Adventure. It’s a great word, one that makes me think back to my childhood and the shenanigans of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five and the children in Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons.
Going on an overnighter with the bike, doesn’t sound all that exciting. But thanks to Alastair Humphreys, who coined the term ‘Microadventure’, even a trip such as an overnighter with the bike qualifies as an adventure, as long as you spend the night outside.
On the night of July 31st 2015, myself and Dan rocked up to the Shoe Inn in Exton. He asked me if he should order two pints of lager and a packet of crisps.
‘Half pints will do,’ I said. ‘and maybe we could stretch to a bag of crisps each.’
A couple, dressed in motorbike leathers asked how far we’d come.
‘About twenty miles,’ said Dan.
I went inside to wash my hands and face with hot water and soap. Consider that my preparations for dinner. The clock read 20.30.
‘Are you riding back home again tonight?’ the female pillion rider asked.
‘No,’ I whispered. ‘We’re sleeping out on Beacon Hill.’
She sounded really envious and asked her partner if they could do that some time. He asked what type of bivvy bags we had, because his was an old beat up army one that left him soaked in condensation.
‘We use the Alpkit Hunka.’
Earlier, sometime around 17.30, Dan and I had set off from home with a belly full of fried potatoes and eggs (from our allotment) on our bikes. We rode down to the River Hamble, full to bursting with yachts, and then crossed the bridge at Swanwick where boat space is so tight they stack them on racks, like a multi storey car park, at the water’s edge.
Then it was onwards to Whiteley Woods where we stopped for a rest. It’s only seven miles from home, just under 10 km, but I felt a bit unfit. It had been three weeks since I was last out for a decent spin, and that was a lazy downhill in Italy, so doesn’t count for much.
Next, we rolled into Wickham and the start of the Meon Valley cycle trail. No longer muddy or rutted, the disused railway has been resurfaced with a fine gravel. I preferred the old surface, though I suppose it will be more rideable in winter. With constant crunching ringing in my ears, I needed a break from the noise and a nibble too, just like the squirrel that hurled empty shells at us. After the snack and a wee, we moved on.
That Friday evening was glorious. Shafts of evening sunlight streamed through the trees though the air was chilly in the shadows. We had the trail to ourselves and saw no one until we arrived at the pub.
After we’d finished our beer, we pedalled up the road along the South Downs Way and pushed up the steep path to the top of Beacon Hill. I wore two extra layers. By the time we reached our bivvy spot, the sun was already melting into the horizon. We took a few moments to take in the view – The Isle of Wight straight ahead in the far distance, sunset to our right and a full moon on our left. This was the second full moon of the month and therefore a Blue Moon. The last time this happened was in 2012, three years ago. The moon was in fact, yellow.
A bat flew overhead. An owl hooted in the distance. A scene straight out of a black and white Dracula movie. Thankfully we met no vampires. Dan fired up the meth stove and I prepared the sleeping mats and sleeping bags. I dressed for dinner, removing my shorts and replacing them with purple merino wool long johns. We shared a can of beer while waiting for the water to boil for our evening meal.
‘It’s hard to beat a curry and a few beers on a Friday night,’ said Dan.
‘Yeah, and I’m one cheap date,’ I said.
We wolfed down the chick pea and biryani mixture before it got cold, then climbed into our sleeping bags to stare at the stars. I was as warm as toast by then. The moon cast long shadows and was bright enough to read a book, if I’d brought a book.
‘Did you hear that?’ said Dan.
I would have heard it even if I was deaf. Twit-twoo. So close, the owl could have been at the end of our sleeping bags. The night air caressed the skin of my face, stars twinkled overhead, the constellation of Orion, a reminder of many a night I’d spent on solo watches, sailing across the Atlantic Ocean.
Two cyclists rode past not long after I woke. They bid us good morning as we drank tea.
I dressed, ate porridge and packed. We continued our journey along the South Downs Way and met several blokes on bikes riding in the opposite direction. At one point, I was riding uphill and three men were zooming down, all cheery and full of energy. One by one they whizzed by.
‘Morning.’ ‘Morning.’ ‘Morning.’
They were gone by the time I’d wheezed out, ‘Hi… ya.’
On and on we rode, through acres of ripening wheat and freshly cut oats. Clumps of misty blue cornflowers swayed gently in the breeze and poppies peeked out above long meadow grasses.
We rolled onto the Matterly Estate where preparations were underway for BoomTown Fair. I asked a man in a high-vis waistcoat what kind of festival this was. He answered: ‘I’ve no idea. I’m just medical support.’ On the other side of the temporary town, a notice warned of impending detours later in the month.
We turned off the South Downs Way onto the Kings Way to enjoy almost two miles of downhill that felt like riding down steps made from roots and was followed by a section of singletrack. Being slow has its advantages, I found a cool treehouse.
And just before second breakfast at Josie’s in Bishop’s Waltham – bacon sandwich for me, poached eggs with avocado salsa for the man, I stumbled upon a discarded pair of boxer shorts. This must be a thing in the south of England. Remember the time I was cycling along The Solent Way and came across a pair of ladies’ knickers!
I dragged Dan to see the ruins of Bishop’s Waltham Palace, Bishop Henry de Blois’ 1136AD building project. Cromwell’s army destroyed the Palace in 1645 and it is rumoured that the Bishop escaped capture by hiding under a cart of manure!
Shortly after leaving the village, I lost sight of Dan. I was on the road and concentrating on traffic rather than where I needed to turn. I had a feeling I missed it, so stopped to look around for a glimpse of him. He came up behind me and told me I’d ridden past him as he waited at the junction but we could continue. The GPS had found another route so we could check out a new path. However, that’s what it was, a footpath, where cycling is not allowed. Nevertheless, we continued and came to a kissing gate angled onto a bridge made from a few planks. I hadn’t realised how tired I was until I tried lifting the bike over the hurdle. By the time I reached the third stile, I wished I’d done a u-turn.
Back on the road with its artificial noises, chemical smells and dangerous traffic, I felt a deep appreciation of our night in the wild. By the time we got home, it was lunchtime. We ate, showered, then strolled over to our allotment to listen to the sounds of nature and gather food for dinner.
We have to wait until the 31st January 2018 for the next Blue Moon bivvy, but we can have many adventures before then, especially microadventures.
If you fancy a wild night out, here’s my guide to wildcamping for the first timer.
And the route we took can be found here.