“That street you live on, that street, it’s the road to Africa, to anywhere, to…adventure.”
I was sat in the Ellis Brigham Mountain store in Covent Garden, listening to Al Humphrey’s talk about the four years he’d spent cycling around the world.
But I wasn’t there to hear about big trips. About grand feats of endurance and continents conquered. No, no. I, along with a room full of other adventure lovers, had come for tales far closer to home. Of ‘Local Discoveries for Great Escapes’ as goes the title of Al’s new book: Microadventures. The concept is simple: Leave work bang on time, grab a chum (or two), escape to the countryside, eat, laugh, indulge in a wee dram, sleep under the stars and be back at your desk the following morning. Perhaps with a feint whiff of eau du field about your person and a dirty little secret to boot, but grinning from ear to ear nonetheless.
I’ve been a quiet fan of the microadventure for some time. I popped my bivvy cherry last year, and
know only too well the strange satisfaction that comes from sleeping in a sack outdoors. So on the way home from the talk I had (if I do say so myself) a rather good idea. For the next seven weeks I’d go on a mission to prove just how easy London Microadventur-er-ing is. I’d do one trip per week in each of the six counties that surround London: Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire, Essex, Kent and Surrey (Yes, I had to Google what those counties were, please don’t judge me). And I’d drag as many people as I could along for the ride. For the final week we’d all find a way to sleep out in Greater London itself.
As an ex-rower, Henley is like a second home. Which made it a perfect location for the first week of the challenge. That’s what adventure is about after all – seeing the world through fresh eyes. Visiting places you know like the back of your hand and being surprised at what you find there. Pathways once invisible, leading to woods until now, unseen.
The adventure assembly at Henley was true Avengers style. Will, aka Super Cycling Man, pedalled from London, stopping so many times to take photos that he almost missed dinner. Shropshire natives and married couple Laraine and Owain (yes I think it’s cute that their names rhyme too) screeched in by car – looking glamourous having come directly from the Stroke Association awards that afternoon. Mark the cameraman jetted in from Jersey, and the rest of us, well, the rest of us… got the train. How frightfully dull.
By the time the nine strong team were gathered in the beer garden at The Little Angel, bevvies in hand, we represented a neat little cross section of society. Health and safety, finance, performing arts, education, couriers and communications, all were there – ready to shirk responsibility, cast off the 9-5 and (as Al puts it) start living for the 5–9 instead.
After consuming an adequate mix of carbs and protein (burger = protein, bun = carbs), partaking in one of our five-a-day (Gerkin in burger), quaffing local ales and playing the shortest and most ill-equipped game of Jenga, we left the pub and set out on the Chiltern Way footpath. Guided by my trusty torch (which contains the fire of a thousand suns) I blinded teammates at intervals as we picked our way across fields, through gates and (much to Super Cycling Man’s despair) over stiles. Twenty minutes later we arrived at a clearing in the wood with just enough space for nine weary bodies to rest.
“I need to hang my bag in the tree” Announced the ever cautious Jo Pickard.
“Errr, okay – why?”
“It’s got my banana bread in it.”
“Ah okay, that makes sen…no, wait. Why does it need to go in the tree?”
“Because…. I don’t know…There might be bears, or something.”
After reassuring Lady Pickard that the only likely candidate for a banana bread predator was a
rogue badger, we unrolled mats, de-robed (some more than others…Tarran) and went for one last gawd-I-hope-it-lasts-til-morning pee. We burrowed deep into sleeping bags and snuggled up under a canopy of trees and fragmented moonlight.
When morning came, jetboils were fired up, a timely brew was… erm… brewed and slurped alongside a breakfast of banana bread and croissants, both of which had miraculously eluded the Henley bears. With bellies once again full, we gathered our gear and ambled out of the woods in the opposite direction.
“My word.” Mouthed Russell (not the wilderness explorer, but a close copy).
The dawn had lit up a Poppy field. Red dots spattered across an otherwise green horizon, merging into the early morning mist, lurking in the river valley below.
After recovering from the romance of it all, I and the adventure avengers did what any civilized Berkshire resident would at 6am: We cannonballed into the river in our pants (in the case of Super Cycling Man his pants were, naturally, on the outside of this clothing). We squealed, frolicked, swam and sang, before exiting the river and scurrying, still wet, to the train station. There we caught the 6.30am train – back to Paddington, and back to normal life.
Are we crazy?
Possibly, although I’ll argue otherwise. I confess I keep my nocturnal trips on the down low with colleagues in the office I don’t know so well. And still, at the risk of sounding old before my time, I find it bizarre that to roll in with a hangover is a more accepted norm. Bleary eyed, mascara smeared, sambuca seeping from pores, hoping with all your might that that dirty breakfast
sausage will calm the storm in your stomach. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve done that too. But now days, a microadventure is my night out. I get treated to what feels like a weekend in the middle of the working week and I don’t stop smiling for any of the following day. While the world sleeps, watches TV or stays late at their laptop, I get better acquainted with the small corners of my own beloved country. And the only people I have to share it with are those who appreciate it as much as I do.
Since writing this I’ve returned from microadventure number two in Essex, and am about to head for number three in Surrey. Those two are a tale for next time….
Until then adventure lovers, Adieu xx
If you’d like to see what Team Berkshire get up to when they’re not bear-dodging in the Henley woods, you can stalk them here:
Jo Pickard: @JoPickard
Will Hodson: @SuperCyclingMan
Mark Davies: @Davies16
Russ Smith: @HikeBikeRun
Emily Chappell: @EmilyChappell
Tarran Kent-Hume: @Tarran008
Laraine Wynne-Jones: @LaraineWynJones
Owain Wynne-Jones: @OwynJones