Hatfield forest is the only remaining intact royal hunting woodland in England and its use as such dates back to the 12th century. It consists of just over 1,000 acres of woodland, wood pasture, lake and marsh land and today is managed by the National Trust. It is also home to over 50 geocaches and on Sunday it played host to the latest PugWash caching adventure with our friends Geoff, Melissa and their adorable pug dog Smokey.
Things didn’t get off to the best starts though as someone who will remain nameless stuffed up putting the parking coordinates into the car sat nav… ok it was me! We were travelling around the M25, which is the orbital motorway that runs around Greater London, when Sharlene’s instinct kicked in and suggested that if we carried on much longer we would be crossing the river Thames and surely that cannot be right. She was right, that was definitely not right. That would put us in completely the wrong place. We got off the motorway at the next junction and pulled over to assess the extent of our mistake. Luckily we hadn’t gone too far out of our way and the diversion only added about 30 minutes. No harm done except a bruised ego. We called Geoff and Melissa and told them we would be a bit late and set the sat nav for the correct destination this time.
On arriving at Hatfield forest things were further complicated by the fact that there was a wounded bull on the road just inside the park and until they could shift him they had closed off access to the car park. So we called Geoff and Melissa again and told them of the situation and said we would keep them informed. We were just about to leave the car outside the gate and walk into the forest to meet them, which we reckoned would be about a 30 minute trek, when thankfully they opened the gates and started letting people in. As we drove in we could see the bull at the side of the road limping rather badly, obviously having picked up a hoof injury somehow; perhaps whilst playing football.
Blimey, it has been three paragraphs already and I haven’t even got to the geocaching yet. We normally expect to have all sorts of capers and adventures when we join forces to go on a PugWash outing but most of the excitement generally happens after we have met up and actually started the caching. I do hope you aren’t getting bored just yet. Trust me there is plenty of interesting stuff for me to write/waffle about. Just to prick your interest there will be talk of Dam Busters, magic magnets, a dead badger, a chair in a tree and doing my best to blow into a weasel… and of course, some caches, and some pretty great ones at that.
Please note: This blog entry contains very specific information about some of the caches and as such could be seen as a spoiler. I enjoyed the geocaches very much and want to write about them. The amount of people who read this blog who may actually attempt the caches is so small as to make almost no difference and as a nod to my followers I want to describe some of these excellent caches as they deserve the recognition. And besides, it’s my blog and I can do what I want, so nicky noo noo to you.
One of the good things about Hatfield Forest is that it is a forest with facilities. There is a visitor centre, café, picnic areas and proper toilets. But don’t let that put you off, in a few short minutes you can be far enough away from all that to feel at one with nature. It was surprising how many people choose to hang around the amenities and don’t stray further than a couple of hundred metres. What a waste of a fantastic natural environment. After we had parked the car and made use of the facilities, we met up with our friends and Team PugWash got on with what it does best… tromping through nettles and mud in search of plastic containers.
We hadn’t just turned up on a whim and started hacking through the forest in search of caches, there was a plan… I know, hard to believe isn’t it? Geoff had suggested this location based on a series of 8 new hides that had been attracting a lot of interest and favourite points in the couple of months that they had been live. They promised some very ingenious hides and from the logs of people who had already done them they looked to be worth the drive. The series in question, Runaround Ramble, was located in the west of the forest and of course the car park is in the east so there was little else to do but cache our way over to the other side. In total the forest contains about 5 separate trails of geocaches so you can hardly walk a couple of hundred metres without falling over a piece of Tupperware.
We picked up a couple of straight forward traditionals, GC2GVX1 Doodle Trail Cache 1 Cedar Ride and GC3QPG6 Woodland Trail Cache 6 Lodge Coppice, on the way over to the west side of the forest and it felt so good to be out amongst nature doing some proper caching again. It seems like ages since we had done a full on cache trail, in fact it was about 6 weeks or so. The weather was hot but with the frequent cover of the trees and a breeze it was extremely pleasant to be tromping through the woods having fun with our friends. Within 10 minutes we were out of earshot of the hurly and burly of the forest amenities and it was almost like we were the only people for miles. I can see how it would be easy to get lost in a place like this with so many trails and paths and clumps of trees and clearings, but I never worry with all the satellite technology at our fingertips ready to help us at a moment’s notice. To substantiate this point it was as we were walking to our 2nd cache when we happened across a couple who were a little lost and trying to find their way back to the café. They were relieved when we were able to point them back in the direction we had just come from. I felt like calling after them that they should take up geocaching so that they would always know where they were.
After 2 trads and a short walk through the woods we found ourselves at the GZ of one of the Runaround ramble caches… number four to be precise, GC52JTX Run Around`s Ramble – 4. No Access. It turned out to be a fairly boring micro hidden on a metal fence. This was not what we were expecting at all. Admitedly it was a little odd to find a 8 foot high metal chain link fence in the middle of the forest but other than that, it was nothing special. We signed the log and feeling a little deflated moved on to the next one. This one seemed a bit more promising from the description and the hint and we hoped that it would deliver more than the first one had.
As we walked towards GZ we discussed the significance of the name, GC52JV7 Run Around`s Ramble – 5. Operation Chastise. Geoff informed us that operation Chastise was the codename for the Dam Busters missions during World War II where the bouncing bombs were used to devastating effect. I got a mental image of having to swing a lead weight on a string to dislodge the cache from its hiding place and hoped and prayed that it would be something like this. At GZ which was off the path in amongst the trees we all split up and started searching for the cache. Melissa finally laid her hands on it in a place that most of us had already searched. Once uncovered we found the container to be a home-made cryptex. This is a cylindrical container with a series of rings along its length. The rings have to be positioned in just the right way to allow the container to be opened. Normally the rings are marked with letters, numbers or symbols to act as a code lock and this cryptex did not disappoint in this respect. The three rings were marked with numbers. But what numbers to try. The hint pointed us toward the squadron that flew the missions during operation Chastise and I was convinced it was 622, but this was not right. So despite being in the middle of a forest we turned to our good old pal, the Internet to give us the answer. The correct numbers were quickly found, Geoff dialled them in and, “bingo!”, the container slid open. Despite the hide being a bit on the boring side, being disguised under a load of forest floor debris, the container and method of opening it was certainly a little different and things were looking up.
It was while we were searching for our next cache, GC3QPFA Woodland Trail Cache 5 Portingbury Hills, that we got chatting about how it was odd that we hadn’t bumped into any other geocachers yet. This being a Sunday, a beautiful day, and the forest being flooded with caches, we had expected to spot at least one or two, especially seeing as this series was still relatively new. Well, I expect you have an inkling as to what happened next. You are a smart and savvy reader, I bet you have it all figured out. You reckon that almost immediately after talking about not seeing any other geocachers that we then met someone else. That is what you’re thinking isn’t it? Well I can tell you, you are totally wrong. OK, OK, so you weren’t wrong. You were right. We DID meet another geocacher almost immediately after commenting about not meeting other cachers. You called it. You hit the nail on the head, cos you’re soooo clever. Happy now?. Good. May I continue? Thanks!
As we were walking to GC52JVN Run Around`s Ramble – 6. Bound Together, we bumped into a pleasant chap who went by the caching name of moucaham. We exchanged pleasantries and then bid him good luck as we headed into the trees where he had just exited. His parting words were that it took him a while to find this one.
Once we had got within 10 metres or so of GZ we did our normal trick and everyone split up and went in different directions. I bounced around from tree to tree, sometimes dancing with branches and other times fighting with thin air. The cache name implied that we would find the container tied to something and the most likely candidate was a tree, but as you can imagine there were quite a few of these. We slowly got further and further away from each other as we widened our hunt and then we all heard Geoff’s voice call out that the hint said that it was not at ground level. Almost immediately everyone shifted tack and started looking / feeling higher up. I fondled that many tree trunks that I was starting to wonder if I had gotten confused and was just searching the same two trees over and over in some sort of “infinite wood loop”. Eventually Sharlene was the one to find it, almost exactly where we had all separated to conduct our own individual searches. It was indeed tied to the trunk of a tree. It was disguised as a branch and it really was one that was right up my street. From a distance and even close up you couldn’t really tell that it was out of place, but upon feeling them the textures of the two pieces of wood were totally different. A nice cheeky hide, one that we had all seen before but this one was executed pretty well. So far out of the 3 runaround caches that we had done we were not blown away. They were good caches, sure, but nothing spectacular.
Before continuing, we decided that it was time for lunch so we located a convenient patch of trees with a log to sit on and trees to lean against and broke out the sandwiches. There is something rather pleasant about eating in the woods. I am not sure why and maybe it is just me but it just feels… nice. I can’t really explain it but I am more than content when leaning against a tree eating a ham, cheese and pickle sarnie. It is difficult to get too relaxed though with little Smokey around. If you take your eye off your sandwich too long he’ll be snuffling around it before you know it. It is either that or trying to eat Sharlene’s cigarette butts. For some unknown reason he is obsessed with them. He seems to be able to smell them a mile off and even when she stubs it out and then buries it under some leaves, he still comes sniffing around wanting to chomp on the apparently goodness contained within a Bull Brand roll your own filter. Maybe that is why he is called Smokey.
After lunch was done with it was back on the trail for the next one, GC52JWT Run Around`s Ramble – 7. Combinationand when we found the hide we realised instantly that this was something very different. In a league of its own. The hide consisted of a wooden box a little like a bird box fixed to a tree at about chest height. On the top, left, right and front of the box we could see numbers and to the bottom right was an opening that was securely locked with a combination padlock. As Geoff inspected the box he found a small key that was attached to a piece of string hidden in the base of the box. So we had a key with no keyhole and a combination lock with no combination. More fiddling by Geoff and he suddenly had a Eureka moment as he was passing the key over the surface of the box. When it passed over one number on the top of the box, it seemed to stick… it was being drawn by a magnet fixed to the underside. The key only stuck to one number on the top and after experimenting Geoff found that on each of the other 3 sides with numbers, the key would only stick to one of them. That gave us 4 numbers in total, the exact number of digits we needed for the combination lock. There was a note on the box indicating which order to put them in and in a few more seconds we were all cheering as Geoff opened the padlock to reveal the log book. Now this was more like it. Ingenious, lovingly constructed and brilliantly executed. I had to get my hands on this and have a go, so Geoff locked it all up again and I fiddled with the key and the magnetic numbers, very clever indeed. We left that clump of trees feeling very smug and having our faith restored in the awesomeness of this geocache series.
You do see some odd things in the forest. Take for example this shed on stilts. Now either the owners are very concerned about the threat of rising sea levels or there is something else going on here. Of course it turns out to be something a lot more straight forward; a hide for bird watchers but I do like the idea that in the event of a freak flash flood and the whole of Essex gets covered in 6 feet of water, there will be a small group of ornithologists left to repopulate the east of England. Hmmm, sounds like the pitch for a new post-apocalyptic TV Drama.
Stepping back out of the weirdness that is my brain and returning to the forest, we next made our way to the GZ of GC52JTM Run Around`s Ramble – 3.Cryptex.We made a quick find and were presented with another well-made cryptex container, this time with 8 rings to position. The hint was that “You are probably holding it in your hand” and to be honest it was all a bit too easy. It was a shame to put all that work into the cryptex only to give it away with such an easy hint word. I still think it is a great cache but extending the thought process slightly and making it a bit harder to get into the container could have made the experience even richer for me. Man, I am way analytical and critical today, maybe I need to take a Valium or something.
We carried on through the forest, mostly following paths but occasionally cutting off piste to take a short cut through the trees or over a ditch and next found ourselves at the GZ for GC52JTB Run Around`s Ramble – 2.Drop Down. Sam was on this one like a wasp on jam; or Smokey on a fag butt for that matter and it didn’t take him long to figure it out. This hide was another bird box structure fixed to a tree at about chest height again and simply had a slot at the bottom where you assume the cache could be found but it wasn’t there. In the front panel was a wooden peg sticking out of the box, akin to what a bird would perch on if this was a fully functioning avian residence. Sam went straight to the peg and pulled it out and a nocking sound came from within the box and the log dropped down to the slot at the bottom. Simple but, again, another ingenious idea. Sam was well chuffed to have been the one that worked it out too.
We had only two of the runaround series left to find now, numbers one and eight, both of which had already received a good amount of favourite points so anticipation was high as we headed off towards the first in the series, GC52JT0 Run Around`s Ramble – 1.Locked Out. When we got to GZ we found another similar box fixed to a tree like we previously had. This one had a small drawer to the right side labelled Toolbox. It also had a small circular hole in the front of the box and it appeared as if a part of the front could somehow be removed to gain access to the log. But there was no obvious way how to get at it. Geoff opened the toolbox and inside found a packet of balloons… curious. Some bright spark, I forget who, suggested that we needed to poke an uninflated balloon in the hole at the front of the box and then blow it up… the balloon that is, not the box. I jokingly offered the job to Shar, who as a smoker has the lung capacity of an asthmatic ant but she declined. I stepped up to be chief blower and set about threading the balloon into the hole. I blew… and blew… and nothing happened. The thing just wouldn’t inflate. I took it out, stretched it a few times like I knew what I was doing, blew it up a bit and then letting the air out, fed it back into the box and tried again. I gave it all I had, cheeks expanded to the max…. it was like trying to play the oboe, or blow into a weasel, which, I can tell you, is no easy task. Finally, after a lot of jiggling and when I was nearly on the brink of passing out, the balloon inflated a bit and the part inside the box expanded and triggered some sort of release mechanism that sent the hidden compartment out of the box to reveal the log… and a trackable too. I took a break and examined the spots on the inside of my eyeballs for a while as the others did the business with the log. I snagged the TB as reward for getting the thing open and we were just about to put it all back together when up trotted moucaham, the geocacher that we had met before. We hastily reassembled the hide and insisted that he had to figure it out on his own, as the end result is definitely more enjoyable if you have done the hard work yourself on this one. We bid him good luck and headed off in the direction of GC52JXA Run Around`s Ramble – 8. On The Incline.
This we quickly found not too far away. This hide was a piece of pipe fixed to a tree. It had a lid to it and fitted in the middle of the inside of the lid was a small metal nub. The pipe had a piece of tape on the outside running from top to bottom effectively marking a line along the length of the pipe. The hint was to stay on the line to retrieve the container. We quickly figured out that the metal nub was in fact a magnet and that the cache container in side was therefore likely to be metal. I was volunteered again to be in charge of retrieval and after a bit of fumbling around with my fingers to make sure I could feel the tape acting as the line I offered the magnet to the side of the pipe and slowly started to draw it upwards. A small metallic clink let me know I was on the right track and gently I pulled the magnet all the way up the pipe which was about 18 inches long. Eventually the container appeared at the top and stuck itself to the magnet so that I could withdraw it completely. Another simple, but brilliantly effective cache hide, and well-constructed too. Sam was keen to have a go at this one too and so after signing the log we dropped it back down so that he could test his steady hand and smooth movement. Like his dad, he expertly drew the cache up and out of the tube… it must be something in the genes that make us so brilliant. As we were leaving the GZ who should we meet but moucaham again… this was starting to become a little weird… lol
With all the runaround caches done and everyone starting to feel a bit tired, we decided to head back to the cars for cake. Of course, we didn’t just walk straight there, oh dear me no. That would have involved walking past perfectly good unfound geocaches and that would not do, so we called up the map and plotted a route back to the car that would allow us to add a few more smileys along the way. The first one we found was, GC3QPEV Woodland Trail Cache 4 Elmans Green and we decided to take a short break after it so we sat on the slightly damp grass and enjoyed the warm sunshine and drank some water. As we were sitting there, who should we meet but… well you know the drill by now. We all laughed and joked about how often we kept meeting but this time he was able to overtake us and we reckoned this was the last time that our paths would cross today so we wished each other good luck and waved farewell.
Feeling refreshed we set off again and on the way to the next cache, GC3Z1QD Forest Finds-1.Holly`s Oak, stumbled across another strange sight; a chair fixed up a tree. Unfortunately I was a little too confused to take a picture of it but it certainly was an odd thing. The general consensus was that it was used as some sort of place to sit and count deer or some other such wildlife. We had spotted a deer earlier on in the day but they are pretty elusive and keep themselves to themselves. Another trad, GC2JMDJ Doodle Trail Cache 7 Eight Wantz Way, down and Geoff remarked at what a productive day it had been with no DNFs. *sigh* Don’t you just know what is coming next. Sure enough the very next cache we went looking for, GC3Z1V6 Forest Finds-5.Charlie`s Crossing, which was meant to be on a bridge was nowhere to be seen and after about 10 minutes of thorough looking by all of us it had to be left as a DNF. As we were searching we kept hearing some strange cow noises. These cows sounded in a certain amount of distress but we couldn’t quite place where they were. The bridge was flanked on one side by woodland and on the other was a piece of open ground that was fairly lumpy and bumpy under foot with the odd clump of trees every now and then.
As we left the GZ of our DNF and started over the open ground towards the track to take us to the car park, we heard the distressed mooing again and then there was a cracking and splintering of wood and a small group of cows came staggering out of the trees to our left. Now If there is one thing that will focus and motivate our little team it is a group of distressed cows… being pursued by a bull. Thankfully Geoff had already been carrying Smokey as the ground was so hard going for his little legs. The cows came towards us as some speed and we all kept close together and tried to move away from them. They seemed to be heading somewhere but we couldn’t quite work out where. My heart started to race and I was acutely aware of my vulnerability. I had no idea where they were or where they were going. I just had to hold on to Shar and trust her completely to make the right calls as what and where to go. The cows passed just in front of us about 20 metres or so away and the bull came lumbering out of the trees after them. Thankfully they passed without incident and it seemed that a couple of workers were trying to herd them back to a place that was slightly more safe for everyone. After they had passed and we had got to the track we all started to relax a little and mused at what a strange thing it was to see a group of cows come crashing out of the wood. It was almost as if we had disturbed them whilst doing something and they had all panicked and rushed out mooing the equivalent of “We weren’t doing nothing in there guv… honest…not us.. no no…moo”. Perhaps they were geocaching cows and we were the muggles for once… or should that be moogles.
a quick find for Geoff at GCNH0Y HFM and then we made one more, GC2GVXN Doodle Trail Cache 5 Decoy Lake, just next to the visitor centre in a small clump of trees where we were delighted to find a dead badger guarding the cache. Nice! After all this excitement we were glad to get back to the cars for an energy re-boost from some of Melissa’s yummy chocolate cake. Having cake waiting back at the car is always a fantastic incentive to find those last few caches when you are feeling tired and starting to ache in places that you didn’t know were supposed to ache.
In total we logged 16 finds but this day was really not about the numbers. The runaround caches are some of the best crafted and designed hides that we have found to date and being able to take them on with our friends as part of a PugWash adventure made for a great day and a welcome return to “proper” geocaching. Happy Days.