Outdoor activities with a healthy dose of curiosity, brought to you by Laure Latham
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In the midst of January, glamping in London’s forest since the Middle Ages, Epping Forest, was a no-brainer. Cold weather – check. My girls – check. Open calendar – check. Hot chocolate – check. As tempting as staying in and watching TV was, we took the underground with loaded backpacks, a few knick-knacks and a map. Oh, I suspected things might not go exactly as planned but hey, that’s part of the fun. As expected, our family micro-adventure made us appreciate little things in life, things we take for granted in our modern homes, such as toilet paper, a toaster for breakfast and running water. But it also showed us that whatever happens, it’s OK. At the end of the day, we came home with a few good laughs and cool pics. For what it’s worth, my girls want to do it again. Never mind the hiccups, read on and get inspired for your own micro-adventure!
My inspiration came from Alastair Humphreys, the British advocate of “micro-adventures.” He encourages others to plan short escapes close to home just for kicks. His guidelines are simple. You don’t need to go far for a change of scenery. You don’t even need to break the bank to go somewhere new. All you need is an open state of mind and the willingness to adapt to situations, such as no toaster for breakfast. Though he usually recommends bivvying, I don’t have bivvy bags so we “upgraded” the concept to glamping.
Now, I’m no stranger to heavy camping logistics and for a change, I wanted a smooth and simple ride. I wanted a light load to carry (ouch, my back hurts), a public transport-accessible destination (we don’t have a car) and a low-cost option (why break the bank when you be righteously stingy?). Most of all, I wanted no-stress. Glamping meant no tent to carry and no food to plan. Every hike in the UK relies on a tactically located pub, why not our glamping trip?
I called the Lee Valley campsite to reserve a large “cocoon” (cabin), though admittedly mid-January isn’t peak camping time and reserving was overkill. As a nice mom, I owed it to my girls to secure a roof and heating for the night. Yes, the cocoons have a space heater.
Now, packing. In our small backpacks, we crammed the bare minimum: sleeping bag, headlights, toothpaste, PJs and extra socks and underwear, binoculars (for birds). Ah, and a travel set of water-colors in case the little girls got bored. For my 8-year old, the bare minimum also included a stuffed pig – PigLit, the literary pig – and Harry Potter 6. She knew damn well I wouldn’t carry any of it and accepted to squeeze the book to the limits of her pack’s mesh side-pocket. It was so tight it almost exploded. Thanks JK Rowling!
Saturday afternoon after the last class of the weekend, we changed into in our Indiana Jones best. Walking out the door to face winter felt funny and somewhat out of place in the city but liberating nonetheless. Unsure whether to run back inside and laugh it all off, we walked down the street with backpacks on. How very Kao Sarn Road of us, walking into our local tube station as semi-backpackers. The plan was to reach the end of the Victoria line, hop on a bus to the end of its line, and walk a half mile to the campground entrance. All told, we were looking at 1h45 of transport.
Ah, the exhilarating spirit of adventure is only as good as the wait for the bus is short. When our bus failed to show up after 30 minutes of waiting on metal seats in a sizzling wind, I found out that the bus had broken down. Tough luck. I’d hoped we’d reach the campground before dark but micro-adventurers can’t have it all. The bus finally showed up after 50 minutes at twilight. We drove through miles of “Privet Drive” homes, cookie-cutter suburbs for architects tired of creativity. And then, our stop. The end of the line.
It was a parking lot in front of a social housing project, overlooking another parking lot and industrial warehouses. Hell of a stop for a glamping weekend! Walking in a tight line – there was no sidewalk – through unkempt brambles and weeds on the roadside, we quickly covered the last half mile in the dark. At that point, the girls would have been glad if we had indeed turned around and run back inside our home.
Finally we saw the “Lee Valley Campsite” signand quickly entered. “You must be Mrs Latham,” said the woman checking me in. Hmm, I knew that reserving was overkill. Or was it the French accent? Regardless, we bought “shorties” (round shortbread biscuits) and a jar of Nutella for snack time. Then, we were shown around by a Scottish man to whom I said I was looking forward to making a cup of tea with the kettle which was the only appliance in the cocoon. “I never knew French people drank tea,” he said, genuinely surprised. Ah well, you can’t judge a froggie by its camembert you know.
It was cocoon love at first sight for my girls. Red-checkered curtains at the windows, octagonal shape, bunk beds, sofa bed and the magical water kettle – what was not to like? We made tea for me, hot chocolate for my girls, and waited for the heater to get warm. Now came the awful realization that except for my wise 8-year old, neither my 10-year old nor I had anything to read. Gasp. Seizing the next best thing to the written word, my oldest spent the next 30 minutes reading every line of the local pub’s menu. For the pub was where dinner was that night.
She was quickly joined by her sister who’s a stomach on feet. She usually orders bangers and mash in pubs but was dead set on trying something new. Chicken for changes? The menu was good-enough reading until they each knew what they would order that night and started getting hungry. And restless. Aha, but I had a trick up my sleeve – the travel water-coloring set! It’s usually left alone at home but that afternoon, it quickly became the hottest glamping item in town.
When time came to leave for the pub – where I had reserved a table, another killer planning move in mid-January – my girls took their sweet time. Water-coloring was so much fun! We left a full collection of water-colored papers to dry on the steps of the bunk bed stepladder. Out in the dark, the trick was now to find the pub. From what I knew, The Plough was roughly a mile away from the campground. “Just turn left at the road and keep walking,” had the campground lady said. I guessed it would take us 25 to 30 minutes to walk. By sheer luck, we found a wider path on the other side of the road and reached the pub exactly at the time of our reservation. Food, glorious food was within reach!
Now, it would be too easy if my girls had ordered straight away what they’d fantasized about in the cocoon. No. They re-read and re-analyzed the whole menu to re-think their order and in the end, came back to their initial choice. Within 5 minutes, the waiter came back to tell my 8-year old the chicken dish had just sold out. She ordered mixed veggies. Within 10 minutes, he came back to say that that choice wasn’t available either. Good girl, she adapted and ordered … bangers and mash. Finally she got food (“Not what I wanted,” she mumbled), so did we and we ate dinner. When we got out of the pub, I offered a last activity before before bedtime. Night hike, anyone?
We ventured across the road on a path that I knew led to a river path. At least, that’s what my local map showed. “It’s dark,” observed my 10-year old. “It’s scary,” added her sister. A rustle. “What’s that noise!?” they both said. Probably a rabbit in the bushes, but they both saw monsters and highway robbers left and right. What if someone came to murder us? What if there was a lion lurking in the grass? What about the beard of Davy Jones? You never know what’s out there at nighttime, even with headlamps. It’s only when I offered them to play a few games that they loosened up about the night hike thing. However seeing as it was getting late, we came back to the main road and they skipped happily back to the campground.
The following morning, we woke up to a frosty lawn in front of our cocoon. How exciting!
Was this why the Nutella was hard as rock? Despite the heater, the cocoon wasn’t toasty warm. I sent my girls to buy breakfast items at the campground store and they came back with a small box of cereals (for me), peanut butter (for my 10-year old) and marmalade (for me, in case I didn’t like the cereals). I dare say, the most unhealthy breakfast spread on the planet refused to spread on our shorties and that’s how my 8-year cut “slabs” of Nutella with my camping spoon to eat alongside her shorties. My 10-year old gave the same treatment to the peanut butter with my Swiss Army knife. Since we were officially out of utensils, I ate cereals with my fingers. That’s roughing it, folks!
Packing up proved somewhat challenging, what with the three extra breakfast jars, but we managed it and hit the road around 10am. Where’ was the forest? Let’s not forget that the whole point of our glamping weekend was to get close to nature and somehow end up in Epping Forest. Despite our best intentions, the only way was to follow a paved road for a couple miles until we found a forest path. Not ones to give up on nature, we got on our way.
The paved road wasn’t super glam but at least, we passed by this picturesque farm and pond. Cute, hey? My girls even enjoyed some unexpected fun with frozen puddles along the road and took turns stepping on them, then grabbing broken bits with their gloves and comparing icy chunks. At last, we found the entry to our forest path – Gilwell Park. There were bizarre six-wheel ATVs carving deep trenches on muddy tracks. Jeeps driving up muddy hills. Lots of trucks and tents and shelters with signs. Little did I know that we were entering the scouts’ 4×4 off road weekend.
With our backpacks on, we would have fitted just fine in a normal scout gathering but this was no normal gathering. Oh no. This was the Field & Stream meets the Jeep Cherokee fanclub county fair equivalent of a scout gathering. I was floored. From afar, pop music spilled through loudspeakers and hundreds of youth all converged at a real county fair – bumper cars, carousel, rides, disco, laser maze. My girls were floored for different reasons. “Can we join the scouts?” they asked. I did my best frown and answered that maybe but not today. We yet needed to find our forest path. Eventually we found it. It was the muddy path we thought was a dump behind the bumper cars. Hello, candy wrappers and empty cans! And here I thought the scouts were all about nature and playing with sticks. Guess I’m going to update the concept.
Once we got away from the loudspeakers and in some decent tree coverage, I suggested a bold move to my girls: “Let’s go off trail, shall we?” I was set on finding our nature paradise. I was.
After some wild trampling, stream crossing and leaf walking, I heard, “Mom, there’s houses ahead of us.” Indeed, our off-trail experiment was leading us dangerously close to civilization. Hey, we were exactly behind the housing project where the bus had dropped us the night before! Time to re-route. We came back on the trail and did our best to avoid our rainboots getting sucked by sticky mud spots. I don’t know what the soil was made of but petroleum jelly is a wild guess. My 10-year old lagged behind and when I called her, she ran to us with a worried look on her face. “There’s a man with a blue hoodie following us.” Goodie, now we were in creeps territory. Let’s keep walking, girls.
Whether or not my girl was too creative for her own good, I kept throwing furtive glances behind just to see if I’d spot the creep. I didn’t but I’m not completely ruling out she was right. After all, we spent quite a bit of time walking parallel to big residential buildings. Finally, our path turned and we found our nature paradise. Check this out!
Now, that’s what I’m talking about! We were on the verge of Epping Forest, looking out on acres of mature trees and groomed trails. I thought I knew where we were going. “This way!” I said. I’d spotted a a clearly-marked trail with so many signs on the post I couldn’t make out what they meant. Our path quickly became a woodland path and ended up at a crossroads at the edge of a village. WTH? However before we reached the crossroads, we found a couple of magpies on the trail and whipped out the binoculars.
At least, we carried the binoculars for a reason. As expected, the magpies were black and white with plenty of feathers. A wonderful find indeed but our stomach grumbled. What, already 12.30pm! We reached the crossroads and I checked my map. Dang, where the hell were we? Unmarked forest paths can be so confusing. Fortunately for us, a man wit a dog asked if we needed help. I pretended to hesitate but quickly acquiesced. He pinpointed our position on the map and I opened big eyes. We were here? Like, at the almost opposite of where we wanted to go? But then again, ours was a micro-adventure and getting sidetracked to find our way to food was part of the fun. Fortunately, there was an easy way to reach our destination – Queen Elizabeth’s hunting lodge – a path along the road. Making good progress, we respectfully ignored a few real forest paths (with regrets, as far as I’m concerned) and reached the lodge at 1.30pm.
My girls love that lodge and love even more the nature center next to it, The View. They asked me if they could peek inside and weakly, I bought them a souvenir quill pencil. Right behind the hunting lodge, the answer to our lunch prayers – the Larder at Butler’s Retreat. Oh, what a wonderful cafe this is. The food was excellent, my girls were delighted to drink apple juice and elderflower cordial, and I was glad to sit down in a comfy chair with a beautiful view on the forest. If you ever go in that area, I strongly recommend lunch or tea and cakes there.
From there, it was a short walk to the train station that led us to Liverpool Street station where we changed for the underground. Later that afternoon, we opened the door of our home with an intense feeling of accomplishment. We’d done it! We’d followed through with the plan despite the hiccups. We’d mostly kept a positive attitude and enjoyed the experience. Better yet, my girls wanted to come back with friends. Hurray for micro-adventures!