ADVENTURE: A January Microadventure

I hit a bit of a low point with venturing out following an assault on the way out to a trip to the woods. It left me a bit shaken and nervous about heading out.

After scratching a couple of planned nights out, either due to the weather, work shifts, or bottling out. Everything lined up and I finally forced myself out the door with the intent of a night in the woods.

The plan was simple, take the train a few stops, cycle up the hill, bivvi in the woods, enjoy the evening, cook breakfast, break camp (making note to fix it later), cycle down the hill, and come home. All pretty simple.

Step one was to load up my bike – a Brompton folding bike, with my camping gear, and as much water as I could sensibly carry. Before I added water, but including food, the whole lot came to about 7kg. To which I added 3.25L of water. 300ml to rehydrate dinner, and just under 3 litres to get me through the night.

Touring Brompton on the way out.

I arrived at my destination station, activated my buddy beacon, saddled up, and headed into the hills…

I had planned it all on the map, I’d even driven up the road a few weeks ago. So how hard could it be to cycle up there…

The honest answer is – very. The Brompton is a lovely bike, I’ve modded it to have 8 gears, and it’s a joy to ride. But it’s not really designed for hills… So I ended up pushing it up about 2km of the hill. To a max height of 190masl.

Elevation profile of my ride.

Having reached the summit, I then cruised down into the woods, past families returning from their afternoon walk. Past dog walkers, and deeper into the trees. Eventually I departed from the path and headed cross country in search of a bivvi site.

I found a spot in the shelter of a large mound, by some trees. I did a scan for widow makers, pulled out my sit mat, and collapsed by a tree. Phew. By now I had about 20 minutes until sunset and the sweat I had produced from the push up the hill was making me cold. Time to make camp.

I had brought with my my flecktarn tarp, along with a 10m ridge line. I tied one end to a tree, and walked over to the other tree I wanted to use for the other end. Stopping at the end of the ridge line about 1m short of the tree. With a James May like exclamation, I retreated to the original tree, and pondered my options. Rummaging in my bag I realised I had a pair of heavy duty bungees that had attached the dry bag to the rear rack, so I put these round both trees, and had enough ridge line to string it up between the two bungees. Phew. Tarp went up in a lean to config with one end pinned down to shelter me from the wind. The weather forecast was for no precipitation, and a light breeze, so the tarp was largely for concealment, as well as from the breeze. Tarp up, I folded the bike up, wrapped it in my old flecktarn poncho, and tried to lock it to the tree. Discovered that my bike lock wasn’t long enough, and sat down to have a cup of tea.

Making a cuppa.

Tea and rethink complete, I locked the bike to the luggage, making it unwieldy and noisy to steal, so that I should at least wake up if someone tried. Wrapped in the poncho, I stuck it in the back of the tarp, and set about making the bed.

At this point I was getting very cold even with all my coats on, the sweat from the hill climb was really chilling me down, and even tho it wasn’t yet 1700, I crawled into my sleeping bag stuck some radio 4 on, and tried to warm up.

My camp from up the hill:

My camp from up the hill

I was laying there listening to the radio when a light flashed across the inside of my tarp. Slightly confused I sat up and looked in the direction of the light. It shone around all over the place, flashing straight in my face again. It belonged to 2 dog walkers, who walked by about 50m from my position. I don’t know if they saw me, or realised what they had shone their light on, they didn’t disturb me. But it did get my heart rate going. The only other people I saw during the night were a couple of mountain bikers who cycled past 100m or so away.

A text from the friend who was monitoring my buddy beacon, informed me that he was in the area, and he would drop by to say hello. This would be a nice test of the buddy beacon technology, could my friend find me in the woods, in the dark, hiding in a DPM bivvi bag, under a flecktarn tarp…

Turns out, yes, tho he did walk past first, and then turned round to spot me… he’d very helpfully brought me a litre of water, and a bar of chocolate as “house warming” gifts. Both were very gratefully received.. We had a chat and warmed up with a hot chocolate. I was still fighting the cold, even in my sleeping bag my toes were numb, but that was nothing compared to the fight I was having with my meths stove.

I’ve only ever used the stove in the summer before, and it’s always worked fine. In the -2°C of the woods. It wasn’t working nicely. After a few minutes with the ferro rod doing nothing, I dug into my Staying Alive Cold kit for my lifeboat matches. This got the stove going and allowed me to make the hot chocolate. But I couldn’t keep doing that, I only had 5 matches in my SAC kit. After messing around trying to warm the meths up with body heat, I eventually had a eureka moment. My SAC kit has a US aircrew fire kit in it, this is a spark thingy like you get on a cigarette lighter, and a load of tinderquik. Using this I was able to get the stove going reliably.

My friend left and I went back to trying to defrost my toes. I nodded off for a bit and woke to a grumbling stomach. Excellent, curry time.

I dug out the curry pouches from my pack, and relit the stove using the tinderquik. It took me 3 fills of the stove to get enough hot water for the pouch of Korma sauce, the rice, and a mug of tea. Until I had the eureka moment, of using the second pot from my firemaple set as a lid. This made an instant improvement on the efficiency of the stove.

Unfortunately it turned out the curry was vile. After a few mouthfuls, I gave up and put it in the rubbish bag. Ew. I fell back on the chocolate my friend had kindly brought along. Very glad for the extra food.

Eventually I managed to get my toes warm, and snuggled down to listen to the owls. I counted 3 different species of Owl calling out.

I had expected that I would be woken by the sunrise, around 8ish. Not as it turns out by a full bladder, at 1030… oops.

It took me quite a while to summon the courage to crawl out of my toasty warm sleeping bag, into the freezing cold morning. Nature called, I returned to the warmth of my bag to plot my exfil. Only to wake up at half 1 and exclaim loudly. I packed up quickly, trying to stay warm. Reloaded the bike, and hit the trail.

The advantage of the 150m hill I climbed to get in, was the 150m hill I got to free wheel down to get home. Hitting in excess of 30mph on the Brompton on the way down, I cruised into the station for a train back to civilisation, and a fry up.

Not everything had gone to plan, I’d had trouble with the stove, had to deal with very cold toes, overslept, and forgot the frying pan to cook breakfast in. But I had managed a night out in the woods, on my own, in the middle of January, with sub zero temperatures. and survived! I’ve proved to myself that I can do it.

Now to unpack the map and plan my next trip…

This post was originally posted on Bushcraft UK forum


ADVENTURE: Wye not cycle Home? – a February Microadventure

Laying in a sand dune on the Sussex coast on the Winter Solstice ’14, I decided to set myself a challenge for 2015. To wild camp for a total of 15 nights between Winter Solstice ’14 and Winter Solstice ’15.

I returned home, and pulled out the maps from the local area and started plotting suitable trips. My first was a success. Bouyed by this I set about my ill fated second trip – walking the North Downs way, having to be rescued by a friend due to foot injury.

After weeks of feeling pretty crap, with various medical appointments to get my feet checked out. I had to reevaluate my plans for the year. The walks I had planned have had to be put back on the shelf for a later date. Instead my beloved Brompton has taken it’s place as beast of burden for my adventures.

I wanted to try and fit in another night out during February, but time was running out, what with work, college, and general life commitments. So when Friday the 27th showed itself as a sparsely populated page in the diary. The plan formed. I would have to drop the works van back to work, but that would leave me with 24 hours clear in which to fit in an adventure.

I loaded my Brompton up with my bivvi kit, I’m getting the hang of it now it seems, took me just 24 minutes to get the whole lot loaded up! I packed the bike and luggage into the back of the van, and hit the road. My intent was one of the very simple microadventure tropes, travel home from work by bike, bivviing on the way.

Fiddling around with the Cyclestreets journey planner, I had a route planned, 24km, including ascent from 43masl to 187masl, before returning to 6masl at home. The first 5km would involve climbing to the 187masl high point of the ride. I was a bit nervous of this, my January trip had ended up with more pushing the bike than I would have liked.

I parked up the van, loaded the Brompton with her luggage, queued up some Bitter Ruin on my headphones, and hit the road.
The gradient eased me in, almost lulled me into a false sense of hope. I climbed out of Wye in 2nd gear, singing along as I went. The gradient should be pretty constant all the way to the top, if it was going to be like this, then this was going to be more doable than I had expected.

Well, the gradient on the map and on the elevation graph didn’t quite match up with reality. I soon dropped to 1st as it got a bit steeper. But eventually after only about 1km, I had to get off and push. There was just 100m which seemed steeper than all the rest. Cresting this, I got back on the bike, and continued to pedal. I paused a couple of times on the ascent to let the lactic acid in my legs dissipate, and my heart rate to drop slightly. But with a euphoria and a loudly vocalised “I DID IT!” I crested the top of the Wye downs.

The view that greeted me was a bit hazy, but from here I could see down to the coast, Dungeness Nuclear Power Station on the horizon, and a squadron of wind turbines on Romney marsh standing sentinel. In the setting sun, it was beautiful.

I didn’t stop to take a photo, the sun was under a hand above the horizon, and I wanted to find a bivvi site in day light.

I pressed on. Down hill! I slipped the gears round to 8th and pedalled down the hill trying to carry as much of the speed as I could round the 90° bend at the bottom and up the hill on the other side, before realising that wouldn’t work, and grinding back down to 1st for a slog up the hill.

Spring felt like it may have sprung, in a quiet modest kind of way. Some verges were covered in snow drops, and here and there a daffodil stood yellow and hopeful.

I pedalled on, past a few bemused motorists, past ploughed fields, fields of brassicas, and flocks of sheep. Before plunging into the woods.

I continued for about 1km on the road through the woods before I was going to turn off the road onto the bridleway. I hit the bridleway at about 20kph, and rapidly came to a squelchy stop. We’d had a fair amount of rain recently, and the path was somewhat wet and boggy. My Brompton with it’s high pressure tires just came to a grinding squidgy stop. I tried fiddling about with the gears to get some purchase, trying to balance the torque to the grip, before eventually concluding that it wasn’t going to work. I got off and pushed.

Through the woods, and along the bridleway across the field, I pushed. I could see the sun, and it’s rapid descent to kiss the horizon. I didn’t linger.

Crossing the field, I hit the woods again. The ground felt firmer so I tried to cycle again. I carved a beautiful rut with my tyre. I got off and pushed it a bit further.

I had to find myself a bivvi site, and soon, there wasn’t much day light left. The first site I looked at was lovely and flat, not too close to the path, but when I looked at the big tree next to it, I realised it was a beautiful beech, I didn’t want to really camp under a beech tree, their propensity to get angry and throw limbs at passing campers doesn’t give you hope of a comfortable nights sleep. I pushed deeper into the woods.

I passed into an area of Chestnut Coppice. The stools were large, and the trunks were quite thick, a good 8″ or more in diameter. I found a flat spot. This would do the trick. I checked my phone, 6 minutes to sunset.

Normally I would sit and have a cuppa before putting up the tarp and rolling out the bivvi bag, but there wasn’t time, I wanted to get things up while I could still see. Looking at the terrain, I worked out where I wanted to put my bed. The nice flat bit, just the right length. I did a little naughty gardening with the potty trowel, removing a pair of bramble plants, so they wouldn’t puncture my bed. I planted them a few meters away.

Next I had to string up the ridge line. This is where I realised that my spot wasn’t as ideal as I had hoped. The axis of my tarp would run from one tree, to between two others. It’s hard to attach the ridge line to free space. This would require some creativity with the knots.

Eventually I rigged up the ridge line between 3 chestnut stools. I had an Evenk hitch at one end, a Bowline on another, then tightened it all up with a truckers hitch. I’m pretty sure it’s not a config that’s in any of the books, but it worked.

I threw the tarp up quickly, it wasn’t forecast to start raining until tomorrow lunch time, so I was using the tarp for concealment more than anything else, I quickly aborted my planned A pitch, and put it up 90° across the head of my bed, pitched low to the ground at the back, but high enough to sit up at the front.

I rolled out my bed, inflated the matt and sat on the bivvi bag. I’d done it! Twilight was giving way to night, and the moon was shining down from above. I put the kettle on. It was so still that I didn’t need anything by way of a wind screen on the stove. The flames rose true and vertical. This is when I realised there was one item I had forgot to pack. My pot lifter. Adapt and over come. A carabina, stick and cycling glove allowed me to get the pot off the stove without burning my fingers.

I snuggled down into my sleeping bag, steaming cup of tea in my hands, and surveyed the moonlit woodland. Beautiful simple pleasures. I sent a beacon message on my phone so that those watching it would know I was safe, before switching it to airplane mode and hiding it in my sleeping bag.

Snuggled in a warm sleeping bag, sipping tea, and listening to the owls. What better way to spend a Friday evening?

Warm and content, I drifted off to sleep, to awake what felt like an hour later, but turned out to be 0038. The owls were quiet. But the moon was even brighter, joined by a few stars. There was a high hazy level of cloud cover meaning that only the brightest of stars shone through. I had brought with me a couple of LWWF pouches to eat for dinner, but didn’t feel like cooking, so ate some cookies, enjoying the moonlit peace.

My alarm went off at 0700. It was daylight, the hooting owls of the night had been replaced by the songs of birds. I hit the snooze button and lay back to listen to the wildlife. Over the next 3 hours of hitting the snooze button. The wind picked up a bit, the songs of the birds were joined by the clatter of trees knocking against each other, the chatter of triffids.

Hours before the met office had said it would arrive, the first drops of rain resounded against my tarp. I rolled over, pulled my backpack under the tarp, and hit the snooze button. I was too warm and comfortable to leave just yet. Five more minutes…

The sound of rain on the tarp became more and more insistent, I could ligger no more. I was going to have to leave my safe warm sleeping bag, and venture into the cold.

Packing up didn’t take very long. I soon had the bike all loaded up ready to go. I pushed the bike through the under growth back to the path. In the clear light of day this section of the path was wet, but looked to be firm. I could ride it.

When the Brompton bike was invented, it was envisaged as a commuter bike. To cycle to the station and back. Something for suit wearing commuters. It’s fair to say that off roading down stony slippery woodland hills was not in their use case. For a commuter bike, the Brompton coped admirably. I descended the hill, gripping both brakes as I went, trying to seek out what little bits of grip were available. Avoiding the big logs and giant flints that littered the path. WOO! It might not be designed for this, but by eck was I enjoying it. Weeeeeeeeeeeeee.

I launched out of the woods into a downland field. Where upon I promptly ground to a juddering halt. Sinking into the soft mud, I had to get off and push. Across the muddiest patch, I tried to cycle again, only to quite literally get stuck in a rut. It was just like the one I had been walking along on the North Downs Way 2 weeks earlier, only this was deeper and narrower. I tried to turn my pedals, but they hit the sides of the rut. Bah. I got off and pushed again. A few more yards and I was back on firmer, yet slippery ground. It was off camber, grassed, and wet. But firm enough to cycle. I slipped and slid down the path, riding the brakes as much as I was able to pedal. Descending with the bike about 30° to the straight on. I was having too much fun, and like all good things, it had to come to an end. A drive way and roads awaited me. This might not be as fun to ride, but it would at least allow me to eat up some miles. Head down and pedal.

The ride wasn’t going to be down hill all the way ( both literally and metaphorically), there were still a couple of stings left to bite.

The first was a hill. Down the gears, I ground my way up. I managed half way, before concluding it would be easier to push. I neared the crest where the gradient eased, and got back on to pedal. Now it was down hill all the way.

Hitting 30+kph, I cruised down the hill towards the village of Chartham, where I planned to join the river side cycle path (NCR18) all the way home. Having built up all my speed, I had to lose all of it with the 70° turn at the bottom of the hill. I settled into a sedate plod along the river.

Being that the cycle path along the river is designed by people with no real clue about cycle infrastructure, what should be a flat easy ride through pretty countryside, isn’t It is punctuated along it’s length by giant puddles (it’s built in places below the river water level…) and the most brutal cattle grids around. Hitting a cattle grid at 20, on a fully laden touring Brompton is not a pleasant experience. When the path was build 9 cattle grids punctuated the 5km between Canterbury and Chartham, two of them within 10 yards of each other. Fortunately 3 of them have been removed, but the 6 that remained gave a bone shaking jolt to an other wise calm ride.

Past joggers and dog walkers, I rode into Canterbury. As I climbed the gentle rise into my road, it hit me. I’d done it! I set out to have a night out in the woods, to cycle 24km home from work. I’d done it! After the failure of my NDW walk. It felt good. No injuries, no need to call for help. No tears, no pain. Just fun, relaxation, exercise, and owls.

Spreading the damp kit across my flat to dry out, a cup of tea in hand, I pulled out my maps and started to plan where to go next.

This post was originally posted on the Bushcraft UK forum.


ADVENTURE: Compact country, compact bike – Cycling the Ardennes on a Brompton.

Where does the adventure begin? When you leave the house? When you stop off the train? or when the idea of the adventure enters your mind?

This adventure really begins on a Bridge floating upon the Lac de la Haute-Sûre, Luxembourgs largest lake. It’s October 2014, and I am here with some friends to scout out locations for an event that we are organising in August 2015. Standing looking up at the mountainside covered in vibrant autumnal colours, I knew I would have to come back and spend more time here, to explore it better. Later that day I picked up a 1:20000 map of the local area, and work began on a plan.

I had to be in Wiltz for the weekend in April for some planning meetings for the event in August. A plan started to form to arrive in the country a few days earlier and hike through the beautiful landscape of the Ardenne, to arrive in Wiltz on the Friday, wild camping as I went.

Hours with paper & electronic maps, and bus timetables resulted in a route for a 53km walk from near the border with Belgium to the centre of Wiltz, over about 48 hours. Alas, the first casualty of every engagement is the plan, and this one never even got as far as contact with the enemy. As I lay in agony following my aborted attempt at the North Downs Way, I realised that hiking 53km through the Ardenne was going to have to be put back in the crazy plans folder for a later date.

This still left me with the time booked off work, and the hope of a few days exploring the Ardennes. Walking was out the question. But cycling, that doesn’t cause the same foot pain. The plan reforms.

Day 1
Route: Luxembourg centre to Luxembourg centre
Status: Everything’s beautiful
Distance: 33.18km

April finds me standing outside Luxembourg railway station with a loaded Brompton. I’d got here by a combination of ferry to France, 40km bike ride to Belgium, a train journey, a night on a friends sofa, a lift to Brussels Zuid, and a train to Luxembourg. Just to get to the start line of my adventure.

I’d been expecting that early April in the Ardenne was going to be on the cool side, maybe 5-10°C. I’d dressed accordingly. The sky was blue and the sun beat down. This wasn’t quite what I had expected or dressed for. I had a rummage in my bag for the sun block I knew was in there somewhere. Sun block in April. Something wasn’t right. But dressed all in black lingering here is getting uncomfortably hot, time to hit the road.

What isn’t clear from the maps I had used to plan this leg of the journey, is that Luxembourg City is located around a steep sided valley. The station is around 280masl. The cycle route I had been intending to pick up was located 40m below me. This wasn’t right, I’ve only gone 300m and already the route plan isn’t working. Adapt and overcome. I took the next turning that looked like it was going the right way, following the road down through tight hairpin bends. The roads where cobbled, with eratic camber and in places large wheel eating gaps between the stones. I slalomed between the bemused tourists heading down.

More by luck than judgment I reached the level of the cycle route I was aiming for clattered down the gears, and headed off out the city.

I knew the first 10k or so would be relatively urban and it would take a while to get out the city and into the countryside. Well that’s what I thought. Luxembourg city, whilst a Capital, is smaller than Cambridge. It didn’t take me long to leave the cobble streets behind, and follow the river past market gardens into the countryside.

I had planned for a shorter first day, to ease myself into the journey, and not over do it. Alas, my unintended 40k ride the previous day meant that this was something I was more greatful of than I had expected. I followed the signs along the river and railway line.

The trees along the river were adorned with mistletoe in quantities I had never seen before. In the UK mistletoe is something I associate with old orchards, and had not really consciously seen it else where. Yet, here, along the banks of the Alzette, nearly every tree was covered.

Mistletoe covered tree

Mistletoe covered tree

I continued on in the afternoon sunshine, following the signs for Piste cyclable de l’Alzette. The sun was shining, the sky a brilliant blue. I was enjoying myself. So much so, that I forgot to follow the signs, and took a slight diversion up a farmers driveway. Slightly embarrassed by this 1km detour, I returned to the route and continued on.

I wasn’t alone on the cycleway, many families were out to enjoy the sunshine, as were a seemingly endless number of Lycra clad road cyclists. Each smiling and saying hello (I think that’s what they were saying) as they cycle past.

I had expected the path to be made from hard packed dirt, like many of the traffic free sections of the UK National Cycle Network. What I hadn’t expected was some of the smoothest tarmac, and neatly concreted path I’ve ever cycled on. This meant I could make good progress, and maintain a high speed. For one flat section, I managed to hit 30kph, pedalling flat out. Not bad for a Brompton with Luggage.

I stopped after 15km at a tap, hoping to fill my water bottles up. Alas it hadn’t yet been turned on. I’d have to continue on with the water I already had.

The water tap I found (turned off)

The water tap I found (turned off)

When planning the trip, I had noticed on Open Cycle Map that the Geographic Centre of Luxembourg was marked. It would only add a couple of km to my route to visit it. When I then found out that there was a geocache located here, the detour was on. 24km after leaving Luxembourg I left the cycle route, and headed up hill. I managed about 0.5km of up hill cycling before admitting defeat and getting off to push. I climbed from 215masl to 283masl over just over 1km.

It's going uphill

It’s going uphill

This was the first real up hill I’d done since leaving the UK, at this point I didn’t know how much the up would continue.

Road sign about cavalier cyclists

What about cavalier cyclists?

The sign on the road made me wonder about cavalier cyclists…

As well as the first hill, this was also the point where I entered woodland for the first time. Spring was in full swing, with wood anemones in full bloom. The birds sang. Heaven.

I stopped off at the Centre of Luxembourg, and did a spot of geocaching. The log was soaking wet so I couldn’t sign it. I rehid the cache, and took some photos. 26km after leaving the Centre of Luxembourg, I had arrived in the Centre of Luxembourg…

Geographic centre of Luxembourg

Geographic centre of Luxembourg

Time was marching on, I had just over an hour of daylight left. It was time to start hunting for a bivvi site.

I had planned to bivvi somewhere in this woodland, but as I was feeling still fit and able to cycle, I wanted to eat up a few kilometres from tomorrow’s distance, and maybe camp near the river.

Alas, as I cycled on for a further 7km, it was apparent that somewhere flat and secluded to put up my tarp was going to be hard to find. Eventually with light fading fast, I had to accept the best option that was available, I climbed down a very steep bank by the side of the cycle path, and into a small plantation of pine trees. It wasn’t the ideal position, less than 10m from the cycle path, only a hundred yards or so from the motorway, and a similar distance to the railway line. Beggers can’t be choosers. I folded the bike, and covered it plus all the luggage with my flecktarn poncho, then sat under a tree waiting for sunset. I didn’t want to draw too much attention to my being here, so didn’t want to setup camp while there was light for people to see what I was doing.

After half hour of listening to the birds, I was happy enough that noone would spot my position. I strung up my tarp, inflated my bed, and crawled into my bivvi bag.

Day 2
Route: Luxembourg centre to Lac de la Haute-Sûre
Status: Everything’s uphill… even the down hill bits.
Distance: 45.23km

My camp

My camp the first night

It’s becoming a bit of a running joke in the Kent Bushcraft group that I sleep better outdoors than I do at home. So it’ll come as no surprise to them that I woke up just after 1300. Oops. So much for rise early and get on the road.

I was quite pleased with how tidy my camp was, considering I’d set it up in the dark by touch. It took me far too long to pack it all up.

While packing up, I explored the area where I had camped. It seems that a beaver had taken a liking to one of the pine trees and made an enthusiastic attempt at felling it.

signs of beaver

Signs of beaver?

Camp packed, I returned to the cycle path. Slicing my hand up nicely on the brambles in the progress.

Having overslept, and then dawdled too long in breaking camp, my planned long day leisurely cycling up to the lake would have to be a bit more hurried, with less stopping. I knew the day would involve a fair amount of up, so wanted to make the most of the flat that I had to eat up those miles quickly. But before I could do any of that, I needed to do something about water. I was down to my last few mouthfuls of the 2L I left the train with the previous day. I had hoped to use streams, but with the fields full of tractors spraying gnu only knows what on them, I didn’t trust any of the streams. This was compounded by the maps I was using using the same symbol to mark a spring, as an ornamental fountain. I would have to rely on man made watering holes for this trip. Or as the rest of you call them, bars.

I stopped off at the first open bar I came to, in the village of Colmar-Berg, under 3km from where I camped. I bought a coke and asked the bar maid if she could fill my water bag up. She seemed kinda bemused by the weird Brit with the plastic bag, but filled it up anyway. I sat on the step outside the bar filtering the water into my bottle, sipping my coke, and nibbling on a pack of cookies. In glorious sunshine, in beautiful countryside I was content.

Back in the saddle I followed the cycle route out of the town, and into the countryside. The path would follow either the river or the railway line for much of the day, initially this was close enough to benefit from the relatively flat terrain, but as I passed the 7km point the route turned away from the river to cross a hill before decending to rejoin the river in Boevange-sur-Attert. This would be the first significiant climb of the day, rising 50m over less than 1km. After a few hundred yards of peddling, I got off and pushed. I wanted to make good time, but I also wanted to enjoy the landscape I was travelling through, so didn’t really mind too much as I pushed the bike passed freshly felled and replanted softwood plantations. The lack of shade resulting from the recent felling meant that I was cooking in the spring sunshine. I started to question just how wise my choice of clothing was, given the all black colour scheme seemed to maximise passive solar gain.

Throughout my time in the Ardennes, one thing (of many) that struck me were the plethora of neat stacks of logs. Nearly every house had one, and I passed many yards where multiple stacks of wood lay seasoning. As I reached the crest of this first hill, a neat stack of wood between two trees caught my eye in the sunshine.

Neatly stacked wood

Neat wood stack.

The first hill also gave me the chance at the first descent. I cruised down the hill into Boevange-Sur-Attert.

Leaving Boevange-Sur-Attert I rounded the corner and looked up at a climb. My exclamation was loud, and not really printable. I was about to start in 1st gear on the long slog, when a sign caught my eye, and I realised that the path didn’t go up the hill, but instead returned to following the river. Phew.

The next few kilometres I passed through stunning scenery and sleepy villages. I had hoped to find a village shop somewhere where I could grab a couple of mars bars, or a bakery I could get some bread. As it happens, in my entire time in Luxembourg, I wouldn’t see a single food shop until I reached Wiltz at the end of my journey. On the plus side, if I had wanted to buy decorating supplies, nearly every village had a shop selling those…

I passed through gently undulating terrain, surrounded by fields that seemed greener than those back home. I passed through Useldange where I raided another bar for a diet coke, and a litre of tap water. From here the path maintained it’s upward tendency for the rest of the route. I wouldn’t get any real down hill again until I passed the highest point of the route, 518masl near Rambrouch.

It’s common to lump Luxembourg in with Belgium and the Netherlands, as the low countries, the BeNeLux. As such we think of them as flat, or at least not really a hilly place. Until you try to cycle in Luxembourg that is. I made a final water stop at a bar in Redange before starting the hard slog up over the 5km up onto a what felt like a high plateau. The view from up here was amazing, but the effort of ascending from 208masl where I woke up, to the eventual height of 518masl was a killer. Large sections of the journey were done in first gear at barely 7kph. Slowing grinding away up the hills. In many places I had to get off and push, or simply stop to let my legs recover. The view from the top was worth it.

The view from the plateau

As I reached 495masl just outside the village of Rambrouch, I looked at my planned cycle route, and it’s descent to 474masl before it climbed to 504masl, and looked on the map at the slightly longer road, that maintained a steady gradient, and took my first detour from the plan.

On a route like this I try to keep to a policy of plan your ride and ride your plan. I am on my own typically, and if something happens, the only way that help will arrive is due to a search being triggered by a friend following failure to contact them at set times. If I’m not on the route they think I’m on, then a lot of time could be spent searching where I’ve never even got to. I reasoned that on such a quiet but large road through a village, the risk was worth it.

Passing the highest point of the trip, 518masl I could relax a bit with some downhill, eating up some distance. I flew through Koetschette, and down the country lanes, past some very startled highland cows in one field, at 40+kph. The sun wasn’t far off setting, and the sudden 40kph wind chill coupled with the drop in solar gain, meant I was a bit chilly. I didn’t care. After the climb, the descent was worth it.

Arsdorf took the wind out my sails somewhat by the discovery that I had another 50m of altitude to climb. I dismounted and pushed.

The end of the planned ascent for the day was marked by passing under the N27. From here it was a nice downhill round sweaping curves, cambered hair pins, and long straights. Sure the 51.5kph headwind was chilly, but I didn’t care. The descent was amazing, and terrifying in equal measures. As the speed built up I tried to swear loudly, but only the F came out. For the record, 51.5kph on a Brompton is every bit as terrifying as you think it is.

A thought occurred to me as I hurtled down the hillside – These are the original brake blocks that were fitted when I bought the bike 8 years ago…

I screeched to a halt just before the bridge over Lac de la Haute-Sûre. This was my planned end point for the day. All I had to do was find a quiet flat spot to bivvi, and I would be done. The sun had just gone behind the hills. It was all going to plan.

I took the path along the lake hoping to find a flat spot in the trees that I could roll out my bivvi. What I found were foot prints.

Boar print?

Boar print?

I wasn’t sure if the prints were Boar or not, but their presence, made me not really want to sleep here. As it happens, the only flat land was the path, I would have to come up with a better option. I mounted up and crossed the bridge to the north side of the lake. The map showed potential in the woods on a headland that jutted out into the lake. What I hadn’t quite realised from the map was just how steep the terrain round the lake would be. I had expected there would be a few meters of flat land around the lake, and I would be able to sneak my bivvi in somewhere there. This wasn’t the case.

My following of the road along the lake brought me to a weir and a deadend. The weir had a substantial drop on it, including an overhang. This, along with another weir I found later, would put pay to any thoughts I had of a future trip pootling around on the lake in a canoe… there is no way to portage around this one.

I retreated up the road to another road marked on my map. Reading the map in the twilight, it looked like it was a short hop up the side of the hill to a road at the top. Late in the day, with fading light, hungry and worn out. I made my big error. The path goes up the side of the hill at something approaching a 50° angle. It’s wide enough for a bike, or wide enough for a person, but not really wide enough for a person pushing a bike. The surface of the path started off reasonable, it was a hardpacked ground that allowed me to get the first 10m of height gain relatively easily. It got worse from then on. Rocks, roots and mud made up the path. The articulation of the Brompton started to work against me, upon pushing up against a root or rock, the front wheel wouldn’t pass over it, and the bike would try to fold up. Time and time again this happened. I sat down to catch my breath and admire the view.

It was apparent that I wouldn’t get up this hill with this technique, so detaching the bags from the bike, I shuttled first the bike, than the bags, 10-15m at a time up the slope. In hindsight I probably should have turned back, rock climbing with a loaded Brompton is foolhardy at best, down right stupid at worst. But I by the time this thought entered my head, I was nearer the top than the bottom, and it made sense at the time to continue onwards. To do the 100m of distance to the top of the path, a height gain of over 50m took me an hour. So slow infact my GPS trace doesn’t think I was moving at all.

Uphill path and road

I took the path on the left…



The path on the map looks so innocuous…

By the time I reached the top it was 2200 and I was damp with sweat, exhausted, and the land here was no flatter than the land nearer water level. I had to find somewhere, anywhere, to sleep, and do so soon. I turned on my bike light, which seemed to illuminate the whole hillside, and pushed on up along the road.

It’s marked on the map as a road, but in reality it’s a dirt track. Either side of which the hillside rose or fell at 45° angles. I pushed on up another 25m of altitude gain, where the trees gave way to fields, and the land started to level off. The absence of trees was a slight concern, I feel safer bivviing in woodland than in such obviously occupied land. But with little other option, I chose an area of land to the side of the road, where a digger had cleared it relatively recently, but long enough ago that the grass had grown back. There was nothing really to shield my position from view, I had to hope that the lightly used farm track was as lightly used as I thought it was. I made my camp entirely by touch, inflating my bed, setting up the bivvi bag, and brewing a mug of tea. I could see headlights on the other side of the lake, several kilmoteres away. It felt like I was on top of the world.

A friend had texted me to let me know the weather forecast was for a chilly night. Sitting on my bivvi bag on the side of a hill sipping my tea, I could see why. Not a cloud in the sky. I had an amazing view of the stars. I had written down the times of the ISS passes for while I was away in the hope I might see it. Tonight, laying in my bivvi bag, I watched as the ISS drifted across the sky some 300km or so above. It made the hard slog and gruelling climb worth it.

Drifting off to sleep with a sky full of stars is one of the most memorable experiences of the trip.

Day 3
Route: Lac de la Haute-Sûre to Wiltz
Status: Everything’s hurts… and it’s all still up hill…
Distance: 17.77km

I woke in the early hours of the morning to see the sky in the east starting to brighten. I reached out of my bag to pull the hood round, and felt damp. I felt round a bit more. The outside of my sleeping bag was soaking wet. I touched the inside of my bivvi bag. It ran with condensation. I sat up. My bivvi bag crackled as the thin layer of frost that covered it broke up. While I’d slept the dew had settled on everything, and then frosted over. I hadn’t noticed snug and warm in my sleeping bag. I rearranged my pillow and went back to sleep.

I woke to beautiful sunshine, a dry sleeping bag and a dry bivvi bag. The early morning sunshine had dried off the worst of the dew. Just to be on the safe side before packing, I spread most of my kit out to dry in the sunshine, while I finished off a pack of cookies for breakfast. The view from my bivvi was as nice in the daylight as it was in the star light.


The view from my bivvi bag.

Packing up this morning was a lot faster than the day before, and it wasn’t long until I was slowly cycling up the hill to join the road. I had a 3 potential plans for todays ride, depending on how I felt and how times worked out, in the end I opted for the shortest, most direct, and least hilly option.

I headed north towards my target destination, Wiltz.

As I cycled through the farmland and woodland twice I saw a large raptor. One was sitting in the top of a tree, and as I approached swooped down to land on the field. Another was flew across through a field as I as cycling along. The beauty of their controlled flight brightened my morning even further.

After a brief climb, I was able enjoy a short descent, alas, I wasn’t able to capitalise on the speed boost as at the bottom the surface turned to loose chippings and went through a 90° bend. Once again I pushed up the other side. This was another brief ascent, and once at the top I had 5km of descent to the Bavigne. This was a straighter road than the descent to the lake the previous night and I as able to utilise the speed more. I tried to break my 51.5kph record of the night before, but the best I could do was 51kph. Even trying to take a more aerodynamic position didn’t help. I’d obviously hit the point where friction was having a greater influence than drag. I enjoyed the descent non the less.

This was another brief ascent, and once at the top I had 5km of descent to the Bavigne. This was a straighter road than the descent to the lake the previous night and I as able to utilise the speed more. I tried to break my 51.5kph record of the night before, but the best I could do was 51kph. Even trying to take a more aerodynamic position didn’t help. I’d obviously hit the point where friction was having a greater influence than drag. I enjoyed the descent non the less.

From Bavigne would be the final ascent of the trip, 323masl at Bavigne to 483masl at Café Schumann. The 4km ascent would take me the best part of 50 minutes, and yet would be one of the most beautiful bits of country I went through.

up and up and up

It’s still all uphill…

Softwood plantations and hardwood woodland covered the hillsides, with small patches of pasture land here and there. At one point I came across a cabin by a small lake, with the ubiquitous neat stack of firewood and a couple of bee hives. It reminded me of so many I’ve seen on cabin porn.

Cabin in the woods.

Nice spot of cabinporn…

The uphill continued, the final leg into Schumannseck was perhaps the most brutal climb of the trip that wasn’t an actual rock climb. A dead straight road lined by avenues of trees. By now I was pushing the bike more than I was riding it, and this leg I pushed entirely. Tractors and lorries thundered past occasionally. All of them giving me plenty of space. I wonder what they made of the funny brit pushing the clowns bike up the hill.

Finally I reached the top of the hill, and crossed the main road to Bastogne. From here I felt like I was on the final leg. I eased the bike over the crest and started down.

My plan had been to hang a right onto a back road to Roullingen, before continuing on to finish my ride at Wiltz castle. But as I approached the turning I could see that this road would involve another climb. Worn out, battered, bruised and with sore knees, I decided to take the wimps route, and stuck to the main road for the decent into Wiltz.

I cruised down the hill at in excess of 45kph, overtaken only by a Porsche and a motor bike. It was down hill all the way, I wouldn’t need to peddle again until I reached the campsite at Kaul where I had a cabin booked for the weekend. In my excitement and with the slight shock at civilisation, I blew through a red light, fortunately the roads were pretty much deserted. I continued down the hill, as the decline eased off, my speed eased off as well into something a bit more reasonable as I coasted to the Bar at the campsite. The final sting in the tail was the flight of stairs upto the bar, and my hard earned meal and a bottle of Wëllen Ourdaller.


Since leaving the UK I had done 140km, climbing over 1km, in 3 countries, spoken 4 languages, slept under trees, and under stars. What I had thought would be a pleasant ride through a picturesque part of Europe had become a challenging, yet rewarding journey. Sure I’m no Sarah Outen, but the trip has made me realise perhaps what is possible with a limited budget and a couple of days to spare. I’ve got to be in Wiltz again in August, and I’ll be arriving a couple of days early with a Brompton rigged up for touring. All I have to do now is decide on a route.

ADVENTURE: Climbing Pen-Y-Fan

I first wrote this article in July 2014 for a forum I am on. I have published it here for those not on the forum.


I’ve been trying to work out how to write this for a week now, ever since I started the decent. How do I word it? Where do I start?

I suppose the easiest start point is about 7 years ago. I was on holiday in Hay-on-Wye with some friends. It was the Easter weekend, and I thought it would be a great idea to climb Pen-y-Fan. So we set off in a couple of cars, and parked on the northern side of the Beacons, at SO025249. By the time we had done only a couple of Km we stopped for lunch. With discretion the better part of valour, I turned round and headed back to the car. I had been defeated, not by the mountain, but by my own body. Injury turned me back.

Fast forward to 2014, and the same group of friends has decided to have our summer holiday in the village of Talybont-on-Usk. Looking at the map I notice that Pen-y-Fan is very close. The injury that turned me back last time has had 3 rounds of physio treatment. I’m feeling fit.

So I propose to the group that I would like to do Pen-y-Fan. Not expecting anyone else to be mad enough to join me, I start looking at the bus options for Talybont to the Storey Arms to start the hike. But, before I’ve got the buses entirely worked out my inbox is alive. Not only do some of them want to join me, but they have proposed a route alteration that cuts 10k of the hike (more on that later). I’m not doing it alone. It’s going to be 13 of us, plus two hounds.

When I proposed the hike to the group I put forth two routes, which I names short, and long. The short route goes up one side of the mountain from the Storey Arms, over Corn Du, and to the top of Pen-y-Fan, then back via a similar route to the car. The long route is the same as far as the peak of Pen-y-Fan, but then descends the other side, and on towards Cribyn, Fan-y-Big, along the Breacon Beacons way to the end of Talybont Reservoir, and then along the taff trail back to Talybont. About 20k all up.

The altered proposal that was put forth was to park a car at the end of Talybont Reservoir at the car park at Torpantau. Then we all go by car to the Storey Arms, then when we’ve completed the hike, we shuttle the drivers back and forth until eventually everyone is back in Talybont and we can go to the pub. Hurrah, the route is now just under 11km. Christened Pen-y-Fan-not-so-long.

Route map


What I thought would be a solo hike up and over Pen-y-Fan, is now an international group expedition across upto 4 peaks of the Breacon Beacons. Just a small amount of mission creep there. The group of 13 was made up of 2 Belgians, 2 Germans, an Austrian, a Brazilian, 6 Brits, and 2 dogs.

Plans made, we all headed to bed pretty early so that we could get up early to try and do as much of the walk as we could before it got to hot. I noticed the village shop and cafe opened at 0700, so I decided I would get up and have a decent fry up to get me through the day.

0630 rolls round and I crawl out of my tent into a comfortably warm campsite. A few of the others have started to surface and we head to the cafe. The sign on the shop door said they open at 0700, and the shop does. Alas the cafe doesn’t open until 0900. By which we hoped to be on the move. Plan B, raided the shop for some supplies (Mars bar is an acceptable breakfast on a mountain hike right?).

At the meeting point I sat down and wrote an email to a friend in Kent. The email said how many of us there would be, what route we were taking, and when we were due back, with explicit instructions that if we didn’t contact by 1 hour after the due back time, to call Mountain Rescue. Email done, group gathered we pile into cars for the short drive to the Storey Arms.

It took us 4 cars to get everyone to the Storey Arms car park (the southern most of the two), one of which would return to Talybont after he had dropped us off.

We stood at the bottom of the mountain passing round the sun cream, alternating our gaze between the sun that was scorching us from above, and the path we intended to take. It started to sink in with some in the group as to what we were about to do.

Sun cream done, we thanked the guy who had brought the 4th car, confirmed the time we hoped they would meet us at the end of the route and headed for the track.

Within 100 yards of starting the group had split naturally. With me in the tail end group was 2 Belgians, 1 German, myself, a second brit, and a dog. We wouldn’t see the rest for quite a while.

I had a rough idea based on last time what was ahead of me, so settled down into a mountain pace, one foot just in front of the other, head up, poles out, plod plod plod.

As we walked stopping occasionally to enjoy the various people wandered past us at varying paces, each faster than what we as a group were doing. At 700m or so we stopped for a water break. Our intent to miss the hottest part of the day hadn’t worked, the sun was beating down on us, there was no shade, and no breeze. Drink lots of water, sweat lots, keep on going. It would become a running joke over the course of the day “Drink more water” we all said to each other, and then to everyone who wandered past.

After we had been climbing for an hour or so, from the top of the mountain appeared a soldier, in full combat kit with a slingless rifle in his hands. Sweat streaming everywhere, he looked like he had been running for a while. Were we climbing Pen-y-Fan when the Fan dance was in progress? 100 yards beyond the first soldier was another, then another. This one looked dead, but still running down the mountain. He didn’t respond when we said morning, unlike the others. This would become another theme of the day, hot sweaty soldiers running past us with giant bergens on their backs topped with an Orange air marker panel.

One foot just in front of the other, drink more water, repeat. We plodded up the mountain.

Just short of the first peak of the day we pulled out the map and took a look. Damn. What we had been aiming for isn’t Pen-y-Fan, it’s Corn Du. We had a brief analysis and discussion. Did we want to climb this one too? There was a path round the summit we could miss it out and just do Pen-y-Fan. As a group we all went over Corn Du.

The final ascent to Corn-Du is the steepest of the whole walk, in places it’s a case of stepping from one large boulder to the next, a bit like over sized steps. But after a few minutes, we all wandered to the cairn on the top of the mountain.

The view was spectacular.

After a photo and water break (drink one, take the other…). We looked at the path down to the saddle then up to Pen-y-Fan. Oh that looks better we thought. In hind sight, if I was going to do the loop back to the Storey Arms, I would go first to Pen-y-Fan, then back up to Corn du, then down again. But we were there, and down we go.

We could see our aim we could see the target. It brought forth a burst of energy, and we all strode down the saddle and up the other side. As the incline steepened, I switch back to the mountain pace, foot just infront of the other, plod, plod, plod. I couldn’t beleive it. On my second attempt I was going to do it, I was going to reach the top. I felt great.

Too great.

50m from the summit I could see the cairn. I lifted the poles from the ground, scinched my pack straps, and ran for it. A sprint finish, I was going to make it!

I ran the 50m over the rocky ground, jumping from stone to stone, passing my friends as I did, and arrived at the cairn. Gulping down great lungfuls of breath I climbed the cairn, dropped my poles, and crumpled in a heap. I’d DONE IT! It felt great. Seven years after starting, I had finally made it to the top of Pen-y-Fan.

Once I had my breath back, we decided that we would move down a bit off the top to have lunch. Away from the flying insects that seemed to cover the tops, and only the tops of the mountains.

On the way to the path down, there was a small green tent, with a couple of squaddies lounging around it.

“Hi, are you allowed to talk to civilians?”


We exchanged some pleasantries.

“What are they up to? is this the fan dance?”

“No, it’s a long drag”

“Ouch, how far are they going?”

“22km today”

“Just getting up here has almost killed me, I have a whole new found respect
for you guys. Have a good day”

“And you”

I wandered back to the path, and joined my friends 50m or so below the summit.

the view from lunch

The view from Lunch

We had lunch and chatted, admiring the view down the valley towards Cribyn and Fan-y-Big. Punctuated into the distance by small orange air marker panels on the tops of bergans.

view down the valley

View down the valley

Lunch over (another healthy marsbar…), we debated our next move. From where we sat we could see Cribyn ahead of us, and we could see the path round it. It was a unanimous decision that we miss out on the next top, and take the low road.

We plodded on once more. Down hill my stride lengthened, as much as the terrain allowed. The stones that the national trust has used to shore up the path are uncomfortable under foot, like walking on paving slabs stood end on end. My knees didn’t like the decent, making me very appreciative of my walking poles.

We stopped at the southern side of Cribyn for another water break, punctuated yet again by exhausted soldiers trekking past. They had obviously started to reach their turn around point, as now we had them going in both directions. We drank water, and admirred the view. Noting as we did that one of our party, the owner of the dog, wasn’t with us. We hoped that they were just round the corner chasing down where ever the dog had got to. Rested and watered, we plodded on.

At the saddle between Cribyn and Fan-y-Big, we found our missing member, sat waiting for us. He had realised we weren’t behind us, so waited at a convenient junction for us.

As we arrived here we recognised the tinkle of a bell, and a familiar voice. Looking up the path to the top of Cribyn, we saw the trail blazer group that had zoomed ahead of us on the first ascent. We greeted each other with congratulations at having got this far. Chatted about what we had achieved, and posed for a group photo.

Following this we had a bit of a discussion, who wanted to try the planned route up Fan-y-Big, and who found the low road that we could see round the valley back to the car park. In the end one of the tail end group swapped into the trainblazer party, and we went our separate ways. I texted the friend in Kent with the details of our route deviation.

Now we were on the flat, we could lengthen the stride once more and eat up some miles. We pressed on along the taff trail, passed by some very enthusiastic mountain bikers.

As we reached the corner of the forest, we stopped for a final water break, and to admire the view up the valley. By now the weather had clouded over, giving a rather moody sky over the mountains.

We walked on, crossing down and then up the other side of a rocky gulley and along the forest road. We had a spring in our step and were looking forward to the car ride back to Talybont, and the pub.

As we exited the woods and entered on to the road, we looked up at the incline of the flat road. Looked at the GPS telling us it was still 1.2km to the car park. And swore. All of us doing so in English…

We decided to stop for a final final water break before taking on the final kilometer.

From here to the car park it ceased to be a walk, it ceased to be a plod, it had become a slog. There was no breeze, there was no sun, just a muggy humid discomfort of stillness. We didn’t talk to each other, just cursing the aches and pains of the various parts of the body we had picked up over the hike.

We slogged on.

At the top of the road we passed a collection of green vehicles with their gathering of orange air marker panelled bergan carrying soldiers. They looked exhausted. I stopped and asked the driver of the green ambulance for directions to the car park. The cheery soldier gave my directions the final 200 yards.

We slogged on.

Finally we turned the corner and stumbled up the 50m of track to the stream by the entrance of the car park. Here we met the Austrian and the Brazilian that were the scouts for the trailblazer party. They said that the rest of them were not far behind. We collapsed round the stream, some removing their shoes to cool their feet in the stream.

I filled the pouch for my sawyer from the stream (upstream of the others), and drank the best tasting coldest water I’ve ever had.

With all members of both groups accounted for. We sent off a car load of people to find more cars, and get us down, while being very British, one of the Germans in our party put the kettle on and made us all tea…

An hour later, and involving 6 cars in total. We all made it back to Talybont.

my tent

Back at my tent.

I got a lift back to my tent, where I collapsed in the shade of the car. I’d done it. On my second attempt, I’d done it. I had got to the top of Pen-y-Fan. The euphoria at having achieved this made the pain in my legs

I lay there, staring up at the Ash tree above me, pondering what I had done.

You see many people talk of how they “conquered Everest” “Took on the mountain and won”. I thought about what I had done. Had I conquered Pen-y-Fan? No not really, the mountain is still there. Did I take on and defeat the mountain? No not really, the mountain just sat there and did what mountains do. So what did I do? Even now, a week on, I can’t think of a way of wording it. I’ve consulted various people, picked the brains of a Librarian, a Poet, and a Dane. I’ve analysed the thoughts, but I can’t work out a suitable way of phrasing it. Pen-y-Fan is still there, unchanged. Standing sentinel to time.

So if the mountain is still the same, am I? That’s a good question. Am I the same Julia that set off from the Storey Arms one Tuesday in July? I know I’m not the same one that set off one Easter Saturday long ago. My feet are sore. My walking poles worn. The memories of achievement living in my mind. I embraced the mountain, and let it teach me just a little bit more about the world.


If you are interested in climbing Pen-y-Fan, you may find the routes I created for my trip useful. You can find them on viewranger.