It's the final countdown!
See ya later . . .
The countdown to adventure is almost over! It's been a month or so since I first made a silly online counter and started counting down the days on our whiteboard at work . . . and this weekend we're off to Australia to attempt to get down the Snowy River (mainly) on foot.
I'm ready to go. We've been preparing for a while now (see this and this and this). We've bought all our bits and pieces over here, we've practiced pitching the tent (sorry for being so bossy, Dan!), done a few walks ("We'll get fit on the trail," we keep telling ourselves) and I've pored over the maps to commit emergency exits to memory.
We couldn't have got this far without a bunch of support from people in Australia. Kate has made us a selection of home-made dehydrated meals and Emily has bought a stash of noodles and porridge and boxed it all up into various food drops. I bet you nerds would like to see a satisfying, 26 second time-lapse video of the packing process, wouldn't you?! Here's one Emily made while talking to me on Skype!
We don't really know how we're going to fit all the food in our bags, but I'm sure we'll manage somehow! My parents have bought and registered a PLB and I've uploaded our itinerary to the PLB website. I've printed out all my notes. I had a leg massage earlier this week. I still don't know if it will be possible for the two of us to do this thing - but there's only one way for us to find out: try.
I'm looking forward to hearing magpies and kookaburras calling in the day, seeing the Southern Cross and the Milky Way tilt across the night sky, spending time among trees and hills and rocks, watching the landscape change as we move downstream, learning the smells and rhythms of the river, hanging out with Dan all day every day (hopefully we both feel the same about this after a few weeks on the go!), seeing wildlife, hearing birds, walking hard, getting dirty and exhausted, swimming myself clean, having some time away from the work desk, being super excited about fresh food and company when we meet people for our food drops, exploring the places I've read so much about, learning more about the river I grew up beside, about its ecosystems, about its natural and cultural histories.
I probably won't update this blog while we're away. We don't have a spot tracker, so you can't follow us online. We don't have any sponsors or funders, so there's nobody we're obliged to report to. I might tweet occasionally (here and/or here) - more so in the first and last week - but for the most part I doubt we'll have much mobile signal and we'll be conserving phone battery for necessities and emergencies. But don't worry: I am sure I'll have plenty to write about when we get back! I've got notebooks and my camera and a digital recorder, so you might even get some delightful film or audio pieces at some point.
A few people have asked if we're taking collections for a charity (or for ourselves). We're not - although we are very grateful for the assistance of friends and family with transport, accommodation and other logistics. If you are inspired by our journey to give a donation to an organisation of your choice, please do. I would like you to give to an organisation that not only offers support to but preferably campaigns/advocates for and is run by Indigenous/First Nations people, asylum seekers/refugees, trans/queer people or other marginalised groups. Dan would like you to support libraries, literacy and education. If you can combine elements of the two, brilliant! Feel free to share links to the organisations you support in the comments.
It's the final countdown!
See ya later . . .
Oh, by the way, did you see my interview over on The Urban Wanderer? I talk about long distance walking, adventure plans . . . and tea, of course. Go and check out Sarah's blog - she's got some lovely stuff on there.
The last of my 2016 posts - two months together, as there's not much I haven't blogged already!
We celebrated two fortieth birthdays (not mine!) in November. I was very proud of the ridiculous quantities of decorations I managed to find. I think my favourite was this pirate and sea-themed banner, which is customisable for any age. Genius.
We went for a very windy (but beautiful) walk along the beach from Hastings to Bexhill with a couple of friends.
I might as well share this video of the waves again. I find it quite soothing. Maybe you need soothing, too.
As the days got shorter and the weather colder, we scaled back to smaller trips in order to get outside without the pressure of completing long walks. We climbed up East Hill in Hastings . . .
. . . and went for a walk near Herstmonceux with our local LGBT walking group.
Later in December, we headed up to Norfolk for a week-long holiday. We stopped off in North London for a night, then broke the next day at Wandlebury. We'd briefly vsited Wandlebury a couple of months before and I wanted to check it out again.
I also wanted to go for a walk every day in Norfolk - and we almost managed it!
That's it! I quite enjoyed this reflection on what was a pretty good year (personally, if not globally). You can find my other 2016 year in review posts here: January, February, March, April, May, June, July, August, September and October.
Picnics and walks - an autumn to enjoy . . .
Fine weather continued on and off into October and we took advantage of it by having an impromptu picnic in the fields behind our house. It was a good opportunity to start properly trialling our Brukit, which we'd bought as part of our Snowy River adventure preparations.
We did get a few misty mornings, though, and it was clear that the seasons had turned.
The same morning as above. The mini roundabout in the foreground was the epicentre of the Battle of Hastings (according to Time Team).
In the October half-term break, we went for a two day walk near Cambridge. I posted a lot of pics at the time, but I took quite a few more! Here's a selection.
I also made this little video from footage I took on the walk. One thing I've noticed is that when I don't go out with the intention of making a film, the footage I take isn't consistent or well considered. It's something to think about if I plan to make any videos in 2017.
A summer of celebrations and holidays!
A friend came to visit in July. Having visitors is always lovely, partly because it gives us the chance to check out some of our favourite places and share them with other people. One day we went up to Battle Museum and spent some time in the gorgeous Almonry Gardens out the back. A community tapestry to mark the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings was underway, so we all went and stitched a bit of history!
It was a year for anniversaries in Sussex. Brighton was celebrating 250 years of Jewish residency in the town, with a series of cultural events including lectures, concerts and exhibitions. One key event in the calendar was the unveiling of a Blue Plaque dedicated to Brighton's (then called Brighthelmstone) first Jewish resident, Israel Samuel. Israel Samuel is my ancestor and we attended the unveiling along with another two hundred or so spectators and various dignitaries. There were three direct descendents including me, my third cousin from New Zealand and her son who lives in the USA. We were treated very well as guests of honour, invited to a reception in the mayor's parlor, a special opening of the old synagogue and to lunch in Brighton. The Middle Street Synagogue is a beautiful old building which is no longer used for worship and is not often open to the public, so it was a real treat to be able to spend some time inside.
We had a weekend break with friends in the little town of Haddenham in Buckinghamshire. It was lovely to catch up with them and to feed the ducks in the pond on the green outisde the church. (Plus, we just spotted it in the most recent episode of Midsomer Murders - yes, I have seen every single episode ever, don't judge me.)
And then it was the summer holidays. Several weeks off in July and August has to be one of the best bits about working in a school! We set off to walk from the English Channel to the Bristol Channel with nothing but a backpack (and reservations at a number of B&Bs, haha!). I posted lots of photos at the time, but here are a few more from the walk - including some from the last day, which was actually the 1st of August. Shhh, don't tell!
I shall sign off with a very short compilation of video footage taken at various places over the month of July.
April was even busier than March - and I took loads of photos. Lucky you.
We started the month in Australia and had a couple of days in the country . . .
. . . before heading to Melbourne. I posted many photos of Melbourne at the time, but here are a few more.
Ceres, a community environment park on the Merri Creek, featuring gardens, chooks, cafe, nursery, green energy projects and more.
And then, all too soon, we returned to the UK - which put on quite a welcome with this sunrise!
We got back as lambing season began and we had the most amazing experience of seeing a sheep give birth in the field beside the footpath on the South Downs. We watched the newborn lamb almost manage to get up on its wobbly little legs, then the farmers came and whisked ewe and lamb away - presumably somewhere they could keep an eye on them.
The springing of spring also meant lots of foragables coming into season. I posted a sorrel recipe and a few other things also made it onto our table.
But it wasn't all sunshine and wildflowers. Towards the end of the month there was a light smattering of snow on the South Downs. Chilly!
The last days of April were part of the May Day bank holiday, which we spent with friends in Suffolk - but I'll post more about that next time.
A recap and some photos that didn't make it to my blog at the time . . .
As I mentioned in my January revisit, heading outside a couple of times a week to take photos of the view from Lake Field meant that I paid closer attention to other details. Frost on the seed heads of flowers, months after they finished blooming. The first daffodils, almost ready to blossom. I tried to convince myself that spring was on the way!
Also in February, we went for a three day walk on the Grand Union Canal. I posted quite a few photos of our trip, but never got around to sharing the little videos I took of mist and reflections on the water.
I hope these pretty scenes inspire you (and me, let's be honest!) to get outside this winter.
The tail of Storm Angus was still lashing the coast last Sunday, so our monthly HRRA walk was cancelled. But we were all ready to go out, so we convinced a couple of friends to brave the elements and walk with us from Hastings to Bexhill. (There's a video at the end of this post, in case you want to read along to the sound of waves on a pebbly beach!)
In Hastings Old Town, the wind had wreaked some minor damage - a few signs and awnings had blown over or come off the shop fronts. (You can see one in the photo above, on the ground behind the Whites signs.)
It was blustery when we met our friends by the Jerwood at the Stade. The wind was coming from the west, which meant we'd have a headwind all the way to Bexhill . . . If we made it that far.
The sea was white with breakers as we pushed along the seafront towards Hastings Pier. We noticed these big rocks, new additions to the seafront, presumably placed there to help stabilise the beach.
We also saw a few people out with their metal detectors. I suppose that the beach after a big storm would be a good place to find things that have either washed in from the sea or been disturbed and uncovered by the wind and waves. The the view towards Eastbourne was screened by a haze of seaspray.
I was quite close to suggesting we stop and have lunch at St Leonards instead. (That would have been a huge walk of three miles - the headwind made it feel a lot longer.) But I'd been stopping to take photos and the others were too far ahead to call off the expedition. Onwards to Bexhill!
The path between Hastings and Bexhill is part of National Cycle Route 2, which hugs the south coast of England from Kent to Cornwall. It follows the railway for a while, and passes this great old industrial warehouse. I love the patterns of the windows and the rust and texture of the metal.
One of our walking companions went down to the water's edge, a silhouette striding against the grey and white sea.
The sun began to break through as we got closer to Bexhill, creating silver stripes on the horizon. We were getting hungry and, while we found a few leaves of salty sea beet to chew on, it was a relief to climb Galley Hill, drop down into town and have a hearty lunch at Trattoria Italiana.
Afterwards, we popped over to the De La Warr Pavilion and spent a while mooching around Fiona Banner's exhibition. One side of the gallery is a wall of glass looking out to the sea, and Banner has covered this in an anti-UV film with several pieces cut out, the pieces being the same shape as (enormously magnified) full stops in various fonts. I loved how these shapes framed little views along the horizon and it appealed to me that the end of our walk should also be the end of a sentence.
I took a several minutes of footage of the mesmerising waves on the beach at Bexhill. Hope you enjoy them!
I've been struggling to find time and energy to get outside, let alone write about it. This often happens to me in winter. This year my motivation is to keep my walking muscles in practice for our Snowy River adventure. Do you have any other suggestions for motivation? (A good lunch is always a motivator!)
During these short, dark, drizzly winter days, I’ve spent a lot of time curled up in front of the fire dreaming and reading about adventures. I’ve become slightly obsessed with riparian adventures - travels down, up, on, beside and in rivers. We’ve got a couple of potential river walks in mind for 2016 and (hopefully) a really big, exciting one in 2017 . . . stay tuned! In the meantime, here are nine things I like about river journeys. (Supported by evidence in the form of books, mostly. But also some TV.)
1. It's relatively easy
Find a river. Follow it. What could be more simple? Olivia Laing’s To the River: A Journey Beneath the Surface is a gentle exploration of the River Ouse in East Sussex, a walk taken one hot summer week. It’s a musing on the meaning of rivers as well as a bit of a history of this area and those who have lived in and loved it, with a particular focus on Virginia Woolf (who lived in the area and drowned in the Ouse). Laing stops along the way to lie in fields of long grass and take dips in the cool water. The UK’s rights of way network means she can follow footpaths for most of the route, including the Ouse Valley Way, a signposted long-distance walk. It’s more a rambling holiday than an exciting adventure. It sounds delightful.
2. It's difficult
Find a river. Try to follow it through ravines, jungles, deserts, cities, war zones . . . it's not always a walk in the park. Levison Wood walked the length of the Nile (well, most of it) a few years ago. Wood’s 6,850km (4,250mi) trek took him from Rwanda to Egypt via Tanzania, Uganda, South Sudan and the Republic of Sudan. The documentary series shows danger on all sides: from humans, wild animals and from the environment itself. He’s robbed on the road, encounters hippos and crocodiles and narrowly avoids being caught in the gunfire of civil unrest. The fighting means he has to abandon part of the walk. In all this high drama, the mundanity of the scene in which Matthew Power, one of Wood’s travelling companions, dies of hyperthermia (heatstroke) is quite shocking. But Wood experiences some incredible sights, stays with hospitable people and visits some fantastically interesting places. Watching his dash into the sea at the end almost makes me want to do it myself. Almost.
3. You can mess about in boats
Are your river fantasies are more Wind in the Willows than Wild West? I like the idea of recreating Three Men in a Boat (as Griff Rhys Jones, Dara O’Briain and Rory McGrath did for TV a few years ago) or hopping aboard a narrowboat and exploring the UK’s waterways, following in the wake of L.T.C. Rolt, who helped revive interest in Britain’s canals in the mid 20th Century. There’s also a huge river network in Europe. Who's to say that taking a steamer up the River Yenisei to spend a miserable season in the Arctic coldness of Dudinka - like Colin Thubron does in In Siberia - can’t be a kind of depressing adventure, too? If your ideal journey involves a bit more physical work yourself, take inspiration from the women who attempted to kayak the Amur River from Mongolia, through Russia to the Pacific Ocean, try paddle-boarding the Thames like Mel and Michelle, kayaking the Murray like Rod Wellington or packrafting down the River Spey like Alastair Humphreys and Andy Ward.
4. Discover ancient history
Rivers have been used as trade and transport routes for millennia. In Meander: East to West along a Turkish River, Jeremy Seal travels 500km on foot and in his fold-away canoe. He travels through fields and along highways, he finds traces of cultures, wars and mass migrations winding back thousands of years. At one point, Seal reads the history of a mound of earth and sees “the early people who had settled by the tributary banks 6,000 years ago, the Arzawans and the Hittites, the Phyrgians, the Persians and the Greeks, the Romans and the Byzantines, the Mongols and the Tartars, the Ottomans, their dead sheikh entombed where the past broke surface, and, finally, an agricultural consultant . . . pondering Anatolia’s present troubles.” Later, he moors up beside an island, tying his canoe to the remains of a fluted column rising from the water and is accosted by goats as he eats his lunch among the ruins.
5. It's a window onto changing ecologies
Travelling along a river, either upstream or downstream, is a bit like playing detective. Each new day sheds light on the day before: why the salt is creeping upstream, why the fish are abundant (or not) this year, why farmers have stumbled on hard (or easy) times, or why local attempts to clean up the river are facing an uphill battle. Following a river can give you an insight into the into the environmental effects of climate change, intensive (mis)use of water, damming, waste disposal and agriculture. In the four part series The Mekong River with Sue Perkins (and this will come as no surprise to you clever readers) Sue Perkins travels up the Mekong River. The series touches on the history, cultures and environmental impact of river users in Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, Burma, China and Tibet. Near the end, it’s a shock to be confronted with the construction of the enormous Xayaburi hydroelectric dam, which will block the flow of the river.
6. It only takes a day
You don't need to save up, quit your job and get on an international flight. Find a short river somewhere near your house and block out a day in your diary to explore. Last year, we spent a day walking and driving the length of the River Cuckmere in East Sussex - starting at the sea and ending at the source (or one of them). On the way we visited chalk carvings, churches and a reservoir and learnt more about the history of the area. The biggest surprise was the source itself: a bright orange, iron-rich spring bubbling out of the ground. There are many of these shorter rivers in the UK (Roger Deakin dabbles in a few over the course of his brilliant book Waterlog: A Swimmer’s Journey Through Britain - recommended reading).
7. You can cross countries . . . and continents
Africa has the Nile, the Congo and the Niger; South America has the Amazon and the Paraná; Asia has the Mekong. But you have to travel a significant way down the list of the world's longest rivers before getting to one that flows through continental Europe: the Danube. In December 1933, Patrick Leigh Fermor set off to walk across Europe to Istanbul. His journey is documented in three books, published in 1977 (A Time of Gifts), 1986 (Between the Woods and the Water) and - unfinished, posthumously - 2013 (The Broken Road). In December 2012, Nick Hunt set off with apparently very little preparation beyond reading Fermor's first two books and setting up a Couchsurfing account to retrace Fermor's steps and find out what had changed in the intervening eighty years. Hunt's book Walking the Woods and the Water, published in 2012, is an account of that journey, often along the Rhine and the Danube, through Holland, Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey. It’s not only an interesting account of a very long walk, but a great little introduction to contemporary European politics and cultures.
8. You don't have to leave your armchair
There are loads of amazing books, articles, blogs, videos and websites dedicated to river journeys. And there’s Google Maps. Put it in satellite view, tilt it if you want, and take your own trip in a far-flung corner of the globe. I have a bit of an addiction to following Russian rivers - the Lena is one of my favourites and the Ob and its siblings also tickle my fancy - though I’m also partial to desert rivers (or riverbeds) like the capillaries of the Diamantina in Australia and the blue braided threads of rivers like the Rakaia in New Zealand’s South Island that run in almost straight lines from the mountains to the sea. Yeah, I can spend hours on Google Maps. I mean, if rivers aren’t enough for you, you can also check out the moon? Or Mars?
9. There's no beginning or end
Trace a river back to its tributaries; follow one tributary up a valley to a tarn; climb beside a tiny waterfall to to the top of the mountain, to the edge of the catchment, to the watershed; listen to the squelching of mud and moss underfoot; turn your face to the cool drizzle and the clouds. Who is to say where the river really starts? Then follow it downstream, to the fingers of a delta or a long lagoon, a wide-mouthed estuary; to the point where it stops tasting of snow or starts tasting of salt; to the last town, or the last jetty, or the first breaker. Wherever you decide to start or stop walking, paddling, driving or cycling, I think river journeys are sure to live on in your memory for a long time.
What are your favourite river journey memories? Which river would you most like to explore - in your local area or further afield? Do you have your eyes and heart set on a particular river this year?
No self-respecting long distance walk write-up is complete without a kit list. That's a lie, but never mind: here's our kit list, route map and a video from our walk across Wales.
I walked 250km (150mi) of the South West Coast Path in September 2009 carrying a 14kg bag, plus water. We stayed at a B&B every night, so that didn’t even include any sleeping gear or a shelter. At the time, I though lightweight kit was the preserve of people who drilled holes in their spoon handles and cut the pockets out of their shirts to lighten their load. If I’m honest, I derived a kind of pleasure from how heavy my bag was: I felt like a Real Walker™.
These days, while I’m not rich enough to own ultralight everything and not dedicated enough to cut my toothbrush handle off to save weight, I’ve definitely come around to the pack less, pack lighter/less weight, more fun way of thinking. I know there were reasons back in 2009 for taking a pair of jeans and a third shirt (evenings and days off), a laptop (I was obsessively committed to keeping in touch), eight pairs of undies/socks (one a day and a spare for washing day) and a huge first aid kit (just in case), but in hindsight it seems ridiculous. We still use the same packs as we did in 2009, so for our walk across Wales I was interested to see if we could take everything we needed - now including sleeping gear, a shelter and a good amount of food - while staying under our 2009 pack weight.
The morning we set off from Aberystwyth, we weighed our bags on our Airbnb hosts’ bathroom scales. My pack was 9.8kg and Dan’s was 10.4kg (both before adding water). This is hardly ultralight, but it’s an improvement. As we replace gear over the years, our pack weights may decrease further. And you never know, maybe I will become a gram weenie.
“So, what was in your packs?” I hear up to three people ask with mild curiosity. Well, wonder no more, my friends. Here follows an exhaustive kit list. Things marked (J) were carried by me, things marked (D) were carried by Dan. We carried our own set of everything else.
Walk across Wales kit list
Thoughts on our gear
What didn’t we use? I didn’t wear my beanie and we didn’t use any first aid supplies apart from plasters/bandaids (which is what you want). That’s it. There were a couple of items I could have done without - such as my thermal t-shirt, which I wore a couple of times at the end of the walk simply because it was clean, and my thermal leggings, which would have been good to wear to bed on the coldest night (when I didn’t, typically) but were too warm to wear on other nights (when I did, of course). We used the head torch and knife only once.
What did we appreciate most? The tarp was great. Pitching using walking poles was fine and we were glad we hadn’t relied solely on bivvi bags as we (and our gear) would have got very, very wet on a couple of nights. It was really nice to have a flannel for washing - a very minor luxury that made a big difference to me! The squirty cordial concentrate was a welcome flavour addition to our long days. Although the maps were heavy and bulky, I enjoyed using them and they worked nicely as groundsheets on damp grass. My Piece of Material worked its magic as usual. The Piece of Material is a sarong or small tablecloth sized piece of patterned cotton I found in a charity shop years and years ago. It’s very versatile - I can use it as a towel, scarf, sarong, sheet, curtain, picnic blanket, pillowcase, washing bag or superhero cape - and I’m always glad when I bring it on trips.
What did we miss? We probably would have appreciated an extra pair of socks/undies each, though we did OK with what we had. I would have used insect bite soothing lotion if we'd had it. I got sick of instant noodles as our only hot, savoury meal. I even - and this is unheard of for me - considered buying couscous. We figured out on the way that I preferred noodles for breakfast and porridge for dinner, and since the walk I’ve decided that instant noodles are better if you only use half the flavour sachet.
What did we not take and not miss? Trousers, scarf and gloves (it didn’t get that cold), thermos/flask (we boiled water when we wanted tea), a full first aid kit (we took a sensible amount based on my knowledge and first aid training), my phone (we had Dan’s), reading book (I bought one to read on our semi-rest day), my inflatable pillow (replaced with other bits and pieces that worked well enough), waterproof trousers (it hardly rained on us while we were walking) and another water bottle (we usually walked within a few minutes of flowing water and we had treatment drops to take the stress out of drinking it).
All kit, all list
If you like kit lists, here are a few that might tickle your fancy: Emily Chappell’s kit for cycling around the world, an extensive list of things one might take on an Australian bushwalk from Matt Down Under, Anna McNuff’s lightweight gear list for running and adventures, Alastair Humphrey’s hypothetical kit for a mystery adventure anywhere on the planet, Sophie Radcliffe’s top ten outdoors/sports clothing items, ultralight DIY first aid kit on Section Hiker and “15 Veteran Cyclists Share Their Favourite Non-Essential Luxuries On Tour” by Tom Allen. It’s always interesting to see what people take on their adventures and notice what the differences are between countries, seasons and activities. Do you have a kit list? Feel free to link to it in the comments. I’d love to read it (really).
A hasty addition! A couple of people mentioned on Twitter that they'd like to see a map of the route we took. I don't have a GPX file of the exact walk, but here's an overview of our path, with the places we slept (approximately) marked by red dots. The route for the first two and a half days was self-designed, while the remainder of the walk stuck closely (but not exclusively) to the Wye Valley Walk long distance path.
And finally, a video
Congratulations! You made it to the end of the post. As a reward, here’s our short film of the walk. Instead of doing a video diary or filming every pretty view, we decided to take one long, static shot each day to give a snapshot of our time in Wales. I think the end result is enjoyable. It’s slow, but (partly because it’s slow) it’s quite relaxing. What do you think of this kind of film?
You can find my write up of our walk across Wales here: Part 1: The coast and River Rheidol, Part 2: Cambrian Mountains and craggy hills, Part 3: The Wye valley and the border.
One reason I find microadventures so appealing is that they encourage us to do everyday things in unusual places. I like the idea of taking habitual activities (walking, eating, sleeping) and framing them in new ways (walking the length of a river, eating foraged food, sleeping on top of a hill). By changing the context, these ordinary activities become rather more extraordinary.
After a busy week of travelling, hosting visitors, going to barbecues and organising more travel and social excitement for the rest of the school holidays, Sunday was going to be a day of down time. It helped that the forecast was for heavy rain: perfect weather for curling up with a good book and a bottomless supply of tea.
But technology had other ideas. There were emails to write, blog posts to draft, Twitter feeds to read, photos to edit, cute cat videos to watch . . . I still hadn’t opened my book by lunch time. Something had to be done. It was time for a microadventure!
We made a thermos of tea, packed our new tarp, got wrapped up in our raincoats and headed off to Battle Great Wood. It was tipping down and the carpark was almost empty. Good. The last thing I wanted was a wet dog coming to shake itself off under our tarp! We found a clearing a few metres off one of the paths that wends its way through the wood and hitched the tarp to a pine tree. We weren’t worried about being seen - there are no rules against picnicking in the woods! In no time we had a flying-V set up, a walking pole propping up the middle to give us lots of headroom and the picnic rug spread out underneath to keep us clean and dry. I kicked off my boots and opened my book. Straight away, an inquisitive greyhound sniffed us out, but a whistle from its owners sent it pelting off through the trees. They were the only people we saw in the woods all afternoon.
The rain pecked loudly at the tarp and the wind whooshing in the trees made the weather seem a lot more ferocious than it really was. We, on the other hand, were warm and sheltered. It was exactly the kind of contrast that makes snuggling up by the fire on a squally winter evening so appealing. In fact, it was so distractingly wonderful to be both outside in the rain and perfectly dry that I found it hard to concentrate on my book!
Walking the Woods and the Water: In Patrick Leigh Fermor’s footsteps from the Hook of Holland to the Golden Horn is Nick Hunt’s account of a walking journey through Western Europe. Fermor began his walk from the Netherlands to Istanbul in December 1933; Hunt began his in 2011. I wasn’t far into the book - Hunt was in Germany and it was Christmas. As I read, I reached the point where Hunt sleeps out for the first time, in a small tunnel in a castle wall, hidden beneath a four-star hotel. “The effect was alchemical,” he says. “When I stuck out my head in the light of dawn, having not only survived the night but slept soundly in my hole . . . somehow I belonged in a way that I hadn’t before. Sleeping out produced a sense of enhanced connection with the land, a feeling almost akin to ownership.”
I can relate to that. Walking does this to some extent - and walking the paths of East Sussex over the last few years has both threaded the countryside together in my mind and helped me stitch myself into the landscape. But sleeping in fields and woods, on hills and beaches, seems to open a conduit between self and place so they blur and breathe into each other. Perhaps it is the liminal nature of the experience that creates the possibility of an exchange: slipping between sleep and wakefulness, unsure where dreams begin and end; seeing dusk extend into night, then watching night and dawn creep together across the sky; being cocooned but also startlingly, immediately open to the elements; staying still in a way that’s not quite camping but not quite just resting (so it’s not quite illegal, but it’s also not quite legal).
Under the tarp with our books and cups of tea, boots off, listening to the tapping of rain around us, watching the trees soak into deeper, richer shades of wetness, I felt a stirring of that connectedness. Akin to ownership, yes, but not ownership in the exclusive, proprietorial sense. Rather, it’s a sense of belonging-to-ness that feels like it works in both directions.
The rain did not let up. It was still pouring an hour later, when we got wetter and grottier packing everything away than we did setting it all up. But that’s OK. Actually, it was more than OK, it was fantastic. The whole experience transformed a rainy afternoon of books and tea into something unexpected - something rather more extraordinary.
We spent lots of time with trees in July, as per the challenge, but this outing felt the most adventurous!
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