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

When you’re in an IG slump

I’ve fallen out of love with my photo sharing app. The only social network that I ever felt actually invested in has lost the lovely community feeling of the early days, replaced by an opaque algorithm that funnels you in directions you may not wish to go.

But there’s something inspiring about sharing favourite photos, turning a sometimes solitary activity into a quiet act of community; photos as small reminders of the beauty close to hand, if we only stop and look.

So here are my photographic highlights of the late winter. It’s been a mixed-up month: mist descending for the early starts but plenty of bright blue days. The Siberian winds have blown in, but we’re waiting for more than just the lightest of sprinklings of snow.

On Freshwater Down, amazed to find a path we haven’t pounded before. Anything to avoid the golf balls…


It’s always exciting to see the return of these alpine blooms, presaging  the bounty of flowers to come in the months ahead. I think snowdrops are our reward for surviving the winter.

Marshmallow clouds pop against the bright blue of a late winter’s day, little clouds on the ground below. Not the common and garden variety sheep these, either.


Top field at Parkhurst Forest, making sure the dog is well run out at the end of the a busy weekday. Delighted that the light has stretched to the point that we can do this after work!


Rolo an unwilling subject down at Newtown Creek, not convinced that a photo is worth stopping for.

End of the month run way out west, waiting waiting waiting for some snow…

Tom

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.