A century ago, nearly everything we ate was sourced from within 20 miles of our homes. Today, supermarkets provide us with around 95 per cent of our food and, more often than not, it has travelled thousands of miles before getting to us. Gill Chetcuti discovers how our local food producers are fighting back
OK, we know supermarkets are convenient because they open long hours. Yes, you can usually find everything you need under one roof and quite often you can grab yourself a bargain, but the aggressive sales tactics of these characterless buildings are turning our high streets into clones of each other and, more importantly, threatening food producers closer to home.
However, thanks to the unwavering hard work and the ‘never say die’ attitude of our local farmers and producers, we can still buy fresh meat, cheese, eggs, seafood, vegetables and baked goods, happy in the knowledge that it has all been grown, laid, caught, made or harvested on home turf. In our bountiful region, to name just a few products, you can find Welsh lamb (obviously!), Welsh black cattle beef, Shropshire free range pork, Cheshire asparagus, north Wales strawberries, Wirral watercress, fresh seafood from the Welsh coast, and much more.
Unlike supermarket fare, we may have to wait for certain foods to be available, but eating seasonally means that we can look forward to enjoying things at their beautiful best. There are more than enough local delicacies out there to sustain us, and we are guaranteed variety on our plates as we’ll be eating different ingredients all year round. The annual delights of homegrown asparagus or juicy, sweet strawberries are well worth the wait, and eating with the seasons gives us the confidence that we are buying a local product grown in optimum conditions – when we choose the freshest, in-season ingredients, we avoid harmful processed food and reduce our intake of salt, sugar and other additives.
Also, homegrown fare does not have to endure the harshness of long-haul shipping, so is allowed to mature in its own time. This means that it develops its full spectrum of vitamins and minerals and lasts longer as it has not spent time in a processing plant or in a shipping container exposed to heat, artificial light and chemicals, which can degrade its delicate nutrients.
Recent food scares have highlighted the need for greater transparency and traceability in the supply chain. It is clear that the fewer steps there are between your food’s source and your table, the less chance there is of contamination, so when you buy locally, you can be reassured by seeing exactly where your purchases come from, how they are produced and, in some cases, you can even speak to the producers themselves.
Tom Hunt from the Ludlow Food Centre (www.ludlowfoodcentre.co.uk) says: ‘Consumers appreciate knowing where their food is grown, reared and made. Over 80 per cent of the food we sell here at the centre is from Shropshire and our bordering counties so is both fresh and local. Provenance and traceability back to source gives customers peace of mind and they can get behind their local providers. We can also demonstrate how our food is made; the windows in our shop allow customers to view us using fresh, local fruit to make our jams, or the milk from our dairy cows to make cheese – quite literally making our food production transparent!’
Of course, when you choose local produce, you are supporting your local economy. The humble British farmer represents excellent value for money with fresh and delicious produce, and it is heartening to know that our money stays close to home and will likely be reinvested with businesses and services in our community. But local food means more expensive food, doesn’t it? Chris Darlington, general manager at Battlefield 1403 Farm Shop (www.battlefield1403.com) doesn’t think so. ‘We find, as a rule, that locally sourced food is not only better quality but may also be less expensive in some cases than the mass produced,’ he says. ‘I don’t think we should ask ourselves why some food is more expensive but rather question why some foods are cheap.’
And Chris is right to ask that question. ‘Fresh’ fruit and veg, lined up in regimental fashion on the high street, may look polished, neat and tidy but they also look, well, tiny! In fact, they are often 50 per cent smaller than their farm shop counterparts simply because supermarkets don’t have time to wait for them to grow to their full potential. (Time is money, don’t you know!) In addition, farm shops allow you to buy exactly the quantities required and don’t attempt to seduce you with BOGOF deals, multi-buys, unwanted Disney DVDs and pesky 5p bags!
But supermarkets are just so convenient, aren’t they? And all that variety! Well, yes, but it is worth remembering that many of these delicacies have been produced with consistency and high volume in mind, rather than palatability. Relieved of the onus to deliver large volumes of consistent produce, our local producers can select varieties solely for flavour and not worry about less-than-pretty veggies and unsymmetrical fruit!
One of the many fond memories of my childhood was the trips to the Pick Your Own farms where my unwritten rule was ‘six for the basket, one for my mouth!’ Happily, PYOs are enjoying a revival and seeing more and more people forsaking the strip-lighting atmosphere of supermarkets in favour of foraging for nature’s spoils in the great outdoors. Not only is it a fun way to feed the family, it can also work out a lot cheaper as you only purchase what you need.
There are many fruit farms in our region where you can enjoy the fruits (ha ha!) of your labour. Poynton Fruit Farm (www.poyntonfruitfarm.co.uk) is a family-run business in Cheshire specialising in strawberries, raspberries, gooseberries and black and red currants. The long-established Bellis Brothers (www.bellisbrothers.co.uk), near Wrexham, is a working market gardening farm that takes great pride in supplying its customers with fresh produce, and Shropshire’s Bearstone Farm (www.bearstonefruitfarm.co.uk) is another fine example of local producers offering fresh goodies straight from the source. This season promises a bumper crop of succulent veg (and every berry under the sun) for Mother Nature’s bounty hunters, so why not grab the kids and turn it into a proper day out?
Butcher shops, once a mainstay of our town centres, dipped in popularity in the early 1990s, mostly because of cheap, foreign competition. However, the recent horsemeat scandal saw an increasing number of consumers reconnect with their local butcher – and rightly so. These dedicated and passionate professionals are highly knowledgeable about their meat and its provenance. The award-winning Rhug Estate (www.rhug.co.uk), in Denbighshire, is one of the largest organic farms in the UK and offers a mouth-watering array of Welsh lamb and beef reared on the estate and butchered on site. If you’re looking for something completely different, head for Chestnut Meats in Tarporley, Cheshire, (www.chestnutmeats.co.uk) and try their delicious low-fat goat products or cast your net towards our bountiful coastline and Bangor mussels or Anglesey’s oysters (www.menaioysters.co.uk).
We also have a number of innovators making the most of the more unusual local ingredients. Sarah Hughes has taken the time to stop and eat the roses (no, that’s not a typo!) with her company, Eat My Flowers (www.eatmyflowers.co.uk). Sarah grows and then crystallises beautiful, edible flowers for cake decorations and sweets. She explains: ‘Our products fit really well in the events marketplace as they provide a gorgeous alternative to sugar paste flowers. The restaurant market is always looking for new and interesting things, and fresh, foraged and floral are all very on trend.’
Merangz (www.merangz.co.uk) , another original company, uses quality, hand-separated local free-range eggs sourced from the heart of rural Shropshire to create their tasty giant and bite-sized meringues in a variety of natural flavours. Raspberry and white chocolate, pistachio, black cherry, mocha and pecan – it’s a difficult choice! The yolks don’t go to waste either as they are then pasteurised to produce free-range liquid egg for professional chefs, cooks and caterers. Ingenious! Merangz owner Brian Crowther says: ‘We work with local farmers to source the finest eggs we can – we won’t settle for anything less.’
You might thing of garlic as something that’s probably grown abroad, but in fact, there’s a farm on Anglesey where they have been producing this aromatic delight (ha hem) for years, and now Wales’s first home-grown garlic bread has gone on sale to rave reviews all over the country. Go Garlic, part of Hootons Homegrown family farm (www.hootonshomegrown.co.uk), has unleashed a rustic garlic baguette using a secret variety of home-grown Anglesey garlic and Halen Môn Sea Salt. James Hooton, one of the bread’s creators, believes it to be the first in Wales to be produced for mass retail and hopes it will be the first in a number of successful Go Garlic branded products. He says: ‘We’ve been farming here since the early 1960s, and growing garlic for about 10 years to supply our two farm shops, Hooton’s Homegrown in Anglesey and Hooton’s Homegrown at Fron Goch Garden Centre in Caernarfon. Garlic bread is an obvious choice for our flagship product as it’s the first product you think of when it comes to garlic, and is loved by people of all ages.’
So, there you have it. We have a plethora of wonderful independent producers close to home, all you have to do is support them!
We all occasionally need an antidote to the frenetic pace of modern life and, as our canals are currently in tiptop shape, a narrowboat trip could be just what the doctor ordered. Gill Chetcuti discovers the fastest way to slow down...
Wending their quiet, unobtrusive ways through town and country, Britain’s 2200 tranquil miles of inland navigations are steadily growing in popularity. Boaters, walkers, anglers, cyclists – they’re all attracted by the fresh air, sense of freedom and, of course, the gorgeous scenery. Boating holidays in particular are on the rise as the whole experience can be tailored to suit your tastes... and you get to take your holiday home along for the ride.
Although idling along the canal can be great fun, with some careful planning you can enjoy a number of canalside attractions too. Most of these are open all year round and, whether you plan to spend the whole day on dry land or just a couple of hours, you can add another exciting dimension to your holiday. So, what are you waiting for? Take charge of your own tiller and go sightseeing in style!
So called because of its circular canal and towpath, this route combines six different waterways, linking the Cheshire countryside of the Macclesfield Canal with the Portland Basin at Ashton-under-Lyne. At 97 miles long and with 92 locks, a journey on this route should take approximately 50-55 hours, drifting you lazily through the vibrant heart of Manchester and taking in the Peak District with its gorgeous scenery and distinctive stone architecture.
Look out for the historic Anderton Boat Lift near Northwich, built in 1875 to lower boats between the canal and the river 50 feet below. Today it is considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Waterways.
Other fascinating attractions along your route include the Science & Industry Museum, the 15th-century moated manor house of Little Moreton Hall and the fascinating Lion Salt Works at Middlewich. If you’re lucky enough to be passing through between 19th to 21st June, you can even join in the fun at the Middlewich Folk and Boat Festival!
The Montgomery Canal runs for 38 miles from Frankton Junction on the Llangollen Canal near Ellesmere, down the Welsh border to Newtown. A large stretch of this canal, known as ‘The Monty’, is a work in progress (so not a full one!), and only a restored 10-mile stretch can currently be reached from the Llangollen Canal, but it is also navigable for a 17-mile section around the town of Welshpool.
Short and sweet it may be, but The Monty is rich in wildlife (recognised as a Site of Special Scientific Interest and a Special Area of Conservation), and full of reminders of its industrial past. The old warehouses at Rednal and Queens Head provide an intriguing insight into the corn industry of the 1940s. Other highlights along the way include some excellent pubs and restaurants. We loved The Navigation Inn at Maesbury Marsh (www.thenavigation.co.uk), (not least because they welcome dogs!), and the award-winning Royal Oak Hotel in Welshpool (www.royaloakwelshpool.co.uk).
Keep your eyes peeled from March to July when a series of events culminating in the Making Waves festival are set to highlight aspects of the Montgomery Canal. There’ll be activities along the towpath, and on the water itself, all culminating in an exciting festival weekend on July 4th-5th. See our What’s On section for more details.
Known affectionately as the ‘Shroppie’, this stretch of water, one of the last canals on the network to be constructed, leaves the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal at Autherley Junction and heads north towards Cheshire and Ellesmere Port. The 65-mile length is dotted with impressive architecture in keeping with its surroundings, and provides a thriving habitat for a diverse range of flora and fauna. Swans, geese and ducks abound and, during the summer months, the canal is alive with industrious bees and butterflies as well. As you can imagine, there are plenty of places to stock up on essential supplies or even dine out in style along this large stretch of canal, but there are miles of isolated waterway too.
Some of the pub highlights along the way include The Shady Oak at Tiverton, and The Shroppie Fly in Audlem (www.shroppiefly.com), both popular with those seeking traditional sustenance in picture-postcard surroundings. Be sure to add the Canal Centre (www.nantwichmarina.co.uk) to your itinerary too. As well as offering full boat yard facilities, it also has an all-important chandlery and reviving café.
Voted Inland Marina of the Year 2015, the Overwater Marina (www.overwatermarina.co.uk) close to the village of Audlem provides a wide range of facilities which include secure and quiet moorings, electricity to all berths, domestic waste disposal and recycling facilities, launderette, toilets and showers, wi-fi and boat repairs and maintenance on site. While you’re there, check out the The Audlem Mill Canal Shop which also runs a range of canal craft activities for the whole family to enjoy (www.audlemmill.co.uk).
The Shroppie terminates at Ellesmere Port where The National Waterways Museum awaits. With its fascinating collection of historic working boats and insight into the history of the canals, it’s a must-see for canal enthusiasts, heritage fans and everybody in between. Visit www.canalrivertrust.org.uk.
Oh, and The Shroppie is rumoured to be haunted too...
Leaving the Shropshire Union Canal just north of Nantwich in rural Cheshire, the Llangollen Canal is one of the most beautiful in Britain; certainly, it's the most popular. Ascending lazily from rolling countryside, and crossing ancient peat mosses and meres, it reaches its destination at the foothills of Snowdonia over 45 miles later.
Bear in mind, before you set off, that long stretches of the canal are without pubs or eateries within walking distance, so plan your journey carefully! Saying that, this prominent waterway has other, redeeming features such as the famous staircase locks of Grindley Brook, the Chirk aqueduct and the spectacular feat of engineering that is the Pontcysyllte aqueduct. Other attractions of note are the Llangollen Motor Museum (www.llangollenmotormuseum.co.uk), the Meres Visitor Centre – home to wildlife, rowing boats, gardens, a play area and woodland walks – and the Whixall Marina with its modern berths, water and electric hook-up,wi-fi, launderette and other facilities (www.bwml.co.uk/whixall-marina).
Debbie Walker from Drifters, who specialise in boating holidays on the UK’s canals and rivers, has a wealth of experience under her (life)belt. She firmly believes that anyone can enjoy narrowboating telling us: ‘Hirers have to be 18 or over, but canal boat holidays are great for the whole family. As part of each holiday package, we provide free tuition and safety advice to hirers – usually lasting around an hour. We then take people through a lock to make sure they know how to operate them. The best of it is that you don't need to know anything about narrowboats beforehand and you don't need a special licence either.’
Visit www.drifters.co.uk for more information.
Don’t know your bow from your butty, your windlass from your winding hole or your towpath from your Tupperware? Fear not, we’ve put together a list of useful words to have you sounding like an expert in no time!
Arm – a branch of the main canal
Bargee – crewman or person in charge of a barge
Bow – the pointy end!
Breasted pair – two boats moored together
Butty – unpowered boat towed by one with an engine
Canalia – gifts and crafts related to canals
Cratch – triangular front board on a narrowboat
Dingle – a tree-lined hollow through which a canal proceeds
Gongoozler – an inquisitive canalside spectator
Handcuff key – used on locks in areas where vandalism is present
Keb – an iron rake used for removing canal debris
Lasher – a weir
Scoop – a wooden shovel used for bailing out!
Screw – the propeller that propels the boat
Snatcher – a short rope used for towing vessels
Staircase locks – two, or more, adjacent locks where the upper gates of one lock serve as the lower gates of the next
Tupperware – humorous term referring to fibreglass vessels
Watercress bed – a badly leaking vessel
Winding Hole – a place on the water wide enough to turn the boat
Windlass – hand tool used to wind lock paddles up and down
Summer is here, and now is the perfect time to get out there, challenge yourself and do something different. Gill Chetcuti has a few ideas for you
Life often gets in the way of spontaneity – we all have places to be, bills to pay and people to please but, in the words of H Jackson Brown, ‘Twenty years from now, you will be more disappointed by the things you did not do than by the things you did do. So, throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbour. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.’
For some, the ultimate test of one’s mettle involves leaping from a bridge tethered by the ankle to nothing more than an enormous elastic band . That’s fine, but challenging yourself doesn’t have to be that extreme. The simple act of stepping out of your comfort zone and doing something totally different is often enough to give your self-confidence a boost, and put the fun back into your life.
Usually associated with teenagers or the very young, skating – whether it be on ice or in the park – is enjoying a resurgence with lots of people taking it up in their 40s, 50s, and even in their 60s and beyond. It’s an inexpensive, low impact and fun way of keeping fit (and reclaiming your youth!), and all you need to get started is a decent pair of knee and elbow pads, a helmet, and a safe environment to practise. The Deeside Leisure Centre (www.flintshire.gov.uk) in Queensferry is the National Centre for Ice Sports in Wales and, whether you're an experienced skater or an ice novice, you’re sure to have a cool time. Lessons are available but be warned – there’s a waiting list.
If the thought of ice gives you the chills, why not give roller-skating a spin instead? Northwich’s Sk8 Madness offers a beginners rink, a recreational rink and the rather sinister sounding Aggressive Area for more competitive skaters.
Adult Learners' Week, from 13th-19th June, is the UK's largest celebration of learning. During this ‘Festival of Learning’, hundreds of organisations across England and Wales (including colleges, universities, workplaces and museums) hold learning events and activities designed to let you have a go and discover how learning new skills and reawakening old ones can change your life for the better. It’s easy to get involved, just go to www.alw.org.uk to register your interest.
For those not physically inclined, a reading group is great for meeting other literary enthusiasts and a novel way (excuse the pun) of exercising the old grey matter. Book clubs are flourishing all over the country so why not get together with like-minded readers to share your views, and critique and recommend books. Ask at your local library for more information or, if you’re feeling particularly adventurous, why not start your own club? All you need is a convenient location to meet, a group of like-minded readers and a little bit of promotion...
OK, llamas are not usually renowned for their sunny disposition, but these misunderstood creatures are in fact very calm and gentle and only display hostility when they feel threatened. They also make perfect trekking buddies and their company is becoming steadily more sought after. Berwyn Mountain Llamas, based in the lovely north Wales village of Llandrillo, happily accompany walkers of all ages and abilities on scenic leisurely strolls on the lower slopes of the Berwyn Mountains. They carry the picnics and other essentials, leaving you unburdened by bags and free to explore. So, if you thought that llama trekking was restricted only to the Andean mountains then think again.
This summer why not go somewhere you never thought you’d go, or visit an attraction you never thought would be for you? There are heaps of great places to try in the region, offering a mind-boggling variety of activities, so if you’re the kind of person who always takes the family to an adventure park, why not try a ride on a steam railway for a change? If you’re nervous about being underground, why not challenge yourself with a trip to Electric Mountain (www.electricmountain.co.uk) and take a bus ride through the bowels of this amazing underground power station in Snowdonia – the man-made cavern is so huge you’ll completely forget you’re below ground. If, on the other hand, you’re a bit nervous of heights, a trip on one of the Great Orme aerial cable cars, near Llandudno in north Wales, will offer you a safe challenge – at one mile each way, the trip from Happy Valley to the summit of Great Orme is the longest aerial cable lift in the country, and you get some amazing views while you’re up there! If you can’t face the cable car, you can always take a ride on the tramway instead! Visit www.greatorme.org.uk
Beat the young ‘uns at their own game and spend a day exploring the caverns of an abandoned Victorian slate mine, now a subterranean trampoline playground. At Bounce Below near Blaenau Ffestiniog, you can spend a whole day playing on giant trampolines, walkways, slides and tunnels, all made from netting and hung at different levels throughout the cavern in two vast chambers – you’re free to jump, climb and slide to your heart’s content. The cavern is 176 years old and twice the size of St Paul’s Cathedral! What’s more, the entire space is lit by a technicolour light display, illuminating your day with bright, vibrant colours as you bounce and slide. Visit www.bouncebelow.net or call 01248 601444 for more information.
If you’re a bit of a water baby, why not take the plunge and learn to scuba dive. Tony Flack, owner and PADI Instructor at Immerse School of Diving in Telford, says: ‘Scuba diving is one of the most accessible sports available. We have divers from the age of 10 all the way up to their 70s, and also teach those with physical challenges and learning disabilities. Younger ‘bubblers’ can learn to skin dive or snorkel too!.Each diver finds their own purpose underwater, whether it's the relaxation of gliding effortlessly through a quiet world, the excitement of discovering new places, the beauty of an untouched underwater environment full of colour and life, or pushing one’s own personal boundaries. It's a life changer, and opens up the 70% of the world hidden below the waves.’
Visit www.immersediving.com for more information.
If you’ve ever wanted to try kayaking or canoeing but never quite got around to throwing yourself in at the deep end, summer is a great time to give it a go. The National White Water Centre, based on the River Tryweryn in Snowdonia National Park, offers an exhilarating variety of sessions ranging from fun family trips to fast-flowing group sessions, with reliable river conditions, a beautiful natural environment and well-trained, experienced coaches. Visit www.canoewales.com
Do you long to feel the wind in your hair? Put your foot down behind the wheel of the car of your dreams by booking yourself into an exciting driving experience. Oulton Park, Cheshire’s legendary track, lets you experience the thrill of the race as you push your driving skills to the limit in some of the world's most exciting cars. Granted, the high-octane adventure doesn’t come cheap, but the memories will likely stay with you forever and, come on, you deserve a treat occasionally, don’t you? Visit www.oultonpark.co.uk
Think high ropes and death-defying zip wires are just for kids? Think again. Conquer your fear of heights with a trip to a high ropes course and engage your inner Tarzan (or Jane) while you enjoy some of Britain’s most breathtaking scenery at the same time. There’s a host of high ropes courses in the region, including Go Ape and Tree Top Adventures. Visit www.goape.co.uk, or www.ttadventure.co.uk.
If you’re looking for a challenge to push you both mentally and physically, why not try climbing? At The Boardroom, a state-of-the-art indoor wall climbing facility at Queensferry, there’s more than 1000 square metres of artificial climbing surfaces, featuring the Psicobloc (Spanish for ‘Crazy Boulder’ and the only one in Europe), bouldering area, roped climbing and much more – all designed to challenge you, whatever your ability. Book yourself on to one of their introductory sessions and prepare to have a high old time. The Boardroom also runs kids clubs, birthday parties and family taster sessions. Visit www.theboardroomclimbing.com
If you prefer the idea of climbing outdoors – it is summer, after all! – book yourself a taster session with a professional climbing instructor, who’ll be able to show you the ropes (ha ha) and supply you with the equipment you need for the day. Try www.wildwalkswales.co.uk or www.rockclimbingcompany.co.uk
The summer’s coming, and now is the time to get out and make the most of our beautiful countryside. Olivia Abbott looks into how to get started with country walking in this beginners guide
Walking – whether you want to take to the hills or stick to the flat – can be a vastly rewarding thing to do, but for those taking their first steps it can be a bit daunting. Knowing where to go and what to take isn’t necessarily as obvious as you might think, and going for a walk off the beaten track requires a bit more than just putting one foot in front of the other. To stay safe and enjoy your time in the countryside, you need to make sure you have the right clothing and equpiment, that you’re tackling a challenge that isn’t beyond your fitness level, and that you have some basic skills to guide you on your way.
All that said, once you do take the plunge and that vital first step, you will find walking a liberating, exhilarating and educative pastime that will increase your fitness, self-confidence and appreciation of the natural world. People go walking for all sorts of reasons, but a significant motivating factor is the sense of freedom that you get from exploring the great outdoors. Discovering new places, the beauty that is there to behold (and often feeling like you’re the first or only person to see it!) and challenging yourself, adds to the whole experience, and within our region there are vast areas to explore and enjoy.
The first thing to do, obviously, is decide where you want to go: how far, and what type of walking you want to do. Do you want to do a circular walk (committing yourself to a certain distance), or a linear walk (where you can turn around and go back at any point if you decide you’ve had enough)? Do you want to stick to a flat walk, or take to the hills? How confident are you about your navigation skills – do you want to do a clearly waymarked walk, or do you want to get out and explore? Be honest with yourself about your fitness and skill levels. How far can you reasonably expect yourself to walk? If you’re just beginning, err on the side of caution; the countryside isn’t going anywhere (at least not that quickly), and with regular walking it’s surprising how fit you’ll become, very quickly, and you’ll soon find yourself doing longer distances or tackling steeper challenges.
If you don’t have any navigation skills, stick to waymarked routes to begin with – if you want to get further off the beaten track, you’ll need to learn to navigate and how to stay safe in remote areas (see ‘Learning’ below).
‘When’ is also an important factor in your walk planning: what’s the weather going to do on your chosen walking day? Make sure you check the forecast – there are a number of sites where you can do this, such as www.metoffice.gov.uk – and be prepared to change your plans if the forecast isn’t looking good. Having said that, remember the old saying: there’s no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing... (see boxout)
Clothing – keeping at a comfortable temperature is paramount when you’re out walking. If you’ve got yourself far away from civilisation you don’t want to be freezing cold with no way of warming up. And one thing you really don’t want to do is get hot and sweaty (going uphill, say) and then inevitably get cold and damp (going back down). The best way to regulate your temperature when walking is by wearing layers and putting them on and taking them off as needed. It’s surprising how many people are reluctant to stop walking for two minutes to simply put on or take off a fleece layer. The easiest and quickest way to keep your temperature comfortable is with a hat – as soon as you start feeling a bit too warm, take your hat off; you’ll be surprised how quickly you cool down, and it feels great when you put your hat back on. Overheating when it’s actually a bit chilly, and then rapidly getting too cold, is one of the easiest mistakes to make when walking – but it’s one of the easiest things to avoid, too. Choose the clothes you’re going to need according to the walk you’re doing, the time of year etc, and then always make sure you’ve got a spare fleece jacket or top in your rucksack, just in case.
Waterproofs are vital too – OK, on a roasting hot summer’s day when you know there’s absolutely no chance of rain, you can probably get away with not carrying a full layer of waterproofs, but always bear in mind how changeable our weather is. If you’re going out walking earlier or later in the year, you should take a waterproof jacket and trousers with you. If you get caught in the rain miles from shelter you’ll get cold, uncomfortable and miserable very quickly, and after all, you’re supposed to be enjoying yourself! Conversely, with the right gear, you’ll find that ‘bad’ weather isn’t that bad after all – have you ever noticed that the people who complain most about the weather are those who never go out in it?!
Footwear – good walking boots or shoes are a must. If you’re planning on hillwalking or going out in rough country nothing will do except waterproof boots: waterproof, because even in summer you’ll come across wet, boggy ground; and boots because you need ankle support when walking on rough ground. Trainers will NOT suffice. If you’re definitely sticking to a laid path, and know you won’t be diverting from it, you can get away with lighter walking shoes. Make sure your footwear is comfortable and broken in before you go – don’t set out on a five-mile walk in new boots only to find halfway that they’re giving you blisters.
A good, waterproof (or get a waterproof liner or even just a plastic bag) rucksack is another must, to carry that all-important extra layer of clothing, plus food supplies, water (a must) and flask of hot drink (optional, though a very good idea in winter). You are going to stop for a picnic after all, aren’t you? It’s a good idea to always have something like an emergency Mars Bar tucked away, too, just in case you get caught out and need extra fuel. Also make sure you’ve got a basic first aid kit in your bag, and make sure your mobile phone is charged. And, especially in winter when the days are shorter, always carry a torch, and make sure you’ve got spare batteries. You may not intend to be out after dark, but it’s best to be prepared.
Walking poles can be useful too – though often derided as the ‘zimmer frames of the hills’ they’re great for support when you’re going downhill, especially if you have dodgy knees! They’re also handy if you’re at all unsure over rough ground. The downside of them is they can be cumbersome and unwieldy to carry (although you can get telescopic ones), and obviously mean your hands are tied up, so really whether you use them or not is a personal decision.
Maps – If you’re going off the beaten track, don’t go without a map, and know how to use it. There are a variety of types to choose from. The Ordnance Survey Explorer and Outdoor Leisure maps are at a scale of 1:25,000, and are the most detailed and useful for walking; the OS Landranger maps are 1:50,000 – these obviously cover a larger area, and still show all footpaths, but contain less detail. Harveys Maps, which are at a scale of 1:40,000 or 1:25,000 are less well known, but specifically made for walkers and cyclists.
Yattar Yattar’s walking expert, Graham Uney of Wild Walks Wales, says: ‘Learning how to stay safe is essential if you really want to make the most of the countryside and hills. Mastering basic navigation skills, and knowing a bit about sensible clothing choices, the weather, the environment and what to do in any given situation can make the difference between a great day out and a disaster.’
Mountain Training’s Hill Skills Course, which is offered by a number of providers in the region, including Wild Walks Wales (www.wildwalkswales.co.uk), Plas y Brenin (www.pyb.co.uk) and Psyched Adventures (www.psyched-adventures.com), is aimed at beginning countryside and hill walkers. No previous experience is required, and it covers such topics as planning your walk, walking skills, clothing and equipment, weather, navigation, environmental knowledge and hazards and emergency procedures – all the basics, in fact. Visit www.mountain-training.org for more information.
‘The Hill Skills course is a great way to get started in countryside and moorland walking,’ says Graham. ‘It’s also an opportunity to discover some of the great hill walking available in the UK. And if you do have some experience of hill walking but aren’t confident about planning walks, navigating and understanding the equipment required, then the course is an ideal way to learn.’ Visit www.mountain-training.org.uk to find out more about the courses.
If you’re just starting out as a walker, it’s best to stick to waymarked routes and, if you’re not sure about your fitness, start out flat. The Mawddach Trail in mid Wales, for instance, follows the line of an old railway, so it’s flat and obvious. The lovely 9.5 mile route follows the southern edge of the Mawddach Estuary from Dolgellau to the stunning railway bridge at Barmouth (which you walk across), but you don’t have to do it all; there are various start points so you can choose a length walk to suit. Visit www.mawddachtrail.co.uk for more information.
Also, check out your nearby canals for towpaths to follow – these often go through some lovely areas of countryside and again by their nature tend to be flat and relatively easy. The only problem with these types of route is they’re usually there and back so you do tend to end up retracing your steps – though when you’re confident with navigating you can often find alternative routes back. Visit canalrivertrust.org.uk for route ideas.
Cheshire has the advantage of being a relatively flat county – except, perhaps for Alderley Edge which is a lovely spot for walking. The 4.5mile route from Over Alderley to the Edge follows footpaths and bridleways and gives you great views across the Cheshire Plain. It’s also an area full of legend and folklore. Visit www.walkingincheshire.co.uk for this and lots more routes.
North Wales, of course, is where everybody thinks of serious, full-on mountain walking, but there are easy walks you can do that will get you into some spectacular scenery without getting completely lost or out of your depth. For instance, the circular walk around Llyn Idwal is relatively flat, with a large proportion of the path laid. The cwm is one of the best examples of a glacial valley in Wales, and you get splendid views of mountains such asTryfan and Pen yr Ole Wen, while walking underneath the famous Idwal Slabs where you can watch climbers risking their necks. The walk is about three miles and takes a couple of hours. Visit www.eryri-npa.gov.uk
There’s a host of walks to choose from in Shropshire – the Shropshire Way covers a vast distance, and is broken down into 27 easy-to-do day walks. As an example, route 19, from Shelton to Nesscliffe, is 9.5 miles of level or gently undulating walking that takes you through scenic villages, under wooded hillsides, and past the remains of a Norman castle and moat. For more of a challenge, route 9 is a 10-mile walk with some steep uphill sections along the ridge of Long Mynd to Hopesay Common, with stunning views along the way. There’s a downloadable guide and map for these and all the routes at www.shropshirewalking.co.uk
Walking can be a solitary pastime, or it can be a very sociable occupation – there are numerous groups and organised walks going on. The Ramblers Association has local groups, with regular walks led by experienced guides and aimed at a variety of levels. Visit www.ramblers.org.uk where you’ll also find lots more routes, too.
Many local governments and councils also organise walks, as do local countryside parks, nature reserves, and RSPB reserves. As well as having the benefit of being sorted out for you so you don’t have to worry about navigation and planning, these walks also have an expert on hand to point out historical, geographical and natural points of interest.
Visit your local council/government website, your local wildlife trust website (find it at www.wildlifetrusts.org) or find your nearest RSPB reserve at ww.rspb.org.uk.
On top of this there are absolutely heaps of walking festivals organised in the region throughout the year, from weekend events to month-long extravaganzas. Here you can meet like-minded walkers, discover new routes and enjoy guided walks plus all sorts of other entertainment. Coming up in the near future are festivals at Wirral (throughout May), Bishops Castle (1st-25th May), Ironbridge Gorge (1st-10th May), Llangollen (2nd-4th May), Trefriw (15th-17th May)and Conwy (1st-8th July). Other festivals take place through the year at Barmouth, Crickhowell, Corwen, and the Cambrian Mountains, to name just a few. To find out more, visit www.walkingpages.co.uk.
When walking in farmland, stick to the footpaths (often you’re just following a yellow arrow from one side of a field to the other, and there is no obvious ‘track’ on the ground, so you’ll need to use your map and your common sense) and do be aware that you may be walking through fields of livestock. Be wary of disturbing cows or sheep – though they’re not usually dangerous it’s not a good idea to get too close. Young bullocks are often curious and will come to have a look at you, but a clap of the hands and a ‘shoo!’ will see them off. If you have a dog you must keep it on a lead when walking through farmland.
Leave gates as you find them – don’t be tempted by the old rule that used to say ‘always close the gate’. If you find a gate open, chances are the farmer has left it that way for a reason.
Open access land – Under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act, some areas of countryside have been designated ‘Open access’ meaning you don’t have to stick to a path and can go where you like. This is mostly in open country, on moorland, heathland and mountains, and is denoted by a circular brown and white sign showing a person walking. Where the access land ends it shows the same symbol but with a line through it – this is often confused by new walkers to mean that there is no access at all, which can leave you wondering where on earth you’re supposed to go next, but it doesn’t mean you can’t enter this area, it simply means stick to the footpaths again. The downside of these areas for beginning walkers is that there are often no marked footpaths and lots of tracks to choose from – so you’ll need a map here.
The countryside can be rough! Even when there’s a designated ‘footpath’ on the map, out in the country there isn’t necessarily going to be a visible track or path on the ground, and chances are you’ll find mud, bogs, streams, tussocky grassland, heather-covered moorland and all sorts of other conditions underfoot. Having said all that – that’s what boots are for, so make sure you’ve got the right footwear (see ‘Equipment’, above), walk mindfully, and watch where you’re putting your feet.
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