Postcard from ... the North Downs

Cycling on the North Downs

As stars emerge like pinpricks into the deep, dark blue of the night sky, I wiggle a little deeper into my sleeping bag. It’s cold, surprisingly so, and quiet too. An owl hoots in the woods nearby and far above is the silent blinking light of an aeroplane en route to Gatwick, just a few miles away. We’re up on the chalk ridge of the North Downs, some way inside the M25, London’s orbital motorway. It’s a Tuesday night, and come tomorrow morning the three of us lying in this small grove of beech trees will be back at our desks. But for now, having enjoyed a candlelit camp supper of bean stew, couscous and a bottle of red wine, the office seems a very long way away.

The idea of escaping the city for a night is not a new one. Jerome K. Jerome’s three men in a boat spent comically disastrous nights under the canvas canopy of their Thames skiff. Just after the first world war, TE Lawrence bought a plot of land in Epping Forest as a refuge from the hurly-burly of London life, eventually building himself a small log cabin. On this dry summer’s night, my log cabin is a British army issue Gore-Tex bivvy bag. It’s cheaper and considerably more portable, easily stuffed into a bicycle pannier for the hour’s ride south from central London.

In 2007, Grant Petersen, a Californian bicycle designer, decided to give a name to the overnight bicycle camping trips he and his friends took in the hills around the San Francisco bay. He christened them “sub-twenty-four-hour overnights”, or S24Os, and the idea has since spread around North America and Europe as people shared accounts of their trips on blogs and via social media. London is a big metropolis but is blessed by a precious greenbelt of open land that is perfect for S24Os. London’s canal and river towpaths are ideal bicycle escape routes and I’ve even heard tell of stealth camping in more urban open spaces such as Richmond Park in southwest London.

Alastair Humphreys, a professional adventurer who has cycled for three months through the Siberian winter, rowed across the Atlantic Ocean and walked 1,000 miles across the Arabian Desert, is an enthusiastic convert. Earning a living as a motivational speaker, Humphreys found that while his audiences were quick to share his love of adventure, they always found excuses for why they couldn’t do it themselves. The biggest problem was lack of time. This inspired him to come up with “microadventures”: short, thrilling trips that fit in around work and family commitments. “People talk about the demands of their 9-to-5 jobs, but I turn that around and encourage them to think about the possibilities of the 5 to 9, those 16 hours”.

The next most common barrier is inexperience. Having spent many childhood summer night camping in the back garden I’ve never suffered “fear of camping” but short, overnight trips have two big advantages for the camping-cautious. First, if the weather forecast is looking truly awful, it’s easy to postpone until another time. The packing list need not extend beyond a sleeping bag and a mat, a tent or a bivvy bag, a torch, something to eat and to drink, a warm hat and perhaps a book to read. If you do forget an essential piece of kit, it’s not a disaster as you’ll be back home the next day.

Finding a good place to camp requires a little more thought for the mundane reason that, except for enlightened countries like Sweden and Scotland, there is no generalised legal right to camp. Our bevvy spot on the North Downs was not strictly legal but in mitigation we had not trespassed and hadn’t even pitched a tent. In practice, laws against camping spring more from fears about large, long term encampments, not a few people on bikes laying their heads down under a tree from dusk until dawn. Even in crowded southeast England, it’s very easy to go completely undetected, even with a tent. On the rare occasion when I have encountered other people out on early morning strolls we’ve just exchanged a friendly “good morning” wave. My bicycle is a symbol of my harmlessness and also signifies my intent to move on.

At just past five the next morning we are roused by the first light of the new day. We have four hours left, time enough to get packed up, back on the bikes and find a spot for a picnic breakfast of bread and jam, fruit and a coffee on the camping stove. As we retrace the route of the previous evening we merge into the steady stream of morning commuters on their way to work. Our night away has made us feel different, relaxed and revived, like we’ve made a head start on the day.

Jack Thurston is the author of ‘Lost Lanes: 36 Glorious Bike Rides in Southern England’ (Wild Things Publishing)

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