The gift of presence

I hope it doesn’t sound mean-spirited to admit that I sometimes approach the festive season with trepidation. After all, there’s loads of things that I love about the middle of winter; candles and greenery, sharing good food and favourite carols to name a few.

But, with the heightened excitement and expectations, it can all seem just a little bit ‘extra’. Know what I mean?

I wonder what would happen if we let go of some of our busy-ness and replaced it with a little more intention. If we took time to consider what we really value and made space for more of that.

I’d like more time to have good conversations with those I love. Less time worrying about what stuff to get them and more attention to the present moment. I know that many of my casual conversations gather only half of my attention. I’m nodding along, but in my head I’m busy composing a text, a shopping list, a better retort to that thing that happened earlier.

Apparently we live in an attention economy. Even our language acknowledges what a precious commodity it is. We pay attention, waste time, spend energy, lose focus. A quick walk down the street, watching heads bent over magic rectangles, and there’s no question whose economy we’re investing in. We feel starved for time, yet willingly give what we have of it to the digital world. We while it away on endless scroll mode, unable to sit in the here and now.

In my work as a Speech and Language Therapist I often chat with parents about embracing the awkward silence. It’s incredible what gems crop up when we give people just a little more thinking time, rather than rush in to fill the space. The gift of our full attention; no new device or toy can ever replace that.

Everything about this midwinter season tells us to draw in, slow down, hit ‘pause’ on the everyday hustle and simply be together. Time to gather round and share stories, listen to each other and reflect on the year closing in. What story or song could you share? What do you want to pass on to those you love?

Put down your phone, leave it where it is. Go find someone to talk to. And pay attention.

Adversity training

On a recent family trip to the Lake District for some fell running, I came across the term ‘Adversity Training’: to seek discomfort and challenge in order to build strength and stamina. It’s an idea easily adopted by the outdoor-loving folks of Keswick. In their Northern climes, if one waited for good weather, every planned adventure would be infinitely postponed.

Regardless of the fancy title, adversity has always been a part of family trips. I’m sure you can recall a few of your own. For me, it dates back to camping in snowy mountains as a little kid, right through to the muddy, storm-bound and semi-lost adventures that my little family of three seek out still.

We had lots of fun during our recent Lakeland trip, but it wasn’t without adversity. We got lost aplenty, tired to the bone and so soggy wet that we practically dissolved into the landscape.

I can even say that the rainiest day of our trip, a run around Thirlmere Reservoir, may well have been my favourite. The rain battering down the peaks of our hats, eating snacks on the go (too cold and wet to bother stopping) whilst people in warm dry cars splashed past us with baffled expressions. I’m not sure what makes this so fun. Perhaps it’s the sense of achievement, prevailing in less-than-ideal conditions. Perhaps it’s the hilarity of an almost ludicrous mission.

Getting lost is always a huge part of the picture for us. On a sunnier day, we went awry on our descent from Place Fell, almost walking off a sheer cliff facing down into Ullswater.

We sat down at the edge, heads bent collectively over a Clif bar and OS map, taking a minute to choose our next steps and remind ourselves of the many hours of daylight still remaining (i.e. don’t panic!)

Of course, we made it back to the car in the end. If we hadn’t gotten lost, we wouldn’t have been able to practise the challenge of staying calm and kind to each other amidst this right-royal-muck-up. We wouldn’t have had that moment of unexpected joy, tramping across the springy landscape amongst clouds of butterflies, discovering a hidden stream and soaking up that wild view. Those kind of moments don’t happen when you stay on the beaten track.

The focus and exhilaration that comes from attempting something a little scary is hard to beat. The teamwork required to haul ourselves up a steep arête, followed by the collective relief of making it to the top without tumbling off, is all part of how we build our bond. Just the three of us in the elements, reliant on ourselves and each other to get us through the landscape, safely and cheerfully.

Feeding Rollo the dog

However you choose to spend your time as a family, few adventures are devoid of adversity. And what better preparation for life? To encounter these things together and learn that it’s not about avoiding the challenges, but rather choosing how we respond to them. There’s few phrases more beautiful than “Let’s figure it out together.”

Hidden Bays

We have some wonderful majestic bays here on the Island. The ones that feature on national award lists and end up on all our tourism posters. They’re the striking, instantly recognisable spots: that long smooth stretch of sand across Compton’s low tide, those steeply shelving sands of Alum Bay, the bright white cliffs at Yaverland.

There’s also plenty of smaller hidden treasures. Small bays dotted around the Island. Ones that you quietly collect over time as the Island becomes your familiar playground. They’re the discoveries that you share with a friend, like passing on a gift. The ones that determine your local-ness and connect you to your neighbours.

When I mentioned to people that I was planning to write about some of the Island’s hidden bays, they were keen to add their own favourites to the list: Red Cliff, Whale Chine, Binnel Bay.

Some aren’t exactly hidden, but the effort required to get to them does give them a special feel. When you can’t simply tumble out of the car and onto the sand, it feels like you and Nature are conspiring to do something marvellous together.

The extra effort means that you rarely have to share. If there’s a boardwalk, an overgrown path, or even an abseil required (hello Rocken End!) then you’ve earned the peace and quiet.

And it is incredibly peaceful. Hidden bays invite contemplation. Give in to the rhythm of the waves, the pace of the gentle breeze. Even in a storm, it’s worthy of pause. Being whipped about in a salty gale feels just as good.

I like to look out for the different the textures, the shoreline and the cliffs. Sometimes it’s good for a photo. Sometimes it feels good to leave the phone in your pocket. Maybe you want to keep this hidden treasure a secret for a little while.

And pack snacks. Always snacks. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve ended up on a journey longer and epic-er than anticipated and been rationing out the odd raisin we find in the bottom of our bag. (The dog’s always fine – there’s dog treats in every pocket.)

We’ve lived on the Island for over 12 years. My dad grew up here. It feels more like home than anywhere I’ve ever lived. We delight in our Island knowledge and how much there is still to discover. I’m constantly surprised by how our mental map grows, purely by dint of keeping an open and curious mind. What’s down that track? I invite you to find out. I bet there’s a path near you that is new to you, or perhaps new in the direction you take it, or the season in which you cover it. Look up, look out. And then share your discovery with a neighbour.

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.

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