Tag Archives | camping

Going with the flow

It was February, I had an opening in my diary, woohoo, nothing to do for a few days and the excitement of being able to do something just for me. It was time for an adventure, there was the call of the wild, a wish to explore somewhere new and the need to relax and enjoy being close to nature without the everyday pressures that modern life presents.

Looking at my long list of ideas for adventures, there it was a microadventure, a paddle down the Thames in my canoe, that was just the ticket. The plan, not much of one really, was simply to launch off near Cricklade, close to the rivers source and paddle down river, just going with the flow.

Launching onto the River Thames at Cricklade

Launching onto the River Thames at Cricklade

Here she is, my little Lakelander canoe, made with the fab guys, Steve and Dan at Orca Canoes, ably assisted by my son, Michael. I’d grabbed some sleeping gear and change of clothes and stuffed them in a big Ortlieb drybag, filled a large plastic storage box with food and topped up a 5lt water container and that was pretty much my planning done. Well yes, a coat, woolly hat, buoyancy aid and a couple of paddles and then I was off, enjoying the flow of the river.

Canoeing this stretch of the Thames in February has the advantage of it being comparatively clear, with the arrival of Spring the Bullrushes will be growing tall and making some parts difficult to navigate. Care was needed though, there was a reasonable flow and signs on the river were at amber; caution stream decreasing which means all unpowered boats (are advised) not to navigate and users of powered boats to navigate with caution. I proceeded with both caution and care – swimming could be left for another day!

Going with the flow - paddling down river from Cricklade

Going with the flow – paddling down river from Cricklade

Just 20 minutes paddled and it was already time for the first portage, a tree had fallen and blocked my way completely. Time to unpack and carry the canoe and gear around to the other side and then get back in again. There were a few more trees slowing progress – but the next one, looked passable! A small gap between the branches, but wide enough for my canoe to pass, this seemed just the place to avoid another portage.

Don’t under estimate the power of water

My first lesson of this trip, don’t under estimate the power of water – to get through the gap I turned across the river a little and this gave the current enough purchase to grab my canoe and I could feel the boat rolling beneath me. In that moment I imagined an imminent capsize and my gear and canoe disappearing down the river – evasive action was called for and some serious back-paddling and manoeuvring had me safely away from this predicament. A portage was the safest option and and that’s what was called for – lesson learnt!

Those first few obstacles got me in touch with the river and then I was off and on my way, going with the flow. The weather was kind, a chill in the air with some winter sunshine – good to be alive and I was enjoying the open river. Paddling along, I switched to using my deep water paddle and I made good progress, whilst keeping a cautionary lookout for the challenges ahead.

Castle Eaton - somewhere to explore another day perhaps

Castle Eaton – somewhere to explore another day perhaps

Obviously, I knew that this part of the Thames would be quiet, but it was the School holidays, so I had expected to see a few people on the river or walkers enjoying the Thames Path – but I had the river all to myself. It was wonderful to not know what lay around the next corner and Castle Eaton was just such a place. In fact the only reason I know it’s name is because I looked it up afterwards – at the time I just marvelled at its beauty and wondered what it must have been like in times past.

One of many lovely bridges on the Northern reaches of the River Thames

One of many lovely bridges on the Northern reaches of the River Thames

There are campsites along the Thames, but February is hardly the season for camping. To be honest, I simply wanted to wild camp, find a quite place to sleep each night and I wasn’t disappointed. My first night was near a lock, I had done a number of portages, enjoyed my day and it was getting dark and time to set up camp.

Cake before bed

My daily routine was to have a brew, set off early and then stop for some breakfast further down river. Lunch was my main meal of the day – so I would cook up something tasty from the large box of food I had brought along. Having set up camp in the evenings, I’d have a snack, brew and cake before bed – I find that those carbs help me sleep warm and after a good days paddling I always slept well.

Pillboxes along the Northern banks of the Thames - a poignant reminder of fortress Britain during WW2

Pillboxes along the Northern banks of the Thames – a poignant reminder of fortress Britain during WW2

I’d just had my first encounter with other paddlers, two guys paddling what appeared to be a racing canoe, a C2 I think, difficult to tell because it was already dark and I was about to stop for the evening. After a friendly hello, they sped off at speed – I saw them again later as they portaged their canoe back up river, a quick good night and they were gone. They were the first people I’d spoken to since I’d been on the river – it was amazing to be so alone and yet so near to busy towns and villages.

Poignant reminder of fortress Britain

An early morning start and I was to spot the first of many pillboxes – these fortifications were built along the upper reaches of the Thames during the second world war. With the fall of France, the home guard were tasked with building defences and using natural barriers to slow the potential invasion, these pillboxes are part of those defences.

Paddling amongst last years bullrushes - so much easier in the winter months

Paddling amongst last years bullrushes – so much easier in the winter months

After a frosty night, it was wonderful to get paddling on the river, those arms working and the canoe gliding along. There was still a good flow to the river, but it was noticeable how the wider stretches slowed. With a little less in the way of challenges from fallen trees, it was great to just enjoy being outdoors and to relax into the flow of the river.

Friendly lock keepers

I chatted with one of the lock keepers who works for the Environmental Agency, one of a few that I had friendly talks with on my travels. He checked that I was aware of the amber warning and was happy to show me how to work the lock gates – the manual self-service gates are simple to use, but until now I had portaged around them.

Rushey lock - the deep river lapping over the walkways

Rushey lock – the deep river lapping over the walkways

It was interesting to see the significantly different water levels, not just from one side of the lock to the other, but the differences between the locks too. At first when I portaged at Rushey lock, I couldn’t see the walk-way for putting the canoe back in and that’s because it was below the water line!

Last years bullrushes - standing tall and proud

Last years bullrushes – standing tall and proud

After setting up camp in the dark the evening before, it seemed prudent to scout for possible wild camping spots sooner and I made a mental note of this as I settle down to an enjoyable days paddling.

Bird watching

Canoeing along the river at a gentle pace, you become so much more aware of all the wildlife. I’m in someways sorry I didn’t take photographs of the many birds, ducks and swans I watched on route. the many herons, they always gave flight when they saw me, even though I was some way off. They are such beautifully elegant birds, it was a pleasure to see them fly across the river. The swans by contrast, barely battered an eye, often continuing to forage in the murky depths as I paddled by. The Northern reaches of the River Thames really are a wonderful place to enjoy bird watching, and the perhaps because I didn’t take that many photos, I remember them all the better!

Wild camping on the river banks and meadows of the River Thames

Wild camping on the river banks and meadows of the River Thames

Wild camping on riverside meadows

Camp for the night was on a grassy meadow, a lovely spot on the bend of the river. I pulled up, unloaded and rigged up my tarpaulin against the canoe, with the opening away from the prevailing breeze. It was a warm evening, time for some stretching to ease the aching limbs and then a brew, a wash with the remaining water and bed time! As I lay there in my sleeping bag, toasty warm, I listened to the river and the squawking from the rooks near by. They appeared to be bombarding another rookery and were on near constant missions to other parts of the woodlands, wow, they were noisy, but it wasn’t long before I was asleep.

Just another lunchtime stop for a brew

Just another lunchtime stop for a brew

Thank goodness for Muck Boots – they proved themselves well on this trip. The river banks were very muddy, well it was winter time. At first I was going to wear some wellies, but my older son, James, kindly lent me his Muck Boots. They were fab, with possibly the only downside being that my feet did get a little too warm at times and hence a little sweaty – yuk, but warm and wet is good, right!

Time for running repairs - good to be prepared!

Time for running repairs – good to be prepared!

Be prepared – a good motto to have!

It’s always good to be prepared and one of the great things about travelling in an Canadian canoe, is that you can pack lots of gear. Yes, of course when you portage you realise that maybe you packed more than you needed. On this occasion, having some gaffa tape and para-cord proved a good choice. Alas, my canoe split open! I remember getting in and hearing a crack, but nothing appeared to have happened so I continued paddling on towards Oxford. Later, whilst pulling the canoe through a lock, I noticed a good inch of water in the bottom – oops!

The canoe is made of plywood each section or chine is held together with glass fibre and epoxy resin. But a crack about 8 inches long had appeared and so a little ingenuity was required…

The plan, stitch it back together with the inner fibres of para cord (that’s the white cord). I made pairs of holes either side of the crack with the bradawl like tool on my Swiss Army knife, made a ‘needle’ from some chicken wire fence and sowed it all back together, tightened it up and then covered it with gaffa tape on both sides.

Of course, that would have been far to easy, so it started to rain. I Laughed a little and set up an impromptu camp on the outskirts of Oxford and set about the repair and then cooked some lunch.

And after the rain a beautiful sunset!

And after the rain a beautiful sunset!

Setting off again, with the Lakelander repaired, me all togged up to keep warm and dry, I was greeted by a beautiful sunset – the rain stopped and the paddle down the Thames continued. Of course I was running later than expected due to the enforced repair – I had hoped to paddle through the City of Oxford and find somewhere to wild camp on the other side. Still it was interesting to look at some of the old industrial buildings as I found my way along the river.

The magnificent old industrial side of Oxford

The magnificent old industrial side of Oxford

Camping on the wild side of Oxford

It was getting dark and despite my best efforts at paddling a little quicker, I was going to have to make camp in the City of Oxford! After paddling the upper reaches of the Thames, so peaceful, with just the birds calling and the ripple of the flowing river – Oxford was quite a shock to the system.

I paddled on looking for somewhere secluded to camp, but all seemed rather exposed. Eventually, getting darker and the river narrowing again, there on the right was a meadow, facing on the other bank many expensive looking blocks of flats.

It was noisy, boy was it. Sirens of emergency vehicles, the raw of trains and the hooting of horns – I longed to be out of the city. But I was tired and needed a sleep, so that meadow looked good and I set up can discretely in Oxford, keeping lights to a minimum, I really didn’t want anyone popping by to say hello!

I had a brew and a piece of cake and then went to bed – I crawled into my sleeping bag and can hardly remember putting my head down, I was asleep in no time all. I had a great sleep and woke early, still dark and to early to set of paddling. I checked my watch – it was only midnight! I had had a wonderful 4 hours sleep, I really had, and it was still very noisy. A call of nature and then another piece of cake and I was asleep again for another 4-5 hours – yes I was up around 5am ready for another days paddling.

Wild camping in Oxford - who'd have thought it!

Wild camping in Oxford – who’d have thought it!

Too much plastic

Paddling out of Oxford, it was interesting to see everyone heading off to work, cycling, running and walking. There were ladies rowing teams out, being coached from the river banks, they certainly shot by faster than me. But what sadly struck me the most was the amount of plastic waste, the litter that had carelessly been discarded by the thousands of people who live in the city and no doubt the tourists too. The river was suddenly awash with plastic bottles and cartons – it will be a huge but worthy task to clean it up. In the upper reaches, where few people appear to walk, I had seen little rubbish, perhaps the occasional football stuck in the bullrushes, but that was about all.

A life less complicated

Reflecting on this much needed #microadventure, what I loved was that just a short drive from our busy lives lay this beautiful piece of river, where you could connect with nature, listen to the birds, splash in the river and sleep out under the stars. This special time, provided a space to think and relax into a simple routine, a life less complicated – it comes highly recommended! Thank you for reading this blog – I hope you can find somewhere to be at peace, at least for a while.

First impressions of a tree tent

So just what is a ‘tree tent’ and why would you want one? A friend described it as a cross between a hammock and trampoline, and it has to be said that this is a pretty good way of describing a tree tent. It is a tent that is suspended via some strong webbing straps attached to the surrounding trees, floating above the ground, all be it tethered to those trees.

Why? Well because you can, would be an honest answer and because it’s fun, providing a very different perspective for watching and living more closely with our natural woodland surroundings . For anyone who has ever slept in a hammock, or perhaps laid back in one on a sunny day, will know that a hammock provides a very comfortable place to relax and sleep. Unlike a tent, there is no need to clear the ground before pitching the tent to remove those little sticks and stones that, if not removed, will ruin an otherwise good nights sleep.

Another excellent reason for using a tree tent is that, like a hammock, you don’t need to worry about the suitability of the ground on which you would otherwise be camping. You can pitch a tree tent over rough or over sloping ground or even over a pond or stream -I’m looking forward to more challenging locations!

Tentsile Stingray

First night in a Tentsile Stingray tree tent in Bushcraft camp

First night in a Tentsile Stingray tree tent in Bushcraft camp

Our first nights camp was in the woodland where I run courses and the first task was to find a suitable location for the tree tent, three trees from which to suspend the Tentsile Stingray tree tent. The instructions recommend trees that are a foot thick, with trees evenly spaced from each other (ideally forming or approximating to an equilateral triangle). We were in luck, with a nice setting right next to our campfire circle. Erecting the tent was simple enough (well for anyone familiar with setting up a tent on the ground), aided by the excellent videos on the Tentsile website and luckily for me an introduction by Alex Shirley-Smith, owner of Tentsile (thank you Alex).

Like a tent, you need to have insulation underneath where you are sleeping to keep warm at night. In our case, we also had a Trillium Hammock which can be suspended underneath to create a second base layer, between these layer we placed our Thermarest insulation mats. The Stingray can comfortably sleep three people, but with the Trillium suspended separately and with the addition of the optional side walls, there would be room for another tree people down stairs – take a look at this amazing Tentsile configuration!

With the tent platform evenly positioned between the three trees, it was just a matter of inserting a couple of polls into sleeves in the tent fabric to pop up the tent and pull over the flysheet and we were ready to try it out.

There are two entrances, a hatch underneath (see picture above) and a doorway (see below). I put a wooden bench below the hatch, slipped off my shoes and climbed up into a whole new world of camping. We were just a few feet above the ground, but that was enough to see things from a new perspective. It was high enough to see blue tits fly past and yet be at the same level as them too – wonderful.

Tentsile Stingray tree tent - mug stand for morning cup of tea

Tentsile Stingray tree tent – mug stand for morning cup of tea

Well our first night in a tree tent was amazing, it really was a completely new experience, lots of fun too and very comfortable. It was a beautifully clear night and lovely to watch the stars suspended above the ground, that insulation really paid off! And where do you put you morning cup of tea, well as you can (just about) see above, I rigged up a tripod upon which to perch a mug of nettle tea. The flysheet was then removed and we relaxed, sipping tea, listening to the dawn chorus and watching the birds fly be, what a great way to start the day.

Camping with a new perspective – Tentsile Tree tents

What is Bushcraft?

So just what is Bushcraft? In a literal sense, it’s the skills required to live in the bush. The bush being a commonly used term to describe an area of wild country, one that is remote and does not generally have much if any habitation.

Living in the bush could be just the construction of a shelter, building of a fire and finding water and food. Whilst these are clearly important priorities, they are the bear essentials, they are more about surviving rather than really living. Living is more than just surviving (I hope you agree), so the skills required to live will extend beyond these basics as well as expanding upon them to make life comfortable and enjoyable, whilst living away from the conveniences of modern life.

Bushcraft or Survival?

Is there really a difference between Bushcraft and Survival skills? There is undoubtedly an overlap in the skills required, but is there more to be considered? From a technical perspective they have much in common, what is perhaps different is the situation and / or reason for there application.

Survival conjures up visions of having to survive a natural disaster or a man made one such as a plane crash or perhaps in a military context, an escape and evasion from an enemy. There is also a common link here with ‘preppers’ who want to be prepared for an imminent or perceived threat, which also involves the stockpiling of food and other supplies, but is still in the context of survival.

Bushcraft by contrast, is generally thought of as the enjoyment of living in a remote, wilderness location. No one is expecting impending doom, rather they are seeking to live life outdoors, appreciate nature and leave no (or minimal) trace of their activities.

Unlike the person or group in a survival situation, who are seeking to get back to civilisation, safely and as soon as possible, those interested in Bushcraft are in no hurry and are content to make a comfortable home in the wilderness.

A common set of skills?

Whether you are in a survival situation or just wanting to spend some time living in the wilds, you will need to acquire and practise these practical skills:

  • Tools – use a saw and knife safely and effectively
  • Fire – confidently light and maintain a campfire using a range of different methods
  • Shelter – construct a shelter using natural and / or man made materials
  • Water – find, filter and purify water so that it is safe to drink
  • Food – forage for edible plants, prepare wild game and cook these on a campfire
  • Navigation – find your way, direction by compass, the sun, stars and other natural methods
  • First aid – be able to look after yourself or someone else in case of injury or illness

Each of these skills may vary depending on the anticipated or chosen situation:

  • Will you have the use of a knife or will you need to fashion one from a piece of stone, such as flint?
  • What resources will be available to create a fire, what will you use to ignite the fire, a fire-steel or will you need to create fire-by-friction?
  • Have you got a small tent or tarpaulin for shelter of will you be using natural materials?
  • How will the environment effect your ability to find water or forage food?
  • Will you find a suitable location for a shelter and stay put or will you be navigating along a trail each day?
  • What risks are associated with the terrain, flora and fauna and how may injuries or illnesses be managed?

Some differences perhaps?

For those with a planned trip into the wilds, you are perhaps more likely to have a few essential items; knife, fire-steel, tarpaulin and billy can, packed in a rucksack with sleeping bag and at least some food supplies and other items that make life comfortable in the wilds. Alas, those in a survival situation may not be so lucky, possibly having a just a survival tin, but with increased security, they will probably not have even this and need to improvise everything in order to survive.

There is perhaps a greater interest in natural history and desire for a deeper understanding of flora and fauna by those interested in Bushcraft. That said, anyone preparing for a survival situation would also do well to understand the natural environment they will encounter. Imagine being surrounded by plants with fruit that could be easily gathered but knowing which were safe to eat or being located on the coast and not knowing what easy to reach seafood would provide a good meal?

In a survival situation, whilst you may save yourself and / or your group, it is perhaps more likely that you will need outside help, so how will you attract the help you need? What strategies will you adopt? Will you stay put, trek to a more visible location or will you attempt to travel to safety? Whilst these are also useful things to understand for those travelling into the wilds, they are very important in a survival situation.

Those interested in Bushcraft are likely to take their crafting to a level beyond the essentials required for survival. Whilst utensils and gadgets will be useful in both situations, processing hides to make buckskin garments or carving spoons or cups will be a  time consuming luxury that those in a survival situation will not be able to afford. It may be that making a bow and arrow seems  like a good idea, but unless practised both in the making and use it may not be worth the time investment.

Isn’t this just camping?

For those, perhaps of a certain age and / or experience, it could be said that this is not that different to old-time or classic camping. In times past, when tents were made from tightly woven cotton, you fashioned useful gadgets with your knife or axe, prepared your food and cooked over a campfire, then yes Bushcraft is just like the classic camp of years past.

But with all the modern camping gear, some of the need to improvise, to make things has perhaps been lost along the way. Obviously there are times now when you aren’t allowed and shouldn’t have a campfire, so you must use a stove, but you can still enjoy being in the wilds. The advent of lighter gear has benefits too, in the form of lighter tarpaulins, warmer sleeping bags, etc.

Final thoughts

By way of conclusion, a few final thoughts. In writing this short article, it appears to me that these subjects, Bushcraft and Survival have far more in common that one may at first perceive. From a skills perspective there is significant overlap, all be it situations may dictate that the skills taught differ in approach.

So what is Bushcraft? For me it’s learning the skills to live outdoors, appreciate the natural world, know your flora and fauna and be able to craft useful items from natural materials. All of these and most of the above, with varying degrees of emphasis depending on whether the goal is to enjoy living life in the wilds or preparing for a potential survival situation.

The major difference is arguably one of perception, with one being more focused on the pleasure of being outdoors, observing nature, perhaps with some classic camping thrown in and the other has its purpose in preparedness for a disaster situation.