He’s Ready To Go!

The vintage Lowe Alpine pack, in day-glo nineties colours, sits in the corner of the bedroom.

Ringed around it are bits of kit; our MSR mosquito-weight stove (‘Have you checked that it’s working?’ ‘No. It’ll work.’), an REI three season bag (‘Won’t it get colder than 13?’ ‘Yeah, but I’m always hot.’), an inflatable pad (‘Do you want me to get something a bit better?’ ‘Why? These work fine.’), the RAB Storm bivvy bag (‘Do you think you should try it out in the garden?’ Dismissive glance.), a small torch (‘Have you got an extra bulb? Extra battery?’ Sigh. ‘It’s NEW.’), the solar phone charger I insisted upon (‘If you don’t take your phone, I’ll pretend to be sick so that you can’t go.’ ‘Oh, allright, then.’), and various other bits and pieces (‘You’ll need some waterproof trousers. Proper ones.’ ‘You got me some last big camping trip…don’t you remember? They’ve still got the tags on.’ ‘Oh.’).

He wants to keep his bag under 30lbs.

He’ll carry a few packets of food, but really, it’s not like he’s heading off into the wilderness… The Ridgeway National Trail passes through several villages and towns. He’ll be within reach of a shop every day…and that goes for tap water, as well. I got him a two-litre ‘hydration system’ (‘I have a hydration system. It’s called a bottle.’), but he’ll use lots of fluid walking so many hours a day. And he’s a caffeine  addict…I seriously can’t imagine Andy starting the day without boiling up a cup of tea and have seen him go through great lengths to do so…so he’ll need the water. I imagine during his shopping trips a few biscuits will find their ways into his hands, as will a latte or two.

Andy says that if the trail was a climb, or if he had to take more gear, he probably couldn’t do it without some serious training. But because it’s relatively flat (he keeps calling it ‘a stroll’) and he’s not carrying too much, he’ll be fine.

He probably will be absolutely fine, that’s the irritating part of it. Because of Andy’s athletic youth, he has a great deal of what they call ‘residual fitness’. He has large muscles and well-cushioned joints. He has incredible physical and mental endurance. But he’s also got soft little white feet that have, for the last ten years, only worn hiking boots when it snows.

Which is why I’ve also insisted he carry quite a few special blister plasters and an anti-blister film stick.

He’ll pack it all up tomorrow and starts walking on Sunday…er… I mean strolling.
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Ecosystems of the Ridgeway: Part II

The chalk grasslands of England are ancient. Not only is the land ancient, but the human relationship to it is old, older than Christ, older than the Roman Empire.

And during almost all that time, the relationship between chalk grassland and humans has been based on the grazing of sheep. Sheep provided more than food and clothing to Ancient Britons. They also provided the landscape itself. Without grazing (and hard grazing at that), the weeds begin to creep in and destroy what we now see as the natural plants of the grassland. The weeds come, and then the trees come and then the grasslands are gone.

The keeping of sheep has actually made the grassland’s optimum biodiversity, which is what many people consider to be the typically English countryside.

These terribly English plants are all best found on grazed, managed chalk hills and downlands:

  • oxeye daisies (Leucantheum vulgare)
  • bird’s-foot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus)
  • common spotted orchid (Dactylorhiza fuchsii)
  • wild marjoram (Origanum vulgare)
  • salad burnet (Sanguisorba minor ssp. minor). 

When we think about nature conservation, we tend to think of wildness; of unmanaged tracts of land. But not managing the chalk grasslands will actually cause them to dissapear. Their relationship to people and farming is so ancient that they cannot exist without us.

They also can’t exist with too many of us. Between 1966 and 1980, nearly 20% of chalk grasslands were lost, either to intensive farming or development.

This is the place of skylarks and stone curlews; a land of butterflies and flowers. But it’s also a land of sheep and farmers. It’s the ancient farming communities that built so many of the monuments along the Ridgeway; the barrows and the earth mounds and the stone circles.

As Andy  moves along the Ridgeway, he will often be sleeping in grazed fields. He might wake up in the middle of a flock of sheep – many bivvy-ers have!
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More on chalk grasslands here

Ecosystems of the Ridgeway, Part I

The Ridgeway has two main ecosystems: woodland and chalk grassland. Andy will be walking the Ridgeway from the East to the West, so he’ll first encounter the woodland in the Chiltern Hills.

During the last Ice Age, a rich layer of clay was deposited on the chalk of the Chilterns, making an excellent base for trees.  Beech trees were the top colonisers, but there are also oaks, ash and whitebeam. The tree in the picture is a whitebeam, and one of the largest Chiltern hills is named ‘Whitebeam Hill.’

Because the chalk lies fairly close to the surface, the trees are shallow rooted here and blow over easily in storms. This makes for woodland with regular patches of open meadows; perfect for mammal habitats, particularly rabbits, deer and their predators.  The open character of the woodland is also conducive to plant growth among the trees, and the flowers of the plants attract insects and birdlife.

The woods here have been protected and managed by family dynasties for more than 400 years and gave rise to a local furniture industry and the production of charcoal.

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Map for the Ridgeway

Here’s the Google Map link for the Ridgeway National Trail. It’s broken down into nine sections. Don’t forget, Andy will be walking it the other way, from East to West.
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Landscape

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Landscape is a strange concept. It’s not really about the land, but about the ‘scoping’. A landscape is a view of land, a human view. It’s not a landscape until a human witnesses the land.

What humans see in a landscape depends as much on the human as the land. When European settlers first saw the vast prairies of central America, they called it a ‘vast desert’; a place to be avoided. A few years later it was a ‘vast grassy sea’; a place to be crossed. The tribal peoples who lived there thought this was ridiculous. To them, the prairie was a rich treasure of sustenance to be treasured and fought for. A hundred years later, the prairie had been settled by Europeans. By then it had become ‘America’s breadbasket’ and ‘the Heartland’. Once it was farmed, the European invaders could see the prairie’s richness for themselves.

On the southern slopes of the Ridgeway, the land has been farmed for over 5,000 years. Some of the fields are so ancient that the hedges that surround them (the hedgerows) are protected by law and subsidised by the government. All of the land around the Ridgeway has been farmed for at least 3,000 years.

This is a place which has been extensively witnessed. Millions of people – Stone-age famers, Iron-age traders, Vikings and Romans among them – have seen the views from the great chalk road. One of the latest visions is from Anna Dillon whose exhibition of Ridgeway landscapes opens this weekend in Berkshire. Her paintings of the Ridgeway are exciting, energetic and inspiring. You can see more of them here.

When Andy walks the Ridgeway, what he sees will be influenced by everything he has read and all the art he has seen of the area. But what he will see, like all the millions of people who have walked the trail before him, is his very own Ridgeway landscape.

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The Chalk

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The Ridgeway Trail lies on a spine of chalk (limestone) that was thrust up to form a ridge about 30 million years ago, when Africa collided with Europe. It was formed from the skeletons of billions of sea creatures, when it lay horizontal at the bottom of a sea. 70 million years later, the bump from Africa tilted it up and formed the ridge.

The ancients saw it as an already-created road; perhaps holy and certainly convenient. It is mainly flat, it’s out of the way of most rivers (except for the mighty Thames, they largely go around) and so forms a natural thoroughfare. 5000 years ago, it was already in regular use.
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What’s a bivvy???

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Bivvy’ is short for ‘bivouac’, which Merriam-Webster defines as a ‘temporary encampment with little or no shelter.’

Andy’s using it as short for a bivvy bag, a waterproof, breathable bag that fits around your sleeping bag. A good bivvy has a hood with a drawstring which can be cinched down in case of rain and is roomy enough to also take your camping pad (i.e. Thermarest) inside. Some bivvy bags have hooped hoods or no-see-um/midge netting, but true bivvy enthusiasts see these as too tent-like. If you want to get away from insects, you should climb higher, they say. They’re like that.

Bivvy bags were designed for the military and for technical climbers, but now some walkers, hikers and ramblers use them as well. The idea is that you are closer to nature and take less time to set up camp. In the time it would take to unroll your tent and find the poles, you can already be in your bivvy bag. You can roll on your side to cook and roll back to sleep it off. Less time and less weight in your pack means more and better walking. Bivvy enthusiasts feel that they are more efficient walkers and get to take time to do more of what interests them along the trail. In Andy’s case, it will help him have more time to rest up during the walk and allow him to camp closer to the trail.

The bloke in the top picture (who looks utterly miserable) isn’t Andy. Nor is the guy in the big picture down below (who looks giddy with joy). We’ll see, won’t we, which is the most accurate bivvy expression, when Andy gets into his stride…
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About Andy

Andy Wadsworth makes his living as an expert in wine. He comes from Yorkshire, in England (this picture was taken on Ilkley Moor, not far from Andy’s birthplace), but has lived all over the world. Trying to sum up Andy is difficult: he’s active in his local Catholic church, but he’s also a longtime Zen student. He supports Leeds United, is into World Music, and cooks wonderful vegetarian food from recipes he continually sources. At one point, he considered becoming a teacher. Andy will always surprise you…

Also in the picture is Andy’s daughter, Libs. Andy’s always aware of how lucky he is to be the father of a healthy little girl.

Andy has walked through the Chiapas Rain Forest, climbed in the Grand Tetons, and paddled through the Everglades. He’s keen to do a challenging walk so close to home and is excited about the adventure, as well as the opportunity to give something back to the world he’s enjoyed for 50 years.
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