Two Wee Adventurers

Rediscovering the great outdoors with a little one

Category: Overnight Adventures (page 2 of 2)

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)

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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.

An Alternative Valentine’s Night Away

What could be more romantic than getting away from it all by escaping to a historic stone shepherd’s cottage perfectly situated by a meandering stream deep in the forest of Southern Scotland? Forget fluffy pillows, a hot bath and rose petals scattered over the four poster bed though. This cottage is without piped water, central heating, beds, electricity, a toilet or privacy; as well as having our 6 year old in tow, we could be joined by anyone else. OK, so I appreciate a night in a bothy wouldn’t be everybody’s idea of a romantic retreat, but thankfully both my husband and prefer to celebrate Valentines in a less conventional and commercial manner. We weren’t the only ones. A couple were already ensconced in the bothy by the time we arrived in the late afternoon. They had actually come for a romantic night though, having left their two young children at home (in the care of other family I hasten to add). At least they managed to get a full three hours of relative peace to themselves before we turned up and shattered the amorous atmosphere. They retreated to a smaller wood panelled room in the bothy (who could blame them) while we shared the larger room with a semi-retired gentleman who had arrived just before us.

This was Finn’s first winter bothy trip but we had carefully chosen a bothy equipped with a stove and plenty of dead wood in the surrounding forest plantation to keep us warm during the evening. In fact wood collection was the highlight of the trip for Finn. We gathered firewood from a felled plantation on the afternoon we arrived and gave Finn the job of Chief Wheelbarrow Driver, which he held with great pride until the impending darkness and a rain shower hurried us inside. Even better than the position of Chief Wheelbarrow Driver was hitching a ride in the back of the couples’ Land Rover the following morning, accompanied by their wee dog, Jack, to help fell a couple of dead trees up valley and bring them back to the bothy for the use of future occupants.

At this time of the year it still gets dark fairly early so after a sociable evening of conversation and cards and Finn wearing out our companion with his imaginary games we retired to our cosy sleeping bags squeezed together on a sleeping platform made for two. We woke to a mild, dry morning and our companion swinging a larger than usual mouse in front of us that he had caught in a trap overnight. After a candlelit breakfast (see, we didn’t forgo romance altogether) and helping out with some bothy maintenance we dragged Finn away from his play at the stream, where he had devised a game that only the imagination of a six year old can conjure up, and headed for home. I guess if we can spend a night like that together and actually enjoy it, it must be love 😉

Beginning our “Year of Microadventures”

Last night Finn and I were joined by another mother and son to begin our “Year of Microadventures” with a backyard bivvi. For the next year we plan to spend at least one night every month sleeping out in the open with only a bivvi bag for cover. Being our first collective winter bivvi we decided to begin close to home with the safety of a shelter to retreat to if anyone grew unhappy.

The early evening skies were clear and in the absence of street lights where we live they were alive with the brilliance of thousands of stars. A hard frost already covered the ground as we began our microadventure with a night walk across crisp, sparkling fields down to the river. We searched for the star constellations we knew, listened carefully and tried to identify the sounds of the night and observed the effects of light pollution; an orange haze clinging over the nearby towns and villages like a cloak. The temperature had already dipped below freezing but dressed in several layers of clothes we were warm. Back in the garden we lit a fire and made up our ‘beds’ for the night, complete with the luxury of hot water bottles. Then began the greatest challenge of all – trying to get ourselves into our thick sleeping and bivvi bags while dressed in so many layers. A good fifteen minutes later with this finally accomplished Finn announced that he needed to use the toilet and so we repeated the procedure once more…

We fell into slumber to the accompaniment of a couple of owls hooting in a nearby copse and the smell of wood smoke. Three times during the night I had to rescue a very distressed Finn who had managed to sink right down into his sleeping bag and couldn’t find his way out again. Some time during the night I felt the cool pitter patter of what I imagined was rain on the exposed patch of my face not cocooned in my sleeping bag. It was only when I sat up to rescue Finn from being trapped in his bag that I realised it had been snowing and now a sprinkle of the white stuff already dusted the garden and it’s sleeping occupants. It continued to snow lightly through the night but we all remained snug and warm with no thought of retreat to the house. We awoke to the light slowly returning over a winter white landscape, the cawing of rooks and the honking of an arrow formation of geese flying directly overhead. We were all so cosy tucked up in our bivvi bags and enlivened by our achievement that we were in no rush to seek shelter back inside so we sat together awhile appreciating the moment.

A North West Highlands Bothy Extravaganza

As my son lost his footing and slipped into the shallow burn, cursing me repeatedly, I questioned once again what had possessed me to propose a five week bothy challenge together with my five year old. We were midweek into our trip to stay in some more northerly bothies, having just spent a night at a bothy on the Isle of Skye, and despite the bright sunshine, Finn’s mood was dark.

After our first bothy trip in Galloway a week and a half ago I’d been feeling apprehensive as I planned and organised the logistics of our trip north and thought ahead to the impending bothy nights. However, as the road wound north of Glasgow I felt a sliver of excitement mixed with the anxiety. My husband and I had spent two years living on the Isle of Skye nearly ten years ago and I was feeling pleasantly nostalgic as I recalled particular views and bends in the roads. I can’t believe I’d forgotten how stunningly beautiful the North West Highlands are, but basking in the sunshine they reminded me at every turn and beckoned me closer.

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Our first destination was to the far northern tip of the Isle of Skye, Rubha Huinish, to spend the night in a former coastguard station, now an MBA bothy. It’s a compact bothy and as we drove the final single track stretch to the road end I was nervous with anticipation that the bothy would be occupied. Arriving at the small parking area to find it full did nothing to alleviate my fears. Although I’d packed a tent in the car in case of the bothies being full or unsuitable for Finn and I, I’d decided in the end to risk not carrying it on our trips because of my already bulging, overweight bag.

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After having been cooped up in the car for so long, Finn skipped ahead, which lured me into thinking that our subsequent bothy walk ins would be approached with similar enthusiasm. His mind was fully occupied with outrunning a man in a kilt with his gaggle of German tourists approaching behind us. We’d made such good time that as we rounded the headline we were surprised to see the bothy just ahead, standing sentinel at the edge of the headland. The bothy was surprisingly clean and bright and sported a high wooden stool, that became Finn’s lookout and binoculars for scanning the sea below, less these days for ships in peril, more for the numerous whales that can be frequently spotted rounding the headland. Unfortunately the sea was too rough today for any whale spotting and the powerful winds prompted a lecture from me to Finn about not wandering far from the bothy as within about 50 metres of the door was a sheer cliff dropping to the churning grey waters below.

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The German tour party arrived hot on our heels and filed in one by one, curious to have a look around, but after their departure we were alone once more for the evening. Having checked the bothy for mouse droppings and finding none, I hoped our second night would be quieter than our first. Alas, the wind picked up after dusk and I tossed and turned in rhythm with the gusts battering the wall behind me. The roaring wind and the bothy door banging repeatedly against it’s loose catch provided the soundtrack to my fitful slumber. Only as dawn approached did I start to relax and drift into a deeper sleep but shortly after I was woken by Finn needing the ‘toilet’. This involved rousing ourselves out of our cosy, warm sleeping bags, getting togged up and battling our way out into the fierce wind. Still with my eyes half shut I opened the east facing bothy door only to be met with the most incredible sunrise silhouetting the distant Torridon mountains. Despite some of the most vivid red skies I’d ever seen, in my dazed state all I could think of was hurrying straight back inside to my still warm sleeping bag to resume where’d I’d left off. Finn however had other plans. He’d woken for the day and began demanding breakfast. I succeeded in stalling him for all of 40 minutes, then reluctantly left the comforting cocoon of my sleeping bag once more. By this time the still spectacular skies had matured from a pinky-red to autumnal oranges and yellows so we headed back out to experience the awakening of the day and for once I thanked Finn for his early wake up call.

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The following day we travelled for two hours back through Skye and down the Elgol road in glorious and unexpected sunshine that was to grace us with it’s presence for three whole days. Three days of sunshine in October on the Isle of Skye! I couldn’t believe our luck. I hadn’t checked the forecast since before we left when it predicted overcast skies and showers for the week so it was with surprise that we woke to vibrant blue skies every morning. We passed through the dramatic landscape with regret that there wasn’t time to stop and linger but as we rounded each bend in the road leading to Elgol, memories came meandering back of my time on Skye, sixteen years previously when I worked a summer at Elgol. That summer I slept in my first ever bothy, in a spectacular setting overshadowed on one side by the Cuillins and overlooking the islands of Soay and Rum on the other. And it was to this bothy (it’s new replacement in fact) that we headed to now. I was quickly brought out of my pleasant reverie by a grouchy Finn. No sprinting off from the car today, on this occasion, I had to drag him out. At odds with the cobalt skies and breathtaking scenery our walk was marred by miserable bickering until we summitted the col to look down towards the bay and Finn forgot his woes, perking up at the thought of a splash around in the sea when we arrived. Despite my anxiousness about this trip and the anticipated sleepless bothy nights I knew just then that this was a privileged experience to be granted.

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As we arrived at the spacious new bothy I was excited to see two large bags in the corner indicating we might have company for the night but dismayed to see the various rubbish, cans and articles of clothing that had been abandoned by previous bothy occupants. Finn wasted no time in dragging me to a sandy patch of beach close to the bothy, stripping off and racing out to meet the waves, singing and dancing as he went. As we chased each other, laughing, I was able to forget once more the difficulties and frustrations of meeting a five year old’s constant need and demands and enjoy a perfect moment, the one that makes our adventures worthwhile. I would freeze frame this shared moment and remember it for the rest of my life.

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On our return the bags had vanished along with any hopes I had for company for the night and we spent our third bothy night alone once more. The bothy was well insulated which made it strangely quiet but as usual I was on full alert listening out for any unidentified noises or potential late night visitors. At some point I must have drifted into sleep because I was woken in the early hours by a blood curdling scream. My heart pounding I was fumbling for my head torch by the time I realised it was just Finn who promptly turned over and went straight back to sleep.

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I continued to be challenged and tested on the walk to our forth bothy, a former remote youth hostel on the coast of Torridon. By now, day five, Finn was beginning to tire of the travelling, the consecutive days of walking and the sleeping on bothy floors. This I had understandably expected but I hadn’t appreciated that I too would be suffering from sleepless bothy nights, which wore down my patience somewhat. So after several days with just each other for company it was a mixture of feelings that greeted me when I saw a faint movement outside the bothy as we approached. Finally, some company! But of course, staying in a bothy you can never be sure quite what company you’ll be landed with. We met M first, loitering outside the bothy, a cigarette protruding from his mouth. He kindly offered us a cup of tea but was an elusive character and avoided the usual small talk of when he arrived and where he was from. It later became evident that M had been staying there for quite some time and by the look of his well stocked pantry, including three large jars of instant coffee, he was planning on remaining for quite a while longer. A kayaker had also arrived by sea that morning and we met him as he returned from collecting wood for the bothy stove. In contrast to M, S was chatty and eccentric and prone to talking loudly to himself. The tension and distrust between the two gentlemen was immediately evident and no sooner was one out of earshot than the other would start complaining about him to me. Evidently Finn and I would be in for an interesting evening.

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After a protracted discussion between M and S over whether to have a fire, with Finn and I used as a bargaining chip, the stove was eventually lit and we settled down for an evening’s entertainment, bothy style. M kicked off the storytelling by candlelight with a short narrative, followed by some fascinating and daring tales of kayaking adventures by S. Encouraged, Finn got right into the bothy spirit and launched into an adventure-filled story of his own. He got off to a promising start but an hour later and still going strong, the rest of us were staring into the fire with glazed eyes, so I did the gracious thing and whisked him off to his sleeping bag, still protesting (loudly) that he hadn’t finished his story. With fellow company in the bothy, albeit a bit strained, I dropped off to sleep a little easier than on previous nights but the longed for peaceful bothy night continued to elude me. M was loudly traipsing in and out of the bothy until after midnight and then from 4am the bothy vibrated with the sound of his hacking cough repeated at ten minute intervals. Meanwhile S slept fitfully and every time he turned over he would sigh audibly and start talking to himself as loudly in sleep as he did when awake. By 3am the stags were roaring away outside (rutting season) and by 6am I’d given up all pretence of sleep as both gentlemen argued once more about lighting a fire. Evidently the tension between them still hadn’t dissipated by morning but by now I was feeling less anxious, more amused by their obvious distrust of each other. S left early to resume his kayaking expedition whispering to me as he left that he would have stayed another night if it wasn’t for M. No sooner had S left than M disclosed that he hadn’t left the bothy yet this morning for fear that S would have stolen his things while he was out.

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Finn’s cheerful nature resumed as the sunshine of previous days receded and the leisurely walk back along the scenic path in front of the mountains of Torridon gave me a chance to reflect on our bothy adventures over the week. It hadn’t been without it’s challenges, predominantly my frustration with continually submitting to Finn’s pace and needs and my night fears, but it had been an incredible experience and one that with my rose-tinted glasses of hindsight I’ll probably only ever look at favourably. And the most surprising and most wondrous thing of all was that we’d just spent a week in the Scottish Highlands without a drop of rain or a single midge. Incredible.

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Burley Whag Bothy: Things that go bump (and squeak) in the night

Perhaps now is a good time to admit that I’m afraid of the dark. Not the dark, per se, but an irrational fear that something or someone is lurking around every corner after dark. Determined that my son won’t inherit the same anxieties, I do my best to model a calm confidence in the face of any fear-inducing night time situation. A night spent at Burley Whag bothy last week gave me the perfect chance to practice. I failed miserably.

This all started with an idea I had in the summer to spend 5 nights in 5 different bothies within 5 weeks while my son was still 5. Very kindly supported by The Next Challenge Adventure Grant we set out last week to sleep in Bothy Number 1 after some necessary mental and organisational preparation. Apart from coming face to face with a dead and decaying wild goat, the walk in to the bothy was blissfully uneventful.

Our timing was perfect, arriving half an hour before torrential downpours that lasted most of the night but which had cleared to a fresh blue sky and fluffy cotton wool clouds by morning. Abandoning our exploration of the bothy surrounds we set about all the usual bothy tasks; collecting water from the burn, giving the bothy a sweep, setting up our sleeping bags and mats, cooking a simple meal, setting the fire and lighting some candles. All complete we settled down in front of the stove with a pack of damp cards that we discovered in the bothy. I taught Finn rummy and much to his satisfaction he beat me almost every time. So far, so good, but the real adventure started after ‘lights out’.

In comparison with our usual frenzied bedtime routine at home, our bothy bedtime was calm and peaceful despite my anxiety as darkness approached. I stared out into the darkening night searching for the lights of any approaching walkers caught out in the rain, but of course saw nothing. Finn fell quickly asleep but as expected I laid awake, eyes wide open, listening hard for any noises out of the ordinary. There were plenty. Starting with various bumps and scrapes in the shepherd’s storeroom adjacent to the bothy followed by a strange continuous ticking and progressing to the sounds of scurrying mice close to our beds. The more obvious mouse related sounds were actually quite comforting after the unidentified noises from the next room. It’s truly amazing how the imagination becomes so enlivened after dark. I drifted in and out of sleep, woken frequently by a new, seemingly louder noise or by Finn shifting over and slipping off his sleeping mat. Once he woke in the pitch black, heard the cacophony going on and asked what the noise was. I explained in my calming, confident voice that it was just the mice. “Oh right” he replied and promptly fell back asleep. Oh how I envied his calm, unconcerned reaction! With the approach of daylight, all my fears were exposed as what they really were. Irrational. Well, mostly, depending on your relationship with mice.

I welcomed the fresh breeze and blue skies of the morning. I washed away my grogginess and night time worries in the refreshing burn water and replaced them with gratitude to be waking in such a stunningly beautiful place with no-one for miles around. We swept out the bothy of mouse droppings accumulated during the night, packed up and played a couple more rounds of rummy. It was a leisurely hike back to the farm where we left the car, over terrain somewhat boggier than the previous day, not surprising after the wet night. We saw wild goats (live ones this time), buzzards, red kites and the still visible gibbous moon. There was just one challenge left to deal with. Finding the car keys. They weren’t anywhere where I thought they might be and would expected to have stored them. I put aside the possibility of having to walk back to the bothy and instead methodically unpacked every single item in my backpack. I finally found them in the bag full of rubbish (any rubbish, including toilet paper needs to be carried back out with you). I still have no idea how they got there. Maybe it was something in the night?

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Setting off for our first bothy of five with enough stuff for two and a bag of firewood

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Finn opted to carry his own jacket and lunch

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Feeling like an overloaded pack horse

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The path became increasingly boggy as we passed some long abandoned buildings.

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The bothy at last! It’s in the process of being re-roofed and there was a bit of a leak during the night

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Welcome to Burley Whag

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Playing outside the bothy before the downpours

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Setting up ‘camp’

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Despite the extra weight, it was worth bringing fuel to light a nice cosy fire

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Evening entertainment

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Washing up after breakfast

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Leaving the bothy with a lighter load

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Bothy mornings: My favourite time of the day

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Hiking home

 

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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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.

Our First Bivvy Microadventure

Mum, I just love it!” squealed my overexcited wee boy, his voice muffled by his head half buried in a bivvy bag. Lying back on the surprisingly soft, springy grass, gazing upwards at the wide expanse of blue, smiling contentedly, I was loving it too. We just don’t see clear blue skies so often in South Lanarkshire. We were six miles from home and 468m up on a nondescript but fairly accessible hill. My first overnight bivvy. Finn’s first overnight bivvy. A shared first experience and wonderful memories in the making I hoped.

On our way

I’ve spent a fair few nights out under canvas, including one or two solo camps in the wilderness but this was an entirely different experience, one I’m struggling to put into words so you’ll just have to try it for yourself. To clarify, by bivvy I’m referring to sleeping out under the stars without a tent, in our case using a waterproof ‘bivvy bag’. The seed of this trip was sown over a year ago after picking up Alastair Humphrey’s book “Microadventures”. After reading, then re-reading it, I’d daydreamed of camping out minus the canvas but I hadn’t made the mental leap required to make it happen. So after seeing Alastair’s latest Microadventure Challenge to get an overnight microadventure happening in every county in Great Britain before the end of June and hoping to be the first in South Lanarkshire, it was time to take action.

Setting up camp

The practicalities were as I suspected. No just throwing a few things together in a small 30 litre bag as espoused by Alastair. Packing was a half day expedition in itself. After a manic search for our bright orange survival bag bivvy and remembering we’d cut it into pieces for some creation the previous summer, we made a rush visit to find a bivvy bag for Finn at the only outdoor shop for miles. Lanark Army Navy stores. No cheap orange survival bag replacement but a single oversized camouflage bivvy bag smelling faintly of cigarette smoke. It would have to do. I’d spent all morning psychologically preparing myself for our sleep out on the hills, not to mention the year spent thinking about it.

Watching the sun go down

Hauling a bag containing all we would need for the night wasn’t too challenging. Cajoling a five year old, who would normally be getting ready for bed at this time, up a hill, was a little more so. Still, he was fuelled by excitement and the promise of home-made chocolate brownies when we got to the top. An hour later we had reached our king-sized bed and room with a view for the night. Settling down listening to my husband and son tell each other stories, I was tired but fought against succumbing to sleep, every five minutes forcing my eyes open again to watch the darkening skies and imprint the view in my mind and the contentment in my soul.

The night itself was surprisingly uneventful. I was expecting visits from a myriad inquisitive animals but we saw only sheep, who respectfully kept their distance and heard only birds, which I wish I could have identified from their calls.

Our first bivvy complete!

I can’t say I woke feeling refreshed, but I certainly felt the warm glow of satisfaction from completing something that’d taken a year to work up to. After a quick breakfast and cup of tea, we got packed up (neither as fast or as gracefully as I’d have liked) and were on our way back down the hill. Finn still in his fleecy pyjamas, me, still with a big smug grin on my face.

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