Friday 27 December 2013

Playing With New Technology

Hopefully, if I have any idea of how this gadget works, this should be the first post using our new tablet. Eventually, we hope this will allow us to blog on the go, which will be very useful especially on longer trips.
Anyway, Boxing morning in Usk was bright and sunny and not too cold, as can be seen from the accompanying photo. So we went for a brisk six-miler to walk off the Christmas dinner and build up an appetite of sorts. A beautiful morning, and well worth the effort!

Tuesday 24 December 2013

An Odd End To The Year

Quite unintentionally, and to my detriment, it’s been a blog-free end to the year. I hadn’t intended for things to tail off as they have done, but you don’t always get a choice in the way things pan out. Stuff happens: you deal with it, you move on. 

However, I didn’t want to sign off for 2013 without wishing all readers, regular and otherwise, a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! And, for those of you who blog yourselves, I promise I’ll try to catch up with all your missives over the festive break.
Anyway normal service (or what passes for it!) will be resumed again next year. In fact, rumour has it that Santa might be delivering a shiny new tablet, so Ambles & Rambles may be dragged kicking and screaming into the modern era at last! Blogging on the go: now there’s a thought to conjure with, and I’m looking forward to testing it out before trying it in earnest during the bigger trips of next year.
I’ll round up the end of year stats early in January, as we’re hoping to clock up a few miles over the Christmas break. However, we’ve had a great year, and set a new annual record into the bargain - now that can't be bad, whichever way you look at it!
Before I sign off, I’ve just time to report a bit of weirdness. We were out walking yesterday, when – quite out of the blue, and a propos of nothing at all – I wondered out loud what our cumulative mileage might be for all the years since 2005 (the year we started regularly logging our walking stats). Despite recording our annual total, this cumulative count was something we hadn’t checked before. A quick bit of mental arithmetic had me guesstimating we might soon be approaching the 6,000 mile mark, a landmark it would surely be worth celebrating when the time came.
When we got home, we added our day’s mileage to the annual total, and added our annual totals together, and – you know what’s coming here, don’t you? – found we had actually passed the 6,000 mile mark during that very walk, round about the precise time it occurred to me to check.
Spooky, or what?
I’m no advocate of the paranormal – rather, I’m inclined to the opposite view, allowing pesky things like facts and evidence to get in the way of a decent  “unexplained” event – but it was an unusual coincidence, if coincidence it was!

Monday 4 November 2013

Upper Harlestone, Nobottle & The Bringtons – approx 6.00 miles

Sunday November 3rd 2013


Map: OS Explorer 223 – Northampton & Market Harborough
Upper Harlestone – Midshires Way (W) – Nobottle – Little Brington – Great Brington – Chinkwell Spinney – Edge of Althorp Park – Upper Harlestone
It’s been quite a while since we last went out on anything other than a trundle round the local paths and lanes, and even longer since my last blog post. There are a number of reasons for this, none of which I will bore you with now (maybe later, eh?): suffice it to say that what with one thing or another we haven’t really had the opportunity.
So, faced with the prospect of a bright, sunny Sunday morning and with little to distract us, we decided to take advantage and get our boots muddy for the first time since returning from Albania. And we needed to reccy a walk for the next issue of the parish magazine. All in all, it seemed like too good an opportunity to miss.
On the Midshires Way between Upper Harlestone and Nobottle
The circuit itself was a fairly simple six-miler connecting a group of four villages located just to the southwest of Althop Park (home of the Spencer family, if you are struggling to recall the name). We began by parking in Upper Harlestone and taking the Midshires Way westwards towards the hamlet of Nobottle.

Designed as a link route between the Ridgeway and the Trans Pennine Trail, the Midshires Way runs through 230 miles of Middle England from Bledlow in Buckinghamshire to Stockport, Greater Manchester. With more than 40 miles of the route in Northamptonshire it is a path we come across quite frequently, but my last encounter with it was over one weekend earlier this summer when walking two different routes between Cromford and Turnditch.   


Heading for Little Brington

From Nobottle, we left the Midshires Way and picked a line across the fields towards Little Brington. The weather was still treating us kindly, and the surrounding countryside, whilst being nothing more dramatic than gently rolling agricultural land, looked as good as it gets. I’ve probably mentioned it before, but with its open farmland, country houses and quaint villages built from the local golden sandstone, the area has more than a hint of Cotswolds about it.

Great Brington Church, built in local stone

After picking up the Macmillan Way (designed to promote and raise money for Macmillan Cancer Relief) we reached Great Brington, where we sat to rest for a few minutes outside the solid-looking church and watched the world go by. Then a short walk across the fields brought us out on to the road that skirts the edge of Althop Park and leads back to Upper Harlestone.
Having a rest
At around 6 miles, this is a lovely little circuit for a half-day stroll. It’s a bit muddy in one or two places, but with some road walking and a number of good paths it is quite a manageable choice in winter. In fact it would make a great outing on a cold, frosty winter’s day – and there are a couple of fine-looking pubs en route should refreshments or food be on the agenda.
It’s been about 8 years since we last walked this route. On the basis of yesterday’s findings, we should ensure it is not another 8 years until we go again!

Saturday 19 October 2013

Albania: The Labëria Highlands & Ionian Coast – Day 7

Saturday 28th September – Tirana & Home
After an early breakfast when we said goodbye to our fellow travellers – most of who were leaving on an earlier flight – we had the morning free for our own exploration of Tirana. There’s not much to say except here are some of the photographs.
Ismail Qemali - founder of the modern state of Albania in 1912

Monument commemorating the 100th anniversary of the founding of Albania

Close up of the monument: Gent's ancestor's signature

Old bridge near archaeological dig

Optical illusion? Or does this building get wider as it gets higher?

Skanderbeg: national hero

Skanderbeg and the Ethim Beg mosque

Boris bikes? Or Skanderbeg cycles?

Albania: The Labëria Highlands & Ionian Coast – Day 6

Friday 27th September – Rreza e Kanalit, Llogora NP
Total Distance: 6.65 miles / Total Ascent: m / Total Descent: m
Today’s walk was a trundle along part of the Karaburuni Peninsula, a line of mountains whose western edge slips into the sea (technically, the Adriatic at this point). Starting from the top of the Llogora Pass, we would make our way over a few minor summits as far as the Deep Pass, then descend to the hotel for lunch.
After another early breakfast, we again made the short transfer to the top of the Llogora Pass, and were out on the trail by 8.00am.
Looking back to Mt Çika
Heading out over the area marked on the map as Rreza e Kanalit, a rough vehicle track led up from the Llogora Pass in a series of switchbacks that made for easy going and kept the gradient relatively moderate. The views improved as we gained height, especially those across to yesterday’s conquest, Mt Çikës, where the route could easily be picked out.
First summit with communication masts just visible
Topped by a cluster of communication masts, the first summit of the ridge was soon achieved, and we took a short break to regroup after the initial climb. The views were excellent, as expected: the clear blue skies interrupted only by a little cloud bubbling up on the seaward side of the ridge.
The twin summits and ridge of Mt Çika
Looking along the ridge
Beyond the masts, no obvious path existed on the ground – just open hillside covered in rock and grass. But we picked out an undulating route, roughly following the crest of the ridge, to reach another summit – this one topped by a good-sized cairn – where again we rested to regroup.
Resting by the cairn
Steeper ground required a careful descent into the notch of Deep Pass. Cattle were grazing the pastures, the clanking of cowbells filled the air, and the whole feel of the surroundings took on a decidedly Alpine feel.
Dropping into Deep Pass
Deep Pass
Maintaining the illusion, the last section of the walk followed a very Alpine-like path as it made a steady descent through the woods. I love this sort of path every bit as much as those over undulating ridges or to rocky mountain summits – a shady, sun-dappled earthy path, gently stepping down and down in the cool beneath the trees that eventually delivered us right back to the hotel. This last couple of miles of proper walking were an absolute joy – and a lovely way to mark the end of our trek.
Start of the descent

Walking through the woods
Back at the hotel, we had time for a quick wash and brush up before lunch – another great meal with beef in a bean soup as the centrepiece and two deserts to follow.
The afternoon was spent in transfer to Tirana: first to Vlorë, then the reverse of the outward journey via Fier and Durres. Traffic was busy as we approached the city, but there was still time to check in to our hotel and have a quick tidy up before our 7.00pm gathering.
Fuel stop on the way to Tirana. Sells unleaded, I should imagine.
The peculiar image is a drawing of Skanderbeg's helmet.
Although dedicated city-goers might find Tirana a little short on sightseeing, for the trekker in transit there is more than enough to see and do – with plenty of culture shock for those who have just arrived from the more remote corners of the country.
It’s a great place for a look round and an evening out, and is fast becoming one of the trendiest cities in the Balkans. The central area is not especially big, so it’s fairly easy to get around, and these days it has quite cosmopolitan feel about it with lots of good restaurants, great café culture and an increasingly “happening” nightlife centred round the area known as “The Block”.
Part of the Berlin wall: a gift to Albania from Germany

One of the thousands of mini bunkers built during the time of Enver Hoxha
We had a short walk round the centre on the way to the restaurant, taking in a few sights on the way: Skanderbeg Square, the old town walls, parks and monuments. Then it was time for our farewell meal: different departure times in the morning meaning this would be our last gathering as a complete group. After a week of superb, authentic, traditional cuisine, we opted for somewhere with a slightly more international menu. Pizza proved very popular.
Farewell dinner
After the meal, some with early starts made their way directly back to the hotel, but a few of us were keen to stretch the holiday a little further. We finished the night with a beer at Tirana Rock, then walked a roundabout route back to the hotel, finishing off with a late night ice cream on the way!    
Don't be fooled by the rocks we trot / We still, we still bevvy on The Block
(J Glo, Tom and Dan)

Albania: The Labëria Highlands & Ionian Coast – Day 5

Thursday 26th September – Qorës Summit of Mt Çika, Llogora NP
Total Distance: 5.60 miles / Total Ascent: 1250m / Total Descent: 1250m
It was back to earth with a bump this morning, for an ascent of the 2005m Qorës peak of Mount Çika. Looking at the stats – low mileage and moderate ascent – belies how tough a day this actually was: it was good fun and very rewarding, but hard work nonetheless.
Mount Çika: our route ascended the wooded ridge (right hand side) to the
saddle (just right of centre) then followed the curving rib to the summit 
We began, as usual, with an early breakfast. Fortunately raki, at least in moderate quantities, doesn’t seem to lead to a hangover (if a tumblerful can be considered a “moderate” quantity). Perhaps its undoubted purity is a blessing in disguise – or maybe I’m just getting worryingly used to the stuff!. Either way, there was no adverse reaction to the fried eggs and sausages served up for breakfast (alongside the usual bread, honey, yoghurt, tea and juice – all of which went down quite well).
A quick minibus transfer took us back to the top of the pass. Starting the day at a whisker over the 1000m mark definitely gave us an advantage. On the other hand, we had another 1000m to do, so any thoughts about taking it easy were rapidly dismissed.
Looking out to sea over the Karaburuni peninsula
We began by picking our way up a clear path into the woods. The first part of the trail was very reminiscent of many a mid-altitude Alpine trail, winding up through the woods on a rocky path, sometimes steep and always climbing, but perfectly manageable at a modest pace. With legs in first gear and brains in neutral, a steady rhythm was adopted.
Winding up through the woods

It was a cool morning. An 8.00am start had given us the chance to avoid climbing in the midday heat, but by 9.30am, the early brightness of breakfast time had given way to a thick, swirling mist rolling in off the sea. So, as we set about gaining height, we were limited to mere hints of the views we might have enjoyed, although every now and again we could catch a glimpse of coast or mountain peeking through the cloud.
The Karaburuni peninsula as seen from near the saddle

At the saddle with our objective behind

After climbing for about an hour and a half, we reached a saddle at around 1500m. As luck would have it, the mist kept away while we were there, so we had the full benefit of the views, especially northwest along the Karaburuni Peninsula and south along the main ridge on Mt Çikës.
Starting the climb from the saddle in swirling mist
Ahead lay another 500m of climbing, this time on much steeper ground. The first part wasn’t too testing in that a fairly clear path led up from the saddle. But that soon dissolved into a network of feint grassy ledges, animal tracks and dead ends that before long fizzled out into nothing more than pathless mountainside.
By now the gradient was such that upward progress was reduced to a slow clamber. Loose scree, grass and earth, covered in a slippery carpet of dry pine needles, twigs and cones, made real the concept of two-steps-forward-and-one-step-back. Energy was often wasted pushing against the frictionless surface, and the constant need to skirt rocky outcrops and dead trees slowed us yet further.
Four legs good, two legs bad - even with poles
(Photo courtesy Gent Mati/Outdoor Albania)

As steep as it looks, with loose rocks and dead trees adding to the difficulty
(Photo courtesy Gent Mati/Outdoor Albania) 
Hindsight showed we had got a little to the right of the best route, but eventually we gained the summit ridge and walked the final few steps to the top. The views were fantastic. Fortunately, the cloud billowing up on the seaward side of the mountain was non-existent on the landward side.
The view that greeted us on reaching the summit ridge
(Tërbaç just to the right of centre) 

Looking southwards along the summit ridge
Reward for our efforts came in the form of wonderful clear views into the Shushica valley, with Tërbaç almost directly below us, Kuç in the distance across the valley and the Lightening Mountains behind.
Reaching the summit
Way below us in the foreground, Sunday’s conquest – the St George Pass – looked surprisingly low and insignificant, dwarfed as it was in context with the surrounding peaks. Then there were views along the ridge and away to the south, as well as those over the coast and out to Corfu. Magnificent!
Ridge after ridge of mountains away to the southwest 

Relaxing by the summit cairn

Reasons to be smug #3: summit panorama
(Photo courtesy Gent Mati/Outdoor Albania)

Group at the summit
(Photo courtesy Dan Painter/Walks Worldwide)
The descent was almost as tough as the ascent. With so much loose stuff around, it was difficult not to dislodge rocks and inadvertently send them hurtling down the mountainside. As with the climb, concentration was required for EVERY step – having seen for ourselves once before what can happen when melon-sized rock meets human being, we were fully aware of the danger this represented to those below.
On the descent
Eventually, though, we were all safely back at the saddle, with nothing worse than a couple of blisters amongst the group to show for the experience. Here we met up again with Russ, who had opted not to try for the summit but instead decided to monitor our progress from the half-way point.
Woodland flowers #1
Woodland flowers #2

Woodland flowers #3
The remainder of the walk was relatively straightforward. Retracing our steps on the more gentle descent through the woods, we soon made it back to the restaurant, where well-earned, leisurely beers glued dusty smiles on to our faces, and a relaxed contentment set in. A walk like this can seem hard at the time – even unpleasant. But the real rewards come afterwards, when one can look back and revel in the thought of a challenge met, of difficulties overcome and of effort rewarded. And those views!
Actually, it was a cracking walk!
Having a rest: even Piotr has run short of energy
Back at the hotel, we opted for a rest before dinner and a drink with Russ, Pete and Anne before the meal was served. Tonight we had soup, beef roulade with a savoury stuffing, potatoes and salads, cheese and bread, with a delicious honey-flavoured cake for desert. And a little bit of raki, just for good measure.

Sunday 13 October 2013

Albania: The Labëria Highlands & Ionian Coast – Day 4

Wednesday 25th September – Qeparo, the Ali Pasha Fortress & Llogora NP

Total Distance: 4.50 miles / Total Ascent: 257m / Total Descent: 253m

Altitude Max (1) 142m / Altitude Min (1) 4m
Altitude Max (2) 934m / Altitude Min (2) 825m

An easy day was planned for today, mainly taken up with gentle sightseeing, swimming and a couple of short strolls. Perhaps a bit too easy, if truth be told, given the test we would face tomorrow: lulling us into a false sense of security when we might have been better served by the short, sharp shock treatment. It was all good fun, but isn’t hindsight a wonderful thing? 

Reasons to be smug #2: waiting for breakfast

We kicked the day off with a leisurely breakfast at the beachfront restaurant before driving along the coast to visit the Ali Pasha Fortress at Porto Palermo. 

Ali Pasha Fortress

The castle’s history and origins are a bit vague, with conflicting stories to choose from. It may have been built by or for Ali Pasha of Tepelena, there again, it may have been built by the Venetians. And the design might be French, or it might not. Either way, it’s pretty well preserved for a well-used building, and stands guard over the bay in quite an imposing manner. 

Substantial columns to support the vaulted ceiling

A ghostly apparition?


Moving on, we made a short stop in the coastal town of Himarë for water, ice cream and any other provisions that were needed, before travelling on to the beach at Gjipë – a secluded spot reached via a rough road and a twenty-minute hike along the cliffs. It was a fantastic place, and we probably spent the best part of an hour and a half relaxing, swimming and diving from the cliffs.

Pete showing the aerial dexterity of a Premier League striker
(Picture courtesy Dan Painter/Walks Worldwide)
Walking back from the beach

After all that hard work (!) what we really needed was a huge lunch. So we had one – at a restaurant 1000m up on the mountainside at the top of the Llogora Pass. It may be true (or possibly not - don't take my word for it!) that calories consumed at altitude don’t count. But even if it were true, it rather presupposes that you’ve expended some energy of your own in order to get there. All we’d done to work up an appetite was sit through a drive of many hairpin bends. 

Long way down: the sea, 1000m below us

Subdued somewhat by sheer weight of food, we got back in the minibus and trundled the few yards down the hill to our hotel. The Hotel Sofo was a pretty smart place, just a few bends down from the top of the pass: smart being understandable, I suppose, when we realised it was situated slap-bang on the main road between Vlorë and the Albanian Riviera – a road something like a cross between the A6 and Hardknott Pass.

Hotel Sofo

Having checked in, we felt the need for a brisk walk and some fresh air – especially since we were in the middle of a barely four-hour stint between massive lunch and massive dinner. We’d been interested to see the roadside stalls on the way down to the hotel, so we walked back up the road to investigate and ended up with two jars of honey and a bottle of bee Propolis!


Honey plays a large part in the life and cuisine of the area: it is served with bread at most meals, used to sweeten a variety of things and features in a lot of the (mainly Greek-influenced) deserts we encountered. Earlier in the week, Adnan had told us he had 50 hives, which were capable of producing 300kg of honey each year!

Yoghurt, Honey & Walnuts: what's not to like?

The evening meal was again excellent, but we were stuffed from earlier and struggled to make much of a dent in the mountain of food that appeared. Which was a pity because, once again, it was all delicious.

We ended this nice, relaxing but overfed day with a couple of shots of raki – as a nightcap, you understand, and purely to be polite. I’m not saying it was a strong brew at all, but afterwards, as I tried to read my book before going to sleep, I had trouble actually focusing on it …