Adventures in Nature
It was a simple enough idea; pack a bivvy bag, warm fleece and a toothbrush, meet friends in a Dales pub then camp out nearby. What could be more liberating than packing light and camping out underneath the stars? But like most things it wasn’t that simple. We took weeks finding a suitable date for a group of us to meet, then on the date we’d finally picked the weather forecasters were giving out for heavy rain. With childcare plans falling through and the likelihood of sleeping under a downpour some of us were having second thoughts. In the week before the microadventure it was on, then off, then, after persuading ourselves that it’s not an adventure unless there is some sort of challenge, we committed to do it, and taking the kids too.
So out went packing light and in came the a checklist of sleeping bags, sleeping mats, spare clothes and all the gubbins that goes with going anywhere with children, plus bags full of food and cooking stuff as we weren’t going to be able to eat in the pub. After faffing about trying to get kit together, a drive up there in drizzling rain, then traipsing across a field laden down with bags on every arm I wondered what had happened to the dream of a spontaneous adventure, and was it all worth it for one night outdoors?
Leaving the pub an hour or so later, the clouds had cleared and the low evening sun was casting a golden light on the dale, highlighting the contrasts in the limestone landscape. Whether it was the unexpected sunshine, the glorious Yorkshire Dales or the beer, our spirits were lifted. We were camping on a spot on my sister’s farm where we often go as a family to picnic and swim, but I’d never stayed overnight there, nor slept out without a tent so perhaps more than our first two outings, this classed as the real thing in our Year of Microadventures.
The great thing about camping with fellow forest school practitioners is that everyone knows what to do outdoors. Wood was gathered, the fire was lit and tea was cooking in a matter of minutes, leaving us to the relaxing business of listening to the birds, toasting haloumi and marshmallows and chatting away about this and that whilst the kids ran around and swung from the trees. Before long it was time for bed and, after tucking the children up in their cosy tent, I put on several more layers of clothes, unrolled my bivvy bag and wriggled about trying to get my well padded body and a hot water bottle into a sleeping bag, causing much giggling all round, then lay down on the ground to sleep. The feeling of being part of that landscape, rather than sealed off from it, was unreal. The gentle sounds of the night and the vast dome of stars above was like a soothing lullaby and I drifted off to sleep in no time.
They were the same night time sounds and twinkling stars I experienced at 3am, when I woke up freezing, and again at 4am and 5am. By this time I could see the welcome light of dawn and lay there anticipating the sun coming over the hill to melt the ground frost that coated our bivvy bags. I rekindled the fire and sat by the river drinking a cup of hot chocolate and feeling the warmth slowly creep back into me.
So this adventure had involved more organising, more children and more kit than I had planned for, I got limited sleep and was frozen to the bone. Was it worth it? Absolutely. In a short space of time we had left our familiar surroundings, cooked and slept under the stars, had a laugh, made new friends and felt close up with the sights, sounds and smells of nature. Not your average Saturday night out. It may not have been a month surviving on deserted island, (but whose got time for those sort of adventures, Bear Grylls?), but it was an achievable adventure in its own right, which has attracted admiration and ridicule in equal measure, and it left us buzzing.
We can’t wait to go again and I am looking forward to a weekend of canoeing and wild camping in Norfolk next month – I’ve just to break it to the kids that they’re not coming (woo hoo!)
In life we rarely celebrate the middle; we are drawn to superlatives; the fastest, the biggest, the first, the best – but what about the unsung heroes of the medium, the intermediate, the average? For our second outing in our Year of Microadventures we had decided to meet in the middle. Clive had found an app (www.geomidpoint.com) that calculated the mid point of our postcodes and emailed us a map, inviting us to meet there at midday on the middle day of the month.
Given the relative distance of our houses, it was surprising to find that the meeting point was so close to home, but half the group couldn’t make it and the rest of us only had a few hours to spare so it seemed a good fit. So far our lack of time and surfeit of responsibilities meant our adventures have not taken us far from home, but checking the Microadventure book, I found this from author Alistair Humphreys:
“You should not compare you adventure to climbing K2. You should compare it to the realistic alternative that faces most people with busy lives and tight diaries which is doing no adventure at all”
So reconciled to another micro microadventure, I set out from my house and headed up to the moor where I met my good friend Louisa. The dogs set off ahead and we were soon striding out and warming up, despite a grey and misty sky. It’s rare for us to be able to talk uninterrupted by children and phones, so took the chance to have a good catch up without distractions. I love how conversations flow so easily when you are out walking, as if the twists and turns of the footpath are reflected in the meandering route of the discussion. Half way to our destination I raised the discomforting notion that in terms of life’s journey we are probably getting towards the mid point. We are not nearly ready to describe ourselves as middle aged, but in our working lives at least there is about as much behind as ahead. We chatted over how far we’ve come and where we’re going. Generally happy and content with where and who we are, it was interesting to compare our different attitudes to life. One of us too often looking back, the other too focused on the future, we agreed we could learn a lot from each other’s approach. Walking through the woods we chatted over life’s worries, the usual adult stuff; children, work, health, money. But as we came out of the woods and the town in the valley came into view, we could feel concerns melting away as if like the landscape, everything was getting into perspective.
The meeting point on the map was not specific and we only had a rough idea of where we were going. We walked through Bingley and its residential streets before heading back up the moor on the other side. Suddenly Clive appeared waving from a rocky escarpment above us and we scrambled up to meet him and his family. None of us had ever been to Gilstead Crag before and the view was a fantastic reward for our walks to get there. From Cottingley to the east and Cononley the west, Oxenhope Moor to the south and Ilkley Moor to the north, we were in the middle of a large sweep of West Yorkshire countryside, feeling like small dots in a big landscape.
We had a very upbeat walk home. A pint in the local, encountering some deer in the woods and the sun finally coming out to give the day a spring-like air, could all be credited with our happy mood. But more than that I think it was the walk itself that put us in a positive frame of mind. So often I find this is the case and welcome the restorative power of a walk in the countryside to put worries in perspective and give me a boost of positivity. It may have been a middling sort of microadventure but there is no such thing as an average walk.
I love an adventure, but the trouble with adventures is that its hard to fit them in when you have a family, a busy worklife and a limited resource of time and money, so like many people I know I have been inspired by the book Microadventures . Its author Alistair Humphreys is a fully fledged moutaineering, Amazon-canoeing, rufty tufty type of guy, but here he advocates for a simpler, closer to home sort of adventure, taking the spirit of new, exhilerating experiences and distilling them into the weekend, day or even few hours that you may have at your disposal. Sounds perfect!
So in January a few of us, met in the pub and committed to a year of Microadventuring; twelve do-able mini adventures that would take us out of our comfort zone and open ourselves up to simple challenge and new discoveries. We made a list of ideas including wild camping, wild swimming and mapless exploring (and some other ideas which maybe don’t quite stand up in the sober light of day!) and got our diaries out. Perhaps the easiest on the list was a full moon walk, so we checked the calendar and arranged to meet at St Ives estate at the next full moon, 3 February.
As eight excited adults and children standing in the car park, we were a little disappointed that the only light in the sky was the orange glow from nearby Bingley and Bradford beyond it. We all know this woodland well, being the site of many of our dog walks, family bike rides and some of Get Out More’s forest school programmes. Even so setting off into the woods it felt eerily different; far quieter and still than in the daylight hours. A hazy moon peeped out of the clouds just long enough to feel like a good omen. With eyes not used to the dark, we found our feet were feeling their way, understanding the path from the rise and fall of the ground. We stopped to listen to the woodland sounds but there was still too much traffic noise and giggling to feel we had immersed ourselves in the nocturnal woodland just yet. But later on as we crossed a snow filled field up towards an abandoned barn, a hooting owl silenced us and soon there seemed to a woodland full of owls screeching and hooting to each other, perhaps warning each other of our presence. Familiar sights became strange shapes looming out of the darkness; the silhoettes of horses, a vast electricity pylon. Walking along a rough track we saw the lights of a car and stepped to the side to allow it past, but it spookily made no noise as it approached. Only as it passed us was it clear it was a couple cyclists riding two abreast, looking surprised to see families out walking at night.
We tried to tell the children stories of the ghosts, giants and the legend behind St Ives’ peculiar stone coffin, but they ran ahead to wave at us from a bridge, when suddenly the moon cleared the clouds and cast clear shadows on the ground, creating a cheer from the group. We stopped to admire its reflection on the ice of the coppice pond and shared a warming nip of last of September’s plum vodka. The children were happy with a handful of sherbet pips and making strange pinging sounds by skimming pebbles across the ice.
By now with our night accustomed eyes and the bright light of the full moon, we had become totally confident walking through the woods, taking the darker path back to the car park and admiring the shapes and colours of the moon shining through the branches of the bare winter trees. Back at the van, we tracked the movement of stars with our fingers and identified the constellations we knew as we waited for the kettle to boil and cook the Pot Noodles which we had brought as our post-adventure feast. As adventures go it may be of the micro micro variety, but it still felt like an exhilerating and refreshing thing to do on a Tuesday evening in winter. It made me realise than the dark nights of winter do not have to mean hibernating indoors; an evening’s stroll at night helps me to see the ordinary world in a different light and feel all the more alive for doing it.
Do we take our attitudes to nature for granted? Recently I’ve become more aware of cultural differences in perceptions of the outdoor environment. Kirklees Council has commissioned Get Out More to engage the community in the development of Dewsbury Country Park. This former landfill site is about to become the largest new woodland in West Yorkshire, one of the sixty Diamond Woods, marking the Queen’s Jubilee. The large green space sits sits smack in the middle between the urban and ethnically diverse communities of Ravensthorpe, Dewsbury Moor and Heckmondwike, although our conversations with local people tell us that most people aren’t even aware that the country park is there. Myself and Tom have been running outdoor sessions through the summer and autumn leading people to the site, showing them what they can do there and asking for their opinions for how they would like to see it developed to make them more likely to visit in future. The feedback is an interesting insight into society’s attitudes to the natural landscape.
Many people, especially women, say they feel unsafe, which is understandable given the stories we hear in the media and the evidence of anti social behaviour (litter, graffiti, vandalism and evidence of drinking etc) that is common in urban parks. But ironically it is the lack of people around that also contributes to this sense of insecurity and if we can get more people to use the country park, the safer it will feel. Dog walkers use the site regularly, but dogs themselves are can also be an issue; dog mess and uncontrollable dogs can make off-putting hazards. Walking my own dog in Keighley I have noticed how many people shy away when they see her coming. I had assumed it was straightforward fear of dogs until a Muslim lady on one of our group walks explained to me that in her culture a dog is considered unclean and if one touches your clothes, it is necessary to change them before prayer, which I hadn’t considered before.
Going for a walk in the countryside as a leisure pursuit seems as old as the hills, but is a relatively recent phenomenon which was ‘invented’ by eighteeneth century asristocrats, to the exclusion of almost all but the leisured classes until in the 1930’s the Kinder Scout trespassers fought for rights of access for all . You would be hard pushed to find a cheaper, more egalitarian form of exercise, but going for a walk still retains the air of a middle class, white pursuit. I had arranged to meet a local walking group to show them a route to the country park that they may enjoy on their weekly meets. When the group of fifteen women turned up, about one quarter were wearing flip flops or high heeled shoes. It turns out the walks they were used to were all on urban pavements. They were as shocked at the mud and puddles I lead them through as I was at their choice of footwear for walking! Hats off to the women though: they stayed the full route, carrying the pushchairs over hills and stiles. Their feedback about the need for buggy-friendly footpaths will be help make the country park more accessible for people with different mobility needs too.
Growing up in a village, in a family that enjoyed being outdoors, it is useful to be reminded that people engage with the natural environment from different cultural viewpoints. What seems natural to some may feel alien to others and it is important not to make assumptions. A good case in point: on the same walk mentioned above I was showing the women how to make a fire so we could have a cup of tea. From the comments overheard round the fire, it became obvious that some of the women had grown up in Pakistan cooking all their meals over an open fire, and knew more about the process that I did.
With the Olympics about to close I’m already anticipating the gap its going to leave in my life. Normally I hardly ever watch sport, but for the last 2 weeks I have been glued to the television enjoying seeing the best of the world’s sportsmen and women compete and, like most of us, have taken huge pride in seeing how well Team GB have done. We’ve even been lucky enough to visit to the Olympic park after securing some tickets for the track cycling. (We saw Chris Hoy and Laura Trott compete in their first rounds for events they eventually won – I can honestly say it was the most exciting thing I have ever spectated!) All of this has left me examining my difficult relationship with sport.
Most of my family did well in sport, but I was the exception, proving fairly mediocre in most things I tried. I showed early promise in swimming but when it came to secondary school and having to train regularly to stay in the team, I didn’t have the committment. I quite enjoyed games, but not being gifted at hockey, tennis or netball, lessons soon became a became more endurance than enjoyment and like many teenage girls I went off participating in sport, and wasn’t above making up excuses to get out of PE. Then some enlightened teacher invited a few of us to go rock climbing and suddenly I realised you don’t have to compete against other people to enjoy the thrill of and stretching your body and mind and that outdoor pursuits can be a real buzz. This opened the door to canoeing and mountain biking and these days I most enjoy hiking and wild swimming as a means to get the blood pumping and clear my mind of any stress and pressure that builds up indoors.
The much publicised London 2012 goal is to ‘inspire a generation’ and I am completely behind that idea but hope that within the drive to get children participating in sport we do not lose sight of the bigger goal; to get everyone actively enjoying physical exercise as a healthy habit for life. Not everyone can make it as the next Mo Farrah and Jessica Ennis but they shouldn’t be put off being active if they don’t have the talent to make the team. An hour in a gym would bore me to tears but I’ll walk up mountains all day for the pleasure of it. Likewise children who claim to not enjoy PE at school, run, climb and scramble around the woods for hours at forest school without even realising they’re exercising.
Competition is important; I doubt our gold medalists were inspired by the non-competitive school sports days where ‘everyone’s a winner’ but nor should any child be trying to bunk off school for their dread of coming last, as a friend of mine recently reported about her daughter who I know to be a highly adventurous and able outdoor girl. Helping children to turn their natural instincts for active outdoor play into regular enjoyable activity as they become teenagers and lifelong lifestyle habits as adults should be our ultimate goal. Yorkshire athletes did really well at the Olympics (we’d have come 11th in the medal table if we were a country!) and I’m sure our wonderful landscape has had a hand in motivating them to run, swim and cycle to greatness. The Olympics has inspired me to encourage more sedentary adults to join me in getting off the sofa and enjoy being active outdoors, rather than the face the embaressment of lyrca or the tedium of exercise machines at the gym. But right now I’m off to settle down on that sofa and watch the closing ceremony. Well done Team GB!