I spent a few more nights sleeping outdoors in London with no sleeping bag. They weren’t very cold but still a good opportunity to get used to the arrangement.
The first evening I cycled up towards Kentish town where I had a piano to tune the following day. For part of the journey I cycled next to an Irish astonault who had lost his rocket, gotten drunk and taken off on a Boris bike!
I stopped at St Pancras International Station to use the 24 hour toilets and to my delight I discovered that the street pianos were still there. They normally remove them after the Summer but they had left two in the station. This one is an old over-damped Brinsmead, about 100 years old:
Need I mention that it would have originally been a different colour. It sounded dreadfully out of tune and a couple of strings were snapped and rattling against the other strings producing unwanted sound effects. Some keys simple refused to budge. I immediately emailed the street piano organisers offering to tune it up but I haven’t had a reply yet. The panels that come off for maintenance were locked so there was nothing I could do. Fortunately there is another piano in the station that’s in better shape, but a drunk fellow was feeling inspired and was playing some, what can I call it… ‘interesting arhythmic 20th century music’.
I wouldn’t mind maintaining a couple of pianos for them if they’ll remain there permanently – St Pancras International is my lounge and it would be like having my own piano again, I could go there whenever I want to sit and play. Aspiring pianists of very varying standards have a go on the pianos so there’s no need for me to be shy about my own music. Besides I haven’t been shy since I was nine years old when I decided that being shy was silly and I should stop being shy.
I found a neat little corner right opposite the side entrance to the station but as I squatted to get my sleeping mat out of my bag I noticed the stench of urine. How can anyone be inconsiderate enough to piss on the pavement? All they need to do is find a grassy verge or a bit of muddy soil and their nitrogen-rich urea will benefit the plant life. In contrast on the concrete it first creates an unsightly puddle then later leaves a lasting stain and stench. Perhaps they don’t even have the brains to appreciate that soil absorbs water but concrete does not? Please, if they’re that lazy at least they could seek out a big plant pot! There are many hidden corners in London that smell like this, they seem to be where ever people think they can get away with it and there’s a supply of alcohol nearby. So selfish, so inconsiderate. I think it speaks volumes about their attitude towards life and the rest of society.
So I unlocked my bike again and rode up to the Regents Canal where I found a nice spot behind a student flat. This place smelled clean and fresh. The flat was uninhabited because it was the demo flat and sales office of a large company that were flogging off flats in nearby multistorey buildings. There was CCTV but I took a gamble on there not being anyone watching the live images – and who would bother to rewind hours of CCTV footage just to capture a homeless person trespassing to get a peaceful forty winks?
In the morning a cheerful young security guard politely asked me to jog on. We cracked a few jokes and he kindly took the above photo for me (if you’re reading, thanks mate!) That night was significantly warmer outdoors – about 8 degrees Celsius – and of course I slept very warm and cosy in my down suit.
The piano in Kentish Town needed a few hours’ TLC, but the clients and their dog were most accommodating, and they invited me to join them for dinner.
I draped my down suit over their dining room chairs just like I used to do with my sleeping bag. This was not really necessary but nevertheless I cunningly keep my piano tuning tools right at the bottom of my bag, not only to keep the centre of gravity low but also so that whenever I arrive at a client’s house I have to get all my down clothes out of the way – great excuse to drape them over some furniture. The advantage over the sleeping bag is that to air the clothes out I can just wear them, and indeed I do wear them if I’m outdoors and not actually cycling around. But I figure it won’t hurt to frequently let them puff out a bit in my clients’ warm dry houses.
That night my friend Shama invited me for another dinner and we went out to see a member of her band play at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in Soho. She was unsure if they’d let me in with my broken running shoes and my down jacket but the shoes are black and I was accompanied by a hot girl so they let me in without question.
I’ve never been to a jazz club before – although I don’t know about any of the music I really like it and my ears and eyes were glued to the stage for the entire evening.
Since I’ve started living outdoors I’ve been to more live music events and spent more time with my friends. Since I don’t have the financial commitment of renting a property, I can afford to make quality social time a priority over work. What’s more I benefit much more from said social time because it provides me with shelter, toilets, food and drink, whether it be at a jazz club or a friend’s house. And the best bit is that I never need to say “I’m sorry but I have to go” when it gets late, because I’ve got no where to go to! I have nowhere to travel to to go to bed and nowhere else to commute to in the morning. I can just crash wherever I end up then cycle on to work the following day – all my tools and essentials are in my little bag.
So that night I was invited to sleep on Shama’s sofa which is one of those sofas that’s long enough for me. It has become a very familiar place, because Shama has become a very good friend.
The following night I climbed into the athletics track in Battersea Park to sleep in the spectator’s stand. I had scoped the place out before but this was the first time I ventured to sleep there.
I felt quite safe inside the locked sports complex inside the locked city park; it was completely empty at night, very peaceful and quiet. That is, relative to the rest of London, for there’s always the background hum of the 24-hour city – the drone of traffic, the distant sirens and the hundreds of birds in the park competing in song for the dawn chorus, or getting confused and singing at night to the street lamps. I like these sounds very much, they take me away to dreamland and make my sleep all the sweeter.
Again it was a mild night, about 7 degrees Celsius minium, and the down suit kept me toasty warm.
In the morning a couple of young athletes were being coached on the track, but nobody noticed me because the spectator’s stand was still empty and I was hiding behind the chairs. I quickly transformed into my cycle gear so as to blend in with all the sportsmen.
I was now a homeless piano tuner in disguise - with everything stuffed in my new adventure racer’s backpack, I exchanged smiles with the sporty folk while I jogged energetically out of the athletics complex. Nobody had any idea that I’d just slept there.
That night I ate half a chicken that was deliciously grilled peri-peri style in a fast food outlet called Chicken Cottage by Clapham Common South, then I went onto the common to an old bowling green pavillion I had cast my eyes on last time I had been in London.
I knew it would be a dry night but I also knew it would be a clear night and therefore I slept under this shelter to avoid getting covered in dew in the morning, because the temperature that night was only 4 degrees Celsius. I made my bed on a bench under the porch, which was swept clean; I reclined on my warm comfortable mattress, dressed in my cosy down suit, and watched a good documentary on BBC iPlayer: Andrew Marr’s History of the World: Age of Industry.
I slept very warm – the colder temperature was balanced by the complete windblock provided by the bowling pavillion. In the morning the groundsman greeted me cheerfully but did not ask me to move. I discovered that there was a public toilet behind the pavillion where I brushed my teeth. Then I met two local alcoholics who often sleep there, known as Ginger and QPR. Ginger currently lives in a rented flat, QPR sleeps in the public toilet, and they meet up to drink together. Obsessed with the football team he is named after, QPR spoke quickly and nervously but with an air of self-confidence and indifference. His wore a gotee, his head was shaven but covered in a beanie, and overall he looked like he kept himself quite well.
“I go in that cubicle an’ lock the door,” said QPR, “keeps all the riff-raff out so’s I gets a good night’s sleep.”
“But it’s so small, how can you even lie down in there?” I asked.
“Well I’m really short, that’s an advantage, I put my legs around the piss pot and I just about manage. Better than sleepin’ out in the open.”
“Hmmm well I’ll take your word for it – I like the fresh air myself.” I pointed out the bench where I had slept.
“Yeh I know where you slept, that’s my bench that is! Well it is when I’m not sleepin’ in the toilets. I got the fright of me life when I saw you lying there in that black bag; you know, it looks like… like one o’ those body bags for dead people!
“You’re lucky you picked that side bench. Oh actually it don’t matter because it didn’t rain last night but when it does there’s a big leak over the middle bench so don’t ever sleep there!”
Nothing like a bit of local knowledge, I thought. “Thanks! It’s the first time I’ve ever slept here, I like to keep moving but I might come back one rainy night if I’m in the area. Anyway, what time is it?” I looked at my phone, it was seven o’clock. “Cor, you’re up early…”
“Yeh, an’ I already done my rounds. I been all the way down Queenstown Road, round Battersea an’ back up again; yesterday I found nine pounds along that route, but today I only got eighty pence to me name. Just need anuvver twenty pence an’ I can get me first tinny…”
After we had talked for a while, I asked Ginger why he drunk so much. “I like drinking,” I said, “but I don’t like drinking too much, and I don’t like drinking every day. Why…why do you do it? Is it addictive?”
“Nah, not really,” he replied. “well… if I’m out an’ about it’s alright – I can usually hold out until about mid-afternoon if I try. But when I’m at home I’ll be sittiin’ there watchin’ the telly and, well I know there’s a few cans in the fridge, so I finks, I’ll just have the one. Then I smokes a rollie, then I finks, what’ll I do now? Well I just gets anuvver can out don’t I…”
And thus my question went unanswered. He told me that the troublemaking alcoholics had been booted out of the pavillion area a long time ago and that they now hang out at Clapham North. “They never shower, they’re a stinkin’ bunch of noisy louts,” he said, “I don’t mix with them.”
I bade them a good day and didn’t have to walk far to learn that not only was there a peaceful shelter next to a public toilet, but there was also a little tea room that opened bright and early on this sunny Sunday morning, so I sat and read the news with some flapjack and a pot of tea. I’ve found a number of places like this in London, where free shelter, public conveniences and a good breakfast are all in close proximity.
It’s good to be back in the city – everytime I come back to London I’m fascinated by this maze of brickwork and patchwork history. It would take forever to describe all the curious places I spin through on my bike but I’ll just include a couple of photos taken in the borough of Wandsworth:
That night I climbed into the private communal garden of Warwick Square in Pimlico and settled down on a bench that was secluded by a hedge. It was a warmer night, seven degrees Celsius, although I always feel the chilly air on my face through the opening in my bivvy bag, and the air that I inhale feels very fresh. I slept well, but the bench was a bit small and restrictive. My arm was pressed against the back rest, squashing the insulation so that my elbow felt cold. I concluded that the only reason homeless people sleep on park benches is because their mattresses are not adequate – the wood of the bench and the air beneath it are much better thermal insulators than the cold concrete floor. With my excellent four-season inflatable mattress I’d be better off on the floor where there’s more space for me to spread out. The only exception is that on very still, frosty nights there will be a temperature profile because cold air sinks, so it can actually be several degrees colder right next to the ground than it is just one-and-a-half feet up on a bench.
That was the last night I slept in my down suit before I took my experiment to the next level, which I’ll write about in the next post. Last Autumn I spent a whole month outdoors, but in the Winter I only slept outdoors on occasional nights, probably about fifteen in total, although I did pick the coldest ones just to see what it was like. This gave me confidence that even in temperatures as low as -6 degrees Celsius I can feel very warm and cosy with enough insulation and by picking the right sleeping spot. And this is the best way if you’ve never done it before – try it for a couple of nights then retreat to a heated house to meditate on the experience and do it better next time. While you have friends or family or any kind of shelter at your disposal you can experiment with confidence – ease yourself in slowly (better said ‘ease yourself out’!)
This year I want to expand on this by sleeping outdoors every night from the beginning of November until mid-December. It’s all very well sleeping outdoors for a night or two in the cold, many people do that just for a weekend Winter hiking holiday. But that doesn’t qualify me to live outdoors in the UK - I need to find out if I can do it week after week mid-Winter to be sure.
Of course this is not really necessary for my lifestyle because I could just go down to the Mediterranean for the Winter and come back in the Spring, like a true nomad. Indeed this year I’m going to Argentina mid-December, where it’ll be hot mid-Summer, and coming back in March. Because it’s probably my last chance to see my ailing relatives, I’m taking the opportunity to avoid sleeping outdoors in the British weather of January and February.
But for some reason I’m still obsessed with trying to sleep outdoors in the Winter here in England. I want to feel that my home country welcomes me even if I can’t afford to buy a property; I want to feel assured that in all seasons fair Britannia will look after me. And I believe she does – she is not cruel like Germany or Poland where the Winters regularly get down to -20°C, instead she is warm and temperate.
Is Britain warm? I’ve been thinking a lot about our temperate climate recently. After I spent a few nights sleeping outdoors last Winter in temperatures of -5, -6 and -7°C, the coldest nights of the year, it snowed and temperatures quickly went back up to zero. I remember sleeping outside then, in zero degrees, and luxuriating in how warm it felt. My homeless friend called Mohammed was also beaming when I bumped into him on the zero degree day in Oxford. “Yeahs,” he said in his French accent, grinning from ear to ear, “it’s so nice, I slept very well.”
When we say ‘warm’ or ‘cold’ it’s quite subjective and it’s relative to what we’re used to. Zero degrees Celsius is the highest temperature at which water’s in a solid state and we call it ‘cold’ or ‘freezing’. Compare this to the temperature in outer space, which is about -270 degrees Celsius, cold enough to freeze oxygen, nitrogen and carbon dioxide, and very close to the theoretical ‘absolute zero’ where there is no thermal energy at all. I don’t like the way we label the melting point of water as zero degrees and therefore talk very negatively about anything below that. The fact is that at zero degrees Celsius there is a lot of thermal energy in the environment – enough to keep oxygen, nitrogen and carbon dioxide in a gaseous state so that I can breathe it and plants can photosynthesize, and enough so that with some food and insulation my body can sustain its cosy temperature of 37 degrees Celsius. I’m becoming much more grateful for the British Winter climate because if we had no thermal energy we would all die instantly but actually we do have a lot of thermal energy here even on the coldest day of the year. Instead of saying it’s -2 degrees Celsius we could say it’s a cosy 271 degrees Kelvin - that’s a lot of energy and always enough to survive and be comfortable if we take some basic measures to retain our body heat and eat well. We’re lucky to live on a warm, cosy planet.
Of course zero Celsius is a sensible place to start the numbering because we are made of water, we need it to survive, and this gives us a metric system between its melting point and boiling point. Realistically I don’t think we can sleep naked outside the narrow range of 25-45 degrees Celsius, or be actively naked outside the range of 10-50 degrees. Keeping our bodies dry and well insulated can greatly expand this range – many humans have spent several days in Antarctica below -30 degrees and one could argue that astronaults are wearing exceptionally good insulation that enables them to space-walk near absolute zero temperatures. However it would not be convenient to wear polar expedition clothing every day, not to mention wearing a space suit…
It’s most convenient to live just below our body temperature, between 10-30 degrees Celsius so that with no insulation we can be active without feeling hot or cold and, with a little insulation, we can sleep warm at night. The further we venture below that range the more inconvenience we must experience with insulated clothing that we have to constantly carry around and take on and off to thermoregulate. Of course there are other important factors like wind speed and whether we’re wet or dry.
But I think what I’m getting at is that when it comes to sleeping or being active outdoors, there’s nothing shocking or frightening about the temperature going below the freezing point of water. When I’m outdoors it makes little difference if the temperature’s +1 or -2. It’s just a slow, gradual decrease in thermal energy as the numbers descend, so as Winter approaches I add a little more insulation where it’s most needed and spend a little more time in shelter. Even before the change has sunk in it’s already warming because it’s Spring time.
The more I experience the more grateful I become that I live on a temperate island in the Atlantic gulf stream, which even in the depths of Winter is actually quite a warm place. And what a beautiful country…