Sunday, September 20, 2009

Test Way #17: A brief history of snacks

Walking is one of the most popular pastimes in the UK - apparently 77% of adults (38m people) say that they walk for pleasure at least once a month - and, I guess, it's got more popular recently given that it's free and times are tough. I'm sure lots of people will tell you to take energy bars, water bottles, apples, blah blah blah.

I didn't read any advice on this before undertaking any of the c12 mile legs of The Test Way. Instead I experimented for myself and, I'm pleased to say, I have the solution:

Jaffa Cakes, apples and water.

On Leg 1 I think we took a big bar of Dairy Milk, a bag of apples and some water. By Leg 3 this had grown to include a bag of Cadbury's Chocolate Eclairs and a packet of Hobnobs.... clearly getting less and less healthy as time goes by!

By Leg 4 I think I had perfected it. The Eclairs had been a little too much and all that grub added to the weight in the ruck sack. So now we had, between the three of us: six apples, three litres of water and two packets of Jaffa Cakes.

I don't know if this is the optimum processed/natural sugar to hydration ratio, but it worked for me!

Test Way #16: Sense of achievement

Does completing this walk feel like a sense of achievement? Well, I guess there have been thousands before us, and there will be millions after us, so in that sense we were just following in the footsteps, quite literally, of others.

The reason, though, that I do feel like we've achieved something is quite a personal thing because, as someone who has never been a big walker, I didn't really do this for the achy legs and the rucksack-on-my-back style of rambling. For me, this walk - no, this adventure - was aimed at seeing the countryside that is right on our doorstep. Like the nature reserve that I still drive past every night on the way home from work, along with thousands (probably tens of thousands) of others, there is mile upon mile of fantastic, peaceful, beautiful, calming, stunning English countryside that we allow to dissolve away in our peripheral vision. On this walk we crossed two very big roads - the M27 and the A303 - plus several smaller A-roads, and were never far away from an access point onto the arteries of the transport network. This means that, just like us, hordes of people drive straight past and through this countryside every day but, probably, don't have a clue that it's there.

So my personal achievement was to put the time aside to see some of this, much of it for the first time, and the last mile when we caught side of the semi-circular ridge that took us around to the end point, and the view in either direction from that point, was well worth 49 miles of walking.

Quite apart from all of that, this was a project, something that my wife, my dad and I undertook together as a team, and it brought us together in that sense. We walked and talked, and at the same time my dad's partner took our kids out for days out and spent quality time with them. So, we all enjoyed it, we all achieved something and got something out of it.

It's taken longer than I thought but that is because of the busy lives we lead, and it's those lifestyles which, if we're not careful, mean that we never see the landscape and the sites that are right on our doorstep.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Test Way #15: The grand finale

So, what about the finish? As we walked up Sheepless Hill we longed for the end - it was very, very steep and hardly surprising that the sheep has gone elsewhere. More to the point, it seemed to go on and on - surely we would be at cloud level in this cloudless sky soon? But the reward was soon to come.

As we rose up onto the ridge and circled around towards Inkpen Hill and Coombe Gillet, our prize was delivered. The views from beneath the gallows on the ridge were simply amazing. I've seen good views in the past and this was up there with the best of them. The ridge drops on both sides so steeply that hang-gliders have sensibly claimed exclusivity on all but the summit. But the view is available to all, and there was miles and miles of it. Hampshire, Berkshire and Wiltshire are visible in different directions and, although one notable absentee (particularly on such a hazy day) was The Test itself, this is a brilliantly fitting end to a very satisfying walk.

We met my dad's other half who was our pick-up/drop-off driver for the day, and drove down into Inkped to The White Swan pub, where we had a nice lunch (just - we got there as they were preparing to stop serving for the afternoon!) before driving back up the hill and down the other side towards St Mary Bourne, where we started the day. Picking our car up and driving home, we pretty much followed the route we'd walked over the last year with great satisfaction.

When we started last October we were considerably underwelmed - yes, Eling Wharf is nice but from there you have to walk through Totton which is very built up; yes, the nature reserve is pleasing but is overshadowed by the docks; yes, the countryside around Lee is open and airy, but it is divided by the M27; and, yes, the fields and the river around the Broadlands estate is picturesque, but is let down by much of the rest of the first Leg.

From there, through, the walk has improved and improved with every step, from Romsey towards Awbridge, Mottisfont and beyond. The only disappointing bit I can remember from the M27 northwards is the heavy-footed disused railway on the way into Stockbridge.

And the end definately justifies the rest - simply stunning.

Test Way #14: More English excellence

This afternoon at about 1.55 we walked up to the gallows near Inkpen Hill, down the hill towards the car park and, finally, finished The Test Way.

Leg 4, today's walk, was like an enhanced version of Leg 3: Wildly varying landscape with wooded sections, wide open fields used for grazing and growing corn, high-hedged lanes and droving roads. Only Leg 4 was much better than the excellence of Leg 3.

And that is because of the grand finale. But we'll come to that later.

When we undertook Leg 1 last October, 11 months ago, I commented that I was surprised how little of the river we saw, particularly given that it gives this walk it's name. Soon after the start of Leg 3, the river had gone off in completely the opposite direction and, by the time we got to Leg 4, we didn't see any river or even any water, whatsoever. Even the Bourne rivulet, a spring-fed watercourse linking together parts of this Leg, was dry as a bone. I guess that, as we move towards autumn and winter, it will gradually rise and start to soften the dry beds and surrounding fields again. For us, after the flooded section of Leg 1 and the boggy start of Leg 2, it was almost a relief that on Leg 4 we could enjoy the simply spectacular countryside without worrying about slipping and sliding about, or wading through ankle-deep puddles. The consequence of the dampness of those early miles was that it was hard to take our eyes off the path, for fear of ending up on our backsides, and we didn't see much of what was around us as a result.

We've been very lucky with the weather throughout this walk. Today was a beautiful early autumn day and the leaves were starting to betray the onset of the season. To further enhance the case, dad bought with him some sharp, but very tasty apples from his garden. But autumn didn't cause us any problems today - apart from reducing the depth of the view in places because of the hazyness of the post-summer sunshine. In fact it was a great day, not as hot as for Leg 3 but that, to be honest, was a relief.

In the hedgerows the blackberries were starting to look a little tired, in the lanes and paths we encountered masses of runners, panting and sweating in the sunshine, and the dry, ploughed soil gave away the chalkiness of the landscape which was streaked with white like marble.

From difficult beginnings this walk has, without doubt, given us what we came looking for - a real taste of the Hampshire countryside on our doorstep. And, thought we finished in Berkshire having passed quickly through Wilshire, we were very, very happy that The Test Way had delivered.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Test Way #13: Almost one year on...

I've said already that we want to finish the walk within a year of starting it. Well, next Saturday (19 September) we are doing Leg 4, from St Mary Bourne to Inkpen Beacon and, given we did Leg 1 on 27 October 2008, then we shall achieve this aim.

However yesterday we took the kids to Romsey Show on a gloriously warm and sunny day (quite unusual for Romsey Show, at least from childhood memories) and had a really good time, meeting some friends there and enjoying it thoroughly. Completely against expectation, we stayed from 10.30 until almost 7pm, whereas I expected that we'd be home by 2!

I mention this because the day of the last year's show was due, of course, to be the day that Miche and I undertook the first leg of The Test Way. We aborted because Ellie, our daughter, was suffering from a dodgy hip and, as it turned out, my dad was able to join us on the rearranged date and the rest is history.

So although we almost certainly, barring disaster, will complete the walk within a year of starting it, we have now been planning to do the walk for well over a year. I hope that next time we have a plan like this, it doesn't take so long to come to fruition.

And, if the weather is half as good next Saturday as it was yesterday for Romsey Show, then our walk will finish in style with a clear view from Inkpen Beacon of the very countryside we set out to explore.

Test Way #12: More photos

With less than a week until we undertake the forth and final leg, I've posted some photos from Leg 3 onto Flickr. Link below

Test Way Leg 3

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Test Way #11: Dodgy signage

There is little doubt that the third leg was simply brilliant in all respects, although if I had one critisism, it would be the signposting. There are plenty of waymarkers on The Test Way but, at crucial points between Stockbridge and St Mary Bourne they went completely AWOL and almost resulted in us taking long diversions that wouldn't have been ideal when we already had 13.5 miles to do!

So if you're walking the route in future remember these key points:

1) When the route comes alongside The Mayfly Pub (although this isn't particularly visible from the path) you leave the old railway line and cross the road towards Wherwell. The crossing point is a junction of the A3057 and a local road and there are a couple of footpath options here - make sure you get the right one!

2) We accidentally left The Test Way when we got to Wherwell. There is a point when you move along a very narrow cutway at the back of some houses and once you are through this the waymarks are non-existent. We turned right towards the village centre and, quite by accident, found the path again shortly afterwards. However we should, I think, have gone straight on. If we had OCD about this walk then we would have gone back and rewalked that section!

3) At several points between Longparish and St Mary Bourne the waymarks have their own signposts, and we saw three of these that had broken and been laid into the hedge or long grass. Be careful not to go off in the wrong direction by trying to guess!

Best thing is to have a good local map with you and try to work it out from that!

Luckily we were so in awe of the scenery and the countryside, that it hardly mattered. It was definitely a feature of this leg, however, and something to watch out for!