I recently went on my first solo camping weekend, to test out new gear, my camping skills, and to go for a walk:
The bus nears the stop that I need to get off at, and I pick up my poles and bag. I have that feeling in my stomach as if I’m about to go on stage or give a presentation. Why am I so nervous? I say thank you to the bus driver then disappear through a hedge. It’s a small climb to start, and I follow white arrows painted onto trees in the forest that show the path. After ducking under branches I emerge onto a motorway of a trail: the Ridgeway.
I breathe deep and grin to myself, snapping a photo of the trail signs. At that moment a group of about 15 walkers come bearing round the corner, in the same direction that I’m heading. I dawdle by the sign and take leisurely sips of water, putting some space between me and them.
I look at OS maps on my phone every now and then, out of interest more than anything, as it’s pretty hard to lose the Ridgeway. Red kites squaw and circle above, and lambs bleat from the fields. The trail is a green corridor, and makes for fast walking. I fiddle with my pack, adjusting weight distribution between my hips and shoulders. This is the first time walking with my pack full of camping gear, and I can feel it.
I leapfrog with the group of walkers a few times, before arriving at my campsite for the night – White Mark Farm, on the edge of Watlington. I haven’t booked or called, and try to stop worrying that they’re full or closed or something. I stroll up to the reception and a man soon potters out. I pay him £7 and he shows me to the field. I needn’t have worried. There are 3 caravans, and no tents.
In the field marked ‘adults only’ I carry on to the far side and try and pick the flattest section, and dump by pack to the ground. Well then. I peer around, not wanting anyone to be watching in case I mess up. Pulling my tent from the bag, I flap it out to find the centre pole loop. I push the pole through and into the pole pockets at either end. I grab the pegs and make several attempts at pushing a peg through a gromment that I later realise is meant for the optional cross-poles, and not for the pegs. They’re pin shaped so I loop the guy line around it several times then pus it into the ground leaning away from the centre. Vaguely confident that it’ll do the job, I repeat with the other three corners. Ta da! One tent shaped object. I re-peg a couple of the corners to make it taught-er, and peg out the centre poles at either end.
I’m ridiculously pleased with myself, and take a photo of the tent as proof. I open the side porch and fiddle with the inner – the width is adjustable to make a larger inner or a larger porch. I inflate my sleeping mat most of the way and pull out my sleeping bag. I clamber inside and eat a chocolate bar, and admire my new tent. Checking my watch, I decide there’s enough time to do a walk I’d planned before it gets dark.
Without my tent and sleeping gear, my pack feels wonderfully light. I follow the Ridgeway until I come to a junction of 6 tracks, and veer off. It’s a corridor between two fields and the green moss path is so vibrant. All of the footpaths in this area have additional waymarks of white arrows painted on trees every now and then. As I climb up through the forest I look back for some views but they’re mostly shrouded in cloud.
I stride along stony tracks and slip along muddy trails. I pause in the forest and can only hear my heart beating and birds squarking. The light is fading but I question what would be so disastrous if I was walking in the dark; I have a head torch. At the top of Christmas Common I’m rewarded with views north across Oxfordshire. I take the most direct route down rather than follow the Oxfordshire Way around, and the footpath turns into a gully running near to a road. I look behind me and there is a large dog trotting by on the bank. I can’t see it’s owner, and I speed up slightly.
A while later I pause and look into the undergrowth, and a deer is staring back. We stand still for a second then the deer bolts. I follow the painted white arrows through the trees and wonder who took the time to paint them. Eventually I emerge out onto the road just next to my campsite, just making it before sunset.
Leaving my belongings outside in something I can’t lock feels weird, but my tent is as I left it. Two guys have pitched their tarp and bivvy bags the other side of a tree near to me, trying to hide their expensive looking bikes from view. I unpack a little more, and discover my head torch, which was the reason I didn’t rush back before dark, didn’t work. Oops. I had brought spare batteries for this, but only 2, and I discover the head torch takes 3. It still sort of works, but next time I will have 3 spare!
I walk down the road in to Watlington, and into a pub half full of locals. From the way they look at me I can tell they don’t get many ‘outsiders’, and I’m the only one all evening. I’m too early for food so get a pint (£3!), read my kindle, and let my friends know I’m still alive. The lasagna is okay, but the chips are perfect.
There is a full moon and I don’t need a torch for the walk back, instead I admire my moon-shadow. Clambering into the tent I realise it’s not yet gone 10pm, but I’m knackered so call it a night. I climb inside my sleeping bag and luxuriate in the softness and lightness of the down, and how quickly it warms me. Sleeping on the mat takes a bit of getting used to, and I slide around a bit, but it keeps me off the cold ground.
I wake a few times in the night; when a dog barks loudly and seems incredibly close but is in the neighbour’s garden, and then when it starts raining. It’s still raining when it gets light, and I bury myself further down into my sleeping bag. Finally admitting I do in fact need the toilet, and sporting the high fashion of shorts and waterproof jacket, I flip-flop my way to the wash block. The rain is, as always, lighter than what it sounds like from inside the tent.
I read my kindle and doze a bit more, delaying the inevitable of packing up a wet tent in the rain. I pack up most of my things inside the tent, then decide to try out my stove for breakfast and realise it’s almost stopped raining. I manage to not set myself or the tent on fire, and the pot of beans and sausages heats up quickly. Success.
After washing up the pot and packing everything into their drybags I unpeg the tent and push the centre pole out. I shake the tent to get the worst off, then role it up and stuff it into its sack. Shouldering my backpack, only the squashed grass tells where I was, which makes me inexplicably happy.
I wave goodbye to the site owners and the rain starts again as I head back along the Ridgeway. The rain has turned the track into a mud chute and I slip and slide about, grateful for my walking poles to aid stability. I run to get the bus as it pulls in, and sit grinning to myself. The other passengers on the bus, mostly catching up on sleep after a late night in London, are oblivious to what I’ve been up to.
My hair is messy, my feet muddy, my smile wide.