It was the 21st June. I was pottering around my study, trying to finish up some writing for a contract and I was feeling quite cooped up. I hadn’t been on a ‘proper ride’ on my bicycle since I stepped off it at John O’Groats over a month previously.
“Sod this,” I thought, closing the lid of my laptop. I didn’t have any plans for the evening, and the longest day of the year looked like it was going to be a cracker: shame to waste it.
I’d had in the back of my mind for a long time that I’d never visited Kielder Forest. This dark skies area in the central North of England is supposed to be quite phenomenal. A forest, a lake and almost no light pollution. Throw in the Northumberland hills and some bothies, and you’ve got an amateur adventurer’s dream.
“Right then. Today’s the day.”
I scurried upstairs and grabbed my rucksack before I changed my mind. My ‘adventure gear’ is minimal, but I thought it would do the trick. Borrowing a bivi bag from my housemate, I managed to scrabble enough stuff together to get me through one night in the wild.
A sleeping bag, a liner, a roll mat, bivi, a down jacket, a headtorch, a toothbrush, some warm clothes to sleep in, a book, a waterproof, my flip flops, some water, some food.
“That’ll do. I hope.”
I slung my rucksack over my shoulder and threw my food into the little pannier bag strapped to the back of my bike. I donned my padded shorts and stepped into my little clicky shoes – I always feel like Dorothy when I’m wearing them (if only they were red and glittery).
I didn’t have a paper map, so I had to settle with the woman from Google Maps telling me where to go. I’ve come to refer to this woman as Glenda (seemingly the Wizard of Oz tends to stick in my mind).
National Cycle Route 14 passes right outside my house. I hopped on there and followed the old railway line northwards. The track was a bit rocky and uneven for my road bike, but I was feeling free and adventurous, so I stuck with it.
That initial hour of riding was mixed. I was really enjoying being back out in nature, but I was also quite hot. It had been a long time since I’d ridden with a rucksack on, and it turns out it really makes a difference to your sweatiness levels. I was also having some issues with my headphones cutting out. I don’t make a habit of cycling with a soundtrack, but it was one of those afternoons which suited having podcasts playing along in the background. Anyway, the headphones thing was really annoying and made me slightly frustrated.
So a short while later, when Glenda took me to a track which was clearly only suitable for mountain bikes, the frustration levels grew. I turned her off and decided to detour onto the A68 for about 12 miles. Now, you might think that on a road bike I’d like to cycle on fast roads, but the A68 is very hilly, following the eastern spine of the North Pennines. It also features a lot of lorries – never particularly fun to be buffeted by heavy vehicles as they pass alongside you with millimetres to spare.
Anyway, I got to a place called Riding Mill. I was hot and sweaty and wanted to get off the main road. So I found Route 72, and after a banana snack and a quick wee in a hedge, put my head down to do some miles.
About an hour passed. My morale and energy was quite low. It would appear that even if you have ridden LEJOG, your fitness can disappear pretty quickly. The country roads had been delightful, but after I’d glanced at my map and realised that I wasn’t even halfway to Kielder, a bit of fear began to grow in the pit of my stomach.
Literally moments later, I pulled into the little town of Corbridge. I was surprised to stumble across a lively fete happening in the market square. There was a brass band, street food, bars, stalls, bunting and flowers adorning this lovely little convivial place. I pulled out my headphones and just stood for a moment at the side of the road, both delighted and bewildered at my discovery. To onlookers and locals, I must’ve been a sight: a sweaty cyclist, beaming her head off.
“Chips. Coffee.” I thought.
As I pushed my bike through throngs of people enjoying the Midsummer evening festivities, I didn’t find the former, but I did manage to gravitate towards Spokes Kitchen – a cycling themed coffee shop. As I sipped on my soy flat white and then later on my cold orange Fanta, I weighed up my options.
I was cycling slower than I had originally anticipated – maybe because of the hills, maybe the heat, maybe my fitness – but getting to Kielder before darkness was going to be a push. There was still about 45 miles to go, and the sun was due to set in about two and a half hours. Equally, I was now about the same distance from home, so turning back didn’t look particularly promising either.
In a moment of weakness, I rang my housemate. “Maybe she could come and meet me for a pint,” I thought. “Maybe she could take me home after.” She didn’t pick up.
I decided to re-route. Kielder wasn’t going to happen, and it was too late to go home (not that I really wanted to anyway). Derwent Reservoir was only 11 miles away – although admittedly, back up the hills I’d just come down. I knew it would have some great camping spots on the shoreline, having been lucky enough to spend (too) much of my University time, sailing on that very piece of water.
So I put my headphones back in my ears and jumped back on my bike. The Guilty Feminist helped me through those 11 miles and 300m in climbing. I was struggling, but I was doing it. I was going to be fine.
As I pushed over the brow of the hill and down into the valley which held the reservoir below, the sky was aglow. A breeze had picked up but the clouds had cleared and the sky was that wonderful paintbox of blue and orange and pink and white. I took my time, slowly pedalling along the eastern shore of the lake. Each time I spotted a potential camping spot, I noticed a farmhouse or something else which put me off pitching up. By the time I reached the dam which marks the southern stopping point of the reservoir, I could see two people walking their dogs along the wall. There was a campervan standing in the car park not far behind them. I began to get a bit worried.
After distracting myself by eating a flapjack and taking loads of photos, enough light had disappeared for me to just commit to finding a spot. At this point I was stupid. I found this flat, open piece of grass on the southern, lee shore of the water. There was an absolutely incredible view, but I was open to the elements. Plus, I was right next to a car park.
Just as I was about to whip off my shorts and get out my bivi, a man in a 4x4 arrived looking official.
“It’s a beautiful evening isn’t it?” I said as I ambled over, trying not to look too suspicious.
Me and the Northumberland Water patrol man made amiable conversation for 10 minutes, as we watched the sun disappear at the far end of the lake. He was doing his rounds of clearing people out before he locked the gates by the visitor’s centre for the evening.
As my heart was thumping in my chest, I just hoped that he wasn’t going to escort me off the premises. It was dark. I was 2 hours from home. I was tired. I didn’t want to cycle anymore. I wasn’t going to find anywhere else nice to sleep. But he didn’t. He must’ve assumed that I was on my way out, for he clambered back into his jeep and drove off down the road, wishing me well on my cycle home.
I didn’t cycle home.
I sat for a while and ate my dinner (a leftover falafel wrap which had gone a bit dry) to make sure that he wasn’t coming back. Then I got out my bivi, blew up my mat, rolled out my sleeping bag and threw in my liner. A quick change, a tooth brush and I was ready for some sleep.
Being warm outside, being warm in a tent, being warm in a bivi bag. All very different. When you’re just lying there, on the ground, the warmth from your body can seep away incredibly quickly. I hid my face inside the many layers of material and utilised my hot breath to warm up my sleeping bag. Turns out that was a mistake.
Who knows how long I was lying there, tossing and turning, listening to the wind picking up and blowing around me. Eventually, I must’ve fallen asleep. I’m unsure about how long later, (maybe it was minutes, maybe hours) I woke up and realised that the inside of my bivi bag was wet. My breath had condensed into little water droplets, which were now dripping onto me. Lovely.
I took my cocoon apart and stood underneath the clear night sky, at the edge of the lake, waving my inside out bag into the wind. I must’ve looked ridiculous. But there was no-one there to see me.
When it was dry enough, I pushed everything back into the non-breathable fabric and this time, left the top open and my head sticking out. It was cold, but I did sleep. That listless, restless kind of sleep, where you’re semi-conscious for the entirety. And yet suddenly, it was morning. The sky was bright by 4:30am. So bright in fact, that I thought I’d slept through until about 7.
The breeze has lessened but the air was still fresh, so I stayed curled up in my little sleeping pod for a while longer. I sat back against the tree next to me and savoured my morning breakfast of banana and flapjack, as I watched the sun appear over the horizon.
The next 20 minutes or so were a flurry of activity. Bags, mats and clothes were stuffed away, back into my rucksack. Cycling shorts taken down from the tree they’d been hung from. Socks retrieved from the hedge they’d blown away into.
I was back on my bike by 5:30am. The ride home was a hilly 33km, but it was familiar. I didn’t need Glenda for this one. Despite the snatched sleep and low energy reserves, I felt fresh. My legs felt good. And it felt even better when I rolled back into my house at ten past 7 in the morning, before anyone else was even awake.
Some might say this adventure was a failure. I never got to Kielder. I still haven’t seen the forest or the lake or the park, but do you know what? It’ll still be there for next time. So in my mind, this microadventure was a success. I went somewhere new, I overcame some fears and I realised that it was time to change the plan before it was too late.
Happy solstice one and all. Here’s to many more midsummer night dreams.
Written by Bex Dawkes: With a belief that if more people spent time outside, the world would be a better place, Bex is an advocate of going on adventures - wherever and however you can. Originally from Worcestershire, UK she is now living the outdoor dream in British Columbia, Canada. You'll normally find her roaming around on her bicycle, running up the nearest mountain or pouring over maps in the pub.
Follow her adventures on instagram: @thebexplorer.