From the Height of Midsummer

A wildcamp

The trees all around are of narrow girth, like fenceposts; two hands fit around, but much taller: a beech canopy, half hiding the sky. I find an ancient beech, one of far greater circumference – so large I can lean my bike against the far side and it is hidden from the road. I sit for what feels like hours. I jumped over a fence to get here, aware that a wayward gamekeeper may not appreciate my prescence. The sun’s long set, but still I wait. I’ve not been aware of anyone passing behind, save for one car, and the eerie swoosh of two cyclists.

The middle of the night: I can hear church bells. Not the monotone note marking the passing of another hour; this is a peel. I am deep in a woods but can’t help but look around. I see nothing in the gloom, and certainly not the source of the chimes. But still they ring, on the very edge of my perception. Mischevious campanologists? Midsummer ritual? What else? I drift back to sleep.

I am sitting on a root bole, waiting to feel safe enough to bed down. I look up at the beech’s domed canopy. Dusk was long ago, but there is still some blue to the sky. The black branch-and-leaf silhouette gives the impression of immense constellations where the white-seeming sky breaks through the gaps. Still star-clusters occasionally drift when a light breeze passes.

I drink Glenlivet and think of little. At one point I try and read A Year in the Woods from the light of my phone, my lowest-powered source of luminescence.

Rolling and play-fighting, the three [badger cubs] head straight for me, flattening the young bracken. In a flash the leading cub takes a quick glance back to his pursuers, leaping to the very log I am sitting on, only inches away from me; he realizes something is different and stops in a sitting position like a well-trained dog. Cub number two glances back, chattering in glee at the game, still unaware the leader has stopped – and then crashes into his motionless playmate. Club one is almost driven into me with the impact; the third and smallest cub attempts to stop but it, too, slides into the others. By now the first two cubs are practically on my lap. As cub three collides he is so close I can hear the noise of his lungs empty out as I am hit in the face by bad badger breath.

After three short paragraphs I close the book, mindful that even this tiny light could attract attention.

It’s light; early evening. I sit on the wall with the fence and ancient beech behind; the road, then denser woodland in front. Frantic shrieks of an owl and two explanations come to mind: 1- the owl is being attacked and is struggling and fighting against its agressor, or 2- this owl can’t sing; still hasn’t found that B it’s looking for. The crying gets more orderly, and fades to nothing.

I have laid my bivi and sleeping bags out in front of me. I get in as quietly as I can (that is to say, rather noisily). I lie still, make no sound. I hear a noise, a twig break, and my eyes dart to the left. Nothing. Slower rummaging ahead. Still nothing. I look left again. I see the four legs of a young deer: poised, unmoving. Five minutes later and still no movement. It is four closely-clustered fence posts, all leaning slightly.

I look forward. The sky has darkened, but can still be seen beyond the canopy. Now no longer constellations; it appears like a magic eye image. At first it seems as a vast blackboard with snow painted atop. But then my gestalt reflexes shift: the outline of an anthropomorphised deer stood on its hind legs. Some features of its head, a black void, then its snout: extending and contracting, whether from wind or my mind I cannot tell. But that, that’s definitely a deer, and it’s studying me.

I am in my bivi bag, trying not to move. It is almost completely dark. Somewhere very close a fox barks over and over. I figure it has realised something is not right in the woods. Has it sensed me? By sight? Smell? Sound? Does it bark to me, at me, or against me? I am physically uncomfortable, fixed in this position, and decide to move properly into my bivi bag (currently below my shoulders). The barking becomes less frequent, slips away. Silence.

I have been sleeping. I wake, and it is beginning to get light. I squint to my left, to the deer legs. In the clearing I see a girl of 8 or ten years, staring at me. She has long golden hair, and sits astride a white pony. Behind stands a white horse, that seems to be led by the young girl. They all stare motionless, without expression. I close my eyes and turn on my side, and fall back asleep. I feel myself become pinned to the spot. Someone, something is holding me there. It feels like a soft nuzzle, but not moving. I lay still, not scared, but wary. I hear nothing. No movement, no breeze, no breath. The snout still holds me. With a start I sit up. I see nothing in the dawn’s half-life. I ask myself what just happened but do not question things too much. I have outstayed my welcome; these woods no longer wanting me here. I pack my gear and ride away before the stirrings of the human day.

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Of the white faeries – a summer Solstice wildcamp

The shortest night; the longest day.

Since moving to Scotland several years ago, and moved by the markedly longer summer days than the southern-central England of my growing up, I have desired to camp out on that oddly beguiling day. A previous attempt at a solstice summer wildcamp ended in a hasty retreat to the car: both partner and I red-raw from midge bites; the springy ground, lochside view and under-the-trees cover proving no match.

But that was a few years ago, in the west of Scotland, where midge numbers are high. This year, I will try again. This year will be different. I set out alone (this was, after all, my dream, not ours), on my heavily laden mountain bike. I know my destination, having camped there in the mild spring. I check the midge forecast, which gives a confidence-inspiring 1-out-of-5 for the nearest spot. This time I chose a bivouac bag over a tent: it’s light; but really, I want that sheer weather-on-your-face exhilaration.

Although I had slept at my chosen spot before, I did not know it well. When I first stayed there, I tried to make a mark on the map for future reference. Having nothing to write with, I attempted to score the map with a key. But I cannot see where this mark was left. I recognise some junctions in the woods, but that monotonous green of industrial silviculture confounded me. A deeply-tanned, topless and well-built man with snarling dogs, running past me with no more than a sinister glint to his expression only heightens my nervousness of finding a spot to sleep.

Some landmarks really stand out in this woods. The five-ways junction. The line of pylons. The communication masts on the far-off hill. But alas not my sleeping spot. I cannot stay on a path, such is my worry of conflict with those less understanding, but I cannot find a suitable clearing hidden behind tree cover. But like so much in life, with a fortuitous turn of the map, a rarefied glint of light, I see that light scratching on the paper: my bed for the night.

My camp is on a clearing on a slope. This forest is full of such clearings – I managed to find this one, despite its entrance being well hidden from the double-track. It’s an interesting space. That pervasive (literal) forest green of earlier gives way to myriad colour. Just a single tree shows the near-luminous verdant of fresh shoots, the deeper shade of established needles, the chestnut-brown of the ruptured pine cones, the rich brown of the trunk. And there’s more besides. But to that later.

I’m not ready to bed down. It’s still daylight, so I read my copy of the rather apt A Year in the Woods by Colin Elford. As his account goes, so I see the signs of which he speaks. Mostly, these take the form of the passing of deer: hoof marks in the soil, rutting marks on trees. He also mentions the clouds of midges that appear in the Dorset New Forest every year: I am only too aware of their presence around me.

At first the midges don’t bother me. Every half hour or so, they start to swarm, my carbon dioxide the beacon that shines out to them, so I walk within my clearing, and read some more. But after a while, the tiny bugs get wise to my movement. Now I am slowly becoming choked in a cloud. I am walking every ten minutes, 5 minutes, 30 seconds… I have a wooly hat for the cold, but that makes more sense as a midge net, along with my buff from just below my eyes, cycling glasses and long-sleeved base layer. It’s hot, but I feel I have no choice. I also put on my bright yellow cycling coat on: apparently midges don’t appreciate the colour. It seems to serve no purpose but to make me warmer.

This clearing is maybe not as clear as one might imagine. There are still trees that grow here: but short and young. Long grass abounds, but it hides old, near-white dead branches. There’s cotton grass, tiny yellow flowers, bog-loving plants. The more I walk up to avoid the midges, the more I see. Like the delicate young pine tree growing from the middle of a large, rotten stump. The seemingly dead moth that hasn’t moved, despite disturbing its settling place every time I pass on my loop.

Across the valley, towards the cluster of tall communications’ masts, I can see some heavy grey cloud lowering. It looks so cool and refreshing. I wonder: will a blast of cool air deter the midges? Will it soon be raining? The masts vanish, and a cold air comes over my spot. The wind picks up too, another good sign. The sun is still in the sky, but it is reduced to an inky dish of pale light. But despite the promise, the cold air soon parts, and the wind drops. The cloud across the valley still swirls around the masts, but no longer extends to my spot.

I call my partner, someone of wiser stuff, and enquire about the weather. Will it rain at all tonight? If so, when? Does the internet know what plants deter midges? She suggests I should consider coming home. But I’m committed now. If I was to leave, I would be fighting through darkness on unfamiliar tracks. I could end up cycling for hours without knowing where I am. I have to stay.

I feel as though I have been on my feet for hours now. My legs feel heavy. I’m stumbling over the hidden dead branches, and I begin to imagine myself tripping and breaking my leg. The light is falling, but still the air remains warm and still. When I stop for just a few seconds, the midges swarm so heavily that their buzz is audible, like a bee swarm, but of a far bigger choir and yet with smaller voices: a mass harmony.

I have walked up and down so many times. My time stretched up and down the clearing in my walking’s wake. I think I have seen everything there is to see. The lifeless moth; the tiny tree from the massive stump; the branches like bones; the green-burgandy-pale yellow patina of grasses and other plants. But I see something new.

It’s dark, but I see glowing-white creatures, maybe four, maybe eight, maybe more. They are flying around each other, floating and swirling, in a sort of three-dimensional figures of eight (or should that be figures of infinity?). They seem to carry their own light; have the luminosity of the moon. But there is no moon, and there is no sun to reflect on these creatures. What could they be? I stop to look; to ponder. I’m tired. I can’t hold a thought too long. I can’t help but think this must be an apparition, or forgotten beings.

Can they be faeries? I banish more rational explanations. What else would be fluttering around this clump of grass, on this most special of nights? A frolic of solstice faeries. I secretly hope they are tiny guardian angels; that they will chase away the midges so I can sleep. But they don’t; they just keep on dancing: dosey doeing, waltzing to imperfect time.

I walk on, as the midges’ presence becomes obvious again; forget about anything but the biting insects. But now I have seen these faeries, I keep seeing them, lost in their summer revelry, indifferent to my existence. My thoughts drift between anxious din and enchantment. I never consciously seek out the faeries; but my subcounscious always leads me to them, and each time I pause, lost momentarily to their movements.

Eventually I decide to bed down; to stop pacing, start resting. I try. But I have to fight the flies away, the swarm, the buzz, the bites. This is not relaxing. I argue my way into my sleeping bag, and then the bivvy bag. The midges are everywhere: throughout my sleeping bag, all over my face, under my clothes. I pull the sleeping bag over my head to seal me from outside: the midges too much. The bivvy opening is so tight I can hardly breathe. I lay still and cannot help but pant: all I can do to get enough oxygen. But No! I can’t open my bivvy bag, not even a bit. I hear my sleeping bag rip as I pull tighter. I rearrange myself, manage to get an opening but without an influx of midges. I can breath again! My panting slows; heart rate lowers. I relax easily, mostly from exhaustion. But I shift again and the midges find a way in. I’m pulling the bivvy bag tight again, my breath condensing onto the inside of the waterproof bag.

I’m dipping in and out of sleep. Drift off from exhaustion; reawaken through itchy anxiety. Finally the rain comes, that rain my partner promised me. I feel so relieved. There’s no wind; the water falling steadily. I lie with my bivvy bag open, let the water cool my face and its itches. The midge numbers don’t drop much, but it’s wonderful, the cooling, the relaxing, the slow drubbing of rain, so sweet, so relaxing. I smile, drift off, and dream of snow-white faeries…