Just 40 minutes after leaving work in central London and boarding a train, I was walking down a country lane and about to enter a green world. Before me was a small wood, through which I could just see a meadow and a couple of tents; apart from birdsong, the only sound was someone chopping wood and the distant purring of a canal boat.
This was the Almost Wild campsite near Broxbourne, Hertfordshire, on the banks of the river Lee, less than 20 miles north of the capital. It’s one of a new breed of back-to-basics campsites aimed in particular at city dwellers wishing to escape for a day or two into the wild – but without having to travel too far. The site is about a mile from Broxbourne station, easily reached by foot, bike or canoe.
I was greeted by Gareth Winn, a senior ranger for Lee valley regional park, who was instrumental in setting up the site. “While Lee valley regional park authority already has three managed campsites, we realised there was a growing demand for the wilder side of camping, with open fires and training in bushcraft skills,” he told me.
The site has 17 generous pitches (with room for two to three tents; prices are £12pppn), each with its own fire pit. Most are in a riverside meadow although there are a few in the woods, where there is also the option of stringing up your hammock and tarp. Beyond this, facilities consist of two composting toilets, a few solar-powered lights and a cold-water tap.
Looking out at this rural idyll, bounded on two sides by water, I could imagine that it had always looked like this. Not so. Gareth said: “The site had been neglected for many years, with old static caravans and large amounts of fly tipping, which made the whole area an eyesore.”
In just over six months, rangers and volunteers cleared the area of broken glass and rubbish, and thinned out the overgrown woodland, turning it into the lush green plot it now is. In fact the only reminder that civilisation wasn’t far away was the occasional distant rumble of trains heading to and from London’s Liverpool Street station.
After setting up my tent on a pitch by the river, I headed over to the wood for a crash course in bushcraft. Throughout the summer months, visitors to the site can sign for one-hour introductions into skills from shelter building to foraging for food, as well as more advanced courses.
Survival expert Craig Fordham started the session with that essential skill, fire lighting. While recommending that campers always carry a turbo lighter, he explained there are occasions where these just won’t work. Everyday objects such batteries can help get a fire going, while cotton wool, lip balm and hand sanitiser can be used as improvised tinder.
We then moved on to the age-old art of using steel and flint to create a spark, using King Alfred’s cake – a black fungus found in woodland that burns slowly like a barbecue briquette – to nurture the light. By far the biggest thrill, though, came from getting a fire going using a bow drill, a prehistoric type of implement whose bow can be used to generate friction. I probably learned more skills in that hour than many a year of reading survival manuals.
Once the fire was going we picked up a few tips on how to cook on it. After gutting a trout, Craig demonstrated a couple of ways of cooking fish – from spreading the fillet out on skewers and holding over the fire, to wrapping it in burdock leaves and placing on the hot embers.
With Almost Wild sitting on the canalised river Lee navigation, which runs for 40 miles from Hertford to Limehouse on the Thames in east London, it is ideal not only for walkers and cyclists, but also canoeists. Those on overnight canoe expeditions can stay the night, and local, in Broxbourne, will deliver boats to the banks of the site.
Early next morning I set off on a short canoe excursion up an almost still Lee. Apart from a few moored boats, we had the water to ourselves. Paddling past lakes that were formerly gravel pits (sadly no swimming is allowed as they contain hidden hazards) and unusual riverside houses, we spotted a muntjac (a small deer) on the riverbank.
There was then just time to whip the kettle back on the fire for a final coffee, strike camp and head back to the station. Within the hour I was back at my desk, suitably de-stressed after this almost-wild experience.
• The trip was provided by Lee valley regional park , which charges £12pppn (minumum age 12 years). Bags of logs (can be purchased in advance for £5). Saturday Bushcraft taster sessions costs £10pp.
5 more campsites near cities
Badgells Wood, Kent
Off-grid campingless than two hours’ drive from London and close to Ebbsfleet International railway station – 20 minutes from King’s Cross – Badgells Wood is a tranquil hideaway where the capital quickly feels like a distant memory. Camping pitches are set within the trees, while firewood is provided so you can cook on your own campfire.
• Peak season camping, adults £16, children £8
Jerusalem Farm, Halifax, Yorkshire
An hour’s drive from Manchester and even less from Leeds, Jerusalem Farm is a stunning campsite in a nature reserve in the Luddenden valley. The intimate campsite has pitches for up to 30 tents, and the surrounding area is perfect for hill walking.
• Adults £6, children £4,
In the New Forest, the picturesque Ashurst campsite is around 15 minutes from Southampton city centre, either by car or train. From the campsite you can enjoy walking or cycling through the ancient woodlands that surround it.
• From £17.20 a night for two
Cashel campsite, Dunbartonshire
A forest campsite on the banks of Loch Lomond, Cashel is the perfect base to walk the and the popular Ben Lomond mountain. It may feel deep in the Highlands but it’s easily reached from Glasgow’s Queen Street station: it’s just 30 minutes train ride to Balloch station followed by a bus to nearby Drymen.
• From £14.55 a night for two