Saturday, 23 June 2012

Girl From the South Heads North

Yes - these are my working gloves!
My first two weeks living in the Lake District and working on the Fix the Fells programme have been eventful and I have loved every minute!  Fix the Fells is effectively a programme to reduce erosion and maintain paths on the fells. I have learnt more about erosion, path maintenance and ecology than I thought possible in such a short space of time, met some great people from all the organisations I work with and some fabulous volunteers who help make it all possible.  I have also moved house a lot in search of the perfect longer-term property and had to pack and unpack my rather large pink suitcase more times than I care to think about.  Travelling light was somehow missed out of my genetic make-up (but honestly the curling tongs are essential kit and how could I live without 12 pairs of shoes?)

The key things I have discovered:
1)      I actually love working in the outdoors (although relieved I have office/heel days to balance this new-found passion)
2)      The label on my waterproof mascara is 100% accurate
3)      The label on my waterproof trousers is only 50% accurate 
Erosion on Seat Sandal

So what have been the highlights of my first two weeks?  There have been many but I will focus on the outdoor side and will try and avoid too much detail (as I can now talk for England on erosion and the impact of it!)  On day two, I went to a meeting wearing my mountain-climbing gear!  This was bizarre to me and I had to fight every instinct that told me to put on heels (not sure they would have gone well with the rest of the outfit mind you) but after the meeting we went on a site visit to the fell Seat Sandal and that is definitely not somewhere for heels!  We set off up the steep grassy slope through bracken that has become a path mainly as a result of fell-runners (preferring grass to the rocky Raise Beck ascent) to see if there was some way of protecting the grass from further erosion.  Now I am used to climbing mountains as you know but I was with seven guys who do this every day and are much fitter than me so keeping up was a challenge!  I did my best and they took it in turns to walk more slowly with me whilst being kind enough to pretend I was not slowing them down (thank you).  We also looked at the more severe erosion on the other side of the fell which was causing rock falls.

Swirral Edge
Day three was a path survey up a rather wet and misty Helvellyn via Swirral Edge (monitoring erosion and deciding whether any preventative action needs to be taken) with a smaller group.  Having struggled to keep up the day before, I streamlined my rucksack and took out all non-essential items to try and lighten the load (lipstick and hairbrush remained obviously but the torch, Wainwright book, hypothermia bag just had to go!)  We drove up a track from Glenridding to a youth hostel and began the survey from there.  Part of the area of mountains near the youth hostel is classed as an Ancient Monument and there is the largest area of Juniper in the Lake District.  You can see the old mine workings as well.  The path was more gentle than the previous day and the benefit of path surveying is you get to stop more often.  Thank goodness!  

We had lunch at the foot of Swirral Edge (a rocky arête) and watched how people were using the path.  Rather than keeping to the true top of the arête, many people were branching off on the grassy slope to the left, which was causing erosion and screes to develop that were sending soil and rocks into Red Tarn and impacting on that delicate ecosystem.  I took the arête route to the summit of Helvellyn (the third time I had been on that summit with no views!)  Swirral Edge really is one of my favourite scramble-ascents of Lake District mountains.  

Tuesday's Working Group
The drain I helped build - so proud!
Week two saw me getting stuck into manual labour!  For those that know me you will be picking yourselves off the floor with laughter as manual labour and me have never really be combined before.  I wear gloves to do scrambles and screes so I don’t break any finger nails and rarely leave the house without putting on mascara.  However, I got stuck in and loved it!  On Tuesday I was part of a cycling working holiday on the slopes of Harter Fell near Jubilee Bridge with rangers and volunteers (to be clear, it was the volunteers who were doing the cycling holiday – I don’t do cycling).  I helped build a path drain with rocks, a shovel and a pick-axe!  Hurrah!  Everyone seemed to keep a safe distance when I was wielding the pick-axe for some reason but when we had finished, I felt a real sense of pride in being part of something so practical and I never knew I could move such enormous rocks – it may have lacked elegance as we shuffled and slid them but it was great fun!

View from the path near Jubilee Bridge
The following day I progressed from building path drains to replacing old stone-pitching on Helm Crag.  This is basically where you bury rocks in the ground to create steps on a section of path.  If I had thought the rocks were big yesterday they were nothing compared to these!  I dug out old rocks with an iron bar, collected small rocks and helped shift big rocks.  Everyone who walked passed seemed to appreciate the work we were doing, which was really nice and for those that took the time to say thank you, it was great to hear.  Stone-pitching is much slower work than building path drains however so I did not get to finish the section I was helping with but I remember the rocks involved and beware any visiting friends and family – you will be made to go and look at them (and the drain!)
My little piece of stone-pitching (unfinished)

My final outdoor part of week two was going to look at the work done on Martcrag Moor by the Basecamp Team.  They used sheep wool to create paths around eroded areas of peat as once the grass disappears the peat gets washed away really quickly.  The sheep wool allows water to flow but retains the peat.  I also saw the work on Stake Pass nearby, where rangers and volunteers have created a path by effectively digging the mountain to use the subsoil to create a sustainable path and remove the large erosion scar.  It was a very wet day and hence my discovery of the inaccuracy on my waterproof label as I was soaked by the time I got back to the vehicle!  Stake Pass is part of an old coffin route between Langdale and Borrowdale where coffins used to be carried from one village to the other for burial.  You can still see the flat coffin stones where they used to rest the coffins.

In between my time on the fells, I have managed to find some heel time and met some great people in the National Trust, National Park Authority and Natural England who are all passionate about what they are doing.  Everyone has made me feel very welcome.  I even had the opportunity to pop into the Sticklebarn event at the end of the week.  This is the first National Trust run pub in the country and the food and service were superb.  If you are in the Langdale area I would recommend it.  I have been in warm sunshine with beautiful views, soaking wet with no views, in offices with heels and on the fells with walking boots and even saw the Olympic Torch in Keswick.  I have learnt so much and am really looking forward to taking forward the Fix the Fells programme as I believe so strongly in it.  I am looking forward to week three!
The Olympic Torch in Keswick

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Friday, 1 June 2012

Royalty, Springs & Rocks

Tunbridge Wells is one of my favourite towns and as I will be spending a lot of time away from it in the coming months I have been appreciating it even more. I have lived near Tunbridge Wells for 10 years and it has a rich history and is somewhere that I believe merges the old with the new and the relaxing with the vibrant incredibly well.  I love that it is within easy travelling distance of Ashdown Forest, London and the coast, including Brighton (“little London”).  It also seems fitting with the Diamond Jubilee to write about somewhere with a Royal connection (besides, it has been far too long since I talked about somewhere with shops).
The Pantiles

One of the many historic buildings in the Pantiles
“The Wells”, in the form of the Chalybeate Spring was discovered by a Nobleman, Dudley Lord North in 1606 thereby attracting people from London and elsewhere to the area for over 400 years.  It was believed to have healing powers.  The coffee houses, shops and accommodation started to appear and they were all joined by a covered colonnade walkway which later became known (and is still known) as the Pantiles.  It remains the old part of the town and still has cafes, boutiques, restaurants and bars.  It is one of my favourite areas, especially in the spring and summer as the tables and chairs spill out onto the cobbles and paving and they hold regular quirky and fabulous markets along with festivals and music events from the old bandstand.

During Georgian times, Tunbridge Wells retained its links with royalty and the aristocracy and the social scene was arranged by Richard Beau Nash "Master of Ceremonies" who split his time between Tunbridge Wells and Bath.  Princess Victoria (later Queen Victoria) spent a lot of holidays in the town in the 1820s and 1830s and it was in Victorian times that rich businessmen began to live in the town as well as holiday there, with the town growing as a result.

The “Royal” prefix to the town was granted by King Edward VII to officially recognise the importance and popularity of it to royalty and the aristocracy.  I remember the celebrations for the 100 year anniversary of this event in 2009 – the town was alive with activity.  

The town centre
The former Opera House from 1902
For me, Tunbridge Wells maintains variety and charm.  The Pantiles is linked by the High Street (filled with more restaurants, bars, shops and cafes) to the more modern town centre which holds the Royal Victoria Place shopping centre (excellent choice of clothes and shoe shops) and nearby one of my favourite outdoor shops in the town lives within an old historic building with enormous pillars.  The former Opera House with beautiful green domes that opened in 1902 is now a pub, meaning a very different kind of singing sometimes emanates from it in the evenings!

2006 saw the 400 year anniversary of the discovery of the Chalybeate Spring and the launch of the Heritage Walking Trail that takes in various sites of historical interest, including its links with various famous people such as the novelists William Makepeace Thackeray and E.M. Forster who lived part of their lives here (in fact the home of Thackeray is now one of my favourite restaurants called, appropriately “Thackeray’s”, although the menu and wine prices mean this is for very special occasions only!)  It also takes in the place where Lord Robert Baden Powell (later founder of the Scout movement) had part of his early education.

It may not have mountains, but Tunbridge Wells abounds with unusual rock formations such as High Rocks and Wellington Rocks that are the result of movement on the faultline of the sandstone ridge.  There are also beautiful parks including a newly reconstructed one on the edge of the town called Dunorlan Park, which has a lake and boats to hire and views across the countryside.

Dunorlan Park
Tunbridge Wells is on the very edge of Kent so within a mile or two you travel into Sussex and both counties have pretty villages, all of which seem to be celebrating the Jubilee in earnest and I love village and community events like that.  I grew up in a village called Egerton (about 25 miles from Tunbridge Wells) and I still go back for the key village events (really looking forward to the fete in July this year).  The village of Goudhurst (see “Ancient Woodlands and the Hawkhurst Gang” for more on the history of that village) has even built a miniature Houses of Parliament on the village pond – how great is that?

Houses of Parliament on Goudhurst pond
So I love my local town of Tunbridge Wells and will be back often to visit it.  I would highly recommend it as somewhere that combines historical, modern, relaxed and vibrant cultures and architecture in one beautiful town in a beautiful part of the south east.  I often spend time using the cafes as my office so if you see someone in fabulous heels working away on a laptop in one of them, it could be me!  Both the town and the local villages throw a great party too so the Jubilee should be a great time.
Tilly in Ashdown Forest (close to Tunbridge Wells)

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