  We also passed by a section of canal that was being repaired, which forced us out into the neighbouring road.  Other than this annoyance though we largely had the towpath to ourselves until we got to Bedwyn.

Southern Marsh Orchid
Our arrival at Bedwyn was prefaced by another long line of boats, although this time there was a lot less activity.  We took our leave of the canal after eight miles and four and a half hours of walking - a pretty good effort from the girls & with no complaints.  The only sadness this time was that we didn’t have a third day as we had had last time out.  This was an enjoyable walk but short on highlights after Hungerford.  A stop at this small town is surely a must though for any walkers/ cyclists/ boaters along this stretch.

Burnt Mill Footbridge