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.”

Transient Art

Shells on branch

We often cry “Process, not product!” Both Tom and I work with children (he’s a teacher, I’m a therapist) and we often chat about how the process of doing something (and the conversations that crop up while we do it) is where the magic happens.

‘Process over product’ is a catchy phrase, but it’s not always easy to put into practice. After all, we like a pretty end result. We all have an idea of how something ‘should’ look (thanks Pinterest).

When I was a kid I’d often give up on art projects because they didn’t look like how I imagined them in my head. Perhaps if I’d focused a little more on enjoying the process I would have got further. I might have enjoyed selecting the paint colours, figuring out the shapes, telling someone else about my idea.

Shells in hand

I’m no artist, but I enjoy making things. Part of that enjoyment has come from abandoning hope of a perfect product. Focusing on what I enjoy about the process.

Transient art is a perfect project for adopting this mindset. By its very nature transient art is impermanent. So, you needn’t worry about how it looks. Just focus on enjoying the creative flow. Gather together and arrange a bunch of natural objects that are appealing to you. Enjoy the fact that this isn’t your lasting legacy.

We wandered down to one of the Island’s many hidden little beach to play and create. We had in mind a few ideas and talked about them on the long grassy path down to the beach.

Reaching the shoreline, we spent time sifting through the shells and pebbles, absent-mindedly filling hands with the things we liked. The searching and sorting is half the fun of a transient art project. It’s like gathering a giant box of craft materials, gifted by nature.

In fact, it’s only loaned by nature. We aren’t taking anything away. Only rearranging it until the high tide comes to reclaim and rearrange.

We had a go at several different projects, each in our quiet corner, with the dog running between and reminding us that chasing sticks is his favourite art form.

Shells on bush branches

Tom decorated a driftwood tree with shells, playing with gravity, balancing shells on the tips of each twig. We made zentangles in the sand, clearing the space like a bird of paradise, moving each twig and leaf out of the way to create a clean blank canvas. This appealed greatly to the dog, who thought we’d simply cleared a nice patch of smooth wet sand for his belly. Thankfully, paw prints have their own kind of beauty. And we’re not aiming for perfection.

We also stacked stones and laid out shells. I had a go at my first mandala. This geometric design intended to symbolise the universe and our connection to it seems a good choice for a natural art project. I must tell you I really enjoyed the process. I am focusing on that because I wasn’t too sure about the final product. But the process was fun enough that I’ll definitely have another go in the future. And perhaps I’ll even get better at it.

However you choose to gather and arrange the things around you, I hope you enjoy the process and embrace the beauty of impermanence.

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.

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.