Thursday, 1 February 2018

Britain's Favourite Walks: Top 100

This was a rapid countdown of something you should actually take time over; definitely more of a sprint than a ramble. The whole point of walking is that you don't get there quickly. You savour the view. But this programme didn't do that. For most of the 100 walks you got a brief voiceover, a red outline on a map and a fleeting shot of drone footage. And then - whoosh! - you were off to the other end of the country and the next walk on the list. There wasn't even time to scribble down the start and end points. Surely the 100 walks could have been spread over two or three programmes? Maybe ITV didn't trust its viewers to be interested enough in hiking to warrant devoting more than a single evening to it. But anyway, at least the list is now there on the Ordnance Survey website for you to spend as much time and effort on as you wish.

The programme was presented by Britain's most annoying walker, Julia Bradbury, queen of the stupid question and not listening to the answer. She of the super robotic fitness, perfect hair, large watch and immaculate hiking gear. All right, I admit that I may be a tiny bit jealous. For I'm the one barely able to draw breath as I plod up the slightest incline, and I like to feel among friends in the rambling community. I bet Julia Bradbury's children don't moan as much on country walks as mine either. Our daughter's unbearable whining is the main contributing factor to my lack of hiking shape. Julia's fellow presenter and Strictly winner Ore Oduba came across as far more human and smiley-friendly, but he didn't feature nearly enough in the half of the show that I watched. His kid isn't old enough to have started moaning yet, by the way.

The programme did slow down a bit as you reached the top 10. And you met some pretty amazing hikers - the quadruple amputee, who lost his hands and feet after getting frostbite in an accident in the Alps, now climbing Snowdon in some slightly tactless snow. The guy with Alzheimer's who climbs Coniston Old Man over and over again to stave off the memory loss and disorientation that the disease brings. And the lady with vertigo who huffed and puffed her way along three miles of Hadrian's Wall, just because she reminded me of me.

I was pleased to see how many of the walks I had at least done a part of, though there were plenty on the list I've not yet attempted, from the biggies like Ben Nevis and Scafell Pike to the longies like the Coast to Coast, Ridgeway and the West Highland Way, or even the shorties in places like the Peak District, Malvern Hills and Northern Ireland, where I have barely managed to spend any time at all.

As for the winner, Helvellyn, it was clearly a surprise to the programme makers. Because it's a bloody hard mountain to climb, although it has its easier and trickier options. But Helvellyn is certainly what I would class as my own "most memorable" walk. As an eight-year-old, for some reason I became obsessed with Striding Edge, one of two serious ridges that lead to the summit. It must have been my dad who told me about Striding Edge, the fool or overenthusiastic Cumbrian mountaineer, depending on your point of view. Anyway, I wanted to see it so badly and climb and conquer it myself. So during one of our frequent visits to Grasmere, my dad and grandfather happily offered to take me up Helvellyn via Striding Edge. What on earth were they thinking? I didn't know as much about my grandfather then as I do now. Back then he was still a few peaks short of completing all the British hills over 2000 feet (I realise this scans like "few sandwiches short of a picnic") and was still busy working in his hiking shop and running his holiday cottages. I didn't know then that he had nearly killed my grandmother several times on hikes in their youth, most notably crawling along the ridge of Aonach Egach in a storm.

And Striding Edge was to be my Aonach Egach, only - as I was only eight - without the fear factor. We set off from Glenridding, and the first bit of the walk was a long but uneventful trudge. There was plenty of cloud above us, but the visibility was good enough. We sat and ate our sandwiches beside Red Tarn before the big ascent up to Striding Edge. And then within an instant, the bad weather hit. The gale force struck as high as my age, completely whipping our breath away, as well as ripping a five pound note out of my father's pocket, which in 1981 was quite a considerable loss to a frugal Dodgson. The mist became thick and impenetrable, swirling around us and entirely destroying the view. We could barely see more than a metre in front of us. On top of a knife-edge ridge, this isn't necessarily a bad thing, as you can't see how far you have to fall. My grandfather, however, quickly realised that he had a scrappy little kid with him who would not be safe on that knife-edge, so we went down a few metres and started to walk along the path that goes below but alongside the actual ridge. At first this wasn't so bad as we had dropped down out of the wind, which was buffeting against the other side of the rocks. But as the expert hiker on the programme warned, walking along the side paths of Striding Edge can actually lead you into more trouble than going along the top. Suddenly, in a gap between the rocks, the path crossed over into the full force of the wind. For all we could see in front of us, it seemed that our only option was to scramble up the sheer rock face of a crag to reach the next stage of the path up to the summit. This was just too dangerous, and we had to retreat. I was so disappointed to have not made it to the top, but even my gung-ho grandfather realised it would have been foolish and completely irresponsible to continue. The visibility was so bad, I have no idea how far along Striding Edge we got or how much further there was to go.

We re-climbed Helvellyn as a family, minus my grandfather but with the addition of my mum and brother, a couple of years later. This time we took the route from Thirlspot, which avoids all of the daredevil approaches altogether. It was a sunny, uneventful day. The path up from Thirlmere is quite steep and a hard slog, but eventually we reached the top, my little brother assisted by an entire packet of Fox's Glacier Mints. But at least my obsession with Striding Edge had been cured, until we picked a ceilidh band with the same name to play at our wedding. But it turned out that they were much safer. There is no way in hell (unless it froze over or indeed "vel-yn..." (fell in, geddit?)) I would go along Striding Edge now. At least our daughter would have to have a personality transplant before she develops a similar obsession.

As for the other walks in the top 100, here are a few of my other personal highlights:

1. Cat Bells (number 4 on the list)

I so desperately want to climb Cat Bells again. I was probably younger than our daughter when I first went up it, and I remember loving its bumpy up-and-downness, something I'd probably hate now. Why gain height only to lose it again? But I've heard rumours that there is a cake shop at the top. Some students opened it. Just because every child is told to keep going because there will be a cake shop at the top. And there never was. But now there really is. Talk about cornering the market. Alas for now this is as close as we've got to the top:

If only the weather in Keswick could always be that good.

Other Cumbrian walks in the top ten included the circular path round Buttermere (number 7) and the Coffin Route from Ambleside to Grasmere via Rydal (27), which was my grandmother's daily walk to school:


Looking across to the coffin route from Rydal Water

2. Snowdon (number 2)

I climbed Snowdon for one of my 40 challenges for turning 40. Only we went on a train with a screaming toddler in tow who chose that moment (despite 3,000 previous trips to the National Railway Museum) that she hated steam engines. The actual summit was shrouded in cloud, but the views up until that point had been incredible.

3. Solva to St David's (number 16)

We went to Pembrokeshire when our daughter was two and three quarters, and fell in love with its coastal path. For it is exhilaratingly beautiful. Our holiday cottage was just a few hundred yards from the route, where it passed through a smugglers' cove before re-ascending the cliffs. We took turns in the long June evenings, once our daughter was in bed, to go out and walk as far as we dared before nightfall. We resolved to one day to do the whole walk, but we're still a long way from achieving that goal. We've never been able to face the long drive back to south Wales for starters. I mean, just how many "Are we nearly there yet?"s can you fit into a single stretch of the A487?

St David's


Wildflowers on the coastal path

Another Welsh walk was the canal at Llangollen (60), where the boats are still pulled along by horses:

and the coastal path around Anglesey (32):

Menai Strait

4. Craster to Dunstanburgh Castle (number 9)

We love Northumberland. The first time I did this walk, I had left a very sunny Newcastle with a craving for the sea, only to find the sea vanished into fret when we reached the coast. We walked right past Dunstanburgh castle without seeing it, uttering the classic line "Well, it has to be around here somewhere...." Honestly, it was so near to us, standing beside the golf course at Embleton Sands, that we could have touched it.

Thankfully, the next two times I went, the view was clear. And what a view. Kippers in a restaurant at Craster are always the end to a perfect day.

Embleton Sands

Craster harbour

Other Northumberland walks on the list featured Kielder Water (59) and the St Cuthbert's Way to Lindisfarne and Holy Island (51):


Holy Island


5. Whitby to Robin Hood's Bay (number 17)

I first did this walk with the University of York Outdoor Society, who organised hiking trips every Saturday morning. Mostly I failed to negotiate my way out of bed in time to join them, but very occasionally, I succeeded, and this particular time I was very glad to have made the effort. It was a glorious hike. On this trip I made a good friend, a funny, kind but troubled soul who a decade after we graduated chose to end her life by stepping in front of a train on the line between Coventry and Birmingham. This was unbearable, but I always remember her now in happier times whenever we go as a family to the Yorkshire Coast. We visit Whitby several times a year, in winter bleakness and summer crowds. Prowled by goths and vampires, fed by fishermen, departed by explorers, it has the steepest steps and the best chippies and Christmas trees in the country.

Finally now re-open after the fire last year

Christmas tree festival, St Mary's Church

Robin Hood's Bay we don't go to nearly enough, usually because the car park is full by the time we arrive. We are certainly owed a fossil hunt or two on its beaches.

Other Yorkshire walks included Grosmont to Goathland (39), which we have also only done by steam train (since our daughter doesn't mind them so much now):

North York Moors Railway

Hogsmeade Station

and Brimham Rocks (49), which my brother and I loved as kids. And now our daughter does too. Some may climb them but she imagines the rocks as houses with uncomfortable furnishings. The tea parties are long and tedious.

There was also Bempton Cliffs (50), home of thousands of seabirds and where I swallowed a piece of plastic fork:

and Richmond to Reeth (54):

and Grassington (61), where I have mostly frequented tea shops:

and finally, Gordale Scar and Malham Cove (3), which is about as spectacular a walk as you can do in the Yorkshire Dales, if not anywhere in the world. Unfortunately I haven't done it since I got a phone with a half-decent camera:

Malham Cove

We have a photo of my brother aged two standing in this sheep run

Gordale Scar

Janet's Foss

6. Arthur's Seat (number 43)

It's the best free thing to do in Edinburgh, although the National Museum of Scotland comes a pretty close second. The extinct volcano looms over Holyrood and the Royal Mile. That said, the only time I have climbed right to the top was with a colossal hangover after a wedding and - really lazily - we even took a taxi to the start of the walk. We haven't yet attempted to drag our daughter up it but will rectify this on our next trip.

Other walks in Scotland of course included Glen Coe to Fort William (number 14):

7. Norfolk

There were some delightful walks in Norfolk, including Wells-next-to-the-Sea (42) and Blakeney Point (68), timeless places to go crabbing and spot seals:

Seals at Wells next to the Sea

8.  South East England and London Walks

My husband and I used to go walking nearly every single weekend when we lived in Earlsfield, South London. Our proximity to Clapham Junction meant that we could hop on a train and be in the depths of Surrey, Kent or Sussex in no time. We worked our way through the Time Out Book of Country Walks, which took in parts of the South Downs Way (13), and the Devil's Punchbowl (76). Occasionally we headed north to check out routes in Buckinghamshire like the Ridgeway (46) and the woods around Great Missenden (75), but the countryside was never as interesting as it was south of the city. For me, Buckinghamshire was too like the boring rolling farmers' fields of rape seed in Hertfordshire that surrounded my hometown. But perhaps I do it an injustice.

Our London walking bible
We also did parts of the Thames Path (63), though technically so does anyone who walks along the river in London, and the Regents' Canal Walk (number 90) through Little Venice and London Zoo.

Hampton Court
Tower Bridge

London Zoo aviary
Little Venice
Little Venice
For some reason, the Capital Ring, our very favourite London walk of all, and the only long-distance route I have ever walked in its entirety, did not get a mention, although a stretch of it did feature - through the deer haunt and London's lungs of ancient Richmond Park (98).

I think walking kept us sane in London: after long days of commuting and offices and fumes from pollution, we craved fresh air and a taste of country life. And it was the love of walking that fuelled our desire to move away and live somewhere surrounded by beautiful landscape. And Yorkshire certainly has that in spades. We are also both so lucky to have family in the Lake District, meaning we can visit those glorious fells whenever we like. It is no wonder that the top 10 featured so many walks in Cumbria. And we can't get our daughter to go on a single bloody one of them.

So where do you like to roam? What is your favourite walk, either on or off the list?

1 comment:

  1. Is it so very bad that I giggled at the phrase 'tactless snow?'