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Conceptual Thinking

Earlier in the year, I exchanged messages on Facebook with an old workmate, Scott, who is an occasional geocacher. I raised the subject of the Aberdeenshire Mega – the 2019 iteration of the annual UK Mega Geocaching Event. It was to be held about 20 miles from his house in Aberdeen. He very kindly offered me a bed for the duration.

Before the Aberdeenshire MegaFast forward a few months. I finally decided around the end of June that I actually fancied it, despite the weekend being only one weekend before this year’s summer holiday. None of the family wanted to come up with me, which made it easier to plan on the basis that Scott’s family were also planning to be away. We’d got a weekend of quite laddish geocaching and beer drinking on the cards. Funny how things turn out.

Implementation Planning

Anyway, early in the week before I concluded that setting off early in the morning to drive to Scotland before a full day of caching wouldn’t be fun. It’s a long way and I’d be tired the whole time. I thought it would be better to do few hundred miles on Wednesday night and make a fresh start on Thursday.

I looked for a hotel that was sort of on the way. I didn’t see anything I liked at the top of England, so I went the whole hog and booked a place in Gretna. There’s a Days Inn at the motorway services there. The drive up was fairly uneventful once I got out of the traffic in Northamptonshire. I arrived at the hotel at about 11 pm on Wednesday night, having stopped for dinner on the way. The hotel was basic but perfectly functional and very well positioned.

I planned to go up the west side and down the east side. Kas was taking the girls up to her mum’s, so there was an opportunity to break up my journey home by meeting up with them. That meant I could colour in a few more counties, and also that I could take my car over the new Queensferry Crossing. So Gretna on the way up, then.

You can tell from the map here that I’ve not done much caching in Scotland before. I made a business trip to Edinburgh in February. My only previous time was when I went on the train and had no car at the other end. So I managed to grab two traditionals and attend an event on the night I arrived. This meant that the world was, essentially, my salt-water bivalve mollusc of the Ostreoidea superfamily. Starting Thursday morning in Gretna would mean I’d be able to get straight into it.

How many different districts can I find a geocache in on one day?

I couldn’t contemplate driving all the way to the Aberdeenshire Mega without a few geocache-based stops on the way. So for Thursday I mapped out a whole series of caches close to motorways where I could make quick and easy stops for geocaches. I wanted to maximise the number of different counties (or, in the case of Scotland, administrative units). The map shows there’s a lot of areas of white that could be turned to green.

The districts I passed through and cached in were, in sequence, as follows :

Tourism

The Falkirk WheelI didn’t really plan in great detail. I was hoping to get roughly to the middle of the patch by lunchtime. Getting to Falkirk took me until 12:30, so I decided I could afford to spend a bit of time. I didn’t want to get to Aberdeen too early, as Scott was working all day. So I decided to do a few touristy things in the middle section – places I’d never been to when I lived in Scotland in the early nineties. To be honest, a couple of the places I planned to stop hadn’t been built back then anyway.

The first of these was the Falkirk Wheel – a rotating boat lift that raises (or lowers) boats by 24m between two canals. Parking was easy, as was the cache I tried in the car park, but I have to say the wheel itself was a little disappointing. Maybe with a bit more time I would have got more into it. They’ve made a spectacle of the whole thing, but on a sunny afternoon in the school holidays that just meant it was crawling with punters and their kids. And anyway, the way into the woods, and loads more caches, was blocked off by some inconveniently placed fencing.

So I moved on to what proved to be somewhere much more entertaining – The Kelpies. These are basically a pair of 30m high horses heads sculpted out of stainless steel. They sit astride another bit of canal. When I got there it was a very sunny afternoon and there were loads of people (again). In this park there’s enough room for them all to spread out a bit. There was an interesting selection of caches there too, and a good park to walk around. I ultimately stayed there a good hour and a half.

Next up was a completely unplanned stop at the Wallace Monument outside Stirling. Well, I’d planned to do a cache at the bottom, but hadn’t planned to stay any longer. Time was still in my favour though, as it was only about 3 pm when I arrived. Plenty of time to walk up the hill to the monument. I tried not to let on that I’m English, just in case anyone noticed. I think I got away with it. The walk up the hill was another welcome leg-stretcher after spending all morning in the car.

The KelpiesFrom here it was all driving. From Stirling I passed through the best-named district ever – Clackmannanshire. How could you not enjoy a name like that ? The road took me along the foot of the Ochil Hills in an easterly direction.

Once I entered Perth & Kinross I had a near disaster. I’d planned three potential cache stops, but the first two didn’t really have anywhere to stop (despite looking like they had) and I was frustrated enough with trying to find somewhere to stop that I drove straight past the third potential. This placed me on the motorway north to Perth still needing to find one. Whilst stuck in a traffic jam on the motorway I noticed I could sneak in a cache if I got off at the next junction. It needed a bit of dodgy car parking, but was then I made an easy find. I’d come back from the brink, as it were.

At last…..

By this time it was getting late and, as I discovered just as I passed Perth, the City of Aberdeen is still quite a long way. It’s a long way from anywhere, to be honest. By the time I’d stopped again in Dundee and Angus, plus an unplanned one in Aberdeenshire, it was more or less 7:30 pm before I arrived at Scott’s house. His family had not gone away for the weekend, as planned. I nicked his son’s bedroom for the duration, forcing him to go share with his older sister. They also fed me, which was unexpected and very welcome.

When we’d finished eating we were talking about this and that, and Scott revealed there were caches a few hundred metres from the house. It was too much to resist, so off we went. It took us three attempts, but I eventually got my 12th district of the day. At which point we retired to a nearby pub for a well-earned beer.

Soggy Friday – Weather that Scotland is famous for

The weather forecast for Friday was typically Scottish, by which I mean cool and grey, with the likelihood of heavy rain, and so it turned out to be. It was wetter than something that’s very wet.

Scott volunteered to drive and we decided to go and have a pop at a bunch of the Munro Mega Mystery puzzles to the north-west of Banchory. Staying in the trees seemed like a good idea if it was going to rain. Optimistically there were two or three separate-looking loops of caches we could go for, depending on how fast we were covering the ground.

It was a day of learning from each other. Scott and his family had never really tried to do any puzzle caches before, so Scott was learning a bit about that. And I’d never walked in the woods in Scotland before. Scott’s main guidance tips were a) the caches are pretty much bound to be next to a path, as going anywhere else would risk dangerously boggy ground and b) it’s a good idea to assume that the path you’re on is likely to loop around rather than looking for another, or trying to walk cross-country when you don’t know the terrain. Wise advice indeed.

In some areas, the ground was what horse-racing commentators would describe as “heavy”. The footpaths also alternated between quite wide paths with bracken and pine detritus underfoot to very narrow paths with neck-high undergrowth. Those with the high undergrowth were obviously fun in the rain because they meant that your upper clothing got wet as well as your feet.

After completing the first loop (of about 24 caches) we retired to a nearby garden centre for a bit of lunch. The one in question had some nice warming soup. Not an obvious choice for most places in August, but very welcome on this particular day.

Hmmmmm!…. Still Wet

In the afternoon the rain seemed to have slowed up a bit, so we went for another one of the two circuits hoping to be able to finish that quickly and see how we stood. That one had 16 caches on an elongated loop starting from Banchory’s Cricket Club and Curling Club. Neither sporting venue was in use. They have an open-air curling rink which was, for all intents, a very square-looking pond. The cricket pitch looked much the same.

Anyway, the dry weather stayed with us for about three-quarters of that loop, and then the heavens opened again and we got completely drenched just as we were starting to feel like we’d dried out. “Booooooo!” And “Hissssss!” I say. The drenching dampened the enthusiasm as well as the clothing. I looked at the proposed northern loop (the planned final one of the day) and suggested that 6-7 of them looked as if they could be done as a drive-by, so we went off with that in mind. Scott stayed in the car, while I jumped out, got wetter, and dashed as quickly as I could to and from a few more caches.

Once we’d done all the drive-bys the time was looking pretty much against us, and I think we were both completely drained by the wet, so we gave up and went home.

Once at home we got cleaned up and went out for some Italian food with the rest of Scott’s family, followed by a couple of quite half-hearted beers in what I’d think on any other night would be an excellent bar – six°north. By the time we went out the rain had stopped but it was foggy. When we left the pub the fog had gone and it was a lovely night.

Back at Scott’s gaff, we amused ourselves for a while by looking at photos of the entrance to the camping field at the Mega Event site. The rain and traffic had turned it into a quagmire. Eventually they stopped people from going in or out, as most were failing even with help from a tractor. They were just making the problem worse. It’s days like that when I’m glad I don’t like camping. The camping field isn’t normally a campsite, so it was just grass. There is no hard standing through the entrance or around the field, so once it’s wet you have to stay there until it’s dry again. Oops ! You have to feel sorry for the event organisers though. Weather as bad as that is something it’s difficult to anticipate, even in Scotland.

I didn’t take any photos during the day. Neither my phone nor my camera are sufficiently waterproof.

Saturday is parkrunday

After the Aberdeenshire MegaThe actual day of the Aberdeenshire Mega looked a bit more promising on the weather front. We started off with the distinctly non-geocaching activity of running a parkrun. Scott’s closest is, funnily enough, Aberdeen parkrun. Because it’s quite dark in the mornings in the Scottish winter, it starts at 9:30 rather than the more traditional English 9am.

This gave us the opportunity to grab a couple of geocaches before it started. One was a puzzle I’d worked out on the assumption we might come to this parkrun. The other was a trad which was located, as it happens, about 2 metres from the parkrun director’s table. That was a good thing, because I’d left my pen in the car for the run, so needed to borrow one. The table had a notebook and pen, and at the time was devoid of human presence. Ideal then.

The parkrun itself is a flat out-and-back along Aberdeen’s seafront promenade – out goes along the upper layer and back comes along the lower layer. The whole thing is paved, fairly wide, and lacking in hills. That lot, combined with cool and slightly foggy weather, made for a fast run, and I set a new PB for this year.

So back to Scott’s for a quick change of clothes and then into the new cachemobile for a drive over to Banchory.

The Aberdeenshire Mega – I was beginning to wonder if this post would ever get there

I was very much hoping that the car park for the event wouldn’t involve grassy fields. The new car is a little closer to the ground than the old one, and I’m not keen on going off-piste in it, especially if the grass has suffered 24 hours of continuous rain. When we got on-site it was apparent that most cachers were being directed towards a grassy field. The man in the hi-vis jacket did say we were welcome to drive up to the top and see if we could get into the “proper” car park, though.

We did consider trying to pretend not to be geocachers, but just as we were doing so, my car was spotted by HHHP20, who happened to be walking past us, and that put a stop to any pretence. Still, the guy let us go up to the top, and when we got there, we found a parking space that was pretty much as close to the castle as we could ever have got. Gardner parking-karma strikes again.

The event was being held at Crathes Castle, which I’m sure is a place I’ve been to before (a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away). When we parked up, the whole place was blessed with bright sunshine, so we decided to go have a good mooch around the event site to see what, and who, we could find.

We found a bunch of people from the Beds, Bucks, Herts area and also found the new “Adventure Labs” caches in full swing. They are much like the old lab caches, except you have to log them through the phone app and, more importantly, you actually have to be in the right place when you attempt to log them. If you’re too far away, you can’t submit an answer.

We went into the event tent for a while too, where it was hot. Really hot.

To finish off the adventure labs it was necessary to walk down towards the grassy car park, and by the time we got there we found ourselves amongst some new “real” caches that had been set for the event and were only released after I’d left home on Wednesday. We had to do them on the phone as a result. After doing the labs, mine was getting a bit shy on ziggies, but we had enough to get round the ones we did.

Once we’d finished, we decided to go head for a few more of the Mega Mystery ones, including the few on Friday’s third walk (which we never did) and #34 – the one which required you and nine other people to be physically present at the event site at the same time. Or, in our case, required you to know someone who’d got the coordinates already. This one proved to be about 100 metres away from the first place we’d parked on Friday, but we didn’t know that at the time.

Saturday night was a bit of a “M’eh!” night. I needed to leave early in the morning and Scott needed to fetch Fraser back from work at 10 pm, so no beer for us.

A Long Way Home

The Forth BridgesI’d briefly entertained the idea of driving north through the districts of Moray and Highland but had been advised not to unless I fancied getting up before I went to bed, so I left Scott’s house at about 8am and headed straight back down the most direct route back to Dundee and Perth before stopping in Fife for a coffee and a couple of caches. Well, one cache, as it turned out. I wasted 20 minutes at the first planned one because I couldn’t find it. The second I tried was closer to the car and I found it straight away. Not to worry.

My target for the day was to get close to Sunderland between 2 and 3 pm so I could meet the ladies of the house and we could drive the rest of the way home in tandem. I didn’t really know how far that was.

The advantage of driving down the east coast was, of course, that I could stop in a bunch more districts to do a single cache. I limited it to one in each (apart from Borders) because time was disappearing rather quickly. That proved to be a sound idea because just at the point where I left good roads to work my way down the single carriageway section of the A1 it started raining. Rain on a busy single carriageway means traffic slows down to about 35mph, adding a good 40-50 minutes to the trip.

The caches I managed to complete on this leg were :

I eventually arrived at Grandad Dennis’ house at about ten past three, where I had a quick cup of coffee and a biscuit before jumping back in the car at four o’clock for the drive home. At least I had Ami riding shotgun for that section, so we could talk a bit and sing to some dodgy music as we went. We were home after 9 pm, just early enough to go into the Co-Op to buy breakfast and beer. I made a fairly half-hearted attempt at beer, because I was a bit tired.

By the end of it, my caching map looked a bit more full, especially in the vicinity of Scotland. Mission accomplished.