Sunday, 9 November 2008

Avebury: stoned-o-blog™ day 3

Wednesday, 20 February 2008

IMG_8552 Deb took Daisy on a short walk round some of the stones while I bimbled around at the cottage a bit. One rather major thing that they saw was the National Trust making preparations to remove a tree from the edge of the ditch, quite near us, in the southeast quadrant of the circle. There are quite a few trees around the earthworks and they look rather gorgeous but apparently this one was too close to the edge - indeed a bit over it - and, as signs all over the place bear witness, there is an erosion problem. This particular tree was presumably part of the problem and had to go. Deb and Daisy watched them doing loads of work, getting ropes onto the tree and tensioned by a pair of Land-Rovers so that the tree would go the right way once felled: this was presumably to avoid it falling into the ditch which I suppose would perhaps be bad in terms of damage to the site, and would certainly be a big problem when it came to removing it.

Sadly the walking party missed seeing the tree felled, because they'd got fed up waiting and walked on. So it was a great irony that, doing nothing much back at the cottage, I suddenly heard a great noise outside and looked out of the window just in time to see the whole thing come down. It was quite a sight, and most unfair that Deb missed it. (I am not sure, however, that Daisy minded too much.)

With all that fun and games over it was time to set off for today's walk. Having done Avebury in detail on Monday and a lovely walk with lots of, er, Neolithicism yesterday, we decided to do something a bit different today. This was Country Walking's route 2473, Stairway to Heaven, which mildly amusing title will be explained in a paragraph or nine. The walk was a circular route starting in Devizes, the pleasant market town visited briefly on our first day. It was nice to have the opportunity to see it again.

One entertaining if slightly confusing element of this walk was that Country Walking had rather cleverly managed to publish the GPS waypoints in the wrong order, so that if you were foolish enough to use them as your primary guide to the route (which would actually be difficult as well as unrewarding) you'd find yourself doing the whole route backwards. However, I usually only use the GPS data for backup and reassurance, as the map leaflet is nicer and more informative. So the bad order was a bit disconcerting for a moment or two, but not more. I assume that the ability my GPS has, to reverse a route, is common - so once you have realized what the problem is, it is pretty rapidly sorted.

I should add that I did drop Country Walking an email about this once we were back. Most amusingly part of it was written backwards, aha, and in fact the magazine were so amused that they were clearly too busy laughing to reply. Aha. Marvellous.

IMG_8455 This was actually a rather good walk. We parked in a nice place by the canal then walked through Devizes' very attractive town centre (market place, pretty alley with old houses, churchyard) then out into the countryside. When a walk includes a town of any size, it's pretty inevitable - unless you're very lucky with its layout - that it will involve a perhaps slightly boring suburban bit and so it was with this one. Not dreadful or anything but a bit of an interlude between the charm of the town centre and the beauty of the countryside. Soon enough, however, the road becomes a lane then a track and peters out into a footpath and suddenly you're out of town. This was very pleasant - not spectacular but just nice open views over broad valleys and low hills.

Particularly good moments on this walk included a rather pretty school in a converted mill and, close to it (and perhaps connected?) a field with two llamas, or alpacas perhaps, in it. These fascinated Daisy and indeed us, with their synchronized movements so they almost looked as if they were connected.

IMG_8486 After that there was a lot of very pleasant open walking on old tracks, and Daisy at one point went off after deer, but came back like a Good(ish) Dog. Next, in the village of Poulshot, we visited a lovely pub, The Raven, where they serve excellent beer directly from big wooden kegs behind the bar. Despite the date it was easily warm enough to sit outside and we had their lovely stone-walled beer garden to ourselves. A delightful pause.

Then came the walk's final and (for me) crowning glory, the Caen Hill flight of locks on the Kennet and Avon Canal. As a kid I did a couple of sponsored walks to help fund the K&A's restoration. As far as I can remember this was because a friend of Dad's at work was involved; whatever the reason, it seems to have triggered an abiding interest in canals. Naturally I still have a particular soft spot for the K&A. When I knew it as a kid some parts were navigable - I remember a nice bit near Bathampton, where they offered boat rides - but other places were quite dry, sometimes little more than a broad green ditch. Thus it is a great pleasure to know that it's now entirely navigable so you can get to Bristol from London, via Bath, in a canal boat. This is very, very cool.

But even as I was doing those walks and wondering when this pound or that aqueduct would be restored the Caen Hill flight always seemed to be the big issue. This group of 29 broad locks had been derelict for decades and it was always clear that its restoration was going to be a massive challenge. Well, fast forward a bit and it's done - you can stand at the bottom and look straight up this long flight and imagine the effort and money that it must have taken to get it back into use.

It's a very imposing site but not conventionally beautiful. I know other flights of locks, probably on older canals, which curve their way down pretty hillsides and seem quite integrated into the landscape. Caen Hill does not do this. It just blasts through, straight up the side of the hill with not a hint of a curve: it reminds you that the canals, notwithstanding their present-day quaintness, were an industrial development, and time was money. This flight, built I think later on in the canal development era, doesn't apologize for anything as it charges confidently, perhaps even arrogantly, up the hill. It's very impressive.

IMG_8500 It's also straight and regular enough that you get interesting and weird perspective effects as you look up it. To really capture these I'd need a better camera and then the better camera would need a better photographer: however I will put an attempted photo here so you can at least see what I mean. Apparently LTC Rolt remarked that it looked like "the backbone of a huge fish". (I wish I'd said that.)

We stopped to eat lunch once we were about a third of the way up the flight. Each lock in the central group of 16 has a huge pound off to its side, because otherwise there wouldn't be enough volume in the short stretches between each lock and you'd be unable to regulate the water level sensibly. I think that what I mean by this is obvious, but if it isn't, please say so. Anyway, it means that the total expanse of water is huge, and it gives you these very nice pond-like things to sit by or admire. So for our lunch break we crossed over by some lock gates and found a comfortable bit of wall to sit on, and it was all very pleasant.

IMG_8498At one point a swan took off with the usual ponderous drama from the pound uphill from us. I was just saying, "I hope it clears those cables" when it flew gracelessly right into them with an audible thunk-twang. Fortunately it did not seem injured as it more or less bounced off and continued its flight, feathers just perhaps a little ruffled - and how often do you get to write that non-metaphorically?

IMG_8513 Lunch duly lunched we pressed on up the hill and Devizes gradually came out to meet us, and the walk ended with a very pleasant urban towpath bit leading us back to the quay where we'd started. This was a very fine walk of great charm and variety and I'd gladly do it again, especially with the GPS data in the right order!

In the evening we watched on DVD the entirely wonderful The Third Man - I'd forgotten how brilliant this film is. Deb was also pretty clearly impressed by the several minutes of it for which she was awake ... and that was pretty much it for Wednesday.


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