Naturalist and presenter Lucy Lapwing reflects on a horrible incident and explores the anxieties women can experience when alone in the outdoors.
Rippling and bubbling out of the warm, muggy darkness. What a noise! I squint at the silhouette of the dead tree in front of me, and I can see him; perched awkwardly, puppet-like upon a branch – a nightjar.
Tonight, stood alone on a heathland, it’s just me and him. And about a million mosquitoes. That noise, the churr, does something to my soul. Eerie and mystical, alien and mechanical. A sound that’s almost impossible to describe, it goes on and on, churring into the night.
On the hour’s walk back to my car the joy stays with me. It’s always special to encounter wildlife like this. Quiet, solitary – just you and the animal. But there’s another feeling there too. Alertness, heightened senses; an inkling of fear.
I spend a lot of time on my own, outside, ogling at nature and exploring wild spaces. I’m a naturalist and nature nerd. I’m in love with British wildlife and believe everyone should have the chance to fall in love with it too.
For me, being alone in nature is a really special thing. Climbing a mountain, swimming in the sea or wandering through the woods – the feeling of doing it alone is extremely freeing.
Yet, despite my wonderful date with the nightjar, I spoke to myself in ways that are probably familiar to a lot of women. “Perhaps I shouldn’t have stayed out this late”. “I should’ve asked my mate to come along”. Walking around as a lone woman, a catalogue of ‘what ifs’ regularly race through your head. By daring to do something as outrageous as birdwatching in the dark, had I put myself at risk?
My female friends share my worries, too. On my nature walks in the past, I’d subconsciously plan an escape. A path to run down, or a door to knock on – even jumping into a canal should someone try and grab me on a tow path.
Encountering a lone man when you’re by yourself, especially somewhere quiet and remote, ignites a spark of worry. You don’t necessarily think you’ll be murdered – I mean, the extreme thought does cross your mind – but it’s a worry that there’ll be an inappropriate remark, or a quick grab-and-run.
Last year my fears became a reality. I wasn’t out alone at night. I was birdwatching in the middle of the afternoon, on a patch a few hundred metres from my house. I fixed upon a majestic little egret in my binoculars. As they soared out of my view, I focussed past them, onto a man stood on the other side of the river. He was exposing himself, and filming me whilst he did it. Despite all of my preparation, my planning, my dramatic escape routes – in this horrible moment I simply froze. All I could manage to do was turn away.
For a long time after, I was rattled. My safe place of solace and peace had been shattered. I birdwatched with my back to a wall or hedge. I glanced over my shoulders constantly. I carried some defence spray with me, for heaven’s sake! I felt hurt and frustrated that a single horrible incident, carried out by one individual, had impacted upon the thing I loved doing so much.
Earlier this year, for a piece on BBC Radio 4, I had the chance to meet some incredible women. Women, like me, who took joy and comfort from being outside, alone, in nature. (One of them, Ali Ogden, will be familiar to some The Great Outdoors readers as one of the coordinators of the TGO Challenge, along with Sue Oxley.)
In Clipped Wings, we chat about our shared experiences; the love for what we do – be it walking, running, biking or birding – and the concerns we have as lone women whilst doing them. We talked about the lengths we go to, to try and feel safe, and what men can do to make us feel safer.
This mix of fear, uneasiness and outrage is a familiar cocktail in a world where sexual harassment is so widespread. But I’ve also learned how women supporting women, lifting each other up and sharing our joy together, is a wonderful, powerful thing.
Clipped Wings aired on BBC Radio 4 on Monday June 6 at 8pm. You can hear it again on Monday June 8 at 11am, or listen to it on iPlayer.