A Winter Wonderland

In our part of the country a white winter is far from guaranteed. But perhaps its infrequency and unpredictability is what makes it all the more magical. When snow does come our way there’s an implicit demand to make the most of it.

Earlier this year we drove through the night and arrived in Wast Water for first light. It hadn’t been a particularly wintry drive and we didn’t expect to see snow-dusted hills when we finally arrived. It did look rather beautiful as the sun lit up Scafell Pike across the water.

Heading through the first stile at the car park’s edge, we stomped our woolly socks hard inside our boots, trying to wake up numb toes. We slogged up the dark valley beneath Yewbarrow, opting against the top ridge path with its icy stones and our dicey dog. A little snow to our southern sensibilities makes everything seem a little treacherous.

We were aiming for the notch below Stirrup Crag at the top valley far ahead, jumping between tufty drifts of snow and sludgy sheep prints with icy rivulets running beneath. No clear path, but a definite destination.

In that whole great valley we saw only one other person. Someone braver than us skipped down from the top of Yewbarrow and briefly stopped to share weekend greetings in his friendly Scottish burr. No wonder he was braver; what’s snow to a Scot? He soon disappeared around one of the many rises and we had the rising valley to ourselves, finally stepping out of the shadow to reach Dore Head in full morning light.

There the snowy hills lay all around, deep-sided drops and every surface sparkling. We spun round in joy, taking it all in and feeling a million miles from the motorway drive just a few hours prior. Here was our winter wonderland, the sun so warm, the sparkle in the snow so spectacular and every dip in the landscape inviting more adventure.

That first spectacular distant view marked only a third of our planned route. Beyond this there was a treacherous rock-gripping climb and a high peak trudge through thick cloud that spooked the dog. There was a final high ridge with drifts carved out like sandstone against ancient drystone walls and a final cold descent down a valley that was about four times the distance I had reckoned (and made all the tougher by several stumbles and slides.)

It was all memorable fun in the snow, but if we’re picking one moment of pure winter wonder, I’ll go for that joyful spinning release at the top of that shadowed valley, the sun spilling over us and glancing off the snow. We may not have a white Christmas but we can all hold on to at least one perfect snow-filled moment.

Up Mountains with a Rescue Dog

Most people I’ve met with a rescue dog will happily tell of their pup’s many particular quirks. Rolo used to be scared of everything, from big bearded men to plastic bags floating in the wind. Nowadays he can contain his crazy about most things, but he’s still got a couple points for improvement.

He gets very overexcited by other dogs, as well as farm animals of all shapes and sizes; both things that the Great Outdoors doesn’t lack. So, it was with slight trepidation that we set off for a Lake District mountain trip with the good doggo.

Our first hike followed an overnight drive. After watching the early sun strike the tops of the peaks, we climbed up the valley below Yewbarrow in the shade. At this early stage we realised that dog on lead was essential. The Herdwicks on the fell sides seemed so much more confident than the fluffy cloud sheep Rolo is used to seeing on the Island. They stared at him and stirred desire in his collie blood.

From Dore Head we climbed steeply up Red Pike. The notorious British mountain weather was true to form, from bright sunshine to heavy cloud cover in a matter of minutes. The dog seemed unsure of the murk as we rested below the summit, taking his chance to curl up in one of the few patches of snow-free earth. He was happier down at Great Stoat Fell, where the snow had drifted behind a snaking dry stone wall. Our position allowed for good views in all directions, and with no sheep in sight, he was released from the lead to chase some snowballs.

Our second big hike took us from the shore of Buttermere up to another Red Pike, this time above Castle Crags. Near the top, a bit of Grade 1 scrambling was necessary. It was satisfying to see how well the dog attended to our commands. He could probably sense the urgency in our voices as we checked hand holds to avoid slipping off. We followed the natural line along to High Stile and High Crag before descending the steep slopes of Gamlin End to Scarth Gap, the dog again listening well to ensure nobody got dragged down in an enthusiastic tumble.

Coming from the relatively flat environment we have on the Isle of Wight, a trip to the mountains are pretty much a necessity. It was great to see how well Rolo adapted to the demands of proper hill walking. We were surprised how few good doggos we saw up high, but Instagram assures us that others take their furry friends into the high places. Best of all though, we managed a hotel stay without any drama. There’s no doubt this was aided by wearing him out every day up on those high peaks.

The Birds are Back

Of course, the birds never really go away. The winter months are punctuated by the beautiful song of the blackbirds and demanding calls of the bold robins, but the start of spring is the time when the birds really start to dominate the aural landscape again.

For me, there’s nowhere better than Newtown to enjoy the return of the migrants. There’s the woody remnants, the thick hedgerows of the common land and the creekside itself, with flocks of gulls, ducks and geese to enjoy. Without a lens of sufficient length, I’m usually limited to the birds in the trees, but they are still a joy to watch, the perfect opportunity to make myself as still and quiet as possible, to see who there is to be seen.

It’s always a thrill to spot a goldfinch, not just for the bird itself but the happy memories of the time spent with Donna Tartt’s remarkable book.

I’m not sure what kind of wader this was. It had lovely red legs and looked awesome flying off at speed with the millpond calm creek providing a double.

You can always rely on a tit to be close at hand! Such balance and poise, lovely little birds.

Jackdaws causing a ruckus in the churchyard.

We’re migrating up North for a few days, to explore some higher hills and wild country. Enjoy your local birdsong!

Tom

Falling in Love

If your soon-to-be spouse suggests a mountain trek for your honeymoon, consider it a little hint of your life to come. I may have longed for the ‘white sandy beaches’ honeymoon cliche, but with a proposal over mugs of wine on a river bank, you could say I was duly warned.

The day after our wedding we collapsed on to the overnight train from Paris to Pau. A brief hotel stopover only made the shift to hikers’ hostel all the more stark. Swapping a walk-in shower and enormous double bed for grimy tiles and a rickety bunk, I started dreaming of sandy beaches once again. Perhaps this mountain thing was overrated?

But here I was, clattering my cup down at the communal breakfast table, brushing aside the strong suspicion that every other person, from 6 to 86, was more capable than me. And after a final coffee there was no choice but to head on up that hill.

A world away from the sunny mountain meadows I’d pictured, we were instead beset by fog. No grand vistas to reward us for our steep steady slog uphill. Only the eery, ever-present ringing of cow bells from bovines in the mist.

Hours on, we reached the final pass that signalled the final point before an easy amble to our home for the night. I’d been picturing the view for hours, but when it came it was nothing but cloud. We picked our way down the track, using our dangerously-naive navigational skills to find the spot. Just at that moment there was a tiny tear in the cloud cover and we realised we were heading past it. We had almost missed our shelter entirely.

The hut’s designation as a ‘refuge’ was perfectly apt, as we bravely watched the afternoon thunderstorm, armed with tea and chocolate. That night, crammed in to our bunks, I was simply grateful for my full belly and sheltered sleep. Not a single whisper of white sandy beaches entered my thoughts.

Seemingly seconds later, someone’s alarm clock pulled us all out of bed, into a sunrise too spectacular for words. There was a hushed collective worship as every hiker stood in silence, facing Pic du Midi d’Ossau in the growing light. Right then, no one was dreaming of anywhere beyond that perfect moment.

Isle of White

The snow took its time to arrive on the Island. Tiny flurries danced down through Wednesday and Thursday morning, but it wasn’t until the end of the school day that it began to settle. It was an unusual atmosphere in school as everybody hustled out the door as quickly as possible. Parents, staff and children keen to get home safely or be out making the most of the gathering snow.

We squeezed in a quick park walk (slip, slide) as the sun set behind the bank of looming snow clouds. Free of cars, all dogs were off lead, all slopes commandeered by sleds. The everyday trees of Northwood Park stood newly highlighted against the deepening white. Back indoors and in front of the fire, we listened to teenage whoops and hollers as they made the most of this rare snow appearance.

Friday morning was met with the welcome news that all schools were shut. We’d planned to spend the bulk of Friday hiking out west to pick up the dog from the in-laws, but stepping out the door put paid to that idea. Even on a good day it’s a terrifically long hike and treacherous in these conditions. Even worse for the doggo with no protective boots for his paws. But we were fully kitted up, so hiked off to the forest for some humans-only adventures instead.

The night saw the powdery snow complemented with ice. Where the snow had drifted, the ice had formed a thick, satisfying-to-crack layer over the top. On the bare concrete, the freezing temperature produced thick, dangerous ice. It was worst in town, so by the time we got to the forest the walking was relatively easy. Birds were abundant, skittering from snow to branch and back again. I longed for a pocketful of seeds.

We took a new path down through empty fields to the coast. A buzzard rested upon a pole, only reluctantly moving on when we stopped to watch him more closely. Ice covered much of the stony beach, the Solent a churning mess of dirty brown. It was a pretty desolate scene as we turned toward home and into the headwind, icy rain seeking out the few uncovered patches of skin.

The drifts along the exposed coast between Thorness and Gurnard were a sight to behold, not to mention a further drain on tired legs. Brief respite within coastal copses took us back to town and the noise of sleds and dogs. We hauled ourselves to the shop to stock up with the essentials for the the rest of the day, happy to enjoy the last of the snow flurries safely inside with feet firmly up.

Tom