And now for something completely different…

It’s a tough life being the pillar of society that I am and role model for the next generation (not), so to unwind, aside from my physical activities, I like to do other less demanding outdoor activities. Photography is one, as well as strolling (this is very different to walking. Walking usually means you have somewhere to go or be. Strolling is just sauntering about at a lazy pace, noticing things). Occasionally I do other things. For example, I had a day off work last Friday so I went alpaca trekking!

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If I had to make one criticism of the whole thing, it would be the title. Trekking, to me, consists of something involving either a long distance or arduous terrain. This was neither. Trekking, by the way is a notch up from walking. A couple of notches up from strolling, just to clarify. The ‘trek’ involved leading a rather keen alpaca from its stable, where it looked pretty warm, cosy, well stocked and quite pleased with itself, out into the cold on a lead. It’s not as cruel as I’m making it sound. These animals are from South America and have fleece coats so thick that they can endure Antarctic conditions, so a chilly British October morning is nothing to them. The trek lasted for all of fifteen minutes and went up the farm driveway and back. Not exactly a trek, but fun all the same. My alpaca, Gareth, was fairly chilled out and friendly so he was no trouble. My experience with large animals up to this point only really consisted of horses. The skills weren’t that transferable. These cute little fleeceballs were a bit more like dogs. Still, it was nice to do something outdoors that didn’t involve exertion, mountains, maps or getting lost.

It was a great way to start the weekend, and I followed it up with a stroll (see, a stroll) around a nature reserve nearby in the glorious autumn sunshine.

It was a momentous weekend really, for on Saturday morning at long last, after three-and-a-half years of trying, I got my Park Run personal best, knocking four seconds off the last one. It proves that age isn’t really anything, and nothing is impossible if you work for it and stay focussed.

As my mindset lately has been about keeping fit, mentally and physically, and pushing comfort zones, I realise that this achievement is not the end of something, in fact it’s the start. The real hard work begins now because I can’t help but wonder, what else is possible? How much harder can I push myself? Let’s see.

Mizzly Dick

Feeling fully pumped up following last week’s statement of intent to keep my greying temples above the rising water level of middle age, I rocked up to my local Park Run on Saturday and ran an almost personal-best-equalling time, coming in one second slower. That personal best I should add was set three-and-a-half years ago. It was the sort of performance that would demand a urine test. For now middle age can do one.

Following this effort, came the satisfying glow of achievement. You know, the sort of one you get when you manage not to pee on the bathroom floor. No? Just me then. Usually on Saturday mornings after the Park Run, the time up until midday is spent loafing about the house, uploading results to Strava, making breakfast part two, having some inane crap on TV blaring away in the background. This does feel like wasted time but wasted well. By twelve though, it’s time to mobilise and do something with the afternoon, especially if it’s as mild and sunny as this Saturday just gone was.

The only thing that could be done to tick the must haves on my Saturday autumn afternoon list was to go for a country walk. Somewhere olde world, with a bit of charm and seasonally colourful to boot. As luck would have it, many of the villages surrounding the town where I live match this criteria.

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Ever since discovering books about countryside folklore a few years back, and taking an interest in the social aspect of days gone by, I have loved visiting picturesque villages, imagining the people that would have lived there, and the tales that could be told about the village characters. It’s easy to imagine that time to be easier, more carefree. I bet it wasn’t, it was just different. People had problems and worries just like us, they were just different ones. They probably had more at stake, but I guess they had more of a community around them to help out and make everything seem less of a burden whereas today, we are encouraged more to rely upon the state in tough times, being convinced we can go through life alone if we need to. What you think of this depends upon many factors, like upbringing, current situation and general demeanor. I can look at the life of a farm labourer and feel envious of his lifestyle back in 1870, but I wouldn’t have known his concerns. He would probably laugh at mine.

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Passing through villages, past old cottages, pubs, war memorials and farms, I get the sense of community and my mind starts to write stories and poems. One of my favourite pastimes.

The low autumnal sun allowed me to take some interesting pictures due to the abstract long shadows. I love the golden light bouncing off the fading summer colours in an almost sympathetic way, like it’s summer being given one last victory lap before winter takes over properly for a few months. In surreal moments I find myself imagining that it actually could be the last autumn ever and it’s time to be in the present and appreciate fully the colours, the light, the smells, the chill in the air, the ripening of the fruits. I do actually get like that in every season given enough time. In the distance, a flock of large-ish birds was spotted, most likely Fieldfares or Redwings. Maybe Mistle Thrushes. One of the nicknames for the Mistle Thrush is Mizzly Dick and its song is a sure sign that autumn is in full swing and colder weather is just around the corner. Folklore also says they speak seven languages and grow a new set of legs every ten years!

It was one of those gorgeously bright days that will live in the memory for a very long time.

 

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.

Leap of faith

My life is changing. I have a new job. Regular readers will remember well my blog meltdown a few weeks ago where I typed the immortal works “I hate my job”. Since then I’ve been through a few job applications, a few interviews, a lot of self belief and what do you know, some fools have decided I’m the best of the bunch to fill their vacancy. Only time will tell how it will turn out, but the main thing is, everything feels positive so far and I haven’t felt like this for years. No matter how cheerful I become, and how full my life feels, there’s always this snagging thought slithering through it all like a venomous snake in the grass, like a permanent Sunday afternoon, going “yoohoo, yes, yoohoo, it’s me, your job. You know you can’t outrun me, so make the most of this outdoors malarkey cos tomorrow, your arse is mine”. So I am looking forward, for a while at least, to not dreading Monday like I used to when I had PE with Mr Raisin (yes, that was really his name) in his pink shellsuit, screaming at us, going all red in the face because we couldn’t quite grasp the concept of basketball at the age of 10.

No, from now on, Mondays will be spent riding a glitzy unicorn called Derek all the way to work and bloody well enjoying it from start to finish.

But.

There’s always a big, oversized, pulsating but. And this is it. While regular readers may remember my meltdown, they would be wise to remember one of the positives I somehow managed to extract from my misery-inducing job. It was the fact that my job and the handful of inept lunatics I had to answer to actually drove me to spending more time outdoors, planning outdoor trips and daydreaming about great walks, trails, runs and mountains. What if I enjoy my new job so much that I forget all of that. Gulp. I can’t see it happening personally. But anything is possible. I am at a dangerous age where I could just give it all up for a less energetic lifestyle and after work drinks. Never say never. But I hope not.

In-between my two jobs, I will be taking off for two days on my most ambitious mountain trip yet. A two day walk, ticking off some six (I think) mountain summits, and about 27 miles, with a night wild camping in the middle.

Not that I need many excuses, but I’ve simply had to buy some new kit for the trip. A ultra light one man tent being on the list, a new pair of boots (this was a perfectly legitimate purchase as the old pair finally gave up the ghost on the last trip after NINE years service), single stove pots and pans, and best of all, some new maps.

With the route all planned, the last major task for the trip was to pack all of my gear into my backpack. My backpack is a 66 litre military Bergen which has been on quite a few sorties with me, but even at 66 litres, it heaved under the strain of the kit and supplies. The tent had to be attached on the outside, as well as the rollmat. Everything else has to be packed carefully depending on weight, size and most importantly, access. Objects that you are less likely to need can go at the bottom, working to the top for the more frequently used bits, like extra layers. The outer pockets contain things that I will definitely need, like food, waterproof, and hat. Some of the more luxury items can stay behind usually. I was hoping to take my camera to get some landscape shots, which is still possible, just that I’ll have to carry it outside of the bergen. To take decent landscape shots, it’s handy to have a tripod. Mine is far too heavy, so will definitely have to stay behind.

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After a pretty much miserable day at work today, despite the finish post being in sight, I found work being on my mind on the way home in an unacceptable way (more the people I have to work with than the job), and the only thing I found in my mind that lowered the pulse rate and brought more Zen-like calm was a mental image of myself, compass in hand, walking away from it all in to the vast all consuming beauty of the mountains. And there, movers and shakers, is where you will find me. Don’t wait up.

Gratitude – in memory

Eighteen months ago, I made a routine phone call to the walking coordinator of the organisation where I volunteer as a walking leader to review the walks we had done between us and discuss plans for the coming year. I knew he had been unwell, so I asked him if he was ok. Expecting him to say he was fine, he replied, in a matter-of-fact way that he had cancer. An inoperable brain tumour. I was taken aback by the news and tried to keep the rest of the conversation as positive as possible. He was planning walks and trips and sounded like he was going to make the most of the time he had left.

Sadly, I found out last week he has finally lost the fight. Whilst we were never close friends, we always had lengthy chats about the outoors, and would see each other four or five times a year for group walking duties. He was, however, one of the most important figures in steering my life towards the path I’m on now. Through mutual friends, news for to me about volunteering opportunities, and his number was given to me. After a long chat on the phone, we met face to face and I began to organise and lead walks for his groups. That was 2011, and since then, I’ve carried on with my ambitions to spend more time outdoors.

See, in 2010, a previous voluntary opportunity had disappointingly wilted away to nothing. When this one presented itself, I fully took it.  Steve took me on (probably because he was desperate) but I like to think I paid him back. Together we introduced a winter walks programme that operated in the off months when he organisation wasn’t so keen to put on any walks, but had interested parties. Numerous pub lunches all over the place, and great memories like the flighty pony that chased him down and stole his hat, which I then had to retrieve, despite having an 18kgs backpack on. I managed to get it, while he and everyone else hid in the next field (I couldn’t jump the gate – my bag was too heavy).

A great guy, as always, taken away too soon. His enthusiasm and energy will mean he will live on in the stories told about him.

The warmth of the sun

Steeped in folklore and adventurous tales, there is a valley. Overlooking this valley are hills and mountains, with lakes high up in the clouds and steep, winding paths. It was this valley where I decided to spend my last full day in the mountains.

As usual, the walk was well planned, maps studied, satellite images printed off and compared to the map. Having never been to this area before, I was apprehensive. As soon as I set off though, I could sense something special here. The first leg of the path took me to a long lake, higher up than the valley floor. It was surrounded on three sides by what felt like a rock-made amphitheatre. It almost did feel like a huge room. The path around the lake was calm, peaceful and sheltered. It was a shame to leave it behind, as I made my way up and over one of the sides, to be greeted by another lake much higher up. Looking down on all of this was the mountain summit I was here to climb.

I’ve always thought how walking, running or cycling hills teaches you a lot about yourself, and these hills were no different. You can draw endless analogies between life and moving uphill. Far too many to cover here. It’s true I think, that the outdoors provide pathways to answers to any number of life’s problems and questions. Maybe it’s the simple act of being outside, back to basics, facing the elements. My first day in the mountains this week cut some of my problems down to size, I can tell you that much.

Once at the top, the descent was along a gently sloping path, high up, but sheltered from the wind and by this point of the afternoon warmed up by the sun, radiating from the rocks. It felt very spring like and quite serene. It will have to be covered in a further post but I did have a strange experience up on this path. One of two strange experiences to recount from walking in the last twelve months I dare say.

It was the perfect end to the week and it left me feeling hungry for more, so it won’t be long until I’m back in the clouds once more.

Is there such a thing as an easy mountain day?

On the second day of my mountain trip, still recovering from the previous day (emotionally and physically, as well as mourning the loss of a decent pair of walking trousers which ripped at the crotch), I fancied an ‘easier’ walk. There was no better way to spend the day than on the highest peak in the area, some 3500 feet. Being a popular mountain, there were a few well marked (and busier) paths to use. It was the complete opposite of the previous day, with not much need for navigation, and plenty of opportunities to chat to other walkers. The weather was also worlds better.

I got a sinking feeling in the car park when a car screeched to a halt, and five loud twenty-somethings jumped out, claiming they were “going to smash it” and if they didn’t go hard, they would inevitability have to return home. I’m not sure what they meant, but I assume it was perhaps a sexual mountain fetish. I got the feeling they were a retail team attempting a charity mountain climb. Nonetheless, I checked my pack, layered up and hit the path before they’d even started taking gratuitous selfies. #smashedit.

Compared to the non-existent paths I was on the day before, these were relatively a six lane carriageway. Before long I was chatting to new friends, taking in the views and enjoying myself. I felt somewhat lazy just meandering along a marked path, but felt I’d earned it. To counteract the feeling of a stress free day, I did ponder over the idea of doing a different descent to what I’m used to, but thought I had better wait to see what the weather was like on the summit.

It’s lucky I did. The summit was cloudy, windy and wet. The climb up there was fairly pleasant though and I  thought it funny how 12 months ago the same climb I thought of as tough seemed quite easy, especially in comparison to the day before. I had a tea and a chat with a fellow walker at the deserted summit who recommended an alternative route up the mountain and also confirmed my feelings about the other descent I had in mind. With conditions up there pretty unpleasant, I set off back down. Once below the cloud, it again became mild and dry.

The relaxed nature of the return gave me chance to reflect on my goals for the future, and how I could go about achieving them. Things felt harmonious for the first time in a very long time. It is a comfort to know that no matter what happens in your life, there is always the outdoors. Always nature. Neither will judge you, respect you or castigate you. And that is fine with me.