Ditchling Beacon Microadventure

Not the most comfortable, but not many other people had that view that night

So last weekend, inspired by Alastair Humphreys we went on an adventure across the South Downs. I’ve read a lot of AH’s reports on microadventures and while he is very strong on the reasons for going and doing one, how much fun it is and how easy it is, he is a little light on the specific details of going about one. This post then is intended as both a record of our adventure, and a guide to anyone thinking of doing something similar.

The first thing to note is that the start of the adventure is not when you step off the train, or when you leave your house, it’s much earlier than that. It starts with planning where to go and ensuring you have the necessary equipment. AH is rightly very keen to lower the bar on doing a microadventure as far as possible, but in my view there are a few bits of specialised kit you will need – especially if you are trying to convince your sceptical wife to come along with you:

  1. A warm sleeping bag. We’d previously spent a cold night not sleeping very much in our cheap synthetic bags and decided that wasn’t worth repeating. We therefore invested in Enlightened Equipment quilts from the US (review here). These are crazy warm and incredibly light compared to our old bags
  2. Bivvy bags. These are pretty essential to microadventures and the no-tent ethos
  3. A tarp. This is theoretically not necessary if you have a bivvy bag, but I really enjoy setting up a basha with the tarp, using just cord and some sticks and pegs. It’s also great to have a dry place to enjoy the scenery

The next step is then deciding where to go. We live in London and so the obvious choice was the South Downs – it’s easily accessible without a car. I did some googling for a route that would combine a good walk with a pleasant pub for dinner and a good spot for a wild camp and came upon this old article which seemed perfect. Finally I bought the relevant OS map, did some route planning to check timings and worked out when we would need to leave on Saturday morning.

We ended up getting the train at 0815 out of Victoria down to Shoreham, taking our McMuffins on the train with us. At 940 we started walking out of Shoreham, towards the South Downs Way.

Downs link path along old railway is flat and not very exciting to walk

In retrospect, I would probably try and get the bus to to the start of the south downs way, rather than have the hour long walk from the station.

We climbed the south downs and headed east, keeping the high-rises of Brighton on our right. The path was busy with cyclists and other walkers but I don’t think any of them were planning to sleep out there that evening. We walked for a couple of hours and then stopped for a lunch of snack eggs, oatcakes and cheese.

We weren't high, but so much higher than everything else around. Felt like you could touch the clouds
We weren’t high, but so much higher than everything else around. Felt like you could touch the clouds

A couple more hours of walking took us past Devil’s Dyke and down to the Hiker’s Rest. This is a great little van in the grounds of a National Trust farm doing fantastic food and drinks. We stayed there for an hour but could have stayed longer. A theme of this day was that we did too much walking and not enough stopping. It was then another couple of hours along the downs and finally down to Ditchling. This last stretch was pretty tough going, having been able to see the town for so long from the top of the downs, it was depressing to find out how slowly it came closer when down at ground level.

One of the best things about spending the day walking is that you feel completely justified in eating an incredible amount of food at the end. So that’s what I did. It did not make the walk back up to the top of Ditchling Beacon any easier. We ate in the White Horse pub which did great beer and average food but wasn’t showing the football, had a good selection of newspaper and didn’t complain when we took out shoes off. After checking the weather forecast, we decided we better head back up the hill if we wanted to pitch camp in the dry. The trip back up was a lot easier than I expected, amazing how a rest and some food improves things.

I’d read online that others had wild camped on the top of Ditchling Beacon and so I was fairly confident of finding a spot to sleep but the reality was a little more tricky. Wild Camping is technically illegal and so we wanted to find a secluded place to stop. We also wanted a view from our sleeping bags (otherwise what’s the point of being up there?) and since the south downs way runs right across the top of the slope, we settled for a spot on the north face of the beacon that was a lot further from flat than I would have liked. It was however secluded and there was a fantastic view, so with the light fading we settled for 2 out of 3.

We never slid  as far as the fence, but it was nice to know it was there
We never slid as far as the fence, but it was nice to know it was there

We’d picked up a spare stick on the way up through the woods which came in really handy as a lifter on the back of the tarp, greatly increasing head room. It rained pretty heavily during the night but the combination of tarp and bivvy bag kept us bone dry. In fact I don’t think I even got my bivvy bag wet. The slope was an issue though and I was continually sliding down towards Ditchling. Things improved when I used my bag under my feet to counteract the slope, and improved further when I took my pad out from inside my bivvy bag. My pad is so thin I don’t often notice it anyway and the ground was probably soft enough to do without. That is definitely the next item to be upgraded.

I woke around 4 with sunrise and another incredible view. There were also some great bird songs around. I need to find the time to learn some bird songs and so identify what’s around. I can do lark, blackbird and pigeon but that’s about it.

It was still raining when we woke, and after sitting around wondering if it would stop, we bit the bullet and broke camp at 610. On a wild camp it’s a good idea to get going early before anyone finds you. It took us about an hour to get going and the walk was then a bit miserable. It was raining continuously and we were sore and tired from the day and night before. I found out just how slippery the chalk can be in the wet.

We got to Lewes in time for the 1020 train back to London. The last part of the walk being along a very narrow bridleway of chalky clay which had been ploughed up by horses and lined with wet grasses. This was probably my least favourite part of the walk but it had been preceded by some great scenery, this time looking south on the rolling downs. We were back home by 12, having walked 35km since 10am the previous morning.

What would I do differently next time?

  • Not bother walking from Shoreham to the south downs way, would get the bus instead
  • Take more and longer stops on the walk
  • Not go down into Ditchling for dinner, we could have just cooked on top of the hill and spent more time finding a good place to camp
  • Take a different route into Lewes to avoid that last path

All great learnings for the next microadventure – I am completely sold on the concept, just need to work on the execution.

The green and pleasant land
The green and pleasant land

Awesome Online Documentary Series

This recommendation is an antidote to the reductive good vs bad approach to news reporting and culture generally. Adam Curtis is an incredible documentary maker who has made a number of fantastic documentaries for the BBC such as The Century of the Self and All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace .

His documentaries make extensive use of archive footage which is then weaved together into a coherent story. On his blog he continues this approach but working in both text and video and for a more committed audience he is able to go into more detail on items for which there is not video, and also show videos which perhaps wouldn’t make it into a TV documentary.

The result is a fascinating series of long-form articles which go deep into particular stories. The series on Afghanistan and Congo are absolutely engrossing. I really like the contrast you get from looking at old news reports of an event, and comparing to current reporting: it’s a great reminder of the limitations of the media and that we are always looking at events through a narrow, blurred lens.

Separate to the quality of his articles, I have great sympathy with the world view he expresses and his dismay with the cult of TINA or (There Is No Alternative). I don’t believe that how we organise our society is optimal (no matter what you are optimising for) but we seemed to have stopped looking for alternatives and accepted as fundamental the primacy of the market. There must be alternatives, given the failings of our current system. Opposition parties need to be providing big ideas to deal with severe and rapid changes that are occuring, not proposing to do more of what they did last time they were in power.

The link is below, I highly recommend spending some quality time there:


Lost / Ignored Knowledge

This post is going to start with a fairly long digression, please go with it and I promise we’ll get to the point eventually.

The first car I owned for a significant period of time was a 1985 Mark II VW Golf. It had a 1.3 litre engine and cost £350. I owned it for 3 or 4 years and then sold it for £350. Maybe everyone loves their first car and the freedom it provides, memories of driving it to 18th birthday parties sleeping in the front and then driving home. I did get to know the lady from Green Flash pretty well and I do remember spending not small amounts of time on the side of the road with it, but there were 2 characteristics of this car that made me prefer it to cars I’ve driven since:

  1. I was a better driver than the car was a car – I could drive with my foot fully down on roads I knew. After the Golf I drove a Ford Probe in which putting your foot down had you making very rapid progress. Maybe I’m just not a very good driver but I didn’t find it as fun having to be very careful with the accelerator
  2. Stuff that went wrong with it was pretty straightforward to diagnose, understand and fix being purely mechanical.

So while working in a tech company and appreciating progress and innovation, I have a lot of sympathy with www.lowtechmagazine.com and the view that not every problem with a high tech solution.

Not all innovation is progress. A great example of this is the TV industry where you see companies fervently trying to sell new, more useless innovations and features. 3D TVs are a great example, that Philips one which glowed around the edge, the new curved ones which look ridiculous etc.

These people are having loads of fun:

Embed from Getty Images

Low Tech Magazine publishes a limited range of long-form articles examining how older technologies may still enrich our lives today. Favourites of the magazine are trolleybuses and cargo bicycles. A post I particularly enjoyed was on living in the solar envelope – how town planners of old understood how to make their built environment most comfortable for all. The example of Barcelona as planned and then how that plan is being destroyed by a desire for greater density is very interesting.

The sister site No Tech Magazine is also good and updates more regularly, but Low Tech Magazine is the one to start with.



MediaREDEF – awesome daily newsletter

If you have any interest at all in the media industry, or technology, or startups or the world around us and the people in it then you should subscribe to this newsletter. Every day it provides a list of interesting longer form articles on a variety of topics from publishers including:

  • The Guardian
  • Techcrunch
  • Buzzfeed
  • MMQB
  • Grantland
  • Pando Daily
  • The Atlantic
  • The Verge
  • Medium

Also, if you’re in the UK timezone then it’s currently arriving around 12.30 so perfect for something to read over lunch.

The website is www.mediaredefined.com but just go on there to subscribe to the newsletter.

He has another one, FashionREDEF which is also good but I’m not as interested in fashion so don’t tend to read that many articles from it. Also I’ve usually spent a fair amount of time reading the MediaREDEF articles first so can’t commit the same time to FashionREDEF.


The inspiration: Cool Tools


Kevin Kelly’s Cool Tools site is one of the inspirations behind this site. It is updated daily with recommendations of tools which are  the best for their particular job. A lot of the time these tools are for jobs that I have no intention of doing but it is still interesting to read about what makes a particular tool the best of its kind, and also about what jobs people do with these tools. It’s pretty US focused but I have got some great ideas from here.

The book is even better but the website is where I started.

Update: There are a lot of reviews and suggestions of coffee paraphernalia on this site, the comments of which often lead to pretty heated arguments