Wednesday, November 16, 2011

How to steer a narrowboat

When I first thought about steering a narrowboat I was truly intimidated. It seemed HUGE! It is 18 meters long and with a weight of 17 tons it has enormous momentum once it is going. At least you are never faster than walking speed, but you can still create quite a crash when hitting a wall or bank. I have seen several severely damaged bridges on canals that must have been hit hard by boats....

My first lessons
The first problem is that the engine and the steering called tiller is at the back of the boat. Therefore you are standing at the back of the boat too, and try to look along your 18 meter monster in order to see where the front is going. To make things even more complicated steering a boat is opposite to steering a car. If you want to turn left you have to turn the tiller right. Although I should have been used to that from paddling I still got very confused in the beginning and ended up with pointing my hand to right hand side in order to make me realise I have to steer in the opposite direction. Unfortunately this very illogical system got me so confused in the end that I stood there with my two arms pointing in different directions and no hand on the tiller..... I freely admit that it took me more than 3 days to even steer the boat in a straight line and John confessed afterwards that he had regarded me as a hopeless case.

But somehow it sort of "clicked" after 3 days and the steering became sort of automatic. I managed to keep a straight line and even got around bends - still screaming "John, help me" every time I was about to crash into a bank or wall. My straight lines sometimes looked very zigzaggy, but I started to feel more confident.

Going into a lock after a bridge
Unfortunately, boating is not only going along in a straight line on a broad canal - there are various obstacles to master. First of all there are other boats around trying to pass and that means you better get out of the way without hitting them or getting stuck on the shallow sides of the canal. And then of course there are tons of bridges. New bridges tend to be very wide and pose no problem but the old original bridges are very narrow. And if bad comes to worst the are located in a bend of the canal. With an 18 meter boat you cannot turn directly under the bridge or the back of the boat will hit the bridge. Therefore you have to "thread in" already in the right angle - not easy for a beginner. And because bridges were difficult and expensive to built, some canal companies preferred lift bridges that are so narrow that a boat can just pass through - a nightmare for me in my first steering lessons.
Perfect lock approach

The most difficult part though is going through locks and it took over a week until John would allow me to try that. But to my big surprise I seem to have a hidden talent for locks as I never crashed into one despite the fact that the locks are so narrow that there is just centimetres of water on either side of the boat when in a lock! When approaching a lock I felt like a pilot trying to land a jet on a airplane carrier on the ocean. Again you have to get the angle 100% correct before you enter the lock as you cannot steer once the front of the boat is inside - and the front is almost 18 metres away from where you are standing and trying to figure out which way to go. Also you have to approach very slowly or you are not able to stop the boat before it hits the front of the lock.

The worst is over once you are inside the lock but you still have to pay attention. When water comes rushing into the lock while going up the boat is bashed around a lot. In a single lock this is not too much of a problem but when alone in a double you have to be very careful not to damage the boat. Boats have fenders in the front and on the back which lessen the impact when hitting a lock gate a bit. When going down you have to watch out not to get stuck on the cill - or you will end up like the boat in the picture. This is one of the worst possible accidents for a boater as you cannot float the boat again without drowning it - you have to get a crane to lift it out.

Opening a lock gate
I still feel a bit frightened and claustrophobic when inside a boat in a lock and the water comes rushing into the lock chamber bashing the boat around. It feels like a big relief when the lock gates open and you can get out. By the way: Opening and closing the locks is hard work, too. You run up and down the locks always trying to prepare the next one while the first one is in the process of filling up or draining with water. Sometimes John even uses a foldable bike to cycle between locks and speed up the process. Opening the panels on the locks can be hard. If the water level inside the lock chamber and outside are not absolutely the same you are not able to open the gate. Luckily most locks have grips on the gate area to help you push the gate open.

Threading into a tunnel
My biggest nightmare are tunnels: Usually narrow as locks they are not only difficult to get in, but even more difficult to steer once inside as there is hardly any room for steering corrections. On busy canals there are 2-way tunnels and they are wide enough for two boats to pass each other - but no matter what you do you will most likely scratch along the tunnel walls or hit the other boat.
Don't take a wrong turn in a canal as turning around in a boat is a difficult operation. You can reverse in a boat, but steering in reverse is almost impossible. Basically you just hope for the best and correct by going forward again. By the way: Braking is also done by reversing.

Disappearing into a lock
All this sounds really complicated and it definitely is very difficult for a beginner - but it is also great fun. After having been classified as a hopeless case and then re-emerged as a natural lock talent I became really addicted. So in the last month John has mostly been twiddling has thumbs (and silently praying) whilst I was doing all the steering and becoming better every day. I might not have been John's fastest student, but definitely his most enthusiastic. I am very sure that this has not been my last time on a narrowboat.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Narrowboat

I must admit that I did not have much clue about what to expect on a narrowboat; I mean before John had bought one I did not even know that there is such a thing as a narrowboat! So when I arrived I did not expect much - and was surprised a lot. After having spend the last 4 years mostly in a tent a narrowboat seemed like a palace!

Cream Tea on the boat
Let's start with some figures: John's boat is 18 meters (60 ft) long and weighs 17 tons. When I first saw it I would never have believed that I would once be able to steer that monster into narrow locks without even touching the walls... At least they do not run very fast: You are mostly ambling along at walking speed and you are legally not allowed to go faster than 4 mph. Most standard narrowboats including John's have the following areas: A sleeping area with a double bed, a bathroom with a toilet and shower/bathtub, a kitchen, a dining area with a table and seating and a lounge with comfy chairs and a book shelf. After having cooked on a camp stove with one pot only on my JoGLE hike I was mostly impressed with the kitchen: A real stove with 4 flames, a grill, an oven, a microwave, a fridge and of course, hot and cold running water. And to make luxury complete John even has a washing machine on his boat! Oh, I did forget to mention the TV...

Rainbow Lorikeet
Now you will wonder how all this is run. These boats have two separate battery systems: One small battery to start the engine and one big battery for all the electric applications on the boat. Both batteries are re-charged when the engine is running. There is a 450 litre water tank - that takes ages to fill up at the water points. The water is heated when the engine is running and can get so hot that you could burn yourself. In fact, the water is used as a cooling system for the engine. I was surprised to see that almost all waste water like for example from the washing machine or the shower is disposed directly into the canals. Only human waste is collected and disposed in sanitary stations. The boat is heated with a stove burning either solid fuel or Diesel like the engine. Considering the luxury such a boat offers I was surprised how little fuel it needs. The fuel tank holds 225 liters and John assured me that he usually only fills up once per month for around 120 £.

John bought his boat second hand from an Australian couple and that might explain its name: Rainbow Lorikeet which is an Australian parrot. The pre-owners apparently were great bird lovers as there are bird pictures and statues all over the place including a knitted sulphur-crested cockatoo. I noticed another peculiarity of the boating community: People are not called by their own name but by the name of their boat. John thus became Rainbow... Well, it could be worse.

Monday, November 14, 2011

The British Canal System

James Brindley,
engineer of the first canal
My first big surprise with the canal system was to find out how old it is. I had somehow assumed that all those canals had been built at the same time the railways were built in the second half of the 19th century. But in fact the canal system is 100 years older: The first long canal was constructed in 1761 and the heyday of the canals was in the second half of the 18th century. The main reason for those huge projects was to get coal from the mines into the big cities. Transport with horses on roads was expensive and unreliable whereas canal boats were much cheaper and predictable. With the advent of the canals the price of coal was halved! More and more canals were built by different companies and were sometimes running parallel for several miles. But 50 years later the canals got a big competitor: Railway - and railway would eventually and almost completely replace canal transport.

In the first half of the 20th century most of the British canal system had fallen into disrepair. Only very few working boats were left and due to lack of maintenance some canals could not even be navigated any more. But in 1939 British writer Tom Rolt decided to spend his honeymoon on a narrow boat touring the canals and write a book about it. Very unexpectedly this book would trigger the renaissance of the British canal system after an unpromising start. First WW II intervened and then no publisher wanted the manuscript because there seemed to be no market for it. But when it was eventually published in 1944 it became an immediate success with both public and critics and stirred a new interest in canal boating as a form of recreation. The timing is very important here: The decrepit canal system was nationalised in 1947 and many canals were facing closure. Rolt's book and the Inland Waterways Association, a group co-founded by Rolt prevented closures through campaigning and created a lot of public interest in the canal system.

Today British Waterways runs the 2,200 miles long canal system that is used by approximately 35,000 boats. There is almost no commercial traffic left on the canals. Almost all boats are serving a recreational purpose and many people actually live on their boat year round. British Waterways maintains the canals, bridges, locks and tow paths and supports the boaters with water points, sanitary stations and rubbish disposal. The use of the canal system is free for hikers and cyclists on the the towpaths, but boaters have to pay for a license in order to use the canals. The price depends on the length of the boat: John with a 18 m boat pays 790 £ per year for his license that allows him to use the canals and all its services including short term mooring for up to 14 days at one spot. Only long term mooring costs extra. Boating has become incredibly popular in the UK and has created its own subculture. There are magazines ("Canal boat"), an internet forum ("Canal world") and tons of boat yards, marinas and boat shops.

On a boat to nowhere....

 After finishing my JoGLE hike I had planned to visit my former British cycling partner John. John and I had coincidentally met in Australia over 2 years ago and ended up cycling together for 7 months in Australia, New Zealand, Japan and South Korea. In September 2009 we split up: I went back to Germany to prepare my next trip and John completed his round the world cycling trip in the US. Over two years we have always stayed in contact and I observed with great curiosity how John was dealing with similar problems I have had: Where and how do you live after such a long period of nomadism?

John has found a great solution for this problem: He lives on a houseboat on the English canals now! Before he gets too upset when he reads this I want to correct myself: He lives on a narrowboat - but anyone who is not intimately familiar with the canal boat scene in the UK will probably not understand the difference between a narrowboat and a houseboat: A narrowboat is a houseboat that is narrow enough to fit into the small locks and bridges of the British canal system.

Me having fun on the boat
When he got back from his 3 year long round the world cycling trip he stayed with family first. When some other German cycling friends (he seems to be stuck with Germans wherever he goes) he knew from his RTW bike trip came to the UK, he went on a cycling trip with them around his home country. As many bike routes in the UK follow tow paths he saw a lot of narrow boats - and decided very quickly that this is the way to go. Without much hesitation (and no prior experience in boating) he bought a boat and started living on it. When I heard about his new investment, I was more than skeptical: John has never showed any interest in boats before - for Christ's sake he can't even swim!!! I was not very keen on the house boat part, but I wanted to see John again and therefore he eventually persuaded me to visit him on his boat after my hike. He promised that I would not have to do anything (especially not walking) and that I could cook 3 course dinners every night on something better than a camping stove. Although all this sounded very tempting I had planned to stay only a couple of days and then fly back to Germany.

Well, things turned out to be very different: I ended up running several kilometers each day between locks (so much for no more hiking) and my stay extended from a couple of days into an entire month - because I started to like narrowboating so much!!! In fact I like it so much and became so interested in it that I will write a couple of entries about it.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

John O'Groats to Land's End: Tipps and Tricks

Churches and Cemeteries: When I hiked through Germany I always looked for churches and cemeteries. Why is that? German cemeteries almost always have a free and easily accessible water tap because people have to water the plants and flowers on the graves. And now the bad news for the UK: British cemeteries generally do not have water taps - because they graves are usually just plain tombstones with no plants.... So what about churches? In Germany I used them to recharge my electronic equipment while having lunch outside. In the UK this strategy showed mixed results: In most areas, especially in Scotland and Northern England I found that almost all churches were locked. But when I had almost given up hope I found that many churches on Offa's Dyke Path were extremely hiker friendly! Not only were they open and had electrical outlets, they also offered free tea-making facilities! That is something that should definitely be exported to Germany....

Animals: The UK is definitely a dog country. Nowhere else in the world have I encountered so many dogs.  Usually I am very afraid of dogs and have had some unpleasant experiences with them. But to my big surprise I never had any bad experiences on my JoGLE hike. I hardly ever saw a stray dog - almost all dogs are out with their owners. Although they are still dogs and have selective hearing I was never attacked or even felt threatened. Due to the dog density "No Fouling" signs are ubiquitous - as are they little dog doo doo plastic bags that are now littering the countrysides.... I have mentioned unpleasant cow encounters several times and indeed did I feel very threatened by cattle, especially after having read a magazine article about several hikers who had died in cow attacks. But I want to put this into perspective: All fatal cow attacks were connected with free running dogs. The dog attacks the cow who in turn wanted to protect its calf and went for the dog. Unfortunately, the dog owner then got between the cow and the dog - and got trampled to death. As I was hiking without a dog and trying to give the cows a wide berth I probably never was in any serious danger - although it felt very differently.... I liked sheep best: They always run away from you, do not make much noise and leave very little poo!

Clouds and sea on the SWCP
Weather: This hike proved that what we learnt in our English lessons at school really is true: British are obsessed with their weather! It really is the most favourite topic for small talk and countless times I was greeted with "Lovely day, isn't it?" - even if the whole day has been miserable and the sun had just come out for 2 minutes. Two things really surprised me about British weather: I did not expect such a tremendous difference between the weather up North and down South. Although I was hiking into from summer into fall instead of getting colder it got warmer and warmer because I walked from North to South. Although this can partly be attributed to an unusual weather pattern this year this huge range of climate should be taken into consideration when planning a hike - as should the probability of rain. It seems to rain almost every day and Brits think they are in drought when it has not rained for three days - I am quoting a native here. But the good news is that the rain usually does not last very long: Very often I would hike in sunshine with very little clouds, that became more and more within 15 minutes, then dumped a 4 minutes shower on me only to disappear and let me dry my now wet stuff in brilliant sunshine again. For me wind has been the biggest problem - not rain.

TT Rainbow in the Scottish Highlands
Equipment: I do not want to go through my whole gear list here - I was carrying pretty much what I am usually using on a long hiking trail. But I want to point out two pieces of equipment that posed a certain problem for me but worked out extremely well in the end. The first item was the tent: My default tent was a Tarptent Contrail but this has proved to be not very wind stable on my last trips. As I knew that I would be camping in very exposed terrain most of the time I had to bring something more robust and therefore I decided on a Tarptent Rainbow - which was even donated to me! And this tent worked out remarkably well. Only slightly heavier than the Contrail it was even roomier, very easy to set up and worked resisted the wind pretty good. It still is not a Hilleberg expedition tent, but is a very good compromise  between weight and stability. I will definitely take it again on a similar trip. The next concern was my sleeping bag. Although I had always used down bags before I realised that this would be a trip in very damp conditions with little opportunity to dry stuff in the sun. As down's warming capacity deteriorates rapidly when damp I decided to bring the BPL synthetic quilt. It worked surprisingly well, too: When temperatures dropped below zero Celsius I was still pretty warm in it - although I had to wear all my clothes. But still: it fared much better than expected and will probably become my standard bag from now on.

Friday, November 4, 2011

John O'Groats to Land's End: Conclusion

As you might have guessed from my previous posts this hike has not been my most favourite hike. To tell the truth it has probably been the worst hike I have done since I have started this blog. But still: If you asked me if I would recommend this hike to a friend I would not say "No". I would just say that there are better hikes out there. So why has this hike been such an unpleasant experience? There are various factors that in combination with each other turned this hike into a miserable trip. Some of them are just bad luck, some are my own mistakes, but most of all I came to the conclusion that the UK is not the greatest country for long-distance hiking:

Bad luck: I started August 11th and finished October 23rd. Right from the beginning of my trip all the way to the end of September I have had bad weather. Not disastrous weather like the torrential rain I had experienced on the Florida Trail or in Australia, just colder and windier than usual weather. I had frost on my tent on August 25th!!! The constant strong wind made hiking cold and miserable and camping challenging. Bad weather can happen on any trip but in the UK it has a much higher impact on the quality of your hike than in other countries. And unfortunately, Scotland and Northern England were experiencing a very cold and rainy summer this year. End of September the weather changed all of a sudden and I was rewarded with an unexpected glorious Indian summer. But unfortunately by that time I had already been so ground down that the good weather could not boost my morale any more.

My own mistakes: For JoGLE I had used the same sort of map / guidebook setup like on my hike through Germany a couple of months earlier. I had the whole route as a track on my GPS. The GPS had only basic maps, in this case Open Street Maps. I carried guidebooks with strip maps for the marked official trails and print outs for the stretches between them. On top of all that I carried an overall guidebook for the whole route by Cicerone - something that was not available for my German hike. This set up had worked extremely well for my hike in Germany, but was absolutely insufficient for JoGLE. Why is that? Well, in Germany there was not much need to find alternate routes due to bad weather. Also German trails are very well marked. Even if you do not have great maps, you will get there by just following the trail markers. The situation in the UK is very different: Gale force winds and driving rain very often made me want to change to a lower or less exposed route - but unfortunately alternative routes were not covered by my strip maps or print outs and my basic GPS maps were too unreliable and not detailed enough for creating alternates. Following established trails was not an option either: There are far less waymarked trails in the UK than in Germany and even if there was an established trail the waymarking is usually so bad that you will get lost without a detailed map.

A second mistake has been to trust the Cicerone guidebook. Although the route given in there, the list of trail town amenities and the sketch maps were pretty good and accurate, the break down into daily stages led to several problems. The author gives 2 schedules for JoGLE: 2 months or 3 months. I had always considered myself to be an experienced hiker and therefore believed I could easily do the hike in 2 months. I planned my resupply accordingly and set off with 9 days worth of food for the first 8 day stretch - and ended up with almost no food left in the middle of the Scottish Highlands because I physically could not hike the daily mileage. I only escaped starvation by detouring to Ullapool with the map another hiker had given me. Even in hindsight it is still a mystery to me how the author can suggest a daily mileage of 40 km and more in challenging terrain like the pathless Scottish Highlands, demanding  Offa's Dyke Path or the steep South West Coast Path. I was falling more and more behind schedule and getting more and more frustrated by it.

UK is not a good country for long-distance hiking: Keep in mind that I am writing this paragraph just with respect to long-distance hiking, e.g. month long camping treks. What is tolerable for shorter trips becomes a big problem if you have to deal with day after day after day! And some problems do not arise if you are not camping but using hostels and or B&B. What made me arrive at my "not suitable" verdict?
  • No forest: As I have pointed out in earlier posts, only 5% of the UK is forested as opposed to 30% of Germany. And this leads to a serious problem for long-distance hikers: There is no shelter from the inclement weather. You are almost always directly exposed to the wind and rain. This can make hiking miserable and camping almost impossible. If you are able to find a rare patch of forest it will be fenced in and most probably completely overgrown. 
  • Bad waymarking: There are not many fully waymarked long-distance trails. Of course there are thousands of public footpaths, but finding your way on them can be challenging. Because there are no trees, blazes on trees that are used in Germany will not be found in the UK. Instead you will see signpost showing you the general direction - and then you are on your own finding your way across huge pastures full of aggressive cattle or mud pools. If you are lucky you will find foot paths signs on stiles and gates, but again they will only show the general direction. Even with a good map and/or a GPS navigation is difficult and time consuming. 
  • Difficult terrain: The combination of cattle, a lot of rain and no forest turns a huge part of British trails into one huge mud pool. Especially notorious are cattle gates: Because there is a lot of animal movement the area around them is generally one big dirt pool. But of course the gates are usually locked and you can only open it by stepping right into the deepest part of the dirt pool - yuk! Although you would assume that there aren't many steep climbs and descents because the UK does not have any high mountains. Wrong! Whenever there is a hill the trail climbs straight up the steepest slope only to drop straight down again immediately. It seemed to me that they tried to make the hills as difficult as possible in order to disguise the fact that there are no mountains. Also: Switchbacks do neither exist in British vocabulary nor on trails....
Can you spot the stile?
  • Stiles and gates: It is not a great problem to climb a stile once in a while, but if you have to climb one every 10 minutes it starts to get annoying. I encountered the highest density of stiles on Offa's Dyke with up to 80 stiles in 20 km!!!! And of course most of them are not exactly easy: I encountered loads of half or completely broken stiles, slippery rock stiles and stiles completely overgrown with stinging nettles and/or thorny blackberry bushes. 
All those factors lead to a dramatic drop of my daily mileage. I usually hike around 36 km per day, whereas I was happy to cover 30 km on my JoGLE hike. The only stretches were I could actually just hike without spending hours on navigation, climbing stiles and mastering mud pools were on canal tow paths or rail trails. 

To sum it up: I think there is much better and easier long-distance hiking in other countries than the UK. If you do not want to specifically hike in the UK for whatever reason, I would just recommend hiking somewhere else. If you insist on hiking in the UK be prepared for a low daily mileage and lots of rest days due to bad weather. Carry good rain gear and bring detailed maps for the whole trail. If I was to hike in the UK again I would chose a route along towpaths and rail trails - or cycle John O'Groats to Land's End instead of hiking it. But if you are just looking for a 1 or 2 week hiking holiday the UK offers some really unique and beautiful trails like the Pennine Way, Offa's Dyke Path or the South West Coast Path. 

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

John O'Groats to Land's End: South West Coast Path

Walking towards Westward Ho!
I joined the South West Coast at Barnstaple still without a South West Coast Path guidebook. I had not been able to get the one I wanted in Bristol or any other town along my route. So I really pushed hard to make it to Barnstaple before shop closing time. I had even decided to reward myself with a stay in a B&B there. I reached the Visitor Information just 15 minutes before closing time on a normal weekday in October and asked them to book me into a nice B&B - only to find out that everything was fully booked! This was the one and only time I wanted to splurge - and then I cannot find accommodation.... I had to walk back for about 3 km to the last possible campsite I had passed without having indulged in a shower, laundry or other luxuries of civilisation. At least I had been able to purchase a guidebook 5 minutes before the book shop closed and was now able to plan the last days of my hike.

I must admit that I felt really tired and worn out by then. I had only about one week left to go but it seemed like an eternity. I just wanted this hike to be over - a feeling that I had not had before very often. I still wanted to finish but if I did not want to hate this hike I had to take it easy - and that is difficult on the SWCP that has constant steep climbs and descents. Therefore I made 2 decisions: Stay in hostels wherever possible to avoid camping in gale force wind and short cut the SWCP by flat road walking when quite country lanes offer an easy alternative. My first hostel stay on the SWCP was Westward Ho! This little town is really spelt like that - including the exclamation mark! The hostel was fantastic and I even had the whole dormitory for myself - an experience that should repeat itself in the two other hostels Boscastle and Perranporth. This was low season and hardly anyone else around except for the weekends when sometimes the whole hostel gets rented out.  The road walking was just a short experience: First of all because there were not too many feasible quiet country lanes, but mainly because I realised that the coast was really spectacular and even worth the constant ups and downs.

The terrain on the SWCP varies from walking on sand beaches to rocky cliff top walking and is truly spectacular most of the time. As an added bonus there is lots of evidence of former tin mining. There are mine shafts and ruins of former industrial buildings. You can even visit a former tin mine which is right on trail - but I must admit that I could not be bothered to see it. On average I had 1.500 meters of ascent every day and that does not put you in sightseeing mood. At least the weather was behaving itself during this last week. Camping became my biggest problem: There was no shelter from the wind on the exposed cliff tops and the only chance of finding a decent campsite was in the small valleys or by venturing a bit off trail into a little patch of forest. It was difficult to tell from the map what the ground would be like but I was usually lucky and found a halfway decent spot.

Eventually the end of my hike came into sight. I was counting down the days and hours and still feel a bit guilty about it. The SWCP is truly beautiful but I was not in the mood to enjoy it much. After a while all the rugged headlands and beautiful beaches looked pretty much the same to me. Most of all I was constantly worried about the weather changing. My hike had taken longer than expected and I was well into the second half of October. How long would this good spell last? Well, it lasted until my very last day on my thruhike - I was very lucky.

The End at Land's End
I finished on October 24th at Land's End in gale force wind that made walking difficult and even scared the tourists at this well visited tourist spot. It is so touristy that the famous "Land's End signpost" is owned by a professional photographer who does not allow individuals to take pictures of it with their own camera - you have to pay for that privilege.  I dutifully took some finish pictures, signed the John O'Groats to Land's End register, had a look into the gift shop and waited for the bus to take me to Penzance. My hike was finally over - thank God.

John O'Groats to Land's End: Offa's Dyke to South West Coast Path

M4 road bridge

The stretch between Chepstow at the end of Offa's Dyke and Bristol is pretty much a hiker's nightmare. First of all you have to cross the Severn River and the only way to day that beside swimming is the M4 motorway bridge. This bridge is 4 km long, is fully exposed to the elements and has 4 lanes of fast traffic on it. The only good news is that there is a separate bike lane that can be used for hiking and that I had exceptionally good weather on that day meaning that I did not get blown off. Once off the motorway bridge you meander around pastures and fields until you hit the suburbs of Bristol.

It would have been a very long day without any good camping options if I had not planned a couchsurfing rest day in Bristol to break up this long stretch through urban areas. It came as a very positive surprise that my couchsurfing hosts almost lived on my route through the outskirts of Bristol! Phil and Sheila are very experienced couchsurfing hosts and guests and had a lot of interesting couchsurfing stories to tell. They have even couchsurfed in India - which has put some interesting ideas into my mind. As usual time was too short: So many stories to share and a lot of sightseeing to do. Bristol came as a very positive surprise, too: I had expected a rather ugly city with no sights and was surprised to find a vibrant city with plenty to see - I spent half a day in the newly opened Bristol Museum.

Then I set off to tackle the second stretch of urban hiking through the outskirts of Bristol this time crossing the River Avon on the M5 motorway bridge. When I finally reached more rural areas I had to  mostly hike along dykes. This was all very low-lying country and instead of using fences pastures were divided by dykes. I had found a nice patch of forest on the map for camping but when I got there I had to realise that it was completely surrounded by a dyke - no way whatsoever to get in. It was totally overgrown anyways. What now? I did not really want to camp with all those curious cows... but luckily I found a nice patch next to a footpath - separated from the cows only by a dyke. 

Sunrise over Exmoor
Things got really bad when I reached Exmoor National Park. I have had decent weather for over 2 weeks by then but of course the one day I had to hike across moorland the weather turned bad. It rained the whole day and I was soaking wet. My morale reached a very low point when I met 2 farmers tending to their sheep and they told me: "We wondered wether we should go and work in this miserable weather, but you are even hiking in it?...." I should have just taken the next possible campsite then and had a half rest day. Instead I hiked on trusting my guidebook that promised campsites further along the River Exe. 2 hours later and even wetter than before I had reached Exe Head with not a single feasible campsite in sight. I looked around for almost an hour I could not find the tiniest piece of ground that would not bubble up water as soon as I stepped onto it. As light was fading I started to get desperate. I saw a tiny bit of forest but that was very close to a farm house. I did not dare to camp there without asking for permission - and usually I do not camp that close to civilisation. But this was one of the rare cases when I did not have a choice. I walked up to the farmhouse, knocked and yelled but nobody answered. I tried the door and it was open. I could have stolen the whole household as nobody was there but the house was clearly inhabited. So what to do now? I walked around a bit and then luckily the farmers showed up clearly surprised to find a totally drenched, slightly incoherent hiker at their doorstep - but they did not have any objections to my camping plans. And this being the UK I was immediately invited to a cup of tea. 2 hours later I emerged back into my tent after several cups of tea, half a dozen eggs, my clothes dried in their boiler room and loads of knowledge about farming in the UK. I had quizzed them with hundreds of questions and it had been especially interesting for me to compare my Australian agricultural  knowledge with the UK.