My formative memory, aged 15 months, involves the invasion of an army of woodlice, marching into our home. My second, from the same period, sees me sitting in a buggy beneath plastic covers, while a torrential storm rages outside.
Forty-six and a half years later, both these experiences feel freshly relevant as, this weekend just gone, I endured my first ever camping experience. Moreover, this was “wild camping,” the wild definitely not denoting that it was a colossal amount of fun.
Wild camping has been in the news after attempts to regulate it by setting up the (now defunct) UK Wild Camp – a government-backed private scheme, which encouraged campers to avail themselves of previously out-of-bounds spots in national parks, for £20 per pitch.
“That’s not wild camping,” scoffed the guys and gals in Gore-Tex. “Wild camping is free, boundless, facility-less. It’s about pitching late, rising early, and leaving no trace. It is landscape, loneness, vistas! Give us not honesty bars and yurts. Give us sunsets, barren moor and isotonic gels!”
Cue the company admitting they had “inadvertently kicked over a hornets’ nest” – and limping off to have another think.
I know this because my beloved is one of these free-spirited individuals. In the wake of our first night together, he regaled me with wild-camping tales, in which he and his allies slept rough all over Europe. “So, vagrancy?” I asked, resolving that this morning would be our last.
Four and a half years later, he is roving about, testing kit for his (lone) summer hols as a gentleman of the road. My editor insists I go with him: become at one with the zeitgeist, check out Blighty’s camping scene, and find out what this wild stuff is all about.
As middle-age wraps me in her M&S cashmere leisure wear, I like to pass my weekends in gentle pleasures: reading the papers, having my nails done, heading to an exhibition. I do not care to spend it cr------ in a ditch. Still, in the name of journalism, I agree to one night’s tent dwelling.
The first problem with wild camping is that it is illegal in England and Wales, with the exception of Lake District and parts of Dartmoor, both barely hospitable indoors. Otherwise, one must have permission. Somehow Terence secures this, despite British landowners being up in arms about the problems of wild camping in the form of trespass, littering and damage. I inquire where we are headed, however, my geographical skills are such that I register only “somewhere in the south of England”.
We are up at the crack of dawn, flat sunk under the weight of luridly-coloured tat and things that fail to qualify as food. The simple life certainly requires a lot of paraphernalia. Conditions, having been all golden June, are as Wuthering Heights as south London can aspire to. Think: wind and lashing rain. As I’ve been hunting in vain for my thermals, we leave separately, me clomping toward the station, forever toppled by my rucksack, mortified in case I see anyone I know. Terence ridicules me for sporting lipstick, pearls and a handbag. What am I – an animal? After five minutes, he is bearing two rucksacks: one front, one back.
On arrival at Somewhere in the South of England, I decline to walk the two miles to the wood he has selected. This is a bonus, as the taxi driver instructs us how to eat worms. Terence hunts out a propitious spot, a choice I facilitate by refusing to go any further. Within ten minutes of establishing camp, I have chipped my nail varnish, Terence blacked my eye with a falling branch.
He erects a “tarp” with the requisite tension, which I later realise is what kept us dry during the summer’s most prolonged storm. I note that, for an area that has been deemed safe, our patch is pockmarked by uprooted trees. The photographer pops by, having missed his own collision with a falling tree by seconds. As he takes pictures, he tells us that they will come in useful for the coroner’s report. My voice takes on a whining quality, while my brain is consumed by fog, so much of my attention is going on endeavouring not to slip into the ravine taking shape below our tent.
Terence declares that the world of wild camping is “all about systems”: eating systems, sleeping systems, packing systems. My first encounter with lavatorial systems marks a new low. Squatting behind a fallen beech, backside aloft to avoid peeing on my boots, my hands are assailed by nettle stings. Still, at least I avoided more tender areas. Moreover, matters could have been worse had I not consumed diarrhoea pills to suppress further activity. As an English woman, cr------ in foreign lavatories is quite traumatic enough. Terence has no such qualms, and I see him heading off into the wilderness, trowel in hand, while making a mental note to end our relationship.
A bird sings, then another bird, then another bird. I wonder aloud what we’ll do in this verdant void. Tasks emerge to fill the time: tea, supper (of sorts, beans over a gas stove), more tea. We’re talking more, telling each other stories that we probably should know already, but were too exhausted to impart given that we met at 40 and 43. However, mostly we read, as we would at home, only in extreme discomfort, rain whipping at the tarp. I am buried beneath waterproof trousers, a shirt, sweater, padded gilet, puffer jacket, hat, hood and Barbour. Terence is clad in t-shirt and shorts.
In our woodland gloom, dark sets in at 7ish, meaning we are in bed by 10pm, me sleeping in my clothes, having cleansed and moisturised. Intercourse is out-of-the-question, what with both of us in separate sleeping bags. So I knock back some melatonin – eye mask on to repel June’s early dawn – and lie back on my ultra-lite inflatable air mattress to enjoy the countryside’s traditional sounds: techno and motorbike engines.
People had asked whether I would be scared. I am too far from being a nubile teen to find myself in a horror movie. Still, I can only nod off once I work out who the murderer would have been (probably Terence). I sleep relatively well, given that I sleep pretty badly at the best of times. Terence administers ear plugs at 4am when the (thunderous) dawn chorus kicks off, sighing at my groans of middle-aged back agony.
I wake at 8.55am, my first words: “Are my false eyelashes still in place?” Terence is laying out breakfast, muting his euphoria for fear I’ll punch him. Nevertheless, it is clear that he is extremely happy, prancing about our glade on a “hullo clouds, hullo sky”-type high. I inform him that camping is the playing-house equivalent of barbecues: an activity that is deemed “women’s work” indoors, manly when conducted outside. He informs me to check myself for ticks, at which point I fall into a catatonic state.
I sleep in the taxi. I sleep on the train. I sleep on returning home. I am probably asleep now. My hair is disturbingly erect, dirt ingrained under my (chipped) fingernails. There is a Stygian ring around the bath, while my teeth will never feel clean again. Come August, Terence will be bumming around France, pack strapped to his back, sleeping under the stars. I will be in London, exquisitely fragranced, in bed.