The outsiders: Writers recall their formative encounters with the great outdoors

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The Independent Online

Joan Bakewell: Youth hostelling for beginners

Outside was cold. And being cold was to be avoided. The winter snows of 1947 had been waist-deep and we came home from school with soaking clothes. A single fire banked high in the chimney was the only warmth. We huddled round it. Spring came late. Life was tight, controlled, ruled by home and school and the tram that went between. Then someone had the idea we could get away from it. The prospect was as giddy and liberating as seeing The Overlanders at the local cinema. This freedom was called Youth Hostelling; it involved long daily exposure to the open air, in all weathers. And our parents could be persuaded to let us go as long as there were teachers in charge. A new world beckoned, though in fact it was only 20 miles away – in the Peak District. It seemed a great adventure.

The principle behind the whole idea – as expressed by the British Youth Hostelling Association, founded in 1930 – was "to help all, especially young people of limited means, to a greater knowledge, love and care of the countryside". Being "of limited means" meant that we gasped with amazement when the hostel accommodation – as in Ravenstor at Miller's Dale – turned out to be a large country house. None the less, life indoors was always pretty spartan. Accommodation was bunkbeds in single-sex dormitories with a shared bathroom, a kitchen where you cooked the food and helped with chores. You were encouraged to move on: after two or three nights you had to. And there was no lurking from the rain. In those days, the hostels closed over the long midday, so you were out in all weathers. Socks and gloves wet from the previous day had scarcely had time to dry.

The intentions of Youth Hostelling were certainly taken seriously: we learnt to close farm gates, not to leave any mess from our packed lunches, to read Ordnance Survey maps and to understand triangulation points. We carried all we needed for a week inside our khaki knapsacks. This was where I learnt the art of packing: cramming every corner with changes of underwear, shirts, trousers, sweaters, plus notebooks, toiletries and books on birds and flowers. I would stagger under this colossal load as we climbed Mam Tor or descended Jacob's Ladder. Once, in rough terrain, I landed badly and sprained my ankle. We were miles from anywhere, but such was our spirit of adventure that one of my tougher school friends volunteered to piggyback me to the next hostel. And I didn't give up there: for the remaining two days I was carried up hill and down dale by different colleagues, with my ankle swelling painfully under my socks. We felt we'd climbed Everest ... or rather they did!

There is something exhilarating about being consistently in the open air. I sympathise with Gypsies who get ill when they're moved into brick housing. I learnt in these few weeks – there were other visits to the Lake District and along the Yorkshire Coast – to love the feel of rough turf, to scale dry-stone walls, to identify the peewit and the lark, and not to measure physical discomfort on the same scale as being indoors. Being wet and cold grew to be a natural condition, not to be complained about, and as long as a hill mist didn't come down and cut you off from others in the party strung out along the route, you were safe among jovial and laughing friends. Back home, the adventures would be exaggerated and retold for those who were left behind, as we huddled again over the embers of the coal fire sharing snaps taken in black and white on a Brownie box camera.

Alex James: My first festival

There were only two festivals back then. Reading and Glastonbury. I can't think of any others that people talked about. Apart from Reading and Glastonbury, big gigs were all referred to as stadium rock and stadium rock was not where the pretty girls were.

The first festival I went to was Reading. It must have been 1989 or 1990. It wasn't planned or looked forward to. I just happened to be bowling around southern England in a Camper van with a gang of friends that particular August bank-holiday weekend. I knew Reading was on because Pixies were headlining and they were my favourite band. Graham Coxon had Pixies lyrics in big writing stuck all around his room at college. We used to recite the ad libs from between the album tracks to each other "There were rumours. He was into field hockey players. He was just so ... quiet about it." Even thinking about those lines now makes me laugh. "I said you fuckin' die!"

My girlfriend and I were living in utter squalor but Blur had just signed to Food Records and Jesus Jones, our new labelmates, were on the main stage, playing as we bought our tickets. I had Jesus Jones records. That might not sound surprising but I didn't have very many records. Nobody had many records. Even Graham, who I thought had loads, only had about 20 more than me.

It made my heart beat faster to hear Jesus Jones music in the distance: this sound that I was quite familiar with, familiar in the way one might become accustomed to a pretty face in a film or a photograph, but now here it actually was, alive and real, sounding so big and loud and so far away. Like a thunderstorm at sea, it was slightly giddying and scary, something projected way beyond human scale.

I wanted to go backstage. I went to the side of the stage and said, "I need to get backstage. I just want to say 'Hello' to Jesus Jones. You see I met them a few weeks ago. I'm sure they'd like to see me. You see we're on the same label..." But it was no use. The expressionless face had heard it all before.

Tents went up no problem. I've always been happy camping. Our tent boasted more luxuries than our flat. At least it didn't have slugs living in it. Then I can't remember much until Pixies came on. I just have vague recollections of queuing for food, terrible sanitary conditions and thinking it was all brilliant.

I think it probably was brilliant, too. I've always loved playing at Reading ever since then. Unlike Glastonbury, people wait to see the line-up before they buy their tickets. It's better organised than Glastonbury and a hell of a lot easier to get to. I remember crying as New Order headlined in 1998 and I still stick my head in occasionally these days. I know I'll see familiar faces.

Long before anyone that I knew owned a CD player, music held a different place in the nation's heart. In 1990, music was the focus of everything, a prism for all culture. Smash Hits was the biggest-selling magazine. Saturday morning television was all about music. Music was what young people talked to each other about. Now we have celebrities. Now we have art galleries. We have nice food. In 1990, there was only Pixies.

As it got dark, people started to make bonfires – from anything, but mainly plastic beer glasses. That didn't make it any warmer but it did make it smell more interesting, unforgettably so. Pixies smashed it. They were a cracking live band. I was at the front for "Levitate Me" and I went back to the tent happy.

Then I discovered that someone had jumped on the tent and destroyed it. I couldn't believe how cold it was at two o'clock in the morning. I recommend the Ramada Hotel.

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Unhappy campers

The british middle classes are dead keen on gruelling outdoor jaunts – hill walking in stormy weather, macho mountaineering, swinging through treetops like chimpanzees, bungee jumping, canoeing over rapids, running marathons, that kind of thing. They must feel they need to challenge nature, put their soft lives to the test. Not me. Yes, I do wander out in big hats when the sun shines. Ambles through pretty parks and beautiful grounds are pleasing. Picnics are good, too, where nature has been nicely done up, like a front room. But not if pesky insects swarm in and have to be fumigated, making all the food taste as if it's been marinated in kerosene.

This has been the one great divide in my marriage. We are very different individuals. Colin likes thrillers and horror movies while I want love in New York or old Bollywood films; punk was his era, mine was the Seventies. The variety of family life is cheerily accepted by both of us. But when he pines to go up the wild hills of Wales or into dark woods or over rocky terrain, he becomes for me an unknowable alien android. In the early days of courtship, I could pretend great enthusiasm. One does what one can to get the chap. So when he scampered up some sheer cliffs in Bristol, I clapped and said he was a hero. And again when he went off to Lundy for two days of rabbits and rain and sharp bits. The English are crazy, is what I really thought.

Then a few years ago, feeling bad about working too much and generally behaving badly, I promised my husband I would go camping with him, far away from malls and public toilets and tarmac and cafés. I wouldn't complain, would be game for anything and would have a jolly good time. I would, I would.

The place chosen was Wye Valley – lovely and not too untamed. And the sun accompanied us all the way there as if to melt my inner resistance. Music played and my daughter – much more her father's child than mine – was excited and mocking. She was sure I would collapse before any badly pegged tent.

By the time we got there, all the best spots were gone and there were tents there that were, well, like show-offy villas. Gosh, the Joneses were there in force! Undaunted and feeling virtuous – remember small is beautiful – our tents were efficiently planted. The stove was small, lamp too.

After the sun set and a pearly moon rose, the real horror started. Families had brought the contents of entire freezers and enough beer to bathe in. Their sausages were fat and smelt luscious while ours, made of beef, looked like shrivelled worms by the time I had thoroughly cooked them on the wretchedly slow flame. And their T-bone steaks brought out envy, like hives. They put up lamps as big as small trees – so moonlight was dismissed. Their children ran around, frenzied, disturbed bees. I wanted to be on my sofa back home. But seeing my daughter's face made it all seem worth it.

It wasn't. Nobody had warned me that a sleeping bag is just a slippery, nylony blanket with a zip. Like the story of the princess and the pea, I could feel every pebble and dry blade of grass. Horrible. Then from the largest neighbouring tent came drunken voices, crashes, bangs, foul language. These were secondary school teachers from genteel Surrey. Once in a while they staggered towards our tent to pee or something. So this is bucolic bliss. Something snapped at 3am. And all my good intentions contorted into an ugly gripe, followed by rage. The next day a remorseful Colin bought me a fab, red blow-up mattress and a Joni Mitchell CD. And the hooligan teachers left. So the night was more tolerable. But we have never been camping again.

John Walsh: The ride of my life

In my late teens, I went out with a banker's daughter called Liz, who liked a bit of outdoorsy action. We endured a camping weekend in Durdle Door on the south coast. We shared a caravan with her madcap pals in Hunstanton. And once we went pony trekking in the Brecon Beacons in Wales.

Pony trekking! Could there be a more bourgeois form of excitement? Farmhouse accommodation, fry-up for breakfast, trekking, rising trots, grip with your knees, shorten your reins, and sit up straight, can't you? On the Saturday, as we ambled along ancient bridle paths and occasionally risked a trot, it came on to rain. "Cagoules on!" shouted the trek leader. I pulled my fashionable mustard sports jacket over my head. "Who's come without a waterproof?" asked the leader. I poked my head out. "You lemon," he shouted at the London novice. I hated him, and the rain and Brandy, the stupid horse I was on, and the other adolescent trekkers. I wanted to be in a pub for the afternoon, with Liz and a jukebox.

By Sunday afternoon my mood had lifted. The late-May sun blazed down. Fields of mustard rape glowed bright yellow. Since we'd soon be parting company for ever, I even essayed a little joke with the trek leader. And that may be why he took me to the head of the group, dismounted, opened a huge gate and said, "OK, John, lead them off. Do what you like."

I walked the horse through, into an immense, green meadow. There were trees far off to left and right, but it stretched miles ahead, with a downward slant like the curve of the earth. "Come on then," I said to the horse, experimentally, kicking its flanks. It set off at a jog-trot, a fast hog-trot – then suddenly its head went down and it sprang into a canter. A sudden, insane frenzy seemed to possess it, as if it had suffered a fright, or received some dreadful news. It was unwontedly physical. It was animal. And it wasn't supposed to happen. Novice riders didn't canter. Cantering came under "hacking", a different category of horsiness. There'd been some ghastly blunder. As the horse's head rose and fell, I knew I had no control whatsoever over the beast. I was a dead man. I couldn't possibly stay on this half-ton of rearing, frenzied horseflesh. In 20 yards I'd be thrown off, would break my collarbone and prematurely expire.

Then, even as I clutched at mane and saddle, a tremendous elation filled my heart. I was staying on. I didn't know how, but I was hanging in there. The horse's urgent rhythmic bucking and rearing suddenly felt coherent, bearable, madly enjoyable. I looked over my shoulder: the other trekkers were half a mile away. I yelled with delight, made a loop of the reins and whacked the horse, first left, then right. The charging and pounding suddenly became leveller and much, much faster. It was a gallop. It felt fantastic but I really was in mortal danger now, and I clung on like a drowning man to a spar of wreckage.

Before me the ground was falling away, a ghastly sight. I knew I'd never survive a downhill freewheel. So in panic I seized the left rein and yanked it until the horse's head turned. Finding itself now galloping sideways on a hill, it slowed to a fast canter – enough for me to turn it some more, so it was now heading back up the hill whence it came. The canter resolved into a jog-trot. For the first time in minutes, I breathed out. I was still alive after my first gallop.

Looking back, I decided that I'd loved the experience – that I'd arranged the whole thing, and couldn't wait to try it again. "Let's come back in a month," I said to Liz later, "I'm thinking of refining my gallop technique."

"You keep your technique as it is," she said. "We all admired the way you had your arms round its neck, shrieking, 'Slow down, you bleeping bleep'."

I had no recollection of any such thing. I just knew it had been a mighty feeling – of being 90 per cent out of control, 10 per cent in control and 100 per cent connected to the pounding heart of the universe. Everything else was just image management.