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.

Microadventure #2: Sleep On A Hill In Oxfordshire

I came away from my first Microadventure feeling somewhat ambivalent: On the one hand I’d all but destroyed my right foot, had no sleep, I had blood blisters where my backpack had been and literally every muscle hurt, but on the other hand I’d done nearly 20 miles of walking between finishing work one evening and starting work the next morning (although I have to admit I never actually made it to work that day in the end) and completed the single most gruelling hike I’ve ever undertaken. In that regard I felt pretty great about it.

Let me tell you now, one really rough night can make you really appreciate your sofa in a whole new way.

So when it came round to the next opportunity to undertake a microadventure I wanted to do something easier. My foot was still injured so long distance hiking was out, and my mind was still numb from the last walk anyway. I was itching however to spend one night in a bivvy bag under the stars, without any of the other pressures. And so I decided simpler was better: Sleep on a hill. Nothing more, nothing less.

I scoured the map for hills. Sadly Berkshire is a fairly flat part of the UK, but then it struck me: Uffington Castle, the Iron Age hill fort in Oxfordshire, is a short drive. It’s one of my favourite places and has easy parking near the hill. It was decided, now I just needed a night with reasonable weather.

When that day finally arrived I was all set. I’d learnt some lessons from my first microadventure, and so had spent some time removing things I knew I wouldn’t be using: The basha, the trangia, lots of food, some spare clothes, etc. What I’d not realised was that I’d put the bivvy bag into the basha bag to save some space. I drove half way to the site before I realised. By the time I’d driven all the way home I’d lost all enthusiasm and decided to can it for the night and try the next day, weather permitting.

The weather the next day was poor, so the plan was postponed one more day in favour of a clear night.

When I arrived at the empty car park a 4×4 followed me in. This was a bit of a surprise, given that it was after 9pm and pitch black, in the middle of nowhere. The 4×4 pulled into a parking space directly behind me and sat there with their lights on for a short while before switching their lights and engine off. I chose to wait in the car a while to see what happened. Eventually I was starting to feel brave enough to unlock the doors and get out, when suddenly their lights flicked back on and they started their engine, pulled out of their parking space and then moved to a parking space further down the car park. I waited another five minutes or so before filming a piece to camera for the video of the trip, and then getting out.

I’ve no idea to this day what they were doing there.

The hike up the hill was easy enough. At the top it was incredibly dark, being cloudy and with no natural light at all. I wandered across the fort for a little while trying to find somewhere to sleep, and found myself in a herd of sheep. Not keen on the idea of being woken up by sheep flocking over my head I chose to go away from the sheep.

I found a spot at the top of the hill above the white horse that was flat and that gave me a reasonable view to the east so that I could watch the sunrise in the morning. After setting the camera up on its tripod I was able to get a few star photos. None of them were incredible, but I wasn’t really there to photograph the heavens – I was there for a sunrise and to experience the joy of nature by interacting with it directly.

I watched the stars twinkling for an hour or two. Being so dark it was possible to make out the Milky Way, something I’ve never been able to spot before. All of life’s problems soon start seeming insignificant when staring straight up on a clear night. The picture we see when we look into a starry sky was painted millions of years ago, most of the stars we see likely no longer exist as it takes the light so long to reach us. I lay in my bivvy bag considering that I’m an unimportant speck on an important speck in an unimportant speck that forms part of an unimportant system in an uninteresting part of another system tucked away in an unimportant part of the universe.

Uffington Castle sunrise
The beautiful red glow of sunrise from Uffington Castle iron age fort. Not a bad view to wake up to.

I bedded down relatively early, I was tired and wanted to be up early enough to get a shot of the sunrise. The night was peaceful and I was amazed at how comfortable the sleeping mat was, and how warm the sleeping bag was with the bivvy bag. I’d expected to be cold, in reality I was lovely and warm all night.

The morning came quickly and I was rewarded with a red sky. Sadly it had clouded over during the night so no view of the sun making its way over the horizon as such, but watching the land around me slowly getting lighter and lighter was still a joy and I managed to get a few shots of the sunrise’s red glow on the cloud.

I didn’t want to be there when the dog walkers inevitably broke the silence and feeling of isolation, so I left early and headed back to the car knowing full well I’d be back out in the wild again soon enough making the most of the real world.

Watch a short video of the trip.