Midges and adders and bogs, oh my!

Last time I described some of the dangers of walking in the California countryside: rattlesnakes, poison oak, hungry mountain lions, etc.

In Britain, you’ll encounter nothing that’s poisonous or person-eating, except for the tabloids and most of the reality TV shows. Well, there’s one venomous snake, but the adder is excruciatingly British and won’t bite you unless you’ve been formally introduced.

Before reviewing the dangers that do exist, let’s take a quick look at Britain’s two great gifts to walkers: public foothpaths and Ordnance Survey Maps.

These routes were made for walking

A public footpath sign in Welsh

Starting with ancient “rights of common” that date back to the 11th century, various groups over the years have given Britain an enviable system of public footpaths: more than 140,000 miles in England and Wales alone (an area about the size of Michigan).

To Americans, nothing makes Britain seem more foreign than the right to walk across other people’s land without getting shot. You can even mingle with their livestock. Want to get better acquainted with sheep? Then hie you to the British countryside, find a public foothpath, and in two shakes of lamb’s tail you’ll be watching a lamb’s tail, shaking.

These maps were made for fighting

Ordnance Survey Map of  Heathrow before WW II

In 1747, some bright spark realized that a map of the Highlands would help England subdue (i.e. track down and slaughter) those pesky plaid-clad clans.  Map-making got even more serious during the Napoleonic wars, when the threat shifted from bagpipe-droning Scotsmen to beret-wearing Frenchmen.

The result is maps so detailed that you’d have to be an idiot to get lost (unless there’s fog; see below). Nevertheless, I manage to get lost.

Beware the shoe-fetishist car-boot thieves

For example, in the summer of 1989, en route to the wedding of some friends, I went for a walk on Exmoor, armed with an Ordnance Survey map and an equally meticulous guidebook.

“Cross the stile into Ten Turnips Field,” directed the guidebook, “noted in the Domes­day Book as belonging to Urf the Unshriven. This field is used to pasture sheep, one of which is cross-eyed and answers to the name Muffy. Walk south for 1/16th of a mile until you come to a rock on which lichen forms a pattern resembling the arms of the Pepperpot family, or possibly the legs of the Folderol family. Being careful not to disturb the nest of hedgehogs, follow the River Gurning until you come to a large holly tree with agitated-looking limbs … ”


Only I never found the sodding holly tree and when I got back to my car after wading through the River Gurning, someone had broken into the boot and stolen the high-heeled shoes I’d bought for my friends’ wedding. (To wear, I mean. Not as a gift for my friends.)

Also, Muffy was not cross-eyed.

Raindrops keep fallin’ on your head

In California, we confine rain to the winter months, using it to top up our reservoirs and save on our water bills. In Britain, rain is allowed to fall whenever it likes, so even in the summer you should have waterproof trousers, jackets, shoes, hair, etc.

Spotted Dick is a pudding

Midges are tiny mosquitoes that sting like buggery. When I was in Scotland last year, they bit my face until it resembled a spotted dick.

Fog is another menace. You can set off in brilliant sunshine across, say, the North Yorkshire moors, striding alertly through the heather and the bracken, listening to the cry of the ptarmigan (no, I don’t know what it’s crying about) and admiring the gleam of the North Sea in the distance, when suddenly the fog moves in on great big mountain lion feet and you can’t see a bloody thing.

Inspiration for Grimpen Mire?

Fog often occurs near bogs or quicksands, which, quite literally, suck. In The Hound of the Baskervilles, a scheming murderer falls into Grimpen Mire and drowns. In Clouds of Witnesss, Lord Peter Wimsey falls into Peter’s Pot (no relation) and is rescued by his butler.

So here are my tips.  Bring mosquito repellant. Don’t carry high-heeled shoes in your car. Don’t be a scheming murderer. And take your butler with you.

I’m also informed by an English person that “you will arrive at the pub three minutes after it has stopped serving food,” so tell the butler to pack some sandwiches.

Spotted Dick: By Jem Stone from Chailey (Spotted Dick) [CC-BY-2.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Public footpath sign (croeso): Ceri Thomas [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Mt. Misery: By Own Herby talk thyme (Own work) [GFDL (www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
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2 thoughts on “Midges and adders and bogs, oh my!

  1. Oh I loved this. I’m sure I’ve seen you bravely battling a map in a force 8 gale while eating limp cucumber sandwiches and wearing one muddy welly while a sheep ran off with the other one !

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