Adventures in Nature
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.
The day had not started out this way. It was the middle of the summer holidays and I had been busy running forest school sessions every day, meanwhile the demanding business of work and homelife was piling up, leaving me feeling overwhelmed. I had a rare day indoors and, with husband off work to look after the kids, I was looking forward to getting on top of the mountain of emails and reclaiming a sense of calm. However, after some initial in-roads and false starts, the broadband went off leaving me shouting at the computer and frustratingly unable to deal with any of the priority tasks on my worryingly long list.
With stress levels rising I decided the only course of action to walk away from it all, turn my back on it and find some peace elsewhere. I decided to set off for the horizon, the heather-clad moors to the west and go as far as I could before I was walking down the other side. The destination was clear, but I decided in the spirit of a spontaneous microadventure I would find my way there without a map and, where there was a choice of route, to always take the road less traveled.
Of course it was easy at first, following the well known paths from my house, with the sight of the moors easily visible a few miles in the distance. In the next village I headed down to the right, knowing that if I went left I would have the easier option of staying on a road to which would take me to the foot of the moorland paths. The right track brought me to a beck and a footpath I had never known was there. I followed the water way for a while, confident that it must be taking me in the right direction. An arrow sign pointing right indicated the path left the beck so I followed it and found myself in a series of fields with no visible way out. I wandered around for some time following every sheep track, thinking I had found the path, only to come up short next to a dry stone wall or barbed wire fence, imagining a farmer would appear at any moment and accuse me of trespassing. When I set off I had wondered how far you have to walk before you de-stress but there is nothing like getting lost to take your mind off everything else.
There was no choice but to retrace my steps back to the beck and this time ignoring the arrow sign, I carried straight on and, to my relief, a walkers’ stile appeared around the next bend. From here the path wandered over pack horse bridges, up ancient paved causeways and past hidden waterfalls I had never seen before, despite being only a few miles from home. At the top of a hill the moorland suddenly appeared, with the purple heather so bright it seemed possible to reach out and touch it. I felt the sun on my face and my spirits lift. Any issues with work felt miles away.
The horizon was in sight but still a climb away. I had to be in Bradford for a meeting that evening so upped my pace, jogging past a reservoir and pushing through bracken and rushes, soaking my feet in the process. Once in the heather the path became more apparent but uneven and dotted with deep boggy holes. I was in a steep valley, like a tear in the earth with water pouring down through the cracks. After a steep rocky scramble I reached the crest of the hill with a long sweep of view down to my right, a stunning colourful view which I tried to capture on camera. As a small dot in this huge landscape any niggling work problems now seemed unimportant in the scheme of things. Up ahead was a rocky escarpment; from there, I decided, I would have reached my destination. Hurrying on with excitement and the satisfaction that I was soon to have achieved the twin goal of reaching the horizon and walking away my stress, I felt euphoric. In this glorious state I did not see the rock in the middle of the path that tripped me up and put me on my hands and knees while my phone flew out of my hand. In slow motion I watched it sail through the air and land in heather, falling through it to a deep bog beneath, taking with it my photos, my emails and my newly restored peace of mind.
I have had time since to reflect whether I would have been better off staying at home that day. I may have got some work done and would certainly still have a working phone, but on balance I’m still glad I went. It was a truly beautiful place to be and I have been back since to get some photos. It pricked the all absorbing bubble of work and helped get things in perspective. I have not looked at that horizon in the same way since.
When the weather gets hot and the days are longer my thoughts turn to holidays – lazy days in the sunshine without a care in the world. But what makes a holiday? The Oxford English dictionary defines it as ‘an extended period of leisure and recreation, especially one spent away from home‘. There are two reasons why that’s not happening this month – I haven’t got an extended period of time off because I need to be at home/work. Get Out More runs activities all year round, but as an outdoor business inevitably more people book us in the spring & summer and the warmer months are often very busy, weekdays and weekends. After May’s four day extravaganza in Norfolk there was no way I would be able to get away for in June. So the solution was simple – a microadventure at home.
We consider ourselves lucky to live a beautiful part of the world, a small village just outside Keighley (if you don’t believe me, Google ‘Bronte Country’ and you’ll get the picture). Living on the side of a hill we have fantastic views and from the field next to our house we can see three counties; West Yorkshire, North Yorkshire and Lancashire. For future microadventures I want to start from my house and walk to each horizon, but for June the plan was to stay put and enjoy the summer solstice from home. Friends Chris and Gav came up late in the evening and we watched the sunset as we had a beer or two around a campfire. Chris’s boys and my girls made the most of the light night with dusk trampolining and playing extended hide and seek type games in the long grass of the field. We talked about the solstice and made plans to get up at dawn to see the sunrise, perhaps even join the dawn swim at Ilkley lido. When it finally got dark I created a family nest of sleeping bags and mats in the meadow and we lay down amongst the grass to go to sleep. It is hugely relaxing to fall sleep to the sound of nighttime wildlife and a gentle breeze.
In equal measure it is troubling to wake up with the drip of raindrops on your face. I pulled the sleeping bag hood tighter but could hear my eldest stirring. “Mum, how do you stop your face getting wet?” “Errm, do you want to go inside, love?” And the brilliant thing about having holidays at home is that option is always open to you. A conclusion Chris and family had already come to as I heard to field gate creek open and the sound of a car starting up. My youngest meanwhile was still fast asleep so I covered us both up with the now spare sleeping back and went back to sleep. I woke up some time before 6 the next day, having missed the solstice dawn. It was a grey, dull morning but there was still time to get to the lido for the early morning swim if I got a move on, so what did I do? Rolled over and went back to sleep of course – I was on holiday after all!
So my night in a field was brief, damp and only a few metres from my own cosy bed. But a change is as good as a rest and this small change of scene once again helped me to feel more alive and more attuned to nature around us. As to whether the dictionary would call this a holiday? Well I prefer the Cambridge English dictionary’s definition ‘a time when someone does not go to work or school but is free to do what they want‘. By that definition we can have a little bit of holiday in every day, if only we make the most of it.