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.

Spring is (not) here?

Here in Blighty (marked on maps as England, Great Britain or United Kingdom) we have been having some really abnormally mild weather for February. I’m pretty sure I smelled the whiff of a barbeque on Saturday.

Out and about, the signs of spring are everywhere. The birds aren’t sure what to do. They now think it’s April and are frantically building nests. My walk in the woods on Saturday afternoon taking photographs captured bluebells coming up rapidly. The snowdrops from January are beginning to fade away, and it’s nice to see the seasons moving on, even if it is a little peculiar.

I do have a rational fear though. One of my many voluntary occupations (also known as hobbies) is allotmenteering. At the moment, my allotment is looking pretty stark and bleak, but it is a work in progress. Within the allotment territory, where it crosses over with my outdoors interests, there is a widespread interest in flora and fauna and gardening in general. Nothing gives me greater pleasure than sweeping autumn leaves aside to reveal spring shoots pushing through, such as now. However, my fear is that this mild weather is short-lived and will soon be replaced by cold, frosty weather, effectively wiping out the new growth, as well as the insects already awake looking for nectar (I’ve seen butterflies, and bees this weekend), stunting the whole process of nature. I want to avoid the whole global warming thing as that’s a massive area. Let’s just blame Brexit. Much easier.

I’m not complaining obviously. It’s nice to see the back of what feels like a long winter, and just like a mountain hare, I shed my winter coat over the weekend, having my first wet shave since October 31st 2017. I now look like a man ten years younger. On my run yesterday morning, I found that the sweat had nowhere to go and just ran off my chin like a dodgy gutter.

As mentioned, Saturday afternoon was spent strolling around the woods trying to capture something photographically. I found initially that I struggled to get going. My photography over the past few months has been city-based and city-inspired and faced with nature and all of its non-man made glory, I struggled to see shots and scenes. Eventually I was snapping away, but it struck me as interesting that my inspiration can shift like that. In the city, there is intentional symmetry, something on every corner, reflections in glass. In nature, it’s a different thread, and you almost have to undergo a personality change, or put on a different pair of glasses. I guess it goes back to a previous post where I discussed beauty, asking what is beauty? What makes the woods beautiful? Is it something we’re taught to think? Nature is beautiful, yet cities aren’t? I know the difference, and I see beauty in both, and I’m still able to choose between them. It’s just a problem as a photographer!

When the (big) smoke gets in your eyes

Every weekend I do something outdoors-related, whether it’s running or walking, or cycling and nine times out of ten it’s in the British hills, mountains and countryside. Except last weekend. I was in London. If you’re anything like the majority of people I told I was going, you’re probably saying to yourself in an awful Cockney accent, “Laaaandaaaaan Taaaaaannnn”, which baffled me and I found mildly irritating after the fifth person felt the need to say it.

Anyway, it was a good trip. Most of it was actually spent outdoors, even if it was urban. I’ve always liked London, especially at times like the weekend where you are just free to stroll along. Time was spent in Regent’s Park, which is a huge open space. I wasn’t completely able to switch off and pretend I was in the countryside however as hovering in the distance at all times were high rise buildings and the sound of sirens. I thought on a couple of occasions I heard a green woodpecker, but it was some of the many thousands of parakeets that populate the city.

rhdr

I was impressed with the bits of greenery that I saw as well as the random standard trees in places, so old that the city has been built around them. I love to explore, no matter where I am, and I was not disappointed, when in Fitzrovia, there was a narrow passage with Regency period houses terraced on each side, and almost every one of them had a frontage jam-packed with potted plants, adding greenery where there is none, fulfilling the need to care for something.

rhdr

I have always said I could never live in a city, although I can see the appeal. One thing to be said about city living is that it’s a constant flow of change – redevelopment of areas already developed. There is no need to fight for the greenbelt, and stand up for the countryside because put simply, there is none. It went centuries ago. People in London fight for the preservation of historical buildings, not nature for the greater part. They don’t get that pang of disappointment, coupled with anger and dread when another developer’s sign goes up on a narrow country lane that was once enjoyed as an escape route from modern life and urban mundanity. Rubbing shoulders with city dwellers, you can sense that they are different. Whether it’s a good different or bad different isn’t an argument short enough to go on this blog, and it also isn’t my argument to make.

As good as the two days were, as the old saying goes, it was good to be home.

Looking around me

Nowadays I have the luxury of not having to drive to work, so I get forty minutes at each end of every day to myself (kind of) on the train. This has many advantages, that for the time being, I’m well and truly er, taking advantage of.

The first thing is I can walk to the station so I can listen to some podcasts or music and enjoy being out and about in all the seasons. Not using the car every day and being able to look around me means I can appreciate the seasons changing, and the minute happenings that nature gives, which most of us miss because we’re rushing about mainly. For example, most mornings I see blackbirds and robins. These are notoriously territorial birds, so every one that I see along the way shows the different patches of each bird. Blackbirds’ have an average territory of around 100 square metres, hence why we see so many of them. Autumn is when territories are renewed so there is a lot of activity (and noise).

When I was about ten, I was off school for a few days with an illness. Confined to the house, bored of the daytime TV and before the internet, I looked out of my bedroom window and saw all of the birds flitting about across our garden and the neighbours’ gardens. Being interested in maps (as I still am) I got my writing pad and drew a bird’s eye view of the gardens. I then drew a line in a different colour for each bird that I saw and where it went. Very quickly, a colourful chart appeared. I think techy kids these days would call it a heatmap or something like that. Either way, I learned about territories, as well as nesting preferences for each bird.

The second major advantage to this commute is the amount of reading, writing and sketching I can get done on the train. I try not to absorb myself too much into what I’m doing on public transport, like I try not to walk along gawping at my phone when I’m out and about. Part of it is because I’m far too inquisitive and like to look about me and people watch. The other thing is everyone is glued to their phone! Head down, gawping. An atomic bomb could go off away on the horizon, and they’d miss it, only to see it flash up on their phones a minute or two later. I don’t want to sound morbid, but I can easily see a terrorist attack happening on public transport all too easily in plain view of all the victims, who saw nothing of it coming, only their ‘smart’ devices. Before this turns into a typical rant of mine, I’ll steer course toward something a little more positive. In the mornings, the station where I get on is the end of the line, so it gradually fills up the closer it gets to the city, so I have the pick of most of the seats. I always choose a window seat that looks out across the open countryside. Again, I’m usually the only one looking at it as everyone else is scrolling away like zombies. The low winter sun this time of year casting long shadows over frost covered fields is still one sight I can’t resist gawping at. And it’s not on my phone.

If any of you are reading this blog, ironically, on a train, or bus, or somewhere else that you could be appreciating better, it won’t hurt my feelings if you put the phone away. Well it’s the end of the post anyway!

Losing my touch

The other morning, I was in the kitchen and I heard a familiar, yet somehow, strange sound. I knew that I knew it, but couldn’t quite put a finger on what it was. It eventually dawned on me that it was a Nuthatch singing. It was one of those moments where you feel both happy and sad at the same time. Happy because it’s such a lovely bird, and in spring this year, I learned that the very sound I could hear most days was indeed the Nuthatch, and then sad because it became apparent that I had very nearly forgotten what the sound was. A likely reason for this is that it is autumn and for a few weeks, the dawn chorus returns as birds mark their territories out for winter. Its not as profound and intense as spring, but it’s still a spectacle all the same. Another reason, which is the main one for feeling sad, is that perhaps I am not in touch with nature as much as I used to be. I live in a town these days, not far from a busy, noisy road, and on most of my training runs, I rarely manage to get out of suburbia. Even somewhere semi-rural, you can be amongst quiet lanes and busy fields and meadows within minutes. To obtain that, I need to drive 15 minutes. Some mornings, dark and dreary ones in the mire of winter, a robin can be heard singing easily and hour before dawn usually because his proximity to an unnecessarily bright street light.

Now, I am a self-confessed outdoor and nature junky. In case you hadn’t guessed. And this revelation this week to me is a warning sign. Living in a town and commuting to a city every day is killing my outdoor hunger. I’m enjoying my job at the moment, and I’m not in a position to move house either, so it means one thing; making a concerted effort to get out more. Obviously, autumn is here, winter is around the corner also so daylight is becoming scarce. It’s this time of year that the struggle against the elements becomes more commonplace. I saw a good quote / meme the other day that basically said something like:

It’s forecast rain for the weekend?

Then we hike in the rain!

I love the sentiment! Getting out no matter what. Most of my outdoor time is spent training, not really immersing. It’s so easy to take things like slow walks with my camera for granted, but it’s these slower, quieter outdoor experiences that allow us to see more, hear more and appreciate more. I couldn’t live in a city, however, walking through them, it’s hard not to be inspired by them in some way. I think I will never be a city man though. Too fast, and usually for nothing real. I much rather enjoy exploring towns and cities, with a camera or notebook.

As soon as I publish this post, I’ll be planning my weekend walk.

Modern toss (and the art of Shinrin-yoku)

Despite feeling exhausted on Sunday morning when I woke up (a couple of hours before my alarm), I knew I needed to get out. I set out running just before six, heading off in the bright sunshine, heading in one direction – out of town.

It may be a modern human condition or something deep within us from generations gone by, but a lot of people feel the need to get outdoors to relax, escape and deal with various stresses. It is widely known that green is a relaxing colour, and I can’t help but feel this is deeply wired in us from when greenery surrounded us more than it does today.

Two miles in, and the houses are getting fewer and fewer. Hedgerows appear, copses, circling swallows and insistent skylarks. By the time I get to the woods, the silence and the low morning sunlight flooding in makes me stop and just sit. I sit down on a fallen tree and just soaked up the surroundings, immersing myself in nature and the feeling of breathing in the new day, replacing the negativity.

During the 1980s, the Japanese developed Shinrin-yoku, also known as forest bathing, which involves taking in the forest with the senses. You can either sit, or walk in a forest and soak everything up, just as I did. It doesn’t involve any high intensity exercise and has been proven to be very successful. A 2-hour forest bathe helps you to unplug from the working day, laptops, phones and other modern day distractions and stress enhancers.

It is predicted that by 2050, 66% of the planet’s population will live in cities. With cities and towns getting bigger and bigger, this is not too surprising. I always imagine cities like giant octopuses, spreading their tarmac tentacles out into the countryside, swallowing it in chunks and expanding their concrete mass as they go.

I know I will always favour the outdoors as therapy. It works for me in many ways to cope with modern life. Plus it’s much more interesting than 99% of what’s on television and spending hours reading silly blogs online. Oh, hang on…