July 2nd, 2010. Not so much a night journey as a short walk and overnight bivouac. I leave the house at 10.30 p.m. A little light lingers still in the southern sky but the north and west is lidded with low, dark cloud that hides the moon. Except in the open there is barely enough light at ground level to see my way but I know where I am going and have trod this path many a time before. I make for an isolated copse of some half dozen ivy-wrapped ash trees on the edge of a wheat field – Woodpecker Copse I call it, on account of the great spotted woodpecker that nested there earlier in the year. It’s a good place to camp – sheltered, away from any habitation, unlikely to attract attention, with a trickling brooklet nearby providing water for washing if not for drinking (I daren’t drink any stream water round here). Inside is dense and dark, thick with undergrowth and fallen boughs. As soon as I turn on my head-torch there is a clatter of wings in the canopy above, then all is quiet. In no time at all I have set up the basha (a Malay word meaning a ‘shelter’ or ‘hut’, first introduced into British army vocabulary by veterans of the Malayan Campaign of the nineteen-fifties) – a light tarpaulin slung over a cord stretched between two trees, affording shelter from rain but open at the sides and ends. Perfect for this time of year.
By midnight I am ready for sleep. It is immensely satisfying to stretch out on the earth in this way, in the dark, in the open air, with one’s head on the ground, as we so rarely do. The last remaining light has drained from the sky and a few stars are now visible. It has been a hot, muggy day but the open-sided basha lets the cool night breezes wash over me, carrying the scent of meadowsweet from the brook. I listen for night sounds but all I hear is distant traffic and the rumble of high-flying aircraft. No dog-fox barks, no hedgehog snuffles and snorts… though later I do hear, far far away, the long drawn-out call of a tawny owl. I doze fitfully. At about two a light shower passes over, and then another half an hour later. The gentle patter of rain on the tarp overhead is soothing and soporific. I drift off. Then at some time during the night I find myself surrounded by farmers with large dogs on leashes who metamorphose into a caravan of itinerant Romanian workers who urge me to join them. Field dreams. By three, the sky seems to be lightening somewhat – day is already dawning.
However, I then fall soundly asleep till six, missing both the dawn chorus and sunrise. It is lovely though to wake up in this early morning woodland. The sky is overcast and all is peaceful. Occasionally a magpie rattles nearby, and blackbirds scold. Woodpigeons clap their wings and fly into the day. But the silences are longer and sweeter. I am the first in the world to rise. I go to the brook and scoop some handfuls of cold water to wash away the sleepiness and welcome the day. Then a breakfast of hot strong coffee and a few dates. It doesn’t take long to pack up and I’m soon on my way. The first joggers appear over the horizon at seven. It has been a restless and uneventful first night out, but I’m already planning the next.