Sunday, 23 March 2014

Cooking system test part 2

Recently I wrote about making the move away from gas canister stoves towards other, less environmentally unfriendly fuels, at least for use outside winter. I bought a Trail Designs Sidewinder ti-tri stove, which can be used to burn wood, meths, or solid fuel cubes. I did a back garden test in wood-burning mode, which I was very pleased with. Today I wanted to try out the meths burner, but also the final piece of the jigsaw: a pot cosy.

I made the cosy from a kit from The purpose of the pot cosy is to keep the contents of the pot at a simmering temperature. The food therefore continues to cook when off the stove, saving fuel. The flame on simple meths burners can't be adjusted like a gas stove, so can't be used to simmer anyway, making a pot cosy essential if you plan on doing anything other than boiling water to add to dehydrated meals. I want to limit my use of expensive dehydrated backpacking foods on the Tay watershed walk so needed to get to grips with the pot cosy.

This was another back garden test, although it was quite cold and breezy outside today. Lighting the burner with a firesteel was no problem. The flame is almost invisible for twenty seconds or so. I waved my hand above the burner to sense the heat and confirm it was lit. After half a minute it's burning in earnest.

On with the pasta:

A few minutes later it's bubbling away nicely:

So, into the pot cosy for fifteen minutes:

So, what was the result? Having faith in your backpacking kit is important, and this was one thing I was sceptical about. However...

Voila! Perfectly cooked pasta. The pot cosy really does work. A confidence-boosting test all round.

Monday, 17 March 2014

Wealdway wanderlust

One of the ironies of planning a major backpacking trip in Scotland is that my preparations have turned me on to the outdoors possibilities on London's doorstep. During most of my years in London, the commuter belt was just somewhere I whizzed through on the train on the way to Scotland with my hiking kit on board. During a short spell when we lived in Hertfordshire a few years ago I got to know the local back roads very well by bicycle, but walking never occurred to me. Maybe it's because I got into walking growing up in Scotland, where it's almost invariably summit-focused: walking as a means to an end rather than an end in itself.

The need to build up walking fitness can't be met by sporadic trips to Scotland though, so I've been forced out into Kent and Sussex to sample what's on offer, and I like what I've found. Trail walking in a landscape with little variation in elevation is so different to hillwalking. Navigation is surprisingly difficult! Waymarking on the long-distance trails is often erratic. Footpaths criss-cross the land. There are few distinct landmarks and a lack of big views to help with orientation. Paths and trails twist and turn so much, squeezed grudgingly around the edges of fields and backs of gardens (English access laws - another culture shock for a Scot!) that keeping your sense of direction - north, south, east, west - is well-nigh impossible without the aid of the sun or a compass. Yes, a compass really can help at times! I consult the map far more than I do on an average Scottish hillwalk.

But the vibe is different too: hypnotic rather than ecstatic, introspective rather than exalted. Unlike a hillwalk there's no crux point as such, when you reach the top of a mountain and raw beauty whacks you in the solar plexus. The vibe works best when your goal is to travel from A to B. You walk and walk, gliding through the country, until on a good day it seems to glide by you, like a film. Sitting on the station platform at the end of the day, sipping a coffee, you play back the film reel in your mind, marvelling at how you started way back there, way back then, when the air was chill and the sun yet to warm up the day, and somehow made it to here under your steam. Thru-hiking in miniature.

I've done much urban walking as well, in the name of training, wearing a groove along the Thames path, but hard concrete and harsh lines take their toll on feet and eyes. A trail underfoot and trees overhead, birdsong and wind in the branches: walking and nature were made for each other.


It's been a horrible winter, as if we need reminding, but here in the South East at least, some healing process is underway. On perhaps the finest day of three weeks of dry weather I headed down to Borough Green in Kent to tackle a thirteen mile section of the Wealdway to Tonbridge. The land is drying out but still looks raw and battered at this early stage of spring. 

From Borough Green there's a bit of road walking, albeit on quiet lanes, to pick up the Wealdway as it descends from the North Downs. Then it's south into Mereworth Woods. The Wealdway cuts through the western edge of the woods. For much of the way it's almost a monoculture of crack willow with the odd Scots pine towering above. These woods are clearly managed, heavily coppiced; perhaps the willow is harvested for commercial use.

Parts of the woods have been fairly wrecked by winter storms. The 1987 Great Storm took out thousands of trees in one night. We haven't had one single storm as bad as that, but the cumulative effect of relentless bad weather must have had a similar impact.

More mixed woodland takes over as the trail passes through the National Trust enclave at Gover Hill.

Gover Hill is a fine viewpoint, even with a car alarm going off somewhere nearby and a trials bike buzzing like a hornet with 'roid rage in the woods.

It feels like a long descent from the Weald into increasingly open, peopled, agricultural land as the route winds towards the River Medway. The way emerges suddenly from fields onto West Peckham village green. An ancient church (St Dunstan's) and a pub (The Swan on the Green) overlooked the green where a few people lounged in the sun. I wanted to get a few more miles behind me before I stopped though.

Kent is the garden of England and it's not hard to see why. We're well dug in around here.

Feeling frazzled by the sun (but not burnt, oddly; perhaps the March sun isn't yet strong enough) I stopped for lunch by the River Bourne. The path inched alongside a high garden hedge on one side, and was roped off from the river on the other. Notices gave nagging reminders about not straying an inch off the path: this is someone's garden don't you know!

I recently bought a pair of Inov-8 Terroc 330 trail shoes for half price. This was the first sizeable walk I'd done with them and they were proving as comfy as carpet slippers. Not a hint of chafing or blisters. Nevertheless it was nice to peel off socks and shoes and air my feet for a bit as I sipped my coffee and lost myself a bit in watching the water glide silently by. A flask of freshly brewed coffee hit the spot.

Pressing on, I crossed the River Bourne by a dangerously undercut footbridge and walked through the hamlet of Barnes Street. From a farm behind the hamlet the trail led on to the Medway. For a short distance a row of trees on one side and a brook on the other formed a pretty avenue.

Yellow, green and blue - the colours of the day.

Then I was at the River Medway.

Time to turn west for the last four measly miles to Tonbridge. Those four miles took a while though.

The Medway has a massive floodplain. Consequently, closer to Tonbridge at least, it's regulated by a system of locks and side channels, and there's a man-made embankment. One lock I passed was guarded by a pair of pillboxes, like this:

I could tell I was approaching Tonbridge. Dog-walkers appeared, kayakers, boys flying out over the river on a rope swing, youngsters with a carry-out. Detritus.

Into town, behind warehouses and workshops, past the obligatory riverside new-builds, up the high street and into the station. Onto a quiet fast train back to London. Bag a table seat, pour out the last of the coffee, sit back, replay the reel...

Sunday, 2 March 2014

Something's round the corner...

A pesky cold this week, book-ended by two trips into the country. Spring is hovering in the wings. As D-Day for the Tay catchment walk approaches, I'm starting to look more closely at the weather. How is the spring and early summer going to shape up? How much of that immense quantity of snow will be left in the Highlands come mid-May? The ticket to Dundee is booked now: no turning back.

Last weekend we stayed with friends in Norfolk. I levered myself out of bed at sunrise, despite beginning to feel ropey, and went for a walk in the woods.

Woods in Norfolk near King's Lynn
The ground was a crackling carpet of twigs and branches brought down during many weeks of storms. 

Today, feeling almost back to normal, Steve and I travelled down to Balcombe in lovely wooded West Sussex. We planned to walk to Horsham but we were defeated by vast quantities of mud. Paths were heavy difficult going. The ground was so saturated that even grassy fields proved on closer inspection to be swamp-like. We contented ourselves with a loop through the countryside, returning to Balcombe. The highlight of the day was walking the shores of Ardingly reservoir. The longer walk to Horsham gets pretty remote across the woods and ridges of the Weald, definitely one for dry weather and longer spring or summer days.

I'm walking the Tay catchment boundary for two great charities, Scottish Wild Land Group and Venture Trust.

You can sponsor me by making a donation to Scottish Wild Land Group here: