The North Downs Way is a national trail in the UK that starts in Dover in Kent and ends 153 miles later at Farnham in Surrey. I’ve been to Dover many times, but I am yet to experience Farnham, and suspect that when I do it will be because of the North Downs Way. The trail was launched in September 1978 and as the name suggest roughly follows the North Downs, a ridge of chalk and sandstone laid down during the Upper Cretaceous period when the land was under water, and later raised by tectonic movement. The trail does a magnificent job as a rural, often wooded ribbon winding deftly through a very densely populated region with urban areas and major transport infrastructure close by. It has natural features that genuinely make it easy to forget just how close it is to the motorway or the HS1 rail line that links London to continental Europe.
The North Downs Way enters my circle of active travel (walking or cycling from home for exercise, during the covid “Stay at Home” lockdowns) at Jade’s Crossing at Detling village and extends to Trosley Country Park. Jade’s Crossing is a foot, hoof and pedal bridge over a busy dual carriageway, and an example of “an accident has to happen before anything is done” highways planning when 8 year old Jade Hobbs and her grandmother Margaret Cuwertz were killed by a car driver whilst trying to cross to get to the village shop. Trosley Country Park homes a range of ecosystems including old yew woodland and grazed meadows, in a distinctly escarpment landscape, as well as having a café that provides the best bread pudding in the region. Right from the start at Detling this part of the route sets out a theme of local and nationally important nature reserves beginning with The Larches moving on to Boxley Warren then Bluebell Hill, Nashenden Valley, Ranscombe Farm, Holly Hill and Trosley. Thanks at this point have to go to the people, often volunteers, working with Kent Wildlife Trust, Plantlife, Kent County Council and the small local groups for maintaining these areas, as well the National Trails office.
Another linking feature of this trail segment are the Medway Megaliths, a group of neolithic features with the Coldrum Stones, Kit’s Coty House and White Horse Stone being a stone throw from the Trail.
The local exploration stimulated by the lockdowns enabled me to note and experience the transitions of a full year along this part of the trail. It’s been frozen by hoar frost and blizzards and baked by Kent sunshine. The hazel and alder catkins give way to hedgerow flowers of blackthorn and hawthorn. Snow drops then bluebells then yellow archangels carpet the wood land floors. Time spent hunting for orchids is amply rewarded. Birds appreciate the variety of wooded edges and meadows, and raptors cruise the ridgeline.
It’s a place to gorge on nature’s powers for well being and in less restricted times to enjoy a beer in the secluded copse garden of the Robin Hood Pub.
The UK Lockdown as a reaction to the Coronavirus pandemic included the immediate concession to take exercise by one episode of walking, running or cycling each day. This later became refined through a combination of journalists’ persistence with pinning down the details so that they could catch out rule breakers; and those who were supposed to be setting the example making interpretations that suited what they wanted to do personally. Confusion evolved on how far, how long and whether driving to the exercise was an essential journey. We (the better half and me) decided it was important for several reasons to make best use of this concession. Firstly we thought that the best chance of seeing the disease off, when it came to our turn to roll the dice, lay in maintaining a degree of fitness, but also we liked going outside and sitting indoors all day would definitely test our sanity.
Despite the passing years we retain sufficient fondness for each other that it appeared obvious we should undergo this daily exercise together. This preference, and the fact we live near the top of a hill, immediately ruled out running and cycling. We are not strangers to walking, in all terrains and in all conditions, but of late the age deterioration of my lower limbs means walking involves a degree of pain. The pain varies from background, “just get on with it” to an excruciating level with conviction that the next downward step will result in the irreparable collapse of the bone structure in my legs. This hasn’t stopped the adventures, it’s just that covering distances has become something I like to do by bike.
Initially I struggled to see an attraction in walking from home along routes I had covered many times and felt this would be something that needed doing rather than something enjoyable. I’m pleased to say that as with many things I was proved completely wrong.
We looked to innovate on route choice using maps to keep things fresh and managed to achieve a number of “I didn’t know that was here” events which included a hidden valley (to us – actually it incorporates an extensive signed path network) and a route leading across fields to finish along the River Medway that has gained the accolade of our favourite local walk. The Covid Walks took place during a spring of sunny weather in Kent and even repeating the same routes became an opportunity to observe the emergence of the natural world from winter. The bluebells came and went, and we started to notice new wildflowers and spent time absorbed in identifying them on the return from the walks.
I’d like to say that the resumption of regular walking had a miracle effect in easing the pain, but that would be a stretch of the truth. It is true that the reawakening has led to a conclusion that the reward outweighs the hardship, and now I’m straining at the leash for the situation with the virus to be safe enough to permit travels further afield to recommence. I also appreciate that for many people their encounter with this disease has not been so positive an outcome.
Last weekend, along with my sons and daughter I took part in the annual, and final, Grim Challenge. The moral of this story is that the family that runs the Grim together...gets wet and muddy.
The Grim Challenge is a course run over the army tank and off road vehicle testing and training facility in Aldershot. It is traditionally held on the first weekend in December and because of the vagaries of the British weather this can mean conditions range from pleasant and sunny to gale force winds, driving rain and ice breaking. Grim aficionados consider the foul weather runs to be the in the true spirit of the event. Whatever the weather the terrain guarantees that conditions will be wet and muddy. The mud generated at this location is reminiscent of the contents of new born babies' nappies.
The Grim has become something of a family tradition with various combinations of me, sons and daughter over the years - can't claim we made it every year, but we have a good collection of medals and T shirts.
The organiser announced that the 2018 running would be the final one, making entry all the more fitting for the 60at60 series. My sons also decided it would be appropriate to mark the occasion with the double Grim i,e, going around twice, meaning 16 miles in all, and they opted to raise money for charity - see the support a charity page . Adventure daughter and myself stuck with the original Grim of 8 miles.
The 1st December arrived in a very wet format - torrential rain and bin bags at the start. It was cold, wet, muddy and immensely satisfying. We original Grimmers ran and waded our way to the end. The 16 milers Brothers Grim adopted a leisurely approach on the second lap (bit of a feature of the 60st60 challenges) but finished in good style, and if that event does prove to be the last one they can rightly claim to be the last Grims running.
Congratulations to everyone who has completed a Grim over the years, for the thousands of pounds this has raised for good causes and to the organisers for making it happen -we'll forgive the lack of the promised T shirts this year!
The Dart 10k swim goes downstream from Totnes to Dittisham in Devon. It is an annual event organised by the Outdoor Swimming Society and attracts 1600 swimmers over the weekend. As part of my 60at60 events I found myself standing on the quayside at Totnes in an excited huddle with other swimmers about to embark on several hours of swimming. The tide and current definitely help, but this swim still involves a fair amount of effort and several hours exposure to cold water, hence a requirement to wear a wetsuit unless you were proven capable and competent without one.
I was not confident that the day was going to be a success. My original 60at60 idea had been to do one of the Great Swim mile events, which was duly completed in Windermere back in June, but the Dart Swim was on the Adventure Daughter’s tick list, and she considered a single mile to be unchallenging. On the other hand she is an accomplished club swimmer and diver, and I am not. We had agreed there was no point in her trying to wait for me, so although we started together she was soon a sleek dark shape disappearing into the distance.
I had done hours in the pool (thanks to Medway Council’s free swims for over 60’s) and practiced at Leybourne Lakes, an open water venue near Maidstone but six months previously I wasn’t doing any swimming; this was the equivalent of a couch to marathon transformation. I was happy I had fitness and endurance, but I had not managed to bring about much improvement in pace.
It took me a long time to settle, my front crawl fell apart with the jostling and moving water, and the low sun bounced off the water making sighting in goggles tricky. After a while getting frustrated I resigned myself to more comfortable gentler strokes and removed the goggles so I could enjoy the views.
All the briefing prior to the event emphasises it is a journey, not a race, but there is also an expectation that entrants are able to make good progress down the river, and a very efficient rescue system was clearly in place to fish out strugglers and stragglers. I developed a feeling that I was heading for the announcement, “Come in number 366, your time is up”, heightened when I suspected that I was the last swimmer. This position was confirmed for me by Ben, one of the safety team on a board who had become my shadow. However, far from this signalling the end of my swim, it became clear that Ben’s mission was to encourage me to Dittisham. So, 5.2km became “over half way”, I was advised the second half of the course provided more benefit from the current, Ben counted off the kilometres, gave me timing updates, advised direction changes, and simply presumed we were going to do this.
His intervention that I appreciated most was during a spell when looking around there seemed no-one on the tree draped river but me, Ben and the birds. The hurly burly of the mass participation event had long left us behind. “This is what wild swimming is really about”, said Ben. I agreed.
I am very grateful to Ben, and the team who waited on the raft in the middle of the river to feed me jelly babies, and the Outdoor Swimming members and volunteers who waited at the end. It’s a powerful thing, the kindness of strangers.
The North Downs Run is an 30k event with a justifiable reputation for being well organised, well supported and good sweaty fun. The 2018 running was no exception.; but it is also accepted to be a tough one. This is not only because it often seems to coincide with hot temperatures and the start time inevitably means that the running takes place at the time of day usually reserved for “mad dogs and Englishmen” – it also goes up and down a fair bit.
Desperately clinging to the comfort of some shade at the start of the race with Adventure Daughter, it was clear that the distance running adage of start slowly and then go slower was the only way we were getting around this today. And so that’s what we did. Tagging along behind an obvious veteran running a metronome pace we traversed woodland, planted fields, fields with great biodiversity and occasional rural roads we reached the halfway point in good shape. At halfway was just one example of the great water and jelly baby stations along the route, supported by lots of cheerful volunteers.
We pressed on across fields, passing the Cock Inn where the crowd usually found at this point must have been distracted by the England display at football World Cup and up the infamous cricket pitch hill (in the picture).
We finished in just under 5 hours.
My thanks to the organisers Istead and Ifield Harriers and to everyone who volunteered to make this day happen. I know there were another 500 plus runners but you made it feel like you were there just for us.
Photo Credit - thanks to Dawn Granger Photography www.dawngrangerphotography.co.uk/
There’s something strange about doing an activity like open water swimming as a mass participation event when it has so many attractions on a small scale. Last weekend, 9 June, we took part in the Great North Swim at Lake Windermere. It is reputed to be the largest open water swim event in the UK, and judging from the number of people we saw having quiet swims on their own in high tarns the next day, a number of people felt a need to restore balance.
It was a great day! Weather was kind, water was relatively warm, organisation was excellent, people were friendly, participants enjoyed a shared experience. From the “Hands up if it’s your first Great Swim” during the warm up it was clear that lots were in fact first timers like us. Adventure daughter swims a lot; I had built up to this day over several months, going from coughing and spluttering trying to remember how the breathing bit works to a confidence that I could cover the distance in a pool. The transition to open water can be daunting. No lanes – no boundaries also means it looks a long way, you can’t touch the bottom or the sides, and the water moves about on its own. But taking part in the event made the transition fun and safe. The build up to the day is intended to encourage more activity. There is a difference between floating on your back for a few minutes at the seaside and purposefully setting out to swim a mile, but both have their merits.
I suspect we’re hooked now – longer distance or the swim-run next year?
The river cruise element of my 60at60 was intended to be a multi day boating trip down a river, driving the boat and making stop offs as the mood took us. Something many people enjoy every year, but which have been a first for me. Add this to the point that given a selection of outdoor activities I would set a low priority for boat trips. For me they are usually a means to an end, or a compromise on a family holiday in exchange for also doing more interesting things. Therefor I put this event in the challenge category while others would have seen it as a straight pleasure, presumably leading to the misnomer "Pleasure Boats".
The hire of the boat was duly booked and the event scheduled to take place in late May, when life intervened. Jane, my wife, has been waiting for a hip replacement for several months and was firmly scheduled for mid June, but the date of the surgery was changed and brought forward. There was no choice really between missing the boat trip or declining the operation slot, so this trip became the third Jane has had to cancel due to the wayward hip. Jane now takes the view that any forward booking of trips is just a fruitless and expensive exercise, best avoided. I guess we may become more spontaneous for a while.
So that we would not be cheated of a boat trip, the adventure daughter arranged for us to take an excursion on a barge at Cambridge run by Camboats www.camboats.co.uk/ and organised by the Cambridge Museum of Technology www.museumoftechnology.com/ which is currently closed for lottery funded upgrading, giving its curators the opportunity to #getoutside.
The journey went into Cambridge and then back out into the countryside with lots of wildlife and expert commentary on the history of the locality, from medieval trade fares to the technological phenomenon that is the present day local economy of Cambridge. That this history included a fair slice of dealing with municipal rubbish and sewage was bonus for me. Looking forward to a return visit when the work is finished and the museum is reopened.
Adventure travel comes with an acceptance that things will occasionally (or even frequently) not go to plan.
On my recent trip to Costa Rica, all was wonderful and dare I say it efficient on the travel front – until it came to the short hop back from the Frankfurt airport hub to London Heathrow with Lufthansa. In Costa Rica we had navigated washed out mountain roads, diverted along dirt tracks due to a road closure for an accident, been dropped off by boat on remote beaches, and then picked up again when scheduled. We had covered a lot of ground without a serious hitch.
We flew from San Jose to Frankfurt in good time, but we were travel weary: as last days often can be when they involve being awake for a long time. We settled onto the flight from Frankfurt to Heathrow, due to take just over the hour, with thoughts of getting home a little too prematurely on our minds. At 30 minutes into the flight the announcement was made that the aircraft would be turning back to Frankfurt.
On one perspective, the plane developed a fault which Lufthansa decided on safety grounds meant it could not continue, they returned us safely to Frankfurt, put us up in a hotel overnight and flew us home again the next day.
The other perspective is, the flight had gone hallway when they decided to return to the home airport – I’m sort of okay with that, many a time I have decided to return an ailing vehicle home rather than seek a mechanic in a strange place, but it was clearly a commercial decision to do this. We landed back in Frankfurt after our scheduled landing time at Heathrow. The “We’ll sort you out” promises evaporated faster than aviation fuel. They started with the assurance that another plane would be prepared and we would be transferred onto it, which quickly moved to an assurance we would be split onto later flights (and the ground staff had all the details waiting for us) to a total absence any helpful ground staff greeting us or alternative flights home that day once we had landed.
Eventually, we headed back on the airport side of security to the Lufthansa desk who were advising people they would be put up in a hotel and would probably be able to continue on the journey in a couple of days. As my travel companion really needed to get back to work the next day this was a difficult message to receive. Flights on this shuttle route were more frequent than hourly and the wonder of smartphones revealed several companies still selling tickets for the route that day. With hindsight resisting the chosen solution by Lufthansa was futile, but those of us who refused to believe were sent on a wild goose chase in search of standby seats on the remaining Lufthansa flights leaving that day, before returning to the desk in failure and accepting the hotel voucher. We were promised we were on a flight at 18.30 the next day – others fared worse being told they would have to wait several days.
We stayed overnight and returned first thing in the morning to engage once more with a now less hassled and refreshed Lufthansa staff. Turns out we weren’t actually booked on the 18.30 flight but were cheerfully told that was not a problem as there were seats available on earlier flights. We eventually arrived at Heathrow 21 hours after scheduled, and my travel companion recorded the first absence from work of his career.
Seems clear to me to that these events meet the criteria for the compensation scheme so I duly applied for compensation. I received a response from Lufthansa saying they were receiving a lot of complaints so it might take longer than usual for them to respond. An ignored chase up after a week and I am still waiting for them to get back to me.
It’s not always the obvious risks of adventure travel that catch you out - but at least I had a good view of the green roof at Frankfurt Airport.
A visit to Costa Rica featured high on my list of things to do this year. The landscape, animals and the reputation for peaceful, green and positive living, Pura Vida is what attracted me – and I wasn’t disappointed. The country has lots to offer, including stunning beaches, unspoilt jungle and adventure activities galore.
I went on a two week long varied trip organised by KE Adventure which covered volcanic highland savanna through to coastal jungle fringed beaches, accessible only by stepping over the side of the boat and timing your landing with the surf. The trip was led by the effervescent Joe Bernini, who was effective at spotting and identifying wildlife and interpreting the spirit of Pura Vida while handling all the organisational stuff. Little wonder he has been voted a winner of Leader of the Year by KE Adventure clients.
Highlights of the trip for me were the antics of the spider monkeys, bathing in refreshingly cool pools beneath dramatic waterfalls and the privilege of close up views of a Quetzel, a fashionista of the bird world.