Don’t let the Bannock burn

Wild camping in Britain

Wild camping is taking the country (side) quietly by storm.

Wild campers love a bit of bannock – unleavened bread cooked over a campfire. Ian O’Brien discovers what else is essential for a night in the wilderness.

First published in The Big Issue in the North

Just over 83 years ago, on 24 April 1932, 500 mainly working class people took part in what Lord Hattersley would later describe as the “most successful direct action in British history”.

Led by members of Manchester’s Communist Party this raggedy group descended on an area of the Peak District between Manchester and Sheffield in what would famously be remembered as the Mass Trespass of Kinder Scout. 

Owned by the landed gentry this brooding plateau of no commercial use, but for the poor of Manchester it offered something almost beyond value: fresh air, exercise and for a few hours each week, escape.

Now, years later, people are again trespassing on land up and down the country, but this time they aren’t going home.

Defying the convention of traditional sites with family tents, caravans and pub grub down the road, wild camping is taking the country (side) quietly and discreetly by storm as campers are pitch up in some of Britain’s most beautiful wilderness areas.

Gareth, 36, lives in East Lancashire. He is married, owns his own home and drives a sensible mid-sized family car. Whenever he gets a chance he takes off to spend a few days living the most basic existence possible.

“I’ve always loved camping,” he says. “My folks were very outdoorsy so my sister and I grew up doing a lot of hiking and camping. “In those days it wasn’t called wild camping, it was just camping, but the idea was the same: get off the beaten track, away from civilisation and as much as possible live off the land.”

Sitting beneath a shelter made from a rain poncho strung between two trees with parachute cord – a must-have for all wild camping aficionados – he explains the rules of wild camping
“In part it’s about having respect for the landowner but, more than that, it’s about having respect for the land itself; so, first of all, no litter; when you leave a site you leave it exactly as you found it.

“There should be no evidence that you were ever there. If you go to the toilet you bury it at least 30 metres from the nearest water source and at least 20 centimetres deep.”

For serious wild campers there is a big element of what has become known as “bushcraft” involved. Television shows like Ray Mears’ Extreme Survival and Born Survivor with British adventurer Bear Grylls have been instrumental in passing on the kind of skills needed to live outdoors successfully.

The ability to start a fire without matches or a lighter is a badge of honour among wild campers – as is the ability to make good bannock.

“If you build a fire, for example, you need to be aware of your surroundings,” says Gareth. “Pine needles are highly flammable so in a pine forest you have to keep control of your fire: make sure it doesn’t get too big, even for a few minutes, because low hanging branches can ignite really easily.

“As for bannock, you can make it in a frying pan, but I prefer it on a stick.”

Bannock is a type of unleavened bread, made without yeast. It was a staple of early American and Canadian pioneers and is much loved by wild campers. There are lots of recipes available online and you can put anything you want into it but the basic mix is usually the same.

For Gareth it involves self-raising flour, sugar and condensed milk. And a stick, of course. “Never forget your stick,” he tells me with a grin.

A stick is essential for general poking of the fire and for wrapping the bannock mix around after adding a splash of water to make dough.

“There is nothing like freshly made bannock over an open fire,” he tells me. “Though it’s not usually a good idea to start your fire until dusk as the smoke might give away your position to rangers or farmers.”

It should be noted that wild camping in most of England and Wales, although not a criminal activity, is prohibited. Parts of Exmoor and the Brecon Beacons allow wild camping and in Scotland it is permitted for now – a ban on camping along the eastern shores of Loch Lomond may soon be extended.

So, should you pitch up on private land without permission you may be in breach of civil law, which might be part of the fun for many.

“I suppose there is an element of that,” Gareth says, while pulling apart a home made Paracord bracelet. “But more than anything, for me it’s about getting away from it all and spending time surrounded by nature. Sounds cheesy but true: I love being outdoors, and the further from civilisation, the better.”

As wild camping has grown in popularity it is estimated that on any night between May and September there are up to 20,000 people, usually in groups of one or two, sleeping under the stars in the British wilderness. There is an argument that while camping away from established sites can be supported by the environment in the United States, where it has long been popular, the UK is far too small.

The opposing argument is that established campsites have a far greater detrimental impact upon the environment, with car parks, concrete shower and toilet blocks, and approximately 1.2 million people passing through each year.

Andrew, 43, lives in Greater Manchester and began wild camping three years ago. He loves the solitude it affords.

“Apart from solitude though, I believe we should have access to the land we were born in,” he tells me. “Wild camping can be a great benefit to people and poses no problem if you observe the wild camping code.”

This includes camping above the highest fence line, staying away from farmhouses and walking tracks, not polluting water sources with personal waste, never staying in one spot for more than a night and leaving no trace that you were ever there the next day. For many wild campers, who carry very little kit with them, this is not difficult.

“My gear is determined by where I’m going,” Andrew explains. “It depends on the time of year and how long I plan on being out. In general, for shelter I will use a tarp’ and sleeping bag. I carry a knife, cooking pot and stove. That’s about it. I can survive outdoors with very little.”

Andrew is adamant wild camping should not be prohibited. “I say land ownership should be limited and people should have access to the vast, open spaces and varied environments that our country provides.

“Wild camping has taught me many things; it’s been a real positive in my life. I’ve learned to plan things more thoroughly and putting myself in different environments has taught me how to be more self-sufficient, how to make the best use of my surroundings.”

Wild camping in England and Wales, although technically illegal also supports a flourishing industry, with organised survival and Bushcraft weekends available to children and families.

While this modern-day mass trespass may be less politically motivated the spirit of Kinder Scout is alive and well – and living all around us.

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