Broken in Finding suppleness of mind and body in post-lockdown Dartmoor

Here in the UK, this was the week that we unlocked a little more. As I write, a paraglider drifts past my eighth-floor window. On my run this morning, the promenade was spilling over onto the sand and the bucket and spade buccaneers were doing a fast trade.

I’m late coming to you this week because I spent the last five days getting sunburnt on Dartmoor. As some of you know, I’m slowly working my way towards my Hill and Moorland Leader Award, chipping away at the forty logged walks needed before my assessment.

But the weather was so good this week that I worried my four hikes weren’t particularly good practice for the ultimate examination that will doubtless be undertaken in the filthy conditions for which Dartmoor is famous. Nevertheless, I’ve got only sixteen more training walks to go!

All my Dartmoor hikes. Map created thanks to Jonathan O’Keefe’s amazing Strava integration. Incidentally, you can see the pros and cons of car ownership: helping me access more remote parts of the moor, but forcing circular routes.

What I really valued about this week, however, was the feeling of breaking myself in again after a winter of semi-enforced inactivity. The sun rising over the horizon every blue-sky morning took on metaphorical overtones as I stood out in the chill dawn with a mug of tea and the birdsong.

Day three was the one that really did it for me. On day one, a fifteen kilometre tramp to the rising of the Avon river, I was powered by first day enthusiasm. But my enthusiasm drained overnight and, on day two, my feet dragged. I only survived a tour of Bellever and Laughter thanks to the morning addition of a hearty walking companion.

Resting atop Bellever, we watch a young boy hopping around the enormous boulders of granite, chasing the family dog. Mother, leaning back after lunch and looking up to us for solidarity, says: ‘Be careful—remember he’s got four legs, not two.’ But boy scrambles after dog. ‘These are too easy,’ he complains. ‘Can we find harder ones?’

Out loud, I suggest Great Mis Tor and the Devil’s Frying Pan, but what I’m wondering inside is whether I’ll ever have that boy’s energy again.

I perked up later in the evening after lighting the wood burner, but I was concerned for day three: did I have the strength to hike alone for four or more hours? Especially as, for some unknown reason, I’d decided to hike up the steep face of the moor’s highest peak, Yes Tor. It was yes again to my friend’s sound advice: ‘Go slow and take plenty of breaks.’

Trundling up the slopes from Meldon Reservoir, I ran into packs of army recruits, themselves making the most of a lifting lockdown. But as I clumped down the other side of High Willhays, I had the moor to myself, with nary a sheep to be spotted.

Somewhere between the solitude and the sunshine, the air and the exercise, I noticed that I hadn’t felt better in months. The stiffness of my mind and body had given way to suppleness, broken in.

When I made it back to base, after five and a half hours, eighteen kilometres and over six hundred metres of climbing, I felt stronger than when I’d left that morning.

The next day, we stopped at Haytor Rocks and spent the heat haze of Friday afternoon clambering around a mini version of the Ten Tors. Five hours down the trail, number ten on the horizon: from my lookout post in the clear blue sky, I see myself leaping from granite to granite, forever young in springtime.

Thanks to G.C. and B.Q. for fine company and penguin packets.

The sun rising over Bellever, seen from Powdermills

100 Days of Adventure

As you know by now, I love this time of year because of the artificial opportunity for self-reflection and, above all, STATS. One of the difficulties of STATS, however, is making sure that the thing you are measuring is a genuine correlate of the thing that is actually important.

For example, it’s easy for me to throw out a STAT like, ‘Last year I spent 2,117 hours on my computer’, but does that shockingly high number actually tell me anything shocking about how I spend my time? Only maybe.

I do a lot of things on my computer and, although some of my screentime is complete garbage and makes me hate myself, some of it is actually very important to me—like writing you this letter.

So yesterday I struck upon another metric that was relatively easy to collect from my diary and directly measures something that is extremely important to me. In many ways, it’s the equal and opposite to my existing measure of time spent in front of screens. Ready?

Introducing: Days Outside on Adventures (DOA)

DOA is simple to calculate. Every day of the year gets a binary Y/N score: did I spend a significant chunk of the day outside on an adventure? Then you count the Ys and—voilà—you have your DOA score for that year.

SIDE NOTE: ‘Outside’ is deliberately wide open because I’m a firm believer that adventure can be found anywhere. ‘Significant chunk’ and ‘an adventure’ are both deliberately relative because DOA is a simple binary measure that should work for everyone.

‘An adventure’ for an experienced touring cyclist will look very different to ‘an adventure’ for someone who’s never camped before. Likewise, ‘a significant chunk of the day’ could be a very different timespan for a freelancer with no dependents, compared to someone with a 9-5 job and two kids. The point of DOA is not competition between adventurers, but a measure of outdoor adventure against your past and future selves.

Oh, and, yes, I am aware that DOA also stands for Dead On Arrival, a definition only metaphorically compatible with the very best adventures.

DOA 2020

In 2020, my DOA score was 67. To give you an idea of what qualifies as adventure for me, those 67 DOAs included:

This was about 18 percent of my days in the three months pre-Covid and, happily, about 18 percent of my days in the nine months post-Covid. Hopefully that proves that days of adventure aren’t impossible to find, even in a pandemic world. We just have to choose our moments carefully.

67 days also compares favourably with 2019, when my DOA score was approximately 56. I say ‘approximately’ because these things are difficult to measure in retrospect and, depending on my definition, I could easily add many of the 50 days that I spent travelling in Italy and Greece.

DOA 2021

However you measure them, I would like more of them. In fact, I would like a lot more of them. How many more? I hear you ask. Do you really expect me to be that silly?

If there’s one thing that 2020 has taught us, it’s the utter absurdity of ever expecting plans to turn out how you imagined.

So here goes nothing!

In 2021, I would like to have 100 days of adventure. If you like, that could be a slogan: 100 Days of Adventure.

I’m going to stop writing now, before I get carried away and do something silly like buy the domain name or design a logo.

I hope that your 2021 is ram-packed with days of adventure— and I hope too that our adventures intersect, or that we can at least share stories with each other.

The Next Challenge grant winners


For the past few years, I’ve contributed to The Next Challenge grant to help ordinary folks go on extraordinary adventures. The grant is run by adventurer and accountant Tim Moss and every year I’m flabbergasted by the audacity of the dozen or so winners.

People like Katie Marston, a swimming teacher from Cumbria, who is using the grant to embark on a ‘leave no trace’ adventure: paddleboarding across nine lakes and hiking the land between.

The grant is an annual reminder that everyone’s adventure is just over the threshold.

On which note: Alastair Humphreys recently started a newsletter that’s got me very excited. The Working Adventurer is his attempt to answer your — our questions.

In the first edition — ‘What on earth is an adventurer and why should anyone care?’ — Al is typically honest about his vision for the newsletter:

I’m uncertain, for now, quite what direction all this all might go — that depends on the questions you ask. But in the same way that curiosity, serendipity, momentum and adventure show up once you dare yourself to get out of the front door and have a look around, I decided to just get started and give this a go.

Exactly.

Subscribe to The Working Adventurer here; ask Al a question here.

The Next Challenge Grant: Applications for Adventure Now Open

For the past two years, I’ve supported The Next Challenge Grant, a wonderfully simple idea to crowdsource donations from people like me so that impecunious adventure-newbies can take on the kind of challenges that I’ve been so lucky to enjoy over the years.

My £200 donation – enough to fund one adventurous grantee – is dedicated to my nan. This is the dedication I wrote on the grant’s donor page:

My first big adventure, cycling 4,000 miles around the coast of Great Britain, was only possible thanks to support from my nan. She’d absolutely love The Next Challenge Expedition Grant so now it’s my turn to help you find your own awesome adventure. As nan used to say: Do it while you can!

This rest of this post was written by Tim Moss, the founder of the grant. Read on for the incredible stories of some astonishingly imaginative adventures made possible thanks to donations from the general public, people like you and me.

5 years, 60 adventures funded

Here’s a look back over five years of the Next Challenge Grant and the 60 adventurers that have won it…

We’ve had plenty of running expeditions like George Shelton running the Isle of Man ‘TT’ route, Dan Keeley running a thousand miles from Italy to England, Tina Page running the UK Three Peaks and Amanda McDonnell running across the Channel Islands.

Mike Creighton is running between all of the UK’s national parks as I write, while Ruth Thomas is preparing to run the Thames Path and Valerie Rachel is preparing to run the Trans-Labrador Highway.

Cycling’s been just as popular. Mikey Bartley rode up the legendary Alpe d’Huez eight times in a row, Dylan Haskin went round Costa Rica on a beach cruiser (sounds cool, looked brutal), Megan Cumberlidge bikepacked the GR247 and Geraint Hill explored “Everyman’s rights” in Scandinavia.

Karl Booth pedalled 2,500 miles to the top of Europe, off-road and then declined to accept any money from the grant. He said that he got so much sponsorship after telling people he’d won a Next Challenge Grant that he didn’t need the cash and I should give it to someone else. Legend.

Paddle sports have featured too. Graham Clarke tackled the Shannon on a home-made raft, Val Ismaili kayaked through Kosovo and Albania on the Drin, Anna Blackwell kayaked from the UK to the Black Sea, Jo Laird paddled the longest lakes in England, Scotland and Wales, Joanne McCallum paddled the longest lake in North Ireland, and Emily Fitzherbert and her daughter Lua paddle-boarding every lake in the Lake District.

There have been a few trips that combine sports too, like Heather Jones’ Welsh Three Peaks by bike (which ended in a snow-covered bivouac), Hajo Spathe’s home-made IronMan triathlon in the Rockie Mountains and Ed March-Shawcross’s triathlon around Arran.

We’ve let youth do it, with teenagers walking the Tour du Mont Blanc, canoeing the Rivey Spey, cycling across Europe, cycling across Jamaica, walking all of the UK’s National Trails, hiking from the Lakes to the Dales, and crossing a desert island.

We’ve had some really creative ideas, like Carmen Bran camping out for 100 nights in a year (around finishing a PhD), Oli Warlow climbing up and cycling between every route in the Classic Rock guide book, Nick Stanton cycling the length of the Berlin Wall on a hired bike, Joshua Powell running a marathon at Marathon (in ancient Greek armour) and Kate Symonds-Joy cycling to the northernmost point in the UK to perform a one woman opera in a lighthouse (!).

There are also plans to cycle the Netherlands in search of new food technologies, explore the worst-selling Ordnance Survey map, trek around Scotland with a pony and complete swimming escapes from the UK’s three prison islands.

Despite the grant being aimed primarily at smaller challenges, some expeditions have just been straight-up epic, like Jenny Tough running across the Kyrgyz Tien-Shan mountain range, Thommo Hart walking the length of South Africa barefoot and Elise Downing running five thousand miles around the UK (five thousand!). Plus, Sam Hewings is walking a couple of thousand miles along Britain’s watershed right now.

We’ve had expeditions all across the world too, with bikepacking in the Philippines, a circumnavigation of Gotland, a planned walk up Mount Cameroon, a father and young daughters walking in the Indian Western Ghats, a winter hike along the Great Wall, a trek along Ukraine’s Tendrivska Spit, Robin Lewis walking Japan’s tsunami-affected coastline, walking the length of New Zealand and a crossing of the Kolyma mountain range in the Russian Far East.

But we’ve also had plenty of trips closer to home, like Nate Freeman’s wonderfully simple walk to work (25 miles each way), Kerry Anne Mairs’ five bothies with a five year old, Bex Band taking a kick-scooter around the London Loop, Ben & Jude tackling the Caledonian canal in an inflatable boat, and Emily Woodhouse battling up every tor in Dartmoor.

The stories from these adventures would be enough on their own but the fact that they come from “normal people” who have been part-funded by “normal people” somehow makes them feel even better.

2020 grant applications now open

Applications for the 2020 Next Challenge Grant are now open. The deadline is Sunday 5th January. Read more and apply here.

It is open to people all over the world, of any age, nationality or background. Expedition experience is not necessary and, in fact, the grant is aimed squarely at those who are new to the adventure world and “don’t normally do this sort of thing”.

So if you’ve had a look at trips above and thought “I’m not the kind of person that does stuff like that”, then you need to apply.

The application only takes five minutes and – because Tim only has a small readership and typically makes 10 or more awards – the odds of success are high.

What are you waiting for? What is the worst that could happen?

Click here to apply

Click here to donate

Always take the swim

It seems hard to believe it today, as I dry myself off in the sun after a swim in the Bay of Naples, but in 2011 I managed to cycle around the whole coast of Britain without once going for a swim in the sea, or in any of the dozens of rivers, lakes and streams that I passed.*

It was this realisation that led me to the maxim that I carry around the world’s waters with me: Always take the swim.

Myriad are the times that I have really hated the idea of jumping into a river or lake, but zero are the number of times that I’ve regretted doing so.

When faced with a wild swimming opportunity, my brain does something silly and the combined efforts of willpower and desire are not enough to get me into the water.

I need automatic thinking – and I’ve come across enough other people in the same metaphorical boat to believe that many could benefit from this humble maxim.

Always take the swim.

Whenever there is an opportunity to swim, you should take that opportunity. And you’d be amazed how many opportunities there are in your day-to-day life.

Seas, oceans, rivers, streams, burns, fountains, lakes, ponds. The water is waiting.

Don’t let excuses get in the way. Your brain, for some reptilian reason, will furnish you with dozens of excuses ripe to fit any occasion. You must ignore them and instead trust and follow the maxim.

Always take the swim.

Not having your bathers is no excuse. I have taken swims naked and in my boxer shorts when nakedness is scorned.

Not having a towel is no excuse. On days like today, I dry in the sun, on less clement days I have dried myself with a t-shirt – or simply shaken myself down and put on my clothes still wet. It’s never that long before I have the chance to find a towel or a change of clothes. And I have still never regretted taking a swim.

Cold water is no excuse – although it is a very good reason to be cautious. Cold water makes for the most invigorating swims. Cold water should make your maxim yet more urgent.

But beware: enter the water slowly, and make sure you are confident about warming up again afterwards. It doesn’t take much (and you still don’t need a towel) – just run up and down on the shore until you’re warm again. Then put your layers back on.

Poor weather is no excuse. This overlaps with cold water, but I would hasten to add that there is no more joyful swim than that taken in pouring rain. How perverse, how apt!

Even better: high winds equal high surf and vastly more pleasurable sea swimming. Although, please be careful and watch out for rip tides.

Not having time is no excuse. Whoever said a swim has to take a long time? There aren’t many places in the world that are a long way from a water course – almost by definition. Humans need water, so settlements rise up along their route.

When I am in Bournemouth, blessed with a 10km shoreline, I calculate that the minimum viable swim (out to beyond my depth, plus three head dunking dives) takes exactly 13 minutes, from fully dressed at my desk, into the sea, and back. I defy anyone unable to find 13 minutes in their day for a swim.

Not being near the sea is no excuse. For some reason, rivers and streams are usually excluded from most people’s acceptable notions of outdoor swimming. This is madness for I find that they are the most rewarding.

The sea is relentless and – dare I say – a little dull sometimes. The river is never short of interest, from the sludgy coolness of the mud shore, to the abundant wildlife that coos and chuckles from the treeline. Plus there is the eternal pleasure of striking out upstream until exhaustion, before drifting back to base on the current.

If you have never thought of taking a river swim, I urge you to take one today. Be not afeared of cleanliness. If you are worried (and in the UK), check the government’s designated bathing water website or the Environment Agency Water Quality Archive for wilder swims.

I have swum now in rivers all over Europe and never once contracted ringworm.

I dread to think how many swims I missed out on during my round Britain cycle, but I am glad in a way that it has brought me to my fool-proof maxim. I cannot turn back the clock, but I can try to convince you to always take the swim.

May the tides be with you!


* Full disclosure: I washed myself once at a friend’s local watering hole in a river near Bath, and I also got my feet wet in the North Sea at John O’Groats. Up to my ankles. Doesn’t count.

The Next Challenge Grant Winners Announced!

When it comes to awards, I’m not just a taker (Hold on, we really still haven’t won?) – I’m a giver too.

I help fund The Next Challenge Grant, an annual bursary for adventures chosen and administered by adventurer (and accountant) Tim Moss.

This year’s grant winners have just been announced and they’re a terrific bunch of adventurers who I’m proud to help out.

My personal favourites: Mark Holmes who’s making swimming escapes from the UK’s three prison islands, and Sue Manning who’s walking around Scotland with a pack pony.

I particularly wanted to help The Next Challenge Grant because my first big adventure, cycling 4,000 miles around the coast of Great Britain, was only possible thanks to support from my nan.

One of the last things she said to me before she died was ‘Do it while you can!’ She’d have loved to help out these intrepid adventurers.