The Chiltern Hundred

Thursday, April 15th, 2010

In life, sometimes, you need a challenge. And challenges come in all shapes and sizes.

This is the story of a challenge that is quite different from, say, walking the South West Coast Path or some other long-distance trail. Nevertheless, it needs planning, persistence and ingenuity as well as the ability to complete a walk of around 26 miles, although that can be sub-divided into three shorter sections if you so wish.

The challenge is called the Chiltern Hundred and to try it you need to know about about the hobby of geocaching, which involves using a hand-held GPS receiver to track down pre-hidden targets known as caches. Each cache is a container ranging in size from a tiny magnetic metal receptacle the size of your thumbnail to an ammunition tin or large plastic box. You wouldn’t be massively off-beam if you had letterboxing or orienteering in mind and, since our purpose here is to talk about the Chiltern Hundred in particular rather than the hobby in general, you can find any more details and onward links that you might need here.

The trail has been set by one of the UK’s most prolific cachers around his home town of Chesham in south-east England. It is designed to give those who so wish the opportunity of joining the select group of people who have managed to find 100 caches in a single day. To this end the series actually contains 109 caches so that, should some be unavailable, the goal is still attainable. Each Chiltern Hundred cache contains a code which, when compiled with at least 99 others at the end of the challenge, provides the co-ordinates for a bonus cache.

Because caching is a pretty easy-going hobby rather than some strictly-defined and regulated competitive activity there is clearly no compulsion for people to tackle the Chiltern Hundred in any particular way. Some people pick off a few of the more urban caches because they live nearby and don’t bother with the further-flung ones. Others do them a handful at a time over months.

This kind of ‘power-caching’ trail does attract a lot of criticism from some cachers who feel that knocking off large numbers in a day does not represent for them what the hobby is about. Equally, other cachers get satisfaction from collecting caches in numbers rather than struggling with tricky puzzles or very difficult hides. These two approaches can be broadly categorised as hikers versus puzzlers and, while this is not a discussion of the hobby’s politics or an invitation to engage in arguments about them, suffice it to say that we can see merit in both approaches and like to combine them.

What raises the Chiltern Hundred well above the much-derided pursuit of ‘numbers caching’ is the amount of planning that has gone into setting the series and the amount that must go into tackling it. We didn’t perhaps put as much time into the planning as we did into the active part – but it was a close-run thing. Knowing that we would not enjoy the 100-in-a-single-day challenge, for the same reasons that we dislike setting ourselves very high-mileage stages when walking, we decided to tackle the Chiltern Hundred by taking on each of its three rings one at a time with the aim of, if possible, finding every single cache in the series.

So, how did we fare?

We started with the smallest of the three rings, Chartridge, on a desperately bleak and chilly February day with no snow on the ground but enough mud for anyone’s taste and heavy, murky, headache-inducing cloud blanketing the skies. It had been a hard week and we were taking what felt at the time like a rare opportunity to make a start on this series. We were pretty much walking into the blue, not knowing what kind of containers we were seeking or hides the cache-setter would favour. We had compiled the key information about each individual cache into a spreadsheet so we would have the maximum chance of finding each one and we had left space to write the code we needed to collect. Both of us filled this in as we went round to minimise the chance of making mistakes that would ruin our chances of eventually finding the bonus cache. At first it felt insanely difficult and as if we were taking baby steps when we needed to be making strides. But slowly, surely, we worked out what was needed and more and more caches were added to our total until we had somehow completed the ring and limped back to the car with no missed finds (known by acronym-happy cachers as DNFs or did not finds) whatsoever.

The Chartridge experience was not bad enough to dissuade us from attempting the Asheridge ring a couple of weeks later. It was a member of the party’s birthday and, as we strode into a muddy field in driving rain, it was very hard not to ask what on earth we thought we were playing at. But the skies cleared soon enough and left us with a pleasant country walk that exerted us more than the Chartridge ring but, once again, did not destroy our faith in our ability to complete the testing Chesham ring. And, once again, it was generally so beautifully-organised and logical that it was a pleasure to complete – although some of the caches were public enough to take considerable nerve to retrieve. Here we recorded our only DNF – a devilishly tricky hide in rather a public spot. We tackled it on the way out and again on the way back but, after what we estimated was around 45 minutes searching, we were none the wiser. Since our aim was to find every cache in the 110-strong series this was disappointing. We agreed to retreat gracefully and to search again when we were back in the area to tackle the Chesham ring.

Fifty-nine of a possible 60 caches in hand and it was time to take on Chesham. Once again, it is a credit to this series that we went into the final adventure still not knowing whether we would be able to complete the 14-mile, 49-cache challenge. In the event, we could, and once again we were lucky enough to do so without a single DNF. The start was stressful – it was first thing in the morning and we had to find a car park plus sufficient change to get us through to the end of the day, since there is nothing worse than doing something like this while racing a parking meter. We made far more of a meal of this than we should have done but were repaid by a wander round a thoroughly nice town centre and the chance to pick off those caches in the series that were nearby, thus saving both the trouble of doing them at the end and of needing to take a slight navigational diversion that occurs at the beginning of the walk.

Parking meter fed, the cakes from a local bakery that were bought to break a note duly eaten, and the challenge was finally under way. The Chesham ring would stand well as a walk in its own right without the caching element and took us for a delightful stroll through the Buckinghamshire countryside on a mild and sunny April day. It was very hard work and there were some caches that we might have walked away from had we not been so determined to complete the full series total of 110. But eventually, extremely tired, footsore and hungry, and after a hunt for cache 40 that must have taken in excess of half an hour, we realised that we were probably on for the win. The next four caches were in place, the five following that we had picked up at the beginning.

We had 108 finds and sufficient information to find the bonus cache – but first we were determined to return to cache 50 on the Asheridge ring, our sole DNF. We did just that, checked the place where we now expected to find it, had a momentary pang of disappointment when it appeared not to be there and then – what’s this? The log was signed and we had completed 109 of 109 finds. A struggle to get mobile internet access to enter the codes from each cache that would get us the co-ordinates to the bonus, a struggle to find the right road out of town, a struggle to park the car and we were uncertain that we’d have enough energy left to find the last cache. But, as we walked there, we found ourselves on familiar ground and we were able to locate the final box in the woods with immense satisfaction. The photos of the day show us looking absolutely exhausted and the drive back home is a bit of a blur in the memory.

What the Chiltern Hundred taught us is that everyone tackles a challenge in their own way – and gets their own kind of satisfaction from it. We were never really in the running to do the whole series in a day. We probably could have managed it physically but would have derived little enjoyment from it. On the other hand, spreading the 110-cache series over three days and being meticulous about finding every last cache was the thing from which we derived immense satisfaction. It was the right balance between exertion and economy of time. Similarly, when on long-distance walks, we often meet people who think we are mad to carry our own rucksacks or walk more than five or six miles a day, others who are doing the paths in 20-mile bursts or even more. You need to find your own level and stick with it rather than being influenced by the expectations of other people.

In summary: we’d definitely recommend taking the Chiltern Hundred on yourself – in whatever form seems most appealing to you.

• Anyone wanting to do the Chiltern Hundred for themselves should start at the cache-setter’s website here. To do it you will need a GPS receiver and an account with the relevant caching website, which offers its basic services free of charge.

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