Outdoor Girl

 

Watership Down 58 miles from London
Findhorn 600 miles from London

I was born and raised in the suburbs of London.  It was Surrey then and is South West London now, less than a dozen miles from the city centre.  We lived on a busy main road in Park Villas, salubriously titled in honour of the local authority recreation ground which our long skinny garden backed on to, and which we called ‘the rec’.

As kids we spent hours in the rec, playing in the playground, kicking a ball about, playing mini golf or messing about with a racket and variously annoying the park keeper. If we weren’t in the rec, we were in the garden, playing with the animals, in the Wendy house, on the swing, or when we were older, doing a bit of pretend gardening.

Most of my childhood memories are outdoors: we’d cycled to Richmond Park as a family, and when I was older I cycled there with friends. We got 2 buses to the outdoor pool in Richmond in the summer, completely unsupervised. We played pitch and putt on summer evenings and went to the coast – Angmering-on-Sea, Littlehampton, Bournemouth – on summer weekends. We picked blackberries in the late summer and early autumn. We walked, cycled and swam in the open. Sitting indoors was reserved for winter and really wet days.  TV was an evening only activity, and restricted at that.

So, a city girl living in the far north of Scotland is more at home than you might think. I enjoy being close to nature and the seasons.  Living on a farm means time passes by the things that happen outside: ploughing, planting, lambing, hay-making, harvesting; passing the year through nature’s rhythms.

Life is less frenetic here.  It’s easier to take time to walk, to chat to people.  A lot of children walk to school, and get the opportunity to play outside, although I suspect far less than did a few decades ago.  Nowhere, however remote, is immune from the spread of technology in day-to-day life: the phones, games, pads, music, laptops and Macs.  The gadgets that keep kids, and adults too, locked indoors in bedrooms and lounges across the country.  Electro tech’ that’s deemed so vital, yet keeps a generation of children from accessing what really is vital – a connection to nature; enjoying the great outdoors.

We can’t go back in time to those halcyon days, which we remember as more idyllic than they probably were, but we can teach our children and grandchildren that there is joy to be found in fresh air and countryside by encouraging them to engage in outdoor activity from an early age. Being stuck indoors with a piece of tech should be the less interesting option.  I’m not demonising technology, simply suggesting that children need to reconnect to with the natural world.  We need a generation of caretakers for the earth, and sitting inside watching nature programmes is less likely to spawn one than being outside connecting with nature.

My life-long love of the natural world was kindled by being outdoors, by bringing all sorts of creatures home – rabbits, birds, tortoise, cats, fish, crabs – strays of all descriptions.  My tolerant parents encouraged me to be outside if I was moping about and that always energised me in ways I didn’t understand.  This still holds true today.  A brisk walk, a stroll along the beach, a short run, they all blow the metaphorical cobwebs away and re-charge us in inexplicable ways.

I’m lucky to have arguably the greatest outdoor destination in the country on my doorstep, but whether you’re in the city or another part of the country you’re never far from somewhere outdoors where you can rejuvenate your spirit.  Make being outside a part of your week and I promise you’ll feel better.

A week ‘Out There’

Most of us, at some time or another like to get ‘away from it all’, and a holiday is the ideal opportunity to do just that.  In this age of connectivity, Wi-Fi and 3G, very few of us actually manage a real break from our inter-connected, online, 24/7 lives.  There are probably few places in the UK outside the reach of technology, but in the far North West of Scotland there are still places where you can’t get a mobile phone signal, never mind the internet, so those who get the jitters when they can’t check their Twitter or Facebook accounts regularly, beware!

I have just returned from a delightful week wild camping in one of the few places in the UK where wilderness really does still exist.  Now I am the first to admit that the idea of being under canvas and digging holes in the woods for shitting in, in wild and wet September, is not my idea of fun.  So, yes I was in a motorhome, sheltered from the vagaries of the UK weather, with chemical loo and cooking facilities, but make no mistake, if you chose to eschew the facilities of caravan and camping sites, you are very much out there on your own.

Scotland has an enlightened view of land use, and actively encourages people to get out there and explore.  The Land reform Act (2003) which came into effect in February 2005 establishes a statutory right to camp in the wild, repealing a section in the Trespass Act of 1865 which contained the offence of ‘camping on land without the owner’s consent’.  We can argue about the impact of tourism on wild places, erosion, and the louts who ‘take more than photographs and leave more than footprints’, but that is for another day.  Most people who wild camp do so responsibly and follow the best practice guidance which is issued with the act, and most of which is common sense.  Michael Surman, owner operator at ‘Outthere Campers’, where we hired the van from, actively encourages people to get out and explore the Scottish Highlands, which he believes is every bit as dramatic as his native South Africa.  Certainly taking a van out and camping off-line is the ideal way to experience some of the Highland’s wild places and wildlife.  On this trip I saw my first sea otter, and spotted a golden eagle, which looked like a jet on the horizon; I took a ferry to the most north westerly point on the British mainland and walked over a 25m swing bridge suspended high above a box-canyon cut by ancient melt-water .  I’m not fit enough to climb mountains or fearless enough to raft white water, but if that’s your thing, the highlands are the place to do it.  In this fast-paced techno world we so often have our backs to nature, tuned out of natural sounds, sights and smells.  Getting back to nature may not be achievable, or even desirable for most people, but a few weeks a year with an absence of electrical interference and 24/7 communications is surprisingly refreshing.

John Muir the pioneering, influential Scots-born American conservationist who was passionate about the wild, said that ‘one day’s exposure to mountains is better than a cartload of books’ and whilst as an avid bibliophile and bookworm, I may not 100% agree with the statement, I certainly agree with the sentiment.  There is something about exposure to raw nature that is exhilarating and life-affirming.  Nature isn’t necessarily all that peaceful and tranquil: a river in spate, or a waterfall after a storm is a noisy affair, and trying to sleep when the wind is howling and the rain is pelting in sheets across the landscape you’re inhabiting is not necessarily relaxing, but it can be.  There is a soothing hypnotic quality to rushing water, like white noise, that you can chill out to or engage with.  Sunshine is great, and always welcome, but there is something magnificent about the power of a storm or an angry sea.

Living in a campervan or motor home for a week may cosset you against the worse of the elements, but if you take the opportunity to live ‘off-grid’ and camp wild, you do become aware of the resources you use on a daily basis, as well as how little ‘stuff’ you actually need.  Water may come out of the tap, but the supply is limited by the capacity of the on-board tank; the electricity is not on mains, and won’t power a plethora or electrical gadgetry indefinitely; heating and cooking are via gas, which again is limited by the size of canister.  You can see how much packaging is on the things you buy, and how much waste you generate; grey water has to be disposed of, and there’s no putting sanitary or food items down the plug hole – they will not magically disappear! Tesco, thank goodness, is not on every corner, and if you run out of something you are unlikely to be able to pop out and get it! It’s a good life-lesson if you take it away with you -the earth’s resources are limited, however we chose to live.

Getting out there and wild camping for a week or two is not primarily for didactic purposes, but enjoyment and refreshment, anything else is a by-product of the experience.  You may not have to hunt down supper and cook it over a camp fire, but you will have to find somewhere suitable to camp that doesn’t see your wheels sink in mud, or down a drainage ditch; you will soon learn to work out which way is the prevailing wind direction, and how tall your vehicle is.  You may not need the survival skills of Ray Mears, but if things go wrong you may need your wits about you, as a mobile phone signal cannot be relied upon, and practical decision making may save the day.  There are areas in northern Scotland that are uninhabited, where few man- made structures exist and only the deer, wildcats, pine martins and eagles roam.  Scottish wilderness may be readily accessible by motor vehicle, boat or foot, but it is still wilderness, to be treasured, preserved and enjoyed.  So what are you waiting for?  Get out there!