Thames Path Plod


The tyre over the concrete path sounded Shush, Shush as I leant into the harness and dragged it steadily along. It wouldn’t be so difficult soon, I told myself, soon I’ll be on a smooth tow-path and the resistance will be lower. Tyres are meant to stick to roads after all, aren’t they? I could already feel my legs aching after just a few hundred metres, and it took all my strength to keep a steady pace. It’s momentum that’s key to hauling a tyre – the best training available to practise hauling all your kit and equipment in special sledges, called pulks.
Soon I’ll be doing this for real – with training expeditions to Norway and Greenland just around the corner – I need to be able to do this for hours, maybe 9 or 10 hours, each day for weeks.

Immediately I attract attention – some boaters have heard the noise of the tyre and couldn’t quite place it. They climbed up the bank and announced ‘We thought you were the village idiot.’ I think the same sometimes! They were really interested in what I was training for, so I explained all about Antarctica. To a fan of this mystical place, it still surprises that people don’t know there are no polar bears, or that nothing really lives in the interior. They have a ride in the tyre and I try and pull them – this makes a great picture but I get nowhere. It’s nice to have an excuse to stop and chat to people to be honest, but we soon say our goodbyes and I’m off again.

I’m not fast, but I’m steady, and once I’m in the swing of it I can enjoy the scenery. This part of the Thames Path, near Lechlade, is supposed to be one of the prettiest sections. The concrete path turns a corner and I’m at a picture-postcard sweet lock, with a cottage still occupied by the lock keeper, and flowers in pots and hanging baskets all around the edge of the river.

The smooth tow path I’d imagined was not to be. The terrain was primarily long grass on bumpy paths – something you’d barely notice if you were strolling along unencumbered by a tyre on a rope. I am starting to learn where the tyre will catch, spotting roots or fence posts and learning when it will try and jerk me back. Patiently, I stop and lift it over obstacles, through gates and down steps.

My companion for the day was not pulling tyres, but entertained me with stories – it was a rather one-way conversation as I was concentrating hard on the all-important momentum.

The route really was the prettiest – we walked through tall grass and butterflies took to the air in a cloud of colour as we passed. We spotted iridescent dragonflies and even a frog. We barely saw anyone despite it being a beautiful Saturday in July. I was surprised how remote it felt even though we were by the Thames.

We reached a pub after 5 miles and I was supremely glad to sit in the shade with a Coke and literally take the weight off. We assessed our progress – we needed to get back to Lechlade and at the current speed it would have been very late by the time we arrived. The pub offered to look after my tyre and harness and from there I practically skipped the rest of the route, which took in World War II pill boxes and wooded glades.

My friend said goodbye and returned to London. I’d planned to sleep out that night and set off to recce a suitable spot. It was to be the first time I’d slept in just a bivvy bag – it was warm and the forecast was good; travel light I thought.

I walked further and further from the layby I’d left my car in. Along past a pub, mooring points and a long way further – past the pylons which hummed in the summer twilight.

I think it was a combination of things; not being able to spot a place which was both homely and comfortable; far enough from the path to be safe but close to a hedgerow, or was it that it felt too far from my fellow human beings? Not that surely, as I’ve happily wild camped alone. I’ve concluded that it was the lack of a tent which put me off. Something primeval and innate this –when alone – stopped me from wanting to just lay down in the undergrowth and go to sleep. A tent may not provide any safety – it’s only a bit of nylon after all – but there’s something about being enclosed which makes you feel protected. If I’d been with someone else, that might have been a different story. I learned something about myself that night, as I turned around and retraced my steps back to the car and headed home.

I’m sure that every time we go out into the wild, what we learn is something about ourselves as much as anything we might learn about our environment. I learned that I like a tent! It’s not really that much extra weight. I’ll be making sure I pack my Bunker for extra security (!) next time.

Wye Wild


Map reading 101. As in, if you left me on a hillside with a map, I’d end up lost in the mist, going round in circles and hoping for mobile signal/ a large landmark/ my friends. I’ve always loved maps, but they seemed to be a beautiful, secret code I couldn’t crack.

After my first Outing Alone With A Map a few months ago, the (metaphorical) mists were starting to clear. I could see where I was on the map, although it was a well-trodden path with a multitude of signs, so I couldn’t go far wrong.
Fast-forward to the Radnor Hills. Beautiful, but without any major features. It all looks pretty much the same, both on the map and in reality. Rounded hillocks of heather, sheep, the odd muddy pond and a few cliffs. This made it perfect for map reading practice, where you can’t cheat by using, say, a huge church. I learned to take a bearing, and to trust it. There must be books or online tutorials for this, but following the compass and finding out it really does get you back to where you intended was a brilliant feeling. My tutor had done this a million times before, so it was less daunting to follow a line over some grass which looked exactly like every other bit of grass. Somehow, we got lucky with the weather; the sun shone and every feature was visible. I need some mist! Some fog! Some darkness and rain! But I’m glad this time was a chance to learn a new skill and be warm and dry while I was doing it.
Then you can start looking at features and thinking ‘I want to investigate that, that looks cool.’ As I’m fond of a wild swim (especially on sunny days), we aimed for a lake I’d spotted on the map. And we found it! Although it wasn’t ideal for swimming – too much algae and a lot of bird life – there was a hidden path down to a shady jetty, and we rested on the upturned boats contemplating the brilliance of my (our) navigation.
The plan had been to wild camp up on the hill, but the determination to find a wild swimming spot sent us off in the direction of the River Wye. How I identify a camping spot: is there anyone around? Is it flat? Will it flood in the night? Good, right, that’ll do. How my team-mate identifies a camping spot: searches for one close to the river, with its own beach and huge tree for shade. Actually, a lot better. But it was on the opposite side of the river. Of course.
Crossing the river at a shallow but fast-running place was dramatic. I had a lot of kit, including my phone which I really didn’t want to drop in the water. I’d rolled up my trouser legs and put on my wetsuit shoes, tying my walking boots to my rucksack. I must have looked a comical sight, not really an adventurous type, more like an overloaded clothes horse. As soon as I stepped out I almost slipped. The mossy rocks below the surface were impossible to grip, and concentrating on the fast flowing water made me feel dizzy. It took ages, feeling my way blindly, transferring my (unbalanced) weight. But it was worth it – once across and setting up the tent, it was a tiny, completely deserted paradise, and perfect for wild swimming.
We had brought wetsuits, but barely needed them. Bobbing about in the water and watching the sun set upriver, with swans idly regarding us as they floated past, this was one of the best wild swimming spots I’d ever been to. Deep enough for proper swimming in places, with rocks to rest on, we tried a bit of upriver swimming too before we got out and lit the fire.
Dehydrated rations taste good after a day like that, especially when rounded off with a little drink in front of the fire, surrounded by the growing shadows – a toast to an amazing day.

With huge thanks to Snugpak for providing home for the night – the Bunker three-man tent, and their latest expedition towel, perfect for wild swimming! http://www.snugpak.com/outdoor/bunker

(With apologies to Al Humphreys, whose pic idea I copied!!) 

Can there be such as thing as ‘organised adventure’?

Can you truly have an adventure if you are part of an organised group, with a leader? When I think of adventure, I think of self reliance, of resilience, and of solving your own problems. Amundsen said that adventure was just bad planning, but doesn’t someone else doing the planning (bad or otherwise) take some of the adventure (or satisfaction) away?

A group of us were booked on a sea kayaking trip with an outdoor centre in Devon. A few days before, the forecast was deemed to be too bad to go kayaking, and a series of other activities were offered instead. I was really geared up to do the sea kayaking but very happy to go with the flow with alternatives. I was very much the new girl, as the others all live in the same village and knew each other pretty well. I know I’m a slightly swotty child who is often annoyed when I don’t grasp something straightaway, so I was keen to chill out and just enjoy the weekend.

We piled kit and humans into the mini-bus as set off to the Plym river for gorge walking. It was actually great to be ferried around and not have to worry about routes – ‘where the hell are we going, we are in the middle of nowhere and the signal’s gone’, or kit ‘I thought we had a helmet each, where did we leave the other one?’ and so on, and just enjoy the scenery en route.

Gorge walking is essentially walking upstream in a gorge. There’s a little practise but not much skill required and it’s just tremendous fun sliding down rocks, climbing waterfalls and swimming in the pools that have been worn by millennia of crashing river water. The sun shone (to such an extent that we did wonder why we weren’t in the sea. The answer came later in the day with high winds). 

The setting was beautiful and the morning a lot of fun. We sat – rather like children on a school trip – by the river and ate out packed lunch, contemplating our good fortune. We’d all left actual children behind, and it was brilliant to be in a group of like minds – determined to make the most of the time.

The afternoon was a chance to go climbing at the Dewerstone. ‘Real’ climbers were busy with multi-pitch routes up sheer rock. We were tackling a much lower route. With a couple of very good climbers amongst us, it was a real testament to the leaders that everyone – from the very experienced to the completely new (me) – managed to challenge themselves and get something from it. I learned to belay (and was nearly off my feet belaying for a much bigger person, which only shows my inexperience).

We then pottered off to our wild camping spot – which was a designated wild camping site (isn’t that an oxymoron?!). Either way, we arrived at East Soar Farm and found a barn to dry our kit in, a bigger barn on the edge of the centre which was our sleeping area, and a great facility for hikers and campers. We opted for the no-frills, no cheating option and set ourselves up for the night.

Weight wasn’t so much of an issue as we were being bussed around, and I discovered that a lot of the room in the mini-bus had been taken up by booze! We set up a makeshift bar in the doorway of the sleeping barn and the selection would have impressed any pub.

Activity leaders Richard and Matt had taken care of supper – a vat of chilli which we all helped prepare and then cook over an open fire. The group then went to the headland while supper cooked – a short walk and a scramble onto the rocks and we watched the sunset with our legs dangling over the precipice into the wild sea below. It was a real plus point to the trip that we didn’t have to leave anyone behind to take care of food, and when we strolled back at dusk, supper was ready, and the fire was going well.

We talked into the night about politics, adventure, life, the universe and everything. As night fell the clear sky revealed a glittering of stars.

I’d opted to sleep in my tent as my experiences of shared sleeping space usually meant no sleep at all. I was right to do so as in the morning there were many complaints about snoring! I’d had a very cosy night’s sleep and – bar a late-night game of banagrams outside my tent – hadn’t heard a thing.

The led aspect of the trip came into its own when we went coasteering – a sort of mix of sea swimming, rock scrambling and jumping into the sea off cliffs. The weather wasn’t great and we were all chilly to start with. But the setting was stunning – somehow we had the whole area to ourselves, despite it being a bank holiday weekend – rugged cliffs were covered in woodland and deserted coves hid behind rocky outcrops.

We started with getting wet – not an inviting proposition initially, even with wetsuits – but we were soon clambering over rocks and learning safe entry to the water. You might think an enthusiastic amateur could just jump in – but with the tides, the unpredictable swell and the submersed rocks, an expert with local knowledge was essential. It’s easy to see how you could quickly get into trouble trying to ‘egress’ (a great word for the late-night banagrams in future!) or get out of the sea onto the rocks. Even if you jumped in safely you might not have located, or been able to see, a place to get out again.

We’d been out for a while, people were getting cold, and one of the leaders had fallen badly on some rocks, but we all agreed we wanted to go on, to do a little more.

We jumped off bigger and bigger cliffs, which was exhilarating – and everyone found something which challenged them.

 We held each other as if our life depending on it while being smashed by huge swells, and swam across open sea to reach other cliffs. The highlight of the day was jumping off what felt like a huge cliff, surfacing and bobbing about, only to realise there was a huge seal swimming with us who’d similarly popped up to see what was going on!

Nothing feels better than warm, dry kit when you’re tired, wet and cold. Except a huge lunch of course. And once we were dry we were driven back to the centre for lunch and huge mugs of tea, while we giggled at the photos Matt took throughout the weekend.

So was it an adventure? Absolutely. What made it an adventure if all we had to do was turn up? The fact that every one of us faced, and overcame, personal challenges. Whether it was abseiling, jumping into the sea, climbing a difficult route, squeezing through narrow caves (for the claustrophobic, you’ll know what I mean), and succeeding. It was also the adventure of being together, and working together, of learning about people beyond the small talk of the everyday, and the real dangers of the coasteering on the second day.

Yes, it removed major aspects of the trip – logistics and planning, and a huge amount of experience and knowledge from the leaders – from our hands, but it definitely freed the mind (and the body) for a whole different kind of adventure.
With thanks to Richard and Matt at Reach Outdoors, Goodrington Sands, Paignton, Devon. 

Note- I was not paid to endorse Reach Outdoors. With thanks to Matt from Reach Outdoors for the pic. 

Kitmonster goes to California


Sometimes when writing a blog, it’s hard to know which parts to include and which to leave out, especially when you’re trying to capture the events of more than one day. So, after ten days skydiving in California, and a few days back home to contemplate everything that went on, I’m still not sure which of the events I should write about. There’s almost too much to write; what Southern California is like (not glamorous in the way you might think, but certainly fascinating), what it’s like to go all the way to the West coast of America and only visit drop zones, or what the skydiving was like. But I think I should focus on the jumping, as that was the main purpose of the trip.

The kitmonster was ready with my rig (my canopy, reserve and container), which takes up 10kg of weight, and there was room for enough clothes for ten days too. When I arrived at the airport to check it in, I tried to make it look light……

Before I left, I’d been warned that skydiving in the States was ‘lawless’, and that no safety checks are carried out, that people jump without guidance, and that you’re totally responsible for your own safety. Add to this a long flight, and a new drop zone, and it’s fair to say I wasn’t really looking forward to it!  I was pleasantly surprised to find that, although there are fewer restrictions, people looked after each other, and the number one rule was ‘don’t fly like an ***hole’, which covered most aspects!

Having arrived and done our paperwork to jump at a new drop zone, I watched a few plane loads of skydivers jump and land before I got in the plane myself. The landing area at Elsinore is long and narrow, and looking at the aerial photograph, I seriously doubted my ability to land anywhere near it. At one end were the drop zone buildings, at the other a lake

The ride to altitude was stunning, and I was looking out of the window to check I could still spot the landing area from the air. On one side were mountain, on the other the ocean, and below us neat rows of houses, baseball and football stadiums, and the freeway. I was relieved to find that I could orientate myself using these landmarks better than I can at my own dropzone (which is mainly fields), and was amazed to find I could land where I was supposed to too. I landed pretty far away on my first jump there, just to be 100% safe, as landing closer meant travelling closer to the buildings under canopy. I landed in a field of flowers and they smelled wonderful as I strolled back.

The beauty of jumping in California is the continually sunny weather; making jumping something you can do all day, every day if the mood takes you. In the heat of the day, dust devils can swirl up; mini tornados which can be dangerous for jumpers – we saw a few but were lucky not to be caught in any under canopy.

We also visited Perris, a famous dropzone which has more planes, more people and even a swimming pool when you’re tired of jumping, and San Diego, a beautiful dropzone in a nature reserve.

Then I had a malfunction. It can take a number of forms, and is where your main canopy doesn’t open properly, or you’re unable to land it because of line twists. Your safety procedures are drilled into you from day one, and you’ll often see experienced jumpers practising their emergency drills in the plane. I almost expect a malfunction every time I jump, so when it happened, it was just as I’d been taught. I had serious line twists. Often, you can kick these out like you would do when you’re a kid on a swing, but these were still twisting, and I was spiralling to earth with no canopy above my head. I knew I needed to ‘chop’ my main, and reached for my cutaway handle. It was so quick, I didn’t even have time to pull my reserve handle before the various safety devices opened it for me and I had a perfect canopy above my head.

It wasn’t as scary as I thought it might be, as it was exactly as I’d been taught. Skydivers are a close-knit group – I had lots of morale support both at the DZ and from friends back home when I landed. The main piece of advice is to get immediately back in the plane and get on with your next jump.

A wise skydiving friend spoke to me about what had happened, he said; “It was fear that brought you here in the first place.” That was a smart thing to say, and helpful. It is true. I was scared when I did a tandem, a solo jump, a freefly jump. There’s always something new to learn, and this was just another of those lessons. I knew now that I could make the decision to cutaway in a split second, that my reserve drills worked.

I got back in the plane the next morning, at Perris, where a skyvan awaited. A taller plane, it opens with a ramp at the back, instead of the usual roll-up door on the side. I put the malfunction out of my mind and away we went. We were doing a formation jump, which required my to do a headstand out of the door. Of course I was afraid. But it was fear that brought me here.

My journey home was nightmarish – stuck in a strange, time-zoneless purgatory of various airports, delayed flights, missed connections and travelling away from my destination. I was convinced I’d never see the Kitmonster or my rig again. I was tired, and ready to head to missing baggage when the monster arrived on the carousel. I have never been so relieved or surprised to see it!

Check out the Snugpak kitmonster in all its forms here http://www.snugpak.com/outdoor/rucksacks/kitmonster-120

 

Snugventures: The skydiving one

The Kitmonster and I go to Spain. 
Sitting in the bar at the drop zone, surrounded by Spanish voices and Ed Sheeran non-stop on the local radio station, I’m glancing hopefully out of the window at the rain. You can see for miles and I can definitely see sunshine on the horizon. Are the clear skies coming this way? A skydiver’s endless optimism and hopeless nose for guessing the weather tells me so. 
I arrived on Thursday, having had a couple of hours sleep since Tuesday night. Armed with my rig (my canopy, the container it goes it, a reserve canopy and an automatic activation device) my Kitmonster is heavy. Definitely over the measley budget airline allowance I fear. Plus my friends in Spain have asked for emergency supplies of gravy, custard creams and orange squash. I dump it down on the scales doing my best to make it look light as I do so -19.1kg! 
Eventually my friends find me and my kit wandering the tiny streets of the village just outside the drop zone. It’s a maze of one way lanes and everything looks vaguely familiar. 
We head straight to the drop zone – an hour’s stroll along a dusty track past olive groves and rich red-brown fields. It sounds idyllic, and it is. Leather-faced old men drive past in 4x4s, loose dogs eye us with condescension. 
The drop zone itself has everything required: somewhere to pack your parachute, and an office to manifest (or book yourself on a flight). There’s also a bar – essential for decent coffee and bad weather days. 
Although I’ve brought my own kit, it’s a canopy I haven’t jumped since I broke my wrist in July and I decide to jump and bigger canopy, supplied by the drop zone. 

I don’t jump that day – the winds are strong and I’m tired. That coupled with a new dz mean I take the decision to get a good nights sleep and jump the next morning. 

The first couple of jumps are fun jumps with friends, but I’m still nervous. A drop zone I haven’t jumped at for over a year, skydive Spain has super-fast planes which get you to altitude in minutes. We all get comfortable and going from my home dz where I know everyone in the plane feels unfamiliar and not a little scary. 
At home we have no seats in the plane, so we all bundle in together, a jumble of arms and legs, occasionally moving a foot or arm as we get strapped in. We then have what feels like a long time to reach altitude; time to visualise the jump, time to remember that there’s only one way you’re getting back to the ground, and that’s out the door. I’m definitely out of my comfort zone here. 
We’re at a higher altitude – 15,000ft – before I know it and the green light is on. The advantage of course is more time in freefall. I really noticed the extra seconds, time to practice more and have fun with your jump buddies. 
But in the back of my mind are two things. The first is that last time I came here I got my first skydiving qualification, and I’m going to get another while I’m here. Then there’s the landing. While you’re in freefall, it’s the perfect moment of concentration, of focus. If you’re after mindfulness, it’s right up there. You can’t think about anything else, not even as far ahead as being under canopy. But once you pull, and your canopy is fully open above your head, then you need to land it. Since getting injured, I’m a lot more safety-conscious (or danger-conscious) and landing at a new dz often causes me to land off (not on the designated landing area). I’m happily hanging out over the landing area and confident I can make it. But as I’m maybe 20ft from the ground I see that I’m coming in much faster than usual, despite being on the same size canopy as I’m used to. I’m sure someone can explain to me why it’s ‘faster’ here. Either way I prepare for a dodgy landing and a slide ungracefully on my backside for about 20ft.
The rest of the day is a lot easier but I still struggle with the fast ride to altitude and poor landings. 
As milestones go, 100 jumps isn’t really anything to be excited about as it’s only at 200 jumps that you can really begin. But it is customary to do something memorable – jumping naked is bizarrely popular. I had planned to wear my grandfather’s flying suit which I’d had specially altered – he was a Lancaster bomber test pilot in the war – but it was so heavy I couldn’t justify bringing it out for just one jump. Sorry grandad – I’ll save it for 200 jumps. 
Instead I found a couple of friends and we did a hybrid jump, my first one. It was a great success. That buzz you get when you have a jump that goes well, or you jump with good friends and spend the whole time grinning from ear to ear at the awesomeness of it all, that moment, those precious seconds of freefall; the world is at your feet.  

Snugventures: The Wiltshire One

Wild (or not so wild) camping in Wiltshire 

 

The Wiltshire countryside doesn’t exactly conjure up endurance or hardship. It is a county full of thatched cottages, rolling hills and pretty villages. Having ditched Dartmoor for the closer option of the Clarendon Way, I was initially down-hearted at the thought of what I was expecting to be a gentle stroll.

 

I packed the same kit, planning to be fully self-reliant; enough warm kit to tackle the March weather, dehydrated food and my one-woman tent. My travelling companion Sue was bringing her map-reading expertise to the party. I haven’t read a map for hiking for years and what I’d done has been mainly classroom-based.

 

We set off at the start of the Clarendon Way, planning to make it to the 15-mile point by evening, with everything bundled into my Kitmonster http://www.snugpak.com/outdoor/rucksacks/kitmonster-65 (I swear I had enough kit for weeks in the wilderness).We passed red phone boxes, horses out for the hunt and tiny post-offices. Sue treated me to an ice cream at the first village, as I had brought no money with me (note to self, most places in the UK are within striking distance of civilisation. And the morale that comes from an ice cream cannot be underestimated).

 

Sitting outside the shop, having dumped our packs, it was like stepping back in time. Villagers coming to the post office passed the time of day, the sun came out through the fog and it was all rather wonderful.

 

I thought I’d done quite well on the map reading, and Sue was quite happy for me to take the lead and follow the route through copses, over fields and streams. I was actually able to identify features, track where we were on the map, and find our way. It felt pretty good, and I was confident I hadn’t messed up.

 

My kit was becoming heavier with each mile (of course it wasn’t, it was the same – or even a bit lighter as we ate our way through some of the contents), but it was a blessed relief when we stopped by a pretty stream to eat gingerbread and play pooh sticks (I did say it was like we’d stepped back in time!).

 

We reached our destination at around 1600, and there was time to grab a cold drink at the local pub before establishing my micro-adventure camp for the night. I’d recced a suitable spot well outside the village on the way in, and as the light started to fade, I said goodbye to Sue and set off back up the hill. I wanted to get my tent up before nightfall.

 

There are certain things which add comfort, and a large dose of morale, when you’re out in the field alone. Although I’ve been tempted by tales of travelling light and sleeping under the stars in just a bivvy bag, my lightweight tent, set up with my sleeping bag and roll mat, was inviting and cosy.

 

I know a tiny sheet of canvas will offer little protection from determined axe-murders but I still feel much safer inside my little domain. I don’t think about it often, concluding that it would have to be some extremely patient opportunist who wandered about in the hills hoping to come across lone travellers.

 

The spot I’d chosen was under a hedge, offering a tidy wind break for cooking supper. I pulled on my ML9 (http://www.snugpak.com/outdoor/clothing/ml9-softie-smock) as it’s surprising how quickly you cool down once you stop working. When you’re outside, most things taste amazing but my Expedition Foods pasta was actual food, and was as good as any I’d tasted.

 

After that, to conserve phone battery, I read a few poems from a book I’d borrowed from the pub. Having walked for seven hours with my kit, and having completed my tent routine for the night, I didn’t mind going to sleep, even though it was only about 7 o’clock.

 

As predicted by the met forecast, the rain pluttered lightly on the tent from 4 am, and I was thankful again that I’d brought my tent with me. It’s one of life’s great pleasures; being warm and dry inside your tent while the rain falls outside. I drifted off till dawn, when I woke and made a hot breakfast. Packing away in just the right order to keep everything as dry as possible till the last moment takes some practice, and not a little time, so an hour after I woke, I was fed and packed away ready to go.

 

Amazingly, even now I was alone, I managed to read the map – it must be something like how we feel as children when we realise we can read and the answer is right there in front of us. I could identify to the nearest 50 metres or so where I was, which meant I didn’t get lost. It sounds so simple when you say it like that, but I was chuckling to myself at my luck at knowing exactly where I was.

 

Things I should have brought: money, something to read (I promise I’ll take the book back).

Lessons learned: fablon your map! Pointing at your map with a blade of grass (for accuracy) makes you look like you know exactly what you’re doing.

The very British story of Snugpak


Step one of my brand ambassador role with Snugpak was set to be a visit to their HQ in North Yorkshire. I left my house at 4am, optimistic that any meeting where you are expected to wear outdoor gear was going to be a good one. 

The building itself where Snugpak not only has their headquarters but also still makes their key items is definitely worthy of mention in itself. A Grade II listed old wool factory, it’s four storeys are still a hive of activity, just as they had been more than a hundred years ago. As we made our way around, Darren pointed out his own favourite parts of the building; a particular stone step which has been worn into a smooth concave shape as many hundreds of workers climbed the stairs many thousands of times. The lift shaft, no longer used for anything except goods, and the warehouse doors and rope pulley on the outside, all of which are still used to bring in deliveries or send out orders. Unlike today’s sterile offices, there was a feeling of warmth, of things being made, and every single person I met there had a smile on their face. 

Darren and I were joined by Todd, Jonny, Charlotte and Steve, and I was having my photo taken all the way round. This is something I usually hate, but having been on the other side of the camera I know how unhelpful it can be if people are reluctant subjects. As Steve snapped away, Darren explained about how the signature jackets and sleeping bags are made, and we chatted about the methods used to make the fibre stuffing, and how technology has advanced production. 

Everyone was happy to chat; I met Jim, who’d been with Snugpak for more than 20 years. His wife also works there and the factory is how they met. They are all understandably proud to work for one of the last British manufacturers of outdoor gear, something very unusual today. 

Everything from the building and the staff to the location on the edge of the Leeds-Liverpool canal felt so British. We all had fun trying out the tyre-hauling along the canal, and I really felt that Snugpak is a brand where I can belong – where I’ll share stories of my adventures (and disasters no doubt as well), and that they’d support my endeavours. 

I’m only sorry it’s not closer to where I live, as I can imagine popping in for a cup of tea and a catch up and they’d always be welcoming. 

I left with a goodie-bag of a SJ6 jacket, a Monster kit bag and a Softie smock. I’m getting straight on with trying them out with a training weekend on Dartmoor in February. As desolate a place as any in the UK. 

Gear tests based on miserable, wet and windy conditions coming to a blog near you soon!! 

When winter running brings out the big kid in you


Winter running brings happiness if you do it right. 
First off, run outside. The only time to run on a treadmill is if. Actually, I can’t think of a good reason to ever run on a treadmill. Anyway. Wrap up and get out. Today was freezing. Literally below zero, not just a little bit chilly. As I ran I was tempted to poke the frozen puddles, like I was still five, and watch the ice give just a little – moving the water underneath around like a live jellyfish under plate glass. I crunched my way through the frost where the ground was untouched by the sun. But the blue skies above lifted the soul, and the crisp air felt brilliant and clean.

Oh it takes your breath away at first, and it takes longer for your muscles to feel warm and your breathing to steady to a regular pace, and breathing out you can see your breath, like when you were small and used to pretend you were a dragon, breathing smoke. 
Being outside in winter, when everything is silent and frozen and still, is a magical place to be, and so it brings out the child in us. Even better to be running, feeling warm and fleet of foot, while everyone else is inside, where they can’t feel the icy wind burn their faces, or notice the birds, fluffed up and regarding you as you crunch past. 
Remember to bring gloves, trail shoes, a warm hat and a sense of wonder. 

Suit/ Commute: How running to the office might just be the ultimate in multi-tasking

It’s -3 outside and completely dark. Only the stars are visible and no slivers of daylight can been seen over the horizon. I’m still inside, wrapping up, debating how many layers will keep me warm once I get going. I settle on four layers. But really it’s just procrastination and I’m fairly toasty inside. I grab the door handle and actually have to count to three to will myself outside. 

Immediately I get moving but the cold takes my breath away and I’m soon labouring between running hard to keep warm and feeling like my lungs are already bursting. 
The sparkle of hard frost on the ground and trees does nothing to compensate for the slamming cold. I realise pretty quickly that I’ve got a minute gap between my gloves and wrist and quickly pull down my sleeves. My old faithful trainers have holes in the toes and this adds unwelcome ventilation. 
The path to the station is gloomy and few people are out. 
I’m running to catch my train, leaving just enough time to make it a competition with myself. I need to keep pushing hard to make it.
I choose the shortest line, crossing and recrossing the road to save time. I make myself run to ‘my’ sign. Some bit of street furniture which signals I’m close enough, I can stop now. 
Once on the train I start shedding layers, usually right down to a vest top, much to alarm of my unsuspecting fellow passengers, who don’t know if I might carry on until I’m totally naked. Dumping my stuff on a seat to claim it, I stretch in the corridor before taking my seat and steaming gently in the warm carriage. 
It isn’t ideal really, sitting still for almost two hours before setting off again. Once at Waterloo, I don all my layers again and set out through the city streets. It’s not my favourite thing – I’d much rather be out on the trails, in the woods – anywhere off road. But there are things about city running that are undoubted pleasures. You can people watch, which passes the time, and you spot all sorts of things as you trot by, things you’d miss on a bus, or even a bike. You can carry on taking the shortest route. No red lights can stop you, unless you happen to have to wait for cars, in which case you can claim a few seconds beautiful rest.
And then I arrive at work. If you’re lucky, there’s somewhere to shower at the office. And I cram a whole work outfit into my tiny running backpack. Yes, I’m usually purple and sweating on arrival, but I dive straight into the shower and – having left a duplicate wash kit – am soon at my desk. Usually I’m red-faced and boiling for a good half an hour afterwards. Exercise isn’t the instagram perfection we see every day. 
Is it a massive hassle? Not usually. Yes, you have to think about it the night before so you have what you need (I always forget something but you can usually improvise, borrow from colleagues, or just be laughed at all day). 
Why bother? Indeed, all that getting cold early and getting sweaty after that, couldn’t you just hit the gym or run at lunchtime? Of course. But running your commute generally beats everyone but the most earnest of bike commuters. You can be off the train and on your way. No waiting for buses, adjusting you saddle or queueing for a Boris Bike. Plus, that’s you done for the day. You’ve ticked your training session off, and can tuck into your energy bar/ porridge/ sticky bun with gusto. You feel better, no commuter stress here. You feel invincible, when you’ve forced yourself out the door into the freezing night and you’re the healthier for it. 
There are some downsides of course. I get lost now and then (more now than then, if I’m honest) which makes me late/ a laughing stock. If you prefer trail running you might find it hard on the knees. 
But I can’t really think of many other reasons why you wouldn’t want to both exercise and get from A to B, and that’s ticking two things off for the day before you’ve even got to your desk. 

Wild Camping in Midwinter


Setting out from the car park at 7.30pm, the early darkness soon enveloped us. I brought my youngest with me, which made me brave as we walked along the path and into the field below the ridge. I’d been hoping we wouldn’t see anyone, but we approached a man alone, which made me cautious. It turned out they were walking their dog, and that it was a dog (and owner) we knew – the advantages of microadventures in your own city!

We slipped through the gate and onto the path which ran parallel to the ridge. In the dark, we could see the lights of the city below us to our left, and a shallow pool cast from our torches. The night closed in around us and we chatted loudly and even sang to distract ourselves from the solitude. Everything looked different – I’d wild camped there before, but it must have been a summer’s evening, as I was struggling to spot the place where the path opened to the right and up the hill. We eventually found it, and started to climb. This was better – some primeval instinct in me felt much more comfortable higher up.

I’d remembered the best spot was beyond the trees and almost round the other side of the ridge, and we found a good place backed by high brambles but overlooking the city and the countryside beyond.

Pitching the tent and filling it with warm kit was the priority, as even though we’d warmed up nicely on the way up, we’d quickly cool down – I estimated the temperature to be maybe 3 or 4 degrees. Midwinter’s night was predicted to be cloudy but as we arrived the sky cleared and we could see the moon and stars, and the wind had dropped – the perfect midwinter’s night! There was a feeling of elemental contentment being out on the shortest night, knowing that we’d embraced it, not hidden away from it, and I had a big grin at the thought of everyone else wrapped up inside. We knew that we’d made it, that we’d soon be seeing longer days and lighter nights.

I’d parked on a slight slope, so we spent a bit of the night sliding down our roll mats, and I didn’t sleep much as the wind picked up in the night, but we were very cosy inside our sleeping bags.

I knew I needed to get up and catch the train back into London the following day, so – for the first time on any camping trip ever – I set an alarm. It was still dark as we worked to strike the tent, set the cooker going for breakfast and tea, and get everything packed away. Nothing tastes better than hot food for breakfast and we enjoyed porridge with blueberries with some very civilised vanilla tea. Suitably fortified for our descent (and a day’s work in London), we picked our way down again just as the light was creeping over the hill.

 

How fear brings you courage 


(Pic from Blue Skies Magazine)

How do you decide to take on a challenge? To do something you have no idea you’ll succeed at, or even enjoy? Surely the answer comes from practicing doing things you don’t know if you’ll succeed at. 

Slydiving has brought me the courage to take on new tests and challenges. A year ago, I’d never have dreamed of planning a trip to the other side of the world. 

First, I finally plucked up the courage to sign up for a tandem, then I booked my ground school and Advanced Freefall course before I could change my mind. I found myself jumping out of plane strapped to no-one. Falling through the air at 120 miles an hour. The first time I took the plane to altitude, and probably for 20 jumps after that, I couldn’t look out the window (I was afraid of heights), when the other jumpers (as a student, you get out last) left the plane, I couldn’t look, and stared at the floor between my feet. The noise as they fell away into the slipstream – something between a whoosh and a pop – made me want to cover my ears and take the plane down again. But. But. The feeling of overcoming that fear, the feeling of flying through the air as free in your head as you are in space and time, was unequivocally worth it. I don’t know how I made myself drive back to the drop zone some days, especially when I’d checked on YouTube to see what my lesson was that day and it left my knees literally knocking with fear. 

And the knowledge that I’d overcome that fear and found ecstatic, life-affirming, laughing-you’re-so-happy joy once I was out of the plane, made me believe I could do it again. And again. 

And if I could overcome such extreme fear to do that, why not conquer other areas of my life? Since the second I first left the plane on my first tandem (thank you Ricky Capanni) I’ve taken on things I never thought possible –  until then I never thought it was possible for me to jump – and it is in no small part thanks to  skydiving. Perhaps what kept me coming back in those – frankly terrifying – early months, was the need to keep checking if I still had the courage. Everyone is scared at first, it’s how you get around that to meet the reward that’s down the road. 
All the cliches are undoubtedly true – that is why they become cliches. ‘Everything you’ve ever wanted lies on the other side of fear’ has never been so apt. And for once it feels absolutely spot on. 

How I came to be the newest brand ambassador for Snugpak


‘And of what value was this journey? It is as well for those who ask such a question that there are others who feel the answer and never need to ask’
– Wally Herbert (from Mind Over Matter, by Sir Ranulph Fiennes)

Why Snugpak? Yes, I love a great British outdoor gear brand, which still manufactures in this country – a rare thing indeed these days. And yes, every soldier worth their salt has a Softie sleeping bag for chilly nights in drippy woods. But when I met the team, and I told them about my plan to ski to the South Pole, they believed I would from the very first moment. I don’t know if they could see it in my eyes (very earnest!), or that that they themselves knew the same yearning for adventure, but they were immediately keen to support me. Straightaway they were thinking up new prototypes and ideas for saving weight, advising on kit and giving me tips on safety planning.
That belief was a huge boost. I think they believed in me more than I did myself at that moment, and I could see me working with such a like-minded company. I was more than thrilled when they told me I’d be their new brand ambassador. Ok, I’m sure people think that I get a bit of nice kit and go on my way. But there is a huge responsibility on my side too, to help them grow and tell more people about their products, to be out testing new equipment in some pretty cheeky conditions.

There is now so much planned – from visiting their Skipton site, to product testing and a few Snugpak adventures! I’m so chuffed to be writing this as a brand ambassador. I really am ordinary – I didn’t grow up on a mountain, I wasn’t born on skis, or with wealthy parents – but thanks to someone, somewhere (Viking blood in my veins, my mother always says), I have the will to succeed and the curiosity to find out what else is out there. And that is more powerful to the ordinary human than any else.

So here I am with Snugpak, starting out on a long road to Antarctica, but I know they’ll be supporting me every step of the way.