Remembering Alaska, when dinner in the gorse on the Sussex Downs was over, instead of burning the empty foil packets (‘pouches’, as the makers call them) in which it had been cooked and from which it had been eaten, I sealed them carefully in a plastic bag (Alaska grizzlies have an ultra-keen sense of smell), poured myself another wee dram of Laphroaig single malt whisky and read Peter Fleming’s News from Tartary until my eyes got too tired.
It was not the first time I had dined by candlelight in a gorse thicket. When Robert Louis Stevenson’s Vagabond stated a preference for ‘bed in the bush’ he had a point. For the timorous traveller, the chief advantage of gorse over any other kind of boscage is its obvious (though I would contend superficial) inhospitability. Potential predators are discouraged. Anyway, for the ridgeway walker at the eastern end of the South Downs scarcely any choice of cover for a bivouac presents itself: it is gorse or nothing.
I had come no more than 6 or 7 miles from Eastbourne, but my pack was heavy, the climb up out of Jevington had seemed especially demanding and by 4 pm I had had enough. With the sun already low in the sky and my reserves of energy swiftly following it, I scanned the ground ahead for a likely patch. What I sought was a configuration of prickly vegetation in which a deceptively impenetrable margin yields to an inner clearing spacious enough for the erection of a one-man tent. Fortunately, an almost ideal situation awaited me and by the time it was necessary for my 24-hour camper’s candle to be brought into service my establishment was more or less ship-shape and Bristol fashion. It seemed the moment for a dram or two of something to set against the very rapid and potentially insalubrious fall in temperature up there on the Sussex chalk. It was now that I first brought out the flask of Laphroaig
And so to dinner. To confess to having brought little to eat but what was contained in two 3.3 oz packets of freeze-dried food may well invite the scorn of outdoor romantics, but it was not just any old freeze dried food. The year before, following a camping expedition in the remote northern wilderness of Alaska, a packet of Mountain House Beef Almandine and another of Chicken Chop Suey, made in Oregon and purchased in the Four Winds supermarket, Fairbanks, had travelled back to England with me. Moreover, this was not just common or garden Mountain House, which itself is excellent, but a particular product range with the endearing brand name of Woodsy Owl. A couple of centuries ago it was observed that, within reason, the longer the voyage of a cargo of Madeira, the better the wine. I am now able to testify that there is a je ne sais quoi about Woodsy Owl Beef Almandine and Chicken Chop Suey that have travelled to northern Alaska, thence half the world to England and have ‘rested’ (as they say in the wine business) among miscellaneous camping gear in a basement in London SW4 before being consumed on a winter evening on the South Downs.
‘Serving suggestions for main course entrées and meats’, said the solemn legend on the packets. ‘Add boiling water and eat directly from the pouch – no dishes to wash, no cooking required, wait 5 to 10 minutes and enjoy’. It may not sound the sort of thing that the Michelin Red Guide to France would distinguish as being “vaut le détour”; but that evening. both beef and chicken seemed to me not far short of epicurean. Ask which was better and, risking some Mountain House chef’s feelings, I am bound to say the Chicken Chop Suey; but then, I long since came to the conclusion that Chinese cuisine may be the best in the world.
It was after eight when I blew out the candle. Though I started with my shoulders out of the sleeping bag I awoke about midnight, snuggled right down, secured the drawstring of the hood until scarcely even my face was exposed. and was blissfully warm and comfortable. Yet while I slept the Downs were turning white in a heavy frost. So far as I knew, not a woodsy owl had hooted or a grizzly had stirred.
It was barely 7 miles as the crow flies from Henri Pellés cellars in Morogues to Henrichemont, where there would be hotels, but by the time the tasting was over it was later than I had bargained for and I knew that if I hoped to be in time for dinner I would need to set myself a brisk pace.
Shunning the obvious but hardtop road, I took tracks to the east of it, but only an hour after setting out, with a leaden sky and my pack seeming especially burdensome, it became obvious that before I could reach the macadam on the far side of the forest that I had so boldly chosen to traverse, I should be benighted.
In retrospect, I suspect that I may unconsciously have welcomed the excuse to experiment with a piece of equipment that I often carried in case of emergency, but had never yet used — a Gore-Tex bivvy bag. Substituting for a tent, and significantly lighter; needing neither poles nor guy ropes and pegs, a bivvy bag is a sort of sack which can accommodate the user in a normal sleeping bag. Here, in the swiftly darkening Bois d’Henrichemont, its moment had arrived.
In a thicket of saplings that gave an illusion of security (I have always been afraid of the dark) I found a level space just large enough for my needs; and for extra shelter, and to enhance the illusion, rigged my lightweight groundsheet as a sort of porch. I was not badly provided for. I had water. Odds and ends remained from my lunchtime picnic. Not least, I carried a small flask of whisky. By 8 pm I was snugly cocooned.
Few people can honestly claim unbroken sleep in a bivouac. I slept and woke, slept and woke again. Within arm’s reach outside the bivvy bag, the water in its plastic bottle was almost ice-cold and I laced it with whisky. While I hid there, winter tightened its grip. It was not simply a matter of temperature, but of impalpable, primordial mood. The silence of the woods was not merely that of repose, but of all nature cowering from the dread tyrant, not daring to stir, hoping to be overlooked.
But in the morning there was a heavy frost and a million leaves had fallen.