Sunday, 22 November 2015

November night time canoe Microadventure

"You're not phoning up to cancel are you? Ive got things planned!"
These were my wifes words when Carl rang Friday night to discuss our planned weekend canoeing Microadventure down the Thames.  We'd been looking at the weather all week and it was looking more and more like heavy rain.  We had decided to have a final chat the night before to see if it was still worth going.  The beauty of committing to something and then telling people is that it makes it very difficult to pull out.  Especially when so many people are relying on you not being about in order to have a good time!

The weather forecast looked pretty grim for the day with heavy rain, clearing a little later and high winds the following day.  However that gave us a bit of a weather window and an opportunity to spice up a sedate trip down the river by doing a chunk of it at night.

 Our original plan was to canoe from Wallingford to Pangbourne during the day but we met later than originally planned at Goring in the hope that most of the rain would have passed.  It hadn't and loading up took place in that lovely November drizzle that gets down the back of your neck and slowly saps morale.
 Carl as a conscientious canoe owner had proper dry bags to store his kit, I was making do with my usual rucksack with kit in dry bags inside and a bin liner for insurance.  Emergency beer supplies and biscuits were kept ready to hand in a nice pink carrier bag just in case we were looking a bit too professional.
 Loading complete we set off.

In summer this stretch of the river, in the 'prosperous South East', is probably alive with Gin Palaces and pleasure boats.  In early November we had the river to ourselves.
As the rain slowly fell we could appreciate the river as its meant to be.
Clearly others had built with the same aim and we passed this cracking summer house.

I always reflect that when you take the route less travelled at a steadier pace you come across things, natural and man made that you just never really see from a car on the motorway.

 ...A railway bridge built by Brunel when functionality and design held equal weight...

 ...a vista of the Thames Valley that probably hasn't changed much in hundreds of years...

Having more time than we needed we decided to moor up for tea and biscuits just after four.  The grey day was bringing evening on quicker than we expected and by the time we set off again we were losing the light.

A leisurely river trip now started to feel a little edgier.  The River was black, the horizon only vaguely visible through the overhanging trees.  Running lights on the boat.  There was no sound save our paddles in the water and the occasionally river bird.  

At one point in the gloom I could see what looked like lumps of rock across the water.  As we got closer they turned out to be a flock of geese settled on the water for the night.

 It really did feel like the world had gone to sleep and there we were gently gliding through it in our canoe.

It was properly dark as we approached Pangbourne.  We passed under the road bridge quietly as people walked over.  None of them appeared to notice us which only increased the sense of other worldliness that was starting to creep in to my Psyche.
Negotiating the lock in the dark we moored up on the other side and brought ourselves back to reality with some excellent Fish and Chips eaten out of the drizzle under the balcony of a riverside building.

Our planned stop for the night was in the field of an activity centre.  Carl had a friend who worked there who had given us the nod to to pitch for the night.  This avoided the potential for ending up in someones back garden in the dark.
Knowing where you are going and finding it from a dark river are two different things.  The river was clearly flowing faster than we thought after the heavy rain of the previous couple of days and we nearly missed our landing point.  However after a quick back track we sorted out where we were pitching tents for the night and sorted ourselves out.

Having plenty oof time we resolved to try and get a fire going to dispel some of the cold and damp.  If I'm honest I had my doubts about being successful with everything being so wet.

However, Carl came up trumps.  We spent time making sure we had lots of tinder and kindling.  With only one match and some cotton wool Carl got things started.  Before long we had a blazing fire being kept stoked by the increasingly strong wind blowing off the river.

Sometimes having the basics is enough.  With a good fire, a beer and a dry place to sleep for the night I was so glad we had decided to brave the elements and get out.

 After a really windy night (thank heavens for ear plugs!) we slept in as we only had less than an hours paddling to our get out point.

Id brought some porridge and coffee for the morning.  However Carls friend had let slip that we were going to be there to the local Scout group.

They apparently were practicing for an out door cooking competition so Carl had agreed they could come and practice on us.

Having had our first breakfast we were joined just after nine by a gang (is that the collective noun?) of Scouts. 

In short order they built a fire, engaged in organised chaos, which a short time later resulted in breakfasts fit for kings!

By mid morning we were back on the river and at our get out point an hour later.
In less than 24 hours we had canoed a river, entered another world which is the river at night, made a fire against the odds and enjoyed the best of breakfasts,  Winter Microadventures can sometimes be short but never let the lack of daylight or time get in the way of having fun!

Monday, 26 October 2015

October 2015 Microadventure. Autumn, a season of mists.........

I find that my Microadventure plans evolve over time.  The date usually gets sorted in advance to fit in with work and family.  However what I'm actually going to do often emerges as much by chance as by design. My October Microadventure was a case in point.
I'm in the habit of picking up some sort of out doors type magazine now and again.  Often they are filled with tales of people climbing stupidly high mountains in remote places.  Nice to read but for a man with a fear of heights not always achievable!
A couple of months ago though I came across a Brecon Beacions walk in 'The Great Outdoors'.  It involved a sensible distance, some sensible(ish) terrain with nice views and an overnight by a Lake.  Sounded good.  I also went and bought the OS map for the area, as much to give some ideas for future adventures as for navigation on the walk.  Its funny how the time spent poring over a map starts to whet your appetite and cement a hitherto slightly ambiguous set of ambitions.  Something I'm not sure I get from checking things out on line.

My plan was to park in Glyntawe.  Walk West from the National Show caves for a few kilometers before turning North on to the long ridge running East - West on the Black Mountain.  Ridge walk for a bit before dropping off the ridge to Llyn Fawr lake where I'd camp before heading back in the morning.  Classic Microadventure stuff!

So, the last weekend of October arrived.  I'd taken Friday off with a view to having the hills a little quieter than a Saturday.  I don't think I need have worried!  Arriving at about mid day my plan continued to evolve. Rather than a walk through pretty featureless terrain I opted for a straight climb up to Fan Hir to give enough time to get to my planned overnight spot without having to route march!

From the bottom everything looked calm and inviting.

A stiff walk got me up on to the beginning of the ridge with pretty views already beginning to appear.  Both down to the valley I'd started.....

...and up the impressive Fan Hir ridge.

As I began the steady ascent to the main ridge it struck me how quickly you start to relax walking in the hills. Fresh air, a bit of exercise and the only mental pressure being checking the map you soon start to get a sense of perspective on life.
I also started to get a perspective on the weather.
The gentle fog I'd seen higher up the ridge soon began to close in accompanied by stronger winds than I was expecting.  The path also started to get much closer to the edge of the ridge.  One I knew had a fairly stiff drop.

I was looking for the path which drops off the ridge down to the lake.  However, visibility was getting poor, the ground was getting very slippery and my sense of adventure was starting to be overcome by my sense of self preservation.  I have no shame in stating that I lost my bottle and decided to turn back rather than risk an accident on my own even though I had left my planned route and alternatives with family!

So.  Staying flexible and allowing my adventure to take its natural course I changed plans and decided to head off the ridge and approach the lake from its base rather than its summit.

Time however was passing.  Sharing a cheery hello with a ridiculously young man in camouflage who clearly had no concerns about heading over a misty hill I reached the base of the ridge.  The time was now 1630 and I was not sure I was going to get to the lake in day light.  Yes, I could have cracked on but the whole point of my trips is to have fun rather than wear my self out and get lost!

I headed for the National Show Caves campsite where, for £7 I spent a very pleasant evening!

It rained hard during the night and, not for the first time that day I was glad I'd opted for a (pretty empty!) campsite.

The weather was still pretty grim but having turned back the previous day I felt I had unfinished business with a lake, (and no real urgency to be home).
Looking at the map I could see that there was a good looking three or four kilometer walk allowing access from a minor road to its East.

Being up in the hills again the weather had closed down to heavy rain and mist.  This meant walking on a bearing over marshy ground with no long view to check direction.  It struck me how easy it would be to get lost, even relatively close to roads and villages.  Again I was glad I'd invested in a paper map and left word.

A steady and increasingly wet walk had me doubting my direction at some points but then suddenly, after topping a small rise the dark waters of the lake emerged.  The photo doesn't really do it justice but it was incredibly atmospheric.  Coming upon it suddenly it looked like the lake in Lord of the Rings where the party enter Moria.  Thankfully no scary tentacled beasties appeared!

I used the opportunity to check out the surroundings for future visits.  Everywhere was several inches deep in water due to the heavy rain and the path down from the ridge looked precipitous and slippery.  I was really glad I'd changed my plans as a night in those conditions would not have been fun.

By now the rain was horizontal and visibility non existent.  I followed a back bearing for the car.  A river I'd crossed on stepping stones on the way up was now much deeper.  Wading it felt rather intrepid and I was soon back at the car and ready to head home satisfied.

I'm glad for all sorts of reasons that this microadventure evolved, both in the planning and the execution.  I found a region I want to visit again.  I found a secure place to use as a base.  I had the sense to recognise my (albeit self imposed) limitations and the confidence to develop alternative plans.  Sound like the basic principals for any adventure!

Kit list:
Berghaus beanie
Buffalo shirt (brilliant kit)
Lightweight walking trousers (dry quick)
Merinho wool socks and Alpkit merinho pants (try 'em.  Warm, dry quick and wearable multi day!)
Waterproof trousers (came in useful!)
Karrimor gaiters
Salomon boots

Map, compass, whistle, penknife, head torch.  (All essential)
Berghaus 65l Rucksack
Terra Nova Zephyros 2 tent.  1.5Kg.  Light and fantastic protection from elements!
DD sleeping bag
Karrimor sleeping mat
Spare T shirt, microfleece, Ron Hill tracksuit bottoms, pants and socks
Tooth brush
Anti septic gel
MSR 750 ml cooking pot
Trangia triangle and burner (no weight at all and cooks like a, well, a Trangia!)
250ml fuel
2l Camelback
UCO candle lantern
Sawyer water filter
Spare batteries and mini charger
Phone and camera
Magazine to read!

Noodles, Dol mio sauce, home cooked sausages
Oatcakes and baby belles
Porridge and powdered milk and sugar ready mixed
Snickers bars, nuts and raisins

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

September Microadventure - The Mill at Grantchester

Hot on the heels (if you'll excuse the pun!) of my August Ridgeway walk the first weekend of September took me on another canoe Microadventure.

A day through Cambridge on the Cam and then a day on the Stour.

Having canoed through Cambridge with all the beauty of the City seen from the river...

...and the frustrations of maneuvering through punting congestion we ended up at Grantchester.

Somewhere in the depths of my very un literary mind the place rang a bell so I looked up Rupert Brookes poem.  Somehow his words seemed to resonate......

'Grey heavens, the first bird’s drowsy calls,
The falling house that never falls'.

'Ah God! to see the branches stir
Across the moon at Grantchester!
To smell the thrilling-sweet and rotten
Unforgettable, unforgotten
River-smell, and hear the breeze
Sobbing in the little trees.

Say, do the elm-clumps greatly stand
Still guardians of that holy land?
The chestnuts shade, in reverend dream,
The yet unacademic stream?
Is dawn a secret shy and cold
Anadyomene, silver-gold?
And sunset still a golden sea

From Haslingfield to Madingley?

And after, ere the night is born,
Do hares come out about the corn?
Oh, is the water sweet and cool,
Gentle and brown, above the pool?

And laughs the immortal river still
Under the mill, under the mill?
Say, is there Beauty yet to find?
And Certainty? and Quiet kind?
Deep meadows yet, for to forget
The lies, and truths, and pain? . . . oh! yet

Stands the Church clock at ten to three?
And is there honey still for tea?'

Sunday, 13 September 2015

August Microadventure - a tale of two sore feet

August was yet another busy month at work including two weekends working. I knew I had committed to a monthly micro adventure but as the month wore on I began to convince myself that perhaps it wasn't going to happen. 

I had three days off after a working weekend at the end of the month.  In my mind I had committed to walking the first half of the Ridgeway.  But as the month went on and I started to feel more tired I began to look for all the excuses not to do it. A rail strike was due so perhaps I wouldn't be able to get to my start point at Avebury.  The weather was starting to look a bit dodgy etc. 

In hindsight that was all about the fact that I was tired and when you get like that your instinct is to seek 'rest'. The reality of that of course is that you end up sitting on the sofa watching television doing nothing. So, I am glad that at the beginning of the year I committed to an adventure a month because that meant that in the back of my mind I knew that whatever happened I had to go.

The country's long distance paths are a great source of micro adventures, they give a structure and a purpose to a trip out and of course they are usually set in beautiful countryside.  I also like the fact that there is a beginning and an end which ultimately gives a sense of achievement.
So, on Bank Holiday Monday (just meeting the August deadline!) I set off.  

Public transport is a great start to a micro adventure as all the worries of where to leave your car etc. are irrelevant.  You also start to slow down to the pace dictated by circumstances rather than the accelerator pedal of your car. 
I took the train from Maidenhead through Reading to Avebury.  
Bank holiday Monday was slightly busier than usual thanks to festival goers leaving Reading.  I felt slightly out of place with my rucksack given that I was probably 30 years older than everybody else with rucksacks!

A bus from Swindon to Avebury Completed my pre-adventure phase and by lunchtime on Monday I was at the beginning of the trial.
On previous walks I have worn heavy boots. Given the fact that I was likely to be walking on a well-established path I thought I would lighten the load and wear a pair of lightweight trainers.  
They say that time spent in preparation is always useful and I wish I had done some preparation around the weather forecast and thinking what the rain that had been falling for some time would actually mean.  Within a few minutes I realised what it meant as I was skipping from puddle to puddle in deep mud created by the 4x4 vehicles that use the western end of the Ridgeway.
It didn't take long before I managed to fall over and as well as covering my legs in mud I got my feet very wet.  Thankfully my "comedy moment " was not witnessed and I was able to crack on but now with wet feet on a wet day I was storing up a few issues for the future. 

The views of the Ridgeway and the surrounding Marlborough Downs Were heavily curtailed by the rain but after 10 miles with occasional vistas of prettiness I arrived at Ogbourne St George where I was going to spend the night. 

I had rung a local horse stable who had agreed that I could sleep on the corner of the field for the night.   I am glad I did as my wet feet were now starting to get sore and a guaranteed place to kip took one concern away from me.  I also had access to enough water to get the worst of the mud off ! Based on previous experience I had decided to rely on local pubs for main meals and so I was able to spend the evening drying off with a pie and a pint which was nice.

Day two dawned much brighter. however I was faced with a bit of a dilemma. I had one pair of dry socks and one pair of socks still wet from yesterday.  My shoes were still very wet and I was aware that the grass on the track would also be quite damp.  My feet were going to end up very sore if I kept them wet.  I then hit on a great idea of putting my dry socks in plastic bags inside my wet shoes.  Whilst cutting a slightly bizarre figure as I walked along this helped keep my feet relatively comfortable whilst my shoes slowly dried out on what was becoming a fairly warm day. By mid morning I was able to remove the plastic bags and avoid the odd glances from the occasional passerby.

My walk that day from Ogbourne St George to Sparsholt was beautiful. Magnificent views across the downs and numerous ancient hill forts marking the way and setting a real context to a walk that people had obviously done for millennia. I am not sure however if they had to cope with the concept of inappropriate footwear.  After 17 miles my feet, despite my best efforts were feeling very sore thanks to the lack of cushioning in the shoes that I was wearing. 

So I was glad to pitch up at a mates house who lives just of the Ridgeway and was able to spend the evening in fine company with a few beers and a small stock of plasters. 

Day three began with a beautiful sunrise.

My friend dropped me off at the beginning of the path rather than having to walk a mile to it which was a good morale boost to the start of the day.  Her big morale boost was to photograph me and then put a joke post on Facebook about giving a hobo a bed for the night.  Worryingly some of her friends believed it!

The final day was 17 miles from Sparsholt to Goring. I am glad I set off early as it gave me plenty of time to rest every now and again as by this point my feet really did hurt! However, knowing that this was my last day I was able to crack on knowing that I was nearly done.

I arrived in Goring in the late afternoon and caught a train within minutes of my arrival so there was no real time to bask in the satisfaction of having completed three days and with that the whole of the Ridgeway path.

However 10 days on, now that I found the time to write this up I do feel a real sense of satisfaction. Not only have I completed my first long distance path I have also got a renewed sense of energy. Sometimes it's only when you take time out and do something which makes you focus on the basics (like keeping moving even though your feet hurt) do you realise what's important. Before my three day microadventure I was tired. A few days away and I am rejuvenated, and thats the point.

Thursday, 6 August 2015

July Microadventure - an italian walk

I like holidays in the sun and spending time by the pool with the family. That is how I've  spent the last two weeks of July but how was I going to fulfil my monthly Micro adventure challenge on holiday given that the first two weeks of July at home had been so busy?
Microadventures don't always need to be extravagant affairs.  At their simplest I think they are about getting out of your normal routine and doing something different.  So my July Microadventure was going to have to be less than a full blown night away and more of a simple do something different affair.

Airline weight limits prevented me prioritising adventure kit so a day out would have to suffice.  In some ways the challenge of being abroad, away from the familiar would make up for the lack of a night out.  We had rented an apartment on the edge of the Cilento National Park in Southern Italy.  The coastal sections, according to the guide book, were spectacular.  Good old Google maps offered a 10 mile walk with the prospect of a beautiful view from Ponte Tresino.  Navigating only by phone and a Disney style tourist map I had a suitably enhanced challenge for the day!

I set off about 0700 with lots of water and headed towards the sea.  I left early as the temperature was likely to be well above 30 C within a couple of hours.

Within the hour I'd  reached the beach by dead reckoning and turned north hoping to find a track which I had seen from a distance and which looked like it led the right way.   However, when I arrived at the start of the path I was met with a classic 'Privato'.  Normally I would have cracked on and pleaded ignorance.  However the CCTV poles and shiny steel rising bollards suggested a Bond villain style coastal retreat.  Eager not to be fed to sharks or castrated by laser I decided to see if there was another path!  Sadly, after an hour of uphill farm tracks leading to pleasant but gated villas I realised my route to the 'wild and beautiful' Cilento coast was going to be denied to me.
By now the heat was increasing and I decided to head back reasoning with myself that I had at least given it a go.  But I had not really justified a micro adventure write up.

As I neared home a short time later I realised however that there was another offering available to me. 

On the hill opposite our villa was a statue. That would surely offer a good view at least and normally these things have a pretty good route to them so people taking a stroll can access them comfortably.  Oh how very British I was being!

Several aborted trips up likely, dusty roads later I was feeling a little frustrated at the lack of Italian footpath signs.  I just could not find a way up!

Then from a little run down farm a small elderly man appeared, a bit like the shopkeeper in Mr Ben.  My only Italian is 'I'm sorry I don't speak Italian'.  I used this to great effect with the man who smiled and replied in his best Italian with words to the effect of 'and I don't speak English'.

After many smiles and mimes of walking to the statue on the hill he took me by the hand and led me to a rough track at the entrance to an olive grove.  He pointed up, gestured that I should zigzag and waved goodbye as I set off uphill.

At last I had a clear sense of being on the right course. Half an hour later, having scaled walls and followed goat tracks I was no closer to my objective, starting to get thorn cut legs and sweating to the standard of an Englishman abroad.  For the second time I decided to call things a day.

As I headed down by a completely different path who should I meet but my Italian friend.  He looked alarmed at my appearance and a little surprised that I had re emerged from an unexpected direction.  I shrugged and shook my head. He then spent more time pointing uphill, making climbing motions and pointing in a zigzag way.  What I understood was that if I climbed the way he pointed and turned left at a tree I'd find a path to the top.  He then offered to whistle when I reached the right place.
So, for the final time I set off happy in the knowledge I had a guardian angel.

A few wall climbs and a lot of thorn bushes later I stumbled on an overgrown track.  I could see a route to the statue and followed the rough path.  Within a few hot minutes I reached my objective at last.  The view was beautiful and all the more rewarding for having reached it with no map, a bit of determination and the friendliness of a local with whom I had no common language other than a smile.

So, on reflection I am counting this as my July microadventure because of the sense of satisfaction and the departure from the normal holiday experience.  Though when I look back on it I don't think I ever heard the man whistle!