Great days are all in the mind.

Last Sunday was a strange day. We went out for a walk, and it was cold, wet, muddy and flooded – but it was perfect.

It’s funny, when I imagine a “perfect walk”, even in winter, I picture clear blue skies, the sun shining and nice, easy paths to tread. But I have been on walks like that and they haven’t always lived up to the expectation. I’ve found over the years that the walks – and indeed, days out – can only be measured by the way they make you feel. If you’re not quite with me, let me elaborate.

Say, for example, you’ve had a difficult, stressful week and all you want to do on Sunday afternoon is put your boots on and go for a long ramble somewhere. You decide to do a route you’ve never done before and you see from the map that it passes through a quaint little chocolate box village, takes in a wooded hillside, and a meandering river. Your imagination – rightly so – goes into hyperdrive, concocting images of it all, and building expectation. You probably imagine perfect weather and even imagine the way it will make you feel, lifting your spirits after the five day slog you’ve endured that week. Then, reality. It’s muddy, cloudy, cold. The village is ugly, the pub is closed due to hygiene issues in the kitchen, and the woods aren’t exactly enchanting because some of the trees have been felled. Disappointment reigns supreme. Or it could be that your state of mind spoilt the day for you. If I am distracted in my mind, I fail to take things in properly, failing to be mindful.

Well, Sunday came around. It had been a difficult week, and I knew that being outdoors would go some way to compensate for it. Saturday had been spent largely going round the shops, so it was high time to get back to nature. I got up really early and went for a long run, got back and showered. Then, the unimaginable happened – the kids got up, unprompted. At first I thought they were sleep walking, but it turned out they were genuinely awake. After a little persuasion, they were dressed for a day outdoors. I already had a route in mind, and off we drove.

Having kids around me these days has changed me in many ways, especially my experiences in the outdoors. For years I have accumulated knowledge of all sorts of bits about nature, geography, folklore and the like, and have imparted it on people, but there is nothing better than sharing it with kids. I have the heart of a kid (it’s in a jar on the mantelpiece) so I can easily get lost in a game or story that I, or we, are weaving. It has also led me to re-discover my love of pooh sticks.

Once parked and dressed appropriately for the potential conditions, we set off. I got my phone out and did some geocache hunting, which proved successful. The sun came out in the woods, and despite the mud underfoot, we had a great time. By the time we got to the halfway point, the rain had set in. I knew a couple of places we could go to get out of the rain and enjoy a hot drink and something to eat. It quickly dawned on me however that these places were seasonal and therefore, bloody shut. There was a tearoom down the hill in the village, and as we drew closer, it was apparent that the light was on. Imagine our joy when the sign on the door said, “Open”. Stepping inside, we were met by a member of staff telling us they were about to close. I laughed out loud. Of course they were, we were destined to be soaked. Then she said, “But you’ve just made it in time. What can I get you?” Unbelievable. So we enjoyed a pot of tea (hot chocolate for the young ones), cake and a view out of the window of the rain, feeling safe, snug and warm. All this guaranteed the second half of the walk quite magical. The path followed the river, which in places had flooded the path so we had to (hilariously) get creative. It was getting dark, it was raining, it was muddy – and we were all still laughing and stopping to look at things. Eventually we returned to the car after what should have been, by description, a miserable day out, but turned out to be one of the best walks I’ve had.

It just proves it can be down completely to company, conversation and state of mind. These, in combination, can save.

Damned English Oak

“Damned English Oak!”

The immortal words spoken by Morgan Freeman in the 1991 film, Robin Hood Prince of Thieves as he and Kevin “Doesn’t matter if I’m American” Costner attempt to break into a room in the castle to rescue Maid Marion. And he had a point – oak is a solid, natural material, which is great – unless you’re trying to break into a tower. For those that have been to Sherwood Forest, you will also note that Robin’s tree is called the Major Oak – a huge, sprawling beast of a tree, steeped in legend and folklore.

I have many favourite trees. Some by their species, others purely based on their position, shape or climbing ease, but the Oak rarely fails to stop me in my tracks. It happens to be the first tree species I learned to identify by the shape of its leaf as a child, thanks to my mum, whose tree knowledge is still pretty much superior to mine. On walks, especially in park land or where there are fields with hedgerows, I frequently stop to admire a solitary Oak, perhaps in the middle of a field, or part of the hedgerow. Even one that is felled can be beautiful, providing life for no end of creatures.

In Britain, we have five species of Oak. Only two of these are native however (pedunculate oak and the sessile oak), the others were imported. The sessile Oak in fact is the national tree of Wales. Oak trees have been part of our landscape since the end of the last Ice Age – a whopping 12,000 years. So it’s no wonder they’ve become engrained into our folklore and culture. These icons can live for over 1,000 years and to a height of 30 metres. It was thought that a branch of Oak possessed magical powers. Mistletoe growing on an Oak was also thought to carry mystical power. If you carried an acorn in your pocket, it was believed that you were protected against disease and doing so promoted long life. If it was wealth that you seeked, planting an acorn at the time of a new moon was said to bring it, and placing an acorn in a window was said to protect the house from a lightning strike. I wonder how many people stopped reading at the wealth part.

Aside from being vital to our native ecosystem, Oak has been of important use to us humans over the centuries. The Mary Rose, King Henry VIII’s flagship, was made almost solely of English oak. Around 600 trees were cut down to build her, but didn’t save her from sinking unfortunately. Staying with royalty, King Charles II hid in an Oak at Boscobel while Oliver Cromwell’s soldiers looked for him below. May 29th was designated Royal Oak Day or Oak Apple Day to commemorate the restoration of Charles II to the throne in May 1660, although evidence suggests this already existed in pre-Christian times.

I am always amazed by tree saplings, especially Oak, as I realise that one day, when I’m long gone, it will be the giant of the woods, and hopefully future generations will also gaze in wonder at it.