Anti-racism is the commitment to fight racism wherever you find it, including in yourself. And that is the only way forward.
I’m from a rural area in the northeast of Scotland, and I have spent my career working in conservation, environmental education, and countryside access across the UK, with the occasional diversion into nature tourism and outdoor recreation in the UK and Northern Europe. I write here about my interests in travel, the outdoors, expeditions at sea and on land, and connecting with nature.
I occupy space in this world that is exceedingly white. I do not have to fight for my place in these areas due to the colour of my skin.
While I like to think I am not racist, I’m a beneficiary of the structural racism that winds through our society like bindweed, and that through my silence in not it calling out when I see it, I am complicit. It is vital we, as white people, start to see what has long been evident to Black people, however uncomfortable it may feel in the process; it’s time to grasp the nettle.
To start, we must educate ourselves. By being better informed, we can find a way to see more of the landscape that surrounds us, and be better allies to people of colour. We can start to open outdoor spaces that were once and are still exclusionary, and amplify the voices of those that are underrepresented in our fields.
An old Guardian article which probed the slave-owning history of Britain, and the legacy of fortunes made from the labour of enslaved people and the compensation for their emancipation. It ties into a two-part BBC documentary Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners, which is still available to view on the iPlayer.
An informative blog post by Eulanda and Omo of Hey, Dip Your Toes In! laying out ways in which we can learn from, support, and advocate for the Black people in our lives, and ensure others aren’t excluded from opportunities arising from our white privilege.
Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.
Leah Thomas introduces intersectional environmentalism and sparks a conversation on the need for anti-racism to be a cornerstone of climate and social justice.
This is just a beginning. I understand that it will not be quick or an easy process, and there will be times where I get it wrong, but it’s time to be idle no more. No lives matter until Black lives matter.
At 1,038 metres (3,547′) Schiehallion isn’t especially close to Ben Nevis in height, but it is certainly one of the most iconic Munros. The distinctive, near-symmetrical profile of the mountain attracts hikers from both home and away looking to experience the great outdoors, and it’s a great choice for first time Munro baggers.
In the heart of Highland Perthshire, close to the very centre of Scotland, Schiehallion has the reputation of being both one of the most mysterious of Scotland’s mountains, and the most measured. The name Sidh Chailleann translates from Scots Gaelic as “the fairy hill of the Caledonians”, and it’s not difficult to find traces of folklore and superstition on the slopes of Shiehallion.
Reach the summit on a summer evening, and you’ll be enchanted by views of Loch Tummel and Loch Rannoch stretching out towards the vast blanket of Rannoch Moor in the gloaming. Descending through the dusk you’ll catch mysterious sounds reverberating across the hillside: secret whisperings of the wee folk, or magical drumming snipe and roding woodcock?
Planning my route
I was taking part in the 2019 TGO Challenge, a coast-to-coast crossing of Scotland on foot, and wanted to include a few mountains on my route from west to east. As it happened, dropping a few planning pins into my ViewRanger map put one close to the peak. After a few days of low-level walking, I reckoned I’d be limber enough to take on the mountain and make a west-to-east traverse of Schiehallion.
From the east and west the peak looks like a perfect pyramid; from north and south, a long whaleback ridge with a more gentle rise to the top. It stands in isolation, easily picked out on the skyline ahead of me as I left Glencoe and crossed Rannoch Moor.
Start Point: East Tempar Farm*
Finish Point: Braes of Foss
Hiking time: 4 hours
Map: OS Explorer OL49
*Note: There is nowhere to leave a vehicle at East Tempar. Parking is available at Braes of Foss carpark (approx. 7km on the road) or in Kinloch Rannoch (approx. 3.5km on the road). I walked along the road from Kilvrecht Campsite, approximately 9km.
The glorious May weather had stayed another day, so despite not being in any particular rush to get underway, I’d been up since 6am with the sunshine, packed my tent (shaking off drifts of tree pollen that had accumulated through the previous evening), loaded up with drinking water, and hit the road to get to my starting point for 9am. Find a route map on my ViewRanger.
From East Tempar Farm a hill track rises gently through sheep pasture, gaining around 350m in a little over two and a half kilometres, to the base of the towering west flank of the mountain. The track continues on to the tumbledown shielings at the col at the head of Gleann Mor, the dale between Schiehallion and the Can Mairg hills to the south.
Gleann Mor is reputedly just as magical as the mountain that looms above. According to legend, the fairies of Schiehallion make their home in Uamh Tom a’Mhor-fhir, a cave in the upper reaches of the glen, and the doors leading into Elfhame (fairyland) marked by tussocks of white heather.
There might be little real evidence of fairies on Schiehallion, but the region wears its history close to the surface. Old shielings are a reminder of the traditional cattle grazing way of life in highland glens, and traces of hut circles and ancient cup-and-ring marked rocks a connection to a more distant and mysterious past.
My route led upwards, over rough ground cut only by deer tracks contouring the slope. I snapped a couple of quick pictures, along with some of some grouse droppings, to perpetuate the haggis myth with which we were teasing my French and Romanian crewmates. Haggis is “…un cochon d’Inde écossais indigène. C’est vrai.” True fact.
There wasn’t a breath of wind when I reached the first boulder field, a patch of fractured quartzite exposed amongst the heather tussocks and spongy lichens. Higher above, the first false summit of my climb marked the point where the vegetation began to yield to the rock, with just sparse turf between the boulders.
The Schiehallion Experiment
The splendid isolation and arresting symmetry of Schiehallion caught the attention of the Royal Society as a place to observe the “attraction of mountains”. In the summer of 1774, Astronomer Royal Nevil Maskylene and surveyor and mathematician Charles Hutton gathered data on the tiny deflection of a pendulum against the position of the stars, revealing the gravitational pull of the mountain.
Between astronomical observations and a survey of Schiehallion’s shape and composition, the experiment provided evidence of Newton’s theory of gravitation, and of the density and shape of the entire planet. During the development of the experiment, Hutton pioneered the concept of contour lines to show relief in cartography, helping me greatly with my TGO challenge route planning.
The Schiehallion experiment is commemorated by a plaque at Braes of Foss, and the eagle-eyed can spot the footprints of Maskylene’s parallel observatories on the north and south flanks of the mountain.
Into the boulder field proper, the true summit rose up behind the last false peak, identifiable this time by the small gathering of people on the rocky outcrop. Tucked into hollows on the northern side of boulders were tiny patches of snow, none larger than my backpack, holding on in the 20°C heat. I scrambled up the last six or seven metres to the top, and turned to take in the view that had been at my back during the climb.
From the summit, I could see across the Tay Forest and Loch Tummel to the Beinn a’Ghlo in the east, south to Ben Lawers, and north to Ben Alder. But the view to the west was the best. The eye skims along the shining surface of Loch Rannoch into a golden-blue haze over Rannoch Moor. On the edge of visibility, I could just make out the Black Mount and Glencoe, where two days ago I’d caught my first glimpse of this peak.
I took a long break to rehydrate, and devoured a packet of Tuc sandwich biscuits that were by now mostly cheese-flavoured dust. This won me the friendship of a springer spaniel called Saoirse, waiting with her dog-dad for the rest of the family to join them at the top. I hunted around and found the spiral carving in the rock. More likely a modern addition than ancient art, but still a reminder that for many the mountains are spiritual spaces.
The route across the boulder field was indistinct, but the following the ridge easterly with the natural compass of the sun was moving in the right direction. Skipping over the loose rock in the boulder field for a couple of kilometres, trying unsuccessfully to pick my way along Saoirse’s chosen route, I found a worn track and reached the top of the path. The way down was much simpler than the way up, dropping down the flank of the mountain on a well-surfaced route.
I reached the carpark at Braes of Foss in mid-afternoon, glad to be able to refill my water supply and find a spot of shade for a cuppa and spoonful of peanut butter. It had been another long, draining hike in the sun. I still had another few kilometres to go to reach the end of my planned route for the day, to the access road for Foss mine, where I was to meet my lift.
On the way round the road, I decided that the TGO Challenge could wait for another day, and rescheduled my rest day for the next morning. I’d take the chance to buy some sunblock, and just enjoy the shade for a while. It was a real treat to get into Pitlochry that evening, pick up a takeaway and some cold beers, and sit in the garden of my friend’s house celebrating reaching half-way across Scotland on the top of that magical mountain.
Schiehallion East Path
Start / Finish Point: Braes of Foss carpark (£2/full day)
Distance: 10km return
Hiking time: Usually between 3 and 4 hours (depending on how long you enjoy the view for!)
Difficulty: Easy to moderate
Map: OS Explorer OL49
Most hikers visiting Schiehallion follow a different route to the one I took, starting and finishing in the carpark at Braes of Foss, and following the East Schiehallion path. In a rare case of mountain rescue, where the mountain itself was the casualty, the path was constructed by the John Muir Trust to manage erosion and protect delicate vegetation on the lower slopes of the mountain. Find a route map on my ViewRanger.
The route is clear and obvious, though there is no waymarking, tackling the east ridge of the mountain in zigzags that avoid expanses of bog but still gives hikers glimpses of wildflowers and bog plants. The area is also home to wildlife like red deer, black grouse, and ptarmigan.
After around 3.5km the path reaches the boulder field on the top of the ridge. Here the route is undefined to the summit, crossing loose rocks and scree, so care and attention to navigation is needed over the final 2km, especially if visibility is reduced.
Incredibly, thanks to an initiative by the FieldFare Trust, the first third of the route has been approved as wheelchair-friendly, with the remainder of the route to the summit deemed accessible at an individual’s discretion, making Schiehallion the first wheelchair-accessible Munro in Scotland.
Descend by retracing your steps to the boulder field to the path, and return to the carpark.
What to wear for hiking in Scotland
Though the warm, windless conditions on the day of my hike suited shorts and a t-shirt, that’s not what I would usually recommend for a day in the Scottish mountains. The best clothes for hiking are thin, quick-dryinglayers, and well-fitting, supportive boots.
The temperature can be quite different once you reach the summit, and a good rule of thumb for planning is that for every 300 metres (1,000′) it will be around 2°C colder. On a windy day, this will feel even more.
Walking trousers are robust but breathable, and usually have good pockets for gadgets and snacks. Shorts will normally be ok in fine weather, but if you’re going to venture off the beaten path and bash through the heather it can be uncomfortable. Gaiters will help protect your trousers and keep them dry and clean. They also double up as a dry mat for sitting on the ground when you stop for breaks.
A waterproof jacket and pair of trousers are always a good idea in Scotland. Even if there’s no rain in the forecast, conditions can be unpredictable, and a waterproof layer can break the chill of the wind.
A fleece or light sweater will keep your core temperature toasty when you reach the top. A warm hat, buff and pair of gloves will be useful in most conditions, but don’t underestimate the sun. There’s no opportunity to escape into the shade on most Scottish mountains. A broad-brimmed hat and something covering your shoulders could be important in summer to prevent heat exhaustion.
What other equipment will you need?
A backpack to carry your gear (with a waterproof cover)
My favourite travel memories from A to Z shared with the #AlphabetAdventure hashtag on social media.
This year, travel has been on the backburner in a big way, with international flights shut down, and many countries, including my home in the UK, imposing a domestic lockdown to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 and ease pressure on health services over the peak of the pandemic.
Throughout April and early May many travel bloggers shared pictures of their travels on social media with the hashtag #AlphabetAdventures. It was a chance to remind ourselves of the wide, wild world out there, waiting for us to explore once the coronavirus pandemic passes, and relive some memories from our travels. It also gave us the chance to travel vicariously to new destinations while we stay safe at home under lockdown.
Five fun microadventures you can make from your own home, suitable for all ages.
Are you familiar with the idea of microadventures? Adventure isn’t all about faraway locations and uncharted territories. Or about being the highest, furthest, fastest at anything.
It’s about the spirit in which you undertake something. It’s being open to new experiences, approaching things with a curious and inquiring mind, and making your own fun and rewarding challenge. And a microadventure is just that, on a simple, local scale.
And while we’re restricted in the things we can do right now, a new activity in a familiar place can be exactly what you need to feel refreshed and excited, and keep your fire for the great outdoors well stoked.
The simplicity of these ideas also make them an ideal way to introduce adventures to your family, even with very young children, and nurture an appreciation for nature and the outdoors to last them a lifetime. And by keeping them close to home, there’s plenty of opportunities to bail out if things don’t go to plan, or to make a spontaneous change to an everyday routine.
So here are five of my favourite microadventures that don’t mean roaming far from home.
Sleeping in an unusual place is almost a determining factor for an adventure. Out in the garden, you’ll become more aware of night-time sights and sounds, and the change in light from night to day, as the world around you begins to wake-up. Make sure you can get comfortable and cosy, otherwise it will become an endurance challenge rather than a fun adventure. If you are used to sleeping in a tent, try a night in a bivvy bag for a different experience, and if don’t have a garden, try pushing back the furniture and pitching a tent indoors or making a bivvy on a balcony. If there’s no room for tents, then a good old blanket fort is great fun.
This activity fits in quite nicely with a night outdoors. Take an hour, or as long as you can, in the morning to look and listen for the wild birds that visit your area. Hanging birdfeeders are brilliant to tempt them closer, but it can take a few days for birds to find new ones, as are water baths. Make a picnic breakfast to enjoy in the garden, or watch from a window. A set of binoculars and an ID guide will help you to get to know the regulars.
If you’re missing a fix of physical activity, this is the adventure for you. Using the stairs in your building or garden, measure the height and multiply that to find the number of times you’d need ascend to scale the magnificent height of Everest (8448 metres or 27,717′). That will take quite some time, so there’s always an alternative available, such as Ben Nevis (1,345 metres or 4,413′), Snowdon (1.085 metres or 3,560′), or your local favourite hill.
There’s no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothes. So grab yourself a sexy raincoat and live a little.
Wild Wet Weather Walk
How often do we look out the window at wild and windy weather and decide to stay indoors? But embracing the elements can provide an unexpected thrill. Get kitted out in the appropriate gear, and you can dance in the rain, get buffeted in the breeze, and roll around in the snow. Plus it makes coming inside for cosy evenings feel that much more deserved.
This one is a bit easier if you live in a less urban area, where light pollution isn’t going to impact too much on your dark skies. It takes a little more preparation than other things on this list, as the best nights for stargazing have just a small sliver of the moon visible and clear skies. Apps like My Moon Phase and YR.no will help you plan the best night, while StarWalk2 gives tips for what to look out for, and can help with identifying constellations. But don’t get too transfixed on screens and ID guides, and just revel in the wild and vast universe around us.
Do you have any favourite microadventures you can make from home?
I’ve been fortunate to spend a few years living and working on the Isle of Wight, and covering some of the most beautiful stretches of coastline in the south of England as a Wildlife Ranger. As days grow shorter and temperatures grow colder, the island’s beaches, creeks, and estuaries seem to look even more beautiful, whatever the weather, and become havens for thousands of overwintering birds. Without the numbers of tourists that visit in summer, exploring the Isle of Wight in winter often means have beautiful coastal walks all to yourself.
Western Yar Estuary
Route length: 7km (4.5 miles) circular route, with the possibility of an extension to make 11km (7 miles)
Start / Finish: Yarmouth
The Western Yar is a snapshot of the geological past of southern England, a remnant of a much larger river rising from the chalk downland that once stretched from the Needles, at the tip of the Isle of Wight, all the way to Old Harry Rocks on the Dorset coast. Now, a small stream quickly becomes a vast tidal estuary, edged with mudflats and saltmarshes that support hundreds of waders and wildfowl.
Find details of this circular walk from Yarmouth, Isle of Wight, including a route map, on my ViewRanger.
The riverside path from the harbour passes the old mill and joins the old railway line that once linked Freshwater and Yarmouth to Newport. Listen for the whistles and whoops of teal and wigeon, and the piping calls of oystercatchers from the estuary mud. The walking is pleasant and easy, with small birds flitting between the hedgerows lining the trail. The copse further on is a good spot to look for red squirrels scampering overhead.
The walk can be extended from the Causeway towards the narrow ridge of chalk downs, and the coast known as the Back of the Wight. A short distance on footpaths and minor roads takes you past Afton Marsh Nature Reserve towards the golf course. To your left, you’ll catch a glimpse of the Old Military Road, with the crumbling coastline below, and to your right, it dips down to Freshwater Bay before rising sharply toward Tennyson Down.
Rather than retrace your footsteps, a winding path leads down the side of some houses, alongside the early stages of the river Yar, passing through thick reedbeds back to the Causeway crossroads.
From the Causeway, turn left and find the footpath that runs between the Red Lion pub and All Saints Church. The path leads northwards, away from the edge of the estuary, across rolling farmland and through the woods. Look out for views across the Solent to the New Forest as you leave the woodland behind.
Cross the swing bridge and finish the walk back in Yarmouth by the harbour. Pop into PO41, one of my favourite spots on the island for coffee and home-made cake to finish the day.
Route length: 5km (3 miles)
Start / Finish: Newtown National Trust Visitor Centre
One of the most beautiful and historic parts of the Isle of Wight, Newtown was once a thriving medieval port, the most important on the island, with a bustling saltworks and several streets of houses. But after centuries of ebb and flow, Newtown Creek is now a quiet backwater that, in winter, bustles only with birdlife. In the 1960s plans to locate a nuclear power station here were protested by the local community, and led to the creation of Newtown Harbour National Nature Reserve.
Find details of this walk around the Isle of Wight’s finest nature reserve, including a route map, on my ViewRanger.
From the National Trust carpark, cross a minor road and follow the route of the medieval street eastwards. The track opens out into a beautiful area of pasture, with several ancient oak trees (and the entrance to the Upside Down), which is grazed by heritage cattle at certain times of the year.
Leave the field at the far side, turn right then follow the road for around 200m to enter Walter’s Copse, a pocket-sized wood with both ancient woodland and rotational coppice management, that edges onto the saltmarsh of the creek. Follow the trail through the wood and back to the road. Turn left, then right, to retrace your route to the Visitor Centre.
Continue on the road past the church, then take the track at Marsh Farm to reach the Mercia Seabrook hide. National Trust volunteers will open the hide on selected days during the winter, and lead guided walks to show visitors the spectacular winter birdlife; look for hundreds of golden plovers, diminutive dunlins, and a variety of ducks. Grey seals often lounge on the shingle spit on the far side of the creek.
Cross the field to reach the wooden boardwalk leading to the old boathouse, which has views across the creek and out to the Solent beyond. A path leads around the edge of the historic salt pools, and back to the hedgerow-lined meadow. On a crisp winter morning, with the purring sound of brent geese filling the air, it’s a pretty magical place to visit.
Brading Marshes and Bembridge Mill
Route length: 10km (6.2 miles)
Start / Finish: Brading
Brading was once a busy fishing port, and the coastal village of Bembridge, just a couple of small farms on an isolated peninsula. Land reclamation along the estuary of the Eastern Yar* over 120 years ago moved the coastline downstream several miles, creating a sheltered haven between Bembridge and St Helens.
Find details of this walk at one of the best birding sites on the Isle of Wight, including a route map, on my ViewRanger.
From Brading, follow the road towards the RSPB reserve, then bear left onto Laundry Lane. This raised track looks over into marshes and scrapes that fill with waders and wildfowl through the winter. At the end of the lane, bear right on the edge of the main road into St Helens village.
Head downhill from St Helens village green to the embankment, then bear right onto the footpath through the edge of the RSPB reserve. The trail runs alongside a series of saline lagoons, attracting shorebirds seeking refuge over the high tide in the harbour.
From the Tollgate, which has great views across the harbour to the area of sand dunes known as the Duver, follow the road up through the pretty village of Bembridge. Take the road on the right after the church and the library, leading out of the village towards Bembridge Mill.
Picturesque Bembridge Mill is the only surviving windmill on the island, falling out of use in the early 20th century and used as a Home Guard lookout during WWII, before being restored to working condition by the National Trust.
Enjoy the views before heading downhill from the windmill, following the line of the old sea wall, across the edge of Bembridge Airfield, and into Centurion’s Copse, a red squirrel hot spot. Bear right, and pass through the RSPB reserve. The ditches and sluices allow for careful control of water levels to manage one of the most important wetland areas in southern England.
At the end of the old sea wall, you’ll meet the end of Laundry Lane, and be able to retrace your steps back into Brading. Pop into the Auctioneer for a pot of tea and a huge wedge of cake, and even a browse through the latest selection of antiques and curios on display.
*The Isle of Wight has three large-ish rivers. Two of them are called the Yar. The story is that no islanders ever travelled the vast distances from Bembridge to Yarmouth (about 45 minutes drive now), or the opposite direction, so the lack of imagination in naming never really mattered.
Tips to watch wildlife responsibly in winter:
Avoid causing disturbance to birds feeding or resting in coastal areas.
Bring binoculars for a good view without getting too close.
If the birds become alert and stop feeding on mudflats and saltmarsh, move further away and allow them to settle down.
Stick to paths and marked routes where they exist, and avoid emerging suddenly onto saltmarshes and creeks.
Stop for a while on your walk, or move slowly, to see what emerges from nearby hedgerows or reedbeds
Listen to the sounds; they might reveal something you would otherwise miss.
The island of Coll is breathtakingly beautiful. The sort of place where you leave a little piece of your heart behind when you finally bring yourself to leave.
The turquoise waters of the Sea of the Hebrides wash up on sweeping silver-white beaches backed by lofty, marram-clad dunes, reaching over 50 metres high behind the strand at Feall. Between the coastal bents and the bogs and bare rock inland, is a rare place; machair, a habitat unique to the Hebrides, the fringes of northwestern Scotland, and western coast of Ireland.
In her 2018 book Wilding, Isabella Tree recounts several alarming statistics about the state of nature across the British and Irish Isles, including the fact that around ninety per cent of wildflower meadows have been lost since the Second World War. This has had a devastating knock-on effect on invertebrate fauna, and the birds which depend on them.
The machair of the Western Isles is a last stronghold, lavish with wildflowers through the spring and summer. Common species like red and white clover, buttercups, daisies, wild thyme, ladies bedstraw, and bird’s foot trefoil carpet the pasture, with a scattering of rarer species like the Hebridean spotted orchid and Heath orchid. The area around Hough Bay is a hotspot for bloody cranesbill.
Sea pinks (thrift) and stonecrop find refuge among the rocks. Ragged robin, meadowsweet, and beds of yellow flag (iris) define wetter areas, and provide the preferred hiding spots for crackling, croaking corncrakes, often heard but rarely seen on their summer sojourn from southern Africa.
The drowsy, blossom-sweet scent of the machair charges the air on a warm day in June, enough that passing ships catch a draught on the breeze, like a half-remembered afternoon from childhood. From the beginning of May to midsummer, the machair belongs to the skylarks, singing more than 18 hours a day, from dawn to dusk, and rare bees, bumbling through the flowers, honey-drunk on nectar.
Unlike the last couple of seasons, I’ve not travelled particularly far and wide in the last few months. Since returning from the Algarve at the beginning of November, I’ve been based in the UK, and making the most of the opportunity to get out and about while I look for work.
Over Christmas and New Year I headed north to Aberdeenshire to spend time with my family. The crisp, and clear weather was perfect for long walks along the coast, with the odd dip in the icy North Sea, and into the hills of the Angus glens. And short winter days quickly gave out to long dark nights, filled with stars and the arc of the Milky Way (although unfortunately no glimpse of an aurora), and a driftwood bonfire on the beach.
There was also enough time for a visit to Dundee to explore the new V&A museum, as well as some of my old favourite destinations in the city, like McManus Gallery, Clarke’s bakery and RRS Discovery.
Back in Bedfordshire, I got out and about in the Chilterns often, especially around Dunstable Downs and Ashridge Estate, for long walks, trail runs, and the pleasure of just spending time in the woods, watching the turn of the seasons.
What I’ve done
I set myself a challenge to start the year; undertaking to make time every day to get outside and do some kind of physical activity for Red January, and at the same time to fundraise for Mind, the mental health charity. I live with depression, and through the winter often find there can be more bad days than good, so try to take steps to manage my condition. I’m extremely pleased to say I met both of those goals, and discovered a real love for my weekly Parkrun at Rushmere Country Park at the same time.
In mid-January, I headed to Wiltshire, to the Team Rubicon UK HQ, on the edge of Salisbury Plain, on what was possibly the coldest night of the year to pitch a tent. Team Rubicon is a disaster response organisation, working around the world in communities devastated by natural disasters to aid in the immediate aftermath, and to help build resilience against future events. In an intense few days, I completed my basic induction to TRUK and the Domestic Operations training course. I’ve got a blog post coming soon about the experience, and what it might lead to next.
Unseasonably warm weather in late February (as much as 18C, just a week or so after the snow) made it easier to continue getting outside for runs and walks almost every day, and to try my hand at a new pastime; forest bathing, spending time immersing myself in the sights, sounds and smells of the woodland. It was the perfect way to remedy to a stressful couple of weeks while I moved into a new flat.
The first brimstone butterflies, nuthatches tapping on tree trunks, jays, hazel catkins bursting open, showers of hawthorn blossom, and the very first leaves. On warmer, damp evenings frogs and toads are on the move to the nearby pond, and I’ve been out with the local Toad Patrol group, rescuing amorous amphibians attempting to cross the road. Spring is well and truly on the way.
Film: The Little Prince, an excellent animation based on the classic children’s book (and standard text for studying French) by Antione de Saint-Exupéry, that explores the idea of wonder, exploration and excitement and how it changes as we grow older.
Clothing: I’m still rocking those toasty warm White Stuff flannel pyjamas at every opportunity, usually teamed with the biggest, softest blanket scarf that my sister got me for Christmas. It’s a combo that’s been especially welcome after REDJanuary runs in the rain and sleet.
Equipment: I picked up a new tent in preparation for the TGO Challenge in May. After researching various possibilities and budgets, I decided on the one-person Robens Starlight 1, which seemed ideal. Unfortunately, there was a manufacturing flaw in the tent delivered to me, so after a bit of faffing around trying to get a replacement, I’ve actually ended up with a Wild Country Zephyros 1. I’m hoping to get out soon to put it through its paces.
Health: I’ve started taking vitamin D supplements, which have been suggested to help lift a low mood at this time of year. We naturally get it from exposing our skin to sunlight, something that can be hard to come by in higher latitudes in winter.
Treats: My winter treat has been finding a cosy spot to curl up and read, along with a cheeky glass of amaretto and ice. I’ve also found a shot in a flask of coffee is lovely on a cold winter day on the coast (a tip from Ebby the kayaker on the Isle of Wight).
I’ve got a few things already planned for the spring, starting with my first experience of leading walking tours. I’ll be exploring trails in the South Downs National Park and surrounding areas, and sharing the experience with a group on a walking holiday.
Then the TGO Challenge is quickly approaching, with just over two months to train for a self-supported crossing of Scotland from the west coast to the east. I’m planning on a few nights of camping, testing out different food for the trek, packing and re-packing my backpack, plus plenty of walking days in preparation.
Thanks for following along with These Vagabond Shoes.
You can keep up to date with my travel and adventures on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Here’s to fair seas and following winds in spring.
I’d love to hear about what you’ve been up to this season, or any plans you have for the season ahead.
Let me know in the comments below.
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*Maybe enough for a coffee. Not enough for a yacht.
For a few hours in October 1938, the world was gripped by mass panic. The stoic voice on the wireless set narrated events apparently unfolding on the edge of a small New Jersey township; flares in the night sky, falling stars, strange objects filled with otherworldly creatures, intent on our destruction. The beginning of our human battle for survival; the eve of the war.
The immediacy and horror of Orson Welles’ radio broadcast of H. G Wells’ The War of The Worlds, transposed to the USA, captured the imagination of many at the time, but it isn’t only adaptation of the classic sci-fi novel. The original story is set in the leafy suburban towns surrounding late-Victorian London, like Woking where Wells lived in 1895 and explored the nearby countryside on his bicycle.
Much closer to the closer to the original story, although with the flourish and excess of 1970s prog-rock, and by far my favourite version, is the musical by Jeff Wayne, with the solemn voice of Richard Burton narrating the story. If you’ve never heard it, I insist you treat yourself to all of its epic awesomeness.
The double cassette of the album was our family “car tape”, the soundtrack of many childhood road trips through the Scottish highlands with our caravan in tow. Just hearing the opening chords evokes memories of empty roads skirting the sides of sea lochs and the flanks of mountains, to end at vast beaches where my sister and I had the whole summer to explore. I think of picnics by the side of the road, of dairylea sandwiches, monster munch crisps, and um-bongo juice boxes; the adventure of being outdoors.
So this small corner of Surrey heathland, near the commuter town of Woking, has a bit of a special draw for me. It’s here, on Horsell Common, that cylinders fired from the surface of Mars in flares of luminous green gas first fall to earth, landing…
…not far from the sand pits. An enormous hole had been made by the impact of the projectile, and the sand and gravel had been flung violently in every direction over the heath, forming heaps visible a mile and half away.
The sandpits are a wide bowl in the heath, edges scalloped from years of aggregate quarrying rather than an extra-terrestrial impact. On the crisp January day that I visited, the shallow pond in the centre was frozen, and footprints are set fast in the icy orange sand. Like a child, I have to plant my footprints in the spot where the Martians landed, before continuing onto the heath.
The chances of anything coming from Mars are a million to one. But still they come.
The open heathland rolls away into dark pine woodland, frosted heather and bracken a patchwork of green, brown and gold, framed by the reddish trunks of the Scots pine and paths marked out in the burnt orange of fallen needles and sand. Silver birches, with papery white bark, catch glittering dew drops on their dark ruby twigs, flashes of light in darker corners. Bright yellow gorse flowers among the mass of spines are a reminder of the mild weather that makes this frozen day an exception this winter. Its a landscape to be viewed leisurely, at different scales, both close-up and in sweeping views into the distance.
Lowland heath, like Horsell and other nearby areas in the Thames Basin, is not a remote forbidding planet where no living thing could survive, but a rare and vital habitat. Globally there are more hectares of tropical rainforest, and like rainforest, the diverse botany of lowland heath makes a rich environment for insects and spiders, lizards and snakes, which in turn support a range of birds, just as rare as Martians might be. In the summer heathland is used by ground-nesting species, like curlew, woodlark, and nightjar, which are extremely vulnerable to disturbance from walkers.
Much of the remaining areas of lowland heathland are found in densely-populated, highly urban landscapes like South East England and much of the Netherlands, where pressure on them for leisure and recreation is high. Careful management by organisations like the Horsell Common Preservation Society and Thames Basin Heaths Partnership work to balance the pressure of visitors against the conservation of the habitat.
We stay as long as cold toes can take, before heading to nearby Heather Farm, an area of wetland regeneration adjacent to the common, that was until very recently the site of a massive mushroom farm. Reedbed-fringed lakes and scrapes are found where there was once concrete hard-standing and a series of corrugated tin hangars filled with fungi. Even better is the new café by the water’s edge, where birdwatching can be done with a mug of hot chocolate to hand.
A few items to keep you comfortable on outdoor adventures with the changing season.
As a wildlife ranger I’d spend the vast majority of my working time outside, all year-round, whatever the weather. As autumn heads into winter, there are a few additional things I rely on to make it easier to get out and do my job, and to make the most of adventures on beautifully crisp winter days.
I have several of these stretchy fabric tubes, and they’re some of the most useful things I own. For keeping my ears warm when it’s just not quite a hat day; stopping cold wind creeping down my neck; covering my face as I watch birds through my binoculars on a frosty morning; making sure my windswept hair under stays under control; or just wiping damp camera or phone lenses.
A food flask
After a long day outside in low temperatures, there’s nothing better than a hot, home-cooked meal. Well, perhaps something warm to eat to keep you going during the day, or as you sit out to watch the winter sun go down. I have a wide-mouthed Thermos food flask, which comes with a folding spoon and a large lid. Perfect for soup, stew or a curry.
A portable battery pack
It seems like the cold drains the life from my phone at a ridiculous rate, so a portable battery pack is essential. It’s part of my lone working policy to have a working phone to check-in through the day, and I’d never want to be caught out at the end of the day without a way to call for help if I get into trouble. Plus, I use my phone camera all the time, and wouldn’t want to miss a beautiful sunset sky.
I love my Houdini Sportswear insulated jacket, with Primaloft insulation. It’s a perfect mid-layer between my branded ranger polo shirt and outer two-part coat (softshell inner and waterproof outer) for early mornings and late evenings when temperatures drop, and tucks away in its own pocket to stuff in my bag while I don’t need it.
Merino wrist warmers and gloves
I need to keep my hands warm while I’m using my binoculars or telescope to watch birds, but also be able to do little fiddly jobs like fastening zips or adjusting the focus on my camera easily. So I layer my Rab knit gloves over a pair of merino wrist warmers from Finisterre. Both are fine enough that I could wear under my ski gloves if temperatures really drop, and the wrist warmers keep me warm and let me pick up shells and other strandline treasures from the beach without getting my gloves covered with sand.
In winter I upgrade my usual hiking trousers for a pair of softshell trousers, currently a pair of Craghoppers Kiwi Pro Stretch pants. The water-resistant, windproof finish of the fabric makes a huge difference when you spend most of the day out on the coast, with the chance of drizzle, windblown sand, and low temperatures.
What kit can’t you do without when the weather starts to turn wintry?
Share your tips in the comments below.
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I have many and varied interests (well, don’t we all?), but one thing that makes my heart go a-flutter more than most is grabbing my binoculars and keeping tabs on the local birdlife. It started as out a necessity, a university research project mapping the food web of an intertidal mudflat. Just work out who eats what…, and my interest grew slowly from that.
I’ve watched spear-sharp gannets dive for fish on the Scottish coast as I sailed by. I’ve hiked into a kauri forest in New Zealand at night searching for kiwis shuffling through the undergrowth. I spotted an improbably balanced toucan in a kapok tree as I set up a bivvy in the Belizean jungle. And every autumn I watch out for skeins of brent geese, like squadrons of aircraft, returning from the Arctic to my local coast.
What wild creature is more accessible to our eyes and ears, as close to us and everyone in the world, as universal as a bird?
Birdwatching brings all kinds of small pleasures; spotting something new and exciting, or something friendly and familiar; being outdoors and feeling the wind and weather around you; becoming attuned to the surroundings and focusing on observation. For me, it beats any kind of meditation or mindfulness practice.
Five tips for beginner birders
Begin at the beginning. Start by noticing what’s going on in your garden or local park. You can even put some feeders out to encourage birds close to where you can see them. Observe things like size, colour, behaviour; think about how you’d describe them and start to put some names to the regular visitors. The RSPB Bird Identifier is great to help get you started.
Get some gear. Basic birdwatching doesn’t need much; just looking and listening can often be enough to get you started. A field guide will help with identification, as will a notebook to jot down or sketch what you’ve seen. Good walking boots and warm, waterproof clothing will make your life more comfortable out in the field. Investing in a pair of binoculars is the next step. Beginner level binoculars can be picked up for between £50 and £100, and decent pairs are often available second hand. Look for a good balance of magnification, field of view, and weight; I’d recommend going for 8×42, like my Opticron pair.
Find a birding buddy. One thing I found that helped most to build my confidence was to ask other birders to show me what they were looking at and share any tips they had that would help me remember the bird for next time. Most birders are friendly and love to share their passion with others, so say hello next time you visit a hide. Twitter is also a great way to find people; follow your local nature reserves, and you’ll soon pick up other birders that will help build your skills.
Get to know your local patch. Find a nearby area that looks likely, such as your garden, a nature reserve, a stretch of coast, or any green space, and visit it often. You’ll soon start to see patterns and changes in the birds you see, and their behaviours, as the seasons change around you.
Swot up on species. Most nature reserves and hides have a sightings board or book with the birds that have been spotted recently. Match up the list with the pictures in your guide so you know what you’re looking for. You’ll also find online lists that tell you what to expect in your area and any recent sightings of interest. There may also be a local ornithology group that you can join.
The best books and guides for budding birdwatchers
How to be a Bad Birdwatcher, by Simon Barnes. A bad birdwatcher is a good thing. This book is a brilliant introduction into why watching birds is about tapping into your joy in the natural world.
The Collins Bird Guide, by Lars Svensson and Killian Mullarney. The most comprehensive and current book covering British and European birds, and worth investing in if you’re keen to improve your ID skills.
RSPB Bird Identifier. A feature on the RSPB website which suggests what you might have seen by answering a few questions, e.g. Where did you see it? What colour was it? What was it doing? and so on.
Identifying Birds by Behaviour, by Dominic Couzens. This book will supplement your field guide and gives an interesting background into bird behaviour.
Birds Britannica, by Mark Coker and Richard Mabey. A rich study of the cultural and social connections between birds and people through history, filled with fabulous pictures.
There are also several apps you can download to help with identification and recording species while you’re out and about.
Do you like to spend time birdwatching?
What’s been the most interesting bird you’ve seen on your travels?