Screwing up my face against the icy wind, I hauled the sledge through the white landscape. I was tired and cold. After all those years reading books and listening to lectures at the Royal Geographical Society, I finally felt like Captain Scott.
But this wasn’t the Antarctic; this was Hertfordshire. And my friend Rob Lilwall and I were attempting to walk a lap of the M25. We had taken on this “expedition” to see whether it was possible to have an adventure close to home, rather than in one of the exotic places that usually grace the pages of Geographical.
By chance, we had set out in the coldest week in years, and snow lay thick on the ground; a Siberian suburban expedition. Somewhere around Junction 17, we had found a discarded sledge and we towed our rucksacks on it until it broke. Later, Rob found a shopping trolley and wheeled his pack in that.
The much-maligned M25, the motorway that encircles London, is 190 kilometres long. Our plan was to walk as close to it as possible, from Junction 1 to Junction 31. We would walk through fields and towns, taking footpaths or small parallel roads if we came across them. We deliberately had no detailed plan and carried just one small-scale map of the whole motorway, rather than a series of large-scale maps. At night, we would sleep outside, in bivvy bags, and hope that we would occasionally find refuge under a bridge, in a barn or in the home of a kind stranger.
There’s nothing new about exploring your own country and travelling through it with the same curiosity with which you travel in foreign lands. During the 17th century, Celia Fiennes became the first recorded woman to travel through every English county. She described the part of Essex that we would walk through as “full of woods… a great flatt [sic] to the land full of watry [sic] ditches”. The noisy concreted sprawl around Dartford that we encountered as we began our walk was also very different in Fiennes’s day, populated by “cherry grounds that are of severall [sic] acres and runs quite down to the Thames”.
In recent years, I’ve thought a good deal about the purpose of adventure. I believe that adventures are about challenging yourself mentally, physically or culturally; about being curious and tackling something that daunts you or initially appears difficult; about encountering new people and cultures, and travelling with an open mind and curiosity. And if this is all true, then surely you can have an adventure anywhere – even if it’s a short adventure on your doorstep, what I’ve come to call a micro-adventure.
We began putting my micro-adventure theory to the test in a grey, gridlocked dawn at Junction 1. It isn’t very easy to walk a lap of the M25. Slip roads, flyovers and high fences all hampered our progress. We walked along pavements and through housing estates, following our noses across wasteland and over fences.
Over the next week, we negotiated our way through a variety of environments, some dull, ugly and depressing, others surprisingly beautiful, deserted and wild. We slept outdoors beneath a poncho strung between two trees. We encountered curious strangers who laughed at our ridiculous journey. We ate ketchup sandwiches in cold fields and hot chips in high-street takeaways.
One evening, we escaped from the cold into a pub. The landlady gave us brandy and the band dedicated These Boots are Made for Walking to us. A city trader finished his pint and said we could camp on his lawn.
At Junction 8 in Redhill, a kind couple invited us to sleep in their spare room. Someone following our progress on Twitter cycled out early one morning to intercept us and take us home for a fried breakfast.
Do something unusual and imaginative, and people generally respond kindly to you. To my surprise, walking the M25 turned out to be not only a tough physical challenge, but also an uplifting insight into my own country.
A micro-adventure doesn’t require specialised equipment; it’s usually possible to make do with what you already own. Alternatively, a pack, shelter, sleeping bag, rain gear, map and compass can be bought very cheaply. You will certainly have a lighter load and remain warmer and drier by buying high-quality kit, but don’t let a lack of it prevent you starting a micro-adventure of your own. The crucial thing is to begin.
I like to add a front pouch to whichever rucksack I feel is appropriate for my journey. With a capacity of about five litres, the pouch slides onto the rucksack’s waist strap. I keep my photographic or video camera, a water bottle and some food inside it. Ease of access means that I take the photograph or record the footage that I might otherwise be too lazy or too slow to bother with, especially when I’m cold or tired.
On micro-adventures I use a bivouac bag for sleeping. A bivvy bag is essentially a waterproof and breathable sheath that slips over your sleeping bag. (For a single night out, or on a short summer trip, you can use a cheap orange survival bag and tolerate some condensation.) On a clear night, there s no better feeling than lying outside in a bivvy bag, looking up at the stars and watching the moon slide across the sky.
Bivvy bags are light, pack down well and are simple to use. They’re also miserable in heavy rain, when you’re buried deep within the bag and yearning for a tent. That’s why we also carried a rectangular plastic sheet. Fixing two corners to a tree about a metre off the ground and pegging the other two corners to the ground created a simple but effective roof or “basha”.
We slept in synthetic-fill sleeping bags and used camping mattresses to insulate ourselves from the snow. Mattresses vary from cheap rolls of foam all the way up to small, light and warm self-inflating mattresses. Perhaps I’m becoming old and soft, but in this department, I believe that you get what you pay for, and a comfortable, warm night’s sleep is worth a lot to me.
Although our M25 walk offered plenty of scope for us to live off the land like real explorers (cafes and chip shops galore), it was still nice to have a stove on which to cook hot meals. We used a small gas stove as it was cheap, simple and lightweight. On summer adventures, it’s nice to cook on a campfire. A compromise is a tiny wood-burning stove that weighs almost nothing and generates plenty of heat with just a handful of twigs.
I fully accept that walking around the original “Road to Hell” isn’t very normal behaviour. However, it’s helpful on micro-adventures to at least look reasonably normal. This was an expedition where interacting with people was important, and first impressions count.
I prefer to wear functional but normal clothes rather than, say, Lycra leggings. Loose-fitting, quick-drying trekking trousers and shirts are a good crossover between the expedition world and the real world. Merino-wool base layers are warm and comfortable, don’t stink like some other fabrics after a few unwashed days, and look good even in the real world.
Rob and I filmed our motorway walk with broadcast-quality video cameras. Perhaps it would have been more in the spirit of micro-adventures and micro-blogging to have experimented with using a mobile device to record and upload short clips and photographs straight to the internet. With care and thought, high-quality material can be produced. But nothing makes a film look more amateur than shaky footage. If you can’t justify the weight and expense of a full-size tripod, I recommend carrying a mini tripod. Cheap, flexible and versatile, it will make a large difference to the quality of your video.
After a week of hard walking, we arrived at Junction 31. Our circle was complete. It had been quite a journey. We were cold and tired and more jubilant than we had expected to be. We had successfully found adventure in 21st-century southern England, scratched our curiosity and proved that adventure is all around us. You just have to look for it.
To tweet or not to tweet, that is the question
Love it, loathe it or just baffled by it, Twitter is a communication phenomenon. I’ve found it to be a superb service for keeping friends, back-up teams and the public up to date with my progress on a micro-adventure. Updating is simple: you send a text message from your mobile phone. Twitter requires no more time, technology or money than that. I enjoyed experimenting with its potential during my M25 walk.
Here are some of the tweets that I posted:
– Coldest snap in 30 years. Perfect timing to set off to walk a lap of the M25!
– Tucked up in “bed” just off Junction 3. Fox tried to nab our food. Chilly night in bivvy bag
– Told off for being on private land by man with shotgun
– Bread and ketchup for lunch near Junction 6: living the dream
– Ronan and Helen, whom we met in the pub, have invited us to stay in their house. Heroes!
– Found a tea tray on Reigate Hill. Sledging descents should speed us up
– Sitting in the snow as cars rush by. Eating a Mars bar and feeling glum
– Matt, thanks so much for inviting us into your house for sausage sandwiches
– It’s quite a buzz to lie on ground under the flight path as planes land at Heathrow
– Enjoying warmth in South Mimms service station. Never considered it an oasis of luxury before. Will sleep under bushes in car park
– People avoid my gaze in service station. Without my pack I look like a homeless man
– Grey sky, slushy paths, damp sleeping bag, sore feet, a little whine and a moan
– Cup of tea at a stables in Essex. “My son’s mad like you. A hot drink will do you good”
– Marching on together into our final gloomy dusk. My own bed and a hot shower beckon.
This piece originally appeared in Geographical.