A (partial) return of freedom ….. and plans for getting back to the coast

13th May 2020

On Sunday the Prime Minister Boris Johnson was going to give a speech. As usually seems to be the case these days a large amount of it was leaked to the press before hand. So we knew before he even made the speech we were going to be allowed to go out an unlimited number of times each day for exercise (rather than once per day as before). Garden Centres were also going to re-open.

So it was no surprise when he announced exactly these things. What was a surprise (and a very welcome one) was when he also announced it was now permitted to drive for exercise, with no limit on the distance you could go and also go out for more than just exercise, sitting in parks and on beaches is now allowed too. Some sports such as golf and tennis are also allowed again. This would all take effect from the 13th of May 2020 – which is today.

These changes only apply in England (not Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland). However as I live in England that means, once again, it is permitted to go for a walk anywhere in the country. The use of public transport is (I think) not permitted for anything but essential purpose, so it does mean any walk has to be a there and back walk or a circular walk. However it does mean a return to the coast is possible. Sadly for me it doesn’t mean I can do any new coastal walks because I’ve already walked all the coast of England, but it’s not permitted to travel to Scotland or to stay overnight. So I can’t get to any new coast just yet, but at least I can go to the coast in England again.

I live and work in the same town so I usually walk to work and it’s quite pleasant, about 30 minute walk with most of that along a leafy canal towpath. So whilst I don’t live somewhere super scenic I can travel to many places at the weekends (or at least I could…) and not having to spend money commuting certainly helps make that possible. Even when I’m not doing my coastal walk I’ll usually go for a long walk at least one day over the weekend and usually both, and sometimes after work in the evenings in the summer too. So being largely confined to home for the past 7 weeks or so has been very hard for me (and I know all the local paths very well).

Now I’m having to work from home (and so not walking to work) I am going for a pre-work walk most days, which helps wake me up and get some exercise. I did that this morning. However as of today I can also go for a walk more than once a day and also drive somewhere, so it doesn’t have to start from my front door anymore. So this evening I did just that.

Surrey has some very beautiful scenery and indeed much of the south of the county is an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) called the Surrey Hills. A 15 minute drive from home and I can be at one of the best viewpoints in the whole area. I go there often. Sadly without being permitted to drive for walks, it’s almost inaccessible. I say almost because I did actually reach there on Friday 8th May (a bank holiday), having been determined I wanted to get there for some time, but it meant doing a walk of around 20 miles in total to get there and back from my front door, so it was rather tiring.

So this evening I thought I’d take advantage of the newly restored freedom and head back there after finishing work for my day. I checked on my local Council website and confirmed what I hoped would be the case. The car park I planned to use (at Newlands Corner, near Guildford) had re-opened today (having been closed as soon as the “lockdown” began around 7 weeks ago). Even better news was that parking charges had been removed again (from 1st April – this was due to happen anyway, but I had my doubts it actually would). It was time to wake up my ageing 12-year old car that for 7 weeks had done nothing more than a once-a-week trip to the supermarket and head for the hills.

This location will be familiar to anyone that has walked the North Downs Way (one of the the British National Trails) which begins in the nearby town of Farnham and ends on the Kent coast in Dover, sine that passes just below this car park.

This is a great spot to come because as you can see you are already high up and can enjoy a wonderful view from the car park. There is a cafe and visitor centre here too, so it’s a popular place (those these are of course still closed).

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But just sitting in the car park is a bit of a waste, there is much to explore. One of my favourite short walks is to walk from here west along the North Downs Way to nearby St Martha’s Hill. This means you descend part way back down again then climb to the top of this hill and gives you a great view of the scenery on the way.

The southern part of Surrey is actually very rural and few buildings can be seen.

View from Newlands Corner

The village just to the right of centre is the small village of Albury, whose church tower you can see.

In the distance the Greensand hills can be seen, beyond which is the South Downs.

View from Newlands Corner

Most of the path here is over open access ground over short grass on chalky hills so it’s easy to avoid other people. A brief narrow section runs parallel to a very minor road but if the path is busy the road can be used instead. Then it’s time to climb back up to St Martha’s Hill, along a wide sandy path.

The terrain here is sandy, so much so it’s almost like a beach in places – but it does mean it doesn’t get muddy even in winter. At the top of the hill is a beautiful church.

St Martha's on the hill church

It dates from 1850 and replaced a 12th century church that had fallen into ruin. Unusually it’s remote from any other buildings (the next nearest building is about half a mile away). I believe it acts as the parish church for the village of Chilworth around a mile to the south.

It is a peaceful spot to sit up here, admiring the wonderful view.

St Martha's on the hill church

In the evening on a calm day like this the only real sounds to be heard are the birds. Traffic on the A25 road a mile or so to the south can rarely be heard except at weekends when lots of noisy motorbikes like to ride along it (not to be confused with the M25 which is a rather), so the only other sound is the occasional train rattling along the North Downs railway line that serves the villages below. The village of Chilworth can be seen below (and see what I mean about the path being sandy here!).

The view from St Martha's Hill

Looking south west more distant hills are visible (but sadly you can’t see as far as the coast).

The view from St Martha's Hill

The view to the north is harder to see, because there are mostly trees in the way but a few gaps give you a view over the flatter land in the northern part of Surrey, and to Berkshire beyond. I think the ridge of hills in the distance is the edge of the Chiltern hills.

Looking north from St Martha's Hill

To the west the North Downs Way continues, descending from the hill through woodland.

The North Downs Way west from St Martha's Hill

After a sit down by the church I didn’t have time for that this evening, so it was time to head back.

The sun was now getting lower in the sky, with only a small amount of the countryside now basking in sunshine.

The view from Newlands corner

Back to the car park, I headed home but it had been a lovely evening.

Today should mark the day I start my 3rd trip (of 5) to Scotland I had booked last year, to take place this year. Of course I couldn’t get there. We are still not allowed to enter Scotland except for essential reasons. All accommodation is closed. As is Inverness Airport, where I was due to fly to, so it was no surprise to receive this email last week.

Ezy

Yes of course my flight was cancelled. That I suppose was not a surprise given that Inverness Airport is currently closed to all passenger flights. So this trip too will have to be cancelled. I had sadly by now expected it. But with a full time job I need to book leave and the lack of accommodation, means it is necessary to book these trips many months in advance to get a room, as they sell out months in advance.

So at least 3 of my 5 planned trips to Scotland this year will not happen.

However I am far more impressed with EasyJet than I am with other companies I have booked to travel with and had trips cancelled with already this year. EasyJet are offering 3 options.

  1. A refund (and you can do this through the website and not be forced to telephone a line which is usually too busy to even be answered – as is the case with British Airways).
  2. A voucher to the value of the flight, plus an extra £5 for each single flight per adult, to be used in the next 12 months.
  3. Rebooking on another flight on any date that has currently been released for booking (currently to early May) on any route on any date for no additional cost. This includes travel at peak times, such Christmas, Easter or the May Bank holiday – there is still nothing extra to pay.

To be honest option 3 interests me the most. It means I could travel anywhere EasyJet fly to at any time in the next 12 months without paying a penny (since both my outward and return flights to Inverness have been cancelled). And you can travel quite far – for example Marrakech departing on the Saturday of the first May bank holiday next year? No cost – as you can see!

Ezy2

(I imagine this would normally be one of the more expensive routes). Or perhaps somewhere in Greece or Malta. Or Sicily (who I gather are so desperate for tourists to return that the island is offering to pay half your air fare and also pay for every 3rd night of a hotel stay if you book to go there this autumn!)

Now of course that means the question of where we will be allowed to go to next year. The Government made clear that most international arrivals will be subject to a mandatory 14 day quarantine (except, oddly, if coming from France or Ireland). Will that still be the case next year? Probably not, at least from Europe I suspect – but who knows, and it’s a risk to book anything (so maybe not Marrakech then). However if that is still the case, there is a good chance the flight will be cancelled because few people will want to travel if they have to quarantine for 2 weeks when they get back (and perhaps when they arrive too!).

So perhaps a safer option might be to take a trip to say, the South of France (they operate flights to Nice and Marseilles, for instance). Or perhaps Gibraltar again as I assume as it’s a British territory so I suspect no quarantine will be required to go back there – and I enjoyed it a lot before. So I’m certainly tempted to book a week long trip somewhere next May, over the bank holiday for free and pick a refundable hotel. If it goes ahead, great. If not, well I assume I would still be able to get a voucher or refund at that point, or book to a different destination again and get a refund on a hotel booking.

But well done to EasyJet for doing something a bit different I think. I might well take up that offer!

But anyway, this all leads me onto ponder the question of how and when I’m going to be able to continue my coastal walk, something I was thinking about on my walk this evening.

My current trip to Scotland I was supposed to be on now is cancelled, so I was able to cancel the leave I had booked off work. I also had a trip to Madeira booked and paid for in early June. That too is cancelled which is disappointing (I love islands and heard it’s a great walking destination) but means I have another 5 days leave I have cancelled from that. So with these trips cancelled I have quite a few more days off than expected to play with now and using them to go to the highlands of Scotland seems like a good idea (especially given the uncertainties of international travel, at least for the rest of this year).

From the Government announcement it was hinted the earliest hotels and other accommodation will be allowed to open again will be the 4th of July but it was made clear this is the very earliest it will be possible (though Switzerland is opening it’s hotels earlier than originally planned, so there is hope). However in Scotland, the Scottish Government seem determined to move more slowly than England. So perhaps the earliest in Scotland will be a several weeks later.

I have another trip planned for July, so it’s probably 50/50 whether that will go ahead.

Going by plane is going to be tricky with all the uncertainties over air travel and potentially having to arrive 4(!) hours before departure as has been mooted.

So for now I’ll leave the trip in July pencilled in but expect it to be cancelled. But I’ve decided to extend my last trip I had originally planned for this year (in September) to 9 days and booked a hotel (refundable!) for those extra dates (taking an extra 2 days of leave to do so). Then I’ve booked another 9 day trip in October (and with 2 weekends I can do that with 5 days of leave), which is a refundable booking. Then I will leave the option of doing a 3rd 9-day trip perhaps in August or later in October. I guess hotels have had a lot of cancellations, as it now seems possible to book a week (on a refundable basis) in the places I was looking at (Kyle of Lochalsh, Fort William and Mallaig) in the middle of August, which certainly wasn’t the case earlier this year. Doing all of this would get me back on track, even if it pushes all my trips to Scotland into late summer and autumn.

A longer trip means I’ll probably want a rest day however. Another problem is the use of public transport. Most of my walks involve a one-way walk returning by public transport. Public transport is currently for essential use/key workers only, which doesn’t cover coastal walking. I don’t know when that will change but it might well not change this year. Now public transport on the west coast of Scotland is far more limited than elsewhere so quite a few walks I’ve planned were already going to be circular walks or there-and-back walks instead, to get around this (as has been the case on a number of previous trips, too). But the lack of public transport means they might all have to be circular or there and back walks – which reduces the (effective) mileage I’ll be covering on the coast as the worst case I’ll have to be walking it twice.

So I’m thinking that making longer trips it makes sense to drive there given public transport is likely to be for essential users only and air travel badly impacted, if it starts running at all. To drive takes a long time (over 10 hours, excluding breaks, to Kyle of Lochalsh, for example) but at least it should get me there – and doesn’t need booking in advance. However that means I can take more with me than a hand-luggage only trip by public transport.

A solution to this I’m considering is getting a folding bike I can put in the car boot (as other coastal walkers have done). Then for at least some of the walks I should be able to park at one end of the planned walk, cycle to the other end and walk back (and then later return later by car to pick up the bike), as others have done, which means no need for public transport. That does mean more energy is needed to do the cycling part too (especially when it’s very hilly), but it will be less than doing a there-and-back walk – and will cut the mileage on circular walks I was already planning like this, where there isn’t any public transport anyway. So perhaps that might allow me to make some progress this year and get back on track.

Although doing the Knoydart peninsula might have to be put off until next year if the ferry service that goes there from Mallaig remains for essential users only this year, as I suspect it might (as this area is inaccessible by road). Time will tell.

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12 Responses to A (partial) return of freedom ….. and plans for getting back to the coast

  1. Very difficult to plan anything, isn’t it. So frustrating, especially as April was a gorgeous month for walking in the UK this year.

    You can actually access Knoydart by road, avoiding ferries, if you drive to Kinlochhourn and then walk from Kinlochhourn to Inverie and back again. It was too far for me to do one-way in one day, and certainly too far to do there-and-back in one day. With nothing open you would have to camp. (There is a “bothy” in Barrisdale, but it is owned by the local estate and is more a hostel than a bothy, and is probably closed.)

    Your latest walk in the Downs sounds lovely. I’m thinking of venturing into the Peak District soon, although local authorities are actively discouraging trips, so I’m not sure.

    • 5000milewalk says:

      Hiya Ruth, the Peak District can get ridiculously busy in the popular places, probably even more so at the moment, but you might be ok if you find somewhere that’s not so popular. Good luck with that 😄

    • jcombe says:

      Thanks Ruth. Yes you’re right about access to Knoydart but I was hoping to avoid staying overnight in the bothy (not sure how crowded it will be and then need to carry, food drinks and perhaps stuff to cook with). Camping even more so because you also have to carry a tent and a sleeping bag! So I was hoping to travel over and back for the day a few times from Mallaig though there is also a hotel there which might be an option since it’s full board, no need to bring food (breakfast, dinner and a packed lunch), but pricey.

      The Surrey hills are indeed lovely and it was nice to be able to get back there.

      As to the peak district, yes the locals seem discouraging but I don’t think there is anything to stop you. In fact it seems to me that rural areas like Cumbria are worse affected than big cities (London has apparently the lowest infection rate per head of population now whilst Cumbria is the highest in England I believe). It does frustrate me this attitude from people that live in the countryside and travel into towns and cities regularly (often commuting daily or for regular essential trips to shops) but complain bitterly about people from cities occasionally travelling to “their” area.

  2. 5000milewalk says:

    I love the picture of the church – really atmospheric with the storm clouds in the background and sun shining on the church!

    The full govt guidance can be found here:

    Click to access Our_plan_to_rebuild_The_UK_Government_s_COVID-19_recovery_strategy.pdf

    It doesn’t outright ban using public transport, but certainly discourages it due to it putting people in close proximity. The relevant bits….

    “When travelling everybody (including critical workers) should continue to avoid public
    transport wherever possible. If they can, people should instead choose to cycle, walk or drive, to
    minimise the number of people with whom they come into close contact.”

    “Avoid crowds. You can lower the risks of transmission by reducing the number of people you come
    into close contact with, so avoid peak travel times on public transport where possible, for example. ”

    “To reduce demand on the public transport network, you should walk or cycle wherever possible. If
    you have to use public transport, you should try and avoid peak times.”

    “If you can, wear a face covering in an enclosed space where social distancing isn’t possible
    and where you will come into contact with people you do not normally meet. This is most
    relevant for short periods indoors in crowded areas, for example on public transport or in
    some shops. ”

    So it’s certainly discouraged, but not banned. If you catch a bus out in the sticks somewhere, which is virtually empty (often even in “normal” times), and wear a face mask, then I guess you’re not posing a major threat. I’m not really sure though.

    • 5000milewalk says:

      Oooh, don’t know what happened there with the link. Anyway, I just searched for “uk governemtn guidance covid may 60 page pdf” and it came up at the top!

      • jcombe says:

        Thanks. Oddly it shows up in some browsers but not others! But yes it sounds as if public transport is not an option at the moment sadly.

  3. coastieash says:

    How lovely to see St Martha’s again. We lived in Ash for 18 years so probably not far from you until we moved away last year. The walk up to St Martha’s and Newlands Corner was one of my favourites. We are also frustrated by our inability to continue our coast walk and we have one more obstacle in that neither I or my daughter (and co-walker) drive so we are totally stuck. We have our sights on the October half term as her school has two weeks off then so we may be able to head off for a day or two. At the moment I can’t even see her and my husband and I are pavement pounding every day. At least it is out and walking!

    • jcombe says:

      Thanks I’m glad you like it and obviously know the area too.
      Yes I very much sympathise, the current situation is very tough particularly so as “public” transport seems now not to be for (most) of the public but only for “key workers” who can’t work at home, which is only a small % of the population.
      I am hopeful October might be better, but I hope the weather is still good then. I’ve also booked a trip to Scotland in October which I am hoping will be able to go ahead.

  4. I know that lovely church well having visited it several times from Newlands Corner whilst staying “down south” with friends and I also passed it on the Greensand Way.
    My friend down there has a just died and his wife is having a funeral service at the church but because of the Covoid19 crisis, I won’t be able to attend.

  5. A lovely walk, it must be lovely to see somewhere different! Re the advice above, remember it’s the scottish government site you need to keep an eye on, not the uk, one eg https://www.transport.gov.scot/coronavirus-covid-19/

    • jcombe says:

      Yes. At the moment the advise in Scotland is you must not travel at all unless essential. In England it is at least a little less restricted now.

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