Hiking A Roman Road In England

Roman
At first glance this looks like a muddy field with an Australian contract lawyer walking away into the middle distance. Look again, though, and you’ll notice something strange. Why is there no substantial vegetation in a big straight swath through this field?

The answer is that it’s a Roman road. Only a few inches below the soil are the original stones laid down 2,000 years ago when this was the Roman province of Britannia. This is one of many Roman roads crisscrossing the land from its southern shore all the way up to Hadrian’s Wall on the border with Scotland.

This photo shows a portion of the Roman Way, a 174-mile walk along three Roman roads in Oxfordshire, Gloucestershire, Wiltshire, Hampshire, and Berkshire. We walked the 22.5-mile (36-kilometer) stretch between Dorchester and Alchester.

I had visited Dorchester and its medieval abbey three years ago while hiking along the Thames Path and was happy to revisit the rare medieval wall paintings and the historic High Street lined with 17th century coaching inns. This main road running through town is actually part of the Roman road.

We followed it north and were soon out into the countryside, passing through fields and between hedgerows that were bringing forth delicious blackberries. In many spots the Roman road is clearly visible as a bank raised slightly above the surrounding land. Like in Dorchester, at times it’s still used as a road and we had to detour to keep on trails.

%Gallery-164134%The landscape is dotted with little villages. One of the first we came to as we headed north towards Oxford was Toot Baldon, where a Norman church and its overgrown graveyard of mouldering stones provides a splendid view of the surrounding countryside. Shadows of clouds made dark blots on patchwork fields while a murder of crows circled above a distant hedgerow.

We came upon another church, built in the 12th century, a couple of villages further on at Horspath. The sun shone through the brilliant stained glass to illuminate the interior with a kaleidoscope of colors. Not far beyond, we walked up onto a wooded ridge called Shotover. This was a forest in Saxon times and later became a royal hunting ground.

At the crest of the ridge we followed a clearly visible road, but it wasn’t the Roman one. Instead it was the London-Oxford coaching road and was considered a dangerous stretch. The thickets on either side of the road were infested with highwaymen who would relieve travelers of their hard-earned shillings and guineas. The highwaymen were a polite bunch and generally bid their victims a pleasant good night before riding off with their money.

From Shotover we got another fine view, this time to the north and west, where we saw the fringes of southern Oxford and a pair of hills called Mother Dunch’s Buttocks, named after a lady of the local manor from the 17th century. Heading down the slope at the far end of Shotover, we entered the C.S. Lewis Nature reserve, a bit of wild land with a pond that are said to have inspired the famous author to invent Narnia. His house is nearby.

Within a few minutes we were at Oxford Park and Ride, mainly used for commuters but also a good starting-off point for both legs of this hike. Heading north from there ran the second part of our trail. For a time it skirted the eastern edge of town but soon we were walking through fields and past centuries-old thatched farmhouses. After a long stretch we came to Beckley, where we took shelter from a sudden downpour in the Abingdon Arms, a local pub. A pint later, we ventured out to visit the local church, yet another Norman structure. This one rebuilt in the 14th and 15th centuries and decorated inside with paintings of Biblical scenes.

Beyond Beckley lies Otmoor, a large fenland and nature reserve. A nearby Ministry of Defense shooting range keeps anyone from thinking of building on it! There was no shooting the day we went and ll wee heard was birdsong back by deep silence. There are several blinds scattered about for people interested in birdwatching. The rain made this part of the hike very squishy. Anyone hiking in the UK should definitely wear good water-resistant boots.

Not far from here some locals discovered the wooden pilings of a Roman bridge, and we saw more Roman remains stuck in the wall of the church at Merton, where the builders mixed local stone with Roman tiles scavenged from the nearby Roman fort of Alchester. The church is dedicated to St. Swithun, whose remains were moved here from the cathedral at Winchester in 971. His spirit disapproved of the move and caused it to rain for 40 days.

Some more plodding through mud and rain (thankfully not of the 40-day kind) brought us to Bicester, once a Roman town and now engulfed in a shopping center. This jarring intrusion of the modern world into a historical hike killed the atmosphere and we quickly caught a bus back to Oxford where we could enjoy a celebratory whiskey.

For a guidebook we used “The Roman Way” by Elaine Steane. The directions are clear and are aided by strips of Ordnance Survey maps for the areas the path passes through. There are also some notes on the history and nature of the region, although you’ll probably want to do some more background reading before heading out. To include everything of interest would have required a book that would be too heavy to carry!

How To Create A Successful Hiking Route


A couple of years ago, I spent six enjoyable days hiking the East Highland Way and wrote a series about it for all you fine folks. Back then this trail through Scotland had only just been established by devoted hiker Kevin Langan.

I felt like a real pioneer when I did this route. The 82-mile journey from Ft. William to Aviemore was unmarked and there was no guidebook yet. Kevin was kind enough to email me PDFs of the page proofs. I never saw anyone else doing the trail and only heard of one other hiker, a German who was a day ahead of me.

Now the East Highland Way is fully established. The guidebook is not only in print now, it’s on its third edition. Kevin’s website is getting tons of hits, and his publisher has added some stuff for the techies in the form of a free Android mobile phone app for the route, which is now available on the Google Play store. GPS (.GPX) and Google Earth (.KMZ) route files are available to download from the website free of charge, as is a new amenities brochure, which includes maps of each location and places of interest.

The trail has also received markers. When I did it I had to rely on generally trustworthy Ordnance Survey maps. It’s nice to have confirmation with trail makers, though.

I caught up with Kevin and asked him how he went about building this new trail and what’s new after two years.

%Gallery-163506%What made you decide to establish a new route in the highlands and what made you pick the Ft. William-Aviemore line?

After walking the world-famous West Highland Way, I noticed that hikers can engage with a whole other network of interconnected trails such as the Great Glen Way, the Rob Roy Way, the Kintyre Way, and the Cowal Way. It was by exploring these routes that I then became aware of a satellite group further east. The Speyside Way, Dava Way and the Moray Coastal Trail seemed to be cut-off and isolated by a series of lesser-walked glens. It occurred to me that strategically, a new connection at this point could theoretically fuse together the various national trails and create a much larger path network to explore. The missing link in question ran between Fort William and Aviemore, two towns already drenched in outdoor culture and heritage. This was entirely theoretical at first and was never anticipated to become a mainstream long distance trail.

How did you go about researching and establishing the route?

In the years to follow I explored the area many times both physically and virtually, trial-blazed various routes and took more notes than I knew how to compile. It was through detailed analysis of the terrain and distances that I finally settled on the East Highland Way route as it stands today. Three websites and three guidebooks later, the route is becoming more popular with each day.

How did you get markers for the route? Were those put up by the government?

The waymarking has been done by building up relationships with various landowners. There are also various existing sections that use locally waymarked trails already, which is great – mainly the Badenoch way and the newly waymarked Loch Gynack trail. The EHW waymarking so far has been done very organically from the ground up. The new orange East Highland Way markers have been distributed to land owners and strategically placed at their discretion. These will include the forests of Inverlair and Corrour and also the full length of Loch Laggan past Ardverikie.

How has the route changed since I walked it (when the first edition was still in production)?

Since you walked it the route has changed immensely. Almost 10 miles of reduced road walking:

1: The route now leaves Fort William via the old Ben Nevis access path past the Alcan smelter, rather than the tarred cycle path to Torlundy.

2: The route uses a new Forest trail approaching Spean Bridge, which bypasses the road section.

3: A new forest route through the Ardverikie estate, which reduces the road walking along the Ardverikie driveway by a few miles.

3: The road walking through Laggan village has been chopped in half with a shortcut over the moor to Glen Banchor.

4: A new high-level route has been introduced between Newtonmore and Kingussie, which replaces the old tarred cycle path.

5: A new route waymarked through Invereshie House estate towards the Frank Burce sculpture park.

What’s next for the EHW?

I think the East Highland Way is growing steadily and I would be happy for people just to continue walking and enjoying the route and that over the years further waymarking is introduced and further road walking eliminated. It’s quite a simple project with a simple agenda. The most important thing for me is the quality of the product. I need to stay focused on finding the best quality paths and attractions along the route and everything else will sort itself out.

Are you planning to establish more routes?

I’ve got various projects, which are ongoing and take up lots of my time. There will hopefully be other long distance routes in the future although this isn’t something I’m actively pursuing at the moment. They are extraordinarily time consuming and need a lot of effort and hard work not to mention free time to be produced properly and with a high quality output in mind.

[Full disclosure: I contributed several photos to the original edition. I didn't ask for payment, and I don't receive any royalties. I gave Kevin free photos because I believe in promoting this trail. I don't know if they're in the third edition.]

My year in adventure travel: a look back and a look forward

adventure, adventure travel, Axum, EthiopiaHappy Boxing Day everybody! As I sit here stuffed with my mother-in-law’s cooking after a traditional Spanish Christmas, I’m thinking back on all my travels in 2010 and looking forward to 2011. One of the best parts about my travel year has been sharing it all with you. I love the comments you’ve sent suggesting sites to see and trails to take, and was especially amazed by the outpouring of support I got from Ethiopians and Somalis for my series on their countries.

Early in the year I took my wife on a road trip in Ethiopia for our tenth anniversary. I have always wanted to go there and it didn’t disappoint. A combination of nice people, good food, awesome coffee, and tons of historical and archaeological sites shot it right to the top of my list of favorite destinations. So much so, in fact, that we’re going back in 2011! We haven’t finalized our plans, but we’ll be doing another road trip to a different part of the country and then I’ll spend a month or so in Harar, a fascinating city I want to learn more about. So expect a series about Ethiopia in 2011, including at least one trek to a certain remote castle in the rugged Ethiopian highlands.

Harar is the gateway to Somaliland, an emerging nation that has broken away from the chaos in the rest of Somalia. My two weeks there shattered every preconception I had about the region. Somalilanders are working hard to build a peaceful nation in a region notorious for war and corruption. Since they aren’t recognized as a country, they’re receiving very little assistance from the outside world. I’m proud that my series of articles helped in a small way to publicize their efforts.

As regular readers will know, I always celebrate my birthday with a long-distance hike. When I turned forty I hiked the Hadrian’s Wall National Trail. This year for my 41st I hiked the East Highland Way, Scotland’s newest trail. For my 42nd (moan) I plan to return to Scotland. I’m not sure where I’ll go, so I’m hoping one of you can help me decide. I want a hike of about a hundred miles over beautiful but rough terrain, with a steady diet of historical and archaeological attractions. Any ideas?

All these wanderings really filled up my hard drive. The gallery features some photos that didn’t make it into the original series. I hope you like them.

There were some less-adventurous trips in 2010, such as exploring the tombs of Rome, the sights of Yorkshire, and the legend of Jesse James. I’ve also had plenty of wonderful armchair adventure travel courtesy of my fellow Gadlingers. Two of my favorite series have been Andrew Evans’ amazing trip around Greenland that left me green with envy, and Catherine Bodry’s exploration of Yunnan, China, graced with her beautiful photos.

It’s been a wonderful year with a great team and great readers. I’m looking forward to 2011!

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Record turnout on Spain’s Camino de Santiago pilgrimage trail

For more than a thousand years, the faithful have been making an arduous journey along rugged trails in Spain’s northwestern province of Galicia to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. Dedicated to the Apostle St. James, it’s one of Europe’s most popular pilgrimage destinations and the routes leading there are seeing record numbers of hikers.

Part of the boom is because this year St. James’ feast day lands on a Sunday, a holy event that hasn’t happened since 1993. Tough economic times have also led some people to look to religion for reassurance, and led the Galician government to promote the route in the hope of bringing in much-needed cash. At the beginning of the year the province paid for a big insert in many of Spain’s major dailies. It has even brought in major acts like Muse and the Pet Shop Boys to do concerts.

Hiking “El Camino” is popular with people of all faiths and none. Most people do one of the many routes in Galicia, although hardier hikers with faith in God and their legs start from as far away as France. Many pilgrim hostels offer very low cost accommodation, but with an estimated 200,000+ pilgrims this year, it’s best to finish your day’s hiking early if you want a place. If you want to go, several online guides offer tips, this one being one of the best.


Photo courtesy user Liesel via Wikimedia Commons.

Hiking the East Highland Way–the practicalities


Hiking a brand-new trail has both advantages and challenges. The main plus to hiking the East Highland Way was that I had the trail all to myself. I never did meet that mysterious German who was a day ahead of me, and I met nobody else doing the trail. Hotel owners along the route do report a steady trickle of hikers, and that trickle will only increase. In the short term, however, you will get some peace and quiet on this hike. Another advantage is that you get to feel like a trailblazer, helping out with a work in progress.

Some challenges are apparent from the beginning. While the route already has a website and a Facebook page, there’s no guidebook. The East Highland Way guidebook is due out in a month or so and in the meantime author Kevin Langan can offer helpful advice. Check the website for contact information.

Accommodation requires some planning. If you want a roof over your head at night instead of a tent, your options are limited. Most villages only have one or two places to stay so you need to book well in advance to ensure you have a room. Do not simply walk into a tiny Scottish village in the hopes of getting a room that night. Chances are you won’t, and you might have a long walk before getting to your next chance for a bed. Luckily all of the places I stayed on the route were friendly, helpful, and good value for money. Some, like Tulloch Station, require you to reserve meals ahead of time. All are accustomed to serving hikers as a major part of their business and have useful amenities like drying rooms for soggy gear and information about local trails. Many sell hearty packed lunches, which again need to be reserved in advance.As I commented in a couple of previous posts, the trail is having a bit of a teething problem in that a few short stretches have no trail at all and one is forced to walk along rural roads with no shoulder. This situation is be potentially hazardous and will hopefully be solved in due course. I tended to walk along the grassy side of the road, an awkward way to move but at least it kept me safe from the cars.

While there are some pitfalls to this new route, I don’t hesitate to recommend it. The East Highland Way passes through some beautiful and remote countryside and isn’t crowded like some of the more popular routes like the West Highland Way.

Like with all Scottish hikes it is essential to pack clothes for all conditions. The weather can change from hot and sunny to freezing rain, and everything in between, in the course of a single day. Sturdy, waterproof boots are also a must. A couple of days I needed sunscreen! Getting sunburned and soaked in the same afternoon is a very real possibility in the Highlands. Other essentials are the Ordnance Survey maps numbers 41, 42, and 35. In addition to covering the entire route, these finely detailed maps enrich any hike by pointing out spots of historical importance. Don’t rely on them too closely, however. As I discovered on my final day, the OS maps can be a bit out of date. The guidebook will include sections of these maps with the route clearly marked. Also, a good compass and a sound knowledge of orienteering is essential for any long-distance hiker. Forget the GPS. That’s for wimps!

So if you’re looking for some solitude and scenery in the Highlands, give the East Highland Way a try. With sufficient preparation, you’ll have a great time.

Check out the rest of my series on the East Highland Way!