I would like to think that we all have animals that we are especially fond of. They can be exotic, pin-up animals like the Panda or Blue Whale, but this is a bit like supporting Manchester United rather than your local team. We both rather like Hares. It has to be Hares and not Rabbits, we are fussy like that – splitting hairs perhaps. The USA takes these Totem animals a stage further and has State Birds, something that many countries have. A few weeks ago here, an online poll began a vote for a national bird for the UK. The Robin was a strong front runner, despite many in the winter being migrants from as far away as Russia. Here in Scotland the Golden Eagle sort of acts as an unofficial national bird.
We rode out an hour or more late on Friday evening. Late enough to need a last-minute hunt for lights as we let the last of the heavy rain showers pass over. Up Carberry Hill and through the little village of Cousland ( pronounced ‘Cows-land by the locals I am told ). The views to the South open beyond the village, the hills of the Lammermuirs to the right and the coast stretching off to the left. For the winter months East Lothian had been wearing a dark Tweed jacket, but with the Spring it is on with a brightly patterned Paisley shirt of yellow blocked motifs. Farmers have gone Oilseed Rape crazy, and I am sure it blooms two weeks earlier than it did 20 years ago.
Half a dozen nasty little storms were chasing across the land as we dropped down the steep descent. There was every chance of getting very wet indeed, or staying dry on our short ride to Humbie. On the road ahead near West Peaston there is our first Hare. It runs along the road in front of us and then darts through a opening in the hedge to our right, but there ahead is another Hare. Richard Mabey gathered together some of the local names for Hares, ‘ the scutter, the fellow in the dew, the looker to the side, the hedge-frisker, and the one I love, the stag of the stubble’.
I have a place in mind for the bivvy, but I am anxious that we are so late as I have only looked at it on a map. We go by the road for Humbie church and take a left. I have often noticed a track leading down to the left and away from this road. It always looked inviting, but I have never had the chance to go exploring. It is obvious from its size that it has some history to it, that it was once an important route. Tonight we will find out where it goes.
We turn onto the track and get off to push the bikes. After a hundred meters it becomes more grass meadow than track as all farm traffic has turned off into the fields beyond here. Down it goes cutting deep into the land, to be fringed by Beech trees. There are remnants of a surface from a time when this was a more important route possibly the way to church. We reach the stone bridge over the Humbie Water and now need to make a choice. I hope there is somewhere close to camp a little away from the large houses here. A small gate gives us an option and we lift the bikes over it and push up the track. In just a short way it opens into Church Wood, which is a gem.
We could not be more lucky. Even in what is now just half light, it is a vivid almost glowing fluorescent green. There are two tracks and we go left a short way and find that someone has built a bushcraft bothie. This is good enough, we start to unpack the bags and set up camp. Already bats are flying through the trees around us. It is dark enough to be doing things by feel and muscle memory and a very good job that we have done this before. I put the stove together, make a tea, and we stand listening to the bird song and the sounds of the woodland.
A second tea and we sit and eat sandwiches in the final blue light of the day. With just 13 miles of biking, we are in another parallel world. Time to clean our teeth, just after 10 and things have now dropped silent for the night. But then even over the sound of our brushing there is crashing and snapping of branches quite near us. It must be a deer. This is a woodland where it is impossible to move without snapping a twig. There are two ghostly grey shapes, small and close to the ground and they are running at speed towards us. Dogs, so where is the owner? They keep on coming, running fast, they have not seen us, too busy chasing and being chased.
Badgers! two Badgers, are they dangerous? They will see us, smell us, swerve off. They run right at us through our camp just a foot or two from us and head off into the woodland behind. How amazing. I have never seen anything like that before. We get things together with a few thoughts about just how careful we need to be with our food now that we know there are Badgers about.
The night air become still and rather cold by 3.00am. Strangely, there are very few Owls calling. Rain, heavy enough at times to force us down into the bivvy bags and to draw the mouth closed. It is warm, too warm after the cool of the open night air. It smells of cycling, of effort and dampness. I guess I would turn to compost in under a year.
More squalls blow in, but there are times of total calm and stillness as well. Tree branches groan as they rub against each other. The Badgers stay away, but there is a smell of them close by, a strong smell, musky but not like a Fox. Daylight, and a wall of noise from the dawn chorus even before 4.00am. Robins come down close to check us out. I have read that they do this thinking we are pigs. When you garden there will always be a Robin close at hand and they have learned to do this from benefitting from following wild pigs. It is now part of their genetics now, their deep strategy for life and survival.
We get up. It is always hard to get out of a warm sleeping bag into the cold of morning. Time to get the stove going. A tea first then porridge followed by more tea. It is obvious why the Badgers ran through our camp last night, we are right in the middle of a run that is worn smooth in the vegetation. I follow it from where it comes in under the boundary fence, right through our camp and on down towards the river. Like most creatures of the night, Badgers keep to well worn routes that they can navigate at speed if they need.
The bioethanol stove is working well and we have enough hot water for a bit of a clean up before we pack. It is bright, the best weather that we have had all week and we go for a bit of an explore around the wood. How amazing to just get out, go such a short way and have an adventure that costs almost nothing and a bit of time looking at a map.
There is a short way along a track, through the wood and out onto the road to Gilchriston. It is such a beautiful morning that we start our Saturday with a ride to the cafe in Gifford. The weekend has hardly begun and already we have had an adventure, seen amazing things and had a meeting with two Badgers. You really should go and sleep in a wood.