So last weekend, inspired by Alastair Humphreys we went on an adventure across the South Downs. I’ve read a lot of AH’s reports on microadventures and while he is very strong on the reasons for going and doing one, how much fun it is and how easy it is, he is a little light on the specific details of going about one. This post then is intended as both a record of our adventure, and a guide to anyone thinking of doing something similar.
The first thing to note is that the start of the adventure is not when you step off the train, or when you leave your house, it’s much earlier than that. It starts with planning where to go and ensuring you have the necessary equipment. AH is rightly very keen to lower the bar on doing a microadventure as far as possible, but in my view there are a few bits of specialised kit you will need – especially if you are trying to convince your sceptical wife to come along with you:
- A warm sleeping bag. We’d previously spent a cold night not sleeping very much in our cheap synthetic bags and decided that wasn’t worth repeating. We therefore invested in Enlightened Equipment quilts from the US (review here). These are crazy warm and incredibly light compared to our old bags
- Bivvy bags. These are pretty essential to microadventures and the no-tent ethos
- A tarp. This is theoretically not necessary if you have a bivvy bag, but I really enjoy setting up a basha with the tarp, using just cord and some sticks and pegs. It’s also great to have a dry place to enjoy the scenery
The next step is then deciding where to go. We live in London and so the obvious choice was the South Downs – it’s easily accessible without a car. I did some googling for a route that would combine a good walk with a pleasant pub for dinner and a good spot for a wild camp and came upon this old article which seemed perfect. Finally I bought the relevant OS map, did some route planning to check timings and worked out when we would need to leave on Saturday morning.
We ended up getting the train at 0815 out of Victoria down to Shoreham, taking our McMuffins on the train with us. At 940 we started walking out of Shoreham, towards the South Downs Way.
In retrospect, I would probably try and get the bus to to the start of the south downs way, rather than have the hour long walk from the station.
We climbed the south downs and headed east, keeping the high-rises of Brighton on our right. The path was busy with cyclists and other walkers but I don’t think any of them were planning to sleep out there that evening. We walked for a couple of hours and then stopped for a lunch of snack eggs, oatcakes and cheese.
A couple more hours of walking took us past Devil’s Dyke and down to the Hiker’s Rest. This is a great little van in the grounds of a National Trust farm doing fantastic food and drinks. We stayed there for an hour but could have stayed longer. A theme of this day was that we did too much walking and not enough stopping. It was then another couple of hours along the downs and finally down to Ditchling. This last stretch was pretty tough going, having been able to see the town for so long from the top of the downs, it was depressing to find out how slowly it came closer when down at ground level.
One of the best things about spending the day walking is that you feel completely justified in eating an incredible amount of food at the end. So that’s what I did. It did not make the walk back up to the top of Ditchling Beacon any easier. We ate in the White Horse pub which did great beer and average food but wasn’t showing the football, had a good selection of newspaper and didn’t complain when we took out shoes off. After checking the weather forecast, we decided we better head back up the hill if we wanted to pitch camp in the dry. The trip back up was a lot easier than I expected, amazing how a rest and some food improves things.
I’d read online that others had wild camped on the top of Ditchling Beacon and so I was fairly confident of finding a spot to sleep but the reality was a little more tricky. Wild Camping is technically illegal and so we wanted to find a secluded place to stop. We also wanted a view from our sleeping bags (otherwise what’s the point of being up there?) and since the south downs way runs right across the top of the slope, we settled for a spot on the north face of the beacon that was a lot further from flat than I would have liked. It was however secluded and there was a fantastic view, so with the light fading we settled for 2 out of 3.
We’d picked up a spare stick on the way up through the woods which came in really handy as a lifter on the back of the tarp, greatly increasing head room. It rained pretty heavily during the night but the combination of tarp and bivvy bag kept us bone dry. In fact I don’t think I even got my bivvy bag wet. The slope was an issue though and I was continually sliding down towards Ditchling. Things improved when I used my bag under my feet to counteract the slope, and improved further when I took my pad out from inside my bivvy bag. My pad is so thin I don’t often notice it anyway and the ground was probably soft enough to do without. That is definitely the next item to be upgraded.
I woke around 4 with sunrise and another incredible view. There were also some great bird songs around. I need to find the time to learn some bird songs and so identify what’s around. I can do lark, blackbird and pigeon but that’s about it.
It was still raining when we woke, and after sitting around wondering if it would stop, we bit the bullet and broke camp at 610. On a wild camp it’s a good idea to get going early before anyone finds you. It took us about an hour to get going and the walk was then a bit miserable. It was raining continuously and we were sore and tired from the day and night before. I found out just how slippery the chalk can be in the wet.
We got to Lewes in time for the 1020 train back to London. The last part of the walk being along a very narrow bridleway of chalky clay which had been ploughed up by horses and lined with wet grasses. This was probably my least favourite part of the walk but it had been preceded by some great scenery, this time looking south on the rolling downs. We were back home by 12, having walked 35km since 10am the previous morning.
What would I do differently next time?
- Not bother walking from Shoreham to the south downs way, would get the bus instead
- Take more and longer stops on the walk
- Not go down into Ditchling for dinner, we could have just cooked on top of the hill and spent more time finding a good place to camp
- Take a different route into Lewes to avoid that last path
All great learnings for the next microadventure – I am completely sold on the concept, just need to work on the execution.