After a glorious late summer in East Sussex, the year begins to sink softly towards autumn.
The grass is cut for hay and the crops are harvested. In the pastel mornings, mist hangs in skeins over the fields. But the most exciting news from Lake Field is the arrival of some new residents: three Exmoor ponies! The ponies were preceded by a bit of work by the National Trust, including new fences and gates. While people are still able to enter the field, this infrastructure should keep loose dogs away from the ponies. The ponies seem to be quite a hit with passers by, who can often be seen leaning on the fence to watch them. I count myself amongst the gawkers - I'm pretty happy with our new neigh-bours! (I stole that pun from Dan.)
Like this kind of thing? Here's more: Lake Field: Winter to Spring and Lake Field: Spring to Summer. Enjoy.
We went Champing! Uhh, what is Champing? It’s camping . . . in a church! Sounds amazing (apart from the terrible portmanteau) and it is amazing!
The deal is, you book a church through this website, much like you might book a B&B. It’s £55 per person per night (discounts for larger groups and repeat bookings, currently free for kids to the end of the season). You have the church all to yourself/yourselves. The fee gets you camp beds, water, tea and coffee making facilities, camp chairs with cushions and blankets, electric candles, lanterns and access to a loo. Oh, and one of the more unique bedrooms you’re likely to experience in an average year.
We found out about Champing when we were in Suffolk with our friends and we decided to give it a go. It seemed like a fun idea for a night away, a bit more interesting than the usual accommodation fare and a bit more appealing to those who aren’t too keen on braving the elements under a tarp or in a tent. Most of the Champing churches are in the South East, but they’re starting to spread. The churches are no longer in use for services and such things.
Our first Champing adventure was back in June at the Church of St Mary the Virgin in Fordwich, near Canterbury in Kent. Fordwich is a pretty little village (actually Britain’s smallest town) on the River Stour. Our venue still had the feel of an old village church in use, with quite a few displays around the place.
Aside: After our night in Fordwich, I went for a wild swim in the Stour upstream of Canterbury. It was brisk!
We enjoyed our time in Fordwich, and we decided to try another church. We booked a date in September to visit Old St Peter and St Paul’s Church, which sits on a private estate near Albury in Surrey (that’s the church I’m reviewing below). This building had a different feel - emptier, more spacious, lighter, more regal, more austere.
One of the lovely things about these churches is that they are open to the public until the evening. When we arrived at both churches, we got to talk to other visitors about what we were doing. As you might expect, reponses ranged from envy and excitement to, “Isn’t it a bit . . . creepy?” and, “Rather you than me!” Generally, though, everyone was intrigued with the idea and agreed it was a good way for the Churches Conservation Trust to bring in a bit more money to help preserve these old buildings. “Oooh, Champing!” was usually the last thing we heard as visitors wandered off across the churchyard.
I was impressed with both of our Champing churches, though Albury might just be my favourite of the two. The Champing team sent all the info we needed pre-arrival and everything was set up in the church before we got there. All we had to do get out our pillows and sleeping bags, decide where to put the camp beds, unpack our snacks and drinks, switch on the electric candles, then talk and play board games into the night.
In the morning, you get breakfast, usually at a nearby pub or cafe. We had a bit of a disaster with the first place, which no longer provides the breakfasts at Fordwich (despite confirming beforehand, they had no idea how to cater for three vegetarians and a vegan) but the hotel in Albury was OK (although they only had dairy milk for drinks, alas). All in all, it's a pretty novel experience and comfort levels are somewhere between camping and glamping. I'd recommend it for families and groups of friends who want to try something a bit different.
Year of Sleeping Variously: Champing edition
Champing verdict: 72%
Previous Year of Sleeping Variously posts: tarp on a hill; B&B in a town; tent in a garden; holiday cottage on a farm; tent at a campsite; cabin by a canal; budget hotel.
Have you been Champing? Would you like to try it? If you've got any questions about our experiences, leave me a comment and I'll get back to you.
Our channel to channel trip included a few pretty long days of walking. One way of making a long walk more pleasant is to do some training. We didn’t do that. Instead, we opted for Option B: carry less stuff.
Pack lighter, go further
That’s the mantra of many ultralight hikers. The idea is that the less weight you carry, the easier it is to walk long distances. You’re less tired, less weighed down, less likely to injure yourself. And after this walk I’m inclined to agree (though having the money to convert to ultralight gear, or the desire to sleep in a half sleeping bag is another matter!). Although we could have done the long days with big packs, I think we would have been even more exhausted and much, much achier.
Our biggest weight saving came from staying in B&Bs every night. I figured that, with the exception of a few things, we only needed to pack what we’d usually take on a day walk. We didn’t need to bring any sleeping gear or shelter and most B&Bs provide soap, shampoo, conditioner, moisturiser and tea bags (though we packed some Earl Grey teabags, in case any B&Bs only had plain tea!). Because it was only four and a half days of walking, we embraced the stink and didn’t carry any extra clothes. We checked the weather and left our jumpers behind, deciding a t-shirt/shirt/raincoat combo would be warm enough. We also left our PJs out . . . rude! We relied on eating out or not being hungry most nights, so we usually only had to buy and carry snacks and lunch a day at a time. As we knew we’d be passing quite a few pubs and villages, there was no need for the trowel, toilet paper or much first aid. I figured the batteries on my camera and the dictaphone would last, so didn’t pack chargers or spares. In the end, we could easily fit all of our gear into one day pack (Dan) and one shoulder bag (Jonathan).
Thoughts on our gear
I found this review helpful after our walk across Wales last year, so I'm doing it again.
What didn’t we use? We didn’t use the water treatment drops. Although there was one day when we came close, in the end we just asked at a farmhouse to fill our bottles and they obliged - which actually made for a much more interesting experience. I didn’t really use my thermal top, though Dan wore his t-shirt. Because we had the voice recorder, I didn’t write very much in my little journal. We had a couple of teabags left at the end, too.
What did we appreciate most? Probably our biggest luxury was our daily thermos of tea. It’s not light, and the tea paraphernalia can get a bit bulky. However, a nice cuppa can make all the difference in a long day of walking - it can really pull you (read: me) out of a mid-afternoon slump. I also want to give big props to my shoulder bag - it’s a Stuffit Pram Bag, which a former boss of mine bought for me at a trade show. I love the wide shoulder strap, which spreads the load over my shoulder so that it never digs in.
What did we miss? I missed having a second, less stinky top - Dan wore his t-shirt to dinner in Honiton and when we socialised with our hosts after having showers. My thermal t-shirt doesn’t really work for that. Maybe next time I’d take a normal t-shirt or a short-sleeved shirt instead. Dan says he would’ve liked a set of undies and socks “just for evening wear”. How posh!
What did we not take and not miss? Jumper, thermal leggings, walking poles, waterproof trousers - pretty much anything not on the packing list and not mentioned above.
Because no trip report is truly complete unless there’s a map! We started the walk at Budleigh Salterton, near Exmouth. We mostly followed the River Otter to its source in the Blackdown Hills. We dropped down into the Vale of Taunton Deane, then headed up onto the Quantocks for the majority of the last day. Finally, we more or less followed the Doniford Stream to Watchet.
We didn’t follow any specific long distance route, though we ended up sharing the path with a good number of them at different points. I used my usual method for charting a course and booking accommodation and I was pretty happy with the route we took.
In terms of transport, we drove to Taunton and parked in the station car park. We took the train to Exmouth (I loved the section where the train line is so close to the edge of the River Exe that it seems to be travelling over the water) and a bus to Budleigh. At the other end, we took the bus from Watchet back to Taunton. This set-up worked well for us (apart from the terrible service from Buses of Somerset on the Watchet-Taunton leg). Thanks to Dan for organising transport! It was a simple thing to hop in the car back at Taunton and then head off to Wales.
Year of Sleeping Variously: B&B edition
Oh yeah! We're back on with this thing! So, over the course of our holiday, which included this walk, the canoeing trip, a day in Monmouth, a night in Malvern, a weekend in Birmingham and a few days in London, we slept at: 4 B&Bs (including one booked on Airbnb), 2 Airbnbs (the proper kind in a house), 2 campsites, 1 friend's house and Dan's folks' place. So there is plenty to choose from. For no particular reason, I'm reviewing Eastcote House in Honiton.
B&B verdict: 72%.
Previously in our Year of Sleeping Variously: tarp on a hill; tent in a garden; holiday cottage on a farm; tent at a campsite; cabin by a canal; budget hotel.
If you've got any questions about our gear or our route, drop me a line in the comments. Also, I love snooping at a good kit list, so feel free to link to one of yours!
(Because you all like a listicle, right? . . . right?)
After walking 100km from the English Channel to the Bristol Channel, we went on a three day canoeing and camping trip down the River Wye on the Wales/England border. In some ways, this was an extension of last year’s walk across Wales. We hired a canoe from Wye Valley Canoes and paddled from Glasbury to Hereford, staying overnight at Whitney Bridge and Preston-on-Wye campgrounds. Here's what I learnt.
It’s easier than you might expect . . .
We’d never been canoeing before (kayaking, yes - canoeing, no), so we really had no idea how far we’d be able to paddle in a day, or how long people generally think “a day” should be when canoeing. We decided to go for shorter sections, just in case - about 10 miles (16km) each day.
Turns out, canoeing downstream is (or can be) pretty easy and pretty speedy. The river carried us along without much effort on our part and we covered the 10 miles in about 4 hours each day. In fact, the first day went so quickly we hardly bothered with paddling after that. Instead, we left our campsites late, noodled around on beaches for leisurely lunches and cups of tea, and slipped silently past hills, woods, farms and fields. One highlight of many was our view of The Weir Garden - we stopped opposite and had a chat to a few people across the river.
. . . But the wind can be a pain in the proverbial
There’s an exception to the idyll I’ve just described. On the second day a strong headwind came whooshing up the river valley and we had no idea how to deal with it! Any onlookers must have laughed as we turned Old Town (our canoe's name) in a giant circle, got ourselves stuck in the shallows, then headed off in long, meandering zigzags downstream. We turned a corner and got a bit of relief: the high riverbank protected us instead of funnelling the wind straight at us; the wind was coming from a different angle; and the miniature storm had almost blown itself out. We did get caught in a mini-downpour, too, but we dragged the canoe up under a weeping willow tree and waited until it passed over. Silver lining: the wind dried us out in no time.
Literal pain in the butt: also a possibility
I was expecting to get sore shoulders, back and/or neck from the repetitive action, but I only had a few twinges and no real stiffness the next day. Keeping our actual paddling to a minimum probably helped! I wasn’t expecting to get a sore bum, but apparently there is such a thing as too much sitting down and looking at beautiful scenery.
Shut up, chill out
On our last day, barely a breath of wind disturbed the water ahead of us. We slid over a mirror of trees, dipping our paddles into clouds. A deer bent its head to the river to drink, grazed on some leaves, didn’t notice us until we were close. It watched us for a stretched-out moment, until something in our statue-still shapes gave us away as human then it turned tail and disappeared up the hill. A kingfisher splashed out of the river and sat on a dead branch to eat a tiny minnow. All through our trip, kites and buzzards circled over riverside fields, some resting on nearby trees before flapping low over the river and curving out towards the hills. Every now and then the fish would jump. Mostly we heard them, sometimes saw the splash before the ripples. But if we were lucky we’d see them leap in wriggling silver lines from the water towards the sky before flopping back. In our silence we heard the water lapping against the boat, the bees in the flowers, the creak of branch on branch. I thought I saw an otter once, but it turned out to be a fishing line making strange patterns in the water. (At Monnington Falls, Dan spotted an angler beside a rapid just in time to shout that we were coming through - there was no way we could have stopped at that point - proving that sometimes you need to be quiet, but sometimes you need to speak up!)
We spent hours on flat stretches of river, view restricted to the sky, the banks and a few things tall enough and close enough to be visible over the edges. It’s hard to get lost going downstream, but it’s easy to be unsure where you are, especially if you don’t have much of a map and your phone’s tucked safely away. Added to that feeling of nowhereness, it sometimes seemed like we weren’t moving at all. If we looked at the water straight ahead of the canoe, we might as well have been motionless. The only way to check we were heading anywhere was to look sideways, at the trees and flowers and grass on the bank. I used to look out the car window as a kid and pretend I was in a stationary bubble while the world moved past. It was easy to play that game on the river.
In these elongated minutes, I tried accepting each moment as it arose: boredom, the tug of the current on the boat, the direction of the wind, the little itches and aches in my body, the sound of bees and the smell of Himalayan balsam, the sand martins darting in and out of their small round holes in the river bank, my wet feet, the scent of river mud, the electric shimmer of a kingfisher darting low over the water.
Don’t drink and paddle
There was a group of eight guys who we passed and who passed us at various points. Possibly it was a stag weekend. They certainly weren’t interested in paddling anywhere fast. They certainly were interested in imbibing various substances. Perhaps that’s one reason we found two of their party standing waist-deep in the river in the middle of our second day. Their canoe had capsized and their various belongings were floating off downstream - including a large quantity of beer. They rescued most of the beer (they told us when we crossed paths again), but one of them had a very wet sleeping bag.
Watertight barrels, life vests, paddles, canoe and pick-up at the end were all included in the hire cost with Wye Valley Canoes.
Rapids are fun
Who knew? OK, pretty much everyone. But I’m not a thrill-seeker and I was a bit worried before we left. Yeah, I know they’re small (Grade II maximum in the section we paddled) but as I’d never managed to come out of a rapid facing the right way, before . . .
I needn’t have worried. The river was deep enough that we weren’t likely to get stuck, shallow enough that (for the most part) we’d be able to stand up and walk out of danger if we capsized. Once we got the hang of things and stopped worrying, we actively looked forward to the riffle stretches: lining ourselves up for the most likely-looking spot, noticing the current grip us a little tighter and the canoe speed up, then feeling the distinct descent as we crested the first lump of water, enjoying the rocking motion through the wavelets, digging in the oars and maneuvering the canoe into the turn at the other end.
There was only one point, at Monnington Falls, that required any significant steering through the rapids. And it was so fun, I wished we could go back and do it again! Whee!
Just because I can’t do it now doesn’t mean I can’t do it
Followers of our outdoorsy exploits might be surprised to find out that I am not by nature a particularly physically confident person. I’m usually more at ease reading up on a new theory, trying out new musical instrument or even starting a new job than attempting a new physical activity. I feel clumsy, vulnerable, anxious, ashamed - and as a result I am less likely to practice and therefore unlikely to improve. But I’m also quite stubborn. So when I commit to (and pay for) three days of canoeing, I’m not going to bail out early!
It was good to begin something with very little experience, to go out without anyone to guide us or fall back on, to get frustrated at myself (and Dan - sorry, Dan!), but to gradually gain confidence and to noticeably improve over a relatively short period of time. Unsurprisingly, we were a much better canoeing duo when we hopped out opposite Hereford Cathedral than we had been when we set out from Glasbury.
Some people are back-of-the-canoe people
One way to improve is to play to your strengths. In a double canoe there are two quite distinct roles: the person at the front provides most of the paddle power, the person at the back provides most of the steering. My strength is steering - I find the physics of it pretty intuitive and I enjoy paying attention and being in control of our course. Dan brings zen to the situation - he’s OK with letting someone else do the steering (even if it seems like we’re heading towards an obstacle) and with powering on when necessary. You can read our weaknesses into that yourself!
But whichever role we took on, the most important thing was communication. It was something that we got better at as we progressed. It’s surprisingly difficult to give coherent directions whilst also focusing on paddling or steering, looking at the scenery, dodging a flotilla of hissing swans and/or bobbing down riffles. It’s harder to say, “There are rocks ahead,” or “Swap sides now,” or, “Turn right!” or “Let’s have a break,” than it is to say “Go, go, go, nooooo!” or “Do the, the, the thingie! No, the other thing!” or “Aaargh!”.
Even experienced paddlers have bad days
We met a couple who’d done quite a bit of kayaking and canoeing. They were spending a few days out on the Wye in their inflatable kayak and were having quite a good time - until an unfortunate encounter with a low-hanging branch knocked them out, capsizing their boat and sending a pair of brand new, £300 prescription glasses into the depths of the river. Whoops.
Glasses aren’t the only thing paving the river bed around here. The guy who picked us up at the end of the trip was surprised when we said we hadn’t fallen in. He reckons there’s probably a cottage industry in diving for GoPro cameras at the bottom of each rapid. Hearing how many people have lost their cameras in the river made me glad that we’d kept our things ziplocked or drybagged and stored in the barrels - even though this means we don’t have many photos - and none taken while on the water.
You can take the kitchen sink . . .
We’d just come from a long walk, where we’d kept our gear to the bare minimum. As self-powered travel goes, canoeing could hardly be more different. One person we met likened these big, open canoes to pack horses and said he’d known people to bring their duvets and pillows along.
Although we didn’t bring any luxuries, we did have our Aspect 2.5 tent (which isn’t huge, but weighs almost 3kg), all our sleeping kit, food and cooking gear. This all fit easily into two waterproof barrels - one large, one small. We could have taken more if we’d needed it. Not carrying all that kit on your back makes things a lot easier.
. . . But this campsite brings a cooked breakfast to your tent
Yes, really! We spent our first night at Whitney Bridge - a tiny campsite wedged between the road and the river. It’s more a picnic site, really, and I can’t believe that there are more than four patches flat enough to pitch a tent! Anyway, we set up close to the river, with a charming view of the old wooden bridge, which is still a toll bridge and which the campsite proprietors operate. In the evening, we made a fire (they had an enormous supply of firewood) and invited the only other campers, the inflatable kayaking couple, to join us for a chat and a stare into the flames.
In the drizzly morning, we opened the tent to find a tray with a huge flask of hot water, milk, various teas, coffee and hot chocolate all ready to go. In a plastic pocket, an order sheet offered breakfast rolls, omelettes and toast. We ticked the relevant boxes and popped it up to the house - a few minutes later, another tray was ferried over with our breakfast goodies and sauces to boot. If you have never had a hot, freshly cooked breakfast delivered to your tent, I highly recommend you try it. Luxury!
(Our other campsite at Preston-on-Wye was at the opposite end of the spectrum. It was a riverside field with the following facilities: a landing platform, portaloos and a tap with drinking water. It delightful in a totally different way and we had it all to ourselves - except for two curious sheep.)
All in all, this was a fantastic way to spend a few days. I hope to return to the Wye to walk or paddle another section - or to do both, because Symonds Yat is beautiful enough to visit by land and by water! Read more about our previous adventures in Wales here.
A 100km walk from the English Channel in Devon to the Bristol Channel in Somerset. (It was a pretty long walk and this is a pretty long post. Make yourself a cup of tea.)
1. Budleigh Salterton to Otterton
At Budleigh Salterton the sun is hot, the ice cream is cold, the sky is blue and the sea is red.
My first thought (you know how your brain starts reasoning before you are consciously looking for an explanation) is, “There must be a dead whale.” But there is no dead whale. There is a giant penguin made out of coloured stones. The sea is red. Not the whole sea, but out past the small breakers, maybe twenty metres or so: red. People seem quite happy to be paddling and swimming in it. There is a bus as well as a penguin, beach art, stone art. Perhaps the water is red from the soil, from the cliffs of the Jurassic Coast. Iron in the earth, iron in the water. Perhaps it’s algae.
We stare for a while and lick our ice creams. Then we head down to the beach. It is a pebbly beach and the stones are so smooth and round I wonder if they’ve been trucked in from a factory. Each one I pick up has some interesting aspect: an unfamiliar pastel purple colouration, a thin line of white quartz encircling the end, a smooth pyramid shape, a web of white lines, thick bands of colour, an alcove of crystals (rock or salt, I wonder), a perfect oval, swirls of red on grey, spots of yellow in green, a skimming stone. It is a struggle to choose just two small pebbles each - one to carry to the Bristol Channel, one to take home.
The map says we’ll find the mouth of the River Otter just in front of the small headland to the east. We avoid stepping on crab shells and claws - a crustacean cemetery - and skirt around the long, dry bodies of dead dogfish, a kind of small shark with spotty fins and tail. The stones, larger at the top of the beach, smaller near the water, rub and squeak underfoot. We have plenty of time and only a short walk ahead of us this afternoon. Boots off, socks off, time for a paddle in the English Channel. Hello red sea, goodbye red sea. We’ll see saltwater again on the other side.
We turn inland, to the river. The lower reaches are tidal and the tide is out. We see a small estuary covered in grey salt marsh vegetation, a kayak heading to the open water, the river meandering blue and silver, surrounded by a rich rust-red mud. On the cliffs opposite, someone walks the South West Coast Path, turning upstream to the first footbridge. We see him again as we walk north along sun-baked tracks between high hedges, past glimpses of the river, of gulls, goldfinches and grey wagtails, a cricket match. A couple visiting from St Ives ask us if we’ve seen any kingfishers. “Not here. But along the canals, up around the Home Counties.” They’re yet to spot one in the wild.
Less than a mile from the sea and the river has changed almost completely, merging into the freshwater stream we will follow for the next few days. The water is clear and shallow, large grey fish flick and glide in the current and the stony riverbed looks almost golden in the bright afternoon sunshine. Along the margins, damselflies - demoiselles, with their electric blue bodies and coloured wings - dart between the shadows, coming to rest on the water weeds. We cross to the east bank and climb above the river. The road follows the valley, but trees block most of the view. Is it just me, or do the trees seem to grow taller down here? Is it that little bit of extra warmth, or less pollution, or simply fewer people to interfere with their growth?
This is the worst prepared I’ve been for a walk in ages. We haven’t done any multi-day hikes in months. We haven’t even done a long day walk this summer. “It’s OK,” says Dan. “The walk can be it’s own training.” Still, it’s probably lucky we’ve brought barely anything - just a day pack and a shoulder bag. A change of undies and socks, a few toiletries, an extra t-shirt, raincoats, maps and a thermos. Oh, and a retro mini-cassette dictaphone that Mags let me borrow to take notes, an experiment instead of using paper and pen. It takes us an hour or so to get to Otterton, where we visit the church - a big, solid-feeling building, out of proportion to the village - then head to the pub, our home for the night.
Before dinner, we stroll out the back, up a hill and down to a bend in the river where I go paddling. On our side there’s a pebbled beach leading down to the river; across six or eight metres of water, a cliff rises into the overhanging boughs of oak. It’s dark red, with a seam of yellow (sandstone?) running through it, sprouting green ferns near the waterline. I stand with the river around my calves, examining the cliff, the trees, the flowers and try to imagine where the water has come from. A small fish jumps; a flash of silver, and is gone.
The River Otter spins and tumbles over shallow pebble races, chuckling to itself. I decide I like it and make a voice note of this, cradled by the white noise of the rapids. “It’s such a cheerful river. It seems very clean. You never know, we might walk up it in the next couple of days and be like, That was a filthy river and I can’t believe that I put my feet in it, but at the moment I’m quite enjoying it.”
On the way back, a woman asks us if we’ve seen the beaver family up at the footbridge. We haven’t, but we will look out for them tomorrow.
2. Otterton to Honiton
I wake early and throw the window open. Crescent-winged swifts slice through the air high above the village, creaking and shrieking. The church bells strike every hour. After breakfast we head out, just as it begins to drizzle. By the time we reach the river, it’s raining. We don’t see the beavers, but then again we’re not very patient, waiting only a minute or two before abandoning the bridge for the shelter of the trees.
The river is lined with tall pink flowers. I don’t know what they are, but they’re not willowherb. They have a sickly sweet scent. I tell the dictaphone, “It might be OK to some people, but to me it smells like - we used to have this fly spray that was meant to be a nice smelling fly spray. It was gross. That’s exactly what these flowers are like.” Later, I look it up. It’s Himalayan balsam, an invasive weed that is slowly strangling many British rivers. I’m not sure if I’m glad I have permission to hate it with impunity or disappointed that I can’t use this as an opportunity to get over my first impressions and learn to love it - or at least learn how to not gag when I get a waft of it.
We spot a tall monument - we saw quite a few yesterday. “People in Devon really like their obelisks,” says Dan. “Or we’ve seen the same two from several different directions.” The rain switches back to drizzle, a rainbow appears and by the time we reach Newton Poppleford the sky is clearing. We walk though the village between high fences, apple trees nodding with unripe fruit, scruffy young blackbirds and mistle thrushes peering down at us. The rain has sweetened the air, clean scents wash around us as we pass each garden. We cross the river on a narrow, footpathless road bridge - a slightly more hair raising adventure than we anticipated. The church of St Gregory the Great is full of flower displays, past their prime but still lending their perfume to the building. Further upstream we are ushered into Tipton St John by the summery scent of honeysuckle.
We aren’t following any waymarked long distance path (a River Otter or Channel to Channel route, for example), but we join the Coleridge Link Footpath for a while. Samuel Taylor Coleridge was born in 1772 at Ottery St Mary, the next town along. I did no research before we left, and I don’t know much of Coleridge’s poetry, but when we return home I find his sonnet “To the River Otter”.
Dear native Brook! wild Streamlet of the West!
North of Tipton St John, we pass a derelict old mill and hear the thudding beat of water through some unseen mechanism. A wheel? Something on the weir? We end up having to retrace our steps because the path on the east bank has been washed away, which gives us plenty of time to wonder about the noise. A kingfisher darts away down the river as we cross the high footbridge. We follow the path along the west bank through plumes of butterflies until we find the source of the beat: a water screw.
In the churchyard at Ottery St Mary, we share a Sainsburys meal deal and punnet of strawberries, turning our collars up against a badly-timed rain shower. There’s some kind of event happening at the church, so we don’t go in. “Maybe a funeral,” says Dan. “They look like bouncers,” I reply. When we leave, a dozen military types in plain clothes - tan shorts and pastel polo shirts - are practicing their own specially coordinated walk between the gravestones.
The river curves north and then east to Honiton, but it’s followed closely for several kilometres by the A30. We head across country instead, down tiny lanes, past a house we recognise from Grand Designs, through fields of cows and up a short, steep escarpment that affords us fantastic views over the low hills of Devon. We can see more rain in the distance, moving slowly our way. We hope it will miss us.
The hilltop is another world, a cool, shady woodland of tall trees, moss, ferns, even taller trees, broadleaf and conifer side by side. Some of the old beeches are straight, some twist and curl, others sprout branches like splayed hands. The leaves gather the light like new gold coins, then scatter it across the path.
We take a short break for tea in Gittisham, where I finally get to take my boots off and cool my feet in a roadside streamlet. There's not much water, but it’s enough to shake me of my mid-afternoon mood slump. “The thing about having a break,” I tell the dictaphone as we climb out of the village, “is that even if you don’t feel good straight away, a little bit later you can tell. I do feel better. A kestrel!”
Near Honiton, we discover a permissive path to Roundball Hill. It’s not marked on our maps, but it looks like there’ll be some good views, so we take a chance. The views from the top are, indeed, very fine - over the rooftops of Honiton to the Blackdown Hills beyond. The slope down the other side is also very fine and I have fun rolling down it.
It’s been a long day and we’re pretty happy to jump in the shower and floomp in our private sitting room. Fancy. The only record I have of this time is me saying in a very creaky voice, “I am old and in great pain!” Later in the evening, I get philosophical. “There’s something very simple and honest about walking from this place to that place, because all you have to do is walk. There’s not really anything else you have to think about or worry yourself about. Just getting there. You just walk.” Deep. We go out for an unexpected dinner with a friend who lives in Devon. I ask her about the red sea at Budleigh Salterton, but she’s never seen anything like it. On the way back to our B&B, we see a kestrel flying above the buildings, south west along the line of the high street.
3. Honiton to Blackwater
From the dictaphone: “I’m having the kind of crap morning of walking that you will only really understand if you’ve had a crap morning while walking.”
First the map doesn’t match what’s on the ground - it’s not a road (as per the paper map) or a cycle path (as per the online version), but an un-waymarked, hedged-in path through some holiday chalets. We commit to it, but it gets overgrown, soggier and stinkier as we descend. “Ever wonder if you’re walking through the sewerage of a whole caravan park?” I ask Dan. Eventually, scratched by blackberries and stung by nettles, we dash across the main road. I’m hot and bothered. Then my boots get stones and twigs and leaves in them. My feet start hurting. My undies are ridiculously uncomfortable. Then it’s all uphill. “Everything’s crap!” I complain. Dan reminds me about my philosophy of last night - nothing to worry about, just walking. “Ugh! Stop being so reasonable!” I think.
Everything isn’t crap, in fact. It’s a clear morning, there’s a bird of prey flitting from power pole to power pole ahead of us and two guinea fowl lead us past a farm, drumstick thighs waddling humorously up the hill. Still, I’m acutely aware by the time we make it to the Iron Age fort and the trig point at the top of Dumpdon Hill that it’s taken us more than an hour and a half to walk just over four kilometres. Only another twenty five to go.
But there’s a fantastic view. And I know that holding onto my grumpiness is a waste of energy, so I take a deep breath and pretend to start the day all over again. This time, we begin with a nice downhill walk through farmland and thatched roofs into the River Otter valley. We pass Mohun’s Ottery along a driveway lined with honeysuckle; walk by fields of yellow-gold wheat; take a shady track alongside the fishing lakes and lodges of Otter Falls and soon enough follow the road into Upottery. After a quick visit to the church (one of the kneelers has an otter on it - the closest we will come to seeing an otter during the whole walk), we grab a soft drink at the pub and press on.
There’s a path down to the river, which is marked on my map as a cycle path and on the waymarker as a “county road”. It rapidly becomes a stream bed. I’m quite surprised to find a footbridge at the end - surprised, and perhaps a bit disappointed that we don’t have to ford the river! We make our way through a few more fields of long grass, butterflies tumbling around us, onto a sealed road. At the bridge, we stop to pick seeds out of our socks and I can’t resist jumping in. It’s deliciously cold. “My feet are going numb, it’s nice,” I tell Dan. Then, “I don’t understand! Why don’t you want to come in?!”
The river is noticeably narrower. It’s only a few metres across, easily spanned by pretty stone bridges and easily smothered - unless something is done soon - by Himalayan balsam. The valley is also closing in: there’s only a field-width of floodplain here, and even that will soon disappear.
We climb up and down the hills through the dozy afternoon. Birds drift in the distance. We surprise a hare and it lopes off down the road. It’s quiet. It smells of the countryside - barns, manure, hay, hot grass, cider. Big cumulus clouds drift overhead. It’s pleasant walking and a good day to be out.
When we rejoin the river, it’s no more than a little stream trickling through a lush, wooded valley. There are ferns growing on the side of the road and swarms of insects over the water. We don’t stop. “I’m dreaming of a really comfortable, cool bed,” I say. “Oh, and a bath. And a hamburger - vegetarian, obviously. Maybe a mango.” Dan tells me he’s dreaming about eating a watermelon and taking his boots off. “And paddling in the water?” I ask. (I still don’t understand people who don’t go paddling when it’s an option!)
The two Otterhead Lakes - reservoirs, really - are surrounded by a nature reserve, fed by the river and used for fishing. We pass a Forest School site and the remains of what looks like a walled garden. This used to be the landscaped grounds of Otterhead House, part of the Otterhead Estate. The house was demolished in 1952, after being used for storage by various water authorities and as medical storage in the second world war.
At Otterford we stop for a very late, very well-deserved lunch under two spreading yew trees in front of the church. Our meal comprises Mini Babybel and, according to the dictaphone, “the best crackers I have ever eaten”, supplemented by handfuls of tangy sorrel that I find growing in the church yard. We’re out of water and the tap at the church says theirs is not suitable for drinking. We have some purification drops, but decide it’s less hassle to ask at the nearby farmhouse. The woman there kindly helps out, and when she discovers that we’ve walked from Budleigh Salterton, she’s tell us that she’s filled our bottles with “River Otter water, filtered for bugs and things” and that the river rises on their top field.
A few minutes later, I’m recording again. “We’ve made it to the source, more or less,” I tell the dictaphone. “And as sources so often are, it is extremely underwhelming! It’s a very shallow, very narrow ditch full of nettles . . . in the middle of nowhere in particular. But we made it!” We congratulate each other, take a couple of terrible selfies and strike out for our B&B - still another six kilometres away.
On the way we pass Robin Hood’s Butts (four or five tumuli in a roadside field) and help rescue a lamb with its head caught in a fence. Actually, I can’t get it out, even after snipping through the wool that has wound itself around the wire, so we knock on the door of the next farm we come to. “Oh, that’s not my sheep. It’s [redacted]’s sheep,” the farmer tells us. “Stupid things.” I’m not sure if he’s implying that his sheep are more intelligent than that. He heads off with a pair of wire cutters. We climb another hill, enjoying the honey-gold light of the late afternoon and trying to ignore our sore feet. And then, finally, we were at our B&B, welcomed, allowed to shower and plied with tea and cake. After that, we sleep.
3. Blackwater to Seven Ash
An elderly woman is pottering around in her beautiful cottage garden. We saw her last night, and she’s out again today in the bright morning sunshine. She flags us down to have a natter over the hedge, telling us how long she’s lived there and asking where we’ve come from and where we’re headed. “I might have done that once,” she says. “I was a rambler!”
A long stretch of woodland walking takes us around the northern escarpment of the Blackdown Hills. Under the trees, the air is cool and refreshing. Small birds busy themselves in the leaves. In the areas managed for butterflies steamy warmth radiates from the grasses and flowers beside the path. We wander through the Sunday stillness. “I think this is the quietest it’s been for our whole walk,” I murmur into the dictaphone. “You can hear the leaves stirring. You can hear the hum of flies and bees. A few birds tweeting. The wind, when it picks up a bit. And very, very far in the distance, if you’re listening for it, you can hear some of the noises of human activity. It’s very tranquil.”
Here the track narrows and twists through wildflowers, here it broadens to climb through oaks or hazel, here it twists past ruined stone walls as they melt slowly back into the green light. And sometimes we turn a corner to find the world laid out before us, stretching lazily, hazily to the horizon. There’s a plain, the Vale of Taunton Deane, there are a few wooded ridges to the north east, there’s the bulk of what must be the Quantock Hills to the north. We debate whether this is our first glimpse of Wales in the blue distance.
We drop down into Corfe and follow the East Deane Way to Trull, through fields of maize and long, golden grass, over the M5 (“SO PEACEFUL!”), past hedges boiling with sparrows. It’s turning into quite a varied day. At Trull, we buy a mishmash of food from the little store: corn chips, apple puffs, chocolate raisins. Our plans for morning tea in a field are scuppered by acres of cow poo and, more to the point, the baking sun. Instead, we sit on a shady bank outside someone’s garden, watching semi-suburban life go by. It smells of cut grass, of the weekend.
At Stonegallows Hill (“Taunton’s execution site from 1575 to 1810,” reads the monument), we’re overtaken by two speedy walkers in their late 60s or early 70s. They tell us they’re on a pub crawl then leave us to eat their dust. We’ll cross paths with them later on, and discuss walking footwear (they’re wearing sandals), long distance walking (for fun and charity) and recommended routes (they love the Cambrian Way). Before then, though, Dan and I have an adventure with cows.
They’re small cows, young Jerseys, and they’re up the top of the hill when we enter the field. We’re maybe a quarter of the way along the path, which runs along the bottom of the paddock, when they start running towards us. We’re blocked in by a low electric wire, a small ditch of nettles and a hedge. “If we have to, we can jump the wire into the ditch,” I say to Dan. We pick up our pace. The cows pick up their pace. “Shoo!” I yell at them, and wave my arms. That slows them down, at least. Less chance of being pushed over and trampled. But they still come closer. We turn to face them and walk backwards along the path. Dan does his best impression of Gandalf: “You! Shall! Not! Pass!” We clap our hands and wave our arms. No joy. I open the OS map and flap it at them, which sends them back a few steps. They aren’t angry and they aren’t big, but they’re starting to hem us in - and they don’t have to be angry or big to do damage. We’re about two thirds of the way across the field. I crack the map at them again, yell something unintelligible, turn on my heel and high tail it to the fence. Dan scampers up a few moments later. The cows, clearly fascinated with our antics, follow suit. Safely on the other side, heartbeat returning to normal, adrenaline dumping out of my system, I laugh. One of the cows has a stripe of snot across its face. One of them has a nose ring. Other than that, they are, like all Jersey cows, very pretty.
After all that excitement, apple puffs aren’t going to cut it. We stop at the pub near the rail crossing at Allerford and share a ploughman’s lunch. Our shirts dry in the sunshine and wind, stiffening with sweat. Dan has salt lines where the straps of his bag have pressed against his shoulders, chest and sides. It’s good to rest, but the dictaphone reminds me: “Starting again is so hard. My feet are cold, and stiff, and so painful - owww!”
There’s the crunchy sound on the tape whenever I stop recording and start again. “I hope that when we listen back to this it isn’t just a litany of me complaining about how sore I am, and how achy I am, and which bits hurt, and why do we have to climb up a hill, and why is it raining, and why is it sunny, and why do I have to put sunscreen on, and why is it so hot, and why is the wind so cold. I hope it doesn’t sound like that, because it’s been quite nice, actually!” Crunch. “We went off track a bit. Thought we could get there along a dismantled railway line because it looked like a shortcut, but it just ended in nettle-y, brambly hell. Argh! So now we’re trying to find another way through, instead of backtracking and zigzagging through the fields. Which, probably, in retrospect would have been the more sensible option.” Crunch. “This was a crap decision.” We backtrack and zigzag along the proper rights of way.
The next hour passes in a blur. I’m so tired, I resort to reciting times tables under my breath. I can’t remember how we used to do it at primary school. Were the four times tables chanted as one-four-is-four, two-fours-are-eight, three-fours-are-twelve or four-ones-are-four, four-twos-are-eight, four-threes-are-twelve? I barely pay attention to our surroundings, so when we eventually stop in a lovely little wood, it feels like I’ve just woken up. I have no real recollection of taking off my boots or climbing in the tiny, cold stream - but by jingo, it’s nice! And never have apple puffs and a cup of less-than-hot tea tasted so good. I'm ready for my second wind.
The pretty village of Ash Priors is drenched in golden sunlight. The mortar in the walls and buildings is a dusty pink, perhaps from the local soil. We chat to a man out with his dog. “I walked everywhere when I was younger, all over. Too old for it now. I stayed in Youth Hostels. They were everywhere. Cheap. Don’t suppose there’s many left.” He says he once knew someone from Battle, back in his army days. He is also convinced that there is some conspiracy amongst the traffic planners in Bognor Regis which makes it impossible for the average visitor to be able to get to the beach. I think of the coast, of Budleigh Salterton. Is it really only three days since we were there? It seems like weeks. Dan picks a piece of shell out of his shoe. When did it get there? Where did it come from? We leave it in a field, under the watchful gaze of five whistling, whirling buzzards, for some future geologist to puzzle over.
When we arrive, footsore, at the B&B, our hosts lay out tea and cake and join us on the patio. It’s a gorgeous evening. House martins dart in and out of their nests under the eaves. We listen to the hoot of the steam train in the valley, and discuss everything from cloud spotting to commuting to cider.
5. Seven Ash to Watchet
It’s a grey day. From our room, we can see the hill we’ll be climbing first thing. It’s hard to conceptualise how high this hill is in comparison to more familiar hills when those familiar hills are not around for comparison. “Are the Quantocks higher than the South Downs?” I ask the dictaphone.
I come to this conclusion about three quarters of the way up, breathing heavily, sweating like a pig in the cool, muggy morning. It’s a great hike to get the blood pumping: up a steep track under twisty old oaks, then bursting out onto the high moor above the trees. To the south, beyond the Vale of Taunton Deane, some of the valleys are filled with low-lying cloud. To the north east, the River Parrett winds through a flat, grey landscape. We keep climbing. At our feet, yellow-flowered gorse and pink heather run downhill to pine plantations.
And suddenly, there is the Bristol Channel! The water shines silver, a couple of dark, capsule-shaped islands lending perspective. Somewhere beyond, Wales lurks in the cloud and smoky drizzle. At the trig point, we stop for more photos. (Check out Dan's Bubbli thing here!)
Two walkers come by and ask where we’re going. They are impressed that we’re aiming for Watchet. They’re even more impressed when they find out where we’ve come from. One of the satisfying things about being at the end of a long walk is that you’re almost guaranteed to get a reaction from the people you talk to. Today, it makes me consider not just how far we’ve come, but how small our local worlds really are. Fifty miles (eighty kilometres) by road is a significant distance, and the people we talk to on the Quantocks don’t seem to go down to the south coast very often. We brainstorm equivalents from our house: Arundel or Dover (we’ve been to both places, once apiece), Croydon (I’ve only ever seen it from the train window) or the Dartford crossing (we’re quite familiar with this!). Later, a dog walker asks us about OS maps. “Do they tell you where you can walk? I come up here all the time, but I wouldn’t mind going somewhere new. Oscar! Oscar! Come on!”
We’ve seen barely any people out walking over the last few days, but now we’re back on a popular section of trail. The Macmillan Way, Somerset Way, Samaritans Way, Quantock Way and Celtic Way all run along the Quantocks for a while. I can’t blame the walk creators for sending people up here. It’s super ridge walking: high, but relatively gentle once you’re up, great views on each side, ponies and sheep grazing in the heather, little birds catching insects above the flowers, Bronze Age barrows and cairns strewn around the place. The Drove offers some shelter, wide path curving beneath spreading trees. I can imagine people herding their sheep or cattle along here.
We ignore it as long as possible, but there’s no denying it’s about to rain. I don’t enjoy shrugging into my coat, but I’m soon thankful I bothered. We descend Bicknoller Combe, a steep, V-shaped gully, in a downpour. The stream beside the path is vital with water, grass stoops under the weight of raindrops, wet sheep peer down at us and our view over the valley vanishes. Lower down, under the trees, I pull my hood down to listen to the shushing of rain on the leaves. Water, water, everywhere. At Bicknoller, the pub is closed, so we shelter in the church porch to eat some chocolate coated raisins.
Following the waymarkers for the Coleridge and Macmillan Ways makes it easy to navigate along the valley, past signs to places like Stogumber, alongside the Doniford Stream, through friendly farmyards full of bantam chooks. The rain turns to drizzle and the steam trains pass by, sending up white plumes and hooting off towards Bishops Lydeard or Minehead. We take our coats off in suburban Williton and troop on through just a few more fields towards the end of our walk.
At Watchet the clouds are low and the tide is out. The Ancient Mariner stands, back to the harbour, dead albatross in one hand, bow dangling from the other, a noose around his neck leading to a noose around the bird’s neck. We walk along the harbour arm, past notices about entering the UK, over a thick yellow line with NO FISHING BEYOND THIS LINE painted on the concrete, past a sign about rabies prevention (animals that must not be brought ashore: duck, cat, dog, otter, gecko, monkey, kangaroo), to the little red lighthouse at the end.
Funny how we’ve come to a quiet corner of the UK, but here at the end of the land - in this small harbour, in this channel - is the same sea, the same water that touches every coastal harbour, bay, cliff and beach in the world. I send thoughts out across the horizon to friends and family, wherever they may be.
“On three. One, two, three, go!” Our pebbles, from a sunny beach on the English Channel, sink quietly into the grey-brown murk of the Bristol Channel. We turn back and head to the pub for a drink.
If you've made it to the end of this epic post, you deserve almost as many congratulations as us for making it to the end of our walk! If you're interested, you can check out our kit list and a route map here.
Do you like food? How about cycling and/or camping? Are you a woman, a feminist, a queer person and/or a vegan? Do you like women, queers and/or vegan food? Then I suggest you get your hands on these two zines.
Content note: There is a GIF at the bottom of this post.
3rd Gear is a bike zine by women and queers, which explicitly aims to give a platform to voices not usually heard from in cycling magazines (which, let’s face it, are usually aimed squarely at people with most of the privileges). The zine is edited by Danni, who some of you might remember from her bike touring microadventures last year (September, December). Issue #2 features reflections, articles, art, bike shed updates and advice on topics including electric bikes and mental health (“Is that a cheat’s bike?” by Esther Johnson), the politics of cycling (“War on our roads: Entitlement, cycling and victim blaming” by Danielle Madeley), cycling as a trans person (“Transcyle” by Bobbi Jane), contributions from the folks of No Award, plus more!
Tofu and Trangias is a spin-off, also edited by Danni. It’s a vegan camping and bike touring cookzine divided in two sections - the first about pre-preparing foods to take with you, the second focussing on preparing and cooking when you’re out and about. It has recipes for cookies, spice mixes, curries, vegan sausage rolls, salads and more. As it’s an Australian zine, it’s biased towards Australian considerations (climate, ingredients, availability of water), but it’s definitely translatable to other places. I have a recipe in Tofu and Trangias, so obviously it’s a top quality publication. I thought I’d share my recipe here, to give you a taste (haha, get it?) of the kind of thing you might find in the zine. You can get your own copy of both zines from the Wrenchworthy store.
Recipe: Energy Balls
These tasty little treats have got me through many a mid-afternoon slump on long walks. They work a bit like scroggin, only you don’t end up having to eat the dregs made up of the crap nuts/seeds/fruit that you don’t like.
Energy Balls (or Energy Truffles, if you are feeling fancy) are super easy to make and very forgiving if you want to experiment with ingredients and flavourings. They also keep pretty well without refrigeration, although the chocolate can melt if you’re out in hot weather . . . and there is the temptation to shove them all in your mouth at once.
We've been off travelling for the last couple of weeks, doing a Channel to Channel walk across Devon and Somerset, then a canoeing trip down the River Wye. I'll try to get a post up next week with photos of those delightful places!
The season changes quickly. After the long, bare months of winter and the held-breath pause of early spring, suddenly life returns to the world.
One month I'm studiously keeping track of each new sign (daffodils, crocuses, primroses), the next it seems that everything comes at once (willow leaves, nettles, oak leaves, wildflowers, migrant birds, lambs, calves, plenty of wild food). The transition into the abundance of early summer is less noticeable at the time, though on reflection the visual cues are there in Lake Field and in the trees and farmland beyond.
My previous photo post about Lake Field documents the change from winter to spring. What markers of summer (or winter) are you observing in your patch at the moment?
I love a plan. I love planning. The problem solving, the anticipation, the promise. Starting a project at work? We need a plan. Writing an article? Draw up a plan. Going on holidays? Plan, plan, plan.
It’s something to do with the anticipation, with being able to clarify goals, of thinking about how this thing will fit into and perhaps shape my everyday life. It’s something to do with the research, with discovering possibilities, with imagining potential futures. I like how planning an adventure brings it closer to reality, into the present, how planning out each step of a large project makes it feel less overwhelming and more achievable. I relish those moments when different aspects come together, or when a whole new idea suddenly opens up.
Not everyone loves to plan. Sometimes it seems like social media is fixated on the notion that the best adventures are unplanned, spontaneous, unexpected - the kind of adventures that happen when you stop on the way to somewhere else to watch a sunset, when you deviate from your SatNav route, when you miss your train and end up sleeping under the stars, when you allow yourself the luxury of no destination, when you follow your instinct, when you break free. I think it’s true that often the unexpected elements are what make a place or time particularly special.
I’m not so keen on the inspirational quotes, though - the soundbites that once might have meant something, but now spend all their time plastered across over-exposed, over-filtered photographs of lakes or mountains or dirt roads or railway lines, or those twee pastel photos of young, long-haired, white women wearing oversized woollen jumpers and cradling enamel cups of steaming coffee while gazing into the middle distance. Those inspirational quotes never seem to mention getting lost in thick cloud at the top of a cliff when your GPS battery dies and you haven’t bothered to bring a paper map; or your car breaking down in the outback when you haven’t told anyone where you’re going, there’s no phone signal and you’re running out of water; or zipping open your tent to find a beast going through the food you failed to pack away properly, and wondering in that split second whether this particular creature prefers chocolate bars and peanut butter or human flesh. I rather think the best adventures do not include being dead.
(Here’s a fun flowchart: Did You Have A Good Adventure? Though I think my idea of "hard" might be quite a lot gentler than other people’s! Also, here's an amusing "lessons learnt" blog post about cycling in a Californian winter.)
What nonsense! How are you going to get on that plane, magic? (As far as I know, the image is connected to this video.)
On the other hand, there is a danger in micromanaging journeys to the point that all the joy is squeezed out. Some things are better left as an approximate sketch or vague outline rather than a detailed diagram. I know I have a tendency towards over-planning myself, though I’m past the stage where my trips have a Contiki-tour-slash-nursing-home style itinerary: 6:47am wake up, 7:05am take photo of sunrise, 7:10am eat breakfast (insert menu here), walk 4.5km, drink 280mL water, dig hole 20cm deep, excrete 129g fecal matter, etc.
I suppose it's about balancing the two extremes: learning to plan with an appropriate degree of rigor for different travels and adventures - and to suit my capabilities. Last summer, I headed out for long daywalks without a map, food, or raincoat (my plans involved checking the forecast and walking in East Sussex, where a pub is never too far away). Likewise, wild camping at least once a month last year made packing for microadventures almost second nature - it felt more like slinging bread and tea in the sack a la John Muir than an exercise in major event coordination. Moving up a notch, planning a five day walk this summer, I’ve mapped out a general route and booked accommodation along the way - soon I’ll have a look at places where we can buy lunch, and I’ll stock up on chocolate bars. And last summer, when we were heading off on our walk across Wales, I spent longer thinking about kit, looking at maps and making sure I knew where we were headed: we’d been stuck up a Welsh hill in less than ideal circumstances before - not something I wanted to repeat.
But then, next year, we’re going on an adventure more stereotypically adventurous than anything I’ve ever done before - more remote, more challenging, more, “I don’t even know if this is possible.” And in response, I am reverting to type: plan, plan, plan!
Writing about planning
Let’s back up a bit. First, an admission. While I love planning, I rarely write about my plans before they’re finalised.
Why? Not to put too fine a point on it, I’m afraid.
My big worry is that I’ll look like a fool if the plan doesn’t come to fruition. How will I feel in a few months or a year if I have to come back and admit to the people who read this that we’re not going on that big, remote, challenging adventure at all? I’ll feel like a failure, that’s what.
(A lesser fear - one that’s more likely to happen, but easier to put aside - is that I’ll get a lacklustre response. Nobody will be enthused. Nobody will be encouraging. Nobody will comment. Nobody will give it a star or a thumbs up or a heart or a smiley face. I have to remind myself, that’s OK - I’m doing it for me, not for the lurking internet hordes, and naturally it's going to be more exciting to me than to anyone else. Besides, I've talked about this plan with people outside of the internets and they seem to think it's interesting!)
A couple of weeks ago I was reading the blog of the most enthusiastic ball of energy that is the adventurer Anna McNuff, specifically her post "To scoot or not to scoot, that is the question". In it, she talks about her plan to travel the length of South America by giant scooter, about testing out said giant scooters with a friend in the Welsh hills, about having a fantastic time . . . but realising this was not going to be the best mode of transport for a trip that involved going up a lot of hills. Anyway, Anna’s post is great and the video makes me want to go scooting, but she opens with something of a rallying cry - to talk a bit more about the planning of adventures before they begin:
. . . all-too-often we only get to hear about adventure plans when they are unveiled / announced / launched / released, and above all . . . final. The reasons for that are valid - you don’t want to look like a prize banana after all - shooting your mouth off and then not doing what you said you would. But it always seems a shame that the journey to the start line of an adventure should appear so effortless.
So, that got me thinking, and now I'm all psyched up and wanting to talk a bit about this adventure we’re planning for next year . . .
An adventure down the Snowy River
The Snowy River is one of Australia’s most iconic rivers - at least, it is within Australia. Mostly, ask an Australian if they’ve heard of the Snowy River and they’ll recite a line or two from Banjo Paterson’s 1895 bush poem "The Man from Snowy River", mention the 1982 film of the same name starring Sigrid Thornton (or the terrible sequel), talk about the Snowy Mountains Scheme or, if they’re environmentally inclined, about the campaign to restore water from said scheme to the river. But from my extremely anecdotal and unscientific research, it doesn’t seem like many people outside Australia have heard of the Snowy River. So, in case you don’t know: the Snowy River rises in southern New South Wales on Mt Kosciuszko/Targangal, Australia’s highest mountain; it then flows in a question-mark-ish line for about 400km south before entering Bass Strait at Marlo in eastern Victoria. In between, it’s dammed three times, trickles through the Monaro High Plains, gushes over rapids and through gorges in remote areas of national park and loops through farmland, past remnant rainforest and coastal lakes. There aren’t many towns on the Snowy: Jindabyne (population <1750) at the main dam, Dalgety (population <100) in the Monaro and then nothing much until Orbost (population <2500) and Marlo (population <400) on the coast.
And next year, we’re going to try and follow the Snowy the whole way from source to sea, walking, paddling, wading, scrambling, swimming . . . however we can.
I first conjured up the idea of following the Snowy on dreary day in February last year. I was unenthused and uninspired and I needed to feel that an escape was possible. What could be a better escape than an adventure down a river, following the water downstream, sleeping on its sandy beaches, meeting people along the way, boiling river water for tea, swimming every day and finally arriving at the wide open ocean? And why not the Snowy River? I grew up beside the Snowy, but I’ve barely seen any of it. It would be a chance to go on a terrific journey, with lots of walking, scrambling, paddling, maybe some bushbashing - and in the process, I could learn a bit more about the natural environments, human cultures, history and geography of the river.
So, the idea has been on the cards for a while, quietly bubbling away, with research about the river taking up lots of my spare time. I hinted at our plans in my "Why follow a river?" post back in February. But it wasn’t until last month when our weeks off work were confirmed and our plane tickets booked that the enormity of the whole thing really started to sink in.
If all goes well we will be in Australia for almost six weeks in 2017 and on the river for about five of those. I have a draft itinerary, although in reality I have no idea how far we’ll be able to travel in a day, because there are no footpaths or tracks along the majority of the river. I’ve done a lot of Google Maps-based exploration. I’ve contacted various government departments and tourist information centres about the legalities of access to the river. I'm looking for more information about whose country we'll be on. I’m talking to expedition companies about boat hire and guided tours for the sections of river that I’ve been told are categorically unwalkable. We might end up paddling more than we expected. Dan and I are looking at our kit and trying to figure out what we need to discard, change, upgrade and acquire to make sure we’re safe (enough), comfortable (enough) and lightweight (enough) to make the journey enjoyable (enough). We're going to the Alpkit warehouse in August to check their gear out in person. We’ve pencilled in several overnight walks from now until then to keep our level of fitness from falling through the floor, but I think it will be a case of the trip being its own training. I’ve got an Australian first aid book to refresh my knowledge of how to bandage snake bites. I'm trying not to freak myself out with the idea of being chased by packs of feral dogs (or indeed domestic dogs). I’ve haunted forum debates about the pros and cons of PLBs and satellite messengers - particularly concerned about coverage in remote areas of Australia. We're trying to save some money. Kate of the Katechen, based in Melbourne, is going to devise some homemade dehydrated vegetarian meals for us (there's no point trying to take food into Australia, it'll probably be confiscated by customs). I’m hoping that a few friends and family who we’ve chatted to about our plans might be able to join us for a day or two here and there or at least help us arrange food drops and clean socks and undies at strategic points. Someone might even be able to give us a lift to beginning of the walk (a 7+ hour drive, minimum) - because actually getting there would be a good start!
There’s so much that’s still up in the air, still so many unknowns. And the nature of such an adventure means that some of it will remain unknowable until we do it, or fail while trying. In the meantime, there’s a lot to organise.
Luckily, I love planning.
So, there you have it. The cat's out of the bag, or among the pigeons, or on a hot tin roof. I have a plan, which is now on the internet, so it must be official!
Last June, I had a great time doing #30DaysWild, and I drew a little doodle or sketch each day to show what I’d got up to. It seems that some of the folks at the Wildlife Trusts appreciated my little pictures, because they asked me if I’d like to do the illustrations for the Random Acts of Wildness cards in this year’s pack. Of course I wanted to! How cool is that?! Anyway, I thought some of you might be interested in hearing a bit about the cards - thanks to Mags (of With Each New Day), Helen (of Stresswitch) and notso (of Bus-Stop Birding) for the following questions. If you’ve got other questions, feel free to ask in the comments.
What determined your choice of subjects? Did you think of the acts yourself or were you given a list?
I liaised with the fabulous Lucy McRobert at the Wildlife Trusts and she sent me a list of activities, along with some instructions about the shape and layout of the cards. Other than that I was left mostly to my own devices, which suited me. It was a nice way of working, to be free to think about the story I’d like to create around the text on each card. Some of the pictures are straight up illustrations of the text, others work in tandem with the statements.
On the other hand, this freedom meant that when I got stuck with what to draw, it took a lot of thinking to get me out of my pickle - I didn’t have many pointers! But, as is so often the case with creative things, some of the pictures that puzzled me the most ended out being my favourite illustrations. I had a hard time figuring how to illustrate "Google wild facts" without just showing a person at a computer. Hopefully the end result, although slightly fantastic, shows how research can bring ideas to life, off a screen and into reality (or at least into imagination).
Did you work on the art at the location or from photos? Were any of the cards inspired by specific locations?
I was doing most of these illustrations in February and March, when it was cold and bleak and I was not surrounded by the flora and fauna of summer. This was one of the most difficult parts of the process. I couldn’t walk outside and think, “Oh, that’s an interesting flower,” and draw it. I had to try to remember what kinds of flowers or fungi or birds are around in June, then find images of them to work from - photos, diagrams, other illustrations. Inevitably, that meant I was limited to the things I could remember names for, or which showed up in my many Google searches on variations of “wildflowers in Devon” or “fungi UK June” or “summer migrant birds Scotland”. I also drew on the pictures I did during #30DaysWild in 2015, and on my photos from the last few summers, using them as inspiration.
(Incidentally, I just read this great conversation between Sarah Perry and Amy Liptrot at Caught by the River, which includes a discussion about the difficulties in writing out of season - I can relate!)
In terms of specific places, I worked from memory a lot of the time - not to create exact replicas, but to get the feeling of a landscape. In the "Meditate in the wild" illustration, the bay was inspired by the beach at Hastings or Bexhill (near where I live) looking towards Eastbourne and Beachy Head. In the sketch a wild landscape illustration, I drew on our walk along the Grand Union Canal. For other pieces, I looked at photos and films of relevant landscapes to try to create appropriate backgrounds. In the "Watch a wild webcam" picture, there’s an osprey in the foreground and a landscape inspired by the hills of midwest Wales in the background.
What is your artistic process for something like this? Straight in with the pen or pencil sketches first? What equipment do you use?
Interesting questions - though talking about “my process” makes me sound like I’m a pro, when I’m really not (this is the first time I’ve ever been paid to draw things, as far as I recall). As I said on Twitter, "Just have a bash at it!" is probably my first step.
All of the final images are black ballpoint pen on cartridge paper (sketchbook) - and a bit of whiteout, too! (That's Tipp-Ex or correction fluid to you.) There wasn’t a lot of reasoning behind that choice other than it’s what I had on hand when I began - and once I’d started I wanted to be consistent. If I did it again, I’d be interested to try out felt-tip pens. I knew the original images would be reduced a little in size for the cards, so I deliberately tried to keep them simple - lots of bold outlines, not too much shading. This also made them a bit like children’s book drawings, which appeals to me. I think Alison Lester’s artworks are gorgeous, and if my pictures captured even a little bit of the joy she is able to convey in her books, I’m happy.
For the first few images, I started with rough sketches and studies, but because pencil and pen are such different media (for me, anyway), I didn’t find that process very useful. As I continued, I tended to draw in proportions and light outlines with pencil and go at it with pen almost straight away. Some subjects required a bit more work, especially animals and people, where the proportions needed to be more accurate.
Were there any unused designs?
I ditched a couple of designs at draft stage, because they were boring or didn’t work for some reason. One of them was rejected as not being relevant enough to the text and I made a couple of spares just for the sake of it (again, I don’t think they were used). And then I did seven more on request that were to be part of the social media campaign - I haven’t seen them yet, though!
Which illustration did you do first? Which is your favourite?
The first one I did, though I ended up redrafting it later, was the "Switch off to tune in" picture of the electrical cord turning into ivy. I was pretty pleased with that visual pun. It’s too hard to pick a single favourite, though. The pictures that were my favourites to draw aren’t necessarily the best images; and my favourite illustrations aren’t necessarily my favourite cards (some were changed around in the design process). But here’s a few . . .
Have you tried all the activities yourself?
No! I’ve managed a few of them this month and I did many more of them last year. One I really do want to try - hopefully more than once! - is a proper digital unplug. My partner and I go through stages of having a weekly screen-free evening, and that’s great, so a whole weekend must be even better, right? Think of all the books I could read! I wouldn’t mind setting up a bird picnic one day, too. And making a bug hotel. And making seed bombs (I love the idea of guerrilla gardening!). And, and, and . . .
So, how was #30DaysWild for you? Have you followed people's adventures on Twitter? I have been a bit slack documenting my attempts to add some extra wildness to my days. Hopefully I'll do a summary post sometime soon. Meanwhile, if you have any more questions about the cards, pop them in a comment below and I'll try to give you an answer!
The summer solstice was approaching, #30DaysWild was in full swing, the Summer Microadventure Challenge had been issued and the weather forecast was absolutely miserable. It was time to extract our bivi bags from the dark recesses of the cupboard and find a hill to sleep on.
It had been a while since we last slept wild (on the verandah of a beach box on the winter solstice) and to be honest, I was feeling a bit uninspired. It’s the kind of apathy I get about walking when I haven’t been out for a long hike for a while: it’s not that I don’t want to do it, I just find it hard to muster the motivation to actually start. My mood wasn’t helped by the weather. On the way to work, we drove past the bit of South Downs where we planned to sleep. The hills were engulfed in drizzly clouds. I thought of saturated grass, chalky mud and clammy, insect-infested air and I shuddered.
As the work day progressed, though, my anticipation built. I was invigilating exams and there’s nothing like being cooped up in a small room with nothing to do for hours on end to reignite your desire to spend some time outside. The forecast was looking up, too: the rain was due to stop at 11pm, then 9pm, then 6pm. Perhaps we’d be dry after all!
But in the afternoon, the weather whipped itself into a right state. I left work in the midst of a massive thunderstorm, complete with torrential rain and flashes of lighting. My colleagues wished me well and hoped they’d see me alive on Monday. In the car, Dan and I looked at each other and made the kind of deal that civilised people make. We’d do some last minute shopping for snacks, get ourselves a nice big dinner of pizza and then head up to the hills. We’d take our packs and go for a walk. If we got out to the spot we were hoping to sleep and it was still bucketing down, we’d go home. If not, we’d stick around for the night.
It was still raining when we finished shopping at 7pm. It was still raining when we finished our pizza at 8pm. It was still raining, just, when we drove into the car park. But as we wandered along the hilltops, the weather cleared. A few chinks appeared in the grey, revealing blue sky above. In the west, crepuscular rays pierced through the clouds, panning across distant ridges and valleys.
We took our time along the path, detouring through raindrop-jewelled grass to recce potential campsites. What combination of view were we after? Sheep, cows, crops, sea, downs, levels, harbour, river valley, town, sunset, sunrise? There were plenty of options, but we struck most of them off our list when closer investigation revealed copious thistle cover. Ouch.
The shifting clouds, delicate mists and evening light created gorgeous, ephemeral scenes. I could barely tear my eyes from the unfolding drama on the hills across the way. Every time I looked around, the landscape seemed to surpass itself in beauty.
Finally, as we reached our destination, the sun broke through, setting fire to the mist, flooding the downs and valleys with gold. I decided then and there that even if I had a terrible night, even if I was cold, damp and cramped by the end of it, the microadventure would have been worth it, just for this view. It had definitely rekindled my taste for wild camping.
Eventually, as it always does at this latitude, the sun sank below the horizon. We retraced our steps a short way and plonked our things down beside the path. A couple of blokes in camo gear trooped past and we exchanged some effusive words about the evening (“Good night for it” / “It turned out pretty nice after all”), then we started to set up. There was only one problem: it had been so long since I’d used the tarp that I’d forgotten all my knots. Luckily, Dan was on hand with the sensible suggestion that I refer to the intertubes. I stomped off with the phone to find a spot with 3G and a little while later returned victorious with a fresh understanding of the tautline hitch. In just a few minutes more, we were brushing our teeth and snuggling down into our bags.
It was a surprisingly comfortable site. We’d put the picnic rug down to keep the worst of the wet at bay, and the long grass provided quite a nice mattress. My annoying pillow that always deflates deflated, so I used a stuff-bag full of clothes for my pillow instead. (I’d ordered a new pillow online, but we hadn’t been able to pick it up during the week.) Below us, the town lights twinkled and the highway hummed. Above us, a few late night flights headed out from Gatwick and over the Channel. I fell asleep. At one point I woke up thinking someone was shining a light onto the tarp, but it was just the nearly-full moon, sailing clear of the clouds. A clean breeze rippled through the long grass. In the distance I heard a cow calling her calf.
The next thing I knew, it was light, and the air was full of skylark song. There must be hundreds of skylarks up on the South Downs at the moment - or half a dozen very noisy ones that follow us every time we go for a walk. I tried to go back to sleep (it was just after 4 o’clock), but the birds and other aspects of nature were calling. We packed, then Dan wandered off to look at the view. He reported that the tarp was very well camouflaged in the grass. A couple of keen mountain bikers sped past just after 5am, grinning hello. Soon we were walking back to the carpark, where we cooked breakfast under the watchful eyes of rooks and jackdaws.
(Later that morning, Dan collected my new Exped Air Pillow XL from the post office. I tried it out on the living room floor and declared it to be good. I’ll test it properly next weekend in an unusual venue . . . stay tuned!)
Year of Sleeping Variously: Tarp on a hill edition
Tarp on a hill verdict: 74% (but a really, really excellent 74%!)
If you’re interested to see what others have been getting up to outdoors this month, check out the #30DaysWild and #MicroadventureChallenge tags on social media.
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