A microadventure in subzero temperatures, with a thin sleeping bag? KILL ME NOW.
“Your glove is on fire, Mike.”
I snatch my hand back. Evil-smelling smoke wisps from one finger, where the waterproof surface of my Sealskinz glove has bubbled and dripped. I’m sad (I’ve had these gloves since Hadrian’s Wall) but also I’m annoyed. A few seconds longer and it would have burned right through – and then my finger would have been warm. Via a nasty burn, yes, but it’d be a warm nasty burn.
But I haven’t felt my feet for a couple of hours now.
No, that’s just ridiculous. Of course I can feel my feet. They’re those frozen leaden masses at the end of my legs that constantly prickle with agony. They’re those things that hurt so much.
Oh come on, man. Al’s taking all this on the chin, and I should too. Time to stop whining and making up melodramatic metaphors inside my head – but I can’t help it. I feel like I’ve bitten off too much with this one. I’m not designed for all this.
Feeling a bit sorry for myself, I go in search of more fuel.
There are many different types of self-inflicted misery. Some of them are fun.
No, really! When you know the misery will soon be over, you can savour it, wallow in it, because very soon its absence will be so delicious it’ll reduce you to tears. Brief, soon-to-be-relieved misery is fascinating. Woohoo! I feel horrible! Amaaaazing!
Or there’s the kind of misery where you’re pushing through it to achieve something important. Forget the macho-BS nonsense side of seeking out massive discomfort for bragging rights. Those people are idiots. No, it’s not about using suffering to prove you’re more awesome than everyone else. The suffering is just the thing in the way, and since there’s no way round it, you have to go through it – and you do it because you have faith in the value of what’s on the other side.
This is what drives good adventurers forward – not the masochistic self-importance, but the moments of revelation, of proving something wasn’t impossible by doing it, and suddenly understanding how little you knew about yourself and the world until you came out into blessed daylight again.
(I’d like to feel like that too. I guess that’s why I’m here. Although I’m officially blaming this guy – who isn’t the Al who was intrepid/stupid enough to accompany me up here.)
Right now, I’m feeling a different kind of misery. Within the next hour, we’ll stop feeding twigs into Al’s cheerfully flickering CORE woodburning stove, and the darkness will press in on us and suddenly we’ll feel like where we actually are – which is in a frozen wood at the edge of the Moors, a thousand feet above sea-level, with ankle-deep snow on the ground and a fierceness of cold that feels like it’s chewing my toes off.
And then, of course, we’ll lay down in the snow and try to sleep.
Because, what else would we do?! It’s obvious! Who in their right mind wouldn’t lay in the snow all night???
….ok ok, oh god, get a grip, Mike.
Get it together. Keep the fire going.
Around us, Clain Wood is utterly still, ranks of trees stretching away into the darkness.
If you’re a first-time visitor, it’s easy to assume England is crowded. You’d probably arrive via London. Maybe you stayed there. It’s easily done. By car, London never seems to end – it just thins, the urban crush diluting into towns and villages. And then there’s Birmingham, Leeds, Southampton, Manchester, Liverpool, Hull. Move around using the main transport arteries, and England feels tightly stitched with cities, a solid mass of bricks and concrete. England? Ugh, no thanks. I’d rather go somewhere with countryside.
And then you get talking to someone in the pub, and you say all these things to them, and then they burst out laughing, right in your face – because they know that England’s built-up landscape is less than 3% of the total. They know that 97% of England is enormously outside.
And, well, they might keep laughing for a while.
That’s okay – you probably deserve it.
Around 70% of the world’s heather moorland is in the UK – and the North York Moors (which includes Whorlton Moor, above) is a prime example. It’s big and damn near empty, and in the wrong conditions, more than a little terrifying.
It seems primal, a place untouched by humans, and a dangerous place for people to linger.
And here’s where everything flips on its head. Yes, England is overwhelmingly non-urban – but a huge amount of that countryside is made. Take ancient woodland – that is, woods that have existed since the year 1600. These cover just 2% of the UK, and while the amount of woodland in general is increasing (250% up from a century ago), ancient woodland is being steadily hacked away.
And if you go back 4,000 years, you’d find Bronze Age farmers doing exactly the same thing with the forest previously covering the North York Moors.
That’s often what moors are. When people chopped the trees down, they left a landscape incapable of supporting anything but low heathland vegetation. It may all be deeply, unnervingly outside, and it may be rough on you if you’re trying to spend a January evening here – but this place was still made by people creating one of the world’s earliest ecological disasters
(This time, they got lucky. It’s still beautiful.)
Right now, Clain Wood may feel as welcoming as a morgue – but looks are deceptive. This is still a landscape for living, breathing people.
On the metal bench we’re using to prop up the stove, there’s a row of tiny plastic figures. When we arrived, it gave us a funny turn. For a brief second, because we’ve both watched a lot of horror films, we suspect that in the morning there’d be two new tiny figures sitting up there (one bespectacled, one magnificently bearded), both wearing expressions of frozen horror…
But that air of menace disappears when we find the story.
It consists of 6 multicoloured pages of handwritten lettering – and it tells a weird, rambly yarn, a children’s story, about where we are. It ignores what’s on official maps. Ordnance Survey says we are in Clain Wood, somewhere near Limekiln Bank – but this story transforms our surroundings into “echo echo Echo Wood“. (Not so aptly named in this sound-murdering snow.)
Other places have other names, all of them sounding like they belong in a Narnia or Harry Potter novel: imaginative, descriptive, somewhat daft, and very English,
We have no idea who made this story. We have no idea how to find out. And in a way, it doesn’t matter – because the story belongs to this place now, reworking this landscape in the imagination of anyone reading, and in doing so, becoming a strange new part of it – which is clearly what the writer intended. A story, released into the wild, making a home for itself.
I like this idea. I like it a lot. And so on other microadventures this year, I’m doing something similar – seeding places with little waterproofed tales. (I’ll have to work out how to do that, since the echo echo Echo Wood story was laminated in a machine, and I ain’t carrying one of THOSE around). I’ll brew up a little anonymous yarn that captures something about the place, and then I’ll leave it, to baffle the next person that comes along, and make them realise that they’re wandering through the landscape of someone else’s imagination.
I’ll skip the tiny, tiny figures, though. They’re a bit creepy.
Suddenly it’s 11pm, freezing fog is building, the stove is out, our teeth are chattering…and it’s time to lay in the snow. Okay. Let’s do this.
Ah. What luxury.
I’m not going to lie to you. The following eight hours were fairly horrible. Around 2am I developed a skull-splitting headache. And my sleeping bag wasn’t quite insulated enough to keep me warm when the air was below freezing. All good lessons learned.
As I lay there, shivering uncontrollably with my head pounding away, I thought to myself, “I bet I’m learning some good lessons here, whatever the fuck they are. Great job, Mike.”
The next morning, after dressing and packing in record time (it’s amazing how motivating cold can be) we stamp our way back over the hill and down to the car-park again, and into Al’s landrover, which starts up with a rush of warm air across our knees – and that’s when I understand I’d learned a really important lesson over the last 24 hours, a lesson about travel, but also about life itself:
Sometimes it’s better to arrive, and then warm your feet. Stuff the journey.