The Great Escape: Leaving the rat race behind

What happened when we challenged three city slickers to leave the rat race behind and head to the country in search of adventure?
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Nick Duerden explores elfing

"First and foremost," says the introductory bumf that accompanies the Live Action Role Playing event my family and I are currently heading towards, "Herofest is a weekend of fun designed specifically to escape the everyday rigours of life."

Hmm. Right now, life's everyday rigours remain particularly tenacious. Due to a) the location of Candleston Campsite in a hard-to-reach nook of Wales and b) an accident on the M4 resulting in its partial closure, our Friday afternoon journey has stretched on interminably, and it is gone 11pm by the time we find it. As we negotiate the exhausted car down the campsite's pitch-black lane, a werewolf jumps out at us from nowhere, lit up like a lightning bolt in our highbeam, and sending me at least close to cardiac arrest.

"Greetings," it says, now scurrying towards the passenger window. "You've made it."

You don't get this at Butlins.

We are shown to our freezing tent, and organiser Mike Penny, who will spend the weekend dressed up as – and speaking like – a pirate, points out the lay of the land, currently plunged in darkness. He indicates the toilets, which are off down a hidden path and through some bushes. In the distance comes what sounds like a bloody war cry, followed by much human howling. My four-year-old starts to whimper.

"Sometimes the battles can go on well into the night, I'm afraid," Mike says, grinning.

Though I am bursting for the loo, I decide to hold it in. This brings about a stark realisation. When one is too afraid to go to the toilet during a weekend away, one has clearly come on the wrong kind of holiday. Another bloodcurdling roar rents the chilly night air, and we hunker down into our sleeping bags. "It'll be better in the morning," says my wife. Foolish woman.

The next morning, we dress in the costumes that have been provided, because costumes here are mandatory. I appear to be some kind of farmer from, perhaps, the Middle Ages, my wife a lowly peasant type. My children, meanwhile, refuse to don anything other than what they brought from home. Consequently, the older one is Cinderella, her two-year-old sister a bright pink fairy. In the time it takes us to walk to the so-called tavern for breakfast, we exchange greetings with goblins, orcs and at least three elves, each of whom responds in character, essentially a kind of catch-all West Country burr – "Ooo arr", etc. It's like conversing with the bloody Wurzels.

Live Action Role Playing (or Larp) is a guilty secret shared by an increasing number of us, while friends and neighbours remain blissfully ignorant of our unlikely peccadillo. Many are united in an ever-expanding online community – particularly on Facebook, which has helped reunite a multitude of teenage Dungeons & Dragons fanatics 20 years on – and they congregate frequently at events such as this one with the kind of abandon that marks out the truly carefree. We have always been a nation of closet fantasists, of course – but the scene has enjoyed a greater revival of late thanks to Peter Jackson's cinematic adaptation of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Though one doesn't like to generalise, this kind of thing seems rather popular with a certain kind of person. That person is more likely to be male than female (the ratio is roughly 3:1), and he likes his films historical, CGI-enhanced and violent. But as Herofest, now in its third year, strives to attest, Larping is no longer the exclusive domain of strange young men, but also for upwardly mobile professionals as well – and, yes, for their womenfolk and offspring, too. It is fun, they claim, for all the family, a Disney World for devotees of Middle Earth.

In a tent on a clearing here at Herofest, I sit at the feet of a woman dressed as an elf, with pointy ears and an impish smile. Her name is Sarah Paine, a 38-year-old mother of two, and she is endeavouring to explain the reasons for her obsession with this most curious of pastimes. "Ask any child who reads Harry Potter today whether they would love to be able to step into the world of Hogwarts and cast spells for real," she says. "They'd say yes, of course. Well, the same goes for us, because that is what we get to do here. We cast spells on people!"

Sarah is not, mercifully, quite so delusional as her words suggest. She realises that this isn't real magic, of course, and that the kind of magic here works only if every other Larper pretends it does, but then Larpers are very good indeed at this pretending lark. You might even call them experts at it, each of them developing not just names for their characters but also complex backstories to which they adhere with all the discipline of a Rada-trained thesp. "Magic," says Sarah , her eyes wide, "is a wonderful power to possess."

After breakfast, we wander through the campsite's undulating 90 acres, which right now caters for around 100 role-playing enthusiasts. If the general inspiration here is The Lord of the Rings, then thematically it's all over the place, a confusing historical mishmash of everything from the medieval to the piratical. Many here look like wannabe Jack Sparrows, others like would-be William Wallaces. Over on a tree stump sits a lone yokel quietly strumming a guitar, while opposite a stall sells (rubber) swords for battle. The hub is the tavern, a greasy spoon by day and pseudo den of iniquity by night, and it is here everyone gathers to indulge, in earnest conversations about gnomes of the earth and the blood of werewolves.

Speaking of which, last night's welcoming werewolf – a nice chap called Wayne – comes over to give me a quick lesson in sword-wielding, a skill I previously lacked and, quite clearly, always will. He also teaches me how to react when struck. "Fall to the ground and be theatrical about it," he whispers. "Give a good performance." A woman with a warty nose (a fake nose, attached by elastic band) then attempts to explain precisely how the weekend will unfold. There will be a great many sword fights, she says, during which time prisoners will be captured and held hostage and possibly later released. But there will also be inter-faction barterings and a lot of moral politics.

A young Maid Marian approaches, dressed in a rib-bruising corset that pushes her natural curves up so high that her breasts very nearly resemble earrings. "Don't worry, it took me three years to understand all the rules myself," she says, "but it won't spoil your fun, I promise."

From somewhere there comes a cry of "INCOMING!" and suddenly assorted imps and gimps grab their weapons and head towards a low rise, over which half a dozen red devils scramble, swords aloft. I find myself in the middle of this frantic skirmish, now required to thrust, parry and fight until death. But my novice status is apparent to all, and I am soon descended upon by these bastard devils and thoroughly beaten to the ground.

If all this seems like a bizarre way for grown-ups to behave, then perhaps we shouldn't be too quick to mock. Dressing up in garish costume is something common to many of us, the organiser Mike Penny insists. "If I played golf at the weekend instead, I'd also have to dress the part, wouldn't I?" Mike has chosen to Larp, he says, because he always was drawn to fantasy films and fiction – and he'd rather be a part-time pirate than a fisherman or football player. Out there in the real world, Mike, who is 39, is a successful project manager. Not all of his friends, presumably, are aware of his extracurricular exploits?

He laughs. "I admit that the image is geeky, but we're not all geeks here. And it really does appeal to all walks of life. I've met surgeons, IT specialists, soldiers – all sorts."

He and a couple of associates set up Herofest three years ago when friends found they could no longer attend other similar events for a variety of reasons, the main one being they'd grown up. "We found that once friends started having families, they could no longer make time for things like this," he says, explaining that other Larping events feature full-on battles that rage over several adrenaline-fuelled days (and which often draw as many as 5,000 people). "So we decided to tailor one specially for families. Herofest is more gentle and relaxed, it's something you can bring your children to."

The day winds down, and I amble over to the Wizard's Consilium – essentially a tent selling cakes – to speak to Rex the Lizard Wizard, who, in real life, is 65-year-old Bill Mayling, a retired civil servant recently recovered from open-heart surgery. Bill has been Larping for decades, and until his heart op, favoured the more adrenalised events in which he got to holler like Conan the Barbarian. These days he is happy with the more pastoral Herofest, over which he presides as a kind of sage.

"You make friends for life at things like this," he says, his face bright green, and partially concealed by a scaly plastic mask. "Very often you never get to know what these friends' real names are, or what they do in the real world, but then that's all part of the appeal. We exist in character here, and we can be anyone we want to be."

And does his absent wife share his enthusiasm?

Rex the Lizard Wizard shakes his hooded head slowly, a finger scratching at the flaking paint on his chin.

"Oh no," he says. "She thinks I'm barking."

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Deborah Ross braves birdwatching

It is a beautiful morning, definitely the best morning of the year so far: sunny, warm, a perfect blue sky. It's the sort of day that makes you feel great to be alive, or would do if people would only leave you alone to do your own thing, like watch telly, or fiddle with your new coffee machine – I speak Nespresso now; I am so cool – but, no, I'm off birdwatching today. BIRDWATCHING!!! Just typing the word makes me come over all bored. I tried to make it more exciting for myself by using capitals and not one, not two, but three – THREE! – exclamation marks but, no, I've still come over all bored. And I'm not sure how it happened. I was called by this magazine and asked to go birdwatching for the day. I said: sorry, I'm busy. They said: we haven't said what day yet. I said: fair point well made, but who is to say I won't be busy anyhow? They won, I lost. I think money was mentioned, and I need all I can get – have you seen the price of Nespresso pods? It's enough to make your eyes water – plus I got them to promise, in writing, that I would never, ever be made to go on one of those walks where you identify mushrooms. Not in this life and not in the next life. It is always wise to insist on a reincarnation clause.

So here I am, then, at the RSPB's nature reserve at Rainham Marshes, which is in Rainham, and really very marshy. The site is 400 hectares, used to be a military training range and is squeezed between a landfill site, the A1090 and the Thames. It's all rather miraculous. I make my way to the visitor centre where, it turns out, everyone is all excited about this afternoon's adults-only performance of Oh! Calcutta!, which is being put on by the centre's volunteers. Only kidding. They're all excited because "there's a nightingale in the woodlands". A NIGHTINGALE IN THE WOODLANDS!!!!***&. Nope, sorry. I can't even work up any excitement with four exclamation marks, three asterisks and an ampersand – and if an ampersand won't do it, what hope is there?

Anyway, I'm introduced to my guide for the day, Brenda Clayton, a senior centre volunteer. She is lovely and motherly and adorable and makes cakes for the café – she is famed for her chocolate and courgette one – and I adore her and want to be adopted by her but, my, she will keep going on about birds. It's birds this and birds that – and I've probably got the idea that birdwatchers are all fuddy-duddy anoraks in wellies but "lots of families and children come here and we're all quite modern now". (I think I'll be the judge of that, Bren.) I ask her how she got into it. Through her sister, she says. When her sister took up birdwatching, Brenda wondered, as anyone might: "What's the fascination?" So she went along one day, got hooked, and has remained hooked for the past 15 years. Why, Brenda? Why, why, why, why, why? What is the fascination? I can't see it. Help me out here. She says it's the whole package. You're out in nature. It's very sociable. It's a year-round pursuit. The more you know, the more you want to know. The more you look, the more you see. And what might we see today, Brenda? Lapwings, she says, and Little Grebes, Coots, Sand Martins, Little Egrets, and maybe a Marsh Harrier. But what, I interrupt, about proper animals? Don't you have any proper animals here? Lions? Elephants? Tigers? Manatees? I long to see a manatee! No, she says, "but we may see water voles". As far as experiences go, I don't know if swimming with water voles is up there with swimming with manatees, but am thinking not. Still, I could be wrong, just as I'm wrong about most things. I was wrong when I thought I wouldn't do anything just for the money, for example. But I didn't have a Nespresso machine then.

Actually, I'm just playing up for the cameras. I'm not that ignorant when it comes birds. I know a pigeon when I see one. I know crows, and magpies, although that old superstition – one for sorrow, two for joy – has always perplexed me. If you see one magpie, but it's then joined by another, is that two sorrows or one joy? If you see two magpies, and one flies away, is that one sorrow or two joys? It's a worry. I also know why the caged bird sings. Probably, it's happy with its lot because it has yet to get into African-American feminist writing in general, and Maya Angelou in particular. Isn't that why caged birds always sing? So I know something, is what I'm trying to say.

Now, Brenda wants to know: do I want to do the three-mile circuit, or just see the highlights? The highlights sound good, I say. Have I bought binoculars and a "scope", she asks. I have not bought binoculars, I confess, and what is this "scope" you speak of? It's a telescope, she says. That makes sense, I say. Brenda says she will lend me her binoculars and "scope", which is lovely of her. This is not cheap kit. Brenda's binoculars cost £2,500 and her scope, £3,500. Bloody hell, I exclaim, let's eBay them and spend the money on handbags. Let's eBay them and get you a Nespresso machine. She says, by way of reply: "Yes, but imagine what I'd have spent over the years if I'd taken up golf."

We set off. It is lovely here. There are birds. What's that bird, I ask, pointing overhead, where birds often are. That, says Brenda, is a White Throat. Is there also a Deep Throat, I ask, perking up. No, she says, but there is also a Lesser White Throat. We are accompanied by Rob Martyr, the centre's warden, who says: "There are a million dedicated birdwatchers in the UK so we can't all be mad." (I think I'll be the judge of that, Rob.) He also says birdwatchers should not be confused with "twitchers". Really? They're not synonymous? A birdwatcher, Rob continues, "will watch any bird that comes along" whereas twitchers travel long distances to see rare birds that can then be ticked off their list, and once the bird has been ticked that's it, game over. "They don't stand around to watch," he says, "it's a competitive thing." I sense Rob and Brenda disapprove of twitchers. Not enough to punch them or anything, which is a shame, as that would be exciting, but a bit. They say the twitchers communicate via pagers, to inform each other of rare sightings, and sometimes, says Rob, "they'll all be in the café, their thighs will vibrate, they grab their car keys and they're off to see a bird somewhere else". Of the 266 species recorded at Rainham Marshes, the rarest was the Hoopoe – I've since looked it up on Wikipedia: it's half zebra crossing and half mad hair-do – and the next day, says Brenda, "you couldn't even get into the car park".

We follow the trails. We hear some kind of warbler, which makes a sound like a crazy person laughing crazily. It's the sound I made when I accepted this commission. Rob says: "We're an island so a haven for birds, a Mecca. The swallows, the swifts, they make incredible journeys from South Africa." Do any, I ask, not bother? Does a swallow ever think: I'm not going to fly to the UK for the winter this year. I'm feeling lazy. I'm going to have a staycation here in South Africa instead? No, he says. OK, I say, here's another question for you: where do birds go when they die? Why don't they ever drop dead out of the sky? Why doesn't anyone come in to work saying: "I'm sorry I'm late, but a pigeon died on my head as I left the house and quite knocked me out"? He says that when birds sense they are weak, or out of condition, they don't take to the air, but take themselves well off the beaten track where they are speedily predated. This is good news. I worry about pigeons dying on my head almost as much as I worry about magpies. (If you see two separate magpies in the same field of vision, is that two ones or one two?)

We set up the "scope" to watch a heron. It's OK, the heron. I have nothing against herons, although their legs are very thin. It's probably all the media pressure. Newspapers and magazines: aren't they always full of thin herons? But I couldn't watch a heron for hour after hour like proper birdwatchers do. They're out today, with their binoculars and "scopes" fixed on various birds, and I want to tap them on the shoulder and say: "You've seen the heron now, my love, move on." And: "Haven't you got a Nespresso machine to get home to? The pods are eye-wateringly expensive but it is good coffee for minimum faff." They are all very sociable, though. "Just saw a Goshawk go eastwards," they will say to us as they pass. I'm introduced to Vic and Phil, who've been birdwatching here since they were children. "And we're not sad people," says Phil. "No, we're one up from sad," says Vic. Generally, birdwatchers do not wear anoraks and wellies, although multi-pocketed gilets in either khaki or sand do seem fairly obligatory.

I spend two hours with Brenda and Rob. I see a Lapwing with her chick. I see a Coot and her ugly babies. I see Canada geese, Skylarks and a Ringed Plover. I also see a water vole and it's cute. It is all perfectly pleasant, but I just never get it. "Would you come again?" asks Brenda, hopefully.

"No," I say, "but I will try your cake." It is, I think, always better to be straight about these things.

Simon O'Hagan cycles into Hell

A nice road bike requires lots of TLC. Heaven forbid that it picks up a scratch. Ideally you keep it indoors – for the real obsessive, a custom-built, temperature-controlled padded chamber is strongly recommended – and to have to ride your cherished steed in the wet is always a source of pain. Sometimes it can't be avoided, but then you clean it until it gleams as soon as you get home. Or maybe the day after.

So what am I doing on my sleek carbon dream machine careering down a muddy farm track, swerving to avoid tree roots and puddles and jagged stones and overhanging branches, and generally demanding of this most precious of thoroughbreds a performance more suited to a dray horse? This kind of off-road nonsense can't be good for my bike, and it's not exactly free of danger for me.

I am, of course, missing the point. Missing it completely. This is the Hell of the North, a ride you may possibly have heard of. The Hell of the North is the name given to the historic Paris-Roubaix spring classic in which, since 1896, the world's top pros have done battle on the cobbles and rutted roads of northern France. It's a proper hard man's race, a body-battering test of stamina and courage which requires elite riders to get really down and dirty – like asking the England football team to play on Hackney Marshes.

My Hell of the North isn't in fact that Hell of the North but a Hell of the North being held on the same day as the pro race, an homage to the event that's synonymous with legends like Jacques Anquetil and Eddy Merckx, in which some 250 amateur riders are discovering for themselves exactly what such a test involves. This, then, is the "Hell" bit of the ride. And the "North"? That most evocative of agricultural landscapes otherwise known as Hertfordshire.

The ride – a mere 100km compared with the real thing's 260, but long enough – has been organised by the cycle clothing label Rapha. It's definitely an event with a difference, and difference is what's needed at a time when sportives – mass-start, 100km-plus semi-competitive challenges intended to mirror a stage in a road race – have proliferated to such a degree that they are at risk of becoming too samey for their own good.

As recently as five years ago, UK sportives numbered in the low double figures. Now there are hundreds of them. That's because the two-wheel boom has not just been about more and more people discovering that a bicycle is much the best way to travel to and from work, it's been about cycling as a sporting challenge in which the rider embraces the glory and suffering most vividly associated with the Tour de France.

As the 1970s and 1980s were to marathon-running, so the past decade has been to long-distance cycling. And in the wake of the Etape – the amateurs' stage of the Tour de France which annually accommodates 8,000 entrants and turns away thousands more – smaller-scale versions have sprung up and found eager takers in people wanting to push themselves to the limit.

I should know because I'm one of them. Going back to 2003 I have ridden six Etapes and numerous other sportives, both in the UK and on the Continent. In the Alps and the Pyrenees, I've tackled some of cycling's most celebrated climbs – the Tourmalet, the Hautacam, Mont Ventoux – and I've plunged down the other side at speeds of up to 70kph on descents that seem to go on for ever. But I've never attempted to fight my way across a boggy field just outside Potters Bar.

We set off from Highgate Village in north London at nine in the morning and followed a route out through the suburbs and along some inhospitable stretches of A-road before suddenly things turn interesting, even idyllic.

I am following a tall Dutchman who's on a very retro steel marvel – a look much in evidence today – and he's topped things off with a pair of overshoes that are in fact thick woollen socks redolent of the early days of polar exploration. In the village of Newgate Street, just opposite The Crown pub, the route map sends us down a cul-de-sac and the tarmac soon gives way to a stony path bordered by hedgerows beyond which lies rolling countryside. It's very pretty.

My little group is tanking along and you can hear the crunch of the rough ground under your wheels and feel the judder. This is just the start. The path turns into a farm track of claggy sedge and the bike begins to wobble, and then as thick woodland appears up ahead we veer off into the trees. This is when one's bike-handling skills are given their severest examination. Under the thickest covering of branches the earth has turned to bog, and it's all one can do to stay upright. The Dutchman has long disappeared and it's every man and woman for themselves. I just manage to negotiate my way round the edge of this gloopy obstacle and there is a brief respite until we reach North Mimms.

You might know of South Mimms from the junction on the M25. Well, there's also a North Mimms. It has a charming 14th-century church, which we skirt before the land rises and the track rears up ahead. You have a choice of which rut to ride along – the left tractor wheel rut or the right tractor wheel rut. It soon becomes academic. The route – for me, at any rate – is impassable and there's no choice but to get off and push.

That's not something you see on the real Hell of the North, and by the time we have got to the finish – a pub in High Barnet where Belgian-style beer and frites are served and Paris-Roubaix is live on the TV – I've learnt quite a lot about how much both I, and my bike, can take. Answer: not a lot. Now, where's my bucket and sponge?