A zero waste holiday?
They say you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. Having spent the last eight years in London and Bangkok coming back to spend time with our families in Yorkshire has made me realise just how much I’ve missed spending time in the countryside.
Never one for half measures, I decided to organise a week away (I use the term ‘organise’ loosely, as you will see when you read on), and to see if I could enjoy the whole week away without creating any waste. I thought this was a fitting way to embrace the eco-friendly lifestyle, as well as adding an extra element of challenge to my time away.
Making a plan
Of the two of us, Kat is the planner… I’m more of a ‘go with the flow’ type and this is certainly true of our holidays. That said, I knew I would need to have at least an idea of where I was heading if I was going to wander off into the wilderness for nearly a week.
During my early research I discovered the Hadrian’s Wall Trail which runs from Wallsend near Newcastle to Bowness-on-Solway on the west coast. When I was younger I was a huge Asterix fan, which translated into a fascination with all things Roman - the forts along Hadrian’s Wall were a favourite day trip for me. I decided to complete the 84 miles (plus an extra five to start from Tynemouth so I could go coast to coast) in four days, before meeting up with a friend in the Lake District to do a couple of days climbing fells, before Kat and my mum would come across on the last day and we would all climb Scafell Pike (England’s highest mountain) together.
I packed my tent, sleeping bag and roll mat, and knew that walking boots and trainers were essential. Waterproofs and lots of socks and underwear were next, safe in the knowledge that even if the forecast was good, this was a northern summer so rain was near inevitable! Shorts followed - after all, legs dry quicker than trousers! A couple of hats were also essential, to protect my bald head from the elements. Clothes were the heaviest items in my pack, so I can see why people invest in lightweight gear. However, I wasn’t about to start buying new things when I’m cutting down my consumption!
Then I had to think about toiletries - as well as the standard things I took gauze, and zinc oxide tape, as well as petroleum jelly and antibacterial cream for any blisters. Suncream is where my zero waste mission fell down as I have still yet to find a good eco-friendly zero waste sun block. Any suggestions much appreciated!
Finally food. I went to the new zero waste store in my parents’ home town, Out of the box! The plan was to eat the nuts and fruit whilst I walked, and have a mixture of oats and protein powder for meals. Very minimalist but getting my essential nutrients and because all of the foods were so nutrient dense, it limited the amount that I had to carry.
I had all of my food in reusable stackable boxes, but found that even that took up more space than I had to spare. I transferred them into beeswax wraps and it reduced the space taken up significantly! Along with my reusable cup, my water bottle, and my reusable metal straws, I was ready to go.
A spanner in the works…
Two days before I set off, I hit my first hurdle! Applying for my Australian visa, I discovered that my time spent in Thailand meant I required a medical. Not only that, but it had to be completed at a specific clinic in Manchester. I made the earliest appointment I could which was the first day of my trek. This reduced my time to complete the Hadrian’s Wall trek to three days.
My faith in my physical abilities rarely falters, and I was convinced that 90 miles in three days with a 15-20kg backpack was easily achievable (idiot). I took the disappointment in my stride and delayed everything by a day, ‘simply’ increasing the walking load by around ten miles a day.
Day 1 - Making a start
I stayed overnight with a friend in Newcastle, to enable an early start on the Friday morning. Leaving his place early the next day, I jumped on a bus and then the Newcastle Metro train, arriving in Tynemouth at 9am.
The Hadrian’s Wall Trail does not start at Tynemouth, it starts at Wallsend where there is a museum and a well signposted route. The extra five miles does not sound like much, but I would gladly have skipped it in hindsight! Walking through the outskirts of Newcastle, there was not much to see once I had left the beach.
I set an aggressive pace and after Wallsend headed down on to the more attractive trail, which largely runs along the river (most of the original wall between Wallsend and the end of the city has been built over so the National Trail takes the more scenic route). Taking regular breaks and stopping to keep hydrated and fuelled were key points along the day, and after twenty miles I was approaching Heddon on the Wall, the start of the more ‘scenic’ part of the trail.
This was where I started to think about where I might stay that evening (I told you Kat was the planner). My optimism led me to believe there would be campsites all along the wall, so I could walk until I was tired and then simply stop. I was a fool.
It was around three in the afternoon and the next campsite was a further 17 miles on. That would have meant arriving at around 9pm, which as I could feel some blisters forming seemed optimistic! I was confronted with the choice of a cheap room in a pub another hour down the road, or keeping on until very late!
I decided a 37 mile first day was overly optimistic, and could lead to a struggle the following day, so walked on briefly and got an early night!
Day 2 - From strength to strength to…
So far so good as far as zero waste went. Each morning I organised my spare beeswax wraps to get enough snacks for the day, and kept food and drink at the top of my pack for breaks. Setting off early in the morning I felt fresh and invigorated, and the stunning Northumberland countryside really helped to keep my motivation high. Random outcrops of wall began to intersperse the stunning countryside scenery and I started to get a real sense of the scale of the phenomenal engineering achievement that the wall was for its time.
I had seen the Winshields crags during my research and decided that would be a great stopping point for the day - a mere 32 miles from my start point including diversions to keep on the National Trail.
The biggest problem that I encountered with minimising my waste, and one that I often have when walking, is the amount of water that I need to drink in order to stay hydrated. The only concession I made to my no new products rule was to purchase a camel pack which held two and a half litres of water. Unfortunately when I filled it on the first day I found it had sprung a leak, so remember to always check your kit before you go! I still had my two refillable water bottles though, and as I went along the wall, the towns became more and more distant from each other, but I found that cafes, guesthouses and even helpful locals meant I could keep my bottles full at all times. I managed to avoid buying any disposable bottles along the whole length of the wall, despite drinking over 9 litres of water on this day alone! I also saw this beautiful fill up point at Carlisle station.
Then, at Brocolitia Roman Fort, as I stopped to look at the ancient temple of Mithras, disaster struck.
As people who follow the news will know, we’ve had quite a lot of rain, and as I came to a bog crossing, the stepping stones were covered with muddy water. I took it carefully, but overbalanced on the second to last step.
A combination of fatigue and lack of attention meant my right leg sunk into the bog to beyond the knee. Fortunately I was able to shift my left leg on to solid ground and caught myself in a single leg squat before my bag and any more of me was submerged. I pulled myself out and stumbled to the side of the path to change…
The fall was a little demoralising, but worst of all I’d managed to wet inside both of my pairs of shoes. Wet feet do not a happy walker make, and the last few miles was slow going. Despite this, some of the most epic scenery of the entire wall was there to be enjoyed, and it was still an incredible day. I had covered 54 miles in two days, with no waste produced at all, which made me feel quite proud. As night fell, I arrived at my campsite and fell asleep, ready for an early start in the morning.
Day 3 - A recalibration
The campsite had lovely hot water, (Winshields Farm Campsite) plenty of space, and most importantly for me in the morning, free coffee! Whilst I was carrying some fatigue from the previous days, chatting to the owner, Malcolm, in the morning perked me up, and I set off ready for another big day of walking!
Unfortunately, as I started the first climb of the day I realised all was not well. The load of my bag meant I was getting a stabbing pain in my hip where I had caught myself when falling into the bog the previous day. I walked five miles across the crags, which took me four hours. I had to remove my pack every ten minutes or so as the pressure on my hip was excruciating. Given that the walk was not that challenging at this point I thought a change of plan was necessary!
With 30 miles still remaining, I knew I wouldn’t manage to complete the route that day and had to adapt the plan. Although I could walk without carrying anything, the backpack was (literally) too great a burden for me to carry on with.
I diverted to a train station, and made it to Carlisle to rest that night - abandoning my wall crossing but saving myself for some incredible fell walks in the coming days. I treated myself to my first hot meal in three days and slept like a baby.
Day 4 - Changing the scenery
Although I was disappointed that I didn’t complete the Trail, in hindsight it was unrealistic to think that I could in three days! I was incredibly proud of how I had covered over sixty miles in three days without creating any waste along the way. Apart from my water refills (and the meal on the Sunday night) I had been completely self sufficient in terms of feeding myself and managing the journey.
As I made my way down to Oxenholme to meet my friend, my feet were filled with gratitude for the previous day of (relative) rest, and that the next three days were going to be filled with shorter walks with more climbing rather than the relentless slog of long distance walking!
We headed straight to the Langdale Pikes and did a circuit, with Pavey Ark being a personal highlight. Leaving the backpack in my friend’s car was another highlight, as my hip, which had been so painful when laden, was significantly better without the extra weight. Although it was still sore, it felt safe to climb and like I wasn’t making it any worse.
We then headed to Wast Water to set up camp for the night, and to have a base for the next two days. A cold beer on the edges of the deepest lake in the country were the reward for the efforts of the day. We dropped the bottles in the recycling the next day to keep our waste to a minimum.
Day 5 - Blowing a gale
A wet and windy night on the banks of the water were followed by an early morning dip in the lake. The water is at its warmest in August, but I can confirm that it does not mean that it’s warm!
Once breakfast was out of the way the rain started. We optimistically looked west and decided that it would blow over, and decided to climb Great Gable, one of the larger fells in the Lakes at nearly 900m.
My feet were quite blistered from the previous four days exertions, and even with taping were rubbing on my boots so I did the climb in trainers. A great idea in terms of comfort for the descent, but less so when they quickly became drenched by the torrential rain!
Climbing into the clouds we quickly found ourselves covered by mist. Visibility was down to around 20m, with strong gusts of wind lashing icy rain and even hail stones across our backs. As we struggled up the scree path (loose gravel that almost feels like climbing sand dunes), we decided not to attempt to summit for safety reasons.
The drops down the side of the pathway were close to sheer, and the path to the summit turned into the vicious wind. Moving from having the wind at our backs to in our faces reduced the already poor visibility even further as wind and rain whipped into our eyes. Even in the middle of summer, this was a reminder of the formidable power of nature and I can only imagine the conditions on higher peaks and at less hospitable times of year.
We decided to cross the col between Great Gable and Green Gable, but with the lack of visibility missed the path and it was a couple of miles before we realised that we were heading into the next valley! Fortunately, I had downloaded the map on my phone and saw our position on GPS. We retreated, only to find the conditions still inhospitable as we climbed to cross between the mountains.
The direction of the wind led us to think that descending the way we had come was more treacherous than crossing, and as we started our descent it seemed we were correct. Although steep and uncertain underfoot given the heavy rain, we made our way down into the valley, and returned to the National Trust Campsite at Wasdale.
This was the most welcome hot shower of the week, and the facilities at the site were outstanding. Together with a clean and spacious bath and shower block, they offered water refills, washing up sinks, bins and full recycling services for their guests. They even had a drying room (which I missed and only discovered the next morning after a night with all my sodden kit in my tent)...
Day 6 - Nearly time for a rest
My friend had to return the previous night so that he could work on the Wednesday, so I had a relaxing morning organising my pack for the day ahead of climbing Scafell Pike. I had managed the amount of nuts and fruit perfectly for my trip and packed them up ready for snacking on the ascent. Whilst I would not recommend eating virtually the same food every day for nearly a week, it showed that you can judge the amount that you need for a break and minimise your waste from it. In fact, the food remaining was exactly the amount I had eaten on the barbeque with my friend, plus the two hot meals I had eaten.
My mum and Kat arrived around one o’clock and the rain stopped exactly on schedule. I had discussed with local guides and they assured me that this was the best day of the week for a climb as the weather was getting worse into the weekend.
The top of Scafell Pike was shrouded in mist, yet the wind was far lower than the previous day. It’s a strange feeling to climb a mountain when you have never seen the top, and it meant we had no idea of what type of track the ascent might take.
Waterproofs and face scarves at the ready, we’d only traveled for a mile when we encountered our first hurdle. My mum is very short (five foot one), and therefore worried her legs are too little for doing jumps across rivers. The stream that crosses the main path up the pike was very high thanks to the previous day of rain, and none of us had waterproof shoes on, so we had to climb an extra few hundred metres to find a suitable place to cross. A sensible refusal to be carried across by me led to success in the end and we climbed the ridge and headed up towards the peak.
The path was clearly marked from there on, but visibility became poorer as we approached the top. Sadly, once we reached the peak we could not see anything beyond the clouds.
As we descended we got some beautiful views out over Wast Water and the valley, as well as seeing some impressive wildlife (#sheepofthelakes). There was an icy wind blowing in our face. Kat’s fear of getting cold outweighed her fear of tumbling down a mountain head first and she set off on a speedy downward climb to below the cloud line where it was warmer. Mum and I took a more leisurely route down, trying to save our knees.
On a clearer day this would have been no problem, but we had discussed going back via a different path to avoid the drama at the stream crossing. When mum and I came to the fork in the paths there was no sign of Kat. The visibility was still poor and I had a moment of panic where I had no idea which path she had taken. I gave mum my kit and instructed her to stay still as I sprinted off down the right fork… A few hundred metres and no sign of her. Smartphone connection in the Lakes is fairly unreliable but you are more likely to get reception up a hill than down in the valley, so I tried to call. Straight to answerphone. This was doing nothing to reduce my stress.
I rushed back along towards my mum, only to hear her on the phone… That was why I couldn’t get through! Two minutes later Kat emerged from the mist and we were all reunited, ready to continue the descent with heightened adrenaline and heart rates!
From there, apart from the same drama with crossing the water, we all made it to camp safe and sound and before crossing the Pennines back to Richmond.
Camping is a great way to get away and be close to our wonderful natural environment, and holidaying in the UK does reduce the environmental impact caused by flights. It does mean that you need to plan for rain though, as British summertime is notoriously fickle! I was lucky to only spend half of my days away battling the elements, which could have diluted my enjoyment of the week significantly had it been the whole time.
Walking holidays are definitely a sustainable way to go though, and I would highly recommend them to anyone who is thinking of one. More planning and being realistic with the planning that I did do would also help make it far more manageable and reduce the stress of not knowing where I would sleep on any given night!
Two days later, I would also recommend stretching and making sure that your shoes are well padded and comfortable. The last few days have mainly been spent dealing with delayed onset muscle soreness from so much walking and climbing, combined with bruising and blisters all over my hooves. I slept well when camping, because I was so tired after every day, but I don’t think the sleep was necessarily the best and my body ached from being on a cold, hard floor.
If anyone has any other ideas for getting away whilst minimising your environmental impact, then please comment below. I had so much fun, despite the challenges, and can’t wait for the next one!