From horse marathons to Roman running: 11 great UK adventures
Three Peaks Challenge,UK
It was completely accidental. Growing up in north-east London, I’d never even heard of the Three Peaks Challenge – entailing people climbing the highest peaks in Scotland, England and Wales within a 24-hour window. But a friend was doing it for charity and asked if I wanted to join him. Without hesitating, I said yes. I’d recently had a gun pulled on me which misfired – twice. That event helped me make a life-changing decision: to stop trying to fit in and do something that made me happy and was an adventure.
I needed to raise £200, but I knew no one in my area would sponsor me – they wouldn’t have heard of it or understood it (I didn’t either), so I waited until I got paid and covered it myself.
I found myself on the way to Scotland in a minibus with six others, having done no training, no preparation – my friend had given me a leaflet and told me to check out a website, but I hadn’t had time.
We started with Ben Nevis – in clear weather. Going up was hard, but coming down that was really tough. I felt muscles I didn’t even know I had. Scafell Pike, in Cumbria, we did in the dark under thick cloud and mist. By the time we reached Snowdon, it was clear that only two of us would make it – we made a decision that me and another teammate would try to get to the top before our 24 hours was up.
At 23 hours and 50 minutes, we made it. It was beautifully clear, with incredible views all over Wales. That was a lightbulb moment and it opened up a whole new world for me – I realised I could do anything I put my mind to.
Three years later, after taking part in several marathons, I ended up signing up to trek to the North Pole – becoming the first black Briton to do so. Fast forward another 10 years, and I’ve trekked across the Sinai peninsula, kayaked Jamaica and walked the length of Britain from Dunnet Head to Lizard Point (828 miles) with my teammate Phoebe Smith (see below) to raise money for our own #WeTwo Foundation. It goes to show that once you open your mind to adventure, the possibilities are endless. Dwayne Fields, adventurer, explorer, speaker
Marathon with horses,Powys
The romance of the Man versus Horse marathon grabbed me as soon as I heard about it. Britain’s most eccentric and ruinously tough race was created 40 years ago in the town of Llanwrtyd Wells (20 miles north of Brecon), following an argument in the Neuadd Arms Hotel about whether a human could beat a horse over a long distance if the terrain was tilted (quite literally) in favour of bipeds.
I began mountain running immediately, plodding up and over Belfast’s Cave Hill and around the surrounding plateau every chance I had. Training programmes are hard to keep up, but is there anything more inspiring than running through the mountains to race against horses?
For me, getting into the hills almost daily was a transformative experience. I loved the solitude, the tangible hilltop targets, the fume-free air and the elevation of mood and outlook that comes from, well, elevation.
I was fortunate to be living just a 10-minute jog from Cave Hill country park at the time, which helped, but I was also regularly driving to the Mourne mountains for a wilder, longer session.
So even before I arrived in mid-Wales, I felt my life was much the richer as a result of the event. That gratitude, however, faded about three-quarters of the way through.
The Man versus Horse is a remarkable race in a stunning Cambrian mountain setting in which competitors run up hill and down dale, through forests and along rivers. The exhilaration of being pursued by horses along bridle paths (runners get a 15-minute head start for safety reasons) is worth the trip alone. But it is also thigh-shreddingly tough, covering 22 miles with more than 1,200 metres of climbing in the (occasional) heat of midsummer. It is not to be taken lightly, and the compulsory veterinary checks at the halfway point are only for the horses.
By the end, I was utterly destroyed. But I did manage to beat 36 of the 41 horses that started, and I boast about that to this day. Even more enduring than my boasting, however, is my continued passion for fell running and time spent in the hills. It’s life-enhancing, I promise you, even on two legs. Graham Little, writer and broadcaster from Northern Ireland. The next Man versus Horse marathon is on 13 June
Cold water swimming,Snowdonia
Water is Snowdonia’s soundtrack. Pause anywhere in the national park and you can hear or see it. As an avid mountain runner intent on chasing the trail, I initially ignored its babbling call. Then I strained my achilles tendon and triggered my metaphorical achilles heel, too.
Confined to the sofa, my mood suffered. Ever the nosy journalist, I rested by researching natural highs. The more intensely you exercise, I learned, the more feel-good rewards your brain releases. But quizzing outdoor enthusiasts revealed something interesting in the subjective shadows. Intensity didn’t necessarily mean working harder. British wild swimmers, for example, raved about the “afterglow”. Did the dramatic temperature drop dial up the perceived intensity? I hobbled to a llyn (pool), leapt in and scrambled out, gasping; wrong. Then a delicious rosy glow crept over me. I jumped in again.
Long runs retriggered my injury, so I began combining short jogs with lake swims for a blast of both worlds. I also read Roger Deakin’s Waterlog, revered as the British wild swimmer’s bible. Inspired by his insight that mountain water courses are some of Britain’s last unwritten places, I began hunting boggy valleys for their mirrors. For motivation, I set myself the goal of swimming in 100 lakes and rivers.
At first the water felt shockingly cold but, as winter crept up the mountains, I realised I had acclimatised. My body now felt thirsty for the pure invigoration of cold water.
I had regained a lost human sense. Learning to breathe out and accept the cold helped in everyday life, too. We often can’t change a situation, but can change our reactions to it. Increasingly, I left my cares at the water’s edge.
Water led me away from paths, as well as from my day-to-day stresses, so I had to tune into the landscape’s contours, boulders and bogs. Running mindfully, I began to notice more: to see wildflowers and hear bird calls.
Cupped in mountain bowls, tucked in patches of forgotten Celtic rainforest, Snowdonia’s bodies of water often remain hidden until the last moment, then spring into view as if you’ve been granted the keys to another dimension. A hidden world has opened up to me. Sarah Stirling, a writer who has now logged 90 of Snowdonia’s lakes and rivers on Instagram: @sarah_stirling
Getting in a boat is always an adventure. But trying to carry a kayak or canoe overland is back-breaking. I had looked longingly at the intertwined land and water of north-west Scotland for years before I found the boat to make amphibious adventures possible. A good inflatable packraft can weigh as little as 1.4kg, and roll up smaller than my favourite jumper. It’s possible to walk all day, a paddle strapped to the rucksack, and forget the boat on your back. These tiny inflatables make you selkie-like. You don’t sit on them, but slip into them like clothes: an adventure you can wear.
The best use of a packraft is to brush a dramatic landscape against the grain. My first long journey was from Ullapool south to Shieldaig. Between these towns are many peaks separated by long, narrow lochs. The region was once traversed west-to-east by Hebridean cattle drovers and fish traders who provided the protein for Britain’s industrialisation. But to travel north-south is to disobey the laws of geohistory, and doing so by packraft feels like finding a secret passage between the towns.
After a night at the glorious Ceilidh Place hotel and bunkhouse, you leave Ullapool by sea. Scramble the rough flanks of Beinn Ghobhlach, then cross the Scoraig peninsula and the “destitution road” on to ridges so prickly it’s a struggle to believe they’re real.
Next comes the descent of stupendous 1,062-metre-tall An Teallach, after which you shelter in the shadow of the mountain at the remote bothy of Shenavall. Think of the family who once lived here, cut off from roads all winter. But expect the evening to involve conversation and songs (my last was passed with a couple from Estonia and the retired proprietor of a nearby hotel). Next morning, wade the Strath na Sealga river into ever grander mountain zones.
The wonder of this route is that even spectacular Fisherfield (“the great wilderness”) and Loch Maree (“queen of lochs”) are only appetisers. Leave the last peak, the 1,055-metre Liathach, to paddle Lochs Torridon and Shieldaig. Wear the boat suit well and you could glimpse otters, eagles or even a pod of dolphins. End with excellent food at Gille Brighde (Diabaig) or a night at Tigh an Eilean in Shieldaig. You’ll have earned it. David Gange, author of The Frayed Atlantic Edge: A Historian’s Journey from Shetland to the Channel (HarperCollins, £18.99, or £15.95 at Guardian Bookshop)
As kids we’re warned of the dangers of wild places. Consider the classic fairytales in which all the bad things happen to those who go off alone into the woods – coming face-to-face with devious wolves and unfriendly bears, or being offered apples laced with poison by strangers. We are conditioned to fear all that lurks “out there”. So it felt like a momentous decision 13 years ago when I chose to take my tent and sleeping bag and head into Snowdonia, alone, to wild camp (illegally, it must be said) by a small lake.
My friends thought I was insane – why on earth give up the comforts of the indoors to rough it in the hills and … why alone? But I longed to really experience a place away from the distractions of small talk and to prove – above all – that I really could have an adventure close to home relying on no one but myself.
I headed off to the Nantlle Ridge, the range opposite Snowdon, feeling nervous and doubtful of my ability. Suddenly the reassurance that comes from going with a friend – to double-check your navigation, be your safety net if things go wrong and provide a calming voice when you think you hear footsteps outside your tent – was gone. That’s why, after I had located a beautiful camping spot surrounded by jagged peaks and settled down for night alone, only to hear what sounded like an approaching person, I froze. Despite my pre-trip protests, all of the worst possible things people had warned me about – from axe murderers to escaped bears – were now clearly gathering outside my tent.
I lay there for several minutes, summoning the courage to look outside. When I finally did, holding my breath, I saw a harmless rabbit, twitching its nose. I exhaled hard, feeling relieved and slightly silly. After that I slept well, and woke the next morning feeling like a new person. I had survived the night and strode out across the hills feeling like I could take on the world. When I got back to my car and caught sight of my sunburned, midge-bitten face in the mirror, I realised there had been a cataclysmic shift in me. The outdoors was now not a place to fear, but the key to all my future adventures – big and small. A door to a world of endless possibilities had opened. Phoebe Smith, broadcaster and author of Extreme Sleeps: Adventures of a Wild Camper (Summersdale, £8.39 at Guardian Bookshop)
Run like a Roman,Northumberland
I was standing on a grass-covered hilltop in Northumberland national park. A dry-stone wall stretched out beside me, rising and falling over green fields until it disappeared into the hazy horizon. It looked like the spine of a sleeping dragon, and was stunning. This is Cawfields, mid-point of the Hadrian’s Wall Path – an 84-mile trail that spans northern England from Bowness-on-Solway in the west to the aptly named Wallsend in the east.
Having spent the past few years exploring far-flung lands by bike and on foot, I’d made a resolution to do some adventuring closer to home. Armed with the promise of fresh air and fine chat (provided by yours truly), I convinced a friend to run the wall with me, spreading the miles as evenly as we could over four days. And, as a logical next step, we decided to run it dressed as Roman soldiers.
Preparation for our journey was less than ideal. Thanks to the chaos of life, we both arrived at the start hideously unfit and recovering from an assortment of minor body niggles. But then again, you never truly feel ready to go on an adventure. You just go anyway.
Those miles along the wall gifted us the time and space to appreciate Cumbria and Northumberland’s otherworldly landscapes. Together, we got muddy, sweaty and fell over far more than adults should. We laughed and we learned. (Although mostly I learned that a Roman cape really does chafe after a while, and it’s cumbersome to run with a toy sword slapping at your thighs.) Over the four days, I fell back in love with the beauty of Britain. I fell back in love with a place that I had once thought so familiar, because I’d been able to see it through fresh eyes. Anna McNuff, adventurer and author of The Pants of Perspective: One Woman’s 3,000km Running Adventure Through theWilds of New Zealand (Rocket 88, £9.99)
Riding the Ridgeway,Oxfordshire-Wiltshire
It was a long, hot London summer, many years ago. We had mountain bikes, but these were the days before suspension, and we were looking for a small, accessible adventure. Someone mentioned that a long section of the Ridgeway – the ancient track from the Thames valley into Wiltshire – was rideable, so we cycled to Paddington station with a map, water and sandwiches, heading for Goring in south Oxfordshire with the idea that we could cycle the 35 miles of the Ridgeway to Overton Hill, close to the Avebury stone circle, and get home for tea.
It was my first foray into longer off-road rides and bikepacking. I’ve since fine-tuned things a bit, including an off-road trip through the Negev desert, but I’ve returned several times to that first ride on England’s oldest road, dotted with neolithic sites. Easily accessible by train, the ride proper starts near the golf course in Streatley, and is easily doable in a day with a stop at the Red Lion in Avebury before heading over to Swindon for the train back.
The ride itself is mainly on good bridle paths shared with walkers and long-distance horse riders, best done on a dry spring day when the hedges are flowering and the bluebells are out. Later in the summer is a good time for wild flowers in the chalk grasslands that mark the western half of the route. The path can be quite rutted, which may require either care or dismounting for some sections. It’s best done on a mountain or gravel bike with chunky tyres to avoid punctures from the flints that dot the path.
This route is one of the “old ways” – as Robert Macfarlane might put it – a journey through a landscape made witchy by its evidence of ancient habitation, not least Avebury circle, White Horse Hill and the nearby long barrow at Wayland’s Smithy.
There is some water along the way – taps, and troughs for horses – but unless you want to divert from the route for lunch, it is probably better to bring your own along. Peter Beaumont, senior reporter for the Guardian
There’s a set of sea cliffs near my childhood home in Aberdeenshire named the Bullers of Buchan. Scrambling there for the first time in my 20s made me realise I didn’t have to travel across oceans to feel amazed.
I still love it. I can just go to a dicey promontory at dawn, crawl through tufts of grass, along a cliff that appears, by its end, little wider than a horse’s back. Straddling a long rock in the sky, clutching campions, I then wait for clouds of rainbow beaks to emerge all about me.
Puffins are shy around people. Perhaps in our shadows they see our ancestors who dashed along high strips of rock like this, seeking out birds’ eggs for sustenance. But I’ve found that if I keep my legs still, I can flap the rest of my body about – unscrewing Thermos lids, munching on biscuits – and the puffins won’t mind. I wait and listen to the waves, the guillemots, the kittiwakes who cry like babies as they drift over the water like sea spray.
The first puffin pops out by one of the burrows at my feet. Then there are dozens. They stand and watch the water. They float in the sky like helicopters. Seeing them hover in after a successful fishing trip, beaks gleaming with silver fish, I want to cheer.
I’ve been scrambling here for more than a decade now. And when I think of home, I think of Bullers. How it’s changed me. How it was up there that I realised I love birds. And rocks. It was there that I realised home is not boring. There are no boring places at all. Ailsa Ross, author of The Woman Who Rode a Shark (AA Publishing, £14.99, or £12.59 at Guardian Bookshop)
Bagging the Wainwrights,Lake District
I was fed up with my life back in 2011. A city-based, office-centric existence had left me feeling depressed – and in desperate need of deliverance from the mental mire I’d sunk into. So I set myself a physical challenge in the hope that exercise, fresh air and mountain scenery would bring me solace. My self-imposed mission was to climb the Wainwrights, a list of 214 Lake District peaks featured in the seven pictorial guides by Alfred Wainwright. For a novice adventurer, it seemed challenging yet achievable.
Wainwright wrote that in Lakeland he discovered “a spiritual and physical satisfaction in climbing mountains – and a tranquil mind upon reaching their summits, as though I had escaped from the disappointments and unkindnesses of life and emerged above them into a new world, a better world”. I was after similar healing and, high in the fells, I found it.
It took me more than three years to complete all 214 summits, travelling from my Birmingham home to the Lake District at weekends and during holidays. I loved every minute. Out walking I was happy and free. I found the process of putting one foot in front of the other therapeutic. It cleared my head and put life’s little problems into perspective.
From iconic giants like Scafell Pike, Blencathra and Helvellyn, to dinky humps like Cat Bells, Latrigg and Castle Crag, walking the Wainwrights gave me an intimate interaction with the Lake District national park. I ambled sun-drenched valleys, followed dancing becks, glided over sweeping ridges and posed triumphantly on craggy summits. It was a memory-forging, happiness-inducing journey – and one that sparked a lifelong dedication to experiencing more of that “better world”. James Forrest, author of Mountain Man: 446 Mountains, Six months, One Record-Breaking Adventure (Bloomsbury, £16.99, or £14.27 at Guardian Bookshop)
Rock climbing,Peak District
My first outdoor rock climb was on Stanage Edge, the long, curled lip of gritstone that overlooks the Hope valley, high above the fringes of Sheffield. It was a route called Flying Buttress, less than 20 metres long, but every move felt precarious, thrilling. I remember the smooth slab at the beginning, how it seemed as if I was trusting my feet on nothing.
Climbing teaches you to have faith in your own body and in the surface of the earth. It grounds you, even as you move into the air. Growing up on the edge of the Peak District, I’d always been in awe of climbers, but couldn’t see myself as one. I used to devour books from my bedroom, tales of Alpine daring and Himalayan adventure. Most of them were written by men. All the time, Stanage Edge sat quiet and inviting, a short drive from my house.
I made baby steps: teaching myself to climb at the indoor walls in the old foundries of Sheffield, learning to drive, persuading my mum to let me borrow her car. One day, two friends offered to give me my first taste of gritstone. The afternoon we chose was hot, stifling, with a cobalt blue sky that made anything feel possible.
The route was an easy grade, ideal for a beginner, but it was so much harder than I thought: the angles forbidding, the rock chafing my hands, the trees and bracken below shelving away from me. I struggled and swore, sweated and grumbled. But when I finally hauled myself over the top, the whole of my childhood landscape was spread out before me. I was breathless and giddy, buffeted by the wind. This was an adventure you could have any Sunday, testing yourself against steepness. In short, I was hooked. Helen Mort, author, adventurer and editor of Waymaking: An Anthology of Women’s Adventure Writing, Poetry and Art (Vertebrate Publishing, £17.99)
Surfing, County Derry
Growing up in Limavady, close to the coast of Northern Ireland, gave me easy access to the Atlantic Ocean that generations of my family had explored before me. I learned to surf at an early age, and I have warm memories of time spent on the beach with the sound of crashing waves and the laughter of my family all around me. I caught my first wave at the age of 12 and I vividly remember the exhilarating sensation of walking on water, surrounded by the natural beauty of never-ending strands and the cliffs of Downhill towering over everything. For the first time, I really felt alive.
My surfing journey was an extremely happy one, an escape from the world of human pressures, expectations and demands which gave me the ultimate feeling of peace. It only became troublesome when my teachers kept insisting that surfing was merely a hobby and not a career option. But I was determined not to sacrifice my passion for the sea, and I put all my energy into building a business around my lifestyle. I opened my own surf school at the age of 21 with the aim of offering anyone the opportunity to experience the sense of tranquillity and momentary happiness that I had become addicted to.
Now I have a team of surf instructors who teach people with visual and hearing impairments, autism, Down’s syndrome as well as a number of wheelchair users. I feel very strongly that nobody should be denied the incredible experience that surfing offers. Dan Laverty runs the Long Line Surf School in Limavady
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