Various factors in childhood meant that I never saw the point in camping and never enjoyed the experience. It seemed to be a quick way to turn a relaxing holiday in to hard work. I still don’t plan to try a camping holiday for the sake of camping but in recent time I’ve come to recognise that it might be an economical way to facilitate other activities such as multi-day walks.
So was it something I might do? The only way to find out was to try it under the guidance of experts. So on a Friday in late July I set off for Dartmoor to spend a night wild camping with the assistance of Lucy and Fi, the Two Blondes Walking. The whole weekend turned out to be fascinating experience, for which I’m grateful to our little group – Rachel, Matt, and Vanessa as well as Lucy and Fi.
The unusualness of the weekend began on the M5, driving down to Devon. I was passed by a police motorcyclist with blue lights going, then another, then another, then another, then a blacked-out car, and finally a police car. I assume it was senior royalty because not even our new Prime Minister would warrant that sort of escort.
I spent the Friday night in a lovely Airbnb just a few hundred yards from Princetown Visitor Centre, and it turned out that my hostess was born in the same Lancashire town as my wife.
The Dartmoor National Park Summer Fair was being held at Princetown Visitor Centre on the Saturday morning and I had plenty to time to look at the exhibits, chat to mountain rescue about first aid training, try wortleberry jam, hunt for my sunglasses which I’d just pushed up on to my forehead, and enjoy a vegan flapjack and coffee. The Two Blondes were running a stand in their role as Ordnance Survey GetOutside champions, including a competition based on grid references.
I borrowed a rucksack from Fi, and went outside to work out the pockets and straps and practise packing it. I walked a short way out of the village to see how it felt. I’d borrowed a tent and stove from a friend back home.
After my lunch, sitting on the green at Princetown and watching the world go by, I met the rest of group in the visitor centre. In addition to Fi and Lucy, they were Matt, Vanessa, and Rachel. Rachel is a cycling and rowing paralympic gold medalist, and it turned out that Matt and Vanessa live not far from me in the Midlands.
After a thorough briefing on wild camping in general, Dartmoor in particular, safety, food, hygiene, selecting a pitch and staying warm, we shouldered our packs and prepared to set out. When I put the rucksack on, all that came to mind was an old TV advert – for Woolworths I think – in which a mum put so much “back-to-school” stuff in her son’s rucksack that he eventually fell over backwards. The one disappointment for me during the weekend was my fatigue from carrying the pack for just a handful of miles. It must have weighed around 18-19kg and I was very weary by the time we stopped to set up camp, and again the next day getting back to civilsation. This will impact on the usefulness of wild camping as a means to other activities.
From the visitor centre we set out on to Dartmoor, stopping from time to time for some navigation tuition from Fi and Lucy. There were a few spots of rain, but otherwise we had – thank goodness – a dry couple of days.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the Thames London Bridge was widened to allow for increased traffic. Corbels quarried on Dartmoor were used to extend the bridge over the river. Not all the corbels were used and a few lie discarded on the moor, and on the way to our camping area we detoured to look at them.
Wild camping in England is not legal without the permission of the landowner but there is general permission for much of Dartmoor. With Fi and Lucy’s guidance we all found suitable locations, pitched our tents and set up sleeping mats and bags. Then it was time to enjoy the setting and the views.
We found a suitable dip and circle of rocks for dinner and began our various meals. Matt uses amateur radio and his device was able to pick up communications with the International Space Station. As it happened, astronaut Drew Morgan was holding a question and answer session with youngsters at the World Scout Jamboree in West Virginia. We couldn’t hear the questions but Drew’s answers were clear and were inspiring for us, never mind the Scouts. It was all quite surreal, listening to an astronaut while sitting on Dartmoor and heating dinner.
I slept better than I thought I might. Conversation over dinner had included the grinding noise slugs make when eating, and the importance of thoroughly sealing rubbish and food to avoid attracting foxes. During the night there were some strange sounds seemingly inches from my head – slugs? foxes? sheep? ponies? No, just the tent fly-sheet blowing in the wind and catching a bag in the tent porch.
One of my bucket list items is to wake up and look out of the tent opening on to a breathtaking iconic view. That was never likely to happen on Dartmoor, but at least it was not raining and not too overcast.
It became clear that the tents were not going to dry completely in reasonable time, so we began striking camp. Yesterday I packed the heavy stuff at the bottom, and today tried packing it nearer the top. If I do start carrying heavier packs regularly, it’s going to take some experimenting to get the best arrangement. By the time we’d finish, you couldn’t see where the tents had been.
We finished with a meal at the Fox Tor Cafe in Princetown, and the cherry on the cake for me was to find I’d won a prize in the Two Blondes’ summer fair competition. What else could I select after such a great weekend other than the Great British Adventure Map!