Scaring myself at Zip World caverns, Blaenau Ffestiniog, Gwynedd

I wasn’t sure whether to be nervous or excited when my partner bought me a birthday voucher for Zip World caverns. Billed as an exhilarating underground journey using zip lines, rope bridges, via ferrata and tunnels, it’s one of the experiences that’s taking adventure tourism to a new level in North Wales.

Based at Llechwedd Slate Mine the site also provides the opportunity to ride on a four person zip line and bounce on an underground trampoline. But I think the Caverns Experience is definitely the most exciting!

Kitting up

My adventure started in the kit room. As well as myself, there were two family groups ranging in age from 11-55 years. Following the instructor, the eight of us stepped into harnesses, tightened belts and buckles, attached the trolley (zip lining device) then donned helmet and gloves. We almost looked like we knew what we were doing.

Zip World Caverns training
Zip World Caverns training

Part 1 training

After a brief introduction we stepped outside for our first training session. On the ground we were shown how to click our harness system onto the safety cable.

Outdoor training area at Zip World Caverns
Outdoor training area at Zip World Caverns

If you’ve tackled a Go Ape course you’ll be familiar with the safety cable system. Zip World uses something slightly different, CliC-iT, which relies on magnets between the two lanyard connectors to stop accidental unclipping. You are only able to have one connector unattached at any one time which is reassuring. However it does require practice and this was our opportunity. Best to perfect it on the ground in daylight.

Part 2 training

We soon graduated into the second training area. Led inside the cave, we passed the underground trampolines in Bounce Below, where my kids were burning off some energy, to reach a ladder and small set of zip wires.

Here we were shown how to attach the trolley to the zip line (with the wobbly bit next to your nose) and how to hold the device when ziplining. And then we were let loose on the mini zip wire course.

Indoor training area at Zip World Caverns
Indoor training area at Zip World Caverns

Rather nervously, I climbed the ladder to the highest zip line, clipped on and launched myself off. Although daunting I’ve tackled enough zip lines to know that the step off the safety ledge is the hardest part. Before long, I had zoomed back and forth across the cave several times until I reached floor level.

If, after this stage, you decide you don’t want to go into the caverns there’s a chance to pull out and get a full refund. Everyone in our group was happy to continue so we walked back through to the caverns.

Onto the caverns

The instructor leaves you after the training sessions and you complete the course at your own pace (although you’ll always have people in front and behind). The caverns are monitored by a myriad of CCTV cameras so if you get stuck you can raise your hand and wait for help.

The training sessions were very good at familiarising us with the equipment. But they in no way prepare you for the environment that you encounter in the caverns themselves. From my perspective that’s actually a good thing; I prefer not to know. But if you want to, then read on.

The zip wires

The first part of the cavern adventure is all about the zip wires. There are evidently ten of them but I wasn’t counting, just focussing on making sure I’d attached myself correctly.

The zip wires start high then get lower and longer as you progress through the course. A couple at the end have a very fast landing. I discovered the trick is to start moving your legs a little just as you approach the end so that you’re ready. I’m not sure this makes the slightest difference but it gave me something to focus on apart from the impending cavern wall. If all else fails there’s plenty of crash mat protection!

Inside Zip World Caverns
Inside Zip World Caverns

There’s a photo opportunity on zip line number nine and although I remembered to smile for the camera I also put my arm in front of my face. No souvenir photograph for me then.

The via ferrata

Popular in the Italian Dolomites, via ferrata are a way of traversing cliffs using metal rungs, ladders and bridges. The second half of our route took us along the edge of the cavern wall, up and down ladders and across a variety of bridges. I shuffled across tree trunks, crawled through tunnels and clambered up rope nets.

This part of the course was much harder for me as I don’t like the exposure that comes with heights. I found it tricky balancing on an iron foot hold, holding on to a rung above me and attempting to re-clip my leads on to the next wire. All the time trying not to look down. I admit it, I was scared.

I wasn’t the only scared person. There were plenty of shrieks coming from all around, which did little to reassure me. Although the family in front kept an eye on me, gleefully telling me how difficult the next parts were. After an hour or so I was happy and relieved to reach the end of the course, but slightly disappointed there wasn’t a final zip wire to ride.

Would I go again? As most of the adventure relates to not knowing what to expect I wouldn’t rush back to do the same thing. However there’s lots of other experiences to try out. In fact, I’ve already added a trip on Velocity, Europe’s longest zip ride, to my UK bucket list so I’ll be back.

More info

  • Are you brave enough? If so the Zip World website details a myriad of adventure options to part you from your cash. The caverns adventure lasts 2-3 hours and costs £60.
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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. If you’re looking for a picnic spot this is a great location; it’s one of my 15 best picnic sites in Oxfordshire.

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 bought 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.
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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.
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A family trip on the Caledonian Sleeper; London to Fort William and on to Mallaig

Flying has lost its allure and sitting in traffic on the M6 has never had any but there was an air of anticipation as we waited to board the Caledonian Sleeper. Is there a better way to start a family holiday than going to bed on a train and waking up in the hills of Scotland?

Boarding the Caledonian Sleeper

We had booked on the overnight Caledonian Sleeper service which was scheduled to leave London Euston at 9.15pm. Fearful of missing the train we’d arrived incredibly early so endured a long wait on the concourse before boarding commenced.

Boarding the Caledonian Sleeper at London Euston
Boarding the Caledonian Sleeper at London Euston

Thankfully we were able to check in 30 minutes before departure. As there were four of us travelling we’d booked two sleeper berths (each sleeping two) and our steward unlocked the door between them to make one cabin.

Each room has a set of bunks, a small storage area and a sink; compact but well designed. There are toilets at the end of the carriages. There isn’t much space, either in the rooms or the corridors, but you quickly get used to squeezing in to let people past.

Despite its tiny size the kids had great fun exploring the room. Both immediately bagged the top bunks and unpacked the goodies (soap, eye mask and ear plugs). A few minutes later we felt the train move, we were off!

Checking out the beds on the Caledonian Sleeper
Checking out the beds on the Caledonian Sleeper

As we couldn’t encourage the kids to have an early night we all made our way to the lounge car. This consisted of several tables and sofas which face each other across the carriage. We’d eaten earlier but some people were tucking into haggis, neeps and tatties which looked a lot better than the offering on our local trains. We ordered drinks from the steward and enjoyed the novelty of our accommodation before retiring to bed.

Enjoying the Caledonian Sleeper lounge
Enjoying the Caledonian Sleeper lounge

I’d love to say I slept perfectly but I didn’t. Whilst the mattress and pillows were comfortable the sound of the train creaking and squeaking kept my daughter and I awake for much of the night. Conversely my partner and son had a great sleep and slept through until 7am.

Breakfast in the Highlands

We had coffee, juice and Scottish shortbread delivered to our compartment in the morning. Still hungry we decided to return to the lounge car for breakfast. I knew the train had split during the night with separate sections going to Inverness, Aberdeen and Fort William, but I hadn’t realised the lounge car had been disconnected and moved around too!

Views from the Caledonian Sleeper
Views from the Caledonian Sleeper

Fortunately we found the lounge (in the opposite direction) and ordered breakfast. It’s not haute cuisine but eating porridge and watching the Highland scenery go by was one of the highlights of the trip.

The train stops at several stations in the Highlands, including Rannoch Moor. Looking out on the platform I saw a couple of walkers waiting for the train, complete with midge nets over their heads. When I looked closer I could make out the clouds of midges surrounding them. I was very grateful not to get off at that stop!

Arrival in Mallaig

There weren’t any midges to welcome us when we arrived at Fort William. Instead we were met by the car hire representative. Whilst it’s possible to take a train all the way to Mallaig we needed a car to reach our evening accommodation and it was much cheaper to hire in Fort William than Mallaig.

The road takes a similar route to the railway so we didn’t miss out on the views. It was also convenient to be able to stop at Glenfinnan, home of the Jacobite Rising but more recently famous because of its Harry Potter film connections.

Glenfinnan dining car
Glenfinnan dining car

You’d have thought we’d have had enough of railways by this time but I’d already decided on a unique lunch spot, the dining car at Glenfinnan. We enjoyed a great lunch in the restored 1950s carriage; the homemade soups were really tasty although my other half wasn’t so sure about his black pudding toastie. Diners also receive a free ticket to the small Glenfinnan Station Museum which tells the story of the West Highland Line.

Walk to Glenfinnan viaduct
Walk to Glenfinnan viaduct

Glenfinnan viaduct

After lunch it was time to stretch our legs. From the station we walked along the Viaduct Trail which has impressive views over Loch Shiel and Glenfinnan Viaduct. The viaduct features in the Harry Potter films and is a magnet for photographers, particularly when the Jacobite steam train (which travels between Fort Wiliam and Mallaig) crosses on its regular tourist run.

Glenfinnan viaduct
Glenfinnan viaduct

I’d hoped to co-ordinate our walk with that of the Jacobite returning across the viaduct. I had a vague idea of its arrival time but we were too early so instead we sat on the platform at Glenfinnan Station waiting to see if it came through. However something much more exciting happened as a pine marten popped out of some undergrowth and ran along the track!

Road to the Isles stopover
Road to the Isles stopover

Giving up on the Jacobite we drove on to Mallaig. Of course, soon after leaving Glenfinnan we saw the steam train coming towards us. I was able to pull over so we could watch the train although it spent most of the time hidden behind trees on the other side of a loch.

Haggis supper, Mallaig
Haggis supper, Mallaig

Our journey ended in Mallaig, a small port on the west coast of Scotland. We were staying in one of the nearby villages before heading to the Isle of Eigg a few days later. More posts will follow but in the interim I’ll leave you with a photo of the deep fried haggis my partner had for tea!

More info:

  • The Caledonian Sleeper runs every evening except Saturday. We paid approximately £145 for the one way journey between London Euston and Fort William. This covered 2 adults and 2 children using a family railcard. Whilst it may sound expensive you save on accommodation costs and travel ~500 miles. Plus it’s a pretty unique and fun experience!
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