dhb merino wool baselayers (31/10/2014)

I came late to Merino. That sounds like the opening line from a romantic novella: “I came late to Merino; Daphne and the children had travelled ahead, along with matron…”

Anyway, nothing so exotic: this is about warm, practical, sensible undergarments. Incidentally, the absence of capitals in the title is deliberate – that’s the preferred style of dhb. The company (dhb) is Hampshire based although, as is often the case these days, manufacture of the garments is outsourced to the far east and elsewhere. dhb clothing seems to be sold almost exclusively as an in-house brand for a company called Wiggle (http://www.wiggle.co.uk/), although the odd item can be found elsewhere on the webnet. Wiggle’s (stop it!) primary target market seems to be cycling, but there is enough crossover for some of their range to be of interest to anyone interested in walking, running and other active pursuits.

My reticence in respect of merino was largely down to a wool-next-to-the-skin aversion; it seemed a bit like wearing your jumper under your shirt. In the context of all of the available expert reviews – many of them extolling the comfort characteristics of merino – this was both illogical and irrational.

Another stumbling block for me was the wide variation in prices between seemingly similar items. This is obviously the case with many items of outdoor clothing and equipment, where slight variations in features and particularly brand premiums can be reflected in all manner of price disparities. Nonetheless,  at times I was struggling to spot any significant difference between items £40 or £50 apart in price.

So I soldiered on with mostly polyester, which isn’t entirely without discomfort as a base-layer, until one day a cycling acquaintance mentioned this range of merino bases at reasonable prices, primarily aimed at cyclists but perfectly functional for other activities. The one caveat was that cycling gear is apparently sometimes cut a little longer, to compensate for the ‘lean forward’ position when riding; I haven’t found this to be particularly noticeable in the dhb products I’ve used. And, speaking of the products, I’ve so far tried a couple and been more than happy with the comfort and performance.

Merino (M 200) zip-neck base layer

When the time came to finally take the plunge, this was the chosen item. Quarter zips have long been a favourite design of mine, particularly for light and mid-weight fleece garments, and that definitely influenced the choice. Having grown up in an era when sizing options were restricted to small, medium and large, and having generally been a solid, unflinching, medium, I find the modern proliferation into XS, even XXS at one end of the sizing scale and any number of Xs plus an ‘L’ at the other, to be incomprehensible. On top of which, it all seems to have conspired to leave me trapped in some netherworld between medium and large.

Thankfully, Wiggle incorporate a pretty reliable sizing chart into their website and this, together with the comments of reviewers – “err on the side of caution and size up”, seemed to be the consensus – persuaded me to go for the large. This turned out to be a sound choice – the fit is comfortable but still quite snug, which is probably the nature of the material more than the size of the garment.

I’ve used the long-sleeve, quarter-zip, as a base under a light or medium weight fleece, windproof or waterproof outer and, on those occasions when it’s down around or below freezing, both fleece and windproof/waterproof. One observation is that it tends to be warm from the outset, in a way that, say, a polyester base sometimes isn’t; merino base plus midweight fleece plus lightweight outer is the most I ever usually need for even the coldest of days, although I tend to run quite hot when on the move. For winter runs (and I’m no speed merchant!) I’ve found the base layer plus a Montane Featherlite smock to be all that’s required.

A couple of times – days when it’s turned out to be unseasonably warm – I’ve ended up, by default, just wearing the merino base as a single layer after stripping off windproof or fleece to prevent overheating. It’s seemed to have pretty good retention of body warmth when time came for a rest stop, although I’d eventually have to slip an outer layer back over it.

dhb M200 zip-neck base layer (Picture from http://www.wiggle.co.uk)

The picture opposite is taken from Wiggle’s own website. Only two colours are presently available – blue, as in the picture, and a very dark grey which is almost black.

The design is plain, with no pockets; the zip runs freely and seems to be of good quality. The garment has kept its shape well after frequent wearing; I’ve machine washed it at 30º using liquid soap flakes and avoided tumble drying. The drying instruction is to lay flat, but I’ve found that hanging, smoothing back into shape and allowing to dry naturally has worked equally well.
Overall, I’ve been more than pleased and subsequently ordered a second of these. My view is that it would not be suitable for warmer days, where you would be likely to be walking in just a single layer; for those days, a looser fit, polyester tee shirt would be a better option.
Merino (M 200) short sleeve base layer

dhb M200 crew neck base layer (Picture from http://www.wiggle.co.uk)

Encouraged by my experiences with the long-sleeved base, I subsequently added a short-sleeved crew neck (no zip) version. This has seen service when a bit of body warmth was required, but without the need for longer sleeves. Again, this item has been used as both a running and walking base layer and shares many of the characteristics of the long-sleeved garment – snug fit, general upper-body warmth (particularly welcome across the shoulders on colder days) and good retention of its shape after washing.

The picture opposite is also taken from the Wiggle website.

Space, the final frontier…

Some of us need space: not all of us obviously, not everyone; just some of us. Those who feel that need most acutely are probably the same ones who are most sensitive to the intrusions which impact on our sense of space.

There are plenty who take the opposite view – the party animals who ‘work’ a room, love a crowd, blossom in heaving, bustling environments, and for whom space is not something they crave. Each to their own, but I’d guess that most walkers do enjoy a bit of elbow room.

I’m not out in the wilds here – I’m going there later, further down the page. Life, as we now live it, seems to deny us space in all sorts of ways: someone determined to drive inches from our rear bumper is an intrusion; others who literally breathe down our necks in supermarket queues are an intrusion; agitated, impatient, crowding in. Whatever the reason the effect is the same – intrusion. And if, like me, you’d prefer a bit of an exclusion zone, then you’d like the intruder to respect that point of view and… well, you know what you’d like them to do.

There’s probably a philosophical debate to be had about what actually constitutes space on earth ; I’m not getting into that –  it would be never-ending. Like space.

Whatever else it may be, it’s undeniably a component of many other things – peace, quiet, solitude, reflection… all of them benefit from a bit of space, a bit of room to breathe.

The one place where we could usually count on finding respite and our own preferred version of space was out in the hills; an environment we mostly had to ourselves – leaving aside the local population of buzzard, raven, polecat, roedeer, adder, whatever… and we didn’t mind sharing with them; they’re mostly non-intrusive and certainly not inclined to get too close. Or even with the other occasional walker(s) who crossed our paths, for they are kindred spirits after all and sensitive to our preferences.

But that space is being eroded; and eroded doesn’t even begin to do justice to what’s happening in parts of the highlands: annexed, commandeered in great swathes, would be nearer the mark. Mostly the intrusions are visual; in a landscape they inevitably would be, although invasive noise is hardly unknown. In the hills, particularly at the summits, horizons are distant and where there is damage in just about every direction, a 360º panorama reveals all of it – turbines, roads, bulldozed tracks, pylons, masts, bunkers and towers with who knows what function…

Horrible, ugly encroachment. A wave of vandalism encouraged and applauded in many cases by so-called environmentalists. I’ve long despaired of the general direction of humanity’s journey, but could we not ruin absolutely everything? Could we not just hang onto a few precious, unspoilt places? Would that be too much to ask?

I’ll nod here – not for the first time recently – to Jim Crumley and his masterwork A High and Lonely Place. Jim, writing about Am Moine Mhor in this instance, talks about not climbing to a summit, but to a space. We all know that feeling, when the path eventually levels out for the final time and you’re as high as you’re going to be on this particular outing: big skies; relief;  a sense of space.

Much as I enjoy a walk I also like to sit, become absorbed into the landscape – inconspicuous, irrelevant in fact. That’s when, if you get lucky, things – the things that belong there – allow you an insight into their lives: the mountain hare, the hen harrier, the red deer stag, the ptarmigan…

Enjoyment of the space – the old ‘far as the eye can see’ saying – is a big part of that. But it’s being systematically ruined and (here’s the real rub) so few people seem to either know or care. Money is being made, and those making most of it are doing a masterly job – a potent cocktail of PR, lobbying, acquisition by stealth. A bloodless coup, symptomatic of the times.

Mid Wales: sparsely populated, spacious, accessible, under constant threat from commercial forestry and worse…







Go quietly and you might spot an adder, a polecat, even a merlin. On an average day, red kite, raven, peregrine and buzzard are never far away.