Adventures around London

The Essex Coastline

Aye me, it’s been quite a summer. Now 15 weeks in fact, since a a handful of adventurous chumlings and I set out to sleep wild in each and every county surrounding London. Even though we’ve managed to get a whopping 76 Londonites away from their desks and out to the hills (in the middle of the week no less), I’m feeling a little greedy. And it’s high-time I shared the love.

So here’s a few tips on how to go about creating a little adventure to escape the big smoke.

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The London Series: Essex and Surrey

Let’s get this out of the way early on, shall we? Deep breath, here goes: TOWIE. Fake Tan. Wel Jel. Reem. Sa’lty Potaata. Motaa’s. Boob jobs. Innit. Dagenham. Romford… I think that’s the lot…oh no wait…. Shuuu Uuuuppp.

The marvellous thing about the richest county in England (true fact) is that it offers a little extra sumthin’ sumthin’ for the mid-week wild camper: A shoreline. And if there’s one thing I love more than a ruddy good hilltop, it’s a shoreline.

London to Leigh-On-Sea in 38 minutes

London to Leigh-On-Sea in 38 minutes

So at 7pm on a Wednesday evening, myself and three overexcited microadventure pups made a break for the coast. High-fives, hugs and an introduction to adventure newbie, Rich, preceded boarding the train. There we wedged ourselves between backpacks and commuters, faces pressed against glass, eager for that first glimpse of countryside.

London to Leigh

38 minutes later we rolled into Leigh-on-Sea. We made straight for the The Peterboat to fill our faces with cheesy chips, garlic bread, coffee and chilly dawgs, before retiring to a secluded spot thirty minutes walk away, just below Hadleigh castle.

“What was that noise?!” Said Laura. Looking left and right as if watching a game of tennis.
“What noise?”
“That noise, just then… it sounded like a … I don’t know… a monkey.”
“A monkey?”
“Yeah, like a howler monkey”
“Ah yes, the Essex Howler monkeys. World famous…”

Rich gets very excited about popping his microadventure cherry

Rich gets very excited about popping his microadventure cherry

Nestled in bivvy bag, body angled ever so slightly down the hill, I had a clear 180 degree view of the surrounding land. The sun had just slid below the horizon, it’s long rays now replaced with a feint twinkle of street lights in the distance.

I shut my eyes and listened. Never before had I so acutely aware of how the sounds around me were changing. I fell asleep to the noise of a man-made orchestra: The rumble of planes overhead, a dull hum of traffic from the A13 not far behind, a train horn and the clackety-clack of its wheels on the track below. Night-time gave way to a virtual silence, only the rustle of leaves and whistles in the long grass to disturb our dreams. When the light of the moon faded and sunrise took hold, I was woken by a lone bird. Then another, and another until a full blown cacophony made it impossible to sleep any longer. Eventually, the first train thundered past, the hum of the A road returned and the planes took flight overhead. It was 6am. We’d come full circle, and it was time to get back to work.

4am in the morning - our Hadleigh hilltop heaven

4am in the morning – our Hadleigh hilltop heaven

 

A Surrey Double Whammy

Surrey, Surrey, so good we did it twice. I’m not entirely sure what happened last week. I can’t be sure – I think I got a little overexcited (most unusual). One minute I was arranging a modest one night bicycle-centric jaunt out to the hills, the next I had nine people keen to give Microadventuring a go, but on different nights of the week. What the heck, I thought. If people want to go Microadventurin’ then a-microadventurin’ we will go.

Part 1

The Caped Crusaders

The Caped Crusaders

Surrey part uno saw a cameo from Microadventure rookie, chartered accountant, sensible soul and all round suburban gent, Jonty McNuff. We had a couple of drop outs who cited ‘technical issues’ so late in the evening on Tuesday, an elite team of three met at Richmond park. We were just about to start spinning wheels in the direction of the sunset when third member of the pedal party, Will, aka Supercycling Man, stopped us mid-depart:

“Hang, on… Hang on…” He said, rustling around in the depths of his pannier. Just as I began to wonder whether he was going to produce actual superpowers from within the bag, he found what he was looking for.

“Ah ha!” He shouted, holding two brightly coloured lengths of material aloft.

“Today was Superhero day at school. You two up for wearing capes?” And so we of course donned the capes, and accosted a passer by to take pictures.

“Where are you lot off to?” Said Dominic, the passer by.

” We’re going on a ‘hashtag microadventure'” Will beamed. Dominic stared blankly back.

The Caped Crusaders

We three caped crusaders set off through South Western suburbia and out into the quiet country lanes of Cobham and Ockham. Soft birdsong… the whirr of wheels… the beats of the nineties blasting from Will’s water-bottle-boom-box. Following an aperitif of a samosa and a Yazoo at a local Michelin starred restaurant called ‘Shell’, we headed to The Queens Head in East Clandon for the main course. Once thirsts were quenched and hungers satisfied, we pootled off up nearby Staple Lane – a hill that left Samantha Sambuca the single speed’s one gear creaking and groaning with every rotation. Sweaty, red faced, and doing my best to keep the not-long-since-eaten pasta down, we crested the hill and took a footpath across a field into a nearby wood.

Disturbing the peace

We’d spotted a neighbouring farm closeby, and so made a concerted effort to keep our voices down and twig cracking to a minimum as we set up camp. It didn’t do to get disturbed afterall…

“BRRRRRRRRRRRIIIIIIIINNNNNNNNNNNNGGGGGGGG”

My iPhone slashed it’s way through the silence. “Hello?..Oh. Hi Mum.” Unfortunately, in the hurry to escape for the night I’d left my phone in the pub. In the time it had taken me to cycle back down to retrieve it and return to camp, the pub had called ‘home’. Mum had dialled 1571 (who the frig dials 1571 anymore?!) and, as only mothers do, convinced herself that I’d been kidnapped.

Will on his throne of smugness at sunrise

Will on his throne of smugness at sunrise

When bedtime came I lay awake for a little longer than usual. I stared up at the ceiling of leaves, and discovered that I could un-focus my eyes just enough to make believe that the gaps of light in the canopy were hundreds of stars.

As night unfolded, Jonty was eaten alive by an array of flying insects. A slug (called Samuel) took up residence on Will’s hand, and I listened to several nearby badgers get down and dirty / have a fight – I couldn’t decide which. I hope it was the latter. Badger porn on a Tuesday night just isn’t cricket.

Morning brought the most spectacular sunrise over the hill just out of the woods. We de-camped to the open field to watch the world wake up from our throne of smugness. Hot chocolates in hand, croissants mid-dunk and with a cracking view all the way into town.

Three counties down

Surrey part 2 was equally as eventful, but those tales will have to wait. We’re now three counties out of seven down. Tonight a mix of strangers, newbies and friends are heading for a camp out Hertfordshire. I. Cannie. Wait.

Until next time Microadventure munchkins,

McNuff out xx

 

 

Microadventure: The London Series

“That street you live on, that street, it’s the road to Africa, to anywhere, to…adventure.”

I was sat in the Ellis Brigham Mountain store in Covent Garden, listening to Al Humphrey’s talk about the four years he’d spent cycling around the world.

But I wasn’t there to hear about big trips. About grand feats of endurance and continents conquered. No, no.  I, along with a room full of other adventure lovers, had come for tales far closer to home. Of ‘Local Discoveries for Great Escapes’ as goes the title of Al’s new book: Microadventures. The concept is simple: Leave work bang on time, grab a chum (or two), escape to the countryside, eat, laugh, indulge in a wee dram, sleep under the stars and be back at your desk the following morning. Perhaps with a feint whiff of eau du field about your person and a dirty little secret to boot, but grinning from ear to ear nonetheless.

I’ve been a quiet fan of the microadventure for some time. I popped my bivvy cherry last year, and

Greater London and it's surrounding counties

Greater London and it’s surrounding counties

know only too well the strange satisfaction that comes from sleeping in a sack outdoors. So on the way home from the talk I had (if I do say so myself) a rather good idea. For the next seven weeks I’d go on a mission to prove just how easy London Microadventur-er-ing is. I’d do one trip per week in each of the six counties that surround London: Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire, Essex, Kent and Surrey (Yes, I had to Google what those counties were, please don’t judge me). And I’d drag as many people as I could along for the ride. For the final week we’d all find a way to sleep out in Greater London itself.

Team Berkshire

As an ex-rower, Henley is like a second home. Which made it a perfect location for the first week of the challenge. That’s what adventure is about after all – seeing the world through fresh eyes. Visiting places you know like the back of your hand and being surprised at what you find there. Pathways once invisible, leading to woods until now, unseen.

The adventure assembly at Henley was true Avengers style. Will, aka Super Cycling Man, pedalled from London, stopping so many times to take photos that he almost missed dinner. Shropshire natives and married couple Laraine and Owain (yes I think it’s cute that their names rhyme too) screeched in by car – looking glamourous having come directly from the Stroke Association awards that afternoon. Mark the cameraman jetted in from Jersey, and the rest of us, well, the rest of us… got the train. How frightfully dull.

By the time the nine strong team were gathered in the beer garden at The Little Angel, bevvies in hand, we represented a neat little cross section of society. Health and safety, finance, performing arts, education, couriers and communications, all were there – ready to shirk responsibility, cast off the 9-5 and (as Al puts it) start living for the 5–9 instead.

After consuming an adequate mix of carbs and protein (burger = protein, bun = carbs), partaking in one of our five-a-day (Gerkin in burger), quaffing local ales and playing the shortest and most ill-equipped game of Jenga, we left the pub and set out on the Chiltern Way footpath. Guided by my trusty torch (which contains the fire of a thousand suns) I blinded teammates at intervals as we picked our way across fields, through gates and (much to Super Cycling Man’s despair) over stiles. Twenty minutes later we arrived at a clearing in the wood with just enough space for nine weary bodies to rest.

“I need to hang my bag in the tree” Announced the ever cautious Jo Pickard.
“Errr, okay – why?”
“It’s got my banana bread in it.”
“Ah okay, that makes sen…no, wait. Why does it need to go in the tree?”
“Because…. I don’t know…There might be bears, or something.”

After reassuring Lady Pickard that the only likely candidate for a banana bread predator was a

A forest camp fit for Kings and Queens

A forest camp fit for Kings and Queens

rogue badger, we unrolled mats, de-robed (some more than others…Tarran) and went for one last gawd-I-hope-it-lasts-til-morning pee. We burrowed deep into sleeping bags and snuggled up under a canopy of trees and fragmented moonlight.

When morning came, jetboils were fired up, a timely brew was… erm… brewed and slurped alongside a breakfast of banana bread and croissants, both of which had miraculously eluded the Henley bears. With bellies once again full, we gathered our gear and ambled out of the woods in the opposite direction.

“My word.” Mouthed Russell (not the wilderness explorer, but a close copy).

The dawn had lit up a Poppy field. Red dots spattered across an otherwise green horizon, merging into the early morning mist, lurking in the river valley below.

After recovering from the romance of it all, I and the adventure avengers did what any civilized Berkshire resident would at 6am: We cannonballed into the river in our pants (in the case of Super Cycling Man his pants were, naturally, on the outside of this clothing). We squealed, frolicked, swam and sang, before exiting the river and scurrying, still wet, to the train station. There we caught the 6.30am train – back to Paddington, and back to normal life.

The morning after the night before.

The morning after the night before.

Are we crazy?

Possibly, although I’ll argue otherwise. I confess I keep my nocturnal trips on the down low with colleagues in the office I don’t know so well. And still, at the risk of sounding old before my time, I find it bizarre that to roll in with a hangover is a more accepted norm. Bleary eyed, mascara smeared, sambuca seeping from pores, hoping with all your might that that dirty breakfast

The Poppy Fields at Henley - better than a hangover

The Poppy Fields at Henley – better than a hangover

sausage will calm the storm in your stomach. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve done that too. But now days, a microadventure is my night out. I get treated to what feels like a weekend in the middle of the working week and I don’t stop smiling for any of the following day. While the world sleeps, watches TV or stays late at their laptop, I get better acquainted with the small corners of my own beloved country. And the only people I have to share it with are those who appreciate it as much as I do.

Since writing this I’ve returned from microadventure number two in Essex, and am about to head for number three in Surrey. Those two are a tale for next time….

Until then adventure lovers, Adieu xx

If you’d like to see what Team Berkshire get up to when they’re not bear-dodging in the Henley woods, you can stalk them here:

Microadventure Selfie

Microadventure Selfie

 

Jo Pickard: @JoPickard

Will Hodson: @SuperCyclingMan

Mark Davies: @Davies16

Russ Smith: @HikeBikeRun

Emily Chappell: @EmilyChappell

Tarran Kent-Hume: @Tarran008

Laraine Wynne-Jones: @LaraineWynJones

Owain Wynne-Jones: @OwynJones

 

 

 

Sunday at the Seaside: Wild swimming in March?

“Fancy planning a day trip to the seaside for a swim?”

It was early March when new adventure chum Emily dropped me a message. I won’t detail the ins and outs of my response, but it included an obscene amount of exclamation marks, the words ‘oh my gosh’ in quick succession and an overzealous use of the caps lock function. Needless to say the thought of a coastal swim left me (and my shiny new wetsuit) rather excited.

I’d only known this girl for 3 months. In fact, we’d met just once – on a London to Bristol cycle organised by Challenge Sophie. But anyone who agrees to leave East London at 5am and ride 135 miles to Brizzle with a group of strangers, is my sort of person.

Emily explained that she was part of a group of open water swimmers, called the ‘Excellent Women’s Swimming Society‘ (I sh*t you not), and did I fancy joining them for a trip down to Camber Sands? Let me think about that for a mome… YES.

The Excellent Women

Kristen, Alison and Emily - 3 most excellent women

Kirsten, Alison and Emily – 3 most excellent women

At 7am on a Sunday morning, I peeled back my eyelids. I hit the snooze button and stared at the ceiling. ‘Why oh why, in the name of all that is holy – do I agree to these things?’ I swung my legs onto the floor, made it downstairs, threw some coffee in the general direction of my face and set off on Samantha Sambuca the single speed – bound for St Pancras. Wetsuit in bag. Fig bars at the ready (gawd knows I love a fig bar), and feeling more than a tad excited about the prospect of a Sunday sea-frolick.

Already feeling mildly adventurous after an hours ride, I met Em and two other excellent women at the platform. All of them looking rather bohemian chic, in a combination of knits, jeans, and hoodies. I, rather embarrassingly, wearing lycra (I cant help it. I have problems).  We crammed the bikes onto the train, and, united by our various levels of insanity – got down to some serious chit chat.

In a bizarre twist, Emily then identified the train inspector as someone who had coached her in swimming when she was eight. Apparently neither had aged much over the past two decades, as he recognised her immediately too (I can only assume both parties indulge in frequent Oil of O’Lay application). The reunion was beautiful. A moment that should have occurred entirely in slow motion, perhaps accompanied by a rendition of Take That’s ‘Never Forget’, playing softly in the distance. How apt, I thought, that this train inspector had planted the very seed for Emily’s adventure that day.

Crusin' through the fields to Camber

Crusin’ through the fields to Camber

Sunday at the Seaside

After the train pulled into Rye, we swiftly set off along the coastal path to Camber sands. Across bright yellow fields, through heavy gates, round a car park (scenic addition), past sheep, ponies and… more sheep. Thirty minutes later the beach loomed into view, and we mentally readied ourselves for a deserted expanse of coastline. We were crazy after all, nay wild – escaping the confines of the indoors so early in spring. Of course… the beach was packed. Kids running around half naked, sand castles mid-construction and games of paddle bat being fiercely contested at the waters edge. Clearly these ‘coast dwellers’ had missed the memo from London town about it being little chilly.

Searching for a swim spot

Searching for a swim spot

Pride dented, we headed down the beach in search of the perfect spot for a swim. For the first time in 2014, we wrestled gleefully into wetsuits. Giggling like school children, lunging and readjusting mid-struggle to make sure Camber didn’t get more than it’d bargained for. The official report cited at least 3 side-boob escape attempts, but thankfully, none were successful.

Numb faces and Blue toes

The swim itself was glorious. I’ll admit that the eight degree water took a bit of getting used to, but (apparently) peeing in your wetsuit shortly after entering the sea takes the edge off. For the first few minutes I struggled to keep my face submerged for more than ten strokes. I thought of adventurer Sean Conway, and then of Davina’s sport relief challenge – and how on Earth they’d coped in such cold temperatures for extended periods of time.

Alison more than excited about the impending dip

Alison more than excited about the impending dip

Finally my face went too numb to feel anything at all – a splendid development that left me free to swim normally. We ploughed up and down for a good 40 minutes. Stopping for chats every now and then, and to bask in the joy of it all. Eventually when our hands became too wrinkled and our toes the wrong shade of Blue, we made our way back to shore.

Backtracking along the coastal path we headed straight to the pub. Hydration was followed closely by a search for ice-cream based protein, as we wandered the quaint cobbled streets of Rye for a final hour. At 5.30pm it was time to return to the big smoke. We dragged ourselves reluctantly to the train station, nudging our way back toward reality. Another return ride from St Pancras to Teddington at the other end, and I was home by 8pm.

The return to Rye

The return to Rye

That night, I clambered into bed exhausted, but grinning from ear to ear. The taste of salt water in my mouth, my hair infused with sand and feeling ever so slightly like I was still swaying.

How much I’d done with a Sunday – made new friends, indulged in a love of the seaside, of swimming, and learnt about a part of Britain I never had before. I was filled with a deep and renewed admiration for a country I’d lived in my whole life.

In adventuring, it’s true that you get what you give. Put in a little effort – go exploring, mix up your weekend, and the rewards are tenfold.