Are you afraid of the cold? Winter Wild Camping is the cure
Congratulations. You’ve made it to the Friday of the Worst Week in the Year. This is the week when people realise they hate their life partners, realise they hate their jobs, realise their trousers don’t fit, and realise they’re broke. It’s not just the stress of Christmas, it’s the weather. Summer was so long ago no-one can remember it, and we’re on the wrong side of March for the next summer to seem attainable. There isn’t enough daylight in each day.
Given that we’re a temperate island nation, you would have thought that we’d be a little more in tune with the seasons and the weather. But no, we Brits hate the winter. Long-gone are the days when you’d put your baby in the snow to give it some fresh air, or let the kids walk three miles to school regardless of the sleet. We’re scared of the cold, the rain and the dark. We’ve become a nation of sissies.
Just before Christmas I self-prescribed a remedy for my developing sissicitis (inflammation of the sissie in me). I found myself in a fug after too many hours in centrally-heated, artificially-lit, overfed torpor. So I decided to go wild camping for three days.
Just me and the dog, no tent, pretty basic, to the windy, beautiful Gower peninsula in south Wales. I’ve slept without a tent before, but only in the summer, and not on my own. My goal? To walk from Mumbles to Rhossili, bedding down for the first night wherever I got to, and spending the second night along the coast, near the famous Paviland sea cave. It’s not quite fifty miles, it’s an area of outstanding natural beauty, and I figured that at this time of year I’d pretty much have it to myself.
I was right. It was cold, it was a bit rainy, but it was ace. I worried that Harpo, my London-living labrador wouldn’t be too keen on walking 20 miles a day and sleeping in the mud. But he loved it – clearly he’d had his fill of inside life as much as me. There are scientific studies that prove wild places are good for human minds and bodies. Dogs too, if my hound is anything to go by.
The first day we made good progress, marching along the coast path, up and around each bay, bathed in a milky, hazy light. We made it to the beautiful Three Cliffs Bay as the sun was dropping (3pm, for the record), and headed up away from the sea for night one. Wild camping, camping on land that isn’t a designated campsite, is illegal in most places unless you have the landowner’s express permission – but there’s an unofficial code of conduct for Wild Camping and I figured that if I were camping without a tent, arriving as it got dark, leaving at dawn, not lighting a fire, & leaving no trace of my presence, it was closer to stopping for a bit whilst still walking, rather than actually camping. No duvets and marshmallows on sticks for me.
I did go as far as a thin tarp strung between two trees, and to sleep I had a goretex bivvy bag (a waterproof outer bag that your sleeping bag goes into), warm sleeping bag and a thermarest mat. I wasn’t quite sure how to protect Harpo from the cold – he is a fit, young dog but one used to sleeping on a sofa, not in the wild. The experts of outdoor dog gear, muddypaws.co.uk, advised that the best bet would be to get him an ‘Ultimate Warmer’ dog coat made by Finnish company Hurtta. Ergonomic, made from their patented ‘Houndtex’ wicking, waterproof and windproof fabric, this garment is the most technically brilliant thing I have ever seen on a dog. Harpo hasn’t worn ‘clothes’ before, but I put this coat on him as soon as we stopped walking and he stayed toasty and comfortable all night. He also had a thermarest mat to lay on, and a bivvy bag to keep the condensation off.
Huddled in the undergrowth with warm dog curled behind my knees, bathed in moonlight…I’ll be honest, it was pretty bloody cold, but by the gods, it felt good. This isn’t just for Bear Grylls, or for the summer, I thought – this is something I should do every few months. This is something people have been doing on this island for tens of thousands of years. How sad that most of us have lost the nerve to be in nature for more than an afternoon.
Day two dawned, ish, cloudy and brooding. I didn’t need a coffee to get me going – it felt perfectly right to stretch, eat quickly, pack up and head out. Another full march, via windblown Cefn Bryn and the enigmatic Arthur’s Stone burial chamber, then Penrice village and the merciless orange contours of Oxwich Wood. I reached Port Eynon as it got dark. Port Eynon beach is packed in the summer, but that evening Harpo and I had the run of it.
Andrew Price, local bushcraft and survival expert at Dryad Bushcraft, knows this coast really well. We’d talked about my plan for this trip, and he was willing to guide me to the Paviland Cave in time to go visit in the morning, in exchange for a pork pie and a cuddle from the dog. Paviland Cave has just been named as one of the most sacred sites in Britain. Half way up a sea cliff, it was the site of an 1823 archaeological excavation that revealed the oldest human burial ever to have been discovered in the British Isles. The ‘Red Lady of Paviland’ – a set of human bones stained with ochre, buried in the cave floor alongside a mammoth skull, is 33,000 years old. The bones are now in Oxford Museum of Natural History, and modern analysis has revealed that the Red Lady was actually a man. The enigmatic t
eardrop-shaped cave, ten metres high, and winding deep into the limestone cliffs, is only accessible by climbing around the sea cliffs, or at low tide. Andrew and I planned to sleep nearby and then head into the cave in the morning. We found a nook in the rock along the cliff path which offered a bit of shelter from the now sideways-rain.
In contrast to my night one site, which felt like Brambly Hedge for grown-ups, night two felt a bit more Lord of the Rings. Maybe because I was tired, but the cliffs were scary, rising blackly around us, and the rush and suck of the sea into the rock chasms not far away unsettled me more than I thought it would. That said, after a hot meal, sleep came easily.
The next morning was the best. Because of the incoming swell, the walk-across-the-rocks-at-low-tide option of getting into Paviland wasn’t available, so it was a traverse along the cliff, or I’d miss out seeing the sacred cave. Ever since I read about the burial at uni, this has been a cave I have wanted to excperience. Here I was, wild camping in the winter, close to the ancestors, smelling of sweat and mud. This was clearly the right time to gird my loins and climb. So I climbed – and thanks to Andrew’s patient guidance, I didn’t fall off and drown in the sea. The cave was strange – eerie – and I felt my time in it had been earned.
Then Andrew trotted back to civilisation (Swansea) and Harpo and I continued for a bracing few hours of ups and downs to Rhossili Bay. Gower is beautiful, feels remote and wild, but if you got into trouble, you could walk out and find yourself in a farm or a pub within an hour or so, tops. it’s the perfect place for some winter wandering.
The nice young man sitting next to me on 18.32 train to Paddington was forgiving of the three days of asceticism and filth I had built into a crust around me. Within five minutes, Harpo was stretched out across the train carriage carpet, snoring. Just three days, both dog tired, but utterly revived.
I urge the nation: take this weekend, regardless of the weather, and get outside. Walk until you’re tired and the light has gone. If you want to, carry warm gear and only come back in the morning. You’ll be a week into the new year, but you’ll feel 33,000 years younger.
Harpo’s coat was from www.muddypaws.co.uk
Andrew Price runs Dryad Bushcraft www.dryadbushcraft.co.uk
Camping barns, camp sites and wild camping info www.nationalparks.gov.uk/visiting/camping
Latest from Independent journalists on Twitter