Hiking Bow Brickhill, south of Milton Keynes [January’s outdoor day]

Rich with my dog ready to start

Over the last two years, my outdoor time has been very hit and miss – I have only had a few irregular, albeit lovely, weekend outdoor trips, and even the more routine local dog walks has been severely reduced (much to the disgust of my dog). Ultimately I have been getting the balance between being on a computer and being outdoors all wrong.

So this year I set myself two outdoor related resolutions. The first one is to go for a walk each day (ideally with the dog) – distance or location are unimportant, it can be a late night dog walk around the village or a 15 mile hike up a mountain. All that matters is that I get off the computer and go outdoors! The second resolution is to plan an outdoor day (or weekend) each month.

This month I thought I would ease myself in gently and take the dog on a hike around the local countryside – by chance I discovered that Rich (@FlintyRich), who lives relatively local to me, was at a loose end, so we arranged to meet up at The Grand Union Three Locks in Stock Hammond (south of Milton Keynes) the following morning.

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Climbing my highest mountain to date (Foel Grach) with @FlintyRich

Yr-aryg featuring Flinty Rich

“I don’t mind, just don’t kill me!”.  That was my response to Rich (@FlintyRich) when asked what I wanted to do for a planned weekend together in Snowdonia. It seemed important – Rich, who is a self confessed addict of bagging peaks on Social Hiking (411 to date this year), spends most weekends up in the mountains, whereas I am lucky to see a mountain more than a handful of times a year (let alone climb one) and recently work commitments and my health had combined to restrict my outdoors time (and therefore my fitness). “How about Northern Carneddau? It’s quite gentle” he suggested….

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An alternative commute – hiking to work

Morning coffee on the way to work #alternativecommute

For a couple of days a week, I am often based on-site at a customer’s office in Stony Stratford, just over 8 miles (by road) from my house. We are a one car family, which naturally means I do not get use of the car, so I have to travel in by bus. As I live in a village with only one bus route, this involves catching the 9am bus* to Wolverton (another nearby town) then waiting around at a bus interchange for a connecting bus to Stony Stratford, arriving by 10am.

(* due to a very odd  bus rota, the bus driver who picks us up has to go  on his break at the next village, so we have to swap buses – it still counts as a single bus on the timetable though!)

Earlier in the week I was idly day dreaming over a local OS map when it occurred to me that after only 10 minutes on that first bus, we pass though Castlethorpe, a village that is only 4 miles (by road) (3 miles by crow) from my final destination, and the countryside between is actually rather pleasant – two river valleys (one is the Great River Ouse) and the Grand Union Canal. Why don’t I walk to work?

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Outdoor wild swimming in Northamptonshire

Daniel Martin - swimming near Tansor, Northamptonshire
River Nene near Tansor (Photo by Daniel Martin - used with permission)
River Nene near Tansor (Photo by Daniel Martin – used with permission)

I always think Northamptonshire gets forgotten when it comes to outdoor activities. For the first few years I subscribed to Countryfile Magazine I religiously collected, ordered and stored the ten route cards included each month – whilst almost every part of the country was covered, there was not a single route in Northamptonshire!

Whilst Northamptonshire may not have any mountains (or indeed any hills of note), moors or other ‘exciting’ landscapes, I find it a really nice place to walk – peaceful farmland, picturesque villages, hidden woodlands (and more obvious woodland like Salcey Forest just around the corner from me), stately homes, canals and rivers. And it is quiet – you pretty much have the footpaths to yourself once you outside the dog walking perimeter of the villages.

So it was with some excitement that I spotted ‘Northamptonshire’ mentioned in a Google+ post in my outdoor circle – and not just a passing mention… Daniel Martin (his Google+ profile), an extreme athlete with plans to become the first man in history to swim the Atlantic, was describing a stretch of the River Nene near Tansor, Northamptonshire as his favourite place to swim in the world! (you can view the post on Daniel’s site  – you will need to scroll down a bit).

Daniel Martin - swimming near Tansor, Northamptonshire
Daniel Martin – swimming near Tansor, Northamptonshire (Photo by Daniel Martin – used with permission)

Wow.

It was only last year that I discovered the joys of wild swimming (or in my case wild bobbing about) – after accidentally choosing a hike in Brecon Beacons that was part of Trail Magazine’s series on wild swimming hikes, followed the following day by a dip in a waterfall plunge pool on this brilliant waterfall walk in south Brecon Beacons. I have never felt more alive or in touch with the outdoors than when I was sitting on the bank drying out with my whole body (literally) buzzing from the experience. This year trips have been few and far between, although I did introduce my partner’s daughter to wild swimming in the Tavy Cleeve on Dartmoor, so discovering there is an excellent swimming spot somewhere just down the road from me  means I can have the chance to go for a dip more often. Although he may have been joking, Daniel has invited me to join him for a swim one day – apparently it is more beautiful the colder it gets!!

Me swimming in the Tavy Cleeve, Dartmoor
Me swimming in the Tavy Cleeve, Dartmoor

And it is great to see Northamptonshire get some recognition for outdoor activities.

You can read more about Daniel, his expeditions and his experiences outdoors, on his website, and you can follow him on Google Plus and Twitter (he is using the hashtag #MyFaveSwims for the series on his favourite swimming spots).

Tempted to go hiking in Northamptonshire? Check out the Northamptonshire Round – a route around Northamptonshire including some of the best parts created by a bunch of hikers keen to show off what Northamptonshire has to offer. There are also loads of resources on Google.

(Many thanks to Daniel Martin for permission to use his photos)

Adventures in Devon and Cornwall

Despite being only a short break, my recent family trip to Devon and Cornwall was certainly adventure packed. Although we were only away for 6 days, we managed to fit in: crabbing in Looe, watching stormy seas in Polperro, a visit to Plymouth Hoe, exploring rock pools on Seaton beach, walks, swimming and a wild camp on Dartmoor, body boarding in Salcombe and a visit to the largest waterfall in England. Here is a quick write up of some of the things we got up to.

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A 17 mile hike through the farmland and woodland of Northamptonshire (and Buckinghamshire)

Guard dog

The hike was hastily planned the night before – I fired up ViewRanger on my tablet, picked a local area I have not walked in much, quickly created a rough route and synced the route to my phone – in theory a 14.5 mile hike in and around Yardley Chase in Northamptonshire (and Buckinghamshire) leaving me plenty of time to get home for a bit of work (with the F1 in the background!)

The morning was a little more leisurely than planned – but eventually, after a bacon sandwich, the dog and I were packed into the car heading towards to Ravenstone, just East of Salcey Forest. The weather forecast was for strong winds and showers, however, other than a brief light shower, the rain held off and, whilst gusty, the wind was certainly bearable especially as it was surprisingly sunny (I was thankful I remembered my sun glasses!).

The first half of the walk followed The Milton Keynes Boundary Walk – from Ravenstone to Weston Underwood and then heading towards Bozeat. Being an official trail the route was well sign posted. Although a lot of the route was on quiet tracks, this was made up by some wonderful wood sections (through Kilwick Wood and Old Pastures) and high (for this neck of the woods) views across Buckinghamshire (and possibly Bedfordshire!!)

It is quite unusual to see fellow outdoor enthusiasts out in the countryside, other than a few dog walkers within sight of their villages. As I left Weston Underwood (after passing ‘The Knobs’, a fascinating feature on the main road out of the village) and headed up the bridleway track I was passed by a group of mountain bikers – a rare site in this part of the world.

The Knobs

For a short while, the track was left behind as the trail winded it’s way through Kilwick Wood – I prefer these private managed woods (usually managed for shooting) than the more heavily managed Forestry Commission ones – they just seem wilder and more interesting. The path soon rejoined another quiet track leading to Olney Park Farm and a variety of turkeys, clearly unaware of the fate that lies ahead of them!

Kilwick Wood

After another easy to follow path through some fields, the route entered another wood – Old Pastures. Judging by the signs, the majority of the wood is used as a firing range, but I found a peaceful spot at the junction of several paths for lunch. Guarded by the dog, I settled down against a huge Horse Chestnut tree as I boiled up some soup and put on a brew.

Guard dog

At Horn Wood it was time to leave the Milton Keynes Boundary Walk to head back towards Yardley Chase. Just off the path, well away from any roads or other buildings, was a derelict barn with a remains of some kind of walled garden. I find these old ruined buildings fascinating – what were they used for? Why were they left to go to ruin? Who still visits it? (there was a well worn path through the undergrowth into it!)

At Yardley Hastings, I took another lunch break – basking in the sun on a bench on the village green. I was tempted to pop into the friendly looking pub, but unfortunately I only had enough money on me for a single pint, and I was saving that for the end of the walk! The path from Yardley Hastings into Yardley Chase, which I have walked before, is a rather dull road, but eventually I entered the estate proper (making friends with some huge pigs on the way). The estate is some kind of nature reserve – with information signs about some of the wildlife and plant life. Yardley Chase is also used for cadet training – the last time I passed through, I was accompanied by the sound of machine gun fire!

Pig Friends

As the path turned to the South back towards Ravenstone, my feet began to tire. Checking ViewRanger, I noticed that my rough and ready route was a little too inaccurate as I was already approaching 17 miles. Reaching the car I felt completely justified to pop into Cowpers Oak in Weston Underwood for a pint of A380.

It was an enjoyable hike around some quiet and tranquil countryside – I was also mighty impressed with my Defy+ phone: I was running ViewRanger recording a track, BuddyBeacon pinging every 5 minutes and the Audible app running continuously, as well as taking photos and sending / receiving tweets. By the end the battery had only just gone yellow (less than 30%) (with a PowerMonkey Extreme top up at lunch time).

Brecon Beacons Day 3 – Waterfalls!!

I love waterfalls. There is something so soothing and peaceful about the constant motion of water partnered with the natural splendour of water surging downwards. I also love forests. My ‘happy place’ would almost certainly be a waterfall in a forest (although I am yet to find a real world location that suits), so I was very excited when, back in May, I came across this waterfall walk on Surfnslide featuring several spectacular waterfalls. I added it to my ever-growing collection of routes in Evernote*, so I had it handy when I was planning this Brecon Beacons trip.

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Brecon Beacons Day 2 – Fan Frynych, Fan Dringarth and Fan Fawr

Thanks largely to one too many of the aptly named ‘Hikers Ruin’ I had consumed the night before and the fantastic breakfast my hosts had produced, day 2 was quite a late start! I wanted to head out onto the part of the Brecon Beacons just west of A470 but the lingering headache was making it hard to concentrate on the map, so in the end I download a free route on ViewRanger published by Trail Magazine.

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Brecon Beacons Day 1 – Corn Du, Pen y Fan, Cribyn and Fan y Big

Sheltering on Fan y Big

Whenever I am heading towards Wales there is always a point in the journey when everything seems better – after days on end of sitting in front of my computer working, my shoulders loosen, my mind clears and my mood lightens. It is the point in the journey when, after cresting yet another nondescript English hill, you suddenly see the hills and mountains of Wales laid out before you.

In this case I was driving down the A438 heading towards Brecon, on the edge of Brecon Beacons. It was the weekend of the annual Brecon Jazz festival which, in my younger days, I used to attend fairly regularly. This year I was combining spending some quality time with some old friends (and drinking the best homebrew brewed by my friend’s dad), with some much need quality time on the hills.

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