Exploring England 2015, Part 3 – Landscapes.

Wednesday, Sep 23, 2015 at 16:08


For a small and densely populated country the UK boasts some wonderful landscape scenery. In the summer when we were there, green is the dominant colour, but there is a rich variety spread across agricultural land and national parks, from the broad sweep of flat Norfolk to the craggy Scottish highlands.

Much of Norfolk is flat, a legacy of relatively recent geological history when that part of England was under water. More significantly perhaps Norfolk presents a landscape where humans have wrought major changes to the land. Vast areas of swampy fens and reedbeds have been drained over the last couple of thousand years. Ditches crisscross the land and occasional windmills lend a touch of nostalgia. Peat cutting has led to pits that have filled with water to make the shallow lakes of the Norfolk Broads. There are not too many hedgerows in this area, allowing for wide views across the country, taking in quintessential English horizons with church steeples tucked in among clumps of trees. This is good soil for growing crops so the country was a brilliant patchwork of green wheat and bright yellow canola in full flower. Here and there a few low hills, left over glacial debris, give good vantage points to see the land merging into the hazy distance.

Further south in Kent and East Sussex rolling hillsides are more common. There are more trees too, making it harder for car based travellers like us to see out across the country. Perhaps the biggest impediments to seeing vistas in this part of the world are hedgerows that really hem in the views. They flank the roads growing 2 or 3 metres tall. In woody areas the roads become green tunnels burrowing through thick vegetation. We took some minor roads in our wanderings and enjoyed glimpses of rural England, with orchards, hop vines and oast houses interspersed among the trees. Road verges were awash with wildflowers making colourful displays.

Further west in Dorset the country opens out onto rolling chalk downs where the big ridges of the Purbeck Hills provide a wonderful vantage point from which to look out over the surrounding country. Patchwork fields in the valleys give way to open land on the exposed ridges where yellow gorse made cheerful yellow splashes. Around Dorchester the country was brilliant green with fields of wheat, although close to our base in the charming village of Puddletown we found patches of woodland complete with oak trees and bluebells. Human influence in shaping the landscape was on display at Maiden Castle, a huge Iron Age hillfort that looks nothing like a castle.

When we moved further north to our next stop in the little village of Ellwood near Coleford, west of Bristol we found a complete change of scenery. Steep wooded hills and deep valleys were the order of the day, and the Forest of Dean right on our doorstep offered a good place for a quiet walk. Beautiful Tintern Abbey was deliberately built in a remote location beside the Wye River, but as a ruin it was visited by Victorian-era tourists coming up the river by boat. Roads twisted up steep hills to vantage points like Symonds Yat with wonderful views. Or followed along valleys carved out by fast flowing rivers. We saw a stream that, in Medieval times, was harnessed with a watermill that drove bellows to power an industrial furnace. Whole villages seemed to cling to hillsides and houses jostled with trees for space and light. Ruined castles hinted at romance and mystery, and bloody battles. East of Bristol we drove through the lovely Cotswold Hills and from Coaley Peak with its longbarrows had wonderful views west towards the Severn Valley. Along the broad Severn River we spent a damp day in busy Bristol and were suitably impressed by the engineering marvels of the two Severn bridges.

To explore Scotland we based ourselves initially close to the west coast a few miles north of Oban. This is rugged, rocky country shaped by glaciers. We spent a glorious sunny day driving around beautiful Loch Leven admiring the reflections in the water, and the high peaks that still had some snow on them. Nearby Glencoe was even more spectacular although the road was busy with sightseers. Here were high rocky peaks still capped with snow. Small snow-fed streams and little waterfalls tumbled down steep valley sides. The valleys reflect their glacial origins, being broadly U-shaped. Denuded of soil, there is not much forest, just open moors with little tarns catching the afternoon light.

South of Oban we drove south via a winding narrow road to Kilmartin to see some of the ancient rock carvings, barrows and standing stones there. This is rugged country, forested in parts. Here and there the road touches the coast although with so many lochs, bays and islands it is uncertain what constitutes the coast. The little bays we saw were beautiful with little villages close to the water and plenty of boats making reflections in the water. We ventured inland east of Oban, around the aptly named Loch Awe with its craggy castle and feeling of remote splendour.

From Oban we headed east for a few short days where we stayed near Pitlochry in an old stone farmhouse with wonderful views over Loch Tummel. The hilly country there again rewarded with great views of wooded hills and sturdy stone houses tucked into folds in the hills and valleys.

We wound up our trip with a drive down to Edinburgh from where we caught a train to York. A few days there was followed by another train ride back to Cottenham and Cambridge. Trains make for good if fleeting sightseeing, allowing glimpses of coast and fields, cities and tiny villages. They also provide a more relaxed way of travelling, a change from the frenetic pace of the roads and motorways. But trains don’t allow for those impromptu stops and opportunistic sightseeing that for us fleshes out the detail of our trips.

We will cover some of that detail in the next blogs.

Oh, and remember that you can pop the pictures to view them in a larger format.
J and V
"Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted."
- Albert Einstein
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