What did you do on the coldest weekend of 2019? Me, the same thing I do every year: packed up my tent, thermals and walking boots and went camping in the Peak District.
I have repeated this time-honoured tradition on the first full weekend of February every year since 2011 (bar one absence). The dates matter, you see, as we February campers register our appearances like England footballers do caps for the national team. The eldest in our group have been coming for 49 years.
Whenever the uninitiated discover what I have planned, the response is always incredulous. On my first February camp, my news editor at the Yorkshire Post, the paper where I previously worked, promised he would reserve a 60-word slot in the Monday edition for when I inevitably failed to return from the hills.
The weather is unfailingly bad, but this year was my coldest yet: on Sunday morning the temperature dropped below -5.5C. We pitched our tents on ice sheets impervious to our body heat. Walking on the hills was like stomping through the icing of a Christmas cake. Even the bottom of our sleeping bags froze.
I’m writing this on Monday swaddled in jumpers with my nose streaming and a hacking cough. But more on why I do it later on.
February Camp started in 1970 and has been observed every year since. From what I can glean from the group elders, it was ostensibly devised as a means by which they could escape into the hills for a weekend of camping. It remains an avowedly all-male affair. Not, I might add, that any partner to my knowledge has ever expressed much of a wish to tag along. Certainly, my own wife tells me I am a madman for attending.
It is a tradition that has been passed down from father to son and along the way has scooped up various hangers-on, of which I am one. Most of us do not meet, or indeed speak, for the rest of the year – but we know, come that first Friday night in February, that we will find each other propping up the bar in the pub next to the field in the High Peak where we camp.
The itinerary is always the same. Cheese and wine on Friday night. On Saturday, we go walking, settle down in a pub to watch the Six Nations, then head off back to our tents up a massive hill in the pitch black. The night always ends with a fire: a raging inferno of old pallets. Some of us bring along our Christmas trees as kindling.
If all this sounds ritualistic, then that is exactly what it is. Britain once had countless religious and pagan festivals associated with the seasons, but these have dwindled away over the centuries as an increasingly urbanised population has lost contact with the land. February Camp has become as much a part of my calendar year as Christmas. This year, one of our contingent even flew in from Milan.
The hills can be fantastically beautiful in winter. This Saturday, the sky was cerulean blue and we walked over powdery snow marked only with the footprints of bounding hares. I awoke to the sound of a raven kronking over my tent and later in the day spotted three buzzards soaring on thermals above us. Many Feb Camps ago walking at sunset I saw my first ever barn owl swooping silently over a snowy field.
I wish I could say that winter camping is becoming more of a trend, and perhaps it even is, but we never meet anybody foolhardy enough to replicate what we do.
Various online articles espouse the hygge-cosiness of Nordic glamping in the snow, but I recognise the true February Camp more on the NHS guidelines for the causes of hypothermia: “Inadequate clothing in cold weather, getting cold in wet clothes, being very tired and cold…” Tick, tick, tick.
Perhaps where it does coincide with modern trends is the desire to retreat. Phone signal is near non-existent in the part of the Peaks we head to, and good luck with asking a pub landlord for the wifi password: one of those we call in at for a morning pint still has ashtrays on the table.
There are other scourges of modern life to which February Camp provides an antidote. It is a curious pleasure mixing with the generations even as the older members of the group lambast us millennials for the latest perceived failing of our generation, and us them for their cushy retirements and final salary pensions.
There is also never that sense, all too familiar at other social occasions, of being weighed and measured through conversation. Nobody really knows much about what anyone does for a living, nor do they ask. Our conversation typically revolves around obscure football trivia, naming the capital cities of African countries and what occurred on previous February camps. A strict code of omertà prevents me from writing too much more about any of that.
Next year, you might have noticed, marks our half century. We aren’t planning anything special. Really, there is no need.