I suppose I really ought to begin this with an apology to the owner of this lovely piece of ground, not that you’re likely to read my blog – you’re probably far too busy trying to eke out a living working the land – but if you do…sorry. I didn’t ask your permission to camp the night. I didn’t know where to find you, and anyway I was far too exhausted to try.
The second thing I should do is appeal to every other wild camper to respect the countryside and leave it, within reason, as we find it. Wild camping and “stealth” camping are thorny issues, but the bottom line is that, in England, we are tresspassing, strictly speaking, if we don’t ask permission to camp, and the practice is only as common as it is because of the generally good nature of landowners (and, perhaps, the hassle and expense of trying to sue someone). I might get into all that again later, but for now I just want to write a bit about my camping trip.
Here’s the bike, a Marinoni frame with mostly the original Campagnolo fixtures.
I’ll interupt this to say a bit more about my pushbike. If you’d rather just read about the trip, skip on to the next heading. The frame is a racer, and a rather top-end make, but I’ve replaced the narrow racing wheels with some bog-standard alloy tourers after the front wheel went down an expansion gap in a level crossing, bent badly and nearly caused me serious injury. I also replaced the pedals for some simple plastic ones.
The bike came to me by accident. I found it resting against a skip out the back of Morrisons, where I worked at the time. It seemed abandoned, but that was suspicious, since who would leave a racing bike in perfect working order unattended and unlocked leaning against a skip? I asked around all day. I moved it to somewhere a little safer, but left a note in case someone came for it. By the evening, I decided it must have been stolen and dumped, put up more notices, and threw it in the back of my van to take home. Now, with hindsight, I know that I should have taken it to the police station. Someone might have claimed it. You never know. I feel rather guilty, because I didn’t do that. I pretended to myself that putting up notices would be enough. It was probably nicked miles away and the owner might have reported it, and if I’d taken it to the police that person could have got it back. Sorry, mate. I guess I probably thought it was alright because I hadn’t stolen it; “finders keepers” I probably said to myself. I liked it very much. I didn’t have a bike. I had no idea that it was a good make. The strange thing is that if you’ve ever seen the logo for Marinoni and the logo for Morrisons, you’ll know that they’re almost identical, a capital M inside an ellipse inside a square, and when I saw that stamped on the frame I thought, stupid me, I didn’t realise we had our own delivery bikes here. Maybe someone else had found it dumped earlier, after its little excursion, and thought they were bringing it home to us!
So anyway, that was about 1992 or something, 17 years ago. I’ve loved it since, although it’s actually far too big for me, and then I decided to do some modifications for cycle touring and camping. This summer I made some front pannier frames out of aluminium that I had lying around, mainly because the forks don’t have the usual fitting holes for mudguards, which most front frames utilise. Of course, it would be a simple job to buy some and make a small alteration, a bracket at the bottom or something, but since I had to alter them I might as well start from scratch and save myself a few quid.
The horizontal bar is L-section aluminium with two short slots cut in the upper face to accept the lugs on the pannier back and bolted to the forks via a simple bracket and rubber mounts. The other end is bolted to the diagonal, which is made from some carpet joining strip, with a hole drilled for the axle end to go through. Another piece of the same forms the small extension pointing down from the axle, with a similar hole drilled, having a lug at the bottom for the pannier lower attachment. The axle nuts are just tightened up to hold these two pieces together against the fork dropouts.
I considered not having the diagonal connection bar, and overcoming the tendency for the horizontal one to rotate foward by placing the upper pannier lugs either side of the fork. This would reduce the weight a little, but in the end I went for the stronger, triangulated design, which also kept the pannier further forward away from my feet on a tight turn.
Here you can see the steel lugs on the pannier back slotted into the frame. If you fit things like this, it’s useful to fashion a curve on the bracket to help hold it in line with the fork, and to pad both sides with rubber to protect the paint and give the mounting a little bit of give.
We found the black rear panniers that you can see on the earlier picture in a cupboard, the “wife” and I, and we both had no idea where they came from. They would be perfect, I thought, for the rear carrier, with some hi-vis stripes ironed on and various other modifications to the fittings.
That meant that my old separate panniers from the back could be hung on the front wheels. As any fool knows, serious touring cyclists have front panniers. You get more in and it balances the bike much better.
The little patch of silvery plastic on the rear pannier is another addition I made – a solar-rechargeable torch, fastened with velcro. This worked for the one trip, until I ripped it off a little too quickly and the inevitable happened, the hooky bit was more adhesive than the glue sticking it to the torch.
The handlebar bag is also a do-it-yourself job, an old camera bag, which I suspended with cord and some of those spring-loaded D-clips you can get in outdoors shops, the latter just clipped onto the brake cables where they enter the brake lever housing. That’s not really best practice, but I was sick of trying things that didn’t work, and this did.
The bag was suspended by the loops where the shoulder strap had been attached, just above the side pockets, so all it needed was securing below to stop it swinging back and forth, which I did even less technically, clipping it to the looped-wire spring of the front brake. I know, I know…! Again, it worked, only needing adjusting at one point on the outward journey when the cords lengthened and the bottom began to rub on the tyre.
I was chuffed to bits with this bag, because it had moveable compartments made of foam padding, so I could set it up nicely to protect my camera, and it was big enough for tons of other gear, phone, wallet, field glass, compass, kitchen sink… I put it “backwards” so the top opened away from me. The pocket nearest me was big enough for a map, and I gave it a spray of silicone waterproofing.
I have referred to this trip since as a nightmare and a failure, but in reality it was a steep learning curve (called White Horse Hill) and involved some really good parts. It was, after all, my first ever cycle camping trip involving wild camping.
My only other cycle camping was during a single journey from Harrogate to Oxford in four days, camping on commercial sites, back in my 20’s. And I had been wild camping once, a couple of years ago, spending a dreadfully stormy night on the moors, having gone there on the bus and then a few miles on foot. After that I realised that I wasn’t up to carrying a pack on my back. Either I needed more practice and workouts to get fitter, or those days were just behind me now. I hope it’s the former and I do a little backpacking too in coming years, but for now I turned my attention to cycle-camping, letting the bike take the strain.
This trip was rather a catalogue of mistakes, a lesson in how not to do cycle camping. Mistake number one was setting off too late. Despite thinking that I’d done most of the packing the day before, it seemed to take forever to get the last bits done that morning, and I set off about 1:30 pm. That’s only a mistake if you intend to go a longish way, and I did.
Now, I should point out that some people will consider this a short way, a quick spin on the bike, I know that, before I reveal how far that is. Actually, I didn’t even know how far it was (and still don’t) – that’s mistake number two – I just had a spot in mind, from looking at the map and google earth, and I thought it wouldn’t be too much trouble to get there. A rough guess would be about 45 to 50 miles. Insane.
I could probably do 50 miles without too much difficulty if it was fairly flat and I didn’t have any luggage. I know that I average about 10 miles an hour and I’m sure I can sit and peddle for 5 hours, but for that I’d have to set off in good time, and the route wasn’t flat, and I had an insane weight of gear on the bike, I estimate somewhere in the region of 17kg. Why so much? Well, I was hoping to be pretty well self-sufficient for about 5 days, for no good reason, and that meant carrying more food, more clothing and a few other extras like a hand-wound torch with charger socket for when my phone battery was low. Even so, mistake number three was to pack far too much. At the last minute I was still trying to decide whether to take only a pair of sandals, only sneakers or both, and ended up taking both. I had a similar difficulty deciding whether to take a half-litre vacuum flask of hot water to have a cup of tea on the way (and to keep water hot while camping, too), and ended up doing so – a ridiculous luxury, I now realise.
I set off through Knaresborough and out to Ferrensby, then West across to Aldwark Bridge, and enjoyed the ride. Most of the first hour or so it was raining lightly, which was refreshing. I stopped once to shelter under a tree when there was a heavy downpour.
Mistake number four, however, was that I didn’t stop and eat or drink enough. The flask did me a couple of cups of tea, and I ate some Brazil nuts from time to time, and I drank probably about another half litre of water. The first mistake, setting off late, played on my mind, so instead of stopping and having a good meal in a pub or resting for longer, I kept pushing on, and I got some of that mission mentality, like this was some macho test of stamina.
I then rode North through the villages on the York plain towards the moors, and I think I went into a weird kind of mental blank.
That was the view ahead, White Horse Hill, and that was the hill I intended to climb, but I wouldn’t be finished by a long chalk, pardon the pun. My journey was supposed to continue over the moors to the top of Sneck Yate Bank, then go East down the hill into Hawnby, then climb again over the Osmotherly road across more moorland.
I did get to the top of White Horse Hill. I had to push the bike up it. In fact, I was so knackered by then I had to push it for about 20 paces and take a rest, over and over. Even if I had mountain-climbing gears instead of racing ones I would probably have got off and pushed. The little road wound up and up. I thought I’d never get to the top. I didn’t time it, but had the feeling that it took me most of an hour.
Part of the problem was that I didn’t have a clear destination or route, and by this time I was scouting for suitable campsites. That’s ok, except that if you don’t stop to camp, you might waste time looking at a spot and trying to decide what to do. Not being used to this game, I was constantly trying to weigh up how much daylight I had left, how much energy I had left to pitch the tent, find water, cook and so on before losing the light, and how confident I felt that something better might turn up in the next few miles. In fact, I was beginning to scout for campsites long before reaching White Horse Hill, and I only took the detour to Oldstead because it looked more promising on the map. This meant more wasted time and energy, because, although there were places I could have camped, I got another fit of machismo and wanted to push on and get higher.
White Horse Hill itself would probably be a bad place to camp, being quite a hot-spot for tourists and, no doubt, early-morning dog walkers. Once I was up on the higher ground, I began searching more seriously, now giving up the idea of getting all that way to my vaguely-intended destination past Hawnby.
It was then that I remembered the wonderful view from a little track that I’d seen just at the top of Sneck Yate Bank (as I used to live in Hawnby and communted along that route most days), and decided to investigate it for camping potential. There was nowhere suitable to pitch a tent there, but I saw a stand of trees nearby, marked on the map as High Barn, and I saw there were a few springs marked too a little way off. The trees would give me some shelter from the elements, and I would just have to hope that I could find water. I only had about half a litre left.
I opened the gate and pushed my bike over the rough grass on the bridleway, part of the Cleveland Way, up to High Barn and chose a good spot down behind some piles of brushwood between the trees. There was quite a stiff breeze blowing, but behind these it was nice and still. The photo above was taken the next day, of course. By this time it was late evening.
I was exhausted. I pitched the tent and got the stove out to make some dinner. However, the endless decision-making continued: should I try to find a source of water first, or try to eke out the small amount I had left. I’ve lost count of how many bad decisions I made by this point, but this was the next. It was beginning to get dark rapidly, and that put me off trying to search for springs or streams down the hillside by torch-light for obvious safety reasons. Who knows, it may have been a good decision, a life-saving decision. Certainly it made sense at the time not to go trudging about over land I didn’t know in the dark. I had passed some big puddles on the way along the bridleway, which also persuaded me that this was the best decision, since I wasn’t going to die of thirst. It seemed best to put the dinner on with what little water I had (carrying only dried food, obviously) and hunker down for the night.
So that’s what I did. Unfortunately, I put a little too much of the dried vegetable soup in the pan for the “sauce”, and then, worst of all, I put some pasta in as well. The resulting thick gloop was hard to get down, and the pasta just didn’t cook, but merely sat there soaking up some of the precious water and turning to a rubber consistency. When you’re very tired, often you get past eating. You don’t feel hungry, and have to tell yourself to eat for the sustenance. I tried to eat what I could of the soup-gloop without throwing up, went to do what bears do in the woods, enjoying the view of the lights of villages all across the plain below, and went to bed after a quick phone-call to my partner and then a text with my map coordinates as a safety procedure.
Things didn’t improve at this point. I tried to choose a bit of ground that gave the best compromise between shelter and surface, but I’d given too much emphasis to the shelter. I realised it was a bit lumpy and rather damp, but figured that the lumps were damp clay, and I could easily thump them down to make a flatter bed. Once in my sleeping bag, however, I found that they were harder than I realised, and so began that well-known camper’s routine of shuffling round most of the night, trying to fit one’s limbs between the lumps. Despite overpacking on most things, I had rather skimped on the mat, using a couple of layers of the yellow plastic underlay that goes under wooden floors (a tip from another camper on a forum), and my sleeping bag was pretty thin too. I had a slight headache, probably from mild dehydration. It was colder than I expected. I slept intermittently, then deeply after the sun came up.
I woke up rather too hot and unzipped the tent to cool down. I thought that it wouldn’t be long before people started coming past – this was probably quite a popular route of a weekend, and it was Saturday. It was very pleasant basking in that warmth, but I knew that I had to get up and start finding water. I collected up what I would need, remembering to take my valuables with me, and set off to see what “spring” on the map would actually translate into. The view from here made it all worth it.
As I set off I saw someone coming towards me, a man walking a couple of dogs, so I said hello and asked if he was local. I said I was off to find a spring or stream, and did he know of a good place. He said there were some springs further down the hill, but he didn’t know if they were running or not. He said that he knew the farmer who owned the land, after I made apologetic noises about camping, and that he wouldn’t mind. He pointed to the farm house, which wasn’t more than half a mile away, and suggested that I should call and ask to have my water bottle filled.
Now this is a curious issue that I’ve thought about quite a lot since, but it isn’t really a favourable proposition to me, getting tap water from houses and farms. Part of the reason is that I’m camping where I shouldn’t without permission, partly it’s because I’m trying to manage without home comforts like running water, and part of the picture is certainly my generally introverted nature. I cycle off into the hills to be on my own. I had passed a pub in Oldstead, where the smell of food and beer mingled with the soft murmur of voices, and didn’t stop. This tendency, I’ve decided, is stupid. It’s not like I’m supposed to be living off the land like a commando. It’s supposed to be a biking holiday!
I descended the hill, following the map, and found the nearer of the two springs marked. It was disappointing, being not much more than an area of mud. This is a common occurence. It’s not a good idea to take springs marked on maps at face value, especially in summer. Sometimes there may not even be any trace of water at the surface.
I continued further downhill, nearer to the farmhouse, and found the other. That was more like it, a circular depression about ten feet across full of murky water, but with a relatively clear trickle flowing out and down the stream bed. The only problem was reaching the water across the mud all around, but I found some good spots, washed my pots and then moved upstream a little to fill my water bottle, my “dirty” water bottle, that is, and I also scooped some into a plastic bag. It was hard to get much for the mud and the debris running into whatever was placed in the flow. I three-quarter filled the bottle by gently pushing it down into the mud, holding the lip upstream at the surface. It was then that I realised I had hardly got any better water than I’d passed in those puddles, but at least it wasn’t standing water.
Back at camp I set up my home-made filter and filtered the least dirty of the water into the pan to make coffee. The filter is just an old plastic pill container, a cylindrical pot with a lid, into the bottom of which I melted a few holes; I lined this with cotton wool, poured a small measure of the contents of a Brita(TM) filter cartridge in and placed more cotton wool over the top to leave the bulk of the volume as a reservoir for the dirty water. It works pretty well just placed in a pan, as long as you’re careful not to spill the dirty water directly into the pan (or it’s not critical anyway, which it certainly wasn’t this time). I think the Brita stuff gets rid of a fair amount of any chemical polution that might be present, and, of course, does a pretty good job of removing the particulate matter, though not down to the micron levels that a proper outdoor ceramic filter would. I’m not sure how much of the bacteria and other nasties it kills, but I was going to boil it anyway, which does the rest.
Readers may repeat experiments with Brita filter materials outdoors at their own risk! I did email them to ask their opinion on how suitable their products are for such pursuits, and kindly offering them my free consultatory expertise as a novice outdoorsman, but I’ve heard nothing back. They’ve probably filed it under “Top Secret: New Product Development”, or “Crank Emails”. I think there must be a gap in the market. Everything else seems to be heavy and/or bulky and, although it might remove all known pathogens in one go without boiling, I’m sure there are a few folks like me who just want to improve the clarity and remove a good percentage of any pollutants.
The bloody stove ran out of gas next. I’ve got one of those Rapijet stoves, that is basically an oversized cigarette lighter: you fill it up at the base with butane from a cigarette-lighter-refill canister, and it has a knob to turn it on with an integrated button for the piezo-electric spark. The first time I used it in earnest, on my first wild camp, I bust the knob by overtightening it and had a cold dinner, but I made a repair later. I’ve not used it much yet, but on this trip I noticed that it does seem to empty pretty quickly, or I haven’t managed to fill it fully. It’s hard to tell whether it’s still taking gas when you fill it, and, unhelpfully, the instructions don’t say if you should use any of the adaptors (that are listed for different lighters on most cans of fuel), so I just do it with none of them. The other downsides with these things are that they’re no good at altitude (you need a different fuel – propane, I think) and they’re not exactly very lightweight either, I guess because of the need for a good strong metal case to hold the pressurized gas; then you have to take a refill. It’s one of the things on my list to look into improving for next season.
Anyway, the stove running out meant letting it cool down before filling it (as per instructions), and while I was waiting for that along came a couple of very chatty walkers who kept me from my morning cup of coffee for another twenty minutes as we compared tents, stoves, routes and prefered methods of travel. They were very kind and offered me some of their water, but I was fine, thanks.
Finally I got some coffee made (with powdered milk, of course, but I don’t mind that), as more people filed passed saying hello and commenting on how late I was having breakfast. Breakfast? Jesus, it took all morning to fetch water, filter and heat it and make a cup of fucking coffee. I’d get round to breakfast in good time. One of the lovely things about the outdoor life is that you appreciate ordinary luxuries more. You can’t just fall out of bed and switch a light on, turn a tap, flick a switch, open a cupboard and hey-presto, there’s your coffee.
I enjoyed that coffee, and then I made porridge for lunch. I lazed in the sun for a while, and began thinking about what to do next.
This trip had had to be fitted in between other commitments, and all along I’d been a bit disappointed by the weather forecast. It was lovely that day, but Sunday was supposed to bring very heavy rain, and then it was meant to ease off a bit after that. When I set off I was ignoring the implication that I might spend a lot of time sitting in the tent in the rain, but now the idea seemed rather depressing. I could sit it out and hope things got better before long, but going home today was quite tempting, even though that made it just a one-nighter when I’d intended to have a few days to a week.
I put off that decision a little longer by focusing on the present campsite. The ground was wetter than I had realised last night, and I’d had to put a load of straw in the doorway to minimize the mud I was tramping through. The ground was lumpy. I could move the tent a little way along to a better bit, but then the water supply wasn’t very good either. I could go further afield to find better water, but then I was camped on what was clearly a busy public bridleway at the weekend, and I didn’t want to risk leaving my tent pitched, or have the hassle of carting it about just to look for water. The rain might keep the people away tomorrow, but then we’re back to the other question again, whether I wanted to be here in the rain at all.
Would it be better to move into the woods somewhere for more shelter from the rain? No. Trees don’t really shelter you from continual rain. They shelter you from a shower, because the water sits on the leaves for a while, but if it continues it all just runs off on you anyway, bringing dirt and debris onto the tent with it.
In the end, I decided to pack up and cycle somewhere, leaving the question of where until I’d set off. This was probably another bad idea.
Uppermost in my mind was the idea of cycling on to where I had intended to go yesterday, but I had to admit that my apetite for this trip was waning, and besides, I hadn’t even seen the place. I expect that I must seem very pathetic to a lot of people. I have an anxiety disorder, I’m told (I worry about stuff too much). Anyway, this is what happened. The negative possibilities seemed to grow in my mind every time I formed a plan of action, but in particular I imagined that tomorrow would bring torrential rain and the “easing off” would be minimal. Some people would expect moderate rain and then a lovely few days afterwards to look forward to. By the time I’d got back to the road, I was beginning to think that heading home today would be best. Besides, the cycling itself was very enjoyable, whereas camping in the rain on my own might turn out to be a washout, despite having brought a book to read.
Another cyclist pulled up beside me and we had a chat. He was in all the lycra stuff on his racer and was just enjoying a spin up from Thirsk where he lived. I briefly mentioned my predicament and how I was thinking of quitting and riding home today. He said that the weather could be very unpredictable around these parts, so not to take too much heed of the forecast. It almost made me change my mind, but by now I had cycled in the wrong direction for a while and I didn’t want to start taking the whole thing apart again. He cycled off ahead and I continued to “quit”, as it felt. Even as I did so I had big doubts about the wisdom of this. By now it was mid-afternoon, perhaps around 4 pm. much later than I’d set off yesterday, and I was tired from the outward journey. My trip meter said it was 35 miles, although it would be more downhill and I could avoid the detours, making it more like 33, but this was a crazy decision, the worst one yet. I kind of knew it at the time.
I continued, and whizzed down White Horse Hill in a matter of minutes, just a little concerned for my brakes. That was that. I realised that my worst error the day before was in not stopping enough, eating enough and drinking enough, so I vowed to stop at the next pub and have a jolly good nosh before the trip home, which might take me well into the evening.
I did stop in Coxwold, but only had a pint of bitter shandy and a packet of crisps. I didn’t feel like eating any more than that, and just packed another packet of crisps for later. I asked the barman if he’d fill my water bottle with tap water, I chucked away the remains of my filtered water and set off.
I made good progress at first, helped by knowing most of the turns without having to check the map. However, I got complacent at one point, went the wrong way and added another 4 miles to the journey. This was unfortunate, as it was just when my morale was about at its lowest anyway and I was really flagging.
It was only a few miles further on that I decided that it would be most sensible to phone my partner and ask her to come out the remaining 8 miles in the car and pick me up. It honestly wasn’t just a failure of guts and determination. It became a serious medical decision, because by that time my neck was giving me appalling amounts of pain from the riding position and the cool breeze on it. It was dark and getting colder, and there was the prospect of a number of steep hills, the worst being the last half a mile up from the Nidd valley at Knaresborough. I was pushing my bike up Gallabar Hill towards Marton and the A1 when I called, at about 9 pm.
I could have got home in about an hour to an hour and a half, and wouldn’t mind the exhaustion – indeed I would revel in my suffering and success – but there was a good chance that I would have grave issues with my spine, and that was not worth the trouble. Another solution would be to just stop and pitch, but in my condition I thought that was also a stupid option. I had blown the chance of making this a nice cycle-camping trip. I had overdone it massively on the mileage over two days for my age and condition, and now it was finally time to do the sensible thing rather than make it worse by causing myself more suffering. It was wonderful to get home. I had beans on toast and several cups of decaf and began to feel human again
Even with quitting early, my neck has been pretty painful and stiff for many weeks. I hate to think what it would have been like if I’d pressed on.
The lessons from this first cycle-wild-camp are many. My legs were hardly stiff at all, so I know that I’m up to that level of physical work. It wasn’t the peddling that did me in. It was poor attention to food and drink, combined with the riding position and my neck problem.
I’m planning to replace the drops with a straight handlebar or even something more cruiser-like for a more upright position. However, I’m now considering whether further messing about with my old racer that’s too big for me anyway is sensible, or if I’d rather splash out and get something more suitable. I’m crap at making decisions, that’s clear, but last time I thought about it I was in favour of sticking with it, putting a new handlebar on, refitting the whole gear train with a “stump puller” and getting a sprung saddle, as my behind is going to take more of a battering if I sit more upright.
I remember reading that one of the most important things in a touring cycle is comfort, and that any reduction in pace from the wind on your chest is more than made up for by being able to keep going longer. It was in Richard’s New Bicycle Book, and for that reason he considered a mountain bike a good choice for touring, to my surprise. I don’t think he means those cheap 30 kg things that pass for mountain bikes, though, but a grand-or-so worth.
It was pretty sickening that I’d made such a hash of the trip, especially as I began to analyse it and realise what bad decisions I’d made all along. Even worse, the next day, supposed to be heavy rain according to the Met Office, was fair, as was the rest of the week. If I had only decided to move from High Barn and find a new camp, I would probably have had a good time up on the moors, and I wouldn’t have had the painful and aborted trip home. I could have rested up, sunbathed, chilled out, and set off several days later for a nice relaxed ride home. Oh well, you live and learn.