After reading Alastair Humprhey’s book Microadventures I was eager to get out there and see what all the fuss was about. As mentioned on the about page, I was desperate for a way to escape the stress and pressure that was pushing me close to the edge. That escape came in the form of an eight mile hike.
On Thursday 29th August 2019 I roped my brother-in-law and old work friend into an eight mile hike around the Solihull Countryside after work one evening and it proved to be a fantastic experience for me.
For those three hours, my mind felt free. It was because of this experience this blog was born.
Martin is a Scout Leader and well experienced in hiking, map reading and the use of a compass. In fact, it was Martin who’d proposed this particular route, which he’d completed with his Scout group a few years before as a night hike.
Martin is a fantastic guy and kindly took the time to show Wayne and myself the basics of map reading and compass use around Earlswood Lakes only a few weeks before – which was how this hike came about. We’d enjoyed the map reading lesson (which I’d arranged as a favour for Wayne) and planned to go out again on a proper hike together a few weeks later.
My brother-in-law Wayne has also been hiking for some time and agreed to come along because he too is eager to get outdoors and escape the daily grind. Although, Wayne’s preference is to hike mountain routes and hill country, which provide the fantastic views he enjoys most.
I was the only one who hadn’t been on a hike (or anything like it) for years. The last time I personally did anything like this I myself was a Scout in the early 1990s. No wonder I’d forgotten what it felt like to be outside. A lot of my childhood was spent outside in fields and climbing trees but as adult life took over I seem to have forgotten the feeling of freedom I’d enjoyed in those days.
The Hike Route
MAP: Ordnance Survey Explorer Map 220 – Birmingham
This was an eight mile circular route in the countryside where we live in Solihull and took us through woods and fields and along the Grand Union Canal Towpath. The route Martin proposed commenced at Malvern Park in Solihull; just outside the Xoserve Offices at Lansdowne Gate. The sky was grey and it threatened rain at some point that evening. We’d agreed to meet there at 5pm and set off promptly, hoping to beat the rain.
The first leg of the route cut briefly across the top half of Malvern Park and then out through a small alleyway, which passed between houses out onto Park Avenue. The alleyway continued on the opposite side of the road and through three ensuing roads after that until it eventually entered the carpark at Brueton Park Lake. We cut through these alleys in order to get out into the country quicker and get the hike underway.
Into the Countryside
A tarmac path follows the north and east edges of Brueton Park Lake. On the left, among the trees here there is a public footpath which is easy to miss if you’re not looking for it. In fact we walked right past it and had to retrace our steps. This footpath wound its way through some woodland with the River Blythe running in the opposite direction (i.e. back the way we came, towards the park) on our right the whole way through. The River Blythe is a small river here and it bubbles over the stones, making a relaxing noise as it heads towards the small lake behind us.
Eventually, the little path left the trees behind and we followed it along an overgrown trackway with bushes on our right and a wire fence on our left. Beyond this fence were open fields and the busy M42. After a short while of picking our way through the brambles we again entered some woodland and the path wound its way through a small coppice.
The path led us through a gate into a long wedge-shaped field and then carried on into the distance. The motorway still to our left was an aggressive river of rush hour traffic and on our immediate right was a continuation of the woodland we’d just left. The path cut its way right across the middle of the next field and then led us to a footbridge crossing the motorway itself.
Crossing the Motorway
We climbed the wooden stile and then took the bridge, leaving the River Blythe behind, which continued to snake its way across the countryside towards Brueton Park. The path continuing on the opposite side of the motorway led us across two fields and then out onto Smiths Lane, which is a winding country road with no pavements. We turned left and followed this road until it joined Browns Lane briefly and then left along Lady Byron Lane. There are some seriously big houses on this road. We spent some time admiring them as we walked past.
Some way down, on the right hand side of Lady Byron Lane, there is a public footpath which cuts its way right across the middle of Compton Heath Golf Club. Luckily we didn’t see anyone there and didn’t have to dodge golf balls as we crossed. The path led us right past a large house and then cut across the last part of the Golf Club and out onto Warwick Road. It was about this time when it started to rain and I was grateful to have my rain coat with me. I pulled up the hood and listened to the rain pattering loudly on it.
Onto the Grand Union Canal Towpath
We now passed briefly through a housing estate, across a field and then over a footbridge across the Grand Union Canal onto the Towpath. We headed north with the Canal on our left, eventually passing back across (this time beneath) the M42 motorway at Compton Heath Wharf. A number of barges were tied up here and the smell of the cooking going on in them made me hungry. We said hello and waved to a number of people on their barges as we passed by. At this point the Canal heads North in a straight line for a time and then takes a sharp, if brief, turn right and then North again. It was now raining heavily and we were starting to get soaked despite our coats.
We took a slight detour off the Grand Union Canal Towpath at Catherine De Barnes and made for the Boat Inn. It was a welcome break. The light was failing and we were soaked from heavy rain. As we approached the Inn the welcoming lights spilled out of the windows and across the asphalt. The smell of food and beer beckoned us.
We took a table near the door (there wasn’t much option as it was quite busy) and we ordered some burgers and a pint of beer. There is something really satisfying about sitting in a pub, in the warm after hiking several miles. I really felt like we’d earned that burger and the ice cold pint of lager we guzzled.
I spread the map out on the table and inspected the remaining part of the route (which I’d highlighted with a yellow marker the day before). The light was fading rapidly outside, made worse by the thick clouds, and we knew we’d have to complete the remaining miles across field and wood in the dark. It was a good thing I’d brought my torch and a bike light just in case.
Hiking In The Dark
When we left the Boat Inn it was full dark and the rain had eased off slightly. We decided not to retrace our steps back down the Grand Union Canal Towpath and instead took Henwood Lane, which is a winding country road leading us South to the point where the Canal took that sudden right and left turn. Henwood Lane crosses over the Canal here, over a small bridge, but we left the road at this point and took another public footpath which cut immediately into woodland.
Being in the dark added a whole new dimension to this experience for me. Walking through thick woodland and over dark fields brought with it a whole sense of adventure and danger (even though I am sure it was totally safe). Climbing over slippery wet stiles or opening metal gates and going into the dark fields beyond played on the imagination. The torches were good close up but they were obviously insufficient to light a whole field. We never really knew what was in the fields, there could have been a bull for all we knew. We were certainly investigated on a number of occasions by horses that crept out of the darkness towards us. This route eventually led us back to Solihull and the carpark at Malvern Park where we first started.
The Overall Experience
This was my first hike. We’d travelled through woodland and open country. It had been dry and soaking wet. It had been in the light and in utter darkness. For me it had been a small adventure in the middle of the working week. And, it had been fantastic! Alastair Humphreys, I thank you for writing your book on Microadventures and inspiring me to make this first step and get outside!
For me, that hike was an awakening. After just a short time I could feel the stress melting away and my mind becoming more relaxed. As the hike progressed I realised just ‘being outside’ was doing me the world of good. Although relatively close to where I live, being outside in the woods and fields around Solihull gave an illusion of being miles from anywhere. There was a real feeling of escape!
Regular Escape and Adventure is Good for Mental Health
Perhaps most important was the fact this feeling lasted into the next day and then the next. It really made a difference to my mental state. Even if only for a few days. The ‘black cloud’ rolled in on me again inevitably of course. If mental health issues were fixed by going on a three hour hike I’m sure everyone would do it. This hike did not ‘fix’ my mental health issues. But it woke me up to the possibility of regular outdoor adventure and the gradual and ongoing impact it could have on my outlook.
I quickly found myself planning to get out again as soon as possible. I wanted to feel that sense of freedom, escape and adventure again. I wanted to get back outside as soon as I could. I planned to get out on my new bike the next weekend (or the one after) and cycle a short way along the Grand Union Canal Towpath.
The Gear I Hike With
For those of you interested in having a go at hiking yourself I thought I would list the gear I used. In the days running up to the hike I went out and purchased some entry level hiking gear. I found all these items to be really robust and comfortable and would recommend them to you if you are thinking of getting out there too.
Trespass Finley Hiking Boots – These were actually a birthday present from my wife and kids. I found these to be really solid boots, totally waterproof despite the torrential downpour we hiked through.
Hitched Men’s Anti-Blister Hiking Socks – These socks really made a difference. I tried my boots with and without the socks and I have to say the padding in these socks is a must.
Trespass Alessio DLX Water Resistant Hiking Trousers – These are really comfortable and well worth the money if you’re planning on going for longer walks out in the countryside. If I hadn’t used these I probably would have gone in jeans and when it rained it would have been very uncomfortable.
Trespass TP75 Donelly Outdoor Hooded Jacket – I opted for this jacket because it was so lightweight. It was still summer and I wanted something that was waterproof but not too hot to wear on the hike. I really like this jacket and would recommend it to anyone looking for something similar.
Trespass Albus Casual Backpack – This has been my day pack for the last few trips and so far I like it. It feels pretty robust and is comfortable on my back. I suspect I will have to upgrade to a much better pack for my long distance hikes as this might be too small. However, it is good for a short trip out I think.