Year: 2019

Northern Ireland 1 – Troubles, Game of Thrones & Ulster fry.

me_belfast

Although its nearby, I’d never been to Northern Ireland.

This is a picture of me in front of the Salmon of knowledge.

It is made up of pictures and symbols from Northern Ireland, contains a time capsule, and symbolises the cleaning of the river Lagan.

troubles

Although Northern Ireland is transformed from the days before the Good Friday agreement, I couldn’t help being nervous.

After all, my youth was filled with TV images of the troubles.

If you only did things that made you feel comfortable, you’d never do anything.

fer

We’d decided to travel by ferry, and the best part, the port it leaves from is near the Liver Building where I work.

So, I finished work on Friday evening, picked up my bag and set off.

fer_bar

I wasn’t sure what to expect on the ferry. Was it going to be filled with stag do’s and the like.

Nothing of the sort, they had a really nice bar/cafeteria, Wi-Fi throughout and a small cinema for Children.

The surprise was when it was time for bed. We headed for our bedroom, but lots of people produced sleeping bags and proceeded to “bed down” on the lounge floor.

fer_bunk

Out on-suit room was very comfortable. It was actually a 4 birth, but we pushed the 2 additional beds up.

The shower was piping hot, loads of room for our bags and lots of charging ports for our phones and tablets.

Now the bad news, it docks in Belfast at 6am, so no lie in bed.

city_hall

I had researched things, but for some reason I thought we’d arrive in the city centre. Not so, it took 90 minutes to walk into town, but the walk helped us to wake up.

We wander around the town, which was pretty quet at that time of the morning. This is City Hall, a very famous building in Belfast.

Straight away, I start hearing people speaking Ulster/Scotts, the local dialect.

ulster_fry

Speaking of Ulster, I was really hungry.

My guidebook said you musnt leave Belfast without trying an Ulster Fry.

It was quite delicious. One thing I notice when I travel is how people react to tipping. We put £2 into the tips jar in the cafe we visited and they looked delighted.

croad

Our first activity is a visit to Crumlin road Gaol.

The trip involves a tour of the prison, some lunch and a tour around the peace wall, one half given by a loyalist former prisoner and the 2nd half given by a republican former prisoner.

But first, were shown a short documentary outlining the history of Ireland, the troubles , the Good Friday agreement and the constitution.

tt_shank

We were told we could take as many pictures as we wanted but no video and no voice recording.

We were introduced to our first tour guide. Asked if he had been a UVA supported, he explained that he had actually been a combatant and regularly went out in the evining armed, usualy to provide security.

He said that we should ask him any question, he was keen to tell the story. I found him very open minded and well educated.

mur

She showed us the upper and lower Shankhill road where the UVA, the UVF and the Red Hand Commando were roughly based.

There were Murals everywhere and lots of tours run by Black Taxi.

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One surprisingly ironic moment was while waking near the peace all, he told us to slow down, because it was “dangerous”.

It actually turned out the road had a blind bend and he was concerned about road accidents.

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The peacewall, is there to protect the comunities (so in reality its not really about peace) we’d been given pens to write message on the wall.

I was amazed to see how close the houses were to each other. Our guide explained that in his youth, some older family members had convinced him to join the UVA. At that age he said, many young men are more easily influenced. I thought of my own youth and I had to agree.

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There is a door in the wall we visited. He said the last person to walk through this door was the Dalhi Lama (he wont be doing it again soon, on close inspection, its now welded shut).

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The Gates are closed remotely every night just before dark.

I asked him what would it have been like if he’d been on the “wrong” side of the wall after dark. He said simply, that never would have happened.

They would have recognised me simply because they didnt recognise me and then bad things would have happened…

We were introduced to our republican guide. I was surprised when both guides shook hands.

When I asked, the UVA chap said: We are both former combatants, we’ve been shot at and injured. We’ve both lost family, so we know what’s at stake!.

tt_bsands

He wasn’t a catholic and had been out on a peaceful human rights march when the “army” had broken his jaw with a rifle. “Thats when I joined the IRA” he said.

It has to be said that the 2nd guide, was not as open minded but he did tell his story eloquently.

He explained that Catholics had been persecuted by the police and the army, and struggled to find work and propper housing due to prejudice.

He said he felt that many of the problems had been resolved, but that the IRA had disarmed and disbanded yet the Red Hand Commando were still active.

We saw this Mural to Bobby Sands who we’d hear more about later in the Crumlin Prison tour.

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Interesting sticker.

There are still strong feeling about the local people and the police.

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We walk pass the Clonard Monastry where the peace talks were held.

tt_fallsroad

I’ve stood on the Great Wall of China, and I’ve watched the sun set over the Pyramids at Giza, but I honestly never thought I would stand on the Falls road.

I had read of so many terrible things happening on the Falls road. Over 3600 people died in the troubles, a quarter of them in a small area around where I’m standing.

Yet, it was like any other street, people were walking to the pub and carrying shopping home.

cuffs_lunch

With the outdoor part of the tour complete, we head back to Crumlin road gaol and the Cuffs restaurant there.

Lunch was no suprise. Irish stew, and actualy reallygood. We got a free drink, but I declined Guiness and instead had lager.

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We might our tour guide, a charming lady who walked us all around the prison and exercise yard telling us stories of things that had happened.

We even got to see the governers office. She said that Bobby Sands was married there, with only a few sandwiches and a prison guards for witnesses.

tt_cr_tunnel

Across the road, rather run down, was the courthouse. So many people were arrested at the time, that an underground tunnel underneath the road, connected the 2 buildings.

Our tour finishes and our guide asks if we’d like to sign the visitors book. She had been slightly nervous throughout, and it was only then hat we found out. For 14 years she’d been one of a handfull female prion guards who had worked at the Prison. She had retired and a few years later (a week earlier) had taken a job as a tour guide.

Perhaps some skills are transferable.

Northern Ireland 2 – Troubles, Game of Thrones & Ulster fry.

europa

The next day, our trip moves onto a completely different track.

Game of Thrones (one of my favourite TV programes) is produced mostly in Northern Ireland and there’s a chance to see some of the significant places from the series.

It would also enable us to see the Antrim coast and some of the amazing countryside there.

On our way to the starting point, we pass the Europa hotel. At one time, the most bombed hotel in Europe.

got_mel

We board the coach, and head off.

Our first stop, is the cave where Melisandre gives birth to the Shadow assassin.

antrim_coast

The tour continues and we see the beautiful scenery of the Antrim coast.

castle

Dunluce Castle, 17th century ruins used as the exterior of the House of Greyjoy.

scotland

Mull of Kintyre, only 12 miles away.

g_causeway

Although its not featured in Game of Thrones, the The Giants Causeway is a must see sight and we spent almost 2 hours here.

car_bridge

Further along, the Carrick-a- rede ropebridge and a chance to stretch out legs.

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Dark Hedge, know to every fan of GOT as the The Kings Road.

Not as romantic as it seems in the series, hundreds of people there, so many that they won’t allow you to drive down it now.

henry_cooke

Back to Belfast and a quick wander around the city before dinner.

The Green/Black statue of Dr Henry Cook.

Described as an “Anti libertarian” (I don’t know what that means) is featured in front of the Royal Belfast Academical Institution.

titanic_quarter

With a whole day left, we wander over to the docks and the Titanic quarter.

hw

One of the 2 large cranes (named Samson and Goliath) at one time, the largest cranes in the world.

H & W stands for Harland and Wolf, but the folk of Belfast say it means hello & welcome.

The dry dock they stand next to, is the largest in the world.

titanic_studios

Titanic studios.

Located in a building which was the original paint shed, where the Titanic was painted.

This is where all the indoor scenes from game of thrones are shot.

If you enjoyed a scene in a cave or a palace, they were probably in here.

The back lot outside had an entire Wildling village.

hor_boat

The ugliest boat in the world

titanic

Titanic museum.

We had wanted to go and see it, but it was 20 quid.

Nikki had seen a museum of Naval ships and I had seen a Game of Thrones exhibition, so we took leave of each other and went to these instead.

got_tour

The Game of Thrones touring exhibition is set to show around the world.

Since most of the items come straight from the Belfast studio, it made sense that the TEC exhibition hall in the Titanic quarter would be its first stop.

Luckily I’m there at just the right time.

jl_cost

Jamie Lanister’s costume.

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A re-creation of the crypt at Winterfell.

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The original Hall of Faces.

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A modern visual representation of the many faced god.

Recognise the guy on the top row, 2nd from the right.

got_ww

The leader of the the white walkers.

needle

On the right Arya Stark’s sword, Needle.

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After such an amazing trip, we head for some food and another really friendly bar.

Some more excellent food, then back to the port, to get our overnight ferry back to Liverpool and straight into work for 7:30am

I can talk about what’s gone in Northern Ireland before, as I just don’t know enough about it.

But as a travel destination today, its one of the friendliest, most interesting and easily accessed destinations I can think off.

Meteora Greece, monoliths and James Bond

intro

I’d wanted to visit Meteora, but could never justify an entire trip, just to see it.

Since I was spending Christmas in Athens and it was a short train journey from there, the Meteora starting pistol was fired.

arrival

Meteora is unique, as it has large round rock monoliths located right next to the village.

So close that you can literally walk out of your hotel and your at the foot of one.

A world heritage site, they contain a number of monastery’s on top.

jb2

My main interest came when I watched a James Bond film – For your eyes only (if your my sort of age, you may remember the theme song, by Shena Easton).

A significant part of the plot and ending are featured in Metora.

station

But first, we’ve got to get there.

We leave our hotel, and as we walked towards Athens railway station, it looked derelict and I wondered if it had closed down.

I remember reading on BBC News in 2008 that Greece was in such financial difficulty that it would be cheaper to close down the train network and transport all the passengers by Taxi.

platform

Luckily, that hadn’t happened, and we arrived to find hundreds of people with the same idea as us, to visit Meteora for Christmas.

train

It looked like chaos from the platform, but once the doors opened we found our seats.

Extremely comfortable, large windows to enjoy the the view and plenty of space to store our bags.

After a relaxing 5 hours we arrive Meteora.

met

Kalamata Railway station in Kalampaka.

We take a moment to orientate ourselves, then walk to hotel Galaxy.

galaxy

The receptionist is very helpful and the hotel clean and bright (a lot better than I’d expected for the money we’d paid).

In reception, they have a bus timetable and I was surprised they had so many regular services, considering it was Christmas & New Year.

But were here in search of adventure. We dump our bags and head out.

square

We wander around the town looking for some lunch (I had burger and chips, I was on holiday after all).

There were views like this one right from the centre of town. It wasn’t very warm, but the sky was completely clear.

Meteora-map

As we relax, we review a map of the area. Not exactly to UK OS map standard, but gives us a rough idea of how to see the things we want the following day.

xmas

Back into the centre of town for an evening of nice wine and delicious Greek food.

They had a nativity thing set up in the main square.

night

Our evening over, we walk back to our hotel.

I was delighted to see that they light up the monoliths at night in this spectacular fashion.

d1_1

In the morning, we head out early towards the village of Kastraki

frozen_sign

It’s so cold, that this map, is frozen, and I have to use a tesco clubcard to clear away the section we want to visit.

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We continue up a path from the village.

The are is clear and fresh and there are tree’s on each side of the road.

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We leave the road, had into the foothills, along a path.

The sun is up now and the views spectacular.

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We find an old military vehicle is abandoned next to a vineyard.

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Branching off, we follow a path between Great Meteoron and Varlam.

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The views on either side are spectacular.

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Some parts of the path need some tlc, this bench on the trail certainly wasn’t in a state to be sat on.

d1_9

As we arrive at the monastery of Great Meteoron (the view is looking back to the monastery of Varlam) we find loads of tourists who’ve travelled up by bus).

The ask us how we’ve got there. We point back down the trail and tell them where it comes out on the road. We have 2 maps, so we give one to a friendly couple who are wearing Dr Martens.

d1_10

Inside the monastery (its a few Euros to look around), the paintings are superb. After a short while, we walk to the monastery of Varlam, and the views all around are incredible.

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But instead of going back, we head deeper into the mountains. Our intention is to loop back around Doupiani and take a circular route back to Kastraki and onto Kalampaka.

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On the way, we see a statue and flag to Papathymios Vlachava who famously led the fight agains Ali Pashi of the Ottoman empire.

It was strange really, as it was literally in the middle of nowhere.

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We pass another monastery. This time, its not actually on top of the monolith, but carved into the side.

Well off the beaten track, it was unfortunately closed.

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Back down through the mountains and forests, looking back up the trail.

d1_end

Back down through Kastraki, its just turning 6pm.

We stop on the way home at a family run restaurant – chips and red wine.

d2_1

The next morning, we choose a different route entirely.

Leading straight from Kalampaka, the paths are much better maintained.

d2_3

Were heading for the monastery of the Holly Trinity.

jb

Which in the James Bond film, looks like this, and is called St Cyrils.

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A spectacular scene in the film involved Bond climbing up a shear face of the monolith.

We’ve no such ambitions, and use the normal path up through the rocks.

d2_4

Inside St Stephens monastery, an enormous series of buildings.

d2_5

The are outside St Stephens has amazingly clear air, spectacular views of Kalampaka and Kastraki, and a superb spot to relax (and the place where the ATAC system was destroyed at the end of For your eyes only.

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Our adventure ends a bit more serenely.

With 2 hours before our train home, we relax with some snacks, and a cold beer, back in Kalamapaka.

Return to Athens

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I originally visited Athens in 2005 (you can read about it here and here)

I like to go away for Christmas. We visited 2 destinations in Greece, and it gave me a chance to go back to Athens.

metro

Straight out of the airport, we buy a metro tickets and head for the centre of Athens.

It wasn’t particularly warm, but we had a fab time.

room

We arrive at Kubik Athens Smart Hotel. It was a budget affair, and I wasn’t sure what it would be like.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. It had a friendly bar, exemplary customer service and a hotel room out of tomorrows world.

It was so modern in fact, that the curtains, lights, tv and everything were controlled from a tablet.

market

But were no Rock Stars and we don’t travel to hang out in hotels.

Out exploring. Its a few years since I was in Athens (the recession happened in between times). The people were still very friendly but some of the streets were really dirty.

We start off  by wandering around the Monastiraki flee market.

ag2

The Agora museum entrance is super for taking pictures as it really leads the eye.

shield

On my first visit to the Agora museum, I completely missed this fascinating Spartan shield.

From the battle of Sphacteria in 425 BC. A priceless artefact, it’s the only one of its kind in the world.

In practical terms, its hard to imagine someone running around the battle field with this heavy thing, but its said that the Spartans were “a special kind” of men.

gate

I decided to pick out a few places I didn’t visit last time – Hadrian’s Arch.

track2

The stunning Panatheniac stadium.

Finishing point for the modern Athens marathon, the site has been used countless times for sporting events and the first Olympic games were held here.

guard

Presidential palace.

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The guard on the front gate is a member of an elite group of commando’s, but unfortunately has to wear ridiculous clothes out of tradition.

Back to our hotel, quick clean up then drinks in the hotel bar.

Some idiot Japanese students order take out Pizza’s and stank the place out. Shame, were were enjoying ourselves.

Never mind, we decided to head out for the evening.

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 An enchanting restaurant, done out like a general store with cans and supplies everywhere.

parthenon

Next morning and we head for the Acropolis to see the Parthenon.

om1

Last time I was here, the Parthenon marbles were stored in this small building.

The Greeks have always argued for the return of the other half of the marbles, (referred to in Britain, as the Elgin marbles), presently housed in the British Museum.

The British museum had argued that the Athenian museum was not appropriate for such significant artefacts and that was their bases for keeping hold of them.

The Greek government had countered, by constructing an incredible new museum to host the collection. So, this building was now empty (it would have made a superb cafe, and there didn’t seem to be anywhere else to get coffee !).

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A view from the Acropolis, showing the new Acropolis museum bellow.

It was only half built, the last time I was here, and I was disappointed not to be able to see it.

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The museum is literally built on top of an archaeological site, which we see as we walk towards the entrance.

Excavation of the site bellow the museum continues.

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Opened in 2009, I wandered around, and I really was impressed with its informative displays, overall quality of the building and the professionalism of the staff.

Lunch in the cafe delicious and the service superb.

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A re-creation of the Parthenon, with the marbles displayed in relative position. The ones that are missing have an ostentatious sign that says AWAITING RETURN FROM THE BRITISH MUSEUM.

the walls around the museum are glass so the marbles can be viewed in daylight, as they would be if you were wandering around the outside of the Parthenon.

nm4

A design feature of the museum is this viewing gallery, which allows the Parthenon view to interact with the viewing of the marbles.

We head back to our hotel in a reflective mood. A few drinks and dinner near out hotel, then off to bed to prepare for our trip to Meteora.

night

Arriving back in the evening, its dark and some of the streets we walk down aren’t particularly inviting

nydinner

No matter, we get to our hotel without problems and go out for dinner (its New Years Eve and my thoughts are off the amazing possibilities of the coming year).

fireworks

Back at our hotel (360 degree pop art hotel if your ever near there).

A drink on the rooftop terrace has views of the acropolis.

As its New Year, they have a fireworks display.

view

In the morning, standing in the same spot.

We had breakfast, but decided to eat indoors as the weather wasn’t very nice.

arc1

Our first top on New Years day, is the National Archaeological museum.

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The place was massive and it took me 2 hours to see all of it.

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But were on holiday, so after lots of exploring, they have a nice garden in the middle,  so we stop to relax in the cafe.

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A pigeon had somehow got inside the cafe.

Nobody seemed to mind, and the pigeon just seemed to wander around (and why not, he wasn’t doing any harm).

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We continue on our way and decide to visit another place I missed last time – Lycabettus hill.

I wanted to take the cable car, but Nikki insisted we walk.

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Has spectacular views of the city, and there were hundreds of people at the top.

The 360 degree views of Athens were incredible.

Strangely, there didn’t appear to be many skyscrapers, which for an international capital, was a surprise.

metropolis

Back into town, the Metropolitan cathedral, a modern building that contrasts with all the ancient stuff I’ve been seeing over the past few days.

A few drinks, then back on the metro to the airport.

vote

At the Airport, about to go home.

A machine allows me to vote: Should the Elgin Marbles be returned to Athens ?

I visit the British Museum frequently. They’ve got enough artefacts to spare.

Travel Emergency Repair Kit

pack_list

In just a few weeks I’ll be embarking on the most ambitious trip of my life, to Easter Island, the Antarctic Peninsula, Patagonia, The Falkland Islands, Argentina and Chile.

The trip is  to celebrate my 50th birthday, it will eclipse anything that I’ve done before and will be my first
adventure on a cruise ship.

Obviously I have an established/proven system for packing which has already begun in earnest (packing sheet shown above, ready to be filled in).

This is also the time of your when I review all of my gear and equipment.

Ripped clothes off to the menders, broken or damaged things to be repaired, replace things that are just worn out, change battery’s in torches, sharpen penknives etc.

It’s also important to open things like first aid kits and check all of the equipment inside is still functioning and in date.

erk_in_box

On that subject, this weeks blog is about my emergency repair kit (or ERK as I call it).

As I go through the contents, I hope to inspire other people to pack one of their own, for future trips.

alps

Some years ago, I did a few courses in Alpine mountaineering and the Alpine style of going light.

Although I decided not to continue with it as a hobby, I learned lots of usefull things, and one of them was the philosophy of travelling ultra light.

Traditionally, outdoor people take things like a spare torch, a spare waterproof and such like.

In the Alpine style, everything is kept to the bare minimum of essentials (to the point sometimes off sawing the handles off tooth brushes and drilling holes in spoon handles).

A minimal first aid kit and an emergency repair kit are carried to put you and your equipment back together if something goes wrong.

Although designed for the high mountains miles from anywhere, I’ve applied mine so it can be used in lots of different environments and provides peace of mind wherever I go.

erk_on_table

The whole kit laid out on my work table.

On the bottom left, is the plastic box I carry it in (from the £ shop, you can guess what it cost :).

I’ll go through the items in order. Their inclusion should be self explanatory, but I’ll add notes where necessary.

rubber_bands

1. Rubber bands
I wrap them around the outside of the box to make it extra secure.

rsack_clip_and_webbing

2. Replacement rucksack clip and spare webbing

A bit difficult to see in this picture, but the thing on the left, is a replaceable main rucksack clip. It has a screw across the middle so it can be re-attached.

The webbing on the right is the old fashioned way this used to be done, buy tying a tape know (and useful in its own right).

superglue

3. Superglue
Always store in small plastic bags. that way if they burst, they won’t destroy other contents in the box.

Ever wonder why nobody had heard of superglue before the Vietnam war ?. It was used for in-field emergency trauma care.

safety_pins

4. Safety pins
They have numerous uses (they can even be used as fish hooks). I’ve used them in the past, with an airline blanket to make a serviceable sleeping bag.

wire

5. Stainless steel wire

pen_ducktape

6. Small stubby pen, wrapped with gaffa/duck tape

Something simple like a pen, is easily forgotten.

Watching the  A team in my youth, and they used with some aluminium poles, a polythene sheet and a lawnmower to make a microlight, after being locked in a shed. I’ve never built anything so ambitious, but this stuff has too many practically uses to even list here.

cable_ties

7. Cable ties of various sizes

lighter_torch_etape

8. Lighter with electrical tape

Ability to light a fire may be useful. Electrical tape can be used for jobs too fine for the duck tape.

This single use lighter was bought from the £ shop and featured a small torch, adding additional functionality to the kit.

cords

9. Lightweight Para-cord

Bought from Cotswold outdoors, 2 metres packs much smaller than normal “green” para-cord, but can hold body weight (mine, which is quite a lot).

square_candle

10. Small piece of candle shaved square

I borrowed this from the tobacco tin survival kit in the SAS survival handbook.

With a coke can, can make a simple lantern during a power failure or used on its own to assist in fire-lighting.

sewing_kit

11. Sewing kit in a plastic container

Has a few different colours of thread, 4 standard needles, some really thick thread and a sale makers needle
for bigger jobs.

mini_multitool

12. Small Multi-tool

Features a knife, bottle/can opener, pliers, nail-file and multiple screwdrivers.

folding_corkscrew

13. Collapsible corkscrew

A pure luxury, but it would be awful to be in a situation where you have a bottle of wine and no means to open it !.

spectacle_repair

14. Spectacle repair kit

Some small screws, 2 small screwdrivers and a simple magnifying glass. £1.50 from Tesco.

aaa_batteries

15. 3 AAA batteries

Spares for  my head-torch.

plastic_bag

16. Plastic bags

Can be used to carry/purify water, waterproof important objects and even make a window for a survival shelter.

tenacious_tape

17. Tenacious tape

Tape for repairing clothing like sleeping bags, waterproof jackets and stuff like that. Expensive, but it performs near permanent repairs, wherever you are.

box

Finally, the empty box with a 50p coin to show its size.

I hope you found some of this interesting, next week I’ll be talking adventure first aid kits.

Thanks once again for reading, the search for adventure continues…