Exmoor’s Great Cliffs

Route: From Porlock to Combe Martin; 28 miles


We had originally planned to attempt a circular route around the Exmoor National Park. However, after David Gurnett, a very knowledgeable and highly respected Education Officer, phoned me to discuss our challenge and plans, we eagerly took his advice to run along the stunning Exmoor Coastal path. Having worked in the Exmoor National Park for over 30 years, David was very enthusiastic about what this route had to offer and we were looking forward to having the opportunity to meet him in person during our run at the National Park Visitors Centre in Lynmouth. Our change in route had resulted in some complex logistics which was going to require some extra support in terms of car shuttling. Our wishes were granted when Tom Bennett, an old university friend and fellow Geophysicist offered to help us out and join us on the run. I had not seen Tom for over 18 years and it was like no time had passed as Pam, Tom and I caught up on old times in the pub the night before. Unfortunately, our catch up had to be cut short as with a 28 mile route planned, over 2400 metres of climbing and a car shuttle to factor in, we were in for an early start.

By 6:45am the following morning, we were off and were treated to a beautiful sunrise as we drove to Combe Martin to drop of one vehicle and then on to Porlock where we would start our run. It was also a great opportunity to marvel at the coastline that makes this National Park so unique. Exmoor has the highest coastline in England and Wales with the coastline hills raising to 433m at Culbone Hill. This is due to the topography of the site which is particularly dramatic and has had a big impact on the people who have settled here. Due to the collision of tectonic plates, the bedding planes have been lifted and tilted, resulting in steep cliffs dropping down in to the Bristol Channel, but far gentler slopes stretching out into the moorlands to the South. This has been the cause of major floods in the area; particularly that of August 1952 where the equivalent of three months’ discharge from the River Thames flowed into the Lyn rivers bringing 50 000 tonnes of boulders with it. The Exmoor National Park website has lots more interesting information on this.

In addition to the physical process at work, our Science focus for the day was to be background radioactivity as we wanted to compare the values we got here to those we had got in Dartmoor. David had informed us that we should see a difference due to the underlying Geology and felt that this would be good to investigate. You can read more about the data we collected and the conclusions we drew in Pam’s blog.


Reading Background Radiation Levels


Vehicles in place and bags packed, we started our route along a short stretch of road, before turning right and dropping down towards the pebbly shoreline. Reaching the beach and then taking the first of many background radioactivity readings that day, it felt like the clock had been turned back 20 years and we were all on a field trip again. We all reflected on what an impact those field trips had had on us and how it has driven us all to pursue careers that allow us to spend time outdoors, interacting with nature.


Running Along the Beach


As the pebbles at the end of the beach came to an end, we joined a typically English woodland path, enjoying the shaded canopy of these established trees. This is a special feature of the Exmoor coastline, again caused by the topography of the land. As it is steep and hence remarkably sheltered, coastal woods have been able to develop. We weaved in and out of the trees, occasionally getting a glimpse of the sea and steep sided cliffs that lay beneath the coastline path ahead of us. With the humid air causing us to sweat, the insects took a distinct liking to us. I felt that we were in the Amazon rainforest or a scene out of Jurassic Park as we fended them off.


Running in the Coastal Woodland


Within a few hours, we started the steep descent down into Lynmouth, for our prearranged meeting with David. We had arrived a little earlier than planned so wandered onto the idyllic Eastern Beach to take another reading and pose for some photos. Happy not to rush, we slowly wandered through a pretty park, then onto the bridge across the mouth of the River Lyn. We stopped and stared at large boulders in its course which were remaining evidence of the floods of August 1952.


Mouth of the River Lyn


With the visitor centre in sight, we decided to go in and explore before David joined us. The centre had a wide range of impressive interactive displays, keenly shown to us by the hugely knowledgeable and enthusiastic staff. They were all clearly passionate about what they did and this shone through as soon as we started talking to them. Within minutes we heard a familiar voice and knew that David had arrived. Armed with cups of teas kindly produced to us by the centre, we headed upstairs to the meeting room to discuss our findings from our background radioactivity investigation. David also shared some his extensive knowledge on the topography of the region and how it had effected the region. He also told us about all the excellent work the National Park does for schools in terms of getting pupils out of the classroom as well as about the great effort that they have done in taking the work of the National Parks to them e.g. via audio links.  With time pressing on, we said our goodbyes and made our way to the nearest café. We needed to stock up on reserves before we tackled the remaining 1700m of climbing and 15 miles that we planned to cover that day.


Posing for a Shot on the Coastal Path


Fuelled up, we continued our journey West along the coastal path. We stared in awe as the Valley of the Rocks came into view. Hugh towers of rock rose up above us in all directions, images of which are now crystallised in my mind. There were more stunning seascape views in store for us as we continued on to Heddon’s Mouth, Holdstone Down and Great Hangman Cairn before starting our descent down into Combe Martin. Exhausted, relieved and a little dehydrated, we focused on eating, drinking and a quick change before letting ourselves reflect on the day. Some days you know you will never forget. With stunning views, great company and perfect weather we all knew this was one of them. A massive thank you must go to David Gurnett for recommending this outstanding route and his invaluable advice and guidance.


Nuclear Moments on Dartmoor and Exmoor


Reading Background Radioactivity Levels


Ok, so let us talk about a subject that most people have an opinion on but is often misunderstood… Nuclear radiation! Do not get me wrong, large doses of this stuff can make you very sick and in some cases will be lethal. However, we are exposed to radioactivity, at a low level, on a daily basis. In fact, we even have radioactive nuclei within our body. Our body’s immune system, if we are fit and healthy, can deal with this low level of nuclear radiation without us even realising that we are fighting it. In fact, our clever system of defence is constantly fighting not only these low levels of nuclear radiation but also viruses and other nasty microbes, effects of ultra-violet radiation, chemicals that we digest in our food and many other sources of not so healthy things. That is one of the amazing characteristics of us humans. We are designed to survive as best as possible!

So, back to nuclear radiation; firstly this is the type of radiation that is released from the nucleus of an unstable atom and there are three types. The largest, least energetic but most ionising is alpha radiation. Fortunately our skin and even 5cm of air will absorb the energy of an alpha particle, basically meaning that we are safe from this type of nuclear radiation unless it enters our body. The second type is beta radiation, a much smaller particle that has higher energy but is less ionising so will interact with our bodies less unless in very high doses. And finally, there is gamma radiation, the most energetic of the three types but the least ionising so again, we need to be exposed to large doses before we should experience any ill effects.

The next fact about nuclear radiation to bear in mind is its randomness. What this means is that we cannot predict when an unstable atom of a radioactive substance, like uranium, will decay and release nuclear radiation. So any measurements that we make of nuclear radiation exposure is an average over a certain length of time, meaning that we may have been exposed to slightly more or slightly less than this average. Any measurements will seemingly jump around depending on the amount of nuclear radiation the tube sensor in a radioactivity meter encounters each minute.

The final important fact we need to discuss is background radiation. As mentioned above, we are exposed to background radiation all of the time, be it from the buildings that we live or work in to the food that we eat and the amount of time we spend flying to different destinations. We receive nuclear radiation from basically two sources; the Earth and anything that we use or derive from it, and solar radiation from the Sun and space.

So with all this in mind, we can explain why were so interested in studying this on Dartmoor and doing a comparison with its neighbouring National Park, Exmoor. Despite the similarities of the moorland on the surface of each park, geologically they are vastly different. Dartmoor primarily sits over a gigantic granite intrusion called a batholith, squeezed into the country rock around 300 million years ago, and now famously exposed as tors. Besides these iconic outcrops, it is clear to see the importance of this rock to earlier generations since it makes up the main component of most buildings, drystone walls and bridges.

In contrast Exmoor’s geology is about 100 million years older; a combination of predominately sedimentary rocks with some volcanic rocks towards the west. Like with Dartmoor, these local rocks have also played a key part in the shaping of settlements in this region. In both parks, humans have been fortunate not to have needed to look far for suitable building materials. In Exmoor, the abundant shales and sandstones have been put to good use to build a range of structures for shelter and protection.

Granite and other igneous rocks are good sources of background radiation since they contain very small amounts of highly radioactive minerals. Sandstones and shales typically contain significantly less radioactive minerals so would be expected to give out much lower readings of nuclear radiation. With both of us having backgrounds in geophysics, this was one of our Scientific focuses that we were most looking forward to carrying out; to compare the nuclear radiation readings for Exmoor and Dartmoor National Parks, with possibly additional information from the Peak District National Park to further compare. We agreed to take 10 readings (Time constraints allowing) along our respective routes to try to map out a simplistic picture of the nuclear radiation readings for each park. We were hoping to use the measurements to look for any variation within each park and also a comparison between the two. The stopping to take measurements also gave us a little breathing time and recovery before pushing on through the mileage!

Armed with a couple of radioactivity meters and lots of useful geological information from Dave Gurnett and Orlando Rutter, the educational representatives for the Exmoor and Dartmoor National Parks respectively, we had high expectations of getting some useful data. Physics investigations have a habit of not always working in the classroom so we were really keen to get some success in the field. Excitingly, it worked! Even though readings could only be relative due to the limited sensitivity of the meters, there was a clear difference between our findings from each park. The presence of the granite in Dartmoor produced significantly more elevated average reading of around 0.17 micro-Sieverts, compared to an average of 10 micro-Sieverts for Exmoor. Fantastic, a physics experiment that not only worked but was great fun in collecting!

However, before we finish off this blog, there are some important notes to remember. Firstly, nuclear radiation is measured in several units, including Bequerel (Bq) to measure the rate at which nuclear radiation is given out by a source and Sievert (Sv) to measure the estimated dose absorbed by the body. It is impossible to mathematically convert from Bequerel to Sievert since one is an actual measurement and one is estimation. The map below shows the geographical variation of measured radiation from radon in the UK. Equivalent radiation dose measurements from geology range from approximately 0.400mSv per year in the darkest regions to 0.200mSv per year in the lightestradon-map

Secondly and most importantly, is that you would actually need to be exposed to around 1000mSv in a single dose to experience any radiation poisoning symptoms and a single dose of at least 5000mSv to cause death!!! Also, since our biggest exposure to nuclear radiation comes from solar radiation, with average values of 230mSv for anyone living at sea level and adding on an extra 0.010mSv for every 100m above sea level, you can see that a much bigger source comes from above. If you are a regular flyer, you can also add on 0.040mSv per hour of flying. This means that it is far better for your health to make regular visits to our National Parks than it is to fly off to far-away destinations for holiday!








Dartmoor Delights

Route: Circular Route from Dartmeet via Postbridge and Widecombe in the Moor, 27.05 miles

Dartmoor_-_Dartmeet_Circular_-_NO_ACCESS_PLANDartmoor kept us on our toes during our run across its vast moors and ionic tors. It shared many delights with us during our short time there. We arrived the night before and were treated to magnificent views across the park, unique dry stone walls and plenty of inquisitive Dartmoor ponies. Having not spent much time in Dartmoor, I had little knowledge of the terrain underfoot and was pleasantly surprised to see rolling heath and moorland with gritstone tors sitting proudly upon them.


Pam recounted tales of wild camping trips she had had here and Duke of Edinburgh expeditions she had led as we drove the last few miles across the park to the YHA near Postbridge. She also reminded me of the Ten Tors event that takes place during May each year. This is an event purely for young people. Any school, scout or cadet force organisation in the South West of England can enter teams for this life changing event. The event tests every team member’s levels of grit and resilience as they complete a gruelling 35, 45 or 55 mile trek across 10 nominated Tors during two days whilst being completely self-sufficient in terms of food, water and shelter. Visit the Ten Tors website at http://www.tentors.org.uk/ for more information.

We woke up to heavy mist with hardly any visibility on the morning of our run. Driving to our start point proved tricky; the light from the headlights of oncoming cars was attenuated as it was absorbed and scattered by the thick blanket of water droplets. This gave me little time to react as we drove along the narrow roads so we were relieved to arrive safely at Dartmeet where we were to start our run.

With background radiation as our Scientific focus for the day, we set the background radiation detection meter running as we commenced the usual faff process that we go through before the start of each run. With water and food loaded, map in hand and radioactive meter at the ready, we were off! Well, at least for 700m until we hit the first of three sets of stepping stones that we encountered within the first three miles. Team work and some paddling ensured that we got across all the stepping stones without getting our shoes wet.


We marvelled at the millions of dew-covered spider webs, draped over gorse bushes, and the bright red rowan berries lining our route. Our brains kicked into gear as we conversed about all the underlying physics principles at work. Tensile strength, angles of webs and Hooke’s Law could all be readily applied to these intricate and fascinating webs which surrounded us as we ventured across the moors. Stopping to take readings, time was slipping away and we could tell from the outset that we were going to take a little longer on this run than we had for the others. However, our spirits were high and we were enjoying the cool feeling of the surrounding mist on our skin; it was a relief from the humidity of the last run.


A short while later we reached Postbridge where we met up with Pam’s parents. Grateful for the water and extra food that they had ready for us, we bought them a tea at the local shop and had a brief chat with the owner. He had built dry walls for the Dartmoor National Park for many years prior to taking on the shop and we had a fascinating conversation with him on the different styles of walls in the different National Parks. This was something that we had observed as we drove into the park. He informed us that in recent times, rock has been brought in by machinery. However, historically, the style of the walls and the size of fields was dependent on what could be sourced locally. Eager to get a few more miles under our belt before we stopped for lunch, we said our goodbyes and carried on off across the moors.

With some tricky navigation and plenty of prickly gorse to contend with, we were kept on our toes during the next three-mile section, testing our mood at times. However, with the sun starting to break through the mist and the Two Moors Way stretching out in front of us, we let our emotions drift through us and vocalised how we felt. This is the great thing about good teamwork. Pam and I have known each other for many years and know only too well that friendships are tested when the going is tough, not when the going is easy. As ever, our relationship was only strengthened by our adventures that day.

Passing numerous stone circles and old settlements, our minds tried to image how life must have been like for those who made this land their home in the distant past. Slowly climbing up onto the top of the moor, we looked over towards Bennett’s Cross and could just make out Pam’s folks patiently waiting for us at out next meeting point. Food and drink at the ready, we greeted them with big smiles before devouring their offerings and setting off across the Tors. We were ever conscious of time, keen to keep at good pace going for the next 5 miles. Reaching a vast stone circle, called Grimspound, we stopped for another background reading and photo, impressed by the scale of the structure.


The presence of several cute Dartmoor ponies, their rich brown coats catching our eyes, only added to the atmosphere. A quick but very informative conversation about other worthwhile sites to visit in Dartmoor with two lovely visitors from Colorado, Barbara and Paul, before continuing on our way.


With the church spire of Widecombe-in-the-Moor coming into view as the mist cleared to the east of us, we knew that we were approaching our next rendezvous point. We were treated to a very friendly welcome as Pam’s mum beckoned us over to a café and told us to order before they closed for the day. We staggered in to be met by beaming smiles and lots of words of encouragement from the team at Café on the Green. Slightly embarrassed, we ordered drinks and cakes for Pam’s folks and ourselves before savouring them outside.


Eager not to stiffen up too much, the stop was short and we soon said a big thank you and goodbye before starting our final leg for the day. A few hundred metres down the road and we were stopped in our tracks by a friendly shout out from a man standing by a shop door.

“If you are who I think you are, you are late for school!”

We both looked around to see him smiling. Joining in with the joke we smiled back and replied.

“Yes, we are very late for school!”

We fought through our aches and pains as we dragged our bodies up the steep climb back onto the moor. As the mist swirled around us, we hatched a plan to jump into the cold waters of the East Dart River which was conveniently placed next to where I had parked the van. A few miles down the road and we had started our final descent. Trying to not get too excited, we trotted across the car park, before grabbing a towel and a change of clothes and throwing ourselves into the cool water. After a quick cool off, it was time to refuel and say our final goodbye to Pam’s parents. They had been a great source of mental and physical support all day and had helped make our Dartmoor experience a very pleasurable one!


Gear Up for Animal Magic

We saved most of our Science investigations for the day after our New Forest marathon. This was because we had agreed to meet with Helen Robinson, one of the New Forest’s Education Officers and her colleague Aynsley. Our meeting place for the day was the Forest Leisure Cycling Centre in Burley, where Luke had kindly agreed to loan Pam and I two bikes for a couple of hours to do some demonstrations. After meeting up with Helen and Aynsley, we picked up our bikes and rode along the road to one of the many cycle tracks. Pam and I really enjoyed the freedom of being on a bike again and letting our legs spin underneath us. The large comfy seats were much appreciated as our gluts were still screaming at us from our run the day before.


Pam, Helen, Aynsley and I Enjoying Some Fun on the Bikes

Once we were out on the track, we had fun with Helen and Aynsley discussing how energy efficient bikes are, how we keep them stable by shifting our centre of mass and how gears are designed to assist us. We will be generating some resources on the physics of bikes as there is so much physics involved and they are great fun to ride!

Helen and Aynsley were great sports and threw themselves into all the activities we had planned for them. Aynsley even agreed to race Pam, a fun way to demonstrate which gear combination gave the biggest advantage when racing a short distance down the cycle track. The race was closely matched but with Aynsley on a higher gear and hence able to reach a greater maximum speed, she just beat Pam over the line. However, she did have to do more work, to apply a greater force, in order to get the bike moving at the start!


Demonstrating Stability



The Great Gear Race!

After our activities came to an end, Pam and I enjoyed a leisurely ride back to the cycle centre. We then dropped off the bikes to head over to the New Forest Reptile Centre to observe some animal magic. With Helen as our guide and the warm conditions ensuring that the reptiles came out to play, we were in for a real treat. Not only did the Reptile Centre house all the reptiles which were native to the UK, it was also free to enter and in a beautiful setting. Many of the reptiles were in a prime position, basking on warm surfaces like logs and tiles when we arrived. This is where my FLIR infrared camera enabled me to capture infrared images of a Common Lizard, an Adder and a Smooth Snake.


A Common Lizard Warming up on a Log


An Adder Warming up on a Log

They were all in the process of warming their cold blood via the surfaces on which they lay and the warmth of the environment around them. We could observe this by measuring the amount of infrared radiation the reptiles emitted. All living objects emit infrared radiation which forms part of the electromagnetic spectrum. However, a cold blooded animal does not use internally generated energy to regulate its body temperature, so it requires far less energy than warm blooded animals, or endotherms. Warm blooded animals, such as humans, other mammals and birds, have internal mechanisms that maintain their body temperature within a certain range, regardless of the ambient temperature of surroundings. This self-regulation requires vast amounts of energy that is obtained through frequent meals. A cold blooded animal does not need to eat as often and might eat one meal every few weeks. As a result, cold blooded animals are able to thrive in remote areas such as small islands and deserts where food is too scarce to support warm blooded animals.

We could have marvelled at the animal magic at work all day. However, Dartmoor National Park was calling, so after a quick and inspiring chat with Richard who ran the centre and a big thank you and goodbye to Helen, we got on the road.

New Forest Trot

Route: Almost circular route from Lyndhurst to Burley, 26.26miles


OK, so our original plan for this marathon did not quite happen as we wanted it but like anything science and outdoorsy, it is all about being flexible! Let me explain….

In addition to our Physics investigations throughout the month, we are also looking into different aspects of how the human body is affected by endurance efforts, including some of the misconceptions out there about how to prepare for such events. One such concept is the use of refined carbohydrates and sugar-based foods as a suitable fuel. A fair number of people asked us about carbo-loading during the weeks leading up to this Challenge and we have even joked about the need for cake to keep us going. Sure, cake is a great treat and since we are burning a significant amount of energy, there is little reason for us not to indulge. However, our goal is to not only to complete these marathons but to be fully functioning human beings by the end of them too! There is a huge choice of cereal and energy bars out there, most of them purely sugar based, which are heavily promoted as suitable sustenance for the outdoors and sport. We wanted to look into the effect of refined sugar on our blood sugar levels and hence our energy levels during one of our runs to see if there was any benefit to eating these products during endurance activities.

That was our Scientific focus for the marathon in the New Forest National Park since the flat(-ish) terrain allowed for a steadier cadence and hopefully a more consistent energy output. This would make it far easier to monitor blood sugars and also to reduce other possible external factors.

To test any effect requires a control, one runner who would eat our normal diet before and during the run (Claire) and a guinea pig to only eat refined sugar (me). And yes, I did volunteer. Preparation started with firstly taking our blood sugar levels to get a baseline value before our first meal of the day; a balanced carb-protein-fat snack for Claire and a packet of glucose energy tablets for me; purely on taste, guess who enjoyed their food more! Then it was time to set off, Claire also very much on alert for any changes in my mood as the run progressed.

What a strange sensation! The impact of that much sugar was immediate. My head felt as if it was buzzing, a slightly surreal feeling as if my head was not quite in tune with my body. Even without taking any blood sugar measurements to verify it, I could feel the effect of the sugar surging through my muscles, so much so that pacing went out the window as I bounded along. I was even talking more than usual too.. Poor Claire!

Unsurprisingly, the first set of readings half an hour into our run, showed a clear difference between our blood sugar levels; mine significantly elevated compared to Claire’s, a result that we were hoping for. Then it all went wrong. Unfortunately, our blood sugar monitor kept giving out the same error message, refusing to take any further readings. It seemed that the humidity of the day was interfering with the measuring sensor and since that was not going to change as quickly as our blood sugar levels would, we had to abandon the investigation on this occasion. A shame but we have another available window on the Lake District marathon to try again. In true science tradition, this would have to be a practice one!

The big plus of this failed attempt was that I could then indulge in a proper snack before the expected low hit me, making the whole running experience far more pleasant. It also meant that we could settle into our marathon and enjoy the gorgeous scenery around us.

As indicated by the name, this was one of the most wooded routes that we would be taking through the National Parks and we luxuriated in the tranquillity of the forest tracks. Oaks, beech and birches all intertwined to provide a calming canopy to run through. The National Parks are so important to the protection of habitats for a vast number of species of plants and animals native to the UK and the New Forest National Park is no exception. In fact, the visibility of so many animals and birds is part of the special quality of this park. We even had the pleasure of one green woodpecker pretty much flying alongside us as it searched out food.


However, there are few animals that are as confident or as curious as the New Forest ponies. Motivated by the possibility of food, they happily trot over to say hello. With their beautiful faces and gentle manner, it is very tempting to give them a little treat however this is a big no-no. Human food is really not good for their health! Likewise with the donkey; although slightly less curious they were just as adorable. With so many ponies and donkeys roaming freely within the park, it seemed that every corner turned and inclines climbed there were at least a couple of these four legged friends to ‘cheer’ us along. It must be a mammoth effort to round up all the ponies during the Drift, the biannual event where locals check on the health of their animals and to take stock of any new foals. No doubt a truly impressive sight and one that we would have loved to have seen, though we were secretly glad not to have to navigate through hundreds of animals on top of our miles.


The most significant impression that we got of the New Forest was the sheer amount of heathland that we passed through. Apparently the New Forest National Park is home to 75% of all heathland in Europe, highlighting the important work of the National Park Authority in the protection of this special area.


It was this evocative environment that kept us sane as we did a mammoth push through to 18 miles before our main stop of the run. Thankfully, Claire’s parents tracked our movements to provide essential water stops.  Over 3.5 litres each, with little inclination to relieve ourselves told the story of how humid the day was. So far, we have had our main stop around 16 miles and we found the extra two miles much harder on our bodies. Like I mentioned earlier, is all about learning, each marathon is simply a practise for the next. We might have mastered it all by the Cairngorms!

Favourite moment of the day was quite late on, when we were trotting steadily along the dismantled railway path towards Burley. As we passed a young lad, intently studying his bike, he quietly spoke out,

“This is going to be a bit tricky.”

Curious, and a little charmed by his confident but roundabout way of getting our attention, we stopped to ask him what was going to be tricky. It appeared that his chain had jumped off his single speed BMX and he was struggling to get it back on. Team effort and several oil-covered hands later, we got the chain fixed. A very polite “Thank you” and off he sped to catch up with his sister and mum. A good reminder of one of our prime reasons for doing this challenge is to get young people out to enjoy and make use of these special places.


South Downs Saunter

Route: Amberley to Queen Elizabeth Country Park, 26.62 miles

South_Downs (1)

With the first marathon under our belts plus a good amount of refuelling and sleep, we were very much looking forward to the ‘undulations’ and sweeping views of this route. We had had a welcoming introduction to the South Downs through a very informative and positive meeting with Jonathan Dean, the education representative for the South Downs National Park, at Devil’s Dyke pub the day before. With good coffee, beautiful views (despite the rain!) and a friendly atmosphere, the pub is a lovely place to meet, which no doubt encouraged our fruitful discussions. The South Downs National Park already has strong links with the local education community and is very active in promoting this beautiful region to the public and schools. They have a wide range of ongoing projects that look not only into the science of the region but also history, culture and geography. Their website, https://www.southdowns.gov.uk/, is definitely worth checking out for ideas to add an extra focus to any visit you make to the South Downs. Quoting Jonathan, the aim of the National Parks Authority is to motivate and inspire people so “Just get out there, enjoy it and see what you can find!”


With Jonathan at Devil’s Dyke

I should also mention that Jonathan warned us about the amount of climbing we would be doing during our South Downs marathon, something close to 1000m!! And he wasn’t wrong! With all the mountain routes located up north, it is so easy to underestimate how ‘up and downy’ these southern National Parks are. Our muscles and joints were definitely registering every geographical contour that we crossed yesterday.

The first challenge of our second marathon was to find the start. A hidden carpark, tucked away up a track off the B2139 to the east of Amberley. Aiming for another 9am start we had made good progress up to the start of this turn off. We then had to bide our time so as not to run down a family of pheasants doing a credible impression of mini velociraptors as they ran haphazardly along the gravel. The idea of just ducking into the hedgerow or even flying out of danger eluding them for a good 700m!

Despite the efforts of our feathered friends, the usual faff time and our sore muscles, we succeeded on starting on time. Our focus of the day was to collect two types of scientific data. The first being meteorological data of temperature and relative humidity, hoping to show the inverse relationship of these two variables over the undulations of the South Downs Way. For comparison we are also planning on collecting similar data in other National Parks, with notably different terrain and environment. To do this we simply strapped a HOBO to the back of Claire’s pack as shown in the picture below. This is a small device, kindly loaned to us by the National Environmental Research Council (NERC), that measured the information continuously as we ran. All very low maintenance and easy to use… Perfect!



South Downs HOBO Results

The second set of scientific data was to measure how your shadow length and angle changes throughout the day; a very easy and fun activity that anyone can carry out. All you need is a measuring tape, watch, compass, some level ground, a dedicated shadow maker (me) and a dedicated measurer (Claire)…  All very straight forward, right? Most certainly, if you have consistent sunshine! We were lucky on that front for our first couple of readings, however, that all changed by 11am as the clouds from the west moved in. After that it was very much a case of running with compass and measuring tape in hand, ready to stop as soon as the sun appeared. Since the presence of uninterrupted sunshine was so fleeting by late morning, when it did appear, we took to our roles immediately. This involved me standing stock still, upright and pointing north, whilst Claire practically threw herself at my feet to attach the tape measure to my shoe. She then extended it out to measure my shadow, much to the amusement and bemusement of anyone passing by.

“Isn’t it wide enough?” asked one gentlemen, quite close to the start of our journey.

“Well, it’s decreasing nicely, as expected.” I replied, thinking that he was totally up to speed with what we were doing.

The confused look on his face made me wonder whether or not we were talking about the same thing.

“You are measuring the width of the track, aren’t you?”

Nope, we were definitely not on the same page then! Thankfully, he looked a little less confused when we explained what we were doing though I’m sure he still found it all quite comical. Ah well!

Thankfully, we did manage to get enough data for our shadow investigation before the weather closed in around 12pm. The forecast had predicted increasing clouds and eventual rain from 3pm onwards so it was lucky that we at least had the weather window in the morning to collect information.


Measuring Shadows on Route

The South Downs is an absolute mecca for mountain bikers, walkers and horse riders alike. We even passed a fisherman or two. It was fantastic to see so many people out enjoying the area. Every person that we met gave a smile and a friendly hello, which really made our day. Although we love our running, there was a small part of us that wished we were also on mountain bikes. The South Downs Way looks to be a beautiful route for biking; the chalk providing a smooth, fast surface to fly over, with the water channels and chunks of flint providing enough technical challenges to keep it interesting. Geologically, the South Downs is an interesting mix of chalk and flint forced above the green sandstone and clay of the Weald Basin during the Alpine Orogeny; the same mountain formation that created the European Alps. The presence of flint in the area was important during Neolithic times as its hardness was very useful as tools or weapons. In fact it rates as an impressive 7 on the Mohs hardness scale, not too far of the value of 10 for a diamond, one of the hardest materials known to man.


Rolling Hills of the South Downs

There is significant evidence of early settlement around the South Downs, including the Graffham Archaeological site that we passed by on our run. The National Park Education Team has recently introduced a few projects, which provide opportunities to learn more about both the hidden archaeology and the geology of the region. Again, check out their website for more information.

All in all a truly enjoyable run, finished off nicely with a much needed coffee and cake at the restaurant in Queen Elizabeth Country Park. Big thanks to Claire’s parents for providing much needed water stops as well as a shuttle service back to our start point. Also thank you to a lovely family who kindly took our photograph at the top of Beacon Hill, despite the inclement weather starting to close in. Though I will add that their comment that it’s “all downhill from here” was not exactly correct! Like I said earlier, never underestimate those hills!!


Claire and Pam on Beacon Hill

Norfolk Broads Meander

Route: Reedham to Norwich, 26.74 miles


We’re off!! Felt really good to be started after 9 months of planning, discussing and training. Thankfully the weather gods were smiling on us, to provide a sunny but breezy day for our first effort. Blue skies, gold-green fields and river banks tightly packed with reeds greeted us as we set off from Reedham Touring Park (A great place to stay with good food in the pub next door!).

Tentatively wandering up to the adjacent chain ferry, with little clue on crossing times but knowing that this was essential part of the plan just to get started, looked around for information. Finding only a small sign displaying fees, we must have looked slightly bemused, prompting a kindly shout from the pub,

“Are you wanting to cross? Just hope on board”


Introducing Richard, the ferry master, who not only transported us across the River Yare for a small sum of 50p each but also humoured us by taking our first photo of the day. Just to prove that we had started this challenge. Our route pretty much follows the Wherryman’s Way all the way into Norwich and taking the ferry across the River Yare is part of this route so Richard must shuttle several thousand walkers each year. What I love so much about being in the outdoors are the people and conversations that you can have so easily with strangers from all backgrounds; simply because you share a passion for these beautiful places. Conversation fell naturally to what we were planning for that day. However, when we tried to explain the purpose of our adventure that day, proudly showing our white Park Discoverers running vests with the map of the National Parks, Richards’s response was simply “that’s nice, is this for charity?”.

A good question, since most people seem to assume that we will be raising money at the same time and we have had a fair few kind offers of donations. However, we did not want to diminish our key purposes of firstly trying to encourage people to get out into these special places as well as increase awareness of being able to learn Science and Physics through the outdoors. So apologies to all those worthy causes out there; instead, we would like people to pledge time to visit and explore our National Parks. Time seems to be a precious commodity these days and the benefits of just being outdoors can be so easily overlooked in today’s fast paced society.


In each park we are looking to identify one or two applications, which highlight key Science concepts that can be used to generate education resources. In addition, we are also collecting data on how our bodies hold up to the challenge of nearly 400 miles of running. Since Claire is the stronger runner of the two of us, I will be our ‘pacer’ and heart rate guinea pig. Basically if my heart rate starts complaining too much, we slow down.  Training and research has shown that keeping your heart rate low is important to sustain pace over long distances. Our goal is to keep it below 150BPM, sometimes a lot harder than you think. Even the small inclines or ankle twisting terrain can cause my watch to start frantically vibrating ‘high alert’ messages. Note to selves, not to get overexcited at the start and go off too fast, far too easy to do but we will pay for it later!

So at 9:05am, ferry banking on the other side of the river and waving our thanks to Richard, we officially started this National Park Challenge! The Norfolk Broads is basically a network of meandering rivers and small country lanes, criss-crossing the flat fertile plains. The beginning section of our run was therefore along such country roads, lined with tall hedges bursting full of autumn berries; the type of roads that make foreign drivers very nervous of colliding with a tractor, herd of cows or some speedy local. With a similar survival mind set, we were also on high alert, ready to dive into the hedges if we needed to.


We had to have a check on our progress at mile five as we realised that it had taken us 1.5 hours to get that far! We were guilty of being too easily distracted by the scenery with its multiple photo opportunities and our animated discussions of science possibilities (an awesome rope playground is a good example), we had lost track of time. At this rate, we would have been looking at a very late train back, not something we wanted. So a new agreement was made; to keep distractions to necessary minimum on running days and focus on collecting most of our Science data on our days off. We were still going to continue with our focus for the day though, to take body temperature readings using an electronic thermometer. By the oral readings option!!!

Since this is the first marathon, we were keen to make it a strong one so keeping hydrated was a key factor. Dehydration and possible hyperthermia would not only make the running significantly more difficult but also potentially very dangerous, especially in warm sunny conditions. By monitoring our body temperature and urine volume/colour, we would be able to gauge whether we were pushing too hard and not refuelling/hydrating correctly. We have other physiological tests that we are willing to subject ourselves to in later runs but purposely pushing for heat stroke and hyperthermia is not on our bucket list! This is also where monitoring heart rate is important. Dehydration results in lower blood volume so your heart needs to work harder. It will pump faster to push blood with essential oxygen, glucose, hormones and other nutrients to your screaming muscles, resulting in an increase in heart rate. However, it is important to note that a balance in water, electrolytic drinks and food is necessary to get optimum (and safe) performance. We’ll try to discuss this more in a later blog.

If we had to choose three words that describe the sights and experience of running the Wherryman’s Way, they would be sailing, windmills and nettles! The first two are iconic to this National Park, providing an additional romance to the stunning stretches of rivers and broads. The latter was an uncomfortable surprise along the Hardley section of the river after the unhindered running through the country lanes and wide trails we had encountered so far.

“Claire, mind the nettles!”  I shouted over my shoulder as I hopped inelegantly over the little blighters.


Hmmm, guess my warning was a little too late…..


Talking about the Hardley section, there is lovely disused mill, called Hardley Mill that is open for viewings. Unfortunately, we did not have the time to look around but it would definitely be a place that looks an interesting activity for a weekend or holiday. From a Physicists point of view, the engineering and science involved in the workings of this amazing structure is exciting. It taps into a huge amount of topics within forces, motion, energy as well as providing a historical link to modern wind turbines and all of the physics relating to those. The activity of sailing also brings together so many different aspects of physics, which is why it will be the focus for one of our educational resources. Watch this space!


Final note of today’s blog… thank you to the helpful and friendly lass who kindly took our photo outside Norwich station at the end of our 26.74 miles (far sweatier and more dishevelled than the first photo taken on the ferry!). Also to all the friendly faces that waved and smiled encouragingly at us along the way.