Screams. Loud screams. Women screaming loudly.
Tom opened his eyes, cocked his head. One ear outside the hood of his sleeping bag.
Something about water. Yes, that was it. The water, really cold water.
The light inside his tent was greyish green. It would be some time before the sun would warm the top of the ridge on the far side of the lake. Before the sun would warm the top of the ridge on the far side of his lake.
Llyn Gwyllt Ci.
Wild Dog Lake.
Unzipping his sleeping bag just enough to free both arms, Tom unzipped the door to the canopy of his tent and then very slowly unzipped the door to the fly, pausing when the hole was big enough to peep outside. Tom saw three young women wading through the water, arms out for balance, their bare bottoms about to submerge into the bitterly cold lake. He quickly zipped both doors shut, pulled on his wool hat and snuggled back into the delicious toastiness of his sleeping bag.
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Tom had spent a number of nights over the past couple of years sleeping beside Llyn Gwyllt Ci, keeping a close eye on the weekend weather and heading off whenever the forecast for the North of Wales was unusually sunny. It was a comfortable Saturday afternoon’s drive, along the M6 to Birmingham, then the M54 to Telford, Shrewsbury and beyond, eventually dead-ending on a one-lane road at the head of a steep valley, punctuated by a popular campsite and its timbered restaurant, with real ales, log fires and, Tom was told, rather substantial Sunday lunches.
With his Cinquecento nestled in the shrubbery on the side of the road, Tom would pull on his boots, strap on his pack and climb the path for a couple of hours beside the stream that spilled out of Llyn Gwyllt Ci. Tom enjoyed the puzzled look on the faces of those he passed on the path almost as much as the camping itself, with those coming down from the lake in the late afternoon wondering where he was going and those coming up to the lake early the next morning wondering where he had been. Even the sheep looked puzzled.
When he got to the lake, Tom did not have to pick a place to camp. The land around the lake was quite boggy, but there was a spot where the stream left the lake that was flat, that was dry and that was just big enough for a tent. The sheep kept the grass nicely shorn. It was obviously begging for a camper, ready and waiting for someone like Tom.
He dropped his orange duffel-style thirty-five-litre Marmot pack on the grass. Tom was hungry, but he wanted to make his camp before he cooked. He covered the footprint of his smoky sage two-person Mountain Hardwear tent with the canopy and pegged the four corners taut. Then he pried the aluminium poles into the grommets at each corner, the crossed poles taking the shape of a yogi bent over backwards. Tom hung the canopy from the poles, tossed the fly on top and pegged that taut. The Therm-a-Rest NeoAir mattress and the Therm-a-Rest Air Head pillow pretty much inflated themselves, while Tom pulled his Hungarian goose-down North Face Blue Kazoo sleeping bag from its stuff sack and tossed it into the tent to swell slowly.
Tom was happy as he crawled inside the tent. He had not been unhappy all day. This was different though. Now things were done. There had been this to do. Now it was done. Tom had made his camp. It was a good place to camp. He was there, in the good place.
Now Tom was very hungry.
Where was that Moroccan Mango ready meal? Where was that foldable bottle of Pinot Noir? And why oh why was he talking like that?
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The screams had stopped. He had not heard the wild swimmers scream for some time.
Tom was hungry again.
For breakfast, Hemingway would have built a fire and made buckwheat flapjacks, from scratch. One cup of buckwheat flour, one cup of water. He would have flipped them with a pine chip and covered them with apple butter. Then, for lunch, he would have made onion sandwiches, wrapped them in oiled paper and put them in his pocket. Who eats onion sandwiches? Or puts them in their pocket?
For breakfast, Tom would have his Jetboil and a Scrambled Egg, Potato and Mixed Peppers ready meal. And coffee. He had plenty of sachets of Nescafé Instant Latte. That, at least, was probably better than the bitter stuff Hemingway brewed.
Tom dressed, unzipped both doors to his tent and crawled outside. The sun was just warming the top of the ridge on the far side of the lake. The wild swimmers had also dressed now and were drying their hair with the towels they had brought in their daypacks. They looked at Tom as they dried their hair. One of them smiled and waved. Tom waved back. They were talking, but he could not hear what they were saying.
Tom took the cup from the Jetboil and dipped it in the stream. Then he lit the burner, screwed the cup to the stove and popped the lid on the cup. It would not take long. He saw the wild swimmers were still watching him. Tom asked, quite loudly, whether they would like some coffee. They nodded yes, put their towels back in their daypacks and walked over to his camp.
WILD CAMPER. I only have one cup, but it’s a big cup. Do you mind sharing?
FIRST WILD SWIMMER. Not at all. Something hot would be lovely now.
WILD CAMPER. The water must be cold. I heard you screaming.
SECOND WILD SWIMMER. Sorry. Yes, it was cold. Even colder than before.
WILD CAMPER. So you’ve swum here before?
SECOND WILD SWIMMER. Yeah, we’ve swum here a few times. But this is the first time someone else has been up here, too.
THIRD WILD SWIMMER. We almost didn’t swim. But we thought, hey, we got up in the middle of the night and walked all the way up here in the dark. There was no way we were not going to swim.
WILD CAMPER. Where do you camp?
THIRD WILD SWIMMER. At the campsite below, with our boyfriends. They don’t like to swim. They would rather sleep.
FIRST WILD SWIMMER. Why don’t you camp down there with everyone else? It’s a nice campsite. It must be pretty spooky up here at night, all alone.
WILD CAMPER. There are plenty of sheep. Anyhow, I like it here. It’s called wild camping.
SECOND WILD SWIMMER. Isn’t that illegal?
WILD CAMPER. In England and Wales, but not in Scotland. And not in Dartmoor either.
SECOND WILD SWIMMER. What if the landowner finds you camping on his land?
WILD CAMPER. If he asks me to go, I go. Those are the rules of wild camping.
SECOND WILD SWIMMER. Wild camping has rules?
WILD CAMPER. Yes, there are rules. You always arrive late and you always leave early. You never camp with more than one other person. You bury your poo and you pack out your rubbish. You never build fires.
THIRD WILD SWIMMER. Wow, so many rules. Doesn’t sound that wild to me.
FIRST WILD SWIMMER. Are you allowed to swim?
WILD CAMPER. Of course.
FIRST WILD SWIMMER. Have you ever swum in the lake?
WILD CAMPER. No, I haven’t.
FIRST WILD SWIMMER. Why not?
WILD CAMPER. I don’t know. Looks pretty cold.
SECOND WILD SWIMMER. It is, but that’s the point. It wakes you up. You should try it sometime.
THIRD WILD SWIMMER. Can I ask you something?
WILD CAMPER. Yes, of course.
THIRD WILD SWIMMER. What colour is that tent?
WILD CAMPER. My tent? It’s smoky sage.
THIRD WILD SWIMMER. What the fuck is smoky sage?
After a peaceful breakfast, Tom unpitched his tent, packed his bag and started down the path beside the stream. But then he stopped, turned around and stood there for a while, looking back at the lake. Even the bottom of the ridge on the far side of the lake was being warmed by the sun now. Soon the sun would warm the lake, too. Then Tom turned his back to the lake and continued walking down the path. He could see the wild swimmers in the valley below.
There were plenty of days coming when he could fish the swamp. Oops. Wrong story, again. There were plenty of days coming, Tom meant to think, when he could, of course, swim that lake.