Adventure: Wye not forage for dinner?

As I stood where the path should be looking up at the stinging nettles above me, I started to question my navigational choices. We were on this path because the path we wanted to take was hidden under an impassible jungle of Brambles, nettles and other spiky vegetation. Batting Triffid like nettles out the way with my poles as I walked, I wasn’t sure this path was any better.

The path I was on is somewhere in east Kent, and unusually for my trips, I’d managed to persuade 3 others to join me for this hike. Ahead disappearing into the undergrowth were Jesper, Jim and Jules. But this was a hike with extra purpose, this time, we hiked for science.

A Hypothesis.

Every year someone (usually a young bloke in their late teens) asks on one of the Bushcraft forums that we all use a question along the lines of:

My mates and I want to do a hike, foraging and living off the land as we go, can anyone give us suggestions on where to go and what to forage for?

And every year the regulars on the forum give patient well worded replies along the lines of:

You can hike, or you can forage, but not both

It’s a simple enough equation. The adult human needs 2000-2500 kcalories a day to cover their needs, more if they are expending any great effort. Whilst the modern human has access to refined sugar, copious mass produced carbs and endless fats, in nature it’s not so easy. If you grab a book on wild food, you’ll find a whole catalogue of things you can eat without killing you, but to cover your 2000 calories, how many of these would you need? Unfortunately the standard indexes of calories in foods don’t tend to include things like Goosegrass, Bog Myrtle, or Nettles. But looking at the crop wild relatives of some foods that calorie numbers are available for, you can get a rough idea. Assuming that cabbage and sea kale leaves aren’t too dissimilar, how much would you need to eat in a day to cover your 2000kcal? Roll some dice, crunch some numbers, and you get a figure around 6kg. Yes, SIX kilograms of sea kale. I’ll buy a pint for anyone who can prove they’ve eaten that in a single day… Not exactly ideal. What about apples? An apple is about 50 kcalories. So you’re looking at 80 apples. So the numbers are pretty damning. You’re not going to be able to forage for enough food to meet your energy requirements let alone hike any distance at the same time. But this is just a theory, it’s just numbers. What we really needed to do, was put this to the test.

Method

Our basic plan was 4 people with varying levels of knowledge of wild food, and varying fitness would meet up somewhere in Kent, and do a 2 day hike with an overnight bivvi, trying to forage for our dinner as we went. So as to not try to bite off more than we could chew, the route we settled on was a simple 25km loop starting and finishing at Wye station. This would take in varying habitats including woodland, hedgerows, field margins, access land, and a section of the North Downs Way. Giving a good representation for a hike in Southern Britain.

UK law would limit our foraging to the four F’s – Fungi, Foliage, Fruit and Flowers. This gives us a vegetarian diet, but in theory should give us access to all sorts of interesting food stuffs. Assuming we could find them, identify them with certainty, and in some cases reach them.

We left the station in good spirits. Jules, Jesper and myself. Jim would join us a bit later. We decided we’d let ourselves get out of the village before we started to forage, other wise we could easily end up getting nowhere. We made it 100 yards up the North Downs Way towards the Wye Crown before coming across a really good patch of black berries that were too good to miss. We foraged for 5 mins, trying to find as many as we could in that time – a few handfuls. We could have spent an hour there and picked the area clean. But if we did that, our average speed would make the whole trip untenable. But it was a start, we had something, even if it wasn’t much. A bit further a long I spotted a squashed plumb on the floor. I’ve long realised that often the easiest way to find fruit trees is to look on the ground for their windfalls. We now knew there was a plum somewhere near by, we just had to find it. A search of the nearby hedgerow located the tree, as well as it’s crop of a plum. One solitary plum, about 8 feet off the ground. Just out of reach. Bah. Ah well. Onwards.

We progressed up the hill to the Wye crown were we stopped to drink in the view, and drink some of our water. It was blowing quite a hooley up there. As we crossed the ridge we wandered along the edge of a recently harvested wheat field. In various places unharvested seed heads lay on the ground and in a few places stalks that the combine had missed stood dancing in the wind. We grabbed a few handfuls, it wouldn’t be enough to bake a loaf, but it would be a welcome addition to what ever stew we could come up with for dinner.

With the strong wind we were grateful to drop down the other side of the ridge into a valley, where we passed along well maintained (read threshed to bits) beech hedging. A linear monoculture. Beech leaves are technically edible, I used to infuriate my Arboriculture lecturer in ID classes by eating the samples to tell the difference between beech, hornbeam, elm and birch leaves (apparently this isn’t the approved method…), but this late in the season (late August) they don’t taste very good, nowhere near as tasty as first thing in the spring. There may have been a few edible weeds around the base of the hedge, but there were prime dog pee height and none of us wanted to spend much time checking them.

Continuing on we entered woodland. I stopped to look at the map, checking were were going the right way when I heard.

“Is that a chicken?”

“Where?”

“There.” I looked up from the map to see where Jules was pointing. Yep, that was chicken of the woods(Laetiporus sulphureus). Five metres up in the crotch of a mature oak was a large chicken of the woods mushroom. We stood staring, trying to work out if there was anyway we could reach it. None of us had brought any climbing equipment, nor ropes, and the 3m or so to the lowest branch didn’t seem like something we could safely reach. Tauntingly, we left it behind us and continued on. As we walked we found a fallen ash tree that provided some cramp balls (Daldinia concentrica), and fallen birch tree yielded copious quantities of bark. We could at least forage forage for our fire lighting materials if nothing else.

Lots of flowers, some of them are edible. But which?

Exiting the woodland we found ourselves on a hillside that had been seeded with wild flowers as food for pheasants and other wild birds. We tried to identify various edibles among the grass, but none of us could be certain about a lot of them.

We decided that it was a good time to start thinking about coffee. Crundale church was a couple of kilometres away and the bench there would make a great place to have a break. I had a small wood gas stove in my pack that I picked up on ebay. In theory it would burn twigs very efficiently and save us the need to carry fuel. But this meant we now needed to add fire wood to our foraging. We walked, eyes everywhere trying to spot things that might be edible, as well as any dead standing twigs that would burn.

Arriving at Crundale church we set out our harvest so far. Blackberries, Hazel nuts, wheat, some leaves, a couple of cramp balls, birch bark and some twigs. Not exactly inspiring.

Located on top of a ridge just outside of the village of it gets it’s name from, Crundale Church affords a beautiful view that  more than made up for our poor harvest. As we admitted that our hypothesis was looking proven, we dug into the emergency backup Mars bar supply. The downside of being on the ridge was the wind. Trying to light the stove by the bench wasn’t going to be an option, so we sheltered behind a yew tree, adding out backpacks and bodies as extra protection. Thus followed an hour of trying to get the stove to boil a pot of water. The wind provided cooling to the pot, as well as made keeping the fire going really hard. Feed it too fast and it would choke and go out, Feed too slow, and it would starve. Eventually we decided that this was never going to boil and transferred the water to a gas stove and had coffee ready a couple of minutes later. With impeccable timing this was the point Jim turned up. Drinking the coffee we winnowed the wheat we’d found, here the wind was useful.

Fed and watered, we set off down the road. After our game of “how many bushcrafters does it take to boil the kettle.” We now began a game of “how many bushcrafters does it take to find the right path”. Eventually we found the path we wanted and headed towards Eggringe wood. We had some fun navigating the forest tracks and pathways, but as we were approaching the way out of the woods we hit pay dirt. Burdocks! (Arctium lappa). Using a potty trowel, and a hastily carved digging stick, Jim and Jules dug around the base of a large plant to extract the root. After much digging they proudly raised their treasure for all to behold. Six inches long and barely thicker than a thumb, we had a dock root. We had starch. We discussed the merits of our new bounty. Given the effort of digging it up, we concluded that it wasn’t exactly an efficient use of energy or time. Growing nearby we found some mint plants and raided a few sprigs that we could perhaps use to make mint tea with.

Continuing on towards Chilham Down Jules introduced us to the culinary hit of the trip. Nettle seeds. Available in large quantities, and tasty, they provided a food we could graze as we wandered, as long as you were ok to put up with the occasional sting.

The path from Down wood to Chilham down proved to be interesting, with nettles and brambles towering over our heads. Several times I questioned which idiot had chosen this route (that would be me). Finding one route over grown we opted to detour down towards the cycle route at the bottom of the hill, this was hardly any better, but eventually it did end and we found ourselves on the cycle route next to a railway line and the A28.

Map check revealed we were nearly a kilometre further south than intended. This did present us a new option tho. At the cost of a short section of road walk, we could cross the river and continue on the other side which should be prettier. We also concluded that having largely failed to find enough food to feed 4 people, it might be best if we diverted to Chilham to take on fuel at the pub.

It was a good theory, and having navigated the most optimistic kissing gate design I’ve ever seen (none of us fit through and had to climb over), we wandered along the edge of a field by the river. Alas the route marked on the map seemed to disappear into the under growth and provide no useful way forward. We ended up skirting all the way round the edge of the field before eventually finding a gap in the hedge that allowed us out onto Mountain Street half a km south of where we intended.

With the gravitational pull of a pub exerting it’s influence upon us, we picked up the speed along the road to the Woolpack inn for a well earned dinner.

After dinner Jesper had to head off, leaving Jim, Jules and myself to continue on in search of somewhere to sleep.

Our camp…(What is the collective noun for tarp shelters?)

Exhausted and in the dark the three of us hunted out a suitable spot to sleep in nearby woods. Tarps up, bivvi bags deployed, we hit the hay for a well earned sleep.

Morning revealed that perhaps our choice of bivvi spot wasn’t as good as we had thought in the dark the previous night. Out attempt to get out of site of 2 paths had put us in rather obvious view of another. Fortunately noone seemed to have noticed us (or been bothered enough to react to us at least). We broke camp and back tracked to the North Downs Way which we would now follow all the way back to Wye.

In light of our poor foraging yield the day before we decided that we would be better off seeking out a pub lunch in Wye, leaving us more time to concentrate on the scenery and just walking.

Leaving the Kings wood we descended into a landscape of golden fields in various states of harvest. Down hollow ways and field edges we arrived at Boughton Lees. This is where the North Downs Way splits on it’s route towards the sea, with one route going via Canterbury and one route via Wye.

In one of the hedge rows we found a tree from the Prunus family with plump fruit. We couldn’t work out if it was a large slow, or damson, or a bullace, or diminutive plum. Jules seemed to find them tasty enough tho.

Prunus of some kind…

A group of three? or a trio of solo hikers in loose formation?

Crossing the A28 we found ourselves at Perry Court Farm. Here we found the important trio of clean loos, tea, and cake. The idea of which was too much, and so 1km earlier than planned, we decided to stop for lunch here. Jim got a call from his other half who was in the area and wondered if we wanted a lift. With sore feet and having achieved what we set out to, we decided to accept the lift and end the hike here.

Results

So what of our experiment?

Despite being one of the more bountiful times of year, we hadn’t been able to find enough wild food to feed the 4 of us, and in trying we’d ended up hiking well beyond dark, pitching camp at gone 2300. We discussed the experiment over tea and concluded that had we gone to one location, set up camp, and then done forage parties round that area we probably could have foraged enough to make meals that didn’t leave us too hungry. Tho still short on energy requirements for the day. If we could add fish or fowl, then hitting it becomes more achievable. We also felt that you need a much greater knowledge of wild edibles than collectively we had. If we had carried a few staples like rice, flour, instant mash, and some stock cubes. Then we could easily have added foraged ingredients to liven up what could be otherwise bland fare.

Our harvest.

Conclusion

In conclusion, our hypothesis seems to be about right. You can walk or you can forage. You can’t reasonably expect to do both to any substantial degree. This shouldn’t preclude the inclusion of foraged ingredients in ones diet when travelling, but perhaps to supplement ones dehydrated meals. Maybe a dessert of blackberries, or a wild leaves salad starter. Rather than the core of your diet.

ADVENTURE: A Good Friday for a walk (North Downs Way Section hike)

That rare confluence of a British bank holiday and a good weather forecast offered an opportunity that seemed to be too good to miss. In particular the forecast showed a promise of a relatively warm night time temperatures (over 5°C). This seemed like a good chance to put the winter sleeping bag away, break out the summer kit and hit the trail.

The North Downs way looked like the obvious choice. At this point I had a couple of gaps on the route at the Eastern end. One from the Battle of Britain Monument to Postling (courtesy of my first aborted attempt), and one from Dover to Canterbury. My GPX of the route showed that Dover to Canterbury was 30km, with a nice break in the middle around Shepherdswell. I threw some kit into my pack, opting at the last minute to add my Páramo Torres jacket in case it was slightly colder than planned, and headed for the station.

Disembarking at Dover I bimbled towards the sea front to find the official start/end point of the North Downs Way. Being a national trail, I expected there to be some sort of obvious sign on the front. I stood in the sunshine looking around for any indication of a sign. With nothing obvious showing up, I sat down on an uncomfortable seat and googled the start of the North Downs way. I had hoped to find coordinates or a grid reference. Ah, such naivety. Eventually I found a picture that suggested that the start finish post is actually a line on the ground. With this info I soon found the start of the trail. I was glad I hadn’t just walked here from Farnham to find it…

The Start/Finish of the North Downs Way (the shiny line in the middle of the picture).

For anyone else hoping to find such a point I saved a waypoint into my GPS – 51.122521°N 1.315339°E (or TR 32098 41142 in OS Grid).

Having found the trail I followed the first NDW sign through an underpass into the bustling heart of Dover’s high street. Here I promptly lost the signs again, and with not enough detail on my 1:40k map, I wandered round to Pencester Road, where I finally picked up the trail again. Here the sign was more obvious showing where I should have gone.

I followed the signs through the wide streets of Dover, the route showing a gentle incline. Here and there signs of spring poked through. Daffodils, Blackthorn blossom, Hazel catkins.

Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) blossom at Connaught Park

I left the streets on Connaught road and followed a sunken path through a grave yard to join the old Roman Road, that climbs the hill out of the Valley and left Dover proper.

By now the sun had come out and the it was warming up into a pleasant spring day. Alas there was a slight chilly breeze so I wasn’t able to lose my windproof. The first part of the path towards the A2 has recently been resurfaced and was rather pleasant to walk along with fields on each side. Like much of the North Downs Way you can’t get far from the sound of traffic and as I headed north the sound of the A2 got louder.

On the OS map the North Downs Way is shown as crossing the A2 directly near what is now a slip road, but the Harveys Map and the sign posts show a detour to cross the A2 at a bridge.

Crossing the bridge I found the green lane that the NDW follows at this point with a large concrete block in the middle of it. I didn’t think much of this, and continued on. From here, with the A2 just metres away on my left, looking north I could see all the way to Ramsgate, and the Thanet wind farm in the distance. Shame that the foreground seemed to involve someones dump…

Ramsgate and the Isle of Thanet in the distance.

The path was heavily rutted, boggy in places, and made for interesting travel. At one point I had to inch along the side hanging off the branches of the hawthorn bushes to avoid the bog the path had become. When I got to the end of the rutted section I found another large concrete block and a sign. Apparently this section has been closed for 6 months so that they can fix the damaged surface. Alas the sign saying this seems to have gone missing from the other end. I took the opportunity of a seat (the concrete block) to have a snack and a drink. I then filtered some water from a nearby cattle trough before continuing on.

Rutted green lane

The path opened out onto open farmland, you could see from the terrain that this section used to be an trackway used for carts, but hasn’t seen such traffic in years. The fields were lush with green growth. Because of the noise of the traffic on the earlier section, I was walking along listening to podcasts on my headphones. This meant I didn’t hear when the dry bag with my loo roll in it fell off the outside of my pack where I had tied it on earlier. I only realised this as I was approaching the A256. I wasn’t prepared to backtrack to find it, so pressed on.

Many shades of green, the lush growth of spring.

In need of the loo and to refill my water bottles, I diverted just past the A256 to the Cider Works. It’s marked as a pub on the Harveys Map, but it’s actually a licensed cafe with slightly odd opening hours. I arrived just before the shut at 4pm, bought a slice of cake and an apple juice. They kindly refilled my water bottles. Restocked and rested, I once again moved on.

Rejoining the NDW, the landscape changes once again. I crossed through a church yard into pasture, through a small copse and into the lands of a country estate. I wanderd past giant mature trees, timeless pasture, and a country pile the size of which I had not expected.

An unexpected Mansion.

Leaving the pastoral land I crossed into a wheat field that filled a whole valley. I ascended the other side into a small woodland, then back into farmland for the last couple of kilometres to Shepherdswell.

The staff at the Cider works had said that one of the pubs in Shepherswell had recently closed, but they couldn’t remember which one it was. Fortunately the one that is still open is the one nearest the NDW, and I exited the path next to the church yard and into the pub.

The Bell Inn, Shepherdswell – A welcome sight.

The pub had a small crowd round the main bar area, and the conversation seemed to reduce somewhat as I came in. I walked past them all with my large pack, a couple of them making comments. I collapsed onto a sofa and ordered a pint.

I knew I had only a kilometre or so until my planned bivvi location and I had a couple of hours until sunset. Not wanting to make camp until the sun was down, it seemed the logical choice was to stay in the pub until dark… It’s a hard life sometimes…

Three pints of courage and a delicious fish ‘n’ chips later, I left the pub into the star light. I wandered through the horse pastures of Shepherdswell onto where the NDW joins a country lane heading north. Away from much of the light pollution I had a clear view of the stars, and with Orion on my left, and Cassiopeia on my right, I headed north.

Somewhere north of Shepherdswell I left the NDW and found a spot to bivvi in an area of coppiced broadleaf trees. It wasn’t the best spot, but it was away from the trail, had some shelter from an earth bank, and it wasn’t under a Yew tree. Between the exhaustion of the hike, the 3 pints of beer and the cold, I didn’t linger long. I put up my tarp, rolled out the bivvi bag, and crawled in, still fully dressed. It was cold so I wore my Torres jacket inside the sleeping bag.

I lay there listening to the local wildlife, something rustled in the leaf litter, and in the distance an owl called. But as I lay there I realised that I was shivering. Actual body shaking shivers. This was not good. I was in a 5°C sleeping bag, inside a heat reflecting bivvi bag, with an insulating jacket inside that. I rooted about in my pack to find the space blanket that was inevitably at the bottom. I unfolded it and put it between the bivvi bag and the sleeping bag. With this in place, I curled up tight and drifted off to sleep.

I woke just after first light, I might have started the night shivering cold but I was now comfortably warm. I ventured a hand out of the warmth to check the outside of my sleeping bag. As I had feared the non breathable space blanket had lead to lots of condensation on the outside of my sleeping bag. I crawled out into the woodland and stretched, before wandering off a short way to irrigate a tree. As I returned to my camp I realised just how badly I had made camp the night before. Certainly not my finest camp…

Not my best tarp pitching…

I stretched my sleeping bag out so that it could dry. The DWR coating on the bag had done it’s job and the moisture had pooled on the outside of the bag. It dried quite quickly, and just 45 minutes after I had crawled out of my bivvi bag, I stepped back out onto the trail.

Whilst Friday had been warm with beautiful spring sunshine, Saturday was an altogether chillier and greyer affair.

Grey skies looking towards Thanet.

From here onwards the NDW passes along side large open fields. The hedgerows of the previous day were gone, and with them their shelter from the wind. Where the path came close to a road edge, some scrote had fly tipped their rubbish.

I trudged northwards. Whilst on Friday I had covered 21.8km and didn’t feel too bad, just 5km into Saturdays hike and my feet were starting to ache. My old injury back with vengeance. I continued on, the pain increasing with every passing kilometre.

At Barham Downs I found the field the NDW passes through being ploughed by a couple of very large tractors, taking with it the obvious route through the field. I skirted along the edge where there was another path. On reaching the end of the field I had a small navigational hickup, and stopped to double check using viewranger. Position checked, I found the path a few metres beyond where I had thought it would be, and continued on.

Freshly ploughed path…

Once again the NDW joins a large road, this time following along the A2 for a short section near Bridge. The pain in my feet was getting considerable, and I decided that it would be best if I diverted to Bekesbourne station and the train back to Canterbury.

Bekesbourne only has one train an hour in each direction, and not wanting to have to wait 58 minutes on a platform with no seat or shelter having watched a train depart, I pressed onwards. I passed through the pretty village of Patrixbourne, before turning off the North Downs Way into Bekesbourne.

As I hobbled along Station Approach, I heard the sound of the approaching train, and with the last drops of will power, broke into a run. The train pulled into the station when I was about 50 yards from the platform. The Guard stepped onto the platform as a handful of passengers got off. The guard saw me and I waved, calling out “please wait!”. The kind guard held the train for me blowing his whistle and closing the door behind me as I stepped onto the train. I collapsed into a seat for the short trip to Canterbury. I’d managed just over 10km today, crossing off most of the NDW between Dover and Canterbury. I’ll have to come back for the final 3.5km.

How do you Microadventure?

I’ve been asked on twitter about what a Microadventure is and how I do them.

Microadventures are the brain child of Alastair Humphreys. The basic idea is a bit of an adventure that is accessible to most people. So you don’t need to save up thousands of pounds to fund a cycle ride across Africa, or climb Everest. You don’t need to take 6 months off work. An adventure you can do mid week, and still be at your desk for 9am.

It’s a great idea and one I’ve embraced, it’s allowed me to get out and enjoy nature without having to save up thousands for an international multi week trip through the wilds. Don’t get me wrong, I still want to do those trips, I’m still saving up, I still spend too much time pouring over maps. But when the modern world all gets too much, a microadventure allows me to get out there into nature and relax.

So what do you need to get out on a microadventure? Well that depends. As with all adventures there’s no one formula, there is no one true way. All I can say is how I do them. My packing list for a trip out is based around:

  • Sleeping bag
  • Sleep mat
  • Bivvi bag
  • Tarp + pegs
  • Backpack
  • Bottle of water

That’s it. You can take more, but you don’t need to i.e. I usually take a stove with me so I can make a mug a tea, but it’s not a necessity. Sometimes if the weather forecast is for clear weather, I may leave the tarp at home, or I may take it and not use it. But the essence is the bare minimum needed for a comfortable night out in the wilds.

If you’re in the Kent area, or able to easily get here, and interested in giving Microadventures a go, drop me a line. I’m always looking for company to join me. You don’t need to own all the kit, I’ve got spares of all of the above bar sleeping bag and backpack. So if you’ve got a sleeping bag, and something to carry it in, and can get to a station hsuch as Wye or Ham street, drop me a line!

ADVENTURE: Yew must be joking, a #Microadventure in this Wind?

December the 5th. December. I looked at the weather forecast for the weekend. 12°C, It seemed to be a mistake. I checked with another source. The Brits and the Norwegians both agreed. I closed the met office app, and stuffed my summer sleeping bag into my pack along with my usual bivvi gear. I pondered what to do. I wanted a trip out, to be among the trees once more. I’d been craving the forest for weeks. Several times I’d almost gone out, but bottled at the last minute. No this time I must go. But where.

My favourite stomping ground for this sort of trip tends to mean a start from either Wye or Chilham station. From here there are various bits of woodland and downland suitable for a microadventure. I looked at the map again. Back in November I had set out on a 3 day trip involving a 23km loop starting at Wye, and going via Chilham and the Kings wood. I’d done the southern half, but aborted at Chilham after the first night. This seemed like a good opportunity to complete the loop. A simple 12km walk from Chilham station up through the Kings wood to Wye station, bivvying down in a quiet stand of trees somewhere along the way.

Bag packed I left the house with the intention of grabbing some food en route to take with me. An indication of how frazzled my brain was, I hadn’t even got out the end of the road when I’d had to return to the flat twice to collect things I’d forgotten, nothing major, just my sleep mat…

Eight minutes on a train left me standing at Chilham station in a dull grey overcast nothingness. No leaves on the trees, no sun in the sky, not even rain in the air. Just wind. Oh what a wind. The met office had reckoned on 40kph winds with gusts upto 71kph. A bit blustery,

I left the station and headed towards the village of Chilham proper. The wind bit, blowing my hair around, thrashing it against my face. Hat, why hadn’t I brought a hat? Oh yes, 12°C. I put my hood up, hoping to contain my hair, and protect my ears from the windchill. As I walked through the village I now started to overheat. Even with both pit zips wide open it was too warm. I admitted defeat and put the hood down. As long as I kept my orientation into the wind it should be mostly ok.

Walkers in Road sign.

Warning to motorists that I was here…

I turned onto the interestingly named Mountain Road. I expected this to be named for a reason, steeply inclined. But no, it was pretty much flat, maybe a gentle undulation. I got 10 yards along the road when the phone rang. This was a surprise, I hadn’t expected to have phone signal here, it’s one of the reasons I got my inReach satellite communicator. It was my dad, who seemed to think I was nuts to be out for a walk in this wind. We chatted as I walked along Mountain Road towards the Kings wood. As I walked I explained how he could login to the delorme website and track where I was, followed by experimenting with the novelty of sending messages to me via a multi billion dollar satellite network…

View across the Stour Valley. A month ago we camped in those woods.

As I reached the edge of the Kings wood, we finished the call. It was close to dusk now, and I had what I thought was another 1-2km to go before my intended camp site. I put my head down and plodded up the hill.

I’d left the tarmac’d road behind and this part of the path was a wide trackway. Rutted down the centre where the water had eroded the chalk surface. A month ago in the wet, both myself and the friend I’d been walking with had had traction issues on such exposed chalk. In the rain the chalk is like polished ice and it’s easy to fall over. Thankfully today the chalk was dry, even so I plodded up the hill carefully.

I’d brought with me a new toy, a wood burning stove. So as I wandered I kept an eye out for wood to burn. I had my usual fire kit with me, but beyond few basic tinder tabs (more on that in future post), I didn’t have anything else suitable for making fire. I would have to put my Bushcraft skills to use if I was going to have a fire tonight. As I walked I looked for some fallen birch, the bark of which makes great tinder. It didn’t take me long to spot a dead fallen Silver Birch (Betula pendula). I cut off a 18″ long length, then tried to work out how best to carry it. Taking my pack off would be a faff and I already had a walking pole in each hand. I settled on holding it under the waist belt of my pack. A few yards further on, I added a second piece of Birch to the belt. This should hopefully be enough to get me sorted. I continued up the hill.

I had brought a map with me, intending to rely on it alone, without resorting to my phone or GPS. I need to improve my navigation skills. But with dark almost complete, I chose discretion as the better part of valour, and pulled out Viewranger on my phone. As I homed in on my intended campsite for the night, I grabbed a couple more bits of dead standing to fuel the fire. Fifty meters short of the camp, I turned right off the path towards a stand of Yew trees. In the dark I discovered that what looked to be a direct walk to the Yews, was interrupted by a three meter wide ditch. The sides where steep. It must have taken me 5 minutes to slowly easy my way down the side of the ditch. Using my poles almost like ice axes. Fortunately the other side of the ditch was easier to climb up. A few more meters and I was there. Camp.

I’d spotted this stand of Yew trees on a walk earlier in the year, and thought they would be a nice spot to bivvi. What I hadn’t quite taken into account was how not flat they were. I put my pack down with my little pile of fire wood, and sat down. Breathe. I needed to find a flat spot big enough to roll out my bivvi bag without any dead branches above it that could fall in the night. I scouted around looking for a perfect spot. I couldn’t spot anything ideal in the near darkness, and I didn’t want to shine my torches main beam around too much. I try not to draw too much attention to myself when in the woods, and was using the red beam on my headlight. I found something that looked pretty flat in the dim light, it didn’t have any over hanging dead branches. It would do. I moved my pack up here along with my firewood bundle.

Before I make camp a habit of mine is to just sit and listen to the woods, get used to the area I’m in. I listened. The woods were a cacophony of noise. Branches banged, trunks squeaked, and it all set on a base line of white noise from the wind. A gust of wind shook the trees, and I felt a footstep. Adrenaline shot through my body. I was on high alert. I turned off my torch and listened. I couldn’t hear anybody to connect with the footstep. Another gust of wind, another footstep. I looked around. Sheer terror the only way to describe it. I didn’t feel alone, something didn’t feel right. I reached out to touch the nearest tree, and on the next gust, I felt the tree trembled, the vibration propagating through the soil. There was noone here, the wind was making the ground shake. Breathe.

As soon as I had my heart rate under control I decided to pitch my tarp, this would give me some shelter from the wind, some visual shelter from anyone mad enough to be walking the woods in these conditions, and would give me some sense of security. Here is where I discovered the slight downside of my chosen pitch. The trees didn’t lend themselves to a proper pitch. I thought about the options, I played them through in my mind, before deciding on pitching my tarp with the ridge along the short axis, in an open sided lean to. There wouldn’t be much room, the gap  between the trees on this axis was barely more than the width of the tarp, but if would do.

I ended up with a ridge line in a triangular config round three trees with the tarp in a sort of open sided lean to arrangement. It wasn’t perfect, but it would do to get me going. I sat under the tarp slightly out of the wind and thought what to do next. Fire.

I took the various bits of dead standing and birch bark I’d collected, and with my little folding saw processed it down until I had a pile of sticks varying in thickness from a couple of millimetres, upto thumb size. I filled the stove with sticks of various sizes, packed in some birch bark and added a lit tinder quik tab. At first I didn’t think it had caught, I was just about to light another when the flames started to grow. Success. I spent the next half hour feeding sticks into the fire, bathing in it’s warmth and glow. Alas when I looked away for a couple of minutes to make a sandwich, it seemed to die down and I needed to start again to get it going. It worked. Twice in one night. I fed twigs into the stove and nibbled on my dinner.

The wind was showing no signs of easing up and the tarp pitched the way it was, wasn’t giving me as much protection as I had hoped. I’d need to reconfigure it. I let the fire die down, and turned my eye to the shelter. In the end I dropped it down into a half open pyramid type lean to type setup. I lay down inside the shelter. The fabric of the tarp was just inches above my face. Hardly optimal. I was exhausted, it would have to do. I rolled out my bivvi bag, inflated my sleep mat, and crawled into my sleeping bag.

Various layers of heavily distilled essence of dinosaur stood between me and the elements. Gust after gust blew through the trees, with each a crescendo of white noise filled the air. Trees groaned, branches squeaked, the ground shook. Every so often the staccato crack of a branch giving way would break through the noise. I lay in my bivvi bag, nose inches from the tarp, my locator beacon clutched to my chest, listening. I have never been more terrified on a night out in the woods. Even when visited by wild boar and strange dogs.

Just as I started to drift off towards sleep, a gust picked up the corner of my tarp and blew it loose of it’s peg. I couldn’t leave it to flap in the wind all night, I’d have to leave the psychological safety of my cocoon. I took the opportunity to re do the pitch of the tarp so that it was slightly further down the ridge line, meaning that I was no longer falling out from the lower edge. I also took the opportunity to rig up a stick to try and lift the tarp off my face a bit. I crawled back into my bivvi bag and tried to sleep.

Not the best pitch I’ve ever done, but it protected me for the night.

I slept the fitful sleep of the hounded, every so often a large gust would shake the whole tarp, waking me up. Throughout the night the wind moved around so occasionally it blew into the front of the shelter, billowing it out like a parachute, at others it blew onto the lower angle, pinning the fabric against my body.

The view from my bivvi bag.

0700 came bringing with it my alarm. It was still dark, the wind still blew. I hit snooze. A grey dawn slowly broke across the forest. I hadn’t exactly slept well, and in my groggy state I hit snooze three more times. By 0900 my bladder was telling me it was time to get up, I was just about to hit snooze one more time when I heard the first drops of rain on the tarp. Sod it, time to move.

Venturing forth from my warm sleeping bag, I stood up and stretched. Looking out through the trees, I could see drizzle being blown by the wind. Sheltered in the stand of Yew trees, I hadn’t noticed this.

Drizzle.

Drizzle

I broke camp in a matter of minutes. Using a 60L pack rather than my usual 30L meant I didn’t need the usual faff of cramming everything into small stuff sacks. It certainly sped up breaking camp. I shouldered my pack looked around to check I hadn’t left anything, then looked out of the trees into a clearing. Everything was blurry. Glasses. I swore. Loudly. My glasses were in the little zip pocket on my sleeping bag… in the bottom of my backpack, underneath everything else. I unpacked, found my glasses bent them back to the shape they should be, and repacked everything. Grrr.

Knowing of the ditch I had traversed in the dark the previous night, I took a slightly different route back to the path, this one was more direct, but steeper. As I did I found a couple of game trails, one of which had a mound covered in deer scat. I continued up the hill past mounds of white chalk. From a distance I wondered what they were, but as I got closer I realised they were the spoils from a badger set. I didn’t see any prints or scats from the badgers, but their excavations were visible throughout the rest of the day.

I rejoined the North Downs way and headed west for Wye. The path here was the best I’ve had on the North Downs Way so far, wide, and of a sort of compacted grit that made relatively easy going. In places the grit gave way to mud, and in this mud the hoof prints of deer stood out beautifully. Nearly every patch of mud I passed had clear deer sign in it.

Deer sign.

I continued on for Wye. At one point I passed a information board and stopped to read it. The board explained that this was the first point on the Pilgrims way where you can see Canterbury Cathedral. Walking in the opposite direction, I never would have thought to look for it.

Canterbury Cathedral

Canterbury Cathedral

At the edge of the Kings wood the North Downs way hangs a left and heads down hill to Boughten-Lees, where it diverges, to either Wye or Farnham (eventually). Alas the sign saying this is missing at this point. I climbed over a stile into a field expecting a path to my left. No path. I pulled the map out and studied it. I’d gone wrong. I climbed back over the stile and retraced my steps 20 yards to a junction. Yep, this is it, or at least this is where the sign should be. I headed downhill.

The wide compacted grit path of the last 4km was replaced by eroded and polished chalk as I descended towards Wye. As I went I started to think about my route. By now my feet were more sore than they should be and I started to wonder if there was a shorter route to Wye. I looked a the map, and there seemed to be a path across fields that came out near the station. Deciding once again that discretion was the way forward. I left the North Downs Way, and headed across the relatively flat farmland. Out of the protection of the woods or hedgerows, here I got the full brunt of the wind and once again pulled my hood up to keep my ears and neck warm.

Crossing the Canterbury Road, I had just 2km to go to get to Wye. Alas the fields here are the flood plane of the River Stour, and the recent rain had water logged the soil. Large areas of the path where nothing more than bog that I gingerly stepped through, thinking carefully before placing each step. Twice the mud tried to steal my shoes. When not outright bog, the path was in places a polished clay that led to slipping and sliding. Fortunately I stayed on my feet.

Eventually with sore feet and aching legs I reached Wye,. I hobbled into the Tickled Trout for a well earned Roast Dinner and a pint of Ale.

Mile stone.

 

ADVENTURE: Going Dutch – A Dutch microadventure

August 2000

Through the gloom of the Sound of Mull looms a shape. As we descend, the shape takes on the form of a ships hull. The SS Breda lays with it’s stern at 22meters, 7m above the 29m Sea bed which slopes gently up towards the bow, with 19m of water above the front of the bow. My Dive buddy and I dropped onto the sea bed by the rudder, and after a few minutes playing with the squat lobsters, we rose up over the stern and entered the hull. Through cargo holds full of life we travelled slowly to the bow, before dropping over the bow to have a look at her from that angle. Alas our dive time was soon to end, and we slowly rose up to our safety stop at 3m. Hanging there in the gloom, I pondered my first wreck penetration. A beautiful vessel, teaming with life. I couldn’t help but wonder what the city the ship was named after is like, and decided that I should visit Breda at some point.

October 2015

I boarded the Half speed train service from Amsterdam bound for Breda. I had with me my trusty Brompton in a full touring config, loaded up with kit for a Microadventure in the woods. Watching the flat polder landscape pass by the window of the train, the first spots of rain started to appear on the window. That didn’t bode well, the forecast was for an overcast day, not rain.

Arriving into Breda Centraal station, I loaded the Brompton up with it’s baggage and alighted the train. This station has had extensive renovation work done to it producing a modern well thought out station.

Outside the station, I booted up the GPS, and hit the road. Or rather the Fietspad. Like every other Dutch city the streets of Breda are full of segregated cycle paths running parallel to the roads. I followed the GPS along these cycle paths past wide tree lined roads. The Netherlands has a reputation for being densely populated country, yet the roads are wide with green spaces between the buildings, avoiding the claustrophobic feeling you can get in other countries. As I progressed along my route, the buildings changed and things became increasingly rural. Medium rise buildings giving way to detached houses, giving way to fields.

Eventually I crossed a motorway and decended into the woods. Being late October the trees displayed their autumnal clothes in a shades of gold, yellow and orange.

Cyclists in the woods.

I progressed through woodland interspersed with pasture, stopping occasionally to take photos.

Pasture and Woodland.

As I progressed I rode into the Chaamse Bossen, the forest I was aiming for to bivvi for the night.

Autumn Colours

Everywhere I looked the colours shone from a pallet of golds, reds, oranges and yellows. The colours of autumn.

Autumn Woods.

Across the Netherlands there is a network of authorised wild camping sites, each site comprises a wooden post in the ground with a sign on it, detailing that upto three tents can camp within 10 metres of the post. In the Chaamse Bossen three of these posts exist.

Pin oak in full autumn colour

A Pin Oak in full autumn colour

I followed the route I’d programmed into my GPS heading for the northern most of the camping posts. I had a loose idea of a plan to visit all three of the posts, and then decide which one to camp at.

Small camping post sign.

Sign on the path to the camping post

The first of the posts is located in a conifer plantation with an herb layer of golden grass. Intermixed with the conifers were the occasional hardwood.

Sign on the camping post.

The sign on the Posts. Loosely translated into English: “Camp within 10 meters of the post. Max stay 72 hours, max 3 tents, no open fires, take your litter home, bury your toilet waste.”

The website that lists all of the posts mentioned that fire wasn’t allowed, and I’d had a discussion with a Dutch friend who reckoned that this would include my little meths stove. I was rather surprised to find a fire pit next to the post. I was also slightly surprised to find two tents setup in the undergrowth, midweek in October I had expected noone else would be mad enough to be out here… I was wrong.

I looked at the map, the next post is 2.7km further south. Do I gamble on the next post being better, or do I go with this spot. I um’d and ah’d.

I decided to push on.

Given the impending sunset, I decided to put the camera away, and concentrate on getting to the next site fast. This meant that I arrived at the second site just over 10 minutes later, having pushed the bike along the last 50m or so to get to the post. Here I found the same fire ring, surrounded with a square of logs. Unlike the coniferous location of the first post, this one was a mixture of pines and hardwoods. The herb layer seemed to be mostly made up of mosses. There was noone else here. It would be perfect.

I chose a bivvi site between a small oak and a pine. It was only 1700, so rather than setup my bivvi bag, I decided to light a fire. Having travelled via eurostar, I was limited in what tools I could bring to the Netherlands with me. Just a Leatherman Juice CS4 and my Svord Peasant Mini had made the journey to the Netherlands with me, but I’d left the Leatherman in Amsterdam, not expecting to be able to have fire, I hadn’t expected to need it… Bah.

I’ll be limited to only burning what I could snap, or find already small enough to fit in the pit. Fortunately some previous users of the site had left quite a bit of material laying around, so along with the pile I collected I had a small number of chared logs. I started with some dead hanging wood I’d removed from an ash tree along with a pile of dried pine needles, arranging this on one side of the fire ring. I had in my bag a Spark-lite aviators fire kit, these are a small plastic box containing 8 tinder-quik fire tabs, and a single handed sparker. I fluffed up a tinder-quik, spun the wheel on the spark-lite. It caught first strike. I hadn’t quite been prepared for that. It also burned faster than I had expected because I’d fluffed it up too much. In my surprise I dropped the fire tab on the arranged kindling… missing. I tried to push it into the target kindling with a twig, but before I could, it burned out. On the second tinder-quik I didn’t fluff it up as much, so it took half a dozen strikes before it caught. I placed it into the kindling. The twigs caught. Success.

I spent the next 5 hours slowly feeding twigs into fire, cooked a simple meal, enjoyed the woods.

Starting to get sleepy at about 2200, I started to pitch my camp. Sleep mat inflated, bivvi bag rolled out with sleeping bag inside it. I started readying for bed when the first few spots of drizzel landed on my glasses. I had hoped to not need a tarp, but the weather wasn’t allowing that. I rolled out my small tarp in a basic A ridge config and crawled into my bivvi bag. I was glad of the tarp later in the night, listening to the acorns bouncing off it.

As I was arranging my self into my bivvi bag, something caught my attention in the direction of the path leading to the post, a light. Dimming my head torch I studied it. The light moved. Slowly the light approached the camp ground and I could make out it was attached to a bike. The light was shined at me. I turned my light on and flashed it back. A voice in the darkness said something in German. I replied in Dutch “Auf engels?”.
They repeated themselves. “Do you speak English?”
“Are you alone?”
“Yes”
He had a brief look around the area near the post before selecting a spot to pitch his tent, then spent the next 20 minutes noisily moving kit between his bike and the tent.

I woke up to my alarm at 0630. I’d chosen 0630 to be before dawn, so I could make an early start. I was slightly confused to find the woods lit up brightly. I poked my head out from under my tarp and looked up at a bright moon. That would explain it. I visited the shrubbery, and crawled back into my bivvi bag to watch the dawn.

I woke again at 1000 to find the woods filled with sunshine. Oops.

Woodland in the sunshine

A room with a view. The view I woke up to

I crawled out of my bivvi bag and sat by the fire pit. Coffee. I fired up the stove and tried to wake up a bit. I noticed that the guy who’d turned up late had already left, leaving behind a clear pitch. I sat drinking my coffee and soaking up the sunshine. Mug empty, time to pack up.

Tarp and Brompton.

My camp. The dip in the ridgeline is my jacket hanging up to dry.

It took about 10 minutes to get everything loaded back on the Brompton, and I set off into the woods for the 18km ride back to Breda and the train to Amsterdam.

On the way here the day before the trees had looked amazing even in the grey overcast. This morning in the sunshine they looked even better.

Cyclists in the forest.

I wasn’t the only one who had ventured out on the bike to enjoy the warm autumn weather, as I cycled back to Breda I passed a number of cyclists, ranging from lycra clad road cyclists zooming past, to old couples slowly plodding along. The ride back was faster than the ride to the woods, and it wasn’t long before I reached the edge of Breda. I was struck by the juxtaposition of a medium rise block sat on one side of the road, while on the other side grass fields and farmland. A meeting of city and countryside, and everywhere there were trees in stunning display of Autumn colours.

Orange coloured tree.

This tree was less than 1km from the railway station, next to a main road.

I stocked up on food and drink in the AH togo at the station, before boarding the half speed service back to Amsterdam, recharged and invigorated after a fantastic night out in the woods. Breda and the Chaamse Bossen was fantastic, I might have to come back.

KIT: The big three

This post is another in response to a question I’ve had: (Slightly Paraphrased)

“Do you really fit a weekends worth of wild camping gear in 5kg?”

The answer is Yes, I do. But before I go into details of what makes up the bulk of the 5kg, I should qualify things. Firstly, that 5kg is dry weight, so that doesn’t include water, food, or fuel. Secondly, that is the summer bag. In winter I use a heavier sleeping bag and a heavier bivvi bag, making my dry pack weight nearer 6.5kg.

The big three is a term coined by Ray Jardine. They make up the bulk of the weight of your pack. So what are they?

  • Backpack
  • Sleep system
  • Shelter

In non ultra light hiking it’s easy to pile on the pounds with these three items. Before I started aggressively lightening my pack the big three were:

  • Backpack – Berghaus Vulcan + PLCE Side pockets – 3.2kg 110L
  • Sleep system – Snugpak SF 2 sleeping bag + Highlander self inflating sleep matt – 3kg
  • Shelter – Vaude Hogan – 2.9kg

You can see that these three items alone are over 9kg. Having 110L of backpack then encourages you to take more stuff, after all you’ve got the space in your pack… This resulted in my lugging 25-30kg backpacks round Europe on various trips before I decided that there had to be an easier way of doing it.

So what are my current big three?

  • Backpack – Osprey Tempest 30 – 0.85kg
  • Sleep System – Mountain Equipment Lamina 35 sleeping bag (1.02kg), Exped Synmat 7UL (439g) – 1.459kg
  • Shelter – AMK SOL Escape Bivvi (240g), Miltec Flecktarn plane tarp(543g inc pegs + guys) – 0.783kg

Those of you good at mental arithmetic will be able to quickly sum that the total for the big three is 3.092kg. Giving me around 2kg for all the other bits an pieces.

I mentioned before that this is my summer bag. What changes in winter?

  • Sleep system – Mountain Hardware Laminina 20 – 1.55kg
  • Shelter – British Army XL Goretex bivvi bag ~0.9kg

This adds 1.3kg on to the weight of the summer bag. The only reason I change bivvi bag is because the AMK SOL Escape bivvi bag is a bit tight on the hips, causing compression of the loft, resulting in cold spots. I am thinking of getting an Alpkit Hunka XL for next winter, saving me about 400g.

So you can see, a simple yet light big three, with the best part being that the most expensive single item was the sleeping bag (£93 for the Laminina 20, and £85 for the Lamina 35). Going ultra light doesn’t need to be that expensive.

KIT: Taking shelter – Tarps.

I’ve had a question asking me what tarp I use when I’m wild camping with a bivvi bag.

I own three tarps. Which one I take with me for any given trip depends on where I am going.

The first tarp I got is a British Army Basha. It’s 2.5m x 2.2m, made from Silnylon, and weighs in at nearly 1kg with guy lines. It’s a lovely tarp that covers a nice big area, but it is very heavy. If I am car camping and don’t want a tent, then this is the tarp I use.

British Army Basha in the woods – June ’14.

The second tarp I got is a Miltec Flecktarn Plane Tarp. This tarp is 2.6m x 1.7m, weighs in at 450g, and is made from PU coated nylon. This is the tarp I take when wild camping in lowland situations where perhaps wild camping isn’t entirely encouraged. The flecktarn camo pattern blends well with many of the areas I camp in, particularly in winter. This tarp isn’t as big as the Army Basha, but it’s half the weight, and provides enough cover for me in a bivvi bag.

Miltec Flecktarn tarp in the woods – May ’15

The 3rd tarp I own is a RAB Siltarp 1, this tarp is 2.2m x 1.5m, weighs in a 198g without stuff sack, and is made of Silnylon. It’s a beautiful light tarp that I got to use with a bivvi bag when wild camping in locations where stealth isn’t my primary concern. In some respects the lightness of this tarp has given me headaches with other aspects of the tarp setup. Add eight 12g pegs, and you’ve increased the weight by 50%… I use 1.12mm microparacord for the guys on this tarp, it’s under half the weight of the 2mm dyneema I normally use for my other tarps. The total weight of the guys on this tarp is 28.6g. I’m still searching for the best pegs.

If you ask on a bushcraft forum for a tarp recommendation, the DD 3m x 3m tarp will come highly recommended. I decided against it as being too heavy, and also too big. Camping in woodlands, finding space for 9m² of tarp is not always easy. If I was in the market for a new tarp to use when bivving aside from the tarps I own, the other that I would consider near the top of the list is the Alpkit Rig 3.5.

On all my tarps I use glow in the dark line loks on the guy lines. They provide just enough visibility at night to see where I put my guys. I currently have some spares up on ebay if anyone is interested.

Hopefully this post has gone somewhere to answer the question about which tarps I use, and what tarps I would recommend.