Tag Archives: England

8 Things I learnt from the Three Peaks Challenge

Bee Says: My company, Penguin Random House, is hot to trot on all things charity. At the start of each year every single person in the business has the opportunity to vote on a list of nominations for the charity of the year, and then the year is jam-packed with opportunities to band-together and raise money for that one cause. This year the charity is Mind, who in their words seek to “provide advice and support to empower anyone experiencing a mental health problem and campaign to improve services, raise awareness and promote understanding.” I was thrilled when Mind were announced as our chosen charity because I have experienced through friends & family how debilitating and devastating mental health problems can be – and how crucial it is to have access to the right people and support. With this in mind; when an email whizzed around the company in March asking for people to sign up to the Three Peaks Challenge I was quick to jot my name down; without giving an awful lot of though to what this would entail. A nice summer ramble, I thought. A bit of a jolly with my colleagues, I thought…

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What is the Three Peaks Challenge when it’s at home anyway? Well I soon learnt that it consists of climbing the three highest peaks in Scotland, England and Wales. Those three bad boys stack up as Ben Nevis (1344m), Scafell Pike (978m) and Snowdon (1085m) and well, as if it’s not hard enough to lug yourself up three mountains; the stakes are raised by racing against the clock to complete the set in under 24 hours. The challenge racks up a total of 480 miles of driving, 25 miles of hiking, climbing a total of almost 3000 vertical metres, and.. 0 hours sleep. Sounds like fun… right?

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I thought it might be useful to share a few hints, tips and tricks I picked up through my experience in case you are considering something similar. I would HIGHLY recommend it – just book yourself a decent massage afterwards.

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1. You honestly don’t need to train that much

When I first signed up to the challenge and shared the news; I was met with bewildered and horrified faces and comments ranging from “isn’t that just for top athletes?!” to “you’re going to surely DIE”. So just to clarify, whilst the challenge is “challenging”, you just need to be at a basic level of good fitness. The event itself is actually so much more about psychological strength and grit (and ability to scoff scotch eggs at record speed). We did get given a 16 week training plan by Mind – which wasn’t ideal as we signed up with only 11 weeks to go! – but really the key suggestion was just that you do regular exercise of any type (be that walking, swimming, pilates, running, cycling… anything that tickles your fancy really) and that prior to the event you do a few mammoth walks, I did a 13 and a 19 miler, just to test the endurance of your legs. I have to say that by far the most important and useful training I did was taking the stairs at every opportunity. It’s 7 flights up to my desk at work and 3 flights up to my flat; and that was the bit that felt most similar to the vertical hiking of the peaks. Aside from a few super-hero-standard fitties, everyone in our team of 21 was a similar level of fitness and it was definitely an achievable challenge for people who are “quite active but also like sitting about eating crisps and watching Netflix”.

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2. You can never, ever predict the weather

You might think that a June weekend would be the ideal time to partake in this challenge; especially a June weekend where the rest of the country basks in a tropical heatwave. What I learnt (and maybe should have known but I was always very bad at geography, and… science) is that no matter the conditions on the ground, each mountain has it’s very own micro-climate. At best; the summit will be stuck in a cloud because it’s so high up there. At worst; you’ll experience 5ft of snow on Ben Nevis, hail, rain, wind gusts of up to 40mph on Scafell Pike and temperatures that plummet well below freezing. So ignore the weather forecast and pack for every eventuality; taking doubles of everything and waterproofs even if there is a heat wave. Trust me on this; as someone who climbed Scafell Pike with gloves that were soaking and then started to develop actual frost crystals (and turn my hands into white fat sausages) by the top. Even if it appears sunny and lovely as you embark; weather fronts can come in fast and furiously. It’s also always going to be pretty cold at the summit; and if you need a rest or hurt yourself and are sat about for any length of time – you need to keep warm and toasty.

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3. Invest in some decent kit

The Three Peaks Challenge (or a similar event) will end up costing a chunk of change. I under-estimated this bit; although the good thing is that I will re-use most of the kit and it’s that type of snazzy outdoor wear that is built to last. The challenge itself cost £80 to sign up for; and then a minimum donation total of £550. This is because Mind don’t want to lose money on paying for the aspects such as bus, guide, accommodation in Fort William on the Friday night before you start, water etc. Mind provided us with a handy kit list and luckily I had some of the key bits – most importantly a good warm AND waterproof jacket. Mine is this Madigan beaut from Craghoppers which is so reasonably priced and has an Aqua Dry outer coat (which honestly repels water, it never gets wet!) and a micro fleece for 3 in 1 warmth, wind proof and water proofing. Also it’s definitely worth investing in some proper ankle height walking boots, again that are properly waterproof and will stop you coming a cropper on any crags. The only luxury item I found it totally worth buying was some walking poles! I had previously been a special sort of idiot who thought these were only for “old people”. These metal rods are crucial for navigating up and down mountains and not shredding your knees. You can even start to convince yourself you look pretty cool with them in a Where’s Wally kinda way.

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4. Waterproof gloves are a thing. And a very good thing.

I didn’t actually know waterproof gloves existed but boy do I wish someone had told me. I would buy yourself a pair, if only to avoid standing in a service station desperately trying to dry a pair of wet-dog stinky wool gloves under the hand dryer at 2am.

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5. The UK is SO beautiful.

One of the absolute best bits of this challenge is seeing bits of the UK I would never usually visit. It may have been a whistle-stop tour but that doesn’t mean I didn’t get a really good taste of the diverse terrain, the beauty, the views and the sights that the highlands, the lake district and Snowdonia have to offer. There was plenty of gazing out of the mini bus and time to plan future trips back to all these places to see them properly (just perhaps not the mountain bits) I think the most exciting place for me to visit was Glen Coe and the surrounding area of Scotland. Having never explored past Glasgow and Edinburgh; that scenery seriously packs a punch! It’s unlike anything anywhere else in the UK. Volcanic looking peaks, snow, ski lifts!, waterfalls cascading down the side of anything high, epic lochs that last as far as the eye can see, BIG sky and air that’s so fresh my London-riddled lungs could actually feel the difference with the first breath.

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6. Treat yourself to a Camelbak

This experience has been a real education in kit. I SO wish I’d known about the holy Camelbak when we were backpacking. It’s such an obvious solution to the pain of carrying about heavy bottles of water and having to stop every time you want a swig.The Camelbak is a hydration system; which is a posh way of saying a plastic pouch that can carry 3L of water, attached to a plastic hose you can dangle over your shoulder and then easily slurp from at any moment (see the blue pipe thing below). You can even drink whilst you are walking! Genius. I am now intending to fill my Camelbak with gin & tonic and fit it to my sofa.

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7. Distraction is key

I could not have completed the challenge without Katy Perry. That is a fact! I am so relieved that I packed my ipod and loaded it full of happy pop songs; because at the points where my brain was screaming at me that I couldn’t do it, I could drown that all out with some Roar on repeat. I also listened to a bunch of my favourite podcasts – Undisclosed, Watch the Thrones and You Are Not So Smart. Somehow having voices nattering in my ears made it feel less lonely as I clambered about something that resembled the surface of Mars (that’s you Scafell!) I mentioned earlier that the challenge is a psychological one, and I can never really put into words how gruelling it was. The tiredness of my legs and body honestly paled in comparison to the battering my brain took as I went through various stages of ~the fear~ and self doubt and wanting to throw my sticks down and give up!

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8. You can never have enough snacks

I went shopping for snacks three times leading up to the challenge (as this was the bit I was most excited about) and still munched my way through nearly everything. Protein bars, fruit and nuts, snickers, oatcakes, twiglets, pork pies, scotch eggs, babybel, flapjacks, jelly babies and anything else that can deliver you a quick boost of sugar or energy needs to be in your bag and belly. I feel quite sick even looking at this photo now, and think I’m retiring from both mountaineering AND snacks.

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Well that’s just a few of my thoughts. It was equally the best and worst thing I have ever done; but I am so proud of my team for hulk-smashing their way through the challenge! We went with a great company called Adventure Cafe (and in fact I’ve pinched a few of their photos here – thanks guys) Everyone was amazing at cheering each other along at bleak points, lending out woollens when the temperature dropped and generally keeping morale high and a sense of humour when things looked wet and wild. We were also lucky to have two fantastic guides who we were totally reliant on to get us up and down safely; and deliver that tough love of “no you cannot stop for jelly babies, it’s too cold to stand still”.

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I’m currently just £10 short of my sponsorship target, so if you are feeling generous – my page is here and every penny counts. In total, my group will have raised over £10,000 for Mind… and that makes every moment I’ve woken up in the night this week with leg cramp worthwhile!

 

Birthday Surprise at Cutthorne House, Exmoor

Nick Says: Being back in the UK at long-last hasn’t cured us of any sort of wanderlust; in fact it’s just made it more amplified! So of course it wasn’t long after we touched back down and moved back to London that we were zooming off again, but this time to explore the amazing wilds of our own country. Taking the time to explore what we had at home had been something we were both very keen to do after our tropical adventure, and the fact that it was Bee’s birthday (a very special one too) gave us the perfect excuse to hightail it away from the city.

Planning this trip had been a long time in the making. All the way back in South America actually… Bee had asked to go away for her birthday weekend, and had a few requests! It needed to be in the wilderness, have the opportunity to do some star-gazing, and also put on a great cream tea. So I sent off this wish-list to Bee’s mum who kindly offered to do some research, and in the end found the perfect place; Cutthorne House in Exmoor, voted one of the Top 10 Most Remote Hotels in England and Top 20 Wild Places to stay in the UK. It looked to be perfect, and I couldn’t wait to surprise Bee with a trip to somewhere she had no idea where she was going (despite asking a LOT of leading questions).

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Bee Says: We set off nice and early, making packed lunches to take in the car. I knew nothing about where we were going other than it was in the UK (no passport required, for once!) and that I had to scrunch my eyes shut when Nick typed in the end destination to the sat nav. Luckily, as I haven’t driven for over 8 years and am a Yorkshire lass, my sense of Southern geography is atrocious. I soon figured out we were heading west… but wasn’t actually sure what was in the west, so it made for a pretty easy surprise. I get so lucky with my birthday every year in terms of weather, and this one was no different. We got great van-man-tans on opposing arms as the glorious English countryside zoomed past, all green and yellow and spring-ing into life. After smooth sailing for a couple of hours, we hit some mega traffic. We sat and sat and sat, inching along with our tummies starting to rumble and our bladders starting to wish we were closer to a service station. And then! We saw what all the fuss was about. It was because we were about to pass this pile of pebbles:

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It always amazes me how close Stonehenge is to the motorway, and suddenly idling away in the sticky jam of cars was all worth while. Before long we were back on the magical mystery tour and it was time to take a lunch break. One of the things I always hold dear to my heart as quintessentially British, is our very special brand of service stations. Everything about them fills me with a patriotic pride, even though I know they are a bit grotty and flawed. I LOVE Little Chef, I love the shopping arcade bits with everyone milling around buying magazines and overpriced water and car sweets. I love the feeling that you also get in airport departure lounges; everyone if having some sort of adventure and on some sort of journey. We ramped up the awfully British service station experience by choosing to eat our cheese and chutney sandwiches whilst sat IN the boiling hot car, IN the car park. Why do we do this to ourselves?! But true to form the family sat in the car parked facing us were doing the same, so we all awkwardly avoided eye contact whilst munching away. A quick mooch around the Spa led to my rediscovery of the BEST crisps ever (Cheese & Onion Squares) so I bought myself 3 grab bags that I demolished in one sitting; by now I was embracing a regular theme to the weekend; “it’s my 30th so I can do exactly what I want!” – Poor Nick ey?

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Back on the road we passed through Taunton and then suddenly life and civilisation seemed to drop away entirely. One moment we were passing sports centres and banks and schools, the next we were on a seemingly never-ending road that was winding it’s way further through wide open plains, patches of straggly copse and not a soul in sight. It was so dramatic and actually unlike anything I saw on our entire Latin America trip. That familiar creeping feeling of total isolation and wilderness was creeping in. The road continued and it began to be skirted by tall, fairytale-esque bramble bushes and thick gnarled trees that met in the middle of the road creating a dark canopy as we zoomed along. We hadn’t seen another car for miles when suddenly the sat nav showed us the “chequered flag” and apparently we had arrived! Except we hadn’t. We were still in the middle of nowhere. It turns out the postcode hadn’t been specific enough for the sat nav so it had just led us to somewhere in the general direction. A quick check confirmed my suspicions; no phone signal. And then the sat nav announced it had no signal either and promptly gave up the ghost. It was time to revert to more traditional methods aka follow the sign to somewhere that sounds like people live there and ask directions. This worked a treat and after a 30 minute detour, we finally eased the car down the farm path to Cutthorne House.

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Nick Says: The place itself was absolutely perfect for what I was after. Dark and quiet, it was the perfect antidote to our already full-on London lives. One of the first things we did was take a walk to explore the property. Not only do you get to stay in an amazing old manor, you also get access to some incredible scenery too. We strolled down to the lake, taking care not to enrage a local goose who appeared to be on guard duty. The sense of peace just radiated from the ground upwards. Exmoor is wild and wonderful, and the type of place you could easily imagine getting lost in for days on end. Which is exactly what we spent the next few days doing. Having access to a car was a must here, as we were able to pick and choose our walks on a tight timetable, but leave plenty of time for lounging around and soaking up the views from the front lawn of Cutthorne House.

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Bee Says: Nick had done SO good! An ancient old house dating from 1397 in the heart of Exmoor; a place I had never been before but had always wanted to visit. And the best part? We were the only guests in the whole house. The hotel has three rooms, so it was never going to be heaving, but to have the run of the place made everything extra enchanting and wild. I could barely believe my eyes as I scampered around inspecting the 4-poster bed, the decadent bathroom and the beautiful, quaint details hiding in every corner.

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The hotel is run by Pam, Anne and Phil. Something that makes this hotel unlike any other I have experienced; is that the owners encourage you to use it like your own home. We were free to come and go as we pleased; and not just feel confined to our bedroom (although it was a heavenly bedroom!) but to use the lounge, the dining room and the gardens & grounds as much as we wanted. Pam also informed us that whilst there was a key, it was completely un-necessary to lock our doors given that we were the only guests. After 6 months of Latin American hostels and the cloud of fear that constantly surrounded the safety of our belongings; leaving the door open went against all our instincts but really summed up the laid back and family atmosphere of the whole place.

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On my 30th birthday I woke up and the first thing I did was tuck into a giant full English. Cutthorne pride themselves on only serving locally sourced, organic produce. And boy could you taste it! Next I was desperate to get out into the beautiful countryside that was winking at us from every direction. A quick natter to Anne and she recommended a local hike to Dunkery Beacon.

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Nick Says: Dunkery Beacon is the highest point on Exmoor. Located a convenient 20 minute drive from Cutthorne, we squeezed into a parking spot and began our ascent. While Bee was smugly kitted out in outdoor boots, mine had been donated to a man in Guatemala and instead I was left with my Mexican-mall Vans. Not the best footwear for the trek. We’d also forgotten to bring water with us, proving that we’d taken on-board ZERO lessons from hiking in Latin America. Our return to the UK had made us weak. But still we bounded enthusiastically up the hill, and marvelled at the incredible view of the Bristol Channel at the top. We constantly take it for granted, but we really do live in one good looking country. I just wish we had more time to explore it all!

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Bee Says: It felt so good to be out in the moors with wind whipping my hair and a 360 degree view of the luscious British scenery that we had missed so much. After stomping about and having a good ramble around Exmoor, we drove back ‘home’ to Cutthorne. I am not embarrassed to admit that the rest of my special birthday was then mostly spent like this (gotta love a hotel that gives you cocoa-making equipment in your room) I mean c’mon, I had had a pretty adventurous year leading up to this…

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(Just realised this book sounds a bit raunchy if you read the text in the photo. I don’t think it was particularly, I just snapped a saucy page!) The sun was shining, so I switched up coseying up on the couch in the front room, with sitting out in the garden. I was sat with my nose in my non-rude book when suddenly lovely Anne appeared from the house holding a gorgeous bunch of flowers and a box of Belgian chocs! Little did I know that Nick had been plotting and planning this surprise behind my back, and amazingly the hotel had helped him pull it off. I was so gobsmacked and it was a really special moment.

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The highlight of the day definitely rolled around at night though. Given that the hotel is 2miles from the nearest village, it’s highly recommended to take them on up their daily hotel dinner offering. I remember Nick had fretted about whether to book this, as he wasn’t sure it was special enough. In actual fact, it was one of the best meals of my life! Because we were the only guests, we had the gorgeous dining room to ourselves, and were in the top table all cosied up to a roaring open fire. We were then served an exquisite 4 course meal by Anne, all freshly made on the AGA. The food had that just-picked-today freshness and the portions were wildly generous. The cherry on top was that they even had our favourite Chilean wine, to bring a little bit of our travel memories to the table with us. By the time the cheese platter came out, we were absolutely groaning with that pleasure/pain of being insanely full.

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We just had enough energy to roll ourselves out to the back garden to marvel at the stars. Exmoor National Park was designated the first International Dark Sky Reserve in Europe. A dark-sky reserve is an area that is kept free of artificial light pollution; resulting in incredible astronomy opportunities. Being star gazy geeks, we are keen to visit all and any dark-sky spots in Europe and this was a great place to start. It was a little cloudy, so no chance to spot a shooter, but it was still an impressive smattering of sky sparkles.

It felt like the second we’d got settled, it was time to return to the hubub of London. We were so relaxed in fact, that we managed to leave an impressive array of worldly possessions behind; including my kindle, iphone charger and birthday cards. Luckily Nick remembered about 20 minutes into our drive home, so we returned to collect the bits and have one last pet of the adorable hotel dog!

Nick Says: Driving back I had one last surprise for Bee, a quick visit to my brother Joe and his family. It was great to see my new niece again (even if my face scared her and made her cry) and hang out with his wife Mel and my nephew Riley. And the best bit of this added secret Taunton trip was that Joe and Mel were able to lay on a Cream Tea – completing the birthday wish-list from Bee!

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Bee Says: I couldn’t have wished for a better birthday break, and it certainly rivalled our Latin American adventures. I’m already looking ahead in the calender to future occasions that I could use as an excuse to return to Cutthorne, as it felt like our own secret little piece of wilderness heaven. My soon-to-be-sister-in-law Mel has grown up in the West Country and was telling me some amazing myths and legends and spine tingly spooks about Exmoor. I’m such a sucker for real life mysteries and most haunted type tales. She told us that the never-ending road we initially got lost on is haunted by the white clad phantom of a George Sydenham, who rides a headless white horse along the road towards Monksilver; the place we eventually got directions (not from a headless horseman thank goodness) and then there is the Valley of The Rocks which is a local beauty spot. According to Everything Exmoor The valley with its unusual turrets of rock is home to a herd of native British goats. The valley, legend says, was the location of the devil’s castle and while he was away his wives took part in a naked drunken orgy with a neighbour. On finding out what had happened on his return he turned the women into the turrets of rock and destroyed the castle. So now you know! I love that so much of this folklore is inspired by the dramatic nature and isolation of Exmoor. If I ever wanted to write a ghost story, I would definitely head straight there for inspiration.