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Wild camping, wild swimming, wild cows

I am no stranger to wild camping, having spent many a wet, rainy, windy weekend tramping across the Northumbrian hills as a teenager, during my Duke of Edinburgh expeditions. However, although I have been camping a few times since I got my stoma in 2011, it has always been on proper campsites, with the requisite showers and toilets close by. The idea of going wild camping, with no hand-washing facilities, no sanitary disposal bins for bags, and having to get up in the middle of the night and try and change a bag with a head torch, has always seemed like an insurmountable task. I always loved being out in the wilds, far away from creature comforts and the general chaos of life, and since taking up wild swimming the remote hills have been beckoning once more. I decided that having a bag wasn’t going to stop me from enjoying something which used to give me so much pleasure, so when my friend Lynne suggested a wild camping night I jumped at the chance.

The day before the trip I made sure not to eat any of the things which can send my stoma crazy – so no hot spices, pulses or leeks. I made sure that my breakfast and lunch were similarly plain, although admittedly a leek for breakfast is not a normal Saturday treat.

The day we set off was a typical Northumbrian one, murky grey clouds hanging overhead as Lynne drove us along the winding country roads to the little carpark next to a wooded copse. We were pretty anxious about a wet, windy night ahead, but as it turned out, we needn’t have worried at all, as the Northumbrian weather had a surprise in store. The wind dropped, the clouds began to lift, and we were blessed with subliminal weather conditions for the next 24 hours.  We encountered a considerably less welcome surprise shortly afterwards…

First stop was the river, which was quite high, with a strong current as a result of heavy rains for the preceding few days. The initial plan had been for a dip in the waterfall, but the water flow was simply too fast to be safe, so we walked a little further until we came to a pebbly beach, where the river was wider, and we were able to get in and out safely. In the run up to my Birth Trauma Bikini Blast Winter challenge, I decided I had better start getting my body acclimatised to the cold in a bikini, so out it came. We slipped, swore and crashed our way into the water, the current very strong against our legs, so we used large rocks as anchors to pin our feet against. The water was about waist height, but we still didn’t fancy being carted off downstream like a pair of shrieking whales. Just as we were about to plunge in, Lynne screamed, my heart stopped (pike/alligator/newly discovered freshwater shark?)…but it was only Breeze, her dog, who had pulled over the rucksack onto the pebbles. I finally made it in, the icy water lapping up and over my chest, until my ears were in and the tingling started. Little pricks of icy tentacles covered my skin and the endorphins started doing their trick, coursing around my body like boy racers on a final lap. Amazing.

After about 10 minutes in the water, we got changed and set off for our camping spot, high up on the Northumbrian hills, where we had been told was a fort to set up camp in. A long held fear of mine is cows. I love them when they are safely behind a fence, or a wall, their huge eyes and curious gentle faces such a pull for animal lover like me. But I have a deep seated fear of walking past cows, especially when they are with calves, and when I am with a dog, as we all know the danger that this situation can present. Yup…we came across a field of cows, and were left without much choice other than to walk through the middle of it. Although my heart was thumping, my lips were dry and I felt almost nauseous, Lynne calmly led the way, rightly pointing out that all the cows were placidly lying down, taking no notice of our little party as we made our way across the field. Breeze was safely secured on the lead, as we approached the final handful of cows. I had continuously made quiet tremulous noises and mutterings of “god I hate bloody cows, damn things, so big and scary”, and “argh, are you sure it’s not looking at us funnily??!” and then “Christ that one is mooing!!”. Lynne chirped brightly “Don’t worry, look you can see they are all calm”, followed by the fateful sentence…”in all the years I’ve had dogs, I’ve never once been chased by a cow”. By now there was a cow about 6 metres in front us, and it began mooing with agitation. It all happened so quickly. Just as I was saying “I don’t like this at all, let’s move”, Lynne got her feet stuck in the mud, the cow put its head down and charged straight toward her, eyes completely focused with angry determination. Quickly, I threw my arms up to increase my presence, and started shouting loudly, the cow hesitated and Lynne managed to unstick her feet. We stumbled away as the cow stood huffing where she had slid to a halt. In retrospect, I think it was my alarming blue Christmas jumper, with its penguin and bright red hat on, worn in companionship with my oversized men’s camo fishing jacket from the Aldi sale, which stopped the cow in her tracks. Whatever it was….we were relieved, shaken and a little hysterical with elation at having escaped a very near miss with an angry momma bovine.

On we went, up the huge hill, sweating, grunting and valiantly smiling, until we reached the peak, where we found a man sitting with his dog. We looked around. No fort. We asked the man if he had the seen the fort. “Oh yeah, there used to be one here years go, but it’s scattered about all over the place now”. We looked where he gestured with his arms, and sure enough, there were lots of little piles of stones. Ah well, no fort to camp in after all!

We set up camp in a little dip in the peak, which was nicely sheltered from the wind. The sun began to lower, the wind dropped further, and the three of us sat in comfortable silence watching the sun disappear behind the distant hills. The tent was warm and cozy, although we were on a slight slant, so Lynne spent the night bracing her legs against a conveniently positioned rock, to avoid rolling down the hill on top of me. Breeze kept our feet lovely and warm, too.

My stoma behaved all night long, no wind or any other irritations, and the next morning presented no issues either, although I had already decided that if I needed to change it, I would do so as normal, and just carry down the waste bag in a little black bag of shame back to the car. When you think about it rationally, there is no need to stress about changing a bag out in the open. And of course, I could always pretend the little black bag had dog waste in it if we saw anyone….do you think anyone would notice a little black bag though? Nah. As it was, it all went incredibly smoothly! After a quick coffee, we dismantled camp, and made our way back down the hill towards the river again, hoping to see the wild goats which have inhabited these hills for generations, and which we had seen in the far distance the evening before. As we came down the hill, just before a bend, I smelt a very strong…goat-like smell (you either know it, or you don’t!)…we turned the corner and there were 2 big billy goats, with their magnificent horns, standing right in front of us. Incredible. They were both calm, and walked slowly away, to join the rest of their group which we now saw were grazing a few metres down. We felt so lucky – we were so close!

We skirted past the field with the crackers cow in it, and stopped once more at the riverside for a final dip. This time we threw all of our clothes off with gay abandon, and made another splashing, swearing, and graceful descent into the water. I can confirm that very cold water does indeed make your nether regions cold. Very cold. And yes, ones nipples do stand out like guns on a frigate ship.

What a way to end the trip! We were both buzzing from the experience, from the wild camping to the wild swimming, the sunset and the kind weather, the wild goats, and the near death cow experience. We made our way back to the car, my bright Christmas jumper flashing brilliantly in the warm August sunshine. We’re already making plans for the next trip…

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