Saturday is adventure day.
The entrance to this undisclosed location — one of the few ways into a place you’ve heard about for years but never got round to seeing for yourself — is just 5 minutes from a busy road, 15 minutes from the city, half-an-hour away from home. A giant, secret, enigma of a place which needs to be seen. Although getting to the entrance is as familiar and uneventful as walking down almost any road in the area — just 3 good friends turning onto a narrow path, moving single file, talking and laughing and just enjoying being outside together on the weekend — this is actually one of the best parts of the entire adventure (at least, if you’re me).
It smells of grass, flowers, wood, pollen, distant water and barbecues and damp earth — a potentially very brief summer. You try and ignore the fact that this is England and it probably won’t last. It is difficult. Actually, it’s impossible.
You are walking down a passage-way. On your left is a small, hardly-moving stream. Something in your peripheral vision flickers with just the barest hint of motion. Enough to tell you to slow down and look, in this place where nothing normally moves apart from the people on the path. You all stop, then you turn your head and find 3 black fluffy balls sitting there on the surface of the water, surrounded by green river reeds. At first, for a split-second, they are just simple dense shapes without meaning or dimension. Then you see a bright-red beak attached to the biggest of the birds — its body about the size of a small rugby ball — and the big splayed feet of the baby creatures spreading out underwater, cautiously moving about. That’s when all 3 of you stop to listen to the tiny-chirping sound the birds are making. A strange, surprising moment: they’re not going anywhere in a hurry, as you first expected, and the presence of three enormous beings looming above them doesn’t bother them at all.
You all lean over to look closely at the creatures. By now, you’re all excitedly pointing and smiling and talking about how cute the Moorhens are (you more than anyone else, because you’re mad about Moorhens). You get your phone out. It’s a new-school-ish HTC Desire and, unlike the brick-phone that the leader girl in the group possesses — you are secretly jealous of the way the orange envelope symbol appears in the middle of the screen when a message arrives — it has the ability to take actually pretty-good photographs! Not that this is a reason to think that the HTC Desire is preferable to the brick-phones of old. The brick-phone may lack functions, apps and general finesse, but it wins hands-down for durability, nostalgic 1990s style and simple toughness. Besides that, some people like the sensation of weight in their pocket — something which much of the modern world seems to have a thing against.
After the photos are taken (the girl in the group took photos of you and your friend with your arms around each other as in a classic holiday friendship pose, and you hoped that the 3 Moorhens would be visible in the photo, but guessed they probably wouldn’t, even though the girl in the group is a skilled photographer), the 3 of you are about to move on when the whirring wheels of a cyclist can be heard somewhere along the path. A moment later 3 cyclists appear and you all try and make room for them to get through the narrow space (you are cautious…there are stinging nettles on both sides of the path!). As they are passing, you mention the 3 Moorhens and a second later, the family stop, prop their bikes against the fence to your right and come over to have a look. The little girl of 3 or 4 delights in the natural spectacle unfolding on the stream below her. You all watch the Moorhens swim and flap about in tiny circles, and you detect that the family are German and try and speak German with them, because you cannot help it. They reply in too-good English, which is slightly disappointing — you wanted to practice, say the words out-loud for a change — but it doesn’t matter, because you got to see a great natural thing. A special moment between man and Moorhen. Ah, it is a good day.
Less than five minutes later, the 3 of you are standing at the entrance to the secret place — you’re not really supposed to be here, but the land has always been accessible — and realising that you can’t just walk across, and neither can you jump. Once this is established, some of the enthusiasm for making this adventure happen immediately dies. It’s not enough to ruin things, but it does cause the 3 of you to pause and consider how to get across. Personally, you feel optimistic about getting across the stream without falling in, but the one of you in the group with a funky moustache and beard doesn’t. This is highly predictable: he’s not used to negotiating streams with narrow planks of wood as the access point, while wearing carefully-chosen clothes. Not that this matters, as he provides a constant source of humour which is one of the many things about this friendship which is most prized.
Your friend has every right to be dubious. The plank of wood is only 4 inches wide, and neither end is attached to the ground, making it wobbly to the touch. You test it with one foot and half your weight and it gives a bit, more than feels comfortable: after a few seconds you decide it should be fine and cautiously make your way across, while, behind you, your friend with an impressive moustache points out the various things that could go wrong. It’s fine though, you make it across safely, and after you’ve told your friend off for making you nervous at exactly the wrong moment, the girl in the group — the leader of this adventure, as I said, and the only reason any of this is as easy as it is — does the same thing with ease and very little concern, like it was no big deal (she has been here before, though, so she does have an advantage!). Now you 2 are over, it’s time for the moustached fashionista of the group to make his way across. With his intense dislike of messing his expertly-gelled hair up, this fusion of man versus nature is an exceedingly comical sight to behold. You don’t say it out loud because it’d be cruel and inappropriate — although completely fair as he just unnerved you — but you do think That’d be hilarious if he fell in!
He doesn’t fall in. You consider that this is a probably a good thing after all, because had he done then he’d have only moaned about it for bloody ages and you’d probably have had to turn around and go home so he could change his clothes and sort his hair out and write an exaggerated Facebook status about what had happened. Safe and sound on the untouched ground of the secret place, you continue into the thick of the foliage feeling full of purpose. It begins a few metres away from the stream and quickly becomes so thick that it brushes every part of you. In comical fashion, it’s always the sharp plants that get you where it isn’t best.
Everywhere you look is green. The leader of your group navigates you through the twisty, turny path, with the ground beneath you all getting wetter and wetter as you go. Here, now, you are in another world which feels miles away from where you have just been. All around you, the plants and shrubs are taller, so that you can’t see out and nobody else can easily see in. Grr, Jurassic Park!
After twenty more steps of only green plants, laughter and excitement about the proximity of the secret — the girl in the group says it’s close now…maybe just 5 minutes away — the anticipation gives way to a fence on your left. A tall flat-metal fence formed from stainless-steel and the first reminder that you’re still in civilisation. It’s a slight disappointment, but this quickly fades as you catch a glimpse of something far behind the fence. A smash of light blue colour which changes as you move, morphing into grey and then a dull metallic-green as the clouds drift above you, shifting on the wind.
But you’re not there yet. First, you have to get past another obstacle — this time a boggy area of black-ish mud that smells like a combination of clay and composted plants. The kind of mud that posh ladies might pay a lot for just to wear on their faces and maybe even bums. There are 2 possible routes across: 1) take the gloopy path that arches around the worst of it, holding on to the fence, or 2) be like Indiana Jones and take the perilous route which is much more fun: first you’ll need to walk as far as you can along the narrow branch that sits in the middle of the swampy area, and then you’ll need to balance and pause for a moment before springing from it, leaping with both feet all the way to safety (it’s not that far but it feels like it when you don’t do this kind of thing very often anymore. You make a note: do this kind of thing more often).
You take the Indiana Jones route, pulling the balancing bit off well and the jump effortlessly! Well, not effortlessly, effortlessly is too big a word, but quite well for a bearded bloke who was once considered a demon at leap-frogs.
The girl leader of the group, of course, is not silly. Instead, she takes the sensible option and holds onto the fence. She looks nothing like Indiana Jones but you suspect that this is a good thing, as girls — even leader girls — generally don’t like being compared in writing to adventurous rugged men who care nothing for anything but making love to women and have an intense fascination with ancient archaeology and the pursuit of near-death experiences.
Once the moustached fashionista has made his way across — he also took the sensible route, and does actually look like Indiana Jones might have done had he gone to fashion college instead of chasing wondrous artefacts — you all head on, now more excited than ever. This is when you come across the break in the fence that makes it all possible…a vertical smile of space just wide enough to let you in and keep anything much bigger out.
You enter the open land. It feels interplanetary and surreal. It’s hard to believe this place is so close to anything modern.
Blue water several hundred metres across, surrounded by small chalky cliffs to your left that rise gradually to the right.
With so much land to explore — much of it flat, punctuated by mossy ground that turns into woodland in the far distance — you could spend half-an-hour arguing over where to go now. But you don’t. Without really talking about it, you all walk just a few metres to the right and sit down at the cliff-edge, where there is no sound.
There is nothing here apart from a few people camping on the other side of the lake. No tourists, no cars rushing by, no easy way in or out. Just peace and beauty for as far as the eye can see. And that’s how you spend the next few hours in the sun, sitting here, talking, watching a big fish make small splashes out in the water in front of you. You pull rocks from the cliff face and throw them, lose yourselves in simple pleasures. A perfect day all the way through until the sunlight gradually dissipates, and it’s time to head home.