There’s a perception that a blog is a long-lived, ongoing thing. That it lives with and alongside its author.1
But that doesn’t have to be true, and I think a lot of people could benefit from “short-term” blogging. Consider:
Photoblogging your holiday, rather than posting snaps to social media
You gain the ability to add context, crosslinking, and have permanent addresses (rather than losing eveything to the depths of a feed). You can crosspost/syndicate to your favourite
socials if that’s your poison..
Blogging your studies, rather than keeping your notes to yourself
Writing what you learn helps you remember it; writing what you learn in a public space helps others learn too and makes it easy to search for your discoveries later.2
Recording your roleplaying, rather than just summarising each session to your fellow players
My D&D group does this at levellers.blog! That site won’t continue to be updated forever – the party will someday retire or, more-likely, come to a glorious but horrific end – but
it’ll always live on as a reminder of what we achieved.
One of my favourite examples of such a blog was 52 Reflect3 (now integrated into its successor The Improbable Blog). For 52 consecutive weeks my partner‘s brother Robin
blogged about adventures that took him out of his home in London and it was amazing. The project’s finished, but a blog was absolutely the right medium for it because now it’s got a
“forever home” on the Web (imagine if he’d posted instead to Twitter, only for that platform to turn into a flaming turd).
I don’t often shill for my employer, but I genuinely believe that the free tier on WordPress.com is an excellent
way to give a forever home to your short-term blog4.
Did you know that you can type new.blog (or blog.new; both work!) into your browser to start one?
What are you going to write about?
1This blog is, of course, an example of a long-term blog. It’s been going in
some form or another for over half my life, and I don’t see that changing. But it’s not the only kind of blog.
2 Personally, I really love the serendipity of asking a web search engine for the solution
to a problem and finding a result that turns out to be something that I myself wrote, long ago!
4 One of my favourite features of WordPress.com is the fact that it’s built atop the
world’s most-popular blogging software and you can export all your data at any time, so there’s absolutely no lock-in: if you want to migrate to a competitor or even host your own
blog, it’s really easy to do so!
We’ve missed out on or delayed a number of trips and holidays over the last year and a half for, you know, pandemic-related reasons. So this summer, in addition to our trip to Lichfield, we arranged a series of back-to-back expeditions.
1. Alton Towers
The first leg of our holiday saw us spend a long weekend at Alton Towers, staying over at one of their themed hotels in between days at the water park and theme park:
2. Darwin Forest
The second leg of our holiday took us to a log cabin in the Darwin Forest Country Park for a week:
Kicking off the second week of our holiday, we crossed the Pennines to Preston to hang out with my family (with the exception of JTA,
who had work to do back in Oxfordshire that he needed to return to):
4. Forest of Bowland
Ruth and I then left the kids with my mother and sisters for a few days to take an “anniversary mini-break” of glamping in the gorgeous Forest of Bowland:
The children, back in Preston, were apparently having a whale of a time:
6. Suddenly, A Ping
The plan from this point was simple: Ruth and I would return to Preston for a few days, hang out with my family some more, and eventually make a leisurely return to Oxfordshire. But it
wasn’t to be…
I got a “ping”. What that means is that my phone was in close proximity to somebody else’s phone on 29 August and that other person subsequently tested positive for COVID-19.
My risk from this contact is exceptionally low. There’s only one place that my phone was in close proximity to the phone of anybody else outside of my immediate family, that
day, and it’s when I left it in a locker at the swimming pool near our cabin in the Darwin Forest. Also, of course, I’d been double-jabbed for a month and a half and I’m more-cautious
than most about contact, distance, mask usage etc. But my family are, for their own (good) reasons, more-cautious still, so self-isolating at Preston didn’t look like a possibility for
As soon as I got the notification we redirected to the nearest testing facility and both got swabs done. 8 days after possible exposure we ought to have a detectable viral
load, if we’ve been infected. But, of course, the tests take a day or so to process, so we still needed to do a socially-distanced pickup of the kids and all their stuff from Preston
and turn tail for Oxfordshire immediately, cutting our trip short.
The results would turn up negative, and subsequent tests would confirm that the “ping” was a false positive. And in an ironic twist, heading straight home actually put us
closer to an actual COVID case as Ruth’s brother Owen turned out to have contracted the bug at almost exactly the same time and had, while we’d been travelling down
the motorway, been working on isolating himself in an annex of the “North wing” of our house for the duration of his quarantine.
7. Ruth & JTA go to Berwick
Thanks to negative tests and quick action in quarantining Owen, Ruth and JTA were still able to undertake the next part of this three-week holiday period and take
their anniversary break (which technically should be later in the year, but who knows what the situation will be by then?) to Berwick-upon-Tweed. That’s their story to tell, if
they want to, but the kids and I had fun in their absence:
8. Reunited again
Finally, Ruth and JTA returned from their mini-break and we got to do a few things together as a family again before our extended holiday drew to a close:
9. Back to work?
Tomorrow I’m back at work, and after 23 days “off” I’m honestly not sure I remember what I do for a living any more. Something to do with the Internet, right? Maybe ecommerce?
I’m sure it’ll all come right back to me, at least by the time I’ve read through all the messages and notifications that doubtless await me (I’ve been especially good at the discipline,
this break, of not looking at work notifications while I’ve been on holiday; I’m pretty proud of myself.)
But looking back, it’s been a hell of a three weeks. After a year and a half of being pretty-well confined to one place, doing a “grand tour” of so many destinations as a family and
getting to do so many new and exciting things has made the break feel even longer than it was. It seems like it must have been months since I last had a Zoom meeting with a
For now, though, it’s time to try to get the old brain back into work mode and get back to making the Web a better place!
My partner fleeblewidget and I are celebrating 14 years together as a couple with a glamping holiday near Sawley and took the opportunity to
climb up Pendle Hill this morning. I’ve many fond memories of taking this route with my father, when he was alive, and it’s interesting to be able to see how, just on the timescales of
my own life, the shape of this hillside has changed owing to smaller landslides. Lower down, for example, human-caused erosion (picture attached) has damaged our destroyed paths I used
to take, and new fences encourage climbers onto alternative routes. We also observed evidence (picture attached) of an older landslide, with a cliff of relatively new earth exposed
where there clearly used to be a grassy/rocky slope.
Views were very good today and we could just about make out what we assume is the Ribble estuary in the distance from near the summit. A great and enjoyable expedition. Picture of the
two of us at the trig point attached. TFTC.
My partner fleeblewidget and I are glamping up near Sawley to celebrate our 14th anniversary and came out today for a walk up Pendle Hill.
Cache container was in the third place we looked; a nice easy find! Log a little damp but usable. TFTC.
My partner fleeblewidget and I are staying at nearby Calder Farm to celebrate our anniversary and took a walk this afternoon to find this
cache. Only around 300m as the crow flies from the GZ we figured this would be a quick expedition, but there’s no convenient path down to
the riverside from where we are. Our first attempt at an approach took us to the North end of the footpath, but this seems to be through a garden centre/nursery that’s closed, and we
couldn’t confirm whether or not the public footpath was open “through” or despite this, so we doubled go past our accommodation and approached from the South instead, ultimately
resulting in a ~2km walk to and from the GZ!
Coordinates seemed off by about 5m based on my GPSr and phone, but the hint pointed us towards the obvious candidate and the cache was
easily visible (although a bit of a stretch to reach!). Log had been inserted deep into the tube rather than the lid of the container and we struggled to extract it but got there in the
end (we put it back in the lid for the benefit of the next cacher). TFTC.
Greetings from Oxfordshire! I’m staying in the holiday park just East of here as part of the first of a three week
holiday (taken in an attempt to “make up” for holidays cancelled over the last year and a half owing to The Situation). I figured it’d be an easy and relatively direct hike from there
to here, but I’d not counted on the work underway at the moment by the Forestry Commission! Several diverted footpaths later I finally found this “giant step”! Took Paul the Seahorse TB, SL,
We took a family trip up to Lichfield this weekend. I don’t know if I can give a “review” of a city-break as a whole, but if I can: I give you five stars, Lichfield.
Maybe it’s just because we’ve none of us had a night away from The Green… pretty-much since we moved
in, last year. But there was something magical about doing things reminiscent of the “old normal”.
It’s not that like wasn’t plenty of mask-wearing and social distancing and hand sanitiser and everything that we’ve gotten used to now: there certainly was. The magic, though, came from
getting to do an expedition further away from home than we’re used to. And, perhaps, with that happening to coincide with glorious weather and fun times.
We spent an unimaginably hot summer’s day watching an outdoor interpretation of Peter and the Wolf, which
each of the little ones has learned about in reasonable depth, at some point or another, as part of the (fantastic) “Monkey Music” classes
of which they’re now both graduates.
And maybe it’s that they’ve been out-of-action for so long and are only just beginning to once again ramp up… or maybe I’ve just forgotten what the hospitality industry is like?… but
man, we felt well-looked after.
From the staff at the hotel who despite the clear challenges of running
their establishment under the necessary restrictions still went the extra mile to make the kids feel special to the restaurant we went to
that pulled out all the stops to give us all a great evening, I basically came out of the thing with the impression of Lichfield as a really nice place.
I’m not saying that it was perfect. A combination of the intolerable heat (or else the desiccating effect of the air conditioner) and a mattress that sagged with two adults on it meant
that I didn’t sleep much on Saturday night (although that did mean I could get up at 5am forageocachingexpeditionaroundthecity before it got too hot later on). And an
hour and a half of driving to get to a place where you’re going to see a one-hour show feels long, especially in this age where I don’t really travel anywhere, ever.
But that’s not the point.
The point is that Lichfield made me happy, this weekend. And I don’t know how much of that is that it’s just a nice place and how much is that I’ve missed going anywhere or doing
anything, but either way, it lead to a delightful weekend.
We might never have been very good at keeping track of the exact date our relationship began in Edinburgh twelve years ago, but that doesn’t
stop Ruth and I from celebrating it, often with a trip away very-approximately in the summer. This year, we marked the occasion with a return to Scotland, cycling our way around and between Glasgow and Edinburgh.
Even sharing a lightweight conventional bike and a powerful e-bike, travelling under your own steam makes you pack lightly. We were able to get everything we needed – including packing
for the diversity of weather we’d been told to expect – in a couple of pannier bags and a backpack, and pedalled our way down to Oxford Parkway station to start our journey.
In anticipation of our trip and as a gift to me, Ruth had arranged for tickets on the Caledonian Sleeper train from London
to Glasgow and returning from Edinburgh to London to bookend our adventure. A previous sleeper train ticket she’d purchased, for Robin as part of
Challenge Robin II, had lead to enormous difficulties when the train got cancelled… but how often can sleeper trains get cancelled, anyway?
Turns out… more-often than you’d think. We cycled across London and got to Euston Station just in time to order dinner and pour a glass of wine before we received an email to let
us know that our train had been cancelled.
Station staff advised us that instead of a nice fast train full of beds they’d arranged for a grotty slow bus full of disappointment. It took quite a bit of standing-around and waiting
to speak to the right people before anybody could even confirm that we’d be able to stow our bikes on the bus, without which our plans would have been completely scuppered. Not a great
Eight uncomfortable hours of tedious motorway (and the opportunity to wave at Oxford as we went back past it) and two service stations later, we finally reached Glasgow.
Despite being tired and in spite of the threatening stormclouds gathering above, we pushed on with our plans to explore Glasgow. We opted to put our trust into random exploration –
aided by responses to weirdly-phrased questions to Google Assistant about what we should see or do – to deliver us serendipitous discoveries, and this plan worked well for us. Glasgow’s
network of cycle paths and routes seems to be effectively-managed and sprawls across the city, and getting around was incredibly easy (although it’s hilly enough that I found plenty of
opportunities to require the lowest gears my bike could offer).
We kicked off by marvelling at the extravagance of the memorials at Glasgow Necropolis, a sprawling 19th-century cemetery covering an
entire hill near the city’s cathedral. Especially towards the top of the hill the crypts and monuments give the impression that the dead were competing as to who could leave the
most-conspicuous marker behind, but there are gems of subtler and more-attractive Gothic architecture to be seen, too. Finding a convenient nearby geocache completed the experience.
Pushing on, we headed downriver in search of further adventure… and breakfast. The latter was provided by the delightful Meat Up Deli, who make a spectacularly-good omelette. There, in
the shadow of Partick Station, Ruth expressed surprise at the prevalence of railway stations in Glasgow; she, like many folks, hadn’t known that Glasgow is served by an underground train network, But I too would get to learn things I hadn’t known about the subway at our next destination.
We visited the Riverside Museum, whose exhibitions are dedicated to the history of transport and industry,
with a strong local focus. It’s a terrifically-engaging museum which does a better-than-usual job of bringing history to life through carefully-constructed experiences. We spent much of
the time remarking on how much the kids would love it… but then remembering that the fact that we were able to enjoy stopping and read the interpretative signage and not just have to
sprint around after the tiny terrors was mostly thanks to their absence! It’s worth visiting twice, if we find ourselves up here in future with the little tykes.
It’s also where I learned something new about the Glasgow Subway: its original implementation – in effect until 1935 – was cable-driven! A steam engine on the South side of the circular
network drove a pair of cables – one clockwise, one anticlockwise, each 6½ miles long – around the loop, between the tracks. To start the train, a driver would pull a lever which would
cause a clamp to “grab” the continuously-running cable (gently, to prevent jerking forwards!); to stop, he’d release the clamp and apply the brakes. This solution resulted in
mechanically-simple subway trains: the system’s similar to that used for some of the surviving parts of San Franciso’s original tram network.
Equally impressive as the Riverside Museum is The Tall Ship accompanying it, comprising the barque Glenlee converted into a floating museum about
itself and about the maritime history of its age.
This, again, was an incredibly well-managed bit of culture, with virtually the entire ship accessible to visitors, right down into the hold and engine room, and with a great amount of
effort put into producing an engaging experience supported by a mixture of interactive replicas (Ruth particularly enjoyed loading cargo into a hoist, which I’m pretty sure was designed
for children), video, audio, historical sets, contemporary accounts, and all the workings of a real, functional sailing vessel.
After lunch at the museum’s cafe, we doubled-back along the dockside to a distillery we’d spotted on the way past. The Clydeside Distillery
is a relative newcomer to the world of whisky – starting in 2017, their first casks are still several years’ aging away from being ready for consumption, but that’s not stopping them
from performing tours covering the history of their building (it’s an old pumphouse that used to operate the swingbridge over the now-filled-in Queen’s Dock) and distillery, cumulating
in a whisky tasting session (although not yet including their own single malt, of course).
This was the first time Ruth and I had attended a professionally-organised whisky-tasting together since 2012, when we did so not once
but twice in the same week. Fortunately, it turns out that we hadn’t forgotten how to drink whisky; we’d both kept our hand in in the meantime.
<hic> Oh, and we got to keep our tasting-glasses as souvenirs, which was a nice touch.
Thus far we’d been lucky that the rain had mostly held-off, at least while we’d been outdoors. But as we wrapped up in Glasgow and began our cycle ride down the towpath of the Forth & Clyde Canal, the weather turned quickly through bleak to ugly to downright atrocious. The amber flood warning we’d been given gave way to what forecasters and the media called a “weather bomb”: an hours-long torrential downpour that limited visibility and soaked everything
left out in it.
You know: things like us.
Our bags held up against the storm, thankfully, but despite an allegedly-waterproof covering Ruth and I both got thoroughly drenched. By the time we reached our destination of Kincaid House Hotel we were both exhausted (not helped by a lack of sleep the previous night during our rail-replacement-bus journey) and soaking wet
right through to our skin. My boots squelched with every step as we shuffled uncomfortably like drowned rats into a hotel foyer way too-fancy for bedraggled waifs like us.
We didn’t even have the energy to make it down to dinner, instead having room service delivered to the room while we took turns at warming up with the help of a piping hot bath. If I
can sing the praises of Kincaid House in just one way, though, it’s that the food provided by room service was absolutely on-par with what I’d expect from their restaurant: none of the
half-hearted approach I’ve experienced elsewhere to guests who happen to be too knackered (and in my case: lacking appropriate footwear that’s not filled with water) to drag themselves
to a meal.
Our second day of cycling was to be our longest, covering the 87½ km (54½ mile) stretch of riverside and towpath between Milton of Campsie and our next night’s accommodation on the
South side of Edinburgh. We were wonderfully relieved to discover that the previous day’s epic dump of rain had used-up the clouds’ supply in a single day and the forecast was far more
agreeable: cycling 55 miles during a downpour did not sound like a fun idea for either of us!
Kicking off by following the Strathkelvin Railway Path, Ruth and I were able to enjoy verdant
countryside alongside a beautiful brook. The signs of the area’s industrial past are increasingly well-concealed – a rotting fence made of old railway sleepers here; the remains of a
long-dead stone bridge there – and nature has reclaimed the land dividing this former-railway-now-cycleway from the farmland surrounding it. Stopping briefly for another geocache we made good progress down to Barleybank where we were able to rejoin the canal towpath.
This is where we began to appreciate the real beauty of the Scottish lowlands. I’m a big fan of a mountain, but there’s also a real charm to the rolling wet countryside of the
Lanarkshire valleys. The Forth & Clyde towpath is wonderfully maintained – perhaps even better than the canal itself, which is suffering in patches from a bloom of spring reeds – and
makes for easy cycling.
Outside of moorings at the odd village we’d pass, we saw no boats along most of the inland parts of the Forth & Clyde canal. We didn’t see many joggers, or dog-walkers, or indeed
anybody for long stretches.
The canal was also teeming with wildlife. We had to circumnavigate a swarm of frogs, spotted varied waterfowl including a heron who’d decided that atop a footbridge was the perfect
place to stand and a siskin that made itself scarce as soon as it spotted us, and saw evidence of water voles in the vicinity. The rushes and woodland all around but especially on the
non-towpath side of the canal seemed especially popular with the local fauna as a place broadly left alone by humans.
The canal meanders peacefully, flat and lock-free, around the contours of the Kelvin valley all the way up to the end of the river. There, it drops through Wyndford Lock into the valley
of Bonny Water, from which the rivers flow into the Forth. From a hydrogeological perspective, this is the half-way point between Edinburgh and Glasgow.
Seven years ago, I got the chance to visit the Falkirk Wheel, but Ruth had never
been so we took the opportunity to visit again. The Wheel is a very unusual design of boat lift: a pair of counterbalanced rotating arms swap places to move entire sections of the canal
from the lower to upper level, and vice-versa. It’s significantly faster to navigate than a flight of locks (indeed, there used to be a massive flight of eleven locks a little
way to the East, until they were filled in and replaced with parts of the Wester Hailes estate of Falkirk), wastes no water, and – because it’s always in a state of balance – uses next
to no energy to operate: the hydraulics which push it oppose only air resistance and friction.
So naturally, we took a boat ride up and down the wheel, recharged our batteries (metaphorically; the e-bike’s battery would get a top-up later in the day) at the visitor centre cafe,
and enjoyed listening-in to conversations to hear the “oh, I get it” moments of people – mostly from parts of the world without a significant operating canal network, in their defence –
learning how a pound lock works for the first time. It’s a “lucky 10,000” thing.
Pressing on, we cycled up the hill. We felt a bit cheated, given that we’d just been up and down pedal-free on the boat tour, and this back-and-forth manoeuvrer confused my GPSr – which was already having difficulty with our insistence on sticking to the towpath despite all the road-based
“shortcuts” it was suggesting – no end!
From the top of the Wheel we passed through Rough Castle Tunnel and up onto the towpath of the Union Canal. This took us right underneath the remains of the Antonine Wall, the lesser-known sibling of Hadrian’s Wall and the absolute furthest extent, albeit short-lived, of the Roman Empire on
this island. (It only took the Romans eight years to realise that holding back the Caledonian Confederacy was a lot harder work than their replacement plan: giving most of what is now
Southern Scotland to the Brythonic Celts and making the defence of the Northern border into their problem.)
A particular joy of this section of waterway was the Falkirk Tunnel, a very long tunnel broad enough that the towpath follows through it, comprised of a mixture of hewn rock and masonry
arches and very variable in height (during construction, unstable parts of what would have been the ceiling had to be dug away, making it far roomier than most narrowboat canal
Wet, cold, slippery, narrow, and cobblestoned for the benefit of the horses that no-longer pull boats through this passage, we needed to dismount and push our bikes through. This proved
especially challenging when we met other cyclists coming in the other direction, especially as our e-bike (as the designated “cargo bike”) was configured in what we came to lovingly
call “fat ass” configuration: with pannier bags sticking out widely and awkwardly on both sides.
This is probably the oldest tunnel in Scotland, known with certainty to predate any of the nation’s railway tunnels. The handrail was added far later (obviously, as it would interfere
with the reins of a horse), as were the mounted electric lights. As such, this must have been a genuinely challenging navigation hazard for the horse-drawn narrowboats it was built to
On the other side the canal passes over mighty aqueducts spanning a series of wooded valleys, and also providing us with yet another geocaching opportunity. We were very selective about our geocache stops on this trip; there
were so many candidates but we needed to make progress to ensure that we made it to Edinburgh in good time.
We took lunch and shandy at Bridge 49 where we also bought a painting depicting one of the bridges on the Union Canal and negotiated with the
proprietor an arrangement to post it to us (as we certainly didn’t have space for it in our bags!), continuing a family tradition of us buying art from and of places we take holidays
to. They let us recharge our batteries (literal this time: we plugged the e-bike in to ensure it’d have enough charge to make it the rest of the way without excessive rationing of
power). Eventually, our bodies and bikes refuelled, we pressed on into the afternoon.
For all that we might scoff at the overly-ornate, sometimes gaudy architecture of the Victorian era – like the often-ostentatious monuments of the Necropolis we visited early in our
adventure – it’s still awe-inspiring to see their engineering ingenuity. When you stand on a 200-year-old aqueduct that’s still standing, still functional, and still objectively
beautiful, it’s easy to draw unflattering comparisons to the things we build today in our short-term-thinking, “throwaway” culture. Even the design of the Falkirk Wheel’s, whose fate is
directly linked to these duocentenarian marvels, only called for a 120-year lifespan. How old is your house? How long can your car be kept functioning? Long-term thinking has given way
to short-term solutions, and I’m not convinced that it’s for the better.
Eventually, and one further (especially sneaky) geocache later, a total of around 66 “canal miles”, one monsoon, and one sleep
from the Glasgow station where we dismounted our bus, we reached the end of the Union Canal in Edinburgh.
There we checked in to the highly-recommendable 94DR guest house where our host Paul and his dog Molly demonstrated their ability to instantly-befriend
We went out for food and drinks at a local gastropub, and took a brief amble part-way up Arthur’s Seat (but not too far… we had just cycled fifty-something miles), of which our
hotel room enjoyed a wonderful view, and went to bed.
The following morning we cycled out to Craigmillar Castle: Edinburgh’s other castle,
and a fantastic (and surprisingly-intact) example of late medieval castle-building.
This place is a sprawling warren of chambers and dungeons with a wonderful and complicated history. I feel almost ashamed to not have even known that it existed before now:
I’ve been to Edinburgh enough times that I feel like I ought to have visited, and I’m glad that I’ve finally had the chance to discover and explore it.
Edinburgh’s a remarkable city: it feels like it gives way swiftly, but not abruptly, to the surrounding countryside, and – thanks to the hills and forests – once you’re outside of
suburbia you could easily forget how close you are to Scotland’s capital.
In addition to a wonderful touch with history and a virtual geocache, Craigmillar Castle also provided with a
delightful route back to the city centre. “The Innocent Railway” – an 1830s stretch
of the Edinburgh and Dalkeith Railway which retained a tradition of horse-drawn carriages long after they’d gone out of fashion elsewhere – once connected Craigmillar to Holyrood Park
Road along the edge of what is now Bawsinch and Duddington Nature Reserve, and has long since been converted into a cycleway.
Making the most of our time in the city, we hit up a spa (that Ruth had secretly booked as a surprise for me) in the afternoon followed by an escape room – The Tesla Cube – in the evening. The former involved a relaxing soak, a stress-busting massage, and a chill lounge in a
rooftop pool. The latter undid all of the good of this by comprising of us running around frantically barking updates at one another and eventually rocking the week’s highscore for the
game. Turns out we make a pretty good pair at escape rooms.
After a light dinner at the excellent vegan cafe Holy Cow (who somehow sell a banana bread that is vegan, gluten-free, and sugar-free: by the
time you add no eggs, dairy, flour or sugar, isn’t banana bread just a mashed banana?) and a quick trip to buy some supplies, we rode to Waverley Station to find out if we’d at least be
able to get a sleeper train home and hoping for not-another-bus.
We got a train this time, at least, but the journey wasn’t without its (unnecessary) stresses. We were allowed past the check-in gates and to queue to load our bikes into their
designated storage space but only after waiting for this to become available (for some reason it wasn’t immediately, even though the door was open and crew were standing there) were we
told that our tickets needed to be taken back to the check-in gates (which had now developed a queue of their own) and something done to them before they could be accepted. Then they
reprogrammed the train’s digital displays incorrectly, so we boarded coach B but then it turned into coach E once we were inside, leading to confused passengers trying to take one
another’s rooms… it later turned back into coach B, which apparently reset the digital locks on everybody’s doors so some passengers who’d already put their luggage into a room
now found that they weren’t allowed into that room…
…all of which tied-up the crew and prevented them from dealing with deeper issues like the fact that the room we’d been allocated (a room with twin bunks) wasn’t what we’d paid for (a
double room). And so once their seemingly-skeleton crew had solved all of their initial technical problems they still needed to go back and rearrange us and several other customers in a
sliding-puzzle-game into one another’s rooms in order to give everybody what they’d actually booked in the first place.
In conclusion: a combination of bad signage, technical troubles, and understaffing made our train journey South only slightly less stressful than our bus journey North had been. I’ve
sort-of been put off sleeper trains.
After a reasonable night’s sleep – certainly better than a bus! – we arrived in London, ate some breakfast, took a brief cycle around Regent’s Park, and then found our way to Marylebone
to catch a train home.
All in all it was a spectacular and highly-memorable adventure, illustrative of the joy of leaving planning to good-luck, the perseverance of wet cyclists, the ingenuity of Victorian
engineers, the beauty of the Scottish lowlands, the cycle-friendliness of Glasgow, and – sadly – the sheer incompetence of the operators of sleeper trains.
Somehow in the intervening years I’ve gotten way out of practice and even more out of shape because our expedition was hard. Partly that was our fault for choosing to climb on
one of the shortest days of the year, requiring that we maintain a better-than-par pace throughout to allow us to get up and down before the sun set (which we actually managed with
further time in-hand), but mostly it’s the fact that I’ve neglected my climbing: just about the only routine exercise I get these days is cycling, and with changes in my work/life
balance I’m now only doing that for about 40 miles in a typical week.
For the longest time my primary mountaineering-buddy was my dad, who was – prior to his death during a hillwalking accident – a bigger climber and
hiker than I’ll ever be. Indeed, I’ve been “pushed on” by trying to keep up with my father enough times that fighting to keep up with Robin at the weekend was second nature. If I want
to get back to the point where I’m fit enough for ice climbing again I probably need to start by finding the excuse for getting up a hill once in a while more-often than I do, first,
too. Perhaps I can lay some of the blame for my being out of practice in the flat, gentle plains of Oxfordshire?
After the success of Challenge Robin this summer – where Ruth and I blindfolded her brother
Robin and drove him out to the middle of nowhere without his phone or money and challenged him to find his way home – Robin’s been angling for a sequel. He even went so far as to suffix the title
of his blog post on the subject “(part 1)”, in the hopes perhaps that we’d find a way to repeat the experience.
In response to an email sent a week in advance of the challenge, Robin quickly prepared and returned a “permission slip” from his parents, although I’m skeptical that either of them
actually saw this document, let alone signed it.
With about a day to go before the challenge began, Robin’s phone will have received a number of instructional messages from a sender-ID called “Control”, instructing him of his first
actions and kicking off his adventure. He’d already committed to going to work on Friday with a bag fully-packed for whatever we might have in store for him, but he doubtless wouldn’t
have guessed quite how much work had been put into this operation.
By 18:06 he still hadn’t arrived to meet his contact. Had this adventure fallen at the first hurdle? Only time would tell…
Update – Friday 9 November 18:45: Robin arrived late and apologetic to find his contact, “Frowny”, at the GBK at that address, was played by JTA.
The pair ate and drank and “Frowny” handed Robin his first clue: a map pointing to Cornwall Gardens in Kensington and instructions on where to find the next clue when he got there. The
game was afoot!
Clearly he’d taken the idea of being prepared for anything to a level beyond what we’d expected. Among his other provisions, he was carrying a tent, sleeping bag, and passport!
“Clearly my mistake,” he told his contact, “Was giving intelligent people a challenge and then leaving them three months to plan.”
Update – Friday 9 November 19:53: In Cornwall Gardens, Robin found the note (delayed somewhat, perhaps by the growing dark) and began his treasure
Soon after, though, things started to go very wrong…
Update – Friday 9 Novembr 20:40: Let’s take a diversion, and I’ll rely on JTA to keep Robin’s eyes away from this post for a bit. Here’s what was
supposed to happen:
Robin would follow a trail of clues around London which would give him key words whose names alluded to literature about Paddington (station) and Penzance. Eventually he’d find a
puzzle box and, upon solving it, discover inside tickets for the Paddington-to-Penzance overnight sleeper train.
Meanwhile, I’ve been rushing around the countryside near Penzance setting up an epic extension to the previous trail complete with puzzles, mixed-terrain hikes, highlands, islands,
lions, tigers and bears (oh my). Some of those might not really have been in the plan.
So now we’re working out what to do next. Right now I’m holed-up in an undisclosed location near Penzance (the ultimate target of the challenge) and Robin’s all the way over in London.
We’re working on it, but this hasn’t been so successful as we might have liked.
Update – Saturday 10 November 07:58: We’ve managed to get Robin onto a series of different trains rather than the sleeper, so he’ll still get to
Penzance… eventually! Meanwhile, I’m adjusting the planned order of stages at this end to ensure that he can still get a decent hike in (weather permitting).
Update – Saturday 10 November 10:45: Originally, when Robin had been expected to arrive in Penzance via a sleeper train about three hours ago, he’d
have received his first instruction via The Gadget, which JTA gave him in London:
The Gadget’s primary purpose is to send realtime updates on Robin’s position so that I can plot it on a map (and report it to you guys!) and to issue him with hints so that he knows
where he’s headed next, without giving him access to a phone, Internet, navigation, maps, etc. The first instruction would be to head to Sullivan’s Diner for breakfast (where
I’ve asked staff to issue him with his first clue): cool eh? But now he’s only going to be arriving in the afternoon so I’m going to have to adapt on-the-fly. Luckily I’ve got a plan.
I’m going to meet Robin off his train and suggest he skips this first leg of the challenge, because the second leg is… sort-of time-critical…
Update – Saturday 10 November 13:29: Robin finally arrives in Penzance on a (further-delayed) train. I’ve given him a sausage sandwich at
Sullivan’s Diner (who then gave him the clue above), turned on The Gadget (so I’ve got live tracking of his location), and given him the next clue (the one he’d have gotten at
Roger’s Tower) and its accompanying prop.
Armed with the clue, Robin quickly saw the challenge that faced him…
After all of these delays, there’s only about an hour and a half until the tide comes in enough to submerge the causeway to St. Michael’s Mount: the island he’s being sent to. And he’s
got to get there (about an hour’s walk away), across the causeway, find the next clue, and back across the causeway to avoid being stranded. The race is on.
Luckily, he’d been able to open the puzzle box and knows broadly where to look on the island for the next clue. How will he do? We’ll have to wait and see…
Update – Saturday 10 November 14:18: Robin made spectacular time sprinting along the coast to Longrock (although his route might have been
suboptimal). At 14:18 he began to cross to the island, but with only a little over half an hour until the tide began to cover the causeway, he’d have to hunt quickly for the password he
At 14:22 he retreived the clue and put the password into The Gadget: now he had a new set of instructions – to get to a particular location without being told what it was… only a
real-time display of how far away it was. 7.5km and counting…
Update – Saturday 10 November 14:57: Robin’s making his way along the coast (at a more-reasonable pace now!). He’s sticking to the road rather
than the more-attractive coast path, so I’ve had “Control” give him a nudge via The Gadget to see if he’d prefer to try the more-scenic route: he’ll need to, at some point, if he’s to
find his way to the box I’ve hidden.
Update – Saturday 10 November 16:50: No idea where Robin is; The Gadget’s GPS has gone all screwy.
But it looks like he probably made it to Cudden Point, where the final clue was hidden. And then kept moving, suggesting that he retreived it without plunging over the cliff
and into the sea.
In it, he’ll have found a clue as to broadly where his bed is tonight, plus a final (very devious) puzzle box with the exact location.
The sun is setting and Robin’s into the final stretch. Will he make it?
Update – Saturday 10 November 17:25: He’s going to make it! He’s actually going to make it! Looks like he’s under a mile away and heading in the
Update – Saturday 10 November 17:55: He made it!
We’ve both got lots to say, so a full debrief will take place in a separate blog post.
Three weeks ago was (give or take a few weeks because we’ve never bothered with accuracy) the end of Ruth and I’s 8th year together, and
we marked the occasion with a mini-break away for a few nights. We spent the first two nights in a ‘showman’-style gypsy caravan in Herefordshire, and it was amazing enough that I
wanted to share it with you:
The place we went was Wriggles Brook, a ‘glamping’-style site in the shadow of the Forest of Dean. In a long field that twists its way
alongside a babbling brook, the owners have set up a trio of traditional horse-drawn caravans, each in a wooded clearing that isolates it from the others. Two of the caravans are
smaller, designed just for couples (who are clearly the target market for this romantic getaway spot), but we took the third, larger, (centenarian!) one, which sported a separate living
room and bedroom.
The bedroom was set up so that children could be accommodated in a bunk under the adults (with their own string of fairy lights and teeny-tiny windows, but after she bumped her head on
the underside of the beams Annabel decided that she didn’t want to sleep there, so we set up her travel cot in the living room.
So yeah: a beautiful setting, imaginative and ecologically-friendly accommodation, and about a billion activities on your doorstep. Even the almost-complete lack of phone signal into
the valley was pretty delightful, although it did make consulting Google Maps difficult when we got lost about 20 minutes out from the place! But if there’s one thing that really does
deserve extra-special mention, it’s the food!
Our hosts were able to put on a spectacular breakfast and evening meal for us each night, including a variety of freshly-grown produce from their own land. We generally ate in their
mini dining room – itself a greenhouse for their grapevines – but it was equally-nice to have pancakes delivered to the picnic table right outside our caravan. And speaking as somebody
who’s had their fair share of second-rate veggie breakfasts over the last… what, four and a half
years?… it was a great relief to enjoy a quite-brilliant variety of vegetarian cuisine from a clearly-talented chef.
So yeah – five stars for Wriggles Brook in Herefordshire if you’re looking for an awesome romantic getaway, with or without an accompanying toddler. Ruth and I later palmed the little
one off on JTA so that we could have a night away without her, too, which – while fun (even if we didn’t get to try all 280+ gins at the restaurant we ate at) – wasn’t quite so worthy of mention as the unusual gypsy-caravan-escape that
had preceded it. I’m hoping that we’ll get out to Wriggles Brook again.
I spent last week in the French Alps with JTA, Ruth, Annabel, and some hangers-on. It was great to get out onto the snow again for some skiing as well as some ski-based geocaching, but perhaps the most remarkable events of the trip happened not on the pistes but on
an “afternoon off” that I decided to take after a rather jarring 42km/h (26mph) faceplant earlier in the day.
Not to be deprived of the opportunity for some outdoors, though, I decided to spend the afternoon hiking out to villaflou, a geocache only about a kilometre and a half away from our chalet. Well: a kilometre and a half as the crow flies: it was also some
distance down the steep-sided Doron de Bozel valley, through a wooded area. But there was, in theory at least, a hiking trail winding its way down the valley. The trail
was clearly designed for summer use, but it was a trail nonetheless, so I ate a hearty lunch with Ruth and then set out from La Tania to explore.
It quickly became apparent that I was underequipped for the journey ahead. With the freshly-fallen soft snow routinely knee-deep and sometimes deeper still, I would have done well to
have taken at the very least snow shoes (and, I’d later conclude, perhaps also poles and rope). I was, however, properly dressed with thermal layers, salopettes, multiple
pairs of gloves, hat, etc., and – unlike Rory when he got caught out by snow the other year – was at
least equipped with two fully-charged GPS devices (and spare batteries), tightly-fitted boots, a first aid kit and emergency supplies. And as the only hiker foolish enough
to cut my way through this freshly-fallen snow, my tracks would be easy to follow back, should I need to.
Nonetheless, it’s quite an isolating feeling to be stranded from civilization… even if only by half a kilometre… surrounded by snowy mountains and silent woodland. If you’re approaching
the hike in a safe and sane way – and you should be – then it makes you especially careful about even the simplest of obstacles. Crossing a small stream whose bridge is completely
concealed beneath the snow becomes a careful operation involving probing the snow and testing the support it provides before even beginning to ford it: a turned ankle could lead to at
the very least an incredibly painful hike back!
Needless to say, my caution around snow and mountains has been expanded by not only Rory’s scary experience, linked above, but also of course by my dad’s death almost three years ago, who slipped on snow and fell off a cliff. And
he was hiking in Britain!
The village of La Nouvaz, half-way as the crow flies between my accommodation and the geocache (and over half-way by my planned route), was beautiful to behold: a sign of civilization
after about an hour of hard wading through snow. Even when you’ve used satellites to know your location accurate to a metre, it’s nice to be reassured that your expedition really is
panning out as you’d planned.
I also now had a metric to translate the journey time estimates that I’d seen on the signs: it was taking me about three times as long as they said, presumably because they’d been
written for summer hikers. The segment that had been advertised as 20 minute walk was taking me an hour: that was useful information – I sat with a friendly dog while I
recalculated my travel time with this new data. There was a blizzard blowing across the mountaintops (which had been partially-responsible for my faceplant in the morning!) and I’d
heard that it was expected to descend into the valley in the early evening, so I wanted to make sure I wasn’t out in the open when that happened! But everything was okay, and I had time
to complete my expedition with two hours to spare (which I reasoned could be used hunting for the geocache, as well as a emergency reserve), so I pressed on.
After La Nouvaz, the path became even harder to navigate, and in the thinner tree cover huge drifts formed where underneath there were presumably walls and fences. At one point, I
slipped through snow that came up to my waist, and had to dig my way out. At another, I’d deviated from the path and was only able to get back on course by sliding down a snowbank on my
bum. And honestly, I can’t think of a more fun way than that to spend a Narnian hiking trip.
My GPS coordinates took me directly to the pump and trough in the square at Villaflou, and I spent some time (in my thinner pair of gloves) feeling around its metal edges in an
effort to find the small magnétique geocache that was allegedly there. But that’s not where it was at all, and honestly, if I hadn’t just spent two hours hiking through
deep snow I might now have had the drive to search for as long as I did! As I hunted, I thought back to my GCSE in French and tried to work out how I’d explain what I was doing to
anybody who came by, but I never saw another soul. Eventually, my efforts paid off, as I discovered a small metal plate in a cunning hiding place, disguised to make it look like it
belonged to the thing it was attached to… and behind it, a log with just four names. And now: mine was fifth!
I texted my revised travel times to Ruth, and then set off back. Following my footsteps made the journey less-arduous, but this was compensated for in equal measure by the fact that I
was now heading uphill instead of down.
As I passed through La Nouvaz, I noticed two strange things –
Firstly: looking back up at the route I’d come down, from La Tania, I saw that there was a signpost that indicated that the recommended route back wasn’t the route that I’d
come to begin with. The recommended route was the other way, to the left, and would only take me about 30 minutes (or, based on my recalculation, about an hour and a half).
And secondly: looking along this proposed new route, I observed that somebody had taken it since I passed this way last. There had been no tracks on that route before,
but now there were, and looking up the mountainside I could make out the heads of two hikers bobbing away over a rise.
I followed in the footsteps of the other hikers: it’s a great deal easier to follow than to lead, in deep snow, and I was glad to be able to save the energy. I treated myself to a swig
from my hip flask as congratulations on finding the geocache and my good fortune in being able to tail some other hikers heading my way. But my celebration was perhaps premature! About
twenty minutes later, I caught up with the two women ahead, and they clearly weren’t doing very well.
They’d come up to La Tania from Paris, accompanied by some friends, for a long weekend. Their friends had gone off skiing, but they hadn’t been able to join them because they were both
pregnant (four months and six months), and no doctor on Earth would recommend skiing after the first trimester, so instead they’d decided to go out for a walk. There was a circular walk
on a map that they’d seen, which looked like it’d take about an hour, so they’d set out (wearing little more snow protection than wellington boots, and one of them without even a hat),
following what looked to be a well-trodden footpath: in fact, it was probably the first part of my outbound journey, from La Tania to La Nouvaz, that they’d followed, “overtaking” me
when I left the route to head on to Villaflou and the geocache.
On the ascent back up they’d gotten lost – there are no good waypoints, the path is unclear, and the encroaching blizzard hampering the ability to pick out distance landmarks. They’d
wandered – it turned out – several hundred metres off where the path should have gone, and I’d made the mistake of assuming that they knew what they were doing and followed them the
same way. Worse yet, this ‘alternative’ path back to La Tania didn’t feature on any of my digital maps, and these two severely-underequipped mothers-to-be were struggling with
inadequate grip on the slippy ground beneath the snow. When I first encountered them, one of them had slid into and was trapped in a snowdrift, and the other called me over to help her
pull her friend free.
Between them, they had a paper map designed for casual summer use, and they’d realised their predicament. Were I not there, they confessed (once we’d established a dialogue somewhere
between their shaky English and my very shaky French), they were about to start trying to find sufficient landmarks that they could summon rescue. Instead, now, they’d put themselves
into my care. “We do not want to die,” said the one I later learned was called Vicki, after a few seconds consideration of the translation.
I plotted us a new course, cross-country up an aggressive slope towards the nearest road and thus, I hoped, towards civilization. I lead the way, tamping down the snow ahead as best I
could into steps, and bemoaned my lack of a rope. I texted updates to Ruth, advising her of the situation and in each one establishing when I’d next be in contact, and as the women
began to tire, prepared for the possibility that I might need to eventually relay coordinates to a rescue team: I practised my French numbers, under my breath, as we weaved our way up
the steep mountainside.
A hundred metres from the road the gradient became worse and we were unable to climb any higher, so we turned towards La Tania and tacked alongside it. There, about an hour and a half
after I first met them, we found a signpost that indicated that we were back on the footpath: the footpath that they’d originally hoped to follow but found themselves unable to spot,
and which – by following in their footsteps – I too had failed to spot.
Following that, we got back to the road to La Tania and to safety.
I find myself wondering many things. For one: who, at six months pregnant, thinks it’s a wise idea to trek through deep snow, underequipped, from a bad map, over an Alp? But I also
wonder what might have happened if I’d have taken the same route back as I’d taken out to my geocache (and thus never bumped into them)? Or even if I’d not have faceplanted earlier in
the day and thus decided to take the afternoon off from skiing at all? They weren’t ever far from safety, of course, and while the weather was rapidly becoming hostile to
helicopters, they’d have probably been rescued so long as they’d been able to describe their position adequately (and so long as they didn’t keep wandering in the direction they’d been
wandering when I met them, which would ultimately have taken them to a sheer cliff), but still…
So yeah: on my holidays, I rescued two lost pregnant hikers from an Alpine blizzard, while returning from a geocaching expedition. I think I win today’s “badass point”.
On the way out to the French Alps for a week of skiing, and we had enough air miles to upgrade to business class on the way out, so I’m sat in the lounge enjoying complimentary gin &
tonic and croissants. 10 in the morning, and I’m already buzzed: after a long and hectic few months, I’m really glad to be off on holiday!
Aaaand…. right before I left I put in an application for my boss’s job, which she vacated a few months ago. Should hear by the time I get back whether I’m being invited to interview,
so that’s exciting too!
Anyway: just wanted to share my excitement with my favourite MegaMasons. If I’m not online much this week, you’ll know why! Have a great week, folks: love you all!