Walking around Wimbleball

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Today Mary and I walked all the way around Wimbleball Lake.

A permissive path, at times merging with public rights of way, circles almost all of the reservoir – only the northern tip has a section with no footpath. Most people cut this out by crossing Bessom bridge but we took it on for the sake of completeness, walking on the exposed shore.

mary-on-a-bridge

We parked in the anglers’ car park on the east side and walked clockwise, breaking at the  café for lunch (nice tea; confused cakes). We followed the summer path which can be flooded in the winter; at the moment though the reservoir still incredibly low after a dry year. Old tree trunks and rocks are exposed by the receded water, and everywhere there lies a lush green weed which looks like grass until you walk on it and it bounces under your feet.

We cut across the naked bank at times and the pathways were by and large dry easy going, but we also stopped for photos and took the summer route so the time of 3 hours is probably a fair measure of how long the walk takes. In muddier conditions it would be longer as some of the paths would become very unreliable.

low-water-towards-wimbleball-dam

The views were not as pretty as they would have been with high water, but autumn has well and truly set in, serving up chambers of colour and texture especially around the east side and towards Upton. The view down the Haddeo valley from the dam is sumptuous as the trees turn. Near the bridge a strange sculpture is under wraps. It looks like a giant pair of wellington boots on the shore. It must be 8 foot high, yet the tops will be submerged when the water level returns.

autumn-colours-by-wimbleball

It was enough of a walk to get some joints aching without doing serious damage. The dog loved it, of course. At the driest time of year it would make a good run. It has none of Clatworthy’s hills.

Directions to England’s tallest tree

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Grey pin shows Nutcombe Bottom car park

The reason we hadn’t visited England’s tallest tree already is that we didn’t know where it was. Various websites talked about it and gave rough suggestions as to its location, but none of them nailed down the directions or address. It was starting to feel a little apocryphal.

We found it in the end by a bit of guesswork. It’s in Dunster Forest, by a stream between Hats Wood and Hur Wood, next to the track known as Broadwood Road.

Directions

Head south west out of Dunster on the A396. Take the first left down Bonniton Lane, following it round into Whitswood Steep until you come to Nutcombe Bottom car park on your left. Signs to the tallest tree start near the car park entrance. It’s a 5-minute drive from Dunster to the car park, then a 10-minute walk to the tree.

The tree itself is impressively tall and straight, although you wouldn’t guess it was the loftiest, perhaps because all the other trees in that rich little valley are big too. Next to the 60-metre Douglas Fir is the country’s tallest Magnolia. The fir was hard to photograph too, with no clear sight of its top or standpoint to fit it all into the frame.

tallest-tree

That’s not to say we didn’t have fun. Mary met a friend who said she brings her little kids to the forest every weekend, and I can see why. It is a gentle spot, with a stream wending its way down through the giant firs amid a soft carpet of pine needles. And there’s plenty more of Dunster Forest to explore, although we only had time for a quick visit.

I met a lovely old guy with his dogs, who sat and told me about commuting from Minehead to Bristol back in the day, and how a different tree nearby used to be the tallest until it got struck by lightning.

Good spot to take friends with younger kids.

Clatworthy Reservoir

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Clatworthy Reservoir with low water

Clatworthy Reservoir was one of the first places we visited when we moved to the 10 parishes; as a nearby expanse of blue on the map it was irresistible.

In real life it proved to be well worth the short trip: a natural looking lake with a formidable dam and a pathway round the whole expanse of water. The path rose and fell with the headlands, through woodland and along open shore, sometimes turning up a valley to cross a long spur of water back where it began as a stream. In the open parts the path is a wide grass carriageway, mown cutely through the fern and gorse.

We saw a deer there on one visit, 20 yards down the path, climbing steadily through the trees in the hope that we had not spotted her. Another time the water level had dropped and there were hundreds of  American crayfish shells, or parts thereof. I foolishly filled my pockets with them at the kids’ request only to discover just how bad rotten crayfish bits can smell when we got home.

But all that stopped when we got a dog. Because dogs are not allowed at Clatworthy. It’s well over a year since we visited. Until today.

In my quest to walk every footpath in the vicinity I noticed a dashed green line that started at the anglers’ car park and tracked the water’s edge for a while, not as closely as the mown green highway, but only a short distance further out. It turned out to be a beautiful walk, at times with unimpeded views of the reservoir, at others climbing through woodland. Sometimes the path was parallel to the shoreline, other times it angled away to cross a field with cows in or make a square around the contours of the lake.

It would be possible to combine public footpaths with lanes to make a circular walk around the reservoir; it would be much longer than the perimeter path and swing you away from the lake for some of it, but it would be rewarding walking and the dog is allowed on all of it.

Today, it felt like I was at the lake again, a feeling I’ve missed. It’s so peaceful there; just the sound of birdsong and the dog crashing through the undergrowth. Anglers dotted the shore, apart from two in a bleached white boat, who from a distance both looked asleep. The water level was very low, exposing vibrant green and orange rings around the water, and making some of the fingers of the reservoir look more like a river. And I saw my first ever Heath Spotted Orchid, tucked away modestly in a meadow.

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Heath Spotted Orchid

 

On footpaths

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Until we moved to the country I didn’t realise how valuable our network of public footpaths and bridleways really is.

I grew up on the edge of a national park, and we used to go for walks, but I don’t think I ever understood the significance of rights of way. It felt as a youngster that the countryside was our playground. Striding along Hadrian’s Wall or Druridge Bay or rambling along a burn in Hexhamshire the last thing in our minds was land ownership. The country was for everybody, and the more adventurous you were, the more you got. If you wanted to loop a ropeswing round a branch or dip in the deep bend of a river, you got on and did it.

Then university came with it’s ‘Keep off the grass’ signs and security walls. Sure there were public parks, but even a small, leafy city is a stark contrast to the country’s least populated corner. Then we rented a house with a few paving slabs outside and a towering view of the back of a car park; followed by a garden that we actually owned and grew some herbs in but in reality wasn’t big enough to pitch a family tent. And we were too busy with pushchairs and highchairs and nappies and nurseries to go off in search of countryside again.

Even when we did, by moving to Somerset, one estate agent tried to ward us off a house because it had no garden. Pointing to the beautiful hills all around the building she said ‘it’s not like the old days when kids could go out and explore – now it all belongs to somebody’.

But she’s wrong. Maybe land is more valuable and better utilised these days, boundaries better maintained and ownership more socially established, but I have walked through that very combe on my way from one little village to another, between the patchwork fields and through the wooded ridge, along a track with views to the Quantocks then down through the fields among the sheep with their lambs – all entirely legally, by following public paths and bridleways.

They are everywhere. They are the network that opens up the country to us all.

All you need is an OS map showing the routes and you’re off. I’ve climbed hills with incredible views, tracked rivers through secret valleys and forests, circled lakes by the water’s edge, walked across undulating farmland and acres of the greenest grass. My favourite pastime is picking a virgin footpath off the map and heading out with the dog to see what lies along it. The map hints at the territory via steep contour lines or marked features – waterfalls, old bridges, historical ruins, pools and landmarks – but the reality is unpredictable and discovering it first hand is such a thrill. Invariably, I don’t meet a single other person on the walk. The countryside is mine again.

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Public footpaths are green dashed lines on an Ordnance & Survey map

You can’t walk like this in every country. My wife’s cousin lived in Australia and bemoans the lack of public access. Even if you get permission from one owner to walk on their land it’s impossible to tell at what point you have crossed a boundary and have become a trespasser.

In Britain we have this incredible historical matrix of routes and tracks that knit together the landscape and open up the land. That doesn’t even include the right to roam on uncultivated and common areas, or parcels of land shared by the National Trust, the Forestry Commission and the like.

Most of the footpaths are signposted and marked by arrows, kept clear, and correspond to the OS route. Occasionally the path disappears, or is blocked by a fence, but by and large there is a way through. Once when the track was uncertain a man hollered across the field that I was on private land. I shouted back that I thought there was a footpath and he said: ‘fair enough’.

In fact the landowners in West Somerset are remarkably friendly. Once in the middle of his farm a farmer greeted us with amazement because, ‘this path only gets used about twice a year’. Yet it was still signed and open. Another time I was shutting a gate on a field of young cows when the farmer drove up the track. I wondered if he’d take exception to the dog being off the lead but instead he said, ‘hold the gate while I turn around – I’m just looking for my bees’. Another owner asked me if I’d tried all the other routes around her land, pointing out new footpaths to explore.

I’m sure it’s more political when the landowner is a celebrity and the footpath in question crosses their high-walled Surrey estate, but round here people are happy for you to get on with it and enjoy the countryside. I try to stick to the path, keep the dog under control and not damage anything, in return for the pathways being accessible. Some owners marshal you in straight line with fencing but most allow you to walk openly over their land even when grazing animals or growing crops.

Which is brilliant. And it’s only now that I appreciate it.

It feels like such a privilege to explore our country like this. My advice if you’re staring out of a window at your neighbour’s net curtain wondering what you’ve got in life: move to the country, get a dog, buy a detailed map and start walking. The first two are optional; just get out on the trail. Our countryside is a gift.

Swimming with dolphins in Akaroa

Nothing prepares us for our first sight of Akaroa’s tiffany blue harbour. We’ve been driving across Canterbury Plain, sparsely populated, each creek that we cross named on a yellow sign. Our spirits lift as we begin to climb into the volcanic round of mountains. Suddenly the vista opens out: green brown hills dipping their limbs into a long lagoon, its many bays like petals of a rare blue flower.

Akaroa harbour

We stop the car. Photograph. Drive round the corner and stop again. Photograph. Eventually we realise that the view is not going to go away. The harbour is gorgeous at every turn. It is deep, with a mouth gulping at the Pacific. The French originally used it as whale nursery.

We hadn’t expected the water in New Zealand to be so bright. It’s like the Indian Ocean filling Norwegian fjords. The boys lob stones into the shallows while we sit spellbound by the bay. Later, we paddle off the grey volcanic beaches.

Duvauchelle Bay at the end of Akaroa harbour

We’re here to swim with Hector’s dolphins. It’s hard to know what to expect. This is no Sea World. We’ll be out on the edge of the open sea, waiting for the wild creatures, the smallest and rarest of their family, to come by. The voyage out is just gorgeous. The mountains peel back on either side as our boat ploughs a wake through the cerulean depths. The simple joy of piloting these waters under a warm sun in a flawless sky is worth the trip alone.

Suited and booted

Nevertheless, all eyes are peeled for a glimpse of distinctly semi-circular dorsal fin. After a couple of false alarms, a pair is seen at a distance. The captain nears the dolphins and cuts the engines, but they swim off. The animals are wild and there is no guarantee that they will be interested in socialising. Another group seems friendlier, but by the time we lower into the water, they too disappear. We’ve been told the water is nippy, and New Zealanders and Americans in the party complain about the cold. They’ve obviously never swum in the North Sea. In fact it’s relatively mild. The cool water creeps inside our wetsuits in sweet contrast to the beating sun.

Hector’s dolphins

We return to the boat and move further towards the open ocean. Turn right, and it’s non-stop to Antarctica; left, and you’ll be on course for Chile. A more engaging pod is found, and we drop off the back of the vessel again. Floating is easy in the extra thick suits, and we make noises to get the dolphins curious. Three of four times they swim through our midst, ghostly white and only an arm’s span away. Then they’re done. So is Theo: despite his double layers, he is shivering. Back on board we drink hot chocolate and make our way towards Akaroa.

On the jetty, we hear that the other group had half a dozen dolphins round them at all times. One man calls it ‘life-changing’. Our encounter was more fleeting, and we get given a partial refund. But we would have paid in full to see the creatures even at a distance, and to ride in the breeze and warm sun through that sumptuous, sparkling lagoon.

Beautiful day

Whangapoua

It’s an inch on the map but it takes us four hours. The road traces the Coromandel peninsula loyally around every headland and pretty bay. Out in the firth of Thames black boats and rigs harvest seafood; the signs for fresh oysters get our mouths watering. Eventually we cross the hills on an even windier road. From the top we look back to the islands off Coromandel town, and forward to sweeping yellow beaches. Logging trucks squeeze past, tyres red with mud, carrying timber freshly felled from the forest.

Coromandel and the Firth of Thames

This is where we imagine the kiwis to live, their eggs on the floor among impenetrable pines, vulnerable only to the invading stoats. Finally we hit the bottom and turn off towards our dead end. On the map the low road appears to go right through the sea. In fact it is flanked by swamp land; scruffy bushes standing in clear water. We reach the one store town, sporting a single petrol pump to prevent visitors from getting stranded. Every New Zealander to whom we mentioned Whangapoua assumed we meant somewhere else. Although we probably don’t pronounce it right (something like ‘fonga-po-a’ with a very light ‘g’).

Whangapoua exists because of the beach, where three generations of baches (beach cabins) have been lined up against the shore. We’re at the back of the village by the fields, but it only takes five minutes to walk to the water’s edge. The off-white sand arcs gently for a mile, pitched up against small dunes by the strong, metre-high waves. Sometimes there are a handful of other people further down the bay, at other times we are alone. At night the sun kicks back into the hills behind the headland, and the last light on the beach is orange and cool.

Whangapoua beach

In fact the town exists because of two beaches. The second is not accessible by road. New Chums beach, or starfish beach to the natives, was a local secret until a travel website listed it as one of the best hidden beaches in the world. It is hard to reach, but having seen the pictures of white dry sand and golden flats against tall, dark trees, nothing will stop us from trying.

Every step of the trek builds our romantic expectations. The sun is shining as we cross the river at the northern end of Whangapoua beach, following the shore of the headland as it fills up with rocks. At first we can walk between them, but then they pile up: large and irregular, hard to walk on. The older children clamber ahead, but Jude finds it difficult and the baby must be carried. A track emerges by the undergrowth that at first makes walking easier. But it has been wet, and deep brown mud and puddles appear in the path, crisscrossed by devilishly slippery tree roots. We debate returning to the slow rocks, but the path is beginning to rise slightly. At last, after some tears and a lost flip flop, it turns and crosses the headland saddle.

An impossibly blue flash comes through the trees, and as we descend we see more of the gorgeous bay. Theo and Huxley have already negotiated the meagre rocks on the other side and are running in the water as though they were born to do so. The sandy crescent is so lovely, backed by dark and steep vegetation, that our hearts soar and we are desperate to dive into the inviting waters.

New Chums beach

Small snappers jump out of the shallows as we plunge in and each wave leaves sunlit effervescence on the surface. It is like swimming in champagne. And the water is mild. After the first nip it becomes warm enough to forget about the temperature completely. The struggle to get here is forgotten. It is simply the nicest beach we have ever been to.

Wave breaking on New Chums beach

Back in Whangapoua, we eat fresh fish that our neighbour caught in the bay. At night, the air cools fast and ankles are assaulted by sand flies, while the strumming of a thousand cicadas is as loud as the stars overhead are numerous. A mantis climbs up the window. In the morning the boys catch him. They call him Moron for being so easily captured: they put a bucket down and he crawled right in.

The village is still a wild place, belonging to the creatures. A fat kingfisher sits on the power line, less colourful but bigger than its British cousin. California quail busy themselves around the fences and shrubbery while welcome swallows swoop red-head first above them. In the weeds by the dusty road spiders build web balls like candy floss, and we startle a tatty peacock and his white hen who make off up the hill. We could stay here forever, defending sandcastles from the sea, bathing in it and devouring its fruit.

Whangapoua beach in the evening

The Rob Roy Glacier

On a gravel road in New Zealand’s Southern Alps

The walking trail up to the Rob Roy glacier starts an hour from Wanaka, an hour up the Matukituki valley with tyres droning fiercely on the rough track and small stones peppering the underside of the car. Fields of winter feed for the sheep lie along the valley floor, small clouds of greenfinch swirl up from the dusty road in front of us and Australian magpies play in the fields. We glimpse large deer among the pine trees, fenced in. The dry fords we cross are full of pale dust and bright grey volcanic stones, cutting down to the low Matukituki River, which glows pale blue. It is lined in places with bright red autumn leaves caught on the banks of shingle, and dotted with pied stilts for relief. The droning stops, in a car park with a green toilet shed, a path beside the river the only way to go on.

Crossing the rope bridge over the Matukituki River.

We start along the gentler side of the Matukituki, and spots of rain cause consternation. Drizzle down here means it will be much wetter on the mountain, up the icy stream that flows from the glacier. But we cross the rope bridge anyway, and begin our ascent through the forest. When the path breaks into a clearing before angling up the ravine, we stop for refreshment by a sign that says, “Please do NOT feed the kea”. But there are no Alpine parrots today, perhaps because it is too wet, although we hear plaintive birdcalls among the trees.

What kea?

We have another hour and a half to climb, on a good path that is occasionally quite steep, or rocky, or half-slidden down the bank. Mainly we can see only the route and the trees around us, but occasionally a view opens out on the left, of the steely blue Rob Roy stream crashing down to where we came from, of bright lichen-coated trees smothering the opposite bank, and just once or twice, of the crown of the glacier itself on the mountain above, towering impossibly high over our heads.

The icy Rob Roy stream.

This wonder keeps us going. Theo is eight, and although he looks bedraggled in the wet, he makes his own way, clearly relieved when we stop briefly for each rest. Huxley is younger and only a few minutes into the trek begins to complain. But he has no option: I cannot carry him because it is too steep and we cannot turn back from our first glacier. I chivvy and praise, push and drag, and we make good progress through the forest. At first it seems as though we are alone on the mountainside, but occasionally a group of teenagers strides past. Towards the top, we meet more and more walkers coming the other way, all with smiles, from the spectacle no doubt, but also perhaps from the relief at not having to climb any more.

The biggest boost comes when thin but monstrously high waterfalls appear in the rock face on the left: icy melt water that is falling from the glacier, out of sight behind the mountain. These pencil lines would be hardly noticeable in a photograph, so thin at distance, but up close they must be voluminous. The water takes a long time to hit the ravine floor. Most of all they mean that we are getting close.

When we reach the rough clearing we are still a long way from the glacier but this is where the footpath ends. It is the viewpoint. There is no shelter, and my friend is right about the rain being heavier at this height. For that reason we do not stay long, but these few minutes are unforgettable. The parts of Rob Roy that we can see crest on top of the mountains like the tops of breaking waves. They are high above our heads, and myriad waterfalls run down from the peaks as gifts to the stream below. The colour of the ice is unique: white, but somehow blue in its whitest parts. It is power and it is beauty. We have come so far and yet we are humbled far beneath the glacier’s mount. It is unapproachable, but we have at least witnessed its splendour.

View of the Rob Roy glacier.

And that is enough. My Kiwi friends have a low tolerance for rain and cold, and for standing around. Only minutes after arriving they are back off down the slope, as though getting back to the car was always the point of the trip. I carry Huxley on my shoulders some of the way, where it is safe to do so, and for as long as I can. The rain lightens up, and the half hour between the bridge and the car park seems the longest stretch of all. But what a view, with blocks of sun roaming the open valley sides, the whole scene somehow transfigured by our meeting with the glacial king enthroned on its summit. I know now why those walkers were smiling.

The last leg feels the longest.

The drive back down the valley yields even more stunning vistas, and as we near Wanaka deep blue lakes with meticulous vineyards on their shores replace the colourful mountains of Aspiring national park. Old warplanes from the weekend air show curve overhead. It is hard to take a bad photograph in a place like this. Even in the rain.