HAMPSHIRE WALKABOUT: Along the Malborough Downs.

 

HAMPSHIRE WALKABOUT: Along the Malborough Downs.

 Hampshire walkabout 418

Down the grassy way under a summer sky and through an arch of trees into a field of barley this time. Wayfarers walk crosses clean through it as it did with the prairie sized one south of Arlesford. This field is on a similar scale with a farm and wood on the other side.

Into a leafy lane where I’ve bracken and birdsong for company and the odd car seems an intruder.

Down a track and under the shade of a railway bridge for a break. The bridge is the only sign of the first of 2 railways running west of Basingstoke. This one veering south to Winchester is the one I use now and then. When I’m flashing by above its difficult if not impossible to pick out this spot, the railway being hidden by trees along the embankment from the surrounding countryside and vice versa.

On up a slope past boys jolting down this grassy rutted track on mountain bikes. The track goes on between hedgerows and trees and I spot a butterfly.

Another lane, an upmarket country house and a silver leaved tree which doesn’t look part of the natural landscape tells me I’ve arrived at the hamlet of Deane. There’s a main road here, a bus stop – not that I need it – and a pub which would be good for a coffee if it’s open. I’m not sure it’s still in business.

I can see the bus stop at the crossroads ahead looking the same as the one in Dummer;- a hut like affair with – I find later – no timetable. The pub looks like it would after man. Derelict. Boarded up. Another dried up waterhole. I take a quick break at the bus stop then get moving. I’ve now got serious uphill hiking ahead of me up on to the Malborough Downs.

It begins past a church and a rustic abode called ‘Tom’s Cottage.’ A grassy path up through another wheatfield with – as with many others – swathes and flattened strips running off in parallel stretches, lines and curves. People will ask me about ‘crop circles’ after this walkabout but they’re not that.

A hedge at the top. Good for another break sitting on the grass relaxing agains the backpack. Already there is a view.

The grassy way continues up through another repetitious field. The horizon’s close though. Daisies survive along the edge of the way. Lichens too I see on brickwork when I reach a bridge over the 2nd railway beyond the close horizon at the top of the field. I get a photo of a train.

There’s a level patch. 3 horses under 3 trees at the edge of a field. A long clipped residential hedge of alternating light and conifer green foliage along a grass verged lane. Neat low fences. A barn. A bulrush swamped pond. A line of cows. Everything is picturesque here.

Then the ground ascends over a series of slopes and hills clad in wheat and woods with the odd farm nestling in them. The views to the south increase.

I’ve strained my left foot, feeling it first back at Doug’s when I got up in the morning. It seemed to recover but now I’m going uphill it’s worse: hurting enough to slow my rate of progress.

On a rare downhill slope in a wood I pick up a discarded water container with a tube attached. I’m rescuing it from being rubbish as I might be able to make use of it.

I’m heading for Hannington – one of the highest villages anywhere – on the eastern end of the Malborough Downs or North Hampshire Downs as they can be known here. Hannington is near that radio mast I saw yesterday but it’s main attraction is a hog roast at the village pub. A rare stroke of good luck puts this on my route on the right day. Doug had gloomily assured me he’d always found the pub closed, which contrasts with my fantasy of drunken revelry with countryfolk. Anyway I was there once before and it was okay then.

Or it’s practically on the route. Wayfarers Walk works its way round to the west of the village and I decide to follow that, leaving it at a spot I can get back to. I reach a lane at the hamlet of North Oakley, follow it past a few houses and trees out round the shoulder of the down. Over widening horizons hangs a variety of cloud; the sun shining through the higher haze highlights the thicker stuff into spectacular formations.

I strike off through inclining fields and reach a track. The map no longer makes much sense but the direction and lie of the land is obvious making the last mile or two of purgatory bearable.

I get into Hannington past some outbuildings emerging on to the village green by the church. The village seems deserted apart from a spectacular old car on the far side of the green and a lady who assures me I’m on the right track.

The village is at the pub along with numerous representatives of the surrounding countryside. I can’t get to the bar, but after cleaning up I see a big garden at the rear full of people attending the hog roast itself and ale being served there which is more available. Obective achieved. Having obtained the necessary victuals I relax and rest my feet on the grass by a low wall and a couple of young but large ladies, having impressed them with tales of my trek. Before long though drinking and eating (let’s get the priorities right) take over, giving me time to think.

I’ve got here in time for a limited break before going on further to what I call the Kinsgclere escarpment: the high ridge of the chalk downland just south of the village of Kingsclere. When I was much younger my family used the road over it as part of a route from our home at Burghfield near Reading to the A303 at Andover, which would take us to Devon and Cornwall. Later I did likewise on a motorbike. There was a layby near the top of that ridge with a spectacular view. That would be good for a rendevous with Steve, the last friend I would be staying with.

There was a fair amount of personal history here. More than 20 years ago I’d reached this pub on another hike to Andover which was the longest I’ve ever walked in one day: 32 miles.

When I got going parts of me were aching but it was only a few miles now. I couldn’t be bothered going back to the point where I’d left the route because the detour added more miles than I’d have hiked had I stayed on Wayfarers Walk anyway.

Hampshire walkabout 553

Back on the lane I followed it over a hill towards a pylon. On top a line of them marched across great open expanses of crops barely contained by the odd hedgerow and wood. In the middle of all this combine harvesters and tractors laboured like stylised insects.

My mobile rang. I was about to phone Steve and he’d beaten me to it. He’d just got home and would come out and pick me up for I can’t have been much over a mile from our rendevous. Faraway views stretched south and north. I was on the crest of the downs now and was walking down a grassy track – easy on the feet – through a vast blanket of cropland to where the line of it disappeared over the brow of the downland scarp.

The layby was indeed on the other side of that and I didn’t have long to wait for Steve, though he turned up behind me having driven up the back lanes.

Steve was a physicist working at AWRE. Or Awe Plc as it’s marked on Google Earth now. It wasn’t all atomic weapons for at one stage he had been involved in fusion power research: atomic power without the dangerous disadvantages. Like me he was a single guy living on his own but in some ways had a jet set lifestyle, flying to places in the USA such as the eastern seaboard and Los Alamos. I knew him because he was also a science fiction fan.

Steve lived in a semi more modern than Doug’s just south of ‘Awe Plc’ between Tadley and Silchester: site of the ancient Roman capital of southern Britain. He also lived on the edge of Pamber Forest: a tract of ancient woodland which existed as far back as Norman times. After I showered I was ready to pay for a Chinese meal for both of us in Tadley. Over more beers and a full meal deal he very kindly offered to run me up to the Kingsclere escarpment early in the morning before work.

 

Good though the meal and offer was it didn’t improve my left foot by the following morning, despite treatment with ointment. It ached with twinges of agony when I descended the stairs. My bloody mindedness took over now. Nothing for it but to press on, even if it meant hospital after the walkabout.

Hampshire walkabout 565

Back on the Kingsclere escarpment the view was certainly spectacular with early morning sunlight and shadow highlighting every aspect of everything under a sky of awesome cloud formations. In particular a towering fan shaped mass lying to the north east just like the one seen near Arlesford.

Steve and I took photographs of each other but he had to get to work. I had to get moving too. The shape of that cloud reminded me of ones I saw long ago on the Congo;- anvil and mushroom shapes slow motion expanding/exploding like immense hydrogen bombs over that river and rainforest. Stormclouds. Convection rainfall. That was what they meant. Unusual to have that so early in the morning though. The cloud I was looking at now covered the Lower Thames Valley and could spread so that spurred me to hobble on along the downs. I was like an ant making my way around and away from the cloud’s edge.

On my own again, apart from a few other dots on the landscape: a man and his dog, also dwarfed by the fan of cloud. Above wheeled a corresponding number of large birds. Of prey possibly.

Far out in the dark masses of trees making up the middle and far distance was a level pale streak of industrial development. It could be – being in the right direction – the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment. If that was it the setting did look suitably sombre under that doomsday cloud for the original purpose. Steve should be arriving there now.

I was creeping up a long incline towards Watership Down. An unforgettable book and film about a journey to a promised land and a struggle won was set here with rabbits as the characters. My family and I had been to Watership Down once finding the copse where Richard Adams placed the final home of the migrating rabbits. Some wag had carved ‘Bigwig was here’ on a tree.

I saw nothing like that. Just a bare expanse of down divided along its length by a what looked like a racecourse, with occasional clumps of foliage spaced far apart but behind each other on my side of the course, looking like isolated sections of hedge. Deciding to rest at one I realised it was a jump for horses. Like the Lambourn Downs to the north this was horsebreeding country, and ideal training country.

I donned my mac for the outer haze of that cloud was spreading above shutting out the sunlight. It looked like rain and things didn’t look good. Apart from the depressing lack of sunlight and the foot I needed a loo despite taking care at that back at Steve’s. There was nothing like a pub until I got off the Malborough Downs near the end of the day’s walk. Oh well, when the going gets tough the tough ..well…hold on. Apart from getting going again of course.

Later I met a wood on the wrong side of my route where the ridge bent back in an embayment. That meant I must have wandered along Watership Down and left it without realising it! I didn’t remember that racecourse when I was here with my family so that must have confused me. After the walkabout Google Earth showed that if I’d wanted to get to the wood with the Bigwig carving I should have stuck to the track which went past it instead of leaving it just before the horsetraining stretch to get more of a view northwards off the downs.

There was a lot of money in these parts. A large country house come mansion sat in parkland below the escarpment.

After a few miles of views obscured by the wood and an Iron Age hill fort I was turning south into a southerly bulge in the route; descending to a gap in the hills where a main road went through. Back on the downs on the other side it was only a few more miles to the next main road which led down to a pub and accomodation. Thank God I’d planned limited distances for the last 2 days of the hike.

Descending from the high ground one could see that the road was busy with trucks and various vehicles moving at speed as though on a never ending conveyer belt. I’d be alright though for the ordnance survey map showed a bridge where Wayfarers Walk met the road.

Things were becoming more man made instead of natural. A helicopter – possibly police – was above. On the shoulder of a hill was a regimented windbreak of pine trees, 2 abreast. A pylon line swept over the steppe like stubble of a harvested wheatfield and a tractor on the skyline.

At last I could see the bridge under the road. It wasn’t until I got close that I realised the traffic was not going over the bridge but thundering past the other side. I’d misread the map, it was a disused railway bridge not a subway under the road!

There was a signpost but that looked damaged and the information there was useless. I went under the bridge to take a closer look at the road: made up of dual carriageways, no way under or over it, a gap in the crash barriers in the middle and it didn’t look too difficult on the other side, but the traffic was heavy enough for a motorway and it should have been one, being the main route from Southampton to the Midlands. Not a road I wanted to cross but the ground looked unkempt and impassable to the south and the map seemed to show the same thing to the north. Unless I crossed it I faced huge detours either way.

What I’m about to describe is not what I would advise anyone to do. But there was a traffic gap big enough for the next vehicles to be specks down the road on my side. It’s now or never! MY HAT’S BLOWN OFF! KEEP MOVING! Without stopping my run I got to the safe enough centre. After several cars had gone through there was – by sheer luck – another gap like the first one. Get the hat and get out of here! MISSED IT! GOT IT GO! I made it back under the bridge. At no time had any vehicle hooted me so I can’t have been close enough to them for it to be life threatening.

Nevertheless a direct crossing was out. Far too dangerous. I wasn’t even sure that somebody wasn’t alerting a police helicpter to get on my case. Got to work out another route on the map.

Going further south looked hopeless for a long way and would deepen the bulge in the route sending me miles off course. To the north though closer perusal showed that there was a barely visible sign of a subway under that road by a confusion of disused railway lines. A track on the other side led south then cut westwards across the bulge to rejoin the route on top of the scarp of the downs. That was the way to win this ‘battle of the bulge’ if that subway existed.

Then just as I was getting under way a small group of people appeared from the south telling me there was a way under the road in that direction. Just what I didn’t need for it reintroduced indecision, it was the wrong direction and the only track that way appeared to be a path used by animals heading straight into brambly undergrowth.

It was a difficult choice but I stuck to my plan. It was only a mile north and I got on to the disused railway but it seemed longer than a mile of course. Trudging along I reflected that this railway was one of those condemned to dereliction by Doctor Beeching when railways disappeared across Britain, removing a solution to global warming just before that became a problem. Getting rid of this railway was one of his worst choices. It was the main line to the north from Southampton and now the passengers and freight displaced by its demise were on that main road, so this railway was a strategically important line. What underlined the whole business was the route of this road or motorway not just following the railway here but also around Newbury. That was the notorious Newbury bypass over which a battle was fought with protestors! Talk about unnecessary; had that line remained open.

There was the subway! A crude square hole but the green of foliage on the other side promised salvation. On the other side there were a pair of pheasants to greet me.

That huge cloud had overextended, losing its fringe where I was, so my mac was back in the bag for now the sun was powering up the heat again and the chalk of the track was reflecting it up at me. It was only a small rise ahead but I had to cave in on it until I could get some water into me and relax my feet.

The landrover materialising right by me must have been driving on carpet slippers I thought. Quiet enough to have beamed down from whatever mansion around here it belonged to. Hardly welcome after the crisis I’d been through and ongoing physical trial. I didn’t like the leer on the face of the young guy in it either.

The real problem though was proposed by the driver: an old farmer Giles type judging by the accent. This was a private road and I shouldn’t be here etcetera. It developed into a regular verbal pissing contest to mark territory, what with him stating I should be back where I was and me replying that the signposting there was bad – for all I knew he was responsible for it – that this track would lead to the right route and I didn’t want to get wiped out on the motorway! He was impervious to my enterprise being a sponsored walk – which gave a clue as to his character – as did his persistence in repeating himself. It became a circular conversation for when the chips are down my resolve is firm.

Eventually he gave ground lecturing me in detail about where to walk to on the track – which was wrong – while I conned him by pretending to listen dutifully.

Oh you’re finally going now jolly good! That’s right just sod off and take your wide boy son or worker with you who – judging by the leer – thinks he’s cleverer than anyone he meets. I needed this pair like a turd in the backside when I was trying to recover my strength, with a bad foot while needing a loo, to complete a challenge for a worthy cause, after a trial of nerves that could have been life threatening. Better get going anyway before I get arrested.

Another battle won so some martial music was right to play in my mind at a time like this. A war game at home dealing with the Russian front offered 2 themes: ‘forward to the glorious slaughter comrades’ or what I can only describe as ‘the Hitlerjugend top ten.’ Innapropriate I know but my justification is Lily Marlene being enjoyed on both sides during the war. One in particular gave me strength;- demonic probably since gunfire formed the orchestra. It’s sentiment was so what if danger threatens on all sides, we have our courage and our cause. Shame about the cause in their case.

The best one for me though was ‘Dad’s Army.’ “Who do you think you are kidding Mr Hitler” and so forth. The comedy of geriatrics and misfits taking on what could have been a horrific challenge and succeeding in their aim through no fault of their own. That together with the proud marching music was unbeatable for me. Maybe it was my imagination but my foot actually seemed to be improving.

The scarp I had to get back up was an decent opponent compared to the ones just gone, exerting a tough but fair price for being overcome, with a few surprises on the way up.  The first being a deer which dashed into a wheatfield so I could only photograph its antlers and title it ‘spot the deer.’  The 2nd being a log for taking a break on, with a good view under a few nice little trees giving cover from the sun and helicopters that might be hunting me.

I took photos and mulled things over. It wasn’t farmers I was against, feeling that there should be a code along the lines of Thou Shalt Not Leave Litter Or Disturb Livestock taught more effectively at schools and to the general public everywhere. After all if they were going to wander around the countryside like me they had to be considerate to whoever was there. I drew the line at the attitude of those landowners who didn’t seem considerate. There was a lot of money around here. Too often there seemed to be a progression from that to landowners assuming they could seal off huge amounts of country and make footpaths disappear. And I hadn’t forgotten how one with a similar attitude to what I’d just encountered had put me on to a dangerous main road I was trying to avoid on my first walk for the school.  That gave me enough bloody mindedness to attempt any number of hikes.

I was back on the downs and there was the linkup with Wayfarers Walk! A notice I’d just passed declared ‘ESTATE VEHICLES ONLY’ when I looked back at it. In the spirit of Dad’s Army I gave it the Churchill salute.

The trek to the next main road went smoothly enough along the crest of the downs; which were a kind of causeway between views of rolling English countryside under cumulus cloud cluttered skies. Except when there was a wood. In it I found a short tower like a castle turret. The word that sprung to mind was ‘folly’ but it was obviously inhabited with cars parked outside.

At the main road the bus stop shown on Google Earth wasn’t even there. Not even a shelter as far as I could see. That meant negotiating a main road down to a pub and where I was staying that night. The road was narrow for a main one and full of bloody blind bends. It didn’t seem much less dangerous than the road I’d come from. Luckily the main traffic was on that road and this one was quiet enough to hear vehicles coming. My objectives weren’t too far either.

I worked my way down to a straight stretch and there at last was the pub! Now would it be closed like that one south of Basingstoke? Just what I didn’t need but the place I was staying at was only a mile further.

Thank God it was open though! I was happy enough not to care about the wait for the loo and explaining the wait to the guy after me. Perched on a bar stool chatting to the barmaid later with a hearty meal and a few pints I was still too content to leave that for a more comfortable sofa. It was a rambling rustic thoroughly nice pub. My trials were over.

Well not quite. Afterwards the road hemmed me in again. Just as I was about to enter the tree tunnel come bobsleigh run with traffic I had to cross back over the road to understand what a man on the other side of it was calling across to me. He told me it was a dangerous road. I knew that but he meant well. He was one of the few surviving blacksmiths in England. His workplace behind him was a long dilapidated looking shed. After he’d gone back in I decided to take a look. He was hunched over his work so I decided not to disturb him and tackled the road again. (Remember you’ve been drinking so stay sharp!) There was a way out some distance down this road but I was hoping for a break in the hedge before then.

There was one, leading into an unkempt meadow. Hopefully there was an opening in the other end. There was and the farm I was staying at was after that.

I arrived. Solid Georgian looking farmhouse on the left, converted outbuilding on the right. That consisted of a big meeting/dining room with stairs up to a landing and bedrooms. Mine was up there with a sloping roof ceiling, roomy and comfy with a bathroom and shower. After some confusion with the shower I slept through the late afternoon; I’d arrived early. That bed was bliss.

In the evening I’d recovered enough to realise there was a small flatscreen TV across the room. Okay for channel surfing on remote while in comfort in bed. The TV informed me that the big cloud I was on the edge of that morning had flooded Ruislip and cause bad weather chaos elsewhere. All in all I’d come out of today pretty well.

 

Hampshire walkabout 700

The final day beckoned. There was a big breakfast while outside a shadow dappled lawn enticed me with seats under trees and animals beyond idyllic in morning sunlight. But I had to be on my way for the final push.

It was a piece of cake. Instead of a main road I’d learned there was a quiet parallel lane up to the escarpment, perfect for me. Up that lane past hedgerows wild and ornate with gardens behind, up to the golden fields beyond I strolled, all bathed in that beautiful sunlight. Before I knew it I was through a wood and back up at the folly on top of that scarp slope. It looked more picturesque from this side.

On the other side of the main road there was a long woodland track with glimpses to the left of copses beyond fields full of the high yellow grass of wheat, reminding me of savannah I’d seen in Botswana what with the rising heat. To the right was a stretch where vegetation ended closer than it should, unless there was a steep slope with great views beyond.

Eventually there were. A farm nestled below in a fold of terrain and woods. Nearby the whole region seemed to disappear under a dark green lawn of trees blocking out open areas like fields, extending to the far horizon. An immense wooded park was another way of putting it for here and there I could make out the roofs and upper parts of some of those big landowner properties.

Later one of the boys I took to school saw a photo of that and exclaimed in high pitched wonder “you can see the whole world!” just like Fiver in ‘Watership Down.’ Well not the whole world really but the views up here did inspire a sense of wonder.

Even the property up here was good. Such as that folly and a house I came across in another wood. It’s architecture appeared influenced by Scandinavia, Japan or Frank Lloyd Wright, rather than the pretentious overpriced bogus little England boxes that we are supposed to devote our lives to. But it was as though I was on a higher plane now. Not only spiritually but literally. Even a helicopter over one of those private estates was below me.

Hampshire walkabout 795

As I walked along this level ridge I felt as though I’d broken through some sort of pain barrier too. The most extraordinary thing was my foot didn’t hurt at all now! I’d noticed that on my way up to this ridge but felt it couldn’t last, but it was. Also I’d told the young guys at the radio interview that there was no such thing as perfect hiking weather but I was wrong and this was it! The beautiful weather was not only continuing but there was a breeze this high up that took the edge off the heat. Quite weird actually how after days of some sort of discomfort that I took for granted was a condition of hiking the whole thing had become painless enough to indicate I’d achieved a higher plane of existence.

Hampshire walkabout 803m

Then there were all those white clouds. They’d been forming up from little puffs and odd wisps into shapes and distribution that looked idealised, almost regular. Almost as though the children at the school had painted them! Had I expired and wound up in some sort of Heaven for someone who walks for a special needs school? That would explain the kiddie clouds and total lack of any sort of discomfort. All this and the landscape which was idyllic enough to be unreal under those clouds and endless immensities of blue sky, of a deep blue hinting at a subtly different atmosphere. Was I – on the other hand – on another planet that looked remarkably like England?

I wandered on in this bemused state but didn’t remain on my own. Normalcy returned to some extent when I met a local man out walking his dog. There was the companionship of a long rambling conversation with him; the sort one has in this sort of setting and weather.

That encouraged me to think – when we parted – that there’ll be more people on Walbury Hill – my objective – who could take a photo of the triumph of me completing another walk for the school. I was almost there. The last few miles of a walk can be psychologically the toughest but today had been a perfect day.

The track led past wildflowers and bushes to what had become a close horizon and I was there. On the highest hill in south east England. More of a featureless grassy plateau actually, probably because it was also an Iron Age hill fort. There were also no people to record my success. Oh well.

Hampshire walkabout 820

Wayfarers Walk ended here but the track led on to more views appearing where a few trees guarded the edge of the hill. A line of small clouds seemed to drift up and away into the summer sky like a few last stray thoughts on the whole enterprise.

There were all the people in cars! In a car park just off the hill and and along a high lane where they could still see the view. Was I becoming one of the last wild men while everyone else was evolving into a race of legless Daleks? Oh well. Just down the lane was a memorial to a group of men who’d had to be much tougher than any of us: the paratroopers who’s stormed the Merville Battery at the onset of the D Day landings. They’d practised the assault here because the terrain was suitable.

Walbury Hill might have been a bit of an anticlimax and I still actually had some miles to go, but it was downhill mostly, through a profusion of leafy lanes and it was still a lovely day. Besides, there was a pub I would soon reach where I could celebrate.

Ramble on. Down the hill past bushy wildflowered banks and stunning views. Into the shadow of sunken lanes where a tractor trims a hedge. Past a country mansion whose owner is disturbing the peace powering up the racket on his machine to mow his massive front lawn. Through a tree resplendant hollow with a signpost for Kintbury where I catch the train. The pub should be just up on the right and there it was but….

Oh no it was being refurbished! Just looking at a refurbishment can make me feel tired and builders hoardings can make me feel as though I’m being confronted with a blank wall of crap. Irritating. Apart from which they were probably ruining a perfectly good and historically valuable pub. Another manifestation of property values driven by market forces which I love to loathe. Once clear of it there seemed to be nobody around so I vented my feelings at the top of my voice with a poem I’d composed:-

“Abandon hope all ye who enter here.

Brainwashed shalt thou be.

Calloused.

Dumbed down.

Erased of courage and creative thought.

Fearful otherwise.

Gravity, debt pressing down on you like gravity.

Home ownership or financial black hole either way. 

In the status quo of property.

Just conform and be streetwise.

Kill all other dreams, all creativity.

Less they become a liability.

Marketing of mortgages makes us grateful slaves.

NO!

Ownership I don’t decry.

Perhaps I’d have owned more if that was run differently.

Question though one’s life revolving round it.

Rebel against the money tied up in it!

Stunting us with mortgages, maintenance, bloody refurbishments!

The curse of cowboy builders, DIY neighbours, estate agents.

Useless Mr. & Mrs. Dimmo on property programme infested TV!

Vent your spleen, their budget would set up you, me, or the odd 3rd world country.

Wankers.  And to Hell with those mortgage marketing bonus bankers!

X for execrable.

Yield not to the wonderland of property.

Zombiefied otherwise shalt thou be.”

It wasn’t home ownership I was against, it was the colossal amounts of money, conformity and lack of freedom tied up in it.  It’s not that I intended this blog to be an anti property diatribe but too often some manifestation of it seemed to interfere in my affairs and others.

Just as well I’d finished my rant anyway by the time I’d crossed what was Inkpen Common and reached ‘Hell Corner.’  Nothing hell like about it.  Just a party of people in a wooded lane around children on ponies.  Ramble on.  Down the rest of Rooksnest Lane into another lane named Pebble Hill, which became Blandy’s Hill after another mansion.  Ramble on.  Ramble on.  That was actually the title of a track based on Middle Earth by the rock group Led Zeppelin:-

“Twas in the darkest depths of Mordor

I met a girl so fair.

But Gollum and the Evil One!

Crept up and slipped away with her-er

Her her. Yeah.

And there aint nothing I can do about it.

So I guess I’ll keep on rambling!”

I’d started writing about this adventure by referring to Gandalf so why not finish in the same vein, or world?  Middle Earth and The Shire.  I could identify with some of the song, especially the bit about “Gonna work my way, round the world” which I’d done.  I confess that one of the reasons I’d ‘rambled’ or walked through many places and went on my travels was ti compensate for things I felt I couldn’t do much about, by experiencing and achieving things others hadn’t.

I’d reached Kintbury.  I replenished at a corner shop; the only one I’d seen on the entire journey, then found an ice cream van after passing a graveyard.  Then I was crossing the canal by the railway, just missing a train.  There was another pub where I relaxed with a few pints and the barman took photos of me with the deflated balloon draped over the backpack.  The other refurbished pub and just been a blip in a day good enough to be memorable.  Not to mention the journey; an incredible fact struck me about that.  Despite walking 65 miles I didn’t have any blisters!

I finished a celebratory pint and crossed the canal to the station, hoping I’d missed the train again so I could go back to the pub.  I hadn’t.

Got a good shot on the way home of a big cloud haloed by its shadow.  A similar effect to those mountains at dawn in the French Alps.  I’d taken a shedload of photos on this journey, plenty for the photolibrary.

 

Sometime after I got home I notified Hampshire County Council about the lack of good signposting where Wayfarers Walk met that road, telling them it was a deathtrap because of that and because the bridge was not fenced so people could walk straight on to that traffic filled highway.

In September I would run into a brick wall trying to collect sponsor forms.  Nobody would know about them or care.  The biggest disappointment being my community centre where the form would be removed from the noticeboard over the holidays and not be found afterwards.  Nevertheless I would still make £250.50p.  More than last time.  There would be another school assembly in my honour.  Like last time.

In the meantime I was in for a couple of weeks of R and R.  Then it was off to the biggest SF convention ever in London.  Party on!

© D Angus 11 04

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

HAMPSHIRE WALKABOUT: Over hill and down dale.

 

The heat of yesterday seemed to have left a hazy morning when Jay dropped me in Droxford. Mostly thin cloud above, muting brightness and colours below as I hiked up Wayfarers Walk – a lane at this point – to the edge of the village where small children being dropped off at a small school eyed the good luck balloon floating along tethered to me. ‘What’s the story there?’ I think I explained to one of the mothers. After all I’d brought the balloon to attract attention and had decided to let it drift along with me for the whole walk.

I think asking questions is – or should be – a child’s basic right, but I wasn’t sorry to move on, beyond the school and end of the lane to the peace and solitude of open country. Apart from a distant tractor with harvester which disappeared over the shoulder of a hill. It was gradual uphill going to a much steeper slope below which the track turned right though a wood towards a saddle between hills.

A bramble or something got the balloon in the wood. I noticed it trailing along the ground on the other side. What now? I’d keep it throughout the walk. It might have perished but its soul goes marching on!

Hampshire walkabout 066

The sun was coming out now over the wheatfields, a few already cut to stubble. The Meon Valley ethereal beyond, below a veil of cloud across Hampshire vaporising into blue sky.

On the saddle was a junction of lanes. Back on the hill I could see a writhing track that looked designed for go carts but Google Earth has given no clue.

Beyond the junction Wayfarers Walk went down the side of a golf course through a stretch of bushes grown thickly beside and over the path like a woody cloister.

A problem with golf courses was getting across them. Apart from navigation – and flying golf balls – there might be no right of way. I was questioned by a man hosing the green when I came to a break in the bushes but a relaxed chat led to friendly directions and a photo of him at his work.

Hampshire walkabout 076

Crossing the course I came across a seat. Always make use of them on a long walk and I did. 3 old golfers came up when I was drinking and asked me if I was alright? Well I was splayed out a bit and – drinking water – looked as though I was hooked up to a plasma bag;- my water ‘bottle.’ Another friendly chat and they proceeded to play from the green I was at the edge of. In a professional manner. One hit his ball so hard I couldn’t see it fly!

Trees and a hedge. Harder to leave the course than it was to get in. There was a ‘B’ road too. Straight for that kind of road though and without much traffic. Easy enough to find the footpath leaving it too.

I’d been going down a gentle slope since the beginning of the golf course and that continued. The trail through Hampshire became narrow with undergrowth between a hedge bordering a field and woodland. It was here that I met a couple of other hikers. One at least was a postman and he was 75! Fitter than I was for one’s age – what one might call ‘spry’ – but he’d had the ideal job for it. There’s a lot of walking in delivering mail so that was first rate preparation for what a nurse had told me was good exercise when one’s older. Walking’s moderate exercise so it’s just right for the heart without straining it. Something one should watch when over 60. Then the conversation moved on to a more ribald topic: ‘Betty Mundy’s Bottom.’ It was a dry valley going up towards a chalk ridge. There were millionaires properties up that way too. There was a garden full of statues. Property is an altar I refuse to worship at so I brought up the subject of a certain notorious property magnate who was against The Ramblers association. After an entertaining round of shared condemnation I left them thinking I’d be running into people on the trail to talk to throughout Hampshire. What with the golf course and Percy yesterday. As it turned out there was no-one else really until Berkshire.

Betty Mundy’s Bottom was a defile carpeted by blocks of woodland and wheatfields leading to a long slope up to some of the highest ground in Hampshire. I nearly got lost at the start of it on a lane when it veered uphill through a wood. A map check revealed it shouldn’t have done that. It also revealed that the lane was ‘Sailors Lane.’ Did someone naming this part of the world have an inappropriate sense of humour? Good for them! ‘Inappropriate’ is a word that sets my teeth on edge: a mealy mouthed kiss of death office politicians charter of a word from the politically correct.

Blessed be the politically correct, for they shall inhibit the Earth.

By that time the photogenic regularity of a hedge and grass verge was hinting at serious money; but I didn’t see any statues. There was an extensive property though on the point of a major expansion.

Once round and past that Wayfarers Walk crossed a narrow wheatfield between conifer woods where I found a big flint stone shaped just like a giant’s mitten. I was more into geology than who owned what. It’s not clear exactly how flint was formed but it’s found in chalk and chalk covers a great deal if not most of Hampshire. I’d entered the great swathe of it below Droxford and most of the hike would be across a chalk landscape I would not be leaving until I came off the Malborough Downs to go home. Chalk was deposited as a marine sediment in the Upper Cretaceous when the giant marine monsters then were given more seagoing room by a rise of 300 meters in ocean levels. Again it’s not clear why this happened but today a rise like that would submerge southern and central England and leave features such as Dartmoor and the Pennines as small islands. After the chalk’s formation – and the comet that took out the marine reptiles among other monsters – the newly forming Alps warped the chalk strata and erosion sculpted it into ridges and escarpments such as the South Downs and Malborough Downs.

Oh by the way there was a 2nd millionaires property forcing a steep detour uphill through another wood; but that was nothing like as bad as the miles down a dangerous main road added to my route by a landowner 2 years ago on the Surrey Sussex border. Just a pleasant shady hike around 3 sides of a box tilted uphill then back to the planned route.

Before long I was actually ascending up to the South Downs. The western end of it – where the South Downs Way crosses Wayfarers Walk – is a dotted line of higher hills and ridges rather than the more obvious line of chalk downland. I’d stopped for a map check and water break where the trudge uphill started. Under blue skies with puffs of cloud it felt warm to hot but not as severe as yesterday. Maybe there was a bit more breeze and I was travelling light.

The ridge ahead was nearly 200 metres high but I was already at 100 metres in Betty Mundy’s Bottom. The trouble with hills is the convex slope. What you see at the top isn’t the top but a shallower slope out of sight of your incline. And so on. The view’s worth it though. I was amazed to make out the refinery at Fawley on the South Coast. About 15 miles away as the crow flies. In this part of the world one gets used to views being hemmed in by nearby hills, woods or houses. Plenty of opportunities for photos of faraway Fawley along with the occasional flint walled building.

There was a lot of Hampshire to see at a stile on the other side of the ridge too. Beyond the stile though was an easy grassy slope down through occasional trees spaced out like a park not far below one. In contrast to a typical South Downs scarp slope: steep and a long way down.

In the parkland I caught side of a deer on the edge of a wood and shot on maximum zoom. Not one of my best shots but at least the deer shows up well in the sunlight against the dark green shadowy backdrop of the wood. Once in awhile deer can be seen – usually when on foot – in Hampshire at least.

Further on I came to a wheatfield with a difference. The footpath led straight across it towards a tree which was the proverbial speck on the horizon! A notice notified me of ‘ground nesting birds please keep to footpath.’ Had no intention of doing anything else.

Hampshire walkabout1 137

It’s size and parched look under the sun reminded me of a desert once I was crossing it under this hot sun going camera happy. Sometimes my mind becomes a kind of radio playing music. I was wandering through a county so rather than a walk I felt ‘walkabout’ to be more of a correct word. So I should be thinking about that beautiful music in the film ‘Walkabout’ starring Jenny Agutter wandering through the Australian desert. What came to mind instead was the theme to ‘The Big Country.’ Long ago my mind had played that in South Africa when I was on a motorbike crossing a real desert! Now I was crossing a Hampshire that few people see: a prairie sized field under a sky big enough for ‘The Big Country!’ That exultant theme and this landscape expressed the excitement of the challenge of freedom. Braving the unknown. I was doing that again with this walkabout. YE-Haah!

Later on this trek I was to find my definition of desert for this field closer to the truth than I realised. A low big leaved plant like an alien intruder on an otherwise bare path was a clue.

The tree was part of a hedge with another wheatfield on the other side. Smaller though thankfully. Elsewhere it looked as though whatever wasn’t wood in this part of England was wheat. Great stretches of it. At least I think it was wheat and not barley. Checking my photos against Google Images seems to prove this.

Beyond all that lay Kilmeston. This village began with well kept paddocks where there was a horse wearing a zebra coloured cover, incongruously. Actually a zebra is a kind of horse. A weed choked path brought me to a neighbourhood of small village greens, tree tunnels and fields between rustic cottages. I saw no people. Just a rabbit. And later another horse.

Beyond that were meadows and a big house on a hill. And a big cloud. I’d noticed this near the horizon while crossing the wheat region but now I was out of the confines of Kilmeston it was a lot closer, covering the north and east, having the kind of grey hue that spelt out steady persistent rain.

By the time I’d reached some gardens near the house there was an overcast quality to the light. Hinton Ampner was the name of the place. National Trust and well worth visiting one day. I was actually about to come out of the ‘South Downs National Park’ here. I’d entered it south of Droxford. Here I could take a few photos from a gate, of a garden of grassy aisles flanked by junipers and lush foliage, but the light was bad enough to give the scene the sombre feel of an Agatha Christie murder.

I tried to move faster. It looked as though it could start raining at any time. There were a few pubs in a long village – Cheriton – strung out along a ‘B’ road and stream, actually the source of the River Itchen. The pubs weren’t in sight of Wayfarers Walk though. ‘B’ roads in villages have pavements and lack of hedges so the going was easy, so I pushed on.

And on along the road. The rain held off.

Hampshire walkabout 193

Long enough for Wayfarers Walk to strike off right on a hill through a strand of trees. When I got to the other end I could see Arlesford, my objective, on the next hill. At that moment it started to rain.

That’s all that happened though. Spits and spots. It kept that way across another golf course, over a bypass and along the edge of town until I got to the pub Jay and I were to rendevous at. I had time to clean up and get a drink before she arrived. Oh one thing though. The sole on my right boot had begun to detach itself.

Back at Jay’s we relaxed with red wine and ‘Sharpe’s Waterloo.’ ‘Over the hills and faraway’ from that series was more stuff I played in my head, being the right kind of sentiment for this kind of venture.

Casualties were mounting though. Apart from the strap on the bag yesterday the balloon this morning had been ‘brambled’ I guess. The water bottle – which I’d hoped wouldn’t leak – persistently did so. As for the boot…

Jay’s husband suggested I go to a shop in Fareham to get the boot sorted out but that was the last thing I wanted. Tomorrow would be a long hard hike with full kit over hills and if I started that with a ‘shopping experience’ next thing I’d know would be ‘oh it’s midday.’ As an alternative he suggested a lash up job with sailors darning equipment and duct tape, saying if I turned up with a boot like that on one of his missions he wouldn’t accept me, but I had a schedule to keep, so I got to work and somehow mastered that job.

I more or less started the following day’s more urgent hike by getting lost at Arlesford. There’s a small river winding around the northern side of this big village or small town; confusing one’s direction and mapwork with it’s twists and turns so I wound up on a ‘B’ road and had to backtrack. It took me a long time to get clear.

Hampshire walkabout1 217

Lovely start to the first day’s walk in full kit though! A level stroll along this stream under shady trees after going downhill from the pub past flowers and even a tree fern and palmettoes. The river weeds and gravelly sandy shallow bottom were in full detail under crystal clear water in the sunlight of a beautiful morning. One of the best features of chalk scenery are these occasional streams. An ancient thatched mill was built over it dated 1258 judging by the date on the warning notice against fishing that still was on its wall! Plenty of birds about too; from the swan I saw just after getting to the river to the numerous ducks everywhere with the odd duckling family. What was most memorable was a tiny bird persisting in hopping towards me along most of a bench I sat on. Turned out to be a baby robin; one of it’s parents showed up too, seeing how it was doing cadging food. I felt guilty not having any, getting what turned out to be a good photo.

I started to pull away from the river past a building site and a big property among the trees of a hill across the river. Arlesford was the biggest place on this route and was still picturesque. Wasn’t sorry to be leaving it though as the map told me I was on the verge of heading north again. I had a long way to go with a heavy backpack and camera.

Wayfarers walk, initially constrained by neat fences, became wild with undergrowth again and the summer heat was getting serious; making me think of the African Savannah. Lions and Puff Adders would feel at home here now lolling or lurking in the foliage in ambush. All I had to worry about really might be an adder that would usually be gone when sensing my approach. Also it’s venom is weak, only being dangerous to dogs, children and the unwell. Still would need medical attention though which would screw up the walkabout.

There was a fallen tree, the bottom of it with it’s roots being by the track. Most of the earth coming up with it was pure chalk, white as the driven snow! Incredible how Hampshire could be this verdant when it was less than a few feet from the surface.

The walk became a quiet lane. Up and down gentle slopes with the river to the west.

At a farm Wayfarers Walk struck northeast up a long slope though a big bare patch on the map that I was afraid would feel like a desert but there was a hedge on the south side of this farmtrack giving shade all the way up past the weed choked ruins of another farm to another wood.

Past ‘Oliver’s Battery:’ an Iron Age hill fort with – it seems – signs of Roman Occupation. Hard to tell though for it was submerged under trees and greenery. Must have been one part of Britain where there were far fewer trees when it was built. The ‘B’ road from Arlesford to Basingstoke went straight through it.

On the other side of that was a vegetation choked path across a dip between fields that had me thinking about adders again. Up on the left was a much more modern earthwork than the Iron Age fort. A cross between an abstract rectangular version of that fort and a bunker. It had sloped sides with vents or some sort of structures like that sticking up here and there. I can only think of a submerged reservoir, having once worked in the construction of one.

Onward into open country: quiet long lanes past a maize field, then wheat and the odd house with a view all the time for miles across a valley to the west. Eventually I knew that I was going to have to do more than a dog leg back down a tree fringed track to that valley bottom and the ‘B’ road, then start up it northwards. It was worth it though. There was a pub where I would meet the road and I’d managed to time it for lunch.

The flint walled Woolpack Inn and that road were suddenly in front of me. With an old couple sitting outside at one of those trestle tables. Inside it was nicely rustic and I’d soon got cleaned up, got on good terms with the barmaid and was getting my liquid refreshment: lager interspersed with orange juice with ice to limit alcohol dehydration. The pub was actually hosting a wedding party but the rush hadn’t arrived yet – just a barfly or two, a few people marking time until the main horde showed up. Lucky I’d got there before them, or it would have been a long wait for the meal or walking northwards hungry.

By the time I left they’d shown up. Many outside.

Not far up the road was a quandary. Google Earth showed – or seemed to show – an obstacle on Wayfarers Walk where it left a lane going off from the road. I was trying to learn from not heeding it 2 years ago and meeting with near disaster so I chose the alternative – which seemed more open – leading through a farm. I chose the farm but when I got there it had that patina of a 2nd home rather than a farm. At least the place seemed deserted so I shouldn’t have to cope with “Can I help you?” While I worked out the best way to the walk. Gratifyingly.

“Can I help you?” (Oh ****!)

The man was charming but insistant and dismissive of Google Earth. The walk was signposted and there was a way through on the route I’d rejected. I was right about the 2nd home or a well to do one anyway. Oh by the way the walk was on the other side of that hedge, not along it on this side. ‘Can I help you?’ encounters can be embarrassing and this one was to the last. Could have been worse though for some are code for ‘can I hinder you?’ Ever get that feeling you can’t win?

Wayfarers Walk went parallel to the road then along it through the village of Brown Candover. There was a ‘wildflower verge’ there. At this time of year wildfowers were cropping up in many places I passed. There was a stream too which – when I took a few close ups – could have passed for a aerial view of a tropical river on an alien world;- with some imagination the weeds could have been exotic jungle.

Then there was a church off the road behind a huge lawn. Wayfarers walk went up the side of it.

Hampshire walkabout 305_edited-1

And uphill on an easy slope mostly, past wildflower strewn hedgerow undergrowth then beneath branches and foliage meeting overhead cloister fashion again. Suitable for a church. Not to mention useful in hot weather going uphill. A tunnel of foliage with a few breaks by a farm where there was a crossroads of tracks and where I photographed a shepard and his dog rounding up cattle on a field across a dry valley. The foliage tunnel went on uphill for a very long way.

Eventually it framed wheatfield upland seamed by hedges and lines of soaring trees. The slope continued.

There was a line of small trees too. Looking newly planted. Their ornamental look gave a different feel to the landscape. Almost like walking through a garden or maybe a model.

I could see a long way to the south. Probably all the way back to that ridge marking the end of the South Downs. Maybe that crop of woodland was where I’d crossed it.

The slope just went on and on. Until it flattened out where there was a tree tunnel, a view of combine harvesters clearing a distant field between woods and a walk through a wood. By then I was going generally downhill, though only slightly.

Well kept verges and fences spoke of serious money again but – thank God – this property – mostly on the right – didn’t have private notices everywhere. Maybe because they’d realised Wayfarers Walk went straight through here. The trees looked photogenic and even the industriously tidied haystacks in a field looked like experimental cuboid art exhibits. I continued down a narrow lane. The top of a noisy hedgetrimmer machine on the other side was devouring a hedge top like some robotic form of life.

Down to a country road, up that a short way towards smoke from a bonfire, off that road luckily before the smoke, along another small residential lane in a dry valley past cylindrical hay bales like giant cotton reels. Up a sharp incline round the house at the end of the lane and its pleasant gardens, up to more Hampshire scenery of wheatfields and woods.

Then I was on a long straight lane, down and up which was the village of Dummer, with a pub and bus stop which would be the link to my friend’s place in Basingstoke. Dummer was my days objective.

I saw a puzzling grey mass behind the trees on the horizon. Not some warehouse complex surely? The viewfinder on maximum zoom would settle it. It was my first sighting of the Malborough Downs! One can get used to seeing hills not much higher than trees if that, because they and other things limit the view in this part of the world so anything bigger such as a major range of hills can come as an optical surprise.

A couple in the distance were walking towards me. When we met and had a brief conversation there was real surprise regarding how far I’d come. Something I take childish pleasure over. Also the reply of jaunty heroism regarding the pub. “I’m gonna make it!”

Dummer was what English villages should be. Shady lanes and signposts under huge trees, no traffic, a small church on high ground, a beautiful manor house behind a high wall and – joy – a picturesque pub! The car park seemed deserted though.

A horrible suspicion dawned upon me when I saw a small notice on the door. It turned out to be fatal as the pub didn’t open until 6 and I’d got there just after 5! The name ‘Dummer’ seemed to change to ‘Bummer.’ Dried up waterhole. It really was like that: My water carrier had run out a few miles back on the trek.

Nothing for it but to trudge to the bus stop past thatched cottages and residences festooned with flowers. Shame about the pub. It seemed a long way and I almost missed the stop tucked into a hedge on a bend. So – it seemed – had many buses for there was no timetable.

At least I’d looked after my mobile better than on my epic trek down that Roman road 2 years ago. I could phone my friend and managed to get in touch. But it got better and better. “We were expecting you next weekend.” was the cheery response. Luckily I was talking to one of my 2 oldest friends and most of his family had just departed so the situation there was the same as a week later. I could prevail on him for a lift and stopover as long as I trudged back to the pub.

When I got there the seat by the side of the building was still a luxury. So much so that I couldn’t care less about the strange look a member of staff gave me when he turned up early. He was the odd one out anyway;- other travellers – on wheels – started arriving and were perplexed at the pub’s opening time.

I thought Doug was one of those. He had to attract my attention and wondered how I couldn’t see him? I was more tired than I thought. It can go like that on a long hike. One perseveres for as long as it takes but afterwards fatigue catches up. Hell, I’d run out of water and couldn’t get life saving beer so I might have been dehydrated too.

Doug and I met when I’d just moved from an environment full of houses to one that seemed on the edge of a real wilderness. I was 12; so to move to an area of common heathland and pine plantation in Berkshire at that time of life when one was into exploring and nature was like moving to Africa or Canada.

Doug was in the same year and grade as me at school. Even then he was powerfully built since he actually had Viking ancestry, whereas I was a weedy individual and would remain so for a long time. Those differences didn’t matter for even then he was also a great naturalist, his knowledge of animals and plants always much more extensive than mine. So he soon became the ideal guide on those expeditions I wanted to mount, exploring the wilderness of ‘the common;’ identifying animal tracks, birds, insects and pond life while we caught anything of the creepy crawly variety.

Much of what I caught escaped. My parents had a tough time of it. My mother discovered newts walking along the landing, my father had to evict lizards every time he wanted a bonfire since they preferred that to the rockery I tried to get them to colonise. He also had to help evict a grass snake who’d got into their bedroom and wanted to make a home under their wardrobe. When relatives joined us my parents spent the night in my bedroom where they learned all they never wanted to know about the sex life of the Common Toad. It was probably that which condemned relatives to my bedroom which became notorious as a hazardous zone for them, especially grandparents. I called it my Gerald Durrell phase. Happy days.

We drove off but not to his place to begin with. It was compulsory with Doug to have a natural history tour or lecture. Never mind a day’s hike, dehydration or eyes smarting from suncream getting into them;- when in Rome do as the Romans do. Not that I didn’t appreciate it. The car was a real comfort after the hike, the topic he loved – and I more or less did – was a damn sight better than more than a few man made affairs my ear has been bent with. With any luck my mind might retain some of it.

There was also the view. Doug took me to Farleigh Hill. Part of a rumple of chalk hills between the Malborough Downs and the North Downs to the east. From there I could see across a nearby motorway to the high ground of the Malborough Downs where over to the left was a faraway radio aerial. That more or less marked my objective for tomorrow. To the right was a pale stretch of industrial buildings and office blocks amidst the darker mass of trees and suburban roofs: Basingstoke.

Hampshire walkabout 397_edited-1

I was standing next to a hip high plant where a lot of its burrs could attach themselves to me. Goosegrass, warned Doug. I was too tired to heed him properly and had to take scenic photos so after that we had to spend some time getting them off me.

Somewhere along that route we came across a nettle leaved bell shaped blue flower. I was taking enough photos of wildflowers on this trip to fill a garden. There was the subject of Ash dieback as well, which could become as bad as Dutch Elm disease. Doug also had a bat detector that could pick up on faint sounds of grasshoppers or crickets which the hearing of fellows our age could miss.

Not a sausage. Doug blamed pesticide drenched crops for killing many of them. That was when I thought of that wheatfield I’d crossed. Indeed it was a biological desert for that reason Doug asserted;- pesticides killing off any other plants in them -such as wildflowers – which removed whatever animals depended on them also. Most likely small fry, but small in nature is no guarantee of unimportance. Bees – much under threat – being a good example. So when I thought of a desert while crossing that prairie sized wheatfield I was closer to the truth than I realised.

We drove off the hill and passed a cyclist about to go up it. He had a water supply attached to his bike. Doug took water in his bike carrier but was disparaging about the modern emphasis on staying hydrated. Not with cyclists but with cases like joggers when they’re only running a mile or two. I knew where Doug was coming from for I too was getting fed up with excessive nanny state emphasis on personal health, and safety of course. We were probably wrongheaded but it was the comradeship of old timers. ‘Wimps,’ ‘what’s the world coming to?’ etc.

Doug lived in a semi on this side of Basingstoke centre. Like Jay he had green fingers and apart from a well stocked garden there were more plants obscuring the front window. Otherwise it was homely and cluttered. One never knew when one would pick up something interesting to read out of the clutter. One of his sons who practically lived in a small side room under the stairs augmented this with a computer and – being a military enthusiast – model tanks, terrain and a few life size weapons.

The bathroom was okay for a bath although there seemed to be no way of getting the plug out afterwards. “That could be a problem.” Doug later remarked, though he seemed confident about dealing with it. I felt much better of course and what with a stroll through the balm of evening for some cans of beer and a knock at the door later heralding an ordered Chinese takeway my well being was on the up. Unlike most times here when I had a sleeping bag and settee cushions I even had a bed for the night. Not that I minded about the other times. It was good that a friend could offer a roof for the night, period.

The following day I forgot to take the paperback I was reading at bedtime. When I realised that I considered it a contribution, bearing in mind my old friend’s hospitality. Just as well. That dammed oil the nurse had told me to put in my ear had wound up on the pillow. Doug later reminded me of it in an email as ‘the leaking of your brain through your ear.’ Nasty.

When he took me back to the bus stop in Dummer Doug understood my reluctance to go back to the pub. It was further than he thought, he admitted. Now though the motorway was only a stone’s throw away judging by the map. Odd how some trees and a winding lane over rising ground seemed to mask it the sound.

The motorway was in a cutting and I crossed it on an interchange of tarmac and tension I didn’t want to be a part of. It was also potentially hazardous I thought since the map didn’t show a footpath by the access road on the other side. There was a partially overgrown one though behind a crash barrier so I was okay on that, walking down past a swathe of pink flowers that Doug said did well after fires if I remember correctly.

Across a clear dual carriageway, down a lane past a house with a white picket fence and sunflowers into another field. The dark block of a wood was on the other side.

When I got there everything opened up: the landscape, the view and the path which developed into a broad grassy way that would have been okay for covered wagons. I looked at in that way for in the distance were ‘them thar hills:’ the Marlborough Downs, like sunlit uplands across the prairies. It was ‘The Big Country’ all over again.

Why not give in to that urge to wheel an arm over one’s shoulder with a “Wagons.. Rollll!?”

YEEHAAH! Freedom. I love it.

© D Angus 10 14

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

HAMPSHIRE WALKABOUT: Preparations and disused railways.

In January 2014 I was ready to walk another 65 miles for my school.

2 years ago I’d walked that distance from London to Chichester for the same school and because I was 62 had declared it my ambition to become like Gandalf: to be capable – though ancient – of hacking it across the Misty Mountains. I loved exploring on foot and it was a way of keeping fit. Well, by February I’d decided to walk across ‘The Shire.’ The county I lived in: Hampshire. In 3 stages:

Disused railways; which would make up most of the trek from Fareham up through Wickham and the Meon Valley to Droxford.

Over hill and down dale. At Droxford I’d join Wayfarers walk which traced a more drunken looking route northwards over the hills and vales of Hamphshire to Arlesford and up to the west of Basingstoke.

Along the Malborough Downs. Wayfarers walk followed the top of them to Walbury Hill. The highest chalk hill in Britain and Berkshire where it extended south. Then it was a short hike up to Kintbury where I could get a train home.

I’ve decided to call what I’ve just done a walkabout for although most of the walk was northwards it curved round the north of Hampshire to the west once it got to the downs.

It had advantages over the last march down the Roman road to Chichester. I could stay with friends along the route on every night apart from the last one; that was one night better than last time. Just as important were far fewer main roads, although there were more hills. There was also learning from hindsight and much more time to prepare. I’d made certain of the time to the point of giving the deadline of the end of January to a man planning a walk from Normandy to Arnhem. I was thinking of joining him for the old British sector of World War 1’s Western Front but when there was no news from him by that time I made my choice. After that there was the fun part of planning it: mapwork.

So to discover I had high blood pressure at Easter was a surprise of the worst sort.

Having already committed myself to the walk I decided to keep the school and my council employers in the dark about this scare – in case I worried either and got smothered by Health and Safety – but my walkabout is now complete so ‘now it can be told!’

I had an average of 150 over 90 the doctor told me and prescribed a pill a day for the rest of my life. The very morning after that the first bit of news on the radio was about a scandal involving drugs company employees leaning on doctors! It’s not that I didn’t have respect for the medical profession but I wanted to investigate things thoroughly before giving in to a life sentence of drugs which – I learned – might have side effects. Meanwhile friends already on them gave me a ‘join the club’ welcome and lets face it we’re old, but though I was 64 I still wanted a more active lifestyle.

Then I found that blood pressure monitors are incredibly innacurate. A doctor friend near Reading swore by calibration and after a hard march from the station to his place we tried my monitor out then his, which looked as though it had survived from the time of HG Wells. There was a 30 point difference! Every monitor was on a different calibration. Having worked a lot with maps this offended my demand for accuracy; crucial with something like blood pressure, especially with the consequences involving serious drugs! It worked in my favour though because the professionally advised monitor I obtained gave lower readings.

“You’re going to make a fight of it aren’t you.” observed the taxi driver I worked with taking the kids to school.

“You’re dammed right I am.” I was determined to cut this problem down to size before it compromised the walk, organising a counterattack on all fronts:-

  • Water. A basic need and it was surprising how much more I should drink.

  • Diet. More fruit and vegetables of course and less meat and alcohol. I still managed to enjoy the odd alcoholic evening out and the odd pig out.

  • Timing of amounts eaten. Another surprise was being advised to have a bigger breakfast, more food at midday and nothing much in the evening. Evening meals could lead to obesity it seemed and I knew 2 guys with pot bellies who had no breakfast. I soon lost a stone.

  • Exercise. Most days if not every day of course but not first thing in the morning I discovered. The afternoon was best if one was older. Walking’s the best thing but the exercise bike could still come in useful if it was raining. I also occasionally did yoga down at the community centre.

  • Relaxation/meditation. I bought an American musical relaxation machine.

  • ‘Alternative medicine.’ The woman heading a yoga group I occasionally attended recommended hawthorn tablets for the heart together with a consultant. I outflanked the expense of that by picking up the advised tablets in a few health shops in Gosport.

I’ve no idea what worked best or if one or two things worked at all but I met with success! So I stuck to these tactics. The weekly average kept falling. Until I went back to the doctor’s and got the same kind of reading as the first time. However he said that the readings I’d written down seemed lower than the average I was claiming and there was such a thing as unconscious nervousness in surgeries leading to higher blood presssure. He conceded that I could stay off the pills.

This was no mean feat as by now I’d got sucked into the middle of the kind of war that was just what one didn’t need if one had high blood pressure: a power struggle against a character who wanted to demolish the neighbourhood for a housing estate, mentioned in the last blog entry. It was the evil business of property interfering and pressurising again. To cut a long story short I removed him from my life and others by buying his shares. That didn’t put me into debt but it did leave me out on a limb financially.

Despite that I could say that it was ‘victory on all fronts’ a week before the walk:-

I’d achieved my lowest weekly blood pressure average: 126/76.

The first of those shares were sold to re-imburse me with many more offers promised. It seemed I was making a new career out of being a part time hero, what with this and the next 65 mile trek for a Special Needs School.

4 more photographs made it into that high standard prestigious photolibrary making a total of 8! I was widening the breach.

But what about the walkabout’s preparations? After the last walk I wrote out a post mortem with bullet points. I’ll explain the preparations now in the same style:-

  • This time I contacted local radio and had a good interview with them. I also announced the sponsored walk on Facebook and had a special email address arranged. Not that it got me any contacts but I don’t mind. The media side of things had been covered this time and money was coming in anyway from 15 sponsor forms I’d arranged or left with the community centre, the leisure centre, a coffee shop, art gallery and sports shop, housing company, the school itself, 2 technical colleges, 2 banks, my council employers, the local surgery, the local SF group. Twice as many as last time.

  • I’d already approached the local paper that let me down last time to see if the same staff were employed and wound up speaking to the journalist who’d done so much of nothing 2 years ago. Of all people. There was no more involvement with the press.

  • Old Ordnance Survey maps would be taken with me but also more recent larger scaled ones and research was carried out on Google Earth.

  • A meeting with my friend in Health and Safety for advice led – when I dared speak out of turn regarding one restriction too many – to my ear being bent on how unfair the public and press were to the Health and Safety profession. I helped end the conversation before its debilitating paralysis immobilised me. The silver lining to this cloud was the embarrasing H&S statement people having to sign when coming with me being superfluous anyway. The only person interested in joining me disappeared then emailed me a few days before the walk saying she had too much work.

  • Charity websites. The most likely one demanded that the school be a registered charity, then passed me on to another charity website described as ‘fantastic.’ I smelt sales talk. The ‘fantastic’ site insisted on the burden of a target which meant me carrying that across the whole of Hampshire with a chance of getting absolutely nothing afterwards. I dropped charity websites from my plans.

  • I wrote everything down on a piece of paper then for good measure copied that on to the computer.

  • Recharging equipment was taken for the mobile phone. And camera of course.

  • Maybe my counterattack on high blood pressure counted as an emergency plan if things went wrong. It was also warm and dry enough to take no sweater and just a light mac rather than the parker in case of rain.

With any journey though there’s the risk of conspiring events coming at one out of nowhere to screw up the schedule or make one feel guilty about going on any adventure, trip or holiday:

The first was the first time I went to an appointment to have my ears syringed and was told by the nurse that she couldn’t do it. Worse than that was a woman who insisted on a double appointment and so couldn’t organise one before the walk. I would have to drop olive oil in my ears throughout it. Didn’t bother with that much, as things turned out. Medical matters were becoming a pain.

If that was irritating the next bad turn made me turn the air blue! The block I lived in had been in dire need of recladding or rendering since 2000 when I’d moved in. The last property maintainance company had been parasites running down the neighbourhood for demolition. The new company were doing their best with trying to get grants but the government kept thwarting them by changing the rules. Including a few days into the walk: resulting the long awaited recladding building inspection suddenly taking place without warning over 1 and a half days at the worst time. Being away for one of those days I could only squeeze this latest property related bollocks into the late afternoon after school broke up delaying the beginning of the walk: a meeting and evening meal with one of my 2 oldest friends who was giving me the greatest support!

I phoned Conservative Central Office and told them why I wouldn’t be bothering to vote in the next General Election. I’d always voted on principle regardless of whether it did any good or not, but this time I had absolutely had it with central government just mucking everyone around. I took care to give them the benefit of my views on property too. Up yours!

Early lunchtime closing day at the school for the holidays. One of the less well off mothers had surprised me by offering a really generous amount of money for my endeavor. Equalised by my driver which took us nearly half way to what I’d gained last time. I informed the Head Teacher when we got in then waited in the hall with the assembling children. There was confusion when I didn’t realise a teacher had headed for the school entrance with one of mine. My driver had to come back and tell me. Hurrying with the other 2 kids I suddenly found a helium balloon thrust into my hands and the female teaching staff gathered round the entrance cheering me! Led by the Head Teacher. The weather had held, it was the start of the holidays and I was being given a heroes send off!

Morning. Breakfast with Jay in a house of similar design to the houses our parents had bought when we met all those years ago when I was 12. It felt well to do now compared to much of my existence and took me back to adolescence. Jay had become a music teacher, married a naval officer and raised a family while I’d become the footloose adventurer. After long absences fortune had brought me to a neighbouring town. She would be picking me up and dropping me off as far north as Arlesford and I was going to stay at her place for 2 more nights. That meant I could travel light for 2 days. With my hero’s balloon. It might attract attention and interest in the walk.

Once we’d all got strapped in yesterday and driving off from school my first thought had been what do I do with the balloon? Might as well let the kids look after it in order of them getting home while I worked out that question. The first boy was soon on the case, critical in his slightly peeved manner that it said ‘Good Luck’ without my name on it. I really wouldn’t worry about that though because he was full of penetrating questions such as why hadn’t I made the planets the same size? The next child was a simpler minded fellow who just considered life to be one big party! The balloon confirmed his point of view. Nothing like children for teaching one how to laugh again.

I picked my way through the labyrinth of outer Fareham gradually leaving my cares behind under a stunning blue sky. London had hit 30°  again just like last time I’d walked for the school and just like last time it looked like a heatwave, which was why I’d decided to wear shorts for the first 2 days.  It only took one subtropical plant to give a semi desert feel to the suburbscape I was wandering through.

I’d been warned against carrying plastic water bottles because too many of them gave one cancer, apparently.  So I’d been sold a new fangled one – or carrier – that looked like a plasma bag and had a tube one could suck water up.  I hoped it wouldn’t leak, wrapping 3 shopping bags round it.  Wait a moment, since the new fangled one was also plastic – presumably – couldn’t that also give one cancer?  Oh what the hell?  I’d been to Chernobyl which was worse and guess what?  Sooner or later we all……Die!  To be blunt.  No two ways about it.

After I’d finished the packing yesterday I’d tracked down the young man doing the inspection.  That went easily enough although he wanted to see the heating bills.  Despite bringing the kids home at lunch I’d not made the bus stop until twenty to five.  Later than I would have been on a normal afternoon run.  The last walk had begun with a free lift to London, like scoring a 6 on a dice roll.  This time I’d rolled a 1 or missed a turn.  Oh well.

With some relief I reached the disused railway that led out of Fareham. ‘The Deviation Line.’ That’s what the notice said. I couldn’t suppress the thought of a footpath with that sort of name being a nice place for an evening stroll in fetish gear with a chance of meeting others of like persuasion! If one’s into that sort of thing. The name could be explained by the map as being an branch line curving off only to rejoin the line it had left further north.

It had been a long slog uphill in full kit from the Fareham bus stop to Jay’s place so by the time I’d got there I needed a shower and being unfamiliar with her bathroom wound up having a bath. It had to be quick because she’d said so and I was late because of that bloody inspection.

 Hampshire walkabout 005

The disused railway had become a path which some people used for cycling and their dogs. Soon I was under the motorway and under the shade of trees after that. Disused railways are not only level and direct. The trees along it in this sort of weather are an advantage too.

After the bath Jay had revealed that we were going to a meal with a friend of hers beyond Chichester, just as I’d suspected. Sods law operated of course since we were late, with the motorway being blocked necessitating a diversion through Havant, then after picking up the friend a level crossing held us up within sight of the pub.

The Deviation Line ended with a small footpath up to a lane and a bridge over the real railway. The lane was full of ‘Durkin’ vehicles in a hurry for some reason. Knowle was near: a business park and a complex on a low hill that had been involved with mental issues. Hampshire Councilling and Psychotherapy Services still resides there according to Google Earth. Not a bad first stop if one was crazy enough to walk 65 miles. There were private notices making me feel unwanted and irritated but a runner came the other way totally unconcerned. I passed through without incident. There were more trees than I remembered though parts of this place looked unkempt. I sat on an abandoned fridge for a water break and map check.

I’d usually had red wine when Jay and I had meals out but this was lager drinking weather! Also red wine would give me more of a hangover on the morning of the walk. That was what I felt at the pub. Instead of steak I had a lighter meal too, but conversation was spirited as usual. Afterwards there was a surprise when we were settling up at the bar and Jay produced a sponsor form I’d forgotten I’d given her. It had the same amount I’d picked up that morning which meant the total had doubled in one day! Before the walk had started. This looked like mushrooming.

The lane beyond Knowle brought me out into the open and into the heat. One photo a mile would supply proof that I’d done the walk, but I must have gone camera happy by then because I was taking photos of everything including pylons! Although the camera was the heavy Nikon. When I had the blood pressure scare I didn’t want to lug that along so had tried to find a lighter waterproof one; the Nikon not being waterproof. The photolibrary wouldn’t allow that though so I took a chance in order to get photos that might pay.

Hampshire walkabout 025

I reached Wickham and crossed it’s car parked square that was turning into a micro desert under the hot blue sky, to get a long awaited orange juice at a restaurant. Wickham was to host a big folk festival but I caught no sign of it. Back to the shade of the trees along the next disused railway.  I was actually entering into the National Park covering the South Downs and – it seemed – half of Hampshire.  I would not be leaving it until Arlesford.

Hampshire walkabout 032_edited-1

It was mostly a green tree tunnel. Not much in the way of views but they’d come later. No it was better to be under these trees on a day like this. When I emerged to photograph a field the edge of the shadows felt like a division between jungle and desert. Lee on Solent was 32°!  According to rumours.  If it was anywhere close to that heat I was doing the right thing:  getting a direct, level, easy shaded walk for the better part of the 11 miles of the first day, while getting used to the footslogging.  What my driver calls ‘boxing clever.’

Some of Wickham and further afield had similar ideas.  People and dog walkers were around, thinning out the further one went northwards with cyclists going further afield.  I had a long rambling conversation while walking with a man named Percy who was another keen photographer venturing further afield, before he had to get back to his wife.

Hampshire walkabout 033

It seemed there was only the occasional bridge to tell me where I was. Like neglected relics of a departed fraught civilisation. That’s what they looked like from below with the old iron or brickwork and odd plant or dangling creeper. In a way that’s what they truly were, for this line was useful as a route to the south coast ports during the war and was used by Churchill.

Once in awhile though there was the humdrum hum of traffic on a main road. I’d grown to loathe that sound 2 years ago but now it was welcome, a navigational aid. Once there was the raucous row and sight of a nearby sawmill too, visible as an unusual complex of grey on the map. Wasn’t sorry to get away from that, back into my quiet easygoing green gloom.

Hampshire walkabout 047

Not far from Droxford I came across ‘a tree surgeon’ up a tree and got permission for a few photo’s. No need to pose just work away I assured him. People didn’t always like being photographed by a stranger and it was simpler to indulge in my love of landscape and natural forms. Sometimes though people made a shot by giving it scale or character and on this walk I learned to be sneaky, taking shots from the rear, or on zoom, often both.

There was also the Meon River. A couple of times it had shown up in the shadows like jungle pools and it was getting nearer again on the approach to Droxford. There was the chatter of people enjoying themselves beyond the trees and through a break in them I could see through the zoom that they were summer bathers in the river across a field.

Hampshire walkabout 054

There was just one little snag where the disused railway was crossed by the lane to Droxford. No obvious way off the railway. That’s the way it looked on the map and also at the bridge when I reached it. I was in a cutting through temperate jungle with no way up to the left. Would I have to trek another mile north before heading back again? Pretty undesirable on the closing stage of a days walk. No wait. There were small steps up into the foliage to the right. Like long forgotten steps to a lost temple. This was where it was vital to have my build of not being too overweight plus sustained persistence; for I had to inch my way up this between the bridge and a pipe through the undergrowth like a slow motion Indiana Jones before weaving my way round and out.

I emerged from darkest Hampshire on to the lane. The final footpath to Droxford should be just beyond the river. Time to phone Jay on the mobile.

The crystal clear sandy bottomed river just cried out to be bathed in. The footpath almost disappeared in what looked like the backend of a farm but the map I had was large scale enough to show fields and the configuration was right.

There was a hike through parklike meadows. Where the strap on a bag I was carrying broke. After tying a knot in that I squeezed down a path at the back of a hedge and came out at a church. Wayfarers Walk. I was now on it for the sign said it was crossing the village here. The main road through the village was ahead and the pub should be back a bit. As soon as I got out on to the road I could see Jay.

Hampshire walkabout 058

The pub was lovely and so was the beer. The balloon excited some comment and Jay took a photo of me. And that was about all to report for the first day really.

Driving home there was no sign of the route I’d followed. Hidden by woods and cuttings it seemed as though the disused railway running parallel to the road belonged to a parallel world. Compared to the roads I was now on it was as though I’d followed a mysterious trail created by rather large animals.

After getting cleaned up there was another pub nearer Jay’s. “I’ll have a San Miguel because that reminds me of the Philippines and this is like the Philippines.” I exclaimed to the chuckling barman. Outside the heat I was referring to was mellowing down into one of those long golden summer evenings that makes one feel privileged to be British.

© D. Angus 08 14

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Europe: Poland.

 Auschwitz was actually near the headwaters of the Vistula river: the course of which runs across the Polish plains like a story of Poland, from Auschwitz through Krakow – once the Polish capital – Warsaw and eventually to the Baltic near Gdansk or what was Danzig, the flashpoint that started the Nazi invasion of Poland.

After going through Auschwitz I was hoping things could lighten up with the tour of Krakow. We had the ideal guide for that: a beautiful young Polish lady who was an enthusiastic not to mention voluble guide; to the point of being comical I was to learn. It was the inner city or ‘Krakow Old Town’ we were to see; surrounded by fortifications that were now mostly a ribbon of parkland encircling – in the shape of a bloated tadpole – what was Poland’s capital from 1038 to 1569.

Starting from the ‘head’ on the northern edge. At the round fort of the Krakow Barbican, guarding St. Florians Gate, the main entrance to the city. Then down the ‘Florianska'; a main thoroughfare flanked by ornate architecture and running commentary to the cathedral like St. Mary’s Basilica.

This had two towers at the front but only one had a spire. There was a trumpet signal on every hour from this religious edifice that was cut short. The explanation being that the trumpeter had an arrow in the throat when warning of a Mongol attack: there were 3 Mongol attacks during the 11th century, the 1st virtually destroying the city.

Now for the comedy. Our charming guide showed us how miscreants – in the view of religion – were punished in the middle ages. By a large side door I was invited to kneel so a collar and short chain attached to the wall could be clipped around my neck. Then Jocelyn took a photo of what some might describe as a middle aged male fantasy: me looking as though I was enjoying it – the humour anyway – while our guide kept me in my place with a hand on my shoulder and a radiant beam of achievement for the camera.

Inside St. Mary’s the enthusiasm continued unabated. Amidst the shadowy gloom and reverent splendour it dawned on me that our lady’s lecture on Polish culture was audible enough for most in this cathedral sized church to overhear it. It did occur to me to ask her to soften the volume a bit but somehow it was like thinking ‘I’ll swim against that overwhelming current in just a bit.’ A priest beat me to it, sidling up to her and murmuring in her ear. Profuse apologies to everyone.

Comedy aside it’s worth mentioning the role the Catholic church has played in Poland. What our guide had put around my neck was an example of how repressive this church could be and its intolerance is well known. However: given that Poland didn’t exist as a country for over 100 years and given its domination by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union for half of the 20th century the Catholic church became a source of solace, strength and resistance for this country.

St Mary’s was on a corner of the largest medieval town square in Europe. Big enough to surround the ‘Sukennice’ or Cloth Hall in the centre. Once a centre of international trade, now a market and a centre for museums and restaurants. Museums were also housed in the Town Hall Tower;- an outsize Gothic tower near a corner of the Sukennice. Other attractions included a statue of Adama Mickiwiecza, a famous Polish poet, destroyed by the Nazi’s then rebuilt. Also a flower market where I photographed the girls and a great hollow sculpture of the head of Eros – incongruous in this setting – that kiddies inconguously played around in.

Next was the University quarter. Most memorably the garden sandwiched between buildings housing the oldest University in Poland. It was a cultural garden with statues on plinths of the great and good. Polish culture embraced the extremes of Pope John Paul 2nd and the Astronomer Copernicus who both graduated from this University; also a heavy metal trend – I’ve learned since – called ‘death metal.’ At least one of its bands by the name ‘Vader’ had gone international.

 University garden_8645

In fact Poles who’d become famous or trailblazed anyway included Marie Curie or Curie-Sklodowska, Aleksander Wolszczan who actually discovered the 1st extrasolar planets, Joseph Conrad no less, or rather Josef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski, Stanislaw Lem, Roman Polanski, Max Factor and Michael Marks. The latter 2 founding business empires, Marks and Spencer in the case of Michael Marks. Then as if that isn’t enough Krystyna Chojnowska-Liskiewicz was the 1st woman to sail round the world single handedly.

Last but not least was the famous composer Frederyk Chopin who had a sculpture in a park beyond the University. Along with other dedications throughout Poland and the airport near Warsaw.

By then we were in the greened over fortified belt. A long walk down that brought us to the end of Krakow Old Town. It was a hill occupied by the massive walled citadel of the Wawel Royal Castle, built by Casimir III the Great who reigned from 1333 to 1370, on the site of a settlement and trade centre that has a history stretching as far back as 50,000 years ago.

It has been called Gothic. However in the early 16th century it became something of an ‘arts centre’ when Italian architects and sculptors, German decorators and others native and foreign were brought in create a Renaissance palace.

Wawel Royal  Castle entrance Castle_8666

After this though the place fell into neglect when the capital was moved to Warsaw and the Swedes invaded Poland in 1655-57 and 1702. Royal insignia were stolen by the Prussian Army in 1794 too.

After 1795 the Austrians recognised its defensive advantages, strenthening its position by adding some of the walls, but not its aesthetic qualities, pulling some of its buildings down. Restoration began after they pulled out in 1905 and after surviving the 20th century it is now a preserved landmark.

Vistula at Krakow_8664

It still offered a good view of the Vistula.

One thing I’d seen now and then and would see again in Warsaw were girls in wedding gowns. They were having their photos taken with their grooms. A charming custom. The sight of a girl in a sensuous white gown amidst normally dressed passers by was ethereal, enigmatic, dreamlike.

Finally the Jewish quarter on the same side of the river but beyond Krakow Old Town. Not much time here but enough to spot the oldest synagogue in Poland and a Jewish memorial for a community the suffered the Holocaust after living there since the 1400’s.

I realise now though that Jocelyn and I were neglecting Polands’ natural attractions. Within the railways of Katowice and Krakow to Warsaw lay not only the ‘Polish Jura’ but a desert! The Polish Jura is an upland that has hills rather than mountains; nevertheless there are caves and rock formations, some surprisingly spectacular. As for the ‘desert’…well it’s more a particularly sparsely vegetated heathland with an unusual amount of sand deposited during the Ice Age. It’s surrounded by forest but is pale enough to show up on satellite imagery and the Germans took the desert definition seriously. The Afrika Korps trained there during the war.

Warsaw tram_8671

Warsaw with its modern buildings and more being built was in contrast to Krakow. There were also futuristic looking trams. They were a real feature of central Europe; I’d seen them in Krakow and Brno.

Most of Warsaw was a modern city because 90% of it was destroyed in World War 2. The day after Auschwitz and Krakow was a free day to explore but we got off to a shaky start when I fell over on a wide street crossing, luckily with no traffic near. Also – construction being a feature of modern cities – there was that block sized area excavated for a metro line we had to find our way round before we got to the museum for the Warsaw uprising. A former tram power station.

This took place at the beginning of August 1944 when the Russian army was in the eastern suburbs. The Poles soon liberated 3/5ths of Warsaw often isolating the Germans in pockets. Stalin though didn’t want an independent Poland so the Russian army didn’t help the Poles though it was by now so close. Also Soviet airfields were denied to the Western Allies, making supply drops a hazardous business. The result was a slowly losing battle for the Poles as they were forced into smaller pockets and away from the river. An orgy of atrocity and destruction. German forces included a brigade composed of criminals, massive siege guns and flame throwers. At the beginning of October the Poles surrendered.

On the other side of Germany the liberation of Paris was also taking place during August. Hitler had ordered the general commanding the Paris garrison to destroy the city. Had the US army halted outside Paris like the Soviet army and the German general obeyed Hitler’s orders Paris could have suffered the same fate as Warsaw.

The first thing we saw when we entered the museum was a glassed over hole in the floor which appeared to reveal part of a sewer people were walking along. We went looking for that and found a sewer mock up but it wasn’t under reception. Eventually we realised that what we’d seen under reception didn’t exist but was a clever deception highlighting 2 factors of the Warsaw Uprising: sewers and confusion.

The sewers were used to link up areas of the city and suburbs captured by the Poles. Communications, supplies, reinforcements and withdrawals were effected in this way. This added to the confusion of the Germans, initially at least. Also – apart from districts taken over by the Poles – large parts of the city were contested with the outcome in confusion for some time.

Signs through several levels guided one through the course of the Uprising. This museum was stuffed with exhibits and overall had a similar gritty grim realism to the Museum of the Great Patriotic War in Kiev. Brilliantly done, from the sewers, simulated rubble of wrecked buildings, clandestine radio station and printing press to the names of those who took part, weapons, sounds of destruction and the biggest exhibit: a B24 plane used in supply drops.

We were – without realising it – on the edge of the Jewish Ghetto. Scene of another uprising in April 1943. A smaller version of the Warsaw Uprising with a similar result. Ghetto liquidation and rumours of death camps – all too correct! – sparked this Jewish uprising. The survivors were likely to wind up in places like Auschwitz.

On the other side of that was the Saxon Garden; one of the oldest parks anywhere. Inspired by Versailles it was largely wooded but under the trees were formal flowerbeds and walks. Together with a magnificent fountain and The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on the far side. Dedicated to unknown soldiers who fought for Poland in World War 1 apparently. That meant they were doing this before Poland became a nation again. Albeit briefly.

Pilsudski Square – the largest square in Warsaw – was named after the Marshall who achieved this. He also achieved the ‘Miracle on the Vistula’ in 1920. This was a battle similar to the Marne outside Paris: a turning of the tide against an invasion on the point of enveloping a country. It’s a very little known battle in the UK but the Poles split the Red army which retreated from the edge of Warsaw into what Lenin called “an enormous defeat.” It was truly decisive in stopping Communism in early years of success from entering and very likely taking over central Europe.

Then it was the Old Town by the Vistula. Completely reconstructed after the war with another huge square, on the other side of which was The Royal Castle, complete with carriage rides. Past that and an open air restaurant were the narrow streets of the Old Town where a girl blew huge bubbles for the tourists. It was that kind of place. It all appealed to me but not to Jocelyn whose mood didn’t improve when some food we were eating dropped on her. Not mine by the way.

A calming influence was another square in the centre of the Old Town, a walk around the ramparts there and a view of the Vistula. Across the river was a stadium with a balloon nearby. One could just make out the huge flat horizons of the eastern European plain beyond the suburbs.

The western bank of the Vistula was higher than the eastern suburbs. That meant a pattern was building up because the same thing existed with 2 other cities in this overall geographical region: where the northern European plain broadened into eastern Europe west of the Urals. Kiev on the Dneipr was also sited on the higher western bank. Same thing with what was Stalingrad on the Volga. 3 cities sited on the western banks of 3 major rivers where the western bank was higher. Why? I wonder if there’s a geological reason?

Warsaw from Old Town_8716_edited-1

From our viewpoint there was also a panorama of the city centre to the south. Another day, another part of Warsaw to the south of that.

The Old Town was still a central part of Warsaw. The science fiction convention we were to attend south on the other side of the city centre in the University quarter wasn’t far to walk. Just as well. The registration process had been even worse than the Kiev Eurocon. To the point where it still had to be sorted out in fact, for despite all efforts there was no communication from the Polish contact.

At least the convention was in progress judging by the queue outside the ‘Politechnika Warsawska’ or Warsaw Polytechnic. In effect the University of Warsaw. Fortunately an Irish fan friend of ours was well known here so a bit of name dropping ensured we got in.

Once inside though it wasn’t long before we found there was no English program and Jocelyn was disappointed. I was just relieved to get in and felt it was fair enough to lose the gamble on English being available here. After all it can’t be spoken everywhere and this was the Polish National SF convention in the middle of Warsaw so one couldn’t get much more Polish than that! ‘Cept Krakow which might have a certain edge perhaps, what with our guide there.

Polytechnic_8725

The convention was to me another aspect of young Poland growing out of old Poland. Most of the people there were young with a large fancy dress contingent, some gathering on the lawn under the trees outside the main convention building: a modern tech college affair. A short walk to another part of the convention led us to a new building with lecture theatres and a glass wall offering a view of older or reconstructed Warsaw University.

To me there seemed an air of youthful enthusiasm in Poland. Not only in promoting the talents of its culture but getting on with the business of embracing change and progressing; economically and otherwise. I felt that some would call the enthusiasm naïve. Well frankly I don’t like that word. It’s a patronising put down word used by those who assume too much in the way of intellectual superiority.

No. Given that much of Poland is finally free to go its own way after a history bad enough for the Catholic church to become a liberating force I say jolly good luck to them! From the middle of the 17th century there have been invasions and the country ceased to exist from 1795 to 1918. The Poles had only just gained their independence when they had to fight and win an epic battle against the odds to save their capital and the country. Only to be crushed less than 20 years later by a genocidal regime. The regime that got rid of that was still notoriously repressive, shifted the whole country westwards away from Belorus as far as the Oder near Berlin and stayed for the next 44 years.

We wandered around just looking most of the time. We found someone who spoke English in a hall used for games though. She was promoting ‘Westerplatte:’ a game dealing with a battle fought at Danzig on the outbreak of World War 2. It was an inspirational battle for the Poles for a garrison of a few hundred held 3,400 Germans at bay for a week. History repeated itself as the British – Jocelyn and I – attempted without success to help the Poles. The rules were intiguing but by the 2nd game we had a better idea and I really thought we were going to win. Except we didn’t.

In the evening we tried to find an ethnic meal out and found a place that left us at an outside table without serving us but the menu didn’t appeal to me anyway. After sneaking out of there we found what we wanted in the University quarter restaurant set in a cellar.

Near the end of our stay in Warsaw Jocelyn revealed – probably over a beer – that she was disillusioned with Auschwitz. ‘Disillusioned’ was probably not the right word but it was something similar for I didn’t question why so much as understood. If you see a lot of something on documentaries, news or whatever, the reality is rarely quite what one expects. Besides which it had been turned over to the tourists now. She wasn’t sorry about going though so it wasn’t a wasted trip.

a plane home_8735

At the airport the weather was clearing like a brighter future for Poland.

We were encouraged by the air hostess to have enough wine on the flight home.

Which might have helped my idiot abroad comes home act when the alarm clock went off in my luggage on the carousel at Heathrow. “Shut up!” and a frantic grapple to open the bag to the amusement of passengers. I was afraid security might think it was a bomb.

A coach ride home while I sat at the front, the road unfurling through the night in front of me.

Down in Southampton teenagers and 20 somethings were still up clubbing, some playing chicken with the coach.

At Fareham I got off and left Jocelyn to travel solo the last few miles in the early hours. So what if I was hiking home with backpack and heavy camera through the night for 3 miles when I was 63? It was a chance to exercise and a one off hike to a comfortable place I could call my own where I could lie in tomorrow instead of walking further twice a day to and from crushing workloads and filthy conditions, starving all the time. So much for Auschwitz; what about Polish history transposed here? There wouldn’t have been an England from the Napoleonic wars to World War 1. The Battle of Britain would have been fought just after that. The Nazi’s would still have conquered us in 1939, set up something like Auschwitz in southern England probably near Fareham and 90% of London would have been destroyed. We would have gained Ireland and lost East Anglia and the North East under the Russians who would have let us go our own way a mere 25 years ago.

Shouldn’t be walking 3 miles home at my age at this time of night? C’mon get real it’s a piece of cake when I think of where I’ve just been. We don’t know how lucky we are. © D Angus 03 14

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Grand Canyon of Evil

Up before dawn half asleep. A wait for a taxi at the hotel entrance.

There it is! We’re off! But in the taxi it’s “Oh no I’ve forgotten my bag!” from Jocelyn who dashes back into the hotel. The taxi driver insists on driving off anyway! Then I realise that he simply can’t stay parked there and is only driving round the block, which takes time for it’s a tortuous ‘block,’ so I hope Jocelyn can cotton on to why we’ve deserted her, or just stay put for long enough!

She has. We pick her up on completing the circuit. Still got to make the station though.

When we get there we’re handed over to a man and a middle aged woman with Stalin’s Palace of Culture and Science towering over us like some colossal stark icon of the cold war. Another link in the chain of this adventure.

The man makes sure we get on the right train and the woman is travelling with us. Somebody will pick us up down the line in Krakow. It all feels like a spy thriller film involving a series of obscure clandestine contacts. Whatever I’ve missed out on in my life it’s not adventure!

The woman wryly admits to being not only American but also “in real estate.” I wonder about Jocelyn who if anything is even more anti property than I am, which is saying something! Things remain not only civilised but cordial enough. After awhile we start to explore the train.

Sunrise Poland_8598 

So how come I’m speeding back down the track I came up to Warsaw yesterday on, at an hour that’s uncivilised enough to try a few Nikon shots of a dawn mysterious with mist coming up over the forests and fields of Poland?

When my sister learned of my Chernobyl adventure she – among a good few others – thought I was mad and morosely added “I suppose you’ll be going to Auschwitz next.”

“Oh no not a chance of that.” was my flippant dismissal, being sure I wouldn’t; but if it’s possible to make a joke involving such a subject that had to be it for it turned out that Jocelyn wanted to go to none other than Auschwitz of all places! That was where we were headed. I just have this knack of confirming my sister’s worst suspicions.

I had mixed feelings about Auschwitz. It was outside my normal sphere of operations which involved adventures in the world’s wild or scenic places or long walks or science fiction conventions. There were exceptions like military history and Chernobyl thrown in; but I have an inexplicable fascination with military history and Chernobyl was linked to science fiction anyway. Auschwitz though involved depths of gruesomeness and morbidity I wasn’t sure I could cope with, understand properly or write about well enough.

It was undeniable though that Jocelyn had been good company and a great help on both trips to Poland and Ukraine, handling the hotels among other things. There should be some give and take with any successful friendship or partnership so this was clearly a time for Jocelyn to call in her favours, or some of them. Besides, it was all part of ‘life’s rich tapestry’ and I’d already made a point of making my life some tapestry! There was no escape.

So I’d started to plan by looking at the map. Auschwitz was a lot further from Warsaw than Chernobyl was from Kiev, being down near the southern border in an area crawling with railway lines. It was going to be a long day going there and getting back to Warsaw.

I’d consulted a Jewish friend of ours – Ric – who’d actually had relatives at Auschwitz. The railway lines were why it was there he told me. It was basically an industrial region so it was easy to transport people there from all points of the compass. He approved of us going. It was the centre of an evil scheme involving his people that shouldn’t be forgotten so the more people who went there the better. That struck a chord with me for there was a book I’d read dealing with the subject of evil. A good way to fight it was to record it and report it; which was more or less what we were talking about.

Another thing he said stuck in my mind. He compared the Brady/Hindley child murders to Auschwitz as a ‘Cheddar Gorge’ to a ‘Grand Canyon of evil.’ Although this was questionable in that what Brady and Hindley did was dreadful Ric was talking about the scale of the crimes in terms of numbers: vast numbers of people had been involved in what had happened at Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps. I chose his phrase for the title here.

So now here we were on our way back across Poland to the Grand Canyon of evil. There was still that spy thriller feeling because the train we were on had that old world charm of seperate compartments with well upholstered seats connected by a narrow corridor running down one side of the carriage.

Breakfast had style too. The design of the service area was more or less the same as British trains but the food was prepared more carefully, was more varied and the guy who prepared it even wore a chefs uniform. This used to be more like how it was in Britain in the 50’s maybe, but not bothered with on railways there now. I was becoming impressed with Polish railways.

Krakow. Immediately we’re picked up on the platform, driven through glimpses of a more historical looking city than Warsaw to a rendevous point where a minibus taking us and others to Auschwitz is waiting.

Outside Krakow I get this disjointed feeling as we’re driven along tree lined country roads while an onboard television lectures us with a monologue and images of Auschwitz. Outside our vehicle the weather is perversely pleasant with light cloud and even sunshine as opposed to the gloom I went through in the Alps, which would have been far more appropriate for this journey. The weather compliments the area which again is pleasant: gently rolling fields of – I think – maize, small woods and a hint of bigger hills on the horizon.

We reached the small Polish town of Oświęcim. A nice enough place. One establishment had made a feature out of the tyres they were selling. Oświęcim was renamed Auschwitz by the Nazis. We reached our destination, arriving at an old barracks complex.

This was the Auschwitz concentration camp, or part of it. Again I had that disjointed feeling. The buildings looked solid, regimented and grim enough but there were crowds of relaxed tourists amidst green trees and grass, casually being assigned guides and even offered food. There was a cafeteria here which didn’t feel right. It’s not that one could reasonably expect to be shouted at and marched around the holocaust but this wasn’t a place I would associate with a meal.

  Arbeit Macht Frei_8601_edited-2

Where was that sign to convince me I was here? ‘Arbeit Macht Frei.’ That German ‘work makes you free’ was there above the entrance in metal letters if one looked for it. It might have some truth elsewhere but in a place like this it was a cynical lie of a philosophy, unless death was freedom.

Our guide was the most reliable link. A blonde Polish lady who would have been attractive but for a pinched look to her face. Her voice was what was memorable: one might call it commanding and Jocelyn ragged me about her making a good ‘dominatrix.’ Well perhaps, but that was far from being the whole story here. No, it was the rythmic hypnotic quality of the tone of this lady’s voice. If there’s an afterlife I might expect to meet an angel of judgement like her there decreeing in that voice whether one was destined to scrape into Heaven or a circle of Hell. That was the best way I could put it. She was a teacher and I think she was a good one.

I suspected this barracks wasn’t all there was to Auschwitz and that there was another bigger camp somewhere. She said there were 3: the one we were at. Auschwitz-Birkenau which was the other one I thought existed, and IG Farben.

Our guide probably stressed the existence of this 3rd Auschwitz because the local Poles were forced to build this IG Farben industrial complex. Google Maps shows it as being massive: 2 miles across!

IG Farben was a German chemical industry conglomerate – once the largest chemical company in the world – that played a key role here. It chose a site on the other side of Oświęcim – I dimly remembered an industrial complex coming in – because of tax incentives after the invasion of Poland, good rail communications and cheap labor.

The ‘cheap labor’ organised by IG Farben involved thousands of concentration camp prisoners, many walking 4 to 5 miles there and the same back. Others were actually held at a camp called ‘Monowitz-Buna’ or ‘Auschwitz III.’ One estimate of the total numbers of Auschwitz inmates working at IG Farben is 35,000. Most died because of the conditions they had to live in, walking there and back day in day out, or the workload; though apparently the excessive workload organised by IG Farben is what killed most of them!

Thousands of deaths was actually small beer in the general scheme of things at Auschwitz. IG Farben’s main claim to evil infamy was not merely manufacturing synthetic rubber for the German war effort – which probably was a reason for the existence of the tyre establishment I’d seen nearby – but the infamous Zyklon B: the pesticide that exterminated so many victims in the gas chambers at Auschwitz; let alone the other camps. The cruel irony here is that prisoners at IG Farben were working on this poison that was killing them.

After the war IG Farben was justly reviled, tried at Nuremberg and kept in being only to earn compensation for its victims. 13 IG Farben directors were sentenced to – in my view – lenient terms of 1 to 8 years. Even then some went on to become leaders of post war companies.

Our guide led us round the barracks. The ghoulish aspect of walking round a place like this was obvious and I was determined not to take tourist type photos. My solution was to doctor each one I did take here with Adobe Photoshop in an attempt to convey something of the sinister infernal horror of the place.

 Halt! Stoj!_8605_edited-1 

Past the barbed wire fences that had been electrified. Past interior displays involving photographs of inmates. Many of them women. Jocelyn thought some of them were attractive: a miracle given their situation.

Past photos of the selection process the Jews were put through on arriving at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Dr. Mengele was there. ‘The Angel of Death.’ A slight, almost boyish figure in uniform, looking cheerful. This was a character notorious for his experiments on children. Talk about child abuse with a difference! And he was never actually brought to justice for his crimes, inexplicably telling his son after the war in South America that “he had never personally harmed anyone in his whole life” before finally dying on a Brazilian beach.

Past sections of large rooms walled off by glass, almost like a larger version of those secure glass fronted enclosures in a reptile house inhabited by pythons and alligators. Only here it was exhibits. Anything from artificial limbs to suitcases and other hand luggage. One could see the names of the people involved on this luggage. Many looked Jewish and by far the majority of them were. They were told these items would be sent on to them. A lie involving a whole race.

It got to me when a crowd of us were shuffling past the shoes. I felt claustrophobic and didn’t realise there were shoes and other footwear on my left behind the glass initially. It looked like a dark brown landscape in there before it became clear it was made up of mounds of shoes: a bizarrely creative landscape of Hell. I began to feel overwhelmed and trapped.

Ric had already been here when the Russians were in control, when it retained much of its earlier grimness. He told me he’d felt overwhelmed when he realised the belongings on display – representing the many who were murdered – were only a tiny fraction of what passed through here: a tiny representation of the true scale of state induced murder. It’s difficult to come to an accurate figure but according to the information here roughly 1,100,000 people died here, 90% of which were Jews. Other groups of fatalities in descending order of size were Poles, gypsies, Soviet prisoners of war, then other prisoners.

Christ there was a kid in here! What the Hell was the mother thinking of? She was carrying a little girl who was protesting and had a small son in tow too, who was quiet and glum. Most likely the infant girl felt frustrated at being carried at snails pace through here, without realising what this place was about and wasn’t prepared to be quiet about it; but I wouldn’t rule out her sensing more. Children were murdered en masse here too. She was giving her mother a lot of stick, entirely justifiably in my opinion.

Another child was to figure in what the guide told us after we’d visited a barrack block that was a prison within a prison for those violating the numerous rules and those hauled in from the local neighbourhood. This included cells so constricted that inmates could only stand up in them.

Outside was an ominous grey wall with stakes. Where prisoners were shot. Our guide gave us 2 examples at opposite ends of the scale. There was a priest of high principles who’d spoken out against this evil regardless of how futile it seemed or how dangerous it was to do this. If one had the mindset of the SS the only way to stop someone like that was to shoot them. On the other hand there was a 9 year old boy who threw an apple at prisoners in an attempt to feed them on the march to or from IG Farben. He was also shot for this act!

At least it was portrayed as a charitable act but I’m not sure it was even that. An apple is a very handy thing for a boy to bung in a spirit of mischievousness, knowing that it’s pretty unlikely to cause injury but hard enough for the target to know all about it if it hits them. The sort of thing that would have earned him a clip round the ear when I was a boy or a disagreeable lecture now; not a bullet. Either way the mentality of those who shot him seems beyond comprehension.

Finally there was a gas chamber. Bunker like. Built that way to retain and build body heat from those who were packed in there. That would help to vaporise the Zyklon B into a poison gas.

The SS lived nearby in homes they’d chucked the local Poles out of. Some of these were near idyllic despite what was down the road. One of the most astronomically vacuous comments of all time was uttered by the wife of an SS officer: her sentiment being why bother with Heaven when it’s here at Auschwitz?

None but the terminally stupid or insane could fail to suspect that what was here was not Heaven but an attempt to create it’s opposite. This became more apparent at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Auschwitz-Birkenau was set up at the end of 1941 to ease overcrowding at Auschwitz I; destroying most of a Polish village named after a birch tree in the process. ‘Birkenau’ is German for birch tree. It was converted for extermination big time in early 1943.

 Auschwitz Birkenau_8611_edited-2

 

We were taken to the main gate: that long building with a central watchtower under which was an arch over a railway line, going straight through the building in fact. Many must have seen it on documentaries as I had. Also in a war film and even as the entrance to a city in Dantes Inferno on one occasion. In the film and the Inferno a searchlight on top of the tower was swept to and fro. Ignoring the weather which remained pleasant I’ve tried to simulate this with Adobe Photoshop.

I had thought that the Jews were unloaded from the cattle trucks outside the main gate but in actual fact the trains simply rolled along the single track through the arch into the middle of the camp where the railway split into several tracks. The unloading and selection process took place there.

 Auschwitz Birkenau_8616_edited-2

 

The railway inside the camp was a kilometre long I was told, but Google Earth shows it as being more like 3/4s. The camp was more than a kilometre across the other way and there was an extension to that under construction later. This was where the scale of what’s called the Holocaust became more apparent. Auschwitz Birkenau was bordered by trees which weren’t absent in the 40’s but the present ones – still distant – would have been small or non existent then; if the woods invading Pripyat near Chernobyl were anything to go by. Somehow I doubt there was as much grass too, which grew here plentifully now. Add to that the views of regimented blocks of single story huts everywhere and it would have been easy to feel that this dismal vista had taken over infinity. In other words: a man made circle of Hell.

It might as well have stretched to infinity as far as the prisoners were concerned. Those that weren’t sent to the gas chambers were crammed into what were more like deep shelves rather than bunks in those blocks. At least the ones that were brick built rather than wooden. When one turned over asleep or otherwise everyone else had to. It was also a race to get to the top communal bunk after enduring evening roll call, or at least the middle rather than the bottom; because sanitary facilities were non existent in the blocks and communal toilets were only available at set times under supervision. The further down one was the more crap one had to cope with. Literally.

That and there being no clean water for 2 years meant that just existing there made one a candidate for disease.

There was also winter. Despite there being chimney flues in each block there was no fuel for heating and most of the blocks were wooden, which provided little protection from the intense cold. It was summer now and I felt guilty feeling comfortable in a place like this.

The brick blocks were on one side of the railway; mostly they’d housed female prisoners. Most of the camp where the wooden dwellings were was on the other side. There were built that way because the Nazis realised it was cheaper. All the wood was now gone. What remained were the foundations and the flues; which stuck up everywhere like a huge field of outsized tombstones, a sinister mute message about everyone who had died here.

Auschwitz crematorium_8624_edited-1 

 

Then there were the gas chambers and the crematoria. Destroyed by the SS before Auschwitz was liberated by the Russians. Their ruins looked like Hell had regurgitated some of its contents here. This was where many of the women and children were sent and where the Sonderkommandos did most of their work. Our guide remarked that the killing was the easy part. Disposal of bodies on the scale of thousands was a much harder task. The crematoria worked around the clock at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

The ‘Sonderkommando’ was the ‘special unit’ recruited from Jews. Most of their work involved the appalling task of body disposal at the crematoria. They had a special barracks and were more able to obtain food and clothing. Not that it did them much good, for every 4 months or so the Nazis disposed and replaced them.

One other class of ‘worker’ was favoured in the camp. We could still see that just inside the entrances to the brick built blocks was a small room. These were better lodgings for ‘kapos:’ the head of each block who held absolute power here and received better rations.

There was a memorial near the ruins. The sentiment I remember here is that of utter loss of hope. One reason why it should never happen again.

The question is of course why did it happen? ‘We all have our dark side.’ One can feel hatred with some cause or on the other hand, unreason. I hated a major American transport company not only for having a luggage policy that was a thieves charter but for employing every piece of company crap and obfuscation in thwarting my efforts to retrieve my lost/stolen suitcase. So I did want to – like the Germans – send those responsible on a long journey without their luggage: before explaining at the other end why it might not be returned to them and ensuring that they understood why; but I wouldn’t transport them in cattle trucks and though bereft of belongings they would still be free afterwards.

Here though the most worthy candidates for an Auschwitz type fate – apart from the Nazi party – were perhaps the business leaders of IG Farben. Subject them to grueling hikes and crushing workloads after sleeping in their own shit; not until they died – which would be revenge – but until they were hospitalised. By then they might understand the error of their ways. IG Farben was to me a clue to the kind of evil at work here: its extreme industrial nature.

There have been unholy marriages of government policy and religion such as the Spanish Inquisition and idealism such as communism under Stalins regime: wiping out vast numbers of people in remote Siberian Gulags. Not as easy to inspect as camps in the middle of Europe.

Stalin’s regime had been ‘an equal opportunities exterminator’ Ric had said with some accuracy. Here though was a marriage of industry to government policy normally limited to the mentality of serial killers: the resentment and anger of a nation funneled and dedicated to a terrible degree into the scapegoating and wiping out of an entire people: the Jews. Not only was IG Farben involved to the hilt but once wedded to government policy the genocide was carried out with commercial calculation taken to the extremes of nightmare. There has been state induced mass murder in Rwanda and Cambodia but here it was run on an industrial scale. The result was so many disappearing at Auschwitz that it seemed more a black hole of evil than a Grand Canyon.

 remembering_8626

 

Walking back parallel to the railway line I saw a small group of people with the blue star Israeli flags. Jewish pilgrimage I guess. The photo of them I took was the only photo of Auschwitz I took that I didn’t alter with Adobe Photoshop. I found out later from Ric that what I’d witnessed was ‘The March of the Living:’ very much a part of Israeli education. In his words; ‘a physical hammering home of the phrase ‘Never Again!”

There were tourists wandering around like ants compared to the scale of things here. One of these was a Japanese girl who wanted me to take her photo. The kind of photo I wanted to avoid but if she wanted that I was happy to oblige. We got chatting and she laughed when I remarked that “next week I’ll be back at school with all the other kiddies.” For me it was surreal saying that in a place that so many had no hope of escaping from. Maybe I was saying that to reassure myself that I could just walk out of here and be back in my normal existence soon.

Our Polish guide wound things up and asked me how I’d found it?

“Harrowing.” was my reply. “I was in some personal danger at Chernobyl but this to me was more challenging.”

“You should have been here when there was snow on the ground.” Just like it was at Chernobyl. She would have preferred that and felt that summer had taken some of the edge off this place.

“Yes. And you were here to welcome us instead of SS guards.”

That really got through to her and to my surprise this somewhat forbidding lady became physical, chuckling and clasping me on the arm in affection.

It was a good way to end a venture I was relieved to be at the end of. Those who forget history are condemned to repeat it but I felt there was a danger – like my sister did – in the other extreme: getting sucked into the morbid depths of of something like this. Best strike a balance between not letting it affect the happiness one could find in life and remembering enough to be wary if one came across signs of anything like it emerging in future.

 

 © D. Angus 02 14.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Europe. Portsmouth to Warsaw by train: Part 2.

The rain had stopped by morning but there was still solid cloud above. It might be low enough to get above it by cablecar in which case the results would be literally brilliant.

What I remember is the result at the top being like the Stephen King horror film ‘The Mist.’ The cloud looked as thick as that fog! Bad enough to enforce an hours waste of time in the restaurant under seige by the weather though at least there weren’t giant spiders and wasps. The only photos I got were a few of cablecar apparatus rendered into alien shapes by the murk I’d ascended into. 

 cloudy mountain_8412

The silver lining to all this cloud was what was under it. Fewer though the photo opportunities were those that did occur were opportunities to capture the awe and mystery of these places. Less jagged perhaps than the French and Swiss Alps these mountains were still soaring with great sweeps of scree and dark forest. They probably hinted more at Castle Dracula and Middle Earth than picture postcard stuff, a potential weakness of brilliantly sunny images. Misty Mountains indeed.

 Cablecar view_8420_edited-1

Then there was the valley below. One could see how a chasm of a gorge at the edge of town dwarfed it in a way one couldn’t when down there. I’d seen this landform further west: how rivers in upper valleys could erode like a knife through a cake to lower areas on the other side of high ground.

Zams was of course laid out like a model village and one oddity I’d noticed in the Alps was graveyards not being grassy areas but paved over. There was one of those here.

The train onwards went all the way to Vienna and sitting opposite me was a young Austrian who spoke some English and was returning there from a wedding he’d attended in Zams. It was a weekend break for him. We chatted about travel and photography and how I could get the odd good shot from a train window if I was lucky.

There was no lack of good shots of mountainsides dissapearing into ragged swathes of cloud anyway. Moody and atmospheric. All the way to the other side of Innsbruck.

Beyond there the valley and route swung north into Bavaria and crossed part of southern Germany before going back into Austria at Salzburg. Again – like at Lake Lucerne – I was getting close to personal history. Munich was just to the north and that was the furthest point I’d reached by BSA Bantam motorbike when I was 21 after an epic ride across France from Le Havre through Paris, Nancy, Strasbourg, the Black Forest and down the Autobahn. It was that trip that made up my mind that I should lead a life of travel.

Stormcloud over hill_8503_edited-1 

The clouds were breaking up. Into lighter and darker clouds. Actually it was more the kind of sky I wanted; stormy and dramatic. Especially at one place where a dark cloud reached down to a hill in a sychronicity of shapes, looking like a tornado forming up. Salzburg too had a dramatic sky with a hint of something similar.

The countryside meadows were enclosed by woods rather than hedgerows as in England, now and then opening up to a vista of hills or in one place another lake set in country like a huge park. Houses were all detached and bigger than those in the UK, apart from villages where there was a cosy huddle seemingly unnaffected by the cancer of housing estates.

That was the way it was across the rest of Austria too. We’d seen the last of the Alps at Innsbruck.

Austrian church_8501_edited-1

One other thing. Once in awhile a church sported a domed spire structure like the top of a queen chess piece. Like the churches I’d seen in Kiev. Less colourful here but the link was definitely there.

We were approaching Vienna. I’d made a difficult choice having a day to play with. Vienna is one of those cities that one should see but I was going on to Brno in the Czech republic. Why? What used to be Czeckoslovakia was a part of the world that intrigued me and it wasn’t just because there were new countries there.

An invalid friend in London had a pen friend living in Bratislava who’d sent him a box of presents. It wasn’t only the quantity but the quality. Each one was wrapped in such a way that the care and artistry taken was utterly extraordinary. All this although they never met!

Also In London I’d found a natural friendliness in a beautiful Czech girl (spoken for) that was somehow hard to find in Britain these days.

Then there were the ‘love trains’ of Prague: carriages designated for single people to link up if they liked. This to me was not only a creative interesting idea but a dam sight more preferable to the swarm of computer dating agencies making a nice living out of loneliness in the UK.

What the hell was going on there in the positive sense? It all hinted at something more, something cultural that could be well worth exploring, not far in global terms from Britain.

Of course you need more than a day, much more maybe; but I’d only been in Normandy for a day and learned while still on the boat getting there that French house prices are cheaper than British because there’s a tax on house price increases. So maybe I could pick up a clue.

That meant snubbing Vienna even though it was so close. That’s the trouble with the blitzkreig I’d planned across Europe to Warsaw: hard choices and not enough time anyway.

 Vienna station_8508 

Vienna seemed to take it to heart. The cloud had degenerated back into the uniform grey gloom as I emerged from the main station only to descend into its underground system to get to the terminus I needed to continue, seeing precious little of the city. The grey gloom was with me for the long wait at the other station.

As for the blue Danube it was dismal with what passed for the evening light under all this crap cloud. The name of a suburb nearby probably summed up the mood Vienna seemed to have for me: ‘Simmering.’ That’s what the name was and I think I deserved it, having only myself to blame.

Night had fallen by the time I reached Brno. I had to cross a major thoroughfare then navigate a maze of minor streets to get to the hostel. I was taking a chance coming this far. Finding ones way after a journey through an unknown city in an unknown land after nightfall demands ones reserves of alertness despite travel fatigue. It’s potentially a time when things can go wrong. Besides, I could also have the added hurdle of finding somewhere if the hostel is full.

A subway led under the thoroughfare. On the other side was a flight of steps going uphill. The street map had hinted at higher ground. I hesitated because a gang of young guys were ascending the steps, one of whom incongruously had what looked like Muslim headgear. They were most likely harmless but there had been tales of robbery in these parts. Then a girl with a dog as big as she was started doing likewise so I decided to tag along near her. She went a different way to the one I wanted at the top of the steps, while the gang seemed undecided about which way to go, while I stayed out of sight around a corner.

It all reminded me of ‘The 3rd Man.’ I could hear that zither playing while I was avoiding potential trouble in a muddle of rain glistened streets and cobbles amongst ornate architecture silver in lamplight, like the Vienna of that film. Like the lead character in that film I was on a difficult mission in a place I’d never been to before. The gang moved on and I was able to take a stab at navigating the streets in a zigzag fashion, the zither staying with me. This theme music to ‘The 3rd Man’ had topped the international music charts the year I was born.

I reached the hostel almost by accident and felt surprised it was as easy as it was. There was also room at this inn. I’d drawn the short straw here though. The place was tiny compared to the others: a hole in the wall with a mini bar thrown in and sleeping quarters stacked above. It looked like a firetrap and there were notices threatening people smoking with 1.000 Euro fines; so maybe the management felt the risk was real. Only a dormitory was available for me on the 2nd floor up a narrow staircase. And only a top bunk at that in what looked like a large den of down and outs. The tallest down and out being in the bunk below me. The guarded welcome I got reminded me of the hostel in Alice Springs where I’d had my camera and mobile phone stolen.

It was going to be a hard night. Without washing or undressing I arranged my backpack and boots in my line of sight from above where no one could make off with it without everyone else knowing and took the Nikon up to bunk with me, guarding it with my body.

 

 

In the morning everybody seemed to get up and go but the guy below me. I tried waiting until he’d done likewise but he seemed a permanent resident so I gave up and got up.

Once I’d sorted myself out – managing to book a single room and having something to eat – life seemed easier, although there was still a variety of cloud to chose from, which would remain for the day. At least there wasn’t much rain and I was going to get some good shots of this town.

I tried to text Jocelyn on the mobile. I was very hit and miss when it came to gadgets and tech but she’d been nervous about linking up with me and nothing ventured nothing gained, so let’s see if I’m capable of being a cool texter and if ‘r u getting this’ gets a result?

The descriptions of some of the clubs here were interesting but later I found similarly entertaining descriptions in Poland so it could have been a translation thing. The youth who ran the hostel were open enough but didn’t seem that different from youth anywhere. That was about all regarding clues as to the state of hospitality and creativity here but Brno was an interesting enough place anyway.

The hostel was more or less at the geographical centre of Brno. Apart from the capital Prague to the north west Brno seemed the only other city of any size in the country. I’d known of its existence since learning that the name ‘Bren’ was derived from Brno. The Bren gun with its distinctive curved magazine was originally manufactured here. Adopted by Britain in the 1930’s it became the standard British light machine gun through World War 2 and continued to be used until 1991.

Brno itself is a centre of judicial authority and administration reflected in 2 of it’s main sights: the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul and the Spilberk castle.

The cathedral I could spot from the castle. A black looking Gothic mass of a building dwarfing neighbouring ones, sinister with dark stone and spires looking as sharp as needles.

The castle was of lighter stone up a nearby hill through a park. Built in the 13th century as a royal castle it became into a citadel. A fortress which together other city fortifications withstood 5 sieges. If the other fortifications were like the Spilberk castle I’m not surprised: ramparts which looked as massive as a geological formation, arrowhead fortifications to give enfilade fire, an interior moat for a fortress within a fortress. Above were chambers fit for royalty. Below were dark passages, prison quarters and torture chambers brought back to life with authentic equipment and mannequins.

Predictably, the Nazis took it over when they invaded Czechoslovakia. To continue this honourable tradition.

Brno from Stara Radnice_8550 

It was a good place for photographs of the city. Another good place though was actually in the same block the hostel was in: the StaraRadnice tower, which was part of the old city hall, over the gate. There was a legend of a dragon there and there really was a stuffed crocodile over the gate passageway, to back up the legend it seems. The staircase up the interior? If you could get up that you’d knew you’d passed the test for the able bodied. And for not being overweight if you could get round the narrow balcony around the top of the tower when others were there. One could see the Spilberk from up there and also the compact nature of Brno despite its size.

I could see the tower from the single room I’d booked. After dark it would be lit up. The room was really snug with a drop on to another roof that might be survivable – as opposed to certain death in that dormitory – should I have to jump out of the window to escape a fire.

I was failing in my original social objective though. Maybe I was being feeble for not visiting a club and lacking in energy after last night but if I wasn’t staying for longer anything I’d learn would be limited in value and probably drowned out in the music anyway; so I caught up on my sleep. Unlike the last few days there would be no margin for error tomorrow which was crucial.

 

 

The final day of the journey from Portsmouth to Warsaw by rail. A packed breakfast was supposed to be ready in the dining room at the top of the hostel but I couldn’t find it. Didn’t care anyway. What mattered was to crack on down to the station in plenty of time for the train, depositing my key in the hostel box outside because it was too early for anyone to be at work.

Down at the station there was enough time for something to eat but there was a complication I knew I was trusting to some luck to overcome. I’d learned coming up to Brno that this city was actually on a branch line to the one I wanted for Warsaw. So I had to get back to a place called Breclav on the Austrian border to get the right train. I’d checked the train times. Hopefully the train getting me there wouldn’t be late.

Needless to say that train was late.

How late? There was some nail biting but thank God it wasn’t a repetition of that waiting game I’d been obliged to play with that detestable woman back in France. The train arrived in time for the short journey back to Breclav. Not that there was much time to spare I thought staring out at countryside immersed in early morning gloom. Another cloudy day.

But the train reached the station in time, there was a smooth changeover and I was on track and on time for Warsaw. It headed up through the fields and villages of the Czech Republic towards the Carpathians and Poland amidst weather that was clearing more than it had at any time since mid Switzerland.

The Carpathians actually began to the east with the high lump of mountains known as the Tatras. There was a something of a gap between there and the hills surrounding the Czech republic. All the same I expected hillier terrain, maybe verging on mountainous. All there was though was country closed in with fields, villages and more woods maybe, with a hint of more hills.

I realised we were in Poland when we got to Katowice near the border. Katowice was the centre of a heavy industrial region and this place looked as though it wanted to become like Chernobyl. Some spectacular dereliction was near the railway along with a lot of graffiti. I’d seen a bit a month ago in the Ruhr but it seemed more the thing here.

North of there was a line that seemed as straight as an arrow across the Polish plain all the way up to Warsaw, up which the train headed at speed.

I forget whether it was here or further south I checked the mobile. My text had got through to Joceyln! She was asking if things were going according to plan? They sure were, was the spirit of my next text: A OK and All Systems Go: my plan was a winner! This text might or might not reach her before she got to Poland. Either way though I felt not only flushed with success but relieved and it was time for a celebratory beer. Even the weather was behaving itself.

Warsaw graffiti from train_8592_edited-1 

A graffiti creation spelling Warsaw the Polish way announced the approach to the capital.

Then it was all change at Warsaw’s modern central station. The suburban train to Warsaw’s ‘Frederick Chopin Airport’ was going back the way I’d come but it wasn’t far. Once there I found myself ascending to the far corner of a car park. Once I’d got out of that it looked like this airport was very much part of the new Poland, half of it looked as though it was being built. There was a wait of course but her flight came in and I was able to position myself well, where the passengers came out.

A good hug when she arrived. She was relieved to see me.

Coming out of the airport she found a closer entrance to the station that had been hidden from me by a column. After that though we had a run of dodgy luck. Jocelyn had trouble with a ticket machine on the train back and there were warnings of a fine for not using it, so she couldn’t relax until we’d sorted that.

Then we found that the map was deceptive and the hotel that looked as though it was across the street from the central station was in fact several blocks away. I knew we were in for an adventure when we ascended from the station to see a great open space overlooked by a towering palacial pile, that reminded me of the University of Moscow. It was indeed the Palace of Culture and Science, a building decreed by Stalin to be a gift from him to Poland in the early 1950’s. Many Poles didn’t like it. It was still the tallest building in Poland and didn’t look like our hotel.

Our adventure took us west through the gathering dusk along a major main road across another major thoroughfare with the railway partially submerged to the right.

When we got to the hotel it wasn’t our hotel. After much wandering about and questions in the wrong hotel we eventually found it tucked around the rear of its bigger brother.

When I got to my room I found the key didn’t work and descended to the lobby to be told it might be something to do with the new computer system. Computers.

Meanwhile Jocelyn found herself in the lift from Hell. It looked half built and was actually being refurbished. She’d overlooked the notice asking her to use the other one.

Meanwhile I was offered a new room just around the corner from Jocelyn. When I got there I encountered a coloured gentleman with the problem I’d just had but this time my key worked. My troubles were over.

Or so I thought when we met up and went to a classy restaurant in the next hotel. I had a tall glass of beer and – as is my wont with alcohol in the early stages – became animated. Too animated for one of my hands caught the glass and SMASH it shattered on the table and shot out on to the floor, along with the beer! And Jocelyn happens to be a lady who hates food or drink getting on to her – I was to find out the hard way later – though it more or less missed her this time. And of course it just happened to be one of those restaurants which is big and open and echoing with stone floors, so that everyone far and wide could experience what sort of cock up I was perpetrating. “I’ve travelled for most of my life and that is the first time I have ever smashed a beer glass,” I kept repeating to Jocelyn and the waiters ushuring us to another table.

Get a grip. We’re up before dawn tomorrow on a mission which in its own way would be as challenging as Chernobyl.

© D Angus 12 13

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Europe. Portsmouth to Warsaw by Train: Part 1.

For the 2nd time in a month I’d got the train from Portsmouth to London, left Britain at St. Pancras what with passport control, boarded the Eurostar for the Channel Tunnel and Europe.

The 3rd trip was going according to plan. Much more ambitious this time. Instead of heading for Brussels it would be Paris, beginning a railway blitzkreig being on the move almost every day across 6 countries, 3 of which I hadn’t seen before: across France, the Alps to Vienna, then up through the Czech Republic to Poland and Warsaw, where I would link up with Jocelyn, who’d accompanied me to Kiev. This time I had my camera too.

I didn’t see much of what was left of the UK and northern France for there was a window partition where I sat. In Paris I would be staying at a youth hostel for a night near the city terminus station, the Gare du Nord, before departing onwards from the Gare de Lyon without seeing the sights. I’d seen Paris on a school trip and stayed at a youth hostel on the other side of the city when I was 21, but hadn’t seen Paris since 1973 and that was from one airport to another.

Once outside the Gare du Nord Paris was unmistakeable: its architecture with that look of fading but enduring elegance. I had a flat hike of 1 kilometre through narrow streets with the odd bistro and groups of coloured men, maybe Algerians, while watching my camera, to a modern Youth Hostel between the railways ending at the Gare du Nord and Gare de l’Est. Half way there was a broader boulevard to cross, with an elevated railway structure running down the centre like in Chicago, but there was no sign of a Metro station which would be my link to the train running through France tomorrow.

The elevated railway was the Metro! I made a joke of it when I found the Youth Hostel when I found it, by mimicking looking down then looking up. I’d booked a room there for the night. Echoing corridors in a slab like building led me to it. Comfortable enough with a shower and lockable windows. Just as well, there was a balcony running the length of the building I didn’t trust. There was also no toilet which was down the corridor. A diagrammatic notice told one that the sink was not to be used to take a leak. I doubt if many took notice of that.

Europe could be seen as an obstacle course of languages. I knew slightly less French than my random German words. It’s surprising how one could often get by with a vague understanding brought about by inflexion and gesture. Also if one could understand one word one might make a stab at an educated guess about the rest of it. Anyway the British are privileged if not spoilt. English is the most widely spoken language on this planet so many on the European continent know a few words and some can speak it fluently.

That’s the way it was at the bar next to reception and a handy barbecue on a terrace; where one overlooked the main line coming up from the Gare de l’Est. I’d always been in Paris in summer and the weather always seemed to be hot or at least seriously summer, with mellow evenings. The local beer went down well, relaxing me into the summer dusk. It might have helped me take a few good shots with the Nikon.

An early breakfast and off to the Metro on a sunny morning. Wasn’t easy to find the station entrance but once it was found and a train caught I had a nice ride on ‘Line 2′ that happened to be above ground on that section, taking me through the rooftops of Paris and treating me to an intriguing view of an unexpected formal lake or big canal – it turned out to be a canal – stretching through the cityscape, before going back underground for most of the ride.

I got lost further down the line when I had to change near the Gare de Lyon. Despite that though and the proverbial little old lady that the ticket office staff seemed unable to handle I got a place on the train I was aiming for that would arrive at my destination in mid afternoon. This felt improbable because it would be crossing a huge part of France, all the way to the French Alps in fact. Trouble was, the European rail pass I’d spent a lot of money on didn’t cover me for this train, the woman dispensing the ticket charmlessly told me. Also I was to change twice at;- where? I’d never heard of these places but I ascertained they were near the French Alps.

The rail pass must have helped though for the money I was paying must be cheap for the French fast train – ‘TGV’ – I was on; the fastest train anywhere in 2011 travelling at 200 mph. Also this expense was nothing remotely like a rail fare in England for a similar distance.

Once out of central Paris one could feel the acceleration powering the train around the curves on the track through the suburbs. Hoped the driver knew what he was doing after that Spanish train disaster on a curve last month.

There was a tunnel. No more Paris on the other side! Open country, not as many curves. Now the TGV was fairly flying across a broad river valley. Onward through France at maximum speed and it didn’t feel as though the train was straining itself.

What should have been a great trip though was marred by petty infuriations. A wait for the loo was followed by a persistent rattling of the door handle while I was in there. Not a place to spend long in or have this sort of thing to deal with, but ignoring it was a mistake for I was drying my hands when the door opened and I had to confront the railway official unlocking it with my partially dried hands while the woman causing the trouble and too many in 2 carriages looked on! He tried to justify himself and the woman in English saying they didn’t know what was happening behind a closed door. Disgusted that I was in the spotlight because they couldn’t wait at all while I and others were obliged to, I made my point about being intruded upon when I’d almost finished anyway, without bothering with any French!

Then there was probably revenge in the form of covert harrassment later when a female official insisted on me getting the paperwork from my backpack in the rack above when she saw my Eurorail pass. Disturbing all around me.

 France from the train_7998

Look at the scenery, that’s a good antidote for stress. France comes close to being a mirror image of Britain with its scenery. The geology of southern England is also that of northern France with the chalk of Salisbury Plain forming the Somme uplands and the older rock of Cornwall cropping up in Brittany. Paris is like London, in a syncline; a dip of strata. The further away one gets from both capitals the older the rock is. Often the higher it is too. In Britain there’s Wales and the Pennines. In France the Massif Central and Jura, though Britain has nothing like the Alps.

The terrain was generally gaining in height and hills. There was a slightly drier look to the land as one got well to the south of the Paris basin. The architecture of the occasional village, hilltop farm and chateau seemed older and more substantial than what was to the north. I tried a few shots with my Nikon.

The hills were developing into a scale that was interesting when I noticed that part of one was missing: the sudden vertical profile I’d not seen so far of a considerable cliff. Just beyond here the country dropped into a broad valley or plain and we crossed a big river. Possibly the Rhone I thought, but it turned out to be the Saone, which continues the Rhone valley further north, the Rhone coming in from Lake Geneva.

The first changeover was probably approaching. Before that though were the Jura Mountains: rank upon rank of forested ridge with limestone cliffs. The Jurassic period – famous for Dinosaurs – is named after this region, but the rock forming these mountains was laid down in a shallow tropical sea so plesiosaurs would be more likely to be found here.

Bellegarde-sur-Valserine. That was the first change of trains and the TGV was just arriving there. Almost immediately I noticed that there were actually 2 stations here but there was a dome of a building in between where I should be able to check what platform my next train was leaving from and the Eurorail pass procedure. Plenty of time as long as I didn’t muck around too much. In theory.

There were only 2 people in front of me but the only person on duty was occupied by a tall woman, whose casually crossed ankles formed an X sending a signal that barred all progress and said it all.

‘You are subtly forbidden to proceed with your adventure for as long as I chose. I’ve plenty of time and am too nonchalant to care about how long you wait. Will I go soon or will I stay? Who can say? You will wait anyway. Your affair may be urgent, it may not, unless I stay, but you will wait. Patiently and politely while dangling in frustrating indecision about how long you will wait. Please relax. Just as I have done in my controlling position. There is nothing you can do.’

Well her stance is certainly irritating but I have a quarter of an hour to 20 minutes to play with so there’s a good chance she’ll…. words fail me for this blog.

I also had an ally. A Frenchman behind me who was clearly less patient than I was. Despite not being able to understand each other’s language we had common cause. Before long he’d interrupted the women’s meeting to politely ask them not to keep us waiting much longer. I say politely because I definitely heard him try diplomacy in the form of “s’il vous plait.”

They must have fobbed him off for it didn’t work. Nothing changed.

At noon another female member of staff arrived to sit next to the woman engrossed in the chat with the crossed ankles, who was intent on a leisurely examination of every minutia of the many tickets spread like a smorgasbord before her. Now we’ll get moving I thought, but no: the girl did her nails and anything else she could think of before deigning to open up and help anyone.

Time was getting truly tight but at least people were moving forward. But my turn looked like coming just too late for me to hang around.

The midday girl was occupied for the immediate future too. The crossed ankles looked like leaving. Then she changed her mind and stayed put as the clock reached the deadline I’d set. That’s it I’m out of here! But my ally called me back, she was leaving. Then she changed her mind again “OH COME ON!” I blasted her in English. I’ve got 4 minutes to my train!

They were stupid enough to look as though they’d been mildly surprised from a trance. My approach didn’t work immediately but nobody challenged me; the queue behind feeling I was speaking for them maybe. Then I was at the desk sorting the Europass as fast as possible bearing in mind that thanks to one nonchalant cow I was not only cutting it perilously close but the guy behind who’d tried earlier looked like having even less time than I did!

“That’s it. All yours!” I said to him hoping the spirit of the message would get through. Just after he got to the desk I realised I’d forgotten my most urgent mission: finding the platform my train was leaving from. Too late now and I was out of there.

I made the right train. I’ve actually lost my memory as to how I achieved that!

France near Geneva_8008_edited-1 

Scenery soothed me again. Especially an out of this world view from a height it seems of a forested mountain ridge as regular as a wall fading down into distant blue, vaporising into distant summer haze. It looked a beautiful place to live and many seemed to have that idea for it was well populated in that direction too. It was the other side of the Jura range, we were running along the southern edge of the Swiss border and the suburbs of Geneva.

I was chatting with an American family who were on the same journey as me, saving their bacon when I noticed the son had got off the train at the wrong station for the 2nd change. A large family were held up in this confusion though and I had to block the door to stop the train leaving while they were getting off.

Mountains or foothills again. Behind them though, bigger mountains, then mountains beyond emerging out of the faraway haze like a range of legend, dwarfing the nearer ones again. The Jura was regular and green with forest, shaped like oversize ridges and hills with some cliffs thrown in; these others were developing up out of their forest cloak into towering rock masses, some snow capped. Soaring higher and higher the further they were. Awesomely out of scale with any landscape I’d seen for a long time. Opening up new realms of fantastic scenery for the imagination. An uplifting sight. We’d made the Alps.

I helped the American family to the right platform at the right station.

Now it was the final valley to Chamonix where I was staying for the night and what a valley! The Alps as a mountain range is nothing much at all in terms of land area covered, but it’s extremely high for that area. That and the very deep valleys make it one of the most spectacularly jagged mountain ranges on this planet. It’s also young like the Himalayas, so less likely to be worn down. Both didn’t really get going until after the Dinosaurs and both mountain ranges were still growing! About as fast as ones fingernails I’ve heard.

One gets used to thinking of landscape being more or less level with one’s eyes, not at 45° upwards or thereabouts all the time unless it’s a similar angle down. It brings on a whole new perspective on reality and thereby life.

 

Mt Blanc_8083

One could actually see Mt. Blanc and that was one Mother of a mountain! What I thought was the summit was a great dome of snow to the right but the real summit was still just visible looking like part of the ridge further back from the dome at this angle. The general mountain mass was unmistakeable because there was a glacier from the Mt. Blanc massif draping down into the Chamonix valley with its snout above the Youth Hostel I’d booked a place at. I could see the glacier from the train and the belt of bare rock around it was a measure of how far it had recently melted, good evidence for global warming.

We were there and I had a longish walk uphill from the town centre to the hostel but I considered myself lucky. Once in awhile I’d discovered fragments of Heaven on Earth and this was one of them. Once out of the well kept Swiss Chalet style centre the straight road I was to follow was more of a lane with a gentle gradient slanting away from the valley centre up a lower slope. All around were beautifully maintained places with flowers everywhere soaking up the sunshine of a serenely sunny day with white puffs of cloud far above. Up where there were awesomely high and huge exhibitions of stunning scenery cloaked in dazzling snowfields. There were cablecars up there; the cables going up the valley sides looking as insubstantial as a few strands of spiders web. People were enjoying themselves up there. I’d seen a paraglider back at the last changeover flying along the collosal vertical rock face of a mountain. There were many more here drifting so far above the valley they reminded me of dandelion seeds or thistledown. Meanwhile back on the ground there were even roadside stone troughs thoughtfully provided where somehow I just knew I could drink the crystal clear water. I’d taken a train ride to Heaven. Didn’t suffer any ill effects from the water either.

It got a lot steeper across a motorway below the glacier but the Youth Hostel was not far and there was another water trough there. It was 4 o’ clock and the reception desk did not open up for another hour. Not that I cared for it was hard to find a nicer place to wait and I could explore a bit and clean up. Odd to think I was in Paris this morning when was here this early.

I wasn’t even annoyed when reception opened up and the jovial young Frenchman there tried to overcharge me by 10 Euros. I had a bunk in a dormitory so I was to leave the camera in the office for safe keeping. Despite the money I decided to trust him.

The hostel itself was the best one I stayed in on this trip. The main floor had a giant chessboard and chess pieces on the side of the room with a valley view. There was also a small library and – to my delight – a vacuum formed relief model of the Chamonix region on the other side. In the centre was a hexagonal hole in the floor with a broad stairway going down to a bar and TV area, for the hostel was built on a sloping site. Outside below was a games area with French bowls and table tennis. The other way was a nice courtyard with a view of Mt. Blanc and access to sleeping quarters. The lights going out in the corridors to save power was more of an adventure than anything. My dormitory was small and cosy with a view of the valley.

The only thing wrong was the optional evening meal. Hardly French cordon bleu cooking. The best I can say of it was that there were plenty of vegetables. Meanwhile though there was still the view. Earlier it was the snow expanses pocked with random chunks of shadow; of seracs, crevasses, cornices, outcrops and cliffs. Now in the evening cloud was drifting across rock faces and snowfields making what was beyond appear to hang in space. It all reminded me of photos I’d seen as a child in my Dad’s Himalayan mountain books.

People seemed healthier in the French Alps. Mine was good for my age in south Hampshire but here it was mediocre. I’d be well up for a hike up to the glacier but higher up and Mt. Blanc itself? That would really be rolling the dice, but I got the impression people here seemed to look upon that the way we regarded a hike on the South Downs at home. As for running 100 kilometres in this kind of terrain? Absolutely no chance! That was what a Japanese man sitting next to me did and was about to do and he was only one year younger! Heaven is good for your health it seems.

Anyway I helped ensure I never would by a good drinking session into the evening at the bar.

 

 

Chamonix sunrise_8116

Morning. The camera was fine and could take photos of the sun behind the mountains casting vast shadows of them overhead, miles long, during the downhill hike to the station. There was no trouble this time with the Eurorail pass either. Now to venture into the unknown for although I knew roughly where hostels were I had nothing booked with accomodation and wasn’t familiar with any train timetables.

I did however have a good idea of the route. The train I caught pulled out of Chamonix to the valley’s end and through a knot of towering jagged rockpiles of mountains. This was one of the mountain masses interrupting a trend of valleys I’d noticed running the length of the Alps through most of the spectacular parts of them. It could be a major geological feature and research on Google Earth seemed to show that there were railways making use of it, through its length it appeared. In theory it should be possible to cover ground quickly that way for one could take photos while on the move since the mountains would be all around one and it would be hard to avoid spectacular views of them.

That would be my route then, that would take me across Switzerland and well into Austria, to Innsbruck and beyond.

Certainly was a scenic route! Surprisingly most of that mountain section was tunnel free though by now the track was protected by avalanche shelters here and there. An interesting challenge for photography but I got a some of those jagged rocky mountains heaving up of out precipitous pine forest, deep valleys too and a small town squeezing into whatever land it was possible to build on.

It was hard to tell where the border was, probably that town or one of the few other settlements. Anyway, it was definitely Switzerland when the line – avoiding a gorge – came out far above a broad cultivated flat bottomed valley with some of the higher mountains on this planet on both sides, like a geological version of a colossal trench: a typical Alpine valley. The railway zigzagged down into it through the forest; much as roads do when crossing the Alps. This valley actually led from the upper end of Lake Geneva and did a dog leg into the valley system along the Alps I’ve described.

That was at a town called Martigny. From there the valley led east. From the train one could see a lot of cultivation that looked like vineyards. The drawback though was the upper mountains tending to be hidden by steep valley sides of rock strewn grassy moorland and forest, but I got some good shots.

Sion, Sierre, Salgesh, Leuk, Varen, Raron and Visp. These were the small towns cum villages with short and often strange sounding names, going up this valley. Near Visp I chatted to a friendly railway official who was gome home to Visp and would show me the station layout there. Maybe she liked it when I said I just loved mountains.

Visp actually had 2 stations: the main one and one that was more of a mountain railway just outside that with the pleasant neat main street of a provincial Swiss town stretching beyond.

Things started to go wrong here when I got on the wrong train. I’d got my sense of direction all wrong and the right one pulled out at the right time on the next platform while mine stayed still. I used the time to buy some lunch and a drink but by that stage I was grappling with problems found in Switzerland. They still had their own currency here although Euros were often accepted, probably at a higher rate. Also one wasn’t sure what language to attempt. I thought it was French in the west, German in the north and east, Italian in the south. Later I was told that French was for the sophisticates in the cities and bigger towns whereas German was the language to use in the countryside and villages.

An hour later I got the right train but the bad luck continued. Near the next town, Brig, I confidently flourished my Europass to the official doing the rounds only to be told it wasn’t valid for this train. The price was more than the TGV and it was only for a fraction of this railway’s network covering my route. The company was exempt or didn’t want to know about Europasses this tight lipped man told me, probably prematurely old with the unpopularity gained from dedication to this commercial concern.

Commercial concerns can overdo their cause of course and just after this vistation I had another: this time a woman official all set to needlessly repeat her colleague’s infliction. Luckily she spoke English too so I was able to give the devil in me some leeway in the form of being chatty.

“This reminds me of my country.”

“Oh. Yes?” That brought out a smile.

“Yes. The railways are run by companies, they’re run commercially there too.”

“Oh, good.”

Now be sure to assure her cheerfully with a big happy smile:- “No. Bad. Very bad!” That forced a matching smile from her and ought to add that .999 % recurring irritation percentage. Just enough to be irritating in the lingering sense.

So a geographical opposite – a landlocked mountainous country as opposed to an island – had led to a similar result: insularity from what was happening in neighbouring countries leading to a different currency and commercial excesses.

There was a Youth Hostel ahead. That would mean another early stop in the afternoon but the next one would risk late evening. The train was climbing up the long valley to a kind of pass and that should be it.

There was a halt at the top of the pass. Well the village was supposed to be small but where was it’s name? All I could see was a sign called ‘Lax.’ Nobody was around.

One advantage of Switzerland was lack of fences. One could just wander across fields so I made my way acrosss one towards a big building on a road in the right direction. Sometimes I worry about my brain though for I was on the road before I realised that ‘Lax’ was the name of the place I was in and it was very lax of me not to notice that.

Another wait for an hour in weather that had closed in and was trying to forget about summer it seems.

Feisch, the village with the hostel was not much further on. All I had to do there was cross under a bridge, go up a wooded slope and I was there basically. I say basically because the hostel was incorporated within a massive sports centre and it took some time to navigate the layout. After a spell at reception I managed to get a single room.

When I found it the room was massive with minimalist modern design, a double bed and balcony. Part of the fun of staying at Youth Hostels as opposed to hotels is that one was less sure what one would find. Here it seemed as though I’d wound up in a place that seemed to be a Swiss attempt to resurrect the traditions of the Nuremberg Rallies and Hitler Youth. The architecture was monumental concrete and the emphasis was dedication to youth and fitness. Later I would encounter sizeable parties of well organised youth. Perhaps I’d wound up in the kind of room that had been used by Obersturmbahnfuhrers and their mistresses: although its facilities were the same as Paris.

My Nikon batteries often needed recharging I’d learned. I’d bought 2 adapters before the trip so there ought to be a powerpoint somewhere in this room that would do.

There wasn’t. I eventually found. The sockets were a 3rd variety. Another advantage of being in Switzerland.

A trip back down to reception produced a box full of adapters to dig through. One of them must be okay.

None were. It was turning out to be one frustrating afternoon. I had to walk down into Feish itself to eventually find an electrician to find this unique adapter I would never need again and probably got ripped off. There was a cafe overlooking a rocky river and a few cows nearby where I tried to relax but going there led to a muddle over cheesecake. The woman running it seemed to contradict herself. And I didn’t want to hang around too long for it looked as though it was going to rain.

It started on the way back. I still checked the train times at the station. Yesterday I’d just about crossed the whole of France. Today I was only half way through Switzerland. I organised a packed lunch in the modernistic cavern of a dining hall. I was getting up too early for the early breakfast being determined to get my journey going again that was running out of steam.

 

 

Up early for a lovely dawn at the station then onward. I had a few ideas for how to improve on yesterday. There might be a concession for me being over 60. If there wasn’t, a branch line led to a northern terminus that should be cheaper. Although this was abandoning my plan of following the valleys the railways I could link up with could take me to Zurich. Zurich meant faster trains. Intercities. Just what was needed to regain the time lost. Zurich could in fact line me up for Vienna and get me back into those valleys before Innsbruck, which meant more mountains. Vienna was the crucial objective. Warsaw was a day from there by rail.

The official seemed a clone of the first, another old thin lipped wonder. Hell he might even be the same man! No there was no concession and the price if I was following the valleys dwarfed the French TGV. He agreed that going north would be better for me. Especially as his bloody company could hardly lose since the price going there wasn’t much less.

The valley ahead though level bottomed and cultivated was getting narrower all the time and eventually ended at another knot of mountains. A side valley led to a tunnel.

Tunnels, wild valleys, slopes of scree and rock, grassy slopes, forested slopes, views of distant mountains, then Andermatt. This was the junction for the line going north.

Gotthard Tunnel_8240

Not far to the north through similar terrain and a steep descent was Goschenen. Change here for trains north. Just south of the station was a double tunnel entrance. The St. Gotthard Tunnel through the Gotthard massif which was the knot of mountains I’d just come through. It seemed to be a tunnel of fame in train books I’d read when I child. No wonder. 9 miles long. Took 10 years to build. Opened in 1882 after the deaths of 200 workers and the Swiss engineer who surveyed the construction, who had a heart attack inside the tunnel.

This time the Europass worked and I continued north. Google Earth shows a long tunnel following a rocky wild pine wooded valley cum gorge. Also there were views through the valleyside columns of avalanche shelters. The more one continued the more cultivation clung to any slope that wasn’t too steep. It was difficult to see the upper mountains far above because of the steepness of the valley sides in Switzerland. ‘U’ shaped valleys is what they were, carved by glaciers long since melted away, which I learned long ago in geography lessons. This meant the slopes further up were less extreme, sometimes enough to allow pastureland and houses. This is actually where the name ‘alp’ came from: a local name describing this geographical feature.

I was actually going around the eastern side of a mountain mass in which there was a valley where I’d taken my first holiday abroad: when I was 13 on a school ski holiday. I remembered seeing spectacular mountains for the first time in my life, along with my first cablecar ride and walk along one of those ‘alps’ with a friend; where it was sunny and much warmer than the town below which didn’t see the sun in January and was freezing. We even chatted with with the PE teacher up there as though we were equals instead of teacher and pupils. Now it was like seeing the dark side of the moon;- travelling up the far side of those mountains and the other end of Lake Lucerne just to the north. We’d crossed Lake Lucerne on the school trip to get to the valley.

lake and mountain_8282_edited-1

Lake Lucerne is actually a series of lakes joined up. This part of it looked deep and mysterious as the mountains on the other side plunged into it and the habitations over there looked cut off from elsewhere. Trouble was the weather had closed in again making the images photographed through a train window look rather flat. Taking photos through a train window is not easy to do anyway and I’d made a mistake in not bringing a polarising lens: that would have cut down on reflection.

I like stormy skies for photography but not uniform grey shit. The blue skies in France were a memory and it looked more like November than summer, except for the deciduous trees being green with leaves.

Progress was good going north though. A change without waiting too long at Schwyz, another lake which led out of the mountains to Zug and so on to Zurich.

A longer wait and lunch here at the cavernous station. The weather was still grey and would continue to be so. The good news though was that not only could I get a train through to Innsbruck and Vienna but my Europass remained valid. I didn’t know it then but it would continue to be so all the way to Warsaw.

Zurich was at the northern end of the ‘Zurichsee;’ a very long narrow lake curving round to the east, the northern flank of the Alps being a regular lake district. The railway and train threaded its way down the western bank of this one and out along the southern end through a suburb of houses with spacious gardens and the odd satellite town, that stretched down both sides of the lake over gentle hills. It would have been a good place for photos but for the murk.

A stretch of pastoral countryside then back into the mountains again along yet another lake like Lake Lucerne. Once past that though there was a broad flat bottomed valley which carved its way through the Alps in a ‘U’ up to the north past Leichenstein. Borders seemed non existent so I wasn’t sure which country I was in around here and have had to create computer files like Switzerland/Leicenstein for the photos I took.

There was also Austria. I was seeing Leichenstein, Austria, the Czech Republic and Poland for the first time in my life. I was now in Austria and back in that Alpine valley system I wanted to follow, heading up a long ascent to a pass. The valley continued on the other side to Innsbruck.

It seemed that the further east one went the less spectacular the mountains were; or was I just getting used to them? They were still awesome enough for me to get some excellent shots of a fold mountain range.

If I could find a cablecar to get up above the valleys and if I was lucky with the weather.

I could reach Vienna by nightfall or at least Innsbruck earlier but I chose this route for mountain photographs so I started looking for cablecars to get out of the valleys for some panoramic views. The first station beyond the pass was hopeless: virtually roofed in without a clue as to what was outside. Much further down the valley was a station that didn’t seem to offer a view of a cablecar… until just before the train pulled out! This was where I would stay for the night and go up tomorrow. I could still reach Vienna and the Czech republic by tomorrow evening.

The station served 2 small towns or large villages: Landeck and Zams. There was no hostel which didn’t bother me as I felt like a bit of luxury. After a footslogging reconnaisance to find that a cheap place didn’t seem to exist I chose the Hotel Jagerhof which was actually right by the cablecar. A good hotel for luxury with female staff in ethnic dress and a stuffed bear just inside the entrance. Maybe they wanted one because a translation of ‘jagerhof’ could be ‘hunter house’ or ‘farm.’ On asking if the bear was local I was told it actually came from Alaska.

Google Earth though shows a World Wildlife Fund project re-introducing brown bears into Switzerland, along with the wolf and lynx.

Zams hostelry_8394

I went out for a meal, into the centre of Zams, finding a substantial hostelry under one of the broad roofs one finds in this region. ‘Gastov Schwarzer Adler.’ I found all I needed there including waitresses who were friendly enough to be flirtatious.

Also a bicycle was parked against a boulder in front of the building which had been converted into a monument. It wasn’t only the statue on top with rifle and forage cap but the gaunt head with the German helmet arising out of the rock itself that hinted at a dark past here.

Back at the Jagerhof I’d checked the weather on TV. Only the British could have found that peculiarly apt name ‘depression’ for those low pressure weather systems of cloud and rain that plague our green and pleasant land. They seemed to have come down from the UK for a convention in central Europe, depositing all the crud weatherwise up against the Alps and Carpathians. It would rain tonight but with luck this would all start to clear by tomorrow morning.

Outside it started to rain.

© D. Angus 12 13

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment