Saturday night stargazing in Friston Forest

Picture of the trees and stars in Friston Forest

I have always loved staring at the stars. I feel a primal connection to these luminous plasma spheroids, suspended in our night sky only by a magical force known as gravity. Or lack of gravity? I’m not sure I actually know how they stay in one place and don’t just float off. Google provided a lot of information on orbiting, rotating and flying through space at high speeds which gave me motion sickness just reading about it.

Regardless of whatever the mystical force is that has kept our constellations the same for the past 3,000 years, a particularly stressful week in the office meant all I wanted to do was run away. So when Ben suggested that instead of fleeing the country, we head out to Seven Sisters Country Park for a hike under the night sky, it felt like a pretty good alternative. We packed a bag comprising mainly of snacks, coffee and photography gear before heading out towards Friston Forest.

In the daytime, Seven Sisters Country Park is usually pretty busy, especially on a sunny autumnal weekend. However, the moment the sun goes down, the forest becomes dark and foreboding and the fair weather walkers making a bee line for the nearest country pub. Personally, this is one of my favourite times to be out. It’s very hard for any part of the South East of England to feel wild in any sense of the word. So when night falls, covering all the industrial scars we’ve left across our landscape in a velvety black blanket, you could easily mistake yourself for being somewhere far more remote. 

The moon was hanging lazily low in the clear night sky when we arrived and parked up the car. After reading a bunch of articles on astrophotography, I was eager to get the tripod set up and to start taking some nighttime images of the stars. We did a quick recce of the area and selected a strong vantage point with a view of the treeline. To my immediate frustration, I realised I had left the tripod mount plate on the photography shelf at home. Reluctant to be deterred I tried to take a long exposure shot of the moon without it and I think you’ll all agree, it was abstract at best. 

a blurry hand held long exposure shot of the moon in Friston Forest.
An unfortunate attempt at capturing the moon. 

Refusing to be too frustrated, after all, we were out and it was cold, quiet and blissfully peaceful, we pressed on into the woods in search of natures tripod. With each step I could feel my body relax and my mind start clearing. The worries I had about work were replaced with a combination of existential wonderings about the world and trying to avoid twisting my ankle on a hidden tree root.

Eventually we managed to find a decent gap in the woods. Balancing the camera precariously on its case, I stared to mess around with shutter speeds and aperture settings. Whilst the light pollution and my limited skills with a camera in the dark prevented any breath taking Milky Way shots, they were still pretty good!

Stars in the night sky above friston forest
30 second f/1.4 ISO400

Now officially able to claim that I was an astrophotographer, we continued our hike. The forest was uninterrupted by humans, reclaimed entirely by animals and nature. Deer grazing, foxes hunting, stoats playing in the undergrowth, we felt like gracious guests in these creatures homes. They seemed completely unperturbed by our presence, lulling us into an ethereal place where time, pressure and the stress of daily life doesn’t exist.

When we arrived back at the car I couldn’t believe that it was gone 01:30am and we’d been out for over 6 hours. The internal tiredness that had been left by a week of office confinement and miserable commuterdom had been replaced with an electric inner calm. I felt more awake and alert than I had done in a long time. Hopefully come Monday morning, when I rejoin the thousands of other office-bound Brit’s, this energy will see me through until our next wild adventure. Or at least not immediately be stamped out on the 6:44 train to Victoria.

A weekend in Dartmoor by a wild camping novice

It’s been a long week of sitting behind a desk. Sitting on trains. Waiting patiently and not so patiently after delays and cancellations and signalling problems. I am clock watching at 16:41 on a Friday but let’s face it, who isn’t? Perched on my sofa, clad in my North Face hiking trousers and Arc’Teryx base layer, both our packs loaded in Fonzie’s boot, I’m waiting for 5 o’clock to tick over so I can stop aimlessly rearranging my PowerPoint presentation and hit the road.

I’m pretty new to wild camping. I haven’t got that many miles under my belt, but I’m really getting into it. There’s something so wonderfully primal about spending the entire day walking until your legs burn, then finding somewhere cosy to sleep for the night. Admittedly I would definitely struggle on my own, but Ben has been going for years and is quite honestly the sole reason I haven’t yet contracted dysentery or pitched the tent in the middle of a marsh.

Megan eating trail mix in Dartmoor wild camping
Clearly trail mix has always been a personal favourite 

Despite this being the hottest and driest summer of my life, we managed to pick the one weekend where it’s absolutely pissing it down. We can just about make out the car in fronts left tail light and I’m pretty sure if we don’t keep moving along this road/river, we’ll flood the engine. Thankfully it’s another 60 miles to Dartmoor, so I’m forever hopeful that this weather will change.

This will be my first expedition to the South Moors, normally we stick to the remote and tough ground in the North, skirting around the military firing range just out of Fernworthy Forest. This time, we’re heading towards Postbridge and intend to hike as much of the Two Moors Way as possible before our now traditional camp fire on the Saturday evening.

Apparently whichever rain God I was praying too on the journey up, took pity on me and the skies were crystal clear, when we carefully selected the least threatening looking lay by to leave the car in for the weekend. Boots on, packs strapped, head torch on full beam, we made our way into an unknown forest to find a decent pitch. Albeit slightly tricky in the woods at night, we still managed to find a clear patch of ground to get the tent up and oh my. Those stars. This is the reason all the great love stories, the saddest tragedies and wildest adventure novels have been written. Unfortunately for us, however, rain is forecast from 2am onwards, so reluctantly the outer goes on and we bed down for the night. 

When we wake, I am greeted by one of my all time favourite views; mist shrouded forest. As much as camping when it’s sunny and dry is lovely, nothing is more magical than fog resting lazily between tree trunks. It’s not an early start, but it’s also not a late one and today is our best shot at getting some good miles down. After a quick coffee, we’ve got the campsite packed up and are heading out to find a trail. 

Good morning mysterious and beautiful forest!

Within the first hour, we’re both soaked. Our ‘waterproof’ jackets are the best part of 5 years old and despite some valiant attempts at re-proofing, are wetting out rapidly. I knew my North Face had seen better days but as it’s still about 15-20C neither of us are too concerned about hypothermia. I did however, use it as an excuse to eat all my trail mix before lunch to ‘keep my energy up’. 

I’ll review some of the gear I’ve been using as a beginner wild camper in another post, but if this trip has taught me anything so far, it’s that being dry is being happy. Before we go on a winter trip, a new jacket, waterproof trousers and a better roll mat are very necessary. Taking refuge from the wind and rain behind a Tor, we tucked into our pasta and scrambled egg with cheese for lunch. Perhaps in hindsight it was a strange combination of rehydrated meals, but it felt Michelin star at the time. 

Due to being on a tight time budget, we decided to loop around and find a more sheltered spot in the same forest we stayed in on our first night. Offering protection from the elements and maybe, just maybe, the possibility of a camp fire. 

We made good time. An hour before sunset, we’ve got our campsite set up, a fire roaring and dinner on the go. For the last 24 hours I’ve been carrying a bottle of red wine instead of water and after 25 miles, it tastes like liquid gold. Despite the contents of my bag getting a good soaking after not securing a bottle lid properly, I’m in remarkably good spirits. Perhaps it’s the Cote du Rhône, perhaps it’s accidentally melting one of Bens socks to my fire stick, but I feel overwhelmingly satisfied. 

Our perfect little pitch between the trees

Its been a short but successful trip. Tomorrow its back to civilisation and I’ll turn from outdoor forest warrior into office job wanker again, but I’m not thinking about that as I peel my damp socks off my feet. With the sound of the rain gently beating against the tent and the red wine creeping into all four corners of my mind, I drift off feeling content, wild and free. 

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The Boring Phase

Unfortunately, most journeys have a boring bit. Getting stuck in traffic on the M25, queuing for security at the airport or in this case, saving money. We’ve decided on our extremely vague plan of buying a patch of land, in the beautiful and rugged Scottish Highlands, then building our own home on it. How are we going to do it? I have no idea. Ben has no idea. I know it’ll be expensive, but probably not as bad as getting a mortgage on a one bed flat in Brighton. 

I’ve watched enough Grand Designs in my time to know that the budget will inevitably run over, that trying to have both a full-time job and project manage the build is impossible and if you don’t get the roof on by winter you’re f*cked. But even vaguely entertaining the idea of architects drawings, searching for a plot of land or one of us quitting our jobs feels like a very distant dream. We’d be lucky to have enough saved right now to have a 10% deposit for a very cheap piece of land, let alone the 30% required for self-build projects. Not to mention stamp duty, construction costs and the question of what we’ll do for work when we get up there, but we’ll figure that out later!

We have a plan. Kinda. Well, not really at all, but we do have drive and a real want to live a better life. Even if that means less ‘stuff’, the experience will be worth it. I’m not convinced I’ll be reflecting on my iPhone X on my death bed, but I will be thinking about the view from our AirBNB living room window in Andorra. Or the moment the Swiss mountains took my breath away driving from Frankfurt to Lake Como. Still, it is pretty cool that you can actually be the smiling poo emoji isn’t it?

Sun setting over snow capped Andorran mountain town.

View from our AirBNB in Sant Julia de Loria, Andorra

Nevertheless, by this time next year, we’ll be debt free and ready to get seriously saving. Might mean for a while we forgo our road trips abroad for camping trips in the U.K. but it’ll be worth it. I’ve been to Fiji but never visited Ireland, so no time like the present to start exploring what’s on our own doorstep. So welcome to the boring phase! We’ll try and make this as interesting as possible, keep you all posted on our research and inevitable frustrations and who knows, perhaps we’ll jack it all in, buy a van and travel Europe before we even vaguely get close to our goal. Whatever. It’ll be fun.