#Microadventure: Wild Camping in the Chilterns
There comes a time when you actually have to stop talking and actually do something. Take action. Make a move. This was one of them.
To anyone unfortunate enough to listen, I’d been going on about the idea of wild camping for nearly two years. I’d been acquiring and upgrading bits of my kit for nearly as long in preparation too. 2019 was going to be the year when, inspired by Alastair Humphreys’ book Microadventures: Local Discoveries for Great Escapes, I would get on with it.
Then I broke my arm. Badly. My plans to row in a ‘tub’ race during the Hammersmith Regatta and ride the Velo Birmingham and Midlands lay in tatters. My desire to go on more microadventures following my January swim in the English Channel completely vanished.
Reinvigorated following a trip across Europe by rail, and with an almost fully functional left arm again, I sought out a friend crazy enough to come wild camping in first week of September. It didn’t take long.
Tish’s only questions were: “What do I need? Are there bears? What will we eat?”
I recommended to Tish that he should buy a bivvy bag from Mountain Warehouse and dug out a sleeping bag and mat from an old camping set for him. Tish, ignoring my advice to buy the bivvy bag from Mountain Warehouse for £19.99, somehow ended up in Cotswold Outdoors paying £120 and then buying the one from Mountain Warehouse too.
Following the rough concept of Alastair Humphreys’ ‘5-9 Microadventure’ idea, we met up at London Marylebone station not long after I’d kicked the last students out of the door. In amongst the crowds of city workers in suits retreating to the countryside, we must have looked a bit bizarre. They all carried tins of beer and pre-mixed G&Ts; we carried backpacks and bags full of camping gear.
After an hour on the train, most of which was spent by me checking that Tish knew what wild camping actually was and persuading him to go to Morocco soon, we arrived in the small market town of Wendover.
With about 45 minutes left until sunset, we gathered together the ingredients for a meal at the local Budgens, bought something to drink and started to walk westwards up the ridgeway path.
Now, prior to the trip, I had spent days obsessing over where would be the best location to camp out. Kent sounded nice enough, but I didn’t fancy being in an area that I had no previous knowledge of. Some people suggested heading into Essex, but I wasn’t sure that it would feel rural enough.
The Chilterns and their many hilly escarpments and promontories seemed to provide the best possibilities for wild camping without the likelihood of irritating anyone. Unlike Scotland, the majority of England and Wales is out of bounds, officially speaking, for wild camping. Only Dartmoor allows people to arrive and pitch a tent anywhere they fancy.
Either way, the basic rules remain the same: arrive late, leave early; be discrete; leave no trace.
The pathway rose sharply as we headed out of the village and before long we were treated to views that looked out over the Aylesbury Vale. The only sounds were the faint engines of farm machinery stacking bales of hay.
After passing through a small wood, where quite suddenly the sun was excluded from the sky, we reached the top of Coombe Hill, marked by a memorial to soldiers who’d fought in the Boer War in South African.
From here, we felt like we could see forever. Even the slow encroachment of haze in the distance couldn’t detract from the fact that we could see for miles around. At the top of Coombe Hill, you are nearly 900 feet above sea level and it led Tish to later proclaim that he’d “slept on the highest mountain in Buckinghamshire.”
We walked slightly southwards from the monument, away from the local teenagers enjoying their Friday night and along the edge of the escarpment. We found a spot by a bench which could double as our worktop for preparing food, and that had a spot of ground beneath a tree, that was shielded on either side by tall grass and brambles and was perfect for camping.
Just along from our bench, a man was sitting with a bag of equipment and was staring out into the evening sky. After a bit of “should we say hello or ask him for tips,” muttering like two school boys, we got chatting. It was his first time wild camping at Coombe Hill, but not his first time wild camping.
Zac was an amiable guy and, after he’d found his spot further along the hillside, we invited him to come and join us.
As the light faded, I went and set up my low profile, one-man tent, an OEX Phoxx EV 1 that I’d bought in a sale over a year ago and never used.
With a meal of meatballs and noodles cooking on my tiny camping stove courtesy of Tish’s culinary skills, we talked about every topic under the sun. Zac was quite the wild camper and also had camper van that he’d lived in for years before finally deciding to live in a flat. He still owns the camper can though!
Something about the simplicity of the evening – no phones, no need to impress anyone, nowhere near work or a computer – made the evening pass with a sense of serenity. Only the distant chatter of the teenagers and a couple of guys with very bright flashlights came anywhere near disturbing us.
Around midnight, we figured it was time to sleep. I rolled sideways into my tiny tent and nearly carried on rolling – it seemed I’d pitched on a slight slope. I couldn’t be bothered to rearrange my tent so I thought I’d just deal with it.
Tish inflated his mat, jumped into his sleeping bag and then hopped like a maniac rabbit into his bivvy bag. He called his girlfriend and pretended to be in trouble: “Come and pick me up. Tom’s got a tent and I’m having to sleep outside with the bears. Some guy invited me to him tent if it gets cold…”
I’m not sure whether she saw the funny side, but at this point I feel asleep. It had been the usual endurance test first week of the academic year, whereby a lot of time is spent listening to other teachers telling you what the priorities for the year are and reflecting on the summer’s results.
At around 1am, Tish came crashing into the side of my tent. It seems the hill had got the better of him too. At 2am he did the same thing before deciding to sleep vertically up the slope. After that there was nothing but peace.
I couldn’t remember falling asleep. I only realised I was sleeping when I could hear the sound of birds in my dream. In my dream, men in Land Rovers with bright headlights approached my tent and Tish’s bivvy then started to pull us along the ground, away from Coombe Hill. The calling of the birds became louder and I opened my eyes.
Looking out of the tent I could see it was morning and there, just effortlessly levitating over the Buckinghamshire countryside, were two Red Kites, large British birds of prey stealthily spying out their next meal in one of the freshly reaped fields.
Tish woke up to realise he’d slid down the hill towards a bramble bush, but was still in one piece after a night in the open – presumably the ravenous wildlife of his imagination had failed to materialise.
I am very rarely outdoors at such an hour, but to simply walk a few metres and look out over the fields unfurling into the distance in the bluish light of dawn felt genuinely refreshing for the soul.
Ever aware of trying to be discreet, we packed up all of our sleeping gear and headed towards the now deserted war memorial. We made a coffee on the stove whilst admiring the view – or in Tish’s case whilst he clicked refresh on his mobile phone, trying to get in the online queue for some rare Kanye West trainers.
The walk back down the hill seemed a lot easier and shorter, and the steepness of the path’s incline was less evident as we descended past the sleeping cottages, along the silent roads and back into Wendover.
After scanning the high street for a café that might be open, we saw the Red Lion Hotel and a notice board advertising the fact that they were open for breakfast from 8.30. Reflecting on the whole adventure over a full English breakfast, I asked Tish, “So would you do it again?”
You’ll have to wait and see what his answer was.
We headed back into London on the train: the fields giving way to houses, the houses giving way to flats and finally into the bustle of central London. The sensation was strange. Despite having only been away for one evening, the feeling that we had somehow successfully accomplished an adventure was there inside of us.
The only real question was: Will there be the time to do it again before it gets too cold?
Don’t worry so much about planning everything to the minutest detail.
It's definitely good to go with a friend the first time you wild camp.
Don’t try to camp or bivvy on a slope - it's a stupid idea.
OEX Phoxx EV1 one-man tent – currently on Sale
OEX Traverse IMX sleeping mat
Vango Planet 150 sleeping bag
Vango folding gas stove
OS Explorer Map 181 – North Chilterns
Small pan set, some coffee, a lighter and a head torch
Tish’s Kit List
Mountain Warehouse bivvy bag
Powerbank for charging smartphones
A load of my old sleeping stuff