Two Wee Adventurers

Rediscovering the great outdoors with a little one

Category: Overnight Adventures (page 1 of 2)

August Microadventure: Hill Fort Bivvy

We left our monthly microadventure to the last minute last month, squeezing it into the last couple of days in August. But now into our 7th month of our ‘Year of Microadventures’ (we missed out June) and with plenty of camping in between, packing for a bivvy adventure has become a smoother, more refined process, verging on my ultimate bivvying goal of… spontaneity! It took just an hour and a half between arriving home after a full day in the city, and getting packed up and leaving the house for the night and I’d even managed to bake a batch of oaty banana cookies for breakfast in that time! Go me. I’d also managed to drop a bag size; my backpack was the lightest it’d ever been, partially aided by packing some of the lighter but bulky gear into Finn’s pack on the one hand and the realisation that I could make do without always carrying a book or two in my bag for the one night.

Turning off the main road down a rutted farm track, I could hear the loud barking of several dogs from the building nestled out of sight in the forest a mile away. Our route would lead us directly through the farm yard and although I’m a dog-lover, the thought of being nipped at the ankles by a collie mistaking me (or worse, my son) for a sheep made me think twice. We double backed to the road and were just scouting out a possible alternative, involving jumping a metre wide ditch, crossing a field full of cows and scaling a couple of barbed wire fences, when I saw a car emerging from the forest up the track. Racing back to the junction, hauling our bags, we arrived just in time to halt the car and were assured that the working dogs were tucked up in their kennels for the night so we continued confidently along our original intended route.

Sleeping out regularly each month with nothing between you and the elements brings a new awareness, or rather appreciation, of the changing of the seasons. As it became obvious that the sun would set a full hour and a half earlier than our last bivvy in July, it was a bit of a push to persuade Finn to keep up his pace as we climbed the hill in order to set up camp in the last dregs of daylight, especially so as we passed the impressive remains of an iron age hill fort, (cue Finn launching into his own Celtic battle re-enactment). We eventually found a flattish spot between two ramparts of a second extensive hill fort on top of the hill and put our wee orange toilet trowel to good use in clearing away a carpet of sheep poo – a necessary precaution against ending up face to face with the stuff in the morning.

It was a beautifully calm evening and the atmosphere couldn’t have been more different than our July hill top bivvy when it was blowing a hoolie. The night was so still that we could hear with clear precision the everyday noises from miles around; the hoots of a tawny owl, the occasional barking of a dog from a farm and the traffic from the distant A702.

With an earlier sunset we were also perfectly timed to be snug in our bivvy bags but still awake to watch the stars emerge one by one (in unison with the electric lights from the nearby town of Biggar). A we competed to be the one to spot the most stars Finn whispered “It’s lovely mum. I wish we could live outdoors”. “Well, we could pitch the tent in the garden and sleep out” I replied. “No mum, I mean without the tent. In the bivvy bags”. Oh dear, what have I got myself into?

After a blissfully non-eventful night we woke to the sun behind us andthe town of Biggar below us blanketed in a thick mist. One of the benefits of bivvying is that you see your usual, mundane, day-to-day surroundings with new eyes, from a fresh perspective that makes it feel like you’re on holiday. And another benefit of bivvying (particularly up a hill) is that you get to enjoy a glorious morning walk that’s downhill all the way…

The morning warmed up and we basked in what has felt rather rare in Scotland this summer… sunshine. We took the long way home, not meeting a soul, just a hare and the ubiquitous sheep, until passing the farm. “You’re out and about early” remarked the kindly farmer emerging from a tractor. I came clean and told him we’d slept on the hill. He was nonplussed and only wanted to know whether or not we were ravaged by midges. But no, despite the calm evening we’d managed to thwart the biting beasties once again.

July Microadventure: Bivvy on “The Hill of Fire”

We failed miserably to bivvy in June. I had planned a Summer Solstice microadventure on the west coast of the Isle of Harris where we were already staying to walk part of The Hebridean Way but while the rest of the country was apparently basking in a heat wave, we were inside in front of an open fire sitting out a cold, wet evening. I was exhausted from several days of walking with Finn listening to his storytelling extravanganzas. It works in that it keeps the wee one walking for hours without complaint, but 6 hours daily of non-stop chatter leaves me feeling a little bit mentally frazzled 🙂

Having recently returned from some island camping I’d not thought ahead to this month’s bivvy but with a couple of days of wonderfully warm weather at the beginning of the week I felt a beckoning desire to sleep outside and was inspired to make an impromptu bivvy happen.

I’d had it in the back of my mind for a while to bivvy on the top of our local and iconic Tinto Hill, which stands 707m and is visible from our home. It’s distinctive in the region both for it’s rounded shape and form that’s observable throughout much of Lanarkshire, dominating the otherwise flat Clyde Valley and for it’s interesting history. It’s been a beacon post in Roman times and the place of Beltane fires and it’s name is derived from the Gaelic Teinnteach, meaning ‘Fiery Hill’. The 60m diameter 2000 year old Bronze Age circular cairn on the summit is one of the largest in Scotland.

Having already participated in a full day of outdoor activity I knew that F would be less inspired than I at tackling the hill come evening so I tempted (ok, bribed) him with a Indian take-out for dinner on the way. We ate at the foot of the hill, watching the steady descent of day walkers and fuelled up by his high carb meal of pilau rice and poppadoms his Duracell bunny endurance kicked in, along with a new inspiration for a story and we began our slow ascent. Despite it now being past 7.30pm, it was still warm although a fresh wind was increasing in strength as we climbed. By the time we reached the summit not long after 9pm, Finn’s excitement at sleeping out gave him a second wind and all he wanted to do was to charge around the summit. I consoled myself with not having that kind of energy with a celebratory can of beer. But now the wind chill had supercooled the sweat on my back, the sun was fast going down and the last of the day walkers were heading back to their cars and beyond to their homes and beds. Needing to find some place to lay our own heads for the night we descended a few metres down the lee side of the slope aiming to find some shelter from the increasingly strong gusts. The wind was just as strong but we found a spot that when we laid down kept us out of view from the summit giving us a modicum of privacy from any late night visitors to one of the most frequently climbed hills in southern Scotland.

It’s the midge that usually concerns me most about a summertime bivvy, but they stood no chance against the 35-40mph gusts now battering the summit (and ourselves!) I was glad I wasn’t trying to single handedly erect a tent and trusted Finn to the crucial job of spread eagling himself over our bedding as I unpacked to stop us losing it to the wind.

 

By now the last of the fire red sun had disappeared over the horizon and any residual heat from the day had dissipated so we lost no time in shuffling into our bivvy bags, no easy feat when you are wearing every item of clothing you have with you in order to keep warm. The wind rapidly chilled any exposed skin and we were buffeted by the gusts all night. This was our first bivvy in very windy conditions and I found it was quite a different experience being blown about in a bivvy bag compared to sleeping out a storm in a tent, although it was not an altogether unpleasant one. I not only felt more secure and stable in a bivvy, but also more connected with and part of the natural environment. I lay awake listening as I would first hear a gust of wind coursing around the side of the hill before it hit us in our bivvy bags.

I didn’t get a lot of sleep as I went from worrying alternately about Finn suffering from wind exposure as he shuffled out of his sleeping bag and suffocation as he unconsciously burrowed down into it. Still, frequent waking through the night allows you to really experience all the sights and beauty that you only experience when you are open to the skies; the appearance of distant twinkling of lights from nearby settlements, the emergence of the first visible stars and satellites, the realisation that the skies never get completely dark at this time of year, the breaking of dawn (which was a lot more spectacular than the sunset) and being transfixed at the speed that the low cloud raced by, both above and below us in the early morning. After Finn woke we huddled in our bivvy bags and enjoyed the last, ever so slightly warm, dregs of hot chocolate from a flask for breakfast and appreciated the peace of having the hill to ourselves before the first early morning hill runner arrived.

As we left the summit we passed a guy laying prone under the shelter of a makeshift wall, eyes closed and sporting a helmet. Finn, not yet understanding the etiquette of discrete speech blurted out his concern that the wall might collapse and kill the man at which point he abruptly woke. Losing my own British politeness, I asked bluntly why he was wearing a helmet (I was sure it wasn’t purely to protect him from wall collapse) and we listened as he explained how he’d finished work in Glasgow at 8pm the previous night but after a few drinks couldn’t sleep so at 2.30am jumped on his bike and cycled nearly 40 miles south, leaving his bike at the foot of the hill and hiking to the summit. Thinking he must be completely crazy it dawned on me as we descended that perhaps, at that precise moment, he was thinking the very same about us.

 

 

Summer Magic and Adventure on the Ross of Mull

As an advocate for budget-friendly explorations close to home and wanting to inspire both my son and others with the adventures you can have “on your doorstep” we headed to the Isle of Mull this summer. Scotland in general has so much to offer families looking for escapades of all sorts and even in the summer season there is the feeling of being intrepid adventurer discovering somewhere new and unexplored (or at least unexploited by highly commercial tourism). I suspect that Scotland’s reputation for poor weather and biting insects deter a lot of people. Of course it depends what you and your family are seeking from your travels, but if you can put up with the rainy days I’ll let you in on a couple of secrets… 1. Providing you stay long enough, you WILL be rewarded with sunny weather (not to mention the incredible sunsets) and when the sun does shine, you will appreciate it so much more! 2. It really is possible to find some Scottish midge-free destinations.

Watching the rain

Breakfast on a sunnier morning

I have been to the Isle of Mull on several occasions but despite it’s famed wildlife and varied landscapes, I had never considered it one of my favourite islands, remembering it mostly for those colourful harbour front houses in Tobermory and some ferocious summer midges. However, it’s one of the more accessible Hebridean Islands and seeking an affordable adventure relatively close to home for me and the wee one, opted for a week on the Ross of Mull. The coastal Fidden Farm campsite sounded like an ideal place to set up base camp; informal, no advance bookings (meaning we could just turn up and stay how long we felt like), right beside a white sand beach with sheltered waters and a westerly coastal location that I hoped breezy enough to deter the midges (it did, we weren’t bothered by a single one of the critters the entire week). We couldn’t have been happier with our choice. Most mornings we spent hanging out on the beach spread out below our tent and over the week we never strayed more than a few miles from the camp site (except by boat to Iona and Staffa!)

Most mornings after breakfast it was straight to the beach!

Approaching the magical island of Staffa

Plenty of clambering opportunities on the naturally formed basalt columns of Staffa.

Getting up close and personal with the island’s avian inhabitants

He’s behind you!

It’s a long, scenic drive along 40 miles of single track road to get to the campsite, with many travellers straying this way purely to reach the small village of Fionnphort in order to take the ferry across to Iona. Whilst Iona is certainly deserving of it’s popularity and well worth a visit (or several), the result is that the Ross of Mull area feels relatively quiet and unexplored, although those who stay long enough to experience it’s delights tend to return year after year. I met several extended families on the campsite who’s enthusiasm for the area had never waned and who have continued to visit every summer for 20-30 years first with their children and now grandchildren.

There are a great many stunning white shell beaches scattered across the Hebrides but I’d say the beaches on the Ross of Mull are among the best and there is an overwhelming choice within a relatively short stretch of coastline. They are beaches to be explored in all weathers. We spent hours searching the rock pools and digging channels on rainy days, and paddling and swimming on the sunny days. The pink-granite rock, the turquoise waters and the white sand beaches give the landscape a bright colourful appearance on even the dullest of days. And even on the sunny days and despite it being the Scottish school holidays we had most of the beaches we visited to ourselves, at least for a while, even on bustling Iona.

Leaving the crowds behind on Iona.

Exploring the Ross of Mull coastline on a rainy day.

Watching the tide come in on Iona.

OK, so we didn’t always have the beach to ourselves.

After some intermittent days of very wet weather during the week, our final day dawned sunny (although rather windy) and the Ross of Mull had saved the best for last as we visited the magical island of Erraid. Erraid is a small island accessible from Mull at low tide across it’s tidal sands. It was used as the location in Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel Kidnapped and many of the small number of present day residents are part of the Findhorn Foundation community based in Moray. Making a careful study of the tide times, Finn and I began our walk across the sands and around the populated side of the island, passing the study former coastguard cottages and the white communication tower built to relay signals to offshore lighthouses. We picked our way along a rough, boggy path to the small cairn marking the top of the island. We surveyed the scene spread out before us; the numerous skerries of the Ross of Mull, the whole length of Iona and further afield to Staffa and the Treshnish isles, but my draw dropped when I spied the sandy cove some way below us.

I haven’t read Kidnapped but seeing that hidden cove with two small yachts at anchor in it’s turquoise waters and not a soul to be seen it was like being transported to a scene straight from a book. Feeling as though I was in a fictional adventure story myself with the opportunity of discovering a secret cove and perhaps pirates lying in wait on the boats I urged Finn to follow me as I looked for a sheep track that would take us through the thick heather down to the shore. At close range it did not disappoint and although absent of pirates, the only other inhabitants of the beach were a gaggle of kids straight out of another book, Swallows and Amazons. The five of them sailed and rowed ashore in their tiny wooden boat and busied themselves with adventures of their own while Finn got to work diverting and damming the small stream running through the sands and out to sea. Returning to the campsite and staying with the theme of tales of seafaring adventuring we read a few chapters of Arthur Ransome’s We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea while watching the sun set over Iona.

On the top of the island of Erraid

Our first sighting of the secret cove…

Island paradise?

Ending the day with a suitable adventure story and a spectacular sunset.

The practicalities

  • Getting to the Ross of Mull requires a 45 minute ferry crossing from Oban to Craignure followed by 40 miles (about an hour and a quarter drive) along a single track road.
  • Fidden Farm campsite is an informal site where you can just turn up and find your own pitch with modern clean facilities including toilets, showers and an indoor washing up area. It costs £8 per adult and £4 per child per night (rising to £10 per adult and £5 per child in 2018) and you just pay at the farm house on arrival. If you can nab a spot overlooking the beach it’s a perfect spot to let your kids roam free for hours with new found friends while keeping an incospicuous eye on them!
  • The small village of Fionnphort is 1.5 miles from the campsite along a quiet single track road (perfect for young cyclists!) and has a small shop, seafood shack, pub/restaurant and is the departure point for the regular passenger ferry to Iona.
  • The coastal landscape is mostly low-lying but with beautiful sandy coves that if you have children who can spend hours digging in sand could keep you occupied for weeks!
  • The offshore island of Staffa is well worth a visit (£30 for adults, £15 for children for a 3 hour round trip including an hour onshore to explore), both for the scenic boat trip and for exploring Fingal’s cave and the puffin colonies. There are a couple of companies operating boats from both Fionnphort and Iona to choose from.

Exploring the quiet roads of Iona by bike.

On top of Dun I on Iona, with the Abbey in the background and just across the sea and the Fidden Farm campsite.

Exploring the incredible geology of Fingal’s Cave.

First Time Family Bivvy – What’s Holding You Back?

Summer. The days are longer, the weather is warmer and unless you live in a particularly midge afflicted part of the country, it’s the perfect time to give a first time family bivvy a go. This time last year I took the plunge and persuaded the family to join me in spending a night without a tent atop a local hill. It was such a worthwhile experience it left me wondering why I hadn’t done it sooner. The fear of trying something new and the perceived effort of organisation and persuading the rest of the family held me back for a whole year before I worked up the courage and psychological motivation. What’s stopping you?

Time

There are so many pressures on family time these days, from parents with long working hours and commutes to the kids being involved with structured activities after school, not to mention the general tiredness that comes with caring for babies and children. I appreciate that finding a time when everybody in the family is free is a challenge but like all challenges the lack of time is an obstacle to overcome. It requires commitment to schedule a night out when everybody in the family is free but it is a great opportunity to spend time together as well as introduce little people to the great outdoors little by little (not to mention all the learning, developmental and emotional benefits…).

The beauty of microadventures is you don’t have to go far or for long – it’s up to you how challenging and time consuming you want your bivvy to be. If you’ve got a whole weekend you can travel further, backpacking in to wilder country. If it’s a school night there’s the possibility of a quick bivvy somewhere locally or in the garden. Although Finn and I have ventured further afield, on all our bivvy adventures this year we’ve not actually left the house until around 4pm and we’ve been back home before 9.30am the following morning. Regardless of how close to home we are or what little time we’ve spent away, it always feels like we’ve had such an adventure!

Money

I love microadventures because they’re practically free but the rewards are great. There will be an initial financial outlay for any kit you might need, especially if you’ve never done any sort of camping before but the good news is that you need very little to begin with, especially if you’re sticking to a summer adventure close to home. The fundamentals are a sleeping bag, sleeping mat and bivvy bag. For summer microadventures you don’t need anything fancy, a basic cheap sleeping bag will do (wear more clothes if your bag isn’t particularly warm) or borrow a sleeping bag if you can. You can pick up cheap foam sleeping mats for a fiver and to start with it’s fine to use an orange survival bag instead of a more expensive, purpose built bivvy bag to protect you and your sleeping bag from wet weather (or go without if a warm, dry night is guaranteed). Several years ago I slept in a snowhole in Scotland one freezing February night in a 3 season sleeping bag and an orange plastic survival bag. I’ll admit, I would have had a much more comfortable night if I’d had a winter sleeping bag and proper bivvy bag but I’m glad I didn’t let a lack of fancy gear get in the way of having such a memorable experience!

A stove is a useful addition to make hot drinks and dinner and/or breakfast or take a flask and something pre-cooked wrapped in foil or food you don’t need to cook. Once you’ve got hold of some basic equipment you can enjoy a cheap but cheerful family night out with memories that will last you a lifetime.

Effort

Finding the headspace to come up with a plan and execute it often threatens to hold me back, especially as it’s normally just myself as the sole adult and organiser. A first camp or bivvy can feel like a truly epic adventure; the preparation and packing both for yourself and the little ones, the effort of trying to enthuse reluctant kids to get out the house, especially when the weather is less than favourable, carrying enough kit for several children, getting very little sleep when you’re out and then just the thought of all the unpacking to do when you get home again! Yes, when your children are young it’s a lot easier to stay at home safely within your comfort zone, but keep your adventure simple and it can be a lot easier than you think.

I’ve reduced my preparation and faffing time by making a very detailed list of everything I’ve found it useful to take on a microadventure, which means I can now do my packing on autopilot. I’ve also discovered that it will take me however long I have to pack. If I only have an hour I will take an hour to pack. If I’ve several hours it will take me several hours. So I leave the packing until later in the day and try not to think about it until then. It also helps to keep everything you need for your family microadventure in one place if your storage space allows. Wild camper Phoebe Smith recommends a “Go Bag”, a rucksack which she has packed at all times filled with all the essentials she needs for a night’s wild camping.

Once you’ve been on a few family bivvy adventures and have worked out exactly what you need planning becomes easier and your adventures can become more spontaneous. At the end of the day, there’s no escaping the fact that even a one night microadventure with kids will require some effort but as I’ve discovered, it’s worth it.

Fear

It took a year of pouring over the ideas in Alastair Humprey’s inspirational book “Microadventures” before I shrugged off my trepidations and instigated my own family microadventure. Whatever your fears, try and find a way that sets you at ease. Lack of experience in the wild? Start close to home or somewhere you know and feel safe (a friend or relative’s garden?) and gradually head further afield. Afraid of going by yourself with your kids? Persuade another parent and kids to go with you. Not sure about “roughing it”? Sleep in the back garden with your duvet, pillow and hot water bottle (and an accessible toilet). Don’t like the rain? Wait for a dry evening. Not sure if your children will cope? Try it and see.

Personally I’m still fearful of sleeping out in new places on my own with F (my post about Bothying in Burley Whag says it all!) but I do my best to face those fears (the dark, wild animals, people wandering about over wild moorland after dark, irate farmers, bogeymen etc) because realistically I know I’ve blown them all out of proportion. Logically and statistically I’m much safer up a hill after dark than on the streets of my nearest city. For women worried about solo microadventures (or taking out children by yourself) this advice by adventurer Anna McNuff is a good read.

A few tips to help you get going

  • Read some inspiring books or blogs. I love Microadventures by Alastair Humpreys,  Extreme Sleeps: Adventures of a Wild Camper by Phoebe Smith and 100 Family Adventures by The Meek family. Plenty of inspiration and advice for families of all ages can be found in this compilation of different families’ microadvenure experiences gathered by Alastair Humpreys.
  • Sign up to or pledge to take part in a microadventure challenge or create your own challenge. Alastair Humprey’s summer microadventure challenge was the catalyst for our first family bivvy last year. Commit to this years Summer Solstice Microadventure challenge anytime between 5th June and 9th July or join in with this year’s Wild Night Out on July 1st.
  • Strenghten your commitment by sharing what you’re doing, face to face or on social media, or join forces with another family and hold each other to your word! I’ll admit, if I hadn’t announced publically on my blog that my son and I were going to bivvy out a night each month this year I probably would have given up by February!
  • Weather watch. Dry weather certainly makes for an easier first time bivvy so if you’re able to make your plans flexible, hang out for a good weather window.
  • Start small and local, especially if you’ve not camped out a lot before.

Finally this is my more detailed kit list for anyone who’s interested in that sort of thing!

  • Bivvy bags
  • Groundsheet or tarp
  • Sleeping mats
  • Sleeping bags
  • Extra clothes for night-time
  • Hats, buffs and gloves
  • Waterproof jackets and trousers
  • Stove, gas and matches
  • Food, snacks, tea bags
  • Drinking water
  • Large travel cups, sporks and a sharp knife
  • Headtorch
  • Wet wipes
  • Small first aid kit
  • Small trowel (for digging a toilet)
  • Insect repellent and sun lotion (summer)
  • Toothbrushes and toothpaste
  • Map
  • Ziplock bag for rubbish
  • Black bin liner to keep things in if wet
  • A book (if it’s just F and I we like to read stories!)

May Microadventure: On the importance of being flexible

Sometimes even the best made plans fall through. Most of the time if there are children involved. Our plan was to hike up a path beside one of the UK’s highest cascading waterfalls and bivvy by the side of an upland loch. Wild. Tick. Dramatic. Tick. Excellent views. Tick. But when we woke yesterday on the morning of our planned May microadventure (sleeping out one night a month as part of our Year of Microadventures) it was raining. It rained. And it rained. And it hailed. And it rained some more. With each torrential shower, my mind conjured up a new plan, from Plan B (postponing), to camping in a tent (Plan C) all the way to Plan E. By the time we left the house, together with another mother and son, we still hadn’t decided where we were going to sleep that night. But as I’m sure you’ve heard adventurers say before, the most important action is to take the first step, or in our case, just get in the car and figure it out when we got there. Wherever “there” might be.

“There” turned out to be a valley leading into rolling, uninhabited hills down a quiet no-through road that I’d always wanted to explore, despite being barely ten miles from home. We scanned the valley sides for a suitable camp spot and parked up, neatly timing our arrival to coincide with a heavier than ever downpour. Reluctant to leave the warm, dry confines of the vehicle we arrived at a new plan, Plan F. Just in time, as the boys were ready to explore NOW! And they were off, straight into the squall.

We scouted out a spot, only just level and wide enough for four, in a coniferous forestry plantation, sacrificing views for shelter. Not my first choice for a bivvy but with the benefit that we didn’t have to venture far from the road to feel like we were deep in the heart of the forest. The trees were so densely packed we couldn’t feel a drop of rain despite the persistent downpour “outside”.

Having earmarked our bed for the night, we fought our way back out through the impenetrable firs and the boys raced up a small hill to explore (the mums wheezing behind). Reaching a grand, old sycamore we were rewarded as the sun lit up the valley below (for all of ten minutes). We made a meal while the boys made a fire and swung each other from the tree.

As the cloud thickened once more and darkness descended, we too descended, collected our bags and entered the forest, where under the trees it was already dark. What we’d neglected to consider was how different a once visited place will appear under the cover of night. We had trouble locating our intended site. The situation became farcical as the four of us scurried around and around in circles, head-torches scanning this way and that. We had underestimated the distance in the dark but eventually found the spot (then had to backtrack to find the various baggage we’d put down while we were searching). Setting up the sleeping bags and getting the boys ready for bed was a task not made any easier by one of the boys who wasn’t able to settle down (mentioning no names!)

I was woken early, for once not by F, but by a vocal and persistent cuckoo, joined in a crescendo by a wood pigeon and pheasant. This however is one of my most savoured times of day on a sleep out under the stars; to enjoy the emerging light, stirring wildlife and awakening of a new day.

In conclusion, on microadventures with children it pays to be flexible. In my mind’s eye I’d envisaged a wild bivvy in the uplands of Scotland, with sweeping views and far from the road. But then there wouldn’t have been the boys’ delight of the fire or the swinging from the trees or the satisfaction not only of surviving a bivouac out in the rain but actually enjoying it.

 

Read more about our January microadventure here

Read more about our February microadventure here

Read more about our March microadventure here

Read more about our April microadventure here

April Microadventure: Beach Bivvy in Photos

Another month, another microadventure. Each month, joined by another mother and son (or father and son on this occassion), Finn and I plan to bivvy in different environments as suggested by the boys. Last month we slept in a wood. This month we had been invited to a wild camp out to celebrate the birthday of a friend of Finn close to the beach, so it was a perfect opportunity for a beach front bivvy.

Our room with a view for the night. You can just about make out Bass Rock in the distance.

Who needs a Theme Park when you have the freedom of the beach and woods? Sliding down the dunes, rock pooling, paddling, climbing trees. No opportunity for boredom here!

A discussion of the best fire lighting technique between the boys.

This wagon kept Finn occupied for, literally, hours.

The campers had already set up camp in the woods while the bivviers got organised and made up the beds on the beach to save doing it in the dark. Top tip from Mark to fold over the top of the bivvy bags to prevent the sleeping bags getting wet in the event of rain. Although in the end this was the driest bivvy of the year so far.

All together around the fire in the evening.

The hypontic effects of fire.

The birthday girl gave us a wee light show with her new poi.

 

And a couple of the adults treated us to a bit of a fire show.

 

After an exciting afternoon, we finally persuaded the boys to their bivvy beds at 11.30pm.

As usual I was woken up by Finn several times during the night and woke again to the sun rising.

A fine show of “bed hair” by the boys.

Popcorn for breakfast!

And back to play in the wagon again for a few hours more.

Another successful microadventure and two happy, if tired, boys already looking forward to the next one.

 

Couchsurfing in Canada with a Family

I first heard of Couchsurfing several years ago when my son was tiny but got the impression that it catered only for young, solo backpackers. It’s probably true that the majority of Couchsurfers fit this category but I discovered that families can Couchsurf too, there’s just far fewer of them doing it and a more limited choice of hosts.

What is Couchsurfing?

Couchsurfing is a social networking website that provides a platform for members to stay as a guest at someone’s home or to host travellers (there are also options to meet other members for a social activity or join an event). So basically you can search for free accommodation on a stranger’s couch or spare room while travelling.

The concept of Couchsurfing is so much more than just a free bed though. By staying with a local resident in their own home you get a real flavour of how people where you’re visiting live, as opposed to a tourists-eye view (although we did plenty of ‘touristy stuff’ too!). Couchsurfing  offers you the chance to to meet interesting characters and an opportunity to learn about the culture, local traditions and places of interest in the area you are visiting.

Last Christmas we decided to do something we’d been talking about for a couple of years, to visit friends in Canada. We opted to stay in Vancouver before heading to our friends in Calgary for Christmas. With a modest budget and a desire to experience a more authentic glimpse of Vancouver than the typical tourist lodgings would provide I decided to investigate the possibility of Couchsurfing with a family.

I registered with the Couchsurfing community, created my profile and then searched for suitable hosts in Vancouver. There are several filters you can set to specify the number of people in your family, if a host is “kid-friendly” and whether a host has “kids at home”. It was important for us not only that our host was willing to accommodate a child but that they had a child or children at home themselves. Unfortunately, this reduced the number of potential hosts considerably. A search for hosts in Vancouver lists 3,130 hosts accepting guests and many thousands more who “may be accepting guests”. Applying filters for kid friendly and with kids at home reduced our potential hosts to a mere handful (11 to be precise!), which included several people who hadn’t logged in to the site in over a year so were unlikely to be actively hosting.

The Vancouver skyline from our host’s apartment

Although our choice was very limited we were lucky to find a wonderful and suitable host with several glowing references left by previous Couchsurfers who’d stayed. Not only did she have a daughter just a year older than my son but they were vegetarian too. I sent a request asking if she would be willing to host us for a couple of nights along with a detailed message introducing our family and travelling plans. I was surprised to receive a response in just a few days inviting us to spend three nights in her home in the week before Christmas. We corresponded in the time leading up to our departure and our host not only suggested that we take our children to the annual Bright Nights Christmas Train in Stanley Park together but was kind enough to purchase tickets for us in advance.

Bright Nights in Vancouver’s Stanley Park

When we arrived in Vancouver I received a message that our host could no longer meet us at her apartment as planned but that her building manager would let us in and that she’d leave us a set of keys. I admit, it felt a little awkward to be let into the home of someone we’d never met, but it felt even more strange when our host and her daughter arrived later for us to welcome them into their own home! She then gave up her bedroom for us to sleep in while she moved into her daughters’ room for the duration of our stay. I couldn’t get over the trust, kindness and generosity of this woman who we’d just met or that she willingly offers strangers a bed or couch in her home on a regular basis. At the same time I thought how wonderful it was for her daughter to meet such varied and interesting people from all over the world. Our host had Couchsurfed herself while travelling in South America before having her daughter and although she was not in a position to travel just now, she was happy to bring the world to their apartment and give something back to the Couchsurfing community.  It was a lesson for me to be more open minded and reminded me of similar incidents of kindness and trust I’d experienced on my solo long-distance walking trips and of tales of the kindness of strangers I’ve read about in the travel writing of others. Yes, there is a risk that you could have a negative experience Couchsurfing or find it difficult to connect with your host, but the majority of Couchsurfers have a positive, culturally enriching experience.

What we loved about our Couchsurfing experience

  • Couchsurfing gave us the chance to stay in a neighbourhood of local residents rather than the overpriced tourist area downtown. We got to experience a part of the city we probably wouldn’t otherwise have visited and to eat at the cafes and restaurants visited predominantly by locals. Our host was able and willing to give us recommendations for some lovely local veggie and vegan eateries too.
  • As we were staying with a family there were plenty of suitable toys on hand to keep Finn occupied and having a daughter a similar age, our host was able to suggest family friendly activities and the whereabouts of local parks and walks.
  • Our host and daughter were at work and school during the day so we had plenty of time to ourselves and this avoided us feeling like we were getting under each others feet. On the other hand, our host was so busy with the lead up to Christmas that there was little time to get to know her and her daughter better!

Sampling the local cafes…

…and the local parks…

…Local walking trails…

…and the local market…

If you’re someone who prefers not to share a bathroom with strangers then Couchsurfing may not be for you, but if you have an open mind, are flexible, happy to embrace someone else’s house rules for a couple of days and pitch in and help with the household chores a little, Couchsurfing can be an enjoyable, rewarding and affordable experience. It certainly was for us.

March Microadventure: Woodland Bivvy

I was afraid that last month’s freezing bivvy had put my son off as yesterday he woke in a miserable mood and spent the morning complaining that he didn’t want to go bivvying. By afternoon, after getting hold of some marshmallows and meeting up with our friends who have committed to participating in our Year of Microadventures with us, he had cheered up a little and by evening, while sat around the fire in the evening the boys were declaring how amazing bivvying is.

For each month’s microadventure we are planning to bivvy in a different environment; beach, forest, riverside, hilltop, island. This didn’t quite work out for January and February when we went no further than the neighbour’s garden, but last night we kicked off with somewhere completely new for our first woodland bivvy. Part of the attraction of microadventures for me is that it presents an opportunity to explore your local area and discover somewhere beautiful you never new existed less than ten miles down the road. Being so close to home also makes it easy to get back home for a morning coffee.

We left the boys playing in the stream, pushing each other out of the hammock and building a den while we set up camp and lit a small fire.

The boys whittled sticks for their sausages and we cooked corn cobs in foil in the ashes, followed by tea and hot chocolate and the previously mentioned marshmallows.

Being a person who generally prefers wide, open spaces, I was worried I’d feel a sense of claustrophobia hemmed in by trees, but with the light from the candle lantern and the glow from the fire our camp spot felt cosy and inviting and a safe space rather than a threatening one. It’s also surprising how much darker it is in the forest, with the advantage that Finn thought it was a lot later than it actually was and was persuaded to go to bed earlier than usual.

Unfortunately he can’t be persuaded to sleep any more soundly. Twice he sat up talking in his sleep to himself and a couple more times I found him half out of his sleeping bag and upside down. I didn’t think it was possible to feel too hot out in the woods in early March but the temperature was probably a good ten degrees warmer than on our February bivvy and I was so warm in the night that I woke up and had to strip down to just two thermal layers! After the birds settled down to roost and the owls ceased their hoots and the boys ceased their chatter, a calm silence descended. The trees helped to muffle the sounds outside of our little enclosed space and there was just the gentle tinkling of the small burn a few metres away to lull us to sleep. Being outside enlivens rather than desensitises the senses, and it was easy to appreciate the smell of the damp earth and dried pine needles, the whiff of woodsmoke, the feel of the cool drizzle on my face at intervals during the night, and the occasional gentle gust of cool, unpolluted air.

The boys were full of energy in the morning even if the mums weren’t and there was just enough time for a quick explore down by the river until that well earned (and very much appreciated) cup of coffee back home.

 

 

 

 

Hostelling in Hadrian’s Country

Finn and I don’t always brave it in the bivvy bags. Sometimes we fancy a bit of luxury, which is when a Youth Hostel fits the bill! Far from the hostels of old, modern hostels mostly boast en-suite rooms, bed linen, towels and private rooms. Unfortunately, with the increase in facilities comes an increase in prices and a family room doesn’t always come as cheap as you might expect. Child protection policy at hostels run by the Youth Hostels Association and Scottish Youth Hostels Association makes it obligatory to book a private room if bringing a child under 16 (although you can stay in a dorm room with a child over 12 of the same sex). For us, this rules out the most affordable beds in a dormitory room and requires you to book further in advance as private rooms generally book up quickly, months in advance in the more popular hostels.

Last April we shelled out £70 for a night’s stay for the three of us in a family room at a Youth Hostel on the Isle of Arran. This wasn’t an en-suite and didn’t include towels or breakfast. I’ll be honest, it would have cost us the same to stay in a more comfortable bed and breakfast. However, a bed and breakfast or hotel just doesn’t replicate the ethos and atmosphere found in a hostel where a dedicated lounge encourages social interaction and conversation with other travellers.

In that same hostel in Arran, we met a lovely family of five from outside of London who we ended up camping right next door to for a week in rural Wales that summer (we’d recommended the camp site when we met them in the hostel and they coincidentally happened to book in for the same week as us!) Most hostels have a communal space to lounge out in and meet other families and you’ll often find games and books on loan for free as well as full kitchen facilities that are invaluable for travelling with selective (i.e. fussy) eaters. Yup, we’ve one of those.

This February, Finn and I spent a few nights in a characterful hostel in the North Pennines for a more reasonable £35 per night for the two of us for an en-suite room  including bedding and towels. Affiliate and independent hostels often have a more flexible pricing policy whereby they’ll put you in a room sleeping four but only charge for the number of people sleeping in the room (rather than the number of beds in the room as had happened on Arran). This was our second visit to Ninebanks Youth Hostel, a renovated 18th century cottage in former mining country, complete with rural views, flagstone flooring, log burner and an extremely well-stocked bookshelf. We had returned because my son has a long standing obsession with Roman History and Ninebanks is easily commutable to that most important monument built by the Romans in Britain: Hadrian’s Wall, and it’s associated forts, milecastles, turrets and earthworks.

Last year Finn forged some wonderful friendships with children he met and played with at the hostel in the evenings, while parents sat and chatted around the log burner, supping a locally produced beer. This year I was alarmed on arrival at the hostel to hear that there was a woman in residence who had chosen to stay in the hostel with it’s quiet, peaceful environment to facilitate some writing she was doing. I immediately sought her out to apologetically explain that Finn doesn’t ‘do’ peace and quiet particularly well. There was no need to worry. The lady in question enthusiastically led the evening’s entertainment featuring Twister, giant Jenga and imaginative game playing.

Sadly, our daytime adventures were far less cosy and comfortable. Hadrian’s Wall traces the contours of the wild and exposed Northumbrian landscape and we’d timed our visit with the arrival of Storm Doris. We didn’t let the unfavourable wet and windy conditions scupper our hiking and explorations along the Wall or our al fresco picnics but it certainly made our excursions more challenging, reducing both mother and son to tears (for quite different reasons). And so to reveal the pièce de résistance of a hostel… The Drying Room. It’s worth paying any price to have dry boots in the morning.

The conditions were a little soggy but thanks to the hostel drying room Finn’s walking shoes were bone dry the next morning!

Following the Wall from Steel Rigg to Housesteads

Picnic at the Sycamore Gap (of ‘Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves’ fame)

Two Wee Wet Adventurers

Outside the Hostel during our stay last year…

…And this year

 

 

 

February Bivvy Microadventure

We’d done it again and managed to serendipitously time February’s bivvy microadventure with a dump of snow. We’d postponed bivvying in a local wood with our friends for the previous two Saturdays because of heavy rain. We didn’t want to dishearten our wee ones with such a wet night so early in the year. However as the last day of February rolled around rather quickly it was now or never.

To vary the view a little I asked my neighbour if we could use her garden instead of our own. Thankfully I have a very understanding neighbour who didn’t bat an eyelid at my strange request and not only offered to leave her back door open for us but presented us with chocolate to keep up moral too. Thanks Ashleigh!

When I stepped outside after dark I knew it was the perfect night. Crisp, cold and clear, snow below, stars above. There are no street lights where we live and little light pollution so we had quite a view. I helped Finn into his sleeping and bivvy bags, then attempted to shimmy into mine. It takes time when you’re wearing so many clothes, still, I warmed up a bit from the exertion of it. Then I laid back and gazed at the stars. Perfect (except for son’s constant chatter). We tracked satellites, saw a couple of shooting stars and spotted constellations. Then I turned over to sleep, Finn still muttering away.

An hour later he was shifting in his sleeping bag and sitting up. Mother mode kicking in I coaxed him back under cover and tucked him in to keep him warm. This repeated about every hour until 5.20am when he needed the toilet. We laboriously extracted ourselves from our protective cocoons and walked around to our own back door. Of course as soon as he was in the house, he wasn’t exactly keen on heading back out into the freezing night again so I returned alone, with a silent sigh thinking that now I might get an hour or two of interrupted sleep before dawn. I did have that chocolate to earn after all. (Alas, it was not to be, by then the rooks in the nearby copse of Scots Pine were waking up). Recent scientific research found that camping out can banish insomnia by resetting the body’s natural clock. Clearly the research was not carried out on bivvying families.

The morning after. Looking a bit tired and worse for wear!

After a dry but bitterly  cold night (I could barely feel my toes by morning), a shower of sleet on my face persuaded me to abandon ship and head inside for a cup of tea and hot shower while the boys continued their slumber, softly snoring away.

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