Lifestyle

A new start after 60: At 70 I went camping for the first time – and stopped cocooning myself from life

Erik Wilkinson’s 70th birthday hit him with great force. He celebrated, but cannot remember the occasion. However, a phrase entered his head. “Pregnancy of death,” he says. “The words sprang into me. I thought: ‘I don’t know how long I’ve got.’ And this phrase kept coming to mind.”

It began to dominate his thoughts. “Like any pregnancy, you need certain inputs. Because you are going through a transition,” he says.

This is how, at 70, Wilkinson decided it was time for his first experience of camping. A thinker and a planner – he says he is often described as a thoughtful tactician – he took preparation seriously. He and his wife, Norah, put up a tent in the garden. During lockdown, they slept out for the first time.

“Our tent opened Norah and me to strange rustles of animals, the flutter of moths and the gentle hues of the sky … and the tent stayed up!”

Did Wilkinson want to camp as a child? “Not at all!” he says. “The thought was awful. It was too challenging.” In cubs and scouts, he declined all invitations. “I wonder why,” he muses.

Maybe he liked to know how things would pan out in advance? “Probably. Yes.”

Wilkinson spent most of his working life, from his late 20s to 55, in the National Careers Service, which is ironic, given that he didn’t really know what to do. He was looking for security after two years travelling – itself an attempt “to break the whole thing about lower-middle-class kid goes to university, comes out and goes into a bank”. He set up a self-funding assessment centre in Wiltshire, which used psychometric testing to provide careers advice. In a sense, at 72, he is now advising himself on his own best way forward.

After the night in the garden, Wilkinson continued his camping apprenticeship with Norah in Stroud, then in Carmarthenshire. He saw other campers’ fires, and bought a fold-up brazier. He adapted his Citroën Berlingo to take a camp bed.

Then, in June, after they had visited family in Scotland, Norah caught the train home to Gloucestershire and Wilkinson set off on his first big solo adventure – “10 days on my own around the north of Scotland”.

He slept out in the van by the sea on his first night, after midges drove him from the campsite. But that was great, he says. “It’s the things that go wrong, the problem-solving, the people you meet, that take you out of your comfort zone. It’s not cocooning you from life.”

Another night, a gale blew down his tent in Durness – and that was fine, too. “That’s there as a memory. It’s shifting it from ‘This is awful’ to ‘This is an adventure’. That’s the journey I’m trying to do.” Maybe he is trying to effect the same shift on hitting his 70s.

Camping, or adventure, is only one aspect of Wilkinson’s “pregnancy” preparations. The phrase being so suggestive, I wonder if he and Norah have children, but Wilkinson says they chose not to and “it’s not been a big deal”. He lists other “pillars” of this gestation as practical (getting a will in order, accepting death, developing intergenerational relationships), but say there is a spiritual element, too.

Wilkinson says that all his life he has worked too hard. Even volunteering for local climate groups in retirement came to feel like a job. As he talks about his “pillars”, this “pregnancy” that may extend to decades sounds as if it has activated his work ethic, albeit in a liberating way. “I’m very in my head,” he says. “That’s why the camping is so good.”

It chimes with his experience after university. “What I wanted to do was to travel,” he says. He went to India and Israel. “And that was the best thing I ever did.” Not least because he met Norah on a kibbutz.

There are times, especially while having breakfast at his campfire, or sitting there in the evening, between eight and 10 as the light fades, enjoying “that meditative aspect” of the flames, that he really appreciates camping – “for giving me a way to be as healthy and positive as I possibly can be for the people I love”.

Tell us: has your life taken a new direction after the age of 60?

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