2016: a year in review – my top 10

It’s almost time to say goodbye to 2016. What can I say? It’s been a mixed year. Huge political shake ups, continuing civil wars, the Rio Olympics and Paralympics and Planet Earth II.

Personally, there have been sad times and happy times. I’ve had some great adventures and ticked off a couple of long held ambitions. Focussing on the positives, and in no particular order, here are my top 10 of 2016:

1. Running the London marathon

The first three months of 2016 were spent pounding roads and muddy footpaths in preparation for running the London marathon. My once in a lifetime challenge.

Finished!
Finished!

The day itself was incredible and by far the most physically demanding thing I’ve done. There were tough parts (the last six miles), amazing parts (spectator support and running over Tower Bridge) and emotional parts (finishing). Would I do it again? No way! But I’m very glad to have completed it.

2. Walking the Yorkshire Three Peaks

View from Pen-y-ghent descent
View from Pen-y-ghent descent

We spent a week in the Yorkshire Dales and were blessed with ideal walking weather. Perfect for tackling the Yorkshire Three Peaks – Pen-y-Ghent, Ingleborough and Whernside. Often walked as a day long charity challenge, we chose the easy option and spread them over three separate days.

3. Family backpacking adventures

Rest break near the gallops, Lambourn
Rest break near the gallops, Lambourn

I’ve cheated here and combined two trips into one. At the start of the year we decided the kids were old enough for backpacking. We bought a couple of lightweight tents and chose a couple of weekend routes close to home.

Swinford Lock camp fire, Eynsham
Swinford Lock camp fire, Eynsham

It wasn’t all plain sailing. I oversetimated the mileage we could comfortably walk on our Lambourn Valley Way weekend. And the weather was just a tad too warm on our Thames Path walk. But both weekends were fun, we rewarded ourselves with lovely meals out and made some great memories.

4. Going underground at Zip World Caverns, Blaenau Ffestiniog

My scary but exciting birthday present. Zip lining in caves, crawling through tunnels and scaling the side of the caverns. Are you brave enough to tackle Zip World Caverns?

Zip World Caverns training
Zip World Caverns training

5. Watching a Midsummer’s Night Dream, Creation Theatre, Oxford

“Quick, follow me. Walk in zigzags and blink your eyes really fast. Get in the van, hurry”. Think of Shakespeare and you don’t generally think of being bundled into a van in a public car park. Or taking part in an audition. Or popping into the printers to pick up wedding invites.

Part immersive performance, part treasure trail around Oxford this was an incredibly imaginative version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream from Creation Theatre. It was simply the best production I have ever seen.

6. Descending into Gaping Gill

Waiting for the Gaping Gill descent
Waiting for the Gaping Gill descent

This was an unplanned, but welcome addition, to our Yorkshire Dales holiday. After spotting an advert in a local cafe we siezed the opportunity to descend 100m by winch into Gaping Gill, a large pothole. We had to contend with an early start and a couple of hours queuing but it was worth the wait!

7. Finally finding a bee orchid. And then another. And another.

Bee orchid, Warburg nature reserve
Bee orchid, Warburg nature reserve

You know the saying about waiting for buses? Well this year I could have substituted the words ‘bee orchid’. I was so happy to find my first bee orchid at Warburg Nature Reserve, closely followed by several more discoveries. I even found one on a roadside verge whilst out on my lunchtime walk. How could I possibly have missed them in previous years?

8. Giant’s Causeway, County Antrim

Giant's Causeway
Giant’s Causeway

I’ve wanted to visit Giant’s Causeway for many years. It has been on my bucket list forever. With expectations so high, thank god it lived up to them!

9. Watching coypu at our campsite in France

Coypu at Milin de Kerhe campsite, Brittany
Coypu at Milin de Kerhe campsite, Brittany

Whilst on holiday in Brittany my favourite activity was watching a family of coypu living near our campsite. I’d head down to the river every evening, about half an hour before dusk, and wait patiently for them to appear. I was childishly excited at the first glimpse of the coypu each night, and even more so whenever the young appeared.

10. Starlings and moon rise at Otmoor

Moon from RSPB Otmoor
Moon from RSPB Otmoor

Over recent years we’ve made an annual pilgrimage to watch the starling murmuration at RSPB Otmoor. This year, in addition to 40,000 starlings, we were treated to the most amazing moon rise. Two spectacular natural sights in one day!

What are my plans for 2017? We’re keeping things flexible at the moment but I have a very long UK bucket list which I’m hoping to make a dent in. How about you?

Share this:

Backpacking the Thames Path trail, Oxfordshire

After our last backpack along the Lambourn Valley Way I was keen to attempt another overnight trip with the family. This time I was under strict instructions to make the walk shorter. Fortunately I had such a trip up my sleeve. A walk from Oxford along the Thames Path to a small campsite near Eynsham, returning by a different route the next day; a total of around 10 miles.

Port Meadow and River Thames, Oxford
Port Meadow and River Thames, Oxford

Day 1: Oxford to Eynsham along the Thames Path National Trail

The Thames Path National Trail runs for 184 miles from the Cotswolds until it meets the Thames Barrier in Greenwich. We joined it a few minutes walk from Oxford railway station; the traffic noise and fumes of Botley Road magically disappearing just a few feet along the path.

The first stretch from Oxford to Wolvercote was packed with families and groups enjoying the weather. Helped of course by two pubs conveniently located just off the trail. We watched as the cattle and ponies of Port Meadow paddled in the shallows, trying to escape the afternoon heat.

Mutiny on the Thames Path - too hot to walk!
Mutiny on the Thames Path – too hot to walk!

Once past Wolvercote the path was much quieter with only the occassional walker or cyclist. The local wildlife appreciated the peace; a heron and little egret perched photogenically on a dead tree trunk. Although of course they flew off just as I attempted a photograph.

At one point we came across an elderly couple swimming au naturel in the river. We were walking beside a stretch of overgrown bank so I’m assuming they couldn’t see us. Let’s just say their shouted conversations to each other made us all smile!

Whilst the walk was much shorter than our last trip I couldn’t do anything about the weather. Hot and sunny. Bliss. Unless you’re walking with a backpack in which case it means sweaty backs and complaints from the kids about how warm it is.

Swinford Lock campsite, Eynsham
Swinford Lock campsite, Eynsham

Swinford Lock campsite, Eynsham

We reached Swinford Lock campsite late afternoon. The Environment Agency runs a number of basic campsites on lock islands along the Thames. A toilet, a water tap and a fire pit were the only facilities but for one night what else do you need?

After pitching the tent we walked into the nearby village of Eynsham. Despite living only a few miles away I’d never visited before. It’s definitely the kind of place I can imagine living; a large thriving village with lots of community spirit and good transport links.

Something we rustled up on the camp fire (or maybe The Bayleaf Restaurant, Eynsham)
Something we rustled up on the camp fire (or maybe The Bayleaf Restaurant, Eynsham)

Eynsham is also home to several eateries and inns. We don’t carry cooking equipment on our overnight backpacks as we like to treat ourselves and eat out. Hence we dined at The Bayleaf, a restaurant serving Bangladeshi and Indian food, before a slow walk back to our campsite collecting firewood on the way.

At the campsite we were still the only tent on the island. When I’d phoned earlier in the week the lock-keeper had advised there were seven others booked in. But nobody else arrived and we ended up with our own private camping island. How lucky we were!

Swinford Lock camp fire, Eynsham
Swinford Lock camp fire, Eynsham

Every campsite needs a campfire so we set about building one. It took a while to light but eventually some toilet paper and old receipts did the trick. Fortunately I’d managed to buy marshmallows in the local shop for the kids to toast; it’s lovely there are some family traditions they haven’t grown out of yet.

We went to bed shortly after sunset. Further along the riverside a wedding party was in full swing and we were woken by the music several times in the night.

Sunset from Swinford Lock campsite, Eynsham
Sunset from Swinford Lock campsite, Eynsham

Day 2: Eynsham to Oxford

The morning dawned cloudy, ideal weather for walking. After a trip into Eynsham for breakfast provisions (fresh pain-au-chocolat and croissants) we packed our tents and continued our walk along the Thames Path. We passed the remnants of the wedding party camp, I’d imagine there were quite a few sore heads that morning.

Just before the next lock we turned away from the river. I thought I’d planned a scenic walk around Farmoor Reservoir but the path I’d chosen took us outside the boundary instead. Next to the sewage works. Whoops.

Hot chocolate at Farmoor reservoir
Hot chocolate at Farmoor reservoir

We eventually reached the main entrance to the Reservoir and made our way through the car park. I was delighted to see people drinking coffee outside the sailing club. How I’d missed my morning cuppa! For the grand sum of £2.30 we spent the next half-hour drinking two mugs of coffee and two of hot chocolate whilst watching sailing races on the reservoir.

Japanese knotweed footpath invasion!
Japanese knotweed footpath invasion!

After leaving Farmoor the next couple of miles took us through crop fields. We thought we’d lost the footpath at one stage but discovered it hidden under an invasion of Japanese Knotweed. Incredible just how overgrown the path was!

The last mile was through the outskirts of Oxford. Some lovely houses to look at but not exactly backpacking territory. It was tempting to stop at one of the bus stops and cover the final mile on wheels. But we resisted, and I’m glad we did. It was good to complete the trip under our own steam.

So that’s our second backpacking trip ticked off. I wonder if we’ll be able to squeeze another one in before the end of summer? And if so, where will we go?

More info

  • A list of Environment Agency and other commercial campsites close to the River Thames can be found here. The Environment Agency campsites are open to walkers, cyclists and river users only; there are no parking facilities close by. Our pitch (2 backpacking tents, 2 adults and 2 children) cost £14 for the night.
Share this:

Backpacking the Lambourn Valley Way, Berkshire

Sometimes you don’t need to travel far for an adventure. Whilst my younger self demanded exciting experiences or exotic destinations last weekend we hopped on a couple of buses, hoisted on our backpacks and walked the Lambourn Valley Way.

Lambourn Valley Way
Lambourn Valley Way

The Lambourn Valley Way is a 20 mile walk, running from White Horse Hill, Uffington in Oxfordshire to Newbury in Berkshire via the horse racing village of Lambourn. There are no dramatic mountain vistas but plenty of downland views, farmland and racing gallops. We split the walk over two days, camping overnight at Farncombe Farm near Lambourn.

This was our first backpacking trip with the kids. Aged 11 and 13 years they’re used to walking reasonable distances and both were looking forward to the adventure. They were carrying their sleeping bags, mats and change of clothes whilst we also carried a tent each. We didn’t bother with cooking equipment as we ate out for a treat.

Start of the Lambourn Valley Way
Start of the Lambourn Valley Way

Uffington to Lambourn

We arrived in Uffington, ate a late lunch and after fortifying ourselves with additional cake set off on our backpack. There were a couple of extra miles to the official start of the Lambourn Valley Way but our feet and shoulders were fresh so we hardly noticed it. We did notice the ominous sign below; a pity we didn’t see any!

"<yoastmark

Our afternoon walk took us across chalk downland and alongside racing gallops. Away from the busy White Horse and Uffington Castle we walked the downs alone, treated to a landscape of gently rolling hills and serenaded by skylarks.

Further on we walked beside the gallops. I’m sure that if we’d been thundering along them on racehorses we’d have reached the end in no time at all. But we weren’t. And the path and gallops seemed to stretch into the distance forever. Not my favourite part of the walk.

The gallops, Lambourn
The gallops, Lambourn

We finally made it to Lambourn an hour later than planned. The village and surrounding area are synonymous with horse racing and there are more than 50 local racing yards. According to the Lambourn village website the valley has a higher ratio of horses to humans than anywhere else in the country. Yet we didn’t see a single racehorse!

Overnight in Lambourn

We had one more mile ahead of us, away from the official trail, out to Farncombe Farm campsite. The direct route was along the edge of the road; no separate footpath but relatively quiet and easy to hop on the grass verge if a car came by.

Farncombe Farm campsite, Lambourn
Farncombe Farm campsite, Lambourn

It was great to arrive and deposit our rucksacks for the evening. I was surprised we were the only campers on site although there were a couple of caravans at the other end of the field.

The only downside of the location was the extra walk to and from Lambourn for our evening pub meal. But our dinner at The George was worth it. The pub is the local racing hang out with horse racing on the TV, horse pictures on the wall and racing yard staff in the bar. Service and food were both excellent, a great meal out.

Eating our way along the Lambourn Valley Way
Eating our way along the Lambourn Valley Way

Our night on the campsite passed peacefully and not quite as cold as the weather forecast had suggested. After drying the tents we packed up and tackled the road into Lambourn one last time. The campsite owner did point out an alternative route back into Lambourn but it involved crossing a field of cows.

The road to Lambourn
The road to Lambourn

Lambourn to Newbury

After an excellent breakfast at The Café Lambourn, we pulled our rucksacks onto sore shoulders and headed out along the trail. Unlike the downland walk the previous day our route took us from village to village, sometimes following the river, other times the disused railway track which once ran to Newbury.

Rest stop, East Garston
Rest stop, East Garston

We passed through East Garston, an idyllic village where the River Lambourn separates many of the houses from the main road. The river is actually a chalk stream; crystal clear and inviting in May but troublesome in flood. The area suffered significant damage in February 2014 and it would be wise not to walk this route if flooding is likely.

The scenery was varied; not spectacular but the type of countryside where you’d go for a leisurely afternoon ramble or dog walk. We followed footpaths through fields of bright yellow rapeseed, across someone’s garden and amongst woodland. We stroked horses, avoided cowpats and heard our first cuckoo of the year.

The Lambourn Valley Way
The Lambourn Valley Way

We stopped for a short break in Great Shefford to buy ice creams. I would like to point out we don’t normally live on chips, fried breakfasts, cake and ice cream but I figured we were doing plenty of exercise so treats were allowed.

As we skirted around Welford we were worried by a ‘Bull in field’ sign. We had little choice but to walk quickly through the field. Fortunately the bull was nowhere to be seen. However my daughter spotted something much more exciting. For the last two years the Great British Bake Off has been filmed in Welford Park and she is convinced she saw the tent that it’s filmed in. Personally I was just keen to get away from the bull!

Lambourn River
Lambourn River

We made a couple of grisly discoveries along a footpath near Boxford. Two partially decomposed animal skeletons. We decided they were young badgers until we walked through the next field, full of sows with piglets. The sows were kept inside their pens by electric fencing but the piglets could easily walk under it without getting zapped. I’m guessing a few wandered away from their mums and met with an unfortunate end.

Piglets near Boxford
Piglets near Boxford

The final stretch to Newbury

At Bagnor it’s possible to take a short detour to Donnington Castle. This is worth the extra leg work if you haven’t visited before but we’ve been several times so I was happy to miss it out.

The last couple of miles were hard-going. Blistered feet, sore shoulders and, amazingly, we were all hungry again!

Unusual building, Speen
Unusual building, Speen

I stopped to take a photo of the building above, perched on stone mushrooms in Speen. I had hoped to read more about it on the Internet once home but couldn’t find any information. Any ideas?

It was a relief to finally reach Newbury and dive into the nearest shop for some snacks. Even more of a relief to get to the railway station and collapse into our seats for the journey home. Back in our home town we treated ourselves to a taxi for the final part of our adventure.

Kennet and Avon canal at Newbury
Kennet and Avon canal at Newbury

I’m already looking forward to our next backpacking trip but I’ll pay closer attention to the total mileage. Once I added in the extra distance from the bus stop to the start and the walk out (and back) to the campsite twice it totalled 26 miles. On a warm weekend. With kids. Carrying backpacking gear.

More info

Share this: