Tuesday, 29 June 2010
Saturday, 19 June 2010
Friday, 18 June 2010
Gorge Walking (see also Bumble and wild swimming)
She Who Dares Factor - **** (depending on the weather!)
Gorge walking is a more extreme version of the bumble, although it’s less of a bath, more of a power shower, and the ramble mostly takes place in water.
She Who Dares experienced our gorge walking on Dartmoor. The rain had driven down in sheets all weekend. We were soggy, dispirited and damp by the time the last morning dawned and fully expected our final scheduled activity to be cancelled. Having shared our Youth Hostel accommodation with families supporting children on the annual 10 Tors, an annual event that has teams of teenagers completing hikes of up to 55 miles, carrying all their own supplies and camping out overnight on the last wildernesses of Dartmoor, we’d heard first hand how conditions had deteriorated. The weather had turned so bad the army were airlifting this year’s participants off the moor.
We were packed up and ready to head home when a fully kitted out instructor stuck his very handsome head into reception and asked if we were ready to go. There was a mass dropping of bags as we all nodded meekly and hustled for the equipment store, collecting extra thick wetsuits, still nicely damp from our last excursion, buoyancy aids and helmets. Another instructor joined us and we boarded the soggy mini bus, heading out through the town and over the moor.
Clearing a window in the condensation we peered out over grey sky and water lashed land, muted into one by the driving rain. The mood in the bus was subdued. The minibus trailed down a winding road, polished black with rivers of water, to a concrete shack by Red’veen brook at Meldon. It was less of a babbling brook, more of a raging torrent. We changed and lined up on the mossy bank our faces fixed and grim as we listened carefully to the safety talk. The instructors led us cheerfully down to the river, into the water, where we clung to each other wading from one bank to the other and slipping in the middle, neck deep in swirling white and cream water like sugar lumps in a crazy cappuccino. Fully immersed and the wetsuits warmed, the water pummeled at our thighs and tugged our feet off the riverbed. Keeping upright was impossible, eventually we released ourselves to the force and bobbed and swirled in a low pool, our bottoms bumping against submerged rocks. Helicopters whirred overhead, they must have looked down and thought we were old enough to know what we were doing, or old enough to know better, in any case they left us to it.
As we struggled upstream the land around was calm and immobile. It was tempting to climb out on the mossy bank and walk, but we pushed on, the sky gradually lifting a little and the rain pausing. Someone had a waterproof camera; we balanced precariously on rocks as they snapped away. A waterfall lay ahead. Normally it presented a small climb and a fun water slide; today the rocks around were completely submerged. There were no exposed footholds to see anywhere, so we felt with our feet under the sheet of creamy froth for a route to climb, an instructor ahead of us, one behind. We scrabbled into the torrent one by one, hands locked with the person above, who hauled us up as best they could. As soon as you found a foothold your body blocked the water flow and sent it spraying directly into faces and mouths. It was impossible to see or hear under this comedy water cannon, and all dignity was lost as the young instructor below put his shoulder to our behinds and shoved until we were finally all on the upper bank. Another poor young man scarred for life.
We bounced back down some more drops, and whirled across from bank to bank, a natural white water ride without a boat beneath us. Flopping exhausted on the bank, our instructor walked upstream to check conditions. He came back to tell us that the crossing of stepping stones they usually used was under several feet of water, the river level had climbed four inches in the hour we had been there. We stumbled back to the changing shelter, red faced and overcome with exhaustion. It had been a long weekend.
Where to try Gorge Walking
For River wading with Gorgeous instructors:
0845 371 9651
Morfa Bay (actually have very handsome instructors too)
Great Gorge walking setting in a deep valley with exposed tree roots to climb and rock crevices to climb through, very Mordorish.
Other venues (we can’t vouch for the handsomeness of these instructors):
Thursday, 10 June 2010
A bumble is a cross between a bath and a ramble. The bath part involves immersion in the mostly clean waters of the river, jumping from the bank, sliding down weirs and crouching under waterfalls. The ramble involves crawling primeval out of the river on the soft mud banks, and staggering, dripping down the towpath, until a new entry spot is found and checked, then plunging in and floating downstream.
We meet our instructor on the hottest day of the year , trussed up in wetsuits, flotation aids and helmets, sweating quietly in the shimmering heat. Our sudden plunge into the River Stort by Harlow Outdoor Centre startles some of the local fishermen, and we slip one at a time down the slimy emerald weir, losing footing on the pebbled river bed, the placid green waters rapidly cooling our bodies as we float downstream, willows bent overhead and ducks fluttering startled into the reeds.
Bumbles could be a version of supervised wild swimming, with more equipment. Swimming in buoyancy aids isn’t easy, especially with trainers on your feet. We muddle down the river, small fish darting around the shallows, trying not to think of the Pike that may be lurking in the deeper, darker parts. A few minutes splashing takes us past narrow boats, where a small chimney leaks wood smoke and the owner sits on deck, his dog barking madly at this new breed of fish that dares to come so close. A fisherman tuts as we pass, smiling and waving.
A shallow beach under the shade of an overhanging tree is the place we attempt to climb out, gripping the branches and each other in a sliding, ungainly dance until we’re all safely on the towpath, water dripping from every orifice. The instructor walks us up to our first jump of the day, from a bridge joining one footpath across the water to the meadow beyond. This goes against all sensibility, and is the complete opposite of all we tell our children not to do – don’t ever jump off bridges, you could break your legs landing on hidden rubbish in the water, or shatter your spine in the shallows. We consider these options as we peer over the railings to the softly stirring water below, a long way below. Trusting in the expertise of the professional, we let the instructor drag a chain across the riverbed, till we’re all satisfied there’s no lost Asda trolley lurking there. Just to be sure, we let him take the first jump. Eventually, we all follow, hearts in mouths, flinging ourselves into the air. Time pauses for a second, then a splash and a lunge under, glimpses of muddy water, ears filling, noses overflowing with river water, clenched into a ball, bottoms bumping on the muddy bottom and bouncing up to the surface, swimming for the bank to scramble out and do it all again.
Tuesday, 8 June 2010
Outside it was a cold October day, the river was still and birds wheeled over the freshly harvested fields. We assembled under a structure that looked like a homemade substation. Telegraph poles reached into the metal grey sky, steel wire strung between, suspending planks, poles and knotted ropes that looked impossible to traverse.
I was trussed up with the rope; my neck craned upwards, barely paying any attention to the knots or the technique that are now familiar. As a first timer it was my prerogative to go first and I was told to start climbing. I looked down at the small woman belaying me, and wondered if I could trust an absolute stranger with my life. Throwing sanity to the wind I climbed the pole quickly, hands gripping the staples and eyes fixed on looking up, imagining it was just a ladder. It was only when I reached the top and the miniscule ledge that I realized how scared I was. A long pole stretched out ahead of me, with a steel wire strung overhead, I had to walk across it to get to the other side. My body was reacting in panic, and I just wanted to get off, but that would mean climbing down again, I was stuck. There were shouts of encouragement from down below. I imagined them to be the roar of the crowd, and I was a circus performer in spangly costume (I didn’t know there was a trapeze coming up) and took a wobbly sep forward. The smell of sawdust and the roar of the crowd filled my head. Even if it was muck spreading in North Essex and chat from the women below, it got me across. I was encouraged to see others climbing up too, and their coaxing and support got me through the next few hours of fear.
Monday, 7 June 2010
Here's an excerpt from the early chapters of the book. All activities are given a 'She Who Dares' rating, which means they've been tried an tested by the group. This one gets a 4/5 - which means - take a deep breath! Contacts and centres are listed by activity, and in a reference section.
Coasteering really can be a gentle introduction to the wild forces of nature, just make sure you have a couple of great, strong instructors on board with excellent local knowledge of the coasts and tides. Dave the Rave has been our leading man for our escapades. He’s led us round the beautiful coastline of South West Wales, ably assisted by other young instructors from the Morfa Bay Activity Centre.
On our first outing, we were supplied with nice thick wet suits and packed into a damp mini bus with steamy windows. The hedgerows smudged into a watercolour wash of green as Dave careered down narrow Welsh lanes, assuring us his speed was justified as he knew them like the back of his hand. He was wearing gloves that day. We arrived at a car park near Lydstep and stepped out into a freshening breeze and clear skies.
Changing in a car park is all part and parcel of the annual trip, whatever the weather. You can try a towel dance or hiding inside the mini bus, but most of us find the quick off, quick on approach the best. This has resulted in scarring some young instructors for life as they emerge round the corner only to be confronted with a dozen near naked or completely starkers women, same age, or older than their own mother. Most run ran away screaming. At least they can now appreciate the female form in all of its goose pimpled, un-airbrushed glory.
You need proper kit from a proper centre for coasteering. Thick wetsuits for the cold sea, neopropene gloves with grip (bike gloves work tool) to protect hands from rough barnacles, buoyancy aids and helmets are essential. An old pair of tightly laced trainers or flexible thick soled wet shoes help. Lace the trainers very tightly, despite a triple knot, one of mine bobbed away after the first jump, past the nose of a bemused seal, who realized he had no use for it and swam away.
Once attired we moved awkwardly down the steep path to the sea, watched from the cliff top by bird spotters in bright anoraks, unsure what this species was they were witnessing stumbling into the water, looking like a bunch of extra’s from a 1970’s Dr. Who episode. The weather was kind for our virgin dip, blue skies stroked overhead and the sea remained calm, but the water was still freezing in May. This seeping cold is soon forgotten as the wetsuits do their job on full immersion. Except in the feet, trainers don’t keep out the ice, so neopropene socks can help. Otherwise your toes turn white and numb for the rest of the day.
Once in the silky water we felt the power of the sea pulling us away from the land. Floating like flotsam and jetsam on the tide, we bobbed around the coast, tiny specks swept past towering cliffs. We felt small and insignificant in this seascape as we swum our first tentative stokes out into the bay. It’s hard work in a buoyancy aid and trainers, and many of us fond the best way was to ride with the swell, don’t fight against the current, and always swim parallel to the beach if caught in a rip tide. We hauled ourselves out over the rocks, clinging to foot and hand holds as we hugged the cliff, scrambling up to higher ground to practiced jumping techniques, as a warm up for the higher launches further round. Instructed to try the pencil jump, or cross arm buoyancy aid holding. “Do not hold your nose”, Dave instructed “You’ll punch yourself in the face and pull it off on impact”. Good advice, we thought.
One spot between two outcrops caused much hysteria and mayhem, the water swept in and curled round as we tried to cross. It was hopeless to fight it, and we bobbed like champagne corks in a bucket, laughing as we reached one side, then were swept back to the other. It took a full half hour of heaving and pulling to get 13 of us across what was really a washing machine on full spin cycle. We clutched at the next cliff face as tightly as the barnacles locked there and swam round into a secret cave, accessible only from the water. This was a place where seals came to give birth, an underwater maternity ward. Mothers all, we appreciated how this must be for the female seal, just the sea for company as another life is brought into the world. There was an attempted chorus of “The circle of life”, but we soon put a stop to it.
There were a few large jumps to be braved on this first outing; a couple of us tried the higher ones. From below the cliff may not look that imposing, but something happens to your body when your toes are gripping the edge of the rock and staring down into the heaving waters below. Rationality, and the fact that the instructor has just leapt before you doesn’t stop the adrenaline from thumping through your veins and the legs from turning onto soft custard. It seems a long, silent fall through the air; I’ve never tried with eyes open. Given this experience I was able to step back from the highest jump at the Blue Lagoon the following year, safe in the knowledge that everyone had already witnessed my daredevil leap. A few members always go for the biggest jumps, and provide entertainment for the rest of us. The beauty of ‘She Who Dares’ is that you can give something a first try and get praise for the effort, but never feel the pressure to do it again. However, most of the time you will want to do it again.
The Blue Lagoon near Aberiddy is quite a remarkable sight. Especially on the wild, grey day we scrambled round to it, emerging over the headland from the white foaming sea to the turquoise waters and a still pool like a Mediterranean bay. We were offered the option of running then jumping down a cliff to enter the water, or climbing down. As I said, there’s always the choice. The next set of jumps are legendary, an old stone fortified wall towers out near the opening of the bay. The fact that our ‘hardest’ members wandered about and had a chat atop of it, before attempting the leap, is testament to its height and imposing nature. But they did it, and survived to tell the tale. Dave proved why he is called ‘The Rave’ and took a running jump off the highest platform, dive-bombing into the clear green waters below. We had moved out of the way first.
One of the pleasures of these extreme activities is to see members of the sane public watching your antics from the shore or cliff top, maybe they are admiring our bravado, and maybe they wish they were joining us, or maybe they think we’re a care in the community project. Whatever, it’s satisfying to walk past with a smug-ish look on your face.
Where to try it
Never attempt coasteering without a qualified instructor from a recognized outdoor centre. Even if they are insane.
Try the British coasteering federation for a description of what you centre needs to be able to take you out safely.
Most coastal outdoor pursuit centres offer coasteering (try Cornwall, Devon and Wales) or take a visit to the wonderful Morfa Bay, South Wales:
She Who Dares are an outdoor pursuits group for women. They're ordinary women, with a mad streak that leads us to extraordinary activities. From canoeing to coasteering, climbing to caving, sumo wrestling to sea kayaking, walking to windsurfing, axe throwing to archery. It's all there, we've done it, and if we haven't done it yet, we soon will be.
It's good to be outdoors, scientific research now proves this, although whether this extends to ten middle aged women in various stages of undress in a windy Welsh car park, I don't know.There is something wonderfully human about feeling the elements on your skin. Tipping out of the sailing dinghy into the silky water of a cold lake, the splashing surf of a glorious coast as you find the best way to warm a wetsuit, (it’s not all about falling in, that’s just me). Wind whipping at your sand blasted cheeks as you skim the beach on a land yacht, soil sinking below your nails as you grip for a new handhold on a rock face, fire warming same hands as you nurse a drink in a warm pub afterwards, sharing the experience.
Once I started writing this book, there seemed no limit to all the activities we could do, there are still new things suggested on a weekly basis, some of them make their way onto the programme, none too extreme or outrageous for us to consider, once we’ve taken that first step.
Maybe this blog will provide an inspiration to try something new, or to try something you haven’t done for a while. It’s hard to break the habit and step out of the comfort zone, but once you do, you won’ t regret it, and what better way to do it than in the company of like minded other women, age and experience no barrier.
Maybe this blog will also lead you to want to read more, and the aim is to get the book published. There will be chapters and extras coming up soon. In the meantime you can see more of my outdoors writing at:
Green exercise/blue exercise