“Steph, we’re going to miss it.”
I opened my eyes and pushed my sleeping bag off my face. The car was bathed in soft light and, through the windows of the backseat where we had slept, I could see the pale sky emerging from behind shadowy dunes. We wriggled out of our sleeping bags, leapt into the front seats, and drove around the winding road to the exposed seafront so we could watch the sun rise.
It was the morning of the Spring Equinox and Phil and I were in Southwold, Suffolk. Chosen because it’s very far east and one of my favourite gins is distilled there, we were going to send winter off in style by chasing the sun across the country and watching it set over the sea in the west, on the Pembrokeshire coast. We are fortunate to have a very accessible country, and Google reckons you can make that drive comfortably in under seven hours. With twelve hours of daylight on the Spring Equinox, that seemed pretty doable. Because I am difficult, though, I had a couple of provisos: the first was that I flatly refused to use any motorways. The only way I can enjoy a motorway is if I’m guaranteed a trip to Gloucester Services* and, since I wasn’t, it just wasn’t worth the hassle. I spend two hours commuting along the M40 every day, so there was no way I was going to spend my day off on another stretch of anonymous motorway. The second proviso was that we couldn’t cut straight across the middle of the country. Phil and I live in the middle of the Midlands and, rather than driving straight past our front door, I wanted to explore somewhere new.
Unfortunately for me and my visions of roaming hitherto undiscovered British gems, it turned out that the only sensible way out of Suffolk was along the A14. I wanted to swing up to Thetford to drive past Two Mile Bottom Scout Campsite and relive the first ever Explorer Scout camp I organised, nine years ago, but a road closure and diversion pushed us straight back down on to the delights of the busy morning dual carriageway. We were nose to tail all the way around Cambridge and it felt like it took days to get to Milton Keynes. So far, the most exciting thing we had discovered was that the stories about there being a lot of roundabouts there really were true. We had managed to listen to the radio breakfast shows for long enough to get completely bored of them all and, just as we admitted to ourselves that we were actually finding Radio 4 quite interesting, it clouded over and began to rain. I pulled into a busy McDonald’s to get a coffee and swap the driving with Phil.
Thank goodness for Oxfordshire and the Cotswolds. We ran out of both A-roads and rain clouds just after Buckingham and, winding through little villages, we swapped petrol stations and Little Chefs for wonky stone cafes and viewpoints. We stopped in laybys to stare across the sunny countryside and passed signs for villages with excellent names like ‘Oddington’, ‘Toddington’, and ‘Boddington’.
When we reached the border with Wales, we’d spent a bit too much time exploring and not enough time covering miles. The sun was now directly in front of us and was sinking fast. By the time we passed the sign welcoming us to St David’s, the sky was striped with gold. Nine hours and 52 minutes after we set off from Southwold, Phil and I stepped on to the beach at St David’s Head. The sun was just above the horizon. We had made it in time. We made a cup of coffee on our little stove and skimmed stones while the sun dipped below the waves.
After dinner at the pub just up the road, we returned to the beach. We got out of the car by the now dark shoreline. Our heads snapped up to the sky and, for a few minutes, we stood without talking. The wispy clouds from earlier in the day had been blown away and exposed the winking stars which were left behind.
The coastal path led into open access land further along the cliffs, so we followed the footpath until it widened out into a good place to camp. We pitched my tent on tufty grass and lay in the porch for a while, staring up at the constellations: it was difficult to pick them out when they were surrounded by so many more stars than usual. I started to nod off to the sound of the waves. It had been a long day and, although we hadn’t climbed any mountains or ticked off any Wainwrights, we had got to know the country we live in a little better. I had a mental list of villages to go back to for a proper visit and I now know that St David’s in the smallest city in the UK so, if that ever comes up on a pub quiz, I’m sorted. The Spring Equinox was over. Winter and ‘The Beast from the East’ were officially gone, the days were lengthening, and the temperature was rising. Spring was finally here and we all know what that means: peak adventure time is on the way.
*Gloucester Services isn’t your standard Welcome Break. It’s a farm shop with a butcher and a cheese counter, and I had a glorious roast there on the way back from a camp in Bristol once. I can heartily recommend stopping if you find yourself going past.