Tuesday, 28 February 2006

Student Loans Company

I hate the Student Loans Company who are without doubt the most inept organisation in the UK.

Not having an address is something that they just can't cope with. Fortunately they seem to be staffed by drones whose soul motive in life is to not think for themselves in any way shape or form. It seems that the fact that I don't have an address to send letters to will quite possibly bring about the end of the world as we know it, it is not possible to communicate with me via email. Everything has to be done by post.

I wrote to them and tell them that you no longer live at the address that they have for me and requested that they communicate via email, they responded by writing to the address I had told them not to with a bill, then with charges for not paying that bill, repeat.

Monday, 27 February 2006


I have been quite busy; in fact I can say that this weekend I have been very busy. I have made three batches of Charcoal, built a wind break, roasted lamb in an earth oven, been for a walk, made a new pot hanger, made a raised bed / seat, had a visitor, collected fire wood, started work on a totem pole, read some philosophy, had a cold, felt sorry for myself, felt good about myself, had a run in with a Red Kite and enjoyed spotting some more signs of spring.

The way making Charcoal works is like this. At the end of the night just before going to bed I take the fire apart, by moving all the logs away from each other so that they go out. They smoke a lot and if the wind changes direction I lie in bed with my eyes watering but mostly the wind is favourable. The embers that are left behind get buried under ash and then a layer of soil, this starves them of oxygen and in the morning I’m left with a small amount of charcoal mixed up with loads of ash that I sift through with my fingers placing the charcoal in a waterproof container to be used in emergencies. Some times a few pieces of charcoal are still hot and glow red if blown on, these bits can be used to start a new fire if placed together with some dried grass and kindling on top. Once flames have appeared adding on last nights half burnt logs soon gets a fire going, water is then put on to heat so I can wash all the ash from my hands.

A number of long logs were gathered and lined up along the head end of the lean-to to act as a wind break, it is far from waterproof but it is very aesthetically pleasing to have a wall built entirely from my local environment, ultimately it’s just a pile of sticks but to me, having had no more than the ground and a small bit of tarp for shelter for the last nine months it is the height of luxury. The bed that I have made, well I doubt if you will see it in DFS seeing as it consists of three 7 foot long logs of about the same height laid next to each other with the thermarest self inflating mattress on top. Not necessarily the most comfortable thing in the world but it’s warmer than lying on the ground, I feel like a king (The repair on the puncture in the Thermarest did work after all; it was just that the valve was undone). Obviously I can also use this as a seat and it makes a huge difference psychologically to wake up slightly off the ground. I was most cheery this morning but that could well have been partly to do with the fact that it was a little bit light and above freezing. Don’t worry it’s due to drop down to -4 by Friday. Next weekend I’m going to raise the layer of the bed up further by placing three short bits of log underneath and at 90 degrees to those already there; one at the head, one in the middle and one at the foot end. This way I should have a seat at a comfortable height and be able to heat my bed by putting rocks warmed on the fire underneath it.

The Totem pole is perhaps a tad ambitious, I’m sure Penny Munn who received the spoon that I attempted to carve will attest to my lack of abilities in the carpentry department. It does seem a little appropriate to try to make one though. I have, in keeping with native American tradition, positioned my shelter so that I face east and thus wake to the rising sun and I thought why not make a totem pole. Or rather I found a great big fallen down tree snapped the top off it by levering it around another tree, trimmed another 5 foot off the top of it by picking it up and dropping it on the piece that I had already snapped odd and the piece that was left had Totem pole written all over it, so I’m going to try and make one. I have every confidence that it will be a monstrosity but hopefully it will keep me out of trouble.

I am having a few issues with all this making life comfortable, not that I have a problem with being comfortable and I guess I set out to prove it possible to live a full modern life whilst having a minimal environmental impact and so being comfortable should be part of this I guess. The fact that I’m finding out how to be comfortable using naturally occurring items (trees) is all for the better I guess. It’s just that making it easier, as a level of comfort is want to do, kind of takes away some of the challenge of it. I was mulling this over at the weekend and found myself with a copy of Rousseau‘s Discourse on Inequality, OK I know I’m a freak I enjoy reading philosophy sometimes. Anyway there is a paragraph in there that really seemed to strike home. Basically he makes comparisons between wild and domesticated animals think if you will of the differences between a cat and a wild cat or a wolf and a dog. Rousseau says that the wild animals have more energy, strength and spirit than the domesticated versions and says that the process of domestication has caused a degeneration of a wild cat or a wolf. What really got me thinking is that he then goes on to say that the same is true of civilised man in comparison to wild man and that not only is the civilised man of the wild in the same way that a domesticated animal is but that the effect is worse because we treat ourselves to greater comforts than we do are pets and beasts of burden. I have to say that I have of late been feeling, save for having a bit of a cold, on top of the world and as thought I can do anything I set myself, perhaps making a bed and a wind break is a step towards weakness.

If any one is interested in learning some survival skills Wayne from Forest Knights has kindly donated a weekend on one of his weekend survival courses this year to the charity auction this Wednesday, normal price £165. If you would like to bid on this please to email me and I can bid on your behalf. Also up for auction is a friction fire stick kit, basically a kit and instructions so that you can light fire by rubbing two sticks together, value £10 - £15, again email me if you would like to bid.

Sunday, 26 February 2006

Sunday Lunch

This afternoon I will be setting off on my second sojourn into the world of earth oven use. As a newcomer to this type of cooking I guess that I am not really qualified to comment on it's finer points as a cooking technique. However, there are one or things that come to mind when using an earth oven as opposed to a domestic or commercial oven. I have no small amount of experience with either domestic or commercial ovens having long been a keen cook and even on occasion earning a living as a chef, I come to the world of earth ovens, as the majority of people will, with an understanding of ovens gained in a less traditional setting. One thing about modern ovens that I had never really noticed before yet which became abundantly clear to me this morning is that they are very easy to locate. Domestic ovens will be against a wall, covered in buttons and, invariably, a digital clock sometimes such ovens even emit a loud ping noise that both alerts one to it's location and to the fact that whatever is in it should be done. Commercial ovens tend to be made of stainless steel, with a row of black dials along the front and can be located by the proximity of a large number of sweating swearing chefs. Earth ovens, as I discovered this morning, are not so easy to find. It might appear to you, as it previously did to me, that a hole in the ground would be easy enough to find, especially if you know where abouts it is and you had been falling into it with alarming regularity for over a month. It's location might also appear irrelevant when it is considered that to build another one all one has to do is dig a hole. However, the heat source I used on Christmas Day was two 10kg weight lifting weights and these I had left, for convenience and tidiness, in the bottom of the hole.

Two weeks ago it rained, a lot, and the spot where I sit next to the fire became a mini quagmire of mud. Cunningly I raked this mud into a convenient nearby hole, thus burying the weights. Last weekend I built a lean-to shelter and so the lay of the land is now completely different. What fun I had this morning digging a series of long shallow trenches in the hope of locating the oven. Eventually I did indeed find it, under the east wing of the lean-to.

So I have come into Oxford to get something to wrap the lamb in for cooking, there being no leaves on the trees right now. There are shoots on the Elder trees and buds apearing on the Hazel, some green plant is just showing through the layer of leaves on the forest floor but I have no idea what it is.

Friday, 24 February 2006


just remembered, this weekend I'm going to attempt to light a fire by rubbing two sticksw together. If you are in the woods this weekend and hear an ungodly shriek of frustration followed by a low muttering of expletives please bring matches and a cup of tea

jibba jabba

Like Samantha and the Woodland Trust crew I am spending every spare minute working on Wednesday's Party. Many details to finalise and promoting to be done and so I have not really had the chance to write much Blog this week.

Last night there was a good inch and a half of snow on the ground when I got back home, it was about 6 degrees C so there was a constant dripping as it melted. That did not last long though as very shortly after I got back the temprature plumeted, I had only lit a small fire to quickly cook some pasta and make a brew over, and sitting next to it I could feel no warmth at all.

Over the last few nights I have gathered kindling and tinder on my way home and used most of it to light a fire, a small bit each day I have left aside under the shelter for use in emergencies - like last night when everything was soaking wet and not suitable to light a fire with. Not having a light (my head torch having gone completely disapeared and my torch being "somewhere safe") I scrabled around in the dark to find the dry stuff. Just enough to get a fire going, no chance for any mistakes then. Fortunately the fire lit first time and I built it up with the remains of last nights branches and Elder which burns hot and quick, just right for boiling water. Water, would have been handy if I had some. Fortunately there was, as I mentioned, a thick layer of snow all around and so I went and gathered enough to cook pasta. It was lucky that only the day before I had been reading in Ray Mears book the right way to melt snow and soon enough I was having pasta with cheder and broccoli. Lovely.

This weekend I'm going to get amongst roasting a leg of lamb with oak smoked garlic and rosemary, this I will have with onion marmelade, baked potato and parsnip and carrot fritters. That's the theory anyway.

Best go I have to get to the laundry in teh next half an hour, if I don't I won't get another chance for a week and that does not bare thinking about, certainly not for the other people on the bus.

take care

Wednesday, 22 February 2006

The Black Eye

came off in the shower, thats what happened to that one, not that I feel silly or anything.

brief update

hugely horribly busy, stupid job.

The shelter I have made, well it's more that I have put the tarp up properly for the first time than I have built a house or anything. There are a few branches being used as support and there is no suggestion of my being completely sheltered from the elements. I have made it from my emergency bit of tarp which is possibly a little less wide than I am tall but nevertheless it is a great improvement. Now I have it attached to the ground it also works as a wind break, not only does this keep me a little warmer but when I have a fire it stops the fire burning so quickly in the breeze. If you are interested in such things it is based loosely around the Arctic Open Lean-to design, only without sides or a bed.

What else has happened? I'm not sure, I'm so busy at the moment that I can't really remember what has been happening in my life. It snowed on Monday night, that was nice. I'm getting quite good at lighting a fire in the dark, although I cheat and use a match, its amazing to see how much I have improved at firelighting since I started out. I used to take ages, loads of paper and much swearing to light a fire. The last two nights it has been wet and I have had no torch and yet within 5 minutes I can have the kettle on. I'm quite pleased with myself. However, having been reading Ray Mears' book I notice that I am only just at the beginning of what I have to learn, not that this bothers me much as its fun, much more interesting than studying law.

Winter does seem to be dragging on a bit now, sleeping completely cocconed in a sleeping bag is not very comfortable and nor is lying on the floor. A bit of warmth and light is required but it should not be long coming now. Although it might be a bit uncomfortable and its not great being cold every night and sleeping in your clothes there are upsides to it, listening to an owl twit - tawooing last night was rather good. The other night I rolled over in my sleep and must have disturbed a creature by so doing as I heard something scamper away into the bushes.

There is next Wednesday to look forward to, that's the party in the AKA bar and it will also be nine months to the day since I started out, 3/4 of the way through. At the party, as well as the usual drinking, dancing, music and what not there will also be an auction. Details of which can be found by following the link on this page http://www.woodland-trust.org.uk/ditch/ I would like to thank all who have given such fantastic things to be auctioned for the Woodland Trust, it's amazing. Should you see anything that you would like to bid on there is the option on the Auction page to email bids to us and we can take care of the rest.

Saw two crocusses the other morning as I was scraping the worst of the mud off my boots prior to getting on the bus, nearly killed the poor things.

Tuesday, 21 February 2006

Change of tack

I have decided to start taking living in the woods a bit more seriously. So far it’s all been a bit chaotic and a little disorganised, you probably will not have noticed this so you will just have to take my word for it.

The general idea is to stop treating it as a bit of a laugh and to start doing things properly, it should after all be possible to do this and live quite comfortably; so far I have been lazy. All that is required is a little bit of effort and my quality of life should improve no end. So that’s what these last few months will be all about; learning how to survive in the woods, I have Ray Mears book Essential Bushcraft and I will digest, learn and use. So far things have been going quite well, OK I have lost my head torch and ended up getting a branch in my eye as a result but I have learnt how to cook in the dark with one eye shut so it’s not all bad. Last night I heated up some soup, I know it is the height of laziness but it was nice with some crusty bread, after that I barbequed some sausages to have in a sandwich for lunch today. It’s a bit difficult to tell if sausages are cooked when you can’t see them so I erred on the careful side and enjoyed some very black sausages for lunch.

Monday, 20 February 2006

Three is the Magic Number, discuss.

Back in the day De La Soul proclaimed three to be the magic number, and few have had cause to argue. However, a closer look at the facts shows that in fact Two is a far superior number and that the further from Two that we get the worse the situation becomes. Take for example some of the best things in life. Strawberries and cream, bacon and eggs, Simon and Garfunkle, M and M, Gin and Tonic, sublime combinations all and the secret lies in the simplicity of the blend. Compare these, if you will, with the following combinations; bacon eggs and jam; Dave, Dee, Dozy, Grumpy, Beaky, Mick and Titch or even Gin, Tonic, Beer Whiskey, Kebab and a fight. We can clearly see that the second list is in no way to be compared favourably with the first but what is it that unifies the second list? They all contain a number of items greater than two and from this we can extrapolate that any combination greater than Two, for example Three, is not a magic number.

By way of further example lets take three random things and see if they combine together to create a result that could in anyway be described as happy or ‘magic’. The three things are; the internet, a credit card and extreme stupidity, the place is this very office, the time last Friday afternoon. No good can come of this.

It all started innocuously enough with an early breakfast, a large cup of tea and a copy of the Times. Somewhere in the inside pages was an article that caught my attention, The Rolling Stones, I learnt, were to play a concert for 2 million people on Copacabana beach Rio De Janeiro on Saturday. I don’t know about you but that sounds like just the sort of thing to really make a weekend go with a swing. So I have a look on the internet, just out of curiosity you know, to see how much tickets to Rio are and if it would be theoretically possible to get there, see the gig and be back in time for work on Monday morning. What do you know? It is possible but the ticket would be quite hugely expensive. I ummed a bit and then ahhed a bit and decided against it, it’s not really the kind of abuse my credit card can take. Then I changed my mind, that’s the kind of party that will never be repeated; I would rather leave this world with an empty pocket and a head full of memories than a full pocket and no memories.

The tickets were gone, I couldn’t believe it. Trawling the internet provided no further leads and I was quite down cast, not even free hot chocolate raised my mood. I had been so close to going to party on Copacabana with the Stones live in concert. Half heartedly I kept checking the BA web site just in case there was a cancellation. Over and over I entered in the details of the flight I wanted and over and over it said the flight was not available; until one time. There was a space! Suddenly I was faced with a dilemma, I could go but I really couldn’t afford it. I teased myself by filling in all my credit card details and then left it. I was but one click of the mouse away from going to Rio to attend the biggest party in History. I turned to Mark and asked him what I should do, “get me a T shirt”. I closed my eyes pressed OK and Mark looked at me grinned, pointed and said “Your going to Rio”. I skipped around the Office a little a huge grin on my face. Bring it on!

Or it would have been bring it on had I not accidentally booked a flight in March. Apparently I can move the dates but there were no flights left for Friday. So I am now the proud owner of a return flight to Brazil, curious. I had a look on the internet and it seems as though there are quite a few trees there so I’m quite looking forward to going there for my summer holls. I think the trick will be to go for more than a weekend, I’m thinking I might try to take a month and spend some decent time there once this year in the woods is up. It’s quite odd I can’t remember the last time I went away with more that about 10 days planning.

Three, in my experience is not a magic number, then again maybe it is; I like the idea of digging the hammock out, slinging it between some trees and going surfing.

Friday night I went back to the woods and was in bed by 9pm and over the next 36 hours I slept for 32 so perhaps its best I did not make it to the party. In the four hours that I was up I managed to construct a rudimentary lean-to shelter that I am quite pleased with. Previously I had attached my tarp to the branches of a tree and would have to lie beneath it, precisely where would be dictated by the angle the rain was coming in at. Now I have a fairly sturdy shelter.

More on this later

As for the black eye it went a little like this

I lost my torch.

Then I built a shelter

then I came back home in the dark and was thinking to myself "there is a shelter here now, I best be careful there are all kinds of branches where there didn't used to arrrrrgggghhhh"

I have just been told that I don't have a black eye at all. If you look really carefully you can see some bruising.

There are also the very beginnings of leaves showing on the Hazel trees.


Can’t talk now; at work.

Have a hole in my forehead, a slightly black eye, a finger held together with zinc oxide tape and a rather accurate portrayal of a saucepan handle branded into my fingers.

Will explain all later

Thursday, 16 February 2006

Boo ya!

The last few weeks have been quite hectic what with the organising of the party and all that, not, I hasten to add, that I have played much part in the actual organising. This is probably a good thing as my version of organising a party rarely stems much beyond finding the biggest sound system possible and, erm, well that's it really. Fortunately the lovely Samantha got on the case and before you could say "something" the AKA bar was on board closely followed by some quality DJs and drinks sponsorship from Johnnie Walker. Check out the details here.

If you have read the link you will realise that, not only does the party sound amazing, but that it is claimed that this blog is hilarious. Shhhh, don’t let on that all it contains is stories of me falling over, getting wet, forgetting important thing and generally having a heard existence whilst the rest of you read from the comfort of your nice warm homes. I don’t see that there is anything funny in that.

You probably wouldn’t find it in the least bit amusing that last night I ended up sleeping in what was effectively a hedge; I was still missing my boots so didn’t want to stray so far from the road. I know for sure that I didn’t find it funny that the ground I was lying on was so bumpy that it was impossible to lie flat and that as a result I have a really stiff back tonight. Not that I had that much chance of getting to sleep, I had a feeling that would be the case when I got my sleeping bag out only to discover it weighed about twice as much as usual; it didn’t take long to realise that this was because it was soaking wet. Fortunately though the strong wind during the night blew most of the water away although it did keep me awake as no matter how often I rolled around, adjusted zips, covered my head with a coat or even hid behind trees the wind still found it’s way inside my sleeping bag. I did get to sleep eventually and was a risk of not being awake at 4am! However, I was woken shortly before by a noise, a very loud noise a bit like an airplane flying overhead but not getting louder or quieter just a strange ungodly harmony, most disturbing. That will teach me to sleep between two radio masts, not that I realised I was until I got up – it was dark when I went to bed you see.

All that apart yesterday was a brilliant day, the first few signs of spring are about and it is noticeably lighter earlier in the morning and later at night. The end is in sight, OK it’s still 4 months away but the worst is over, and having got through the winter thus far I have an amazing sense of achievement. I would be actually leaping about today, but my back aches.

I knew today was going to be a good day as it didn’t start to rain until I was half out of bed and half dressed and indeed it is. Thanks to all the hard work of Samantha and all the chaps at the Woodland Trust we are now able to release some of the details of the party so if you have not read about it yet please click on the link bellow.

You might have noticed that there is to be an auction, watch this space for more details, there will also be a couple of surprises along the way but they wouldn’t be surprises if I were to give them away now would they.

Hope to see you there


Wednesday, 15 February 2006

Valentines Day

I don’t know if you were out and about in sunny Oxfordshire last night, if you were you would have noticed that it wasn’t, sunny that is. In fact it was absolutely pouring down. As I believe I mentioned when I wrote about the weekend I have learnt my lesson about taking it for granted that it will not rain and therefore to be prepared for it, well that’s the theory. The reality, when it struck home in last night’s downpour with attached high winds, was rather different. The thing I have noticed with living in the woods is, that each time I figure out how to survive comfortably in a season and I’m resting on my Laurels thinking that things are getting dull the season goes and changes on me. All of a sudden I’m faced with a new set of challenges and by the time I figure out how to cope with them they change on me again. I am fairly well adapted to coping with cold weather, sadly though it has started to rain. I heard on the radio the other day that it would take 8 weeks of solid rain to refill the reservoirs. My money is on there now being 8 weeks of solid rain.

Before it started raining and I had to go out in it I was having a really very good day, these first signs of spring have put a bit of a spring in my step. It was possibly with this in mind, or maybe because of the fact that the jeans I had bought just before Christmas fell apart on Monday night, that I went out and bought some new ones. I’m not entirely sure why I decided to wear my running shoes rather than my boots and I am not really certain what I was thinking about when I decided to leave the tarp, the spare tarp, the thermarest mattress, the roll mat, the jet boil and the two side pouches from my rucksack behind when I left the office on Monday. I knew I would not be back in that office for a few days as I am working in another part of town, I guess I was just concentrating on transporting a couple of suits, my shoes and some shirts. My mind was probably also tied up with trying to figure out how to get them into a vaguely presentable condition when I’m going to be constantly moving about for a few days.

So I found myself in Oxford at midnight with a bit of a dilemma, where to go? It was pouring down with rain and I didn’t have much shelter, well none really. I walked around for a while trying to figure out what to do. I could go back to the shelter of the Yew Tree in Oxford but the rain will have turned the track there to mud and that would trash my shoes and my new jeans. There were two other options, sit on the bus to London going back and forth all night, that’s not much fun and sounds like cheating, or sleep in a field down by the river and get a bit damp. I bought some chips and cheese from Hassan and trudged around for a while weighing up my options, pools of students laughed their way by huddling together for shelter. A couple of lads in T shirts try to start a fight with me on George St as I walk past lost in thought a trickle of rain running down my back. My jeans are getting wet, I hope they are not getting dirty it’s nice to be wearing trousers out of work that are not full of holes and covered in filth. What I could do is wear the waterproof trousers I got back in the summer, I don’t think I have ever warn them but if I put them on when I get off the bus in Lewknor I could walk back to the Yew tree without ruining the new jeans. The waterproof trousers are in one of the side pouches under my desk. I remember looking at them when I was deciding if I should leave the pouches behind and thinking to myself “I don’t need these, I never wear them”. In the end then I went down to the river got out my sleeping bag and bivi bag put my trainers on top of my rucksack which I then covered with my coat and went to sleep. I did wake up a few times, it was the usual business of having zipped up the bivi bag to stop the rain getting in and then not being able to breath that woke me the most often. Second most often was the cold wet inside of the bivi bag clinging to my face, it’s just not waterproof in the slightest you see. After that the thing that woke me the most was rain falling in my face because I had unzipped the bivi bag to allow me to breath.

When the radio alarm woke me this morning it felt as though I had not slept at all, so I slept for another hour. That was good. One big advantage of wearing trainers rather than boots and not carrying all that weight is that running for the bus is a lot less effort.

Monday, 13 February 2006

Ditch Monkeys don't like rain.

Lots happened at the weekend; I had a good idea, figured out how to save the world from global warming and invented a time machine! It’s amazing just how productive one becomes without a television.

The good idea came, as they often do, over a cup of tea in Blackwells book shop on Broad St Oxford. I can’t claim that the idea was entirely mine as it was inspired by the book I was reading at the time; “Ray Mears Essential Bushcraft”. Just flicking through it I discovered my self learning things and having several of those, “that’s so obvious why didn’t I think of that” moments. For instance, one end of a stick, the other being poked into the ground, can be used to store a boot upside down and thus dry in the rain. Two such sticks ensures dry boots in the morning. A splendid idea, I have not in the two nights since reading this actually stuck two sticks in the ground but I have made a note to myself to do so when I have got up on both mornings. On flicking through the book some more I discovered that it is possible to sleep out in cold weather without a sleeping bag. The idea is to build a lean-to shelter to protect yourself from the elements and make a bed out of branches to lift your self off the cold ground. Then a fire is lit in front of the lean-to fire, no ordinary fire mind this fire is made to be the length of the shelter thus keeping the inhabitant warm all night long. Building such a fire is simple enough, it just requires a few long logs all piled up facing the same way and a little bit of encouragement to make it spread. Being a little fed up of being cold at night I decided to give it a go.

My situation was slightly different from the one I had read about, I had a sleeping bag but no shelter other than the tarp. I did consider building a shelter but it was nearly dark when I got home and I really couldn’t be bothered. So I built a fire, cooked some Chilli; well I say Chilli but I was missing cumin, chilli powder, tomatoes and kidney beans I had meant to cook Chilli but a series of misadventures in Oxford conspired against this. I find that my most successful creations in the kitchen have come from necessity; situations in which there is nothing to hand but a few odd ingredients that when combined create a gastronomic delight. Saturday night was not one of these occasions. Having eaten the gloopy twig infested concoction I set about stretching the fire out so as it would warm me through out the night. I figured there was no need to burn very much wood as it was not that cold so I made the fire about three foot long and left it to spread itself out further along the logs as the night progressed.

It was wonderful basking in the heat of the fire, nicer even that the sauna at the gym and it was so relaxing that I went to bed at about 7 (this ditch living is not all rock and roll you know). I fell straight to sleep and it was about 3am before I woke due to being cold so I rolled closer to the fire. I say closer to the fire, I think perhaps if I were to say I rolled on to the fire this might give a slightly more accurate description of what happened, at least that’s the impression the state of my sleeping bag revealed to me in the morning. Anyway I didn’t catch fire, maybe because I put the remains of the fire out by rolling onto it or quite probably because it started to rain, it absolutely heaved down and I was not lying under the tarp, no I was lying on the fire. I didn’t realise I was getting wet until the water started to seep through the hood of my sleeping bag and by this time the hood was completely wet through. Having woken and being rather unimpressed I rolled under the shelter of the tarp, or rather I rolled to where I thought the tarp would be, only to wake up later and wetter. By this point it was getting light and the rain was still bucketing down so I decided to get up. Getting up wasn’t great, everything was wet and I was feeling a bit miserable. Pretty much everything was wet through, sleeping bag, clothes, me, rucksack. I guess that will teach me for getting sloppy, it’s just that it has rained so little recently I kind of take it for granted that it will not.

The big challenge for the day was to get everything dry, for some reason I did not feel particularly inspired by the idea of getting into a wet sleeping bag at the end of the day. I was cold and shivering and did toy with the idea of getting on the bus and going to the laundrette in Oxford, but that would be defeatist; “what would Ray Mears” do I thought to myself. “Not be wet in the first place” came the reply. The obvious thing to do first was to re-light the fire so I checked to see if there was any warmth left in the charred ends of last nights logs, there wasn’t. Everything was soaking wet, at this point I began to seriously regret allowing myself to get so lazy, a while back I would have at all times enough kindling stored away in a waterproof bag to light a fire. Now I had nothing. I did have some paper and decide to cheat and use this to light a fire with, I really could not be bothered to mess about with starting a fire using only a spark. A lighter would have to do. My lighter was broken and I had no matches, this meant that I would have to break into my waterproof survival tin and use the waterproof matches I had in there. Not ideal to have to break into my reserves but at least I had some reserves.

My survival tin had been waterproofed with insulation tape it was quite a job unpeeling it with numb fingers, eventually I managed and was surprised to find the insides completely damp. This wasn’t great but at least the matches were proper waterproof ones, or at least they had been once, now they had turned to mush. No choice for it then, times to light the fire from a spark. This took some time as you can probably imagine, the situation was not ideal. In the end I resorted to using the last of the petrol to get the thing going. I’m not very happy about having to do so and I know if I had put my mind to it and persevered I could have lit the fire without resorting to this. It took about half an hour or so before the fire was going sufficiently well to stop belching out thick smoke and when it did I tied a length of cord between two trees so that it run close to but not over the fire, I then hung the tarp out over the cord so that the length by the fire was sheltered and then I hung my sleeping bag up to dry. It was dark before everything dried out and all day long it rained. The irony of it was not lost on me, on Friday night as I lay in bed with cracking lips and a massive thirst I fell asleep wishing for a tap or some, any, source of water.

This morning I was pleased to discover I was dry when I woke up, and even more pleased to realise that the Owl now comes and hoots away at the same time my alarm is set for, it seems an age since the last time that happened. I have given up on catching the 6.45 bus, preferring instead to catch the 7.10 unless it is a particularly busy day at work. So today when I walked to work, there was a smattering of bird song and enough light to see well by, I t drank deep draughts of this light, heady and happy. Like the sweet taste of water to parched lips, the light penetrated my very soul and lifted my spirits and I understood, or at least began to, the importance of the sun to ancient civilisations. Subjectively at least I understand why the sun was worshipped as a god.

Saturday, 11 February 2006

Mornings and memories

I dug out the lurid pink and blue roll mat last night, I remembered that when I had used it before I could not sleep because I was too hot. It struck me that seeing as I had been rather cold for the last few nights it would be worth investigating how it worked in cold weather, the hope was that it would be warmer to lie on than the thermarest. It was! I hardly woke up due to being cold at all, and had a rather decent nights sleep. It uses up the same space as the thermarest, cost a fraction of the price. The pink and blue roll mat does not self inflate though, in fact it does not inflate at all; the thermarest seems to be constantly punctured so I'm not so convinced that there is anything so special about self inflating mattresses. Apparently roll mats (non thermarest) can be used as a splint in case of broken bones so I think I might change to using roll mats for the rest of the winter, not that I intend to break any bones of course. The only problem is that it is bright pink and bright blue. The last few months has necessitated that I become a morning person and so I have become so but I am not yet enough of a morning person that I can deal with bright pink first thing in the morning. Not that it would particularly matter during the week at the moment as it is still dark when I get up but at the weekends its plenty light by the time I get up.

This morning I got up at about 9am and had to hide the fluorescence under my sleeping bag as I paced up and down to keep warm whilst deciding what to do with the day, a lack of water, a backlog of emails and a rugby match to watch dictated that I come into Oxford. A relaxing walk through the woods revealed sites that I don't notice in my rush to the bus in, at best, half light. There are buds on the trees I had not noticed before and a closer investigation reveals just the beginnings of a hint of green in the bud. Spring is on its way. Today is a good day.
It's odd coming back to Oxford and no longer being a student pretty much everywhere I go brings back memories. Today for example I was walking past a walled quod that has only two entrances, both of which get locked at sunset. A group of people were in their one evening after a cocktail party and so were all dressed up in black tie and cocktail dresses, not the sort of attire that lends itself to climbing over walls should they get locked into the quod. They got locked in and spent the best part of an hour trying to figure out how to get out, they had no mobile phone reception. Eventually they attracted the attention of a friend of mine who was passing by on the road outside and were insisting he helped them escape. After a couple of valiant attempts to scale the wall from his side in the hope he could pull the prisoners up he had to admit defeat. "Find a lader" he was instructed from the other side of the wall. Easier said than done at about 11 O'clock on a Saturday night, or so you would think. At that moment two of his friends staggered out from behind the corner of the school of geography all kitted out to break into Trinity College ball, dressed in black tie and carrying a ladder between them. In next to no time the prisoners were released.

Friday, 10 February 2006

Fun and Frolics

Bicycle puncture repair kits may not be quite as efficient as fixing punctures in thermarest mattresses as previously thought.

I was going to go to a cocktail party last night but ended up running late and missing it, a jacket and tie is not strictly speaking the best thing to wear for walking through the woods.
I just had a call from the gym, apparently I have not been in for a while and they were worried about me! It was bad enough dealing with my own feelings of guilt about not going without them calling to find out where I was. I made some excuses that I don’t think convinced them that much.

I’m not sure that I really need to go to the gym; this out door living business is really quite energetic what with the carrying a rucksack for at least four miles a day, running to the bus most morning, and being cold. Did I mention the cold? Its cold out there, really cold at night, I wake up a lot. It’s odd though, I would have thought that being that cold would keep me awake, all that happens is that I try to get a bit more tightly wrapped in the sleeping bag and then fall back to sleep only to wake up a bit later feeling cold. I don’t get cold enough to shiver but I do feel cold to the bone, it’s an experience that is not that pleasant and I rarely feel rested after sleep, a lot of days I have to admit it feels as though only a small percentage of my brain is functioning. I imagine that all my blood sugar has been used up keeping warm and so there is not much left to think with. I do, as I mention quite often, eat an extraordinary amount but nevertheless I keep getting told I have lost a lot of weight. Surely if I am eating lots but using up more energy than I consume then I must be leading a relatively healthy lifestyle? Surely marathon runner’s use up more energy than they consume on the day of the race; therefore I must be as healthy as a marathon runner. Thus I do not need to go to the gym as I am already healthy.

Seeing as I am, as proved above, as healthy as a marathon runner I allowed myself to be persuaded to take part in this http://www.taliskertrek.co.uk/ it looks like a lot of fun to me and fortunately managed to get some friends to join in. Sadly they are all of a rather unnecessarily competitive nature and seem to think the aim is to win the event, looks like I’m going to be paying a visit to the gym tonight then.

Is anyone going to take us on?

Wednesday, 8 February 2006

Stupid life

Everything is rather hectic in my life at the moment, hence blog entries of late being a bit disjointed; I don’t really get the chance to think about what I’m writing. This is no way to live. However, things are settling down again now.

Last night I even managed to get to my favourite spot, under the yew near Lewknor. It was, as always, nice to be back but it was dark when I got there and I have to say I am getting a bit bored of my world being dark, it does get a bit dispiriting after a while. On the other hand it was nice and quiet and I was reunited with my thermarest self inflating mattress and I was pleased to discover I had fixed the puncture. I had done this last week some time and promptly forgot about it, in the past I have had little success with fixing punctures using the thermarest puncture repair kit. Their kits just seem hugely complex to use; having to place a pan of hot water on the repair for instance is the sort of thing that does not lend itself to repairs in the field. Mostly punctures don’t stay repaired for long. Last week I had a flash of inspiration, why not use a bicycle puncture repair kit? Did I say inspiration? Perhaps that’s not quite the right way to describe finding a bicycle puncture repair kit in a draw at work. Then again was Newton’s discovery of gravity a flash of inspiration or did he just find gravity hanging out in the garden scrumping apples? Anyway, the bike kit was easy to use and, so far at least, is stopping the air from leaking out of the mattress. That’s the kind of thing I like.

Through a process of trial and error, emphasis on the error, I have developed a kind of routine. Every night I have my rucksack packed and ready to go, this means I can get up and leave within 5 minutes. All I have to add to the rucksack is my sleeping bag, toothbrush and paste, alarm clock, waterproof coat, mattress, poncho and head torch; all of which have their own specific place in the bag so I can find them with my eyes closed / in the dark. Before I go to bed I pack up any mess that has been made cooking along with whatever book I am reading and place the rucksack under the shelter of the trunk of the yew tree before placing my waterproof coat over it as added protection from the rain, the radio alarm is placed under the shelter of the coat, this protects it from the rain and also means it is out of reach when I’m in bed so I have to get up to turn it off. After brushing my teeth I get into bed and store the tooth brush and paste in my boots ready for use again in the morning, the boots of course are stored on their sides so as to lessen the chance of them being full of water in the morning. My jeans are used as a pillow and lastly the head torch is put on top of my boots so it is to hand should I need it, everything in its place makes for a relatively smooth transition from sleeping to running for the bus.

Last night I got lazy. I left; the coat in the rucksack, the alarm clock unset and my boots out from the shelter of the waterproof sheet. It was relatively warm when I went to bed and so I drifted off to sleep feeling relatively comfortable and generally happy with my lot in life before waking a couple of hours later to the sounds of rain drumming on the waterproof sheet above my head and the gentle patter of rain on my face. I felt smug, there was no wind, the rain was coming straight down and so I was staying relatively dry. The rain was coming down pretty hard and every half an hour or so the waterproof sheet would become so full of water that it would disgorge all that it had collected in an avalanche of water and noise directly onto my boots as I discovered in the morning. I was a little worried about the rucksack getting wet in the rain but not worried enough to get up and do anything about it. Eventually the rain stopped and when it did it got cold, I know because the cold woke me up, three times. Each time I pulled my sleeping bag tighter around me. At one point I woke feeling awake and active, almost as though it was time to get up I considered getting up but the alarm clock wasn’t going off maybe having considered that the alarm clock might not be working so I thought I should see how light it was as a way of judging what time it was, I don’t have a watch you see, I opened my eyes only to discover that it was pitch black. Clearly it was the middle of the night and so getting up would be a silly thing to do, what I didn’t allow for was the fact that being cold had led me to pull the hood of the sleeping bag completely over my head. Inside the sleeping bag it was dark, outside it was getting late.

I woke again at seven am, the sleeping bag no longer covered my face and the light of the sun just coming up from behind a hill woke me, this was confusing, my alarm still hadn’t gone off. Applying logic to the situation I rapidly concluded that the sun was early today and set about gong back to sleep, a nagging doubt told me that there was something wrong with my logic. Staying in my sleeping bag I wormed my way across to my alarm clock to check the time. Panic ensued. Jeans were on in a flash, right foot was thrust into right boot, right foot was rapidly un-thrust from right boot and a nights worth of water was poured from it, left boot was emptied ahead of left foots entry. I like to think I learn from my mistakes.

Having flung everything into my damp backpack in any old order I rushed off to the bus as quickly as my tendon injury and random feeling of utter desolation would allow. It was very odd, here was I walking to work as the sun came up rather than in the dark or at best in the glimmering light of pre-dawn but for some reason I just felt completely down, I tried looking at the sunrise and saying “ooh” in an enthusiastic way but from some reason I just plain felt down. Sitting on the bus listening to the tiny riffs emanating from the Ipod of the person next to me cheered me no end.

Tuesday, 7 February 2006


Kidnapped I was, not in the traditional bag over the head bundled in to the boot kind of a way, it was much more subtle than that.

Chris is a friend of mine from university, well although we were at uni together we actually meet at a festival, he was camping with his girlfriend of the time in a tent next to me and my girlfriend of the time. I should have remembered that Chris is the kind of reprobate that goes to festivals and listens to that boom boom music and thus been on my guard when he emailed and suggested we met up for a quiet drink yesterday. “Only a quick one” he wrote “I have a lot of work to do so I will have to leave by 8.30”, that sounded fine to me.

I got to Waterloo at about 7pm and asked for directions, the French accent of the guy that gave them to me should have alerted me to the fact that the directions were not necessarily being given by a local. I found Chris who immediately asked what had taken me so long to get the 100 meters from the station, I pointed out that the way I had come was a lot longer than 100 meters and so 10 minutes was actually not a bad time to cover the distance in. We strolled of to a bar in which it became rapidly apparent Chris had been with his friends for quiet some time and I’m afraid to say that Chris spiked my drink. Not, I grant you, in the traditional slip some vodka into a soft drink sense but more in the “there was a two for one offer on cocktails until 7 so I bought you three” kind of a way. There they where resplendent in their garish cacophony of colours, fruit and straws awaiting my consumption. Jolly nice.

It turns out that Chris and all his friends are all law students, nevertheless they made for good company and the fact they had no jobs to be going to in the morning made for an extraordinarily jovial atmosphere for a Monday night. Wine was ordered; often.

Living in the woods has many advantages; by comparison to the frozen lumpy ground a wooden floor in a stranger’s flat is hugely comfortable. Everything I might need for such an excursion is already handily strapped to my back.

Before setting off on my journey to work I had decided; that I didn’t want to take the tube or a bus, that I wasn’t going to ask directions and that I didn’t know where I was. I knew the name of the nearest tube stop but I didn’t know where it was, a quick perusal of my tube map revealed that I needed to travel north. A nice idea but once outside it became clear that the area was so built up and the sky so overcast it was impossible to see where the sun was and thus I had no clue where north was. There where a large amount of people all walking in the same direction so I decided to follow them, figuring that they would probably be going to a tube station. Soon enough though there were two groups of people walking in opposite directions there appeared to be nothing familiar in either direction but the path to the left led to a main road. The good thing about being lost in London is that if you can find your way to a main road you will soon find a bus stop and most bus stops have maps on them, only local maps but they can at least get you heading in the right direction. When I got to the main road I caught a glimpse of the sun and realised that I had been walking pretty much south rather than north but this wasn’t an issue as I also realised that I was only about 5 minutes from work. It seems tube maps are not the best way to find your way about over ground. Who would have thought it?

I have had enough of city life and I’m looking forward to going back to the woods tonight.

Monday, 6 February 2006

Party people (oi oi)

March 1st

keep it free.


Didn’t win the Euro Lottery at the weekend, bit of a blow that.

Lots has happened, been home to visit the parents and had a rather nice weekend as a result, the Rugby merely highlighting an already good weekend. As usual I find myself very busy with lots more to do than there is time to do it in, how does this always happen? I took some notes about the things that happened over the weekend and hope to one day write them up, along with all the rest of the stuff I meant to be writing about. For now then I guess two things are relevant. I slept in the most comfortable bed in the world for three nights. I left home with; a dread of returning to sleeping in the woods; and, a big bag full of crackers that looked suspiciously delicious and more than a little delicious. I tired to leave the dread behind but it managed to keep up, the crackers I put into one of the side pouches of my rucksack hoping that I would be able to protect them from becoming dust en-route.

Curiously I managed it; house to car, car to train all went well. Train to train at Reading didn’t go so well as the train I was transferring to appeared to have disappeared from the face of the earth. Not only that but all the staff at the station denied that such a train had ever existed, I suspect a government cover-up and started asking questions. I was obviously getting too close to the truth as I was suddenly ushered to a train that was just about to leave and so I was out of their hair and the only chance to solve the mystery of the missing train went as those doors shut behind me and I started my journey to Cardiff, Cardiff? I stashed away my rucksack being ever mindful of the crackers and looked around for entertainment. I found it in the form of a sticker on the door which instructed me to be sure that the door was “aligned with the platform” before departing from the train. Never before had I considered getting off a train on the wrong side at a station but now I was tempted. Mindful of the hazards waiting to befall the precious crackers should I alight from the wrong door I checked the geography of the station before jumping out at Didcot, a station from where I was assured I could get to Oxford in a matter of minutes I was delighted to discover that there was a train replacement service (bus). I carefully placed the pack into the boot of the jalopy whilst keeping half an eye on my fellow disgruntled passengers who seemed to be flinging their luggage about with glorious disregard for any delicate possessions stored in the bags on which theirs landed.

It only took half a cramped up hour to get to Oxford and I got to see a roundabout I used to pass on my way to work a few years ago so it wasn’t all bad. After extricating my bag I was stunned to discover that the crackers had survived so I went to the Turf to celebrate and catch up with Wilko before going to crash out.

I stayed down by the river in Oxford last night and I was most pleased to discover that it was a lot warmer than it was last week, this made life a lot more comfortable and I didn’t have to worry so much about staying warm. It might not have been as comfortable as sleeping in the bed but it being a bit warmer reminded me of just how nice this sleeping out business was in the summer. Sure I woke up a few times because I was cold but no where near as often as usual, I started to realise just how unpleasant the winter has been. I woke up at six and got up then rather than have a lie in, Oxford is further from London than Lewknor so I reasoned it would take longer to get to work and therefore I should get up earlier. Clever me. It was almost light at six, not properly light but certainly light enough to see things by and there was just a little bit of bird song audible on the air.

In the mornings the Oxford tube has two services to London, an express and an ordinary. The express doesn’t stop between Oxford and Marble Arch, the ordinary does. I get off at Shepherds Bush so I have to catch the ordinary. Simple? Not a 6.20. I got on the bus at one of the early stops when it was nice and quiet and was slowly falling asleep as the thing filled up. I was woken just before the last stop in Oxford by the driver announcing that this was the last stop before Marble Arch; I was on the express so I would have to get off. Not to worry I thought, the next bus will be along in 15 minutes and I will be first in the queue, I carefully unloaded my pack from the luggage rack and waited. Sure enough 15 minutes later another bus came along and I was at the front of the queue, this was good the bus looked packed. Unfortunately though my pack would not fit in the luggage rack, well I said it would but the driver refused to believe me and insisted that I put it in the boot. So I got off the bus walked all the way to the end of the bus flung my pack in and then stood where I was, that was after all where the queue ended. I got onto the bus sat down and realised that I had probably just crushed all the crackers.

I have just realised I'm 2/3 of the way through. In some ways this is good, I have done the majority of it but in other ways it's not so good. It feels like I have been out in them thar woods for ever. It some times feels as though my life prior to this adventure was all a dream.

Spring is coming, life is good.

ODM has left the building...

How to start…? How to start…? Okay, got it… first off introductions… Well, I am not Ditch Monkey — nor a tree — so what, you might ask, am I doing typing in his blog? More’s to the point what are you doing wasting time reading it when you checked in simply to be updated about Hugh’s year in the woods and the work of the Woodland Trust? Lemme see if I can explain…

True, I’m not Hugh — though since early November I have come to know him (top guy), and what’s more I know, more than most, what he is going through out there night after glacial night alone in the woods. How? Because I too am living alone in the woods — homeless and jobless and until now almost totally without connections or hope.

Obviously, I’m not proud of that, of loosing the reins of my life and being in this situation, but it’s frightening how easy it was to slide into it, and how seemingly impossible it is to get out. Homelessness becomes a Gordian knot (to run with the Classics theme of DM’s last entry;)), especially when you haven’t worked for a couple of years and so don’t have current job references (that’s the real prison). The road just comes to an end, in an abrupt cul-de-sac. And that’s where I’ve been for almost a year and a half now, sliding rapidly down the biggest snake you ever saw, and for the last six months of it finding myself right at the bottom, in Homelessness proper — with all my bridges burnt, and all my dreams up in smoke.

It’s the kind of thing, like most of life’s extremes, that you never think will ever happen to you, so you never give any thought to what you’d do if it did. But knowing how I was, I would have thought I was the kind of person who would bounce back from more or less anything. Pick myself up, dust myself off, and throw myself back into life, stronger and wiser and resolved never to let anything like that happen to me again. But the shock of something like this leaves you in a stupor that it is hard to rouse yourself out of; you do what animals do when winter arrives, you shut down. It’s a process, painful mostly, beginning with the kind of fear that gnaws away at your nerve endings and at times causes reality to flap away like a sheet in a high wind, your reason is eaten into and almost at the first hurdle your courage slinks away with its tail between its legs leaving you with a tremble inside that fills you with self hatred. Then comes the shock and horror, then a long almost catatonic-like coma of being in denial and an inert time of deep sadness and loneliness. Confusion and desperation follow. Then, if you’re lucky, the determination and fight to get out comes. I suppose I am one of the lucky ones, because that is where I am, determined now to get the hell out of this situation and back to the land of the living.

So, I started a blog…seems ridiculous now, homeless and jobless and without almost any resources to start a blog as the first step, but it is my way of reaching out I suppose, which is what I haven’t been able to do so far, and it’s easier to start that kind of thing from a distance. So I start with a blog. And hope people will read and maybe even respond and support me in it, and ridiculous as it might sound, just as importantly that it might give a structure to my day — cos there is nothing else I have to do, nothing else anyone relies on me for… and that, I have come to see more clearly during this time of disconnection, is a human need just as great as any of the others — life is symbiotic, I just never appreciated that so much before. I thought I was an island, the exception to the rule. Only I’m not… Which is why Ditch Monkey has given over this space to me today — so that you can read a different perspective on life lived outside in the woods, but also so that I can simply invite you over to my own blog, which I am just starting. I hope some of you trek on over once in a while and say hello.

So, here I am living in the woods — not the same woods as DM’s — mine are closer to London — and not under quite the same conditions: I am living at the edge of the woods, on a laneway through, and whatsmore I have a car. Which, in comparison, makes it seem not exactly a soft option, but not as bad as it could be either.

Though it’s not always easy to call that to mind. Not when you are sleeping across the front seats of a car loaded with all your worldly possessions, in a sleeping bag with your knees jammed in under the steering wheel and the handbrake digging into your stomach or spine night after night. A car in which the heater has never worked, and even if it did you couldn’t afford the petrol it takes to run the engine to use it. Nor the attention, in a quiet, dark laneway, a revving car with a lone woman sitting in it might draw. So there is nothing to do but sit wrapped in layers in the dark, and at times ice-cube cold, waiting for sleep to transport you into another morning and the prospect of a steaming hot drink to wrap frozen hands around and somewhere to shower, a warm place somewhere for your brain to defrost.

Some nights it’s easier than others to see that things could be worse. But nights when icy, relentless rain blows in through windows that do not close properly, or I am kept awake by the whole car shaking from side to side with sudden winds that threaten any moment to hurl boughs and branches in through the window screen; or when, every so often, the headlights of another car swing into my isolated laneway and wake me at night and I lay terrified, trying not to move a muscle, rigid, my mind caught between the flight or fight response as I cautiously raise my head and squint into the bright glare, praying furiously that whoever it is will leave without realizing I am there. But sure it’s the endgame, the windows clouded with tell-tale panicked breathing, my whole body like an ear as I wait, listening to an engine idling in the darkness somewhere nearby, sometimes voices, sometimes bursts of drum and bass from a rolled down window, the strike of a match followed by a quick rasping in-breath, hurried footsteps, the snap and rustle of undergrowth: lovers perhaps, off into the woods? Burglars stashing loot? Happy slappers? Until eventually car doors slamming again before whoever it is slowly reverses back out and my panting and the loud hammering of my heart against my ribcage dive out to fill the spaces in the empty laneway that their sounds had left.

Not easy at all to see that things could be worse then. Nor, when the cold that has found its way into my kidneys wakes me almost hourly and so, being a woman (did I mention that before?) I am forced out from under my, by then warm, layers into a brutally cold, pitch black night in order to go to the toilet.

Then — those times — having the ‘luxury’ of a car to sleep in doesn’t seem so much of a soft option at all; and even when I sometimes glance over my shoulder as I hurry back into the car and for a moment pause, distracted — once by a pair of foxes with ruby red eyes, slinking in behind the tall, charcoal-like trunks of the trees, or follow the sound trajectory of an owl-call billowing up into the frozen green-black air, and for a moment I pause, shivering, waiting for a response to call back from way across the woods and as I wait peer off through the tall trees and the various layers of darknesses deeper into the wood, and think of other homeless people sleeping rough outside on the streets, or of Ditch Monkey totally exposed out there somewhere in his own woods in Oxfordshire, without the relative protection of a car to hop back into, it does not always make my own situation seem less bleak, or at least not any more bearable. Probably because it is more often than not 3:00am by then, and loneliness lays in wait and intensifies into something overwhelmingly terrifying at 3:00am and the spirit is held trapped in an aspic of self-pity that it is almost impossible, before the first faint light of morning arrives, to think yourself out of.

But when I am back in the car, shivering my way back down into the sleeping bag and settling the other, thinner one, over me, I do sometimes think of Ditch Monkey again, and am grateful… Because Ditch Monkey does not only save trees he saves lives as well. Or rather he did mine — almost certainly.

Because a couple of months ago, when I read about him in an article in the Observer, I got in touch and he came to meet me. It was just about the time the weather was on the turn and the first of those first really cold nights arrived like school bullies out of nowhere. I was stunned by the cold and amazed when I read just then about Hugh and what he was doing. Stunned that someone so ‘safe’ and ‘sorted’ was choosing to live in similar circumstances to the ones I was desperate to get out of. I had been living a life of almost total isolation by then, jobless and homeless and through mostly pride and fear almost totally friendless I suppose, and had barely spoken to another human being at all in the longest time. So the prospect of meeting someone who could understand part of what I was going through — someone who was living a ‘normal’ ‘respectable’ life during the day (as, even though I wasn’t working, I was trying to do, or increasingly keen to be seen to be doing) was kind of thrilling. And my hunger for someone to share some of the experience with, just to share… share anything with, after so long being isolated, was almost as startling to me as reading the article about DM in the first place. I have been in, or close to, so many hairy situations in the last few months and gone through such an emotional journey that I am almost beyond fear at this stage, and so without too much thought or qualms I arranged to meet Ditch Monkey. I was about to tell the first person, a total stranger, about my circumstances and how I ended up living alone in my car in the woods and it wasn’t frightening at all, it was exciting in a way — in fact a complete relief to be telling anyone, after all this time, especially someone who I assumed wouldn’t judge or condemn.

Instead of going back to Oxfordshire he was meant to sleep in my woods, or close by, and go to work from there the next morning — it seemed right and safe — he is doing all this for charity I reasoned, not because he is mad or dangerous — and he works in Sotheby’s for God’s sake, I told myself — as if that was a badge of sanity or respectability;-) — he is hardly going to attack or murder me. It’s just a sleep-over, in the woods, nothing odd about that!

On the day though fears started to seep back in and my feet got colder and colder (metaphorically cold this time;-)) and I chickened out. (Now I know there wouldn’t have been any danger, but I didn’t know him then). We still met up though, at the arranged tube station, and he bought me a meal(and the kind of desert that sent us both into profound silence) and treated me for the first time in a long time like a human being, leaving me with some hope…but just, or even more, importantly at the time a sleeping bag — which is the way he may have saved my life…

He brought along one of his own ones for me, a purple, dreamily thick, feathery bag that I swear a few nights later, when the first of the cold nights finally arrived and my blood felt like it had slithers of ice floating around in it — and ever since — has kept me from hyperthermia, and probably alive. I really am not exaggerating. Until then I hadn’t realised how cold cold could get. Winter/Schminter, I can out-survive a British winter I thought. But until you are laying out in it at night you never really get acquainted with its ferocity. Winter isn’t really winter until you are sleeping out in it at 2:am in a dark, damp wood. Then it is a different beast altogether.

For a sleeping bag, I had been using one of the cheapo green and blue jobs from Argos until then — which I went without a few meals to get in the first place. But by the time I first heard about Ditch Monkey it had already become very flimsy and I found myself having to wear more and more layers inside it to get warm, and then to sweat profusely during the night as the temperature in the loaded-up car rose. But I was just about managing to feed myself, I couldn’t afford another bag, so my meeting with Ditch Monkey was very timely.

In fact, it was very timely indeed. And it still seems strange to me, that I, a homeless person living totally alone in my car in the woods (okay not deep in them exactly, at the edge of…) should end up reading a blog about someone else doing precisely that. Because I don’t read blogs. I’ve never read one. Haven’t kept up with technology this past year, and barely knew what one was until I read about DM’s in a newspaper which I found, and googled it. It turned out that DM was about the same age as me as well. There are two more coincidences that surprised me: one, DM started his ‘year’ just about the time I leaned over in my car from sheer exhaustion one night at the start of last summer, lay across my front seats and slept out for the very first time at the seafront in Brighton. I’ve slept every night, bar one, in my car since. And, coincidence number two: Ditch Monkey has a law degree. So do I.

Sometimes, during my time of homelessness, there have been moments of real clarity. Moments when you can scan back over your life and see patterns, loci, where only seemingly random events were before. Similar to staring up at a star-filled sky night after night, until eventually some of those bright specks jump out at you and your mind joins the dots and you suddenly see constellations shaping themselves among the seemingly random points of light. Certain events and people in my life seem like that, and occasionally there are moments when I feel like I have glimpses of them being similarly linked, of some reality behind the reality, some pattern to my life I am not usually aware of, of those people and experiences linked and forming something greater than themselves.

Reading that article about Ditch Monkey felt a bit like that, at the time. Seems almost ridiculous to even think of providence these days, but yes, felt a bit like that, and the article about him sleeping out in the woods, at a time when I was close to despair and finding it more and more difficult to see that I could ever find my way back from where I was — that I was kidding myself, that there was no way that I could work while I was still living in my car — so that I could save for the first month’s rent — that nobody who lives in the woods can survive and go on to live a ‘respectable’ life. But he was doing exactly that, living in the woods (without even a car to keep his belongings in) and managing to work at Sotheby’s at the same time. The article telling all that seemed so relevant at that moment in my life that it seemed like it was something I was meant to read, at that particular time. Maybe I should blame Hollywood — or the length of time I had been homeless and isolated — but on that particular morning it almost seemed like it was an article which had been left out for me to read.

Because I found the article in a newspaper which had been left in a hospital canteen, one morning when I went in to have breakfast. (I quite early discovered that in a nearby hospital, whose free car park I often use during the day, there are showers in two of their public toilets, so I can at least shower and wash my hair and keep reasonably respectable looking – which has its downside too, because it may be that pretense at respectability which is keeping me in this situation longer than I should be. Respectability, or ‘fitting in’ has never been a particular aim of mine, but now that I am homeless, and so far down there doesn’t seem any further to go, I am suddenly very anxious to blend in, and so ‘fitting in’ and going to extraordinary lengths not to have anyone guess that I am homeless have perversely become almost my raison d’etre. Whereas, I have been through so many changes during this ‘journey’ that internally nothing could be further from the truth, or in a way more repugnant to me, than pretense, and falseness.

Anyway, back to meeting Ditch Monkey…It was a Monday morning when I found the newspaper in the hospital canteen — it had been left behind by someone, was half-wedged behind the water font on the wall beside the table where I sat against a radiator to defrost, sipping tea with my usual breakfast of an orange and a mashed banana roll. It must have just fallen behind the day before when someone bent to drink water, and been overlooked by the cleaners. Because it shouldn’t have been there on a Monday morning — it was the Observer, from Sunday, the day before. Obviously I can’t afford newspapers, especially the Sunday ones and hadn’t read one in the longest time, so I pulled it out and read it greedily from cover to cover as my fingers and toes tingled back into life.

It wasn’t the whole paper, just the one section, but it was the section with the article about Hugh living in the woods in it, and of course I was fascinated. It gave me hope that I could come out of this — that other people had lived in similar circumstances for all sorts of reasons. And here was a respectable one. And whatsmore he was working at the same time. Although, when the writer hinted at a book and the film possibly following, I must admit my fascination threatened to congeal into an ugly jealous anger. Not that I wanted that publicity and outcome for myself — well I didn’t expect it, not in reality (though I have always been a scribbler and found writing the easiest way to express myself, always have — even at times of despair in the woods these past months (especially those times, perhaps…) I have found myself scribbling out a poem or diary or scenes or notes for a story, to keep myself occupied, and maybe sane too, and doing it — scribbling away at poetry, or in a journal or the unfinished novel I have in a box in the boot — is when I feel happiest, when I feel most alive and most myself. So of course I had dreamt in the past of getting a book published — maybe one day. And after those first balmy August nights of homelessness in Brighton (which had seemed almost like an adventure once I knew I could survive it) had worn off, and I began dreading the approach of night — yet another night when I could no longer delay the time when I had to lay my, by then quite painful, body across those cramped seats yet again — then yes, sometimes I quite willingly left reality behind completely and dreamed of maybe writing my way out of a situation that there seemed by then no other way out of. It wasn’t realistic (but then dreams tend not to be;-)) and I wasn’t thinking of writing my own story, about my own period of homelessness and life in the woods, or how it came about. At those times, when I fled reality with a sheaf of paper and pen and dreamt of one day writing a book, I thought more of finishing a novel and having that published (a fab novel by the way — literary fiction, beautifully written and constructed ·though not quite finished) a kind of supernatural love story set on a Scottish island — incase any blog-trawling literary agents just happen to be reading this;-) Writing was just a dream, something to dive into when reality became a little too brutal. One of the many, and necessary, distractions of homelessness (show me a homeless person who isn’t a dreamer — if it isn’t that which gets them there in the first place — and it often is — it is the thing which makes it more bearable once they are there.) So yes I continued scribbling and, when life got a little too draughty, continued dreaming…

But that was fiction, I wasn’t going to write about my own story. I was homeless, living in the woods, it was hardly a riveting story. But once I was back out in the cold, in the car preparing to settle down for the night, I thought about the Observer article I had read about Ditch Monkey, and his being a poster boy for some kind of media-created movement. And the more I thought, the more it seemed likely that this person, whose number one dream in life had probably not always been to be a writer, and who was also not technically homeless as such, might actually be getting a book deal out of this, and the more angry I became. Wrongly! But I thought then that he was pulling a stunt and playing along with the non-materialistic image that the article was portraying of him — when all the time he worked at Sotheby’s. I was wrong, there was no book or film deal and he quickly and publicly rejected the image they were trying to foist onto him, and he also wasn’t claiming to be homeless and not, as I at first thought, implicitly laughing in the face of the very real and often inescapable hardship that homeless people have to endure, by making it look so easy.

As I said, that was my first reaction (and it has clearly changed since). All I could focus on was the impossibility, with no money for the standard deposit and months rent in advance, of me ever getting out of the situation I was in. And the despair I frequently came close to over it all. And here was someone living rough by choice. I couldn’t get my head around it. I thought it was wrong that he was getting publicity for that, when others who were unintentionally, or at least in many cases inescapably, homeless, even in the run up to Christmas as it soon would have been, weren’t even mentioned. I was wrong in that. We are all adults, all responsible for our own lives, and we all make choices about the issues we want to support too. Hugh chose to put his energy into the work of the woodland Trust and to actively support that and simpler, more environmentally friendly lifestyles, not homelessness issues. Which is much more than most people do. So my initial outburst of anger at him was wrong. I too have always loved trees, and living here at the woods among them since October my kinship with them has grown considerably, and I am now totally in love with them. So I completely take my hat off to Hugh (and no I am not asking you to pass it around;-))

But at least back then, before I knew him and before I thought through what he was doing, I was actually stirred into emotion. Because I had numbed myself off almost completely by then. I had been living in my car for most of the summer by the time I got in touch with Ditch Monkey, through this blog, and later met him. I was parked up in Brighton at first, my money had run out and things I had been relying on fell through one by one, quickly, like dominoes: accommodation which I thought I had secured; a job interview I was sure I had got; and mostly a very large sum of money that someone owed me and that I had gone into quite serious debt waiting for. The latter was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. Calls from the bank started coming in about letters they had sent me, which were unanswered (because I was already homeless by then and so not there to get post, or anywhere to have it forwarded on.) Court proceedings on a debt were threatened and because I didn’t respond and had no address to give them, details were sent to a solicitor to start proceedings, and I was as frightened and angry and near to despair as I have ever been.

I calculated I had enough money left for almost a week in a B&B, but after that nothing. I was sitting in the car at the time, staring out at a pink and grey sea, tears pouring down as I watched a blurred red sun slip down behind the horizon, wondering what I could do, who I could call. After a disastrous relationship with someone who turned out to be quite ill, things had been falling apart at the seams for ages, and I had been pulling myself away from people one by one. I felt betrayed by so many people and too proud to phone anyone else who might be left, frightened of their reaction I suppose, maybe even frightened that they might turn out to be fair weather friends. Some things you don’t want to know. Illusions have a purpose sometimes and I needed to hang on to mine for a bit longer. I was feeling too fragile to put things and people to the test. I’d get in touch later…when it was all over…and I was back on my feet again… (When I had some money and could afford to be friends with them again!) No one need ever know for now. Not what friendship is, I know, but…

So rather than get in touch with anyone and ask for help I just sat and sat until finally the last of the light faded and most of the surrounding cars must have pulled away without my noticing, because when I looked up the sea was black and silver and the sky was a midnight-blue and looked like glitter from a tube had been shaken across it. I just sat and sat staring up at the stars totally despondent, not knowing what I was going to do, until all thoughts stopped and I just sat. Before I knew it was past midnight. It wasn’t cold – at least not the kind of cold I have come to know since — but the temperature had dropped so I pulled a fleece across my shoulders, and exhausted, just bundled another one up as a pillow and tipped over, laying my head on the front seat to rest. I hadn’t planned it – I hadn’t planned anything, which was the trouble — isn’t that how most slippery slopes are slid down? My head and eyelids were pounding but there was no fear, because I had intended, if anything, simply to close my eyes for a moment and take a few deep breaths before I went to find a hotel further along the seafront that I could check in late to.

I closed my eyes and next thing I knew I was waking up to bright sunshine, clear blue sky, and the cacophony of huge screeching seagulls wheeling and swooping overhead. I ached like mad. But I hadn’t died or been mugged, and just as importantly I hadn’t spent a penny of the little money I had left. And it was easy, not sleeping in a bed. Easier than I could ever have imagined. Until then, I had never even been camping in my life, and never could have imagined myself ending up sleeping in a car, but I was almost proud of myself that first morning. It was my first night of homelessness proper (I had been traveling around the country with my possessions packed into the back of my car for almost a year by then, waiting for the money that was owed to me to come through, living from week to week, riding out all the delays and the excuses I was being given about when the money would come. I ran across to the Brighton Hotel on the corner with my wash bag to wash and brush my teeth in their toilets, and then treated myself to a bacon sandwich with my cup of tea, which I ate at a picnic table on the sand looking out at a sparkling blue sea. Nobody would have guessed that I was homeless and that alone made me smile, I was almost proud of myself and could hardly wait for night to fall so that I could do it all again. That was back at the beginning of August, and though the initial adventure wore off after a few nights and a few hairy situations, I have been sleeping in my car ever since. Feeling at this stage totally trapped.

I have always been very self-sufficient, like my own company, had pretensions of wanting to be a writer anyway when I was younger so to begin with homelessness and wandering was hardly a hardship at all. It was summer, I was by the sea: warm nights, chip-suppers up on the seawall, magnificent sunsets, long cliff top walks, clear, star-filled skies, and sublime moments like waking in the middle of the night in the silence of Palmiera Square once (I’ve lived at all the best addresses don’t you know! Or rather parked outside them!) And looking up through the window screen at the still deep-blue sky at almost 2:00 am; a high blue star-studded dome — a very distinct dome, just exactly like the cupola of a church — and across it, and at that hour, a handful of seagulls gliding silently and languorously back and forth, way way high up through it, pure white and silent, their slow flight almost a roll across the parabola and looking almost choreographed — like doves, sent out on some secret heavenly mission. Divine. The silence of that moment was amazing, even the sea seemed quietened, and it remains a sight whose beauty still haunts me at nights. So when people wonder, as they might, at my bravery out in the woods on my own at nights it is memories of that and other nights and sights like it (waking once at the edge of the woods and looking through the mist-hung trees through the treacly first light of dawn, the edge of the wood singed with golden light and some way into it, at one particular spot, the last of the moonlight still falling down through tangled branches and illuminating one small area of ground. A bright, white funnel of light among the darkness of the rest of the woods, and the air of mystery and the supernatural that the light gave to the rest of the still dark wood, the intimations of other realities, of worlds beyond; my wood (as I had come to think of it as) transformed by that one narrow wash of light, into something mysterious and spiritual, like waking up into a Rembrandt painting. The kind of beauty that despite circumstances is internalized and restores the spirit. It is experiences like that, and the bright silent seagulls like doves flying high up in the cupola of that star-splattered sky that I most often associate with the coming of the night. And why I no longer fear it.

That was last summer, and I haven’t slept in a bed since. But summer soon ended, and with it the last of my money. I stayed in a convent for a few nights after that, was even open to the possibility that poverty and despair may have given me a vocation. But long as I sat in the little pine wood-clad chapel, staring into the huge painted crucifix over the altar, and hard as I prayed, God never spoke to me, and I was never saved by a vocation. Instead, a very serene and petite French nun on vacation gave me twenty pounds to help me on my way; and with that and the last of the petrol I drove to London.

I planned to choose a safe place to park, carry on sleeping in the car for the time being, but get any job I could until I’d saved enough for a month’s deposit and a month’s rent in advance to get out of this situation. After nights of sleeping in various different streets and dodging traffic wardens during the day, I found the place to park here in the woods, near where I used to live, so an area I knew. But the job never happened. Though I am still trying. Maybe I’m doing it all wrong — I’m doing something wrong definitely, my background is almost an obstacle now, having a law degree almost a handicap, at least for the kind of jobs you can get without references and while living in a car. I feel able to do much more than that, to do anything right now, in fact I feel stronger now than I ever have, but it’s not easy.

Not easy to be alone and homeless without a job or a purpose. Not easy at all to be all those things and a woman. But I am, and at this stage I have no one to turn to for help, and no way out of this.
I'm in a corner. I know its my fault: I won't go to a hostel, and there is no way I can get the money together for a deposit and the month in advance I need to rent somewhere privately. Every day, from getting up in the cold and damp to going to sleep in the same, is almost totally taken up with trying to keep up standards, trying to make myself look
respectable: finding somewhere to dress and wash in
some privacy, keeping the car neat and tidy, everything easily accessible, and separated in bags — food in glove department, washbag and library books under driver’s seat, butter milk and cutlery in car door, dirty laundry squeezed into boot — waiting for money for the launderette so I can wash my bag of clothes every fortnight, and then
numbing myself off enough to get on with the business of sorting out enough food for the day and where to eat it. And to not alerting anyone to my situation — particularly other street people — because of the danger I perceive that
would put me in as a woman. And just trying to keep
myself balanced. That is it. That is what life reduces itself to, what survival is…
The only solution seems to be to go to the authorities and go to a hostel and live there until I come up on the list for a council property. I don't trust myself to survive all that. So I am stuck where
I am - in the woods on my own not knowing how to stop.

In amongst all the hardship there are moments of
sublime beauty too. Never a day without it really -
which is what makes it bearable. All the small miracles that are easily overlooked. And the paradox that sometimes when you
have literally nothing it feels like you have almost
everything - there is the seduction of that kind of
thinking anyway, the tug of madness perhaps - that you are close to the source. That
finally seeing all that beauty every day, absorbing it, is opening you up to
love, and that love is turning everything into itself.
Usually you think like that towards the end of the
second week when food money has run our completely and
it is the second day of hunger and you are demented by the smells of food everywhere, and
nothing eases the clutching pains in your stomach and the sky is the colour of mushroom soup, and even the leaves look edible by then.

Anyway, enough… now I realize that I am just waffling, taking up too much of your time and of DM’s blog space. So I’ll stop. But maybe some of you will come over and read my own blog some time, where I can wander freely. And maybe your interest will be the
chink of light I need to get me doing something regularly as a step out of this situation. I hope so.

But finally, since I am being Ditch Monkey for the day, I feel I should add a recipe to his Hunter’s and Gatherer’s Guide to Haute Cuisine. Haven’t cooked in a while, only foodstuff around here are a few withered but tenacious brown leaves still spinning at the ends of a few branches. No good leaf recipes come to mind, only thing I can think of is vinaigrette…

So, here is recipe for a lovely, tangy vinaigrette. If you like dark, use balsamic vinegar, if you prefer light use wine vinegar.
Pour the dressing into a jar with a screw cap and store it in a cool dark place — a hole in the ground, buried under mounds of wet leaves, or at the bottom of a rucksack will do nicely. Alternatively, you can use a fridge or larder, where it will keep for weeks. Leave about a third of the bottle empty so that there is space for it to be shaken thoroughly before use.
Mix 2 tblsp of Dijon mustard with 4 tables of water and 4 fl oz of the vinegar. Season well with salt and pepper and whisk in 13 fl oz/325 ml of extra virgin olive oil.
This is an all-purpose salad dressing that will perk up mixed salad leaves (though I wouldn’t recommend sycamore or turkey oak this time of year!) Enjoy!

Inviting you over to my blog which is…


Wednesday, 1 February 2006


I appear to have damaged my Achilies tendon, this is a bit annoying as it means that I have to get up even earlier in order to get to the bus on time. I'm looking forward to it being light in the mornings as I'm getting a bit bored of the morning routine of getting twigs in my eye and falling in bushes.


Greek dude, liked fighting, mother was a goddess, didn’t like Trojans, had a dodgy ankle should have got a note from his mum excusing him from war; didn’t, got shot in the ankle and died.


There is something very hypnotic about watching a log fire, it is possible to while away hours watching the flame whilst lost in thought. Apparently the Latin for Hearth also means focus.


Much maligned and misunderstood chick, annoyed a goddess, hair turned to snakes, one glance would turn a mortal to stone. Nowadays turning a mortal to stone and keeping dangerous pets would earn her an asbo back then she got her head chopped off by some guy called Jason.


Lost his multi-coloured dream coat and went off on a booze cruise around the med where he mainly cut the heads off things (Medusa, Minotaur, Pet Dogs) and threw stones at skeletons. Such behaviour can be seen being replicated by scores of British yoof on the Greek islands every summer.


Big yellow dude, wrote a book called the Ill Lad translation – Bad Lad about some chap called Ulysses.


Went to war on a big horse then ‘got lost’ on his way home, spent lots of time drinking and carrying on with goddesses in a manner unbecoming of a married man.