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.

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.

One Year On

It’s been 365 days since I last wrote here on this blog: a year of adventure and challenge, along with the standard everyday trials (like running out of coffee beans, or gas, or patience.) Here’s a few highlights from my 2017.

Running

I’ve come to running gradually over the years, with no small dose of encouragement from Tom. This year I found a little more independent motivation, surprising myself by heading out for regular runs even when Tom couldn’t join me.

I packed running shoes for my trip to the USA in the spring and ran a variety of short runs from West coast to East coast: along the edge of San Francisco bay, past a snake winding it’s way along the path; up through the dry frosty chill of a Nevada desert morning next to mountain lion tracks and past dilapidated ruins from a pioneer era; up a steep zigzag trail to watch the sunrise spill across the flat midwest plains from the top of a Colorado ridge. I avoided any running in Michigan (because snow) and took a final run along the New York High Line before flying home. I didn’t run across America, I drove. But I sure was glad to have my trainers with me for the odd leg-stretch and hilltop view along the way.

Swimming

I haven’t been in a swimming pool for years, but this year I took a fair few dips outside. We’ve made regular trips out West to Freshwater Bay, my favourite of swimming spots, with a steeply shelving pebbly beach and clear cool water. I had plenty of opportunity to confront my fear of deep lakes when we travelled to the Lake District this summer. I did dip in Lake Buttermere but couldn’t quite bring myself to follow Tom out to its deep dark centre.

It’s also true that running to your swimming destination makes a cold dip all the sweeter, as we discovered beneath a waterfall in Yorkshire, whooping and hollering in merry disregard of the civilised folk above peering down at us from their cafe balcony.

Writing

I love writing for Style of Wight magazine. It’s always a thrill to see my words in print. The editors pull it all together with Tom’s beautiful photos and there’s just enough time lag between deadline date and print date that when we do get our hands on a copy it’s fun to read my own copy. It’s also hugely humbling to have recognition from others about what I write.

This is also the year that I discovered the Bullet Journal phenomenon. As we near the end of this year, it’s a treat to have a single notebook crammed full of a year’s worth of work, ideas, plans and adventures. I even went so far as to print out some photos to stick in the pages. Old school, I know.

Bossing

I’m heading in to my third year of self-employed life as a Speech and Language Therapist. I feel proud to have made it this far. And exhausted. And filled with self-doubt. I’ve been fortunate in building around me a network of awesome people for support and encouragement along the way. So, I’m excited about what’s in store for SaLT by the Sea in the coming year and I’m giving myself license to savour the positive feedback people have given me along the way.

Reading

Always reading. What is life without a book by your side?! I loved Carrot Quinn’s Thru-Hiking Will Break Your Heart, not least because Tom discovered it for me and it proved the perfect book for my hiker’s wanderlust.

Through all of these adventures, challenges and self-doubt Tom has been the running thread, who chivvies me along (sometimes quite literally, up steep hills in stormy weather), who leaves encouraging notes for me on the kitchen table or studies the map to suggest our next running route. We’re a team in everything, so we’ve decided to make this blog a team venture too. Here’s to a little more writing adventures and adventure writing in the next 365 days!

A Mountain Without A View

mountain_selfie

A week after our stay in Snowdonia I find myself scrolling through the Cadair Idris twitter feed, crammed with photos of glorious bright clear mountaintop views, only days after we battled through the wind and murk, querying whether this was dense cloud or simple rain that we were marching through. In the photo courtesy of twitter, I pick out clearly out path climbing steeply from the deep lake to the undulating ridge leading to the summit. On the day we climbed there was no clear path or route ahead, only dark shadows rising high through the cloud, only the immediate demands of the slick rocks rising underfoot. It’s hard to recall the wind. I recall the pockets of quiet, sheltered on the lee side of a foggy crag before pitching out in to the awaiting wind that forced raindrops through the seams of map cover and mitten.

We see barely a soul on our ascent, because of course who would be mad enough to climb on a day like this. The dogs seem to fare better on the hillside than the people: the plucky terrier in full neon safety garb, a merry assistant to the hardy men working on low path maintenance; the two collies on the high ridge, seeming more at ease here than they ever seem at the fireside, taking agile leaps over the rocks whilst their owner glumly shouts to us warnings of the peak’s grim conditions. We weren’t too worried. We knew of the old stone shelter on the summit, essential precious promise of a dry lunch stop at the top.

We felt perfectly alone for almost the entire hike. At the summit bothy, our sense of solitude was happily shattered by a convivial convergence of several parties, shaking off wet gear and exchanging ascent routes. After a quick eat, we took the advice of a seasoned climber and struck off at a vague angle through the murk, picking out sheep and cairns as we headed for an as-yet-invisible marker pointing out our route back down. Five years ago the poor visibility would have freaked me out (in fact it did, up on Kinder Scout). But since then I’ve gained enough confidence and realism to adopt cautious optimism.

We bumped our way down the steep descent, tough enough to make frustratingly slow progress. I’d always far rather climb up than down. We kept each other going with the usual mix of random song choices, a rant about nothing in particular, plenty of gentle teasing and the odd word of encouragement. Finally the low hills emerged, wispy pines atop damp ochre, while we crossed the stream on smooth slate slabs.

It always feels strange to return to the car park, the civility of the steamy cafe and the officiousness of the pay & display meter. But really I’m happy to return, not yet brave enough to spend the night in that summit bothy. Maybe next year.

A Weekend in the Woods

Boots

Back in midwinter, under the festive spruce tree, was a gift card from Tom for a weekend of camping out and learning bush craft skills. I can’t remember the last time I was so excited about a gift, I felt ridiculously moved by how sweet he was to think of this. I wouldn’t have thought of it for myself, but as soon as the idea appeared it instantly brilliant.

Time spent outside basically feels like winning at life, like sussing out the secrets of the universe. Even a walk in my local forest reminds me of the big old grand incredible world out there that, for once, is truly deserving of that overused term: it is truly fucking epic. So when my overpriced air-conditioned taxi dumped me and my pack on the side of a road in rural obscurity on a warm Friday evening, I was fully signed up for life as a wild woodswoman. At least for thirty-six hours.

Evidently I was too comfy in my sleeping bag on that first morning. One of the last to wake up, I dodged the task of raking over the coals to get the kettle going. But I was up in time to swoop in for a black coffee once it had boiled, retreating to a sunny clearing for a ‘sit spot’.

I shared the sunlight with a long, languorous spider climbing her way to the top of the brambles to lounge on a top leaf, her legs dangling in motes of dust. A wren scuffled about in the low bracken, before deciding on a branch from which to carefully clean every feather on her wing. The crack and knock of loose bark in the pines gave away a small woodpecker’s whereabouts, so shy near the top of the tree.

Shelter
Look Up

I gamely wielded a knife, cutting bracken for my shelter, legs scratched by the bramble and sticky pines. Apparently hard as nails (read foolhardy) to have my legs out, but surely we’re all agreed that jeans are too hot. We foraged silver birch to flint fires, found compass points in the shadows and, after dinner found the fire, watched constellations turning.

By our second morning, having slept in such deep sleep under our own bracken roofs, it felt perfectly natural to start the day by a campfire, chatting about the wild redcurrant found down the path, or the deer someone spotted earlier, like it was no big deal. That was the beauty of it for me. We learned useful skills and had plenty of fun, but the sheer simplicity and steady pace of time there was what gave it such joy.

Fireside

When the weather is so warm and welcoming, living wild out in the woods is a tempting proposition, at least for one more night. On returning home, I settled for an evening sit spot under an old tree, followed by a hot bath and the bedroom windows flung wide.

Clearing