Sleeping Outside: We Went Wild Camping In The South Downs For 48 Hours And Lived To Tell The Tale
Thunderstorms, tornadoes, cow stampedes, and a bed of stinging nettles; this adventure had everything.
I 'd be the first to admit I'm not a wild man. I don’t know how to build a shelter, start a fire, wrestle a bear, catch a freshwater fish, grow a proper adult man-beard, or do any of the other things considered second nature to real adventurers. Picture Bear Grylls. I’m the opposite of Bear Grylls. Needless to say, when I made a snap decision to go wild camping for two nights in the South Downs I had more than a few concerns.
Worried that I’d make a corpse of myself if I went solo on this, I managed to rope my outdoorsy mate Dave into coming along on the adventure. Nothing, I figured, could go wrong if I went wild camping with a man called Dave. There’s a reason that everybody knows a Dave. Daves are solid. Daves are reliable. Daves are survivors. I meet Dave at Victoria Station on a Thursday afternoon and it’s clear, within two minutes, that he’s not impressed by my choice of rucksack, which is resting on the floor between us.
“That’ll mess your back up," he tells me. “You need a bag like mine."
I look at my bag, and then at his. Immediately, I see his bag looks like the bag of someone who knows what they’re doing. There are multiple zips and pockets on it. There’s a waist-belt, a drinking tube sticking out the top of it, and a sleeping bag attached to the bottom. Dave’s bag offers spinal support, mine does not. I give my bag a disapproving look.
Dave’s brought a map, a compass, a navigational guide for the South Downs Way, a gas canister, and a spare water pouch for me. Dave, it’s fair to say, has thought of everything.
We hop on the train to Eastbourne, and examine the hiking route we’ll be taking. We mark out potential spots for wild camping, and discuss how far we can realistically walk in 48 hours. Apprehension gives way to excitement, and I start to relish the potential freedom and escapism that lies ahead.
I’ve slept in campsites and once went “glamping" as part of a Kenyan safari, but never in my life have I done camping like this before. This was going to be camping without rules, restrictions, and, perhaps most significantly, tents. Over the next two nights, the only thing above our heads would be the night sky. We could only pray that rain wouldn’t be an issue. The bivouac sacks (also known as ‘bivvys’) we’d be using had many qualities but a roof was not one of them.
After arriving in Eastbourne, and making a quick stop at a supermarket to stock up on meals, peanuts, and enough cereal bars to feed the entire production crew for Game of Thrones twice over - we head to Eastbourne Pier. From here, we make our way along a coastal road to the starting point of the 100 mile-long South Downs Way.
"...the windswept trees here look like something from a Salvador Dali painting or a Biffy Clyro album cover..."
Halfway up the first hill, we realise that neither of us are as fit as we need to be. Our self-esteem is dented further when we see a middle-aged couple striding happily in the opposite direction. They’re finishing the South Downs Way, and bouncing along with the vigour of Athenian Gods. The fact that I already appear to be a bit tired, and am reaching for my first cereal bar, doesn’t seem to be lost on anybody.
The scenery along the Seven Sisters segment of the South Downs Way is some of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen in the UK. Rolling hills and other-worldly white cliffs, the windswept trees here look like something from a Salvador Dali painting or a Biffy Clyro album cover; all bent out of shape at 90 degrees like one of Uri Geller’s spoons.
Eventually, we turn inland and follow the South Downs Way along Cuckmere River. Cuckmere winds its way into the East Sussex countryside like a rambunctious piece of supersized spaghetti. Far below us, we sight a couple of paddle boarders weaving their way along it. Apart from the farmyard animals, they appear to be the only sign of life for miles around.
With afternoon morphing into evening, we enter Seven Sisters Country Park. For the first time on the hike, we enter a wooded area. The bit in The Fellowship of the Rings when Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin have to hide from one of Sauron’s hooded Ringwraiths springs to mind. Fortunately, we’re not carrying the one ring of power with us today and our smooth progress goes uninterrupted by the soldiers of Mordor.
We stop on a hill with an epic view of the Litlington White Horse - a giant horse-shaped chalk figure cut into the downs. It’s here that we whip out the BruKit stove, and heat up our vacuum-packed meals. I’m not sure if it’s just my overwhelming sense of hunger, or if the food is genuinely good, but I scoff the grub down in no time at all.
Another hour of walking and we arrive in Litlington. The sun is going down but rather than take the sensible decision of scouting out a suitable camping spot while it’s still light, we take a much more fun decision and hit a local boozer called The Plough and Harrow. The talkative barman fixes us up a couple of ales, and fills up our water packs, as Dave and myself scour the map for places further ahead where we could camp.
"...you forget that your clothes are soaking wet and that your feet hurt so much you want to cut them off..."
As we’re paying up, the barman asks us where we’re staying. Because of the grey areas around wild camping’s legality, I lie and tell him we’re staying at the Alfriston Camping Park. Awkwardly, it turns out he knows the owner and offers to call ahead for us. I tell him that won’t be necessary, thank him for the water refill, and make a speedy exit. Outside, Dave looks confused and feels like my behaviour in the pub made us look suspicious. He’s probably right, but we now have bigger problems to contend with. It’s dark, and we’re still about a mile or so from the outskirts of Alfriston.
With our bivvys we can sleep anywhere, but the outskirts of Alfriston has been our target from the minute we left Eastbourne. We decide to walk there in the dark with our head-torches rather than bed down in a field near the pub. We stumble along the road for a while and it’s not long before we realise that we’ve missed a turning. A pick-up truck parks up alongside us and offers to give us a lift. We’re worried that he’ll take us directly to the nearby campsite, which is precisely the place we’re trying to avoid, so we politely turn him down. Confused by our refusal, he nevertheless gives us clear directions on how to get to Alfriston.
The next 20 minutes, as we walk towards Alfriston, passes by in a montage of indecisiveness. The routine goes something like this: pick a spot, talk up its multiple positives, hesitate, decide that it’s not the right spot after all, move on and repeat. After doing this for a while, we stumble across a wide open space that seems ripe for wild camping. It feels out the way, quiet, and a place we can sleep without being stepped on by late-night locals. There’s a pungent smell in the air but we put that down to general countryside aroma, and accept it as part of the experience.
The ground is, without question, the lumpiest thing I’ve ever slept on. I drift in and out of sleep but can’t shake the feeling that, without a tent above our head, we’re exposed and vulnerable. The nocturnal screeching sounds of the area’s wildlife fighting and fornicating with each other in the dark doesn’t help my state of mind, and the cold air sweeps over me to such an extent that I end up wearing all of the clothes I’ve brought with me.
Trefor Jones, a wild camping enthusiast who once spent every night in September sleeping in London’s parks, told me before our South Downs trip that fear while wild camping is “all psychological…" and that it’s “...part of the thrill of bivvying." These words spin round inside my head as I try to tell myself that I’m not going to be murdered by a man with an axe. Eventually, sleep consumes me. The next thing I know, I’m waking up peacefully to the early morning light.
Sitting up slowly, and feeling utterly at one with nature, I look up and see a dog walker about 20 yards away. She pretends not to see us but, in our red bivvy bags, we’re impossible to miss. Not only that, but I realise we’ve actually slept far closer to Alfriston village than I previously thought. Roughly a dozen of the village’s buildings, varying in shape and size, have a clear view of us camped out in the middle of the field. Last night’s smell, it also transpires, is coming from some horse manure about a metre from Dave’s head.
In the dark, it had seemed like a great wild camping spot. In the light, it feels exposed to curtain-twitchers and early morning dog walkers. We vow not to make the same mistake again, and tell each other that we’ll find tonight’s camping spot before the sun goes down.
The second day is nothing if not eventful. About eight miles in, we get chased down a hill by a herd of stampeding cows. Roughly 15 miles in, we literally see a tornado on top of an adjacent hill. Somewhere around the 18 mile mark, the heavens open and we’re soaked from head to toe by torrential rain. The thunder and lightning that accompanies this monsoon makes me feel like I’m a character in an apocalyptic survival movie.
"I spend my second night wild camping, wrapped up like a witchetty grub, cowering from the stinging nettles..."
It turns out Dave is some sort of outdoor walking machine. Imagine The Terminator had a shaggy-haired lovechild with one of the Countryfile presenters, and you’ve got him in a nutshell. Whereas I’m ready to stop walking, possibly forever, somewhere around the 20 mile mark; Dave ploughs on like a man possessed. His personal mantra for the last few miles seems to be “To Pyecombe and beyond," internally mine is “Stop. Please. Make it stop. I don’t want to walk anymore. Just make it stop."
I confess to Dave, on the village's outskirts, that I don’t want to walk further than Pyecombe. I tell him that I just want to sit in a pub, take my soaking wet boots and socks off, and eat my own bodyweight in pickings from the menu. I’m done with walking, I tell him. D-O-N-E. Done. He takes it surprisingly well, and when the heavy rain hits us again moments later he reveals that my plan might be the best one after all.
We enter The Plough at Pyecombe looking like two people who’ve just survived the sinking of Titanic. We’re dripping water all over the place but rather than be turfed out, the barman smiles at us and tells us to take a seat. He brings us over a couple of beers, that have never tasted so good, and we watch some crowd trouble in the Croatia vs Czech Republic match at Euro 2016 with exhausted smiles on our faces. Three beers, a big bowl of nachos, and a double-cheese pizza later and I’m ready to pass out in a field somewhere.
Failing to learn from the mistakes of the previous night, the sun has already gone down by the time we leave the pub. Studying the map with our “beer goggles" very much on, we pick a spot on a nearby hill about 20 minutes walk away. After setting up our bivvy bags in the dark, we lay down and discover we’ve set up camp in a load of stinging nettles. Rather than take the sensible decision to move away from the stinging nettles, we decide to just make do and sleep where we are. I spend my second night wild camping, wrapped up like a witchetty grub, cowering from the stinging nettles that have us surrounded on all sides.
The clothes I’m wearing, and the clothes I have in my bag, are still sodden from the day’s excursion. So unlike the first night of wild camping, where I was able to put on every item of clothing I had with me to stay warm, the dampness of my clothes forces me to strip down to the bare minimums, curl up tightly in the foetal position, and think warm thoughts in a bid to fend off hypothermia. It’s a ridiculous situation to be in and I find my emotional state fluctuating between laughing and crying.
I succumb to sleep and when the sun wakes me up a handful of hours later, I have the same feeling of peace and harmony I had the previous morning. That, I realise, is the essence of wild camping and why a growing number of people love it. Starting the day in the middle of nowhere, with only the sky above your head, gives you an unbelievable feeling of escapism. You forget the emotional rollercoaster that put you there, you forget that your clothes are soaking wet and that your feet hurt so much you want to cut them off, you forget the responsibilities of adult life and the trouble of an increasingly problematic world, you forget it all. Everything becomes about the glorious moment when you and nature are interwoven. It’s beautiful.
My zen-like, vaguely Dalai Lama, state is interrupted by a herd of sheep coming over the hill behind us. Worried that we’re about to be discovered by an irate farmer, I wake Dave up and tell him it’s time for us to make a hasty exit. We bundle up our gear as quickly as we can, and hike speedily back down towards Pyecombe. We hike to the nearest train station in Hassocks, board a train to London Victoria, and sit in peaceful silence as the finishing line for our wild camping adventure comes into sight. At Victoria, we say our goodbyes and agree to do it again soon. We’re both done with normal camping. From here on out, it’s all about bivvy bags and stinging nettles.