My recent birthday treat to myself was the fabulous In the Shadow of the Shard tour with Amy. As she guided me around the secrets of Southwark and Bermondsey, I occasionally wondered about some other secrets we were surely passing. Four of these were already known to me: two at London Bridge, one within neck-craning distance of the Shard and one at the atmospheric Cross Bones burial ground. A subsequent check showed that we had passed another 12 or so on our run.
I'm talking about geocaches of course. All you need to get started is a phone with GPS, a free geocaching app and a free account on Geocaching.com
As a visitor to, or resident of London, you are excellently placed to try out geocaching. There are masses to be found, as you can see on this map which shows hides in the City, Westminster and surroundings. The symbols indicate different types of caches. The smileys are ones that I found on previous visits to London.
An activity for all ages and interests
The basic concept is simplicity itself. A container is hidden and you need to navigate to it using GPS coordinates. When you find the container, you sign the log book inside and log your find on the Geocaching.com site.
This very simple idea has expanded into a hobby that you can mould into whatever you want it to be for you:
Caching is a great way to fill in some spare time and to visit and find out about interesting, sometimes less-known places when you're away from home. It is something that can be enjoyed all over the world.
It is a marvellous way to keep fit. I often walk 5-10 miles, whether in town or countryside, and do not even notice the distance because I am so focused on finding and signing those log books.
The "treasure hunt" aspect appeals to children and makes it an ideal activity for families. People like me with a demanding inner child are also attracted by this.
As with all hobbies, a community has developed and many social events are organised. It is lovely to see how these events bring together people of vastly different ages and backgrounds. Geocaching truly is one of the most inclusive activities imaginable.
While many are casual players, others play the numbers game: the top UK cacher is currently closing in on 45,000 finds (with my 965 finds I'm way down in position 5904 on the UK league table!).
Each cache has two difficulty scores shown in stars, one indicating how easy it is to find, the other the terrain. Those who like a challenge focus on the 5-star examples. On the terrain side, this may mean tree climbing, trekking deep into the wilds, using mountaineering or diving skills. On the finding side, it may involve solving tough puzzles or gathering hard to find information to get the GPS coordinates, spotting extremely cunning hides and sometimes even working out how to open the container to get to the log book.
Some caches are arranged in circuits or trails along canal banks, around forests, over cross-country routes. I've seen a forum post in which a Canadian runner mentions inputting coordinates into his Garmin Forerunner and running from one cache to the next along such a trail. Even without running, geocaching is a rewarding way for runners to spice up cross-training days.
The most basic container is a plastic food box or similar. Even in London, you will find some of these hidden in less busy places, open green spaces and parks (but not the Royal Parks where caches are forbidden) or in the suburbs. These are the containers of greatest interest to treasure hunters because some people like to leave little toys, badges or mementoes in them. If you want to take such an item, you have to leave something else in exchange.
These larger caches might also contain "trackables". These are specially designed coins, which are standalone, or metal tags, known as travel bugs (TBs), which are often attached to various items. A trackable has a unique ID, is registered on Geocaching.com and is subsequently logged by finders. If you find one, it is not yours to keep. The idea is to keep it travelling by moving it to another cache. Some trackables have specific missions. The mega-cute Viking Owl shown below has been crocheted around a ping pong ball. He was originally placed by his maker in a cache in Finland in August 2012 and had travelled 2732.9 miles when I found him in a UK cache in 2014. He wants to travel the world, going to places where he can meet owls. While he was waiting in my house, he made friends with three owls who live there. I left him in a cache in the Forest of Dean and hope he made some owl friends there too before continuing his journey.
In London, you are more likely to find smaller containers that only contain a log. The pots used for camera film rolls are very popular. Caches using containers of that approximate size are known as micros. Smaller ones are called nanos. Some of these can be fiendishly difficult to find. Imagine a magnetic nano in the shape of a nut and bolt, which has been stuck on a bridge that is covered with very similar real nuts and bolts of the same colour!
Some cache owners delight in acquiring or making crafty or amusing hides. For example, real snail shells can be used to camouflage very small containers. In Central Park, New York, I found a rubber pigeon fixed to the branch of a bush. It looked very lifelike from a distance. Inside was the cache I had been seeking. A beautifully handcrafted container that looks just like the large fungus that grows on trees kept me hunting a long time in a Welsh forest.
Real logs hollowed out to take the container, as shown below, are frequently placed into a pile of other logs. Key hides disguised as fake stones are also popular, especially when placed among lots of other rocks and stones.
Some log books are container-less. I've found three which consisted of a sheet of paper pinned to a public noticeboard inviting people to sign up for something. The text contained enough hints for those in the know to realise that they were staring at a geocache log which they were supposed to sign.
As well as various containers, there are various categories of caches.
A standard cache is one that involves a container of some sort and has the coordinates clearly stated in the description given on the Geocaching web site. These are probably the best ones to start with, especially if you pick ones with a low difficulty scores. They will introduce you to the general idea and give you a feel for the different containers and the various ways in which they can be hidden.
Admittedly, some easy-grade standard caches can be somewhat uninspired. Many cache owners, however, take pride in locating their hides near interesting places, sometimes off the main tourist trails, and in providing a wealth of information about the location and its history. If you are interested in churches, then caches belonging to the Church Micro group are for you. These are available all over the UK and are usually placed near churches of historical or architectural interest. The Sidetracked group focuses on railway stations, and includes a Completely Sidetracked subgroup located at sites where stations used to exist but are now disused or dismantled. There are also TB hotels, namely caches specifically intended for placement of travel bugs. A clever one can be found within a few minutes walk from Tower Bridge.
A multi-cache takes you round one or more intermediate stages and some are deliberately designed as tourist trails to show you the best and most interesting features of a town, park or other location or tell you about the history. At each stage, you will need to find some information. You then have to manipulate the information to obtain the coordinates for the physical cache itself.
Puzzle caches range from the simple to the fiendishly difficult. Here you need to solve a puzzle in order to obtain the coordinates of the physical cache. Often this can be done in advance at home and in many cases there is a mechanism to check whether your answer is correct before you set out on your hunt.
It is impossible to describe all the variants of puzzles here. A book of almost 300 pages has been written about puzzle caches and how to solve them! They may involve breaking codes and ciphers, image manipulation, finding clues buried in the source code of the cache web page, finding very obscure factual information and many, many other strategies. Lacking many of these skills and also lacking patience, I only have a few such finds but am extremely proud of each one. A cache I found in Soho, for example, required me to deal with Hebrew characters. My most recent puzzle triumph was near Durham. To get to that cache, I had to transcribe Morse code and then fiddle around with online code-breaking software to decode what I had transcribed.
Earth caches do not involve a container or a paper log. They are based at sites of geological interest. To claim an earth cache, it is necessary to answer a series of questions relating to the geology of the region and/or about the feature at the cache site. The answers are sent to the cache owner, who tells you whether you have done well enough to claim the cache. Some of these are bit too much like school exams for my taste, but I do the less wearying ones. In London, I've claimed two, one being at the south end of London Bridge. The other is shown below. I am brandishing my handheld GPS since finders are asked to upload a photo of themselves with GPS if possible. It pleases me to have also claimed an earth cache in Central Park, New York, which is the twin to this one.
Finally, event caches are one-off social events, which come with a log book and also count as cache finds . These include brief daytime or evening get-togethers in pubs, cafes or open spaces as well as camping events that may last a weekend or longer. At CITO (cache in, trash out) events geocachers get together for litter-picking, path-clearing and other remedial work at the designated location.
I hope I've given you an idea of the variety of experiences you can have while geocaching. It has given and continues to give me many hours of pleasure in London, elsewhere in the UK and abroad. Some of the best moments are when I come across other cachers at a cache location and recognition gradually dawns that we are both partners to the secret that is hidden nearby.