Hope on the hill

This winter seems to be dragging on. I think it just feels that way because it has been absolutely featureless – no snow, only a couple of cold days, maybe three frosty mornings – just mild, wet, rubbish. It was on one of these mild, wet, rubbish days that we went walking on a pretty prominent hill near our new home. This hill, from a distance, would probably fall into the featureless category. It almost looks man made, like a hill out of a children’s fantasy novel. No dramatic summit, precipices, or ridgelines, just…a….hill.

It was a Saturday, grey, windy, and full of pub lunch we set off on a four mile round trip around a hill that I know little about. Having visited it only three times before (and having got lost up there once), it was going to be an interesting afternoon. Straight away, the path looked different. “Oh”, I said, “I think they’ve built that house there since I was last here”. It may have been so, but it made little difference – we were still on the wrong path. Being an aspiring mountain leader, on a mole hill in comparison, I set us off on the wrong path, and left my mobile phone in the car. But I DID have an OS map, and bloody well knew how to read it. Minor glitch over with, I planned us a new route from the map and a splendid, if not wet and windblown, day was had by all. As I am experienced in these matters, I timed it perfectly so as we made the last bit of our descent, it got dark. This of course is a lie. It was a sheer fluke. And before you wonder, I did have a torch.

Now I’ve successfully criticised my skills and abilities, the English weather (Note the use of “English” as I know my Welsh friends actually experience winter), and berated the poor hill itself, I feel some redemption is required. The hill somehow captured my imagination again. That tingle of excitement about somewhere new, especially given that it’s on my doorstep. I could, and have continued to, imagine all the adventures I could have up there – trail runs, mountain biking, wild camping, tabbing, walking. Also entwined within this is knowing I can become intimately involved with it, learning its every copse, wall, meadow. Maybe some of you get this with a place in your locality. It becomes yours. You give your own names to places. What you once thought of as featureless, becomes abundant in details of interest. Seeing the seasonal changes, being familiar with the wildlife. It’s the stuff to fill notebooks with, becoming the Gilbert White of your locality. These things, if done properly, and with love and care, become vital to both ourselves and our communities in the future.

A mere thought of all this is enough to chase the slightest pathetic glimpse of stress back to where it came from. I hope you find hope wherever you are and it gives you what it gives me.

Ten years gone

I shall start this first post of the year by wishing both of my readers a very happy New Year. I hope you enjoy reading this one. I can guarantee it’s the best thing I’ve written this decade so far.

Christmas and New Year were very enjoyable and different to what I’m used to, but in a good way. In the midst of all the festivities also was a house move, which, truth be told, is still ongoing. Towards the Christmas break however, I could, and still can, feel my general confidence level plummeting. There are probably many reasons as to why this is happening. One thought might be that so much happened to me last year, mostly in the summer, as well as achieving so many of my goals. By the end of September, I had had my first ever DNF and was almost definitely at the mercy of a potentially long-term injury. Two very unusual events for me as I’ve lived a seemingly charmed life in my physical activity existence. Being injured has held me back a little and I do feel out of shape, feeling reluctant to push myself like I used to.

My new tradition (second year) is competing in RED (Run Every Day) January. I headed out for run number two and felt up against it so decided to push it a bit and by the time I got home, I felt like I used to years ago when I first started to run seriously – fairly sweaty, suitably pushed and most importantly, buoyant on endorphins. It left me very satisfied and feeling raring to go for my next session, so I am able to see the positive in my fitness slipping.

With last year being pinned down by three ultra marathons, a Fan Dance and two Paras 10 races, I feel 2020 should be a return after a three year absence to road marathons to rediscover why I run to begin with. In true me style, I have set myself the goal of running a marathon in April in under three hours and fifteen minutes. I think currently, I’m in the four hour mark, and my personal best from my peak is three hours twenty-something, so I have a lot of work to do. Symbolically, the marathon will be exactly ten years since my first marathon, so there will be plenty of parallels to be drawn on many fronts. It’s definitely been ten years of complete change so I will more than likely be quite reflective throughout the whole thing.

I am hoping the marathon will be exactly what I need to put me somewhere near halfway to feeling like I’m actually good at something.

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.

Portals to adventure

I have always loved not living in a city. I think if I did, it probably wouldn’t be as bad as I think it would be. Working in the city is enough for me and I can accept the lack of green space, the bustle of people, the various social problems and the constant stream of man made noises, because I get to leave every night.

Sometimes living in a town can feel like a cage too though. For me, there’s nothing better than escaping, even if for a few hours, somewhere rural, quiet, maybe somewhere I can find space and solitude. In the towns I have lived during my life, I have always done this; looked for escape routes out, like it’s a maze. It’s interesting how in some cases, I had to pass through portals where suburbia ended and guaranteed space began. I have yet to find one where I currently live, although on my regular run, I head out into the countryside, usually in the darkness of evening or early morning, and I run past the last lampost of town. I pass under it and then watch my feet as they and the tarmac beneath them get gradually darker and darker.

Where I used to live, one of the exit points was an underpass beneath one of the relief roads. Once I was through that, I was into a magnificent park. Then through that and I was on a single track lane. The most difficult decision then was ‘Which way, left or right?’ It was a great way of shrugging the town off, leaving all that hum and concrete behind, being full of hope and excitement for what I might find.

It just goes to show that if you don’t have the means of travel, the budget or even the time, but have the desire and imagination, you can do this within a few miles of your front door. A good idea to try is the five to nine challenge. This is one for the summer really, unless you have the gear and are really keen. It’s where you finish work at five, and see where you can get to and back from by nine PM. This could be walking, running, cycling. A really adventurous twist on this could be swapping nine PM with nine AM, throwing in a wild camping spot and then arriving at your place of work as if you’ve been home. It all depends on where you live I guess.

I’m sure everyone reading this can think up adventures to have on their own urban doorsteps. Such a world of possibilities, a plethora of wonders to see and feel down every footpath, on every tree and stream. I’m going to set myself a small challenge to find a portal out of town, explore it for an hour or so and see what I can discover.

Rekindled magic

The cold wind blew down platform one as I stood waiting for the next train. My usual train came in a few minutes before but had been too crowded to board, so I let the really desperate-looking commuters get on. For all I know they might have a hot date to get home to be ready for, or something banal like Love Island. Bless. Anyway, so I accepted my fate and waited a few minutes more. With a screeching trundle, in it came. A few rosy red faces pressed up to the glass, though most heads were bowed like there was a minute’s silence for some tragedy. The smartphone tragedy. I hopped on and began to warm up.

An hour later, my understaffed chariot of despair ground to a halt at my stop. “Great!”, I thought. “I’ll get home, and go for that run that I’ve been plotting all day.” Then two things hit me when I stepped off the train. The first was the cold wind, and the second was reality. And they were both inextricably linked. To make matters worse, the house was warm, everyone was pleased to see me, even the cats, though I suspect they thought I’d brought food, and brutally, dinner was ready. As I shuffled past the shoe stand, I’m sure I heard my trainers laughing at me.

I settled down, ate my dinner, caught up with everyone’s day, then… wallop, like a pro, before I knew it, I was upstairs, pulling on my running shorts. A couple of layers to compensate for the inconvenience of cold weather, my head torch and an iron will later, I was gone.

Within a mile I had left the last lampost of town behind. Leaving its circle of light can be both exhilarating and unnerving. As soon as I turned off the main road, I was completely alone. The only thing I had for company was a nearly-full moon. Struck by its beauty and brightness, it took me back to a long-lost memory, one that I was happy to revisit, given my current life predicament. I switched off my torch and navigated by moonlight alone.

My mind stretched back, searching, using the visual clue of the moon as its bait. There it was, perhaps ten years ago, when I was in a much rougher place, my lowest ebb perhaps. Sleepless nights, occasionally glimpsing the full winter moon out of the window. It seemed strangely soothing to be able to see a distant satellite, countless miles away, and although feeling alone, I knew I was one of many gazing up at it at that precise moment.

Fast forward a year or two, and my troubles at that time required an escape. And that’s where nature came in. This whole other world of places, living things, occurrences, some of which are unexplained. I didn’t get much help from people, so I stopped looking, happy to surround myself in the outdoors. Even when I wasn’t actually in it, I’d be reading about it. And so began the shaping of who I am today.

I remember walking home from town from the pub to the village where I once lived, no street lights, again guided by the full moon. The pavement-less road like a silver ribbon ahead of me.

Everything at that time felt magic. Over the years I’ve lost that magic as there aren’t as many new things to discover; or maybe I stopped searching. From seeing the moon again like that, it rekindled a forgotten fire inside of me, so perhaps it’s time to search again.

Movie time

On the train yesterday morning, I observed something beautiful. It was the simplicity of the fields whooshing by the window, with a low mist settling over them. It was like the landscape was made of layers of paper stretching back to the horizon, and each layer was separated by a sheet of tracing paper. The occasional tree would pop up out of the mist, showing its bare branches, looking like a silhouetted toilet brush trying to clean the sky. I’ve written before about my love/hate relationship with this time of the year, but as much as it’s sad to see the leaves go, it’s beautiful to see the colours of them as they change, and to appreciate it’s all part of a natural process that’s greater than anything us humans will accomplish.

I suppose ultimately, while gazing out of the window, watching all this go by, I was living in the present, in the moment. While the rest of the carriage were busy letting their smartphones make them dumb, I was getting a show for free. Some mornings, I can be the same though. I’ve consciously been looking at how much time I spend on my screen, and while it is quite low, it’s still shocking. Admittedly, it’s looking on Google to see how many appearances Denis Irwin made for Wolverhampton Wanderers, or checking to see when Coldplay last had a top ten single. What I try not to do is scroll perpetually, gazing at nothing. The phone owns me then. So it’s a case of read a book, or select a suitable soundtrack and watch the movie passing by, because by wrapping myself up in an online world, that’s exactly what real life will do – it will pass me by.