27 years ago, myself and three school friends spent a week walking through the Brecon Beacons–a wild, isolated National Park of moor and mountain in Wales.
It was an extraordinary adventure for four fourteen year olds to undertake, and only really possible thanks to the father of my friend Tristan Gooley, who helped us organize the expedition.
Tristan’s dad Mike is a former member of the elite British military unit the SAS, and he knew the Brecons like the back of his hand as his squad trained there extensively.
Each evening as we descended from yet another perilous 12-15 mile walk, rucksacks bouncing on our backs, he would be waiting, rather anxiously, by his Jaguar, for us to arrive.
He’d confirm we were alive, give us a pep talk (one of these, I remember, was, "When the moon waneth it can waxeth," which translates roughly, I believe, as, "Hey, at least things can’t get any worse") and then disappear again till the next day.
I remember thinking, in my youthful naivety, that these daily check-ups were a bit over-the-top, especially as we were carrying our tents (two between four) and all our food and other supplies on our backs. Why did we need Mike’s presence?
It’s a sign of how carefully Tristan and his dad planned our route, which took in Pen y Fan and Fan y Big, among the highest peaks in the UK, that I was blissfully unaware that seasoned walkers (and even military trainees) sometimes die on the Brecons, so challenging is this Welsh wilderness.
27 years later, Tristan, Matt, James and I reconvened on the same hillside to walk the Brecons again, in similar conditions of thick fog.
I saw Tristan at a party last year, but I hadn’t seen James for at least 18 years (since university) and I hadn’t seen Matt for over 20 years, when I left school under rather strained circumstances.
We all looked rather different, and Tristan’s dad wasn’t there to meet us at the end of the day, but those were not the only differences--this time, we didn’t have a compass. We didn’t have GPS. We had a map, but we only looked at it once before we set off to make a few brief notes about our overall direction. Our iPhones were set to flight mode.
The reason for this denial of technology was that Tristan has, in the 25 years since the four of us were last together on this windswept Welsh mountainside, become the global expert on natural navigation, finding his way around the world using nothing but natural clues and pointers.
Indeed his discovery (made on a sailing expedition to Iceland)--that if, when at sea, you see more than 10 birds in any given five minute window this means you are within 40 miles of land--has become part of the British military’s survival guidance.
His new book, The Lost Art of Reading Nature’s Signs has been published to the sort of reviews writers kill for in the UK, and has just come out in the US.
The parameters of our task were deceptively simple. The master plan was to find a lake that was 5.5km away, but to break the journey up into a couple of shorter stages; first, we would try to find a brick sheep pen marked on the map as being 1.5km SE of the car park, then from there we would walk to a ruined building, 1km to the south, for lunch.
Once we got to the mountain lake, we would turn north-east for a couple of clicks, where we would hopefully meet up with a road where James had previously dumped his car so we could drive back to our other cars and make our camp (yes, we had tents, but one each this time).
I was rather disappointed by the thick fog and low cloud cover, but Tristan was positively ecstatic. If the sun was out all the time, he said, it would make things too easy.
That said, if anyone saw the sun peek through a gap in the clouds, we should shout, as that would be the most foolproof way to check our direction.
In the meantime, standing in a gravel car park on the edge of a wilderness, which way was south-east?
Tristan pointed out a hedgerow with brambles in it. The blackberries on the brambles grew more profusely on the south facing side than the north, because they got sun.
Simple when you think about it.
Then he started looking at the trees. Any tree in a sheltered area will grow more lushly on its south side as on the south the side facing the sun simply grows more.
Indeed, no tree is truly symmetrical, they always bear some influence of the weather.
More telling than the sun, in fact, is the influence of wind, especially in an exposed area like the Brecons.
Isolated trees, ones that bear the full force off the wind, will be sculpted by it.
In the UK the prevailing wind blows from the South West to the North East, meaning that whenever you see a wind-blown tree, it is more than likely facing North East. Indeed, even our storms tend to come so reliably from the south west that fallen trees will often ‘point’ north east.
So, by using tree shapes and blackberries, we found what we thought was south-east, and headed off.
We followed a path, because a path was there, but after a few twists and turns it became apparent that to hold our line we were going to have to plunge into the deepest and darkest of conifer forests.
Just before we did this, the sun came out for an instant. A simple fact (which I had not realized) is that the sun is perfectly due south of you (in the northern hemisphere) at exactly 12 noon (or 1pm when daylight saving is operational).
So, if you draw an imaginary line from the sun to the ground at noon, that’s plumb south, or, to use numerical terminology, it’s at 180 degrees.
The sun moves across the sky by fifteen degrees per hour (it has to travel 360 degrees in 24 hours). By checking his watch – it was noon (and we were in daylight saving time) Tristan knew the sun was one hour–or fifteen degrees--away from due south (180 degrees).
Based on the sun traveling 15 degrees per hour, he was able to deduce the sun was close to a bearing of 165 degrees.
Still with me? Good. We wanted to be heading south-east–or, to put it in numerical terms, at a bearing of 135 degrees (do keep up at the back there).
Here’s another amazing fact. Extend your arm. Make a fist. Your fist is now blotting out almost exactly ten degrees of the horizon. So by finding a landmark three fists from the sun, Tristan found south-east.
At this point, agog, James produced for the one and only time on our walk a compass and checked. Tristan was bang on. The compass was stowed for the rest of the hike.
There were a profusion of other tips and tricks on our walk, but you’ll have to buy the book for those. Suffice to say we found our way naturally to each of our waymarkers (although at one stage we got so engrossed in reminiscences of our school years that we veered a few hundred meters from the path of righteousness).
That evening, we set up our tents and sat around a fire in the dark Welsh night, eating delicious slices of a fillet of beef which I had cooked the evening before (the food was better this time round).
We exchanged notes on what the past 25 years had served up to us. I tried hard not to judge myself, and was largely successful.
We chatted late into the night. I couldn’t imagine us doing the same if we had arranged to meet up in a restaurant or pub in London.
But here, under the stars, with the fire to stare at and keep going, and the shared experience of the afternoon’s natural navigation under our belts, the years seemed to concertina away. I remembered why these guys were my best friends in the world when I was 14, and wondered how life had managed to talk me into not seeing them for so many years.
We got up in the morning, brushed our teeth, made a cup of tea, and, before we went our separate ways–back to wives, jobs, kids and lives--we resolved to try and do this again sometime, preferably without waiting another 25 years.