I haven’t been camping for a very long time. I can remember the handful of occasions in my adult life where I have ended up under canvas. I went to V Fest in Essex and it was truly revolting experience. The Prodigy played and I hated it and then hordes of drunken, drug-ravaged Essex folk rampaged through the grounds. I had a pop-up tent which opened with such force that it swallowed me whole as I attempted to pull it out of a distended circular sack. I then spent three weeks trying to fold it back down again. On the Saturday night I went out to go for a waz and I saw some youth shitting by the side of the arc-lit path, eyes like saucers. The next morning I packed up and went home.
A few years later I camped backstage at Truck Fest and it was marginally more civilised, simply because it was bands and people like that only. I was playing drums in a violently unpopular and offensive gay-cabaret-punk band, as the token non-gay. I remember being marooned on a table with chums, slightly worse for wear, but happy, all wearing beatific smiles, right up until the moment Biffy Clyro finished on the main stage (i.e. the only stage not in a barn full of cowshit) and a crowd of young people drunk on absurdly complicated scot-prog and cider came pouring through the field towards our table. Their trousers were uniformly enormous with cords hanging off like tails. We ran for our lives. I resolved to never camp again.
All of which means I am very late to the current craze for micro adventures, bivvying, wild camping, or whatever it is called. I have always preferred to travel light, have a bed and a shower. It’s not so much the shower and bed, more just the convenience of riding without tonnes of stuff that appeals. Nevertheless, I have wanted to camp out and get away from it all, and this desire for escape has been amplified over the past three months as the world outside shrunk beyond recognition.
After a brief plan (let’s go for a bivvy) and some scouting (the woods look good) we picked a day. I say we, it included seasoned bivouac pro, Kieran. He is absolutely hardcore. He regaled with me tales of a monstrous bivvy ride across all sorts of mountains in France and Italy. He has serious kit. I don’t have serious kit, but I do have kit. Kieran’s idea of a bivvy is sleeping in a bin bag in your clothes. My idea is creating a set-up that is as close to home as possible. He called me noob at one point and I can’t remember why. To be fair it could have been any one of a thousand things I said, did, or was wearing.
We met in the middle, I took a tent, sleeping bag, mat, small stove and some supplies. I put flat pedals on the bike and rode in casual clothes. It was curiously liberating not to be in lycra. I had one fairly substantial mechanical where I had forgotten to tighten the rack bolts properly and the whole lot began to pivot back on the bosses. I tightened up the one remaining bolt and then used a carradice strap to hold it in place. I didn’t share these details with Kieran when he turned up. My mechanical reputation is already quite low round these parts.
We rode out to Congresbury for chips at about 8pm. I bumped into Elliot Davis, famous world masters track champion, and he learned of our plan. He shook his head in a ‘stay off the moors lads’ kind of way. After chips we rode up one of the longer climbs on the Mendips to the designated stretch of woodland and met up with Steve Green, another Bristol South alumnus. He wasn’t staying over but fancied sitting out under the stars and drinking a beer.
And that’s pretty much what we did. Had a couple of beers, some whiskey, watched satellites and looked at the hazy smudge of comet neowise, talked about life and everything and nothing. We saw a glow-worm. Steve left at midnight but I think it took him most of the night to find his way out of the wood. Keiran said the next morning that he saw a bike light flashing this way and that for several hours.
The night was cold. I had a one season sleeping bag, comfortable to 11 degrees apparently (noob). I think the temperature dropped to about 7 or 8. It was freezing. I had all my clothes on. I kept my hat on all night. It was a creeping, insidious cold, not a cosy, oh i’m insulated against this cold, but a vindictive, drafty chill. I had more sleep than I thought I had, but it was probably only about 4 hours. I woke at 4am to the sound of cows frotting, sheep being sheep and tons of birds. It was nice, but I was tired. I opened up the tent and looked outside, resigned to no more sleep, only to fall asleep for another hour.
Second time around I felt better, it was closer to 6am and marginally warmer. I think everything about the camp was amazing – with the exception of sleeping – but the morning was the transcendent bit. Yes, the stars are great, it’s dark sky, the conversation, the sense of being alone in the landscape, all good, but it’s that feeling in the morning when the world isn’t awake and the sun is creeping over the tops of the trees and chasing the shadows away, the newness of the day, the feeling of optimism – that’s the best bit. I made coffee on my tiny primus stove. I was absurdly well-prepared, and I think Kieran was impressed because I brought my V60 pour-over thing. Only to realise I had jettiisoned the extra cooking pot so had nothing to pour it over with (noob). Luckily I had a coffee bag in reserve. Somehow, it tasted like the most amazing cup of coffee in the world. I had a couple of croissants to go with it. I sat there in silence and looked at the light and drank my amazing coffee.
We broke camp – I actually used the phrase and I don’t think Kieran cringed at the time, although a part of him might have died inside – at around 6.45am, left no trace and headed back to Bristol, chatting all the way. I got in at 8.30am. I was back in bed by 2pm for a nap, then went to bed at 9pm for a further 12 hours, lights out. Kieran went and did 75 miles in Wales with a couple of monstrous triantelopes then went mountain biking the next day.
I’m not hooked, insofar as I haven’t been scouring the internetz for ultra lightweight shiz and a green bin bag and a tarpaulin with a ridge line, but I am looking forward to doing this again with a 3-season sleeping bag.