The Big Sleep Out of 2009

While I was volunteering for Winchester Churches Nightshelter, as described in a previous blog post, I was asked if I fancied sleeping rough to raise money for them. The plan was to spend the night beneath the stars in Winchester Cathedral Close, a pleasant patch of grass behind the Cathedral that was easily shut in and quite safe. It was my gap year, and I was determined to say yes to all new adventures: on the grounds that if the expeditions I’d planned for the summer suddenly fell through, I wanted to say I’d done something, at least. So I agreed quite readily. And on a rather damp Friday night in May, I packed my sleeping bag, roll mat and woollies into my old Duke of Edinburgh rucksack, and headed down to join in.

I had doubled the £60 minimum sponsorship easily by applying diligently among my friends and acquaintances. I was even sponsored £5 by a complete stranger to whom I happened to mention it to while working on the tills at WHSmith, which was lovely. And the first part of the evening was really remarkably pleasant. The Army caterers came out and did us a fantastic bowl of curry, and it was great to have the whole of Winchester Cathedral to ourselves for the evening, without tourists or services to disturb us. That said, the program organised by the people in charge was extremely thought provoking. We heard from Ed Mitchell, a talented journalist who had fallen into alcoholism and ended up sleeping on the streets, and an accountant from Eastleigh whose business had failed, and who ended up sleeping rough in Winchester, having nowhere else to turn. It really did go to show how being homeless could happen to anyone.

Around eleven o’clock, when the real rough sleepers were settling down for the night in the grounds outside the Cathedral, we settled down in Cathedral Close. And here a series of small disasters occurred. Firstly, I had forgotten my survival bag, a big orange heat-trapping plastic sack, within which I’d hoped to spend the night in a tolerably snug and waterproof fashion. Secondly, while I’d been socialising and gobbling up the curry, everyone else had been preparing immaculate cardboard palaces in which to spend the night – and there was none left for me. Fortunately, I eventually managed to scrounge a few forgotten sheets from behind the bins, tucked my feet into my rucksack, and bedded down. I actually changed into pyjamas first, which gives you some idea how little about roughing it I knew. Not having anywhere dry to leave my hearing aids – for they don’t work at all if the damp gets into them – I clutched them in my right hand all night.

I woke up about 1 am because it was raining on my face. This was round about the time many people made a sudden dash for inside of the Cathedral and a drier night, but whether from drowsiness or my own natural bloody mindedness, the thought never occurred to me. There wasn’t enough cardboard to pull it over my head, so I dropped my hat over my eyes instead, and listened to the rain drumming against the waxed cotton brim. I tried to recite all I could remember of Robert Browning’s ‘Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came‘. And somewhat miraculously, I fell asleep.

I have never been quite so glad in my life to wake up at 5am and find the sun up. People were up, and moving around, there were cups of tea to be had, and I could divest myself of my cardboard cocoon, now a claggy coat of mush, and my damp sleeping bag. I could get up and chase the chill out of my bones. And this is what I did. I wandered around the Cathedral for the next few hours, reading Milton and feeling pleasantly chewed out and hoary. Then they fed us a bacon sandwich, and we all went home to our beds – suddenly much more comfortable by comparison.

I’ve slept rough twice since then – once on the streets of Bilbao when we couldn’t get a room, which was just another lousy episode in a lousy trip, and once again for charity, which was embarrassingly easy. I had a good sleeping bag and we were in a car park instead of under the stars, so I got an uninterrupted 7 hours and went home quite refreshed. The Big Sleep Out was the hardest and most authentic it got – and the most authentic I hope it gets, for me.

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