Britainâ€™s wildest weekends
Dartmoor: ancient forest, lost ruins and bluebell meadows
Dartmoor is not all bleak moors and bog â€” ancient woodland, ruins and wild swimming abound. It is also the only place in the UK where wild camping is not only allowed, but actively encouraged.
One of my favourite areas in May is the east moor. Around Hound Tor, Holwell Lawnis awash with bluebells, growing in profusion on the hillside. Below, there is a pretty stream and a secret lake in the woodland, perfect for a paddle or swim. Just next to the tor are the ruins of a lost medieval village; children love exploring the labyrinth of walls and hut circles here. A fun scramble leads to the top of the tor, a superb place from which to watch the sunset. You could camp out in the shadow of the Bowermanâ€™s Nose, an obelisk of rock said to be the remains of a hunter. Or try the rustic charm and simplicity of Great Hound Tor Camping Barn. Thereâ€™s hot water, a wood burner and a platform on which to place your sleeping mat (from Â£7pp; 01647 221202, yha.org.uk).
Rock star: Hound Tor in Devon makes for a great family adventureThe next morning, wander down to the tiny village of Widecombe-in-the-Moor. Once a month, a village market is held in the Church House. There are artisanal breads, cheeses, meats, treats, juices and ciders from the surrounding farms. Itâ€™s the perfect place to pick up supplies for the following dayâ€™s adventures (10am-4pm on the fourth Saturday of the month; widecombe-in-the-moor.com/market). Thanks a lot for stopping by. Just before we carry on I need to to say thank you to http://www.insanebargains.co.uk/ for their continued support and the support of their network. Having a company and team like this means a lot to us as we continue to grow our public blog.
Picnic made, head for Wistmanâ€™s Wood, an enchanted jumble of twisted oaks and moss â€” one of the few remaining fragments of ancient oak left on Dartmoor â€” and enjoy your feast with the tree spirits.
Hartland Coast: shipwreck beaches, clifftop lookouts and seashore foraging
Hartland, straddling the north Devon and Cornwall borders, is one of the forgotten coastlines of the southwest. Reached via a confusing network of sunken lanes, it is never busy. Itâ€™s also one of the very wildest and most dramatic coasts of Britain, notorious for its shipwrecks.
Along the cliff path near Morwenstow, you can still find the driftwood cabin built by the eccentric seaweed-wig-wearing pastor Robert Hawker in the mid-19th century as a place to watch for shipwrecks. When the Caledonia was wrecked in 1842, Hawker buried the dead and salvaged the shipâ€™s figurehead of a girl, which still stands in the overgrown churchyard. Parts of this wreck can be found at Spekeâ€™s Mill Mouth, a wild, mile-long moonscape of twisted rock strata, giant rock pools and sandy spurs. To add to the drama, the peninsulaâ€™s highest waterfall plummets down the cliff onto the beach. This is also a foragerâ€™s paradise of mussels, limpets and spider crabs.
From here, follow the stream back to the sanctuary of Docton Mill Gardens, nestled in the valleys. Here you will find cream teas and kitchen-garden salads. There is an orchard, a water garden and bluebells in spring (Â£4.50; 01237 441369,doctonmill.co.uk).
Spend the night at Cranham House, an old stone farmhouse with thick walls, large fireplaces and sea views, approached through its own meadow (doubles from Â£75, B&B, 01288 331351, cranhamhouse.co.uk). Or camp at Loveland Camping, a working farm with geodesic domes to rent and two resident water buffalo (from Â£6.50pp; 01237 441894, lovelandfarmcamping.co.uk).
Sussex Downs: ancient forests, follies, creeks and coves
The Sussex Downs are steeped in history and legend, with dramatic hillforts and ancient trees. Kingley Vale is one of the finest yew woods in Europe and includes several groves of ancient, twisted trees that pre-date Christianity and are thought to be the oldest living things in Britain.
Bronze Age remains are nearby, too. A few miles north yields first the Devilâ€™s Humps and then the Devilâ€™s Jumps: huge burial mounds for Celtic chiefs. Beacon Hill, a short walk further along the ridge path, is an old hillfort with some of the best views in Sussex. Itâ€™s a wonderful place to bivvy out and watch for glow-worms and shooting stars.
Special branch: tackling one of the ancient trees in Kingley Vale, Sussex (Daniel Start)For sustenance, you can retreat to the warm and primitive comforts of the reputedly haunted Royal Oak, hidden up a track deep in the woods behind. They serve up frighteningly strong Exmoor Beast ale under oak beams, and a menu of hearty dishes (mains from Â£6.55; 01243 535257, royaloakhooksway.co.uk). For camping, the remote New House Farm, high on the downs in a huge clearing surrounded by thick forest, is about as wild as a proper campsite gets (from Â£10pp; 01243 811685, nhfcamping.com).
Another place to spook yourself is the fantastical ruins of Racton Folly, an abandoned mid-18th-century tower lost in the woods near Walderton. It was inspired by the Radcliffe Observatory in Oxford and has sweeping views down to the sheltered salt lagoons of Chichester Harbour, which are great for swimming and canoeing.
My favourite beach along here is pretty Prinsted, conveniently situated off the main A27, with warm waters heated by the mud flats at high tide. Or, for a real adventure, embark on the hourâ€™s walk or canoe to the desert island and nature reserve of Pilsey, only accessible at low tide, a place completely cut off from the modern world (01798 875851, rspb.org.uk).
Cambridgeshire Fens: canoe camping, wild swimming and â€˜champingâ€™
The flat fens and waterways of Cambridgeshire evoke a sense of space that is in stark contrast to the rolling hills and urbanisation of the home counties. It is a quiet and peaceful land, intersected by a network of rivers and dykes â€” the perfect playground for long swims and canoe-camping adventures.
The River Great Ouse flows through the wilderness of Setchel Fen and can be accessed from the bridge between Wilburton and Cottenham. Another peaceful river stretch is the Cam, downstream from Upware and the National Trust-owned Adventurersâ€™ Fen. There are pastures and fields as far as you can see, with the spire of Ely Cathedral â€” the â€œShip of the Fensâ€ â€” rising above the meadows.
Take the plunge for a long swim. With a frogâ€™s-eye view on the world, see kingfishers dart above your head and perhaps the odd butterfly land on your nose. The waters here are warm and clear, filtered by the expanses of Wicken Fen, one of Europeâ€™s most important and oldest wetland reserves, with more than 8,500 species, including water voles and a spectacular array of dragonflies.
This is a land of plenty, due to the high fertility of the fenland fields, so return to your childhood for pick-your-own berries at Lidgate Farm in the village of Isleham (June-July; 07860 727089). Or try Sunclose Farm, in nearby Milton, for honey and award-winning Alder Tree â€œfruit cream icesâ€ (01223 860522, sunclosefarm.co.uk).
As night falls, head for St Cyriac & St Julitta Church in the village of Swaffham Prior. Here, by candlelight, you can church-camp or â€œchampâ€ under the 15th-century bell tower. You will have the building, famous for its amazing acoustics, to yourself. Itâ€™s difficult to imagine a more serene place to sing yourself to sleep (from Â£45pp; 07825 178961, visitchurches.org.uk/champing).
West Pembrokeshire: blue lagoons, sea caves and campfires
The coastline of Pembrokeshire is at its quietest and wildest at its western extremities. At this time of year, wild flowers are set against the sparkling backdrop of the Atlantic fringes. There are some extraordinary beaches here. My favourite stretch is between Abereiddy and Porthgain. The Blue Lagoon never fails to amaze: itâ€™s an old quarry that is now an oasis that empties and fills with the tides, and itâ€™s a wonderful place for wild swimming. There are also thrilling jumps into the water from the remains of the old engine house, with multiple levels to try as you build up your confidence.
Traeth Llyfn in Pembrokeshire is usually desertedContinue a mile along the coastline to one of Britainâ€™s best beaches, Traeth Llyfn. Itâ€™s a great place to skinny-dip as itâ€™s often empty. Another mile brings you to an abandoned clifftop quarry, with hoppers and old tramways that lead down into the snug harbour village of Porthgain, which is overlooked by abandoned Victorian brickworks. One of the best places to enjoy fresh fish or crab is The Shed, right by the waterâ€™s edge (fish dishes from Â£9.95; 01348 831518, theshedporthgain. co.uk). Alternatively, take a sea kayak out at low tide (youâ€™ll need to bring your own), or coasteer or wild swim round from the harbour to find sea caves and, on the rocks, huge musselsâ€” perfect for a tasty cook-up on the beach.
For the night, Trellyn Woodland Camping is a lovely quiet site in a wooded valley, sheltered from the sea winds and yet right on the coast path. It offers simple camping facilities and an outdoor pizza oven, with plenty of opportunity to gaze at either the stars or a campfire. Book the meadow field, or upgrade to one of their yurts, tipis or geo-eco domes (rates vary; 01348 837762, trellyn.co.uk).
North Yorkshire Dales: slot canyons, waterfalls and secret castles
Ruined castles line the wild valley of Eden as you wind your way ever higher through remote fells to the hamlet of Garsdale Head. First stop is the crumbling remains of Lammerside, a peel tower set in meadows beneath rocky outcrops. Then the wonderfully named Pendragon Castle, along the banks of the River Eden. It was built as a fortified tower house in the 12th century and legend has it that Uther Pendragon, father of King Arthur, died here. Its vaulted crypts and old staircases can be explored. Downstream, the river is wonderful for a spot of gentle wild swimming.
Legendary: Pendragon Castle, where King Arthurâ€™s father is said to have breathed his lastThe more adventurous should continue another four miles to Hell Gill farm. There is a patch of woodland on the fells, above which there is a remarkable limestone slot canyon, ribbed and carved by the passage of water. As you descend, it becomes darker, wetter and narrower. At the midpoint, there is a leap into a large plunge pool, and then it is fairly easy going to the end. Do not attempt this if rain is expected. For a simpler swim, try Cotter Force waterfall, a little further on, with a deep pool and flat rock slabs.
This is an isolated place to be as night falls, but youâ€™ll receive a warm welcome at the Moorcock Inn, which stands alone on the pass and has the distinction of being one of the most remote pubs in Britain. There are rooms here, too, and the drinks and tales flow long into the night (doubles from Â£65, B&B, 01969 667488, moorcockinn.com).
Northern Lakes: cavemen, secret islands and river pools
The valleys of the northern Lake District have long been a refuge for British explorers and eccentrics. Millican Dalton, for instance, started out as a disgruntled insurance clerk in London in the late 1880s, but later set up home in a large split-level cave on the eastern flank of Castle Crag in Borrowdale. There were two â€œroomsâ€, a bracken mattress and a constant supply of water through a fissure in the ceiling. He called it â€œThe Cave Hotelâ€ and was soon dubbed the â€œBorrowdale Cavemanâ€.
Five miles south, above Langstrath Beck, is another secret cave, under Cam Crag, fitted out by a shipyard worker from Barrow-in-Furness. He built a hidden door and installed a bunk bed in the cave, as well as a small fireplace with a flue. Itâ€™s still a perfect place to sleep wild â€” if you can find it.
There are two beautiful wild swims in the Langstrath Beck, one at Blackmoss Pot, where the jumps are high, and further downstream at Galleny Force, where twisted oaks overhang a crystal pool. For more aquatic capers, hire a canoe, plus a specialist instructor, from Hawse End Outdoor Centre and paddle to St Herbertâ€™s Island in the middle of Derwentwater (from Â£21pp for half a day; 01768 812280,independenthostels.co.uk).
For a little more luxury than caves can offer, head for the Langstrath Country Inn, with its open fires and excellent slow-roasted lamb (from Â£50, B&B, 017687 77239,thelangstrath.com). Or buy some of the famous Herdwick lamb from Yew Tree Farm, in Rosthwaite. The â€œHerdi burgersâ€ come straight from the fells above, and the team here also run a delightful tearoom called The Flock-In (01768 777675,borrowdaleyewtreefarm.co.uk).
Isle of Lewis: coral beaches, orchids and ancient man
The Isle of Lewis, in the Outer Hebrides, is less than three hours from the mainland, but its white beaches, rare orchid grasslands and pre-Christian remains make it feel more isolated. It was one of the first places man settled in Britain, and the Standing Stones of Calanais, almost 5,000 years old, are thought to be an ancient astronomical observatory (free; 01851 621422, callanishvisitorcentre.co.uk). Nearby are the ruins of strange igloo-shaped stone brochs (fortified homesteads). One of these, Dun Carloway, is â€œonlyâ€ 2,000 years old and offers arresting views.
Uig Bay, LewisThe beaches are perhaps the greatest draw, though. Visit in July for the height of the coastal machair â€” the thick carpets of orchids, harebells, meadowsweet and clover that flower here. The white sands are made from the fragments of shells brought in from faraway places on the drifts of the Gulf Stream. Head to the area around Uig Bay â€” Kneep, Bhaltos or Reef Beach â€” for simple, community-run campsites (from Â£5pp; 07542 142750).
Or why not wild camp on the beach? Scottish access laws allow this if you are far enough away from other properties and leave no trace. Thereâ€™s no better way to wake up in the morning than to walk straight into a bracing crystal-blue ocean. But for a spot of wild luxury, try Auberge Carnish, a mini hotel and restaurant near the village of Ardroil, with sweeping beach views (doubles from Â£120, B&B, 01851 672459,aubergecarnish.co.uk).
Wild Guide by Daniel Start is published tomorrow (Wildthings publishing.com Â£15.99). It features more than 1,000 places in southern and eastern England. A southwest edition is also available (Â£14.99). To buy the books for Â£13.99 and Â£12.99 respectively (inc p&p), call 0845 271 2135 or visit thesundaytimes.co.uk/bookshop
Bag the best spot: Phoebe contemplates the dawn with a cuppa after a wild sleep
â€˜You canâ€™t beat sleeping out beneath the starsâ€™
To truly disconnect from modern life, Phoebe Smith leaves the tent at home, and makes the earth her mattress
Twigs crack under my feet as I head deeper into the Cambridgeshire woodland. The light from my head torchilluminates the forest in a single circular beam, revealing glimpses of the bark of silver birch, alder and oak trees. The scent of damp soil fills my nostrils.
Iâ€™m in the woods here in the middle of nowhere because I want to escape. I need a night to disconnect from all the emails, phone calls, noise and responsibilities that bombard me every day. You could argue that I could simply venture into my own back garden and sleep there. But I like to go somewhere a little less familiar, somewhere removed from my comfort zone, somewhere that feels truly wild.
When I first started sleeping outdoors 10 years ago, it was all about wild camping, sleeping away from the modern conveniences of an official campsite and seeking out the remote places of Britain. I loved the thrill of feeling my tent pegs bite into a landscape of my choosing, with mounds of earth as my headboard and the grass as my mattress.
Tents are fantastic. Theyâ€™re light and easily assembled, and offer a relatively comfortable shelter. But sometimes, when the weather is good and a clear night is forecast, you cannot beat a â€œbivvyâ€.
Essentially a waterproof pouch that slips over your sleeping bag, these range from cheap survival bags available in any army-surplus or camping store to more technical models. Crucially, they allow you to sleep with no artificial barriers between you and nature.
I always arrive late when wild sleeping â€” walking into the outdoors when everyone else is heading home. Tonight is no exception. I scan the forest for a suitable spot: flat, even ground, free from stones and off the path so as not to be in anyoneâ€™s way.
As Iâ€™m doing so, something crashes through the bushes a short distance away. A fox? A badger, perhaps? To a new â€œbivvyerâ€, a sound like this can be unsettling. A fiercely territorial beast of some sort? An axe murderer lurking in the trees? Alone in the woods, the mind can start to play tricks on you. I know because I used to obsess about these things too.
Worrying about bugs is another hang-up of the first-timer. Thankfully, the bivvy bag allows you to enjoy, not just endure, the experience, because it keeps insects at bay. The bags are waterproof but, after a few sleeps in the wilderness, you realise that the main problem is that no matter how good your bivvy, you will always get wet to some degree, courtesy of condensation. Itâ€™s a small price to pay.
At length, I spy the perfect spot, where a large tree has fallen and the ground underneath is blanketed in dead leaves and bouncy peat. I unroll my camping mat â€” essential for insulating you from the ground chill â€” shake out my bivvy and climb into the sleeping bag. There I lie, staring up at the night sky between the outstretched arms of the trees, the moon mottled by a passing cloud, the fresh, invigorating air filling my lungs.
Then I start to hear it. Creaking branches, the wind on the leaves, rustling in the forest floor, my own rhythmic breathing… I have ventured here in search of peace, but Iâ€™m surrounded by sound.
I close my eyes and am quickly asleep. I sleep well and wake early, stirred by the dawn light. As predicted, my bivvy is wet and my eyelashes coated with a layer of dew. I set to work preparing breakfast on my portable stove, the trees around me ringing with the dawn chorus.
Itâ€™s far from the grandest breakfast Iâ€™ve ever eaten, but, here, under a canopy of trees, with modern life so far removed it may as well be a distant land, it tastes wonderful. Itâ€™s just me and the forest, reconnected like two old friends. I feel energised, stress-free â€” and ready to rejoin the fray.
Phoebe Smith is the author of Wild Nights: Camping Britainâ€™s Extremes (Summersdale Â£9.99). To buy it for Â£9.49 (inc p&p), call 0845 271 2135 or visitthesundaytimes.co.uk/bookshop
Tom points out some sumac (Jane Baker)
A taste of the wild in remotest… Birmingham?
You donâ€™t have to leave the city to find a foraged feast, Martin Hemming discovers
Iâ€™m in the bushes in a park in Birmingham with a man wearing rubber gloves. The man â€” he says his name is â€œTomâ€ â€” is trying to get me to do something Iâ€™m not sure I want to do.
He has just picked a handful of nettles, crushed them in his palm and is now suggesting I put them in my mouth. I consent, wincing, and wait for my tongue to tingle. But the sensation isâ€¦ salady. Pleasantly, benignly salady. That one squeeze was all it took to de-sting the fresh nettles. Who knew?
Weâ€™re urban foraging, where the only equipment youâ€™ll need is a trowel for digging up horseradish root, gloves to nullify nettle stings and plastic bags in which to pop your harvest.
Iâ€™d bring Tom along, too. Tom Baker â€” 32, checked shirt, floppy hair, beard â€” used to be an NHS nutritionist. Now he runs Loaf, a community bakery and cookery school in Stirchley, a Balti-house-heavy suburb of Englandâ€™s second city. One of his most popular courses, Forage and Cook, has just restarted for spring.
Foragingâ€™s been cool for a while now, thanks to Hugh F-W and his pan-fried roadkill. But the perception is that to find free food in the wild, you need ready access to acres of pristine countryside, or a truffle pig and a Tuscan wood. Tomâ€™s tour takes me to an underused BMX track and some rough land behind the lock-ups of Stirchley Trading Estate.
Weâ€™re out for little more than an hour. In that time, we munch on the buds and leaves of a hawthorn tree. We identify wood avens, whose roots give off a clove-like spice, then stumble past arrowhead-shaped sorrel leaves and swathes of wild garlic. We pick horseradishy cuckoo flower from a flowerbed outside a primary school, and make a mental note of the locations of blackberry and sloe bushes for future fruit-picking. Sticky weed, I learn, can be steamed like asparagus: â€œNot necessarily delicious,â€ says Tom, â€œbut worth knowing for when the apocalypse comes.â€ Even Japanese knotweed â€” that wrecker of gardens, houses and lives â€” is a delicacy when sweated down like rhubarb and served with yoghurt. Itâ€™s growing in 4ft-high clumps in Hazelwell Park, but to prevent its spread, we leave it well alone.
Tom reveals a few more strictures of the urban-foragerâ€™s code. Leave enough of a plant so it can regrow to feed fellow foragers and, more importantly, birds and other wildlife. Beginners, avoid mushrooms and anything you suspect is in the Apiaceae â€” or carrot â€” family: cow parsleyâ€™s tasty, hogweedâ€™s safe but hemlock, hemlock water dropwort and foolâ€™s-parsley are potentially lethal. Also, itâ€™s best to do your picking away from paths, and to choose the higher leaves of ground-level plants â€” unless you especially like the taste of dog wee.
Back at Loaf HQ, rubber gloves back on, we roughly chop the washed nettle leaves, mix with spring onions, flour, baking powder and garam masala, and deep-fry into delicate pakoras, which we dip in a raita of yoghurt, lemon and our wild garlic.
Gloves off, we fill freshly rolled pasta with dollops of more wild garlic and ricotta cheese (bought from the local Co-op rather than foraged from a nearby cow). The resulting tortellini are simple, delicious and vampire-slayingly garlicky, but with a mellow, more herbal, flavour than that of regular garlic bulbs. To finish, a meadowsweet-infused granita, which has the creamy notes of vanilla ice cream. Itâ€™s a Michelin-worthy menu, the star ingredients sourced for free from the seldom-explored wilds of south Birmingham.
Martin Hemming was a guest of Loaf, whose next Forage and Cook courses are on May 20 and June 30 at 6.30pm (Â£50; loafonline.co.uk)
How to make… Stinging nettle pakora
Makes about 30 pakoras
- 500g gram flour
- 2 tsp salt
- 1 tsp baking powder
- 1 tsp garam masala
- 2 large handfuls (100g) of stinging nettle tops (picked with rubber gloves on), washed and roughly chopped (again, with gloves on)
- 4 spring onions, finely chopped
- Sunflower oil (for deep frying)
Combine the gram flour, salt, baking powder and garam masala in a mixing bowl. Pour in enough water to create a thick batter, stirring all the time with a wooden spoon to ensure that it’s lump-free. Add the chopped nettles and spring onions and combine.
Pour sunflower oil to at least 1Â½in deep in a high-sided saucepan and heat to 180C.
Using two dessertspoons, add the pakora mix to the hot oil one spoonful at a time. Depending on your pan size, you may be able to fit in a few at once. Deep-fry for a few minutes until golden brown, turning if necessary. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on kitchen paper for a minute to cool, sprinkling with a little more salt. Eat warm with dips.