A Weekend on Exmoor, July 2019



I have always been an independent hiker and backpacker (except in Grizzly country) so when I felt a deep inner need to do an organised hiking and camping weekend it had me questioning myself a bit, or maybe a lot…I don’t do organised group trips. However, this one was different; it wasn’t just any group hike, it was one organized by one of the strongest and most inspirational women I know…Abbie Barnes.

So with the car packed and fueled up I hit the road early Friday afternoon with the dogs, feeling excited and apprehensive, and mentally cursing the frustrating traffic that I was encountering. I had left early to avoid this kind of mayhem although I’m sure rush hour would have been ten times worse.

A quick stop at a lovely pub in an itty bitty town after three hours of driving gave me the chance to Google for a campsite that wasn’t extortionate on price for a tent. Ashe Farm near Taunton fit the bill at £6 a night and was quite a pleasant place to stay, even with the loud music that was thankfully turned off at the 10pm cut-off.

An early morning start (didn’t sleep great) had me at the trail head parking lot in Withypool at 8am (a little bit early for the 10am scheduled meet time) so I sat and read for while, waiting for the others to arrive and slowly they trickled in. Abbie was the last to arrive and I was weirdly nervous and shy to meet this amazing lady I had been so inspired by…and I’m not a shy or nervous person around people; while she talked with a couple of the hikers she already knew I sat quietly with the dogs.

The dogs were the best ice breaker as Abbie loves dogs and knew of mine from this blog, and I soon felt a little more at ease, although still strangely nervous.

We were all ready to go and were soon climbing up out of Withypool to the high point of the day which provided spectacular views all around. Everyone was super friendly and we all talked as we climbed through scrubby moorland, and the cameras were out often. 

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We passed an ancient stone circle that was barely visible and had, sadly, recently been vandalized. There is very little of this kind of ancient history on Exmoor left to see; Exmoor, unlike Dartmoor, is only 14% moorland and many of the ancient histories have been plowed under with farming being a predominant feature of the landscape.

With the stone circle behind us we followed roads and tracks and ended up on the Coast to Coast Two Moors Way, a 100+ mile route from Wembury on the south coast of Devon to Lynmouth on the north coast and looking out over the Bristol Channe towards Wales. We followed this for some time, remaining up high and often passing through sheep fields which were torture for the dogs as I had to keep them leashed for a lot of the time and they just wanted to work.

We descended as we started to hear the sound of water and reached the highlight of the walk. Tarr Steps is an old trapper bridge and according to local legend, the bridge was built by the devil as a place to lay out and take in some rays, but he was eventually run off by a local parson.

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We stopped for lunch and were amused by some very brave Chaffinches who wanted to share our food and actually took it out of the hand of one of the other walkers.

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Soon we were back walking and were following the banks of the River Barle on a quiet and peaceful stroll back to Withypool.

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It was during this time, and at various other times during the day, that Abbie had I discovered just how much we had in common and talking with her was like having a conversation with an old friend. Whether it was backpacking gear, long trails, Vikings or dragons, dogs or other things…we both had the same kind of passion for it. I was beginning to understand why God had made the urge to do this trip so strong in me.

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Back at the cars we all headed out for the 40 minute drive to the campsite…a very pretty location alongside the river at Cloud Farm. Sadly there were a lot of people and big tents but we managed to find a spot to fit all our tiny tents together, plus the cars. It was a great communal feel and it was fun to be camping with so many like-minded people.

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Everyone made tea or coffee (except me) as Abbie got fuel ready for the campfire, and we all settled in to some easy and laughable conversation.

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A quick and quiet walk along the river built up an appetite for dinner. As Abbie got the campfire going we all cooked dinner and everyone learned the very American magic of “pink bunnies” to make smoke move…they’ll all remember me for that one for eternity.

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A kid screaming close by, and the bright sky kept us all up talking late into the evening but by 10pm we were all retiring to the cozy confines of our tents and sleeping bags.

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***

What a rough night. The child that had been screaming at 10pm last night woke us all at 4am, and again at 5. I was thankful for the ear plugs I had graciously been given but they can only do so much to protect against the well-used vocal chords of an upset 2 year old. I was up at 6:30am, again with the child-alarm going off and I crawled out of my tent into the damp cold of the morning. A heavy dew soaked everything and as soon as I was dressed warmly I started on wiping the tent down to dry.

Everyone else started to stir and made coffee and breakfast as we began to dry out tents pack camp away. We were ready to go around 9am but a flat tire on one of the cars had us a little delayed in leaving, as did the detour a couple of us took when we missed the turn…that’s what I get for following others! It was a pretty detour though and didn’t add on too much time and we were on the trail by 10am.

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Another national trail (the South West Coastal Path) marked the start of this hike as we climbed and descended through the longest stretch of old coastal woodland in the UK. We passed an old spring that looked more like a shrine to the ancient gods and felt like it belonged in Middle Earth…a common theme througout the 13 miles of the day.

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While the first few miles were buried within the trees we were occasionally blessed with gaps in the trees. The views over the Bristol Channel were beautiful and clear, and the cliffs and beaches below them almost defied description with their edge-of-two-worlds charm. The blooming purple heather added another dimension to the already-stunning vistas and just gave one sense of peace and tranquility.

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I was setting a moderate pace as we rose and fell along the trail, pausing to give others time to catch up. Slowing ones own pace down to not get too far ahead is definitely something I had to be constantly thinking about as I felt my feet speeding up every so often. My former guiding habits as a wrangler kicked in as I constantly turned to make sure we were all still together…a habit I will likely never lose. Of course it is tough to hike and look behind at the same time and I was constantly living up to my well-known clumsiness as I tripped on every rock and shadow. Abbie brought up the rear and no man was left behind.

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The only thing to marr the enjoyment of the trail were the sheep ticks…I have never seen so many ticks before. Dog ticks I can just about deal with as they are often easy to remove but these little things were almost impossible to grab a hold of and remove. I was really glad I had been treating the dogs since April, and had given them a boost before this trip. I was constantly seeing ticks crawling on them and pausing to remove them quickly. We still had to stop once to remove more than two dozen ticks that had already taken a bite.

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Once out of the cool damp woodland the amount of ticks dropped rapidly and there were few to be seen as we crested the hill and looked along the coastline to Lynton and Lynmouth…and what a sight that was. We were unbelievably lucky with the weather and the turquoise sea below us looked very Mediterranean while mottled with deeper shades of grey-blue beneath the clouds.

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A long steep downhill path took us into Lynmouth, a quaint seaside town full of old-world charm and picturesque store fronts and stone cottages. We visited the flood memorial museum that detailed the historical events of the fatal flood of 1952.

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A quick stop in the national park center was made as everyone but me and Abbie munched on homemade Cornish pasties and then we headed to an old pub for a proper Devonshire cream tea…and it was amazing.

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A nap felt like it was needed but we were pressed for time and we were soon back on the trail, following the Lyn River to Watersmeet where the east and west Lyn rivers meet…surprisingly. We passed the site of the old ginger beer production site that had been washed away in the flood and I felt a calm sense of serentiy beneath the old, gnarled trees that were dressed in the green garb of moss and lichen. Rock overhangs made me want to build a home in some places as the feeling of Middle Earth was strong and the place felt quite magical. It was definitely my favorite stretch of the trail.

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While there were still ticks there weren’t as many as along the wide track as there had been along the narrow coastal path…or maybe the dogs just didn’t brush against the vegetation as much. It was also through here that I had my injury for the trip…never had a trip that didn’t involve something. At least this time it was only a slip and an ungraceful landing on my butt with a grazed knee…and another pair of hiking pants ruined by a hole in the knee. That made me more mad than the fall and the bruised knee.

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After a few miles we stopped at a bend in the river, and the dogs got to play in the water for a while, chasing unobtainable sticks and cooling off while having fun. Everyone got the chance to see Kye doing her “dunking her head to remove big rocks from the water” thing…it got a few laughs and many comments.

After taking a quick pee break as others got back on the trail I hung back a little. I was starting to feel a little overwhelmed with being with the group (lovely people though they were). The lack of alone space and time that I am so used to while I’m hiking…and why I get out in the first place…was starting to get to me a little. Time alone in nature is my balm.

Abbie hung back to make sure she hadn’t lost me, as responsible group leaders do, and it was during this time as we hiked alone that I had the most amazing and important conversation I have had in my adult life with anyone…ever. I now knew exactly why God had put this intense need to do this organized trip in my head and laid it so heavily over my heart that it was almost suffocating.

Sadly our time to talk was too short and we soon arrived at Brendon where we had to leave one of our party behind who was struggling with the length of the hike. (Abbie headed back to pick him up in the car when we were done, we didn’t just abandon him).

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The last mile or so out of Brendon was a steady uphill climb in the intense sun. We were all suddenly missing the shade of the trees. Someone had also cut back the gorse that lined the trail on one side but the cuttings had been left and made walking for the dogs very difficult and painful. Twice I had to carry a dog, with Abbie helping with the other…definitely much appreciated. Of course both dogs were wet from the river still but damp clothes were actually a blessing on that long, hot climb back to the car.

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While I was hot and tired I wasn’t really ready for the weekend to be over. A last conversation was had by the group and then we all bid our farewells to each other. I watched everyone depart one by one to their homes in other places, far removed from the peace of Exmoor.

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The next morning felt good after a solid night of sleep, albeit with some strange dreams and I headed into Lynmouth to check out the little town some more…and to eat a one of those amazing pasties that had smelled so good on Sunday. I had no plans and I was just going to enjoy some alone time away from work and people and spending some quality time with the dogs. After the amount of ticks I had decided against doing another hike despite my original plans.

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Despite a slightly unorthodox approach to hiking and camping for me I had an absolutely amazing time, met some fabulous people and made some amazing memories. I’m really glad I listened to my heart and did this trip and I can highly recommend booking a weekend or day hike with Abbie, especially if you not confident to go alone or you are just getting into hiking.

If you don’t know who Abbie Barnes is, follow the links below to check out her Spend More Time in the Wild videos on YouTube and the website…I hope you find her as inpirational as I do.

Song Thrush Productions

Spend More Time in the Wild

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West Highland Way After-Thoughts: What I Would Do Differently, and What I Would Keep the Same

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The West Highland Way was not what I expected. Coming from an American backpacking background I am used to remote wilderness and being far from help…and very empty trails. I knew the WHW would be busy but I had predicted just how busy it would be, and the amount of trash those people would leave behind them when there aren’t garbage cans to put it in immediately.

Was I disappointed in the hike? No (other than the amount of toilet paper). Would I approach it differently next time? Absolutely.

While Scotland is remote and beautiful, and one of the last wilderness-type areas in the UK, it still isn’t that wild…you are almost never a day from anywhere. And that is the expectation I would change if I re-hiked the West Highland Way…or most other UK national trails; some of the more remote Scottish trails might be the exception. What the UK does have is an abundance of history and culture, and that’s something that I learned to embrace more on the West Highland Way vs the solitude of distant rugged peaks miles from the nearest dirt road (let alone a paved road or, God forbid, a town) that I am used to in Wyoming or Utah or Colorado.

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The West Highland Way, or any popular trail for that matter in Europe, needs to be approached with very different expectations than those you often find in the US. You need to be okay with running into more people (who are often very interesting), tenting less (or at least “wild camping” less) and appreciating that you will run into unique and quaint towns a lot more often (which also, generally, means carrying a lighter pack as it easier to buy food every day or every other day).

So how would I approach the West Highland Way differently now I’ve hiked it? And how will I approach future UK (and some European) backpacking trips differently?

First, I’d carry less food. I am so used to backpacking in the US where you can plan a trip that can go for a week or more without crossing a road or seeing a town, and you need to carry everything with you…and I love that…it’s why I got into backpacking in the first place. But it is rarely something you will experience on most popular trails in Europe, and especially in England.

Pubs and quaint cafes in the UK and Europe are abundant; I often found that since I was on vacation I would rather eat a good meal that was local, and enjoy a local beer, vs eating the bland Ramen noodles I brought with me. British pubs are awesome and almost everywhere permits dogs; I love the atmosphere of chilling outside in the pub garden or inside watching local patrons…there are some good stories to hear from the locals. Pubs were one of the few things I missed about the UK when I was in the US.

Second, I’d mix up the wild camping and the campsites and wouldn’t plan on just “wild camping”. Just like the PCT or AT there is a hiker culture and mentality along the trail, and when you get done with a long day on the trail it is fun to talk with people who just walked the same section you did. Hikers are generally an awesome group of people and I met some amazing people while I was hiking…whether in the pub, those I chatted with on trail or those that helped me out when I was sick. I love wild camping and wouldn’t trade the few nights I had, but I also enjoyed the couple of nights I camped in campsites and could sit and chat for a while.

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Third, I’d forget the Smidge. I brought it as my only midge deterrent as I heard it was AWESOME and it didn’t work. I bought a headnet on the second day which was a much better investment…lighter and infinitely more useful. I dumped the Smidge. Don’t underestimate the greater Scottish midge…ever.

Fourth, I’d change my schedule slightly. Again I was relying on my experiences of hiking in places like Wyoming’s Wind River Range where 12 miles a day was a good day, at least for me, with all the steep ups and downs (with views to match). I booked my only non-tent night for the night of day 5 but it was too far out; if I hadn’t gotten sick and ended up in the hospital I would have been there a day early. Seven days would be a good trip schedule for most backpackers in decent shape…six days for those in better shape or who are tight for time.

As a backpacker and camper who doesn’t rely (or always care for) paid-for campsites this would be my adjusted schedule to not push myself and still enjoy a relaxed pace, and also my reasons:

Day 1: Milngavie to just above Dryman/before Balmaha wild camp.

The great evergreen trees provide numerous protected great wild camps once you turn off the main road that leads to Drymen. This is such an easy section that 13 miles disappears easily. I started at noon and it meant the trail was mostly empty and devoid of two-legged traffic. It was a good lesson on starting to hike either early or late.

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Day 2: Wild camp to 2nd wild camp past Rowardennan, beyond the camping restriction boundary.

The Rowardennan Hotal would be an easy stopping place for a quick, late lunch before finding a wild campsite. The permited site 1/2 mile south of the hotel was a good spot if you want to do dinner at the hotel, or started late, and not go above 15 miles but with hindsight I would push on past the boundary (after a good bite to eat) to where wild camping is permitted.

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Day 3: Rowardennan (either wild camp or permit site) to one of wild camp or Beinglas Farm Campsite

Wild camp south of Doune Bothy or just past the ferry to Ardleish (I wouldn’t choose to stay at the bothy unless the weather was terrible); both offer beautiful lake-side camping spots; or one of the few pay-for campsites I would choose to stay and pitch up at was Beinglas Farm Campground at Inverarnen…food was awesome, facilities were great and it was fun to socialize with the other hikers.

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Day 4: Wild camp/Beinglas to Tyndrum.

There seemed to be few good spots to wildcamp through this area but the 15/12 miles for the day, and being a little over the half way point, made Tyndrum a great stopping point for resupply and laundry/shower. Not as great as Beinglas Farm for the social aspect and food, but the staff were friendly and very helpful and it was an easy walk to town…and a very good burger.

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Day 5: Tyndrum to wild camp on Rannoch Moor.

If I had one single favorite night of camping on the West Highland Way it was the night on Rannoch Moor; the views were stunning and I had the whole place to myself. I hiked in during the shower-prone afternoon where everyone else stopped at the Bridge of Orchy (a very short day from Tyndrum), the Inveroran Hotal or camped at Victoria Bridge, and had the most incredible location to set up my tent. I loved that I hiked, either in the afternoon or first thing in the morning, alone. I can’t recommend stopping here more…best sites are around Ba Bridge, Ba Cottage and the next bridge north.

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Day 6: Rannoch Moor to Kinlochleven.

Waking up to something so different from the night before was what sold me on spending the night on Rannoch Moor…it was worth it. There are few camping choices in Kinlochleven and I had originally planned to wild camp beyond the town. The campgrounds have tough ground that doesn’t like tent stakes much. There are several good camping spots just as the trail leaves the road out of the town (and still near to the pub/hotel) or further up the hill (with several good water sources). The only reason I chose a campground was due to my illness being an issue…I would choose to wildcamp next time, in either place mentioned above. If I was to pick a campsite I would definitely go with the place with the view along the loch again at the MacDonald Hotel vs the Blackwater Hostel along the road.

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Day 7: Kinlochleven to Ft William. No advice here…just finish the trail. However, getting up early and having the whole valley to myself at 5am was pretty awesome….I would highly recommend an early start every day if you prefer to experience the trail without the rabid hordes.


I carried more clothes on the West Highland Way than I have ever carried on any trip. Scotland’s weather is more changeable than anything I have ever encountered in the US and while I barely needed my down jacket and my extra fleece I was glad I had them as I did use them when the sun disappeared. With the abundance of water (or easy access to refilling bottles) an extra layer of clothes wasn’t an overwhelming weight. I was also extremely glad to have a waterproof rain suit (pants and jacket) AND a poncho for me and the pack. I wouldn’t carry a pack cover again unless the forecast was 100% chance of rain, in which case I wouldn’t be out backpacking.

I picked a great time of year to do this trail and got pretty decent weather and fewer midges than in summer. If hiking this trail, or any other Scottish trail again, I would certainly pick the shoulder seasons again. This does mean avoiding Conic Hill with the dogs in April and May, but it was worth missing just to be able to do the rest of the hike with them.

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Recommended Stopping Places…for food and/or beer:

Drymen: While I didn’t even go near Drymen I heard a lot of recommendations for The Clachan Inn from many people.

Balmaha: The Oak Tree Inn sits is a great place to stop for lunch or a pint…or both. The location is gorgeous and the beer is good. A tea/coffee shop sits onsite also for those less inclined to have a pint while hiking (who are you weird people?) or when it’s too early for beer…yes, there is such a time.

Rowardennan: The Rowardennan Hotel had good food, good beer and a lovely beer garden if it’s warm enough and there aren’t too many midges with amazing views over the loch. A good place to stop for lunch but the hotel is expensive and the only other option is wild camping or the youth hostel.

Inversnaid: There is only the hotel that is easily accessibly. Sadly I was there right before I got sick but the food did look good. Be prepared to ditch coats, boots and packs in the mud room before entering.

Inverarnen: The Drover’s Inn across the river is worth checking out for a drink but the restaurant/bar at Beinglas Farm (apparently) has the better food, not to mention lots of other campers/hikers to socialize with…definitely a place where the “hiker trash” gathers. Of the three of us who ate there together not one person had a negative thing to say about the food…and it all disappeared fast.

Tyndrum: The Tyndrum Inn has some great food and decent wine. I didn’t care much for the atmosphere in the restaurant (maybe I was too early as I was the only one there) so would choose to eat in the bar next time. A little pricey but the service was good.

Bridge of Orchy Hotel: Stopped for lunch and had an amazing bree and grilled onion pannini…was amazing. Great food, dog friendly, good local beer and not too expensive. Definitely worth stopping at for lunch, or dinner before camping at Victoria Bridge.

Glen Coe Ski Resort: A well-located cafe just off the trail. Food was okay but pricey for what you get. Good stopping place for breakfast if you camp on Rannoch Moor, or a cup of tea if coming through later in the day.

MacDonald Hotel, The Bothy Bar: Great views but not much of an outside beer garden. Dog friendly and again the food was pretty good (although I don’t actually remember what I had). A good place to socialize with locals or other hikers and close to a couple of wild camping spots.


Many people hike this trail hut to hut style and have their bags transfered each day by utilizing one of many baggage transfer companies. It is not something I chose to use. I didn’t want to be restricted on where and when I would be stopping for the night, not to mention that doing that turns a backpacking trip into a series of day hikes, at least for me. So much of what I love about backpacking is that it ISN’T day hiking, not that I don’t enjoy day hikes…I just much prefer backpacking…it’s a mental thing.

However, I did use one of the services for a resupply box and my shuttle back to Milngavie. Would I use this approach again? Yes. It worked great to have the dogs’ extra food, and some shampoo and my phone charger etc shipped to the middle point. Since I drove to Scotland, having a dog-friendly ride back to the car was essential so we didn’t have to deal with the delay of public transport. I wouldn’t ship as much of my own food next time for the same reasons as I wouldn’t carry as much food. I can’t speak highly enough of Baggage Freedom who went out of their way to work around my needs.


One final word: PACK OUT YOUR TRASH. I can’t stress enough how ugly and disappointing it was to see so much toilet paper on and near the trail, not to mention the one place I saw the plastic applicator from someone’s feminine product right next to the trail. Some places on Rannoch Moor, back in the trees, looked like a trashed nightclub restroom at 2am; either carry a mini trowel and bury the toilet paper or pack it out in a ziploc bag. It isn’t rocket science and it’s all about respect for the land, and for others.

These are the thoughts I had after hiking 96 miles of Scotland’s most famous trail; I’m sure there are more so please share your thoughts, experiences and recommendations below.

Backpacking the West Highland Way, May 2019: Part 4

Day 7

I had hoped, during the hours I was falling asleep, that I would get to enjoy Rannoch Moor in the sunlight. I had appreciated it’s dark beauty through the mists, clouds and rain and wanted to see it’s other side. I was not disappointed.

My sleeping pad was half-way flat by morning and I hadn’t used it for more than this trip…only night 3 of sleep in my tent so far. I was disappointed. I slept okay but not great and wasn’t ethusiastic about waking up when all I saw was was grey light through the ceiling of my tent. But it was warmer than I expected and I crawled out from under my cozy quilt.

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While my tent may have been over-shadowed by cloud the rest of the moor was mottled in peridot and citrine as the sun beamed through random breaks in the clouds. The mountains were alive in such spectacular fashion I had to take a moment to soak the feelings into my soul.

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The landscape was a living thing that writhed between the tough of water, sun and wind and reveled in all of it. I was beyond thankful that I had made the decision to camp on the moor…I had experienced it completely alone and without the hordes that would normally pass through around mid day. And I had also been blessed enough to see her dressed in both summer and spring garb.

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With my poetic license wrung out we were out of camp by 7am. I was surprised that there was no condensation in the tent and only minimal moisture on the underside of the floor. A lone trail runner passed by camp as we were packing up and that was the only person we saw until Kingshouse, the Glen Coe Resort and the King’s House Hotel.

With the solitude I was enjoying on the trail, and the quiet spring morning, I was blessed with three separate encounters with Scotland’s famous red grouse. Initially I thought I was hearing frogs ribbeting as they called to each other, but as I got closer to the sound I found myself walking up on a bird with vivd rust plummage that didn’t seem all that bothered by me.

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Initially the weather and sun was pleasant but as soon as we topped the “pass” below Gualainn Liath Ghiuthais the wind became extremly bitter and unforgiving. I had all my clothes on bar my sleep layers, hat and puffy jacket and was still chilled to the bone and I decided to make a brief detour. An hour-long stop at the cafe at Glencoe Mountain Resort and a hot sausage sandwich was all that was needed and I was ready to re-brave the chill. But once I was back on the trail again the air felt like it had warmed a few degrees and the wind wasn’t so biting.

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From the cafe it was a brief downhill walk to the Kingshouse Hotel where I finally saw some of the native deer, who are renowned for being particularly friendly. We finally rejoined the hordes and despite my early start, the four miles across Rannoch Moor from the campsite had eaten up our morning advantage. We were all heading for Kinglochleven and our last night and final day.

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A mild walk along the valley was marred by walking parallel to the busy A82. The beautiful views of Glen Coe and the surrounding mountains (not clad in clouds) were tarnished by the ever present snake of road and vehicles upon it. It made me sad.

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But after a couple of miles, and rekindling a couple of acquaintances made in Inversnaid, we left the road and were rewarded with the famous view of Glan Coe…it was stunning and took my breath away (even before I started climbing).

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Devil’s Staircase stood before us and it looked like every other climb we had ever done in the US…steep, rocky and straight up. So with that mindset in our heads we started climbing. And withing a few hundred vertical feet I was removing first one layer then another. It was just like every other pass I had ever done but minus the altitude which actually made little difference as it was the fatigue in my muscles that made us pause for a break…just like back home.

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The top came in sight and we crested to a mega blast of chilled mountain air. I quickly added layers back on before I descended, and was removing them again before long. My saving grace was my buff as it helped with the difference between feeling slightly chilled or downright cold. I wouldn’t leave home on a backpacking trip without my Buff.

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The old military road hugged the side of the mountain and climbed and fell in moderation with the occasional flat section. It begain to get a little mundane but the views were ever-changing and were worth every moment.

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Finally the steep descent started down to the dam and then Kinlochleven. And downhill sections always suck…they are hard on knees and ankles and muscles…and this one was no exception. We crossed massive water pipes, two of which had burst rivits or seals and were spraying massive jets upwards and sideways; they made your standard burst pipe looking like a dripping tap.

Most people turned off for the hostel and campsite but I decided to head for the other end of town. I had initially planned to hike a little further and wild camp but I was concerned about my stomach issues reappearing and really wanting a bathroom close by.

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So I chose to pay for a campsite at McDonald’s Hotel and Campsite. It was expensive (£10) for tent sites that were more-or-less impossible to get tent stakes into. I spent the better part of an hour fighting to get stakes in the ground as without decent stake holds my tent won’t stand up. I was glad to have four shepherd hook stakes me that I usually used for the inner tent as they were able to sneak between the stones an inch below the surface…barely. I still had to locate some rocks to help secure the stakes. I wouldn’t recommend this place for tent camping if you have a trekking pole tent…although after watching videos of people staying at the other campsite in town, the ground wasn’t any better there and the views certainly weren’t as good.

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I enjoyed a beer in the bar and ordered a salad for dinner…still keeping the meals light…before taking the dogs out and heading for bed.

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Day 8

I had intended to get up and start hiking before the rain hit so when I thought my watch said 4:30am I started packing up. However I misread my watch in the half light and only realized as I was almost done packing everything away. I had actually crawled out of my sleeping bag at 3:30am.

I tried to be quiet as I packed away but a DCF tent sounds like a chip packet rustling and is noisy no matter what. Hey, it’s the thought that counts anyway…right?

So I actually started hiking at 4:30am and the midges were already bad as I left the campsite in the still, dawn light. And out of the gate we had a long steep climb back out of town in order to join with another old military road…there are a lot around.

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We passed other tents as we climbed before bursting free of the trees to look over Kinlocheven and the loch… We were now on a work road for a hyrdoelectric dam project for a short while before cutting skywards again, up the valley. I could see the road stretched out for at least a mile to the apex of a pass before it disappeared.

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As I left the construction behind a deep sense of being completely alone settled over me. Even though I’d initially wanted to leave early because of the weather I was really appreciating having the trail to myself again like I had on Rannoch Moor. This was the feeling I backpacked for…and as beautiful as the West Highland Way is, it is just too crowded.

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The morning was definitely cold and I hiked fast to stay warm. Thankfully the wind wasn’t too bad and I never felt as chilled as I had during the morning on Rannoch Moor.

As we reached the top of the pass we could again see the trail stretched out for more than a mile along the side of the glen. It was tough walking with loose rubble and large rocks in the path and made the day less fun but I still appreciated every moment I was out there…and it wasn’t raining! Two ancient stone buildings, an old farm house or drover’s hut and a fenced sheep fold were the only other evidence that humans had inhabited this area long before people hiked the West Highland Way for fun. You could certainly imagine how tough life might have been in such a wild and remote location…and without bug spray or headnets to make the midges bearable.

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Kye had limped a little, off and on, and although I had checked her foot and found nothing I checked it again. She had managed to tear a claw off and it was obviously painful when she caught it wrong or stepped badly. Thankfully it wasn’t terrible and I was able to pull the loose part away without any pain. It seemed to help as I didn’t see her limp again until we got to town.

I did find the lack of change to the scenery and the same footing slightly tedious and was looking forward to the forest for a change…but it never came. The forest that was on the map is no longer there, save for a few trees. Stumps and scattered remnants are all that remain of the trees. A few clumps of trees still stood but there was nothing like that which was indicated on the map.

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The highlight of the day was rounding the bend of the top of a hill and being rewarded with the view of the towering heights of Ben Nevis in front of us. It dwarfed everything around it and I was a little sad that I wouldn’t have time to climb it. The top also wasn’t shrouded in cloud, but instead had a gentle draping of white garb around its shoulders. In another couple of hours in wouldn’t be visible to those hiking behind us.

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So the views actually got worse rather than better and the hiking became a lot more mentally challenging. And it didn’t change much until the final stretch into Ft William where we were finally in the trees and on a logging road, and then a road walk. And it was just as I was starting to descend on the logging road that it started to rain…the much anticipated rain was a little early. It wasn’t the most inspiring finish.

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So with the three of us feeling pretty damp and bedraggled we finally made it to the “original” end of the West Highland Way. I took a picture anyway, even though it wasn’t the official end. And then we walked another 1/2 mile to find the Sore Foot Statue and the current official end of the trail. A couple of quick pictures were all I took as we headed for The Crofters Bar to warm up and eat some food. I found a quiet corner to read while waiting for my shuttle to arrive in three hours.

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The shuttle ride was what it was supposed to be. Greg dropped me back at my car at Beinglas Campsite where I had intended to stay another night but the rain and swarm of people persuaded me otherwise and I drove a short ways south to find a quieter place to park for the night.

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With 96 (+3 extra) miles  of the West Highland Way behind me I started to think about what I got out of my experience, what I would do differently, what I expected and what the reality was…but that deserves a whole other post to itself, so stay tuned for my mumblings and ramblings with hindsight being 20/20.

If you are interested in backpacking the West Highland Way these are a couple of videos I highly recommend of people who have done it and did a great job of vlogging their experiences, and are both informative and entertaining:

Backpacking the West Highland Way, May 2019: Part 3

Day 5

It was cold last night…the wind was quite bitter and even in the car it was cold. But I got what I needed and that was a restful and half-decent night’s sleep despite the mattress in the car being a little too hard. 

The nice thing about staying in the car was that I didn’t have to wake up in the cold (or as cold as a tent) and didn’t have a condendsation-covered tent to pack away. The midges were out in force though. After a quick trip to the bathroom I had to don my headnet as I went through my remaining food and left most of it in the car…it just wasn’t needed. It made my pack pretty light even with two liters of water.

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I was feeling good and strong despite not having eaten anything for breakfast; I still didn’t have much of an appetite. We headed out along the old military road at 8:30am and followed the track out of the trees and across creeks for many miles. We passed numerous waterfalls but I didn’t take pictures of every one…just the prettiest of the ones I saw.

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The hiking was easy as we climbed further into the Scottish highlands, and wide gravel tracks made that possible. We ducked under the railway and the busy A road before climbing a steep hill where Cody got stuck going over a stile…they aren’t easy for dogs, especially those with packs…and there was no way around.

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The old military road hugged the hillside which was peppered with sheep. The dogs behaved themselves and kept to the trail…they were interested of course. We had to contend with a second style but it was managed with a couple of amused on-lookers who were taking a snack break.

Suddenly we were at Creag an Taghein and the turn off to Crianlarich. It was the quickest 6 miles I think I’ve ever done…it went by in a blur. I was feeling pretty good and was sipping water frequently again vs chugging it occasionally like I normally do. I was probably not intaking enough water but it was better to be a little dehydrated that way than to be disgorging it all in excess.

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The sunny weather promised by the weather forecast didn’t materialize but the cloud cover made for a good hiking temperature.

As soon as we turned away from the turn-off to Crianlarich the climbing started and it was fairly consistently up for a mile or so, with a few downs. A slightly-creepy looking hiker was at the top of the first hill and I wondered if he belonged to the tent/camp that gave me the heebie-jeebies on night one.

At the apex of the climb the wind really picked up, but it wasn’t consistent. While it kept the midges away it also meant I couldn’t find the right clothing combination to stay at an appropriate temperature yet again. It seems to be the norm for Scotland.

With many ups and downs (mostly downs now) we finally descended back to the main road. A lone wild-camper was below the trail, and ahead of us we were rewarded with the sight of a very interesting arched stone bridge.

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We had to make a mad dash across the road from the bridge as the road was BUSY! but at least there were warnings to the drivers…which I didn’t trust at all. The trail then curved in a loop through several sheep and highland cattle farms, and where St Fillian’s Priory had once stood as well as an old graveyard.

The ruins of the Augustinian Prior date back to the 13th century and was endowed by Robert the Bruce in 1317. The graveyard itself dates back to the beginnings of the early Celtic church in the 8th century.

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I leashed the dogs through a field with lambs close to the trail but that didn’t last long. Despite how well behaved my dogs are, when we are close to farms I try to respect the farmer’s nerves and leash the dogs even if I don’t deem it necessary. It’s what I would hope others would do. We also got our first views of highland cattle…always cool.

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We headed back towards the road and thankfully didn’t have to cross it again. We passed by the location of the Battle of Dalrigh. This was the location where Robert the Bruce was ambushed by Clan MacDougall in the summer of 1306; caught by surprise the battle was a short, frantic engagement and Robert’s remaining horsemen were killed and several of his key allies were injured. Bruce went into hiding and two years later he went on to defeat the MacDougalls at the Battle of the Pass of Brander.

From the site of the Battle of Dalrigh we passed the Lochan of the Lost Sword where legend has it that Bruce and his army threw their weapons into the small lochan.

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A short meander took us from there through Tyndrum Community Woods and it was here that I started having some serious pain my left foot again.

It was not the same pain I had coming out of Balmaha and loosening my shoe laces didn’t help this time. It was tough to walk on and I hoped it was only temporary and something a night of rest would help. If Gastroenteritis didn’t stop me, a little pain in my foot certainly wouldn’t.

With a little limping we arrived at Tyndrum By The Way…the only overnight cabin stop I had booked and non-tent night I had planned for. So far I has spent more nights not in my tent than in my tent and I was a little disappointed as that had not been my intention for the trip at all.

I picked up my resupply box with shampoo and soap and a razor, and the dogs’ food as well as some extra food for me (which I didn’t really need). A shower and laundry were called for and I got both done quickly (they rent towels which was great, and provide laundry soap in the cost of the washer). It was nice to be clean, with clean clothes.

A walk with the dogs was brief for them to relieve themselves and I headed into Tyndrum to find something palatable to eat. I had barely eaten all day (a Belvita snack and some naan bread) and I ordered a burger. It was a safe choice but I only managed half, and barely touched the sweet potato fries that I had paid extra for. With 96 miles of trail, and 55 hiked so far, I was starting to worry about my calorie needs with lack of food intake over the past three days…I’m already a pretty skinny person.

A warm night was spent reading in my little camping cabin as I checked out the map for the following day. The weather forecast looked decent and I was ready to see the remoteness of Rannoch Moor.

Day 6

Despite having a mattress to sleep on and a warm, dry space to stay at Tyndrum By The Way I only got a half-decent night of sleep and was awake before 7am. Cody hadn’t settled well and his constant movement awoke me several times in the night.

I enjoyed the three diet Pepsi cans I had stashed in my resupply box and took my time packing my gear away. Baggage Freedom had agreed to pick up my box for me again as I wouldn’t need everything in it…I had paid for the full baggage delivery service even though I wasn’t actually using it.

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It was a slow start out of the campground but we were finally hiking around 9am and the weather wasn’t nearly as nice as I had hope it would be. Rain was drizzle (or what I like to call “air rain” and intermittent, and then windy but not really cold, which made it very hard to decide on clothing.

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The trail followed the old military road from Tyndrum to the Bridge of Orchy, crossing under the road and rail line a couple of times. We were basically following the same line as the modern contraptions but over different routes.

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A truck honked as we climbed away from Tyndrum and I waved. I heard him honk again for the two groups of hikers ahead of me. I’m guessing this was a friendly gesture.

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As we climbed and descended, mostly gently, the views gradually expanded. The peaks appeared and reappeared as clouds flowed like water over their lofty heights. Rain came and went but never for long and never in more than drizzling form. And despite the rain and the biting wind it felt like a good day.

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Quickly the miles passed as we walked by black-faced ewes and their lambs and herds of multi-shaded red highland cattle. Slugs were once again in abundance but the only wildlife we really saw or heard were the song birds. The sun might not have been out but the vivid yellow of the gorse flowers almost made it feel like it was.

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We descended into the Bridge of Orchy and stopped for lunch at the bar. Dogs were once again permitted and we hid ourselves in the perfect corner. I had a scrumptious brie and onion panini (could have done with some chicken but still good) that hit the spot and enjoyed a local beer…my first one on the trail since I got sick. It seemed to go down well.

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Another hiker from Germany I had connected with south of Tyndrum joined me and we chatted for a while as we ate. She had been someone I had run into yesterday and she had been struggling mentally with the trail…so I commiserated with her and told her my gruesome tale (before she ate!!!).

An hour of warmth and recuperation made it easier to find the motivation to get moving despite the beer telling us to take a nap. I bid the other hiker farewell and headed out to cover another two miles to the Inveroran Hotel.

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A steep climb was followed by open views at the top. I paused often to capture the moment, both in my memory and in my camera. But now, up high and out of the trees the wind just got worse and I was constantly fighting to stay straight as I walked. I wasn’t feeling hopeful about camping on Rannoch Moor.

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A quick stop at the hotel for an apple juice (my beer-filled gut being restricted by my pack belt was not liking the carbonation of the beer and was protesting) and to fill up with water for camping took us until 3pm. I wanted to do another few miles and my aim was for Ba Bridge.

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The wind was still kicking butt when we left but we were soon a little sheltered by the trees and I removed some clothing layers…I didn’t want to be sweating out there. We were now following one of Talbot’s Roads that led from Inveroran up to Glen Coe.

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I was feeling good, despite the extra weight of water in my pack, and poured out a few tunes as we hiked. We passed the creepy guy again. He turned and looked at us once as we approached then kept his back turned…barely grunted a “hello” when I said hi. Weird. We also passed the noisy group of German’s we had passed earlier in the had who had been playing music on an external speaker…how rude.

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Another mile down the trail and sadly my GE infection apparently wasn’t completely over. I had the sudden urgent need to find a secluded spot and dig a hole. I found a place but it also looked like everyone else had used the whole area as their toilet with no thought of packing out or burying anything. I have sadly seen a LOT of the dreaded charmin blooms on this trail…I think there needs to be a public awareness campaign about TP and burying waste. No one wants to see hundreds of charmin blooms on a wilderness hike.

Back to me. The urge happened several times over the next few hours and I had to deal with it as it happened. I was just hoping I wouldn’t tun out of toilet paper. Finally I remembered to take some Imodium…dumb broad. At least this time I was able to keep it down. (Oh and I did bury everything I used, or produced).

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So despite the intestinal problems I was thoroughly loving gentle walk across Rannoch Moor. The views were stunning and the weather was constantly changing from sun to clouds to rain and back again. I reached Ba Bridge and wasn’t feeling inspired; the wind was still strong and a particularly heavy band of rain came through. It was also still fairly early. I decided to hike on and to aim for Kingshouse. I felt like it was a safer bet than risking the weather.

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Of course with this decision in mind I dumped half of my water so I didn’t have to carry it as it was certainly heavy. And then, a little over half a mile further north I came across the most perfect campsite. It was sheltered, below an old stone bridge, and next to a creek. I climbed down to see if it was sheltered enough and immediately decided to stay.

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You couldn’t beat the views from the campsite…backed by Black Mount and other peaks to the west, and looking out over the moorland and winding waterways to the east…it was perfect. Occasionally the sun would come out for a moment and turn select areas to gold, or highlightied the last remnants of snow in hidden fissures.

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The ground was wet but that was to be expected and I was glad to have a DCF tent floor…anything else would likely have soaked through in time if no ground sheet was used. The creek beside the tent was beautiful and ran through short cleft in the rocks before diving into a deep pool…a place that looked refreshing for a hot day.

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It had still been early when we had arrived…about 5:30pm…so I took a short walk to take some pictures and then read in the tent for a while to stay warm. Finally it got too cold to do even that and we made final preparations for bed in the still-daylight of 9:20pm.

Backpacking the West Highland Way, May 2019: Part 2

Day 3

Well I thought I had a goodnight of sleep but I was definitely feeling drained and on the lethargic side. I attributed it to being day 3 and lack of caffeine (normal on day 3) but I struggled to cover the 7 rough miles to Inversnaid.

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At the edge of the trail by the Rowardennan Youth Hostel, and looking out over the loch we passed the Loch Lomond National Park Memorial Sculpture. The park is dedicated to those who gave their lives in the First and Second World Wars and was created out of the former Rowardennan Estate with the support of the National Heritage Memorial Fund.

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The trail was undulating and not particularly easy under foot, reminding me more of trails I had done in the US than those of the earlier part of the trail, but it wasn’t anything I hadn’t hiked before with relative ease.

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It took me 5 hours to do 7 miles (very unusual for me). The highlight of the entire day were the hillsides that were absolutely carpeted in bluebells…they looked almost other-worldly.

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The trail was beautiful but it was already starting to get a little old to be following the same body of water. I was yearning for good trails and differeing views, not to mention I was desperate for some solitude. This was the first day I was noticing the popularity of the West Highland Way and I was craving the wilderness and solitude I was familiar with on other backpacking trips I had done.

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I was finally glad to take a break at the hotel and grab a diet coke. I also got a piece of lemon drizzle cake but within the first bite I knew I couldn’t stomach it. I forced down two more bites before accepting how nauseous it was make me.

I chatted with my campsite mate (Bronwyn from Germany) from the first night and said hello to the American ladies from the second night at the Rowardennan Hotel) before setting off on the trail again. I wasn’t feeling much better although the caffeine did help my headache some, and the further I walked the worse I felt despite the waterfalls and the unique tables and chairs.

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I was struggling and with just a mile under my feet it hit me with violent abandon and up came everything I had eaten and drank since the morning. And it kept coming. When it was over I stood there with legs like jelly but I initially felt a little better and thought that was going to be it and that it would be okay to continue. Then the other end hit me…several times and I had to scramble up steep hillsides to find a rock or tree to hide behind. I was not doing good but I thought I could make it to Inverarnan.

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Another mile down the trail and I took some Imodium but within another 15 minutes of hiking I was nauseous again and back up the Imodium came along with, well, I’m not sure what as I could have sworn it all came up the during the first wave.

A group from Germany came up behind me and asked if I was okay. I wasn’t sure at all and again my legs were violently shaking to the point I could barely stand. They offered to walk with me to my now-planned campsite below Creag a’ Mhadaigh and I was appreciative of their kind offer. I have never felt so death-like.

At camp I laid down for a while and then got my tent up to take a nap. Thrice more I had to escape my tent in a hurry and I finally called for emergency help. I was in a bad way and was concerned about my hydration levels as I couldn’t keep even water down. I was feeling dizzy and slightly delirious and I knew, even without much of a rational thought in my head, that it would be dangerous to stay where I was.

I had some cell service so didn’t use my SOS device, but of course that meant not being able to provide GPS co-ordinates to my location. Thankfully I knew where I was on the map (despite my brain malfunctioning) and while I butchered the names I was able to explain where I was.

Eight burly mountain rescue men showed up in the rescue boat to help, packed up my gear and helped me into the boat. I was so dizzy and light-headed by that point I could barely move on my own. They took care of the dogs and we took a 15 minute boat ride back down Loch Lomond (which of course Cody HATED) to a waiting ambulance. I was given some fluids and anti-nausea medication before being taken to the hospital south of Glasgow where I ended up feeling like a pincushion.

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What I had was acute gastroenteritis and they pumped more fluids in me, made me rest and brought my temperature down. And because I didn’t have any other place to stay other than my car the Dr kept me in overnight (albeit woken very early) so I could at least get a little sleep.

Day 4

One of the guys with the mountain rescue crew had kindly taken the dogs home with him so they were well loved and taken care of overnight. As soon as I got back to my car (an early-morning bus and two trains later) I went to pick the dogs up and headed for Inverarnen with the idea of doing some light hiking back to the spot I had been picked up the previous night; I wanted to check I was okay to continue and a short day with a day pack would do just that for me as I certainly wasn’t feeling 100%.

I paid for a campsite and pitched the tent, just to get it to dry out in the sun and breeze, and it dried quickly. I packed it away again and updated my family with everything that had happened, my plan for the day and hopefully the rest of the trail.

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A fairly moderate climb took us through more bluebell woods, shaded with the multi-faceted leaves that were highlighted perfectly in the sunshine…and that was why I didn’t want to waste the day. It was the first real day of sun we had seen.

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Feral goats were eating just below the path and of course Kye and Cody were pretty interested in them, but I convinced them we couldn’t stay and so on we went towards Dubh Lochan.

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The climb took us up by Cnap Mor and past the circular lochan before dropping us back down to one of the most amazing campsites I have ever seen…it was perfect and flat, with a nice fire pit and right on the edge of the loch with some pretty awesome views. We once again bumped into the American ladies and I told them what had happened the previous day as I had mentioned that I wasn’t feeling great when I saw them at the Inversnaid Hotel.

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We marched onwards, taking our time as I didn’t want to push myself. I felt the occasional cramp in my stomach or minor wave of nausea but it didn’t last and eventually those feelings because less frequent. I drank sparingly, taking small sips more often rather than chugging it as I usually do. I think it helped.

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We climbed again, past Doune Bothy and an old farm house that had seen better days. The sun was a pleasure to walk in for a change but the wind was sharp and I was constantly removing or adding a layer. A small saddle took us east of Craeg a’ Mhadaidh and the path led us through the trees and over numerous small creeks. And after 3 miles we finally came out to the clearing I had pitched my tent the precious evening and then rescued by the wonderful boat crew.

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I did a quick camp check to see if anything had been left behind or forgotten (other than most of my insides). There was nothing, not even a scrap of paper or tent peg (they did a great job packing up fast even if the result wasn’t pretty).

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I rested a while but was glad to be feeling decent and after 15 minutes we headed back to Inverarnen. The whole route of 6 miles had taken about 4 hours…not my normal speed but I also hadn’t been trying to maintain my normal pace either. I was just happy to be walking on the trail.

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On the way back I was lucky enough to come across a slow worm (a legless lizard, so neither a worm nor a snake even though it looks like one) basking in the sun on the trail, and a toad, and a very tiny spider hanging out in the mouth of a bluebell…sometimes it’s the little things. Of course I took the opportunity to take a couple of pictures before encouraging them off the trail so they didn’t get stepped on by the group behind me as the blended so well.

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Back at the campsite I read the WHW guide that I’d been missing and tried to gauge mileage and potential campsites ahead. Unfortunately Thursday night put me right in the middle of Rannoch Moor…not a good place to be if the weather turned…so I was hoping the weather forecast would stay positive through Friday.

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With the dogs fed I decided it was time to try and eat something more substantial than the handful of shortbread cookies I’d had earlier and headed to the bar/restaurant with the pups. The lightest, easiest thing on the menu seemed to be a veggie dish/starter (vegetable pakora) so I opted for that and some naan bread. I ate most of it but didn’t want to push the limits of what my stomach could take and saved the rest of the naan bread for later.

The lovely American laides found me sitting outside in the sun, in my winter jacket, braving the chill wind. They were staying at a B&B across the river but the food at Beinglass Farm was much better (apparently) than the Drover’s Inn. So they ate and we chatted for a while before heading our separate ways. I hoped to see them in Tyndrum, but this was the last night we would see each other.

With the chill in the wind I was a little glad to be sleeping in my car and hoped I would get a good night of sleep…I desperately needed it.

Backpacking the West Highland Way, May 2019: Part 1

Day 1

Lots of traffic out of the south-east at rush hour made for a longer-than-anticipated drive to Birmingham where I spent the night in a lovely fellow Adventure Queen’s driveway (you’ll have to Google who the Adventure Queens are) who had offered me a place to park as a stop over on Friday night. However not only did I park for the night but I also enjoyed a couple of hours of great conversation and a glass of wine.

Sleep evaded me most of the night, and what sleep I did get was fitfull and restless. I was up with the birds and heading north a few minutes after 5am. It had rained during the night and rained off and on during the 5 hours drive to Glasgow until finally settling in 30 miles south of the city. I wasn’t feeling good about the impending hike in rain.

I dropped off a resupply box with my return shuttle driver and found a parking space at the train station…the place most recommended by, well, everyone.

With the drizzly rain still lingering I knew I’d have to suck it up so I started getting ready and a little before noon we were standing at the obelisk at the official start of the West Highland Way. It felt a little surreal to be standing there, having seen this icon in so many pictures and videos of people who had done the trail before me….similar to the what I assume it must be like for those at the southern (or northern) monument of the PCT.

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We followed the signs and were quickly away from the town center and walking well-gravelled paths alongside the creek. I had worn my full rain suit but was soon dying of heat despite the coolness of the day and the rain. I switched out to my poncho and was quickly feeling better. 

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The drizzle continued for a couple of hours and obscured the views that should have been stunning. It was hard to look around much when I had my head down most of the time trying to stay dry. The dog’s raincoats were doing their job for the most part but I quickly realized that my measuring had been sub-par and they were too short for their bodies.

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We meandered mostly through farmland and crossed a few roads, finally enjoying some rain-free hiking tine during the afternoon which held until camp.

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The miles flew by under our feet as the trail was mostly a wide travel track with little elevation variation and easy to walk on. Livestock surrounded on either side and despite the lack of views I stopped to appreciate the little things, like the stunning pink flowers alongside the path, or the first views over Loch Lommond framed by shrouded peaks and vivid yellow gorse.

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As we hiked up the road towards we encountered this cool-looking bridge but it was only when I got closer to it and peered intently at the gaping black maw that I saw how cool it actually was.

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I had encountered a few backpackers and a handful of hut-to-hut (or B&B/hotal to hotel) hikers, and many backpackers peeled off at Dryman Camping, a mile or so before the town. But it was way to early to stop…not to mention I find it silly to pay for camping when there’s so much of it available for free in Scotland.

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So on I went. I had intended to blip into Drymen for water but a convenient creek at the turn off saved me the extra mile. It was quite chilly and my hands weren’t happy with dealing with cold water and the breeze. I filtered 3 liters as I knew we’d be dry camping…and dang was my pack suddenly very heavy, which wasn’t helped by having to leash the dogs through a sheep field and then on a short road walk.

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Finally we were in an area where we could camp and I started looking for a good, sheltered spot. The first one was promising but the neighboring tent just looked a little sketchy and didn’t give me positive feelings…it wasn’t a backpacking tent and I didn’t fell comfortable with staying there.

So on I went for another half mile before settling on another sheltered spot in a large stand of pine trees. Two other tents occupied a couple of spots but there was plenty of room. I struggled to get my tent up as it is difficult to figure out the correct orientation for it, especially in a tight spot, but I got it done.

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One of my neighbors came over to chat as I was making dinner and the midges just swarmed us. I doused myself in Smidge (something that was SWORN to work, so I didn’t bring a headnet) but it was useless so I quickly ate, and walked (to keep from being eaten myself) as I chatted and then be both headed for the safety of our tents to get away from the flying evil midges. I was really glad to have brought my Kindle but was kicking myself for not having brought the West Highland Way guidebook.

Day 2

I slept fairly decent last night…once I actually got to sleep. Initially I was lulled into relaxation by the gentle sounds of light rain tapping on the tent. It was quickly followed by the sounds of loud voices, distant fireworks and neighboring campers making constant bird calls (obviously fake). I awoke to the dawn chorus again but covered my head with my coat and fell asleep again until 7am when the light sound rain was enough to break my slumber.

I packed as much away as I could inside the tent before emerging just as the rain was tapering off. The tent was soaked and cold to pack away but the midges were already out so I quickly packed it away without even bothering to dry toweling it off a little. I was missing having even a little breeze to keep the buggers at bay. I didn’t realize how much water was held by the tent until I put it up again…no wonder my pack felt so heavy.

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We followed the forest road north once again and said “good morning” to a few groups of other backpackers. We then had to turn west and take the road alternate as it was still May and Conic Hill was closed to those with dogs through April and May for lambing. And while it was a bit of a wrench not to do the whole route, doing the rest of it with Kye and Cody more than made up for it…not to mention that it was a steep climb and was socked in by clouds so there would have been no good views from the top.

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We took the road walk to Balmaha which thankfully had a sidewalk all the way and wandered into the town a little footsore after pounding tarmac for two miles. I ate a quick snack, said a quick “hello” to other WHW hikers I passed at the cafe and got some water and then we pressed on. We paused at the Tom Weir statue in the park to read about the iconic local hiking legend and mountain man who had been instrumental in protecting some of Scotland’s most scenic areas.

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Blamaha sits on the edge of Loch Lomond at the south end and it felt a little surreal that we would be walking by this body of water for the better part of two days.

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We hit our first moderate climb out of the trail (since we didn’t do Conic Hill) and was surrounded by bluebells…the smell of them was all-encompassing in the much-appreciated sunshine that was now gracing us. At the top of the hill it was finally time to remove my waterproof pants and it was such a relief to be rid of them.

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The scenery didn’t change much and we paused only briefly at Cashel to eat lunch and grab a midge net for my head…I didn’t want to suffer through another night again. I was really glad that most places seem to carry these things, even if they are at slightly inflated prices.

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Trees surrounded us, bluebells carpeted the floor and the lake guided us onwards constantly to our left. It didn’t change much. It was also around this time that I started to get some sharp stabbing pains on the inside of my left foot. I had not stepped badly or anything I could recall but it got worse with each step until it felt like my foot was on fire. I paused and it went away but as soon as I started walking again the cycle of pain started over again.

With a brief thought I questioned my shoes and paused, while fighting off midges, to loosen my left shoe. Neither was over-tight (had numbness issues with that before) but apparently the laces were pressing on something just right to cause pain and as soon as they were looser the pain ceased. Crisis averted. 

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At the top of a steep climb and a hundred or more steps, and as I paused for a bite and a drink of water, another hiker passed us. I hadn’t seen too many hikers up to this point and we chatted for a bit…this was his first long-distance trail and he was struggling a little, but enjoying it anyway.

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We came across some permitted campsites at Sallochy and I had to double check the name of the place we had a permit for. We were way too far south to be stopping already and the map confirmed we still had a couple of miles to go.

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At about 2pm we reached the campsite I had booked for the night. Loch Lomond is one of the few places in Scotland that restricts dispersed camping due to the area’s popularity and a permit is required to camp in one of a handful of locations along the loch . It was very early but it gave me a good chance to get the tent set up and to let it dry out, and just as it was up a very considerate breeze picked up to help.

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With now 6 hours to kill until bed time I put my water bottles in my pack and headed a half mile up the trail to the Rowardennan Hotel. I grabbed a bite to eat and drank a couple of good beers while chatting with some other WHW hikers, including two lovely American women from Arizona (whose names I forgot) and before too long it was 6pm and I headed back to camp to cook dinner and read a book.

Rangers showed up around 7pm to check my permit, and other campers came in about 8 although I was well ensconced in my tent by that time and didn’t even poke my head out until I had to take the dogs out at 9:30pm.

Three Days in the Brecon Beacons, April 2019

Day 1

A 5:45am start was not an ideal time to start a long day but with a 180 mile drive to the start of the trail I didn’t have much of a choice.

I had packed everything the night before, including my food bag which meant I ended up forgetting the cheese I bought for lunches. I only realized this half way to Wales and had to make a slight detour to pick some up or I wouldn’t have had enough food.

After a little bit of driving around the tiny village of Llangynidyr I finally found the parking lot I had been told about and met up with Nigel, one of two people who were joining me on the hike.

Within 20 minutes Rikka arrived off the bus. She wasn’t feeling great after a late night bus ride from London so wasn’t hopeful about the trip.

With bags on our backs we followed the road a short way and finally turned onto a track that led up through farm land towards Tor Y Foel. We made the decision to climb over the peak rather than skirting, a decision I was regretting about half way up.

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The sun was brutally beating down on us and we were all worried about our water supplies. The views from the top made the climb worth it and we took a break for lunch while absorving the wide panorama of peaks and valleys.

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We poured over the map for a while before deciding to do our route backwards. It was a better choice for water and for camping options.

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We descended Tor Y Foel and followed a track around peaks and above the reservoir before turning into a deep notch carved between two points. Sheep surrounded us and wild ponies chomped grass as we passed by, barely casting us a glance, and two lizards seemed to be in a weird battle of teeth.

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At a trail junction we turned right and headed across the wide open moorland where the camping would have been perfect…if there had been water. It was here that Rikka decided that she wanted to do her own thing and she stayed behind as we continhed across the heathland and down into the valley towards the reservoir.

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Nigel and I chatted as we left Rikka alone, a little worried as she didn’t have a map or know the area. She knew the way back though. (She was fine and met up with Nigel for another hike on the Monday I believe).

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As we neared the lake, with the sun sparkling off it like a thousand diamonds, we passed a cafe and stopped for an ice cream and a coffee…one of the joys of hiking in the UK…and we made a rough plan for the rest if the day.

The trail paralleled a narro-guage track used by the Brecon Beacons Railway, a tourist-type steam locomotive that provides scenic tours. They were done for the day but we had heard the whistle earlier as we hiked.

The trail widened to a gravel path and and it was moderately busy, and as I usually do I tried to be polite and step off the trail with the dogs. All went well until the dirt collapsed underneath my foot and I was knee deep in a hole. Graceful it wasn’t. Thankfully it wasn’t muddy or any deeper, no did it tear my pants or get me too dirty…just wounded my pride a little, but at those times you just have to laugh.

A brief stop for a pint in Ponsticil, where I chatted with a couple of other backpackers, killed some time as we waited for the day to wane a little and then we backtracked slightly, climbing high above the manicured fields to find a campsite for the night.

An old, grass-covered quarry that was hidden from sight made a promising camp location and we found nothing more suitable after a quick look around. Pitches were flat but the ground beneath the grass was nothing but rocks which made pitching the tents difficult…tougher for me than for Nigel as his tent was freestanding where as mine needs good stake points to stay up.

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We both finally got out tents up after I suffered a minor tent stake injury that had blood gushing from a sliced fibger wound. Oops. It is has never taken me so long to get a tent up but this one was also fairly new to me and I’d only put it up a couple of times in the park.

With tents up we got dinner going and I fed the dogs just as a sheep was peering curiously over the edge of the quarry. Several more joined it and just as the sky was getting dark a very vocal ram stood on the edge and yelled at us for 10 minutes…I swear he was rally the troops for a night raid on the camp. None of the sheep looked impressed that we were there. (You can just see one on the cliff edge).

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We chatted for a while but it was getting chilly with the wind, despite our sheltered spot, and with the light leaking from the sky it was time to retire to the cozy confines of our tents to hopefully get some sleep. Planes, sheep and a lone owl seranaded us as we closed our eyes for sleep.

Day 2

I’m not sure I’ve ever slept so badly on the first night of a trip. I rarely sleep well but never badly. I was still up early as hawks screamed overhead disrupting our sleep. I dozed a little longer until the hawks returned and continued their incessant screeching.

We got packed and headed back down the mountain, stopping to get some water downstream from the waste water treatment facility…not the best location in my opinion, but we needed water and there wasn’t much choice other than the creek.

Of course as we climbed away from the valley we came across a free-running small creek. We dumped our water and re-filled even though it was probably completely unnecessary…it was all psycological.

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We followed a gravel track through the pines for a while; dense, moss-shrouded pines that were reminiscent of Mirkwood…full of magic and mystery.

We turned left up a track…the one we thought we were supposed to take but the fence-crossing was terrible and we were soon in some very wet and boggy terrain. Eventually we found the path we should have been on by a bridge…we had just left the road too early and missed a small waterfall at the same time.

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A long gradual climb…and I mean an all day climb…took us towards Corn Du and Pen Y Fan. It was a little used way to get to the top of the highest point in southern Wales but it was definitely more gradual and less populated than the main route.

A quick lunch break in the rapidly-disappearing shade provided us with some sustenance for the climb ahead as we trudged ever-upward in the broiling sun. We were starting to feel like a baked cake in the oven.

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When we finally hit the trig point and the edge of the escarpment we were rewarded with a breeze and stunning views of Pen Y Fan and Corn Du. And of course there were now 100s of people.

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The slog continued upwards and we walked slowly, trying to keep ourselves from over-doing it in the heat. Many comments were overheard about the dogs’ packs…all of them positive and most of them amused or impressed.

Nigel took a break for lunch where the trails converged with the main trail up to the peaks from the road below. The hilltops looked like swarming anthills with as many people were around the tops of each apex, and yet more kept coming.

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We had initially planned to camp at the lake below Corn Du and summit the mountains the next day but ut was still early so we braved the crowds and climbed to the top of Pen Y Fan…it felt like Disneyland and there were even lines of people waiting to take their picture at the sign at the top. I didn’t bother…I’d been there and done it and that was all that mattered.

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A steep incline led us down the other side of Pen Y Fan and the trail, despite so-called “improvements” was an absolute nightmare to walk on. As we were no longer camping at the lake we were heading for an empty reservoir area another couple of miles along the trail where we could find water. A few puddles along the path seemed to provide a nursery for hundreds of tadpoles…I’m not sure how long they can survive in puddles like that without rain but there were a few seep-springs that kept the puddles topped up.

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With a few cows barring our path we turned down towards the abandoned reservoir basin and checked out numerous possible campsites before settling on one beside the creek. Kye found a new obsession as we discovered the dozens of frogs in the creek, many of them involved in orgy-balls and other mating rituals…it all looked very bizarre to see large clumps of frogs all entwined.

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We were still early to camp so got set up early (not always ideal in the UK but we took a risk). Our lovely camp area soon became everyone-else’s go to camping location and another four groups set-up in the area although not close to us.

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We spent the rest of the afternoon and evening working on a crossword, cooking dinner and playing in the creek with the dogs, all below the looming presence of Pen Y Fan and above the medieval-looking dam wall.

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Day 3

I slept much better last night. It was colder but being snuggled down in my 10* quilt I didn’t notice it. What I did notice was the heavy dew/condensation that completely covered the tent, inside and out. Even the inner part of my tent had some condensation…and having a double wall tent makes it that much more difficult to wipe down the inside of the fly.

I was up quickly to find a semi-secluded spot for morning needs and the sun followed me back to camp. It warmed quickly and I was soon out of my fleece base layer. With a quick wipe down the tent dried fairly quickly and we were soon packed up.

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We first had to climb out of the reservoir on a very rough trail that had seen some serious abuse under the feet of cattle. It was rough going and boggy in places, and I was thankful to reach the old roman road that climbed more gently upwards to the point we had left it yesterday.

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Another steep climb took us behind Fan Y Big and back onto the Beacons Way. The views were spectacular behind us and while I kept stopping to give my sore legs a break it was great opportunity to appreciate the beauty we were surrounded by.

People were few and far between now we were away from the main attractions of Pen Y Fan and Corn Du. We weren’t on the Beacons Way for long as we followed the edge of the steep cliffs around in a horse-shoe, stopping briefly for a water break.

The trail undulated for a while which made the hiking enjoyable and the views easy to look at and take in while we walked.

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We reach a monument at Waun Rydd that had been cobbled back together in a haphazard way after it had been damaged by weather or vanadalism. It left one wondering why someone bothered if they weren’t going to do it right.

With all the climbing behind us it was now time to brave the steep descent on a horrendous path towards the end of Talybont Reservoir and the dam. After yesterday’s descent from Pen Y Fan my legs were already struggling and I was in misery trying to moderate the speed at which I was hiking down, and the roughness of the washed-out trail didn’t help.

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It was a grueling hour or so that we spent coming off the mountain and I was glad to see the dam and some flat ground. I chugged the rest of my water as I was still dealing with a headache I had from the time I woken up, and with a half hour of walking left it wasn’t doing me any good in my pack.

I was glad to arrive at Nigel’s house where a cold glass of orange juice tasted heavenly and helped to cool my core temperature down a little. The sun had no abated all morning and without clouds or a minimal breeze the hiking had been hard on the system.

Nigel was kind enough to drop me back at my car with the dogs. We said our farewells and I headed home. Thankfully the traffic was good and we were walking in the door by 6pm, just in time to enjoy dinner and a glass of wine before jumping in a much-needed shower.

Gear Review: Tarptent Stratospire Li First Impressions

I bought the Tarptent Stratospire Li the day it was first released and I was so excited that there was now a true DCF double wall tent that would hold up to wind a little better than my Duplex. I have loved my Duplex for 2 years and it served me well but I wanted something a little more wind and rain worthy with my move to the UK pending. I love DCF for its waterproofness and being incredibly light.

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First Impressions

I had ordered the solid inner so had to wait a little longer for it to arrive, but arrive it did. I watched the set-up video several times and read over the instructions carefully. It looked fairly simple. However actually putting the tent up was a completely different matter. I couldn’t get anything tight and it was saggy along the ridgeline. I tried again; it certainly isn’t the most intuitive tent to put up and I’m used to having to finesse a DCF trekking pole tent. I was still not getting the taught pitch I was seeing in the pictures. I emailed Tarptent and got some advice. My third pitch was better but still not perfect.

Two things I noticed in regards to quality control:

  1. The stitching from on one strap from the inner to outer tent had already come apart. I was immediately sent a new one to replace it as it was an easy fix.
  2. The velcro on one of the storm flaps was barely attached. I was pressed for time and rather than sending it back to be fixed I sewed it myself.

I packed the tent away for my move to England and didn’t get the chance to try putting it up again until my weekend in the New Forest.

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Again I fought with the tent to get it right, forgetting to leave the pitchloc ends for last. Eventually I got a moderately-tight pitch. The biggest issue I had was the sag in the inner tent. The elastic from the inner to the outer was positioned very low and was thus not in a position to lift the fabric. This, in turn, created a serious loss of space in an otherwise spacious tent. It feels massive without the inner tent attached, but with the sag leaving 6-8″ between the walls on the non-pitchloc corners it felt small and cramped.

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I emailed Tarptent again with some questions about the reasons for the sag and if there was anything that could be done to improve the way the fabric hung. I got some advice back and within a few days I took it back out for some more testing. I tried slightly longer poles and shortened the size of the loops the inner was attached to.

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Lastly, while the little magnets that hold the doors back seem like a great idea I found that if I even brushed against them lightly they would come loose. I think part of this is the angle of the door…it can’t be rolled back in a straight line and has some tension pulling down on it from the pitchloc corner; this is turn means that it doesn’t take much pressure to nudge it loose. I prefer the toggle and loop closure on the Duplex for security but the magnets are a great idea for convenience and I’m just going to have to be cognizant of the issue.

First Time Out:

I took the SS Li on it’s first backpacking trip out in the Brecon Beacons in April and we were out for two nights. Despite the less-than-ideal ground (old quarry) I managed to get a pretty decent pitch.  Having modified the pitchloc ends to have Linelocs and cord made the difference on having a taught tent in a place that was very difficult to get stakes in the ground.

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There was zero condensation on either the fly or the the inner tent and I had left no doors or vents open, bar the peak vents. Despite the wind (which woke me up a lot) during the night and the less-than-secure pitch the tent stayed solid. The wind in the morning made it more difficult to pack away with the required “rolling around the struts” but I got it done. 

Pitch on the second night was quick and easy and very solid. Without any breeze the condensation in the morning was awful. I attribute that to our proximity to water, being at the low point of a valley and how cold the night got. Any tent would have had to deal with the same level of condensation (a friend’s Nemo had the same problem).

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The double wall design makes it much tougher to wipe down the interior of the fly, but that is not a Li issue, and because the inner is removable I was able to let that dry and then remove it to wipe down the outer. The inner tent isn’t super easy to remove as the clips are fiddly and trying to unhook (or re-hook) them to the small loops of elastic was a pain. When I got home I attached some tiny rings to those elastic loops in order to make the inner easier to remove. I do prefer a toggle and ring approach (like Hilleburg uses) to connect inner to outer for simplicity.

Final Thoughts

Overall I do like the tent. Tarptent were great with customer service with the few issues that I found. Tarptent do extra QC checks on tents that are shipped internationally but since they didn’t know mine was coming to the UK with me I missed out on that…checks that would have caught the minor stitching issues. They did offer to have it fixed here in the UK but since I had already fixed all but one thing it didn’t seem worth it.

The pitch is not intuitive so it’s worth taking time to do it a few times at home before heading out to camp with it. Once you get the hang of it the tent can be up within 5 minutes.

 

A Weekend in the New Forest, March 2019: Day 2

The sun was below the horizon when I woke up. The neighbors at the camground had been pretty noisy until about 11pm so I was glad to have made the decision to sleep in the car as it really deadened the sound of voices. I slept decent until about 3am when the lack of hydration caught up to me and I slept terribly for the remainder of the night with a dull headache that really tried to kick my ass.

I finally crept out of the sleeping bag at about 7 (which I thought was 8am as I was a day early on the time change) and drowsily got dressed. It was cold and there was a layer of ice covering the car…another reason I was glad to have slept in the car). I packed up as quickly as I could, let the dogs play and filled water (the one benefit of a campground). My tent was frozen as I packed it away and drenched with condensation and dew, even on the inside.

Making use of the Red Shoot pub’s wifi I located the start of the next hike I was planning to do and drove the 7 miles NW, through the early-morning mist to Fordingbridge where I paid £5 to park for the whole day. Ponies stood in the road without care in the world, blocking my way and refused to move even when I pulled up inches from them (hoping that would encourage them to move) but ended up backing up and going round them.

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It was a short drive and we got to Fordingbridge a little earlier than I wanted to start. I took some time to let my phone charge and ate breakfast, and as I let the day warm up a little I made my lunch. Of course, as always, I managed to confuse myself and had set my clocks ahead a day early…having an extra day off work for a long weekend definitely threw me. I spent the best part of 20 minutes trying to figure out why my phone wasn’t updating to the correct time.

Finally about 10am (or 9am in non-DST) we followed the printed directions past Tesco and the post office and out of Fordingbridge. It was a very different start to a 10 mile hike than the one we had done yesterday.

We wound through streets, passed road construction and finally turned off on a more secluded path that went past a local school as well as a very loud building sight. At a T-junction we turned right along the single track towards the main road where we passed what used to be the Tudor Rose Inn (on the written instructions) but is now a daycare center and crossed the very busy A road in front of the Sun Valley restaurant.

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A gravel driveway led us past farm buildings and farmers (and dogs) working with their livestock in the cool morning. We crossed an iron bridge over the river Avon, passed through a gate and the trail opened up into a cow field. No worries…I have cow dogs.

As someone who has been around cattle most of my life I have a healthy respect for cows and we gave the cattle a wide berth even though it meant getting our feet wet. These cows didn’t seem worried by dogs but they were certainly intrigued and I didn’t fancy getting charged or trampled by a particularly obnoxious cow. It had my heart racing a little as the cattle watched us just a little too closely, and moved just a little too much, for my liking. Thankfully there were no calves so the cows weren’t in crazy, momma-cow protective mode.

The next mile was gravel road that divided farm land and we were watched intently from either side by either cattle or the copious amount of swans that seemed to make the floodplains of the Avon their home, or at least their nesting site. And when I say copious amounts of swans I think I counted at least 30 pairs.

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Soon we were out of farmland and following a road beneath the trees. A trail paralleled the road which meant I could leave the dogs off leash. The bane of this trail so far was the short but consistent road walks which meant constantly having to leash and then unleash the dogs…it was a little infuriating and time-consuming.

At the apex of the road trail we were rewarded with views  at the Castle Hill view point. We said hello to another gentleman who appeared to be meditating and took a seat at one of the three benches to enjoy the view and a soda, and give the dogs some water and a break.

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From the wonderful views over the river Avon and the adjoining farm land we descended into the town of Woodgreen where we got to socialize with a bunch of wild donkeys aka Burros (what we call them in the US). We dumped a little bit of garbage at the local store before returning to the turn-off by the Horse and Groom pub and climbed up the road to the common. The instructions were a little ambiguous here and I was questioning whether we were in the right place.

Ponies were abundant on the common but we turned left along the Avon River Trail and disappeared between dwellings on a gravel road, and away from the wide expanse of green that reminded me very much of something out of a typical Hobbit village. We wound between picturesque houses and gardens before crossing a couple of stiles and fields.

It should be said that the dogs had been doing amazingly well with the countless kissing gates and troublesome stiles. Some were hard to navigate for them and provided little space for them to pass through while others gave plenty of room for them to go under the wooden panels or barbed wire, or room enough to duck under the low planks of the stile itself. On one rare occasion they had to climb up and over which was an acrobatic act worthy of medals with a weighted pack.

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Once we hit the road we followed the river Avon for a quarter mile before turning right and climbing a steep incline towards St. Mary’s Church and Hale House. The graveyard attached to the church was brimming with wildflowers and had great views of the blossoming trees and manor house as we stopped to eat lunch.

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Before too long our quota of lunch-time sun had been absorbed and we hiked past the massive house and onwards past horse pastures, paralleling the driveway of Hale House with its carpet of daffodils.

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This was the image I always conjured in my head of manor houses and 19th century lords and ladies…sadly the cars in the driveway weren’t as resplendent as the carriages and horses of old, or even of the classically beautiful cars of the 20s and 30s.

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We turned right towards Hale and down the road before quickly turning left down a dead-end road which forked in three ways at it’s end. Our directions took us right and we passed the sprawling estate that was Hemmick Court…it looked amazing but huge bushes and imposing fences blocked our view and prohibited me in indulging my curiosity and being noisy.

Another muddy stream crossed our path and we were quickly surrounded by budding Rhododendron bushes. A very friendly couple with two small dogs were uphill from us as I put Kye and Cody into the normal down-stay position. Unlike most dog owners on the trail these people were incredibly considerate and asked if I wanted to have them put their dogs on a leash. I explained my habits with my dogs and they picked up their “too friendly” dog as they passed us; I definitely appreciate people like this…so a shout out to whoever you were.

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A right turn onto a bridleway kept us beneath the Rhododendron bushes and kept the sun off us. The cooling and damp undergrowth made a huge difference to the air temperature and gave us all the chance to cool off. I was amazed at how overgrown the path was, especially being a horse-specific pathway. The best part about the walk through the overgrown shrubs was how magical and Middle Earth-like it felt…it was remote, raw and real…and I loved it despite the copious amounts of mud.

All too soon we left the protective shroud of the waxy-leaved bushes and crossed a horse pasture with at least 6 pairs of eyes watching us dubiously from a distance. It was short-lived and we were quickly back beneath the trees and on a path then a track beside log-style lodgings that rival anything seen on Doomsday Preppers.

At the first paved road we’d seen in a while we turned left for a short distance where we were stopped by people looking for directions. Sadly I was unable to help them as the area (and England in general) was not familiar to me.

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Again the directions got confusing as we passed a vehicle-blocking barrier. We were supposed to turn right opposite a house, according to the instructions, but the directions (and vague map) also directed us downhill. It was slightly confusing. I went with the map and the “downhill” directive and found the bridge we were supposed to cross. Sometimes you have to use a little bit of initiative and common sense.

As we followed the dry and exposed hill top (before dropping down to the bridge) a tiny lizard darted across our path and paused beneath a small branch. He was kind enough to pose for a couple of pictures before making another run for it and disappeared into the heather and the gorse.

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The direction sheet now told us to climb upwards and follow the road to the little village of Godshill (where I stopped for a pint yesterday). However I don’t like walking on roads, especially with the dogs, and I opted to follow faint tracks across country towards a stand of trees. I highly recommend this change of route as when you reach the line of trees, and about half way between the road and the creek) you will find a gate. This is another trail that leads you straight to the town of Godshill and deposits you out on the road at The Fighting Cocks pub…much better than walking beside any road with traffic rushing by.

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Another enjoyable pint of Hop House was had as well as treats for the dogs and we basked in the golden sunshine. The same gorgeous ponies passed by in a parade as we spent a glorious hour enjoying some people and pony watching.

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The pint ended and we set off west towards Sandy Balls (yes, you read that right) caravan park and another 2 miles towards Fordingbridge and the car. Half a mile was on small dirt paths but the majority was on the side of the main road which made for a disappointing end to an otherwise-lovely hike.

Back at the car we dropped our gear and walked through town to enjoy a pint of Guinness at The George alongside the River Avon while watching the ducks and some massive fish just below the surface…I’m still not sure what they were. It was a good end to an amazing couple of days. People chatted to us as they loved on the dogs who were certainly not too tired to enjoy the attention…dogs definitely bring people together.

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As evening drew in we headed back to the car, drove out of Fordingbridge and spent a couple of tedious hours driving home. Somehow the journey to get to a destination is always shorter than the drive home, maybe because the journey there is part of the adventure.

If you are interested in this walk you can find it here: Fordingbridge – Woodgreen – Hale – Godshill round

 

 

A Weekend in the New Forest, March 2019: Day 1

I think I groaned loudly when my alarm went off at 6am. It was the beginning of a 3 day weekend as I had taken a day off work but I was still getting up early. The reason for this was an almost-two hour drive to the New Forest on Hampshire’s south coast.

Despite my habit of being insanely organized when it comes to packing this was the first trip I hadn’t been and stuff was still in piles to get moved into the car. I hadn’t even figured out which part of the New Forest we were heading for yet.

We pulled away from the house, after spending 30 minutes getting the car loaded, about 8:15 in order to avoid the worst of the rush hour traffic. I had finally decided on my destination and plotted into Google Maps. Thankfully we didn’t get caught in any traffic hold ups and we arrived at the parking lot at 10am..not bad going for British roads. It was still a little chilly and we briefly chatted with a van-dweller parked next to us before I loaded the packs on the dogs and we headed down into the valley. With 9 miles ahead of us I was making use of the two days to get us in a little better shape for the West Highland Way backpacking trip we had planned for May.

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With the sun shining down on us and a decent breeze blowing we climbed up a gravel cycle path to the top of Hampton Ridge which provided some gorgeous 360* views of the surrounding moorlands. Sadly it was too early for the heather to be in its full purple bloom but the bright golden yellow of the gorse more than made up for it.

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We also bypassed many New Forest ponies as we climbed skyward, most of them ignoring us as they munched on the short-cropped grass. With 3000 ponies living in the National Park I was surprised at how minimal the grass was, even in early spring.

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We followed the track for a while longer along the ridge before the track split and we turned left. This is where the instructions got a little hazy as we were required to turn left again but this time on a “lesser path” with gorse on the left side. Apparently the one we took wasn’t the path we were supposed to be on as when we reached another gravel track there was no path continuing into the woods. Of course if we hadn’t taken this path I wouldn’t have been rewarded by the sight of the native deer (unfortunately I can’t be sure which kind they were).

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However, I was 99.9% sure this was the gravel road we WERE supposed to cross and so I turned right and in search of the where the trail DID cross the track.

We took a quick rest break for a soda and some water for the dogs, and watched a couple of ladies pass by us on horses and they looked like they were having a lovely time. Soon I heard more voices coming up from behind us and I quickly hefted my pack and set on up the road before they caught up to us. I like the solitude of hiking…it’s why I get out there.

Within half a mile we found the track we needed although it was missing the “Information Stone” the directions had mentioned which seemed like it should have been a good landmark to watch out for.

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We crossed a small creek and climbed up the hill, through the trees until we were pushed out into open moorland once again. A straight gravel track led across the expanse of Little Cockley Plain. A large stand of trees stood to our left and beyond that the road hummed with traffic. The proximity of the cars was a little disheartening but they were only a visual disturbance and the peace and quiet was only disturbed by the occasional buzzing bee, whinny of a pony or an early songbird.

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With views stretching out over the heather and gorse we paused for lunch in a sheltered spot. We waited for a horse rider to go by before we pressed on, with more people behind us feeling like a cracking whip pushing us on. Soon though they were left behind as we passed more ponies and cut 90* around a lone birch tree and turned back westwards for the return leg of the hike.

As we turned onto the bridleway we heard a horse sounding very distressed and hollering constantly. Stepping off the track we went to investigate but found nothing. As I sat down to dump yet more dirt out of my shoe (I was really missing my gaiters) a young horse galloped down the hill and through the bog that bordered the stream, and disappeared into the trees…still neighing loudly. At least we knew it wasn’t a horse in trouble at that point.

With my curiosity getting the best of me we crossed the small bridge and went in search of the young horse, and found her with a small group of others. She was still hollering and as she looked young I assumed she had recently been booted from her family. We re-traced our steps and found a very cool looking tree with half of its body laying on the ground as though it were resting from the grueling struggle of growing upwards.

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The horse we had followed earlier came trotting down the hill, and to my surprise made use of the little footbridge we had just recently used. I think these ponies, with their familiarity with people, vehicles, bridges, stream crossings etc would make pretty bombproof riding horses. She took off again in the direction we were going but soon came back and took a giant leap across the chasm where the creek was buried. That was the last we saw of her.

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With that distraction out of the way we got back on the main track. The road was no longer visible and we had the whole plain to ourselves. It was beautiful, and the weather couldn’t have been more perfect as the warm sun beat gently down on us and I spotted so many places to wild camp in the area (despite it technically being illegal, but it is everywhere in England).

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With a couple of miles behind us we came across an old bomb blast shelter and took a few minutes to read the information board. We had been traversing what used to be the Ashley Walk Bombing Range although nothing but the shelter was left as evidence of that era.

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From the bomb blast shelter we were finally back beneath trees again which was a welcome respite from the sun. I love the warmth but it’s nice to cool off occasionally, especially for the dogs.

A brief downhill section beneath not-yet-leafing trees in the Amberwood Enclosure was lovely and we bypassed a tree vibrating with life. Upon investigation I discovered the humming was the result of hordes of bees disappearing and reappearing out of a hole in a tree. They looked busy and while I watched for a couple of minutes from a distance I didn’t want to push my luck too much and we headed off.

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We crossed a turned onto another gravel track/bike path before coming to a crossroads where a grassy path crossed our gravel track. While the left turn we had taken earlier was indistinct now the instructions were inaccurate as they said to turn right and go down to the bridge, a gate and creek crossing. However, the bridge and creek (and the gate, and actually going downhill) were on our left. We went left.

The dogs played in the water for a brief time before we went through yet another gate (so many gates and stiles in England) and turned right along a ride between two enclosures. It was muddy in places and we had to pick our way carefully through. A dirt road crossed our path and we turned left before coming to another T-junction and turned us back out into the moorland.

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Now the sun was getting pretty intense and we were starting to feel the miles we had done already. The track was bright white and was hard on the eyes so it was a good feeling to skirt the Hasley Enclosure in the shade of tall trees. It was a sandy track which made the walking even more tiring and left my socks full of dust and grit.

I’m not sure if I made a mistake at this point as the instructions were a little vague but we could see the green open meadow that was mentioned and followed the track downwards (I think we split off a little early, according to the map). Dozens of ponies were grazing or dozing and we dodged each of them like a game of pinball, moving from one empty gap to the next. There were definitely some cool coat colors in among the herd.

We reached the footbridge that crossed the large creek and again I let the dogs play in the water for a few minutes to cool off. They loved it, and the streams were the perfect depth with gravel underneath so they didn’t get muddy. A short upward climb took us back to the car where the dogs, and I, were all glad to be rid of our packs.

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A short drive to The Fighting Cocks pub in Godshill provided a lovely amber refreshment in the form of a Hop House lager while the dogs dozed in the shade. The flowers were out in force on the patio and the short ponies were almost too friendly…but their interest certainly sparked the interest of the dogs and they all sniffed each other.

The hunt for a campground was a long one and I finally located one 15 minutes south. The Red Shoot Camping Park seemed to be the only place in the vicinity that was open, and while it had vacancies it was also very busy and very expensive. The one saving grace…it had a pub attached.

I got the tent up with a lot of cussing and frustration (this was only the second time I’d put this tent up as it was new to me in September) and then went for a meal and a beer with the dogs. A giant horse-dog welcomed us (a gorgeous harlequin Great Dane that rivaled some of the New Forest ponies) and of course all the dogs had to make their own introductions. A good meal was had before I took the dogs out for one final walk, enjoyed one more beer (that took me forever to drink) and headed back to camp. The tent was already covered in very heavy condensation (and the neighbors were still noisy) so I made the decision to sleep in the car.

For the walk I did you can find the description and directions here: Frogham/Abbots Well Walk