And we’re off! The Cape Wrath Trail begins

We leave Edinburgh for Fort William (the start of the Cape Wrath Trail, from now on referred to as the CWT) on September 12th, after what seems like weeks of planning and waiting for the adventure to start. I’ve been eating with abandon the last few days – telling myself it won’t matter because I’ll be burning so much energy on the trail, so I’m actually looking forward to the discipline of rations!

IMG_3401

The last leg of the train journey west is spectacular – a panorama of lochs, rivers, forests and hills rushes by (well, trundles by – it’s not a very fast train) the window. Morris, as you can see, is transfixed.

IMG_3403

It’s 4.15pm when we arrive in Fort William, and by 4.19pm it’s raining heavily. We were heading for the campsite, but we retreat to a pub for dinner and a drink instead, in the hope of avoiding having to put the tent up in pouring rain on our first night. It works! By the time we pitch the tent, it’s nearly dusk and we go straight to bed in preparation for the big day.

It takes an astonishing 90 minutes to ‘break camp’ the following morning. I’d imagined it would be a simple matter of whipping up a quick bowl of porridge and tea, taking down and packing up the tent and getting going but I discover there are considerably more tasks to do: deflate the inflatable pillows, roll up the sleep mats, squeeze the sleeping bags back in their stuff sacks, feed Morris, prepare accessible snacks/lunch for the day, fill up water bottles, wash up the breakfast things and finally, repack the rucksacks in the right order.

img_34081.jpg

It’s a slightly embarrassing 9.30 by the time we take our first steps on the CWT. But it’s a relief to be on the move, on foot, on the trail and heading north. I take the photograph below of Jeff, because I suspect it’s a sight I’m going to see a lot of over the coming weeks!

IMG_3413

Dress rehearsal

On the drive north, we stop in the Lake District for a practice long hike and overnight camp to test all our kit and get used to the weight of our packs. The plan is to pitch the tent, walk a circular route from Great Langdale and then return to cook a dehydrated meal on the stove and bed down on our foam mats. Even though we’ll have the van parked close by, we’ll forbid ourselves from accessing it for luxuries like towels and pillows, since that won’t be an option once we’re on the Cape Wrath Trail.

‘Even if it’s pouring rain, we’ll stick to the plan, right?’ says Jeff, adding that we might well face such conditions when it comes to the real thing. ‘Definitely,’ I reply earnestly, praying it will stay dry.

We wake up to rain. In fact, we are woken by rain; it smatters loudly on the outer of the tent and it’s only my desperate need for a wee that drives me from the tent. Once outside, I realise it sounds worse than it is; tents have a way of magnifying the sound of falling rain. I don my waterproofs and get the stove on for tea and porridge while Morris peers suspiciously out of the tent flap. ‘What fresh hell is this?’ he thinks. ‘Not long ago, I lived in a warm and comfortable house with an interesting garden. Then it was a tent the size of a garden shed. Now I’d be better off in a kennel.’

Packing up takes ages. On Shane’s recommendation, everything lives in its designated dry bag, each with a specific place in the rucksack, based on when it needs to be accessed in the pitching/unpitching process. It’s a sensible system but it’ll take time to get used to.

It’s still raining when we finally shoulder our packs and set off. The route begins with a stiff climb up a narrow, flint bracken-bordered path, mist drifts around the hilltops. Within minutes, I’m too hot but I can’t face the rigmarole of stopping, taking off the pack and removing a layer, so I soldier on, sweat trickling down my sports bra and doubt trickling into my mind about this whole long-distance walking lark.

We eat our lunch under a tree to keep the worst of the rain off, silently considering just how dismal the Cape Wrath Trail could be if it rained all the time.

But by the time we get back to the campsite, our moods have brightened a little. We’ve done over nine undulating miles wearing our packs and intended clothing and footwear in non-stop rain and we’re not broken. We pitch the tent and unload our dry bags. Thanks to Shane’s tip, our sleeping bags now reside permanently inside waterproof bivvy bags in our rucksacks. So no matter what the day throws at us, no matter how drenched we are when we climb in the tent, we’ll always have a warm and dry place to retreat to. And that is how we end our dress rehearsal, hands thawing around enamel mugs of instant hot chocolate.

IMG_3347

 

Hitting the road

After a summer of camping, we leave East Sussex at the start of September. ‘I’m homeless and jobless,’ I think, as we drive north, the van straining under the weight of kayaks, bikes, wetsuits, hiking gear and an immense amount of reading material. My stomach does a little dip; it’s thrilling, but such wantonness feels naughty, too. When my job was advertised, 140 people applied. Will I live to regret quitting?

On the other hand, I’ve met lots of people over the last few months who, on hearing our plan, have revealed their own or others’ Crazy Things. Sometimes their plans are already in motion, other times, they’re still at the planning stage – or even just dreaming. My physio tells me about his intention to drive from home to South Africa in a custom-built Land Rover, when the kids are old enough. My hairdresser confides that she’s quitting the salon and moving to Devon to start a new life. Then there’s a couple touring around Europe in a converted horse lorry; a city high flyer who’s jacked it in to become a baker; and the editor of a highly successful magazine who resigned to retrain as a nutritionist. All these stories show that while much of what we do in our lives is aimed at creating stability, striving for success and fitting in, we also have a thirst for adventure, and a need for change too. I reflect on the fact that the change I’ve created for myself has put paid to two of the strongest ways in which I identify myself – as a journalist and as a runner. When we set off on the Cape Wrath Trail in a few days time, I’ll be neither.

 

 

Hillwalking for dummies

A friend of ours, Shane, is a qualified mountain leader. On hearing about our Cape Wrath Trail plans, he offered to give us some tips on hillwalking and wild camping. Even better, he invited us to his woodland for a practice run.

It was invaluable: we learned  how to lay and light a fire, how to choose where to pitch the tent and how to pack our rucksacks in a way that allows everything to be accessible in the right order and remain dry. Even though we only needed enough supplies for a single night in the woods, it was enough to reveal that my rucksack, a trusty but admittedly ancient Lowe Alpine 45L affair, was unlikely to be big enough for everything we’d need to take with us for a 3-4 week trip that offered few opportunities for re-stocking.

Thanks to Shane, we also learned how to register our mobile phones with the Emergency SMS service, which is advisable if you’re hiking in remote areas.

All starting to feel quite real now! The Cape Wrath Trail guidebook is my new bedtime reading…

 

Planning a Highland fling

In my job at Runner’s World, I frequently interviewed people who had achieved incredible feats within running. Aleks Kashefi ran the length of Europe from above the Arctic Circle to the southern tip of Spain. Wayne Russell ran around the entire coastline of Britain. Rob Pope followed in Forrest Gump’s fictitious footsteps, crossing America and then turning around and running back again. We considered a running feat of our own but with Morris (that’s him below) in tow, we decided that a long-distance walk would be more achievable.

IMG_1403

With a love for Scotland, our search started there and after dismissing the Great Glen Way and West Highland Way as too brief, we happened upon the Cape Wrath Trail, a 230-mile trek from Fort William to the most northwesterly tip of Scotland (and the British Isles). It’s considered to be the toughest long-distance trail in Britain. Some reasons why:

  1. It isn’t an ‘official’ national trail and is therefore not waymarked.
  2. Much of it is extremely remote, with few options for accommodation other than wild camping or mountain bothies.
  3. It requires good navigation skills.
  4. It crosses trackless, rough and boggy terrain and features many river crossings.
  5. Travelling through the far north west of Scotland, the weather is unpredictable and often wild.

The guidebook warns that this is not a trail to be taken on without extensive hillwalking experience and knowledge of the area. What could possibly go wrong for two southern-dwelling softies with zero walking experience but a few decades’ worth of running fitness? We decided to find out…

 

Commuting from under canvas

We both have three months’ notice to work at our jobs before we leave. (Jeff hasn’t quit work; he’s got a year-long sabbatical.) So despite no longer living in our house, we still have to get up and get to the office looking vaguely respectable. This entails rising at six to get in the shower before any other campers are up. We manage it most of the time but occasionally, an early bird beats us to it, unwittingly putting our tight schedule into jeopardy. After my shower I go to our van (a VW Transporter), which has become our mobile storage unit. I’ve rigged up a strap along the width of the roof to hang up my work clothes. I get dressed, swap Crocs for work shoes and we jump in the car, heading for Rye station and, for me, the 7.38am train to London.

We don’t tell our work colleagues at first. It seems a bit weird and embarrassing: ‘Did you watch X last night?’ they might ask… ‘No, we live in a tent actually, so we don’t have any electricity, let alone a TV.’ Hardly the expected response of a professional journalist (me) or town planner (Jeff). But over time, it slips out here and there. Some think it’s hilarious. Others appear vaguely disapproving. Mostly, people look baffled.

Mornings are a rush, but coming home has its own special thrill. I park the car, walk along the dirt track and unzip the tent, shed my work clothes and emerge to get the stove going for dinner or fling myself on the sun lounger to catch the day’s last rays. London seems a million miles away.

 

img_30082.jpg

Who knew earwigs still existed?

There are a lot of good things about #tentlife. It strips life back to the essentials. Everything has its place (usually in a crate) and there’s none of the detritus that surrounds you at home. There’s no opportunity to cook elaborate recipes (no fridge, oven or indeed electricity), no self-inflicted obligation to blowdry your hair or iron your clothes, no TV with its spirit-sapping stream of bad news, no need to organise the sock drawer or alphabeticize the herbs and spices (oh, just me then…)

We are fortunate to find a gem of a campsite – Dogwood – tucked away at the end of a gravel lane amid rolling farmland and pockets of woodland in Brede, East Sussex.

IMG_3174

It’s small and offers modest facilities (one shower, two toilets, one outdoor sink) – which seems to attract mostly outdoorsy people who are quiet and self-sufficient. The site is run by Katy and Phil, who agree to host us because the idea of The Crazy Thing resonates with them. (Unsurprisingly, when you learn that they themselves ended up as the site’s owners after holidaying there from London and noticing it was up for sale.)

But tent life has its downsides too. I find earwigs lurking under everything I pick up. The first time I see one (in my shower cap, FYI) I’m surprised they still exist. Their strange little prehistoric bodies with those menacing rear pincers are a blast from my seventies childhood.

And then there’s the constant search for power sources. I lug my laptop around, along with a host of camping gadgets and chargers to plug in wherever I spy vacant plug sockets – the physio’s office, the library, a friend’s house, the pub.

But perhaps the most stressful thing about living on a campsite is that you never know who your neighbours will be from day to day. With jobs to go to (working out our three-month notice periods), we were gone by 7am and back at 7pm each day – with every homecoming presenting us with the question: who’ll be camped next to us? How close will they be? And more importantly, how long will they be there? We found people’s definition of personal space varied wildly. Some would pen themselves in with windbreaks and talk in low voices. Others would practically have a game of frisbee across your dinner table without a second thought.

Eventually though, the sun goes down, the fresh air takes its toll and people drift off to bed. You look around, nursing an enamel mug of tea, and see the flicker of campfire flames and a domed starlit sky and you know it’s all good.

 

How the crazy thing was born

Just do something, anything…

You reach your late forties. You’re happily married without kids, you have a great job, a nice house, a consuming hobby (running) and a busy social life. But something’s gnawing at you. Life’s become a bit routine. You sense there’s more out there – more to learn, attempt, explore and experience. Luckily, the man you are happily married to feels the same. The urge to DO something. A Crazy Thing. What Crazy Thing? At first, you don’t know, but you start to talk about it. (All the time). Start a fermenting business? Rear goats in Crete? Open a running store? Run the length of Britain? You don’t know yet, but you’re sure about one thing. You don’t want to stand still. A plan begins to form. You start to clear space in your life for The Crazy Thing (whatever it may be) to happen. A few months later, you hand in your notice at the great job, rent out the nice house and go and live in a tent.

IMG_2961

OK, so it’s not as exotic as island hopping in the Andaman Sea, as glamorous as renting a house in the Catskills to write a novel or as admirable as devoting a year to charity work in Africa. But it’s a way of busting the routine, flexing the adventure muscles and exploring a new way of living. And it’s where our story begins…