Special: Chase Game 2019

So. I did a rather odd thing over the long weekend of 25th-27th May 2019. I and my friend Climbing Programmer played a game that we’d thought up several years previously: for three days, Climbing Programmer chased me around Britain – I had a GPS tracker on me that he had access to, and a 4-hour headstart; he had my location, and we both had the same budget to spend on transport and accommodation.

Me and Climbing Programmer after the game had ended!

Naturally over the period of this game, I visited various parts of Britain, meaning that the tale of how it went would ordinarily end up split over several different map posts. I thought, though, after a few people had asked me whether there’d be one, that it would be good if there could be a single writeup of the whole game – hence this post!

(I will at some point produce separate map posts for this trip as usual, which will be 215: Caersws and Llanwnnog, 443: The Crask Inn, and 350: Edinburgh. My apologies for how direly behind I am on this blog at the moment – there are 15 posts I need to do for places I’ve visited since December 2018!)

The game

Naturally, me being the person who has a Rules page for his own blog, a game like this which we were thinking up entirely on our own needed a comprehensive ruleset – we came up with this gradually over the preceding year or so. If you’d like to look into these fully you’re very welcome to do so: full Chase Game rules.

(In case you’re interested, you can also see – a suitably anonymised version of – the Google Drive folder containing all the documents we used for co-ordinating and recording the game and all the volunteers who were helping us out.)

To summarise a few of the very most important points, and give some framing to this instance of the game in particular:

  • I started moving at 9am on Saturday 25th May from Northampton train station; Climbing Programmer starting at 1pm from the same place. The game was to end at 6pm on Monday; if I hadn’t been caught by that time, I won.
  • Climbing Programmer had access to my location; I didn’t have access to his. Location sharing was achieved partly through the Google Maps app on our phones, and partly using a satellite tracker and satellite communicator.
  • We were allowed to move at any time between 8am and 10pm, using any means (other than our own cars), as long as we stayed within our identical budgets. Movement during the overnight off-hours was allowed only on a single overnight transport service, or for incidental reasons like getting food or something.
  • We had a continuous schedule of friends who had volunteered to act as “Home Base” – they adjudicated on situations that weren’t clear on the rules, they passed on location and other data between us when we were outside mobile signal range, dealt with GPS tracker issues, logged our expenses, and things like that.

In the end, I lost, twice… for details, see the writeup below!

Day 1, Take 1: Amrit

The night before the game, Climbing Programmer and I had both stayed the night at my parents’ house in Northamptonshire, that being vaguely between where I live near Cambridge and Climbing Programmer near Oxford. I left the Dearest Progenitors’ house at about twenty past eight in the morning [2] on the bus to Northampton train station, where I got on an 0914 train northwards to Birmingham, the plan being to change in Birmingham onto a train heading to the Mid Wales Line, to then get off in the village of Caersws just after midday.

Looking a little scared on my first train of the trip…

I had a slight near miss in Birmingham, having not noticed that my tickets had me changing trains at Birmingham International [3] rather than Birmingham New Street – I noticed this just in time to get off at International a few moments before the train departed again, and got flustered onto my next train. It was only afterwards that I realised that, of course, both trains go to New Street too, so I could have just stayed on and changed there; it would only have meant travelling for about 5 minutes on a technically invalid ticket, which I’m sure my conscience could have withstood…

In any case, I made the change, and arrived in Caersws as planned at 1212. Now, Climbing Programmer couldn’t even leave Northampton until 1pm, and I’d worked out it he couldn’t arrive in Caersws until past 5pm, so it was time to relax a little! Caersws was once home to a Roman fort, the earthworks of which are clearly visible from just by the railway station, so I admired those for a moment before walking into the village proper.

The village was very pleasant, and there were plenty of lunch options to choose from, which makes my choice of a veggie burger and chips, cheese and curry sauce from the chip shop perhaps slightly unacceptable. But in any case, it was very nice – I walked half a mile or so along a footpath out of the village to a quiet grassy spot next to a stream to have my lunch. I then stayed there for over an hour lying around on the grass reading my book!

I then went into town to investigate the bus stop I’d have to get to later, and to do the other thing that had attracted me to Caersws (other than its bus timetable…) – I’d seen from the Wikipedia page that the church in Llanwnnog had a notable medieval rood screen still in place, and my friend Millicent having beaten a love of such things into me, I thought I’d better give it a look. However, it was only when faced with the modern block of a church in Caersws that I realised that Llanwnnog’s church was, as I should rather have expected, not in Caersws, but in Llanwnnog…

Fortunately I had enough time left before I’d have to get moving again to walk to Llanwnnog and back, and so that’s what I did! I secreted my pack away in some nettles in a field and walked the couple of miles to Llanwnnog easily enough.

There church was very nice; the promised medieval rood screen was indeed present if not wildly exciting, there was some medieval stained glass that had been put back together in an interesting mixture of a “put whatever wherever” and a “reconstruct what was there” approach, and it was in general a very pleasant little space.

From there I plodded back to Caersws, picking up my bag again on the way, and had a half-hour drink, toilet and water-bottle-filling stop in the Buck Hotel before I got on my intended but at 1605. The bus was the X75 bus from Rhayader to Shrewsbury, and I intended to get off it at 1727 in the village of Halfway House, paying £5.40 for the privilege of the ride.

Now, this is where I had a slight hiccup. Since the game had a budget, one of the things that Climbing Programmer and I were doing was reporting to the Home Base every time that we spent any money, including what public transport service it was spent on, how much it cost, and where and when we were planning to get off. I, in my absent-mindedness, reported this information not to the Home Base, but to the chat that had everyone in the game in it, including Climbing Programmer, who therefore had suddenly acquired the information of where I was going to be in over an hour’s time.

Very honourably, Climbing Programmer offered not to make use of this information, but the Home Base ruled that he was allowed to if he wanted. I ended up staying on the bus one stop longer than initially planned, getting off in the village of Ford just in case he was waiting for me at Halfway House (he wasn’t) – when we were going past that stop I pretended to be asleep across the two seats so that my head could be below window level and he wouldn’t be able to see me…

From Halfway House, my plan had been to get a taxi to Church Stretton station, one stop south of Shrewsbury on the Welsh Marches Line, thereby skipping Shrewsbury where it seemed pretty likely Climbing Programmer would be waiting. I changed my taxi booking to collect me from a Shell petrol station in Ford instead, and after buying some dinner there, got into the taxi as planned (after leaving my huge rucksack behind a portaloo while using it, since it wouldn’t fit in with me), and was soon in Church Stretton.

Church Stretton station

Church Stretton station was really pretty! Someone evidently puts a lot of care into it; there were lots of well-kept plants everywhere and it was impeccably clean. The town itself looked pleasant too; I wish I’d had time to explore it a little!

In any case, I waited around at the station for a little while, before getting an 1839 train north, planning to get off at Stockport at 1958. The train passed through Shrewsbury soon enough, and here, alas, came my downfall. Soon after Shrewsbury, I was looking at my phone planning things for later in the day, when I received the following photograph from Climbing Programmer:

The photo with which Climbing Programmer informed me of his victory…

That’s right, it was the back of my own head, and Climbing Programmer was standing behind me… it hadn’t occurred to me that, when a train was just passing through a town where Climbing Programmer was, there would be time for him to position himself to get on it, but of course this was a spectacular oversight on my part; there was, and he did, and he won!

My movements on Saturday – the red cross marks approximately where I was caught! Note that this continues to include my movements later in the day to Stockport, back to Birmingham, and on through Leicester – for details, see below! (From my Google Maps timeline)

Day 1, Take 1: Climbing Programmer

As for what Climbing Programmer had been doing; he got the bus to Northampton station, and once 1pm had passed, got on a train northwards.

Climbing Programmer gets off to a good start. (Screenshot from the group chat that Climbing Programmer was using to communicate with the Home Base.)

At first buying a ticket from Northampton to Manchester, thinking I would go north, but in Birmingham had to buy anoter to Shrewsbury. Arriving in Shrewsbury at 1550, he then had a fair wait until the next train to Caersws at 1730, so waited around, planning to take that train unless he saw me doing something else.

Climbing Programmer explains his masterplan

When he saw me moving back towards Shrewsbury on the X75 (and got the message I sent by mistake…), he positioned himself at the bus station that I’d arrive at if I’d stayed on that bus.

He then saw that I’d got off the bus and was waiting around at Ford, and readied himself to get a taxi or bus there – but luckily (for him), didn’t, as he soon saw me moving quickly towards Shrewsbury again (having got in a taxi), but skirting the town on the ring road, and moving southwards. He made a mad dash to the train station, imagining he’d probably have to follow me on the trains, which was a good decision – he could see by then that I’d stopped at Church Stretton Station.

Climbing Programmer then looked at the trains departing from there in the next hour. There were three relevant ones. The first, at 1839, headed north. If I got on that, he would position himself to get on it at Shrewsbury, and catch me. The second also headed north, while the third headed south towards Hereford. Now, the soonest he could arrive in Church Stretton was on the third train, which left Shrewsbury before the second train left Church Stretton – if I didn’t get the first, then, he’d have to make a decision: await me at Shrewsbury in case I got the second, or go to Church Stretton on the third, hoping I’d wait for it to go South.

Fortunately (for him), he did see me get on the 1839. He bought a ticket, waited on the right platform, got on the train, and intercepted me on the line between Shrewsbury and Crewe as he’d planned!

Climbing Programmer and me, after his victory

It was a well-played game on his part, and a fair win!

A sketch of our movements on Saturday! Note that the dotted lines indicate movements after I’d been caught.

Day 1, Take 2: Amrit

Now, it was only 7pm on Saturday, and we had planned to be going until 6pm on Monday. We had most of our respective budgets left, and a full schedule of volunteers at home ready to help us with whatever may come. So of course, we didn’t want to leave it there!

We agreed, therefore, that Climbing Programmer would get off the train at Crewe, and would move no further than Manchester that night. I would stay on the train and continue with my previous plan, which, I revealed, was to to go via Stockport to Birmingham, from where I would get an overnight coach to Edinburgh. Climbing Programmer, we agreed, could then start moving at 6 in the morning from Manchester or Crewe, and the game would be in motion again! [4]

Outside Birmingham New Street station later that evening

Climbing Programmer duly got off the train at Crewe, and I proceeded to Stockport, changing there for Birmingham as planned (though skipping a second change at Wolverhampton I’d planned previously). At Birmingham New Street I walked out of the station, recorded a video explaining what had happened – for the trip vlog we intend to produce at some point – and, all the while being very impressed by how fancy central Birmingham is, proceeded to Digbeth coach station to await my glorious chariot.

Now, when I was planning my route in the preceding weeks, this wasn’t actually my plan. After arriving in Stockport at 1958 I’d planned to get the X30 bus at 2014 to Manchester Airport, arriving at 2030, then the National Express 325 to Hanley bus station (Stoke-on-Trent). From there I was going to get the National Express 336 overnight service to Edinburgh, arriving at 0735 (this bus starts in Plymouth). However, when I was going through booking tickets a few days before the trip started – calamity of calamities – the 336 overnight bus was fully booked! Fortunately I was able to change my plans to take the 334 bus from Birmingham to Edinburgh (this one starts in Bournemouth) instead, without losing much time or money. The only ticket I’d bought already and didn’t use was for the 325 bus from Manchester Airport to Hanley.

Enjoying my overnight coach experience…

Day 1, Take 2: Climbing Programmer

Now, once we’d parted at Crewe, Climbing Programmer knew exactly where I’d be going that evening – namely, getting an overnight coach to Scotland, and the agreement was that he could move no further than Manchester. In the end, he stayed in Crewe all night – failing to find a hostel to stay in, he went for his backup option, and bivvied under a hedge in a park…

Climbing Programmer in his bed for the night…

Day 2: Amrit

My overnight coach experience was not the most glorious night of my life. The bus stopped every hour or two – at Birmingham Airport, Leicester, Nottingham, Sheffield, Leeds and Newcastle as well as a couple of service stations – at which point the lights would come on, speakers blare, and people would get on and off. I was lucky enough to have a double seat to myself for most of the trip, but from Newcastle onwards the bus was full so my luck expired. Nevertheless I arrived in Edinburgh on time at 0805, in one piece if a little sleep-deprived. I have clearly become a little less resilient in my old age than when I used to sit through 23-hour coach journeys to Italy on school trips perfectly happily… [5]

Me posing as the bus I had just got off passed by!

Now, circumstances had changed since I’d originally been planning what to do on this day. Under my original plan, this’d’ve been the second day of one continuous game, so Climbing Programmer could’ve been anywhere – already in Edinburgh waiting for me, even, if he’d decided it was likely I’d go to Scotland.

My original plan had been to, from Edinburgh, make my way to Aberdeen on a train leaving at 0910. Getting on that train at Edinburgh would leave me at Climbing Programmer’s mercy in central Edinburgh for too long, so I instead planned to get on the train at Inverkeithing at 0942, by making my way to Inverkeithing station to get on it at 0942 instead – via a bit of walking and two buses (the #43 and X55), getting my to Inverkeithing via Barnton Junction and Ferrytoll Park and Ride. [6]

That 0942 train (which I’d bought an advance ticket for) would get me to Aberdeen for 1210. I’d then get the 1225 train in the direction of Inverness (which due to a semi-permanent closure currently involves a replacement bus between Dyce and Inverurie), getting off at Nairn at 1450. There I’d get on the 1502 #11 bus (which runs between Aberdeen and Inverness), and get off at not at Inverness bus station (where I thought Climbing Programmer could be waiting), but at Inverness Shopping Park at 1530.

From there, to avoid central Inverness, I planned to get a taxi over the Beauly Firth to a roundabout near Tore, where I’d get on the #25 bus northwards, getting off at Alness at 1724. Finally, I’d get on the train northwards to Lairg at 1843 (it departed Inverness at 1754), arriving at 1939; from there I’d get a final taxi to the Crask Inn, where I planned to spend the night.

Now, thinking about it, I realised several flaws in this plan even without the now different circumstances. I’d done well at planning for adaptability in case of things gonig wrong – I knew when all the next services were, what I’d do if I missed each thing. If Climbing Programmer hadn’t been waiting in Edinburgh for me, I’d pretty securely have got to past Inverness without him catching me, I think, as there would’ve been no reason for him to be already on the way to Aberdeen, and I was skipping the centre of Inverness in a way that should look pretty unpredictable, there being several directions one can travel from there.

However, if Climbing Programmer had managed to make his way to Inverness that afternoon at any point before 6pm (which was possible even if he started the day in Birmingham), he’d see that I was in Alness, to the north, and get on the 1754 Far North Line train; the one train of the day that headed further north than Tain, and the train I was going to get on to go to Lairg. He’d therefore once again get me by getting on the same train as me…

Since the game had restarted, I now knew that Climbing Programmer was starting the day at 6am from Manchester, so I wasn’t immediately in any danger. I didn’t bother, therefore, swanning confusingly about Edinburgh on buses just to get on a train to Aberdeen only to move on to Inverness later – instead I went straight to Edinburgh Waverley station, where I waited for a while, paying £5 for the use of a shower room, buying some breakfast and lunch, before getting a ticket for the 09:20 train that I subsequently got on, straight to Inverness.

Having some milk at breakfast time on the train!

I still wanted to end the day at the Crask Inn, but a different strategy was now relevant, given the different circumstances and what I’d learnt from the previous game. On the 3-hour train journey to Inverness, as well as generally dozing, reading things on my phone, and eating the pasta I’d planned to keep for lunch, I therefore looked over and refined the altered plans I’d made the night before on the train to Birmingham (see the crowded piece of paper below…)

Now, I wanted to end the day at the Crask Inn north of Lairg, as had been my plan all along, so that I could spend Monday walking into the wilderness. Lairg has a train station on the Far North Line, but on Sundays there’s only one train a day going that far north, [7] leaving Inverness at 1754. Now, the problem was that, I’d calculated, Climbing Programmer, starting from Manchester at 6am, could reach Inverness on a 1726 train (or, in fact, a 1530 coach, which I didn’t realise until later), so he could get on that 1754 train too.

One side of the crowded bit of paper on which I was doing my planning…

My mission, therefore, was to get on that train, without letting Climbing Programmer know I’d be doing so, so that he wouldn’t get on it too. The plan I came up with, therefore, was to go to Inverness, but from there get a bus down the Great Glen a bit, to Drumnadrochit. I’d then walk a little way inland from the loch, to hopefully make it look like I was going to be walking all day, then at the last minute would get a taxi to Beauly station, the train’s second stop, to get on it at 1809.

When I arrived in Inverness, I first went to a nearby Co-op to load up on food, for lunch, and for provisions for Monday and Tuesday, when I could possibly be walking out of sight of civilisation for most of two days. I then, as planned, got on a 1400 bus from Inverness to Drumnadrochit. [8]

Passing Inverness Castle on the bus!

It was starting to rain when I got off the bus, and, realising that I hadn’t packed my rucksack’s rain cover, I bought a few bin bags and tied them around it before getting into my waterproofs, and plodding off. My plan was to walk to the village of Balnain, four and a half miles distant, and get the taxi from there.

Walking along the road to Balnain

I started my walk, stopping to phone to book a taxi on the way. I had some fun with this, as the first taxi driver first told me I should go to Inverness station instead, then thought a different taxi company would make more sense and directed me to them. They didn’t pick up, and I went back and booked the first one. The second one then called me back an hour later and apologised – she’d been out of phone signal out on the West coast. I also, inspired by some of Climbing Programmer’s tales of doing so on climbing trips in Wales, briefly made an attempt to hitchhike, but gave up after the 15th car or so turned me down.

A cow and horse I saw happily cohabiting on my walk

Despite my initial worries, I reached Balnain in plenty of time, 45 minutes early. I then found an absolutely beautiful stop to sit down and have a late lunch – a lightly wooded area by a riverbank, with the newly-exposed sun peeking through the leaves, and positively heaving with late bluebells.

My beautiful lunch spot in Balnain!

My taxi came a little early, around 17:20. This worried me somewhat, as I didn’t feel like I could just ask the driver to wait, but leaving now would mean I’d be in Beauly well before 1754, so if Climbing Programmer was in Inverness he’d be able to get on the train. Nevertheless, I got in, hoping for the best, and we pootled off to Beauly.

The driver was pleasant and seemed seemed quietly interested in what I was doing. I arrived in Beauly 25 minutes or so before the train left, so I went for a short walk – unfortunately not far enough to get to see the ruined Priory that I’d also planned and failed to see on a previous trip – before returning to the station. Beauly station has a tiny little platform, 15.06 metres according to Wikipedia (or 54 Vicki-feet according to All the Stations); only two doors of the train can open there.

Beauly station and its diminutive platform

I got on my train as planned at 1809, and fortunately, Climbing Programmer wasn’t on it – I was almost certainly safe for the night now! The journey passed as it should, and I got off at Lairg at 1939, and into my waiting taxi for the 20-minute drive to the Crask Inn. This taxi driver was very chatty, and very interested in what I was doing; by the end of the trip I’d learnt how he used to be an engineer in Leicestershire, but moved up here for the pleasure of it; how he doesn’t make anything from the taxi driving but does it because he likes meeting people; how the local council hire him to take schoolchildren to school, and various other things…

An interesting signpost/waymarker outside the Crask Inn!

I was soon at the Crask Inn, which was a lovely place! It’s incredibly isolated, just the pub and the owners’ house, 13 miles north of Lairg and 8 south of Altnaharra, in the middle of, well, wilderness, otherwise, and in the shadow of the isolated Munro Ben Klibreck. They seemed to be doing a thriving trade both days I was there; they have bedrooms, food, drink, and let people camp outside, which was what I did. As a pleasant surprise, they had two large permanent tents up outside, and I got to sleep in one of those instead of using my own little 1-person thing, which was much more spacious and comfortable.

Sleepeing outside the Crask

I had dinner at the Crask – a very pleasant creamy mushrooms on toast starter, a beany casserole thing for main course, and some great rice pudding for dessert, baked, which I hadn’t experienced before, but which is apparently the Scottish way. I went to bed fairly early, and slept very well, making up for my previous night on a coach!

Day 2: Climbing Programmer

Climbing Programmer’s day started off less than ideally, transport-wise. Firstly, the West Coast Main Line was closed, meaning that getting from Crewe to Edinburgh had to be done on the slower route of taking a trans-Pennine service, then the East Coast Main Line. Secondly, though, there were ticket troubles. He bought a nice, low-priced £16.15 advance ticket from Crewe to Edinburgh, but on the train between Manchester and Huddersfield was informed by the guard he’d have to get off – his ticket was actually for the next day.

He then bought a new, much more expensive ticket (£72.25) from Huddersfield to Edinburgh, and carried on travelling, but had to ask the Home Base for a ruling on how to count the mistaken ticket purchase. The ruling (provided by Climbing Programmer’s alter ego, Programming Climber) was thus: a full-price ticket from Crewe to Huddersfield costs £17.70, so that much should be deducted from his budget instead of the £16.15 he paid for the wrong ticket.

Climbing Programmer updating his video diary later in the day, at Inverness station

On his way to Edinburgh, Climbing Programmer could see me heading towards Inverness, so planned to follow me there. However, before he got to Edinburgh, I’d started moving again, taking the bus to Drumnadrochit, in the direction of Fort William. Now, my only plan with that action had been to, by starting walking from Drumnadrochit, make it look like I’d be there all day, and so make a hypothetical Climbing Programmer arriving in Inverness while I was still near Drumnadrochit follow me there, rather than waiting and following me northwards towards Lairg. However, it had the unintended good (for me) consequence it made it look to him like I might be heading on to Fort William, or even Skye – he therefore delayed in Edinburgh for a good while, since if that was what was happening, it would make more sense for him to take a train directly there via Glasgow.

It therefore wasn’t until 1632, when I was just walking into Balnain, that he got on a train up to Inverness, arriving at 2008, to then get the last train of the day northwards on the Far North Line.

The final train of the day on the Far North Line, as far as Alness (though it continues on to Tain). (From thetrainline.com)

The rules meant that neither of us was allowed to travel past 10pm, so Climbing Programmer had to get off his train at the last pre-10pm stop, which was at Alness. He found himself a piece of grassy ground among some trees, and decided to bivvy for the night again rather than set up his tent, since he was slightly worried about being noticed by a local. He cooked himself a meal, took some blurry photos, recorded a video diary, and went to sleep, intending to get the first train of the day the next morning!

Day 3: Amrit

I followed my huge Crask dinner with a huge Crask breakfast the next morning. The landlord was really nice – he was fascinated by the game, and started giving me all sorts of advice, which was very welcome. I packed up, and left to walk eastwards at about 8:30am.

The first 9 miles or so of terrain to the east of the Crask. The red arrows show my intended route, while the purple ones point out the bothies that the Crask landlord told me about

To the east of the Crask is a large expanse of wilderness. Aside from private estate tracks, if you travel eastwards, you won’t encounter another road for over 20 miles. My plan, therefore, was just to walk into this, and keep going until 6pm, when the game would end, hoping that Climbing Programmer wouldn’t arrive at the Crask in time to catch up with me. After the first few miles, the terrain would get mountainous, and hopefully very pretty, with Loch Choire to one side of me or the other for a good while.

The Crask’s landlord informed me before I left, pointing to various places on the huge map on the wall in the bar, about a few bothies along the way, which was good news – if Climbing Programmer didn’t get me I’d need to stay out overnight, and I might be able to use one of these and get away without needing to use my poky little tent. [9]††

Walking off from the Crask!

I set off, and after walking the wrong way down the road for a minute or so, was soon on the right track. The going was reasonably flat and not too boggy to begin with, so I made good progress, but about half an hour in, calamity struck.

My phone hadn’t charged overnight for some reason, but I didn’t think too much of this, as I could just leave it connected to my charging pack as I walked. However, after I’d been walking for a bit, I realised that it wasn’t charging at all – the cable that connected it to the charger was broken, and I didn’t have a spare. Now, especially since I had my satellite communicator with me, this wouldn’t be much of a problem, however I was relying on my phone and the OS Maps app for mapping. (I had planned in advance to come here, so I could have brought a paper map as I usually do, but for some reason it didn’t occur to me – I’d put so much thinking into how Climbing Programmer would access mapping, and how I would if things went not to plan, that I didn’t think about this!)

My path eastwards from the Crask

I couldn’t walk off into the wilderness with no map, so I had to turn around and tramp back to the Crask, where the landlord very kindly lent me a copy of the local OS Explorer map (443: Ben Klibreck & Ben Armine). I probably lost an hour to that, and more to later thinking that I’d dropped the map (I hadn’t), which was a bit of a disappointment. But still, I continued on happily enough. After a while, after a mildly hairy river crossing, I lost the path, and had to work out my position using compass bearings, which was something I hadn’t done in many a year, used as I am to GPS. Nevertheless, I found the path again soon enough, somewhat perturbed by having seen what seemed to be a person a way behind me, and soon was climbing my way upwards as the path approached the hills and mountains around Loch Choire.

But – all good things come to an end, and I’d lost a good while to going back for the map, and then losing the path. And so it was that, shortly before midday and about 4 miles from the Crask Inn, I saw an orange-jacketed figure round the corner just behind me, and knew the game was up.

The hunter approaches

And that was it! Climbing Programmer had got me once again. It had just started to rain, and after we stood around talking for a bit, we walked just a little further up the path to the bealach to look at the view down the glen before we turned around. And the view was wonderful, over Loch a’ Bhealaich to Loch Choire and the Ben Armine plateau in the distance.

For details of how Climbing Programmer’s journey went, how he found me, and our route home, read on!

Day 3: Climbing Programmer

Climbing Programmer dutifully got up very early to take the first train heading northwards, at 0751, and arrived in Lairg at 0849. He then got a ride with the same chatty taxi driver I’d used – who slandered me, claiming that I’d asked him to take Climbing Programmer to the wrong place! He arrived at the Crask Inn around 10am, and got no information out of the landlord – it seems I’d made some loyal friends – before heading out into the country on my trail.

While walking, Climbing Programmer saw a couple of things that could have been me up ahead – the real me, but also something that could have been me on the opposite side of the river, entering a wooded area; he was confused since I’d got a bin bag covering my rucksack, and he was looking for a red bag. He made the right decision and continued after me, based on my location trace, but it does make me wish I had gone off path – I think I would have lasted significantly longer that way.

Being in far better physical shape than I was, Climbing Programmer actually managed to jog most of the 4 miles or so to my position (despite carrying a heavy rucksack), so he caught up to me quickly. This goes to show a flaw in my plan of ending the game by walking off into the wilderness – the Runner always has to assume they’ll be walking right until the end of the game, and back, reserving strength for all that time, as well as carrying the food, sleeping gear and so on for that period. The Chaser, however, can see exactly how far they need to go, so is free to, for example, drop their rucksack and jog.

… And back again

We turned around from the point where Climbing Programmer had caught me shortly after midday to walk back to the Crask Inn, and arrived there an hour and a half or so later – delayed only a little by my questionable decision to try to throw my bag across a little river to make crossing it easier, which then led to my bag falling in, flowing down, and me having to thoroughly wet myself splashing down the river running after it. Arriving at the Crask, we distributed our wet things around the now slightly sunny outdoors, called a taxi, and sat down to some very welcome tea, toasties and cake in the warm as we waited.

The next train we’d be able to get from Lairg station was at 1836, so we had a bit of a wait – the taxi came for us at about 4pm [10], meaning that we had a couple of hours at the Crask, then a couple of hours at the station (the drive was only half an hour). Lairg station is a good 2 miles south of Lairg itself, so given that I was in need of a replacement phone charging cable and we had time to spare, I got the driver to drop me in town while Climbing Programmer went on with our bags to the station. It was the same chatty driver as before, who’d taken us both up to the Crask individually.

An otter in Loch Shin at Lairg

I unfortunately didn’t find a suitable charging cable in either of Lairg’s shops (they had micro-USB and Lightning, but not USB-C), but bought a milkshake and, more importantly, saw an otter gambolling about in the loch. I then walked the couple of miles to the station and joined Climbing Programmer there, where we twiddled the time away until our 1836 train.

The train was delayed by 15 minutes or so, which worried us somewhat. This is because our plan was to travel all the way to Edinburgh tonight, stay at a hostel we’d booked there, then return to our Oxford and Cambridge homes the next day. However, to get to Edinburgh that night, we’d need to make a 2016 connection at Inverness, but our train from Lairg was scheduled to arrive only at 2010, leaving very little wiggle room.

Lairg station

However, we told our worries to the conductor as he sold us our tickets (Lairg is too small to have ticket machines or any staff, of course), and he said he’d sort it out for us. In the end, ScotRail held the Edinburgh train for a whole 10 minutes so that there’d be time for us to make the connection, which was very nice of them! [11]

We arrived in Edinburgh slightly after midnight, checked into our hostel, and got straight to sleep. And, more or less, that was it! Climbing Programmer left very early the next morning, in order to be able to get back to Oxford for some afternoon social event, while I had a slightly more leisurely morning, getting breakfast and a phone charger (at last!) before getting a train back to England at around 10.

A, uh, picturesque alleyway in Edinburgh

I was back in Northampton by 3:30pm after changes in Preston and Rugby, collected my car from the Dearest Progenitors and was back home in Cambridge later that afternoon – the game was done, and so was our trip together!


[2] I only just caught the D1 bus in question, which was in fact the previous bus, very delayed, since my mother had the perspicacity to check the live bus status on the Stagecoach app and told me all the buses were delayed and I’d better hurry! Not a good sign for the game coming up…

[3] Birmingham International is the train station serving Birmingham Airport, which has a very exciting free short-distance rail link that moves people between the airport, station, and the National Exhibition Centre (NEC).

The station is going to get even more exciting soon, because HS2, our new high-speed rail service, is coming to the new Birmingham Interchange station that’s being built very nearby, with the people mover being extended to reach there too. HS2 is going to the centre of Birmingham too, to the new Curzon Street station (the building site for which I think I spied out of my train just before it passed through New Street), but Curzon Street is on a spur, meaning that it will be served by specific trains starting or terminating there. Birmingham Interchange, on the other hand, will be a stop for trains heading between London and the North.

[4] For some more details, this was to be an independent second game – Climbing Programmer had won the first one, and the result of the second would stand on its own, neither overriding the first result, nor being subsidiary to it.

We decided on a 6am start for Climbing Programmer for the next 2 days (but still 8am for me), just because I thought this would make the game more interesting and balanced. A 6am start meant that there was plenty of time for Climbing Programmer to get to Lairg on the same train as me on Sunday evening if he did everything right, but only just – since I was still planning to go there, albeit by a slightly different route (see below!). It also meant that there was time for him to reach Lairg on Monday afternoon from Edinburgh or Glasgow.

I revealed my overnight coach plan to Climbing Programmer early, since according to the rules it’d be reported to him at 10pm that night anyway, and we’d already agreed where he’d be at the time so it wasn’t an advantage.

[5] I always really liked the long coach journeys on school trips, just in that it was always nice being together with friends for a long time; people would start singing and falling asleep in odd places scattered around the coach and well, yes, I liked it, though few enough others did. A National Express coach, by comparison, had none of these charms, and I’m not sure I’d want to sleep in a footwell next to the feet of a stranger…

[6] In fact, I was considering using Uber, for how cheap it was, which is something I’ve never done before. (Well, I’ve once been in an Uber someone else booked in London, but never used the app or booked one myself.) Perhaps I’m subconsciously put off by the company that decided to name itself “boob” in Latin…

[7] There are other trains on the Far North Line on Sundays, but none of them go that far – two terminate at Invergordon, one at Tain, but then only this one in the evening all the way through to Wick. There are also a few others just to Dingwall, some of which continue down the Kyle of Lochalsh line instead.

[8] I actually planned to go further, to Invermoriston or Invergarry, before getting a bus back to Drumnadrochit and getting my taxi from there, to be extra confusing. However, this plan failed when it turned out that the bus I tried to get on actually terminated at Urquhart Castle, just past Drumnadrochit – I therefore switched back to this plan, which I’d also considered.

With how things actually turned out, with Climbing Programmer seeing me in Drumnadrochit and thinking I might be heading for Skye, this plan actually might have worked better – he might have then got on a train to Fort William, so when I turned back hve been scuppered. He’d then’ve ended up having to take much longer getting to Lairg, probably not getting there until much later on Monday, likely not catching me until later that afternoon, or maybe not at all…

[9] I’d never stayed in a bothy before, and wanted to – I did eventually get around to it this summer though – see my forthcoming post about Ben Klibreck and Ben Armine! These two, mildly unusually, aren’t Mountain Bothies Association bothies, but private estate bothies, maintained by the estate whose land they’re on, as bothies have been since before their main purpose was serving recreational walkers. On the way back from that later trip, I bought a book called The Scottish Bothy Bible, which claimed to list not only every MBA bothy in Scotland, but every private bothy that the author knew about and was allowed to talk about. These two weren’t in that book at all, which is somewhat pleasing!

[10] When we were just starting the walk back, I considered calling the taxi as soon as I got phone signal, in case it meant we could get an earlier train (there was one at 1512, we knew) but abandoned it as it might have been reasonably tight. In the end, though, when we’d called the driver, he told us that if we’d called him earlier, he’d have been able to get us on that one, and what’s more would have driven us further down the line to Tain at no extra cost, since he had to go there anyway to bring some of Lairg’s population of children back home from senior school. (He does this every day.)

[11] It turns out, the conductor told us, that the train companies have an obligation to get passengers to their destination the same day, whatever delays and cancellations may occur. Now, normally, this just means, well, you get on a later train if you miss a connection, or there’s a rail replacement bus service. But, in this situation, of a smallish delay that would lead to me missing the last train of the day, so they’d have to charter taxis or buses especially, however few people it was for. So it was really worth them holding that last train!

4 thoughts on “Special: Chase Game 2019

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