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?

My British bucket list: 100 things to do in the UK

There are so many places I’d love to visit around the world but I don’t have the time or money to travel extensively. Fortunately there’s lots to see and do in the UK so I’ve created a bucket list which will keep me busy for the next few years.

My bucket list favours outdoor attractions, walks and great scenery as that’s what I enjoy. It may look like I’ve ignored vast swathes of the country and prime tourist attractions but that’s because I’ve already visited many of them!

What’s on my bucket list?

  1. Wild camp on Dartmoor.
  2. Walk a long distance path. We walked the South Downs Way across four weekends.
  3. Cycle the towpath from Bath to Bradford-on-Avon. We walked rather than cycled but I’m still counting it!
  4. Spend a night on Lundy Island, Devon.
  5. Enjoy a weekend break in Lincoln.
  6. Join a tour of Highgate Cemetery, London.
  7. See the Purton Ships graveyard, Gloucestershire.
  8. Brave the Via Ferrata at Honister Slate Mine, Cumbria.
  9. Camp on Bryher, one of the Isles of Scilly.
  10. Climb Up at the O2, London
  11. Watch a Highland Games in Scotland.
  12. Spend a week exploring the Isle of Anglesey. Here’s our list of 10 things we enjoyed on Anglesey, including the best sunset in Wales at Newborough Beach.
  13. Attend the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
  14. Take an underground train ride at the Postal Museum, London.
  15. Stay in a castle. No blog post but I spent a night at St Briavels YHA, which was once a castle.
  16. Enjoy the Gower Peninsula beaches. We spent a day exploring the northern Gower and tackled Worm’s Head, Rhossili.
  17. Explore the Isle of Harris.
  18. Go wildlife spotting on the Farne Islands, Northumberland.
  19. Explore Neolithic Orkney.
  20. Visit a lavender field.
  21. See Britain’s only desert at Dungeness beach, Kent.
  22. Walk part of Hadrian’s Wall, Northumberland.
  23. Enjoy the waterfall at St Nectan’s Glen, Cornwall.
  24. Stay in an Airstream caravan.
  25. Explore the deserted village of Tyneham, Dorset.
  26. Visit a tin mine in Cornwall.
  27. Spot dinosaurs at Crystal Palace, London.
  28. Eat afternoon tea somewhere posh.
  29. Discover the Rame Peninsula, Cornwall
  30. Watch the British Firework Championships in Plymouth, Devon
  31. Ride Velocity, the longest zip line in Europe at Bethesda, Gwynedd.
  32. Tour Ramsgate’s war tunnels, Kent.
  33. Watch the seabirds on Bempton Cliffs, Yorkshire.
  34. Go pony trekking on Exmoor.
  35. Spot Banksy’s art in Bristol.
  36. Have fun in Margate, Kent
  37. Stay overnight on the Knoydart Peninsula.
  38. Attend the Cotswold Olimpick Games, Gloucestershire.
  39. Enjoy the seaside at Barry Island, Vale of Glamorgan.
  40. Search for dolphins in Cardigan Bay.
  41. Walk in the Mourne Mountains, County Down.
  42. Explore the remote Ardnamurchan Peninsula, Lochaber.
  43. Take a boat trip to Smoo Cave, Sutherland.
  44. Cycle from Bournemouth out to Hengitsbury Head, Dorset.
  45. Visit Dennis Severs’ House, London.
  46. View the Kelpies in Falkirk. Completed, but I didn’t get round to writing a blog post about it.
  47. Explore Kinver Edge and the cave houses, Staffordshire.
  48. Admire the Devil’s Bridge, Ceredigon.
  49. Walk along Brean Down, Somerset.
  50. Discover Hawkstone Park follies, Shropshire.
  51. Visit a deserted underground station.
  52. See the treasures at London Silver Vaults.
  53. Go fossil hunting in Charmouth, Dorset.
  54. Explore the ruins of Denbigh Castle, Denbighshire.
  55. Have an adventure in How Stean Gorge, Yorkshire.
  56. Discover the coastal scenery of Duncansby Head, Caithness.
  57. See the apes at Trentham Monkey Forest, Stoke-on-Trent.
  58. Enjoy the rock formations at Brimham Rocks, North Yorkshire.
  59. Tour Brighton’s sewers.
  60. Go puffin spotting on Rathlin Island, County Antrim.
  61. Take a boat trip in the Lake District.
  62. Take the ferry from Southampton to Hythe.
  63. Climb Low Fell, Cumbria.
  64. See the Callanish Stones on the Isle of Lewis.
  65. Drive the ‘Pass of the Cattle’ to Applecross, Wester Ross.
  66. Take the train from Exeter to Teignmouth, Devon.
  67. Learn about the historic Coffin Works, Birmingham.
  68. Go on a wildlife safari.
  69. Walk up Pendle Hill, Lancashire.
  70. Ride the Kyle Line from Lochalsh to Inverness.
  71. Walk along the shingle on Chesil Bank, Dorset.
  72. Enjoy the views from the summit of Box Hill, Surrey.
  73. See how the Roman’s lived at Fishbourne Roman Palace, West Sussex.
  74. Watch the seabirds at Bass Rock, North Berwick.
  75. Walk the woodland trail to Puck’s Glen, Argyll.
  76. Stroll around the fishing village of Crail Harbour, Fife.
  77. Explore Great Orme Copper Mine, Conwy.
  78. Enjoy Dewstow Garden and Grottoes, Monmouthshire.
  79. Climb Old Winchester Hill, Hampshire. Completed as part of our South Downs Way walk.
  80. Learn about the past at Killhope Lead Mining museum, County Durham.
  81. Explore maritime history at the Historic Dockyard, Chatham, Kent.
  82. Cycle the Plym Valley Trail, Devon.
  83. Wander around Eyemouth harbour, Berwickshire.
  84. Discover ancient Wistman’s Wood, Two Bridges, Dartmoor.
  85. Enjoy the plants of Benmore Botanic Garden, Argyll.
  86. Go caving.
  87. Go underground into a Cold War bunker.
  88. Buy some blooms at Columbia Road Flower Market, London.
  89. Experience life in The Workhouse in Southwell, Nottinghamshire.
  90. Explore the coastline at Robins Hood Bay beach, North Yorkshire.
  91. Cycle the Red Squirrel Cycle Trail, Isle of Wight.
  92. Descend into the mine at the National Coal Mining museum, West Yorkshire.
  93. Hunt for wildlife at RSPB Leighton Moss, Lancashire.
  94. Explore the valley around Hardcastle Crags, West Yorkshire.
  95. Learn about our industrial heritage at Quarry Bank Mill, Cheshire.
  96. Follow the Black and White village trail, Herefordshire.
  97. See the Severn Bore.
  98. Discover our history at Battle Abbey and Battlefield, East Sussex.
  99. Zoom down the ArcelorMittal Orbit Slide, London.
  100. Spot a swallowtail butterfly in Norfolk.

Completing my bucket list

As I complete items on the bucket list I’ll be adding links from this page to my blog write up so do pop back from time to time to see how I’m getting on.

Do you have a bucket list? If so, what’s on it?

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Pen-y-Ghent, Ingleborough and Whernside: walking the Yorkshire Three Peaks with children

As we took our seats in the Pen-y-Ghent cafe it was hard to ignore the bright red arms and necks of the two men on the table beside us. The Yorkshire Dales aren’t usually known for their sunny climes but we had somehow managed to coincide our holiday with a week of good weather.

Inspired by the lack of rain we spent part of our holiday walking the Yorkshire Three Peaks with the kids. This 24 mile challenge, with 5200ft of ascent, is often completed by charity walkers in around 12 hours. That wasn’t a sensible option for us so we climbed the hills individually on different days.

Pen-y-Ghent

Start of our route up Pen-y-Ghent
Start of our route up Pen-y-Ghent

Our first hill of the week was Pen-y-Ghent. This is the lowest of the Three Peaks but its distinctive shape, as seen in the photograph below, helps makes it one of the most popular.

Walking up Pen-y-Ghent
Walking up Pen-y-Ghent

Our route up Pen-y-Ghent followed the well worn track from the cafe in Horton-in-Ribblesdale, up past Brackenbottom Farm. Although this is the classic route for Three Peaks walkers it was pretty quiet. I guess we timed our departure well.

Pen-y-ghent summit path
Pen-y-ghent south face

The path took us up beside a stone wall until we reached a junction on the ridge, signposted the Pennine Way. Turning left we encountered a steeper section followed by an even steeper section. We had to use our hands a couple of times to pull ourselves up but it was pretty straightforward, barely a scramble.

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

The summit was much busier than our walk up. We spent a while pointing out the other hills in the Dales, before climbing over the stone wall stile. I love a good stone wall and always wonder at the logistics of building them on top of the hills.

Our descent path was clear, snaking down across the hillside like a white ribbon, so no chance of getting lost. Adventurous walkers might want to visit Hunt Pot, a fissure in the ground off to the left of the path.

Looking back up to Pen-y-Ghent, Yorkshire
Looking back up to Pen-y-Ghent, Yorkshire

A little further on we detoured a couple of hundred metres to visit Hull Pot, a collapsed cavern which is the largest natural hole in England. We peered carefully in; although inaccessible to walkers it is popular with climbers. In wet weather a waterfall flows over the sides but it was completely dry on our visit.

Hull Pot, visited on the descent from Pen-y-Ghent
Hull Pot, visited on the descent from Pen-y-Ghent

From Hull Pot it took us about 45 minutes to walk back along a walled lane into Horton-in-Ribblesdale. Hill number one successfully completed!

Ingleborough

Our walk up Ingleborough was an add-on to our Gaping Gill cave descent. We’d already walked for 1.5 hours to reach Gaping Gill, on the flank of Ingleborough, so it seemed a shame not to climb the hill.

Whilst I thought it was a good idea my son didn’t. He was, he said, starving. Instead of a picnic on Ingleborough summit we ended up stopping halfway up to eat the remains of our sandwiches (which we’d partially eaten at 9am whilst waiting for our cave descent). Suitably refreshed we continued up the hill although my son still wasn’t impressed by the climb.

Summit trig on Ingleborough
Summit trig on Ingleborough

It turned out to be a good decision to eat our picnic early. As we emerged from the last few steps up to the summit plateau the wind took our breath away. Even though there’s a small stone shelter it wouldn’t have been a pleasant picnic stop. Instead we headed over to claim the trig point before quickly retracing our steps off the hill.

Route down from Ingleborough, Yorkshire
Route down from Ingleborough, Yorkshire

Once back out of the wind and heading downhill my son perked up. We retraced our steps past Gaping Gill, down Trow Gill to Ingelborough Cave. The show cave conveniently sold ice-creams, a perfect reward for completing hill number two.

Whernside

We hadn’t planned to walk up Whernside. My original idea for the last day of our holiday was a gentle stroll around the Ingleton Waterfalls Walk. But how could we resist the appeal of the highest hill in Yorkshire on such a gorgeous sunny day?

We decided to walk the standard Three Peaks route from Ribblehead Viaduct but in reverse. This turned out to be a good decision.

Ribblehead viaduct and Whernside
Ribblehead viaduct and Whernside

After walking under one of the arches of Ribblehead Viaduct our route took us into a couple of livestock fields and then through meadows full of buttercups. Definitely one of my favourite memories of our Yorkshire Dales holiday.

Buttercup meadows near Whernside
Buttercup meadows near Whernside

After the meadows we started our climb. We passed a few people already heading down off the hill, some finding the steepness quite tricky and resorting to their backsides. Something I’ve also done in the past on other hills! Although our ascent was steeper than the reverse route my knees definitely prefer a more gradual descent.

Whernside summit family photo
Whernside summit family photo

As we reached the summit a couple of fell runners overtook us. I almost felt jealous of them. Obviously the sun must have affected my head.

We ate our picnic lunch in one of the ingenious curved shelters designed into the dry stone wall. We didn’t really need protecting from the elements but I imagine they’re very welcoming in inclement weather. Sadly the second shelter appeared to have been used as a toilet; how can people have so little respect?

Track along Whernside summit, Yorkshire
Track along Whernside summit, Yorkshire

The stone wall along the ridge defines the boundary between Yorkshire and Cumbria. It’s evidently possible to see Blackpool Tower on a clear day but I was obviously looking in the wrong direction. However we were treated to fabulous views of the Lake District peaks.

Stone slabs marked the long descent down. Either side the bog cotton and dried peat reminding us that the weather in Yorkshire isn’t usually so dry.

View from Whernside
View from Whernside

Near the bottom we stopped for a while to admire an aqueduct carrying the stream from Force Gill waterfall. It was interesting to consider man’s impact on the landscape around us. The aqueduct, viaduct and Blea Moor Tunnel were all major projects of their time; impressive structures but no match for the natural beauty of the hills.

Finished the Yorkshire Three Peaks!
Finished the Yorkshire Three Peaks!

There was time for one last photo stop to celebrate the completion of the Yorkshire Three Peaks.

The viaduct finally came into view, marking the end of our walk. Even better was the sight of the snack van as we’d all run out of water. As we sat relaxing by the stream and enjoying our drinks we were even treated to the sight of a train crossing the viaduct. The perfect ending to hill number three.

More info:

  • Thinking about walking the Yorkshire Three Peaks with your children? Please consider your abilities and check the summit weather conditions before setting off. We were incredibly lucky with the weather on all three days but ice, rain, wind and fog are pretty common.
  • We followed the classic routes up all three of the Yorkshire Peaks (although walked one in reverse). I found the Walks in Yorkshire and Where2Walk websites helpful with route planning.

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Our family caving adventure down Gaping Gill, North Yorkshire

The small notice in the Yorkshire Dales visitor newspaper caught my eye: “Gaping Gill Winch meet. Experience the thrill of being lowered down this huge natural chamber by bosun’s chair and discover a hidden underground world”.

As a hill walker I knew Gaping Gill was a pothole somewhere on the route up Ingleborough hill. What I hadn’t realised was that twice a year caving clubs give visitors the opportunity to descend over 100 metres on a winch down into Gaping Gill, a trip that is usually off-limits to non-cavers.

An idea formed in my head, taking in the descent of Gaping Gill and the ascent of Ingleborough, the second highest hill in the Yorkshire Dales. The rest of the family were in agreement. Well, at least with the cave descent; I forgot to mention the hill walk until much later. Pop over here to read more about the rest of our family walk up Ingleborough.

Walking up through Trow Gill
Walking up through Trow Gill

Fast forward two days. It’s 7.30am and we’re in Clapham, the nearest village to Gaping Gill. Small groups of walkers are emerging from parked cars. They’ve obviously read the same warnings as us. Arrive early if you want to guarantee a place on the winch!

The walk from Clapham to Gaping Gill, through the woodland of Ingleborough Estate, past Ingleborough Cave and up Trow Gill gorge took about 1.5 hours. It was a pleasant enough walk in the early morning sun but my excitement grew tenfold when the pothole club basecamp came into view.

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

Gaping Gill basecamp

At basecamp there were already quite a few people waiting to go down Gaping Gill. Each return trip takes about five minutes so there’s a maximum of twenty visits or so an hour. Without further ado we headed straight to the main tent to sign up, hand over our monies and collect our numbered token.

Fortunately the weather was lovely so we relaxed in the sun and watched others descend whilst awaiting our turn. The cave attracts a wide range of people; the groups in front of us included a 91 year old man and young children (7 years+). One lady sat in the winch chair but changed her mind at the last moment. It was a brave decision but I felt a little sad on her behalf. Without fail, everyone who returned to the surface was smiling!

All about Gapng Gill
All about Gapng Gill

Whilst waiting I read about the history and exploration of the cave. Gaping Gill was first explored in the 1800s; John Birkbeck diverted the waterfall which drops over the shaft and was lowered by rope into the cave. His rope wasn’t long enough to get to the bottom but the ledge he reached is still known as Birkbeck Ledge. A French explorer, Edouard Martel, finally reached the cave floor in 1895. Subsequent expeditions have even managed to link Gaping Gill to Ingleborough Cave although this is not possible at present.

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

The descent

A couple of hours later our numbers finally appeared on the board. We climbed down the ladder and were briefed on the descent. Our instructions consisted of keeping our legs still and not swinging around in the chair. Easy for me, but I made sure my son knew this too!

My other half went first, followed by the children, and then it was my turn. I was a little apprehensive, but mostly excited when I took my place in the chair. It’s a slick operation and before I knew it the sliding platform drew back and the long descent began.

Sitting in the bosun's chair, Gaping Gill
Sitting in the bosun’s chair, Gaping Gill

My first thought was how close the edge of the cave was to my knees. So close that you think you are going to hit them. I sat very still. It gets dark after a few seconds and then you can hardly see anything at all. I felt the spray of water from Fell Beck. This waterfall normally falls into Gaping Gill but is diverted during the winch meet. Even so you still get a few drops coming your way.  Long after my senses had processed all of this we were still going down. It’s a long way down. Longer than I expected.

Heading down into Gaping Gill
Heading down into Gaping Gill

Inside Gaping Gill

As I reached the bottom of the Main Chamber I became aware how much colder it was below ground. Leaving the chair I carefully picked my way across the rocky ground to where the family were waiting. Although the cave has some lighting, and we wore head torches, it takes a while to acclimatise to the darkness. Even in the dim light it’s soon apparent how big Britain’s largest natural chamber is. Huge!

The caving club has set up a couple of floodlights and information boards to help visitors. We made our way from one side of the chamber to the other, peering into the nooks and crannies, and standing for a while on the aptly named mudbank.

We watched as some proper cavers climbed East Slope and slowly disappeared from view into another passage. There are more than 16km of passages underground and although I’d quite like to try caving my biggest fear would be getting lost.

The view from inside Gaping Gill
The view from inside Gaping Gill

Once we’d explored the main chamber we queued again for the return. It was mesmerising watching others ascend into the bright light above us. Impressively one of the cavers made his own way back up using just a rope and leg power. We took the easy option, propelled upwards by the winch. Heading up it was much easier to see the cave walls and almost as much of a shock to emerge into sunlight as the darkness was on the way down.

If you get the opportunity I highly recommend the trip down Gaping Gill. Slightly scary, but perfectly safe, it’s an experience you’ll remember for the rest of your life. If you’re visiting the area you might also like to read about my top 5 highlights of the Yorkshire Dales; it’s such a beautiful part of the world!

More info

  • Gaping Gill winch is operated by Bradford Pothole Club in May half-term and Craven Pothole Club over the August Bank Holiday. Check the caving club websites for operating times. The descent costs £15 per person; it is not possible to pre-book so arrive early. There’s a comprehensive guide to Gaping Gill on the Bradford Pothole Club website.
  • Gaping Gill is inaccessible to non-cavers except during the winch events.Heed the warning signs around the edge of the entrance. One volunteer pointed out a grass ledge where people take photographs; it is very dangerous!
  • Take waterproofs, a head torch and some snacks to eat whilst you’re waiting. There is a basic field latrine but no other facilities.