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!!)