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Avon Valley Path Run – 12 June 2011

Debbie Whittle gives us the perfect excuse to discover a new route.

A few months back WACer Debbie Whittle set herself the target of raising £3,000 for the Jigsaw Appeal, based at Bournemouth Hospital. The Jigsaw Appeal itself is looking to raise a mighty £1.5 million to build a brand new women’s health cancer unit. The present unit is struggling to cope with the 17,000 women a year who currently use it. More details of the charity can be found at www.jigsawappeal.org.uk

One of Debbie’s fund-raising strategies was to stage a sponsored walk along the Avon Valley path, from Moyles Court, near Ringwood to Salisbury cathedral. That’s a distance of 23 miles. Apart from Debbie taking aerobics and pilates classes she also takes a group for nordic walking. It all started to fit in place … like a jigsaw really!

Ten years or so back I discovered the delights of the Stour Valley Way as a training route and have run along it many times since – it is my favourite local run. Well, the Stour and the Avon rivers meet at Christchurch harbour. Debbie’s walk gave me the perfect excuse to discover the Avon Valley route.

I am due to run the North Devon Marathon at the end of June and also saw it as a chance for this to be my last long run. It’s perhaps a little further than you would normally run two weeks before a marathon, but it’s off-road so doesn’t punish the legs so severely as tarmac, and if I started at Ibsley that would bring the mileage down to just 20 miles, and following the course of river it was sure to be nice and flat, wasn’t it!

Debbie had been out over previous weekends to recce the route – all done in glorious weather. The route is signposted (after a fashion!), but if she was going to lead a group of walkers she wanted to be confident about where she was heading. I wanted to run it, so was looking for an accomplice – at least there would be two of us getting lost (much nicer). I found the perfect running partner in Annie Dougall. Annie and I had finished within minutes of each other at the North Devon Marathon in 2010. The fact that the day before our Avon Valley trek Annie would be running two legs in the South Downs Relay Marathon didn’t seem to bother her!

Remember that talk of glorious weather during Debbie’s recces – well she had used up the full quota of sunshine allotted to the project. The rain proved to be near relentless all day, with a bitterly cold wind. Looking on the bright side though, at least it was a tailwind!

Debbie and a group of around 20 set off for the 23 mile walk from Moyles Court at 8.15am. Annie and I got to Ibsley at around 9.30am. We spent a couple of minutes just sat in the car in the Old Beams car park, just staring out the car windows questioning our sanity. It didn’t look too welcoming outside! There was nothing for it, there was no prospect of an improvement in conditions, we were just going to have to get on with it. Both Annie and I would be wearing Camelbaks and were self-sufficient, but we knew that there was a back-up vehicle, a minibus driven by Derek, should we need any extra support.

Getting out of the car I knew that whatever we wore was going to get soaked, so it was best to keep clothing to a minimum. I hate running in ‘waterproof’ jackets, they don’t really work and tend to make you sweat. It was so grim outside that I decided to wear mine, I soon got fed up with it and after a mile and a half, it had been folded up and shoved in my backpack.

Our journey from the Old Beams took us about 100 metres along the main road, before turning left over a river bridge and then following the ‘Avon Valley’ signs. I didn’t have the 25,000 scale OS maps for the northern section of the route, so opted to take no map at all, except for some sketches and accompanying notes for walking in the southbound direction found on the internet. These notes proved to be as useful as a chocolate teapot!

Within the first mile or so we had run through low-lying fields of longish grass, our feet were already soaking. It became clear very early on that the signposting of the route left a lot to be desired. Having been directed into what looked like someone’s back garden, we were relieved to see a stile and directional arrow. We headed across the fields between Turmer and Harbridge when we came to a minor road, the arrow pointed to the right, taking us towards Harbridge. We arrived at a T-junction, there was not a Avon Valley sign anywhere to be seen. We followed a road signposted ‘Cranborne’ that seemed to be heading in the right direction. After a mile or so we saw a footpath fingerpost and it had the Avon Valley emblem on it. Whether we had approached this path from the right direction who can say. It didn’t matter, as we were now back on track.

The next part of the path stayed pretty close to the river and we had followed this part of the route without too much difficulty. As we approached the southern end of Fordingbridge we came across what looked like the hen party from hell. A group of 20 walkers looking very bedraggled some of whom were sporting pink cowboy hats protected by plastic bags.

We stopped for a chat and a hug with Debbie, before Annie and I pushed on and left the walkers to it. Derek, with the minibus, was going to be parked up at Burgate school, immediately north of Fordingbridge. As promised the bus was there, we stopped for five minutes. Both Annie and I had a dry set of kit (all wrapped up in polythene bags) in our Camelbaks, we left these on the bus. The plan was that Derek would meet us in Salisbury and then we could change when it was all over.

Having been on the west side of the river so far, we now crossed the A338 to the east. Across the fields the route was straightforward enough, we then arrived at Folds Farm. There was a clear divergence of routes here, but no sign of any markings for the path. We asked a man who was in his garden, ‘Which way for the Avon Valley path?’ – he claimed not to know. We wasted about five minutes before we found a sign, which pointed vaguely to the left-hand fork.

Up we went, this was Castle Hill, when we got to the top there was a fantastic viewpoint looking down onto the river just south of Breamore. Our view was obscured by rain and mist, but this is somewhere I will definitely return to on a sunny day. Since our last inconclusive sighting of an Avon Valley Path sign back at the farm we had gone for more than a mile, so a laminated paper Avon Valley sign was greeted with some relief. It pointed down a road and into the village of Woodgreen.

In Woodgreen village, the trail went cold. However, we asked a local woman and she redirected us back up the hill we had just come down, ho-hum! We headed out of Woodgreen towards Hale and then up Moot Hill, before dropping into Downton – we had covered around half distance.

Debbie had warned me that the route was very poorly marked in Downton. She told us that when we got to the High Street we had to turn left and then pick up the path alongside the river. What we didn’t know was that there are two river bridges in Downton. We found a path alongside the river at the first bridge and headed off along this until it stopped at a weir. It was at this point that we found out how useless those notes from the internet were, as they seemed to imply that we were to leave Downton on the east bank of the river, not so! We clocked up almost two miles around Downton before we found the path we were looking for!

Getting lost seriously does your crust in. It was at about this time that Annie and I started to get all whimsical about steaming mugs of coffee and sticky cakes. We promised ourselves that doing the coffee thing was going to be No. 1 priority once we got to Salisbury.

We were back on track, still contending with a never-ending series of gates and stiles, plus woolly waymarkings. We headed north towards Charlton-All-Saints and Matrimony Farm before re-crossing the A338 one more time. We had about five or six miles to go and the ground got heavier. We were heading up hill again!

I kept thinking, Salisbury cathedral is pretty big, why can’t I see the spire yet? I started to recognize some of the footpaths from doing the Salisbury 54321 runs. We passed Dogdean Farm and headed downhill alongside a hedge. On the top of the next ridge I recognized the houses on the Blandford-Salisbury road. We had to head back up hill again across two fields of heavy ground before we got to the road. Annie, somehow, still seemed to be bouncing along like a spring lamb, I was running about twenty yards behind doing my best to keep up.

We emerged onto the Blandford Road and this left us with probably little more than a mile to cover to get to the cathedral. The plan was to meet Derek and the bus in Harnham Road but we carried on straight to Starbucks and got there at about 1.45. How pleased would the staff there be to see two people, soaked to the skin having traversed 22 miles (according to Annie’s GPS) of cross-country footpaths. One of the guys who worked there took a shine to Annie and in no time we were each supplied with towels and sat down with the largest coffees we could get and the sweetest cakes amidst ever-increasing pools of water.

After a while, we phoned Derek in the bus and he came and collected us. The group of walkers were approaching Matrimony Farm and would be crossing the A338 soon, the bus headed off to meet them. Annie and I changed into dry kit, I couldn’t believe how heavy a wet t-shirt and a pair of shorts could get.

The lay-by which we parked in had a mobile canteen. About five minutes before the walkers arrived the guy running it had decided that enough was enough and he started to shut up shop. Derek got out of the bus and persuaded the man with the hot teas to stay open for just a little longer.

Debbie and the walkers turned up looking completely soaked. They had around another two hours walking left to do, eventually reaching Salisbury at around 5pm.

Derek took us back to Ibsley before driving back to Salisbury to collect all the walkers.

I know it sounds a bit crazy but with the conditions being so horrendous, it added to the occasion and sense of achievement. I wasn’t sorry to get back into the Berlingo and get a good fug going on the journey home though.

I’m definitely doing this trip again, next time I am going to do it in sunshine with a couple of Ordnance Survey Outdoor Leisure maps in my backpack.

All in all a great day out, well done to Debbie for setting the thing up. I can’t tell you how grateful I was to have Annie out there sharing the experience, it would have just been horrible to have tackled those conditions alone – when there are two of you out there you can laugh into the face of the elements!



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