Adventures in Nature
How hard can it be for a family to live off grid for just one day? The idea for our September Microadventure had come from my children. Daisy, who enjoys foraging, wanted to know if we could live self sufficiently and Bea, who is learning about World War II at school was interested in rationing and fuel shortages. So we decided to combine the ideas and set ourselves a challenge of living without gas, electricity or shop bought food for just one day. September seemed like a good month to try it as there is plenty growing in the garden and we knew autumn’s mellow fruitfulness would help us out. However we soon realised that this could be a very frugal diet, so in the spirit of wartime resourcefulness, allowed that we could have rationed amounts of essential ingredients provided we didn’t get them from the shops. Saving up the eggs from our hens I negotiated with family and neighbours for swaps of butter, sugar, flour and milk.
There was no lie in on Sunday morning – I had to get up to light a fire and rouse the kids to help gather our food. Blackberries are plentiful and elderberries coming in too, so we could make a decent drink. The veg garden provided potatoes, onions, kale and courgettes by the bucket load. A further root around and we found some very late strawberries, autumn raspberries, a handful of peas and some very early broccoli that I hadn’t expected to be there and probably would have ignored if it hadn’t been for the challenge.
As soon as the fire was hot enough we got going with making blackberry and elderberry cordial and some raspberry pancakes. Very tasty!
Lunch almost looked like a proper meal; veg omelettes with potatoes and kale. Struggling for new ways to combine a limited set of ingredients, tea was potato and courgette fritters with more potatoes and kale. Like a wartime mum I was keen to fill them with stodge to keep hunger at bay, but Bea was still interested to know, “Whats for pudding?” Thankfully my friend Cath the forager turned up to supervise making a blackberry and apple crumble using the campfire Dutch oven method. How we came to have some illicit off-rationing cream, I couldn’t possibly comment. A neighbour called round with some very 1940’s style rosehip syrup which we discovered works well with fried apples. Without telly, screens or even a radio to brighten up a dark house we decided to stay outside chatting under a full September moon.
What did we learn from this experiment?
- That modern habits are so ingrained that, even when we knew we weren’t allowed, we automatically reached for the lights or opened the fridge. I had to put notices on each switch and spend most of the day outside, away from temptation and where we could see properly.
- That this method of living takes up most of the day. There was very little time that wasn’t looking for food, cooking food, clearing up or tending the fire. I sympathised with the generations of women before modern cookers, boilers and washing machines. They must have been exhausted.
- That we are addicted to sugar. Even though we had probably allowed ourselves far more sugar than a wartime family were rationed in a week, by lunchtime we were craving chocolate biscuits.
- We became a lot less wasteful. We cleaned our plates and had seconds. We used all the ingredients we had and there was virtually nothing to throw away apart from some peelings for the compost heap.
So can a family live off grid for just one day? Well no, sadly not ours. David sloped off to the pub to watch the football at lunchtime and Daisy made excuses about needing to do homework, and was back on her ipad by mid afternoon. I used my phone to take the pictures for the blog, but couldn’t help sneaking some time on social media while there. But Bea embraced the whole thing whole heartedly. She played with her toys and read books, picked blackberries and helped with the cooking and stayed outside chatting round the campfire until well after dark. She didn’t quite manage a full day though as I sent her in for a hot shower before bed – she, like the rest of us, reeked of campfire smoke.
I enjoyed the whole thing but if I had been told I had to do it all the next day my heart would have sunk. We are so used to food and light being there whenever we want it. Obviously this was just a day and we cheated a lot, but for millions around the world doing without electricity and enough food is a daily existence. Its made me feel very grateful for the luxury of enough light, power and food. And to give up any idea of running away to live simply in the woods. I wouldn’t last a day.
The day had not started out this way. It was the middle of the summer holidays and I had been busy running forest school sessions every day, meanwhile the demanding business of work and homelife was piling up, leaving me feeling overwhelmed. I had a rare day indoors and, with husband off work to look after the kids, I was looking forward to getting on top of the mountain of emails and reclaiming a sense of calm. However, after some initial in-roads and false starts, the broadband went off leaving me shouting at the computer and frustratingly unable to deal with any of the priority tasks on my worryingly long list.
With stress levels rising I decided the only course of action to walk away from it all, turn my back on it and find some peace elsewhere. I decided to set off for the horizon, the heather-clad moors to the west and go as far as I could before I was walking down the other side. The destination was clear, but I decided in the spirit of a spontaneous microadventure I would find my way there without a map and, where there was a choice of route, to always take the road less traveled.
Of course it was easy at first, following the well known paths from my house, with the sight of the moors easily visible a few miles in the distance. In the next village I headed down to the right, knowing that if I went left I would have the easier option of staying on a road to which would take me to the foot of the moorland paths. The right track brought me to a beck and a footpath I had never known was there. I followed the water way for a while, confident that it must be taking me in the right direction. An arrow sign pointing right indicated the path left the beck so I followed it and found myself in a series of fields with no visible way out. I wandered around for some time following every sheep track, thinking I had found the path, only to come up short next to a dry stone wall or barbed wire fence, imagining a farmer would appear at any moment and accuse me of trespassing. When I set off I had wondered how far you have to walk before you de-stress but there is nothing like getting lost to take your mind off everything else.
There was no choice but to retrace my steps back to the beck and this time ignoring the arrow sign, I carried straight on and, to my relief, a walkers’ stile appeared around the next bend. From here the path wandered over pack horse bridges, up ancient paved causeways and past hidden waterfalls I had never seen before, despite being only a few miles from home. At the top of a hill the moorland suddenly appeared, with the purple heather so bright it seemed possible to reach out and touch it. I felt the sun on my face and my spirits lift. Any issues with work felt miles away.
The horizon was in sight but still a climb away. I had to be in Bradford for a meeting that evening so upped my pace, jogging past a reservoir and pushing through bracken and rushes, soaking my feet in the process. Once in the heather the path became more apparent but uneven and dotted with deep boggy holes. I was in a steep valley, like a tear in the earth with water pouring down through the cracks. After a steep rocky scramble I reached the crest of the hill with a long sweep of view down to my right, a stunning colourful view which I tried to capture on camera. As a small dot in this huge landscape any niggling work problems now seemed unimportant in the scheme of things. Up ahead was a rocky escarpment; from there, I decided, I would have reached my destination. Hurrying on with excitement and the satisfaction that I was soon to have achieved the twin goal of reaching the horizon and walking away my stress, I felt euphoric. In this glorious state I did not see the rock in the middle of the path that tripped me up and put me on my hands and knees while my phone flew out of my hand. In slow motion I watched it sail through the air and land in heather, falling through it to a deep bog beneath, taking with it my photos, my emails and my newly restored peace of mind.
I have had time since to reflect whether I would have been better off staying at home that day. I may have got some work done and would certainly still have a working phone, but on balance I’m still glad I went. It was a truly beautiful place to be and I have been back since to get some photos. It pricked the all absorbing bubble of work and helped get things in perspective. I have not looked at that horizon in the same way since.
When the weather gets hot and the days are longer my thoughts turn to holidays – lazy days in the sunshine without a care in the world. But what makes a holiday? The Oxford English dictionary defines it as ‘an extended period of leisure and recreation, especially one spent away from home‘. There are two reasons why that’s not happening this month – I haven’t got an extended period of time off because I need to be at home/work. Get Out More runs activities all year round, but as an outdoor business inevitably more people book us in the spring & summer and the warmer months are often very busy, weekdays and weekends. After May’s four day extravaganza in Norfolk there was no way I would be able to get away for in June. So the solution was simple – a microadventure at home.
We consider ourselves lucky to live a beautiful part of the world, a small village just outside Keighley (if you don’t believe me, Google ‘Bronte Country’ and you’ll get the picture). Living on the side of a hill we have fantastic views and from the field next to our house we can see three counties; West Yorkshire, North Yorkshire and Lancashire. For future microadventures I want to start from my house and walk to each horizon, but for June the plan was to stay put and enjoy the summer solstice from home. Friends Chris and Gav came up late in the evening and we watched the sunset as we had a beer or two around a campfire. Chris’s boys and my girls made the most of the light night with dusk trampolining and playing extended hide and seek type games in the long grass of the field. We talked about the solstice and made plans to get up at dawn to see the sunrise, perhaps even join the dawn swim at Ilkley lido. When it finally got dark I created a family nest of sleeping bags and mats in the meadow and we lay down amongst the grass to go to sleep. It is hugely relaxing to fall sleep to the sound of nighttime wildlife and a gentle breeze.
In equal measure it is troubling to wake up with the drip of raindrops on your face. I pulled the sleeping bag hood tighter but could hear my eldest stirring. “Mum, how do you stop your face getting wet?” “Errm, do you want to go inside, love?” And the brilliant thing about having holidays at home is that option is always open to you. A conclusion Chris and family had already come to as I heard to field gate creek open and the sound of a car starting up. My youngest meanwhile was still fast asleep so I covered us both up with the now spare sleeping back and went back to sleep. I woke up some time before 6 the next day, having missed the solstice dawn. It was a grey, dull morning but there was still time to get to the lido for the early morning swim if I got a move on, so what did I do? Rolled over and went back to sleep of course – I was on holiday after all!
So my night in a field was brief, damp and only a few metres from my own cosy bed. But a change is as good as a rest and this small change of scene once again helped me to feel more alive and more attuned to nature around us. As to whether the dictionary would call this a holiday? Well I prefer the Cambridge English dictionary’s definition ‘a time when someone does not go to work or school but is free to do what they want‘. By that definition we can have a little bit of holiday in every day, if only we make the most of it.
You can pack a lot into a rucksack and a weekend if you put your mind to it. Our microadventures so far had all come in well under the 24 hour mark and had not left the boundaries of Yorkshire. But with a four day pass from my family duties and an arrangement to meet some old friends for a long weekend in Norfolk it looked like this microadventure could finally tip out of the nano zone.
Adrian, Dave, Gav and I have known each other since the days BC (before children) when we would fill our abundant free time with campaigning activities for Leeds Friends of the Earth. We were a pretty resourceful bunch, coming up with eye-catching media stunts to draw attention to saving the planet, and have the photos of us dressed up in various silly costumes to prove it. 20 years later and we’re spread to the four winds and have almost forgotten what free time is but keep our friendship alive in our once a year weekend reunion of fun and activity that rarely passes without incident. So far we have been narrow boating in Skipton, tobogganing in Munich, cycling in Herefordshire and surfing in Wales. Seeking further adventure we had opted for a canoeing and wild camping weekend in Norfolk.
The Bure is a quiet waterway west of the Norfolk Broads, too narrow at the top end for navigable craft. It’s reed filled channel is bordered by fields full of cows, with flint churches and cute red brick cottages peeping from behind the trees. Despite it being a sunny Saturday afternoon we barely saw another soul and did not encounter any other boats on the water, so spent the first day with just ourselves and the wildlife for company. A goose and gander out with their young goslings were alarmed to see a couple of canoes head get towards them and squawked a panicked alarm call to their young charges. The goslings dived under the boats and we held our breath until they popped out the other side and struggled to swim back upstream to their flapping parents. Mayflies struggled on the water surface, snapped up by the occasional rising fish. Herons flew noiselessly overhead and vocal cuckoos made their presence known in the woods. The pace slowed right down and we soon lulled into a gentle rhythm of paddling and admiring the quintessential English scene gliding by to either side. Long lazy lunches, awkward portages around sluices and weirs and a capsize incident (they said it couldn’t happen on the Bure but we managed it!), meant we were well into the evenings when we reached camp.
Knowing what to pack when you’ve to carry everything for sleeping, eating and keeping warm and dry takes some resourceful thinking. Gav had brought a Kelly Kettle, a self contained device for boiling water using small sticks as fuel. He was keen to test out its set of attachments which enabled us to cook porridge, scramble eggs and toast bread for breakfast. More substantial meals were eaten in the excellent local pubs. After all, resourcefulness is about making the best use of what is available and why survive on camp food when you can enjoy tucking into locally sourced crab and samphire and a pint of Suffolk’s finest?
After two full days canoeing our third night was in a woodland miles from shop or pub. At forest school we acquire all sorts of woodland skills like fire lighting and shelter building – lots of fun but not ones you need every day when we’ve got matches and ovens and houses. But out in the woods those skills became relevant and necessary. With a cracking fire going Adrian set about making a lentil and coconut curry but lamented that that his plastic spork was no good for stirring the dish over the campfire. With a supply of wood on hand and a knife in my rucksack I offered to make a spatula and set to work whittling something quickly before the curry stuck to bottom of the pan. OK, so you might argue that if you can pack a knife, you can pack a wooden spoon, but there was something satisfying about being able to fashion what we needed from the resources at hand. The only rain of the weekend came in the early hours of our last morning, dripping on our bivvy bags and in huge puddles on the tarp shelter. Collecting it in pans before it gushed down the back of our necks, provided us with water to wash up from last night’s delicious tea.
Packing up to go I realised I had used every item in my rucksack; bivvy bag, spare clothes, lightweight cooking equipment, pocket knife and cash for eating and drinking out all proved useful. But good company, ingenuity and a a sense of humour were the essential resources to pack for a microadventure to remember.