Friday, 19 July 2019

I always plan to do something fun for my birthday. It’s the only day of the year that’s just for you, so I think a good reason to do something you love.

This year was no different, except this year I would have company. My mum who lives in France and my brother, wanted to come and join me for a mini birthday adventure. Our collaborative destination of choice was the Forest of Dean. Less than an hour from my Gloucestershire home, it meant we could load up my campervan with adventure kit, party food, some circus spinning plates and a ukulele, and arrive at our basecamp in good time to make the most of the afternoon.

We headed up to Bracelands, Camping in the Forest campsite. A partnership between the Camping and Caravan Club and Forestry England, making camping accessible and sustainable, and managed with the interests of the forest at heart. This partnership’s vision puts campers truly amongst the forest, eating, sleeping and playing in them every day of their stay. Allowing for a rewardingly simple lifestyle that brings you back to nature. 

Bracelands is a beautiful site in the heart of the ancient royal forest, surrounded by thick woodland and all the wildlife living within. Once on the site, you could be forgiven for thinking you are miles from anywhere, where fresh air fuels imaginations and powers restful sleep to the sounds of night birds, woodland calls and visiting deer. Alfresco dining from dawn to dusk, inside life comes outside and we become closer to nature and with it the forest comes closer to us.

With our basecamp set up, we made tracks with two and three wheels. Bikes hired for mum and my brother, we enjoyed a sunshine cycle along the family cycle trail through the forest. Our halfway point rewarded with choc-ices and cold pop for thirsty cyclists, and a moving picture of flora and fauna as we explored the forest by bike, making time to greet fellow cyclists and ‘extremely pleased to meet you’ doggos - the joy of riding a handbike for me and my canine friends being right at their level for face washes and cuddles.

Having bought my mum a bike for her birthday, this was the furthest she'd ridden for good 30 years. She did great, only getting distracted by the roaming sheep at the end of our ride and ending up on the ground whilst stationary. I was very pleased to see hey get back on her bike -pleased and proud.

We celebrated cycling achievements and Bastille birthdays back at the campsite with circus skills and unicorn cakes, sitting outside among our fairy lights camp until dark on a warm summer’s night, three fireworks awakening the night sky above the dark forest treetops with a burst of crimson and gold. I like to think they were for me, or maybe we weren't to the only ones celebrating Bastille.

It was the bumblebee alarm call that woke me, warmed by the early morning sun radiating through my tent. I unzipped to lay my head out on dewy grass and watch the sleepy campsite dawn. My brother now up too, my mum clearly very comfortable in my bed in the van, it was time to put the kettle on.

Our plans were river based. Last year I spent my birthday paddling up the Wye, a 15 mile upstream marathon, broken up by river swims to cool off in the blazing sun and passing Pirates’ offers of rum. I love the river, the Wye being my favourite to paddle and I was excited to share my love for a different kind of journey, albeit this year at a slower pace.

Mum decided to stay on land for this one. I’d have loved to get her in a canoe but for now she was happier to watch from the bank. 

My brother hired a sit-on-top kayak and I set up my sit-down stand up paddle board and we launched at Symonds Yat East, heading upstream to explore our watery wonderland in the heat of the day.

The river was quiet, except for inquisitive juvenile ducks, still fluffy from the early months. Geese and swans swam up the river with ease, the cruise ferry passed with a running commentary of sights and sounds as we rode the waves in its wake. The river looked foreign in places, the recent rain turning it a watery tea colour, and in places neither ahead nor behind could we see any signs of human inhabitance. I imagined we were on the Mississippi, spotting crocodile shaped logs in the heat of the midday sun scorching our skin. Although murkier than usual from the rain, the river was shallow in places and I anchored one foot to the bottom as my brother and I joined boats to take a break for shortbread and a drink. Mum was worried about how deep the river was to join us, so I took a photo as evidence.

The shallows might ease worried minds but were far from helpful where the low levels revealed large rocks, now pushing the river through channels of fast water and leaving us facing an uphill labyrinth of shallow water rapids to negotiate. Last year the same had beaten me and my board, residing to getting help carrying my board around the whitewater. This year I was keen for a rematch.

Tim tried hard but couldn't make way on the shallow rocks. I hit the fast water hard, a full sprint effort to make it almost through the other side, to miss a push and quickly be returned backwards. I was not giving in, if only for the thrill of riding the rapids downstream once safely through. My attempt at getting us both through the maze of rocks and river were hard fought, but eventually beaten. At least for Tim who span tail and wooshed back downstream to calmer waters. I managed to pull myself and my board through the shallows and out the other side, only to be met with a second watery maze of fast water. We likened this to the Gladiators Travelator of the river. 

I earned my ride back through to the other side, my prize, a one-way ticket back downstream with minimal effort.

There's something so special about river journeys, and our own water wander did not disappoint.

After supper we took a walk into the forest straight from our camp, following the trails, watching the sun set down into the river and secret dens being explored by all. As the forest became denser, into the darkness I heard something run. I sat and watched an adult Roe deer, it first eyes-wide on me, then contentedly go about its evening graze with little concern for this evening forest dweller. A rustling came from a patch of thick ferns and I expected to see a boar or few, a common site in the forest, but whatever it was made no appearance.

Weary heads and early to beds as the sun set on Bracelands, two full days of outdoor fun, plus a hearty meal at the local pub had ensured a good night’s sleep in the forest clearing. 

Our final day meant an early start.

A new day dawned, once again awoken by the buzzing bees around my tent drifting me out from my slumber. At 7 AM the sun was hot, and once the camp was packed up and jobs done, we feasted on croissants and jam and strawberries and tea. Followed by some welcome yoga for me, a Salutation to the sun.

Before heading home we wanted to explore a final forest treasure. With so much to do in the Forest of Dean we were spoilt for choice, but how could we resist such a place from Merlin, Jack the Giant Slayer, Narnia and Doctor Who. Enchanted by its lure, our curiosity lead us deep into the paths of Puzzlewood.

Deeper and deeper into the woods over giants footprints, past secret doors and over wooden bridges, the canopy of the forest interwoven through fingers, covered in lichen, the suns rays dappling the damp earth below. We walked through narrow gorges, rocks making us feel as if in a giants land, and fairy glens of bracken and wildflowers in hidden corners of the wood, the smell of damp rock and earth almost thirst quenching. The forest alive with all that live there. I first saw a shrew or the like scamper passed me, then whilst sat amongst the earth another sat behind me cradling its lunch, watching me watching it. Another played out the moves to my Mission Impossible theme tune as I negotiated the balance beams on crutches, trying hard not end up in the bog of eternal stench, my little wooden friend showing me his own nimble root of safety. No one else seem to notice my woodland companions but the more I saw, the more I believe that my forest friend was joining me on a journey through Middle Earth.

We had no idea where our chosen paths were leading us, when a choice of two, we could never agree, and yet somehow it was always the right way. And a couple of hours later we emerged into the warmth of the sunlight and out of the wood, and leaving its secrets secret, the magic of Puzzlewood.

Ice creams and smiles all around before it was time for these intrepid adventurers to head home.


I on the other hand, could not resist the quiet open-space and golden evening sun to sit and write by my campervan. 

Just one more night then.