The cave wasn’t difficult to find. Jazz and I had been walking through the woods for about two hours and we were headed back to the main road when she took me on a small detour to see it. She told me that the cave was sometimes used as a refuge by homeless people, those who had the will to escape the city for a few days, weeks, months.
We clambered down a short bit of hillside and walked in to find a small fire burning in a pit in the middle. Bundles of wood were piled up near the entrance, and scattered around were other signs of habitation: a sleeping bag against one stone wall, a small pile of books, a few cups.
He strolled in slowly a few minutes later, a brief moment of tension descending as we set eyes on each other, and evaporating just as quickly. He was bearded, dreadlocks tied back, wearing a warm jumper, torn black jeans, and work boots. He didn’t seem surprised to see us. “I saw you coming” he said, without any malevolence. Like a tracker, used to noting tiny movements in the forest. If anything, he seemed please to see some other humans.
“Tea?” he asked. He filled a black kettle that had been nesting next to the fire with water from a two-litre bottle. We each picked up one of the cups that was dotted around the cave, cleaning them out with a few drops of water and rags. He talked as the water boiled.
He’d been homeless and living in and around Bristol for several years. Most recently, he’d been living in a small encampment with a few others, in a park in the east of the city. Before that, he’d been in a teepee, out in the countryside.
For a while, he’d lived in a house he’d built himself on the beach, made from bits of driftwood and discarded odds and ends. He told us that the walls were thick and the roof waterproof. He’d even had a sound system in there. It was when the local council discovered that he had electricity from a generator that they asked him to take down the building. He refused to do it but left peacefully.
As he talked it became clear that unlike many of the people sleeping rough around the city, he hadn’t just been thrown there by harsh circumstance. He talked of a time when he’d had a job and a car. But something in him had ruptured. A sense, maybe, that the forces acting upon him, acting upon us all, needed to be resisted. He was living in the cave by choice, removing himself from the logic of money, the hum of mobile phones, the clatter of people rattling against each other in the city. “We all need to take a step back from civilisation sometimes”, he said.
He’d discovered the cave a few days earlier and was determined to stay there for the winter, scavenging what he could find. He talked of foraging for mushrooms, keeping his hands busy by cleaning up the cave, using the stones by the entrance to build something. He seemed guided by his own inner need to know that he could survive, despite the threat of being blasted by rain or snow, or having his head kicked in while he slept, by night time wanderers less friendly than he.
The sky outside was darkening and our cups were almost empty. We said goodbye, telling him that we would bring him some provisions next time. He gave us a hug as we left, pleased to see that people from the city still hugged strangers.