Leaving the car at the Picket Plain viewpoint, I stumbled quickly through heath and gorse and mud, using the light of the moon to see the pathshine and feeling my way over the contours.
I worked my way over the valleys and into the woods, the fractals of the trees in their winter coats standing brilliantly against the sky.
As the year scribbles its way to a close, and penned in by the invisible boundaries of good health, I’ve spent the last week sketching out adventure close to home.
I’m often asked what kind of experience counts towards my 100 Days of Adventure challenge. The answer isn’t very satisfying: you know an adventure when you have one. You can’t always predict it; it’s something you feel.
That’s why we call it having ‘a sense of adventure’.
Darkness definitely eases back the threshold of adventure. Indeed, psychologists at the University of Bhunkum have found that adding the words ‘at night’ or ‘by moonlight’ to any activity increases its AQ (Adventure Quotient) by an incredible 308 percent.
- Getting lost in the woods: annoying
- Getting lost in the woods at night: adventure
- Climbing a tree: fun
- Climbing a tree by moonlight: adventure
See? This is why wintertime is the best time for adventures: darkness falls in late afternoon, leaving ample time for adventure before cocoa and bed.
This reframing turns our usual seasonal preferences on their head: the long summer evenings are a barrier to adventure, not an opportunity. Winter is where we get our kicks, sunset marking time to shut the laptop and pull out the map.
Equal parts terror and wonder
Feeling the sublime sense of awe is pretty good for us humans: falliable scientific experiments have shown that these wow-experiences can make us happier, healthier, brainier, humbler and kindlier.
And nature is the ultimate awesome experience, equal parts terror and wonder.
That’s what I thought as I rambled through the Purbecks on a foggy Sunday night, anyway.
The Purbecks are famed for their crumbly white cliffs, dropping sheer into the rocky water from the pleasant and abrupty terminated grassy heath above.
On a clear day, it looks a lot like this:
For daredevils, there is a narrow spit of land connecting to a lonesome chalky pillar. The cliffs tumble away either side and you can look down into your doom and see it swirling in the foam below.
On a clear day, it looks a lot like this:
On a wintery night, when the sea fog has rolled in after dark, it doesn’t look anything like this at all.
All I can see, as I creep out into the void, is the ghostly white of the chalk and the angry foam of the waves.
I lie down, nothingness either side of me, wind howling above, sea raging below, and I laugh. This is why they named this place for the devil: Old Harry Rocks.
Cut off from the solid ground of the heath, I imagine a shadowy figure looming at the end of the lace thin path. Cackling with delight, I crawl back on my hands and knees.
Ignore your smoke alarm and look up
Of course, awe is much more safely experienced by simply looking up on a clear night. The key word there is ‘night’. This cannot be done during the daytime. Score another point for winter’s early evenings.
(Yes, ‘clear’ was also a key word. Unless otherwise stated, assume all my words are key.)
I’m sure we’ve all stared up into a wintery sky and felt very small. Nothing turns burning the toast into the insignificant annoyance that it is faster than boggling over the number of stars in the universe.
So ignore your smoke alarm for a second and imagine: how many stars are there in the Universe? More than there are grains of sand in the world.
Having said that, more prosaically, on a night like tonight, using the eyes that evolution gave you, you might see anywhere up to 4,548 stars — although that number will depend greatly on light pollution.
Each one of these stars is its own solar system, each one is home (potentially) to billions of lifeforms, each one enjoying the unfathomable richness of your own earthly experience. Take that in for a second.
Now switch off your smoke alarm.
Given that it’s nighttime, the closest star you can see in the northern hemisphere is Sirius, the Dog Star, about 81 trillion kilometres away.
The furthest star that humans have ever clapped eyes upon is called Icarus, and it sits in the night sky about 5 billion light-years away from Earth. A light-year is more than 9 trillion kilometres.
Our galaxy, the Milky Way, holds about 300 billion stars and the billions of other galaxies scooting along around us mean that there are about 70 billion trillion stars in the observable universe.
Silence, Senses, Solitude
But the value of nighttime is not only the ghoulish darkness or the Mills & Boon soft celestial lighting: nighttime, especially in winter, is also a time of solitude.
I met no earthly being but horses during two evening rambles through the New Forest and the Purbecks this week. On two similar daytime adventures in the Forest and the Heath, I could hardly move for chirpy off-schoolchildren and professional dog walkers.
That solitude brings with it the gift of silence — which is itself the gift of sensory abundance, for even the most silent night is full of sound.
The stochastic comforts of matter moving through matter. The crackle of boots through leaves. The percussive snap of twigs under weight. The creak and rustle of unseen insects laying a trail.
The darkness sharpen other senses too: I smell the moss-sucking damp of the bog before my boots get wet. Movement, real or imagined, is enhanced in my peripheral vision. My skin tingles, every follicle straining for sensory input.
I followed the stars of Cassiopeia out of the woods and back up towards the A31. The mud on my jeans gave me away to the petrol station attendant.
I feel a sense of adventure.
How to navigate… in fog… at night
Your sense of adventure can be sharpened, in order of descending visibility, by haze, mist and — as I enjoyed on Sunday night in the Purbecks — fog.
As the waves of the English Channel hurled themselves onto the white cliffs below, clouds of water vapour condensed around the flecks of salt in the cold air.
I was navigating towards the obelisk of Ballard Down. To give you some idea of visibility, here’s what that imposing monument looked like at ten paces: