Microadventure #7: A Night On The Test Way

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.

March, My Year of Microadventure - #YYOM

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.

Nightfall on the Test Way, near Combe Gibbet
A beautiful dusk on The Test Way

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.

Eerie dusk on the Test Way, Berkshire
Sundown from the Test Way

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.

Starlight and trees along the Test Way in Berkshire
Stars and trees on the Test Way

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.

A sky full of Stars in Berkshire, shot from the Test Way
Sleeping under the stars. Is there a better way to sleep?

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.

Nighttime on the Test Way near Combe Gibbet, Berkshire
One night under the stars

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.

Early morning photo from the Test Way, Berkshire
Gorse in bloom along the Test Way

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.

Microadventure #1: Burghclere to Walbury Hill Night Hike

My first ever Microadventure – or, at least, the first that I have given the title of “Microadventure” to.

After work on Tuesday 14th I got in the car and drove to Burghclere, a small village to the South of Newbury, just over the border in Hampshire. It was already getting dark when I arrived: The first in a long line of errors. The plan had been to do the majority of the walk in daylight and watch the sun go down once I reached Walbury Hill – the destination.

The next error was that I’d grossly underestimated just how far I had to walk, and how difficult the terrain was going to be. And walking it in pitch black didn’t make it easier. On top of that about half way through the walk a thick mist set in.

  • Pitch black dark,
  • surprisingly tricky terrain,
  • thick mist with visibility of about 2 metres,
  • wet, muddy ground,
  • an overweight back pack on my back (I have a bad habit of packing too much)…

Not an ideal mix for a first microadventure. I arrived at the halfway point around the time I had planned to finish the walk.

Shortly after the halfway point something went very wrong with my right foot: The sole started hurting and it only got worse with each step. By this point I was in the tail end of nowhere in Hampshire, soaked and covered in mud. I couldn’t exactly call a cab. I checked the map thinking I could shorten the walk by changing the destination, but I was as far away from the car as I could get at this point.

One bad slip on a badly water-eroded path led to a fall into a water-filled ditch, grabbing a handful of brambles in one hand and a handful of nettles in the other. Soaked, muddy, hands throbbing and bleeding I still had no choice but to pick myself up and carry on trudging into the sensory-depriving mist. There was no scenery, even the path was barely visible.

Seconds felt like minutes, minutes felt like years.

I finally arrived at Walbury Hill at about midnight in a lot of pain. I didn’t bother climbing to the top, I decided to sleep at the bottom in order to avoid putting any further strain on my already very sore foot. It took close to an hour to get the bivvy site set up and in the bag. It was after 1am before I was even close to being able to attempt sleep.

Sleep was unattainable: The strain of the walk had left my heart racing and pounding, so I simply lay there in the mist for another five hours or so before getting up, packing everything back into my backpack and then hefting it back onto my back to head off into the mist once again.

I spent the morning simply finding the shortest, quickest route back to the car. The route wasn’t especially scenic, the plan was just to get back as fast as possible before my foot completely gave out on me. The sun rose around 7:30am and the mist lifted which improved my mood considerably and lifted my spirits.

I arrived back at the car around 9:30am – some time after I had planned to be back at work. I still had to drive home, shower, change clothes, drive to work, … In the end I called the office and told them I wasn’t coming in (one small perk of being the boss). I still had to go to a client meeting in Oxfordshire later in the day despite not having slept and being in a great deal of pain, but that’s part of the joy of the five-to-nine Microadventure.

TL;DR

This Microadventure hurt like hell, it was one of the toughest things I’ve ever done: I’ve been up and down plenty of mountains, done night hikes, a 30+ mile walk… yet this was the toughest hike I’ve ever done. It was only about 12 miles the first day and about 7 miles the second day, but the conditions made it hard. The total sensory deprivation made this hike torturous.

Does that mean I regret it?

Au contraire: I’m glad I did the walk even though it hurt like hell. I’m in no rush to repeat the experience, but I might be up for doing the same route in easier conditions at some point, perhaps in the summer.

I also learnt a great deal on this adventure:

  • You don’t need to take the kitchen sink with you, you won’t use 90% of the stuff in your pack,
  • Walking in the dark greatly decreases your speed,
  • Walking in mist vastly decreases your speed,
  • For your first microadventure you’re better off picking a simple location you can drive to, park, walk up a hill and then bivvy down for the night.

This video contains a few clips of the Burghclere to Walbury Hill Microadventure towards the start. I never made a full video for my first microadventure.