Health: Spending forty nights in nature

Gwyneth Rees, July 26, 2017

Deep in the woods may seem like an unlikely place to meet for an interview. But it’s all par for the course for Hannah Taylor, a micro-adventurer and organiser of Bristol Cycle Festival,

We meet behind a large beech tree in a forest outside Bristol, where she is lying among the ferns that cover her face like a mobile in a crib. The birds are chirping noisily, the ground is covered in bluebells, and the pungent smell of wild garlic hangs in the air.

At eight in the morning, she is just waking from her sleep – half in, half out of her sleeping bag, face bitten by midges and slightly bleary-eyed from the never-ending dawn chorus, but she is beamingly happy.

It may seem strange, but this is where Hannah, 40, feels most at home – sleeping outdoors in the wilderness.

“I find such peace here,” she says. “Sometimes, I will wake and a deer will be right next to me. Birds, too, will swoop incredibly close because they think I am part of the landscape. It’s an opportunity to re-connect with nature, and a feeling that I don’t truly get from just hiking through it.”

Hannah’s temporary home for the night

It’s all part of Hannah’s project to spend 40 nights in nature, sleeping under the stars with no tent, just a bivvy bag – a waterproof sleeve with a hood that she climbs into with her sleeping bag, leaving her face open to the elements.

Wild camping is illegal in much of the UK without express permission, but landowners will often turn a blind eye as long as campers are considerate. Hannah ensures she always takes her litter home and leaves the sites she sleeps at as wild as she found them.

“I’ve slept on top of a hillfort and in woods and fields,” Hannah continues. “One night I spent high up on scaffolding to feel closer to the birds, but most of the time I am immersed in nature.”

The idea came from a yearning to spend more time outdoors. Living in a city flat in Clifton with no garden and no car to access wilder parts of the south west, she began to wish for a life that felt more connected to the land and how our ancestors used to live.

“The first time I slept outside without a tent was by accident. I went to celebrate the summer solstice and the campsite was full. There wasn’t an option of turning around, so we just snuggled down without a tent.

“After that, I was hooked. I went travelling for three months and slept in my bivvy bag each night, but I found that too much. Once back home in Bristol, I still wanted a manageable dose of nature, so this project was born.”

On a previous wild camping adventure with a friend

For Hannah, who has currently completed about half of her intended nights out in the wild, this isn’t just a project for hazy summer nights. “Bivvying in winter is wonderful. There are never any people about, the air is fresh and cold, and sometimes I’ve woken up to find ice has formed around me. It makes me feel invincible and incredibly alive.”

Most of the time, Hannah stakes out a spot before spending the night there. The only real requirement is that it is within 90 minutes’ bike ride from Bristol on her trusty bike, paniers filled with equipment.

A typical excursion might consist of leaving her Clifton flat just before dark – sometimes as late as 11pm during summer – then peddling past drunken revellers across the suspension bridge and towards her destination.

Once there, she will turn off her bike lights so her eyes can adjust to the dark – “like a fox” – before settling down. “Walking alone through a wood at night can be an unnerving experience,” she admits. “I often get startled by a noise, but usually it is just something on my bag.”

Initially Hannah felt afraid of wild sleeping as a lone woman, but now she is used to it. “I decided I could either let men have all the fun, or I could get over my fears and just do it. Smiling at her own intrepidness, she continues: “I just feel my adventures steal me time out of life when I would otherwise be watching TV at home. It’s addictive.”

As she rolls up her bivvy bag to the chorus of birds in the fresh morning air, and slowly erases all trace of her night here in the wilderness, Hannah falls silent, enjoying the peace of the forest around us. Somehow, I think she will pursue this long after the milestone of her forty nights has passed.

To hear more of Hannah’s story, download the Bristol and Beyond podcast by Gwyneth Rees.

 

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