In a world where amazing people are out running whole countries, cycling continents, rowing oceans and skydiving from space, it’s difficult to know at what point what you’re doing no longer counts as an adventure. Is it when it feels easy? When you don’t get soaked, cold, or injured? When you only have to take a small day pack? Maybe it’s when you can easily walk back to your car? This weekend ticked all of those boxes, but I’m still going to count it as an adventure in the bag.
I was sitting at my desk, one weekday afternoon, when Phil sent me a text: “Where do you want to sleep this weekend?” An excellent question. Inside is, after all, boring, and the UK was our oyster. I launched into full adventure planning mode. Maybe we would spend a night in the Lakes, taking in the views I had read about in Trail Magazine. How about a night in the middle of Dartmoor followed by a roast from Gloucester Services on the way home? To my suggestions, he replied: “I was thinking somewhere closer to home”. I felt like he had poured a bucket of cold water over the whirlwind of my Brilliant Ideas. Closer to home was more difficult. We live in the middle of the Midlands. At most, we are only 3-4 hours away from some of the coolest adventure locations in England and Wales; on our doorstep, however, the pickings are slimmer. There are no towering summits and no national parks. There aren’t, to my knowledge, any guidebooks on wild adventures in Leicestershire. I stared at online maps of the local area and despaired. How was I going to find somewhere bonkers to sleep around here?
There was only one person I could go to for advice: my grandpa, benefactor of my favourite Gore Tex bivvy bag and general source of adventure inspiration. Grandpa has been basically everywhere, remembers every route, and has maps of all places (plus, usually, a spare, which he is often happy to gift to whichever map-deprived adventurer is at hand). He pointed me to a site near Cleeve Hill in the Cotswolds. It was nothing high, nothing technical; no Wainwrights or Munros to be bagged. There was not even a trig point. The point of interest was an unassuming English Heritage site off the Cotswold Way, and an excellent pub was promised nearby.
It was settled. Phil and I headed out there with the bare minimum of gear in the car: sleeping bag and bivvy setup; water; tea bags; stove. We didn’t leave home until gone 5pm (the golden rule of wild camping is ‘arrive late, leave early’), so there was plenty of time to get the necessary weekend ‘adulting’ out of the way first. The light was beginning to drop as we reached the lay-by where I intended to leave the car. A little rain was coming down and a rainbow arched over the town below in the valley.
We swapped our trainers for sturdier boots at the car and headed up the hill to check out our camp spot in the last of the daylight. Breaking out from under the cover of the trees, we crossed the dry stone wall that forms a tight wall around Belas Knap.
Belas Knap is a Neolithic long barrow from around 3000 BC. It sits facing north-south on a hill overlooking the town of Winchcombe. The barrow was eerie in the dusk, with its spirit door and sealed chambers. It was fun to explore, but I rather lost my taste for sleeping there when I read the ‘helpful’ information board.
It was getting on for time to hit the pub as we walked along the tree line back towards the main footpath. As we retraced our steps, a vista opened up over Winchcombe from the south side of the hill. This spot would do nicely, and was an improvement on sharing bedspace with Neolithic women who had been clubbed to death: we had a view for the night, and were at just the right angle for a sunrise in the morning. We could tuck ourselves away from the main path, in the grasses at the top of the hill.
As night fell, we followed the Cotswold Way down the hill to Winchcombe, and to the pub. There was only a couple of hundred metres of descent at most, but we dropped down into a different world. At the top, we were steeped in history. A bat tracked us along the footpath, circling us and following the start of our walk down. Two miles later, as we passed terraced cottages with colourful front doors, we heard a growing bass beat and a crowd of voices. In the middle of the old Cotswold town there was a festival with a fairground. We weaved through the candyfloss stands and flashing lights, and finally found the promised pub.
The White Hart was crowded but they kindly squeezed us in. No reheated Stag chilli for us tonight; we settled down to huge hot dinners of pork and beef, and a pint each of local ale. It was gone 10pm by the time we made our way back uphill. The path was long and slow on a full stomach, but the October air was mild. We stopped off at the car in the lay-by to grab our rucksacks with our bivvies and our tea for the morning inside.
We climbed to our viewpoint at the top. Three hundred metres up, the town between the hills glittered quietly. It may not have been a big summit or the end of an epic trek, but what a place to sleep. Why anyone would ever want to sleep indoors was, at that moment, beyond me. Phil and I moved off the footpath and found the two flattest bits of grass we could. We wriggled into our down sleeping bags and bivvies. A warm breeze blew across the exposed parts of my face. I spent the night alternating between long stretches of sleep and poking my head out to watch the stars when the warmth in my sleeping bag woke me up.
We were totally undisturbed until around 7am when a golden pink sunrise eased me fully awake. I jabbed Phil awake to watch the sun come up, too. We made teas on our little stove while still sitting in our sleeping bags, and then packed up and headed down when we saw the first dog walker of the morning. It was only a short trip back downhill to the car. We changed out of yesterday’s clothes there, and then drove into Cheltenham to get some breakfast. I felt well-rested and well-fed. Surely adventures can’t be this extravagant?
As I sat in the restaurant and ate my eggs benedict with extra bacon, I decided: there was no better way to do Sunday. This was the best. I finished my coffee and came to my conclusion. This had been an adventure, and it had been great. Really great.