WHAT DO YOU DO IF YOU DON'T HAVE TIME FOR A BIG ADVENTURE? HAVE A SMALL ONE. WE TOOK TO THE SOUTH DOWNS WITH ALASTAIR HUMPHREYS TO PROVE IT CAN BE DONE...
The key to living an adventurous life isn’t what you do between 9am and 5pm, it’s what you
do between 5pm and 9am.” All it took was that simple sentence, and I was hooked.
It was 5pm on a Wednesday evening and we were on a train bound for Eastbourne. Not your usual kind of Trail destination, but then this wasn’t your usual kind of day. Our four-person party had gathered at London Victoria train station just 10 minutes earlier and were now crammed into an overcrowded commuter carriage, heading at full pelt towards the chalky cliffs of England’s south coast. Our window of opportunity was small. For a variety of reasons we all had to be back in London by 9am the following morning, so the plan was to squeeze as much outdoor adventure in to the following 16 hours as possible. But as most Trail trips tend to involve multiple days, petrol-sapping car journeys and endurance slogs up inhospitable mountains, we needed some help. Someone to show us that a single night escape from the capital can provide the same adventurous thrill as a week-long expedition to the Scottish Highlands.
Enter Alastair Humphreys – a man who knows a thing or two about living life to the full. The 37-year-old Brit has trekked across India, Greenland and Iceland, canoed through the Yukon, swum beneath the ice at the North Pole, rowed the Atlantic, run a six-day marathon in the Sahara Desert, and even taken a little cycle trip all the way around the world; but after finally settling back in England with his young family he’s contented himself with discovering adventure closer to home. A few years ago Alastair dreamed up the concept of the ‘microadventure’ and has since dedicated all of his spare time to climbing small hills, jumping in rivers, canoeing down canals, cycling through city streets, sleeping under stars, cooking outdoors and walking by moonlight. Seriously, follow this guy on Twitter (@Al_Humphreys) – you won’t believe the stuff he gets up to.
Leaving London, arriving on the South Downs... and getting into the spirit of adventure before sundown. Photos: Tom Bailey / Trail Magazine
“Microadventure is all about stepping out of your front door and starting a journey – even if it’s just for a few hours,” he explained as our train crept through the London suburbs. “Adventure is all around us – you don’t have to go on big expensive foreign trips to find it. Everyone wants more adventure in their life, but what most people don’t realise is that even if they live in a city, they’re never far from small pockets of wilderness.”
We weren’t necessarily seeking wilderness – all we wanted was to escape the noise and congestion of London, leaving behind the stresses of our day-to-day lives for a few blissful hours. As a result Alastair was quickly roped in as expedition leader, and the plan he concocted was so simple it was hard to believe we don’t do it every night of the week. “From Eastbourne station we can walk a few miles across the top of the Seven Sisters cliffs, have a swim in the sea, cook an outdoor meal while the sun sets, sleep on the clifftops, head back into Eastbourne for breakfast, then catch an early train back to London. How does that sound?” It sounded pretty good.
The Southern Railway hardly had the epic feel of the Euston to Aviemore sleeper train, but as we trundled through the South Downs countryside, with modern high rises slowly being replaced by green hillsides, it was hard to think of a better way to spend a weekday evening. The weather forecast was awesome, the train was gradually emptying at every station, and within 90 minutes of meeting at England’s second busiest railway station we were strolling through the sleepy streets of Eastbourne draped in early evening sunshine. We quickly left the concrete slabs of the promenade behind and took our first steps along the grassy carpet of the South Downs Way – a 100 mile National Trail between the towns of Winchester and Eastbourne.
“How can you beat what we’re doing tonight?” said Alastair. “Two hours ago we were standing in a packed London station full of commuters, and now we’re by ourselves on a cliff top, about to watch the sun drop across the sea. This is what microadventure is all about: the experiences you encounter on these kind of trips and the people you meet along the way stick with you forever.”
We rounded the chalk headland of Beachy Head, stopping a few times to snap the obligatory tourist photos of its famous red and white lighthouse. The paths fell silent as the shadows grew longer, leaving us to enjoy the whispering of the tide, the summery song of skylarks, the classic seaside soundtrack of screaming gulls and the magical sight of a peregrine falcon skimming along the cliffs on its dusk hunting trip.
It was well after 8pm as we descended the wooden steps at Birling Gap, but the beach was surprisingly busy – full of families and groups of friends laughing round barbecues and splashing through the surf. We may have been only 70 miles from London, but it felt like a different world. The English Channel has never been particularly high on my wild swimming bucket list, but two minutes later we were stripped to our boxer shorts and up to our necks in seawater, floating on our backs and gazing into a golden sky.
Next on the agenda was finding a decent place to eat but, rather than plodding into
the nearest chippy, in true microadventure style we located a flat spot on the cliffs and fired up our camping stoves. If you’ve never cooked outdoors before, try it this week. Of all the great memories I brought back from this trip, nothing beats watching the sun slip below the horizon with three friends, tucking in to a main course of fresh pasta followed by a dessert of peanut M&Ms, all washed down by a can of cold lager (we couldn’t resist).
The simplicity of our evening meal was matched by our rudimentary sleeping arrangements. A lot of people don’t understand the concept of bivvying, and it’s not hard to see why. You effectively crawl inside a sleeping bag, pull a thin waterproof bag over the top of it, then lie down and hope you’ll get some sleep before the sun rises. It can be cold, uncomfortable and unpleasant, but it can also be unforgettable for all the right reasons. One by one we nodded off beneath an explosion of stars, just a few metres from the cliff edge, with the soothing sound of waves rising and falling against the rocks below. We all knew we had to be back at work in just a few hours’ time, but at that moment it was very difficult to care. We woke to a perfect sunrise at 5am, rolled up our makeshift beds and began the gentle stroll back across the Seven Sisters towards a bacon sandwich, a newspaper and a hot cup of coffee at Eastbourne station. We passed a couple of dog walkers and joggers along the way, but apart from that this beautiful stretch of English coastline was all ours to enjoy.
The train pulled out of Eastbourne at 7.29am and pulled into London Victoria at 8.54am, which is where we all went our separate ways. Sophie went straight back to her hectic job running a London recruitment agency, I and photographer Tom jumped on another train back to the Trail office, and Alastair (plus the wet boxer shorts he was carrying in his rucksack) headed directly to the BBC offices for a business meeting with some important-sounding TV people.
“I hope they don’t mind I’ve been wearing these clothes for 24 hours,” he said while spraying on deodorant before hopping off the train. “But at least I’ve got this – it’s basically a shower in a can.” Then after a quick handshake and a trademark grin he was gone, swallowed up by the commuter swarm and off on his next adventure.
Alastair Humphreys has visited almost half the countries on Earth and his Microadventures and Grand Adventures books have been a huge hit, but perhaps the most impressive thing about him is that he’s just a normal bloke like you and me. He does the school run, watches the cricket, likes a beer and uses the most basic outdoor kit money can buy, but he knows how to squeeze every last drop of adventure from his day-to-day life. Remember that when you walk out of work tomorrow night.
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This article originally appeared in Trail Magazine