Friends, I have camped.
I have camped for the following reasons, and very much against my own better judgment:
- It was the only thing I could remotely afford.
- See above.
Okay, so that’s not the entire list, but that’s pretty close to it. It was also glamping – in a big safari tent at Sandaway Resort near Combe Martin – and therefore there was a fridge, a sofa and a proper bed. I considered all these things to be a positive step towards being more like a hotel room.
Nevertheless, I arrive at the tent feeling, well, gutted that I’m sleeping in a tent on my birthday. We drive in past ranks of caravans and a pool with ducks swimming in it, and then turn the corner to encounter the most arresting view of my journey so far. The tent is perched on the edge of a field that overlooks a craggy cove that is not even on the coast path. We sit on the deck and drink gin and tonics (in real glasses and with ice from the camp store), and I think I might finally ‘get’ camping.
Wind forward a few hours, and I am already sick of tramping back and forth to the toilet block every time nature calls; and a few hours more, when Bert has insisted on sharing a single bed with me rather than sleeping on his camp-mat on the floor; and a few hours after that, when I foolishly attempt a shower that involves holding in a push-button to maintain water flow, while washing one-handed, and all the time keeping an eye on the spider crouched in the corner, just where the VINE is growing through the skylight (seriously: wouldn’t it be a good idea to brief cleaning staff to remove anything with more than two legs as, you know, part of the cleaning process?) – none of these things filled me with a love of canvas. But, just for an hour, I got the notion that I could learn to love the Great Outdoors.
The next morning, H drives me and my friend Beccy back to Lynmouth so that we can walk the 14 miles back to camp. Beccy is a the most ruggedly outdoorsy person I know, and I am slightly fearful that I am going to embarrass myself – somehow, not sure how – today. When we arrive at the coast path, however, it is she who suggests we just take the funicular railway up the first bit, to avoid the climb. I decline, smugly claiming that it would set a bad precedent, at this stage in the game, to start skipping the tough bits.
After 15 minutes of agonising, heart-pumping walking up a never-ending series of slopes and steps, I come to regret my smuggery. Soon, though, we find ourselves walking along the Valley of Rocks (which I insist on calling the Valley of the Shadow of Death), and the whole thing becomes very pleasant. The sun is out, there’s a slight September chill in the air, and we’re following a level path through craggy Exmoor scenery. By lunchtime, we have pretty much put the whole world to rights, enlightened each other on the subjects of the Victorian sublime and the phenomenology of Aboriginal song lines (don’t worry), and have made such good progress that we divert to the Hunter’s Inn at Trentishoe for lunch. We are rather pleased with ourselves.
We study the map, and Beccy points out that I should calculate my walking time at 20 minutes per mile, plus five minutes per contour line I cross (whether up or down) next time. Armed with this expertise, I run my finger along the path, and declare that it’s all pretty much flat from hereon in, with maybe a little slopey bit towards the end. We should be back in a couple of hours. Well. It appears that the formula only works if you actually pay attention to what’s on the map. After an hour’s walking, we come to Holdstone Down, a boggy patch of scrubland, that dips alarmingly down towards sea-level. ‘That can’t be the path,’ says Beccy, and we stare at the map until we have to admit that it is, indeed, the only way onwards. The ensuing descent is slow, slippery and surprisingly painful in the knees. There’s something deeply unsatisfying about these descents: you feel no sense of achievement at the bottom (after all, gravity would have done a better job than your legs managed) and your only reward is a steep climb afterwards.
We undertake the climb up Girt Down (yes, really) in entirely bad humour, hauling ourselves upwards with the help of affirmations such as, ‘Fuck off, you bastard, wanking fucking hill.’ I have to stop halfway up because I’m beginning to see spots before my eyes; and then stop again three-quarters of the way up. When we reach the top, we realise it’s just a plateau before another hill begins, and that this point I insist on laying down on the grass for a while.
‘Don’t worry,’ says Beccy, ‘this is all building up your fitness,’ and I tell her to fuck off in the most affectionate way I can muster. At the top of this mound is a Great Hangman Cairn, a pile of stones that perfectly expresses my desire for the sweet release of death. We add our respective stones to the pile, and then begin the slow descent into Combe Martin, our tired legs making the last mile seem to stretch for hours.
Still. 14 miles done. Another 10 planned tomorrow. Not a bad day’s work.