The tyre over the concrete path sounded Shush, Shush as I leant into the harness and dragged it steadily along. It wouldn’t be so difficult soon, I told myself, soon I’ll be on a smooth tow-path and the resistance will be lower. Tyres are meant to stick to roads after all, aren’t they? I could already feel my legs aching after just a few hundred metres, and it took all my strength to keep a steady pace. It’s momentum that’s key to hauling a tyre – the best training available to practise hauling all your kit and equipment in special sledges, called pulks.
Soon I’ll be doing this for real – with training expeditions to Norway and Greenland just around the corner – I need to be able to do this for hours, maybe 9 or 10 hours, each day for weeks.
Immediately I attract attention – some boaters have heard the noise of the tyre and couldn’t quite place it. They climbed up the bank and announced ‘We thought you were the village idiot.’ I think the same sometimes! They were really interested in what I was training for, so I explained all about Antarctica. To a fan of this mystical place, it still surprises that people don’t know there are no polar bears, or that nothing really lives in the interior. They have a ride in the tyre and I try and pull them – this makes a great picture but I get nowhere. It’s nice to have an excuse to stop and chat to people to be honest, but we soon say our goodbyes and I’m off again.
I’m not fast, but I’m steady, and once I’m in the swing of it I can enjoy the scenery. This part of the Thames Path, near Lechlade, is supposed to be one of the prettiest sections. The concrete path turns a corner and I’m at a picture-postcard sweet lock, with a cottage still occupied by the lock keeper, and flowers in pots and hanging baskets all around the edge of the river.
The smooth tow path I’d imagined was not to be. The terrain was primarily long grass on bumpy paths – something you’d barely notice if you were strolling along unencumbered by a tyre on a rope. I am starting to learn where the tyre will catch, spotting roots or fence posts and learning when it will try and jerk me back. Patiently, I stop and lift it over obstacles, through gates and down steps.
My companion for the day was not pulling tyres, but entertained me with stories – it was a rather one-way conversation as I was concentrating hard on the all-important momentum.
The route really was the prettiest – we walked through tall grass and butterflies took to the air in a cloud of colour as we passed. We spotted iridescent dragonflies and even a frog. We barely saw anyone despite it being a beautiful Saturday in July. I was surprised how remote it felt even though we were by the Thames.
We reached a pub after 5 miles and I was supremely glad to sit in the shade with a Coke and literally take the weight off. We assessed our progress – we needed to get back to Lechlade and at the current speed it would have been very late by the time we arrived. The pub offered to look after my tyre and harness and from there I practically skipped the rest of the route, which took in World War II pill boxes and wooded glades.
My friend said goodbye and returned to London. I’d planned to sleep out that night and set off to recce a suitable spot. It was to be the first time I’d slept in just a bivvy bag – it was warm and the forecast was good; travel light I thought.
I walked further and further from the layby I’d left my car in. Along past a pub, mooring points and a long way further – past the pylons which hummed in the summer twilight.
I think it was a combination of things; not being able to spot a place which was both homely and comfortable; far enough from the path to be safe but close to a hedgerow, or was it that it felt too far from my fellow human beings? Not that surely, as I’ve happily wild camped alone. I’ve concluded that it was the lack of a tent which put me off. Something primeval and innate this –when alone – stopped me from wanting to just lay down in the undergrowth and go to sleep. A tent may not provide any safety – it’s only a bit of nylon after all – but there’s something about being enclosed which makes you feel protected. If I’d been with someone else, that might have been a different story. I learned something about myself that night, as I turned around and retraced my steps back to the car and headed home.
I’m sure that every time we go out into the wild, what we learn is something about ourselves as much as anything we might learn about our environment. I learned that I like a tent! It’s not really that much extra weight. I’ll be making sure I pack my Bunker for extra security (!) next time.