Saturday, 15 June 2013

Stealing a march on the city

6.30am on Saturday and our daughter has piled into our bed and is busy making it clear there'll be no more sleep until bedtime. A good excuse to stick two 5kg iron plates in a rucksack and head out into the uncommon Saturday morning tranquility of central London for a training walk. My intention is to get out on three mornings a week for at least an hour each time, to get some regular, weighted miles under my feet. Today had another purpose: to try out my new trail shoes - North Face Hedgehogs with a Gore-tex lining - which I'll use for the lowland sections at the beginning and end of the Tay watershed.

The walk this morning was a bit of a stroll really. I'll be upping the pace and intensity as I progress, but London was looking fine on a bright and breezy day, and photos had to be taken. A good excuse to try out a new wide-angle lens as well.

Looking upstream from Tower Bridge to HMS Belfast and London Bridge

Wherever you are in London, the Shard is never far away. The South Bank has come a long way from the days of docks and tanneries.

A modernist mountain range: The Shard towers above the foothills of City Hall and More London
I love the Thames. It's a living vein of wildness through the heart of London. The tides surge upstream and back with silent power, and a fresh wind channels in from the distant North Sea bringing news of a wild world outside the city. Looking downstream from Tower Bridge the skies are often big and wide, hinting at the expanse of the estuary that lies beyond, the creeks and islands, sand banks, mudflats and salt marshes of Essex and Kent. This morning the tide was on its way in. Below Tower Bridge a cormorant paused, then dived beneath the roiling silty water.

Looking downstream from London Bridge
The Shard was at its glorious sky-reflecting best. It is apparently still largely empty, whilst new developments a stone's throw away in the City of London have quickly filled up with new corporate tenants. This fellow needn't have been in such a hurry to move in. Perhaps the old leery cachet still attaches to the South Bank - the place where London went to indulge its dark side: drunkenness, bear baiting, prostitution, and Shakespeare. A few shiny buildings might not be enough to dispel the shadows of the past.

Crossing back into Southwark I wandered home through the backstreets of SE1. Stallholders were setting up in Borough Market. To the west of Borough High Street and running parallel with it is a very old lane, Red Cross Way, which shows up on maps of the area dating back several hundred years. Near the north end of the road is the site of the Cross Bones Graveyard, a pauper's burial ground and especially a burial ground for the 'single women' of the parish - i.e. prostitutes. Currently owned by Transport for London, the site is well known locally and there's a lively campaign to have part of it turned into a memorial garden. You can sign a petition if you want. If you stumble upon Red Cross Way you can't miss the Cross Bones - it's well marked as the picture below shows.
The site of the Cross Bones Graveyard in Southwark

Still belonging to TfL, not much more than waste ground at the moment.

Notice how geese feature in the shrine. The Bishops of Winchester owned much of the land in Bankside. The remains of their residence, Winchester House, are on Clink Street close to the river, and a little road called Winchester Walk runs behind Borough Market. The bishops licensed the prostitutes to work on their patch. The prostitutes were known as the 'Winchester Geese'. This short film featuring local playwright and historian John Constable tells the story.

The Geese are long gone but the pigeons are still with us. This gang lives around St George the Martyr church on Borough High Street. 

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

A Question of Gear Part 1: General thoughts, load carrying, and shelter

Still a year to go, but this past week I've been thinking hard about what gear I'm going to need - what I already have, and what I'll need to beg, steal, borrow, blag, or more likely buy! I'm therefore starting an occasional series setting down my thoughts on kit for the walk. Before I set off next year I'll add a page to the blog detailing exactly what I'm carrying and wearing, and post some reflections on my gear choices when it's all over. For now though I'm going to keep a track of my thoughts, decisions, and acquisitions.

My philosophy of gear
Much of the walk is over trackless hills and mountains, so travelling light is crucial. The main problem with going down the ultra-lightweight route however is the cost. Paying too much attention to the gear pages of the monthly TGO can seriously damage your bank balance! Resources are limited so my gear will be a mixture of judiciously-selected new items, a few loans and donations, and making do with what I've already got.

In trying to keep down the cost of new purchases, I'm also looking beyond the usual pile-'em-high outdoors retailers towards army surplus and bushcraft suppliers. There is a wealth of extremely durable high-quality gear to be had. Lightweight isn't really part of the ethos here, and this is probably why comparable products are often cheaper.

There are aesthetic considerations too. Outdoors gear is often garish and has a consciously 'high-tech' look that is strangely out of place in the environments it's meant to be used in. As long ago as 'Hamish's Mountain Walk', Hamish Brown was railing against the fashion for brightly-coloured gear as a type of pollution of the outdoors. I'm definitely drawn to the solid functionality and plain earthy colours of  military/bushcraft gear, even if it means carrying a few extra pounds.

So overall, yes, I'm looking to go lightweight, but it's not the only consideration, and some of the gear choices I'll make will be based primarily on considerations other than weight.

Of course, there is another way to address the weight issue, and that is to get stronger. As I've discussed elsewhere I'm an enthusiastic convert to heavy weight training and body weight exercises for conditioning for the outdoors and have found this year that it's made a big difference. I'm thinking about the recent Foinaven trip in particular - I doubt I could have got to the top of Foinaven and back in such bad conditions without the stamina and resilience I've picked up through weight training.

Anyway, on to the gear itself. In this instalment it's backpacks and shelter...

Load carrying
I've had my trusty Lowe Alpine Skyline 65 pack for nearly 15 years. It's been around the world, and has been carried on multi-day walks along trails in Australia and New Zealand as well as in Scotland. However it's gradually become apparent that this comfy 65 litre pack will be too small for the Tay watershed walk. I initially looked at the outdoors retailers but found the choice of packs with a capacity over 65 litres to be curiously limited. Perhaps with the current vogue for all things lightweight, big packs just aren't in demand.

Clearly I was edging into the military/survivalist/nutcase demographic, so I checked out army surplus and bushcraft sites and quickly hit a rich seam of mighty big, mighty tough backpacks. The 'military bergen' entered my lexicon: a no-nonsense pack, at least 80 litres, olive green, black, or camo in colour, with a minimum of additional pockets and straps. Researching reviews and comments, in which the words 'beast' and 'bombproof' featured often, I narrowed it down to three front runners: the Snugpak Bergen, Karrimor SF Sabre 80-130, and the Berghaus Vulcan II. The Berghaus is the one I'm going to go for: it has a main compartment with an 80 litre capacity and two detachable side pockets with a further 10 litres each. The reviews are almost universally positive and whilst all these packs are heavy, at 2.8kg it's considerably lighter than the Karrimor at 4kg. The Berghaus is £180 new but it is (or was) a standard issue pack for the Dutch Army and can be got second-hand from the Netherlands for around 80 euros (c.£68). This is a bit of a gamble I suppose but I'm trusting these packs are so robust that wear and tear will be minimal.

Essential accessories for the pack will include some heavy duty dry bags and a waterproof cover. An important lesson I (re-)learned on the Foinaven trip was just how miserably damned wet everything can get. The Skyline 65 is water repellent up to a point, but the water will get through eventually, and when it does the contents get thoroughly, horribly soaked. I was very glad not be camping a second night, especially when I found on the second day that my sleeping bag, wrapped in a rapidly fraying black bin bag, had got wet too. Rain is the mortal enemy of backpacking enjoyment and keeping your things dry if you're on a multi-day trip is a top priority for avoiding misery and defeat. So, I'll be getting a selection of dry bags for inside the pack (Ortlieb or Karrimor probably), and a waterproof bergen cover for the outside. Wrapping stuff in plastic bags will not cut it for this walk!

Chances are I'm going to take my Terra Nova Laser Photon 1 tent, a genuinely super-lightweight piece of kit weighing in at 720 grammes packed. I got it in early 2012 and have used it a few times. It's seen snow and rain and has performed well, and it's very quick and easy to pitch, though condensation can be a slight issue and there isn't much room inside. I've seriously mulled over the tarp-and-bivvy-bag approach and can see a number of attractions:
  • More room inside for sitting and storing gear
  • Less scope for cramp-inducing contortions in order to remove wet gear before getting into a tent inner
  • Able to cook inside
  • Less claustrophobic, not sealed up in a tent inner
There are essentially two types of tarp: shaped and flat. The former is more suitable for use in exposed mountains and moorland as it offers protection from the rain no matter what direction it's coming from - and rain rarely falls vertically in the British hills! The latter is easily pitched to give protection from above but not from the sides. It's fine for use in sheltered woods where the rain will tend to be vertical. Of course, it's generally the shaped tarp that's the more expensive by some distance!

As my Terra Nova cost a fair wedge I kind of feel obliged to use it, but perhaps a compromise could be made. I could either:
  • Take only the tent flysheet and invest in a bivvy bag and maybe a groundsheet (there is one available especially for my tent from Terra Nova); or
  • Get a cheap flat tarp and take that as well as the tent. It will provide some shelter for cooking and sitting out in the rain rather than being incarcerated in the tent, and could also be handy for keeping the bergen dry as it may be difficult to fit it in the tent porch.
Hmm... we shall see.