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.

Sit Spots

The alarm clock wakes us before sunrise. This time of year it’s a less ambitious start than in the height of summer. None the less, leaving the comfort of a warm bed on a chilly morning remains a challenge. Bleary-eyed, we hustle together picnic blanket, thermos and woolly hats. Bundling in to the car, we drive to the furthest West point of the Island, to tramp up to Headon Warren in time to watch the light grow all around us. It’s cold and windy, but wrapped up in a blanket, hands wrapped around a cup of coffee, I can settle comfortably to watch the world wake up.

As I sit, my focus shifts, noticing different elements to the surrounding scene. First, the wind, it’s insistent whistling through the gorse seeming to drown out every other sound. This is not the spot to notice the gentle waking of songbirds, but rather to respect the wild power of the wind on this exposed downland. I notice the texture of the heather beneath me, their twisting twigs and dried blossom. A moment later, a kestrel hovers overhead for just a flash before swooping obliquely down beyond my sightline. Flocks of some unknown tiny bird appear on the scene. Skylarks perhaps? With my limited ornithology, all I can do is watch their small sharp silhouettes tussled amongst the gusts of wind, clueless as to their identity.

After all, this isn’t an exercise in identification. This ‘sit spot’ is an exercise in sitting still, taking ten quiet minutes to observe my surroundings and notice what emerges once I cease my stomping and leave space for life to show itself. Taking even a moment to pause on a walk and notice the sounds around feels like a worthwhile moment. But to sit and take ten requires a more definite intention. It seems strange to me how the feel of ten minutes can change depending on the activity. I can easily lose that little chunk of time scrolling through social media, but to sit and ‘do nothing’ for ten minutes can feel incredibly long and drawn out. That’s the beauty of it. I feel almost like a master of time, able to stretch out a mere ten minutes to feel so full of space.

Anywhere will do, to simply sit and soak up the scene. Some favourite spots usually spring to mind, a sunny clearing in Brighstone Forest or a perch above Freshwater Bay. It could be a quiet park bench or a corner of the garden. In the forest it’s often quiet for several minutes of sitting, before the birds regain their confidence and resume normal chit chat. To think that without this time we can often walk through a corridor of quiet, as the nature around us stills to a hush as we come crashing through. Lying back amongst the leaves, the smell of the earth wraps around. With time to spare, there is time to notice every sense anew.

Emerson once said “Adopt the pace of nature; her secret is patience.” Not necessarily easy advice to follow. But if ever there were a way to achieve such a pace, perhaps it is amongst the meadow grass or piney carpet of a favourite sit spot.

Silver Linings and Quiet Minds

January was hectic, right? Totally crazy, way too long and, if we’re honest, pretty darn gloomy. I can totally embrace a bad mood and I believe a good sob is beautifully cathartic. But I do also have an annoying habit of finding the silver lining. I appreciate this is not always appropriate to the moment. Some shit just doesn’t have a silver lining and it’s annoying when people try to paint one over your sadness, instead of simply sit there with you in its shadow.

But, in this case, my January downer did have a silver lining: the realisation that meditation is a total act of self-kindness. Not a virtuous act, but something that simply feels good. I have a busy brain, always planning the next thing and struggling to sit still in the moment. And writing lists can only get you so far. I’m not good at calming my mind or letting my thoughts quietly drift by. I have a tendency to latch on to them and worry at them like branches in the wind. But, with the help of Headspace, I’ve learnt just enough to accept where I’m at and start enjoying the process.

A few weeks in and I find myself looking forward to that part in the day where I sit quietly and distance myself from the usual chatter whirling in my head. I don’t plan to stop this habit anytime soon.

If meditation is a step too far right now, you might start with a zentangle: a simple abstract drawing based around two or three meandering lines. In contrast to a doodle, zentangles encourage ‘relaxed focus’, thinking only about the activity in hand. Draw whatever patterns or shapes spring to mind and simply enjoy the process.

Happy February guys. Here’s to a calmer month ahead.

January’s Good Timing

In this tail end of January it’s easy to long for spring; some green shoots and dry paths. I’m tired of creating a whole load of laundry every time I go out to the forest. And I’m tired of discovery muddy paw prints on the carpet, despite repeated paw wipe downs. Where does all that mud come from?

But there is one advantage to this time of year that’s easy to overlook: the short days of winter mean that sunrise adventures are a little more attainable. They don’t involve dragging yourself from bed at some ungodly hour. Even if you wake after 7am it’s possible to be up and out, catching those first precious rays of light.

The window for these easy sunrise wins is fast closing, as the light pushes against the darkness a little earlier each morning. Last week, when the sunrise aligned with clear skies, we trundled our little van out to the back of the Wight for one of our favourite routes: The Pepperpot.

Quick side note: I mention sunrise runs like they’re a doddle. Please be assured that whilst driving said van in the blue early light I was full of the usual trepidation, knowing all too well the slippery mud and steep climbs to come. But I’ve done just enough running now to realise it’s best to bury such thoughts deep down inside and simply get on with it. Because never once have I regretted being out there once I’ve started (after that first kilometre which is just bloody hard whichever way you approach it).

The Pepperpot run is a great route for chasing sunrises. We park behind the village shop, still dark and quiet, and set off across the fields and up the spine of St Catherine’s Down. We’re never quite sure where we’ll be when the sun’s rays reach us, but it’s rosy greeting is a reassuring certainty. As the blue light loses its icy edge we reach the Hoy Monument and those familiar grand views.

We leave the steep and slippery climb behind, on to some firm flat ground, pacing along with the sun on our faces, passing the farms in the folds of the hills below. Looking back to the north, the Medina valley stretches towards the mainland, while north-west we watch the sun spill across field and forest, towards the chalk cliffs beyond.

Up to the Pepperpot, the top most point of our route, pausing only for a moment before heading full tilt across the stubbly fields and badger lanes towards Niton and Blackgang. As we push along the coast we wave to the mainland, also soaking up its morning rays, reflected in those mirrored chalk cliffs.

The sun truly up now, we swing back again below the Pepperpot, along that flat stretch, past the Hoy Monument and hurling ourselves down the steep muddy path, embracing the unavoidable reality of muddy wet feet and tired out legs.

When we return to the van the village shop has opened it’s doors, welcoming us in to its sunny cafe, complete with requisite dog, happy to be best friends with us, the first two customers of the day.

Grey Day Wonders

Amidst all the media talk of ‘blue monday’ we were confronted with a decidedly wet and windy one. With few glimpses of sunshine at the start of our year, we’ve settled for the dry grey days when they arrive. Quiet days that blanket the sky and draw our focus inwards. This is the kind of weather that inspires a hot drink by the fire rather than an ‘out for hours’ adventure.

But with a dog staring intently up at you over the rim of that hot chocolate, there’s little avoiding the great outdoors for long. Even without the grand vistas of a sunny day, there are plenty of delights to be found. On a drab grey day, away from the grand hill tops and cliff edges, the forest comes into it’s own.

We amble through the mud and low hanging cloud, a quiet pace to suit this still and misty afternoon. The bold straight lines of the tree trunks sit stark against the monotone sky as we take one of our favourite paths, its ‘foxglove alley’ nickname giving hint to the fine display promised later in the year.

We crouch down low to savour the beauty of life on a tiny scale. On a fallen log, a velvet draping of delicate moss, poked through by strange black fungus fingers. Ever-present ivy nips at its edges and abandoned acorn cups slowly fill with drips from the canopy above.

The woodland seems to welcome our quiet grey day pace, so different from our usual morning gallop. Today there is no strava keeping time, no hollering or leaping.

We sit on some leaf mould, backs against a pine, looking up at the fine feathered needles, with barely a breath in the branches. As we settle, so do the birds, deciding we’re less of a monstrous noise today than other days. They emerge from the safe haven of the holly bushes to flash their beautiful bright yellows and reds. We prop each other up and sit in silence for just another moment.

This is what grey days are for. Simply sitting and being amongst the calm quiet stillness. This is how I like to spend Mondays, whether blue or grey.