Just a few minutes ago I stood at my door and watched a solar eclipse. Not a rubbish one either, but a 95%, things go dark and animals behave in a strange way sort of eclipse. This being Scotland I had not prepared. I assumed there would be cloud cover, heavy rain and a gale despite a promising forecast. I managed to tape four of my darkest cycling sunglasses lenses together in a bit of a last-minute panic bodge. Held over one eye, the wonders of the cosmos were something to behold. Then it clouded over. You must see one if you can.
As far as I understand, that was the best eclipse for over 200 years here. Which is a long time to wait around. But time is a stranger thing than you may think. I got very excited a few days ago because we were going to bivvy for a night under a 1,000 year old Yew tree. Equally amazing, was that we were using a bivvy bag that I bought in 1983. I remember it costing a King’s ransom back then and feeling sick as I handed over my cash. But the thing is I still have it, and it still works.
You may have noticed that I have a bit of an ‘ equipment thing ‘. It has to be right, and they are going to get it back and a refund demanded if it fails in any way. I have sent more kit back than anyone I know, up to and including a whole bike and a frame. It has to work. Which is why I get into arguments with people who only buy cheap.
Nothing annoys me more than people who spend most of a holiday telling everyone how cheaply they got their tickets and hotel. In cycling terms, this is the cyclist that goes to ‘ deal weeks ‘ at LIDL and Aldi ( our local discount supermarket ). I happen to know that I have done 13,000 miles whilst wearing my Rapha shorts, and yes I know they cost an undeniably stupid amount of money. So, I pointed out how much that works out per mile to the LIDL wearing cyclist who was standing next to me. It is less than 0.13 pence per mile and they still look good – you may want to nip over to see the Hitler bike gear parody on the subject here ( caution lots of swearing ).
The thing is, it is very easy to stay at home. With anything outdoors, a less than perfect forecast can make you draw up a whole list of second thoughts. The best way I have found is to tell too many people you are going to do it. We had put our bivvy on a Facebook site. So at 7.30 on Friday the 13th we are sitting in a pub in Ormiston finishing a pint of beer before stepping out into a dark world.
It is many years since I put a rucksack on my back for an adventure. It has its advantages. For one, I was not going to arrive in a sweaty mess. This was going to be civilised. Any walk in the dark feels longer, robbed of sight, sounds are louder. We had only done part of the walk before, and that was in the opposite direction. In narrow pools of light from the headtorches it all looked unfamiliar.
The Ormiston Yew is very hard to find. We had spent half a day crisscrossing the paths here and not finding it. Just before we gave up we almost stumbled over the entrance. You have to squat down, bend at the waist at the entrance tunnel of branches. You will not be prepared for what is inside. The branches form a vaulting canopy like a gothic Cathedral. We turn off our lights and stand to take in the moment.
The air is cold, but somehow the damp is holding the smells of mulch, of leaf litter of age in the air. Too early for leaves yet, we can see out through the filigree of branches to nearby house lights. We peg out the ground-sheet and unroll sleeping bags and bivvies. It all sounds clumsy. It is going to take some explaining if we get someone coming to investigate the lights and noise.
The Owls are out early. It is time to hold a territory and stake a claim. A great advantage of walking into the camp is that we are wearing what we are going to sleep in. A big bonus over cycle touring and we do not need a rub down with a baby wipe either. We brew a cup of tea and settle into our bags with cake and a drink. There are two Owls nearby, often right above us and one or two more further off.
Not until midnight does it get truly cold. From then on, the dark night has a bite to it. Thank goodness it is mostly still, the cold is searching for a way into our bags. I pull down my hat and shimmy down into the bivvy, pulling up over my head. Tents are warmer than bivvy bags, and it is just above freezing now.
It is hard to say how much sleep we had. You always think you have had just a couple of hours. First nights are hard, uncomfortable even. Not till night three do you get into the way of things on a trip. Now pheasants are starting to call and Squirrels running along the Yew’s branches. It is before 6 and the first grey light is filtering into our camp. I spend an hour studying the tree, thinking about what it has witnessed.
By 7 I am up and making food. You would have thought we could not face porridge, but there is nothing better on a cold morning outside. There are now Finches calling in the branches. I expected more of a dawn chorus, but perhaps the darkness of the cover is not a good place for nesting.
It is gone 8 before we have packed up and stooped our way out of the tree. The path goes through old woodland flanked by tall Oaks and Beech. The first recorded use of the word Rookery is as late as 1712. I am sure it would have a usage before then, it is such a part of the countryside. This morning there is a frenzy of nest building with birds flying in with impossibly large twigs and branches. We spend time watching and listening to the Rooks and Jackdaws work. They have the intelligence of monkeys and work with the industry of a Chinese city builder.
It is Saturday morning, the whole weekend still ahead and a ‘ Micro Adventure ‘ done already. Friday the 13th under a 1,000 year old Yew tree should be just the start of the bivvying plans for this year. Make a plan, tell too many people about it and you can not turn back. There can not be too many people who have slept under a 1,000 year old tree, and now we are on that list. You can listen to a BBC program about the Ormiston Yew here.