Microadventure #4: Winter Solstice at Liddington Castle

Winter Solstice 2014 Microadventure challenge

As December rolled round I was beginning to get itchy feet, I knew I needed to get back out there and do another microadventure. Then this message appeared on Facebook and I knew it had to be done: A Winter Solstice microadventure.

The challenge was to sleep under the stars for one night any time up until the start of the new year, which meant people could pick a night where the weather was acceptable. But I felt like that was cheating a little. I saw this as an opportunity to test my kit and myself, and so chose to do the challenge on the day of the solstice itself, regardless of weather.

Chiseldon and Liddington Castle

Looking at the maps I found Liddington Castle, a short half hour drive from home, and did some reading up on it. Everything suggested it would be quiet: Liddington Castle is one of Britain’s most overlooked landmarks. While it is visible from the M4 it is not easy to walk to, the nearest parking is quite some way away and the only route to the castle involves a huge detour around all of the private land that surrounds the monument. It seemed perfect.

Liddington Castle is one of the earliest surviving hill forts in Britain, a late bronze age hill fort that has been in use at various times during its long history. It’s also a strong contender for the site of Mount Badon, the location of a supposed battle between the Britons and the Anglo-Saxons, but there is no real evidence to support this. It is claimed that King Arthur was involved in the battle, so Liddington Castle is of interest to those who are into their Arthurian history and mythology.

RAIN.The weather on the day was less than perfect: Rain, cloud, wind. The “normal” forecast (i.e. not the forecast for those stood on top of the most exposed hill for miles around) was for 15-20mph winds with gusts of over 30mph. At the top of the hill it was bound to be more wild than that. Still it wouldn’t be a challenge if it was easy!

On the day I parked at the nearby village of Chiseldon, to the South of Swindon, and then started the walk to the Ridgeway. I’ve walked various sections of the Ridgeway but never this part before so it was nice to see a new slice of the ancient route. Sadly I’d been a little disorganised and left it a little later than planned to set off, which meant it started getting dark about half way to the castle. “The best laid plans of mice and men”, as they say.

Swindon at night
The lights of Swindon as seen from Liddington Castle

I could see the vague outline of the castle’s ramparts as I made my way along the Ridgeway, but it was still some way away. Eventually I reached the permissive footpath that splits from the Ridgeway and leads to the castle. I followed the path along the edge of the field in near pitch black darkness, when all of a sudden I reached a vantage point overlooking the twinkling lights of Swindon. The view from here was spectacular, you get a great view that starts with fields before turning into the city. Various roads, including the M4, are also clearly visible snaking and shimmering their way across the landscape.

At the castle itself the wind was blowing at gale force and the rain was horizontal, I found myself having to lean into the wind at an incredible angle just to keep myself from being blown over. I twisted my ankles repeatedly stumbling my way around the ramparts. I took a quick look at the trig point and then followed the outline of the fort to try and find somewhere flat and reasonably sheltered to sleep.

Looking out over the twinkling lights of Swindon from Liddington Castle
Looking out over the twinkling lights of Swindon from Liddington Castle

Finding somewhere flat was easy enough. Finding somewhere sheltered proved a little more tricky. Eventually I settled on a spot that was protected slightly by the lip of the rampart. I set up camp and then headed back to the trig point with my camera to get the obligatory photo of myself looking out over the lights of the city. The camera managed about 6 photos before the battery gave out – I guess it didn’t like the cold either. Or maybe I’d accidentally packed a duff battery.

Liddington Castle on the Winter Solstice
Liddington Castle on the Winter Solstice

At this point there wasn’t much else to do other than bed down and try to get some sleep… The wind and the rain were sapping all the heat from me and I was starting to worry I’d end up hypothermic if I didn’t get in the sleeping bag. It wasn’t until I got into the sleeping bag that I realised why I was so cold. My khakis had got soaked by the rain on the walk to the castle and with the gale force wind they were literally sucking heat from me.

I settled into my bag and tried to sleep as the wind shook me violently. I’d say I managed about a total of an hour of sleep at best that night, the rest of the time was spent being buffeted by the weather. At around 7am I decided I’d had enough of not sleeping so I got up and started packing my kit.

Before leaving I wanted to take one last look from the trig point so I stumbled my way around the ramparts once again. I took one last look and then started to make my way towards the path back to the Ridgeway. 5 steps later I twisted my right ankle badly, then slipped with my other foot, lost my balance completely and ended up falling face-first into a dip in the ramparts. The full weight of my pack made sure I followed the correct face-plant procedure, and my glasses case – which was in my coat’s inside pocket – was rammed directly into my rib cage.

After a moment I picked myself up to carry on. My ankle seemed fine but my rib was sore and my pride was shot to ribbons. I headed off the castle, even more carefully than before, and back down the Ridgeway. It wasn’t until the next day that I realised I’d broken my rib in the fall.

Liddington Castle definitely has the potential to be an awesome bivvy site, but it’s one that I’d want to do in better weather conditions next time.