Bikepacking Day 1 – Hampshire & Berkshire

I had a couple of weeks to kill before starting a new job and didn’t want to spend all that time mooching around the house. I also didn’t want to have to spend a huge amount of time planning a trip abroad, booking flights, organising who to go with and so I decided to spend some time on the bike. The idea of just packing up my bike and heading out the front door really appealed to me, and when a friend suggested trying to reach the highest point in all the nearby counties then the plan was set.

In reality of course, this did involve quite a bit of preparation including buying a new bike so it wasn’t really that simple, but still I’ve got a new bike in the shed which is always good.

The aim was to travel as light as possible. When I’d cycled to Aberdeen a few years previously I’d just taken the one Brompton pannier, but on that trip we stayed in B&Bs and carried no food. On this trip I was hoping to camp a decent amount which meant carrying a lot more kit and food.

Bike loaded and ready to go
Bike loaded and ready to go

The first destination was Pilot Hill and Walbury Hill, the highest points in Hampshire and Berkshire and conveniently about 4km apart on the same ridge. The route from home was going to involve a bit of navigation, getting round Basingstoke and through the back roads before the final stretch on the bridleway along the ridgeline. The bridleway was the only part I was really worried about, would the heavily laden bike be able to cope with the rougher ground?

 

Getting up to Aldershot and on to the Basingstoke canal was easy enough, and I had a pleasant ride through to Basingstoke. Getting round the outskirts of Basingstoke was a little more tricky but finally I passed the town and was onto the back roads looking for the turning for the wayfarers walk. I’d scouted this on Google street view before leaving and the turning was where it should have been. Turning up the bridleway was the moment of truth: if I could stay on the bridleway then it was a fairly straight shot up to Pilot and Walbury Hill; if not then it would be a lot of back and forward on the back roads. The bike had coped well on the canal towpath apart from the panniers jumping off every now and then on the big bumps, and it coped well on the stony bridleway. It was great to get off the roads and very quickly feel that exciting isolation.

Just me and a buzzard
Just me and a buzzard

I got up to Pilot Hill and after asking a passing dog walker I found the trig point in the middle of a field.

The highest thing in Hampshire
The highest thing in Hampshire

By now it was about 6pm and I was getting pretty tired and in need of somewhere to pitch a tarp. The ridge was quite a bit more busy than I was expecting with lots of dog walkers and runners out. I pushed on to Walbury Hill and then continued on to find a place to camp. There was a strong wind coming over the ridge from the south so a bit of shelter would be nice. The trouble with camping on hills is that they are generally pretty exposed, and not always flat. I’d tried camping on the side of Ditchling Beacon before and had woken up tangled up in a fence having slid a fair way from where I went to sleep. It didn’t make for a good night sleep.

Trees are generally good places to camp, they block the wind and rain and you can be very inconspicuous in them. But they tend to grow on the sloped parts of the hills and I hadn’t packed a hammock. I carried on from Walbury Hill and spotted a flat piece of ground sheltered by a little ridge that looked like it would be perfect. There was a car parked right near it and I would be in sight of the carpark so I decided to stop there for a little while and see if it quietened down enough for me to feel comfortable getting the tarp up. There was a car parked right up near the gate with a middle-aged couple in it doing nothing, they didn’t move so I decided that I’d probably move on. However as I went past them they spoke to me and it became clear that they wouldn’t be trying to move me on if I did camp there. I’ve got no idea what they were doing up on the hill but I was carrying a knife and could always turn down any dogging advances and I was too tired to try and find somewhere else. So I went back into the field and got the tarp up.

No headroom but a great view
No headroom but a great view

I cooked up some dinner using my supercat stove which worked great. I had slightly misjudged my water requirements though and there aren’t any rivers on the top of hills, this made for a thirsty evening. I slept ok although I could have done with tightening up the lines a bit more. Paracord will sag when damp and this made the tarp more flappy and noisy than would have been ideal. Some sheep passed in front of me and some people came to inspect the gibbet near midnight which was creepy but I was very snug and cosy in my bag and went to sleep pretty pleased with how day one had gone. The forecast for day 2 wasn’t great and I had a fair distance to cover to get to Glastonbury but I had a B&B waiting for me at the end of the day. Plans of reading the kindle or writing anything were abandoned in favour of getting my head down.

Packsledging – Aviemore to Braemar

The old bunk house was as comfortable as we remembered and we had a great meal at the pub next door. We were a day ahead of schedule here so decided to spend the next day looking into whether we would be crossing the Lairig Ghru or whether we were going to need another plan.

After breakfast the tourist information office was our first stop and they were less than encouraging, suggesting that we would be mad to try and get through the hills. This wasn’t the answer we were looking for so we needed someone else to ask. We wandered round outdoor shops as I looked for some more serious upgrades over the Yaktrax I had taken for icy walking

"Perfect for dog walkers" - maybe not for winter in the Cairngorms
“Perfect for dog walkers” – maybe not for winter in the Cairngorms

To be fair I had used them in the Brecon Beacons and they made a big difference, but Rob and Quiller were carrying much more aggressive looking crampons and I didn’t want to be the one who stopped the group getting through. Ultimately I didn’t get anything, mainly because I couldn’t face the extra 700g of crampons to carry.

So the Tourist Information guys told us not to go, staff in the various outdoor shops had been pretty noncommittal so I decided to go straight to the top and managed to get the head ranger for the Cairngorm area on the phone. Just as we were thinking about what our other options were, he came through that we should be fine so long as we have winter boots and gaiters and don’t mind breaking a trail. Also it was forecast to be very sunny so we should take sunscreen with us. This was the best possible news, we were on for the Lairig Ghru. It’s possible that we should have paid more attention to the second part of his advice though, rather than getting so excited about getting the go message.

We put together a picnic and headed out to visit Loch an Eilein. It was great walking with light packs and the weather was good. Loch an Eilein has a small castle in the middle of it, normally inaccessible unless you want to swim or you have a boat. Well of course we had boats so this was perfect.

I wish I had some way to get out and visit that ruined castle...
I wish I had some way to get out and visit that ruined castle…

After having a look round the castle we walked over to cross onto the River Spey and floated back up to the bunkhouse.

Rob showing an alternative portage technique, the rafts are so robust
Rob showing an alternative portage technique, the rafts are so robust

This was some of the most pleasant rafting of the trip, the weather was good, the water just kept taking us where we needed to go and the countryside was great. An ideal packrafting day trip.

Floating down the river
Floating down the river

That evening we gorged on pizzas, I went to pick up some firelighters that we’d forgotten and we then headed back over to the pub to listen to Dan Korn and his band, who were excellent. A very early start was planned and we were all nervous again like on the train, but excited.

I think we left the hostel around 5.30 or 6 in the morning after a massive calorie loaded breakfast. Then it was time to get moving, although the packs seemed to have got heavier again.

We hadn't even started going uphill yet but I was feeling it
We hadn’t even started going uphill yet but I was feeling it

The first bit of the route, walking alongside the road, was the worst and then going through the forest was great, very quiet and peaceful. Slowly though we were climbing out of the trees and into the snow…

Out of the forest, but that was a tough climb
Out of the forest, but that was a tough climb

The lemon sherbets were really coming into their own by this point, but the snow was getting thicker and I was certainly glad that we’d got going so early. The walking was pretty straightforward until we got to a point where we couldn’t actually tell where the path went. On the map the path was next to a stream and it was impossible to tell just how deep the snow was and what was at the bottom of it. Nothing was particularly difficult, but it would have been a big issue to get someone out who had been injured so we were being cautious. The packs didn’t help with agility either but my yaktrax were surprisingly non-useless

Definitely no river under this bit of snow
Definitely no river under this bit of snow

At about lunchtime we got to the highest point of the pass and a great snow-covered bowl area which was perfect for sledging. We weren’t carrying sledges, but snow is basically water so the boats should work shouldn’t they? Quiller inflated his and invented the new sport of pack-sledging while Rob and I got lunch together. This earned us some very funny looks from a group of runners who came through, although running through that snow seemed like a pretty stupid idea as well to me…

Packsledging!
Packsledging!

During the afternoon the sun came out and we remembered the other piece of advice the head ranger had given us and laughed about how much we had ignored it. This period of walking was quite tiring, just because finding the path was very difficult and with every step you weren’t sure how deep you were going. We took turns at the front and Quiller did his best to keep morale up by falling over in increasingly comedic ways.

getting there
getting there

We finally made it to the bothy at about 4.30, all pretty well sunburnt, tired, but excited and glad to have made it. Quiller cooked up a fantastic meal of cheesy mushroom pasta and we drank whisky and enjoyed the view and the quiet.

Quite sunburnt
Quite sunburnt

On of the things about staying in a bothy is you’re never sure if you’re going to be there alone, or who else you’ll be sharing the place with. At about 1800 we spotted another walker coming in after us, making for the bothy. I didn’t manage to catch his name but he was doing again a walk he’d done 20 years previously. I think he’d been a bit surprised by how difficult it was and I certainly didn’t envy his dinner of a tesco chicken sandwich. You don’t want to appear patronising in those situations but I was glad that we’d broken a path for him to follow and he’d got into the bothy ok.

The plan for the next day was to walk down to the Dee, past the Linn of Dee and see where we could get the rafts in before floating down the river and finding a spot to camp, but we could be happy with what we’d achieved so far.

Getting into Whisky for Burns Night

At Burns Night you have to drink whisky. Well, you don’t have to, but you don’t have to do anything really. I strongly recommend drinking whisky though, on Burns Night and on most other nights. But whisky is not a particularly accessible drink, and if you get your first few whisky experiences wrong then you’ll end up with a lifelong aversion to this magnificent spirit.  Also there has been an explosion of interest in whisky in the last 5 years or so, meaning that supermarkets are carrying a much wider range and distilleries are producing a lot more varieties. Prices have also gone up, making buying whisky a bit more daunting for the beginner. So here is a quick guide for buying and drinking whisky for Burns Night, or any other night, or during the day because conventions and customs are just products of our imagination.

When drinking whisky, add water. Add as much water as you need so that it doesn’t burn your mouth and you can taste it properly. Don’t use ice or really cold water, cold things have less taste (hence why you keep vodka in the fridge and lager is best served cold) and you want to taste the whisky. You want it strong enough to be warming, but not burning. Don’t feel bad about doing this, unless you have bought a bottle at cask strength (c. 55% alcohol) then it’s already been watered down before being bottled. So add some water and get it to a level where you actually taste the stuff. Maybe in the future you’ll become accustomed to the burn and enjoy it, but for now add the water.

For your first whisky, get a good blend like Chivas Regal, Monkey Shoulder or Ballantines. Blends are designed to be smooth, with no one flavour predominating so are an excellent starting point into whisky. Don’t buy a litre bottle of Bells unless you’re very clear about what sort of night and following day you’re after.

Single malts are not necessarily better than blends but they are generally more expensive because at least half of a blended whisky will be grain whisky which is cheaper to produce and has a more neutral flavour. If you want to go for a single malt, then stay safe and get one of the glens like Glenlivet, Glenfiddich or Glenmorangie. These are all excellent whiskies from the main whisky area of Scotland around the River Spey. They are smooth, not too fruity and unpeated. Avoid anything that is finished in a wine cask or something like that, plenty of time for those later.

There are two main flavours of whisky and at some point you’re going to want to explore the wild outposts of peat. Whiskies from Islay taste like nothing else. They are made with barley that has been dried in peat smoke and taste smoky, salty and medicinal. The first time I had a Laphroaig (pronounced Laff-roy-g) I thought I’d accidentally licked an ashtray and I was still tasting it the next morning.  It’s great whisky but try someone else’s before you decide to buy a bottle. Laphroaig and Ardbeg are probably the most commonly available Islay whiskies and the standard 10 year olds are great. If you can find the Laphroaig Quarter Cask then that’s slightly less peaty having picked up more wood flavour from the smaller cask – it’s excellent and great value.

(As a side note, Ardbeg Uigeadail and Corryvreckan are two of the last good deals you can get at duty-free. For £50-£60 you will struggle to buy better whisky. The standard Ardbeg is good but these are great.)

The other big flavour is sherry, which comes in when the whisky is aged in casks that used to hold sherry. Whiskies like Aberlour and Glendronach taste of dried fruit and Christmas pudding and smell fantastic, so go in for something like that if that appeals. To check how sherried a whisky is, just look at how red the liquid is in the bottle, the more colour it has the more sherry flavour it has picked up from the whisky (unless it’s a cheap whisky that has had colour added).

But whatever you do, add some water, smell it before you taste it and hold it in your mouth for a while. You won’t be drinking a lot of whisky, or at least you won’t remember drinking a lot of whisky so savour the drinks you do remember and think about what you’re drinking.

 

Packrafting – Dalwhinnie to Aviemore

Last time we’d just left the Dalwhinnie distillery with another bottle of whisky and also 3 small tasting glasses. I had little to no hope that we would be able to transport these glasses intact across the Cairngorms but they were too nice not to try.

Nothing like an early morning whisky tasting to prepare for a day of rafting
Nothing like an early morning whisky tasting to prepare for a day of rafting

 

I should mention at this point that we were all fully convinced of the merits of an ultra-light approach to backpacking and were doing anything we could to make our packs lighter. I had stopped filling my water more than about half full since day 1 as there was water all around us. Quiller had perhaps taken things to extremes by not packing any form of mug, but Rob and I were very jealous of his extreme lightweight pack.

The plan from Dalwhinnie was to take the rafts along the river Truim until it met the Spey and then on to Newtonmore. This would be the first time taking the rafts on a moving body of water and we were fairly apprehensive about ending up going down rapids or over a waterfall or something but looking at the map and doing some research online it seemed like the only thing we had to worry about was the Falls of Truim about half way to Newtonmore.

We’d heard amazing things about how the rafts could float in 6 inches of water and looking at the map the river seemed like a fairly decent size so we decided to go for it. The clincher was that there was no other obvious route to the Spey that didn’t involve walking alongside a road. It had snowed heavily overnight and we fancied getting back in the boats.

Transitioning - we got this down to about 10 min by the end
Transitioning – we got this down to about 10 min by the end

What followed was a very frustrating and nerve-wracking hour or two as we partly floated and mostly walked down the river, dragging our rafts. Grounding out is not something you really want to do in inflatable boats but despite our best efforts to find the deeper water we couldn’t help but hit the bottom often.

This was probably the low point of the trip for me. The river meanders (as rivers do) and so we were covering tiny distances on the ground in exchange for a lot of effort. Having wet feet wasn’t a problem, David Hine’s recommended approach of woolly socks inside neoprene socks was excellent and kept everything warm. But trying to drag / carry the raft plus the large pack it had strapped to it was a challenge.

Quiller and I trying different body positions and lines in the river to get through the shallows
Quiller and I trying different body positions and lines in the river to get through the shallows. Life jackets not required

The river did get deeper though, and we were rewarded with our first short bits of fast water which were a lot of fun. I think we finally reached the Falls of Truim around 4.30 which was pretty good considering how slowly we covered the first few km. The Falls was definitely a portage for us considering the gear we were carrying and our lack of rafting experience but by then we were pretty cold and wet and tired and welcomed the chance to transition again and complete the journey on foot.

Transition complete. River is wider here but still pretty shallow
Transition complete. River is wider here but still pretty shallow

So we took on another route march for a couple of hours to get into Newtonmore. It was all along a cycle path next to a main road which wasn’t particularly interesting but did mean that we could put down a pretty solid pace and we were soon at the hostel in Newtonmore.

This is more what we were looking for: the Spey
This is more what we were looking for: the Spey

The hostel was great, the drying room was very welcome as was the hotel bar across the road where we feasted and I started drinking strawberry beer for some reason (it was on offer), before we headed back over to sit round the fire, drink whisky and impress Austrian tourists with how manly we were (very).

The next morning the plan was to get down to the Spey and take it all the way to Aviemore, maybe stopping for lunch at Loch Insh on the way. In the original plan we had thought about taking a taxi from Dalwhinnie up to Kingussie or Loch Insh, but we were a day ahead of schedule and decided to keep going under human power.

We were finally on the Spey and it was a much better river for rafting than the Truim, the first hour or so was really enjoyable as we could sit and float downstream. It’s great to be able to just take a a break but keep moving towards the goal.

Great not to have worry about hitting the bottom
Great not to have worry about hitting the bottom

Rob had somehow managed to put a small hole in the top of his raft when packing it up one day so we had a small stop to repair it but repair it we did. Not easy to do in the snow but a combination of toilet paper and ethanol managed to dry the raft enough for the patch to stick.

As the day continued though the weather got steadily worse as the wind picked up and the snow showers became more and more intense. Due to the large tubes riding high of the water the rafts are not good in wind – great when it’s with you, but unless the river is a dead straight line (like Loch Ericht) then it can get pretty tricky. We persevered for a while until none of us was having any fun and we were finding it difficult to make progress. So it was time to transition and get walking again.

Scottish weather is ridiculous
Scottish weather is ridiculous

This was tough, the ground was soft and boggy and the weather alternated between snow and strong wind and bright sunshine. Scotland really is generous with giving you all of its weather. It was frustrating to have to follow the meanders of the river, but there was no way we could have cut across the softer lower ground. The last bit did involve finding a path through a pretty deep bog but we got through and eventually made it to Loch Insh around 3pm. We had a massive amount of food and a few beers in the sailing club cafe and as we watched the wind coming across the loch we decided that we could probably just get a taxi the last stretch to Aviemore.

It was a shame to not be able to cover the whole distance under our own power, but none of us really fancied trying to raft in that wind or walking alongside a road for 2 hours. Especially after burgers, macaroni cheese and pudding. It is amazing how fast a car is when you have been walking and rafting.

We checked in to the Old Bunk House in Aviemore and started to work out what we were going to do the next day. The weather for crossing the Cairngorms was looking dangerous so we needed to get some more information and potentially come up with a back up plan.

Packrafting continued – Corrour to Dalwhinnie

Previously

Rob had ordered up some rafts for us from packrafting.de (cheaper to get them from there rather than Scotland for some reason) and booked tickets on the sleeper so we were definitely on.  Lots of discussion over email on what kit we needed and what we were all buying (basically lots) and we finally met up at my office after work on Friday to do our final packing with the rafts.

It was immediately apparent that these bags were pretty heavy and I think we were all surprised / scared just how heavy they were, no going back though… We had dinner at the Scotch Malt Whisky Society and then headed to Euston to catch the sleeper to Glasgow. Getting the bags onto the train was not easy and there was just about room for us in our bunk with the packs as well. Special mention here goes to the lounge car on the train and in particular the reasonably priced cheeseboard.

Changed train at Glasgow and on to Corrour. By this stage we were all nervous about stepping off: weather forecast was terrible, the packs were really heavy and we had a fair way to go before dark, but we did step off to be greeted by this fantastic sign at Corrour station:

You're on your own...
You’re on your own…

We walked for about 10-15 min until I noticed that Quiller had had enough of the heavy load and ditched his packraft. This did make the walking easier but would surely make the water-bourne sections more difficult.

Losing the raft would have been a bad start
Losing the raft would have been a bad start

Back up to the full flotilla we settled into a decent pace and soon adjusted to the weight.  Scenery was fantastic and we were eager to get deeper into the hills. All pictures by the way are courtesy of Rob.Packrafting-6

There was some construction work going on at the far end of Loch Ossian, putting in a new hydroelectric plant and we also saw a few people who were staying at the YHA on the loch. The works meant that though our map said that the path went across a river, getting across now actually meant a pretty large detour to get up to a point where it was fordable.

Not convinced by what Quiller's doing here
If only we had some sort of boat with us…

We were probably over cautious due to having just started and also the size of the packs but the river was flowing fast and was coming up to waist level in places. In the end we found a spot where it was a bit slower and shallower and crossing was reasonably straightforward, felt like an achievement though. Most of us kept our clothes on as well, not sure what Quiller’s up to in that photo.

Later on in the day I showed a lot less patience in walking straight through a river, this left me with wet boots for the rest of the trip and was pretty stupid (they would have got wet anyway though). It was a long afternoon of walking and the final stretch down to the bothy seemed to go on forever. We could see exactly where it was but it just didn’t seem to be getting any closer. Finally we reached it at around 7 I think, having walked pretty much solidly since about 11.

"The bothy's just down by the water there"
“The bothy’s just down by the water there”
Finally the bothy
Finally the bothy

We had the bothy to ourselves and the next morning all woke up with aching shoulders and legs. Luckily however the wind was in the right direction and not too strong so we inflated the rafts and set sail for the first time.

helmet wasn't really necessary
helmet wasn’t really necessary

It felt a lot better to have the packs on the rafts rather than on our backs and breaking up the journey like this is one of the great things about packrafting. The wind was in the right direction to blow us up Loch Ericht, there was no one else to be seen and we even got some sunshine on occasion.

Packrafting GP-3We hadn’t got used yet to quite how generous Scotland is with its weather – it has a lot of different weather options and likes people to experience all of them, preferably during the same day. So we would think about stopping during a bright patch, only for it to immediately start snowing.

We were planning to wild camp somewhere near the Loch that evening but after we stopped basically at the helipad of Ben Alder Lodge (a very strange place) we realised that with a couple of hours of walking we could stay inside in Dalwhinnie.

Looking back towards Ben Alder Lodge
Looking back towards Ben Alder Lodge

This was a pretty tough route march but I was very glad we did it. The Dalwhinnie bunkhouse had clean beds, showers, cold beers and an unbelievable breakfast the next morning. The owner couldn’t have been happier to see us a day early and looked  after us very well. Next morning started with a visit of the distillery (would have been rude not to) although tours were booked up due to the arrival of a coachload of welsh indian visitors which we didn’t expect. The bottle of triple distilled Dalwhinnie served us very well on the trip, delicious whisky which I highly recommend. The plan was then to raft along the river Truim to Newtonmore, and this was the first real test of the rafts and our rafting skills…

 

 

Packrafting through Scotland – the beginning

For a couple of years now I’ve been reading about packrafting and thinking of how to get into it, my friend Rob (who came on the January microadventure) has been banging on about it for ages. We made it up to Aviemore in November one year (2012?) hoping to do a packrafting course with backcountrybiking.co.uk but their insurance wouldn’t cover us at that time of year and we ended up going kayaking instead. We’re all getting older with other commitments intruding into our lives and maybe this spurred Rob around New Year to send an email declaring 2015 as the year of the packraft:

Lads – I think 2015 is going to be the year of the packraft.
What would be your appetite to try a week in Scotland in late April / early May? Starting in the West, making our way East….I’m open to doing either packrafting (walking and rafting) or even bike packing (cycling and rafting).
Nothing set in stone yet, just wondered whether this is something anyone would want to have a crack at.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d5LuvLA4W08 – Packrafts in action, although I don’t plan on running any real hardcore whitewater

I answered the rallying call along with another friend of ours from uni, Quiller and we started to put together a plan. After a couple of afternoons looking through lots of maps, plotting bothy locations on Google Maps and Bing Maps and reading river guides we had a potential route. In hindsight this route was incredibly ambitious, it’s very easy to say we might as well knock off some Munros while we’re there, but these sorts of thoughts disappeared pretty much as soon as we tried on our fully loaded packs. We also massively underestimated just how severe the weather could get in the Highlands in April and we did not even attempt to get over the top of any Munros.

Rob got in touch with David Hine to ask for his view on our plans. David has some incredible trip reports on his blog and was a big inspiration in us actually getting this trip organised. He was very helpful and wrote Rob a long reply, which was generally supportive although sounded some sensible notes of caution:

Snow and ice in general can still be extensive during April in the Cairngorms…not that that’s a reason to change your plans, just be prepared for it,…that can also make some parts of the rivers more threatening….

So the plan was to leave work on Friday and get the overnight sleeper train to Corrour, walking from there to Ben Alder Bothy on the Saturday. Sunday we would head up towards Culra Bothy (annoyingly closed due to asbestos) and wild camp. Monday would take us to Dalwhinnie before on Tuesday getting a taxi / bus / train towards Loch Insh and then rafting into Aviemore. Wednesday we head south towards Braemar, getting there on Friday. Saturday we would meet up with my wife and her sister and raft along the Dee towards Balmoral before heading over to my parents at Aviemore. That was the plan, what we did deviated from that slightly, route map here.

The trip was fantastic. I will explain in later posts what made it fantastic and also what I would do in the future to make similar trips even more fantastic.

Taking a break after our first packrafting session
Taking a break after our first packrafting session

Settlers of Catan + Man of Aran

Founding the new country, working hard

Settlers of Catan was the gateway game for me and the one the made me realise that boardgames didn’t have to be rubbish fun traps. It’s probably the most well known ‘good’ board game now and for good reason. It’s pretty easy to pick up, every player is involved a lot of the time and there are a lot of different ways to win meaning that you often have to change your strategy throughout the game. It’s also unusual in that the board is a collection of hexagon tiles which are arranged in different ways each time, so each game is different.

Catan is all about colonising new land, making bricks, bringing in the wheat and chopping down wood. The music choice for this is by one of my favourite bands ever: British Sea Power.

British Sea Power are a very rural band and many of their songs are about nature (sample song titles: “Apologies to Insect Life”, “Favours in the Beetroot Fields”, “Oh Larsen B”, “The Great Skua”). They’re incredible live, I saw them at Oxford Brookes and most of the crowd had attached foliage to their clothes. The band climbed around the scaffolding, at one point I think there was a guy in a bear suit, it was fantastic.

They’ve also done some interesting soundtracks for some great documentaries. Highly recommended is “Happiness” about a child in Bhutan who goes from his village with his dad to bring back a TV which have just been allowed into the country. This choice though is “Man of Aran”, a 1934 film for which British Sea Power wrote a new soundtrack. It’s epic and fits perfectly with the game. It always seems like the tension picks up in the music at just the right time. The film is great as well.

So get Catan out, and put Sea Power on.

Brecon Glamping Microadventure

I think this counts as a microadventure. It didn’t involve wild camping or sleeping outside but there was a fair amount of walking, some of it in pretty terrible conditions so I’m counting it as the February entry in the year of adventure.

We’d been given a voucher for Canopy and Stars by some friends for our wedding and had finally gotten around to actually booking somewhere. A lot of places on that site need you to book for a week or a minimum of 3 nights which is a bit frustrating but eventually we found somewhere after speaking to the company.

We booked two nights at the Shepherd’s Hut at Argoed, near Brecon

The Shepherd's Hut
You can’t see the massive house just out of shot, but the hut is far enough away to feel private
The inside of the hut
Very cosy, incredibly warm with the fire + underfloor heating

So plan was to leave work earlyish on Friday, get the train out to Reading where we would pick up a hire car and then drive to Brecon. I got the hire car through Budget, a 10min walk from Reading station for the great price of £41 until Sunday afternoon. There wasn’t a problem or extra charge with dropping it off out of hours either so this worked out perfectly and something I’d definitely look at doing again.

Saturday we got up fairly early to a cooked breakfast in the main house and then drove into the park to attempt a fairly ambitious walk around the Brecon Beacons. The weather was not good, it had been snowing the past few days and visibility was very poor when we got out of the car. I was excited and up for the challenge of some more difficult navigation and conditions but I probably underestimated just how bad it could be.

Walking on a bearing
Not a huge amount to work off here…

As we got up to Corn Du the wind was coming in very strongly and the snow was quite thick. I don’t have any photos as neither of us really wanted to hang around and take photos. Sarah had injured herself earlier slipping on the snow and so we decided to come down off the hill and cut the walk short. We walked down past a lot of people heading up in jeans and trainers – not sure they knew what they were letting themselves in for. Everyone else along the ridge was in full Goretex plus crampons. Once you got down out of the cloud the weather was pretty reasonable though, amazing the difference up at the top.

That cloud contains bad things
Looks ok down here…

So back to the hut and then later we walked down to the Felin Fach Griffen for dinner. This is a great gastropub with fantastic food which was a lot better than I was expecting in a random Welsh village.

The next day the weather wasn’t much better so we decided on a low level walk to the waterfall at Sgwd yr Eira. This is a big waterfall which you can actually walk around the back of and was good to go and see. It was interesting seeing the remains of gunpowder works along the way as well and to see the different varieties of landscape. This walk worked out a bit longer than expected though as we took a wrong turning at one point, deceived by what looked like a place to cross the river. After weighing up our chances of wading across or building some sort of bridge or stepping stones we doubled back on ourselves, adding about an extra 45min to the walk. This was a lesson to carry more food than you think you’ll need – by the end I was starving. However, I can vouch that a long walk outside will do wonders for hangovers brought on by excessive wine, beer, food and whisky.

So despite the lack of any camping, I’m going to call this my February microadventure. I’ll be looking for an excuse to go back to the Brecon beacons as we had a great time.

What would I do differently next time?

  • Give more respect to the weather forecast and adjust plans where necessary – should have come up with a different walk for the Saturday
  • Be sure on where river crossings are
  • Carry more food than I think I’ll need

Burns Night Toast to the Lassies

I was asked / told to give the toast to the lassies at my rugby club Burns night. I looked quite extensively online for tips and example toasts but nothing was that good so, in the hope that it might help someone else out here’s the toast that I gave, or at least the toast that I wrote beforehand.

Good evening Ladies and Gentlemen. For those who don’t know me my name is Rob Mitchell and I play second row for the 1st XV. I also compile the statistics for the 1st XV, noting how many appearances players have made and so because I love statistics I note that this is the third Burns night I can remember attending here and since my first appearance I’ve learnt not to wear a kilt to these occasions and John Hines has learnt not to ask me in front of assembled dignitaries to prove whether I am a true Scotsman in my wearing of said kilt…

So when David Dick asked me to give the Toast to the Lassies, I said I’d think about it but wasn’t sure if I could do it… he then thanked me for agreeing to do it and here we are. I have to confess that despite being born in Glasgow and with parents living in Aberdeen I had to go and look up what was expected from the Toast to the Lassies. My hopes were immediately dashed when I realised it had nothing to do with those incredible dogs who save so many children from abandoned mine shafts every year, or the Guildford RFC backline.

Scotland still being just part of Britain I went to the BBC site which describes the Toast to the Lassies as “the humorous highlight of any Burns Night”. I’m not sure who wrote that but no pressure I suppose… at least not if you’ve spent the rest of this evening sitting on Rory Andrews’s table.

The BBC goes on to say that this toast “is designed to praise the role of women in the world today. This should be done by selective quotation from Burns’s work and should build towards a positive note.” I don’t know if that means I should start on a negative note or something. However one important point that the BBC does not mention is that in preparation the speaker should spend 80min running round a muddy field getting his head kicked in, followed by 4 hours of aggressive drinking, but we can all read between the lines here.

Here at Guildford we are lucky to be able to count on the involvement of many women, from the players in the mighty Gazelles, to coaches, physios, administrators, volunteers, bar and catering staff and supporters. Not to mention those partners of players who put up with weekend disruption as Saturdays (or Sundays) are spent playing and then the rest of the weekend involves their partner lying around in pain and asking for back rubs. I’m glad and proud to be part of a club which has such an active involvement from the other 50% of the population.

So on to Robert Burns. He was a big fan of women but however not such a big fan of responsibility, commitment or the withdrawal method and is thought to have fathered somewhere between 12 and 16 children with at least 4 women before he died at the age of 37. For a fan of statistics such as myself the implications of that are pretty mind-boggling. Assuming that there were no twins, that’s 1 child every year since the age of 20.

I’ve never really read much Robert Burns but I started looking through his work to prepare some of those selective quotations that the BBC recommends and was struck by how alive a lot of those poems and songs felt. You can really get a sense of the person behind the writing and the 16 children by 4 women in 20 years seems less outlandish. I am no Burns scholar but reading some of this stuff and picturing the man behind it, it seemed like there were three types of writing that Burns did.

First up are those poems where Burns is delighting in his conquests and showing what a lad he is. This one is thought to be inspired by Elisabeth Paton, a servant girl who worked in the Burns household:

My girl she’s airy, she’s buxom and gay,
Her breath is as sweet as the blossoms in May;
A touch of her lips it ravishes quite.
She’s always good natur’d, good humor’d, and free;
She dances, she glances, she smiles with a glee;
Her eyes are the lightenings of joy and delight:
Her slender neck, her handsome waist,
Her hair well buckl’d, her stays well lac’d,
Her taper white leg with an et, and a, c,
For her a, b, e, d, and her c, u, n, t,
And Oh! For the joys of a long winter night!!!

The second type of verse has a long lineage and was all too easy for a rugby player to recognise. No doubt many here are familiar with the story of the man who used to have a retail job in Chicago but lost it due to many misunderstandings with female customers and the items they came into the store looking for. Or the joys of being a Rifle Ranger, or the bear that I know that you don’t know, and so on and so on. If you were in the vicinity of the A3 between Gosport and here this evening it’s possible you may have heard some of these stories set to music…

It’s impossible to read something like Coming through the Rye (chorus:

O gin a body meet a body,
Comin’ throu the rye:
Gin a body fuck a body,
Need a body cry.)

Or the fantastically crude “Nine Inch will please a lady”:

`Come rede me, dame, come tell me, dame,
`My dame come tell me truly,
`What length o’ graith, when weel ca’d hame,
`Will sair a woman duly?’

The carlin clew her wanton tail,
Her wanton tail sae ready
I learn’d a sang in Annandale,
Nine inch will please a lady.

and not imagine Robert Burns and his mates getting pretty severely boozed before launching into drunken renditions of these and several others.

Now the BBC says that this toast should build towards a positive note so after reciting some of Burns’s cruder work (John Hines might be wishing that he’d asked me to prove my Scots heritage instead now…) I’d like to look at the final category of Burns’s work, those poems which go furthest to explain the multitude of women he was involved with. It is easy to imagine the average standard of wooing from farmers in 18th Century Ayrshire and then the success that someone would have with verses like these from “O Saw ye Bonie Lesley”.

To see her is to love her,
And love but her for ever;
For Nature made her what she is
And never made anither.

Thou art a queen, fair Lesley,
Thy subjects we, before thee:
Thou art divine, fair Lesley,
The hearts o’ men adore thee.

So to conclude, would you please be upstanding and I’d like to finish with some final words from Burns as we toast to the lassies:

Old Nature swears, the lovely dears
Her noblest work she classes, O:
Her prentice hand she tried on man,
And then she made the lassies, O.

Best Brompton Improvements

I’ve been riding my Brompton for about 7 years now, commuting to and from work about 25min each way. I’ve also done a few longer trips with it including a trip from London to Aberdeen, riding about 60 miles each day. So I think I’ve put some pretty serious mileage on it and have learnt a bit about what on it is good and what can be improved.

When I bought it, my Brompton was an M6L. That is it had the classic U shaped handlebars, 6 gears and lights and a rear rack. The lights were the bottle dynamo type, powered by a small wheel rubbing against the rear tyre and that was the first thing I got rid of. I didn’t really want the L type but I needed to get the bike in a bit of a rush (before the Scotland trip) and that was what was available at a reasonable price. The bottle dynamo is a waste of time, so much so that I think it has been discontinued. It would often flick on when going over a bump and seemed to make cycling a lot harder. LED lights are cheap and the batteries last a long time so they are a much better option.

Having said that, one good thing about the dynamo light is that the front light is mounted down near the wheel and is not obstructed by any luggage you might have. When using handlebar lights in conjunction with a large bag, the bag can obstruct the light, meaning that there is a shadow about 9 feet in front of you.

As mentioned above, LED lights are cheap so I have several on my bike. I keep a couple of Electron Backupz on for emergencies and as my main lights I have a Cateye Nanoshot on the front and the Moon Gem 3.0 on the back. Both of these are USB rechargeable which is essential for a commuter and the Nanoshot is bright enough to illuminate a dark road. I’ve had them for a couple of years and they are both great.

Another major improvement I’ve made is swapping out the basic foam grips for some Ergon GP3 grips. I cannot recommend these enough and Brompton should be offering them as an option. You have to cut them down to get them to fit (and it helps if you have the 2014 brake levers with the narrower bracket) but they will fit and not interfere with the fold, at least if you have the rack. They are incredibly comfortable and I can’t imagine going back to something else. On the trip to Scotland, my hands probably suffered more than anything and I wish I had had these then.

I was so impressed with the grips that I went back to Ergon for some pedals and got a pair of their PC2s. I only actually use the right pedal as I keep the folding one on the left but you can’t buy just one pedal… The main benefit of these is that they are flat – I found the standard Brompton pedal could tear up my shoe a fair bit, the problem is less on the folding pedal as the spindle area is larger.

This one might seem minor but has made a difference: a metal chain guard from Tiller Cycles. I was having issues with my plastic one coming loose, falling off and cracking so after seeing these on My Orange Brompton I bought one, and again it’s great. Makes the bike look better and I never worry about knocking it loose with my shoe.

Other changes I’ve made have mainly been to take advantage of the development that Brompton is doing. One of the best things about Brompton is that you can buy every individual part should you so wish so it is easy to upgrade and replace items. So over the years I have…

  • Swapped the standard tyres for Marathon plus on the back and Kojak on the front, then just Marathon plus on both as punctures are a real pain. The old Marathon plus seems to be better than the new one…
  • Upgraded the brake levers to the ones Brompton brought out in 2013-14. These are much much better
  • Upgraded the hub to the wide range version. To be honest I didn’t notice much difference with this and probably wouldn’t bother again. You don’t need as many gears as you think
  • When I got the new hub on, I had a new style rim put on as well. I’m pretty heavy and I kept breaking spokes on the rear wheel but since having the new rim (which is meant to have more sympathetic angles for the spokes) I haven’t had any problems
  • Replacement rear triangle when the bike shop spotted a crack in it, this Brompton replaced for free (credit to Simpsons Cycles for spotting the issue)
  • Added the EZ wheels to the rear rack. Again these are much better than the standard ones

Bromptons are fantastic machines, but they can be improved. If you do one thing to yours put the Ergon grips on. It is very easy to do and a step change in comfort when cycling, especially if you are like me and have the seat above the level of the handlebars, resulting in a lot of weight going through your hands and wrists.

Brompton on the way to Aberdeen
Coming up to Dundee I think – before I replaced the grips (or much else)