Monthly Archives: September 2011

My solo microadventure

About a month ago, Howies and adventurer Al Humphries set the microadventure challenge – to spend 24 hours (ish) close to home in the wild. Here’s my story.

My microadventure came upon me suddenly. I was sitting with a cup of tea checking the five-day forecast and there, sandwiched by rain and heavy rain, was a full sun and a clear night – the first in weeks. Tomorrow was my window of opportunity. I checked my diary. I could squeeze it in between my hair cut (appointment at 2 pm) and babysitting for a friend (11 am the next day).

Close up of me in my bivvy bag

Ready to spend the night in the wild - just me and my new Hunka bivvy bag.

I had a basic plan – to sleep on a beach under the stars. For me, this adventure was about self reliance. I wanted to spend a night on my own in the wild, an idea that made me, well, slightly nervous.

Autumn was ripe in the air as I set off round the coast. The oak wood glowed soft and mellow, the evening sun picking out the flies and threads of cobweb. After a while the trees give way to heathland. I tramped on, heather scratching my legs and bog sucking at my boots, until I reached the shore.

The tide was out and the sun low. I jumped from rock to rock, my shadow one step ahead of me, leaving behind the places I know. I wanted to put a good distance between my normal life and this night, to get far away from roads and houses and people and familiarity. I wanted to feel the unease of a strange place.

View of rocks with with flames

The fire catches and flames lick the boulder.

Dusk was beginning to fall when I found the perfect spot to spend the night – a small cove of sea-smoothed pebbles surrounded by boulders. I dumped my bag and went in search of driftwood. There was plenty in the tangle of seaweed that marked the tideline.

I lit a fire. It was slow to catch, and the damp wood hissed and whispered. A sudden wind made its heart roar. Wine rattled into my tin mug. It tasted as ripe as the blackberries I’d picked earlier in the day. I’d been looking forward to this moment – the warmth of the fire, woodsmoke curling around me, and the gloaming, that half light of dusk that softens and sharpens. A boat sat on the horizon, glinting as the last of the sun caught its sails.

The landscape was sinking into sleep. I was ready to join it. I stuffed my sleeping bag into my bivvy bag and climbed in. Was this really enough to protect me? I lay back and saw the first star prick the sky. I thought about the darkness that was falling around me, wrapping the trees, blanketing the paths. It made me feel tiny and exposed; a lone speck in a bag on a distant beach. There was no going back now. The night lay between me and my home, wild, solid and impenetrable.

A breeze, a cool breath, crossed my face. It smelled of seaweed. I wriggled deeper into my cocoon and stared up at the shivering stars, eyes wide. The plough rested on top of the hill and the moon began its steady rise from the east. A shooting star traced the sky and I wished for sleep to come.

Sunrise over the sea

Finally dawn arrives.

It never did.  Noises filled the darkness: hooting from the wood, scuffles from the undergrowth, grunts from the sea. I thought I heard the crunch of pebbles underfoot and voices on the wind. An engine rumbled. I sat up and saw the lights of a fishing boat flicker far out in the loch. The laughter of its crew carried clear across the still water. I checked my phone – 2am. The moon was high in the sky. The lichen shone ghostly white in its beams.

About 6am the sky began to lighten. At last. I shook off my sleeping bag and stretched my aching muscles. I made a strong coffee, and watched the sun rise and the world return to normal. The sea was calm. Birds chattered and gulls screeched – comforting daytime sounds, welcomed by my rattled brain.

A big brown crab under the water

I had an early morning swim with this handsome fellow.

It was time for a swim. I picked my way over the rocks to a small crescent of sand, peeled off my layers and shivering as the morning met my skin. I waded out into the loch. A brown crab – big enough for the pot – stood frozen on the sandy bottom, his claws raised and ready like an angry boxer. I moved away and plunged under, the shock of the cold clearing my head and washing away the fears of the night. I emerged, tingling, the strangeness of the night gone, my mind and body back in place.

As I started to make my way home, I heard a splash in the water in front of me. A head appeared, then a slippery back and a pointy tail: an otter fishing. I crouched and watched it swim ashore. It looked at me with its whiskered face, held my gaze and then slipped back into its watery world.

An otter in the water

See that wee dot in the water at the back? That's an otter. Honest.

I slipped back into my world too. With each familiar task back home, making a phone call, boiling the kettle, having a shower, my night on the beach retreated, became more unreal. But a bit of it remains lodged inside me, dark, wild and fiery – a reminder of something bigger, more enduring. I was part of that night and now that night is part of me.

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Mellow fruitlessness

I woke up to autumn the other day. I could smell it, sharp and cold up my nose, and the colours in the landscape had shifted – just slightly – to a riper, richer tone. Summer had slipped away and it made me smile. The time had come to stack the woodpile and stock the larder, to forage, pickle and preserve before the harvest ends and winter sets in.

A bunch of brambles

Bramble whisky, bramble jelly, bramble wine, bramble vinegar, bramble and apple crumble...

I set off up the lane with my basket in search of crab apples, rowans, brambles and any other hedgerow edibles I could spot. It was still early and silver balls of dew clung to the grasses and picked out the cobwebs that slung, sparkling, from thistle to thistle. Nobody else was up, and the boats slept in the marina as I passed. I had the morning to myself. Sunshine flickered through gaps in the dense pine forest as I followed the track up to Ascog. After a while, the trees gave way to open moorland, bruised purple with patches of new heather.

Loch Ascog is small, brown and trouty, and has a ruined castle perched on its bank. The loch isn’t set in the prettiest spot – the loggers have left the land barren and marked it with wide tracks for their machinery – but the castle, the old seat of the Lamont clan, is a beauty. It grows out of the ground like a crag, its remaining walls held upright, it would seem, by swathes of ivy. I sat feeling the history around me. A fish rose with a plop, rippling the surface. Two eiders flew low across the water, their reflections beating in time. And then I spotted it – a crab apple tree huddled in the shelter of the ruin’s walls. Its branches were thick with small, hard apples. I picked those that had a rosy blush and set off home, grabbing a bag full of berry-red rowans on my way – all the ingredients for a crab apple and rowan jelly.

To make the jelly you’ll need:
•    1kg rowan berries (stalks removed)
•    1kg crab apples (chopped roughly, including the cores)
•    1.5kg sugar

We had a eerily low spring tide. Perfect for sunset foraging.

I put the fruit in a big pan and added about 600ml of water, simmered it all until the fruit was soft (mashing it with a spoon helps), put it in a jelly bag and left it to drip. You then add 750g sugar for every litre of juice you have, boil this mixture until it reaches setting point and pour it into jars. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to that stage – I had an accident involving a doormat at the juice-dripping stage. Such fruitlessness! Still, it’s a good excuse for another nose around the castle. Fingers crossed the apples manage to cling on in these gales – it’s blowing a hoolie out there. Just the weather to crack open my bramble whisky…

‘These autumn days will shorten and grow cold. The leaves will shake loose from the trees and fall. Christmas will come, and the snows of winter. You will live to enjoy the beauty of the frozen world. Winter will pass, the days will lengthen, the ice will melt in the pasture pond. The song sparrow will return and sing, the frogs will awake, the warm wind will blow again. All these sights and sounds and smells will be yours to enjoy, Wilbur—this lovely world, these precious days…’ Charlotte’s Web by E B White.

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