Penn Wood, January 1996

It is snowing the night we arrive at Granny Ash. Or perhaps it is one of those deep frosts that makes everything look white and sparkly even by moonlight. I’m with my best friend and my boyfriend. We stumble through dark forest until we see light, and are drawn to a fire crackling in a pit. Our first night at a tree camp. We are shy, nervous, new. All the faces lit by the flames are unfamiliar. We perch on a log and before long are soothed by the warm glow, and find ourselves inside an enchanted night-time circle.

That feeling of protection, of relief, of having finally arrived when you are sitting by a fire outdoors. When it’s raining and the rain hardly touches you because the heat from the fire dries it up before it lands on your coat.

Humble, quiet, listening, watching. A new realm, this world of trees, these woodland people. What are their rules, their codes of behaviour, their expectations? Are they closed? I worry that I am not alternative enough, too middle class to fit in. They will recognise me as an outsider. I regret my giant checked nylon flares and ludicrous attention to sartorial detail. Their clothes are as faded and ragged as the January leaves, their beards unkempt, their hair woolly and knotted like sheep’s wool.

But there are smiles for us, and smoky tea, elixir of life, chipped enamel cups warming frozen fingers, the hot liquid warming the belly, the steam on the face. And the talk is not small talk. These people are burning with the fire of passionate beliefs. This is a time of heightened experience. We have arrived at a battle camp of fighters mid-way through a campaign. All anyone is talking about is the war that is being fought – the day’s events, stories from up and down the line, triumphs, losses, strategies, rumours about the opposition, tactics.

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