In Search of Martians… in Surrey.

For a few hours in October 1938, the world was gripped by mass panic. The stoic voice of the wireless set narrated events apparently unfolding on the edge of a small New Jersey township; flares in the night sky, falling stars, strange objects filled with otherworldly creatures, intent on our destruction. The beginning of our human battle for survival; the eve of the war.

The Woking Martian by Warofdreams via Wikimedia Commons

The immediacy and horror of Orson Welles’ radio broadcast of H. G Wells’ The War of The Worlds, transposed to the USA, captured the imagination of many at the time, but it isn’t only adaptation of the classic sci-fi novel. The original story is set in the leafy suburban towns surrounding late-Victorian London, like Woking where Wells lived in 1895 and explored the nearby countryside on his bicycle.

Much closer to the closer to the original story, although with the flourish and excess of 1970s prog-rock, and by far my favourite version, is the musical by Jeff Wayne, with the solemn voice of Richard Burton narrating the story. If you’ve never heard it, I insist you treat yourself to all of its epic awesomeness.

The double cassette of the album was our family “car tape”, the soundtrack of many childhood road trips through the Scottish highlands with our caravan in tow. Just hearing the opening chords now evokes memories of empty roads skirting the sides of sea lochs and crossing the flanks of mountains, to end at vast beaches where my sister and I had the whole summer to explore. I think of picnics of dairylea sandwiches, monster munch crisps, and um-bongo juice boxes by the side of the road, and the adventure of being outdoors.

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The frozen heathland of Horsell Common, near the town of Woking. A surprising location for the first extra-terrestrial invasion of our Earth.

So this small corner of Surrey heathland, near the commuter town of Woking, has a bit of a special draw for me. It’s here, on Horsell Common, that cylinders fired from the surface of Mars in flares of luminous green gas first fall to earth, landing…

not far from the sand pits. An enormous hole had been made by the impact of the projectile, and the sand and gravel had been flung violently in every direction over the heath, forming heaps visible a mile and half away.

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The site of the impact, where they found …a cylinder, thirty yards across, glowing hot…. And with faint sounds of movement coming from within.

The sandpits are a wide bowl in the heath, edges scalloped from years of quarrying rather than an extra-terrestrial impact. On the crisp January day that I visited, the shallow pond in the centre was frozen, and footprints are set fast in the icy orange sand. Like a child, I have to plant my footprints in the spot where the Martians landed, before continuing onto the heath. “The chances of anything coming from Mars are a million to one.

The open heathland rolls away into dark pine woodland, frosted heather and bracken a patchwork of green, brown and gold, framed by the reddish trunks of the Scots pine and paths marked out in the burnt orange of fallen needles and sand. Silver birches, with papery white bark, catch glittering dew drops on their dark ruby twigs, flashes of light in darker corners. Bright yellow gorse flowers among the mass of spines are a reminder of the mild weather that makes this frozen day an exception this winter. Its a landscape to be viewed leisurely, at different scales, both close-up and in sweeping views into the distance.

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Through the trees to the heath on Horsell Common.

Lowland heath, like Horsell and other nearby areas in the Thames Basin, is not a remote forbidding planet where no living thing could survive, but a rare and vital habitat. Globally there are more hectares of tropical rainforest, and like rainforest, the diverse botany of lowland heath makes a rich environment for insects and spiders, lizards and snakes, which in turn support a range of birds, just as rare as Martians might be. In the summer heathland is used by ground-nesting species, like curlew, woodlark, and nightjar, which are extremely vulnerable to disturbance from walkers.

Much of the remaining areas of lowland heathland are found in densely-populated, highly urban landscapes like South East England and much of the Netherlands, where pressure on them for leisure and recreation is high. Careful management by organisations like the Horsell Common Preservation Society and Thames Basin Heaths Partnership work to balance the pressure of visitors against the conservation of the habitat.

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Enjoying the frosty view with a hot chocolate at Heather Farm, Horsell Common.

We stay as long as cold toes can take, before heading to nearby Heather Farm, an area of wetland regeneration adjacent to the common, that was until very recently the site of a massive mushroom farm. Reedbed-fringed lakes and scrapes are found where there was once concrete hard-standing and a series of corrugated tin hangars filled with fungi. Even better is the new café by the water’s edge, where birdwatching can be done with a mug of hot chocolate to hand.

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…yet across the gulf of space minds immeasurably superior to ours regarded this Earth with envious eyes and slowly and surely they drew their plans against us.

Why Walking is the Best Way to Explore

There truly is no better way of exploring places than on foot. Walking heightens the senses like no other form of transport can, giving a genuine understanding of the world around you. Much of what I’ve discovered on my travels I’ve learned through my feet, walking through cities, coasts and countryside.

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Taking a break by the river on a walk across Knoydart, with Luinne Bheinn in the background.

Walking feeds the senses

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Walking the city streets, rain or shine. Photo Credit: Rodrigo Soldon 2 via creative commons

Moving at a slower pace, in, rather than through, your surroundings, enhances your awareness of the small sensations of a place. The reverberation of sounds from near and far, a sudden bright splash of colour or a sharp waft of smell, even the gentle movement of air, translate into the types of experience all travellers relish. Stumbling upon a pavement café with excellent coffee and cake, or a street food vendor dishing up a local delicacy. Catching a glimpse of the flyer for live music at at a hip venue, some distinctive local architecture, or the intriguing piece of street art, laden with political meaning. A fresh breeze round a corner showing the direction to the harbour, with the promise of freshly-caught seafood and a chilled glass of wine as you watch fishermen go about their business.

Then the intangibles of the place that confirm its geography: salt-loaded air, the shriek of gulls, sparkling crystals in the grey granite walls of my home town, catching the low sun of a northern autumn day. The lapping of water, the leafy shadows across the path, blossom on the trees, weather changes, birdsong. Noticing everything as an ardent naturalist to pin down the season, the latitude and longitude, the reason for being in this place, here and now.

Walking makes connections

Cities, in the main, are designed to be walked. Possibilities open up beyond bus routes and tube stations, and walkers invent their own ways to go, building new links between A and B. With many people now spending a majority of time indoors, at home, in the office, in shops, hotels, bars, galleries, a number of disconnected interiors, walking inhabits the spaces in between. It gives a sense of moving through the whole world, not just a modest part.

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Photo Credit: -LucaM- Photography via creative commons

On foot, landmarks take on additional relevance, as travellers look for focal points in the landscape, building their individual maps and orientating themselves by experience. Coming and going, getting to know places, you seed them with a crop of stories and associations. Relating personal geography to maps provides bearing to locations in both space and time, revealing hidden histories through street names, districts, parks, trail marks, and creating new possibilities for exploration.

Walking is good for body and soul

Walking is the most accessible form of physical activity, requiring no special training or equipment. Almost everyone can do it, anywhere, and at any time. Those new to idea of exploring places on foot can start slowly, building up gradually as they gain confidence, whilst others more comfortable with distance and direction will know where and when they can push their limits. And like all physical exertion, especially that taking place outdoors, in the fresh air, the surge of chemicals within your physiology focuses the mind, and leaves the body relaxed.

High on the Hardangervidda in Norway, taking in the views.
High on the Hardangervidda in Norway, taking in the views.

Walking is free, and freeing

A mainstay item of the budget traveller’s itinerary, walking is magnificently free of charge. But more than this, the degree of self-reliance, the little bit of imagination, and the sense of adventure necessary to walk out and explore, gives you freedom. Freedom from schedules and timetables, freedom from the usual daily routine; the luxury of time and space. Freedom to think.

That great ideas and thoughts are formed whilst walking, especially whilst walking alone, is a concept many writers adhered to, from philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche to travel writer Bruce Chatwin to criminal mastermind Agatha Christie. New places offer up new thoughts, new alternatives. The frequent punctuation of a city, imparting countless grains of ideas, giving way to longer, more uninterrupted thoughts in open landscapes, stretching all the way to the horizon.

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Off on a winter walk through frozen fields.

And then myself, the buoyant rhythm of arms swinging in time with legs that only comes from long miles, is a meditation on living in the moment, of being aware of here and now. As a child, roaming freely in my surroundings, the opportunity to be able to get a little lost and then figure out the way back, was what developed my sense of adventure, my imagination, and my independence. I relish the opportunity to go out of my way, beyond the boundaries of what I know, then find my way back those few extra miles, on a new trail or by the needle of a compass; to lose myself for a time, though I know where I am. Then to round a corner or crest a ridge and return to the start, to the familiar, and see it as if I have never seen this place before.

A Vagabond February

Where I’ve Been

My February was pretty quiet in travel terms, as I prepared myself for an epic trip I’m taking in March and April (more on that later). I spent several days working with the Ocean Youth Trust based in Southampton, as part of the refit team on their sail training vessel, John Laing, a 22metre-long custom-built sailing ketch.

After spending much of January preparing the boat, we were able to paint the keel, hull, deck and coach house. Layers and layers of paint, mixed and applied with precision, and she’s looking rather smart sitting in her cradle. A few more jobs, and she’ll be going back into the water at the start of March, ready to be rigged.

The Bear and I managed to get away for a few days to Staffordshire, staying close to the edge of the Peak District. We managed to rack up a couple of 20km plus walks, carrying our new backpack training for our TGO Challenge attempt in May, taking in parts of the Gritstone Trail and Staffordshire Moorland Way, joined by the Bear’s brother, Woo. We did consider camping, to add to the #30NightsOut total, but only very briefly; freezing temperatures overnight were up against Woo’s cosy house nearby and the chance to catch up with his family, Mummy J and Baby Sully.

 

Highlights

IMG_4142v2Getting towards the end of our walk on the Staffordshire Moorland Way, we arrived at a half-frozen Knypersley Reservoir just as the sun was setting. The temperature dropped as we walked through the woodland around the lake, just enough to catch your breath. Or maybe it was just that pretty.

 

News

The Telegraph Outdoor Adventure and Travel Show in London in the middle of the month was a great opportunity to listen to inspiring talks from explorers, and bask in the loveliness of Levison Wood of Walking the Nile fame. Although it feels that the main way into that type of career is serving in the Parachute Regiment or Royal Marines, my travel buddy Rach helpfully pointed out I do share the characteristic with them of “not really having a proper job”.

 

I’ve Been Reading/ Watching

Guy Martin. Crackin’.  Picture from Wikipedia.

This month I discovered Compass Cultura, an online travel magazine published monthly. Each issue has three long-form articles, of around 3,000 words each, that explore an idea, place or person in depth. There’s no advertising or sponsored pieces, and no Buzzfeed-style round-up lists. It’s quite refreshing to be immersed in a piece of well-written, compelling journalism. You can read one story for free each month, or subscribe for the full magazine, plus back-issues, and I urge you to check it out.

I’ve also been drawn in by Channel 4’s Our Guy in India, following motorcycle racer and all-round speed freak Guy Martin on a tour through India, from mountains and tea plantations in the north to the beaches of Goa. I’m a little bit in love with Guy, but it’s hard not to fall for his down-to-earth, cheeky-chappie personality, then be awed by his adventurous streak as he enters one of the craziest motorbike races you’ll ever see.

 

Best of the Blogs

Earlier in February I wrote about why I’m not a food blogger. Simply put, it’s because I like to eat and I don’t like to share, and am too lazy to cook and clean up after myself. But I do enjoy occasionally dipping into other travel blogs that write about food, just to see what they’ve got cooking, like Vanessa’s awesome pomegranate and mango salsa on Turnipseed Travel, or Niamh’s gluten-free buckwheat pancakes with plums and almonds on Eat Like a Girl.  I made a little bit of an effort for Pancake Day, with some basic pancakes spread thickly with Nutella.  They were gone before I could get my phone out of my bag to take a snap.

I’ve also really enjoyed reading about Emma’s exploration of the Oxford food scene on Gotta Keep Movin’. It’s a place I know well, but she’s given me a new side of the city to discover on my next visit.

 

My Most Popular Instagram

IMG_4190v2It was this one, of the interior of Litchfield Cathedral. An impromptu lunch stop on our route home from North Staffordshire.  The cathedral is famous for having three spires, and seeing intense fighting during the English Civil War.  Holes from musket fire are still visible in the outer walls, which look a little like this:

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Coming Up Next Month

As you read this, I’ll be on the verge of taking part in my biggest trip for a long time. At the very start of March, I’m flying across the Atlantic to the heavenly holiday hotspot of Bermuda, famed for its coral reefs, pink sand beaches and rum cocktails. How lovely does that sound? Mark Twain is claimed to have said, “You go to heaven if you want – I’ll stay here in Bermuda.”

Unfortunately I can’t stay there forever, but I will be leaving the islands in style, on board TS Lord Nelson, a three-masted barque owned by the Jubilee Sailing Trust. “Nellie” as she’s affectionately known, is unique in the world of tall ships (along with her sister-ship Tenacious), in having been designed with accessibility in mind, allowing people with different physical abilities to sail together on equal terms.

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Lord Nelson. Photo from the Jubilee Sailing Trust.

I’ll be part of Nellie’s crew for an Atlantic crossing, taking her from Bermuda back to Britain, arriving into Southampton in mid-April, after 30 days or so at sea. It might be a little quiet on the blog and social media over that period, but keep a look out for updates and for a full-account of the adventure once I get back.

Thanks for following These Vagabond Shoes. For real-time updates (when I have connection with the outside world!) you can follow me on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

The Caldera Clifftop Hike on Santorini

Santorini1Santorini was once a single island, rising in the centre to a beautiful cone-shaped peak (like Fujiyama in Japan, or Taranaki/Mount Egmont in New Zealand). Along with Crete, it was at the heart of the Minoan civilisation; a culture that dominated the eastern Mediterranean during the Bronze age, until a cataclysmic volcanic eruption about 3,500 years ago.

SantoriniHike2The cone of the volcano burst open, spewing smoke and ash high into the atmosphere. The explosion would probably have been heard as far away as Scandinavia and Central Africa, Gibraltar and the Persian Gulf. The mass of rock thrown skyward formed a vast caldera, into which the sea flooded. Giant waves generated by the blast swept across the Mediterranean, as the fragments of the island were buried under a white-hot blanket of dust and debris.

Today, Thera, the largest island of the Santorini archipelago, is a remnant of that catastrophe. Sheer cliffs, banded with charcoal grey, rose pink and rust brown strata, rise from indigo water on the eastern side of the drowned crater, catching that famous sunset in their curves. A hiking trail snakes along the rim of the caldera between the island’s capital, Fira, and the picture-perfect village of Oia, on the northern tip of the island.

SantoriniHike1We started the hike early to beat the heat of the day (As a pale-skinned Scot, I wilt in midday sunshine). With dawn creeping up the sky, the sounds of the waking island filled the air. Crowing roosters, barking dogs, and the tolling of church bells more rhythmic than melodic. The sunrise washed over us as we made the short climb through the winding lanes of Fira, spilling down into the caldera as we reached the rim.

Far below, water taxis cast off from the harbour, heading out to meet the first cruise ship to arrive into the caldera. Donkeys mustered at the bottom of cliff, ready to transport passengers up the seemingly endless zig-zag trail. Cleaners and handymen buzzed around rooftop terraces and infinity pools, preparing for the day ahead, but heading away from the centre of Fira, things quietened down considerably.

SantoriniHike3We took a diversion in the village of Imerovigli to walk out to Skaros Rock, a fin of rock protruding out from the caldera rim, topped with a reddish rocky chunk that wouldn’t look out of place alongside the mesas of Monument Valley. It once boasted a fortified citadel, long destroyed by earthquakes that accompanied eruptions in the centre of the caldera. All that remains is the tiny chapel of Agios Ioannis Apokefalistheis, clinging to the side of the cliff a hundred metres or so below.

Rejoining the main trail, we passed a number of exclusive hotels and apartments heading out of the village, barely spotting any other people. The exception was an Asian woman in a gorgeous and elaborate bridal gown, choreographing her photoshoot against the backdrop of the view. I don’t think her groom/cameraman was going to be allowed to to feature in any of the shots.

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SantoriniHike6Leaving Imerovigli, we were joined by a dog taking himself for walkies, who we named “Sausages”. He seemed particularly nonchalant about that development, and eventually left us to pursue a female dog taking a walk in the other direction.

Once out of the villages, the trail snaked through the cinders along the caldera rim. Scrubby bushes lined the route, providing shelter for lizards that scarpered out of the way as we passed by, before returning to bask in the sunshine. It wasn’t until we reached the chapel above Oia that we met others on the trail; two birdwatchers engrossed in watching a merlin (a small hawk) search for prey on the hillside. They’d picked a great spot, with a panoramic view of the sugar-cube houses of Oia arranged haphazardly along the spine of the island, framed by the blue Aegean. The island of Therasia mirrored Oia, with a snowdrift of white buildings spilling across terraces of rock.

SantoriniHike7From this point, the trail drops steadily into Oia, where it runs into the main “street” and on through winding lanes to the remains of Kasteli Agios Nikolaos at the end of the village. We stopped into a café for a long, leisurely brunch with a couple of frappés (the real Greek coffee!) before exploring the village, soaking up the gorgeous sea-views and people-watching, whilst trying to identify the easy listening covers of popular music of the café soundtrack. Amongst the constant flow of tourists (identifiable from their leisurely walking pace), we spotted another two Asian brides, marching purposefully between vantage points to capture shots with the best backdrop.

 

What to see in Oia

  • The most famous photographs of Oia seem to be taken from Kasteli Agios Nikolaos at the end of the village, where you have a panoramic view across the village, including the famous windmills, and over to the island of Therasia.
  • The picturesque port of Amoudi, at the bottom of 300 steps below Oia, is the place to go for fresh fish, and even to take a dip in the clear water.
  • Atlantis Books. I know I find I hard to walk past a bookshop, but this is a real delight. It stocks books in Greek, English, German, Spanish, French, from fiction to philosophy.
  • Beautiful Asian women in wedding dresses. I don’t know if it’s a thing, or my visit coincided with a magazine photoshoot, but I spotted at least 6 different brides in places around the village.

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Important information

Depending on exact start and finish points, the trail is 10 to 12km in length, with the hike taking around 3 hours, depending on fitness, how relaxed you make your pace, and how often you stop to stare with amazement at the stunning panoramic view.

SantoriniHike5The trail is pretty obvious, so you don’t need a map, although if you don’t look ahead at some points it’s possible to make a wrong turn and end up on edge of a busy winding road. The ground underfoot is uneven, and the trail rises and falls as it winds along the clifftop, so suitable footwear is recommended (volcanic cinders and sandals don’t work well together). There is little escape from the sun on the route, so carry plenty of water and remember sunblock and all that sort of thing (as I try not to sound too much like your mum).

SantoriniHike8The hike can be done either direction, but if you’re hiking in the afternoon, consider walking from Fira to Oia, arriving in time for the sunset. Just bear in mind this is a popular destination and you may have to share your spot with a crowd. However, sunset views are just as impressive everywhere on the caldera edge.

Buses for the return journey depart regularly from the square in Oia, and are cheap (1.60euros).SantoriniHike11