Two Wee Adventurers

Rediscovering the great outdoors with a little one

Month: August 2016

The Beach in the Mountains: A Microadventure in Galloway Forest Park

3am Monday morning and while awake suffering a bout of insomnia I decide that Finn and I should take advantage of the forecasted favourable weather to go on another microadventure. Five hours later we were up and getting ourselves sorted for an overnight bivvy at Loch Enoch in Galloway Forest Park. I had envisaged a coastal bivvy but pictures I’d seen of the white granite beaches of Loch Enoch, 500m up in the hills, nestled below southern Scotland’s highest mountain, Merrick, had intrigued me. Apparently the sand here was once collected and sold for sharpening scythes and knives. It looked idyllic and the perfect spot for our first serious hike and wild bivvy with just the two of us. As usual it took longer than expected to pack up and pick up fuel, supplies and a map before we could head on our way.

After a slow drive cross country on winding, sometimes single track roads and a late lunch in the car park at Loch Trool, by 3pm we were on our way up the path leading to Merrick. As we followed the rocky, tumbling burn it felt pleasantly rebellious to be heading out on our adventure while everyone we passed were returning from theirs. Two retired gentlemen stopped to chat when they saw my heavily laden bag and when I told them our plans they looked first at each other, than incredulously at me. When I enquired about the state of the path to Loch Enoch as indicated by my map they suppressed a knowing laugh. “Path? No, there’s no path. Just follow the burn. Why aren’t you taking the Loch Valley route? You do realise you’ve still got a long way to go don’t you?” I laughed nervously and gave them a casual “ah, well, we’re well equipped. We can always sleep wherever”. On the inside I’m starting to panic and question what we’re doing (as I seem to do on every trip…) They looked at me once more, than at Finn. “Well, good luck” they said smugly and were on their way. I decided to dismiss their comments as unwarranted negativity and thought they probably dismissed us as unprepared and naive. Well, I thought, we’d show them! Unfortunately, we were naive (though prepared). The path indicated on our map didn’t exist and the 5 miles or so uphill through what was essentially bog, with thigh high vegetation in parts was excruciatingly slow. As we followed the burn uphill and started to scramble up the steep slopes hemmed in either side by forestry plantation, I realised we were following the wrong burn. Cue another panic. I decided we needed to cross the stream, climb the opposite bank and fight our way through the closely spaced conifers to leave the forest.

 

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Starting off on our journey beside the Buchan Burn

Pausing for a quick snack outside the Culsharg Bothy

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The ‘path’ beside the burn!

Nearing the edge of the plantation we heard voices ahead. We’d not seen a soul since we left the footpath that ascends Merrick and as it was now early evening the voices were quite a surprise, but a welcome one after the earlier minor panic of being lost in the forest. It was a family of five from Germany who turned out to be even happier to see us than we were them, as they really were lost and without a map. I momentarily felt less naive and more prepared as I showed them our position and instructed them on the route back to the car park. We didn’t hang around as the minute we stopped we were ambushed by the scourge of Scottish summer camping. The midge. I fairly dragged Finn over the next stretch of boggy, pathless terrain as to stop or slow down would mean instant attack. Cue another panic. What was I thinking of bringing bivvy bags as opposed to a tent? In Scotland. In August. We’re going to be eaten alive by midges! How could I be so naive? I strode on, head down, aware of the sun starting to go down and busy formulating a back up plan in my head, leaving Finn behind shouting “wait for me mum, WAIT FOR ME!” This was to form the refrain of much of our trip. He is quite happy to walk for miles through pathless bog without complaining, but it has to be at his pace, which was unfortunately slower than that of the midges.

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Looking back to the forestry plantation after the slog up the hill

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The first view of Loch Enoch as we summited the col

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A well earned stop for chocolate rations

I could see the col up ahead over which our destination lay but it took an age to reach and when we did it was a false summit. When we finally reached the col and could see beyond we both gave a whoop of joy at the view of Loch Enoch spread out before us, larger than I imagined, serene and stunningly beautiful. We shouted our thanks to the wind for keeping the midges away and stopped for a celebratory ration of dark chocolate. But not for long. By now it was 7.30pm and where were the fabled beaches? We spotted one directly opposite on the furthest side of the loch. I groaned. I didn’t think I could face skirting the loch for at least another mile over pathless bog. Thankfully, the chocolate had given Finn a spring in his step. He marched straight through the hummocky terrain and ankle deep mud singing the same line of a song over and over and over. For the entire next hour. Despite the monotonous singing I was so grateful for his company and cheerfulness. Tired and fed up of the rough, challenging walking, it was Finn who kept both our spirits up to the end, until finally, at 8.30pm we arrived at our beach. It was simply beautiful and despite wanting to linger and watch the sun set behind Merrick I was conscious of the impending darkness and hurried to set up camp, until Finn stopped me in my tracks. He was singing once again, this time with pure, childlike joy and delight… “I love today, I love today, today is the best day of my life…” For a few minutes time stood still as I watched and wished my husband was there to share the moment too. Finn had declared this tough, relentless slog over bog and moorland as the best day of his life and his expression of joy will forever be one of my cherished memories.

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Arriving at our beach

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Setting up camp

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Dinner with a view

An hour later, tucked up in our sleeping bags and in darkness, the silence was all encompassing. The high elevation of our position and the light breeze was just enough to keep the midges away (thank you, thank you…) Every little noise was amplified by the quiet isolation. We listened to the lapping of the waves on the shore a metre from us, the flapping wings of wild geese taking off from the loch and then a noise that sounded to both Finn and I very much like a wolf. Cue another panic as I tried to recall whether or not wolves had been reintroduced in Scotland. For two hours after Finn had settled down I sat up and looked around nervously at every little sound I heard, but we were utterly alone. The moon was so bright there was no need for a torch. It’s light reflected off the loch and I marvelled at my moon shadow. Then the stars came out. It was spectacular. Galloway Forest Park is one of only a couple of officially designated Dark Sky Reserves in the UK as a lack of light pollution allows for an exceptionally good view of the night sky. Once again I counted my blessings and buried myself deep in my sleeping bag to keep warm.

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The sun rising on a sleeping Finn

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Morning campers!

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Morning storytime

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Finn doing the washing up prior to our ‘dip’ in the loch

The loch looked even more beautiful as the sun rose behind us the next morning. We honoured our usual morning ritual of reading stories in ‘bed’ and followed breakfast with a ‘refreshing’ dip in the icy waters of the loch. I was expecting a more straightforward walk out via Loch Valley as implied by the two gentlemen we met the previous day. They had the last laugh as it was far from it. After the first couple of miles we found a path, but the route was even more boggy than the day before, if that was even possible, and it took an arduous 6.5 hours to get back to the car, accompanied by the ever repeating “WAIT FOR ME MUM!”

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Saying goodbye to Loch Enoch

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Negotiating yet another bog

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The descent from Loch Valley

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Spotting Loch Trool. The end is in sight but still hours away!

As we approached the car we high-fived. We’d done it! All apart from the 2.5 hour drive home. Finn remained awake for the entire journey. I obviously need to think of something a little more adventurous to tire him out next time.
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One Wee Adventurer: 100 miles backpacking on the South West Coast Path

My love affair with solo long distance walking began just a couple of years ago. In five days I walked the Great Glen Way from Fort William to Inverness  staying in hostels and B&Bs on the way. I’d always enjoyed walking but had never before walked particularly far or over several days. After that first, fairly gentle introduction, I’ve discovered I can manage just fine walking 15-20 miles a day for a week with a backpack and tent, camping along the way. It’s become addictive and I find myself while out for a walk with Finn, daydreaming as I spy an unknown footpath leading off up a hill and wish I could follow it to see where it goes. Instead I slow down, look back at my son and encourage him along, hoping that in another year I’ll get the opportunity for a week long walk again.

Following the path to see where it goes... In this case, up!

Following the path to see where it goes…

This year it was dramatic cliffs and salty air that called to me and after evenings reading my inspirational ‘The UK Trailwalker’s Handbook’ I settled on walking the first 100 miles of the South West Coast Path, which in it’s entirety stretches 630 miles around the indented coastlines of Devon, Cornwall and Dorset. Feeling more confident after having completed a few long distance walks and given the ample facilities along the route I’d done very little preparation for this trip, aside from booking my trains and taking a cursory look at camp sites.

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Lulled to sleep by the sound of the waterfall at Lynmouth

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Walking boots off, sandals on and time for a cuppa

As I set out on the 10 hour journey south I looked forward to exchanging the cloudy skies of South Lanarkshire for the sunny climes of Devon. I obviously have a jaded preconception of the weather in the south as I spent the first two days wet, but feeling right at home, after continual, heavy rain. I had a couple of soggy, mildly unpleasant nights camping, yet, while I was walking, I embraced the rain. It was freeing to be outside with all my senses alive to the natural world and to have miles of wooded coastline all to myself as the torrents of rain had scared everyone else away.

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Wet, but who cares with scenery like this… when you could see it

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Valley of the Rocks. It was so wet even the wild goats looked miserable as they tried seeking shelter

My journey didn’t start so well. I was almost stranded in Taunton train station when the driver of the last busy bus to Minehead refused my Scottish five pound note. “We only accept pounds” he said curtly and turned away. “But these are pounds”, I replied. “Look, it even says ‘Pounds Sterling’ on the note!” I appealed to the queue of women behind me who backed me up but he wouldn’t so much take a further glance at my note and our exchange continued going round in circles for several minutes as I started to get more and more frustrated. I appealed once more to the queue and one of the women kindly paid my £4 bus fare. I was thankful and relieved but my exchange with the bus driver left me shaking with rage, despite my futile attempts at deep breathing and trying to enjoy the journey. Thankfully, this was the only negative experience I had and the rest of my journey was filled with the friendly, life-affirming encounters that I’ve experienced on every solo walk I’ve done so far.

I chose the scenic route...

I chose the scenic route…

The first stretch of the footpath is rugged coastline, alternately open and wooded with deep clefts entailing steep climbs and descents. Climbing out of Minehead towards Porlock felt like steeping into another world, dominated by verdant, dripping woodland and drooping creeper plants. Combined with the humid weather, the mist (which looked like rising clouds of steam) and the lack of people (I didn’t see another soul for hours), I felt like an intrepid explorer trekking through virgin rainforest. The strenuous ascents fuelled my appetite and by 10.30am, I’d eaten all the snacks I’d brought for lunch. Every so often, there’d be a gap through the trees where I’d be treated to a view of one wooded headland after another, capped by a top of mist. It was magical. I startled a red deer which loped gracefully away and then I caught up with it again twenty minutes later. All was quiet except for the rain dripping off leaves and the occasional chirruping and rustling of birds in the undergrowth. The spell was broken when I arrived at the quaint little hamlet of Bossington but with it’s charming thatched architecture, so different from that of Scotland it continued to feel like I was somewhere exotic. Arriving soon after in Porlock I felt the closest I’ll probably ever come to being a celebrity when a local woman on hearing of my lone escapades proceeded to introduce me to everyone we met walking through the village, including the local policeman.

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A glimpse of mist covered, wooded slopes

Aside from the stunning scenery, the characters I met are what made the walk special and this has been a feature of all the solo treks I’ve done. On a daily basis I made connections, heard interesting stories and shared personal conversations with people I met. Until his fast pace defeated me, I walked for a while with a retired ex-army officer who disclosed how his perspectives had changed when 6 years ago he received a letter from one of his identical twin daughters explaining she was trans-gender. I sat and drank tea and mused over the meaning of life with a Swiss couple visiting Clovelly and I stood talking for over an hour to an unemployed south Londoner who had been walking vaguely round the coastline for over 6 weeks week with no map, sleeping wild. And as always I was asked over and over again… “Was I travelling alone?” “Didn’t my husband mind?” “Wasn’t I lonely?” “Was I afraid?” Yes, on some occasions I was afraid, but always as a result of my over active imagination as opposed to any real threat. Of course, real threats exist; we hear plenty of bad news and horror stories through the media. However television and newspapers seldom report on the kindness, generosity and feelings shared by the majority of people. On a previous walk along The Cumbria Way I was one day invited in to the home of a retired couple for tea, cake and a chat and the next day, in a café at the end of my walk, I had my meal paid for me anonymously by a stranger.

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Sun, sea and sand at last!

The sun comes out at last and I'm the only one waking the beach with a huge backpack

The sun comes out at last and I’m the only one waking the beach with a huge backpack

After three days of walking the landscape changed and I exchanged the wilder hills and cliffs of Exmoor for the wide expanse of beaches that North Devon is well known for. The type of tourists changed too, from middle age walking and wildlife enthusiasts to surf dudes and bucket and spade wielding families. The character of the camp sites was also notably different and I got a few quizzical looks as I pitched up my tiny solo backpacking tent between the huge static caravans at Woolacombe. I turned down the free bingo and entertainment and opted instead for the best entertainment there is; watching turn the sky red as the sun set behind Lundy Island.

 

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Apart from the dull grey skies, this scenery could be straight out of Jurassic Park

Nearly everyone I met advised me to take a bus around the next stretch of flat walking around the estuaries between Saunton and Westward Ho!. The landscapes weren’t as dramatic as the Exmoor coastline, or as stunning as the sweeping beaches, but the small settlements I passed through had a character all of their own that made the otherwise monotonous miles worthwhile. I had trouble communicating to those not walking that taking a bus would defeat the point of a journey on foot. Following a linear route in it’s entirety at walking pace you experience the changing of the cultural landscape and geography in a way that you don’t appreciate when you’re being whisked along in a car. My destination was arbitrary. It was the journey that was the experience and the knowledge that it’d be my own self-reliance getting me there.

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The brightly coloured, historic village of Appledore

My final evening’s walking was the best of all. It was the end of a long 23 mile day, the sun was out, the evening light was enchanting and I was enjoying rugged cliffs once again with a view to the cascading village of Clovelly. Another backpacker had informed me of a tiny, basic camp site, half a mile inland of the coast path, that wasn’t marked on any map. There was only myself and a couple of other campers and after pitching up I doubled back to the coast to watch the sun setting out over the ocean and daydream about just carrying on and following the path ahead.

Idyllic last nights camp.

Idyllic last nights camp.

 

Beautiful Clovelly. A fine place to end my walk and even better, if you hike in you avoid the £7 entry fee

Beautiful Clovelly. A fine place to end my walk and even better, if you hike in you avoid the £7 entry fee

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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