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Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Bivouacking – or Wild Camping Without a Tent - on the River Greta.


A week after returning from St George’s Island ( see my posting of 26 June) we treated ourselves to another, rather briefer, backwoods experience. I’ve been interested in wild camping for some years. Perhaps I should say bivouacking. While I love hiking, I hate carrying a pile of equipment on my back. I also dislike having to make a certain distance, no matter what the conditions, in order to spend the night at a pre-arranged bed-and-breakfast place or a campsite.  Some years ago I started to think about actually tramping, the way some of those old travel writers did, or said they did. Hilaire Belloc, G K Chesterton, Robert Louis Stevenson, Laurie Lee: they all referred casually in their writings to lying down under a tree and going to sleep, just when it suited them. Could I do it?

I soon realised that it would help if I could rid myself of a profound fear of the dark. That I managed by the simple expedient of moving into an isolated and ancient cottage in the middle of a deep, dark wood some way from town. Walking to the pub and back across two or three miles of woods and fields persuaded me that there was no reason why a stretch of country that raised my spirits by day should pose any kind of threat just because night had fallen. My dread of the dark melted away like a September mist.

I also figured that it would make sense to experiment - if I were to experiment - in June or July, when the northern night lasts no more than three or four hours, less if the sky is clear. If you’re horribly uncomfortable on the ground, you can get up, brew a cup of coffee and move on at four or five in the morning, then maybe take a nap when the sun is high in the sky. It’s what tramps have done for centuries.

After further experiments I dispensed with the small tarp I was carrying (in case of rain) and invested in a (supposedly) waterproof bivvy-bag. With that, plus my sleeping-bag and a thin, lightweight mat, I can generally get comfortable enough to guarantee a few hours’ sleep in most sorts of environment.

So, thus equipped, we set off on Saturday evening along the delightful river Greta, a few miles south-east of Barnard Castle. A light shower was falling, so we didn’t walk very far. (The fact is, we’d stopped in the pub, had a delicious pint of Timothy Taylors’ Landlord bitter and decided that we really ought to try another.) We found a sandy spot under the trees, set up the stove and cooked two very tasty sirloin steaks, then turned in. All night long, every time the breeze got up, the leaves shook a few refreshing drops on our faces, but apart from that we slept pretty well undisturbed. Next morning, after coffee, we packed up and joined our walking group at the Morritt Arms for a triangular hike of ten miles or so that took us first upstream, then north towards Barnard Castle, finally back along the river Tees via the ruined Egglestone Abbey and Rokeby Park, for almost a century home to Velazquez’ ‘Rokeby Venus’. (The painting hung there from 1813 to 1906 when it was sold to London's National Gallery.)

This was our first bivvying night of the year. We’re planning another in a couple of weeks’ time to celebrate my birthday – and, I guess, the arrival of my state pension. We’ll be spending the night on the cliff-tops at Flamborough Head (East Yorkshire). The turf up there is as soft and springy as any mattress I’ve ever slept on – and there’s a decent little café not far away.


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