With the schools being on holiday this last week and the weather in the UK looking pretty average – we have moved out of that difficult phase where it is freezing cold one day to being boiling hot the next into a new period where it is marginally warmer than cold on a consistent basis – I was feeling the need for a good old family geocaching adventure. Not just popping somewhere local for a few odd caches, but a proper full on, pack a lunch, take spare batteries, drive into the arse end of nowhere, 20+ loop type of experience.
We have been searching around for a challenge that would span more than one day and give us something to really get our teeth into over the coming months and whilst browsing the map I came across the GMS series. I had heard of this already, it is a cluster of five rings near the Buckinghamshire Oxfordshire border and was placed to coincide with the 2012 Geolympix event, but the reviews had been mixed. They mostly ran along the lines of beautiful series but killer hills. Three months ago I would not have dared to suggest such a challenge, but now thanks to us all being smoke free, losing a bunch of weight thanks to the 5-2 diet and a massive increase in the amount of exercise being done, I thought it was worth floating the idea to the rest of the family. They were open to the concept as long as we took our time, went well prepared and only attempted it when the weather was right – no hot sunny days.
And so it transpired that on the Wednesday of half term, when the weather forecast was warm but cloudy, we found ourselves parking up on a quiet country lane in the vicinity of a small village called Skermitt, in Buckinghamshire, to undertake Loop A of the Geolympix Marathon Series. There are 24 caches in the loop with an additional odd one along the way, making for a target figure of 25, which if we achieved it would be a record for all of us.
Being slightly odd and having taken the time to do a bit of research, namely reading the excellent blog post by the Sandhurst geocachers who did the loop in October 2016, we elected to start our adventure at number 6 as this afforded us with a good spot to park the car. We decided to leave 6, to make it the last one of the day, and donned our boots and set off into the pretty woodland that ran across the top of a hill in search of our first cache.
This was a good start. It was quiet, no road noise to be heard anywhere, warm, dry, and the walking through the woods was easy. The first couple were quickly found, just your standard, run of the mill geocaches, but we all knew that the hides were not going to be the highlight of this series, it was the scenery that we were here for. We broke out of the woods on the way to our second cache and walked along the edge of a field filled with sheep… and that ticked off the animals item from my list of ingredients required for an interesting adventure in the countryside. OK, it was only sheep, but it was a start.
A slight mishap on the way to the third cache as Sam deftly sidestepped a clump of sheep poo but, in typical cack-handed teenager mode, he fumbled his phone and dropped it in the very same pile of poo! After a small amount of cleaning on his part and a large amount of laughing from Shar and myself, we continued on with our walk and made the find easily. So far no sign of any gradients of any kind, the going had been flat and even, but Shar pointed out to me that we were on top of a hill, so some sort of “down and up” would be inevitable.
The next couple of caches took us inside a tree line and did indeed lead us down from our lofty position atop the hill into somewhat of a valley and then the next few took us up a nice wide path through the trees where we were serenaded by the delicious smell of freshly cut pine. To this point the slopes down and up were gentle and the ground underfoot easy and the only hazard we had to avoid were a couple of all terrain buggies that came hurtling along the path, presumably piloted by the land owners or other such official types. It certainly looked like a fun way to travel but, alas, we had to stick to the old fashioned way of putting one foot in front of another.
Our only other distraction as we walked through the pretty woods was the regular sound of light aircraft buzzing over our heads either taking off or landing at the nearby airfield which we were expecting to encounter at some point. Ninety minutes into our walk we had found 8 caches and were on our way to number 15 in the series and all was going swimmingly. This next cache was found super quick , being a little out in the open as a result of its hide having rotted away somewhat, and the internal team rivalry was ramping up with Sam having found 4 and Shar 5. I had yet to find one myself, but had been employed to stick my hand in various places on a number of occasions so I certainly wasn’t feeling left out.
The route to the next cache saw us encounter a very steep hill indeed although thankfully it was in the downward direction and aside from my knees getting a bit of a jarring from the tricky terrain as we descended, we arrived at the bottom intact and made a quick find as we did at the subsequent one which was our 11th find of the day and number 17 in the series. So far no DNFS and other than starting to get a bit peckish, morale was high and tension within the team was low. A small walk along a country road took us to our one non-series cache for the day,Sparks’ Valley Spot (GC1J3JZ) , which was found at eye level hidden in the twisting vines wrapped around a large tree just a few yards from the road. The cache description gave a lot of general information about the local area and some interesting facts such as that a number of films and TV programmes had been filmed there over the years including the vicar of Dibley. Also apparently somewhere nearby was the iconic windmill used in Chitty chitty bang bang, but alas we never encountered it on our way round.
Then we had a quick walk through a field of cows – I am never at ease in the company of cows, for some reason they just weird me out. Thankfully the cache was beyond the field so there was no need to dawdle and after passing down the side of a house we found ourselves at number 18 where I located my first cache of the day at the base of a gate post. That put my score at one, Sam was still at 4 having not found any since the last tally check and Shar was streaking ahead with 8 finds so far.
Number 19 was a DNF for us. Upon arriving at the kissing gate surrounded by nettles none of us were interested in searching too thoroughly as this would have undoubtedly resulted in lots of nettle stings. Add to this the fact that the team was getting a little “hangry” and the result was that we spent only a few minutes swiping at the nettles with our sticks before declaring a DNF. We had agreed prior to leaving home that we wouldn’t spend more than 5 minutes searching for any one cache otherwise the day would become very long indeed. Besides what we were most focussed on now was finding a nice place to throw down the groundsheet and have some lunch.
With a staggering piece of good fortune, as we walked through a farm field to the next cache, a bench loomed upon the horizon like the veritable Holy Grail itself. We had no idea that this bench was going to be here and gleefully put it to good use to take a break and chomp our sandwiches in the warm sunshine.
Dear reader, I know you to be alert and attentive, which is why I know you raised an eyebrow at my mention of warm sunshine. Indeed it was forecast to be cloudy on this day and the appearance of the sun and it accompanying heat was not welcomed by some members of the team. The last thing you need when walking through open farm fields or up steep hills is the hot sun beating down on you. I was still optimistic though that it was only a fleeting appearance and normal cloud would be resumed shortly. Regardless, the temperature was up a few degrees and we were all down to our t-shirts now, my backpack stuffed full of redundant jumpers.
After a pleasant and much needed break for lunch we got back on the trail and made our way through the rest of the field to a country road where we failed to find cache number 20 in the series, again as a consequence of far too much nettle cover. Two DNFs in a row is never a good thing and morale took a dip at this point even though we were no longer hungry. Thankfully we made quick finds at 21 and 22 as we continued on up the lane and through another field. The hot sun and lack of cover called the search at 23 to an abrupt end as a less than comfortable Shar declared that we were skipping this one and heading for the next one where shade could be seen. There was no arguing, it was not optional, and so off we went. As the day stretched on and the temperature increased and energy levels started to decline, there were a few curt exchanges amongst the team and still yet we hadn’t come across the “killer hill”. This was both encouraging and worrying. Maybe it didn’t exist, maybe everyone else had got it wrong. OK, OK, I can be a mindless optimist if I like!
After finding number 24, the last in the series we then joined a road for a while and wrapped around to find number 1(GMS A 01 GC3Q2WY) which was in the little village of Skermitt and then number 2 which was at the side of the road as we left the village. This one took us a little while until we stopped searching at the base of the many gate posts and instead stood up and just looked at the obvious place right at eye level. It is interesting at how you can become conditioned to automatically search in one place if a series provides you with enough similar hides. So this was either a very sneaky diversion from the norm or, more likely, just too good of an opportunity for an easy hide, inside the top of a hollow gate post, to consider anything else.
And then we could see the hill!
Well obviously I couldn’t see it, but the way it was being described to me by Shar and Sam, there was no doubt that what lay ahead of us was most definitely the aforementioned “killer” that so many had alluded to previously. It kind of draws you in slow to start with. A gentle incline through a field, a change of direction and then up a slightly steeper slope to a point where the woods begin. That is where you take a moment, look back down and admire the deer sweeping through the fields below you and wonder if you could possibly get a cable car up if you wait long enough for someone to build one, or alternatively how difficult could it possibly be to capture and ride a deer up through the trees. We took the chance, whilst summoning our energy, to find the cache that was at the entrance to the woods and to allow a couple of elderly people, who looked annoyingly fitter than we were, to pass us.
And then there was the hill.
Sam and I strode it out as we are want to do, going for long paces and a brisk tempo to get it over with quickly. Shar took it at a slower pace and called out for us to stop a number of times as she didn’t want to be abandoned on a very steep hill in the middle of the woods panting like a rabid dog!
There was a lot of huffing and puffing, some grimaces and some gritted teeth. A certain amount of swearing for sure and when finally we all reached the top there was a frank and graphic conversation about the unlikelihood of doing further rings in the series if all the hills were like this. All three of us lost our cool over the next few minutes for various different reasons and to a lesser or greater degree. I blame the lack of oxygen at the high altitude of over 120 metres above sea level.
Needless to say after we had caught our breath and worked out how to get to the next cache, things had calmed down a bit and soon we were all friends again and united in our goal of finding the next 3 caches which would get us back to the car. Unfortunately only the next one was found and numbers 5 and 6 in the series both went down as DNFs. It wasn’t for the want of trying though. At 5 we just didn’t get the clue of “cats eye” and even with a handy photo from the sandhurst blog we still couldn’t locate it. We really wanted to find it as we were so close to the end of the loop now and we were content to search here for a while as it was shady and peaceful, but alas it was not to be.
At the last one I think the allure of the car which was just a few metres away from GZ was too much to resist and after a fairly thorough, but unsuccessful, search we all admitted defeat and called it a day. 20 out of the possible 25 caches were found and a very respectable distance of 12km was walked.
Back at home now I think we all agree it was a great day. Yes there was a big hill on the walk and the sun was a bit hot at times but the scenery did not disappoint and the caches were in good condition and mostly easy to find.
I enjoyed it most because it was exactly what I wanted, a real family caching adventure away from the TV, computers, Xbox and the constant noise of traffic at home. It was just three of us, making our own fun.
Will we do any more of the GMS loops? Well, I am hopeful. We have agreed to try and find an OS map and assess the contours to try and get a handle on the hills for future rings and the choice of day is again critical. I hadn’t remembered about the nettles and this concerns me a bit for other loops. Perhaps we should have tackled this series earlier in the year, around Easter time, or maybe we should postpone till nearer the end of autumn. We shall see. I am, as I say, hopeful though. Happy days.
This geocaching adventure took place on Wednesday 31st May 2017 and took our total cache count up to 1696.