A few years back I remember reading an article in Trail Magazine which centred on Snowdon, the highest mountain in Wales. It caught my eye because it was different. Pick up any of the walking magazines in this country and you’ll be spoilt for choice in how to hike up to the top of a mountain. Trail, however, focused not on how many routes you could perceivably take up to the summit but ignored the top all together.
The sub title read ‘You don’t truly know a mountain until you have circumnavigated it’.
What a refreshing change, I thought.
Most of the walking routes we are offered by the big three magazines in this country I don’t bother reading anymore but that one stuck with me because it bucked the trend, and it has stayed with me. So much so that I’ve now started walking around in circles. This has nothing to do with poor navigation, for once, nor is it reason for internment in the local asylum. It’s all down to my home town in West Sussex and finally, after living here most of my life, I have only just started to get to know it, or at least the area that surrounds it.
The village where I live – not such a bad place
I have a regular walk I do most mornings which is 4.8 miles long. It is all on tarmac through quiet country lanes with little traffic, especially that early in the morning. I walk on roads because it toughens my feet in preparation for future thru-hikes and it’s predominantly around the west side of the village. However, I do tire of it sometimes because it is, obviously, the same walk.
A couple of weeks ago, eager for some new scenery, I walked through the village and up a little footpath that I haven’t ventured up since I was at Infants School. It was completely different to how I remember it, much more over grown and dense which I suppose would make complete sense as I hadn’t seen it for nearly 40 years.
I vaguely recalled the winding path and found my way to a stile which emerged into a little field, left to grow wild with grasses and flowers. Imposing oak trees dotted the low hedge around it and suddenly the hum of traffic in the village had disappeared.
Occasionally you may get a glimpse of where you are in relation to where you live.
I hadn’t brought a map, to be honest I don’t use paper maps anymore but prefer the Smartphone based applications and in particular, Route Buddy. Before some of you cry the usual ‘You can’t get by on electronics, what if your batteries fail?’ or ‘Your true compass navigation will suffer!” etc, well I do hear you.
But, paper maps don’t last very long, get wet, are awkward to handle and frankly I’m tired of them. I prefer something that is always with me on my phone, and shows me exactly where I am. So, I opened up Route Buddy and had a gander.
Flippin’ ‘eck! Look at all these footpaths and bridleways!
RouteBuddy – Always with me and a great method to find a way around where you live. As you can see from this screen shot, I’m spoilt for choice with foopaths around here
It was early on a Sunday morning. I had no plans, wasn’t limited by time and was free to roam. So I just went with it. My only loose plan was to stay off the roads.
I get excited by footpaths, go giggly when I see a wood coming up and chuckle at the sight of a faint, flattened trail of grass weaving through a field or meadow. I don’t know why, it just makes me happy. The countryside has always done that to me, even as a kid I remember exactly the same feeling and it has never left me.
I checked Route Buddy once in a while and after 30 minutes realised that I could navigate a route all around my village in a circle. I thought of that Trail article on circumnavigating Snowdon and thought,
Do we really know our home town until we have walked around it?
I saw no one except a couple of dog walkers the entire morning. What shocked me as I made my way was how little I knew the area around my home village. I was constantly within a mile or two of where I live which may not sound much but the overall walk took four hours and I recognised very little. I felt a little guilty at my own ignorance. I had grown up in this area, lived within minutes of it, driven past these foot paths in my car hundreds of times and yet I had never walked them.
I jet off to these far flung locations such as the Pacific Crest or Appalachian Trail and, as amazing as they are, I’ve never truly taken the time to get to know my immediate local area. People from overseas come to England, my country, to experience what it has to offer as I go to their countries for the same reason. Some of the time the best stuff is right on your very door step.
West Sussex is a wonderfully undulating mix of fields, meadows and woods. These undiscovered routes, to me at least, offered a way of becoming intimately connected to where I live. There were paths everywhere, I was shocked at the options of where I could roam. Huge expanses of meadows alive with flowers joined up the dots between secluded woods. Streams gurgled past swathes of wild garlic, rabbits ran for cover as I startled them, white tails alerting their friends. I dipped in and out of the shade, sometimes taking a break under strong oaks reaching up from the middle of the meadows.
I occasionally crossed a road and although I was only minutes from where I lived by car, I didn’t recognise it. Standing and looking around, gradually the house over the other side, or the railway bridge to my left or the little country lane joining just up the way jolted my memory.
Oh, you’re here! That’s Great Wood and that’s Bignor Farm!
Crossing the road, within minutes I was back in secret woods that I pretended I was the only one that knew about. Sometimes I deliberately didn’t check Route Buddy for 30 minutes but just went with a path. If I was enjoying the shade of the woods, the bird song, the company of a stream, then I’d go along with it. If I popped out into a field and demanded more time under the trees, then I cut through the grass to the wood over the other side. Conversely, if I wanted to be out in the sun, following a faint trail through the long grass with the heat on the back of my neck then I would. After a while I’d check my location, make an adjustment or two, and plan on meeting the bridleway that took me up to the river or some other place I wanted to see. It was deliciously random and unexpected.
There’s other advantages to walking around where you live as well. It’s eco-friendly for starters, invariably you shouldn’t need to grab the car keys on your way out. There’s no need to check out the train or bus time tables because you arrive back at where you started. You can make little tweaks to your route once you become accustomed to the area. If you don’t have a few hours for the entire route, then keep an eye on your map and take that little footpath that brings you back earlier.
You can walk to that country pub you’ve never set foot in, feel no guilt in sinking your pint because you know you’ll walk it off.
Closer inspection of your map will reveal historical sites you probably didn’t even know were there. On a wider loop a week ago I walked past a ruined castle which I had never even heard off, let alone knew was lurking in the woods.
You also have a means to grab a quick overnight camp if you feel a little escape. Suss out the best camp spots as you walk around and suddenly a mid-week mini adventure is possible without driving miles to get there.
And, you become very intimate with the area. Even down to knowing where the wildlife hangs out. One field in particular on my route, near the start, is frequented by deer. I approach quietly now and as I walk around it, sure enough, one particular Doe is always there and maybe it’s my imagination, but I think she’s becoming used to me. She lets me walk past, albeit at a distance and waits just a little longer each visit before bounding off through the grass.
Shopping? Sure thing! I passed loads of farms and cottages where such staples as eggs were on sale with an honesty box. You’re supporting a local trade as well.
I found eggs, honey, bread, vegetables and fruit. All local.
For some of you who live in cities it may not be possible to circumnavigate where you live in a few hours. Even then, perhaps if you live near the outskirts, take that path you can see on the map one day and see what happens. Time your loop out and back and you’ll have a little foray on file for when you have an hour or two spare. You’ll see where you live from a different angle.
Take a day on the weekend, or a day off. A whole day with no plans gives you time to get a little lost and make your own way. If you want to extend your adventure by an hour you can do. Over time, the paths and tracks become familiar and the map unnecessary. Even then, further trails appear that you may have missed, many not even marked on the map even though they are signed footpaths. After a few weeks your knowledge of the local area will be impressive and instead of your usual walk, the available options become numerous.
Now, go walk in a circle.