Two Wee Adventurers

Rediscovering the great outdoors with a little one

Month: July 2016

An Orkney Camping Saga

4am on Tuesday morning and Finn is awake and eager to start the day. The two of us are heading to the Orkney Islands for a week long camping trip by public transport and will not arrive at our destination until midnight. Our journey there will encompass two busses, a train, a six hour ferry journey a taxi and a further bus and walk the following day. As I lie awake I’ve plenty of time to question what I’m doing. I will continue questioning my sanity, several times a day, for the first five days of our trip. It all seemed like such a good idea just over a week ago when I made our last minute bookings. The excitement! The spontaneity! The adventure! The reality was that it was a challenge but if there’s not some challenges along the way then it’s not an adventure, right?

Challenge #1 was trying to persuade my son to nap on the ferry. Unfortunately for me, he is a Duracell Bunny. He goes on and on while all competition (i.e. me) is left flagging. By 7.30pm I was pleading with him to sit quietly and rest. Fortunately at 9pm he succumbed. Unfortunately, this meant I had to wake him two hours later. Challenge #2 was trying to manoeuvre two heavy bags, Finn’s small bag and a tired and angry Finn off the boat. The challenges continued the following day when two minutes after we got off the bus to Stromness and began our walk to the camp site the heavens opened and we were greeted with torrential rain. I was carrying what felt like my own weight in baggage and dragging Finn along in the wind and lashing rain aware that I had to keep smiling and pretend I was really enjoying myself in order to keep up morale or risk complete meltdown. By the time we arrived I was ready to cry. We’d not had lunch and I still had to put the tent up, get dry and pass the afternoon trying to keep up with the Duracell Bunny when all I wanted was to lie down and sleep.

As each day passed, despite the further challenges of negotiating the Orkney Islands public transport network and still frequent meltdowns, I stopped thinking that maybe we should have stayed at home and started appreciating where we were and all the wonderful and varied experiences we were sharing. And the fact there were no midges. In Scotland. In summer. Yes, this is the Northern Isles’ best kept secret.

Hide and seek at the Ring of Brodgar

Hide and seek at the Ring of Brodgar

We certainly did end up having some memorable experiences. Since we’ve been home and he’s been asked about his trip, Finn most commonly cites that we were on a  ferry for 6 hours and didn’t arrive on Orkney until NEARLY MIDNIGHT!!!. So I’m inferring that this was the most exciting part of the trip for him. That and the launch out on the Severn Class Stromness Lifeboat. Finn has a mild obsession with the RNLI. As well as saving up to join the ‘Storm Force’ (the RNLI young supporter’s club) the vast majority of his holiday money always gets spent in the local RNLI lifeboat shop followed by a donation in the bucket. At home he will discuss the different classes of lifeboats and their merits and builds models of them and labels them to show in his ‘museum’. We don’t even live near the sea!

Finn meets one of the RNLI volunteers on the Stromness Lifeboat

Finn meets one of the RNLI volunteers on the Stromness Lifeboat

For me, spending time among some of the finest Neolithic monuments in the world was a privilege. This part of Orkney is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site, which includes Skara Brae, the Ness of Brodgar, Ring of Brodgar, Maeshowe, the Standing Stones of Stenness. Finn and I also learnt an awful lot about the part played by Orkney in the defence of Scapa Flow in both World Wars when we were the only ones who turned up for an evening tour of the Ness Coastal Gun Battery and Finn got his own private lecture.

Andy giving Finn a lecture on the importance of Orkney in the World Wars

Andy giving Finn a lecture on the importance of Orkney in the World Wars

My most memorable day was our penultimate one when we took the small passenger ferry to the island of Hoy. Much of Orkney is flat and agricultural but every day I’d been looking wistfully from our camp site across to Hoy, which is more mountainous and wild, Hoy meaning ‘High Island’. Our aim was to walk to the Old Man of Hoy, a rock stack standing on a lava platform and one of Orkney’s most well known icons. I’d had no success in trying to book a taxi to take us from the ferry quay to the beautifully atmospheric Rackwick Bay but we took the ferry over regardless. The island’s community bus didn’t detour the 6 miles to Rackwick but the driver told me to speak to Albert in the large people carrier behind. “We’re full” was Albert’s eloquent reply but the Swedish couple in the front insisted everyone squeezed up and that we’d fit in. It was not until reaching Rackwick that I realised this wasn’t a public bus service at all and that the two families of Swedes had hired a driver and vehicle to take them on a private tour of the island. There was no offer of a lift back to the ferry after we’d hiked to the Old Man. Ah well, I didn’t let that deter us and we pressed on, Finn tackling the route up the hillside with a hop, a skip and a jump, brandishing his Orkney flag all the way.

Rackwick bay on the island of Hoy with the Orkney flag that came everywhere with us

Rackwick bay on the island of Hoy and the Orkney flag that accompanied us everywhere

His enthusiasm lasted for the first scenic mile after which we stopped for one of three lunch stops. We got through the further two miles to the Old Man by playing a game of ‘roadblocks’ whereby Finn would run ahead with his flag blocking the path and indicate with a subtle movement of his eyes whether I was allowed to stop or go. Finn-intitiated games like this are our secret to managing long walks together. His longest hike up to that point was 7 miles of walking in the Peak District, 4 miles of which passed with Finn telling an elaborate but repetitive story of Roman and Greek inspired battles and conquests. Finn managed those four miles with ease, leaving me mentally exhausted. We had fun spotting the bonxies and surprised a mother and baby snipe in the heather as we ventured off the path. We stopped to build some miniature cairns and to chat to people we passed. As when I’ve travelled alone, the highlight of a journey is often the interesting variety of people you meet. With Finn on board this took on a new perspective. Finn’s antics drew people to speak with us and as a pair we were quickly recognised in the town and further afield as we repeatedly met some of the same people. We chatted to people from Australia, America, Spain, Italy, Germany, Belgium and even Orkney! We met a retired man who had just finished walking from Land’s End to John O’ Groats and a Scottish-French family with two young children who were cycle camping round the islands.

The iconic Old Man of Hoy

On reaching the Old Man we shared biscuits with a woman from Wales who told us stories of the trips she used to take alone with her two young children and of travelling the world with her father when she was a girl. She then nonchalently declared that he was still there with her as she pulled out a ziplock bag containing some of his ashes. She continued regaling us with their adventures while munching on another biscuit and scattering ashes on the ground, affirming how much he’d enjoy the view.

Finn less than happy at having to wear his waterproofs!

Back at Rackwick via another lunch stop and more games of ‘roadblocks’ and I had a decision to make. Cross my fingers, start walking along the road and hopefully hitch a lift back to the ferry or take the wild and scenic 4 mile footpath through the two highest mountains of Hoy to Moaness, already having walked 7 miles. We had plenty of time so I optimistically decided on the latter, my back up plan being that I could try and squish Finn into my backpack and carry him for a short distance. Finn’s newly invented game of ‘scouts and explorers’ involved him telling me exactly where to place my feet across every stone and puddle and eventually (along with another lunch stop) got us a further two miles, at which point it started to rain. I insisted Finn put his waterproofs on, which was my downfall as a meltdown ensued (Finn does not like wearing waterproofs) and the next two miles involved a long drawn out battle (not just one of Finn’s stories this time). We were revived by stumbling across the old church, renovated as a community and heritage centre, where we helped ourselves to a packet of biscuits and cup of tea in return for a donation. Finn got a second wind, took up his flag once more and skipped down the last stretch just in time for the ferry. All together he walked 12 miles that day, but would he go quietly and willingly to sleep that night? Oh, no, this is Finn we’re talking about.

Homeward bound

Homeward bound

At times, our trip felt like I was stuck in a social experiment or reality T.V show. One where two strong willed and stubborn characters were thrown onto an island in a tiny tent to see what chaos ensues. There were highs and there were lows. There were several meltdowns a day. There were ample opportunities for me to practice mindfulness and patience. There were moments where the experiences I was seeking were at odds with what Finn wanted. Trying to soak up the atmosphere and energy of the enormous stone circle, the Ring of Brodgar, when all Finn wanted was to play an energetic and monotonous game of hide and seek behind every stone. Yet now I’m home and with hindsight I can look back and appreciate much more the experiences we’ve had and the memories we’ll share and how through all the meltdowns and disagreements our relationship has grown and deepened.

So would I do a similar trip again? Yes! Absolutely! When I say to Finn that we will not being doing something again, he always reminds me in a resigned tone “you’ll forget mum, you’ll forget”. And yes, I probably will forget all the challenges, arguments and battles of wills, remembering only the joyous moments and experiences. In fact, I think I’ve already forgotten as here I am daydreaming of our next adventure.

Winter Picnics

It might seem a strange time to be writing about winter picnics in the middle of summer, but given our latest picnic earlier this week was spent sheltering under a tree huddled up in fleece and waterproof jackets, winter doesn’t feel quite so distant. This past winter certainly felt particularly long and wet, conditions conductive to curling up in front of the fire all day. Despite the ongoing gloomy weather outside, I was determined to make the most of getting out on some mini-adventures with Finn. Enter the Winter Picnic.

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Without much conscious thought or planning, I discovered through hindsight that the best way to have fun in the cold and rain was to go out for picnics (honestly!). We must have averaged at least one picnic a week over winter, mostly at our nature spot down by the river (more about our ‘nature spot’ in a future post), sometimes further afield. Sometimes a simple snack and flask of hot chocolate, sometimes a more elaborate affair involving a full spread complete with candles and Christmas crackers. We had picnics to celebrate New Year, the Equinoxes, Mother’s Day or just because.

I discovered that ‘Let’s go out for a picnic’ elucidated a great deal more enthusiasm from the wee one than ‘Let’s go out for a walk’. Even when ‘picnic’ only meant a quick snack while out on a much longer walk. And somehow, it soon became ingrained into the rhythm of our week. The act of picnicking became a regular habit and so easier to implement with my son who all through the winter was struggling with transitions, especially leaving the house.

Our picnics had a surprising impact on me too. Scottish winters are long and dark with a corresponding impact on my general mood. But this year, as January and February dragged on, I wasn’t, as I usually am, pining for the summer. I just kept thinking we’d go on another picnic. I realised I was fairly happy and content with where we were at that moment, without wishing away the winter for the summer. I put it down to the picnics.

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Winter Picnic Tips

Don’t forget a flask of hot chocolate, herbal tea or soup. You’ll want something to warm you up. Your picnic can be as simple as hot chocolate and biscuits or take lunch – hot soup or stew in a thermos, finger foods or cook something at home, wrap it foil or something insulating and eat it warm at your picnic spot. I’ll be honest, we pretty much take the same food we do on a summer picnic but with the addition of a flask with a hot drink.

If you’re feeling a bit more adventurous take a Kelly Kettle or similar, a simple firestarting kit, mugs, tea bags/hot chocolate powder and optional marshmallows to toast after you’ve made your brew. Don’t forget to take some dry kindling along to get things going if it’s been wet. 

Don’t forget plenty of warm, waterproof clothes. Even if it’s not raining, waterproof over trousers are a good idea if you’re going to be sitting or kneeling on damp ground. I always take a spare pair of gloves for my son who normally manages to get his first pair soaked through in about five minutes after leaving home.

Don’t let the rain (or snow!) put you off. Stay close to home so you can bail out if everyone’s getting miserable and even if it’s a very quick walk you’ll feel better for it and it’s a great way for kids to get some fresh air and outdoor time.

A picnic rug works well for dry days but given our wet climate I never go on a winter picnic without a couple of foam ‘sit mats’, picked up at an outdoor shop years ago for £1.50 each.

 

Life at three miles an hour: Thoughts and experiences of a walk across Scotland

‘If the mind like the feet works at about 3mph, then modern life is moving faster than the speed of thought, or thoughtfulness’ (Rebecca Solnit)

“Leave your bags by the door, don’t pet the cat, he’s a wildcat and doesn’t take kindly to strangers, and now, tell me you’re voting yes for independence? I hope so. You’ll watch the debate with me tonight”. I hadn’t even stepped through the door or uttered a word as I was welcomed thus at my first night’s accommodation. I was on a traverse of the Great Glen Way, an almost 80 mile walking trail in the north of Scotland, from Fort William and the Atlantic Ocean in the West to Inverness and the North Sea in the East.

I had always dreamt of walking, for days on end, not only the sense of adventure at the prospect of ending up somewhere entirely different from where I started, but the journey itself, the getting from A to B. When walking, or being in the outdoors in general, the practicalities of life are simplified, down to when to rest, what to eat and where to sleep. You start out walking, a bit clumsily at first, then strike a rhythm and your mind begins to wander in time with your step. In fact it becomes an almost meditative experience (as long as the blisters aren’t too painful) and you arrive at your destination, tired, but with a clearer mind. Time spent walking out of doors is uncluttered time. Unfortunately, such uncluttered time is becoming rarer than ever before, as increasingly, ‘time spent ‘meandering’ is deplored as a waste, reduced, and it’s remainder filled with earphones and playing music and mobile phones relaying conversation’ (Solnit 2014). So let us reclaim our uncluttered time. Walking is an antidote to the speed, efficiency and busyness of our post-industrial world, and it’s an activity that’s widely accessible. It’s simple, it costs almost nothing and for the most part it doesn’t require any special equipment, training or expertise.

At age 16, I made plans, together with a couple of friends, to walk the Pembrokeshire Coast Path in West Wales, but when one of our trio dropped out, our anxious parents forbid the remaining pair of us from going. I lost sight of my walking aspirations somewhere through the years of university, meeting my husband and starting a family. Until two summers ago. My husband offered to take our son away to visit his grandparents for five days, leaving me behind to give me a break (very welcome after almost four years of attachment parenting a highly sensitive child). I had been planning on heading somewhere quiet and taking it easy for a few days when a friend suggested ‘why not go for a long walk?’ An idea was re-born. A chance to honour the dream I had at 16. Unfortunately, the Pembrokeshire Coast Path would take two weeks to walk so I looked for something shorter and closer to home and decided on The Great Glen Way.

“You’ll be going with your pals then?” questioned my next door neighbour, “You’re surely not going… alone?! It’s not safe for a woman on her own, the world’s full of nutters…”. I forget whether or not I pointed out to my neighbour that it would be some ‘nutter’ indeed who would lay in wait somewhere several miles from a road in rural Scotland, in the rain, in peak midge season (if you’ve ever tried remaining in a single spot in a still, damp, forest in Scotland in August, you’ll know what I mean) on the off-chance they would happen upon a lone female on a long walk. His comments reminded me that we live in a ‘fear-gripped society’, as a friend of mine refers to it. One facet of this, fuelled by the media, is that we are collectively too scared to let our children, or come to think of it, even ourselves, venture out alone any more. It’s actually considered a little odd to want to spend time in solitude. I was frequently asked why on earth I wanted to walk on my own and wasn’t I lonely? For the record, no I wasn’t. As I heard someone say once ‘if I don’t like my own company, why should anybody else?’ Exactly! And anyway, such an experience offers a great opportunity to get to know oneself a lot better. Solitary experiences can be trans-formative, can increase real self-confidence, self-belief and self-reliance.

So, on a mild and fairly sunny day in early August I said goodbye to my boys, took a train North and disembarked at Fort William. Finally I was alone, for the first time in a long time and I felt at peace. Almost instantly I felt alive, refreshed and content. My first day of walking was no less than wonderful, along the tow path of the Caledonian Canal to the head of Loch Lochy, where spurred on by my sense of freedom, I strode into the loch for a refreshing (read: very, very cold) dip in my underwear. Not something, I might add, I would have done on an ordinary day back home, but I must have been spurred on by my new sense of freedom. (I also happened to be reading about the wild swimming adventures of Roger Deakin in his book Waterlog). By the late afternoon I had arrived at my first nights accommodation and after that initial welcome, I quickly warmed to my wonderful host. By the time I left the following morning, later than planned after talking together for two and a half hours at breakfast, I found I had disclosed more to this lady I had known for all of an evening than I had to some friends and family over the course of years.

These instances of social connection became a feature of my walk and the walks I’ve done since. There were parts of my journey when I didn’t see a soul for several hours. Yet, I was struck by the contrast between, on the one hand, the solitude of solo walking and on the other hand, the depth and intensity of conversations with people I met. There is an irony in travelling alone that you tend to be more open and inviting to opportunities to engage with strangers. A large backpack is always a good conversation starter. People are intrigued to hear what you’re doing, where you’re going, why a young girl like me is wandering about on her own in the woods… (I’m in my late thirties and a mother, but will take this as a compliment.) You tell your own stories and listen to the, more often than not, fascinating stories of others. I think sometimes it’s easier to open up to strangers, there’s no history between you and you’ll probably never meet again in the future, so the conversation exists in and for the present moment.

My first meaningful encounter occurred not more than 6 miles from where I started. I’d stopped for lunch at a picturesque spot and taken the last picnic table, which a couple in their late fifties on bikes were also making for. They asked to sit with me and we struck up conversation, that was still in full swing an hour later. We discussed ‘island hopping’ in Scotland, writing children’s books, post-natal depression and their second marriage. It was refreshing, the in-depth and sensitive conversation it was possible to have a couple who, an hour earlier, were complete strangers. I never fail to come away from encounters such as these feeling uplifted. After a conversation, those ‘strangers’ (or possible ‘nutters’?) became individuals, no longer belonging to something ‘unknown’. I think of all the conflicts that could be resolved if we only took time to listen to the human-scale stories of our ‘enemies’ and if they listened to ours.

I also met people who inspired me, the young woman from Toronto who had been travelling and hiking for the past year with nothing more than her 40 litre rucksack, the family; mum, dad, a girl of about 13, her younger brother and two dogs, all walking the Way shouldering huge packs, the retired couple who were trail walking veterans and the solo male, new to long distance walking, who had 9 years ago sold up and moved with his young family to Eastern Europe where they stayed for 5 years.

Walking inspires a sense of connection. There’s the connection with others and ourselves, but also a sense of connection and continuity with nature, landscape, culture and history. Parts of the walk followed old drove roads, used to herd livestock from the Highlands and Islands to markets in the south. Long distance walks often follow historical monuments or an historical idea or figure and as you retrace an ancient byway your mind starts wandering back in time. What did the landscape look like, who were the people who populated this terrain? What happened? Why did they disappear? The Great Glen Way passes canals, old canal side houses, locks and bridges, dismantled railways, military roads, castles, burial sites, whisky stills and abandoned croft houses.

The final day was the most tiring of the trip, and the longest distance. I had read that about half way through the day I would come across a café, and after a few hours of walking I crossed a narrow road and came to a sign ‘Café 1 mile’. I followed it up a narrow, winding, single track path through a new woodland plantation and at steady intervals, haphazardly painted on long slivers of wood were signs reading ‘ bovril’, ‘ovaltine’, ‘real teas’, ‘coffee’. I’d certainly worked up an appetite, (though not for bovril), by the time I reached a clearing and the small jumble of hand-built buildings. Rustic, eccentric, off-grid and guarded by four husky-crosses, a brood of chickens and an overly friendly free range pig. There were a few tables joined in a row under a makeshift roof, attached to the house the owners built themselves around the windows which had been given to them. It was certainly a great spot for meeting other walkers, after all, you would have had to have been walking to even stumble across the place, and here I met a lady from Orkney, a couple from Copenhagen and two young men from the Netherlands, the latter who had just completed a traverse of the West Highland Way, a longer and more challenging hike, and had decided to just keep walking.

It was on the final few miles that the pain and exhaustion really started to kick in, just as the end was in sight. The final descent into Inverness seemed to take forever and I hobbled along in a trance. I have to admit, the moment I reached the castle and the official end to the walk, it felt a bit of an anti-climax, no fanfare, no one waiting to congratulate me, but then this wasn’t about pomp and ceremony, it was something altogether deeper, and anyway I was hooked on this trail walking lark and couldn’t wait to plan my next long(ish) solitary walk.

So what attracts me to solo walking? The serendipitous experiences, facing the unknown, the new perspective, the self-reliance, the freedom, the chance to air your thoughts as well as exercise your body, the almost meditative state of being when you find your stride. During and after the walk, I felt contentment, satisfaction, a sense of personal achievement and an overall feeling of gratitude. It was sacred thinking time and a pause for contemplation and reflection. As Robyn Davidson, who trekked 1,700 mile track across desert the Australian desert, put it, ‘I had dredged up things that I had no idea existed. People, faces, names, places, feelings, bits of knowledge, all waiting for inspection. It was a giant cleansing of all the garbage and muck that had accumulated in my brain, a gentle catharsis. And because of that, I suppose, I could now see much more clearly into my present relationships with people and with myself. And I was happy, there is simply no other word for it‘. Yes, I was happy too.

And so I’ve just returned from a short stroll down by the river near where I stay. The air was fresh, the snow lingering and not a soul was about, just the sounds of the gurgling river, the calls of the birds, the crunch of snow under my boots and the faint sound of a car motor. I’d been sat at my desk and needed to clear my head, to see the wider picture. I didn’t need to walk 80 miles to find that quiet peaceful state. I would welcome the opportunity for longer solitary walks but with a wee person at home, they will be few and far between. Yet, a day walk or the short snatches of time where I’m able to head off for a walk alone are treasured as opportunities to clear my mind of the constant chatter inside my head and the constant chatter of a little one and I let my thoughts wander unhindered.

References

Solnit, Rebeccah (2014) Wanderlust: A History of Walking

A version of this article was originally published in Starflower Living Magazine Issue12/May 18, 2015

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