I am fascinated by why people travel or, more particularly the journeys they make in life. It has taken me almost ten years to make it to Ecovallée, a rather special yurt camp that I heard about way back then in the Dordogne region of France. Mind you, it was worth the wait. Alex Crowe, who left a corporate life in the UK a decade ago to live a truly sustainable life, off the land in, rather aptly, Lalinde, has been on his eco odyssey as long as I have. He has been digging and planting his beautiful holding, and I have been digging for responsible tourism stories and ploughing my way through the world of travel journalism.
During these ten years, we have both seen a lot of water pass under that bridge. Politically, socially economically and personally, and we are both still standing. In terms of yurt camps and that somewhat overused term, glamping, I have seen them come and go. Yurts are two a penny in the UK now, and glamping has been colonised by the Cath Kidstonites of the world. The last time I tried to pitch a glamping story to an editor, I was told that they were glamped out.
The reason Ecovallée is still here is because it is the real thing. Alex lives on site in two adjoined yurts, one his living space and the other his sleep space. Quite separate from his home are two other 12 foot yurts, with comfy beds and lovely white linen, for guests. He is certainly living the dream but he will be the first to tell you that sometimes the dreams can veer towards nightmares. The tourist season is short, the Dordogne gets cold in winter and dealing with French authorities can finish off even the hardiest dream seeker. But this is his life now, not a dream, and sharing that for a long weekend was gloriously reassuring that truly responsible tourism still exists. That sustainable living is possible. And, that tranquil, spacious yurt camps still exist. Sans Kidston.
Descending from Alex’s home yurts through his hazel and acacia woodland, the land opens up into a wildflower filled meadow, where the guest yurts are perfectly placed with plenty of space between them. There are also outdoor kitchens, an outdoor solar shower and a compost loo. All in the shade of trees that envelop the meadow, proffering views up to the kites and hawks that soar up above by day, and the star studded sky that glistens at night. I had the place to myself all weekend and, although travelling solo and relatively adventurous, I must admit my heart was racing just a little as I descended down through the woodland in the dark to find my bed for the night. But then, as I emerged into the valley, the whole place lit up as if someone had put the fairy lights on everywhere. And my heart quite simply missed a beat. I had never seen stars like it.
Alex is the main star here, however, as he lives by his principles, many of which are informed not only by sustainable living practices but also by the popular spiritual thinker, Eckhart Tolle. After ten years, I finally found myself at Ecovallée after a personally difficult time, and a period of intense grieving. And knowing that Alex has now stripped his site back from a family campsite with several yurts to a smaller adult only retreat with just the two yurts now, it felt that the time was right. Because this really is the place to go if you want peace, plenty of space, a place to do yoga or meditation, or just breathe. As Eckhart Tolle says, (I borrowed Alex’s well leafed book) “Pleasure is always derived from something outside you, whereas joy arises from within.” And waking up to the sound of the dawn chorus all around, stepping outside my yurt to a mist filled meadow, making coffee on the outdoor cooker and allowing myself to wake up slowly in the hammock while a young deer appeared tentatively through the mist, I certainly felt a moment of pure joy.
See Ecovallee.com for more details. You can travel here by train to Lalinde, the nearest town which is about twenty minutes’ walk away, although be warned, it is a steep uphill walk for the last ten. But a divine walk. My favourite site, by far, for booking European rail travel is Loco2. You can also fly to Bergerac airport, just 20km away with some super cheap offers if you keep an eye out. I got one for £30 return. In May.
For yummy boulangeries, epiceries, cafes and a little supermarket, you can easily walk into Lalinde. There is a tourist office there too for more information on the region. Hikers note that Lalinde is on the Grande Randonnée long distance walking trail GR6. And Ecovallée would make the perfect rest place along your journey.
I can’t believe it is nearly nine years since I travelled to Kenya with Dr. Cheryl Mvula, to write about the extraordinary work that she had been doing with Maasai communities in Kenya’s Masai Mara. I had only started writing really, following completion of my MSc in Responsible Tourism Management. But the people I met and places I visited on that trip of a lifetime were not only the greatest reward for my studies but also the greatest reminder that giving voice to people who deserve it was what I wanted to do most in the world.
In that article I wrote mostly about the Maasai people themselves who had worked so hard to combat some of the most unethical aspects of tourism in their homelands. Today I want to write about Cheryl who helped facilitate that change for the Maasai people, something that she does with both skill and sensitivity. Cheryl is a responsible tourism consultant with Tribal Voice Communications, a wildlife conservationist, anthropologist and all round feisty woman who doesn’t take no for an answer when it comes to good practice in tourism. And she has also been awarded an MBE in the 2017 Queen’s New Year Honours list, for these services to responsible tourism, community development and conservation in Africa. Over the years, she has worked in partnership with a number of impressive NGO’s such as the Born Free Foundation, Travel Foundation, Federation of Tour Operators (FTO), the Kenya Association of Tour Operators, Mara Conservancy and the Zambia Wildlife Authority. I am also a huge fan of (but pathetically tiny donor to) her charity, High Five Club through which Cheryl tirelessly offers her time to impoverished African rural communities living in wildlife areas, through a hand up rather than handouts approach. Do check it out if you want a transparent and transforming charity to support for just a fiver a month that helps reduce poverty in African countries in a sustainable way.
I also want to give a mention Manny Mvula, Cheryl’s husband who is Zambian, works alongside Cheryl on many projects, is one Africa’s top safari guides, a wildlife conservationist in his own right and a field trip leader. He regularly makes trips back to Zambia to work on wildlife conservation and community development projects in the Luangwa Valley, the area in which he was born and raised. It was he who proudly contacted me to share the news about Cheryl’s honour. And proud he should be.
One person who would also be rightly proud is Ben Rramet, one of the Maasai villagers who worked closely with Cheryl in turning their tourism experience from a frustrating into a fulfilling one. I met Ben on my trip there, and was honoured to host him in my home a year later when he came to England for the first time to talk about his work to other tourism operators at a conference. My children were both in awe of him and inspired by him. He came and spoke at their school, and indeed he taught us all so much and left us with so many fond memories. Sadly, he died a young man, just a few years ago, and I am certain that Cheryl will be dedicating this honour to his memory. Because that is the sort of woman she is and pretty much sums up the wonderful way in which she works.
I have stayed in a wonderful array of youth hostels on my own, with friends and then, as time went on, with my children. But the time came a couple of years ago for me to start thinking about letting them go it alone. Whether I like it or not, they are getting older, and although I hope they will always holiday with the ‘old ma’, they do relish any opportunity to spread their wings just a little. To discover the world through their own eyes, without me always dragging them off to mope in museums or embarrass them on a cycle route by pretending I can keep up.
I am a self-confessed weakling when it comes to cutting loose, however, but with the YHA having seen me through many a break with my children as toddlers, and a few billion others as young adults, it must surely be the perfect weaning mechanism. “Sick!” my son said in unison when I showed them the activity camps on offer, and I am now officially old enough to know that this is a positive reaction. They can do everything from canoeing to costume making, raft building to song writing, from £379 for five nights all inclusive. Which is, in fact, well sick.
My son has been two years in a row now, each time going with a good friend for company, but also because it meant that I was able to share the lifts there and back with the other parents. My only criticism is that I wish they did a full week. We have to pick them up very early on a Friday morning at the end of the camp, which means I had to lose a day’s work, and also travel there before dawn to pick him up. One of the reasons he goes to camp is, after all, not just to support the YHA but to enable me to have a week of child free work time during the school holidays. I think most parents would pay a bit more if the YHA could cover a whole Monday to Friday work week. But the most important thing is that my son had a ball. Two down, and another few to go I am sure. Hear more, straight out of the mouths of babes.
I’m a frequent traveller – but I’m also five foot two, fond of solo adventures and look glaringly foreign in whichever part of the world I travel in – so safety is something I always try and take seriously. I’ve had a trusty “nude” travel belt for years, which makes me feel more secure – if not comfortable. So while planning a solo trip to Colombia I was more than happy to try out an alternative.
Dovetail’s travel set arrived in the post looking much like a lingerie-stuffed jiffy bag; my boyfriend stood keenly by as I pulled formless straps, nylon and sheer mesh from the package – before the postcard tucked inside revealed what it was.
The “travel wing” sounds ultra sleek – it’s a pocket held in place in the middle of your back by what look like a series of bra straps. But the straps lack one vital element: adjustability. It fit me poorly, and I ended up not giving it a go.
The travel band, however, was fantastic. It fit comfortably, and worked under skirts (without riding up), shorts (without a belt strap to dangle out the bottom) and – remarkably – skinny jeans. It’s genuinely been designed for women’s hips; I forgot I was wearing it. The “portfolio” (a soft, fabric wallet) is a neat idea for storing cards and notes, as well as my hostel locker key. Crucially, it can also be accessed if necessary. Many would argue that this defies the point of a concealed travel belt, but as a keen photographer, one of the things I’m most anxious about losing when I travel are my SD cards. I could tuck these into the belt, then walk to an internet café to back them up – removing the portfolio discretely once I was sat behind a computer, and tucking it all back in at the end. The black nylon is a nice touch – if it peeked above jeans, it didn’t scream “I’m a camouflaged moneybelt!” in quite the same way as my nude original would. It also doesn’t assume all travellers have the same skin tone.
The portfolio’s water resistant fabric is also welcome. It might detract slightly from Dovetail’s sexy, feminine image – but lower back + backpack + tropical climate does not make for a happy environment for important documents. Or SD cards.
Colombia turned out to be far, far safer and friendlier than my South London neighbourhood, and I thankfully never got to test if it stopped me from getting robbed. However, peace of mind is everything while on holiday – whether that’s being protected from pickpockets, muggers – or just my own absentmindedness. So ultimately, Dovetail did the trick, and knowing I had it on me as a precaution did keep my boyfriend back home happy in the end, too.
This was a guest post from my fellow travel writing colleague and pal, Vicki Brown, who writes her own lovely blog La Nomadita.
If you Google ‘Bedgebury’ you’ll see that this is the National Pinetum and has been the UK’s finest collection of conifers since 1925. Which is gorgeous, but not if you are my teenage boys, who sort of lost me at ‘pinetum’. If you scroll down a bit, however, and this is the point where my lads zoned back in again, you’ll find a load of cool videos of skilled mountain bikers taking on the singletrack trails of one of South-East England’s most exciting forest enterprises.
Because Bedgebury, with its two thousand acres of pine and broadleaf forest, managed by the Forestry Commission, describes itself pretty succinctly in its publicity material as “An adventure in a world of trees”. With lovely playgrounds and family cycling trails it is the hard core, off road mountain biking that gets our attention these days, however, having moved on from the wooden play areas and Gruffalo orienteering areas.
We live in London and we all need a quick urban escape from time to time, and Bedgebury on the Kent/Sussex border, is fast becoming one of our favourite days out. And one that I can still persuade my teenage boys to join me on. One problem though – both hipster wannabees, they swapped their hybrids for cool vintage road bikes a year or so ago. Here is where Quench Cycles stepped in to save the day. Renting out state of the art mountain bikes on site and offering top notch customer service too, advising us which trail to take on (red all the way), reassuring us that we weren’t being a bit ambitious for relative newbies and having the lovely job of hosing down the bikes when we get back.
I decided I was being a bit ambitious, however, and headed off on the blue family trail, the long version though, happily cycling the rich wooded nine kilometres with enough ups and downs to feel like I had done a proper workout. In fact, it took me an hour, so I went round one more time as the red route took the boys two hours. And they certainly had their workout by the end of it, arriving back at our meeting point at the lakeside cafe (with a good mix of healthy options and the all important chips) totally exhausted but definitely exhilarated. No question of them going round one more time however. They may be teenagers, but I still smile when I get that feeling I used to get when they were young of ‘well, they’ll sleep well tonight”.
I can count on one hand the number of activities and days out that we all enjoy doing together close to London now that the boys are older, but this is definitely one. Getting the hipster bikes out and cycling down the Regent’s Canal was another one recently. Bedgebury isn’t cheap, however, costing £10 for the car park (it is the National Pinetum after all) and then £22 per bike for two hours. They also have a full range of tag alongs, electric bikes and so on, for the standard trails that is, not the mountain biking ones. However, they are brilliant bikes, and it is often the case that one family member has a decent bike and the other’s is a goner, so you can always just hire one if necessary.
Anyway, this stunning wooded landscape, part of the High Weald’s designated Area of Outstanding Beauty, beats a day out at a theme park and at half term we tend to do one treat day out if we are staying at home, and Bedgebury is a worthwhile treat. It would be even more of a treat if it was more easily accessible by public transport, however, which always strikes me as a shame. One day they might consider running a shuttle bus during peak times for people arriving to the nearby railway station at Etchingham, with a trailer for their bikes. Or, even better, just do a train and bike hire package. Some green food for thought.
Another point to note, even though it was half term, they have an overflow car park so there was no queue to get in. And once I got past the first kilometre on the family trail there was hardly a soul to be seen. The boys said they saw about three people on the red trail. I imagine the hard core mountain bikers have the sense to stay away at half term anyway. And Quench had no shortage of bikes either although you may want to phone to book in advance, just in case.
To get to Bedgebury by train, the nearest station is Etchingham, travelling with Southeastern. It’s about a 30 minute cycle ride up the A21 from there for those who want to brave it. For more information on cycling in The Weald, see Visit Kent.
Quench, the bike hire company at Bedgebury offers mountain biking courses.
Words fail me right now as I visit the newly opened Seamus Heaney Homeplace in his homeland of Bellaghy, Northern Ireland. A moving experience that captures not only the great Irish poet’s work, but also his extraordinary life as a family man. Here is his daughter, Catherine Heaney, talking about how she feels about its opening, the details of which were run by the family meticulously and with great sensitivity. And it shows. If you love poetry, and Heaney, don’t come to Northern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland without coming here.
I remember challenging a friend of mine when she put a post on Facebook a few years ago about how proud she was that her twin 16 year old boys were going to help build an orphanage in Uganda for a month during their school holidays. They were trying to fundraise for the trip, thus the Facebook post, the target amount being £4000. Or £8000 for twins. With photos of Ugandan children being hugged by 17 year old Londoners just to get the message to really hit home, at first glance I thought they were raising money to help fund the orphanage. But it didn’t take long to realise that they were actually fundraising to pay for a holiday. A four week holiday in Uganda, ten days of which was to be spent helping paint a wall or two, giving an English class and playing football with local children, the rest was on safari, with six beach “chill out” days and, if we wanted to ‘fund raise’ for the optional extras, getting their PADI course and summiting Mount Kenya. So, I chose not to ‘like’ and, in addition, made that ultimate faux pas of questioning it. Which, needless to say, didn’t go down well with the mum.
My friend’s main argument was, at the end of the day, this was a fantastic experience for her boys. I couldn’t argue with that one. And that the trip would, according to the travel company that sold the holiday through the school, get them 70 UCAS points (Universities and Colleges Admissions Service) for their university applications. I bit my lip, until recently, as my own son’s year group is about to be sold the same shenanigans. I am glad to say that he is old enough to agree with my challenges, as below, which still remain the same. If you agree with them, I ask that you spread the word to geography, science or heads of year teachers who are somehow buying into the notion that these are ethical holidays that make a difference to those on the ground, but also to other parents who might be considering handing over thousands of pounds. The choice is theirs of course, but perhaps just think outside the box a little before starting the cake sales:
How can it possibly benefit a small community in Uganda (or many other places that have projects waiting for 17 year olds to fix) having school children paint their walls, play football with the children and so on, when there are expert NGO’s there already working round the clock to break the poverty cycle? As well as, in many cases, expert local and international adultwho are qualified to do the job. Or could be trained by experts to do so.
Would you want a group of unknown seventeen year olds coming into town to take over your children’s education and building projects without any sort of vetting or professional expertise? And then be hugged by them to be spread all over Instagram, #volunteer #love #awesome
Why are young people put under huge pressure to ‘fundraise’ for something that isn’t a charity? These are profit making holiday companies that throw a bit of community work into the package because ‘doing good’ sells.
Why would UCAS favour young people who have paid £4000 for some UCAS points? (see more below, but quick answer is – they don’t)
Mis-sold, mis-treated and mis-informed
What stands out for me, however, in the case of volunteering holidays that are being targeted at school children is that young people are being mis-sold, mis-treated and mis-informed. Mis-sold because the reality is that these aren’t ‘do good’ volunteering trips that are all about charity. They are holidays. With companies making a lot of profit out of them. Give even half of your fundraising directly to a grass roots charity on the ground, and see what they can do with it. They would build a lot more than a wall, or paint a classroom. Mis-treated, because education is competitive enough at 17, without young people being pressurized to raise £4000 to keep up with their friends. And mis-informed because these trips do NOT guarantee extra points towards university. In fact, having just embarked on our UCAS journey and university open days ourselves, not one of them said ‘you know what, go and build a wall in Africa for £4000, and the deal is sealed.’ What they do suggest, is get involved in your own local community, political or social justice groups – now that would be interesting. Oh, and study.
The UCAS point of view
To clarify, I spoke with UCAS about this issue of volunteering holidays being a way to gain university points. Ben Jordan, Senior Policy Executive at UCAS:
“Volunteering holidays in themselves do not attract UCAS Tariff points. However, some volunteering programmes may offer an accredited qualification as part of it. For example the ASDAN award is an accredited Level 3 qualification that can be delivered through such programmes. But, far away volunteering breaks aren’t the only way to achieve such a qualification and they can be delivered more locally. It’s important to remember that although the above qualifications are recognised in skills development by some, not all universities will accept them as suitable for entry and not all institutions use the UCAS Tariff points system. Therefore it’s vital that students research the claims of such programmes properly and look into the requirements of the universities and courses they’re interested in.
What anyone applying to study should be aware of, is that universities take a wide range of factors into consideration when recruiting students. This includes grades, relevant experiences relating to their chosen course and their personal statement. Universities are also aware that it won’t be possible for all people to engage with such volunteering programmes, therefore no learner would be disadvantaged by not attending.”
The children who don’t have a choice
Most importantly, however, in this debate is that children being sold these holidays have a choice whether to go or not. The children who don’t have a choice are those in the destinations where our seventeen year olds are going to spend time. And this is where the companies that promote themselves as selling ethical school expeditions must really be held to account. Do they adhere to strict responsible tourism guidelines when it comes to working with young school children abroad? What child protection policies do they have in place? Do they seek qualifications or at least some experience from those people paying to volunteer if they are going to be teaching or caring for young people abroad? I contacted various expedition companies that target pre university young people to get their feedback on this subject, and to get more details on their ethical policies. One example is Frontier – One of their projects is to work in a Cambodian orphanage, where on a two week volunteering holiday kids can “help take care of them (orphans) and give them the vital education they need for a better future.”, the highlights of the trip being, “Teach and care for fun-loving, orphaned children, earn your TEFL certificate absolutely free and assist in the operational running of the orphanage centre.” At date of publication, I had no reply or feedback from Frontier. I am not a lone voice in this belief, however, with a lot of experts trying to get the message across about how volunteering in orphanages can actually have a damaging impact on children and their communities – despite whatever good intentions are involved. See Save the Children’s excellent advice on the subject as well as responsibletravel.com.
Ethical volunteering guidelines are a must
For a truly ethical volunteering holiday, ethical guidelines must be followed. You can see examples of these here on responsibletravel.com. In my view, a truly ethical volunteering holiday will place the needs of a community first. And although I know my seventeen year old would do his bit if he went to Uganda, I also know that he will not be making real difference to a child’s life there. Nor will he make a big difference to his university application.
My main hope with this blog is to spread the word among schools and school parents. Please question these £4000 trips. Demand transparency when you go to the sales talks. How much profit is being made from these trips? Can schools really justify this concept of ‘fund raising’ which is no more than a profit making exercise? Teachers and parents should question if they would want unqualified, unvetted people coming into their children’s school when they were four years old. They should ask the volunteering holiday companies about the details of their projects. How many walls are being built? When was the last wall built? Are there no builders that can be employed in Uganda or Peru? And, most importantly, and controversially, will the company vet and police check their children before going out there? Oh, and please post this on Facebook.
What can you do to help?
1) Please share this article with your friends, family, teachers and colleagues on the hashtag and, in particular with regards to the orphanages issue, use #StopOrphanTrips.
2) Sign the Avaaz petition calling for travel operators to remove orphanage volunteering placements from their websites by the next Responsible Tourism day at WTM in London in November 2016. Don’t forget to share it and include the hashtag #StopOrphanTrips too
3) If you’re a volunteer tourism operator who is happy to #StopOrphanTrips, then please contact firstname.lastname@example.org – we’d love to highlight your support of the campaign.
Welcome to the Midlands of Ireland which for me, like many visitors, was a place to stop over en route to somewhere else. Until I discovered Wineport Lodge. This luxury cedar-clad boutique hotel is a heavenly port of pampering, where each of the 29 rooms, all named after a wine or spirit, look out onto the shores of Lough Ree. As I settled into my room, poured a glass of chilled and complimentary Chablis, I knew instantly that one night was not going to be enough.
Just over an hour by train from Dublin to Athlone, where Wineport staff will pick you up if you come by train, there was a storm the night of my stay, but in better weather, and if you are lucky enough to own or have rented one, you can come here by boat following the Shannon-Erne waterway system and mooring alongside the Taittinger Lounge. This is where I nestled for most of my stay, tucked up on a huge comfy sofa, forgetting about the unfortunate weather coming in over the lake, as a huge wood-burning designer stove kept me toasty warm.
Impressively responsible, vast eco-stove, extensive recycling and a wastewater wetland system are all very well, but it is romance which upstages the filtering reedbeds in this idyllic setting, with a roof terrace hot tub or, if you want more privacy, choose something ‘relaxing’ or ‘refreshing’ from the bath menu to be brought to your room. Verbena for waking you up and lavender for slowing things down. If this all sounds tacky, it is actually far from it. Wineport Lodge encapsulates fine Irish hospitality without any sense of elitism or commercialism.
And it is not only the bath menu which is impressive. Chef Cathal Moran’s restaurant has a wide variety of locally sourced food, such as the oven roasted lamb rump from the nearby Tormey family farm in Co. Westmeath. All suppliers are listed on the menu.
The breakfast (in bed) was supreme – buttermilk pancakes topped with layers of pancetta, maple syrup, top smoothie and great coffee. Imagine my devastation when another storm meant I had to cut short a morning walk across the local Glasson bog (details of available walks available at reception). A hot tub, hot stone massage and hot whisky became my own personal revival menu. Just as well they will drive you to the station when you are ready to hit the road. Not that you will want to.
For more details, see wineport.ie and Twitter @Wineport_Lodge
Getting there slowly: Train to Athlone and cycle to Wineport, or they will drive visitors to and from Glasson village to the station, only a couple of kilometres away
Lido love is a summer romance for most people in London. A fling with urban adventure when the heat is on. Then you have the die hards who swim all year round in ten degrees of heart stopping H20, because the majority of the lidos, which hark back to Victorian times, are minimally heated. But thankfully there are exceptions for water wimps like me who fall between these two stools and for whom breaking the ice is never nice. Whose hearts soar at the sight of beckoning blue tiles and shimmering waters, who love to swim outdoors, the elements always assured to elevate the spirits. And, most importantly, who crave Celcius readings over the 25 degree mark, no matter what the season. And for those of us who love to travel, finding this on a winter city break turns the fling into a lifelong affair.
I live in London, but decided to create a winter London lido crawl for me and a few out of town girlfriends, and likeminded warm water wanderlusters. Given that I was sharing my London lido love with women, however, I decided to throw Hampstead Ladies’ Pond into the mix. Not strictly lido, and strictly not heated, this spring fed lake has been a swimming haven for women for centuries, concealed behind trees from male onlookers. It is another world, and somewhere I have had summer flings with for the last thirty years. Open all year, the water temperature averages at 13 degrees in autumn, so wetsuits were packed for this one.
We aimed to do four swims in the day, the heated lidos in London being Charlton (50m) near Greenwich, The Oasis (27m) near Covent Garden, London Fields (50m) in Hackney, finishing with our polar plunge in Hampstead. But due to autumn opening times and travel logistics, we gave Charlton a miss this time. But, as it is actually my local and much loved lido, I recommend it hand on heart. All of these lidos are managed by Better Leisure Centres, cost between £4.80 – £6 to get in, and have excellent facilities, hot showers and good lane swimming.
Meeting in central London at the Oasis, just five minutes’ walk from Holborn tube was our starting point. In the heart of the West End most Londoners don’t even know about this open air oasis tucked behind theatre land. Sadly there is no café here anymore, so bring snacks. Or the Pain Quotidienne next door is a great spot for coffee and cakes afterwards. As is the Hoxton Hotel, by the way, if you want to stay in one of the coolest hotels in London, or just pop in for a full breakfast after an athletic swim. I wish. Back to snacks, I was in show off mood, with my home made energy bars, which went down a treat. See the fool proof, no bake recipe here.
Using my brilliant, but brilliant City Mapper app, we connected with the nearby 55 bus on Bloomsbury way (Museum Street stop) which took us almost directly to London Fields lido, another blue haven in the middle of one of London’s many green field areas, London Fields Park. Sitting upstairs on one of London’s stunning new Route Master buses, like kids on a school trip, the app also showed how many stops to travel and then gave me a friendly little ding just in time for me to do the same to alert the driver that we wanted to get off. Five minutes’ stroll through elegant Victorian streets and there it was, centre stage in the park. Our next lido love. London Fields. Busier than the Oasis, with the beautiful burghers of Hackney doing some very committed laps and limbers. After our acceptable 1 km swim, we soaked up the late seasonal sun on seats around the pool, before hitting the coffee shop, with falafel wraps and other feisty fodder on offer.
And so to Hampstead Heath, just in time to catch the pond closing at 4.45pm (after the end of October it closes at 2.30pm until the end of March, when the days stretch out again). Citymapper guided us to Gospel Oak station and from there it was a 20 minutes’ walk over Hampstead Heath, walking straight past Parliament Hill lido in fact, which isn’t heated and only open in the mornings in winter.
Note the Ladies’ Pond is not marked on Google Maps but the mens’ one is, just get there and ask someone. Hidden behind trees, this really is an urban paradise, albeit a perishing one. It has devoted lifeguards, who checked that we had cold water experience. She didn’t seem impressed that we had spent the day in warm lidos, and was even less impressed by the fact that we had wetsuits. “We advise against them, because you can’t read your body properly, or how cold you are getting”. I wasn’t going to dare to disagree, and slowly submerged myself into the soft water, glad that I had packed a rash vest and enough dry swimsuits. Taking my slow intakes of breath, as instructed by the same lifeguard, I soon adjusted to the temperature, managed one lap of honour making it as far as the ducks who dipped in and out among the willows on the far side. And then straight to the hot showers, beaming from ear to ear. And sort of glad that I had left the wetsuit dry, I must admit.
Walking back across Hampstead Heath for about fifteen minutes in the other direction to Hampstead village, into the warmth of The Wells Pub, our task was complete. We were dumbstruck by aqua amour, by London’s capacity to surprise and by exhaustion. Good exhaustion. And in the silence I was struck by the fact that this pub must have been the poet John Keats’ local, as he lived just around the corner. The man who wrote such wise and, today, such serendipitous ones as these:
“The point of diving into a lake is not immediately to swim to the shore, but to be in the lake, to luxuriate in the sensation of water. You do not work the lake out, it is an experience beyond thought”.
The element of surprise becomes more elusive with age. Social media hasn’t done much to help that either with every event, personal or professional, publicised from nascence ad nauseum. Which is why the new initiative, Secret Adventures, is so refreshing. You know a certain amount of what you are signing up for in advance, be it a kayaking, hiking or swimming, as well as the city, or the nearest station, but the exact location is left to your imagination until the last minute.
Consequently, as I pulled into Richmond staion in London at 6.30 pm on a Friday nnight in August, squished between exhausted looking commuters heading home for the weekend, I realised that I had an almost naughty grin on my face. Like I was breaking away from the norm and not just going home to watch a box set. All I knew was that I was to meet a group of other secret adventurers outside the station, and that we would be led first to a pub for a bit of socialising (and a bit of Dutch courage) and then to a secret location for a moonlit swim.
Our master of secret ceremonies, Madoc Threipland, was waiting for us. No sign in hand publicising his venture, just a smiling, quiet self-assured young man, in whom I felt instinctively I could put my trust. But hey, if I had told my mother that I was going to meet a stranger on a Friday night, let him take me to the pub and then to a secret location to take my clothes off and swim in the dark, she might not have felt the same way about it. But somehow, with Madoc, I realised that although his adventures are all about exploring wild places, they are not about going wild. They are actually just about just finding serenity in this case, in the city, in a civilised and social way.
Madoc led us through Richmond, and up its eponymous hill which overlooks the Thames, explaining that it is the only protected viewpoint in England, by law. This is not only because it is not only stunning, especially in this late summer evening light, but it has also been captured by the likes of Turner in his famous painting, The Thames from Richmond Hill. From here to the pub. I was a little bit concerned about this bit, thinking that it might have a dating site sort of a vibe, but actually it wasn’t at all like that. There was a good mixture of ages, gender and professions, with one shared frisson of excitement about when the secret would be revealed.
What did surprise me, however, as we continued on our journey after dinner and, eventually, found ourselves all changing into swimgear, using large trees to protect our modesty in the moonlight, was that there were no tourists in the group. We were all Londoners, keen to explore the hidden corners of our beloved city. And all revelling in the fact that, despite the usual anonymity of fellow city dwellers as we rush and brush past each other on streets and subways, here we were being given permission to share a secret, sensual moment with strangers. Swimming in the moonlight. So, all that to say, tourists are missing a treat here.
We all went our separate ways on the last train home, segueing smoothly back into our usual public transport dispositions. But the naughty grin was still there, topped up with a dose of reassurance that we can all jump off the hamster wheel from time to time. I can’t tell you where we jumped of course. Because that would just spoil the secret.