Sculptures lure art lovers to the lakeside

IT’S ONE of the hottest days of the year and Bournemouth beach is buried under an ant’s nest of sunburnt tourists. The A31 is tailed back for miles and everyone is heading for the sea.

Well, almost everyone. Just a few miles away down a Dorset country lane is a perfect oasis of tranquillity, and one of the county’s most unexpected and delightful tourist attractions.

Here, at a seat overlooking a beautiful stream or shimmering lake, you can enjoy a picnic with friends in glorious countryside and enjoy an extraordinary exhibition of modern sculpture set against the most spectacular of backdrops.

True, if you fancy snapping up one of the sculptures on display for your own backyard it could set you back anything from £15,000 to a quarter of a million pounds or more – but if you’re content just to chill out by the lake and enjoy the show, this is the perfect place.

Swans, cranes, pelicans and even a stray polar bear spring out of the water, though it can sometimes be hard to spot which ones are real and which are man-made.

But then the 26 acres that provide the setting for Sculpture by the Lakes have allowed sculptor Simon Gudgeon and wife Monique to create an environment for enthusiasts that blends nature’s beauty with inspiring works of art, free from the space constraints of a traditional gallery.

Carefully landscaped and curated with the aim of enhancing the aesthetic qualities of each sculpture, the park has deep running water, which means children under 14 and dogs are not allowed on site: a disappointment for some families, no doubt, but for other couples it contributes to the overall tranquillity of the place.

Paths meander round the lakes, each turn revealing a different vista and new work of art, many by Simon and some by guest exhibitors.

Born in Yorkshire in 1958, Simon “lived deep in the countryside on the family farm, learning the essential arts of observation, evaluation and interpretation of how animals and birds behave, both with each other and man”.

He studied law at Reading University and practised as a solicitor, starting painting only in his thirties and first exhibiting at London’s Battersea Exhibition Centre in 1992. An impulse purchase of artist’s clay at the age of 40 led into his new career as a sculptor, responding to what lay closest to his heart: the natural world.

He went on to gain global recognition for his sculpture, with exhibitions around the world and his works featuring in numerous important private collections and art museums abroad and in the UK.

The park at Pallington opened in 2011 and is home to some of his monumental finished pieces, as well as housing studio workshops. He sculpts primarily in bronze, and occasionally in marble, granite, glass or stainless steel.

He is particularly known for his sculptures of birds in flight, often with ingeniously engineered bases that seem to launch them into the air rather than anchor them to the ground.

His pared-down approach allows the smallest of details, such as the arching of a neck, to suggest rather than depict a bird or mammal.

The work of a dozen or more guest sculptors adds to the variety, with materials ranging from marble and limestone to forged metal, and subjects from wildfowl and wildlife to abstracts, kinetic wind sculptures or figurative works inspired by the masks of the Venice Carnival.

The park provides an array of benches, tables and other suitable spots to relax and take in the view, with visitors being actively encouraged to bring a picnic and spend the day. As Simon says: “We like to give our guests the space and time to fully absorb and appreciate the sculpture park.”

Scattered around are a number of more exclusive private spots too, which can be hired for £50 – £100 a day and accommodate families or small groups who really want to chill out in style.

There’s even a larger double-storey timber retreat with a roof terrace offering spectacular views over the entire park and situated in its own exclusive area, with room for 60 for lunch or 100 for a drinks, wedding or anniversary reception.

Three gallery spaces exhibit sculptures, paintings and prints by a collection of talented artists, while the cafe offers coffee and cakes, not to mention picnic ingredients sourced from the nearby kitchen garden.

“These are gardens designed to be savoured,” says Simon – and a glance at some of the enthusiastic feedback online suggests there are plenty of visitors who find the tranquil setting a refreshing alternative to those hectic beaches a little further along the Dorset coast.

Day ticket prices cost £12.50 a head and the park is open from Wednesday to Sunday, 10am-5pm. See the website for details, upcoming exhibitions and other news.

Living in a land of impossible greens

Beaconsfield artist Tim Baynes always found West Wales a place of inspiration – and now he lives there. Today he shares some initial impressions about his new life in Carmarthenshire

WE HAVE moved to Laugharne, a town on the south coast of Carmarthenshire lying on the estuary of the River Tâf. Population 1,222.

It is like standing on the edge of a new life, when somebody is saying to you: “Hey, would you like a new life?” And you say: “Yes please, that would be nice, thank you.”

I think I really know the difference between living in a place and loving a place. There is so much ahead of us, probably most of it will be strange. Yet there is so much to see, enjoy and stub one’s toe on. Every nook and cranny seem to have a story.

I am making a drawing or two most days in Laugharne. I make notes each day about what we do all day here.

Our town squats at the end of an estuary. Here the Afon Taf flows into Carmarthen Bay and eventually the Bristol Channel. On the other side of this estuary are deserted churches, small farm fields and narrow roads draped in flowers. Cow parsley, red campion, buttercups, bluebells and hawthorn compete for room to flourish. Hedges are high. In the shade, hart’s-tongue ferns glow in a green haze.

These roads are like some helter-skelter rising up to the sun and plunging down to shady bridges and crumbling cottages. Up, up again, to a field of views across a hundred fields. A line of pylons march across this land.

There is so much green, from darkest viridian to almost lemon. Gates are held together by rust and blue bailer twine. Red rust and turquoise blue the complement to green on the colour wheel.

As we make our way to Llansteffan (St Stephen – often these saints were from ruling families who invaded Wales in the Middle Ages), the land seems to pant in the high sun. We meet villages along the way. Llan-this, Llan-that. There are 630 “llans” in Wales: it means Christian settlement, often a church, conjoined with a local saint.

Llan y bri, through which we pass, has two chapels: Capel Newydd, new chapel, is home now to most of Dylan Thomas’ maternal relatives. Hen Gapel was the only medieval church in Wales to be converted to a non-conformist chapel. Now it is without a roof and God has an uninterrupted view on the congregation.

In November 2020, a series of Tim’s paintings featured in our Picture of the Week feature.

Part 1 focused on the flatlands of the Kent coast and marshes, Part 2 threw the spotlight on West Wales – “a landscape, coastline and places that really inspire” – and Part 3 homed in on church architecture across the Chilterns.

Tim Baynes’ website features a variety of galleries of his work, downloadable minibooks and work for sale. His blog, which includes more detail about his adventures in Laugharne, can be found here.

Rewilding one of London’s lost railways

IT’S more than half a century since a train last ran through Crouch End railway station in north London.

But there are probably more people wandering along its platforms today than at the height of the steam railway era.

That’s partly because this line never really enjoyed a true “heyday” and partly because the route has been a parkland walk for more than 35 years.

It may be only a few miles from the modern transport hub of Finsbury Park, but the line through here to Highgate and the branch from there to Alexandra Palace never really took off in the way the developers had hoped.

It was built by the Edgware, Highgate and London Railway and opened on 22 August 1867, running from Finsbury Park to Edgware via Highgate.

Branches would follow to Alexandra Palace and High Barnet. Swallowed up by the Great Northern Railway and later the London and North Eastern Railway (LNER), part of the route would become the High Barnet branch of the Northern Line, but ambitious Tube expansion plans in the 1930s were thwarted by the Second World War.

In some ways Alexandra Palace was doomed from the start. The branch was constructed by the Muswell Hill Railway Company and opened on 24 May 1873 along with the palace. However, when the palace burned down only two weeks after opening, the service was considerably reduced and then closed for almost two years while the palace was rebuilt.

There were other periods of temporary closure too due to insufficient demand, though in 1935 it looked as if it would get a new lease of life when London Underground revealed plans to electrify the branch.

Works to modernise the track were well advanced when they were halted by the war, services reduced to rush hours only as a result of wartime economy measures.

After the war, dwindling passenger numbers and a shortage of funds led to the cancellation of the unfinished works in 1950 and British Railways withdrew passenger services to Alexandra Palace on 3 July 1954 along with the rest of the route from Finsbury Park.

After the track was lifted, most of the platforms and station buildings were demolished but two sections from Finsbury Park to Alexandra Palace, excluding the tunnels and station at Highgate, were converted into the Parkland Walk, which was officially opened in 1984.

Stroud Green station consisted of two wooden side platforms which were gutted by fire in 1967 and demolished shortly afterwards, but Crouch End was more substantial and both platforms survive.

The line continued to be used for goods into the 1960s and by London Underground for train stock movements until 1970 when it was completely closed. The track was lifted a couple of years later, by which time it was already being used as an unofficial walkway.

A hundred years ago the steam train took just six minutes to get here from Finsbury Park, and another 10 or 11 to chug all the way round to Alexandra Palace.

Today the journey takes a little longer but the 3.9-mile route is designated a local nature reserve, part of the 78-mile Capital Ring Walk round Inner London, and reveals a glimpse of north London life that motorists never see.

From here a glance back at the city skyline reminds you just how far this feels from the hubbub of central London – a green corridor of trees and birdsong providing 21st-century Londoners with a welcome respite from the concrete jungle and rumble of city traffic.

Rediscover our ancient coffin paths

Former Bucks newspaper editor Alan Cleaver explains the fascination of ‘corpse roads’ – and the facts and myths surrounding the ancient footpaths which criss-cross the country

CORPSE roads – the very name conjures up images of ghosts marching over misty fells. But what are the facts behind these ancient paths?

They were used in medieval times to carry the dead from a remote parish to the ‘mother’ church for burial and could be just a couple of miles long or anything up to 20 miles. They are also known as coffin paths, bier roads, lyke or lych ways and by other names.

LOST VILLAGE: the Shap Corpse Road runs from Mardale to Shap, but the village of Mardale was ‘drowned’ in 1935 to build a reservoir PICTURE: Alan Cleaver

The first question has to be: why not just dig a hole in the ground and bury them locally? The answer – as with most questions – is down to money and politics. Mother churches received good money for burials (and baptisms and weddings) and were not giving up that revenue stream easily. 

However by the late 17th and early 18th centuries many rural parishes successfully petitioned the bishop for burial rites at their own chapel.

Many of the petitions still survive in church archives and follow a typical ‘winning’ formula: “…by reason of their distance from the parish church and by reason of inundations and of storms frequently raging in those parts in the winter season, they cannot carry their dead to be buried without great trouble and inconvenience…”

LABOUR OF LOVE: husband and wife writing team Alan Cleaver and Lesley Park

So corpse roads ceased to carry the dead but their route and former sacred purpose survived, not least because of a firmly held belief that once a corpse was carried over a field or path that route was for ever a public right of way.

This belief survives even today but there is no basis in law for it. However, it seems to have ensured that in Cumbria and elsewhere corpse roads survive as public footpaths.

In Cumbria there are seven or eight famous corpse roads that can be found quickly on Google including Shap, Loweswater, Grasmere, Wasdale and Beetham.

Research by my wife and I over the last three years has uncovered around 30 others, some only known by oral tradition (you can view our map of them online. We’ve only studied those in Cumbria but they exist all over the country. For example, fellow corpse road enthusiast Stuart Dunn details one in Oxfordshire in his blog.

TOURIST TRAIL: the Grasmere corpse road runs from Rydal to St Oswald’s Church in Grasmere and has become popular with visitors PICTURE: Alan Cleaver

Perhaps the most famous is the Rydal to Grasmere corpse road which is always very busy with tourists. It is signposted from Rydal and skirts past Wordsworth’s former homes of Rydal Mount and Dove Cottage.

There are even a couple of coffin rests along the way. One of these is very dubious (it was almost certainly erected as a seat in the 1930s) but the other, near Dove Cottage, has a better pedigree.

Many coffin rests survive and are proudly pointed out by villagers but I know of none that were recorded in medieval times, most only being noted in the late 19th century. There is a modern misunderstanding of a coffin rest with many people saying they were large stones on which a coffin was rested by tired pall-bearers travelling the corpse road.

COFFIN REST: the ‘genuine’ stopping point on the Rydal to Grasmere corpse road close to Dove Cottage, former home of poet William Wordsworth PICTURE: Alan Cleaver

But this makes little sense not least because bodies were usually carried on a cart or on back of a horse, the body only being put in a coffin when they reached the lych-gate of the church.

Rather, the coffin rests appear to have marked a spot where the party rested (ie paused) to say a prayer or sing a hymn. The corpse road was as much part of the funeral and any service by the graveside.

WEEPING CROSS: the cross which once stood on the Whitehaven to St Bees corpse road has been moved to St Bees Abbey to ensure its safety PICTURE: Alan Cleaver

You may also see roadside crosses or even holy wells marking the route – or even a ghost. There are a couple of famous ghost stories associated with Cumbria’s corpse roads but for the most part the paths are simply a good excuse to go on a walk with a bit more history than most.

The popularity of the Rydal to Grasmere corpse road with tourists is undoubtedly down to signposts the local council has erected (it’s one of only two in the county to be signposted). I usually point friends in the direction of the Chapel Stile to Grasmere corpse road which is a much nicer walk and has fewer tourists on it!

WALK THIS WAY: the humble wooden signpost at Rydal has succeeded in attracting thousands of walkers every year PICTURE: Alan Cleaver

The parts of Cumbria outside the honeypot of the Lake District are desperate to woo tourists to their part of the county. I am hoping to persuade them to shout louder about their corpse roads (or indeed other ancient paths).

Spending £20 on a wooden sign with ‘coffin path’ painted on it would seem a cheap and easy way to start. Readers may wish to investigate their local corpse roads and do the same.

The Corpse Roads of Cumbria by Alan Cleaver & Lesley Park is £10 from bookshops (please support your local bookshop!) or online. Alan Cleaver is a former editor of the Wycombe & South Bucks Star who retired to Cumbria after a career in journalism which included 10 years as editor of the Hampshire Chronicle.

Mystery of the ship among the trees

Guest writer Tim Pinks discovers how a Royal Navy vessel came to be transformed into an ancient woodland burial ground

SO how does, exactly, one of Her Majesty’s Royal Navy ships (originally one of His Majesty’s) become a beautiful burial ground in an ancient English woodland?

And how did a little piece of coincidence ensure my father, who was alive on the one…come to rest eternally in the other?

And one other question. How did something that was commissioned for war and destruction (but also for our defence and freedom), become something dedicated to nature and renewal, to our natural history, and rebirth?

Well, with a little bit of literary sleight of hand, an abracadabra and a touch of Tommy Cooper (one of dad’s favourites), just like this…

During World War Two (that’s the one after the one that ended all wars), Portsmouth was heavily bombed due to it being the Royal Navy’s biggest base. Among the many operations there was the Signal School. Communications, in other words. It was actually housed near HMS Victory.

So after heavy bombing in 1940 and ’41, it was decided that some of these services had to be moved, and hidden around the country. The signalling school was one of them.

On April 19, 1941, a place called Leydene House was approved to be requisitioned, and by August 16 it was commissioned as a land ship and the Signal School had a new home. They moved into the massive house, set within the lovely Hyden Wood, and the land ship HMS Mercury was launched. It was only a lucky 13 miles north from Portsmouth as the Solent seabird flies.

Leydene House was built for Viscount Robert and Lady Peel in the years after the Great War. Yes, that one, the war that ended all…anyway, once completed it was described by L.H Troyde thus: “No larger house has been built for at least half a century, or has been built since.” Over the years and decades, HMS Mercury was expanded until it was practically the size of a large village or small town.

Also over the years, King George VI (1943), Earl Mountbatten (1956 and ’58) and Queen Elizabeth II and Duke of Edinburgh (1991) visited, the latter on the occasion of its 50th birthday…along with the hundreds of thousands who had of course been piped aboard its woodland setting. Under such a canopy of trees with their resident birds, tweeted aboard, perhaps, would be more apt…

Up to half a million people passed through, it’s believed. Prince Charles was to visit too, in 2006, but by then, that whole little naval woodland world had changed.

Oh, and why ‘Mercury?’ Well, because, like many of the ancient Roman gods, Mercury was a god of many things…including messages and communication.

And then, in 1993…it closed down. Many, many of the old buildings were still there. There was even a cinema. So how did this ship (OK, yes, a land ship…well I did say there’d be a little bit of literary sleight of hand) turn into an ancient woodland? Well, it was already built in the woods, of course, to hide it from German bombing, so there were trees galore.

And so the great metamorphosis began. Most of the land was handed over to the Defence Land Registry and nearly all the buildings were demolished. Some 55 acres were gifted to a newly created Earthworks Trust to help set up The Sustainability Centre. Between then and now, all sorts of things would happen, all green, all good, and all sympathetic to the area.

The Sustainability Centre? Yes, and this is what they’re for, to quote from their own mission statement: “to demonstrate, develop and promote knowledge, skills, technologies and lifestyles that improve people’s quality of life without damaging the local and global environment.” 

There is a campsite which originally was just for ‘traditional camping’ but now has the added attraction of tipis and yurts to stay in.

If you’re an ageing crock like me and find getting up off the floor hard – funny, I find it easy enough to slide off my bar stool to get down there – then one of the few surviving buildings was converted into a green, eco-friendly hostel. So, happily, 2004 saw the opening of The Wetherdown Lodge.

And soon, very soon (work has gone on during the pandemic), the Longdown Wing of the lodge is due to be opened. I can’t wait.

There is more, so much more, to tell you about the old wood that became a ship. About how it is being reconverted into the ancient woodland it once was. About the surviving buildings that became the heart of a green revolution. And about the surrounding woodlands that became a natural burial site.

For this is the one thing I’ve kept secret up to now. As part of the re-rigging of the old boat, in 1997 the South Downs Natural Burial Site was set up and now trees, instead of crosses, stand in memorial over those who rest eternally there.

Among whom is my father, Alfred Herbert George Pinks. Known to everyone as ‘Bill’. You see, like his father before him, he joined the Royal Navy. And apparently, anyone who joined the navy who had the surname ‘Pinks’ was nicknamed ‘Bill.’ Anyway, Dad joined up towards the end of the war, 1944, and he ended up in communications…

… And here is where another twist of fate comes in. My father died rather too quickly, aged 81, in 2006, and it all happened too fast to ask him, if the worst came to the worst, where and how he’d like to be buried. But our mother – I have a brother, Mike – had picked up a couple of items about ‘natural burials’ and the one at HMS Mercury just grabbed us instantly.

It was only after he’d died and we were quickly arranging things and checking places out that we learnt it had been developed in the war for the signals section. And with goose pimples on the skin and shivers down the spine, the possibility that dad had served there was too big a coincidence to ignore.

Also, on a completely different note, the big motorbike I’d bought once I’d passed my test back in 1980 was a 650cc Norton. It was my dad the engineer who rebuilt the thing on his own into the beauty it became. The well-known version of the model was the twin carb ‘SS’ model – the super sports.

But when they took one of the carbs off to make it into a ‘touring’ model, they gave it another name – the Norton 650cc Mercury. Well, well. Sometimes you just can’t script it. I love a good coincidence, even though I do wonder sometimes if they really are coincidences…

One day, if they exist, I would like to view my dad’s service records, and see where he went. Was he, while he was based at Portsmouth, sent with others for a visit to the signal section up at HMS Mercury? Was he based there, but never mentioned it, even after I got a Norton Mercury? It’s of little matter. Dad loved the woods. He loved gardens and flowers and birds and animals, and always the woods.

And he loved walking among the trees. Before his knees got too bad he went on woodland walks with his friends (with a pub as an important part of the outing). After his knees were fixed he kept on going on woodland walks with his friends. Of course, still with a pub somewhere along the way too… So my brother and I have no doubt he’d have been very happy with the site we chose, among this island’s countryside he loved so much.

What else is there, near-abouts? Lots, actually. Apart from beautiful scenery of course, there’s Butser Ancient Farm and Old Winchester Hill, an area rich in Mesolithic archaeology, from those Stone Age hunter-gatherers from after the ice age. There are Bronze Age barrows and an Iron Age hillfort.

There are the remains of a Roman villa nearby at Bury Lodge, and perhaps best, for some, and most English of all, one of the two Hambledons in England. (The other is in Surrey, and there is a Hambleden in Buckinghamshire.) But this one is Hambledon, Hampshire, and it has an oh-so-typically-English claim to fame. It’s the birthplace of cricket.

Up the road, next to the Bat and Ball pub, is the delightfully named Broadhalfpenny Down, where England’s leading cricket club played their cricket from 1765 until the MCC formed in 1787. And the stumps are still standing as they still play cricket there…

But best of all, for my brother and I, a short distance over some fields and hedgerows, and some tracks and woods, is the old HMS Mercury, now the South Downs Natural Burial Site, where my once, always, and future father lies, among the tree-filled woods he loved to walk in so much.

My thanks to one Chris Rickard for his 50-page history of HMS Mercury, and to Christina Seaward at the Sustainability Centre for sending me the Sustainability Centre History booklet, and their permission to use any of their photos that don’t show individuals. Thanks too to Al Blake, the manager, for sending me a load of those photos. There will be more about the place and the people, and the flora and fauna, once we’re unlocked again and can wander, hither and thither, free and happy as clouds….

I shall leave you with a poem, which sums up the beauty of being buried in our beautiful woods. It’s becoming very popular at woodland funerals and it’s going to be read at mine too. Though hopefully not quite yet! I don’t care if it’s one day looked upon as being as common as Frank Sinatra’s ‘My Way’ for a funeral…it’s a lovely poem.

It’s by the incomparable Pam Ayres, and combines not just her humour and heart, but her insightful sensitivity.

Woodland Burial, by Pam Ayres

Don’t lay me in some gloomy churchyard shaded by a wall
Where the dust of ancient bones has spread a dryness over all,
Lay me in some leafy loam where, sheltered from the cold
Little seeds investigate and tender leaves unfold.
There kindly and affectionately, plant a native tree
To grow resplendent before God and hold some part of me.
The roots will not disturb me as they wend their peaceful way
To build the fine and bountiful, from closure and decay.
To seek their small requirements so that when their work is done
I’ll be tall and standing strongly in the beauty of the sun.

Johnson’s cat casts a long shadow

FEW cats can boast such a lasting legacy as Samuel Johnson’s Hodge.

Immortalised in a statue, poetry and various literary references, Hodge was described by his owner as “a very fine cat indeed”, although relatively little is actually known about the favoured feline in question.

The most frequently quoted reference is from his friend James Boswell’s biography, The Life of Samuel Johnson, published in 1791 and unique for the period in that it directly incorporated conversations Boswell had noted down, along with far more personal and human details than contemporary readers were accustomed to reading.

Among such revelations was Boswell’s recollection of how Johnson treated his feline companions: “I shall never forget the indulgence with which he treated Hodge, his cat: for whom he himself used to go out and buy oysters.”

He goes on to explain that Johnson’s logic behind this was that if he got his servants to do this job, they would begin to hate the spoilt cat – a scene recreated with a bronze statue outside Johnson’s London home in Gough Square which was unveiled in 1997 and displays Hodge posing proudly on the famous dictionary next to a pair of empty oyster shells.

This is the charming 300-year-old townhouse, now a museum, where Dr Johnson lived and worked in the middle of the 18th century, compiling his great Dictionary of the English Language in the garret.

Although Hodge is undoubtedly the most famous of Johnson’s cats, the writer did have other four-legged friends, including Lily, a ‘white kitling’ who was ‘very well behaved’.

But it was Hodge who was so vividly described by Boswell: “I recollect [Hodge] one day scrambling up Dr Johnson’s breast, apparently with much satisfaction, while my friend smiling and half-whistling, rubbed down his back, and pulled him by the tail; and when I observed he was a fine cat, saying, ‘Why yes, Sir, but I have had cats whom I liked better than this,’ and then as if perceiving Hodge to be out of countenance, adding, ‘but he is a very fine cat, a very fine cat indeed’.”

Another friend of Johnson’s, the poet Percival Stockdale, wrote an ornate elegy in homage to Hodge in 1778:

Shall not his worth a poem fill,
Who never thought, nor uttered ill;
Who by his manner when caressed
Warmly his gratitude expressed;
And never failed his thanks to purr
Whene’er he stroaked his sable furr?

But that wasn’t the last time that Hodge would be remembered in print. Wood engraver and illustrator Yvonne Skargon wrote Lily & Hodge & Dr Johnson in 1991, juxtaposing a series of engravings of the two cats accompanied by quotations from Johnson.

And the writer William Boyd weaved an even more surreal reference into his 2002 novel Any Human Heart when his hedonistic protagonist, Logan Mountstuart, inadvertently sparks a furious argument in the Pyrenees through a chance reference to Hodge, who happens to bear the same name as his travelling companion.

More recently, Robin Saikia has paid his own tribute to Hodge through a dramatic monologue in which Samuel Johnson celebrates the life of his favourite cat and gives a spirited account of his adventures in London coffee houses.

MC Beaton’s fictional detective Angela Raisin called her cats Hodge and Boswell, while in 2020 a new rescue cat, Hodge – complete with his own Twitter account – was adopted by Southwark Cathedral to replace the late lamented Doorkins.

Back in Gough Square, thanks to the sculptor Jon Bickley, Hodge (actually modelled on his own cat, Thomas Henry) is permanently ensconced with his oyster shells round the corner from Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, a pub renowned for its literary associations and maze of atmospherically gloomy bars.

Historically it’s always been a popular meeting place for writers and journalists, somehow epitomising the spirit of that most famous of all Johnson quotes: “Sir, when a man is tired of London he is tired of life: for there is in London all that life can afford.”

Arguably the most distinguished man of letters in English history, the poet, playwright, essayist, moralist, literary critic, biographer and editor found popularity and success when monumental dictionary was finally published in 1755 after nine years of work.

But for some, his fondness for animals was just another demonstration of his underlying compassion, or as Boswell put it, “the real humanity and gentleness of his disposition”.

Adam roams the Garden of England

A MAJOR problem with exploring unfamiliar territory is knowing where to find the most rewarding rambles.

Where does that footpath lead? How can you discover the best views, magical country lanes or historic villages? How do you find just the right spot for bluebells, butterflies, berries or birdsong, depending on the season?

SPLASH OF COLOUR: Letts Green near Sevenoaks PICTURE: Adam McCulloch

That’s where journalist and musician Adam McCulloch can help take the guesswork out of a day trip to Kent.

Over the past few years, his Kent Walks Near London website has been building up a library of favourite rambles around the Garden of England, and it now boasts handy downloadable guides to more than two dozen walks, all between 2.5 and six miles long.

From wintry rambles on the North Downs Way to sunny afternoons looking out over the Weald, this is a delightful introduction to some of the county’s strikingly different landscapes.

PERFECT DAY: a winter sunset near Dunstall Farm PICTURE: Adam McCulloch

Born in the Petts Wood area of south-east London, Adam spent his childhood gallivanting around the nearby countryside in pursuit of his family’s two English springer spaniels – and, now 58, he’s been enjoying the great outdoors ever since.

You might recognise the byline from the travel pages of The Guardian, but although Adam freelances for a variety of publications writing about everything from farming to finance, his walks website is more of a labour of love, incorporating an occasional blog and slide shows of some of the sights and sounds encountered en route.

He recalls: “I started to write up the routes and add them to the website in 2015. I’d been meaning to do it for several years before that, though. I was working at a large publishing house and a lot of my colleagues were from other parts of the country and some were from abroad. When discussing what people did at weekends I began to realise that a lot of people didn’t really know much about this part of the world and how easy it was to get out here from south London.

WINTRY OUTLOOK: mist over the Darent Valley PICTURE: Adam McCulloch

“I was also thinking of university students and tourists who were curious about countryside close to London. I know that when I visit cities abroad I’m never just satisfied with museums, coffee shops, galleries and bars…I want at least one afternoon outside in the countryside.

“I feel strangely happy when I bump into foreign visitors in obscure corners of the North Downs enjoying a walk having ventured out on the train.”

A keen cyclist and golfer, his rambles are focused on that part of Kent south and east of Petts Wood, down to Westerham, Hever and Chiddingstone and out to Shoreham and Otford, with another batch south-east of Sevenoaks.

The walks encompass a range of attractions, from castles, churches, hillforts and manor houses to atmospheric oast houses and monuments, rolling lavender fields or far-flung views over the downs.

ROOM WITH A VIEW: The Mill at Shoreham PICTURE: Adam McCulloch

There are helpful tips about public transport too, along with whether buggies will cope with the route or if dogs need to be kept on leads.

“The good news is that there are beautiful fields, woods and villages to walk in just 30 minutes out of town by car or train,” he says.

Lockdown has encouraged people to stay local and walk more and he has seen a sharp rise in the number of people using the website this year.

“It’s kind of gratifying to think people have found it to be a useful outlet at this disturbing time. Sometimes out on the walks I come across people using one of my routes, either with a pdf print-out or on their phones. It’s always quite a laugh once they realise they’re talking to the ‘author’.”

DISTANT PROSPECT: St Mary’s Church at Chiddingstone PICTURE: Adam McCulloch

“One thing that I always knew to be the case and there’s no getting round is that describing walks accurately can be difficult – people look at trails and hedgerows differently. An instruction that seems simple to me, ‘Turn right just before a stand of trees’ for example, is actually really open to misinterpretation.

“My partner certainly thought so when she did one route with me yesterday… she really helped me improve my description. I’ve learnt to really try to nail down directions and be as accurate as possible – I think it’s working, no-one’s had a moan recently!”

Away from the footpath and keyboard, Adam is also a saxophonist and composer in the jazz, funk and soul genres who has been playing semi-pro since the mid-1980s and organises bands for weddings and other events from private house parties to festivals.

ICY BLAST: deer in the thaw at Knole PICTURE: Adam McCulloch

But he’s never happier than out on a walk – either alone or in company – and finding his interest piqued by an unusual wildflower, bird or insect.

“I love a social walk even more than a solitary one,” he admits – at the same time modestly confessing that the fascination with trying to recognise unfamiliar flowers in the hedgerows might just be compensation for him being a “pretty useless” gardener.

Birds have become an interest too, with expert local birder ‘Dave’ obligingly helping to identify bird calls and explain the connection between various species and different habitats and terrain.

IN TOUCH WITH THE PAST: St Peter’s Church at Hever PICTURE: Adam McCulloch

Adam has always paid a lot of attention to what’s happening in the sky, too. “Since I was a kid I’ve always tried to work out what was likely to happen to the weather from reading cloud formations,” he says.

“I haven’t lost this childlike fascination with weather. The sky in the UK is ever-changing, constantly offers up clues and is often as beautiful as the countryside. It’s the greatest art gallery of them all; maybe Turner would have agreed.”

WEATHER WATCH: the sky comes to life as storm clouds gather PICTURE: Adam McCulloch

History still comes alive here too, from following in the footsteps of Chaucer’s pilgrims whiling away the journey to Canterbury with their tales, to visiting Churchill’s home at Chartwell or the Roman villa at Lullingstone.

As Adam says: “These places are still magical, especially now I’ve understood how they chime with some fairly momentous history. Take the unassuming North Downs village of Downe (just 20 minutes’ drive from Bromley), for example.

“Here, a short walk will take you through Charles Darwin’s garden and, 20 minutes later, to the perimeter of an airfield crucial to the UK’s survival in the Battle of Britain, where Spitfires can still be heard and seen.

HISTORY LESSON: Ightham Mote near Sevenoaks PICTURE: Adam McCulloch

“And just down the road are the remains of an oak tree – the Wilberforce Oak – under which in 1787 Pitt the Younger and Wilberforce discussed ending the slave trade.”

There you have it, then: medieval pilgrims, old flint churches, soaring birds of prey, big skies, long views and a chance to come face to face with history – what more could you ask for from a quick trip round the M25?

With almost 30 routes described, Adam relies on other walkers to let him know when something has changed.

“The worst ‘change’ I’ve come across was when a beautiful rewilded meadow on my Downe walk was flattened by a farmer all of a sudden with all wildlife utterly eradicated. It had become a wonderful place full of wildflowers, grasses and hawthorn with healthy numbers of yellowhammers, mammals and insects.

KENT SKYLINE: oast houses at Chiddingstone PICTURE: Adam McCulloch

“But I guess the land changed hands and suddenly there was a winter crop of something in there, right up to the edge of the woods, and the path became a muddy mess.

“To balance that, a golf course that walkers had to cross on the Fackenden Down and Valleys East of Shoreham routes was closed down a few years back and has rewilded beautifully, a magical chalk downs landscape full of life.

“Those are probably the two walks I do most often – the train stops right where the path starts in Shoreham (Kent, not the West Sussex one!) and so 40 minutes after leaving Peckham you are in a remote-feeling natural wonderland of beech, yew, birdsong and searing timeless views.

ESCAPE FROM THE CITY: a stag at Knole PICTURE: Adam McCulloch

“That’s what the site’s all about,” he says. “To take you out of yourself and your neighbourhood and plonk you somewhere very different, yet very accessible.”

Adam’s website welcomes donations from those who find his downloadable guides useful. You can follow him on Twitter @kentwalkslondon.

Autumn adventures on the water

THE trees are changing colour, the nights are drawing in – what better time of year to take a relaxing break away from the crowds and explore Britain’s beautiful waterways?

That’s the message from the Canal and River Trust this autumn, especially for those struggling to recharge their batteries amid the stresses of coronavirus lockdowns.

For a self-catering staycation with a difference away from busy tourist areas, canal boat holidays offer a great opportunity to get back to what matters: spending time with family or friends, enjoying the natural world and being as lazy or as active as you like, walking, cycling, fishing or even canoeing if the fancy takes you.

The canals and rivers are beautiful at this time of year and offer plenty of scope to explore, with hire boat companies dotted around the country who have been working hard to make boats safe in line with the latest government guidance.

Research shows that people can feel happier and healthier by the water, which makes a canal boat the ideal option for a relaxing short-break escape.

You can plan your journey based around how you and your family or friends want to spend your days. If you love visiting attractions and eating out, go for a route that passes through a major city like Birmingham or Manchester. But if you prefer peaceful surroundings and spotting wildlife, there’s a huge choice of rural waterways.

Your skill level and confidence in driving the boat may also play a part in your route decision. If you’re new to boating, you may want to avoid areas with lots of locks. However, if you have energetic children, then locks will help to keep them entertained.

The trust looks after 2,000 miles of waterways and its website contains a host of ideas and resources for anyone new to boating – including free guides to fun local days out and comprehensive advice for beginners and where to find boat hire companies.

As well as offering the prospect of a more tranquil pace of life – and a greener holiday than jetting off to sunnier climes – boating holidays offer a chance for families to spend time together and discover some intriguing insights into Britains architectural history.

For those with a head for heights, the scary-looking Pontcysyllte Aqueduct in North Wales has been recognised with World Heritage Site status and is one of the most impressive engineering feats on the canal network (and one of seven wonders singled out by the trust for special mention). You can walk across or save your legs and go by boat.

To choose a location, you might look for a place that you’ve previously fallen in love with or an area that you have always wanted to explore. 

The trust has plenty of advice for first-timers and advice about circular routes or “cruising rings” which vary in length and could take anything from two days to three weeks without the need to retrace your steps or worry about the return journey.

You can also check out social media posts and capture the excitement of your own boating adventure when you get home by tagging #CanalMemories on Twitter and mentioning @CanalRiverTrust.

The house Churchill called home

FOR more than four decades Chartwell in Kent was more than just a family home for the great statesman Sir Winston Churchill.

It was his refuge from the worries of the world, a place of inspiration for his art and provided surroundings in which he could fully indulge his love of nature.

The country house near Westerham boasts stunning views over the Weald of Kent which were the deciding factor in Churchill buying the estate in 1922.

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And for National Trust members in the Chilterns wanting a change of scene, Chartwell is the perfect distance for a leisurely day out.

The legendary wartime prime minister stayed there until 1964, shortly before his death, and a prominent quotation around the property is his assertion that “a day away from Chartwell is a day wasted”.

It’s not hard to understand why the place became such a perfect retreat for the Churchills, and the visitor’s book in the hall reads like a who’s who of 20th-century history.

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Those keen to find out more can get a timed entry ticket to the house where Winston and Clementine brought up their young family, and it is decorated pretty much as it was in the 1930s, with the library, study, sitting room and dining room laid out very much as if the family had only just left the room.

Everywhere there are mementoes drawn from different periods in his life, and upstairs there are museum rooms filled with gifts he received from around the world, along with some of his extraordinary collection of uniforms and other memorabilia.

Churchill may have demanded absolute quiet when he was working in his study, but his biographers recount how he joined in alarmingly strenuous high jinx with his children and turned the garden into a place of enchantment with a tree-house for the older children and a  little brick summer house for the youngest that continues to delight visiting children.

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In its heyday, Chartwell supported a staff of  indoor servants, a chauffeur, three gardeners, a groom for the polo ponies and an estate bailiff.

Here, dinner parties would be hosted for family and friends, political and business associates, and celebrities from around the world. These were the highlight of the day for a man who inspired so many people through his use of language and went on to become one of the most quoted individuals in English history.

At these dinners, biographers recount how table talk, dominated by Churchill, was as important as the meal and the drinks and cigars might extend well past midnight – even though the great man himself might well return to his study for another hour or so of work once his guests had retired.

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A recent addition to the displays at Chartwell, A History of Winston Churchill in 50 Objects contains a fascinating collection of the possessions accumulated by him during his lifetime, from personal mementos to gifts he received from friends, family and political contacts from around the world.

Those intrigued by his art can also find a huge collection of his paintings in his studio in the grounds, a favourite refuge teeming with his canvasses, many unframed and in various stages of completion, his oil paints still out and a whisky and soda poured.

Although he only began to paint in his forties, it soon became an engrossing occupation that would remain with him for the rest of his active life, with subjects ranging from local landscapes to places seen on his travels, from Paris to Egypt and Marrakech.

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For those visitors keen to sample a taste of the great outdoors, livelier walkers can set off for a walk in the woods or even embark on a five-mark circular ramble linking the estate with the nearby Edwardian garden at Emmetts, also owned by the Trust.

The less energetic might prefer to loiter on the terrace listening to the twitter of the swifts and house martins, or soak up the buzz of insect activity around Lady Churchill’s rose garden.

The estate dates from the 14th century, but the house itself was largely rebuilt and extended by the society architect Philip Tilden in the 1920s.

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In 1946, when financial pressures forced Churchill to consider selling Chartwell, it was acquired by the National Trust with funds raised by a consortium of the wartime prime minister’s  friends on condition that the Churchills retain a life tenancy.

After Churchill’s death, Clementine surrendered her lease on the house and it was opened to the public by the Trust in 1966, becoming one of its most popular properties.

In the 50th anniversary year of its opening, more than 230,000 visitors made tracks for the Grade I listed building – and a new generation may have been inspired to find out more about the wartime leader following the release of two major films in 2017, the biopic Churchill and war drama Darkest Hour.

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Today, guests can explore the house, studio and 80 acres of gardens, although check the main website for opening times and individual entry costs.

Anyone prepared to make the journey round the M25 to Kent can also visit a variety of other Trust properties nearby, including the impressive medieval moated manor house at Ightham Mote, the remains of a knight’s house at Old Soar Manor and the 14th-century moated castle at Scotney.

National Trust membership ranges from £120 a year for two adults living at the same address, and £126 for families.

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