Twitchhiker | Paul Smith's travel tales from here and there

Twitchhiker Challenge Day 5 – Walk on Water, Hartlepool
21/08/2009, 20:26
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If I’ve learnt one thing from my time exploring North East England this week, it’s this: never trust a hamster. They loaf about in their glass spheres all day long, running around the dining room, making their contraptions look effortless in their operation. What these dirty cheats don’t tell you is that on any surface other than solid land, you’re going to end up on your backside more times than not. It’s all to do with coefficients of friction and fluid dynamics, that sort of thing – not that a hamster will ever tell you.

And so through the double whammy of a public vote on Twitter and the oodles of options to be found in the Adventure Generator, I was dispatched to Hartlepool for the final day of the Twitchhiker Challenge. There I joined instructors Adam and Carly at Walk on Water, where I was invited to step inside a giant clear beachball and throw myself into the Marina.

Twitchhiker - Walk on Water, Hartlepool

Adam compared the experience to riding a bike, partly because there’s a fear of losing your balance to overcome and partly because your movements quickly becomes intuitive. I described it as the simplest and funniest way of falling over. But once you learn how to move inside the ball – arms out, quick short steps – anybody can elegantly glide across the water, as majestic in their efforts as a swan.

Of course, there are exceptions:

Children pick up the knack very quickly, said Adam, because their centre of gravity is much lower. That would explain it – at 6′ 4″ I was bound to flail about like a newborn giraffe in a carrier bag. Well, that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it.

There are photos from today’s challenge on Flickr, plus you can hear what the instructors had to say about Walking on Water on AudioBoo. And if you haven’t tried an activity from the Adventure Generator, take a look at the Visit North East England website, where you’ll also find details for accommodation and a calendar of events occurring in this rather fine corner of the country.


Twitchhiker Challenge Day 4 – Go Ape!
21/08/2009, 08:26
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When I was a kid, there was a year or two when I wanted to be Colt Seavers. Life as a stuntman looked like bags of fun and you got the girls, too. At some point during these formative years, my dreams were quashed – perhaps because schools don’t offer GCSEs in falling from a tall building or rolling a brand new car – because I never did star in a sequel to The Fall Guy. Today was my chance to make amends.

For the uninitiated, Go Ape! involves a harness, pulleys, cargo nets, cords, occasional screaming and performing outrageous feats of bravery/stupidity with an abundance of fresh air between you and the ground many, many metres below. It’s not just a little way down. It’s a long way down. And I’m not just a little scared of heights. I’m a lot scared of them.

Twitchhiker - Go Ape! at Matfen Hall

The weather was fine and fresh as I reached Go Ape HQ, near the decadent Matfen Hall in Northumberland. Barry the instructor trussed me up in an array of carabiners and I disappeared into the trees to receive my safety briefing. Phones were switched off so there was no tweeting from the tree tops (except for the natural sort) and for very good reason. Your life is in your own hands up there – the last thing you want is a call from your mother about Sunday lunch while you’re attempting to secure yourself to a safety line.

There are five sites at Go Ape – the first is a safety site where you learn and practise how your harness works and how reliable it is; once I realised it’d take my weight should I slip or fall at a height, I knew I was safe and felt altogether more reassured. The fifth site is the extreme site – the highest off the ground, the longest zipslides, the most challenging crossings and a huge Tarzan swing across a clearing into a cargo net. With a photographer keen to capture my unrehearsed terror on camera, I was whisked straight off to site 5.

You’re so far off the ground, the distance is nonsensical and slowly becomes irrelevant. I was scared out of my skin but had the most fun I’d had all week; despite the fact you’re in no real danger, there’s a punch of adrenalin to the chest as you’re dropped at speed and smashed into a cargo net. You survive and you feel invincible, and far more alive than you did moments ago when you stood on the ground.

Go Ape! will scare the living hell out of you, but in no way is that a bad thing – it’s exhilarating and highly recommended. There are a few snaps I did sneak out here on Flickr, and you can find out more getting all Tarzan and Jane (or Colt and Howie) on their website.

Twitchhiker Challenge Day 3 – Kielder Water, Northumberland
19/08/2009, 22:56
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This morning I was looking forward to an adventure that required minimal effort on my part, as I was due to board a hot air balloon. All very easy – it wasn’t as if I had to blow it up or anything so strenuous. Mother Nature wasn’t having any of it. High winds grounded my chance to cure my fear of heights – that’ll have to now wait until tomorrow, when I’ll be strapped into a harness and hurtling through the trees at Go Ape, squealing like a stuffed pig as I go.

So instead, a last minute solution was found and the now legendary Adventure Generator dispatched me to Kielder Water in the far reaches of Northumberland. The village of Kielder sits just three miles from the Scottish border, on the edge of the largest artificial lake by volume in the UK. Surrounding the reservoir is Kielder Forest, the largest man-made woodland in Europe. That neither of the latter two facts ever cross your mind – the view appears to have been crafted by Nature, rather than man – is testament to the planners and labourers who have shaped this idyllic landscape over the course of the last century.

Aside from a week in 2006 when I rode a knackered BMX up and down Burley Road in Leeds at five in the morning, I haven’t owned nor ridden a bike since I was 16. Then I had a yellow Tensor mountain bike, a great bike, and cheap too – it wasn’t sold in Skinnergate Cycles like the posh Raleigh models, but on a trading estate near Cummins where my dad worked. The other kids laughed at the badge on the front but I loved it to bits. Many an adventure were shared by boy and bicycle around Haughton and as far afield as Sadberge and rarely glimpsed Barmpton village.

So to summarise, you could have described me at best as a little rusty. At worst, utterly clueless. It took me forever to remember how the gears worked. I also failed to consider on which side to pass other cyclists. Obviously it works like traffic on a road with cyclists sticking their immediate left, but I didn’t realise this until nearly ploughing into a tourist. He only said a few words, the majority of them very bad.

Hills also proved to be a considerable problem:

Even in the grim weather, Kielder was stunning – the banks are filled with reeds and wild flowers, streams run off the land over moors and grasses, and whichever way you travel around the lake, your journey is punctuated with landmarks and curiosities – from forgotten train viaducts to this fellow, Silvas Capitalis:

Twitchhiker - Silvas Capitalis, Kielder Water

There are all sorts of routes around Kielder, depending on your age, expertise and fitness. I hired a bike from Purple Mountain at Kielder Castle, and against the odds managed to return it intact. All I’d suggest is slipping a comfortable pillow down the back of your trousers before setting off on a similar adventure – my backside currently feels as if it’s been kicked by an angry horse.

If you have a moment, there is a plethora of pics from today’s adventure on Flickr for your mild entertainment, including a particularly fine attempt at creating the work of Norwegian artist Edvard Munch.

Twitchhiker Challenge Day 2 – Durham Climbing Centre
18/08/2009, 18:22
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Bouldering isn’t rock climbing. Sort of. It’s not about endurance or brute strength, but rhythm, co-ordination and problem solving. Like a game of chess, you have to be thinking several moves ahead at all times. The similarities end there, however – it’s unlikely Garry Kasparov would have won the 1985 Moscow World Championship if he’d been hanging off a wall.

Although it only opened two years ago, Durham Climbing Centre is already well established with amateurs and professional climbers, families and teenagers. Some prefer it as an alternative to the gym, for others it’s part of their training routine when not tackling the great outdoors. It certainly isn’t a mecca for fitness freaks, as my presence clearly indicated.

My instructor Kevin has been bouldering for 13 years (to those Twitter users with their rapier wit, he wasn’t climbing continuously for that time) and as well as showing beginners the ropes (a little bouldering humour for you there – there aren’t any) he designs the climbing routes, or problems as they’re often called. Coloured plastic shapes with varying degrees of grip are fastened to the walls in different positions; to complete the problem, you need to place two hands on the highest coloured shape, while using all the other shapes of the same colour during your ascent.

Twitchhiker - Durham Climbing Centre

For beginners and children, there’s a separate training room to practice easier routes. This is where I began and ended today’s session. Watching somebody like Kevin scale the wall is quite deceiving – his refined posture and balance fool you into thinking bouldering is something of a doddle. Then you try it, and realise it’s far more challenging and you should have bought that spare set of fingers with you.

My performance was described by Kevin as knotchy – that is to say my technique resembled that of a bag of spanners. I kept making the juvenile schoolboy error of always attempting to race up a height, without considering my next best move – bouldering isn’t always about how high you climb, say Mr Miyagi, but how you solve the problem. All it would take is a couple of sessions a week and after a month my climbing ability would improve considerably, said Kevin.

Twitchhiker - know your limits

Meanwhile the kids were racing up and down the walls like genetic mutants, while other climbers performed acrobatics to solve the more fiendish routes. I managed to complete a couple of problems and attempted a handful more, before my non-existent sporting injuries flared up and I called it a day – at least Kevin and Hayley were gracious in their review of my bouldering abilities.

There are more photos on TwitPic and Flickr and you’ll find videos of Kevin in action on YouTube. If you fancy a new way to lose the thigh cheese, or a more ununusal birthday party for the kids, find out more at Durham Climbing Centre’s website.

Twitchhiker Challenge Day 1 – Roseberry Topping
18/08/2009, 00:27
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There you are, admiring the gently lolloping hills and moors, when the gods reach down and pluck at the land, leaving the peculiar and entirely unique Roseberry Topping upsetting the horizon. This 200 million year-old outcrop of sandstone, admired by both the Vikings and Captain Cook is visible across the Tees Valley, and today is equally as popular amongst day-trippers, families, fitness nuts and overweight writers wearing the wrong shoes.

I didn’t know they were the wrong shoes, obviously – I didn’t deliberately set out with that intention. The problem was that there was no right pair of shoes. As a man, I only own three pairs; my trainers which are almost multi-purpose with the exception of climbing big hills, my posh shoes for weddings and funerals, and a pair of hiking boots I bought in New York four years ago and hadn’t worn since. I could have sworn I’d broken them in. I hadn’t as it turned out, at least not until today.

Twitchhiker - Roseberry Topping #2

From its base, Roseberry Topping looks immense – a fist of rock punching through gentler slopes of brush and woodland. Then you catch sight of toddlers playfully making their way up the rubble track to the treeline and realise the climb can’t be too difficult. And it isn’t – if you’re set on reaching the summit in the shortest possible time, you’ll be there in half an hour. But where would be the fun in that? As you climb to 320 metres above sea level, glorious views of forests, farmland and unkempt moors sweep away from you in all directions.

The climb can be breathless in places, but you’ll stop so often to admire the view near and far that you’ll barely notice. At least that’s what I told myself as I wheezed my way up the rocky path. Despite what you may think, you don’t get fit sitting in a comfortable chair and frequently bothering the fridge.

The view from the peak made it all worthwhile. To the West, the wave of the Northern Pennines can be seen while to the North, the grumbling North Sea peeks from behind Guisborough Moor. Roseberry Topping is an island in a sea of unspoilt beauty, and there are few places worth making quite the effort to be stranded on.

Twitchhiker - Roseberry Topping

Although I shot several minutes of video footage from the peak, the wind was gusting which means there’s nothing but static for a soundtrack, but you’ll find plenty of images on TwitPic and on Flickr. Tomorrow it’s the second challenge as chosen by the Adventure Generator and Twitter – bouldering and rock climbing in Durham. At least they’ll have some proper shoes for me to wear.

So next week looks like this…
14/08/2009, 22:59
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So there we go. The fate of the Twitchhiker Challenge is complete. If you voted, then thank you. You’re lovely and one day I’ll buy you a pint. That’s if I live through next week, obviously. All week, you have decided what activities I should attempt, and they look like this:

Monday: I have to climb to the peak of Roseberry Topping

Tuesday: I’m bouldering in Durham

Wednesday: I’m conquering my fear of heights in a hot air balloon above Durham

Thursday: I’m going to walk on water in Hartlepool

Friday: I have to Go Ape at Matfen Hall – that means swinging through the trees like a big monkey. Which I sort of am already.

Next week you can follow how I do through the blog as I bring you every nook and cranny of my time mucking about on your behalf. And if you’d like to choose your own adventure in North East England (and who wouldn’t?) then try your hand at the Adventure Generator. It’s really quite fun.

Hanging on by my fingertips
11/08/2009, 20:52
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A great effort by everyone today in voting for next Tuesday’s Twitchhiker Challenge.

Today’s choices coughed up by the Adventure Generator were bouldering, horse-riding and off-road driving. After 160 votes and plenty of tweets, the Twitter masses decided to send me to Durham Climbing Centre:

I’ve been bouldering once before at the excellent Climb Newcastle in Byker, in a post-New Year fit of good intentions. The main climbing room is built in the empty hulk of Byker swimming baths – great team, excellent facilities and more exercise than I’d had in a month. And heights, too. Nothing too stratospheric, but enough to induce an unsettling knot in my stomach.

Still, at least I know what to expect next Tuesday, and it’s not parachuting so I’m blissfully happy with the outcome.