The snow fell thick and fast as I motored down the A31 at a painfully slow pace. Hills that my car would have handled in fifth gear were proving troublesome in third. However the Ford Focus was making headway and I had a train to meet. It was January 2013 and England was in middle of a blizzard and my car’s turbo had failed.
At 9.30 pm I arrived at Brockenhurst station and was greeted by a familiar and warm smile that sat proudly on the face of Gavin. I had known this fiery ginger beast for well over a third of my life; we had first met at Southampton University in 1998 and had both done the same degree in Biochemistry and Physiology and it was during this time that we became firm friends. I continued with another degree in Medicine whilst Gavin went out into the wider world.
We both have a lot in common but one of the things that united us both was a love of camping. Our first camping trip was to the New Forest with a gang of friends in May 2000. The spring was beautiful and, having little money, we bought a budget tent and brought along our household pots and pans which were used as cooking utensils and, eventually cricket bats. It was during this time that Gavin developed the nickname “Bevo.” No one is quite sure how it happened. However, when we went into the tent he was Gavin and following a night of excessive alcohol consumption where three bottles of spirits were traffic lighted between five of us in half an hour, he emerged as Bevo. The name bore a distant and tenuous relation to his surname and it stuck. So did our affinity with the wild.
We left Brockenhurst Station and travelled to our final destination, whilst exchanging merry tales of anything from the journey down to times gone by, whilst outside the snow fell all around us. Once we arrived we went through the routine that we had rehearsed and performed many times before. Turn off engine. Lights off. Keep silent. Open the boot put on the back pack, lock the car, make sure head torch is to hand but keep the light off.
And then we slipped away like farts in the wind.
The snow continued to fall around us and the ground beneath was boggy. Very boggy. However my walking boots had been freshly waterproofed and my Gore-Tex jacket and Rab eVent trousers kept away the rest of the water. Down the hill we walked in darkness. Through the gate. Up the next hill, about twenty minutes in total and then at the top was our final gate. This gate opened up into the glorious virgin woodland that tonight slept under a white blanket. We closed the gate behind us and turned our head torches on and then walked the last five minutes to our final destination. We were both a little nervous for although we had done this journey many times in the day, this was the first time that we would do a night time insertion. Normally we navigated by the looks of distinctive trees, fallen trees, bracken and shoots. However, the forest changes during the seasons and behaves very differently in night and day. Tonight our landmarks were buried in snow and shrouded in darkness. We navigated by dead reckoning.
At a point when we both felt that we had walked about the right distance we turned right into the woods. There was nothing that looked familiar. I turned my Alpkit Gamma head torch up to its brightest mode and bathed the forest in ninety lumens of light. The snow in front sparkled back and was completely undisturbed, apart from the occasional deer track or paw prints from other smaller creatures. I looked ahead and recognised our old camp ground. “We have arrived Bevo!”
Myself and Bevo had about twenty six years of camping experience between us. Yet every trip you learn new things and sometimes you revisit old mistakes. We often met with difficulty when lighting fires with sodden wood and everyone will remember that 2012 was one of the wettest years in the UK on record. Tonight was no exception. The fire needed a good quantity of fire lighters to start it but myself and Bevo knew campfires well and when it finally took to the wood and grew in stature it thawed out the ground around it.
Which promptly turned into a bog.
We had never lit a fire in a bog before.
Tired from our fire lighting experience and beginning to feel tired we both agreed that it was time for bed. We crawled into our tent, and I got inside my Cumulus Mysterious Traveller 650 sleeping bag, a sleeping bag that was perfect for these sub zero conditions. The down lofted up beautifully and I got into my shorts and T-shirt and rolled it up around me. Head down. Much better.
Bugger, I need a piss.
I could feel the oak trees looking amusedly at me whilst I stood in shorts and T-shirt having a slash in the cold dark night, shivering and watching the urine stream moving in time to my shivers. Then back inside again.
Much, much better.
Bevo and I finished up the night discussing the relative merits of having our own container to pee into for nights like this but both agreed that socially it was a little unacceptable. All the more reason to get a one person tent.
The next day was beautiful. We awoke to a forest of white that was bathed in sun. A north wind blew from the Arctic that kept the temperature to one degree but this did little to the snow. I had never seen our campsite like this before. It was stunning.
The site was no more than a glen. A glen for those of you who are unsure is an area of forest where there is a clearing. The edge of this clearing was lined by five proud standing oak trees and the whole area was carpeted with grass. In the middle was a pond, about five metres in length. During spring and summer ferns would sprout betwixt the grass and cover the area with its leafy beauty. In the Autumn the ferns would die turning a rusty brown which would add to yellows, browns, oranges and reds of the other plants. Following this magestic display the forest would sleep until the next year.
In the centre of the pond was an old oak branch that lay on its side, the centre section rising out of the pond in an arc. As we made our morning brew we reflected on the changing faces of this part of the forest over the years. Plants had come and gone, the boughs of nearby trees had become more gnarled or fallen, yet this branch and the five proud oaks had never really aged. Some years we had come back to find the pond had dried up. Other years such as this year, most of the glen was covered in water, which had forced us to camp a little way off from the glen. However this year the water had frozen and it was covered in white. We had seen the many different faces of the glen over the years but this year was the first time we had been in the snow.
During our first trip thirteen years ago we realised that we were not the only people who came here. In one corner of the glen were logs, arranged in a circle. the ends had been cut exactly, far too exactly for nature. there was a blackenned area in the middle with lumps of charcoal. People had been here before us. On further inspection, there were little charms hanging in the trees. Pagans, we thought.
A few years later, Bevo and I had returned during the May Day bank holiday. For some reason that lay hidden in the back of our minds we elected not to camp on the glen but about two hundred metres downwind of it. As we bathed in the May sun, frying our bacon and supping our brews we noted a group of people heading into the glen. We then watched as the group of people put on white robes and conical hats. Our cheery air became rather quizzical. A bongo drum sounded and we watched as these people danced around the pond. They could not see us as the Octane was a low profile tent and we were hidden behind some ferns and overhanging trees.
We watched them dancing and cavorting for a few minutes and agreed that they seemed to be rather merry folk, which allayed our angst (we were worried that they might be the Klu Klux Klan at first). Then they all sat down.
“What should we do, Bevo?”
Bevo, had been wondering the same question. He eyed the man cut log that we had taken the night before from the log circle in the glen. We had used it as a seat for our fire. He looked back that them. A smile wrinkled the corners of his mouth.
“I think,” he said “that we should give them back their log!”
The pagans were lying by one of the five oaks, drinking mead (well we like to think it was mead) and smoking on some pipe tobacco (we like to think it was pip weed) and looked up to find two men emerging from the surrounding woodland with a log over their shoulders. The front man had fiery red hair, whilst the back man was, ofcourse, me.
“We borrowed your log last night and thought we would give at back. Thanks for lending it to us.” Bevo called out to the man, who appeared to be in charge and was chugging on a clay pipe. He nodded his head and smiled.
They looked at us, uncertain what to do, as we politely placed the log exactly where we had found it. We nodded at them, bade our farewells, and slipped back into the forest a different way, going down the hill and back to our original campsite as agreed in case they turned nasty (we did not want to be held down by our back packs if we had to run).
And that had been our first contact with the pagans. whilst drinking our tea in the snow we reflected on the various chance encounters with them and agreed that they seemed agreeable people, a little like the elves in Lord of the Rings, a people who adored Mother Nature and praised the land around them. They took good care of the glen and during our various trips we would often find signs of recent activity; candle wax on the bow of the fallen branch in the pond, burnt letters, a small green plastic dragon in the crevice of a tree. We often thought that it was the pagans who had granted the branch in the pond an unnatural resilience to rot.
However in the recent years it appeared that activity had died off. Our previous trip was in 2010 and we had not returned for three years. There were no charms in the woods and little signs of recent activity. The same was true of this trip. We visited the log circle. The log that was originally a metre long and so thick it needed the two of us to carry was now a rotten thing, a quarter of its size, that had the consistency of detritus. The years were slowly transforming its grand form into the surrounding land. The centre of the circle was grassed over with a small sappling growing in the middle. No fires here for some years, I thought.
Bevo had arrived at a similar conclusion. “The pagans haven’t been here for a while, old boy.” For some reason I used to call all of my friends “old boy”. I know not why but it was a force of habit that kind of stuck. I was the oldest of our group of friends by several years and eighteen months Bevo’s elder. As a result the nickname of “Old Boy,” often abbreviated to “OB” had stuck and OB was the opening salutation of numerous emails and text messages addressed to me. “You’re right.” I nodded in agreement. “It’s sad really. A queer folk but most agreeable for the forest. I hope they come back.” We looked back that the half submerged branch with the strangely long life. Then donned our now empty packs and walked back out of the glen, following our footsteps from the night before. We had to go back to the car, pick up some more beer and hook up with two other friends who were joining us.
We were late for the rendez-vous and as a result were greeted by the smiling faces of Jonathan and Gwyn half way along our journey back. Jon’s warmth, mirth, cheery disposition, and kindness were matched by his incredible eccentricity. Most men will have a “man-drawer” where they keep various oddments which might include memorabilia, bric-a-brac, cufflinks and other tools such as radiator keys which will one day prove to be immensely useful. Jon, or “Jonski” as he is referred to (he gave himself this nickname which subsequently stuck) had a “man room” which housed a wealth of paraphernalia. On a desk in one corner sat a bright red 1950’s telephone, dubbed ‘the hotphone,’ which is still awaiting connection to BT. A chest of drawers, various shelves, and a bookcase housed a medley of different items ranging from DVD’s to fly reels, fine whiskies of the world, various books including a book on goat species, and a fine indian arrow. This room which also included a futon that I slept on when in London, was dubbed the “reasoning room.” It was a room that we often sat in and have various philosophico-ridiculous debates. It was a room where men indulged in such fine sport as games of Chess and Risk. It was a room where reasoning took place. Hence the name. I think the room best sums up the man.
Gwyn was an equally friendly gent that towered half a head above all of us. He was an outdoor enthusiast and looked at his most natural in his woodsman/camping gear. Today he sported a black short-brimmed hat, puffy gillet, dark waterproof trousers and blue and yellow walking boots, which had been nicely browned by the bog walking. I had not seen him for many months. Gwyn was by nature one of life’s builders. Equally discontent with the idea of a man drawer, he set about building a man garage in his garden which housed all of his tools, his surf boards, bicycles, and windsurfing gear. He also built a work bench on which proudly sits a circular saw. Gwyn used to train in the use of num-chucks ad other martial arts. These manly aspects of his character were somewhat at odds with his slightly girly name. We often sang the song of the Mighty Gwyn and soon the nickname stuck. He has always been known (leastways by myself) as, Mighty, or THE Mighty.
As we entered the clearing, our stories abruptly ended when Mighty erupted into laughter. He had seen the charred logs of our fire from the night before, lying in the middle of a quagmire and realised what we had done. “How did that go for you boys?” he chuckled.
Bevo and I smiled at each other. “We’ve ‘ad many good fires, Old Boy,” I answered “that, however, was not one of ‘em!”
Jonski fetched his MSR Dragonfly Mult-Fuel stove, primed it and ignited the burner. The thing roared into life and the bacon started to cook. I boiled some more water on my budget (but equally effective) Vango tripod stove and used the pots of my MSR cookset. The anodized aluminium worked effortlessly to distribute the heat to the water and soon there was the familiar sight of steam greeting us through the vents in the lid.
Fed and watered, we set about the days tasks. First, we needed a fire site. Furthermore it was bitterly cold and all the wood was soaked through. We would need much wood to dry out the wet wood and, given the cold, would need a fire wall to radiate the heat. The fire would also need a section to allow us to cook. In addition a shelter was required to protect us from another snow storm.There was much work to be done.
And it was important to have as much fun as possible whilst leisurely doing it.
We found a suitable site on the edge of the glen which was a good 10 cm above the bog and erected a by some trees. The front end of the tarp was kept up on each side with paracord and some straight branches that acted as poles that had been speared into the ground. The rear end was staked out with smaller twigs and paracord. It was not the most amazing of jobs but the air was still and the angle meant that snow would not accumulate on the tarp. We spent the rest of the day gathering and preparing wood. The latter task in particular was not easy as oak is a hard wood and sawing it was a challenge.
In tandem with this I began construction of a wall to reflect the heat from the fire to ourselves. First I found four straight bits of wood and sharpenned one end. I drove the sharp end into the ground to create four upright poles in two pairs. Each pair had a gap of about 10-15cm. I then found several more straight logs and arranged them, one on top of the other, feeding them through the gaps. The straight logs where held in place by the uprights. Soon we had a really good fire wall.
As the winter sun set and the oaks above us shivered in the long cold night that was to come, a knife was cracked against a flint. Sparks were sent flying into some char cloth which soon started to glow bright in its centre. A small plume of smoke bilged forth and the char cloth was delicately inserted by Jonski into some sawdust. A little blowing and a baby flame became visible. Small sticks were delicately placed on top. Steadily the flame increased in stature as it dried out the sticks and used them to fuel its growth. More sticks were added, then more, ever growing in size and diameter.
After half an hour of gentle nurturing we had a fire that was hot and thawing out large oak logs, or “slow burners” as we called them. We settled down beside the fire and revelled in the warmth it provided. Whiskey and ale was passed around liberally whilst I tamped down some cherry and vanilla flavour tobacco into my churchwarden pipe and lit it. A few chugs and a smooth flavoursome tobacco mulled its way around the inside of my mouth. I exhaled a round smoke ring. “Old Toby,” I mused. “The finest weed in the Shire!”
Earlier on that evening, Mighty had begun construction on a spit roast. He found two medium sized twigs with v shaped tops and had driven them into the ground. He then found another straight bit of wood and fashioned one end into a sharp point. A joint of pork was now produced and he proceeded to ram the point through the centre. He placed the pork and wood on top of the v shaped twigs and allowed the meat to sizzle before turning.
Various important discussions took place that evening such as how beautiful Mighty’s sister was (a conversation that he was surprisingly unkeen to join in on) and what animals we would have in an animal army to take over the world with. Heated debates ensued; would the battles be primarily seafaring battles, in which case killer whales would prove invaluable, or land crusades? Would a golden eagle be able to provide aerial support to a seafaring army in the midsts of the pacific or would its range limit its value? Was their a role for squirrels as scouts in jungle warfare or would the chimpanzee dominate?
“If I had a land-based army…” Bevo said and paused for thought. He evaluated his answer and looked up with a sense of finality on his face. He had come to a decision. “I would probably opt for an army of humans.” There was much murmuring and a general echo of agreement in the group. Humans could build a fortress and would be able to make spears, bows and arrows. They could also form a phalanx. It was decided. Humans were the best land army. At that point the fire lept up with a sizzle. It was time to turn the meat and carve off the first layer.
I was sat next to Jonski as I was eating my food and I mentioned something to him that had been on my mind lately. “Jonski, I have been giving some thought to buying a bivvy bag. I have been looking around and there are so many different websites and different types, all with differing reviews. I have been surfing on the internet for over a week now, trying to find one that’s the right material and dimensions for me but it’s such a ball ache. It leaves you more confused!”
“Tell me about it,” Jonski nodded. “I’ve been looking for a new four season sleeping bag as mine has got holes in and is really heavy. You go online and its a bloody minefield.”
The pair of us had a combined camping experience of twenty five years. Many of our early years were spent walking into a shop and buying kit that we thought we needed and actually didn’t. Or worse, it fell apart. Our camping history was riddled with many mistakes in kit purchase. Over time we learnt from our experiences, positive and negative, and our camping kit evolved through a combination of research and experience.
I looked at Jonski and an idea dawned. He saw me smile with the epiphany.
“Old boy,” I said and curled up an eyebrow, “What we should do is build a website that you could go to, that was completely independent, that reviewed these items. A one-stop-shop, if you will, for reviews of camping gear. I reckon it’ll be a real go-er!”
He listened as I explained more; how we could monetize the site, what content we could upload etc. His interest grew rapidly and he grasped at what an amazing opportunity this could be. Ideas blossomed and were expanded upon. We discussed problems and potential solutions.
When we had finished talking we agreed that we should go into business together and create a user friendly independent website. “Now one thing remains old boy,” Jonski offered. “What shall we call this incredibly feisty sounding site?”
“What shall we call this incredibly feisty sounding site…” I repeated, thoughtfully. I chugged on my pipe and offered it to him. We both looked at the glowing embers in the fire, the flames creating shadows on the fire wall. We looked at Bevo and Mighty, deep in another conversation. Now and again, snow from the holly tree above us thawed and fluttered down onto the tarp above our heads. The moon was out, lighting up the ice on the pond and the virgin snow all around us. Stars twinkled between the branches of the trees. I mused on Jonski’s last question and reflected that this was a seriously feisty night.
That was the answer.
“We shall call it Feisty Camping.” I said with certainty.
He looked at me and smiled. “That, Old Boy, is a seriously feisty name. Feisty Camping it is.”
And so Feisty Camping- the website and the concept- was born. Of one thing we were both certain; it’s birth would herald many adventures, some more hair-brained than others, that were yet to come to pass.
We hope it makes the pagans proud.