How to pack for an epic journey: The bumbag

You may think that bumbags are uncool. You’d be right, bumbags are desperately uncool. However, I have reached that sad but liberating time of life when I care much less about being cool than about practicalities. Bumbags, when you are long distance walking, are incredibly handy.

The thing is, you can’t really wear a handbag with a rucksack. But the stuff that’s in your rucksack is hard to get at while you’re wearing said rucksack. And taking it off is a faff and requires stopping. So where do you put your phone, lip salve, money, fags…basically all the stuff you need every five minutes? A bumbag is the perfect answer.

A woman in her early 40s, with long brown hair, wearing a red top and a red rucksack (yes, they clash slightly), and a black bumbag. It's a very sunny day and she's smiling at the camera and squinting her eyes.

Me, sadly looking very little like Xena

This one I found in a charity shop and is black and kind of smoothly shaped, so it’s not too offensive. But if anyone ever finds a stylish, cool-looking bumbag, a bumbag that doesn’t make you look like an American tourist (sorry USians), but instead makes you look like Xena setting off on a quest, then let me know. I’ll pay you in tea, home-made jam and weak witticisms.

A black bumbag in the middle of the picture, with it's contents neatly (well, neatly-ish) laid out around it. There's millions of them, I'll explain in the text.

Tardis-like, the bumbag seems to hold more stuff than seems possible…

But what to put in the bumbag? My packing here has been refined on long-distance walks over many years, and most recently on three weeks along the River Trent. It is, of course, specifically adapted for that situation, and for my habits and preferences. So, for example, if you don’t smoke, I’d leave out the tobacco…

Contents of front pocket

The contents of the front pocket of the bumbag, laid out beside it. Essentially a close up from the last pic. Contents listed and explained in the text.

From left to right:-


Essential kit for the modern-day, online-enabled troubadour. I was once described as a techno-hippy. I do love my phone. With this I was able to take photos and upload them immediately, write blogposts, post on twitter, check maps, and a million other things. This meant people could follow our journey from home in real time. Just about…


As mentioned, not essential kit if you don’t smoke, obv. And clearly smoking is bad and stupid. But if you are a nicotine addict, a fag break does make a nice little thing to look forward to when you are tired and trudging along in the rain.


I would recommend having a source of fire even if you aren’t a smoker. I once spent four hours on a Lebanese mountain-side, in the dark, in December, before being rescued by the Red Cross.

I was bloody freezing, and spent much of that time trying to start a fire with two sticks (unusually for me, I didn’t have a lighter on me). Turns out it’s really impossible to light a fire with two sticks. Moral of the story: You never know when a lighter might come in handy.


I know not everyone uses lipsalve. In fact my mate Ros has a theory that once you start using it your lips get addicted to it, but if you don’t start, you’ll never need it. She may be right. Although I am now a lipsalve addict and find it very handy, especially when I’m outdoors all day.

But lipsalve is also a good emergency salve for any chafing. (Chafing in delicate areas is quite common when you’re doing a lot of walking and sweating). It also burns really well, so if you haven’t got lots of kindling to hand it’s good for helping to start a fire. Put some lipsalve or vaseline on some cotton wool (a tampon will work) and it goes up like billyo. There you see, you learn something new every day…


I’m assuming the usefulness of this is pretty self-explanatory. I never go anywhere without a penknife (except aeroplanes, obviously). This is a Victorinox Swiss Army Knife Spartan. It has everything I’m likely to need.

The knife is handy for cutting everything from bits of rope to tomatoes.  It’s also got tweezers, a pokey thing, a tin-opener, a bottle-opener and a corkscrew. There is nothing more annoying than having a bottle of alcohol you can’t get into…

(Second row)

Solar-powered torch

I’ve got several torches – including a head-torch and a maglite. This one is by far the most useful, and it cost about £3 and came on a keyring. It’s small and easy to use, so for all those times when you need a torch quickly (e.g. you can’t see to put a key in a door) it’s right there. I’ve had it for about 5 years and it still works perfectly and I’m sure I only put it in the sun to charge up about once a year.

One of the best things about it is you switch it on using a slidey thing that stays in place once you’ve slid it. (A lot of keyring torches only give you light when you are holding down the switch). It sounds stupid, but I’ve lost count of the times this has been useful, cos it means you can hold the torch between your teeth while doing something with your hands. Trying to untangle guy-ropes in the dark, that kind of thing…

Button compass

It’s amazing the number of times you are out walking and take the wrong path, or lose track of where you are on the map, and having a compass helps you realise where you are. (‘Aha, I’m facing South, not North!’). For this kind of thing you don’t need a proper big compass, just something that will give you a rough idea of direction. A button compass represents excellent value for its size (also price, I think it was 99p).

Yes, boyscout know-it-alls, you could use the sun, but not if it’s really cloudy, or night-time.

My phone does have a compass on it too, but given how quickly the iPhone runs out of charge, you’d be a fool to rely on that.

Contents of left-side pocket

Some sachets of salt, pepper, sugar. And a hippy necklace.

From left to right:-

Hippy necklace

When you’re walking all day, in walking boots and anorak, you don’t feel very mystical or glamorous. Well I don’t, anyway. When you’re troubadouring and have to do a performance when you arrive somewhere, it’s handy to have some way of changing your appearance a bit. Partly just as a way of signalling to yourself that you’re changing mode. Putting on a costume always helps you get into a different headspace.

But also, people have certain expectations of what a storyteller will look like. It helps them to suspend their disbelief if you can play in to that a bit.

I found a necklace didn’t take up much room but made me look a bit more storyteller-y. And the fact of going and putting it on helped me to ‘get into character’.

Sachets of salt, pepper and sugar

Yes, I am your Gran. I can never resist picking these things up. But sometimes you could really do with some salt, or an extra sugar, or whatever, and it’s incredibly handy to have them in your pocket. And they don’t weigh much or take up much room.

Contents of right-side pocket

A sachet each of mayonnaise, ketchup and vinegar

Sachets of mayonnaise, ketchup and vinegar. As above, with the salt, pepper and sugar, these are just so handy to have, when you find yourself in need of them. I may also be a bit obsessed with dinky/handy things. Ross has to stop me picking up more of these everywhere we go.

Main pocket

Loads of stuff, listed below

Left to right, top row:-

Bank card

Obvious why this is needed.

Spare carrier bag

I always have more carrier bags in my rucksack, but it’s handy to have one to hand as well. You never know when you might need it. Trust me, you don’t want to hear the story about the tampon.


The powermonkey is a charger for phones or other devices. It’s amazing, I love it, it saved our lives so many times (well, OK, that’s hyperbolic. It saved our ability to have a working phone…). You charge it up overnight and it can refill an iPhone with charge twice over.

When you’re using your phone all day and have intermittent access to electricity (for example, if you’re walking along a river…) it’s indispensable. It was my leaving present from Gallomanor, and a better leaving present I’ve never had.

A7 sized notepad

Perfect for jotting down events or thoughts you want to remember. As well as having it in my bumbag I’d put it by the bed at night. Ross would wake up to find me scribbling notes on my impressions of the previous day. Or new crazy plans for future adventures.

Also good for phone numbers, addresses, to draw little maps or sketches to illustrate things… And for if you get chatting to people and they want to know the URL of your website and you haven’t had the foresight to get little cards or flyers printed. Basically, it’s surprising how often you suddenly want a pencil and paper.

Filter tips

Ignore if you aren’t a smoker. I’ve tried, but I really can’t think of another use for these…


See above re notepad. Also doubles as an emergency spoon for stirring tea.

Bottom row, left to right:-


You need to buy things sometimes. Mainly tea.


It’s amazing how often B+Bs have lots of early-morning noise and when you’re walking all day you need your sleep. These ones are from Boots and I love the little case they come in.


Trust me, you don’t want a headache when you’re walking all day and then putting on a show.

Memory stick

I don’t think we used this actually, but I always like to have some extra memory to hand, just in case.

Hard copy of list of venues with times and postcodes

I learnt long ago when I used to work in TV and was setting up film shoots that you ALWAYS, ALWAYS have a paper copy of all key info. You never know when your phone or computer is going to die, or have no signal or something. It’s also often a lot quicker to look at a piece of paper than to load info on your phone.

Sewing kit

This is one I got in a hotel room one time. You may have noticed by now that I have a weakness for dinky handy things. But I do love these little sewing kits. Everything you need for an emergency sewing repair, in a little handy packet.

I used it at one point to fix a button that had come off. And Ross repaired a rip in his trousers, thereby protecting his knee from evil nettles. Without a sewing kit you’d be really stuck for stuff like this, wouldn’t you?


So there we have it, a truly extensive collection of useful things, all taking up hardly any space at all. And when you are spending three weeks doing fairly complicated things, while walking along a river, with only what you can carry, small but versatile and useful things are the order of the day…

If anyone has any suggestions of other cool things they would add, then I’d love to hear it. (I should point out, I did have lots of other stuff in my rucksack, these were just the things I thought I needed easy access to.)

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Which river do you think we should do next?

Despite the blisters, the nettles and the variably attentive audiences we are totally loving this. You know how your day-to-day life sometimes seems to go by in a blur with nothing happening for weeks on end? Tales from the River seems to have lasted for months already, ‘cos so much happens every day.

So we want to do another one. Lots in fact. What river do you think we should do next?

Ross suggested the Yorkshire Derwent, cos that’s his childhood river. And it’s only about 90 miles long. We could do it in a week.

Angela Cassidy suggested the Norfolk Broads, and thinks the local Geography Dept and public engagement people would be well up for getting involved. Which would mean we could do some interesting stuff like get more ‘experts’ involved in telling their stories, and maybe hook up with existing community projects or consultations.

What river do you think we should do?

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What would YOU like us to post about?

Those of you who know me from my work on I’m a Scientist will remember me constantly banging on about the importance of consulting your intended audience. I mean, it’s not rocket science – if you want to know what people want, just ask them!

With that in mind, and because I have notes for loads of blogposts I intend to write for Tales from the River, but not enough time to write them all, I’m asking you.

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The final poster design

Here’s the final poster design. I think Iain’s done a great job. A3 versions will be sent out to all venues. Hope you all like it!

A slightly fairytale looking drawing of a river scene, with text 'Tales from the River A storytelling journey along the River Trent, from the source to the sea'

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Newark on Trent in 1942

This is a lovely film from the British Council’s archive, called ‘Market Town’. I guess it was supposed to show people what life in Britain was like. It was filmed in Newark on Trent in 1942. Although Newark isn’t quite a typical market town. I remember being taken there on a geography field trip when I was at school, and told it was the largest market square in Britain.

There’s a great segment showing you a map of the river, how the road ran through the river valley, and why this made it a natural place for a town to grow up. I also like the man herding sheep on his bicycle (wearing a suit) and how everyone’s wearing hats:-). And the clipped vowels of the voiceover, as the man describes, ‘the country people’ as if they are an alien species…

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What do stories look like?

I asked Ross to draw a picture to illustrate the story about bad judgement in an earlier post. I’d told him this story, not long after we got together. He didn’t remember that, of course. But he’s heard it a few times since, while I’ve been practising for Tales from the River. He drew the following:-

A pencil drawing of a troll-like old woman, smoking a pipe

…which was nothing LIKE how I’d imagined the old woman. Somehow, a part of you thinks that what listeners are seeing in their mind’s eye, is the picture you’ve got in yours. But no.

The interesting thing (to me) was that not long after Ross drew this, I went to Beyond the Border Storytelling festival, where they had life-sized figures made of felt around the place, making it look a bit magical. Here’s my favourite:-

A life-size figure of a troll-like old woman, made out of felt, sitting in a chair.

To me, this old woman looks very reminiscent of Ross’s picture. Maybe Ross and the artist had the same picture books growing up? Who knows? But it’s a nice reminder that the story people make in their heads is only partly down to what you do as a storyteller. Partly it’s down to all the things they’ve got in their heads already, which they bring with them to the story.

Ross will be sketching lots of things as we go, so look forward to his sketches, as well as story recordings, photos and blog posts.

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The Coy Father

Dad loves performing. He’s great with an audience, always makes them laugh. But he’ll go all faux humble about it and pretend he doesn’t love it and it’s not exciting. I think miserable Granddad didn’t approve of anything deemed ‘showing off’.

So Dad’s now being all coy about whether he wants to do the Tales from the River. Mum said yes straightaway when I asked if she wanted to come on an adventure. Dad’s been umming and arring, like he needs to be persuaded. But then he says things.

Like, on my recent visit, he wondered in while I was watching telly and asked if I knew about Molly Leigh, the witch of Burslem. I did not, so he proceeded to tell me. She was an old woman who lived in Burslem. Burslem is part of Stoke-on-Trent.

I thought, ‘Ay up, Dad pretends not to be interested in Tales from the River, but he just happens to be googling Trent legends?’

A few hours later he wandered into the kitchen, ‘Let me sing you my new song!’ He’s three verses into a song about Molly Leigh. Now if that isn’t preparation for accompanying your daughter on a mad folk and stories tour of the Trent, then I don’t know what is.

So, here’s Dad’s Molly Leigh song, as a very, very rough work in progress, ineptly recorded on my phone. Dad didn’t want me to put it up ‘cos of the bits where he goes wrong and stuff, but I said it’s authentic.

Now he’s got one song written. I reckon he’ll come round to the whole thing.


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In which we begin…

I once had to be rescued by the Lebanese Red Cross, off the side of a mountain. As you do.

It was entirely my own fault. In the four hours I spent, alone and in the dark, waiting for the rescue team and listening to wolves howling in the hills around me, I had ample time to list all the ways it was entirely my own fault, and just how stupid I had been.

These days, I NEVER go walking without plenty of water, food and a survival blanket. Just in case.

Now I knew the rules of safe hillwalking before, but there’s nothing like spending four hours in the dark picturing your own death to fix something in your memory. Experience is how we make wisdom our own.

And there’s something else to be said for experiences you wouldn’t choose to repeat – you see that the things you fear are not as bad as you think, and you find ways to get through them. I’ve found that a reassuring thought in life.

It’s that idea that animates the following teasingly paradoxical story, one I was told many years ago, by Tim Sheppard, of Bristol. And it’s this idea that decided me when I was in two minds about doing the Tales from the River. So I’d like to tell this story along the Trent, to explain why I’m doing something so foolish, and I thought it should be the first story we feature on the site.

(See earlier blogpost for an explanation of what the project’s about, and the rest of this website for more details –  such as they are in this early stage. This site will include stories, history, plans for the project, and once we are underway, all sorts of media we capture the journey with.)

Story: The Wise Woman and the good life

Many years ago, a young woman was looking ahead to her life, and wondering how it would be.  She saw all the old people in her village and saw that some were happy, and some were sad and bitter. 

She wondered, ‘How can I live a good and happy life? How do I know what my options are, and to make the right decisions?’ She found herself worrying away at this question, until one day, she could stand it no more. She threw down her apron and swore to travel to the far mountain, to consult the old wise woman who lived there.

She toiled up the mountain, to the wise woman’s hut. And there she presented her question:

‘Oh most venerated and wise of women, please honour my unworthy question with an answer, for it preoccupies and torments me. How do I live a good and happy life?’

The wise old woman puffed on her pipe, gazed into the middle distance and nodded.

 ‘A fair question at your age, I will answer. Good judgement. That’s the secret of a good and happy life. Acting with good judgement.’

Pleased to have her answer, the young woman headed off down the hill. But when she got home and told her mother what the old woman had said, she said,

‘But hang on, I don’t understand. How do you magically live your life with good judgement? If it was that easy, wouldn’t we be doing it already?’

The young woman realised her answer only led to more questions. She cursed to think she’d have to take her aching feet back up the mountain the next day, to ask this new question: ‘How do you get good judgement?’

So she clambered back up the mountain, and put a second question:

‘Oh wise woman, on my earlier visit you recommended the path of good judgement. How does a humble girl like myself, with much to learn, get good judgement?’

The wise old woman puffed on her pipe, and gazed into the fire. She sighed to herself, and nodded. 

‘Experience, my dear, that’s only the way to get good judgement. ‘

Experience, righto, that made sense. The young woman set off down the mountain again, but before she even got to the bottom, she’d realised there was another question. How do you get experience?

She turned her weary feet around and headed back to the Wise Woman’s hut.

‘Old crone, I have another question and I’d quite like this to be the last one. I need to act with good judgement. To get good judgement I need experience. HOW, for pity’s sake, HOW do I get experience?’

The wise old woman puffed on her pipe, once more. She gazed as if she could see other times, and smiled a secret smile. She nodded.

‘I’m afraid the best way to get experience my dear, is bad judgement.’

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Tales from the River, the background

Photo of the Trent, through tree branches, showing reflections of clouds

This introductory and explicatory post cross-posted from my blog.

The Trent is a river with stories. It’s seen Celts, Romans and Saxons settle along its banks. When the Vikings invaded, they came in boats along the Trent. It, and its tributaries, powered the mills, and drained the factories, of the industrial revolution.

It’s the river that flows through the town I grew up in.

Rivers are mythic actors in a landscape. They bring things. They take things away. They float boats, and drown children. They can divide two settlements a mile apart, and they can connect two settlements counties away.

It’s just water, flowing along (different water all the time) and yet the river has been there for thousands – maybe millions – of years. Rivers remind me of stories.

I love storytelling as an art form. You create whole worlds using nothing but words and the sound of your voice. It’s the oldest human form of entertainment*. Our ancestors were probably doing it round campfires, in the Lower Pleistocene.

So here’s my crazy idea. I was once interviewing a man from the Environment Agency about leisure facilities along rivers. He told me there are footpaths all the way along the Trent. He said, ‘So now you can walk all the way along the river, from the source to the sea.’

I’ve absolutely no idea what he said in the rest of the conversation. Those words were glowing in my mind.

“…walk all the way along the river, from the source to the sea…”

My mind added the words, ‘telling stories’ at the end. And me looking mythic on a hilltop, with a wizard’s staff and some flowing robes.

The more I’ve thought about it since, the more bones I’ve put on the idea. It would be called Tales from the River. And we all know, a project with a great name can’t lose. It would be about bringing stories to people, bringing people together and bringing a bit of magic to life.

Each stop would bring people together to talk about their river. I’d tell some stories (with a river theme). Then the audience would become just people, they’d tell their own stories. About the river, or other rivers, or about the area. They’d discuss, draw parallels, perhaps learn from each other. They’d experience being heard. We could record stories, and collect a folk history of the Trent.

Scientists studying the river could talk to people who’d lived alongside it their whole lives. Conservation planners could talk to pre-Roman archeaologists. Estate agents talk to art historians. Agriculturists to pub landlords. Who knows what interesting things get started when people from different groups start talking? The key thing is to get people together, fire their imaginations and give them something to do together.

The idea was first just a crazy adventure I wanted to have. Doing something useful and possibly a bit magical at the same time would a bonus. It would be such a fantastic experience, and such an honour to do, that I’m not bothered about getting paid to do it.

But there would be accommodation each night, and food. I’m wondering though if it could be a money-free project? Inns, B+Bs, hotels, or just ordinary people, offer us food and board for the night. In exchange, we do a story session in a place of their choosing.

When I say us, I’ve decided the ideal team would be my long-suffering boyfriend and endearingly quarrelsome parents. Ross is a sound engineer and would do live sound design for storytelling performances. Dad’s a singer-songwriter,Mum’s a person who gets stuff done and both of them are ex-teachers. This gives us a lot of flexibility in what we can do, and would also be hilarious.

I think bed and board in exchange for a performance is nice and traditional, and also simple. I can see it working for a lot of people. A folky type of pub may want to have a storytelling night in their bar. A hotel might want to donate their performance to the local primary school. An ordinary person might want some unusual birthday party entertainment.

I reckon we can be pretty flexible, as long as people have realistic expectations of how polished it’s going to be (not very). There’s got to be at least a few people out there who go, ‘That sounds like a crazy idea, let’s sign up.’

So what do you think? Is it a crazy idea? Good crazy or bad crazy? Have you got ideas of what we could do, people I should contact, stories I should consider? Get in touch and let’s see what happens.

*please don’t write in and argue, sex or music fans, I concede you have a point.

-photo credit, Nathan Collins, Nottingham

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