You’d have thought that, living alone for a year in a medium-sized town without access to powered transport, I would have explored every corner of greenspace within a five kilometre radius of where I live.
Not even close. This week, by opening my eyes and following my nose, I discovered pockets of unexplored nearby nature less than 1,500 metres from home.
There are two memorial benches here, dug into the sandy, salty soil among the steadfast pine trees. Better yet: someone has thrown a wooden rope swing over the lowest branches, still four metres overhead. We swing in the silence and I know that this discovery will become a part of my day-to-day.
Finding unexpected adventure in the millionaire’s jungle ravine
Yesterday I took a wrong turn, taking a right when all historical data indicates I should have carried straight on along the sea front. But the arctic wind was blowing at my back and I didn’t want to become one of those I saw on the return journey, walking into the gale with face masks pulled down to protect themselves from the spitting sand.
So I took a right turn, into what felt like a ravine, with sheer loamy walls underpinned by pines. The concrete path flowed gently upstream with Victorian ironwork overhead and rough cut steps laddering up to the hidden turrets of expensive villas.
The footpath coasted left and I could see two young mothers pushing prams down towards me—towards the wind-backed ocean. But I didn’t want to leave the pines yet and the canyon continued invitingly ahead, a quiet, ancient, grass-dried river, promising overgrown adventure and restoration.
As I walked on, the ravine closed in, the pedestrian pathways disappeared up beyond the canopy, the grassy floor gave way to thistle and thorn. Rhododendrons greedily clutched at scraps of sunlight. Black bin bags had been thrown down from on high and stood at the side of the path, waiting for collection. A supermarket shopping trolley sank into a thin layer of mud, a long way from home. The path—I think it was still a path—twisted over and around roots and stumps, leading me on into the darkening underworld.
Somehow, against all odds, I had found something that made me feel something. Senses on stalks. In the silence, I could hear my heart in my chest and my blood in my ears. The secret ravine had me gripped by the seat of my being.
I didn’t bring a phone on this walk so I can’t show you any photographs. And I’m glad. Not only because my smartphone can get in the way of my connection with nature, but also because, ducking under the out-thrust bough of a denuded beech, I realised that photography would be an invasion of privacy.
I was not alone. For here, at the butt-end of the ravine, overlooked by the views from million pound properties, was a clutch of six forgotten tents. I stood still, breath short, straining my senses for signs of strangers. Who lives in a place like this? But the camp was silent. Its occupants, presumably, out on business.
As I moved through the camp, the tents became more ambitious until I reached the premium pitches at the back of the canyon, where the goat track was finally choked out by thorny scrub.
Here, two large tents faced each other, guy ropes pulling the canvas taut against the branches of overgrown rhododendron. A table was folded out between them and two tarpaulins stretched over as a canopy to protect the patio space from rain. A bicycle was locked up against a pole of a tree. I could smell the tang of human sweat and the faintest memory of a campfire.
I thought about leaving my card, but had none to leave. Perhaps they’ll see my bootprints and wonder who dropped by. Perhaps they had been watching me all along, assessing friend or foe.
I tried to bushwhack my way past the tents, through to the ruins of Skerryvore, where Robert Louis Stevenson wrote Kidnapped, longing for escape from the ‘slow dissolution’ of England, ‘Land of Counterpane’. But, scrambling up the mud side walls, I was stopped short by a chain link fence and a line of garden sheds.
I slipped back down into the shelter of the ravine and retraced my steps, back through the undergrowth, past the shopping trolleys and the tents. The path widened and opened. I could hear the burbling of a water main, squirrels leapt from under my feet. A mother and her daughter pushed their bikes over the iron wrought bridge as I passed beneath.
How connection with nature beats time in nature for happiness and wellbeing
Earlier this year, Miles Richardson and a team from the University of Derby published a paper suggesting that the restorative benefits of nature come from ‘moments, not minutes’.
The study found that how long we spend in nature wasn’t sufficient to explain significant increases in our happiness and sense of living a worthwhile life or reductions in our feelings of ‘illbeing’—depression and anxiety.
According to Richardson, what really counts is how connected we feel to nature and whether or not we actually notice the natural environment around us. This noticing happens through ‘simple actions’: relaxing in a garden, watching bees and butterflies, smelling flowers, listening to birdsong, collecting shells or pebbles, drawing, painting or photographing a beautiful plant—or perhaps celebrating a new moon by climbing the clifftops.
I have been very lucky this week to enjoy a few of these moments, from swinging among the pines to beating through the ravine undergrowth. I find it immensely encouraging that we don’t all have to be like Henry David Thoreau, who couldn’t be content without at least ‘four hours a day … sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements’.
So when we’re out in nature this weekend, let’s all—pause—sit—notice—the green life growing around us.
How to notice nature: use this calming sensory meditation
A great way of noticing nature that I use is the classic 5-4-3-2-1 sensory meditation. Find a comfortable spot, ideally surrounded by nature, but allow whatever your environment allows.
Notice 5 things you can see.
Notice 4 things you can feel.
Notice 3 things you can hear.
Notice 2 things you can smell.
Notice 1 thing you can taste.
This meditation can take five minutes; it can take five hours. Completely up to you. Let me know how you get on!
Thanks to L.H. for the starry nighttime ramble along the clifftops.
At the precise moment this gentleman bestows ‘proper’ adventure upon my travels, I am picking sludgey flecks of porridge out of my jersey and arm hair. It’s not the most adventurous moment of the past two days, but perhaps sums up what really happens behind the scenes on even the most proper adventure.
Which, I hasten to correct, cycling around post-Brexit, mid-Covid and pre-Apocalypse Britain almost certainly isn’t. I’m only thinking one week ahead, so at the moment this bike ride still feels like a haphazard jaunt along the south coast, which is exactly what it is.
I’d been trying to cook porridge using an Alpkit Brukit (like a Jetboil, but cheaper) and, although technically successful, the clear up job was nigh-on impossible. Copious litres of graveyard tap water only served to turn the mutinous porridge into glutinous gobbets.
When I shook out my dishcloth, these turned into oaty missiles, which respectfully sprayed themselves across the cemetery, coating me head to foot in properly adventurous porridge.
I’m writing this now on the Hayling Billy cycle path. A steam train used to chuff up and down these tracks, with the wind blowing in its face and views across Langstone Harbour to the big city big lights of Portsmouth. They used to catch oysters here too. Now people charge up and down on their bikes—earlier I saw a guy pulling a surfboard on a trailer.
For more adventure stories, subscribe to my Youtube channel. I’m already getting better at doing these to-camera pieces. I think this one worked out pretty gud:
I’m now sitting atop a spectacular hill, moments away from sunset, with a vegetable jalfrezi sitting, in its turn, uneasily in my stomach. Next up is a short ride to my woodland campground, where I’ll sleep the sleep of the thoroughly windburnt.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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?
Ask me how I’ll remember 2018 and I won’t say ‘typing words into a computer’, even though that’s how I spent far too much of almost every single day.
Not all of that typing was unmemorable, of course. Writing the second series of Foiled was fabulous and I’m sure I’ll be writing about how I believe in creativity soon.
But these are the memories that stand out most in my mind from this past year:
Bothying in the snow-bound Cairngorms
Travelling around Greece, meeting with refugees
Cycling 1000 miles with Thighs of Steel
Hiking in the Brecon Beacons
In a word: adventures.
Adventure is a big word, of course. But the choice is deliberate.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, adventure is:
A course of action which invites risk
A perilous or audacious undertaking the outcome of which is unknown
A daring feat or exploit
A remarkable or unexpected event, or series of events, in which a person participates as a result of chance
A novel or exciting experience
Personally, I like the roguish simplicity of this definition: A wild and exciting undertaking (not necessarily lawful).
But who defines risk, peril, audacity, daring, expectation, novelty and excitement? We do. Adventure is relative and I’m claiming it for myself.
The events that are most memorable from my year are the adventures, those moments when I made an audacious move to go beyond the limits of my comfort, surrendered to novelty, and invited risk and chance.
But there is nothing in any of those definitions that limits moments of adventure to epic bike tours through foreign lands, climbing mountains and sleeping in cold huts.
So this year’s adventures also include meeting my new niece, a family reunion, applying for a job, learning how to throw a Frisbee, talking to people in saunas, and breathing deeply.
Audacity, daring, novelty and wild excitement are opportunities we can dig up anywhere, at any moment. At any moment, we can stretch out our lives like vellum and print them with memories of adventure.
Do you not feel like you live an adventurous life? Are you sure? Don’t you ever feel challenged? Don’t you ever worry that things won’t turn out, and thrill when they do? Don’t you ever see things you’ve never seen before, or talk to unexpected strangers?
Well, go on then, here, take this word – adventure!
Adventure isn’t only for polar explorers and hitmen. We can have it for ourselves.
The Most Interesting Country in the World: Part 1 (10 minute read) ‘At home, our comfort zone is vast, like a great big sofa, sucking us in to watch endless re-runs of Miss Marple, where the Toff murderer always gets his or her comeuppance and order is restored in the form of a pillow-dribble nap.’
What Makes a Person Do a Thing? (12 minute read) ‘It seems extraordinary, but we do get scared of our power, we do fear our greatness; we sometimes feel like we don’t deserve such responsibility, or we feel like imposters when we do presume to act.’
My friend Simon Moore is doing something crazy, stupid and arduous.
With Maria Gallastegui, he is sailing in a sixteen-foot dinghy over three thousand miles, from London to Lebanon.
It’s hard to capture quite how crazy, stupid and arduous this is unless you’ve done something similar, which I haven’t. And that’s kind of the point of this article.
Within about five minutes of us waving Simon and Maria off back last July, they discovered that their boat had holes in.
Then they discovered that, actually, waves could get pretty big in the North Sea and, if they capsized now, they’d be dead.
It took them four days, beaten back each time by gales and high seas, to get around just one point in Kent. Then they faced the Channel crossing.
Limping into Calais port, more coastal storms “encouraged” them to change their plans, from sailing around the Atlantic coast, to navigating through France along the canals.
That change of plan meant, rather than filling their sails, they faced instead months of back-breaking rowing.
Some days, Simon told me, he didn’t want to eat or drink anything because he didn’t have the strength to build a fire.
When he left, Simon thought the whole journey might be over in six months. Six months later, like Odysseus returning from Troy, Maria and Simon face an Odyssey that might take years.
Simon has now returned to the UK for the winter, to recover and take stock, waiting for the better Mediterranean sailing conditions of spring.
He is also thinking of giving up.
When he told me this, I was shocked. Shocked, a little panicky and then confused.
I could understand why he would give up; as if the journey wasn’t dangerous enough, the spread of the Syrian civil war into Lebanon makes even the destination deadly.
Any sensible, rational algorithm would calculate risk, profit and loss and conclude abandonment of the project.
I could understand his doubts and his concerns and could not blame him for such a decision.
So why did I feel shock, panic and confusion? Why should I take his retirement personally?
Because, I realise, I was relying on Simon’s journey.
Facing down my personal daily struggles – publishing a book, fixing my bike, taking clothes to Calais – relied in some small way on knowing that he was out there doing something far more crazy, stupid and arduous.
And I realised that, as a society, we need people like Simon and Maria, sacrificing themselves to do crazy, stupid and arduous things.
Why? The Philosophy of Inspiration
The process of doing anything starts in your imagination, with the conception that it is possible.
Without the imagination, there can be no action.
That’s why the most reliable indicator of whether you’ll end up as a doctor is if someone in your family is… a doctor.
This is also one reason why rich or privileged folks are more likely to embark on ambitious projects: thanks to their elite education and lineage, they have witnessed that anything is possible.
They have an arrogance of potentialities; they do not doubt what they are capable of.
Camila grew up with that as a model: You dream something up and then make it happen.
Camila had written the business plan for Kids Company by the time she was fourteen.
The charity now helps 36,000 of the most vulnerable children in the UK with practical, emotional and educational support.
It wouldn’t have been possible – it wouldn’t have been even imaginable – if she hadn’t had her family’s lineage of imagination and action behind her.
You can’t do anything of which you can’t conceive; nor can you do anything you believe is impossible.
Camila Batmanghelidjh believed she could set up Kids Company because she’d experienced as a child that such things were possible.
I never considered a career in medicine because I had no conception that such a career was possible for me. I had no role models so it just wasn’t on my radar.
It might be illustrative to demonstrate how imagination turns into action with an example from my own life.
The Genealogy of an Adventure
Until 2009, I had no lineage of grand cycling adventures in my life. Bicycles were annoying machines that rusted in the garage and occasionally used to cycle two miles into town.
I had no conception that anyone could use them for adventures. My imagination for cycling extended as far as Wallingford and that was about it.
My parents did travel widely before I was born, hitch-hiking to Australia in the 1970s.
On Sunday evenings at home, to a soundtrack of Peruvian panpipes, they’d often show slides of their adventures in South America, my sister and I gazing in awe from the sofa.
But I didn’t connect cycling with such adventures until I stumbled across Alastair Humphreys at the Royal Geographical Society’s Explore Conference in 2008.
Alastair had recently finished cycling around the world, which is about as extreme a demonstration of the adventuring possibilities of the bicycle that you could hope for.
That conference marked the beginning of my imaginative lineage for cycling adventures.
The next year, I cycled to Bordeaux, followed by trips around Britain and then around Tunisia.
Each time, I stretched my imaginative conception of what was possible on a bicycle. As my imagination grew, I burst with new ideas and, gradually, I became able to turn those ideas into realities.
But none of my journeys would have been possible without the imaginative lineage I inherited from my parents and from Alastair Humphreys.
The Ripples of Transformative Stories
As a society, we need people like Alastair, Simon and Maria to do these crazy, stupid, arduous things because they are the ones who stretch our imagination and our conception of what is possible.
Everyone who comes into contact with Simon’s story now understands that such an audacious adventure is within their grasp.
Hearing Simon’s story forces us to confront an alternative reality, an alternative way of doing things.
We can’t ignore Simon’s journey precisely because it is crazy, stupid and arduous. It is a challenge to ourselves to overcome whatever struggles we are facing.
You cannot listen to Simon and go back to your life unchanged. He has given me the gift of an expanded imagination, an expanded reality, in the same way that my parents and Alastair Humphreys did.
Their stories are transformative; they force you to reconsider your conception of what you are capable of in life, in an instant.
That’s why journeys such as Simon’s are important to our society and that’s why I believe he should persevere.
Not for himself (although he will learn much from the journey), not for his charity Syrian Eyes (although they will benefit much from messages of solidarity and fundraising), but for the immeasurable millions of ripples his story will riffle through society.
Unbeknownst to him, Simon is transforming lives, opening minds, broadening imaginations. His arduous journey, his risking death, is not in vain; he offers us the gift of expanded imagination and a new perspective from which to examine our lives.
In this way, these kinds of journeys are a precious social service and it is a shame that they seem to be undervalued in our society.
Because their impact cannot be easily measured or monetised, these journeys are dismissed in value and left to people like Simon.
And people like Simon, if left without appropriate recognition of their positive impression on society, can get disheartened about their worth and think about giving up.
We must treasure these people; not worship, but treasure them. They do productive and inspirational work that is no less great for the fact that its impression is immeasurable.
Support them, share their experiences, spread their ripples. We need them.
I’m not saying that I’m going to rush off and sail to Lebanon, by the way, and I’m not saying that you should either. But I can never go back to believing that such a thing is impossible.
And, if sailing 3,500 miles in a dinghy is not impossible, then what else in my life is not impossible? What other potentials must I reassess? What else is my imagination capable of conceiving and making manifest?
We must not ignore or run from the audacity of our imagination. We must embrace it and surprise, delight and inspire the world.
UPDATE: Kids Company was dissolved in 2015 after the withdrawal of government funding and the support of major donors due to concerns over the charity’s financial management and a police investigation into allegations of child abuse.
A shocking denouement, but the story of the foundation of Kids Company is still illustrative of my point in this post. The police investigation found insufficient evidence of child abuse to meet the threshold for prosecution.