From the vaults: Navigation techniques… (17/08/2011)

These are many, varied, and the subject of articles, skills courses, even entire books. There’s one I used to adopt on occasions which, since I abandoned it myself, seems to have fallen completely into disuse. 

In simple terms, the strategy was to become slightly lost by virtue of neglecting to consult the map. This was followed by a period of denial, during which it was still considered unnecessary to refer to the map on the basis that it was only a matter of time before I recognised some prominent landmark. Phase three involved accepting that I didn’t have a clue where I was but my own inner compass would somehow prevail over the unfamiliar terrain*.
The final part involved a pathetic figure, nervously unfolding a OS Explorer or Landranger, praying to the god of the hills that he hadn’t actually walked off the edge of its coverage.
As I said, it’s a technique I no longer use. Anyone who’s tried it will understand the reasons for that; my advice to anyone who hasn’t is that it’s probably best avoided in favour of the more conventional approaches to navigation.
* There was no body of evidence to support this proposition, but… well, you know how it is with men.

From the vaults: The Malverns (09/08/2011)

p1060346For anyone considering walking the Malverns, my suggestion would generally be to avoid summer, particularly summer weekends. Lovely hills they may be, with that long undulating ridge and contrasting views east and west, but you’ll never have them to yourself. Mid-week in winter is probably as close as they ever come to what could be considered quiet. Probably the best way to walk them is by starting at either Ledbury or Malvern Link railway station, walking the full length of the ridge and returning to the starting point by rail.

p1060344Never one to take my own advice I was up there a few days ago; not a weekend, but the second monday of the ‘industrial shut-down fortnight’ (if that still has any meaning) and slap bang in middle of the school holidays. It was a day for slipping away down some of those byways; the lesser known tracks, little trodden paths, half-hidden among the undergrowth of high summer.
A warm westerly – probably my favourite of all winds – was blowing, gathering strength as the day progressed but not on this occasion, as is so often the case, a precursor to rain. In many ways the wind defines the character of these hills on any given day: a winter north-easterly can carry a bite which might come as a surprise to some, at these relatively modest altitudes; a legacy of its uninterrupted journey from the Ural mountains across the
flatlands of Europe.p1060348
Another surprise is that at their highest point the hills don’t quite make 1,400 feet. Viewed from the east or, to put it another way, from the direction of the M5, their lift above the surrounding landscape would suggest somewhat greater height. This is possibly the aspect from which they are most frequently observed and there is an exaggerated effect from the way they rise quickly from the low-lying expanses of the Severn/Avon flood plain.
p1060354This slightly peculiar geography is also the source of the contrasting views east and west. To the east lie the relatively featureless south and south-east midlands, dissolving into East Anglia beyond. The views west are to the Brecon Beacons, the central Wales plateau and – scanning around a little further north – the hills of south Shropshire.
The hills fall under the stewardship of the Malvern Hills Conservators and receipts from car-parking charges go towards their work. One of their continuing projects is the use of spells of controlled grazing in an attempt to protect and sustain habitat. The beneficial effects of this work show a marked distinction to some of the Shropshire hills, where indiscriminate over-grazing has consigned many hectares of moorland to alternating periods of mud and dust, accompanied by the inevitable erosion issues.

From the vaults: The peregrine’s nest (03/08/2011)

I’m always a little wary of saying or writing anything which might be of assistance to nest raiders, so I’ll be vague about the location. 

From just below the top of a relatively well-walked hill, situated at the end of an extremely well-walked range, we heard, from the far (and much steeper) side of the valley, the unmistakable call of a peregrine. As luck would have it we then caught sight of one of the birds returning to the nest.

Under normal circumstances it would be the sight of the falcon which would hold my undivided attention, but on this occasion I was at least as taken with the siting of the nest, which was a masterclass in strategic positioning. Whether it was by instinct, experience, some strand of genetic code, or just sheer dumb luck, the birds had chosen probably the optimum spot on the entire range of hills: neither visible, or accessible, from above; protected in all directions by a mix of overgrown vegetation and near-vertical rockface; and with a commanding view of the outer fringes of a small town, complete with its flourishing pigeon population. Somehow I doubt if sheer dumb luck played any part in it.

I’ve no idea quite why these things resonate with me to such an extent, but my best guess is that it’s the ability of wild creatures to function in environments where critical decisions have to based on some fusion of evolution and instinct, and how that contrasts with our own burgeoning dependance on support systems and technology. No opportunity for the peregrine to open a reference book and consult the section on ‘Choosing your ledge’; no possibility of googling up a list of handy hints on the selection of suitable nesting sites. Just the hard-wired lore of peregrines past and its own innate resourcefulness. In more ways than one, we don’t know the half of it.