Cover image: heather in the Cairngorms
Five years ago I spent several months travelling around the Philippines, New Zealand, Australia, Thailand and Cambodia, to fill a gap between finishing one job and starting another.
It took going to the other side of the world for me to realise that I should really explore more of the cluster of islands where I grew up: the British Isles. Saving up so much money to go to the opposite side of the planet didn’t really make much sense.
Fast forward five years, and I now had another between-jobs opportunity, with five weeks of leave accrued from the job I was about to leave, and a delayed start on my new job, giving me six weeks to explore.
Saving up so much money to go to the opposite side of the planet didn’t really make much sense.
By this point I had already decided to quit flying, having realised the extent of the climate emergency, and the massive emissions that come from travelling by air. Where else would I spend my six weeks but in Great Britain?
The hardest part was deciding where to go and what to do. I love nature, so whale and dolphin spotting in the Hebrides was on the list. But then there were new adventure sports to try and old ones that I would love to do again: coasteering, canyoning, sea kayaking, kitesurfing, bungee jumping, rock climbing…
Where else would I spend my six weeks but in Great Britain?
Or maybe something more gentle, like fell-walking, fishing, foraging, wild camping, or even a silent retreat? And don’t forget the world class distilleries, breweries, museums, music festivals, castles and other heritage sites to be found all over the UK.
With so much choice, I kept putting off making a plan, only deciding at the last minute that the mountains of Scotland would be a good place to start. A friend who had ‘bagged’ all the Munros recommended the Cairngorms, so that’s where I headed, and for the rest of the time, I would see what happened. There were already two things in the diary: a music festival on the south coast where I volunteer each year as a roadie, and a family trip to Snowdonia, but apart from that I was happy to make it up as I went along.
The Caledonian Sleeper took me to Edinburgh, and from there it was a daytime train to Aviemore. The scenic views rushing past the train windows were wonderful, and it was reviving to be back in the countryside and to see mountains again (“Mountains, Gandalf!”).
There’s something incredible about being in the mountains.
I spent several days deep inside the Cairngorms, sleeping in bothies, wild-camping and bagging five or six Munros a day. There’s something incredible about being in the mountains. I love the achievement of climbing, and the freedom to go wherever you choose. When drinking from springs, summiting mountains and wild camping there’s a visceral sense of primitive freedom, especially when you are days from civilisation.
The mountains are full of surprises: a beautiful view, some wild deer chilling with you in the mist on the top of a ridge, an area so windy that your hat flies clean off your head, or the sound of a rushing stream that tells you you’re not where you thought you were.
Like with any walking, you have plenty of time to process all of your stored-up thoughts, or just turn your brain off as you put one foot in front of the other. It’s just what I needed when most of my life is spent cooped up in cities staring at computers.
It’s just what I needed when most of my life is spent cooped up in cities staring at computers.
A swampy puddle on day one had turned out to be a lot deeper than I expected, and I went in half way up my leg. Then not stopping to fully dry everything out properly, or really managing my wet feet at all, meant that after a few days some trench foot set in! Walking at all was painful. So I retreated out of the Cairngorms, then hopped on a train to Edinburgh for a little foot recovery time in the great indoors.
As luck would have it, the Edinburgh Fringe was on, so I spent a few days exercising my laughter muscles at the shows that were within hobbling distance of my hostel. As my feet recovered I squeezed in a little sightseeing, and treated myself to some canyoning – one of the things on my list. It’s basically following a fast-flowing stream down a gorge by abseiling, scrambling, swimming, sliding and jumping down waterfalls – a lot of fun, if you like silly things like that!
After a delicious meal out with the very friendly Czech couple I’d met in my dorm, and a tipple of Becherovka, I caught the sleeper train back south to base camp. Less than 24 hours later all my stuff was washed and repacked, ready for my next adventure: a weekend being a roadie at David’s Tent festival in West Sussex.
Less than 24 hours later all my stuff was washed and repacked, ready for my next adventure.
I’ve volunteered at this festival pretty much every year for the last five years, and it’s always one of the highlights of my year: helping the bands on and off stage, sorting out equipment, and being on hand to help with any problems. I always have a good laugh with the backstage team, and there’s an incredible community among the hundreds of volunteers. And of course, the music is awe-inspiring. After a wonderful five days it was back to base camp again to organise the next two weeks before the family gathering.
I settled on Pembrokeshire, somewhere else I’d never been before. After a night AirBnBing at a lady’s quirky house in Cardiff, I got out to Newgale where I camped by the beach and spent a couple of days enjoying the terrific weather in the best way: getting back on a surfboard after five years. I’d forgotten just how enjoyable the simple pleasure of catching some waves can be, and Newgale beach is perfect for novices like me.
The next week was spent alternating between walking the stunning Pembrokeshire Coast Path and doing activities. I enjoyed the UK’s smallest city – the exceedingly lovely St David’s – and did a lot of swimming, kayaking and coasteering – another bucket list tick. The highlight was learning to do a backflip cliff jump (tick), then doing a 30ft cliff jump into the same Blue Lagoon that they used for the 2012 Red Bull cliff diving world championships. The coastal walk was wonderful and it was seal pupping season, so there were loads of seals and tiny fluffy pups in many of the bays.
I ended up in Fishguard, where I could have grabbed a ferry to Ireland if I’d had a bit more time, but it was time to head to north Wales to meet up with the family. On the way I stopped at an old friend’s new house in Cheltenham, always a pleasure.
Snowdonia is breathtaking. Everywhere you look is another magnificent view.
Snowdonia is breathtaking. Everywhere you look is another magnificent view. We found some charming lakes and an impressive 73m waterfall too: Pistyll Rhaeadr, the 7th biggest in the UK. As well as lots of walking, we spent a day hiring bikes and cycling down to the sea. I hope to go back to the area soon to do the Welsh 3000s with a friend, a challenge that involves climbing all the mountains in Wales higher than 3000ft in 24 hours.
At last it was back to base camp for the final time to prepare for starting my new job, with a whole load of new experiences and memories of the amazing places in the UK.
What have I learnt from spending six weeks travelling around Britain instead of jetting off somewhere?
Trying not to sound too much like a travel agent, mainly that there are so many more adventures to be had here in the UK than I’d ever realised. So many things I’d presumed were only available in more exotic destinations are available right here on our doorstep. A lot of the scenery is far more stunning than I expected, and I’ve still never even stepped foot in Ireland! There’s so much more to discover.
So many things I’d presumed were only available in more exotic destinations are available right here on our doorstep.
I could easily have spent the six weeks just walking or Munro-bagging or surfing or learning a couple of new extreme sports – I’ve hardly scratched the surface of all there is to do.
I think we overlook Britain when we’re planning our holidays, but my trip turned out to be even better than I’d hoped. The weather was surprisingly good too, and some sunburn even managed to sneak through my factor 50+. It was great to do nearly all of it by train, by bike, or on my own two feet.
Ample adventures accomplished and many memories made, and all without it costing the earth.
Written by Eddie Latimer. You can read more from Eddie here.