By Helen Parnham
It started with an invitation. Would I like to go on a secret adventure, involving a 20 mile bike ride out of London, a swim across a lake in the middle of the night and wild camp on a deserted island with a group of strangers?
I thought long and hard for all of one second, and then said: Yes! Yes I would!
I cycle a lot, and love to swim (both wild and domesticated) but the invitation to do both and then sleep under the stars on an island had me quite enthused. It doesn’t take much in the way of adventure to get me excited, and this particular mix of Famous Five-style jolly good fun and illicit shenanigans definitely did the trick. Plus we were going to a pub.
So Saturday afternoon found me laying out kit on my bed. If you like camping, you’ll know there’s a certain geeky pleasure to kit-laying out. The journey was a micro-adventure, an offering both philanthropic and entrepreneurial by a company called Secret Adventures. Their aim is to give weary, office-hunched city-dwellers such as myself a chance to experience nature and get out into the wild. Our group turned out to be a friendly bunch of young professionals, all managing to look uniformly keen during the briefing whilst emitting faint waves of nervous tension. (Was it the thought of night-swimming? Had we bitten off more than we could chew?)
Madoc, leader and instigator of this jaunt, gave us a warm welcome, a brief briefing, and before long we were moving northwards alongside the River Lea. Under a roasting sun, we rolled leisurely past contented beards at waterside hipster bars and teenagers on the towpath drinking cans of beer (not old enough for beards or hipster bars yet). Hackney soon gave way to Haringey, and before we knew it we were in the Lea Valley, and views of office blocks had been replaced with lock-keepers’ cottages, dutch barges and wildflower meadows.
Pausing here and there to repair punctured tyres, pick blackberries and share experiences of rear-end discomfort (three hours of cycling will do that) we eventually arrived at our destination. Turning off a road, down a lane, over a bridge and through a cow-gate, a rather large lake appeared before us, and in the middle … the island.
We see that our island is small but very dense, with tall trees and a draped curtain of weeping willow reaching down to the water. The lake around it is broad, and filled with dark green water sparkling in the sunshine. Desperate to cool down, we quickly got changed into swimwear, and despite initial squeamishness from slimy weed underfoot, we stepped tentatively in. The water was not freezing, but refreshing. It calmed some nerves to see the island in the light, for our plan was to first have dinner at a nearby pub, returning under the cover of darkness to swim back to the island. And at that stage, it was still a scary thought.
Several hours later, well fed (and in some cases, slightly cidered), we returned to the same spot and locked our bikes together, leaving them hidden in nearby undergrowth. This was the exciting bit – would we be able to swim across, floating everything we needed across the lake in dry bags? We took it in turns to slip into the inky water, the dry bags bobbing around our heads like large black bolster pillows, the torches of those ahead flickering in the distance like luminescence.
Helpfully we had a clear target to swim towards. Over on the island, Madoc had kindled a small fire in a clearing, and he and the trees were now creating an impressive silhouette against the flickering glow of the flames. By the time we were all over and in dry clothes, a big saucepan of milk was simmering away, to which was added a jar (yes, whole jar) of hazelnut spread and bottle (yup, whole bottle) of brandy, creating a ludicrously chocolately, boozy and delicious nightcap.
After some amusing banter and games around the campfire, we set out our bivvy bags in a circle. Entirely exhausted from the day’s thrills and exertions, I was looking forward to seeing the view from our new home in the morning. Unfortunately I didn’t quite get the battery recharge I was hoping for. As soon as I tried to fall asleep (as opposed to trying to stay awake) I suddenly couldn’t get comfortable; I was far too hot in my sleeping bag, needed the loo but fought a mental battle against moving, and was terrorised continually by mosquitoes. Arggh. Sometimes nature just isn’t as relaxing as it’s cracked up to be.
As I lay on my back looking up at the canopy of tree leaves above me, I felt exposed, but safe. The thought that no-one could creep up on us (unless they came by boat) was reassuring. It was just the birds and us. As the dawn broke, sinister twisted shapes of trees took on hues of colour, and to the right and left the lake glinted through the undergrowth. Rough, throaty noises cut through the air, sounding more like dinosaurs than geese. We’d had an amazing experience as guests on this island, but we had no doubt disturbed the real owners, and now that it was day, they wanted it back.
P.S. If you’d like to go on special adventures in wild places, sign up at www.secretadventures.org. They'll be at the Wilderness Festival in Oxfordshire this weekend.
Photographs by Jools Whitehorn