Adventures in Nature
A new year’s day swim is a well established custom in this country. Like cheese rolling or fell running there is something particularly masochistic and British about our traditional customs and taking the plunge in a chilly lake or river at the coldest time of year is no exception. Still, it had been a very mild winter so far so the water shouldn’t be too cold, I told myself. However, on waking up on new year’s day I noticed a frost on the ground and wondered why I had chosen to do this. A band of fellow swimmers from the night before transformed into a team of supportive towel holders and bag carriers, but with 2015 already over I had no choice but to commit to the challenge to complete my Year of Microadventures. (more…)
Christmas can be so overwhelmingly busy, sometimes I feel I need to step out of it and take some time to reflect on what it’s all about. By the 11th event in my Year of Microadventures I had cottoned on to the fact that what makes a successful idea was not necessarily anything particular adventurous or strenuous, but something that you wouldn’t normally do, that challenges you to look at and do things differently. For the December event it felt natural that it should have a seasonal theme, so I proposed that I would go and collect the family Christmas tree on foot this year. We have a handy garden trolley that could take the strain, but obviously it would be empty on the three mile journey there.
This year I have been working with groups from the Keighley Food Poverty Action Partnership; every day of the week one of this fantastic band of voluntary organisations hosts a free hot meal service to those in need and are also distributing food to struggling families via a series of food banks. That these services are so necessary and so well used in modern Britain is shocking and unjust. I decided to fill the trolley with food to donate to the food bank on the way to get the tree. I’d put the idea to Louisa on our dawn walk last month, and being the kind of friend that is always up for adventure, she jumped at the idea.
So one Sunday in December we, plus our two youngest daughters, two dogs dressed as reindeer and one decorated trolley set off on the walk to the Christmas tree farm, (the older girls were too embarrassed to walk with their mums in Santa hats!). We were full of good spirits and Christmas cheer, spurred on by occasional drivers beeping their horns and waving. We stopped at our local chippy and took it in turns to pull the trolley so we could eat our chips as we walked. Calling in at the supermarket to top up more food for the trolley, I was extremely proud that Bea chipped in her pocket money to buy some cans of soup to donate.
We arrived at the Salvation Army as families were gathering for a Christmas service. Ushered through the congregation we wheeled the trolley round to the storeroom to unload. The Salvation Army officers warmly accepted the donations and came out to take pictures of the girls for their Facebook page.
We now set off through Keighley to go any get the tree at the other side of town. It was already starting to get dark and the farm still seemed a long walk away. With a much lighter trolley, the girls took it in turns to have ride, pretending the dogs were huskies towing them along. At last the lights of the farm were in sight and we went into the barn to pick the right tree – big enough to make an impact, small enough to push all the way home. The walk home was in the dark and the girls were starting to flag, with no room in the trolley for tired legs. We challenged them to spot the Christmas trees in the windows we passed, with sweet money for each one they spotted. 24 trees later the girls were snacking on sweets and chocolate while Lou and I recharged with mulled wine outside a pub. The last leg was a walk past the Christmas windows and lights of town, then the big push up the hill back home. We sang songs to spur us along and despite being shattered, everyone was full of the spirit of Christmas.
Every family who celebrates Christmas has their own traditions, some handed down for generations, some just appearing by default because you do something fun and decide to keep it. This microadventure had been cooked up to try and put some meaning back into Christmas. We came home proud, glowing and looking forward to the season ahead. It felt like the way we should always collect our tree and the start of a new tradition.
How do you fit in a bit of adventure when there aren’t enough hours in the day, particularly daylight ones? Since our wild camping trip together back in April, Louisa and I had hoped to do more microadventures together, but had not managed to find enough time when we were both free. And with short days and wintry weather upon us we were running out of opportunity before the end of my Year of Microadventure.
One Saturday night in November we defied the freezing weather and sat chatting in the garden all evening. Sitting around a blazing campfire, it wasn’t so different from our summer evening get-togethers, except with snow on the ground and many, many more layers of clothes. We decided we would revive an idea that had not got off the ground in the summer, to see the sunrise with a picnic on the moors.
The advantage of doing this in late autumn is you don’t have to get up nearly as early, although it still felt like the middle of the night when we got up and left the house just after 6am. The village was strangely still and only a single taxi returning late night revellers passed us on the road. I’d brought a torch but never turned it on as our eyes soon became used to the darkness and as we reached the top of the hill, there was a light on the horizon. Not the first signs of dawn but the orange glow of Bradford street lights reflecting off the low clouds. In fact as we headed onto the moors in the half light, it was clear that there would be no stunning sunrise as a thick bank of cloud covered the sky. At least it wasn’t raining.
The light snow and the slowly brightening sky lent the scene a surreal light so the moors where we often walk our dogs looked strange and unfamiliar. However Lou’s sheepdog knew the way and we followed her up and down the heather-clad hillocks of the abandoned quarry workings to reach an escarpment of rocks which overlook the valley. ‘Cassie’s rock’ is where Lou scattered the ashes of a much-missed dog and is a favourite spot on the moors for views and quiet reflection. Here we lit the gas stove to cook a bacon and egg breakfast and wait for dawn.
As predicted there was no glorious sunrise, just a gradual lightening until it was definitely daylight and the murky landscape slotted into its usual habit of greys, greens and browns. After toasting our early morning adventure with tin mugs of hot chocolate, we made our way down the hill to start the day again with our just-woken-up children. And that was it; no thrills and spills, no adrenalin rushes or flashes of grand inspiration. But this microadventure was a fantastic chance to spent time with a friend and see the world in a different light. And seeing as we had been up since the crack of dawn we managed to do the impossible and add some hours to the day.
Postscript: proving nature does not dance to our tune, the sunrise on the following morning was all you could have hoped for – golden swathes of light highlighting rippling clouds in pinks and blues. Sadly I was in the car rushing to work with no time to stand and stare. By text Lou and I vowed to make time for another dawn picnic soon.
Where can you find wild-ness? Not wilderness, that untouched, uninhabited land that is almost impossible to find in Britain, but wildness, the places where nature is allowed to run unchecked. I woke up one Sunday with the need to be somewhere else, to distract me from my day to day concerns, somewhere wild to take me out of myself. But where do you go to find it? Not the town with its building, roads and industry stamping a heavy man-made footprint, but not the countryside either. Managed green field of grass munching sheep contained by angular walls are just another kind of industry and barely more natural than a car park.
I had been inspired reading Common Ground, by Rob Cowen, one man’s exploration of a small triangle of neglected land on the edge of his town. On the urban fringe between housing development and open fields, he discovers another distinct world rich with wildlife: fox, owl and hare, existing unnoticed under the radar of human interference. He describes places like this as the ‘edge-lands’, the transitional places between urban and rural where through lack of interest or neglect, man has resisted ‘the urge to control nature and allowed it to find its own way.’ So I decided for my October Microadventure to walk the entire edge of my town and seek out its edge-lands.
I live in a village so to reach the edge of town I walk on footpaths across the fields. There is a bland unnatural uniformity to square after square of monocrop nibbled short by horses and sheep. But as soon as I step into a wood the atmosphere changes. The sharp line of sky and land is broken by variety which envelops you, drawing your attention to the close at hand; water dripping from a leaf, a quiver of branch as a bird hops further into the bushes. Too steep to build on the wood has been left undeveloped and semi-wild, standing guard along the top of the valley that edges this side of town. On its upper side there are sometimes patches of moor, pock marked with the hollows of long-abandoned quarries, now filled with bilberry, bramble and birth, reclaiming it for the wild.
In a housing estate on the top of the hill residents’ abrupt signs warn me to stick to the path and I head down the hill to cross to the other side of town. At the by-pass cars roar past in a hurry to reach Bradford or Skipton. I slip down the banking to a tiny triangle of wasteland bordered by two of the exit roads from the roundabout. Inside I feel the thrill of being hidden from the noisy world: no one knows I am here. Outside are cars, lorries, gasometers and industrial units, but within nature has taken hold. Plants at every level intertwine to become an almost impenetrable mass. Rubbish thrown from cars is decaying back to the soil. A traffic cone is becoming tightly wrapped in ivy, disguising it alarm red identity and soon is will be indistinguishable from the green growth around it.
I walk on to the bridge where lorries thunder over, probably oblivious to the river Aire beneath. The path, which had been overgrown in the summer, is now cut back so I am able to walk along the town’s riverbank, but never meet another soul. On one level I can hear the rumble of traffic and on another the quiet rhythm of the river. On one side are high brick walls, barbed wire fences and lorry parks, on the other cows in fields of yellowing grass drink lazily from the river, a clear demarcation of town and country.
At an open field I lose the path so head towards a line of hawthorns. But it’s not one, but two rows of gnarly old trees, their overhead branches knitting together to form a tunnel, a secret passageway for lost walkers. Could this be a holloway, an old single lane track from the days before motor vehicles? It leads me to the by-pass. For the first time I check the map but it confirms the path crosses the dual carriageway so I climb its wooded banking. I am surprised to find a gap in the crash barriers on either side of the road; a token nod towards the legal rights of way as set down in the Ordnance Survey. Does anyone still walk this path? Traffic is hurtling by in both directions but I stake my claim and cross over, pushing through brambles and bits of jettisoned car parts on the other banking. What looked like the body of a small child thankfully is just the rotting carcass of a stuffed Santa, perhaps worked loose from the front of a lorry last Christmas. The glint of water I have often glimpsed from the road turns out to be a calm fishing lake though we are warned not to swim in its reed choked waters and I press on.
From here I head up the hill to the top of the next valley. The grander houses of the Victorian middles classes give way to a twentieth century housing estate. But there is no wild-ness in either; all land has been parcelled up in contained pieces of house, garden and road. The edge of the town is sprawling outwards with new housing pushing the boundaries up higher towards the moors. I had become lost in urban-ness and checked the map again to find a way back to the edge-lands. The blue line of a beck offered promise so I slip behind some houses and half slide, half stumble down a steep slope to find an overgrown small valley where invasive brambles, Himalayan balsam and Japanese knotweed try to cover over the traces of abandoned allotments and long gone mills. Over the beck in a wooded thicket well worn muddy tracks lead to the charcoal remains of old campfires, discarded beer cans and rusting bikes; the desire lines of undesirable behaviour or proof that young people are not all glued to technology and can still connect with the wild places?
I am tiring now and can see my house on the other side of the final valley. I am unfamiliar with this part of own and criss-cross terraced streets and cobbled back alleys to find my way home. Near the secondary school a path heads straight through the garden of an eighteen century weavers cottage incongruously surrounded by modern semis. The householder is clearing autumn leaves and greets me warmly so we had a brief chat, my only human contact of the walk. I am hungry and ready for home. Through the estate a hidden high-walled pathway hung with autumn berries leads down to the railway line, from where I brace myself for the climb back to my village. My legs burned up the cobbled hill and in the wood, the first street lights are coming on, emphasising the encroaching gloom. Stiff legged and glowing cheeked I arrive back to warm lights and domesticity, knowing I have been to the edges and come home.
How hard can it be for a family to live off grid for just one day? The idea for our September Microadventure had come from my children. Daisy, who enjoys foraging, wanted to know if we could live self sufficiently and Bea, who is learning about World War II at school was interested in rationing and fuel shortages. So we decided to combine the ideas and set ourselves a challenge of living without gas, electricity or shop bought food for just one day. September seemed like a good month to try it as there is plenty growing in the garden and we knew autumn’s mellow fruitfulness would help us out. However we soon realised that this could be a very frugal diet, so in the spirit of wartime resourcefulness, allowed that we could have rationed amounts of essential ingredients provided we didn’t get them from the shops. Saving up the eggs from our hens I negotiated with family and neighbours for swaps of butter, sugar, flour and milk.
There was no lie in on Sunday morning – I had to get up to light a fire and rouse the kids to help gather our food. Blackberries are plentiful and elderberries coming in too, so we could make a decent drink. The veg garden provided potatoes, onions, kale and courgettes by the bucket load. A further root around and we found some very late strawberries, autumn raspberries, a handful of peas and some very early broccoli that I hadn’t expected to be there and probably would have ignored if it hadn’t been for the challenge.
As soon as the fire was hot enough we got going with making blackberry and elderberry cordial and some raspberry pancakes. Very tasty!
Lunch almost looked like a proper meal; veg omelettes with potatoes and kale. Struggling for new ways to combine a limited set of ingredients, tea was potato and courgette fritters with more potatoes and kale. Like a wartime mum I was keen to fill them with stodge to keep hunger at bay, but Bea was still interested to know, “Whats for pudding?” Thankfully my friend Cath the forager turned up to supervise making a blackberry and apple crumble using the campfire Dutch oven method. How we came to have some illicit off-rationing cream, I couldn’t possibly comment. A neighbour called round with some very 1940’s style rosehip syrup which we discovered works well with fried apples. Without telly, screens or even a radio to brighten up a dark house we decided to stay outside chatting under a full September moon.
What did we learn from this experiment?
- That modern habits are so ingrained that, even when we knew we weren’t allowed, we automatically reached for the lights or opened the fridge. I had to put notices on each switch and spend most of the day outside, away from temptation and where we could see properly.
- That this method of living takes up most of the day. There was very little time that wasn’t looking for food, cooking food, clearing up or tending the fire. I sympathised with the generations of women before modern cookers, boilers and washing machines. They must have been exhausted.
- That we are addicted to sugar. Even though we had probably allowed ourselves far more sugar than a wartime family were rationed in a week, by lunchtime we were craving chocolate biscuits.
- We became a lot less wasteful. We cleaned our plates and had seconds. We used all the ingredients we had and there was virtually nothing to throw away apart from some peelings for the compost heap.
So can a family live off grid for just one day? Well no, sadly not ours. David sloped off to the pub to watch the football at lunchtime and Daisy made excuses about needing to do homework, and was back on her ipad by mid afternoon. I used my phone to take the pictures for the blog, but couldn’t help sneaking some time on social media while there. But Bea embraced the whole thing whole heartedly. She played with her toys and read books, picked blackberries and helped with the cooking and stayed outside chatting round the campfire until well after dark. She didn’t quite manage a full day though as I sent her in for a hot shower before bed – she, like the rest of us, reeked of campfire smoke.
I enjoyed the whole thing but if I had been told I had to do it all the next day my heart would have sunk. We are so used to food and light being there whenever we want it. Obviously this was just a day and we cheated a lot, but for millions around the world doing without electricity and enough food is a daily existence. Its made me feel very grateful for the luxury of enough light, power and food. And to give up any idea of running away to live simply in the woods. I wouldn’t last a day.