“I think I’m going to go sleep in the woods by myself this Saturday”. I feel a bit sheepish saying it during a lunch break at work. I get weird looks, like I just announced to everyone that I was going to go sleep in a bin for the night.
I felt genuinely inspired after Phoebe Smith’s Wilderness Weekends talk at Stanfords and I knew I wanted to give it a try. I’m also a big fan of Microadventures (Alistair Humphreys). Together both of these authors describe how adventure is on our door step. The idea that getting out into the wild, if only for one night, is enjoyable, invigorating and important. It is a refresh button from the non-stop rush of London life.
It became the perfect combination in my mind, like strawberries and cream. Alistair described adventure. Phoebe is a solo female and anecdotal proof that girls can do it alone. I tweeted my pledge to Phoebe – that I would go on my first solo wild weekend in September.
I was part way (4/14) through the North Downs Way and I knew a Wilderness Weekend would allow me to complete x2 legs in one weekend. The North Downs Way is very easy to get to – about half of the route is just 30 minutes from London by train!
I set off on a very sunny September weekend, packed and ready to go.
It was 9 miles to Oxted – the next village I was aiming for. The trail was a burst of colour and life. Crisp and fresh apples grew wild on trees. The hedges were full of sweet and hydrating blackberries and mushrooms sprouted in fields of meadow green grass.
I arrived into Oxted in the early evening, settling down in The Old Bell Pub for dinner. “Enjoy not Endure” was Phoebe Smith’s saying: a adventure need not be strenuous or unenjoyable.
It was 8:30pm and I knew I was inadvertently using delay tactics for my first wild sleep out. Eat slowly. Go fill your water bottles. Watch the rugby and try to act interested. Chat to family + friends and let them know you’re okay.
I needed to leave the warm comforts of the pub. Packing my book away, I set off up a extremely dark, hedge shadowed and pavement less country lane. I swing my torch around, trying to dispel my fear, lighting up the area around me like a crude rural disco.
It’s a 30 minute walk from Oxted back to the trail and I feel oddly relieved to be away from the road back on the NDW. I feel a lump rise in my throat and I realise I am genuinely scared. I didn’t actually know where I was going to sleep or how long I was going to walk for in the dark until I found a suitable place (rookie mistake).
I ascended up the steep Oxted Downs where I luckily found a suitable clearing where I could set up my bivvy bag,
I closed my eyes and I knew no one would pass by (my biggest fear was being discovered). It was my first night sleeping wild without a tent and my senses felt heightened – like drinking an elixir that made me more alert.
I was attuned to every little sound around me. The gentle click before a leaf fell from a branch. The quiet creaking of branches and the rustle of creatures. It was a melody of nature’s song that I could not conventionally hear. There was the roar of the M25 in the background, like an ever present reminder that the city was just a stone throw away.
I slept very intermittently, waking up naturally to the gentle pink hue of dawn.
It is a beautiful morning and I set off at 8:00am, happily embracing the golden glow of the sun, lighting the countryside around me like a warm greeting.
It’s 12 miles to Otford, the next village on the North Downs Way. I set off through fields of rippling wheat, ascending up to the highest point of the NDW (Botley Hill, 269M), passing the Greenwich Meridian Line, fairy-tale cottages and even coming across deer during my walk!
I reach Otford and my heart bursts with joy. It was my first solo Microadventure completed. The first time is always the hardest mental barrier to overcome and I knew I wanted to do more.
- The only thing I didn’t have was a bivvy bag. I brought a great value olive green Gelert bivvy for £10.99 from Ebay [RRP £34.99].
- I walked x2 legs of the North Downs Way and I feel this is a great route for any Londoners out there who want to escape the city. I used the official National Trail guidebook for my route notes and I would highly recommend this as signposting can be sketchy. [Merstham to Oxted then Oxted to Otford]
- I brought 1.1L water with me and filled up my water bottles at the pub which was enough to last me.
- My train ticket to Merstham was £5.55 and my return ticket back was £8.20 [with a YP railcard]. Trains to Merstham are extremely regular on a Saturday (around every 15mins). Sunday train service run every 30 mins or so.
- You’ll go pass some massive country houses! There are very few shops along the way.
- My sleeping spot was at the top of Oxted Downs, just before the trail turns right. (I would highly recommend that you plan where you are going to sleep before you set off to avoid worrying about it like I did).
- Talking about it and doing it are two very different things. I nearly opted out of doing it due to worry from my siblings, friends and family. I can say with honest conviction – if I can do it then you can, it’s a adventure accessible to everyone. It’s committing to it or the prospect of wild sleeping that is the biggest barrier to overcome – doing it isn’t hard :).
- A rural retreat/countryside weekend getaway for under £25 – go for it!
- Don’t walk down scary, unlit country lanes in the dark. It’s not fun :);
- For anyone who knows me + is reading this and would like to give this weekend a go. Please feel free to comment here or email me, I’ll be over the moon if you would like to go on your first Microadventure and I’ll happily lend you my NDW book :).