Abi’s detective skills keep her days full of adventure:
I love maps. I think I always have!
Looking at a map, running my eyes up and down the contours – for me it’s like rolling a quality street around your mouth on a Christmas afternoon. Yum!
In fact, I remember some of my favourite books as a child were the ones that had some sort of sketch map on the inside sleeve. I played with railway sets so I could draw the ‘layout’ on a piece of paper when it was time to pack away.
At school my friend Jo got me involved with the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, with its fun weekend expeditions. I learnt the valuable lesson to constantly check the map – and if something in the surroundings doesn’t match up with where we thought we should be, to say so – sooner rather than later!!!
These days, if you’re out with me, heaven help you if you want to hold the map!
Maps are like detective clues. I love having some special information to navigate on the ground. In the past I’ve worked in rights of way and public access – I might be sent a batch of photos of damaged finger posts for example. I would use some detective work to actually plot the finger posts on a map. Google Streetview is great at times like this (as finger posts are often road side), so it is a case of dropping the yellow man down in suspected locations until he is in the right place.
For a while this job also meant managing the data from pedestrian counters in London – hidden under the pavement or the street furniture – but I knew they were there! And perhaps you, dear reader, sometimes walk past them still!
Today, I’m lucky enough to have a job that involves maps. I work for Northumberland National Park. At the moment I’m planning a load of site visits to check for some rare flowering plants – places where they were reported in the past but haven’t been seen since. Lots of detective work. Great!
That is one way I get my adventure fix.
Back in April my colleague Ed told me we were going to have the Google Trekker equipment for a month. Google Streetview has all been captured by cars. Now they are covering places on foot. This equipment had only been in Britain once before, when they did Stonehenge. Now, in Northumberland, we were going to do two National Trails – Hadrian’s Wall and the Pennine Way. Ed asked colleagues and volunteers for help.
Now I know Google might have a bad press in terms of its privacy and copyright stuff – but this is a great way of helping people enjoy these really remote spots of Northumberland National Park. People who perhaps want to see the view from the top of a certain hill but know they couldn’t walk it. Or people who are recceing a walk or long-distance run.
The kit consists of a Heath Robinson type ‘rucksack’ which seems to contain a computer, as well as a massive ‘football’ that sticks out above your head. The whole thing weighs 22kg (or 48lb in old money – something the army would march with) with its two small ‘car batteries’ plugged in and a half terabyte disc! The ‘football’ has 15 cameras inside it, pointing in all directions, and they take a photo every 2 seconds. No doubt Google will delete 9 out of 10 photos at the walking speed I ended up at!
So, having been inducted in the kit – one Sunday morning I set off to do part of the Pennine Way just north of Bellingham. My ranger colleague Jane was going to meet me about midday, but until then I was on my own.
Arriving at my cattle grid (where Jane and I had finished the day before), it was quite windy to assemble the device and a struggle to get it on my back single-handed. I have with me a drain rod (aka ‘peat stick’), which doubles up as a walking stick – useful to steady myself in the wind – this device massively affects your centre of gravity. I also carried with me (in a shopping bag!) my packed dinner, water, first aid kit, a map (of course), and a crucial screwdriver to be able to disassemble the kit again.
The first half mile or so on flags was fine, but slowly you realise the weight of the thing (over a third of my body weight). But, I was determined! And this was a bit of the Pennine Way I hadn’t walked before and really wanted to!
I reached a steep uphill section. Here my steps must have been one every 2 seconds. At the top there were some great views into Redesdale from an angle I hadn’t seen before. I took some photos of my own just as it started raining. At this point you have to pause the Google Trekker, take it off your back, and put a bin bag over it! Quite high tech! I can remember that next time I don’t want Google to know something about me 🙂
The rain was heavy enough to stop me walking onwards with the Trekker – although normally I would hardly have noticed it. It was only 10:30am and I had been going about an hour. I wasn’t hungry but I decided to eat my sandwich anyway, confident the rain would stop in the process. I sent Jane a text. It didn’t stop raining.
I stood on the hill with the trekker covered by bin bag with my back to the rain. It was like waiting for a bus! Eventually I decided to carry on. The device is only supposed to pause for 15 minutes otherwise you are supposed to restart it – and restarting can take a further 15 minutes! Some forestry was not far away and I thought the Trekker would have shelter in there.
So back on with the ‘rucksack’ and I started trying to run down the moorland towards the forestry. A few bright green patches alerted me to boggy sphagnum, but these were no match for me in my blue wellies!
Got to the forestry section OK – yes it was more sheltered – but the path was also boggier. I was now out of signal so pressed on as I knew Jane would now be walking towards me. With a tissue I wiped the camera lenses but my tissue soon gave up the ghost with that job. The rucksack was digging in to my left shoulder a bit and muscles in my mid-back starting to complain – it seemed to be made for an American Man and the maximum adjustment still left too big a distance between the shoulder straps and the hip belt – not enough of the weight was on my hips.I came across a really peaty boggy pool with a fence on one side and plantation forestry on the other. No way round – although I could see Pennine Way walkers had tried it. I stepped out gingerly, grateful for the peat/walking stick now. Trekker liked to get himself caught in sitka branches. I clung on to branches myself to haul myself around the side of this morass, tucking branches behind my legs and still grasping my shopping bag. With the extra weight I could feel myself sinking in more than I would normally expect – I was up to about half-welly height.
I reached a point where my legs were holding back quite a few branches, yet I needed to tuck more behind them. The only way to do it was to stand on one leg – with hands full – and 22kg of Trekker wobbling above my head. The manoeuvre I completed, but not without a, “what am I doing here” thought to self!!
Nearing the end of the pool – phew – I spied on the ground a pair of glasses. Clearly some previous walker was going to be in trouble for the rest of their map reading. I managed to pluck them out of the peaty water, wondering if Google in California were dialling in live to wonder what I was up to. I thought, “if I pull too hard, will I find a rambler’s face attached to them!”
(I still have the glasses, if they are yours, write to me!)
Pausing only to look back and take a photo of this muddy section, I pushed on. Soon I reached a forestry track and back in phone signal was able to text Jane again.
About a mile down here we met each other and swapped over the kit. I had walked 4 miles in total, in about 2 hours – not fast at all – but still an adventure. Jane and I laughed how we could pretend to Ed that the kit had fallen off into the bog and we’d lost one of the dongles!!!
Relieved of the weight, I felt like a butterfly – amazing what a difference it makes. You realise with a big weight on, you automatically pull your body forwards and your neck and head face more downwards that usual. One good reason why, when I run the West Highland Way later this year, the baggage transfer is an excellent idea.
Google ask that people don’t walk side-by-side with the kit (because someone’s pixelated face or body will be in every shot) so I walked 100m in front of Jane, along forestry track and past a picnic site (where I explained to the people there what the telly tubby like apparition coming behind me was all about. I started one conversation with, “you know Google StreetView?” – “Uh, no” – I started again, “You know the Internet? Well it is walking behind me!”
By about 3:30pm we reached her van, just as it started really raining again – we’d done 8 miles – we’d planned to do more but that was plenty for us. Very exciting to be part of making history. And, not put off too much, I was already thinking about how I could help Ed get the Trekker onwards to the Scottish border. (But that is another story!)
When we are in our old folks homes, we’ll be able to revisit (virtually) this walk, in case we forget our adventures!
My neighbour seems convinced that in 10 years’ time Google will be re-doing all these places again because things change. I can’t think they’ll be redoing the Pennine Way in Northumberland National Park that quickly!
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