The Nature Quest

A solo communion with nature, Wiltshire

A solo fast in the wild: I can’t think of a more raw, direct way to plunge headlong into nature. This is a traditional rite of passage within indigenous cultures: you immerse yourself in the elements, without food (as fasting is said to sharpen the senses), and return filled with insight and a sense of wonder reignited.

The promise of transformation under open skies has, for many, proven irresistible. Solitude, self-reliance, the relinquishing of phones, radios, watches: all make for a true adventure that you’ll remember – for the right reasons – for the rest of your life. It’s not about heroics though. When you’re without food or familiar props the boundaries between yourself and the natural world fall away. But how often do we get to venture forth in this way? Not very often, most of us would answer, which makes it all the more exciting.

Of course, this kind of experience needs proper guidance and preparation. One year, I fasted for four nights and five days alone in a tent high in the Pyrenees. Before that I spent three nights doing the same in the Sinai Desert, only minus the tent. On each occasion I’d spent a few days beforehand with a small group and a guide, getting into the right mindset and asking questions, like: what happens if you can’t hack the ‘no food’ bit? Answer: you take high-energy snacks such as apples and nuts; it’s wiser than passing out.

Remember, macho suffering is not the goal here. And you’ll always have plenty of water with you. In Britain, Way of Nature UK offer retreats that include supported solo time in nature. These escapes come in various locations that change from year to year so the guides can keep things fresh. The venture – they call themselves a ‘fellowship’ – was founded in the USA by John P Milton, a pioneering American ecologist, wilderness guide and the first environmentalist on the White House Staff. Milton is now in his late seventies and the two wilderness guides who have set up the UK branch of the outfit, Adrian Kowal and Andres Roberts, trained with him. Both are refugees from the corporate world and both are passionate about the benefits of time spent in nature.

Whether you’re a seasoned outdoor enthusiast or have never camped in your life, you’ll be welcomed with open arms. I head off to Wiltshire to experience a gentle three-night introductory nature quest with my guides. This will include a 24-hour period of solo camping and fasting.

I arrive at Tisbury station and meet the rest of our small group: we are four women in all. Adrian drives us to our base, a fixed campsite on Pertwood Organic Farm near Salisbury Plain. It’s an area of great natural beauty: a quintessentially English landscape of rolling hills and valleys.

“Solitude, self-reliance, the relinquishing of phones, radios, watches: all make for a true adventure that you’ll remember – for the right reasons – for the rest of your life.”

The use of Pertwood’s land and campsite, which is not open to the public, is down to an arrangement between my guides and Global Generation, a London-based charity that connects young people and adults to nature. They use the farm as their country retreat. So peaceful is it here that you could happily sit on your haunches all day in a meadow, with a stalk of wheat between your teeth, turning your face to the breeze and letting your gaze alight on the flitting butterflies – a whopping 26 species have been recorded here, along with other wildlife such as deer, kestrels, skylarks and hare. Pertwood’s farm owners are keen to give nature a boost: parts of their arable land have been transformed into wildflower meadows, and they nurture and celebrate the plants and wildlife in their midst.

Our campsite for the first two nights, before we head off to our chosen ‘solo’ spot, is in a hawthorn copse surrounded by open fields. It’s not quite glamping: little sunlight penetrates the thicket where the tents – already on-site – are pitched, but in a bright clearing there is a kitchen with a roof, a communal picnic table, a fire pit, running water and compost loos. I’ve brought my own tent for the solo: it’s the only one I know how to put up. This is tick country; thankfully our guides have brought tick removers.

Vero, a chef on loan from Global Generation, takes care of the food – delicious, creative, lovingly prepared and vegetarian – with help from our guides. After dinner, we head off for a dusk stroll. Both a beautiful ‘blue moon’ – not blue at all but a full and fiery orange, rising over the fields – and the setting sun are visible. The next morning, after breakfast, we explore the farm for potential spots for our 24-hour solo. The hope is that each of us will gravitate towards one we like the look of, far from anyone else. We roam across open fields, through meadows, and around two striking megalithic stone circles. The weekend has a reflective, sharing element.

Don’t worry, you won’t be put on the spot or obliged to bare your soul – Way of Nature are geared towards a mainstream crowd. But exploring how we might deepen our relationship with the wild is part of why we’re here. ‘When we immerse ourselves in nature, we reawaken our senses and rekindle enchantment,’ says Adrian, as we laze about in a field for a little time-out. ‘Exploring nature at a more profound level has a strong transformational effect on us.’ It all makes beautiful sense when you’re lying in a peaceful meadow with the sun beating down and the breeze rippling across your face. This is bliss.

By the evening, we’ve each found a spot we’ve taken a shine to. The next morning, after porridge, tea and a ceremonial send-off it’s time to get going. My spot is in a tranquil, sheep-free field by a wildflower verge. Within my sightline are a stone circle, hilly slopes and farmland. Suddenly, a flock of birds passes overhead in ‘V’ formation. It seems a good omen. I put my tent up, store my two litres of drinking water, roll my blanket out in the sun and doze. This may be July, but compared with yesterday’s warmth, it has now turned distinctly chilly.

“We roam across open fields, through meadows, and around two striking megalithic stone circles. ”

When the sun is blotted out by passing clouds, I shiver, jump up and down, sip water and wander among the wildflowers. They’re entrancing: daisies bright as a button; poppies of red, vermillion and orange; vibrant, lavender thistles with their little round ‘eyes’. The stone circle in the distance beckons too, but on a nature quest you’re urged to let go of the need to ‘do’ and just ‘be’. Obediently, I stay put within an invisible circle I’ve created around the tent. By late afternoon the wind is

“It all make beautiful sense when you’re lying in a peaceful meadow with the Sun beating down and the breeze rippling across your face.”

blowing hard and I pull on a few layers. Oh for a cup of tea, I think, sipping on more water. I’m fasting so I need to make sure I’m drinking enough. Still cold, I wrap myself in a blanket and gaze up at the clouds. I notice the ominous grays and the puffier whites, and in the far distance, a patch of blue. I will it to travel my way. Why, I think, do I not devote more time to cloud-spotting? It’s addictive once you get going.

Finally, the clouds shift and the sun reappears. My mind, I notice has shifted to a slower pace. The day lasts an eternity though and I’m relieved when, finally, dusk arrives. Thwarted by the cold and anxious about the night, I crawl into my sleeping bag and fall into an uneasy slumber. With a shock I awaken around midnight. There’s a glaring light on outside. Alarmed, I unzip my tent. I gasp when I realise that it is the moon. Never have I seen it so huge or so bright. In this quiet field it’s an extraordinary presence. The next morning, I open the flap and a drop of water splashes on my face: I’ve woken up in a cloud.

Without anything in my stomach I feel groggy and slow. But it’s not unpleasant. On the contrary, I feel wholly absorbed in my surroundings. I’m grateful when the clouds disperse and the day, which promises to be sizzling, beds in. For a surreal moment, I lose the sense of myself as separate from the sky, earth and flowers. I don’t want the moment to end: it’s the jewel at the heart of this experience. A day and a night are simply not enough. I’ve only just unravelled. With great reluctance, I pull down my tent and make my way back to camp for our reunion by the fire. There is breakfast, a sharing of our experiences, lunch, and – too soon – it’s time to leave. But many months on, I can still recall the billowing clouds, the arc of the sun across the sky and those sweet, scented wildflowers.