In April, I discovered geocaching. For the uninitiated, geocaching is a real-world treasure hunt where people find caches hidden by other players using GPS.
Like all good treasure hunts, the basic premise is that people hide a thing somewhere and other people find it. Caches can be hidden in places of natural beauty, outside train stations, near historical sites, really pretty much anywhere that’s sensible or worth visiting.
They range from tiny magnetic nanos which are the size of your fingertip, to large plastic filing boxes. Inside the container will be at the very least a paper log on which finders record their name and the date, but can also include ‘swaps’ (cracker-type items to encourage finders to take something and leave something of equal value), trackables (more on that later), or just general bits of tut that people leave as a kind of physical ‘I was here’.
According to the website, there are more than 2.7 million active geocaches and over 6m people taking part worldwide. So there could be one at the end of your street.
So how do you find a cache? You can use the website, an app on your phone or a GPS device. Each cache is logged by the hider using co-ordinates which can then be searched and the finder goes to the location to find the cache. The hider gives a description of the hiding place and a hint, but then the finder has to search out the cache, add their name to the log and re-hide it. Geocaching as we know it now has been going since 2000, but originated out of a game called letterboxing, which started in Dartmoor in 1854.
It’s pretty addictive.
Why do I do it? It’s pretty addictive. It’s also great for getting you out of the house and finding stuff you never knew was there. I’ve found a Neolithic dolmen in the Loire Valley, fossils embedded in the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral and a cold war bunker in Essex. I wouldn’t have known any of this stuff was there without geocaching. In the last few months, I’ve spent afternoons getting drenched in local parks, clambering through brambles and putting my hands into places, which being a bit of a lazy princess, I would have shrunk from previously. Trust me, it’s fun!
It’s also obviously evolved in the last 15 years and people have taken advantage of footpaths and trails to place a series of geocaches. One of those is the Essex Way (not to be confused with the similarly-named TV show).
The Essex Way is a waymarked footpath 81 miles long, extending from Epping to Harwich. A monster was created when some enterprising geocachers laid a trail of 450 caches along it. And that’s how I ended up walking 12 miles over two weekends.
Epping to Coopersale
On the Friday of the August bank holiday weekend, we decided to make a start on the Essex Way. We think the section between the start at Epping and the M11 near Coopersale was about four miles, but being total fuckwits, we forgot to measure the actual distance.
The journey began in the car park of Epping tube station and it was not auspicious. Cache 001 on the Essex Way is what’s known as a multi, which means you either get given a starting point and have to go to another location, or find out other information first and then decipher the co-ordinates of the physical cache. 001 was the latter. Unfortunately, someone had decided to stand right next to where the cache was and wasn’t showing any signs of moving.
This brings me on to Hanging Around and Looking Suspicious.
When you do geocaching, you have to be fairly discreet. If someone is sitting on the park bench to which the magnetic nano you’re seeking is attached, you can’t just go up, wish them a cheery good day and search for the cache. This is because people not involved in the game tend to steal caches, not understanding what they are but still somehow discerning that it’s secret and activating their latent magpie tendencies.
Also, as any modern-day fule kno, hanging around for no reason makes people think you are up to no good. It’s not unknown for people to see someone apparently acting suspiciously around a hidden container and call the bomb squad.
Smartphones are an excellent solution to the problem of how to hang around and not be mistaken for a terrorist. It’s surprisingly easy to linger while pretending to either be on the phone or checking your email. But effectively, if someone is hovering near the cache you want to find, you either have to wait them out or just come back another day. The ace up our sleeve was that to avoid having to retrace our steps on a non-circular walk, we’d parked one car in Epping and one car in Coopersale, which meant we’d have to come back afterwards.
The walk itself started along an alleyway behind some houses, opening up into a recently harvested field. The footpath is clearly marked so there’s no danger of straying into someone’s field, but the terrain is constantly changing. After skirting a couple of fields, we found ourselves heading up a narrow and muddy track partly overgrown with brambles and hedges.
The caches are all pretty close to each other, no more than 500m in most places, so you need to keep an eye on the GPS so you know when the next one is coming up. Most are easy to find with minimal clambering required. Brambles aren’t the only hazard when geocaching in the wild either. Oh no. The location of Cache 005 had become the home for a nest of wasps, so while we could see the container, we decided against trying to retrieve it.
The trail eventually brought us out on a road in Coopersale Street and we picked up the path again the other side. One of the side benefits of geocaching is that you can come across some unexpected delights. Just over the road, we found a field lined with blackthorn bushes. And what grows on blackthorn bushes? Why, sloes. What can you do with sloes? Why, sloe gin. Sloes can be incredibly difficult to find, but here were literally thousands of the things, so we took full advantage and picked enough to make eight litres of sloe gin.
At the top of the field, we had an unpleasant surprise. A family had parked themselves right on top of where the next cache was. And given the fantastic view across the fields, we were afraid they were set for the duration. This is where Hanging Around and Looking Suspicious become even more of a problem. In an urban setting it’s not too hard to deal with, but when you’re in a field in the middle of nowhere, you can’t stand staring at a family, willing them to fuck off because you will just look like a weirdo and possibly get arrested. Fortunately, as we dithered for a minute pretending to look at maps on the GPS, they cleared off.
We were nearing the end of our self-imposed section as we headed into Gernon Bushes Nature Reserve, part of what was Coopersale Common, but now managed by the Essex Wildlife Trust. It’s a beautiful bit of woodland, but not the most peaceful, with the roar of traffic from the M11 which borders the site. Our final cache in the walk took us over the footbridge spanning the motorway.
The Epping to Coopersale section took about three hours for us to walk and we estimated it at about four miles. You could do it quicker, but we were mostly ambling along, plus there was time taken to find each cache (001-018) and generally faff about admiring the view. Here’s what it looked like after I logged the day’s finds:
Next section: Coopersale to High Ongar.