Woods can be pretty creepy places in the daytime, let alone the nighttime. But that didn’t stop me: I’d decided that June’s microadventure was going to be a night in the woods, and that’s exactly what I did.
Arriving late I quickly set up the tarp, sleeping pad and sleeping bag in the dark, drank a beer to celebrate, and then slipped inside. There wasn’t a breath of wind, and the wood was silent apart from the occasional owl-hoot.
As I lay there listening I realised I could hear something digging below me, probably a rabbit: There were rabbit-holes not far from where I had set up my bivvy site.
Soon I fell asleep under the stars and the trees. This was probably the most restful microadventure I’d ever been on.
Until 5:30 am.
A loud scream yanked me right out of the deep sleep I was in and my eyes popped open wide. I listened for a moment, and the cry came again.
“It’s a fox,” I thought and closed my eyes. I ignored a few more of its yells as I slid further down into the warmth of my sleeping bag, when all of a sudden there was a loud noise right next to me: A gruff bark, similar to the fox, but more throaty. Literally metres from me. What the hell was it?
A psychopath with a chainsaw?
Nope. I have now worked out that it was a Muntjac deer. I’d never heard one of these before, and if I never encounter one up close at 5:30am on a Saturday morning ever again it will be too soon.
I tried to sleep, but by now I was wide awake and it was futile. There’s just no recovering from being woken up at 5:30am! I enjoyed listening to the sounds of the surprisingly un-spooky wood until 7am, when I got up, packed up, and headed out of the woods to go get some breakfast and a cuppa.
I awoke on day three to find that the third night had not been good to me. One of the shock-cord tie-outs on the tarp had rubbed against the rocks in the night and eventually snapped allowing rain to periodically splash me in the face through the opening of the bivvy bag. I’d taken action by rolling over to point the breathe-hole toward the sleeping mat to prevent getting any more wet. But with all my clothes already soaked from the day before, and with the howling wind, it was not a warm night. I didn’t sleep well. And when I awoke in the morning I realised I’d made a catastrophic mistake in my choice of location.
On Dartmoor, you see, the wind invariably seems to change direction in the night. That was part of my reasoning for building the shelter I had: A lean-to against the rocks with no openings. The naturally formed corner in the rocks already protected me from the wind on two sides, and the tarp protected me from wind on the other two sides when it inevitably changed. I’d put a lot of thought into the wind protection and it had worked pretty well in that regard I suppose. But what I didn’t consider was the rain. Up against a tall rock formation the rain was hitting the rocks, then rolling straight down to where I was camped. And of course a tarp can’t be made flush against the rocks, so the water carried on down and into my camping area.
Worse still, the area I was in was flat with a raised lip all the way round. This should probably have been a warning to me: This area became a pond of sorts in wet weather. A pond with me sleeping in the middle of it. My coat was waterlogged when I woke up, as if it had just come out of the washing machine. So too were my “waterproof” trousers. And my socks, and my shoes. Imagine getting up in the morning, going to your washing machine to find your only clothes weren’t drained after washing and so are waterlogged. I don’t mean damp and I don’t mean wet. I mean waterlogged, with water pouring out of them as you pick them up. And imagine having to put them on. Outside, in the cold howling wind that’s so strong it hurts when the rain hits you. That was me on the morning of Sunday 3rd May.
My rucksack was soaked too, but that was the least of my worries. Getting into a sleeping bag with soaked clothes on isn’t ideal. Putting that sleeping bag inside of a semi-breathable bivvy bag is even less ideal, as the bag can only breathe so much water each night, and that’s not much at the best of times. But since the tarp had failed to keep me dry with rain water bouncing off the rocks and soaking me, the bivvy had been unable to breathe at all overnight, and all of the water I’d taken into the sleeping bag with me on my clothes was now on both my clothes and all over my sleeping bag. It too was drenched.
So there I was on Dartmoor in gale force winds desperately trying to fold my tarp up to put it away, and facing a big decision. Taking the quickest route possible straight back to the car (quickest, but not the most direct route) I had an 18 mile hike ahead of me. Or the alternative was risking hypothermia doing another night of camping with a soaked bivvy bag, sleeping bag, sleeping mat, tarp and clothes.
This seemed like a risky idea. Cutting my adventure a day short and hiking 18 miles seemed like the more sensible idea.
I looked at the distances I’d covered on the map on Friday and Saturday. Both days worked out at pretty much exactly 10 miles each, and each day had taken roughly 5 hours to cover. But then I’d not been in a rush either day and I knew I had more speed than that in me. But to cover nearly twice that distance in a day I knew I would tire, and I knew my pace would drop. And I was certain I wasn’t fit enough for an 18 mile hike really, and on top of all of that I’d already covered 20 miles over the past 2 days. The chances of me covering 18 miles before it went dark seemed slim. Very slim. But it was that, or risk freezing in the night.
So… I bit the bullet and set off at warp 9 hiking speed. I knew if I was going to make it before nightfall I was going to have to not mess about at any point, even when it came to crossing streams. At the first ford I made an executive decision: My feet were already soaked, and they weren’t going to get any wetter by walking straight through the stream, so I rolled my trousers up and marched straight through. I reached Hangingstone Hill in record time where I stopped for an energy bar snack, and with slightly better visibility than the previous day was then able to find the path I should have been following. I followed this all the way to Quintin’s Man where I stopped for another energy bar and some water. I gaped at the map and realised that, if I was able to keep this pace (which I knew full well I wouldn’t be able to) I’d reach the car by 6pm that evening: A good three hours before sunset.
I put on my grim “it’s-time-to-get-out-of-here” face and carried on back through the streams at Little Varacombe, enjoying the cold of the water on my sore feet and knees, up Sittaford Tor hill, down to The Grey Wethers again, back to the bridle path that Mr and Mrs OS had drawn so badly, and then realised quite suddenly that my feet were getting very sore from blisters. Marching through each stream with no attempt to keep my feet dry was, clearly, not proving to be the greatest idea ever. I stopped for some lunch thinking that might help my feet settle down a little. My knee was hurting pretty badly by now too, having covered 10 miles in less than three hours.
After lunch I stood up to carry on, but neither my blister nor my knee felt much better. I took two steps and then a stabbing agony in my foot told me the blister had just burst. I stopped again to administer first aid, only to discover I’d never included any blister patches in my first aid kit. What the hell? How could I make such a massive oversight?! I started knocking back painkillers instead. I was over half way now, and I’d done it in just over a third of the time I had estimated! I couldn’t give up now, so I limped on.
The next mile felt like three: I simply couldn’t work out which leg to limp on. The ruptured blister on my right foot made me limp to my left leg, where my knee would send an electric shock of agony which would make me limp back to my right leg. I took more painkillers in the hope of dulling the accumulating aches and pains, but at twice the maximum stated safe dosage for both paracetamol and ibuprofen I was already seriously pushing the limits.
I found myself stopping more and more often for water, snacks and painkillers.
At Postbridge I picked up the road to Widecombe In The Moor, then at Lower Blackaton I made my way back onto a bridle path with a steep 100 metre climb up followed by a 170 metre descent into Widecombe In The Moor. Every single step was agony, my pace had been slowing ever since I’d stopped for lunch and I’d lost count now of the number of times I’d had to stop and thought I’d not be able to go on. But on I’d gone as there was nowhere to stop for the night now: I was in a rural part of the moor.
When I finally limped into Widecombe In The Moor I cursed the fresh-faced tourists who’d simply stepped off a tour bus to wander around the village, which was completely closed, being a Sunday and all. I wondered what the hell they were doing there. But then I saw the hill I needed to climb to reach the Top Tor car park where the car would, hopefully, still be waiting for me. My heart sank. It was another 160 metres up a 20% incline on a main road with no verges.
With no alternative available I set off up the final obstacle Dartmoor had put between me and my car. I can tell you now that hill went on forever. Every step was excruciatingly painful in both knees and both feet. I’d hit rock bottom and had enough. Dartmoor was clearly trying to kill me, but I wasn’t going to let it. Eventually, with sweat pouring off me, I saw the car park and my heart leapt. I’d finally made it! Except, where was the car?
Where was the effing car?! And come to think about it, wasn’t there a sign at the entrance to the car park when I arrived? And there was definitely a path leading off to Top Tor on the other side of the road. And, wait, the car park was definitely on the crest of the hill. I looked up the hill and realised this wasn’t the same car park. There was still plenty more hill to cover. The realisation was crushing, but I had no choice but to carry on. Up and up and up thinking about nothing but the agony in my legs and feet.
When I finally reached the car, which thankfully hadn’t been stolen, set on fire, or otherwise incapacitated, I nearly cried. It had been a very long, hard day. I praised myself for having had the foresight to leave some dry socks and shoes in the car, so I climbed into the back seat of the car and started peeling wet layers of clothes off me as the wind battered the car. And then I checked the time: It was exactly 6pm. I’ve still no idea how I’d made it back on time, but I had. Quite broken, but back safe.
The morning of day 2 on the moors saw a transformation in the weather. Friday had been clear and sunny with a bracing wind, but Saturday saw the moors covered in dense mist, rain and gale force winds. How all three of those weather patterns could somehow exist at the same time, to me, defies all logic. Then a problem became very apparent: My jacket was not waterproof. At all. Not even a little. The rain was landing on the jacket and being actively absorbed by the material. That’s not what wet weather gear is supposed to do. In fact I’d go so far as to say it’s quite the opposite of what wet weather gear should do.
I’d obviously made a serious mistake while reproofing my gear the day before heading out. I must have used the Tech Wash bottle rather than the Wash-In Direct bottle and, in my haste, not realised.
I pondered this for about 3 seconds and then decided not to worry about it. It was just water! I’d survive. I’ve been surviving for over 30 years in the presence of water, why should it be any different this time?
The map showed a suspiciously straight bridle path heading almost exactly due North just a little way to the West from Stannon Tor where I’d camped, so I marched out into the fog with a visibility of about two to three metres following a bearing on the compass to direct me towards the path, passing through the remains of a settlement. As expected this bridle path didn’t seem to exist in anything like its rigidly-straight form shown on the OS map. Mr and Mrs OS had clearly cheated on this area of moor: It seemed they were aware of a path, but presumably not bothered to send anyone out to actually trace it onto a map. In reality there were 3 paths all heading off on slightly different bearings, none of which were quite the bearing shown on the map. I picked the one that seemed most appropriate and puffed my way up the hill.
Eventually I reached The Grey Wethers stone circle, a pair of restored stone circles within sight of Fernworthy Forest. Folklore tells us that the locals here once sold a drunk farmer a fine flock of sheep that, in the sober light of the morning, turned out to be the stones of the Grey Wethers. After snapping a few photos I carried on up the hill of Sittaford Tor, then down the other side to Little Varacombe where I stopped to collect water. Here I saw two other hikers, the first people I’d seen for over 12 hours.
They were even more surprised to see me than I was to see them: They’d already covered 10 miles that day and hadn’t seen a single soul along their route. Given the weather this wasn’t so surprising, I suppose: They could possibly have passed within a few metres of another person and not seen them in the fog. They warned me that the hill I was heading for, Quintin’s Man/Whitehorse Hill/Hangingstone Hill, was thick with fog, howling wind and horizontal rain with absolutely no visibility. They painted a grim picture.
After watching them disappear into the mist, almost as if they’d never existed, I pressed on up the hill to Quintin’s Man and set out North West following the path to Whitehorse Hill. Or so I thought, at least. In fact the path vanished and I am now convinced I had mistaken a sheep path for the path I wanted. I was trying to head North towards Hangingstone Hill but the path was getting sparse. Along the way I stumbled across a hut circle that wasn’t even listed on the map and took the opportunity to make lunch. I didn’t see anyone while I was there. In fact I didn’t see anything, just fog. Fog and rain. And wind. How can all three things occur at once?!
After lunch I went to head off and realised I’d completely lost track of which direction I’d even arrived from. With no visual cues it’s easy to get disoriented. It’s a good thing I carry a compass as a matter of course or I’d have been royally screwed on this trip. My clothes were soaked by this point with both my “waterproof” trousers and “waterproof” coat soaking up every drop of rain that landed on them. Fortunately my warm gear is synthetic meaning it does a good job of retaining heat even when wet, so I soon warmed up despite the wet once I started walking.
As I continued North the path went from sparse to non-existent to difficult terrain to outright bog, and then almost-impassable. I found myself wading through water that came up to my shins, cursing Dartmoor with every step and wishing I could get off this wretched hill. People have died crossing the bogs on Dartmoor, and who could help me if things were to go wrong? There was no way a helicopter could land up here, no way anyone would spot me, no way anyone would hear me in the fog, no way my phone would work with so much water in the air, and with wet gear that absorbs water and high winds I’d not have long before hypothermia got me… I tried not to think about it.
The map showed I was too far West so I tried heading North East to get out of the bog. I eventually gave up on that idea, set a course due North and powered my way through; I made a decision I was getting out of there as fast as I could knowing there were good paths after Whitehorse Hill, and my goal of reaching the southernmost point of my previous Dartmoor adventure was now within spitting distance.
I found myself on Whitehorse Hill all of an unexpected sudden. A small military hut was just visible through the mist, so I headed toward it to try and get out of the wind for a little while, and found myself face to face with a group of guys with dogs who’d had the same idea. We chatted for a while about what lay before them before I carried on North on the now, thankfully, well-defined path. The path became a track, and suddenly I was at the fork where, 6 months earlier, I had opted to stop walking South and start heading back in a loop towards the northern edge of the moor. The map showed there weren’t many good spots for a good night’s sleep, other than to retrace my steps from MA#3 and head for Yes Tor or High Willhays…
After MA#3 I’d been slightly disappointed that I hadn’t slept on High Willhays – the highest point in the moors and even southern England, instead opting for Yes Tor for various reasons of practicality. The height differential was a mere 18 metres, and I’d had a fantastic night on Yes Tor, but the lack of bragging rights had really got under my skin. Maybe this would be my opportunity to set that right? It was still a long way to High Willhays, on MA#3 it was taking me – in a roundabout way – back towards my starting point and thus shaving a few miles of walking off the next day’s hike. But this time it was merely leading me further and further away from the car. But at least it was on proper tracks rather than through bog.
The final scramble up the torturous hill from New Bridge to the point half way between Yes Tor and High Willhays all but destroyed my now very tired legs. My right knee was twinging with every step. I could feel small blisters on both feet. I was soaked to the skin and the wind was beginning to have a real cold bite to it. I’d brought with me a tripod for my camera which I’d used on this journey a grand total of, oh, never, and I cursed myself for being so stupid as to bring something so heavy. I’d covered ten miles and gained and lost a total of at least 640 metres of altitude and I’d carried those extra kilograms the whole time for no reason at all.
Now, as the path curled South onto the summit of High Willhays, the wind kicked up into the fiercest gales I’ve ever experienced. The only thing that comes close was when I took a catamaran ferry to Ireland: Standing on the deck the wind was so fierce that the water-spray hitting me in the face felt like sand in the wind. At the top of High Willhays it was windier and wetter even than on the catamaran and the rain felt like hail. I was contemplating going back to Yes Tor but my legs, feet and shoulders all hurt and I was exhausted, I wanted to sleep and the sun was not going to be up for much longer. I dropped my bag and started scouting for a place to pitch the basha where I would be out of the wind.
The perfect spot was eventually found in a naturally formed corner on the main rock of the tor with a perfectly flat area of ground beneath it. This was the only place out of the wind, and the only place with a suitably flat area of ground. After the previous night’s success with a lean-to setup I thought I’d repeat the experience. It took me a long time to get a structure in place, and I was never entirely happy with what I’d built, but as the sun began to dip and my thoughts turned to my empty stomach I eventually decided it’d have to do.
I quickly cooked, ate, and set up my bed for the night. This time with a bivvy bag, with the rain travelling horizontally it would have been madness not to. I fought my way into my sleeping bag with my soaking wet gear on and placed my coat, “waterproof” trousers, socks and shoes all next to me under the tarp to dry out overnight.
Regular readers of my blog (ha! I know you don’t exist but it makes me feel like writing this isn’t a complete waste of my time if I pretend I have an audience… 🙂 ) will know that I spent two nights on Dartmoor back in the autumn. And I loved it. And I wanted to do it again.
Well I did. I did it again, and it was awesome. Again.
My eighth microadventure was at the very end of April crossing over into May, but this was April’s microadventure as far as my year of microadventure goes. I was still catching up after my serious illness in February, and this microadventure just about brought me back up to speed.
For this trip to Dartmoor I wanted to see a different part of the moors, and having recently been bought a copy of the absolutely fantastic book Wilderness Weekends by Phoebe Smith and noted some of the sights she recommended on the moors, I chose to make her walk my starting point for my microadventure. But I wanted to go further, see more, and do more than her walk suggested.
For one thing I had more time: I was heading down last thing on a Thursday night after work having taken the Friday off to turn the bank holiday weekend into a four day affair. So rather than just Saturday and a bit of Sunday, I had all of Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and a bit of Monday to really see the moors!
My plan was to really soak up the moors and get close to them. Oh yes.
Before setting off I decided to re-proof my wet weather gear as I’d realised my ageing jacket and trousers were no longer waterproof. I re-proofed them in a hurry the day before I set off knowing there was a good chance I’d need wet weather gear on the moors.
In the spirit of microadventuring I didn’t want a route plan as such, just a vague “I’ll start here and let’s see what happens” attitude. I arrived at the tiny car park near the summit of Top Tor around 11pm, wandered to the summit of Top Tor, picked a suitably grassy spot and pitched my basha before climbing into my sleeping bag – sans bivvy for the first time ever – and going to sleep. Having found my 2-season bag to not be warm enough on my previous microadventure I’d opted to use my 3-season bag for Dartmoor. With a 4-night outing planned I didn’t want to discover I’d not brought enough insulation to cope with the wild Dartmoor weather, so I figured the extra weight was worthwhile. Turned out I needn’t have bothered, I woke up sweating in the night and had to peel layers off to keep from basting in my own juices.
Friday morning I set off bright and early after scaring the hell out of a woman walking her dog. I popped out from my camouflaged basha just as she walked past, she was pretty much next to me and hadn’t spotted it so the camouflage definitely does its job.
I packed up and headed for Hound Tor, the first stop on the Wilderness Weekends walk. Along the way I picked up smallish pieces of wood that I could carve into additional tent pegs having found myself lacking in the peg department.
Hound Tor was pretty and I took the time to stop and, despite the long walk ahead, I climbed to the top of the rocks to look at the spectacular views. At the very top I had to completely flatten myself against the smooth rock to keep from being blown off to what would have undoubtedly been my death. Alone on a 4 day hike in the middle of Dartmoor taking unnecessary risks is probably a bad idea I reminded myself, and so I promptly but carefully descended back to safety. I found a letterbox which I signed before continuing.
Jay’s Grave was the next stop: According to local folklore this is the final resting place of a girl who committed suicide in the 18th century, possibly as a result of having become pregnant out of wedlock. The story goes that she hanged herself in a nearby barn, and her body had been buried in an unmarked grave. This was was later reopened and her remains reburied in a proper coffin with a proper headstone. For years the appearance of fresh flowers was a mystery until it was eventually discovered that the local author Beatrice Chase was responsible, at least for a while, of maintaining the flowers at the grave. As the story of the maid’s suicide became more and more embellished with time the grave became more and more of a tourist attraction and now all manner of offerings are made at the grave by passing folk. There are as many ghost tales from this part of the moor as there are visitors to this part of the moor…
I continued past the grave though Natsworthy and up to the top of Hameldown Tor where I stopped for a lunch in the gale force winds, sheltering my Trangia as best I could behind a rock. Getting the stove started in the first place was tricky as my lighter was repeatedly blown out by the wind. Note to self: Buy a storm-proof lighter. Oh and a wind-breaker for the stove.
After lunch I headed back down the hill into Grimspound, the remains of a bronze age settlement built around 1300 BC. It’s a fascinating area: A large outer circle that had been the wall of the village, and a series of hut circles. Most of what can be seen here now is a reconstruction, but it gives you an idea of what had been. Despite being a reconstruction you can still reach out and touch a piece of history in this place, and that feeling imbues the location with an air of mystery and history. The air is thick with it.
Carrying on through Grimspound I climbed up Hookney Tor, which was beautiful. My heart was torn at this point: Carry on walking… or camp here for the night? Eventually I decided to carry on, I didn’t feel like I’d done enough walking for one day to justify making camp, and it was still very early. I made a note to come back and camp here on the Saturday or Sunday, but it sadly never happened.
Following the Two Moors Way for a short while I found myself alongside Fernworthy Forest near Assycombe Hill. When I’d looked at the map back at Hookney Tor I’d thought I would camp here, but on arrival it was all bog. I now knew I needed a Tor: The rocks provide drainage and give protection from the wind, so I headed over towards Stannon Tor. By this point I had begun to realise that my route was taking me surprisingly close to the southernmost point of my previous Dartmoor adventure‘s hike, and I was keen to keep pushing on North West with the intention of linking up with my last Dartmoor adventure’s route. To that end Stannon Tor seemed a good location to camp the night.
On Stannon Tor, as it had been on Hameldown Tor and Hookney Tor, the wind was at gale force. I spent a little while trying to scout out a good location for my basha, eventually settling on a lean-to set-up alongside the large granite rocks at the very top of the tor. I carved the strips of wood I’d collected along the way into additional tent pegs to make up the numbers in order to build a better shelter and again I slept without a bivvy bag, despite it raining during the night. A little water got onto part of my sleeping bag where water had dripped off the rocks and onto my sleeping mat, but it didn’t get wet enough to pose a problem. Again I was too warm during the night, so the 3-season bag proved to be overkill.
In Microadventure #1 (Burghclere to Walbury Hill Night Hike) I hiked 12 miles in difficult conditions, and then slept at the end of the Wayfarer’s Walk on Walbury Hill, before heading back to the car in the morning. I was somewhat disappointed with that microadventure for a whole bunch of reasons, but I was particularly disappointed I’d not seen Walbury Hill in the light of day. Being the highest points in both Berkshire and Hampshire – since the county boundary bisects the hill – I had really wanted to see the top of the hill and the views commanded from there. I’d been far too exhausted and injured on MA#1 to climb to the top and so had slept at the bottom in the dark and the fog, with fantastic views of absolutely nothing.
I’ve been wanting to correct this for some time. When March’s “my year of microadventure” rolled round a month late in April I knew I had to revisit Walbury Hill and do it properly. I was still recovering from the serious bout of illness I’d suffered back in February at this point, and so planned for another very gentle outing.
I remembered that there was a car park at the bottom of Walbury Hill and knew it would be an ideal choice for a gentle walk with a sleep on a hill. Perfect.
I drove out there and parked at the bottom of the hill, which was less simple than I had expected. Why? I’d walked there 6 months ago, I should have known the roads and the look of the place. But it turns out that Walbury Hill looks VERY different in broad daylight and when not covered in thick fog. The car park at the bottom of the hill is already surprisingly high and overlooking an absolutely breathtaking view. On MA#1 I’d walked right past this view oblivious to its presence by the lack of visibility. Arriving for the second time I couldn’t believe I was in the same place as it simply looked too different.
Reaching the top of Walbury Hill I have to confess to not being blown away by the available bivvying locations, nor the view. The path over the hill is actually a road, of sorts, with wide verges alongside of it, but to me a verge does not seem like much of a bivvy site. And still being light and with plenty of people still on the path I decided to carry on along the Wayfarer’s Walk to its end at Combe Gibbet. At that point I was thinking I’d spend the night at the gibbet, but I reached it much quicker than expected, and it turned out to be private property and full of sheep. Not a great place to put your head down for the night. And so on I walked, continuing onto the Test Way.
Both the Wayfarer’s Walk and the Test Way start at Inkpen Beacon, the hill on which Combe Gibbet is located, and they could be considered to be continuations of one another. I carried on Westward as darkness fell. As I passed a field of sheep near the gibbet I spied one with its head stuck in the fence separating the field from the path. It had managed to get the fleece on its neck thoroughly tangled in the thick brambles that were growing on my side of the fence alongside the path, and they in turn were preventing it from sliding its head back through. Not wanting to return in the morning to find a strangled sheep I helped the panicked animal by slowly making my up to the fence making what I assumed to be noises that would be soothing to a sheep. Gently pulling the brambles out of its fleece I slowly untangled the stricken creature. After a fashion it managed to free itself from the fence, look back at me with a disgusted expression on its face, then run after its mates who’d left it for dead. Some friends, huh? And for that matter some thanks, huh? Clearly, sheep have no manners.
I carried on down the Test Way along Inkpen Hill where I eventually found a reasonably secluded spot between a hedgerow and some trees. Thinking ahead for once I’d even brought myself a spot of dinner in a Stanley thermos flask which I then ate with a multitool. Apparently my forward thinking hadn’t stretched as far as considering to bring a spoon.
Being a fairly clear night made for some great photo opportunities for star photography, so I snapped away for a while before realising I was getting tired and cold.
Ready for some sleep I got out my new lightweight 2-seasons sleeping bag that I’d only just bought earlier that week, and proceeded to bed down. Turns out April was still a little too early for a 2-season sleeping bag and so I found myself waking up in the night shivering and wishing I’d brought my 3-season bag.
An abundance of sleep was not had that night: Partly thanks to the cold, partly thanks to the fact that I never seem to sleep well the first night of a microadventure – which is particularly annoying since most of my microadventures consist of only one night under the stars – but also largely thanks to the rave that seemed to be happening nearby. I never worked out where, but there was a hell of a lot of loud music fairly close by that night. I suspect it was over at Combe Gibbet, but I don’t know for a fact. There was no sign of it the next morning, but there were some empty beer and cider cans that hadn’t been there the evening before.
Next morning I packed up, took a couple of photos and then cursed myself for not having charged the battery on my camera since it spectacularly failed after only a few photos. So with little else to do I headed back down the Test Way paying special attention to the lack of a dead sheep in the fence.
As with every other micradventure, life felt good that morning.
In March when I was finally feeling strong enough to get out onto a hill again I knew I wouldn’t have the strength for anything demanding, and so I opted for the gentlest outing I could come up with and chose Beacon Hill.
So this is my “February” microadventure. In March.
The weather forecast was good: A warm (for March) and dry overcast night, so pretty much spot on for a microadventure. There is a car park at the bottom of Beacon Hill and it’s not far from the bottom to the top, albeit a steep climb when your iron count is low.
When I got to the top and set up my bivy bag it turned out to be a little colder than I had expected. I fought my way into my bag as best I could and found myself falling asleep from exhaustion before I’d zipped it up. I woke up an hour or two later frozen to my core, deeply regretting that decision.
Otherwise the night passed in an uneventful way and I packed up early as I was in a fairly exposed location and, being a popular dog-walking location, I didn’t want to be woken by a cold wet nose forcing its way into my sleeping bag. In fact I was wrong to expect dog walkers, I didn’t see anyone until I got to the bottom of the hill, but the old mantra still holds true: Arrive late, leave early.
In fact the closest thing I saw to a dog was a fox that was eagerly hunting while I packed up. We spotted each other at the same time and we both froze, though for different reasons. He stared at me for a moment and then darted away in a panic.
I spent the morning wandering around the top of the hill fort investigating the landmarks. Yes, Beacon Hill is yet another hill fort – I seem to be collecting them!
From one side there is a gorgeous view over Highclere Castle (better known as Downton Abbey to many) and its grounds. There is also a grave for George Herbert, the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, a key player in the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb. His grave is inexplicably kept locked behind a 6 foot cast iron fence. I very much hope that’s to keep people out, and not to keep him in…
The sunrise was a surprise, it was actually very pretty despite the cloud, and seemed to happen some time after it should have done. I’d been up and about for some time when the sun finally rose and the world was already bright and alive when suddenly the red ball burst over the horizon. I snapped a couple of shots before heading off.
Before I left I found the energy, somehow, to run and then climb onto the trig point at the top of the hill, to pose for a photo. My camera’s interval timer is very short so this was no small feat. This photo had a lot of outtakes, and by the time I’d got the shot I was exhausted. But I got it.
It was a very basic cut-back microadventure, but the point is I got out there and did it despite the fact I was still recovering, even if it was a month late.
Yesterday evening I attended my wife’s colleague’s surprise birthday party in a pub in a village just outside of Newbury. I quaffed a copious amount of beer (by my standards) and then we headed home. When I got home I grabbed my rucksack, stuffed my sleeping bag into it, filled up my hydration pack, and started walking.
It might not be entirely ideal to head out on a microadventure when drunk, but I knew the weather forecast was for a cold, clear, dry night… My chances of another clear night before the end of January were probably not great: this had been the first clear night for about three weeks, so I was keen to make the most of it.
I’d already decided I’d like to do a microadventure on Donnington Castle, a medieval castle that was the site of an 18 month siege during the civil war. After its eventual fall to the parliamentarians it was decided that the castle would be demolished. All that remains now is the gatehouse, some small walls showing the original outline of the building, and the earthworks that were built to protect the castle during the siege.
Being a short walk of about an hour from my house it seemed like a fantastic opportunity for a microadventure. And with being on a hill it commands fantastic views across Newbury making it the perfect spot for sunrise photography.
I rolled up around 1am, still drunk, and spent the next half an hour or so simply staring at the twinkling lights of the town and the twinkling lights of the stars. Eventually I noticed the cold and decided a retreat into the sleeping bag would probably be a wise move. After the usual fight to get into the bag I lay and watched the stars for a while contemplating, as I always do when staring at the stars, my own insignificance. And then suddenly I was asleep.
With alcohol in my blood and with the night being so wrenchingly cold it should come as no surprise that I slept badly. I never sleep well after alcohol, and it really was bitterly cold. This is the first bivvying adventure I’ve completed where I was actually cold during the night. But to be fair I used to always find myself freezing in the night on summer camping trips with a tent, so to be able to now survive below -3ºc with just a bivvy bag is something of a triumph.
And then I peeked out of the sleeping bag and noticed the sky was changing colour – sunrise was beginning! I leapt out of the sleeping bag, which was covered in frost on both the inside and the outside, to find my shoes and my gloves had also frozen in the night. I went about setting up the camera – this time I’d brought both camera batteries so as to avoid a repeat of the battery fiasco on the Liddington Castle microadventure. Already the sky was turning a beautiful pink colour and I found myself so entranced I kept forgetting to snap some photos.
After the pink sky settled down I went about packing my belongings ready to go home, thinking that was all the sunrise I was going to get, when a lady with a dog walked past.
“You’ve got the sunrise this time then, eh?” She said. Then she paused and looked at me again. “You are the same person who was here the other day?”
“No this is my first time coming up here for a sunrise.”
“Oh– Well you’ve picked a good day, you’ve definitely caught the sunrise!”
I looked behind me to discover that the pink sky had really been only the beginning. I’d been assuming the sun was behind the clouds, but there it was now, slowly starting its climb over the horizon. And so back I went to the camera to take some more photos!
This was a truly breathtaking sunrise. I could so easily have wussed out the microadventure having been out late for the birthday party, but I stuck to the plan regardless and the payoff was incredible. Here’s to the next awesome sunrise!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.