Holidays in Hackney: Marshes Winter Bivvy

Holidays in Hackney marshes morning bivvy pic
You can’t beat that first hot drink of the day. The bivvy bag is under the tarp in the middle.

How can we find plane-free low-carbon wonder in our own backyard? Not just because we need to change our attitude to travel, not just because many here can’t afford it either – but also because who can’t benefit from feeling a little happier every day by loving where they live? Big journeys start with a little local adventure.

Second in the #HolidaysInHackney series is a night on the marshes in a bivvy bag – in the snow…

It’s good to test yourself. It stops your comfort zone shrinking too much. So I thought I’ll head out on a cold dark night across the marshes and find a spot to build a bivouac. With me, I had a bivvy bag from the army surplus store on the Walthamstow high street. A bivvy bag is basically a pole-less tent you wear. Imagine a thin, waterproof, sleeping bag made of the same material as a hiking jacket. Into this, you slide your roll mat and actual sleeping bag.

The bivvy bag is a British army staple. It packs down to the size of a small towel and weighs even less. Conveniently, for those of you wishing to avoid any attention – especially if you’re still sleeping when the sun comes up – it’s olive green. The army also like to keep things low key on manoeuvres.

I decided to test myself and go out in the snow, so I had thermals on and two small sleeping bags, one inside the other. Out on the marshes it was quiet, save for the (pre-Covid19) endless planes droning over towards the Isle of Dogs on their descending zigzag towards Heathrow. There was nobody about, save the odd dog walker. There’s an oddness about passing people in the dark. They could be axe-murderers. But then they could be thinking the same about you. That said, fear of crime is much higher than the reality, so I wasn’t too bothered. We are not as interesting to others as we think.

I found a spot near some logs, rigged up a tarp to make a small shelter and slid in the bivvy bag. The next step was to blow up the roll mat, unfurl the sleeping bag and get in. In the distance, the orange glow of street lights suddenly stopped: a sharp delineation between the streets and the marshes. At regular intervals trains rattled the flat expanse on elevated sections. I’d brought binoculars and they’re suprisingly useful even in the dark. If there was anyone coming my way, I’d probably see them. But of course there wasn’t.

Instead I spied on an empty train and imagined a few midweek City drinkers looking forward to their beds on the edge of Essex, or tired tourists waving goodbye to London. Looking up there was a steady procession of blinking lights in the sky, a reminder of how much kerosene we get through every day. A look at a live radar map pre-Covid19 is mindblowing. The same applies to ships. Our lifestyles have a cost in the oil-rich regimes we prop up and the emissions we tolerate.

Yet there is adventure to be had right here on our own doorstep. The orange-tinged sky was still big and impressive and I experienced a little of the urban sublime. I slept well too, apart from waking up with cold knees at one point. But I’m a morning person and my favourite part was always going to be waking up surrounded by crisp snow. As an early dogwalker studiously ignored me, I popped my little Espresso pot on the Calor gas stove and savoured the first coffee of the day. Its blackness contrasted with the white around me and any camper knows the pleasure of that first hot drink of the day.

The trains were clickety-clacking again, but much fuller this time. London was going back to work. The adventure was over. For now.

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