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A real taste of Spain

Feb 11

The rapid development of cheap package holidays abroad in the 1950s and ‘60s had some unfortunate results. For reasons which must have seemed right at the time, Spain was promoted to the British holidaymaker as an affordable destination which could supply all the familiar comforts of home. ‘Chips with everything, and tea as Mother makes’ more or less summed it up. The result was that sun-starved Brits flocked in their tens of thousands to the beaches of the Costas and returned home convinced, after a fortnight in Torremolinos or Marbella, that they knew all there was to know about Spain. It has taken a couple of generations and huge amounts of money to change that old perception. The pity of it is that, inland from those internationalised and undemanding seaside resorts, the ‘real’ Spain was there all the time, unchanged, unspoilt and undiscovered. And it’s still there today. 

Moorish Influences

Andalucia is the kind of Spain I have in mind. A region with a fascinating history and culture, and a landscape of dazzling beauty and grandeur. A region known to the Iberians, the Celts, the Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians and Romans. And, of course, to the Moors. The Moorish conquest of Southern Europe reached Andalucia in the early part of the 8th century and they remained there until Granada fell to the forces of Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492. Their influence can be seen to this day. Andalucia is a magnificent destination for those who enjoy walking holidays, from the fairly undemanding terrain of the coastal strip, with woodlands and undulating countryside; to the steeper slopes of the Sierras and the challenges of the many Natural Parks. Several holiday options in Andalucia are in the current Ramblers Worldwide Holidays brochure. For those who want to see its famous cities, the aptly named ‘Classical Andalucia’ is an obvious choice. Over two weeks you stay in Seville, Cordoba and Granada, with an emphasis on sightseeing in all three, but with opportunities to walk the valley of the river Guadalquivir as well as the Genil and Quentar valleys. 

Less energetic – though still with some pleasant coastal and woodland walking in the schedule – is a week based in a five-star hotel at El Rompido, a fishing village a little north of Huelva on the Costa de la Luz. The hotel has a couple of golf courses, indoor and outdoor pools, and a health and beauty centre. El Rompido is surrounded by several of Andalucia’s Natural Parks. The first was established in the Sierra de Grazalema, and a week there (on half-board terms in a four-star hotel) is for the more enthusiastic walker. The ‘wonderful views of limestone peaks and rolling sierras’ that the brochure talks of are the rewards of more strenuous hiking. 

Another five-star hotel experience awaits in a different holiday. Again, there’s a golf course, swimming pool and ‘wellness centre’. But it’s a very different kind of hotel from the El Rompido, having started life as a 16th-century convent before being converted to its present use. Located at the foot of the El Torcal Natural Park, the Convento de la Magdalena is the base for a six-day holiday that includes gentle walks into the lower slopes of the Torcal mountains, through glorious olive groves and walnut orchards. 

Birdwatchers’ paradise

Of late, Ramblers Worldwide Holidays has been concerning itself with adding value and variety to its tours. So there are walks of different grades in each holiday, and alternative activities to walking on offer, too. That’s because they recognise that, for example, a couple may not be equally fit, or that an inveterate walker may be accompanied by someone who is more interested in, say, the opportunity to take photographs on holiday, watercolour painting, or observing the flora and fauna of the countryside. There is an Andalucian offering that fits perfectly into this format. The holiday to Doñana National Park and Extremadura is rightly called ‘A Birdwatcher’s Delight’ and offers the opportunity to combine walking and birdwatching with some Spanish and Roman culture. You stay at three locations during the nine-day holiday. The first, Plasencia, is close to Monfraqüe Park – home to vultures, kites and eagles. After a night in Mérida, an important centre in Roman times, you go to El Rocio and the renowned Doñana National Park. These Andalucian wetlands at the mouth of the Guadalquivir River are thought by some experts to be the best birdwatching location in Europe. 

Wherever you choose to go, Andalucia offers a wealth of history and some impressive cities. For those who do walk away from the tourist trail, it also offers a glimpse of the Spain that used to be. A Spain that feels a million miles away from the crowded Costas. 

Ramblers Route in depth: Out in droves

The droving of huge herds of livestock for hundreds of miles to market was once a common sight across pre-industrial Britain, and the drovers’ trails they created o­ffer some ‑fine upland walking today. The Kerry Ridgeway among the Welsh Borders is one of the ‑finest, so we sent Julian Rollins – without the livestock – to explore it for himself 

Does anyone else do this, or am I on my own? I like to do my walking to music. Not music delivered through headphones, but something self-generated. Most of the time it’s just going on in my head, but sometimes it does break free into song. And some walks, and some days, deserve an unabashed, full-volume soundtrack. This is definitely one of them. 

I’d managed to pick the best day for a month to explore the Kerry Ridgeway – 24km/15 miles of ancient byway in the nipped-in waist of Wales. Plenty of drovers’ roads still exist across Wales and the border country, but the Kerry Ridgeway has to be the best. It runs from near the village of Kerry in Powys to Bishop’s Castle, Shropshire, rarely dropping below the 305m/1,000ft contour line. 

On a crisp, sharp morning, the sun is low in a cloudless sky and it feels as though I have all the ups and downs of hilly Powys to myself. In full sunshine most of the frost is long gone, but in shadows the puddles retain their skim of ice. But whatever the weather, you start the ridgeway walk on a high. It kicks off from a picnic site at Cider House Farm that’s around 460m/1,500ft above sea level, so it’s just a short, sharp ascent to the 506m/1,660ft summit of Kerry Hill. 

And it is exceptional. It has a view that I’d been told was breathtaking, but turns out to be easily that and plenty more. And what’s my soundtrack for this? Well, the Kerry Ridgeway is an ancient route, in use for thousands of years, but its most recent ‘serious’ purpose was cattle. So, looking east towards where those cattle were heading, I’m searching through my mental iPod for something epic and Western. The best I can come up with is The Big Country – the 50s movie, that is, not the 80s band. 

Droving country 

And Powys is big country. Take away the occasional barbed-wire fence and Kerry Hill would make a great location for anyone wanting to make the story of Dai, the legendary local 18th-century drover, into a Wild West movie. But as I start my day, there are a couple of reminders that plenty of other people before Dai and me have passed the same way, too. Firstly, there’s a stretch of dyke that crosses the path’s line of travel, then there’s a pair of Bronze Age burial mounds that must once have been landmarks for drovers. A handy information board tells me the dyke dates to the Iron Age and that it could have been the boundary of a cattle ranch. There are no cattle today, but the sheep are watching – they don’t trust walkers that hum. 

So, what was droving? Cattle were driven from one field to the next, but if you needed to get your beef from county to county, or country to country, that took a professional and he was called a drover. Droving happened all across Britain, and the clues to which routes were used are there to be found if you know what you’re looking for. 

The writer Shirley Toulson went hunting for them in her fascinating 1977 book The Drovers’ Roads of Wales. She writes: ‘Long before the American cowboys launched a thousand legends, or the Australians took their cattle across a continent, the Welsh were driving their little black runts for hundreds of miles, over the mountains and into the eastern parts of England.’ 

It was big business in Wales for centuries. Those ‘runts’ were relatively small, black cattle that could be sold at a healthy profit to feed England’s towns and cities – the roast beef of Olde England was mostly Welsh. Of course, other animals had to be moved to market, too, so drovers would have been on the road with sheep, pigs and even geese. Their journey from field to market had to be at a steady pace: too fast and a drover would deliver animals that were in such poor condition that they wouldn’t find a buyer. So, cattle moved at around 15 miles a day. For Dai, the distance between the Kerry Ridgeway’s starting point and day’s end at Bishop’s Castle was a day’s work. 

From up on the ridge, nearby villages – Kerry to the north, Anchor to the south – look temptingly close. I have my packed lunch, but would like something hot. Two hundred years ago the drovers would have had that option. When I get to a spot on the map marked Kerry Pole, the route switches from grass path to tarmac lane by a stone cottage, which was once a drovers’ pub called The Kerry Pole. It’s one of a string of houses along the route that made an income from the cattlemen. As well as offering bed and board, the inns would have had a field where cattle spent the night. 

Crossing the Border 

Beyond the crossroads at Cefn Golg, the ridgeway becomes the border and you’re walking a line between two nations. Where the plateau at Kerry Hill is windswept and open, by the time I get to Offa’s Dyke I’m walking along what looks like the archetypal English country lane, with hedges and wide verges. The weather has changed, too: that blue sky is still up there somewhere, but a chilly mist is blocking the sun. 

I’m late for my meeting with local historian Peter Norton, who has come up to the crossroads at Bishop’s Moat from Bishop’s Castle to walk with me. I suggest that if I’d had Dai’s horse I’d have been on time, but Peter puts me right: most drovers worked on foot, he says, and it was only the lead man who went on horseback. 

At the crossroads, Peter is soon pointing out subtle indicators of the places droving passed. “See, the road is narrow but the verges are wide,” he tells me. “That meant the cattle had something to graze on as they went.” Close to a farm, there’s a dozen or so Scots pines, and they too are part of the route’s droving past. Spotting the pines from a distance, the head drover would have known the farm offered B&B, Peter says. 

He has lots more to tell, too, as we do the long downhill stretch to town: about how the cattle would swim across rivers; how the drovers’ dogs walked home alone while their masters took a stagecoach after delivering their livestock; and the story of one drover who went into banking and whose business later became Lloyd’s Bank. 

Journey’s end for Peter and me comes at the bottom of Kerry Lane by St John’s Church. It’s school-run time and the quiet market town of Bishop’s Castle seems, for an hour or so, very busy. Peter is conjuring up an image of how the day’s end would have been for a drove: the noise of cattle and dogs, the calls of weary men, the sound of slow-moving covered wagons. 

“In the heyday there would have been three or four droves a week coming through Bishop’s Castle,” he says. “When they arrived it must have really brought the place alive – the children must have loved it.” So what happened next? After Bishop’s Castle the herds went over the Long Mynd and on to Wenlock Edge. From there, many different routes could be taken, but a favourite was called the Welsh Road, which went north of Birmingham, through Kenilworth and Buckingham and on to London. At Aylesbury, in Buckinghamshire, there would have been the opportunity to sell – though for far less than at Smithfield in the capital. 

As for the future of droving itself, the proliferation of railways in the mid 19th century put men like Dai out of work. For a few, though, it offered new opportunities. “Around that time, lots of Hereford bulls were being exported from Britain to the American West,” Peter tells me. “They did better on the journey if somebody travelled with them – and who better than a drover? Many of the men who went simply stayed put once they got there.” 

That idea of such a drover fits nicely with the soundtrack in my head: an epic Western hero with a Welsh accent.