Posts Tagged ‘walking in the Ardennes’

On forests

July 7, 2019

My father was born and grew up in some of the most remote forests in Europe, far away on the borders of Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Bielorussia as they were before the Second World War, forests so large and impenetrable that it was said that during the war, Germans dared not enter the forest because they would not come out again… which is probably why my father’s home village was burned to the ground because of partisan activity. And yet vague traces of the tiny hamlet of four houses are still faintly visible on Google Earth…

So I’ve often wondered if my love of forests is inherited. Yes, I know that biologically that’s a nonsense, but all the same, I love forests: nothing beats a walk in the woods where I am surrounded by trees of all different kinds, an astonishing variety of shades of green, amazing effects of dappled sunlight through the leaves and branches. If it’s raining, there’s the gentle sound of the downpour on the leaves. There’s all the birdsong from all sides, and the possibility of encounters with creatures: last year in Luxembourg I met a wolf, and the year before, mouflon (wild cattle).

I have family, friends and acquaintances who rave about the Lake District and the views, and who don’t like the idea of being surrounded by trees. But I like the element of surprise, rather than having all the landscape permanently visible when the hills are bare: in the forests, suddenly there will be a gap in the trees and a surprise view; half a mile or so further on, another opening will reveal quite a different picture: nothing is ever the same. I can enjoy open spaces, but nothing cuts it for me quite like a forest.

When I’m off walking in Luxembourg, I can walk for an entire day without meeting a soul: I like this, not because I’m some kind of misanthrope, but because I do find such solitude very conducive to reflection and meditation. It’s rather like being on an open-air retreat. I can take stock of the past year, or of my whole life; I can ponder problems and difficulties I may be faced with; I can elaborate future plans. And there’s my phone to record notes, ideas, flashes of brilliance whenever they occur.

Recently and rather belatedly it has occurred to me that I do need to be rather more careful when wandering off on my own like this, and I do now make sure that I have a first aid kit, emergency whistle and various useful supplies with me in case of any mishap: at nineteen I may have been immortal, not any longer. Each year I take a day or so to re-remember my basic map-reading and way-finding skills, and on the rare occasion when I have briefly strayed from the right path, the combination of maps and GPS on my phone has helped me get back on track.

I’m looking forward to a trip into the Kielder Forest in Northumberland soon, and another visit to the forests of the Ardennes in the autumn.

My travels – Luxembourg again

May 22, 2019

I’ve nicely got back from my annual walking holiday in Luxembourg, and while I was there tried to understand why I’m so fascinated with the place and why I like it so much. It’s small – about the size of Yorkshire, where I live, more or less. It’s full of hills, small mountains, rivers, brooks and forests, all of which combine to make beautiful walking terrain, and the country is networked with hundreds, if not thousands of generally well-waymarked and maintained trails, usually circular walks; parking is easy and free. Next year all public transport in the country will be free for everyone: there is an excellent network, and many of these walks are easily accessible by bus and train. Overall I have the impression of a nation that thinks its worthwhile spending money on public amenities, unlike somewhere else I know… Near Echternach I saw a newly-planted orchard which has been specifically established to preserve all the old, local varieties of apples and pears. There’s a bee sanctuary attached…

Not that many people live there, so it’s not crowded. About 40% of the population are of foreign origin, largely Portuguese and Italian. The standard of living is high, roads and public buildings are well-maintained, and they spend serious money on public amenities – there are wonderful children’s playgrounds wherever you go, seats and picnic tables abound along the walking trails, as do litter-bins, which are regularly emptied, and there are display boards with posters depicting the flora and fauna to inform the passing walker. It feels like a conservative (with a small ‘c’) country; it’s national motto translates as “We want to stay the way we are”. Yes, I know it’s a tax haven that makes a good deal of its wealth that way, and whilst I don’t approve of that, nor do I approve of countries like ours that make enormous amounts of money from flogging weapons of death to all and sundry around the world. I found myself feeling alternately angry and sad, that other countries can do all of these useful and sensible things I’ve mentioned, and ours can not.

Luxembourg has its own language – Letzburgetsch – a curious hybrid of elements of French, German and Dutch, and the natives are also fluent in either French or German (or both) according to whether they live in the east or west of the country. They are proud of their history, and wherever you go, there are museums and memorials to the suffering the country endured under the Nazi occupation, when it was formally annexed to the Reich, meaning that young men were conscripted into the Wehrmacht, and you see graves which commemorate locals who perished on the Eastern Front. Resistance and civil disobedience was ruthlessly crushed: a strike in the town of Wiltz saw several teachers from the local secondary school shot, among others. And then large parts of the country were flattened during the Battle of the Ardennes in late 1944 and early 1945, when the worst of the civilian suffering also happened.

On a personal note, I realised that I have many happy memories of holidays taken there when our children were young, and the walking and exploring we did then. I hope to be able to take my annual holiday there for many years to come: certainly there are plenty more walks awaiting…

August favourites #17: walking

August 17, 2018

My favourite walking has long been in the Luxembourg Ardennes, and I try to have a holiday there each spring. The town of Vianden lies on the border with Germany, in quite a seriously hilly part of the country, on the banks of the Our river, and there are many marvellous walks which start out from Vianden or nearby, often crossing the border a number of times. One begins in a meander of the river a couple of miles away, at the village of Bivels, and eventually takes one up as high as it’s possible to go in the surrounding hills, to the castle of Falkenstein: the views of the castle itself, from all directions, are quite spectacular; you can get to the castle gates, which are locked, but no further, for it is privately owned and apparently in a somewhat dilapidated state. Sitting eating a picnic at the gates and staring at the stunning views of the river and the valley, I felt so utterly contented.

My travels: L is for Luxembourg

April 28, 2018

I fell in love with Luxembourg years ago. I don’t mean the capital city, which is small, and has a couple of good bookshops and some astonishing eighteenth century fortifications, as well as a stunning site, to recommend it; I mean the countryside – the forests and hills of the Ardennes and its stunning walking. Now I seem to go back each spring for what has become a combination of a walking holiday and a retreat, a couple of weeks of peace and quiet in the hills.

I have to admit, of course, that my picture of the country is a romanticised one. It’s small – perhaps the size of Greater London, roughly; a lot smaller than Yorkshire, which I call home. Some friends remind me that it’s home to a huge tax-avoidance economy; this is true, and yet, as far as I know, Luxembourg hasn’t bombed Syria or invaded Iraq or Afghanistan recently… the country’s motto is ‘we want to stay the way we are’, conservative with a small ‘c’, and when I fantasise about living there and being able to do all the wonderful walks all year round, I remind myself of what living in such a small, catholic, conservative and conformist society might be like. There doesn’t seem to be very much for young people to do, and only the capital and a couple of other towns would seem to offer much in the way of cultural attractions. It would probably be both dull and stifling. But the public transport is stunning – a four-euro ticket takes you anywhere in the country, on bus or train, for a whole day!

But, the walking is stunning, and seemingly unknown to us English; in season the place fills up with the Dutch heading for the nearest hills to home. What I like is the fact that the hills are relatively gentle – although that doesn’t exclude some gruesomely steep ascents, particularly at the start of walks – and also largely wooded, which I find particularly attractive because it means that I often come across surprise views after turning a corner: suddenly an unexpected panorama opens up. And then there are the colours, so many varieties of greens and browns at the time of year when everything is just bursting into life after winter. There are the streams and rivers winding through the valleys, and occasional glimpses of wildlife – deer, wild cattle, wolves even – and the birds.

It’s so peaceful, too, at the time of year when I go. I can park the car, put my boots on and in five minutes be far away from the village or town, up in the hills where the only sounds are the birds and the crunch of my feet on the path. I’m away with my thoughts and the wonders of nature, at peace.

The country is a maze of way-marked paths, some maintained by the Ministry of the Economy (!) and so pretty clear, others maintained by localities and so rather more variably signposted – so my map-reading and compass skills have improved over the years. And for such a small place, there’s a good bit of variety, too – steep and more rugged further east, along the German border, with rather narrower tracks, and large areas along the western border with Belgium that are being gradually allowed and encouraged to revert to more primeval forest.

It’s as European a place as one can find, which I also find attractive, being small and on so many borders and crossing points; a third of its population are immigrants or the descendants of immigrants; the inhabitants speak their own language and usually French and German too, if not English as well. I feel comfortable there; I can escape the hecticness of Britain, its woes and insanities, for a few days; I feel calmer and rested even after walking dozens of miles in a weeks or so. I hope I can manage many more spring holidays there…

My travels: W for Walking

June 7, 2017

I’ve never been one for sport or strenuous exercise: I could have won prizes for skiving at school. And I’ve always firmly believed that the only time it’s necessary to run is to catch a train one might be in danger of missing otherwise… But I’ve always loved walking, from exploring footpaths around my Stamford home in my childhood, to walking and tramping around rural Nottinghamshire when at boarding school – as long as a couple of friends and I took exercise, we were pretty much excused team games, which was marvellous. And we fairly ate up the miles.

Later, as a student, I did some walking in the Lake District with friends who were keen fell-walkers, but I’ve never been wild about that part of the country, and have recently realised that it’s because to me – sorry! – it’s rather grey and bare: I prefer walking in woods and forests where suddenly and unexpectedly an amazing view can reveal itself as I turn a corner, or briefly come out into the open… and I loved the footpaths around the River Lune when I lived in Halton, near Lancaster.

I walked the footpaths in the parks of Leeds and later around Ripon when my daughters were small, and I think I’ve helped pass on a love of walking.

Now that I’m retired, I can do a lot more, and lead my feet farther afield, as it were. I have come to enjoy walking on my own, spending time with my thoughts, reflecting and meditating, and looking carefully at my surroundings, pausing to take time over my photography when I see something worth capturing; all of these are things much harder to do when you are in company. I sometimes think I’m a bit anti-social, but I set out with good intentions of joining local walking groups when I retired and, six years later, have still to do so. I’m a fair weather walker, too – can’t be doing with wind and rain, so mostly it’s spring to autumn, and despite living in Yorkshire, I’ve yet to do much exploring of the Dales or the Wolds.

My favourite walking territory at the moment is the Ardennes, in Luxembourg. There’s an astonishing variety of terrain and landscape in a very small area. There are walks along the border with Germany where you often don’t know what country you are in, and there’s a broad swathe of land along the border with Belgium that is being allowed to return to the wild, and it can be quite spooky in the middle of it all, carefully following a map and a trail and wondering where the next way-marker will be, or whether I’m lost. It feels like being lost in a jungle, especially as it’s quite rare to meet another walker, and yet you can be only a couple of miles from a village.

I’ve walked quite a bit in the Somme region of France, exploring the battlefield sites of the Great War: there are some good walking guides, and everywhere now looks so peaceful, beautiful in places, especially along the river marshlands, that it’s almost impossible to believe the carnage that happened here a century ago. That is, until you come across a small pile of rusting shells at the side of a road or path, waiting for the French equivalent of the bomb disposal squad to pick them up and take them away. They’re not in a hurry – there is 700 years’ (yes!) worth of such work to do in some areas. But you do get a clear picture in your mind, as you walk along sunken paths, or look at the gently undulating and open landscape, of the utter insanity of climbing out of a trench and walking slowly towards enemy lines under machine-gun fire: those poor men never had the slightest chance.

Last year I did some wonderful walking the the Aude departement, in Cathar territory: it was incredibly hot, even in September, but the landscapes were beautiful, even in their dryness; they smelt different, the plants and bushes and trees were different. And assuming I remain fit and healthy enough, I have plans to go walking in the Eifel region of Germany, and also in Switzerland.

Eheu fugaces

July 13, 2016

Nobody can really prepare you for retirement: the day when, after everyone has said very kind and appreciative things about you, and remembered the high-points and achievements of your career, and wished you well, you put your stuff in the car and set off home for the last time, knowing that you will never make that journey again with the same purpose. All those years are over; your job and classroom now belong to someone else…

Many sighs of relief; the clouds of stress and pressure and expectation lift. You celebrate, relish the air of freedom; September arrives and you can set off on holiday rather than return to the daily grind. But, you now need a new purpose and motivation in your life.

I have slowed down a good deal over the last few years. I’m older, and I don’t need to rush to fit everything in; no-one is breathing down my neck. I have certainly been able to read rather more than I used to, and have very much enjoyed writing this blog, which arose partly from my wish to continue sharing my enjoyment of reading, and partly because I realised that I could be a writer, on a small scale. I have been able to go off and study and watch Shakespeare rather than teach it; I was never able to go on the course before, because it runs the week before Whitsun half-term.

I’ve always enjoyed languages. My first degree was actually joint honours, French and English Literature, and I’ve been keeping up with my French through reading newspapers, and also novels and some history in French. I’ve been able to join a German class and tried to improve my German to a stage where I can now hold a reasonable conversation. In the last three years I have also taken up Spanish, a new challenge which is keeping my brain alive. And I’ve been able to go back to yoga, which I enjoyed very much when a lot younger. It’s different now, being rather more about sustaining flexibility and suppleness of limbs, which needs rather more attention as I’ve grown older.

My main pleasure has been travelling. When a student I travelled a good deal in Europe and a little in North Africa, and I always intended to do more of this when I had the freedom. I go off walking in the Luxembourg Ardennes every spring. I’ve spent several trips walking around and exploring the various battlefields of the Great War, a project that arose from many years of teaching the literature of that period to students. These trips have been very informative and very moving. I’ve achieved a lifetime’s ambition and visited the various places in Germany associated with JS Bach. And I have lots more projects in the pipeline. Then there are the trips and holidays that Cheryl and I take together, to art galleries, museums and especially to the seaside…

I have grown to love gardening, too. I’m not the head gardener: I just do the heavy work, the weeding and the fruit harvesting. It’s incredibly relaxing (well, apart from the digging) and peaceful. It’s something I never understood when I was younger – I always saw it as incredibly boring. And now I love it.

It’s taken quite a few years to realise that I can do what I like when I like, and in some ways this freedom feels like a return to the hippy days of my youth. And yet, there often feels to be something lacking… it’s taken a long time to realise and understand this major change, which is that nothing matters any more. I don’t have a career, and students who depend on my hard work. Our children are grown and have lives of their own. In the end, nobody cares what I do, and whilst that’s clearly liberating in one way, it’s also rather alarming in another: every day I must create and sustain a purpose and meaning to the rest of my existence. This is my task and mine alone, and nobody can really explain this to you, it just happens, and it’s a shock.

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