Twelve years ago, I failed the written portion of my British Sub Aqua Club Sports Diver exam for inadequately defining a neap tide. At the time, I was an impoverished student at the University of Leeds, so the idea of paying to re-sit the paper – when levied against the price of alcohol at the Hyde Park Social – was unthinkable. I already had a PADI Advanced qualification in my back pocket and doubted that I would regret my decision.
Fast forward through several years of blissful ignorance and I’m standing at the lowest point of low tide, staring directly into a foaming inky-black mass of spring tide seawater. Just two weeks earlier on the neap tide, I had been able to climb directly from this point to the ramp of rock that leads up to the Gower Peninsula’s Paviland Cave without coming close to getting wet.
Ironically, I would now actually require scuba kit to get to the cave that was supposed to be my home for the night. I hadn’t brought any gear for a bivouac under the stars, which was somewhat irritating. Then again, as I reminded myself, that was supposed to be the point.
After a decade of cramming superfluous outdoor equipment into my already overfilled backpack, I had decided to rid myself of my addiction to gear and head into the British wilderness with almost nothing at all. I wanted to live like a caveman.
Except that now I didn’t even have a cave.
If you look at a map of the British Isles, the Gower Peninsula protrudes from Wales’s southwest coastline; not quite Swansea, not yet Pembroke, the Gower kicks out like the foot of a stubborn child into the Bristol Channel. The Gower may only be 25 kilometres long and 11 kilometres wide but it pays not to be fooled by its diminutive size. This peninsula is wild.
The moment the M4 appears in your rear view mirror, the landscape changes dramatically. Although the Gower isn’t a national park, it was the first place to be designated an area of outstanding beauty by the Countryside Agency. It’s easy to see why: harsh gorse, dunes and commons collide with rolling hills, ancient forests and sharply defined cliffs. This terrain is the home of wild horses, an array of raptors and some of the oldest known human remains in the UK.
I wanted somewhere close to home where I could survive with a minimal amount of gear and forage in the wild for a weekend. The Gower felt like the perfect choice: small, yet crammed full of diverse environments with a smorgasbord of culinary options.
On the eve of departure, instead of the usual rushing around searching for new head-torch batteries, I had a small pack ready by the back door. It contained little more than a waterproof and breathable bivvy bag, a knife, a fire-starting kit and a pot. My single luxury item was a sleeping mattress.
I had already conducted a reconnaissance of an appropriate cave for my overnight stay: the famous Paviland, where in 1823 Professor William Buckland of the University of Oxford discovered the almost-30,000-year-old, ritually buried headless skeleton of a young man. The discovery proved to be the oldest anatomically modern human skeleton found in Britain at the time.
Four thousand years ago, the climate around the Gower would have felt closer to that of present-day Scandinavia. The Bristol Channel, which today laps at the foot of Paviland Cave, would have been a grassland filled with wolves, bears and other carnivores intent on separating your head from your shoulders with considerably less ritual than that experienced by my prospective bedfellow.
I wasn’t going to be wearing animal fur. After all, there are some things you can’t do in modern Britain; poaching a rabbit for its pelt or killing and skinning a sheep are both pretty high on the list. I fell back on synthetic base layers, a thick fleece and reliable waterproofs.
I also had to be extremely careful where I made my campfire. It needed to be sited well away from the cave – which is a protected historical site that today provides shelter for rare species of bat and bird – and also from the fragile grasslands and commons on the hilltops and fringes of the coast. (By the letter of the law, wild camping requires permission from the landowner. That said, so long as you aren’t an irresponsible camper who leaves litter, starts uncontrolled fires, camps on land that’s clearly private, or causes unnecessary disturbance, then in my experience, you’ll probably be fine.)
I wanted to ensure that I didn’t eat something that would lead to me being added to the list of male remains discovered in Paviland. With that in mind, I enlisted the survival expertise of Andrew Price, a bushcraft instructor, to show me the ropes on a wild forage.
Seeing the Gower through the eyes of a specialist was extraordinary. Andrew could produce edible wild foods from almost everywhere – it didn’t matter whether we were in a rocky bay or dense woodlands.
I was glad he was with me, not only because eating the wrong mushroom could easily kill you, but also because I would have missed out on an enormous variety of culinary delights simply by not being able to tell my sea lettuce from my channeled wrack. Seaweed, Andrew explained, is packed full of vitamins and minerals. When combined with an abundance of cockles, limpets, mussels and winkles found on the shoreline, it seemed to me that I could survive indefinitely on a seafood diet from a single Gower bay.
Andrew explained that it’s important to only take one in ten of anything, be it a clump of mussels, a bunch of wild garlic, or even blackberries – you should never strip an entire colony of its bounty. ‘Two years ago, we had razor clams in abundance on this beach,’ Andrew said as we strode along the expansive Oxwich Bay sands. ‘Sadly, they’ve all but disappeared due to over-harvesting.’
With my cooking pot overflowing with mussels, edible berries, a wild salad and even a special fungus, Daldinia concentrica, that can be used as an effective firelighter, Andrew and I parted company. I felt that I now had enough knowledge to reliably identify several other species that were sustainable to harvest and also safe
to eat. I headed towards the cliffs with a spring in my step. It was then that I noticed that the tide seemed to be unusually high.
I attempted to climb down into the cave via the cliff face above the entrance, but quickly realised that without a rope, a climbing harness or a helmet, I was asking for trouble and gave up. Without the shelter of the cave, this really was going to be an experiment in minimalism. I had headed to the Gower in late autumn – the optimal time of year for foraging but a poor one for sleeping under nothing more than a blanket of stars.
The word ‘caveman’ is, in fact, a misnomer; the majority of our forefathers built shelters from animal skins and brush, which is precisely what I should have been doing instead of wasting time trying to descend to the cave. It was now getting dark, although there was still ample light from the near-full moon (typical, I now realise, for a spring tide).
In the event, I spent an uncomfortable night on a rock beach, squeezed between a cliff face and a large boulder. My Swedish fire-steel produced a spark that ignited my fungus briquette. The mushroom burned hot enough for me to be able to boil my mussels, and the rest of my foraged food was delicious.
However, I have to say, I suffered at the hands of my self-imposed militancy with regard to my minimalist sleeping gear. At 3am, it started to rain and I was left cursing the fact that I had opted not to bring my lightweight sleeping bag and tarp. I buried my head deep in my bivvy bag and waited until the grey light of pre-dawn appeared.
I would have been a rubbish caveman; I resembled a green sausage roll lying on the ground for any carnivorous beast to snaffle at their leisure. Nevertheless, I had fun. And with the addition of a couple of items to my kit list, I feel that there’s a new world of domestic adventure waiting for me without the burden of an enormous rucksack.
Will Millard is a freelance journalist and adventurer. He was the recipient of the 2013 RGS–IBG/BBC Journey of a Lifetime Award. www.willmillard.com. Thanks to Andrew Price at Dryad Bushcraft. www.dryadbushcraft.co.uk
If you’re planning to live off the land, then it pays to have the right gear to ensure you remain warm, dry and, most importantly, nourished. Here, Will Millard recommends some of the most important items that he took with him to the Gower Peninsula, including a knife, water purification tablets and a mushroom identification book
Dryad Bush Bowie
The Dryad features a 14-centimetre, carbon-steel blade, which is generally considered to be more robust after exposure to saltwater – and also easier to sharpen – than other types of steel. It’s perfect for producing fine kindling.
2. Utility tool
Cold Steel Special Forces shovel
A folding shovel, with a comfortable wooden handle and a sharpened edge that opens it up to a multitude of uses. I use mine to clear brush, dig latrines and even split wood. For an extra £6, you can even get a protective sheath.
Brasher Supalite II GTX
A pair of sturdy boots is essential. Try to choose something with a bit of a toecap for removing tricky shellfish with a swift kick. These lightweight boots are made with a full-grain-leather upper that has been married to a waterproof and breathable Gore-Tex insert.
DD Hammocks Extra Large
If only I had stuck this sheet in my pack ahead of the Gower adventure. This huge 4.5m by 3m tarpaulin can comfortably cover your sleeping and cooking areas and all your gear. The 19 attachment points allow you to erect a waterproof, multipurpose shelter.
5. First aid kit
Includes essentials such as bandages, plasters, tape, antiseptic and painkillers. It’s useful to carry a spare set of any important medicines in a separate bag or pouch (ideally in your travelling partner’s bag) in case the first set becomes lost, damaged or waterlogged.
6. Sleeping mat
Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite
£100/350 grams (regular)
A lightweight and waterproof base for your bivouac. This uninsulated mat uses reflective layers and triangular baffles to reflect radiant heat back to your body while slowing convective heat loss. The NeoAir XLite occupies about the same amount of space as a one-litre bottle. Available for men and women.
7. Water purification
Lifesystems chlorine dioxide tablets
Chlorine dioxide kills a wider base of nasties than other chemical treatments I’ve used in the past but lacks the strong chemical aftertaste that one associates with conventional chlorine tablets.
8. Mushroom book
This guide helps you to distinguish edible from poisonous varieties of mushroom. However, given that certain varieties can be fatal if eaten, it’s still important to learn to identify them in the field with an expert.
9. Sleeping bag
PHD Minim Ultra Down
This has a box-wall construction (with no stitched-through cold spots) and is available in various widths and lengths. The outer fabric is a superfine ripstop nylon that has excellent tear strength.
Essential for keeping your sleeping bag, mattress and camp clothes dry during the day. This sack has shoulder straps, a roll-down-style seal and an internal divider for separating wet and dry items. The 35-litre model holds everything I need for a weekend living off the land.
This story was published in the November 2014 edition of Geographical Magazine