Post 14. of A Journey On Foot
22nd July 2013
Here in the Lake District I have been told it is allowed to wild camp beyond the boundary wall – the solid, snaking, back breaking man hours of craftsmanship that are the hand built dry stone walls demarcating a farmer’s land. But for me wild camping is about finding a place on your journey that suddenly and affirmatively announces, “It is here you shall sleep”. That place may be hidden in the trees, up a mountain, or even in somebody’s back garden. If you are considerate and discrete and leave no trace, you are nothing more than a body lying in the landscape for a night, as many other bodies do. I have so much been looking forward to my bedtime story being the nocturnal snuffling of badgers, and the gentle bracken brushing of Herdwick sheep.
My first night under sky blanket was spent suspended between two trees in the wildly beautiful and lesser known Duddon Valley. I had been invited to a birthday gathering in the 16th century Newfield Inn, apparently frequented by Wordsworth. A few pints later it seemed an unnecessary hassle to put up a tent, and a couple of us made our way into the darkness of the woods, engaging in a dance with gravity, incline, rope and slight inebriation to string hammocks on a wooded slope beside a rushing beck.
Climbing into mine I felt like I was boarding a dream boat: swaying as I clumsily shuffled into the down cocoon of my sleeping bag, knowing it was unlikely I’d be disembarking until morning (bladder please co-operate!). The water’s movement filled my senses – an intensely paced lullaby. Banana shaped, I attempted sleep. But it was fitful and filled with dreams as clear as the water that ran beneath me. I was excited, a little cold, and very glad of the midge net over my head.
A metaphorical signpost!
I am taking each day (and night) as it comes. I do not really want to know where I shall be the day after tomorrow. That is a large part of the magic of the way I am wayfaring, and many have before me. I walk with total openness and trust that each junction on my way will have a signpost – more often than not metaphorical – which will lead me on.
My next sleeping place was found by waiting patiently until the next evening for the right signal – this time in the form of a Person Who Knew. I sat beside a tarn having just had a swim, when a local came down. “I don’t swim in this one. There’s too much shit and leeches”. Perfect. I explained what I was doing, and he told me that in the old oak woods up the hillside there was a packhorse trail that would lead me to the remains of an old pitstead – a flat elongated platform dug into a hillside in coppiced woodland for charcoal to be produced on site. Originally there would have been dwellings to shelter the men who tended to the fire, but as these were often made of branches, ling, bracken and sods, few traces remain.
Charcoal Burners (source http://www.armitt.com)
He told me to slip up the sheep field along the wooded stream so I could go into the woods undetected, then follow the stone wall up through the larch and into the oak wood until I saw the packhorse trail, which would lead me to the pitstead. As if that would be an easy thing to do. It started well, but needless to say, was less than straightforward.
This is what my journal said that day:
As a human trying to find this place I was stupid. I thought it was going well. Reached the horizontal stone wall undetected, found the vertical, made it up with heavy pack – ably assisted by my newly acquired walking stick – to the next horizontal wall and found what looked to be traces of a path, albeit long disused.
I followed it all the way along to where the larch ended and the oak began (these are the tallest oaks I have EVER seen, tiptoeing from a steep slope reaching for the light*). I had a feeling the pitstead would be up the slope a bit, and yet the path had to run past it for ease of loading charcoal. Why did this one stay low?
I got impatient with the weight of my pack when I thought I must go up, and abandoned it for a scramble. I started up the side of another vertical wall – STEEP – but finally, entering into ‘human animal’ (unburdened with stuff helps), I spotted traces of a path up. The packhorse path! It felt almost miraculous how easy this route felt compared to the uninformed stabs in the fern I had been taking, no longer able to make out any path. That said, it did not lead me to a pitstead, but out of the back of the woods into a jungle of ferns on the hill top.
On the way down I lost the trail again. Like rock art that only shows itself in certain lights, this path only showed itself, beneath the ferns, on the way up but not down again. I noticed, when walking on a steep slope, that I tend to look down to watch my step or up to scope my imagined destination, but rarely observe the mid view. I should pay more attention to this, taking note of the land marks that will help me should I lose the path.
I hadn’t done that, so I crudely made my way to where I could see my bright red pack. I retraced my step along the horizontal path, and after crawling on all fours under a fallen tree (I remembered THAT bit) I noticed the path split and head steadily upward. On my outward journey this path would have branched off to the left and behind me. Now it was to the right and in front of me, clear as an old packhorse route would be. I could then see that it headed to a crag that I had spied before as a likely candidate. Now though, I could see atop the crag was a relatively large, flat clearing – as I imagined I was looking for.
Here at last, relieved that I don’t have to admit to the man who pointed me here that I didn’t manage to find it.
In the corner by a long fallen tree is an incomplete circle of stones. I complete it, and fill it with twigs cleared from where I shall sleep. A hearth made, for this shall be my home for now.** My tent goes up in seconds. I am looking forward to a horizontal night’s sleep and some respite from the fitful, dream filled sleep I had in the hammock strung next to rushing water, a little too full of cider.
I can spy the tarn through the spindly silhouettes of larch and oak. The sun is about to set behind the mountains, and I shall soon get to know the sounds of the night. Startled twice since arriving (easily done when trying to be incognito). The first time, I heard a whistle and scanned the crag tops, feeling disconcertingly observed. I concluded it was an Ipad function. Then, a bough fell a hundred metres away, reminding me that I should look up before making camp.
* This type of oak growth is ideal for making swill baskets.
** I like to make a hearth to feel at home in a place, but a fire is not always necessary, or wise.