Monthly Archives: April 2016

Scrambling in Wales

I went to Wales to do some scrambling through a BMC subsidised course at Plas Y Brenin last weekend. It was my first time in Wales and at PYB. Both places I now intend on visiting again to walk, climb, scramble and attend various courses to get my Mountain Leader qualification and improve my outdoor climbing.

When I arrived in Llandudno Junction I had a few hours to kill before my lift arrived so after eating at a pub I went for a walk to Conwy Castle. I was greeted with the most beautiful sunset across the estuary. I just sat there in awe as the sun vanished.

conway sunset

I walked back to the station and my lift had arrived. I was sharing the bus with a couple of guys doing other courses so we chatted for the duration of the journey, which was about thirty minutes. They came from different backgrounds and it’s always good to talk to like minded people. No matter what background, we all shared a love for being outdoors and getting as much as we could from being there.

After checking in I had a quick look round and crashed. I’d had a long day and wanted to sleep. But the centre has so much to offer: use of the climbing walls, kayaking, a dry ski slope, mountain biking, a nice pub with a great view. And I have no doubt you could chat to anyone.

The next morning, after a filling breakfast, we met our course leaders and split into teams of 4. This meant there was a 4:1 ratio of instructor to students. That was an ideal number to learn and not lose the ability to ask questions in a crowd.

After a quick equipment check and debrief we were off to our playground for the day. Its hard to believe I have never been to Wales but after arriving in Ogwen Valley and looking up on some of the mountains I was in love. I spotted Tryfan and hoped I would get the chance to get up there. As it happens I didn’t but some of the surrounding scrambles were a perfect way to break into it. And I know I’ll be back to take on the north ridge at some point.

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First day of scrambling

Chris was our instructor for the weekend. From Northern Ireland, he was friendly, good fun and full of chat. I seemed to bend his ear all weekend, asking questions about the ML mostly so that it became a running joke. He talked so passionately about the area, the fauna and flora, the wild life, the climbing and the scrambling that I ended up buying some books from the store that night. I wanted to learn more.

After going through some safety and route choice techniques we set off on our first route. Stopping every now and again to talk about spotting and foot placement, we made it to the top of the Y Gribin route and then the summit of Gylder Fawr for lunch.

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The weather was starting to turn so we headed down, talking about how the descent was when most accidents happen so it was wise to check where and how you would get down. At the bottom we got onto the bus and headed back to the centre for a debrief and practice some ropework for the next day.

After dinner (a lovely three course meal) we had the option to attend a film night to help save the river Conwy. But I was knackered so went back to my room, did some route planning and fell asleep.

The next morning we met and had another debrief before heading back to Ogwen Valley for the day to do more scrambling and practice some ropework.

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The plan was to make our way up and practice the ropework we’d learnt the evening before. This was important to know in case you found yourself in a tight spot and needed to get yourself or someone else down from a difficult route.

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After making it up we stopped to practice anchoring and belaying someone down. Looking at the ABCs (anchor, belay and climber) as well as making sure sure the person acting as the anchor is in tight and stable. When we’d finished we ate lunch and headed over to Y Gribin to practice more ropework.

As well as anchoring we covered some abseil techniques (classical & south african) and how to use fixed and retrievable anchors. After we were finished we made our way down to the bus and back to the centre for our final debrief.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from the weekend but I had a great time and fell in love with Wales like I fell for Scotland last year. I learnt some new skills, met some lovely people and cemented how much I want to work outdoors and set my life on that path.

 

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Health, The Mind & The Great Outdoors

The mind and body are often thought as two separate entities but the mind can’t function unless the body is working properly and vice versa. I recently went a few weeks without any exercise and found that my energy levels dropped and my mood changed. It’s certainly true that if you feel low or anxious then you may do less which can make you feel worse. A vicious cycle. 

It can be hard to get active when you’re down but dragging yourself out for a walk, run or even a swim can lift your mood and help you be more in control. It can help break that cycle of negative thoughts that feed your mood.

The benefits of keeping active are obvious:

  • It reduce the risk of diseases & physical health problems;
  • Helps promote happier moods and reduces feeling of stress;
  • Gives you a clearer mind and sense of calm;
  • Increases your self-esteem;
  • Make you more likely to sleep better.

Any activity you do should be enjoyable and if you don’t know what you might enjoy then try a few different things. Trust me when I say it will give you a sense of control over your life, the choices you make and can help you escape.

As well as the physical benefits there are also biological responses. As your heart rate increases your body releases chemicals like dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine. These neurotransmitters deal with feelings of reward, alertness, contentment and wellbeing. 

The brain also secretes a “brain-derived neurotrophic factor” which helps the brain cells to grow and develop. This protein found in regions of the brain controls eating, drinking and body weight. The effect has been compared to a high when taking drugs, leaving you feeling euphoric and relaxed after a good workout.

To work properly your body needs regular exercise and most of us feel good after a an active session. If you keep active then you’re less likely to be depressed, anxious or tense. I know if I’ve had a bad day at work or I’m feeling a little down then a run can always help lift my mood.

Being outdoors is my therapy and engaging in activities to promote these feelings is something I can’t recommend enough. So what are you waiting for? Get outdoors.

Childhood Memories

Where I was brought up we had a lake across the road. While it wasn’t a good idea to go swimming in it we did. In the summer we’d hire kayaks and paddle all day. In the woods we would divvy up into teams and play army. We’d build dens or camp out and go further as we got older, riding our bikes to the coast or walking a few miles to a larger forest. We also got braver, exploring a local car junk yard or playing hide and seek around the factories.

In the outdoor activity club we would spend lunch times pouring over maps imagining what the landscape was like and building paper mache models of the hills. Carefully cutting out the contours on card and building them up to get a sense of what it might be like. Then we’d organise weekends walking them and carrying all our kit on our backs. One memory I have is camping near a pool and spending all day swimming in it, the weather was that good.

Another time a group of us went caving with school. The teachers took away our torches and left us in this dark cave with the words “youre standing on a ledge, be careful where you step”. While everyone else lost their shit I laughed and said “follow me, do you really think they would leave us on a ledge like this” and confidently stepped away. At 14 that level of bravery seems normal, at 40 its foolhardy but my logic still stands.

In the cubs and scouts we were lucky to have a large camp near us. It had a huge spiderman net to play on and we would go early to spend time playing on that before the meetings. In the days before health and safety went mad that net caused plenty a broken bone.

We’d spend weekends at this scout camp, orienteering and practicing bushcraft. I remember one winter we camped there and it got pretty bad. There was none of the tents you get now. Old canvas things that slept 10. I remember waking up to snow one morning, my lungs filling with cold air, but happy in a warm nest with my “brothers” around me like a pack of dogs.

My Dad used to take me walking in the Cheviots and further afield, just the two of us. While I sadly don’t recall too much of those walks it always filled my heart knowing we would be spending some time together (my parents split up when I was young) 

He told me to watch an episode of Julia Bradbury’s TV show recently, reminding me that we’d walked High Cup Nick when I was a kid. I know I’ll be walking past there on my LEJOG adventure so I’ve decided to try and wild camp in the area. I’ll no longer be looking at the stunning landscape as a child but through the eyes of a 40 year old adult. 

I’ll always have the spirit of that kid, dreaming of greater adventures and making more memories.

Hadrian’s Wall

Hadrian’s Wall was always going to be the first long distance walk I started with. I’d walked parts of it last year and should have actually walked the whole thing 20 years ago as a kid. It hung over me like a shadow. I hatched a plan to tackle the walk in 3-4 days over the Easter bank holiday weekend. Its the period where things start to open around the area and there isn’t much foot traffic. With train tickets booked I counted down the time. 

It flew by and I soon found myself getting off the train in Carlisle. I walked around for an hour and that was enough. Its the sort of town with history and potential but finding it just out of reach. Maybe I missed something but after eating and picking up supplies I had to leave. I don’t like to do places a disservice so maybe with a bit more research I might have found the real Carlisle but I wasn’t there as a tourist.

The journey to Bowness was strange. I talked about my walks to the driver and he told me about his recent visit to Fort William. I asked if he went to do some walking and he said no, he just wanted to get away for the weekend. Fair enough I said, so what did you get up to? Looking in shop windows and buying a fountain pen. Imagine that. You go to somewhere as beautiful as Scotland and a place like Fort William and you don’t got for one walk or take in the scenery. You browse around shops and buy a pen.

I try not to judge people but his next highlight really got to me. He pulled out his phone and showed me a photo of Jimmy Saville’s boarded up house in Tyndrum. The morbid fascination of stopping to take a photo of a house once owned by that guy. It was all I needed to know so the conversation dried up and I started playing with my phone.

Once my “friend” dropped me off in Bowness I met Liz. I was renting a room from her on AirBNB and, as she showed me round, we briefly chatted about things. I had a good feeling about Liz. She left me to unpack my gear and I slept for a bit. Seems all I do at the minute is sleep but at least this time I had an excuse. I was out the previous night which doesnt happen very often for me.

When I woke I went out to explore. I found the starting point of the walk and sat for a while. Watching river life and listening to the birds.

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Occasionally someone would appear, finishing the walk, and we’d chat. How was the walk? What were the condition like? How was the weather? Small talk of people experiencing the same thing and passing through each others lives.

As the sun went in I ate at the local pub and went back to Liz’s. I watched TV to just switch off and we chatted a bit more. She was so friendly, laid back and easy to talk to. We swapped a few life stories and she told me of her walking experiences. I love hearing tales like that. I knew I’d got a positive vibe from her, a good soul. I opted for an early night and went to bed waiting for sleep. It came quickly.

Day One

I got up early, showered and made breakfast. Liz had left some food out for me. I didn’t want her to wake early and make it for me but my ninja like abilities weren’t enough and she came downstairs to wish me luck. After eating we said our goodbyes and I was off.

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Flash at the start.

Todays walk would be 25 miles from Bowness to a bunkhouse at Sandysike. It was a glorious morning. The sun was rising and the sky clear. I was down to a t-shirt in no time.

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I stuck some music on. I’d spent some time making a playlist with 1000s of my favourite songs on. A welcome friend to keep me sane. 

As I walked along along the river, the world slowly waking, I found myself thinking about various things. What I had planned to do, the pressure I put on myself, the time I was taking out of my life, what I wanted to do after. Did I have it in me? Could I get through it? Was I making the right choices?

The answers weren’t coming. This was just the first day and realised I had months of this ahead so switched off my brain and turned up the music. 

After passing through Carlisle I started getting into the countryside but still no sign of the wall. I knew that wouldn’t come until the next day. I was just happy to be out of the urban environment. Nothing worse than trying to negotiate pavements and roads.

After an uneventful walk along back country roads and fields, passing through small villages and settlements, I reached the bunkhouse. I chatted to the farmer for a bit. He told me about some of the flooding in the area last year. I had seen signs of this in Carlisle as well. Must have been devastating for people who depend on the land for their livelihood.

He then dropped the news that the local pub was closed. I really wanted a pint so the kind dude sold me a few cans. I went to the bunkhouse and got through my routine. Stretches, protein shake. hydration drink, change of clothes and sorting out my feet. No blisters. 

I had the bunkhouse to myself that night. It was equipped with a kitchen, bathroom and a bothy room with a fire. I cooked up some food, got the fire going and had a few beers. What a great end to the first day.

Day Two

I slept well and, after breakfast, I sorted my pack and left. It was that early even the farmer wasn’t up. Today was over 22 miles to a bothy just off Sewingshields and that distance was covering a lot of the hills that make up the wall. I knew it wasn’t going to be easy.

As the sun slowly appeared, it burnt away the clouds and I was met with another gorgeous morning. The weather gods were really looking after me. I walked for a bit and then found myself crying. I wasn’t sad so figure it was a build up of emotion. I was enjoying myself.

I sat down for 5 minutes and in the distance a small herd of deer came out of the woods. I cleared my head and just watched them. They hadn’t spotted me and were coming closer. Then their heads went up and they darted. I’ve been close to deer before but that was special. I got up and started moving, wondering if I was meant to stop and wait for that moment.

I eventually started passing pieces of the wall and when I got to Thirwell Castle I saw a familiar site. The tall crags at Greenhead. From that point I could see the route stretching out for miles ahead of me.

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I had a quick break then carried on. It was everything I had hoped for and more. I love this section of the wall. The undulating hills with views that take my breath away. I always try to put myself in the head of a roman centurion. Far from home at this remote outpost of the roman empire. What must they have thought? Did they fall in love with this place and were they sad to leave? I know how I would feel.

After reaching Hole Gap I decided to stop for lunch at The Milecastle pub. I’ve eaten here before and the food is always hearty. I chatted to the landlady for a while and bummed some cigarettes off her. After filling myself with slow cooked belly pork I went outside for a smoke and to check my feet. I’d felt some hot spots the last mile and wanted to sort them. After finishing up I went back in, grabbed my pack and said goodbye. The next stop was going to be my home for the night. A bothy at Haughton Green.

When I arrived at Sewingshields Crag I checked the map to look for the attack point I needed to find the bothy from. I wasn’t far off and when I got there I took out my compass to follow the bearing to where it was located. The walk in took me over a few hills and boggy fields but I got there before the rain. And it was empty. I had a look around and got through my end of day routine again.

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Haughton Green Bothy

After a while two brothers from Durham showed up and I was more than happy for some company. They’d come to check the place out but weren’t sure about staying. We ate and got the fire going. After a while they decided they were off. I can’t help but think my eagerness to chat put them off so after our goodbyes I sorted my sleeping bag and got settled for the night. 

As I slipped into my bag I listened to the wind outside, the tapping of the rain against the window and the crackling of the fire as it slowly went out. I felt at peace. Safe. I drifted off.

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My bed for the night in the bothy.

A few hours later I woke to rustling. I made the mistake of leaving a bag of rubbish on the floor and the mice were at it. I got out of my warm nest and packed the rubbish away. Bloody swines but it wasn’t their fault. Given it was my first stay in a bothy I think it could have been the least of my problems.

Day Three

As I woke I spent 10 minutes figuring out my plan. Get out bag. Check feet. Get dressed. Make a brew and eat. Pack everything away. Get going. 

Today was going to be a long day. The clocks had gone forward so I had lost an hour but I was still up early enough to make good time. As I stood at the bothy door and watched the sun rise I knew I was leaving the quiet behind for Newcastle. My only wish at that moment was I had someone there to share such a beautiful morning with.

The walk was meant to be 27 miles to Newburn but I ended up doing 31. Rather than follow my compass bearing back to Sewingshields Crag I wanted to avoid the bogs so followed a land rover track back to the wall. This essentially had me doubling back on myself. Classic mistake. My feet wouldnt thank me later.

After getting off the wall it was more fields, paths and roads. I didnt enjoy this at all. It had rained and a lot of the paths were made of slabs of stone or rocks. In the rain it made for dangerous walking. The surface of these paths had been made smooth through years of walking so it was pretty slippy and I nearly had a bad fall. A lesson to be careful in future. 

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A lot of walking along roads.

There isn’t much else I could say about this leg. It really was a boring walk and was hard work. I reached Heddon and slowly made my way down to the Tyne where I met my Dad and Stepmother at a pub. It was nice to chat although I felt a little short tempered. Out of sync somehow.

When I got to my Dads I went through my routine, had a shower and enjoyed a beer. After we ate I ended up falling asleep at 9 but found myself waking at 12. Something was obviously bugging me. I was struggling to sleep. Not sure what. 

I rang my mate, who was still up with it being it a bank holiday, and we chatted for a bit about the walk, life and his little girl. I then watched a film and fell asleep around 3.

Day Four

I woke up at 7, got myself sorted and we jumped into the car. My Dad was joining me for the final 12 miles.

The weather was overcast with some rain. We donned our waterproof jackets and set off. My feet were complaining already and I was reconsidering my footwear for the next walk. I like the Salomon Ultras but they had started biting into my ankles which is why I hate wearing boots. I would try the Inov-8 Roclites on the next walk.

This part of the walk I have cycled and ran on my way to Tynemouth. I always imagined a time when boats would carry their goods up and down the river. A busy vein of industry. We passed many a testament to how powerful the north east used to be. Empty factories or huge blank open spaces where they once stood. The occasional plaque detailing what once stood. A sad reflection on how the north has been treat over the years.

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Dunston Staithes

But the Tyne remains and the people are proud. And why I’ll always love the place no matter where I travel.

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My Dad told me stories as we walked. Pointing out where his parents lived, where he first worked while starting his apprenticeship, where he was sent to get lunch from the chip shop, where the boilermakers would go for a pint. The bus stop he would wait at on a Friday night, describing it as the loneliest place on the earth.

Before long we reached Segedunum. I was pretty disappointed. All shining glass and viewing platforms surrounded by empty decaying buildings and a dying shipyard. I took a few photos and we got a metro back to Newcastle. I had finished my first long distance walk.

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So how do I feel? Relieved its out the way. I’d managed a few days on my own in my head, put some ghosts to bed and learnt some valuable lessons.

It had been a hard few days walking and a realisation of what lay ahead. I was under no illusion it was going to be easy. But nothing good or scary is.