Posts tagged Campsites

Into the WILD! Days 2 & 3 – Hadrian’s Wall and on…

“To Hadrian’s Wall!”

Hadrian's Wall

Hadrian's Wall

And off we yomped, alongside Haltwhistle burn with its tinkling waterfalls, leafy walkways and steep climbs. We took the pretty way. Oh, ok… we got a bit lost – all those bridges look the same on the map – and were rather bewildered as to how we had managed to get so far back from where we had intended to meet the Wall. Indeed, we spent a good hour by some quarry or other (whose name, mercifully, escapes me now) employing several methods including good old map-turning and rather natty orienteering, only to end up certain that we had, all doubt vanished, gone wrong. Oops. Great start.

But at least we now knew where we were. And Hadrian’s Wall was it. We fought our way through a herd of cattle (and have since read several articles about those who have recently been trampled to death by cross cows – a word to the wise: a bull on his own is far more dangerous than one with cows – he‘s far more interested in the cows; and never get between a cow and her calf – she’s likely to turn very nasty) and onto our rightful path. Contrary to what we had heard, the walk was almost entirely unpopulated. We encountered a mere handful of people and even those were mainly concentrated around the “hotspots”: those sites worthy of note that are accessible by car, requiring only a minimal amount of walking. It was the hilliest,  most breathtaking country; barren and beautiful with wide open views taking your eye further than any vista you can imagine. Those skirmishing Scots didn’t have a hope of the element of surprise.

Scouting for Scots

Scouting for Scots

Shoulders aching from the weight of our backpacks and knees groaning under the strain, we arrived in Greenhead at about teatime. The Greenhead Hotel is well acquainted with walkers – on this particular evening it was full of Ramblers – and has a menu to stick to the ribs of any hungry traveller. We ordered Cumberland sausage with mashed potato and onion gravy (which came with a token smattering of peas) and washed it down with the local Allendale Black Grouse. It was, with the noteable exception of our firm old favourite Theakston’s Old Peculier in whose country we had not yet set foot, the best beer we have ever tasted: smooth, black, almost Guinness-like and named after those very rare fowl to be found, I believe, only in those parts. We were lucky enough to see and hear them nesting in the grasses up on the wild hillsides.

Have you seen American Werewolf in London? Then you’ll get the idea of the kind of foolhardiness that was our next rather rash decision. A couple of beers under our belt and our Ordnance Survey Explorer map in hand, we decided to follow the advice of our little book and head for the nearby Access Land on which we would wild camp for the night. Access Land, for the uninitiated, is land that is generally used only for grazing and upon which wild camping is just about tolerated; as long as you pitch up near nightfall and are well away by first light. Our little book told us of a spot called Glencune Burn which, apparently, was just such a good spot and with a good hundred miles to go, we thought we’d try to get slightly ahead of itinerary. Perhaps we should just write an article on How Not to Do It…? Point 1: Stick to your plans. Or, if you really want to stray from them, make sure the replacement plan is well-researched and thought out!

Bravely, we set off for Blenkinsopp Common.

There is one word to describe the next few hours: bog.

Perhaps there are two, actually: bog and poo.

We fought through waist-high grasses, our feet disappearing ankle-deep in peaty bog, sheep poo and cowpats. The jovial mood produced by the pub’s fare was rapidly disappearing and hurtled headlong down the pan when we realised that part of that bog was Glencune Burn. You wouldn’t have a hope of pitching a tent there: it wasn’t possible to even stand without sinking… Disheartened, but not entirely discouraged, the only thing for it was to press on in the hope of finding somewhere more suitable. Which is when the path disappeared entirely in the midst of a vast field of cows and their calves and the biggest, stockiest, scariest, most evil-looking ginger bull you’ve ever seen in your life. He did not take his eyes off us once. The ground was threatening to swallow us whole, but it was anybody’s guess if it would take us before the bull did, or indeed one of his lady-friends protecting her littl’un. The sun was almost down; we had no visible means of escape; it was utterly impossible to camp here and panic began to set in.

Blenkinsopp Bloody Common

Blenkinsopp Bloody Common

It is hard to convey how dismally grim this part of the walk is. I’ll admit now that I was having grave misgivings about our “holiday” at this point: if it was going to be a week of this kind of soggy, miserable hell, I might well be catching the next bus (or cow, or donkey or whatever) home.

We scrambled through that field, hoiked our backpacks over the stone wall and took a breather while the adrenalin kicked in and abated. It was almost dark, we were off the beaten path and we had nowhere to camp. Our first night going it alone looked pretty doomed.

My beloved companion, sensing my impending mother-of-all-strops, put his best foot forward and launched us off to find a suitable spot to pitch our tent… to not much avail, frankly. However, on finding and following a vehicle-worthy track, what we did manage to do was find a signpost directing us back onto the Pennine Way. At which, of course, all panic dissipated and, safe in the knowledge that we were back on target, we set about pitching our tent on the edge of a field, out of sight of human or animal, in the proper wild camping style. We set it up quickly, got into our thermal jim-jams, inflated our bedrolls and snuggled into our sleeping bags just as the last light disappeared. Still without gas or fuel for our Kelly Kettle, there was no warming cuppa to send us off but we fell asleep almost immediately after our first rather epic adventure.

It was the most comfortable night of our holiday (with an obvious exception yet to come) and in the morning we discovered why.

All night it rained. It lashed down on us, we only vaguely aware of it in our snug and cozy tent. And it truly was: snug and warm and cozy. And so comfortable.

As we dressed, now a little nervous that, far from stopping the rain seemed to be strengthening in its determination, and stepped outside the tent we discovered that the “field” we had slept in was, in fact, a bog. The explanation for our night of extreme comfort was that we were, in essence, sleeping on a waterbed. We were drenched. I mean, soaked through. Our waterproofs went on over the top of saturated clothing; Jem was carrying a tent double its usual weight thanks to the water it was laden with. We were gone, dripping wet, and back on the Pennine Way before 6 o’clock in the morning.

A bit grumpy, frankly. And wondering if this was what the entire week had in store.

The next point in our How Not To Do It is about being prepared. If you are 1) in the middle of nowhere with 2) no realistic idea of where you are going to end up, it is as well to have about your person the wherewithal to nourish yourself. We had been clever enough to buy a pint of milk in the Haltwhistle Sainsburys the day before, but of course had no gas for our stove. We had been clever enough to bring along a Kelly Kettle (a fabulous invention in the right circs) but had no fuel for it. And, as you will no doubt have surmised, everything within walking distance was drenched. We had no food (“It’s all about weight – we’ll buy it as and when we need it”), no fuel and were cold, wet and hungry. Water we had in plentiful supply, thanks to our Aquapure (something I would heartily recommend to anyone undertaking a similar expedition), teabags and milk, but no means of heating the water. And we were gasping for a cuppatea. About an hour or so into our day’s walking, we decided to stop and attempt the Kelly Kettle. I am not kidding when I say it took an hour of fire-lighting, half the fuel from a lighter, several storm matches and, in eventual desperation, a night-light candle to get it going and hot enough for what turned out to be the hardest won cup of tea I have ever drunk. But boy! Was it worth it.

What we also had, I forgot to mention, was a bag of “muesli” (but not as we know it). Thanks to Jem’s rather delicate tum, it was wheat-free which, I guess, means that it uses rice flakes instead of wheat. The result is something that is utterly inedible unless you give it a good old soak first, but when you find yourself in the position in which we had landed up, it was manna. We had muesli, a cup of tea and on we went.

What followed was basically more bog, with intermittent rain showers and a few mouthfuls of beef jerky, until we reached a place called Slaggyford (great name, right?) There, both our map and our little book informed us of an old railway track, now called the South Tyne Trail, which would take us all the way to our next destination: Alston. The temptation was too great. “What?! You mean… avoid all this bog? Walk the last 5 miles along a path??” No blooming competition. Soggy and weary, as soon as we set foot on the South Tyne Trail out came the sun. Waterproofs were daringly removed, dry kindling gathered for the kettle and yet another abortive mission to light it. We had a second bowl of rabbit food doused in milk and found ourselves walking alongside a single-track steam railway. I blush to confess that this was the first time I used my Shewee. I shall not go into the sordid details here, but suffice to say I agree with all the positive feedback it has received. It is yet another modern miracle and I salute the person with balls (ahem – figuratively of course) enough to run with the idea.

On our last legs, having walked an entire day on two small bowls of muesli and some beef jerky, we shuffled into Alston and straight onto a set for Mad Max, aka our campsite. A site full of static caravans (basically a trailer park) on the edge of a parking place for skips full of debris and burning plastic it had roughly three pitches for tents amid the madness. But it was very friendly and felt far safer and more like home than the previous night… First mission: dry the tent. Dutifully we hung up the inner and pitched the outer. Second mission: blister plasters on. Third mission: hobble on blistered foot and hurty knee up the hill into town for supplies (See? We learn from our mistakes – Tracker bars, chocolate Digestives, more milk, nuts and fruit, Snickers, Twix and Choc ‘N’ Nut, Soreen Malt Loaf – prepared!) and find somewhere suitable for a drink and a hot meal. The Cumberland Inn served us with Black Grouse‘s cousin Allendale Wolf beer and the Angel Inn gave us Black Sheep and home-cooked lasagne, not to mention the company of two delightful elderly ladies visiting the area for an art course. It was deservedly very busy, that pub. The evening flew by and the night passed uneventfully. Thank God.

Tomorrow… How the hell do we get out of Alston??


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Into the WILD! Days 1 & 2 – the trek up North

Early on the morning of Saturday 15th July, backpacks as light as we thought we could manage (oh, how we laugh at that now!) we set off on foot from our home in Crowhurst to the station, a little under a mile away, bound for our week-long walk from Hadrian’s Wall to Masham; a total of around 110 miles give or take a few… 65 litre packs on our backs, we arrived at the station about 20 minutes later sweating, shaking, cursing and more than a little concerned. 20 miles carrying this? Already we were pondering what to discard there and then. But the train arrived and we duly boarded.

The trek to our destination – Hadrian’s Wall or thereabouts – was nothing if not an adventure; this largely due to the pallaver of the supposedly simplest part of our route: from home to London. Ordinarily a 1 hr 45 minute train journey, in the event (thanks to works on the line) we took a train to Wadhurst, a bus to Tunbridge Wells, then a train to Tonbridge, another to East Croydon and, finally, yet another to London Victoria. So, four trains and a bus later we had covered a measly 60-odd miles. Hah!

After a well deserved sausage from Banger Bros at Victoria Station, the next leg was equally gruelling but for very different reasons: a 7 1/2 hour National Express coach trip from London to Newcastle. If there is one thing I can recommend, nay, insist you take with you on such a journey (and indeed they will stand you in good stead on a campsite, too) it is earplugs. Initially, it appeared we were to be subjected to Radio 2 the entire way, but with enormous sighs of relief, the radio was silenced. Only to be replaced by, from the seat in front of us, the insistent beeping of a man sending text messages without predictive text. Endlessly. Most politely, Jem leaned forward and asked him if he might consider turning off the sound on his phone… He kindly complied, but no sooner had our shoulders slumped into a relaxed posture, than the hungover 18-year old at the back of the bus with a voice like a braying donkey took a phone call that lasted (in spite of her protestations that her phone battery was dying) for the next hour. I quote: “Oh my GOD! Robbie! Who do you think you are? What makes you think you have the right to know? I don’t believe you!” and more in the same deep philosophising vein. Her outraged, one-way conversation was then replaced by  the incessant yattering at a volume of more decibels than you’d need to employ to make yourself heard from one end of the park to the other, let alone when sitting next to your compadre, from the seat behind. Oh. My. God. Headaches all round. And the heat (take copious amounts of water) and the smell each time someone opened the loo door… But we did manage to employ the time usefully and read Trail magazine, which informed us of the wonders of the Isle of Harris (next summer?) and, oh so fortuitously, contained an article on precisely that which we were off to attempt: wild camping. It contained both useful information and handy tips, such as what kind of natural shelter to look out for, areas to avoid or aim for, how to judge it on the map, what supplies are essential (headtorch, poo shovel – nice! – faff-free food) and so on.

We had the misfortune to arrive in Newcastle just at the end of a match. The only fortunate part of this scenario was that the Toons had won and their Army were therefore in extremely good spirits. Nonetheless, entering the station concourse to find it lined with stern-looking giants of policemen was more than a little alarming. We changed our plan to stop there and have a beer and something to eat and, instead, took a train a little further down the line until we could link up with the one to take us to our final destination for the night. Our sanity, whilst awaiting said train, was saved by a charming old gentleman who asked all about our kit, where we were headed and entertained us with tales of his own experiences of walking with friends back in the ’70s – our end of the platform was a football-free oasis.

At Hexham we alighted for a drink or two, having wolfed a pasty back in Newcastle, at the Station Inn. It was here that we discovered how very much friendlier people are north of the Watford Gap. Indeed, the barmaid gave us such a warm welcome (and the establishment was so warm and cozy) that I was tempted to throw in the towel before we’d begun and opt for the B&B option (Beer & Bed…?) But, foolhardy pair that we are, we left in good time to make our connection and arrived in the small town of Haydon Bridge a little after 10 p.m. with 14 hours of travelling behind us. A 10-minute walk with ominously aching shoulders and the beginnings of blisters took us to our campsite, through an avenue of static caravans to the Reception area.

Our next hurdle was to erect our tent in the dark. The (frankly rather grumpy) owner of the campsite had apparently stayed up (good Lord! Till 10! What a party animal!) to let us in. He gave us the codes for the bathroom, pointed us to our “pitch” – a patch of grass next to the loos and alongside the river and then, in a rather doom-laden voice, announced that its level had risen three feet in the last hour. Oh, good. Looked like we’d be washed away in the night, then… It takes no more than ten minutes to pitch our tent. It’s a modern-day miracle: weighing in at less than 2kg (1.9 to be precise), it is ultra-lightweight and incredibly cozy. We got it pitched, strung up a washing line for our minging socks, changed into our thermals for bedtime (not the most attractive of attire, but boy did they keep us warm… oh… and amused), and headed to the loo block to perform our ablutions. Only my code didn’t work. Deep joy. I hung around until Jem reappeared and he stood guard while I used the Gents instead. Considering we arrived after dark and were due to set off first thing, I found myself wondering precisely what we were paying Poplars Riverside campsite for. In the event, we didn’t leave until after 9, and there was still no sign of our ‘landlords’… Thankfully, the following morning, a kindly caravan camper spotted me attempting once again and fruitlessly to enter the code I’d been given and came to my rescue. Amazing how just the one letter makes all the difference, isn’t it? He’d even copied it out in front of us!


The Lovely Jem and Haltwhistle Burn

We awoke to the stunning view of a swollen river and the sound of happy ducks, our tent being buffeted in a high wind. Then, toothbrushed, packed up again and realising we still needed to get gas for our little stove before we could even have a cuppatea, we headed off to find a route up to Hadrian’s Wall. The necessity for gas in mind, we decided to alter our itinerary somewhat and take a train to Haltwhistle where there was, our little book informed us, a camping shop. Need I go into the dramas that enriched our lives that morning? Perhaps I shall just list them: 1. The train was announced as cancelled, just as it pulled into the station (the conductor said it had happened all along the line) and was, as a result, our very own private means of transport. 2. The camping shop was closed – after all, it was Sunday. 3. The wind it did howl… We found a rather lovely cafe called La Toot which doubles up as a gift shop and whose owner was obliging enough to divert from the menu and make us a cooked breakfast. From. The. Gods. We will remain eternally grateful for that sustenance – it was to last us all the way to Greenhead.

After a rather disgruntled Jem had had a hissy fit and fistfight with the map, attempting to manhandle it into its case outside the Haltwhistle Sainsburys (where we bought some pork pies and a packet of Smash – more to follow on the joys of Smash) we headed off in the general direction of Hadrian’s Wall… after going a bit wrong (doesn’t that bode well?) and engaging the help of a willing local. From this point, dear reader, we were walking.

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Thetford Forest Campsite – Puddledock Farm

Situated just off the A1075, in turn just off the A11 in Norfolk, Puddledock Farm is a campsite for sore eyes. Well, after the dramas we had getting there it was, anyway.

My virgin camping trip – it had been threatened many times in my life, but I had managed to avoid all sleeping under canvas thus far – a most spacious 6-man tent had been donated to us and, with funds at an all-time low… well… it would have been rude not to.

Four hours into our journey from East Sussex, having just turned off the A11, my beloved Jem turned to me (I the designated driver) and asked “You did pack the bedrooms for the tent, too, didn’t you?” I grinned at him – he is ever the joker – and said “Very funny. They’re in the bag with the rest of the tent, aren’t they.” Apparently not. Apparently, they were in a pile next to the bag containing the rest of the tent. In the garage. Where they had remained. After 6 pm on a Sunday evening there isn’t much open in Thetford, apart from a McDonalds. So… To cut a long story short, four small boys were deposited with accommodating grandparents holidaying nearby and a rather sheepish Al and her long-suffering Jem drove all the way back, loaded up tent rooms, slept for five hours and headed back to collect small boys.

The Tent

The Aztec Palacio 6 is, indeed, palatial. With three bedrooms, each accommodating two people, we were set up: grown-ups on an air bed in one, a five- and seven-year old in the middle one, and a nine-year old with his two-year old brother in a travel cot – yes, in a travel cot – in the third. Arranged around three sides of a square, the bedrooms leave an enormous living space inside the tent; essential when it’s just too wet to be outdoors.

We had committed the cardinal sin of not having practised putting it up before setting off so, with four small boys in the car (“Have you nearly finished?!”, “How much longer?!” etc) we set about erecting it. I guess it took around an hour this first time, but I reckon we could have it up in about half the time in future. Colour-coded poles and colour-coded hooks for the bedrooms make life a whole lot easier. In wet weather, the huge amount of space and very high ceiling mean that you can cook inside, albeit in the doorway, without any problems. In fact, if anything it provides a little much-needed warmth in such circumstances.

As far as we see it, there were only two drawbacks, really: the first is that it could do with another opening other than the main canopied entrance. The air-flow is not brilliant as a result. Secondly, the groundsheet doesn’t reach quite as far as the aforementioned entrance which makes for damp feet on that first loo-run of the morning, scrabbling bleary-eyed for shoes.

The Campsite

The campsite was brilliant. This was not what I had been led to believe camping was like. There was, a short walk away, a fabulous block containing a men’s area, a women’s area, a family area and a covered area containing four or five metal sinks with plentiful hot water for washing up. I cannot vouch either for the family or the men’s area (though I am reliably informed it was the same), but the women’s contained about five toilets, five separate cubicled basins for tooth-brushing and general primping and five showers: push-button operated and free with, once again, an abundant supply of hot water. They also, for those concerned with such things, had a hairdryer. And the whole block was so warm, clean and dry. Most impressive. I mean, wow.

On our arrival, we explained that we had four children with us including one particularly shouty two-year old (that’d be Bert) and we were directed to family row. Backing onto a playing field and children’s play area complete with all kinds of equipment for monkeying about on, we were surrounded by other families who really wouldn’t give a stuff about noise. Indeed, the pitch next to ours was home to a similar number of boys to us who offered the use of their footballs within a few minutes of our rolling up.

The whole site was extremely secure as well. Jittery at the best of times, even I relaxed enough to let my five-year old pootle off to the loo by himself. There is, after your initial registration, a coded barrier to let you in and an automatic one for your departure. I only really kept the two-year old close (and that more for everyone else’s protection than his own – you getting a picture of the little bruiser?)

There is a shop onsite which is not massively well-stocked but will keep you from starving and also keeps some handy equipment (including bottled gas) to hand. Relatively new to the ins and outs of such posh camping and after bemoaning the fact that our milk kept going off, we discovered (after the event) that they would have frozen our freezer packs if we had but asked… Duly filed away for next time. Two days a week, as well, a fish ‘n’ chip van sits in the car park from around 7.15 till they run out. Wonderful idea? We thought so. Until poor Jem got rained on prodigiously whilst queuing for fully an hour and a half for fish and chips that were at best mediocre. The following night, having bought some mince and a jar of cook-in chilli sauce, we cooked a family chilli con carne with much greater effect, on top of which we made many a mouth water throughout the site as it bubbled happily on our stove.

The stove is an all-singing, all-dancing Campingaz stove bought from Amazon at the reduced price of £40 (from £60). Being a bit of a skinflint, I balked a little at the price, pointing to “perfectly adequate” others, but was assured that we would need two burners and that a grill is a great little gizmo. Sure enough, he was right. It was fantastic. I cooked bacon, scrambled eggs and toasted bagels for six every morning with this little beauty (as well as the previously mentioned chilli and rice). It is big enough to hold a big frying pan and a big saucepan at once. The only thing I would have taken, had we thought about it, is some kind of windshield for it. We ended up using the box it came in, which served perfectly well. I am very glad to have had my head turned on this one.

Not that we used it – we were only there for four nights – but there is also a laundry room, which contains a wall of leaflets packed with local information. Our mission being to keep our holiday costs as low as possible, we avoided the likes of Banham Zoo, Grimes Graves etc, but we did allow ourselves one rather large treat…

Days Out

On our last full day there, having visited the local mammoth Tesco’s the day before to stock up on pork pies, coleslaw, chocolate biscuits and miniature bottles of wine, we set off to Duxford Imperial War Museum.  It took us around 45 minutes – an hour to drive there. Once in, it cost a whopping £16 per adult, but children were free. Yes, you heard right. Children. Were. Free. And that 32 quid lasted us the entire day. Quite apart from the constant taking off and landing of planes such as you’ve only ever seen in very old movies, Duxford is home to around 6 hangars full of planes, tanks, displays, works in progress, cafes… It is small (and big) boy heaven. It’s probably girl-heaven if you’re into that sort of thing: enough for me to see the massive enthusiasm oozing from each of the five males in my company. I think by far everyone’s favourite was the last on the runway: the Land Warfare Hall. The exhibits are set up to resemble real-life situations. You can see Monty’s train carriage containing his bathroom and bedroom, use telephone handsets to listen to voices from the past… Most impressive and well worth a whole day out. As usual with such things, probably far better to bring your own nourishment. For a family of 6 cafes are pretty prohibitively priced.

3 boys and a P51 Mustang

3 boys and a P51 Mustang

(More to follow… tired fingers :-))

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